Portraits: Of a young Rebecca Solnit finding, and fending for, herself; of the nature of dictatorships and revolutions by Ryszard Kapuściński; of Eastern Turkey under the veil of its dramatic landscapes by Zülfü Livaneli; of Paris and the poet through the vantage point of Henri Cole; of the unfortunate visage of Skylark by Dezső Kosztoláni. These are some of the extraordinary faces I met on this month of May.
It is not nearly celebrated enough, says Solnit: “The sheer pleasure of meeting new voices and ideas and possibilities, having the world become more coherent in some subtle or enormous way, extending or filling in your map of the universe…this beauty in finding pattern and meaning,” this thing called Reading.
Even so, here we are. The readers (ironically, the ones least concerned about faces), the ones who, by turning each page, celebrate best these encounters, these awakenings, these flights.
“Would Chekhov have suffered writer’s block?” Maria wondered, as the hull of the sunflower seed snapped open between her lightly clamped teeth.
Had it not been for gravity and absentmindedness, it might have appeared like a final attempt of helpless rebellion as the kernel fled in its nakedness, first escaping through Maria’s lips and slipping straight into the narrow entrance of a cowl-necked blouse, lapsing between two mounds of mysterious bosomy matter, and finally shelving itself in the black hole of the navel.
There, cradled in the darkness was the sunflower seed, and it knew not what parallel or different fate it would have encountered had it slipped inside – on the other side, of that warm, heaving skin. At that moment, it knew not time nor space, it only knew of warmth, suspension, and a false feeling of relief.
Maria’s eyes swept the floor but found no trace of the seed, so she picked up another one when suddenly, an idea! A writing idea after weeks of creative standstill! She mock-kissed the second sunflower seed with glee and tossed it back on the table. “If Chekhov could eye an ashtray and tomorrow furnish a story called ‘The Ashtray,’ what tales I could conjure from a sunflower seed!”
With confident strokes of her pen she inked ‘The Sunflower Seed’ on the top of a blank sheet, and Maria wrote:
“Would Chekhov have suffered writer’s block?” Alejandra wondered, just as the sunflower seed snapped open between her semi-clenched teeth.
Of what seemed as a definitive act of impetuous rebellion, the seed fled in its nakedness, first escaping through Alejandra’s lips and slipping straight into the abyss of a cowl-necked blouse, lapsing between two mounds of mysterious bosomy matter, and at last shelved itself in a black hole which was the navel. There, cradled in the darkness was the sunflower kernel, and it knew not what parallel or different fate it would have encountered had it slipped inside – on the other side, of that warm, heaving skin. At that moment, it knew not time nor space, it only knew of warmth, suspension, and an ersatz feeling that resembled belongingness.
Maria continued to write vigorously and narrated how Alejandra’s husband discovered the mutinous seed in her bellybutton later that night and punished it by plopping it into his mouth with a teasing gleam in his eyes.
Pleased with the South American tone of absurdity in her story despite aiming for a Russian shade, and unaware that her tale was half fiction-half accidental truth, she put her pen down with a satisfying staccato. “Ah, the sound of a period!” she exclaimed. As she stood up, the sunflower seed fell to the floor, later to be identified as midnight snack by the little mouse that lived in between Maria’s walls.
The above story is not from the two books featured here. I wrote this in 2009 when reading a volume of Chekhov, who happens to be one of the most handsome of authors, ignited a spark of creative inspiration. Since then, I’ve found that the best short story compendiums do not inspire me to write reviews; they nudge me to pay more attention to the details of everyday life and to write my own short stories however inferior mine may be.
Ferit Edgü is more minimalist than Sait Faik but I find both their stories to be of a distinctive hue. There is something almost monochromatic about them: But akin to the most masterful black and white photographs, this quality does not reduce them to something less but raises and intensifies their expressiveness.
My best attempt to describe them would be to ask one to look into photographer Ara Guler’s black and white images; or better yet, grab that photo book, Ara Guler’s Istanbul with a foreword by Orhan Pamuk. Each photograph a story, each story an evocative photograph.
It is said that every Turk knows a Sait Faik line or story by heart. He is, after all, considered the Turkish counterpart of Anton Chekhov. Turkey’s most prestigious short story award, the Sait Faik Prize, is named after him — which Ferit Edgü received in 1979.
Needless to say, last month’s release of this Ferit Edgü collection resulted in yet another NYRB | Archipelago book-pairing at my end.
Now, excuse me as I attempt to write another short story. If that doesn’t work, I’ll be content with seeking beauty in the ordinary.
“And so the role of literature on this earth: It is that thing seeking beauty.” — Sait Faik
“Fifty shrewd and moving glimpses into the lives of Soviet writers, composers, and artists caught between the demands of art and politics.”
Fifty portraits in words by this man born in Ukraine when it was part of the Russian Empire, this man with Jewish origins who extraordinarily survived the Shoah, and who walked among Akhmatova, Pasternak, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich and many others “who lived / in times that were hard to bear.”
Fifty poignant poems, written “so that those who did not know will know” and read by this reader as “what happened long ago / becomes current again.”
Fifty intimate portraits that initially seem to be of individual people but soon become apparent as an exceptional, panoramic depiction of an era of art choked by tyranny.
Little did I know that it would become one of my most treasured volumes of Russian literature. I love how clueless we sometimes are of a book’s value until we read it and become acquainted with its soul.
“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or sip it like a liquer until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.” This is how Bohumil Hrabal’s Haňta reads — or how he doesn’t really read.
This is how I read, or how I did not really read, The Hills Reply by Tarjei Vesaas. I do not think there is any other way to read, or to not really read, this book.
What is this book? I can say, “A collection of sixteen short pieces of literature.” Or I can also say, “A lyrical poem, two hundred and seventy five pages long.”
But I’d rather say: A Lispector attuned to nature. An impressionistic artwork so keenly aware of the elements, of the light in different times of the day, and of its sounds and its silences. A swan song of sheer beauty that leaves you quiet and asks your heart, for the time being, to dwell inside its pages… a heart so full, so open, it breaks.
When a poet writes a memoir, the entire book is a poignant song. Exiled from his homeland after the Six Day War, Mourid Barghouti returns after thirty years and sings of his experience and his memories.
“And now I pass from my exile to their… homeland? My homeland? The West Bank and Gaza? The Occupied Territories? The Areas? Judea and Samaria? The Autonomous Government? Israel? Palestine? Is there any other country in the world that so perplexes you with its names?”
And yet, as Edward W. Said intimates in the foreword, the account is free of bitterness and recrimination.
“I know that it is the easiest thing to stare at the faults of others and that if you look for faults you see little else. Which is why—after each setback that befalls us—I look for our faults too; the faults of our song. I ask if my attachment to the homeland can reach a sophistication that is reflected in my song for it. Does a poet live in space or time? Our homeland is the shape of the time we spent in it.”
The pages teem with beautiful questions…
“Who has stolen our gentleness?”
“Are they really afraid of us or is it we who are afraid?”
“What should we remember and what should we forget?”
“Did I paint for strangers an ideal Palestine because I had lost it?”
…and express in simple ways the everyday sorrows of displacement.
“I have never been able to collect my own library. I have moved between houses and furnished apartments, and become used to the passing and the temporary. I have tamed myself to the feeling that the coffeepot is not mine.”
But in the vast desert of pain, there is room for love and joy…
“Love is the confusion of roles between the giver and the taker.”
“Joy needs training and experience. You have to take the first step.”
…and even vaster spaces for art.
“I said to myself that the heart of the matter was in a detailed knowledge of life, and of the human maturity that is the foundation for all artistic maturity. These are features that no work of art worthy of the name can do without, whatever the lived experience. What is important is the piercing insight and the special sensitivity with which we receive experience, not simply our presence at the event, which, important as it is, is not enough to create art.”
I Saw Ramallah — read, once again, to humanize what we tend to generalize.