Wrestling with Rhys: Reflections on reading Voyage in the Dark

I debated leaving this book undiscussed, unfinished even. It is not in my nature to write negative reviews but I am not certain my reaction to Voyage in the Dark, my selection for the Jean Rhys Reading Week, counts as negative as much as it stands as disappointed. I felt it was worthwhile looking into why this book and its author did not work for me as I had hoped it would, especially when, at one time, I did read and enjoy several of her books. If anything has changed, of course, it is me. I am not the same reader I was thirty years ago and, if there could have been a worse time for me to entertain the company of Voyage’s protagonist Anna Morgan, this past week would be hard to beat.

voyageWhen we meet Anna, the young narrator of Jean Rhys’ 1934 novel, she is eighteen, going on nineteen, and working as a chorus girl. Transplanted to England from her childhood home in the Caribbean, she paints a picture of a country that is bleak, cold, rainy and unwelcoming. She meets Walter Jeffries while she is on tour and once she is back in London they connect and initiate an affair. Anna takes this development in stride, as if it is both her due and her fate. She tolerates the sex and relies on the money he provides her to pay her board in a series of rooming houses and buy herself clothing. If her feelings are conflicted, it is difficult to tell. If anything she comes across as inordinately indifferent:

Of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything. It was as if I had always lived like that. Only sometimes, when I had got back home and was undressing to go to bed, I would think, ‘My God, this is a funny way to live. My God, how did this happen?’

Happiness is at best a vague notion, elusive when she vaguely tries to grasp at it. Only when Walter leaves for an extended business trip, severing their relationship upon his return, does Anna feel “smashed.” She makes attempts to reach out to him, to win him back, but what does she really miss? His arms or his money? It is hard to be certain.

Anna is always cold. She blames it on her origins in a hot climate, but the chill runs much deeper. In contrast to her persistent obsession with the monotony of her English surroundings, memories of her life in Dominica are presented in richer, more vivid terms. They are shot through with a melancholia that does not speak to childhood nostalgia alone–there is a sense that her emotions are complicated–but these passages allow for some of my favourite moments in the book:

All the way back in the taxi I was still thinking about home and when I got into bed I lay awake, thinking about it. About how sad the sun can be, especially in the afternoon, but in a different way from the sadness of cold places, quite different. And the way the bats fly out at sunset, two by two, very stately. And the smell of the store down on the Bay. (‘I’ll take four yards of the pink, please, Miss Jessie.’) And the smell of Francine – acrid sweet. And the hibiscus once – it was so red, so proud, and its long gold tongue hung out. It was so red that even the sky was just a background for it. And I can’t believe it’s dead….And the sound of rain on the galvanized-iron roof. How it would go on and on, thundering on the roof…

Rhys’ prose is strikingly spare and unaffected. It works well when she is looking back, or when the narrative occasionally falls into brief periods of stream of consciousness. The personality of secondary characters, if not necessarily sympathetic, are rendered with stronger brush strokes than that of the young woman at the centre of the narrative. And this is where the Voyage in the Dark becomes an effort for me as a reader.

Anna’s extraordinary passivity is a hallmark of the novel, as are the abrupt flashes of impatience and pride that periodically flare around others. She can be fickle, petulant and self indulgent. None of these factors are a problem, together or apart; what seems lacking is a context in which to understand her attitude and behaviour. For many readers I suspect this elusive quality of Anna’s character is where the interest and appeal lies. I found that despite moments when I was ready to re-evaluate my response to the text, Anna’s hollowness, apathy and vanity would test my patience again.

When she muses “I was thinking, ‘I’m nineteen and I’ve got to go on living and living and living,” her reflections echo a person struggling with depression, and that may be a fair interpretation, but it doesn’t hold weight for me in spite of passages like:

It’s funny when you feel as if you don’t want to do anything more in your life except to sleep, or else to lie without moving. That’s when you hear time sliding past you like water running.

Anna holds no responsibility for anything that has happened to her in her short life. She is miserable and expects everything to be handed to her. That’s fine, there are people like that and I do not expect characters to behave in manner that I approve of or to be likeable. But in modernist fiction I anticipate a measure of believability that, for some reason, is lacking for me here.

