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Mar 07, 2013
A murderer, nothing more.Truth is not always an easy thing to come by. Any event that occurs reaches our ears and eyes from a vast assortment of new
A murderer, nothing more.Truth is not always an easy thing to come by. Any event that occurs reaches our ears and eyes from a vast assortment of new media, eyewitnesses, and other second-hand accounts, each with their own unique perspectives and agendas that all encode the same message into infinitely variable packages of information. We all become amateur detectives, sifting through the various accounts to decipher what we choose to believe, and thus creating our own unique perspectives of an event that we will inevitably pass along through our interactions and conversations with others. Javier Marías’ 2013 novel, Los Enamoramientos—re-dressed as The Infatuations to best accommodate the English language—is an incredible exploration of the detective work we all must undergo when attempting to deduct any semblance of truth about even the most seemingly common of tragedies that cross our paths. What is truly astounding is Marías' ability to create a novel with the exciting two-faced dealings and baffling plot twists typically found in fast action, blood-soaked thrillers out of a collaboration of scenes mainly comprised of late-night dialogues over a glass of wine in a quiet living room. Through a re-examination of Marías' standard themes of mortality and language, The Infatuations explores with prodigious depth the effects of death on the surrounding survivors lives as well as the labyrinthine complexities of trying to understand material reality through the fallible and distorted words of others.
Irreversible, unpredictable death casts its grim shadow across every page of the novel. Maria, the young female narrator working for a modern publishing house learns that the husband of a loving and attractive couple whom she has studied and admired from afar for years during her daily breakfast at a Madrid café has been brutally stabbed to death by a homeless man in a vacant street beneath the indifferent night sky. The reader follows Maria as the lives of the friends and family to the deceased Miguel enfolding around her while she plunges inwards towards the murder, each bestowing upon her their unique attitudes regarding death. Through the widow we see experience the loneliness and the shock of having an essential extension of their livelihoods stricken from existence, while through Javier—the deceased’s closest friend—we are treated to a seemingly calloused yet realistic perspective that those left alive must soldier forth and not bemoan past sorrows that inevitably shape us into the person we are at present.
We mourn our father, for example, but we are left with a legacy, his house, his money and his worldly goods, which we would have to give back to him were he to return, which would put us in a very awkward position and cause us great distress. We might mourn a wife or a husband, but sometimes we discover, although this may take a while, that we live more happily and more comfortably without them or, if we are not too advanced in years, that we can begin anew, with the whole of humanity at our disposal, as it was when we were young; the possibility of choosing without making the old mistakes; the relief of not having to put up with certain annoying habits, because there is always something that annoys us about the person who is always there, at our side or in front or behind or ahead, because marriage surrounds and encircles. We mourn a great writer or a great artist when he or she dies, but there is a certain joy to be had from knowing that the world has become a little more vulgar and a little poorer, and that our own vulgarity and poverty will thus be better hidden or disguised; that he or she is no longer there to underline our own relative mediocrity; that talent in general has taken another step towards disappearing from the face of the earth or slipping further back into the past, from which it should never emerge, where it should remain imprisoned so as not to affront us except perhaps retrospectively, which is less wounding and more bearable. I am speaking of the majority, of course, not everyone.While we mourn the lives that have been snuffed out, Javier posits that we must look to the future, the future left to those still retaining a pulse, and make the best of what we have. Our lives are a culmination of each event we experience and our lives are fragile and ephemeral, we should not waste the opportunities we have before the great mystery of death closes it’s inevitable curtains on our story. This viewpoint is initially jarring, however, as light is shed on the motives and character of Javier, we see that the opinions one holds reflect those that are in the best interest of the beholder—we rationalize our reality to accommodate our actions. What is aesthetically pleasing of this European edition of the novel is the thick black pages that precede and follow the novel, as well as the black hardback, which seem to reflect Javier’s presumed belief of death as being a void-like eternity mirroring the time we spend before birth. The novel itself then becomes the interactions of life between the bookends of eternity.
While we miss and long for those gone before us, the return of a person thought deceased may not be the happy reunion we all would fantasize it to be. Through a dissection of Balzac’s Le Colonel Chabert, Javier expounds the disastrous implications of such a from-the-grave return to Maria.
The worst thing that can happen to anyone, worse than death itself, and the worst thing one can make others dois to return from the place from which no one returns, to come back to life at the wrong time, when you are no longer expected, when it is too late and inappropriate, when the living have assumed you are over and done with and have continued or taken up their lives again, leaving no room for you at all.Our deaths become just another event, and life is made for moving on. Maria also offers her own dissertation into the return of one thought dead, reciting passages form The Three Musketeers when Athos’ fleur-de-lys adorned wife returns, seemingly from the grave in which he thought he had put her, as a sinful, murderous villain aligned with the enemy. We all play our part in the human comedy, but sometimes when our role has been written out of the lives of others, it is best to remain in the wings and not to reemerge, for our return, brining with it a heavy weight of former selves, no longer has a place in their lives now altered and reshaped by the hands of time. What is important to note is that these are truths held by the characters, and for reasons held hidden in their hearts but offer glimpses into their true motivations. Maria knows her affair with Javier has an expiration date, and that his real aim is with Luisa, the widow, for why else would he preach the importance of putting the dead behind us?
I would never know more than what he told me, and so I would never know anything for sure…Language is central to any work of Marías, and the plot is a convenient vessel in which he can explore the intricacies of words. Jorge Luis Borges once said that ‘language is an artificial system which has nothing to do with reality.’ ¹ Borges often examined the dualities of existence, the universe of physical material and action, and the universe of words, the latter being the method in which we attempts to convey the former. However, language can only probe essence of physical reality, can only build a model or imperfect mirror of it, and can never accurately reconstruct reality aside from giving a cathartic experience. With The Infatuations, Marías explores such imperfections and their effect on our attempts to reach any sort of truth. When someone speaks, they encode their message, their beliefs and intentions, into words, which are they decoded by the receiver. Each party exists in their own realm of perspectives built from preconceived opinions, agendas and experiences that must inevitably interact with their packaging and unpacking of any message, refurbishing it to our particular (and often subconscious) needs. Each message we receive shapes our opinions, from framing a new idea in our mid, reinforcing a previous belief, to offering contradictory or supplemental information that will alter our previous opinions. Marías delivers his novel in a method that takes the reader on a turbulent ride of altering opinions all filtered through the mind of the narrator. Long ‘what if’ scenarios play out in her mind, lengthy and engrossing enough for the reader to lower their guard and allow the information to shape their opinions, and the opinions formed then meet with actual interactions of the character. The preconceived notions constructed towards characters like Javier latch on to anything congruous and gives the reader a sense that they understand his motives and intentions. However, once new information accrues, we must reassess what we know, or think we know, as the truth wiggles and squirms just beyond our outstretched fingertips.
Everything becomes a story and ends up drifting about in the same sphere, and then it’s hard to differentiate between what really happened and what is pure invention. Everything becomes a narrative and sounds fictitious even if it’s true.As soon as we attempt to place material reality into words, we create a story, a unique perspective on an event tainted by our words and opinions. Even recounting mundane events forms a narrative of events that give a spin on reality. Truth is an unobtainable purity, like an asymptote it is something that we can reach for but never truly touch; the closest we can come to it through all our reshaping of opinions with each new version we encounter, is simply our own perspective of truth which, due to language, can never fully be the ideal 'truth' of events. Maria, and the reader must question any new information that is told to them, or heard in fragments through a closed bedroom door. What becomes particularly perplexing is realizing that everything the reader receives only occurs through the mind of Maria, and the reader must then not only run through the possible motives of those speaking to Maria, but also assess the motives and perspectives of Maria herself.
El enamoramiento - the state of falling or being in love, or perhaps infatuation. I’m referring to the noun, the concept… it’s very rare to have a weakness, a genuine weakness for someone, and for that someone to provoke in us that feeling of weakness. That’s the determining factor, they break down our objectivity and disarm us in perpetuity, so that we can in over every dispute…Who can be sure that any character is acting rationally, speaking truthfully, assessing any situation accurately, when their eyes are clouded by infatuation? While a murder and the mystery of why it occurred is central to the plot, the answers are superfluous; it is the examination of the attempt towards the answers, the probing of truth, that Marías parades in eloquent speech and ponderous musings for the reader to satisfy themselves upon. It is the deduction of each jigsaw piece, the faith in our ability to read others, the emotion of the chase and the game, that shines in incredible glory from each page of the novel. The reader is constantly met with discussions of perspectives and different ‘versions’ of truth, from varying translations and editions of Don Quixote, contradictory eyewitness testimonies of Miguel’s murder, to interesting artistic interpretations of Adam And Eve.
