Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Speaking of great poets...(An ode to Ingmar Bergman and his Fanny and Alexander)

The great poet of the silver screen - Ingmar Bergman - has died at 89 years of age. He was an exemplar of what a serious artist could do on film, depicting metaphysics, a certain male ideal of the feminine, violent cruelty - he is remembered from a lot of serious gloom and doom - but he also ventured into the territory of his own memory, making films that veer from the icy fears of childhood, to the romance of its comforting magic, and its delightful humor. Among my favorite films of all time (top 10) is Fanny and Alexander. I also saw several of his stage productions. His remarkable version of Winter's Tale remains among the most memorable evenings I've spent in the theater. This site is chock full on information on his work.

Plenty of other have eulogized Bergman in words over the last two days, I'm going to share some images from my favorite film of his as a tribute:

SUMMER POETRY CHALLENGE - Song of Myself - Walt Whitman

Whether you are a returning fan to our Summer Poetry Challenge or you've stumbled over us by mistake - welcome. The full roster of poetry readers is on the side bar and you can click any of the participants' names to link directly to their site. Their posts will be labeled with the title of the poems if it is difficult to find them. And welcome to our latest participant - Nyssaneala at Book Haven.

The second of my four poems is Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass by American bard, Walt Whitman, first published in 1855. It's a declaration of the American individualist, comprised of 52 incantatory sections with long and forward moving lines - like great rivers:

Song of Myself
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parent born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbour for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

(The poem is nearly 50 pages long - too long to include here, I will only post excerpts, but here is a link to the full text on-line).

I can read some of this poem and think - god, is this guy in love with himself:
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch, and vine,
My respiration and insipiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs...

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun (there are millions of suns left),
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,...

but he says:
I know perfectly well my own egotism,
Know my omnivorous lines and must not write any less,

And would fetch you, whoever you are, flush with myself.

To what end?
Not words of routine this song of mine,
but abruptly to question, to leap beyond yet nearer bring;
Whitman's 'self' is, I think, not so much a song of pure vanity, his self love is a means through which he is trying to possess himself because he sees freedom as a birth rite for all and self possession a necessity if we are each to be free. He wants us not to love him but to love ourselves:
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

He invites us on a parallel journey to his, not his own journey:
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself...

You are also asking me questions and I hear you,
I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself.

Sit a while, dear son,
Here are biscuits to eat and here is milk to drink,
But as soon as you sleep and renew yourself in sweet clothes,
I kiss you with a good-bye kiss and open the gate for your egress hence.

Long enough have you dream'd contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.
Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me,
Shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.

He acknowledges the effect of his elders and teachers, his city and country, science and literature, history, and other precedents but:
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself...
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.

Whitman invokes personal revolution in this poem not merely for its own sake but for the sake of the transformation of society. Whether we are male or female, old or young he sings:
Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded...

Shame, he declares, is social repression - it is the seat of bondage - it is unnatural and gives rise to bigotry and injustice. He relishes the natural world, the natural state because freedom is the natural state.

And diversity within that world is among nature's most prominent features. He sings the praises of diversity:
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man...

Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist anything better than my own diversity...

If that isn't a song for today I don't know what is. His version is different though, he doesn't merely see diversity as a phenomenon outside oneself - he sees it as part of him. His vision is the self as the word:
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself...

His equation of self = world isn't vanity exactly, it's more like the artist's duty - to imagine oneself as something. I suppose that is arrogance of a sort - imagining we can be everyone and everything. It is also humility of a sort - sort of saying - I am no better than anyone - I wish to experience all life - your pain, your pleasure - I strive to know everything. It's arrogance only when we do it pretending we know everything. But Whitman says:
Askers embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them,
I project my hat, sit shame-faced and beg.

He assumes this role - to embody everyone - and here he tells us why he assumes the first person:

Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the
wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

He assumes their characters as part of the project he has set for himself to free himself and to free the world, soul by soul. He wishes freedom for all, but one cannot be free unless everyone is free:
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshly, sensual, eating, drinking, and greeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or aprt from them,
No more modest than immodest.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.

And - wow - that is really the point isn't it? He may declare himself a universe but that is because he recognizes that when others are beaten down then so is he. We could use some of that philosophy today. That is why he sets the task for himself of assuming the characters of others. I get really tired when I hear artists of today (usually when making arguments for funding in the U.S.) declare the use of art to be keeping children off the street or raising reading scores. Art does not have to be defended as a social service, it is useful in and of itself. It plays a role in the transformation of individuals and of societies. Without being able to imagine - to put oneself in the shoes of others - the only changes that will ever occur are those that make our own personal existence immediately easier. And without being able to envision the world as different from the way it is, nothing will ever change. Imagination is that kind of vision. It is a muscle that must be exercised through art. It is necessary to our future. End of rant.

But in addition to Whitman's credo, which can seem naive and romantic but is nonetheless a passionate call for personal and social revolution, I also enjoy much else in his writing.

Whitman was a revolutionary in content,writing frankly about sex, defying authority, personally defined religion, and as Camille Paglia says in her excellent chapter on Whitman in Break Blow Burn he declares the equality of everything outside the body - from dung beetle to philosopher - and inside - bowels, head and heart. He was also a revolutionary in form. The long rhapsodic lines remind me of one of my favorite songs of all time - Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall:
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin',
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children...

Well, I suppose I should say that Dylan reminds me of Whitman, another self-made American vagabond. His breathless run-on lines and long lists break with the neat, rhythmic stanzas of the poets writing before him:

I understand the large hearts of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times,
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the
steamship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm,
How he knuckled tight and gave not back an inch, and was faithful of
days and faithful of nights,
And chalk'd in large letters on a board, Be of good cheer, we will
not desert you;
How he follow'd with them and tack'd with them three days and
would not give it up,
How he saved the drifting company at last,
How the lank loose-gown'd women look'd when boated from the
side of their prepared graves,
How the silent old-faced infants and the lifted sick, and the
sharp-lipp'd unshaved men;
All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine,
I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there.

The disdain and calmness of martyrs,
The mother of old, condemn'd for a witch, burnt with dry wood, her
children gazing on,
The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence,
blowing, cover'd with sweat,
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous
buckshot and the bullets,
All these I feel or am.

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn'd with the
ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with

Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the
wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

I am the mash'd fireman with breast-bone broken,
Tumbling walls buried me in their debris,
Heat and smoke I inspired, I heard the yelling shouts of my
I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels,
They have clear'd the beams away, they tenderly lift me forth.

I lie in the night air in my red shirt, the pervading hush is for my
Painless after all I lie exhausted but not so unhappy,
White and beautiful are the faces around me, the heads are bared
of their fire-caps,
The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches.

Distant and dead resuscitate,
They show as the dial or move as the hands of me, I am the clock

But out of those long passages, the images stand out sharply - the torturing of the slave, the shipwrecked.
The faces, the blood are palpable.

He sets amibitious goals for himself sometimes - like imagining what he was prior to his birth:
I am an acme of things accomplish'd, and I an encloser of things to be.

My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs,
On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps,
All below duly travell'd, and still I mount and mount.

Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I know I was even there,
I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,
And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.

Long I was hugg'd close - long and long.

Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have help'd me...

