Graham Greene’s “Orient Express” (1932) is a mean-spirited book about human experience and condition, closer to Theodore Dreiser than to Evelyn Waugh, and not to be confused with Agatha Christie’s trip on the same train a couple of years later. In Greene’s book, the murders take place off the train. The writing technique shows the early influence of the cinema. A New York Times contemporary review from 1932 explains:
“Something of motion picture technique is used, with brief glimpses of the actions and thoughts now of one character, now of another, interspersed with the longer stretches of narrative.”
The characters are drawn from stock and the plot from Naturalism. Film endings coming as they do only an hour or two into the story, are unexpected and stir the emotions of the audience. Yet the threads are there from the beginning, and the wall could have fallen only one way as brick by brick is pulled out.
I read the “Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition” (2004), with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens (“Hitch” to his friends), which I would not read because I don’t like reading introductions, at least not until I’ve finished the book, because, like movie trailers, they give too much away, and because I never cared much for Hitch. I almost did not buy the book when I saw that Hitch did the intro, but I did, rationalizing I didn’t need to read the intro. But I did, buy the book and read the intro – after finishing the book. All of which is nonsense, of course. And browsing through the reader reviews on Amazon, before deciding to click “buy now,” I found a curious and funny one from a guy who didn’t like the book’s physical format – the uncut pages and the folded end flaps of the cover – folded flaps that are like the book covers used on hardbacks. But I like these features, and the book has a nice heft and feel to its pages, which feel and look printed instead of photographed.
Hitch spends most of his intro worrying about Greene’s use of stereotypes and trying to arrive at some sort of apologia for Green’s alleged anti-semitism. But Greene was probably following his bent. “Orient Express” is really about Greene’s own human predicament: his place and fit in time and class and mood. The narrator is also on the train, trying to avoid its preordained lineal descent or ascent. Like Hitchcock’s brief appearance at the beginning of his films, Greene is the purser in his first paragraph:
“The purser took the last landing-card in his hand and watched the passengers cross the grey wet quay, over a wilderness of rails and points, round the corners of abandoned trucks.”
It’s a cracker of a book, crisp and salty, melts in your mouth, and leaves you wanting something with a bit of sugar in it.
In part 3 of his encounter with Zizek’s “A European Manifesto,” Jeremy Fernando returns to the question of the picture we have of another’s picture of us that is not the same picture we have of us. In other words, the question of art, tinged with doubt, the opposite of faith (62). We all have a particular picture of ourselves, more than one, perhaps, but, in any case, seldom the same picture others have of us. This is of primary concern to the artist who realizes his lack of vision inhibits the transparency that informs nature (i. e. the primordial picture). The painter of the still life bowl of peaches fails to see the molecules drifting off the rotting fruit, but captures the glossy black fly attending to the rusting red peaches with verisimilitude the critic who likes this sort of thing calls ultra-realism. Of course it’s hardly real at all. It’s a painting, oils that never completely dry.
“…one cannot be sure not only if one has mis-read, over-read, or under-read, one cannot be certain if one has even read.”
An “illegitimate” (63) reading, then. Well, after all, this is a blog:
Thus we can only impress upon our readers (all dozen or so of them, if we are a best-teller) our impression of what we’ve read. My impression is that we’ve no need to fear the monster. And to keep in mind always that the monster is precisely not Frankenstein. All art is science fiction. In fact, all science is science fiction. What do we think we are seeing when we look at these new photographs of scenes taking place in far far away space?
“Where what << Europe >> is, might be, could be, might well already be, is both from yonder, perhaps even beyond the pale, but at the same time – since it is named such – within its possibilities. Where, in response to ‘Was heibt Europa?’ [What is Europe?] one might posit, un pas au-dela [a step beyond].”
The artist (the surety, the guarantor) assumes the responsibility for the debt of the reader who brings suit (calling upon his solicitor – i. e. the critic), as he surely must, for he can never get to the bottom of it on his own, yonder his own limits, beyond the pale, outside any jurisdiction. For the artist, who stands alone, is both surety and principal, the one who performs the obligation and the one who guarantees the performance, and the one who defaults, all three parties to the contract. What became of the reader? Lost in space.
To be clear: Frankenstein is the artist; the book is the monster.
Thus, while Fernando starts part three with questions about the artist, he quickly moves to a discussion of Adam and Eve and the question of the tree of knowledge, of good and evil, and wonders how either (Adam or Eve) could have possibly made an informed decision to eat of the forbidden fruit, since before that act they had no knowledge – they didn’t know what they were doing; as innocents, they could not make an informed decision – they had not reached the age of reason: thus their plea of nolo contendere. And they plea guilty to a lesser charge, that of being human.
