Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘essays’

Almost by accident, I picked the perfect book to entice me back into regularly blogging. I had a very early train ride this morning (to go listen in on a translator friend’s lecture on translating “time” (tenses) from French into Japanese – which was excellent for a nerdy language type like me), and as I raced out the door, I grabbed Ivan Vladislavić’s little book, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories* (Seagull Books, 2014, and which includes a series of excellent illustrations by Sunandini Banerjee). Forty-five minutes later and I almost stayed on the train and missed my friend’s lecture. This tiny little book is very hard to put down and I’ve kept it with me all day, finishing it a few hours ago in a café beside my daughter’s drawing class.

The collection is comprised of ten essays, divided into two brackets of five that embrace the book’s centerpiece: the titular short story, “The Loss Library.”

This very short fiction describes a man guided by a mysterious librarian through the shelves of The Loss Library – a museum arrangement of books that were never written (arranged by the author’s type of death), books that were destroyed, books that were forgotten, and so on. I won’t go into details because it would spoil this wonderfully imaginative story for anyone who hasn’t yet read it. It also breaks Vladislavić’s collection so perfectly in half.

The rest of the book’s essays each take one of the author’s unfinished ideas and describe it, annotate it, discuss the research that went into it, as well as muse upon why the idea was never completed. The result is a series of complex and touching reflections upon writerly and readerly inspiration, upon those mysterious synergies of thought and observation that result in the creation or non-creation of art. The essays reach both inward toward and outward from the writer, braiding memory and literature and happenstance. The effect is meditative, thoughtful, and sometimes humorous. My overall feeling is the delight of seeing how an incomplete idea can become fertile ground for a different kind of art and reflection altogether.

I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite from this slim volume – each essay adds something unique to Vladislavić’s evolving perspective. But a single line won’t let me go – I read it this morning about 25 minutes into my train ride, and I was still thinking about it as the sun set outside the window of that small, overheated café:

All fiction is the factual refracted.

The line comes from the essay entitled “Mrs B”, about Vladislavić’s unfinished idea to write something about Mrs. Burden, the wife of the American naturalist W. Douglas Burden. That essay is about so much more than just the transposition of event or fact into fiction – it touches on a variety of issues related to colonialism, on narrative inspiration and the way a character develops or not out of the writer’s mind – but this single idea, and the choice of the word “refracted” has stopped me; in it I can see angles of light, variations of focus, broken perspectives and the multiplying possibilities of deflection. It’s genius and I’ll be considering it for some time to come.

I’ve not read any of Vladislavić’s fiction but am now very intrigued to see what I make of it…

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I had thought about ice during the cold months too. How it is movement betrayed, water seized in the moment of falling.

Gretel Ehrlich’s essay “Spring”—published in 1986 in the now defunct literary quarterly, Antaeus—is one of those gloriously meandering pieces of writing. On a micro level, the prose is precise and detailed, a collage of descriptions of the author’s physical world, her landscape as she writes: snow, rocks, wind, water, sky, the animals that cross the topography. Fitting, of course, for an essay on a season. It’s a fine example of nature writing. At the same time, in a more general and overlapping way, there’s a deeply metaphysical line of questioning. The essayist is circling human nature, an emotional spring.

She threads the movement from early spring to mid-spring with science, especially with physics. Conversations she’s had with scientist friends. Geological observations. Early in the essay she describes spring as a restless time, and the essay reflects a psychological restlessness, a movement from one state (winter) to another (spring). But the state could also be illness to health, raw grief to healing, closed to open. When I’ve written it this way it sounds nearly new-agey, and it isn’t at all. It’s inquisitive, intelligent, scientific, emotional.

Ehrlich is also dealing with the landscape of my childhood—the American West with its unreal vistas and deep wilderness. A wilderness in which “wild” should be written in bold. I returned to the US a few years ago and drove in one day across the Sawtooth Mountains and the Cascade Mountains. I’d been living in Europe nearly eight years at this point and I’d forgotten the size of those spaces. The incredible breadth, the vastness of it. Ehrlich brought me right back into that and I experienced an aching nostalgia.

Space is an arena in which the rowdy particles that are the building blocks of life perform their antics. All spring, things fall: the general law of increasing disorder is on the take.

And there’s a surprise in her narrative. Where she begins and where she ends aren’t signaled in the usual ways (although the quote just above could be taken as such signaling), and thank goodness. This is what I mean by gloriously meandering. She takes us from one personal space to another that is quite different, and I could not have predicted that movement but when she finishes it is like that is the only way we could have gone. It’s delightful.

Continuing along with how I set up my December reading (since it lead me to some unexpected places) here are the essays and short stories I plan to read in January. It won’t be one a day, but three a week.

Suggestions are always welcome; I discovered several writers and pieces last month that way so if anyone has a recommendation, I’d love it.

