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My first year in France, I flew home for Thanksgiving. Last year I felt like an ambassador, mildly festive, mildly observant.
This year I'm going to see Borat with Julie and trying not to write any more blog posts comparing breaking up with getting run over by a bicyclist.
To those of you who are celebrating Thanksgiving today: enjoy your turkey and your day at the mall tomorrow. I am thankful for all that I have, and I'm thankful for it every day, I don't need a holiday which bears the faint whiff of genocide to remind me.
I do miss my family, and the comforting sound of (American) football on television, with a fire going in the living room. So I give thanks that they're there, even if it is without me, and I give thanks that I'll be on a plane in three weeks to be with them for Christmas.
Gobble gobble indeed.
It has been the strangest month. I've been pressed up against heartache and it's been hell. It felt like everything went to pot, my mind, my health, my heart, my job. I'd start to climb out of my pit a little bit and I'd tumble back down. A few weeks ago I tried to lift my spirits by going to the launch of a friend's literary magazine; on my way there I almost got knocked over by a guy on a bike. I had no idea I was walking in a bike lane near the Jacques Bonsargeant metro station; it looked like a sidewalk to me. I wasn't wearing my iPod so my hearing was fine. And from out of nowhere a guy on a bike clocked me so hard I nearly fell down.
"Goddamn piece of motherf***ing sh** wh*re co**s*cker!!" I hurled all of my fury on the guy, and turned down another street, fuming. And though he may not speak the Queen's English, apparently this guy understood gutter English perfectly. He turned onto the same street as me and bawled me out for walking in a bike lane. "Next time I'll knock you over!" he threatened me, waving his fist in fury.
Outraged, I stood up for myself. "You piece of sh**, you almost did knock me over, and you could have driven around me, or rung your stupid little bike bell! How the f*** was I supposed to know it was a bike lane, it's in the middle of the sidewalk!"
"I had the right of way! I had the right of way!" he insisted. "Didn't I have the right of way? Look at the sign!" he was up in my face. And all of a sudden it was too much, the man on the bike and Nicolas was all of a sudden the same person, the same guy going full-speed ahead without caring if I was in his way and I started to cry uncontrollably.
"I'm sorry, I didn't see the bike lane, why did you have to drive into me," I managed to squeeze out in between sobs. The guy kind of awkwardly patted my shoulder. I imagined him going home to his girlfriend that night to tell her what a weird run-in he'd had on his way home. He gave me a final admonishment to be careful next time, and drove away. I was left a sobbing, indignant mess. Who the hell was he to tell me to be careful where I walk? I thought. He should be careful where he drives! Even sidewalks are unsafe, it would seem.
It's the same thing in a relationship, I realized that night, on the metro ride home. I can be doing my best to be careful where I walk. But sometimes you don't know you're walking in a danger zone, and the guy needs to ring his bell or otherwise indicate that he's about to run over you, if he can't avoid hitting you altogether. He needs to let you know to get out of the way.
But now, a few weeks into it, I'm much better, I'm watching where I'm going, and I'm hopeful for the future. I would not go so far as to say I'm over him. I still want us to work it out. But I can accept more responsability for where I walk, I can look at the road signs, if he can learn to drive a little more carefully.
The sadder but wiser girl am I
A sadder but wiser girl
I met a boy and thought my luck up
I couldn't guess just how he’d fuck up
The otherwise lovely McFucked-up.
He was dashing and strong, and virile
And said that he loved me so deeply
It wasn’t too long
Before it went wrong
And soon I was feeling a muck up
From the otherwise lovely McFucked-up.
Still, he came back all devoted
He swore he’d be faithful and true
He’d just one condition
Of his own volition
He'd ne’er flatter, nor fawn, nor suck up
My otherwise lovely McFucked-up.
But twisted he was, and mad
Yet I only could see the good
I love you, he’d cry
I love you, he’d sigh
Oh you silly lover I’d cluck
Up into the ear of my gallant McFucked-up.
