About Heartwood

Heartwood posts are written by a librarian interested in spotlighting older books, international authors, and small press offerings that are in various ways distinctive. For more information, including how the column gets its name, see the first post, Introducing Heartwood.

Heartwood 9:3 – Empty Words by Mario Levrero

Uruguayan novelist Mario Levrero’s Empty Words is a deceptively appealing little book, in large part about a most unlikely subject: penmanship. The unnamed narrator is hoping that his self-imposed handwriting-improvement exercises will relieve his anxiety and improve other aspects of his life. This proves to be a tall order and one that is frequently stymied.

But this is only one half of the book. The other half is what Levrero calls The Discourse, which has the rather nebulous goal of discovering its real subject matter beneath the simple flow or rhythm of what he describes as an apparently empty form. This is something that can’t be forced. As the narrator describes it:

I need to be alert, but with my eyes half-closed, as if I were thinking about something else entirely and had no interest in the discourse taking shape. It’s like climbing into a fish tank and waiting for the waters to settle and the fish to forget they had ever been disturbed, so they move closer, their curiosity drawing them toward me and toward the surface of the tank. Then I’ll be able to see them – and perhaps even catch one.

The ritual of practice is the main force that binds the two parts of the book together, but it is an embedded variety of practice that loses itself in the activity and has no concern for anything outside itself. This indifference to outside matters is critical. For the handwriting exercises to be successful, the protagonist must focus simply on forming appropriate letters without the typical concern in writing with expressing meaning – in fact, if he drifts into emotion-laden topics or areas of personal concern, he loses sight of his task and his penmanship goes to hell. In other words, the narrator’s handwriting is an outer manifestation of his inner state and its success is largely dependent on him not focusing on substantive matters. The Discourse, conversely, seeks to engage in an activity (in this case, a kind of half-willed psychological probing), that requires practice and attention but that remains outside of the narrator’s control. For the goal of the Discourse to be met, the narrator must keep his psychic antennae alert but cannot attempt to influence whatever it is they may pick up. He must simply be open and attentive to see if the real nature of the discourse might emerge.

Of course, the world intrudes on his practice with regularity, and both parts of the book braid through each other with the details of the narrator’s domestic existence – his wife whose habits and temperament are quite different from his own; his ever-curious son who interrupts him at every opportunity; interruptions from the telephone or buzzing electrical equipment; his concerns about needing to tie up his books and arrange for moving house; and not least, his role as primary caretaker of the family dog and a newly adopted cat.

Life, as we know, largely consists of intrusions and responsibilities and interruptions and interactions. Fiction, too, must hum with the conflicts and messiness of its characters’ lives. Levrero clearly understands this and it is in these disruptions and the details of the narrator’s attempt to improve his inner life that we come to find Empty Words a brilliant and moving tribute to both the mundane and sublime.

That the handwriting exercises both contain and are about the act of their composition makes for an inherently playful dynamic which is further amplified by the narrator’s commentaries on his anxious world of interruptions, domestic responsibilities, and the wish for whatever is behind the blocked or walled-off part of his psyche to reveal itself to him.

We learn about both the narrator’s life and inner life in the course of his diaristic writing but also through the quality of the writing itself. There is a calm and precision in the language that belies his claims of anxiety (which he partly tracks through the number of cigarettes he smokes in a day). We learn that he is a novelist and that he is quite interested in psychology, sharing with us a number of his dreams, and mentioning in passing such figures as Freud and Jung along with comments on the anima, id, ego, and superego.

The narrator is also a bit of a soul-seeker. He mentions favoring a Zen approach to getting things done (in contrast to his wife’s tackling things by sheer willpower). And his handwriting practice is after all a course of self-therapy in the hope of self-improvement. It’s a start-and-stop process, and the results are a bit tenuous, but the execution of these exercises and his open-ended explorations in the discourse do seem to help him “to place himself within himself,” to learn to go with the flow, and to find a more grounded way to respond to circumstances beyond his control. As he says toward the end: “it’s all a question of finding the right balance, by means of a kind of spiritual acrobatics.”

I think I’ve failed here to communicate what a charming and eccentric character Levrero has created in his protagonist. It was a pleasure to step into his mind as it sought (but sought not) the words that became Empty Words.

