31 May 2006

This is some cocoa Karl had Saturday afternoon at Ritual Coffee Roasters, near where he lives in the Mission in San Francisco.

This is some pizza I had Sunday chez Charlotte in Fremont, California. Or she called it pizza, anyway. Barry refused to accept the designation, and I think Charlotte's friend Dan also looked most dubious, though he was too polite to say.

There were several varieties. Clockwise (and in order of production), from left: (1) barbecue sauce, roasted chicken, and cheese, on a mochi crust; (2) marinara, shrimp, salmon, and dill, on a soy crust; (3) marinara, barbecue sauce, oyster sauce, laap cheung, gailan, and green onions, on a wheat crust.

26 May 2006

Here's another ci I don't much like, this one by Li Qingzhao. I read this one myself, no one to instruct me, and I see that my Chinese really isn't good enough to attempt translation. But heck, I don't know how to write poetry, either, so why not be delinquent on both ends? It's still fun.

To the tune of "Everlasting Happiness"

The setting sun is melting into gold,
Ranked clouds arrayed against the evening.
Stained willows sink in heavy mist,
And a plaintive flute sounds--
The one about the plum blossoms, falling.

Everywhere intent on spring.

Where are you?

It is lantern festival,
And the weather's calm,
But the way things are,
Wind and rain must follow.

People come together,
Good horse and grand carriage,
Celebrate their drinking friends and poet cronies.

In the full times, in Zhongzhou,
There was time,
In the women's quarters.

There was another lantern festival.
I put on emerald cap, gold-threaded gown:
Gorgeous, perfect.

I am thin, and faded.
The wind and time have snarled and streaked my hair.

I can't go out into the night.

Better just to hear,
Drifting in beneath the curtain,
The voices, and the laughter.

Another version--scroll down a bit--one I had to refer to when my comprehension broke down (along with one by C. H. Kwock and Vincent McHugh that's reprinted in Cyril Birch's anthology but is too typographically peculiar to attempt to reproduce here):

Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung

23 May 2006

The Elixir of Youth. Gillian Bradshaw.

Gillian Bradshaw used to write the most lovely anachronistical novels, set mostly in classical antiquity, with people running around doing the most improbable things. They often suspected they had got themselves just about to the edge of the world, but then they'd find there were people over there--barbaric people, generally, of blasphemous beliefs--and they'd go along and find out what those people were up to. Not too long ago, sometime after my vacation in Xinjiang, I happened to reread Bradshaw's Horses of Heaven, and what did I find, consulting her maps, but that when at the end her cursed lovers take the big risk of riding through the haunted pass in the Mountains of Heaven, after they have the big showdown with the demonic creature and all, the place they are about to end up is Kashgar, or at any rate the spot where Kashgar would be by the time Marco Polo passed through. Myself, I got there on my own, coming from the east instead of the west, having suffered no greater danger than that posed by an impertinent four-year-old insisting I read to her from The Wealth of Nations. Well, and the air conditioner on the train seemed to be kind of broken, so I didn't smell too good. But no one shot any arrows at me, and I didn't have to hack at demons with swords.

Anyway. After a few decades of the deep past I guess Bradshaw got bored, for all of a sudden, around the turn of the century, she started publishing science fictiony thrillers, of which The Elixir of Youth is one. I miss the anachronistical novels, and I hope she gets rested up and goes back to them someday, but I still read the thrillers. This one is about Alison, who has just graduated in philosophy from Oxford, and goes trepidatiously to visit her long-absent father where he has ended up somewhere near Santa Barbara. She is suspicious about why he has bothered to get in touch with her now, after 20 years of silence, and she is none too sure what he's been doing with himself in the meantime.

Biochemical research, it turns out, into melanoma and the aging processes of skin. Some anti-abortion activists have just broken into his lab, and some substance that may or may not be a tremendous medical breakthrough may or may not have gone missing.

