Thursday, 30 October 2014

Stories about stories about stories

Full title: Suddenly, A Knock on the Door
Author: Etgar Keret; tr: Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, Nathan Englander
Genre: Fiction, shorts
Attributes: 190p, paperback
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Etgar Keret's fiction has a flavour of its own. It tastes of good storytelling, and leaves in the reader's mind important questions such as these: Where the hell does he get them? How long before one plot starts catching roots inside his mind? How on earth does he generate the sparks that get the engine rumbling, the wheels spinning, the narrative machines rolling forth? Is he for real? Is he on something?
The flavour of Etgar Keret's stories also develops from their structural homogeneity. There is almost always a beginning that poses a problem or calls attention to a strange fact or other (one, let's say, that didn't seem to have a place in fiction): "Have you ever wondered what word is most frequently uttered by people about to die a violent death?" ("Cheesus Christ"); "I know a guy who fantasizes all the time" ("Shut"); "This is the story of a man who suffered from a hemorrhoid" ("Hemorrhoid").
Then there are beginnings that simply can't go unnoticed. They make you read the rest with the curiosity and fascination of an addict: "My son wants me to kill her" ("Teamwork"); "The whole incident with Avishai Abudi should, in my opinion, set a red light flashing for us all" ("Pudding"); "Three of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide" ("Not Completely Alone").
There's a load of potential in these first sentences. They blow the air of life into each story and enable them to lead a life of healthy fantasy. But let's set the record straight: these first sentences are no tricks; they don't pretend to deliver without actually delivering. The promise they make is always fulfilled. If these beginnings are outstanding, the "bodies" of the stories that follow are equally gratifying. "It began with a kiss," says the first sentence of "Unzipping," and then in the story that follows we encounter people provided with zippers like stuffed toys, who change their appearance in order to plunge into new love affairs. "Healthy Start," which opens with a sorry protagonist who finds himself unbearably lonely after conjugal separation, develops into a narrative in which we find the man engaging in conversations with strangers and pretending he was the person the strangers had come to meet.

Source: ECYC
So you see how everything in Etgar Keret's stories hinges on originality. There's always a twist, always a treat for the reader, always a fantastic world bringing itself to light.
Readers have no chance of waxing disinterested. Their engagement is continuous. Before they even recover from the punch of the beginning and the surprise of the development, they are left with their mouth agape when the story ends abruptly. And when I say this I don't mean to say Etgar Keret's stories end in full stops. Rather, they end in something that looks like commas. No end-of-road in sight, only the promise of a further journey. Indeed, the general feeling, after having read any of the texts in the collection, is that there's more to be found outside the given story.
And so, these endings slash the horizon open in order to reveal, beyond the vanishing point, the fantasy of a world always happy to show its artificial essence.
There's, obviously, a major point to all of this. Etgar Keret cares not only about his stories but about Story. He experiments with form as well as with content. He orders his texts in such a way as to make them work together. And if this is not immediately apparent, wait till you reach "The Story, Victorious":
"This story is the best story in the book. More than that, this story is the best story in the world. [...] This story is a unique Israeli innovation. [...] Just as our army is the best army in the world - same with this story. We're talking here about an opening so innovative that it's protected by registered patent. And where is this patent registered? That's the thing, it's registered in the story itself!"
This, right here, is not only a story. It is the story of the entire collection, and a story about storytelling; in it, the simplest truth that can be uttered is that narratives need no support: they legitimate themselves and give themselves the right to shine. A truth so simple, it sounds like an experiment in telling (of stories, if not of other things as well). But to be honest, Keret's experimental attitude was apparent from the very first text: the one that gives the collection its title, "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door." Here, already, the story is a meta-story, featuring characters who ask the protagonist to tell them a story and threaten to kill him if he shows any signs of fatigue or failure. With such a set-up, it comes as little surprise that the rest of the volume (and the rest of Keret's oeuvre, for that matter) behaves so eccentrically, always avoiding, with precision and excitement, the docile core of traditional storytelling.
Reaching the end of these stories, after having journeyed through their eccentricity, feels like a hurt of some sort. Perhaps the kind you got when you were a kid and the grown-ups gave you sweets: you wanted more because you loved the rush, but they kept insisting that you should be content with this only one they were willing to give. You didn't know they were tantalising your imagination. You didn't know they were giving you a story to chew.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Sex and scandal à la Middle Ages

