Tuesday, May 24, 2016

This Is The End?

Jan Dismas Zelenka, "The Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet," ZWV 53

Let Me Be Frank With You, Richard Ford (a Frank Bascombe novel)

The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by Bernard McGinn

Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, Donald J. Trump

The great Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka composed his "Lamentations" in the 1720's. They showcase Zelenka's remarkable contrapuntal talents--think Smetana or Dvořák, two musicians influened by Zelenka's complex harmonic style. The "Lamentations" possess a rich, introspective feeling, slow orchestral cadences, haunting oboe solos, voices that modulate across layered textures of sound--here the brass uplifts, now the viola darkens the mood. The power of the work, as in the prophet's, is in its melancholy, a text and music that meditates on what might have been, distraught, perplexed by the human foibles that have brought us to this, to the Kingdom of Babylon:

     ...Raise the wail and lamentation for the mountains,
     the dirge for the desert pastures,
     for they have been burned, no one passes there,
     the sound of the flocks is heard no more,
     birds of the sky and all animals
     all have fled, all are gone.
     I mean to make Jerusalem a heap of ruins. (Jeremiah, 9 "Lamentations to Zion")

Social catastrophe causes personal catastrophe to be sure, but it is the life of the individual that foretells the future of society, as in the great prophetic books of Jeremiah, Isiah, Ezekiel, and Amos.  In times of chaos, thoughtful and spiritually-inclined individuals--that is, people who are attuned to the subtle connections that bind the world together in counterpoint with the divine--are likely to turn inward, to search for signs that provide a narrative by which they can live.  Such is the prophecy of the Old Testament--an indictment of Israel, but also an affirmation of Yahweh's intentions for his chosen people. So too do we find in the rich spiritual literature of the late Middle Ages--another chaotic and unsettled era--a profound engagement with the mystical, rendered first in visions and then in the language of subjectivity, an inwardness that adumbrated the Protestant focus on silent engagement with the Word. Aside from their psychological and pathological implications, the visions of the mystics don't much interest me, but their writings are rich with Blakean symbols. Teresa of Avila is perhaps the most eloquent proponent of unity with the Divine:

      "As far as can be understood, the soul, I mean the spirit of this soul, is made one with God who is himself a spirit, and who has been pleased to show certain persons how far his love for us extends in order that we may praise his greatness. He has thus deigned to unite himself with His creature. He has bound himself to her as firmly as any two human beings are joined in wedlock, and will never separate himself from her."

(McGinn, Christian Mysticism, p. 456; every library should include a copy of this book. McGinn, the finest scholar of medieval religiosity, provides a generous selection of mystical writings, moving for the atheist as well as for the devout.)

We yearn to believe in something--it can't be denied--God works for many, but for others there is art and beauty, politics and power, love and friendship, and for those full of "passionate intensity" there is money and what it buys. Or the glorified Self, the one Frank Bascombe, at (a mere!) sixty-eight, finds not only ephemeral but ludicrous. The baggage of ego permeates all of the four Bascombe novels, but none so much as this most recent. The Self: the roller coaster at Seaside Heights, half-submerged, a wreck, a mockery of amusement.

Richard Ford, among the finest stylists writing in English--his stories rank, in my view, with Alice Munro's for their artistry and deftness at creating character--has, since 1988, followed the career of Frank Bascombe, failed-novelist, sportswriter, divorced person, real estate agent and philosopher of the everyday--the sort of phenomenologist Husserl had in mind when he described the profound ways in which we can come to know the world by simply paying attention. And Frank pays very close attention. Ford's Bascombe (the autobiographical elements in his novels and stories are unmistakable), like Updike's Rabbit or Roth's Nathan Zuckerman, travels through the landscape of post-Reagan, post-Bush I and II, post-Clinton America not unlike the way in which Jeremiah wandered through the deserts of Palestine, in search of what thoughtful human beings are in search of--not "truth", that squib of meaning, but coherence, as in, what is going on here?

If Frank has a default setting it is bemused confusion. Whether he is meeting with an ex-client whose vacation home on the Jersey Shore has been blown to smithereens by Hurricane Sandy ("I'm Here"), listening to a macabre tale of family homicide ("Everything Could Be Worse"), negotiating the delivery of an orthopedic pillow to his ex-wife ("The New Normal"), or spending a some terrible minutes with a dying acquaintance ("Deaths of Others"), Ford's four interlinked stories evoke a quietly apocalyptic landscape, a suburban world ravaged by climate change, political nihilism (the Republican nay-sayers and Tea Party crack-pots), aging (Frank is recovering from the cancer described in excruciating detail in The Lay of the Land), and the daily rub of post-modern, post-meaning, American life. It's the world of Trumpery, where "kicking ass" and "getting rich" and "fixing" a broken American by exiling everyone with dark skin revives, if not our past glory, at least the myth of our past glory. It's a sad fantasy this idea of ours, this lie about a wondrous past of unalloyed glory, but it's the one we want, the one that sells and elects presidents and keeps the machine of greed humming along. Jeremiah would recognize it at once.

Ford writes like an angel. Or like an OT prophet. The cadences of his sentences, the counterpoint of voices--Frank's skeptical inner monologues layered over the voices of those he (reluctantly) has to deal with in real life--have the quality of lamentation. Frank Bascombe was an ironic wag in the Sportswriter, a witty, disillusioned man in Independence Day, but in older age Frank is weary, eager to be left in peace, and yet constantly at the beck and call of others. He reads books to the blind, greets returning Iraq War Vets at Newark Airport, visits his Parkinson-afflicted ex-wife, and fields phone calls and visits from his former real-estate clients; in other words, Frank is enmeshed in a social world not of his own choosing, just as we all are, and much of his inner life is a wry commentary on the illusions of civil life, the tedium of others.  Saul Bellow would imagine that these interruptions served some higher purpose (as in Herzog and Humbolt's Gift), but Ford possesses none of Bellow's faith in higher meanings. He's a here and now guy, a what's-this-signify-right-this-second fellow whose only remaining faith is placed in the facts of decay and death. Time is running out for Frank--he feels the "wing'ed chariot" nipping at his heels at every junction of his ordinary days--and he doesn't wish to waste a minute. What he will do with the time he saves is an open question. Mostly, he tells us, he just wants to sit still.

Where are we headed? Back to greatness, lost because of "stupidity" of our leaders? Should we "trust our guts" as Mr. Trump advises in the most recent of his books, drop a few more bombs, weed out the un-American among us? Frank Bascombe's sensible view of the world precludes such cruelty. A suburban Buddhist, Frank believes in disengagement, in taking a step back, in being agreeable, but without agreeing. His former wife, committed to conspiracies, thinks that Hurricane Sandy (the central trope of the stories) was a personal affront, something aimed at her. Frank meditates on this notion:

   "The Default Self, my answer to all her true thing issues, is an expedient that comes along with nothing more than being sixty-eight--the Default Period of life.
   "Being an essentialist, Ann believes we all have selves, characters we can't do anything about (but lie). Old Emerson believed the same. ""...A man should give us a sense of mass..." etc. My mass has simply been deemed deficient. But I believe nothing of the sort. Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we only have what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that. But nothing else--nothing hard or kernel-like. I've never seen evidence of anything resembling it. In fact I've seen the opposite: life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end."

