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.

quietly in a room

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“All human miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” –Sepharad, Antonio Muñoz Molina

I have never been one to make grand declarations about my plans or hopes (at least not since reaching the trials of adulthood, watching hopes and plans be beaten like a piñata – what you end up with in life is some of the candies and tchotchkes that fall from the piñata. Pieces of your hopes and moments of sweetness in unexpected flavors that you’ve scrambled to pick up before someone else does), knowing that change will come regardless of what I do. I might be able to guide the changes that occur, making decisions and taking actions that will influence outcomes. But claiming – ‘everything changes and is different from today’ is a dangerous and foolhardy path. And yet, without sometimes taking leaps, if not always the grandest or furthest, palpable change isn’t possible. Sometimes to agitate movement, you have to force things through. Sometimes you have to do things that are uncomfortable or that hurt.

And this week I’ve had to do something that I long ago should have done – something that does hurt, but the longer-term effects of not taking this course of action will hurt much more. The last three years have been a long process of slow change, acceptance and finding contentment. Now, the trick is to move forward with longer, faster strides – and this is not possible with lingering elements grabbing at my ankles and trying to trip me up.

I can and do sit, happily, quietly, in a room alone. I can no longer invite those who cannot into my room with me.

The other day I was thinking about the creation of “victim selfhood”. I know a lot of people who create their own miseries (in a host of different ways). I think and write a lot about this, but reflect also on the fact that it’s not as though I am immune. We can all see our own actions and behaviors through a prism that relieves us of blame or absolves us of responsibility. I try exceptionally hard not to do this now – possibly even to the point of being annoying to the people around me who would rather that I not analyze my own actions and motivations in such detail.

Looking at youth (and this could be anything between childhood and one’s early 20s), in particular, we can, in our naivete and inexperience, really believe we were in the right and not reflect on all the things that we did wrong, excusing them, if acknowledging them at all, with mild self-exculpations: “I was a child. I didn’t know what I was doing.” I’ve written my side of many stories involving my long-ago friends, examining my own feelings and reactions – but not necessarily divining all the details of things I did to set things in motion. Yes, for example, I was competitive with others for the attentions of the one friend we all wanted to love us best; yes, I was messed up and trying to escape in my own way, leading me to slip in and undermine a close friend in a situation neither one of us should have been in at all, and then, to my own detriment, took that situation further, creating a reality that was not real, doing all kinds of things that, while they seemed innocuous to me at the time, still surface and haunt me and make me want to apologize to people 30 years after the fact. (In fact I already have – years ago, even if there is some part of me that realizes as a 40-something woman that children cannot be held accountable for emotional repercussions that they do not have the maturity and experience to understand.)

But on some level, of course we know what we are doing. But being young and inexperienced, I didn’t comprehend the seriousness of the things I did – not just in the moment, how some of my actions could lead to perilous consequences, but also further-reaching repercussions – toying with the psyches of fragile, damaged, middle-aged men (for example), but in truth, despite living with one of the most troubled, damaged people I have ever known and seeing other evidence of it all around me, I somehow didn’t really believe that adults could be that fragile – and felt that the silly games of a bored 13-year-old girl couldn’t possibly wound anyone so very deeply that it would matter and would in fact harm the trust they were able to place in all the future relationships they tried to build. It is almost as though the life I led, that all people led, before adulthood, wasn’t even real life. So much of life during that time felt surreal and out of my hands and control, that the things I could control – as destructive as they might be – were seized, eagerly, giving me a (false) sense of maturity and power.

It’s rather stream of consciousness, this whole thing. I am just coming to terms with finding strength in considering these flaws and mistakes of youth – borne as they were of youthful insecurity (wanting to be liked?), fear and fragility. It’s a strange dawning – daunting, even – to recognize how fragile people are. And how willing they are to put their fragility on display.

“How could she allow herself to break down like that, in front of everybody? Jane had never understood this willingness on the part of these from-aways to peel up the scabs of their emotions and let everyone see their festering sores. They were like children that way. They had no shame and even less self-control.” –Red Hook Road, Ayelet Waldman

Even the strongest ones. But the strongest ones have ways to cope and get through; they have people they can turn to. The weakest, well, they don’t have reserves to deplete. And some of them, like parasites, move on to deplete others of their reserves. Once depleted, though, there is just nothing left. Each experience leaves us empty, feeling as though we will never feel again. Sure, we will feel. We will make long strides. We will sprout a joystick. We will feel enthusiasm and excitement and stirring.

But to get there, we (I) must (know how to) walk away, whatever it costs. And sit alone, quietly, in a room.