March 2011 Archives

Paris France


Well. This is not what I expected. I did not expect to love Gertrude Stein.

Stein and I have met before, but our meetings have never been very successful. I read Ida in high school and attempted The Making of Americans then as well, and both experiences left me veering between bemusement and annoyance. I did not understand what Stein was getting at with her odd, choppy style; she seemed arrogant and possibly insane. And although I've reevaluated many of my high school opinions on literature, I somehow never got around to giving Stein the benefit of a more mature reading, until now.

I must admit, it really paid off. Not that I would exactly reverse my former verdict of arrogance and possible insanity. No, Stein still does and says plenty of things in her 1940 essay-memoir Paris France that I normally find off-putting or flat-out disagree with: her habit, for example, of making sweeping statements about what she considers to be the defining characteristics of a group of people, based sometimes on a single anecdote. In this passage, she's discussing Frenchmen who never marry:

recently in a village not far from here, one day he was about fifty-five and he never had been married, he shot a woman just any woman as he saw her at a distance. No man who had ever been married could have done that, manifestly not.

I mean, what rot: married men aren't immune from psychotic breaks any more than the rest of us. Similarly Stein declares, in defense of her theory that dogs from a given country are similar in temperament to the people from that country, that dachshunds and other German dogs are "rather timid gentle friendly and obedient." As much as I love dachshunds, none of those descriptors are words I would think of applying to the breed, which are in my experience near-fearless, fiercely territorial, hostile toward strangers, and only prone to obedience when there is an immediate culinary reward.

Two things, though. The first is that, as much as Stein's habit of over-enthusiastic extrapolation from insufficient data sometimes generates statements that seem bizarrely wrong, they perhaps oftener result in passages that seem oddly and intriguingly right. One of my favorite sections, and one that would earn the book a five-star rating all on its own were I to give star ratings, is one in which Stein critiques the figure of speech "Familiarity breeds contempt." She argues, on the contrary, that "the more familiar it is the more rare and beautiful it is":

I remember once hearing a conversation on the street in Paris and it ended up, and so there it was there was nothing for them to do, they had to leave the quarter. There it was, there was nothing else to do they had to leave the most wonderful place in the world, wonderful because it was there where they had always lived.

[ ... ]

Familiarity does not breed contempt, anything one does every day is important and imposing and anywhere one lives is interesting and beautiful. And that is all as it should be.

As difficult as it is for me to remember when I am moaning about preparing for yet another 7am committee meeting featuring stale bagels and "lite" cream cheese, I deeply believe in this idea: that doing something day after day, or living in a place day after day, bestows upon that activity or place the beauty and interest of one's own life. It is easy to take the petty way out here, retorting that this is easy for Stein to say because where she lived every day was Paris, and what she did every day was write and collect art and hang out with Picasso and Hemingway, but I think there's a deeper truth here as well, and it's one of which I am glad to have expressed so succinctly and well.

I'm reminded of the Harvey Keitel character in the Wayne Wang/Paul Auster film Smoke: Keitel plays a smoke shop proprietor who takes a photograph of the same street corner at the exact same time every morning for decades. His profession is not glamorous and his photographs are not, individually, great artworks, but his years of practice of this activity lend it an unexpected depth and beauty, create a connection between him and the changing neighborhood (or quarter) in which he lives. Yet outwardly there's nothing special about his smoke shop over any other smoke shop, which is just what Stein is writing about here: the very act of living imparts life to one's actions and to the place where one lives.

The second mitigating circumstance that struck me about Stein's oft-bizarre extrapolations, is that she is sometimes coming to wrong conclusions willfully, almost as an act of magical thinking. Paris France was written in 1939 and is profoundly concerned with the recent outbreak of the Second World War. Stein had been in France during the carnage of the first World War, and is terrified and grief-stricken at the idea that the experience is about to be repeated—or worse, that from now on there will be a constant state of "general European war." So when she claims, for example, that dachshunds are timid and gentle and so German people must be timid and gentle too, or when she asserts that the French are logical and "logical people are never brutal, they are never sentimental, they are never careless," she does not so much believe these things as that she desires them—desperately—to be true, and perhaps half-believes that by asserting them she can bring them into being. At certain points in her narrative this doubt and desperation leak through to the surface in a way I found quite poignant:

I thought poodles were french but the french breed always has to be refreshed by the german one, and the german pincher is so much more gentle than our Chichuachua little dog which it resembles, and so everything would be a puzzle if it were not certain that logic is right, and is stronger than the will of man. We will see.
      The characteristic art product of a country is the pulse of the country, France did produce better hats and fashions than ever these last two years and is therefore very alive and Germany's music and musicians have been dead and gone these last two years and so Germany is dead well we will see, it is so, of course as all these things are necessarily true.

Stein's circling syntax here is very much that of a person vacillating between trying to reassure herself, and wishing to express her doubt to someone else who will reassure her. It would be a puzzle; it is certain; we will see. We will see, it is so, of course.

In a similarly poignant way, Stein is attempting here to tell the story of the early 20th century and the art community that began then in Paris, but that is not the story that currently preoccupies her. She says at one point, in a sentence which is its own paragraph and which mimics the rhythm of a sigh:

It is difficult to go back to 1901 now that it is 1939 and war-time.

And so 1939 keeps intruding on her points about 1901, and she must resort to long, discursive tangents to talk herself back to a point where 1901 is visible to her once more. After the line above, for example, she tells an anecdote that begins at the intersection of war (her true preoccupation) and food; she then writes for six pages about the French and their relationship with food through history, finally arriving at the statement: "and that brings me to the Paris I first knew when the Café Anglais still existed." This exercise in historical imagination enables Stein to access 1901 again for a time, although eventually 1939 seeps back again into the stream of her thoughts.

My motivation to read Paris France came from the fact that David and I are traveling to Paris in May, but the book turned out to have more insight about the 1939 psychology of Gertrude Stein than about Paris or the French people. Still, that psychology was both moving and fascinating, and Stein's keen ability to relate a well-observed anecdote had me marveling on a number of occasions. Some of these anecdotes, in fact, are almost like free-standing miniatures, and I wonder if Stein has been an inspiration for Lydia Davis. I'll leave you with one of these which particularly struck me:

So one day there I saw a boy about thirteen years of age a stout well-set up and comfortably dressed boy sitting by the water-side, next to him was a woman evidently not his mother but a relation and there they sat. Large tears were rolling down his cheeks. What is it, I asked her, oh she said sorrow, but it will pass. He has failed in his examinations, but it will pass. And quite impersonally she sat by and indeed it was sorrow but as she said, sorrow passes.

I read Paris France as part of the Classics Circuit Lost Generation tour. Check out the excellent ladies at Things Mean a Lot and Rebecca Reads for today's other tour stops.


Inspired by Amanda's and Jason's charming Lovebirds Swap, my partner David and I have decided to do our own leisurely reading project over the next year or two. On no particular schedule, we'll be alternating a book suggested by him with a book suggested by me, and discussing the chosen books here in conversational format. David reads a lot of popular nonfiction on psychology and brain function, and this first installment is his suggestion: Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey's 1994 introduction to Attention Deficit Disorder.

Emily: So, perhaps we should start with a bit of an introduction for the readers. Driven to Distraction came out in 1994, at which time there was a lot less cultural awareness of ADD than there is now. He and his colleague Ratey are giving a broad overview on the disorder from a perspective of their own psychiatric practices.

David: Indeed! Also, we might point out that there has been considerable scientific work in the field since then, which has various ramifications, especially for those of you who have, or think you might have, ADD.