The book is a little monster, the text its mask. It will fit into your pocket, the deeper the bigger, where economy is a hole in one’s pocket. The tiny book is in. The small venue. Intimate. Indeterminate intimacy. Fernando’s imperative.
“…one has to jump straight into the story; even if doing so seems like we are merely leaping from one tale into another, feels like we are doing less than nothing. After all, we should recall Slavoj’s lesson that the classic scene in horror movies is the moment when the monster takes off its mask, only to reveal that under the mask lies exactly the same face.”
54, S/Z Jeremy Fernando: A European Manifesto Slavoj Zizek, 2022, Delere Press.
To unmask the text is the work of Theory, influenced by algorithms developed in the Social Sciences, which replaced Freud. “What is to be done?”
One might begin, could certainly do worse, by reading Jeremy Fernando’s latest little monster, S/Z, a McLuhanesque mosaic that follows (explicates, explores, examines, includes) Slavoj Zizek’s A European Manifesto (first published in an abridged version in French as Mon manifeste europeen in Le Monde on 13 May 2021):
“My thesis is that precisely now, when Europe is in decline and the attacks on its legacy are at their strongest, one should decide FOR Europe. The predominant target of these attacks is not Europe’s racist etc. legacy but the emancipatory potential that is unique to Europe: secular modernity, Enlightenment, human rights and freedoms, social solidarity and justice, feminism … The reason we should stick to the name “Europe” is not only because good features prevail over bad; the main reason is that European legacy provides the best critical instruments to analyze what went wrong in Europe. Are those who oppose ‘Eurocentrism’ aware that the very terms they use in their critique are part of European legacy?”
We are at the intersection of Zizek and Fernando, which is to say, there are no streets and no intersection. There is a path that runs (meanders, zigzags, convolutes) like a clear stream over profound stones through a part of the woods we may have never been before. We pass the huts of Badiou, Barthes, Derrida, Dufourmantelle, Kierkegaard, Cixous, Baudrillard, and others –
“And by doing so, calls for a reading (lit) that is aware of itself as reading, that – by foregrounding its form, its making – quite possibly undoes itself as one is reading, is potentially under erasure (sous rature) while being read” (strikeouts added).
This is what we do: Reading (23 to 42); Writing (43 to 55); Fainting in Coils (57 to 73).
“Which is not the standard call for multiculturalism – for that still maintains the notion of a single Europe, of a Europe in which many different kinds and types of peoples have to fit themselves into – but a more radical one that attends to Europe itself, that reads what it might be to be European. Bringing with it echoes of wideness, broadness (eurys), certainly encompassing many, but also a matter of seeing, of the eye (ops): of one that sees in the light of the setting sun.”
Thus we arrive back to McLuhan, who explains the effects of technology on the sensorium, who might prefer going back to a time when, before the printing press, men were men and boats were boats (appropriated from another Mc in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).
We take what we need, when and where we find it. We are building a map not out of the woods, but further in,
“Where, a true disruption comes through reading the notion that we are dealing with – responding to it, conversing with it, turning-with (versare) it, quite possibly occasionally turning it against (versus) itself, but never severing it, tearing it completely from its boundaries, its form. Thus, transforming it in a manner in which it is both recognisable, not-beyond, but also pushing it a step-beyond at exactly the same time.”
Any number of syllabi might be created from this short Delere Press text (81 pages). Such is the depth of the footnotes. As an example, possibly my favorite:
“This line was uttered in a conversation about literature and reading – probably at a bar – with my old friend, Neil Murphy, in June 2006. During the course of the evening, Neil also reminded me that, << reading literature with your head is always a mistake >>.
To find out (discover, uncover, read, listen, study, research, jointhe conversation), what Neil Murphy “uttered,” Dear Reader, please, you won’t regret it, get the Delere Press book: ISBN 978-981-18-1987-2 S/Ž | A EUROPEAN MANIFESTO .
There are thirty snippets of “Praise for Pond,” cutlets from big and small zines and papers (and authors selected or solicited for blurbs) on and offline, from reviews, presumably, four full pages of front matter, mostly adjectives and adverbs describing the author’s (Claire-Louise Bennett, Riverside Books, 2016, originally published in Ireland by Stinging Fly Press, 2015, 195 pages) “prose… mind…debut…sensibility”:
ardent, obsessive-compulsive, a little feral…kookily romantic;
attentive…baroque and beautiful;
elegant and intoxicating;
deceptively simple…unsettled…formidably gifted;
muddiness…deliberate and crisp;
quiet and luxurious;
But I will add that what Bennett requires of her reader is patience, the kind of indulgence one might assume will not make for a popular reading, yet here it is, an “eccentric debut…of real talent.”
