Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘reading notes’ category

I’ve spent the last two weeks reading these five novels:

  • Doctor Glas, Hjalmar Soderberg, 1905, tr. Paul Britten Austen (1963)
  • Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, 1934
  • That Night, Alice McDermott, 1987
  • The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper, 1973
  • Doppelganger, Daša Drndić, 2002, tr. S.D. Curtis & Celia Hawkesworth (2018)

I’m not sure a person could pick five books at random and make a more eclectic list. Sometimes odd combinations of books speak to each other in subtle, intricate ways – that wasn’t the case with these five books, but reading such different novels at the same time didn’t diminish the reading experience for me either.

I read Murder on the Orient Express because of a conversation I’d had with my mother recently, enjoyed it in the way that I was remembering what it was like to read Christie in my household as a teenager—I rediscovered my mother’s Christie paperbacks when I helped my parents move last year, more importantly, I was reminded of the the way she wrote the month and year in pencil each time on the back page and some of them have been read five or six times. The books are yellowed and falling apart, and she goes back to them again and again. And then I happened upon “The Case of Agatha Christie” (which is really interesting, especially if you are interested in modernism and discussions of formalism) in the most recent London Review of Books and now I am writing, or trying to write, an essay about the memories and questions that have come alive to me by the simple juxtaposition of this article, my mother, her Agatha Christie paperbacks. As essays about mothers often go, I may not be able to finish this one.

Lanchester writes (of Christie): “Perhaps her entire being, her inner life, was a kind of absence, a variety of fugue.”

We are reading That Night for the novel class I’m teaching this year. It’s a favorite of mine, and was one of the first novels I wrote about for this blog, as well as part of my list of “perfect novels”. Rereading it again for the third or fourth time, I was struck (again) by its accomplishment. The novel does not feel dated, neither does the style, even if its subject matter has somewhat. McDermott’s narrative control—the telescoping outward to transform a very specific domestic story into something unequivocally universal, the poetic repetition, the effaced 1st person narrator—is both subtle and flawless. It was a pure delight to reread.

I wonder now what heartache it caused them, the mother especially, fleeing her home like that, the home she had made with her husband. I wonder now how bitterly she had looked back across the year and a half that saw her lose her husband, her daughter, her home. With what envy she had looked at the other houses along our block as she drove past them for the last time that morning. How peaceful, how untouched they must have seemed to her, those houses where the brave men slept, their wives tucked under their arms, their children nearby.

Or perhaps as she drove past the shuttered houses, with their damp lawns and purring window fans, she saw instead how precarious their peace was, how momentary. Maybe she saw instead the coming troubles: the scattering of sons, the restlessness of wives, the madness of daughters. Maybe she was aware, in her flight that early morning, that all futures were as uncertain as her own, that even as she drove away, her mother crying quietly beside her, the very blood that pulsed through their veins and set the rhythm that kept their wives asleep was moving pain and age and sorrow to the hearts of the good men.

I will save my thoughts of Doctor Glas and Doppelganger for posts of their own. What strange, marvelous books. One daring for its time period, the other formally playful but shadowed and dark.

What are you reading?

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From The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, Dubravka Ugrešić

On the third day, we, actors in a silent film, got up and went outside. The sun glared like a spotlight, we walked through Marienplatz dragging with us a heavy burden of unspoken words. The air smelled of hot wine, cloves and cinnamon, it was Carnival time, the middle of February. We were like actors in a cheap operetta, again surrounded by the requisite stage set. The white sun, like a magnifying glass, revealed every little line on our faces, and we instinctively sought the protection of the icy shadows.

 

From N’avez vous pas froid, Hélène Bessette

Le même jour. Minuit.

As-tu pensé ?

As-tu pensé que certains gens vivent entre le manger et le dormir. Le travail qui permet le dormir et le manger.

As-tu pensé ?

Que certains gens croient ce qui est admis ?

Vivant de la grammaire habituelle.

Sont satisfaits des mots.

Ne posent pas de question. Sont sans question.