Much disputation ensues, giving Alison a chance to test out whether her ex-boyfriend really was right to dump her for never allowing herself to be debated down. Her young stepmother gives up too easily, leaving Alison seething with arguments she doesn't get to lay out. The anti-abortion activist who tries to find the miracle substance, once he hears it's valuable and somewhere at large, gets frustrated at Alison's socratical illustration of his conceptual confusion, and slaps her across the face. The dreamy young FDA agent cannot be brought to countenance the possibility that things (e.g., the existence of Mongolia) do not admit of proof ("Ridiculous!" he says), and sinks in her estimation.

Her father, however, weak and morally compromised though he turns out to be, rises to the disputational challenge. He may be testy to begin with, but he cannot withstand the force of Alison's reason. When she delivers two ways in which she thinks his work ethically suspect, admiration has to win out over resentment. "Most people would put those two the other way round," he admits. Logic triumphs, and father and daughter are reconciled.

Sort of, temporarily, at least. Then the missing stuff turns up, and the FDA agent, having already metamorphosized from dreamboat to epistemological naif, transforms again into a murderer, and the father cheating on his research results turns into the father bleeding on the floor with a bullet in his heart, and so on.

But it all sort of comes out okay, for the Oxford boyfriend emails to say he realized hardly a paragraph in his thesis would have ended up the way it did without Alison's disputatiousness, and if she tells him when her flight's coming in he'll meet her at the airport.

I can't say I found it all that thrilling, but it was sort of entertaining, in its way. At least now I'll know what to do if anyone decides they want to start arguing with me about abortion.

20 May 2006

I made it to the library just before closing time, flip-flopped up to 895.10 in the Dewey Decimal spiral, and paged throughthe tables of contents of fat anthologies, looking for the ones with "Yu Meiren." There wasn't time to sit down and copy out the translations, so I had to check the books out and bear them away, 10 or 15 pounds of them, perhaps. Besides the anthologies there was Ezra Pound's Cathay, by Wai-lim Yip, which I got just for the heck of it, even though I doubt I'll find time to read it before I have to take it back, and my slight acquaintance with Wai-lim Yip is already enough to make me hate him (see his translation, below).

I also ended up with a book of Lu You, which was sheer carelessness. David Gordon spelled his name Lu Yu, which I mistook in my haste for Li Yu, though I was in doubt over the title: The Wild Old Man, which didn't sound like my mournful aristocrat at all. I was about two centuries off, it turned out, as well as having associated two names that are wholly dissimilar: 李煜, 陆游. Most embarrassing.

Anyway. I bore my finds off to the Westlake Center food court, where I got a mango lassi and sat looking out the window at all the fashionably-dressed loitering youth, in between reading poems.

When I was done with my lassi and all the Li Yu translations, I put band-aids on my feet (my flip-flops are too new), packed the books up again, and set off home, thinking about grammar.

The other night when I slopped out my own translation, I indulged in a bit of wilful misreading. I knew that 何时了was always taken to mean "when will [the subject under discussion] end," not "it might end sometime," or "when did it end," but since my grasp of classical Chinese syntax is weak and I could therefore adduce no certain evidence to the contrary, I allowed myself to make the sort of Poundian assumption that Chinese has no syntax and therefore I could cast it in the past tense if I damn well felt like it.

Further, the preponderance of evidence suggested that spring flowers and autumn nights were to be taken as markers of the ineluctable passage of time, not as pleasant things whose disappearance (or the draining away of one's enjoyment of) might be mourned.

But what if he did mean "when did they end"? I thought. They were of course still literally there, but he couldn't enjoy them because he was too miserable. Wouldn't that be nice?

The versions I found in my internet trawling tended to confirm my original impression that the way I wanted to read it was just plain wrong. Those versions were mostly pretty lousy, so far as effectiveness went, and I couldn't figure out where they came from, but whoever made each of them did seem to have a good idea what the words meant, and they all pretty much agreed.

