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.
I got terribly lost on my way from Dorsoduro, where I'm staying, up to Cannaregio; it's true that getting lost is the whole point of being in Venice, but when you're actually trying to get somewhere it's a little annoying to keep finding yourself at dead ends where the only way to get where you want to go is to swim there. So by the time I arrived at the Scuola di Spagna, I was a little on the late side.
There were two armed militia men standing guard, and a trio of what has to be the Venetian Jewish mafia blocking the door. The one in the front spoke English with me. He asked to look in my bag, and when he found my camera and cell phone there, he refused me entry. "This is an Orthodox synagogue, miss," as if, because I'm not wearing a long denim skirt with sneakers, I must not know from Orthodox. The thing about Shabbos, you see, is that you're not supposed to light a flame or do any work. Using electronic equipment is considered lighting a flame. So even the presence of potential flame-lighters is verboten.
I tried to reason with him ("but if they're not on! then it's not breaking any rules!") and when he wouldn't budge, I started to tear up. "But I've come so far from Dorsoduro, and got lost, and I'm only in town for a week, and...." and then I got smart. "And it's Shabbos! I have to observe the Sabbath!"
He wasn't fooled, but he offered me a deal. "Tell you what. If you can find a place to leave these things, I'll let you in. Otherwise, you can come back tonight for Havdalah. But I'm telling you," he said somewhat condescendingly, "most shopkeepers around here are closed for Shabbat."
There was no way I was going to traipse all the way back to Canareggio for the second time that day. Besides, I had plans to go to the Venice Film Festival on the Lido that night. I met his challenge. Around the corner, toward the train station, I had noticed an open antiques store. I went back to it, and the very genteel middle-aged owner spoke enough French to understand why I was holding out my digital camera and cell phone to him.
I went back to the synagogyue and triumphantly opened my bag to the man... when I noticed my iPod peeping out from underneath my wallet. Luckily, he didn't, and he let me in.
Later that night, I had plans to meet up with my former roommate, Camilla, and her assorted French and Italian friends, at the Lido, a 15 minute vaporetto ride out into the lagoon, where the film festival has been going on for the past 2 weeks. They had all been working there, running the accreditation desk or something like that. Last night was the night the jury was handing out the prizes, and so all the celebrities were turning out.
When I arrived at the festival and walked toward our appointed meeting place, at the Palazzo Casino, I noticed something strange-- everyone was taking pictures of me!
My, I thought to myself, I must look especially fabulous this evening, it must be my gorgeous new raw silk scarf.
But I soon realized they were taking pictures of someone walking behind me. I turned and saw this man, so I took a picture of him too, even though I don't know who he is. Does anyone else?
I found Camilla further down, and we walked over to the red carpet. I had her take a picture of my scarf and the lions.
There were too many people and I was too short to see over their heads, but Camilla assures me we were within twenty feet of Catherine Deneuve.
We had an aperitif (the thing to drink here is "spritz," some bitter orange concoction of Aperol and something fizzy), then went to get a pizza at a place on the main drag that looked just like the local pizzeria near my house on Long Island. On the walk to the pizza place we passed the Hotel des Bains, where the film "Death in Venice" was filmed... it was twilight, the only source of light was the lit-up dining room, and the waves crashed on the beach as we walked by. It was a very Gothic Novel moment, and for a moment I expected a psychotic accordeonist to jump out from the bushes and laugh at us.
So there you have it, from the sacred to the godless, more than just an average day spent visiting Venice.
Venice is more spectacular than I remembered, although my view of it has no doubt been enhaced by the extreme amount of reading and research carried out prior to this trip, and my impressions, every one, are being recorded in a little orange Claire Fontaine notebook specifically labelled "Venice September 2006." My everyday Moleskine is on congé. Why such attentiveness on this trip? For that matter, why this trip at all? I'll leave you to puzzle that over, until the day when I receive such good news that the whole cloak and dagger routine is no longer necessary.
Soon after I got into town yesterday, I went to Santa Maria della Salute, where, following Philippe Sollers, I was planning to light a candle to guide the hand that writes (or the fingers that type). I made it as far as the nave when a clean-shaven young Venetian approached me and shook his head disapprovingly.
"Troppo corto," he said, gesturing at my denim mini-skirt. I had had the presence of mind to wear a cardigan over my tanktop (it is molto caldo in Venice right now), but hadn't given a second thought to the skirt. It would seem, dear friends, that the display of legs is unholy. Maybe my legs glow harlot red to him, maybe this pious young man could tell that the night before, they were wrapped around my boyfriend's waist.