Week 1 Margaret Atwood – “Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother” (from Bluebeard’s Egg)
Clarice Lispector – “Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady” (from Complete Stories)
Gretel Ehrlich – “Spring” (essay, from Antaeus, 1986)
Week 2 Valerie Trueblood – “Finding” (from Search Party)
Jane Hirschfield – “The Myriad Leaves of Words” (from Nine Gates)
Guy Davenport – “The Geography of the Imagination” (from the same)
Week 3 Isak Dinesen – “Sorrow-acre” (from Winter’s Tales)
Joan Didion – “On Keeping a Notebook” (from Slouching Toward Bethlehem)
Lucia Berlin – “Emergency Room Notebook” (from A Manual for Cleaning Women)
Week 4 Phillip Lopate – “Against Joie de Vivre” (From Ploughshares, 1987
Jamaica Kincaid – “The Circling Hand” (From Annie John)
Jean Stafford – “In the zoo” (From Bad Characters)
Week 5  Clarice Lispector – “Love” (from Complete Stories)
 Eudora Welty – “Petrified Man” (from A Curtain of Green)
 Jane Hirshfield – “Poetry & the Mind of Indirection” (from Nine Gates)
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Reading makes me feel alive. Earlier today I looked over the books I’ve read this year and while it was nice to mentally revisit many of them, what I noticed most was how few there actually were and that since November, I hadn’t actually finished a single book. Ali Smith’s Artful is the last book I read start to finish. (It’s excellent, by the way—delicate, clever, surprising.) Overall, I read far fewer books in 2016 compared to other recent years and wish that weren’t so. But there it is.

Luckily, my list of essays and short stories this month has done what I’d hoped it would do—I’m reading again. Indiscriminately, messily, chaotically. All kinds of writers, essays and stories from different decades, even centuries. It’s marvelous and has my brain moving in all sorts of directions. A welcome relief from the news cycle.

I mentioned Anne Carson’s “Kinds of Water” in my last post and I doubt anything else I read this month will compare, but several of the essays/stories have been excellent. Katherine Anne Porter (1890 to 1980) is a discovery. How have I never read her before? Her essay “St. Augustine and the Bullfight” made me laugh out loud (her descriptions of people are a delight) but it also had me cringing (her honesty about the human thrill for violence); I will be looking for more of her work. And “Miss Grief” by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 – 1894) was fascinating—two writers, one male, one female, and the dynamic between them. Writerly ambitions, public reception, poverty, etc. It definitely made me curious to read more of her work, of which there is plenty. I found this last story in a collection called Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle. An inspiring secondhand bookshop find.

Yesterday I read James Baldwin’s essay “Fifth Avenue Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.” This comes from his collection published in the early 1960s, and while the essay is devastatingly good, it’s also depressing. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but it feels as though only the specific details he uses to make his point have changed. America is still a deeply divided country and the same tools are used to maintain the affluence of a few at the expense of the many. Reading Baldwin is a pure pleasure, though. His non-fiction is as vibrant and animated as his fiction.

I’m also now reading three different books: Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book (Ivan Morris translation) and Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. I’m surprised to be reading so much non-fiction as I don’t usually gravitate in this direction, but these three books are wonderful to dip in and out of, and they couldn’t be more different. An example of three books most decidedly NOT speaking to each other, which suits me fine right now.

Skyfaring is a distraction, but an intriguing and entertaining one. A way to look at the world from a different perspective, and one I will never personally experience. Vanhoenacker is a commercial airline pilot with an unmistakable passion for flying. He writes about what it’s like to crisscross the world at such a great height, and he writes gracefully.

The Pillow Book is a brilliant piece of writing. It feels quaint and archaic, because it is, but it is also fragmented and eccentric in a very modern way. Shonagon is wickedly funny in terms of telling stories and relating “court” life, but she’s also quietly attentive to nature, to people, to life. Her lists are a delight:

 

30. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

 

Dried hollyhock. the objects used during the Display of the Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-coloured material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

Her lists of Hateful Things or Depressing Things are genuinely funny. But she also writes about events or meetings, conversations and anecdotes. There is something silly and superficial about her book—in its discussions of court life and good manners and the like—but it has a serious heart and she is wonderfully sharp in her observations, poetic in her approach.

Finally, I will finish Gillian Rose’s collection of essays Love’s Work this evening and write more about it later. It is fierce. I love it.

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Well, a pilgrim is like a Nō play. Each one has the same structure, a question mark.

The other day when I was looking through the books of short stories and essay collections—some half-unread, some completely un-read—on my shelves, I found, in a Best American Essays 1988, an essay by Anne Carson entitled, “Kinds of Water.”

It obviously went on my list.

This essay was scheduled for my reading on the 6th of December; I only finished it this morning five days later. And I read it again a second time—moving, without realizing until after I sat down, into the quietest, most private space in my home. I read the essay again, confirming to myself that here was a piece of writing I would have to read again and again. And again.

“Kinds of Water” is about a man and a woman walking La Compostela. It begins on June 20th in St. Jean Pied de Port and ends, 35 magnificent pages later, on July 26th, in Finisterre. It’s about pilgrims of all kinds, about wolves, about water, about photographs and poetry, it’s about longing and power relations and hard walking, it’s about bread and rocks. About journeys.

