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Posts from the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Seeing the Body: Poems by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Griffiths body

I’d come into the room & try to write
a different ending on those anonymous walls.
There was less time all the time
until time changed. You know what I mean.

In the poem “Belief,” from her new book Seeing the Body (W.W. Norton), Rachel Eliza Griffiths recounts the frustration of trying to write while waiting in the hospital during the time that her mother was dying.

I tried to read & write. Over & over, I
arranged plain little soaps, toothbrush, & comb.

. . . But before I accepted her
dying, which would be true
five months later, I kept trying to write
my mother a strong beginning.

Seeing the Body is a deeply personal book that was born out of the passing of her mother, the grief that followed, and the eventual return to a new normal. “Seeing” is often the operative word in this book.

Two years later in Brooklyn I am getting my eyes
checked. I have good eyes today. But there were
whole years I couldn’t see. . .                                                                               

                                                             from “Name”

But the real challenge for Griffiths comes with fulfilling her responsibility as a writer. At first, there are only “cobwebs of words” as the poet struggles to get past the reality of her mother’s passing. Words may be gossamer thin but in Griffith’s book they have the power to grieve, to love, to hurl anger, to forgive, to build worlds.

I want my web to hold. I want to repair
what I have made. I was not given the golden hive.
In me seethes the silk of invisible worlds.    

         from “Arch of Hysteria, or, The Spider-Mother Becomes a Woman”

Throughout the book, Griffiths talks of having her mother’s presence still with her (“even now she is still making me”). She misses her mother’s cooking. She thinks about family. She thinks about other artists who inspire her, like Louise Bourgeois and Langston Hughes. She writes a poem to Leonard Cohen (“Where are the miracles now, Leonard?”). She seethes as yet another black man (Mike Brown) is killed by the police in America. And then she herself becomes ill.

. . . There I prayed. I hummed.
alone, half-bald. Being born alone again.

I could not trust such sentences of faith or fiction. Instead, I read
menus, trues crimes, prescriptions. Transcribed
simple miracles for my anxiety.

I could not taste life or honey.

But I could bleed.                                                                                                   

                                                               from “Signs”

But for me, the true core of this book comes when Griffiths knows there are times when she can not be silent. When she must speak for more than just herself. Seeing the Body reverberates with moments of outrage. The most powerful example is the poem “My Rapes.”

I promised my mother I would never speak a word
about my rapes. I would never tell the world.
about my power until she was dead. Her eyes sealed &
having a choice now to listen to me or be a ghost
when I am saying the difficult thing
& lived it. . .

“My Rapes” is “a terrible poem for us,”

we outlaw women who have taken off the silence
of our muzzles & armed our small bones with stars,
we who leap from the attics we are burning down.

In the poem, Griffiths writes not only from her own past (“when I tried to tell my mother about the rapes she asked me / what in the world had I been wearing & where had I gone”), but about the students who have come to her with poems about their experiences, the “typed-up evidence” and “the formatted corpse of a memory that won’t lie still.” It’s not so much a poem about rape as it is about the endless pressures to deny rape, to call rape by a lesser name, or, worst of all, to blame the victims. It’s a poem everyone should read.

Griffiths is also a terrific photographer and she includes a section of intriguing self-portraits in the book in a section called “daughter: lyric: landscape.” She writes: “I am looking at a woman whose spirit is both emaciated and exhilarated in the face of monumental loss.” Self-portraiture is a form of automatic self-distancing, a mirroring of the self. But here, by using the word “daughter,” Griffiths implies that she is also looking at herself through her mother’s eyes. She accomplishes the eerie act of displacement by momentarily trading places with the dead in order to look back at her living self.

Griffiths Double Portrait

Seeing the Body is a book that is tender and fearless and timely. Highly recommended.

. . . When some fucked injustice
smiled & shot into the crowd & said
Y’all need to go back from where you came from.
Well, we stayed and lived.                                                                         

                                                             from “Paradise”

Watch Rachel Eliza Griffiths read several poems from this book on YouTube, courtesy of Poets House.

The Scorpion

Memmi Scorpion

I was midway through Albert Memmi’s novel The Scorpion; or The Imaginary Confession (NY: Grossman, 1971) when I saw in the New York Times that the Tunisian-French writer had died. I first became intrigued with The Scorpion when I saw that it included seven photographs. As far as I am aware, this made it one of the first European novels to have photographs as an integral part of the text after a gap of almost twenty-five years, since André Breton’s Nadja came out in 1945. I wonder what prompted Memmi to take the then radical idea of including images in his novel? He even went so far as to propose that the different “voices” in his book be printed in different colors, but the publisher refused, saying the cost would be prohibitive. Instead, the publisher used different typefaces within the book. In his Washington Post obituary of Memmi, Matt Schudel correctly pointed out that “Memmi’s technique in The Scorpion pointed towards the fiction of W.G. Sebald and later writers by incorporating commentary, invented memoirs and diaries,” not to mention images.

The narrator of The Scorpion (which was translated from the 1969 French original by Eleanor Levieux), is Marcel, who is a Tunisian ophthalmologist. His brother Imilio has disappeared and he is trying to intuit his brother’s state of mind by investigating a drawer full of texts and images that Imilio, a writer, has left behind. The plotless novel is essentially a set of philosophical arguments about life, loyalty, and colonialism. (Tunisia was just gaining independence from France as the events in the novel take place). As Marcel reads Imilio’s stories and bits of memoir, he can’t help but argue with his brother, both factually and philosophically. And as the novel progresses, the ideas of two other men are also introduced: an Uncle Makhlouf and a certain J.H. (for Jeune Homme or young man), a former student of Imilio’s. J.H. is a young idealist, unwilling to compromise. Imilio’s accounts of his weekly meetings with J.H. show that their conversations had been growing more argumentative with each session as the two men hardened into opposing positions. One day, Imilio learns that J.H. has committed suicide and Marcel can’t help but wonder if this is this the cause of his brother’s disappearance. The title of the book is a reference to the popular notion that a scorpion, when cornered, will sting itself.

At times, The Scorpion can feel like a relic of the Existentialist period, when men argued about big ideas, women were relegated to minor roles, and one could still believe in absolutes. Just before the J. H. kills himself, he declares “Either literature is an exploration of limits or it is no more important than the art of arranging flowers.” As Isaac Yetiv has suggested in an article, J.H. might remind the reader of an impatient, radical version of the young Marcel himself. But these kinds of absolutist positions no longer sit well with Marcel, who has become increasingly disillusioned as he ages. As an ophthalmologist, Marcel is acutely aware of the limits of human perception and, therefore, he’s convinced we’ll never fully understand our own existential circumstances.

Now, how much of [the spectrum] do we manage to take in? Hardly anything—between four thousand and seven thousand angstrom units. Ah, our perception of the world is terribly limited! . . . In all events, a mystery of some sort envelops us, no doubt about it, even if that’s a word I don’t like to use. Let’s say I hesitate between two ways of putting it: “I don’t know, but I know there’s an explanation,” and “There’s an explanation, but we’ll never know what it is.”

The majority of the seven photographs in the book seem to do little more than illustrate, albeit somewhat indirectly, specific passages in the book, although one photograph seems to suggest the reader’s experience with Memmi’s book.

Memmi 1

We explored the labyrinth of rooms, nooks, stairways, and garrets constantly without ever exhausting its resources.

The events in The Scorpion take place around 1956, at the moment when Tunisia was separating from France. From the beginning, Marcel senses the oppressiveness of the native government that is about to take over from the French and that will eventually become one of the most corrupt regimes in the area. It wasn’t until in 2011 and the protests that began the Arab Spring, that this regime in Tunisia was finally brought down.

Albert Memmi seemed to have been the quintessential outsider. He was born in 1920 in Tunisia of Jewish and Arab heritage, but emigrated to France after Tunisia’s independence. “I am Tunisian, but Jewish, which means that I am politically and socially an outcast … I am a Jew who has broken with the Jewish religion and the ghetto, is ignorant of Jewish culture … a Jew in an antisemitic universe, an African in a world dominated by Europe.”

 

Recently Read: Writing Slantwise

Tell all the truth but tell it slant
Emily Dickinson

Two terrific books that I recently read both approached their subjects slantwise, or indirectly. They did so in ways that strengthened their messages and kept this reader more engaged. The two books are Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life by Brigitte Benkemoun (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2020) and Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020) by Francesca Wade.

Finding Dora Maar

Finding Dora Maar (which was translated from the French by Jody Gladding) has a remarkable backstory. Benkemoun set out to find a replacement vintage Hermes address book for her husband after he lost his. She bought one on eBay for seventy euros and when it arrived she found that it still had a twenty-page index of telephone numbers from a previous owner tucked inside one of its pockets. Flipping through the pages, she immediately recognized that some of the names were famous, names like Jean Cocteau, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Balthus, and Brassaï. In fact, the address book was full of the names, addresses and phone numbers for key figures in the Parisian art and literary world of the 1920s and 1930s! So whose vintage address book had she just purchased? With a bit of reverse engineering, Benkemoun finally figured out that it belonged to Dora Maar (1907-1997), a painter and photographer. But perhaps more famously, Maar was the lover of Pablo Picasso from the late 1930s through about 1943 and the subject of scores of his paintings and prints. Read more

John Hawkes Goes West

hawkes beetle

For his second novel, The Beetle Leg (New Directions, 1951), John Hawkes took the restless, chaotic energy from the war-torn Germany of The Cannibal and transferred it to the American West. In his early years, he seems to have needed a “lawless country” in order to let his novel run free from the constraints of “plot, character, setting, and theme,” which he once labelled as the “true enemies of the novel.” And The Beetle Leg surely demonstrates his early commitment to this premise. The novel has no plot, although there are several elements that give the frustrating appearance of plot points. There are a handful of characters—a Sheriff (of course), a Mandan Native American, a bad ass gang of motor cyclists called the Red Devils, and a few others—but none of them really have any defining characteristics.

But what The Beetle Leg does have in spades, however, is setting. In one sense, the Western landscape might be the central character in the book. A dam collapsed years ago,  killing a man and leaving him buried in a “sarcophagus of mud.” And it is the hill and the body that remains afterward around which most of the novel is built. “The mile long knoll of his grave mound was an incomplete mountain, a pile of new earth erupted between the bluffs, a patch, a lighter hue of brown, across the river road.” Read more

History as Amnesia: Adam Scovell’s “How Pale the Winter Has Made Us”

How_Pale_sales_cover

‘… I am a voluntary exile, a wanderer by design, unwise with a purpose, everywhere a stranger and everywhere at home, letting my life run its course where it will, rather than trying to guide it, since, in any case, I don’t know where it will lead me.’
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey

How often is the main character of a novel a city and not a person? In Adam Scovell’s new novel How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, the first thing we see (after the epigraph from Goethe quoted above) is a reproduction of a 19th century photographic postcard of the cathedral of Strasbourg, France towering over the roofs and chimneys of the city. Isabelle, our narrator, who is staying in Strasbourg while on break from her university, has just learned that her father has committed suicide back in London. She is living at her partner’s apartment while he is conveniently on business in South America. Stunned by the death of her father, a failed painter, and at war with her “harridan mother,” Isabelle contemplates extending her stay in Strasbourg indefinitely. The idea comes to her “to stay in the city, and in some sense map it.”

And so it is that Isabelle spends the winter alone in Strasbourg, exploring its streets and its history. As a scholar, perhaps it’s natural that she pours herself into research as a way of dealing with the mixture of grief and guilt she feels over her father’s death and her failure to return home to help her mother deal with the estate. Isabelle wanders, sits in coffee shops, and examines antiques. Eventually, a sense of melancholy settles in as Isabelle begins, in a strange way, to enjoy her isolation and loneliness, as she explores the lives of some of the intriguing citizens of Strasbourg’s history, several of whom Scovell has conveniently invented. Read more

The House That Jack Built: John Hawkes’s The Cannibal

Hawkes Cannibal

When I was young and the traveling fair came around every spring, they sometimes brought with them a funhouse called The House That Jack Built, meant to suggest a structure built by a crazed architect. Inside was a mildly scary maze that consisted of floors that were uneven or that would suddenly go soft on you, mirrors and optical illusions, horrible noises, paths with misdirections and dead ends, and other tactics meant to make the space the size of a mobile home feel as spacious as a mansion.

I was reminded of that as I read John Hawkes’s first novel The Cannibal (New Directions, 1949). The book begins and ends in 1945, during the final days of World War II, diverting with a middle section that takes us back to 1914 and the onset of the previous World War. In 1945, the Americans are sweeping across Germany in the final days of the war. We are in a bombed-out town called Spitzen-on-the Dein, a landscape of buildings that are tilting or half falling down, the streets littered with abandoned carts and bomb craters. The opening scene is the empty insane asylum, which sits on a hill surrounded by charred earth, fields with dead cows, and stunted trees. The omniscient narrator, Herr Zizendorf, is the Editor of the wonderfully named local paper, the Crooked Zeitung. Zizendorf is a reluctant narrator who doesn’t bother to announce his presence or use the pronoun “I” until page 32. He prefers to stay in the background most of the time, until the end of the book when he reveals that he is the ringleader of the final event.

We are slowly introduced to an odd cast of characters: Madame Stella Snow, Jutta, the Census-Taker, The Duke (a tank commander in the previous World War), Herr Stintz, a tuba-playing school teacher, and a handful of others. Relationships and chronology are often ambiguous. But the writing is lush, thrilling.

The Mayor, with his faded red sash, was too blind to tend to the chronicles of history, and went hungry like the rest with memory obliterated from his doorstep. Their powerful horses of boney Belgian stock, dull-eyed monsters of old force, had been commandeered from the acre farms for ammunition trucks, and all were gone but one grey beast who cropped up and down the stone streets, unowned, nuzzling the gutters. He frightened the Mayor on black nights and trampled, unshod, in the bar garden, growing thinner each day. Children took rides on the horse’s tail and roamed in small bands, wearing pasteboard Teutonic helmets, over the small confines of the town. The undertaker had no more fluid for his corpses; the town nurse grew old and fat on no food at all. By mistake, some drank from poisoned wells.

This is writing I would follow anywhere. Read more

The “Impersonal Autobiography” of Annie Ernaux

ernaux years

 

Annie Ernaux’s The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019, translated by Alison L. Strayer), which launched the concept of “collective autobiography,” vacillates between two very distinct forms of narrative. First published in France as Les Annees in 2008, the premise is that an unlikely pair of narratives can work together dialectically to construct a more complex self-portrait of the author. In one strand, Ernaux provides a history of post-war France as seen through her own subjective experiences and her very personal lens. These portions are written in first person plural, in ‘we.’ The second, alternating narrative is that of her own story as she grows up, except that Ernaux turns the ‘I’ of autobiography into the ‘she’ of biography. Ernaux treats the memories she has of herself as if they were the observations of another. Needless to say, the reader has to do a bit of recalibrating to bring the “we” and the “she” narratives into a singular story, but trust me, it works. Read more

Ghostland

Ghostland Parnell

Edward Parnell’s Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country is a highly personal exploration of the idea of “haunted” in literature and film. It’s also a bit of travel guide, a dash of history, and a family memoir. But as in so many things, it’s the blending that counts and Parnell is an expert bartender. I don’t think he ever uses the word but I felt as if he were trying to demonstrate how various terroirs affect the ghost stories and the strange folk lore that then show up in the fiction and cinema that he has loved since childhood. To do this, he guides us through large swaths of Great Britain in search of the sites depicted in these books and films. As we ride next to and walk alongside the thirty-something Parnell, making pilgrimages to locations where, for example, The Wicker Man was filmed or where some of the tales of Algernon Blackwood were set, we also learn bits and pieces of Parnell’s own life, how he came to love these kinds of books and films, of the difficult deaths of his parents, and the shock when he learns his own brother has a lymphoma that will eventually kill him, too.

Parnell is not an academic and he makes no claim to be covering an entire field, although he writes about scores of nineteenth and twentieth century writers and filmmakers. Some of their names might be familiar, like Walter De La Mare, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Machen, or F.W. Murnau. But Parnell enthusiastically introduces us to names that have, for the most part, become forgotten and lost, names like M.R. James, Lawrence Gordon Clark, L.P. Hartley, Susan Cooper, and Alan Garner. Moreover, Parnell made me want to pursue some of their books and films as well.

