Kamal Ben Hameda’s novella Under the Tripoli Sky (tr. Adriana Hunter, Peirene 2014) opens with a circumcision. The narrator, a boy called Hadachinou, brings the reader to this event through his own ignorance of what is about to happen. The foreshadowing is exquisite here as Hadachinou watches the local butcher slaughtering a lamb:
Ibrahim’s sharp knife cutting smoothly through the skin as he whistled a well-known pop song.
Rivulets of slow-moving blood, smaller streams coagulating.
The carcass left to the women: removing the offal, the intestines, cutting up the meat, salting it and hanging it out in the sun on the terrace.
The slow, impatient morning, quivering.
Because the reader very quickly knows what is about to happen, Hadachinou’s sense of bewildered expectation creates an immediate line of tension. And this is something Ben Hameda will continue to do throughout the book—an appropriate use of such a young narrator. What Hadachinou understands here is the impending celebration, the feast, but the cutting then comes as a complete surprise and he must be held down. It’s a powerful moment, a threshold between childhood and adulthood.
Just after this is where the novella sets up its preoccupying question, and it’s both well-timed and well-done. As Hadachinou cries after the procedure, the book uses his conflicting sensations to set up an opposition of two distinct worlds. On one side of him is the laughter of the women in another room, separate from his experience—and despite his anger, there is an instant longing to be with them even if they are not paying attention to or not aware of his ordeal. On the other side of him are the quiet, solemn men who leave him alone to cry, dropping money for him as they leave. The boundary between the men’s world and the women is drawn sharply here, with Hadachinou situated exactly between these two worlds and for the next 80 pages this is where he will remain. A bit like a ghost, flitting between the worlds. Observing, recording, trying to understand.
On the surface this is a book about the lives of women in 1960s Tripoli, and Hadachinou takes us through a colorful parade of them—his mother and her friends and neighbors, women of all levels of society, of all backgrounds—but its more quiet subject is the idea of secret access and hidden spaces, both physical and those of a person’s inner world. In many ways Hadachinou is a lonely child and his most intense focus revolves around ideas of relationships and how a person can be a comfort or a joy to another person, or how a person can ruin another person’s life. There are representations of sexual awakening here as well but more than that Hadachinou is intent on looking at intimacy. And by extension, as a reader we are intent on understanding how intimacy works in the historical and nostalgic setting that Ben Hameda evokes.
It is clear that Hadachinou is enthralled by and also sympathetic toward the subjects of his study. Because it is in this vein that he watches the women—wanting to see them, to know them. He is angry when not allowed into their circle, when his mother sends him outside, when he must stop visiting a certain woman. He wants to understand them , he wants to be loved. He wants to know why sometimes they seem to hate their husbands, and what this means for him. He wants to understand the power that he will later yield as well, and so there is the implication that this is the way he will learn to be a man. That his walking the boundary line between the men and the women serves a vital purpose.
Ultimately, what struck me most about Under the Tripoli Sky is the sorrow that runs through its pages. Most of the women deal with abuse, confinement, depression and sickness. And this is where the book takes an interesting approach to nostalgia. There is a real lushness—even a kind of gilding—to the physical descriptions: of the women, the houses, the streets, rooftops and gardens. It is clear that a lot of nostalgic love went into the writing of this book, into the author’s representation of place. And yet so much of the book deals with the unhappiness of these women and the broken elements of their lives. This creates a kind of provocative tension and generated, at least for me, a lot of interesting questions—how to react to the world that Ben Hameda conjures up, how to think about the women and whether they should be pitied, how to judge this society and Hadachinou’s place in it. Ben Hameda certainly doesn’t offer up any answers, and he shouldn’t. And so in this way, beneath its series of events and encounters, the novel spends most of its time examining the complexity of nostalgia and asking the reader to do the same.
This morning I stumbled upon an interesting essay that functions as a kind of history of the “office novel”—starting with Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and then moving forward to contemporary books by Joshua Ferris, Ed Parks and even Ben Lerner. It’s a solid essay that raises several questions about some of the typical elements of the form, as well as how these novels have evolved over time in line with changes in the American and international corporate landscape. You can read the essay here.
Something occurred to me as I was reading, however, and this was that all the books mentioned and discussed (save one, I think) are by men. I’m not going to pick on the author (Nikil Saval) about this, at least not at first, only because I am having trouble thinking of any by women. And so I can’t help but wonder if there is a body of “office lit” by women or maybe with more of a focus on women. Does this even exist? I assume that it does, and that I just don’t know about it.