As in each Marías novel, the narrator and those around them are compelled to spill their stories; there is an utter compulsion to speak and let their version of the truth be heard. In Marías ‘ phenomenal novel Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, he highlights this desire to step out of the shadows and share what lurks within the dark recesses of the mind and heart.
[T]hey have merely been overcome or motivated by weariness and a desire to be whole, by their inability to continue lying or keeping silent, to go on remembering what they experienced and did as well as what they imagined, to go on remembering their transformed or invented lives as well as those they actually lived, to forget what really happened and to replace it with a fiction.These truths, or half-truths, are itching to come to life, and once they are spoken, they become the property of all those who have heard them, free to be reshaped by perspectives and passed along through endless permutations of fact and fiction. As Maria recounts her journey inward, she tells of characters as they attempt to distance themselves from the murder. However, can putting more versions of the truth between oneself and an event truly remove them from the violence? Does distancing oneself through chance remove responsibility? What is especially interesting to examine is that each opinion expressed is a reflection of the Teller. Maria, a character of Javier Marias, often paints in broad strokes while describing the motives and inner workings of women. This is initially troublesome, especially as women are depicted as subservient beings that pine after men and hang on their every action, giving the book a bit of a sexist taste. However, when remembering that these opinions belong to those of Maria, a character that just so happens to be rather submissive and infatuated as best serves the nature of the novel, it becomes understandable that she would assume that her feelings and actions are a generic representation of other women. As expressed in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, ‘our idea of justice changes according to our needs, and we always think that what we need is equivalent to what is just.’ ² Maria’s opinions on women serve to support her own needs, justifying her actions by believing that it is just the way people act.
While the journey is a bit rocky and certain aspects seem distasteful or cumbersome when they first occur, this is a novel that rewards the patient as everything is eventually weaved together to form an impressively poignant final amalgamation of the individual parts. Marías once again proves himself a master of language, with fantastic flowing discussions of death and carefully crafted sentences that ensure their linguistic subtleties will survive the repacking of translation. There are a few comical moments discussing authors, and a few vitriolic stabs at pretentious contemporary writing trends, that bring Marías’ own job as a translator at a publishing house to mind and wonder where his inspirations came from (there are a few jabs seemingly directed at himself as well that are sure to bring a smile). Despite having a slow burning story packed with philosophical reflections, this novel is full of incredible twists and turns that will keep the reader feverishly flipping the pages. This is a fantastic novel, but is best suited to those who are already familiar with Javier Marías.
‘There’s nothing like sharing round the guilt if you want to emerge from a murky situation smelling of roses.’
¹ A translation of this clip The following discussion on Borges in this review relies heavily on ideas expressed in stories such as Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.
² As well as re-examining several themes from TitBToM, fans of the author will be glad to see the return of Ruibérriz de Torres (also spotlighted in Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico). Marias seemingly makes Madrid his own Yoknapatawpha through his reoccurring characters and themes that bring the streets and underworld of his fictional Madrid to life and allow the reader repeat visits.
I highly recommend reading Mike's (who first introduced me to this wonderful author), as well as Garima's fantastic reviews. It was a pleasure reading and discussing this book together. ...more
Notes are private!
Apr 10, 2013
May 03, 2013
Feb 22, 2013
Oct 25, 2011
‘Nothing is like being breathed on by a life’
In youth, we foolishly chase away the days looking towards the future. Once we get there, we ‘Nothing is like being breathed on by a life’
In youth, we foolishly chase away the days looking towards the future. Once we get there, we realize the limited number of days remaining and look backwards, hoping we left enough of a mark on our race to the end so we can be remembered. Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s heart-warming The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am, winner of the Tarjei Vesaas First Book Prize in 2009, tells the story of Mathea Martinsen, an elderly woman whose crippling social anxieties have kept her removed from the world, as she fights back against her disappearance from all memory. Although Skomsvold wraps the reader up in her playful and engaging language as this quirky novel delights and entertains across it’s darkly comedic investigation of loneliness and the acceptance of death, the joy begins to stretch thin and being adorable isn’t nearly enough to hold the novel up.
Mathea Martinsen always took pride in her longevity, gloating at the names in the obituaries of whom she had outlived until time passes on – and Mathea does not, and her loneliness becomes a burden too heavy to bear. Her attempts to make herself known, and their successive failures, are endearing and cause the reader to open their hearts for Mathea. She has become practically invisible in the world, and while she is terrified to make contact with others, all she desires is to mingle with another person. ‘[I]f I was kidnapped five minutes later,’ she thinks after departing from the cashier at the local grocery store (she cannot open her jam jars, and is too afraid to ask the cashier to open it for her), ‘and the cops came by and showed him my picture, the buy would say he’d never seen me before in his life.’ This sort of dark humor fills the novel, and is often laugh-out-loud funny as the reader takes pity on her. Each trace of existence she tries to leave on the world is erased or to insignificant to make a mark, and it makes one wonder if our lives leave any significant remnants behind. ‘I wonder what will happen to all our things, they’ll probably be thrown out and all our memories with them.’ What we attach to ourselves with such significance is merely garbage without us to give them meaning.
The anxieties of the narrator are nearly heartbreaking as all her attempts to leave her mark go unnoticed. ‘Still I am just as afraid of living as I am of dying’. Through episodic accounts of her past and present, we see her slowly approaching death like an exposure therapy, stripping away her fears as she faces it step by step. Skomsvold does an incredible job of blending past and present to give the effect of a full life, carefully baiting the readers interest with an allusion to an event that isn’t revealed until later, and blending the timeline together to achieve a moving, yet tragic, reveal at the novel’s end. While the subject and the events are often dismal, her playful use of language and humor manage to transform the melancholy into a bittersweet, and often uplifting, narrative. This technique allows the reader to examine death head-on without being burdened by its bleakness. While Mathea wants to die (all her life she hopes any ambulance siren is headed for her), she simply won't and is afraid to. I recently saw an elderly woman, while leaving a family Christmas get-together, tell her great-granddaughter 'Goodbye, hopefully you won't see me again. I want to go but He just won't take me!' Everyone felt bad for the granddaughter (in her twenties) for having to hear this, yet I felt bad for the great-grandmother. This novel only reinforced my sympathy for her. However, there is not much hope to be found, only acceptance. Mathea mentions her dislike for the tongue, as it is a muscle only attached at one end. ‘It reminds me of everything I’ve lost. The kites I flew when I was a child – the string broke every time. The dog I walked, the leash that snapped…’. She is childless and nobody living knows her aside from the neighbors across the hall whom she avoids – she is a thread in life attached to nothing.
’The banana plant looks like a tree, just a big plant that has flowers without sex organs and fruit without seeds. Therefore… when the banana plant has lost its fruit, it dies. It was the meaninglessness of this cycle that made Buddha love the banana plant, which he believed symbolized the hopelessness of all earthly endeavors.’All that live must die. This is something we all must face, nobody can do it for us, and, as Mathea learns, sometimes life is more terrifying than death. We are all unique, she posits, yet if everyone is unique, that is not very unique. We are all a part of a totality, and death is easier to accept if we let go of our image of the individual and give in to the totality. ‘But sometimes you have to give meaning to meaningless things,’ is her succinct summing up the human condition. While the final sentiments of the novel, especially those between her and a deranged elderly man she speaks with in a park, are bleak, they fill the heart and make death seem a little less of a burden.
There was much to enjoy in this novel. The relationship between Mathea and her husband was both sad and cute. Skomsvold does a wonderful job of using his love of mathematical logic to emphasize the rift between their hearts and souls. His view of the world as a nice, orderly place where everything has meaning and leads to the next so clashes with the void in which she exists. His use of a venn diagram to explain that he is having an affair was a great touch, charming yet saddening, cold and calculated yet brimming with emotion. Often the whimsy language reminded me of a less bizarre Amelia Gray, and I often laughed aloud while reading the trials and tribulations of the endearing narrator. However, this wears thin, even in the short 147pgs of the novel and by the time it reaches its moving conclusion (and the last few pages are gold), it was time to say goodbye. This book is like a short, torrid relationship with someone whom you find irresistible at first because they are so adorable and quirky and different, but after a few weeks their quirks began to grow in your mind as flaws (the narrators insistance of making things rhyme got annoying after so long, although a round of applause is due to translator Kerri A. Pierce for making these rhymes work in english while still maintaining the full impact of Mathea's quips) and you realize the two of you are just simply not right for one another. Like the repetitive style of this book, you repeat the same dates or events that first caused your hearts to sing but begin to be revealed as a forced event to not let the magic disintegrate. Yet, despite your decision to break hearts and move on, you can’t speak ill of them either, as you do still find them cute and charming, but just not for you. In this small dose, it is great, but without cutting loose, it is the sort of over cutsey-ness that would drive me mad. Our time together was fun, but it didn’t satisfy me in the ways that I needed to be satisfied and I know there are other books out there that are a better match for me.
