Losing my story (or my capacity to tell it)

For the longest time I have entertained a writing project. Memoirish, I described it. I put time and money aside to facilitate this activity. I’ve been going through the money, but have little to show for my time. It has been more than a year since I’ve written anything serious of a personal nature beyond a few small prose pieces or random blog posts. I’ve written about writing and not writing and all manner of writerly insecurity. I regularly hear from people who, much to my surprise, enjoy what I do write, appreciate what I share. Yesterday, after submitting an overdue review, for better or worse, I told myself that I must finally get serious about trying to pull together a more significant effort.

Yet, I woke up today fearing that I can no longer tell my story. The only story I have to tell and I cannot share it. The cost is too great.I don’t know how others do it. Detail their personal lives, their vulnerabilities, their victories. Perhaps there is a part of ego that has no filter, a point of pride that longs to disclose. But that’s not me. In real life, I’ve come to understand that my existence can only begin to affect some measure of authenticity if I refrain from attempting to have full expression of all that I am. All that I have been. It’s one thing to write. I have published a few raw and honest pieces that have been well received, that can be searched online, and I am happy with each one. And here at home, for the past three years, I have been more intentionally out and involved in LGBTQ and affirming spaces in a way I never dared before. However, more often than not, I’m left feeling defeated. It’s all okay, it seems, until I try to have my voice heard. My history validated. My pain respected.

I would to dream that writing could heal the loss and grief I carry. Yet, too much loss and too little gain makes for a story no one would want to read. Life stories are supposed to show recovery, strength, hope. But that’s wishful thinking. Real life itself just goes on. I am afraid that attempting to write now would only reveal the anger and despair that I can’t get past.

This is not to say that there have not been many positives in recent years. I’ve a network of good friends across the globe. I’ve travelled to some amazing places. I still love writing—reviewing, interviewing, and editing. I am producing work that I am truly proud of. And I’m not ashamed of who I am. But I think I have reached the limit of what I want to explore on a deeply personal level in writing.

Perhaps some stories are better left untold. Some transmythologies are better left uncontested. And some lives are more coherently lived by keeping the closet doors at least partially closed.

This weekend I realized that, in no uncertain terms, it is one thing to be “accepted” as long as you don’t talk about yourself, or your life, in any way that others do not want to hear. This simple truth has finally extinguished my intention to continue this memoirish fantasy.

I wish I was a poet.

Sometimes I think poetry offers the only hope that one could touch the truth but keep the self intact.

Echo has no compass: Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah

Echo has no compass: we trace each other’s dermatomes

No ecstasy without betrayal: not all who live in flames are saints

Great art needs no nation: in memory country size is one

Great nations need great art: soliloquy a mother tongue

— from “Footnotes to a Song”

It was not until I sat down to write this review—in so much as I yet feel myself capable of calling my scribbled thoughts about poetry a review—that I realized I’m following a piece about Ghassan Zaqtan’s latest novella, Where the Bird Disappeared, with a look at the latest collection of poetry by Fady Joudah, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance. I came to Joudah first as a translator of Zaqtan’s poetry so I was not unaware of the concurrence. But I am typically reading at least two books of poetry and two books of prose at any given time, so the crossover is never so obviously bound, thus it is only now that I’ve become aware that the titles of both books include a form of the verb to disappear. A timely happenstance. However, although it is impossible to underestimate the importance Ghassan Zaqtan’s influence on an entire generation of Arab poets, Joudah included, the experience offered by the latter’s work is distinctly his own.

Fady Joudah is a Palestinian-American poet, translator and physician living in Houston, Texas. If I was conscious of the fact that he is a doctor, I don’t think it really registered or made its presence known in scattered poems I’ve encountered in the past. But his medical profession and scientific curiosity comes through in his work, along with a love of art, literature and nature. So does the legacy of war, destruction and conflict in the Middle East, and the varieties of experience of exile. His poetic territory is wide; his passage through it is intimate and acutely observed. As poet Mary Szybist contends in her praise for this “intensely vulnerable book,” Joudah is:

forging a lyric that works at the crosscurrents of reportage, myth, and dream where false imagined boundaries—of gender, nation, family—fray and unfold, and there are possibilities other than ‘to go mad among the mad / or go it alone’. . . (his) gifts for articulating the intersections of bewilderment, tenderness, rage, and grief are fully alive here.

The physician’s attention is very much evident in the early poems in Footnotes. “Progress Notes,” for instance, opens with the poet’s assessment of his own asymmetrical visage:

My left eye is smaller than my right,
my big mouth shows my nice teeth perfectly
aligned like Muslims in prayer.
My lips an accordion. Each sneeze
a facial thumbprint. One corner
of my mouth hangs downward when I want
to hold a guffaw hostage. Bell’s palsy perhaps
or what Mark Twain said about steamboat piloting
that a doctor’s unable to look upon the blush
in a young beauty’s face without thinking
it could be a fever, a malar rash,
a butterfly announcing a wolf.

before moving on to find a future echo in noted in one of the cadavers in his anatomy classroom:

But the colonel on table nineteen
with an accessory spleen had put a bullet through
his temple, a final prayer. Not in entry or exit
were there skull cracks to condemn the house
of death, no shattered glass in the brain,
only a smooth tunnel of deep violet that bloomed
in concentric circles. The weekends were lonely.
He had the most beautiful muscles
of all 32 bodies that were neatly arranged,
zipped up as if a mass grave had been disinterred.
Or when unzipped and facing the ceiling
had cloth over their eyes as if they’d just been executed.
Gray silver hair, chiseled countenance,
he was sixty-seven, a veteran of more than one war.
I had come across that which will end me, ex-
tend me, at least once, without knowing it.

Medical and medicinal imagery continues to resurface routinely throughout the collection, woven into both the political and the personal (which are never mutually exclusive here) infusing both with an intimate humanity:

The hour of the grackle, and a mother
not menopausal, solitary with endgame lung

tumor in a foreign country
and what makes one foreign:

she hasn’t seen her son for three or five
exilic or immigrant years,

citizen or national stints, a keyword
a thrombus dislodges

in heart or head
for infarction’s infraction

—from “The Hour of the Grackle”

Although much of Footnotes reflects the poet’s specific experience in America (“Palestine, Texas” is a telling, gently ironic send-up of the tendency of the same place names to occur so ubiquitously across the American landscape that they lose resonance with any original roots), his concerns reach far beyond national boundaries. This is rendered most explicitly in the central section of Footnotes, “Sagittal Views” which is the result of a collaboration between Joudah and his friend, Syrian Kurdish poet and translator, Golan Haji, who now lives in Paris. Drawing on their meetings, phone and email communications, all conducted in Arabic, Joudah translated and formed their words into chilling evocations of loss, sorrow, and resignation:

Over dinner we spoke of the game of recurrence dissolving into an old dog’s tail, loquacious desire far from the borders of the body, yet is the body’s. What’s inside and doesn’t come out to skin or what’s outside and doesn’t touch us. Victims, we told ourselves, will inherit the future one day, but souls will linger distant from redemption. Don’t follow the signage and keep your eyes on the phrase. News of the explosion will hang around. The hell of pictures on the web. Faces of the dead on Facebook will wait for your walk home. A woman who awakened your first lust when you were a kid was killed in the morning while talking to her sister on the phone. First a blast then stillness. You were late to dinner. You had lost your way to the restaurant. You couldn’t have known she had just died, and what you thought were Klee’s paintings in the gallery clawing your afternoon nerves was her calling your name one last time.

—from “After Wine”

Poetry, at its best, invites re-engagement. Demands it, even. I was so enamoured with the anatomy of Joudah’s wordplay that, on my first passage through Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, I was so intrigued to see where his wonderings would lead that I did not linger as I might have on another initial journey. I read this book with an unexpected urgency. But as I returned to it with an eye to sorting out my responses, I encountered new depths, new heights of emotion. And at times in the seemingly simplest passages. For me, the prose poems—“Horses,” “An Algebra Come Home,” and “Alignment” to name a few—hold a particular power, but the entire collection is so strong, so varied, that there are boundless rewards to be found in the generosity of Fady Joudah’s pained and passionate poetics.

Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance is published by Milkweed Editions.

“No, you are better than me, Yahya”: Where the Bird Disappeared by Ghassan Zaqtan

He felt he was walking inside a book, stumbling inside stories that had circulated in these hills since his birth. Journeys and names kept repeating themselves in succession without end.

The enclosures were always building themselves in processes to which everything contributed. Everything gave birth to everything. Time, places, names, women, trees, men. He felt he was traversing the book, word by word.

Memory, for Palestinian poet and writer Ghassan Zaqtan, is a troubled quantity, shaken and shaped by the past, near and distant. His work is rooted in the land and the lives of his people, disrupted and dislodged by the forces of history. The losses cross generations. The tremors run deep.

His first work of prose to be translated into English, Describing the Past, was set in a refugee camp east of the River Jordan, a location based on the settlement where Zaqtan grew up after the Israeli invasion of 1948 forced his family out of their home village. The first part of a trilogy, this dream-like coming-of-age story is a tale of loss—the loss of childhood friend and of childhood innocence itself. The narrative, shared by three voices, has a gently circular flow. The young man at the centre, continually eludes to the future yet is sensitive to the ongoing presence of the past, to the ghosts that continue to have a tangible existence in the community.

With the second installment, Where the Bird Disappeared, Zaqtan takes a somewhat different approach, but one that is likewise weighted with lyrical beauty and sorrow. The narrative begins in the years just prior to the invasion and extends to the present day, while its echoes with the past go much farther back in history. Set in the Palestinian village of Zakariyya, the central character is a youth also named Zakariyya. He and his best friend, Yahya not only share their names with two prophets so strongly associated with the region—known to Christian tradition as Zechariah and his son, John the Baptist—but bear distant imitations of their personalities and fates. Other characters and images also shadow figures from the shared Biblical and Koranic traditions.

This novella adopts a narrative style with more of a mythic feel than Describing the Past. The tone is still dream-like, spare and poetic. However, the disruption and violence of the invasion is much more explicitly portrayed in this tale which unfolds in a series of short, intimate vignettes. As adolescents, Yahya is a restless spirit, given to wandering alone in the countryside around the village. Zakariyya is the more reflective of the two, intuitive and sensitive to place. Together with the other boys of their village, they have their own visions and dreams for the future. Until the military arrive.

With the sudden forced migration, as families flee into the hills, all of the young men are thrown into dangerous new roles. They are drawn back to their villages, to try to protect their homes against impossible odds. There are casualties, including Yahya who is captured, and shackled inside the citadel outside Zakariyya. His friends keep vigil for three days and nights until he is finally killed:

Yahya knew that they were listening to him from the cactus field. His voice was full of testimonial. The pain had stopped and the fear had stopped with it. Only the testimonials remained, running through his voice and pouring into the air. They gathered them in the cactus field.

Zakariyya’s own journey commences with the death of his friend. He sets off to find Sara, who had loved Yahya, drawn by his own attractions as much as the need to bring her the difficult news. Along the way, he takes refuge at the Monastery of Saint Saba carved into the mountain side overlooking the Kidron Valley, halfway between Old Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. His short stay is a time of mystical suspension and release from the burdens weighing him down. He is attuned to the presence of the thousands of monks who passed through the complex over the previous fifteen centuries:

Saints, and pious men at the edges of sainthood, rose up, their chanting lingered as the living met the dead in the vestibules and halls of the monastery, sharing bread from nightfall to dawn.

He listened to their talk and their steps, he distinguished between the weightless steps of the dead and the empty stammerings of language. He arrested the movement of his body and left the air entirely to them.

Gathering the peace afforded him by his time at Mar Saba, Zakariyya sets off again to find Sara. He joins a refugee camp where she also comes to settle with her family. But once he is in close proximity to her, he comes to realize that he cannot approach her, and that to preserve his memories of both Yahya and Sara as they were all once together, to hold on to what little he has of his own past, he must leave. He returns to pass the night at the monastery before continuing “down the falling road” to the Dead Sea.

Zakariyya will settle to work the salt mines, in a land yet again bound to the far-reaching named and remembered history within which he is half aware that he exists. As the years pass, and age bends his back, he finds himself haunted by the strange notion that he was born a father. It’s a sensation that increasingly troubles him. He does not understand it, knowing only that it is bound to a name and that it is becoming more oppressive, leading down a road carved through memory. A road that will ultimately lead him back to Zakariyya. The place. His home.

Rich with allusions, but never forced or heavy-handed, Ghassan Zaqtan weaves a delicately devastating fable that illustrates that the connection of the Palestinian people to their land is not simply geographical, political and economic, but bound through mystical and psychological ties that are enduring. And not easily severed.

Where the Bird Disappeared is translated from the Arabic by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books. The final part of the trilogy will be published in Spring of 2019.

Being sneaky and queer within: Brink by Jill Jones

This past fall I had several precious opportunities to speak with the exceptional Caribbean-Canadian poet, NourbeSe Philip. On the first occasion, we were riding in the rear seat of a vehicle en route to the venue where she would be performing from her innovative masterwork Zong! I told her that I was taking some time to focus on writing, admitting that I was troubled that, at fifty-seven, I only just beginning to try to find self-expression and was having trouble sifting through a mess of accumulated personal experience. She smiled and said, “Oh you’re still young.” She went on to say that, as far as she was concerned, novels might be the sort of heavy-lifting suited to younger writers, but that poetry required a significant measure of life-lived perspective, adding that Thomas Hardy, after whom she named her son, didn’t write any poetry until he was finished with fiction.

I don’t write poetry, but I think that, at best, I aim to write somewhere in the intersection between poetry and prose. The more I focus on writing, and the older I get, the more I find myself turning to poetry with a new hunger and intention. I am drawn to both the experimental and the expressive elements afforded by the form. And although I’ve enjoyed and deeply admired so many of the works—primarily shorter contained collections— that I have encountered over the past year or so, something different happened with Brink, by Adelaide-based poet, Jill Jones.

Now I don’t want to speculate on age, with only an author’s photo to go by, but I did sense a degree of generational comfort in my engagement with her poetry. And by that I simply mean that I sensed I was in the presence of a poet who has come to understand, as I have, that questions are easier asked than answered, and that observations are often best left open-ended. This is where the ability to continue to marvel at life’s small wonders crosses weary wisdom and the understanding that words are at once necessary and inadequate. The poems in this collection, which range from the lyrical to the linguistic and experimentally playful, examine the emotions, images, and concerns that reflect an awareness of place and of the passage of time on an increasingly small planet.

In an interview with Tony Messenger, Jones admits that this book which had, at the time of their conversation, just been released, “covers a lot of ecopoetic territory, as the title Brink would suggest.” Natural elements—earthy textures, weeds, leaves, sky, clouds, birds, waters—are all recurring images. The fragile state of the world’s climate is a longstanding concern for her. But this collection is varied in practice and purport, “a big mix of detail and dislocation, images and word play, a lot of play, actually.” Indeed, these are poems that demand to be read, not just for the alliteration, and the slippery shifting of vowels, but for crunchy crispness of the language and the unlikely juxtapositions.

Shape-not-shape and
other shape
move with

wind, mind
argument between
ground, grass, leaf, cloud

barely words
for ephemeral world
beneath breath bones

                   — from “Arkaroola”

What a poet imagines into her own poetic explorations and what a reader meets there is complex and dynamic. In my personal encounter with this collection, I was drawn into the poems that spoke to me of the weight (or weightlessness) of words, and the longing for a language to express or make sense of, a pervasive restless disconnect. This is a sensation that is fundamental and primal, but coloured with the mixed blessings and illusions of modern interconnectedness:

I’m helpless against sky, shadow, gutter
clouds without formality, empty grey branches.
How to explain light on glass
and how not to do that
in this return after work’s decorum
another animal listening into the air.

Each evening practices its street repertoire.
Night blurs lines against my gate.
Tonight the moon is nearly naked.
Forgive me if I seem scrawled
with prefab thought rather than thinking.
I’ve brought no conclusions with me.

                            —from “Scrawl”

Sometimes writing is as much about being unable to write than it is about being able to tell stories, articulate experience or find self-expression. As words try to reach closer to the self, the more contrived or meaningless they tend to become. In my efforts, as an essay/memoirist (a preferred construct) I am fascinated and frustrated by the difficulty of finding a way to talk about a real and persistent experience for which I had no vocabulary until I was in my late thirties. In the meantime, an entire queer discourse has arisen over the past twenty years to parse the intricacies of gender non-conformity, to simultaneously celebrate and police self-definition, and yet it says little about my own queered experience. The words I am searching for remain elusive. My favourite piece in this entire collection, the one that I keep returning to repeatedly and that has earned this book a spot on the shelf inside my bedside table, speaks so clearly to my existential voicelessness. It is called, most fittingly, “Self and Nothingness” and I’m reproducing it here in full:

I’m running all over the world. I’m running
within sight of what might happen.
I’m running with a crazy kind of make-do.

The new plants waver in the cold evening.
It’s cooler than when I left these things, these ideas
in rooms. Is there a knack to it?

If I could shift my head without the world
shifting: It can’t be that hard to look up
into the trees. I know they’re there.

I’ve argued over silence.
I’ve collected nonsense.
I crave nothingness.
I know it doesn’t exist.
That it does.
I am a source of virtual violence.

What senses are, I’m not sure, or how many.
I smell strange but that could be
the way the air is.

The craft is the devil, disquiet a relief
jokes become bullet points, and my life
an account explained in columns.

Perhaps the essence has dissolved, become paler.
Whether to drink it, whether to pour it
whether to watch something else drink it.

Perhaps it’s all a set-up. It doesn’t matter
what it is. Everything in my mouth
cracks like a sweet.

I am a project as I scour the streets, for
what it’s worth, and I’m looking for ways
to write back the damage.

                    — Jill Jones, “Self and Nothingness”, from Brink

Looking for ways to write back the damage. Looking for ways to be. Mid-way through this collection I encountered a poem that, in the moment, spoke to me of conversation about a mutual sense of groundlessness that a faraway friend and I had shared.  I immediately had to photograph the page and send it to him. That is poetry that speaks.

In the end, Brink is, for me, a strange brew. It is blend of perceptive, sensual imagery; a confident exercise in word-crafting; an ode to a stressed climate; and, above all, wise counsel to: “Take better joy.”

Brink by Jill Jones is published by Five Islands Press.

In praise of independent publishing and a link to my interview with Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books

It is no secret to regular readers of my blog that I am a great admirer of Seagull Books and that earlier this year I travelled to India, a visit in part motivated by a desire to visit the offices of one of my favourite independent publishers. Admittedly some of my non-bookish friends wondered at my choice of destination, the city as much as the country. Because there is a publisher you want to meet? But if Seagull’s presence in Calcutta offered me an excuse to spend a couple of weeks in a place I had only idly imagined I’d ever be able to visit, it was a trip I undertook on my own, at my own expense. And along the way, another independent publisher that I strongly believe was also part of my journey.

Passing through London on route to Delhi, I selected a flight schedule that would allow me to make a detour into the city for a short visit. (As much as I’d love to spend more time in London it is beyond my means.) There I had lunch with Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, the tireless publisher (editor, chief cook and bottle-washer) of Istros Books. Specializing in literature from the Balkans and South-East Europe, Istros is dedicated to discovering and promoting exciting, challenging new works from the region. Their philosophy is that “quality knows no borders.” Over the past few years, Susan has become a friend and inspiration. This year, because I wisely decided not to try to navigate London on my own as I did a few years back, we had time for more than a rushed coffee.  We managed to fit in lunch at the British Museum, a stroll through the Assyrian exhibit, tea with poet and translator Stephen Watts (whose partner has translated work for Seagull because, of course, it is a small world), and even a quick stop at the LRB Bookshop! Both of these  publishing ventures have several important things in common. They are willing to engage with their readers, booksellers and reviewers. They submit their books for awards. They are supportive of other independent publishers and understand the importance of facilitating connections, not building walls. They are not unique in this, but surprisingly there are some independent publishers who do not seem inclined to make the effort. And it shows. Translated and non-mainstream literary circles are very small and many of us who read and write about these literatures are relatively isolated from like-minded souls. The conversation is critical and it does help promote and sell books. And it helps make life just a little bit richer too.

This connection between reader and publisher (or rather the vision or philosophy that a publisher inspires) is one of the subjects I wanted to pursue in  the conversation I had with Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books, published earlier this week at 3:AM Magazine. He is, naturally, looking at the big picture against my individual perspective, and yet responds with the grace and wisdom he is widely respected for and that has served him well, against all odds, for over thirty-five years. You can find my piece here.

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As an added note, Seagull has recently learned they have to relocate and are looking to find a new home in South Calcutta. I hope they are able to secure a suitable space soon. When they do, perhaps I’ll have to go back to check it out…

No country for young men: Border Districts by Gerald Murnane

The reflective, circular “report” that occupies the narrator of Gerald Murnane’s latest, and if he can be believed, last, novel is presented as an account “of actual events and no sort of work of fiction.” This clarification, coming in the midst of an extended extrapolation of possible impossibilities, anticipates the skeptic:

As I understand the matter, a writer of fiction reports events that he or she considers imaginary. The reader of fiction considers, or pretends to consider, the events actual. This piece of writing is a report of actual events only, even though many of the reported events may seem to an undiscerning reader fictional.

Of course, in Murnane’s mental terrain the line between fiction and events actually experienced is a slippery one, but Border Districts reads like a meditation on a lifetime of traversing imaginary landscapes as a reader and writer famously adverse to physically travelling beyond the confines of his home state of Victoria, refracted through a playfully multi-toned meta-fictional prism. This is a novel about perception and memory, and the degree to which we can ever hope to grasp the contents of our own minds. More critically it’s about the way our experiences and our experiences of our experiences are inflated or telescoped with the passage of time.

The narrator of Border Districts has relocated from a capitol city to a small town near the state border, echoing a similar move made by Murnane a number of years ago. He has not entirely shunned the city, he makes several return trips to visit friends and family, but his stated goal in moving to this remote place is to spend his last years focusing on the images, emotions and words that have stayed with him over time, “guarding” his eyes, as he puts it, so that “I might be more alert to what appears at the edges of my range of vision.” Anticipating the essential, fragmentary quality of this mental inventory he embarks on a meticulous effort, paragraph by paragraph, to trace the connections from one recollection or set of recollections to another.

The result is a digressive internalized odyssey. Perspective shifts from first to third person for a time as the book-hungry boy approaches the remembering man. Uncertain boundaries exist between recalled events and the fiction writer (and reader)’s inclination to wander off on paths not taken, to imagine what might have been, sketch out potential storylines, flesh out characters that could have existed, and step out from the shadows of possible unlived trajectories to anticipate a meeting of minds on the open plains of a mental landscape. Idiosyncratic sideways cognitive processing is acknowledged, examined, and entertained. But the challenge with exploring the way our minds work is that we can never clear the workspace, step back from the stage. We are always in our own way.

There are a number of key motifs or pivot points to which the narrator returns as he attempts to maintain order and control of his own report. Lines of thought that keep circling back and merging. Readers familiar with Murnane will recognize the elements of the rural Australian landscape, the fondness for horse-racing, and a certain literary cynicism. Houses with return verandas hold a peculiar affection. But the key image that recurs is one of coloured glass—from the windows of the unassuming church in his adopted hometown, to observations about stained glass, to a treasured marble collection—and the difficulty of accurately perceiving the shade and details therein. Just like our memories, in our mental images, appearances are mutable. Light is the key because:

. . . a coloured pane better reveals itself to a viewer on its darker side, so to call it; that the colours and designs in glass windows are truly apparent only to an observer shut off from what most of us would consider true light—the light best able to do away with mystery and uncertainty. The paradox, if such it is, can be otherwise expressed: anyone observing the true appearance of a coloured window is unable, for the time being, to observe through the window any more than a falsification of the so-called everyday world.

Yet knowing this limitation does not diminish the narrator’s natural inclination to want to penetrate the opaque surface of the window, to truly see the nature of the glass itself. He even attempts to capture, on film, the coloured windows of a friend’s house. When he retrieves the processed images and brings them home, he realizes that the image-panes are less colourful than they were when he photographed them. Was this a function of his modest photographic skills or further evidence of the unreliability of memory? Perhaps. But the explanation he chooses to endorse, is that the qualities he perceives as lacking are not inherent to the glass, but rather unique to himself:

. . . what I missed when I looked at the photographic prints was the meaning that I had previously read into the glass. And if I could give credence to such an eccentric theory, then I might go further and assert that I saw in the glass part of the private spectrum that my eyes diffused from my own light as it travelled outwards: a refraction of my own essence, perhaps.

As he makes his way through a range of remembered images, experiences, and feelings, obscured with the patina of time, he is interested in what details he does recall. What he has forgotten, if it does not resurface on its own by association, is of no regard. He is keenly aware of his age and fascinated by the memories that have persisted, with a measure of intensity, for thirty, forty, sixty years. The narrator’s associations and meanderings are unique to him, but they reflect our own idiosyncratic mind loops—those layered networks of connections constructed through exposure to art, literature, landscape, life experience—which increase in depth but become more firmly attached to our specific pivot points or mental signposts, as we get older.

I have come to this book midway through my sixth decade (as frightening as that sounds), younger than Murnane and his alter-ego, but close enough. I come to it as a writer interested in capturing his perceived experience, rather than biographical detail, and inclined to believe that we only have the ability to know what we think we know, a through-the-coloured-glass perspective at best. Border Districts is an older writer’s reverie. It dips back to childhood and adolescence, marriage and parenthood, and spins off into realm of possible lives unlived. There is something to greet a reader at any point in life, but I wonder what my twenty-eight-year-old self might have found. What I do know is that this novel entertains the kind of questions about memory—about the feelings, colours, and images that linger ever “on the edges of my range of vision”—that occupy me more and more with each passing year.

 Border Districts by Gerald Murnane is published by Giramondo Publishing in Australia. It is now available in North America through Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The truth has no ornaments: SS Proleterka by Fleur Jaeggy

You don’t tell the story of your own life, there’s no time. Life began the moment in which we got on board. The beginning is the Proleterka.

SS Proleterka was the last of Fleur Jaeggy’s currently available translated works that I had left to read and I did not want it to end. I used to think Sweet Days of Discipline was my favourite but this novel is far more subtle, real, and painful. And with none of the gothic overtones that creep into so much of her other work. A most dispassionate and restrained coming of age story, it is cold, calculated, yet charged with a deep, sorrowful beauty.

Central to this novella is the account of a cruise to Greece that the unnamed narrator and her father take when she is fifteen years old. It will turn out to be the last opportunity they have to get to know each other. Her parents separated when she was young, and she was deposited with her maternal grandmother, leaving her father effectively exiled from her life, forced to request time with his daughter—applications that were frequently denied or strictly curtailed. To have two weeks together over the Easter holidays is unprecedented, and precious, but unlikely to resolve the existing distance between parent and child. They are too much alike, too accustomed to emotional self-preservation. But, with almost surgical precision, Jaeggy’s crystalline prose exposes the currents of repressed affection that run deep beneath the surface of their relationship.

Our protagonist is looking back from mid-life, at her childhood and youth. She offers an unsentimental, clinical assessment of her own experiences, emotions, and interactions. It is a learned response to the world. Occasionally she speaks of “my father”, but most commonly she refers to him by his first name, Johannes. With respect to herself, she alternates between first person and third, talking of “Johannes’ daughter,” “she” or “the girl”—at times employing all three in the same paragraph. She is thus able to step back and place herself within the regard (or lack thereof) of others. Detachment is her means of coping.

As a young girl, she tells us, she lived with Orsola, her mistress or “the mother of my mother, of her who had been Johannes’ wife.” After her own parents’ divorce, her father’s parents who had moved south for the health of their other son, an invalid, lost the textile factory that had been in the family for generations. Johannes lost his inheritance and his wealth. For the narrator, her father’s family hold a tragic fascination. She does not know them beyond their photographic images. But then she hardly knows her father any better. It is her mother’s family who control her destiny, which will ultimately be boarding school. She is disposable and knows it early on. Still, she describes her “quasi-glacial” relationship with her maternal grandmother as the most intense she ever had, even if she is at a loss to know if she felt affection for the woman:

Orsola treats me like an adult. Like a peer. Obedience does not mean subordination. I close all the shutters. I do not open them in the mornings. A continuous closing. I close the day. Closing is order. It is a form of detachment. An ephemeral preparation for death. An exercise. It was entirely natural that that woman and the garden corresponded to the vision of a happy land. How much time did I still have at my disposal? The curtains at the window are fragile, almost dust. And she, the mistress, looks like a white plaster bust.

If her relationship with Orsola is formal and defined by expectation, her mother exists almost entirely in absentia. She is “Johannes’ wife.” By the time the protagonist is recounting her tale, she too is dead. Her daughter has only her jewels and her piano to remember her by. It is the Steinway, purchased in New York and carried across the ocean to Europe, that is the narrator’s closest connection to her mother. As an object resting in a specially prepared room, she endows it with personality, demonstrating an intimacy she could never find with the pianist who once played it:

You do not want me to touch your keys yet. My fingers are unfamiliar to you. That slight hint of carnality. But I am sitting beside you. I watch over you. In the first years I always kept the door closed. I wanted to be sure that no one came in. You alone, locked in. Now no longer. Now I allow you more freedom. And at the same time I allow myself more freedom too. I have become wiser. Before, if I felt resentment, it seeped into my veins, my eyes, my thoughts. An insomniac resentment.

Aboard the SS Proleterka, the connection between father and daughter is marked by a formality that neither can seem to breach. They have, she has told us, always been able to “perceive the exceedingly fine line between equilibrium and desperation.” By the time they are on this shared voyage, the daughter on the cusp of womanhood and the father aging quickly, they can no longer negotiate that line. The ship has been chartered by the Guild to which Johannes has belonged since he was a student. Having fallen into poverty, he is treated by his peers with a measure of pity. He is awkward, out of step. His daughter, meanwhile, is looking to test other waters while they are out to sea. As the voyage progresses, she engages in a number of rather abrupt sexual encounters with several of the officers. She is being used and she knows it, but she wants the experience. She likes and dislikes it at once. Having been raised by a family who could not show love, she seems unable to accept more than brute affection. Yet there is also the sense that she wants to evoke a reaction in Johannes, protective, angry, disappointed—anything—but if he registers her absences from their cabin he refuses to show it.

Day by day, their extended visit slips away. Trips ashore to visit ruins and others sites, exhaust Johannes and confuse his daughter. At Knossos, for example, his sadness weighs on her and distracts her:

I should pay attention to the woman’s explanations, says Johannes; I continue to look at her white gloves, the seams of her stockings. Her calves. Höre, höre zu,says Johannes, listen. I cannot catch her words. Only in my mind’s eye can I grasp what I see. The words are too much. And the light is extremely bright. The journey is important for Johannes. The journey to Greece, father and daughter. The last and first chance to be together. But we do not know this. Or perhaps he does.

There will be no magic breakthrough on this voyage, nor in any of the remaining visits the narrator makes to have dinner with her father in the hotel where he lives. There is an emotional stasis that defines their relationship and in a strange way it suits them. The narrator’s father will be long dead before she really confronts the importance of their bond. And even then it is stretched taut and unarticulated.

Perfectly paced and tightly controlled, the devastating power of SS Proleterka lies in the way Jaeggy manages to capture the complicated and unexpressed affection that underlie even the most strained parent-child relationships, while demonstrating the lengths to which a child who knows they have been disposed of will go to maintain a sense of identity. Self-preservation requires distance. If the narrator seems dispassionate at times, she is also resilient and real.

SS Proleterka is translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen who maintains a remarkably clean, even tone throughout, seamlessly incorporating the German dialogue, and allowing the stark beauty of Jeaggy’s prose to shine. Highly recommended. Available from New Directions.