Parnell is also a natural tour guide. I would accompany him on a road-trip anywhere. It seemed like he covered the breadth of England from East Anglia to Penzance, from Southampton to the Lake District, with even a dip into Wales for good measure. As an American, I was lost most of the time (there’s no map in the book). But it didn’t matter. I was caught up in the endless charm of English place names like Deeping High Bank, Crowland, Tyne and Wear, Lakenheath, Mow Cap, and Llanymawddwy. I should also mention, for those who care, that he’s quite the bird watcher.

Parnell is most wonderful writing about the Fens, “the unnerving flat landscape of my youth.”

I used to love the anticipation before you ran up the grassy bank: would the tide be in so that you’d feel yourself standing at the seaside, or would you be confronted with a green-and-brown expanse of mud and saltmarsh, the distant water barely visible at the edge of your vision? In the summer the landscape seemed kinder, its harsh edges softened by the pale blooms of cow parsley that grew rampantly along the dykes. My granddad called it “kek”, and one of his sluice-keeping tasks would be to burn it off and the other weeds that would clog the drainage ditches later in the season; in his eighties and early nineties, when I drove him around his old stamping ground, he would wistfully point out tinder-dry stands of dyke-side grasses he’d like to put a match to.

The book’s epigraph comes, appropriately, from W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.” As a bonus for us Sebald readers, there are some genuine gifts tucked away inside Ghostland. The first occurs during a trip to Suffolk, when he visits Somerleyton Hall, which plays a prominent role in The Rings of Saturn. Parnell takes the official guided tour of the Victorian mansion, asks pointed questions of his tour guide, and snoops around the grounds, all with a mind to tell us how much of Sebald’s description of Somerleyton is factual. The second gift occurs when Parnell discovers that his friend owns the house where Sebald lived when he first came to Norfolk to teach at the University of East Anglia in 1970. Sebald eventually used that very house as the setting for where Dr. Henry Selwyn and his wife lived, in the first story in The Emigrants. As Parnell and his friend talk, she explains that the Selwyns were largely based on her father-in-law and mother-in-law, and she describes some of the transformations that Sebald made with their characters. All of which makes for some fascinating stuff for Sebald readers.

I count it as a blessing that Parnell never truly defines what he means by “haunted” because it lets him roam rather freely. Several times he shifts to the more expansive word “unsettling” and that allows him to not only bring Sebald underneath his umbrella, but it lets him write about such things as Graham Swift’s novel Waterland and the filmmaker Derek Jarman, just to name two examples.

Ghostland took me by surprise. I tend to avoid anything that deals with the haunted or the Gothic or with fairy tales. But a friend recommended the book and I am glad I trusted him. Ghostland, which is filled with Sebald-like photographs and film stills, was published by the William Collins imprint of HarperCollins, London, in 2019.

Homesick

Croft Homesick

“This book is a work of creative nonfiction. Names, identifying details, and places have been changed.” So reads part of the copyright page of Homesick: A Memoir, the recent book by Jennifer Croft, the widely known translator of 2019 Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights and numerous other books from Polish, Ukrainian, and Spanish. Homesick tells of the lives of Amy and Zoe, sisters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the span of about two decades.

In addition to the fact that the main character is not named Jennifer Croft, her “memoir” lets you know right away it is going to be an unusual work of “creative nonfiction.” The book begins with a pair of epilogues on photography by well-known photographers that are immediately followed by a color photograph of a bridge upon which parts of a phrase or sentence have been written in bright red marker, then four more color photographs, each of which are accompanied by a single sentence that forms a prologue in which the narrator recalls teaching her younger sibling to speak. This book—or so that scribbled-on photo seems to suggest—wants to be the bridge across which the two languages of words and images will cross as equals.

Croft Pont des Arts

The two epilogues are curious in themselves, suggesting that we are holding a book in which secrecy is going to prevail over revelation.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: “We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again.”

Diane Arbus: “A picture is a secret about a secret. The more it tells the less you know.”

If this is Croft’s own memoir (and it sure looks that way), she tells the story in fairly distant third person, with only minimal omniscience into the mind of Amy, who would be her stand-in. Amy and Zoe build a close relationship, often around shared secrets, as they grow up in a slightly dysfunctional family that is forced to face a series of challenges. The first challenge is the concussion Zoe receives as a preschooler while playing with her grandfather, which will have lifelong, frightening consequences for her. The second is the suicide of Sasha, Amy’s Russian tutor, and Amy’s sense of guilt that something she did might have contributed to his decision. The third is Amy’s own suicide attempt at college. Each of these three events happen mostly, if not completely, out of our sight, as if the narrator is still not ready to deal with these issues. Here is the narrator describing how fifteen-year old Amy learns from her mother about the suicide of Sasha, on whom she had a huge crush.