He writes also of the infinity of space in a way that seems strikingly modern:
I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled systems,
And all I see multiplied as high as I can cipher edge but the rim of the farther systems.

Wider and sider they spread, expanding, always expanding,
Outward and outward and for ever outward...

A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues,
do not hazard the span or make it impatient,
They are but parts, anything is but a part.

See ever so far, there is limitless space outside of that,
Count every so much, there is limitless time around that...

He sounds like a contemporary physicist!

In the final section he creates an image of how we as organisms return to the earth which combines with the image of the returning traveler and the poet finishing his work - these three key images he has developed over the poem's many pages - meet:
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab
and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yaws over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Whitman gave voice to some of the things that are useful and good in the individualist creed that defines the American spirit. That story is now largely told (not only by critics from other lands but by many Americans critics too) only in terms of greed and crass opportunism - an "every man for himself because that's what everyone else is going to do"philosophy. Now this is not a political rant, I'm writing about poetry here: there is much to remember that is good in that individualist spirit and that is what Whitman celebrates. We can possess ourselves only when we have embodied others, he says. Perhaps when we've stepped inside others we will wish the same freedom for them we wish for ourselves. Perhaps with some imagination we can see that their wish may not look exactly like our's. The value in real self possession is that one doesn't need to force our personal world on others to be free oneself.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

SUMMER POETRY CHALLENGE - 27 Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit - Timothy Donnelly

Here it is, I'm so excited, my first entry in the Summer Poetry Challenge. Please make a point of checking out my fellow participants - Imani, Sheila, Dewey, Siew, Loose Baggy Monster, and Eva. There is a directory on my scrollbar - to the right. Click on their names to link to their sites. They might start posting as early as today, in fact, Imani has already been posting on Paradise Lost, or they may begin posting on August 1 - the official starting date.

Fellow participants, I've linked to each of your names in the directory in my side bar rather than trying to link to your individual posts, since some of you have already done multiple posts on a single poem. I would suggest labeling each entry with the title of the poem. I've indicated on the side bar that we would do that. Please link back to me so that interested readers can find the directory of the other participants and their poems! I can't wait to hear what you all have to say.

Here's my first entry, it's the title poem from Timothy Donnelly's Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit written in our current century.

Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit

Let there be lamps of whatever variety
presents itself on the trash heaps. Let chance
determine how many, but take pains
to use only low-watt bulbs, and keep the lion's share
flickering throughout the performance.
In particular, one gooseneck should pulsate religiously
on the leeward corner of an escritoire,
which is a writing table, or an unhinged door

suspended on sawhorses. These will be spattered
in a clash of pigments, signifying history.
Dust is general over all the interior.
You are very tired. You are very weary.
On the floor, one carpet, its elaborate swirling
recalling the faces of wind on old maps.
And let there be maps, at least half reimagining
the world according to a scattered century:

a shambles, patched. Now for the wall-clock
which hangs prodigiously over every act. Let's rig it
so the hour revolves in a minute, the minute
in a blur. Grab hold of an enormous mirror
and mount it divinely - that is, too high to bear human relfection.
And what do you call it when you can't endure
the scraping of the blades of all creation?
There'll be a bucket of that, another for the suet,

a third marked SESAME but filled with sand.
Place this last a judicious distance
from the bamboo cage in which one ostrich, plucked,
stands Tantalus-style, its beak eternally
approaching the rim of the third of the buckets.
Does the bird want seed, or is it onto the trick
and terrified, frantic, to bury its head in the sand?
Will it never end? But look who I'm asking!

Take your worry to the sofa, lie there.
There's a pillar of books and a French periodical
on either side. Before you know it,
it's always midnight. Now the owl of Minerva
takes its flight down the nickel wire.
Now a dampness pumps from the tightened fist
of a cold contraption, a sort of inverse
radiator, and you can't control it, and it isn't pretty.

Tell me you love me. There's a severed hand,
or is it a fruit peel? Tell me you love me
and I make it mild. Take your panic to the sleigh-bed,
slump there. There's a snatch of heather
and a cracked decanter on the starboard side.
Before you know it, it's always never.
You know I hate it when you whimper, don't you?
Now shut them big ambiguous eyes.

Now shut that cavernous cartoon mouth -
and here's the sock to fill it, periwinkle!
You know I hate it when we don't coordinate.
Now what's that rapping at the shattered window?
It's only the egress, I neglected to mention.
But here's a rope with knots to help you shimmy down -
a dozen square knots, the last a hangman's.
Now take your heaving to the curtains, part.

They're dove gray, dolly, and fall like art.

I like starting with this poem because of its loopy, erudite, manic quality. The voice sounds to me like a crazy theatrical star designer that can demand anything he wants - and as he's dreaming aloud the props fall from his lips and, of course, other people have to run out and build them or find them in junk shops or school prop rooms or friends' attics. And he's ranting to the star, an experienced actress, who he can nevertheless reduce to tears if he wants to. Except, this designer's play is eine Lebenszeit - a lifetime.

There's a rhapsodic quality and many of the lines are long - like Whitman's (or maybe that's just because I'm reading Leaves of Grass too, they do both favor long rambling lines over compact ones). But Donnelly's rhythms are more formal, and in that playful contemporary way he breaks phrases up not only between two lines but also between two stanzas - adding to the number of ways you can read them. He's also playing lots of games - I loved that each prop is italicized - just begging you to count them (and to interrupt the flow of holy poetry) and that one of them is dust and another dampness! He is designing a lifetime after all, so there would have to be dust. And he is beginning a life so the first line is "Let there be lamps of whatever variety," in other words - let there be light! It took me a couple of readings to get that joke, but when I did I really thought it was funny.

So the lifetime "play" starts with light, which must be kept flickering throughout the "performance," a clock hangs over every "act" and it moves quickly, a mirror is mounted but too high for the performer to see a reflection of himself, there's suet and seeds for nourishment (but the seed isn't real), there's a sofa to lie on and books and a French periodical to pass the time. His set for life seems like an old Parisian apartment - dusty but also a bit damp, furnished with sleigh-beds, an escritoire, wall-clocks, and a decanter. I'm reminded of Eric Fenby visiting the aged composer Frederik Delius in his house in France (Delius As I Knew Him). I've always envisioned the old recluse composer, blind, sitting in a house like this one. It also makes me think of the city of Bruges in Belgium (have you read Bruges la Morte - it's the basis for the wonderful Korngold opera Die Tote Stadt - that's what made me go and visit. Big tangent, anyway...)- A dark sepia, medieval town, filled with lace, and canals, as I walked its old streets I had the feeling of eyes following me from behind the doors.

Finally this poem's long, breathless lines created for me the feeling that I have when in a nightmare, I am handed a script while standing in the wings of a theater, and I'm told that in a minute I'm going to go on stage and do the play.
"Now don't be a big baby about it," says the director. So here is this mad director who should be telling me something concrete about what to do, but instead he's just going on and on about the props and how lovely it will be. In this poem, the wings of the stage is the womb, and the play the life I'm about to enter. Notice that the window is the only exit, and that it ends with the hangman's noose. And the director or stage manager or whoever is screaming "oh it will be gorgeous! (Tell me you love me)."

Friday, July 27, 2007

Finished Harry Potter! Aaaaaaaaah.

