Said and Read – March 2018

Standard

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 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.

It’s a small world on TV after all: More subtitled TV

Standard

More than ever, creators of TV are trusting audiences (particularly English-language markets) to delve into storylines that mix in non-English-language characters (integral characters and stories, beyond the stereotypical and often offensive Spanish-only illegal immigrant or household worker). I have written about the increasing instances of more foreign language subtitles on TV – and the number of shows weaving “globalization” into the story is increasing and lending depth and credibility to stories that are often removed from authenticity by giving English-speaking actors awkward, false, non-descript “foreign” accents while still speaking English.

Finally, we see more reality coming to the screen. This is the case because non-network TV has greater leeway. It is also happening because a more international group of people is creating TV entertainment. It is also happening because people are connecting more with reality – not in the sense of reality TV (ugh!) but in the sense of wanting to see reality reflected in the characters and stories depicted on screen.

In some cases, a show is created and not primarily intended for an English-language audience but is eventually exported and subtitled, such as the recent NRK production, The Saboteurs (Kampen om tungtvannet). The story and language is Norwegian with a heavy peppering of English and German. It’s been shown on UK TV recently.

Similarly the recent Deutschland 83, an eight-part, German-led drama (supported by German RTL and US-based Sundance), is the first German-language production to air in the US.

Yet, even in almost entirely English-language shows, we’re hearing a lot more diversity. While we tend to hear more (again stereotypical) Chinese-language in contemporary crime shows (always associated with Chinese gangs, such as in the recent Murder in the First and Sons of Anarchy), the latest (and final) season of Hell on Wheels has introduced a new story about Chinese railroad workers, and in telling these stories, we do get a “Chinese villain/gangster” but he is not a caricature so much as he is depicted as a profiteer not unlike the rest of the profiteers of the time, regardless of race or background. The Chinese workers, too, get a bit more depth to their story than standing around in the background. While I cannot say that Hell on Wheels has always been a superb show, it has sometimes taken interesting perspectives on intercultural interaction, conflict and integration in both a post-Civil War and westward-moving, “manifest destiny” environment. The Chinese language and culture addition is just another layer to a show that rolled out several layers already.

The already unusual Orphan Black, in which Tatiana Maslany plays multiple, very different characters (she has finally been recognized with an Emmy nomination), shows one character who is Ukrainian (and who uses Ukrainian). This affixes yet another piece of complexity to Maslany’s expertise at differentiating each character from the others

Ultimately what prompted my writing about this topic again, though, was the Swedish-speaking couple in the new show Mr Robot. Somehow their Swedishness makes them feel like a complete “otherness” in an already strange milieu. In Mr Robot, everyone is a bit of a weirdo, and while the Swedish guy seems to have it all together on the surface, he is perhaps the biggest weirdo of all, and his very private Swedish-speaking home life feels like it adds to that division.

Language can serve that purpose, too, which is of course something common in language and linguistic fields – different languages and how you use them in your life can contribute to very different aspects to your personality. In this sense, it is deeply interesting to watch how different characters’ behavior changes based on the language they use, choose to use in specific situations and with which other characters they interact in which language.

Nostalgia, sentimentality, old age and Japanese language camp

Standard

“even N, who founded the modernist magazine Luna
while Japan prepared to invade China
got sentimental after he went on his pension

…when he was young N wrote “I say strange things”
was it the monster that pumped tears from his older eyes?

-From “My Imperialism” (Ryuichi Tamura)

I started yet another conversation with a reference to attending Japanese language camp. This never ceases to amuse others, some thinking it sounds like the height (or depth) of total geekery, some thinking it sounds too similar to something like a forced death march or a Japanese internment camp. But alas, no, I studied almost all the languages my high school had to offer (German was the only exception, which made the Frau teaching German feel quite left out). Back in those fearful days of American decline (ongoing), when Bush senior caused an international incident by vomiting at the Japanese prime minister’s residence, and we all thought Japan was going to take over the world, we on the American west coast were hedging our bets, picking up our hashi and “nihongo o benkyooshimashita日本語を勉強しました. The Japanese were in fact helping us – subsidizing us – giving us money and camps and all the rest so we could immerse ourselves in Japanese language and culture for weeks at a time in the rural woods of western Washington. Never mind that I was never a “camp going”, group activity kind of girl – I tried to tell my teachers that I did not have the money for such a thing, but the school district had money to burn, I guess, and had never had a student like me (not that I was remarkable – it is just that I was the only one who ever willingly took so much language study at once). They paid for the camp.

The point of this – although I am not terribly nostalgic about those days, some characters from Japanese language camp come to mind sometimes. I only keep in touch with one guy – and got a letter from him yesterday. He shared some rather alarming news after a long (an entire adulthood) correspondence of mostly mundane stuff between us – sure, each of us moved back and forth between countries and had things happen, but nothing that does not happen to everyone. And suddenly, almost like a postscript, he added something rather serious, even stating that he “did not want to make a big deal out of it” – which I completely understand – but still I had to stop and catch my breath and suddenly reflect on… the deceptive, wicked nature of time. Even if time is just a manmade construct and has no inherent evil whatsoever. All that is truly deceptive about it is our human caprice and wont to waste time, playing games – or rather waste feelings, being petty and not doing what our heart really desires in life. Time and our perception of it imbues us with false confidence, with fear, with nostalgic sentimentality.

I am sitting in my car hanging out in a parking lot, reflecting on the way time has passed since meeting this Japanese language camp friend – we met each other in 1991, which still feels a lot like yesterday except that it was almost 25 years ago. This is how even the unsentimental start to feel the pull of nostalgia.

I wish nostalgia had a body so that I could push it out of the window! To smash what cannot be!” –Odysseus Elytis -Οδυσσέας Ελύτης

It starts to weigh them down when they can talk about how a quarter-century has passed and it felt a lot like the blink of an eye. I may not be overly sentimental myself, but this is how I have lost myself in poetry. The words I feel have been captured somewhere else. It’s a Ryuichi Tamura-田村隆一 kind of morning.

My Imperialism
by Ryuichi Tamura

I sink into bed
on the first Monday after Pentecost
and bless myself
since I’m not a Christian

Yet my ears still wander the sky
my eyes keep hunting for underground water
and my hands hold a small book
describing the grotesqueness of modern white society

when looked down at from the nonwhite world
in my fingers there’s a thin cigarette-
I wish it were hallucinogenic
though I’m tired of indiscriminate ecstasy

Through a window in the northern hemisphere
the light moves slowly past morning to afternoon
before I can place the red flare, it’s gone:
darkness

Was it this morning that my acupuncturist came?
a graduate student in Marxist economics, he says he changed
to medicine to help humanity, the animal of animals, drag itself peacefully to its deathbed
forty years of Scotch whisky’s roasted my liver and put me
into the hands of a Marxist economist
I want to ask him about Imperialism, A Study
what Hobson saw in South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century
may yet push me out of bed
even if you wanted to praise imperialism
there aren’t enough kings and natives left
the overproduced slaves had to become white

Only the nails grow
the nails of the dead grow too
so, like cats, we must constantly
sharpen ours to stay alive
Only The Nails Grow-not a bad epitaph
when K died his wife buried him in Fuji Cemetery
and had To One Woman carved on his gravestone
true, it was the title of one of his books
but the way she tried to have him only
to herself almost made me cry
even N, who founded the modernist magazine Luna
while Japan prepared to invade China
got sentimental after he went on his pension;
F, depressed
S, manic, builds house after house
A has abdominal imperialism: his stomach’s colonized his legs
M’s deaf, he can endure the loudest sounds;
some people have only their shadows grow
others become smaller than they really are
our old manifesto had it wrong: we only looked upward
if we’d really wanted to write poems
we should have crawled on the ground on all fours-
when William Irish, who wrote Phantom Lady, died
the only mourners were stock brokers
Mozart’s wife was not at his funeral

My feet grow warmer as I read
Kotoku Shusui’s Imperialism, Monster of the Twentieth Century, written back in 1901
when he was young N wrote “I say strange things”
was it the monster that pumped tears from his older eyes?

Poems are commodities without exchange value
but we’re forced to invade new territory
by crises of poetic overproduction

We must enslave the natives with our poems
all the ignorant savages under sixty
plagued by a surplus of clothes and food-
when you’re past sixty
you’re neither a commodity
nor human

But it is so much more than just Tamura lamenting the sentimentality of old age. It is also the nostalgia – looking back at people, events – what has deeply affected and wounded us, things we carry for years, imprinted on us even when the person or event is long ago and the deep impression we have belies the brevity of these memorable encounters.

“With the incomparable feeling of rising and of being like a banner
Twenty seconds worth twenty-five years” (from “To Marina” by Kenneth Koch)

That sudden sense that one second you were an awkward and completely artistically inept kid fumbling imprecisely with the Japanese art form katazome. And the next you are shaking your head, remembering the details of that time so clearly, wondering, “Could that really have been twenty-five years ago?” (The twenty-five year mark comes up a few times in Kenneth Koch’s masterpiece, “To Marina” – possibly my favorite poem of all time.)

“We walk through the park in the sun. It is the end.
You phone me. I send you a telegram. It
Is the end. I keep
Thinking about you, grieving about you. It is the end. I write
Poems about you, to you. They
Are no longer simple. No longer
Are you there to see every day or
Every other or every third or fourth warm day
And now it has been twenty-five years
But those feelings kept orchestrating I mean rehearsing
Rehearsing in my and tuning up
While I was doing a thousand other things, the band
Is ready, I am over fifty years old and there’s no you—
And no me, either, not as I was then,
When it was the Renaissance
Filtered through my nerves and weakness
Of nineteen fifty-four or fifty-three,
When I had you to write to, when I could see you
And it could change.”

Real estate porn and Swedish salespeople

Standard

Sometimes for fun I look at real estate. Sometimes idly, flipping through pictures and descriptions on websites and other times more actively, actually attending viewings and contacting real estate agents to get my questions answered. Sometimes I take my own research to a strange place. When I was interested in Berlin property, I started investigating the weird and wonderful world of foreclosed properties. Of course, the information about foreclosures is only available in German, which is not a language I know – but I was determined to dig into this properly and thus armed myself with a German dictionary and figured out the how, when, where of purchasing foreclosed-upon properties in Berlin. Sure, I never applied the knowledge, but how often do I apply most of the random knowledge that is rattling around in my head (e.g., citizenship laws for too many countries to count).

In the process, both in my real estate porn and in my actual home purchase process several years ago, I discovered that Swedish real estate agents are just weird. “Weird”, I grant, is not descriptive and in this case singles out one way of doing things (the “Swedish way”) and makes it sound as though it is wrong. In fact, it is simply different from what I think property sales and salespeople should be like. Out in the country where I live, I understand that there is not much incentive (they get no or tiny commissions), and to some extent, in cities, the markets are just so “hot” that agents don’t really have to do much.

My thinking, though, is that if I found a property I liked and lived in the US, I would contact the agent and express this interest. They would be obsessive about trying to sell it to me and,in case that did not work out, would actively be looking at other comparable properties and be pressing me on looking at those, too.

On several occasions in Sweden, when I contacted an agent again after looking at a property and seeing it had been removed from the web, they say simply, “It is sold. Sorry.” And nothing more.

This would rarely, if ever, happen with an American real estate agent, who would say, “I am sorry, but the property you were interested in is sold… but I have x in the same neighborhood and have a comparable type of property in X neighborhood.” Selling. Always trying to keep you on the hook. While I appreciate low-pressure salesmanship, this Swedish way feels lazy and not at all like any kind of selling. I have found in most cases that people here do not care if they are helpful or if they sell anything at all.