She tells her. Amy says oh the way she’d say it to someone she didn’t know, like she means to say okay but forgot to finish.

Then their mother tries to give her a hug, but now Amy recoils, eyes bulging, blood cold. Their mother tries again. Amy pushes her away, hard as she can. Their mother staggers back, and for one split second, she doesn’t seem to know what she should do. Amy stares and backs away.

Amy runs out of the house and stays away until late in the night. We don’t learn until six pages later what Amy has been told—that Sasha has shot himself. Croft’s sparse narrative and minimal commentary makes these tragic moments somehow all the more shocking. Throughout Homesick a number of disturbing events are quietly mentioned almost in passing and I found myself stopping to reread the brief part about the young boy who killed himself at summer camp or the crazy neighbor who shot his family then climbed into the tree in the backyard before he killed himself or the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City or the uncle who raped and tried to murder his girlfriend or. . .

What keeps Amy afloat, beside her love for her sister, are her language studies and her photography. Early on she discovers an affinity for foreign languages, especially Russian. “Each time a Russian word meets an English word it generates a spark.” When she is just twelve, her parents recruit the handsome Sasha (who is probably a college student) to be her tutor. Here is Amy studying one of her Russian language textbooks:

The final chapter is titled What We Need for the Table. It teaches the dative singular and the ordinal numerals. . . .The sub-chapters in the final chapter of the first-year textbook are Buying Groceries; Age; Expressing Fondness, Need, Uncertainty, and Desire; and Time by the Clock. Amy finds it impossible not to say something incriminating when she tries to use the dative singular in expressions of fondness, need, uncertainty, and desire, so in her homework, she focuses on food.

At fifteen, Amy becomes the youngest student ever to enroll in the Tulsa University. After she graduates she moves to Europe and by the end of the book “she has just won the world’s largest translation prize.” But she has now failed to keep in touch with her sister for years.

As young children, both Amy and Zoe had taken photographs with the family’s Polaroid camera. Amy eventually graduated to her own camera and took up photography seriously. But one day, living in Europe, she lays out rows and rows of the photographs she has made over the years—landscapes, animals, flowers, and more—and decides “first, that every picture she has every taken has been a portrait, and, second, that every portrait is a portrait of Zoe.” “What she wants—what she’s always wanted—is to capture and to fix forever the presence of her sister, to contain her, to never let her go, or break, or even change.” She phones her sister and soon Zoe joins her in Paris for a reunion.

The book’s secretiveness carries through to the very end of Homesick. The final brief chapter has the heading “The last portrait Amy takes of her sister is a picture of some hot pink letters on the thick transparent railing of the Ponts des Arts.” I’m not sure how to interpret “the last portrait.” Is Zoe now dead and is this book her memorial? Or does that simply indicate the Paris reunion was the cut-off date for the memoir? Homesick feels exceptionally personal, private, and I felt like a trespasser at times, wanting to ask questions that suddenly seemed too intimate (but that really weren’t).

It is through the book’s photographs and their accompanying texts that Croft allows the adult Amy to directly address her sister. What Croft does is add text beneath most of her images, texts that are written in Amy’s voice and sometimes speak directly to her sister about their relationship, but occasionally reflect on language, the original meaning of certain words, and on translation. But even then, I suspect, they reflect back on her relationship with Zoe.

Screen Croft 2

Words are worlds, with capacities enough for polar opposites, like left, meaning remaining and departed, or oversight, both supervision and failure to see.

In the long history of novels that add photographs into their “text,” the photographs remain secondary citizens 99% of the time. I can think of only a handful of novels in which the photographs are given parity with the text in any meaningful way—as Croft does in Homesick—and they nearly always occur when the writer also thinks of himself or herself as equally a photographer: Wright Morris and Quintan Ana Wikswo come immediately to mind. Croft’s book contains family photographs (credited to herself and her mother), as well as numerous color and black-and-white photographs that she took of her sister, of still lifes, on her travels. The relationship between the images and text pairings is never obvious. At times I would intuit a connection but usually I found I couldn’t prove it existed.

Homesick, published this year by The Unnamed Press in Los Angeles, is a remarkable book for the unique way in which Croft manages to make text and photography work through and around each other as equals. It’s a memoir that is as much about privacy and shared secrets as it is about revelation. And in this age of rampant self-exposure, this seems strangely welcome.

 

 

 

Sergio Chejfec’s The Incompletes

Incompletes

It’s the most innocent of beginnings: “Now I am going to tell the story of something that happened one night, years ago, and the events of the morning and afternoon that followed.” The nameless narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s The Incompletes (Open Letter, 2019) begins to tell us what happened on a pier in Buenos Aires when he saw his friend Felix off on a voyage decades earlier. But scarcely three pages elapse before the narrator digresses and begins to relate the strange tales contained in the postcards and letters that Felix has written him during the many years of his restless travels.

The Incompletes is Chejfec’s fifth novel to be translated into English and its my favorite so far. His narrator spends most of the book telling us about Felix’s strange experiences in Moscow and his interactions with a woman named Masha. But on nearly every page the reader is confronted with the fact that the narrator knows far too much. Like a magician who produces a live elephant from his top hat, Chejfec’s narrator not only recounts the details of Felix’s daily life and exposes us to his Felix’s innermost thoughts, he can also somehow account for the independent meanderings and thoughts of Masha. She manages the Hotel Salgado, where Felix stays in Moscow, a hotel which “innocently offered the traveler protection and shelter, though with the implicit warning that under certain conditions their haven might become a living hell.”

A hotel in a foreign land. Felix could imagine himself living a borrowed life there as he could almost nowhere else; a life that was decidedly his, but whose details . . . could easily have been assigned to another; all it would have taken was the smallest difference, being just a few minutes too early or too late, to dispel the sequence of actions that had delivered him to where he was.

 

hands-of-the-puppeteer-1929-tina-modotti

Throughout The Incompletes, Felix is constantly aware of the contingency of his life. His own particular story, perhaps his every action, seems dependent on chance or on something outside his control. At this point, of course, the reader is reminded that Felix is but a character in a novel whose exploits are being narrated (or imagined) by a narrator who has been created by a writer named Sergio Chejfec. Chejfec’s novel is filled with references to the theater and the implication that Felix is only an actor on a stage, but perhaps the most telling clue is the mysterious photograph that hangs in Felix’s room in the Hotel Salgado of “two arms extended downward.” Felix finally discerns that there are strings wrapped around the arms, indicating that these are the forearms of a puppeteer who is manipulating “two marionettes that do not appear in the image.” (Are these marionettes Felix and Masha?)

And then there is the strange nature of space itself. “The Hotel Salgado had an accessible form that unfolded the deeper inside you went. A guest’s first impression would be that the place was too big, and that its size translated into an unusual complexity.” Both Felix and Masha experience the Hotel as if its space is entirely pliable. “Just as Felix had observed that the Hotel Salgado was disproportionately large relative to its front door, the lights he could see from his room seemed too faint . . . This gave him the sense that it was his perception that was maladjusted.” For Masha, the Hotel is “a gallery of irresolvable spatial vagaries . . . As soon as one stepped into a space, its shape and dimensions changed spontaneously.” Perceptions, memories, and fiction bleed into one another throughout The Incompletes, as if they are interchangeable.

Mysteries and clues abound in The Incompletes, but there are no answers, only dead end and new mysteries. After puzzling at length over a strange note left in his hotel room, Felix finally decides “that no matter how much he might want to, or how much effort he might put into finding some concrete trace of meaning, he will eventually need to acknowledge that, as usual, little is to be gleaned from things only partially seen.” The clue had gone from “a secret to a warning, from a confession, to a joke.” And yet, Felix travels on, still searching.

Ω

The Incompletes is also a book about the notion of fiction itself. One day, on a “fake floor” in the hotel that she had never seen before, Masha discovers a hidden room where she finds a bundle of money and a book underneath a mattress. The book’s cover depicts a woman holding a very large flag. “To be interesting or real, Masha thought, the book should be about her . . . She wanted to be the hero . . . ” Masha has never read a novel but she is “in the grip of a primal fear, the way someone might fear the dark or the sea, grounded solely in the impossible idea of turning into a fictional character.” Felix, too, thinks of Masha as a fictional character at one point:

Felix thought that if he had the chance to work on a novel . . . Masha would occupy the vacillating space of the incompletes—mysterious and cyclical people exiled to their lunar world. He imagined her as a fragile being, exposed to the elements and too partial, almost hindered for some unknown reason, to expose herself to fiction without risk. Despite this, she never left the fictions she encountered, and into which she immersed herself just as she was. This demanded Masha perform a labor of displacement; if she existed in real life an an incomplete, in the invented life, the one that was read, she attained a balanced symmetry. It’s not that she was different from one place to another, but rather that the two worlds sought to complement one another, which gave her comfort.

The narrator sees both Felix and Masha as two-dimensional people “without psychology, contradictions, or even subjectivity.” It seems to him that they behave in “a limited way” and that “something was being withheld from both of them.” They remind him of the way in which fictional characters “sometimes become hostages of the space they inhabit.”

The big question for the reader is: Who and what are “the incompletes”? The answer seems to be: all of us. Chejfec’s narrator tells us that circumstances have led him to have “the most pessimistic state of mind.” (140) “People,” he tells us, “were hobbled from the outset; a decisive emptiness fettered each and every mortal.”

In the perpetual end of the road that is the present, unrelenting madness and eternal cruelty emerged as proof of humanity’s wild ambition. Faced with such a somber and irremediable panorama, I thought, the only alternative would be to trust in artificial beings. I didn’t expect them to provide some kind of justice or correct any wrongdoings, I simply imagined them as an alternative, a way of announcing that another world, also incomplete, would have been possible and that this other world—insofar as it presented itself as a corrective to the so-called real one, or as its complement and commentary—was infinitely more fair.

The kind of “artificial being” that the narrator has in mind is is toy figurine that Felix found half-buried in the soil one day. It is “the only complete being” and it “represent[s] everything people have not managed to be in the world as it stands.” The rugged, mangled figurine, which has already lost an arm, is related to, the narrator suggests, “the precarious or clandestine lives of the persecuted, who at the end of their lives are also the most forgotten: the poor migrant, the ostracized, the segregated.”

As you might be able to tell from my radically abbreviated synopsis of this short but still very complex book, reading The Incompletes is a wondrous, if puzzling experience. Wondrous, because Chejfec is using his restless, deeply philosophical imagination to try to get at the heart of the human condition. There are moments when it feels as if Chejfec is attempting to place the reader at the center of an orrery, one of those elaborate mechanical clockwork universes, so that we might look around and suddenly say “Ah, I get it now, I see how the universe ticks!” Puzzling, because what he is pursuing is eternally elusive and indescribable. Chejfec doesn’t worry if his story ultimately contradicts itself or leaves the reader momentarily lost in the thickets. I don’t know how many times I have read parts of The Incompletes, but I can’t claim to understand his idea of “artificial beings.” But I don’t really care. Reading Chejfec is magical.

In a 2011 interview over at Guernica, Chejfec said:

there is a necessary tension between the determinacy and indeterminacy, the definite and the indefinite, of possibility. And at one point I felt a tension between objects, their real, physical lives, and the idea of meaning: the physical, material reality of a book, and the totally intangible experience of reading it. A word, and all the infinite fluctuations it may possess. Like that moment when you know you have something to say, and you know you’re speaking, even, but you still have no idea how you will say it. Or the moment when, as a reader, you’re reading, and you are understanding what you are reading, but still have utterly no idea what will come next for you, what precisely the author wants to say. For me, that is the ultimate level of literary depth, of literary density.

The Incompletes was published this month by the invaluable publisher of translations Open Letter and was translated from the Spanish original Los Incompletos of 2004 by Heather Cleary. She has previously translated his novels The Planets and The Dark. I’ve written about Sergio Chejfec’s previous four novels here and here. It’s hard to assess Chejfec as a writer since only five of his more than twenty books have been translated into English and those five represent works that were originally published in Argentina between 1999 and 2008. Regrettably, none of his eight books after 2008 have been translated.

Photograph: Tina Modotti, Hands of the Puppeteer, 1929.