Author's Note:

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Raised From the Ground - by Jose Saramago

   Yesterday I finished Jose Saramago's "Raised From the Ground."  This book, although the subject matter is not new to me, is quasi-experimental in form and extremely moving in its nature.  I am often drawn to the suffering of the common man/woman at the hands of the bourgeoisie landowners, the Church in cahoots with a ruthless clone of General Franco or Adolf Hitler; because I live in hope.
  This is a story of Salazar's Portugal, not of Salazar himself, but of the latifundio (Spanish translation=large estate), the hot fields and dry hills, between the 1930s and the 1960s, and of the poor men and women who worked it and lived on it--barely. It is also about the cruel dragons who were Salazar's guards, torturers, soldiers, financial supporters, and ass-kissers who were pledged to defeat, to crush the hearts and minds of the Portuguese people.
  Below are some excerpts from the book, revealing Saramago's literary power and lyric pathos.

[Raised From the Ground, by Jose Saramago, Lisbon: Editorial Caminho, 1980.  English translation by Margaret Jull Costa, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012.]

"That’s a good worker for you, one who, when he gets whipped, will show off his raw welts, and if they’re bleeding, all the better, ...Ah, you people preserved in the grease or honey of ignorance, you have never lacked for exploiters. So work, work yourself to death, yes, die if necessary, that way you’ll be remembered by the foremen and the boss, but woe betide you if you get a reputation for being an idler, no one will ever love you then."

"Mend your ways while there’s still time, and swear that you’ve taken twenty beatings, crucify yourself, hold out your arm to be bled, open your veins and say, This is my blood, drink it, this is my body, eat is, this is my life, take it, along with the church’s blessing, the salute to the flag, the march past, the handing over of credentials, the awarding of a university diploma, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

" hear someone say, and you feel as if you were not of this world, carrying a load like that, have pity on me, help me, comrades, if we all carried it together it would be so much easier, but that’s not possible, it’s a matter of honor, you would never again speak to the man who helped you, that is how deceived you are.  You deposit the trunk in precisely the right place, a huge achievement, and your comrades all cheer, you’re no longer the last in the race, and the foreman says gravely, Well done, man."  

"The man fell and the others dragged him to his feet again, shouting at him, asking two different questions at the same time, how could he possibly answer them even if he wanted to, which is not the case, because the man who fell and was dragged to his feet will die without saying a word.  ...and in the silence of his soul only deep sighs, and even when his teeth are broken and he has to spit them out, which will prompt the other two men to hit him again for soiling State property, even then the sound will be of spitting and nothing more, that unconscious reflex of the lips, and then the dribble of saliva thickened with blood that falls to the floor, thus stimulating the taste buds of the ants, who telegraph from one to the other news of this singularly red manna fallen from such a white heaven."

"...meanwhile they have joined forces and pieced together what they saw, they know the whole truth, even the larger of the ants, who was the last to see the man’s face close up, like a vast landscape, and it’s a well-known fact that landscapes die because they are killed, not because they commit suicide."

"...don’t worry, they won’t harm you, but you never know, one day your conscience might make a cuckold of you, and that would be your salvation."

"...these men are not really going to sleep here, if they do lie down on the bed, they will do so simply in order not to die, and now is perhaps the moment to speak about pay and conditions they’re paid so much a day for a week...."

"This may seem complicated, but it couldn’t be simpler.  For a whole week, Manuel and Antonio will scythe all day and all night, and you need to understand exactly what this means, when they are utterly exhausted after a whole day of work, they will go back to the hut for something to eat and then return to the field and spend all night scything, not picking poppies, and when the sun rises, they will again go back to the hut to eat something, lie down for perhaps ten minutes, snoring like bellows, then get up, work all day, eat whatever there is to eat and again work all night, we know no one is going to believe us, these can’t be men, but they are, if they were animals they would have dropped down dead, only three days have passed, and the two men are like two ghosts standing alone in the moonlight in the half-harvested field, Do you think we’ll make it,"

"We have to, and meanwhile Gracinda, heavily pregnant, is weeding in the rice field, and when she can’t weed, she goes to fetch water, and when she can’t fetch water, she cooks food for the men, and when she can’t cook, she goes back to the weeding, her belly on  a level with the water, her son will be born a frog."

