through the glass
It’s windy and cold and it gets dark out early – and I am too lazy to read.
I ordered the book from the library after reading a quotation from it somewhere on the internet. I don’t remember my source, which is probably just as well; I had also heard the author mentioned favorably, and thought I might as well take a look.
The book arrived and, as usual, I judged it by its cover. The front was unpreposessing and a trifle overdesigned, but that is not unusual for modern literary novels. The real difficulty, for me, began with a blurb:
Self-consciousness is one of the noblest literary virtues, especially as so exquisitely practiced by —— in ——.Shut up. I realize the purpose of literary reviews (and/or blurbs) is either: 1) personal/professional sniping/toadying, 2) to sell books; but who on earth wants to snuffle around any of the ‘literary virtues’ noble or not, on a Saturday?
The book looks at me and says, after rustling its pages: so, are you going to read me or what? There are people waiting for me…. I open the book. I read. A terribly self-conscious novel, about a terribly self-conscious female brooding about a terribly unself-conscious male. Emphasis: terribly. After twenty pages I cannot stop my eyes rolling heavenwards. A bitter cup of tea is meant to emphasize the emptiness and/or loneliness of the narrator’s life, a drop of finality in her emotional bucket, and nod to Proust, who, on the other side of the ether cuts the acknowledgment. It is the poor man’s Joan Didion, if such a thing were possible. Even so, Mr. Blurb-ist may be correct, and self-consciousness might be ‘one of the noblest literary virtues’, if literary virtues, like human ones, are very often dull. I look at the cover of the book. I look at some of the books I actually positively want to read (someday). Life is short – this book, not short enough.
* * *
I ask myself why the book exists, and am brought back, after much mental circumambulation, to the question that always makes me uncomfortable: why does any book exist? I don’t know – and I don’t like any of the answers I’ve seen. I like to think this is because I have not seen enough. Let’s hope so, shall we?
He had told me himself more than once that he never got up before twelve, and seldom earlier than one. Constitutionally the laziest young devil in America, he had hit on a walk in life which enabled him to go the limit in that direction. He was a poet. At least, he wrote poems when he did anything; but most of the time, as far as I could make out, he spent in a sort of trance. He told me once that he could sit on a fence, watching a worm and wondering what on earth it was up to, for hours at a stretch.
He had his scheme of life worked out to a fine point. About once a month he would take three days writing a few poems; the other three hundred and twenty-nine days of the year he rested. I didn’t know there was enough money in poetry to support a chappie, even in the way in which Rocky lived; but it seems that, if you stick to exhortations to young men to lead the strenuous life and don’t shove in any rhymes, American editors fight for the stuff. Rocky showed me one of his things once. It began:–Be! Be! The past is dead. To-morrow is not born. Be to-day! To-day! Be with every nerve, With every muscle, With every drop of your red blood! Be!It was printed opposite the frontispiece of a magazine with a sort of scroll round it, and a picture in the middle of a fairly nude chappie, with bulging muscles, giving the rising sun the glad eye.
– P.G. Wodehouse, ‘The Aunt and the Sluggard’
dialogue in solitude
Once again, why Spinoza?
When I was talking to Dime T. from Ohrid, Macedonia, one afternoon about parapsychology, he asked me: ‘Why do you think you are writing about Spinoza?’ Had it been a conversation with a philosopher, I would have said something like: ‘Because of his unique philosophy, because of his divergence from Descartes’ doctrine about God’s free will, and the body-soul dichotomy.’ Had I talked to a literary theoretician, I would have answered her: ‘I have long wanted to try a new narrative approach – to write a novel as a conversation taking place between the reader and a character.’ But I knew I was talking to someone who knew the truth even before I said anything. So I chose not to say anything (I later learned that he knew the truth even when I had forgotten it). I felt I had to answer his question honestly, but I did not know the answer. ‘You’ve been so lonely, Goce. Why?’ Dime T. said, answering the query, and carried me back to the time I seemed to have forgotten, where there still existed ‘the subdued sickness of pain’ (Kristeva).
‘A writer,’ says Vladimir Nabokov, ‘is born in solitude.’ He is not only born in solitude – he also exists in solitude. Writing itself is an act of solitude. Or perhaps a need to overcome solitude. A need for conversations. Hence this Conversation with Spinoza.
– Goce Smilevski, Conversation with Spinoza, pp. 135f.
It was a book I enjoyed, partially because it engaged absorbingly with Spinoza’s philosophy (which I should perhaps mention that I have never read and know nothing about), but also because it asks the questions historians and literary critics are always asking about individuals in the past, without presuming that the most seductive answer is any more true than another. For me, the lapses (lapsus) were situational – i.e. those moments (some three or four) when the author placed the composition of the novel (not of the life of Spinoza) in a historical context.
Up, coffee, tofu, e-mail, cook lunch, read book about world with no people, bicycle to work in the rain, make rude gesture at driver who runs stop sign at cross street, data entry, knit, drink hot chocolate, data entry, eat lunch, read book about emotionally confused people, shuffle papers, knit, shuffle papers, data entry, bicycle to library in the rain, return library books, pick up holds (4), pay fine ($1.25), bicycle home in the rain, check post (bills), dinner, coffee, e-mail, internets, read several different books, etc.
gothic victorian sea monsters
The first time I heard Marianne [Moore] read poetry in public was at a joint reading with William Carlos Williams in Brooklyn. I am afraid I was a little late. There was a very small audience, mostly in the front rows, and I made my way as self-effacingly as I could down the steep red-carpeted steps of the aisle. As I approached the lower rows, she spotted me out of the corner of her eye and interrupted herself in the middle of a poem to bow and say, ‘Good evening!’ She and Dr. Williams shared the rather small high stage and took turns reading There were two high-backed chairs, far apart, and each poet sat down between readings. The decor seemed to be late-Victorian Gothic; I remember a good deal of red plush, dark wood, and Gothic points, knobs, and incised lines. Marianne, wearing a hat and a blue dress, looked quite small and seemed nervous. I had the impression that Williams, who was not nervous in the slightest was generously trying to put her at her ease. As they changed places at the lectern, he would whisper to her and smile. I have no recollection of anything that was read, except for a sea-monster poems of Williams’s, during which he gave some loud and realistic roars.
– Elizabet Bishop, ‘Efforts of Affection’, p. 142.
The memory of cranes flying in rain-heavy sky, lit in low-slanting sunlight; tall grasses and the bounce and hum of a bus; gold-leaved crowns, and painted walls, dank scent of earth, and the brightness of the cranes, flying. Don’t know what direction they flew, nor what direction I went, but away from the past and into the present, which is now the past. I cannot form these fragments into a sentence, because they do not fit.