Conversations with Faye: My Thoughts on Outline by Rachel Cusk

My Review:

outlineWhen my daughter was in preschool and I started taking her to various birthday parties and playdates to which she would be invited by her friends I always felt awkward and out-of-place. I was oftentimes the only mother at these gatherings who had a career and an only child.  When I would confirm that my daughter is an only child I would get a look, a comment:  “Oh you only have one child.”  I felt as if having a single child made me a mother, but not enough of a mother to be considered a part of their club.  And after my daughter was born I remember various family members asking not if we were having more children but when.   Of the various people portrayed in Cusk’s Outline, I identified most with Angeliki, a writer of contemporary women’s fiction, who describes her marriage and her reasons for having one child with her husband.  Because of my experiences with how people react to my decision to have an only child ,Angeliki’s story and her words particularly resonated with me.  Her remark at the thought of having more than one child is startlingly honest, “I would have been completely submerged.”

In Rachel Cusk’s first book of a trilogy that is loosely autobiographical, a recently divorced author named Faye is traveling to London from Greece where she will teach a short writing workshop.  While on her travels she encounters various people like Angeliki who share the stories of their lives, their loves, their identities and their perceptions of the world.  It is through their stories that the author starts to realize how her own identity and perception of the world have had a dramatic shift since the dissolution of her marriage.  On the plane ride to Athens, she meets a man who was raised in Greece but was educated in English boarding schools.  She simply refers to him as “her neighbor” throughout the narrative as he proceeds to give her the details about the passion, progress and dissolution of two of his marriages.

While in Athens, Faye meets others—a writer, a publisher, a fellow teacher, her students—with whom she has lengthy conversations.  She goes on a boat ride and a swim with her neighbor from the plane where she observes another family having an outing.  As she notices the ways in which father, mother and children interact with one another in a mundane setting Faye observes:  “I was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own.”  This simple yet profound statement signifies that the discussions with her friends and her acquaintances are continually reshaping and reforming her own identity and her own views of the world as a single woman, a single mother, and as a person that is no longer half of a couple.

Cusk’s writing is philosophical and meditative and she uses her talents to make simple settings appear unique and intriguing.  An airplane ride, a swim in the ocean, dinner at a seedy Greek restaurant are all seen from a new point-of-view and become vivid backdrops for Faye’s conversations during which people share the most intimate details about their lives.  Her description of the atmosphere on the plane also appears to be a commentary on the various lenses through which we view others:

The plane seemed stilled, almost motionless; there was so little interface between inside and outside, so little friction, that it was hard to believe we were moving forward.  The electric light, with the absolute darkness outside, made people look very fleshy and real, their detail so unmeditated, so impersonal, so infinite.

One subject, in particular, that runs throughout all of the conversations is marriage and family life.  Cusk’s book could have easily turned into a typical narrative oftentimes found in contemporary women’s fiction that presents one lamentation after another condemning marriage and lauding the single woman as a heroine of strength and fortitude despite the horrible personality flaws of an ex.  Cusk’s approach to writing about marriage is more intelligent and philosophical; she understands that life is complex and she reaches beyond the usual, fictional narrative to underscore these complexities.  Faye offers little detail about her own life to her various acquaintances, but when she does voice her opinions during theses conversations they are thought-provoking and profound.  She says to her neighbor on the plane,   “Among other things, a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.”

Cusk’s novel  is a meditation on life, love, relationships and our multilayered and ever-evolving perceptions of these things.  It will be very interesting to see how she continues her conversations about these topics in the next book of the trilogy entitled Transit.

For more interesting reviews and comments on Cusk’s books visit: Times Flow Stemmed and flowerville.

About the Author:

cuskRachel Cusk was born in Canada, and spent some of her childhood in Los Angeles, before her family returned to England, in 1974, when Cusk was 8 years old. She read English at New College, Oxford.

Cusk is the Whitbread Award–winning author of two memoirs, including The Last Supper, and seven novels, including Arlington Park, Saving Agnes, The Temporary, The Country Life, and The Lucky Ones.