Emily: Yeah, don't diagnose yourself based on this blog post, haha! Go see a professional if some of these symptoms sound familiar. Speaking of which, do you want to talk about how you came upon this book and/or your own experience with ADD?

David: Well, throughout much of elementary school, I struggled both socially and academically. I won't go into the whole story here, but I will say that my trajectory was very typical of a person with ADD, and I probably would have been diagnosed much more quickly had I been born a few years later. I was "very bright," as many teachers and other adults in my life were quick to point out, but also seemed to "have trouble applying myself." By the end of middle school, my parents—having unsuccessfully though persistently tried many avenues for dealing with my situation—finally got a recommendation for a Dr. Jeffrey Pickar at McLean's Hospital, who administered a series of tests, trying to determine if I might have any identifiable, and hopefully treatable, conditions underlying my predicament. His results were definitive, and to me, a hugely significant vindication: I had ADD, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Emily: That feeling of vindication is something Hallowell writes about being very common when people are diagnosed with ADD.

David: Yes. I think that a lot of people, looking at it from a distance, might wonder about this, might imagine that it would be kind of devastating, something like being diagnosed with a crippling disease. I certainly don't want to downplay the degree to which ADD can be crippling, but what I heard when I got the diagnosis was something like, "David, you were right all along! You are smart, you have been trying as hard as you can, but there is something which has been holding you back, something beyond your control, no matter how much your teachers punish you, no matter how much your schoolmates bully you. You were doing the best you could."

Emily: It's not like one is going along perfectly comfortably, and then out of left field comes a cancer diagnosis or similar. You, and most of the people in Hallowell's book, were already aware of a serious problem before the diagnosis. It just gave you something of an explanation and starting-point from which to begin to cope.

David: Right! My reaction was something in the vein of, "IN YOUR FACE, WORLD!"

Emily: Haha! So, is that diagnosis when you were introduced to this particular book?

David: Well, no. Sometime after getting and beginning to understand my diagnosis, my mother began what she now refers to as "bibliotherapy," wherein she tried to educate herself more thoroughly about my conditions. I remember seeing the book on her nightstand around that time, but didn't start reading it myself until sometime last year. It was in the midst of my own sort of bibliotherapy, which was driven by a more general interest in the workings and malfunctions of the brain—especially, but not exclusively, my own.

Emily: I was surprised how interesting I found Driven to Distraction - even though it is an overview for the general public, and even though I have lived for ten years or so with an ADD sufferer, there was plenty of information here that surprised me.

David: Oh? I'm glad to hear that you found it interesting. I'd be interested to hear what surprises stand out in your memory.

Emily: Well, one of the points Hallowell stresses is how many different manifestations ADD can take; it really can look completely different in different people. So that some of the symptoms he talked about seemed completely opposite my experience of you - for example, the common ADD symptom of constantly searching for high-stimulation situations. And also the ADD tendency to get impatient when people don't "cut to the chase."

David: Yeah! True enough.

Emily: Whereas you are FAR more patient with rambling interactions than I tend to be. And of the two of us, I am the person far more likely to want to hurry a given decision to closure, whereas you prefer to shop around. The opposite of one might expect given your ADD diagnosis.

David: Ha ha! Yes. ADD is a real cuttlefish of a disorder. And the name—Attention Deficit Disorder—is, if not an outright misnomer, at least quite deceptive.

Emily: Right! Hallowell discusses how the syndrome is really more of an attention regulation problem, not a deficit—so that people with ADD often have the capacity to go into "hyperfocus," where they become intensely wrapped up in a project they're working on, for hours, days or even weeks at a time.

David: We ADD-ers can hyperfocus—almost by definition DO hyperfocus—when we are On A Case, quite to the exclusion of any external stimuli, any awareness of the passage of time, etc., etc.

Emily: Yes, that's a symptom I definitely have seen in you. You'll get totally wrapped up in something you're working on, like coding or recording projects. Or the time back in 2002 when you laboriously constructed a chart of hex color values by going through and testing each six-digit permutation yourself.

David: Yeah, that laboriously constructed chart is a great example of a Very ADD Thing To Do. It's a little hard to say exactly why, but the combination of seeming to need to learn the "hard way," the hyperfocus, the compulsive nature of the task... It's something I thought of bringing up as well.

Emily: The other thing that struck me as eerily relevant? May I bring up the piles?

David: You may!

Emily: Hallowell transcribes the speech of one of his ADD patients as the patient describes his home office. The man writes:

Everything I do goes into a pile. There are little piles and big piles, stacks of papers, stacks of magazines, stacks of books, stacks of bills. Some stacks are mixed. It's like a field, little piles with white tops scattered everywhere like mushrooms. There's no real organization to any of it. I'll just think that pile looks a little small, I can add something to it, or this space needs a new pile, or these things I'll move over to this other pile.

Hallowell himself comments:

These examples reflect the stuff adult ADD is made of. Peter's piles are particularly emblematic. So many adults with ADD have piles, little mess-piles, big mess-piles, piles everywhere. They are like a by-product of the brain's work. What other people somehow put away, people with ADD put into piles.

David: Very true!

Emily: So, as you and I have often made the dorky joke that your operating system supports "PileMaker Pro," this was very familiar to me. But I also thought Peter's description was interesting because of how he describes relating to the piles. Later in his quote he says he's "in synchronicity" with them. Do you have a particular relationship with your piles?

David: I do. This would probably be a good time to bring in my co-morbid conditions, OCD and Anxiety. Without getting too deep into definitions, I'll just say that ADD does commonly coexist with other disorders and conditions. For me, personally, there is a touch of the ol' hoarding mixed in there.

Emily: In fact Hallowell devotes a whole longish chapter to different co-morbidities and how they tend to manifest.

David: Yeah, and, as with so many things, the whole often manifests as more than the sum of the parts. Also, I have a very acute visual/spacial sort of talent, if you can call it that, which, I think, kind of enables my PileMaker Pro organizational replacement system. I don't know if Peter is selling himself short in the above quote, but for me, the piles are not totally random. I have a sense of the Piles, so long as they are not removed from their original place of residence. If I need something, I can usually locate it quite effectively by sort of triangulating, mentally.

The problems arise when I "clean up," which often consists of moving the piles from a public area (the living room) to a private area (the bedroom), and sometimes even combining piles, if I'm really going to do a thorough job of it. At that point, unless I can find some distinguishing visual characteristic of a pile, one which I associate with the item I'm trying to locate, it becomes very difficult to find anything.

Emily: In Peter's example, it's almost like he's deciding on the distribution of items into the piles based on aesthetic appeal. And you're saying you kind of attach visual tags to piles as memory aids?

David: Exactly. And I do so at a very instinctive—or, at least, below-conscious—level. That is a big part of my "magic" with regards to my role as your Accio spell. (I'll let you explain that one.)

Emily: Haha! It's true, you can usually find anything in the house, whereas I can never find anything. We have another dorky joke that I, like the Harry Potter characters, can say "Accio hairbrush!" and the hairbrush will come flying to me in David's hand.

David: If I have seen objects in physical relation to one another, especially within a defined and relatively static space such as our condo, it is usually quite easy for me to recall an object's location by observing in my mind's eye which objects it is spatially attached to.

Emily: It occurs to me vis-a-vis Hallowell's description of the typically ADD search for high-stimulation, which for the most part I don't see in you—do you think the piles are related to that? It certainly makes your study more "high stimulation" in that all the piles make a lot to look at.