If you are looking for a good laugh while being immersed in a somber story, this is a wonderful novel. There are many that I can see absolutely loving this book, and it is one that is well-crafted enough that I hope it finds its way into the hands of readers that will love every word of it. Skomsvold is very talented and her words flow effortlessly as it weaves a tragic portrait of the life and times of Mathea Martinsen, and I will definitely be reading any other books from her when they get translated into English. Plus, she gets many cool points for quoting Knut Hamsun. A quick read that won’t fill your head with ideas to ponder, but will fill your heart.
‘What’s the point of having neighbors anyway? They walk around their apartments and act like they’re not going to die, but they’re going to die, the cashiers at the grocery store are going to die, and that old man with the walker is quite likey already dead now. You’ve earned your heavenly sleep, though our earthly sorrow’s deep.’
Notes are private!
Feb 27, 2013
Feb 28, 2013
Oct 24, 2012
Oct 01, 1997
‘It is unbearable that people we know should suddenly be relegated to the past.’
Death is inevitable. From the very first page of Javier Marías’ flawle ‘It is unbearable that people we know should suddenly be relegated to the past.’
Death is inevitable. From the very first page of Javier Marías’ flawlessly executed novel ‘Tomorrow In the Battle Think On Me’, death becomes a constant companion to the reader, always whispering in our ear the truths of our impermanence and the endless variety of possible deaths that await us – horrible deaths, ridiculous deaths, death that may make a stranger laugh when they read it in the paper. ‘Any dead life lasts longer than an inconstant lived life’ and our time spent beneath the sky leaves such a tiny trace once we are transferred to our time beneath the soil. However, every single moment of our living actions are intertwined with those around us and bear down in their memory. Through a narrator whose tightly knit, yet meandering ruminations serve as an exquisite investigation into the implications of storytelling and language, Marías examines the permanent marks the departed leave on our consciences, the voids their absence forms in our lives, and our endless interconnectivity as we are flung forward towards oblivion.
‘How little remains of each individual in time, useless as slippery snow, how little trace remains of anything…’ This chilling sentiment is often pondered by the narrator throughout this incredible novel. After a potential fling with a married woman is suddenly extinguished by her sudden death, our narrator must bear the burden of her memory, her name, and that of her young child whom he sets out a plate of food for before slipping away into the night, is forever etched into his conscience. ‘What a disgrace it is for me to remember your name, though I may not know your face tomorrow’ The lives of those lost slowly slip into ‘the reverse side of time, it’s dark back’, their features slowly fade in our memory; their belongings become redundant and useless - their personal charm washed away with the fleeting spirit; and slowly they dissolve from the world as we look to those alive and think on the dead less and less as time assuages the pain of their loss. While Marías often leaves the reader flailing in a vacuum, facing their inevitable oblivion, there is a sense of hope. There is hope in the fleeting ways we leave our living on the lives of those we encounter, cradled in their memories to cling to the world through them.
In this way, Marías presents a Madrid characterized by its ghosts. The living slip through the streets with carrying the ghosts of others in their minds and hearts, streets are named for famous fallen heroes, parks named for bombing mishaps during the war – the whole city is entrenched in its history. However, it is not only the dead who are faced with their dissolution, and all throughout the novel we are presented with characters slowing dissolving into oblivion despite the beating of their hearts. The narrator is a political ghostwriter who writes for another ghostwriter – a mere ghost of a ghost, a political leader that enlists his aid fears being forgotten and not leaving a mark on the memory of his people, and characters shroud themselves in mystery and shadows to avoid connection to a death. While it is unbearable to know another has died, it is equally unbearable to dissolving while still alive. Memory is the only way they can cling to the world as well, such as a sullen speech by the political figure, Solitaire aka Only the Lonely aka Only You etc., where he expresses fears that ‘the more reviled the person, the more memorable they are’. Those who hold secrets inside feel so burdened by them that they must eventually bring them out into the light, not because of a growing shame eating away at the soul, but because ‘they have merely been overcome or motivated by weariness and a desire to be whole.’ It is the bonds we form with others that builds a sense of permanence, by sharing memories or sharing our stories, we pass them on so that we can forge a space in the hearts of others that will continue after our own departure. Sometimes our ghosts can be a heavy burden, such as the film seen by the narrator (a film of Richard III) in which an old King is visited by the ghosts of those who lost their lives in his name, mocking him, cursing him: ‘tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword. Despair and die.’ The world is but a history of ghosts seeking remembrance in the hearts of the living, sometimes out of love, sometimes out of malice. Yet how much of another can be imposed upon us, since much is ‘of no interest to the person receiving it, who is busy forging his or her own memories.’ The real irony, however, is that even our sense of permanence, the fragments that do find their way into the minds of others, is just another form of fleeting impermanence. Those who hold us in our hearts will eventually rot away as well, taking our ghost to the grave with them.
’[E]verything is continually travelling on, everything is connected, some things drag other things along with them, all oblivious to each other, everything is travelling slowly towards its own dissolution the moment it occurs and even while it is occurring…’
The way our lives are connected is illuminated brilliantly through Marías. The way others are etched into our hearts like names on a tombstone only cracks the surface. Marías uses language in a unique and compelling way to tie everything together. Using repetition to revisit many of the narrator’s luscious meditations when they apply to a new situation, it is as if he doubles back to stich a new fold together in the narrative, carefully sewing all the events and ideas together to form one large potent message on life and death. i>When we go back to a very familiar place, the intervening time becomes compressed or is even erased and cancelled out for a moment as if we had never left, it is that unchanging space that allows us to travel in time.’ The way Marías juggles his themes and pulls all the vast array of ideas together in the closing scene makes for one of the most impressive conclusions to any novel I have ever read. It is nothing short of genius. Through this connection of ideas, Marías reminds us that this is a story being told to us, a story from one perspective turning the reality around him into a cast of characters to move about a narrative to express the way he perceived it, which opens up an incredible examination on language.
Not only is all of humanity connected, but words as well. Each word drags with it an assortment of connotations, which he examines in detail, each change from the usted to the tu and vice versa is dissected to extract a wealth of hidden meaning, and every word ‘is at once one thing and its contrary’ (an idea that Derrida would be pleased to see put to good use). It is our language that allows us to interact with one another beyond the purely physical, and while both leave us forever altered by any interaction with another, it is only through language that we are able to examine and express the ineffable impact of our collisions with the bodies and consciousness of others.
‘What a strange contact that intimate contact is, what strong, non-existent links it instantly forges, even though, afterwards, they fade and unravel and are forgotten…but not immediately after establishing those links for the first time, then they feel as if they were burned into you, when everything is fresh and your eyes still wear the face of the other person’The physical contact bonds us to others, and not only to those we immediately make contact with, but all those with whom we are now linked to by the process of our minds acknowledging that the other has contact with people beyond us and now we are linked to them through this chain of interaction. The narrator often tries to recall an old Anglo-Saxon term that failed to be adopted into the languages that stemmed from it, a term describing the bond between those who have shared a bed with the same person. The narrator feels an unbearable burden to acknowledge all the men he may ‘be related to Anglo-Saxon-style’, and posits that the word has not survived because ‘it isn’t easy to accept the act that it describes and it’s therefor better not to name it’, a ‘connection based on rivalry and unease and jealousy and drops of blood’. It is language that ties us together the most; language binds us with those around us and with those throughout all of human history.
Having repeatedly drawn our attention to language, Marías uses the entirety of his story to examine the act of storytelling. ‘I am the one who counts,’ he tells us, ‘the one telling the story and the one who decides who will speak… therein lies the pathetic superiority of the living, our temporary motive for triumph.’ It is not the victors who write history, but merely those who survive the events. ‘People are interpreted by other people’ and it is through language that we interpret others and our surrounding events, and language is ultimately a fallible device. Every word we utter drags its weight in connotations and the debris of both the teller and the listeners perceptions further taint each word. Marías gives us not only an unreliable narrator, but a narrator openly admitting to his unreliability while insisting upon it at the same time. ‘[N]o one does anything convinced of its injustice,’ he remarks as well as that ‘everything depends on the end result doesn’t it, and that includes everything, even if it’s only an instant in time, one particular action varies depending on the effect it has.’ This presents a reality in which truth and morality is subjective to an individual, and the reader must be ever conscious to see through the narrative as it is delivered by a mind utterly convinced of the validity of each action. What may come across as endearing could be viewed as creepy from an outside perspective, which is something we must all take to heart, remembering to think outside ourselves in our everyday interactions. If we do act in acknowledgement of the injustice of our actions, our soul buckles under the weight, and visions of ghosts may haunt us in our sleep. We become enshrouded in shadows, burdened by our desire to become whole again through the act of storytelling.
