Jan 162012

Breaks are made (in part) to catch up with reading, specifically those books for which there is no possible work – research related justification… The ones you read only out of curiosity, pleasure. Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir on widowhood – simply titled A Widow’s Story - is one of them. I found it in the piles at my parents house, and taking advantage of the wee hours of jetlag, devoured the first hundred and fifty pages in the middle of the night. As usual with Oates, it reads well, it’s griping, and one turns pages without even noticing.. Until, after another hundred it starts to get a bit too long, at which point I have to admit I skip paragraphs, and even pages. A journal of the weeks, months following the death of Oates husband of “forty-seven years and twenty-five days”, this memoir retains its original diaristic form, and as a consequence is sometimes repetitive. I feel guilty writing «repetitive» as what I have in mind here are the emotions of the writer, who, sure enough, as might be expected, experiences day after day a similar range of emotions, contemplating her life turned upside down in a less than a week (Raymond Smith was taken ill with pneumonia to the nearest emergency room, and as everybody thought he was coming home, he  died in a few hours from an infection acquired at the hospital), her sudden solitude, and how much of her life was woven into his life and vice-versa. So in its repetitions, the text seems to be therapeutic for its author, but at times tedious for the reader… Personally, I can forgive Oates, if only because her prose fascinates me, mesmerizes me to a point of oblivion.. and forgiveness… And who could not forgive a woman who has lost the love of her life, the person she’s been with since her student’s years, the man who accompanied her through her literary rise?

Though, before the year was over – and within the period covered by the  journal – Oates had met another man, who she married just a month after Smith’s death first anniversary. A controversy ensued the publication: why is the reader not made aware of the encounter, the growing romance and in the end, the wedding? In the last few pages, she gives the reader a hint – too subtle for me, I did not get it…-  though the memoir never varies from its mournful, self-interrogating tone. So the question many raised was why the omission? and how would the revelation change our reading of the book?

Again I read this memoir just as if it had been another of her novels, hypnotized by the words, cradled by the rhythm, and interested by the feelings explored. But this twist in the narrative poses questions about what memoirs are, what they should “do”, how we can “trust” their narrator – and frankly what “trust” means in this context. I read an increasingly number of memoirs – out of taste and of professional necessity – and these few sentences excerpted from Oates’ answer to her detractors gave me food for thought:

A memoir is most helpful when it focuses upon immediate experience, not a clinical, subsequent summation from what would be the “future” of the individual in the throes of an unpredictable and uncontrollable experience; certainly another memoir might focus upon the recovery and the (temporary?) “after-life.” It is not a charge against grief that it can’t last as pure, raw grief for very long—as one who is tortured, but survives, has not been less tortured because she has survived. To elide the two experiences would violate the actual, literal, “existential” experience of having had cancer, for instance, for the ontological predicament of not-knowing-the-future is inextricable from the experience itself. If one knew beforehand that she would be cancer-free within a year, that would yield a very different sort of perspective.


Sep 022011

Last Spring there was a raging debate in the US over the notion of «memoir», of what a memoir could/should be, how it should be written, etc. The debate is still on, and when this week a blog post announced the publication of the English translation of Emmanuel Carrère’s book, Lives other than my own, I wondered if it would bring a new perspective to the discussion. In France memoirs do not constitute a genre of its own, with a separate spot on the shelves of bookstores. Usually found within «Literature», it is a genre that is rarely singled out (in the same way, political memoirs will be found with books on current events & politics, and so forth). This Fall, a traditionally very busy season in French publishing, there are a number of memoirs, or books that would be seen as such in the US, coming out . But again they are rarely labelled that way, maybe because authors and publishers prefer to entertain the blur between fiction and non-fiction and promote the idea that in the end it is all literature. Books appears under the same often austere jackets (some of the most prestigious «maisons» – publishing houses – established their image through pictureless covers, the colors or paper texture being their trademark, almost a sign of nobility…Think the creamy off-white of Gallimard, the yellow of Grasset, or in Carrère’s case the textured white covers of P.O.L)

Before leaving Paris, I had a conversation with a friend, – editor and writer herself – with whom we always marvelled at the American mastery of this «thing» called Creative non-fiction. And we came to discuss Carrère’s book, finding that it certainly stands closest to the American notion of memoir. Because the book is a memoir built in a diptych. In the first part the author remembers the day of and days after the 2004 Tsunami in Tangalle, Sri Lanka, where he was vacationing with his girlfriend and their repective sons, and how they took a role in another family’s tragedy, a young couple losing a child to the Big Wave. Equally overshadowed by death the second part retraces the life and death of his sister-in-law, a young judge, mother of three, who dies when the the cancer that has plagued her since youth recurs. In order to better understand Juliette’s professional and personal life, Carrere leads his own investigation, and as a result paints a fascinating portray of the quotidian of this magistrate, her battles, her challenges and successes. Closer to US creative non-fiction and memoirs  – a mix of personal experience with a more general view of the context – that part of the book was for me the most successful.

In memoirs, the authority of the narrator is often discussed, how credible he/she is, how she deals with erratic memories, how he expresses – or better, shows – emotions, what can render the story if not universal – I do not like the notion – at least relevant for most. Carrere is not gentle with his readers: he assumes his position of voyeur – if he is touched, even grieved at some point, it is always over dramas he witnesses without being directly emotionally involved. And in the distance he exhibits, there is discomfort, source of anger, frustration for the reader. But somehow he kept me under a spell: the writing? certainly. The story? true for part 2. The enigma that this unclassifiable work represent? yes, up to the last line.

Very curious now to see what will be the reactions in  the US creative non-fiction community…


* photo: moss on a wall of the Château de Chambord

Mar 062011

“Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. TO leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting, that is, to find you own inner freedom. To be strict without being too self-excoriating. Not stop too often to reread. Allowing yourself, when you dare to it’s going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along. No waiting for inspiration’s shove.”

In the article, “Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed”, Susan Sontag reflects on writing practices in general and on her own in particular. For her writing is pleasure, a pleasure mixed with effort and frustration, but pleasure nonetheless, and a pleasure that is inseparable of the one of reading. On the contrary to some writers who dissociate the two practices or even drop the reading part altogether (I’ve been appalled at how little some would-be writers read, and Sontag herself quotes her friend V.S. Naipaul – “Susan, I’m a writer, not a reader” – ), she can’t think of one without the other, and just as Martin Eden discovered, “reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer”…

Mar 012011

There are a few writers I follow, visiting regularly their sites, buying every book, waiting eagerly for the next one..   Nina Revoyr is one of them. I can’t remember if I discovered her through her second book, Southland or the first one, The Necessary Hunger. Initially I picked them up because they were set in Los Angeles, a place I was (and am still) exploring, trying to make sense of the city and of my experience in the city. And a good part of The Necessary Hunger is set in Inglewood, a place I know well for family reasons, while I go accross Southland setting every time I drive to work. But if place affinities can make me leaf through a book, what caught me was the writing, the atmosphere, and last the plot (I’m one of those readers for whom plot is not essential). Place is also at the heart of The Age of Dreaming, Revoyr’s third novel: Los Angeles, Hollywood, Little Tokyo are the neighborhood haunted by Jun Nakayama, a silent movie actor from the nineteen-twenties, fallen out of fame. Although these stories are suspenseful, breathtaking at times, extremely well plotted, what really kept me prisoner of them were the characters, strong, thick, multi-faceted, never predictable. They are so humanly fraught that it is hard to really dislike any of them, and every time I just want more and more of them, beyond the epilogue, beyond the last page.
So, when I discovered that «a new Revoyr» was coming out, I immediately pre-ordered it, a way for me to make sure I’ll get the book as soon as it is out, as well as  to schedule a unexpected treat: by the time it arrives, I usually have forgotten all about it, and it comes as a surprise… So, when at the beginning of February I opened the package and discovered Wingshooters, I was happy and anxious to dive in. Life and work delayed gratification, but finally I was able to shut myself within its pages. And, as for the preceding ones, the magic happened. Wingshooters does not take place in Los Angeles, but in Deerhorn, Central Wisconsin, in a country of hunters and farmers, where one of the top citizen is Earl Watson, who owns the gun store, and the main gathering spot for the oder – wise – men of the community is Jimmy’s Coffee shop. The narrator in the story is Michelle, a nine year old girl, born in Tokyo from a Japanese mother and an American father, who, by the time the story starts, have abandoned her, too tangled in their own conflict and separation. Left with her paternal grand-parents, she quickly discovers the dangers of not being white in a town that until her mother’s appearance, «had never in all the years of its existence, been home to a soul who wasn’t German, Polish, Norwegian, or French Canadian». Deerhorn prizes its insularity, and the county’s limits might just have been insuperable thick walls, keeping the seventies away from its inhabitants, who, if it wasn’t for TV, would never know what was happening in the rest of a country they do not seem to belong to anymore:

“While people in other parts of the country were growing their hair long and smoking pot and wearing polka dot ties and bell-bottoms, the people of Deerhorn dressed in overalls and drank cheap Wisconsin beer. And while there were stories on the nightly news about antiwar protests, women’s rights, the school busing crisis in Boston, and Watergate, these events seemed so distant and strange that they might have been taking place in a different country.”

