Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reading to live (Books - An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine)

If you love books, have perhaps wished to live in the world of the books you read, as I have, Aaliya Saleh, the 72-year-old protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press, 2013) will be utterly recognizable to you.  Rabih Alameddine's straightforward prose illuminates the paradox of an intelligent Lebanese woman who is acutely self aware but whose sarcasm cushions her from knowing herself deeply. 
First, you should know this about me: I have but one mirror in my home, a smudged one at that.  I'm a conscientious cleaner, you might even say compulsive - the sink is immaculately white, its bronze faucets sparkle - but I rarely remember to wipe the mirror clean.  I don't think we need to consult Freud or one of his many minions to know that there's an issue here. 
Aaliya celebrates language and narrative, she is deeply steeped in the Western canon of literature, quoting Spinoza and Heiddeger, Pessoa, Dostoyevski and Tolstoi, Sebald and Zizek, but she has replaced human intimacy with relationships to the characters and text in her beloved books.  She is relationally crippled.
I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word.  Literature is my sandbox.  In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time.  It is the world outside the box that gives me trouble.  I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books. Transmuting this sandy metaphor, if literature is my sandbox, then the real world is my hourglass - an hourglass that drains grain by grain.  Literature gives me life, and life kills me.
It is not accidental that the key metaphors here is childlike.  Aaliya, for all her literary sophisticatedness (she translates the books she loves most into Arabic) really hasn't grown up. Alameddine, a gay writer who has roots in the Middle East but was educated in the West and spends part of his time in San Francisco, renders the experience in narrative form of a modern Arab woman who is both literate and unmarried. I found this juxtaposition effective in another translation - making what I assumed was a foreign perspective to me immediate and recognizable.

His narrative functions on multiple levels.  One is an appreciation of writing from the pleasure of the printed symbol to his infusing his observations of person and place with literary references.  Beirut street cleaners are "the Sisyphuses of our age."  In describing the death of her ex-husband, who was impotent in life but priapic at his death, Aaliya quips
In death Eros triumphed, while in life Thanatos had. My husband was a Freudian dyslexic. 
There is not a little literary background it is helpful to have to keep up with Alameddine's humor.  Another level on which the narrative functions is the history of Aaliya's relationships from distant and disconnected to present and accepting of closeness.  Yet another is a story of the dependence of several different characters on fictions, whether this means works of literature, or made up versions of other people's experiences.  Alamedddine's novel is rich, variegated, human, and surprising, and full of reading recommendations.  If I made a list of every worked referenced by Aaliya that I haven't read, it could keep me busy for a couple of years. A delightful and full reading experience.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A delayed account of bookeywookey's New York cultural wanderings (Books - The View from the Tower, Robert Oppenheimer, Night in Shanghai) (Film - Les Petits Mouchoirs) (Art - Gaugin, Sonnabend, and Jasper Johns)

I have gotten hopelessly behind with a regular accounting of my reading this year, never mind the theatre, films, operas, and exhibits that make up my New York life.  Take this week.  I finished the new Charles Lambert thriller The View from the Tower which I heartily enjoyed (I'll link the post when I write it).  I dipped again into Ray Monk's Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, a biography of the influential physicist which I have had going since late last year.  While Monk makes the case for an interesting life full of internal conflict, his rendering is too comprehensive.  You lose the forest for the trees, the forest in this case, being the narrative throughline.  I'm disappointed by biographies that seem to be nothing more than repositories for the totality of an author's research plopped on the page in chronological order, rather than the crafting of a narrative which has an opinion about that life.  To be fair, Monk has a strong point of view about Oppenheimer's judaism which, he asserts was repressed and the source of tremendous interior conflict,however, that opinion fails to cull his narrative.

I started and gave up on Night in Shanghai (thank you Henry Holt for this copy) which was promising for its setting in 1930s Shanghai and the way the author Nicole Mones created atmosphere, but I couldn't for the life of me keep track of the characters.  The unfamiliar language impeded my remembering who was who and my lack of historical knowledge added to my difficulty remembering which side of the nationalist versus communist struggle they were on, so I couldn't follow what motivated the plot and, unfortunately, I lost the thread.  The sense of place was successfully pervasive and the writing entertaining, so don't let my faulty memory discourage you.

I went to the Antiquarian Book Fair yesterday, which, given the average price of the items displayed there was more of an antique book museum for me.  I came across a novel by Tennessee Williams I had never heard of called Moise and the World of Reason and would have bought the beautiful first edition if I had had $295 to spare.

I then wandered down to MOMA where I saw a very interesting exhibit of Gauguin's prints, how they interacted with his painting, a show whose theme was the gallerist Ileana Sonnabend and the works she brought to public attention at her Paris and New York galleries.  I have to say I found this more interesting for its history than likeable for the work in it.  I also saw a small exhibit of Jasper John's latest works: Regrets, based on a photograph of Lucien Freud.  Small, tightly curated shows are always my preference.  I didn't merely enjoy the work for itself, I appreciated how the prints and paintings on grew from the original photograph, which is also on display. This is a show that's about creative process more than anything, and how the act of an artist doing something as a result of their experience of some source, becomes the seed of new work. Wonderful show.

Finally, I made my chilly, rainy way home, poured a glass of red wine, got under a blanket and watched Guillaume Canet's 2010 Les Petits Mouchoirs; the English title is Little Whie Lies. This is a French Big Chill, complete with a tight ensemble cast of solid actors, great music choices, and a somewhat sentimental story of a group of middle aged friends minus one.  The love and pathos of old friendships is beautifully captured by the cast in that undemonstrative way that French films are so good at, where people seem like people because they are free to feel but not getting off on showing you that they can.  Be prepared to use at least one mouchoir if you're at all moved during films.