April 2007 Archives

Belated RIP


So, I know I'm late on this and everything, but the man would appreciate the irony of a belated death-day greeting. I'm sure he would point out that he's hardly in a hurry - he's got all the time in the world now. What it boils down to is this:

A great soul has left the earth. And since many others have been more thorough and eloquent than I would be enumerating his gifts and lamenting his loss, I thought I would just reminisce a little bit about a time that Kurt Vonnegut was particularly helpful to me.

It was in Madrid, in 1997. I was sixteen, and more homesick than I have ever been in my life. I had been living in Spain for a summer, and had lost all perspective on absence and eventual return. "Home" no longer even seemed real to me, although now I would snap up a summer in sunny Spain without a backward glance, secure in the knowledge (and maybe I shouldn't be) that Portland would be here when I got back. But back then I was miserable as only a sixteen-year-old can be. And I was in a transitional part of the trip (transitions have never been my strong point) between the segment where I was living with my host family in Galicia, and the segment where my parents and I would be doing tourist stuff around the rest of the country. I was staying in the dorms at the Universidad de Madrid with all the other kids in my program, most of whom were just there because they could score legal alcohol. So they were staying up all night drinking - and singing, and puking - very loudly, in the rooms above and to the side of me.

I was so exhausted from acute homesickness, forced sleep deprivation and general teen angst that I broke down in tears one afternoon, sitting against a tree in the Retiro. A kind old Spanish man saw me crying, came over and tried to find out what was wrong, but I didn't have the word for "to miss" in Spanish. In my agitated state most of my Spanish seemed to desert me, actually, so the conversation went something like:

Him: "What's wrong? Don't cry!"
Me: "Nothing, it's fine."
Him: "Then why are you crying?"
Me: "Don't worry about it."
Him: "Do you need any help?"
Me: "Um...I don't have any parents!"
Him: "You are an orphan? Do you have a place to stay?"
Me: "No, I don't need a place to stay, I just - they're in America!"
Him: "And they left you here?"

And so on an so forth. He was plainly a nice old man who was touched by my totally out-of-proportion public display of grief, but unfortunately his kindness only made my crying worse. Everything made it worse, actually. The attention of one of the more sympathetic kids in my program, the worried glances of the administrators, the friendly Spaniards and their persistence in mistaking me for a Portuguese girl rather than an American - nothing helped until I wandered into a bookstore with a little English-language section, and bought myself Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night.

It's hard to explain why a darkly funny novel about an American who pretends too well to be a Nazi would succeed where peers, elders and MadrileƱos had failed. Partially, it was just the familiar voice, the colloquial American English that I was missing in the air around me. Partially it was the good, old-fashioned reminder that things could be a lot worse: I could be reviled by my entire country for my role as a propagandist in the service of a cause I detested, my only friends - ironically - wannabe neo-fascists trying ineptly to recreate Hitler's regime. Everyone I admired could want to kick my teeth in in righteous anger, and I could be beset by sycophantic bigots who wouldn't even let me hear my own thoughts. By comparison a bunch of drunk high-schoolers in a European capital don't seem so bad.

Undeniably, the humor helped - the author's ear for the ridiculous and true, and his unbeatable comic timing. But I think the single most helpful and calming - yet sobering - aspect of Vonnegut's prose on my overactive teenage brain was his knack of describing human society - adult society, complex society - as if to a child, thereby exposing how inexcusably ludicrous our behavior comes to be, and the way in which all of our excuses and the stories we tell ourselves only serve to make our behavior more preposterous, rather than less, as we like to think. In many ways it's a dark vision of the world, but looked at in another way it's a valuable tool, incredibly useful whenever one's lack of perspective spirals out of control. Reading Mother Night on those hot evenings in Madrid, while adolescent numbskulls partied above me, Vonnegut's prose began to force my brain to break the situation into its components: humans, lots of humans, doing their best (often not very good) and acting silly. Some humans like to drink fermented barley-water until they are so dehydrated that their heads feel like exploding - they do this night after night. Some humans feel bored at home and lonely anywhere else. So it goes.

I think that, as my friend Ariel suggested, we are more in need of such perspective now than I ever was as a grim sixteen-year-old. I feel grateful to Kurt Vonnegut for, among so many other things, showing me a hint at how to achieve it.

Always one for mucking in

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I'm on a major Ishiguro bender. Since I wrote a few weeks ago about his newest novel, Never Let Me Go, my enthusiasm has only grown; in fact, I just finished When We Were Orphans, which was every bit as intriguing as the other three of his I've read (Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World).

As always, the act of narration takes front and center position in When We Were Orphans - I think Ishiguro has got to be the master of using the unreliable (or at least highly subjective) narrator to great effect. In The Remains of the Day there are some scenes that truly take the breath away with their ability to juggle multiple subjectivities while still telling a story that, while multi-layered, is riveting on its most basic level as well. So, for example, there is a scene in which Miss Kenton, the semi-impetuous housekeeper, comes to "bother" Stevens in his study while he's reading a novel, and there is a moment of acute sexual tension between them, except that Stevens (the first-person voice) both refuses to acknowledge such things as "sexuality" to his readers, and may not even understand himself the attraction he felt. In addition, the entire episode is told in flashback, with the past Stevens holding a different set of attitudes and opinions toward the events than the present Stevens. There is also a plotline in the present day which is influencing the moods of Stevens the narrator, and past embarrassment about the novel in question, which adds a certain huffiness to the demeanor of the man, both past and present. Through all of these prismatic narrative challenges, Ishiguro manages to tell a story that is elegant and affecting, as well as communicating, through the reticent and muddled eyes of Stevens, a clear portrait of Miss Kenton's motivations and emotions. No mean feat, obviously.

In When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro's trademark unreliable narrator is used to excellent advantage in the way that the novel plays off of the detective genre, creating an amazing experience for the reader by turning the whole idea of a whodunit on its head. Usually, the detective in any given mystery novel is the ultimate word in veracity: if he or she says it, you can believe it. Extreme examples of this phenomenon are many of Sherlock Holmes' cases, in which Holmes professes to know the solution to the case before he and Watson even start investigating - he's more just trying to tie up a few loose ends, and then he'll reveal everything to us.

But Christopher Banks, the ostensibly great detective in Ishiguro's novel, is wildly unreliable, constantly overlooking the obvious, insisting on the ludicrous, and attempting to paint a picture of himself that's at odds with the memories of seemingly every person he runs across in the course of the novel. Over and over, although he insists on his own social acumen, he meets old acquaintances and classmates who remember him as "a miserable loner" or "an odd duck" - claims to which he takes startled exception ("You must have me mixed up with someone else, old fellow. I was always one for mucking in."). Likewise, when he remembers or encounters anyone who expresses compassion about his orphanhood (his parents are kidnapped when he is a child), he reacts with brusque annoyance.

These character quirks are rendered mysterious rather than absurd or amusing, by the fact that there are also people who do seem to take Banks seriously - he's not simply a deluded maniac believing himself to be a great detective. There are instances that seem to corroborate almost positively certain claims that Banks makes at one time or another, and other passages where he does seem genuinely perceptive and honest, balancing out his more outlandish moments. The interplay between these elements leaves the reader floating along on a superbly-crafted bed of quicksand, always unsure quite what to believe, which events Banks has reported accurately, and why or in what ways he has been inaccurate. Banks' own frustrated description of the citizens of Shanghai could equally well be a description of his own narrative style:

"People here seem determined at every opportunity to block one's view. No sooner has one entered a room or stepped out of a car than someone or other will have smilingly placed himself right within one's line of vision, preventing the most basic perusal of one's surroundings. Often as not, the offending person is one's very host or guide of that moment..."

Generally, murder mysteries are only interesting until the detective reveals the solution, pointed out carefully by all the clues. After that, all the ends have been tied up neatly and the reader is no longer held to the story. But in this case, the novel remains fascinating long after finishing it, because the reader is never quite sure what actually happened, what motivated the characters, or, more importantly for the book itself, the larger ramifications of those events. Not that this uncertainty is ever down to poor writing or simple lack of character development - far from it. Instead, it is as if the possible realities of Banks' life are refracted through the prism of his perception, and Ishiguro somehow manages to communicate many interwoven possibilities via one impressive narration, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions or simply wander forever among the potential choices.

Like Ishiguro's other novels, When We Were Orphans has much to say about British and Japanese imperialism - in this case, the British occupation and Japanese invasion of Shanghai and mainland China in the first half of the twentieth century. Being far from an expert on the history of foreign aggression in eastern China, I can't break down the political allegory in any detail, but I do think that Ishiguro paints a brilliant portrait of the surreal self-involvement of the occupying British society, still putting on dinner parties and hosting events while a war rages around them. Christopher Banks' own insistence that finally "solving the case" of his parents' disappearance will somehow bring an end to the Sino-Japanese conflict is an excellent metaphor for the egregiously inflated self-importance of the declining British Empire. And the scene in which Banks stumbles upon his childhood home, now almost unrecognizable and occupied by a Chinese family who have spent years dreading his return, is a poignant and bizarre reminder of the literal effects of an "occupying force." But not only do these scenes make for fascinating political commentary; they are also gripping and beautifully told on a literal level, and the atmospheric prose contributes to a craftsmanly web of suspense surrounding Banks' narration.

When We Were Orphans is what I always wanted mystery novels to be: intriguing, insightful, ambiguous, atmospheric and amazingly well-written, ending with some ends tied in surprising places, and some still dangling enticingly in the reader's mind. I've heard that the next Ishiguro novel on my shelf, The Unconsoled, takes ambiguity and strangeness to a whole other level, and I'm delighted at the prospect of continuing and expanding my Ishigurophilia. I'm sure y'all will hear about it when I do.

O Sea-Bride!

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For my April memorization poem, I'm giving myself a bit of a challenge: H.D.'s multi-page tapestry of words known as "Other sea-cities." Among all of the gorgeous verses penned by Hilda Doolittle, this might be my favorite. It's really too long to paste the whole thing here, but the first section, which is also a repeating motif to which the poem flows back again and again, changing its shape and context every time, is this:

Other sea-cities have faltered,
and striven with the tide,
other sea-cities have struggled
and died:

other sea-walls
were stricken
and the pride of galleys broken,
only you, remained, beautiful,
O sea-bride!

I love this poem on a level almost divorced from content. Yes, the subject is pleasing, and I'm drawn to its nostalgic-yet-troubled depiction of a long history of great and beautiful seaside cities, all but one fallen long ago. I love the layered evocation of life in these cities, as in the verses:

and laughter-
everywhere, there was laughter;

a boy with a fish-net,
a girl with a hamper
of lampreys,
the long days,
scented with tamarisk,
the long nights
sweet with the aloes,
the fruit piled in baskets,
the merchants with fresh scents
from Arabia,
from Cos,

the wind when it rose high
would open a shutter,
a girl in a blue veil
would push it,
and rain print
her garment upon her,
till she stood, blue
like lapis,
slaves drag from the harbor:

did these love sea-beauty less
than you,
O sea-blest?

Why them and not you? H.D. asks over and over of her unnamed, still-extant city by the sea. What did you know that they didn't? Were their lives not brilliantly full enough? Their art not sufficiently perfect? Although the poem is a kind of ode to the city that remains, I come away, each time I re-read it, with more of a sense of loss for the cities that have gone. The vivid scenes she paints, the marble monuments she describes, the explorers, prophets and priests, are all citizens of the other cities, the lost cities, and although there is an implication that the remaining city does all of these things even better - has even more beautiful women, even greater artistic accomplishments - there is also a note of sadness and even reproach at the loss of her sisters. Their violet was as violet, the speaker cries. Why is it now bleached-out on the ocean? A question to which anyone who has suffered loss can probably relate.

Their blue was as sea-blue,
their purple as purple,
indigo was indigo,
violet, violet
and red ran its riot
like the open red pomegranate.

they knew all the gamut
of glass
that took your name;
you reaped fame from their fame;
or ash-gold,
or fire amethyst,
gem, salt-water, clear air;

her craftsmen wrought marvels,

amber caught light
like the sea-weed
a-wash on the sea-stair,
but men
naming such ware,
speak of you
not of rich Tyre.

"They knew all the gamut / of glass / that took your name." Such a beautiful line.

But it's the rhythms of the poem that really get me - the way that central motifs recur again and again in unexpected ways, tying in each new idea without drawing explicit connections, engendering in the reader a sense of return - very suited to the theme of of the immortal city and all the others to which no one can go back. At times the ear picks up the melody of that opening verse, even when the words aren't repeated, or the words will be repeated with variations on the theme. These refrains also, of course, imitate a chant, an element of ritual in mourning and paying tribute. Saying it out loud can be a very meditative experience - you become awash in the motion of the poem, just as (appropriately enough) a person can gaze hypnotized at ocean waves, cresting and retreating.

And, just like the waves on the ocean can surprise you from the side or follow closer and further apart in sequence, the rhymes, alliteration and assonance in "Other sea-cities" are staggered in a gorgeous and unpredictable way, playing off each other to great effect:

Other sea-cities fell
though they built patiently and well,
other sea-cities wrought
intricate details
from rare rock,
stolen from inland,
set great lumps of lapis
above altars
and placed lamps
of alabaster or agate
before god's feet or goddess:
other sea-cities,
named Beauty
their mistress

All in all, it's a gorgeous opus. I have to admit that the prospect of memorizing the entire thing is a bit daunting, but I'm positive that being able to recite it to myself quietly while walking near my own western ocean will be ample recompense.

Tell city,
your secret:

for others built beautifully and well,
but fell
to lie
like a bleached hull;

other sea-cities have faltered
and striven with the tide,
other sea-cities have struggled
and died:

other sea-hulks
were stricken, riven
and the pride of galleys
not one beside you,
remained, beautiful,
O, Sea-Bride.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography