Monday, July 28, 2014

The Second Circle

"Quando leggemmo il disiato riso
   esser basciato da cotanto amante,
   questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,
la bocca ma bascio tutta tremante.
   Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse:
   quel giorno piu non vi leggemmo avante."

Inferno, V, 120-125

"That day we read no more." Never will I forget my Dante professor in graduate school reading these lines, and those that follow--Dante, upon hearing the tale of the eternal torment of Paolo and Francesca, swoons ("con corpo morto") at Virgil's feet, so deeply does he feel the story of the young lovers. This Canto also contains one of Dante's most unforgettable images: "As winter starlings riding on their wings/form crowded flocks, so spirits dip and veer/Foundering in the wind's rough buffetings/Upward of downward, driven here and there/With never ease from pain nor hope of rest." (V, 36ff. trans. Robert Pinsky). Thus are the lustful souls of the Second Circle driven hither and yon by the winds of passion. William Blake placed the spirits in a kind of diaphanous digestive tube, generic flesh whirling eternally; Dante lies at the Leader's feet, and, in the background, a nimbus shining with, perhaps, "those two who move along together, so lightly."

I was eager to read Clare Messud's new novel, The Woman Upstairs, since I so enjoyed The Emperor's Children, her story of New York just before September 11, 2001. The Woman Upstairs, multilayered with literary references ("the madwoman in the attic"), also merges two fairy tale themes: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Nora Eldridge is an unhappy teacher of third graders in Cambridge, Massachusetts--a frustrated artist who creates Joseph Cornell-style boxes, dioramas, or who once did, but who has surrendered her dreams for a more mundane life. She mourns her beloved mother, yearns some of the time for love--she's single, childless, empty, and a part-time or perhaps incoherent feminist--and seems resigned to sadness. Then she meets the extraordinary (too-good-to-be-true if you don't live on Brattle Street in Cambridge) family of Reza Shahid. Reza is Nora's eight-year-old pupil, his mother Sirena is an Italian artist, and his father, Skandar, is a Lebanese-born, French-educated philosopher of history (vaguely looking for morality in the past--rather like looking for wisdom in Congress) who is teaching for a year at Harvard. Nora falls in love, one by one, with each member of the family--first with the precocious little boy with the beautiful eyes and the soul of the Buddha, then with the eccentric but brilliant Sirena who is deeply engaged in a Judy Chicago-like installation called "Wonderland"--yes, the metaphors are piled on thickly, and Ms. Messud, so deft at subtle characterizations, escalates the emotional pitch--Nora's anger, Nora's yearning--by creating a kind of whirlwind of escalating emotion, a series of set encounters (Nora with Skandar, Nora with Sirena, Nora with her gay friend Didi) without a moment of calm reflection and with no sense that Nora's self-awareness increases as she is buffeted about by the winds of her passion.

"Wonderland" will be installed in Paris, and will be a kind of feminist "We are the world," and since Nora is smitten to her mousey core by the scarf-wearing, frizzy-haired, chain-smoking Sirena (with her charming accent; this business of accents was rather embarrassing), she becomes the older woman's confidant. And, of course, eventually, reluctantly, that and more to the husband, who comes across as an out-of-focus Edward Said: cosmopolitan, charming, a sort-of intellectual, but utterly incredible as the lover of Nora. And Nora herself? Her back story is hastily assembled, as if her life was lived in one of tiny boxes she makes to satisfy some dark yearning of her soul. Messud invokes Emily Dickinson and Andy Warhol's Edie Sedgwick in Nora's portrait, and that seems about right: Nora is both cloistered madwoman and modern wild woman, Emily and Edie; prim schoolteacher, overworked Cinderella, but, around the Shahid's, her inhibitions vanish, and her deep yearning for meaning, for love, blows her about like a starling in the wind.  I pictured Nora as Edie--see above--with a look of perpetual surprise, or perhaps of ingenuousness, on her face as she slipped into and out of the lives of Reza, Sirena, and Skandar. That Nora will be betrayed is a foregone conclusion. How could she not be? Everything about the Shahid's feels shallow--but it's worse than that--they're evil in the way of all narcissists and self-seekers. Reza's affection for his teacher is genuine, but what is it exactly that the parents want from this attractive, vivacious, but self-pitying woman? Messud puts the reader in a difficult position: she needs Nora to be vulnerable and therefore open to the overtures from this glamorous academic family; but in making Nora vulnerable, she also makes her weak, a victim awaiting attractive predators. I happened to be reading an essay of Karen Horney's as I was reading The Woman Upstairs. Horney's remarks on "Inhibited Femininity" seemed almost a gloss on Nora Eldridge's character: so willing was she to surrender to "stronger" types, so eager to find fault with herself and to childishly place her faith in those who appear to have life figured out.

