Commonplace Book: Rabih Alameddine’s “An Unnecessary Woman”

Tipped by a NYPL blog entry on world literature, I’m engrossed in An an-unncessary-womanUnnecessary Woman, a novel in the first-person about a reclusive reader and translator, Aaliya, holed away in an old apartment building in Beirut who starts out every Jan 1 on her new translation project. Something, when complete, she just shoves in a box and stores.

The novel is a love letter to reading and listening: full of references to books, writers, composers and musicians whose works make up Aaliya’s real world.  In this passage, she has just put on an LP of Bruckner’s Third Symphony:

Here’s a charming tale about Bruckner that I love, though I believe it

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner

must be apocryphal. When he conducted the premier of this same third symphony, the audience abhorred it. Personally, I can’t imagine why. Not only is it beautiful, but if it has a flaw, it may be that it’s a little melodramatic and kitschy, two attributes that audiences tend to love. But who can account for tastes? The audience booed violently and stormed out of the hall. I imagine the composer looking back in abject sorrow at the honeycomb of heads in the theater before exiting and locking himself in the conductor’s room, alone as he would always be. Forlorn and forsaken. Bruckner remained by himself until everyone had left the building, at which point he returned to the pit for a last farewell. He saw a young man still sitting in his seat, a young composer so overcome that he’d been unable to move a muscle since the symphony began, not a twitch. The young Mahler had been cemented in his seat for more than two hours, weeping.

I am not a young Mahler. Today the music doesn’t move me, and I do not find it soothing.

Wave after wave of anxiety batters the sandy beaches of my nerves. Oh, that’s a bad metaphor if there ever was one. Just horrible.

Nothing is working. Nothing in my life is working.

Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life? I remain a speck in a tumultuous universe that has little concern for me. I am no more than dust, a mote—dust to dust. I am a blade of grass upon which the stormtrooper’s boot stomps.

I had dreams, and they were not about ending up a speck. I didn’t dream of becoming a star, but I though I might have a small nonspeaking role in a grand epic, an epic with a touch of artistic credentials. I didn’t dream of becoming a giant—I wasn’t that delusional or arrogant—but I wanted to be more than a speck, maybe a midget.

I could have been a midget.

All our dreams of glory are but manure in the end.

I used to imagine that one day a writer would show up at my door, someone whose book I had translated, maybe the wonderful Danilo Kiš (The Encyclopedia of the Dead), before he died, of course. He the giant, me the speck with midget dreams, but he would come to thank me for caring about his work, or maybe Marguerite Yourcenar would knock on my door. I haven’t translated her, of course, because she writes in French. And what French. In 1981 she was the first woman inducted into L’Académie française because of her impeccable language. She would appear to encourage me, to show solidarity, us against the world. I, like you, isolated myself. You in this apartment in this lovely but bitter city of Beirut, I on an island off the coast of Maine. You’re a forsaken, penniless translator who’s able to remain in your home by the grace of your landlord, Fadia, while I am an incredible writer whose girlfriend, heir to the Frick fortune, owns the entire island. I am respected by the world while you are mocked by it. Yet we have much in common.

 I had dreams. …

 

 

 

Quotable Words: Arnold Weinstein

Nice essay on the value of the humanities by the lit prof, Arnold Weinstein, with this gem,

“How much do you know about Shakespeare,” I once asked a friend who has committed much of her life to studying the Bard. She replied, “Not as much as he knows about me.” Remember this the next time someone tells you literature is useless.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/24/opinion/dont-turn-away-from-the-art-of-life.html. The whole essay is worth a read.

MisMidsummer_sized

The first quarto of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from the Folger collection.

Shakespeariana

Lots of observances of the 400th anniversary of WS’s death (so long ago, so recent!)

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 3.03.57 PMTwo web destinations I particularly liked: Neil MacGregor “Shakespeare’s Restless World,” a BBC Radio and podcast series akin to his “History of the World in 100 Objects.” In 20 short episodes, he takes an object as a means to glimpse what the experience of playwright, players, and audiences might have been like. (For instance, the simple Protestant chalice in the church where Shakespeare was baptized provides a lens into the roiling drama of Catholic v. Protestant politics and power and the fears relating to the successor to Elizabeth).