The most impressive idea is that once a story has left the lips of the teller, it becomes the property of all those that have heard it. While it may seem improbably that each speaker in the novel should be so well equipped to deliver such moving and poetic monologues as they do, it must be remembered that it is the narrator’s story, and there words are now his property to use and shape as he sees fit, to elaborate and polish. It is in his right to ‘forget what really happened and replace it with fiction’. He is by trade a ghostwriter, and wouldn’t it be only natural to ghostwrite the words of those he interacts with? However, what is most important is that this is a story being delivered unto us, the reader, to take hold in our hearts and minds, finding its own sense of immortality by being passed from one to another. When we seek meaning, entertainment, joy and solace in the words of a story, it isn’t the events that matter and why should it matter if they are fact or fiction, because it is how the story reverberates within us that matters most. It is how we internalize and reshape it to fit our ourselves so we can pass it on again.
’Our lives are often a continuous betrayal and denial of what came before, we twist and distort everything as time passes, and yet we are still aware, however much we deceive ourselves, that we are the keepers of secrets and mysteries, however trivial’This novel simply blew me away. It came highly recommended from an extremely trustworthy source, and managed to not only reach, but to jump leaps and bounds over my expectations. It is one of my favorite novels now. Marías is a master of language, meandering at every possible chance to cast a loquacious flashlight into each crevasse of thought along the way, yet keeping an incredible intensity as he builds this psychological masterpiece. The text is dense and macabre, yet darkly humorous and uplifting at the same time. His ability to tie such a wide range of ideas together is staggering, from large themes and motifs to clever repeated actions such as shoelaces coming untied to emphasize the idea of a life coming unraveled despite all attempts to hold it together. I confess I had an extremely difficult time putting together this review, there is too much to discuss and the only method of tying it all together into a feasible and comprehensive manner is to just read the novel. Or perhaps this book took such a hold on my heart that I feel any attempt to turn it over would spoil and tarnish it with my fingerprints. This novel is truly amazing, and a truly amazing portrait of our struggle to find handholds in eternity while being sucked into oblivion.
‘When things come to an end they have a number and the world then depends on its storytellers, but only for a short time and not entirely, they never fully emerge from the shadows, other people are never quite done and there is always someone for whom the mystery continues.’
Notes are private!
Feb 02, 2013
Mar 05, 2012
Dec 27, 1989
‘…for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but in ‘…for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge…’
To enter within the pages of Woolf’s 1927 masterpiece, To the Lighthouse, is to dive headlong into a maelstrom of vivid perspectives and flawless prose. Few authors are able to achieve the vast scope of human emotions and frustrations as of this novel, let alone accomplish such a task in the mere 209pgs Woolf offers. Flowing to the breezy soundtrack of waves breaking upon the shoreline, To the Lighthouse investigates the frailties of life and human relationships in breathtaking prose through the minds and hearts of Woolf’s characters as they struggle to affect a state of permanence within an ever-changing ephemeral existence.
Reading Woolf is like reading an extended prose poem. Each word shimmers from the page as every sentence illuminates the deep caverns of the heart. She accentuates her themes through carefully chosen imagery and metaphors, or constantly alluding to the passage of time themes through metaphors of fraying draperies and aging furniture and keeping the focus on the island setting through descriptions such as ‘bitter waves of despair’. The notion of each person as an island plays a major role in the novel. The waves continuously crash on shore much like the collision of characters as they interact and attempt to understand one another. These repetitions of ideas and symbols are used through this novel as a method of reinforcing them. Similarly, the characters often repeat their own beliefs, much like a mantra, to help reassure themselves of who they are.
Woolf effectively utilizes her own stream-of-consciousness style to tell her story, examining each characters unique perspectives and feelings of one another that culminate to form a tragically beautiful portrait of the human condition. Unlike the stream-of-consciousness technique employed by others such as James Joyce or William Faulkner, Woolf retains a consistence prose style, being more an observer of the inner-workings of each character instead of melding with their consciousness and writing in their own words. While this may seem a cop-out to some, it felt actually beneficial to the structure of this novel, such as allowing Woolf to seamlessly transition from character to character. This also was in keeping with the ‘person as an island’ theme since we could only observe through an authorial perspective and never truly know commune with the character, leaving the reader as just another wave crashing upon the shoreline of their consciousness. Late in the novel, Lily ponders over the power of narrating what one thinks a person is like as a method of understanding them: ‘this making up scenes about them, is what we call “knowing” people, “thinking” of them, “being fond” of them!’ There are several metafictional moments such as this within the novel that justify Woolf’s stylistic choices. Woolf’s decision to maintain a constant narration makes the book ‘about’ perspectives instead of ‘constructed out of’ perspectives.
Human interaction is the crux of this novel, and also one of its saddest messages. These characters interact daily and are under the constant scrutiny of one another, yet, try as they might, they can never truly understand each other. ‘She would never know him. He would never know her. Human relations were all like that, she thought, and the worst were between men and women’. They all try to leave their impressions upon one another but, at the end of the day, are still only left with their perspective and opinion of the others instead of the unity and knowledge of who their contemporaries truly are inside and what motivates their actions. They are forever separated by the fact that souls cannot ever meld and become one. The real tragedy is that these characters, while desiring to understand and be understood, more often than not hurt one another, often due to fear and insecurity, through their attempts of reaching into the others soul. Mr. Ramsey, while being exceptionally needy of praise and security, keeps his family at arms length through his neediness while resenting them and wishing they would leave him be: ‘he would have written better books if he had not married’.
These characters reach out to one another as if to a life raft, they need something to cling to and bind them with the present. Each character in their own way, be it Mr. Ramsey’s philosophy, Mr. Carmichael’s poetry, Lily’s paintings or Mrs. Ramsey’s guiding hand, attempt to leave their permanent scar on the face of eternity. Mrs. Ramsey in particular fears death and the unstoppable change that pushes us forward towards the grave. ‘A scene that was vanishing even as she looked…it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past’. She watches in horror as time slips by, firmly believing nothing good can come with the future and goes so far as to cover up Deaths bleak head in the form of a boars skull that hangs on her children’s walls. ‘With her mind she had already seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base fir the world to commit… No happiness lasted’. No matter what, time will pass us all by, like the lighthouse beam, illuminating us and calling us up from the dark for one brief moment, and then passing on again to leave us formless in the dark. If is fitting, given the fears of death and time passing, that death comes in this novel swiftly and suddenly. There is no telling when the beam of life will be gone, no preparations can be made, and we must deal with it. Such is existence. These fears can only be subsided, our lives given meaning, if we can reach each other, understand and love each other, thereby existing forever in memory and framed by love in the hearts of those we knew.
This novel takes much inspiration from Woolf’s own life (Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey being based on Virginia’s own parents, making this an elegy to her own mother as well as an elegy to Mrs. R) and doubly serves as a cutting commentary on the literary world in which Woolf was immersed. Woolf set out to oppose the obdurate male society that dominated the literary scene, Tansley’s words to Lily of ‘women can’t paint, women can’t write’ echoing a stereotype that Woolf would have had to combat her whole life. Woolf combats the patriarchy through this novel, creating a sleek, short masterpiece as opposed to the behemoth (but equally amazing) Ulysses, filled with attacks on the ‘masculine intelligence’ and making parody of the male opinions on women. Often the reader is given the opinion though a male perspective that ‘women made civilization impossible with all their “charm”, all their “silliness”…’, yet these same men crave the attention and affection of Mrs. Ramsey – they fly into an anxious fit without the reassurance of the women. They spend their time thinking lofty thoughts, but it is the women that keep order. Mrs. Ramsey despises such masculine activities as hunting and is the head of the household and the keeper of peace, yet she still reads as a bit of a cautionary tale. She still succumbs to the gender roles expected of her, such as being submissive to Mr. Ramsey and playing matchmaker – although this serves more as her attempt to maintain control over life than actually falling into stereotypes. Lily is therefor given as the ideal, the one who can press on despite naysayers like Tansley, be a self-sustaining, ambitious woman that keeps an understanding and open heart and painting those around her into eternity through her perseverance.
This was without a doubt one of the finest novels I have ever read. Woolf offers pages after page of incredible poetry, never letting up for an instant. It takes a bit to get your footing, as she drops the reader right into the scene without any exposition, but once you have found your bearings your heart will swell with each flawless word. The middle section of the novel, the brief 20pgs of ‘Time Passes’, may be one of the most enduring and extraordinary displays of writing I have ever seen. This novel will force the reader to face the bleak truths of change and death along with the characters, yet offer a glimmer of hope through unity and love that is sure to strike a chord in even the coldest of hearts, all the while being a stunning anthem of feminism. This is a novel to read, and read again and again as you witness your own present and future fade into the past.
‘Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures’
This novel came highly recommended to me through two trusted friends, whose reviews I would like to share with you here and here.
But don’t just take our word for it, because this is one that should not be missed!
Notes are private!
Aug 26, 2012
Sep 06, 2012
Aug 17, 2012
Apr 25, 2012
Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago is an author I can only speak lovingly of. He has such a charm and warm glow about his prose that fills my heart with eac Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago is an author I can only speak lovingly of. He has such a charm and warm glow about his prose that fills my heart with each word from his pen. Sadly, he is no longer with us, but his passing has reinvigorated an interest in his publication that has brought several volumes of posthumous releases and newly translated works to help fill the void his absence has created. The Lives of Things is one such work, appearing for the first time in English and comprised of six stories previously published in 1978. These short pieces offer a unique look at his early writing, powerful in its own regard, and displays glimpses of themes he would mold and expand upon throughout his impressive career.
The dilemma with reviews is how to review a book that you really enjoy, but one that falls slightly short of the great achievements by that same author. The 3 stars I reluctantly awarded seems a slighting on this collection, but I assure you it is not so. To place 4 stars on the review would then align it in the same category as I have rated many of his other books, wholly deserving, and this collection does not quite have the same impact as, say, Blindness. Also, when hearing there was a book of his short stories coming out, I was very excited, but felt a bit underwhelmed when I discovered it was such a slim volume. Basically, this is a giant self-serving disclaimer and you may now continue forth knowing this is a very high 3, or a 7.5/10.
Each story contained is very satisfying, and shows a younger author building an enviable style. It is interesting to see how he has progressed, as much of the sentence structure found here is more truncated than his later works. Also, Saramago’s signature rejection of dialogue conventions have yet to be developed at this point. Instead of the fascinating and unique way of dialogue as an unbroken sentence pulsating back and forth between interlocutors, in these stories we see Saramago using the em-dash and line breaks to flag dialogue while still avoiding calling out the speaker. His grasp on language and the sheer poetry of his words are anything but wanting however, and fans of Saramago will find many golden passages to bask in. Saramago pays strict attention to colors in many of these stories, which I need to reread his later work to see how that survived. His exciting and loving way of toiling through phrasing and circling around ideas is ever present as well, and gave me exactly what I crave most in his works. For example, the first story, The Chair, consists of a mere few seconds of time and space, which he exploits for nearly 30 pages of pure poetic investigation, elevating the breaking of a chair to epic proportions complete with Western-style showdowns between termite and wood that could rival Tombstone. 4 pages pass before he even gets on with it, choosing to examine the notion of the phrases ‘to come to bits’ and 'topple over'. I’ve always enjoyed his method of picking apart the shortcomings of language:
If they were to say the same thing, if they were to group together through affinity of structure and origin, then life would be much simpler, by means of successive reduction, down to onomatopoeia which is not simple either, and so on and so forth, probably to silence, to what we might term the general synonym or omnivalent. It is not even onomatopoeia, or cannot be formed from this articulated sound (since the human voice doe not have pure, unarticulated sounds, except perhaps in singing, and even then one would have to listen up close) formed in the throat of the person who is toppling or falling although no star, both words with heraldic echoes, which now describe anything which is about to come to pieces, therefor it did not sound right to join the parallel ending to this verb, which would settle the choice and complete the circle. Thus proving that the world is not perfect.
The world may not be perfect, but Saramago, you were damned close.
As with many of his novels, the settings of these stories feel wholly universal and timeless, attributing a fable-like mythology to the places spoken of. His satirical wit is shown to already be sharpened as he comically depicts the lives of civil servants, royalty, and the chains of command. His political parables are just as poignant today as they were in 70’s, and readers today will empathize with the man in Embargo as they watch the gas prices rise with the summer temperatures. I cannot fill up my tank now without thinking of his plight. Many of these allegorical themes will be familiar to the Saramago reader, and it is interesting to see the initial blueprints of many larger ideas and motifs in later novels. Stories like Reflux, where a walled off necropolis is constructed to remove the sight of death from a kingdom, seem to live on as the sprawling cemetery in All the Names, as well as the civil servant in Things. Death plays the largest role in the works of Saramago, and here too, as it is the common denominator of each story. Sometimes mocking, sometimes foreboding, but always with the aim of redemption does Saramago approach our inevitable end.
Let it be known that the story Things is worth the price of admission alone. A city begins to fall to pieces, both literally and figuratively, as the government decrees that all products must be made with lower standards of quality because there ‘was little point depriving members of the public (especially those in categories A, B, and C) of the civil right to lodge complaints; a wise decision which could only benefit the manufacturing companies.’ Hilarious right? Until man-made objects begin vanishing – entire apartment buildings disappearing into thin air sending the residents plummeting several stories to their deaths. Applying a wry satire on Government procedure, social status and abbreviations, this story is shocking and satisfying in a way that makes in seem like the best of Vonnegut crossed with P.K.D. The remainder of the stories are all worth a read still too. The probing of myth in the face of death in Minotaur and the highly ethereal Revenge will leave you craving for more of this great writer.
While this is early, unpolished Saramago, it is still of the highest caliber. I would, however, not recommend it as a starting place for new readers (except for Things), as having a bit of built-up love for the man will serve as a good pair of shocks over the few bumps and potholes. The man started strong and ended stronger, and this is a wonderful way to enjoy him in short bursts.
Notes are private!
Apr 30, 2012
May 11, 2012
Apr 30, 2012
Oct 06, 2008
Out of the half dozen Saramago novels I have read, this is actually my favorite. It may have been due in part that I devoured most of it while seated Out of the half dozen Saramago novels I have read, this is actually my favorite. It may have been due in part that I devoured most of it while seated upon the sun soaked banks of a river this past July, but this short little work really struck me. It is so unique and imaginative and this book was just a really fun read. Despite it's focus of death and all, it isn't quite as heavy as most of his novels and will make you laugh at the dark abyss of death as most of this novel is actually darkly humorous. There is no traditional plot for the first two thirds of the novel as Saramago displays his story with a broad shot that encompasses all facets of his deathless phenomenon.
The first part of the novel is more or less Saramago's imagination exploring all sides of his idea. Saramago takes something most people would view as a great joy - to live forever - and puts it on an ugly display as a terrifying curse. Namely, just because you live forever doesn't mean you don't suffer bodily harm. He tells of people with their guts spilled out somehow living on and other horrific conditions to a similar effect. He goes on to explain how this also practically ruins the economy and brings about the maphia (who choose this with a 'ph' to separate themselves from the regular mafia) who create more undying corpses if you don't bow to their wishes. Wow. What a disaster of a world is made in the first 100 pages.
In the second section of the novel, Saramago zooms in and shows this event on a small scale; his major focus is on death herself and how she relates to the world. Saramago's death character was fascinating and different than any traditional image of death (speaking of tradition death, there is a funny bit where the government takes all the traditional images of death and uses technology to see what these skull images would look like with a human face) and he actually manages to make death a likeable, empathizable character. I won't go into the plot and spoil what happens in case you have not yet read this, but I never thought I'd read a book about Death as a main character and describe it as 'cute' and like it for that. Saramago once again does the impossible and all I can say is that after the last page you can't help but say "aww".
As a note of caution, Saramago has a unique style that tends to turn people away and this slightly bothers me. It is NOT difficult to read, give it a few pages and I promise you will grasp it. It flows surprisingly well. Also, Saramago has a very distinct voice that I can't get enough of. He speaks directly to you as a reader and he talks at his characters in a very fatherly, loving fashion that lets you see how proud he is of his own creations. He has a very good way of telling a story, often justifying his reasons for why he chose to tell it the way he does in a funny, unique manner. I would highly recommend this to any Saramago fan, and to anyone new to this Nobel laureate's works although I think Blindness might be a better starting point.
Notes are private!
Sep 24, 2011
Dec 06, 2002
‘Honest people don't hide their deeds.’
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a dark and enormously fervent tale of love and obsession. This is not love ‘Honest people don't hide their deeds.’
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a dark and enormously fervent tale of love and obsession. This is not love with lace, frills and flowers, but shorn of all the decorous notions to reveal an intensity more akin to beast than man.
It is no surprise that this novel was tough for early critics to swallow, with many citing unlikeable characters and going so far as to declare that the book ‘ presents such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity’ (from a review published by The Atlas, found on the wiki article). This is by no means a ‘pleasant’ novel, the atmosphere calls up gothic imagery and emotions with cold, dark, windy nights, gnarled scenery and hushed voices, yet this allows the novel to seize your heart strings and drive you into the madness. The characters are bawdy and cruel, and victims to their raging emotions. The love is passionate and violent and reveals the deep corridors of the heart to be a wild animalistic place.
Brontë’s use of language is fantastic. Some of the more powerful statements on love and obsession are to be found within her pages: ‘If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.’ Plus, she employs an interesting narrative technique that sets her apart from her contemporaries. The novel is told through an observer, who is relatively inconsequential to the actions at hand for most of the novel. Through journals and first-hand accounts of those around him, he pieces together a morbid family history. This allows for multiple voices and perspectives, and keeps the story fresh and flowing. There are slight issues, as a majority of the first half of the book is told through the housekeeper, who recounts the past in potent poetic prose, yet speaks plainly in actual speech. Plus one has to believe that she was able to remember word for word all the loquacious speeches and arguments of the characters. However, a little suspension of disbelief isn’t asking much and this technique is used all the time without complaint, plus I’ll believe in anything as long as it keeps the novel functioning well. And this novel functions with the best of them.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress points out that much of this book is just people looking through windows. That is totally accurate. This book will look into the window of the human heart and show you the true emotions of love.This novel is a classic, and rightfully so. It is such a shame that it was her only novel, as with a bit more polishing she could have turned out a shiny diamond of a novel. However, it is the unpolished intensity of this torrid affair that really shines brighter than any diamond ever could.
Notes are private!
Sep 24, 2011
Sep 24, 1990
‘Moments like this are buds on the tree of life.’
Our lives are an elaborate and exquisite collage of moments. Each moment beautiful and powerful on th ‘Moments like this are buds on the tree of life.’
Our lives are an elaborate and exquisite collage of moments. Each moment beautiful and powerful on their own when reflected upon, turned about and examined to breath in the full nostalgia for each glorious moment gone by, yet it is the compendium of moments that truly form our history of individuality. Yet, what is an expression of individuality if it is not taken in relation to all the lives around us, as a moment in history, a drop in a multitude of drops to form an ocean of existence? Virginia Woolf enacts the near impossibility in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ of charting for examination and reflection the whole of a lifeline for multiple characters, all interweaving to proclaim a brilliant portrait of existence itself, all succinctly packaged in the elegant wrappings of a solitary day. Akin to Joyce’s monumental achievement, Ulysses, Woolf’s poetic plunge into the minds and hearts of her assorted characters not only dredges up an impressively multi-faceted perspective on their lives as a whole, but delivers a cutting social satire extending far beyond the boundaries of the selective London society that struts and frets their 24 hours upon the stage of Woolf’s words.
‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’
This simple phrase is one any serious student of literature would recognize lest they fear an inadequacy of appearance in the eyes of their collegiate classmates, much in the way a great deal of actions in Mrs Dalloway is a learned behavior for the sake of appearances. ‘Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame,’ and much of what we do out of habit, out of adherence to social standards, is what upholds the society at hand and shapes the civilization of the times. Woolf’s novel hinges upon manners and social standings, highlighting a withering hegemony during the a period of change and rebirth with society marching forward into an uncertain and unrestrained future following the first World War. However, before getting too far ahead into a broad scope, it is imperative to examine the immediate and singular implications of the novel. Much of Mrs Dalloway is deceptively simplistic, using the singular as a doorway into the collective, and offering a tiny gift of perfect that can be unpacked to expose an infinite depiction of the world. Take the title, for instance. In most cases, the central character is referred to as Clarissa Dalloway, yet it was essential to place Mrs Dalloway first and foremost in the readers mind to forever bind their impression of her as a married woman, an extension of Mr. Richard Dalloway. In comparison, Miss Kilman is never addressed in text without the title ‘Miss’ to emphasize her unmarried—and, in terms of the social standings of the time, inferior—position in society; or even Ellie Henderson whose poverty doesn’t even earn her a title of marital status in the eyes of the Dalloway circle, forever condemned to a singular name inconsequential to anything. Just the indication of Clarissa as the wife of a member of government expands well beyond her status as an individual to open a conversation about social implications.
‘Mrs Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence.’
Personal identity plays a major theme within the novel with each character’s entire life on display simply through their actions and reflection within the solitary June day. Clarissa is examined through a weaving of past and present as she tumbles through an existential crises in regards to her position as the wife of a dignitary and as a the perfect party host. ‘Why, after all, did she do these things? Why seek pinnacles and stand drenched in fire? Might it consume her anyhow?’ Through her interactions with Peter, the reader is treated to her romantic lineage, rejecting Peter for the safer, more social circle security of Robert, which gives way to a questioning if she is merely a snob. Furthermore, the reader witnesses Clarissa in her heights of emotion through her friendship with Sally Seton¹, a relationship that seems to transcend the rigid gender roles of the time.
The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one’s feeling for a man. It was completely disinterested, and besides, it had a quality which could only exist between women.Virginia Woolf’s own sexuality has been a topic of interest over the years, and the relationship between Clarissa and Sally—the kiss shared between them being considered by Clarissa to be a notable peak of happiness in her life—is open to interpretation. However, this aspect of Clarissa’s life and identity allows for one of the numerous footholds of feminism found throughout the text, giving way to an image of Sally rejecting standard gender roles through examples such as her openly smoking cigars. Through Clarissa we see a desire of life, of not becoming stagnant, of not ‘being herself invisible; unseen; unknown…this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.’ There must be a way to separate from the society, to form an identity beyond social conventions or gender, to find life in a world hurtling towards death.
‘Once you fall, Septimus repeated to himself, human nature is on you.’
As a foil to the character of Clarissa, Woolf presents the war-torn Septimus. While Clarissa finds meaning in her merrymaking because ‘what she liked was simply life’, and bringing people together to be always moving towards a warm center of life, Septimus is shown as moving outwards, stolen away from the joys of life through his experiences of bloodshed in battle.
So there was no excuse, nothing whatever the matter, except the sin for which human nature had condemned him to death; that he did not feel.While Clarissa grapples with her fear of death, ‘that is must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all,’ Septimus finds life, a never-ending spiral of guilt for not feeling beset by visions of his fallen comrade, to be a fearsome and loathsome beast. Doctors would have him locked away (a dramatic contrast to the lively parties hosted by Clarissa), and even his own wife forges an identity of guilt and self-conscious sorrow for upholding a clearly disturbed husband. This is a haunting portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, the latter fmuch like Woolf herself suffered. Septimus and Clarissa are like opposite sides to the same coin, however, and many essential parrallels exist between them. Both find solace in the works of Shakespeare², both obsess over a lonely figure in an opposing window (one of Septimus’ last impressions in the land of the living), and both trying to express themselves in the world yet fearing the solitude that their failures will form for them. Even his inability to feel is similar to the love felt by Clarissa: 'But nothing is so strange when one is in love (and what was this except being in love?) as the complete indifference of other people.'
Death becomes an important discussion point of the novel, with each character trying to define themselves in the face of, or in spite of, their impending demise. Peter so fears death that he follows a stranger through town, inventing an elaborate fantasy of romance to blot out the deathly darkness. Yet, it is in contrast to death that we find life. Clarissa’s desire for communication, community and life is only given weight in relation to the news of death that invades her party.
Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; repute faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.
What is most impressive about Mrs Dalloway is the nearly endless array of tones and voices that Woolf is able to so deftly sashay between. While each character is unique, it is the contrast between death and life that she weaves that is staggeringly wonderful. Right from the beginning, Woolf treats us to a feast of contrast.
For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed…but it was over; thank Heaven – over. It was June…and everywhere, thought it was still early, there was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats…Cold death and warm life on a sunny June day all mingle together here, and throughout the novel. And we are constantly reminded of our lives marching towards death like a battalion of soldiers, each hour pounded away by the ringing of Big Ben. This motif is two-fold, both representing the lives passing from present to past, but also using the image of Big Ben as a symbol of British society. The war has ended and a new era is dawning, one where the obdurate and stuffy society of old has been shown to be withered and wilting, like Clarissa’s elderly aunt with the glass eye. Not only are the lifelines of each character put under examination, but the history of the English empire as well, highlighting the ages of imperialism that have spread the sons of England across the map and over bloody battlefields. Clarissa is a prime example of the Euro-centrism found in society, frequently confusing the Albanians and Armenians, and assuming that her love of England and her contributions to society must in some way benefit them. ‘Byt she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?)’ In contrast is Peter, constantly toying with his knife—a symbol of masculinity imposed by an ideal enforced by bloodshed and military might—to evince not only his fears of inadequacy as a Man (fostered by Clarissa’s rejection for him and his possibly shady marriage plans), but his wishy-washy feelings of imperialism after spending time in India.
Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks—all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.Mrs Dalloway is nearly overwhelming in scope despite the tiny package and seemingly singular advancements of plot. Seamlessly moving between the minds and hearts of each character with a prose that soars to the stratosphere, Woolf presents an intensely detailed portrait of post-war Europe and the struggles of identity found within us all. While it can be demanding at times, asking for your full cooperation and attention, but only because to miss a single second would be a tragic loss to the reader, this is one of the most impressive and inspiring novels I have ever read. Woolf manages to take the scale of Ulysses and the poetic prowess of the finest poets, and condense it all in 200pgs of pure literary excellence. Simple yet sprawling, this is one of the finest novels of the 20th century and an outstanding achievement that stands high even among Woolf's other literary giants. This novel has a bit more of a raw feel when compared to To the Lighthouse, yet that work is nothing short of pure perfection, a novel so highly tuned that one worries that even breathing on it will tarnish it's sleek and shiny luster. Dalloway stands just as tall, however, both as a satire on society and a powerful statement of feminism. A civilization is made up of the many lives within, and each life is made up of many moments, all of which culminating to a portrait of human beauty. Though at the end of life we must meet death, it is through death we find life.
It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.
¹ With regards to the discussion of marital titles, Sally Seton later becomes Lady Rosseter through marriage. This title further emphasizes marriage as a means of climbing the social ladder, with Sally seen in the past as an impoverished, rebellious ragamuffin, yet through marriage gains an aura of dignity. Perhaps Sally becoming a housewife is a statement on the society of the times suffocating feministic freedoms.
² There is an interesting rejection of Shakespeare found most notably in the characters of Richard Dallowlay and Lady Bruton. This emphasized the dying British society as a cold and artless being, devoid of emotion. This is most evident through Richard Dalloway, seen as a symbol of British society, as he fails to express his emotions of love towards his wife.
Notes are private!
Feb 20, 2014
‘What's the purpose of being with someone if they don't change your life?’
There are some books that can be consumed in a singular hour, yet remain wit ‘What's the purpose of being with someone if they don't change your life?’
There are some books that can be consumed in a singular hour, yet remain within you to be digested by the intellect for days or weeks. Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai is such a book. The precise simplicity of the novel makes it a difficult book to talk as the novella feels as fragile as an intricately colored moth’s wing—admire its beauty but don’t touch it lest it turn to dust. There is a feeling of weightlessness to the prose and story that still manages to weigh heavy in the heart and soul upon completion. It is the story of two young lovers, lovers of one another and literature, and what happens to them once they part. It is as simple as that, yet complex in its mechanics and implications. Like the bonsai grown by Julio, the story exists and flourishes within the confines of its literary container, with Zambra’s pristine prose trimming the limbs of love to enshrine it as a miniature work of art and beauty.
There is a sweet simplicity and breathless fluidity to this tiny novel. Characters silently sweep on and off the stage, love is found and lost within the length of a paragraph, revelations are made and people are lost forever, all without rising from a soft idyllic tone that Zambra executes with the care of one polishing expensive glassware. Broken into five short segments, each comes like a delicate waves on the ocean, each separate with their own emotional peak to crash onto our heart’s shores yet all one body of literature moving together. There is also a wry humor integrated in the otherwise somber plot that gives it wings and keeps it from plummeting into melodrama. What is most impactful is the way that Zambra circles around the story yet never jabs his pen into it’s heart, keeping everything in the hazy peripherals of a story that need not be addressed head on as the reader already understands it’s shape.
‘In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature.’
This is a novel of love, but most importantly a novel about literature. Zambra shows his hand, plot-wise, from the very first sentence, entrusting the reader to understand that this is an exercise of literature and that the ‘from A to B’ plot is secondary, a mere current of events to power the lightbulb of ideas. There is a gorgeous character study at play: Julio and Emilia, two college students become lovers ‘doomed to seriousness.’ These two could be anyone, symbols really for any two people connected by ‘the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort.’ Much of the simplicity, and the way Zambra refers to Julio and Emilia ‘who are not exactly characters, though maybe it’s convenient to think of them as characters,’ helps build a universal microcosm of relationships. Anyone that has loved or loved and lost can find charm in the hazy tale Zambra has created. Julio and Emilia lie to one another on their first sexual encounter, both claiming to have read Marcel Proust, and embellish the lies with partly-true details to bring their falsehoods to life. In a way, they are creating literature and as their relationship continues, full of lies and truths and half-truths like any young couple, they further their depth as characters both literally and metaphysically. Any lover of literature is sure to be charmed by their sexual foreplay consisting of reading to one another, from role-playing Madame Bovary (neither ever wanted to be Charles), and the way they ‘re-read’ Proust together. It is their reading of the short story Tantalia¹ by Macedonio Fernández—a story of a couple who fear the survival of their relationship is dependant on the life of a clover plant the unnamed woman gives the man as a symbol of love, that gives them pause and reveals the mortality of theirs and all relationships.
‘Once outside its flowerpot, the tree ceases to be a bonsai.’
When Julio decides to grow a bonsai, he discovers a few key lines in a care manual:
A bonsai is an artistic replica of a tree, in miniature. It consists of two elements: the living tree and the container. The two elements must be in harmony and the selection of the appropriate pot for a tree is almost an art form in itself.The opening sentence, ‘in the end she dies and he remains alone,’ becomes the container from which the story—the ‘the rest is literature,’ grows and flourishes. The people that come and go from their lives are like the limbs of the bonsai tree which are carefully cut to grow in a desired shape. However, the story itself is a series of containers. Julio writes a novel about a man who learns of the death of a lost love (this being before Julio learns of Emilia’s death) and grows a bonsai as a love plant in her honour, the story of which, later, Julio will act out in his own life. The story of the bonsai is the literature that grows from the container of Fernandez’s story, Tantalia, and finds itself actually occurring on several levels of the narrative; there is a doubling, or tripling and so forth, of meaning that all functioning in relation to one another, a meta-narrative style that works nearly like two mirrors reflecting back at one another with a bonsai situated between them. The bonsai ‘an artistic replica...in miniature,’ is then Julio’s novel, but also the novel itself with so many self-referential aspects that it teases the reader into fantasizing an intentional fallacy and pondering if the Zambra wrote his novel in relation to Tantalia as did Julio, and if the love plot has any half-truths in Zambra’s own life. It is the intricate potting of a story within a story that really sticks with the reader, the half-truths of life that go on to become a work of art, the literature housed in the container of experience.
Bonsai is a quiet little novel with quite the emotional punch. It displays a budding promise for it’s young author, who would later make good on those promises with The Private Lives of Trees, which I found to be even more emotionally impactful. What I love most is the way this novella makes literature seem like the most important aspect of life. The fragility of life and love is explored in beautiful and breathless prose that makes this elliptical little novel well worth the time.
‘I want to end Julio’ story, but Julio’s story doesn’t end, that’s the problem.’
¹ A big thank you to Mike and Matt for sending me Tantalia, a quite insightful story that is also key to unlocking the heart of Zambra’s own story.
Notes are private!
Dec 03, 2014
Oct 16, 1996
‘What’s so wrong with a man who is fond of Social Tea and Biscuits?’
Much like the word that serves as the namesake of Gordon Lish’s 1996 novel, Epigra ‘What’s so wrong with a man who is fond of Social Tea and Biscuits?’
Much like the word that serves as the namesake of Gordon Lish’s 1996 novel, Epigraph, Lish has created a duality of self that runs—or, more appropriately, writes amok through the darkly comedic novel. After the death of his wife, Barbara, who shares the same name and tragic demise as Gordon Lish the author’s own wife, character Gordon Lish writes a series of letters to those surrounding him from the in-home nurses to the church, hospital and even to the recently departed. Gordon—Gordon!— Lish simply wants to understand and be understood, to reach out for affection and caress the human bond, but his methods are not exactly the most polite (‘I want to see your bosoms,’ he writes in a letter to a nurse praising her months of service.’Yours are the bosoms that tremble, not the bosoms that shake.’) and Lish reverts into bitter assaults when bitten or an admission of being ‘pooped’ and overwhelmed. My personal favorite letters concern the refusal to return the hospital bed and his various reasons for not doing so, or the scathing letters in response to the deceased being summoned for jury duty. The novel, composed solely of his letter, is a one-sided conversation that manages to hone in on the humanity of the situation and allow their creator to assess his own affairs and psychological condition. Outrageously funny despite the bleakness, Epigraph is a uniquely literary epigraph to the passing of Mrs. Lish in both reality and fiction that probes the human soul while opening up the poetic gap between author and author character.
Dear St. E’s,
Could I explain something to you? I’m going to explain something to you. What’s mine is mine. You people never hear of squatter’s rights? Look it up—squatters rights. I’m sitting on it. I am reclining on it. It’s tilted at the three-quarter tilt, which is the best tilt for me to be tilted in it at to write assholes like you letters in it. Anyway, get the fuck off my back!
Yours in impermanent patience,
Mr. Gordon Lish
There is a great joy to be found when you read several books chosen seemingly at random and find they share a common thread and work as if in conversation with each other to examine a particular aspect of fiction. Recently, books such as Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Aira’s How I Became a Nun and Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd have made me keenly interested in the blurring of an author as author and the author as fictionalized self. Reading these books brought Epigraph back into mind, which I had read this past summer and first started the gears of thought churning on this subject. While Hardwick builds backwards, weaving fact and fiction to examine her past leading up to the present ‘self’ reflecting back, Lish latches fiction onto the present and boldly presses forward into a ‘possible future’ with a narrator that both is and isn’t Gordon Lish. Written after the death of his wife, Barbara, the Gordon Lish found in Epigraph is also grieving the loss of his wife Barbara, deceased under similar conditions. Lish teases the Intentional Fallacy, bringing his Gordon—Gordon!— Lish to the closest proximity of The Gordon Lish and extracting the highest possible effect. The Lish in Epigraph has suffered the same tragedies, and is even intensely interested in examining grammar (‘Don’t you dare think I’m through with you! Or, actually, it’s probably think me through with you.’) as one would imagine the Great Editor G.W. Lish would be. It is easy to entertain the idea that this is who Lish really is, and fun to do so, and Lish reminds us of the infinite possibilities of the magic of Literature in doing so. Also, using what most would consider a touchy subject and examining it in this highly and darkly comedic manner reminds us that, for the true writer, nothing should be sacrosanct.
The title 'Epigraph' primarily refers to both an inscription on a monument, this book being the monument to the deceased, and to the quotes that precede a novel. The constant usurpation of the father, F.W. Lish, in the epigraphs before and after the book points towards an understanding of the G.Lish of the book. As his sanity deteriorates on the pages, he opens up about a cold childhood and difficult relations with his parents. Lish manages to make us empathize with the cantankerous bastard cursing out everyone, putting us in the uncomfortable shoes of ‘What would you do if somebody said to you for you to do something and you weren't really actually yet big enough yet for you to actually yet do it?’
Wildly comedic, with enough ‘fuck you’s’ to make anyone’s head spin, Epigraph is a wonderful example of how literary theory can be put to use in engaging and wholly entertaining ways. From the poetic mirroring of the self and the dualities of meaning found therein, to just good old fashion laughs at Lish offending everyone around him, this novel probes the darkest corners of the heart without feeling burdenous or dark.
Dear St. E’s,
Up yours. I would not join your religion if you paid me.
Gordon Jay Lish ...more
Notes are private!
Feb 20, 2015
Jan 01, 1992
May 31, 2002
I am exactly what I am supposed to be.
This is likely my favorite collection by Charles Bukowski. A man made famous for his vulgarity and debauchery—th I am exactly what I am supposed to be.
This is likely my favorite collection by Charles Bukowski. A man made famous for his vulgarity and debauchery—though to cling to such things misses the point and heart of his poetry—The Last Night of the Earth Poems removes the caustic armor and lets the tender heart beat out prose without fear, without need for deflection. While it is often the boozing and whoring and bitterness of Bukowski that is spoken of, particularly in college dorms, I've always felt that his abrasive nature was a mask for a fragile soul wincing away from pain, that there was something beautiful and passionate lurking beneath the gutters. Last Night was Bukowski's final collection written while alive and his awareness of inevitable demise creeps into the pages and allows him to speak more freely and passionately than ever before. A fitting collection to be revisiting as I sit silently with my beer, awaiting the next family funeral, awaiting the sharp daggers of held-back tears and gut-clenching awareness of mortality while a man I love and respect breaths through a tube in a nearby hospital with mere days left. Poetry keeps us eternal, keeps our conquests and regrets, our loves and shames alive and on display for all to learn from and imbibe like a fine wine to satisfy the soul and abate our nerves through the knowledge that we all share the same fate and fears and pains. The Last Night of the Earth is a splendid array of all things Bukowski, from his bitter wit to his most impassioned confessions, and is certainly a collection any fan should have at their fingertips.
waiting for death
like a cat
that will jump on the
I am so very sorry for
she will see this
shake it once, then
it’s not my death that
worries me, it’s my wife
left with this
I want to
let her know
that all the nights
even the useless
and the hard
I ever feared to
can now be
This collection is nearly painful to read at times. Bukowski offers a reflection on his life that is often funny, bitter and, in this collection, very heartbreaking. The ever-famous Bukowski poem Bluebird is found here (I've never felt much for this poem and wonder about its fame, it feels so detached from his typical style and reminds me of some of his extreme early works that I also didn't care much for as they felt as if he was overtly playing too much at 'being poetic' than simply letting the poetry flow freely as he argues for in many of his fine poems about the art of being a poet), as well as the awe-inspiring Dinosauria, We (you can listen to Bukowski read that poem himself here) and many others. There are angry tirades against false poets, hostile statements towards humanity, yet always a tenderness lurking beneath that reminds us of the importance of being good to one another, of appreciating the life we have, or keeping true to ourselves and striving towards our wildest dreams lest we become another fake and phony that Bukowski so detested. Let yourself be stricken with poverty and debauchery, he would say, as long as it was who you are and you stayed true to yourself. There are powerful statements of the ways literature can move us, memories of being driven to the heights of excitement and passion from Knut Hamsun's Hunger or Huxley's Point Counter Point, the pride in betraying his parents wishes and joining the obscene masses of writers (a absolutely fantastic account of this is found in Them and Us). There are humorous poems on feeling out of touch with the forward-moving world such as in Hemingway Never Did This which recounts accidentally deleting a poem from his computer, or the regret that fame came too late in life to make much use of it as in Creative Writing Class . More heartbreaking is his awareness of death and his testimonies to the agonies of old age. 'young or old, good or bad, I don't think anything dies as slow and as hard as a writer,' wrote Bukowski. It truly hurts to read a tired and dying Bukoswki, but it fills the heart to the point of beautiful overflow.
Are You Drinking?
washed-up, on shore, the old yellow notebook
I write from the bed
as I did last
will see the doctor,
"yes, doctor, weak legs, vertigo, head-
aches and my back
"are you drinking?" he will ask.
"are you getting your
I think that I am just ill
with life, the same stale yet
even at the track
I watch the horses run by
and it seems
I leave early after buying tickets on the
"taking off?" asks the motel
"yes, it's boring,"
I tell him.
"If you think it's boring
out there," he tells me, "you oughta be
so here I am
propped up against my pillows
just an old guy
just an old writer
with a yellow
walking across the
oh, it's just
The Last Night of the Earth Poems is a perfect Bukowski collection that contains all the joys from his range of poetry but keeps to the most heartfelt of messages. While it isn't an ideal introduction to his work, it is certainly a necessity for anyone who holds any love for the man in their heart. Painful as it may be, this is truly brilliant and a perfect examination of a life as it was lived.
'So this is the beginning / not the / end.'
Born like this
As the chalk faces smile
As Mrs. Death laughs
As the elevators break
As political landscapes dissolve
As the supermarket bag boy holds a college degree
As the oily fish spit out their oily prey
As the sun is masked
Born like this
Into these carefully mad wars
Into the sight of broken factory windows of emptiness
Into bars where people no longer speak to each other
Into fist fights that end as shootings and knifings
Born into this
Into hospitals which are so expensive that it's cheaper to die
Into lawyers who charge so much it's cheaper to plead guilty
Into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed
Into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes
Born into this
Walking and living through this
Dying because of this
Muted because of this
Because of this
Fooled by this
Used by this
Pissed on by this
Made crazy and sick by this
The heart is blackened
The fingers reach for the throat
The fingers reach toward an unresponsive god
The fingers reach for the bottle
We are born into this sorrowful deadliness
We are born into a government 60 years in debt
That soon will be unable to even pay the interest on that debt
And the banks will burn
Money will be useless
There will be open and unpunished murder in the streets
It will be guns and roving mobs
Land will be useless
Food will become a diminishing return
Nuclear power will be taken over by the many
Explosions will continually shake the earth
Radiated robot men will stalk each other
The rich and the chosen will watch from space platforms
Dante's Inferno will be made to look like a children's playground
The sun will not be seen and it will always be night
Trees will die
All vegetation will die
Radiated men will eat the flesh of radiated men
The sea will be poisoned
The lakes and rivers will vanish
Rain will be the new gold
The rotting bodies of men and animals will stink in the dark wind
The last few survivors will be overtaken by new and hideous diseases
And the space platforms will be destroyed by attrition
The petering out of supplies
The natural effect of general decay
And there will be the most beautiful silence never heard
Born out of that.
The sun still hidden there
Awaiting the next chapter. ...more
Notes are private!
Apr 21, 2015
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