This is, I caution, my own idiosyncratic response to a book that I realize is beloved by many. I can understand how, in my early twenties, living with an as yet undiagnosed mood disorder, as an ostensibly female person keen to find female characters and writers that resonated with my own alien understanding of my gender identity; Jean Rhys’ novels and female characters could have held a strong appeal. From this vantage point in my 50s, I suspect it is more my experience with mental illness, personally and professionally, than my cross gendered path that account for my difficulty pulling myself through this short novel. And then, I am also mourning the suicide of a dear friend who battled a soul crushing depression for more than a year before finally taking matters into her own hands earlier this month. Against that backdrop, Anna’s persistent gloominess was, shall we say, cold comfort.

Thoughts on writing about Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli

I am very pleased to have my first review published at The Quarterly Conversation. Dreams and Stones by Polish writer, Magdalena Tulli, is a poetic meditation on the city as an organic entity, essentially an urban cosmology. I read it through twice before writing my review and in my second encounter its nonlinear, cyclical quality was even more apparent. Thinking about it now, two months later, its fantastic, mythic qualities still have a strong hold on my imagination. But there is more that haunts me when I think about this book.

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I had been aiming to submit this review in mid-July, my first reading was in late June, but before I could put pen to paper, so to speak, my father had a stroke and car accident and my mother became ill and died. As one might imagine, I struggled to write, let alone read. During times like this words fail us. But, as my father’s death neared I returned to this short book, for distraction, comfort and, above all, to know that I could still write. The ability to sit down and pull together a critical review was an important turning point. In times of immediate crisis and grief when family members find themselves trudging back and forth to the hospital, the advice is to try to return to some measure of routine. The answer, for me, was to write.

Dreams and Stones is translated by Bill Johnston and published by Archipelago Books. My review can be found here. Be sure to have a look at the rest of Issue 45 while you’re there.

Thanks to Scott Esposito for everything.

Black Bread by Emili Teixidor—My Numéro Cinq review

My latest review for Numéro Cinq is now live. When I read for these reviews, the question that guides me is “What is interesting about what the author is doing (or trying to do) in this book?” I am listening to the language, paying attention to the structure, the voice, the tone, and asking what makes this work come together? What sets it apart? I am reading as a writer–an intuitive writer–unaided and yet unburdened by a formal education in literary theory.

Coming of age themed novels such as Black Bread by Catalan writer Emili Teixidor present a particular challenge. When a first person narrator is recounting events and experiences from his or her own childhood, my attention is focused heavily on narrative voice. I am always trying to determine where the narrator is standing in time relative to the story being told. I had the sense with Black Bread that the protagonist Andreu was writing from his later teens–just far enough away to have some perspective on the limitations of his understanding of the precarious realities around him, but close enough to recreate the innocence and naivete of childhood. It works, but the more absorbing, and I suppose the more effective the voice, the more difficult it is to describe how and why it works.

Here’s a taste of the review, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

In the Shadow of Civil War: Review of Black Bread by Emili Teixidor — Joseph Schreiber

black-bread

There is an interlude, just shy of a third of the way into Black Bread by the late Catalan writer Emili Teixidor, where the narrator steps back from his childhood reminisces to question the nature of memory. He asks why some things stay etched on his memory while he has forgotten others completely, and wonders, “how can I know I have forgotten what I can’t remember?” He recognizes that some places, people and incidents fade quickly whereas sometimes a word can come back unexpectedly and ignite a flood of distant memories. These reflections appear as a curious break in a narrative marked by a degree of youthful naiveté, but remind us that the journey from childlike to mature understanding is uneven and necessarily distorted in retrospect. So, although it is never entirely clear just how far removed the protagonist stands from the experiences he is sharing, as his account continues his ability to hold on to his own innocence will increasingly come into conflict with the harsh realities of life in post-war rural Catalonia.

In recent years, much revisionist debate has been dedicated to exhuming questions of the true impact of the civil war and the Franco dictatorship on Catalan culture and society; “true”, that is, depending on where one’s interests lie. Against this backdrop, a novel like Black Bread, originally published in 2003 when Teixidor was seventy years-old, could easily be construed as an attempt to reclaim history through lived memory. That may, in part, be a fair assessment, but this novel offers much more. It is, on one level, a tender and sensitive coming of age story, one that filters the joys, fears, mysteries, and discoveries of the fitful transition to adolescence through the unaffected lens of childhood memory. Our narrator, Andreu, an astute observer of his own confused emotions, must learn to navigate a world filled with dark dangers and even darker delights. He knows there is much going on around him that he doesn’t understand—truths that he isn’t certain he even wants to understand. However, his growing awareness and conflicted reactions open space for an indirect but honest commentary on the realities of Catalan existence during this time. In this respect, the work can be seen in line with that of writers like Josep Pla and Mercè Rodoreda.

Continue reading here:

Read an excerpt here:

Tracing hidden lines across the Americas: Counternarratives by John Keene

Stretching over a span of four centuries, Counternarratives is a collection of stories and novellas that defies simple description or classification. In just over 300 pages, John Keene manages to challenge and reinvent the way we think about historical fiction by subverting the conventional narratives again and again, peering into dark corners, and prying the lid off of stories not typically part of the grand narrative tradition that has dominated so much of contemporary American literature. First off, for Keene, America has a broader scope. This is the New World, primarily the United States and Brazil—the two countries most closely associated with the slave trade—but over the course of this book we also venture into Mexico, the Caribbean and across the ocean. The characters, primarily, though not exclusively, of Black African heritage, are drawn from history, the arts, and the imagination; and demonstrate a strong will to run against the currents of normative discourse within which they would have otherwise fallen under the radar or been rendered invisible. In allowing their lives to flourish on the page, Keene is effectively queering history. Many of his characters are either implicitly or explicitly queer with respect to sexuality or gender, but all of them through their stories, push up against accepted mythologies, inverting or “queering” them in the process.

CounternarrativesThe earliest narratives in this collection tend to keep some distance from the subject at hand, some even have an investigative documentary feel, complete with maps inserted into the text. Over the course of the book, the control of the voice shifts, as characters begin to take command of their own stories (mid-way through the powerful central piece, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows” Carmel, the mute protagonist, starts to “speak” through the written word, abbreviated and phonetic at first, then increasingly fluid over time) until eventually, as the accounts draw closer to the present day, internalized, experimental stream of conscience narratives begin to come into play. With any collection of shorter works there is always the risk that the stories will begin to blur at the edges, losing distinction from one to another. Not so in this case. Although the themes and characters are not directly connected, this evolving style of storytelling—from the relatively dry historical reportage of the opening pieces, through more traditional narrative accounts to the disembodied, disturbing dialogue of the closing entry “The Lions”—provides a continuity that serves to create a cohesive work of astonishing depth.

Throughout, Keene demonstrates an enviable capacity to create vivid, memorable characters and breathe life into the vital cross currents of history. He does not allow himself to get bogged down in background detail but allows the time, place, and social dynamics to come to the surface through the wide range of individuals and the varied settings and styles that he allows his narratives, or rather counternarratives, to adopt. And although it may seem strange to speak about these short stories and novellas as if they almost have an agency of their own, that is what it feels like to engage with them. Due to extenuating personal circumstances, my reading of this collection actually extended over the course of three months, but whenever I was forced to put it aside for a time I never feared that I would not return, nor did I find it difficult to lose myself, once again, right where I left off.

counterThroughout this collection, customary beliefs are routinely challenged through the presentation of lives typically discarded or seen through the lens of the dominant power, in a manner that seeks to restore a level of dignity. Black, Native American and queer characters are granted a reprieve from the more conventional historical portrayal. However, that release, or escape if it comes, is often at a cost. Some of the narratives are abruptly truncated, ending partway through a sentence. In most instances a resolution is uncertain regardless of whether it signals promise or pain.

By way of offering a taste of this collection, I’ll touch on three pieces. The epistolary novella “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon” offers a report on the experiences of one Dom Joaquim D’Azevedo, sent in 1629, to attend to matters at an isolated monastery in Brazil where some disturbing occurrences had been reported. He arrives at this remote location, populated by two padres, one brother and their bondspeople, or slaves, to find himself facing what will reveal, in time, a veritable heart of darkness. The atmosphere is charged with an unusual energy from the outset, as the newcomer struggles to get his bearings in his new setting and size up his charges:

Resuming his comments about the monastery, Dom Gaspar could see that D’Azevedo was growing unsteady on his feet, and with a gesture summoned a stool, which a tiny man, dark as the soil they stood on, his florid eyes fluttering, brought out with dispatch. They continued on in this manner, Dom Gaspar speaking—Padre Pero very rarely interjecting a thought, Padre Barbarosa Pires mostly nodding or staring, with a gaze so intense it could polish marbles, at D’Azevedo—detailing a few of the House’s particulars: its schedule, its routines, its finances, its properties and holdings, its relationship with the neighboring town and villages, and with the Indians.

Before long, D’Azevedo settles into a rhythm, feels he is making progress and begins to tutor boys from the town. But strange noises and mysterious sightings inside the monastery begin to unsettle him while outside threats from encroaching Dutch forces escalate, creating an atmosphere in which an evil long brewing is brought to the surface. Dark secrets are revealed, D’Azevedo is forced to confront a truth he has long buried, and the identity of the small African servant who seems to be ever present comes to light. This piece is a strong example of evocative storytelling, reminiscent in mood of The Name of the Rose, but reframed within the context of the Catholic Church’s role in the Americas, the clash with tribal African traditions, warring colonial tensions, and questions of ethnic heritage, gender and sexuality.

By way of contrast, “Rivers” turns the tables on a classic of American literature, giving Jim Watson of Huckleberry Finn fame, an opportunity to flesh out the details of his life after the book ended. Jim, now a free man who has reclaimed his own name, James Rivers, is a tavern owner in Missouri when he chances to meet Huck and Tom on the street. Their conversation, is dominated by Tom’s racist jibes, but Jim remains circumspect. He thinks of what he could have told them but chooses not to (“I thought to say…/Instead I said…”), in this way sharing with the reader a full account of the women in his life, his children, his time in Chicago, and his return to his home state, while little is offered to his former acquaintances. There is no joyous reunion, rather the occasion is marked by arrogance on one side, bitterness and suspicion on the other. But as the Civil War looms, another chance meeting awaits.

Beyond this story, the narratives begin to take on an increasingly playful, experimental form in style and content. An especially affecting piece is Cold. Narrated from an internalized second person perspective, this short story takes us inside the troubled mind of Bob Cole, the composer, playwright and producer who co-created, with Billy Johnson, A Trip to Coontown in 1898, the first musical owned entirely by black showmen. It is now 1911, and the voice in his head taunts him, catalogs his losses, his failures, driving his desperate decision to take his life before the day is out. . .

For the last month or two, or five, has it been a year—why can you not remember?—these newest melodies you cannot flush from your head, like a player piano with an endless roll scrolling to infinity. Songs have always come, one by one or in pairs, dozens, you set them down, to paper, to poetry, like when you set the melody of the spiritual Rosamond was whistling as you walked up Broadway and in your head and later on musical paper clothed it in new robes. Then somewhere along the way after the first terrible blues struck you tried to hum a new tune, conjure one, you thought it was just exhaustion, your mind too tired to refresh itself as it always had, that’s why the old ones wouldn’t go away.

The pieces I have briefly touched on just graze the surface of this book. Its relatively short length can be deceiving. Counternarratives offers a demanding, immersive reading experience. It is, at the same time, compulsively engaging and deeply satisfying. I heard reverent talk of it long before I finally picked up my own copy earlier this year and I can fully understand the respect it has garnered even I find myself at a loss to do it justice. Bold and expansive, this is a haunting, unsettling, important work.

Counternarratives by John Keene is published by New Directions in North America and by Fitzcarraldo in the UK.

A meditation on life and death: Beastlife by J’Lyn Chapman

Once I became aware that this book existed, I knew I had to have it. So I ordered it immediately.

When it arrived and I went down to the bookstore to retrieve it (that is, release it from the bookseller who could not refrain from glancing through it as if he was regretting having to let it go), trusting some odd intuition that it might hint at something I was looking for. But, to be fair, I had little idea what to expect.

J’Lyn Chapman’s Beastlife is very small, fitting into the palm of the hand, or better yet, a pocket. An ideal companion for a walk in a park or natural area. I bought it with the idea that it might offer an unconventional provocation for a process of loosening, prying open, the closed window between my loss and the grief that I cannot begin to touch yet. At this point, in the first months following my parents’ deaths, mourning feels more like an empty space. Written of the body, mine and theirs. Confused. Contorted. Corporeal.

2016-08-21 19.53.09Not everyone would look to a book containing photographs of dead birds (albeit small, grainy black and white images), to find a voice for sorrow. For me it makes a strange sort of sense. It sounds morbid, but hopefully, if I manage to put to word the images that haunt my memories of my mother’s last month and days, I will be able to illustrate the beauty. If I have learned anything yet in these early days following the first significant losses of my life, it is that making sense of the death of those closest to us is at once universal and specific. And I lost both parents. Two very different relationships, two different circumstances, two separate yet entwined experiences of grief.

Of course, there is much more to Beastlife than photographs of birds.

This collection of essays—poetic meditations—on life and death, birds and beasts, and our human interaction with the natural world offers evocative, yet insistent reminders that we should strive to observe, engage with, and exist in this world with grace and compassion. Not that we, as humans, always succeed. Sometimes we are careless. And sometimes we are unthinkably cruel—inhuman even.

Death is a theme throughout, up close and afar. And violence too. Chapman explores the ways we intersect with nature—as hunters, naturalists, observers of atrocities, and, most fundamentally perhaps, bearers of new life. This tiny volume challenges the readers to reflect on our place in the cycle of life, in the beauty and the pain.

For me, at this time, when death is very much on my mind, there is an odd comfort in these pages.

The volume opens with “Bear Stories,” a series of very short pieces; raw, visceral prose poems that draw on the intimate complexity of our connection to the natural world. Bound with water, blood, fur, and feather the beauty is shocking, brutal, sublime. Drawn from an earlier longer form chapbook, these “stories” invite us to consider the world at gut level.

In the dark, a body is a pond. The night birds make hollow sounds, and then there is a sound of the mouth, pulled back, curled out. And so on. Fur catches the moon as it comes out barbed and dark. A vertical cut whines under the ribs, and the long grass keeps it from you.

The micro essays and meditations that comprise the central portion of  Beastlife are remarkably rich, drawing on a range of literary and critical resources. “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled and Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds,” for instance, takes inspiration from Ovid, Heidegger, Barthes, Sebald, Tennyson and more. Despite its seemingly whimsical name, this is a more explicit meditation on death and dying framed against images, photographic and descriptive, of dead birds. The ministry of the title is an imagined institution dedicated to a form of archival lamentation, an understanding of death and mourning through the collection of photographic specimens. They seek and gather images into a growing chronicle of sorrow:

We were stopped, and looked down, in the walk by the bird, flies, cigarette, glint of coin. We saw the futility in keeping—the ornaments in hydriotaphia and their obsidian speaking something of its keeper. But the detritus we die alongside or do not die alongside, the litter jettisoned from our death and dying bodies or we die too quickly to regard, utter the currency of living things.

And there is this discomfort: the spectacle. Its hard edges. We have bodies too, we say, and we want them wrapped in webby husk, a film, a membrane huddled into self. But our bodies are still over-looked by our own flânerie, in which the world, and its subtle schism of that which is alive and that which is dead, becomes our final coup for all we have lost in the leaving. All the unmeasured ether, it flames with our light.

In death we are confronted with the fragility of the body—the body of the one who has died and, in reflection, our own. In her next essay, “We Continue to Unskin: On Taxidermy,” following Truth’s advice to Petrarch to constantly meditate upon his own mortality, Chapman contemplates mortality and the miracle of immortality which, paradoxically involves an engagement with death. Structured along lines from a poem by Paul Celan, this journey takes us through the a more familiar archive of natural history. From the delicate art of the taxidermist, preserving the form and imitation of natural life in the animal’s natural habitat, to the narrator’s own relentless search to find her place in the urban spaces she inhabits, the promise of immortality lies, of course, in language.

And yet every sentence has its beginnings and each animal, posed as it is in flight or in fright has its past-tense. Beauty, eternal gesture. I want to write sentences that stretch on toward desperation, as in the fugal voices that become discordant but still lovely, then recollected in harmony. At the apotheosis of the desperation, the line would break into clause or new sentence and the break would be the point of discord rather than calm, and still the dissolution would be reprieve, as when the healthy mind refuses any more annihilation and in its descent decides to rest. But there must be sentences that travel toward the desperate one. There must be travel.

The last entry, “Our Final Days,” echoes in form the contained short prose pieces of “Bear Stories,” but here the brutality is decidedly human—dispatches of cruelty, violence, and injury are played against the hope that some semblance of beauty in nature may preserve us. It’s a faint hope, a lament of an entirely different order. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in the disheartening news that floods our lives through our TVs and news feeds. Sometimes I find myself relieved that my parents will not see any more of the potential darkness that seems to ever loom on the horizon. But then I remember that I have two children. Life goes on. I reorient myself to the future again.

There is a woeful inadequacy that washes over me when I read more conventional memoirs of loss and explorations of grief. I keep peeking into odd corners, turning over rocks to see what crawls out. Reading books like Beastlife.

I keep the other poetic evocations of grief, the books I am amassing, close at hand. I read them to stir up and open the gates that are still secured against the flood of choked tears, the barricades of numbed sadness, that do not seem to be able to allow more than a slow leak in occasional shuddered gasps. At the moment mourning feels more like emptiness. I feel a need to find a starting point with death, with these particular deaths, with watching each one on their deathbeds, before I can find and begin to work through the grief.

Beastlife by J’Lyn Chapman is published by Calamari Archive.

I am a horror in the face of things: The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector

Take it as a warning. Clarice Lispector prefaces this metaphysically intense novel with a short address to her “possible readers” that states:

This is a book like any other book. But I would be happy if it were only read by people whose souls are already formed. Those who know that the approach, of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly—even passing through the opposite of what it approaches. They who, only they, will slowly come to understand that this book takes nothing from no one.

She does not want your existential “blood” on her hands, dear reader. You have to be willing to surrender it freely, to engage with G. H.’s passion on your own terms, experience her horror and joy as she struggles to make sense of, and give voice to, the “truth” that she has just come to understand. And, if you do, you may well find that the journey is unforgettable.

GHIt is clear from the stuttering opening sentence of The Passion According to G.H. that the narrator, a woman known only by the initials embossed on her suitcases, is uncertain, fragile, and disoriented. It is only by recounting the events of the previous day, by shaping them and giving them form, that she can make sense of the radical transformation she seems to have experienced. This is not a conventional narrative. In her retelling, addressed to the invisible owner of a disembodied hand that she imagines she is holding—the “you” who is at once the reader and, as the monologue progresses, a stand-in for an intimate from her past—she pieces together a superficially simple encounter that unleashes in her a torrent of thoughts, images, and emotions. She spirals into a very vivid personal hell, suffers a crisis of vast existential and spiritual dimensions, and emerges a decidedly changed being. But what of it? As the novel opens G. H. has no clear idea, she must start with who she was to discover who—or what—she has become.

One day earlier, she had arisen late with the intention of cleaning and tidying the room where her former maid had lived, a task she anticipated to be arduous yet satisfying. Assuming the room would be dirty, dank, and disordered, she would exercise her talent or, rather vocation, for “arranging.” G. H. is a wealthy sculptress living in Rio de Janeiro, who paints a portrait of herself as an independent woman, with no husband or child; she admits to a certain measure of vanity, but confesses that hers was a rather referential existence, one that in essence left her ripe for the events that would soon unfold:

My question, if there was one, was not: “Who am I,” but “Who is around me.” My cycle was complete: what I lived in the present was already getting ready so I could later understand myself. An eye watched over my life. This eye was what I would probably now call truth, now mortality, now human law, now God, now me. I lived mostly inside a mirror. Two minutes after my birth I had already lost my origins.

G. H.’s rapid descent to the brink of madness, begins when she enters the maid’s room and discovers a stark, nearly barren chamber. Most unsettling is the sight of three charcoal figures etched onto the whitewashed wall: a man, a woman and a dog. But the unexpected calm and order of the entire room catches our narrator completely off guard. The bed has been stripped, the curtains are gone from the window, three monogrammed suitcases are stacked along one wall and the narrow wardrobe, stands cracked and bleached by the harsh sunlight. She describes the room as “the portrait of an empty stomach.” And as she ventures into the room, she feels as if she has entered a nothingness, a formless space that cannot contain her. To gain some control she decides to wash down the wardrobe, and that is when her nightmare begins.

Cracking open the wardrobe, she confronts a cockroach, emerging through the door. The sight of the roach ignites a primal reaction, tied to memories of childhood poverty, but ultimately bound to a much deeper fear for G. H.—the cockroach is a prehistoric creature, durable and enduring, holding in its being the horror of unformed eternal existence. However, it is her response to the situation, her decision to kill the roach, that triggers what will escalate into an all-consuming metaphysical crisis.

To trace out G. H.’s tortured passion, one step removed through the limitations of a relatively brief review, one can only vaguely approximate the actual experience of revelling in Lispector’s haunting, sensual language. Through the agony and ecstasy of her protagonist’s journey of self-discovery we are invited to bear witness, to share her joy, to feel her pain, to taste the dawning strangeness of it all. And her awareness is startlingly acute. For instance, in her act of violence against the roach she instantly realizes that she has violated something in herself:

Because during those seconds, eyes shut, I was becoming aware of myself as one becomes aware of a taste: all of me tasted of steel and verdigris. I was all acid like metal on the tongue, like a crushed green plant, my whole taste rose to my mouth. What had I done to myself? With my heart thumping, my temples pulsing, this is what I had done to myself: I had killed. I had killed! But why such delight, and besides that a vital acceptance of that delight? For how long, then, had I been about to kill?

The terror that drives the narrator toward the breaking point is grounded in her acknowledgement of a kinship between herself as a human woman and the despised roach. As someone accustomed to defining the self only in the context of the other, it is conceivable that to see herself reflected in such a primitive, base creature could provoke a crisis of Biblical proportions. It shakes her admittedly superficial self-identity to the core. To recognize herself in the face of the roach is to acknowledge the potential annihilation of the self. “—Hold my hand” she implores her invisible listener, “because I feel that I’m going. I’m going once again toward the most divine primary life, I’m going toward a hell of raw life.”

During the hours that follow, G. H. will wrestle with questions of heaven, hell, morality, humanity and, most critically, the troubling reactions that these metaphysical problems provoke in her. She fears her own ambivalence, and discovers that the promise of hell is not a torture of pain but a torture of joy.  In what she will insist are not hallucinations but “visual meditations”, her awareness of being is stretched and exploded, extending back beyond the Cradle of Civilization across deserts and oceans to reach beyond the time of the dinosaurs. To encompass the humble origins of the primeval roach. Gradually, slowly, she will begin to fashion a reformed, redefined spiritual sense of self, to approach her own salvation, to embrace life in all of its uncertain terms.

From its opening passages, The Passion According to G. H. is propelled forward with a relentless intensity that builds as the narrative proceeds. The final sentence or phrase of each chapter is carried forward to open the next, as if with each chapter the narrator is reorienting herself, gathering her resources to move on with her story. The revelations advance in fits and starts, more noticeably as her questioning becomes increasingly obsessed with the nature of being. There seem to be things she can only come to terms with piece by piece, as she attempts to reconstruct and express an understanding of a world in which she can exist. In the end, she must come to an acceptance that being is a process, an act of trust in the unknowable, a continual active re-engagement. Her creator, Clarice Lispector, knows intimately that language—words—are essential to articulating, not just the emotional journey G. H. endures, they are essential to articulating the truths of human existence, once being has been stripped to its most fundamental elements.

Although I have read many of her short stories, this was my first encounter with one of Lispector’s novels. I had wanted to read this particular title for years, but had not realized how closely her theme ties into the existential questions that drive my own most personal writing project. And in a timely instance of serendipity, my finishing this work dovetailed nicely with joining the editorial team of The Scofield in time to copyedit and proofread 70 pages of the upcoming Lispector issue which will be out very soon. The opportunity for some very focused, close reading of some wonderful Lispector inspired writing, including a number of detailed critical essays, has left me eager to read the rest of her work. I can fully understand why she was (and is) so beloved in Brazil, and such a powerfully influential writer.

The Passion According to G.H. was originally published in 1964. This evocative translation from the Portuguese by Idra Novey (2012) is published by New Directions.

Update: The Scofield Issue 2.1 Clarice Lispector and the Act of Writing is now available and can be downloaded for free as a PDF. You’ll find it here. You will find a wealth of Lispector related and inspired reading, including two short stories and much, much more!

Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susan Moreira Marques, a reflection and review

We obsess over lasts as we do over firsts. Last days, last images, last words. We want signs.

Last month, my brothers and I made a most difficult decision about our father who was, at the time facing a cluster of serious complications resulting from a stroke and car accident. Four days earlier we had gathered around our mother’s bedside as the respirator that was barely keeping her breathing was removed. Within four hours she was gone. After agreeing to discontinue treatment of our father, he would continue to live, slowly dying, for another week. As I kept vigil day after day I tried to remind myself that there was a time when death was allowed to take its course, in the home, even as so-called “normal” life would begin to spin, a troubled satellite, around the dying person. Death was part of life, not something that happened elsewhere, surrounded by tubes and machinery. Although my dad remained in the hospital until the end, he was moved to a quiet, private room where he was kept comfortable, free of pain, and cared for by the nursing staff. As a family we were supported and respected. It wasn’t easy, and we’re all still numbed and distorted in our grieving, but if there is such a thing as a good death, I think that both of my parents had good deaths, if good means having a chance to say I love you, over and over and over until the end.

nowdeathWhen I first started to read Susana Moreira Marques’ Now and at the Hour of Our Death, I wondered if I was too raw, too plagued with second thoughts about the decisions we had made, to be able to surrender to a lyrical and experimental essay about death and dying. This book had been sitting on my shelves since it arrived last year with my And Other Stories subscription, several times I had opened it but somehow the time was not right. I suppose the book was waiting for me.

Over the course of five months in 2011, Marques made several visits to a palliative care project in rural north-east Portugal. She accompanied a team of health care professionals as they traveled from village to village to assist those on their final journeys, allowing them to be able die, as comfortably as possible, in their own homes; and along the way she recorded her own observations, collected anecdotes, and listened to the stories of the people she met. The result is powerful meditation dying, as a lived experience shared by a family, a community.

The first half of the book is fragmentary in style and form, blending facts and definitions, character sketches, brief stream-of-conscious like passages, pieces of wisdom—all presented with a quiet dignity in lucid, affecting prose:

The swallows have already built their nests above the back door; this is how they do it every year. They are useful birds, and beautiful, and have always been a favourite of his. But now he watches them as he never has before, because he might not see another spring.

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AGONY: 1. The last struggle against death. 2. [Figurative] Anguish, affliction. 3. An imminent conclusion (preceded by a great disturbance).

‘Agony,’ the dictionary does not note, is a technical term.

*

Immortal in the morning. At night, the fear of never waking.

*

Lands, roads, people, time, time, people, roads, land. What matters here is different, very different.

The second half of the book, entitled “Portraits”, offers a closer look at three individual stories. Here Marques becomes a gentle presence as she describes each situation, then she steps back and lets those involved have their say. There is Paula, a woman with a young family, who is dying of cancer. She speaks with a brave spirit about how she and her husband had taken their time, waiting to have their second child, assuming they had “all the time in the world.” She will only have another year to live at the time that her thoughts are recorded. Then we meet João and Maria, a couple in their 80s who reminisce about their years in Angola. Both are ill, yet neither feels that they are ready to die, they live for visits from their children and grandchildren, and each one fears being the one left behind.

Finally, in the third portrait, the dying person is silent by the time Marques meets the family. While their father Rui lies on his death bed, his adult daughters, Elisa and Sara, each respond in their own way in his final months, the latter driving home from France every fortnight to spend time with him and her mother. Their own accounts follow his death, capturing the early weeks of grief, anger and regret. Very different in temperament, the sisters respond in their own ways to the loss, but for each of them it is the first time they have come up against the close experience with death and it is a leveling experience. Sara realizes she had never appreciated the magnitude of what others she had known would have been going through when they lost a parent, regretting that she had failed to say anything. I can’t help but feel that that is a common occurrence. Nothing but the death of a close friend or family member prepares you for the experience. Elisa, on the other hand, is surprised to find that she is unable to shriek and scream in anguish the way her sister and mother do when her father finally passes:

. . . I couldn’t react. It must have been two months before I cried. It’s really hard for me to cry. And now I’ve finally started crying, but only because I’ll get all worked up over something minor, and then I might cry a little out of frustration. But when it happened – and the atmosphere at our house was just so strange . . . It took me a long time to realize what was going on.

The final section, a single page long, is a guide for “When you come back from the journey no healthy person wants to take,” a list of the ways “you”, that is anyone who survives the death of a loved one, can be expected to act. . . paying attention to time, the things and people that are precious, the bridges that need to be mended and, simply, endeavouring to live well. I hope I can follow this wisdom even if, at the moment, I am inclined to relate to Elisa’s reaction, with grief coming in angry outbursts more than tears.

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Now and at the Hour of Our Death is translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches and published by And Other Stories.