Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Consume my heart away; sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal/It knows not what it is"

Waiting for the Barbarians: A Novel (Penguin Ink) (The Penguin Ink Series)

One thing I find curious about J.M. Coetzee is that there are, seemingly, no pictures of him as a young man. Even in the earliest photos his beard blooms white about his face. He is always an old man writing about the desires of old men, and that is why I read him.

Many things about the novel, in terms of its imperialist discourse, were predictable. Before even opening the book one can sense the ambiguities inherent in the designation "barbarian" (inevitably those using the word come to manifest its most brutal significations, as if the word were cursed with some strange incantatory property). The reader knows that the main character will be confronted with the violent foundations of empire and find himself unable to reconcile his ethical self with his practical self. What is atypical is that his moment of resistance, when it comes, is so pathetic: "You seem to want to make a name for yourself as the One Just Man," mocks the diabolical enforcer of the empire's grim will, "the man who is prepared to sacrifice his freedom for his principles" (131). "History will bear me out!" cries the main character in his own defense. "Nonsense," says the torturer. "There will be no history, the affair is too trivial" (131). There is nothing noble about the violence and humiliation the main character then endures, his former friends and neighbors are not galvanized into action against the unjust on his behalf, and his eventual release is as purposeless and mundane as the torture he experiences.

But the character of the old man's desire...that is where the meat of the work is for me. It isn't simply that old men have desires (for me the idea that age has a neutering effect is archaic and yet exerts a kind of moral pressure that is sometimes difficult to suppress), it's that the desires have such complex expressions, that they are mingled with the sense that they are inappropriate, distasteful and unrequited, and yet they are also frank and unrepentant: "The older a man the more grotesque people find his couplings, like the spasms of a dying animal [...] Sniggers, jokes, knowing looks--these are part of the price I am resigned to paying" (37). There is always a feeling, in the articulations of these desires, of compulsion. He cannot help himself (just as the professor in Disgrace: A Novel), even though he is acutely aware of the strained emotional state of his partner.

As the magistrate of some remote colonial outpost the main character is disturbed to find himself host to the kind of sociopath attracted to the workings of empire's savage underbelly: Colonel Joll. Joll and his soldiers spend their days arresting nomadic natives under dubious pretexts and dragging them into makeshift interrogation rooms in order to extract absurd confessions and uncover fantastic machinations against the empire. First two, then an entire tribe of nomads are brought and held within the borders of the magistrate's town while he does his best to remain entirely aloof from the proceedings: "The Empire does not require that its servants love each other," he tells himself as he provides the Colonel with all he requires, "merely that they perform their duty"(6). I suppose one can't help but evoke Orwell...

After the ordeal is over, the colonel departed, the prisoners, both living and dead, dispersed, the magistrate finds himself confronting his impotence upon no other field than the body of one of the victims: a woman, largely blinded and disabled by her interrogators whose father they killed before her. His unorthodox desires for her are mingled with his sense that he is exploiting her and is therefore not so different from the men who brutalized her: "I behave in many ways like a lover--I undress her, I bathe her, I stroke her, I sleep beside her--but I might equally well tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate" (49).

Here there is the invocation of those strange cartographic properties of a woman's body, a dark continent overrun by eager colonialists crazed by the prospect of penetration, a site across which bellicose matters are transacted, a place to which the male might come to procure his joy, assert his puissance, etc. Yet is it not also a country he might inhabit to gain awareness of himself? Might he not see upon her very desirability his own aversiveness? Is it not somehow heroic, this subjecting of oneself to one's most pathetic incarnations and yet for all that reasserting the heart's endurance? "That is no country for old men," writes Yeats."An aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ for every tatter in its mortal dress" ("Sailing to Byzantium").

Compare to Roth's The Dying Animal for an alternate explication of aged masculine need.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

crying over spilt ink

"Shelf Expression" is the title of Rob Walker's article in the New York Times Magazine's August 8th edition about the second life of books (in light of the startling information that amazon sold more e-books in the previous financial quarter than hardcover books). Everyone in the media is busily sounding the death knoll of the ink-and-papery aspect of print like some sort of deranged animal obsessed with prophesying its own demise (and, one might argue, thereby willing it). Walker's article considers furniture companies marketing color-coordinated book bundles to decorators (what is an unreadable pile of books meant to convey? the collapse of utility in design?), DIY-ers building bookshelves out of salvaged encyclopedias (irony?), and artists adapting books to fanciful sculptural purposes (look for Brian Dettmer, Sue Blackwell, Georgia Russell and others). Even my husband has offered to buy me an ipad in return for the liquidation of my library, and don't even get us started on the predicted demise of print journalism...

There are all kinds of studies comparing the efficacy of e-readers as compared to books. Some focus on comparative reading speeds, some on retention, and others on relative distraction. While the results are interesting, and for me somewhat gratifying, my own predilections hardly need bolstering by research. I like to have an object in my hand, an object upon which I can scribble, notate and underline. In this way I rewrite the text, or better, write myself into it and write it into my life. I feel a very acute sort of melancholy when I see old French paperbacks propping up necklaces, earrings and sunglasses in the middle of clothing stores, as though they still bear the imprints of their late owner's hands, the remnants of the reader's gaze, a face, a response...