Full title: The Fabliaux
Author: Nathaniel E. Dubin; Introduction by R. Howard Bloch
Genre: Fiction, poetry
Attributes: 982 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Liveright (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This is a book of a genre. It’s a collection of translations with a mission: to make texts written hundreds of years ago sound contemporary. It succeeds to a great extent. Nathaniel E. Dubin, who approached the genre of fabliaux first as a scholar, found a gap and was quick to fill it. With this collection, Dubin returns the fabliaux to their rightful condition of texts performed to popular audiences, capable of easing the spirit and causing affluent cascades of laughter. They show misogyny at its most cruel, welcome buffooneries and anticlerical rants, debunk social norms with the ease of a quick piss, and, generally speaking, build a glorious monument to the middle finger. They are verbose, foul-mouthed, impudent, abusive, playful, bad-mannered, frivolous, insulting, uncouth, insolent, lustful, licentious, cheeky. “Precursors to the short story,” as R. Howard Bloch, the author of the introduction, calls them, the fabliaux reveal a world of practical townspeople, ordinary men and women who seem to regard life as something to be explored and experimented with, and who take play to be the only serious alternative to social and cultural imperatives.
Utterly modernized, the translations in the volume capture not so much the language (although they’re following very closely the French originals) as the spirit of the genre. That’s because they are translations of a zeitgeist, of that spirit of a time when things appeared unsettled and exposed, weakened to the point of ridicule. What’s more, they look good in contemporary English. As the translator himself declares:
“Fortunately, the English language, with its long tradition of humorous verse, is singularly suited to approximate the Old French originals, more so, in fact, than contemporary French.”
What a blessing, then, for a translator!
Pranks, theft, charlatanry, practical jokes, cheap cheats, deceiving devilries, adultery, the whole gamut of human depravities is paraded through these mini-treatises on transgression. They deal in scandal and turn a good profit out of it – a social profit just as well, considering the binding agency of humor and laughter. Little pieces of ribaldry, they take pleasure in language as much as they take in carnality.
“Part of a naturalistic sensualism of the High Middle Ages, a celebration of the appetites, the fabliaux made the body speak.”
As largely expected, at their most scandalous, the fabliaux turn into blasphemies. In “The Soul That Argued Its Way into Heaven,” a debate is sparked by a peasant’s soul, who had found his way to Paradise by accident. He challenges Saint Peter, the guardian of Heaven’s gates, and builds an argument as good as any sample of theological reasoning:
“I swear that he was crazy who
made an apostle out of you!
It redounds little to your pride
that by you Our Lord was denied.
Your faith must have been very small,
for you denied three times in all
that you were of His retinue.
This dwelling wasn’t made for you;
it hates you and your living here.”
Peter left speechless, the peasant’s soul moves on to do the same to Saint Thomas (scolded for his doubting) and Saint Paul (reminded of his repression of Christians, prior to the conversion). When he finally wins the sympathy of Christ, the simple-minded peasant places, if only for the length of a good old story, humankind back into the lost Paradise: a gesture at odds with the theological arguments of Christianity. But so comforting, so hospitable, so reassuring.
The fabliau just mentioned is delightful in its unfolding of a perfect argument. But other stories of its kind are even more irreverent insofar as religious symbolism is concerned. “The Chaplain’s Goose,” for instance, tells the story of a priest cheated by his clerk, who gobbles down the much-coveted bird of the title, and then cooks up a story that’s sure to take the blame away from him:
“He climbed on the altar and smeared
with goose fat just the mouth and lips
of the Christ on the crucifix
and stuck a drumstick in His fist.”
Blasphemous but practical; offensive but efficient; impious but adroit. The wit of the inferior beats the ordained authority of the higher-up.
But the most juicy and satisfying are the fabliaux of sexual content. No surprise, since this is what has made them famous. One finds lessons based on the wrongful use of things and functions, always a source of delight in the comic genre. In “The Squirrel", one finds the wrong use of language: a mother teaches her daughter the word “dick” but not the ways the object works – which gives plenty of opportunity to the familiar prankster figure to enjoy a hearty sexual intercourse with the ignorant girl. In “The Maiden Who Couldn't Abide Lewd Language,” one takes note of the wrong use of body parts: as in the previous case, the prankster takes the spoils by making the girl perform sexual acts under the guise of an innocent lesson in anatomy. In “Saint Martin’s Four Wishes,” the misuse of miracles is put on display: given four wishes, a peasant squanders them on transforming himself and his wife into abundant collections of dicks and cunts, only to realize, soon enough, that the only proper way to be is the natural way: “one prick for me, one cunt for you.”

An artist of the seventeenth century, Jan Steen was far from the medieval standards.
However, his paintings capture pretty well the atmosphere of the bawdy fabliaux.
"Leaving the Tavern" (Resource: Wikiart)
This is how easy it is to recognize in fabliaux (the genre of excess) the traces of abundance: there's always too much of something, always of the wrong kind. But that’s exactly where humor lies, and where it thrives and grows to astronomic dimensions. The collection put together by Nathaniel Dubin (which includes only half of what he says he’s managed to translate) is that necessary proof that there’s truth in rebellion and that the insurgence of the body often brings pleasures to the soul.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Something for the poet, something for the lover

Full title: Seducing the Demon. Writing for My Life
Author: Erica Jong
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Attributes: 304 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Tarcher (2007)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Writing, booze, sex, drugs, celebrity, and a few more things along the way; this pretty much sums up the whole book I am talking about here. And it would be unfair to expect anything else from a writer who made a name for herself in the 1970s, when she rose to prominence with Fear of Flying, a scandalous (although the word should be read in a positive sense) book about unbridled sexuality.
It would also be unfair to judge this memoir too cheaply, focusing on its themes the wrong way, as is usually easy with sex and drugs and mad writing dipped in thick Bohemian sauce.
That's because Seducing the Demon is, above everything else, a gesture of scandalous honesty (once again, read the adjective positively). It talks about the emancipation it caused in the seventies, but at the same time it asks the significant question: to what extent has that revolution achieved its goals?
"Our daughters cannot even imagine female invisibility. We raised them telling them they could do anything and everything. We told them God might well be female. We told them we wanted them because they were girls. We filled their heads with female goddesses, women poets and women's history. (Dear Goddess, don't make me call it herstory or womyn's history - I may break out in hives.) The point is: We taught them to love themselves."
And this is perhaps where those essential questions demand to be asked, although for the most part Erica Jong gives the impression that the answer has already been given, and that the world already knows that the sexual emancipation has had a positive outcome.
Speaking generally of this book, one may say that one simply needs to take Seducing the Demon as it is. With its demons, with its show-offs ("Dart and I wallowed in luxury at the Cipriani - and damn the cost (all on my tab)"), with its ostentatious groupie-ness ("I have been involved with brilliant poets who liked me to wear tacky underwear"), with its dubious exaggerations ("My father was Seymour. He was handsome and hot. It was hard to think of him as my father."), with its cheap melodramas, but also with its astute, roaring poetry. You can't, for instance, overlook her take on Omar Khhayam, the poet of wine, the champion of love:
"You cannot quote Omar and drink Diet Coke. You cannot quote Omar and drink San Pellegrino. Wine is demanded. Wine is essential. You cannot be in love and not drink wine. Or I can't, anyway."
It all rings so true it's almost encouraging. More wine, please, and more love!

But if you want a central point (a hook from which to hang the entire volume), it must be this: it feels good being Erica Jong and being a celebrity. It comes, as it were, with the job description. This is, it seems, the truth worth theorizing, even when the philosophy produced this way sounds bitter-sweet or perhaps a little regretful.
"Fame seems at first to be a protection against the common lot of humanity. The common lot of humanity is to be a blob that rots. With fame we can outsmart decay and be embalmed for times to come.Of course it's not really us but a version of us, an eviscerated version with all the blood and guts gone. Embalmed for posterity, like Lenin. We'll take it anyway. And thanks. Better to be known for the wrong things than not to be known at all."
Honest in almost everything she says, unashamed of talking about her sexual escapades as if they were some glacé cherries on a heavy-creamed cake, or about her life among the famous as if they were a mere head count at a country fair, Erica Jong would have defeated her whole purpose if she had not said this about fame:
"Famous people complain about fame, but they never want to give it back, myself included."
But she says it. And then she moves on. To passages upon passages discussing the adventure of writing. Fragments in which Jong chooses to speak with the texture of sleek metaphors. Like, for instance, this, where the necessary connection is being made between – what else – but writing and sex:
"Without adultery, is there any novel? Without sex, is there any poetry? Surely sexual energy and creative energy feed each other. Often they feel the same.Sexual energy provokes creativity. Do poets fall in love to write about it, or does love impel creativity?"
It's easy to see how the two connect, right? The energies they share, the intensity that can be equated, the sense of loss of self that's involved in both. In fact, Jong's philosophy relies a lot on the articulation of this loss. At one point, she borrows the concept of "flow" from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which is precisely about the imponderability of one's complete immersion in one's object of adoration/passion. And out of this theory she comes out saying:
"Optimal experience, or the flow state, is characterized by the suspension of the sense of time, the obliteration of self-consciousness and the feeling that we are doing something for its own sake and not for its outcome. This is a perfect description of writing, sex, or sailing, or ballet dancing or painting or musical composition, or... you fill in the blanks. Athletes breaking records are in flow. So are writers writing, dancers dancing, sailors sailing. Immersed in their craft, they find flow - which is its own reward."

Once again, where there's writing there's sex, where there's sex there's writing. The energy, the passion, the performance, the intensity, the flow! Writing like an athlete or writing like a lover, what difference does it really make?

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The sea and the city

Full title: Garlic, Mint, and Sweet Basil. Essays on Marseilles, Mediterranean Cuisine, and Noir Fiction
Author: Jean-Claude Izzo
Genre: Nonfiction
Attributes: 107p, paperback
Publisher: Europa (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Just over a hundred pages long, and therefore readable in an hour or maybe less, this tiny book is a combination of things, and for that reason it is likely to please on multiple levels. It is also (because such are the ups and downs of life) a book by an author who died in 2000, when he wasn't yet 55 years old. Jean-Claude Izzo, author of noir and detective novels, gave in this deceptively slender volume a symphonic description of his native Marseille and, with it, of the whole of the Mediterranean region. The text is copiously splashes with references to good food, good urban settings, good literature and good music.
It is at the same time a memoir, a pseudo-travel account, and a review (yes, at times it feels like you're reading the review of a book – the book of the Mediterranean Sea), all of which glorify an already heavily romanticised image of the region. Izzo dishes out a lot of superlatives and he's proud of every single one of them, the way he's also proud (if saddened too) of things that don't look very good when seen in perspective.

Source: Marvelous Marseilles
Most importantly, though, Garlic, Mint, and Sweet Basil is a collection of texts about communion and community. The "Mediterranean Basin" (an ugly term which, by the way, is never mentioned - thanks god!) is described in the broad strokes of universality. This is, at the end of the day, the origin of Europe itself, a cauldron filled to the brim with cultures that make it "creole" in its diversity.
Zooming in from the Mediterranean, the texts hover over Marseilles like a magnifying glass. They are very sensual. They speak of smells, tastes, sounds, tactile pleasures, beautiful women, wonderful food, memorable wine. But when you think things have gotten too sweet, too sunny-skyish, there's a warning. A warning about the threat from the North, from mainland France, which makes insistent attempts at homogenizing a space that's too hybrid to be bottled up in a juice of conformity and uniformity.
It's easy to see how admirably Izzo believed in the power of Marseilles to remain what it's always been: not only French but also European; not only European but also North-African and Middle Eastern; not only those but also South American and Caribbean and things of the rest of the world.
Because of this wealth of locations and points of origins, a constant feeling of abundance transpires from the texts; a feeling that Marseilles is so many things at the same time that it is impossible to settle on one and call it its essence. Marseille is a city of light, a city of music, a city of history, a city of delight. Hence the superlatives, hence the exaltations.
"Marseilles always exaggerates. That is her essence. And basically nothing has changed [since its ancient origins]. [...] When the harbour opens its arms to you, then and only then you discover the eternal meaning of the city: Hospitality. Marseilles gives herself without resistance to those who know how to take her and love her. Marseilles is a myth. That is the only thing there is to see. To embrace. The rest can be as futile or vain as anything else. We might even say that the city is just like those fake blondes you meet on her streets. They display only what they are not."
All this, of course, is like saying I don't really know how to describe this city. And at the same time like saying, oh yes, I know. I love this city so much I can take revenge on it, on its fall into fake polishes, exaggerated displays, futile add-ons. It's the same as loving its mix of cultures, its colourful settings, its long history, the way it deals with multiplicity. But this is maybe how every city should be loved. The way Orhan Pamuk described his Istanbul, hailing the city's appeal without blushing for its shortcomings.
One can only give in to the temptation of praising the unusual nature of such a place:
"Atypical is not the word for Marseilles. Unconventional is more accurate."
Which may be doing a better job of defining this space of contradictions and agreements, where the Mediterranean appears to be at the same time a bridge and a mote.

Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000). Source: Genova Mente Locale
In any case, Izzo's attitude towards Marseilles was so strong it seeped into his other proses. To prove it, he wrote an entire Marseilles trilogy, in a genre he baptised "Mediterranean Noir." And just in case that wasn't apparent to the reader of the present book, a short story ends it, a story featuring Izzo's favourite character, detective Fabio Montale; a story which, in order to prove the resemblance between author and protagonist, goes on to declare, once again, this special love for Marseilles:
"I knocked back my drink and stood up. I felt like going and losing myself in Marseilles. In her smells. In the eyes of her women. My city. I knew that I always had an appointment there with the fleeting happiness of exiles. The only kind that suited me. A real consolation."
This is the rest of the book in a nutshell. With it, the recurrent sentiments take front stage again, and the point is made as if anew.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The lives of other writers

Full title: Odd Type Writers. From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors
Author: Celia Blue Johnson
Genre: Nonfiction
Attributes: 200p, paperback
Publisher: Perigee (2013)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Few things work better to motivate the mind of a writer caught in a bad case of writer's block than anecdotes about other writers and their own survival strategies. Little stories of this type have the been-there-done-that attitude that somehow encourages the mind of the dispossessed to take up pen and paper and proceed, with renewed forces, to finish that text or to start that other one.
This is exactly what Celia Blue Johnson has provided in Odd Type Writers. The power of examples is what her book is running on, no doubt about it. Young or inspiring writers in particular may be inclined, every now and then, at crucial moments, to ask the obvious question, "How much work is to be put into the writing of a book?" It's only fair to ask this, don't we agree? Sigh of relief and frown of horror: it takes a helluva lot of effort and determination to make yourself write like mad. Don't believe it? Take the word of Alexandre Dumas Père, who never proceeded with his writing until he'd had everything daylight-clear in his mind. In his own words, quoted in the book:
"As a rule, I do not begin a book until it is finished."
This short sentence has the shine and appeal of a gem of wisdom. And Odd Type Writers abounds in aphorisms of this kind, easy to digest, easy to raise a brow at (in enlightenment), and, most importantly, easy to carry about. If anything, this book is a child of its own time: the product of a type of curiosity that takes delight in brevity, in easy-carrying, in headlines, in quirky information, in things to be tweeted, facebooked, pintrested, mentioned at parties.
And there's nothing wrong with all that. Why? Because a desperate writer (young or old, experienced or novice) doesn't need sermons. They want quick fixes. 'Get the jab, feel the rush, get back to work' kind of thing. And this book ticks the boxes alright.
Want to find out what’s the best time to wake up and start your work? The answer is ‘I don’t know.’ But here are a few examples, from page 61, where there’s a short list of authors and their wake-up calls:
“4:00 a.m.: Sylvia Plath
5:00 a.m.: Jack London, Toni Morrison, Katherine Anne Porter
5:30 a.m.: Anthony Trollope, Kurt Vonnegut
6:00 a.m.: W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Vladimir Nabokov, Edith Wharton”
… and the list goes on, till we reach the sleepyheads: Carson McCullers, who liked to wake up at 9:30 a.m., and W. Somerset Maugham, who opened his eyes at 10:00 a.m.
Do you feel like complaining about rejection letters? How about reading the chapter about Jack London, who after 650 of them (!) got to the point where he even started contemplating suicide. And that, while keeping a mental-asylum routine:
“His bedroom lamp glowed until 2 a.m., and he sprang back to action at the sound of his alarm clock at 5 a.m.”
Do you want to know if the job can be done quickly? Kafka wrote “The Judgment” almost at a whim, “in one great gust, from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m.” and then had the confidence to declare:
“Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening of the body and the soul.”
Or would you like to find out how writers related to means of transportation? Well, in that case read how Getrude Stein could write comfortably on the passenger’s seat of a military truck, and how Sir Walter Scott composed the poem Marmion on a horseback.

Hemingway had his own quirky ways. He began his work day by sharpening numerous pencils, wrote facing the wall, so as not to get distracted by the outside world, wrote up to a point where he knew for sure what he was going to write the next day. And what's more, when asked what does it take to become a writer, he replied: "First, you have to defrost the refrigerator."
Image source: Thinking to Inking

This can go on for a long, long time. That’s how the book is organized: around imaginary questions (pretending that you, the writer reading these pages, might have the curiosity to inquire); questions which are given answers with a strong flavour of myth. Strong but sweet.
Let's not hide behind a finger: what would anybody expect to find in a book that says it upfront, straight from the title, that it deals in anecdotes about writers? This is not a compendium of academic reflections, and neither is it the transcript of a class in creative writing. It is a book you can have a coffee with. It's a chat partner. Pages you can read when you're out of mental gas, when you've exhausted your resources and can't resist any longer. And so it should be taken: as a welcome partner rather than a patronizing teacher. There.