“Sometimes,…our ignoble desire to read private letters is matched by a letter-writer’s ignoble desire to be read.”

I used to send my first ex-boyfriend postcards from each new city I visited, for quite a while after we stopped seeing each other  – unsigned, of course; a dramatic moment never passes me by.  I’d usually get a coy text message in response, “someone’s been sending me mail, I wonder who that could be…”

Cute, right? Vomit inducing. But I still wonder what happened to those postcards, even now nearly a decade on – are they tucked away in a drawer somewhere? Were they read and chucked straight in the bin? Were they even read, and I mean read, those short lines I’d imbued with so much meaning?

image

A postcard I sent to my parents from NY. It still holds pride of place on their fridge.

And there is meaning in hand-written communication; the particular weight that time, thought, and effort offers up, that can’t be replicated by any other means – emails and text messages are but pixels; even a typed, printed letter doesn’t quite have the same power as something hand-written.

imageIt’s this power that John O’Connell explores in his book, For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication, published 2012.

I don’t generally like light history books; I tend to find them a bit toothless in both content and analysis, and a bit forced in their attempts to be airily amusing. The blurb on For the Love of Letters’ dust jacket made it sound like just that kind of book, but I’m glad I worked through my initial cringe and read it anyway. O’Connell is not only genuinely witty and deeply knowledgable about the history of letters, but the deeply personal context of the book set it apart for me.

The book opens with O’Connell preparing to pen a reply to a letter of condolence, hand-written and sent by a friend following the death of O’Connell’s mother; and closes as he completes his reply – a copy of which is included as an epilogue, a touch which adds a particular legitimacy to the narrative. What happens between is an agile trip through the history of letters, from the rhetorical theory set out by Isocrates around 400 BC, the origin of the modern postal system, to famous letter writers and styles – love letters, advisory letters, letters confronting death.

It’s light history, light philosophy, and light humour, but it’s the personal and charming elements of the book that make it a satisfying read – it feels far more like having a conversation with an old friend than anything else.

image

I’m always interested in how people attempt to shore up their lives against time, the kinds of precautions we all take to safeguard our experiences against the unsympathetic eye of reality and history, so I am likely the kind of reader O’Connell imagined appreciating his book.

…the reason we write letters is the main reason we write anything: to convert the chaos of our lives into solid, time-locked narrative.
The writing of narrative, any kind of narrative, helps us stay sane by convincing us that we are stable, autonomous individuals moving smoothly through the world. (p. 22)

Perhaps I’ll spend this holiday season writing some letters of my own.

Advertisements

“Tainted. It’s a funny word, isn’t it? Is it like fruit, rotten a bit? But not completely spoiled?”

I’m not much into romances (doomed or otherwise), and I have little time or sympathy for self-pitying men (fictional or otherwise), so Alfred Hayes’ 1953 novel In Love is not the kind of book I would usually be drawn to, much less enjoy. I’m glad I put those doubts aside and ordered a copy anyway  – it might only be the end of July, but I think In Love may be my favourite read of 2016.

In Love begins with a man of nearly 40, propping up a bar mid-afternoon in New York, telling a pretty young thing about the decline of his last affair. A fairly dreary setting, for a fairly dreary protagonist. Despite the man’s poetic reminiscences, it’s a largely unsatisfying relationship for both of them, once lust and convenience are both discounted – he is “often bored… with absolutely nothing to say to her” (p. 28), she is “frequently depressed” (p. 28), lonely and self-conscious. With no desire to commit to her in any kind of way, the protagonist’s interest is only really piqued once she leaves him, for a (somewhat) more reliable, and richer, man.

Men are never more interested in a toy than when someone else wants to play with it.

… the temporary possession of her had given me the illusion that it [my life] was not, while I had her, barren; now that she was gone, the barrenness that she had temporarily helped conceal lay exposed. It was because we thought so much that love could save us, that having nothing else but the dry labor of our work we looked so anxiously toward love. (p.60)

Had Hayes been a less skilled writer, In Love could have quickly descended into either sentimental dreck or tedious whining, but Hayes’ prose is simply glorious – it’s the reading equivalent of slipping into a warm bath.