Finished! Aaah, great sigh of relief. Now back to high art and neuroscience (eww, I hope not entirely)!

No plot spoilers, but I can't guarantee that the comments here won't have them.

It's a delightful read. Predictable in the right ways and surprising sometimes too, and touching. And with the exception of the lousy epilogue (I agree with Imani on that one) I feel satisfied.

I'll be curious to hear the reactions of my discerning fellow readers.

Friday Odds and Ends including reflections on Harry Potter, a poem by James Wright and a silly meme

Come on guys, Christmas is less than six months away.

I'm less than 100 pages from the end of Harry P. I love books that inspire binge reading (and socks), Iris Murdoch has done that to me a couple of times. Do you have any favorite binge reads? Books you couldn't help bringing to the table, reading while walking down the street, or that kept you home from work until they were done? Anyway, HP is a fun adventure and Rowling draws a portrait of how a society becomes bigoted out of greed and fear, which I've thought is pretty good. It seems to me as though some of the books is tailored for the movie, which is a little annoying but mostly I'm enjoying it very much and I should be finished today, which is good since I promised the ragazzo he could have it on the weekend AND if I don't study more for the GRE soon I'm going to regret it.

Get ready for the posting of the poems of the Summer Poetry Challenge next week!! I'm looking forward to what our readers have chosen (see side bar for details).

Here's a poem not entered in the challenge by a poet I just love, Jame Wright:

A Note Left in Jimmy's Leonard's Shack
Near the dry river's water-mark we found
Your brother Minnegan,
Flopped like a fish against the muddy ground.
Beany, the kid whose yellow hair turns green,
Told me to find you, even in the rain,
And tell you he was drowned.

I hid behind the chassis on the bank
The wreck of someone's Ford:
I was afraid to come and wake you drunk:
You told me once the waking up was hard,
The daylight beating at you like a board.
Blood in my stomach sank.

Beside, you told him never to go out
Along the river-side
Drinking and singing, clattering about.
You might have thrown a rock at me and cried
I was to blame, I let him fall in the road
And pitch down on his side.

Well, I'll get hell enough when I get home
For coming up this far,
Leaving the notes, and running as I came.
I'll go and tell my father where you are.
You'd better go find Minnegan before
Policemen hear and come.

Beany went home, and I got sick and ran,
You old son of a bitch.
You better hurry down to Minnegan;
He's drunk or dying now, I don't know which,
Rolled in the roots and garbage like a fish,
The poor old man.

And finally, Eva over at her comfy A Striped Armchair tagged me for this meme which is probably more of interest to bloggers than it is to other readers, but here it is:

It’s very simple. When this is passed on to you, copy the whole thing, skim the list and put a * star beside those that you like. (Check out especially the * starred ones.)

Add the next number (1. 2. 3. 4. 5., etc.) and write your own blogging tip for other bloggers. Try to make your tip general.

After that, tag 10 other people. Link love some friends!

1. Look, read, and learn. **-http://www.neonscent.com/

2. Be, EXCELLENT to each other. **-http://www.bushmackel.com/

3. Don’t let money change ya! *-http://www.therandomforest.info/

4. Always reply to your comments. ******-http://chattiekat.com/

5. Link liberally — it keeps you and your friends afloat in the Sea of Technorati. ***-http://chipsquips.com/

6. Don’t give up - persistence is fertile. *-http://www.velcro-city.co.uk/

7. Give link credit where credit is due. ****-http://www.sfsignal.com/

8. Pictures say a thousand words and can usually add to any post.**-http://scifichick.com/

9. Visit all the bloggers that leave comments for you - it's nice to know who is reading! ***-http://stephaniesbooks.blogspot.com/

10. When commenting on others’ blogs, a few kind words go a long way. – ** http://shelflifeblog.blogspot.com/

11. When you're starting out, comment on all the blogs you like to read; that way the bloggers will know that you exist! ;)* http://astripedarmchair.blogspot.com

12. Vary your brew once in a while in form or content - if you're serious post a cartoon, if you do movie commentary give me a recipe, if you do books write on your foreign travels, if you're terse be excessive - it's fun for readers and you'll stretch yourself.

And now I'm supposed to tag 10 people. Sorry if someone else already got to you and I didn't remember (blame Harry) and these are soft tags (no pressure if you'd rather not):
The Sheila Variations
Bookgirl's Nightstand
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
Pages Turned
The Frontal Cortex
A Work in Progress
The Mumpsimus
Dovegreyreader Scribbles
Writings Within the Margin

Good weekend.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Different reasons to read (Books - Veronica by Mary Gaitskill)

I am just pages from finishing Veronica, which has proved great reading while provoking an interesting discussion here between two prodigious readers: Sheila and Dewey. Gaitskill is a WRITER - my god - what skill at putting together words, and not merely for my admiration also to keep me moving forward in the story. The narrator, Alison, from a suburb near New York, gets drawn for a while into an international life of modeling, drugs, and clubs in the 80s. She is crushed by this life and must pick up the pieces. When we meet her, she lives with the heavy physical and emotional consequences of her former "fast life" as she remembers its events and the friends and enemies she made. The observations are distinctive and the language active, with pickup like a sports car. Some of the descriptions read like short stories - they have a self contained quality about them.

Did I want to come to her apartment and listen to records? Another flare lighted her face; it was need, not hate, but it was as strong as the hate had been. I was very uncomfortable now, and felt that she was too. But her need flared unabated, like a pounding drum that pulls you along to its beat and overrules your own emotions. I said yes, I would drop by her apartment at eight o'clock the next evening.
...But I saw there in the kitchen with my boyfriend, eating cheesecake from a tin and watching his huge black-and-white TV until I sank into a torpor. From there, the German woman's loud drum was hard to hear. I pictured sitting with her on a nice pillow in front of her stereo. Lots of records would be scattered about - she would have a huge selection. She would go through them with her long manicured hands and then put one on and listen to it dully, like she couldn't hear. Just picturing it made me feel heavy and tired. The gray figures running around on the TV screen made me feel heavy and tire too, but in a comforting way. Eight o'clock came and I thought I'd sit in my heavy comfort just ten minutes more and then go. At 8:30 I pictured her sitting alone, going through her records, need and hate surging under her stiff face. She would still be waiting for me to arrive. By nine o'clock, I realized I wouldn't go. I felt bad - I felt like I was deserting a person who was sick or starving. But I still didn't go.

About six months later, I saw her on the street again. I was dressed better then; I'd streaked my blond hair platinum and wore platform shoes Maybe that's why the German woman didn't recognize me, or maybe she pretended not to see me, or maybe she didn't see me. She didn't seem to see anything. She was walking alone, her arms wrapped around her torso. Her clothes were ill-kempt and didn't fit her right because she had lost a lot of weight. Her eyes were hollow and she stared fixedly before her, as if she were walking down an empty corridor. I wanted to stop her, but I didn't know what to say.

I had seen loneliness before that and had felt it, too. But I had never seen or felt it so raw. Thirty years later, I still remember it. Only now I am not bewildered. Now I understand that a person can be wild with loneliness...

Yet even while this is nearly a story, it is well integrated into the narrative drive.

Or this - a passage about she listens to music - but it's also the section where we understand who her father is - which is important for the rest of the story:

My music was more private, and I didn't play it loudly. I crouched down by it, sucking it into my ears...