The common reader might already suspect we are in for deep waters in “pond” when we see the page that comes after the list of twenty titles in the table of contents, quotes from Nietzsche (The Birth of Tragedy), Natalia Ginzburg (“A Place to Live”), and Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Space). I can’t explain why the titles of the Nietzsche and Bachelard books are placed in italics (in the Riverside paperback copy under review – i.e. the one I read, the first American edition, and have posted a pic of above, sitting in the kitchen nook window looking out on the wet yard as I type) while the title of the Ginzburg book is placed within quote marks. But, as it happens, the book I finished just prior to opening “pond,” coincidentally, (and I don’t really know if it should be typed as “pond,” “Pond,” or “POND”; or pond, Pond, or POND) was a Natalia Ginzburg book: “Family and Borghesia” (nyrb reissue, 2021), a very different kind of book from “Pond,” though similar in its wanton flow of words and focus on detail (how’s that for blurbing?). Moreover, as I looked up “patience,” wondering if it was the right word, appropriate and all that, for where I wanted to put it, adding my own descriptive, albeit with a noun, to the thirty clips, knowing full well it will never nor would have made the cut, I came across this sample sentence to illustrate the use of “indulgence”:
“Claire collects shoes—it is her indulgence” (Google dictionary, Oxford languages).
I don’t collect shoes, nor, I suspect, does Claire-Louise Bennett, who apparently lives or lived during the making of POND on the Atlantic Coast of Ireland in a small stone hut of some kind, again, apparently, as I put together a few clues from the book as well as from rummaging around. I live on the Pacific Coast of the US, not within a stone’s throw of the water, anymore, but close enough to enjoy the waterlogged winters of the Pacific Northwest, about ninety miles away from the big pond as the roads go, about seventy miles for the birds, assuming they take a direct route over or through the passes of the Coast Range. The coordinates for Galway are 53.2707° N, 9.0568° W; while for Cannon Beach, Oregon are 45.8918° N, 123.9615° W. It’s currently (as I type) 44 degrees in Galway and wet at 8pm, a bit of wind maybe a bit of sun tomorrow to close a rainy week and start a new one; while at the Oregon coast it’s wet and 47 degrees finishing the morning with a high wind warning in place for this evening to close a wet week and start a new one. That’s not to say living on the Pacific coast of the US is anything like living on the Atlantic coast of Ireland. Except that, we both get our weather for the most part from our close proximity to what some call wild oceans.
In any case, I very much enjoyed reading “pond,” and thought I might put up a post from another West Coast of rivers and streams dampness and moss and ponds and puddles galore:
“aplenty in abundance in profusion in great quantity in large numbers by the dozen to spare everywhere all over (the place) a gogo by the truckload by the shedload” (Google dictionary)
I think galore is the descriptive word I’ll end this review (if, indeed, it can be called that, and, if not, I don’t know what) of “Pond” with.
If to identify is to accuse, I probably shouldn’t mention Keith Kopka’s travelling punk band past in easy to get front row outlier venues where the stage is so close to the audience sweat exchanges and curls the tickets, nor mention his emergence as a poet with enough good material to fill a book, “Count Four.” Good title for a book of poems, readers waiting for the rim shot, the close cadence that bridges music and language, a command, like Basic Training drill marching, the poet soldier the sensitive one who saves the Motel 8 (or 6 or 4 or 12 bar blues) weekend pass receipt on the back of which is scribbled a waitress’s name and phone number which might appear in some future poem about a past mistake. She gotta way, don’t she, babe. And we’ll never know if she’s still a waitress (speaking of identity, and so what if she is?) or if she found success (if not happiness in apple pie crust) by turning her con artist skills into legitimate work as an adjunct and now only waitresses part time to make ends meet:
She’s a waitress, no older than nineteen, mouth caked in lipstick, pie flour streaked on her thigh. Watching her, I can tell by how she keeps her apron on during sex, that she’ll wait tables forever.
III. Lafayette, Indiana, Star City (50)
Kopka’s poetry seems to successfully bridge what should satisfy simultaneously the respectable academic reader with diplomatic credentials and the still street smart fighting guys and gals intellectually inclined but unwilling to sell their future for a degree, happy to wait for an encore they know deep down where the blood runs true will never come:
but on the entire crowd who continues to believe it, when you sing about the coal vein of hillbilly music being the only thing that keep you hangin’ on, the expensive idea that you still break our hearts, and have your heart broken.