Ne répondent pas.

Ne savent ni rire ni pleurer.

A peine rire.

A peine pleurer.

 

The four books I have been reading leisurely (even lazily) over the last few weeks are talking to each other in marvelous ways. Added to this I have been racing through, and just finished, Madeline Miller’s forthcoming novel CIRCE. A particularly excellent reading week with many interconnections and echoes.

“For our texts interrogate us when we have crossed into the world of the imagination, until we can figure out why we have come, where we have come from, and how we have managed the passage.”

–Grace Dane Mazur, Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination

“Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom, and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions—“Will you fade? Will you perish?—scarcely disturbed the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity, as if the question they asked scarcely needed that they should answer: we remain.”

–Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

“An utterance, a gesture, is clear if it is transparent; if it renders what is on the other side of the glass easier to understand, to accept, respond to, or love; if it facilitates the integrity of our being in the world.

An utterance is clear if it purifies vision.”

–Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy

“Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is. Even a reproduction hung on a wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures. This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it.”

–John Berger, Ways of Seeing

 

 

The Gulag Archipelago is rather depressing reading – even if Solzhenitsyn lets loose with a dry sense of humor from time to time. But from today’s reading a few paragraphs stand out. This is from Chapter 4, “The Bluecaps” (which is about torture and interrogation), in which he muses on the idea of an evildoer. He makes it literary, which I found entertaining (that’s a joke) and instructive:

We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any. It is permissible to portray evildoers in a story for children, so as to keep the picture simple. But when the great world literature of the past—Shakespeare, Schiller, Dickens—inflates and inflates images of evildoers of the blackest shades, it seems somewhat farcical and clumsy to our contemporary perception. The trouble lies in the way these classic evildoers are pictured. They recognize themselves as evildoers, and they know their souls are black. And they reason: “I cannot live unless I do evil. So I’ll set my father against my brother! I’ll drink the victim’s sufferings until I’m drunk with them!” Iago very precisely identifies his purposes and his motives as being black and born of hate.

But no; that’s not the way it is! To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. […]

Thanks to ideology the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago?

There was a rumor going the rounds between 1918 and 1920 that the Petrograd Cheka, headed by Uritsky, and the Odessa Cheka, headed by Deich, did not shoot all those condemned to death but fed some of them alive to the animals in the city zoos. I do not know whether this is truth or calumny, or, if there were any such cases, how many there were. But I wouldn’t set out to look for proof, either. Following the practice of the bluecaps, I would propose that they prove to us that this was impossible. How else could they get food for the zoos in those famine years? Take it away from the working class? Those enemies were going to die anyway, so why couldn’t their deaths support the zoo economy of the Republic and therefore assist our march into the future? Wasn’t it expedient?

That is the precise line the Shakespearean evildoer could not cross. But the evildoer with ideology does cross it, and his eyes remain dry and clear.

Physics is aware of phenomena which occur only at threshold magnitudes, which do not exist at all until a certain threshold encoded by and known to nature has been crossed. No matter how intense a yellow light you shine on a lithium sample, it will not emit electrons. But as soon as a weak bluish light begins to glow, it does emit them. (The threshold of the photoelectric effect has been crossed.) You can cool oxygen to 100 degrees below zero centigrade and exert as much pressure as you want; it does not yield, but remains a gas. But as soon as minus 183 degrees is reached, it liquefies and begins to flow.

Evidently evildoing also has a threshold magnitude. Yes, a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life. He slips, falls back, clambers up, repents, things begin to darken again. But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of our hope. But when, through the density of evil actions, the result either of their own extreme degree or of the absoluteness of his power, he suddenly crosses that threshold, he has left humanity behind, and without, perhaps, the possibility of return.

