Remembering my father and the gift of a love of literature

My father was born on this day, April 26, in 1928. Marking his birthday for the first time since his death last July is bittersweet. My father was a difficult man, he rarely played with us or talked about his childhood—I would not even begin to appreciate why he was this way until I was in my 40s—but he gave me my love of literature. He would regularly run out on Christmas Eve and bring home books especially for me, starting me early on children’s abridged classics: Hans Brinker, Treasure Island, The three Musketeers and my very favourite, Tales of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. I have spent the past few months combing through his library as we clear out our parents’ house. I selected the books that were suitable for donation to charity, decided which were not worth saving, and brought home the books I could not part with.

My father loved history, poetry and Russian literature. Much of the poetry I had already acquired, piece by piece, over the years; the war history will, I’m confident, find new homes; and I saved for myself his Russian lit (more Gorky than I expected) and his fancy editions of Western literary classics. I have gathered his Russian collection on a small shelf in my office and hope to salvage language from these books to create an experimental composition in his memory. But, as I made my way through his library, I found a few little treasures that speak to his years in New York City in the 1950s—a magical time he was forever trying to get back, long after that New York was gone.

He was in his early 30s when he was finally able to attend university. His parents were not supportive of academic pursuits. He studied electrical engineering and would never complete his degree for lack of funds, but while he was at Columbia his great joy was to write for the student newspaper. He reviewed opera and concerts. He would have been well suited to the life of an academic if he had had the support to take an Arts degree. But that was not to be although he would go on to be a highly respected, if difficult, electrical designer and contractor. Among his books I found a program of concerts from 1950–51, along with a charming contest entry for a chance to win an “Easter outfit,” and a couple of mini pamphlets of “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” (the last book he gave me a few years back was a complete collection of Poe’s poetry and prose).

The process of sorting through my father’s books, left me with a clear image of him haunting secondhand bookstores throughout his life. My favourite find was a copy of a red hardcover called Modern European History by Charles Downer Hazen. Published in 1917, the first owner left his name inside the cover. I don’t know who accidentally burned through the binding, but my father left calculations inside the back cover—not simply solving math problems, it looks like he was tracking the number of pages he was reading.

My father had a thing for numbers, he tracked the temperature and the stock market figures every day right through to the end—not so much out of an interest in the markets as far as I know—but as a little bit of mental exercise. He was afraid of dying and even more afraid of mental decline. I’ll have to keep counting for him. Today he would have turned 89.

The “Wandering Souls” of Panorama

A sensitive and intelligent review of one of my favourite books from 2016, due to be released in North America on May 1, 2017.

Vertigo

A tiny dot had been flashing and circling slowly over a virtual point beside the road on the Google map until the satellites intercepted and correlated my precise position in the imaginary landscape; then the dot stopped moving, coming to rest on the road precisely where I was standing; that’s me, I thought, and as I slid my thumb and forefinger across the tablet to shrink the map, I saw my pulsating point, the beating of a heart, melt into an ever vaster landscape, as if my eye had separated from my body and was ascending high into the sky, swiftly, to the edge of space, from where I could see the entire planet.

It’s tempting — and partly right — to think of the Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar as a modernized W.G. Sebald, as a restless, observant wanderer equipped with a streak of melancholy and a notebook, but also with a…

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The supernatural power of forgiveness: Absolution by Aleš Šteger

Absolution, by Slovenian poet and writer Aleš Šteger, begins with a dramatic flourish, alluding to the staged performative quality of the story that is about to unfold. Like a grandly conceived morality play, the stage is set:

Silence. Darkness. The stage curtains open, and all we see is a man. He hunches behind the high collar of his winter coat, hands buried in its pockets, black briefcase dangling off his right wrist. He sways a little. The pavement has not been shovelled. The man tries to balance his way along a narrow, already beaten track. He nearly falls. Behind him stretch unkempt art nouveau façades, and in the pallor of the streetlights drizzling rain turns into snow. The few passers-by are quietly spat out by the dusk, only to be swallowed again a moment later, just as quietly. The whole time the silhouette of a woman has been at the man’s heels.

It is Carnival time in the Slovenian city of Maribor. And, with a passing nod to The Master and Margarita, the devil makes a brief cameo in this opening scene. But the man with the briefcase is a more mysterious, strangely possessed visitor than the costumed Beelzebub who stumbles on the icy street.

Returning to his hometown, after sixteen years of exile, Adam Bely is a man with a mission. Together with Rosa, his beautiful Cuban-Austrian companion, he immediately sets to tracking down a series of prominent residents, claiming to be collecting interviews for an Austrian radio special about the city which has come to be known, as the “European Centre of Culture.” Each person they meet with is hypnotized or subdued by force, prodded for information about their current and past lives, and then “absolved”—a process which sets free a host of trapped souls—ultimately leaving the “victim” either dead or a raving shadow of their former selves.

Šteger’s fantastical Maribor is striving to be an ideal model of perfected sterility, but it is a false façade—as false as the masks donned by revellers during Carnival. Corruption runs deep and close to the surface. The threat that Bely has come to confront is the Great Orc, a network of “thirteen bodies inhabited by hundreds, thousands, millions of souls which protect the world from change.” These bodies belong to a cluster of powerful, influential individuals, but none of the members know the identity of all of their twelve cohorts. The octopus is the creature that symbolizes and binds this network. Bely is determined to absolve all of the members, effectively freeing the city from a most unusual curse. His conviction is derived from his involvement with Scientology. Although he claims to have left the sect, he still holds to Hubbard’s contention that people are but human animals inhabited by “flocks of murdered souls.”

I have to confess that I am at a loss to know exactly what Šteger was hoping to achieve with this novel. It is either a piece of speculative fiction, or a parody of the same. The characters are caricatures, intentionally so, but there is something decidedly odd and distasteful to the tone and execution. This is not my genre, so either I am missing the point, or this ambitious idea has missed the mark.

It must be noted that Šteger is a very gifted poet. The translation of his collection The Book of Things won the 2011 BTBA award for poetry and his wonderful collection of short prose pieces, Berlin, was long listed for the 2016 BTBA fiction award. And when he steps away from the forced dialogue and strange plot, poetic moments find their way into the text of Absolution, but for a reader coming to this book from his earlier work, those traces are few and far between.

I am not comfortable writing negative reviews. I am always ready to admit that a book that does not work for me, might be perfect for someone else. After all, this book was well received in Germany. And, for all its awkwardness, there are some very interesting ideas here. In my mind, the most striking is the sense of the compounded layers of death the lie beneath so many cities in Europe. It is tempting to reframe the human costs of centuries of conquest and war in Judeo-Christian shades of good and evil. To take an angle like Scientology (which notably emerged from the mind of the creator of some pretty questionable science fiction) is at least daring, if not entirely successful. When Bely and Rosa visit one of their target citizens, Magda Ornik, the Director of the Maribor Funeral Home, she reflects on the artificially symbolic nature of any designated cemetery:

“First, our entire country is nothing but one big burial ground. We all know that whenever you start digging with a shovel you’ll hit a grave or even a mass grave. The Romans, the Middle Ages, the Ottoman invasions, the First World War, the Second World War, the post-war massacres. Slovenia is at a crossroads. Everything comes together and mixes here, and every era provides its share of the dead.”

As a reader living in Western Canada, where the ground beneath my feet contains a long but much more sparsely distributed human history, the densely compacted strata built of the detritus of war and peace (a dramatization of Tolstoy’s novel also features in Absolution) is virtually unknown. Perhaps, then, Bely’s drive to free his city from the weight of so many murdered souls does not seem so far-fetched. As he says:

“I believe in beginnings. Every moment could be the start of something new, something fateful. If I didn’t believe that it’s possible to change the course of our destiny at any given moment, then I’d no longer be on this planet. And I’m still here. Here and now.”

Absolution by Aleš Šteger is translated from the Slovenian by Urška Charney and Noah Charney, and published by Istros Books in collaboration with Belatrina Academic Press.

Multi-lane manifesto: Expressway by Sina Queyras

My hometown does not do expressways very well. In places where it would be obvious to have them, we are late to the game. And each one is a crap shoot, even if you know it well. The first time you have to exit and cross three lanes of traffic in very short order, your head swivelled 180 degrees, just to travel from the expressway to the road you were trying to access you have to wonder: did anyone try this out before they opened it to the public?

When I was still in university I had a summer job where I sat in a building the size of an outhouse, just off the Trans-Canada highway and tourists, just entering the city limits, could pull over and ask for directions. This was long before the era of google maps, GPS, even cell phones. We’re talking printed maps and a highlighter pen. I did my best to give instructions but, to be honest, there was—and still is—so little consistency I was often at a loss to say more than: Watch for the signs. I developed a theory that year that I still hold to. I reasoned that every civil engineering student at risk of a failing grade was given a chance to redeem themselves by designing a single interchange along one of the major thoroughfares. And that’s why no two are alike and some simply defy the imagination.

Canadian poet Sina Queyras completed her 2009 collection Expressways while here at the University of Calgary on a residency. I’m curious as to whether our ad hoc roadway system coloured this poetic critique of the social and ecological impact of the spreading network of asphalt arteries and veins that criss-cross our nations.  Her poems speak to the memory of a romanticized landscape of the past on a collision course with an increasingly isolated, technologically driven future. The opening piece “Solitary” sets the tone, with the call to consider what is a risk with the continued push to interconnect places, at the cost of connection to the land and to one another. The final stanzas read:

Wagon train, trail of tears, what aggregate composition,
What filleted history, what strata, what subplates,
What tectonic metaphor, what recoil, what never

Having to deal with the revulsion of self, only
The joy of forward, the joy of onward, then endless fuel:
The circles, the ramps, the fast lanes, the clover leaf,

Perspective of elevation, the royalty of those views,
The Schuylkill, the Hudson, the Niagara, the skylines,
The people in their houses, passing women, men

Dressing, men unearthing, smoke pluming, what
Future? What the apple tree remembered? Not
Even the sound of fruit. If a body is no longer a body,

Where is memory? If a text is no longer a text,
Where is body? If a city is no longer a city, what road?
If future no longer has future, where does it look?

She snaps her cellphone closed: no one. Alone.
The century is elsewhere. She turns her back.
Swallows her words. She will do anything for home.

As ever, I am not an effective critic of poetry. I like it, I read it. Sometimes, but entirely by accident, I write it. But I do know when poet’s work works for me. This collection is a strong, cohesive, and passionate manifesto evoking the poem as a means to challenge the ethics of the expressway—in its concrete and abstract context. A call to recognize what is at stake:

This poem resembles urban sprawl. This poem resembles the freedom to charge a fee. The fee occurs in the gaps. It is an event. It is not without precedent. It is a moment in which you pay money. It is a tribute to freedom of choice.
(from “Acceptable Dissociations”)

At times Queyras echoes of the Romantic poets, even borrows their words. The text of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals provides the material for “Lines Written Many Miles from Grasmere” which, falling mid-way through the collection, casts a pastoral mood, a look back to the dream of a simpler time, closer to nature. But it is an ideal. The Industrial Revolution was, by 1800, set the groundwork for the technological and economic developments that would ultimately allow for the building of major roadways, and the vehicles to fill them. Other pieces are firmly bound to the present, most notably “Crash” which is assembled from fragments salvaged from google searches. Others stare directly at the future—here darkly, there with a vision of reclamation.

Expressway works as a rhythmic, lyrical cautionary tale. A call to undo harm. But, roads seem to be growing wider, interchanges multiplying. Especially here in North America where spaces are wide and the car is still king. That is, Queyras argues no reason not to strain to hear above the din of the traffic.

I am weary. I walk and walk and meanwhile the expressway hums . . .

What for weary? We all hum.

I am weary. I have so little hope.

Weary, maybe. But, no hope? For that there is never an appropriate time.

Sina Queyras lives in Montreal. Last fall I had the opportunity to hear her read from her latest work. This reflection/review was written in recognition of National Poetry Month in Canada and the US.

Expressway is published by Coach House Books.

Looking ahead to adventure, challenge, and healing

As I write this, it is mid-afternoon on Saturday, April 15, and it’s +3C with light snow. I am truly quite finished with this endless, last gasp of winter. In one month’s time I will be in Australia (where it will already be the 16th and, if all goes well, the “extreme walk” into the outback I have traveled to take part in will be well under way). I am excited and a little nervous about the challenge ahead, but above all I am looking forward to being “off the grid” for the better part of two weeks with plenty of time to process some of the internal baggage I’ve been carrying as I undertake this long and demanding journey into a landscape I never imagined I would have the opportunity to experience.

Some of my regular readers may know that two years ago, following a trip to South Africa, I nearly lost my life. I should have known better, but I was sorely ill-prepared for the effects of extended travel on planes and buses. I did everything wrong and failed to recognize the warning signs of impending danger. After surviving this critical event, I found myself afraid of risking extensive physical activity, even after receiving a clean bill of health on all counts. This is, I learned, a not uncommon, if misguided, response.

One of my first longer training sessions.
Better weather earlier this week. Did not last.

Naturally, I ended up hopelessly out of shape. In pushing myself into an enthusiastic training regime earlier this year, I soon found myself with an inflamed bursa and torn meniscus on my right knee. Cue the physiotherapist. My knee has responded very well—I am walking without pain for the first time in months and now, if only the weather would cooperate just a little, I will be as good to go as I am likely to be.

Which will hopefully be good enough.

This little venture is a mere 223 km/11 day hike over mountain ranges. What could possibly go wrong? (Don’t answer that!) If you are interested, I invite you to check out the site—the Larapinta Extreme Walk is a fundraising event created by fellow book blogger Tony Messenger (Messenger’s Booker) in support of a vital Aboriginal women’s initiative. Donations can be made if desired; every little bit helps.

Where I’m heading to. From: http://www.larapintaextremewalk.com.au/

As much as I am looking forward to this experience as an opportunity to reflect, grieve, journal and, with luck, open up the writer’s block that has dogged me these past few months, I am also very excited to have the opportunity for some serious bookish conversation along the way. And before I head home I will have a few days each in Melbourne and Sydney, where I already have tentative plans to catch up with other readers and literary-minded folk, as well as an online photography friend I have known for years but never met.

So wish me well as I continue to train, and as I get the reading, reviews, and writing I’m presently committed to completed in advance of my trip.

Dream on: Nights as Days, Days as Nights by Michel Leiris

I am lying in bed exactly as I would in reality, except that my forehead is pressed against the white powdery wall of a large cylinder made of lime, a cistern of sorts, exactly my height, and which is nothing other than myself, actualized and exteriorized. I feel this other exterior forehead pressing against my own, and thus I imagine my head is pressing against the very substance of my mind. [Undated]

A curious thing happened as I ventured into the dream writings of French author, Michel Leiris. I expected, perhaps, a surrealist-inspired fascination with the stuff of dreams, the settings, the strangeness, and the symbolism of nocturnal (or aided hallucinogenic) adventures. And there are, among the fragments and the longer descriptive accounts he collected between 1923 and 1960, many vivid images and observations. But this is not a self-indulgent, introspective endeavour. Nights as Day, Days as Nights demonstrates a psychoanalytical restraint, and an observational interest in the quality of dream life (and its echoes in the half-awake and “real life” realms). Consequently, as I made my way through his recorded recollections, I could not help but reflect on my experience of dreamed realities. In sharing Leiris’ journey, I caught glimpses of my own.

Born in 1901, Michel Leiris is widely regarded as a pioneer of confessional literature, known for his extensive autobiographical writings. He was drawn into the sphere of the surrealists early in his literary career, and although he broke with them before long, their influence would linger. He was also an accomplished ethnographer, who participated in anthropological missions into Africa in the 1930s, and worked at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris for much of his life. Given this context, his dream writings which, remarkably, span almost four decades, were nurtured in a rich, fertile soil. But, as translator Richard Sieburth indicates in his introduction, Leiris preferred to classify these notes, collected and published in 1961, among his poetic works, casting a different light on his lifelong exploration of the self. In his essay “Dreaming, Writing,” written to accompany the original release of Nights, Maurice Blanchot remarks that the reserve that Leiris shows in his transcribing of his dreams—not attempting to dissect them—should be respected in the reading. What he offers here is literary, not autobiographical or analytical: “These were once dreams, they are now signs of poetry.”

For Leiris, language plays an important role, not only in the translation of the remnants of dreamed (or fantasized) experience, but in the very substance of dreams. At times he plays linguistic games to escape or alter the events unfolding in his sleeping imagination, at other times he may reflect on the words used to his record remembered scenarios:

 The word rêve (dream) has something cobwebby to it, as well as something akin to gossamer veil that clogs the throats of persons suffering from the croup. This is no doubt due to its sonority and to certain formal connection between the v and the circumflex accent that precedes it (this accent being nothing more than a smaller, inverted v); hence the idea of interlacing, of a finely woven veil. Dreams are spiderlike, given their instability on the one hand and their veil-like quality on the other. If dreams are like the croup, it is probably because they are linked to the notion of nocturnal disturbances (like those bouts of false croup from which I suffered during the night as a very small child). [July 27–28, 1924, Real-life]

Leiris’ dreams are, essentially, recognizable to anyone who remembers their own dreams (since some people seem to be unable to do so). We have all likely had dreams that were bizarre, where a reality we think we know is distorted or shifts, situations that are sexually tinged, or charged with anxiety, or so terrifying that we awake with a start. And what about those dreams that feature people or places that are familiar, but oddly out of time? Or the multi-layered dreams, those that seem to descend or surface to different levels of consciousness—dreaming you are awake, only to discover you are still asleep? The beauty that comes through (and it is not always beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the word), is the sensitivity with which Leiris records his experiences. He is capturing the thoughts, images, memories or ideas that come to him, whether he is awake, half-asleep, or sleeping—his dream life is not confined to one realm of the day—with little intervention or commentary. He may muse about an interpretation of some aspect, but only in passing. Most offerings are presented raw, so to speak, and in vivid detail:

By a pool, a row of giant toads the size of chimpanzees, all covered with moss. They would appear to be part gorilla, and their colours range from green to gray to brown. The finest specimen—to the extreme left of the row—is bottle-green with huge eyes like frosted lightbulbs. They are all getting ready to dive into the water and crawl back into their shells (?). It occurs to me that if I dressed up in knickerbockers and wore a large green felt cap, I would look like a toad. [September, 1933]

Having a record, albeit at times sporadic, that spans a significant period of one man’s life, from roughly the age of twenty-two to sixty, offers insight into another important quality of the dream space. Figures from his “waking life,” as he puts it, appear—and for Leiris this is a fascinating cast, he knew Georges Bataille, Georges Limbour, Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, and countless other well-known writers, poets and artists. But it is his wife, Louise Godon, whom he calls “Z,” who is the abiding presence throughout, whether she is out with him, waiting to meet him somewhere, or comforting him when he awakens with a scream. Other, often anonymous, women may attract his attention in his dreams, but she is never far away, so it seems, from his heart or mind.

Of course, events in the real world also infiltrate the realm of dream and fantasy. During the war years, Leiris’ accounts show a striking amplification of military imagery and themes of impending death, ranging from the allegorical to the theatrical to the disturbingly realistic. This is to be expected, but these records collected and presented, chronologically as they are, map the interior response to exterior terror, in real time. The dreamer, now in mid-life, evolves during these years. He almost seems to become a more astute listener to his own anxious imagination. The entries recorded in the post-war years feature longer, more detailed, but no less surreal, narratives.

When Michel Leiris organized and published this collection in 1961, he would still live, and continue to dream, for another twenty-nine years. Alongside his autobiographical writings, he engaged in a rigorous and formal journal keeping project that spanned seventy years (1922-1989), but Nights as Days, Days as Nights stands as a particularly engaging poetic gift. The invitation to spend time in someone else’s dreams may seem odd, after all, our own dreams are typically of less interest to others than they are to us. But Leiris has a rare ability to transmit these imagined episodes in a way that is not only interesting, but encourages us to recall the way we experience ourselves and others in our own dreams, to become alert to the recurrences, the insecurities, and the wonder that lingers. As such, this very personal project becomes universal, enriching the nights and days of those who are open to it.

Nights as Days, Days as Nights by Michel Leiris, translated by Richard Sieburth, with a foreword by Maurice Blanchot, is published by Spurl Editions.

Initial thoughts on Can Xue and a link to my review of Frontier at Numéro Cinq

In the month or so since I wrote the following review, I have been thinking about Can Xue, about what it is that sets her work apart—that makes it so difficult and so addictive. There is nothing intrinsically complex about her language. Her characters are intriguing, interesting. But one can easily feel unmoored within the scope of her imagination. Borders shift; the signposts we look for as readers are missing or misleading.

But once one accepts this condition, the possibilities are endless and exciting.

After reading Can Xue, I went on to read João Gilberto Noll and Michel Leiris. In the light of this subsequent reading there is more I would like to explore with respect to the dream-like narrative/anti-narrative, but that will have to wait until after my next Numéro Cinq review.

In the meantime, here’s a taste of my review of Can Xue’s Frontier, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

Life In a Northern Town | Review of Frontier by Can Xue — Joseph Schreiber

It can be said that Chinese experimental writer, Can Xue, inhabits a strange and elusive territory in contemporary literature. With an idiosyncratic approach to writing, she has created an impressive body of work that effectively explores a geography of the spirit—mapping, if you like, the space where the real and the surreal, the personal and the political, and the magical and the mundane meet. Her 2008 novel Frontier, newly released from Open Letter Books in a crystal clear translation by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, has been eagerly anticipated by her admirers. Yet, for intrigued newcomers, it may well offer an excellent introduction the dazzling, and baffling, world of Can Xue.

Born in 1953, in Changsha City, Hunan Province, South China; Can Xue is the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, who took her intentionally gender-neutral penname from a Chinese expression that refers to both the dirty snow that refuses to melt and the pure snow remaining at the top of a high mountain. This inherent duality is very fitting. In the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, both of her parents came under suspicion for their journalistic activities and were sentenced to hard labour. Consequently, their daughter was unable to continue her education beyond elementary school. Despite the brutal hardships her family experienced and her own ill health, Can Xue showed great resilience. With her schooling cut short, she turned to reading. Largely self-taught, she read fiction, poetry, and discovered the joys of classical Western and Russian literature, eventually going on to study and read in English. At the same time, she married, started a family, and worked as a tailor before publishing her first work in the mid-1980s.

Continue reading here:

Read an excerpt here: