Archive for the ‘quotable’ Category

Quotable: Margaret Atwood

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

>Margaret Atwood

Last week, as the conversation on social media focused on misogyny and sexism, I kept thinking about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and about this passage specifically:

Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.
      We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
      Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and them who did such things were other men. None of them were men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
      We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
      We lived in the gaps between the stories.

Those who think that misogyny is what happens to others are living in the gaps between the stories.

Photo: theironwriter.com

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Quotable: Gabriel García Márquez

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

From Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, a stunning and mystical novel about an aging tyrant, translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa:

He played endless games of dominoes with my lifetime friend General Rodrigo de Aguilar and my old friend the minister of health who were the only ones who had enough of his confidence to ask him to free a prisoner or pardon someone condemned to death, and the only ones who dared ask him to received in a special audience the beauty queen of the poor, an incredible creature from that miserable wallow we called the dogfight district because all the dogs in the neighborhood had been fighting for many years without a moment’s truce, a lethal redoubt where national guard patrols did not enter because they would be stripped naked and cars were broken up into their smallest parts with a flick of the hand, where poor stray donkeys would enter by one end of the street and come out the other in a bag of bones, they roasted the sons of the rich, general sir, they sold them in the market turned into sausages, just imagine, because Manuela Sanchez of my evil luck had been born there and lived there, a dungheap of marigold whose remarkable beauty was the astonishment of the nation general sir, and he felt so intrigued by the revelation that if all this is as true as you people say I’ll not only receive her in a special audience but I’ll dance the first waltz with her, by God, have them write it up in the newspapers, he ordered, this kind of crap makes a big hit with the poor.

My editor recommended this novel to me a few weeks ago. I am especially taken with the narration, which comes in the form of the general’s voice, but also the voices of his lieutenants and the voices of his people. It is a structure-less and plot-less wonder, one that cannot be broken down, but must be enjoyed whole, like all of Márquez work.

Photo: Miguel Tovar/AP.

Quotable: E.L. Doctorow

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

I had just finished my fiction workshop last week when I learned that Christopher Dorner, the former LAPD officer who was sought in connection with the murder and attempted murder of fellow officers, had been found. In Los Angeles that week, Dorner was the subject of intense debate, especially after the release of his manifesto, in which he alleged that the LAPD used excessive force during arrests and that he’d been fired when he reported it. Although the LAPD denied the use of excessive force, its claim was undermined by the fact that officers opened fire on a mother and daughter who were delivering newspapers, and on one man who was on his way to surf. Dorner was eventually found in a cabin in Big Bear, leading to a stand off during which he took his own life and/or was burned to death, depending on whom you believe.

The Dorner saga made me think about Coalhouse Walker, the pianist in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. After a group of firemen vandalize his car, Walker seeks revenge by bombing fire stations in and around the town of New Rochelle. He sends letters to newspapers that read, “I want the fire chief turned over to my justice.” Like Dorner, Walker is the target of a statewide manhunt and a subject of curiosity and speculation.

It was widely reported when he was achieving his notoriety that Coalhouse Walker had never exhausted the peaceful and legal means of redress before taking the law in his own hands. This is not entirely true. He went to see three different attorneys recommended by Father. In all cases they refused to represent him. He was advised to recover his automobile before it was totally wrecked and to forget the matter. To all three he insisted that he didn’t want to forget the matter but to bring suit against the Fire Chief and men of the Emerald Isle Engine.

It is known too that Coalhouse made a preliminary attempt to see the matter through as his own counsel. He had filed a complaint but did not know how to go about getting a place on the court calendar or what steps had to be taken to assure that it was correct in form in order to be heard. He appeared at City Hall for an interview with the office of the County Clerk. It was suggested that he return another day when there was less pressing business in the office. But he persisted and was then told that his complaint was not on file and that several weeks would be required to trace it. Come back then, the clerk told him. Instead he went to the police station where he had originally filed and wrote out a second complaint. The policemen on duty regarded him with amazement. An older officer took him aside and confided to him that he was probably filing in vain since the volunteer fire companies were not municipal employees and therefore did not come under the jurisdiction of the city. The contemptuousness of this logic did not escape Coalhouse but he chose not to argue with it. He signed his complaint and left and heard laughter behind him as he walked out the door.

All this happened over a period of two to three weeks. Later, when the name Coalhouse Walker came to symbolize murder and arson, these earlier attempts to find redress no longer mattered. Even at this date we can’t condone the mayhem done in his cause but it is important to know the truth insofar as that is possible.

Perhaps Dorner will appear someday as a character in a novel. But, since this is Los Angeles, he’ll probably end up on film first.

Photo credit: Jerry Bauer.

Quotable: Sigrid Nunez

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

From Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, an exquisite novel about the friendship between two women, Georgette George and Ann Drayton, who meet at Barnard in 1968. This description really doesn’t do justice to the novel, which is about many, many things: class, race, idealisms of the mind and of the heart, identity. I admired, in particular, Nunez’s ability to maintain a consistent voice for the narrator, Georgette (or Georgie, or George, as she is known at different points in her life.) Here is a taste of it:

Where I came from. Upstate: a small town way up north, near the Canadian border. Jack Frost country, winter eight months of the year. Oh, those days before the globe had warmed, what winters we had then, what snows. Drifts halfway up the telephone poles, buried fences, buried cars, roofs caving in under all that weight. Moneyless. A world of failing factories and disappearing farms, where much of the best business went to bars. People drank and drank to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb.
The people. Given the sparseness of the population, you had to ask yourself, Why so many prone to violence? Many were related, true, and a lot more closely than you liked to think. Did inbreeding lead to viciousness? Alcoholism certainly did, and alcoholism was universal. Whole families drank themselves to disgrace, to criminal mischief, to early death. Here was a place where people seemed to be forever falling. And talk about secrets–more skeletons in the closets than in the cemeteries. Statistically not a high-crime area, but a world of everyday brutality: bar brawls, battered wives. And not every misdeed was perpetrated under the influence. I remember acts of violent cruelty even among children. Woe to the weak, the smaller kids, the animals (oh, the animals) that fell in those hands. And I remember blood feuds with roots going way back to before my grandparents’ time, feuds that left at least one in every generation maimed or dead. The savage world of the North Country poor. I do not exaggerate. The boy next door, a teenage giant with a speech defect so severe only his mother could understand him, hanged a litter of kittens from the branches of the Christmas tree.
And yet for all this, as I say, I was homesick when I went away to school.