Friday, October 22, 2010

a book by its cover

One of the last books I bought, before taking the vow I mean, was The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg: Stories. I read a review of the book in Bookforum, a publication that compels my addiction in alarming ways, and was intrigued. A viable argument could be made, however, that it was my attraction to the book's cover (by Hendrick Dorgathen) that cinched my intent. The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg I'd like to pretend that my tastes in literature have to do with its more elevated aspects like style, content and form, but at some point I have to ask myself: how much of what I read is influenced by book jacket aesthetics? Or conversely, do publishers invest more in the covers of books they privilege over others? However a cover happens, being a sucker for them worked out well this time.

I found my way into the first story in the collection, 'Flotsam', in the most superficial way. The narrator is reeling from a wrecked relationship with a man named Robert, my husband's name, and escaping from their late home in Buffalo, where my sister lives. Of course these connections are tenuous and silly (though reading a first-person narrative wherein the narrator's recent ex shares your husband's name is more jarring than I might have thought, and there is something about having the experience and feel of a setting that exceeds the mere imagining of that place), but they suggest nevertheless a hypothesis concerning reading, or at least a manner of interacting with a text. I've never been comfortable with the idea of identifying with characters or situations in books, but I might say that the kind of writing I like is able to appeal to so many hundreds of discrete facets of myself, that it appeals to and so reveals these facets like light refracted.

I know, reader, what you're thinking: only a narcissist could imagine such an infinite self-containment and possess such an inability to differentiate herself from the other. But I say that I experience the other only upon my own person, most acutely when I am pained, when I lack, and that the other is intrusion and absence. This point was especially significant to me since I was reading the book while my babies were still stuck in the NICU (it had a permanent spot next to the breastpump on a small table in my bedroom, near their empty crib--let me tell you, it isn't easy to balance an 800+ page book and two pump bottles, but the committed adapt). They no longer existed within my own borders, they had become the others, absent from me in all ways. My desire for them surpassed all my other desires, their intrusion into my self became whole.

It's been written that Eisenberg's main characters are aimless and manic-depressive, but I think that what her women express (even the single male narrator in the collection expresses as a woman), in a sort of pedestrian manner, is this outrage of intrusion, the effrontery of lack, the real difficulty of interacting with the other. "How hard it was to figure out how to say anything to anyone!" wails the narrator of 'Flotsam', who consistently misinterprets and misconforms to those closest to her. She has the desire to relate but is mired in the trouble of locating the appropriate boundaries. I can also hear in this exclamation the lament of the author hoping to connect with a reader...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

a proposition

I have a problem.
Or shall I begin more obliquely, with an echo:
I am a sick woman, a wicked woman. If I had in my pocket our last desperate dollars and happened upon a used bookstore, I'd slouch helplessly through the door. In such a store the first thing that hits you is the smell: old ink and yellowed paper (air, light and lignin), and something musty that's difficult to place...the detritus of past ownership, perhaps, a heady smell. There's also a particular auditory effect at work, a muffling, that envelopes the visitor. Then, and maybe most significantly, comes the excision; one becomes alone, fixed in the present. One loses companionship, history, expectation. In the aisles I'd begin to feel the first pricks of guilt as I slid first one then another book from its space and flicked furtively through the pages, waiting for the bite. You might imagine that the septic feeling of guilt would urge me to abandon my course. On the contrary, even my guilt has a certain pleasing flavor to me.

Once the bite came, quick and catching, I'd stow the book beneath an arm and make my way to the register. Inwardly seething with pride over the quality of my taste, the singular, indisputable rightness of my selection, I'd make my purchase, declining a bag out of a vain desire to showcase, subtly but plainly, the caliber of my choice and the charm of my bookish character. Back on the street my guilt would return in the baffled outrage I could predict on the face of my husband, the disappointment, and my insides would cringe in anticipation of the coming confrontation. As I walked, hunched over my most recent acquisition, my palms would begin to sweat, then my brow, followed by chills, tremors...Would the ferocity of this panic turn me around? Urge me to return the book? Of course not. Is is wickedness that compels me? How describe need? how explain pleasure?

Then, April 9th, I lay half insensate on a cruciform table in surgery: a cut, two emphatic cries, and I am made a mother, milk and salt. Perhaps it has to do with their lengthy hospital tenure (being premature), or maybe the trauma of those long wakeful weeks before I even had the chance to hold my daughter (who suffered the difficulties of patent ductus arteriosus), maybe it is my lack of engagement in my job, or maybe it would have come out of me anyway right alongside the afterbirth, but it turns out I have an implacable need to care for them myself, at least for now. To do this, financially, sacrifices must be made. In other words, all that is inessential in terms of housing, sustenance and utility must be pared away. While I could make all sorts of clever arguments about why books are essential, the truth is that I would rather be with my twins than work to support my habit...I think. So, with this tenuous assertion in hand, begins the year of no books bought.

Premise: I will read all the books currently sitting unread on my shelves, and I will engage with heretofore neglected texts by writing about them. All the new books I encounter will be either borrowed or received as gifts, no exceptions.

Predictions: Weakness. There may be failures, lapses, embarrassments. Perseverance will prevail.