Said and Read – March 2018

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February and early March were months of grave loss and anxiety. I was only peripheral to the losses, but central to the ‘support offensive’ in all cases. Thus when my reading steered me toward thinking on grief and consolation, it hit nerves (this applies to at least half the things I read).

The last part of March felt a bit like a lonely waiting game, stale waiting rooms in familiar outposts, always with the Kindle in hand because… who knows how long one has to wait anywhere she goes? People often ask me how I manage to read so much, and this is how. I never go anywhere without my fully loaded Kindle. I never know when I’m going to be forced to wait… for some office to open, for a delayed plane, taking a long train journey… even five or ten minutes when my companions excuse themselves to discipline or put their children to bed or take a phone call. Every single minute is one in which I can immerse, for however short a time, myself in some other world, some facts I didn’t know before. I am obsessive in this way, and when I am not feeling like a slug, I tend to the extreme: ultra-productivity and speed.

It is in this way that, as March comes to an end, I’ve read 115 books so far this year. Sure, I am a bit behind on my stated original goal of only reading non-English-language books (or at least reading 26 such books alongside all the others), but I am still making progress on that front as well. Some languages read more slowly than others (for example, I read a very short German-language play, and it took time because, well, German is not actually a language I know. With a background in linguistics and Scandinavian languages and English as well as a rudimentary course called “German for reading knowledge” that was a requirement during my university years, in which I did not learn German for reading – or any other kind of – knowledge, I can piece together the language in written form, spurred on by my late-in-life enthusiasm for contemporary German television (Babylon Berlin, Deutschland 83) and German/Berlin-themed tv (Berlin Station, Counterpart) and my own on/off Berlin-based life).

And that brings me to my reading recommendations for March:

*Betriebsunfall im Olymp” – Roxane Schwandt
Yes, the aforementioned German-language drama mentioned above. If you don’t know/read German, this probably isn’t for you, but it’s a timely, satirical take on the geopolitics of our time and the underlying valuelessness of humanity while at the same time assigning a price tag to the commoditization and automation of life (devoid of humanity). I didn’t know what to expect but was impressed by its incisive grasp on and illustration of the absurdity we live in today.

“Die Freiheit, sich mit der Waffe seiner Wahl umzubringen.”

*One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich/Один день Ивана ДенисовичаAleksandr Solzhenitsyn/Александр Солженицын
Ivan Denisovich might not be the most original choice, but it’s one that I took up in its original Russian (having read it once in English about 20 years ago and skimmed it again just before reading it in Russian this time). It’s fascinating to compare originals to their translations (something I ramble about at length frequently); in this case, many of the sentences in the English translation feel much more convoluted than the somewhat stripped-down and direct quality of the Russian ones. I think this takes away from what is much more powerful in the original – embellishing the simplicity of the language does not add to what is essentially a gritty and brutal story of life in a Soviet gulag. Had I read the original Russian in college when I should have, I’d have seen the unfamiliar word contextualized appropriately and would have learned that no, in fact, “посудомойка” is not a dishwashing machine, as my hapless fellow students and I learned when our Russian instructor laughed at us for thinking such an abjectly foolish and improbable thing.

Translation is a funny thing, and not unlike a form of lying, or at the very least a (wildly) subjective interpretation of something. I’ve long considered its implications, and attempt, when possible, to avoid translations (which isn’t always realistic). This partly explains my drive to read more original-language works this year. Thinking back to the university years, I am reminded of how professors referenced specific “authoritative” translations of specific works; reading Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – which I recommended without reservation last month – this same theme recurs. Its prickly protagonist is a translator and complains about the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of some translations and the particular contexts in which certain translators come to render their versions of the translated reality. What stuck with me was that this narrator uses the well-known Constance Garnett as the primary representation of these failings, and Garnett was always the go-to translation of specific Russian-language works back in college. I often wondered back then about how and why a translation eventually becomes the ‘anointed’ one. Alameddine expresses perfectly how it ends up playing out:

“The memory seems both real and unreal, reliable and tenuous, solid and insubstantial. I wasn’t even two when he died. I must have configured these images much later. Childhood is played out in a foreign language and our memory of it is a Constance Garnett translation.” (from –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine)

*The Master of Insomnia: Selected PoemsBoris A. Novak
Along with Tomaž Šalamun, Novak is one of two poets from Slovenia that I have never been able to get enough of.

“My only home is my throat.”