I met Nunez at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference some years ago, when I was a fellow and she was on the faculty, but I’ve only now read this novel. A treat.

Quotable: David Mitchell

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

I’ve tried to avoid the trailer of the film adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. (I mean: the Wachowskis? Tom Hanks? Hugo Weaving as an Asian man? Huh?) But last week I gave in and watched it and now I’m curious to see it. The novel has six interweaving story lines, although ‘interweaving’ isn’t quite the right word to describe what Mitchell does: multiple voices, multiple styles, multiple genres, multiple eras, all of them held together with a fragile thread—the transmigration of souls.

The passage below, about life, death and rebirth, and which I can hardly ever re-read without having a knot in my throat, is from the Frobisher story, “Letters from Zedelghem.”

Luger here. Thirteen minutes to go. Feel trepidation, naturally, but my love of this coda is stronger. An electrical thrill that, like Adrian, I know I am to die. Pride, that I shall see it through. Certainties. Strip back the beliefs pasted on by governesses, schools and states, you find indelible truths at one’s core. Rome’ll decline and fall again. Cortés’ll lay Tenochtitlán to waste again, and later, Ewing will sail again, Adrian’ll be blown to pieces again, you and I’ll sleep under Corsican stars again, I’ll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you’ll read this letter again, the sun’ll grow cold again. Nietzsche’s gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternities.

Time cannot permeate this sabbatical. We do not stay dead long. Once my Luger let me go, my birth, next time around, will be upon me in a heartbeat. Thirteen years from now we’ll meet again at Gresham, ten years later I’ll be back in this same room, holding this same gun, composing this same letter, my resolution as perfect as my many-headed sextet. Such elegant certainties comfort me at this quiet hour.

More on David Mitchell here.

Photo credit: The Guardian.

Quotable: Toni Morrison

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

Morrison

Earlier this week, Toni Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a ceremony in the White House. In his remarks, Barack Obama mentioned that he read Song of Solomon not just to learn how to write, but also “how to be.” Song of Solomon is one of my favorite of Morrison’s novels. And it struck me that it often uses repetition as a stylistic device, which is something that Obama does a lot in his speeches. So I thought I’d excerpt two short paragraphs from the book, both of which use repetition masterfully. Here is a passage from early on in the book, describing Macon Dead’s car:

In 1936 there were very few among them who lived as well as Macon Dead. Others watched the family gliding by with a tiny bit of jealousy and a whole lot of amusement, for Macon’s wide green Packard belied what they thought a car was for. He never went over twenty miles an hour, never gunned his engine, never stayed in first gear for a block or two to give pedestrians a thrill. He never had a blown tire, never ran out of gas and needed twelve grinning raggle-tailed boys to help him push it up a hill or over to a curb. No rope ever held the door to its frame, and no teenagers leaped on his running board for a lift down the street. He hailed no one and no one hailed him. There was never a sudden braking and backing up to shout or laugh with a friend. No beer bottles or ice cream cones poked from the open windows. Nor did a baby boy stand up to pee out of them. He never let rain fall on it if he could help it and he walked to Sonny’s Shop–taking the car out only on these occasions. What’s more, they doubted that he had ever taken a woman into the back seat, because rumor was that he went to “bad houses” or lay, sometimes, with a slack or lonely female tenant. Other than the bright and roving eyes of Magdalene called Lena and First Corinthians, the Packard had no real lived life at all. So they called it Macon Dead’s hearse.

The repetition of the adverb “never” obviously emphasizes how little use Macon Dead makes of the car, but it also informs us about the multiple uses other people in his community might have made of it. Halfway through, the switch from “never” to “no” highlights the fact that the car, like its owner, lacks a certain essence, a kind of vitality. All of which leads us to its funny, and appropriate, nickname: “Macon Dead’s hearse.”

Now, toward the end of the novel, Macon Dead’s son returns to Montour County to learn more about his deceased grandfather, who was also named Macon Dead. And, here, Toni Morrison uses the same device, but for the opposite effect. This is a description of the farm that the elder Macon owned:

A farm that colored their lives like a paintbrush and spoke to them like a sermon. “You see?” the farm said to them. “See? See what you can do? Never mind you can’t tell one letter from another, never mind you born a slave, never mind you lose your name, never mind your daddy dead, never mind nothing. Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back in it. Stop sniveling,” it said. “Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this county right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home, you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on–can you hear me? Pass it on!”

Though the sentence starts familiarly with the repetition of “never,” it doesn’t speak of what never happens, but of what people should never mind happening. It isn’t about absence, it’s about presence and power. And then other syntactic forms are repeated: the demonstrative (“this nation, this county”) and the imperative (“take it, hold it”), for instance, to emphasize that power. The beauty of the two passages is how, through the description of two simple possessions, the car and the farm, we get two portraits of two very different Macon Deads.

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Quotable: Driss Chraïbi

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Five years ago this week, Moroccan literature lost one of its greats, the novelist Driss Chraïbi. I wanted to post a short excerpt from Le Passé Simple, his first novel and perhaps the most widely studied of his works. It tells the story of a young man who violently rebels against the edicts of his father, a tea merchant from Mazagan. When it was published in 1954, Le Passé Simple created a huge controversy in Morocco. The country was still in the midst of its struggle for independence. Many Moroccan intellectuals didn’t look kindly on a book that virulently criticizes traditional Moroccan modes of living and ends with the main character leaving for France, and, as a final act of goodbye, uses the bathroom on the airplane, in the hope that “every drop falls on the heads of those I know well, who know me well, and whom I despise.” In France, the reaction was quite the opposite; the book was quite well reviewed, perhaps serving as “proof” that Morocco needed France’s civilizing influence.

But Le Passé Simple is much more than a simple cry of revolt. Yes, it is full of anger at the father character (referred to throughout as “Le Seigneur,” that is, “The Lord”); at the treatment of women; at the teaching in Quranic schools; at the hypocrisy of Moroccan society; and so on. But there are also moments of tenderness for both the father and the mother, for books, for the joys of teenage life. There is a strong emphasis on the powerlessness of silence and fear–the mother is silent, the children are silent–and so, necessarily, on the power of the word. It’s a beautifully written novel, with moments of great lyricism.