Wonderful scholarly Shakespeare websites abound, but some the main repositories of primary docs have come together to put up an exhibit that gives you a chance to see for yourself the printed legacy of Shakespeare’s age.

Shakespeare Documented is a quick trip to those rare Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 3.09.32 PMbook collections in these great libraries, and from your armchair, you can follow links for the full texts, and ‘page’ through the versions of the plays that were first published as well as many contextual docs.

Reasonable Words: Banging My Own Drum Edition

iwl2Some nice words from fellow blogger David Murphy about an online educational course and TV series I co-executive produced, Invitation to World Literature.

“The 13 works are well-chosen, clearly reflecting the aims of the producers. I won’t list them, as if you click on the pic of the interface you’ll get a more easily readable version. I suspect that, like me, you have a passing knowledge of a few titles (The Odyssey, Candide, The Thousand and One Nights), but what do you know about Popol Vuh? Quite a fascinating mixture across the ages, I’m sure you’ll agree. Always tricky to choose something contemporary, of course, but a goodly sample of bibliophiles would at least grudgingly agree with The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy), I would claim. The other recent title, My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk), is likely less well known (unless you’re Turkish!), but maybe here I’m just displaying my appalling ignorance of world literature.

The interface is clean and inviting, and the material and background resources well-chosen and lovingly presented. You can delve via the ‘Watch’, ‘Read’ or ‘Explore’ menus, each simple to navigate.”

Deep thanks, David!

A few additional tidbits to note: all the videos are online, but they are also sometimes on public television in North America (granted, they probably air at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning, that’s sort of the story of my producing life, but you can TiVo it people!).

Also, there is lots more, a college degree’s worth of courses and then some, at Learner.org from Annenberg. They have a two-fold aim, provide well-produced media-based online courses for college students (and life-long learners), and provide materials for teaching training. I have worked on many projects in both categories, and they were great experiences.

And back to World Literature–truly one of the great things, one of those “before and after” moments in my reading life–was reading Monkey, for the project, a book I didn’t know. It’s a Buddhist parable, an insight into Chinese history and culture, wacky and funny, and also profound. For me, finished on a bitterly cold night on Cape Cod six New Year’s Eves ago, it was an invitation to think about my being as both monkey and monk in a way that has kept me company ever since.

 

 

 

Commonplace book: Jacques Bonnet channels Pessoa

From a memoir of reading, book collecting, and libraries, Phantoms of the Bookshelves, that I, appropriately enough, picked up at the Bethesda Library.

BonnetOn 1 September 1932, the Portuguese newspaper O Século carried an advertisement for the post of librarian-curator at the Condes de Castro Guimarães Museum, in Cascais a little town on the coast about thirty kilometers from Lisbon. On 16 September, the poet Fernando Pessoa sent the local authority a letter applying for the post. The six-page document was later reproduced in a book by Maria José de Lancastre, Fernando Pessoa, una fotobiografia (Fernando Pessoa: photographic documentation), published in 1981 by Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda and the Centro de Estudios Pessoanos, which I bought for 500 escudos in a bookshop in Coimbra in November 1983. It was the only copy they had. In the town’s cafés in those days there was still a ledge under the table where you could put your hat, and I remember seeing a woman go past in the street with a sewing machine balanced on her head. The Portuguese text of the letter is reproduced in Fernando Pessoa in characters far too tiny for anyone without good Portuguese to decipher.

Pessoa, who was tired of translating commercial correspondence for import-export firms in Lisbon, on a wage that scarcely allowed him to survive and get (moderately) drunk every day, felt the urge to change his way of life and leave his flat at 16, Coelho da Rocha Street for a small town near Lisbon. In my copy of the book, a few pages before the letter, there is a photograph of Pessoa drinking a glass of red wine in the shop owned by the wine merchant Abel Ferreira da Fonseca. Behind him you can see casks of Clairette, Abafado, Moscatel, Ginginha and so on. This was the snapshot which Pessoa sent in September 1929 to Ophelia Queiroz, the only romantic relationship he is known to have had. The dedication reads: “Fernando Pessoa, em flagrante delitro”, or “Fernando Pessoa in flagrante with a litre”. Sending the photograph had marked the renewal of a connection broken off nine years earlier, and which would end, permanently this time, six months later. At least, it ended materially. Ophelia never married, and she recounted that shortly before his death, Pessoa, on meeting his nephew Carlos, had asked him, “How is Ophelia?”, then, his eyes filled with tears, had grasped his hands and added: “Oh what a fine soul, a fine soul!”

The lovely opening…evocative of Pessoa himself, a lyrical mysterious spirit.

Reading On Screen Part 2

Further to the vexatious topic of reading on screen versus paper (oddly enough, subject of the most popular post on this blog). Fast Company has a piece by Annie Sneed that rounds up some recent findings on the trade-off: Everything Science Knows About Reading On Screens.

She cites a speculative, but plausible, view that screens are less congenial to deep, attentive reading:

Nonlinear reading might especially hurt what researchers call “deep-reading”—our in-depth reading of text that requires intense focus to fully understand it, like the works of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. “Skimming is fine for our emails, but it’s not fine for some of the important forms of reading,” says Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf. “If you word-spot James Joyce, you’ll miss the entire experience.”

I’ll mostly pass over the mild paradox that “linear” is not a word I would apply to such paragons of literary modernism as Joyce & Woolf. One can imagine Joyce happilyflipping his wig over a hypertext Ulysses, a book which he famously said people would still be trying to decode  centuries later. If ever there were a book you go “in” rather than through it’s that one.

But I take the point; there is a quietness and materiality to reading on paper (and writing on paper) as well as a slowing down, and perhaps a bit more intentionality. When you are using a digital device, all kinds of processes & gizmos beckon, and instead of a reader, you are a bartender with a bunch of obstreperous patrons. (FB message? email, that long download that was supposed to be finished, and “oops, where is that power cable again? I’m down to 5%”). None of these particular distractions plague books. Also–and I think, though simple, this is key–a book has a self-evident way of telling you where you are, and how to find things without need of digital search. A book is a book-shaped thing and we know how it works intrinsically, because how it works is what it is. That perhaps transcends the many  comparative advantages digital offers. A minor practical example: there’s something delicious about peeking ahead to see whether there are 5 or 20 pages left in the chapter, and whether you should wait to make your tea or not. (A vision into the kinds of exciting questions that animate my daredevil lit’rery life.)

381px-William_Morris_age_53

William Morris says, “put that laptop away, young man.”

Given that I work all day on screen, it’s probably not surprising that my book reading is on paper.  (Although perversely, I did read News from Nowhere on my iPad, something I can’t imagine William Morris would heap approbation on.) I have been on a Trollope tear recently and can’t imagine reading him except on paper. But he’d probably be ridiculously enjoyable in any format, he’s also drolly wise, so gets tonight’s last word:

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will last you until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.” – Anthony Trollope

Commonplace Book: The Books We Read as Teenagers

More commonplace book entries from the recent LRB (an exceptional issue, even by their high standard).

This bit from Adam Phillips “Against Self-Criticism

"Donquixote". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donquixote.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Donquixote.JPG

“Don Quixote” by Picasso. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donquixote.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Donquixote.JPG

The books we read in adolescence often have an extraordinary effect on our lives. They are, among other things, an attempt at regime change. In Freud’s language we could say that we free ourselves of our parents’ ideals for us by using the available culture to make up our own ego-ideals, to evolve a sense of our own affinities beyond the family, to speak a language that is more our own. In the self-fashioning of adolescence, books (or music or films) begin really to take, to acquire a subtle but far-reaching effect that lasts throughout a person’s life. We should, therefore, take seriously Freud’s adolescent passion for Don Quixote, a story about a ‘madman’ – as he is frequently referred to in the book – whose life is eventually entirely formed by his reading, in his case the reading of chivalric romances. He is a man who inhabits, lives in and through, the fictions about knights errant that he has consumed, a fictional character who makes himself out of fictional characters.

Rings true to me that what you do in those years has a resonance that lasts (although the ability to respond with such intensity does fade, on the whole a relief, I’m glad not to be undone by a song or a poem any more.)  My adolescent self was formed by a hodgepodge of often not very great music or books (I was in love with Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which, though fun, is hardly Cervantes) but the idea of fashioning yourself out of those materials does seem part of what that age is about, and perhaps why it’s so unavoidable that you always measure the music (poetry, art…) that you encounter later against the template set by that ardent first discovery.

Phillips goes on to make a remarkable point about what Don Q means in the context of Freud’s theory, with the advice that we might all be a little more easy going and conversational with our super-ego.