Love is blind, sometimes stubbornly so: Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski

Right from the very first passages of Marina Šur Puhlovski’s Wild Woman, her unnamed narrator offers no niceties and lays out no illusions—she is a perfect mess, housebound, disheveled, surviving on breadcrumbs and red wine, and slipping out only at the beginning and end of the day for the sake of the dog’ business. Her husband, we soon learn, has been gone for three days, the marriage finally over. At first she was delighted, now she’s delirious. The apartment around her, the same one she grew up in and has always lived in, has been prepared for renovations that never started, fleas have infested most of the rooms, yet she is miserably philosophical about her state of affairs:

I usually prefer the south, warmth and lots of light, but not now. Now I could do with the other side of the world, with the north and its perpetual cold and dusk, its connection to Hades where I landed when I collapsed on the floor and clearly died. Died as the wife of my husband, as his partner, died along with love, faithfulness, loyalty and everything that goes with it, all shattered by the broken vow of “forever”, now nothing but an empty word. Because nothing is “forever”, not the dog, not me, not the damned insects or this apartment or this building or this tree or this town or this planet or the Milky Way and the Universe with it, everything changes, and so do words, which are basically always a matter of politics, in other words, a bitch…. We belong only in our thoughts – me now and me once upon a time – and in photos, and these photos keep us together like Siamese twins attached at the head, making it impossible to separate the two. Except with a knife. When one of us will drop away.

Ah yes, she is resentful, defensive, and defiant—angry at herself and the world. But she is also the indefatigable force behind one of the most honest, human and sarcastically humorous narratives I’ve encountered in a long time.

Newly released from Istros Books, in a translation by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić, Wild Woman is Puhlovski’s sixth novel. Enthusiastically received in her native Croatia, her introspective narrator practically bristles with attitude—think Knausgaard on speed—and yet beneath the surface of her non-stop monologue is a painfully recognizable portrait of the perils of falling in love with love, against the backdrop of life in Communist Yugoslavia.

To explain just how it is that she has found herself in such a pathetic state, the story moves back seven years. At the age of nineteen, with the excitement and promise of university ahead, our protagonist has, along with her desire to study literature, the determination to score romantically. It’s the 1970s and, as far as she is concerned, the two go hand in hand. It is, she will realize too late, a misplaced goal. But for now, the arrival of the maxi-skirt on a fashion scene long dominated by the mini-skirt is going to be her saviour. With her heavy legs hidden she believes she will finally be on an even playing field. She finds a pattern, the idealBe careful what you wish for: fabric and corrals a tired relative to construct the dress of her dreams. Perfect! She will be magnificent, divine! “And what I want to happen happens,” she reports, “the skirt does its job, it sweeps, it collects, it drags some thoughts underneath it, adopts them, imprisons them. I have no idea that from then on I will be imprisoned myself, that the game is over.”

When she arrives at uni in her custom-made maxi skirt ensemble, designed to flatter, she has a particular target in mind. He and his friend stand at the back of the hall. He doesn’t sound like much—fair-skinned, hair thin, but dark—while his companion is healthier-looking with thick blonde hair. However, her sights are already set on the, objectively speaking, less promising specimen. The fact that they are studying literature as opposed to some boring practical subject is a big part of the romantic appeal. She is imagining a meeting of the minds, à la Sarte and de Beauvoir, the seedlings of a great intellectual and artistic love affair. When the two men hurry off after class she is not so sure; when they return in the evening her faith is restored: “Amazingly, they kept coming regularly, in the morning and in the evening, with the other one taking notes, like me; but my guy didn’t, he didn’t even carry a notebook with him, ignoramus, I thought, but I didn’t hold it against him.” She’s resolved to forgive any hint of a shortcoming, dismiss any reservation, before Mr. Right even knows she exists. Not exactly a good start.

In the early days of distant admiration, she analyzes his physical features in detail. He comes up short. She vacillates, she reconsiders. What draws her in should, and would, in hindsight be a warning sign, ones that no one so desperate to secure her chosen mate would want to acknowledge:

Inwardly, I was attracted by the very things that put me off, the look that needed softening, the smile that needed coercing, and then the weariness, especially the weariness, with its hint of something tragic, of the predetermined downfall of the novel’s hero, he exuded an unhappiness that needed soothing, a pain that needed easing, a wound that needed healing, it was all written there in his eyes and on his brow, especially on his pale, high brow … Suddenly he became gorgeous.

Had he flown red flags that would have been visible from the moon, she would have looked the other way. And there are plenty of pieces that fail to add up from the very outset, but she keeps recalculating to achieve the number she desires, and tucks any remainders left from the equation away like unused furniture “building my room for the unspoken, undiscussed comments I kept to myself, afraid that talking about them would force me to draw conclusions.” Later, she would be compelled to confront her commitment to the cause—to him—but by then, she would be in too deep, caught up in a complex and complicated mess of doubt and devotion, exasperation and obligation.

As the narrative unspools, the narrator casts an unsparing eye at her own naiveté, mocking her own blissful blindness, casting gossipy aspersions at an entire cast of supplementary characters whose own lives have tumbled sideways, even long after she has begun to suspect her own bed of roses is in fact lined with nails:

There’s something wrong with that boy, my mother said, worried, two months after I had brought him home to introduce him to my parents so that he could come to the house and visit me. He isn’t just my boyfriend, he’s a colleague from uni, we have the same interests, books, the same plans for life, I explained to my mother, my feet weren’t on the ground, I was on cloud nine, thrilled to have found a soulmate, with whom I was in love, because there were plenty of guys around for the physical part, but to find a kindred soul, mused the virgin who had yet to be penetrated and whose sexual life was therefore a matter of fantasy.