Un après midi, j’ai fait l’école buissonnière sans m’en rendre compte. J’ai erré dans les rues , siffloté avec les oiseaux, suivi le vol des nuages. Finalement, je me suis perdu. Une vieille femme m’a rencontré, m’a embrassé, m’a donné deux sous. J’ai mis la pièce dans une boîte d’allumettes vide ramassée quelque part.

Vers le soir, je vis une silhouette connue qui venait à ma rencontre à grandes enjambées. Ce n’était autre que mon digne et respecté père. Le règlement de compte, entre lui et moi, se fit, à mes dépens, en trois actes.

ACTE Ier: Nous passâmes rassurer le maître d’école. Afin de profiter d’une si bonne occasion de se démontrer le dévouement qu’il s’acharnaient à avoir l’un pour l’autre (selon les traités verbaux jurés bilatéralement le jour de mon inscription) mon père me bascula en l’air et le maître cingla la plante de mes pieds une bonne centaine de fois. Nous prîmes Camel au passage et allâmes tous trois a la maison.

ACTE II: Rentrés chez nous, après maintes explications, les salamalecs et pleurs de soulagement de ma mère, la même scène que tout à l’heure recommença, mais avec un léger correctif. Ce fut maman, trop heureuse de voir, qui maintint mes jambes et mon père qui fit tournoyer le bâton. Une demi-heure durant.

ACTE III: Les pieds en sang, je me jette dans les bras de ma mère, largement ouverts et consolateurs. Mon père n’admet pas de faiblesse, nous corrige tous en conséquence, et sort en claquant les portes. Nous restons, là, Camel, ma mère et moi, à nous lamenter comme des pleureuses juives.

EPILOGUE: Plus tard, je me souviens, je souris, je pêche dans ma poche la boîte d’allumettes, l’ouvre et montre ce qu’elle contient. J’ai quand même gagné deux sous dans ma journée.Maman les serre précieusement dans sa ceinture et m’embrasse.

I don’t own an English translation of the book (and I believe the one that was published some years ago by Counterpoint is out of print.) But here is my translation of the passage, for your enjoyment:

One afternoon, I skipped school, without realizing it. I wandered in the streets, whistled away with the birds, followed the flight of the clouds. Eventually, I got lost. An old woman saw me, kissed me, gave me two cents. I put the coin in a matchbox I picked up somewhere.

Toward evening, I saw a familiar figure coming toward me in large strides. It was none other than my dignified and respected father. The settling of accounts, between us, was done at my expense in three acts:

ACT I: We stopped by to reassure the schoolteacher. My father and the teacher used this opportunity to demonstrate the devotion they continued to have for one another (according to the verbal treaties sworn bilaterally on the day of my registration). My father tipped me up and the teacher whipped the soles of my feet a good hundred times. Then we picked up Kamal and went all three of us to the house.

ACT II: Once at home, after many salams, explanations, and cries of relief from my mother, the same scene unfolded anew, but with a slight change. It was my mother, too happy to see me, who held my legs and my father who used the stick. For half an hour.

ACT III: My feet bloody, I throw my self in my mother’s arms, open and consoling. My father does not admit a weakness, and therefore corrects all of us by leaving, slamming the doors behind him. We remain there, Kamal, my mother and me, moaning like Jewish funeral criers.

EPILOGUE: Later, I remember, I smile, I fish out of my pocket the matchbox, open it and show what it contains. I have, after all, earned two cents that day. Maman carefully ties them inside her belt and kisses me.

Chraibi lived in France and didn’t return to Morocco for many, many years. But he wrote other novels; Morocco got its independence; life went on. When he returned in early 1985, attitudes, too, had changed. University and high school students, many of whom were engaged in organizations that opposed the regime, had a completely different attitude to his work. (The influential magazine Souffles defended his work in a long article, too. ) In the end, he became the prodigal son.

Photo credit: MarocCulture

Quotable: Junot Díaz

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Yesterday was the start of the winter quarter at UC, and, as a warm-up exercise for my first class, I used this writing prompt: “an affair has been discovered.” The point is to get students to think about who is telling the story (the cheater? the cheated-upon, the cheated-with?), the details of the discovery (how was the affair revealed? a nosey neighbor? a jealous husband?), the purpose of the story (is it a simple confession? a plea for forgiveness? a justification? a piece of gossip one character shares with another?), and its intended recipient (a priest? a divorce lawyer? one of the people involved in the affair?). These kinds of choices can have a significant effect on the shape of the narrative. A great example is Junot Díaz’s story “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars”:

I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds—defensive, unscrupulous—but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost everything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties freestyle hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the back yard of your life. Magda only found out because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.
The thing is, that particular bit of stupidity had been over for months. Me and Magda were on an upswing. We weren’t as distant as we’d been the winter I was cheating. The freeze was over. She was coming over to my place and instead of us hanging with my knucklehead boys—me smoking, her bored out of her skull—we were seeing movies. Driving out to different places to eat. Even caught a play at the Crossroads and I took her picture with some bigwig black playwrights, pictures where she’s seen smiling so much you’d think her wide-ass mouth was going to unhinge. We were a couple again. Visiting each other’s family on the weekends. Eating breakfast at diners hours before anybody else was up, rummaging through the New Brunswick library together, the one Carnegie built with his guilt money. A nice rhythm we had going. But then the Letter hits like a Star Trek grenade and detonates everything, past, present, future. Suddenly her folks want to kill me. It don’t matter that I helped them with their taxes two years running or that I mow their lawn. Her father, who used to treat me like his hijo, calls me an asshole on the phone. “You no deserve I speak to you in Spanish,” he says. I see one of Magda’s girlfriends at the Woodbridge Mall—Claribel, the ecuatoriana with the biology degree and the chinita eyes—and she treats me like I ate somebody’s kid.
You don’t even want to hear how it went down with Magda. Like a five-train collision. She threw Cassandra’s letter at me—it missed and landed under a Volvo—and then she sat down on the curb and started hyperventilating. “Oh, God,” she wailed. “Oh, my God.”
This is when boys claim they would have pulled a Total Fucking Denial. Cassandra who? I was too sick to my stomach even to try. I sat down next to her, grabbed her flailing arms, and said some dumb shit like “You have to listen to me, Magda. Or you won’t understand.”