Heartwood 9:2 – The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

You don’t have to wait for the summer to enjoy The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. This brief novel follows the day-to-day activities of Sophia, a girl of six, and her grandmother, as they summer on a small island off the Gulf of Finland where the family has long had a modest cottage.

Sophia’s mother has recently died, but this is mentioned so quietly that it would be easy to miss. Her father is also with them on the island, but he speaks little (maybe not at all?) and is mostly occupied at his desk, or with carrying out household chores, or with attempting to landscape the challenging island terrain. What fills the pages are the activities and interactions of the mercurial Sophia and her forthright grandmother.

The book is constructed of twenty-two finely honed vignettes, beginning with “The Morning Swim,” in which Sophia expects her proposal to go swimming to meet with her grandmother’s opposition but she gets none; on her part, the grandmother discovers Sophia’s discomfort at venturing into the deeper water. This chapter sets the tone for what’s to come in terms of the jockeying of independence and cooperation between the two characters who are at the opposite edges of the typical lifespan. Their dialogue with each other is generally quite minimal, sometimes crisp and pointed, but full of resonance, laden with feeling. And their conversations don’t always go as they might wish (the turns of which can also surprise the reader), sometimes resulting in tensions that are gradually (or speedily) put to rest.

A few chapters bring them together to accomplish a common task, such as building a miniature Venice, or one where Sophia is shocked to see that she’s cut a worm in half while helping in the garden. After the garden incident, the grandmother tries to calm the girl and tells her how both broken ends will heal, and she coaxes Sophia to work through her feelings. Eventually Sophia, whose writing can’t keep pace with her thoughts, dictates to her a treatise which the girl calls A Study of Angleworms That Have Come Apart. This chapter is a beautiful example of the connection and individuality the characters possess as Jansson melds the shocked realization of the six-year-old with the worldly-wise experience of the grandmother, while silently appearing to acknowledge their surviving the death of Sophia’s mother.

Just as Jansson brings these two characters to life with just a few brushstrokes, she also excels at making the island come alive, with her attention to the topography, the seascape, storms, specific birds, and plants (her line drawings also add to the ambience).

Other chapters involve such things as Sophia’s first experience sleeping alone in a tent, the adoption of a cat, discussions of God and death. Their skerry also has visitors at times, and outings by boat are launched both for pleasure and to get supplies from the village.These chapters add dimension and appropriately fill out the summer season on the island.

Like Sophia, Jansson spent much of her life living in a small cabin on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. And she wrote The Summer Book in the year or two after her mother’s death. This might help explain why the scenes and sensibility in the book feel so authentic.

I am so grateful this book introduced me to the life and works of Tove Jansson who, in addition to writing thirteen books for adults, was also a painter, illustrator, and writer of the children’s Moomin books. The Summer Book is notable for its marvelous handling of character, setting, and what it means to be human, but also for its tone, concision, clarity, insights, and way of capturing mood shifts (you’ll find these traits also on display in her wonderful collection of selected stories, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories).

More about Tove Jansson, the island where she summered, and her artwork can be found here.

Heartwood 9:1 – The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu

Zacharias Lichter is an ugly man with a deformed face, in tattered beggar’s clothes, who is said to be one of the city’s most familiar, bizarre, and picturesque figures. He has haunted the streets and parks for years, and people (who mostly try to avoid him) tend to see him as a madman. We come to learn that he was touched by a divine flame in his youth which caused him to shake off his merchant-family upbringing to study philosophy, but then to withdraw from opportunities in academia despite his well-regarded dissertation on the Enneads of Plotinus. He is known to let loose a torrent of words on his vision of an ideal society that would do away with ownership and in which more people would be beggars, as begging “is the profession that brings one closest to God.”

Lichter shares with us his experiences and opinions packed into very brief chapters with headings such as “On Courage,” “On Women,” “On Comfort,” “The Metaphysics of Laughter,” and “The Significance of the Mask.” He believes strongly in the spoken word but is also a poet who scribbles down his poems only to throw them away (though his biographer has preserved some of these and they are sprinkled throughout the book.) He is critical of an acquisitive society, and of the lying he finds everywhere. He is obsessed by the absurdity of a God who would torment Job, and he seeks wisdom in silence. The focus is solidly on Lichter and his ideas but among other characters are his barfly friend Poldy (who is presented as a great philosopher, though he says next to nothing); a chameleonic apprentice, Anselmus, who wishes to develop a “pedagogy of beguilement;” and the feared and detested Dr. S. who wishes to psychoanalyze Lichter.

