In the bleakest days of the year, I read Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook, about twin brothers living in a Hungarian village with their grandmother during the war. They orient themselves in the world with a bizarre and unflinching ethics which, for its very fairness, seems immoral. I read it one afternoon standing against the radiator for warmth, and I was so ashamed by it—its cruel humanity, its truth—that I could not bear to underline any of its passages.
The weather grew milder. It rained for weeks. In days of sunshine people looked confused, wearing summer clothes, hats and scarves; pale and clammy as if gripped by a rising and dropping fever. I was reading Yūko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a feverish book of breathtaking beauty, about a single mother and her young daughter living in a light filled apartment for a year.
Later, when it became certain that trees would have leaves again and that the sun was to be trusted, there was the desire to emerge fully from the fever, to sort and sweep and put things in order. I read Natalia Ginzburg’s essays The Little Virtues and her novel Family Lexicon with their simple language close to prophecy, without exaggeration or ornament. The honesty of Ginzburg’s writing is a shock; a human standing naked and speaking loud.
Later still, when heat replaced thought, I spent days sitting at a table, shutters closed, not stepping out until the evening. I was writing a book; I watched with daily frustration as my characters spoke in contradictions and clichés, wading in the dim tangle of my mind. How did anyone tell a story, I wondered, from start to finish, clean as a bow?
One morning, shutters closed, I read Fred Uhlman’s Reunion about the friendship between the son of a Jewish doctor and an aristocrat at the rise of the Nazi regime. As if to defy its impossible subject, it’s told in the simplest way and is the length of a short morning, leading to stifling afternoon: The two boys share an intimate friendship with its own rules and logic, the world seeps in, their friendship ends.
What did it mean, today, to tell a simple story of impossible times? I’d read that in Norway, the artist Katie Paterson was collecting manuscripts—of Margaret Atwood, Han Kang—for a library of the future whose works would not to be read until a hundred years later when the trees to house their building had grown. But what would those books even mean to humans of that period, if those trees managed to grow, if humans still read, if there were still humans around?
I was reading the Arabic scholar James Montgomery’s Loss Sings. His translations of seventh-century laments of the Arabian poet al-Khansā’ are interspersed with his journal notes throughout one year, chronicling his thoughts about translation and trauma, in the aftermath of an accident that leaves his son with “life changing injuries.” Fourteen hundred years after their composition, the poems offer solace and take on new meaning for their translator. This tiny book, and the intimacy of literature spanning centuries, gave me hope.
The summer crawled back. The smell of a new season emerged. Mornings, the light was bright and frail. There was the desire to be out, to explore, to connect the world in a web of thoughts. In Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden, the writer is constructing a profile of the actress and filmmaker Barbara Loden through a scene-by-scene retelling of Loden’s film Wanda alongside Léger’s personal history and research process. Early on in the book, the documentarian Frederic Wiseman tells Léger to make up whatever she doesn’t know. Then, the narrative continues. It’s a biography, an autobiography, a work of fiction. When I finished reading it, I wanted immediately to sit down and write a book, full of thoughts and life and imagination.
In an exhibition across the city, Tomás Saraceno had brought different species of spiders to weave three dimensional webs, taking off from one another, extending and shifting the others’ logic. His works contained vibrations of arachnids, the sounds of dust particles, air currents drawn on paper with pollution-produced ink. Invisible forms revealed galaxies in the smallest patches of air.
In my neighborhood, the nine plane trees lining the boulevard were roped and nailed with a sign of their upcoming maintenance. The climate report outlined the natural catastrophes that would unravel with increasing urgency, the life forms disappearing daily, the time left to us.
And what did it mean, still, to write and read, to give form to our thoughts and shape them into works?
In the days approaching the bleakest of the year, I read anthropologist Eduardo Kohn’s masterpiece of ethnography and hope, How Forests Think. Through his fieldwork with the Runa in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon, Kohn proposes moving anthropology beyond the framework of the human to include all life, offering ways in which we may begin to see the world as enchanted once again, with its loci of thoughts—human, animal, plant— in a multitude of patterns and forms. “My own ethnographic meditation has been an attempt to liberate our thinking,” Kohn writes. “It has been an attempt to step out, for a moment, of our doubt-ridden human housing to open ourselves to those wild living thoughts beyond the human.”
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