Here, the narrator begins with a pre-emptive defense (“I’m not a bad guy”). But he is aware that this defense itself might be incriminating (“I know how that sounds”), so he provides some justification for his actions as well (“I’m weak.” “I”m like everybody else.”) Then he gives his girlfriend’s opinion, which he ties to a stereotypical view of all Dominican men—a clever way of giving us Magdalena’s side of the story while also retaining our sympathy. This very delicate balance is maintained for the remainder of the story, when the narrator, Yunior, takes Magdalena with him to Santo Domingo, where they try to patch up their relationship and where, of course, nothing goes as planned.

The story originally appeared in The New Yorker and was anthologized in Best American Stories 1999.

Photo credit: Blogamole.

Dichotomy

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

There is a passage in John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” that has always haunted me. (The story, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, can be found in The Stories of John Cheever. It’s narrated by a middle-aged high school teacher, an optimistic and unreflecting man. The setting is a family home on the shore of a Massachusetts island, where the narrator’s mother and siblings get together for a summer holiday. Three of the siblings get along reasonably well, but the fourth, Lawrence, is disliked by everyone because of his pessimism. The siblings refer to him, variously, as “Tifty,” “Croaker,” and “Little Jesus.”) Near the end of the story, the narrator tries to talk Lawrence out of his gloominess:

I let him get ahead again and I walked behind him, looking at his shoulders and thinking of all the goodbyes he had made. When Father drowned, he went to church and said goodbye to Father. It was only three years later that he concluded that Mother was frivolous and said goodbye to her. In his freshman year at college, he had been good friends with his roommate, but the man drank too much, and at the beginning of the spring term Lawrence changed roommates and said goodbye to his friend. When he had been in college for two years, he concluded that the atmosphere was too sequestered and he said goodbye to Yale. He enrolled at Columbia and got his law degree there, but he found his first employer dishonest and at the end of six months he said goodbye to a good job. He married Ruth in City Hall and said goodbye to the Protestant Episcopal Church; they went to live on a back street in Tuckahoe and said goodbye to the middle class. In 1938, he went to Washington to work as a government lawyer, saying goodbye to private enterprise, but after eight months in Washington he concluded that the Roosevelt administration was sentimental and he said goodbye to it. They left Washington for a suburb of Chicago, where he said goodbye to his neighbors, one by one, on counts of drunkenness, boorishness, and stupidity. He said goodbye to Chicago and went to Kansas; he said goodbye to Cleveland and come East again, stopping at Laud’s Head long enough to say goodbye to the sea. It was elegiac and it was bigoted and narrow, it mistook circumspection for character, and I wanted to help him. “Come out of it,” I said. “Come out of it, Tifty.”

I have seemingly nothing in common with Lawrence, not even this tendency to say goodbye to everyone and everything. And yet the impulse behind his saying goodbye is one that I recognize, one that I have lived with and struggled with for many years. I think it comes from expecting so much from oneself, from others, from the world in general, which is nothing if not a guarantee of disappointment. But I also have moments when I identify with the narrator, who seems to enjoy the life he has—he swims, plays tennis, goes to a party with his wife, and generally tries to have a good time—without expecting anything else. By the end of “Goodbye, My Brother,” the narrator lashes out at Lawrence, who leaves the island. Only then does the narrator reflect:

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming — Diana and Helen — and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”

One brother is consumed with obsessive rumination; the other is after constant gratification. One is given to despair; the other to hope. One lives in the past; the other in the present. Perhaps the reason I identify with both is that I see myself in both.

Quotable: Miguel de Cervantes

Monday, April 11th, 2011

I’ve been thinking lately about the ways in which novelists use prologues or author’s notes to frame the stories they tell, to emphasize particular readings of the novel, to draw attention to stylistic devices they intend to use, and generally to place the book in a specific context. (Think of the foreword to Lolita, for example.) One of my favorites is the prologue of Don Quixote, where Cervantes pleads with the reader to be indulgent toward the story, because it lacks much of what he may expect from other novels of chivalry, and because it is not a fictional story at all but the true history of a knight’s adventures. Cervantes shares his concerns with a friend:

“Because how do you expect me not to be worried about the opinion of that ancient legislator called the general public when he sees that after all this time sleeping in the silence of oblivion, and burdened by the years as I am, I’m coming out with a book as dry as esparto grass, devoid of inventiveness, feeble in style, poor in ideas and lacking all erudition and instruction, without any marginalia or endnotes, unlike other books I see that, even though they are fictional and not about religious subjects, are so crammed with maxims from Aristotle, Plato and the whole herd of philosophers that they amaze their readers, who consider the authors to be well-read, erudite and eloquent men? And when they quote the Holy Scriptures! Anyone would take them for no less than so many St Thomases and other doctors of the Church; and here they maintain such an ingenious decorum that having depicted a dissolute lover on one line they provide on the next a little Christian sermon, a pleasure and a treat to hear or read. There won’t be any of this in my book, because I haven’t anything to put in the margins or any notes for the end, still less do I know what authors I have followed in my text so as to list them at the beginning, as others do, in alphabetical order beginning with Aristotle and finishing with Xenophon and Zoilus or Zeuxis, even though one was a slanderer and the other a painter. My book will also lack sonnets at the beginning or at least sonnets whose authors are dukes, marquises, counts, bishops, ladies or famous poets; though if I asked two or three tradesmen friends of mine, I’m sure they’d let me have some, every bit as good as those written by the best-known poets in this Spain of ours. In short, my dear friend,” I continued, “I have decided that Don Quixote shall remain buried in his archives in La Mancha until heaven provides someone to adorn him with all these attributes that he lacks—I’m not up to it, because of my inadequacy and my scanty learning, and because I’m naturally lazy and disinclined to go hunting for authors to say what I know how to say without them.”

I love how Cervantes so humorously ties every writer’s worry (being found a fraud) with every writer’s ambition (writing a great book that will earn acclaim), and, by so doing, prepares the reader to enjoy his unique book.