Or perhaps she is Francesca da Rimini, blown about by desire--not sexual desire, but a desire for life. As Nora says of herself, she is "ravenous" for living, she "wants it all," and in her eagerness to live fully and deeply, she places her life in the hands of those who cannot value it. The Woman Upstairs seemed to me above all a novel about social class, a Jamesian meditation on the innocence of Americans when confronted by the decadence of Europeans (the French!).  Harvard elites and elementary school teachers, lions and lambs, upstairs and downstairs. Poor Nora! Like Ibsen's Nora Helmer, she's crushed by her family, even if it isn't hers.

George Ovitt (7/28/14)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

To She Who Loves So Sadly / A la del amor más triste

Against Heaven: Selected Poems by Dulce María Loynaz

To She Who Loves So Sadly

You who love a phantom love.
You who give a name to the fog
and to the ash of our dreams.
You who bend down over your
self like a willow bending
over its shadow reflected
in the water. You who cross
your empty arms over your
chest and whisper the word
nobody hears. Come and teach me
to bore through this stony silence.
Teach me to light loneliness on fire
and to keep it aflame.

“The poetry of Dulce María Loynaz is, above all, a poetry of solitude,” writes James O’Connor in his introduction to this marvelous collection. Indeed in reading these poems one comes to treasure her particular solitude like a darkly burnished gem. It is a quality, this reclusion of hers—a relationship to the world, to the word, to herself as a woman, a Cuban, a writer—that gives her poetry (even in English) a grave and lyric beauty, a frankness and aestheticism that is nearly monastic in its clarity, restraint. Yet the object of Loynaz’s  reverence in these poems is as much Death and Love (and paradoxically the solitude they afford her) as it is some hidebound conception of God. “Loynaz,” observes O’Connor, “is a religious poet in the way that Kierkegaard is a religious thinker: melancholy, not ecstasy, is the door to paradise.”


The sweetness of feeling more detached every day.
More detached and more lethargic
without knowing if it’s because
all things fade away or oneself fades away.
The sweetness of oblivion like a light dew
falling in the darkness, the sweetness
of being untouched by anything, of transcending everything
like an infinitely distant star
shining in silence.

                                                         In silence?

God help me.

As a poet Loynaz thinks often of oblivion, of death, but less as an end to worldly things, to the burdens of this earth-bound life (which she also recognizes), than as a consummation of them, a means of transcendence, a mundane, temporal, ultimately secular rapture that exhilarates, even as it moves one to sadness and dread.

Always, Love

Always, love.
Above the kiss
that proved food for worms,
above the roses that rot
every blue morning in a coffin,
above the thousand moons in the slime
on the floor left behind
by the pale mollusk,
above the bread mixed with as,
above the clenched fist beside the iron.
Always, love. Beyond every flight,
beyond every bitterness, beyond every thought,
beyond mankind, beyond space and time.
Always, love. At the very moment
the body frees itself from its shadow,
at the very moment darkness begins
to feed on the body.
Always, love. (two shipwrecked words
between body and soul nailed to the wind!)

Loynaz’s life itself, spent all but entirely in Cuba, was not without its own melancholy hues. Born in Havana in 1902, the daughter of Enrique Loynaz del Castillo, a famous general in Cuba’s War of Independence, Maria Dulce lived the privileged, sheltered life of most young women of her class, though she traveled widely, earned a Doctorate of Civil Law, and—thanks to her family’s reputation for patronizing the arts—made the early acquaintance of many great writers of the time, such as Gabriela Mistral, Alejo Capentier, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Frederico García Lorca, each of whom spent time in their home. 

After trying her hand at the law (and not liking it), Loynaz directed all of her energy to the challenge of writing poetry. Though she had written and published poetry since she was a teenager, it was not until the 1950’s that she really hit her stride as a writer. In a span of eight years the Madrid publishing house published four works of hers, including three collections of her poetry (Garden, Poems with no Names, and Lyric Poems) as well as a highly successful novel of hers called A Summer in Tenerife, which Luis Bañuel tried without success to adapt for the screen.

Around 1959, having refused to join the communist party (for reasons more personal than political), Loynaz gave up writing and publishing altogether to live in seclusion in her family’s old house. It was not until the late 1980’s, after nearly thirty years of anonymity and solitude, that her work was rediscovered, earning her a flood of national and international distinctions, including the National Order of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, the Order of Felix Varela of the Culture, the National Culture Distinction Award, the Alejo Carpentier Medal, the Cuban National Prize for Literature, as well as the Nobel Prize equivalent for the Spanish-speaking world, the Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra Literature Prize, awarded to her in 1993 by King Juan Carlos I of Spain. 

Spanish Nobel Laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez had many names by which he knew this modest, elegant, extraordinary woman: “Sister Dragonfly, Saint Lawyer of Lost Jonquils, of Lost Mosquitos, of Lost Rowboats, of Lost Pins, of Lost Toothpicks, Ophelia Loynaz the Subtle, archaic and new…” In his prologue to Cuban Poetry in 1936 he described her as a cross between “the gothic and the overreal,” “a singer desiccated, nailed by her own heart” whose deeply private poetry was alive with a “mystic irony.”

While Loynaz was not the first or last of the world’s great melancholy writers, she is undoubtedly a singular strain of the breed. Neither misanthrope nor bully, neither narcissist nor suicide nor drunk, she spent a nun’s life as a poet, keeping her own grave counsel, admiring her own dark and furtive saints. In his eccentric and magisterial work The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, the English writer Robert Burton not only defines the condition of melancholy at length (virtually ad infinitum, and with a garrulous digression on human anatomy), as well as its causes, symptoms, and ‘prognostics,’ but devotes some 261 pages to describing its remedy. What would he have said, I wonder, to the likes of Dulce María Loynaz, a woman, a poet, with no interest in a cure?

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Two Novellas: Duras and Grossman

Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras

Frenzy by David Grossman

It's neither fish nor fowl. The novella, defined as a "short novel" or "a literary work less developed in plotting and characterization than a full-scale novel" in many literary reference works--a fine lot of good that does us!--isn't a novelette or a short story or, obviously, a novel. Oddly, works like The Secret Sharer, The Old Man and the Sea, and Billy Budd are counted by some as novellas, but they seem more like short novels--each has the kinds of thematic complexity, character development, and intricate plotting one associates with the longer form.  And why would anyone think that Heart of Darkness was a novella while Paul Harding's Tinkers, easily readable in one sitting, is a novel? Both books have the characteristics of novels, though Conrad, as one would expect, packs more philosophy and psychology into his short classic.  Or what must one do with the slender final novels of Philip Roth (Indignation) or the trilogy of short autobiographical (but fictional!) works of Coetzee, or the many tiny mad monologues of Bernhard (Wittgenstein's Nephew)?  It's a baffling distinction, and word count alone seems to me to have nothing to do with the matter. I always marvel at how Alice Munro can unfold in twenty-five pages all of the richness of novels that are ten times as long.