Jose Saramago (1922-2010)

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Back in January of this year, I wrote about Pico Iyer's book-essay The Art of Stillness: "This reflective and interesting book-length essay helps to remind us of the importance of reducing stress through stillness.
It's about journeying sometimes nowhere. I liked it and agree with its premise."

I had no idea what a connection to other writers this would lead me.  My friend Joe Savino found for me at the Santa Monica Library A Time to Keep Silence (1957) by Patrick Leigh Fermor, with an Introduction by Karen Armstrong (A History of God).  [Fermor you will recall is a favorite of mine.]  I didn't know this existed.  But as usual, Joe finds these treasures and leaves them for me in the quiet desolation of my room, books on every wall jittery like bats, squeaking "read me, my God, please read me."

Fermor's very short book, which I am now embarking upon, is incredibly beautiful, as is Karen Armstrong's intro. It is about his stay at a handful of particular places of contemplation:
Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle, France
The Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle in Northern France; and the monasteries of Solesmes, La Grande Trappe, and Cappadocia.

But let me give you a sample of Fermor's own author's intro, which I read to Joe and Theresa just a couple of nights ago because I couldn't contain myself.  He's writing about the ruined abbeys and monasteries he's visited aside from the two in which he stayed (the point of the book):
St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, France

We know, too, the miserable and wanton story of their destruction and their dereliction, and have only to close our eyes for a second for the imagination to rebuild the towers and the pinnacles and summon to our ears the quiet rumour of monkish activity and the sound of bells melted long ago.  They emerge in the fields like peaks of a vanished Atlantis drowned four centuries deep.  The gutted cloisters stand uselessly among the furrows and only broken pillars mark the former symmetry of the aisles and ambulatories.  Surrounded by elder-flower, with their bases entangled in bracken and blackberry and bridged at their summits with arches and broken spandrels that fly spinning over the tree-tops in slender trajectories, the clustering pillars suspend the great empty circumference of a rose-window in the rook-haunted sky.  It is as though some tremendous Gregorian chant had been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified at its climax ever since."
Abbey La Grande Trappe, France

I mean, really, it took my breath away.  "...rook-haunted sky" so very Yeats, and the alliteration of "bracken and blackberry and bridged at their summits" it is beautiful; he's describing the hunched over arches and half-transcepts of abbeys burned out and blown apart as petrified chants hanging in mid-air from centuries ago.

 Can it get better than this except only in Proust, Dostoyevsky, Powys, and maybe Olive Schreiner or Patrick White?  I don't know.  It's so little to go on.  I'll let you know after I've finished the book.

Rock monasteries at Cappadocia, Central Anatolia, Turkey

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A little bit of Fermor in the night.  It works wonders for the soul, for the hungry, wandering internal monologue or dialogue that you might feel is lacking.  A little bit of Patrick Leigh Fermor, from his travelogue, Between the Woods and the Water (1986).  This book is about his on-foot trek across Europe in 1934 [specifically Hungary and Rumania].  (Three books actually chronicle the journey, this is the second one.)  The piece I've selected below is from the first major section when the young man Fermor is still in Hungary.

"On the fringe of allegory, dimly perceived through legendary mist and the dust of chronicles, these strangers have an outsize quality about them; something of giants and something of ogres, Goyaesque beings towering like a Panic amid the swarms that follow one after the other across this wilderness and vanish.  No historical detail can breathe much life into the Gepids, kinsmen of the Goths who had left the Baltic and settled the region in Roman times; and the Lombards only begin to seem real when they move into Italy.
The Gepids, an East Germanic tribe

Otherwise, all assailants came from the East, with the Huns as their dread vanguard.  Radiating from the Great Plain, sacking and enslaving half Europe, they made the whole Roman Empire tremble.  Paris was saved by a miracle and they were only halted and headed backwards near the Marne.  

The river Tisza
When Attila died in reckless bridebed after a heavy banquet somewhere close to the Tisza and perhaps not many miles from my present path, the Huns galloped round and round his burial tent in a stampeded of lamentation.  The state fell to bits, and ploughmen still dream of turning up his hoard of jewels and ingots and gold-plated bows."

