Showing posts tagged novels

Manuel Puig (1932–1990)

I write novels because there is something I don’t understand in reality. What I do is locate that special problem in a character and then try to understand it. That’s the genesis of all my work. Because of my unconscious defenses, I am incapable of facing the problem directly. There are obstacles that impede me from doing so. Yet I can do it through a literary character. It’s easier! And since all of my problems are rather complicated, I need an entire novel to deal with them, not a short story or a movie. It’s like a personal therapy.

— from “A Conversation with Manuel Puig” by Jorgelina Corbatta, translated by Ilan Stavans (Dalkey Archive Press)

(Photo: Thank you, Kelvin Falcão Klein.)

"Behind Every Great Novelist Is …" — by Grant Snider
(Source: The Casual Optimist)

"Behind Every Great Novelist Is …"
— by Grant Snider

(Source: The Casual Optimist)

"Required Summer Reading" — by Grant Snider

(Source: The Casual Optimist)

Blame it on Jhumpa Lahiri and James Salter

I wasn’t planning on blogging today. I thought it was time to take a break. I wanted to stay in bed and not have to wake up or get up or do any more of the routines, the maintenance jobs, the pep talk to myself, the supposedly therapeutic distractions. But life happens anyway. Bad weather happens. And the meals that mark intervals between anticipation and frustration. The meals to keep the body and mind going.

I didn’t plan on posting yet another excerpt, another series of “literary” photos. But Jhumpa Lahiri made me do it. Yes, blame it on her. Last month, I posted excerpts from her book Unaccustomed Earth and her New Yorker essay about her beginnings as a writer. Last week, I reread her introduction to the latest edition of Bernard Malamud’s first book of stories, The Magic Barrel. No disrespect meant to Mr. Malamud, but Lahiri’s essay is as memorable, as beautifully crafted, as the stories to which she’s inviting the reader. Today, I reread her essay “Spellbound” in The Paris Review, her thoughts on James Salter’s novel Light Years (first published in 1975). And I tell myself: I can live on this. I can get up every morning for this. A piece of Lahiri. A piece of anything this writer turns her attention to and revives me with. It’s my dope, my fix. Yes, I’m a Lahiri junkie. I can do a whole blog of excerpts of her, of every Lahiri sentence I can sniff, feast on, be sustained by.

Not until today did I realize that the 1982 North Point Press edition of Light Years that she describes in “Spellbound,” the one she read in 1985, when she was an 18-year-old college freshman, is exactly the same paperback edition I’m holding now (the cover with the yellow border and the Bonnard painting). I bought my copy at a used-books shop last year, and (as with so many others I got piled or shelved somewhere) I’ve been promising myself to read this soon. But “soon” is always relative. How soon can I read everything by Lahiri or Salter (or anything by Nabokov or Atwood or Waugh)? “Soon” just reminds me time is running fast. But that’s another story.

So this is my other story, the one from which my “Lahiri made me do it” tale spins off. Yesterday I started to read Salter’s Light Years. I was just dipping here and there. On the Internet I had found yet another reviewer (the novelist Kevin Rabalais) raving about Salter’s novel on the “dissolution of a marriage.” The only Salter novel I had read is A Sport and a Pastime. Now that’s another one that deserves its own series of blogs. But reading parts of Light Years, I see now why other writers, in describing Salter’s prose, might resort to such adjectives as “mesmerizing,” “hypnotic,” “elegant,” or (even more clichéd) “poetic.” (Lahiri uses none of these.) If “stylist” has become such a bad word to describe a great writer, in Salter’s case, it doesn’t sound like a lazy choice or an exaggeration. The man exudes style. No wonder his books continue to “mesmerize” readers.

Salter’s masculine, pared-down sentences are often compared to Hemingway’s. But they usually remind me more of Virginia Woolf or the way Michael Cunningham echoes her in The Hours. Which is not to say that Salter’s sentences get artsy-fartsy or self-consciously pretty or deep (whatever those things mean). No. His eloquence is grounded in familiar objects—chairs, pebbles, pastries, torn sketchbooks, a black telephone, a broken shoe falling to the floor, “windows curtained with bamboo and dense with plants.” The day-to-day accumulation of acts, impressions, and denials spread over seasons and meals, casual conversations, long drives, periods of contentment.