David: Ha ha! It does, doesn't it!? Unfortunately, that particular kind of stimulation—visual clutter—seems to exacerbate, rather than quell, my distractability, so I think I'd be better off without it in any case. I don't know if it's a sort of self medication, though... could be.

So, why, you might be asking yourself, don't I just FILE things in the first place, instead of PILING them? Wouldn't that make everything so much easier?

Emily: Yes. I might be asking myself that, indeed.

David: Since I have this "talent" with visual association, having things "hidden away" in a file is disturbing to me on several levels. If I can't see it, and can't associate it with its visual/spacial surroundings, it becomes lost to me on a very deep level. Being in a file cabinet is like being in an institutional building, or a series of suburban cul-de-sacs: everything looks the same.

Emily: Hmm, interesting. That brings up another suggestion Hallowell has for people with ADD, which is to use color and visual cues to "spice up" their filing and time-management systems.

David: Yes! It's not that I can't learn to organize logistically rather than spatially, it's just that it doesn't come as naturally to me. And, it takes effort and strategy to learn this new system, and set up new kinds of aids and compensations; effort not necessary if I were to continue with the piles "system."

Emily: Which, yet again, is a point Hallowell makes: that ADD people have to exert more effort, and on a more conscious level, to pick up coping mechanisms that people without ADD kind of absorb by osmosis. But that doesn't mean it's impossible for them to learn those techniques.

David: Totally! Another thing to bring in here is the common ADD trait of problems with what is called "working memory." Working memory, as I understand it, is sort of one's mind's desktop: the memory designated for attending to items currently or imminently needed for the job currently or imminently at hand. And this is particularly interesting to me, as it brings the psychological ramifications of the disorder—the things my brain has learned about its own workings—front and center. At some level, I know that I have trouble remembering to do things. Therefore, my brain recoils from the idea of putting a crucial item (a bill, for example) somewhere it suspects I'll forget about it, and consequently, forget to deal with it. So, in order to truly deal with the issue of piles, one must not only clean up the mess, but put in place—and crucially, learn to trust—a new system for remembering to complete important actions.

Emily: That makes a lot of sense. It's like what Hallowell says in the section on ADD with Anxiety—which, incidentally, reminded me strongly of you. Hallowell talks about how, when something "startles" the ADD-with-Anxiety brain (a "startle" can be caused by any transition throughout the day, from going on one's lunch break to completing a task) there is a mini-panic because the brain doesn't know how to organize itself now that its former point of focus is removed. So it latches onto the "hottest," most pressing object available, which is often a source of anxiety. The anxiety becomes an organizing principle, even if a counterproductive one. Which reminds me of what you've been saying about your piles—your brain doesn't trust the filing system, so it's trying to organize around the idea of keeping everything it might possibly need within visual contact at all times.

David: I think that's an interesting comparison. It's not necessarily totally analogous, but it strikes me that there is a very similar bend in the underlying logic.

Emily: Yes. So, another thing I really appreciated about Driven to Distraction was Hallowell's sensitivity around the issue of "what is normal?" or put another way "Is this a real disorder?""

David: This is a very important, and very vexing point. I, personally, find it to be one of the most interesting and meaty points, as well.

Emily: I agree. I mean, just thinking about the extent to which people use "ADD" as shorthand for the standard, high-distraction lifestyle expected of us in the Western world is pretty revealing. I appreciated Hallowell's acknowledgment that everyone sometimes feels in the ways he describes, but that this cultural state isn't the same as actual ADD, which is a real, neurological disorder.

David: Right. So, several things about that. One of them is the individual's experience of him- or herself. As we were talking about just earlier today, it can be very difficult for a person who has been diagnosed as having a particular problem to figure out—just internally, for his or her own benefit and satisfaction—where He or She as a person (or personality) leaves off, and where The Disease picks up.

Another issue is the subjective nature of the diagnosis in the first place. This is something that Hallowell addresses somewhat in Driven to Distraction, and it's also addressed by Peter Kramer in Listening to Prozac. Kramer refers to it, if I remember correctly, as "the brackets of normalcy," and he spends quite a bit of time in various sections of his book talking about how and why those brackets sometimes shift. These kinds of mental illnesses—ADD, OCD—are defined relative to their surroundings, relative to the established vision of "normal," which necessarily relies on the behaviors of the surrounding culture and individuals for definition.

Emily: I wondered a lot about cross-cultural diagnoses while reading Hallowell, since the definition of "normal" levels of distractability and scattered-ness is surely different in different cultures.

David: Right! And, I personally find this to be a very challenging aspect of self-definition, and self-identification with my disorders. There are some aspects of what is considered "disordered" that I find to be valuable, even as compared to their equivalent "normal" counterparts in our society.

Emily: I liked Hallowell's take on that phenomenon, that he acknowledges that there can be strengths that come along with the liabilities of ADD.

David: Yeah. I think it's really good that he emphasizes that, and I kind of wish he spent more time giving specific examples. There's so much negative messaging that people with ADD receive en masse and individually, both before and after they get the diagnosis, that I think it's really crucial to ongoing mental health and self esteem to actively look at and cultivate the "good" parts of the disorder (depending on context, of course).

Emily: In that spirit, there was a little passage in Hallowell that reminded me of you in a positive way. He's discussing a patient of his in who had the "daydreamer" variety of ADD, and he writes:

People with ADD do look out windows. They do not stay on track. They stray. But they also see new things or find new ways to see old things. They are not just the tuned-out of this world; they are also tuned in, often to the fresh and new.

That strongly reminded me of the experience of taking walks with you. You are always the "noticer" on walks, making observations of little unusual details that most other folks miss.

David: Thank you, Sweetie! I think that that is tied in with my ADD, and it is something I find valuable. This highlights one of the difficult choices brought up by the possibility of treating the disorder: Will you loose the stuff you like, along with the proverbial bath water? I think it's an experiment each individual has to undertake (or not) on his or her own. And then the decision about whether or not to take psych meds adds whole other layers of complication. It's an emotionally and ideologically contentious decision to begin with, and then it's combined with a diagnostic process subject to the values of a specific time and place, values about which the individual seeking treatment might have deeply mixed feelings.

Emily: Yes. Hallowell is generally pro-meds, but I liked that he a) doesn't present them as the be-all and end-all of treatment, and b) fully acknowledges that everyone's process is different and that, while meds are often very effective, many patients have also had good results from pursuing a non-medicated route of behavior modification, open communication, and coping mechanisms. So it's not like the decision about whether or not to pursue treatment is only one of whether or not to pursue medication.

David: Right! That's a good point, and I agree that he presented a pretty good balance of options in the book. One more thing about my own observations re: treatment with medication. I'm a fairly analytical, self-observatory person, but I have found it to be fascinating and illuminating to see that some problems which I had attributed to laziness, character flaws, and the like (with all the guilt and baggage that goes along with that) have actually responded to medication.

Emily: Interesting. Do any particular examples leap to mind?

David: Well, lateness has been almost a life-long problem for me, and it turns out that my disorders have a huge impact on my punctuality in both obvious and subtle ways. I also remember feeling like, the first time I got on a good combination of medications, my homework was somehow just "getting done." It was kind of a crazy feeling: doing my homework had been a problem for me for literally over half my life, and then, all of a sudden, without me feeling like I was actually doing anything differently, it was just... "getting done." I kind of couldn't believe it.

Emily: Yeah, no doubt! It must have felt like magic.

