This will be a short review. I have two excuses: 1) the book that is the subject is very short; 2) this review is almost a follow-up to one of my recent reviews.
A few weeks ago I posted about Jacques Poulin’s Spring Tides . I actually first read Translation Is a Love Affair (La Traduction est une histoire d’amour, 2006; tr. from the French by Sheila Fischman, 2009). However, when I put down this short book I had the unsatisfying feeling that I’d missed something, that there was, as I put it earlier, some layer I failed to penetrate. Thus, the book didn’t work for me, yet I had glimpsed enough to know that something was there. Turns out reading Spring Tides before reviewing this little book was the best thing to do. To me, Spring Tides worked alone, but Translation Is a Love Affairworks better as a variation on a theme or even a revisioning of a theme written nearly thirty years earlier. If you’ve read my review of Spring Tides, you will remember the strong allegory running through that text. The last chapter in Translation Is a Love Affair is entitled “The Earthly Paradise.”
Review copy courtesy of Archipelago Books.
Here the primary character is a woman named Marine. She works as a translator, sometimes “tormented by the groundless fear that [she is] living the life of a parasite.” She has recently met and began translating the work of Monsieur Waterman, an older and very established French Canadian writer. He has given her a place to live while she works on his translations.
If there was a way to get close to someone in this life — of which I was not certain — it might be through translation.
One thing I enjoyed about this book is that the love it is talking about is not necessarily romantic love. And that seems to be Poulin’s point, too. Marine has been a guilty wanderer for years. As in Spring Tides, this novel is very quiet. We know little about Marine’s past, and what we do know is vague. This is a potential flaw in the novel. Marine sometimes says things like, “The only rules I accept are the rules of grammar.” But there’s not much here to make me believe that, let alone feel that. She’s just not that way in the time period this novel moves through. I read the book twice and still had a hard time believing that Marine used to be anything but the slightly lonely yet loving woman we meet on page one when she tenderly describes her fat cat walking around.
This book has a very significant plot line, however, that stands out much more than Marine’s translation job. A new cat wanders into Marine’s yard one day, and eventually Marine finds this note tucked away in the collar:
My name is Famine. I am on the road because my mistress can’t take care of me, . . . . . The final words, after the comma had been erased.
After some sleuthing, Marine and Monsieur Waterman discover that the words after the comma compose a sort of SOS. Throughout the remainder of the book, these two very different people try to find a way to help the person who wrote the note and abandoned the cat. Running along underneath this narrative is the relationship between Marine and Monsieur Waterman, between author and translator. It’s a very intriguing story and a perspective on love and translation that I never before have encountered.
We have to go further, pour ourselves into the other person’s writing the way a cat curls up in a basket. We must embrace the author’s style.
Though my estimation of Translation Is a Love Affair went up after reading Spring Tides I consider this a lesser work that does little to inform a reading of the greater work. That said, it is a quiet little book full of tenderness and sadness. It is not slight and for anyone who has read Spring Tidesthis might be a nice revisit to Poulin’s strange world of men, women, cats, and translators.
When I got this book in the mail I was actually turned off by the cover. However, I’d seen a couple of blurbs (probably citing one source) lining The Beijing Possibilities (2009) with W.G. Sebald and Italo Calvino. That is about the highest praise I can imagine, so even if it misses the mark a bit it should still be an impressive book. I opened it up and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the first short story “The Year of the Gorilla,” about a Gorillagram courier who stops a thief in the road and finds himself the subject of blog and media scrutiny since the incident was caught on a cell phone camera. The brave — or at least innocuous — action becomes a strange symbol for anyone wanting to talk about it (reminding me of Obama killing that fly):
The story was alluded to on a discussion board: “It is a shame that sticks-in-the-mud are opposing a market economy with Chinese characteristics. The last thing we need is to have a Gorilla barge in every time we shake hands on a deal!” Which led to further criticism, as well as some support of the Gorilla for “preserving Maoist values.” An editorial in the July issue of the Beijing Financial Review referred somewhat obscurely to “Gorillas and their ilk who shoot sparrows with a pearl” in the context of defending the opening up of the mining industry to foreign investment.
I took The Beijing of Possibilities to the exercise room and, because I didn’t want to stop reading, stayed on the exercise bike for much longer than I usually do.
Review copy courtesy of Other Press.
Let’s get my view of the Sebald / Calvino comparison out of the way: The primary connection to Sebald, I’m assuming, is that throughout the book, just barely interrupting the text, there are pictures of Beijing and its inhabitants — one picture per story, to be exact. I suppose one could stretch another connection to Sebald by saying that this book also deals with the relationship of time and place and we ghosts who move through both, but that is not a strong theme here nor is it done in at all the same way or to the same end. To me, the connection to Calvino, while still an overstatement, is more appropriate. Tel creates a very confident voice that rolls with the story’s momentum. Also, these stories aren’t weighed down by reality; the comedy or absurdity (like policemen, in mid-chase, donning dresses flung at them from a fleeing felon) work to enhance the narratives rather than detract from them. I liked it very much. If you see more of the Sebald / Calvino connection, please let me know — as much as I admire those two writers, I’m not an expert in their craft.
The Beijing of Possibilities is a compilation of twelve short stories, each with Beijing playing some role, though the stories themselves vary widely in time period and demographic. Each story stands on its own. There is a slight, almost metafictional thread tied around them at the end, but in a way that does not threaten the independence and individuality of each story. In fact, the thread doesn’t even force the reader to look at a story differently.