It is probably the single most interesting piece of writing I have read all year.

I feel unable to write properly about it until I’ve read it several more times, so I won’t say much here and hope that in a few months, when I’ll read it again, or maybe next year, when I’ll read it a fourth time and a fifth time, I’ll find some way to describe its movement and content.

There is no question I covet that conversation. There is no question I am someone starving. There is no question I am making this journey to find out what the appetite is.

Or maybe I won’t, because maybe this is the kind of essay I can only keep for myself. And the only way to do that is not to talk about it.

Today, I’ll just leave a hint of it for you:

Down.

Gorge after gorge, turning, turning. Caverns of sunset, falling, falling away—just a single vast gold air breathed out by beings — they must have been marvelous beings, those gold-breathers. Down. Purple and green islands. Cleft and groined and gigantically pocked like something left behind after all the oceans vanished one huge night: the mountains. Their hills fold and fold again, fold away, down. Folded into the dens and rocks of the hills are ghost towns. Broken streets end in them, like a sound, nowhere. Shadow is inside. We walk (oh quietly) even so — breaking lines of force, someone’s. Houses stand in their stones. Each house an empty socket. Some streaked with red inside. Words once went on in there — no. I don’t believe that. Words never went on there.

Down.

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Someone tweeted a marvelous idea this morning – an advent reading calendar. I sipped my coffee and let my eyes wander over the slim titles of someone else’s 25-day reading plan, and I knew immediately that I wanted to do the same. My brain has been anchored in politics and final novel edits for a manuscript that is finally in my agent’s capable hands and out of my mind for a while (hooray!), and so a little nudge to get me reading broadly and haphazardly is very welcome. I love reading with a plan and often follow a thread from one book to another, but sometimes it’s nice to cast a wide net and see what that can spark.

The only book I’ve been able to focus on recently is Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker, and it is really lovely, but it’s an escape as well, giving me distance from the planet and very gentle commentary on the human love of height, speed, and flying. It’s a great read but I need more and am not sure where to go.

So here is a list of short stories and essays that I’ve never read, that I have already on my shelves and that I’d like to read over the next 25 days. I’ve deliberately left myself four empty spots* because I’m hoping any of you might give me some suggestions and throw me in wild and varied directions – so what is the best short story or essay you’ve read recently?

* I’ve gotten some wonderful suggestions, but would welcome more…

1 Dec Jane Bowles – A Day in the Open
2 Dec Jane Hirshfield – The World is Large and Full of Noises
3 Dec Phyllis Rose – Tools of Torture: An Essay on Beauty & Pain
4 Dec James Baldwin – Exodus
5 Dec Katherine Anne Porter – St.Augustin and the Bullfight
6 Dec Anne Carson – Kinds of Water
7 Dec Kate Chopin – An Egyptian Cigarette
8 Dec Constance Fenimore Woolson – Miss Grief
9 Dec Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – The Lives of Strangers
10 Dec Ada Leverson – Suggestion
11 Dec Charles Simic – Reading Philosophy at Night
12 Dec Olive Schreiner – Three Dreams in a Desert
13 Dec Jamaica Kincaid – Figures in the Distance
14 Dec James Baldwin – 5th Ave, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem
15 Dec Geoff Dyer – Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
16 Dec Rebecca Solnit – Two Arrowheads
17 Dec Sherman Alexie – The Toughest Indian in the World
18 Dec Michelle Cliff – Transactions
19 Dec Lucia Berlin – A Manual for Cleaning Women
20 Dec Jan Carson – Settling
21 Dec Eudora Welty – A Sweet Devouring
22 Dec  Anna Kavan – The Brother
23 Dec  Alice Walker – The Flowers
24 Dec
25 Dec

 

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“And of course it grows silently. In our noise-obsessed culture it is very easy to forget just how many of the major physical forces on which we depend are silent — gravity, electricity, light, tides, the unseen and unheard spinning of the whole cosmos. The earth spins, it spins fast. It spins about its own axis at about 1,700 kilometres per hour (at the Equator); it orbits the sun at 107,218 kilometres per hour. And the whole solar system spins through the spinning galaxy at speeds I hardly dare to think about. The earth’s atmosphere spins with it, which is why we do not feel it spinning. It all happens silently.

Organic growth is silent too. Cells divide, sap flows, bacteria multiply, energy runs thrilling through the earth, but without a murmur. ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,’ is a silent force. Soil, that very topmost skin coating, is called earth and the planet itself is called earth. It is all alive — pounding, heaving, thrusting. Microscopic fungi spores grow, lift pavements and fell houses. We hear the crack of the pavements and the crash of the buildings — such human artefacts are inevitably noisy — but the fungus itself grows silently. Perhaps we are wise to be terrified of silence — it is the terror that destroyeth in the noontide.”

From Sara Maitland’s stunning A Book of Silence