Thursday, August 3, 2017

those fumbling airs that breathe and bend

And through this clear, unstagnant yet unturbulent air there rose the wild yet gentle cry of a multitude of birds. It was not the coarse brave cry of the gull that can breast tempests and dive deep for unfastidious food. It was not the austere cry of the curlew who dwells on moors when they are unvisitable by men. This was the voice of some bird appropriate to the place. It was unhurried. Whatever lived on the plain saw when the sun rose on its edge shadows as long as living things ever see them, and watched them shrink till noon, and lengthen out again till sundown; and time must have seemed the slower for being so visible. It had the sound of water in it. Whatever lived here spent half its life expecting the running of waveless but briny tides up the creeks, through mud-paved culverts into the dykes that fed the wet marshes with fresh wetness; and the other half deploring their slow, sluggish sucking back to the sea. Sorrow or any other intemperance of feeling seemed a discourteous disturbance of an atmosphere filled with this resigned harmony.
Virginia Woolf called the novel "an overstuffed sausage" and stopped reading it halfway through. Certainly the prose threatens to burst at the seams, far more dense writing than Woolf's, who was after all trying for the same psychological effect as West, though Woolf leaned more on the technique of stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative threads writ in that spare pointillist style she had. West was writing out of the Gothic tradition, a tale of an innocent woman trapped in a castle full of spirits and self-destructive secrets. Woolf was doing the same thing, but the castles were all interior to her characters, the ghosts haunting themselves in their own brains.

I think that had Woolf finished The Judge, she'd have possibly admired the structural planning that even looks ahead to that of her own To The Lighthouse, which was published five years later, in 1927. There is a break halfway through The Judge where the narrative ceases to focus on Ellen and turns to the history and interior world of Marion Yaverland, the victim and bearer of destructive societal forces. It becomes a different novel than it was, a strange Gothic novel, similar to the way that To The Lighthouse becomes a different and strange novel in the "Time Passes" middle section, where the prose thickens and becomes symbolic and threatening. Thick for Woolf, that is.
So some random light directing them with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast. Here one might say to those sliding lights, those fumbling airs that breathe and bend over the bed itself, here you can neither touch nor destroy. Upon which, wearily, ghostlily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, they would look, once, on the shut eyes, and the loosely clasping fingers, and fold their garments wearily and disappear. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.
The other thing about The Judge that strikes me right now is the way so much of it is focused on observing, on looking at the behavior of others and judging that behavior, on deliberately matching one's behavior to that of another person, on controlling how one appears, on the duplicity of being aware of and subsequently taking advantage of how we appear to others. It's a book about looking, and being seen, and play-acting and claims of truth. A battle between observer and observed, the battle swallowing its own tail, neither a victory nor an armistice possible.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Forget Amsterdam

Fine, no more posts about Amsterdam or the Netherlands. The conceit of tying my vacation to my reading was wearing thin, and no mistaking. This is just going to be a brief post to declare that I've begun revising, yet again, a manuscript called Go Home, Miss America. I'm going to work over the prose in every other chapter (don't ask; it's a structure issue) and submit it to an independent publisher I found out about this week, one that might actually want such a novel. No, it could happen, really, despite all of our shared doubts. So that's what I'll be doing with my not-so-copious spare time for the next couple of months, rather than actually reading novels. I have not made much progress with the revisions to Antosha!, a novel I'd planned to be submitting to agents this fall. Well, maybe that will happen in the spring of 2018. There is no hurry, as there is nothing at stake.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

served by tram lines 13 and 17

I'm reading the diary of Anne Frank, a true-life dystopian young adult book. The first time I read The Diary of a Young Girl, I was about 15, and the book was a class assignment. I'm reading it now for a couple of reasons, the primary one being that it's set in Amsterdam, where you know we've recently been. We've been to the house where the Franks hid themselves from the Gestapo for two years, so I can picture the house, the street, the canal that the house overlooks, etc. I've heard the bells of the Westerkerk, a church whose tower we saw almost every morning when we left our apartment.


Westerkerk tower in the distance. Photo: Mighty Reader

We did not, however, actually set foot inside the Frank's house. We stood on the pavement in front of the house, confused for a few minutes before we walked on in search of a place to eat breakfast. It turns out that you need to order tickets to the Anne Frank House online, at least a month in advance. So next time, if we remember.

Frank mentions in her diary that the house is served by tram lines 13 and 17. Mighty Reader and I have ridden on both of those trams, which still serve the neighborhood. The public transportation in Amsterdam is pretty good. Frank also mentions bicycles several times, and her sadness that under the Gestapo rules Jews are not allowed to own bicycles (or ride the trams or the ferries or in cars or move about in any way except on foot). Because a Jew on a bicycle is a danger to public order, one assumes.


Typical Amsterdam scene, bikes thick on the pavements. Photo: Mighty Reader

We managed to drag all of our luggage via tram from the apartment to Amsterdam Centraal Station when we traveled by train outside of Amsterdam. The trams are not large but they have reserved areas for luggage, prams, and wheelchairs. People were polite about giving us room for all our junk. In 1943, a person schlepping four pieces of luggage around would've been subject to being stopped and searched on the chance that he was a Jew trying to escape town. A Jew on the loose in Europe was a danger to public order, one assumes.

Without our luggage, we managed to bike just about everywhere. Mighty Reader will tell you that she loves her own bike--a 21-speed hybrid she calls "Bessie"--so much because the bike represents personal freedom, the ability to get up and go wherever, whenever, in a swift, light and maneuverable manner. I don't quite feel that way about my Cannondale (lately dubbed "Bernardo"), but it's always good to be out on the road on our bikes.


Bessie and Bernardo shopping for books in Seattle. Photo: Mighty Reader

The cycling culture in Holland, especially in Amsterdam, is terrific. Everyone yields to bikes, even trams and pedestrians. There are bike racks everywhere, bike paths running parallel to streets and roads, bike shops galore, and the understanding that bikes are not rude intruders into a city whose streets are owned by cars and trucks. It was a little bit of a culture shock to return to the streets of Seattle, where drivers have not quite embraced the idea of sharing the road. We have become more assertive cyclists after our brief visit to Amsterdam, though I'm not sure that's a wise development.

I cannot imagine Amsterdam under the control of the Gestapo, with some of the population's civil rights dramatically curtailed, forced to wear an insignia that publicly identifies them as enemies of the state until the state decides to cart them away to death camps. The prohibition against owning a bicycle was the least of their worries, but equal protection for all under the law helps keep us from objectifying our neighbors, allowing us to maintain our own claims to humanity. Equal protection under the law is the basis for the moral authority of democracy.

Monday, July 31, 2017

there was a secret chord

We took a day trip from Amsterdam to The Hague, to see the paintings at the Mauritshuis. If pressed, Mighty Reader might tell you that our Netherlands trip was inspired by the fact that there are paintings by Vermeer at the Mauritshuis and at the Rijksmuseum that she had not yet seen in person. Vermeer's paintings emit an almost gravitational force that pulls constantly at Mighty Reader. I don't feel that force about Vermeer but I understand it.

The Hague is a pretty town, which for some reason surprised me. I'm not sure what I expected. Maybe it's simply that we visited on a lovely summer day, the weather mild, the train ride was simple enough to arrange and carried us through picturesque farmlands in South Holland. The Mauritshuis is a good museum; not too large, not too small, with masterpieces around nearly every corner and a decent restaurant (with excellent coffee).

The main attraction of the collection is Jan Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring," which everyone knows. In the same room as "Girl" is the large painting "View of Delft," a remarkable cityscape with vibrant colors and crisp lines and a whole lot of sky. The big surprise was a third Vermeer, "Diana and her Nymphs," an early work that neither of us knew about. In my opinion (not shared by Mighty Reader), "Diana" was the best of the three paintings, full of movement and color and contrasting light/shadow and a more interesting and challenging arrangement of subjects than either "Girl" or "Delft." It was also the only Vermeer in the room being ignored.


Me and the other, other Vermeer

The Mauritshuis collection has that wee goldfinch painting used as a prop in the latest Donna Tartt novel, too. It's hanging out in a hallway between rooms, I think, like an afterthought, like something someone's mother painted that had to go somewhere in the house.

I'm currently reading the poetry of St. John of the Cross, and one of the poems references Simeon in the temple, holding the Christ child in his arms:
En aquestos y otros ruegos
gran tiempo pasado había;
pero en los postreros años
el fervor mucho crecía,
cuando el viejo Simeón
en deseo se encendía,
rogando a Dios que quisiese
dejalle ver este día.
Y así, el Espíritu Santo
al buen viejo respondía;
­Que le daba su palabra
que la muerte no vería
hasta que la vida viese
que de arriba descendía.
y que él en sus mismas manos
al mismo Dios tomaría,
y le tendría en sus brazos
y consigo abrazaría.
Rembrandt painted this Biblical scene, and the painting is in the Mauritshuis collection. I wasn't particularly moved by the work, but on the adjacent wall of the gallery that contains "Simeon and St Anne" (by Rembrandt's pupil Arent de Gelder) hangs the impressive and large "Saul and David," a painting only recently proved to be a genuine Rembrandt after eight years of restoration. Rembrandt's David looks suspiciously like Bob Dylan, and when I saw the painting I spontaneously began to sing Cohen's "Hallelujah" in a Bob Dylan voice, forgetting that Dylan has actually covered the song. I was not asked to leave the museum but I didn't sing the whole song, either.