The first lines in the brief preface (which turns out to be very much a part of the book and not simply a preface) are fun as they introduce, particularly to readers like me who don’t know much about Beijing, the world this book will inhabit:
Beijing is the center of the universe. Ask anybody who lives there. “The true Beijinger secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”
This center of the universe is also the site of a highly volatile juxtapostion of two seemingly disparate worlds. Old Beijing, with its heritage (and its Communism), is merging with a newer cosmopolitan/capitalistic new Beijing. One of my favorite visions of this is in the story “The Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch”: ”A delectably shimmery lightweight bra, combining traditional elegance with the latest hi-tech lift.” This also happened to be one of my favorite stories. In it a lonely modern-day Beijinger who writes copy for advertisements (hence, the description of the bra) contacts a dating service who, through the wonders of modern technology, hooks him up with a princess from the Ming Dynasty. They communicate via text messaging. Unsurprisingly hilarious, this story is surprisingly touching and complex.
Another of my favorite stories is “The Three Lives of Little Yu.” It begins like this:
A married couple without an heir, what are they but living ghosts? They had tried for five years already without success. So they decided to buy a child. A boy would be beyond their means, but a girl — in those years, in that district of Hebei Province, people were practically giving them away.
This sentence might sound a bit didactic, as if Tel were trying to showcase some idiosyncrasies of a foreign culture rather than create a story, but that’s not true. In fact, Tel does an excellent job creating this foreign culture without making it look like he’s teaching us and without making it look like that foreign culture is being recreated here for our amusement, as if this book were a window at a zoo. This particular story is very sad and very touching, and it doesdo an excellent job relating this culture to us while showing us how that culture is conflicted with itself. In this story a couple purchases a baby girl in 1959. Her name is Yu. Sadly, Yu dies, leaving only her name written in a tablet as she was learning how to write. The couple is determined to find her again. In 1965 they buy another baby girl, another Yu. Her character has changed, but they do not doubt their little Yu has come back to them. Tragically, again Yu perishes. Finally, in the summer of 1984, the couple took of for Beijing to find Yu again: ”. . . most likely she’d be reincarnated into comfort and wealth this time. And the place to find happiness in modern China (they knew this from radio and indoctrination sessions) was no longer, as it had been for millennia, a peaceful village in the countryside. Now it was the city. And the greatest city in the world is Beijing.” This story is one of the best in the book, a wonderful example of Tel’s comedic observations (“In the corridor, people were walking to the toilet with a heightened sense of purpose.”) and touching intimacy.
There were some slower and less successful parts in the book. I liked the stranger stories, particularly the ones dealing with provincial life confronting Beijing, but I wasn’t as big a fan of some of the middle stories about sometimes wealthier people making do in Beijing. They felt too similar to any number of short stories about individuals adapting to or failing to adapt to changes an ultra modern world, and to me they felt less original. Probably only three or four of the stories didn’t succeed for me, and that was probably because the stories surrounding them were so original and well done. Had I allowed more time to pass between stories (I basically read this book cover to cover in a day), it might have been different. There were several more stories that worked very well, and for these the entire book is worth reading.
Though I haven’t posted my review of it yet, I have read Jacque Poulin’s novel Translation Is a Love Affair, forthcoming from Archipelago Books. For some reason, I don’t think I penetrated a layer with that book; something just didn’t click even though I was enjoying it the whole time. Rather than review that book straightaway, I decided I should go back a bit and read Poulin’s older novel (also presented to us in beautiful fashion by Archipelago Books) Spring Tides (Les grandes marées 1978; tr. from the French by Sheila Fischman 1986). I had read that Poulin’s books, while independent of each other, can illuminate one another. I’m glad for this approach. The two books are incredibly different, but certain things were similar enough that reading Spring Tides helped me establish a bit better where Poulin was going with Translation Is a Love Affair. That review will be posted in a week or two, after I’ve read the book (a shortie) again.
Review copy courtesy of Archipelago Books.
A quick note on the cover: isn’t it beautiful? The texture and the unconventional shape make these books feel just right.
Spring Tides won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Literary Merit for fiction in the French language (the same year Alice Munro won it for the English language with Who Do You Think You Are?), yet Poulin is apparently not widely read. I can see one reason for that: this book is very quiet, running the risk of seeming like a straightforward allegory (the problem I had with Translation Is a Love Affair at first). The book does not force the reader to come to terms with it, and the prose is so deceptively simple that a reader might miss the deeper complexities.
The central character in this book is the otherwise nameless Teddy Bear, a nickname derived from T.D.B. “And T.D.B. come from Tradecteur de Bandes Dessinées, because I translate comic strips.” Here is how this book starts; I think you’ll catch the allusion.
In the beginning he was alone on the island.
Teddy Bear likes his solitude and works consistently to have his translations done each week when the boss’s helicopter comes to collect them and drop off new ones. His main companion is his cat Matousalem and a tennis machine. The island is the boss’s, and he gave it to Teddy Bear hoping it would bring a bit of happiness (“It isn’t heaven on earth, but it’s a pleasant spot,” he said.).
Happiness is the ellusive beast in this book. The boss’s main goal seems to be to ensure that Teddy Bear experiences happiness. Though lonely (dictionaries and reference books “took the place of the friends he didn’t have”) and apparently content in his solitude, Teddy Bear obviously was missing some communication, something he was never good at anyway:
He started thinking about his brother Theo. He never heard from his brother, but he must be somewhere in southern California, and as the weather got warmer on the Pacific coast, he would surely be preparing to return to San Francisco. . . . Teddy was thinking about someone else too: a girl. She didn’t exist in reality, but her features and appearance were beginning to take shape in his mind.
Then, as if by miracle, a girl appears. One day during the spring tides, the boss drops off Marie:
“. . . My dream is to make people happy. That’s why you’re here on this island. And it’s why I brought Marie here too. Obviously I don’t think I’m God the Father and I didn’t tell myself, ‘It is not good that man should be alone’ or anything like that, but I thought you’d have a better chance of happiness if there was someone here with you. . . .”