Illustration via.

Quotable: Agha Shahid Ali

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

The waning days of August have brought with them another bout of nostalgia–I keep thinking of childhood summers in Rabat. And in honor of those, I thought I’d share this poem by Agha Shahid Ali, “I Dream It Is Afternoon When I Return to Delhi”

At Purana Qila I am alone, waiting
for the bus to Daryanganj. I see it coming,
but my hands are empty.
“Jump on, jump on,” someone shouts,
“I’ve saved this change for you
for years. Look!”
A hand opens, full of silver rupees.
“Jump on, jump on.” The voice doesn’t stop.
There’s no one I know. A policeman,
handcuffs silver in his hands,
asks for my ticket.

I jump off the running bus,
sweat pouring from my hair.
I run past the Doll Museum, past
headlines on the Times of India
building, PRISONERS BLINDED IN A BIHAR
JAIL, HARIJAN VILLAGES BURNED BY LANDLORDS.
Panting, I stop in Daryaganj,
outside Golcha Cinema.

Sunil is there, lighting
a cigarette, smiling. I say,
“It must be ten years, you haven’t changed,
it was your voice on the bus!”
He says, “The film is about to begin,
I’ve bought an extra ticket for you,”
and we rush inside:

Anarkali is being led away,
her earrings lying on the marble floor.
Any moment she’ll be buried alive.
“But this is the end,” I turn
toward Sunil. He is nowhere.
The usher taps my shoulder, says
my ticket is ten years old.

Once again my hands are empty.
I am waiting, alone, at Purana Qila.
Bus after empty bus is not stopping.
Suddenly, beggar women with children
are everywhere, offering
me money, weeping for me.

The poem appears in his collection The Half-Inch Himalayas. You can find out more about Agha Shahid Ali here.

Quotable: Ralph Ellison

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Every few months, an editor will say in an interview that he or she can tell, after reading only two or three pages of a submitted manuscript, whether the writer can write. These pronouncements are usually met with a good deal of skepticism and even some anger. After all, applying this rule provides the quickest way to go through the submission pile. But it’s probably true that, for some writers, you can tell. Take the opening few paragraphs of Invisible Man, for instance.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then, too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those with poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

I think you’ll agree that the voice of the narrator is so powerful it compels you to read what follows. I remember when I read Invisible Man the first time, I felt almost overwhelmed by its artistry–how deeply layered the writing was and how character, voice, setting, time and plot all worked together completely seamlessly. I couldn’t stop reading. And I suspect that that’s what these editors have in mind when they say you can tell.

Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Quotable: Cormac McCarthy

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Here is a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian—it’s a sentence, actually, a long, wonderfully crafted sentence, whose beauty highlights the very ugliness of what is about to happen when a group of Indians catches up with a band of American scalp hunters:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

I heard recently that a film adaptation of the novel is in the works. I’ve always thought this book was unfilmable, but perhaps Todd Field (who has directed good adaptations of In the Bedroom and Little Children) is up to the task.

Quotable: Percival Everett

Friday, April 16th, 2010

The passage below is from Percival Everett’s Erasure, from the scene in which Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, a writer and professor, visits a bookstore in Washington, DC and doesn’t find his books where he expects them to be.

While Lisa wandered off to the garden book section, I stood in the middle of Border’s thinking how much I hated the chain and chains like it. I’d talked to too many owners of little, real bookstores who were being driven to the poorhouse by what they called the Wal-Mart of books. I decided to see if the store had any of my books, firm in my belief that even if they did, my opinion about them would be unchanged. I went to Literature and did not see me. I went to Contemporary Fiction and did not find me, but when I fell back a couple of steps I found a section called African American Studies and there, arranged alphabetically and neatly, read undisturbed, were four of my books including my Persians of which the only thing ostensibly African American was my jacket photograph. I became quickly irate, my pulse speeding up, my brow furrowing. Someone interested in African American Studies would have little interest in my books and would be confused by their presence in the section. Someone looking for an obscure reworking of a Greek tragedy would not consider looking in that section any more than the gardening section. The result in either case, no sale. That fucking store was taking food from my table.

Of course, it’s at this point that he comes across a poster advertising a reading by newcomer Juanita Mae Jenkins, author of We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, whose first line is My fahvre be gone since time I’s borned and it be just me an’ my momma an’ my baby brover Juneboy. There’s only one thing for poor Thelonious to do: write his own ‘ghetto novel,’ which he calls My Pafology. (He later changes the title to an expletive, and the publisher gets even more excited about potential sales.) Some time ago, I was joking with some friends online that I should try to write something like My Pafology, but for ‘my people.’ You know, cash in, while I can. After all, there are dozens of books purporting to diagnose what is wrong with Arabs and Muslims, so one more couldn’t hurt. It would be called Killer Instinct and it would give insight into how we (every single one of us) are raised to kill the infidel. But it seems that irony doesn’t really travel well online.

Quotable: Leila Ahmed

Friday, March 19th, 2010

The passage below is the closing paragraph of “Harem,” by the Egyptian writer and academic Leila Ahmed. The essay is part of her magnificent memoir, Border Passage, and is about three generations of women in her family. It discusses the changes in their lives over a period of a century and a half.

If the women of my family were guilty of silence and acquiescence out of their inability to see past their own conditioning, I, too, have fallen in with notions instilled in me by my conditioning—and in ways that I did not even recognize until now, when, thinking about my foremothers, I suddenly saw in what I had myself just written my own unthinking collusion with the attitudes of the society in which I was raised. Writing of Aunt Farida and of how aggrieved and miserable she was when her husband took a second wife, I reproduced here without thinking the stories I’d heard as a youngster about how foolish Aunt Farida was, resorting to magic to bring back her husband. But I see now how those stories in effect rationalized and excused his conduct, implying that even though taking a second wife wasn’t a nice way for a man to behave, perhaps he had had some excuse, Aunt Farida being so foolish.

“The mind is so near itself,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “it cannot see distinctly.” Sometimes even the stories we ourselves tell dissolve before us as if a mist were momentarily lifting, and we glimpse in that instant our own participation in the myths and constructions of our societies.

The last time I used this essay in a class, a couple of my students appeared stunned to discover that there were feminists in Egypt, much less in 19th-century Egypt. Feminism (by which I mean simply the belief that men and women are and should be equal) had seemed to some of them, I think, primarily and uniquely a Western movement.

Photo: Harvard Gazette.

Quotable: Monique Truong

Friday, February 12th, 2010

By sheer coincidence, three of the five most recent books I’ve read were set in Vietnam or featured Vietnamese characters. One of these was Monique Truong’s debut novel, The Book of Salt, in which the main character, Binh, works as a cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. (The idea for the novel came to the author when she learned, from reading Toklas’s famous cookbook, that Stein and Toklas had employed “Indochinese cooks.”) In the passage below, Binh describes the interviews he has to submit to in order to find a job and during which he has to explain what he has been doing between his departure from Vietnam and his arrival in Paris.

Three years unaccounted for! you could almost hear them thinking. Most Parisians can ignore and even forgive me for not having the refinement to be born amidst the ringing bells of their cathedrals, especially since I was born instead amidst the ringing bells of the replicas of their cathedrals, erected in a far off colony to remind them of the majesty, the piety, of home. As long as Monsieur and Madame can account for my whereabouts in their city or in one of their colonies, then they can trust that the République and the Catholic Church have had their watchful eyes on me. But when I expose myself as a subject who may have strayed, who may have lived a life unchecked, ungoverned, undocumented, and unrepentant, I become, for them, suspect.

What struck me about this passage is how easily it could apply to another employee (a chauffeur, say) from another of France’s former colonies (Morocco, for instance.) The relationship between servant and master seems to be colored in similar hues, and it made me wonder if that was because of the similarities in the two colonial relationships.

Quotable: Joan Didion

Friday, February 5th, 2010

I’m working on a new essay this week, so in order to put myself in the right mood I went back to one of Joan Didion’s older essay collections, After Henry. Here is a brief excerpt from “In The Realm of the Fisher King”:

This was the world from which Nancy Reagan went in 1966 to Sacramento and in 1980 to Washington, and it is in many ways the world, although it was vanishing in situ even before Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, she never left. My Turn did not document a life radically altered by later experience. Eight years in Sacramento left so little imprint on Mrs. Reagan that she described the house in which she lived—a house located on 45th Street off M Street in a city laid out on a numerical and alphabetical grid running from 1st Street to 66th Street and from A Street to Y Street—as “an English-style country house in the suburbs.”

She did not find it unusual that this house should have been bought for and rented to her and her husband (they paid $1,250 a month) by the same group of men who gave the State of California eleven acres on which to build the “governor’s mansion” she actually wanted and who later funded the million-dollar redecoration of the Reagan White House and who eventually bought the house on St. Cloud Road in Bel Air to which the Reagans moved when they left Washington (the street number of the St. Cloud house was 666, but the Reagans had it changed to 668 to avoid the association with the Beast in Revelations); she seemed to construe houses as part of her deal, like the housing provided to actors on location. Before the kitchen cabinet picked up by Ronald Reagan’s contract, the Reagans had lived in a house in Pacific Palisades remodeled by his then sponsor, General Electric.

I love how Didion’s sentences are structured in such a consistently effective way in all her work. I admire, for instance, the way she dislocates some of her clauses whenever she wants to save a particularly surprising or incisive point till the end. This essay originally appeared in the New York Review of Books and reprinted in After Henry, which was published in 1993.

Quotable: Toni Morrison

Friday, January 29th, 2010

I mentioned last week that I was teaching Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, so I thought I’d share a very short passage that I’ve always liked, because of how the author explores the idea of beauty in physical surroundings and then connects it to the stories we tell ourselves:

There is nothing more to say about the furnishings. They were anything but describable, having been conceived, manufactured, shipped, and sold in various states of thoughtlessness, greed and indifference. The furniture had aged without ever becoming familiar. People had owned it, but never known it. No one had lost a penny or a brooch under the cushions of either sofa and remembered the place and time of the loss or the finding. No one had clucked and said, “But I had it just a minute ago. I was sitting right there talking to . . .” or “Here it is. It must have slipped down while I was feeding the baby!” No one had given birth in one of the beds—or remembered with fondness the peeled paint places, because that’s what the baby, when he learned to pull himself up, used to pick loose. No thrifty child had tucked a wad of gum under the table. No happy drunk—a friend of the family, with a fat neck, unmarried, you know, but God how he eats!—had sat at the piano and played “You Are My Sunshine.” No young girl had stared at the tiny Christmas tree and remembered when she had decorated it, or wondered if that blue ball was going to hold, or if HE would ever come back to see it.

As a side note, while preparing for class, I looked up the reviews of this novel, Morrison’s first. (I do this sometimes, because I get curious about how novels that are today considered necessary or important were received when they were first published.) The NYT reviewer, one Haskel Frankel, wrote, “She reveals herself, when she shucks the fuzziness born of flights of poetic imagery, as a writer of considerable power and tenderness, someone who can cast back to the living, bleeding heart of childhood and capture it on paper. But Miss Morrison has gotten lost in her construction.” It was a decidedly mixed review, as you can see. Lucky for us that “Miss Morrison” continued to write anyway.

Photo: Toni Morrison at the Miami Book Fair in 1986.

Quotable: Marguerite Duras

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Here is a brief excerpt from Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, published in 1984:

I think it was during this journey that the image became detached, removed from all the rest. It might have existed, a photograph might have been taken, just like any other, somewhere else, in other circumstances. But it wasn’t. The subject was too slight. Who would have thought of such a thing? The photograph could only have been taken if someone could have known in advance how important it was to be in my life, that event, that crossing of the river. But while it was happening, no one even knew of its existence. Except God. And that’s why—it couldn’t have been otherwise—the image doesn’t exist. It was omitted. Forgotten. It never was detached or removed from all the rest. And it’s to this, this failure to have been created, that the image owes its virtue: the virtue of representing, of being the creator of, an absolute.

I am really intrigued by the structure of this novel, by how Marguerite Duras composed it, almost like a collage, and yet the narrative still manages to move forward smoothly. It works so beautifully to reinforce the themes of memory and forgetfulness in the the book.

Photo: Autores e Libros.

Quotable: Graham Greene

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center poll, 54% of Americans believe that the use of torture to gain information from suspected terrorists (note the adjective) is often or sometimes justified. This represents an increase since the last time the question was asked (49% in April and 44% in February.) Which reminds me of this passage from Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, where Captain Segura explains who can and can’t be tortured:

‘Did you torture him?’
Captain Segura laughed. ‘No. He doesn’t belong to the torturable class.’
‘I didn’t know there were class-distinctions in torture.’
‘Dear Mr Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.’
‘There’s torture and torture. When they broke up Dr Hasselbacher’s laboratory they were torturing … ?’
‘One can never tell what amateurs may do. The police had no concern in that. Dr Hasselbacher does not belong to the torturable class.’
‘Who does?’
‘The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal. You see, I was right to make that king, and now I shall huff you for the last time.’

I had not realized that so many Americans subscribed to Segura’s philosophy.

Quotable: Toni Morrison

Friday, November 13th, 2009

From Toni Morrison’s second novel, Sula:

Still, it was lovely up in the Bottom. After the town grew and the farm land turned into a village and the village into a town and the streets of Medalion were hot and dusty with progress, those heavy trees that sheltered the shacks up in the Bottom were wonderful to see. And the hunters who went there sometimes wondered in private if maybe the white farmer was right after all. Maybe it was the bottom of heaven.

The black people would have disagreed, but they had no time to think about it. They were mightily preoccupied with earthly things–and each other, wondering even as early as 1920 what Shadrack was all about, what that little girl Sula who grew into a woman in their town was all about and what they themselves were all about, tucked up there in the Bottom.

Quotable: Philip Roth

Friday, November 6th, 2009

When I went to see Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair, the other day, it got me thinking about how curly hair is written about in novels. The first example that came to me was Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. In the novel, Coleman Silk describes Iris Gittelman, the woman he’s going to marry, mostly in terms of her hair:

Her head of hair was something, a labyrinthine, billowing wreath of spirals and ringlets, fuzzy as twine and large enough for use as a Christmas ornamentation. All the disquiet of her childhood seemed to have passed into the convolutions of her sinuous thicket of hair. Her irreversible hair. You could polish pots with it and no more alter its construction than if it were harvested from the inky depths of the sea, some kind of wiry, reef-building organism, a dense living onyx hybrid of coral and shrubs, perhaps possessing medicinal properties.

Iris’s hair is significant, of course. Its curative property, so to speak, is that it allows Coleman, who has been passing for white, to have a convenient explanation for any kinkiness in his children’s hair.

Quotable: J.M. Coetzee

Friday, October 16th, 2009

Coetzee.jpg

When I was in London last summer, I had dinner with the novelist Hisham Matar, who, knowing of my obsession with Coetzee, had brought a copy of Summertime for me. (Though released in the UK in August, the book won’t be out in the U.S. until December.) I started reading the book that same night. Like Boyhood and Youth, Summertime is a novel-cum-memoir. This time, Coetzee appears to us, thanks to the work of an English biographer, as a man in his mid-thirties, who is living with his father, working on a novel, and struggling to find a position as a university professor.

Here is a passage from the first chapter, which I found interesting because of what it says (or, more accurately, what it says to me) about the young Coetzee:

The house across the street has new owners, a couple of more or less his own age with young children and a BMW. He pays no attention to them until one day there is a knock at the door. “Hello, I’m David Truscott, your new neighbor. I’ve locked myself out. Could I use your telephone?” And then, as an afterthought: “Don’t I know you?”

Recognition dawns. They do indeed know each other. In 1952 David Truscott and he were in the same class, Standard Six, at St. Joseph’s College. He and David Truscott might have progressed side by side through the rest of high school but for the fact that David failed Standard Six and had to be kept behind. It was not hard to see why he failed: in Standard Six came algebra, and about algebra David could not grasp the first thing, the first thing being that x, y, and z were there to liberate one from the tedium of arithmetic. In Latin too, David never quite got the hang of things—of the subjunctive, for example. Even at so early an age it seemed to him clear that David would be better off out of school, away from Latin and algebra, in the real world, counting banknotes in a bank or selling shoes.

But despite being regularly flogged for not grasping things—floggings that he accepted philosophically, though now and again his glasses would cloud with tears—David Truscott persisted in his schooling, pushed no doubt from behind by his parents. Somehow or other he struggled through Standard Six and then Standard Seven and so on to Standard Ten; and now here he is, twenty years later, neat and bright and prosperous and, it emerges, so preoccupied with matters of business that when he set off for the office in the morning he forgot his house key and—since his wife has taken the children to a party—can’t get into the family home.

“And what is your line of business?” he inquires of David, more than curious.

“Marketing. I’m with the Woolworths Group. How about you?”

“Oh, I’m in between. I used to teach at a university in the United States, now I’m looking for a position here.”

“Well, we must get together. You must come over for a drink, exchange notes. Do you have children?”

“I am a child. I mean, I live with my father. My father is getting on in years. He needs looking after. But come in. The telephone is over there.”

So David Truscott, who did not understand x and y, is a flourishing marketer or marketeer, while he, who had no trouble understanding x and y and much else besides, is an unemployed intellectual. What does that suggest about the workings of the world? What it seems most obviously to suggest is that the path that leads through Latin and algebra is not the path to material success. But it may suggest much more: that understanding things is a waste of time; that if you want to succeed in the world and have a happy family and a nice home and a BMW you should not try to understand things but just add up the numbers or press the buttons or do whatever else it is that marketers are so richly rewarded for doing.

You can read the complete first chapter of Summertime at the New York Review of Books.

Quotable: Mark Twain

Friday, September 18th, 2009

From the essay “Corn-Pone Opinions,” which Twain wrote in 1901 but didn’t publish during his lifetime. It first appeared in print in 1923.

Men think they think upon great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently; they read its literature, but not that of the other side; they arrive at convictions, but they are drawn from a partial view of the matter in hand and are of no particular value. They swarm with their party, they feel with their party, they are happy in their party’s approval; and where the party leads they will follow, whether for right and honor, or through blood and dirt and a mush of mutilated morals.

In our late canvass half of the nation passionately believed that in silver lay salvation, the other half as passionately believed that that way lay destruction. Do you believe that a tenth part of the people, on either side, had any rational excuse for having an opinion about the matter at all? I studied that mighty question to the bottom — came out empty. Half of our people passionately believe in high tariff, the other half believe otherwise. Does this mean study and examination, or only feeling? The latter, I think. I have deeply studied that question, too — and didn’t arrive. We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. And out of it we get an aggregation which we consider a boon. Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it the Voice of God.

You can find the essay online here.

Photo Credit: LAT.

Quotable: Joan Didion

Friday, September 11th, 2009

From Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album,” which is on the required reading list for a class I am teaching this fall:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

The essay appears in the collection by the same name.

Photo credit: Village Voice.

Quotable: Ian McEwan

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Here is a brief excerpt from Ian McEwan’s Atonement, from the scene in which thirteen-year-old Briony laments having written a play for her brother Leon, instead of a short story:

The title lettering, the illustrated cover, the pages bound—in that word alone she felt the attraction of the neat, limited and controllable form she had left behind when she decided to write a play. A story was direct and simple, allowing nothing to come between herself and her reader—no intermediaries with their private ambitions or incompetence, no pressures of time, no limits on resources. In a story you only had to wish, you only had to write it down and you could have the world; in a play you had to make do with what was available: no horses, no village streets, no seaside. No curtain. It seemed so obvious now that it was too late: a story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it. Reading a sentence and understanding it were the same thing; as with the crooking of a finger, nothing lay between them. There was no gap during which the symbols were unraveled. You said the word castle, and it was there, seen from some distance, with woods in high summer spread before it, the air bluish and soft with smoke rising from the blacksmith’s forge, and a cobbled road twisting away into the green shade…”

I just started work on a new short story, which, I suppose, is what reminded me of this passage from Atonement.

Photo: Eamon McCabe.

Quotable: José Saramago

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

I love Saramago’s work, and now that summer is here and I am not tied to any deadlines I have been able to indulge myself by reading those of his novels I hadn’t yet gotten to. Here is a little excerpt from The Double:

What do you do when you’re not at school, Oh, I read, listen to music, occasionally visit a museum, And what about the cinema, No, I don’t go to the cinema much, I make do with what they show on TV, You could buy a few videos, start a collection, a video library if you like, You’re right, I could, except that I haven’t even got enough space for my books,Well, rent some videos then, that’s the best solution, Well, I do own a few videos, science documentaries, nature programmes, archaeology, anthropology, the arts in general, and I’m interested in astronomy too, that sort of thing, That’s all very well, but you need to distract yourself with stories that don’t take up too much space in your head, I mean, given, for example, that you’re interested in astronomy, you might well enjoy science fiction, adventures in outer space, star wars, special effects, As I see it, those socalled special effects are the real enemy of the imagination, that mysterious, enigmatic skill it took us human beings so much hard work to invent, Now you’re exaggerating, No, I’m not, the people who are exaggerating are the ones who want me to believe that in less than a second, with a click of the fingers, a spaceship can travel a hundred thousand million kilometres,You have to agree, though, that to create the effects you so despise also takes imagination, Yes, but it’s their imagination, not mine,

Photo credit: here.

Quotable: Maxine Hong Kingston

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

Years ago, when I was an undergraduate student at Mohamed-V university, I was assigned Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. I remember very clearly reading that stunning first line (“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.”) and not being able to put down the book after that, despite having to reach for the dictionary so many times. That book resonated deeply with me for reasons that really didn’t become clear to me until a long time later. Yesterday, in my introduction to creative writing class at UC Riverside, my students and I discussed the opening chapter, “No-Name Woman.” This is how it closes:

The real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family’s deliberately forgetting her. Her betrayal so maddened them, they saw to it that she would suffer forever, even after death. Always hungry, always needing, she would have to beg food from other ghosts, snatch and steal it from those whose living descendants give them gifts. She would have to fight the ghosts massed at crossroads for the buns a few thoughtful citizens leave to decoy her away from village and home so that the ancestral spirits could feast unharassed. At peace, they could act like gods, not ghosts, their descent lines providing them with paper suits and dresses, spirit money, paper houses, paper automobiles, chicken, meat, and rice into eternity essences delivered up in smoke and flames, steam and incense rising from each rice bowl. In an attempt to make the Chinese care for people outside the family, Chairman Mao encourages us now to give our paper replicas to the spirits of outstanding soldiers and workers, no matter whose ancestors they may be. My aunt remains forever hungry. Goods are not distributed evenly among the dead.

My aunt haunts me-her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes. I do not think she always means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water. The Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute.

It was a useful chapter for our discussion of truth, whether in fiction or nonfiction.

Quotable: Yusef Komunyakaa

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

In my class yesterday, we discussed “Tu Do Street” by Yusef Komunyakaa, which appears in his collection Dien Cai Dau:

Music divides the evening.
I close my eyes & can see
men drawing lines in the dust.
America pushes through the membrane
of mist & smoke, & I’m a small boy
again in Bogalusa. White Only
signs & Hank Snow. But tonight
I walk into a place where bar girls
fade like tropical birds. When
I order a beer, the mama-san
behind the counter acts as if she
can’t understand, while her eyes
skirt each white face, as Hank Williams
calls from the psychedelic jukebox.
We have played Judas where
only machine-gun fire brings us
together. Down the street
black GIs hold to their turf also.
An off-limits sign pulls me
deeper into alleys, as I look
for a softness behind these voices
wounded by their beauty & war.
Back in the bush at Dak To
& Khe Sanh, we fought
the brothers of these women
we now run to hold in our arms.
There’s more than a nation
inside us, as black & white
soldiers touch the same lovers
minutes apart, tasting
each other’s breath,
without knowing these rooms
run into each other like tunnels
leading to the underworld.

That line–we fought/the brothers of these women/we now run to hold in our arms. It gets me every time.

Quotable: Margaret Atwood

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

In my advanced fiction class, we’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel my students seem to have fallen in love with, much to my delight. Here’s a small excerpt we discussed last week, when we talked about all the rules women (and men) are subjected to in the Republic of Gilead:

Women were not protected then.

I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the doo. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.

Now we walk the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

(Photo credit: George Whiteside/House of Anansi)

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