I suspect you may find Matei Calinescu’s The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter to be unlike anything you’ve previously read. It was originally published in Romania in 1969 and has only recently been translated into English (by the author’s wife, Adriana Calinescu, and Breon Mitchell). Despite frequent mentions of the torrential outpouring of his prophecies, Lichter’s sprightly ideas are presented in a concise and careful fashion which makes you slow down as you try to follow their unconventional logic, all the while wondering how seriously you are intended to take them. But there’s a method to his madness, and key concerns are revisited in different ways throughout the book; some of these touchstones include the nature of being, voluntary poverty, poetry, vitalism, orality, the ineffable, and the via negativa. Be prepared to embrace iconoclasm and what Lichter calls perplexity – and to be suffused with a strangely vibrating joy.

Heartwood 8:4 – People in the Room by Norah Lange

Norah Lange’s short novel, People in the Room is told from the perspective of an unnamed seventeen-year-old girl living with her family in Buenos Aires in the early part of the twentieth-century. The reader senses in the early pages that this is an imaginative narrator eager to escape the stultifying experiences of her family life. She’s afforded an escape of sorts when a lightning storm suddenly brings together the flash of the girl’s reflection in a mirror with her awareness of three women seen through the sheer curtains of their drawing room in the house across the street. This initiates in the girl a sustained obsession with spying on the three women over a period of weeks.

Very little happens – the women seem to always be at home, sitting in the same chairs and doing little more than lifting a cigarette or glass of wine to their lips – but there is palpable tension in the protagonist’s account of what she observes and imagines regarding the women, and she eventually intervenes in their lives by intercepting a telegram addressed to them and is soon paying them daily visits. Some of the more unusual and enigmatic scenes include: the narrator hearing her own voice come from one of the three women who is speaking to a clerk at the post office; watching through the window as a mysterious stranger arrives at the women’s house and is handed a package (presumably of letters) by the eldest only to immediately transfer it to the youngest; and the narrator’s panic when she wakes to a passing funeral procession for three neighborhood children who had died in a house fire, and mistakenly assumes the caskets contain the bodies of the three women.

The narrator at times is quick to assign fault or blame to the women, claiming they didn’t deserve this or that, and she also vacillates between feelings of intense love for them and wanting to see them dead, or imagining them as criminals, as wayward, or as having something to hide. She makes statements that imply she holds a certain agency over the women; that it is her imagination and inventiveness that gives them their lives, gauzy and understated though they are. Particular objects (such as a spider, or a blue dress) can trigger a kind of associative transfer in which the objects take on importance beyond themselves, or are charged with evocative power – for example, causing the narrator to think of faded letters, or instilling in her the urge to travel in the dining car of a train. There are also scenes and expressions of loneliness, anxiety, forebodings of something tragic, and talk of the slit wrists of suicides.

Finally, there is something like a psychic blending or assimilation of the three women who are “collected” and combined with the world of the narrator, as can be seen in this passage in which her mostly inattentive family notices how she has changed: ““It must be her age” others would whisper, while the three faces settled into my own, becoming accustomed to strange conversations, forever leaving their mark on my seventeenth winter.”

Lange has indicated that she started writing this novel after seeing a reproduction of a portrait of the Brontë sisters painted by their brother Branwell, who originally included himself in the portrait but later painted himself out (though leaving a ghostly trace). Given this inspiration, People in the Room could be considered a very imaginative, extended, and daring work of ekphrasis, and it’s interesting to see the protagonist also frequently referring to the three women as lifeless sculptures, or portraits, or even eerie ceramic dolls.

People in the Room, first published in 1950, appears to be the first English language translation of a work by Norah Lange, an Argentine author who was related to Jorge Luis Borges and was influenced by him and other ultraísta writers and poets with whom she associated in Buenos Aires. Readers, however, may well find the influence of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw at least as evident in this atmospheric tale that to some degree resembles an oneiric, gothic, ghost story.

But let’s not limit by comparison a work as captivating, unsettling, and poetic as this. Readers of English will want to discover this long-neglected novel, and we are fortunate now to have access to it in this nuanced translation by Charlotte Whittle.

Heartwood 8:3 – Fancy by Jeremy M. Davies

Fancy, by Jeremy M. Davies, ostensibly presents us with nothing more than an older man interviewing a young couple in the foyer of his house for the job of house-sitting and caring for his twenty cats. But it may (or may not) give you a better understanding of this novel to say that it orbits around quantum mechanics, ontological doubt, repetition and minimalism, the instability of selfhood, and (as Davies himself has said in an interview) toxoplasmosis. Or it might be said that this is a novel in which Schrödinger’s cat attempts to open the lid of the box it may or may not be inside of. However you cut it, this is a compelling, fluent, disorienting, and audaciously inspired work.

But to start again, the book opens with an isolated older man, Rumrill, who lives in a decaying town on the mid-western plains sometime in the pre-Internet era, interviewing a young couple in the foyer of his house as potential cat-sitters – for cats who never put in an appearance over the book-length course of the interview.

In the interview – really a monologue – we hear about Rumrill and his work at the public library, where he had trysts in the stacks with his supervisor before she left the library and moved from town. His library work also brought him into contact with a Mr. Brocklebank, who enlisted him, initially, as a cat-sitter for his thirty cats, but soon enough employs Rumrill as factotum and caregiver – full-time work (performed with active disregard) that required Rumrill to bring his library work to an end.

There are reasons for the reader to doubt the reliability of the narrative from the very beginning, and all kinds of things overlap and repeat with minor variations that bring everything into question. One begins to wonder if Rumrill and Brocklebank are not the same person living in parallel universes: both required cat-sitters for a clowder of cats whose existence is uncertain; both provide book-length cat-sitting instructions; both appear to have had a green sofa; both (apparently) were involved with women who seemed interested in having other partners; and in both men something like tape-looped obsessions cut grooves in their tenuous hold on reality.

Various madnesses or eccentricities are on display. A postal worker, having once failed to deliver his load of mail, finds himself completely unmoored, merely driving around in his mail van but unable to resume his deliveries. Rumrill is concerned that his house will not maintain its materiality if he is not there to perceive it – a situation he tries to ameliorate by creating a mirror corridor that will let him keep his house in sight even from as far away as the train station. As Brocklebank’s house burns, toward the end of the book, firemen do not extinguish the fire but instead entertain half a dozen speculative theories regarding whether Brocklebank is inside or not.

Davies has restricted himself to a form in which every longer paragraph begins with the words “Rumrill said” followed by short paragraphs (a mere sentence or phrase, often witty) that begin “He added.” In time, additional paragraphs appear, culled from Brocklebank’s cat-sitting manual, all beginning with “Brocklebank writes.” These latter pronouncements appear to be modifications of statements from 20th-century composers ranging from minimalists to serialists to avant-garde jazzmen, based on a list of sources at the back of the book.

Rumrill’s oratory is rhythmical and complex and will draw in readers who gravitate toward such authors as NabokovGombrowicz, BernhardBeckett, and Pynchon. As with books by these authors, Fancy is well worth reading, rereading, pondering, and discussing, and I’ll even boldly assert that it deserves a spot on any self-respecting 21st-century American literature syllabus. Mostly, however, the book deserves to be read for the pleasure and weirdness with which it captures the routines, locutions, agoraphobia, and perceptions of its main character – and, indeed, for allowing Rumrillian to emerge as a descriptor for the voluble expression of this constellation of existential, perceptual, and singular uncertainty.

Heartwood 8:2 – Philosophical Toys by Susana Medina

Susana Medina’s novel Philosophical Toys is told from the perspective of a young woman, Nina, about her alcoholic mother, who died when the narrator was six; her father, who develops full-blown Alzheimer’s in the course of the novel; and the time Nina spent in London where she was befriended by aspiring artist, Mary Jane. The story pops back and forth between London and southern Spain. In one of her trips home to Almería, to see her father and to help clear out his house so he can move into an assisted living “commune,” Nina discovers ninety-five shoeboxes containing all kinds of women’s shoes. As she tries to unravel why all these shoes are there, she looks back on her mother’s life and remembers her spell of work as a “foot extra” and that she, or her feet, may actually have appeared in one of Luis Buñuel’s films. She also wonders if her father might be a shoe-fetishist.

