Essays

When the Beasts Spoke: Thoreau and the Sound of America

If I could teleport myself to any moment in American literary history, I would set my controls for the crisp fall day in November 1856 when Henry David Thoreau met Walt Whitman at Whitman’s family home a few blocks from the Brooklyn Naval Yard. The year before, Whitman had published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and sent a copy to Thoreau’s mentor, the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson responded with a glowing fan letter, saying, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Whitman, being Whitman, slapped the great man’s words on the spine of the second edition of his poems, simultaneously pissing off the Sage of Concord and pioneering the book blurb. This was the context of Thoreau’s meeting with Whitman on November 10, 1856. As we learn in Laura Dassow Walls’s excellent new biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life, when Thoreau was in his early 20s, Emerson had anointed him as the next great American poet, showering Thoreau with praise and helping him get his poems published. Now 39, Thoreau had long ago given up poetry for essays, but he wanted to meet Emerson’s latest enthusiasm for himself. Things got off to a rough start when Whitman declared, in his casually messianic way, that he represented America and Thoreau responded that he “did not think much of America or of politics & so on—which may have been somewhat of a damper to him.” Thoreau also was put off by the fact that Whitman hadn’t made his bed and left the chamber pot out for all to see. But when Whitman gave Thoreau a copy of his second edition—the one with Emerson’s blurb on the spine—Thoreau loved it, though he was troubled by its sensuality. “He does not celebrate love at all,” he wrote. “It is as if the beasts spoke.” It is a testament to the power of Walls’s biography, which is on a fast track to definitive status, that she pushes the reader look beyond the obvious Puritan squeamishness of this observation to see how, for a man like Thoreau, who spent his happiest hours tramping in the woods feeding his hunger for contact with raw nature, a poet’s ability to channel the beasts of the field could also be seen as a rare gift. But the connection between the two men went deeper than that. Whitman was lusty and brash where Thoreau was solitary and contemplative, but in many ways they had led similar lives. Both threw over conventional careers, Whitman as a newspaper editor, Thoreau as a Harvard-educated school teacher, to focus on their writing, much of which they ended up publishing themselves. More than anything, though, they were alike in their indifference to their differentness. Whitman, bohemian and essentially jobless, spent whole days riding the omnibus up and down Broadway declaiming Homer at the top of his lungs. Thoreau had lived for two years in a house he built himself near Walden Pond where he wrote essays, planted beans, and spent weeks in the dead of winter obsessively measuring the pond’s width, length, and depth. So it’s hardly surprising that when he returned home from his visit to Brooklyn, Thoreau carried his copy of Leaves of Grass, in Emerson’s words, “like a red flag, defiantly.” Thoreau heard in Whitman’s poetry what he was striving to capture in his own work: a true, unadorned American voice. “Though rude & sometimes ineffectual,” he wrote of Whitman’s book, “it is a great primitive poem—an alarum or trumpet-note ringing through the American camp.” It is a commonplace of writing workshops that writers must first “find their voice,” but today’s writers have it easy, needing only to find a voice authentic to themselves as individuals. The task was trickier for American writers of Thoreau and Whitman’s generation, who came of age in the early 19th century. Writers of the so-called American Renaissance of the 1850s, which include Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, along with Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, had to locate within themselves a voice authentic not only to them personally, but to an entire nation. For writers like Thoreau and Whitman, both born in the 1810s, the American Revolution was very much a part of living memory. But while their grandfathers had helped overthrow British tyranny, the literary world they inherited still saw British and European literature as the model for all but the most frivolous popular writing. You can hear this influence in even the work of that most distinctly American author, Edgar Allan Poe, who set many of his most famous tales in Europe, and in his poems employed a rhyme scheme and classical rhetoric (“Quoth the Raven,” etc.) wholly foreign to the American ear. In his 1844 essay “The Poet,” Emerson called on American writers to cast off shopworn tropes of the past and strive to capture the spirit of their raw, still-forming nation. Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boats, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres. Whitman heard a version of this essay as a lecture in Brooklyn, and Leaves of Grass was in many ways an answer to Emerson’s call. But so, too, was Thoreau’s Walden and Melville’s sea tales and Hawthorne’s Puritan-era romances and Emily Dickinson’s verses. To an uncanny degree, each of these foundational American writers followed a similar path, stepping off the conventional career track early in their lives to draw inward and look more directly at the world. Whitman quit newspaper work and spent years bumming around New York, taking odd jobs and declaiming poetry on city buses. Melville put out to sea and lived among the natives of the Marquesas Islands. Hawthorne spent 12 reclusive years in his parents’ home studying colonial history and writing fiction. Dickinson, who came along a few years later, retreated into her parents’ home, where she spent much of the next four decades scribbling poems on scraps of paper. And of course, Thoreau built a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond with enough room for a bed and a desk and three chairs—“one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society.” One of the pleasures of Walls’s Thoreau is seeing how Thoreau’s stubborn refusal to lead an ordinary life turned a bright, but otherwise rather ordinary young man into a great and original artist. The story of Thoreau quitting his first teaching job because he wouldn’t strike his students is the stuff of legend. Less well known is his long, largely unsuccessful struggle to carve out a more conventional career as a writer. For a time, Thoreau wrote poetry while helping out in his family’s pencil business and, later, launching a small private school with his brother John. When that school folded, Thoreau moved to Staten Island where he tutored the son of Emerson’s brother and tried to break into the bustling New York literary market. Thoreau’s year and a half in Staten Island, the longest he ever lived away from Concord after college, was a slow-moving disaster. “I have not set my traps, yet, but I am getting the bait ready,” he wrote home in a letter shortly after he arrived in New York. But just four months later, he had to admit that “my bait will not tempt the rats; they are too well fed.” To Emerson, he joked ruefully, “Only the Ladies Companion pays…but I could not write anything companionable.” This was the Thoreau who went into the woods, a 20-something Harvard grad who had tried teaching, tutoring, tinkering, and freelance writing, and ended up back where he began, in his hometown helping out in his parents’ pencil business. But he wasn’t a failure, exactly. By the time he moved to Walden Pond, on July 4, 1845, he had gathered an impressive array of literary benefactors, including Emerson, Hawthorne, and Horace Greeley, the founder and editor of the New-York Tribune, who served as an informal literary agent for Thoreau the rest of his life. Perhaps more importantly, Thoreau had hit on a successful working method. It began with daily immersion in nature, mostly through walking, which Thoreau did the way other people read the news, and with much the same purpose. He walked everywhere, and everywhere he walked he noticed: What wildflowers were out? On what date had the pond iced over? Why was it that when a farmer cut down a pine forest oak saplings sprouted, but when an oak forest was cut down pine saplings sprung up? He recorded these observations and questions in his journal, which he had started, at Emerson’s urging, shortly after he finished college and continued until he could literally no longer hold a pen, amassing some two million words. He shaped this raw material into essays, which he tested out in lectures he delivered to his neighbors in Concord as well as to audiences across New England. The best of these lectures he reshaped yet again into articles or book chapters, which he then published. The cabin at Walden was crucial to all this, putting him in close, daily contact with his principal subject—nature—while giving him a rent-free “room of his own” where he could transform the raw data of his journal entries into lectures and essays, and, after yet another round of sifting and shaping, into books. At the same time, as Walls puts it, Thoreau’s “two years, two months, and two days living at Walden Pond became and would forever remain an iconic work of performance art”—one which, when boiled down to a single, lightly fictionalized year, gave him the narrative spine for his most famous book. In his short time at the pond, Walls notes, Thoreau began work on the great bulk of the material he is famous for today, including a first draft of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a nearly finished draft of Walden, and a rough draft of his essay “Ktaadn,” about his first visit to Mt. Ktaadn, which would figure in his posthumously published book The Maine Woods. The flailing young New York freelancer who couldn’t dream up anything companionable enough for The Lady’s Companion had found his voice. That voice, by turns cocky and self-serious, erudite and homespun, spiritual and blasphemous, rings out from every page of Walden: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” “Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.” It’s there, too, in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”—“I cock my hat as I please indoors or out”—and in the iconic opening line of Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” From there, the American sound changed and grew as the country itself grew. The writers of this first American Renaissance were all white men from the Northeast. As the nation spread westward, writers like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce added a tart dose of western humor to American literature and Southern writers like William Faulkner pulled and stretched the English language like taffy. Women writers like Edith Wharton and Willa Cather joined the choir, as did black writers of the Harlem Renaissance like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Each generation since — the great Jewish novelists of the 1950s, the Black Arts Movement poets of the 1960s, the Dirty Realists of the 1980s — has shaped and refined how America sounds to the world, but that distinctly American voice, now so familiar we only hear it when a writer finds a new way to use it, can be traced directly back to Thoreau and Whitman and the other writers of the 1850s, who broke away from their European influences and created a truly American literature. What’s interesting is how they found it. The writers of the American Renaissance were extraordinarily well-read, but they arrived at their unique sound not principally through reading, but through deep immersion in the world. To one degree or another, they each stopped what they were doing and listened, and what they heard coming back was the sound of a new country.
Essays

