Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
When I first read the poem – my friend Clare Potter showed it to me after she had been using it for teaching – I was a little shocked by that last line, not sure what to make of it.
Since I am currently teaching a microfiction class, I decided to introduce my charges to a wonderful exhibition of photographs currently on show at the National Museum of Wales. ‘Swaps’ contains examples of the private collection of Welsh photographer David Hurn, the pictures he has acquired from photographer friends over half a century. It was only after re-reading the poem that I realised – for reasons I will describe below – that it might serve very well as a preface to visiting the exhibition.
So I researched the poem a little, and found a couple of interesting articles. In one of them, from the Paris Review, by the wonderfully named Dan Piepenbring, the author asks, of the last line: ‘is it a lament? Is it a joke, a kind of boast? Did Wright intend to undercut or to bolster his pastoral scene with it? Could it be a winking response to Rilke, whose ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ concludes with the imperative “You must change your life”?
But what of the poet himself? In an interview published two years before his death, Wright told Bruce Henricksen that he thought the line was “a religious statement”:
‘here I am and I’m not straining myself and yet I’m happy at this moment, and perhaps I’ve been wastefully unhappy in the past because through my arrogance or whatever, and in my blindness, I haven’t allowed myself to pay true attention to what was around me. And a very strange thing happened. After I wrote the poem and after I published it, I was reading among the poems of the eleventh-century Persian poet, Ansari, and he used exactly the same phrase at a moment when he was happy. He said, “I have wasted my life.” Nobody gave him hell for giving up iambics. You can’t win.’
Ben Lerner, writing in the London Review of Books, also says something that might relate to Wright’s poem:
‘Poets are liars not because, as Socrates said, they can fool us with the power of their imitations, but because identifying yourself as a poet implies you might overcome the bitter logic of the poetic principle, and you can’t. You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.’ Perhaps that comes close to explicating James Wright’s final line: the Perfect Poem never exists; indeed (as Lerner would insist) every poem is a failure, and the reason every poem is a failure goes something like this: ‘you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure.’
The novelist David Mitchell, who apparently keeps a copy of the poem pinned above his desk, regards it as a kind of exhortation to ‘be observant’:
‘I hear him [James Wright] exhale it with a wry laugh: I’ve wasted my life! He’s kind of smiling. I’ve done it again, all this wasted time, he thinks—but at least I know it. Though he hasn’t really wasted all of his life—he knows that, too. You have to enter the hammock, put the world on hold, to really see things clearly the way the poem does. He’s been to this hammock before, and he’s had moments like this before, and it’s mostly positive. It’s self-deflating, but not depressing. It’s sad, and longing, and nostalgic, and wry—the ironic half-bark of a laugh.
For me, the poem’s chief value is as a reminder to stay inside the moment. It asks us not to let our minds rerun things that have already happened, not to trouble our head fruitlessly about things that haven’t happened yet. Inhabit the now, the poem urges— just see the beauty around you that you don’t normally see.
We have a hard time remaining in the present: Our monkey minds are continually jumping through the jungles of the past and the forests of the future. But Wright’s poem says: Stop! Just stop. Calm down, be quiet, and look around. It’s an homage to, and an exhortation of, the act of seeing.’
For myself, I believe that the poem can be read as a paradoxically joyful manifesto to other readers (and, especially, to writers). I have no idea why it makes me feel good about life, when the ending is – at first sight – so dismally self-judgemental. That is the wonder of good poetry: that we are not limited to one response, that we can enjoy multiple responses, even ones that seemingly overlap or even contradict each other.
Perhaps the poem is, at heart, an entreaty not to be distracted, or rather, not to be distracted to the point of confusion: but to look closely, to watch the world. There is, after all, a close relationship between looking closely, to seeing – as expressed so lyrically in the first twelve lines of the poem – and the act of writing itself. You learn, in David Mitchell’s words, to look at the relationship ‘between objects and people and light and time and mood and air’. And animals, I would add. And fire, and water, and rock and grass and leaves. And this watching, this capacity to experience the moment, is something that, of all the arts, photography does best. As David Hurn puts it, in the notes to one of his favourite photographs: ‘What photography does terribly well is to point out how peculiar and how wonderful the world is. It allows you to see and point out to somebody the things they might not have seen themselves’. Which, of course, goes for poetry too, even if every poem is a failure.