She always insisted that she could remember every detail of the very first evening we were together; how, for example, there was snow falling, and how the taxi meter, a little yellow glow above it, ticked, and how she felt, excited, in the interior of the heated cab, touching hands, but sad too, sad inside, the way you feel when you like a man, and when you know that with him it will happen, and you’ve made up your mind even before it happens so that he doesn’t really have to ask you, it’s something… you feel and he feels, a pleasurable tension between you, a silken tightness, waiting to get to a place, his apartment or yours or a friend’s room or a hotel, or even a deserted country road, so that you sink into a trance of waiting, a deliciousness that’s somehow sad, too, and you feel, because of the sadness both there and not there, inside the cab and holding hands and not inside the cab at all and not holding hands at all. So that there must have been, for her, a momentary pang of something lovely, something that the hush of whiteness and the somnolent heat of the cab gave her. Perhaps it was the anticipation, that moment sustained by the drive home, when one is in a taxi with a stranger who is about to be transfigured into a lover, and there is an interval, as in music, when the chord of desire has been struck, and the chord of the fulfilment of desire hasn’t; when everything remains suspended and anticipatory, and the snow falls through the air of a city whose ugliness is temporarily obscured, and the cab itself seems to exist inside a magical circle of quiet heat and togetherness and motion; and, I suppose, for that moment, it is beautiful: the snow, and everything. (p.20-21)

I do so love a good unreliable narrator, and despite gestures towards self-awareness of his own faults, the narrator of In Love is neither reliable or particularly likeable. The unnamed female love interest is far more interesting, and far more sympathetic. That’s despite some of the more bitter commentary:

And I thought, suddenly, that all these women, accompanied or unaccompanied, alone or on the arms of men, going somewhere now on the street, must be enacting within themselves little dramas of copulation as equally calculated as hers. That, really, the city was nothing but a huge bedroom, with some office buildings attached, as they said in the army, for rations, and that for each of these women there was an absolute conviction that the universe was arranged for only one end: her in bed. (p. 111)

It’s a great pity that Hayes isn’t more well known, and In Love isn’t considered an American classic. I feel like the speed at which both cultural attitudes and literary trends changed in the 1950s meant In Love might have seemed unappealingly outdated soon after its publication, but good things never really go out of style.  I feel like I’ll be coming back to In Love time and time again.

I suppose no evening is ever again like the very first evening, the nakedness ever again quite the nakedness it is that first time, the initial gestures, hesitant and doubtful and overintense, ever again what they were, for nothing we ever want ever turns out quite the way we want it, love or ambition or children, and we go from disappointment to disappointment, from hope to denial, from expectation to surrender, as we grow older, thinking or coming to think that what was wrong was the wanting, so intense it hurt us, and believing or coming to believe that hope was our mistake and expectation our error, and that everything the more we want it the more difficult the having it seems to be… (p. 23)

image

“I could not help but hear the faint clinking of glass containers among the muffled noises… that peculiar, fricative sound of air and liquid. I did not realize that beer produced such a forlorn sobbing.”

– p. 105, The Ruined Map, Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe really harshing my beer-reading buzz.

“I shall not begin at the beginning since there is no beginning, only a middle into which you, fortunate reader, have just strayed…”

I’ve always loved satire, and I’d like to think that I’m far more subversive than conservative, but my self-image as a camp, tongue-in-cheek, irreverent has been somewhat shaken by Gore Vidal’s 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge.

Set in the 1960s, Myra makes her way to Hollywood to seek the inheritance she’s owed by her dead husband’s Uncle Buck. Attractive, intellectual, and sexually complex, Myra is convinced that the golden days of the US came and went with the Golden Age of Hollywood.