I can think of a review we ran at Necessary Fiction for Radio Iris, by Anne-Marie Kinney, and this book would fit that category. (In his review of that title, Steve Himmer mentions two others: Lydie Salvayre’s Everyday Life and Stacey Levine’s Dra—). But what about historically? Was there a female equivalent to Melville’s Bartleby? And I don’t want to make things so simple – I know that the world of the office was almost exclusively male territory for a very long time, but it isn’t anymore, so I’d love to see that evolution as well, and how women writers have dealt with it. Especially when we so often talk about the “meaninglessness” of corporate work, and yet for many women, being able to be educated and work outside the home is a source of incredible meaning.
Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn (1977) would definitely fit into this genre in some way. So would Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps (1942). Delphine di Vegan’s novel, Les Heures Souterraines (2009) as well. Perhaps Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (2000) might be considered a very odd take on “office lit”—that is maybe debatable, but I’ll let it stand for now. Anyway, I’ve gone through my reading lists, and I’d love to see if there are more. Is there an author who takes this subject on again and again? I’ve just read Muriel Spark for the first time (her A Far Cry from Kensington, 1988) and she strikes me as someone who could have done this, but I don’t know if her books ever take this on directly.
(Quick update – Anthony of Time’s Flow Stemmed, whose taste in books I trust without question, has just written some thoughts on Alice Furse’s novel Everybody Knows this is NOWHERE. Adding this to the list!)
I promise not to become a boring person about this, but I’ll just mention quickly that my book, Fog Island Mountains, is going to be published soon. I received the galley copy a week or so ago – an event that made me both burst with pride as well as succumb to a series of small panic attacks. I realized finally that this book, this story, cannot be tinkered with any more, cannot be changed. Reading through the galley and then reading through the final PDF proofs, I found sections I am extremely proud of, and I also found sections that I wished I could work through all over again.
All in all, I am both thrilled and nervous that the book will be published soon. It’s a little scary to think of people I know and people I don’t know who will read it, judge it and judge me. I am also well aware that the publication of this book is just one of thousands of other books. It is nothing. It is a small, a very small thing. I like this idea. I’m proud of the book, I’m nervous about the book, but I’m also happy that it can be a small thing and that I can work forward on other projects.
The book is already available for pre-order. In the lead up to publication, I’ll be doing a bit more writing about it here, instead of here at Pieces, which I will continue to reserve for thoughts on my reading and translating.
To finish up, a little piece of the preface to the book:
“A land where the morning sun shines directly, a land where the rays
of the evening sun are brilliant. This is a most excellent place.”
—Kojiki, Japan’s “Record of Ancient Matters”
A small chain of volcanic mountains that dot the southern half
of Japan’s island of Kyūshū. The chain is named after its secondhighest
peak, Mt. Kirishima.
The Fog Island Mountains
Profanes (Actes Sud, 2013) by Jeanne Benameur is a story about long-standing grief, and how it transforms a person, transforms a life. The book involves one very important grief situation and then around that is clustered a raft of smaller ones. Wrapped around and mixed in with this are other smaller stories about how desire works within this context. I think it’s fitting to put these two situations side by side, since grief and desire are essentially forms of longing with vastly different modes of expression.
Structurally, the book is multi-voiced and richly-layered—a favorite of mine. The story opens in the first person voice of a 90 year old man, Octave Lassalle, a retired surgeon, and all we learn is that he has assembled four people to “assist” him in an unspecified project. We are then introduced to the four people—three women and one man. Each person is given a room in Lassalle’s house and a portion of the day: Marc will come in the morning and work in the garden, Hélène (painter) will come in the afternoon to complete a painting at Lassalle’s request, Yolande will come in the early evening to prepare supper and sort through the house’s many rooms and attic, and Béatrice (who is a young nursing student) will come to sleep, to be a presence in the house if Lassalle needs someone in the night.
This premise of strangers coming together in quest of an unspecified goal is one that I really enjoyed. There is something slightly unbelievable about it (especially in today’s world, I think) but then it all felt very old-fashioned and natural. It makes sense that an elderly man of his position would need help to maintain his estate and house, and Lassalle is presented with a certain benevolent (and quiet) eccentricity that makes it easy to accept that he would prefer to create the situation on his own terms instead of finding himself in a medicalized and sterile environment.