There is a moment in the film Stalker when the Writer, after a terrifying journey down a long tunnel known as The Meat Grinder, discovers a round metallic cylinder or container, a little over a metre in diameter, into which he peers, picks up a rock, and lets it fall. According to Zona, Geoff Dyer’s brilliant study of the film (and much more besides), ‘the stone . . . makes no sound when it lands, because there is no splash or clang at all, and then, after ten or twelve seconds, there is an echoey, clanging splash suggesting that the drop is about the height of the Empire State Building at least . . . Given the depth, it’s quite ballsy of Writer to perch on the rim of this drum – a drum that is in fact a mile-deep shaft – as if on the edge of a paddling pool made from Meccano.’
And here’s the thing: I was thinking about the film today just before I had a meeting with a visual artist, who in the course of our conversation – she was talking about Gilles Deleuze, actually – said that what Deleuze didn’t understand, what he couldn’t grasp, was that for the artist the abyss is vital, and the entire life project of the artist might be to perch on the precipice, on the rim above the abyss – I can’t remember precisely what she said, but it was something like that – and this image of the Writer flashed past me, perched as though oblivious (the adjective is apt) on the edge of that cylindrical precipice, that terrifyingly deep pit or abyss. And I was so grateful for that insight, and because that sequence in the film has stuck with me, I knew exactly how to visualise it. It was one of those synchronicities that imbue the passing of the days with what I like to think of as a form of Sympathetic Magic.
And then, shortly after, is the moment in the film when the eponymous Stalker, Writer and Professor have just abandoned their quest, the room in which they were to accomplish the fulfilment of their innermost wishes left unvisited, nothing achieved, no one satisfied or appeased, just life or what remains of it continuing as before, but the participants more exhausted, more shattered, shredded by an inexorable sense of finality – in spite of everything having been said, and nothing said, and none of it mattering – this is the moment when the rain comes down, and with it, if this is possible, descends both a consummate despair and a terrible cleansing, as though the almost unbearable build up of tension (some might say the unbearable nature of the whole cinematic experience) is washed away in the downpour, the rain that falls and falls without mercy or relief on the souls of the living, and what has been left behind , and what is to come, and which holds only that tiny flicker of hope carried by a child, nothing more . . .
And this is the scene in the bar, afterwards. The dark colours could be out of Rembrandt. Thank God for the dog, just visible to the left of the screen. How strange that the presence of an animal is the element that most imbues the scene with humanity.
Since I am currently teaching a course on microfiction, that weird mutating gene/genre that swerves and sways between the prose poem and the short story, I thought I would post a translation of some points made by Andrés Neuman a few years ago in his excellent blog Microrreplicas.
The points are succinct and aphoristic. I have opted for a fairly literal translation, but not, I hope, too literal . . .
- Brief is not the same as short: brevity shuts up on time, shortness ahead of time.
- The mission of every microfiction is to grow without being seen.
- The most striking thing about the microfiction is not its tiny size but its radical structure.
- Punctuate with a scalpel.
- A microfiction begins in quotation marks and ends with ellipsis.
- Verbs fly, nouns run, adjectives weigh down.
- The temptation of the joke is the termite of microfiction.
- Characters in a microfiction pass by in profile.
- The microfiction needs brave readers, which is to say those who can put up with incompleteness.
- The briefer it seems, the more slowly it is read.
Perhaps a few of these points merit elaboration or illustration, but I think I’d prefer to let them settle in their new language for a few days . . .
Customers at London’s exclusive Fortnum & Mason (The Queen’s Grocer) are presented with an unusual choice: would they prefer their rarebit Elegant or Welsh? Evidently these terms are mutually exclusive, so I cannot imagine affluent shoppers really have much of a struggle making up their minds.
Listening to the audiobook of John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies as I drive home from work, I am startled by an extraordinary passage in which George Smiley is reflecting with his protégé Peter Guillam on their past as spies, and the reasons that guided him through the Cold War. At one point, near the end, the normally composed George Smiley utterly loses his cool, in what would appear to be a tirade against Brexit and Brexiteers, and little Englanders of all description:
‘So was it all for England, then?’ he resumed. ‘There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.’
It is impossible to ignore Teresa May’s ‘citizen of nowhere’ jibe lodged in there.
Are these the views of the fictional George Smiley, or are they shared by his creator, John Le Carré? The answer is not hard to find. In an interview with the BBC from 7 September last year to mark the launch of the new novel – a kind of coda to The Spy who came in from the Cold – Le Carré said:
“It was terribly hard to write this book during the period of Brexit and the ascendancy of Trump, and I’d like to think that Smiley was aware of the sense of aimlessness which has entered into all of our minds – we seem to be joined by nothing but fear,” he said.
“Smiley, who has spent his life defending the flag in one way or another, feels alienated from it, feels a stranger in his own country, and that’s why we find him and indeed leave him in a foreign place.”
Yes, George has abandoned the UK, and lives in Freiburg. He feels alienated by Brexit Britain, as so many of us do.
Alienated and bewildered. How to account for the fact that Jacob Rees-Mogg, ‘a pantomime toff with unpleasant hard-right convictions’ according to the New Statesman, is the favourite of Conservative Party members to be their next leader, and thus, presumably, our next prime minister?
Desperate times indeed. Within the European Union, Britain would have been able to help shape the destiny of Europe, as George Smiley envisaged. Russia, for example, doesn’t give a toss about little England, but would listen to the UK within a powerful European Union. Outside of the EU, we will be marginalised by world leaders, ignored by the developing world and become an offshore tax haven for billionaires floating off into the North Atlantic. Goodbye to George Smiley’s ‘new age of reason.’
It was with shock that I learned last week of the death of the poet Landeg White, at his home in Portugal. He was seventy-seven years old. Landeg, who was born in Taff’s Well, near Cardiff, published around a dozen poetry collections, three of them with Parthian, and I had a lot of fun working with him on his Selected Poems, Where the Angolans are Playing Football (2003). He went on to publish two further collections with Parthian and did two historical novels with Cinammon: Livingstone’s Funeral (2010) and Ultimatum (2018). He is also the author of scholarly works in the area of African Studies. Perhaps he is best known for his superb translations of Camões, including Portugal’s national epic, The Lusíads, which won the TLS poetry translation prize in 1998. Although I did not know Landeg especially well, I certainly counted him as a friend and we spent time together in Cardiff, and later, in 2003, on a rather strange British Council tour of Portugal, which was scheduled to terminate in a reading at the glorious Lello bookshop in Porto (made famous as the inspiration for the shifting staircases in the Harry Potter stories). The reading never took place, as the bookshop was about to close when we turned up, not having been informed of our event by the BC. Instead we retired to a restaurant on the banks of the Douro and had a memorable evening of good food and wine and conversation, at each of which Landeg was an adept.
Landeg lived much of his life in Africa, during the era that followed the final collapse of imperial rule and he was a thorn in the side of more than one African dictator. Deported from Malawi in 1972, he lived and worked in several African countries before settling in Portugal, where he spent the latter part of his life.
His poetry addresses both the political and the personal in equal measure, usually in poems with a disciplined approach to form but bursting with colour and visceral energy.
Now that he is gone I wish I had known him better.
An obituary appeared in The Guardian on 22 January, written by his friend Hugh Macmillan. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/22/landeg-white-obituary
Below is one of my favourites from Landeg’s work, in the style of a West African praise poem, addressed – with a dollop of gleeful irony – to himself:
(for my African age-mates)
I climbed the old elm tree and read William books in the rook’s nest,
My knee stuck in the pulpit rail: for once the congregation laughed,
The missionary told of the poison ordeal. I was spellbound in the cub hut,
I won the match by slicing a six off the back of the bat over backward point,
I cycled a hundred miles precisely to Nettlebed and back to town,
I planted crotons, a whole hedge in thirty-two varieties,
I scored Sparrow’s Melda for the steelbands’ Panorama,
I made love to the circuit-minister’s wife in a dark corner of the canefield,
I decamped from the island under an arch of leaping dolphins,
Baboons jumped on my steaming bonnet as I stalled on the escarpment,
I crossed the longest bridge at dusk, reading of a new country,
I found her on a sand dune where a coconut palm strained at its bole,
She to whom all metaphors return was outlined with chevrons,
She stretched like a tigress, adorned with her stripes,
I watched the Beetle spinning downstream, swept from the flooded causeway,
My dugout parted the hyacinths in search of the hidden history,
When the armed guerrillas ambushed us, I said Oh, there you are,
From four jobs I resigned,
From the fifth the President deported me, without rhyme or explanation,
I helped at my son’s birth: he came out looking dumbfounded,
My proudest expedient, bribing our baby on to the plane!
