Category Archives: Nonfiction

Review: Down Below by Leonora Carrington

When I gave birth to my daughter eleven years ago I suffered from a severe bout of post-partum depression.  About two weeks after she was born it was as if a cloud or a thick fog had descended over me and I no longer felt like myself.  I could barely move except to do the most essential tasks to take care of my newborn and was silent for most of the day.  I also felt a deep sense of embarrassment over experiencing this depression because what should have been one of the happiest times of my life was one of the saddest.  Talking about one’s physical health seemed far more socially acceptable than discussing ones struggle with mental health.  The New York Review of books reissuing of Down Below helps to ease this stigma and to begin much needed conversations about the importance of mental health.

While reading Down Below, Leonora Carrington’s autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown during World War II and her resulting admission into a sanitarium in Spain I couldn’t help but think about my own bout with mental illness.  There were two themes throughout her account with which I particularly identified: her fear of a relapse and her determined and constant struggle against her demons.  The mental health issues I experienced with post-partum were no where near the severity of the nervous breakdown that Leonora Carrington suffered in 1940.  But the fear of lapsing back into that fog of depression, a fear that is not uncommon to anyone with an illness,  has always haunted me.  Carrington’s recollection of these harrowing events felt to me like they were her attempt at catharsis to rid herself of the fear that she would someday, once again, lose her grip on reality.  She writes, “I am in terrible anguish, yet I cannot continue living alone with such a memory…I know that once I have written it down, I shall be delivered.”

Carrington originally wrote out this short memoir herself a few years after the breakdown but the original manuscript was lost.  She then dictated in French this version we have now to the wife of a friend in 1943 which was translated into English and published in 1944.  As she speaks about these events to her friend’s wife it becomes evident that her motive for bringing forth these horrible memories is to cleanse her mind of these awful events, to unburden herself and to allow her friends to know the full story so they can help her stay whole.  She begins her dictation of this period in her life with:

I must live through that experience all over again, because, by doing so, I believe that I may be of use to you, just as I believe that you will be of help in my journey beyond that frontier by keeping me lucid and by enabling me to put on and to take off at will the mask which will be my shield against the hostility of Conformism.

As she gets deeper into the more disturbing events of her commitment to an asylum Carrington never pities herself or asks her audience to pity her.  She is able to recall the broken and fractured thoughts of a tormented mind with the detached style of writing that seems more fitting for a journalist.  But her lack of emotional response, I felt, was due to the fact that if she stopped and allowed herself to become awash in her feelings, she would never have been able to make it through her entire story.  She continues to stave off her fear as she gets farther into her memoir:

I have been writing for three days, though I had expected to deliver myself in a few hours; this is painful, because I am living this period all over again and sleeping badly, troubled and anxious as I am about the usefulness of what I am doing.  However, I must go on with my story in order to come out of my anguish.  My ancestors, malevolent and smug, are trying to frighten me.

The cover that the New York Review of Books chose for this reissue of Down Below evokes the thoughts in these lines.  It features the center image of Carrington’s painting Crookhey Hall, which was also the name of her childhood home in Britain, with a ghost-like figure dressed in white fleeing other ghostly images that surround a gothic style house.   This painting can be viewed as Carrington’s representation of her escape from her childhood home in Britain and the grip of her wealthy, industrialist family; but it is also a fitting image to portray her never ending struggle to keep her mental demons which describes in Down Below at bay.

The other theme that appears on every page of Down Below is Carrington’s struggle against her illness.  There were many times throughout her experience where it would have been easier for her to give up and succumb to her disease but she never allows this to happen.  Carrington’s breakdown begins when Max Ernst, the surrealist painter with whom she was living in France, was captured by the Germans and brought to a concentration camp.  Even at the very beginning of this episode she fights against the sadness and anxiety that threatens to overwhelm her:  She describes the first few hours after which Max was taken away,

I wept for several hours down in the village; then I went up again to my house where, for twenty-four hours, I indulged in voluntary vomitings induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap.  I hoped that my sorrow would be diminished by these spasms, which tore at my stomach like earthquakes.

An old friend from England arrives in France to help her escape to Spain where the symptoms of her illness become more severe.  Carrington is committed to Dr. Morales’s sanatorium in Santander, Spain which she believes at the time was a “god-send” because of her increasingly disturbing thoughts and behavior.  Once at the asylum she is tied down to her bed because her fighting against the doctors, which is described as animalistic, is constant.  “I learned later that I entered that place fighting like a tigress,” she says.  The descriptions of her restraints and her injections with the drug Cardiazol, a common treatment for mental disorders at the time, are especially difficult to read.  The indignities she suffers at Santander, instead of mitigating her disease, only add to her trauma:

I don’t know how long I remained bound and naked.  Several days and nights, lying in my own excrement, urine and sweat, tortured by mosquitoes whose stings made my body hideous—I believed that they were the spirits of all the crushed Spaniards who blamed me for my internment, my lack of intelligence and my submissiveness.

Carrington’s delusions are numerous while she is confined to Santander; she believes that Dr. Morales is the supreme commander of the Universe, that she is part of the Holy Trinity, and that there is a paradise at the sanatorium the she calls “Down Below.”  She feels that gaining admission into what she believes is the paradise of “Down Below” will help her to heal and she constantly struggles to make it to this magical place.  When she is injected with Cardiazol which induces painful episodes of epileptic seizures she still continues with her fight to make it through this illness.  She recalls her second injection of this awful drug: “Keeping my eyes closed enabled me to endure the second Cardiazol ordeal much less badly, and I got up very quickly, saying to Frau Aseguardo, ‘Dress me, I must go to Jerusalem to tell them what I have learned.'”

Carrington’s delusions gradually subside to the point where she is able to be released from Santander.  Her parents decide that they want to send her far away to another asylum in South Africa.  But as her last act of defiance in this memoir, she escapes to the Mexican embassy where she eventually meets Renato Leduc who marries her and brings her to Mexico.  She knows that she cannot endure another stay at an asylum that would undoubtedly use the same harsh treatments that she received in Spain.  She decides she has had enough and her last act of struggle, of fighting is what most likely saves her sanity.

After her marriage of convenience with Leduc falls apart, Carrington goes on to marry Imre Weisz with whom she had two sons.  She lives with her family very happily in Mexico for the rest of her 94 years and has a successful career as a Surrealist painter and an author.  Carrington’s memoir not only serves as a testament to her strong will but it also provides us with a brave example of the ability to overcome the struggle with mental illness and the resulting fear of relapse.

This month was the 100th year of Leonora Carrington’s birth and many commemorative articles have been written about her life, her writing and her art.  I have collected a few of these links here:

An article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/06/leonora-carrington-from-high-society-to-surrealism-in-praise-of-100-years-on

A review of her short stories from NPR News: http://www.npr.org/2017/04/08/521959754/rediscovering-surrealist-leonora-carringtons-delights-and-disturbances

An article written by author Joanna Walsh for the Verso Blog: http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2275-i-have-no-delusions-i-am-playing-leonora-carrington-s-madness-and-art

 

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under Classics, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction

Review: Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno

Each of us has their own rhythm of suffering.—Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary.

My Review:
The entry for 24 October 1911 in Kafka’s Diaries reads:

Yesterday it occurred to me that I did not always love my mother as she deserved and as I could, only because the German language prevented it. The Jewish mother is no ‘Mutter’, to call her ‘Mutter’ makes her a little comic […], we give a Jewish woman the name of a German mother, but forget the contradiction that sinks into the emotions so much the more heavily, ‘Mutter’ is peculiarly German for the Jew, it unconsciously contains, together with the Christian splendor Christian coldness also, the Jewish woman who is called ‘Mutter’ therefore becomes not only comic but strange. Mama would be a better name if only one didn’t imagine ‘Mutter’ behind it.

Kate Zambreno composed Book of Mutter, whose title is taken from Kafka’s diary, over the course of the thirteen years following her mother’s painful death from lung cancer.  Zambreno’s writing is a beautiful mixture of memoir, poetry, literary reflection, historical commentary and diary that is impossible to classify into one genre.  Similar to Kafka, there is a feeling that the author’s process of writing is an active and cathartic way for her to remember her mother and their complicated relationship and to work through her grief:

I began to attempt to write to make sense of all of these different memories and tenses of my mother.  Was, is, was… It infected everything.  I kept on trying to write her down.  My dead mother wormed her way into every book I have ever written.  I kept on trying to erase her from the pages, change her into other mothers.

And how this thing has expanded and contracted over the years—my mother book my monster book.

Throughout the Book of Mutter Zambreno includes quotes and stories about other authors who have chosen to write in order to soothe a loss.  Virginia Wolfe, Roland Barthes and Peter Handke all make an appearance in Zambreno’s text. Furthermore, there is a sense from the fragmented and random order of the text that Zambreno’s attempt to write a book of mutter becomes this monstrous exercise in rambling; at times she feels like a raving Cassandra figure that is screaming for comfort and her mutter turns into a muttering.  Her very last words written in the book are “I mutter, mutter, mutter.”

Another recurring theme throughout Zambreno’s book is that of photographs and images and how we use these things to reconstruct someone who no longer exists.  Roland Barthes is the perfect author for her to incorporate into her text since his writing about photographs was deeply affected by the loss of his mother.  She quotes from Barthes’s Camera Lucida: “It’s true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more.”  Throughout her journey of mourning Zambreno continually turns to family photographs to reconstruct, to recognize the woman she knew.  Her mother didn’t like to be photographed so she oftentimes was the one taking the pictures.  The photos of her childhood that don’t include an image of her mother still feel like the ghost or shadow of her mother is present since she is the one behind the camera.

One final theme that runs throughout Book of Mutter is that of objects and how we associate certain objects with those we’ve lost.   “Yet the objects we collect, they can nourish us too,” Zambreno writes.  The objects that her mother collected were a comfort to her and now become a solace for Zambreno herself.  Her mother had a collection of woven baskets, Clinique lipsticks, her children’s school papers and report cards, and gardening tools.  The saddest collection of all is the contents of her mother’s purse which she brings to her in the hospital:

I brought one of her purses to the hospital.  It sat on the table next to her bed.  It was black with a gold clasp.  She guarded it fiercely.  It was the only thing she could hold onto, something that was hers, something that reflected who she used to be.

In the purse:

a used tissue
a sample hand lotion
a lipstick never used
a wallet without money
crumbling brown tobacco lining the bottom

no mirrors

In the end all of these things—writing, photographs, objects become apocrypha, which she points out comes from the Greek “things having been hidden away”,  because she can never fully know or recapture who her mother was.  Like Odysseus, attempting to embrace his mother whom he meets in the afterlife, he tries to grasp her shadowy image three times but does so in vain because there is a permanent division between body and spirit, life and death.

For me reading Zambreno’s book was more than just about contemplating grief; it is a book about the importance of the parent-child relationship and it made me more fully aware of my relationship with  my own daughter and how I spend my time with her.  She calls me “mama” or “mommy” which might seem jejune since she is now in middle school.  But I’ve always found both of these titles more endearing and warmer than “mom” or “mother” (or Kafka’s mutter.)  I hope she always feels the same warmth towards me.  Which objects, spaces, photographs will she one day associate with me?

About the Author:
Kate Zambreno is the author of Green Girl (Harper Perennial) and Heroines (Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents). Her first novella, O Fallen Angel, was reissued by Harper Perennial in January 2017, with an introduction by Lidia Yuknavitch. She is at work on a series of books about time, memory, and the persistence of art. Book of Mutter will be published by Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents in March 2017. Drifts is forthcoming from Harper Perennial in November 2017.

4 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction

Review: Nay Rather by Anne Carson

I have been on an Anne Carson reading binge lately and have also been slowly making my way through the Cahiers Series so I was thrilled when I discovered that Carson wrote Cahier #21.  Her essay in this Cahier, entitled “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,”  includes her thoughts on the issues of resistance in translation, the untranslatable, and  the mistranslated.  Silence, which is oftentimes a problem with ancient manuscripts, is her starting point: “Silence is as important as words in the practice and study of translation.”  Carson points out that silence can be both physical and metaphysical;  physical silence, for example, happens when a manuscript of Sappho has been torn in half and there is empty space. This part of her discussion particularly resonated with me because it is one of the issues with ancient texts that my students have the most difficulty.  As I am translating Catullus this semester with my university level class, it bothers them to the point of argument, distraction and frustration when a piece of a text has been reconstructed with several possibilities from different editors.   They want to know exactly which word Catullus wrote in the original transcript and they don’t want to hear from me that such literary puzzles can be “fun” to figure out.

Metaphysical silence happens when it is impossible to translate a word directly from one language to another.  Carson’s example of this is taken from the word molu which appears in Homer’s Odyssey.  Molu is a plant that is sacred to the gods and Hermes gives this plant to Odysseus in order to protect himself from the magic of Circe.  Carson says about Homer’s use of this word and the intentional silence it engenders: “He wants this word to fall silent.  Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them.  You cannot search for this plant by the roadside or google it and find out where to buy some  The plant is sacred, the knowledge belongs to the gods, the word stops itself.”  When one encounters such words in teaching an ancient author it is difficult to convey to the students that translation is not an exact science.  It has been my experience, however, that my students enjoy the metaphysical silences much more so than the physical silences because they are able to have a debate over the metaphysical by using their previous knowledge of an author’s body of work, as well as their mythological and historical backgrounds.

Also included in this Cahier is a poem that Carson has composed about the Cycladic culture entitled “By Chance the Cycladic People.”  The order in which the lines appear in the text were determined by the author through a random number generator.  This unique strategy of mixing up her poem is a way in which Carson provides us with her own example of a poem that resists translation.  We can put her poem back into the correct order.  But should we?  Are the lines really meant to be put back into the original order or can we get a deeper understanding of her verses by seeing them in this random order?  I chose not to put them back in order but instead I noticed patterns of images and themes that reoccur throughout the verses: the sea, pots and pans, boats, mirrors, etc.   I wonder how others have chosen to deal with this poem?

At the end of this Cahier, Carson provides seven different versions of a translation from a fragment of the Ancient Greek poet Ibykos.  Her first translation is a traditional, straightforward translation of the Ancient Greek text.  But with the other six translations she limits herself to a series of specific words.  One translation is rendered using only words taken from John Donne’s “Woman’s Constancy, another translation is rendered using only words from stops and signs found in the London Underground.  My favorite is the translation of Ibykos she does using only words from p. 47 of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.  Carson’s brilliance as far as translation and the nuances of this craft come into full play through her seven translations and we also see that she has a fantastic sense of humor.

 

Finally, the art work in this cahier is a series of drawings and gouaches by Sicilian artist Lanfranco Quadrio who was inspired by his reading of Carson’s text.  A piece of his work appears on every other page in the Cahier with verses from Carson’s Cycladic poem.  There is a primitive nature to them but they are also very colorful which reminded me of Cycladic and Minoan art.

7 Comments

Filed under Anne Carson, Cahier Series, Chapbook, Nonfiction

To Grieve by Will Daddario

In 2013, Will Daddario experienced the loss of his father, grandmother, friend, and cat all within a span of five months.  In early 2014, he and his wife were expecting their first child, a baby boy whom they were going to name Finlay, but their precious gift died during delivery.  Daddario writes this short, philosophical, moving chapbook to serve as a chronicle of his grieving process and as a tribute to those he loved and lost. He introduces his writing: “While grieving, I have turned to multiple sources to guidance.  What follows here is my own attempt to act as guide for others who encounter such loss, though, truthfully, the primary audience is myself.”

What struck me the most about Daddario’s handling of grief is that he was constantly moving forward in his attempt to deal with his mourning.  This was, for him and his wife, a very active handling of several devastating blows, one after the other.  Daddario and his wife kept their own notes on mourning and, following the example of Barthes, they wrote reflections on small pieces of paper every day for a year and placed them in a glass jar.  On their son’s 2-year birthday they read through their reflections, many of which are copied here for us into his book.  On August 7, 2014, for instance, Daddario’s wife wrote:

I continue to feel as though I’ve been shot through with a cannon ball, creating a huge hole in me, and that the cannonball is lodged in my body, weighing me down.

And on July 3, 2014 Daddario himself writes:

A new phase of mourning.  Like Barthes says, the “emotivity” starts to subside, but the suffering remains.  We are four weeks to the day after Finlay’s arrival/departure.  What will the next four bring?

Another activity that Daddario and his wife do on a daily basis is to light a candle in Finlay’s room each night as the sun goes down and dedicate that quiet time of their day to reflection.  And each morning they dedicated to “tear time” which allowed them to grieve for another day that would begin without their son.  Daddario also uses reading as an activity that becomes a great comfort for him.  He has a list of 13 pivotal books that include authors such as Roland Barthes, Anne Carson, Karen Green and the poet Rumi.

One final activity that Daddario actively engages in during his experience with grief is his focus on language and unpacking different words which now had a new meaning for him.  He discusses the words solve, resolve, unresolved and buoy and how they all gave him insight into his grieving process.  His analysis of the Ancient Greek word therapeuein, which Michel Foucault lectured on, was especially intriguing to me.  Foucault says of this word:

Therapeuein means in Greek three things.  Therapeuein means, of course, to perform a medical action whose purpose is to cure or to treat.  However, therapeuein is also the activity of the servant who obeys and serves his master.  Finally, therapeuein is to worship (render un culte).  Now, therapeuein heauton means at the same time to give medical care to oneself, to be one’s own servant, and to devote oneself to oneself.

It is this last definition of therapeuein that Daddario truly grasps and practices throughout his grief process.  His self-care is active—he writes, reads, cries, discusses, lights candles, and jogs—which all are the best methods for him of being his own servant.  The biggest and most important lesson for me in this piece of writing is that in the grieving process we must each find our own soothing activities that bring us the greatest devotion to self-care.

This is a link to a conversation between Will Daddario and Kate Jaeger about To Grieve: http://uglyducklingpresse.tumblr.com/post/157616166149/who-can-read-it-kate-jaeger-in-conversation-with

This title is published by Ugly Ducking Presse, which indie press I recently discovered through their collection of poems Written in the Dark which are translated from the Russian.  I am so excited to find these brave, small publishers that bring us such profound pieces of literature.  What are your favorite small press finds?

16 Comments

Filed under Chapbook, Nonfiction

The Albertine Workout by Anne Carson

albertineAnne Carson writes in the appendix to this chapbook: “Habit, suffering, boredom, memory, tea drinking, tea biscuits and the inscrutable banality of existence are topics Beckett and Proust have in Common.  They anatomize them differently.  What is located in the head, the mouth or the mind for Proust moves lower down the body in Beckett.”  Carson uses this theory to help us better understand one of Proust’s most elusive characters.

Carson ironically and brilliant writes a small pamphlet on a woman named Albertine who is present or mentioned on 807 pages of Proust’s novel.  Albertine is oftentimes asleep and her main problems from the narrator’s perspective are lying, lesbianism and being imprisoned in the narrator’s house. Since Albertine is not a common name among females in France, many critics have speculated that she is a disguised version of Proust’s chauffeur, Alfred, with whom he had a secret affair.  Carson examines fascinating details about Proust’s book and his life in order to explore this transposition theory.

Carson also provides an illuminating commentary of sexuality in Proust via Albertine.  The narrator insists that Albertine is a lesbian, all of her friends are lesbians, but she vehemently denies this.  He doesn’t understand how two women can be in love with one another and he can’t figure out what they do together so he is repulsed by what he cannot grasp.  The narrator never actually uses the term “lesbian,” with Albertine, but instead he says “the kind of woman I object to.”

Finally, the appendix, which I quoted above, is just as intriguing as the main body of Carson’s text.  In addition to exploring the similarities and differences in Proust and Beckett she also writes about the use of adjectives in a language, capture myopathy, the second paradox of Zeno, and my favorite, the difference between metaphor and metonymy.

I found Carson’s thoughts and writing engrossing and I am looking forward to diving in to more of her works.

Which Carson books would you recommend?

11 Comments

Filed under Chapbook, Nonfiction, Poetry, Proust