Lassalle doesn’t really explain what he is really after—mostly because he doesn’t know it himself. He’s selected Marc, Hélène, Yolande and Béatrice quite carefully, this he makes very clear. But the only part of the project that is concrete is the painting that Hélène is meant to create, a portrait of the daughter that Lassalle lost about forty years before. It becomes very clear that the daughter’s death (and all that happened just after) is a situation that Lassalle cannot seem to move away from, despite how many years have passed. He has gone on living and working, but his life has essentially been an empty one. He doesn’t even really have any memories of this time. Forty years is a long time to efface oneself, and this becomes the central question of Profanes—how did this happen, and can it be undone?
That makes it sound like the book is about trying to “live” again when one has lost the verve for life, but that isn’t right at all. Benameur doesn’t work the reader toward any grand epiphany or attempt to “unefface” Lassalle – except in a very gentle, sideways kind of way. There are subtle evolutions as Lassalle’s story evolves and connects with the individual stories of the four, and there is a general (although muted) movement toward a kind of closure. As the situation deepens (with a kind of mystery at its center—although I think some readers will find the mystery a little superflous), Benameur wrestles with questions of grief and desire more than she propels the reader toward any answers. It is carefully done.
The book’s title is an interesting one: Profanes. This word—and what it means in the context of the novel—has a double meaning. As in English, profane describes something that is outside the realm of religion (opposite to sacred). But here it is being used as in a person who is uninitiated to something. You can say in French, un profane en philosophie, meaning that you haven’t studied it, know nothing of the subject, have not yet experienced it. I am fascinated by this title because within the context of the story, it essentially refers to the idea of being un profane de la mort, a person who does not yet know death. And Benameur plays with this idea (while brushing up against its other meaning of religious/nonreligious) again and again—confirming it, rejecting it, subverting it.
Finally, there is a lot of poetry in Profanes. Lassalle is a great admirer of Haiku and he attributes one of his favorite verses to each of the people who come to the house. These verses change sometimes, or become images that Benameur plays with as we learn more about each character. One of my favorite passages about the meaning and importance of poetry is here:
A l’intérieur de lui, une terre arasée. Il a besoin de poésie, c’est tout. Il a besoin à nouveau du calme des haïkus. Tout ce blanc entre les mots, tout ce vide qu’on ne comblera jamais. Et puis un mot, un seul, et le monde qui bat, fragile, éphémère, tenu par un seul mot.
I’ve made two different translations of these lines—one that plays with the rhythm of the words in English and a couple word choices. I can’t decide between the two.
Within him, a flattened terrain. He needs poetry, that’s all. He needs again the calm of a haiku. All that white space between the words, all that emptiness that can never be filled. And then a word, a single word, and the beating, fragile, ephemeral world, held by a single word.
A razed landscape inside of him. What he needs is poetry. What he needs now is the calm of a haiku. All that whitespace between the words, all that emptiness that can never be made full. And then a word, a single word, and the beating, fragile, ephemeral world, held by a single word.
I’m not happy with the word order of that last sentence – putting all the adjectives together isn’t as pretty as the French original, but to keep it more literal (and the world that beats) doesn’t show that the “bat” here is like wingbeats or heartbeats. So I fear I’d have to do something like: …and the beating world—fragile and ephemeral—held by a single word. Maybe that’s the best solution.
Benameur is a new discovery for me (and I can’t see that any of her work has been translated into English) and I’m eager to read more.
Today is Emily Bronte’s birthday (thank you, internet), which reminded me that I have just a few more chapters to read in the Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson. One of the gems of this book—which is a quick read, as Introductions usually are—is the mention of how much Dickinson was influenced and affected by Bronte. Until recently, I did not always pay attention to timeline and it hadn’t really occurred to me how many of the authors I consider classic were contemporaries. Anyone born in the 1800s or earlier I’ve often lumped into one great category called Dead Writers and had not bothered with the fascinating way in which these writers interacted or influenced one another.
But what this really got me thinking was that without realizing or intending to do this, I’ve read a good number of literary biographies recently. And thoroughly enjoyed all of them. This all started with Lyndall Gordon’s Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, and then her Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life, and then I read Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf’s Nose. (Although come to think of it, it actually all started with Houellebec’s long essay on H.P. Lovecraft.) I started reading Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector, but had to return it to the library and haven’t gone back to get it again. I’d like to finish this, but other projects got in the way. I will, perhaps strangely, go ahead and put Kate Zambreno’s Heroines and Anne Carson’s Nay Rather into this category as well. I then read Catherine Dubuis’s A Femme Entre les Lignes: Vie et Oeuvre de Clarisse Francillon. And somehow made my way to Wendy Martin’s Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson.