The professor rang at midnight: my poem was a masterpiece,
I designed and built a kitchen to a millimetre’s calculation,
I knuckled down to fifteen years of mortgages and pension,
I campaigned for my dear friend to step forth like Lazarus,
My vine, in Viking territory, was a miracle of survival,
My garden exploded in poppies and cornflowers: autumn blazed in nasturtiums,
He wrote marvellously of his resurrection: it was I gave the writing space.
They shook hands, enemies to the vein,
They shook hands and reminisced across my conference table
(The student wrote: thank you, who else could we have got drunk with?).
As a scholar, I set the paradigm: as a poet, I found my niche.
Let these praises float from my window, setting fires where they will.
Orléans lies precisely half way between the dual fixed points of home. We stay the night, and in the morning there is a thick mist over the great river that flows past the bottom of the hotel grounds. I like to take a turn down the river with Bruno the Dog before breakfast. The river, like its name, perhaps because of its name, feels like a constant, an unalterable fact: Loire. But it is not the name, merely. Something else emerges in the conjunction of landscape and water, whether in memory or in imagination, I cannot be sure: the two are fused in a single process. As the mist lifts, walking west, we pass empty villas, which, when I first came this way, years ago, I thought might only be closed up in winter. This has proved not to be the case. However, it is winter now. One of the villas reminds me of Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes translated into English as The Lost Domain – but also, variously, as The Land of Lost Contentment, The Wanderer, The Lost Estate and The End of Youth – a novel I read at around the age of fourteen, and which, at the time, made as much of an impact on me as any book I had read. It was the only novel by Alain-Fournier, who was killed in the first month of World War One, aged twenty-seven.
The villa in question has been boarded up for as long as I can remember, apart from the window under the gable, behind which, even from the distance of the riverside path, one can sense life. Once, a couple of years ago, when we passed this way in the summer, the window was open. It is not open now.
The villa, with its single unshuttered eye, evokes a world that has been left behind – perhaps the Lost Domain itself – the same domain that, like Proust’s, was buried beneath the rubble of The Great War. The house with its otherwise boarded windows evokes a sense of imminent departure, or else of disappearance, of something so longed for or regretted that it became material, before fading into the texture of the walls. Perhaps all that is needed on a day like this is to see past the torn fabric that separates my world from that other one, and I will lean so far over as to tumble through, onto the other side . . .
Meanwhile, in the river, in a small boat nudging the island that lies midstream, a man stands erect. He appears to be doing nothing at all.
Whatever they had been told was lies: there was no kind of deal awaiting them, no siren call. The armistice was signed but the war had been lost years before and nobody had told them. Indigo night interrupted by orange explosions on the horizon, great sweeping clouds of dust making everything invisible for hours on end, the spotlights bearing down on them the length of the assault line. We will never know defeat, they repeated; the words of their leader an idiot’s mantra in their throats. They spent the whole day waiting for news: when should they expect the enemy? In the evening, a small group sat by the linden tree and passed a bottle around. The dusk obliterated memory. One of the men dreamed of France, a country he had never been to. People’s lives there are almost perfect. Something small and forgotten in his soul told him France was a better place in which to die; that there, eternity has brushed its sleeve against the land.
‘There is in Venice a beggar (oddly enough, despite all those tourists, you don’t see many, which is why they’re easy to recognise) who begs for alms in all six sestieri. He’s rather chubby and getting on in years; he wears a hat that is a tad too small for him, plays the panpipes – an instrument that betrays his southern origins – and displays to the compassionate gaze of passers-by a pale, plump plastic calf that emerges from a very short white sock. It is the cleanest leg I have ever seen, and I always stop to look at it. I give him a few coins to reward such cleanliness as well as the pleasant sound of his pipes. This eminently recognizable man, however, is quite different depending on whether he’s in San Marco, San Polo, Cannaregio, Santa Croce, Dorsoduro or Castello. In the first of these sestieri, he seems like a fraud or local con man preying on tourists; in the second, his ‘foreign’ terrone aspect seems more pronounced and he looks out of place; in the third he blends in so well that no one even notices that he’s begging for alms with his impeccable leg. It’s the setting that dictates how things appear, and so it isn’t the same seeing a tourist crossing the Rialto Bridge as it is seeing him cross one of the various Ponte delle Tette.’
The essay was first published in the late 1980s, but Venice is still not overpopulated with beggars. There is a growing number of single young African males, who tend to do their begging away from the main tourist centre (presumably to avoid the police), but as for the other, more traditional kind, they tend to be found near churches, and adopt the classical, abject kneeling stance, arm outstretched, a pose intended to arouse the deepest feelings of Christian shame and, hopefully, charity, and one which is shocking to witness in the twenty-first century.
I would argue that, contrary to Marías’ presumption, tourist zones are not good begging zones in general. Ask any indigent about this, or take my word for it. TOURISTS ARE NOT GIVERS. Beggars are far more likely to receive generosity from locals than from tourists in almost any of the tourist centres of Europe. The only exceptions to this rule are performers – and I am not talking about the bog-standard buskers or ‘perroflautas’ as the charming Spanish term has it (which can be translated literally as ‘dog and flute’, i.e. those beggars accompanied almost everywhere by a penny whistle and a mangy hound) – but magicians and jugglers and tightrope-walkers and fire-eaters (if there are any of these last remaining).
Marías’ second point, about setting being all, is worth picking up on. His itinerant beggar, who appears in slightly differing guises in different locations, is one I have met in various cities across Europe. But on reflection, doesn’t this mutability apply not only to beggars, or to tourists (on the Rialto or one of the Ponte delle tette), but to all who fit in between? That is, everyone? We all have the capacity for self-reinvention or re-assembly, of appearing in different guises, speaking in different voices, of being someone else depending on the place and context. Beggars such as the one Marías encountered in Venice, do not have a monopoly on this, they are just more easily noticed than the rest of us.
All of this must have seeped in on at some deep level, as I dream of a post-apocalyptic world, in which each group or family is allocated a space or island of the Venetian lagoon to settle: my group was allocated an islet, or part of a section of Cannaregio, which pleased me. But this pleasure was short-lived. When we landed there, all the alleyways and squares were empty, and we had to choose a house to live in, and once we broke in we had remove the bodies of the owners, who had perished during the disaster. There were no beggars in my dream. After the apocalypse, we will all be beggars.
Here in the city of water, our hotel has a sign in the bathroom: ‘Water is a very scarce natural resource of immense value.’ No doubt this is true, but how strange that we should be reminded of it here, of all places.
An afternoon spent visiting islands. On returning from the sad island, Torcello, we sail past Murano in the dark, the bells tolling across the water from a church tower, the swash of the water against the hull as we pass, a sense of departure foreshadowing that of the definitive journey, and I am reminded that – as Peter Ackroyd notes in his book Venice: Pure City – ‘the endless presence of water breeds anxiety. Water is unsettling. You must be more alert and watchful in your perambulations. Everything shifts. There is a sense of otherness . . . it is shapeless. It has depth but no mass.’
Venice is a place of doubleness and of inversions. The watery essence of the city seeps into every thought, every perception, and then replicates it in a reflection. Stone and water; water and stone. Ackroyd again: ‘When you look down upon the water, Venice seems to have no foundations except for reflections. Only its reflections are visible. Venice and Venice’s image are inseparable.’
The inversion of one world in another: if you get to visit below the Doge’s Palace you can see how the reflection of the upper world in the lower finds expression in inscriptions outside the prison cells set at canal level, which are numbered in inverted Roman numerals: Λ, ΛΙ, etc. Apparently this was done to remind the prisoners that they were now in a shadow zone, a place in which the normal rules of the surface no longer held sway; that they had entered another, upside down world – had themselves become other.