Dwight Yoakam’s Hat (89)
Just so the key to the effectiveness and efficiencies of Kopka’s poems, which will be popular scratched on the walls of an egalitarian latrine or published in the pure pages of a Poetry magazine, where normal wears formal:
Asia is a sexual astronaut, surrounded by a radiated halo, a solar system of pleasure choices, links to videos, and a chat room.
Asia Carrera’s XXX Butt-kicking Homepage, 1998 (12)
Yet there are domestic, familial, moral imperatives, purposeful and meaningful roots to Kopka’s poetry. One doesn’t become a Punk (or poet) by chance, but by choice. The decision is existential and requires a rebirth. All life begins as a kid and spins like a top:
By then I’d circled all the way around to my father’s house again. Same house I grew up in. So I ring the doorbell, and when my father answers I start to name what I’ve lifted.
His dad sets him up in a suit in a poem that contains the ritual of a sacrament, the Sacrament of Confirmation. On the way home they rehearse a lie for his mom about how they got the suit, as if she won’t guess the truth. They won’t mention “Vinny the Tailor,” the kid’s sponsor, who never sewed a stitch in his life:
Vinny, menace of the Jersey Turnpike, man who never stitched a thing more complicated than an alibi,
Vinny the Tailor (20)
The world turns, as in a soap opera, life grows hairy, there are chores to get done, some things change and others don’t:
like an un-staked scarecrow. My aunt dries dishes while my mother washes. My uncle rolls his eyes when I toss Danielle a dish rag, and take my mother’s place
The roots of now old trees rise up, raise the sidewalk, crack the cement. You can’t go home again, but neither will you feel at home in Harvard Yard. You find yourself starting to talk about punctuation, a concern for commas:
This comma, handed down from generations of working class parents
Georgic on the Boston Comma (37)
“Count Four,” and place a comma. As good a rule as any. And with rules come sophistications, affairs of the road, where poems become counts of indictments, stories are told slant, as Emily suggested, where “Success in Circuit lies.” But there are more guns in these poems than guitars, and a violence that cries out for meaning. The words are crisp and intelligible, not muddy as if through a Marshall 100 watt amp built to take squelching and squealing abuse. The poems waiver in stereo back and forth between anecdotal narratives laced with abuse and epiphanic moments and where some never awaken from the noise of self-abuse. These poems were written over time, the book collecting from a myriad of sources, a few independent or alternative, and are brought together under the imprimatur of a vintage label. The book’s title appears in the poem “All We Do Is Begin,” as in “Begin the Beguine,” where poetry translates noise into music, mosh pit convulsions into slow dance. It’s poetry where the Punk finds their way out of the mosh pit and into the solo business of writing poems to make sense of it all:
Through the wall you heard a song end, and in its ring the singer counted to four. You were just starting to understand how he’d count four thirty times a night for twenty years. It is easy to hate what we’re given, especially when it’s all we know.
All We Do Is Begin (85).
The guns are not symbols, as any guitars might have been; they’re literal and costly and deadly and like tattoos hard to erase. And the poems come loaded with history lessons, poems like “You, Strung,” that meld the personal with the general, reality with fantasy. These are poems Holden might have written, if he had written poems. And an epigram might make for the stunning occasion of the argument, as in “Square Dance Conspiracy,” above which Henry Ford gives us his opinion on the source of jazz, which he gets wrong, though his description seems to work. In any case, “Square Dance” a great exercise in poetic apostrophe, where “Wild nights – Wild nights!” are calmed if not tamed.
I don’t get the feeling Kopka’s poems are hastily written. There’s an underlying patience, notes of growth and maturation, and his poems show both temperamental talent and writerly skills at work. The ideas begin in observation, might be confessional, but could be fictional, and ethical choices are made, dug out, and then backfilled. Description moves us forward, closer to the action:
We’re eating poutine in a courtyard canopied by hackberry trees…. Under the table, the brunette unfolds a napkin on my lap, her palm holding me through the cloth makes a slow, migratory circuit.