*Bright, Dusky, BrightEeva-Liisa Manner
I’m a poetry hoarder. What can I say? The lean, spare imagery of Finnish poetry always gets me.

*Giovanni’s RoomJames Baldwin
How beautiful this book is. At once simple and complex, it’s somehow a perfect marriage of so many themes alongside elegant but not overwrought language.

*Fugitive PiecesAnne Michaels
Often my favorite poets, whose work I can revisit repeatedly and always find something new, write prose that I can’t stand. This is true of Marge Piercy, whose poetry is so vital that I can’t imagine a life without having read it, but whose prose books are tremendous labors to get through (with, I must say, no payoff). But Anne Michaels? She extends her command of the language from poetry to poetic prose and weaves such a beautiful and sad story.

Good – really good – but not great

*They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill UsHanif Abdurraqib

“America, so frequently, is excited about the stories of black people but not the black people themselves. Everything is a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, or a march where no one was beaten or killed.”

*Gjennom nattenStig Sæterbakken
It’s in Norwegian and the final book Sæterbakken wrote before he took his own life. Contemplation on grief and loss. It’s available in English translation.

*Kaddish for an Unborn Child Imre Kertész
Difficult but beautiful reading. For so many reasons.

“common knowledge that we don’t know, and can never know, what causes the cause of our presence, we are not acquainted with the purpose of our presence, nor do we know why we must disappear from here once we have appeared, I wrote. I don’t know why, I wrote, instead of living a life that may, perhaps, exist somewhere, I am obliged to live merely that fragment which happens to have been given to me: this gender, this body, this consciousness, this geographical arena, this fate, language, history and subtenancy”

*Sadness is a White Bird Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Beautifully written story of a young Israeli man, recounting in ongoing-letter format his close friendship with two Palestinian siblings, and his own conflicting feelings about his service in the Israeli military.

“’Does Darwish have any poems that aren’t so political?’ Nimreen took a deep drag, and when she spoke, her voice was wrapped in a cloud: ‘There is nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.’”

*VisitationJenny Erpenbeck
Conceptually interesting but didn’t grab me the way Erpenbeck’s other works have.

*SepharadAntonio Muñoz Molina

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly DepartedLaurie Kilmartin

“REMEMBER: If you are a Late Orphan, check your Old Parent privilege. Yes, you have suffered a loss, but if you had your parent for more than three decades, you still won.”

*IndependenceAlasdair Gray

“A lower standard of living combined with a higher standard of education explains why so many Scottish emigrants have settled successfully abroad.”

Not everyone is going to be into this one; as Gray himself writes, it’s a kind of ‘pamphlet’ by a Scot written for other Scots on the subject of Scottish independence and related matters.

*Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexMary Roach

“It didn’t matter. Testicle madness was in full bloom.”

A somewhat humorous Sunday drive through many different topics as subjects of scientific studies on sex, sexual behavior, response and sexuality. It is surprising how many conversations one can innocently stumble into on the subjects covered in this book – everything from length of ejaculatory trajectory to penile implants.

Coincidences

*The AttackYasmina Khadra
I mention this one because I got about 20% into it, thinking, “This is so familiar. Did I read this before?” And then I remembered that I’d seen a film adaptation, L’attentat. That explains it. I preferred the film for some reason – might just be because I saw it first. But ultimately, I read the book the same day I stumbled on an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast that deals with the subject “We All Think We Know The People We Love. We’re All Deluded“. And this is at the heart of The Attack‘s protagonist and how he didn’t know his wife at all.

*We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesKaren Joy Fowler
This is another one that I was speeding my way through without thinking much of it, but I hit a certain point when there’s a surprise/reveal, and I realized I was reading a book some guy told me about sometime in 2016. He had never told me the title or much about the story, but he had expressed with considerable anger about how “betrayed” or “misled” (things he seems to have been obsessed with in every facet of his life) he felt by the story’s twist. Now having accidentally stumbled into the book, which I could have taken or left, I think less about the book itself and more about his ‘bewildering’ (to use one of his choice height-of-condescension words) reaction to it. At the time it seemed awfully reactionary, but in hindsight, so much about him seems that way.

Biggest disappointment

*Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisJ.D. Vance
I don’t know what I was expecting. I didn’t find this particularly compelling, maybe because this is in many ways so close to what I can observe in some of my own distant family. Beyond which, I am never impressed or taken in by anything that rests on the conclusion that a hard-won triumph against all odds is only possible in America, “the greatest country in the world”. No, not true. When stories or memoirs go down the lazy patriotism path, I stop paying attention.