I was a little surprised at the enforcement of this particular rule, as I was surrounded by tank-top wearing tourists in the church, but I didn't feel too resentful once I applied the Kantian imperative to the situation. I mean, if all women wore short skirts to church, when they knelt they'd be putting on a more interesting exhibit than the transformation of the host, and would no doubt distract the choir from their singing.
"Can I just light a candle and then I'll go?" I pleaded. He frowned, but nodded, grudgingly. Sin is permitted to light a candle, as long as it drops a euro for the privilege.
To the hand that writes, and the heart that loves, I thought as I lit my tea candle, and then I got the you-know-what out of there. And today, my white pleated skirt covers my knees.
But the sins this skirt has seen...
After a lot of soul-searching, I've forgiven the Italians for their despicable showing during the final game of the World Cup, and as a gesture of apology for suggesting they were dirty cheaters, I'm spending the rest of the month in their country. Tomorrow it's off to Venice, to stay with my former roommate, get totally lost in the maze of bridges and waterways, and not eat fish; then on the 16th I'm meeting Nicolas in Naples, from whence we will hydrafoil it to Anacapri for a week of relaxing, eating, reading, and activities I won't discuss on my blog because, after all, I am a Lady.
So, Italy. I can fake speaking it like nobody's business. E perchè no? Sono italiana molto più di francese! La mia nonna è nato in Bari, e tutti la mia via ho ascoltato parlare italiano tutti la mia famiglia! [in the name of all that is holy, someone do a sister a favor and correct me, my dear grandmother is spinning in her grave!] Unlike me, my sister rocks the language of Dante, having spent a semester in Rome, and my dad's not half bad either. Well, you'll have to trust that my accent is better than my grammar. All it takes is a little "Allora, chè cosa fai?" and I can fool even a native. [Someone out there is snorting. Basta, non è buffo, sono molto vergognosa!]
It's not my first time to Italy; in fact, I've travelled throughout Italy more times than I can count. I absolutely adore it. Some people choose to go to a different destination every time they travel, but I think these are the people who don't reread books or rewatch movies. I, on the other hand, may have never been to Croatia, Cameroon or Copenhagen, but I know France and Italy like the back of my hand. Of course there are other places in the world I'd like to visit... But all in good time, I'm sure.
It is a very strange feeling, though, to visit the country of one's ancestors and not to speak the language, really. But then again, why should we speak it? I don't speak Russian or Yiddish or Gaelic or German or any of the various languages of the countries whose native children occupy branches on my family tree, and I don't feel like I ought to, but Italian is different. But then, my Italian family are the only ones who actively hold onto the homeland-- my Jewish cousins and my Irish Catholic cousins speak variants of New Yorkese.
The American "melting pot" phenomenon is one that never ceases to amaze me, probably because my sister and I have the blood of at least five countries running in our blood. The Ellis Island mythology was so strongly instilled in me at my elementary school that I sometimes feel like my own emigration back to Europe is some kind of betrayal of America. I mean, they all left Europe for a reason, right? My Jewish ancestors, fugeddababout it, they were lucky to escape with their tails intact from the scary Cossacks that came to burn down their shtetl (when I was little I thought maybe they took the same boat as Fievel).
I don't know the particulars of why the Recchias left Bari; I believe Mussolini was part of it, and they had the foresight to get out of there soon after he came to power. My great-grandfather went first, and the rest of the family followed. Except my grandmother's little sister, Palma, had some kind of infection, and when they arrived in New York (they did not come by boat, incidentally; they flew), the immigration authorities wouldn't let her in. They made her go all the way back to Italy! She lived out the rest of her life in Bari, and I didn't get to meet her before she died, a few years ago.
Anyway, I'll try to blog from Venice but I doubt they have internet where I'll be in Capri... just a blue grotto, a poolside bar, and my lovah.
Speaking of whom, tonight we're going to Nonna Ines, our neighborhood Italian place in the rue de l'Arbalete, per una pregustazione d'Italia. He thinks I speak Italian fluently. I intend to have him in such a haze of grappa, prosecco, and lovemaking that he won't even notice all I do is wave my arms and say allora.
[NDLR: For some reason Blogger is freaking out and not listening to my html formatting commands. And jet setter that I am, I don't have time to futz around with it. My apologies]
He: loves anything out of the ordinary.
She: has a nodding acquaintance with contemporary French playwrights.
He: trusts her taste.
She: wants to see "La Science des reves."
He: wanted to do something more active than go to the movies ("les films sont désincarnés").
She: recommended they see Percolateur Blues, playing at Le Théâtre Les Dechargeurs in the First.
He: paid for the tickets.
She: had met the playwright, had read the play.
He: had to sit with his legs splayed in the too-small rows of the black box theatre.
She: found it wonderfully acted, if a bit histrionic at times.
He: found it painful. Painful because of the way you were sitting? she asked. Well yes, but also painful because it was so sad. But very good, very moving.
She: very well-written, don't you think?
He: yes, and very sad.
She: yes, but life-affirming.
And so and and so forth on the walk to Livingstone, an excellent Thai restaurant she knew of in the rue St-Honoré. He enjoyed his appetizer and said it was a bonne adresse. She was pleased to have brought him to a restaurant he didn't know, he who has lived in Paris for going on ten years now, who has wined and dined the ladies in every restaurant on the Left Bank (while, it must be said, she was being wined and dined in every restaurant on the Right, not to mention a few in Gramercy and the East Village).
She had a luscious curry d'agneau with sticky riz. He had a tangy, spicy beef dish. They consumed a bottle of Australian Shiraz and talked of the future. She explained an important twist in the plot of her novel. He said there should be a comet. She laughed so hard she almost choked. He grinned, pleased with himself.
After dinner, they walked past the Louvre and over the Pont des Arts, stopping periodically to kiss or to extricate her high heels from in between the floorboards. The bridge was crowded with people, the air was warm and the Seine glowed light green under the lights. La rentrée and l'été all at the same time.
She: (hyperbolizing, as the Eiffel does the shimmy) This is it. This is all I ever want from life. (She pauses, and looks at him) Well, that's not entirely true.
(He laughs, they get a cab at Odeon, go back to her place. The end.)
There is a shopping mall a mere hop and a skip-- not even a jump!-- from my apartment. Yes, a shopping mall, replete with shiny/slippery faux-marble floors, skylights, and any chain store you could possibly need. I have never lived in such close proximity to a mall before, and my friends, my little American soul is gladdened-- gladdened, I say!-- by the ability to get all my errands done in one foul swoop, courtesy of the Place d'Italie Centre Commercial. On my trip yesterday, I needed (well, "needed"):
-New Chucks: old ones were tattered and dirty. Courir, up the escalator.
-A hairclip: always in the pursuit of new ways to keep my hair out of my face. Sephora, down the hall from Courir.
-A copy of Philosophie dans le boudoir: a gift for my inamorato, who shares my predilection for eighteenth-century libertinage. Fnac, on the bottom level.
-I thought I needed a voltage converter for my trip to Italy next week, but it seems the Italians use the same plug as the French, so plus de besoin. Learned that at Bricorama, also downstairs. Picked up crazy glue and lightbulbs while I was at it. And a 3 in 1 Scart adapter so I can plug my DVD player and my Freebox into my television at the same time. Guess what: it doesn't work.
There is also a supermarket in the sous-sol of the mall, a Champion, but the one time I went there, a little cockroach came home in the bags with me. Luckily, Petite was coming over for an apero so after I killed it with Windex she threw it in the toilet for me. (Not only is she a great writer, but she is fearless in the face of cockroaches. Unlike me: I once had one in my apartment in NY-- again, brought in with the delivery boy from a local Chinese restaurant-- and I made my then-boyfriend come home from a poker game with his friends to kill it.)
Needless to say, I never ordered from the place again. And I won't be returning to the Champion at Place d'Italie. Just to be on the safe side, I sprayed the heck out of my apartment with bugspray. But as I'd never seen one before or after this incident, i'm positive it was from the supermarket. Say it with me now: Ew.
In any case, here's a delicious example of just how a) messed up b) ingenious c)totalement a l'ouest book marketing has become. I give you: the world's first coming attraction-- for a book.
There doesn't seem to be anything particularly French about this book, judging from the bande-annonce, unless the turtlenecks, 1964 Bordeaux, and effeminate accent ("these people don't look like celebrities, they look like little pieces of bread!") are supposed to be American code for "pretentious and French"? Because to me, that all just screams pretentious American graduate student.
I have no idea if the book is any good, but this little ditty is a surefire way to get me not to pick it up.
[NDLR: No offense intended to M. Bouillier, who according to Evene never intended to be a writer, much less a writer with crazy hype attached to his name. He's probably smacking his palm against his forehead and cursing America.]
Via The Elegant Variation.