David Plante: Difficult Women, A Memoir of Three

Difficult Women. Difficult reader. This book and I did not mix well.

I found no satisfaction or pleasure in reading this, although I did not feel arrogant enough to consider it a bad book deserving to be consigned to the DNF pile. There must be something to be learned here.

To be appreciated, these sketches of Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and Germaine Greer through David Plante’s personal encounters with them in the 70s, should probably be read as a literary specimen: a study on the microscopic boundaries between honesty and invasion of privacy; a rare sample that lays bare the characters of these women at particular points in their lives; an excision of the writer’s intentions, for scrutiny; and the final diagnosis that literary figures are just as human and as difficult as the rest of us. And perhaps, that’s what makes this… well… difficult.

Françoise Gilot | Carlton Lake: Life with Picasso

“When I met Pablo, I knew that here was something larger than life,
something to match myself against…”

“People always ask very bizarre questions like, ‘Why did Picasso like you?’ or ‘Why did Jonas Salk like you?’ So I said, ‘Well, usually, lions do not mate with mice!’”

I took an instant liking to this fascinating woman upon hearing her utter this line with a laugh in a documentary that my best friend shared years ago. Right then and there, I was determined to read Life with Picasso one day.

And here it is. The engaging conversationalist comes out in Gilot’s writing. With a clear and strong voice and nary a narcissistic hint, she does not make the book about her, but brings about an unsurpassed portrait of the man that was Pablo Picasso with all the contrasts of light and darkness. She does not play the victim of an eccentric genius, although the book tells us of how she draws the line not only on canvas but also in life.

I doubt if there can be a more intimate and honest account of how Picasso created, his thought process, his private life, and his artistic and political beliefs. As a rippling consequence, Gilot also paints a profound portrait of an extraordinary era that had a surfeit of literary and artistic personages that shaped history.

Stimulating discussions on Modern Art and its dilemmas, on artistic movements, on technique, color, composition; this account is nothing short of enlightening! There is no shortage of lessons on art, on living, on relationships, and on woman. 

Introductions to Françoise Gilot usually begin in 1943 when she met Pablo Picasso with whom she lived for ten years and with whom she had two children; and continues on the same thread that in 1970, she married Jonas Salk who was famous for developing the polio vaccine.

What I find remarkable about this woman is how, despite the monumental names to which her name was attached, she remained her own person as an artist, and as a woman — who, apparently, just refused to mate with mice!

I am sure she was, above all, referring to an intellectual symbiosis.

Joseph Brodsky: Watermark

“In those days we associated style with substance, beauty with intelligence…
we didn’t know yet that style could be purchased wholesale, that beauty could just be a commodity.”

Venice, through the pen of a mediocre writer, can easily become cliché.

But this is Joseph Brodsky. 

If you, like me, have read Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell and thought it was alone in its indefinable sub-genre or sur-genre (if there’s such a thing), we can rejoice! Venezia’s Watermark is the worthy soulmate of Corfu’s Prospero’s Cell.

Meditative with a sensual rhythm but not without intelligent humor, here is travel literature that casts an enchanting haze on the borders between poetry and prose, a place and the self.

I would slip this in my handbag in a heartbeat on a return trip to the best city to get lost in.

Rebecca Solnit: Hope in the Dark

If it were not Rebecca Solnit who wrote this, I would have dismissed the title as another one of those inspirational books that I do not gravitate towards so much. But having experienced four Solnits this year prior to this, which all proved to be books I needed at the exact time I read them, I seized this as soon as it arrived. And once again, she delivered.

I felt it was written for me, who, upon returning from an exhilarating trip, returned to my country with a new president whom I did not vote for. Solnit’s books are extremely political, but she wrote this to make the case for hope, especially for those who, on the surface, seemingly lost:

To point out that just because my side did not win the election, does not mean we are not victorious in many things. To challenge myself to live the same way with the leadership I did not choose as I would have had my candidate won, and to continue being a responsible citizen and human being — because being victorious and seemingly right is small comfort when, around the world, and around the country, there is still injustice and there are still people dying and living horribly.

“Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.”

“The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative.”

Consider reading this if you, like me, paid your taxes dutifully and was called “self-righteous” when you pointed out that our new president failed to pay his; if you campaigned for your candidate without insulting anyone but the many enjoyed branding everyone on your side as toxic, even though poisonous ones were actually present on both sides if we care to admit (I have screenshots); if you were maligned and called names because of who you supported while the same people demanded respect but has been disrespecting your candidate for six years; if you, hopefully, like some of them, just wished for a better country. Consider reading this if you are frustrated and you think hope is lost, because it just made me realize that it isn’t.