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Cut pieces from The Long Habit of Living - the character of Everett Cooper

From time to time I highlight certain passages that I needed to cut from my book, The Long Habit of Living. They aren't necessarily stand-alone pieces, but they might give you an inkling about the characters in the novel, how I write, the tone of the narrative.

[Context:  This piece, cut in 2006, appeared within the first 30 pages of the book.  It is about Walter's colleague.  Walter and Everett work for a nonprofit educational organization run by Quakers.  The place was housed in a Civil War-era brownstone on East 18th Street in Manhattan.]

Everett Cooper

            Everett Cooper leaned against the door frame of our office.  His left hand was tucked under his right elbow, his left leg bent with the foot placed behind his right leg.  A cigarette burned, waiting, in his hand.  It was summer 1979, and smoking was still permitted almost everywhere in New York.
            “So I was saying to my friend Margo," Everett said, "if there are any more drug dealers who need a roosting spot, the park near my building is perfect for them.  They can swoop down and spread their fucking drugs, like Santa spreads his gifts, all over the alcoholics who've made nice homes out of benches and smelly cardboard boxes.  They're sure to make lots of money."
            He shook with uncontrolled internal laughter.
            After he finished speaking, I took a moment to focus my attention on what he'd just said.  I didn't know what he was talking about, and I said I hadn't heard there were heroin dealers in his neighborhood.  Everett, surprised at my ignorance, drew me an elaborate verbal portrait of the homeless heaven across the street from his apartment on Irving Place and beneath his windows, all the time assuming I already knew the details.  He had a habit of beginning a conversation with one person at the point in which he'd stopped the same conversation with someone else.  It was an undying commentary; anyone could be the beneficiary of it at any time.
            Everett Cooper was a sixty-eight-year old copyeditor.  He was tall, with a slight paunch, a thinned-out but nonetheless austere head of hair which he slicked back and combed to the right.  He wore ancient slacks and shirts which usually needed pressing and repair.  He chain-smoked cigarettes in a cigarette holder and never let an hour go by without relating some story from his past.  He often talked about the days when he worked for the famous editor Malcolm Cowley, a job he secured after his discharge from the U.S. Army, when he’d served in World War II in the Pacific; New Caledonia to be exact.
            He was always going on about the latest restrictive or nonrestrictive rule he discovered in the Chicago Manual of Style.  He could spend an hour discussing the dependent clause.  Whenever he was bored or when the nicotine and caffeine had him bursting inside, he would reflect sentimentally about his boyhood life in Baltimore or when he was a college student before the outbreak of the Second World War.
            "It's ridiculous!" he exclaimed.  He walked away from the door, and paced up and down in front of my desk.  Our office was on the fourth floor of a 19th-century brownstone near Gramercy Park, and the wooden floor creaked and agonized with every step.  I turned my IBM Selectric typewriter off and stretched my arms and legs.  It was time to stop working.
            "And if the oil companies don't give a damn, why should I?" he queried to the nameless, invisible minions before him.
            He sat on top of an empty desk on the opposite side of the room, and scratched his head with the ring finger of the hand that held his cigarette.
            "I really don't see the point," I said, hoping to get out for lunch early, meet Owen in Wall Street, and not to think about drug dealers, oil companies, and Gramercy Park.  But for anyone who has studied psychology or thinks he has studied psychology, Everett Cooper was actually working out a problem by not talking about it.  He was a recovering alcoholic, and he revealed himself not in terms of exposition but in the way he concealed elements of the obvious.  Most of our fellow employees found him outdated, difficult, tedious.  I was fascinated by him.
            "Well, see here," he would say, then proceed to explain the illusions of the American people.
            I always listened respectfully to him, as I'd grown very fond of him and found that once he was through with his tirade the story he really wanted to tell would somehow emerge in so startling a turn of storytelling as to focus on something far more painful, far more personal than current events and political betrayals and corporate greed.  It would take me to a reminiscence that, although entirely his own, would in years to come end up being claimed as my own.  His memory could be as engrossing as a tale of the South Pacific and as mundane as what his cat had shredded that morning at home.
            "It's like this, Walter.  If the oil companies really want to exercise complete control over us, which they already do nominally, anyway, have for decades, why not use that power to get rid of crime in this city?  It's simple.  I don't know why they haven't thought of it sooner."
            He puffed with a slight smack of his lips against the cigarette.
            "I mean, kill a president kill a mugger.  Kill a civil rights leader, kill a car thief or a drug dealer.  It's all profit.  They'd make more if we bought more and we'd buy more if we felt we were safer.  And we don't stay out later buying because we're afraid we'll get our asses kicked by a crack addict."
            "Maybe they don't want to spend the money," I said.