She has won and been shortlisted for numerous prizes: her most recent novel, Outline (2014), was shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Goldsmith’s Prize and the Bailey’s prize, and longlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize. In 2003, Rachel Cusk was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’

She lives in Brighton, England.

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Lucretius, Epicureanism, and a sinking ship: My thoughts on the Inauguration

Battle of Actium. Castro, 1672.

Battle of Actium. Castro, 1672.

The beginning of Book II of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura has always been one of my favorite parts of this Roman poet’s epic.  As Inauguration Day approaches in my country, I keep mulling over these lines for various reasons which I will explain.  First, I offer my translation of De Rerum Natura 2.1-19:

Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
non quia vexari quemquamst iucunda voluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suavest.
suave etiam belli certamina magna tueri
per campos instructa tua sine parte pericli;
sed nihil dulcius est, bene quam munita tenere
edita doctrina sapientum templa serena,
despicere unde queas alios passimque videre
errare atque viam palantis quaerere vitae,
certare ingenio, contendere nobilitate,
noctes atque dies niti praestante labore
ad summas emergere opes rerumque potiri.
o miseras hominum mentes, o pectora caeca!
qualibus in tenebris vitae quantisque periclis
degitur hoc aevi quodcumquest! nonne videre
nihil aliud sibi naturam latrare, nisi ut qui
corpore seiunctus dolor absit, mensque fruatur
iucundo sensu cura semota metuque?

It is pleasant, when on the vast sea the winds are stirring up
the water, to look at the great misfortune of another person
from the land; not because it is pleasant to rejoice in
another man’s troubles, but because it is a relief to
comprehend what types of evils from which you yourself
have been spared. It is pleasant indeed to look upon great
battles in war being carried out on the battlefield,
the dangers of which you have no part in. There is
nothing sweeter than to possess the fortified, lofty doctrines of
the wise, as serene temples, from which place you might look
down upon others and see that they wander everywhere
seeking a path for their aimless lives, as they struggle with
their intelligence and fight for nobility, as night and day
they wrestle with great toil to climb to the highest
mountain of riches and to acquire things.
O miserable minds of men, o blind souls!
In what shadows of life, in what perils is this age of
yours have you passed! You see, don’t you, that nature barks
for nothing other than this, that pain be severed from the body
and that the mind, freed from worry and fear, enjoy
a pleasant feeling.

As I have spoken to various friends from around the world, especially in the blogging community, I can’t help but feel that other countries are standing on the shores and watching in horror the shipwreck that is occurring in American politics with the inauguration of our 45th President. I have a sense that Canadians in particular, with their universal healthcare, and progressive Prime Minister, are grateful, in the sense Lucretius describes, that they are not part of these turbulent waters in which we Americans have found ourselves drowning.

As the Inauguration approaches, I have tried very hard not to read about any of the preparations for it and I have also vowed not to watch the news coverage on the day of the event. I don’t want to experience this shipwreck of an historical event, but then I realized that perhaps my inability to watch the shipwreck signifies that I have created an illusion for myself. It’s not that I don’t want to watch it, but instead it’s impossible for me to see it because I am on that very ship, being drowned in those waters which the wind has stirred up. Sometimes it’s very difficult not to have such a feeling of despair.

In order to mitigate our despair what are those “lofty doctrines of the wise” Lucretius suggests to which we can cling? How do we counteract a war being played out in horror in front of our eyes—a war against healthcare, basic human rights, freedoms and liberties? We cannot exist in some Epicurean garden or paradise and simply watch these things happen without being affected and without protest or action.

I can’t help but think of our incoming president as I translate Lucretius’ description of men who crave riches and devote their lives to the acquisition of things. It is evident from any thirty-second sound bite we hear that our new leader struggles with intelligence (ingenio) and has quite a lofty view of his own nobility (nobilitate). I site as an example of this exaggerated sense of nobilitas the opulent signs displaying his name on every building he owns or partially owns.

Finally, I particularly admire Lucretius’ word choice in the last few lines when talking about pain (dolor)—our nature barks or howls out (latrare) for us to get rid of any type of pain that invades our bodies and to embrace those things that bring us pleasure. How can we apply Lucretius’ advice to our current political situation? Lucretius’ suggestion of avoidance, as I noted above, seems impossible in this instance. Avoidance, in fact, is downright irresponsible. We are left with the other piece of his philosophy—to embrace those things that give us pleasure. For me this would take the form of reading, writing, connecting with friends, holding my family especially close and setting an example of kindness, tolerance and understanding for my daughter and my students. Will this be enough to mitigate the pain? Who knows. Perhaps it might be better to look to the Stoics or the Cynics for more philosophical advice in this instance.

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Filed under Classics, Opinion Posts

Review: Justine by Iben Mondrup

My Review:
justine-front_frame_largeJustine is another example of the cutting-edge, fascinating, and experimental writing that Open Letter seeks out and publishes from authors around the world.  Originally written and published in 2012 in Danish, it has taken a few years for Mondrup’s work to become available in English.  It is just the type of creative, sensual, interesting book that was screaming out for Open Letter to translate and publish.

When the book opens, Justine’s house has just burned down and along with the house all of her artwork for an upcoming exhibition has gone up in flames.  Justine inherited the house and her artist sensibilities from her grandfather.  We are given some vague hints about what started the fire and whether or not Justine herself is to blame.  Most of the book is taken up with  Justine’s jumbled thoughts about her life past and present, about her experimentations with her art, about the sexist world of the Dutch art school, about her varied sexual relationships and about her disintegrating state of mind.

Sex is available to Justine no matter whom she encounters in art school; professors, graduates and students alike, male or female, will sleep with her.  I can’t help but think that the author chose the name for her title and main character, Justine, as a literary nod to de Sade who also penned a book with this title.  Justine is officially dating a woman named Vita, whom she appears to have genuine affection for: “I love her,” she writes, “I already loved her that New Year’s Eve when the light had long since departed, everyone had gone home, it was only us tough dogs left.”  Notice the interesting mix of past and present tense—the polyptoton love and loved is especially fitting— even in this one short sentence spoken by Justine.

But despite her feelings for Vita,  Justine keeps cheating on Vita with an interesting variety of men.  It turns out that Vita has also been seeing another woman behind Justine’s back and Justine becomes extremely jealous when she finds out.  Like the writing and some of the plot in the book, Justine’s sexual orientation is ambiguous.  Her sexual encounters with men and women are, like her state of mind, frenzied, intense, dark and highly erotic.  She describes a drunken escapade with a man named Bo she regularly meets for sex:

I can perch atop him and ride.  In my hand he’s an animal I’m bringing down.  I’ll ride him like he’s never been ridden, until he spurts until he dies.  I unzip his pants.  There’s softness in the warmth between the hairs.  I ride him with my hand.  I transform him to a fountain that shoots high in the air.

When her Grandfather and Ane, a good friend from art school, are described the narrative is more straightforward, more traditional.  But when she tells us about her various erotic interludes the text becomes poetic, scattered, broken.  Grandfather, who was himself a painter, discusses art, life and family history with Justine.  Grandfather himself has not had an easy existence because his wife, Justine’s grandmother, suffered from a nervous breakdown after she gave birth to Justine’s mother.  Justine’s mother is also mentally unstable and a drunk who accidentally burns herself to death.  Mondrup subtly weaves patterns of images throughout Justine’s scattered narrative: fire, burning, passion and madness.

Another significant stylist detail to note about the book is that several of the pages of the text are very short, a paragraph or even a sentence in length.  Since Justine jumps back and forth between past and present sometimes we are thrust into the midst of one of these short meditations and we aren’t sure if she is talking about past or present.  Many of her thoughts are eerily foreboding:

Is it even possible to find a cut-off?  An exact moment when it all went wrong?  A point around which all events are distributed?  Before and after?  A crime scene?  A weapon cast in a backyard?  The road to murder is a slippery slope of things that are said and done.  An eye that saw amiss.  Something that should’ve remained hidden.  Or something that  didn’t happen.  After the murder there’s the clean-up.  The cover up.  Someone must pay the penalty.  Others must receive it.

Justine finally manages to pull enough of her art work together to have a successful showing at a local gallery.  But the ending of the book can only be described as ambiguous.  Normally I would find this frustrating, but it is a fitting end for Justine whose own ambiguities abound throughout the novel.

About the Author:
mondrupIben Mondrup is a trained visual artist from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts who is also the author of four novels, including Justine, its sequel, and Godhavn.

Read an conversation with Mondrup from The Rumpus: http://therumpus.net/2016/12/the-rumpus-book-club-chat-with-iben-mondrup-and-kerri-pierce/

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Filed under Art, Literature in Translation

Hero-Shaming: Aidos and Nemesis in Logue’s War Music

Nemesis and Tyche

Nemesis and Tyche

Fat-shaming, slut-shaming, body-shaming, teen-shaming, pet-shaming.  In the blogging and book world I have even seen list-shaming recently.  There has been an explosion of attempts in the 21st century to shame one another into appropriate behavior via social media.  But what do these online exchanges really accomplish?  Have they really made us a more moral and ethical society?  Or is all of this shaming a badly veiled form of bullying and harassment?

It seems that we have come a very long way from the Homeric concept of shame, aidos, which was a quality a man or woman possessed that was a motivation for him or her to follow what was considered the correct behavior.  Aidos is the feeling of shame, humility or modesty that is specifically related to three aspects of Homeric society: situations involving sexuality, the entertainment of guests, and standing one’s ground in battle.  This last category especially pertains to the heroes in the Iliad Aidos, or shame, is what keeps a Homeric hero on the battlefield despite the horrors of warfare.  If a man flees from the battlefield due to fear or cowardice he feels great aidos, shame, in front of his fellow warriors.  James Redfield in his pivotal book “Nature and Culture in the Iliad” sums up aidos and its impact on the Homeric hero: “Combat is the crucial social act, for in combat the survival of the collectivity is at stake.  The aidos felt in battle is an experience of the collectivity; a man stands his ground because he shrinks from betraying his fellows.”

The exemplar of a hero with the most acute sense of aidos in The Iliad is Hector.  He goes into fierce battles brought on by his brother because to hide away from war would cause him great aidos. In Book VI of The Iliad, Hector returns home in the midst of fighting the Greeks in order to speak with his wife Andromache and see his infant son Astyanax.  In this beautiful yet deeply sad exchange between husband and wife, Andromache begs Hector not to go back into battle and she appeals to his sense of pity to persuade him.  She argues that when Hector dies she will be a lonely widow and their son will be a fatherless orphan.  Hector greatly pities his beloved wife as he contemplates with horror the aftermath of Troy’s destruction when she will be carried off as a slave to serve in a Greek man’s home.  But not even the thought of his wife as a captive will keep him from rejoining the battle.  What does keep him fighting and risking his life is his sense of aidos; he will die of shame, he says, if he does not return to battle and has to face the men or women of Troy who will think him a coward who shrinks from battle.  As with the concept of kleos, Homeric aidos is deeply rooted within community, something that is dependent on one’s society.

Paris is a flawed Homeric hero, the antithesis to his brother Prince Hector.  When Paris is saved from battle by the goddess Aphrodite, he feels no aidos at leaving the battlefield.  He is happy to sit in his rooms and drink in Helen’s beauty.  Paris’s sense of aidos is never fully developed and his lack of aidos makes him impervious to any nemesis he might incur.

I am disappointed that Logue did not recreate the scene in Book VI between Hector and Andromache because it is one of my favorite parts of the Iliad.  Logue does, however,  in his account of Iliad Books 3 and 4, approach the subject of Hector’s sense of aidos when the Prince volunteers himself to the Trojans who are trying to decide which man will fight Menelaus one on one.  The Trojans say about Hector’s offer:

Hector has fought and fought, has given blood and now—
Breathtaking grace,—offers his life and his armour to end
The hostilities he did not cause.

In this simply stated line, Logue alludes to one of Hector’s primary motivations for fighting a war against men who have not personally wronged him: his sense of aidos.  But the Trojans decide that it should be Paris who fights Menelaus since he started this mess in the first place.  Logue primarily deals with the Homeric idea of aidos through the character of Paris as an example of how a hero ought not to behave.  In Logue’s account, which is faithful to the Homeric plot, Aphrodite swoops in and saves Paris just before Menelaus is able to slaughter him.  When Paris reappears back in their palatial bedroom, Helen attempts to persuade Paris to go back out onto the battlefield and fight for her.  She is trying to appeal to Paris’s sense of aidos which is futile become he completely lacks this Homeric quality.  He is a defective Homeric hero:

Your death will be the best for everyone
Troy will reopen.  I shall sail for Greece.
And you will not survive your cowardice.

And later in Logue’s account of Iliad Books 7-9,  when the Greeks are beaten back to their ships and suffer horrible loses, the heroes appeal to one another’s sense of aidos to keep them on the battlefield.  The Greek men shout to one another:

Stand still and fight.
Feel shame in one another’s eyes.
I curse you, God.  You are a liar, God.
Troy will be yours by dark—immortal lies!
Home!
Home!
There’s no such place!
You can’t launch burning ships.
More men survive if no one runs.

In typical, short burst, hard hitting sentences Logue perfectly captures the Homeric ideal of aidos.  Logue’s last line of this quote in particular is reminiscent of Iliad V.531 and XV.563 when the Greeks and Trojans, in the midst of battle, are shouting to each other that when men feel aidos, more of them are likely to be saved in combat than perish.  So the Greek heroes’ need for kleos (fame) is what made them follow Agamemnon and Menelaus across the Aegean in the first place, but aidos is what keeps them from fleeing in horror every time they take their places on the battlefield.

The Greek concept of Nemesis, “righteous indignation  or “retribution” is closely related to aidos.  If a man acts improperly then he will incur the nemesis of his community;  it is aidos that keeps a man from behaving badly and attracting nemesis.  Redfield says about this Homeric concept:  “But nemesis is provoked by any act which is both improper and unexpected, ranging from failures of tact to cowardice and  betrayal.”  The outlandish behavior of the suitors, for instance, evokes nemesis in those who witness their bad manners.  Paris’s lack of aidos when he is carried off the battlefield is something that brings out nemesis in Hector who tries to persuade Paris to do the right thing.

I have found Logue’s insertion of nemesis into his poem especially interesting.  As Helen appears on the wall at Troy and looks down at the assembled armies, there is a hush over the warriors as they stare at her in awe.  And one after the other says about her:

Ou nem’me’sis…
Ou nem’me’sis…

There is some behavior that, while not ideal, is still within the acceptable social norm.  Such behavior is considered ou nemesis (ou meaning “no,” “not”).  Running from mortal danger (except on the battlefield), for instance, is ou nemesis.  I thought for a long time about Logue’s use of this phrase in relation to Helen and I believe it is his way of explaining the unfortunate circumstances under which Helen arrived in Troy.  Logue points out that it was Aphrodite that gave Helen to Paris, so Helen herself really can’t be shamed for causing this war that was not entirely her fault.  Thus, her situation is ou nemesis, even from a Greek fighter’s standpoint.  It’s also interesting to note that if it were not for her, then these heroes would not have this prime opportunity for kleos (fame).  So, another reason for ou nemesis.

In my next Logue post I will turn my attention to what, exactly, happens on the battlefield.  What makes a fighter or a man excellent?  How is honor related to a hero’s excellence?

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Review: The Underground By Hamid Ismailov

My Review:
the-undergroundCaveat lector.  Let the reader beware.  This book is deeply sad and does not have a happy ending.  But for many readers a happy ending is not a necessary factor for a book to be considered successful  The narrator of Ismailov’s novel is a child nicknamed Mbobo whose mother is from Siberia and whose father is an unknown African athlete that visited Moscow, and his mother, during the Olympics in 1980.  The boy’s sad story of a tumultuous childhood fraught with domestic violence and racism is told posthumously: “My mother died when I was eight, and I died four years later.”

As a boy, Mbobo oftentimes finds himself being taken from one part of Moscow to another via the city’s subway.  Each of the title chapters in the book is a station from the Moscow underground which is appropriate for the themes of darkness and death that are woven throughout the narrative.  The chapter entitled “Kropotkinskaya Station” begins:

If I ever wanted a tomb for my dead body, I would have picked the Kropotkinskaya Station. That is my vault: elegant and airy, impractical and absurd, standing all by itself, in the middle of the road, like an arch from nowhere to nowhere. If you find yourself on Volkhonk Street and pass under this frilly gape of an arch, you should turn left, you’ll end up in my underground hell, the very station where I, the stoker-imp, am covered in soot. There fountains of flames spurt up toward the hot ceiling from the torch-like pillars, where the light of day is never seen.

Because Mbobo is black he suffers from horrible, daily episodes of racism throughout his young life.  His nickname, Pushkin–the poet’s maternal great- grandfather came to Russia from Ethiopia with Peter the Great— is even a cruel reminder that he is not like everyone else.  When he is at school he is pushed by a bully and he suffers a severe concussion.  While recovering at the hospital, which should have been a safe resting place for him, two other boys tie him up and call him awful, racist names.

The only real solace in his life is the unconditional love shown to him by his mother, whose name is Moscow. He calls her “Mommy Moscow.”  But she has her own issues with alcohol and promiscuity which also affect Mbobo’s life.  Her husband,  whom the child calls Uncle Gleb, is a struggling writer.  On the rare occasions when he does get paid he spends his earnings on vodka and then beats his wife.  Mbobo witnesses regular episodes of domestic violence and oftentimes tries to intervene to stop Uncle Gleb from killing his mother.  When she finally gets tired of his drunken beatings, Mbobo’s mother takes up with a railway police officer named Uncle Nazar.  Even though his second stepfather is kinder to his mother, he is stern and distant with the boy.

When Mbobo’s mother succumbs to her intemperate lifestyle, he is left orphaned.  He bounces between his uncles who attempt to care for him but with the loss of the unconditional love of his mother he is drowned in his feelings of utter and complete loneliness.  These tragedies happen to Mbobo with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union as the backdrop.  One of the final tragedies that the boy experiences is the renaming of his underground stations that had been one of the few constants in his short life.

The book is fused with literary allusions to the Russian greats: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Platonov all peak through Ismailov’s text.  The greatest of greats, Tolstoy himself, makes his appearance at the end of the novel which has a conclusion similar to that of Anna Karenina.  Despite the melancholy ending, Ismailov’s talented writing about identity, race, loneliness and the collapse of a government make it a highly successful literary novel.

Ben Winston, who has founded the site Vibrant Margins which is dedicated to bringing small press books to readers through a subscription service, has agreed to give a copy of The Underground as well as Country Life by Ken Edwards to one of my readers. Both of these books, which are great literary reads,  are included in the first subscription season of Vibrant Margins.   If you would like a copy of these books then just leave me a comment and I will randomly pick one US reader.   So that my friends outside the US will also have a chance to read these books,  I will also pick one International reader to win my own copies of these books.

About the Author:
hamidismailovBorn in an ancient city in what is now Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbek novelist and poet who was forced to leave his home in Tashkent when his writing brought him to the attention of government officials. Under threat of arrest, he moved to London and joined the BBC World Service, where he is now Head of the Central Asian Service. In addition to journalism, Ismailov is a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and his books have been published in Uzbek, Russian, French, German, Turkish, English and other languages. His work is still banned in Uzbekistan. He is the author of many novels, including Sobranie UtonchyonnyhLe Vagabond Flamboyant, Two Lost to LifeThe RailwayHostage to Celestial TurksGoogling for SoulThe UndergroundA Poet and Bin-Laden, and The Dead Lake; poetry collections including Sad (Garden) and Pustynya (Desert); and books of visual poetry including Post Faustum and Kniga Otsutstvi. He has translated Russian and Western classics into Uzbek, and Uzbek and Persian classics into Russian and several Western languages.

 

 

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature