Category Archives: Nonfiction

Letters to Poseidon by Cees Nooteboom

Arguably the most enigmatic of the Ancient Greek gods, Poseidon is not as revered or respected as his brother Zeus, the god of the sky, lord of the universe, nor is he as feared as his brother Hades, master of the gloomy and dark underworld.  Poseidon’s realm is the sea, the ultimate middle child whose domain is the middle of the earth, the watery depths that occupy the space between sky and underworld.  Peter McDonald’s new, verse translation of the Homeric Hymns, beautifully and succinctly captures the multidimensional nature of this deity:

Hymn 22

To Poseidon:

Here the first great god that I
mention is Poseidon, mover
of the earth, the unpastured sea;
ocean god, presiding over
broad Aegae and Helicon.
Earth-shifter, the gods assigned
you a twofold part, the one
horse-taming, the other to find
safety for ships; I salute
you Poseidon, carrier
of the world and absolute
god with black and streaming hair:
keep your heart in charity
with those sailing on the sea.

It is this greatly feared, earth-shifter, master of the sea, to whom Cees Nooteboom decides to address a series of letters.  The author, writing these notes from his Mediterranean garden on the island of Menorca, imagines the lonely deity still ruling over the sea with his trident and his seahorse-drawn carriage.  Nooteboom uses the image, history and myth of this long-neglected deity to meditate on time, space, mortality and death; he is especially captivated by the anthropomorphic nature of god who is prone to anger and vengeance.  Nooteboom has many questions for Poseidon, among the most important of which are how he feels about being forgotten and abandoned for all of these centuries since the emergence of the one God and His Son:

I have always wondered how it felt when no one prayed to you any longer, and no one asked anything of you.  There must, once upon a time, have been one last supplicant.  Who was it? And where?  Did you and the other gods talk about it?  We look at your statues, but you are not there.  Were you jealous of the gods who came after you?  Are you laughing now that they too have been abandoned?

The tone of Nooteboom’s letters ranges from deeply philosophical and meditative, to humorous and playful.  On the one hand he feels sympathy for a god who is supposed to be immortal, but is no longer worshipped—in a way this abandonment has been like a death for this neglected ancient deity.  But on the other hand, Poseidon has a certain amount of freedom now to talk with the other gods and laugh at the irony of his situation:

What is a human being to the gods?  Do you despise us for being mortal?  Or is the opposite the case?  Are you jealous because we are allowed to die?  Because your fate is, of course, immortality, even though we have no idea where you are now.

No one talks about you anymore, and perhaps that hurts.  It is as if you have simply vanished.

In between the twenty-three letters he pens to Poseidon, the author also includes meditations, observations and thoughts about time and space via objects (his watch, a dying aloe plant), places he visits (a museum, an airport in South Korea, a beach), and newspaper articles (a story about infanticide or a looted Egyptian museum.)  Nooteboom’s thoughts about the looted Egyptian museum reflect the seventy-nine-year old’s ever-increasing awareness of his own mortality.  As he reads an article about the looting of a the museum, he is captivated by the head of a mummy that has been discarded on the floor, separated from the rest of its body:

Is a person who has been dead for a few thousand years as dead as someone who died last year?  Is there a hierarchy in the kingdom of the dead, giving those with more experience of death a different status from the newcomers, those who have not yet been touched by eternity, but who still smell of time, of life?  Are there social distinctions between mummies and corpses?

This book gave me a fresh perspective of not only the god Poseidon, whom I have to admit I had never given more than a passing thought, but also of how we look at the concept of divinity and immortality.  Nooteboom concludes his letters: “Of course I know that I have been sending letters to nobody.  But what if, tomorrow, out on the rocks, I should happen to find a trident.”

About the Author:

Cees Nooteboom (born Cornelis Johannes Jacobus Maria Nooteboom, 31 July 1933, in the Hague) is a Dutch author. He has won the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, the P. C. Hooft Award, the Pegasus Prize, the Ferdinand Bordewijk Prijs for Rituelen, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature and the Constantijn Huygens Prize, and has frequently been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

His works include Rituelen (Rituals, 1980); Een lied van schijn en wezen (A Song of Truth and Semblance, 1981); Berlijnse notities (Berlin Notes, 1990); Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story, 1991); Allerzielen (All Souls’ Day, 1998) and Paradijs verloren (Paradise Lost, 2004). (Het volgende verhaal won him the Aristeion Prize in 1993.) In 2005 he published “De slapende goden | Sueños y otras mentiras”, with lithographs by Jürgen Partenheimer.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Nonfiction

Ave atque Vale: Nox by Ann Carson

Nox

nox, noctis, f.  noun. [cf. Skt. nak, Gk. νύξ , Eng. night]  The time between sunset and sunrise, night; noctis avis, an owl; in contexts implying nightfall;  personified as a god or goddess;  nocte, by night, at night;  diem noctemque, day and night, without cessation or pause;  in noctem, for use at night-time;  nox aeterna, perpetua, i.e. death; the conditions of night, nocturnal darkness, etc.; in a fig. context, as symbolizing concealment or mystery; also chaos, turmoil.

Nox is a fitting title for Ann Carson’s eulogy of her older brother Michael whom she hadn’t seen in many years.  Nox refers not only to his death, but his absence, the blackness, and mystery that surrounded his turbulent life.  Carson’s brother had gotten into trouble because of drugs and, in 1978, instead of going to jail he fled to Europe and her family rarely heard from him.  She writes that he phoned her “maybe five times in 22 years.”  Nox is an accordion style, color reproduction, of Carson’s memorial notebook that contains texts, photos, letters, and sketches.  The entire notebook is housed in a gray box which little tomb of sorts seems appropriate for such a project.

Ann Carson chooses Catullus Poem 101 as the starting point, the inspiration for this notebook and scrapbook she keeps about the troubled life and death of her brother.  Catullus’s brother is also older than him and died far away from Rome, in the Troad.  Catullus’s poem is meant to serve as a private eulogy delivered at his brother’s graveside, long after the formal burial and death rituals have taken place.  Similar to Catullus, Carson is not able to be at her brother’s funeral because his widow didn’t find his sister’s contact information until two weeks after the memorial service.  She writes about her experience with Catullus Poem 101:

7.1  I want to explain about the Catullus poem (101). Catullus wrote poem 101 for his brother who died in the Troad. Nothing at all is know of the brother except his death. Catullus appears to have travelled from Verona to Asia Minor to stand at the grave. Perhaps he recited the elegy there. I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times. Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy. No one (even in Latin) can approximate Catullan diction, which at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turns all its leaves over, silver, in the wind. I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I cam to think of translation as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

The very first page of Nox has a complete copy of Catullus poem 101.  From there Carson gives a lengthy definitions for every single word in the Catullus poem.  These definitions occupy the left-hand side of the notebook, while the right-hand side is dedicated to her own personal observations, photos, and mementoes of her brother.  Through the personal stories, anecdotes and observations about her brother and the few experience they shared together, Carson does successfully capture the sorrow and the “deep festivity” of a Catullus poem.  She talks, for instance, about his nickname for her when they were younger.  He calls her “pinhead” or “professor,” names that imply some sort of acknowledgement for her intellectual gifts.  And later on, in one of their few phone calls, he sounds melancholy except for a brief moment when he calls her “pinhead.”

It was such a great experience for me to translate Catullus poem 101 with my students this year and share Ann Carson’s book with them.  They commented that it made the Catullus elegy more meaningful and they were amazed at the uniqueness of the accordion folded book.  One of them remarked that the scrapbook style of Nox, with torn notes and letters, was fitting for the brother and sister’s scattered and disjointed relationship.

My favorite part of this Catullus poem has always been the very last line. Its emotion, its finality are so perfectly captured by Catullus’s simple words.  It is fitting that Carson ends her memorial with her own translation of this poem—the photocopy of it on the final page is faded and blurred like the memories of her sibling—so the last line of Catullus also serves at the ending of Nox.

atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

And into forever, brother, farwell and farewell.

 

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Filed under Anne Carson, Nonfiction

The Heart Will Know How to Live: The Correspondence of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan

I have always loved handwritten, personal letters; they are so much more tangible, intimate and sensual than the digital correspondence to which we have become accustomed in the 21st century.  There is a certain anticipation and excitement when one sends a letter and eagerly waits for a response; to see the other person’s handwriting, to touch the object they once touched, to tuck it away in a special place are all of the things we lose with digital communication.  When I was reading the letters, post cards, notes, telegrams and poems sent between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan I felt like I was eavesdropping or spying on the unfolding of an intense, passionate and, at times tortured, love affair.  I wondered what this correspondence would look like in the 21st century and it occurred to me that texts, direct messages, emails and video chats would not have the same underlying tone of intimacy that one feels while reading the Bachmann and Celan letters.

In May of 1948, Ingeborg Bachmann writes a letter to her parents describing her first few meetings with Paul Celan.  She tells them that Celan has “fallen in love with me, which adds a little spice to my dreary work.”  The letters between Bachmann and Celan throughout the rest of 1948 and 1949 are full of passionate longing, a strong desire to see one another again and misunderstandings that are inevitable with written correspondence.  They make plans to meet many times, but for a variety reasons they don’t get the opportunity to see one another very often for the next twenty years.  Their careers, geography, and other relationships all serve as obstacles that keep them apart.  Celan writes to Bachmann in April 1949:

My dear, you,

I am so glad this letter came—and now I have kept you waiting for so long too, quite unintentionally and without a single unkind thought.  You know well enough that this happens sometimes.  One does not know why.  Two or three times I wrote you a letter, and then left it unsent after all.  But what does that really mean, when we are thinking of each other and will, perhaps, do so for a very long time yet?

And in late May/early June Bachmann responds:

Paul, dear Paul,

I long for you and for our fairy tale.  What shall I do?  You are so far away from me, and the cards you send, which satisfied me until recently, are no longer enough for me.

The excerpts from these two letters are typical of the feelings of absence and yearning that the authors feel for one another.  Stolen moments on brief trips to Paris, telegrams, and letters are not enough to satisfy either one of them.  But as the years progress and they continue with their letters, a deep sense of trust, friendship, love and mutual understanding is sustained between them.  Bachmann becomes for Celan a champion of his work and a mortal and emotional support.  In the early years of their communication she is constantly receiving his poems, giving him feedback and trying to get his work published in various literary magazines.  When the Goll plagiarism scandal happens, she writes to him and encourages him to put that incident behind him.  I also found it sweet and endearing that they continue for many years to exchange books as gifts on one another’s birthdays and at Christmas.

It is touching and selfless that even when they reconnect in 1957 and rekindle their romance, Bachmann encourages Celan to stay with his wife Gisele for the sake of their son.  Bachman also struggles to make the decision on whether or not to live with Max Frisch in early 1958.  As the years go by and it is evident that fate has conspired against them to ever live together, they still maintain an emotional dependence on one another.  Celan’s words dated October 31st—November 1st, 1957 sums up what their relationship evolves into:

Life is not going to accommodate us, Ingeborg; waiting for that would surely be the most unfitting way for us to be.

Be—yes, we can and are allowed to do so.  To be—be there for another.

Even if it is only a few words, all breve, one letter once a month: the heart will know how to live.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Nonfiction, Seagull Books

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

 

 

 

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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.

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