I am seated in front of a French cafe in a Montmartre street on the back lot at Metro. … Over a metal framework, cheap wood has been arranged and painted as to suggest with astonishing accuracy a Paris bistro. … From the angle where I sit I can see part of the street in Carvel where Andy Hardy lived. The street is beautifully kept up as the shrine it is, a last memorial to all that was touching and – yes – good in the American past, an era whose end was marked by two mushroom shapes set like terminal punctuation marks against the Asian sky. (p. 30-31)

The book is written largely as a memoir – Myra’s confessional with a preening eye always to her audience; with snippets of Uncle Buck’s suspicion-filled memos. In his 1995 autobiography Palimpsest, Vidal said that he found inspiration for Myra’s lofty tone in the “megalomania” of Anaïs Nin’s diaries – which I’m not sure is quite fair, but certainly did give me a giggle to discover. I can’t say I found Anaïs Nin’s short stories or diaries particularly enjoyable to read, but that opinion doesn’t seem to be particularly popular.

Is it possible to describe anything accurately? That is the problem set to us by the French New Novelists. The answer is, like so many answers to important questions, neither yet nor no. The treachery of words is notorious. I write that I ‘care for’ Mary-Ann. But what does that mean? Nothing at all because I do not care for her at all times or at any time in all ways. To be precise (the task set us in the age of science), as I sit here…I can say that I like her eyes and voice but not her mouth (too small) or hands (too blunt). I could fill many pages of yes-no and still not bring the reader to any deep knowledge of what it is I feel at 7.10pm, March 12. It is impossible to sort out all one’s feelings at any given moment on any given subject, and so perhaps it is wise never to take on any subject other than one’s own protean but still manageable self. (p. 116)

I appreciate the topics that Vidal broaches in Myra Breckinridge, and the panache with which Vidal broaches them – generational attitude changes in America, masculinity, feminism, transsexuality, homosexuality, heterosexuality, pornography, intellectualism, hypocrisy. There’s still truth to be found in plenty of Vidal’s barbs, but the language used is certainly (and thankfully!) far outdated.

Most human beings, however, prefer the short duet, lasting anywhere from five minutes with a stranger to five months with a lover. Certainly the supreme moments occur only in those brief exchanges when each party, absorbed by private fantasy, believes he is achieving mastery over the other. The sailor who stands against the wall, looking down at the bobbing head of the gobbling queen, regards himself as master of the situation; yet it is the queen (does not that derisive epithet suggest primacy and dominion?) who has won the day, extracting from the flesh of the sailor his posterity, the one element in every man which is eternal and (a scientific fact) cellularly resembles not at all the elixir of victory, that which was not meant for him but for the sailor’s wife or girl or simply Woman. (p. 80)

Even though my love for Gore Vidal knows no bounds, and there was plenty I enjoyed about Myra Breckinridge, I can’t fully enjoy (or really recommend) any book that uses rape as a key plot point. That’s not to say Vidal didn’t write it well – it’s deeply disturbing, a severe counterpoint to the frippery of much of the book – but I still feel like rape is rarely more than a cheap narrative device.

Myra Breckinridge is dated, nearly entirely silly, and certainly has issues. It may not be quite what it was 40 years ago but it’s certainly a good snapshot of a particular American era, with a few eternal truths thrown in for good measure.

But then it is out peculiar fate to destroy or change all things we touch since (and let us never forget it) we are the constant and compulsive killers of life, the mad dogs of creation… Death and destruction, hate and rage, these are the most characteristic of human attributes… (p. 122)

 

“The hour is midnight and the library is deep and carried like a dreaming child into the darkness of these pages…”

From one repository of dreams to another. A fouDSC08394 2r hour train ride yesterday allowed me time to start and finish Richard Brautigan’s gentle little book, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966.

Our unnamed narrator is the custodian of a very peculiar public library in San Francisco. No one visits to read the books – the books aren’t even available to get checked out – and there is no indexing system to keep track of the books. Instead, this is a library where aspiring authors of all ages (“all the losers and the dingalings”) submit the books they’ve written for safe-keeping.  Our unnamed narrator takes his job as custodian of these books very seriously. He welcomes each book, each author, with respect and sensitivity – whether it’s five year old Chuck with his book “My Trike”, or fifty year old Charles Green who’s had his book rejected by publishers 459 times.

“I’ll show you how we honour a book into the library. ‘Welcome it’ is the phrase I use…. and you have to be friendly, too. That’s important. To make the person and the book feel wanted because that’s the main purpose of the library and to gather pleasantly together the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing.” (p. 71-72)

Sounds like an ideal job to me – if it came with one day a week off and a decent wage, I’d be beating down the door to get hired. Our unnamed narrator has manned the library for three years, day and night without ever leaving – faithfully and alone. And then one day Vida shows up, her own book under her arm. Vida shows up, with her ethereal face and her Playboy body – her “grand container”. Vida shows up, and never leaves.

“What an abstract thing it is to take your clothes off in front of a stranger for the very first time… Your body almost looks away from itself and is a stranger to this world.” (p. 45)

When Vida becomes pregnant, they leave the library to procure an abortion in Tijuana, Mexico. I never had Brautigan pegged as an overly particularly political writer from the other works I’ve read (A Confederate General From Big Sur, The Hawkline Monster, Dreaming of Babylon), so I wasn’t sure how the eponymous abortion would be written, what proportion of the book it would inhabit. I was a bit nervous that it would be a cheap plot device, shock value and nothing more – but the issue is treated surprisingly humanely.

The decision to have the abortion was arrived at without bitterness and was calmly guided by gentle necessity.
‘I’m not ready to have a child yet,’ Vida said. ‘And neither are you, working in a kooky place like this. Maybe another time, perhaps for certain another time, but not now. I love children, but this isn’t the time. If you can’t give them the maximum of yourself, then it’s best to wait. There are too many children in the world and not enough love.’ (p. 55)

Even though the decision is reached quickly, it’s not one that Vida or the librarian take lightly. They’re ambivalent toward the decision – it’s the right decision for them at that time, but not one they’re happy to undertake.

“Some children were playing in front of the doctor’s office… We were no doubt a common sight for them. They had probably seen many gringos in this part of town, going into this green adobe-like building, gringos who did not look very happy. We did not disappoint them.” (p. 127)

The book is typical Brautigan, light and absurd, with a host of unreal characters – but it’s narratively quite straight, and far more solemn than I was expecting.  A lot of reviews make the book seem funnier, lighter, than I found it – but perhaps like most cult American authors of that early-to-mid-20th Century style (from Hemingway to Kerouac to Thompson), Brautigan’s standard audience is made up of undergraduate boys who’ve never seen a woman naked outside of a computer screen, who think Nietzsche is the ultimate height of Western thought. Sympathising with Vida, as a woman of childbearing age who could potentially face the physical experience of abortion (or at least faces the spectre of unwanted pregnancy), gives quite a different experience of the book than does sympathising with the librarian.

DSC08395 2

I’ve enjoyed other Brautigan books (particularly The Hawkline Monster), but I enjoyed this book in a different way, particularly any description of the library. The library can be seen as a metaphor for plenty of things – the hedonistic 60s, the abortion itself; great moments, all the joy of production, which ultimate leads to nothing – but perhaps that’s a stretch. I’ll leave the metaphors to more expert readers, and just enjoy Brautigan’s inimitable turn of phrase.

“I know it’s going to rain.
Clouds have been playing with the blue style of the sky all day long… but so far nothing rain has happened.” (p. 11)

I’ve been neglecting this little blog this week, but entirely unintentionally.

DSC08384I’ve been struggling over how to write a review on Ismail Kadare’s The Palace of Dreams – I finished it a few days ago and I have ~feelings~ about it. It’s rare that I reread a book straight after I’ve finished, but this is one of those times. I’m going to read it again this weekend and spend some time with my thoughts.

In other news, I got a job at a bookstore! It’s only a short term position for the moment, but I’m pretty excited. It’s a dangerous place for me to be, three guesses on where all my pay is going to go…