This book reminded me that hope and action feed each other, and that every action and inaction have more impact than we know; to not merely demand change but to embody it. 

Hope, above all, is action; and as long as we do our part and, if possible, do more than what’s required of us, there is hope. 

John Berger: Confabulations

There is something therapeutic and enlightening about these essays that are of diverse scope but which are bound with a single string. That string is language — and not just the spoken, but also the unspoken; the pre-verbal, the danced, the hidden, the sung, the articulate, the inarticulate, the visual.

Just a few books ago, Rica Bolipata – Santos beautifully expressed that writing is, “An added gift to the love of reading.”

For John Berger, writing is, “An offshoot of something deeper… our relationship with language.” Language, to him, is a creature, “A quivering almost wordless ‘thing’.”

Language is that which acquires a body when it is sung, or played, or danced, as in music; it is el duende of which Federico Garcia Llorca wrote, the spirit, the gestures, “Gestures that are the mothers of all the dances of the ages”!

But these string of thoughts also hint at the things that distract us from it, the diversions from what is “true, essential, and urgent.” More than that other book of his, this one will somehow recalibrate our ways of seeing, and if we allow it further, our ways of living. 

The pre-verbal, the danced, the hidden, the sung, the articulate, the inarticulate, the visual, the musical… all at once, there is a sudden inspiration to live in every language I know.

Rebecca Solnit: Orwell’s Roses

When you turn to a book for solace and get chills instead.

Yes, this has got to be the most beautiful literary criticism of Nineteen Eighty-Four: It rethinks the man that was George Orwell, it guides us to reassess beauty, and it reviews Nineteen Eighty-Four in a light that is distinctly hers. But with Rebecca Solnit, you never know where she will take you next; it is only guaranteed to be a place of startling insight and perspective.

Written and published amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it surprisingly mentions and describes Putin as an admirer and rehabilitator of Stalin’s reputation; even calling to mind the Holodomor, also known as the Terror-Famine, recognized by 16 nations as a genocide carried out by the Soviet government that killed 3-5 million Ukrainians from 1932-1933… and it seems like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will not be the only prescient book in question here.

What is chilling is the reminder that, “To be corrupted by totalitarianism, one does not have to be in a totalitarian country.” Orwell set Nineteen Eighty-Four in England, “To emphasize that totalitarianism could triumph anywhere.”

And what buttresses totalitarianism? Lies. “Lies gradually erode the capacity to know and to connect… Lies are integral to totalitarianism… demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. The attack on truth and language makes the atrocities possible. If you can erase the witnesses, convince people of the merit of supporting a lie, if you can terrorize people into silence, obedience, lies, if you can make the task of determining what is true so impossible or dangerous they stop trying, you can perpetuate your crimes. The first victim of war is truth.”

And yet, despite these ominous warnings for which Orwell is known, Solnit asks us to reconsider the word “Orwellian” and look at the man who, in the spring of 1936, planted roses. Beautiful is far from the first word that comes to mind when confronted with his writings, but there is a definition of beauty, Solnit emphasizes, that does not have to do with prettiness. “Another kind of beauty, of a toughness that is life…” The beauty to which Orwell was most committed and for which he strove was “this beauty in which ethics and aesthetics are inseparable, this linguistic beauty of truth and of integrity as a kind of wholeness and connectedness, between language and what it describes, between one person and another, or between members of a community or society.”

What was beautiful to him was truth, clarity, honesty — and roses. “Orwell was passionate about the beauty and gestures and intentions, ideals and idealism when he encountered them, and it was to defend them that he spent much of his life facing their opposites.” 

“Orwell’s work was about ugliness of various kinds, but what he found hideous serves as a negative image of what he found beautiful.”

There is, after all, solace through the roses telling us that stopping to smell them does not necessarily distract us from the seemingly more important things in life, but strengthens us instead. Through Rebecca Solnit, and through the man who made my birth year significant in literary history, we are spurred to recalibrate what we deem beautiful, to acknowledge our need for beauty, and to always strive to pursue it.

Rebecca Solnit: The Faraway Nearby

The sound of sirens woke me up. Whose witty idea was it to celebrate Women’s Month with Fire Prevention Month in the Philippines? Woman is a fire you cannot prevent. Sirens are also women.

These were my tangled thoughts as I got up on the first day of March, a month I look forward to as a reading woman. It’s when I devote most of my reading time to women authors.

Rebecca had to be the first choice, because maybe my mind treats literature like medicine and it cyclically hankers for a more potent dose to achieve efficacy, and she lives up to this promise — this sort of writing that painfully confronts the hurts and pinpoints the ills but becomes the balm through impeccable information-giving and matchless storytelling, all administered with strength and grace.

The title is an acknowledgement to how the artist Georgia O’Keefe signed her letters for the people she loved, “from the faraway nearby.” A way to measure physical and psychic geography together, Rebecca observes. “We’re close, we say, to mean that we’re emotionally connected, that we are not separate… emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby…” We can be distant from the person next to us but be hopelessly attached to another who is hundreds of miles away. Was it Ondaatje who asked, “Do you understand the sadness of geography?” It seems Rebecca understands and she holds your hand through this sadness.

But that is only one of the myriads of things meaningful to me that she weaves artfully into this narrative. The curious format of this book is a nod to the Arabian Nights. It was only recently when I remarked how Latin American and Eastern European literature are under Scheherazade’s spell, but this book makes me ask, “Who isn’t?”

“The fairy-tale heroines spin cobwebs, straw, nettles into whatever is necessary to survive. Scheherazade forestalls her death by telling a story that is like a thread that cannot be cut; she keeps spinning and spinning, incorporating new fragments, characters, incidents, into her unbroken, unbreakable narrative thread. Penelope at the other end of the treasury of stories prevents her wedding to any of her suitors by unweaving at night what she weaves by day… By spinning, weaving, and unraveling, these women master time itself, and though master is a masculine word, this mastery is feminine.”

“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them…” This is the line with which Rebecca opens this book.

And this is how she ends. “Who drinks your tears? Who has your wings? Who hears your story?”

“Who has your wings?” Who else can ask such a poignant question? 

This mastery is, indeed, feminine. Happy Women’s Month!

Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Other

There is the romantic in me who would like to write an ode of admiration to this exceptional journalist for tackling a most pertinent matter and there is also the dormant journalist tempted to fangirl. However, the teacher of little children prevailed and simplified the lessons instead.

Who is my “Other”?

Those who do not hold the same beliefs. The most obvious right now are those who do not share the same political views.

How should we relate to Others?

There seems to be three approaches: War, isolation, and a third one learned through trade routes like the Silk Road — cooperation.

Why not war?

“It is hard to justify wars; I think everyone loses them, because it is a defeat for the human being. It exposes his inability to come to terms, to empathize with the Other, to be kind and reasonable…”

Why not isolation?

“The idea that prompted man to build great walls and vast moats, to surround himself with them and isolate himself from others, has in modern times been given the name of the doctrine of apartheid.”

What is the main content of the encounter with the Other?

Dialogue. Dialogical openness, perspective, and awareness. “The will to become acquainted.”

What should I equip myself with?

“…it is so important to have one’s own distinct identity, a sense of its strength, value and maturity. Only then can a man boldly confront another culture. Otherwise he will lurk in his hiding place, fearfully isolating himself from others.”

Why should we cooperate and why should we relate to the Other?

Because building bridges of understanding with Others “is not just an ethical duty but also an urgent task for our time in a world where everything is so fragile and where there is so much demagogy, disorientation, fanaticism and bad will.”

“The Self not only has to relate to the Other, but must assume responsibility for him and be prepared to bear the consequences for such a decision, such an attitude. Is there a Christian act of sacrifice in this? Yes — of sacrifice, renunciation and humility.”

Rebecca Solnit

The Faraway Nearby

March 2, 2022

The sound of sirens woke me up. Whose witty idea was it to celebrate Women’s Month with Fire Prevention Month in the Philippines? Woman is a fire you cannot prevent. Sirens are also women.

These were my tangled thoughts as I got up on the first day of March, a month I look forward to as a reading woman. It’s when I devote most of my reading time to women authors.

Rebecca had to be the first choice, because maybe my mind treats literature like medicine and it cyclically hankers for a more potent dose to achieve efficacy, and she lives up to this promise — this sort of writing that painfully confronts the hurts and pinpoints the ills but becomes the balm through impeccable information-giving and matchless storytelling, all administered with strength and grace.

The title is an acknowledgement to how the artist Georgia O’Keefe signed her letters for the people she loved, “from the faraway nearby.” A way to measure physical and psychic geography together, Rebecca observes. “We’re close, we say, to mean that we’re emotionally connected, that we are not separate… emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby…” We can be distant from the person next to us but be hopelessly attached to another who is hundreds of miles away. Was it Ondaatje who asked, “Do you understand the sadness of geography?” It seems Rebecca understands and she holds your hand through this sadness.

But that is only one of the myriads of things meaningful to me that she weaves artfully into this narrative. The curious format of this book is a nod to the Arabian Nights. It was only recently when I remarked how Latin American and Eastern European literature are under Scheherazade’s spell, but this book makes me ask, “Who isn’t?”

“The fairy-tale heroines spin cobwebs, straw, nettles into whatever is necessary to survive. Scheherazade forestalls her death by telling a story that is like a thread that cannot be cut; she keeps spinning and spinning, incorporating new fragments, characters, incidents, into her unbroken, unbreakable narrative thread. Penelope at the other end of the treasury of stories prevents her wedding to any of her suitors by unweaving at night what she weaves by day… By spinning, weaving, and unraveling, these women master time itself, and though master is a masculine word, this mastery is feminine.”

“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them…” This is the line with which Rebecca opens this book.

And this is how she ends. “Who drinks your tears? Who has your wings? Who hears your story?”

“Who has your wings?” Who else can ask such a poignant question? 

This mastery is, indeed, feminine. Happy Women’s Month!

.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

January 25, 2022

Life is unpredictable, but nothing highlights this fact more than the pandemic. If we care to admit it, everyone feels a little lost in the midst of this all.

This beauty of a book is the fresh perspective on being lost that I did not know I needed, for Solnit invites you to be at home with being lost and to be comfortable with it. She encourages you to “leave the door open for the unknown” and calls it art. 

“That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost. The word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse ‘los,’ meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home…”

The first two chapters took possession of me, the rest of it was simply a bonus. There are passages that are painful to read but in a cathartic way. 

Sometimes, in our arrogance as readers, we approach a book as confident as Alexander on a Persian conquest; and in our confidence, we allow ourselves and others to believe that we have conquered it. Only to learn and be humbled, again and again, that the ones that matter, are those that conquer us.

.

Orwell’s Roses

March 11, 2022

When you turn to a book for solace and get chills instead.

Yes, this has got to be the most beautiful literary criticism of Nineteen Eighty-Four: It rethinks the man that was George Orwell, it guides us to reassess beauty, and it reviews Nineteen Eighty-Four in a light that is distinctly hers. But with Rebecca Solnit, you never know where she will take you next; it is only guaranteed to be a place of startling insight and perspective.

Written and published amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it surprisingly mentions and describes Putin as an admirer and rehabilitator of Stalin’s reputation; even calling to mind the Holodomor, also known as the Terror-Famine, recognized by 16 nations as a genocide carried out by the Soviet government that killed 3-5 million Ukrainians from 1932-1933… and it seems like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will not be the only prescient book in question here.

What is chilling is the reminder that, “To be corrupted by totalitarianism, one does not have to be in a totalitarian country.” Orwell set Nineteen Eighty-Four in England“To emphasize that totalitarianism could triumph anywhere.”

And what buttresses totalitarianism? Lies. “Lies gradually erode the capacity to know and to connect… Lies are integral to totalitarianism… demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. The attack on truth and language makes the atrocities possible. If you can erase the witnesses, convince people of the merit of supporting a lie, if you can terrorize people into silence, obedience, lies, if you can make the task of determining what is true so impossible or dangerous they stop trying, you can perpetuate your crimes. The first victim of war is truth.”

And yet, despite these ominous warnings for which Orwell is known, Solnit asks us to reconsider the word “Orwellian” and look at the man who, in the spring of 1936, planted roses. Beautiful is far from the first word that comes to mind when confronted with his writings, but there is a definition of beauty, Solnit emphasizes, that does not have to do with prettiness. “Another kind of beauty, of a toughness that is life…” The beauty to which Orwell was most committed and for which he strove was “this beauty in which ethics and aesthetics are inseparable, this linguistic beauty of truth and of integrity as a kind of wholeness and connectedness, between language and what it describes, between one person and another, or between members of a community or society.”

What was beautiful to him was truth, clarity, honesty — and roses. “Orwell was passionate about the beauty and gestures and intentions, ideals and idealism when he encountered them, and it was to defend them that he spent much of his life facing their opposites.” 

“Orwell’s work was about ugliness of various kinds, but what he found hideous serves as a negative image of what he found beautiful.”

There is, after all, solace through the roses telling us that stopping to smell them does not necessarily distract us from the seemingly more important things in life, but strengthens us instead. Through Rebecca Solnit, and through the man who made my birth year significant in literary history, we are spurred to recalibrate what we deem beautiful, to acknowledge our need for beauty, and to always strive to pursue it.

.

Hope in the Dark

July 4, 2022

If it were not Rebecca Solnit who wrote this, I would have dismissed the title as another one of those inspirational books that I do not gravitate towards so much. But having experienced four Solnits this year prior to this, which all proved to be books I needed at the exact time I read them, I seized this as soon as it arrived. And once again, she delivered.

I felt it was written for me, who, upon returning from an exhilarating trip, returned to my country with a new president whom I did not vote for. Solnit’s books are extremely political, but she wrote this to make the case for hope, especially for those who, on the surface, seemingly lost:

To point out that just because my side did not win the election, does not mean we are not victorious in many things. To challenge myself to live the same way with the leadership I did not choose as I would have had my candidate won, and to continue being a responsible citizen and human being — because being victorious and seemingly right is small comfort when, around the world, and around the country, there is still injustice and there are still people dying and living horribly.

“Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.”

“The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative.”

Consider reading this if you, like me, paid your taxes dutifully and was called “self-righteous” when you pointed out that our new president failed to pay his; if you campaigned for your candidate without insulting anyone but the many enjoyed branding everyone on your side as toxic, even though poisonous ones were actually present on both sides if we care to admit (I have screenshots); if you were maligned and called names because of who you supported while the same people demanded respect but has been disrespecting your candidate for six years; if you, hopefully, like some of them, just wished for a better country. Consider reading this if you are frustrated and you think hope is lost, because it just made me realize that it isn’t.

This book reminded me that hope and action feed each other, and that every action and inaction have more impact than we know; to not merely demand change but to embody it. 

Hope, above all, is action; and as long as we do our part and, if possible, do more than what’s required of us, there is hope. 

.

Wanderlust

June 19, 2022

…with a title perfect for a trip, Solnit shared an Eskimo custom of offering an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system by going in a line across the landscape; “The point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.”

Full entry here.

Simon Winchester: The Professor and the Madman

February 2, 2021

What book comes to mind when you read the lines, “One of the greatest romances of English literature?” or “One of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters”? This masterpiece of twelve volumes on its initial edition took almost eighty years to create — the Oxford English Dictionary.

When the British Empire was approaching its pinnacle and English was on the verge of becoming a global language, there was an urgency to “chart the life of each word, to offer its biography… to have a record of the register of its birth,” when it was first written down. “And at the heart of such a dictionary, should be the history of the life span of each and every word. Some words are ancient and exist still. Others are new and vanish like mayflies.  Still others emerge in one lifetime, continue to exist through the next and the next, and look set to endure forever… There should be sentences that show the twists and turns of meanings — the way almost every word slips in its silvery, fishlike way, weaving this way and that, adding subtleties of nuance itself, and then perhaps shedding them as the public mood dictates…”

This book unravels the remarkable men behind such a momentous and historic undertaking: “Their scholarship sheer genius, their contributions to literary history profound. But who remembers them and who today makes use of all that they achieved?”

And yet the most astonishing question of all; what if we were told (the way this book exquisitely does) that the making of the Oxford English Dictionary is a tale of murder and insanity?

This story, at times tragic, at times disturbing but with slivers of hope and redemption, most of the time incredible, has the sort of narrative that I usually find in fiction; and it is written in such an absorbing manner that I had to check many times if it was really a work of non-fiction!

At the core of the story are the two learned men to whom we owe the success of the OED: Professor James Murray, the distinguished editor, and a surgeon whose contributions were vital, Dr. William Chester Minor.  The two men maintained a correspondence for years but had never met, the latter constantly refusing invitations for a meeting in person.  It was only after two decades when Prof. Murray discovered that Dr. Minor was the longest-staying resident at the Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylums for criminal lunatics.

I think this is essential reading for those who love history and words, and the history of words!

“I am not so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are daughters of earth…”

P.S. Just as I thought I veered away from the East and Iran, there is apparently a movie based on this book starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, and the movie is directed by Farhad Safinia, an Iranian.