The sadder but wiser girl am I
A sadder but wiser girl
He’s done it before, he did it again
I can’t hang around, and watch it upend
I’ve got to move on, he’s got a new friend
New boys at the door, there’s no time to spend
On missing and loving and nodding and pining
On frowning and crying, the sun is still shining!
On hoping and praying and plotting and plying
The persistently distant McFucked-up.
And what, you may ask, is the moral of my story?
Don’t give your heart for less than sheer glory.
I know he seems charming
I know he's disarming
But if you meet my McFucked-up
Disregard his pluck:
Up and Run.
It hurts to let go of him, but it hurts almost as badly to let go of the idea that I had of him. I thought he was a better man than this. But the breakup, the fact that he can let me go like this, seriously calls the last ten months into question, ten months when I've been happier and more in love than I've ever been with anyone. It sends me over and over the relationship, playing it all back in slow motion, examining every frame in excrutiating detail, looking for the evidence that he was, all the while, someone who was capable of betraying me the way he did, at my birthday party of all places. I knew he had a self-destructive streak, but I thought he trusted me, and my judgment, and he assured me that he loved me so much that he would never do anything to hurt me. I took it for granted, after he came back in May, that he was around for the long haul, that any issues that came up we would deal with together, and above all, I took it on faith that I could trust him.
It hurts so bad, to think back through everything we did together with this new idea of him. It makes me no longer understand who he was, and what we had. When the one person you think you can trust in your life betrays you, who are you supposed to rely on? Clearly I can't rely on myself, since my judgment was clouded enough to let me get so involved with this person. There are my family and friends at home, of course, but they aren't here for the day-to-day. I have friends here, but no one who knew me before I moved here, and the two good friends I made here have since returned to New York. There are friendships currently under construction, but some are with people passing through Paris, which makes me reticent to get emotionally invested.
Who am I supposed to trust? What am I meant to have faith in, after this?
It doesn't matter, I suppose. I just have to get through the everyday. I move through the week, through the familiar spaces, the turnstiles, the stairwells. I see familiar faces, students, colleagues. I sleep a lot. I read a little. And I write. I pour myself into the creative process. That's the only thing that will always be there for me.
And somewhere above my head, the neighbors play "Don't You Forget About Me" on their stereo.
Clinton and Democrats Sweep Races in New York (NYT)
The Dems also took the House, and results of the Senatorial elections are still being counted (you don't say).
Yesterday, the gods of the Goncourt looked down from their lofty perch and awarded their annual literary prize, the jewel of the saison des prix, to a most unlikely benecificiary.
And a New Yorker, at that.
Surprisingly, the reactions in the press have not been sour grapes at all; Jonathan Littell did write his massive tome in French, which makes him a Francophone writer as much as the next recipient (last year's went to the Belgian writer François Weyergans; in 1995 it went to the Russian writer Andreï Makine; in 1993 to the Lebanese-born Amin Maalouf, and so on).
The book [full admission: I have yet to read it], which purports to be the autobiography of an SS officer who reconstructs a quiet post-war life as a lacemaker in the north of France, has received mostly glowing reviews. But not entirely. Libération quotes Colette Kerber, the otherwise charming owner of the Marais bookshop Les Cahiers de Colette, "It's cut-and-paste docufiction, badly written [écrit avec les pieds]. To think they're comparing him to Grossman or Tolstoy!"
Still, although there are plenty of complaints about the way literary prizes are handed out, and the "vampirization of the rentrée," no one seems to mind that the new French literary golden boy is American. They're even having fun with his name: the best headline I've seen so far has to be Libération: "Littell assez grand pour le Goncourt".
Everyone knew Littell would win, anyway; for the last few months his book has generated a the kind of buzz that crops up when everyone is congratulating themselves on finishing a book rife with historical documentation that clocks in at 903 pages. Les Bienveillantes, or "The Kindly Ones," (which has already sold 250,000 copies) is being called an "unlikely bestseller" by people who don't understand that the book-buying public loves a challenge, especially one they can boast about to their friends.
And besides, Littell moved to France with his family in the 1970s and lived here pretty much without interruption (except to go to Yale) until his recent move to Barcelona. So he's like an honorary Frenchman, right?