            "Maybe they're investing in the drug dealers," he exclaimed, laughing out loud and slapping his knee.  "My niece in Maryland tells me she's never seen heroin traffickers or drug busts and all that prime time bullshit we see on TV.  I suppose I should go and live with her.  I might survive longer living in an illusion."
            "Has she offered?" I asked.
            "Oh God, yes," he said, sucking on one of the stems of his eyeglasses.  "But I can't live down there with her and those beautiful kids of hers.  You don't want to...I'd have to become the charming and affectionate uncle...," he said.  He shook with laughter.  "What would my demons say?"
            The truth was he hated Maryland.  He'd grown up there.  As a boy, he was raised by two maiden aunts, his mother's sisters, after his father had deserted the family and moved out West.  His father was an engineer and, during the 1930s, had invented a pendulum operated by a battery that kept lighthouses perpetually lit: It eliminated the need for human beings to keep watch over these lighthouses up and down the Eastern seaboard.  It saved the government a lot of money.  The patent brought his father a welcomed addition to a minuscule income--which he used to abandon his family.
            Everett Cooper's mother couldn't cope with her husband’s desertion.  Refusing to believe that her life had changed permanently for the worse, she had created a pleasing, unabusive insanity for herself, neglecting her children in favor of her maiden sisters.  She was finally committed to an asylum.
            He lit another cigarette and began to pace again.  His features had grown into a sad triangular relief with a nod to his family’s nostalgic longing for their absent father and the once quiet, clean, and ordered ruthlessness of Baltimore’s turn-of-the-century gentry.  His cheek bones had defined the shape of an upside down pyramid, the bags under his eyes were balanced by a few fat deposits on his eyelids, carrying the weight of forgiven alcoholics, late-night reading, 12-step programs, therapy, and the abandoned family.  A failed person, Everett was so unlike old Mr. Cooper--the engineer-father, whose good family name could not keep him home at nights or in the same town as his wife and children.
            But he, Everett, believed that he was the one who failed, and he was paying the price.  He left college and joined the Army.
            “When I came home from the Pacific theater, I discovered gin,” he said.
            He realized that he liked the well-made martini more than he liked attending classes and planning for the future.  His return to Baltimore had started a run of forty years of drinking himself senseless, a portraiture cleverly encased in a variety of short-lived occupations.
            Because of his lengthy employment, and because our employers were Quakers, management had been dragged through the trenches of Everett Cooper’s prolonged alcoholism. They had put up with his truancy and his sickness and his spirited, colorful vocabulary reeking of gin; he was after all very good at what he did.  He had seen long regretful afternoons and crowded nights of storytelling in the many nefarious gay bars he’d frequented in the Village or on the Upper West Side.  He’d told me that his self-punishing behavior had been directed against the iron fists of his aunts, against a predetermined commitment of gentility and intelligence, of forbearance and strength in the line of family life.
            Poor Everett Cooper, aside from the fact that he was more than twice my age and extremely proud, I wished I could have been a closer friend to him.  He treated me with a civil affection that regarded my points of view with hilarity, and he approached my underling status with a protection that comes from older men affectionately watching younger ones make those old-fashioned, predetermined, identifiable mistakes.
            "I don't know why my mother found us a burden," he said looking at the plaster and brick wall opposite him.  "My experience told me you didn't have to do much anyway.  Just act sensible.  Tell us what to do.  Make sure the windows and the doors are locked at night, and we kids will take care of ourselves," he laughed.
            "Do you wish you had children, Everett?" I asked.
            "I wish I had a father," he replied.
            The wish was a mirror to what Owen had said the first time he met Everett Cooper.  I invited him and Sarah to an office Christmas party and he described my colleague to me as one of those angels sent to earth to do penance, the kind whom the French writer Anatole France would write about or the sculptor Rodin give birth to an image of; but Everett's dilemma was that he didn't know what he'd done wrong nor would he know when his contrition was completed.  Owen liked him and was always attentive when I brought his name up in conversation.
            When I told Owen about what Everett had said about having a father, he became pale.  Owen could be very sensitized to the hurt of others, much less to his own--his father had died at a very young age from alcoholism.
            "A waste of life," Owen had choked, barely able to speak.
            I knew, as I related young Mr. Cooper's unfortunate fall, that Owen regarded his own father's death with an encyclopedic sense of guilt, and it grew out of him like a great oak tree and waved its hideous, mirrored leaves in front of his face.  I knew that Owen and his father and Everett Cooper--the wounded, fallen angel who worked with me on the fourth floor of that East Side brownstone--were among the uncounted, unrepresented men out of step with the world.
            "I’m more than sixty years old," Everett had mused that one afternoon, flicking the ash off his cigarette and dangling his feet.  "And I still want to call someone father."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

