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.

Magda Szabó: Abigail

“In any work of literature the most interesting bits are in the detail,” Kőnig had often said in his lessons. “Be sure to attend to them closely.”

If I had a daughter, she’d find this book in a collection I created for her.

Reading this, she’d be reminded that heroines do not have to be faultless; that the surest assumptions can often be wrong; that no matter how clever we think we are, there are people wiser still; that actions always have consequences; that friendship is precious; that even in the most repetitive of routines and what we deem the bleakest of days, life will find ways to astound or surprise us.

If she philosophizes and reads deeper into the book, as I suspect a daughter of mine will, she will venture to question where childhood ends and adulthood begins, and attempt to come up with answers of her own, or a hundred questions more.

If she develops an awareness of history and politics, as she must, she will be sensitive to Magda Szabo’s subtle activism and glean the lessons of sacrifice and duty.

And I imagine this book — so engaging and difficult to put down — will only fuel the love for reading in her.

– – –

Can you tell that I read this through the eyes of a wide-eyed adolescent, and not through the eyes of an adult still haunted by the painful and confounding strains from Iza’s Ballad and The Door but who, nonetheless, acknowledges that Magda Szabó has now become a favorite?

Iza’s Ballad and The Door gnaws at the soul. Abigail educates the heart.

On introductions and ratings…

Could it be that the contemporary reader is often guilty of punishing a literary work for their own inadequacies?

_ _ _

Reading this NYRB Edition of two Honoré de Balzac short stories has surprisingly armed me with enough questions to animate a book club discussion.

On the matter of NYRB introductions: A friend was just telling me that aside from the beautiful cover designs, she now understands the allure of the editions through the superstars they appoint to do the introductions. I definitely agree. But Schwabsky’s introduction for Pekić’s Houses and Danto’s for de Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece have made me wonder if they were better off as afterwords, to give readers a chance to arrive at their own conclusions before having their thoughts influenced by the authoritative perspectives of the introductions.

On the matter of Goodreads ratings: I return to my first question. While The Unknown Masterpiece gets a fair 3.9 stars, Gambara gets an average of 3.2 stars. I find it problematic to rate books with stars, and I don’t have a Goodreads account because I do not believe in a system that allows people to rate Fifty Shades of Grey higher than Hugo’s unabridged Les Miserables. 😆

Honoré de Balzac wrote at a time when the lover of literature was also expected to be well-versed in the theories of visual art and music. Education and culture were not as compartmentalized and separate as they are now.

Hiding in plain sight, in these two stories, is an important record of the transition of the Romantic period to the Modern. Having read this only now, I think this should be on the reading repertoire for art historians and any lover of art.

If the brilliant passages of artistic analysis on painting and musical composition elude the contemporary reader, does it deserve 3.2 stars?

(More thoughts on the book to follow…)

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time to Keep Silence

The book had me at its cover; a landscape distinctly Cappadocia, one of my favorite places in the world, however otherworldly.

It had me at the introduction by Karen Armstrong. Who else more suited to introduce such a book?

Patrick Leigh Fermor had me at, “The book was based — whole passages of it word for word — on letters I wrote at the time to a correspondent (whom I later married) without the remotest thought of publication.”

He had me the entire time because reading his prose felt like meditation.

A Time to Keep Silence is a lovely exemplification of that Thomas Merton line I encountered through Rebecca Solnit earlier this year: “The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.”

Known for traveling to Turkey on foot and for being one of the finest travel writers of the past century, this is a record of Fermor’s travels to a more inward direction. Through Europe’s monasteries with their divine libraries, chanting monks, cloistered lives, and vows of silence, and to Cappadocia’s abandoned rock monasteries, we are made recipients of their histories and these letters, too; but most of all, of the contemplation on modern man’s need for silence and solitude.

For someone who recently took three weeks off from social media to retreat from its noise and with only one foot back inside, this book expressed many of my unspoken thoughts, and I can only agree with a constant book friend who thinks that the only problem with this book is that it is too short. 

Here’s to places, experiences, or books where “…the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.”

Maxime Rodinson: Muhammad

A concern for truth did not always accord with political expediency.”

There is much to mull over and absorb that I took my time with this book. Maxime Rodinson does not only paint a portrait of realism of a man, but also a stunning landscape of a world and age.

The portrayal is constructed based on meticulous research, and because it is not always compatible with prevailing ones, he treads on dangerous ground. In fact, censorship issues led the American University in Cairo to halt its publication in 1998.

“The picture is not a simple one. It is neither the static monster of some or the ‘best of all created things’ of others, neither the cold-blooded impostor nor the political theorist, nor the mystic wholly in love with God. If we have understood him rightly, Muhammad was a complex man, full of contradictions… But there was a power in him which, with the help of circumstances, was to make him one of the rare men who have turned the world upside down.”

“Let us, with undue naivety or too many illusions, acknowledge the greatness of the creators of the systems which have played so large a part in the world; and among them, Muhammad.”

This is a work of history. But history is a tricky issue, especially in the Philippines right now. Rodinson, however, poses this challenge in the introduction: “If one is to criticize in turn, in order to reject its conclusions, one must study and refute its findings according to the same critical standards with regard to sources.”

_ _ _

A confession: While reading this, there was a constant imagining of how it would have turned out had Olga Tokarczuk written it. It would surely have been just as carefully researched but peppered with literary mischief and, perhaps, slightly more entertaining.

Only slightly because Rodinson, a historian of Islam, does not write drably either. For Edward W. Said to claim that there can be no doubt about this book being “the major contemporary Occidental work on the Prophet and is essential reading” was recommendation enough for this reader.

This reader, a nonbeliever of Islam and an amateur on the subject but who has, through an ongoing reading project, realized that even a humble comprehension in the war of succession after Muhammad’s death between his father-in-law and son-in-law that created the Sunni and Shia chasm can allow one to grasp better the complex relationships or conflicts between Islamic nations and organizations. And so, with this realization, the acknowledgement of how taking a small step can open doors to understanding.

With each book, another step. 

Borislav Pekic: Houses

I hadn’t built anything, I’d demolished myself. Here, look!

In that sublime realm where literature and architecture meet, Hugo’s Notre Dame and Calvino’s Invisible Cities occupy the high throne. I nominate Pekić’s Houses to sit with them.

One would expect this book to be political, Borislav Pekić being a founding member of the Democratic Party in Serbia. And indeed, it is.

Belgrade’s turbulent history of clashing ideologies is not an undertone in this novel but a counterpoint to an unusual but brilliant motif that is architecture — which is, of course, political.

What took me by surprise, despite the obvious title and the summary about an eccentric character who loves houses more than the average person does, was the non-perfunctory view on the subject. The discourse ranges from houses being compared to human souls, to the ideal harmony of a building with urban space and its character, to how preservation is of great importance to a place, to criticisms on the sacrificing of aesthetic quality for the sake of profit, to describing a particular house as like an erratum, a coarse printing error in the elegant context of the street, and even to the communion with buildings as if they were alive, which in fact they were!

_ _ _

Of course I can’t say that those books about architecture made me fall in love with houses. They only explained to me why I love them. From them I was schooled in houses’ physiology, their circulatory system, their epidermic defensive envelope, even their stomachs, their sensitive stomachs, not to mention their life process… From books, then, I had come to know the mysterious process of a house’s conception, initiated long before its violent birth on the building site.

_ _ _

Arsenie Negovan is an imperfect but intriguing man who will irritate you or gain your sympathy. He makes a name for himself as a builder and a lover of houses, but after an existential maelstrom, he withdraws himself from the world and allows himself to be oblivious to the unrelenting flow of time for twenty seven years.

When at last he decides to come out of his self-alienation, he is an old man in the process of writing his will, and he soon begins to suspect a great divide between the world in his mind and the world in reality.

Houses is one of the most intelligent novels I have ever read. With the absence of chapter breaks, I found myself being pulled steadily towards its exceptionally executed finale. Its abstract metaphors grant liberal spaces for contemplation as they convey nagging questions on possession, and on building and ruin, whether concerning a city, society, a house, or a life. 

While most of its readers describe the progression of the story as a descent into madness, I choose to see it as an awakening.

Intizar Husain: Basti

So, my friend, time is passing. We’re all in the power of time. So hurry and come here. Come and see the city of Delhi, and the realm of beauty, for both are waiting for you. Come and join them, before silver fills the part in her hair, and your head becomes a drift of snow, and our lives are merely a story.

Basti is a lovely Urdu word that hints at space and community, a human settlement of any dimension, from a few houses to a city. 

The word alone is enough to pique my interest. But because some books lead you to other books, that is exactly what Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand did for me. I stopped counting at six — the number of times Intizar Husain’s name was raised in the novel. 

Now I see why. Basti can be looked upon as a literary father of Tomb of Sand in the family of borderland literature. Both also defy the borders of literature.

Basti maps the life of Zakir who experienced the divisions that created Pakistan that created Bangladesh that separated him from the love of his life.

I have to admit that it took nearly half of the book before I was able to get into its rhythm and flow, but I allowed its poetic beauty to lead this reader from outside the Indian subcontinent to be drawn into its history and heritage; and sadly, into the tragic quotient of its divisions.

Magda Szabó: The Door

“But a door can hint at so much more.” — Geetanjali Shree, Tomb of Sand

Having come fresh from a streak of world literature for Women in Translation Month, which included Tomb of Sand, I have become more attuned to the implication of doors being more than architectural features. Doors as metaphors for boundaries.

But in contrast to Geetanjali Shree’s doors where, ideally, anyone came and went; Magda Szabó’s door was meant to remain shut.

The physical door of the latter was not only a boundary but the framework of a person’s dignity.

Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad turned out to be the most exquisitely written work from my WiTMonth selection, so I wasted no time in taking a peek into this door.

Curiously, Iza’s Ballad and The Door both have characters hired as household help who do not work for the money. One is a minor character in Iza’s Ballad, but in The Door it is the baffling, the imposing, elderly Emerence, one of the two central figures in the story. Adding to the intrigue is the younger and other main character, a writer, the author’s namesake.

Two decades of love-hate relationship yield misunderstandings and reconciliations, but also critiques on each other’s lives, on art, and on their clashing beliefs. At some point, the writer eventually achieves “the prize” and receives a prestigious recognition for her work, but not without the question of what it cost.

Reading Szabó is like a careful and deliberate peeling of an onion. The core is shrouded in well-executed layers where even the revelations continue to maintain a mystery that lead toward a confounding finality. But she is yet another testament to my hunch that 20th century writers remain unsurpassed. Even with a tinge of absurdism, there is that deep exploration into the dark of interior characterization, a delving in the psychological, spiritual, and philosophical condition of its characters, if only to pose the argument of what it is that really matters in life. 

Magda Szabó: Iza’s Ballad

 © 2018 MDR
Budapest, Hungary

“As he spoke Lidia could see the schoolgirl Iza discussing the future with her father. She saw her as her father described her, as a pint-sized redeemer spreading out her school atlas and examining the map of Budapest because she wanted to see a major city, a really big city, and trying to work out where in City Park the statue of the historian Anonymous might stand. Iza loved the look of that hooded faceless figure. She saw it once when she was a young woman visiting Budapest…” Magda Szabó, Iza’s Ballad

How pleased I was to have identified with Iza so much! There was even something close to a silent pride that I initially felt. It was as if I were reading my own mother’s description of myself how Iza organized her life and her schedule, the tidiness, the discipline, the sense of responsibility, the restraint, her satisfaction in not having to give account of herself to anyone!

But how I trembled, as I turned the pages approaching the finale when I realized that it was because of this unrelenting self-discipline seeping into the cracks of her relationships that led to heartbreaking consequences.

It is for readers with aging parents. It is for every new generation that believes they are so much wiser than the previous one, so practical even in matters of the heart, and yet, unwittingly, so heartless.

It is for societies that reject the past and the old deeming these to be outdated and sentimental, failing to acknowledge that the past and the old hold the clues to the present and the new.

Although set in postwar Hungary, the spirit of this novel is contemporary: the timelessness of its message, its tragedies that are themselves the lessons, will gnaw at my soul for years to come.

Few books leave me feeling defeated. This one did. I felt so helpless under the influence of such simple but penetrating prose.

It is that dazed emotion one undergoes when someone so much wiser with experience sings in a pensive gasp, “I really don’t know life… at all…” Yes, someone like the inimitable Joni Mitchell, only Magda Szabó does it with an outstanding novel that she affectionately hands over to the reader saying, “You really don’t know life… at all…”

And in the presence of such masterful artistry and truth, what else can one do but applaud and weep?

Némirovsky: Fire in the Blood | Gille: The Mirador

Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

Because I arrange my books based on geography, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vasily Grossman, and Irène Némirovsky among a few others share a spot on my shelf. They were all born in Ukraine while it was still under the Russian Empire.

Fire in the Blood was thought to be unfinished when Némirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942. It was only through subsequent research years later that the rest of the manuscript was found and published posthumously.

She wrote this around the time she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, but there is no pain of epic proportions in this book. There are none of Gogol’s ghosts, none of Bulgakov’s political caricatures, and none of Grossman’s wars.

At the beginning I was so convinced that this was simply a charming picture of rural life in an idyllic French village. She makes the reader believe that, until one surprising revelation after another piles up towards the end, and it reveals its own unique depth.

“Are we not all somewhat like these branches burning in my fireplace, buckling beneath the power of the flames?”

Fire in the Blood, the fire of youth contrasted with the sobriety of old age through the introspection of Sylvio and the lives of those around him leaves the reader with a subtle sting that leads to a silent contemplation on, or the questioning of, passion, love and life.

There may have been none of Gogol’s dark humor, none of Bulgakov’s satire, and none of Grossman’s reportage on tragedy, but perhaps Némirovsky deserves her place alongside these men as someone who lays bare the human heart.

 “No, it wasn’t that simple. The flesh is easy to satisfy. It’s the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire… That was what we wanted. To burn, to be consumed, to devour our days just as fire devours the forest.”

The Mirador by Élisabeth Gille

Don’t you love it when an underexposed book surprises and transcends expectations? I had not anticipated The Mirador to contain this much beauty!

Having read nothing by Élisabeth Gille prior to this, I approached it as someone who was simply curious about her famous mother, Irène Némirovsky.

From her mother’s journals, letters, unpublished notes, “dreamed memories”, and with the help of her elder sister’s own memories and research, Gille recreates a striking portrayal of the mother they lost to Auschwitz when they were mere children.

Regardless of the applause that her novels garnered and despite her tragic fate, it was for her indifference and lack of political sense that Némirovsky was criticized. Gille, however, does not justify her mother’s shortcomings. She allows a beautiful irony to unfold through the pages and writes a lyrical and clearsighted grasp of her forebears, literature, history, and the political arena that surrounded Némirovsky from her early childhood in Kyiv, growing up in St. Petersburg, fleeing to Finland in the wake of the Russian Revolution, and building a life and a successful writing career in France until the German Occupation.

I must admit that I personally prefer the daughter’s writing over the mother’s, and it was saddening to learn that Gille died from cancer in 1996, only four years after The Mirador was published. But I beam at the thought that Némirovsky would have been so proud.

How cathartic it must have been for a daughter to write this! It makes one wonder at the mysterious power of writing — how it can liberate the writer and the subject at the same time, how it can be a simultaneous act of holding on and letting go.