I enjoyed this part of the novel more than any other part. Teddy Bear and Marie enjoy an uncomfortable friendship on island, though they live on opposite sides. She tries not to interfere with his work, and he tries not to interfere with her swimming. In a revealing and comic part, Teddy Bear decides to make Marie dinnner, but an unwelcome voice comes:
“I’m sorry,” he said, for his brother’s benefit.
“Quit behaving like a zouave and read the recipe like a normal person,” he told himself.
“What’s got into you?”
“Don’t make me laugh with that ‘intrusive presence’ nonsense. You’re only turning fine phrases to forget she’s a girl. Did you notice her eyes, at least? Have you ever seen such beautiful black eyes in your whole career as a translator?”
“And what about the rest?”
“How do you expect me to read the recipe like a normal person if you keep talking about that girl?” he complained. “It’s ten after four and did you read what it says on the box? ‘Allow to cool at room temperature for three hours before serving!’ Do you konw what time that means we’ll be eating supper?”
Though there are two people on the island, it still feels like a pleasant solitude. This is interrupted again when the boss drops off his own wife so she can enjoy a few days (which turn into months) on the island. Then the boss brings more people, and more still, until the island is a minor community. Each person or couple comes with the spring tides, like the debris on the island. Teddy Bear’s work is becoming harder amidst the distractions, but he’s getting better at it. Then all is suddenly shattered.
The plot introduction above seems to me to focus primarily on the allegorical side to this novel. That’s hard to miss, actually, and it’s hard to summarize a plot like that without it showcasing how contrived it is. However, to me the allegory was incidental and unnecessary, even if it cast some of the themes in a deeper relief. To me the most fascinating and maybe central part of the novel was the aspect of communication, of a connection between us. This is hardly a novel theme, but here, with the biblical references and the work of translation, it is dealt with in a novel (and pleasantly lonely) manner. If you find the above plot summary unsatisfactory (as I do) take heart that when I’m thinking back on the individual episodes, isolated from the larger contrived plot, I love this book. Here is a central line, not Poulin’s but Vincent Van Gogh’s:
There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney, and go along their way.
That’s heartbreaking to think about, and Poulin succeeds in this novel-length rumination on just that quotation.
Check out KevinfromCanada’s blog for a post about the Giller Prize Shadow Jury. I have the great privilege to be one of the three members of the panel this year! Exciting!
This review is divided into two parts: Part I is a look at the vastness of Moby-Dick and at the majestic style Melville employed in this philosophical novel. That Part is more like one of my typical reviews. Part II is a look at one particular chapter and idea that highlights the great depths in this book and the great mind who wrote it.
That’s right. I did it! My whole life I’ve wondered if I’d ever read this book. I always wanted to (or, at least, I always wanted to say I’d read it), but if I’m being honest I don’t think I ever thought I’d actually read Moby-Dick (1851). Then earlier this spring my wife and I took our two- and one-year-old boys to the Berkshires and to Arrowhead, Melville’s home, where he wrote the beast (no, the boys didn’t appreciate the moment). As fortune would have it, at about this same time a family bookclub I’m in decided to read a big book for the summer: Moby-Dick won the vote. So I spent June, July, and August with a reading goal of ten pages per day (758 pages in my edition, which is not the B&N Classics edition shown below but rather the small B&N Books Collector’s Library hardback). I finished my goal early each month, and took out the last 100 pages in two days in mid-August — it is a great book.
Saying it’s a great book, however, doesn’t mean I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone. In a sense, that would be like recommending someone take up particle physics in their spare time, for fun. One does have to be in a certain state of mind to enjoy this long meandering novel. Perhaps by highlighting some of the substantial joys and rewards that come with the work involved in reading Moby-Dick, this review can help some people get into that state of mind.
Before Moby-Dick, Melville had experienced critical and popular success with some of his shorter novels, mostly adventures based on his own experiences at sea. When Moby-Dick was published, most critics didn’t know what to think of it and subsequently rejected it (“The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition”). But the ideas of Moby-Dick are uncontainable in novel form, so, really, it’s not a novel at all. Though there is a beautifully, dramatically written story, to expect a conventional novel is to invite disappointment. Moby-Dick is Melville’s attempt to take the measure of man’s place in the universe, a very philosophical work with the whale, and the pursuit of the whale, as a symbolic subject (pages and pages are spent describing the intricate physical features of the whale). Melville knew it was impossible to take the measure of man’s place in the universe, but certainly it was worth the attempt. Or so he must have thought, though frustrated with the critical result. Doing Melville no good, Moby-Dick became the classic it is today only after the twentieth-century had begun and Melville was dead. I can see where each side of the debate is coming from. On the one hand, if you’re looking for a thrilling adventure story, you get it only in the midst of hundreds of pages dedicated to whales and philosophy. On the other hand, the stylistic and substantive achievement here is thrilling, as is its story and philosophy — it’s worth the time it takes to read. In the end, even after three months, it wasn’t a chore but a pure pleasure (well, there were a few short chapters where I was tired of the whale and just wanted to move on, but I consider that my own failing).
The first lines are famous and seem to herald a bildunsroman adventure story:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.
That is innocent enough. I was shocked and completely taken in by the depth introduced in the next lines of that same paragraph. I never knew Ishmael was depressive and potentially suicidal. And Melville captures it wonderfully:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, sometime or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
Having read the book, I am amazed at how well Melville introduced the breadth and depth of the story and the philosophies we’d be venturing into over the next 758 pages. There are layers upon layers here, philosophical questions about life and death and the unknown, and, of course, the beautiful writing that gives Ishmael a melancholy tinge and makes him into a fantastic narrator of all that’s going to happen and all that that implies.
