Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘fiction’

As keeps happening, this blog has been sorely neglected lately. I don’t want to let it go, but I need to find a way to make it work and keep it going. I’ve never wanted my website to be a landing page with links to my publications – I like writing about books too much, and I like the discussions that still crop up. But I feel scattered these days across several social media outlets and many book conversations are reduced to photos and one-liners. I am as guilty of this as everyone else.

Sigh.

In any case, I am thinking very hard how to keep this book blog running. I find when I am not writing about the books I’ve read, that I forget them all too quickly (I’ve had to comb through various messages and posts to even put this list together).

Here is what I’ve been reading this autumn:

  • Day for Night – Frederick Reiken (a reread)
  • The Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark
  • The Plains – Gerald Murnane
  • The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
  • Push – Sapphire (a reread)
  • The End of the Affair – Graham Greene (a reread)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin
  • The Accidental – Ali Smith
  • Imagine Me Gone – Adam Haslett
  • Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper (reading the 5book Dark is Rising series with my daughter)
  • The Master of Go – Yasunari Kawabata
  • Kudos – Rachel Cusk

My beloved book group and a novel class I’m teaching this fall have dictated most of these choices, but it’s been a rich reading period nonetheless. I already wrote about a few of these here.

I also read quite a few short stories over the last two months, jumping around between different collections like: David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On, Shusako Endo’s Stained Glass Elegies, Grace Paley’s Complete Collection, Lispector’s Complete Stories, and What We Do With the Wreckage by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum.

For some strange reason I did not finish Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, so I’m going back to that right away.  And I know I read something else while traveling through the US in October but I cannot recall what – hence the need to get back to writing, even a little, about each of the books that I read…

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Sometime last year I read and loved Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train, about Diski’s trip through America on Amtrak, and I’ve read many of her essays over the years, but I had never read her fiction. At the end of last year, I ordered several of her novels, and the first one I took up was her Apology for the Woman Writing, a historical novel about Marie de Gournay and Michel de Montaigne.

I read over half of the novel without bothering to check if Marie de Gournay actually existed (she did), and whether any of the story of her relationship with Montaigne was true or not (it was, it wasn’t), because Diski’s questions, as posed through her story, were infinitely more interesting to me. Later, the fact/fiction question does become relevant, and this adds another layer onto my appreciation for what Diski does in the novel.

Apology for the Woman Writing is a novel of ambition. And more to the point, of a woman’s ambition. It is the story of Marie, who falls in love with books and learning at a young age, but who is never able—because her nobleman father dies and the family subsequently loses most of their money—to enjoy or develop herself within that love of learning. Books, intelligence, and writing become a secret place for her, but, and this is very important for what happens to her, this intellectual space begins as and is constantly reinforced as a place of antagonism against the rest of the world. She loves these things against the wishes or understanding of her family, and later, of society.

Plot wise, the book is about how Marie falls especially in love with the recently published Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Her reaction to his work can only be described as cataclysmic. It is so violent that her family believes she has lost her mind. Her mother’s reaction is excellent:

It was quite clear to Jeanne that those wretched, godless books had finally worked their evil on Marie, and that her solitary life in the library with nothing but words as companions had driven her to melancholy madness.

And a few lines later, finally Marie speaks – a line which made me laugh out loud:

“I am not ill, Maman,” she whispered, still breathing fast, her face changed from dead white and vivid pink to the yellowish pale of parchment. “It’s Monsieur de Montaigne. He has ravished me.”

I love how over-the-top Diski is here – a nod, I think, to the melodrama of romances of the era, but also, for a reader, an undeniably true statement. What genuine reader has not felt ravished at some point by a book? By something utterly new and wonderful that comes through from the written word, directly to you. Reading is so incredibly intimate. It is a communion between the book and the reader. And in this case, because Montaigne was writing in this radical new form, taking himself as the subject and writing so freely about his musing thoughts, Marie becomes in a sense imprinted on him. And from this, only tragedy can ensue.