But what I’ve noticed is how much I enjoy reading these, and I’d love some suggestions. I’ve made a short list already, but please do leave a comment if any of you have a favorite literary biography you think I’d enjoy. I admit that I’m really only interested in biographies of “dead” writers at this point, so with that in mind…
- Lyndall Gordon – Lives Like Loaded Guns: A Life of Emily Dickinson
- Barbara Johnson – A Life with Mary Shelley
- Elizabeth Hardwick – Seduction and Betrayal
- Benjamin Moser – Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
- Nancy Milford – Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Milley
I’ve seen there is a biography of Frantz Fanon by David Macey – has anyone read this? Or what about Lawrence Jackson’s book on Ralph Ellison? If someone has the inside scoop that there is a biography out or coming out on the Haitian writer Marie Vieux Chauvet, I’ll be forever grateful.
I was away this weekend in Burgundy spending a few days doing (a much-needed) nothing, just walking about with my family and visiting small villages, some wine tasting, and plenty of good food. While on this small trip, I read Anne Carson’s short essay “Nay Rather.” Then I read it again. And this morning, I’ve read it a third time. Such a beautiful essay (and the accompanying poems are a treat as well). It’s about translation and so speaks to much of what I love to think about—untranslatability, how language works to create pause (in thought, in communication, in understanding), how language attempts (and/or fails) to replicate experience. Carson uses several examples to talk around these ideas—the trial transcripts of Joan of Arc, Francis Bacon’s artwork and how he rejected narrative, and Friedrich Hölderlin’s extremely literal translations of Antigone.
I read parts of “Nay Rather” to my daughter on Saturday when none of us could sleep while a very bad musician played LOUDLY on the street corner outside of our hotel, and she loved hearing about Joan of Arc because last year we stayed with friends in a place where Joan was supposed to have spent a night once (and my daughter first heard a version of Joan‘s story from a friend who is an inveterate storyteller). My daughter absolutely loved this line, “The light comes in the name of the voice,” as well as many of the lines from Carson’s poem “By Chance the Cycladic People”—her favorite being, “Clouds every one of them smell different, so do ocean currents.” It is such a joy that children do not mind this kind of language. None of it struck her as odd, she just loved how it all sounded.
So today I am happily focused on this idea of Carson’s of writing/language that “stops itself.” I think that Clarice Lispector does a lot of this, which is why some people may find her difficult to read. And I think that Hélène Bessette does this in her 1954 novel maternA (which hasn’t yet been translated, alas). Poetic language does this more than non-lyrical writing—it is so often about disrupting thought or creating heavy silences—but one of Carson’s examples is as non-lyrical as you can get. I’m quite certain there are thousands of examples, and I’d love to hear from anyone else. What other writers and works do this?
A quick aside: In our meandering visits, we passed very close to the small village near Yonne where Colette was born. There is a small museum in her former childhood home, but we didn’t get there. I was thinking about Colette recently, reminding myself to read more of her work, but also because she is one of the writers on my list of “women who have yet to be (completely) translated.” Much of her work, thankfully, is available in English, but not all of it.
I’ve had a few pieces come out lately that I haven’t point to here. The first two are reviews, of Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale (tr. Charlotte Barslund) and Ethel Rohan’s short memoir Out of Dublin. I really enjoyed both books, although they are very different from each other—both are unique love stories, both play with language (in very different ways), and both are about the effects of childhood on an adult.
And while I was away this weekend, Issue 9 – “The Disappearance Issue” – of Spolia came out, which includes one section of a forthcoming chapbook of mine called “Elemental: Variations.” There are many wonderful pieces in this issue, plenty of reasons besides my little contribution to download and support Spolia.
While I’m reporting on publications, I have a small poem—“nightjars”—in the latest issue of The Ann Arbor Review.
I have the immense pleasure of reading through the Readux catalogue at the moment, and getting ready to write about these charming little books. If you don’t know Readux, take a moment to see what they’re about.
Here are some of the other books floating about my life at the moment: three different Anne Carson are supposed to grace my postbox today or tomorrow: Glass, Irony & God; Men in the Off Hours; and Red Doc>. I cannot wait for these. And then a friend has pointed me in the direction of Monique Roffey’s Archipelago and The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng. So that’s me, what are you reading?
