Friday, August 18, 2017

The Days of Abandonment - Elena Ferrante (2002) (Transl. Ann Goldstein)


About a year ago, after seeing Suicide Squad, my longest-time friend started talking about this Italian author who wrote under a pseudonym, raving in particular about her novel concerning a woman being left by her husband.  I forgot the name of the writer--but there were enough details to remember (female, Italian, pseudonym) that I could piece together who she was.

I finally got around to picking up The Days of Abandonment in late June, and took it with me on a recent trip to New York.  Just as we were landing in New York, my seat neighbor inquired if the book was good, and I recited the above regarding the recommendation.  He told me he had read My Brilliant Friend and the other trilogy.  I told him I was surprised it was published in 2002, but that I hadn't heard of it until now.  He said he thought it was because Hollywood had come knocking.

The Days of Abandonment is a first-person narrative from the perspective of Olga, a 38-year-old mother of two (Gianni and Illaria), recently left by her husband, Mario.  To get more detailed, Mario leaves her for a younger woman, the identity of whom is unexpected, and sort of obvious at the same time.  Olga basically falls apart, and the novel is about her going crazy.  It culminates in a sort of nightmare day from the hell, after which she gains some form of clarity on her situation.

Ultimately, it is a very satisfying novel, and sprinkled with that sort of European attention to detail and simplicity of style that feels effortless.  The opening line is a perfect example, immediately reminiscent of another European master (Camus):

"One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me." (9)

Okay, that is not nearly as simple as the opening of The Stranger, but that same sense of the immediate impact of sorrow is struck.  The novel takes the shape of 47 relatively short chapters of varying length, which feel more like sketches of scenes.  It seems to take place over the course of six months, but the primary action in the novel is the day that comes right around month four (Saturday, August 4th), chapter 18 - 34, pp. 88-151.  A great deal of this section has to do with the locks on the front door.  She manages to lock herself and her family inside of their apartment because she cannot undo the locks.  She has a special set installed, with two keyholes that have to be turned just right.  As a person that has had to call a locksmith to get into his apartment after his key broke off in the door, at least once, maybe twice, I could identify highly with this section.  However, it goes a little bit too far!  Here is one example I randomly flipped to:

"But I knew immediately, even before trying, that the door wouldn't open.  And when I held the key and tried to turn it, the thing that I had predicted a minute before happened.  The key wouldn't turn.
I was gripped by anxiety, precisely the wrong reaction.  I applied more pressure, chaotically.  I tried to turn the key first to the left, then to the right.  No luck.  Then I tried to take it out of the lock, but it wouldn't come out, it remained in the keyhole as if metal had fused to metal.  I beat my fists against the panels, I pushed with my shoulder, I tried the key again, suddenly my body woke up, I was consumed by desperation.  When I stopped, I discovered that I was covered with sweat.  My nightgown was stuck to me, but my teeth were chattering.  I felt cold, in spite of the heat of the day."  (117)

She has a new set of locks installed after a set of earrings from Mario's grandmother go missing.  She has a vaguely unpleasant, vaguely sexual experience with the two men installing the locks, particularly the older of the two.  The book is filled with such vignettes.  Her complicated feelings about herself as a sexual being culminate in an encounter which ends up becoming an unlikely, ambivalent romance.

Her relationship with the family dog, Otto, is also worth comment.  Otto is arguably a bigger character than either of the children, because she feels more saddled with him than the children.  It seems as if Mario was the one to get him, but does not take him with him, and she resents the additional responsibility.  But as always tends to happen, she develops a bond with the animal--however, not before a somewhat shocking incident in the park following another woman's reproach after he scares her and her baby:

"When he didn't stop I raised the branch that I had in my hand menacingly, but even then he wouldn't be silent.  This enraged me, and I hit him hard.  I heard the whistling in the air and saw his look of astonishment when the blow struck his ear.  Stupid dog, stupid dog, whom Mario had given as a puppy to Gianni and Ilaria, who had grown up in our house, had become an affectionate creature--but really he was a gift from my husband to himself, who had dreamed of a dog like that since he was a child, not something wished for by Gianni and Ilaria, spoiled dog, dog that always got its own way.  Now I was shouting at him, beast, bad dog, and I heard myself clearly, I was lashing and lashing and lashing, as he huddled, yelping, his body hugging the ground, ears low, sad and motionless under that incomprehensible hail of blows.
'What are you doing?' the woman murmured.
When I didn't answer but continued to hit Otto, she hurried away, pushing the carriage with one hand, frightened now not by the dog but by me." (54)

There could be many more things to say about this novel, but I don't believe in spoiling several of the smaller details.  For example I found this feature in the New Yorker by James Wood which covers much of the same ground of this review, but divulges a few more details.  It is also probably much better written because it was composed and edited as part of a day job, rather than a hobby masquerading as an entryway into the limited commercial landscape of art.  Suffice to say, sometimes spoilers are necessary to explain my estimation of a novel's worth, but I think the halfway point of a story is (generally) a fair boundary.  It spoils nothing to say however, that anybody who has ever been dumped or left to their own devices--especially those left in Olga's unfortunate position--will find some measure of solace in this work.  Regardless of one's perspective, there is great humanity and truth within it, and a likely catharsis for the reader.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 - Lizzy Goodman (2017)


Meet Me in the Bathroom is an oral history of the NYC rock scene in the early 2000's.  It is about the Strokes, Interpol, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and DFA Records/The Rapture/LCD Soundsystem.  To a lesser extent, it is about the White Stripes, Kings of Leon, TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend, Fischerspooner, Franz Ferdinand, the Killers, Ryan Adams, the National, Conor Oberst, the Vines and the Moldy Peaches.  And there are even more incidental references to other bands of the era.  It starts off with Jonathan Fire*Eater, as a precursor to the Strokes.  I had never heard of them before and I thought the Walkmen (which 1/2 of the band eventually became) were a bigger deal.

Jonathan Fire*Eater is positioned in the kind of Velvet Underground role in Please Kill Me, the first band to get mentioned out of the gate, the primary influence from which the scene sprouts.  Everybody that listened to the Velvet Underground started their own band.  Admittedly, it is a tall task to match up to VU, but JF*E do not directly influence the sound of many of the bands that are later written about, in quite the same way.  Regardless, it is an interesting way to the start the book, because it is really more about the scene in the late 1990's.  It goes right into the Strokes from there and never lets go.  This is really the Strokes book, at least in terms of myth-making and cementing their status as icons.

I am really conflicted about this but I cannot quite put it on the Best Books list.  It is really, really good, but it would basically equate it to Please Kill Me and Lexicon Devil.  And obviously, Please Kill Me is a classic, and Lexicon Devil was just a blistering experience for me.  This book was extremely entertaining though and I loved it.  I was sad when it was over, and that to me is one of the signs of a great book.  Whatever, I change my mind.  It belongs on the list with that qualification.

It is perhaps worth noting that I went to NYU in 2001 and so was the target at which so much of the buzz of these bands was aimed.  My friend Danielle burnt me a copy of Is This It.  Interpol was a band of NYU graduates (Paul Banks met Daniel Kessler at NYU in Paris, where I would be 4-5 years later).  Also in Paris, I went to see the Rapture at some festival type thing at a club in the Bois de Bologne.  We would sometimes go out dancing at Favela Chic and I remember my friend Tommy talking about them.  One night the DJ played "House of Jealous Lovers" and he was like, that's them!  It was pretty awesome, so we went to the show, and afterwards we saw the band and walked up to them with our third friend, Sarah.  We were like, "We're from New York too!"  And they were like, "Um, cool."  They weren't very interested in talking to us, so I always had kind of a weird feeling about them after, but I still got Echoes.

A fair number of the bands featured in here played $5 NYU shows, and I went to almost all of them.  I also miraculously got a press pass to the CMJ Music Marathon in the Fall of 2002, and saw many there as well.  I was there as the scene shifted from Manhattan to Brooklyn.  I read Our Band Could Be Your Life and gave it to my friends.  I  recruited about twenty of them to join a potential band, with which we had two very tentative practices.  I took guitar lessons and wanted to learn the drums.  Finally I convinced my friends to let me manage their band, and got them their first gig.  Even though I had no musical talent and could not (and still cannot) play any instruments, I wanted to be around people that did, and I wanted to get involved any way I could.  My point is, it wasn't just the Strokes, but the whole scene, that made people want to start their own bands.  That kind of situation lends itself well to an oral history.

The atmosphere of New York circa 9/11 also influenced us all.  One of the things about this book that elevates it into Best Books territory is chapter 30.  I would say that it is the finest piece of writing I have read, to date, on the subject of 9/11.  Nothing else had ever so perfectly encapsulated my experience:

Andrew VanWyngarden [MGMT]: "I was a week into my freshman year at college and that's such an impressionable stage.  I was a virgin and I was meeting all these new people and was just bright eyed and wow.  Then September 11 came and I got so deeply freaked out, paranoid, and just knocked off of my foundation of what reality was that it just totally fucked me up." (203)

There are also a ton of journalists that supply the oral history.  The book is dedicated to Marc Spitz, a voluble presence, who recently passed away.  Marc Maron is also a contributor and I have been listening to the WTF podcast a lot recently.  One of them was with Ryan Adams and my friend actually asked me to go to a Ryan Adams concert in Milwaukee right around when he dissed the Strokes on Twitter.  So this is really still topical.  Apparently Marc Maron is also putting out a book in October that follows a similar format to this, so I'll probably check that out.  Perhaps he was influenced by his experience participating in this, and realized that it is a pretty interesting way to construct a book.

David Cross also hangs out with the Strokes and there are a couple embarrassing stories that I won't recite here.  But the stuff about Ryan Adams is too funny to pass up:

Ryan Adams: "One night I was hanging with the Strokes guys and Ryan[Gentles].  We were really stoned because we were basically always smoking pot.  It was very late.  Fab would always play me a song that he had written, some beautiful romantic song.  So one night, jokingly, I'm also certain Fabby said, 'Dude, what if John Mayer was playing that guitar right now?'  And I said, 'I can make that happen.'  And they all said, 'You're full of shit.'  I said, 'Give me three fucking beers'--because there were only so many beers left at that late hour--'and I'll make it happen.  I'm a goddamn genie in a bottle.'  And we died laughing.  Now, I lived down the block from John Mayer and he'd been talking to me about his new song for a while.  So I texted him, because he was always up late back then.  I said, 'Come to this apartment.  Bring an acoustic guitar.  I really want to hear your new song.'  I didn't tell them that I'd done it.  So everyone is sitting there and I was like, 'Let's all take bong hits.'  I really wanted it to get crazy.  We smoked some bong hits; I probably did some blow.  I started to drink my three beers.  The doorbell buzzer rings and I open the door and John Mayer walks in with his fucking acoustic guitar and they were all slack jawed.  John sat down and played the fucking acoustic guitar--three or four songs that probably have gone on to be huge--while those guys just sat there staring at me like ,'Oh my god, you're a witch.'  The next day John was like, 'Hey man, next time maybe less cigarette smoke?  That really hurt my throat.'  That apartment was like an airport smoking lounge." (379)

In short, I could understand why Ryan Adams might not like the way he comes off in this story, but I finished the book more interested in him.  He's basically one of the greatest characters in the story.  He comes up in his own way, as he arguably peaked in his popularity with the video for "New York, New York," which was released at almost the exact same time as Is This It, basically on 9/11, or maybe a week or two later.  But he mostly comes up as a friend to, and a potential "bad influence" on, the Strokes.  Most others are candid about their drug use, and also use the excuse that 9/11 bestowed upon the city a kind of desperate party-because-we're-going-to-die atmosphere.  One reads a book like Meet Me in the Bathroom because it has the kind of gossip that you don't usually read about except in really unguarded stories in Spin or Rolling Stone or on Pitchfork.  It is also good for correcting inaccuracies that are awkward to kind of mention out of the blue, but fit perfectly with the subject matter.  One of the most striking is about the LCD Soundsystem song "Someone Great."  Now, many people really love this song, and I think most consider it the second best song off Sound of Silver after "All My Friends."  It also supplies a sizable piece of "45:33" (which I actually bought).  Everybody says that this song is about mourning a lost lover.  But I found the truth even more touching:

Tyler Brodie: "Do you know about the therapist?  I never met him, I don't even know his name, but I do know LCD's "Someone Great" was later written about him."

Tim Goldsworthy: "That's not about a love affair.  That was written the day that James's therapist died." (265)

James Murphy apparently did therapy three times a week.  The book also touches on "Beat Connection," which gave me occasion to play it just now, and I have to say it is a really great song.  I think Murphy sounds more like Mark E. Smith on it than on "Losing My Edge," though he is more on rant mode in that song.

The book is just filled with interesting stories and I think it would appeal to a general audience even if the reader doesn't know very much about the bands themselves.  There are also little tidbits about the realities of life as a musician that is yet to "make it" that are particularly amusing.  Take, for example, this nugget of truth that I appreciated as the purveyor of MEP:

Chris Taylor: "When I first moved to Brooklyn, Chris Bear, who plays drums in our band, moved into the same loft as me; we built it together.  We were in this band, and at that age when you really have the energy and ambition to do all of this.  There's just things that you don't care about that allow you to be free and experimental and take big risks and live in a dirty place and you don't give a shit.  Rent was really cheap, $600 a month.  Chris and I were vegetarians because it was cheaper--we cooked rice and beans so many nights.  We priced it out.  We knew the cost of the beans and the cost of the rice and we bought the onions and we're like, 'Okay, cool, this whole food element of life is under five bucks.'  We can buy a Yuengling, which was like a dollar fifty, which was definitely a choice beer at that time, and that was enough.  You find a cheap bike, so you don't even have to take the subway.  That and some money for weed, that was your budget.  That was all you needed."

Dave Sitek: "It was so cheap that you could afford to take risks and fail.  If you failed at what you were doing it didn't matter because you were in Williamsburg.  If you failed in Manhattan, it was different."

Eleanor Friedberger: I rode my bike everywhere.  I got all of these amazing jobs that were so easy and stupid.  I would work these office jobs, then go out every night, and I could afford to pay my rent" (310-311)

Speaking of Eleanor Friedberger, she really only has one revealing story, which involves the period when she was dating Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand.  I don't know if there will be a "deluxe edition" of Meet Me in the Bathroom that comes out in 20 years (the way Please Kill Me was later supplemented), but I would read it if there were chapters on the Fiery Furnaces, and other bands like Liars and !!!.  That is one of the primary criticisms I have of the book.  It could have been even bigger and better.  Actually there is a brief mention of the Fiery Furnaces record deal.  And this classic bomb she casually drops:

Eleanor Friedberger: "It only seemed weird that bands like the Strokes and Interpol were around at the same time as us when they started doing so well and I thought they were so bad.  I just didn't give a shit about that stuff." (315)

Oh snap, Eleanor lays it down!  Of course no one is obligated to like everything, but she is pretty much the only one in the book that says she didn't like those bands.  It would be nice if Julian Casablancas tweeted, "Sad @eleanorfriedberger, I love your music :(," and if she replied, "Okay I guess Room on Fire is pretty okay :)."  But I doubt that will happen. 

Vampire Weekend signals the beginning of the end of the book.  There is a special place in my heart for them, as the subject of one of the earliest posts on Flying Houses.  I think that review is a little bit harsh, and I partially disavow it.  And actually I think they have gotten better with each album and believe that they delivered on their early promise.  Nevertheless, I am not the only one who cannot resist poking fun:

Laura Young: "I was there [at the Strokes' Madison Square Garden show in 2011].  I had seats but I traded with somebody so I could be in the pit.  I thought, 'I know I'm a little bit too old for this but I'm going anyway.'  I remember seeing these kids that were fifteen years old.  I was either talking to them or overhearing them and they were saying, 'This is the first time I'm seeing the Strokes.  I listened to them all through elementary school and middle school.'  It was so cool to see them there and so excited.  I don't know, maybe somewhere, somehow, years from now Vampire Weekend will do some kind of reunion show, but I can't imagine young kids being there saying, 'I love Vampire Weekend so much.  I'm so excited about them.  I've been listening to them since elementary school.'  And if they are, they should be punched in the face." (589-590)

The story of their band is one of the most boring in the book, primarily because they all seem to have their lives together.  The reason why I think I hated them so much before is because everything just seemed sort of effortless and easy for them.  I doubt that was true, and the story of how Ezra Koenig lived with Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors and all these other people in this quasi-bohemian house-studio is pretty interesting.

I haven't really talked about Interpol and they are a major part of the book as well.  Paul Banks is quite entertaining in almost everything he says.  Even though he sounds like he's really serious and kind of weird from his lyrics and singing, he is extremely self-effacing and claims to have no talent.

Paul Banks: "...'Like now to college kids, we're old people?!  How the fuck did that happen?'  I don't feel like I look that different but apparently I'm an old guy now.  You know, I'm the guy trying to pick up eighteen-year-olds.  'Hey, kids, want some reefer?'  Just kidding." (575)

The gaping hole in this book is Carlos D.  He is often talked about--many myths are made about him--so his absence as a contributor feels all the more striking.  He maintains an air of mystery.

In almost every other dimension, however, Meet Me in the Bathroom feels very complete and authoritative.  On third thought I don't think I'm going to add it to the Best Books list--but it was definitely the best book I read in the past year.  I'm not sure I'll read it again, but I think everyone should at least read it once.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class - Elizabeth Warren (2017)


I've written a fair amount about Elizabeth Warren already in the review for A Fighting Chance.  So I will direct you there for background.  Here, all I will add is that, I got this book from the library when a friend was visiting, and after briefly discussing more serious literature (Elena Ferrante), I revealed that I had gotten this book out at the same time as The Days of Abandonment, and laughed, and he laughed.  I then explained that something about the book seemed a bit disappointing.  But that was only in the first 20 pages or so, and my opinion evolved.  I explained not to get me wrong, I love EW, but the message just seemed to be more of the same.  Is it a sequel to A Fighting Chance?  And does she always have to use "fight" in the title, and be so combative about things?  I agree with pretty much everything she says, but there didn't seem to be much that was "new" about it.