And it does, again and again. What I’ve written above about Marie makes her appear a sympathetic character. She is not, however, and for this Diski repeatedly impressed me. Marie is awful. She is proud and self-important, and she’s consistently delusional. She uses emotional blackmail to avoid censure, she continues to connive and strive to become what she wants to be: une femme de lettres. Diski’s fictional discussion around all of this is nuanced—how much is Marie simply a horrible person? How much is our perspective of her colored through the eyes of the men who are her inevitable gatekeepers? Could she have been different if born a man, or born into wealth? There are no easy answers.

As a piece of fiction, Apology for the Woman Writing has some odd bumps and rough edges, but as a book of ideas, it’s a delight. I love the liberties that Diski takes with Montaigne and de Gournay, I love the moments of insight into human nature that crop up in so many scenes, and I love the way she plays with the idea of a great writer (Montaigne) adopting a would-be writer (Marie) and the parallel this has to Diski’s own life.

I’ll finish with one of my favorite passages – written from the point of view of Marie’s maid (a fascinating character I didn’t go into) as she thinks about the difference between Marie and Michel de Montaigne, and it sums up one of the book’s salient questions:

It was not the differences in their wealth, or not that alone. Nor in their education. It was not even simply that he was a man and she was a woman, though that difference was implacable. It was that he possessed — and had been freely given — the mind, the talent, the originality: everything that was needed to make, and to seem not to try hard to make, what he wanted of himself. She was so exposed, no padding, just the near-transparent skin and bone of her desire chafing constantly against the raw wind and weather of her lack of what she needed in order to be what she knew was her true self.

Any suggestions of where I should go next with Diski’s fiction?

 

 

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:

霧島Kirishima
“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”

霧島Kirishima
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.

霧島Kirishima
The Fog Island Mountains

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Just before I headed to Japan, the lovely Atticus Review published one of my short stories. It was quite a treat to see this piece finally find a home somewhere. I wrote it nearly eight years ago and have taken it out nearly once a year since then and revised it, working it over again and again until it finally took this final shape. Here is an excerpt:

The car windows consume an endless stream of brown fields and dry grassland as she continues forward and faster. The scenery has turned violet in the darkening light. Anne has wanted to come out this way for a long time, wanted to see the part of the state that doesn’t live in the green and the damp or with the ocean as a constant companion. But now that she’s here she just recognizes the unfairness of geography. It really is more beautiful where she comes from.

She passes a mobile home propped up on cinder blocks; its screen door lurches forward aggressively toward the highway. The front half of a windscreen-less car sticks out from behind the trailer and piles of tires mark the far edge of the property.

How sad, she thinks, knowing her mother would never settle for such a mundane expression of sympathy. She would summon up proper indignation: “That’s just tragic,” or, “It’s a crime to let people get that far behind.”

The urn has been sitting on the back seat since Anne left Aberdeen yesterday. She can’t keep ignoring her, although she is aware that addressing her dead mother’s ashes would be an indication that she isn’t coping.

Click here for the full story.

 

 

My short story, “The Last Villagers,” came out today at Xenith:

The noises of his waking reach her at the stove. She starts, moves toward the bedroom but does not enter. The day begins and will conform exactly to the day before, and to tomorrow. His presence, her attendance. Small tasks and silent communion.

Click here to read the full story.

 

 

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My short story, “Heartbeat,” was published today at Necessary Fiction:

I am not a man to quibble with such a firmly-delivered directive, even if I did not quite understand. I started dialing a phone number at random. I held the cell phone to my ear while Frida began to take the furnace computer apart with a screwdriver she had pulled out of her purse.

Click here to read the full story.

 

My short story, “Translating Christina,” was published today at Necessary Fiction:

He wanted to smile at them, to give them permission for such thoughts, but he could not speak. Someday they would understand, would know what it meant to wake in the night and for a moment, in the blur of waking, be certain that beloved person was in the room. And then the blur would sharpen and that not-so-recent death would wound as deeply as the first day.

Click here for the full story.

 

My short story “Knots” was published this month at Necessary Fiction:

Upstairs, in the bed Sam had carried in four pieces by himself up the steep hill, she sat awake, mind no longer numb, frantically retying the threads of their struggle into perfect little knots. She would not give up. She would work harder to get him to eat. She would call another specialist. She would say yes to experimental therapies. Only when her string of knots was sufficiently long enough could she lean back and close her eyes, secure for now with the thought of each problem properly tied and fastened.

Click here for the full story.