David Zimmerman, harpist to the king

After having seen the wares of the Mauritshuis, we wandered around a little in The Hague, spending some time in the dappled light of a small square, looking through piles of stuff at a flea market. I was tempted by a 1922(?) Baedeker of northern Germany, in English, but I did not buy it despite the many full-color fold-out maps. Maps emit an almost gravitational force that pulls constantly at me. Most people don't feel that force.

Friday, July 28, 2017

mile after mile, who would have guessed

square miles of meagre modern houses whose principle purpose was the support of TV aeriels and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions and, in dismal lots, lorries queuing up to distribute it; and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of the traffic. It looked like a raucous dinner party the morning after. No one would have wished it this way, but no one has been asked. Nobody planned it, nobody wanted it, but most people had to live in it. To watch it mile after mile, who would have guessed that kindness or the imagination, that Purcell or Britten, Shakespeare or Milton, had ever existed
--Ian McEwan, Amsterdam
Iam McEwan's novel Amsterdam takes place mostly in London. I know this because I read the Guardian review of it; I haven't read the novel itself. I've been tempted, off and on, to read McEwan's book because it contains a character who composes classical music, and I have a sometime weakness for stories about composers. The probable high level of McEwanness in the novel keeps me away from Amsterdam, however.

When we were in Amsterdam, Mighty Reader and I went to a concert at the Royal Concertgebouw, a place I've wanted to visit ever since one of my older brothers bought a copy of Paul McCartney and Wings' "Band on the Run" and played it incessantly from 1973 until 1976 when he abandoned Wings and became a Rush fan and a Randian. Mighty Reader and I did not go to see either Wings or Rush at the Royal Concertgebouw; we went instead to an evening of chamber music, a program called "Dream with me," featuring songs from Romantic and Impressionist composers sung by mezzo soprano Cora Burggraaf, accompanied by cellist Pieter Wispelwey and pianist Ed Spanjaard. There were also a couple of fine cello and piano duets to break things up. Here's the program:
Brahms - Allegretto grazioso (quasi Andante) (uit 'Tweede sonate in A', op. 100) (arr. P.R. Wispelwey)
Brahms - Zwei Gesänge, op. 91
Brahms - Ständchen, nr. 1 (uit 'Fünf Lieder', op. 106)
Brahms - Junge Lieder I/Meine Liebe ist grün, nr. 5 (uit 'Lieder und Gesänge', op. 63)
Dvořák - Rondo in g, op. 94
Chopin - Melodia (Melodie), nr. 9 (uit 'Poolse liederen', op. 74) (arr. M. Knigge)
Chopin - Narzeczony (De bruidegom), nr. 15 (uit 'Poolse liederen', op. 74) (arr. M. Knigge)
Chopin - Moja pieszczotka (Mijn lieveling), nr. 12 (uit 'Poolse liederen', op. 74) (arr. M. Knigge)
Sjostakovitsj - Het lied van Ophelia, nr. 1 (uit 'Zeven romances op teksten van Aleksander Blok', op. 127)
Debussy - Intermezzo, L. 27
Massenet - On dit!
Massenet - Elégie
Bosmans - Complainte du petit cheval blanc
Bosmans - Nuit calme
Bosmans - Le diable dans la nuit
Von Brucken Fock - Berceuse d'armorique
Von Brucken Fock - Les cigales
Diepenbrock - Berceuse
Ms Burggraaf sang in Dutch, French, German, and for an encore, English. It was all quite lovely music, well worth the effort of shifting ourselves after a busy afternoon of full-contact tourism. Mr Wispelwey fulfilled enough of my "rock show at the Concertgebouw" youthful dreams by taking on the affectations of a prog-rock lead guitarist, channeling Jimmy Page much of the time with his puffy-sleeved blouse, his head shakes, his aggressive posture and elaborate preparatory gestures. He also sort of looks like Robert Fripp, maybe after a few pints. Ms Burggraaf assumed a quite serious face during her singing, her brows perpetually knit in what seemed an habitual expression learned at the conservatory; a little distracting but her singing overcame the artifice of the sad face. She wore a pretty white dress. Mighty Reader's French and my German are good enough that we were able to translate the lyrics to each other, which is nice, not that I don't enjoy singing I can't understand at all: my iPod has a bunch of Paul Verlaine poems set to music that I can't comprehend but it's sure nice listening.

It was late, almost full dark and raining when we got out of the show. The tram station is directly in front of the Concertgebouw, so we hurried across the cobblestones and stood under the glass shelter with scores of other middle-aged people in nice clothes. Most of them got onto the first tram that came along, which was not our route, and so when our tram showed up a minute later, there were plenty of seats, which is a blessing at the end of a long day.


Chandelier in Royal Concertgebouw lobby. Photo by Mighty Reader.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Falling into Amsterdam

We were in the Red Light district, or at least we crossed through it on our way from the Hermitage Amsterdam to the shopping district along Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. We did not make it to Zeedijk, where supposedly the Mexico City bar used to be located. The Mexico City bar is one of the settings of Albert Camus' novella The Fall. Before Mighty Reader and I truckled off to Amsterdam, I wanted to read a novel set in that fair city, and as it happens the only such novel we had in the house was The Fall, which I'd read way back in the 1980s and remembered very poorly, as it turned out.

Camus' Amsterdam is not the Amsterdam I visited. Camus' Amsterdam is dark, seedy, foggy and claustrophobic like Dostoyevsky's Petersburg in Notes From Underground; Camus lets the nested half-circles of Amsterdam's canals stand in for the circles of Hell out of Dante's Inferno. Everybody knows that image already, but I tell you anyway. The Amsterdam we trammed, walked, and bicycled through was a clean, bright, vibrant city of life. Except for the exhibition at the Hermitage Amsterdam, which was a clean, bright, depressing exhibition of murder and repression. Thanks, Putin. I digress, to the surprise of nobody.

When I was a kid, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, I learned in a history class that Amsterdam was built at the mouth of the Amstel river, where it emptied into the Zuider Zee. I have remembered "Zuider Zee" all these decades, possibly only because it's such a swell couple of words. But as soon as Mighty Reader and I decided to visit Amsterdam, I looked forward to standing on a dike and looking out on the gray fogs of the Zuider Zee. I did not know that the Zuider Zee no longer exists. In the 1930s, the citizens of Amsterdam (or maybe the Dutch government; I'm hazy on facts) decided to build a couple of dikes to separate the Zuider Zee from the North Atlantic, and they also reclaimed a tremendous portion of the lower Zee, creating a new territory known as Flevoland. Flevoland fills in the southernmost third of the former Zuider Zee. This was a disappointment to me, but likely the residents of Amsterdam and Flevoland are happy about it. After all, most of the Netherlands (or at least of North Holland) is reclaimed land, just like Flevoland. I continue to digress. But I'm pretty sure Flevoland did not exist when Camus visited Amsterdam, and it is not present in the fictional Amsterdam of The Fall. (I believe--though I can't find my source for it now--that Camus was in Amsterdam in the 1930s, and The Fall is set in the 1950s, which means that most of the reclamation of land in the Zuider Zee happened after Camus saw the place. There is also the theory that Camus deliberately has his narrator describe an Amsterdam, a North Holland, that is at odds with the real world of the 1950s in which he lives. Maybe, I say. The narrator is a liar, or he believes different truths than are on display to the rest of us.)

The bar Mexico City no longer exists, either. Apparently there is a monument or something on Zeedijk, and quotations from the novel are among the graffiti along the canal (maybe the Geldersekade) near the monument. Like I say, we didn't make it to that part of town. Our short jaunt crossways through the Red Light district was enough for me. Yes, prostitutes standing in their underwear behind plate glass windows, inches away from the foot traffic. Yes, sex shops, peep shows, wee XXX cinemas, etc. I was transported via my memory back to Times Square in the 1980s (I vividly recall a man handing out coupons in front of a basement-level theater, calling out "Naked women, gentlemen! Naked women!" Old New York, now only a dream). Amsterdam's Red Light district is also the home to a surprising number of restaurants selling Argentinian beef.

From the point of land north of the village of Marken, which we reached via ferry and then bicycle, one can stand at the gate barring the path to the light house and look out over what used to be the midsection of the Zuider Zee, and even on a sunny day the water is gray, or gray blue, but quite pretty, almost the pearly gray found inside fresh oyster shells. Fishing schooners sailed past in the middle distance, their red and orange sheets blown taut by the light wind. Eurasian oyster catchers poked about in the pale fine sand. The waves were gentle and slow. Camus' Jean-Baptiste should've gotten out of the city more often.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The necessity of looking as if she were used to and even wearied by this sort of thing weighed heavily on her

she bent over the menu, and gave orders that trembled on the edge of audibility to a waiter whom she appeared not to see...

That's pretty great, that line, that observation. It's from Book II of Rebecca West's The Judge, a novel I've been slowly reading for about three weeks now. Two of those weeks were interrupted by a trip to the Netherlands during which I did precious little reading of anything but menus and road markers, which is a not a good way to learn conversational Dutch but otherwise a fine way to spend one's time.

The Judge continues to strike me as very Lawrence, and so a sort of precursor to a lot of Byatt's work, which is fine. The prose is quite dense and full of pointed social observation, this being a social novel in a lot of ways (it's also a Gothic romance in the tradition of the Bronte sisters):
The air of the little quadrangle was fairly dense with the yellowed rays of extravagant light, and the walls were divided not into shops and houses, but into allegorical panels representing pleasure. They had stopped outside a florist's, in whose dismantled window a girl in black stretched out a long arm towards the last vase of chrysanthemums, which pressed against the glass great curled polls almost as large as her own head. It was impossible to imagine a Scotswoman practising so felinely elastic an attitude before the open street, or possessing a face so ecstatic with pertness, or finding herself inside a dress which, though black, disclaimed all intention of being mourning and sought rather, in its clinging economy, to be an occasion of public rejoicing.

Inconceivable, too, in Edinburgh, the place beside it, where behind plate glass walls, curtained with flimsy brise-bises that were as a ground mist, men and women ate and drank under strong lights with a divine shamelessness. It couldn't happen up there. There were simply not the people to do it. It might be tried at first; but because middle-aged men would constantly turn to middle-aged women and say, "Catch me bringing you here again, Elspeth. It's a nice thing to have your dinner with every Tom, Dick and Harry in the street watching every mouthful you take," and because young men would as constantly have turned to young women with the gasp, "I'm sure I saw father passing," it would have been a failure. But here it was a success. The sight was like loud, frivolous music. And on the other side there was a theatre with steps leading up to a glittering bow-front, and a dark wall spattered with the white squares of playbills, under which a queue of people watched with happy and indifferent faces a ragged reciter whose burlesque extravagance of gesture showed that one was now in a country more tolerant of nonsense than the North.
I love that the first view Ellen has of London is made up of claims of pleasure, rather than of actual pleasurable things. It is a continuation of the class argument West is making in Book I, but this time there is a rebuttal from one from the moneyed class:
She said in her rapid, inarticulate murmur, "They don't strike me as being particularly happy."

Ellen was taken aback, and said in the tones of a popular preacher, "Then what are they doing here—feasting?"

"I suppose they're here because it's on the map and so are they," she answered almost querulously. "They'd go anywhere else if one told them it was where they ought to be. Good children, most people. Anxious to do the right thing. Don't you think?"
An accusation of a different sort, that.

Maybe later this week I'll post a pic or two from the Netherlands.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

some sustaining moral soup

She examined him carefully out of the corner of her eye to estimate the chances of his being brought into the fold of reform by properly selected oratory. That at least was the character of contemplation she intended, but though she was so young that she believed the enjoyment of any sensory impression sheer waste unless it was popped into the mental stockpot and made the basis of some sustaining moral soup, she found herself just looking at him. His black hair lay in streaks and rings on his rain-wet forehead and gave him an abandoned and magical air, like the ghost of a drowned man risen for revelry; his dark gold skin told a traveller's tale of far-off pleasurable weather; and the bare hand that lay on his knee was patterned like a snake's belly with brown marks, doubtless the stains of his occupation; and his face was marked with an expression that it vexed her she could not put a name to, for if at her age she could not read human nature like a book she never would.
That's from Rebecca West's 1922 novel The Judge. So few of today's writers approach that level of excellence in prose. People in publishing want "voice." I want craftsmanship, and daring generosity, and vision.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.

The last chapter of The Fall redeems the irritating monologue that precedes it, in fact is only possible because of that monologue, only has meaning because of that annoying narration. The weakly-argued theology, the self-centered philosophy, are all the point, a representation of an egotist's misreading of the Gospel. The narrator wants to believe he is a modern-day prophet, a John the Baptist crying in the desert, passing judgment on all mankind, standing above civilization. But when he says, "Open the window a little, please; it’s frightfully hot. Not too much, for I am cold also" we know that his deeds are known and he is lukewarm, so he is spat from Christ's mouth, alone in his cell with the ironic evidence of his crimes, not quite always convinced of his superiority. He is in hell, a hell of his own making.

"I am happy, I tell you, I won’t let you think I’m not happy, I am happy unto death!"

A pretty good book. I'd forgotten how it ends.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

troika

Yes, so it is; and that went farther and farther with all sorts of variations. My God! when I remember all my cowardly acts and bad deeds, I am frightened. And I remember that 'me' who, during that period, was still the butt of his comrades’ ridicule on account of his innocence.

And when I hear people talk of the gilded youth, of the officers, of the Parisians, and all these gentlemen, and myself, living wild lives at the age of thirty, and who have on our consciences hundreds of crimes toward women, terrible and varied, when we enter a parlor or a ball-room, washed, shaven, and perfumed, with very white linen, in dress coats or in uniform, as emblems of purity, oh, the disgust! There will surely come a time, an epoch, when all these lives and all this cowardice will be unveiled!

So, nevertheless, I lived, until the age of thirty, without abandoning for a minute my intention of marrying, and building an elevated conjugal life; and with this in view I watched all young girls who might suit me. I was buried in rottenness, and at the same time I looked for virgins, whose purity was worthy of me!
Lev Tolstoy, "The Kreutzer Sonata," Chapter VI
But these are all golden dreams. Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else, and we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests, consequently, so to say, through necessity, he would begin doing good? Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child! Why, in the first place, when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, CONSCIOUSLY, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, wilfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage.... Advantage! What is advantage? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect accuracy in what the advantage of man consists? And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, SOMETIMES, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous. And if so, if there can be such a case, the whole principle falls into dust.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground, Chapter VII
We are all exceptional cases. We all want to appeal against something! Each of us insists on being innocent at all cost, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself. You won’t delight a man by complimenting him on the efforts by which he has become intelligent or generous. On the other hand, he will beam if you admire his natural generosity. Inversely, if you tell a criminal that his crime is not due to his nature or his character but to unfortunate circumstances, he will be extravagantly grateful to you. During the counsel’s speech, this is the moment he will choose to weep. Yet there is no credit in being honest or intelligent by birth. Just as one is surely no more responsible for being a criminal by nature than for being a criminal by circumstance. But those rascals want grace, that is, irresponsibility, and they shamelessly allege the justifications of nature or the excuses of circumstances, even if they are contradictory. The essential thing is that they should be innocent, that their virtues, by grace of birth, should not be questioned and that their misdeeds, born of a momentary misfortune, should never be more than provisional. As I told you, it’s a matter of dodging judgment. Since it is hard to dodge it, tricky to get one’s nature simultaneously admired and excused, they all strive to be rich. Why? Did you ever ask yourself? For power, of course. But especially because wealth shields from immediate judgment, takes you out of the subway crowd to enclose you in a chromium-plated automobile, isolates you in huge protected lawns, Pullmans, first-class cabins. Wealth, cher ami, is not quite acquittal, but reprieve, and that’s always worth taking.
Albert Camus, The Fall

Which is to say, I'm reading Camus now (re-reading, I guess, since I first read The Fall back in the 80s) and yesterday late afternoon I realized that I've encountered this sort of narrative before--this tone of voice and this direct engagement of the protagonist with the reader--in Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (both of which writers Camus had read). My experience this time around with The Fall is less happy than I think it was when I first read it, and I admit that I think less of this book than I do of The Stranger or The Plague. That latter book may well be Camus' real masterpiece, a restrained and beautiful novel.

Monday, June 26, 2017

this exciting era when science and superstition were battling for supremacy

So it looks like I was only about four years too early with my novel. I have always been out of step with the times, I admit.

Friday, June 9, 2017

thoughts on having finished Proust's "In Search of Lost Time"

Some Observations:

It often seems that In Search of Lost Time is less a novel than it is a multi-volume personal essay about memory and the failure of our intellect to grasp reality in the present. Leaping from Volume VI back to Volume I, I see that Proust has been making the same points about memory and experiential knowledge the entire time, but I didn't grasp what he meant in his exposition; it was only much later that I was able to share his understanding of how life can truly only be known in retrospect, through the working of memory outside of the stream of experience. The novel demonstrates the author's proposition through it's very structure. In Search of Lost Time is then, among other things, a 4,300-page expansion of Kierkegaard's well-known comment that "Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards." But everyone knows that already.

Possibly Proust's theme of memory hides an even greater theme in Lost Time, a quite moral theme having to do with human relationships. The Narrator claims more than once that friendship is for him essentially an empty thing: at best a utilitarian mechanism for getting something he wants (sex, generally) through social connections, and at worst a complete waste of time. The Narrator of course has many character flaws and isn't ashamed to claim them as virtues (this is the primary source of Proust's comic irony throughout the many books of the novel). We are shown repeatedly how one person will (often willfully) misunderstand the motives and actions of another and will treat that other person thoughtlessly or with deliberately harmful intent, often just for the pleasure of spite and the wicked amusement of others. We are shown repeatedly (and, in the case of the Albertine-as-prisoner story, at great length) how a person can be blind to everything except a mistaken idea he clings to in his ignorance, refusing to abandon that idea even as he destroys another person. This ethical theme of Proust's is the same as that of Chekhov: we are all living badly, and we should stop it. We are half-blind monsters, mauling each other in a fog while shouting about love, unable (or unwilling) to accept the reality of each other*. This monstrousness is presented by Proust as a tragedy, as he can see no remedy for it. The best we can do is recognize our mistreatment of our loved ones in retrospect. In Search of Lost Time is a melancholy novel.