My books of 2014

Fran Lebowitz once said that she was "...criticized for having 10,000 books.  You know what?" she said.  "They are books.  It's not like I am running an opium den for children.  ...You may think it's crazy, but you cannot have a moral objection to this."

Well, here is my third roll call on this website, my list of books read in 2014.  It may not seem like much, but I did my best.  All the titles are hyperlinked to Goodreads to provide you with a quick synopsis, should you be interested.  

Dave Eggers:  A Hologram for the King 
John Crowley:  Little, Big   One of my favorites for the year.
Anita Brookner:  Hotel du Lac, her Booker award-winning novel about a romance novelist living on the shores of Lake Geneva. I'm a big fan. Undue Influence   The Bay of Angels and Lewis Percy are three other Brookner books that I read this year:          
Steven Pressfield:  The Afghan Campaign  Incredible in its historical sensibility. Excellent, thrilling book.
Ian McEwan:  In Between the Sheets  A minor work by an superbly intelligent writer.
Edna O'Brien:  The Light of Evening  I liked this one more than her House of Splendid Isolation which I read a couple years ago. 
Jose Saramago:  Manual of Painting and Calligraphy  A very good, adult, ruminative book with a terrible title.   
Diane Ackerman:  A Natural History of the Senses, a lovely, beautiful, well-written book. Also read her The Human Age, an upsetting book; it should be read by as many people as possible.  There's a lot to digest in this book.  Also read The Zookeeper's Wife.  This is an awe-inspiring, life-affirming, huge and personal story of a husband and wife, and their son, who manage to keep the Warsaw Zoo and its animal populations from disappearing, and at the same time relocating hundreds of Polish Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto out from under the scrutiny of the Nazi occupation forces, who regarded all Poles as subhumans and marked for annihilation.  There are more than enough poignant stories in this wonderful book.
Mary Roach:  Stiff (what do you think it's about. Corpses!)  It's fascinating.
Artemis Cooper:  Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure  Interesting, compelling biography by Cooper about Patrick Fermor, who was a soldier (fighting with the partisans on Crete), a travel writer, a personality, a wayfarer.  I can't wait to read some of his books.
W. Somerset Maugham:  Complete Short Stories Volume 2.  I can't say enough about Maugham.
James Salter:  All That Is  I thought it was nothing that wasn't.
William Trevor:  The News From Ireland, a collection of short stories by one of the most revered modern Irish writers was as my friend Theresa predicted it would be: beautiful.
T.C. Boyle:  The Inner Circle, a fictionalized account of the life of Alfred Kinsey. This is a really good book. 
W.G. Sebald:  (a German writer and academic)  Austerlitz  I thoroughly enjoyed this semi-autobiographical novel.  Also read this year by the same author: The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo 
Stephen Ambrose:  Citizen Soldiers  At times heroic and heart-rending, what the common American soldier went through during WWII will infuriate you (how long it took us to get our act together in that war) and amaze you (our ability as former teachers, letter carriers, grocery clerks, high school grads and then some, to battle the German professional, long- and well-trained fighting machine). 
John O'Hara:  Waiting for Winter, a collection of short stories.  Disappointing.
James Purdy:   The Complete Stories of James Purdy was an experience, a brilliant, hilarious, stomach-aerating experience that I fully embraced.
Charles Portis:  Norwood This book cracked me up.  "Kirkus Reviews" said "This relaxed, funny first novel about an engaging young man in peculiar states of affairs features Norwood Pratt...a hardship discharge from the Service who returns home to tend his sister Vernell after the death of Mr. Pratt, his father. Norwood, a filling station attendant with a vague ambition to become a star on the Louisiana Hayride, settles down to tend house and backyard junkyard."
Frederic Raphael:   A Double Life, I felt this was a letdown.  He's a very good writer, I loved The Glittering Prizes, which I read a long time ago, but A Double Life? You need a double Stoli just to forgive yourself for having read it all the way through.
Martin Amis:  London Fields.  I don't know about Amis, really.  He needs a good year in the Gulag to make up for this book.
Xingjian Gao:  Soul Mountain. This book is a first-person narrative about a writer on the outs with the Peking government.  The narrator is diagnosed with terminal cancer and takes a journey through remote central and northern China.  Very stylistic.  Not for me.  Life's way too short.
Alan Furst:  Kingdom of Shadows. I can't get enough of his well-written, well-researched, intriguing, tense, pre-World War II historical fiction.
Milan Kundera:  Life Is Elsewhere is quite the comic rendition of some of Alan Furst's landscapes, but in Czechoslovakia, and from the point of view of a teenager.  
Colm Toibin:   Nora Webster  A really good book; except I don't buy the end of it.   I'm waiting for one of my friends to read it and explain it to me.
John Waters:  Carsick, Waters' memoir about hitchhiking across America.  It was at times hilarious and unbelievable.  But I guess that's America.
Ben MacIntyre:  A Spy Among Friends, a biography about Kim Philby, who spied for the Soviets while working in the higher echelons of the British and American intelligence communities during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.  It is a very good book by a very good writer about a very nasty business.
Richard Ford:  Let Me Be Frank With You, the fourth in a series of novels which focus on the character Frank Bascombe.  Almost as good as the other three I'd previously read.  (The Sportswriter; Independence Day; The Lay of the Land).  I really like Richard Ford's books.
Sarah Waters:  The Little Stranger is a long work, a good work, beautifully written and incredibly picaresque--England in between the Wars.  The crumbling aristocracy, hostilities from beyond the grave, I'm looking forward to her other books as well.
David McCullough:   The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris   A fast-paced history of American ex-patriots in 19th-century Paris.  It is extraordinary, not because they were extraordinary people, the Americans of 19th-century Paris, because they were, but because it was an extraordinary time!  McCullough's prose is as visual as it is lyrical.
David Sedaris:  Naked, a  memoir.  It is sometimes a laugh riot, other times it's an emotional roller coaster; but either way, it's a fine book.  Not everyone has crazy parents. And that's good.
Randall Jarrell:  Pictures From an Institution  This book is Jarrell's only novel, it's funny, intelligent, and although it's sophistication might be looked upon as exclusively northeastern intellectual, it is by no means inaccessible.
Pico Iyer:  The Art of Stillness   This reflective and interesting book-length essay helps to remind us of the importance of reducing stress through stillness.  It's about journeying sometimes nowhere.  I liked it and agree with its premise.
Jules and Edmond Goncourt:  Germinie Lacerteux (I posted about this novel in December, quoting from it.  I could have quoted more but that would've been over the top.) Barbara Kingsolver:  Pigs in Heaven.  I love Kingsolver, and this was the sequel to The Bean Trees.  A lovely book, although the end was a bit smarmy.
Reza Aslan:  Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Talk about scholarship blended with controlled prose.  This book pissed off a lot of people.  I wish more people would read it.  I'm looking forward to reading his book on the origins, evolution, and future of Islam: No God But God.

Then Fran Lebowitz said, "Even real estate agents would say to me, "If you got rid of the books, you wouldn't need such a big apartment."  And I would say, "Yes, that's true, but what if I had four children?  Would you say, 'Why don't you put them in storage, because you really can't afford an apartment for them.'?""

There's something to it, you know.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Germinie Lacerteux - I'm sharing excerpts with you as if they were gifts.

Germinie Lacerteux
by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt.  Translated from the French and with an Introduction by Ernest Boyd.
New York: Knopf, 1922.  First edition; copy #1367 of 3000

Edmond and Jules Goncourt--brothers, collaborative writers of French naturalism--published Germinie Lacerteux in 1865.  It is about a Parisian maidservant of a lonely old woman, Mademoiselle de Varandeuil, and it is based on the Goncourts' own maid Rose Malingre.  

This book is so good, in the reading of it, the mouthing of its words, the examination of sentence structure, and the swiftness with which the story takes hold of you.  I love books of 19th century France to oblivion, and can't wait to read the book which put the Goncourts on eternity's map, their "Journals."  To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, "I am usually a friend of pornography."

Below I've provided a few excerpts which demonstrate partially how exciting their narrative can be.  Phrases like "the relics of orgy" or "that portion of her heart which slept beneath the stone" are to me as thrilling as a scream.  I am sharing their phraseology with you as if it were a gift. 

[Germinie had early on worked in a cafe, oftentimes accosted by the waiters.]

"the relics of orgy"

She did not dare to tell all that she suffered from her association with these cafe waiters, brazen, jocular, and cynical as they were, fed on the leavings of debauchery, polluted by all the vices to which they ministered, and blending within them all the rottenness of the relics of orgy.

[Germinie visits the cemetery.]

"that portion of her heart which slept beneath the stone"

Then she would get up, turn round as though to bid the grave that she was leaving good-bye, go some distance farther, stop again, talk in a whisper, as she had already been doing with that portion of her heart which slept beneath the stone; and her visit being thus paid to all the dead of her affections, she would return slowly, religiously, enwrapping herself in silence, and as though afraid to speak.

[When Germinie and some of her servant friends and men from the neighborhood decide to have a day in the country, with wine, food, pleasure.]

"where bits of melon rind and suicides are to be found in the underwood"

On the trees hung women's hats fastened into handkerchiefs with four pins; an artilleryman's tuft shone red every moment through openings in the leaves; cake-sellers rose amid the thickets; on the bare turf, bloused children were cutting sticks, workmen's families were trifling away the time and eating cake, urchin's caps were catching butterflies.  it was one of the woods modelled on the old Bois de Boulogne, dusty and broiling, a vulgar and tawdry promenade, one of those places where the people go for an outing at the gates of capitals, parodies of forests, full of corks, where bits of melon rind and suicides are to be found in the underwood.

[Germinie's horrific time of sleeplessness and depression.]

"she succeeded in inducing periods of annihilation"

Finally she succeeded in inducing periods of annihilation which lasted half a day, and from which she emerged only partially awake, with stupefied intellect, blunted perceptions, hands which did things simply from habit, gestures like those of a somnambulist, a body and soul in which thought, will, and memory seemed to be still slumbering and dim as in the hazy hours of morning.

"the congested sleep of Drunkenness which cradles in the arms of Death"

To sleep such overwhelming sleep, to sink in the daytime into such a night, had come to be with her a truce to, and a deliverance from, a manner of life which she had lost courage either to continue or to end.  A boundless yearning for nonexistence was all that she felt in her wakefulness.  Such hours of her life as she lived collectedly, under self-inspection, looking into her conscience, a spectator of all her shamefulness, seemed so abominable to her!  She preferred to be dead to them.  Nothing in the world but sleep was left to her that would give her complete forgetfulness, the congested sleep of Drunkenness which cradles in the arms of Death.

 [Toward the end of the book, Germinie is in a hospital bed.]

"a face that was ugly and good, the mercy of God"
Mademoiselle asked to speak to the Mother of the Sainte-Josephine ward.  A little, half-deformed sister came to her, with a face that was ugly and good, a face like the mercy of God.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

I had the opportunity to attend a reading by Colm Toibin of his new book, Nora Webster, this past Thursday evening at the Writers Guild of America theater.  Toibin's interviewer after the segments he read was Rachel Kushner, author of The Flame Throwers

Toibin has a great sense of humor and loves to talk (Theresa says, "Of course, he's Irish!").  It was a great evening, the conversation between Kushner and Toibin was quite elevated and entertaining.

Afterward, I was able speak to him about my favorite of his books, The Master.