Genre aside, I thought it would be fun to read--back to back--novellas by two writers who are as diametrically opposed in style and theme as any two writers I can think of, but who nonetheless share two interesting qualities: both are often found writing about what I think of as the pathologies of love; and both substitute interior monologue, indirect discourse, "telling instead of showing," and loads of opaque description--detached from place and time and character--for the traditional engines of plot.

Marguerite Duras's Moderato Cantabile is representative of her other novellas (collected in a handy Grove Press edition): the theme of her work is the difficulty of living a reasonable life in a world that is wholly unreasonable. Duras hasn't a romantic bone in her body (Grossman has many). Anne Desbaresdes, whose son has no interest in the piano lessons he is forced to take, witnesses a man shooting his girlfriend. Anne becomes obsessed with this act of, presumably, passion; it's difficult to know the facts--are there facts?--, and begins an obsessive series of conversations with a mysterious but attractive barfly named Chauvin, peppering him with questions about the murder, inciting him to concoct a fable about the shooting and the lives of the murdered woman and her male assassin. What does Chauvin know? Nothing much, but his myth-making has about it the same seductive qualities of the myth-making that Duras used to such powerful effect in the screenplay of Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Anne isn't interested in having an affair, or rather she isn't primarily interested in Chauvin as a potential lover; what interests her is death, the death of the unknowable woman and her own death as well. It appeared to me partway through the novella that she was tempting Chauvin to kill her, but at the end it seemed that this wasn't her intention at all. Duras isn't one to tidy up loose ends, but it occurred to me that "moderately and melodiously" we are led toward the recognition that neither the murder, nor Anne's questions, nor Chauvin's fabulated responses have any meaning at all. "I'm already dead" Anne declares, and we believe her.

David Grossman is an Israeli, the author of the remarkable epistolary novel Be My Knife as well as several books on the Arab-Israeli limbo. (What to call it? Tragedy? Crisis? Standoff? As it appears hellish and unending I'll use the word "limbo," optimistically).   Where Duras writes lovely elliptical sentences that flit around unspeakable truths--e.g. Anna's indifference toward her child--Grossman writes long, meandering, poetic paragraphs, dense with indirect quotation, unattributed dialogue, brisk physical description, and deep psychological probing that leaves this reader both stimulated and perplexed. The story is simple: Shul's much beloved--adored, neurotically obsessed over--wife Elisheva has apparently been carrying on an affair with a Russian emigre named Paul for ten years--ten years at precisely fifty minutes per day. Since the entire book, though narrated in the third person, presents only Shul's speculations about the affair, and these speculations are rife with self-lacerating but, one presumes, purely imagined details, we can't say for certain if this illicit relationship is taking place in the way that he says, or, indeed, if it is taking place at all. It seemed at several points in the short (130 pages) whatever-you-call-it that Shul, like Chauvin, was fabulating to win the sympathy, or perhaps the affections, of his sister-in-law Esther. But this relationship is impossible to parse--the long dialogue/monologue that occupies most of the book involves fragmented conversations between Esther and Shul as they drive toward an anti-climactic rendezvous with Elisheva. The story's ending leaves many questions unanswered, but, I think, properly so.  It is impossible to describe the dynamics of any relationship, and Grossman skillfully examines the meaning of what is unspoken. At one point I wrote in my notebook: "this isn't a novel about what is known but about what is wished for, yearned for in some perverse way." In this regard Grossman and Duras are working common ground. Though Duras maintains a magisterial distance and deeply ironic detachment from her story, and Grossman imbues his with deep feeling, as if he were Shul, both writers wish to understand the drives that push us toward, or repel us from, one another. They don't write about love, but about the impossibility of love, its inherent misunderstandings and the stories we must tell ourselves to persist in believing in love's possibility.

Whatever a novella might be, these compact books, each of which can be read in a summer afternoon on the front porch, casts a strange spell over our hours--so foreign are these stories, so removed from (at least my) ordinary existence, and yet, in their understated styles, utterly compelling.

George Ovitt (7/3/14)