The plot doesn't matter. None of the events matter. One person's life is much like another's, and even a great hero of the Great War has spent most of his life off the battlefield, wasting time and looking past his friends at nothing, at his own prejudices, at his unfulfilled desires. The truth of our lives can be found just as much by gazing through a shop window at a new pair of kid gloves as it can be found in the struggle for existence. After all, one mourns the loss of a favorite pair of gloves much more than one mourns the loss of a sister, cousin, husband or wife. One was, it must be admitted, better acquainted with the gloves.

Again, this is a sad book. Marcel dissects and dismisses everyone, from poor fishermen to princesses and all comers in between, including himself. We are distant and unkind because we never see each other, not really, and one cannot be expected to love a person one has never met. Each of us is transitory, unnecessary, interchangeable and there is an endless supply of new humanity swarming to take up our places, our causes, our thoughts and mannerisms. Witness the section in Volume VI about "the Princess de Guermantes", a royal title that endures in the world for century upon century as the title is held by a succession of women, the most recent being a selfish and small-minded narcissist who has managed to marry and inherit her way upward from the shops to the nobility, but even she will die and there will be a new Princess de Guermantes, an empty tiara atop an expendable head. Witness also the changing of social places between Madame Verdurin (who has become that most recent Princess de Guermantes) and Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes (who is originally introduced to us as a magical creature, the apex of elegance and style); Oriane in Volume VI finally comes to possess the mocking laughter and appalling humor exhibited by Mme Verdurin in volumes I-V.

Some Complaints:

This is a long book. We all know that, right? Every reader seems to find something he must drag himself through, some resistant narration to overcome, some seemingly-endless swamp to cross. I don't understand the readers who find the party scenes dull; they all struck me as vibrant, living scenes full of action and humor and irony. In fact, any time three or more people gather together, there are bound to be hijinks. But what was it that made me pray for either death or sudden speed-reading abilities? Oh, yes: The Captive and Marcel's endless suspicions that Albertine might be having lesbian affairs, and his examination of every detail of Albertine's life in search of evidence by which to condemn her. I can't tell you how happy I was when Francoise announced to Marcel that Albertine had packed her bags and fled the house. The scenes which follow--the opening of The Fugitive, that is--are fairly packed with comedy as Marcel reaches increasingly great heights of nervous fluttering about as he plots to get Albertine back or, if he can't have her, he plans to kill himself on the front steps of Albertine's mother's house. That'll show her.

Yes, yes, Albertine, the love of Marcel's life until he forgets all about her, is barely sketched in; we learn nothing about her mind or personality except those impressions had by Marcel, who knows less about the interior world of Albertine than I know about the interior world of my cat. Some readers see this as a weakness in Proust's writing. I recognize it as a central pillar of Proust's characterization of the Narrator. Marcel the narrator is not Marcel Proust the author of the book. Imagine if Anthony Burgess had only written A Clockwork Orange, and readers assumed Burgess was essentially the same person as young Alex. Proust sees the moral and intellectual weaknesses of Marcel.

Still, Proust himself seems to have been something of a weirdo. But really, get to know anyone well enough, and you see their eccentricities. Write enough prose and your own eccentricities will rise to the surface of the work. I claim to know something about this. But what was I saying? Oh, the dull parts. I'm in the camp of readers who grew exhausted reading many sections in which a single idea was examined and rephrased again and again and again as Proust (or Marcel; hard to say here) sought the perfect analogy and failed to find it. Sometimes there is less deep and probing meditation than there is waffling about in the hope that inspiration will eventually strike. In Search of Lost Time employs techniques of comparison, showing us for example different sets of people engaged in essentially the same activities but believing themselves inhabitants of foreign worlds, and these comparisons continue across the length of the novel and successfully expose the Verdurin set and the Guermantes set to be the same people in different hats. The technique of comparision lends itself less well to abstract ideas, and this is I think a weakness of In Search of Lost Time. Some of Proust's pet ideas are unhappily static and despite the author's best efforts, these ideas do not get up and dance no matter how insistent the tune Proust plays. Happily, for me at least, these static sections always end and there's another party, or Charlus comes prancing up the sidewalk. The inserted essays about art and writing, on the other hand, are worth their weight in gold. Really good stuff in every volume.

Some Other Things:

The ending, so I have read many times, is where we learn that In Search of Lost Time is a Künstlerroman, the story of a writer named Marcel becoming a writer, as if his discovery that he has a work of art in him is the primary point toward which the novel has built, the thematic and dramatic climax of the work. I think people who say this are mistaking structure for content. Volume VI is the author instructing the reader on how to read In Search of Lost Time. Marcel becoming a writer, as a sick old man, is plot, not subject matter. The novel is not an adventure unfolding over time. The Odyssey is more than the story of an old king who tries to go home and then finally goes home. Just because Odysseus sits in his great hall with Penelope at the end of the story does not mean that the story is about him getting to that point. See above about the moral theme of the novel. My complaints, I begin to realize, are mostly concerned with things I've read about Proust, not so much with Mr Proust's work itself. Huh. I am a cranky old reader trying to go home, maybe. This post is the story of me getting to the end of this post, realizing that I could write a post about this post. This is not that post I realized I could write. In Search of Lost Time is not the novel Marcel realized he could write. That novel is on the shelf of Borges' imaginary library.

Speaking of Marcel as a sick old man, Proust died before he finished revising the final volume, and I think that's evident; in many places there is a rough work-in-progress quality, of unstitched hems and sleeves tacked into place awaiting a final fitting. You can tell that the last paragraph of the book, with it's lovely image (of a man walking on ever-lengthening legs which raise him daily farther above his birth so as to lengthen his physical body as his existence in time grows progressively longer until one day his legs are so long that they can no longer support him and he topples over, falling to his death), has been polished and worked at by Proust, so perfect is it in tone and rhythm. But the fifty pages before this gem are quite uneven and I am sure that Proust would've done a lot of work on them had he lived longer. Even the final long party scene (how pleased I was when Proust gave me another party in the Faubourg Saint Germain), where Proust drags nearly every character who's appeared in the book back onto the stage for a final bow, has events out of order and odd repetitions and contradictions. I can't say what Proust would've done with Volume VI had he lived except that surely he'd have resolved the narrative contradictions, smoothed out the sketchy ideas of the last fifty pages, and gosh we can all predict that it would've been a hundred or two hundred pages longer. Which would've been fine. I'd have read another two hundred pages, especially of party scenes.

I claim the unfinished state of the novel for my uncertainty as to what Proust was getting at in some places in Volume VI. The idea of characters taking on the habits and ideas of other characters, of each of us being not one person but many people who are born and die in succession without realizing it (the new identities visible only to outside observers who have been out of contact with us long enough for our internal changes to have come to the surface), is a good one and Proust makes good use of it. I assume that's what he's doing when he has Marcel state that he plans to withdraw from society in order to concentrate on his writing, the only contact he'll desire being that of young girls whom he might shower with gifts and someday maybe be kissed on the cheek, and Gilberte introducing Marcel to her own sixteen year-old daughter for this very purpose. That is an odd episode, and the best I can make of it is that Marcel is taking the place of the late M. Bergotte, whose behavior in this vein is described early in The Captive:
For years past Bergotte had ceased to go out of doors. [...] He was generous above all towards women — girls, one ought rather to say — who were ashamed to receive so much in return for so little. He excused himself in his own eyes because he knew that he could never produce such good work as in an atmosphere of amorous feelings. Love is too strong a word, pleasure that is at all deeply rooted in the flesh is helpful to literary work because it cancels all other pleasures, for instance the pleasures of society, those which are the same for everyone. And even if this love leads to disillusionment, it does at least stir, even by so doing, the surface of the soul which otherwise would be in danger of becoming stagnant. Desire is therefore not without its value to the writer in detaching him first of all from his fellow men and from conforming to their standards, and afterwards in restoring some degree of movement to a spiritual machine which, after a certain age, tends to become paralysed. We do not succeed in being happy but we make observation of the reasons which prevent us from being happy and which would have remained invisible to us but for these loopholes opened by disappointment. Dreams are not to be converted into reality, that we know; we would not form any, perhaps, were it not for desire, and it is useful to us to form them in order to see them fail and to be instructed by their failure. And so Bergotte said to himself: "I am spending more than a multimillionaire would spend upon girls, but the pleasures or disappointments that they give me make me write a book which brings me money." Economically, this argument was absurd, but no doubt he found some charm in thus transmuting gold into caresses and caresses into gold.
I was pleased with the way, about four pages from the end, Marcel loops back around to the night when Swann visited his parents at Combray and Marcel's mother did not come upstairs to kiss Marcel goodnight, choosing instead to remain in the parlor until Swann had left. Swann's coming between Marcel and his mother that evening was the beginning of the end of Marcel's childhood and innocence, Swann's life casting a shadow all through Marcel's days, from one end of time to the other.


* Witness the "air raid" scene early in Volume VI, in which Parisians rush to the Metro--its tunnels in complete darkness--where they hope to find a willing partner for anonymous sex, to engage with others at a purely physical level, simultaneously intimate and absent, simultaneously vulnerable and invulnerable, simultaneously naked and fully-armored, as all the while the City of Lights above their heads is being bombed into rubble.

Friday, June 2, 2017

my apprehensions on the subject of my death

...and I understood but too well that the sensation the uneven paving-stones, the taste of the madeleine, had aroused in me, bore no relation to that which I had so often attempted to reconstruct of Venice, of Balbec and of Combray with the aid of a uniform memory. Moreover, I realised that life can be considered commonplace in spite of its appearing so beautiful at particular moments because in the former case one judges and underrates it on quite other grounds than itself, upon images which have no life in them. At most I noted additionally that the difference there is between each real impression—differences which explain why a uniform pattern of life cannot resemble it—can probably be ascribed to this: that the slightest word we have spoken at a particular period of our life, the most insignificant gesture to which we have given vent, were surrounded, bore upon them the reflection of things which logically were unconnected with them, were indeed isolated from them by the intelligence which did not need them for reasoning purposes but in the midst of which—here, the pink evening-glow upon the floral wall-decoration of a rustic restaurant, a feeling of hunger, sexual desire, enjoyment of luxury—there, curling waves beneath the blue of a morning sky enveloping musical phrases which partly emerge like mermaids' shoulders—the most simple act or gesture remains enclosed as though in a thousand jars of which each would be filled with things of different colours, odours and temperature...

Yes, if a memory, thanks to forgetfulness, has been unable to contract any tie, to forge any link between itself and the present, if it has remained in its own place, of its own date, if it has kept its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or on the peak of a mountain, it makes us suddenly breathe an air new to us just because it is an air we have formerly breathed, an air purer than that the poets have vainly called Paradisiacal, which offers that deep sense of renewal only because it has been breathed before, inasmuch as the true paradises are paradises we have lost. And on the way to it, I noted that there would be great difficulties in creating the work of art I now felt ready to undertake...

...the being within me which sensed this impression, sensed what it had in common in former days and now, sensed its extra-temporal character, a being which only appeared when through the medium of the identity of present and past, it found itself in the only setting in which it could exist and enjoy the essence of things, that is, outside Time. That explained why my apprehensions on the subject of my death had ceased from the moment when I had unconsciously recognised the taste of the little madeleine because at that moment the being that I then had been was an extra-temporal being and in consequence indifferent to the vicissitudes of the future. That being had never come to me, had never manifested itself except when I was inactive and in a sphere beyond the enjoyment of the moment, that was my prevailing condition every time that analogical miracle had enabled me to escape from the present. Only that being had the power of enabling me to recapture former days, Time Lost, in the face of which all the efforts of my memory and of my intelligence came to nought.
The Great War is over, and Marcel returns to Paris where he has an epiphany concerning the difference between the real workings of memory and the social construction of reality. He thinks that maybe, after all, he could have an art project.

Meanwhile, Baron Charlus has become quite a sad figure indeed.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

I am all at once what Christ is, says Gerard Manley Hopkins

After a little poking around, I discover without a speck of surprise that everyone (and the dog as well) has seen the mark of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry on the poems of Dylan Thomas. Having just read the collected poetry of Hopkins, I am ready to announce that I find much of Thomas' work baffling and impenetrable in the same way I find much of Hopkins' work. I call that real progress, the ability to point to one poet and see an ancestor poet, an influence. I can only do this with Thomas and Hopkins, but it's a start, you boys. Though it's true that there are plenty of other poets whose work I can't understand. I should rewrite this entire paragraph, add a little structure and sense. Alas.

I am also ready to announce that I find much of Hopkins' baffling work to be quite a lot of fun on the level of localized wordplay, of rhythm, and of rhyme even if I can't beat much sense out of the poems (or: even if the poems can't beat much sense into me). I can't say that I have that much fun with the baffling works of Dylan Thomas, but I have also not read that many of Thomas' poems; I could probably list them all in a short space if I could remember the names. Almost none of this is what I'd intended to write. I have not been a good reader of Gerard Manley Hopkins, is what I'd intended to write.

My ignorance of the Victorian Age allows me to skip right past Hopkins' references to the growing sense in England that Nature is just another machine, to be dealt with using more machines, and I am mostly blind to (unless I really search for it) Hopkins' growing insistence that Nature and the particularity of each individual thing within Nature is a road to spiritual perfection and grace (in the Catholic sense, that is). Most of that is lost on me; I know it's there because smarter readers, biographers and editors say it's so. I can see the poems invoke Nature and natural forces and I can see when Hopkins stretches and extends Nature into metaphor to evangelize, like he does in "The Starlight Night":
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
    Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
    Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
shocks here refers to a collection of twelve sheaves of wheat, so the Apostles, you heathen you. This is one of those poems where some of it is for me mere fun with phonics rather than anything I can clearly understand. Check out the middle of the thing:
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
    Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
    Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
I'm hazy as to what most of that intends to convey. Stars shining overhead and fields of grain maybe, snow like flying chicken feathers, sure. But what about them? I donno, not really.

In the end, I can't say I've gotten much out of Hopkins' poems. Though maybe it's too early to tell. After all, what do I mean by "gotten much out of," anyway? Certainly my initial response to many of the later poems was one of confusion, that of a man who stares at a sign writ in an unfamiliar tongue. But there are things like "Inversnaid," where I find
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
and that's quite fine, Hopkins keeping the complexity of the sounds themselves while leaving the grammatical complexity behind so that a simple guy like me can see Hopkins' weeds and agree with him that we should keep it all with us, the wet and the wildness. Hopefully, someday I will be comfortable with complexity in poetry the way I am with complexity in prose. How can I declare Finnegans Wake beautiful while declaring Hopkins impenetrable? I don't know. I do like this, though:
                                         ...Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world's wildfire, leave but ash:
                                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                                            Is immortal diamond.
That one's easy to get something out of. Maybe I'll write about Hopkins again, in a year or two, after I read him another time. It could happen.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"War," he said, "does not escape the laws of our old Hegel. It is a state of perpetual becoming."

The city seemed a formless and black mass which all of a sudden passed from the depth of night into a blaze of light, and in the sky, where one after another, the aviators rose amidst the shrieking wail of the sirens while, with a slower movement, more insidious and therefore more alarming, for it made one think they were seeking ah object still invisible but perhaps close to us, the searchlights swept unceasingly, scenting the enemy, encircling him with their beams until the instant when the pointed planes flashed like arrows in his wake. And in squadron after squadron the aviators darted from the city into the sky like Walkyries. Yet close to the ground, at the base of the houses, some spots were in high light and I told Saint-Loup, if he had been at home the evening before, he would have been able, while he contemplated the apocalypse in the sky, to see on the earth, as in the burial of the Comte d'Orgaz by Greco, where those contrasting planes are parallel, a regular vaudeville played by personages in night-gowns, whose Well-known names ought to have been sent to some successor of that Ferrari whose fashionable notes it had so often amused him and myself to parody. And we should have done so again that day as though there had been no war, although about a very "war-subject", the dread of zeppelins realised, the Duchesse de Guermantes superb in her night-dress, the Duc de Guermantes indescribable in his pink pyjamas and bath-gown, etc., etc.
I am about 105 pages into the final volume of Proust's In Search of My Lost Time Piece, and by gum, it's riveting stuff. The War as seen from Paris, by a non-combatant observer, the political and social changes brought by war and the shifting power between the middle classes and the nobility. Truly great stuff, electric, even if it is mostly Marcel reporting conversations he's had with Parisians about the war. I find it impossible to imagine Paris in a blackout, the streets empty. In 1916, Proust was 45 years old. It's unclear how old Marcel was that year.

Monday, May 15, 2017

gnōthi seauton, Marcel

"...love, even in its humblest beginnings, is a striking example of how little reality means to us." --Marcel Proust, À la Recherche du temps perdu: Albertine disparue, Montcrieff translation.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Burn the house and start from scratch

I have printed out the manuscript for a novel called Antosha!, in order to prepare it for submission to a variety of literary agents and small presses. "Prepare it" here means revise once again, polish up the prose, fuss with the narrative, and in at least one case, completely rewrite the ending of a section. None of this is new to me, having been down this road with other manuscripts many times already. I've been putting this off not because I don't enjoy the work (because I do enjoy the work of revising; it's where the real writing takes place, where the real creative work happens), but because it leads inevitably to the cover letter I must send along with the manuscript when shilling it to agents and publishers. What am I going to say about this book? That's always a vexing question.

I don't think of my novels as particularly experimental or unorthodox, though I suppose in my heart of hearts I am aware that I am not after all working along the same general lines as most of those writers whose novels are getting published. What are my books? They're collections of ideas more than they are self-contained stories about particular characters. I do not believe in characters, or setting, or plot, though all of my novels include stuff that looks like those things. What I mean is that I no longer believe that long-form fiction is really what we're all taught to believe it is. I don't believe that we are watching a play in our imaginations, or whatever, or that we are to believe in the structural integrity of the imaginary characters and the internal consistency of their imaginary worlds. No, I don't buy that, because what a writer of fiction does is manipulate and twist all of the imaginary elements of the imaginary events into arbitrary shapes to fit around his worldview, which is what's actually being put on display. In most current American fiction, the worldview is one where an Individual becomes valuable, overcoming adversity, or something like that. You are a special snowflake, imaginary protagonist, and so are you, imaginary reader. Fly your freak flag etc. Share your own story, we celebrate you.

My novels sort of tend to be fairy tales or myths about other novels, or at least they acknowledge that there is a great deal of other literature out there, and attempt to horn in on their imaginary real estate and invoke those other novels within my own imaginary lands. But mostly, my novels express my particular worldview that selfishness is a failing business and should be abandoned. Or, as Chekhov said to Gorky, "Tell my friends that they are living badly, and they should stop it." This worldview is not generally considered to be marketable. That's one reason my books stay unpublished, I believe. There are other reasons, such as my clanging reader-unfriendly prose and my refusal to hew closely to a certain novelistic metapredictability. I make myself out here to be some sort of militant avant gardist, but really I just write the books as they occur to me, and I try to make the process of writing them as interesting as I can, and I am attracted to certain things like stream of consciousness and sudden swaths of elevated language and metaphysics and looping chronology and the development of theme versus the development of plot. Also, probably, I moralize far too much, I am propelled by philosophical forces as much as I am by artistic forces. Which is just like I am in real, non-novel-writing life, I say touchily in my defense. My imaginary people often think about love and art and faith, instead of sex and money and success and what other people think about them. This makes the novels "not relatable," as Ira Glass said of "King Lear" in his Philistine "Shakespeare sucks" tweets a year or two ago. Fuck you, Ira Glass.

I am drifting far, far off topic here, amn't I? This is why I try not to blog about my own writing, because too often it turns into a litany of complaints. Who am I to complain? What standing have I upon which to base my complaints? So where was I?

Oh, yes, the cover letter. I am never sure what to say about my novels. Perhaps they are not really novels. Perhaps they're more like imaginary symposia superimposed over reports of fictional journeys. That last sentence will not go into my cover letters. It would be fun, though. But no.

Antosha! is the fictional biography of Antosha Chekhonte, who was a pseudonym of Anton Chekhov. Antosha! presents a skewed reflection of the life of Chekhov, in the form of stories, letters, and a stage play, and the novel projects past the death of Antosha Chekhonte to hint at the influence of Chekhov that has carried forward into the present day (though of course my book by itself already demonstrates that). There are also mashups of Shakespeare and Kafka with Chekhov, and a burlesque of Leo Tolstoy. Anyway, none of what I've just written is likely to make the novel look marketable (or relatable, Mr Glass), no matter how well the book is written. Nevertheless, I am preparing Antosha! for submission to a variety of literary agents and small presses. It's what I do, for now anyway.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The sweet cheat's new wheels

Alas, this false letter, when I wrote it in order to appear not to be dependent upon her and also to enjoy the pleasure of saying certain things which could arouse emotion only in myself and not in her, I ought to have foreseen from the start that it was possible that it would result in a negative response, that is to say one which confirmed what I had said; that this was indeed probable, for even had Albertine been less intelligent than she was, she would never have doubted for an instant that what I said to her was untrue. Indeed without pausing to consider the intentions that I expressed in this letter, the mere fact of my writing it, even if it had not been preceded by Saint-Loup’s intervention, was enough to prove to her that I desired her return and to prompt her to let me become more and more inextricably ensnared. Then, having foreseen the possibility of a reply in the negative, I ought also to have foreseen that this reply would at once revive in its fullest intensity my love for Albertine. And I ought, still before posting my letter, to have asked myself whether, in the event of Albertine’s replying in the same tone and refusing to return, I should have sufficient control over my grief to force myself to remain silent, not to telegraph to her: "Come back," not to send her some other messenger, which, after I had written to her that we would not meet again, would make it perfectly obvious that I could not get on without her, and would lead to her refusing more emphatically than ever, whereupon I, unable to endure my anguish for another moment, would go down to visit her and might, for all I knew, be refused admission. And, no doubt, this would have been, after three enormous blunders, the worst of all, after which there would be nothing left but to take my life in front of her house.
The Fugitive is, at least in the opening pages, a comedy, a cross between French farce and something by Wodehouse. Marcel runs in circles, flaps his hands, alternates between despair and fury, and simply must have Albertine back, by this very evening! Or tomorrow evening! Or a week from now, or two weeks, at the very latest! But no, he despises her! though he cannot live without her! Etc! It's all very funny. I laughed aloud when I got to the "take my life in front of her house" line above. That conclusion on Marcel's part comes after he writes a long passive-aggressive letter to Albertine, in which he tells her how much better off they are apart, though
I had thought of organising our existence in the most independent manner possible, and, to begin with, I wished you to have that yacht in which you could go cruising while I, not being well enough to accompany you, would wait for you at the port (I had written to Elstir to ask for his advice, since you admire his taste), and on land I wished you to have a motor-car to yourself, for your very own, in which you could go out, could travel wherever you chose. The yacht was almost ready; it is named, after a wish that you expressed at Balbec, le Cygne. And remembering that your favourite make of car was the Rolls, I had ordered one. But now that we are never to meet again, as I have no hope of persuading you to accept either the vessel or the car (to me they would be quite useless), I had thought — as I had ordered them through an agent, but in your name — that you might perhaps by countermanding them, yourself, save me the expense of the yacht and the car which are no longer required. But this, and many other matters, would need to be discussed. Well, I find that so long as I am capable of falling in love with you again, which will not be for long, it would be madness, for the sake of a sailing-vessel and a Rolls-Royce, to meet again and to risk the happiness of your life since you have decided that it lies in your living apart from myself. No, I prefer to keep the Rolls and even the yacht. And as I shall make no use of them and they are likely to remain for ever, one in its dock, dismantled, the other in its garage...
Marcel will keep the yacht and the Rolls Royce, as mementos of his love for Albertine. He has of course purchased neither item. This is all very funny, as his hysteria mounts. Calling the yacht "Swan" is funny. I don't know if it's funny in French. Probably, but in a more direct way. Meanwhile, Marcel is under observation by the French police, who mistakenly (but understandably) suspect him of being a pedophile, and it is also at this time that the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes are trying to arrange a marriage between one of their nieces and Marcel, whom they view as almost suitable for a young girl in whom none of the nobility are interested.

I just remembered the part of Max Frisch's Homo Faber where Walter buys his mistress, Ivy, a sports car in her favorite color. Proust casts a very long shadow.

Friday, April 28, 2017

in re Proust's "The Captive"

My dear girl, why on earth did you wait so long to call for all your luggage?

I've read a few reviews/articles where the reader complains that there is no layer of irony over the selfish monstrousness of Marcel to distance Proust from the sins of the narrator. How, I ask them, can the man who wrote Swann in Love and the Morel/Charlus story arc not see how the Marcel character is reenacting those relationships? Proust is clearly aware of Marcel's paranoia and even has him admit here and there that he may in fact be mistaken about all of Albertine's motivations and interior world. Not to mention the reflection back to the first volume's incident of Marcel annoying his mother with his demands that she abandon whatever guests she might be entertaining in order to run upstairs and reassure him with a goodnight kiss. Marcel is not, after all, getting much more from Albertine than goodnight kisses. Not that any author is obliged to show that she is capable of making moral judgments about her narrator, of course. No author should be expected to accommodate any reader's opinions or ethics.

The Captive turns out to be quite lively, taking a swerve in the middle from meditation to action the way all four previous volumes have done. I wonder how I'll feel in mid-June or so when I've finished In Search of Lost Time. Whenever I have read a long novel I experience a sense of loss at the parting. Anyway: run, Albertine, run! Thank God he didn't buy that yacht! Imagine being trapped on a boat with Marcel.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Let us not speak of the brain

Proust, in volume V of Les Portes de la Perception, requires twenty-five pages to move Marcel, Brichot, and Charlus from the front steps to the entry hall of the Verdurin's house in Paris. It is a very energetic twenty-five pages, a swirling mass of regret and approaching humiliation for the baron. Proust has by now abandoned traditional narrative means of foreshadowing, instead blatantly telling the reader how things will go badly for which characters in the future, and even why.
at each fresh doubt we feel that the measure is heaped full, that we cannot cope with it, then we manage to find room for it all the same, and once it is introduced into our vital essence it enters into competition there with so many longings to believe, so many reasons to forget, that we speedily become accustomed to it, and end by ceasing to pay it any attention. There remains only, like a partly healed pain, the menace of possible suffering, which, the counterpart of desire, a feeling of the same order, and like it become the centre of our thoughts, radiates through them to an infinite circumference a wistful melancholy, as desire radiates pleasures whose origin we fail to perceive, wherever anything may suggest the idea of the person with whom we are in love. But pain revives as soon as a fresh doubt enters our mind complete; even if we assure ourself almost immediately: "I shall deal with this, there must be some method by which I need not suffer, it cannot be true," nevertheless there has been a first moment in which we suffered as though we believed it. If we had merely members, such as legs and arms, life would be endurable; unfortunately we carry inside us that little organ which we call the heart, which is subject to certain maladies in the course of which it is infinitely impressionable by everything that concerns the life of a certain person, so that a lie—that most harmless of things, in the midst of which we live so unconcernedly, if the lie be told by ourselves or by strangers—coming from that person, causes the little heart, which surgeons ought really to be able to excise from us, intolerable anguish. Let us not speak of the brain, for our mind may go on reasoning interminably in the course of this anguish, it does no more to mitigate it than by taking thought can we soothe an aching tooth.

Monday, April 17, 2017

a little fool has made you the hero of one of his volumes

The death of Swann had been a crushing blow to me at the time. The death of Swann! Swann, in this phrase, is something more than a noun in the possessive case. I mean by it his own particular death, the death allotted by destiny to the service of Swann. For we talk of 'death' for convenience, but there are almost as many different deaths as there are people. We are not equipped with a sense that would enable us to see, moving at every speed in every direction, these deaths, the active deaths aimed by destiny at this person or that. Often there are deaths that will not be entirely relieved of their duties until two or even three years later. They come in haste to plant a tumour in the side of a Swann, then depart to attend to their other duties, returning only when, the surgeons having performed their operation, it is necessary to plant the tumour there afresh. Then comes the moment when we read in the _Gaulois_ that Swann's health has been causing anxiety but that he is now making an excellent recovery. Then, a few minutes before the breath leaves our body, death, like a sister of charity who has come to nurse, rather than to destroy us, enters to preside over our last moments, crowns with a supreme halo the cold and stiffening creature whose heart has ceased to beat. And it is this diversity among deaths, the mystery of their circuits, the colour of their fatal badge, that makes so impressive a paragraph in the newspapers such as this:

"We regret to learn that M. Charles Swann passed away yesterday at his residence in Paris, after a long and painful illness. A Parisian whose intellectual gifts were widely appreciated, a discriminating but steadfastly loyal friend, he will be universally regretted, in those literary and artistic circles where the soundness and refinement of his taste made him a willing and a welcome guest, as well as at the Jockey Club of which he was one of the oldest and most respected members. He belonged also to the Union and Agricole. He had recently resigned his membership of the Rue Royale. His personal appearance and eminently distinguished bearing never failed to arouse public interest at all the great events of the musical and artistic seasons, especially at private views, at which he was a regular attendant until, during the last years of his life, he became almost entirely confined to the house. The funeral will take place, etc."

From this point of view, if one is not 'somebody,' the absence of a well known title makes the process of decomposition even more rapid. No doubt it is more or less anonymously, without any personal identity, that a man still remains Duc d'Uzès. But the ducal coronet does for some time hold the elements together, as their moulds keep together those artistically designed ices which Albertine admired, whereas the names of ultra-fashionable commoners, as soon as they are dead, dissolve and lose their shape. We have seen M. de Bréauté speak of Cartier as the most intimate friend of the Duc de La Trémoïlle, as a man greatly in demand in aristocratic circles. To a later generation, Cartier has become something so formless that it would almost be adding to his importance to make him out as related to the jeweller Cartier, with whom he would have smiled to think that anybody could be so ignorant as to confuse him! Swann on the contrary was a remarkable personality, in both the intellectual and the artistic worlds; and even although he had 'produced' nothing, still he had a chance of surviving a little longer. And yet, my dear Charles ——, whom I used to know when I was still so young and you were nearing your grave, it is because he whom you must have regarded as a little fool has made you the hero of one of his volumes that people are beginning to speak of you again and that your name will perhaps live. If in Tissot's picture representing the balcony of the Rue Royale club, where you figure with Galliffet, Edmond Polignac and Saint-Maurice, people are always drawing attention to yourself, it is because they know that there are some traces of you in the character of Swann.

To return to more general realities, it was of this foretold and yet unforeseen death of Swann that I had heard him speak himself to the Duchesse de Guermantes, on the evening of her cousin's party. It was the same death whose striking and specific strangeness had recurred to me one evening when, as I ran my eye over the newspaper, my attention was suddenly arrested by the announcement of it, as though traced in mysterious lines interpolated there out of place. They had sufficed to make of a living man some one who can never again respond to what you say to him, to reduce him to a mere name, a written name, that has passed in a moment from the real world to the realm of silence. It was they that even now made me anxious to make myself familiar with the house in which the Verdurins had lived, and where Swann, who at that time was not merely a row of five letters printed in a newspaper, had dined so often with Odette. I must add also (and this is what for a long time made Swann's death more painful than any other, albeit these reasons bore no relation to the individual strangeness of his death) that I had never gone to see Gilberte, as I promised him at the Princesse de Guermantes's, that he had never told me what the 'other reason' was, to which he alluded that evening, for his selecting me as the recipient of his conversation with the Prince, that a thousand questions occurred to me (as bubbles rise from the bottom of a pond) which I longed to ask him about the most different subjects: Vermeer, M. de Mouchy, Swann himself, a Boucher tapestry, Combray, questions that doubtless were not very vital since I had put off asking them from day to day, but which seemed to me of capital importance now that, his lips being sealed, no answer would ever come.
from Le Cygne by M. Proust

In the fifth book of his Lost Time novel, Proust frequently addresses the reader, admitting that long passages (the introductory scene where Marcel awakens to the "symphony of the street", for example) are fictional simplifications, condensations as it were, of the real world that have been put together in the interests of narrative coherence, as Proust stresses that he is writing a novel rather than a memoir, that the effect he strives for is more important than any fidelity to the actual workings of actual life. "If we were not obliged, to preserve the continuity of our story, to confine ourselves to frivolous reasons, how many more serious reasons would permit us to demonstrate the falsehood and flimsiness of the opening pages of this volume in which, from my bed, I hear the world awake, now to one sort of weather, now to another. Yes, I have been forced to whittle down the facts, and to be a liar, but it is not one universe, there are millions, almost as many as the number of human eyes and brains in existence, that awake every morning."

These asides to the reader, like the aside above to Swann's ghost, are delightful. Also delightful is that Marcel-the-narrator is just about to walk into another 150-page party scene. The parties are great fun in Proust, lively and sparkling with a lot of comic set-pieces and sight gags. Great stuff.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

longed long to return

I'm a little more than 200 pages into The Modern Library's fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time, which begins with The Captive, wherein our narrator (we'll call him "Marcel" for convenience's sake) has brought Albertine to live with him in his parent's Paris house. This volume has been, I am sorry to say, a real drag, a repetitive morass of a jealous lover's complaints and suspicions:
Thus it is that jealousy is endless, for even if the beloved object, by dying for instance, can no longer provoke it by her actions, it so happens that posthumous memories, of later origin than any event, take shape suddenly in our minds as though they were events also, memories which hitherto we have never properly explored, which had seemed to us unimportant, and to which our own meditation upon them has been sufficient, without any external action, to give a new and terrible meaning. We have no need of her company, it is enough to be alone in our room, thinking, for fresh betrayals of us by our mistress to come to light, even though she be dead. And so we ought not to fear in love, as in everyday life, the future alone, but even the past which often we do not succeed in realising until the future has come and gone; and we are not speaking only of the past which we discover long afterwards, but of the past which we have long kept stored up in ourselves and learn suddenly how to interpret.
and on and on in that vein for hundreds of pages. Proust interrupts his claustrophobic meditation on jealousy here and there with some marvelous set pieces: conversations with the Duchess de Guermantes about clothing, a long passage about the songs of street vendors (a sort of precursor to the "Who Will Buy" number in "Oliver!"), and a variety of other vignettes that break up the steady stream of Marcel's paranoia about a girl he does not love but cannot let go.

I've read a few reviews of The Captive where the reviewer clearly misses that Proust is condemning his narrator, letting him paint himself into a moral corner in a way similar to that of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert. Marcel is small-minded, lazy and ridiculous, and Proust knows this. Hell, Marcel knows this; Marcel the narrator, that is, if not Marcel the jealous young man living with his uninterested lover in Paris. I think that the relentlessness of Marcel's broody suspicion is meant to imitate the state of mind of a person obsessed with his own jealous nature (his jealousy fascinates him much more than Albertine, the object of his jealousy, does). It is a good character study, an encyclopedic study, rigorous and thorough. But long, man. Long and exhausting.

Monday, April 10, 2017

the rilling and skirring of high and low artifice

“Complex Chinese”

That Monday evening, as William stood washing dishes in his miniscule kitchen, millions of pale blue soap bubbles rilled and skirred atop the sinkful of hot water, humming a song of cleanliness into the humid air. Every bubble reflected, refracted, received a hallucination of William’s distracted expression and they knew, did the pale blue bubbles, that William was thinking about the as-yet unwritten fourth act of the stage play he’d been composing. William’s hands broke through the skirring, rilling clouds of bubbles, down into the water where the dirty dishes mumbled in various tongues, all incomprehensible to the soap bubbles. The very water from the taps seemed to have a foreign accent. The soap bubbles rilled and skirred and hummed a song that questioned the source of the water. The dish soap, mostly water itself, had been bottled in Wisconsin. William’s taps were not full of Wisconsin water.
    William squeezed the blue sponge he held in his right hand, the soft rough mound hot and slick with Wisconsin soap. The complete fourth act of William’s play came to him at that moment, every word of it all at once, and he squeezed the blue sponge again. He felt a powerful new force in his chest, a concentrated pyramid of coals that gave off opal heat and the scent of apples glowing around his heart. Soap bubbles drizzled from his hand to the sink, glowing and giggling with surprise and pleasure, squirming between his fingers before leaping away in celebration.
    That night William dreamed again about the Chinese waitress, a hot blue dream of squeezing and slickness and the movement of foreign tongues. When he awoke, William discovered that he was covered with lipstick prints, the crimson shape of a woman’s open mouth stamped all over his pale skin. In the shower he scrubbed at the impressions, pushing hard against himself with a sponge, but he was unable to wash the hundreds of mouths away. He shut his eyes and he could feel them on his skin, gently sucking, warm. I’m imagining them, William told himself. They’re just a distracted hallucination and nobody else will see them. The lipstick prints went no higher on his body than his jaw line, and when he squirmed into a turtleneck shirt, only two and a half of the mouths on his throat were visible in the mirror. William saw that since his shower three new imprints had appeared on the back of his left hand, and two on the back of his right hand. He pushed his hands into his pockets.
    William worked as a file clerk in an immense subterranean storage room beneath a towering office building. He supplied and received boxes of documents via a large and noisy dumbwaiter that rattled and skirred within the most remote wall of the file room; he communicated with his coworkers by handwritten notes sent through a pneumatic tube system. If a message came for William through the pneumatic tube, the mechanism convulsed and gave a noise of surprise and pleasure, a forceful “Ah!” to which sound William reacted by shivering, as a cold vibration rilled up his spine. William would have gladly listened all day to the sound of messages arriving, but the pneumatic tubes were not pleasured and surprised more than a few times each week. The workday began at eight o’clock, and at noon William climbed the service stairs that led up to the alley behind the office building. He blinked against the pale blue light and walked five blocks to the Chinese restaurant where he sat in a booth and wrote his dramatic works.
    It was a good booth, with a window and bright sunlight and a large table on which William could open out his work amongst the dishes and silverware. William wrote his plays longhand, into a particular brand of spiral-bound notebooks manufactured in Denmark. The crisp white pages reminded him of bed sheets. The stiff metal spiral that punctured and twisted the pages together reminded William that he’d lived alone for a long time. For two and a half years William had worked in the file room, had written plays in that booth at the Chinese restaurant during his lunch hour. All through those two and a half years the same waitress had brought him his hot tea, his egg drop soup and his stir-fried pork. The waitress was short and narrow through the shoulders, with poorly-cut hair lopped at her collarbone, a few gray strands among the dull black threads. William had no idea what her name was. Her English was not good; William’s Mandarin was nonexistent. He often thought about her hands as he fell asleep, her trimmed nails and sallow skin, the wrinkles of her small palms.
    The waitress came to his booth a few minutes after William seated himself. He’d laid his notebook on the table to the right of the place setting. The steel soup spoon, bamboo chopsticks in a bright red paper sleeve, the steel fork, all swaddled in a white paper napkin, reminded William of nothing but his hunger. He pushed the laminated menu with its water spots and adhesions of dried rice to the edge of the table and smiled at the waitress. She put her hand over her mouth and choked on soft trebles of laughter.
    “You had exciting night, huh?”
    William tugged at the collar of his shirt. The red lipstick mouths imprinted on his skin pulsed, all together at once, scalding wet over the length of his body. His clothing felt stiff, a carapace or a plaster cast, ready to burst open.
    “They won’t wash off,” he said.
    “They look like writing.”
    “Like writing?”
    “Like Chinese character, means ‘hunger.’ You need better soap.”
    The waitress raised her pen to her mouth and pushed against her lower lip with the pen’s pointed blue cap, leaving a tiny crevasse behind when she moved the pen away. The flesh on each side of this miniature valley swelled momentarily, glossy under the pale blue fluorescence of the dining room lamps.
    “You want stir-fry pork today?”
    “Yes.”
    William was aware that the waitress scrutinized his throat, and then he saw her gaze shift to the backs of his hands. He remained still, suppressing the impulse to hide his hands beneath the table, and then he felt her eyes upon his arms, his chest, his lap, as if the waitress was computing how many crimson mouths lay hidden from sight, and where precisely they were. William remembered the fourth act of the play he was writing and in surprise and pleasure he sat up straighter and said “Ah!” as a cold vibration rilled up his spine.
    The waitress retreated to the kitchen. William heard her voice, contralto and commanding, as she gave his lunch order to the cook. William had never seen the cook. He had never seen anyone but the waitress in the way of staff at the restaurant, but he’d often heard a man’s basso rumbling in Mandarin behind the beaded curtain that protected the kitchen from William’s curiosity. And it was to the sounds of this rumbling basso that William began hurriedly scratching away at his spiral-bound notebook, writing down the fourth act of his new play. William’s hope was that this would be the one to finally launch his career.
    Later that same afternoon, William locked himself into the employee washroom at the foot of the staircase that led down to the subterranean file room. He stripped off his clothes, careful to fold and stack them in the dust atop the paper towel dispenser. Standing naked and without socks in his untied shoes, William scrubbed himself with his employer’s harsh pink antibacterial hand soap. The soap, which was manufactured in Indiana, did not lather, bubble, rill, skirr or sing. It expressed only a slimy grumble as it ate away the lipstick impressions and irritated William’s skin even where he was most particularly gentle with himself. After half an hour or so he’d removed all but one of the crimson mouth prints. The washroom was especially cold in the summits of hot weather and William’s skin clung to him like wet fur, uncomfortable, ungainly, intolerable. William worried about the security of the washroom door. As he dried himself on coils of rough brown paper towel and wriggled into his clothing he heard the rattle of the dumbwaiter, the pneumatic tubes convulsing in surprise. Two and a half inches to the left of his navel, the single lipstick stain he could not remove clung moist to William’s skin. He felt the dark lips beneath his shirt, hungry with a life separate from his own. He tried to concentrate on his work.
    In the evening when he returned to his small apartment, William was tortured by the unwritten fifth act of his play. Two hours of pushing against the audience, of grinding into perceptions and filling eyes and ears with the rilling and skirring of high and low artifice and then—and then, a rhythmic building and pressing toward, toward—toward what? William didn’t know. He threw his imagination forward into the dark furrow of the unknown aesthetic and encountered nothing, desiring to leave the hypothetical audience open-mouthed, drained, filled with his vision. How? Nothing was coming and William sat at his small desk over the open pages of his particular spiral-bound notebook manufactured in Denmark and nothing was coming. He felt dry, his fingers limp around his fountain pen. In frustration William left his apartment and wandered aimlessly through his neighborhood, zigzagging northeast and then westerly, listening to the heat of the evening, his scalp damp with sweat.
    Light and movement caught his eye and he looked up into the attic windows of a large craftsman house on his left, an old home that enterprising landlords had filled with walls and doors, dividing it into many irregular studio apartments. William looked up into the windows of one of these apartments where a young woman languidly worked a wide brush across an enormous dark canvas. The woman had rolled her hair into a vinuous flaming mass atop her head and William saw the sheen of sweat on her bare skin as she worked naked, or at least naked to the waist. She turned and her shoulders, arms and breasts shone beneath the brilliant blue-white lights she’d mounted above the easel and William watched the fluid chiaroscuro of muscles and bones in her back.
    The woman looked down through the open window and William knew she could see him there, standing on the sidewalk looking up into her apartment. A vibration began at the base of William’s spine and then the woman turned away, her brush shivering into the canvas, the paint singing a song of blurring and opacity. The brush protested in confusion as the canvas stretched in the heat. William hurried back to his apartment where it was too hot to do anything and he lay on his secondhand couch dressed in nothing but a pair of boxers, the lamps off and the casement windows propped open in the hope of a cooling breeze. It was too hot to eat or drink so William slumped in the humid blue evening as the traffic grumbled along the street, exhaling an unpleasantness of fumes and heat that traveled in waves to roll, unwanted, into the condensed darkness of William’s apartment, lapping over William’s damp skin as he was slowly ground down into an unpleasantness of restless sleep. He wandered past the automobile exhaust and the heat, into a dream where the Chinese waitress sat in an office high above William’s file room in the towering building where he worked. She wore a tailored black suit with a short skirt, heels and an apricot-colored silk blouse. She called out to William as he passed her door on his way to the dumbwaiter, whose rectangular mouth slacked open, waiting to lower him into his own domain. William turned back from the dumbwaiter’s jaws and walked into the office. The waitress rose from her leather chair, circled around the pale blue steel desk and took William by the hands. She was excited, her eyes bright, a smile of surprise and pleasure on her face. Her fingers skirred and rilled and trembled against William’s.
    William smiled, aware that he was expected to share the happiness of the moment even though he didn’t know its source. He recalled that the waitress often seemed tired and melancholy, her greetings to customers a little forced. Sometimes she sang in Mandarin, quiet songs of misery that spun wobbling and limping into the dim air of the restaurant as she rolled soup spoons, chopsticks and forks in white paper napkins or wiped down the laminated menus with bleach water and a threadbare towel. When he thought about her past, William sometimes imagined that the waitress had come to America to escape persecution, and that in China she had been a research scientist or a physician, that identity and all her credentials abandoned during desperate flight to asylum across thousands of miles of ocean, Shanghai to Seattle, where she was lucky to have a job carrying tin pots of hot tea and bowls of soup.
    She drew him close. Her body was rigid, aflame and vibrating.
    “I leaving soon,” she said.
    “Leaving?”
    “I appointed professor of drama back home. I quit this job. Permanent faculty with tenure. No more stir-fry pork.”
    “When are you going?”
    “Tomorrow I fly back to Beijing.”
    “Tomorrow? But I haven’t finished my play.”
    She took William into her arms and the office building dissolved the way dream locations always do. They were in a room somewhere in Shanghai, naked on a bed. The high crescent moon shone through white curtains billowing at an open window. William lay with his head between her apple-scented breasts, her legs firmly around him, her vibrating fingers pressing his shoulders. When she moved, he felt her thousand soft mouths, slick with lipstick, sucking gently at his skin, leaving their mark.
    She whispered something in beautiful Mandarin, but he was already awake and could no longer hear her voice. On the dark street outside William’s apartment, a delivery truck stopped abruptly, the pneumatic brakes convulsing in surprise and pleasure.

(c) Scott G.F. Bailey, for what it's worth