Although the prize itself consists only of a symbolic 10 Euros (not to mention an unparalleled level of publicity), Littell should have no trouble finding his next meal: US rights were acquired by HarperCollins at Frankfurt for a reputed seven-figure sum.
On November 1st, I pitched this article to the features editor of the Globe and Mail:
I am writing to suggest a feature/Q&A on Canadian author Nancy Huston, who yesterday won a prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Femina, for her latest novel, Lignes de Faille.
Born in Calgary, Alberta, Huston has lived in Paris for over twenty years, and maintains an "aller-retour" writing technique since 1993, which consists of writing two versions of each of her books—one in French and one in English.
The twist is, although the book is an enormous success in France, where it has also been nominated for the Prix Goncourt, it will not be published in North America anytime soon. Huston's Canadian publisher, MacArthur, deemed the subject matter of the first chapter too risqué, too potentially anti-American, to publish without serious changes—i.e. deleting most of the first quarter—and Huston refused. It has been turned down by several American publishers as well, and to my knowledge the book does not have a publisher in English at all. I haven't seen any articles on this in the press (Anglophone or French) so this could be quite a scoop.
Lignes de faille chronicles the story of an average American family over four generations, in reverse chronological order, each chapter narrated by a child of six: Sol, Sol's father Randall, Randall's mother Sadie, and Sadie's mother Kristina. Each of the four chapters is set against a larger political context—the Iraq war, the Sabra and Chatila massacre, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Second World War—and the tension between what a child hears and what a child understands is a key source of resonance in the text. It is the first chaper, and Sol's obsession with the Iraq War, George W. Bush, and the Abu Ghraib photographs, that MacArthur considers so scandalous.
[edited out: the place where I pitch myself as the journalist]
Thank you for your consideration; I look forward to hearing from you.
On November 2nd, they ran this story:
English edition of Prix Femina winner delayed
From Thursday's Globe and Mail
A French-language novel by Calgary-born Nancy Huston that was awarded France's prestigious Prix Femina this week was expected to be published in English first -- but the novelist's Canadian publisher and New York agent held off doing that this year because they wanted Huston to change portions of her text to avoid offending U.S. readers.
Talks are reportedly under way to have McArthur & Co. issue Lignes de faille in English next spring.
But Huston, who has called Paris home for more than 30 years, was close-mouthed about the matter when contacted this week by e-mail. "I'd rather not make any public comments on these sensitive issues just now, until some sort of decision has been reached," she said.
At issue, it seems, is the extent of the changes her North American representatives want. Kim McArthur, who published Huston's previous two novels in English, said yesterday that the author "has promised us some slight revisions; it's very tiny . . . maybe four sentences" to permit Lignes de faille to be published in 2007 in Canada and, possibly, the United States with a new English title, Birth Marks. However, no contract has been signed as yet, and "it's all just sort of very dicey," McArthur acknowledged at the same time as she praised Lignes as "fantastic . . . It's just riveting . . . She's just so famous in France."
In an interview in September in Paris with Montreal's La Presse, Huston, 53, said that "they want me to remove [enlève] half the pages concerning Sol, all of the material that revolves around Jesus, the war in Iraq, George Bush, the pornography, etc." The French version of the novel has been a bestseller in Quebec.
In that same interview, Huston said she believes that "contemporary America is reproducing the worst traits of Nazi Germany. I believe we are in a pretotalitarian state."
Lignes de faille -- nominated this year to the long list for France's most famous literary award, the Prix Goncourt -- is a four-part, 500-page novel, each part of which moves backward in time, from 2004 to 1982 to 1962 and, finally, to 1944-45. In each instance, Huston uses the viewpoint of a six-year-old child to tell the history of a Jewish family, starting in present-day California and working "toward" Holocaust-era Europe.
It's the first part, named after the young narrator, Sol, that prompted McArthur's concern and that of her North American agent, Rosalie Siegel. Sol, as described in La Presse, is a precocious, haughtily nasty American boy who, over the course of 128 pages, "gets turned on [carbure] by Internet pornography and images of the tortures at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison."