The Birds of Montreal (86)
There are three sections to “Count Four,” and a single poem introduction (“Interrogation”), for a total of 32 poems. The book is well organized and presented. No very short, tweet-like poems. The poems are formally written using poetic devices both hidden and obvious. Not that these need to be recognized for enjoyment of the book. The poems are accessible, and in that sense traditional and conservative, at least in form, rather than radical and blurred. There’s humor as well as remorse. The narrators are dynamic characters, changing from their beginnings as a result of their experiences. It seems there is no end to some of these experiences for each new generation that cometh. The poem “Hollywood Ave,” for example, takes a new pic of an old icon. Originally named Prospect Avenue, but changed to Hollywood Boulevard; too bad, Prospect far more telling. Or maybe the poem is about any one of the other 90,000 Hollywood Avenues spread throughout the country. And “Coke Folks” could easily be a nowadays sitcom.
Final Note: I very much enjoyed and like the poems in this book. I don’t want to be in most of them, but I imagine Keith Kopka doesn’t either these days. He’s no doubt moved on, this book seems to function as a kind of memoir, and I look forward to reading his future writing. For readers who would like to know more about Kopka now, here’s a link to an essay he wrote last year, titled PUNK ROCK, POETRY & THE MYTH OF MASCULINITY (OCTOBER 14, 2020 VOL. 1 BROOKLYN). But get a copy of “Count Four”; it’s the real thing.
Nine stories and a “Dance-Drama” by Nobel Prize winning Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata. Domestic settings around living quarters, gardens and paths, plants and pets, involving marital and extramarital relationships, post World War II thoughts and experiences in lovingly (at once sympathetic and detached) close, naturalistic readings of character motivations and responses – to one another, to nature, to self. In a “Translator’s Note,” Michael Emmerich summarizes the style:
“He [Kawabata] had to make the most of each unclaimed moment, each precious word. So it’s no surprise to find that the pieces in this collection are incredibly distilled, often dealing with the relationship between language and being, words and the past, and with being claimed, with losing possession of one’s historical self” (ix).
Not that the motivations and responses are necessarily absent any ambiguity, in spite of the lucid, no-nonsense prose. There might be an impulse to get away from one another, the hugging closeness of living together, from one’s own place, of wondering what taboos have to do with you, from, in the end, comparing and contrasting what you have with what you think others might have, to break one’s silence of the solitude that comes with living with someone else:
“Once more I seemed to have said too much. Wasn’t what I was doing like forcing a desperately wounded soldier to return to battle? Wasn’t it like violating a sanctuary of silence? It wasn’t as though Akifusa was unable to write – he could write letters or characters if he wanted to. Perhaps he had chosen to remain silent, chosen to be wordless because of some deep sorrow, some regret. Hadn’t my own experience taught me that no word can say as much as silence?” (167).
Kawabata’s writing is full of atmosphere created from the smells and sounds, visions and touch, of ordinary living. The effects might be described as calming, even if the events portrayed are not. And in that sense there is an acceptance of life the characters often in personal rebellion don’t want to accept, or, at least, wonder what life might be like on the other side of such acceptance. That is brought forth from description, dialog, shifting point of view, of course, but here the brush strokes, the word juxtapositions, the storytelling flow, just seem so perfect and create that sense one sometimes yearns from reading – a momentary relief, as Frost said of poetry, against the confusion of the world, even, again, if confusion is what it’s all about.
The copy I read is a Counterpoint (Washington, D. C.) paperback, 227 pages, Perseus Books Group (ISBN: 1-58243-022-5), 1999, but there appears to be a reprint, “revised,” which I’ve not seen, from Counterpoint (Berkeley, 2000, 248 pages).
Readers who like unlikeable characters will love Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Lila Moscowitz. Lila is stubborn, spoiled, angry, bitter, promiscuously self-destructive. And, frosting on the cake, she’s a poet. That’s not to say she’s without redeemable qualities. She’s funny, hilarious, in fact, a natural wit, and as honest as a person can be without losing all of one’s family and friends and readers. Her humor is laced with sarcasm and irony. She’s quick, street smart and intelligent, independent. Experienced readers will recognize that Lila is not Binnie, that the narrator of a novel should not be confused with the author. This narrative truth is emphasized toward the end of the book when Lila takes some questions after a poetry reading:
“‘Did you really dance topless at the Baby Doll Lounge?’ Another one of the college girls is contemplating a career move, no doubt. I smile as if I’ve got a secret, and I say, ‘I refuse to answer on the grounds that it could incriminate me.'”
Lila may be a poet, but she’s not stupid:
“That I never danced topless at the Baby Doll Lounge or anyplace else either is not what they want to hear.”
Does she “write every day,” another student asks, and Lila pretends for the audience that she does write every day. She’s then asked “how much money do poets make?” Here she tells the truth (192-193).
But while the perspicacious reader knows Lila is not Binnie, we all know that poetry does not sell, so why not only does Binnie put “poetry” in her title but structures her book with poetic devices, informing each chapter with epigraphs, definitions of poetic conventions? Didn’t she want her book to sell? The answer has to do with wheels within wheels, or how to turn a stand up routine into literature:
“Many of the poems I write are about sex. I have a gift for the subject. The ins and outs of it. My poems lean toward the sordid side of the bed, the stuff of soiled sheets” (21).
We don’t get to hear those poems, but they apparently are full of the tension created by want harbored in inhibitions freed in seduction, romp enclosed in forms, procedures, praxis, which express mores without which somehow sex is not nearly as much fun. The fun is enclosed in a box of gravure etchings. The notion of form as enclosure is conservative. The poet might want out, not in. Lila’s own explanation might solve both Binnie and the reader’s questions:
“There is freedom within the confines of form the way a barrier protects you from the elements of disaster. The way there is love in the bonds of marriage. ‘Without boundaries, you can be only adrift,’ I say. ‘Lost. Without lines drawn on the map, you are nowhere. It is better to be a prisoner of war than to be without a nation, a place, a people'” (194).
Jesus may have said the opposite – Come, follow me, and leave all that nonsense behind. Of course, most of his followers wound up wanting it both ways.
“Maybe they should stay in their cages and sing their hearts out. Unbridled passion…results from being tied to the bedpost” (194).
Which is to make of Lila a dynamic character, one who’s changed over the course of the work. She finds love only by losing love. She’s human, fallen, having slipped on her own banana peel, but she gets back up, and writes a book that stirs and calms the forms.
Pure Poetry, by Binnie Kirshenbaum, a novel, Simon & Schuster, 2000, 203 pages.
“Talk” is another book acquired some time ago but left initially unread, sitting in a stack on a table, even reshuffled, as if for a game of solitaire, or as if it needed to thaw or season before consuming, opened for a few bites but put back down for something else, but when picked up again finally found its taste delightful, finished, and thoroughly enjoyed. And nothing will do but I must talk about it. Did I pick “Talk” out of the free library book box down on the corner? I don’t recall, and it doesn’t really matter except that I’ve started these short short reviews here at The Toads I’m tagging “Lit Crit Shorts,” though they are not proper reviews, as was discussed off-line after my posting of an LCS of “The Ant.” By proper is meant the reviewer talks mainly about the book in hand, gives it a few stars, or fewer, to indicate degree to which it was liked or is being recommended: ***** or *** or *. Of course you can like something without it at all being good or good for you. In any case, I’m not interested in writing that kind of review. But neither are these so-called Lit Crit Shorts an original form. The New Yorker in a weekly feature publishes four “briefly noted” book reviews, single paragraphs, an art form in its own right. Clear and concise sentences too, unlike the ones you’ll likely stumble over here at The Toads, like miscreant directions in an unfamiliar part of town. Not that I can’t write a perfectly navigable sentence or a proper book review, one that will get a reader home safely. And there are templates for that sort of thing. Plates that match. And how do you cast something without a mold? Still, it’s the reflective, personal (as in personal essay) response to a reading I’m interested in, not a discussion of whether or not the thing holds true to a tradition or has lit out for some territory previously uncharted, though of course that’s important too and there’s no reason it can’t be included, in any form desired. Authors of course, their publishers and company, are interested in reviews that will cause their books to fly off shelves. Click here to order now! But if someone is not likely to read your book, why would they read a review of your book? And if they are going to read your book, why would they want to read a review of your book? Likewise, I won’t watch movie trailers, unless I’m not going to see the movie. And I’m not just talking about spoiler alert here. I love reading TNY “Briefly Noted” reviews, yet in some 50 years of reading The New Yorker, I’m not sure I’ve ever ran out and purchased a book as a result of seeing it “Briefly Noted.” I’m probably an exception here, but I’m not sure that readers of book reviews are the same readers as those of the books. I read book reviews for the book review, not for the book. And longer reviews demand, or should require, a degree of research the common writer is not likely qualified to conduct. And, yes, if there is such a thing as a common reader, why should there not also be someone called a common writer? We don’t all need or want to be specialists. The generalist can bring to a study a perspective the specialist is too close to envision. But the ease with which we are all able to opine these days calls for double checking of a speaker’s ethos, logos, and pathos – their means of persuasion, an ability to read into a speaker’s presuppositions, assumptions, and biases. And it does indeed appear, alas, the ability to check independently for reliability, credibility, authority – in short, to check sources – is startlingly uncommon. We don’t need to crave facts, or only facts, there’s no fun in just that; it’s good to able to deconstruct a statement to its constituent parts, to read the book in a bumper sticker. That is what mechanics do, and what readers ought to aspire to do. A prerequisite to talking about books is the ability to listen to a book, and it’s hard to talk and listen at the same time. You can follow that link, btw, to a New YorkerPage Turner book review from July 1, 2015, where the reviewer, Molly Fischer, finds the novel “Talk” “weirdly arduous.” It reminded her of Sartre’s play “No Exit,” where hell is described as “other people,” of which there are three, same as Rosenkrantz’s “Talk,” though Sartre included a valet. I also thought of “No Exit” while I was reading “Talk,” but I didn’t find reading “Talk” any more arduous than watching the TV sitcom “Friends,” which Stephen Koch suggests in his introduction to the 2015 copy might be a successor to “Talk.” I did think of tweets and today’s social media and the like, which Molly also tangents into, but only because of their notable absence from “Talk.” I liked “Talk” because it was written around and takes place in 1965, on the beach, with little to distract the characters but the distractions of their own making. They indeed come of age in an existential time and place, with the privilege of being able to make their own choices, and make them they do, with one another’s help through the knack (dare I say art) of talking and listening. And “Talk” is interesting for not only what is said but what the characters don’t talk about, or talk very little about. They no doubt would have very few followers on a social media platform like today’s Twitter. Their talk isn’t about nothing, in spite of its being existentially grounded. “Talk” reminded me also of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Waiting on the beach, “Talk” might have been subtitled. “Talk” I recommend especially for readers who today might be around the age of 30, as well as for readers who may have been somewhere in their formative years in the mid 1960’s. “Talk” is a modern classic.
The narrator of this Jonathan Lethem novel, an orphan afflicted with Tourette’s, is handpicked along with a few school comrades for exploitation as black market stooges. The opportunity frees them to work on street education degrees where coursework involves the detective mystery that is coming of age. I had briefly confused Jonathan Lethem with Jonathan Franzen, both peers of David Foster Wallace, Franzen a close friend and Lethem Wallace’s successor teaching creative writing at Pomona College. A used copy of “Motherless Brooklyn” had been gifted to me a few years back but it found a place on a shelf unread, and when I recently pulled it out to take a look, I wondered where I’d picked it up, thinking it was probably from the free library book box down on the corner, but opening it read the thank you gift note handwritten to me. Sometimes writers or books find their way to readers unready or caught off guard. We often think we know what we want to read, what will be good, what will be good for us; we just as often don’t. “Motherless Brooklyn” is about words put into action, plot as call and response, setting as streets and commerce, alive with verisimilitude easily mistaken for fantasy given its enjoyment.
Most of us carry about a particular picture of ourselves, seldom the same picture others have of us. Some carry a portfolio of pictures about, anxious to show all they meet all about themselves – their family, schools, jobs, homes, accomplishments, disappointments, hobbies, books read, movies liked, places visited, lived, abandoned. Friends. Others don’t like having their picture taken, the only photo about them on their driver’s license, and that they don’t like either. Acquaintances may be more interested in your market value than in your face value.
Taken at face value, that is, legal value, net worth at birth, which may or may not bear any resemblance to one’s market value at the end of a life of living, of struggle, of getting by, of adapting to, or avoiding where possible, the more absurd cultural mores, steering as clear of the wildly ridiculous ones met on the street as one possibly can, Nora Barnacle’s life story is nominal, average, without great distinction. Most of us share a similar story. But, as the lifelong partner of the famous writer James Joyce, Nora’s life story far exceeds its salvage value – it’s a life worth a ticket-scalping.
But how should Nora’s story be told? Nora never read her husband James’s books, though he often read aloud to her from them, and she put no stock in literary values other than as a means to put food on the table, and which, as a means to make a living, for most of their lives proved woefully inadequate. They were never, until later in life and only then to satisfy the legal issues of the passing on of debts and assets and to protect their children, married, though they remained devoted to one another, having two children they were almost never separated from, living literally on top of one another in a seemingly endless succession of rented rooms, flats, shared spaces, hotel stays, sustained by gifts from sacrificing siblings and wealthy benefactors, until at long last Joyce’s reputation and writings began to produce earned royalties, distinction, and then the trappings of fame.
Joyce was always, and in all ways, a difficult man to live with. He was impractical, stubborn, inattentive, wasteful, and drank to excess. They fight and argue, Nora threatens to take the kids and leave, but of course she’s nowhere to go, but more importantly nowhere she wants to go – she wants her life with Jim to settle in with the peace and love of its original promise, which was to take her away from a life and family and place of destitution, beggary, and abuse. At the same time, they love and celebrate – their family, birthdays and holidays, their marginal achievements and successes, their apartments, the air and freedom of life away from dreary and unfair Ireland. They celebrate food and drink, family and friends, music and poetry, dance and lovemaking. Meantime, they’ve the bad luck of having to live through two World Wars and the Great Depression.