A premonition of the possible fate awaiting her could be found  close to home, in that of her own family and in that of her “one and only’s” but her response as a daughter is to question her mother’s concerns even as they secretly eat away at her.

And on it goes, each chapter adding another cause for concern or attempt to wash it away. Pieces of his apparent history fail to add up, like two years spent in Italy that no one can confirm and a troubling tendency to disappear that begins early in their relationship. He puts little effort into his studies and she soon ends up spoon feeding him the answers he needs, effectively doing his degree and hers at the same time. Even his friends seem at odds to defend him, but they have their own demons and obsessions too. And behind it all, is the very real sense that for these young adults, family background, class, political affiliation and ghosts lingering from the war have already composed their future prospects. The narrator’s fantasy of an intellectual life inspired by her philosophical and literary heroes is as unrealistic as the personal romantic ideal she clings to. Plenty of illusions can be shattered between nineteen and twenty-six.

However, even though we know we are heading for what seems—at least from the vivid descriptions of her present state of utter dis-repair—to be a tale of loss and destruction, the narrative account of how she gets there never sinks into self-pity. Almost a rant, her monologue is spiked with a healthy measure of dark humour, seasoned with the hard-won wisdom of hindsight. One can’t help but root for her. And one can’t help but suspect she will, in the end, not allow herself to be defeated.

Tellingly, she never names her beloved, and every time she refers to “my darling” or “my one and only,” you can almost hear her sneering—at him and at herself for being so willfully blind for so long. But, of course, it’s not so simple. In real time it never is. She has made her bed and for a long time seems resigned to lie in it. She has, it turns out, fallen for a replica of her own father—lazy, capable of cruelty, and prone to illness. With her father, alcohol is the cause whereas her beloved suffers from an acquired condition with a less certain prognosis.

I never hit back, he’s sick, I might hurt him, so I just twist away, try to fend him off with my hand as I used to with my father who also hit me, when he was drunk, not on the head, my mother would cry out, but it was no use because, if I protected my face, his hand would automatically go for my head. And it stopped when I told him that the next time he hit me I would kill him, I was already of age. And then I brought my husband into the house only to have it continue, as if I couldn’t live without being hit.

The extent to which his illness, a small cerebral angioma, is an actual contributing factor in his odd behaviour, and how much it is a convenient excuse to avoid ever making an effort at anything, it is hard to say. Either way, her complicated sympathies to both her dying father and her needy partner hinder her ability insist on the boundaries and respect a healthy relationship requires.

And this is the true beauty and power of this book. It speaks volumes about the decisions we make when we let love cloud our judgement, or allow societal, cultural or other personal pressures to push us into relationships. I married young myself and defended my ex against all criticism for a long time, I’ve seen others similarly make ill-advised or hasty commitments—and it’s not simply a hold-over from earlier generations. It still happens today, although perhaps not quite so young. And it’s not only women who feel the pressure, nor is it a feature unique to heterosexual unions.

However, in Wild Woman, as in real life, it is the women who do, more often than not, end up short-changed. Their men tend to be lazy, selfish and unfaithful, for varying reasons and to varying degrees. But in the narrator’s mother’s generation the inclination is to endure a losing situation, stick it out for better or worse, is greater. That shift is occurring. The narrator finally has to accept that she has married a man who is inclined to treat her as her father treated her and her mother. The cycle repeats itself.  Unless  she can break it—no, smash it to smithereens—it will continue. In 1970s Croatia, that might just entail entertaining a little wildness, but if anyone has it, Puhlovski’s insanely wonderful, wise and witty narrator has it in spades. She just has to find it first!

Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski is translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić will be published by Istros Books on August 31, 2019. An excerpt will run at 3:AM Magazine on August 26 and linked back to this review when it goes live.

A ghost from Calcutta revived: Herbert (or Harbart) by Naburan Bhattacharya

With an opening not for overly delicate sensibilities, Harbart (or Herbert depending on the edition) takes you down into the darkened streets of Calcutta where a group of intoxicated men vomit and piss their way home, and a “rag-clad mumble-mad woman” washes herself at the neighbourhood water tap. They’ve spent the evening partying at the home office of “Conversations with the dead” with the proprietor, the title of the character of the book, who has by now, unknown to them, slit his wrist and lies bleeding to death while a blue fairy frantically presses at the window unable to alter his fate.

Recently released in a brilliant new translation by Sunandini Banerjee[1], this beloved cult classic is a spirited—and spirit-filled—story of a man who never quite manages to fit himself into a world that is in upheaval, through a time of shifting social and political uncertainties. If our hapless hero exercises a certain practical and historical indifference and finds himself caught up in a number of currents he does not understand, his creator was anything but complacent. Writer and poet Naburan Bhattacharya was a dedicated humanitarian, passionate about the lives of all members of society—a man who was, as his daughter-in-law remembers him, keen to explore “the unknown, the unearthly, the underbelly of Indian society, where he dared to immerse himself with wild abandon, unapologetically.” This inclination shines through warmly and vibrantly in this, his first novel, originally published in 1994.