Great verb choices!

...Downstairs, my father watched TV or lstened to his music while my mother did the housework or drew paper clothes for the cardboard paper dolls she still made for us, even though we no longer played with them. I loved them like you love your hand or your liver, without thinking about it or even being able to see it. But my music made that fleshly love feel dull and dumb, deep, slow, and heavy as stone. Come, said the music, to joy and speed and secret endlessness, where everything tumbles together and attachments are not made of sad flesh.

I didn't know it, but my father was doing the same thing, sitting in his padded rocking chair, listening to opera or to music from World War II. Except he did not want tumbling or endlessness. He wanted more of the attachment I despised - he just didn't want it with us. My father had been too young to enlist when World War II started; his brother joined the army right away. When my dad was finally old enough to enlist in the navy, he sent his brother a picture of himself in his uniform with a Hawaiian girl on his lap; he wrote, "Interrogating the natives!" on the back. A week before the war ended, it was returned to my father with a letter saying his brother was dead. Thirty years later, he was a husband, father, and administrator in a national tax-office chain. But sometimes when I walked past him sitting in his chair, he would look at me as if I were the cat or a piece of furniture, while inside he searched for his brother...

She's a champ for creating bold ugly images that get right to the point:

He bounced a rubber ball on the pavement, caught it, and bounced it again. "I'm a pimp." His face was like lava turned into cold rock. But inside him, it was still running hot; you coudl smell it: pride, rage, and shame boiling and ready to spill out his cock and scald you.

or this:

...Hapiness shines on his dullard sadness and makes it scratch its head and blink with wonder.

or this:

...My mother came in wearing a pantsuit that was too short for her high heels. Her eyes looked like her leaping voice, and she walked like she was trying to go three ways at once.

I could go on and on, quoting these bright gems - there are so many of them, but the reason I think they're great is not because you get off the story and stop to admire them, but because they are the story.

There are two remarkable things about Veronica. I found the characters a pretty unattractive lot - I don't like them and I certainly don't want to be them, but strangely, when I would put the book down, I found myself thinking about them and wondering what are they doing now? I was interested despite the fact that I would probably avoid interacting with these people in my life.

The other thing remarkable in this book were the time shifts. Gaitskill (and her narrator, it wasn't just a writer thing) move back and forth in about three time periods over thirty years - or I should say they flow back and forth in time, the effect is so fluid and so right for the story that I never questioned it once. What has happened to the central character has put her in a place where time is very liquid for her. As a result, the reader often finds out about about how things turn out before the details are related to us. The effect this had on me was to put me very much in the mindset of the narrator - I didn't care about the story to find out what happened, I often already knew that. I was interested in finding out how it happened - I observed it rather than being drawn through by suspense. I felt listless in relation to it. I felt like an observer on the fringes. This listlessness pervaded me as I was reading this book. I almost felt polluted by it. And yet I kept reading. I did care about the characters but I felt like I didn't care about life - but I can't help recommending the book. Not every story or character is beautiful, admirable, or even pleasant -yet it still possesses its pleasures, and the pleasure of this book was in how we learned about what happened as well as in the distinctiveness of its observations. I'm really interested to read Gaitskill's short stories Bad Behavior next.

...and now for something completely different, it's back to Muggles and wizards, a book built on sheer momentum of plot, delightful fantasy, sweet heroes, and dastardly villains. I should call this post When Harry met Veronica.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Delivery - late but successful

Our bouncing baby boy has finally arrived.
2.9 pounds
759 pages
his name is Harry
Mom is fine and feeling like a billionaire
I understand I may not be sleeping much over the next few days.

I wish I could have figured out how to add round glasses to that baby.

Most of you are done and I'm just starting - that's what I get for a discounted copy!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


It seems that the myth of poetry only being to the taste of an elite few has held true. We had 11 people sign up for the Summer Poetry Challenge in all, and only seven have actually declared their poems - but it is a delightful and insightful seven (see my side bar to the right for the list of participants and their poems). So, starting this Sunday July 29 I'll check in at each of your sites. Some time between then and Wed Aug 1 please post your poems. If there is one dedicated post for your poems I'll link to that post directly from the directory posted on my site, otherwise, I'll just link to the home page of your site. If you can post full text versions of your poems - excellent. If not, excerpts or links to on-line versions would be fine. If you can link back to my posted directory so we can provoke a cross conversation, that would be great. Finally, if you were late or unsure about getting me your submissions, we're a small group, so just post a comment here with your list of poems and it will be no problem to include you.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Review now posted below

The Neurology of Autism edited by Mary Coleman, Emeritus Clinical Professor of Pediatric Neurology at Georgetown University, is a collection of chapters looking at the latest information on autism - see my review below.

In the meantime, as I wait for the arrival of Harry, I'm reading Mary Gaitskill's Veronica which is absolute KILLER writing. KILLER.

Knowledge and myth, hard science and caring art - the confusions of autism

The Neurology of Autism edited by Mary Coleman, Emeritus Clinical Professor of Pediatric Neurology at Georgetown University, is a collection of chapters on the latest information in such topics as the difference between syndromic and non-syndromic autism, chromosomes which might be implicated, brain regions affected, whether autism can be reversible, therapies - both traditional and alternative, and the epidemiology of autism. Each of the chapters is written by an expert in that area and provides a comprehensive review of the work. They are explicit about the limits chosen for that review, and give a broad view - not just concentrating on the most mainstream material. While the book jacket advertises the book as suitable for everyone - clinicians, students, researchers, and parents - I would say that is only true for some parts. The chapters focusing on chromosomal disorders and neurotransmitters are complicated and the writing is dry. Discussions of the many disorders that can feature autistic symptoms and on the brain regions affected by it are byzantine and pretty technical - if words like dentatothalamocortical and vermian freak you out, these chapters would be difficult for you. However, the discussions on therapies and the chapter on epidemiology are particularly thorough and accessibly written.

I'll summarize some key points from the book that might be of general interest:

More than 90% of children with autism appear to have a genetic component to their disease.

It seems to be agreed that the autistic syndromes begin impairing the brain before birth, even though the the markers clinicians routinely used to make a diagnosis tend not to be apparent until the child is between 18 and 24 months old.

There is likely not one single anatomical location in the brain whose abnormality underlies autism in all patients.

Autism likely involves the development of abnormal connections between regions of the brain - some models involve too many connections, others involve too few, yet others involve the rewiring of connections for purposes other than those which they are usually used as a compensatory strategy.

The two major diagnostic handbooks used by the mental health professions define the chief criteria for autism as possessing a certain number of abnormalities of social interaction, impairments in verbal and non-verbal communication, and a restricted repertoire of interests and activities present from early childhood.

There is a range of autistic disorders which spans intelligence and language abilities from high functioning to severely impaired.

The diagnostic criteria for Asperger syndrome specifies that there has been no delay in language and cognitive development - although there are some language peculiarities and motor issues often seen in Asperger, so there is some disagreement on what should constitute an Asperger's diagnosis or whether either a diagnosis of high-functioning autism on the one hand or merely describing the child as socially unusual on the other is more appropriate.

Family background, genetic factors, developmental milestones, motor coordination, and the savant skills (outstanding skill in a specific area, such as mathematics or music that are seen in around 10% of the autistic population) are all taken into account, but they are not defining criteria for diagnosis because there is not enough agreement given the current research.

Autistic symptoms are seen in connection with a wide variety of underlying diseases, each of which is probably due to a somewhat different neurological cause - Rett Syndrome, tuberous sclerosis complex, de Lange syndrom and Neurofibromatosis are a few of the diseases that fall under a larger umbrella term MCA/MR syndrom (multiple congenital anomalies and mental retardation). Furthermore, it is not know whether these syndromes can be said to manifest autistic symptoms or whether it would be more accurate to say that the individual has both the syndrome and autism.

It is likely that what is referred to as autism is actually different disease entities which will each be found to have their own pathology and resulting subset of symptoms

We see frequent mention in the popular press about whether the increased number of diagnosed cases of autism constitute an increase in the incidents of disease itself or just the awareness of it. The chapter on epidemiology by Christopher Gillberg reviews studies published in English from the 1960s through 2003 - examining them decade by decade. This intelligent analysis concludes that the prevalence of autistic spectrum disorders (autism, Asperger syndrome, and atypical autism or pervasive development disorder) are somewhere between .6% and 1.1%. That is 20 - 100 times high than the rates recorded 40 years earlier however, the definition of autism has changed in that time and now comprises a much broader group of conditions, which is what accounts for much of that difference. Clinician Lorna Wing rediagnosed her own cases from a study she conducted in the 1970s using updated criteria - it trebled that rate of diagnosis. Gillberg lists other influencing factors as well, but he is careful to point out that, given current diagnostic criteria, girls are currently probably underdiagnosed.

Another chapter on alternative therapies by Lorenzo Pavone and Martino Ruggieri reviews the literature on everything from vitamins, low-phenylalanine diets, gluten and casein free diets, and ketogenic diets to detoxification of heavy metals, auditory integration therapy, holding therapy, and dolphin assisted therapy. The reviews are balanced and respectful - never dismissive - but they are appropriately frank about whether evidence is anedoctally or research based, what type of study was conducted (i.e. whether it was controlled or double-blind), their efficacy, and the potential risks of the therapy, if any.

The final chapter by Michele Zappella is a thoughtful review of how professionals providing diagnoses, interventions, or other services can (and should) consider their patient in the context of their entire family. Everything from how to provide information given the incomplete state of our knowledge to dealing with the depression and anxiety of a parent is considered. There are useful case examples as well.

Medical professionals should be aware that their power in these moments [diagnosis] is great; they can foster hope or despair, can favor union and solidarity within the family or its opposite. Different results can occur based on how we physicians behave and speak, and from what we do... It has been said that psychic pain can be an occasion to become more flexible and sensible.

All in all, this is not a layperson's volume, but the three chapters I focused on would be accessible to any reader. As a student in the field and a potential researcher and/or clinician dealing with this disease and the people affected by it, I found its earlier chapters provided such an unconnected list of information it only made me despair that the pieces will ever come together, but the later chapters were both informative, and useful. It is more and more apparent to me that part of delivering good care is not just mastering an overwhelming body of knowledge but also learning the limits of our understanding. It's a hard lesson to swallow.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Libraries of the Rich and Famous

I really enjoyed this article in yesterday's New York Times Business section. It's nice to see that the libraries of Steve Jobs and Michael Moritz have more than Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in them. Poetry is the choice of Visa's founder, Dee Hock! Gives me hope.

I love the quote from the bookseller:

a bookseller in Hadley, Mass., says it is impossible to put together a serious library on almost any subject for less than several hundred thousand dollars.

But, of course! What else is an independent bookseller going to say to someone with a bazillion dollars - I have a couple of used paperback copies of that. What do you need a leatherbound edition from 1850 for?

If Oprah is giving books a boost - think what a television show entitled Libraries of the Rich and Famous would do! Although perhaps others don't have the obsession with creative spaces that I do. I guess I consider libraries creative spaces and not refuges.

I'll add some pictures of writers' workspaces below just for fun.

David Lodge:

A. S. Byatt:

The pictures above are taken from a feature The Guardian ran for a while entitled Writers' Rooms.

Friday, July 20, 2007

I've met my author - finally!

Despite the fact that I was confirmed to be Watership Down only last week I am apparently written by Flannery O'Connor.

Which Author's Fiction are You?

Flannery O'Connor wrote your book. Not much escapes your notice.
Take this quiz!

Chekhov lives

Daniel Veronese's Proyecto Chehov comes to New York's Lincoln Center Theater Festival from Buenos Aires. He unites a group of committed and idiosyncratic actors in a bare-bones, immediate, down and dirty adaptation of Three Sisters called Un Hombre que se Ahoga (A Man Who Drowns) that is everything I go to the theater for. No light cues, only some scratches on the violin for music, one prop - a newspaper, a few chairs, the cast wear their street clothes, but they change nothing about the essence of Chekhov's play (they even stick pretty closely to the text). The biggest difference about this production is that sexual roles are reversed. The three sisters and Masha are men, Solioni, Chebutykin, Tusenbach, Vershinen, Kulygin, and Andrei are women. This is not a "concept" they play it straight. They result is that I could discover this play all over again. All of the cliches went out the window - grieving old servants with kerchiefs on their heads, Natasha as a harpie, a hang dog Kulygin. Instead we saw Amfisa as an old man truly afraid he'll be thrown out onto the street because he's too old to work. Natasha is an utterly crazy and rude kid who doesn't fit in at all. Kulygin is a proud competent teacher who simply loves Masha and cannot help himself. Olga is jaded, broken and has completely imploded upon herself. There isn't even anger left. The sisters went from their old, busy, privileged life with their parents, to a house full of soldiers and dreams of a romantic future. When everyone finally leaves and the Baroness is killed in a duel - Irina only knows that life will go on and that she will work. It is not a romanticized notion of "work" it is simply what she will do tomorrow. Everything about this cast's work was precise and real. Andrei wasn't pathetic because he played a henpecked husband or a tired bureaucrat - he was truly pathetic because he was proud to be on the town council. This production was most remarkable because it didn't make a distinction between life and theater - the cast sat in chairs around the playing area reacting to each other, jumping up from those chairs into the center of the playing area when they entered the scene. When they reacted to each other's actions or performances there was no division between their smile at a choice their fellow actor made or their smile at the character on the stage. There were no characters and actors, only people naked and true before us. I could go and see this again tomorrow. In fact, I might. It reminded me of why I did theater for the last 22 years. The mystery to me is why there were empty seats in the house. Perhaps Chekhov cuts too close to the bone.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Crystaline, poetic, and perfectly observed (Books - The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas)

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas is a crystaline gem. I've never read anything by him. He wrote in the 20th century and lived in Norway. Its taut poetic prose seems to say just as much as it should and no more:

...They did not speak to each other until the school day was over. Then they stood talking quickly and shyly. Siss asked whether Unn would come home with her all the same?

'No, why shouuld I?' asked Unn.

Siss hesitated. She knew it was because she thought she might have something that Unn's aunt did not have - and then she was used to her friends coming to her. She was ashamed and could not tell Unn this.

'No, nothing special,' she said.


This was what Siss knew about Unn - and now she was on her way to her, after going home to let them know.