At one point, Sol declares: "I love to click on [images of] the dead bodies of Iraqi soldiers in the sand; it's a total slide-show." In another passage he says: "God gave this body and this spirit . . . I know that He has great plans for me, which is why he saw to it that I was born in the richest state in the richest country in the world . . . Happily, God and President Bush are good friends. I think of Heaven as being like a big state of Texas in the sky, with God wandering around his ranch in a Stetson and cowboy boots . . ."
"There's a bit of a schism between the war in Iraq [as seen in France] . . . versus the point of view from America," McArthur says. "You may remember 'freedom fries.' " Given that Huston has lived more than half her life in France, her "view is completely credible there," but "we [McArthur and Siegel] were taking the long view."
Fluently bilingual, Huston has published at least eight novels in the past 25 years and has become famous -- and controversial -- for self-translating them, usually from French into English. This was the case for her 1999 novel The Mark of the Angel, which was nominated for the Giller Prize for excellence in English-language fiction after being published a year earlier in French as L'Empreinte de l'ange. In the early nineties, she reversed the practice -- self-translating her fourth novel, Plainsong, from English to French (Cantiques des plaines), for which she won the Governor-General's Award for French fiction.
I got the story directly from Huston herself at a reading. Given that Huston didn't even want to talk to the journalist, I find it hard to believe that she would have alerted the press. And since no other news source has picked this up, with the exception of the Montreal paper, the only source I can imagine they would have for it is my pitch. And the information about her writing and her translating is just too similar for my comfort.
For crying out loud. I emailed my agent to find out if there's anything that I can do; I don't suppose there is, though. Good lord, how I hate freelancing.
This has been a weird couple of weeks.
First rehearsal is tomorrow. Am undecided if I will stick with it. How much do I really want to know about the world of community theatre in Paris...
Then again, I suppose it's more productive than crying for hours or watching American television on iTunes.
1) several important documents
2) a receipt for a letter the post office is holding for me
3) fifteen pounds
4) the boy I thought was the love of my life
and I have gained
1) a cold
2) the aforementioned boots from comptoir des cotonniers
3) a therapist
4) a new blog host
The documents may turn up. I can't get the letter without the receipt so I may never get the letter back. The weight will stay off unless I go to Italy again and stuff more pizza down my gorge. The boy may come back. The cold will go away. The boots are hot. The therapist may be a long-term committment. And we'll see about the blog host (get a sneak peek here)...
Stay tuned, and get ready to adjust your bookmarks and RSS feeds.
I thought I had, too.
But this blog has never been about doing just one thing and sticking to it. So screw it. I sing. I mentioned that, I think. I'm tired of singing to myself. I've discovered how to put audio on my blog and life will never be the same. I just hope I don't drive all my readers away with my warbling!
This one goes out to all those lovebirds out there... and to all those pissed-off bitter ex-lovebirds, too. Maitresse sings: a snippet of Patty Griffin's "Rain."
But looking at the shots FH is presently blogging from Iceland, I am left to draw the following conclusions:
1) Either people in Iceland dress the way I did when I was eleven, or;
2) I had a really kickass sense of style in sixth grade.
Probably both statements are within a few degrees of accuracy.
I went to middle school at a time (this would be around 1990) when one of the hottest trends was layered, different colored slouchy socks. My favorite pair of socks were tye-dyed all the colors of the rainbow, and I wore them with my skintight white Farlow jeans (that's right, skinny jeans way back then, beeyotches). If you weren't layering your socks, then you had to pull down the slouches of your socks so they lay just so over your Keds. And god forbid your socks should be too thin; you could tell cool socks from dorky socks at a glance by the thickness of the weave. The socks had a label too, but I've forgotten what they were called.
Are you getting a sense of what middle school on Long Island was like? The only thing that could save you from social obsolescence was the labels you wore. "Clueless," which thinks it's a movie about fashionable teenagers in the nineties, didn't come close. Put "Heathers" together with "Mean Girls," take out the cathartic relief of the school blowing up or Rachel McAdams getting hit by a bus, and you have some idea of it: relentless peer judgment in a pressure cooker that never went off.
But there was a time, before Farlows, before I knew which were the cool socks and which ones the "dorky" ones, a naive time when I wore whatever inspired me in my drawer that morning: I had tights in some really electric colors, blue, fuschia, crazy patterns, and I would coordinate them to match or to contrast the colors in my outfit. One day, thus garbed, I arrived at school, and, judging from the way the kids were looking at me, I had the sneaking suspicion that I had gone too far. This is the first recollection I have of feeling like everyone else had received some brochure on "how to be cool" in the mail over the summer, and I had not.
I quickly turned to my best friend at the time, who was already beginning to stray from me to become best friends with a bland wisp of a thing called Meghan, and acted like we had decided it was going to be "crazy color day." "Why didn't you wear your crazy tights today?" I said to her, loudly enough to be overheard by anyone passing by who might deride me for, or be blinded by, my ensemble. "We said it would be crazy color day!"
In retrospect, I can't blame her for ditching me. I was trying to implicate her in my fashion faux pas.
Today, I tend to think, and think hard, when picking out an outfit. And I play it safe in that Parisian gamine vein; all my stuff comes from Claudie Pierlot and Comptoir des Cotonniers. But I saw a cool co-worker last week wearing violet tights with camel brown boots... and who knows. I might be tempted to deviate from my opaque black tights...
(If you're just discovering Face Hunter through this post, check out The Sartorialist while you're at it...)
It was my birthday, right? and my family is far away in New York, right? so my mom, who is the best mom, told me to go pick something out for myself and put it on her credit card. So I went to "Le BM," as the French call it, pronounced bay-em and short for Le Bon Marché, which seems to me a rather scatalogical way of referring to the best department store in Paris, indeed the world, but alright. I went to Le BM around six pm, because I was giving an English lesson in the neighborhood at seven, thinking I could get in and have a quick look-- pre-shopping, if you will-- and then go back, more informed, when I had more time.
Big mistake. I should have known: if a French department store closes at seven pm, it really closes at six. I have never felt such a wave of cold stares assail me as I walked through each of the designer nooks in the first floor annex. Every salesgirl turned her back and started to play with a pile of sweaters, and I got the message loud and clear: "we're closing, don't make us do any additional work, like wait on you or clean up after you."
Determined to at least try on a pair of shoes, I approached the saleswoman asking for a 36 in a pair of brown boots, and at the last minute, a pair of 1940s-inspired robin's egg blue Mary Jane pumps. The boots, those Castaners with the rubber bottoms, were awkward and looked kind of cheap. I mentally resolved to buy the ones at Comptoir des Cotonniers I had seen over the weekend.
But the pumps, oh my. They looked so kicky, so funky on the display. But when I put them on, I realized the chunky strap, a contrasting shade of beige leather fastened with--I kid you not--Velcro, actually resembled an Ace bandage. I made a face and started taking them off.
"You don't like them?" the saleswoman asked wearily.
"No," I said apologetically, and offered a rationale, as I've noticed women tend to do here: "I think the strap is too thick, it's too bulky."
She sniffed. "It's true that it takes a certain--" she paused-- "style, to carry them off."
I stared at her. Was this woman actually suggesting that I didn't have the style to carry off a two hundred euro Ace bandage? Dita Von Whatever-her-name-is the queen of burlesque could put them on and they would still look fugly.
"Sans doute," I said, coldly, and took my Converse-clad self away from there, feeling at the same time vaguely insulted and derisive. I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt: she had probably had a long day.
(of customers complaining about the strap)
October 10th, 1978. Game One of the World Series. Yankees versus Dodgers, away game.
October 10th, 1978. Yom Kippur begins at sundown.
October 10th, 1978. My mom goes into labour. There is not a single doctor to be found at North Shore Hospital, on Long Island, NY. The Jews are home fasting. The Gentiles are in front of the TV. Hell, I think my dad was too. He didn't make it in time for my debut sur scène.
October 11th, 1978, 5:34 am. In the immortal words of Tristram Shandy, I am born. And so is a Mommy.
Happy Birthday to both of us.
photo by Musings Orchards
But it's also because I've had so much to do since I came back from Italy that I haven't had time to blog about the trip, or Festival America, or any of the other things I've been up to that might be post-worthy.
What it comes down to, however, is not computer failure or lack of time. It's that I'm in one of my hazes, what happens when things are fulminating and I'm taking in a lot of information but am not really processing it. I'm mulling a lot of things over right now. I'm just living one day to the next and trying not to default on any of my responsabilities.
I'm turning twenty-eight this week. I can't even bring myself to plan a party. I can't commit to a date and a location. I just feel very fluid about it.
I've even stopped wearing my iPod when I go places. It was because of the computer failure, initially-- it ran out of battery and needed the computer to be turned on to charge. But even after I bought a charger I haven't used it. It's just another complication; another layer distancing me from where I am. It's having to be conscious of one more thing, the discomfort of headphones and the wire hanging down my front leading into my pocket.
I think N and I are going to go out of town for the weekend. I think maybe when I get my computer back I'll plug myself back in.
Reading Nancy Huston rather obsessively at the moment, I'm struck by the degree to which her work is aural-- her writing is incredibly poetic in its adoration of and sensitivity to the rhythm, resonance, consonance, and assonance of the French language. Reading it aloud from time to time is almost better than reading it silently! Her predilection for wordplay amazes me-- not only because she is so adroit at it, but because she is adroit in her adopted language. (Huston was born in Alberta, Canada but moved to France at the age of twenty, and writes her novels in French). And while it is impressive, it's clear that it is only possible for Huston to write that way precisely because she's writing in an adopted tongue. For example, the interior monologue of an American in France, a character in Les Variations Goldberg:
"Find out what you have in common, homonym, comment, commère, comme mère, mare, cauchemar, mare au diable, diabolo menthe, mentir, m'en tirer, m'étirer, métier, quoi qu'ils fassent ils ont toujours raison de le faire, les ouvriers, les artisans, les businessmen, les chefs d'Etat, les intellos, moi je dirai jamais ça, je saboterai d'abord. Te rappelles-tu Lili comme on disait que les convaincus étaient toujours des vaincus quelque part? qu'ils avaient dominé et étranglé tous les doutes? C'étaient des cons, vaincus: beaucoup plus vaincus que les suicidés. N'est-ce pas?" (p. 98-99)
I found myself wondering how she would translate this section into English. I'd like to see how it was rendered, actually.
I love the musicality of language, and music itself, and rely heavily on all that is aural to inspire and contextualize my own writing. But (like my mother), I am mainly visually oriented. If you read something to me from the newspaper, I need to see the story and read it for myself before I'll truly understand the meaning. I prefer print news to radio or television. To understand something, I need to see it.
Art and literature are easier for me to intellectualize, whereas music is utterly intuitive. I don't know how I play the piano, but if I thought about my fingers they would falter. I don't care much to know how the vocal process works when I sing, and I'm not sure why there's always music in my head no matter what I'm doing at the forefront of my brain. C'est comme ça. (For example: what's on the radio in my head right now is a Chopin waltz I haven't heard or played recently, it's just stored somewhere in my brain). For the same reason, I don't like to write criticism about poetry-- I don't know what it is that's so affective about it but I feel that to analyze it would be, for me, to deflate it.
But! And this was meant to be the point of this post. To a certain extent, I can let go of the impulse to intellectualize the visual, and let it inspire a whole range of creativity and , yes, sentimentality. When I write, I'm certainly working off a visual composition in my mind, although sadly, I have no means for rendering that composition other than words. My father, an architect, is exceptionally talented as a draftsman, and does beautiful sketches and watercolors when he's on vacation, but this particular talent did not get embedded in my DNA.
Which is why I have to take my hat off again to Carol at Paris Breakfasts for her gorgeous series on Venice. I didn't get to see these posts before I left but they may in fact be more resonant now that I'm back. Between her watercolors, and Gill's photographs, I'm kept regularly inspired: they help nourish and refine the visual apparatus in my mind. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But to successfully make that translation, you need a superior picture. Here are a few I took in Venice with these two women in mind-- to point up the beauty in the quotidien details.
At the Rialto vegetable market
Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo: this one was actually deliberately composed in homage to Paris Breakfasts! Spritz, orange Claire Fontaine, tortoiseshell glasses, Lancel purse, brick church, sunset and conveninently located woman in red.
I wanted to buy my father paints from here but didn't know how, or if he could even use them.
Well, would you look at that: it's Banned Books Week again. To celebrate, rather than chime in with another essay on why it's silly to ban/censor books, when it's already been done so competently elsewhere, I thought I'd open a brief discussion with these words from Philip Larkin.
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)-
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
Up till then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle For a ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.
So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me)-
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
The Chatterley ban, as you may or may not be aware, refers to the novel by DH Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover, privately printed in Italy in 1928 but banned in the UK until 1960 because of its supposedly "obscene" content. On that count, I can attest that it does in fact contain certain four-letter words the use of which, the first time I read the novel, even as a relatively urbane, experienced early-twentysomething, made my jaw drop (although not nearly as wide as it did when I read Henry Miller's Tropics). The ban was lifted following a 1959 act which stipulated that a book could not be judged obscene if it could be proved to be of "literary merit." EM Forster and Raymond Williams testified in court to assure the judge that yes, in fact, Lawrence's text was possessed of at least this virtue. (One can only imagine, deliciously, what Woolf would have said on the witness stand.)
Interestingly, the novel contains an admission of its own potentially corruptive or even destructive power:
"Therefore, the novel, properly handled, can reveal the most secret places of life: for it is in the passional secret places of life, above all, that the tide of sensitive awareness needs to ebb and flow, cleansing and freshening.
But the novel, like gossip, can also excite spurious sympathies and recoils, mechanical and deadening to the psyche. The novel can glorify the most corrupt feelings, so long as they are conventionally `pure'. Then the novel, like gossip, becomes at last vicious, and, like gossip, all the more vicious because it is always ostensibly on the side of the angels."
As this passage attests, not only is Lawrence aware of the affect the book would have on the public, he encapsulates this general pudeur within Connie's shock at the depth of her own sexuality. Take this excerpt from the infamous Chapter 15 (right before Mellors takes her, "short and sharp and finished, like an animal"):
"He laughed wryly, and threw off his clothes. It was too much. He jumped out, naked and white, with a little shiver, into the hard slanting rain. Flossie sprang before him with a frantic little bark. Connie, her hair all wet and sticking to her head, turned her hot face and saw him. Her blue eyes blazed with excitement as she turned and ran fast, with a strange charging movement, out of the clearing and down the path, the wet boughs whipping her."
Although the passage is not entirely focalized through Connie, the second phrase certainly is, suggesting that we are experiencing the scene if not through her, then with her, and her surprise is our surprise. Although this is not the first time they make love in the novel, this scene is as evocative as any other of the daringness of Connie's act. We are crucially aware of how far outside--literally--she is of the social conventions which apply to her.
Conventions whose boundaries, I might add, gossip functions to establish and police. And, Lawrence suggests, novels have the same function as gossip. What is pure in concept may, it seems, be vicious in its almost fascist insistance on what is pure and what is impure. Lawrence, on the other hand, narrates what we have been conditioned to regard as "impure," and invites us to see the purity of experience in it.
You can find the naughty bits in Lady Chatterley's Lover yourself; the text is here.
No, this wasn't obligatory community service for my various infractions against the city (mini skirt in the church, iPod in the synagogue, etc), and no, I didn't find my inner environmentalist tree-hugger in this treeless city, but rather part of a newspaper article my former roommate Camilla had to write. See, today is apparently international clean water day, or something, and Project Aware was sponsoring a group of Venetians with t-shirts that said "RESCUE TEAM" on the back, big green fishing nets, and blue plastic gloves to get out there and pick up all that non-biodegradable debris floating around in the canals-- you know, plastic bottles, bits of styrofome, rubber parts, whatever.
So at 7:50 am this morning (ouch!) Camilla and I reported to the traghetto station at Santa Maria del Giglio, next to the Gritti Palace, piled into one of four gondolas, and set out in a boat with a couple of local politicians. We got to ride in a gondola for an hour! for free! all along rhe Grand Canal, under the Accademia Bridge! All we had to do was collect debris in our nets and empty the nets into plastic bags. Hopefully we didn't contract malaria or whatever diseases are floating around in the sea-green lagoon water.
It was very exciting, when we first set out. Camilla explained to the politicians, some sort of attachés to the mayor, what a French-speaking American was doing in their boat. I smiled haplessly ("Mi dispiace, non parlo italiano!").
"Una bottiglia!" Camilla cried excitedly, pointing off to the left. We were pleased to see the canal was, in fact, polluted, and it was up to us to clean it up!
"Let's go get that bottle!" the gondolier cried and steered us off in the right direction.
After awhile, though, we were floating past bottles that were too far off, and the whole mission seemed to get lackluster. Typical. At the end of the morning, between all the boats, we had collected about 100 bottles.
All in a day's work, my friends. I'll get some pictures up soon, if I can. And now I'm off to re-find, as the French say, il mio amore, as the Italians say, in Naples, as the Americans say. Ciao!
The David Remnick of my generation is kicking around somewhere. Maybe he's blogging. But where? I'm just so impatient with so many of the under 35 year-olds on the loudspeaker-- that is, who have something of a public voice-- they strike me as whiny, self-centered would be hipsters or "New Bohemians" (cf recent New York Times photo essay) with more of an interest in their own withering irony than in investigating, tunnelling, interrogating, questioning.
Either that or they're overly earnest and moralizing academics. Sometimes they're academic hipsters (groan). You'll forgive me for not citing people by name, I'm not trying to alienate anyone, merely venting about the real lack of authentic, dedicated thought amongst Generation X.
Nevermind the bollocks, the pretensions; where is the good writing, people?
She has what strikes me as an organized mind, something I keenly feel that I lack: the ability to go headlong into a problem and see it through until it's been completely worked out. I tend to think sideways, in many directions at once; the result of a vivid curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of discipline. I also blame wonderful and damaging inventions like the internet, which does not help in this respect, what with its hyperlinks and the expectation of instaneous comprehension it creates in the reader.
To think well, and to write well, I often find I need to shut my mind to the noise of mass communication. Even Woolf felt this way, as she wrote in a letter to Ethel Smyth, "the fact about contemporaries […] is that they’re doing the same thing on another railway line: one resents their distracting one, flashing past, the wrong way—something like that: from timidity, partly, one keeps ones eyes on one’s own road” (L IV, 315).
I'm reading some extracts of Sontag's journals (who runs in a direct line from Woolf, if any one does) that were published recently in the NY Times. I identify so strongly with what she writes, and dare to hope, idiotically, that similar thoughts on writing might imply similar levels of talent and competence...
31 December, 1958, in Paris
Nothing prevents me from being a writer except laziness. A good writer.
and 19 November 1959, New York
The only kind of writer I could be is the kind who exposes himself.. . .To write is to spend oneself, to gamble oneself. But up to now I have not even liked the sound of my own name. To write, I must love my name. The writer is in love with himself. . .and makes his books out of that meeting and that violence.
and this is one of my favorites:
Becoming aware of the 'dead places' of feeling — Talking without feeling anything. (This
is very different from my old self-revulsion at talking without knowing anything.)
The writer must be four people:
1) the nut, the obsédé
2) the moron
3) the stylist
4) the critic
1) supplies the material
2) lets it come out
3) is taste
4) is intelligence
a great writer has all 4 — but you can still be
a good writer with only 1) and 2); they're most important.
read the rest of the journal entries here, the whole of which are set to be published by FSG in 2008 or 2009.