It is cold in Venice. I arrive late at night and go straight to bed. In the morning a mist hangs over the city when I go for my coffee at the corner café. Outside, a small white dog chases a blue ball around in circles. I see a derelict man, sitting hunched over on the bench in the nearby square. There are not many rough sleepers in Venice, in fact there is not normally a vast number of beggars. I sit down on the bench. The man asks me for money. He has a somewhat battered appearance. I give him some coins. He gets up and leaves, but returns a few minutes later with a bottle. He offers me a drink, which I decline. It occurs to me that he is a character in a story I didn’t write, about a man who achieves most of the things that matter to him, then loses interest in them and goes to Venice and is reduced to sleeping rough: I could even tell him – if he were interested, which I rather doubt – that he is living my life in reverse. But I think better of it. He might not take it well. Besides, the morning mist is beginning to lift and the man is telling me an incredibly long and convoluted story about how he once achieved almost everything he set out to achieve, but then lost interest in his life, and came to Venice, but he tells the story in such a drab and uninteresting way that I drift off, begin thinking of other things, such as what I might do with the day now that the mist has lifted, and then he says something about living my life in reverse – ‘it’s as though I were living your life in reverse,’ he says, or I think he says, as I stare at some graffiti on a wall facing me: ‘Rose is a Rose is a Rose’ – and when I turn to reply to the man on the bench next to me, he is gone.
I have just finished reading The Idiot by Elif Batuman, and realise that, for a change, I have something to say about a contemporary novel in English. Not that I read many, and finish far fewer, especially since devouring Pierre Bayard’s excellent How to talk about books you haven’t read. Why would one bother? But I had read various of Batuman’s essays and decided to give The Idiot a swirl, despite its somewhat daunting bulk.
Batuman writes very well, and has a rather particular sense of humour (or rather, humor) – or perhaps it isn’t a sense of humour in any conventional sense, but just the way she reads the world. This is a nicety of her style, and of the narrator, Selin’s, personality. Like Elif, Selin is an American of Turkish parentage who attends university in the late 1990s and encounters the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which teaches (broadly speaking) that perception is to a large extent defined by the language one speaks. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis actually explains a lot of what the book does, as Selin negotiates the tricky terrain of learning, infatuation (wonderfully muted and neurotic) and travel.
The story begins with Selin’s discovery, as a teenager, of the internet and the possibility of receiving emails: ‘Insofar as I’d had any idea about it at all, I had imagined that email would resemble faxing, and would involve a printer. But there was no printer. There was another world.’ Now I cannot even remember when I first encountered email, no doubt at the university where I worked (and still work); but I do remember how these messages seemed to emerge from a distinct or parallel world, and were significantly different in style and register from other forms of communication. Many – from people you knew – were like letters with their hair let down, and were generally composed with an absence of upper case letters. Batuman, who is a lot younger than me, remembers perfectly:
‘You could access it [the other world] from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers . . . Some messages were formally epistolary, with “Dear” and “Sincerely”; others were telegraphic, all in lower case with missing punctuation, like they were being beamed straight from people’s brains. And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.’
How clever is that ‘all the words you threw out, they came back’! Is that not the absolute essence (and horror) of email? But not only your own words; the endless deluge of other people’s (and institutions’) words emanating from this other world that can seemingly never be stanched or silenced . . .
Batuman’s range of registers is not extensive, and she is not an experimental writer in any conventional sense, but in the way she approaches her subject matter indirectly – at a slant to the universe – she manages to incite curiosity about the world like few other contemporary writers. Consider this passage, which occurs quite late in the book:
‘It was cold for swimming, but there were two people in the water: a barrel-chested man and a tiny little girl in a blue bikini. The girl was almost exploding with delight. The man stood awkwardly, like the first guest at a party, shifting his weight in the knee-deep water and rubbing his arms. Then he squatted so that only his head stuck out of the water. Then he vanished altogether, reappearing nearly a minute later with a perplexed expression. The girl clapped and shrieked, turned the man around by his shoulders, and climbed onto his back. The man stood up, his torso plastered with leaves. Overwhelmed by happiness, the girl began to sing. She was so happy – but she didn’t know what anything really was. She didn’t know what anything meant. She knew even less than we did.’
Notice how the narrator doesn’t say of the tiny singing girl that ‘she knew nothing’, but rather ‘she didn’t know what anything really was.’ This is a pointer towards the way Elif Batuman unpacks the world for her readers, not stating the expected, or at least not using linguistic constructions that are at once familiar or complacent. She prefers to present the girl’s ignorance, her ‘not knowing what anything [really] was’ almost as a threat, or an accident waiting to happen. And not only to her, the girl, but to the rest of us – whoever ‘we’ are. As though through ‘our’ ignorance we too might allow ourselves to be ‘overwhelmed by happiness’. With a fine tuning to différance the writer manages to do something quite unusual: exhibit her own bewilderment at the world in a manner at once subtle and strange. This trait is manifested early in the book when Selin is attending her first lecture as a freshman at Harvard:
‘The professor was talking about the difference between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet – and this was ironic – there was very little structural equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours. These were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant nor useful. I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.’
Selin is amazed by the way her friend, Svetlana, has so many opinions on things – how everything that happens, in fact, provokes some kind of intellectual reaction. She, by contrast ‘went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history, and nothing happened.’ She is reminded of Olenka, the protagonist of Chekhov’s story, ‘The Darling’:
‘She saw objects round her and understood everything that was going on, but she could not form opinions about anything and did not know what to talk about. How awful it is not to have an opinion! You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand roubles.’ (47)
In many ways, this is a classic coming of age novel, but with significant differences. Ivan, a Hungarian mathematician Selin meets at Harvard, fulfils the role of love interest with as much awkwardness as Selin herself engages in the student activities which her peers perform unthinkingly: drinking large quantities of beer, for instance, holds no appeal for her. Her experiences as an EFL teacher in rural Hungary, to which she has travelled over the summer in vague pursuit of Ivan, might come across to some readers as anti-climactic, and it’s true that the plot, such as it is, drifts somewhat. But that isn’t what you read a book like The Idiot for. It is to be read for the skill of the writing and for the sharp and funny insights about growing up in a world that makes very little sense.
The earthquake in central Mexico has produced startling and heartrending images, but perhaps none so powerful as those of rescue workers poised with fists held high – the sign for silence – so that any sounds from the rubble and ruins might be heard.
Yesterday the writer Juan Villoro published a poem in the Reforma newspaper called El puño en alto which has captured the imagination of many readers in Mexico and elsewhere. Here is my translation:
Fist held high
You’re from the place where you
pick up garbage.
Where two sunbeams fall
on the same spot.
Because you saw the first,
you wait for the second.
And you stay on here.
Where the earth opens up
And the people come together.
Another time you arrived late:
you’re alive because you’re not punctual,
because you didn’t show up for
the appointment that at 1.14 pm
would have killed you,
thirty two years after
the other appointment, to which
you didn’t arrive on time, either.
You are the victim who wasn’t there.
The building swayed and you
didn’t see your life pass
before your eyes, like
in the movies.
You had a pain in a part of the body
that you didn’t know existed.
The skin of memory,
that didn’t bring scenes
of your life, but of
the beast that can be heard
crunching up matter.
Also the water remembered
what it was when it
owned this place.
It shook in the rivers.
It shook in the houses
that we concoct in the rivers.
You gathered up the books of another
time, the one you were
before those pages.
The weather went from bad to worse
after the national holidays.
More of a party than a grand occasion.
Is there still room for heroes
You are afraid.
You have the courage to be afraid.
You don’t know what to do,
but you do something,
You didn’t found the city
nor defended it from invaders.
You are, at best,
Who picks through rubble
after the tragedy.
Who shifts bricks,
finds a comb,
two shoes that don’t match,
a wallet with photographs.
Who puts together loose parts,
bits of bits,
remains, only remains,
what fits in the hands.
Who doesn’t wear gloves,
Who shares out water,
Who gives away their medicine
because they’re cured of fright.
Who saw the moon and heard
strange things, but didn’t know
how to interpret them.
Who heard the cat miaow
half an hour before and only
understood it with the first shudder,
when water burst from the toilet.
Who prayed in a strange language
because they’d forgotten how to pray.
Who remembered who was where.
Who went to the school
for their children.
Whose battery ran out.
Who ran out onto the street to offer
their cell phone.
Who broke in to rob
an abandoned shop
and repented in
a food bank.
Who knew that they were
one too many
Who stayed awake so that
others could sleep.
Who is from here.
Who has just arrived
and is already from here.
Who says ‘city’ so as
to say you and me and Pedro and Marta
and Francisco and Guadalupe.
Who goes two days without electricity or water.
Who still breathes.
Who held a fist high to ask for silence.
Those who paid attention.
Those held up their fist.
Those who held up their fist.
if anyone was living.
Those who held up their fist
to hear if anyone was living and heard
Those who didn’t stop listening.