From its ominous, dramatic beginning, the narrative slips back in time to fill in the gaps, and make its way forward to close the circle of Harbart’s short, unfortunate life. From the start, tragedy marks him. Orphaned before the age of two after his father is killed in an automobile accident, and his mother accidentally electrocuted while hanging laundry on a wire, Harbartt ends up deposited at his father’s family home in Calcutta where he “proceeded, through indifference and neglect, toward adulthood.” His aunt Jyathaima will be, throughout his life, the sole family member to show him kindness. His cousins, especially the greedy Dhanna-da, resent his presence, abusing him whenever the opportunity arises, while his uncle whose unrestrained fondness for whores leaves mentally incapacitated as the result of venereal disease, spends his time circulating from room to veranda with the regularity of a cuckoo clock, screaming “Peeyu kahaan, peeyu kahaan!” This Hindi version of the brain-fever bird call, meaning “Where is my love?” becomes a running gag in the book—just one small indication of the humour and character that runs through the story.

Although Harbart spends a few years in school, he finds it not to his liking and drops out, preferring to read on his own and even, for a brief time, dabble in some, less than elegant poetry. Had his father not been obsessed with movies and squandered his share of the family fortune on film projects before his untimely death, this entire tale might have been quite different. But, instead, what he and the boy’s beautiful fair-skinned mother leave their son is a handsome profile, a Hollywood-ish, Leslie Howard-ish air, and a notably shahebi name—Harbart (or Herbert).

Early on, Harbart develops an interest in the dead when he find a human skull and a few bones in a trunk in the house. He eventually takes them to cleanse and release them into the waters of the Hooghly River, but from that point on he starts to immerse himself in two tattered books on the occult that had once belonged to his grandfather. This is not, however, the beginning of his career as a communicator with the deceased. His cousin Binu, a young man with connections the Communist Party had come to the city just as political tensions were rising in the early 1970s and is killed by the police. Despite his attention to Binu as he lays dying in the hospital, the incident slips from Harbart’s memory until, many years later, he recalls his cousin’s long forgotten last words in a dream and, before long, his fortunes take an unexpected turn:

Herbert could sense it. He would have to charge-barrage now. Binu had had his time. It was Herbert’s time now. He would have to produce panic-pandemonium. Rip apart everything, torment-turmoil everything until the entire universe whirled in the dance of devastation.

All of a sudden, Harbart is in business. At the same time, a chain of events is set in motion that catches the naturally anxious proprietor unaware. It seems that there are forces intent on cashing in on his talents and others determined to shut him down.

Harbart’s business may be a sham, but it is not conducted with an entirely mercenary intention. On the one hand, he is too inept to concoct an illusion worthy of the mediums of the past, like the personalities who populate the reference books he clings to, on the other, the painful stories of those who seek his services tug at his heart. It is exactly this weakness that allows him to fall into the trap set by those intent on discrediting him. But is he really hurting anyone? He is accused of playing on the desires of the bereaved to believe ghosts exist. And yet, in truth, Harbart’s own ghostly ancestors are never far away. His deceased parents huddle close by whenever their son is in trouble, his progenitors confront him in a terrifying god-like vision, and they all will cluster around at his unforgettable cremation.

This slender novella moves with a force and energy of its own—stretched out in places, sliding sidelong in others—and packs an entirely unanticipated punch at the end. By turns funny and tragic, it sings with the spirit and energy of the Calcutta streets and neighbourhoods, which are slowly changing, where modernization—like the satellite dishes sprouting on roof tops—is leading to more isolation and less compassion. It’s a world where a lonely misfit like Harbart, clinging to illusions (like that afforded by the moth-eaten Ulster great coat he walks around in, or his infatuations with a lady doctor he happens to see in passing or a stone fairy in a store window) hardly stands a chance.

Finally, I have to add a few words about the two editions of this book. I bought and read the New Directions edition first and thoroughly enjoyed it. The language is vibrant, coarse, and playful. Calcutta as I’ve experienced it comes alive on the pages. But I was curious about the different spellings of the title character’s name. It is not unusual for a book published in North America by one publisher and in the UK and the rest of the world by another to have two different titles, or small variations in the edits, but the name is rather obvious. Harbart is the Bengali rendition of “Herbert,” the name the Seagull edition uses which, depending on how you choose to look at it, given that this is an English translation, the protagonist was given an English name and he likes to imagine that others might detect in him a whiff of “white blood,” there is a fair cause for an English spelling but it’s not a major concern for me. In this review, I decided to hold to the US edit. However, the quote above is from the Seagull version, and for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, the delightful hyphenated rhyming or alliterative verbs and nouns that litter the text in this edition have been, largely diluted, sometimes even replaced in the New Directions edit. Same with some of the vernacular. Given that the translator is the senior editor at Seagull who are themselves based in the heart of Calcutta, this noticeable difference begs the question: Was the translation deemed too lively for American audiences?

Both Seagull Books and New Directions are publishers I greatly respect and I don’t want to belabour the differences. This is an exceptional, moving and important book—not to be missed, no matter the edition!

 

[1] This new translation has been published by New Directions in North America as Harbart, and by Seagull Books in the rest of the world as Herbert.

We live in a gingerbread house: In Life by Eugène Savitzkaya

“In this house, we live relentlessly, filling eternity with our detritus.”

Life sometimes holds the smallest, unexpected surprises. Unassuming, they come along and sit there quietly waiting to catch your attention until one day…

For me, those unanticipated gifts are invariably books. When, several months ago, In Life by Eugène Savitzkaya arrived, I was uncertain what to make of this slight novella with its simple cover featuring a still-life painting of flowers and vegetables. Savitzkaya, the publicity insert advised, is a French language Belgian poet, playwright, novelist and essayist, but what caught my attention was a link to an article about the author in Weird Fiction Review. Weird? That would not have been my first impression, it looks like such a simple text, yet as Edward Gauvin argues in his essay, the prose is minimal rather than abstract, but it is as if :

something has been subtracted from it, making us work harder for a fuller picture of what is being described. The result is a certain destabilization, dislocation, an alienation that does not distance you so much from the text as lock you alone inside it. Hence the usual adjectives: hallucinatory, intense, incantatory… the feel and unease of Weird.

With In Life, weird fiction is rendered domestic if you will, softly surreal, stubbornly anachronistic. In it, nothing happens and, yet, everything happens. Magical imagery, strange and wondrous, is applied to the quotidian ritual of hearth and home—cleaning,  cooking, repair and maintenance,  tending the garden, and nurturing of the soul of the house and its inhabitants. No task, no bodily function is unworthy of attention, often in unlikely detail. This is a book that revels in the minutiae of existence—the shed eyelashes and flakes of skin, the lost buttons, the crumbing walls, the weeds pushing through cracks in the walkway.

Above all, this is the story of a house surrounded by a garden, a neighbourhood, a town, hills, the sea and sky. A self-contained universe, from the crumbs that fall under the dining table to the scents that arrive on the breeze. At the heart of this universe, the house is a physical and metaphysical entity that must be maintained by those who dwell within, its contents sorted and preserved:

There isn’t only one way to tidy, but thousands—each necessary for structuring and mapping out the existence of the house, which is (well before it appears to be a system of doors, windows and walls) a whole system of alveoli. The simplicity of domestic life flows from the vast complexity of these alveoli. Just as you need a place for soap, you need a place for books. A place for sleeping and a place for sitting. A place for thumbtacks and a place for salt. A place for perfume and a place for stench. She who knows the place of each thing is capable of measuring the household’s degree of destitution or richness.

The narrator is a writer, a man with a fiancé and two children, a son and a daughter, echoing Savitzkaya’s own family, but this is not an autofiction, at least not in any biographical sense. His writing seems a secreted activity, gathered in snatches. He is aware of being unusual in that he is home at all hours of the day, actively engaged in caretaking, yard work, cleaning, ironing and, with special attention, preparing meals. His voice, however, is singular and plural, and shifts between perspectives. “We” might be the family, or a more comprehensive designation; second and third person may be employed to speak of others—for example the reader as an imagined guest—or to expand the universal nature of his reflections on the simple, most fundamental elements of life and the art of living.

Reading like an extended prose poem, this novella is a sensually charged evocation of the ordinary moment at its most ephemeral and most enduring. The narrator delights in unexpected imagery, sparking everyday rituals such as the family meal with fairy tale magic:

Thus assembled, we are ready to gobble a mountain of potatoes, loads of lamb, a cow, even an elephant. Animals fear us. But eyes are always bigger than bellies. They have a good sense of excess. As for us, we content ourselves with little, but have a yen to devour the world. We live in a gingerbread house. We drink birch sap from glasses made of sugar and when grief torments us, drops of brine fall from our eyes. We need light to eat—sun, honey or incandescent light.

Victuals are a central feature of life in this house, as one would anticipate. The meditation returns repeatedly to the growing, the preparation, the sharing, the bodily elimination and the disposal of leftover food. For vegetarians like myself, the meat content is considerable and carefully detailed, but, in fairness, the question of the respectful consumption of animals is not overlooked. Still, the passages on food are some of the most wonderful. After all, more than simply seeing to the nourishment of the family, the provision of food is an act of love with existential dimensions. Take for example, the act of peeling apples:

You can watch the blade as it slides under translucent skin. And, in your hand, you see a sort of phylactery unfurl, detailing the surface area of the fruit. This is a job that, if left only to me, would be eliminated evermore from the manuals of domestic life because an apple is a whole; the skin belongs to the flesh, the flesh is complete with the skin. Be that as it may, it’s worth the trouble. No activity, apart from washing dishes, is as soothing. From the instant that children ask for their slices of apples to bestowed on them without the peel, peeling becomes necessary and eminently interesting. Peeling becomes a way of being, a way of weighing the pros and cons, of conducting yourself in relation to objects, of searching under the skin for the illumination of flesh.

Love holds the house inhabited by Savitzkaya’s alter ego narrator and his family together. But the details fleshed out are not personal. It is as present in the cement troweled into cracked walls and the odours, fair and foul, that rise into the air, as it is in children’s laughter, or lovers in their shared bed. And embracing it all, is the garden. Here, as everywhere else in the universe contained within the pages of this small novella, reality is porous. It contains us but cannot be contained.

The garden’s only goal is abandon; it lives on abandon and thrives on the smallest opportunity to liberate itself and break through its imposed limits. Where is the garden? Between four walls or around the house? In the center or surrounding? In which garden am I sitting? In my garden. I am always in my garden, even when I’m not the gardener, and I don’t need anything, neither to move nor to identify what’s mine. It’s my garden because I’m there, because I live in it for just one second. And I part with it the next.

In Life is a small miracle of a book. It is a slippery object. Although it is filled with images and reflections on the tasks of daily life, it offers nothing firm to hold on to. In a way it is exactly like everyday existence—small moments, the beautiful and the mundane alike—slip by so quickly that we struggle to grasp them lest they be lost. We cling to impressions, to bits and pieces. Sometimes, we might even capture a few on the page.

Eugène Savitzkaya’s In Life is translated by Andrew Colpitts and published Quale Press. They have previously published a collection of his prose poetry, Rules of Solitude. In life is the first of his novels to be made available in English .

Ropes across the abyss: How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson

The opening pages of music broadcaster and composer Stephen Johnson’s How Shostakovich Changed My Mind detail what is clearly one of the most moving interview experiences of his career. He is in the St Petersburg apartment of Viktor Kozlov, one of the few surviving members of the orchestra that performed the triumphant debut of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in 1942. He describes, with the clarinetist’s assistance,  how that performance was pulled together against all odds. Leningrad, as it was known at the time, was under siege, and Stalin not only wanted an opportunity to galvanize the beleaguered citizens, he wanted to send a message to Hitler who was waiting within earshot to celebrate victory. As an artist within a system that could turn against him in a heartbeat, the burden on Shostakovich to deliver a suitable masterpiece was immense. In the end, it was a rousing success. He managed to speak directly to the people’s emotions, and give them a reason to feel united in a time of war. The invigorated audience responded with an ovation reported to have lasted over an hour.

But here was something else too: that puzzling conundrum I had noted so often when pondering the appeal of Shostakovich’s music, but which now struck me with heightened force. In the Leningrad Symphony, Shostakovich had held a mirror up to horror, and reflected that horror back to those whom it had all but destroyed—and in response they had roared their approval, their delight, their gratitude to the composer for giving form to their feelings.

When Kozlov’s account of the event was complete, Johnson asked him a most formulaic question. He wanted to know how that same music made him feel when he heard it today, completely unprepared for the response. Both the elderly musician and his wife burst into tears—it was a question beyond any possible answer.

It is this ineffable power of music to reach into the deep emotional spaces in our lives where words often prove ineffectual, to give voice to that which we ourselves cannot express—especially in times of anxiety and distress—that becomes the very personal focus of this most fascinating book. Part musical biography, part memoir, part psychology and philosophy, this book-length essay draws its greatest strength from Johnson’s passionate affection for and deep connection to the music of Dimitri Shostakovich. His association with the composer’s repertoire reaches back to his own difficult adolescence when, ignorant of the world of rock ’n roll, he sought comfort in the Shostakovich’s thundering chords. Blessed with an acute musical memory, he was able to carry fully orchestrated movements in his mind in a manner he compares to a romantic teenage infatuation, during the times when his mercurial and unstable mother’s volatile behaviour made life otherwise unbearable. This uncanny musical aptitude serves him well as a writer. His ability to breathe life into complex orchestrated passages and open up the key elements at play in major works, is likely to inspire readers to download or stream the pieces under discussion, or pull dusty records or CDs from their shelves. It is not necessary to engage an aural experience in the reading, but it does tend to be difficult to resist the inclination to do so.

As one might imagine, given the unusual title, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is an intimate account of the intersection of music with the personal drama, and trauma, of life lived. Johnson draws on literary, philosophical, neurological and psychological resources as he explores the connection between music and the brain, an area of growing interest and investigation, but he anchors his inquiry in the story of Shostakovich’s life and work during some of the most tumultuous events of the twentieth century—a thoroughly fascinating account in its own right—while tracing out his own particular relationship to this music and the role it played , not only in adolescence, but in his own adult challenges with bipolar disorder.

Shostakovich’s music can be wildly moody, shifting abruptly from lighthearted to savage to slow and achingly sombre. But it is not without structure. In listening carefully, Johnson became attuned, early on, to the thematic connections that he describes as ropes stretched across the composer’s own abyss, a bridge of sorts. It is a fundamentally important discovery for someone with a mood disorder—a condition I also understand too well:

As a bipolar sufferer, I know what it is to experience manic flight. At its worst it has been truly frightening, like a bad, drug-induced trip. Even when I’m not manic, I’m aware of how my conversation can go off on sudden tangents. Some of my friends have found it entertaining; others have found it bewildering, even alarming. It certainly alarmed my mother although she could be as dizzyingly tangential as anyone I’ve ever known. It was another aspect of my behaviour that provoked my father into panic-stricken attempts to close me down. I became seriously concerned about my own ‘intoxicating and leapfrogging’ thought processes—until, that is, I came to know Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. As I found Shostakovich’s connecting ropes and pulled them taut, it was though he personally was reassuring me. The exhilaration I felt was not dangerous; it was controlled, expertly rounded off by this extraordinary music.

If Shostakovich reached one troubled and alienated youth, it is not this particular music alone that holds the key. Johnson muses if he had been exposed to rock music he might well have found similar comforts and a peer group to share it with as well. But it matters not. The magic, if you like, lies in a link between music and listener, through a mechanism folded into the evolutionary structure of our brains. One that has the power to ease isolation, to unify, and to move both the individual and the crowd from “the ‘I’ to the ‘we’” as witnessed on that August night in Leningrad in 1942.

Moving deftly between the artistic, the scientific, and the autobiographical, this extended essay, never gets bogged down or off track. It makes no effort to be exhaustive, after all, at the core of the book is the relationship between the music of one very enigmatic Russian composer and the author whose life has been influenced, possibly even saved by it. Johnson’s own story unfolds like a well-crafted symphony itself, building through layers, in and out of the various streams of his narrative, to reach the point at which he was caught at the opposite end of the bipolar dance—in such an agonizing state of despair that suicide seemed the only way out. Again, he captures well the reaction of others to this side of the manic-depressive experience. In his darkened, unreliable state of mind, he came to believe that ending his life would not only ease what had somehow become an unbearable emotional pain, but would free up his wife Kate to get on with her life without the burden he felt he was invariably placing on her:

Depressives can be immensely frustrating for those who live with them. They tend to go around in the same anxious, obsessive circles endlessly; to the worried onlooker, it can seem that they actually don’t want to be helped; and they can be horribly irritable. For my part, I had still to learn that exasperation is more often a sign of love than its absence.

It was, ultimately, a fortuitous sequence of events that led him to his therapist’s office when he had intended to cancel; a lucky mistake that enabled an emotional breakthrough—or breakdown—that would turn the tide. However, Johnson can’t help but wonder if Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet had played even a small role on his road to recovery.

A year earlier, he had been given an assignment to prepare liner notes for a new recording of the popular Quartet, a task that had necessitated close engagement with a work composed when Shostakovich himself had been suicidal. He wonders if the writing and playing of the piece in which the composer famously places himself—or notes corresponding to his initials—as the central motif, had made him change his mind about killing himself, or whether it was simply the fact that a friend had intervened and removed the vial of sleeping pills he’d had on hand. And there’s the challenge: Music can do many things in times of emotional distress—reaching us in our darkened state with an image that is more accurate than the bleak self-portrait we cling to. However:

it cannot, in the broader sense, ‘see’ us. It can prepare us for the moment when we are seen; it can function as a life-raft in the most terrifying seas—for years, if necessary. But the moment of salvage needs a real living other, to see us and to know us, to signal to us that we are still worthy of rescue. Music could not do that for me, not quite—but it brought me very close.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is a rich account of the life and work of one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, a wide ranging discussion of the ability of music to provide expression and meaning in times of joy and sorrow, and, most importantly, a personal memoir of how music can serve as a means to navigate madness, especially in those times when, from inside, all one knows is that something is not right. This is a book for a wide audience, but for myself, as someone who also suffers from bipolar disorder, it has given me a lot to think about and reflect on looking back at my own relationship to music—and this illness—over the years.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson is published by Nottinghill Editions in the UK and distributed by NYRB in North America. Shostakovich: A Journey Into the Light, the 2011 BBC radio documentary that sets the groundwork for this book can be found online here.

 

Cloaked in Literature: Clone by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

In the years that I have been maintaining this blog, I don’t believe that have written about any book that might fall into the category of science or speculative fiction. I probably haven’t read much in recent years. As my attention has shifted to translated and more unconventional literature, I have set aside less time for the type of books I used to pick up as what I might have considered casual or escapist reading. Which sounds, I’m aware, like a little snobbishness and a lot of equivocating. But I don’t intend it that way, however, if one is not well read within a particular arena, writing about or reviewing a book becomes more difficult. The inclination is to simply read for pleasure, as if that is somehow a bad thing. Is literature supposed to hurt? Of course not. By this point in my life I like to think I’ve earned the right to read—or not read—whatever I want. Jump ship after 30 or 50 pages if I the book’s not working for me. Or to be surprised by a book I was less certain about.

In recent years there has been, it seems, a rush of speculative and apocalyptic themed fiction, drawing authors and readers from across the literary spectrum. I have tended to avoid it. I came to this book, Clone, almost by chance, when I was in Mumbai earlier this year and made plans to meet up with the author, poet and translator Priya Sarukkai Chabria at the Kala Ghoda Festival. Neither of us knew much about the other beforehand. A few hours over coffee and cake later and I’ve come to consider her a good friend. So although we have not discussed this book at all (I actually went to hear her lead a panel discussion on translating ancient literature), it is only fair that I consider this post a response rather than a formal review. As I’ve already indicated, I’m not sufficiently well-read in dystopian fiction anyhow. However, it’s also fair to say I was completely captivated by the scope and passion of this tale of an engineered clone “evolving” within a rigid, dispassionate world that is as fantastic as it is terrifyingly plausible.

The novel is set in a highly stratified twenty-fourth century India, where a select group of Originals lead a protected life of privilege and guarded luxury serviced by a vast array of clones bred from their own DNA, often mixed with or fortified by genetic material derived from animals. Divisions between classes of beings, or life forms, are strictly controlled. Museums exist to guard art and history from curious visitors and elaborate blood sports are a popular entertainment. It is, from the outside looking in, a world order long since divorced from the very qualities that faith, philosophy, and literature would have associated with humanity. In fact it would seem that the stirrings of these forgotten ideals, filtered through a vestigial genetic legacy that has resisted attempts to contain it, is the greatest threat to those in power. However, mutations keep arising.

Our narrator, Clone 14/54/G is, she insists, not a mutant. What sets her apart is something more unsettling. Her consciousness is changing. She remembers. The memories she seems to be accessing are desired by some and dangerous to others. Her Original, Aa-Aa was a writer living in the late twenty-first century, now being made manifest in her fourteenth generation likeness, cloaking her in Literature, so to speak. But Aa-Aa was a controversial figure who met an untimely end mid-way through an important public address. Her intended message died with her and Clone 14/54/G is seen a potential conduit to that message, for good or ill.