Here is a point that clarifies Jeremiah, a cause for lamentation: we find ourselves divided between the Ann's of this world and the (fewer) Frank's--those for whom Meaning is built into the nature of the world and those for whom only actions and judgements and muddle are real. The third way, the way of the mystics, lifts us up out of this mess altogether, but isn't a path many of us would choose. The terrible thing isn't that we (Americans, humans) are divided between these two incommensurate visions of the possibilities of human life, the tragedy is that they are both wrong, or incomplete. Frank wanders back home to Haddam, to his All-Bran and ESPN and squishy liberal ideas--and his dying--without having learned a single thing from the four encounters that lie at the heart of Let Me Be Frank With You. That's the joke: Frank can only be frank with us, and frankness for Frank is a recitation of confusion and doubt. But, to be frank, I am relieved and pleased that there is nothing more, nothing deeper for me to learn. I too am tired of the essentialists, the truth-mongers, the ideologues, the big talkers. We come to this point eventually, to the moment when we only want to pay attention to the here and now, and to make (as Bascombe does) the world just a little bit better around us, in our own neighborhood. We've learned all the lessons there are to learn. Time, simply, to live.

Richard Ford's Let Me Be Frank With You is published by Ecco Press.
Bernard McGinn's The Essential Writings of the Christian Mystics by Modern Library, which has also just published a beautiful edition of the first three Bascombe novels in one book.
Jan Dismas Zelenka's "Lamantions" are, remarkably, here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aI-JTx4BJKU
I've used the Jerusalem Bible for Jeremiah because my King James isn't handy; the KJ is, of course, preferable for this, and for all, prophets.

George Ovitt (May 24, 2016)

Experience taught me a few things. One is to listen to your gut, no matter how good something sounds on paper. The second is that you're generally better off sticking with what you know. And the third is that sometimes your best investments are the ones you don't make.
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/d/donaldtrum153799.html


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Leda In My Kitchen

Some Girls by Janet McNally

The myth of Leda is an old and beloved one, especially for writers and artists. Leda was a Greek princess, daughter of the king of Aetolia, Thestius. She was the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta. When Zeus saw her he fell in love with her. Transforming himself into a swan he raped her. Earlier that same night she had also lain with her husband. As a result, she was impregnated by both. From two eggs, two sets of twins were born; the first was Helen and Clytemnestra, the second Castor and Pollux. 

While undoubtedly many people know the outlines of the story, it is surely through Yeats’ famous poem “Leda and the Swan” that the story is now best known.   

Now here is McNally; admire the tender twist she has given this tale:

Leda in My Kitchen

With her fingers flat on the table, her hands
feathered like a pair of wings, tips pointed,
a silvery shade of white I recognized
from somewhere else. Alabaster, or the concrete
spread of sidewalk soaking in moonlight. The idea
of a cloud in childhood, more insinuation
than weather. Book-ended, always,
by wakefulness and sleep.

She closed her eyes and said, What bothers me most
is that I can’t remember. She held the curve
of her belly and I saw her fingers
were bone and skin again, pressed together
like a prayer. For a moment, we pretended
the egg in front of us had lost its terrible promise,
cradled no life in its calcium shell. 

The warp and weft of “Leda In My Kitchen” is hardly the exception in this smart and graceful collection in which—to quote the poet Paula Meehan—“the grammar of myth and fairytale is real.” Indeed such names as Circe, Eurydice, and Penelope abound in these poems, charging the prosaic if mighty struggles of contemporary women and girls with the force and radiance of the mythical, mystical past.

Here are two more poems from the collection:

Persephone Has a Secret

Everything’s about to pop. The pollen
shakes like confetti form the long, red throats

of trumpet flowers. The air burns gold.
In this version, Hades is bayou Louisiana,

and the underworld drips
with rainwater and dew. She’s the one

who’s done it, loosed this place
from its ashen dusk the minute that child

started swirling beneath her rib cage, pulsing
like a flock of juncos winging in the trees.

Tonight, Luna moths gather on the screens, their chartreuse
wingspread fragile as rice paper. The have

no mouths, no stomachs, and will live a week
and die. You’ve come to the right place,

she tells them. Here, you can go right on breathing
after you’re dead. Not that she plans on staying.

For now, she’s naming the flowers
as they sprout: pink stars of seashore

mallow, white jasmine trailing leaves
in brackish water. Hibiscus so red it slows

the amnesia flutter in her blood, lets her remember
the single bloom that stole her soul in the first place:

narcissus, pinwheel blossom, sepals
and petals both crushed in her astonished grasp.

From the turntable, Nina Simone sings
“Lilac Wine.” Another flower she’ll show

her baby, another word she’ll spell
when they step out of this place stone free.

Hecuba and Gravity

When she was young, she saw Hokusai’s prints of Mt. Fuji,
its peak a gentle slope in red ink and gray. Snow-pink
spring trees, diamond-sharp kites on fine black strings.
She wanted to unfasten the clouds, peel the whirling birds
away from their updraft spins. She couldn’t quite love
two dimensions. so she folded squares of paper
into animals—here, a pointed shoulder, there,
a triangle of ear—and set them on a windowsill.
Sometimes the wind made them flutter to the floor.

Which is to say, she always knew what would happen,
if only in her sleep. In her dreams, the baby falls
like the cherry blossoms she’s never seen.

Writes poet Eavan Boland, “These poems chart with a rare grace and lyric skill the traffic between the plainspoken, ordinary moment and the visionary one.” I encourage you to read them for yourself.

Janet McNally is a poet and novelist who teaches creative writing at Canisius College. She has a Master of Fine Arts in fiction form the University of Notre Dame and has twice been a fiction fellow with the New York Foundation for the Arts. Some Girls is published by White Pine Press.

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Crocodile Tears

Two  Crocodiles by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Felisberto Hernández

—how true it is that we know not beforehand the fate that awaits us!

What happens when you put a Russian and a Uruguayan crocodile into the same small tank (or between the same two covers)? You get a lot of crocodile tears.

Dostoevsky’s 1865 story “The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident” is described, on its title page, as “A true story of how a gentleman of a certain age and of respectable appearance was swallowed alive by the crocodile in the Arcade, and of the consequences that followed.” The description is not only funny, but apt in characterizing the brilliantly dry, matter-of-fact tone in which this shrewd little satire unfolds. 

One day, so Dosotoevsky’s narrator relates to us, a pompous civil servant named Ivan Matveitch takes his wife, Elena Ivanovna, to see the exotic and “monstrous” crocodile on exhibit at the Arcade, part of a travelling sideshow from Germany. Boldly taunting the creature to impress his pretty young wife, Ivan Matveitch is promptly gobbled up, swallowed whole before her much-astonished eyes. In the words of friend and narrator, Semyon Semyonitch (which, forgive me, I will quote at some length), this is what ensues:

The crocodile began by turning the unhappy Ivan Matveitch in his terrible jaws so that he could swallow his legs first; then brining up Ivan Matveitch, who kept trying to jump out and cltuching at the sides of the tank, sucked him down again as far as his wasit. Then bringing him up again, gulped him down, and so again and again. In this way Ivan Matveitch was visibly disappearing before our eyes.  At last, with a final gulp, the crocodile swallowed my cultured friend entirely, this time leaving no trace of him. From the outside of the crocodile we could see the protuberances of Ivan Matveitch’s figure as he passed down the inside of the monster. I was on the point of screaming again when destiny played another treacherous trick upon us. The crocodile made a tremendous effort, probably oppressed by the magnitude of the object he had swallowed, once more opened his terrrible jaws, and with a final hiccup he suddenly let the head of Ivan Matveitch pop out for a second, with an expression of despair on his face. In that brief instant the spectacles dropped off his nose to the bottom of the tank. It seemed as though that despairing countenance had only popped out to cast one last look on the objects around it, to take tis last farewell of all earthly pleasures. But it had not time to carry out its intention; the crocodile made another effort, gave a gulp and instantly it vanished again—this time forever. This appearance and disappearance of a still living human head was so horrible, but all the same—either from its rapidity and unexpectedness or from the dropping of the spectacles—there was something so comic about it that I suddenly quite unexpectedly exploded with laughter.

In fact what at first appears a matter of horror, soon turns decidedly amusing, bizarre, as the just-devoured Ivan Matveitch begins to speak, to cajole his awestruck wife from within the bloated belly of this same beast. When his wife exclaims with wonder that he is still alive, he replies, “Alive and well, and thanks to the Almighty, swallowed without any damage whatever.” In fact, he feels so well, is so steadfast in his devotion to his work, that he determines (expounding all the while) to continue his official duties as a civil servant from his new home inside the crocodile!

Paired with this tale, producing an interesting reaction between them, is the much shorter, if equally amusing story by the same name by the great Uraguayan writer, Felisberto Hernández. Based in part on the author’s own experience as a self-taught pianist who earned his living playing music in the silent-screen theatres and cafes of Uruguay, the story is narrated by a lonely concert pianist trying hard to make ends meet. One day he makes the inadvertent discovery, when he finds himself weeping in the middle of a concert, that his tears are more of an attraction than his music. Told in a voice and style reminiscent of (if predating) that of Boll’s The Clown and “The Laugher”, Hernández’s “The Crocodile” is one of numerous tales “about quietly deranged individuals” that has distinguished the career of this highly influential stylist. Revered by such writers as Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Roberto Bolaño, Hernández is a writer whose works I am delighted to know. 

“The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident” by Fyodor Dostoevsky was translated by Constance Garnett. “The Crocodile” by Felisberto Hernández was translated by Esther Allen.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Siamese by Stig Saeterbakken

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

The Vegetarian by Han Kang


It's been a siege of spiteful characters, plots, and world views--months really, since through pure happenstance I started to read the backlog of novels I've been accumulating since year's end.

What exactly is spite? Not an easy word to define, spite evokes the worst character traits: simmering anger, bitterness, vindictiveness, pettiness, resentment, vengefulness. I imagine the spiteful would reside in Dante's Fifth Circle, hard on the banks of the River Styx. Filippio Argenti is one of the only souls in hell for whom Dante feels only spite ("I would see him pickled in that swill.") The spiteful imagine great wrongs done to their person; they feel deeply, but only to the end of exacting revenge. Spite presumes a form of justice that doesn't even accounts but obliterates those who have given offense. Perfect spite is nurtured, kept alive as a means of providing the spiteful a reason to live.

A nearly-blind Edwin Mortens lives in the bathroom of a flat with his almost deaf wife Erna. They hate each other but depend on one another physically and psychologically--they torment one another, suspect infidelities, are envious and spiteful--a marriage made in hell. Saeterbakken, author of Journey Through Night and Self-Control specializes in character studies of men and women living in extremis, surviving in the face of suffering and loss, spreading the wealth, so to speak, by tormenting those around them. Siamese is a novel Beckett might have written or brought to the stage. The sequential interior monologues of Edwin and Erna are perfectly suited to the theater--Edwin seated in the bathroom staring with milky eyes at nothing; Erna seated at the kitchen table in a run-down apartment muttering about her husband's vileness. Nurturing their hatred so as to continue living, after a fashion.

 Revenge isn't inherently spiteful: one might get back at someone coolly, just to even the score. But the best sort of revenge is obsessive and therefore steeped in spite--and the payback, ideally, will both duplicate the original offense and quote it. The finest novel of revenge-spite that I know of is Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness, a title that suggests the great Japanese writer's penchant for delicate stories of unhappy love, but which actually delivers a bitter tale of terrible revenge enacted long after the precipitating crime. As the novel opens, Oki Toshio is journeying from Tokyo to listen to the New Year's bells in Kyoto. But his real hope is to visit a lover whom he impregnated and abandoned twenty years before--Otoko Ueno. Ueno is now a famous artist who lives with a young lover and protege, Keiko Sakimi. Keiko is jealous of Ueno's former lover, but her feelings of hatred and her desire for revenge, as is typical in Kawabata, are just as much directed against what to her appear to be the cruel customs and repressive culture of traditional Japan. As Keiko plots exquisite and terrible revenge against Otoko and his family, Kawabata reveals deeper fissures in the social fabric of Japan: the subservient role of women is one of them, but more poignant is the Kabuki-like ritual of love-death. Ueno and Keiko share a destructive passion: Ueno's detachment and world-weariness are well suited to Otoko's deep-seated grief for his treatment of Ueno, but Keiko is nearly driven mad by the passivity and introspection that has allowed Ueno to live her life as a victim. Keiko dispatches her victim callously, methodically, and without a hint of passion. Her spite is reserved for Ueno--this is the genius of the novel--rather than for the man who abandoned her.

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way." Thus begins the most disturbing--I suppose I should use the word "transgressive"--of the three novels, the story of an ordinary woman who has a dream of blood and elects to become a vegetarian as a result. Where's the harm? Hardly as serious as the mad hatreds of the Mortens or as obsessive as the revenge described by Kawabata--vegetarianism, after all, would seem to be a personal and an ethical decision, to be respected and honored. But Yeong-hye's husband and family behave as if she had elected to become a serial killer: they torment her with arguments, they stuff food into her mouth, they treat her as if she were insane.  Yeong-hye's response is to become nearly catatonic, to abandon not only meat but her life and, eventually, her language. Her tormentors are ordinary people--her family--but the spiteful ways in which they insinuate that Yeong-hye has no rights over her own body suggest the brutal way in which men (and some women) assert the proposition that women are not agents and that their bodies belong to husbands and fathers and mothers.

The spite trilogy. Hardly cheering, but each of these three novels was compelling in the way that a traffic accident is compelling--you slow down despite yourself, relieved that it isn't you--this time. 

George Ovitt (4/19/16)

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Feet of the Word

A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor by Maram Al-Massri

Where horses
cannot gallop,
where there is no
to allow
a beam of light to pass,
where no grass
I cling
to the feet of the word.

Published to critical acclaim in Tunis in 1997, A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor is a selection of poems by Syrian born author, Maram Al-Massri, that will impress the reader at once with its spare, unadorned language, and with its emotional and sexual candor. There is a curt, sometimes lyrical gravity to her writing, a concentration of insight and feeling, at points an almost wincing vulnerability in the poem’s various speakers, that makes it all feel instantly familiar to the reader, starkly, intimately, real. For those versed in classical Arabic love poetry, these poems may resonate even more deeply, colored as they are by the loss and longing characteristic of the poetry of such masters as Rumi and Hafiz, as well by the more modern treatments of these much-beloved subjects by such Syrian contemporaries as Fuad Rifqa and Huda Naamani. By one recent critic Al-Massri was called “an Arab love poet for the modern age,” a title she wears quite well.


He felt no shame before her
in his old cotton clothes
and his torn socks.
He undressed,
the way the need for love
strips naked,
and descended
like an angel
upon her body.


I killed my father
that night
or the other day—
I don’t remember.
I escaped with a suitcase
filled with dreams and amnesia
and a picture of me
with him
when I was a child
and when he carried me
on his forearm.

I buried my father
in a beautiful shell,
in a deep ocean,
but he found me
hiding under the bed
shaking with a dear loneliness.


Maram Al-Massri was born in Lattakia, Syria. Since 1982 she has lived in Paris. A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor was translated by Khaled Mattawa.

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, March 24, 2016

What I Know of Norway

In 2013 my good friend and founder of this blog, George Ovitt, published a collection of short stories under the title The Snowman.  Here, for your enjoyment, is one of my favorites:


The moon shone like water on the white comforter.
I couldn’t sleep. We had finished a bottle of wine at dinner—a cheap Shiraz from Chile, not my favorite. There had been an hour set aside for reading. She flipped through the Times while I waded into another in a series of Scandinavian detective novels—brooding books written by men whose names I couldn’t recall when someone at work would ask me if I had read anything good lately. This one was by a Norwegian and had won the prestigious Nils Gunderwald Prize. On the first page the alcoholic detective is called to a small village near the town of Fredrikstad, south of Oslo. There he encounters both a decapitated body and an old school acquaintance. The body hasn’t decomposed in the winter cold. The detective, who, we are informed, smokes Gitanes and drinks too much Dovgan vodka, recognizes the dead woman as an ex-mistress, a physician with whom he had a brief affair between the second and third of his failed marriages. Her name was Kristen. The school chum—the translator has used the word “chum” as well as “corpulent” and “tendentious” to describe the detective’s friend—has also been in love with Kristen and may be the father of her son, now a young man studying archeology at the University of Gothenburg.
My wife asks me if I know the capital of Burkina Faso. I tell her Ouagadougou. I spell it. She says that can’t be right. And I say that I may have misspelled the name, but that I am quite certain Ouagadougou is correct. She looks at me through her reading glasses—she is very beautiful and, as is always the case, looking at her reminds me of my failures.  She pushes her hair back and then does that thing women do which requires them to raise their arms above their heads and simultaneously bare their abdomens and accentuate their breasts while casually tying their hair into a kind of half-knot that invites pulling, a triple-erotic whammy. Without smiling my wife points to my book and asks me if I like it. But she gets up and walks into the kitchen before I can formulate an answer that will seem both thoughtful and approving without at the same time suggesting that she should read the book since I know she has despised Scandinavian writers since learning of Knut Hamsun’s Nazi sympathies.
I pretend to read but strain to hear what my wife is saying. She is speaking softly on her cell phone, standing near the back door, right next to the Super Quiet Maytag dishwasher her parents gave us for our first anniversary. The morose detective has been attacked in his hotel room, or perhaps he has merely fallen down drunk. It is snowing and all of the usual outdoor sounds are muted. The hotel is seedy, which seems out of character given what I know of Norway. Water is rushing up through the sink, gurgling in a ghostly way. My wife is laughing and I think how she never laughs with me.  I call out to her, just her first initial, R, and ask if she would bring me a beer.  She doesn’t respond. The dishwasher is coming to the point in its cycle that I refer to as its death throes—the glassware is clinking too loudly, and I think of how upset my wife will be if anything breaks. The chum, whose name is Eriksson, discovers the unconscious detective and slaps his face to “bring him about.” The translator, I begin to feel, lacks sensitivity for English idioms. I wonder about this. There is a picture of the translator at the back of the book, but no picture of the author. This too seems odd. When my wife comes back into the room, without my beer but with a glass of water for herself, I smile and mention to her the infelicities of the translation. I’m hoping to say something witty enough to make her laugh, just as I heard her laugh a moment ago. She says that “bring him about” is fine, she’s used the phrase herself.  I ask her about the circumstances and she shrugs. I mention that consciousness involves the interconnected firings of billions of neurons as well as the leaching of chemicals, like serotonin, across neural membranes. She says that she is going to bed. I get a beer.
My wife takes her time in the bathroom. Our apartment is downtown and small. I work uptown but enjoy taking the subway. My wife is a stay-at-home wife, that’s what I call her, perhaps with a trace of irony. She feels that she has worked hard all of her life and deserves to take a sabbatical. I have three weeks off each year. During that time we drive to Ohio to visit my wife’s extended family. Every year we rent a couple of cabins on Lake Williams.  While my wife goes shopping with her mother, I teach my nephews how to play chess. They find the game boring and dislike my enthusiasm. When my wife leaves the bathroom she is wrapped in a towel. The floor is wet and her clothes are strewn about like flowers.
R lies across the bed nude. I have brushed my teeth thoroughly and used the last half ounce of Listerine.  I begin to kiss her, but she rolls away and pushes down under the sheets. I do the same. I say that I love her. She looks at me and rubs her hand across my face. It is a mistake to do so but I repeat the words. My wife is a quiet person, undemonstrative. Her manner of keeping still and being inward was once attractive to me. She turns toward the wall and seems to say that she loves me, but the rustle of the bedclothes makes it hard to hear what she is saying. I say ‘good’ and turn my back to her, hoping that I will sleep. I don’t.
In the morning I will take my novel back to the library, unfinished. If she has time, my wife will empty the dishwasher. We need wine so I will stop at the shop on the corner for a bottle. Perhaps white, a Sauvignon Blanc. The Times arrives early, but I will have left for work by the time the blue cylinder is tossed onto our stoop.
What our hearts most desire eludes us. Joy flies from us like the airy light of a full moon in March.  

*       *        *

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Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Polylogical Chinese Restaurant or My Occasionally Postmodern Mind

The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas

In the aftermath of World War Two, when virtually every German city had been destroyed by Allied bombing, the city of Kassel decided to postpone its reconstruction until 1955, when its citizens opted to turn their backs on the headlong industrial re-development embraced by such cities as Dresden and Cologne and devote themselves to the promotion of culture instead. It seemed to them a fitting rejoinder to Hitler and his contempt for modern and avant-garde art. 

Founded there and then, by painter and academy professor, Arnold Bode, was  the first of a series of 100 day-long exhibitions called documenta, a pioneering art festival, still running today, that initially included the works of such now world-famous artists as Picasso and Kandinsky. Writes Michael Glasmeier and Karin Stengel:

Again and again, the documenta has shattered the world of art, whether on poor postwar times when people thirsted for art, whether in rebellious years of revolution, whether in the lighthearted era  at the end of the 20th century or whether at the turn of the century dominated by globalisation. The history of documenta is a history of defeats, of doubts, of scandals and, at the same time, of renewal, of discovery and artistic creativity. Above all, however, it has always been a history of success.

Indeed the most recent documenta, dOCUMENTA (13), the exhibition of which Vila-Matas writes in his novel, drew a record-breaking 904,992 visitors.

The Illogic of Kassel tells the strange, funny, consistently beguiling story of a sixty-three year old Catalan avant-garde writer who receives a phone call from an enigmatic woman one day, inviting him to participate in this selfsame festival. Perplexed as to why the committee would invite him, a writer, to take part in such an exhibition, generally the preserve of sculptors, painters, and dancers, he soon discovers that his mission, his charge, is in fact quite novel, indeed distinctly avant-garde: for three weeks he is merely to sit down every morning at his own special table in a nondescript Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Kassel and write—a living, breathing art installation. In essence he is told: “Here’s an invitation to a Chinese restaurant, we’re asking you for art, now let’s see what you make of it.”

The puzzled narrator, long intrigued by the idea of the avant-garde, indeed curious to discover whether the avant-garde as a movement still exists, decides to accept this singular invitation to Kassel. There, he soon finds himself seated at his appointed table in the Dschingis Khan each morning, surrounded by sometimes curious, though mostly indifferent diners as he toils away at his craft, only to spend his afternoons and evenings, like the other visitors there, wandering through the many exhibitions, “that great garden of contemporary marvels”, a few photos of which are included below.

What compounds the wonder of this funny, affectionate, and highly inventive novel is that the story itself—at least the premise of it—is true: Vila-Matas himself was actually working at his desk in his apartment in Barcelona one day when he was interrupted by a call from a mysterious-sounding woman who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Featured below is the author Vila-Matas at work in the Dschingis Khan.

Enrique Vila-Matas was born and raised in Barcelona. He has written numerous works, including Bartleby & Co., Dublinesque, Montano’s Malady, and Never Any End to Paris. The Illogic of Kassel was translated by Anne McClean & Anna Milsom.

Peter Adam Nash