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
In all truth, reading Near to the Wild Heart was a frustrating reading experience. Not that this is necessarily a horrible thing, but I’m shocked to find how much trouble I had getting through this—Lispector’s first novel—compared to the other novels I’ve read (and very much enjoyed).
I think that I don’t necessarily have all the right “tools” at my disposal for a truly thoughtful approach to this book but I want to think about it within a few different contexts. First, it was first published in 1943, so she was 23. I’m going to assume she’d been working on it for several years, and it is – despite the incredible maturity of the style – a coming of age novel. It is intensely concerned with transitions from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to understanding, from ignorance to knowledge.
What matters then: to live or to know you are living?
This book is all about the intensities of unknown inner lives – how people truly think and feel, it is all unfiltered and raw, the curious power of a deeply strange interior life:
She had awoken full of daylight, invaded. Still in bed, she had thought about sand, sea, drinking seawater at her dead aunt’s house, about feeling, above all feeling.
Or here again:
Otavio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself and which Joana received out of pity for both, because both were incapable of freeing themselves through love, because she had meekly accepted her own fear of suffering, her inability to move beyond the frontier of revolt.
It is also her first novel, and the rest of her books would go on to experiment with this exact form. I don’t believe that any writer manages to get their form/style/project “perfect” on a first go around, and perhaps it is useful to think of this book as the first of her experiments. Maybe this is why it was so hard to get a hold onto. Something about it feeling less “fixed” than her later works – missing certain narrative handholds for the reader to grip onto amidst the free-flowing interior monologue and curious imagery.
It is an intensely feminine/feminist book – much of Joana’s questioning has to do with how to negotiate her interior individual life and thinking with respect to other people, both men and women, but the overall feeling or question remains focused on this idea of how men and women circle around each other. But these questions are transmitted through an existentialist discussion:
In my interior I find the silence I seek. But in it I become so lost from any memory of a human being and of myself, that I make this impression into the certainty of physical solitude.
There’s more to wonder at – looking at it compared to other books published the same year, or perhaps within the context of who she had been reading (do we know? did she keep a journal? I still haven’t read her biography), looking at the book as a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and how it embraces this idea while subverting it all the time.
Otherwise – a few smaller, text-based observations:
She wasn’t worn out from crying. She understood that her father had ended. That was all. And her sadness was a big, heavy tiredness, without anger.
Interesting to me that her lyrically-mediated thoughts make it extremely hard for the reader to access her—and yet the point is to expose her as much as possible. Feel we are kept at a distance from her grief. Or perhaps she is the one kept at a distance because her state is so tenuous and so a reader (who cannot help have some form of sympathy from the main character) is also kept at a distance.
The bathroom is indecisive, almost dead. Objects and walls have given way, softening and diluting themselves in tendrils of steam. The water cools slightly on her skin and she shivers in fear and discomfort.
In this scene, she enters a bathtub in one location and then, when she comes out of the tub she has changed location, changed time period, gone from being a child at home to being a teenager away at school. It’s a wonderful and imaginative and symbolic moment.
One of the biggest questions that kept gnawing at me was how are we supposed to feel about Joana? How are we supposed to understand her? It becomes an impossible task, because she remains in a constant state of self-evaluation and self-actualization. That impossibility became extremely frustrating – and is probably, at the heart, the point of the book. Because self-understanding is a never-ending process. We remain “unformed” for all of our lives, or “forming,” we are constantly evolving.
And the last lines of the novel – which I won’t quote in order to leave the mystery and the beauty to other readers—about immortality and the acceptance of death. They are incredible. They are revealing.
So these thoughts on Near to the Wild Heart are all half-formed and written haphazardly – the book is affecting, curious, frustrating, beautiful, both luminous and incisive, but also incomprehensible and inscrutable. It forces you to read slowly, to think, to ponder. It also asks you put it down and take a breath—it is not a book to absorb in one sitting (Hour of the Star, on the contrary, lends itself to a continuous, one-sitting read). This is a book perhaps best taken as part of a life’s work. It’s a piece of artwork, a narrative collage, something to study, not something to devour or even to enjoy, although there is enjoyment in the reading of it.