Now as I said my opinion evolved, and I actually ended up enjoying this book very much.  But as a pure reading experience, it is not as essential as A Fighting Chance.  In general, that book was much more entertaining.  This is not to say that This Fight is Our Fight is boring, but it does tend to focus on Washington DC and its relationship to big business.  There are still a few personal stories sprinkled throughout, but A Fighting Chance feels more like an autobiography and This Fight is Our Fight feels more like a position statement.  

Still, just three years later, life is radically different in 2017 than it was 2014, or at least seems to be that way.  So, much of this is an update on the situations that Warren explored in her previous book.  But yes, a great deal of this is directed at Donald Trump (which now I guess will have to be added to my tags/labels--the floodgates have opened).  Trump is one of the main threads in This Fight is Our Fight, along with the Republican party, and big business executives (and overt disdain for each of them) and the struggles of the middle (now "working poor?") class.  

If I have any criticisms of Elizabeth Warren, it is that sometimes her prose reads as if she has commissioned someone to adopt her artistic license and write in her voice.  There are moments of rhetorical flourishes that would likely go over quite well in a speech, or at one of the many readings Ms. Warren must have given on her book tour.  But on the page they seem somewhat unnecessary, and sometimes make it seem like she is talking down to the reader.  I mean, I really can't call it a condescending tone at all, just a tad geared towards the lowest common denominator.  And perhaps I only feel this way because I've read an Elizabeth Warren casebook and I know she can write in a more academic tone.  Perhaps Ms. Warren has intuited that she is popular with many young people and so she is aiming even towards super idealistic high school debate club team members.  It's worth noting that she doesn't spell out bull**** in this book, but did in A Fighting Chance, and apologized.  So that is one way it feels a little censored, or safe.  I don't disagree with it from a professional perspective, only in an artistic one.  She doesn't need to resort to objectionable language to get her point across but I wonder how much she swears in her life.  

Income inequality is one of the first topics addressed in the first chapter.  She goes after a company I had never heard of and its CEO and it is hilarious:

"It's gotten so good that even lavish Wall Street parties have ratcheted up.  Citadel, a major hedge fund, had a good 2015.  It celebrated with a party featuring Katy Perry (for a rumored $500,000) and another party starring Maroon 5 (also $500,000 or so) along with--my favorite touch--violinists suspended from the ceiling by cables.  Maroon 5 and Katy Perry are hugely talented, and both have fought hard for progressive causes.  If a billionaire wants to pay them and an army of violinists a fortune, they should all take the money.  But good grief, a party where just the entertainment costs as much as it would take to feed a family of four for half a century?  The next year, according to news reports, Citadel's CEO was buying a new condo spanning three floors of a high-rise overlooking Central Park, a pad priced at a cool $200 million.  This condo in the sky has about the same square footage as twelve typical american homes.  And why shouldn't he go for it?  He had already set the records for the most expensive home purchases in Chicago and Miami, so obviously it was time to upgrade his New York digs.
Pop the champagne corks!" (18)

She then tells the story of Gina, 50, who had raised two sons with her husband, and had done reasonably well as a middle class family--buying a home, combined income of $70,000--to dropping down to $36,000 combined, and working at Wal-Mart.  She tells a similar story about Michael Smith, in his 50's, worked at DHL and had a pretty solid middle class lifestyle, moving around the south side of Chicago from Woodlawn to Hazel Crest to Homewood--until the crash of 2008 hits and his job gets eliminated and his mortgage payments balloon.  Finally, she tells the story of Kai, 27, who decided to go to school with the Art Institutes and earned a 3.9 GPA, and had loans of $45,000 after 2 years there.  They go up to $55,000 before the school begins to implode after a DOJ investigation and she leaves to go to another art school in Florida for $30,000, then finally the University of Colorado.  Then finds out that her credits from Art Institutes would not transfer due to accreditation standards, and she would need to complete another 2 years.  Her loans hit about $100,000 and she never finished her degree.  Of course, I identified most with Kai's story:

"The loans can also chop off big parts of a former student's future.  In Kai's case, they kill her opportunity to take out a mortgage to buy a home.  They kill her chances to borrow more money to go to school and finish her degree.  Without that degree, those loans kill her dream of getting an entry-level job in a business that employs people with a degree in visual arts.  And she can just plain forget about building up a little savings, buying health insurance, or stashing away some cash for retirement." (50-51)

It does appear that Kai has actually paid down enough to get the debt down to $90,000.  As a person whose debt has grown $15,000 higher over the past several years, effectively rendering my life a Sisyphean struggle, there is also this reality to address.  Warren does work on a bill to reduce student loan interest rates and allow them to be refinanced, but it gets killed.  Still, I feel like a good portion of Kai's debt should have been dischargeable because Art Institutes seemed to close while she was still in it.  I feel like that's one of the few exceptions.

After the broad overview of the first chapter, Warren delves into the economic history of the United States, with a particular focus on FDR and the wave of prosperity that persisted until the election of Ronald Reagan and the institution of trickle-down economics.  She bemoans the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act, as she did in A Fighting Chance, and advocates for a 21st century version of it, with this incredible factoid:

"This doesn't have to be partisan.  My first cosponsor for a twenty-first-century Glass-Steagall bill was the Republicans' 2008 presidential nominee, Senator John McCain.  In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned on this idea, and, at his insistence, adopting Glass-Steagall was added to the Republican platform." (93)

Of course that was undone in short order, and is now "headed in the opposite direction."  But it's still incredible to think that Warren and Trump shared any common ground, particularly after what comes later in this book, which is basically a blow-by-blow retelling of their Twitter wars, calling each other "Loser" and "Goofy" and "Pocahontas."

There is a great deal of rancor reserved for Wells Fargo, which is one of the most righteous sections of the book, and while I earlier called this a "position statement," I would revise that to say 3/4 position statement and 1/4 narrative of the 2016 campaign.  She details her hesitation to endorse Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders until the primary was decided, because she "didn't want to undermine either of our candidates or to short-circuit any part of that debate." (221) She concludes the book with a reflection on the Women's March in Boston on January 21, 2017, remarking, "We are an army--an army filled with optimism and hope and fierce determination." (270)

 With this book, Warren establishes herself as one of the leaders of the Democratic party.  When A Fighting Chance came out, people considered it a potential prelude to a presidential campaign.  She comments upon that here, briefly, and also tries to put to rest any speculation that she might run in 2020.  I am sure there were still be people that want her to do it, but it is clear that she loves her job as a Senator.  I highly doubt she will change her mind, but it will be interesting to see who emerges as the next Democratic candidate.  Anyone considering that run will hopefully adopt many of the policies spelled out in this volume. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Fires - Raymond Carver (1983)


Fires, a collection of essays, poems, and short stories by Raymond Carver, was published in 1983, the year I was born.  Sometimes, I used to think that I was lucky to live within the lifetime of some of the greatest writers.  Raymond Carver is definitely one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, but I wouldn't be surprised if some people consider him to be overrated nowadays.  Anyways, he passed away in 1988, when he was about 50, way, way too young.  He would have just turned 80 a few months ago.  Fortunately, Milan Kundera is still kicking around somewhere in France at 88.  (Note: I had no idea that The Festival of Insignificance existed until a moment ago.)

The only other American authors that I can think of that are on similar footing are Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth.  I might have said John Updike, but I haven't read enough of him, and he passed away 8 years ago.  Perhaps JCO and Joan Didion belong in that category, but again, not familiar enough with oeuvre.

I don't want to retread too much territory from Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, which made the Best Books list, but I will need to use that as a reference guide for some of the material here to provide background information.  I first became aware of Raymond Carver via a Roger Ebert review of Short Cuts, a Robert Altman film based on a number of Carver's short stories, which was released in 1993, and I first became aware of that film because my older brother rented it from Blockbuster some random night in the early-to-mid 90's.  If you haven't seen it, see it.  If you have seen Magnolia, but not Short Cuts, see it and you will see how badly it is ripped off (yet also improved upon).  While Short Cuts is a great film, and an epic viewing experience, the ultimate power of it does not match the short stories themselves.

Only one of those stories that figures into Short Cuts, "So Much Water So Close to Home," is reproduced in Fires, but the real menace in the story is absent in the film.  It is a much, much better story.  Ultimately it is still somewhat inscrutable, and I will use this review as a way to ask questions, in the hope that other readers may provide their own interpretations.

I think there is a quality of mystery to short stories that people consider "really good"--the type of stories that get published in The New Yorker or The Best American Short Stories of XXXX.  Like, there is an undercurrent of only hinting at something that a reader may miss, whereas in a novel, it's all pretty much going to be in your face.  There's going to be a fair amount of plot, or else the reader is not going to miss the quality that makes it great by the sheer force of the word volume.  But in a short story, it can be like a poem, and maybe this is why I don't care all that much for most poetry-- that quality of inscrutability, or archness, or intellectualism.  Another reason why I don't mind Carver's poetry.  Most of the poems are closer to prose, and most of Carver's short stories only have a slight quality of inscrutability, enough that I can say I love them for the most part.  The only exception here is "The Cabin."  Also, "The Lie."  Actually I like "The Cabin" for the most part, but don't care as much for "The Lie."  But I see I am getting ahead of myself.  We should discuss the book chronologically.

It starts off with the essays, and the essays may actually be the best part of Fires, the part that made it worth publishing (because I believe most of the other material had already been included in other volumes).  This is the first mention of Fires from A Writer's Life:

"Besides the story collection for Knopf, Carver was preparing a new book for Capra Press.  Since At Night the Salmon Move and Furious Seasons were both almost sold out, Noel Young proposed combining them into one volume and adding new pieces to make 'a kind of Carver reader' to be called Fires.  The advance was under $1,000 but Ray wanted to keep his less commercial work in print.  He rearranged the poems and added thirteen that were not in his earlier collections.  He republished the long versions of "Distance" and "So Much Water So Close to Home" from Furious Seasons and also took the opportunity to include "Where Is Everyone?" (from which Lish had carved "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit").
Carver must have realized all this shuffling and reshuffling would confuse even the most earnest scholars.  Whether for his own peace of mind or theirs, in an 'Afterword' to Fires he explains that he'd 'rather tinker with a story after writing it, and then tinker some more, changing this, changing that, than to have to write the story in the first place...I think by nature I'm more deliberate than spontaneous, and maybe that explains something.'  He explained, too, that 'Distance' and 'So Much Water' had been 'largely rewritten for the Knopf book' but neglected to mention that the rewriting had been done by Lish.  'After some deliberation, I decided to stay fairly close to the versions as they appeared in the Capra Press book...they have been revised again, but not nearly so much as they once were.  But how long can this go on?  I suppose there is, finally, a law of diminishing returns.  But I can say now that I prefer the latter [in other words, earlier] versions of the stories, which is more in accord with the way I am writing short stories these days.'" (A Writer's Life, 383-384)

Nothing about the essays, but maybe there's something in there, some passages in A Writer's Life that delves into the background of the essays.  There's certainly something about the essay "Fires," as apparently it made his children hate him, or was viewed as an extremely mean-spirited piece of writing.  Frankly I think it is hilarious and true and heartbreaking, but it primarily concerns how his children are his greatest influence, and "have been a negative one, oppressive and often malevolent" (28), and that he would always find himself in the position of "unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction." (33) It has a certain sort of rambling drunk ramshackle quality, but it's an extremely entertaining and honest piece of writing.

Two of the others directly concern his thoughts on writing and being a writer, one of which is focused on John Gardner, who was his teacher at Chico State College in the summer of 1958.  The other essay is about his father's life.  All four are excellent, but "On Writing" and "John Gardner: the Writer as Teacher" seem to run around some of the same territory.  If pressed, I would have to say "On Writing" is the best of the four:

"I have friends who've told me they had to hurry a book because they needed the money, their editor or their wife was leaning on them or leaving them--something, some apology for the writing not being very good.  'It would have been better if I'd taken the time.'  I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist say this.  I still am, if I think about it, which I don't.  It's none of my business.  But if the writing can't be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it?  In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave.  I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven's sake go do something else.  There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living.  Or else just do it to the best of your abilities, your talents, and then don't justify or make excuses.  Don't complain, don't explain." (25) (underline by me, circa 2001 or 2002)

All of these essays are great because they are imbued with the quality that makes all of Carver's writing special.  The simplicity of its style and clarity, and his ability to beautifully evoke a scene, is perhaps influenced by his desire to "write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense even startling power.  It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader's spine--the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it." (24) I think we should move onto the poems before I run the risk of excessive excerpting.

The next 74 pages or so are devoted to poems, in four sections.  The first section is the most accessible and the best, in my opinion.  "Fear" is not included, but I feel that "Drinking While Driving," "Luck," "Bankruptcy," and "Iowa Summer," are all amongst his best poems.  The second section consists solely of a long poem about an evening with Charles Bukowksi, which seems to mimic his literary voice, or at least further his legend.  The third and fourth are more impressionistic and not as interesting to me (others that are into more naturalistic writing about fishing and the outdoors may like it more), but "Morning, Thinking of Empire" and "Trying to Sleep Late on a Saturday Morning in November" are two of my favorites.  Then you get to the stories, which run roughly 72 pages.  

"Distance" is about a young couple growing irritated by their baby waking up all throughout the night, and plans to go hunting, and co-parenting responsibilities.  The framing device in particular makes the story especially heartrending, with the father telling his adult daughter a story from when she was a baby.  

"The Lie" is so short that I hardly know what to say about it, but seems to be about a quarreling couple, something heard from a friend, purported to be a lie.  It is probably my least favorite in the selection, but its brevity might make it another's favorite, as it is one of several Carver stories that could be seen to influence "flash fiction." It also may or may not be a total ripoff of "Hills like White Elephants" (except that it could be about any number of things besides abortion) by Ernest Hemingway, whom Carver acknowledges as a kind of spiritual forbear in one of the essays.

"The Cabin," however, is generally the more enjoyable of the two mentioned above as "inscrutable."  It is about a man going away for the weekend to a cabin to go fishing, and a menacing encounter with a gang of unruly youths, and his plans and how they change.  If anybody can shed light on the ending (why he decides to leave earlier) I would appreciate it.  Is it just because he got scared during the encounter, and he didn't want anything worse to happen?  Because he missed his wife?

"Harry's Death" concerns the death of a friend, and dealing with the aftermath and how it ripples throughout all of their shared relationships and how it changes his life.

"The Pheasant" is an interesting story about a couple with a fairly large age gap (12 years) and a spontaneous trip from L.A. to Carmel and an unfortunate road kill incident that is revealed to be semi-intentional and other moments of self-sabotage.  For its lightness and strangeness, it is probably my favorite story.

But then, "Where is Everyone?" is pretty great too.  It's definitely not as light, but it is arguably as strange, as it eventually settles onto a thread after going off on a bunch of weird tangents like the narrator's 65-year old mother's dating life, his kids and his casual hatred of them, going to AA meetings drunk because "[y]ou're scared and you need something more than cookies and instant coffee," (177) and his father's death at age 54, drunk in his sleep.  The thread concerns Ross, or "Mr. FixIt," an unemployed former aerospace engineer whom the narrator's wife has a "thing" with after meeting at an AA meeting.  Ross collects old cars and appliances and tries to repair them and .  It is basically a character study on Ross.  But it is also about the narrator and how he wishes him well now.

Then you get to the end, "So Much Water So Close to Home," which must be the longest story here and is certainly the most epic.  This is probably the most "classic" story collected here, because it just seems to be of a more substantial nature.  Perhaps because a lot happens in it, but it is really very simple: a man discovers a dead body while fishing with his friends for a weekend, and they decide to keep fishing for the weekend before reporting it to anybody.  The narrator is the man's wife and expresses her disbelief at how he could do something like that.  She becomes suspicious of her husband and obsessed with the young woman who died, traveling to her wake, and having a scary encounter with a man that may have been her murderer.

There are other Carver stories that I love more, and I hope to review a couple other collections in the near future.  I was taking college creative writing classes a comparatively long time ago, now, and I'm not sure if Carver is still all of the rage and cited quite as frequently as the late 20th century master of short fiction--he had only been gone 12 years then, and 16 years have passed since--but I think he still is, and he's one of the few writers whose entire oeuvre is worth digesting.  I hope to review Beginners soon, which I got for my mother for Christmas in 2015, despite her not having ever expressed any desire to read Carver.  I did the same for my oldest sister with Where I'm Calling From in 2001 or 2002, putting asterisks next to all the stories I thought were worth reading.  Basically I think he belongs in a person's library, and perhaps over the next thirty or so years I will continue to foist upon each family member's shelf a different Carver volume.  I remember thinking Where I'm Calling From as the more essential volume, so Fires is not going in the Best Books list but it is probably the most essential for a creative writing teacher to photocopy and share with students.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness - Jill Filipovic (2017)


I need to start out this review with a confession.  In the past I've exhibited a few misogynistic tendencies, perhaps in part as a tongue-in-cheek backlash to the majority of my female friends who seem to identify as feminists, but more likely as a result of not being "successful" with women.  I watched  I Shot Andy Warhol about ten years ago and thought about writing an anti-S.C.U.M. manifesto, shortly before the phrase "men's rights" could cause someone to be "triggered." This was no doubt a result of the general frigidity that I felt from girls around this time, shortly after finishing college and entering the real world.  My feelings in retrospect are perhaps best summed up (as they often are) by a sketch from Mr. Show.

Girls didn't want to talk to me, and sometimes still don't want to talk to me.  There is something creepy or sleazy about me underneath.  My motives appear one-dimensional.  I am not confident enough.  I am not an alpha male (I am not even a beta male).  I do not make a lot of money.  My facial hair doesn't grow in the right way.  I am shy and do not make good eye contact.  I do not seem interested.  I seem too interested.  I have not, however, told anyone to smile, nor ever engaged in street harassment.  (Except the time my friend and I were drunk in a cab and we thought the girl in the next car over looked like Britney Spears and we tried to inform her of such as she inched away, and rolled up the window.)

Perhaps the reason most of my female friends are feminists and why I have scoffed at "typical girls" in general is, the girls that couldn't bear to waste their time on me haven't properly absorbed feminist values?  Or there is something legit wrong with me.  Probably the latter.  In any case, I think it's the type of girls that really just want to be a stay-at-home mom and have her husband provide for their family that have been most disinterested in me, followed by the girls that are extremely successful in their careers and sense that I would really just prefer to be a stay-at-home dad and have them provide for me and write in my free time.  So maybe I unfairly rejected the entire gender five years ago?  It was an immature position to take, that I could do that sort of thing in retaliation, or out of despair, and not out of a more basic understanding of orientation and acceptance of one's feelings going back to childhood.  It took a very long time to understand that all of these confusing emotions could be tidily ensconced within the "B" of LGBT.

I say all of this in the way of an apology, and to acknowledge that the reason many men treat women the way we do is wrapped up in our own issues that we haven't recognized or resolved.  That, and yes, the societal expectations that this book addresses.

Full disclosure: Jill Filipovic and I are friends on Facebook and went to NYU together.  We have a great deal of mutual friends (24 to be exact) but I am struck by a lack of independent recollection of personal interaction with one another.  We probably met briefly at a party or two.  Regardless, she is the third alum of the Class of 2005 to be featured on FH after Tao Lin (our mutual friend) and Aziz Ansari (we wish).  My short version opinion on the book is this: while it is fantastically written, and quite compelling overall, it is stymied a bit by its semi-clinical stance, teetering somewhere between a law review article and selective memoir.  And this is the right place to start the review for me, as an attorney in practice four years now that would like to leave the profession and write full-time.  If I could be so lucky!  I am not aware of where Jill went to law school, but I am assuming it was a very good one and that she did very well and that she got the Summer Associate 2L gig and made bank at a large firm and was able to retire her loans in short order, but maybe I'm misreading things or being presumptuous.  I'm sure she didn't go to a second-tier school, finish outside the top 50% of her class, and flounder from one horrible situation to the next after passing the bar, all while loans accrue at an outrageous interest rate and effectively become a perpetual burden.  But she earned it, and I applaud her for the decision.

Like the recently reviewed Letters to Felice, I have something to say about the end notes.  In this case, I say they are well-placed.  I also think if they were posted as footnotes on each page like a law review article, they would lose some of their impact.  Some of the sources are not exactly paragons of erudition.  But let's be clear about something in this law review comparison thing: law review articles have a citation for practically every sentence, and this is why their appearance becomes cartoonishly distinct.  The H Spot is sort of like a sloppily written law review article, and I mean that as a compliment.  Nobody likes to read those.  They're a perfect example of doing for the sake of doing, because it's the necessary thing to have on your resume.  Though students and professors may have a passion for the topic they write about, their composition is generally a tedious miserable exercise.  By contrast, The H-Spot is light enough to be read on a beach this summer.  Much of the time, it is very entertaining.  Sometimes it veers into preachy territory, but I was struck by the virtual absence of male-bashing for which feminism is often derided.  Jill opens up about her personal life just enough to give the reader insight into how she came to her perspective on these issues.  Something seemingly innocuous, like female partners in law firms being in charge of ordering lunch, inspires miniature outrage.  Also that most paralegals are female.  I would love to be a paralegal and be in charge of ordering lunch!  Is it a path towards assured financial success and growth?  At a large firm, probably!  But I digress.

The book opens up with an Introduction, which lays out its thesis, which is neatly summarized in the conclusion and its public policy proposal:

"One of the goals of this project was to show that there is no one definition of womanhood, no singular experience of pleasure seeking, and no individual things that will bring happiness for all women, but there are a great many commonalities, and a great many ways to improve the status quo.  My hope is that this book offered a little peak into the overlapping struggles of so many women, as well as the many joys--however unsupported and individualized." (267)

The best thing I can say about this book, I think, is that it made me want to be a better person.  It offers great insight into womanhood and all of its attendant anxieties, and it may cause men (such as myself) who have been insensitive in the past to think twice before making what seems like a harmless joke.  The only real criticism I can make is that "law review" thing mentioned above, and the statistical methodologies employed by the author.  The thing about the internet is that one can find pretty much any source to back up one's opinion, even if it's particularly odious or unreasonable (and just to be clear, this book is neither).  Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I feel like, when you sit down to start a law review article, you write up the position you want to take, and then you find your sources later to back up that position.  Maybe your initial position is informed by everything you have read and digested, but there is still sometimes that lingering feeling of padding by citation, as if you are not quite confident enough just to make an assertion without citation to any greater authority.  In law review contexts, it's because that's just not allowed.  In the context of a book, however, I feel like this book is most powerful (but also most challenging/slightly irksome) when it enters into "manifesto" territory.  I am thinking of Great Books from the past, like The Prince or Utopia, where the author simply writes down their thoughts, damned if anyone agrees with them or not.

Basically, in my opinion, the book is at its weakest when it is relying on statistical methodologies to define happiness, primarily because it makes me feel very anxious and insecure.  There are dozens of passages that made me curse my fate (but then again there are dozens of moments a day, dozens of things I see, that make me do the same), but here is just one:

"This new standard, of marrying an autonomous individual only once you're an autonomous individual yourself, is what marriage researchers call the 'capstone' model: marriage as the final marker of a solid, stable life, as opposed to a cornerstone of one.  Educated young people today see marriage as something they do after most of their other ducks are in a row: they have a college degree, they're working at a stable job, they can afford a wedding [Yes, No, No].  And most crucially, they want to marry someone who is a great match and from whom they derive emotional and sexual fulfillment [Gulp], not simply someone who plays a complimentary role--that is, an employed man looking for a woman who would be a good mother and homemaker, and vice versa.  Americans say a happy sexual relationship is one of the primary things that makes a marriage work, second only to faithfulness; more than 60 percent also agree that sharing household chores is crucial to a successful union [YES].  Of unmarried young people today, about a third say they haven't tied the knot because they're looking for the right person.  About the same number say they don't feel financially ready.
That capstone model means that women and men are marrying later than ever before [thank God], if they marry at all--and many don't.  The most well educated and financially prosperous, [fuck them] though, continue to wed, building their families like the children's rhyme: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage. [That's not all, that's not all, Jack is drinking alcohol]." (141, bracket parentheticals mine)

I could do this all day, as the book often caused me to reflect upon my own wretched state.  At the same time, however, I must admit that it felt very "cozy" and comforting at times, because Jill and I are the same age and went to the same school and know a lot of the same people and our experiences are sort of spiritually intertwined to an extent.  Moreover, Jill's own experience as a lawyer-turned-writer give me hope that a happier life is not necessarily a rank impossibility.

This review needs to be wrapped up, and I haven't given an appropriate road map of the territory this book covers.  Basically, there is an introduction and conclusion, and eight chapters in between.

The first is a sort of history lesson, which was one of my favorite parts, particularly when it was revealed that Mary Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist pioneer (and not actually the same person, which made me feel very dumb as a person that loved Frankenstein).  The second is about female friendship, and adequately covers the topic except for maybe not addressing the phenomena of girls going to the bathroom together.  The third will probably become the most infamous in the book, and is about female sexuality and pleasure.  The fourth is about women as mothers, the fifth is about women as wives, and the sixth is about women in the workplace.  The seventh is about female body issues and food, and was another one of my favorites (as a person with an unhealthy diet and a bizarre relationship with food).  The eighth is about the (fading?) tradition of women taking their husband's last name after marriage.

Jill does devote a fair portion of the book to primary sources, interviews she had with women and couples in several different states.  Generally, these are some of the best parts of the book, but there is no more noteworthy subject than Janet.  Janet's story is brutal and outrageous, but also ordinary in many poorer, predominantly black communities.  Her struggle is not uncommon, but the specifics are extreme:

"The one thing that keeps Janet afloat is her children.  The dream, Janet said, is a combination of basic financial stability and that coveted 'balance': that she could both enjoy time with her children and work full time at a job that would actually bring in enough income to support her family.  Both time and money, though, have proven elusive, no matter how hard she tries and no matter how much she sacrifices one for the other.....She was there when her second daughter walked, but only because she was unemployed.  She had found a new job by the time she had her son, and so she missed his first steps, too.  'When I work, I get up at 4:30 in the morning,' Janet said.  'I work.  And then normally I'd do doubles and get home at about one o'clock in the morning and my babies were asleep.  This is the most time I've ever spent with my kids.  And I've been sitting here thinking about that.  I worked all of these years.'" (202)

It's pretty much a terrible world in terms of the amount of time that people are expected to spend working to make a living, but Janet's case is simply too much.  You hear about people getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night, but 3.5?  Insane.  In a way this book is also about the impossibility of time management, and that hit me particularly hard as a person that doesn't think he ever has enough of it and has no spouse or kids to consume it.  Actually, a spouse should help with that time crunch, and the idea of better equality in relationships between spouses and partners is one of the most effectively presented in this book.  While The H-Spot is not necessarily perfect, it is a big-hearted contribution to the world, and one that will hopefully play some small role (if not as large as say, The Feminine Mystique or The Second Sex) in bringing about a more just and equal understanding between the sexes.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London - Lauren Elkin


            I picked up Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London by Lauren Elkin shortly after it was published last year, because I assumed that Elkin’s book was yet another in the subgenre I like to call “European Romance”—a subgenre that, for better or for worse, I find unwaveringly irresistible: the story of a young woman who moves to Paris (or, really, anywhere in France) to begin life anew. Despite the initial foibles that come from reorienting one’s existence in a foreign land, there her life is transformed by finding a new passion (whether it’s for cooking, walking, renovating a crumbling farmhouse, or, most often, for a man), and, aided by a cast of charming locals, she begins to live what Oprah would call her “best life,” but with the style and elegance of la vie européenne. At the end, she stays in France, often with her new lover and/or husband, and usually with a baby on the way. I’ve read more than twenty of these books, and while they’re all repetitive and formulaic, I’ll be damned if I don’t love them, and will read them entirely the instant they meet my hot little hands.
            But Elkin’s book is nothing of the sort. This is hardly the story of a woman floundering in America who decides to run off into the Parisian sunset. Elkin went to Europe with a sense of purpose: first, as an undergrad to study abroad, then as a graduate student to receive her MPhil in French literature from the Sorbonne, then as an adult to live. And while Elkin relays some stories of romantic interludes, the relationships she details are all disasters: men who take her away, and not toward, her “best life,” which, she believes, exists squarely in Paris. A relationship isn’t the solution to Elkin’s problems the way it is in so many of this genre; neither is a new patisserie, or a gorgeous pair of shoes, or an even more gorgeous, if condemned, farmhouse. The purpose of Flâneuse is more complicated than that.
            Elkin’s true love is cities, and, more specifically, walking through them. A native of New York from the Long Island suburbs, Elkin came into Manhattan to study at Barnard, and then went to Paris to study abroad, and then had stints in Tokyo, Venice, and London. In each city she walked—to explore, to get what she needed, and to get to and from work, but most of all she walked to get a feel for the city from the pedestrian’s perspective. What she desired most was to gain that slow specific view that comes only from being on the street, that takes in the height of the buildings and the whir of traffic, but also the small moments that are only visible from the ground—the graffiti hidden behind some stairs, the overlooked monument in the overgrown park, the mother and child holding hands as they sit on a bench, feeding the birds.
But Flâneuse has an explicitly political purpose as well, one that jibes nicely with our culture’s recent rediscovery of feminist critique. “Flâneuse” is the feminized version of the French word flâneur, which refers to “one who wanders aimlessly,” and which came about in the first half of the nineteenth century, when Paris’s medieval narrow streets and alleys were being demolished and redesigned by Georges-Eugène Haussmann with the express purpose of creating the vibrant, walkable, wide-boulevarded city that many of us know today. A flâneur was defined as a “figure of male privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention,” who plunges himself into the city’s street life with the implicit understanding of his dual freedoms: a man walking the street can either command respect, or he can wander anonymously, with few bothering him as he walks (3). A bourgeois male, with the implicit means and privileges of moneyed masculinity, a flâneur could come and go, transforming his ambles into art. A woman, Elkin notes, lacks this ability, by the sheer and natural force that she is a “she.”
A single woman wandering alone with no specific destination or purpose in mind—a flâneuse—is, and long has been, an object of speculation: she is immediately coded as either a prostitute or a beggar. Her body is gazed at wherever she goes; Elkin includes the startling photo of a young woman walking through Florence in 1951, leered at by no fewer than eight men. One blocks her path, another shouts at her with a contorted face, his hands unmistakably grabbing his crotch. It is an experience most urban women know well: street harassment, the practice of being a woman in public, means that you are inevitably made subject to the male gaze, and subject to the probing, hyper-sexualized attacks that men feel comfortable enough to bestow upon any passing woman they deem attractive enough to warrant their attentions.
But Elkin also turns this idea around. “Space is not neutral,” she writes. “Space is a feminist issue” (286). Simply being in public—or, more appropriately, simply being—is a feminist act, because it allows for the opportunity to gaze back, to reclaim space and reclaim structure and (finally) claim the ontological nature of existing on a level equal to a man’s. And so she makes the purpose of her book to detail both the cities she has walked in, as well as the women who walked there before her.
The book primarily is set in Paris, the city that Elkin loves the most. In the four chapters set in France, Elkin writes about other female artists who made the city their home, many of them transplants like herself, and all of them artists as well. Jean Rhys, the writer first known as Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, was born in the West Indies to a Welsh father and a Scottish-Creole mother, but came to Paris in 1919, at the age of 29, where she wrote stories of tragic women involved with equally tragic men. George Sand, born Amantine Lucile Arurore Dupin, came to Paris in 1831, leaving behind her husband and two children in Northern France to live a life of culture, novel-writing, and a remarkable number of high-profile affairs. Agnès Varda, the Belgian director, screenwriter and actress, came to Paris for university and never left, and her work in the French New Wave, especially with features like Cléo de 5 à 7, gave a pointedly feminist perspective to an otherwise heavily masculine movement in film.
All of these women were, like Elkin herself, given to wandering around Paris, exploring the city entirely by foot, and finding new things about themselves as they discovered new things about the French capital. Within each chapter, Elkin sprinkles in anecdotes about herself—the failed relationships with a couple of men, how strange her suburban family finds her desire to live abroad. In this sense, the book is part memoir, part cultural history, all of it centered around the idea of urban involvement and emancipation, and the benefits of the lifestyle of flâneuserie, with its emphasis on freedom, speculation, and creation.
There is one city where her desire to walk is heavily curtailed, however: Tokyo, one of the most densely-populated human capitals in the world. Elkin follows a relationship to Tokyo, living abroad from the life she had already made abroad, and finds herself miserable there. Tokyo is too big to cover on foot, and the city is strangulated by major highways, too unfriendly and dangerous for pedestrians to traverse by foot. She wanders through her long-term business hotel, wanders through shopping malls, wanders through her Japanese classes, too angry and disappointed both in her failing relationship and Tokyo’s inaccessibility to connect with the lifestyle there at all. She felt “marooned in Tokyo,” traveling back to Paris without her boyfriend, traveling back to New York to visit family, who now thought her exploits were even more strange (152). She eats at a French restaurant but hates the food, tries to find an English bookshop but can’t locate the store, feels compelled to quarantine herself inside. For a woman who prided herself on her urbane lifestyle, Tokyo was a city too much. She leaves both the city and the relationship, and returns to Paris far happier and more free.
There are other interludes—a section about London and Virginia Woolf, a chapter on Venice and Sophie Calle—but these are distractions from Elkin’s larger mission, which is to detail and celebrate the flâneuse’s long-held, if long-unacknowledged, relationship with Paris, the city that created flânerie, and work to expand it to include the rest of the world. As with much of feminist literature, there is the need to write women back into this history, to replace them where they’ve consistently been written out. And Elkin does this, in her literary way. She writes of women who have traveled the globe—Martha Gellhorn; my beloved Joan Didion—but who continue to thirst for to know more, to see more. “I’ll never see enough as long as I live,” Gellhorn wrote to her then-husband Ernest Hemingway in 1943, the year before he sent her a deeply asshole-ish telegram at the Italian front, begging her to return home (“Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?”) (266, 250).
For Elkin, these are woman to be celebrated, not scolded, and the remonstrations from their husbands seem silly and jealous to a fault. But, from her own stories, as well as from the biographies of the women she details, it’s clear that there has long been, and long will be, hesitancy and anger directed toward women taking their public place in the world. It is a brave act to put oneself out there into the world and walk, unarmed and alone, through its streets, and Elkin wants to expand the female sex’s mission to take up space, to find a woman’s place in the world, and to allow her the ability to walk within it, through it, and, one day, beyond it.
But this may require as much a change of mindset for the flâneuse as it does for the rest of the world. Elkin closes with a surprising story: the woman in the 1951 photograph in Florence was named Ninalee Craig, but she went by the nickname “Jinx Allen.” She was single and traveling through Europe alone, exploring and meeting friends along the way—the epitome of the flâneuse. And in 2011, when she was interviewed on NBC’s Today Show for the sixtieth anniversary of her famous photograph, Craig said that the image was being vastly misunderstood. As much as modern audiences want to code the picture with patriarchy, chauvinism, and rampant misogyny, “it’s not a symbol of harassment,” Craig said. “It’s the symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!”
One final thought: I really hate the picture on the book’s cover. It’s the image of a typical flâneur with his top hat, coat, and cane. But laid over this sketch is a fucking ridiculous pink flowy skirt, transforming a bearded flâneur into a poorly cross-dressed flâneuse. For a book as philosophical and intellectual as Elkin’s, this image feels shitty and cheap, a real underselling of the message inside. A clear illustration of how we should literally never judge a book by its cover but, if possible, read Flâneuse with the dust jacket removed. 
- Emily Dufton

Friday, June 9, 2017

Letters to Felice - Franz Kafka (1973)


Oeuvre rule: I have read "Metamorphosis" and The Trial by Kafka.  As a liberal arts student at NYU, I was somewhat heavily exposed to him.  "Letter to His Father" was also read in the course "The Letter as Literature," and he is casually mentioned by everyone in academia constantly.  He is, in fact, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and one of the most important artists in history, period.  Giving him this designation when his oeuvre is quite small (I still need to read Amerika, The Castle, and some short stories like "In the Penal Colony" and "The Judgment") puts him on similar ground to J.D. Salinger, but it even feels blasphemous to compare the two.  Do not forget that Kafka died at a young age (40), whereas Salinger lived on to age 90.  Kafka's work is classic, everlasting, whereas Salinger's influence may, or may not, be waning.  It is too early to tell with the latter.

So we come to Letters to Felice.  First, some background.  I was offered a review copy of this book in mid-November 2016.  I love Kafka, but I was not sure the book would be for me.  For one, it is a book of letters, and second, I still felt there was more of his fiction to digest.  Yet it seemed like an interesting book, so I requested a copy 8 days after receiving the e-mail.  Then it came quickly, and it is a beautiful book, but I was immediately shocked by its size.  There are 550 pages of letters alone in this volume, to say nothing of the introduction, the end notes, and other appendices.  I took me a long time to read, but I supplanted it with about five other books as they arose.  While I am tempted to name it one of the Best Books, ultimately I must deign to the notion that it will primarily appeal to the academic community.  Still, there are so many classic moments in these letters that there is much to discuss in this review.

Let us start with "Kafka's True Will, An Introductory Essay," by Erich Heller, who also edited this volume along with Jurgen Born.  I needed to read it a second time after finishing the book to try to understand what I had just read.  It begins by discussing Kafka's testamentary wishes, which famously directed that his unpublished writings be burnt.  Kafka had shown this will to his friend, Max Brod, in 1921, and Brod had told him he would not carry it out.  There is brief mention of another will, written in pencil (the first was written in ink--both appear to be holographic) that dictates six stories should not be burnt, though they had already been published.  In any case, had Kafka's wishes been honored, Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle would never have seen the light of day, to say nothing of his diaries, or Letters to Felice.  One imagines Kafka rolling over in his grave, but then perhaps, being secretly pleased that his life's work had not been done in vain.

Kafka's first letter to Felice Bauer is dated September 20, 1912.  The last letter reproduced in this volume was sent October 16, 1917.  Thus, five years, averaging out to 100 pages of letters per year-- yet the first year alone takes the reader to page 320.  Over the course of these five years, Kafka asked Felice to marry him twice.  As the book ends, the reader does not witness the breaking off of the second engagement, but it apparently happened in December of 1917.  

It is very difficult to review a book of letters, and I have not read many books of letters.  I read a book of letters between F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway, and that was very readable and entertaining.  Of course, The Sorrows of Young Werther is a beautiful epistolary novel.  But Letters to Felice was not meant to be published, and as noted above, will be unappealing to most readers except those seeking a greater understanding of Kafka's psyche.  It is documentary evidence of his inner state and replete with extreme honesty.

Owing to this difficulty, there are only a few more things I can say about this book.  First, I have put asterisks or smiley faces next to many of the passages in my copy (the benefit of avoiding twerpery), and I will excerpt several of these.  Second, if there is one thing that comes across more clearly than anything else, it is this: Kafka became very insecure and paranoid when Felice did not respond quickly.  He often remarks upon this in his letters, and it led me to feel this was an acceptable practice with texts.  For some reason, I kept imagining Kafka living in the world of smartphones and text messages, and freaking out when Felice would not text him back, and asking, "What were you doing with your time that made it impossible for you to reply?"

There is also the matter of Kafka's profession, which appears to be a claims consultant or adjuster for an insurance company after obtaining his law degree.  Of course this holds great personal interest for me, and it was difficult at times to not want to act like Kafka.  That is, as a writer that makes his actual living (or wants to) in an offshoot of the legal profession.  His comments on his job, and the few times he has to go to court, are hilarious.

Since we are addressing a legal aspect to this book, I have to mention a sincere annoyance of mine, and one thing law journals get right: use footnotes instead of end notes!  There are 27 pages of end notes, and over 500 individual references.  Much like Infinite Jest, it drove me nuts to have to constantly flip back and forth between them, perhaps because I tended to read the book during my lunch hour, with it sat propped in a silver, standing holder, and I would need to flip back, causing the holder to topple over.  Now as terrible as law review articles tend to be, and as ridiculous as they look, what with half of their page being taken up by the text of footnotes, I wish that larger volumes such as this would put the explanatory note on the same page.  This may be a petty thing, but I needed to point it out.  In fact, to mention him again, I do believe Salinger used an occasional footnote or two in Seymour: an Introduction, and kept them on the same page.

I also enjoy his remarks on Napoleon:

"Only last Sunday afternoon Max said to me on a similar occasion: 'You talk like a girl,'  But this is not quite true, for in an excellent collection of Napoleon's sayings (Note 126), which for some time now I have been dipping into whenever I can, these words are recorded: 'It is terrible to die childless,' and he was by no means sorry for himself; friends, for instance, whether by choice or necessity, were not indispensable to him.  He once said: 'I haven't a friend other than Daru, who is callous and cold and suits me.'  And to judge the true depth this man had access to, take this remark: 'He who knows from the beginning where he is going, will not get far.'  So that when he talks of the terror of childlessness, one may believe him.  And I have to be prepared to take this upon myself, for apart from everything else I would never dare expose myself to the risk of being a father."  (134, December 30 to 31, 1912).

There is another passage about Napoleon too, but this review runs the risk of being interminable if I am going to excerpt every entertaining quote.  As a whole, this book is not very entertaining.  The love affair between Franz and Felice is quite mundane.  They met at the home of Max Brod in August of 1912, and they saw each other 2-3 times a year, in a sort of long distance relationship.  In June of 1913, he asked her to marry him, and she remained evasive and did not agree until April of 1914.  In July of 1914 the engagement is broken off in what seems the most dramatic "action" in all of Letters to Felice, the scene at the Hotel Askanische Hof.  Yet they remained close, and the next three years seem to pass by in a blur, as they become engaged a second time in July of 1917.  As has already been shown, the majority of this book consists of letters in their first year of knowing one another.  Kafka was a prolific letter writer, sometimes sending off multiple letters a day, and expecting, if not the same depth of effort, at the very least a timely reply.  Again, though, an absurd amount of this book is Kafka being like, "Why haven't you written yet?!"

Along the way, however, there are tons of beautiful quotes, and hilarious observations and confessions.  And my comparison to texting is not totally without precedent.  Felice works for a company that sells parlographs, and Franz offers a list of ideas:

"5.  Invent a combination of telephone and Parlograph.  This really can't be too difficult.  The day after tomorrow, of course, you will tell me that this has already been accomplished successfully.  But it would really be of immense importance for the press, news agencies, etc.  More difficult, but surely quite possible, would be a combination of gramophone and telephone.  More difficult, simply because one can't understand a word the gramophone says, and a Parlograph can't very well ask for clearer pronunciation.  A combination of gramophone and telephone would not be of such great universal importance; it would only be a relief to people who, like me, are afraid of the telephone.  People like me, however, are equally afraid of the gramophone, so for them there is no help whatever." (168, January 22-23, 1913)

 As I flip back through the pages of this book, looking for marginalia, I am struck by the feeling of familiarity with the character of Franz.  He is such a humorous and sardonic fellow!  It is as if his life is a great absurd comedy in which he generally does not want to live, except to write.  A recent co-worker of mine had referred to him as neurotic.  I would describe his style as consciously absurd and pseudo-dramatic.

"I have only just started reading the book; on the whole I stay away from everything, including books.  It is extremely clumsy; but it does manage to produce one distinctive character, of whom for the time being I really don't know what to think.  In any case I am not a critic, am no good at analyzing, easily misunderstand, frequently miss the point, and am left in doubt as to the overall impression." (463, March 1916)

There is really something of a surprise dramatic "twist" in the book, which I shouldn't spoil, but the letters to Grete Bloch merit mention, because they are introduced so fucking ridiculously:

"Grete Bloch and Felice Bauer met probably in 1913.  Their friendship lasted a great deal longer than their relationship with Kafka.  As late as 1935 Grete Bloch, as a refugee on her way to Palestine and finally to Italy, visited her friend who at that time was living with her family in Geneva.  It was then she handed over to Felice some of the letters she had received from Kafka." [While we are on the subject of historical background, allow me to mention that Felice Bauer eventually moved to the United States in 1936 where she lived until she died in 1960.]
"Kafka met Grete Bloch for the first time at the end of October 1913 when, at Felice's request, she went to see him in Prague to act as an intermediary between them.  The following represents all that has survived.  In the third revised edition of his biography of Kafka (English edition, p.241), Max Brod published part of a letter from Grete Bloch to a friend in Palestine; this was written April 21, 1940, from Florence, where she was then living.  In it she says that years ago she had an illegitimate child, a son who "when nearly 'seven years old died suddenly in Munich in 1921.'  If this is correct, the child must have been born about 1914.  Although the father's name is not mentioned it was clear to the recipient, Max Brod's sole informant on the subject, that she attributed the paternity to Kafka." (323)

What!  The editors then go on to say that the tone of the letters to Grete does not suggest that Kafka had an intimate relationship with her--but I'm not quite sure I agree!  It's almost like, he and Felice are going through a rough patch, and all of the sudden Grete comes through, Felice's friend, and Kafka is like, oh damn this girl is pretty special too.

"Once, in Dr. Weiss's company (when she happened to be lively and very friendly toward me), she said jokingly (I had been telling them that you had very much liked the Galley): Frl. Bloch seems to mean a great deal to you.' I could only answer in the affirmative.  I can really say nothing about F.'s attitude toward you, less even than about her attitude toward me." (358, March 7, 1914)

Some of his letters to Grete Bloch seem more lively and interesting to read, as if he does not get bogged down by his feelings of anxiety and paranoia expressed in the letters to Felice.  So there are quotable observations such as this:

"The last of my closer, unmarried, unengaged friends [Felix Weltsch] has got engaged; while I have foreseen the engagement for 3 years (for the outsider, no great perspicacity was required), he and she have known of it for a mere fortnight.  Thus to some extent I am losing a friend, for a married friend isn't a true one.  Anything he is told will be revealed to his wife either silently or explicitly, and the woman in whose head all information doesn't become distorted probably doesn't exist.  Moreover, even if this were not so, one can no longer think of him alone, cannot expect from him that intimate comfort and help, nor even assume the possibility of such comfort or help, for now, whatever happens, one is faced by a partnership.  But apart from the fact that I naturally wish him the best of everything." (349-350, February 19, 1914)

Oh, snap--Kafka dishing it out on people getting married and growing distant!

Here, he writes to Grete Bloch on the topic of her imminent departure from Vienna (which is a city he expresses no great affection for, apart from the Grillparzer Room):

"Incidentally, I don't believe that one's sadness at leaving is due to one having loved the thing one is leaving.  One's sadness is probably due to the opposite.  One feels that the connection are severed too easily, also that others part from one too easily; the superficial relationships which were established in the course of time and which, because they have not been closely examined during that time, almost seemed to represent intimate relationships, now prove to be as insignificant as they actually are.  Sadly one remembers the pseudo-relationships that were formed, and sadly one foresees the pseudo-relationships that will be formed.  Indeed, one needs both freedom and dependence, but each in its own place, and one feels very uneasy on realizing that one has got the places mixed up.  It has often happened to me; it doesn't matter, rejoice with me that you are about to leave Vienna." (397-398, April 26, 1914)

It is not surprising to me that, because I often seem to internally feel something about the book I am reading, and allow it to unconsciously affect my life, I went through my own bouts of paranoia about a significant other not returning a text, and became afraid of commitment, at one point sending the following excerpt in an e-mail:

"But--please listen to me quietly--what I wanted to give you was time to consider carefully your relationship with me--for, to judge from what you have said since Easter (with the possible exception of the first two letters), I was forced to believe (please, Felice, just put yourself in my place for one moment and look at everything in the way I am forced to see it) that I am now able to keep you only be artificial means, by dispatching one letter after another, and thus not giving you time to come to your senses, and thereby urging you in your haste to use old words deprived of their old meaning.  This is not my final word, for with each new letter from you even my strongest convictions begin to waver anew, but if it were so, it would really have been the only way in which you had ever disappointed me, because candor is the one thing I have expected from you at all times.  I wouldn't have been surprised if at some time you had dismissed me, because you could not immediately have known me for what I am, indeed this was impossible; it was almost as though I had approached you sideways and it took some little time before we turned to face each other.  Now of course I don't know what your final decision may be, but only imagine that I can sense it in your recent letters, and the one thing I cannot understand, Felice, is that you yourself shouldn't know how you feel about it.  You must not imagine that all I am saying is due to your letters being short and infrequent; you used to write short letters every now and again and I was quite happy and satisfied.  But your recent letters are different.  My affairs are no longer as important to you, and what is much worse: you no longer bother to tell me about yourself.  So what am I to do?  I could no longer reply to these recent letters, and pictured you at the office on Thursday morning, sighing with relief on discovering that at long last there was no letter."
-Franz (4/26/13)  (246-247)

So yes, I began to feel what Franz felt, and I had a great desire to live his sort of life--to live with my parents (to soften the weight of my soul crushing loans--something that Kafka thankfully did not have to suffer) and work as a claims consultant at an insurance company and to write in all my spare time.  And I began to feel that my life was too complicated, and that I don't do nearly the amount of writing I wish I could.  And I read this book very slowly, as I transitioned into a job which made me very depressed, in part perhaps because I had to commute by car and could not read on the train.  I would stare at the line of cars ahead of me, holding down the brake and hitting the gas erratically.  How much better it was to become lost in Kafka's idiosyncratic mind than to observe and participate in the dull monotony of highway traffic.

The other part of the book that strikes one as most notable is the scene at the Hotel Askanische Hof, which is told circumstantially through letters to Grete Bloch:

"You would be doing me a great favor if you sent me the letter that was so disastrous, for I cannot imagine what was in it that can have been so terrible." (434, July 20, 1914)

"53.  Possibly one of the letters to Grete Bloch between early May and the end of June 1914.  In these letters a number of lines in which Kafka voices strong doubts about the feasibility of a marriage to Felice are underlined in red, probably by Grete Bloch for the purpose of quoting them at the 'tribunal in the hotel' (Askanische Hof).  See Kafka's letter to Grete Bloch of July 3, 1914: 'You needn't have quoted from the letters.'" (568, FN 53)

Signs of Kafka's illness become evident at certain points throughout the text, which includes stays at sanatoriums.  There is an ominous letter near the end where he mentions coughing up blood, but one particular item written while he was in, or about to go into convalescence, struck me.

"Dear Felice, I spoke to him quite frankly, as you would have done, and eh also answered me frankly.  I said 'Why don't you write?  Why are you tormenting F.?  That you are tormenting her is surely quite obvious, from her postcards.  You promise to write, and don't.  You send a telegram "letter on way," but there is no letter on the way; it doesn't get written until 2 days later.  Once in a while and as an exception, a girl might be permitted to behave in this way, it could even be innocent, provided it is in keeping with her character.  But in your case it is not innocent, for your silence can only mean concealment, so cannot be excused.'
He replied: 'But it can be excused, for there are circumstances in which there is little difference between expressing and concealing.  My suffering is fourfold:
I cannot live in Prague.  I don't know if I can live elsewhere, but that I cannot live here is the most definite thing I know.
Furthermore: This is why I cannot have F. at present.
Furthermore: I cannot help (it is even in print) admiring other people's children.
Finally: At times I feel I shall be crushed by these torments on every side.  But my present suffering is not the worst.  The worst is that time passes, that this suffering makes me more wretched and incapable, and prospects for the future grow increasingly more dismal." (456-457, August 9, 1915)

And on it goes.  I was quite confused and wondered whether Kafka was writing about himself in the third person, or what.  It struck me as being the most "unhinged" letter in the book, like seemingly schizophrenic.

There are many other beautiful passages and droll witticisms scattered throughout the text, and if this review has run long on excerpts from the text, it is only because I do not think many readers will actually seek this out for pleasure reading, unless they are writing a paper about Kafka.  It does offer sometimes revealing looks into the creation of his literature, but yes, it is primarily an exercise in repetition and exasperation on the subject of Felice's responsiveness.  Still, it is a beautiful book, and I am glad I read it.  I do not know if, or when I will ever return to it, but I am proud to stock it in my library.