The next 100 pages or so are similar in achievement. The narrative moves forward as Ishmael attempts to find work on a ship sailing out of Nantucket. There are engaging philosophical layers in the meeting with his bosom friend (later allegorically his twin) Queequeg, the visits the chapel, and Father Maple’s ambivalent sermon. The ruminations on death and what comes after continue as Ismael says,
It needs scarcely be told, with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage, I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me. Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine. But somehow I grew merry again. Delightful inducements to embark, fine chance for promotion, it seems — aye, a stove boat will make me an immortal by brevet. Yes, there is death in this business of whaling — a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.
Another interesting layer to the story is Melville’s attempts to raise the common whaler up to the level of the princes and kings prevelent in the serious literature that preceded Moby-Dick. In our time it is not surprising to see a common man used to question intimations of mortality and immortality, but Melville felt it important to give these rough men the status he felt they deserved:
And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders; parcelling out among them the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as the three pirate powers did Poland. Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer’s. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it.
One of my favorite passages is in this same vein. It is incredibly poetic and succeeds, much more than the above passage, in making these men objects of envy, in making what these men wondrous in a higher sphere:
There is his home; there lies his business, which a Noah’s flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.
Speaking of raising a man to a higher, almost mythical level, there’s the “ungodly, godlike man, Captain Ahab.” My whole life I’ve heard about Ahab and about how he is a larger-than-life character, but I must say I was skeptical. So the man, disregarding his own mortality and that of his crew, is madly pursuing the object of his rage, Moby-Dick. What is larger than life about that? This line (prescient in some respects) might introduce a sliver of an idea:
[Ahab] piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest has been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
In Melville’s hands, this captain — who eventually asks in a remarkable introspective soliloquy, “Is Ahab, Ahab?” – acquires depths and prisms unlike almost any other character in literature. One of the reasons I read the last 100 pages ahead of schedule was because the tension really builds around Ahab as they get closer to the white whale. Moby-Dick comes into view in only the last forty pages; but Ahab, whose first question is always ”Hast seen the white whale?”, is encountering all that is ugly in human nature. Right now, I can think of Hamlet only who can offer so much room for searching humanity and oneself. Indeed, I thought often of the uncontained Hamlet while reading the equally unwieldy Moby-Dick. It is not surprising to learn that not long before embarking on this writing project, Melville had been introduced to and became infatuated with Shakespeare. The influence in the language might be obvious from the poetic passages I quoted above. More surprising to me was the influence in structure: sometimes a chapter is written as if it were a play, and often many of the characters, particularly Ahab, speak in soliloquies that contain volumes.
It is very unconventional and at times, if you’re unwilling to let Melville take you through the intricacies of whales, a bit long. But the chapters are all very short, so one feels, even in the boggy parts, that one is speeding along to that final meeting with the monstrous white whale.
One of my favorite aspects of the novel was the way Melville presents an aspect of the story and then sends a plum line into it, looking for all kinds of connections between that aspect and humanity or humanity’s relationship with the greater sphere. Perhaps my favorite chapter in the book was the one entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Ishmael introduces the chapter, “What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.” To Ishmael “[i]t was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.” I think he explains himself very well.
The explanation begins by looking at the softer side, the more conventional symbolic meaning, of the color white, which “in many natural objects, . . . refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own”:
. . . this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things — the innocence of brides, the benignity of age . . . white is specifically employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; . . . in the Vision of St John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white thrown, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool . . .
In a conventional binary setup, white is the color of purity and innocence. Ishmael then proceeds to turn that idea on its head by taking a step further, and then further again, and, unbelievably, further yet again than I ever would have been capable of penetrated.
. . . yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.
With a list of images, Melville illustrates his point.
Why to the man of untutored ideality, who happens to be but loosely acquainted with the peculiar character of the day, does the bare mention of Whitsuntide marshal in the fancy such long, dreary, speechless processions of slow-pacing pilgrims, downcast and hooded with new-fallen snow? Or, to the unread, unsophisticated Protestant of the Middle American States, why does the passing mention of a White Friar or a White Nun, evoke such an eyeless statue in the soul?
Or what is there apart from the traditions of dungeoned warriors and kings (which will not wholly account for it) that makes the White Tower of London tell so much more strongly on the imagination of an untravelled American, than those other storied structures, its neighbours — the Byward Tower, or even the Bloody? And those sublimer towers, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, whence, in peculiar moods, comes that gigantic ghostliness over the soul at the bare mention of that name, while the thoughts of Virginia’s Blue Ridge is full of a soft, dewey, distant dreaminess?
This procession of haunting white words and images goes on for another wonderful and chilly page, in which Melville seems to speak about some of my inner-most fearful images. His explanation — which turns out to be just another series of questions — at the end of the chapter, illuminates a major theme of the book. It’s an empty, windswept explanation.
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thoughts of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all coulours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink?
With the weight of the novel, the preceding pages, and the ideas Meville presents, it is easy to come to the same conclusion he does: “. . . pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper . . .” I can’t resist showing how these ideas recur in a book which is primarily about whales and what men do who pursue them. Remember: this is just one aspect of the book; a book that can in some shape contain themes of this magnitude while still telling a good adventure story, examining rage and obsession, relationships between humans, etc. . . . it’s mind-boggling. The following passage comes well after the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale”:
There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence, doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbour, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.
These lines — these fantastic lines — beautifully tie into the book’s last sentence. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to conclude this lengthy review with it:
It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.