(I read this book for the Dead Writer’s Book Club – we’re having a Google Docs discussion as well as on Twitter, and I may come back with other thoughts after the discussion. Wanted to record these here now before talking about the book with anyone else – and really looking forward to others’ thoughts.)
I have mentioned before how much I love the international journal Cerise Press—consistently excellent content and a lovely design as well. But I’m extra delighted about their latest, the Spring 2013 issue, as it includes my translation of a 1906 short story by Ramuz. This particular story was originally published in the Journal de Genève in 1906, and as far as I can find was never anthologized elsewhere or re-published.
Ramuz is especially good at writing about old women, old maids in fact, and this story, aptly named “The Two Old Maids” is one that showcases that skill. The story is really only a very brief portrait—a single evening in the night of two older seamstress sisters living in a small town when they get a glimpse of a life that was denied to them.
My favorite part of the entire story is when Ramuz steps back and sets the scene – just before the women sit down at the window to look out into the garden (which is an action that will devastate them – this looking out – best not to look out):
And so the daylight departed slowly from the back of the room up to where they were sitting. The furniture entered into the shadow; it appeared to be drowning. The shadow began at the base and then rose like water, until eventually each piece was submerged.
Looking outside, the light was a surprise because it was still so bright yet already dark inside. The sky was yellow, then it became green. A gust of wind bent the branches on the trees.
A large garden extended in front of the ladies’ house. The garden belonged to Mr. Loup, the surveyor. The trees were all black too, making great masses in the sky. In between them, a bit of lighter colored grass stuck out. Then there was a movement in the air. Up above, the green had gone, turned to blue, darkened and a star began to shine at that moment, opened like an eye.
Oh, what softness was on everything! The evening lies down, lets itself go. A renunciation. And then noises come from further away, weaken and disappear. So good to breathe in this silence! Even if it makes lonely souls sad.
You can read the entire translation – and the rest of this excellent issue here. Enjoy!
This is from “The Summer After Barbara Claffey,” the second story in Christine Schutt’s 1996 collection, Nightwork:
She is watching from her window the man’s approach across the lawn. “You can wave from here,” Mother says in the voice she uses with the new Jacks, and I do.
I wave and wave, even though she is not looking. I wave at my mother muscling her own weight under this Jack’s arm. I cannot hear what they are saying; it is quiet in this town.
But the neighbors must notice my mother and her Jack. Either side of us and across the street, the Dunphies, the Smiths, Barbara Claffey down the street, must press to windows startled as by birds that swoop and mate so queerly close. I sometimes draw the blinds to them—but not to Mother. I am ready for Mother and her sudden turning to see if I am watching her, to see if I am paying attention to how she stands, tottering in her shoes, ankles gagged and tense and helpless—and Mother is not helpless. My mother is brave, I think, and her upturned face is shining. I see this, and see them both, willful lovers, tilted away from the house, leaning hard into the night.
This collection is extremely hard to put down. The writing! The mood! Interestingly, much about these stories is inscrutable—what exactly is going on? what kind of situation has the narrator found herself in? The stories move forward in impressionistic little flashes and fascinating off-kilter dialogue, but the atmosphere is sharp and dark and well-defined. There is so much menace, and each story seems to function within a borderland space of taboo and transgression. The story I’ve quoted from here actually reminds me a lot of her first novel Florida–this intense mother/daughter relationship and the precariousness of the mother’s dependence on various men.
I’ll write more about the book when I’ve finished…
I had my suspicions that it wasn’t a good idea to leave my 2013 reading so open—no defined projects, nothing to focus on—and I was right, because I have spent the month of January jumping somewhat aimlessly between books that weren’t speaking to each other. Luckily most of what I read was quite good: one exceptional novel-manuscript by the talented Steve Himmer and several books I would still like to write about, namely Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka and Steve Edward’s memoir Breaking Into the Backcountry about living alone in a cabin in eastern Oregon for ten months. Still, I like a little more continuity in my reading and so I put an end to my random reading last evening and made a proper plan with matching spreadsheet (oh yes, big nerd).