David: It kind of did! And, that actually brings up another interesting tangled web of emotions I (and I think many other people) feel when thinking about medication: Having been told, in various direct and indirect ways, and at least partially having believed, for so long that it was somehow my fault that I was having these problems, I felt quite deeply that the corollary to that was that it was my responsibility to deal with them, fix them. Having that responsibility usurped by a chemical is deeply confusing, even as it is a deep and multi-layered relief.

Emily: Hallowell describes a number of patients with similar or related feelings around medication. Like it was somehow a "cheat" or an admission they couldn't fix the problem by themselves.

David: Right. Other people can do the things that I am being told to do, and I am shirking part of my responsibility by giving myself this "unfair" advantage. (It's somehow easy to ignore that a) I started out with an "unfair" disadvantage; and that b) I don't know those Other People well enough to understand their process, or their tools, or their crutches.)

Emily: It's a difficult thing to sort out.

David: Very!

Emily: Well, this has been a great conversation; thanks for the interesting first pick in our reading project.

David: I'm so glad you liked it! I started Gilead this very morning, and I already love it; I'm looking forward to next time.


Up next in David and my joint reading project: my first suggestion, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.

Conversation in the Cathedral


I must admit that I got off to a rocky start with Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral: after a dachshund is brutally clubbed to death in Chapter One1 and a woman gets drugged and sexually assaulted in Chapter Two (by, moreover, sympathetic characters who don't ever seem quite to grasp the offensiveness of their actions), I was feeling a mite unfriendly toward the novel. By Chapter Three, though, I was reluctantly softening my stance, and by Chapter Four I was fully immersed in Vargas Llosa's unusual but compelling narrative voice. What won me over? It certainly wasn't a cessation of the brutality in this tale of disillusionment and corruption in 1950s Peru, although the sexual politics did redeem themselves somewhat. What really tipped the scales and had me devouring Vargas Llosa's novel in 100-page chunks was its unique combination of compelling storyline and experimental narration style. Vargas Llosa does something with his storytelling here that I've never exactly encountered before, and it's a technique I found both exciting and effective.

Like many novels in which the main character(s) are looking back and attempting to untangle events of the past, Conversation in the Cathedral is multi-layered in its presentation. Within the first chapter we get a sketch of everything that happens in the book's present day (early 1960s): disillusioned newspaper columnist Santiago Zavala goes to fetch his dog at the pound, encounters an older man named Ambrosio who once worked for Santiago's father, and the two go for an extended talking-and-drinking session in a nearby dive bar. At the end of Chapter One, Santiago, now falling-down drunk, initiates an angry confrontation with Ambrosio about some event in their mutual past, but Ambrosio denies responsibility. Santiago then stumbles home with his dog, and promises his wife that he won't stay out drinking without calling her again.

That's the extent of the present-day action, which is over in the first 20 pages. Throughout the rest of the 600-page novel, we get multi-layered, multi-voiced flashbacks reaching back to the years before dictator Manuel Odria's 1948 rise to power, when Santiago was an idealistic, upper-middle-class high school student preparing to enter San Marcos University. Gradually, of course, the reader begins to piece together the relationships surrounding Santiago and Ambrosio, and just what happened to cause the dynamics seen in the opening chapter. What sets Conversation in the Cathedral apart from most other flashback-to-the-past, multiple-voiced novels I've read is that any given passage, from one sentence to the next, can see-saw among three or four different scenes, taking place not just between different sets of people but at radically different times. The result is a sometimes-challenging but always compelling juxtaposition. In extreme cases, Vargas Llosa's technique can look like the following passage, which features four different scenes layered on top of each other: Santiago and Ambrosio's rehashing of the past in the present-day Cathedral bar; an early-1950 political rally in support of the Odríist candidate Emilio Arévalo, staffed by strong-man Trifulcio; a mid-1950 conversation among the now-Senator Arévalo, Senator Landa, and Santiago's father Don Fermín about the rigging of the recent elections and the increasing political power of Presidential favorite Cayo Bermúdez; and a police "interrogation" carried out by two of Ambrosio's sometime-colleagues, hired thugs Hipólito and Ludovico, sometime in the early 1950s.

      "I'm not being nosy, but why did you run away from home that time, son?" Ambrosio asks. "Weren't you well off at home with your folks?"
      Don Emilio Arévalo was sweating; he was shaking the hands that converged on him from all sides, he wiped his forehead, smiled, waved, embraced the people on the platform, and the wooden frame swayed as Don Emilio approached the steps. Now it was your turn, Trifulcio.
      "Too well off, that's why I left," Santiago says. "I was so pure and thick-headed that it bothered me having such an easy life and being a nice young boy.
      "The funny thing is that the idea of putting him in jail didn't come from the Uplander," Don Fermín said. "Or from Arbeláez or Ferro. The one who convinced them, the one who insisted was Bermúdez."
      "So pure and thick-headed that I thought that by fucking myself up a little I would make myself a real little man, Ambrosio," Santiago says.
      "That all of it was the work of an insignificant Director of Public Order, an underling, I can't swallow either," Senator Landa said. "Uplander Espina invented it so he could toss the ball to someone else if things turned out badly."
      Trifulcio was there, at the foot of the stairs, defending his place with his elbows, spitting on his hands, his gaze fanatically fastened on Don Emilio's feet, which were approaching, mixed in with others, his body tense, his feet firmly planted on the ground: his turn, it was his turn.
      "You have to believe it because it's the truth," Don Fermín said. "And don't tar him so much. Whether you like it or not, that underling is becoming the man the General trusts the most."
      "There he is, Hipólito, I'm making a present of him to you," Ludovico said. "Get those ideas of being headman out of his brain once and for all."
      "Then it wasn't because you had different political ideas from your papa?" Ambrosio asks.
      "He believes him implicitly, he thinks he's infallible," Don Fermín said. "When Bermúdez has an opinion, Ferro, Arbeláez, Espina and even I can go to the devil, we don't exist. That was evident in the Montagne affair."
      "My poor old man didn't have any political ideas," Santiago says. "Only political interests, Ambrosio."

I know this is a very extended quote, but it takes some time to get into the swing of what Vargas Llosa can do with this kind of staggered, syncopated dialogue. Like a choreographer working with four groups of dancers on stage simultaneously, he subtly shifts the focus from one to another of the four scenes, while still keeping all of them in motion at once. Even in the (relatively) short segment above, one can see the focus shifting slightly from Santiago/Ambrosio to the conversation among the senators and back again, like the intermittent interference that happens when a listener drives along the boundary between two radio stations broadcasting on the same frequency.

Together, these four threads become more than the sum of their parts: not only is there an aesthetically affecting rhythm to their interplay, but the immediate juxtaposition of different characters and times is an interesting way to bring out the novel's themes. Here, for example, we have two competing analyses of the political events: on one station, there is Santiago's disgust with his father's opportunism and with his own youthful self-righteousness; while on the other, we get Don Fermín's self-interested but pragmatic play-by-play assessment of the unfolding political scene. At the same time, like palimpsests over which these conversations are layered, are the two scenes of action, of real-life cause and effect, which I visualize as sandwiching the senators' conversation: the lead-up to the elections they're discussing, and the stark reality of police brutality and oppression under the Odría regime.

So too, we get the juxtaposition of two father/son pairs: Trifulcio the thug is Ambrosio's father, so a second filial dynamic is present, echoing the dominant theme established by Santiago and Don Fermín. Conversation in the Cathedral has much interesting commentary to offer on the class dynamics of Peruvian society, and we can see some of that coming out here: Santiago, with the bourgeois background he spends the entire novel trying to escape, has nonetheless the privileged person's sense of entitlement: he feels betrayed by the person he has discovered his father to be, and he holds that against the man's memory because he feels he somehow "deserves" a father different from the one he got. Ambrosio, on the other hand, is remarkably free from bitterness, despite Trifulcio being a much more negligent and immoral father to him than Don Fermín was to Santiago. (Santiago's statement that his father "didn't have any political ideas, only political interests" is ironic given how much truer it is when applied to Ambrosio's father rather than his own.)

Moreover, throughout their entire conversation, Ambrosio reinforces rather than questions the emphasis on the Santiago/Don Fermín relationship: while the two bar patrons discuss both their lives, Ambrosio seems to have had more of a relationship with Santiago's father than he had with Trifulcio, and is invested in defending his former employer to the man's son. This continues to be true despite a number of narrative reveals later in the book (the circumstances of Trifulcio's eventual death; details about the dynamic between Don Fermín and Ambrosio) which might lead a reader to assume Ambrosio would have his own axe to grind with Don Fermín. Ambrosio, though, has been trained not to question his own status as a secondary player on the stage of life; he doesn't believe he deserves any particular treatment or quality of life. These issues of class hierarchy and feelings of entitlement are in turn reflected in the senators' discussion of the commoner Cayo Bermúdez, whose social standing earns their contempt but whose influential role in the President's inner circle commands their fear and respect. Meanwhile, on the other ends of the class and paternity spectrums, menial laborer Trinidad López is being beaten to death by Odría's and Bermúdez's goons just as he is about to become a father himself.

Obviously, it would be easy to write about Conversation in the Cathedral all night: its epic scope and unusual presentation make for a rich, thought-provoking ride. Long story short, I'm glad my reading buddies provided me with the motivation to stick with this book through the initial off-putting chapters, since Vargas Llosa's overall humanity and impressive writing chops more than made up for them in the end.


1I admit to being a little over-sensitive to the issue of animal brutality, particularly since my dog happens also to be a dachshund and a former stray just like the one that gets clubbed to death in Chapter One of Conversation in the Cathedral. Graphic cruelty toward animals is a huge turnoff for me, even if it's a realistic depiction intended to demonstrate the desperation of the people perpetrating said cruelty. To be fair, I believe this scene has a valid rationale behind it: it shows in a visceral way that Ambrosio has fallen to the bottom of the employment barrel, and has to choose between starvation and doing a job that's horrific and dehumanizing. As we find out later, Ambrosio doesn't even seem to believe that he deserves control over his own life or body; he can't be expected to believe in that right when applied to a dog. Still, it was upsetting to me out of proportion with what I believe Vargas Llosa intended. Which is a little bit funny considering that Ambrosio also works as a thug beating up humans, and that doesn't bother me at all. I suppose we all have our triggers.

We interrupt Cockatoo Island...


Conversation in the Cathedral was the March pick for the Wolves reading group; please join us the last weekend of April for a discussion of Paul Glennon's The Dodecahedron, or Frames for a Frame.

Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein + Hiroshima mon amour


I can feel a Marguerite Duras fixation coming on.

While fairly impressed with her late novel L'amant de la Chine du nord, I wasn't completely drawn into Duras's milieu until David and I watched Hiroshima mon amour, the 1959 Alain Resnais film for which she wrote the screenplay. To put it bluntly, Hiroshima mon amour blew. me. away. The opening sequence reduced me to sobs, overlaying Emmanuelle Riva's and Eiji Okada's stark, dreamlike narration (a stylized argument, which at times seems almost to veer into poetic verse, about whether or not Riva's character has or has not "seen" the devastation of Hiroshima) with footage of said devastation and of the hospital and museum Riva's character mentions. And the film as a whole raised fascinating questions about authenticity, storytelling, trauma, and the ability of humans to connect and empathize. Since Duras' 1964 novella Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein shares many of these same preoccupations, I thought I would attempt to write about them together, even though I know that I will be overwhelmed with material!

Both Hiroshima and Ravissement, then, are deeply concerned with the extent to which it is (im)possible to step inside another person's experience. In the opening scene of the film, Riva's character (known simply as "elle" or "her") makes a repeated claim to have witnessed the events of nuclear devastation in Hiroshima, not at first hand but through visits to bomb victims in the hospital, trips to the museum, and viewings of the newsreels. As she amplifies on her experiences, speaking in mesmerizing circuits of repeated words, Eiji Okada's character "lui"/"him" occasionally interrupts her to deny her authority: "Tu n'as rien vu à Hiroshima." ("You saw nothing at Hiroshima.") So did she? It's a complicated question. On one hand, some of her claims are quite radical:

J'ai eu chaud, Place de la Paix. Dix mille degrés sur la Place de la Paix. Je le sais. La temperature du soleil sur la Place de la Paix - comment l'ignorer?
I was hot in Peace Square. Ten thousand degrees in Peace Square. I know it. The temperature of the sun in Peace Square - how could you not know it?

Obviously, this Frenchwoman can only "know" that the temperature in Peace Square reached ten thousand degrees in the way one knows a fact from a history textbook: with her brain rather than her body. Likewise there is a world of difference between visiting an interpretive museum exhibit, even an extremely well-constructed one, and "knowing" an event through first-hand knowledge either personal or cultural. On the other hand, her empathy just as obviously exceeds the theoretical: watching those newsreels and museum exhibits really has imbued her with some part of the horror of the situation. In fact, as a viewer watching the scenes of devastation ourselves, we are in the exact same situation. Resnais and Duras make us question Elle's claims to understanding, even as they put us in an extreme position of identification with her. After all, if I am sobbing as I watch this film (which I was), how can I fully dismiss the power of simulacrums to convey experience? As she herself acknowledges later on, we as outside observers are limited in our ability to both feel and act: "On peut toujours se moquer. Mais que peut faire d'autre un touriste, que justement pleurer?" / "You can always scoff. But what else can a tourist do, but weep?" Later on in the film, Riva's character is possessive about her own traumatic war-time experience; her Japanese lover can listen and feel pain, but he can't truly understand.

Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein, too, questions the ability of any person to tell the story of another's trauma—or even to claim absolute certainty about what that trauma was in the first place. Lola Valerie Stein (self-styled Lol V.) remains a cypher throughout the novella, which is narrated by her eventual lover, Jacques Hold. Jacques meets Lol through another lover of his, Tatiana Karl, an old school friend of Lol's who was present on the night, ten years before, which directly preceded Lol's mental breakdown. Exactly what precipitated this breakdown remains a subject of contention throughout the novella: while it's clear that Lol and her fiancé both met an older woman that night, and that the fiancé left with said woman as dawn was breaking, Lol's emotions at each step of the evening are puzzling, as is her present relationship to the past. For example, Tatiana recalls that for most of the dance Lol didn't seem to mind her fiancé being enamored of another woman, sitting calmly throughout the evening until the couple left the ballroom without her. Was she ever in love with her fiancé? Was she in love with the woman who replaced her in his affections? Was she in love with some mental image of the couple together, and herself as an observer of their love? Was she teetering on the brink of mental disaster the whole time, and this night was merely the straw that broke the camel's back of her mind?

Tatiana is invested in one version of past events, and Lol—uncommunicative, shocky, and prone to telling bizarre, easily-detectable lies—is of little use as a witness. Jacques himself is all too aware of his inability to fathom Lol's inner world; not only was he not present on the famous night of the ball, but Tatiana, who was there, disagrees about whether it's even the crucial event in Lol's past. She feels that Lol has always been missing some crucial component, that her "self" has always been somehow absent, and that the seeds of her breakdown were present since long before the night at T. Beach.