And then I went to the library, and found translations by clearly identifiable translators, with all sorts of academic and literary credentials, and they all agreed, too.

So when I was walking home, it was with no real hope that I searched my mind for parallels in modern Chinese that would seem to support the reading I was having to abandon. “甚么时候结束?”呢?No, definitely present (when does it generally end?) or future (when, in this particular instance, is it going to end?) .

I didn't find any reassuring examples, but I kept searching, because, dammit, I liked my misreading.

We've been having a stretch of sunny warm weather, and at 6:30 on a Saturday evening there were lots and lots of people at tables outside coffee shops and bars and restaurants, happily talking and having coffee and drinks and food.

"Is it gonna end?" I heard one of them say.

Which settled it. Not the way I wanted it settled, but quite definitively.

I wish I could always count on divine intervention when my judgment fails.

* * *

These are the translations I found, progressing from intolerable to good:

Wai-lim Yip (Chinese Poetry: Major Modes and Genres, 1976)
1. Spring flowers, autumn moon: when to end?
2. The past: how much is known?
3. Upon the tower last night, east winds blow again.
4. Native country: unbearable to look back amidst the bright moon.
5. Carved railings, jade inlays should still be there,
6. Only faces are changed.
7. How much sorrow do you have?
8. The way a spring river eastward flows.

Cyril Birch (Anthology of Chinese Literature: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century, 1965)
When will the last flower fall, the last moon fade?
So many sorrows lie behind.
Again last night the east wind filled my room--
O gaze not on the lost kingdom under this bright moon.

Still in her light my palace gleams as jade
(Only from bright cheeks beauty dies).
To know the sum of human suffering
Look at this river rolling eastward in the spring.

Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping (The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, 2005)
Will spring blooms and autumn moon never end?
These memories are too much.
Last night east wind pierced my narrow tower again,
and I saw lost kingdoms in the clean bright moon.
The carved railings and jade steps must still be there,
though lovely faces must have aged.
How much sorrow do I feel?
Like river water in spring it flows to the east.

Stephen Owen (An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, 1996)
Flowers in spring, moonlight in fall,
when will they ever end?
and how much can we know
of what is past and gone?
Upstairs in my room last night
the east wind came again;
I cannot bear to turn and look home
in the light of the moon.

Its carved railings and marble pavements
are, I'm sure, still there--
all that changes is the flush
on the face of youth.
Tell me then of sorrow--how much can there be?
It is exactly like:
a whole river of springtime waters
flowing off to the east.
Googling about for "Yu Meiren" I find the following:
  • Characters, pinyin, garblegloss, and translation by I know not who
  • An explanation of Song ci poetry (宋词) with a translation of this poem by Hans Frankel (under the heading "Exemplarious Translation")
  • Something that says it's based on a translation by Wai-lim Yip (about halfway down the page, numbered 25b)
  • Another anonymous one, with biographical sketch, that appears to be in some way associated with the Paris Autumn Festival (you have to use the little scroll arrows to scroll down to where the translation shows up)
  • Yet another of unknown provenance that shows up mysteriously under the heading "Birthday"
Well, I'm getting tired. But next time I'm in the library I will look and see what I can find there.

18 May 2006

There have to be dozens of translations of Li Yu's lyrics to the tune of "Yu Meiren," but I don't seem for some reason to have seen one. Before I go looking, let me essay my own version:

When was it
The spring flowers and autumn nights
Fell away?

So much to remember.

East wind blowing again
At my place last night.

I could not look back,
In that moonlight,
On my old domain.

Railings and banisters, carved in jade and wood--
They're still around,
But my own face has paled.

You might wonder
Just how anxious you can be.


Like the swollen river,
Trundling east in spring.
Stet: An Editor's Life. Diana Athill.

Diana Athill was an editor in London, starting just after the Second World War and ending when her company went bust in the 1980s. She published Wide Sargasso Sea (which for some reason I have not yet read), and V. S. Naipaul's first seventeen books, and other important stuff like that. Reading her book was a nice, uncomplicated pleasure. She told some amusing things about herself, and some interesting anecdotes about her authors, and didn't oblige me to learn anything, or at any rate nothing I expect ever to have to use. Her book was not bad in any way, so I didn't have to put any effort into working out what was wrong with it. I could just enjoy it for its charming, inconsequential self.

17 May 2006

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Simon Winchester.

In college, I (like everybody else, I suppose) had to read a lot of dense Xeroxed texts and then write papers about them. I would go to the reserve room and find the smudgy Xeroxes in their plastic bindings, and like as not they'd be checked out silently and at great speed by Shan, unwilling to disrupt with idle conversation her system of grading papers at the checkout desk and getting paid once by the library and once by the biology department for the same hour of work. (If it was Francis, he was a little more talkative.) Then I'd go upstairs and lie on my back with my feet up so I couldn't see the dreadful zebra-striped carpet shimmering in the fluorescent light, and read.

I calculated it took me about two minutes a page, reading a paragraph (took up at least three quarters of a page, one of those paragraphs did) and realizing I remembered nothing of it and reading it again. When I came to the end of my 30- or 40-page article on the calculation of labor points per family under the system used in the third stage of collectivization in agrarian China, or the New Historicist uncovering of the Other in the corners of the Renaissance cartographic imaginary, or the recuperation of the silenced subaltern voice in the everyday resistance of Bengali hill tribes, or whatever, I generally felt rather baffled. I'd return the slim plastic thing to the reserve room, go back to my dorm, take out a sheet of paper, write half a line, scratch it out, write another line and a half, and decide profound cogitation was required. Whereupon I'd lie down atop my bedspread (not under the covers--that would be taking a nap--I always made my bed very carefully in those days, to be able to preserve this distinction) and fall asleep. I'd wake up a couple of hours later with a sense that the walls were bending and the top corners of the room curling inward, throw some stuff into my backpack, and rush in a panic back to the library to sit in the computer lab until, sometime in the wee hours of the morning, my paper was done. Then drop it off outside the teacher's office door, wait a week or two, and get it back, usually with a comment along the lines of "You've clearly read and digested the readings and made a thoughtful analysis of their implications."

It was all most perplexing, but rather fun in a sort of desperate fashion.

I suppose it is why I don't know what to make of the likes of Simon Winchester. I've now read three books of his, all reluctantly. When I was in Chicago, my mom mailed me The Map That Changed the World and so I felt obliged to read it, even though I could see no particular reason I would want to. In Shanghai, a strange dizzy lady with red-dyed hair used a neck brace as an excuse to break her contract and flee SARS, and left behind The Professor and the Madman. Any book in English that wasn't a classic was precious, and so I read it, though again I felt I had no reason to but that it was there. And now I have read The Meaning of Everything, for the book group I've been going to at the library as part of my effort to discover what people do when they read.

Simon Winchester writes exceptionally well. He extracts from what must be masses and masses of research notes (acquired, his footnotes hint, through inspired detective work) the bits that are amusing and enlightening, fits them together with an admirable sense of balance and pace, and relates them all in a prose of great lexical richness bound together by a masterfully surprising syntax. He has, as well, a keen sense of what makes one era different in character from another; of the shifting balance between slow, aggregative reinforcement of established ways of thought and sudden inspired departures; of what likely flights of his readers' historical imagination need to be reigned in by reasoned analysis, and what can safely be left to the intuition of minds conditioned by the realities of the contemporary world.

Reading Simon Winchester is fun, easy, and at least moderately instructive. With fiction, for me, fun and easy suffices; if I enjoy reading it, it's worth reading, and that is that. What, then, is the source of my resistance to reading Winchester or other similar writers of popular nonfiction?

Upon what authority does he say this, I keep wondering. Has it any theoretical implications? What good is it, some subterranean voice asks, if it hasn't been formally reviewed by at least two anonymous persons of recognized academic expertise?

I don't run into this problem with all nonfiction. A memoir, for instance, is exempt--what better authority to report and assess a life than that acquired by having lived it? And fiction, I suppose, works on much the same principle. The author of a story is a person alive in the world; as such, she has the authority to present her idea of what the world is and how to be alive in it.

A memoir is a primary source. Get into the use of primary sources, by uncategorized people, on their own initiative, and I get suspicious. Obvious capability is somehow inadequate justification.

I guess I can conclude I ought never to have gone to college.

13 May 2006


Tuesday was sunny, and when I got in my car to go to work I found it pretty hot in there. I rolled down the windows, and then the one on the driver's side wouldn't go back up again. So Wednesday I had to take the car to Ballard to get the window fixed. I came back the long way round, and took this picture on the way.
Lost in Seoul: And Other Discoveries on the Korean Peninsula. Michael Stephens.

It seems strange, but I think this is only the third book I've ever read about Korea. The first was a kids' novel about four war orphans, offspring of American GIs, named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, living under a bridge in Seoul somewhere. I think. My mom read it to me when I was six or seven, and I may have read it again myself later, but I'm not quite sure. Seems like in the end some kind American couple adopted them all and they lived happily ever after in the United States. Later I was surprised when those four names turned up in close association in another book, too.

Then a few years ago I read an ethnography of urban middle-class women's relation to consumer goods.

This one is a memoir by an American married to an aristocratic Korean, about what he learned on his several extended visits to the family in Seoul over the course of the 1970s and 80s. It ends around the time my own family lived in Seoul, and Stephens knows how to write, so it gave me the peculiar pleasure of reading about a place that I know myself, full of gray concrete buildings, smog, peculiar earthy smells, huge clay pots, and shoes with the heels flattened down so people can wear them like slippers.

It reminded me also of the strange poverty of my life there, for while I knew the smells of the place, and the streets and outsides of buildings and insides of shopping centers, the book is mostly about his family and the other people he knew, and this world was entirely unfamiliar to me. Not only because the Korean social world Stephens was part of was an elevated and exclusive one. I was not part of, or even peripheral to, any Korean social world whatever. I had a cello teacher, and once a week went to her house to play for her and then look at her in bafflement as she tried and failed to put some useful instruction into English. Apart from her, I knew no Koreans at all.

Reading a memoir is a little like getting a particularly long and carefully constructed letter. Stephens's was one worth reading, but not one that made me particularly want to write back. I was interested in what he had to say on this subject, and thought he said it skilfully, but there is something unpleasant about his personality that wouldn't be worth bearing were he talking on some other topic.

I probably ought to read a Korean book sometime.
"Please generate an estimate for Mr. B if he chooses to start getting his pension at age 57," S2 said to the computer.

She said it very politely. I wasn't yet a party to the conversation, but I'm quite convinced her tone was pleasant. It always is.

"455*C/E REDETERMINATION ABORTED NORMAL RETIREMENT AGE HAS BECOME NEGATIVE," the computer replied, or something to that effect.

"Hmmm?" S2 asked it. It said the same thing again. She went to fetch me. I followed her to her desk.

"See what it does?" She showed me. It did it again.

"What does that mean?" I wondered. "Well, I don't know what it's doing, but if you lend me the file I'll play with it and see if I can figure anything out," I told S2.

I took the file back to the privacy of my desk. I asked the computer to make an age 57 estimate for Mr. B.


"WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT??" I pinched its nose shut so it had to keep its mouth open and I could peer down its gullet. Somewhere back around the tonsils I saw Mr. B's forfeiture of service in 1986. Oho. I let go its nose and knocked it upside the head. "He forfeited the hours in the 70s, you dolt!" I slapped it again.

It meekly produced the estimate.

I went back to S2's desk. "I think I figured it out," I told her. "You have to check the NO box for Active 1/1/76 in Panel 5."

