Tag Archives: Kate Zambreno

Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2019

As I have mentioned in a previous post, The Woodstock Academy where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now, is one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States and has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” This is a fitting way for me to think about and discuss my reading plans for the new year since my previous literary patterns help to shape the future.

In 2018 I was not content to read a single book by an author, but instead engaged in what I called literary projects that involved immersing myself in an author’s oeuvre while also reading whatever additional sources were available by or about that author (letters, essays, biography, autobiography, etc.) Here are a few such projects I have in mind, so far, for 2019:

Classics (20th century or earlier):

John Cowper Powys: I am half way through his novel Wolf Solent and think Powys’s writing is brilliant. I am also planning to read his magnum opus A Glastonbury Romance and his autobiography, aptly titled, Autobiography. I’ve ordered a copy of The Pleasures of Literature which should be arriving any day now and I am also thinking of tracking down some of his letters and poetry which, I believe, are all out of print.

Anthony Powell: A Dance to the Music of Time (I have yet to purchase the entire series, but am leaning towards the University of Chicago Press editions). I also found, last week at my favorite secondhand bookshop, the first volume of his autobiography, Infants of the Spring. When the time comes I will complete my collection of his autobiographical books. Finally, I’ve ordered copies of his non-fiction writing, Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writing on Writers and Under Review: Further Writings on Writers, 1946-1990.

Andre Gide: I discovered Gide in 2018 by reading his very short book, Theseus. I’ve put together a pile of his books that I would like to read in 2019 which include: Madeleine, Journals: 1889-1949, Straight is the Gate, If it Die: An Autobiography, The Andre Gide Reader and Pretexts.

H.D.: I saw quite a few posts last year about H.D.’s writing, especially her poetry, and her volume of Collected Poems which I’ve already been dipping into is magnificent. I also plan to read: Palimpsest, Nights, Notes on Thought and Vision, and Bid me to Live. And I’ve ordered copies of The H.D. Book by Robert Duncan and A Great Admiration: H.D./Robert Duncan Correspondence 1950-1961 which should both arrive any day now.

Dawn Powell: I’m especially excited about this author which will be completely new to me. I bought Library America editions of her fiction as well as the volume of her Diaries from Steerforth Press. (Thanks to @deckr_j on Twitter for this discovery).

Anita Brookner: I’ve been tempted for a while to try this author because of Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes who raves about her books. Having collected three of her books I’m ready to dive in: A Start in Life, A Friend from England and Incidents in the Rue Laugier.

W.G. Sebald: I did a Michael Hamburger reading project this year and discovered that he was also a translator of Sebald. I would like to read all of Sebald’s fiction in the order that they were written and published. I haven’t bought any of his books yet, though, because I would like to research which editions and translations would suit me best.

Other possible books that are sitting on my shelves awaiting my attention include the six volume set of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time I received for Christmas, Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, Alexander Herzen’s massive autobiography, Casanova’s 12-volume memoir, and Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. I was thinking it might be a good idea to choose one of these as a summer reading project, but there is no way I could get to all of them! I would also like to explore Flaubert, whose Sentimental Education particularly captivated Kafka, and the last George Eliot novel I have yet to read, Romola.

Contemporary:

Giorgio Agamben: The few books I read by him in 2018 captivated my attention due to his discussion of words and language. I am especially excited that Agamben has quite a backlog of translations published by Seagull Books that I have yet to read. I’ve also acquired Profanations, Karman and his magnum opus, Homo Sacer. I will slowly work my way through his shorter pieces before I even think about cracking open Homo Sacer.

Sergei Lebedev: His previous two novels, Oblivion and The Year of the Comet, are brilliant. I am eagerly awaiting The Goose Fritz from New Vessel Press which will be published in March.

Claudio Magris: I have yet to finish his book Journeying from Yale Press and I will also add to my piles his new book, Snapshots, translated for the first time in English and also published by Yale Press.

Kate Zambreno: Her Book of Mutter was intriguing and I am looking forward to her new book due out in April entitled Appendix Project: Talks and Essays

Clarice Lispector: The Besieged City is due out in April. Even though she is a 20th century author, this is a new translation published by New Directions.

I will also catch up on some of the publications from the Cahiers series which are always a delight. And, finally, I have my eye on new releases from Seagull Books, Fitzcarraldo Books, & Other Stories (publishing Gerald Murnane this year) and New York Review of Books which I won’t list here. But all of these publishers are wonderful if you are looking for interesting contemporary authors, literature in translation, or reissued classics.

Poetry:

In 2018, I’ve read more poetry than any other year and would like to continue that into 2019. I always enjoy the variety of publications from Ugly Duckling Presse. I’ve also been tempted by flowerville to explore Emily Dickenson which I haven’t picked up since studying her in school. My intention is to also read Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets and Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry to enhance my understanding of and appreciation for different types of poets and poetry.

Of course, all of this is subject to change based on weather, mood, alignment of the planets, attention span, etc.

What is everyone else excited to read in 2019?

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Filed under American Literature, Autobiography, British Literature, Essay, French Literature, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books, Poetry, Seagull Books

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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Review: O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno

fallen-angelAnna K. Yoder, who interviewed Kate Zambreno in 2010 about her first novel, describes O Fallen Angel: “Zambreno’s first novel reads like the bastard offspring of an orgy between John Waters’s Polyester, Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.”  Similar to these other cutting edge artists, Zambreno experiments with structure, language, and setting to present a novel that is disturbing and bizarre.

Zambreno’s triptych story is written from the point-of-view of three very different characters: Mommy, Malachi and Maggie.  The background of the book is the American Midwest, somewhere in suburbia where everyone has a white picket fence, two or three children and a respectable job.  The catholic, white, middle class, suburban family portrayed in the book appears happy and idyllic on the surface.  But just like the Francis Bacon triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, from which Zambreno takes her inspiration for the novel, the family is in reality dysfunctional, monstrous and grotesque.

When Mommy speaks, the text is child-like, simple and monotonous.  Mommy adheres to strict, Catholic rules of morality and expects the same from her children, Mikey Junior and Maggie.  Mommy’s daily life is ordered—cooking, cleaning, taking care of children and grandchildren, walking the dog.  Mikey is her favorite child because he did what was expected of him, he married a nice woman, not too pretty, who has already given him two children.  It is her daughter, Maggie, that is considered  Mommy’s Fallen Angel because she has not gotten married and had babies, but instead has run off to the big, bad city.  Maggie is the “bad egg,” the one that Mommy tries to pretend doesn’t exist anymore.  Unlike her brother, Maggie has not conformed to Mommy’s expectations of what a good, Catholic girl’s life should look like.  The guilt, emotional blackmail and suppression of feelings don’t work on Maggie like they do on her brother.

Maggie’s point-of-view is focused on her body—raw, corporeal, sexual.  She has sex with lots of men and confuses physical contact with love.  She goes to college as far away as she can to get out from under the expectations of her parents who don’t approve of her chosen major of psychology.  And when she drops out of college and takes a job as a waitress they try not to think about their “bad apple” and insist that any failure of Maggie’s is no fault of theirs.  Every time we encounter Maggie’s voice she seems to be losing more control of her life.  She sleeps with men to get things she needs, consumes a concoction of different substances and loses her job.  Maggie’s body, bloated and laden with genital warts and drugs is an outward reflection of the mess that her mind has become.

Malachi is the most bizarre voice of the three presented in the book.  Like his Biblical namesake, his appears to be a prophet of doom, a Cassandra like figure, as he wanders about the streets of the suburbs and observes middle-class people going about their daily routines. Zambreno also uses Malachi’s speech as a type of chorus to make political commentaries throughout her text. He reads one of his messages:

A great fireball will erupt from the sky

one cannot reason anymore with the President

one life for the life of
thousands

lies lies lies
airplanes

warlords
profits
false idols
prophet

Finally, an additional note on structure which reflects Zambreno’s nod to the Oresteia.  The House of Atreus from which Agamemnon is a descendant  is one of the most morally reprehensible and fucked up families in all of Greek myth; they violate almost every social taboo imaginable.  Zambreno could not have chosen a more appropriate model on which to base her dysfunctional, Midwestern family.  In the style of Ancient Greek tragedy, she inserts choruses within her text that foreshadow the themes and the disturbing outcome towards which her narrative is moving.  The book opens with this chorus:

There is a corpse in the center of this story
There is a corpse and it is ignored
No one looks at the corpse
Everyone no-looks at the corpse

There is a gaper’s block, it is blocking up traffic
It is in broad daylight, this dead body

There are other corpses that are ignored:
corpses far away in another country
enemy corpses

living corpses
walking corpses
working corpses

But when a mere mortal dies we do not see it
We look we gape but we do not see it
We do not mourn the ordinary

It is nothing like the death of a celebrity
To lose them, these constant images
is to remind ourselves that we will die
We will die, too, yet no one will care

Our deaths will not be televised
Then who will watch it?

As someone who grew up in a very conservative family and who was sent to an all girls Catholic high school, I found this book extremely difficult to read at times.  I always felt as if I were being crushed under the weight of the strict rules, guilt, and suppression of feelings that were engendered at school and at home.  I didn’t find my true identity until I was able to break free of that tradition and that religion being forced upon me.  My life, of course, did not take the same destructive path as Maggie’s does  in the book, but I can certainly understand why her life under her parent’s influence brought on such extreme behavior.

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Filed under Literary Fiction