After experiencing a wonderful connection with Bolaño in By Night in Chile I was excited to receive a copy of his next book to be translated into English: The Skating Rink (La Pista de Hielo, 1993; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2009). And now that I’ve finished that, though it wasn’t as impressive as others, I can’t wait to read more. Perhaps I’m turning into — or simply uncovering the fact that I am — a visceral realist. Whatever the case, I’m definitely enjoying what happens to me when I read Bolaño. First, I welcome the disorientation as I try to figure out just what is going on, who is speaking, and what is important in the details. Then, as all of that becomes clear — well, not necessarily clear, but the pages do turn — I enjoy the satisfying feeling of putting pieces together. And then, and this is strangely the best part, I enjoy the nameless feeling I experience when I realize that all of the pieces fit together to form yet another puzzle; or rather, that the pieces I put together don’t quite get to a solution but fit together in countless other ways, and I’m not sure any of those ways of piecing together will get me to a clear and final resolution either.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Scott Esposito, in a fantastic review of this book, said it reads like “a stripped-down version of The Savage Detectives.” I have not read The Savage Detectives yet, and I’m thinking that The Skating Rink might be a good gateway to that much larger, much more complex work. For those who’ve read and loved The Savage Detectives, this book might be a disappointing step backwards — of course that makes sense because it was written before The Savage Detectives. However, for those who’ve determined to be a Bolaño nut, this early work shows the seeds of what was to come. All of this comparison to The Savage Detectives might muddle the independent merits of The Skating Rink. It’s a great, complex story in its own right.
In this book, three narrators (not dozens as in The Savage Detectives) recount the events of a summer season in Z, a resort town close to Barcelona. Remo Morán is a Chilean businessman, successful and rich. He has an affair with the beautiful ice skating star Nuria Martí. Gaspar Heredia is a roaming poet whom Morán knew when they were both young (The novel’s fist lines: “The first time I saw him, it was in the Calle Bucareli, in Mexico City, that is, back in the vague shifty territory of our adolescence, the province of hardened poets, on a night of heavy fog, which slowed traffic and prompted conversations about that odd phenomenon, so rare in Mexico City at night, at least as far as I can remember.”). Heredia’s wanderings and needs have brought him to Morán who, despite Heredia’s illegal status, offers him a job as a watchman at a campground. The third narrator is Enric Rosquelles, a corrupt municipal bureaucrat in charge of the Social Services Department. He’s fat and whiny and in love with Nuria. In the abandoned Palacio Benvingut, he constructs for Nuria the skating rink of the title, from public funds (“Or, no, they did care about the money, of course they did, but not enough to work overtime trying to find out where it had gone.”).
From page one we know something bad has happened, a murder most likely, though none of the narrators addresses it straight-on until two-thirds of the way through the book. Or rather they are addressing it straight-on; we just don’t have enough of the important details to put it all together and know what they’re talking about (it almost certainly requires a second reading, which in my case was even more pleasureful than the first). Nevertheless, the murder is, in the words of Morán, the reason they are telling this story. As a reader with certain expectations, I thought the book would introduce a cast of characters, any of whom could be the murderer or the victim (we don’t know who’s killed until that two-thirds point) and then the clues would start to come together until — ta-da — the murderer is found, his or her motives are cleared up, and the narrators drift away, glad that their confession has lightened the burden of that summer. Or, and perhaps even better, the narrators never get that sense of closure they hoped for, and that, in itself, is a form of closure for the book. But who’s concerned about closure here? Not only that — who’s concerned about the truth? Especially when it’s primarily made up of dry facts, like who killed whom (both of those questions are cleared up with little fanfare).
The men are telling this story independent of one another, so often the accounts differ in tone and even in facts. They add up only to a certain degree, and the rest remains inexplicable. But that’s part of the puzzle — and the puzzle is the point. The men are telling this story to figure out how that summer affected them, and they can grasp it no better than the reader can. One might suspect a book like this would be highly frustrating. Indeed, I was frustrated at the end of 2666 for some of these reasons (though there it felt as if even the puzzle were missing). However, The Skating Rink is a complete book. The puzzle and its pieces are there.
A central part of the puzzle is a character named Caridad, a vagabond who wanders around Z with an old opera singer and carries a kitchen knife around under her shirt. Heredia is infatuated with Caridad and “got into the habit of walking around town in the vague hope of running into Caridad.” One night he follows her to the place where she has been camping out – the Palacio Benvingut. While wandering around the maze of passages, Heredia finds the cold wind that directs him to the skating rink. Nuria is there skating and Rosquellessits on the side watching. It’s a haunting passage, and important, though on a first reading one might not understand the depth of emotion — it’s almost terror — Heredia felt at the time.
Each of the three narrators eventually finds his way to the skating rink. One comments on the walk through the palace where “the passage formed concentric circles around the skating rink.” This leads to one of the principal passages in the book — a passage that describes the setting, the themes, and the book’s structure all in one go:
From that vantage point I had a panoramic view of what looked like a labyrinth with a frozen center . . .
For those interested in venturing into the world of Bolaño for the first time, this might be the best place to start. It’s short and fairly direct in its abstractions, and it just might open the door to Bolaño. For those who’ve been reading Bolaño, this book is another piece in the larger puzzle and design and, therefore, indispensable.
Before this, I’d read three other books by J.M. Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K, and Disgrace. I enjoyed all three — very much. His style is so wonderfully simple and yet precise and still poetic. Despite never having read Robinson Crusoe, for some time I have been looking forward to reading Coetzee’s Foe (1986), his next book after winning the Booker for Life and Times of Michael K. When Foe was released Coetzee was criticized because it did not appear to be a politically relevant book like his others. While I agree that it is not overtly political, its portrayal of language and how language can build power is acute and politically important in a less obvious way. My problem with it was that I found it a bit boring and not as well tailored as his other books.
The book is a sly reworking of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Like Crusoe (I said I’d never read it, not that I’d never read about it :) ), Foe is a story within a larger frame. The book begins with quotation marks as Susan Barton begins her dramatic monologue. We come to know that she is telling a writer, Mr. Foe, about her arrival on Cruso’s island, a wind-blown and rather barren island somewhere out from Brazil. Through snippets in this monologue, we find out that she had been in Bahia, Brazil, searching for her lost daughter, to no avail. On her return to England, the ship on which Barton was sailing suffered a mutiny. Barton, who had been cozy with the now-dead captain, was placed in a small boat with the captain’s body and castaway. Eventually, dying of thirst with hands hurting from incessant rowing against the current, she throws herself into the ocean, eventually to be washed up on an island. On the shore she is found by Friday, Cruso’s black servant and fellow castaway. For the next year Barton learns to cope with the wind and the waste on the island, constantly hoping for salvation. This is Part I.
In Part I, there are some beautiful lines that introduce the major theme of the novel.
But who, accustomed to the fullness of human speech, can be content with caws and chirps and screeches, and the barking of seals, and the moan of the wind?
Speech — the ability to make sound, to be heard, to be listened to, to communicate, to create a history – is the novel’s main theme, particularly as applied to those without power. We soon find out that Friday’s tongue has been removed by someone. Slave merchants? Cruso himself? We don’t really know. While on the island, Barton wants to teach Friday the ability to communicate, but Cruso says Friday knows what’s needed. Also, Barton wants Cruso to find a way to write his story so that it can be shared with others, but he has no interest. We never find out how Cruso came to the island. Despite the lack of communication, in some way these three diverse individuals manage to form a slight sense of being while trapped together on the island, and their connections don’t seem to rely on words. Barton wonders,
What had held Friday back all these years from beating in his master’s head with a stone while he slept, so bringing slavehood to an end and inaugurating a reign of idleness? And what held Cruso back from tying Friday to a post every night, like a dog, to sleep the more secure, or from blinding him, as they blind asses in Brazil? It seemed to me that all things were possible on the island, all tyrannies and cruelties, though in small; and if, in despite of what was possible, we lived at peace one with another, surely this was proof that certain laws unknown to us held sway, or else that we had been following the promptings of our hearts all this time, and our hearts had not betrayed us.
When salvation comes Barton is certain it will lead to a better life. However, Cruso does not survive the journey home. Barton and Friday find themselves lost and destitute in England. With no money but with hope, Barton goes to Mr. Foe, hoping he’ll put her island adventure – what we’ve just read – into print. She’s certain she lacks the skill to do it (“Return to me the substance I have lost, Mr Foe: that is my entreaty. For though my story gives the truth, it does not give the substance of the truth (I see that clearly, we need not pretend otherwise).”). Thus we find out why Part I of the book is in quotations: it is Barton’s recounting of the events on the island.
When Part II begins, Foe has abandoned his home to creditors, and Barton has no idea how to find him. Her only hope for herself and Friday is unresponsive. This Part contains Barton’s letters imploring Foe to continue writing her story (“For surely, with every day that passes, our memories grow less certain, as even a statute in marble is worn away by rain, till at last we can no longer tell what shape the sculptor’s hand gave it.”). She and Friday are in worse circumstances than they were on the island. When the creditors finally leave Foe’s home, Barton and Friday move in.
Part II is where the book started to lose my intense interest. At times it was still fascinating: there is an encounter with a girl claiming to be Barton’s daughter (it’s vague but vital to the story — the girl is a symbol); there is evidence Foe sent the girl; there is further evidence the girl is being genuine. There are multiple observations of Friday and what appears to be his complete oblivion. Still, I found myself just wanting the book to move forward and end. Coetzee’s own narrative becomes surreal as Barton’s reality becomes uncertain and characters enter and leave the story like ghosts through walls. I’m sure I didn’t give it the time it deserved, but I was getting impatient before the narrative started falling apart, and it’s hard to get back on track when it’s going to take even more patience.
All of this builds up to a more pleasing, though still abstract, Part III when Foe finally speaks for himself. Turns out he has been giving Barton’s story a lot of thought, but he doesn’t like her way of telling it. He tells her the story should be about her search for her daughter, something merely tangential, almost incidental, in Barton’s account and in her letters.
‘. . . It is thus that we make up a book: loss, then quest, then recovery; beginning, then middle, then end. As to novelty, this is lent by the island episode — which is properly the second part of the middle — and by the reversal in which the daughter takes up the quest abandoned by her mother.’
All the joy I had felt in finding my way to Foe fled me. I sat heavy-limbed.
The book has much more to it than I was able to put down here, and for that reason it is worth reading. I don’t think it is Coetzee’s best work by a long shot, but in hindsight (after getting through the undergrowth) I very much liked the layers built upon this phrase: “. . . what it is to speak into a void, day after day, without answer.”
Note the review policy on the right-hand sidebar. A more detailed articulation is here.
Some books I expect to enjoy merely because I consider them classic in terms of being influential or historical, not because I expect them to have a pleasing aesthetic or narrative. I read them because they appeal to my sense of completeness or because you want to see what people were reading two- or three-hundred years ago. To take a quotation from this very book, I sometimes assume these old novels are ”classics” because when first published they “surprised [readers] as a novelty, and retained the credit by consent which it received by accident at first.”
It was with these limited expectations that I sat down to read one of Melville House’s most recent additions to their Art of the Novella series: the great dictionary writer Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759). The influential tale is 250 years old this year, and I thought reading it would give some pleasing historical context. After the first few chapters I realized once again that books are usually classics because they have pleased readers and not just historians through the years. Here, as is often the case, the historical context is interesting but incidental to the well written words which should make many writers envious.
Review copy courtesy of Melville House.
To call this a novella might be a stretch, depending on how you define the term. Though it is basically the same length as a novella (this edition runs in at just over 180 pages, but there are many blank pages), it is not necessarily the type of narrative one expects when picking up a novella. I consider it to be a philosophical treatise built around episodes but in novella form. That shouldn’t scare anyone off, though. The topic is one we can all relate to: happiness. But just a minute. Before scoffing at Johnson’s chosen subject you should know that this is nothing — nothing – like those books of aphorisms you find today that guarantee to change your life. Johnson is never trying to show the reader how to attain happiness. Rather, he is fixated on the elusive nature of happiness. Can it ever be achieved? The first sentence might clue the reader in on Johnson’s resolution:
Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.
Rasselas is a young prince, twenty-six when the story begins, who lives in a paradisiacal valley created for him and his siblings. There “[a]ll the diversities of the world were brought together, the blessings of nature were collected, and its evils extracted and excluded.” Johnson’s descriptions are beautiful and exotic and impossible but oh so appealing. The Happy Valley is a mythical place even for those who live in the kingdom:
All the artificers of pleasure were called to gladden the festivity; the musicians exerted the power of harmony, and the dancers showed their activity before the princes, in hopes that they should pass their lives in blissful captivity, to which those only were admitted whose performance was thought able to add novelty to luxury.
I love those sentences. In them Johnson, with great prose, moves the narrative forward while describing the setting and alluding to his own negative feelings about the Happy Valley as an ideal. Soon Johnson doesn’t hide his hand. That this place is beautiful but dead for humans becomes apparent when Rasselas is introduced. In ruminating about his state of being, Rasselas compares himself to the animals who are happy if they are fed and watered and comfortable — “. . . but when thirst and hunger ceases, I am not at rest.”
Rasselas decides he must escape the valley. Surely the happy state that is missing there can be found on the outside where life is not so artificial. There are several comical chapters about his attempts to escape, my favorite being the artificer who, after months and months of research and work, invents metal wings that do nothing more than sink into the sea. He was not happy. Rasselas’s bad luck changes, though, when he meets Imlac, a philosopher and scholar who was allowed to enter the valley to teach. Imlac, realizing that Rasselas is disillusioned, does not hide the fact that there is not one person invited into the valley who did not yearn to escape and live on the outside again. Rasselas explains to Imlac his desire to escape the valley to find what Choice of Life will make him happy. He knows this Choice is not available in the valley. Not really believing in Rasselas’s quest (“Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.”), Imlac nevertheless agrees to help him escape and to be his companion on the journey. On the night of escape, Rasselas is surprised to find his sister Nekayah following him. She admits she didn’t know where he was going, but, now that she knows, she wants to go too. Together they quest for the state of being that will guarantee happiness.
Obviously the quest is doomed to failure, but the quest itself is what’s important here. Through it Johnson allows his characters to interrogate several types of people – hermits, scholars, couples, kings, etc. One of my favorites was Rasselas and Nekayah’s discussion on the state of marriage:
Marriage is evidently the dictate of Nature; men and women were made to be the companions of each other, and therefore I cannot be persuaded but that marriage is one of the means of happiness.”
“I know not,” said the Princess, “whether marriage be more than one of the innumerable modes of human misery. . . .”
And here’s the best time for me to insert an Annie Hall quote in a review. While it is very different in tone, the futile search, particularly when looking at relationships, reminded me of the part in Annie Hall where Alvie asks a couple on the street why they are happy:
Alvie: Here, you look like a very happy couple. Um, are you?
Young Woman: Yeah.
Alvie: Yeah? So, so, how do you account for it?
Young Woman: Uh, I’m very shallow and empty, and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.
Young Man: And I’m exactly the same way.
One last thing: As much as I enjoyed this book, I must say that the episodic nature can become grating at times. Like Candide, Rasselas has a weak overall narrative structure that serves mainly to allow the characters to have dialogues with people from a variety of backgrounds. But, again like Candide , there is so much there that within each episode one forgets that it is only loosely tied to other episodes by the single philosophical thread. And there are so many wonderful moments of illumination, like when Johnson reduces the glory of the pyramids to this: “I consider this structure as a monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyments.” And there are beautiful moments of melancholy where the loose structure evaporates and the characters become more than vehicles for philosophy, like when Imlac tells the heartbreaking story of the insane astronomer and the characters hope he can “delay the next morning the rising of the sun.”
I must preface this post with a disclosure: I have never read Tóibín’s The Master. I’ve had it for a while now and it sits there like a present. From what I’ve read elsewhere, particularly on the Man Booker Prize forum, The Master is so good that reading Brooklyn (2009) afterwards is a disappointment in comparison. It seems like people who have not read The Master enjoy reading Brooklyn very much. I was not handicapped with any preconceptions, and I thought Brooklyn to be one of the best longlisted books the Booker Prize has seen in years.
The story is fairly simple, and I’d like to introduce the plot and then discuss why I think this book deserves its spot on the longlist. The book is set in the early 1950s. Eilis Lacey, a young woman from Enniscorthy, Ireland, lives with her mother and older sister, Rose. Her father died only a few years before, and her three older brothers have moved to England in an attempt to make their way in life. Despite the distance, the family is a happy family, and Eilis has always been watched over and loved. All do what they can.
Since Jack, the nearest to her in age, had followed his two older brothers Pat and Martin to Birmingham to find work, Eilis had moved into the boys’ room, leaving Rose her own bedroom, which their mother carefully tidied and cleaned each morning. As their mother’s pension was small, they depended on Rose, who worked in the office of Davis’s Mills; her wages paid for most of their needs. Anything extra came sporadically from the boys in England.
