Archive for July, 2009
At lunch, with T’s manuscript in one hand, and Friday’s leftovers, a stuffed squash made lovingly by L, in the other, I went to the park to read and eat. A few pages later I was distracted by the couple sitting across the communal table from me. The woman was large, her makeup garish, her hair dyed so blond the sun reflected off it like glass. I caught only a peripheral glance at the man: cargo shorts, thick calves, baseball cap, grunts. It was clear from their conversation—rather, the one-sided conversation, given the man’s diffidence—that both were married but not to each other, and that this lunchtime meeting was occurring during a comfortable lull in their relationship. I was witness to an average day in their affair.
“I only had three drinks from this,” she said, and handed him her bottle of water.
This distraction was, of course, merely a distraction. I could have moved away to the empty table behind me. If I’d brought my earphones with me, I would have used them. But the warm sun had made me lazy, and the woman’s voice was not unpleasant. And as happens when I read, becoming more aware of my surroundings rather than getting lost in them, I tend to listen and look out for the stories around me. I was interested, too, in her “three drinks” as opposed to “three sips,” and scribbled down a short passage in my notebook about my own laughable grasp of the English language. When I was done, the couple had gone.
During the act of reading, and reading well, there is also a compulsion to see whether the reality—rather, the fantasy—of what I am reading matches up with the reality of my environment. I fully expect to be jarred, surprised, every time I come up for air. With T’s book, the experience is slightly altered in two ways. The first involves a shift in the pace of the city, from guarded to open; a fellow observer, then, strolling through a parallel landscape. The second is that his narrator’s reality is matching up, just, with the reality of S, a narrator in a long project I’d all but abandoned some years ago. I am remembering her now. Her narrative is coming back to me. The reality in which I’d created S, during a time of willful depression, couldn’t be more different from the reality in which I’m now resurrecting her, one of remove, an emptiedness, a slight but effective peace. This is a surprise; this is jarring; this is plain, and this is open.
Whoever travels back in memory to a city he has visited, either as a tourist or as a pilgrim of the arts, usually clings to some landmarks as clearly distinguishable from the mass of buildings as are lighthouses for a sailor approaching a port, and almost all of these landmarks are monuments. It is rather peculiar that one tends to concentrate—through a process less natural than what it appears to be—not just the character, but almost the very essence of a city in a few buildings generally considered emblematic, without thinking that such a representation will not only prevent us from getting a feeling for the town’s configuration and density of population, but also subtract from its global and familiar presence the power to exalt, create attachments, and make us dream, since our awareness becomes fixed on only a few susceptible points. Taken to extremes, this type of exclusivity—exacerbated and rendered systematic by the growing popularity of guidebooks—can render a town classified as a “city of the arts” almost lifeless for the visitor. The tourist who spends two days in Venice to “see the town” will not have the slightest idea of the spontaneous, charming, and rather simple everyday life just waiting to be discovered along the calli, the rii, or on the little paved squares. At times like the present, when tourists are being conditioned in advance by the media to see the architectural musts in the city they plan to visit, one sometimes wonders about alternative approaches that are more functional, more natural, and less superstitious; for example, not to visit cathedrals unless one plans to attend Mass, or to visit historic houses only if friends lived there, and—since we are talking about Venice—not to cross the Bridge of Sighs unless one’s lodgings happen to be in the prison adjacent tot he Palace of the Dukes, or cross it only to prolong a state of mind after having reread, once again, Casanova’s Memoirs.
—from The Shape of a City, Julian Gracq
1. L’OISEAU QUI A FROID
C’est l’hiver. Il fait froid. Un petit oiseau a faim et froid. Il frappe à une fenêtre. Une petite fille ouvre la fenêtre et l’oiseau entre. Elle lui donne à manger et le soigne tout l’hiver. Au printemps l’oiseau est triste. Il ne chante plus. L’enfant ouvre la cage et l’oiseau s’envole.
—from Short Stories for Oral French,
by Anna Woods Ballard, p. 1
With winter setting into the sparseness of its feathers, a hungry canary taps its beak on a window to be let inside a building. Behind the window, an old woman sketches restlessly in a notebook the contours of several windows. She is a lover of windows. What she draws now is a blending of two windows from her life—one the window in her present house, the other a bamboo-latticed window in a faraway house in which she used to live, until the age of three, with her mother and father. The latter window is a hazy yet heavy memory, and evidence of this former life lies clearly in a photograph stashed beneath her pillow. In the photograph, she stands between her parents outside the window, the only window in the building that remains intact while a pitted rubble, created by giant, new machines, has settled around them. A flood or a highway (the old woman can’t remember which) is about to go through their Mule City, and this sturdy window with their family’s surname burned into the topmost bamboo strip is the only thing allowed to hold on to life. The window in her present house, meanwhile, is plain, a single pane set in red brick, and she looks at it now to see which window, this or the one in the photograph, will gain the upper hand in her sketch—and finally she notices the bedraggled canary shivering on the sill. Stunned, she no longer sees the window, or any window at all. Instead, she sees the rest of her life play out within the canary’s black, black eyes: She will let the canary in, and it will land gratefully on her pillow where the photograph of the ruined house lies, flat, underneath. All winter she will feed the canary bits of her meals, and at night the canary will perch itself on her hard pillow. Then when spring comes—the old woman’s final spring—the canary will look out the plain window and remember, perhaps with confusion or perhaps with abrupt clarity, that the yellow sun had once been kin. It will stop its songs, for spring is its home, not the inside of a forgotten house. So the old woman will open the window for her little canary again, and flicking its tail feathers now dense with brightness belonging to the sun, the bird will fly off and away.
[study questions after the jump]
19. ET VOUS?
On dit qu’Alexandre Dumas n’est pas l’auteur de plusieurs romans qui portent sa signature. Un jour il rencontra son fils et lui dit: “Eh bien, que penses-tu de mon dernier roman? l’as-tu lu?” — “Non, je ne l’ai pas lu, mon père, et vous?” répondit Alexandre Dumas fils dont la réputation pour l’esprit est bien connue et bien méritée.
—from Short Stories for Oral French,
Anna W. Ballard
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), p. 24
Certain novels by their covers claim Alexandre Dumas as their author—but in fact it is rumored, gossiped about, spread far and wide that, because his reliance upon assistants and collaborators was extensive, he had not written a single one of these books on his own. One day, on his way to the market, or perhaps the press, or let’s say his lover’s cottage—it is hard to pinpoint, with these false authors (alleged, alleged)—Dumas came upon his son, also named Alexandre and also a writer (though distinguished as “Junior”), and because Senior had recently published a new novel, or rather the latest novel bearing his name was recently published, he said to the young Alexandre, his Junior: “Well? Have you read it, my Junior? Tell me what you think.”
Answered Junior: “No, my father who shares my name but not my pursuit of Truth—no, I haven’t read a word of it. Have you?”
Anna Shapiro offers the fifth post in an online game of Consequences (inspired by Hydragenic‘s wonderful experiment), wherein eleven writers, myself included, each write a 250-word narrative around the theme of an abandoned landscape, and must use the last line of the previous post as the first line. Our series was kicked off by Sam J. Miller, followed by Jade Park, Jane Voodikon, and Lisa, One-Eyed Woman. The next writer up is the inimitable Mark Krotov.
(Anna doesn’t run a blog, so here’s her post on my site.)
A leap out the window made the situation much more interesting. Interesting—so milquetoast. Milquetoast I now was. Normally messy and generally out of control, I was now inhabiting another life. This bed was not my bed. The bed, with its Marimekko Poppy bedding, was my cousin Lola’s. Lola vanished two months, one week, and three days ago. No one suspected anything. She’d sent me a brief note saying, “Not gone for good. Take care of Mabel. Water frequently. There is something I must do, and it may take me a long time to do it.”
I tried to rise, to look out the window, but even on a good day Lola’s bed held me with its memory foam. So here I lay on poppy sheets like Dorothy in the field of poppies, looking around in an opiate haze, the witch cackling at her confusion through her crystal ball.
What was it that Lola needed to “do”? Lola was a very simple, careful woman: her place was beautiful and precise, each surface accounted for in a harmony that engaged more than one sense at a time. That harmony was starting to fray at the edges at my hand. How could such a homebody willingly disappear?
Mabel came padding in, her soft whippet paws further muffled by the Flotaki rug. So thin and gray, almost a shadow of herself. No whippet can afford to lose her appetite. Mabel was no exception. I feared Mabel wouldn’t live long without Lola.
It had long been customary that part of the Emperor’s birthday treat should be a disputation between Confucians, Buddhists and Taoists. In the tenth month Po Chü-I was chosen to represent Confucianism, and also took the chair. These were mock debates and Po was no doubt asked to “play” on the Confucian side rather because he could be relied upon to conduct the proceedings with good humour than because he was regarded as a serious authority on Confucianism. Indeed in his opening speech, after a few words of conventional homage to the young Emperor, he confesses that he can lay claim to only a very slender knowledge of Confucianism. On the other hand, the monk I-hsiu is versed in all the doctrines of the Greater and the Lesser Vehicles and in every branch of learning, esoteric and exoteric. He is accustomed to addressing great assemblies and has a reputation for posing very difficult questions. Armed, however, with some knowledge of the writings that have come down from “the Former Kings” and fortified by His Majesty’s august presence, Po promises to answer questions to the best of his ability.
The first question put by the monk was an extremely easy one. It concerned the six classes into which the pieces in the Book of Songs were traditionally divided and the four categories into which Confucius’s disciples were placed. Po gave the required information and asked for a supplementary question, if his answer was not felt to be satisfactory. The monk then asked how it was that Tsêng Tzu, admittedly one of the most important disciples of Confucius, was not mentioned in any of the four categories. Po replied that Confucius classified his disciples in this way on a particular occasion and only mentioned those who were actually present. Confucius had only just returned from a journey, and while he was away Tsêng Tzu, famous for his filial piety, had gone home to look after his parents. That was why he was absent on this occasion.
—from The Life and Times of
Po Chü-I, by Arthur Waley
And suddenly without an explanation, despite having consented to the appendicectomy with Dr Fu, and despite numerous other operations she had successfully undergone, when she saw me holding back the tears, she herself removed the needle from its translucent sheath.