Happily, I didn’t hate anything I read this month.

“but love is separation”

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from Modersohn-Becker
Anne Michaels
Obsession is the sacrifice of light
to the richness of submergence.
But love is separation,
the membrane of the orange dividing itself,
the surface of silver
that turns glass into a mirror.

There’s failure in every choice.

“Naked, we had voices!”

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It seems I’ve fallen madly in love with the work of Anne Michaels, having put her work everywhere, the imagery folding itself into my own ways of seeing and expressing feeling and light.

fromThe Weight of Oranges
Anne Michaels
I’m up early now, walking. Remember our walks, horizons like lips barely red at dawn, how kind the distance seemed?

Sometimes I’m certain those who are happy
know one thing more than us … or one thing less.
The only book I’d write again
is our bodies closing together.
That’s the language that stuns,
scars, breathes into you.
Naked, we had voices!

I want you to promise
we’ll see each other again,
you’ll send a letter.
Promise we’ll be lost together
in our forest, pale birches of our legs.

I hear your voice now—I know,
everyone knows promises come from fear.
People don’t live past each other,
you’re always here with me. Sometimes
I pretend you’re in the other room
until it rains … and then
this is the letter I always write:
The letter I write
when they’re keeping me from home.
I smell your supper steaming in the kitchen.
There are paper bags on the table
with their bottoms melted out
by rain and the weight of oranges.

Photo by Raul Petri on Unsplash

city life & love

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Immediately thoughts of other poems and writing come to mind, including “The City” by Eddy van Vliet and the incomparable and oft-quoted Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino:

“the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there”

cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements.“

““Cities also believe they are the work of the mind or of chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” “Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx.””

““I think you recognize cities better on the atlas than when you visit them in person,” the emperor says to Marco, snapping the volume shut. And Polo answers, “Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents. Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name.””

Phantom Limbs
Anne Michaels

“The face of the city changes more quickly, alas! than the mortal heart.”
—Charles Baudelaire

So much of the city
is our bodies. Places in us
old light still slants through to.
Places that no longer exist but are full of feeling,
like phantom limbs.

Even the city carries ruins in its heart.
Longs to be touched in places
only it remembers.

Through the yellow hooves
of the ginkgo, parchment light;
in that apartment where I first
touched your shoulders under your sweater,
that October afternoon you left keys
in the fridge, milk on the table.
The yard – our moonlight motel –
where we slept summer’s hottest nights,
on grass so cold it felt wet.
Behind us, freight trains crossed the city,
a steel banner, a noisy wall.
Now the hollow diad!
floats behind glass
in office towers also haunted
by our voices.

Few buildings, few lives
are built so well
even their ruins are beautiful.
But we loved the abandoned distillery:
stone floors cracking under empty vats,
wooden floors half rotted into dirt;
stairs leading nowhere; high rooms
run through with swords of dusty light.
A place the rain still loved, its silver paint
on rusted things that had stopped moving it seemed, for us.
Closed rooms open only to weather,
pungent with soot and molasses,
scent-stung. A place
where everything too big to take apart
had been left behind.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

“corrosive with nostalgia”

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from Lake of Two Rivers
Anne Michaels
Pull water, unhook its seam.

Lie down in the lake room,
in the smell of leaves still sticky from their birth.

Fall to sleep the way the moon falls from earth: perfect lethargy of orbit.”

Sensate weather, we are your body,
your memory. Like a template,
branch defines sky, leaves
bleed their gritty boundaries,
corrosive with nostalgia.

Each year we go outside to pin it down, light limited, light specific, light like a name.

The longer you look at a thing the more it transforms.

We do not descend, but rise from our histories.
If cut open, memory would resemble
a cross-section of the earth’s core,
a table of geographical time.
Faces press the transparent membrane
between conscious and genetic knowledge.
A name, a word, triggers the dilatation.
Motive is uncovered, sharp overburden in a shifting field.

achingly true

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It’s rare to find exactly the perfect poem for exactly the right moment. The entirety of “Stone” doesn’t do it for me, but the selected excerpts so do.

from Stone
Anne Michaels
Beatrice called him a pig and a pearl.
But she also liked to say,
lovers are equal only when so steeped
in corruption, knowledge of the other
is no longer a weapon.

At first it wasn’t passion, felt more
like memory – as if, in remaining true to myself,
to everything in my life that had come before,
there could be no direction but towards him.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash