"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Terrible Beauty: Another Civil Disorder

This being Easter, I've been thinking about this holiday in literature.  Some comments that Edmund Wilson wrote about the Russian attitude toward Spring, rebirth and the death of Christ have been haunting me.  As I remember it, he used a description of the coming of the new season from a Russian novel as a metaphor for many things.  But I read it when I hadn't been living very long in a cold climate, and I wondered how you could get so much symbolic baggage from a simple thaw.

Now I know.  The melting snow and the peculiar light of the season quicken the pulse.  Things have begun to change....

I can't find the quote that Wilson used, however, and I am slowly going a little crazy looking for it.  It may be from Boris Paternak's Doctor Zhivago, but I'm not sure. 

Until I find out, here's another momentous literary reference to Easter.  This one is about the Easter Rising in Ireland, that paved the way for the eventual independence of Eire. A terrible beauty indeed!

Easter 1916

William Butler Yeats

I HAVE met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Night Thoughts of Priests: Robert Bolaño's Novel about the Chilean Dictatorship

When the choice of  a new Pope from Argentina was announced a couple of weeks ago, I immediately thought of By Night in Chile by Robert Bolaño, a great book about the intrigues and moral dilemmas of politics and religion.

 The pretext is  the death-bed thoughts of a dying Chilean priest, who was deeply involved in the Latin American literary scene. There is much about poetry and indeed the teaser to a review in The Guardian says it is a “wonderful and beautifully written analysis of Chilean literary life.” But it is also—and far more importantly to my mind—a meditation on intellectual and spiritual responsibility.

Bolaño died at 50 in 2003, after a short and intense writing career: in the last ten years of his life he turned out more than a half dozen books. He ran afoul of the Pinochet dictatorship when he returned to his native Chile just before the overthrow of Salvador Allende. After a short imprisonment he spent a good part of his life abroad, reading widely and becoming a cult hero in literary circles. But this short novel, elegantly translated by Chris Andrews, is so much bigger than a “literary” work that even those who bristle when critics talk of style will profit from reading it.

The only other writer I can think who has combined political conscience, story telling ability and superb writing is Colm Toíbin in his novel of the Spanish Civil War and the Irish Troubles, The South, and in The Story of the Night, set in the Argentina of the Falklands War and the explosion of the AIDS epidemic. Bolaño had a reputation of reading absolutely everything so it’s probable he read the latter book. Indeed the similarity of Bolaño’s title to Toibin’s suggests this. But Bolaño is an original. 10 on 10, in my book.

As for the new Pope Francis, the Pope's supporters insist  that the charges he was complicit in the crimes of the dictatorship in the 1970s are false.  But doubts remain.

Whatever the truth, as my grandmother used to say, remember you have to go to bed with yourself every night and if you want to sleep it helps to have a clear conscience.  The narrator of Bolaño's novel certainly doesn't have one.

BTW, that's St. Francis of Assisi, St. Andrew and the Archangel Michael in a painting by Adriaen Isenbrandt. Not sure how they all got to the Crucifixion, but that's imagination (or religious experience) for you.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Goodtime Girl and Bad Times in General

This photograph of a group of people in the back of a truck fleeing the Syrian city of Aleppo has haunted me for some time, and my thoughts have returned to it lately as the news from Syria grows more somber.

What can you tell from a photo like this?  Well, it probably is a family group--there's a strong resemblance between them.  And that they're reasonably well off to be able to pay for transport, instead of walking.  The women wear headscarves, which probably doesn't mean much about where they stand in the split between different Muslim groups, or just how traditional they are.  What is clear is that they are in a bad position, and even though the 13 or 14 year old boy seems fascinated by something in the air, this is a nightmare.

How this will end I have no idea.  But I recently read a most interesting novel that takes place in the aftermath of another city burnt and population displaced: The Goodtime Girl by Tess Fragoulis (Cormorant Books.)  The main character is a young woman who was her father's darling in the early 1920s in Smyrna.   WhenGreeks were driven from the city by Turks in 1922, she escaped to Pireaus and Athens where she ended up singing other people's songs of distress and love.

The worst of the story happens off stage.  Kivelli has wiped part of it from her mind.  It resurfaces in her dreams and in an abbreviated version told about half way through the book.  But we know always that a number of people were beastly to a number of others for reasons which in no way justify what happened.

Kivelli is a survivor, and sings her sorrows so movingly that she is able to escape. That she sings the songs of other people is also poignant, because Fragoulis makes it clear that while many people may have stories to tell, not all of them have the voice to tell them.

It's a good read, and will send you looking for more information about the bloodshed that followed World War I, as spheres of influence were redefined.  It will also make you wonder just what the stories are of the folk fleeing in the pictures we see all too frequently. 

Photo: Agence France Presse

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Zola's The Kill: Great Read and an Insight into Why We're in Such a Financial Mess Today

As Cyprus trembles on the brink of financial disaster (or so we're told) I find myself reflecting on how we got here, how in  2008 the bottom fell out of the housing bubbles all over the world.  The financial problems that followed have been disastrous for millions of people, and frequently the "fix" proposed has been all  wrong, if we are to believe Paul Krugman, Nobel laureat for economics.

This is not the first financial collapse, of course. My parents lived through the Great Depression and were deeply marked by it  But there was another one before that in 1873, that was even worse.  For anyone who'd like to know how we got in our current situation, a novel written by Emile Zola about the 1873 bubble and crash is a great and informative read.

The book is called   The Kill  (La Curée in French, both terms referring to the frenzy that comes at the end of a hunt.)  I read it in the summer of 2007 while researching my book The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond.  At the time  I was struck by how much Aristide Saccard, the developer at the heart of the novel, resembled people involved in cities today.

According to Zola’s story, Saccard made a fortune in the Haussmannian re-building of Paris in the 1860s and early 1870s. How like the people  behind development all over North America and Europe, buliding condos and houses and office buildings everywhere, I thought when I first read it

But I didn't realize how apt the comparison was until the fall of 2008 when Scott Reynolds Nelson's “The Real Great Depression” was ublished in The Chronicle Review.  When the bubble burst the depression which followed the 1873 Crash lasted four years in North America and seven years in Europe, he says.

Real estate speculation, shaky financial arrangements, unsecured loans and most of all greed were behind that crash. “Land values seemed to climb and climb; borrowers ravenously assumed more and more credit, using unbuilt or half-built houses as collateral. The most marvelous spots for sightseers in the (Paris, Berlin and Vienna) today are the magisterial buildings erected in the so-called founder period.” (The photo was taken during the construction of the Opera Garnier in 1866.)

Zola's novel, the second in his multiple volume history of the Rougon-Macquart family, is full  of iintrigue and sex as well as real estate--in fact it is so steamy that it was censored in France after its publication, and wasn't translated into English for nearly 50 years because it was considered just too hot.

A great read! And I can't think of a recent novel that tells as much about our times as this does about its.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Empire Strikes Back Dept: Two Thought Provoking Books by Women of the Indian Diaspora

Jhumpa Lahiri's short story collection Unaccustomed Earth kept me up reading, and this despite the fact that I'd read four of the eight stories previously in The New Yorker. The book continues to explore a circle of character types she has written about before: upper middle-class, educated Indians and their children living in the United States. Full of carefully-observed detail, the stories present the dramas that resonate with those of many of the people who read The New Yorker. Children succeed or fail disastrously, parents die, love comes or does not: there must be tens of thousands of intelligent readers who can sympathize with Lahiri's people.

Politics, societal conflict, even professional and intellectual struggles are largely absent from this world, and as I read I found myself comparing the stories with Anita Rau Badami's three novels, particularly her one-before-last  Can You Hear the Night Bird Call? Badami was born and educated in India, unlike Lahiri who is North-American born, but many of her characters come from the same world as Lahiri's. Her people also sometimes feel caught between two worlds, and they try to make good lives for themselves, too.

A major--and telling difference--is the way the Badami wants to understand how her characters fit into a world much larger than the one of intimate relationships which Lahiri almost always favours. Night Bird is the best example of this, because its three women characters are caught up in Hindu-Sikh conflicts that permeate a good part of Indian politics, and spill over tragically into North America. At the heart--and the end--of the novel is the Air India disaster, which until 9/11 had the unhappy distinction of being the world's most fatal civilian terrorist attack.

Outside events only intrude into Lahiri's stories once: Unaccustomed Earth contains a reference to the 2004 tsunami. It seems Lahiri is a little uncomfortable about that even. “The real event just sort of caught my character in there,” she told one interviewer. “I don’t tackle major global events. I don’t like to read about something—an event, a cataclysm—in fiction for the sake of reading it." Better to turn to non-fiction for accounts of events, she said: "that’s what good nonfiction is for. And I think that the fact there is a major global event in (my) book—I don’t know if it was okay or not.”"

I would say it most definitely is okay. In fact, the reference is masterfully set in context, and opens up Lahiri's fictional world so that it resonates far beyond the lives of her well-brought up characters. In the future, I hope she continues to tell us stories about how the people she imagines fit into a world wider than one of good schools, deadly but well-managed illness and love which sometimes is arranged and sometimes is not.

And on the shelf next to my bed is Badami's most recent book Tell It to the Trees. Perhaps I'll stay up late tonight reading it.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A. S. Byatt and the Importance of a Good Editor

My friend Ann Charney and I had an interesting exchange about historical novels recently. She’s not that keen on them—“if you want to write about an historical period, why don’t you write non-fiction?” she asks--while I sometimes find them a wonderful window onto both human nature and the past.

But I must admit I was terribly disappointed by A.S. Byatt’s  novel, The Children’s Book. Byatt (that's her on the left) is a writer who can catch the moment gloriously—some of her short stories are wonderful in the way they describe sensations so vividly that they stay with you months afterward. Her novel Possession is a masterful combination of such luminous descriptors of incident and of a story that encompasses decades. But I have found it a chore to read her four Frederica novels—The Shadow of the Sun, The Virgin in the Garden, A Whistling Woman (which I threw aside) and Babel Tower (by far the best.) The books tell me far more than I want to know about the world of her characters. All would have profited from editors who were not afraid to perform a savage pruning.

Byatt won the Blue Metropolis International Literary Prize a couple of years ago, which meant she gave several readings and interviews in Montreal. I did not hear her, but apparently she was riveting, and more than one acquaintance bought The Children's Book  on the strength of that.

Therefore I was more than ready to give her the benefit of the doubt with this new book. It is filled with vivd descriptions (particularly about pots and pantomime costumes), but once again I found myself growing cross with the way she tried to pour the history of the world from 1895 to 1920 into 600 pages. Everything is there, including an ending in the trenches of World War I. Why didn’t Byatt allow herself to be edited, to cut out much of the background information so our eyes are focused on her characters and their singular accomplishments? As Ann might say, if I wanted to know about the the period I would have read history, perhaps Barbara Tuchman's excellent The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War.

I read the novel in a couple of days--there is much that is engaging, some moments are brilliant—but what I would give for reading the same book with 100 pages cut from it! That would be something for the ages.

To Start Things Off As Spring Officially Begins: A Great Green Book

There are books that mark you because they crystallize what you’ve been thinking about a subject, or because they lead you deeper into a particular world of endeavor. Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perenyi was one such for me. For the first part of my life I took gardens and flowering plants for granted—they were part of the landscape, part of the set on the stage of my life, but no more real or important that the cut-out trees toted by the advancing hordes in Macbeth.

But some time in my 30s I fell in love with plants, and began trying to grow them indoors in this wintry climate and outside during the far too short summer season.

Perenyi’s book was published when I was in the throes of trying to figure out how to make the most of a small city garden plot. Her essays on compost inspired me to keep at it: my chicken-wire contraption is probably the oldest in my neighborhood, and whatever gardening success I have is, in part, owed to it. But Perenyi also linked gardening to the wider world, with an essay on the origin of peonies, and ruminations on dahlias and the wisdom of using a push mower instead of a power one. Over the years I’ve returned to the book frequently, for ideas, encouragement and pleasure.

Eleanor Perenyi died n at the age of 91 a few years ago. To everything there is a season, as she wrote in an essay on autumn in Green Thoughts: “When will the final curtain fall? Heavier dews presage the morning when the moisture will have turned to ice, glazing the shriveled dahlias and lima beans, and the annuals will be blasted beyond recall. These deaths are stingless. I wouldn’t want it otherwise. I gardened one year in a tropical country and found that eternal bloom led to ennui.”

It is fittimg--and perhaps not accidental--that she died just as the North American spring burst forth.