In a society dependent on unquestioned obedience and compliance, and designed to enforce it, poetry and stories are subversive elements. For our Clone, an early sign that something is amiss comes when she begins to experience unexplained compulsions and strange “visitations.” Like inhabiting a dreamscape although clones are not supposed to be able to dream, she finds herself caught up in stories—sometimes as a human, sometimes as an animal—reliving a life from a long lost time. These visitations which will later comprise a significant portion of the book, echo historical and mythological themes reaching far back into Indian history. They not only threaten the rigid consistency of the narrator’s programmed existence, they speak to the ineffable power of stories, to the poetry of our DNA.

Clone 14/54/G’s initial response is to wish these unwelcome intrusions away. Her sense of her place in the “Global Community’s” order of reality has been challenged. Originals alone have life, Firehearts who were created to play an empathic role have presence, and Superior Zombies claim existence, but Clones simply “exhibit actuality.” However, as words and ideas begin to come to her, to make their way into her experience of this actuality, her sense of her own reality is altered, or less certain. She responds whenever feasible by reducing her mode of function. But this strangeness does not simply affect her feelings. Her body is also responding:

Beneath my overalls I grew hair. At work, I made no error. I was allowed full rations. I was living in two worlds. Is this what is meant by loneliness? That you don’t belong to any world. Not the old one. Not the new. You don’t even seem to belong to yourself.

But as her awareness continues to evolve, she is relieved of her former worker role, and removed to a holding facility where she is afforded certain luxuries and encouraged to foster a connection with her Original. Her adjustment is not without reservations as the routines she knew are pulled away. And she is subjected to real pain, frequently pushed to her physical limits as the months pass. For support she has the Fireheart clone Couplet, an attentive almost insect like-creature assigned to assist in her recovery of Aa-Aa’s memories. Meanwhile, a handsome Original known only as The Leader, takes a particular interest in her progress and soon they become lovers. Her situation becomes at once more tenuous and more exciting. To what extent is she being played? By whom? To what ends? And is there anyone or anything she can trust, especially her own increasingly volatile and passionate heart? For example, after making love one day, she is haunted by questions that never would have troubled her before. What does it mean, for example, to be aware of the fact that she is alone?

Who is now speaking—Aa-Aa or me? Why do I wish it not be her?

“Clone 14/54/G” is no longer enough. I am more—and less—than I was. Less sure, less safe, less isolated. More curious, more in pain, more resolute about my uncertainties. With more words at my command.

The strengths of Clone lie in the strong voice of the narrator who comes to be known as Aa-Aa Clone 14/54/G and the realization of a multi-faceted, artificially manipulated society without laborious details or explanations. Aa-Aa Clone 14/54/G can only tell the story as she knows and understands it, nothing more. Her narrative moves from the focused and contained, yet conforming perspective of being whose entire world has been formed along established lines, to one whose humanity, if you will, starts to break through in fits and starts. The passion and spirit of her Original, and the characters whose stories she carries, simmers slowly, gradually building steam, but is never an entirely natural fit. This is not a Cinderella story. Too many horrors await, too many questions remain unanswered. Finally, the form, incorporating tales drawn from the accumulated memories of a distant past—the storyteller’s true legacy—is unexpected and effective; the language poetic and powerful.

Clone by Priya Sarukkai Chabria is published by New Delhi-based Zubaan Books, and distributed outside India by University of Chicago Press.

The book that comes after the book is done: Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno

An odd thing happened when I was reading Kate Zambreno’s remarkable Book of Mutter, her fragmented meditation on grief and loss—a mix of memoir and literary and artistic criticism—that took her more than a decade to write. I sensed a strain in her relationship with her mother, reading it against my own circumstances. Of course there were huge differences between our lives and the ages at which we lost our mothers, but it seemed that even after such a long gestation period, her effort to work through her complicated emotions was still uncertain and unresolved. And, why not? Is grief ever really resolved?

Appendix Project, the unintentional follow up or companion piece to Book of Mutter, is a collection of lectures and essays composed during the year following the original book’s publication. It offers Zambreno a unique opportunity to continue a process that, to her surprise, was not put to rest with the final edits and release of a text she had already dedicated so much of her writing energy to. What more could be said? A lot it turns out. And the result is a more intimate, thoroughly engaging meditation on the impossibility of ever fully writing through grief, the limits of language, and the intensified emotional connection to her mother that she discovers through her own experience of motherhood. The entries gathered into Appendix Project trace the first year of Zambreno’s daughter’s life, and as such, her mother’s absence is filtered, re-imagined and given greater dimension through the presence of her child. In becoming a parent herself, her understanding of her mother as a mother has been altered.

What I never anticipated is how much being pregnant, and having a baby, would change the nature of time for me, and how that would interfere with the mourning of my mother, which I thought was finished, since the book I wrote about her was finished… My baby is almost four months old, but I feel she was just born, and that she’s been alive forever. I am 39 years old, but I have never felt more the past year like I was a child, have never felt more strongly the absence of being a daughter, of having a mother.

More haphazard, natural and organic than the book that proceeds it, this series of talks and reflections is not simply an addendum to Book of Mutter, or an alternative to reading from the book at public events, rather it grows over the course of its evolution into an intimate investigation into the act of remembering and attempting to put into words that which cannot be readily defined, confined, contained and released. There are many spaces where language is inadequate, where writing to process experience is not only irresistible but often  impossible. Drawing on—that is, thinking and writing through—the work of artists and writers like Barthes, W.G. Sebald, On Kawara, Anne Carson, Bhanu Kapil, Marguerite Duras, Louise Bourgeois, Peter Handke and many more, Zambreno is not just continuing to think and re-think her own work, she is opening up avenues of inquiry and contemplation for any intuitive reader or writer to follow to their own ends. To read Appendix Project is akin to listening to its author thinking aloud as she reads the works others, reflects on motherhood, and returns to reconsider the elements of Book of Mutter that, over its long journey to a finished form, were either abandoned or edited out.

During the course of preparing the pieces that come to comprise Appendix Project, Zambreno resists the idea that they will be published as a book, knowing at the same time that she is engaged in a project. Others suggest that she should just repeat her these lectures, considering the time it takes to put them together, but there is an important temporal element at play, an ongoingness that is essential:

It feels like a necessary act, at this point where I am as a writer, and also as a published author, to re-engage in a passionate way in the ephemeral and daily practice of the writer, a way of returning back to the semi-privacy of writing—the different forms this might take—the letter, the notebook, and the talk. A talk however, Barthes notes, is not quite a performance. A talk is an outline for writing and speaking, a means to prepare and vocalize one’s thoughts.

Herein lies the key, at least for me, to the success of this project.  As Zambreno sorts her thoughts out in the course of these lectures and essays, an attentive reader/writer can  find their own launching points to questions that they may be dealing with. Reading Book of Mutter set me off on long stretches of  writing in my notebook as passages I encountered facilitated unlikely connections I might not have made otherwise. It was often less what was said than the way something was said that caused me to think: how is that different for me? The fruits of my very idiosyncratic reading led to an understanding of my own queered relationship with my mother that I had never appreciated. I have since written about that in an essay posted here on my blog on Mother’s Day. My reading of Appendix Project, which I had little desire to rush, has likewise opened up further channels of exploration for my own writing—this time broader because the scope is broader—and some of this meandering has become key to another piece I have recently written for publication next year.

My point in bringing in my own reactions here, without fleshing out any of the details of the connections I made because they are relevant only to me, is by way of saying that this is not a book I can stand back from and review with the critical displacement required. Well I could, but that is not what excites me about this work. What makes this form of intelligent, personalized critical essay writing so powerful when it works (and it does not always work, especially when it slides into the overly self-indulgent and solipsistic) is that it can send readers (or listeners when presented as a lecture) to consider their own intersection with the topics discussed. Certainly grief and addressing the loss of a mother are central themes, but other losses—childhood, language, land, even sanity—can be subject to the same challenges of understanding and expression. My copy of Appendix Project is decorated in marginalia spinning off in a multitude of directions. And I have a stack of books Zambreno dips into—some old favourites, others yet unread—now sitting close at hand, not to mention a few more titles added to my wish list.

Finally, it’s worth asking whether familiarity with Book of Mutter will provide context for this collection of lectures and essays, and of course it won’t hurt, but this really more a book about everything that book (or perhaps any book) does not contain—what was removed, what was never there, what may never adequately be captured in any written text. They are really very different works, in form and intention. Book of Mutter, if unconventional, is still a highly structured  work of mourning that, in the end, left me feeling a little disconnected. Appendix Project fills in those gaps and much more. And as such it is an exceptionally original, intelligent, and generous work in its own right.

Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno is published by Semiotext(e).

Where There Are Monsters by Breanne McIvor: Some thoughts and a link to my review at 3:AM

With my editing responsibilities at 3:AM Magazine occupying more of my time in recent months, I have not been able to find the time or energy to pitch or submit reviews to publications, preferring to rely on my blog for critical writing. However, this past week saw the publication of an off-site review at—of all places—3:AM. We have collaborated with the Republic of Consciousness Prize to publish a monthly review of their corresponding Book of the Month Club. I was invited to contribute a review for the May title.

Where There Are Monsters, the debut collection of short stories by Trinidadian writer Breanne McIvor was a very pleasant surprise that I might not have heard of save for this opportunity. Published by UK-based Peepal Tree Press, who specialize in promoting the work of Caribbean and Black British writers, McIvor presents a bold contemporary vision of her native country where wealth and poverty co-exist; crafting memorable tales that feature characters from both sides of the social and economic divide.  However, woven into this modern landscape are myths and monsters drawn from traditional folklore—often where one least expects them—lending her stories a distinctly gothic feel.

The opening passage of my review is reproduced below. You can read the rest of it here:

In an era when the happy ending may seem elusive, naive or, at the very least, ill-suited to the realm of serious literature, it is natural to long for a conclusion that, if not exactly happily-ever-after, is happier than expected. To that end, perhaps the most memorable feature of Breanne McIvor’s debut collection of short stories Where There Are Monsters is that, even if a shadowy quality simmers throughout, so many of her stories feature characters who are intrinsically kind and good, or capable of rising above the difficulties or legacies bequeathed them. Those who cannot are most often quite literally, well, monsters — beings possessed by a darkness deeply rooted in the folklore of Trinidad — and even then, the desire to override the evil impulses buried inside flickers with a desperate, if inadequate, humanity.