The cold nibbled at her. It creaked underfoot, and the ice thundered down below. Then she caught sight of the little cottage where Unn and her aunt lived. Light shone out on to the frosted birch trees. Her heart pounded in joy and anticipation.

There is not a lot to say about this book because it is so good. I'm going to give away what little plot there is because there is no other way to talk about what the book does. I knew what happened prior to reading it and it did not ruin the book for me, on the contrary, it increased the suspense somewhat. But don't read on if you think a plot revelation will spoil it for you.

The story is set in the long winter of frozen Norway. In it, Siss is fascinated by Unn, a new girl who has come to her school, and longs to meet her. They meet just once but seem to form a quick and loving bond. The next day Unn takes a walk and gets trapped in a waterfall that freezes each winter, forming a palace of ice. The whole town searches for her but never finds her. Siss is deeply shaken by the disappearance of her new friend and makes a vow never to forget her. On the level of plot, the book evokes the grieving of an 11-year-old girl. It evokes her love, grief, guilt, and how she experiences the mystery of loss. With the Spring thaw comes the awakening of Siss's adolescence and her emergence from mourning. That's it. And yet, this book's simplicity creates incredible suspense.

There is a sequence in which Unn walks further and further into the freezing waterfall which is incredibly beautiful, its language unpredictable, it is actually like a long poem - about 14 pages long - and it is magical. If you've ever watched a scary movie where you see the hero or heroine slowly walk down the stairs after they've heard a noise and you ask yourself - What are they doing? Why don't they hide? Why don't they run? This sequence accomplishes that kind of tension - only this time you're temporarily inside the head of that person and you understand why.

The book makes many simple observations about human loneliness and pain that seem to unfold the condition of grief out clearly before you. It could make an interesting companion read to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. For example, Siss visits Unn's aunt:

An enquiring picture taken last summer. Unn, eleven years old. It was at Auntie's, standing on the table.

She was given reports by those who had taken their turn with the dragging that day...

Auntie listened to the reports from the second, larger group, the one that was trying to find out whether Unn was still alive. There was no news...

She had no information to guide them. They found an elderly, cordial woman. There must have been a great difference in age between her and Unn's mother. They looked a the picture that everyone had seen.

'It was taken last summer, wasn't it?'

Auntie nodded. She was tired of this.

The expression taken last summer had made the picture compelling from the very first. It was meaningless, but it had happened. It was impossible to guess what kind of enchantment the face was given by it, but it had gained something. Taken last summer. They looked at it and would not forget it.


'She looks so enquiring, in a way, doesn't she?'

'Yes, what of it?'

What of it? Nothing.

'She lost her mother in the spring. She was all that she had. So she had something to enquire about, don't you think?'

SPOILER ALERT - (This is about the very last sequence so you might want to skip it until after you've read the book). There is a marvelous sequence when, in the thaw, the ice palace finally melts and falls. It happens at night when everyone is in bed. It is the perfect ending to this perfect book. It is like when a child grows up or a flower opens - it is a huge change and you can see it has happened but you cannot witness the moment of its happening.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Novels on Parade!

Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf is hosting the first edition of the Bookworms Carnival with all sorts of cool posts on novels by members of the bookish blogging community. Thanks Dewey, and check it out if you haven't already.

Upcoming pleasures

I couldn't help it. Harry looms, and in anticipation, I've been treading water, trying not to get into any books that's going to mean a long commitment, trying to get more work related reading done. Nothing fits. That's a good excuse to get more books, right? And just be forewarned, if you're the one that gives away the Potter plot before I've finished it, I'll hunt you down. And it won't be pretty. Ask the guy who spoiled Anna Karenina for me.

Neil Giman's Neverwhere was on reserve for me at the library and I went to pick it up yesterday. A number of the bookish bloggers I read have enjoyed this book. After thirty pages It's nowhere, as far as I'm concerned. I thought it was supposed to be an adult book fiction but it has the rhythm of a book written for younger readers (not that I don't love that genre, but it's not what I expected). And I'm annoyed by the voice - I find it kind of twee. I just don't have the patience for it right now.

I'm expecting Veronica to come in the mail (Sheila's recommendation) and Buddenbrooks, which I've always wanted to read and the Marcel Reich-Ranicki memoir I read last week reminded me of that fact.

Finally, I went strolling through Labyrinth bookstore yesterday - one of my favorite indy bookstores - and found Tarjei Vesaas' The Ice Palace - which the fabulous dovegrey reader recommended recently, and made irresistible, and The Mind's Past by Michael Gazzaniga. Gazzaniga is one of the founders of cognitive neuroscience and this is a slim, up-to-date tour through the subject for the lay reader.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Lies and Review Quotes (Books - Seven Lies - James Lasdun)

An East German boy, Stefan, falls in love with a beautiful actress. He has a history of posing as a poet in order to gain acceptance. He did so to gain the approval of his mother's arty friends and does so again to gain the love of the actress. They escape to New York prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1980s New York, he trades stocks and his life falls apart and he wants to commit suicide (you will find most of this out in the first 20 pages of James Lasdun's Seven Lies, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything).

The book is written in an arty, self-conscious tone that I tried hard to believe was the narrator's voice, but the character's poetry is a lie that he writes in desperation to please the guests at his mother's soirees, so that doesn't really make any sense.

Tech and telecom stocks tumbling again. Good year on that front at least: accounting scandals, fear of terrorism, current administration's economic policy, all battering nicely at the markets. Even Intel's sinking. I shorted it at forty and again at thiry; now it's under twenty. Feels like betting on gravity, or on death.


Fantastic freshness in the air up at the quarry. This autumn vigor that feels so like the energy of life, growth. Trees still a dusty, steely, end-of-summer green, but on a slope below me there was a single maple with half its leaf dome turned scarlet - splash! - like some trendsetter's bold new fashion statement; this year's embroidered shawl or silk pashmina.

Awful alliteration starts the paragraph again. Lasdun's writing always made me aware of Lasdun, not of Stefan, and so it struck a false note with me pretty much through the entire novel. There actually was an interesting plot here, but the language held me at arms length from it. The review quotes didn't help:

"Combines the knuckle-whitening tension of a thriller with..." reads the quote on the cover. Huh?!

The plot explored many things -the disappointment of relying on other people or circumstances to give your life meaning, the taking on of roles in a family, the difficulty of living a lie, but a knuckle-whitening thriller it ain't.

The strength of this brief novel is its plot. I especially loved the relationship between Stefan and his brother Otto. Their mother makes allusions to Stefan's love of writing at one of her parties - this is a character she has invented for him out of wishful thinking. The result is that one of the guests asks to hear the poetry. Stefan gets a reprieve until the next party and he steals a few bottles of liquor from his mother to bribe his building's superintendent, so that he can get access to poetry books stored in a trunk in the cellar. He adapts them to produce the poems he reads at his mother's arty parties. Meanwhile, the missing bottles are discovered and Otto, having been discovered drunk on the bathroom floor on two occasions is blamed, even though the crime was not his. Stefan says nothing as it will expose his lie. In that moment each of them are cast in roles that are not their own and they live in the wake of those lies forever afterward. a perfect example of how narrative can define character in life as well as fiction.

In returning to the books in the cellar again and again to perpetuate his lie, Stefan knows he cannot rely on the liquor any more and he ends up performing sexual favors for the super. But it is related in such distant, poetic terms that I hardly know what he's talking about:

This state of affairs continued for perhaps a year. I was aware that it was unhealthy, to say the least, but at the same time it seemed inconceivable that it could be otherwise. It had come about by a process of invicible logic. on e that I myself was complicit in, even if I hadn't initiated it, and for all its unwholesomeness, I recognized in its textures, its particular twists and turns, something that felt peculiarly me-like. I had created this strange, convoluted, existence, as a sea creature creates the shell peculiar to itself. The distinguishing feature of this particular shell - to pursue the analogy - turned out to be its steady strangulation of its inhabitant. By the time I was feed from it, I was more dead than alive.

Unwholesomeness? He sounds like an aging Edwardian dowager.

All in all, I was taken enough by the story to keep reading, even though the style of the writing held me at a frustrating distance. If you're at all interested by some of the themes Lasdun explores in this novel, it's a quick read and you find may find the story he weaves around them compelling as I did, but my advice would be, don't read the review quotes. Just read the book.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Country called literature ( Books - The Author of Himself, The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki)

This book was recommended by a colleague at school who thought I would like it - thanks, Sonia! I must admit, I probably would never have read it otherwise and am glad to have found out about Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a powerful critic of German literature, who I knew nothing about.

Polish born in 1920, Reich-Ranicki was raised and educated in Germany. Though he was a secular Jew, that never made any difference to the Nazis, who deported him back to Poland just prior to the 1938 invasion. There, although his parents and brother were murdered, he and his wife survived the war, first in the Warsaw Ghetto and later, sheltered by some decent Poles who felt it was the small way they could defy Hitler and the Germans. Out of loyalty to the Russian army who liberated them, Reich-Ranicki lived in Communist Poland, first doing intelligence work and then writing literary criticism on German literature. In the late 1950s he once again left nearly everything behind, defecting to Germany where he built a career as a powerful, popular reviewer of German literature in the leading German magazines, newspapers, and later on television. He is now serving the role of an elder statesman of letters. In fact, John Irving wrote unflatteringly of him only two weeks ago in his piece on Gunter Grass in the New York Times Book Review. Ranicki tells us in his book that, as a critic, he can praise the work of a writer highly, but the writer will always remember him for his negative criticisms.

I read this book more for the story of a man who shares my roots. My heritage is German, Polish, and Jewish. Many of my closer family members were (or are) lovers of German literature, music, verse, and theater - the culture of a country that ultimately betrayed them, continuing to find meaning and solace in it even after the murder of many relatives and the displacement of others to many other countries. I found Ranicki's writing about Thomas Mann and his family, Brecht, Max Frisch, Heine, Goethe, and Feuchtwanger very interesting, as I did his writing about some writers with whom I was not familiar - Boll, Canetti and especially Wolfgang Koeppen, whose books Death in Rome and Pigeons on the Grass are now on my to be read list.

The translation by Ewald Osers seemed very stiff to me, I don't know if that echoed Reich-Ranicki's writing or was because of the limits of the translator but this will give you an example:
There was a marked difference between the vanity of Adorno and that of Canetti. Canetti's was linked to his ambition to act as a categorical accuser and sole judge of the world. Of course the symbolical role that he was aspiring to, and perhaps already trying to furnish with sacerdotal and majestic dignity, escaped more accurate definition - being located in the no-man's-land between literature and philosophy, art, and religion, between severe criticism of the epoch and exalted life...
This doesn't seem the language of a man who wishes to popularize literature.

Some of his earlier memories seem a little sketchy and summarized. I personally craved more detail in his stories of the Warsaw Ghetto and his intelligence work in London following the war. When he drank coffee and cognac at a meeting in London in 1947, I wondered where on earth it came from, given the rationing. It was the lack of little specifics that made some of these stories a bit too "nice." However, it was not his point to provide a detailed history of everyday life in this period and it is understandable if Reich-Ranicki wants to spend less time remembering these parts of his life than he does the more recent enjoyable ones when he no longer lives in fear for his life or his livelihood. It could also be that these more pleasant memories are more like his current life and, therefore, more accessible to his memory.

Occasionally I found the confessional tone of the book annoying - his marital indiscretions are so quickly glossed over, I'm not sure they bear mention at all. He is a little defensive about writers' sensitivities to his criticism and a little impatient of their neuroses. But having worked in the opera for a number of years, I understand how truly tiresome this kind of vanity can be. But these are my chief criticisms. Otherwise, Ranicki draws some delightful portraits - like this one of Brecht's 1952 visit to Warsaw.
After lunch Helene Weigel took me to one side for a private word. To welcome Brecht I had written a short article for one of the main Warsaw dailies, the German translation of which, as I now learned, had immediately been handed to Brecht at the railway station by a representative of the GDR embassy. He had, Helene Weigel said, like the article a lot. Small wonder, I thought to myself, as I had generously praised and lauded the visitor. Unfortunately, she went on, he could not receive anyone. But he would make an exception for me. Would I report to Room 93 at the Hotel Bristol at 5 p.m.? There I would be granted the interview I had asked for.

This was fine by me and I turned up on the dot. To my surprise I found an acquaintance of mine outside the door to Brecht's hotel room, a man who worked as a translator from German. I looked around and saw another acquaintance, a publisher, likewise waiting to be admitted. And somebody was already with Brecht - a theatrical producer. No doubt every one of us had been told that he alone would be received - and now we were queuing up. Eventually my turn came.

I stepped into the room and was amazed by what I saw. Brecht was sitting behind a talbe on which stood a large bowl - and in that bowl were things that simply did not exist in Warsaw in 1952 - oranges, bananas and grapes. Brecht had either brought the fruit with him from Berlin or the GDR embassy had arranged for it to be put there. He did not offer any of this fruit to his visitors.

These coveted delicacies, however, created a distance, a gulf, between him and his guests. Had he, in expectation of his visitors, deliberately left that bowl of fruit standing on the table of his hotel room? No, it was probably a coincidence. Yet the fact that it even occurred to me that he might have used the bananas and oranges as useful stage props was typical of the atmosphere that Brecht, deliberately or otherwise, invariably created. I had the impression that he was always acting.

His apparel also contributed to that impression. In Warsaw he wore the seemingly proletarian, strikingly simple dark-grey jacket that, it was rumoured, had been tailor-made for him from the best English cloth...
There is another memorable episode of Ranicki and his wife being invited to a reception in 1973 honoring the publishing of his colleague Joachim Fest's biography of Hitler. At it, the clueless host greets them warmly and promptly introduces them to Albert Speer - sentenced to 20 years imprisonment at the Nuremberg trials for his collaboration with Hitler. Reich-Ranicki describes both the episode and his own response to it precisely-it's a bit chilling - but his analysis of his host's motives are humane and understanding - related without hysteria or sensationalism.

Ranicki is willing to observe himself just as closely as others which, if one is going to write a memoir at all, is part of what makes its reading worthwhile for me. Even in passages of self-congratulation he seeks to be honest:
It is quite true that I have tried to concentrate as much power in my hands as I thought necessary - and this is true not only of my work on the paper. My participation in literary life during those years went far beyond Franfurter Allgemeine...

But permit me to ask: was this a good thing or a bad thing for literature? For whose benefit did I, for fifteen years, run this big department of Frankfurter Allgemeine? I imagined, and I still believe, that it was to the advantage of literature.

I worked from early morning till late at night - partly at the newspaper's office and partly at home.l I practically never had a free weekend; I only reluctantly, and then not in full, took the leave I was entitled to. I worked hard, enormously hard. Why did I? No one expected me to, let alone asked me to. Much of what I was doing I did not have to do myself; I could have delegated it. So why this great effort, this ceaseless hard work? For the sake of literature? Yes, certainly. Was it my ambition to continue the tradition of Jews in the history of German literary criticism in a leading post before the eyes of the public? Certainly. Did my passion have anything to do with my longing for a home, the home that I lacked and that I believed I had found in German literature? Yes - and perhaps to a great degree than I realized.

All these answers are correct, yet none of them quite hits the spot. If I am being honest, I must also admit that behind my workaholism, because that is what it was, there was nothing but the pleasure which my work on Frankfurter Allgemeine gave me from day to day. My hobby and my job, my passion and my profession, coincided completely.

Ranicki had to make some choices I'm sure I would find quite difficult. He relates a wonderful episode of the guidelines explained to him by the Communist Polish bureaucrat about the number of times he must mention Stalin in his manuscript for it to be published. He complies. One might say "how could he? He's a critic, if it's not his own opinion we are reading, what are his words worth?" On the other hand, if the critic is not published, he's not a critic and we won't be reading anything at all. Put in his place, I cannot claim I would behave any differently. Perhaps making that choice after his life in the Warsaw Ghetto was not as difficult for him as I imagine it would be for me in my privileged life.

What I love about reading biography and autobiography (and for that matter, it's what I love about acting and about studying cognitive neuroscience) is putting myself in the minds of others and trying to imagine how what they experienced resulted in what they did. I've never had to make choices like his, but Ranicki helps me imagine what it might have been like to have to. Finally, Ranicki did what he had to to live. And when he was betrayed by the Germans for being Jewish and Polish, by the Poles for being Jewish and German - when he was denied by everyplace he could have called home, it was literature that helped him survive:
But there is an entirely different factor that may have contributed to my success as a critic. At the risk of being accused of arrogance I must say here what I profoundly believe: literature is my awareness of life. That, I believe, emerges from all my views and judgements on writers and books, perhaps even from mistaken and erroneous ones. Ultimately it is this love of literature, this occasionally monstrous passion, that enables the critic to practise his profession, to discharge his duty. And sometimes it may well be just this love that makes the persona of the critic bearable, and in exceptional cases even attractive, to others. It cannot be repeated too often: without love of literature there can be no criticism.

I admire Ranicki's candor and enjoyed his anecdotes - it's an impressive life he has lived - and he helps me appreciate the role literature can play in a life lived with courage and passion.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Medicine Chest - in case you develop the vapours

In one of the B&Bs where we stayed in Ireland, this medicine chest sat on the dressing table, yes we had a dressing table in the room. We also had a chaise lounge on which we could collapse with the vapours before taking one of these powders.

Is this Joseph Cornell, or what? Here's his:

And now that I've started with Cornell, I just can't resist one more. Couldn't this be the castle where you would find this chest?

One day I'll do a post on the magician Joseph Cornell but I'll be here all day so right now, I'll refer you to Sheila's excellent post at The Sheila Variations instead. Somehow, she's referencing Cornell today too. Great minds...


We are fast closing in on the deadline for poem submission and we're still a small (but special) bunch. Come on friends - play along! And if you are playing but haven't yet declared your poems yet, please do, by July 20!

Here are the rules again:

The Challenge: Assign yourself 4 poems you have not really read:
  • 1 poem written before 1900
  • 1 poem written 1900-2000
  • 1 poem written in 2000-2007
  • 1 poem you're intimidated by, find mysterious, or simply don't understand, from any period.
These can be any length - really. They can be haiku, they can be book-length. They can be famous, they can be unknown - just don't use your own poetry, please. Otherwise, suit yourself.

What to do: Please formally enroll yourself here with your blog name in parentheses and blog URL (linking me directly to your posting of the poems will make the process more efficient for your visitors, but do as you wish). Also list your four poem titles and poets, please. If you change your mind or fill in one as you go, please mark your addendum as "your blog name" poetry submission #2 (etc...). Please label all posts "summer poetry challenge." One submission (of four poems) per person, please.

Sign-up deadline: No later than July 20, 2007.

I will post an index of all participants, listing your name, blog, four poems and poets. That index will link readers in our "reading week" to your poems directly.

Posting deadline: For one week, beginning August 1, post your poems (unless they're too long, in which case your thoughts on them, your questions about them, and any excerpts you choose can be posted instead). If they are long poems, post sooner so others can read them too if they choose!

Posting the poems on your own site will create readers for you and put your dialogue right at your fingertips, but with any luck we will get a cross-dialogue going.

Check in periodically for updates.

Most of all - read gorgeously good poems and spread the word(s)!

Who's playing so far: See side bar for the list

What are they reading:

pre-1900: Paradise Lost by Milton

1900 - 2000: a pick from Adam Zagajewski's Without End

2000-2007: a pick from Talking Dirty to the Gods - Yusef Komunyakaa

From any period: Persephone the Wanderer by Louise Glück

Before 1900: “And did those feet in ancient time” by William Blake — 1804

1900-2000: “Les Feuilles Mortes” by Jacques Prévert

2000-2007: “We Gather” by Nikki Giovanni — 2007

A poem I find mysterious: “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll — 1871

Before 1900: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (translated by Edward Fitzgerald), written 11th or 12th century.

1900-2000: 'The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower' by Dylan Thomas - 1933

2000-2007: 'Cactus' by Siobhan Harvey (one for Australia!) - 2007.

Lastly, 'Waiting for the Barbarians' by Constantine Cavafy, mysterious to me as it's captured the inspiration of some of my favourite writers, yet I have never read it - 1904.

Before 1900: Paradise Lost - by John Milton. I read it when I was a junior in high school, for English - and I can honestly say that that doesnt' count. I need to read it in its entirety again.

1900 - 2000: To Brooklyn Bridge - by Hart Crane

2000 - 2007: Anahorish 1944 - by Seamus Heaney

Poem I find mysterious: Sailing to Byzantium - WB Yeats

Pre-1900: Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman - 1855

1900-2000: The Man with the Blue Guitar by Wallace Stevens - 1937

2000-2007: Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit
by Timothy Donnelly - 2001-2003

Mysterious: The Book of Questions by Pablo Neruda - 1973

Loose Baggy Monster:
Pre-1900: Dante's "Inferno"

1900-2000: Something by Osip Mandelstam (perhaps "To the German Language"-1932)

2000-2007: "Early Hour" by Wislawa Szymborska-2006.

Any period: "For My Enemies" by Boris Pasternak

Before 1900: Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience (I'll choose one poem from each part to post)

1900-2000: Yevgeny Yevtushenko, "Tomorrow's Wind" (1977)

2000-2007: "Reading the Entrails: a Rondel" by Neil Gaiman

Other: Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" (I chose it because 1) I've always had a problem w/ Plath for committing suicide and 2) the poem itself is quite disturbing, but also haunting and powerful)