Before I tell you about the new project, I should give a quick re-cap of a current one. Last year I began reading Virginia Woolf start to finish and I am not curtailing that project, but I am reading her diaries at the same time as her fiction, and trying to keep pace—which means that I am somewhere in 1923 (17 July 1923, to be exact), quite a few months after she published Jacob’s Room (1922) and she’s now begun working on Mrs. Dalloway. I’m really looking forward to rereading Mrs. Dalloway but I have a few diary years to catch up before that. And I find that the diaries are best read slowly, a few pages every evening.
There is a lovely passage I underlined recently, one of the few passages in which Woolf writes about children:
We came back from Rodmell yesterday, & I am in one of my moods, as the nurses used to call it, today. And what is it & why? A desire for children, I suppose; for Nessa’s life; for the sense of flowers breaking all round me involuntarily. Here’s Angelica—here’s Quentin & Julian. Now children don’t make yourself ill on plum pudding tonight. We have people dining. There’s no hot water. The gas is escaping in Quentin’s bedroom—I pluck what I call flowers at random. They make my life seem a little bare sometimes; & then my inveterate romanticism suggests an image of forging ahead, alone, through the night: of suffering inwardly, stoically; of blazing my way through to the end—& so forth. […] Let me have one confessional where I need not boast. Years & years ago, after the Lytton affair, I said to myself, walking up the hill at Beireuth, never pretend that the things you haven’t got are not worth having; good advice I think.
And she goes on at quite some length on the subject – it’s a very interesting moment in her journal, one of her most introspective.
In any case, while I do my catching up with Woolf, I need a new project, something to give some meaning to my reading, and as I’m elbow-deep in revisions of one of my novel manuscripts, and as this book is set in southern Japan, I thought to do some concentrated immersion. It is the perfect excuse to broaden and deepen my experience with modern and contemporary Japanese literature. I’ve put together a very preliminary list – works by well-known authors whom I’ve already read one or two novels, works by some lesser known writers, books by as many women as I can find in translation (and one Yoko Ogawa short story collection in Japanese – as slowly and painfully as I can) and many of the men as well.
This is an aside but I took many of these names from the Akutagawa Prize winners – and while there are actually a lovely number of women on the list, most of them have not been translated. More of the men on the list have been translated into English. So it goes.
Here is the early list – and I welcome any additional suggestions:
- Yoko Ogawa – Hotel Iris
- Yoko Ogawa – Amours en Marge (quite a bit of Ogawa is available in French)
- Yoko Ogawa – Mabuta (in Japanese – wish me luck)
- Yasunari Kawabata – Thousand Cranes
- Yasunari Kawabata – The Dancing Girl of Izu (we spent time on the Izu peninsula last year and I’d wished I’d read this before going)
- Fumiko Enchi – Tale of False Fortunes (I am a big fan of Enchi’s Masks and The Waiting Years)
- Shusaku Endo – Silence
- Shusaku Endo – Volcano
- Shusaku Endo – The Sea and Poison (if it’s been translated)
- Kobo Abe – The Ark Sakura (Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is one of my all-time favorite novels, it’s about time I read more from him)
- Kobo Abe – The Ruined Map
- Junichiro Tanizaki – The Makioka Sisters
- Kenji Nakagami – The Cape and Other Stories
- Kenzaburo Oe – Silent Cry
- Kenzaburo Oe – Rouse up O Young Men of the New Age
- Japanese Women Writers: Twentieth Century Short Fiction
- Taeko Kono – Toddler Hunting
- Minako Oba – Of Birds Crying
- Risa Wataya – Isn’t it a pity? (which is supposed to be translated soon)
- Yu Nagashima – Yuko’s Shortcut
- Yoko Tawada – The Bridegroom was a Dog
- Hiromi Kawakami – The Briefcase
That’s what I’ve got so far – what am I missing?