On page 7 of Light Years I find this opening paragraph:

It was the autumn of 1958. Their children were seven and five. On the river, the color of slate, the light poured down. A soft light, God’s idleness. In the distance the new bridge gleamed like a statement, like a line in a letter which makes one stop.

And I tell myself, “Yes, I get it. But, hmm, no, I really don’t—not all of it—and it doesn’t matter. I’m not supposed to get it all; otherwise the whole thing fades too fast, connects too easily. Let the gaps stay. No need to figure it all out now. But stay with this book. Pause if you need to. Skip some pages, wander in and out of chapters. But keep reading.”

And so I did. I had been reading Salter since yesterday. In the midst of bad weather and worse moods, I came to page 170:

She had entered a new era. All that belonged to the old had to be buried, put away. The image of Arnaud with his thickly bandaged eye, the deep bruises, the slow speech like a record player losing speed—these injuries seemed like omens to her. They marked her first fears of life, of the malevolence which was part of its fluid, which had no explanation, no cure. She wanted to sell the house. Something was happening on every side of her existence, she began to see it in the streets, it was like the darkness, she was suddenly aware of it, when it comes, it comes everywhere.

I have no idea who Arnaud is or what happened to his eye. And who is the “she” putting away the old? And why are the best parts of Salter often his fragments and run-ons, the seemingly throwaway bits? Perhaps that’s one mark of great writing—at any point, you slide into it and even without knowing where you are exactly, you already believe you’ve found your place. Or perhaps I’m just making an excuse for this kind of distraction-driven nonlinear reading, the only kind I’m capable of right now. Yes, when it comes, it comes everywhere.   

One of the oft-quoted lines from Light Years is this: “Life is weather. Life is meals.” How apt that at this moment rain starts lashing again at everything outside my window and inside my head. How apt that I’m about to finish writing this, aware that the next step is yet another meal—this time, lunch. Late but still necessary lunch. Yes, I will shut up now and let the next Tumblr excerpts, quotes, and photographs speak for themselves. Blame it on Lahiri, Salter, all these hypnotic stylists, addictive distractions, masters of the written word, saviors of the depressed brain. They keep me rambling on, Tumblring, getting up each morning whether or not there are reasons for me to stick around.

A way home
There is so little to remember of anyone—an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.
— Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
(Photo: dbgrady.com)

A way home

There is so little to remember of anyone—an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

(Photo: dbgrady.com)

This is an interesting planet
The mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
(Photo: us.macmillan.com)

This is an interesting planet

The mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

(Photo: us.macmillan.com)

Nicole Krauss

To touch and feel each thing in the world, to know it by sight and by name, and then to know it with your eyes closed so that when something is gone, it can be recognized by the shape of its absence. So that you can continue to possess the lost, because absence is the only constant thing. Because you can get free of everything except the space where things have been.

Man Walks into a Room

(Photograph by C. Hélie. Source: voir.ca)

A quarter-of-an-inch of something

Once Uncle Julian told me how the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti said that sometimes just to paint a head you have to give up the whole figure. To paint a leaf, you have to sacrifice the whole landscape. It might seem like you’re limiting yourself at first, but after a while you realize that having a quarter-of-an-inch of something you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky.

— Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

(Photo: oceandoggy.com)

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.
Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

Breathing on windows

I took notes while I read The Solitude of Prime Numbers last year. The novel has two of the loneliest souls I’ve ever met in literature. The boy, Mattia, who finds comfort and atonement in self-mutilation, becomes a college math professor. The girl, Alice, finds no comfort in her body (or body image), has an eating disorder, and builds a career seeing—and shunning—life as a photographer. But their loneliness is never sappy; the novelist is a particle physicist, after all. Scenes that would have been too painful to read are written in almost clinical terms. There might have been more relief had the author come up with a more hopeful resolution or clearer ending. But relief for whom? And what resolution guarantees anything nowadays? And so in longhand, I jotted down several lines from the novel and blips from by brain. It was like taking my mind’s temperature at certain intervals. My mind had a fever. I was depressed. It rained a lot that time. I had a lot of time even as, or perhaps because, I felt the hours going nowhere.

I was good at math when I was younger. In fact, I was better at figuring out those equations than I was at writing English sentences. I remember in fifth grade there was Mrs. Naval, always dressed in white like a nurse. She wore her teacher’s uniform like an efficient buxom caregiver tending to her little wards. Every morning, she’d pull the side handle of this foldable half of the blackboard, like a page swung open, to reveal to the class the lecture she had written. Her straight lines, the confident swirls and careful loops of her numerals in white chalk. Her cursive and her formulas were as neat and soothing as the way she dressed. Minimalist, but it’s more than that. I recall her and her math lessons when I think about clarity. And certainty.

Even in grade school, I must have sensed that the world was chaotic. That there were questions I was dying to ask, questions that nobody would bother to raise or hear perhaps because there were no answers. Or the answers were too messy to be worth the trouble. But in math, everything was carefully laid out by Mrs. Naval. She would help us make sense of each problem. She would define each term, explain every step toward the solution. She would give us tips on checking if our answer was correct. If it was wrong, she would tell us why and show us how to fix it. There was always a way of finding out where we were exactly. Follow the right formula, deduce the appropriate assumption, arrive at the impeccable proof, and we would be okay.

Of course, I didn’t know then about words like “deduce” or “impeccable.” I’m not sure I know now. But, yes, math had given me those pleasures and assurances. It wasn’t just about acquiring skills in computation. Not just acing Mrs. Naval’s quizzes. It was calculating a way out of my brain’s jumble of fragments and my youth’s increasing doubts, the world’s incoherent bits. I could add this piece here, subtract another there, divide and multiply and marvel at the power of exponents and position of decimal points. As long as I paid attention and remained patient, I was bound to complete the puzzle.

Then I grew up. The world got older—or much too younger too fast. Now I can’t add or subtract the simplest things without a calculator. My brain has gotten too lazy and hazy. Mrs. Naval would be very disappointed. But I might tell her the nerdy part of me has somehow survived. I guess that’s why this Lit major often gravitates toward both fiction and nonfiction laced with the lingo of mathematicians, physicists, and physicians. Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor. Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality. David Eagleman’s Sum and Incognito. Oliver Sacks and anything he writes. Paolo Giordano and The Solitude of Prime Numbers. Math as metaphor. Science as poetry. Time as my brain’s fever.

This afternoon I’m rereading those notes I took last year. I find a quote that gives me pause. I search the novel for the scene where that fragment appears. It’s the conversation between Mattia and his father, who’s driving his teenage son to school. Giordano writes: “It was raining, but the rain was so fine that it didn’t make a sound.”

"It isn’t really raining crooked," said Mattia, looking out the car window and jerking his father out of his thoughts.

"What?" said Pietro, instinctively shaking his head.

"There’s no wind outside. Otherwise the leaves on the trees would be moving as well," Mattia went on.

His father tried to follow his reasoning. In fact none of it meant anything to him and he suspected that it was merely another of his son’s eccentricities.

"So?" he asked.

"The raindrops are running down the window at an angle, but that’s just an effect of our motion. By measuring the angle with the vertical, you could also calculate the fall velocity."

Mattia traced the trajectory of a drop with his finger. He brought his face close to the window and breathed on it. Then, with his index finger, he drew a line in the condensation.

"Don’t breathe on the windows, you’ll leave marks."

Mattia didn’t seem to have heard him.

Somewhere in my head I hear myself saying, “Yes, that’s right, Mattia. Don’t listen to him. Keep breathing on those windows. Keep leaving those marks.”

Paolo Giordano, novelist and physicist

Before the book [The Solitude of Prime Numbers] was released, I never thought carefully about physics and writing meeting or splitting at some point. To me, they were simply two things that I worked with, two separate ways of organizing and analyzing the outside world. Then I figured out that there are some small common regions where they overlap. In particular, these have to do for me with an idea of “precision” and with the sense that both give me of “putting disordered things back in order.”

— from an interview by Andrew Lawless (Three Monkeys Online)

(Photo: ChiassoLetteraria)

When the mind is too weak to tell itself lies
Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and by themselves. They hold their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest. They are suspicious, solitary numbers, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful. Sometimes he thought that they had ended up in that sequence by mistake, that they’d been trapped, like pearls strung on a necklace. Other times he suspected that they too would have preferred to be like all the others, just ordinary numbers, but for some reason they couldn’t do it. This second thought struck him mostly at night, in the chaotic interweaving of images that comes before sleep, when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.
In his first year at university, Mattia had learned that, among prime numbers, there are some that are even more special. Mathematicians call them twin primes: pairs of prime numbers that are close to each other, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching. Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43. If you have the patience to go on counting, you discover that these pairs gradually become rarer. You encounter increasingly isolated primes, lost in that silent, measured space made only of ciphers, and you develop a distressing presentiment that the pairs encountered up until that point were accidental, that solitude is the true destiny. Then, just when you’re about to surrender, when you no longer have the desire to go on counting, you come across another pair of twins, clutching each other tightly. There is a common conviction among mathematicians that however far you go, there will always be another two, even if no one can say where exactly, until they are discovered.
Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other. He had never told her that. When he imagined confessing these things to her, the thin layer of sweat on his hands evaporated completely and for a good ten minutes he was no longer capable of touching anything.
— Paolo Giordano, The Solitude of Prime Numbers
(Photo: examiner)

When the mind is too weak to tell itself lies

Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and by themselves. They hold their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest. They are suspicious, solitary numbers, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful. Sometimes he thought that they had ended up in that sequence by mistake, that they’d been trapped, like pearls strung on a necklace. Other times he suspected that they too would have preferred to be like all the others, just ordinary numbers, but for some reason they couldn’t do it. This second thought struck him mostly at night, in the chaotic interweaving of images that comes before sleep, when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.

In his first year at university, Mattia had learned that, among prime numbers, there are some that are even more special. Mathematicians call them twin primes: pairs of prime numbers that are close to each other, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching. Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43. If you have the patience to go on counting, you discover that these pairs gradually become rarer. You encounter increasingly isolated primes, lost in that silent, measured space made only of ciphers, and you develop a distressing presentiment that the pairs encountered up until that point were accidental, that solitude is the true destiny. Then, just when you’re about to surrender, when you no longer have the desire to go on counting, you come across another pair of twins, clutching each other tightly. There is a common conviction among mathematicians that however far you go, there will always be another two, even if no one can say where exactly, until they are discovered.

Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other. He had never told her that. When he imagined confessing these things to her, the thin layer of sweat on his hands evaporated completely and for a good ten minutes he was no longer capable of touching anything.

Paolo Giordano, The Solitude of Prime Numbers

(Photo: examiner)

People took what they wanted, they clutched at coincidences, the few there were, and made a life from them. […] Choices are made in brief seconds and paid for in the time that remains.

Anne Tyler

“Everything,” his father said, “comes down to time in the end—to the passing of time, to changing… Anything that makes you happy or sad, isn’t it all based on minutes going by? Isn’t sadness wishing time back again? Even big things—even mourning a death: aren’t you really just wishing to have the time back when that person was alive? Or photos—ever notice old photographs? How wistful they make you feel? … Isn’t it just that time for once is stopped that makes you wistful? … If only you could change this or that, undo what you have done, if only you could roll the minutes the other way, for once.”

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

(Photograph by Clara Molden. Source: telegraph)

Michael Chabon
When I remember that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer, it seems that in those days I ate my lunches, smelled another’s skin, noticed a shade of yellow, even simply sat, with greater lust and hopefulness—and that I lusted with greater faith, hoped with greater abandon. The people I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments. No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.
— The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

(Photo: aufeminin)

Michael Chabon

When I remember that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer, it seems that in those days I ate my lunches, smelled another’s skin, noticed a shade of yellow, even simply sat, with greater lust and hopefulness—and that I lusted with greater faith, hoped with greater abandon. The people I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments. No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

(Photo: aufeminin)