 

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Reading the passages below this afternoon and mulling their ideas over – especially after attending an outstanding short conference yesterday with Mathias Enard, talking about his books, specifically Zone and Boussole (Compass, which will be out later next year in English), and how they dialogue with ideas of contemporary and historical Europe – the historical/political and the emotional intersections of individuals:

Recognition, in the sense I’ve been using it so far, refers to a cognitive insight, a moment of knowing or knowing again. Specifically, I have been puzzling over what it means to say, as people not infrequently do, that I know myself better after reading a book. The ideas at play here have to do with comprehension, insight, and self-understanding. (That recognition is cognitive does not mean that it is purely cognitive, of course; moments of self-apprehension can trigger a spectrum of emotional reactions shading from delight to discomfort, from joy to chagrin.) When political theorists talk about recognition, however, they mean something else: not knowledge, but acknowledgement. Here the claim for recognition is a claim for acceptance, dignity and inclusion in public life. Its force is ethical rather than epistemic, a call for justice rather than a claim to truth. Moreover, recognition in reading revolves around a moment of personal illumination and heightened self-understanding; recognition in politics involves a demand for public acceptance and validation. The former is directed toward the self, the latter toward others, such that the two meanings of the term would seem to be entirely at odds.

Yet this distinction is far from being a dichotomy; the question of knowledge is deeply entangled in practices of acknowledgement…

From Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature

My reading is all over the place right now. I just finished Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl (excellent, interesting and even a provocative narrative positioning) and Juan Pablo Villalobos, (tr. Rosalind Harvey) Down the Rabbit Hole (grotesquely funny, deeply sad – I may never get over what happens to those pygmy hippos).

I have started reading Anakana Schofield’s Martin John (vying for most interesting book of the year so far, it is fantastic and I cannot wait to finish).

But this evening I am continuing Jan Zwicky’s collection Chamber Music and I keep reading a single poem, “Epistemology” over and over. I would love to put the whole poem here but will content myself with sharing a few lines only, although uncoupling them from their context seems like a horrible amputation.

 

“And, without warning, I could tell that I was

seven storeys in the air. The fragrance of the earth

when I lay down on it. Because

I’d pulled the fuses from my heart

and every corridor was suddenly ablaze.”

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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.

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Reading:

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?

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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.

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Writing:

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.

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More reading:

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?

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For my book club this week, I got the chance to re-read Doris Lessing’s 1951 The Grass is Singing. It’s an extraordinary book—not only because of its thematic project, which is complicated and stands up to all sorts of varied interpretation and socio-historical analysis, but because her prose is somehow both utilitarian and majestic all at the same time. That word utilitarian is so ugly, I know, but I use it because Lessing is just such a competent writer. Nothing ever superfluous, and yet… she can be wonderfully, incredibly lyrical.

I marked out a long passage yesterday that struck me as symbolic of something Lessing is doing, quite cleverly, throughout the book:

In the early mornings, when Dick had gone to the lands, she would walk gently over the sandy soil in front of the house, looking up into the high blue dome that was fresh as ice crystals, a marvelous clear blue, with never a cloud to stain it, not for months and months. The cold of the night was still in the soil. She would lean down to touch it, and touched, too, the rough brick of the house, that was cool and damp against her fingers. Later, when it grew warm, and the sun seemed as hot as in summer, she would go out into the front and stand under a tree on the edge of the clearing (never far into the bush where she was afraid) and let the deep shade rest her. The thick olive-green leaves overhead let through chinks of clear blue, and the wind was sharp and cold. And then, suddenly, the whole sky lowered itself into a thick grey blanket, and for a few days it was a different world, with a soft dribble of rain, and it was really cold: so cold she wore a sweater and enjoyed the sensation of shivering inside it. But this never lasted long. It seemed that from one half hour to the next the heavy grey would grow thin, showing blue behind, and then the sky would seem to lift, with layers of dissolving cloud in the middle air; all at once, there would be a high blue sky again, all the grey curtains gone. The sunshine dazzled and glittered but held no menace; this was not the sun of October, that insidiously sapped from within. There was a lift in the air, an exhilaration. Mary felt healed – almost. Almost, she became as she had been, brisk and energetic, but with a caution in her face and in her movements that showed she had not forgotten the heat would return. She tenderly submitted herself to this miraculous three months of winter, when the country was purified of its menace.

All that underlining is mine, obviously, but these were all the places where I thought Lessing was doing something interesting. So many small elements in just one paragraph. If you read this paragraph quickly, I think you could mistake it for just a simple pause in an otherwise unsettling narrative. It feels like a break. Here is Mary (who is elsewhere in a state of constant stress and emotional breakdown), relaxing, feeling somehow at peace. And I suppose there is that. But there are warnings here too – those ice crystals, the mention of her ever-present fear of the bush, that shivering, which she oddly enjoys, and then the dazzling, glittering sun without menace. There are sharp points dotted all along this restful passage.

The repetition of the word menace struck me as well. And the way it becomes an extended, albeit sideways, discussion of “heat.” She never talks about desire, but the entire book is about the heat that seems to drive Mary crazy. And of course heat is another way of talking about desire, so I can’t help seeing that here too. Ultimately that last line, “when the country was purified of its menace,” is also about desire and about the exploration that Lessing has got going about the master/servant situation, and about the catastrophic “desire” that infuses the racial situation at the same time. I don’t mean desire in normal terms, but in the broken way that Lessing treats it. And it makes me think of one of the most incisive lines from another favorite of mine, Nadine Gordimer’s Occasion for Loving:

Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.

This is, I think, what drives all that marvelous (and by marvelous, I do mean horrific) subtext throughout The Grass is Singing. And Lessing never once forgets it. She puts it into the sky and the sun, and into the very landscape. Everything is intimate.

I will be getting back to this space more regularly soon – we moved to a new village in March and I’ve been very busy getting settled in. I am extremely happy with our new place – even if I will miss our old farm house from time to time. But this new place has…. built-in bookshelves!! Everywhere!!  (Which I filled up a little too quickly, even if I did a major book sorting/giving away before we moved. Sigh.) In any case, things are nearly back to normal and I have been reading some wonderful stuff, all of which I am excited to write about. A short list:

  • Clarisse Francillon’s collection of stories Le Quartier – wonderful and touching vignettes of 1950s Paris
  • Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale – reviewing this one soon for Necessary Fiction
  • Chris Yates, Night Walk – these are really lovely nature essays in praise of exactly what the title says, walking at night
  • Amy Sackville’s Orkney – read this a few months ago and it just enthralled me

Also, I just started reading Sworn Virgin by the Albanian author Elvira Dones. Here is a book whose cover flap I actually should have read before diving in. On the first page the gender pronouns are switching all over the place – but this is the story of a young Albanian woman who has been living as a man in her village for the last fourteen years. The novel opens with her arrival in America, and the implication is that she will be able to be a woman again. This is proving difficult for her. Promises to be a really interesting book.

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Also, In March I reviewed Christa Wolf’s slim novella August over at Necessary Fiction. I loved this little book – it’s simple and careful and all about memory.

August opens with the words, “August is remembering.” And this very simple sentence (the present tense of it absolutely perfect) directs the reader toward a series of tender meditations on this man’s early life. That word tender seems strange when the first memory called up is about the loss of his mother during a bombing raid on a refugee train, about a difficult conversation with a woman from the Red Cross and 8-year-old August’s medical exam and subsequent removal to a tuberculosis hospital. But despite the implied horror of these events, August’s tone is tender. Perhaps it is the distance Wolf gives him, 60 years in the future, or perhaps it is the life she has given him—a life mostly only hinted about—to fill those 60 years.

Alongside the careful tenderness in August’s tone there is also a feeling of resignation, and a cautious sorrow. Now a widower, now ready for retirement, now a man with plenty of time to be quiet and alone with his own thoughts—August fits the mold for the kind of memory piece that has even become a genre: an older man looking back upon his life and revisiting its twists and turns, its more difficult questions. But August isn’t interested in understanding anything. And this is the key. August simply wants to look at it again. To feel it all again. To peer through the windows of his mind and see the people and the objects of this particular and short period of his life.

You can read the rest of the review here.

 

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