But how is the life just described, at face value, any different than most? Why do we want to know Nora’s story, particularly when, as we probably already know, she’s destroyed Jim’s letters to her and requested him to destroy her letters to him to keep private their private lives? They both remain victims, or feel victimized, to attempts to shame to control – attempts by the state, the church, society, friends and acquaintances, critics. Their attempt to live an existential life, defined by free choice, true to one another and to Jim’s belief in himself and his ability to make a difference with his writing (a difference to art, literature, and to all of the above), is a messy affair.
Readers familiar with the James Joyce story, whether fan or foe of his writing, may feel differently about the Nora Joyce story. In Nuala O’Connor’s “Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce,” we experience the James Joyce story through the eyes and ears – the sentiments and temperament – of Nora, who tells the story in her own voice. And we get the Nora Joyce story. Nuala’s book is neither straight biography nor straight fiction. Readers may choose to focus on one or the other, but the blend is a perfect mix, and you can’t have the one without the other. The Nora here is Nuala’s Nora, not Joyce’s Nora nor even Nora’s own selfie. But you come to see that you can’t have James Joyce without Nora Joyce, nor can we have Nora without James. What a glorious and perfect union.
Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, by Nuala O’Connor, 2021, Harper Perennial.
Cold, clear morning. Just below freezing. Frost riffs across roofs and grass the sun has not yet touched. The hoary, grey-silver stubble of winter blades, stiff. The skinny, rigid jogger skips by again, down the road, round and round she goes. A squirrel. No birds. Quiet. Clarity. Wind nil. Across the street on the sidewalk guy wearing black beard pulling red wagon up the hill in the wagon a child sitting holding the rails.
Back inside, a couple of books: “nothing but the music: Documentaries from nightclubs, dance halls & a tailor’s shop in Dakar, 1974-1992” (Thulani Davis, Blank Forms Editions, Brooklyn, 2020, but just out, pre-ordered & in snail mail about a week ago, January 2021, 63 pages); and “Paris: a poem” (Hope Mirrlees, first published in 1920 by the Hogarth Press, 175 copies, handsewn, this edition in 2020, also recently received, Bloomsbury House, London, 59 pages).
In an Afterword (long after, 100 years after), of “Paris: a poem,” Sandeep Parmar shares the setting: “Spring 1919 was quiet and cold….The weather put a dampener on the First of May demonstrations,” and she quotes from a letter, “Riots were expected but all fell flat and it was like an English Sunday – traffic stopped shops shut and nothing doing” (56-57). Sounds a bit like the morning here described above I just came from back inside to read and write. That’s not as easy as it might sound, at least not the reading part, not reading “Paris: a poem.” The poem itself runs from page 3 to page 23. The remainder of the book is Foreword (Deborah Levy), the aforementioned Afterword, and Commentary (by Julia Briggs, 2007, reworked to fit this edition), this last running from pages 25 thru 51, including Works Cited and an Addendum by Parmar. There’s also a page of notes apparently part of the first edition. For the aficionado of the obscure, this little book is a goldmine. And here I am, panning for gold:
The sun is rising, Soon les Halles will open, The sky is saffron behind the two towers of Notre-Dame (22).
The close of Parmar’s Afterword wants quoting in this little review just wanting to share what resources might be extracted:
“But it also startlingly brings to life a city lost to the past: the voice of an old nun chanting masses, American servicemen at jazz clubs, hawkers on the street, the sounds of newly opened metro trains and the glare of advertisements for exotic colonial products, the famous and nameless dead, as well as the living who have endured tragedy and survived, who must now inhabit this great metropolis side by side with those they mourn.”
Which might bring us back to today, what we began our little review with, still a cold, clear morning, now with cup of coffee, a couch, and “Paris: a poem” to carry us through to a sun low in the south noon and another early evening of thanks for the “nothing doing” of the moment. For we are doing as little as possible, still stuck in our own tragedy and attempts to survive, masked and not famous, inhabitants of this Earth, these cities, constantly renewing, so frequently we often miss what’s passing as it passes. And perhaps that’s the purpose of poetry – to still the passing for recording and reflection and renewal.
Tomorrow, or the day after, I’ll talk about the other little book recently acquired: “nothing but the music.”