     Je lui ai demandé si la crise de Lol, plus tard, ne lui avait pas apporté la preuve qu'elle se trompait. Elle m'a répeté que non, qu'elle, elle croyait que cette crise et Lol ne faisaient qu'un depuis toujours.
     Je ne crois plus à rien de ce que dit Tatiana, je ne suis convaincu de rien.
     I asked her if Lol's breakdown, later on, didn't prove to her that she had been wrong. She repeated that no, that she, she believed that this attack and Lol had always been one.
     I no longer believe in anything Tatiana says, I'm not convinced of anything.

Thus not only do we have competing accounts of what happened inside Lol while she watched her fiancé fall for another woman, we have a debate about whether it even matters. Tatiana and Jacques are also unsure of the degree to which Lol has recovered from her breakdown: the slick surfaces of her immaculately-maintained home and marriage seem to indicate "recovery," yet Tatiana at least is invested in the idea of Lol's continuing malady. And what is that malady in the first place? It becomes clear that Lol is, for some reason and in some way, obsessed with her past, but what is she remembering and experiencing when she thinks of it?

This brings up another commonality between Ravissement and Hiroshima, which is a preoccupation with memory and forgetting, and the pain involved in inevitably forgetting something one had sworn to remember. In the film, Riva's character gestures at this idea with the statement

De même que dans l'amour, cette illusion existe, cette illusion de pouvoir jamais oublier, de même j'ai eu l'illusion devant Hiroshima, que jamais je n'oublierai. De même que dans l'amour.
Just as in love, this illusion exists, this illusion of never being able to forget, I had the illusion when confronted with Hiroshima, that I would never forget it. Just as in love.

But the inability to forget—or more accurately, the ability to never forget, to remember forever, is just that: an illusion. Even as these characters are haunted by an inescapable relationship to their past traumas (to the point where several people identify each other as synonymous with those traumas), what dwells inside them is not precisely "memory" but an ever-changing set of reference points combining past, present, potential and imaginary. When Lol moves back to the town of S. Tahla after ten years away, for example, her memories of the town seem to start out sharp, not having been added to much in the intervening years, but soon they become eroded through frequent applications of new experience.

[E]lle commença à reconnaître moins, puis différement, elle commença à retourner jour après jour, pas à pas vers son ignorance de S. Tahla.
      Cet endroit du monde où on croit qu'elle a vécu sa douleur passée, cette prétendue douleur, s'efface peu à peu de sa mémoire dans sa matérialité. Pourquoi ces lieux plutôt que d'autres? En quelque point qu'elle s'y trouve Lol y est comment une première fois. De la distance invariable du souvenir elle de dispose plus: elle est là. Sa présence fait la ville pure, méconnaissable. Elle commence à marcher dans le palais fastueux de l'oubli de S. Tahla.
She began to recognize less, then differently, she began to return day after day, step by step towards her ignorance of S. Tahla.
      This spot in the world where they say she lived her past grief, this alleged grief, is little by little erased from her memory by her corporeality. Why these places rather than others? Wherever Lol finds herself, it is as though she is there for the first time. She no longer positions herself at the unvarying remove of memory: she is there. Her presence renders the city pure, unknowable. She begins to walk in the sumptuous palace of forgetting S. Tahla.

Thus being back in her home town erodes Lol's past knowledge of it, just as she seems unable to see again the shapes of her past self and her former fiancé when she revisits T. Beach at the end of the novel. Her attempts to reenact the past with a new cast of characters, and force it to provide her with something that was missing the first time around, are dream-like and fascinating, asking similar questions and evoking a similar mood to the relationship between "Elle" and "Lui" in Hiroshima mon amour. I am eager to read more Duras from this period; where should I start? Moderato Cantabile? L'après-midi de M. Andesmas? Recommendations very much welcome. In the meantime, both Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein and Hiroshima mon amour come very highly recommended.


This is the first ten minutes (most of the amazing opening sequence) of Hiroshima mon amour. I think it's incredible film making for both the ideas and the aesthetic interaction of words, music, and images, but I will warn you that there are EXTREMELY GRAPHIC IMAGES of devastated human and animal bodies after the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.


All translations here are mine, but this book is available in English as translated by Richard Seever. Also, I should add that I don't have an actual transcript of the Hiroshima mon amour screenplay, so some of my transcriptions may be slightly off.

The Essential Rebecca West


Inspired by Bernard Schweizer's recommended reading progression for newbies to Rebecca West over at Pages Turned, I ran right out (metaphorically, since I found I had to order this online) and bought the first suggested volume, The Essential Rebecca West. Schweizer recommends starting here "to get a taste of just how multi-talented and brilliant [West] is," and The Essential Rebecca West is indeed fairly staggering in its diversity. Consisting of formerly-uncollected prose from the inter-war years through the 1970s, its scant 167 pages contain everything from book reviews and other criticism, to a chronicle of the first encounters between Montezuma and Cortés, to an account of trying to navigate London on an ordinary day during the WWII bombings, to a delightful and deeply-felt meditation on the practice of owning cats. Practically the only skill this volume does not demonstrate West possessing, is the ability to go into great depth on a single topic over a long period, which was never its intention; I suspect that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon would demonstrate that skill admirably.

It's always difficult to write about a collection of short works; even more so in this case, when the goal of the exercise is diverse representation. A few qualities did cohere across all these pieces, though. Primary was West's wittiness, which is in a style I associate with Harold Ross, Dorothy Parker and the early years of The New Yorker. (Indeed, West did have pieces published in that magazine among very many others.) In a review of a collection of essays attempting to "popularize" the great philosophers, for example, West quips:

Such are the overtones of our language that the sub-title, "Twenty of the World's Outstanding Thinkers Reveal the Deepest Meaning they have Found in Life," conveys to the experienced that this is just what the twenty authors involved do not do.

In one of my favorite pieces, "Aspects of Love: Mutual Dislike," West offers a similarly scathing reading of Milton's Paradise Lost which, while I don't entirely agree with it, I do find both funny and thought-provoking.

As Milton put it in his prose gloss on the poem, Adam was "exhorted to search rather things more worthy of knowledge," and he accepted the advice by consulting the angel on his sexual life, at enormous length, for it was much on his mind; so much that Eve may well have been not only the first woman but the first woman to express the opinion that Men Want Only One Thing.
       She may also have been the first woman to use the phrase "I've Never Been So Insulted in my Life."

Although I tend to read Milton's Adam and Eve as more genuinely loving toward one another than West does ("When Adam and Eve speak to one another they always begin by a statement of devotion which can only mean that this emotion has left them forever"), I do find her feminist reading compelling—especially in the section when suggests that "the serpent" in this poem is not so much a knowledge of good and evil, as a female desire for solitude and breathing space which both Adam and Milton himself find extremely threatening.

The serpent in all Paradises is not a condition of the mind but a matter of hard fact: the power possessed by any human being to leave another human being who does not want to be left. When Adam became aware of Eve's desire for separateness, when weak females flagged and failed under the intolerable burden of being one with Milton, Adam and Milton suffered as if they felt the serpent's fang.

"Mutual Dislike" is a good example of something that impressed me throughout this book: West's ability to combine a light, often humorous tone with intellectual rigor. She is being witty, making it easy for her readers to enjoy her pieces, but that doesn't mean that she's not taking seriously her subject matter and her own thoughts on that subject matter. She may not mean every word she says, as in the provocative beginning to "Aren't Men Beasts" ("There is, of course, no reason for the existence of the male sex except that one sometimes needs help in moving the piano"), but she believes firmly in her over-arching arguments, however pithily they may be delivered.

This is particularly true when she is writing about issues relating to feminism, (anti)Communism, or literary practice. In my opinion, the urge toward censorship is one of the most effective targets for attack via satire—it's at once pernicious and rife with human absurdity. I was therefore delighted at the inclusion of "The Age of Consent," which skewers the censor with the dirtiness of his or her own mind:

I myself have been accused of the graver offence [indecency] when I hardly expected it. In an essay on Henry James, I happened, when discussing his indifference to abstract thought, to use the phrase, "He never felt an idea with the sensitive finger-tips of affection." I was startled to receive a press-cutting from an American newspaper, in which a reviewer protested against the use of "this sensual metaphor in connection with a writer of the known purity of Mr. James." None of us can provide that our innocent inventions may not be seized on by such persons as this and used as bases for the horrid dreams of their own engendering.

"The horrid dreams of their own engendering"! Priceless. In reading up on the history of censorship one encounters this difficulty again and again: the mind of the censor glimpses reprehensible filth in every nook and cranny, including places nobody else would ever think to find it. In the censor's attempts to rid the world of indecency, he runs the double danger of exposing himself to this dangerous obscenity in the first place, and of adding to the sum total of dirty thoughts by imagining offenses where in fact none existed. I find this unnamed American's criticism particularly ironic given that James's characters conduct conversations as if they're physically picking up and caressing each comment made by their interlocutors, in a kind of tedious verbal intercourse:

      "Well then," said Kate, "it's what has wound me up. Here I am."
      He showed with a gesture how thoroughly he had taken it in; after which, within a few seconds, he had, quite congruously, turned the situation about. "Do you really suppose me in a position to justify your throwing yourself upon me?" [Wings of the Dove]

West's original metaphor strikes me, if anything, as overly mild. (Also, it's dialogue like this that makes me want to stab myself with rusty forks whenever I try to read James.)

There is much more to love in this little volume, from the funny and touching "Why My Mother Was Frightened of Cats" to West's trenchant observations on the importance of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and the obliviousness of Richard Nixon. A quick, rewarding read, and one that has me curious to progress to The Return of the Soldier, the next stop on Schweizer's Rebecca West train.

Our Horses in Egypt


In my reading of Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt, the tale of WWI widow Griselda Romney's search through Egypt and Palestine for her once-requisitioned horse, there were three phases. During Phase One, which lasted a good eighty or so pages, I had a hard time making headway with Belben's extremely clipped, sparse prose, which reads at times like an upper-class British short-hand complete with in-jokes only marginally comprehensible to a middle-class American like myself. The combination of class-bound obliqueness, horse-specific terminology, and military diction, with some boating lingo and Arabic and Egyptian terms thrown in, makes for an oddly fragmented storytelling medium. Of my partner David, who rode horses as a boy, I kept demanding assistance: "what the hell's a surcingle?" I asked. "And what's a syce, and a snaffle?" "That's ridiculous," he answered, and I pulled a face.

Over time, though, as I relaxed into the prickly language, it began making inroads into my mind. Entering Phase Two, I found myself thinking in the cadences of Belben's prose, narrating my everyday life. The fragmentary style began to seem fitting for a narration of the Great War and its aftermath, evocative of TS Eliot's famous "heap of broken images." I started to connect, a bit bemusedly, with both human and equine protagonists, and to appreciate the bits of humor and social commentary that occasionally leaped out at me from the text. Griselda and her party, for example, are at one point ejected from shipboard for fraternizing with the crew:

       He said, "And on deck! No better than the ship's whore."
       The Purser squinted at Mrs Romney. She appeared to be staggered.
       "Oh," she said, with a dangerous glint, "do you have a ship's whore?"
       The Commander uttered a blustery noice that might have been "yes" and might have been "no."
       He considered that he hadn't responded.
       "Only one?" asked the lady.

Indeed, it was this social commentary, and the questions raised by the contrasting human and animal protagonists, that finally enabled me to enter Phase Three of my Horses in Egypt reading: around the two-thirds mark, I suddenly found myself no longer bemused but passionately engaged with the text. It's a book profoundly concerned with questions of hierarchy, of the thresholds of respect and compassion that allow creatures to see one another as subjective selves, rather than simply useful tools or possessions. It also asks, given the subjectivity of all creatures, when we have the moral right or obligation to prioritize one conscious being over another.

Throughout Griselda's tenure on board ship, for example, her fellow passengers unfailingly question her priorities in uprooting her daughter and Nanny to go look for her former horse, who in all likelihood is not even alive. Before she even leaves, her mother-in-law calls Griselda's behavior "affectation" and an affront to the memory of her husband and brother-in-law, who were killed in the war, to speak of horses in the same breath. Griselda, on the other hand, feels she has a responsibility to a fellow-creature, and that in any case, her husband and brother-in-law definitively "aren't alive, are not living"—what can she do for them now? Griselda's loyalties are to "her own"; so rather than devoting herself to succoring wounded or shell-shocked human war veterans, or those humans left in poverty by the ravages of war, she turns to the horses to whom she committed in a former life:

       "Responsibility," said Griselda. "We can't exercise it for every animal on earth. I don't say that. Do you? For our own, we can!"

This insular, take-care-of-our-own philosophy also means that Griselda seems to accord more "humanity" to her former horses than to people of other classes, ages, or races. At one painful moment she believes she is complimenting a pair of Arab youths by comparing them to horses:

       "I realize," Mrs Romney said, on impulse, "what it is, why you feel such an affinity to your own horses, why you...I'll bet you do!...sit so well and look so natural on horseback: you are like horses yourselves!"
       The triumph of this was dashed, for horror crossed their faces. "But, Mrs Romney," said the one called Mohammed, "that is an insult."

One can see the progression here: for Griselda, her conversation with the brown-skinned boys is increasing her ability to relate to them, just as she can relate to her horses. She tries very awkwardly to communicate this emotion which she feels is understanding or respect. For the boys themselves, obviously, being likened to beasts of burden is insulting. Later in the novel, Griselda's Egyptian guide expresses his horror that she pays buys bread to feed a dying horse: "'People very poor,' said Imran." Even Griselda's attitude toward her own Nanny and daughter seem less compassionate and respectful than her feelings for her lost horse.

Griselda often comes off as naive, overly class-bound, or unfeeling, and yet the very structure of the novel supports her loyalty to the horse Philomena: we get just as much narrative from Philomena's point of view as we do from Griselda's, and the horse suffers the same kinds of war traumas as the soldiers around her: terror, boredom, nightmares, thirst, hunger, physical wounds with a lack of medical attention. She absorbs the prevalent mood, be it exhilaration at a successful rout of the enemy, or exhaustion and depression after a long, futile march. Over the course of the war her ability to form attachments to her riders erodes: by the time she is assigned to young Sage, and despite his assiduous attentions to her, she fails to reward his care with affection, or miss him when he dies in action. These are all the same kinds of symptoms that characterize shell-shock (now PTSD) in human veterans. Philomena has consciousness, intelligence and a sense of self. Not only that, but she shares several specific character traits with her former owner, including sometimes-ridiculous levels of pride, a preference for males over females, and a persistent curiosity. (Of Philomena: "To an animal that was interested (incurably) in all about her, there was much to bewilder her." Of Griselda: "She was so frightfully interested. She'd catch her breath and think, Philomena was here!") Given all this, does it really show poor priorities for Griselda to recognize Philomena's experience, Philomena's claim on her? Are the sufferings of people Griselda has never met more deserving by default, than the suffering of an animal she has known?

Because one must, at some point, choose. As Griselda discovers when she arrives in Cairo and begins to look for Philomena, even an exclusive focus on horse-kind quickly becomes completely overwhelming. There are so many horses living in squalid, abusive conditions, and as her heart begins to expand toward them she finds herself "stricken" by her inability to help them all, or even a significant number of them. At the same time, her failure to compassionate the plight of the Egyptian people, who are in the midst of the 1919 uprisings against the British and many of whom are certainly living in equally poor conditions to their horses, continues to raise questions for the reader. Add to all of this, that the men around Griselda tend to treat her with the same kind of objectifying assumptions she makes toward those of other races and classes, and the overall picture becomes an interlocking box of privilege, compassion and judgment. It is cruel to refuse humane-ness and respect to other conscious, feeling beings; but at the same time, Belben suggests, it is near-impossible to avoid screening someone out—in any set of priorities, someone is at the bottom. To reject priorities completely, to fully assimilate every detail of suffering around one, suggests madness, or at least social transgression (is there always a difference?):

Nevertheless, it wasn't natural to "see." This whipping round at every sound of hoofs, casting one's eyes hungrily, for it was impossible to take everything in at a glance, and she felt more like Amabel, who took ages to drink in every snake or monkey...and being attentive always...It wasn't normal behavior.

So, although Our Horses in Egypt was not always the most welcoming text, I'm glad I stuck with it. There's a lot to unpack here, especially being, myself, a person who often relates more readily to animals than to other humans. Belben has me asking myself whether this means I am soft-hearted, hard-hearted, or just...differently-hearted.


Our Horses in Egypt was the February selection for the Wolves reading group. Apologies that other commitments led to a delay in our posting schedule! Please do join us for Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral; discussion begins Friday, March 25.

Sugar Street


After having explored the angst of patriarchy and that of unrequited love, Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, in its third volume Sugar Street, moves on to the angst of the existential. No one is happy and no one is wise in the al Jawad and Shawkat families as the economic depression of the late 1930s leads into the Second World War; Egypt has modernized, yet in many ways the revolution has stalled. The characters may no longer be under the strict tyrannical thumb of the family patriarch or the British colonizer, but neither do they have a clear sense of direction themselves. Their lives trickle away as their former oppressors linger on, becoming ever more decrepit and obsolete.

Unfortunately, no matter what kind of angst Mahfouz grants to the al Jawad family, I remain less than enthralled. The angst of patriarchy, explored in Palace Walk, was the most engaging for me personally (possibly because the most foreign to my own experience, possibly because most vividly evoked), but with the focus on Kamal's lovesickness in Palace of Desire and his endless existential indecisiveness in Sugar Street, I couldn't help losing patience. Where, in the Cairo Trilogy, is the insight and depth one would expect of a 1000+ page work? Where is the stylistic accomplishment? I just don't see it.

Which is unfortunate, because there is so much here that holds the potential for a great read: the modernization of a country over time; the interplay of the political and the personal in a time of revolution; the changing gender dynamics of twentieth-century Egypt; the politicization/radicalization of Islam in the 1930s and 40s. And indeed we do glimpse all these themes throughout Mahfouz's trilogy, but in a way that never ceases to seem, in my mind, somehow introductory or superficial. Mahfouz's love of introductions can't be denied: in Palace Walk, the first 200 pages consist almost entirely of character introductions, in which the author tells us all about the players' various physical and moral characteristics rather than demonstrating them through action. Even when action finally arrives, it is sufficiently episodic (especially in the later books) that one feels one is essentially being presented with a sketch of a potential narrative, rather than ever feeling what said action might be like in the moment. It's almost as if someone is telling you about a novel, rather than reading the actual novel itself. Mahfouz re-introduces all the characters at the beginning of the two subsequent books, and by the time he reaches Sugar Street the action is SO episodic that months and even years may pass between chapters, necessitating the repetition of all those physical and emotional descriptions all over again at frequent intervals throughout the novel.

On the other hand, the few times I truly felt immersed in a character's mental or emotional landscape, I perversely wished myself away again. Kamal's endless indecision about whether or not to get married, for example—I'm sure that Mahfouz is attempting to make some kind of Henry James-style statement about how Kamal's preoccupation with philosophy and his overly analytical nature are trapping him into a life of non-action, but Sugar Street is no Beast in the Jungle1: rather than plumbing the depths of Kamal's psyche or confronting the reader with the ruins of his wasted life, Kamal's sections here resemble more the experience of hanging out repeatedly with an extremely whiny friend who delivers the same self-pitying diatribe every time one takes him out for a beer. Not only that, but Mahfouz's style (or the style of William Maynard Hutchins's translation) fails to add much humor or aesthetic pleasure to the characters' neuroses:

Kamal went around in circles while the whole world advanced. He kept asking himself, "Are you going to get married or not?" Life seemed to offer nothing but gloomy confusion. His opportunity was neither ideal nor worthless. Love was difficult. It was characterized by controversy and suffering. If only she would marry someone else so he could free himself from this confusion and torment.

I mean, I can understand struggling with angst because one's father is a near-schizophrenic tyrant who never stops yelling at one, but come on: "Love was difficult"? Who ever said that it wouldn't be? What a stellar reason for life-long paralysis.

All this venting aside, there were a few interesting aspects to Sugar Street. I appreciated that Yasin, late in life, grew a sense of humor and became prone to saying things like "We're a religious family. Yes, we're dissolute inebriates, but we all plan to repent eventually." I found the storyline concerning al-Jawad grandson Ridwan interesting to the point where I wished he would be given his own novel, full of ambitious young gay Egyptian politicos doing their sexy turncoat thing. Ahmad and Sawsan and their naive yet refreshingly active and companionable life as Communist activists were also intriguing. And I was interested in the tendency, as Egyptian society becomes marginally less oppressive, for nearly all the characters to wax nostalgic about how far things have declined from its former glories: even Amina takes time to reminisce about the good old times when she was confined to the house on pain of eviction. Those were the days! Simultaneously, both Kamal and Yasin chastise themselves for their failure to measure up to their father, who, they imagine, was drinking and whoring from his heart, whereas they're just doing it to kill time:

Jalila's lover had been a passionate and impetuous man with a heart untroubled by qualms. What was Kamal compared to that man? Even when he visited the brothel each Thursday, only alcohol could release him from his worries long enough for him to enjoy "love" here.

So there you go, mums and dads: be sure to engage in your brothel-patronage with both buttocks, as Montaigne would say, if you want to win the respect of your offspring. In all seriousness, given that the al-Jawad père we saw as readers hardly possessed the "heart untroubled by qualms" imagined by his son, this passage does comment interestingly on how the compulsive dishonesty of the al-Jawad family leads to false impressions that haunt its members for the rest of their lives. Not interestingly enough, though, for me to mourn the end of Sugar Street and the Cairo Trilogy as a whole.


1That's right, I'm comparing a book to a Henry James novella, and the James is winning out. Those who know my feelings on Henry James will appreciate how uncomplimentary this is. Although the thing is: I can appreciate that James is an accomplished artist, albeit one whose work I don't enjoy. Whereas I honestly don't understand the source of the Nobel Prize Committee's admiration for Mahfouz's art.


Despite my snide comments, thanks are due to Richard for organizing this readalong. You are a sport, friend!

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography