My last weekly letter, from March 5th, seems to have been sent from another life, another space and time. Like a letter inside a bottle, retrieved from a time where we thought we could (more or less) trust our politicians not to gamble with our life and health to tame the markets, win elections, or profit from selling stocks before markets plunged (thereby keeping the public in the dark until the last possible moment). We could (more or less) expect that they would carefully consider danger assessments made available to them for months, and to take prompt action before the situation had chance to escalate.
It was also a time when we believed that people were reasonable enough to recognise the dangers of an exponential curve when they saw one; that they could differentiate between alarmism and math; and that folks would not wait until stringent measures were imposed to them from their governments to start to act responsibly.
Oh well. “Beware the Ides of March”. Our innocence is behind us now. It seems pointless to write about books in the present circumstances, and it seems pointless not to do it. So, I might as well do it.
Here are some short stories (& one essay) I read during the hell in earth we lived through in the past weeks. For my previous weekly posts, go here:
“Time is Unredeemable”, by Attia Hosain (Phoenix Fled, 1953)
Married at sixteen, Bano has barely had time to get to know her husband. Chosen by her parents, Arshad went away to pursue his studies in Europe just after their marriage. Penelope-like, Bano has been living with her parents-in-law in India for the past nine years, waiting for her husband, who had been further delayed by the outbreak of WWII. When he cables home to announce he is arriving in a month, Bano is barely able to allow herself to believe he will ever return. “She was isolated from the outside world not only by physical seclusion but my mental oblivion.“
Trained to believe that only then her life would really begin, Bano slowly starts to let her hopes grow. She makes plans, she resumes her English studies, she looks for the perfect Western-style coat: Bano doesn’t want her husband to think that she was like the other girls in the village. But the more she tries to distance herself from the girl she is, the more she is thrown back into her: the village girl is always there, in her inability to choose a coat, in her awkward way to wearing it, in her badly applied lipstick.
When her husband finally arrives, she hides away in her bedroom, full of anticipation and longing, waiting for him. “As she lay alone, with the sounds of the shouting chattering women shrilly penetrating the walls and locked door, she felt the intense longing for the moment of Arshad’s arrival turn into a hysterical panic that exhausted her until she was drawn further and further away from herself and her surroundings and was in a void.”
There is a finality to her life: she has been brought up to project all her longings onto Arshad’s homecoming, but we already sense from the beginning that her small opening towards allowing herself to believe will prove to be just an illusion. Nine unredeemable years will inevitably come to nothing in the end. “He felt his words fall into bottomless space, not of her silence but of her incomprehension. They went to her empty of meaning, the language of a strange world, though the sounds were from hers.”
My rating: ★★★★☆
“Distance”, by Grace Paley (Enormous changes at the last minute, 1974)
This story is all about voice. Dolly Rafferty, now a widow, muses about her wild youth, her marriage, her husband’s unfaithfulness, and her son’s poor choice of girlfriends. “You would certainly be glad to meet me. I was the lady who appreciated youth. (…) Still, it is like a long hopeless homesickness my missing those young days. To me, they’re like my own place that I have gone away from forever, and I have lived all the time since among great pleasures but in a foreign town.”
The tone of the story carries it through – darkly humorous, gritty, bitter, melancholic. In one scene, to get her son to leave Ginny, the girl downstairs, Dolly stabs herself with a kitchen knife. In another, Dolly fails at sparking conversation from her daughter-in-law Margaret: “I have to tease a little to grapple any sort of a reply out of her. But mostly it doesn’t work. It is something like I am a crazy construction worker in conversation with fresh cement.”
What is the title supposed to mean? At one point, Dolly muses: “Now, some serious questions, so far unasked: What the devil is it all about, the noisiness and the speediness, when it’s no distance at all? How come John had to pull all them courtesy calls into Margaret on his lifelong trip to Ginny? Also, Jack, what was his real nature? Was he for or against?” Perhaps distance stands for life, and loss, and loneliness. Perhaps it stands for Dolly, old and lonely, looking at life from a long stretch of time.
My rating: ★★★★★
“Seen from Paradise”, by Dorothy Richardson (Journey to Paradise, 1989)
This is stream of consciousness at its best. We are inside the freewheeling thoughts and impressions of a woman (possibly a writer) who enjoys to be alone and craves the creative freedom she gets from solitude. This much cherished state, alas, is about to be shattered by the arrival of friends who are planning to stay with her. “Five days. Then events; crowding. Beginning with the setting down of the tub plant. Alien. Flouting the old grey cottage. Beginning of its gradual transformation. Each step of which, in turn, whenever I come down, I shall be expected to applaud.”
As her mind wanders, our narrator is constantly losing her thread – and so are we, drifting afloat through the story. “Only five more days in solitude that not for one instant has been loneliness. Fresh realization, from moment to moment, all the time. Everything available, all past experience seen, while I sat writing, for the first time as near, clear, permanent reality. An empty mind as I sat in the evenings by the fireside doing nothing, not needing to read or to think, just looking and seeing, taking in afresh the marvellousness of there being anything anywhere. Knowing, when I went to bed, alone in an empty house that was reported to be haunted, that I should sleep the night through, dreamlessly, waking only when the early light, gleaming through the small casements, gave me again the joy of the squat jars of geranium bloom, brilliant against the pale canary yellow of the little curtains. Summer in the wintry dawn.”
My rating: ★★★★☆
“The Salt of the Earth”, by Rebecca West (The Harsh Voice, 1935)
There could not have been a more delightful way to end this Virago collection than with this story by West. Our protagonist, Alice Pemberton is a middle-aged woman with a penchant for interfering with people’s lives. Her mother, her husband, her sister, her brother, her servants – everyone around her cannot but feel relieved when she is not around. “That’s the worst of you, Alice. You find out what people live by, and you kill it”, says her husband. Ironically, that’s what he does, too: he finds out what Alice lives by, and he kills it.
Alice is the passive-aggressive type of nagging, meddlesome, self-righteous, attention-seeking woman. But it takes a while for us to notice that – as we follow her point of view throughout the story, we start by seeing her a victim of clueless people, only to end by thinking that she is a clueless woman herself. West’s is a brilliant take on the workings of a passive-aggressive mind. “I’m going to tell you the truth about yourself, and I’m going to do it now, because it may be too late tomorrow. Alice, you’re the salt of the earth. (…) The point is that nobody likes having salt rubbed into their wounds, even if it is the salt of the earth”.
Edith Wharton reviewed West’s collection for the New York Times, and wrote about this story: “Both these stories pretend to be straightforward and turn out to be tricky. “The Salt of the Earth” is more successful than either because its trickiness and ingenuity are apparent from the start. An implacably good woman, self-righteous, and determined to interfere with the lives others, prepares her own doom. Her husband, after a final desperate attempt to make her mend her ways, quietly murders her because he sees no other way to prevent her from spreading destruction. It is a curiously fascinating yarn, which compels itself on its own special terms and makes its heroine so obnoxious that one gleefully assents to the murder.”
My rating: ★★★★★
“A revolta do poema”, by Guilherme Gontijo Flores (‘The insurgence of the poem’, 2019)
In this essay, Brazilian poet Guilherme Gontijo Flores explores the relationship between protest and revolution to understand the potentiality of insurgence in a poem – or, more precisely, in the gesture of the poem. He argues that this potentiality does not necessarily manifest itself as an expression of social or political criticism.
To Gontijo Flores, while it is true that there can be insurgence in the poem (showing itself as a poem), the insurgence of the poem means something different: it is the poem’s potentiality to extrapolate the explicitly or specifically political realms and to embrace insurgence in a broader sense. The insurgent gesture of the poem lies somewhere in-between language and image, form and substance.
If the poem can well be revolutionary, it certainly cannot be the revolution in itself, nor can it alone embrace the revolution. While the revolution prepares the future, insurgence evokes the future: insurgence does not intend to organize any immediate project that applies to the future, but rather to evoke the potential of a future open to unpredictable relations. Insurgence evokes a future without preparing it, it stirs the present without presenting a closed and well-defined path; in that sense, insurgence (not revolution) is able to open up unstable and creative doors, because it flirts directly with the destruction of continuity (whereas the revolution almost always seeks to build something afterwards). Revolution builds whereas insurgence destroys – and, by doing so, insurgence creates space. Like an uprising, it is an “open gesture potentially infinite”.
The insurgence of the poem, in turn, does not mean the occupation of the poem as a space for resistance; rather, it is the potentiality of the poem’s destructive character, a linguistic gesture that alters the configurations of the possible. The insurgence of the poem is this opening of space that evokes a future for everyone, for nothing, for nobody.
Building on Paul Celan’s poem ‘Stehen’ (1), Gontijo Flores argues that the insurgence of the poem can be a way of setting foot (Stehen) in the world, even when there is no longer a fully shareable language (auch ohne / Sprache): it is up to the poem to create this space of conviviality. The insurgence of the poem opens up the possibility for us to share language as a cleft, a gap, a blank space (Mit allem, was darin Raum hat).
“When, way beyond mere chaos, the performance of the poem establishes within its precariousness a plural collective bond, in the affective non-actuality of an open reorganization of space-time – that which returns in the insurgence of the poem is what never ceases to escape from it, and which, for today, I will call life.”
(1) „STEHEN, im Schatten
des Wundenmals in der Luft.
Unerkannt, für dich
Mit allem, was darin Raum hat,
My rating: ★★★★★
In case you are in need of a playlist with a twisted sense of humour for your quarantine, I put together some Coronavirus-inspired songs here:
That’s all for now, folks. Stay safe, wherever you are.