"Could you, pretty please, make an estimate for Mr. B for age 57?" she said to the computer. "He was away from covered employment for too long in the late 70s and early 80s, so he lost his earlier service, and perhaps we should act as if he was not working under our pension plan in January of 1976."

"Oh," said the computer. "Well, in that case, if he starts taking his pension in September 2007, he should get $432.50 a month."

"Thank you," S2 said, softly.

09 May 2006

The Man Who Smiled and Before the Frost. Henning Mankell. Translated by Laurie Thompson and Ebba Segerberg, respectively.

I finished cleaning my apartment at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, 7 May 2006.

Henning Mankell, were he writing about me, would make sure you knew this. There might be a deadline he'd told you was approaching, but there might not. It might just serve to remind you what a godawful long time it was taking me to do whatever it was I was trying to do.

He'd also want you to know that I hadn't had a coffee since early afternoon, but drank a Hale's Mongoose IPA while I was cleaning. The former highly reportable, the latter somewhat less so. He might tell you that I cooked something later on, but almost certainly wouldn't specify that it was a salad with lime and cumin dressing, and green chicken curry. He'd probably just say that I ate.

I had to stop reading Mankell's Before the Frost to get my cleaning done. The cleaning had needed doing for a very long time, and by Sunday afternoon needed it very badly. If I kept reading, it was going to get too late to make noise vacuuming, and I was going to have another harried week.

So it might appear that Before the Frost was standing between me and nice clean surroundings. I think, though, that the reason I was reading Mankell in the first place, other than that my parents cast him off in my apartment, was that I needed to get my cleaning done.

I don't know if I can explain how this works.

On Saturday, while I was taking a break from reading The Man Who Smiled to run about from bookstore to bookstore looking for some other Mankell books my dad wanted, there was overtime at my office. This used to happen with fair frequency, I'm told, but not lately. It was the first Saturday the department was open since I started working there 20 months ago.

People were kind of excited. "Are you coming in tomorrow?" they went around asking each other, Friday night. They asked me, too.

"I don't know why anyone would come here on a Saturday morning if they didn't have to," I said.

"Well, for $33 an hour--" L1 said. He didn't seem to think the sentence needed finishing. It made me dejected.

I suppose I could have got downcast at the reminder that my current salary works out to something like $18.25 an hour, while most of the bargaining unit employees have been sitting around there long enough to get to the top of the pay scale, where they make $22.25, straight time pay. If I'd had to go to the office Saturday, I wouldn't have got paid anything extra. I was safe this time only because it was just last Monday that P turned me loose to release claims on my own, and I'm not very useful at answering the claims processors' questions yet. But I have the lowering feeling that there will come another overtime Saturday when I'm more competent, and if I don't show up it will be a black mark against my name.

But while I am, sad to say, capable of being peeved that even though I now outrank almost everyone else on night shift, I still get paid less than most of them, what depressed me about his comment was something else.

I looked dispirited, I think. "I don't think I would do it," I told him.

"Well, I have my price," he said. "And it's somewhere around $33 an hour."

L1 has a family, and I don't. He does also have a big new SUV, which I don't. "The car takes a lot of feeding," Voldemort commented.

I guess I don't think gas for a big car is a very good thing to spend money on, but heck, I spend money on a lot of stupid things, too. And I don't really think there's anything too strange about wanting money, and maybe going out of one's way to get some more money to spend on stupid things. L1 may have chosen to imply he's sold his soul, but I don't really think his soul has that much to do with it. More a matter of personal taste in self-indulgence.

Still, I'm struck by the difference in our ideas of how to indulge ourselves, or in what we regard as indispensible: categories logically opposed but emotionally identical, it seems to me.

"I got up, had breakfast, came to the office, ran eight cases," L1 said today. "Made $133. A lot better than staying home doing nothing."

Well, that's just the thing. It is not, how could it be? better than staying at home doing nothing.

I came at last to the conclusion that it all has to do with the sense of time. L1 has learned--maybe from the school system, which was designed for that purpose; maybe from watching TV, which works by replacing its watchers' rhythms with its own; maybe from years working jobs that pay hourly wages--to match his pace to that of the industrialized economy. I was raised by a pair of raving idiosyncrats, who pulled me out of school whenever my complaints seemed to indicate my natural sense of time was being compromised, leaving me to sit for months on end confabulating with my own sense of what I had better do next and how long I had better spend doing it.

They also read a lot, and let me do so.

In Ruined by Reading, Lynne Sharon Schwartz says, "What reading teaches, first and foremost, is how to sit still for long periods and confront time head-on. The dynamism is all inside, an exalted, spiritual exercise so utterly engaging that we forget time and mortality along with all of life's lesser woes, and simply bask in the everlasting present."

Alberto Manguel, too, in his History of Reading, says something about how the time of the book gets mixed up with the time of the reader: "In the long succession of beds in which I spent the nights of my childhood . . . What took place, took place in the book, and I was the story's teller. Life happened because I turned the pages. I don't think I can remember a greater comprehensive joy than that of coming to the few last pages and setting the book down, so that the end would not take place until at least tomorrow, and sinking back into my pillow with the sense of having actually stopped time."

I do think they're on to the essential thing about reading, but I'm not sure they've got it quite right. Or maybe it's just that since they're just different people from me, and live and think and read differently than I do, this essential thing, about the relationship between book time and natural time and societal time, plays out a little differently with me.

I do not think that I forget time, as Schwartz says she does, when I am reading. Nor do I feel I am in control of time, unlike Manguel, who seems not to share my compulsion to race on toward the finish. It seems to me, instead, or besides, that reading requires a sort of simultaneous existence in different kinds of time, so that I am always aware when I am reading that clock time is passing, time with which I might do something else, as for instance make money, or show up at a particular time at a particular place and be allowed in to watch a movie; but also, if I am to really read at all, not just run my eyes over symbols, I must immerse myself in the rhythm of the language and the logical or narrative sequence of the thing that I read. And in this tug-of-war between book time and societal time, they sort of cancel each other out, and give my own internal sense of time, the natural time that has to do with daylight and dark, hunger and its satisfaction, sleeping and waking, a space in which to grow and reassert itself against the school and factory and pension-office time that is always trying to regulate it out of existence.

I came home from work, last Friday evening, and I really very much wanted for my apartment to be less terribly dirty than it was. But, short of the imminent arrival of nitpicky guests, there is no deadline for cleaning. If you don't clean, all that happens is you have to live with dirt longer. And so it was that I turned to Henning Mankell, who told me always what time it was for his characters, which was not what time my clock said it was, nor what time it was at the office the next morning when L1 was there making $33 an hour. By Sunday afternoon, these artificial senses of time--the time of the pension office, which holds me firmly in its grasp all week; the time of the fictional police officers in Sweden--had mixed each other all up and left me free to attend, calmly, to my knowledge that dirt needed moving and food needed finding, and so I moved dirt and found food, and no doubt would have done all manner of other things prompted by a proper unmangled personhood, had Monday not come and sent me back to the office again.

03 May 2006

Too Loud a Solitude. Bohumil Hrabal. Translated by Michael Henry Heim.

According to the cover, the New York Times said this was "a remarkable story about the indestructibility of books and knowledge." I have my doubts about this.

The book's about a man who has spent 35 years in a basement compacting waste paper into bales. He constructs his bales with great care, making sure if he gets any papers with art reproductions on them to put them on the outside where they show nicely, and hiding philosophers within each bale to give it an individual identity. Lots of the good books he finds he takes home, where he doesn't have enough room to store them, so that there are two tons of books precariously balanced above his bed. He drinks a lot of beer.

At the end of the story he is displaced from his job by the hyper-efficient, book-blind, milk-drinking Brigade of Socialist Labor, and after delivering one last rescued book, by Charles Lindbergh, to an airplane enthusiast he knows, he returns to his cellar, climbs into the paper compactor, and pushes the button to compact himself.