And while Michelle’s arrival causes quite a stir in the small town, the fact that she is the grand-daughter of one of the most respected men in the community keeps people at bay. Bullied at school, she is cherished by her grand-father who takes her to his favorite lakes, hunting spots, and shares his dog. And Michelle’s foreignness is almost forgotten when comes to town the unthinkable: an African-American teacher is recruited to substitute in her school, while his wife works for the new county clinic as a nurse. Their fate is at the heart of the novel, and Michelle’s story is going to be entangled in theirs, pushing Deehorn and its inhabitants toward a reality it has so far denied.
Soon the reader knows something is going to happen, something bad probably, but difficult to predict. And while Michelle goes hunting, bikes all over town, walks through the wood with her dog, I felt more and more anxious, lost in between the ordinary of this country life, and the mounting hostility toward this couple, the harshness of the xenophobic, racist discourse, and the fake quietness of the rural environment. To the point that, to release my own tension, I had to skip ahead, figure out what was to happen, and then come back to where I was in the book, and resume my reading. It did not spoil my pleasure, but on the contrary, allowed me to savor Revoyr’s writing, to concentrate on Michelle adventures and thoughts, and admire the author’s command of her plot and characters. Like in her preceding books, the characters here are too complex to be simply liked or disliked all together,  and I found myself able to relate to some I was not expecting, to respect some I should be despising: only one is never redeemed and incarnates the villain from beginning to end. And I was still able to enjoy my reading after digging out the main plot,  because it is only one of the threads of the novel: others include Michelle’s own family issues, her relationship with her grand-father, with her grand-mother, her grand-parents and parents stories, her fight for life…
Wingshooters is a new attempt on Revoyr’s part to make sense of inter-racial relations, to retrace history and evolution of mentality in a country where people have been divided and defined by class and race more than they are willing to admit. And when Michelle, adult, does not rebel against her partner’s affirmation “I always forget that you are half-Japanese and half-redneck”, it might be because she is ready to assume the multiplicity of her identities, what comes with the mixing of races and places… and the fact that she chose to leave the Midwest and come to Los Angeles should not be a surprise: where could it be easier to live for somebody who did not fit, who did not really belong anywhere than in the Angeleno melting pot?

Feb 122011

Reading a post on the Guardian’s Book Blog on the centenary of Elisabeth Bishop reminded me about my own discovery of her work, and the circuitous routes that drives us  to certain books, to some works. I was listening to the radio in my car, going somewhere or coming back from some place (remember, I live in Los Angeles). As often though, the radio was more of a background noise: my mind was wandering away from the streets, the car, the city… and suddenly my attention was called to the voice coming from the speakers :

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.”

Most readers have recognized here the first three stanza of “One Art”, perhaps the best known poem of Bishop. But I had never heard or read her poetry, she was just a name, and I had missed the introduction to the reading, which meant that I had no idea who wrote those verses. Home, I was saved by Google of course, and was quickly able to locate a copy of the Complete Poems: back in the car, for a short drive, eager, hungry to read more.

And it was to discover that just like “One Art” catered to some of my personal interests, many other poems evoked familiar feelings and impressions. Questions that will appear on this blog (I’m not sure about answers), readings that I’ll discuss, will have at heart Bishop’s interrogations such as the one she asks in “Question of travel” :

“Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?”

Buying the Complete Poems I could not resist its companion volume, The Collected Prose. And was deeply struck by Edwin Boomer’s house:

“As house, it was more like an idea of a house than a real one. It could have stood at either end of a scale of ideas of houses. It could have been a child’s perfect playhouse, or an adult’s ideal house – since everything that makes most houses nuisances had been done away with.”

Feb 062011

“I’m an addicted reader, a hedonist. I’m led by my passions. It’s a kind of greed, in a way. I like to be surrounded by things that speak to me and uplift me.”

The “things” that Susan Sontag liked to feel around her are books. Thousands of them… And after reveling to the journalist her feelings about books, the writer lead her in a dizzying tour of her lower Manhattan apartment. Five rooms filled with books. How are they arranged, asked the journalist? By subject, or for literature and philosophy, by language and according to the chronology. Sontag refused the alphabetical order: “I couldn’t put Pynchon next to Plato!” From floor to ceiling, the world of literature was unfolding, from Chaucer, to Marlowe, Middleton, Wordsworth, to Woolf and Naipaul… and next came French authors, followed by Italian ones, and so forth. The life of a mind was reflected in the meanders of the shelves, where history flowed alongside of art history, psychiatry, history of medicine, and where poetry and prose mixed together to form a unique product of languages and creativity. And finally half-hidden were Sontag’s own books, which in her preceding apartment she said she used to keep in a closet: “I don’t want to look at my own books. A library is something to dream over, a sort of dream machine.”
Dazed, the journalist asked the question people visiting a place with lots of books often ask: “have you read everything here?” Gracefully, Sontag showed her visitor the slips of paper stuck in between pages and covered with notes, or scribbles in the margins, all obvious signs of close and passionate reading. A resource, the library as a whole was also source of inspiration for the critic: “What I do sometimes is just walk up and down and think about what’s in the books. Because they remind me of all there is. And the world is so much bigger than what people remember.”
To conclude this part of the interview, the journalist had a wonderful expression to describe Sontag’s attitude toward the world of books : according to her she was “intemperately in love with reading”
This article reminded me of many, so many articles, stories written by authors themselves on their relationship to books, to their libraries. One of the most famous of the twentieth century is no doubt “Unpacking my Library” by Walter Benjamin, and I still long for the hours spent in Valery Larbaud’s library as it is reconstituted/ rebuilt in his hometown. But it also reminded me how much I loved writers who loved books, and how their love of reading fed and still feeds mine.