Back in London, Mary Jane convinces Nina to be a partner in a gallery show in which Nina will exhibit her mother’s shoes. She reluctantly agrees and is surprised later on when a collector who had seen the exhibit wants to purchase a particular pair of boots. He is building what he calls The Museum of Relevant Moments which is comprised of props from Buñuel’s films, and the boots are the same make and style of the ones that appear in Diary of a Chambermaid (and may be the actual pair).

Toward the end of the book there’s a fine chapter that focuses on problems of authenticity, and it circles back to an early scene where Nina and Mary Jane are in a café commenting on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa hanging there. They observe that what makes a painting valuable is the space in which it is displayed – the one in the café could in no way be valuable due to its mundane surroundings, but the one in the Louvre is valued precisely because it is there. This is true even if it were to turn out that the café iteration is the original and what hangs in the Louvre is a mere copy.

Nina feels a sense of dislocation in language and geography, desire and longing, and her journey includes coming to terms with a mother she barely knew and a father whose memory and life is being ravaged by disease. Medina presents Nina’s world through language that feels completely comfortable and lived in, even as she delves into rather esoteric terrain such as Freudian fetishism, simulacra, and our relationship with objects.

There are many other topics touched on in these pages; in fact, Medina has constructed a narrative not unlike the roped-together shoeboxes that appear on the cover. If you like novels of ideas, with a brainy central character, and an unusually nimble literary style, you should enjoy going through the shoeboxes of Philosophical Toys.

Heartwood 8:1 – The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei

The Invisibility Cloak, by Ge Fei, gets its hooks into you right away and makes for a quick read. It features Cui, a man in his 40s, who builds elite tube-amp stereo systems for rich audiophiles in China. An old pal of his, Songping, helps him round up clients and mentions a man named Ding Caichen, who could be a big score as he wants to have the “best sound system in the world.” But Songping warns Cui to be careful: Ding, he tells him, has a gaze like ice, runs with the big money, and no one really seems to know who he is.

The early chapters cover Cui’s interest in an attractive woman named Yufen and their eventual marriage and divorce. He ends up living with his sister and her husband until they give him an ultimatum that he must move out. He happens to find a place he could almost afford to buy and remembers that he might stand to make enough money to cinch the deal if he contacted the client Ding. He does this and, based on a verbal contract by phone, agrees to build him a high-end stereo. Cui gives a detailed account of the experience of delivering and installing the sound system, and his impressions of this strange and potentially threatening man. Ding had previously wired Cui one third of the purchase price as an advance, but rather than paying the balance on the day Cui completed its installation, he caught Cui off-guard by saying he’d wire the balance immediately. This doesn’t happen, so more than a month later Cui returns to the house and is greeted by a woman who wears a silk scarf covering every inch of her face. Things get quite interesting from here, but I leave the details for you to discover.

The jacket copy compares Ge Fei with Haruki Murakami – and the easy-to-read, colloquial style, along with the narrator’s interest in classical music (which does not extend, as it does in Murakami’s case, to jazz) makes for a mostly accurate comparison. Fortunately (in my view), Ge Fei doesn’t venture into the supernatural, although there is mention of a powerful man who is said to show up at parties but goes unnoticed because he wears an invisibility cloak (and this man also once owned the Tannoy Autograph speakers that are now part of Ding’s sound system).

The last part of the book moves a good ways toward noir, and presents a puzzle which had me questioning what exactly had happened (this would be interesting to bat around in a book discussion group). Some readers may not appreciate this ambiguity, but I liked being left with lingering questions regarding the ending and how each alternative outcome or interpretation would greatly change what had gone before. Regardless of the true nature and background of Ding and the woman, the reader can adopt the same spirit of optimism Cui shows in the end, where he seems to have found some measure of happiness – even in the face of this unknowing.