The obvious lesson, it seems to me, is that the sort of person who likes books so much he puts himself in danger of being crushed by the weight of tradition will be, if he escapes that fate, destroyed by the forces of efficiency and progress.

It's a great relief to read something like this after all the self-congratulatory memoirs about book reading I've lately consumed. Some of them (e.g., Lynne Sharon Schwartz's Ruined by Reading) start off with a little show of rue, a bit of self-beratement for hopeless addiction to an activity of dubious value, but that never lasts long. A few pages in and they break into a trot, and soon they're galloping toward some version or another of the idea that book readers are somehow better off than, perhaps even morally superior to, normal people.

I keep reading these memoirs, hoping that at last someday there will be one about how reading really destroyed someone's life, but I suppose it's unrealistic to suppose that such a book will be popular enough with readers to find its way into my keeping. In the meantime I will have to content myself with Hrabal.

02 May 2006

Me. Brenda Ueland.

In delayed enactment of an agenda from a couple of years ago I read Ueland's If You Want to Write, and since it seemed to have carried me into the 1930s and I like that kind of transportation, I decided to read Me too. If You Want to Write has a terribly offputting statement printed on the cover: "Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say." It is the title of the first chapter, and is repeated in the second paragraph, and it seemed to bode ill. But oddly enough not only did she convince me to keep reading, I ended up concluding that she was right in most of what she said in the rest of the strange little idiosyncratic book. For one thing, she does not mean that everyone is necessarily a talented and original writer--their talents may very well be better employed elsewhere. Nor does she mean that they are extraordinarily gifted, just that such talent as they have may very well have been obscured by too much discipline in the wrong directions. The book boils down to the idea that people will be better off if they do what they want to do--not what they think they want to do, or think they ought to want to do. She offers lots of engaging demonstrations.

Incidentally, I find it interesting that, of the various excerpts from her students' writing she quotes to illustrate how well they write when they're writing what they themselves really have to say rather than what they think writing should sound like, the only one that seemed to me not to be any good was the humorous one. I didn't find it funny at all. I don't know whether, if a particular kind of humor doesn't age well, it means that it wasn't all that humorous in the first place. Probably not.

Anyway. I think when Ueland wrote Me she was still in the grips of the sort of religious fervor that made her write If You Want to Write; if she believed in following the promptings of the "Divine ego" (while properly ignoring those of the conceited "human" one), how better to demonstrate her newfound philosophy than to write an autobiography? She doesn't appear to have had the usual reasons for writing one. It doesn't really sound like she was famous, though she knew some famous people, and while she was a bohemian Greenwich Village sort at the time when that was new and remarkable and required grit and ingenuity, she never did anything really extraordinary of the kind that would seem to call for an autobiography.

But she wrote it, and that it's still around is I think because she is unusually willing (eager) to display the contents of her mind without much obvious pruning or ornamentation (she uses lots of extracts from her diary), but also conscious of her historical circumstances, so that the narrative she puts together of what she was doing and thinking over the course of several decades lets us see clearly that it was possible to be this person in this place at this time.

This is useful because it is easy, thinking of a distant time and place, to slip into regarding what may have been eccentric but not astonishingly so as being outside the bounds of possibility. But then you have Brenda Ueland in the 1920s deciding she needed a divorce and so she was going to have to work to support her daughter, and running around New York badgering editors into giving her work. (She ended up taking money from her ex-husband and her father, but felt a great failure for doing it.)

Or you might carelessly think of what was normal then somehow not occupying the same space in a person's consciousness as what is normal now. But there is Brenda in 1909 or thereabouts suffering the irritation of a corset digging into her thighs. This sounds like rather more intense a physical suffering than having one's tights creeping down, but like it had much the same effect--a minor but persistent annoyance, to be endured rather than abolished.

That these virtues are not unique to this book makes me think I should more often find books like it to read.