Eilis herself has recently completed some courses in bookkeeping, but the only job she can secure is working for a slight wage in the shop of the miserable Miss Kelly. When Rose invites an Irish-American priest, Father Flood, to dinner, Eilis is stunned to find out that plans are already in the works to ship her to Brooklyn to get better work and better prospects. Part of Eilis is attracted to the idea; or, at least, she knows the reasons why she should be attracted to it:
She had a sense too, she did not know from where, that, while the boys and girls from the town who had gone to England did ordinary work for ordinary money, people who went to America could become rich. She tried to work out how she had come to believe also that, while people from the town who lived in England missed Enniscorthy, no one who went to America missed home. Instead, they were happy there and proud. She wondered if that could be true.
Eilis recognizes that she is being given a special opportunity and that many people are working hard and sacrificing much to ensure she gets it, especially Rose, who, ”she realized, in making it easy for her to go, was giving up any real prospect of leaving this house herself and having her own house, with her own family.” While the plans are in effect, Tóibín, in limpid and subtle prose, describes the community in which Eilis has always lived and had always planned to live. Soon Eilis, sea sick, is on a boat for America, uncomfortably grateful for the kindness of her family, friends, and for the strangers she meets on her way to and in Brooklyn.
Because I’d read several reviews and comments about Eilis’s passive nature, I expected her to be . . . well . . . passive. I didn’t see her that way, though. Sure, she follows the track others laid down for her, but who in her circumstances wouldn’t? At the time she leaves Ireland she has nothing to look forward to in Enniscorthy except for the comfort that familiarity brings. Though that appears to be exactly what she wants, she recognizes the alternative placed before her — and especially recognizes the good will of those who gave her that alternative. Eilis goes along with it. I’m making a fine distinction here, but rather than see her as passive I see her as someone smothered by the good will of others and by the fortuity of her own circumstances. Because so many have sacrificed for her to get where she is, she feels beholden to them and accepts the path laid before her despite the fact that it is not one she would have chosen for herself.
Other peoples’ kindness and sacrifice can be a burden. One reason Eilis is the subject of so much good will is because she herself is a very good person. People are drawn to her – even the miserable characters want to repay her with kindness or recognition of some sort. For example, though she is the newest boarder, her landlady, Mrs. Kehoe, offers her the nicest room when it is vacated. Eilis recognizes the gesture and hesitates to accept the more complex relationship it would create.
Mrs. Kehoe’s tone, as she tried to smile, caused, Eilis felt, a sadness to come into the room. She believed that Mrs. Kehoe was giving her too much without knowing her well enough and just now had also said too much. She did not want Mrs. Kehoe to become close to her or come to depend on her in any way. Eilis left silence for a few moments, even though she knew that this might make her seem ungrateful. She nodded almost formally at Mrs. Kehoe.
Despite the burdens, the sacrifice of others pays off in Brooklyn. Eilis has a respectable job in a shop and combats, with the help of Father Flood, a well-rendered bought with homesickness by when he enrolls her in some evening courses to certify her bookkeeping skills. Indeed, “it was much more than she had imagined she would have when she arrived in Brooklyn first. She had to stop herself smiling as she moved along in case people thought she was mad.” Though the pain of separation is still there — “And because of this she understood that they would never know her now” – the longings for home become less severe, and her new life becomes her real life. Ireland, an alternate or past life, fades into memory.
I don’t think anything I’m about to say will spoil the book. The book moves slowly into the primary conflict. I knew nothing about that conflict, I liked it that way, and I will not say what it is here. But here’s a warning just in case — you may not want to read this review further! Eilis must come to terms that her new life in Brooklyn, which she did not choose, necessarily excludes the possibility of any other life she would have chosen in Enniscorthy. The conflict is so interesting to me because it is a true conflict between two very good choices, each with very good outcomes for Eilis. One is the result of the combined exertions of many people she’s loved. The other is the result of her own deeper desire — to choose this, at this point, is almost selfish. Nevertheless, circumstances conspire and give her a window of opportunity to escape the good — no, excellent — life provided to her. Though tentatively, she starts to go through that window. It all becomes almost unbearably painful to behold when we become attached to people who reside in each of the lives Eilis lives. Someone we care for is going to be hurt deeply. Someone is going to have to recede in the past, suffering the ache of separation so well-rendered at times in the novel.
Okay, now I’m really warning you — you may not want to read this review further!
Or, not so fast — Tóibín did such a good job taking me through this story that my own desires for Eilis were conflicted and in flux. We knew that once Eilis started going down her own pathway she would not return without some damage. When she returned to Ireland I was upset by the innocent efforts (or were they innocent?) to get her to stay. But by the end, Tóibín had me persuaded that she should stay and let her life in Brooklyn fade into the past and not her life in Ireland. Eilis is remarkably unfazed by the ache of separation I expected her to undergo when she left Brooklyn. I too, I realized, had suffered little as the life she lived in Brooklyn seemed like a fading dream to me too. How strange that these episodes in our life seem to drop out of our timeline when we return to the point of departure. Those weeks, months, or even years exist on another plane, and a distance (desired or not) begins to grow, quickly for some, slowly for other. It was interesting to me how well Tóibín recreated this very real feeling of distance in the book. To me, this was not a book about a passive young woman’s failure to make choices; it was a book about the webs we create in our relationships and the pain of loss and the ache – and then relief – of distance.
And, to me, the closing lines in the novel hit this underlying theme out of the ballpark. The initial ache of separation is hard to get through, but isn’t it tragic (yet necessary) that the ache of separation converts into indifference as distance grows? As the life you once yearned for becomes forgettable? And how sad to realize that you are the one fading away from those you love.