My first experience with Anne Carson was two weeks ago and it has placed her firmly on my shelf of must-read-everything-ever-wrote writers. Everything I am going to say about her has undoubtedly been said before, by people with a better education in both the classics and poetry, but here is my pale attempt to write about my own experience of reading her for the first time. And it is somewhat incomplete because I am still thinking about this book, and will continue to think about it until I’ve read more of her work.
I’m not going to write much about the story of The Autobiography of Red, not least of all because I am finding basic plot discussions a bit tedious these days. I just want to dive into the questions and the way the writing worked to affect me, and I’m going to assume that anyone with a computer can look up the basics if necessary.
But the premise of The Autobiography of Red, as explained by Carson in the book’s first section, is worth noting because it helps situate the reader inside Carson’s unique vision. The novel/poem is a re-imagining of an ancient story called “The Geryoneis” (the killing of a red monster named Geryon by Herakles) as told by Stesichoros (a Greek poet whose “words were collected in twenty-six books of which there remain to us a dozen or so titles and several collections of fragments.”)
Carson writes: “…the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat. The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box. You can of course keep shaking the box.”
Which is essentially what Carson then does. She shakes. She imagines. She re-creates. She conducts us through a handsomely imagined landscape that is bound to the unorthodox approach that Stesichoros took of positioning his poetic viewpoint behind the weaker character (Geryon the monster) instead of the victorious one (Herakles the hero).
It seems intuitive to us, modern readers, that Geryon’s story is the more interesting one, but I wonder if this was not the case for Stesichoros’s contemporary readers. And so I also wonder if Carson’s choice to dance around that notion of “killing” (How many different ways can you “kill” someone?) and turn Geryon and Herakles into lovers was a nod in that direction. The story is provocative and profound because of this choice. Any re-imagining is bound to take immense liberties with the original—almost always for the best—but Carson’s vision is particularly daring. (And yet, surprisingly somehow, so easily imaginable.)
The novel is a poem, so that’s something you have to engage with right away and it makes for a different kind of reading. Poetic narrative is often about the continual gesture toward something that is exceptionally pointed emotionally, but maybe hard to understand (at least this is how poetry works for me) and then shifting the emphasis to unexpected objects and motions. Throughout The Autobiography of Red there is this kind of movement
Something that I found very curious, but also really effective (this is a love story, isn’t it? And love stories, even tragedies, can be really cheesy), is the way she allows the poem to be funny—in a lot of different ways, smart and ironic but also just giggle-worthy—and even a little corny sometimes:
…Herakles stepped off
the bus from New Mexico and Geryon
came fast around the corner of the platform and there it was one of those moments
that is the opposite of blindness.
The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice…
It’s a little silly, that “opposite of blindness” but I love it all the same. This is adolescent love we’re talking about here.
Then there are moments that the emotional pitch of a line is so incredibly spot-on, so chillingly clever, like this moment when Geryon (who might be dreaming?) is in a bar with a woman facing him. They banter back and forth, it’s both funny and profound and then this:
She studied him a few moments then said slowly—but the gnome gave the piano
a shove against the wall
and Geryon almost missed it—Who can a monster blame for being red?
What? said Geryon starting forward.
I said it looks like time for you to get home to bed, she repeated, and stood,
pocketing her cigarettes.
It doesn’t resonate very well taken out like this, but that line, “Who can a monster blame for being red?” brought chills to me while reading. And there are so many moments like this, which I think stand out all the more because of the first kind of writing I mention, the silly writing, the slightly tongue-in-cheek and unafraid-to-dance-with-cliché kind of writing.
The book moves forward in a linear way, following the relationship between Herakles and Geryon and eventually a third person, Ancash. It is truly nothing more than a simple love triangle but there is so much going on in Carson’s seemingly-easy lines. Questions on nostalgia for old relationships, on desire, on power dynamics, on how people (even strangers) affect one another:
…. In the space between them
developed a dangerous cloud.
Geryon knew he must not go back into the cloud. Desire is no light thing.
Finally, I love the way she places the story as far from a Greek setting as possible. And she doesn’t make it anonymous in that shift away from its origins, she names places, she makes it contemporary and specific and manages—wonderfully, incredibly—to not only hold onto the essence of the original, a kind of “classical” feel but to engage with questions of desire as we are exploring and asking them today. It seems like this might be easy, but I don’t think it is, and that mixture of the ancient and the modern is especially compelling.