Revising the History of the Art Show Urinal

The mind is a terrible thing, easily manipulated, blinkered, and pulled in a particular direction. History is no help; recounting the events of brave or stupid people doing brave or stupid things makes us mad and self-righteous, but we are resistant to deviations from our preferred way of reading the past. Even after we’ve figured out history—or think we’ve figured it out—it seems impossible for everyone else to get the narrative right. So maybe we should be getting all geared up for this “future” about which everyone’s talking. Thanks to tech geniuses and the intellectuals they love to promote, we can expect great things for our flawed minds: expanded memory, a more rigorous use of the synapses, and ideas uploaded directly to the brain with no worry about the consequences. Consider Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, wherein a torrent of anecdotes serves to refashion humanity into data processing machines, with god-status just around the corner. The downsides involve the coming inequality in pure physical and cognitive ability between the rich and poor, which will only exacerbate their material divide. This isn’t evidently much of a downside for Harari fans like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, both richer than God Himself. Harari’s future, bright for those at the top, is countered in a recent book of creative revisionism: John Higgs’s Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century. The book uses the concept of the omphalos, a religious and symbolic navel, or center, of the universe (think Delphi to the ancient Greeks or Graceland to Elvis fans), to discuss how the 20th century radically changed the way we think and act. The West’s omphaloi, once Church, Empire, and Victorian Tradition, are now things like the Universe, Democracy, and the Self. These books differ in their respective outlooks—Higgs tells us about a past that’s set us up for failure, whereas Harari relays an exciting, godlike future—but they both have one thing in common: they refer to the story of Marcel Duchamp’s "Fountain," the symbolic, radical departure for the art world. How does Harari recount it? In 1917, Marcel Duchamp took an ordinary mass-produced urinal, named it Fountain, signed his name at the bottom, declared it a work of art and placed it in a Paris museum. It’s a short statement rife with inaccuracies. It’s probably how Harari remembered the story before dashing it off; it’s probably how his editors remembered it, never considering to quickly glance at a reliable source for basic validation; and it’s probably how many of his eager readers remember it, too, among them ambitious billionaires quickly gaining the abilities to literally shape our minds. But that’s not how the story goes. Duchamp, a Frenchman who decamped to America during World War I, submitted "Fountain" to an art show in New York (not Paris); he signed a name (R. Mutt), not his name on the piece; and he didn’t place it anywhere—this wasn’t some proto-Banksy stunt. It was rejected from an art show, despite the show’s rule that any submissions would be accepted and the fact that Duchamp himself was on the board of the society throwing the show. The original piece was then lost, tossed out with the garbage. Duchamp also didn’t create a new American movement overnight. A magazine snapshot, some ardent Dadaist clamoring, and a new generation of artists in the '50s and '60s turned it into a groundbreaking work of art. The story surrounding Duchamp’s piece is what gave it its radical heft, but this story still makes it Duchamp’s piece. More transgressive to the modernist narrative, but probably more correct, is Higgs’s version of the story: Duchamp’s most famous readymade [an everyday object presented as a piece of art] was called 'Fountain.' It was a urinal, which was turned on its side and submitted to a 1917 exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists, New York, under the name of a fictitious artist called Richard Mutt. The exhibition was aimed to display every work of art that was submitted, so by sending them a urinal Duchamp was challenging them to agree that it was a work of art. This they declined to do. What happened to it is unclear, but it was not included in the show and it seems likely that it was thrown away in the trash. Duchamp resigned from the board in protest, and 'Fountain''s rejection overshadowed the rest of the exhibition. This seems to line up with what actually happened. But Higgs continues to expound upon the background to 'Fountain:' he concludes that it probably wasn’t even Duchamp’s work. A Bohemian by the name of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven probably sent it to her friend Duchamp, who then took credit for the work. A letter Duchamp sent to his sister, Suzanne, seems to back this version of events: “One of my female friends, who had adopted the male pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture." Let it also be said that Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was amazing, and it’s almost criminal how she’s been left out of the Dadaist story. Even if she wasn’t, indeed, the real Fountainhead, she seemed to live the movement to a far greater degree than Duchamp ever did. An actual baroness by marriage, she was a performance artist, poet, friend, and subject of artists like Duchamp and Man Ray, with a penchant for scatological humor and creating art out of rubbish (which may mean the person responsible for tossing 'Fountain' wasn’t far off the mark). Duchamp was a forward-thinker, sure. He recognized 'Fountain' as part of what Higgs’s refers to as modernity’s “persistent attempts to destroy frames of reference,” in line with the omphalos-shifting revolutions of World War I, popular democracy, and Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But he also, maybe, knew he could get away with taking credit for history; he knew how people like Harari would casually refer to his version of events as a service of some higher human goal. It wasn’t even the piece, in and of itself, that was groundbreaking—it was the narrative pushed to popularize it. Freytag-Loringhoven was the truer Dadaist, but Duchamp the better marketer. The way Harari tells of 'Fountain' fits exactly into the narrative Homo Deus parlays: modernist liberalism—along with the smashing of the omphalos and the new focus on subjective experiences and definitions—invaded our conscious as quickly as one nation invades another. A cursory look at Google can prove Harari’s account isn’t accurate, but what’s worse is the tone. It’s glib. It’s right in line with how things should be in Harari’s human histories. We just did dumb things, like organize as a society, until a wise person broke our routine. Eventually, a smart person will break our brains, and all for the better. Higgs isn’t so sure. Yes, the omphalos was shattered by modernism, not unlike Harari’s version of events, but what makes the narrative messier is the power structure. It’s this structure that elevates Duchamp, all the while forgetting the woman who most likely made the piece. Forgetting that he admitted that a woman made it in the first place. Harari is kind of like Duchamp, in that he’s an educated charlatan selling a particular fantasy. It’s no wonder that wealthy icons like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg signaled his first book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, as a favorite: it ends with man becoming God through the power of technology, a theme continued in his sequel. Our minds will be enhanced with their technology, and we will accept it as simply as the war-battered Parisian public accepted Duchamp’s 'Fountain.' But how will we get our stories straight when the powers that be won’t do it for us? If Harari were left in charge of uploading the bit about Duchamp into my new, improved God-Man brain (should I be able to afford such a luxury), there wouldn’t be any mention of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Even if popular history is correct and Duchamp did make the piece, there still wouldn’t be any nuance to 'Fountain''s history, no what-could-have-beens, no debate about its real creators, thinkers, and influencers. A radical piece of art would be turned into an explanation for why we love social media, and why our brains are nothing more than computers that need to be upgraded, enhanced and molded. It almost feels like we’re in a race between technology and the fair narrative. As the focus changes, and marginalized people take control their own stories, it’s possible we’ll see a change in the tenor of popular history. The stories of marginalized won’t be seen as “revisionist” history, but simply as history. That is, if they can beat Silicon Valley to our brains. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

Listen My Dear Alones: Notes on Gina Berriault’s ‘Women in Their Beds’

This is an excerpt of an introduction that will appear in a forthcoming re-issue of Women in Their Beds by Gina Berriault from Counterpoint.
 © 2017 by Peter Orner 
 I feel a little like Burley, the hack in Gina Berriault’s own “God and the Article Writer.” Things aren’t going well for Burley. His son has threatened to kill him. His wife left him and took all the furniture. Even so a writer’s got to make a living. Burley goes out an assignment up in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. After interviewing the eccentric physicist, a winner of the Nobel Prize, a man who has just told him absolutely nothing about physics, and everything about his sudden belief in the existence of God—Burley drives back to San Francisco, despondent, knowing that at least in terms of his article, he’s got zilch. At the first stop sign he tore off his coat and loosened his tie, but an entanglement other than his clothes was upon him. I’m similarly entangled. My affection for Women in Their Beds being unabashed and unprofessional, the self-inflicted pressure to say something cogent about it has begun to ruin my days. I wake up in the morning and reach for this book and re-read another story and I think: What else is there to say? She makes my pulse quicken. Any attempt to say anything more is bound to sound ham-handed—or worse. This is a writer who never lards a sentence with an unnecessary word. The only proper response to Women in Their Beds is hushed awe. It is often said of Gina Berriault that she is chronically under-read. With the zeal of a crazed convert, I’ve been hollering about this myself for years, since the day I bought a copy of the old North Point edition of The Infinite Passion of Expectation in a used bookstore in Iowa City in the late 1990s. (I was late to her.) The red cover has long since faded to the lightest pink. Glib John Updike is feted to the grave while people ask Gina who? It’s criminal. It’s the East Coast hegemony in action. If she wrote about Park Slope, you think she wouldn’t have been rediscovered 18 times over already? But here’s the thing. This crowing about her lack of readership is just noise. Berriault has always had enough readers, a small, motley band of loyalists who couldn’t imagine their lives without her stories. But the tyranny of numbers dies hard. As Berriault herself said in a eulogy upon the death of Richard Yates, a writer she referred to as her guardian angel, writers often can’t help doing the math. It’s that making a living thing again. Publishers have to keep the lights on, too. Yates (who died destitute) must have sometimes succumbed, Berriault says, to “the delusion that it’s the counting that counts, all that noisy counting that seems to sum up the value of a writer.” In the end though Yates came to what she calls “a wise comprehension of the madness of crowds.” Berriault, too must have known that good work, the best work, may not always pay the bills, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, it outlasts the counting. I believe that no matter how many readers this book ultimately finds, these stories will always retain a fierce outsider quality. They speak from the fringes. They reject, wholeheartedly, the madness of crowds. I’ve always considered them almost private conversations meant only for certain open hearts. I don’t mean to sound elitist here. On the contrary. You’ll find no less elitist writer than Gina Berriault. These stories are for the lonely, the ignored, the isolated, the broken-hearted, the over-worked, as well as anybody else who hasn’t figured it all out yet and probably might never will. These are also stories for the Burleys of the world who remain, in spite of every obstacle, every degradation, every humiliation, resilient, who look at their own bare toes and say like Beckett, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. Except with Beckett, it seems to me, it’s comes down to a stubborn human inertia. With Berriault, it’s more affirmative, as if she can’t help but give witness to ordinary splendor poking out the crevices of a broken world. This book, originally published in 1996, in is one of the seminal collections of North American short fiction of the latter half of the 20th century. Place these 35 stories of imperceptibly delicate force on the shelf with the big red book of stories by Cheever. Put it up there with your Welty. Your O’Connor. Your Baldwin. Your Jane Bowles. Your Paley, Malamud, Gallant, Carver. Your Dubus. Your Munro. And when you’re not reading it, nestle Women in Their Beds right there next to the stories of her angel, Richard Yates. Both writers, born in a month apart in the same year, depict the devastating anxieties of their generation, financially and otherwise. But there’s something inherent in Berriualt’s work that rejects such trumpeting and comparing. Berriault, raised in southern California by Jewish immigrant parents from the Baltics, inhabits people from all backgrounds, any social or economic status, ethnicity, or race. She does it so seamlessly that the last thing a reader notices is that the writer has captured the essence of someone who might be unlike herself. We are too busy being concerned for the person on the page. She is primarily concerned with people—often women but by no means exclusively—on their own, struggling not only with the problem of making a living, but also the problem of making a better life. In Berriault’s work the two are never the same. The paycheck, critical as it is, is not the better life. That shiny promise ahead is out there, just beyond the grasp. Her people can almost see it on the horizon, they can even feel it’s heat, but they can’t quite reach it. I think of the waitress and the elderly phycologist in “The Infinite Passion of Expectation.” Since she always looked downward in her own surroundings, avoiding the scene that might be all there was to her future, she could not look upward in his surroundings, resisting its dazzling diminishment of her. But out on these walks with him she tried looking up. It was what she had come to him for—that he might reveal to her how to look up and around. What he reveals to her, unfortunately, is that no matter how many text books he’s written, he’s a foolish cad, willing to use his eminence, his erudition, at the first opportune moment to manipulate her into bed with him. In lesser hands that would be the whole story. But Berriault finds a way to redeem those who deserve it least. This isn’t because she’s soft, and make no mistake these “quiet” stories are often brutal. God knows how many times I’ve read “The Infinite Passion of Expectation,” and every time I reach the end I’m floored, once again, by how the unnamed waitress crushes the psychologist with generosity. She gives him back the nobility he so flippantly squandered while simultaneously delivering the blow of ultimate judgment. After meeting him for the first time in over a year she sees that he’s withdrawn back into “his life’s expectations.” They were way inside, and they required, now, no other person for their fulfillment. Re-reading these stories the past few months, I was reminded of something Harold Washington, the first black mayor of the city of Chicago, my home town, once said. Washington, who was elected in 1983 after one of the most contentious, racist, and despicable elections (I was naïve enough to think it was a low point we Americans would never return to) in our city’s history, declared: “No one, but no one in this city, no matter where they live, or how they live, is free from the fairness of our administration. We'll find you and be fair to you wherever you are.” It’s a gracious, funny line. But Washington wasn’t entirely kidding. It’s why his election was so alarming to the white power structure of the city. Make good on the promise to be fair to everybody? What would this even look like? In fiction, given that Berriault’s unshakeable faith in dignity and social justice is infused on nearly every page of her work, it might well look like Women in Their Beds. Washington’s line is also something of a threat. We’ll find you…I can’t help but see Berriault in this light as well. Again, genial as she often appears to be, no character is safe from her probing, intense, fair gaze, and this includes those who likely would never have wanted to be found in the first place. I think of Eli in “The Overcoat,” Berriault’s homage to Gogol, as he makes his way back to Seattle to seek out his parents. Old when they had him, they’re even older now. And they’ve long since gone their separate ways. He’s waited 16 years to return home. It’s almost too late. Eli’s a junkie, needle scars on his arms, and so thin he’s wasting away beneath his big coat. After spending the night on a bunk in his father’s fishing boat, he finds his demented mother in a nursing home. When he comes upon her she’s combing her hair with a scrap of comb she’s just taken out of her pocket. “Mother, I’m Eli,” he said. “Eli, your only child.” “You’re right about that,” she said. “Had one and that was it. Well, no. Had another but lost it in the womb. Fell down or was pushed. Things come and go. I figure they go more often than they come. Not much came my way but I lost more than I had. If you see what I mean.” “Mother, I wish I’d stayed around,” he said. “I wouldn’t let him hurt you anymore.” “Who hurt me?” “Dad did.” “Oh, him? Once in a blue moon I get a postcard. One time he visited but I was ashamed of him. He walks like an old dog with something wrong in his hind end.” I’ve read a critical appraisal of Berriault that describes her work as belonging squarely to the “American realist movement.” I’ll try and be polite. This is a curious academic simplification. As if this tribe of “realists” all employ a formulaic, replicable pattern. As if the psychological complexity of being human is merely transcribable.  As if observing and taking into account the myriad strange ways we people relate to each other isn’t itself a supreme creative act involving an infinite number of creative choices. You’d have thought Chekhov, Berriault’s constant companion (she kept a picture of him on her bookshelf), would have freed us of this stuff long ago. If Berriault’s stories are rooted firmly on the ground this doesn’t mean they don’t distill, as few I know of, the bizarre, routinely inexplicable nature of every day existence. Take “The Stone Boy,” arguably Berriault’s most well-known story, one that was made into a pretty good movie starring Glenn Close and Robert Duvall. But the film, predictably, fails to capture the obscure mysteries of the story. On a farm in an unspecified time and place, a boy, Arnold, accidentally shoots his brother while the two of them are stepping through a gap in a fence. Arnold, seeing his brother has died, continues on his way to pick peas. It’s only later after his parents ask: Where’s your brother? that the truth comes out. When the local sheriff asks why he didn’t run to his parents right away, Arnold answers: “It’s better to pick peas when it’s cold.” The sheriff responds to his father and his uncle: “Well, all I can say he’s either a moron or he’s so reasonable that he’s way ahead of us.” As a meditation on the bewilderment of grief, the story is bottomless. Arnold will always be standing outside his mother’s bedroom, forever unable to explain himself. For me, no story, not even the magnificent story that bears the title, embodies the impossible contradictions of this phrase more than “Stolen Pleasures,” one of the set of new stories in Women in Their Beds. The book divides, as I understand it, between the first 10 “new” stories and the later 25 “selected” stories, all of which had previously appeared in book form in both The Mistress and Other Stories (1964) and The Infinite Passion of Expectation (1982). I bring this up because it may help a reader gain some insight into how Berriault’s story writing style evolved from the time of her early stories dating back to the early 1960s such as “The Bystander,” (The Paris Review, 1960) and “The Mistress,” (Esquire, 1964) through the 1970s and early 1980s compared to the 14-year period between the publication of The Infinite Passion of Expectation and Women in Their Beds.[1] I contend that in the set of 10 post-1982 stories, and in particular, “Stolen Pleasures,” the risks she’d always been willing to take, with compression, with time, with transitions, become even more audacious. Re-reading “Stolen Pleasures” this morning I was struck by how the story simply shouldn’t work. A novel maybe, but a story? Its scope appears, at first, too vast. There’s the story of the two sisters, Delia and Fleur, as well as the story of their mother’s rare "stolen moments" of pleasure. There’s also the story of their father’s ignominious birth. The prose, when compared to earlier stories, feels indirect, meandering. Things don’t connect. The transitions read like private murmurs only the writer herself could understand. But thank god it isn’t a novel. Not that Berriault didn’t write very good novels, she did (notably, my favorite, The Lights of the Earth) but it is in the short story she roams places no one else roams. And now we are moving far beyond demographics, as well as any technical craft choices, and into the darkest realms of the heart. In “Stolen Pleasures,” a story that roams in possibly the most difficult territory of all, the space close to home, there are autobiographical glimpses that speak to deep personal anguish. The story seems both an indictment and a defense. By taking responsibility for so much weight of the past, so many different threads of her family’s story, Delia tries to make amends to those she’s loved and lost. Years earlier, Delia left home leaving her sister Fleur to care for their blind mother. As a consequence, Fleur’s own expectations were thwarted. After their mother’s death, Fleur comes to live with Delia and ultimately confronts her: “When you stayed out all night, Mama said terrible things were going to happen to you. She never slept. Nights were like nightmares for me. I told you but you didn’t care. Then you left me alone with her forever when you came here.” Then Fleur turned away. She had so much to say it could only be said a little at a time. The paragraph that follows is of nearly unendurable honesty. I won’t quote it. The two sisters are lying in twin beds in Delia’s room. Suffice it to say that Delia tells her sleeping sister things she could never say to her face. Things can she hardly tell herself. No, she didn’t lead the life they thought she was leading. And no, her life didn’t turn out how she thought it would. The fact is she’s always felt exiled from the music of other people’s lives. Still, her life was her own and no one else’s. Fleur will never hear her, but we do. Delia, in the darkness, listens to her sister breathing. This is Berriault. The mercy is hard-won and incomplete, but never, ever, false. [1] A scholar/writer/reader might delve into a further study of the comparison between the new and selected stories, as well as the fascinating, subtle revisions Berriault made in “The Mistress” and “The Bystander,” both of which were slightly revised at least three times after their initial magazine publications. Thank you to Megan Staffel for pointing the existence of the revisions out to me. Jane Vandenburgh also discusses Berriault’s tendency to keep revising in her graceful foreword to Berriault’s Stolen Pleasures, a volume of selected stories (2011).
Essays

I Don’t Love You, Toronto: On Books and Cities

The first time I saw the apartment building that I live in, my heart crumpled. I was moving in with my partner, D. We’d fallen in love in my hometown, Kathmandu, and had kept up a long-distance relationship after he moved to the U.S. Then he’d moved to his hometown, Toronto, to be close to his children, who lived here with their mother. We decided I’d move, too, and we’d set up together. I didn’t know Toronto, and its name evoked nothing, though my family had lived in Ottawa when I was a child, and I had fond Kodachrome memories of snow and sunshine and the Rideau Canal. When I landed in Toronto, at Pearson Airport, I noted with bemusement how very flat the surroundings were. D assured me that I’d like the city, but when we turned off at Allen Road and drove up to our building, the sheer ugliness of that pile of brick-and-mortar shook me. D had rented an apartment here for its proximity to his children. A decade on, we’re still in this building, a low-budget rental in a stretch of other low-budget rentals on Bathurst Street, which stretches north from Lake Ontario through the entire length of Toronto, ending in the farmlands of Holland Marsh, 57 kilometers away. I find it helpful to remember that Ernest Hemingway and Northrop Frye once lived in our neighborhood, since there’s nothing to say about our building. Built in the 1930s, it is squat, with not a single folly or flourish. Whoever painted the doors and windows didn’t bother to use masking tape. The windows are grimy with age. The backyard is cluttered with the lawn furniture of tenants past. Inside our apartment, the paint is chipping, the caulking is cracked, and all the fixtures are shoddy. The building has always struck me as a teardown, best suited to young, transient populations, such as students; yet everyone who lives here has, like us, stayed for years, making a go of it after divorce and other family reconfigurations. I’m now fond of our building. Like Toronto, its charms were un-obvious to me at the start: they came into focus only gradually, after I learned how to look for them. I have come to value our indoor garage in the wintertime, our backyard in the summertime, and our landlord, a soft-spoken, philosophical Lubavitcher who has never once raised the rent. Our building has sheltered us from Toronto’s housing market, boosted by the city’s status as one of the most "livable" in the world. It has more than met our needs. Yet I still don’t love it, and I don’t love the city it’s in. I do, however, love D, and this love both pleases and confounds me. I had only ever had one- or two-year relationships before, and had resisted settling down—though I did, naturally enough, want love. If you are an independent Nepali woman, Kathmandu is not an easy place to meet people, not unless you want an arranged marriage with a Nepali man of the "right" caste: and then it’s all too easy. All of my relationships there had been ground down into joylessness by the inescapable Nepali imperative to marry. In my mid-30s, I’d given up on love when I met D. It can strain a relationship when one partner moves—in our case, across the world—to be with the other. The task of orienting me to Toronto fell squarely on D, who was capable enough: he is one of the few Torontonians who were also born here. (More than half this city was, like me, born abroad.) When I wasn’t going to government offices to fill out the paperwork of the newly-arrived, D showed me the sights, starting with the flamboyant Honest Ed’s, a discount shop whose founder had lavished funds on the theatre, polishing up Toronto’s image as a center of culture. Over time D took me to Kensington Market, Toronto Island, Queen Street West, the Danforth, the Beaches, the Junction, Parkdale, St. Jamestown, Roncesvalles—all the on-trend neighborhoods. So much about a city is explained by its hinterlands. On weekends we took road trips through Ontario’s rolling farmlands and small towns, and we swam in the freshwater of Georgian Bay in the summertime. In time I came to see how Toronto arose out of a patchwork-quilt of glass, concrete, asphalt, and brick, and rivers, lakes, escarpments, and glacial moraines. There are still neighborhoods in the city I’ve never been to, including Cabbagetown, whose working-class history I’ve read about in the eponymous novel by Hugh Garner. I simply haven’t had the time or a reason to go everywhere. In his book Frontier City, Shawn Micallef points out that Toronto is more Los Angeles than New York: it sprawls on for 44 kilometers. Right from the start, I relied on books to help me imbibe the city’s spirit: when I first took the subway line over the Don Valley, I conjured up Michael Ondaatje’s diaphanous lost world from In the Skin of a Lion. I saw Alice Munro’s sharp and individuated women in downtown Toronto. As a newcomer, I shared the disorientation of the 19th-century protagonist of Michael Redhill’s Consolation. Madeleine Thien was the only Canadian writer I had met before moving here. I felt Canada’s worldliness in her novel Certainty. Micallef became my go-to writer on matters Toronto. I used his book Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto to venture into unfamiliar terrain. It helped me look past the city’s surfaces: even the University of Toronto’s bewilderingly hideous Robarts Library seemed less so once I learned of Toronto’s flirtation with Brutalism. I found the city’s pretty parts charmed, and yet there were many plain, and even jarringly unattractive parts in between. They always stopped me, and prompted me, futilely, to speculate: was this because all of Canada’s funds went into healthcare? Was there a Protestant aesthetic at work here? Was this the legacy of some essential Canadian frugality? One year, at a party at the publisher Coach House, I came across Full Frontal T.O. by Micallef and Patrick Cummins, a picture book on Toronto’s houses in their full eclecticism and unsightliness. I loved that book so much I took it to Kathmandu, so I could puzzle over it when I was there. That book altered my view of the building that D and I lived in. What I had initially found ugly now revealed itself as, if not beautiful, then at least endearing. “Where would we be if we hadn’t met?” D sometimes asks me. I suppose I would still be in Kathmandu. I have held on to an apartment in a family home there, going back at least twice a year to spend a few weeks or a month to write and catch up with family and friends. The apartment is sunny, with windows looking onto a garden dense with tropical plants: camellia and poinsettia flowers, guava trees and kumquat shrubs. The city beyond is overcrowded, and bursting out of its rickety infrastructure; but it contains many of the people I love most in the world. And Nepal—troubled, dysfunctional and full of friction—gets under my skin in the way that, by comparison, orderly Canada doesn’t. Also, it has mountains. I miss D when I’m there. But on clear days, I can see the tall blue hills that ring the Kathmandu valley, and if I’m lucky, a Himalayan peak or two. By comparison, Toronto is flat to the point of insipid. In Cities of the Interior, Anaïs Nin’s characters feel at home when a city matches their inner geography. Toronto’s geography does not match my inner geography. The flatness here makes me desperate, and drives me, some days, to fantasize about leaving: heading north to some small lakeside town, or striking west to the Rockies, or settling in close to the ocean out east, or even leaving Canada entirely and going back to Nepal. I crave sightlines, topographies, geographical markers: some drama. Our building is near the Cedarvale ravine, and I walk through it regularly, seeking reprieve in its few slopes. D and I also walk the Bruce Trail, and once, in the woods near Kolapore Uplands, summited Mount Dhaulagiri, a 459-meter hummock named after Nepal’s 8,167-meter Mount Dhaulagiri. For someone from Nepal, that does not even feel like a hill. But such are the decisions we make in life: the decision to exchange something valuable for another: in this case, love. Love is a rare enough thing. The longer D and I stayed together, the more precious our relationship felt. Life is, after all, fleeting. We can’t hold on to anything for too long: everything slips away soon enough. Over the years D and I lived large, scrapped, made up, got along like a house on fire, introspected, questioned, debated, comforted each other, and grew older. We learned to put up with each other’s most irritating habits, and remained strangers enough to enjoy some intrigue. Time did what time does. D’s children grew up, and a few years ago D became a grandfather. I lost my brother to a heart attack. My parents in Nepal aged and grew frailer. Through all this I felt enlivened by being with D, by touching him, feeling his breath, and taking in his intelligence and brightness and sparkle and wit. It felt like great good fortune to be able to revel in our relationship, and to revel more, and even more, to the end of our days. Yet no matter how fulfilling, a relationship does not extinguish the world. When anyone asked me why I was in Toronto, I’d say, “Love,” and then muse over the love I didn’t feel for the city after all these years of living here. “User-friendly” was how I described the city to family and friends abroad. When you have lived in Kathmandu, you do not take electricity or running water, or public transport, libraries, and parks, or clean, breathable air, for granted. I was grateful that Toronto was so "livable," but did not know how to further deepen my feelings for it. Then, walking down Davenport Road one day, I came across a memorial to what was described as an "ancient trail" along the shoreline of a lake that no longer exists: the Iriquois glacial lake from the last ice age, which used to span over all of today’s Great Lakes. The trail once connected the rivers marking Toronto’s boundaries: the Don in the east, and in the west, the Humber. This memorial struck me as rare. In my years here I’d noticed that Canada had a penchant for celebrating its brief colonial history and ignoring its much longer Indigenous, Métis and Inuit pasts. This marker moved me, it stayed with me. I asked others about it afterwards, and read more about it, and realized, with a pang, how acutely I missed living with a larger sense of history here. At more than 250 years, Nepal is the oldest extant nation in South Asia. It was founded on nations that predated it. Though Kathmandu is now overrun by outsiders, as happens in any capital city, the Indigenous Newar community, who bequeath the city its distinctive art, architecture, culture, and language, remains central, even existential to the city. Markers of even older civilizations abound. Not far from my family home is Andipringga, a town dating back to the first century B.C., the city’s oldest site of archaeological significance. It lies buried beneath Handigaun, a neighborhood of middle-class homes, some built traditionally, with brick and wood, and others renovated along modern lines, with iron and glass and concrete. Andipringga is not visible on the surface. But archaeologist Sudarshan Raj Tiwari, author of The Brick and the Bull: An Account of Handigaun, the Ancient Capital of Nepal, talks of how often artefacts are unearthed when families renovate their homes. Handigaun also has a stone marker with an inscription from the first century A.D., when the Licchavi ruled Kathmandu: they were the ones left behind records about Andipringga’s builders, the Kirat. In Kathmandu, I always got a measure of my brief lifetime to be surrounded by reminders of the nations that predated Nepal. This does not happen in Toronto. Canada is in its 150th year of confederation. Toronto is built on the traditional lands of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca and the Mississaugas of the Credit River nations. The latter two nations remain in the area—displaced to territories of another nation, the Six Nations of the Grand River, 100 kilometers away, in Brantford. The displacement of the Mississaugas of the Credit River remains deeply controversial, though newcomers can be forgiven for not realizing so. There is little indication that the First Nations are still around, much less that they are regenerating from centuries of exploitation by a far more powerful settler-colonial state. Toronto’s name is itself a Mohawk word that means ‘where the trees stand in the water.’ Years passed before I learned this. In those years I read up on CanLit, as Canadian literature is called, gravitating towards Indigenous authors, whose work most moved and educated me. I fell in love with Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, a spiky contemporary story that invokes Haisla myths from the Pacific coast. Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse imbued me the romance of hockey, a game I’d never much cared for, and showed me the losses of residential schooling. Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie showed me how healing can take place after individual and collective violence. Waubgeshig Rice’s Legacy gave me an in into areas I’d traveled to blindly in the summertime, near Parry Sound, north of Toronto. It made the entire area, and Toronto’s hold over it, come to life in my mind. One day, D told me about a Toronto-based project by Hayden King and Susan Blight, to give Ojibwe names to the city’s streets: Spadina Road, nearby us, became Ishpadinaa, or "a place on a hill," in the street signs that these Indigenous activists erected in 2015. I went to see the street sign and followed the project as Davenport Road became "at the old portage," or Gete-Onigaming. College Street, near the University of Toronto, became Gikinoo‘amaagegaming, or "place of learning." Both D and I wished the city would make those street names permanent. “Why couldn’t they?” we asked each other. “Yes, why?” This larger sense of history was helpful, and orienting, and humbling. It taught me how we—all of us—were positioned here; and I saw my own complicated placement as an immigrant in a settler-colonial state. A fourth-generation Canadian, D was as much of an outsider to Indigenous Toronto as I. Once we came to frame Toronto, in our minds, as a city of Indigenous, settler-colonial, and immigrant communities, we both wanted to be "allies" to the Indigenous communities, but did not know how to do so, beyond educating ourselves and staying open. Meanwhile, our landlord suddenly decided to move, with his family, to Israel. He sold our building and disappeared from our lives this spring. By summertime, our new landlord, a developer, had posted notices about the permits he had applied for to replace our building with six million-dollar townhouses. We began scouting, half-heartedly, for another apartment. “Should we buy?” I would ask D from time to time, and we’d slip into that most Torontonian of conversations, about buying or renting or moving away entirely. Our new landlord was uncommunicative to the point of hostility. We couldn’t find out how much longer we had to stay on in our—his—building. So I went to City Hall on the day he was scheduled to apply for permission to carve up the building’s lot into six. My downstairs neighbor also showed up. Late in the afternoon, we sat through a dozen other applications—most of them swiftly approved—before city officials asked if anyone needed a deferral. Two applicants asked for three-month deferrals; then a lawyer representing our landlord asked for one too—not for three, but six months. City Hall’s planners, our local representative, and our neighbors had all asked for consultations, she said. “Even after all that, it’ll take more time,” she huffed, before breaking off. Upon obtaining the referral, she stomped off. My neighbor and I followed, consulting among ourselves, and confirming that we had at least a year, possibly more, left in our building. There was time enough to plan our next move. I was relieved, strolling away from City Hall. Offices were letting out. The streets were crowded. I made my way to the commercial heart of the city, Dundas Square, where D and I had arranged to meet. There was a market going on there: booths were set up, and I could hear music coming from a stage on one side of the square. D sent a message: he was running late. I wandered through the booths, which were selling jewelry, beadwork, t-shirts, moccasins, all around Indigenous themes. A sign announced that this it was Indigenous History Month. The Native Canadian Centre of Toronto had a booth to provide information about their programs, including Cree language classes and drumming socials. At another booth, I overheard a woman saying that that she was from the Six Nations of the Grand River. At another booth, I saw a baseball cap with an intricately beaded emblem of the Toronto Blue Jays. A 20-something woman was manning the booth. “Where are these beaded caps from?” I asked, assuming that her booth, too, was affiliated with a particular nation. My question puzzled her. “It’s—it’s just something I made,” she said. “Oh,” I said, wondering where she was from—meaning, which nation. Then I realized she was from here. She was just—from here. I wandered around some more, then ran into an acquaintance from Nepal, and we chatted awhile. D texted, saying he was on the way. We were going for a drink to the bar in which he’d wasted his youth—the Imperial, almost certainly among the least renovated bars of the past 50 years. It was one of those places that had stopped me when I was new to Toronto, a place that had prompted me to speculate: why so drab? I now found that drabness endearing. Perhaps that is what love does to us, I mused, waiting for D. It imbues what is foreign with personal significance. It makes our affections radiate outwards. It softens us. I ended up near the stage, tapping my feet as the singers sang to the tune of the fiddle. Dundas Square was beautiful that evening. I was glad to have come across this celebration of Indigenous History Month. Toronto’s deeper history almost made up for the things the city lacked—hills, for example. This city would never reflect my inner geography. But being able to see the troubled friction underlying it made me not quite love the city, but relate to it, understand it, and even, as I did that evening, feel quite tenderly towards it. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

Writing My Way Home

When I was 18 and insufferably over this whole “small-town suburban Midwestern thing,” I said goodbye to the only home I’d ever known—Kansas City—for what I figured would be the rest of my life. To anyone who would listen, I’d made it exceedingly clear that I’d never, ever, live here again, what with its awful friendly people and oppressively low population density; not this (not-quite-yet) big-city kid! It didn’t matter where I went, as long as it wasn’t freakishly equidistant from the coasts, and it didn’t figure in any way into The Wizard of Oz. So long, see you later, goodbye KC! Twelve years later, I deplaned at Kansas City International following a very long, and frankly terrifying, transatlantic flight. I dragged my 30-year-old self up the jetway and into the waiting arms of my (smugly?) triumphant family. It did not escape my notice, nor theirs, that for the first time in my life, I was in my hometown with no exit strategy to speak of—no return ticket (since I didn’t have anywhere to return to), no secret plot to move to a new continent (tried that once already), no backup plan. But instead of feeling like a complete failure, which is how I had always imagined moving back would feel, and despite the exhaustion, I was downright giddy. I was here on a mission. I was back for a reason. I had a purpose. KC had called and I had come. Standing in the nearly empty airport (KCI is always somehow nearly empty, microcosmic of Kansas City and Kansas all at once), my mom squeezed the air out of my travel-wracked body and started to cry while a voice, either hers or the one in my head, summed it all up with a surreal finality: “You’re really home,” the voice said. “You’re really home.” A lot happened in the 12 years between going and coming back. But the most germane events, the ones that pivoted my wayward course back to the heart of the country, occurred almost entirely in the final six months. Specially, in a single moment of entirely uncharacteristic ambition when I decided to walk 500 miles across the French Alps and committed myself to writing a book about it. To no one’s greater surprise than my own, I actually walked the walk. With no hiking experience whatsoever, I took a million steps from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean. I crossed hundreds of miles of mountains and stepped into the water where it lapped softly against the South of France. Now all I had to do was write about it. Determined to milk my new status as an author (despite having not yet authored a single thing), I did what I figured all writers do: I set about finding a cheap, suitably romantic, and far-flung place to work. I took my first hopeless stabs at penning what I had taken to calling my “mountain book” in an old house nestled into the hills above Monaco—a very strong stone’s throw from where F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote much of The Great Gatsby. Sitting at a small table and gazing pensively out the window toward the blinding blue waters of the Mediterranean, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, let the warm ocean breeze wash over me, bowed my head to the white light of my laptop screen, and fell asleep for a few hours. A couple weeks later, in a Vienna café so tobacco-stained I could have scraped some of Stefan Zweig’s DNA off the wall, I thought myself into a headache before putting pen to paper and submitting a single sentence to my notebook (“What is a mountain?”), which I promptly scratched out. Further down the Danube, Budapest proved too noisy, too fairy-tale pretty, and too hot (or maybe it was too cold? Or too windy? Or not windy enough?) In any case, I didn’t get anything done there, either, unless you count logging 15 miles a day on foot to avoid the kryptonic glow of a blank Word doc (well, nearly blank—I’d added my name and page numbers to the top in an inspired moment back in Vienna). If walking through the Alps was essentially as straightforward as moving in a straight line from one point to another and following a couple basic rules (don’t leave the path; don’t die), writing a book was turning out to be closer to locating the Marianas Trench using echolocation, and swimming into it without a light. The rules, as far as there were any, refused to reveal themselves. Finally, in late September I made for Belgrade, a city I’d fallen in love with while passing through earlier that year and the place on which I would bestow the honor and responsibility of inspiring me while I wrote my mountain book. On the four-hour train ride from Budapest that took 11 hours, a girl about my age sat next to me and asked what I was doing in Serbia. “I’m going to write a book,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t see right through me and start laughing. “About Serbia?” “No,” I said. “About a long walk through the French Alps.” Her face made it clear enough that my response made no sense, but she smiled anyway and told me I’d love Belgrade, that it was probably the perfect place to write. Her family were all musicians, she said, and she was a painter. She’d lived in Paris, London, and Budapest, but it was in Belgrade that she felt most inspired—the history, the tragedy, the beauty. Naturally, I took this as a promising sign that I was finally on the right track. So promising, in fact, that I closed my open (still empty) notebook, gave myself the day off, and resolved to properly start the very next day—no matter what. Like, for real this time. (Financially, all of this was made possible by a few factors. A modest advance from my publisher eased some of the strain of the hike itself—mostly for the purchase of gear. Hiking is a relatively inexpensive way to see France, or any country for that matter, since there’s very little to spend money on. Once I’d finished walking, a generous cousin lent me a room in her family home in the South of France until I figured out where to go next. This was a lucky break. Sadly, I do not have a broader network of cousins in beautiful locations waiting to offer me a place to stay. I dipped into money I’d been squirrelling away for years to get to Austria, Hungary, and Serbia by train. And crucially, years of living in New York City had taught me an invaluable lesson in pinching pennies: pinch them hard, never let them go.) In Belgrade, I rented a small flat in one of the oldest, loveliest parts of the city for next to nothing. Sticking to a strict schedule (something I thought I’d read on the Internet that Ernest Hemingway did), I managed, in several months, to tease out more than 200 of the most painfully boring, god-awful double-spaced pages that anyone has ever read. Then winter closed in and my apartment started to freeze, forcing me into an ever-shrinking bubble of warmth next to the Tito-era, refrigerator-sized heater. I’d probably still be there, huddled in the cold, if it had not occurred to me, out of nowhere, really, that I could just go back to Kansas—that you can, in fact, always go back to Kansas. I thought of a New Yorker piece from the late '80s in which Kansas City-born writer Calvin Trillin admitted that, after decades in Manhattan, he still found himself “talking now and then about going back to Kansas City.” (In a weird bit of coincidence, Trillin’s piece was about his good friend and my great uncle Fats Goldberg, a “pizza barron” who lived in New York for years before finally coming home.) That’s one of the things about Kansas, its ever-open, ever-loving arms. I could forget all of this and go home, I thought. Write my mountain book a thousand miles in every direction from a single mountain. My heart beat a bit faster. How had I not thought of this before? I started dreaming of the suburbs of south Kansas City. I saw obsessively gridded streets. I breathed the earthy scent of obsessively trimmed lawns. I tasted Arthur Bryant’s flawless, crusted burnt ends even when I knew I was chewing on oniony lumps of cevapi. For Serbian friends, I described long drives with my traveling salesman dad to small towns off I-35, or up and down grand old Ward Parkway, or trips to Winstead’s—the KC diner—if only for the opportunity to eat mediocre burgers and talk about how good they used to be. Nostalgic for nostalgia! When my attempts at conveying the exaggerated flatness of the plains failed, I asked if anyone had seen The Wizard of Oz. So I came back. And a funny thing happened as soon as I did: I wrote. For the first time since reaching the sea six months earlier, I found writing, if not quite easy, at least not panic-inducing. I took up residence at the Roasterie Café, a coffee shop less than a minute from the house in which I grew up (now the house in which I’m a grownup) and managed to sit at my computer for hours at a time, stringing sentence after sentence together in some approximation of what might be considered real writing. I wrote many pages that, to use James Salter’s phrase, turned bad overnight, but more that held steady all the way into the next day and then the day after that. They weren’t great, but they weren’t garbage. They were workable and honest and, best of all, sort of rewarding. To be clear, my book has little to do with Kansas or the Midwest (it takes place almost entirely in a small corner of France). But it’s impossible to imagine what it would look like if I had somehow managed to write it anywhere else. My brother—a painter and fellow recent returnee (from New York)—says that Kansas City is the perfect place to be an artist because there are so few distractions. There’s nothing to tempt you away from your work or nip at your attention like a needy dog. I agree that there’s that, but I like to see it in the positive: What Kansas City lacks in ocean views and crumbling old-world charm, it might make up for with a wide-open emptiness that practically begs to be filled. It’s all potential here. As usual, I’m late to the party. There’s a humming creativity in Kansas City that I never knew about when I was a kid because I never bothered to look. We’ve got writers, painters, sculptors, art galleries, cheap rents, and live music. We have neighborhoods with buzzy names like the Crossroads and the West Bottoms and Hospital Hill. The novelist Whitney Terrell lives here, as does the poet Cyrus Console. Both teach at local colleges. Patricia Lockwood has roots in the area. Candice Millard writes rip-roaring bestsellers about Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt out of an office not far from where I grew up. Still, to me at least, KC is more than just flatness and nothing else to do and a reasonable cost of living—clichés that describe most Midwestern cities—even if I have trouble putting my finger on exactly what it is. In his classic chuck-it-all-and-travel book Blue Highways, another son of Kansas City, William Least Heat-Moon, makes a giant loop around the U.S. in a van visiting small towns from Texas to Washington to Minnesota only to end up back in Missouri, right where he started. I thought of this not long after I got back and pulled a copy of the book off my shelf to read a line from the end that I’ve always loved: “If the circle had come full turn,” he writes, “I hadn’t. I can’t say, over the miles, that I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.” So here I am, having returned a slightly different person to a city I never really knew, a city that also happens to be home. And that may be the most crucial part, the thing I’d failed to see the whole time—that the journey was not simply one through the mountains, though that was part of it. It was a long, wandering, looping circle that refused to close until I was back where I had started. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

You’re a Writer Now

1. Like most writers, I spent a lot of time wondering how it would feel to hold my first book in my hands. I imagined I’d caress the cover gently, open the book carefully to inhale my pages. Maybe a few tears would come, but they’d be happy tears. As my book crept closer and closer to its publication, I began anticipating the inevitable moment with increased intensity—I imagined I’d take pictures, then call my mother. I’d hold up my work—seven years, 30-plus revisions, and 108,352 words—while my husband marveled. In the end, he did not see the box of advanced review copies—ARCs—in our driveway as he was getting home from work the night they arrived, and he drove over them with his car. The books were hardly damaged, just a few scuffs to the box, a couple dinged covers—it was more that the long-imagined moment was marred and thus made real. The car-running-over-my-books is an apt metaphor for my expectations about getting published: no moment, however awaited, looked the way I’d thought. 2. The hardest part about getting my book made wasn’t writing or revising or cutting—it was actually selling the thing. They don’t tell you this in college, or at the community writers’ workshop, or even in your MFA program. My grad-school friends and I already knew how lonely writing could be, but I wasn’t prepared for how wretched querying made me feel—how simultaneously tedious, exhausting, and demeaning the whole process became. For several years, my book’s failure was my biggest fear. I’d easily devoted 10,000 hours to writing it, and when one agent told me to expect 30 rounds of revision to make it publishable, I cringed. In the end, of course, she’d been right. But making my own memoir was how I learned what it takes to create a book, outline to ARC, and a lot of that process involves trying to sell a perception of yourself, a certain version of your story that people will buy. The act of sending my memoir out, I discovered, is actually the process of sending yourself, time after time, to a stranger. Usually, I never got any response at all. 3. The agents who did take the time to write from their Manhattan offices sometimes tapped out snippy replies—I just don’t see how I could sell this. Others were sweeter—You write beautifully….but I just don’t see how I could sell this. The kindest ones explained that although I wrote nice descriptions, my travel memoir didn’t have enough of a hook. There wasn’t much of an arc—nothing at stake, one said, and although she was trying to be constructive, the words cut deep. I’m certain that the gray hairs I have, I acquired during those desperate years—the years I tried to convince those New York agents my book mattered. The querying process also taught me a few lessons about mercy, and I’ll always be grateful for the people “in the biz” who took the time to help me out. Through my undergraduate alumnae network, I located two agents who read my pages and wrote back lengthy, thoughtful responses. They taught me to take rejection less personally; so many agents talked like their hands were tied—they appreciated my work, maybe, but they knew the market wouldn’t. I was starting to see myself not just as a writer but as a floundering saleswoman, a flailing entrepreneur. Still, despite the heavy press of impending failure, I kept on writing, kept editing and polishing my book, tightening the focus—the version of myself I’d chosen to portray—with each revision. It occurred to me to quit, to back off or start over, but despite what the agents had said, there was actually too much at stake. All the early mornings, the late nights, the going-on-30 revisions; I just didn’t have the heart to give up on myself. I started querying small presses that didn’t require agent referrals, and the months ticked by. I was teaching as an adjunct professor at the community college in town, and while the economy tanked and funding got withdrawn from my institution, I remembered my book—unpublished, yes, but written in full. I was more than just my job; I was a writer, however fragile the title felt. But I was starting to lose hope. I was drinking too much wine as a way to temper the barrage of rejections cluttering my inbox, and as a result, I’d wake every morning at two or three or four and lie there, hungover and heart pounding, despairing that no one would ever love what I’d made. “Nothing is ever anything,” my colleague explained when I bemoaned the possibility that my memoir wouldn’t get published. My colleague, an author of more than 30 (published) titles, repeated herself, looking deep into my eyes. “Kate, remember these words: Nothing is ever anything. Whatever you think you want, it never lasts. It won’t be what you think. Nothing is ever anything; it never is.” 4. Like every other step of the process, the good news didn’t arrive the way I’d always dreamed it would—there wasn’t any fuss, not even a letter, just an email from a man at an independent press I’d queried almost a year earlier. Took me long enough to reply, eh? But...I love this manuscript! I read the email and started to weep. I knew next to nothing about this man, very little about his press, but his words were a key in a lock. The next week, he sent over a contract, and a lawyer friend of mine graciously reviewed the entire thing with me over the phone. She stands out singularly in my mind as one of the ones who got it—who understood my goals, took my book seriously, and stood by me. Lots of people gently suggested that I not get my hopes up, and one friend told me searingly that she wished I’d waited for a “better press.” For weeks I wondered what that could have meant, because in the end, my book ­performed well, maybe as well as if one of those agents had taken a bite. Plus, it came out looking beautiful, with reviews from notable trade publications gracing the covers. My royalty checks are the sweetest money I’ve ever tasted, and I credit a quality publisher and his global distributor for those monthly payments. Anyway, this lawyer friend looked at the contract for my first book like it was Beyoncé's contract for her first solo album; she spent hours explaining every term and clause, and then assured me, without irony or sarcasm, that she’d be there to review my next one, too. On the day I signed the contract, I was in my mom’s kitchen in upstate New York, home for a few days’ vacation. I signed first, and then my mom, as a witness. Afterwards, we folded the heavy paper, tucked it into an envelope, and brought it down to the mailbox, where so much news, good and bad both, had gone and come before. We put the contract inside, but before we did, we both kissed the envelope for luck. Then we pulled the little door shut, listening for the old, familiar creak. “Well,” my mom finally said, “that’s that.” Authors must be beggars, especially at first. We voluntarily put ourselves in a position we haven’t occupied since high school, clamoring for popularity in the form of readership, agent representation, editorial approval, good reviews and glowing blurbs, promotions, giveaways, and endorsements—anything that remotely equates to sales. I used to shun social media—a time-waster, a confidence-killer—but I’ve joined Twitter and Instagram since publishing my book, and I troll those sites for followers like a kid paying for friends. I hashtag like it’s my job, because in a way, it is—this work of selling myself, this version of Kate, this particular story I’ve chosen to tell. And when I find myself taking my social media accounts too seriously, I remind myself of my former colleague’s words: Nothing is ever anything. Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement. When, I shit you not, Donald J. Trump followed me on Twitter and, aghast, I blocked him as soon as I saw, my publisher teased me, mock-scolding. “You’re a writer now!” he said: Be merciless. Be brutal. Be the sales, not the person. Do whatever it takes. 5. When my book was finally released, the community college where I work hosted a reception in the library. I was really nervous—and really excited. It was the biggest literary event I’d ever had, and it was my first reading of my book. I dressed carefully, changing my outfit half a dozen times, and I coached my husband on what to wear, what to bring, what to say and not say. He was to be my salesman, my marketing rep, my PR. People from all over the community came to the reading—most of whom I hadn’t ever met. Folks from payroll and the cashier’s office came over, introduced themselves, and told me how excited they were. Students from years ago stopped by to gush, and one told me she’d just been paid, so she was buying a book first thing. I wanted to give her a copy for free, but my husband shushed me. “You’re a writer now,” he muttered, something everyone seemed to realize but me. My husband and I sold 10 books that night, and only a few to friends. When I stood to read the passage I’d selected, I looked out at the cluster of faces and felt an acute sense of gratitude. I saw my husband in the back, sitting tall. A few faculty members from the English department had shown up, a couple old friends from the community, but it was all the faces I didn’t know that left me breathless. Here they were, sitting before me, waiting to see what I had made. Tonight, the plain old library was transformed, not by decorations or music or lights but by me. I was the one who was different now; just like that, the audience made me an author, and I held my book in my hands. After that, I received reviews from several national literary organizations, which helped us to sell hundreds of copies before the book even officially went on sale—and which will, my publisher assures me, help us to sell copies forever. I travelled to Washington D.C. for a lavish party where, along with four other authors, I proudly launched my first book. A professional photographer took my picture, and people I’d never met clapped me on the back, shook my hand, and bought my book. A few thousand copies sold in the months following the book’s release, and if an astronaut in the International Space Station wishes to download a copy, she can. I have more credibility in the publishing world now, and I’m hoping this will equate, at some point, to more clout at my college teaching post. My colleague wasn’t exactly right—some things are actually something in the end. I will always treasure the review blurbs my publisher helped me to solicit from grad school professors, writer friends, and even famous strangers I dared myself to query. I love when someone reads my words and sees me anew—as a resource, perhaps. And it’s thrilling to sense little shots of fame—mentions from high-profile writers, shout-outs from friends on social media, and a copy of my book on display in the local library. With lots of things, it’s true: Nothing is ever anything. For me, those nothings are the Twitter and Instagram accounts, the towering stack of query letters, and those despairing, wine-drenched nights. Little changed at work—my students remained unfamiliar with my writer self, and I suspect most of my colleagues won’t ever read the book. But I can still remember the February night my dad finished his review copy. “It’s beautiful!” he declared unabashed—praise I can still feel in a sensory way. Last week, he told me he’s reading the book a second time, and I like to picture him at the kitchen table at home, turning the pages, reading my words. My folks drove 12 hours to get to my D.C. launch, and I’ll never forget seeing them enter the party, my dad first, dressed in nice slacks and a suit jacket, his hair combed back. In the end, it all returns to where it began. 6. The book event in my hometown was a roadside signing outside the main bookstore. There was no reading, no fanfare, just a table and a stack of books and a chair. From that store, I made my first book purchase using birthday money from my grandmother. For decades, I purchased Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, wedding gifts, and baby gifts from there. I’ve walked those narrow aisles so many times, and now I was sitting outside, signing my book. My parents came, too. They didn’t sit by me, didn’t interfere as people came and went, chatting and snapping pictures. An old friend sat by my side, a woman I’ve known since I was five or six, and my parents stood a few feet away, talking with people they knew. We sold all the books. At the end of the sale, we packed up our things, folded up the chairs, and then I said goodbye to my friend, and my dad drove my mom and me home. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Essays

Life, Literature, and Litigation

  When my debut novel came out, I had two firsts—a work of published fiction—and a lawsuit. I had never thought about lawsuits before. I incorporated everything and everyone I knew or imagined into my fiction, spinning them into characters. At first, to my surprise, most people didn’t know they were any part of my stories. I was sure my mom would be delighted that I used a story in my novel that she had told me a million times over: how at 19, she had been jilted at the altar by the man she thought she loved, marrying a brute on the rebound. She was later visited by her ex, who brought his wife with him, taking my mom aside to whisper to her that he had made a mistake. “It’s really lovely you wrote that,” she told me, “but that character is not anything like me at all. Plus, that never really happened that way.” My mother might not have recognized herself in my pages, but another family—one I didn’t know—did. A week after my first novel came out, I received a letter from a lawyer. A family, who lived in Pittsburgh, where I was living at the time, just happened to share the same (very common) names I had given my characters, along with the same dramatic conflict. They were suing me for invasion of privacy. I called my publisher, shocked. “I want to countersue.” I cried. “Even if I did know them, which I don’t—how could they imagine I’d be stupid enough to use their names and their situation?” There was a funny silence and then the publisher said, “We’re changing the names in the paperback. We don’t want to hold up the book because of some lawsuit.” I was upset. These people were claiming that I had stolen their life when I hadn’t! And worse, I had to change the names because of them and only then was the lawsuit dropped. But that didn’t squelch my yearning to write about what mattered to me. I started publishing personal essays, and I worried about how things might get more personal without a character to hide behind.  I was writing about my life, I was laying myself bare—how I felt, how I hurt, and sometimes how I healed. When I was asked to write an essay about food issues for an anthology, I wrote about a long-gone ex who monitored my food intake until I was down to 95 pounds, who clouded my vision so I couldn’t see how controlled I was. Of course I knew enough not to use his name, his physical description, or his job, but even so, two weeks after the anthology was published, I got a call from the publisher’s lawyer. Somehow my ex, who I hadn’t seen in years, had read the essay. Though he insisted he had never done a single thing I had mentioned in the essay, he still recognized himself. And he wanted to sue. “His wife is very upset,” the lawyer told me. “He said that’s why he called. Did you ever tell him you were writing about him?” “Never,” I said. “Okay, good,” the lawyer said, “then I can make him go away.” So was that the key, I wondered? You had to ask people before you wrote about them, even if you disguised them? When I was asked to write an essay for an anthology about infidelity, I played it safe. I asked permission. I was writing about one long, hot brutal summer when my first husband was cheating on me. His sister, who was also my best friend, was orchestrating his trysts without my knowing, and her shrink was stalking her. She not only okayed the piece, she enthusiastically provided extra details. She was fine when my piece was reprinted in a major magazine, fine when it landed me on the Today Show, but when I got a movie option, she immediately threatened me with a lawsuit. I was gobsmacked. “But you gave permission!” I insisted. “And it’s my point of view of what happened!” I had to hire a lawyer from The Author’s Guild who assured me that because she had known about the story for so long, because it had been out there, she had no recourse. And he wrote a polite letter to her to tell her so. I was fed up and frightened by lawsuits. So I gave up personal essays for a while and wrote another novel. Set in 1969 and 1970, it began to morph into a lot of things. I wrote about my mom falling in real reciprocated love for the first time, at 93. Like most writers, what I think I am writing about often u-turns into what I need to write about, and I began adding in a new character, exploring a really important relationship in my life that had become troubled over the years. I had kept trying to fix her, to help her, but the more I did, the worse things got for both of us. I finally realized that it wasn’t my job to change anyone, let alone someone I loved, and that sometimes you just have to let people be. I meant part of the novel as a love letter to her, and when the novel came out, I said so on NPR—without mentioning names, of course. The email came almost immediately and it was spikey with threats. She recognized herself, and so had a friend of hers. And she said she could prove it. She had, she said, already spoken to a lawyer, and she was going to sue for defamation and invasion of privacy. It didn’t matter that I took the blame for my persistence in trying to change her. “You’re dead to me,” she said flatly. By now, I was used to talking to lawyers and I knew I had to contact mine. “It’s sticky business,” my lawyer said. “People can sue for anything they want, but no reputable lawyer will take on a case like this, at least not without considerable money, plus anything you said was only your opinion, and not fact, and you can’t sue for that. I’d just let it go. I can write a letter to her, but it might make things worse.” “They already are worse,” I said. “She won’t sue,” he assured me. And she hasn’t. Why didn’t I learn my lesson with my first lawsuit? Because it’s a writer’s nature to keep digging into peoples’ lives, to be curious. And the truth is that whether I am writing about a character or myself or a living person, the story always comes from a deep place within. I’m not trying to hurt, expose or defame anyone. Instead, I’m trying to figure things out—to make sense of why I (or anyone else) couldn’t and wouldn’t leave an emotionally abusive boyfriend, why I (or anyone else) felt I had to rescue someone who not only resented my help, but was furious that I thought she needed any. It has nothing to do with revenge, and everything to do with revelation, with connecting to some reader who might say, gratefully, “Oh, thank you for writing about this scary/terrifying/wrenching topic, because Me, too. Me, too. Me, too.” Image Credit: Public Domain Photos.
Essays

The Grueling, Painful, Beautiful Fiction of László Krasznahorkai

Gyula and Khust and Kapušany. There’s something about the sodden, crumbling brick and cinderblock-scape of eastern European towns that I find irresistible. I’m arrested by the desperate beauty of these places: the wrecked medieval castle on the outskirts; the main street with its waterstained two-story layer cake structures in fading pastel pinks and butterscotches; inexpert patching where entropy or mortar shells have left their mark; squat cubical huts slathered in oatmeal stucco. The inevitable Erste Bank. The EURO-MODA secondhand shop. The bad pastry shop. The bad baguette sandwich shop. The Všetko! One Euro! shop. The gatherings of Roma. The improbable Cadillac Escalades of the nouveau-riche wedged into too-small parking. For me, the allure of these towns is matched only by the pain undergirding them. I wish I was capable of enjoying a less complicated kinship with these places. Just a tourist with no plans of hanging around—here for the halušky and a few somber snapshots at the family boneyard. But like the region where my family name adorns villages and ancestral mansions, my better days are likely behind me. Like them, I am running out of time. Actuarial irrefutabilities are at work; senescence is taking chips out of me on a daily basis despite my plans, my hopes, and the people who depend on me. For László Krasznahorkai, the 2015 Man Booker International laureate and stalwart-in-translation of the New Directions stable, these locales, or ones like them, comprise the greater part of his published fiction. Over the last dozen years or so, New Directions has released a mini-torrent of Krasznahorkai—seven titles by this soft-spoken Hungarian author whose debut, Satantango, first hit shelves in 1985. What’s the fascination with this author, a chronicler of the detritus of failed collective policies, inebriation, madness, faithlessness, and spiritual asphyxia? Perhaps the sixth and most recent New Directions release, The Last Wolf & Herman, provides a partial answer for those wondering whether or not to read the writer Susan Sontag referred to somewhat hastily as the “contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse.” The book is a slim volume consisting of two (structurally and functionally, three) related short stories: I. "The Last Wolf" and II. "Herman"—a) "The Game Warden" and b) "The Death of Craft." Stylistically, the latter two stories represent a more conventional side of Krasznahorkai, but "The Last Wolf"—involving a wolf we never see and a disillusioned German philosophy professor that we see far too much of—is unlike any wolf story you’ve read before. Befuddled in Berlin, our professor bends an elbow at a local Hauptstrasse watering hole, puzzling out a conundrum: What is preferable—a life marked by futility or a life marked by scorn? Burning a hole in his pocket is a letter outlining a generous job proposal, but the faded scholar is assailed by doubt: …he can’t have been the one it was intended for, since he wouldn’t have been invited to Extremadura, by this unheard-of foundation, a foundation staffed by people he had never heard of, asking him whether he felt like spending a couple of weeks there writing something about the region… The sporadically interested bartender does his best to stay alert as time melds for both teller and tale in this account of epistemic hell. But spilling his story brings the professor little relief as truths and half-truths and facts lost and gained in translation slowly peel back the scab of the unrelenting disquiet that there is, despite the substantial sum offered for his services, little to be learned and less to be accomplished in this venture. But chronically broke, the professor accepts the offer. The mantle he assumes becomes more a calling than a payday, directing him to a distant country, to confront barren wastelands and scour obscure texts in search of a beast that may never have been. We sit with the barman and listen along with him as our itinerant professor endures the generously financed and enthusiastically, if haphazardly, organized junket to Extremadura—Spain? Portugal? Both? Neither?—where the last wolf in the region may or may not have met its end. The professor is a man drowning in myth and metatext and deep suspicion, but contractually bound to codify whatever he might find, real or otherwise. By story’s end, relentless self-accusation has the good professor lying curled, fetal, in expectation of his inevitable unmasking and the discovery that “it had been a mistake inviting him, and that they’d be taking him back…asking him not to make them look ridiculous again.” A common misstep when grappling with eastern European writers is to misread these authors’ personal experiences of a life lived under a fractured Communism, their discombobulated personal Marxism, and their more-than-likely agnostic take on organized religion and to conflate these into a catchall label—“political”—as if that were some sort of commendation, or explanation. László Krasznahorkai’s life and work are not spared this broad misconception, James Wood calling him “a more political writer than Beckett” and Margit Koves in Adelphi “…a romantic anti-capitalist of the age of globalization who examines what happens to various forms of art and culture at the time of globalization," both of which, while accurate, are akin to focusing on a politician’s modest handsize, or a writer’s height. To misread Krasznahorkai as merely, or primarily, a political writer is to risk squandering the profoundly personal nature of his stories. More tragically, it is to foist a kind of sloppy activist, and determinately secular métier onto one of contemporary literature’s most sophisticated exponents of the sacred. It is to miss his elegant, if troubling, depiction of the regrettable distance at which the sacred is held from the greater part of contemporary cultural production. With his repeated exploration of the importance of the sacred to life and culture, Krasznahorkai is among the more godly godless authors you’re likely to meet. These, I submit, are what, in a widely publicized quote, W.G. Sebald was hinting at when he said that “Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.” Though lacking his predecessor’s mad religious zeal, like Gogol Krasznahorkai directs his most consistent and pointed critique against a kind of indolence that results in spiritual vacuity, servility to baser human drives, and incurious acquiescence to the pull of a morally and aesthetically baffled culture. Although clearly no fan of conspicuous consumption, his hard appraisal of the same is more than just fashionably provisional snobbery toward rough-grind economics. Rather than limit his focus to the corrupting power of capital, he would have us seek out worth that lies beyond the realm of what is bought, sold, traded, stolen, corroded, and corrupted. Often cursorily compared to writers like Thomas Bernhard and William Gaddis, Krasznahorkai employs nothing of the former’s self-crippling contempt for the church, and serves as a proper antipode to the latter’s flippant disregard for all things spiritual. His protagonists are not polemical, but confessional. His motif has more in common with Cormac McCarthy’s via negativa to enlightenment, populated by an absent god, human savagery, holy fools, ersatz messiahs, sacred texts, and the unwashed but heroic who are consumed by the task of making things right. But when making things right proves, as it inevitably does, beyond the capacity of a Krasznahorkai protagonist, it is madness, exile, and ruin that follow. Audible in the creeping dementia of these central characters —the doctor in Satantango, Korin in War & War, the hapless Valuska in The Melancholy of Resistance, and Herman in "The Game Warden" – are echoes of Samuel Beckett’s crone in Ill Seen Ill Said: Already all confusion. Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. If only she could be pure figment. Unalloyed. This old so dying woman. So dead. In the madhouse of the skull and nowhere else. Where no more precautions to be taken. No precautions possible. Cooped up there with the rest. Hovel and stones. The lot. And the eye. How simple all then. What Beckett manages stylistically in brevity and quick-cuts, Krasznahorkai accomplishes via what his long-time translator George Szirtes has described as “a slow lava flow of narrative.” The ancients might have characterized Beckett as melitta—the sting of a solitary bee, repeated a thousand times, and Krasznahorkai as murias—a thousand individual ants moving in a wave. In regard to the latter, this quite consciously nurtured device of the paragraph- or page- or chapter- or story-long sentence is on full display in "The Last Wolf"—a 50-page story comprised of exactly one sentence. …how could he explain how long ago he had given up the idea of thought, the point at which he first understood the way things were and knew that any sense we had of existence was merely a reminder of the incomprehensible futility of existence, a futility that would repeat itself ad infinitum, to the end of time and that, no, it wasn’t a matter of chance and its extraordinary, inexhaustible, triumphant, unconquerable power working to bring matters to birth or annihilation, but rather the matter of a shadowy demonic purpose… George Szirtes’s fluid translation of "The Last Wolf" maintains this feel of textual surge, of ebb and flow, and remarkably, of the parallel poetic structure characteristic of the ancient Hebrew ketuvim.  The above citation concludes—if that is the right word—below.  An apodosis to the protasis ending in a deep exhale in a literary selah of sorts. …something embedded deep in the heart of things, in the texture of the relationship between things, the stench of whose purpose filled every atom, that it was a curse, a form of damnation, that the world was the product of scorn, and God help the sanity of those who called themselves thinkers… It is this kind of writing that, even in his short stories, reveals Krasznahorkai as a writer obsessed in the parsing of the invisible. Parsing it, and then rendering it in a philosophical relation to the visible by means of sentential waves that serve as both trap and what the author calls kijárat—a way out—a way to extract oneself from the conceit, step back, and view the overwhelming detail from a distance as it fashions itself into a cogent whole. In a sublime marriage of form and function, with image-rich prose coming at us in layers of detail and perspective and internal dialogue, Krasznahorkai’s prose readily overwhelms the reader with sadness—or isolation, or beauty—of a purity rarely encountered, but which ultimately compels us to stop, move back from the page, and offer these invisible qualities our more conscious consideration. A too-brief example: Korin, the aspiring scribe of War & War, describes his narrow escape from peril at the sleazy “Sunshine Hotel” where even the interior windows were sheathed in: iron bars, at which Korin had hardly taken a glance than he started back, for he only saw the people there for the fraction of a second and did not dare catch their eyes again, they looked so terrifying, but the personage beyond the glass and metal grille somewhat suspiciously asked him, ‘Sunshine Hotel?’ to which Korin had no idea what to answer, but…a few seconds later he was outside in the street again, putting as much distance between him and the place as he could, as quickly as he could, all the while thinking that he should immediately ask someone for help… This work is that of an artist who articulates the beauty and the terror he encounters, choosing to reveal it typically in characters caught up in life’s abundance, yet an abundance that’s never quite so apparent, able to be appreciated, as when it’s being wasted. The characters shaped by Krasznahorkai don’t dabble in cheap eschatologies, nor does his prose suffer from the fate of so much sci-fi and dystopian literature—drowning in shallow puddle readings of Heideggerian concerns with techné. He addresses dehumanization and the encroachment of "the last things," certainly, but without the de rigueur fixation on artificial intelligence and the potential for maleficent feats of engineering or bio-engineering consuming life on the planet. Fear in this fiction bubbles up from springs far more difficult to dowse, flowing from motifs that lie deeper—envy, lust, and animal malevolence—than antagonists mechanistic or materialist. It is not drones and dogma and big data that dominate the landscape in Krasznahorkai country, but Cain and Abel. His demons—as with any demon worthy of the title—lurk within, not without. In Satantango, this degeneration is incarnate in the gluttonous “doctor.” Bent on his own ruin, his home closed to all but the woman who keeps him supplied with drink and victuals, wallowing in filth, pickling in a seemingly exhaustible supply of tulip glasses of pálinka, he eventually nails his door shut so “no one would disturb him” in his work. Which work? Medicated, wrapped in blankets against the cold, peeking out his front window to monitor the movement on the street and chronicle in his journals in delectable detail the depravity of his neighbors, the denizens of this ruined town. He woke at noon, drenched in sweat and angry, as always after a long sleep, cursing, turning his head this way and that, furious at the wasted time. He quickly put on his glasses, reread the last sentence in his journal…'They’re dead, the lot of them…or they’re sitting at the kitchen table leaning on their elbows. Not even a broken door and window can rouse the headmaster. Come winter he’ll freeze his ass off.' And therein art meets life, capturing the appeal of towns like Gyula and Khust and Kapušany. As towns go, they tend to be compact and compartmental, designed on a human scale, lending themselves to leisurely walking, popping into hidden courtyards for a peek at what lies within. Places wonderfully accessible to the boundless speculations of a febrile imagination. And moving past these windows, it’s not difficult to imagine a dissolute physician; a plump and lusty butcher’s wife; or a didactic, alcoholic ex-state security agent within. Outside, the new paint job bought with European Bank for R&D money dries slowly as the town spirals into its inexorable, if unacknowledged, katabasis. In each one its own history of religious purges, mass executions, plague, pogrom. It’s not just growing older, though I wish sometimes it was; that would make things simpler. No, my fascination with impending ruin moves beyond mere fetish, or morbidity. Here, in these places marked by decline, the geographic fag-end of the corpse of Austria-Hungary, there are stories lurking. Stories that resulted in the delectable stories of László Krasznahorkai. Grueling, painful, beautiful human stories. My own, perhaps, among them.
Essays

The Soft Colonization of Small Territories

Last summer, every day after work I would go to the Boston Public Library courtyard. There I would find a spot where I could read or listen to music and—my true purpose—pass the time during which the MBTA would be unbearably full. After the first couple of days I found one particular chair toward a back corner that I preferred above all others. One day I made it to the BPL slightly later than usual and found someone sitting in my chair. It felt like the universe had betrayed me; the mere presence of this monster (blameless and clueless tourist) was a taunt from the heavens. Or so it felt. Great was my relief when I found I was not alone in my petty feelings of ownership over public space. In Patti Smith's M Train, her beautiful and sparse memoir on loss—of a husband, of a seaside bungalow, of a chair—she develops and explains the same sense of property over the spaces we frequently frequent. As most scenes within, the book begins with Smith going into her favorite Greenwich Village café (Cafe 'Ino) for black coffee, toast, and writing. “My table, flanked by the coffee machine and the front window, affords me a sense of privacy, where I withdraw into my own atmosphere.” Whenever we find a corner of the library that appeals to us, or a chair in the train in which we commute every day that has a more comfortable slant or armrest we think of it as “ours.” These places become part of our daily routines in a way that feels deep and personal. This soft colonization of small territories is an interesting phenomenon. Why and with what right do we dare to think that we can own what is technically for everyone? The answer might be in proxemics and anthropology. Edward T. Hall was an American anthropologist and researcher who studied the way people relate to one another within cities and as social groups, a practice otherwise called “group cohesiveness.” Hall is perhaps better known for developing proxemics, which studies the way humans use space and how this affects the relationships of the population. Proxemics can explain the creation of what we believe to be “our spots.” In his book The Hidden Dimension, Hall defined proxemics as "the interrelated observations and theories of man's use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture." It was Edward T. Hall who introduced to us the idea of a personal space—that our physical comfort with strangers decreases as they move from the furthest circles of social space (public space, 12 to 25 feet) into our intimate space circle (six to 18 inches). One of the things we enjoy most about the tables we like in coffee shops or corners in libraries is that they permit us to be alone while also being outside. Sometimes, if a friend comes along we will allow them into what Patti Smith calls our “atmosphere.” But for the most part, although technically public, we have inlaid these tables and chairs with our idle ruminations, our low chuckles at a funny paragraph, perhaps a long sigh or two; for all intents and purposes, they are an extension of our personal space. Faces in the Crowd is one of Valeria Luiselli's first novels, and in it a young mother remembers her years as a translator living and spending her time in New York. The protagonist moves around the city like a ghost, but every once in awhile she encounters spaces she likes enough to make her own: I had a theory; I'm not sure if it was my own but it worked for me. Public spaces, such as streets and subway stations, became inhabitable as I assigned them some value and imprinted an experience on them. If I recited a snatch of Paterson every time I walked along a certain avenue, eventually that avenue would sound like William Carlos Williams. We appropriate parts of the outside so that we can feel more comfortable moving within cities that may be large and daunting or small and suffocating. In her essay “Collected Poems” for The New Yorker, Valeria Luiselli talks about her life in New York. Amidst her musings—Luiselli's writing style is an engaging and motley mix of anecdotes and smart observations—she talks about the people she sees at the library. People she has come to recognize as fellow poachers of selected chairs. She notices the resentment in their eyes when they see their “spot” has been taken and refuse to sit anywhere else: I have seen them and photographed them, these masters of habit, walking heavily down the central corridors, pretending not to be furious, not to be distraught upon discovering someone else in their spot. I have seen them, looking around the library from inside the rim of their glasses, full of quiet, justified resentment. I’ve also seen them reclaim their spot with an air of entitlement. Luiselli uses poetry as her tool of choice; Patti Smith, in her trademark spartan style, builds a structure of ownership through the repeated tradition of coffee, writing, and toast. Further into M Train, Smith arrives to Cafe 'Ino and her table is being used by someone else. My table in the corner was taken and a petulant possessiveness provoked me to go into the bathroom and wait it out...I left the door unlocked in case someone was in genuine need, waited for about ten minutes and exited just as my table was freed. I wiped off the surface and ordered black coffee, brown toast, and olive oil. I wrote some notes on paper napkins for my forthcoming talk, then sat daydreaming about the angels in Wings of Desire. In my own case, my sense of possessiveness is more similar to Luiselli's than Smith's. My favorite places around the city are the ones that bring forward particular thoughts: the subway stairs where for an inexplicable reason I always think of my favorite journalist or a tiny Chinese restaurant that reminds me of when my parents visited. That chair in the far corner of the public library reminds me of the feeling of peace about the future I felt on that evening where the beginning of summer and the end of my first work day merged. That sort of peacefulness is so rare I feel little remorse in not wanting to share the space that elicits it with anyone else. Edward T. Hall states that a person's personal space is carried everywhere they go, as opposed to larger public and social distances, which are negotiated as we attend things like concerts or speeches. I must say that part of the reason favorite public spaces are so personally soothing is precisely because they are not necessarily in my home, the default personal space. There is something calming about crafting a sense of comfort in a place outside of my control. For Patti Smith, “public personal space” eventually integrated with her real personal space, in her home, when Cafe 'Ino had to close: --What will happen to the tables and chairs? I asked --You mean your table and chair? --Yeah, mostly. --They're yours, he said. I´ll bring them over later. That evening Jason carried them from Bedford Street across Sixth Avenue, the same route I had taken for over a decade. My table and chair from the Café 'Ino. My portal to where. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Essays

In Search of Lost Words: Novels on Dementia

André’s disintegrating mind stars in The Father, a play by Florian Zeller (translated from French by Christopher Hampton).  André’s dementia progresses rapidly through one short act.  By the time the curtain falls, he can no longer decode his environment, including his daughter and son-in-law.  The audience, too, is left befuddled, unable to distinguish André’s imagined family from his real one.  A recent production at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre underscored André’s bewilderment by casting alternating black and white actors as the elusive, double sets of daughters and sons-in-law. More often, we are privy to dementia’s impact on the people surrounding the patient.  Marita Golden plumbs both perspectives—that of victim and family. As she was researching her new novel, The Wide Circumference of Love, Golden stumbled over a disturbing question:  Why are older African-Americans almost “twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to develop the disease or other forms of dementia?”  Writing for The Washington Post, she spotlights medical studies that ignore people of color, resulting in a glaring knowledge gap. Against the background of whites-only scientific inquiry (some of which is currently being remedied), Golden shows where love fits in.   She reports on a family in which the mother was stricken in her early 60s.  The husband is frank:  “To watch the slow deterioration of my wife, the loneliness and the isolation…. Sometimes I pray.  Sometimes I cry.”  Their police officer son, moving home to help, is stirred: “My mother and I were already close...but actually we got closer, as mother and son, and we got closer as a family.” Golden reminds us that dementia disrupts “cognitive skills such as memory, judgment and language,” thus destroying the writer’s hammer and chisel.  “The words hurl through his lips with a familiar bad taste,” she writes at the opening of The Wide Circumference of Love.  “Words are that slimy, slippery, burn inside him like a house on fire.” The novel tells the story of Gregory Tate, a beloved African-American architect in Washington, D.C.  Gregory’s wife, Diane, a family court judge, and two adult children have made the agonizing decision to place him in an Alzheimer’s facility named Somersby. Each family member must first cope with, and then adapt to, Gregory’s slide into confusion, violence, and finally, wordless silence. Diane is particularly well drawn.  Without making light of her burden, she maintains her humanity and sense of humor, struggling to find joy. …Diane had slowly wriggled into the skin of an unalterably new life…she would retire from the family court…. Howard University’s law school had offered her a professorship…. There was so much to look forward to, but the present she feared would never be past. A loyal and devoted spouse, Diane feels that everything she does at Somersby is “sacred, an act of faith.”  She takes Gregory’s admission there as her cue to examine her past and move forward.  In their unique ways, her children do the same.  Even Gregory, through whatever fog he inhabits, begins again. The Wide Circumference of Love supplies hope by interrogating love in all its permutations.  It explores marriage through sickness and health; love between parent and child, even when it is hidden or fraught; and romantic love, however unexpected or inconvenient.  Just as important, the book probes love’s favorite companion—forgiveness.  In Golden’s novel, forgiveness and love partner to open the future. Erwin Mortier, the prize-winning Belgian author, deploys memory and language to brilliant effect in his memoir about his mother, Stammered Songbook:  A Mother’s Book of Hours (translated from Dutch by Paul Vincent).  Mortier is not a chronicler of hope, but of thorny, ruinous reality.  He equates mental failure with mortality:  “Death that sits at table here is called Mum.” Mortier records his mother’s memory loss, and the family anxiously trying—and failing—to buttress that loss.  Here’s Mortier’s father: He has become her memory.  More and more often she comes in uncertainly, a little closer to him…. If she can’t get any further than stammering, she looks at him wide-eyed.  If the answer doesn’t come quickly, there is a hail of approach. It is words and language that Mortier seeks, lost not only to the patient, but to the family as well. The disease is kicking her out of time and booting us out of language.  Words seem to me a kind of breakfast cereal at the moment:  undoubtedly healthy, but rather tasteless. I chatter till [sic] I burst, chatter till I’m blue in the face and interrupt other people.  I just rattle and gabble on, spew out language, teeth chattering, with a mouth full of dry oats.  Where can I come ashore?  And if I’m not chattering, I’m crying. In brief chapters composed of short, heartrending sentences, Mortier gives a stunning and raw portrayal of his experience—his childhood and childlike view of his mother; his siblings’ reaction to their failing parent; his father’s generous caretaking, defeated by his mother’s increasing need.  All of this is set against receding piles of words: What strikes me most about her, what makes me saddest, is the double silence of her being. Language has packed her bags and jumped over the railing of the capsizing ship, but there is also another silence in her.  I can no longer hear the music of her soul; that whole vibrating fabric of symbols with which she wove herself into the world—or conversely, the world into her. The fewer the words, the less the connection, so that by the memoir’s end, Mortier’s mother is a “glacial valley”: …an ice field has scraped over her, and the earth has been scoured away by the masses of ice.  In the bare stone, wide furrows are legible.  Every relief has been smoothed out. Marion Coutts’s memoir, The Iceberg, presents this battle for words even more starkly.  Her husband, Tom Lubbock, chief art critic for the Independent, is dying of a brain tumor.  He is losing his words (and livelihood) just as their toddler son, Ev, begins hungrily to acquire language.  Coutts, too, is a chronicler, documenting her husband’s disease with the precision of an investigative reporter (in fact, she is a filmmaker and visual artist).  Her reporting is anything but detached; Coutts’s sentences are awash with the love and passion she feels for the man slipping away from her, the man who is the father of her child. Disappearing words mark the slippage: There are these simple words that are starting to cause him trouble:  small, single, only, speak, one, tiny, all, short, sign, slow, same, few, lips, stop, sold, lone.  Tracking elusive words was always Tom’s pleasure but now it has added urgency. This, while their son teems with language: …his great unfurling slides of patter run alongside me from about hip level.  My mum made me an omelette and the omelette was tasty it was eggy and so I had an eat.  I wanted it in triangles.  Ham is my best friend.  Mum, look!  The sky looks like milk!  If a cow went on its back its milk would go up in the air. Coutts struggles to keep up with her son, while staying as close as possible to her husband.  She is desperate to understand him as he loses ordinary communication: My love is cryptic.  He speaks in mysteries.  He speaks a language that is singular.  Communication with Tom is nothing like speaking any other language.  It is at the same time known by heart and deeply foreign. Late in the day (Why did they leave it so late, you cry) we are trying to elide language altogether and invent a communication that bypasses all known words.  We do not have a lot of time…. the language we are looking for must circumvent the brain. Coutts wraps her friends into her family’s experience, leaning on them with an honesty that most caretakers would envy.  The book is spliced with her emails, updating their friends on Tom, detailing what she needs from them. His spirits are very good.  He is thinking, talking, his language very tricky by seeming stable.  He wants above all to work on writing projects, and with friends to help he can. The three members of Coutts’s family face what is before them, not only with courage but with an infectious zest for living.  They travel; they take walks and make picnics.  This affirmation of life is one of the great gifts of Coutts’s memoir.  If her experience is unbearably painful, her family’s zeal inspires.  They embrace life, whether at the end or the beginning.  Love is the mainstay of that embrace; love sustains them through to the end. And yet. Grief is not something to be avoided.  The characters in these three books live in the fullness of their grief.  As Diane recalls in The Wide Circumference of Love: A therapist friend told her once the process of grieving a spouse took seven years…. Who did the polling?… How could you tell when the grieving was done?  She still grieved her mother, her brother, and the father she had not known.  Had grieved them all her life. It is through their access to both love and grief that these characters make their way in the world.  Astonishingly eloquent and present, Coutts summons the words to express these two emotions at the end: It was snowing the day we buried you… Unplanned, we formed a circle as the words went up….  You have moved through us and now you are gone, leaving us standing.  And so are the living comforted. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.