Another post on narrative technique

[Note: I wrote the notes to this post some months ago, but I had to translate a novel, and was unable to finish the series of posts until now.]

There is a scene in The Maltese Falcon (the first that, for some reason, springs to mind) when Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy that Joel Cairo has come to see him. We do not know yet what connection there is between O’Shaughnessy and Cairo, but when she hears the name, she says nothing, merely gets up and starts poking at the fire. One of the great advantages that film has is that it can with great immediacy and economy show us the curtain that goes up between what people say and do when they are really thinking about something else, which we are free not to notice if we’re not careful. In fiction, Sam Spade would have to describe the scene to us. He might choose only to relate what he sees — O’Shaughnessy getting up and poking the fire for a moment — or he might interpret it for us and tell us that he took this to be a sign that she was shocked and nervous. (His reactions suggest that this is the case.) If a third person were describing the scene, the choices would more or less be the same, unless he were narrating from O’Shaughnessy’s point of view and was consequently privy to her thoughts. But if the scene were narrated by O’Shaughnessy herself, it would have to be done very differently. The emphasis would have to be entirely on her thoughts and feelings, and not on her appearance at that moment, otherwise it would psychologically fake. She has been lying to Spade about her reason for hiring him, and has kept her involvement with Cairo and the Falcon a secret. But surely when she hired Spade on a false case, the real reason was on her mind. If she were narrating, she would have to be dishonest to the reader and conceal her thoughts about the Falcon. This dishonesty, like Roger Ackroyd’s, could not be justified from within the story by her frame of mind. It would be there for one reason only: to make the writer’s job easier. And this is laziness and sloppiness.

Recently I completed a scene from my novel in which the narrator, an old man, goes for a drive with his granddaughter. They stop for a coffee and some lunch and she surprises him by telling him the real reason for her visit.

As I said in my previous post, the novel is written as a journal-letter from the old man to the granddaughter for her to read one day. I have avoided to my satisfaction the pitfalls that come from the fact that the old man is relating a scene to someone who was there when it occurred. The problem is something else.

The journal entry is written after the revelation that shocks him, and the revelation would have been foremost on his mind from the first moment he picked up his pen. In order to create the feeling of surprise for the reader, the narrator delays it for as long as possible, but this delay is psychologically false. It is done only for my convenience as a writer.

So I realised the scene had to be approached differently. For a while I thought about foregoing the suspense entirely and trying to get some other merit from the scene. But if I did this too often, the novel would begin to lose its dramatic force. Eventually I realised I could still generate enough suspense if I mentioned the revelation at the beginning of the entry, so that the reader would be interested in how it had all come about. Then the narrator (and I) could backtrack a little and describe the trip to the cafe, which would now be suffused with tension and irony.

Dear Reader

In the previous post, I touched on the subject of a narrator who withholds information from his reader for no other reason than to create a surprise.

It is unavoidable that a narrator who is aware of all the facts of the story at every point of its telling must give some order to those events. Events can be narrated in the order that they occurred, as they most often are, or they (as in works as different as The Great Gatsby, Beowulf and Oedipus Rex) events and details can be revealed out of chronological order, as they are discovered or as they become relevant.

If William Shakespeare were to tell us, “Did I ever tell you the one about the Danish prince who delayed avenging his father’s murder for so long that, by the time he eventually got round to it, eight people, including the prince himself, were dead?” we would say, “No, but you just did.” (Of course, many will object that we read and watch Hamlet over and over, always knowing how it will end, without our enjoyment being diminished in any way, but Shakespeare’s unfolding of the story never changes.) The reader’s desire to be entertained is greater than the desire to know everything as soon as possible. Nevertheless, if the withholding is not done subtly enough, the reader will question the mechanics of the narrative, and will almost certainly be annoyed and feel cheated. (See the previous entry, regarding The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.)

A few years ago I began working on a novel about an old man who, while preparing his house to receive his daughter and granddaughter, finds a journal he had very briefly kept over 40 years earlier, and decides to begin writing in it again. The novel takes the form of this journal.

Although not without its own problems, the approach appealed to me. The narrator is not just a voice speaking something of a vacuum; the act of narrating is now incorporated into and justified in the narrative itself.

When I moved to Greece in January of 1997, I began to keep a journal, which has now reached 17 volumes. I gave to the narrator of my novel the same motive that led me to start my journal: the desire to keep a record of myself that might be of interest to my descendants when I’m gone. I thought how fascinating it would have been for me if my grandfather or great-grandfather had left such a document behind.

Some people feel the need to address someone when they’re writing a journal entry, like Anne Frank’s Kitty, or simply by writing “Dear Diary”. My narrator begins keeping a journal for whatever descendants may come across it days before meeting his granddaughter for the first time, and then the idea occurs to him to address the journal to her, at which point the novel essentially takes on the epistolary form.

The problem with this approach is that if the narrator is addressing someone involved in the story, then he runs the risk of embarking on exposition to someone who is already well enough aware of the facts. When this happens, the characters are talking over each other and to the reader. One need only see this done in a film to see how artificial and annoying it is. It is a technique used by Theo Angelopoulos in his last films, especially the last two, The Weeping Meadow and The Dust of Time. The latter in particular was so full of this kind of exposition that most of the action had occurred somewhere else, in another time, and the film consisted mainly of people standing around relating things which had already happened and which everyone involved already knew about.

But what I like about these inherent risks is that they are, more than anything else, challenges that, when they are overcome, make your writing stronger.

My next entry will be about a specific problem that I am in the process of dealing with.

A Return

This blog has been inactive for nearly three years. I have often thought of returning to it, but the thought of physically writing a post would leave me weary before I even started. Then the desire to do so, except for these brief moments, when I didn’t even have a subject in mind, would simply disappear. There was a sense of community and excitement when I started it back in late 2004, which I feel is gone now, at least for me, and so I have to start again in another frame of mind, another spirit, and slowly reacquire a readership.

Lately, though, I’ve been giving some thought to writing about something has occupied some of my time over the past few years: the writing of my novel. I’ve thought of charting its development and the technical problems I face in its composition. I’ve even thought that blogging about it would be a sort of commitment that would encourage me to write more regularly in the novel, as well as here.

The central problem that I’ve grappled with has been one of perspective, more so than most readers would be interested in, and but less so than some writers and critics whose works I’ve dipped into. The question has been this: Who is telling the story, and why is he telling it? If the story is told in the third person, the question leads me to the answer – however unsatisfactory – that there is a silent understanding between the reader and the writer, or the narrator (or both) that can be summed up thus:

  • I, the writer, will entertain you by relating a sequence of events as they though they were true and you will visualize them as though you believed them;
  • I will play with the pretense of being omniscient about what is happening in various places, at various times, as though I had access to people’s thoughts and knew their motives, although these things have no reality (although they may resemble reality) outside my own mind (i.e. my inability to know something is merely my refusal to imagine and create it);
  • since your entertainment is my ultimate goal, and since that is based on sustaining your desire to know what happens next, I will withhold any details from you until such time as their revelation will heighten the entertainment, and in exchange, you will agree not to question the logic of this withholding.

By “withholding” I mean when a narrator decides not to tell the reader something he already knows about simply because it will ruin the surprise or the suspense. For most readers, the surprise is more important than the question of why the narrator, who already seems to know all the facts, has played the game this way. But I suspect readers are becoming increasingly impatient with this technique.

One of the worst examples in this respect is Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the unreliable narrator admits in the final pages that he is the murderer. One can easily understand his reason for concealing this fact: he doesn’t want to get caught. But the act of narrating occurs after the events, when Poirot has already discovered the truth, and the narrator has already been caught. Once our shock and surprise subside, if we continue to think about the transparent mechanics of the plot, we feel cheated. The only reason the facts were withheld was to create the surprise at the end.

The use of tense, one can see from this example, also plays a role. In a Greek book about fiction writing (Το εργαστήριο του μυθιστοριογράφου του Παντελή Καλιότσου, The Novelist’s Workshop by Pantelis Kaliotsos) I read the following:

[The tale-teller’s] story, even if we already know it, creates an illusion which can lead to this unconscious thought: “Here is a person who finally knows the whole story! Let’s listen to him carefully…” The secret sense of relief is enough for us, although we know that it is an illusion.

The writer doesn’t feel the same magic. He does not have the authority of the omniscient tale-teller, because although he too narrates a story that has happened already occurred, he does not appear to know what is going to happen, since all his verbs are in past tenses.

And later:

I ascertained that with the present tense, the writer moves farther away from the tale-teller, because, when the action is in continuous development, no one knows where it will lead, not even the writer. This uncertainty reduces his authority as opposed to the tale-teller (who knows where it will lead). The present tense is enough to remove the writer from the story.

Kaliotsos says that, for this reason, he returned to writing in the past tense after using the present tense for one book. But for myself, the illusion that the narrator does not know the outcome, and the questioning of his authority, are things I want to maintain. And I want, as much as possible, the mechanics of the narrative to be an inherent part of the narrative itself.

The Madness of Quixote

I’ve been reading Don Quixote again. I had put it down when we came back from Spain. Recently, something that has always troubled me about the book and its protagonist suddenly became clearer.

We know that Don Quixote is mad and imagines things. The book derives its comic power from the fact that windmills stay windmills and from Don Quixote’s belief that they are giants, and yet also from how he excuses his behaviour when he realises that they are not giants. But his persistence in the face of opposing reality is such that he begins to take on heroic dimensions, and we cannot help but admire him, even when we laugh at his absurdity. He finds the adventures he sets out to find, or creates them if he has to. He has, in fact, become greater than the “real” knights he sought to emulate. For all the beatings he gets, there are just as many times that he deals them out to others, with the result that just when we are sure he is nothing more than a decrepit bag of bones, he turns out to be a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes his victims are reasonable people who become hapless fools because they don’t understand his madness, or because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; but sometimes they are actually scoundrels and villains who deserve what they get from him, or if they are abusing him, have their villainy confirmed for us by their abuse of him.

In his introduction to Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation, Harold Bloom says, “No critic’s account of Cervantes’s masterpiece agrees with, or even resembles, any other critic’s impressions. Don Quixote is a mirror held up not to nature, but to the reader.” I believe this is because we are never quite sure what is really real, what the true nature of Don Quixote is. Reality, just beneath the surface of things, seen through an endlessly shifting prism, is always changing form, as if we readers shared his madness, and could not tell giants from windmills.

Place in Time

To feel nostalgia does not necessarily mean you want to turn away from the present or the future; it’s enough to feel that you can’t ever go back to a place where you were happy. Sometimes I think even happiness doesn’t matter, that even places where you were unhappy can call out to you, if enough time has passed. And by “place” I mean, of course, “time”.

I had been thinking about the apartment in Pagkrati, where I spent my first ten years here in Greece, how things seem to be changing so rapidly in Athens, and how my Athens seems suspended in time, now that I’m gone from it. Images come to me almost unbidden, most often moments spent in solitude: my first Christmas Eve, walking along an empty Stadiou Street, and going into one of the cinemas to see a film; walking from my apartment to the Panellinion cafe at the bottom of Mavromichali Street, determined to go in and play chess, but then merely standing outside for half an hour, too shy to go in alone with so many good players inside; deciding to watch the sun come up from Lycabettus one Easter morning.

And then, about two months ago, a message comes from J.:

Just walked past your old house. The ensuing wave of nostalgia has obliged me to take a seat in a nearby hostelry and order a large cloudy one in your honour.

I don’t drink so much ouzo any more; it’s connected in my mind with Athens and sitting around with J. Now it’s Cretan wines I prefer.

I get the sense that J. is getting ready to leave Greece and go back to England after 15 or so years. I’m sure he is already beginning to feel nostalgic for the place he is preparing to leave. And by “place” I mean, of course, “time”.

Over a week ago, I was travelling down a road I’ve come down so many times before, every summer, some Easters, even a Christmas, into the Peloponnese, down through Nemea, and the Argolid, and then Kynouria, the part of Arcadia that touches the sea. I thought about how many times I’d made this trip as a bachelor on the Athens-Leonidio bus, and now I was driving down with my wife in our car, taking our daughter along for her first time.

* * * * *

The wind is up, blowing in from the sea, as it does every day. Little E. sits in my lap, turning over a eucalyptus leaf in her hands, quietly babbling to herself. I give her sprigs of rosemary and lavender to play with too. She brings them to her lips, without putting them into her mouth. She doesn’t seem to have learned to smell deliberately yet. I take her tiny hands and sniff them, and find traces of the three scents on them. The wind ruffles her little curls. And I think to myself, I will forget this moment, all the details that give it vividness: the coolness of the sea breeze, the warmth of E.’s little body, her shoulders, the back of her neck as she looks down at the sprig. She is bombarded by sensations and colours and sounds, and she absorbs them all, so that she can one day learn that this is called a tree, that is an ant, and that other thing a chair, but she will not remember this moment in itself, because it is all just a drop in the torrent of impressions she experiences every minute of the day. But I who have become so jaded, and who in all my forty years have never sat here in this place with a warm little daughter in my arms, what excuse have I got?

I set about trying to preserve the moment. I mention it to N., I write it down, I even grab my video camera and start to record moments that I know I will forget: the leaves of the lemon tree, seen through the balcony railing, as they sway in the wind, a bee among the oleander, dried up bougainvillea petals tumbling down the road. A caique in the afternoon as a fisherman casts his net. Our beach towels hanging to dry on the railings. The chaise longue where sleep is sweetest. The sandals left outside the door. The sound of someone chopping vegetables in the kitchen, or of the little gas cooker being lit and a little spoon tapping the inside of the briki of coffee. A lemon and two oranges in a basket hanging from the latticed roof of the pergola, and the wasp that hovers near them. The spider webs in the rosemary bush.

When I return home, maybe I’ll edit the fragments of video and make a DVD that I can watch on television. Years from now I will watch it, or read these words, and be so removed from the sensations that I tried to capture, that I will be reading them, like you, for the first time, like something I never lived at all, and they will remind me not of this place where I sit now, but of some other place like it, a place like no other place I’ve ever actually been — and by ” place” I mean, of course, “time”.

Written on some napkins

A few days ago I was looking through a notebook and came upon two square napkins that I’d written on in a cafe back in November.

Sitting in Σιναϊτικό, drinking a beer and eating a plate of mezedes. I had thought to bring a notebook with me or buy a paper to read. I hadn’t planned to come here: I had arranged to do a private lesson from 8.30 to 9.30, but it got moved to tomorrow.  So I sat and drank my beer, alone, with nothing to keep me occupied. I thought about things, and half-listened to the conversations around me.

A young boy across the room sat with his father and two of his father’s friends and talked with them. I was touched by how mature and intelligent he seemed. I thought about the child N. and I might have and I wondered about what it would look like. I imagined that its face and appearance was already determined, all we had to do was have it.

I imagined myself sitting here with my son, having a serious discussion, explaining why I’d waited till I was nearly 40 before I became a father. I’d explain to him the decisions I’d made in life, and where having him had fit in.

I looked out the door a lot, at the orange tree outside the entrance, at the benjamins further down, and listened to the hundreds of birds chirping in the trees in the square across the street, a strange sound at night, and I looked at the way the light from the street lamps fell on the flagstones on the pavement, and I felt happy: I had made all the right decisions in life; this was one of the moments all the other moments had led to.

And I looked at my watch: ten minutes had passed. I was sitting doing nothing, and time was passing slowly, without the help of boredom. All it needed was patience, and the strength that inactivity requires. But then I buckled, took my pen out of my pocket, grabbed a couple of napkins and wrote this down. And the time passed quickly.

Bit of Disquiet

Life, for most people, is a pain in the neck that they hardly notice, a sad affair with some happy respites, as when the watchers of a dead body tell anecdotes to get through the long, still night and their obligation to keep watch. I’ve always thought it futile to see life as a valley of tears; yes, it is a valley of tears, but one in which we rarely weep. Heine said that after great tragedies we always merely blow our noses. As a Jew, and therefore universal, he understood the universal nature of humanity.

Life would be unbearable if we were conscious of it. Fortunately we’re not. We live as unconsciously, as uselessly and as pointlessly as animals, and if we anticipate death, which presumably (though not assuredly) they don’t, we anticipate it through so many distractions, diversions and ways of forgetting  that we can hardly say we think about it.

That’s how we live, and it’s a flimsy basis for considering ourselves superior to animals. We are distinguished from them by the purely external detail of speaking and writing, by an abstract intelligence, and by our ability to imagine impossible things. All this, however, is incidental to our organic essence. Speaking and writing have no effect on our primordial urge to live, without knowing how or why. Our abstract intelligence serves only to elaborate systems, or ideas that are quasi-systems, which in animals corresponds to lying in the sun. And to imagine the impossible may not be exclusive to us; I’ve seen cats look at the moon, and it may well be that they were longing to have it.

[Number 405, Zenith edition]

Bit of Disquiet

We generally colour our ideas of the unknown with our notions of the known. If we call death a sleep, it’s because it seems like sleep on the outside; if we call death a new life, it’s because it seems like something different from life. With slight misconceptions of reality we fabricate our hopes and beliefs, and we live off crusts that we call cakes, like poor children who make believe they’re happy.

[Number 66, Zenith edition]

I had a dream, and I gave it a name…

Way, way back, I wrote about Fat Albert’s in Toronto, and some of the people who passed through there in the past. One of them, Sam Larkin, even dropped by and left a comment or two. Last night I discovered that he’s put up two videos of himself singing, including everyone’s favourite, Mirabeau Bridge.

This sounds exactly like the record, minus Bob Wiseman’s accordion.

Nice seeing you again, Sam.


The other day I saw this link on Wood s Lot, and followed it. That took me to another YouTube link, which showed Liberal leader Stephane Dion struggling to understand a question that had been put to him.

In the twelve years since I left Canada, I have not followed Canadian politics and am very unfamiliar with what’s going on there. I’ve observed, however, that politics in North America has become increasingly partisan and divisive, especially in the US. Liberal and Conservative have become pejorative terms, and political discourse has descended to schoolyard name-calling. When I was a teenager, there was a general sense I picked up from adults I spoke to, including teachers at school, and from the media, that Liberal and Conservative were terms that no longer really meant anything. In 1988, for example, the majority of Canadians voted for the Conservative party and therefore approved of the free trade agreement with the US, which had been the major issue of those elections. The Liberals had fought against the agreement, although historically, free trade had been a Liberal platform, which the Conservatives had traditionally opposed.

People seemed to believe that all political parties were more or less the same. It was a cynical point of view, but a civilised one.

I often feel when I see videos of journalists on television, or look at comment and message boards on the internet, that I’m watching a civilisation collapse from within, eaten up by bitterness and pettiness.

I’m disappointed to see CTV resort to the kind of journalism I would expect from Fox, something I don’t remember from when I still lived in Canada. I remember Mike Duffy, but I don’t remember this sort of blatant partisanship. Perhaps it existed then, and I just didn’t notice it. But I seriously doubt it.

If anybody responds to this post, I’ve written the above to explain that I am not writing this post as a Liberal or Conservative. I don’t really care about politics, and don’t follow what’s going on in Canada.

The story is this. Dion was asked “If you were Prime Minister today, what would you have done differently?” Dion struggles to understand the question. CTV made a story of his inability to understand the question, and this, I am sure, had an effect on the elections, which the Liberals lost. When the election was over, Dion was heard to say that he particularly didn’t want to speak to anyone from CTV. He was very bitter. Let’s see why.

When Judith Regan published O.J. Simpson’s book If I Did It, what irritated me more than anything else was that the title was grammatically incorrect. It should have been If I Had Done It.

There are basically two kinds of conditional sentences. In one, where you talk about something that could be true, but you don’t know for sure. In this conditional, you don’t change the tenses.

If that’s what you think, you’re crazy. (It’s possible that that’s what you think, but I don’t know for sure.)

If Jane went to the party yesterday, she saw Frank. (But I don’t know if she went.)

The other kind is something we could call the contrary-to-fact conditional. We are talking about something we know is not true or hasn’t happened.

If I thought so, I would be crazy. (I don’t think so, so I’m not crazy.)

If Jane had gone to the party, she would have seen Frank. (She didn’t go, and so didn’t see him.)

You’ll notice here that we change the tenses. If we’re talking about the present, we use the past tense. (I don’t think so, but if I did think so …) And if we’re talking about the past, we use the past perfect. (She didn’t go, but if she had gone …)

When O.J. Simpson and Judith Regan called the book If I Did It, they were implying But I don’t do it. What they meant was, I didn’t do it, but if I had done it …

I learned my conditionals in high school in French class. We didn’t learn grammar in English class. It seems Dion has learned to think analytically about language, because the man seems to be struggling to make sense of a very grammatically mangled question.

The question should either have been “If you were Prime Minister today, what would you do differently?” or “If you had been elected two and half years ago, what would you have done differently?” It’s illogical to think that something today could have an effect on the past. Dion struggles to understand if he should answer the question by talking about what he would do from now on to solve the problem, or if he should discuss what he would have done to prevent the problem in the first place. ( “If I have been [sic] Prime Minister two and half years ago, I would have had an agenda — let’s start again!” he says impatiently.)

There’s also a problem with the words have done, although I’m sure this never occurred to Dion. But it shows how little control the interviewer has over his language in this relatively short sentence. To have something done (this is called the causative) means that you arrange for someone else to do something for you. I’m having the house painted. When he asks, “What would you have done?”, this could also mean, “What would you have others do?” It would reasonable for someone who gave the interviewer more credit than he deserves to think that the question was, “If you became Prime Minister today, what you have others do?”

This is the only possible way the sentence can be interpreted so that it makes logical sense. “If you were Prime Minister today, what would you have done” is, as I’ve said, illogical because no present action or state can have an effect on the past. In order for the sentence to be logical, the second clause would have to refer to the present or future, and in that case the only possible meaning would be, “what would you have others do”.

So, we have a sentence that could mean three different things, and what is passed off to us as confusion is really Dion trying to clarify this. It’s a shame that the story was spun in such a way that the people who could not properly put a question together exposed Dion as someone who was sensitive enough to language that he was aware of the question’s problems.

UPDATE – 26 December 2008

The Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, has appointed 18 new Conservative Senators, in what the Globe and Mail has called “the biggest single day of Senate appointments in Canadian history”.

[C]ritics accused Mr. Harper of hypocrisy in appointing a list of individuals known primarily for their service to the Conservative Party, including a former Quebec separatist. They also questioned the legitimacy of the appointments, given that Mr. Harper has suspended Parliament until late January in order to avoid defeat in the House of Commons. [My italics.]

Among those appointed is

career broadcaster Mike Duffy, who until last week hosted a daily hour-long political show called Mike Duffy Live.

Thanks to Frankie the C for the email and link.

UPDATE No. 2 – 28 May 2009

Thanks to Rick for sending me this article from the CBC, which states:

The arbiter of ethics on the airwaves ruled Wednesday that CTV violated industry codes when it included three false starts in a broadcast of an election interview with then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council found CTV Atlantic’s 6 p.m. newscast was “discourteous and inconsiderate” when it ran the awkward false starts after the anchor promised Dion they wouldn’t be broadcast.

It also found the question that was put to Dion “confusing.”

Another on Pessoa

Leafing through The Book of Disquiet a couple of nights ago, I found the exact phrase “nostalgia for the future”, the title of my post on him. I know it’s been used before, and it’s precisely the kind of paradox you’d expect from Pessoa.

And yet what nostalgia for the future* if I let my ordinary eyes receive the dead salutation of the declining day! How grand is hope’s burial, advancing in the still golden hush of the stagnant skies! What a procession of voids and nothings extends over the reddish blue that will pale in the vast expanses of crystalline space!

I don’t know what I want or don’t want. I’ve stopped wanting, stopped knowing how to want, stopping knowing the emotions or thoughts by which people generally recognise that they want something or want to to want it. I don’t know who I am or what I am. Like someone buried under a collapsed wall, I lie under the toppled vacuity of the entire universe. And so I go on, in the wake of myself, until night sets in and a little of the comfort of being different wafts, like a breeze, over my incipient self-unawareness**.

Ah, the high and larger moon of these placid nights, torpid with anguish and disquiet! Sinister peace of the heavens’ beauty, cold irony of the warm air, blue blackness misted by moonlight and reticent to reveal stars.

From 184.

*an alternate version reads: “what regret that I’m not someone else”

**an alternate version reads: “incipient impatience with myself”

Wasting my boredom

The most nagging problem in my life, the most central source of unhappiness, is the fact that I want the slowness of time that boredom brings, the stasis and silence, the stopping of time, the sense of time not passing, and yet I always end up doing things and filling up my time with things that make it pass quickly, things that distract me from its passing. Or I sleep, which is the worst of all. Boredom is not necessarily inactivity. It is the confrontation of time and its passing.

In other words, I waste my boredom.

How could I slow time down more? By removing as many things as possible from my life: my books, my films, the computer, everything except perhaps music, which accompanies my boredom like a soundtrack instead of distracting me from it. No, even music could go, if I really wanted austerity. But what about my notebooks and my writing?

When time has passed too quickly, when I have squandered my boredom, the ache and remorse I feel present themselves in the form of this thought: that in this lost, passed time, I could have written something.

I am sure, though, that writing is the only activity that both keeps boredom at bay and allows my time to pass without remorse. And this is because I feel productive.

(I remember somewhere Elytis describing time as being that which takes you closer to or farther from the thing you love.)

For me, the white page, the page that remains white as the clock ticks, is a symbol of remorse.


A large part of remorse is finding yourself again at some point which you should have left behind. Once again at the blank page, leaving it blank yet again. Once again leaving the notebook unopened. The waste is that you can never learn from experience: I am still here: I have learned nothing from all the conscience-pangs.

Some people want to fill pages without writing, and others want to write without filling pages. This occurred to me the other night, but I don’t remember which one I am. Or if they’re not really the same thing.

Pessoa and Nostalgia for the Future

I recently bought Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I had been seeing his name around a lot. The first time I’d seen it was in the Greek translation of Antonio Tabucchi’s Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa. Various blogs started mentioning him a lot last year, including The Blog of Disquiet (404’d). Then, last summer, in Lisbon, I saw his statue outside the cafe A Brasileira. I promised myself that when I got back, I would get his book. (I was surprised that I could not find a single English edition in any of the shops I went into in Lisbon.)

The book is, to say the least, very strange. To begin with, the first thing a reader has to deal with is Pessoa himself, who is everywhere in the book, and yet not quite there. Throughout his life, he wrote through over 70 different personae (he called them heteronyms) with elaborately imagined lives, and in some cases even deaths, filled with details that didn’t even enter into what he wrote under their name.

Pessoa was a dreamer, in the sense that he lived the life of the imagination, removed from the life of action and or experience, and as a writer he was a dreamer in that he knew that any book he imagined he could write would be an imperfect shadow of the book he had imagined and planned and outlined. Nevertheless, for most of his life he worked on this constantly changing book, a book of fragments and scraps, a record of his uneventful, nonexistent life, a “factless autobiography”, a book about the impossibility of writing the book of his dreams and imagination.

I cultivate hatred of action like a greenhouse flower. I dissent from life and am proud of it. (103)

Life is whatever we conceive it to be. For the farmer who considers his field to be everything, the field is an empire. For a Caesar whose empire is still not enough, the empire is a field. […] I’ve dreamed a great deal. I’m tired from having dreamed but not tired of dreaming. No one tires of dreaming, because dreaming is forgetting and forgetting doesn’t weight a thing; it’s a dreamless sleep in which we’re awake. In dreams I’ve done everything. I’ve also woken up, but so what? How many Caesars I’ve been! […] I’ve been truly imperial while dreaming, and that’s why I’ve never been anything. My armies are defeated, but the defeat was fluffy, and no one died. I lost no flags. […] How many Caesars I’ve been, right here, on the Rua dos Douradores [the street that Bernardo Soares, the book’s heteronym, lived]. (102)

I’ve always been an ironic dreamer, unfaithful to my inner promises. Like a complete outsider, a casual observer of whom I thought I was, I’ve always enjoyed watching my daydreams go down in defeat. I was never convinced of what I believed in. I filled my hands with sand, called it gold, and opened them up to let it slide through. Words were my only truth. When the right words were said, all was done; the rest of the sand that had always been. (221)

Perhaps the personae facilitated writing for him. If his life was as uneventful as he said, it’s logical that he could only write if it was through someone he had dreamed up. Persona, the Latin word for an actor wearing a mask, is thought by some to mean a sounding-through (sonare = to sound, per = through). If this is not actually the case, it’s still insightful. If Pessoa took off the mask, he would fall silent.

(Thanks to the Dude for pointing out that pessoa is actually Portuguese for person.)

When Pessoa died in 1935, the manuscript of The Book of Disquiet, a collection of loose sheets of paper, not a “book” at all, ended up in a trunk with all his other writings until it was published in 1982. More complete editions followed in 1991 and 1998. Richard Zenith, writing about the fragmentary nature of the book, says

Since a loose-leaf edition is impractical, and since every established order is the wrong order, the mere circumstance of publication entails a kind of original sin. Every editor of this Book, automatically guilty, should (and I hereby do) (1) apologise for tampering with the original non-order, (2) emphasise that the order presented can claim no special validity, and (3) recommend that readers invent their own order or, better yet, read the work’s many parts in absolutely random order.

When I started reading the book, and Zenith’s introduction, I had the confusing sense that Pessoa had suffered from some kind of insanity. Bernardo Soares was, according to Pessoa, a “semi-heteronym” because he most closely resembled Pessoa, was a “mutilation” of Pessoa. As a result, one can assume that it’s a self-portrait, albeit a mutilated one. The book is so odd that one feels it must be sincere.

And it occurred to me that we are of the first or second generation to read this book, and that a body of exegesis has not yet grown around it, that we don’t really have a fully developed critical apparatus with which to approach the work. And I wonder if the fragmentary, disorderly nature of the book, the fact that there can never be an authoritative edition of it, subverts or undermines any attempt to develop such a critical apparatus.

* * * * *

In my last year of university, I went one afternoon to the Robarts Library and sat down in some corner of the seventh or eighth floor, by a window that overlooked the west end of the city. I thought about how many of those streets below I had never walked down, and would never walk down, although I felt that the city was actually part of me. I thought about all the various houses on those streets, the rooms in those houses, the people who lived in them, the rooms in their lives, rooms I would never walk through, people I would never know. (A large part of this was due to the fact that I knew I would be leaving in a year or two.) I felt a strange sense of nostalgia, something like a nostalgia for the future, a nostalgia for all the possibilities and opportunities that I would never be able to take advantage of.

The Book of Disquiet is a book of self-absorption, but it is not boringly so. There are passages of exquisitely lyrical nostalgia of the kind I describe above. I would like to quote extensively from two such passages, for the benefit of anyone who’s not sure if this book is for them.

Continue Reading »

A Flower in Space

N. went out to the garden today and took some pictures. She took one of a rose, and as soon as I saw it, it reminded me of some kind of nebula, so I blackened the background. I love looking at it.

Goldberg: Variations

Back in January (was it really that long ago?!) I blogged about Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes. I had prepared another post, but in the end decided I didn’t want to say anything more about it. I had also ordered Goldberg: Variations, which came about month later for some reason.

Everything Passes is apparently simple, but remains elusive in its complexity (and this is its greatest charm, I think). Goldberg: Variations, when viewed one chapter at a time, is easier to “understand”, but the various settings and characters of the book, when viewed as a whole, pose the greatest challenge. They are connected by various metaphors and concerns.

I filled several pages in my notebooks about Everything Passes, but I didn’t find as much that interested me in Goldberg: Variations, despite the fact that it was a fuller book. There is, however, one small detail I’d like to concentrate on, because it represents what I think was an interesting missed opportunity.

There is a story that Count Kaiserling, a Russian ambassador to Saxony, suffered from insomnia and had the musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who lived with him, play music to soothe him at night. Kaiserling mentioned to Bach that he wished he had some soothing but lively music for such occasions, and Bach is said to have given him the piece of music which has come to be known as the Goldberg Variations.

Josipovici’s book is about a writer named Goldberg who is hired to read to an insomniac named Mr Hammond. Logically, a recurrent theme throughout the book, in addition to literature and writing, is sleep. There is a thread in the book that particularly struck me, and it deals with Odysseus.

In chapter 8 (pp 56-61) Hammond asks Goldberg, “What is the reason, do you think, that makes Homer depict Odysseus as an inveterate liar?” (p 56)

Goldberg describes one of the significant differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey. Achilles, he says,

knows that if he kills Hector he himself is doomed to die young, but kill Hector he must, to avenge his beloved Patroclus. If it had been possible it would have happened, as someone has said. If the alternative had been possible he would have chosen it. It was not possible. … It is different with the Odyssey. Odysseus is ready to use all his wiles and all his powers of endurance, even if it means humiliation, in order to ensure his safe return and, once he is home, the routing of the suitors and the cleansing of his house. […] But for Odysseus humiliation is temporary; the end always justifies the means.

Goldberg later adds:

As the Iliad ends with the burial of Hector’s body, so the Odyssey ends with Odysseus and Penelope finding each other through the riddle of the bed, which is an integral part of the house itself. Only then does Odysseus sleep soundly. Until that moment his fate is to lie awake, making plans while all the creatures of the earth sleep the sleep of the just.

Goldberg’s answer to the initial question does not really concern us here, so I’ll pass over it for now. I want to stress the part about sleep, and move on to chapter 24 (pp 165-170). Goldberg is writing to his wife.

We spend a third of our lives asleep, if we are among the lucky ones, and yet, curiously, very little has been made of sleep in the literature of the past. For obvious reasons. It is not interesting. Nothing happens. Only dreams, or the inability to sleep, are interesting. But does that not tell us something about art? It purports to speak of man and all his doings, but in effect it speaks only of those things most amenable to speech. Homer, of course, is the exception in this as in everything else. Indeed sleep could be said to be the secret theme, perhaps even the secret goal, of both his Iliad and Odyssey. In the former Achilles will not sleep until he has been avenged first on his own comrades who, he feels, have inflicted shame upon him, and then on Hector, who has killed dear friend Patroclus. […] And is not the climax of the Odyssey the return of Odysseus to his beloved wife and to his own secret bed? Then at last both he and the poem can fall asleep.

What does this suggest? Why, simply this, that sleep is the goal of art as it is of man. And it can only be the sleep that truly ends if it has in some way been earned by the protagonist and earned by the writer. In that sense it is also the goal of the reader. But only a true work will allow him to sleep well when he has closed the book.

There is a curious part in the middle of the book, beginning on p 107, in the 15th chapter, written by Mrs Goldberg. She is writing of their children, Annabel and Danny. She writes about their son’s shiftiness in argument, and his desire to emulate and impress his father. She gives the following example. In the 19th book of the Odyssey,

where the disguised Odysseus recounts to Penelope that he has seen Odysseus and welcomed him as a guest in his home in Crete, [Danny] pointed out the contiguity of the words Odysseus and I in the line: “There Odysseus I saw and gifts to him gave”, suggesting that for a moment the reader or listener imagines the disguise is about to drop and Odysseus to reveal himself. When you pointed out that this was far-fetched he triumphantly showed that in the that line in the Greek, Odyseia [sic] and ego were followed by the caesura, and that this was an extremely rare example of such a thing, there being only eight examples, he said, of such an “illicit” hiatus in the whole of the Iliad and Odyssey. The implication was thus that one would have to pause after ego and the line would momentarily read “And there I, Odysseus”, before concluding “saw and gave guest gifts to”. Even you had to admit that he had a point there.

But he doesn’t. Nowhere near, in fact. There is, of course, the possibility that Danny is twisting things to convince his father, but I want to point out a significant error in his argument. And to do this I have to say a few things about how the Greek language works.

Greek, like Latin, is an inflected language. What this basically means is that nouns and adjectives have endings which clearly show what grammatical role they are playing in the sentence. Take the word for man, or human, anthropos. When it has the -os ending, it means that the word is the subject of the verb. If the word ends with -on, then it is the direct object of the verb. If it ends with -ou, then it is showing possession, like ‘s in English. These are called cases. The three I’ve mentioned are called nominative, accusative, and genitive. There is another one, the dative (which exists in German too), and the vocative, which is used when addressing the thing or person the noun represents.

The result of all this is that Greek syntax is a great deal more flexible than English. A simple sentence like Dog bites man could be written

Dog bites man.
Man bites dog.
Bites man dog.
Bites dog man.
Man dog bites.
Dog man bites.

and the meaning would not change. Only the emphasis would be different. Names, like all other nouns, follow this rule, so there is no way a Greek would have read or heard the name Odysea in the line Danny discusses and even momentarily think what he says they might be tempted to think. They would know right away that Odysseus was the object of the verb saw, just as they would know that I was the subject of it. This possibility exists only in English, because it is not an inflected language.

There is only one such case of ambiguous contiguity that I can think of in English, (I’m sure there are many) but it comes later than Goldberg’s visit to Hammond — although readers of the book will know that this would not have been a problem for Josipovici. It is the last line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “No worst, there is none.” Hopkins writes “all life death does end”. The contiguity of life and death makes it possible to read it as “death ends all life” or “all life ends death”. It would have been an appropriate choice. The full last line is

all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Words, words, words

Ten years ago, I calculated that if I could read a book a week, I would need thirty years to read all the books in my library. And when I thought about how long it actually takes me to read one, I realised how absurd the situation was. I already had more books than I could possibly read in the rest of my life, and I was still buying more.

What did I want them all for?

I brought most of them to Greece with me, thinking that it would be difficult and expensive to get them here. I sold or traded in the ones I didn’t want any more, and bought a lot of others that I thought I’d want or need here. In some cases it was a bit of a gamble; some of the books ended up not interesting me enough.

(I once contacted an acquaintance from a Toronto, a novelist and poet, and he mentioned in his email that he had once been browsing in a used bookstore and had found all the books of his that he’d inscribed to me. I had a bit of explaining to do.)

When I came to Greece I started working full time, and the number of books I read declined. I didn’t have as much time, and when I did, I didn’t have as much energy. Over the past year, I’ve been horrified to find myself drowsing after I start reading. My eyes close and my mind wanders. I’m awake, but my eyes are closed and I’m holding a book in front of my face. I have become something which a few years ago I would have mocked.

I should start getting rid of my books, I tell myself. I look at their spines and I think I hear them laughing at me. “You think you can write one of us?” they say. “You can barely read one of us!”

When we leaving Athens to come to Crete, I got rid of a few hundred of them, to make the move a little bit easier, and because we had agreed that they would stay in one room, here in my office.

(This was taken shortly after I filled the shelves. There are others, too.)

It was difficult, almost painful, getting rid of the ones I gave away to friend, and I know I didn’t give away enough. N. says I should put shelves up on the wall across from these two bookcases, but I don’t know.

And yet, I still want to read. I feel restless if I’m not reading something. I dip into them a lot, and sometimes read several books at the same time. This invariably means I won’t finish any of them. I cannot sleep at night if I don’t open a book and read at least a paragraph. I’ve even come home late at night, so drunk I can’t walk straight, and still tried to read a bit before I turned out the light. It feels like an act of self-assertion: one last attempt, after all the demands that were made on me that day, to claim my time as my own.

So why is it so hard for me to stay interested in a book? What has happened to me that I fail to enjoy all that I know a book offers me, that I fail to enjoy what I so much want to enjoy?

It’s not laziness, because when I look back at the books that I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years, I see that they have all been relatively challenging — not escapist stuff. They are books I found compelling and something of whose composition remained a mystery to me. I read all the Coetzee I could find and grappled with the question of how he achieved his complexity. Sebald was a revelation, and yet an impenetrable mystery. I loved DeLillo’s Underworld, and White Noise and The Faces, although I soon went off him completely. Roth’s American Pastoral was gripping, but when I finished The Human Stain, I’d had enough. Vollmann’s Europe Central. Chatwin. Herzog. All of which had some sort of authority of voice, which I wanted to master.

Part of my problem is impatience. Anna Karenina was one of the best examples of what I want in a book, but at some point I put it down too. I think its length daunts me: in the amount of time it would take me to finish it, I could read two or three of the other books that call out to me, and which in the end I don’t read either. I want that satisfying feeling of finishing a book — a feeling so enjoyable that I always feel I have to start immediately on another. I want to swallow the book, and often don’t have the patience to chew through it page by page.

Is it the feeling that so few books seem to live up to their promise? I don’t want to impute to books my own shortcomings as a reader. I know not to expect from a book something it can’t give me.

I keep buying books, although I buy almost as few as I manage to read. I have learned to resist the temptation. I don’t buy books if I feel they belong to a type that’s already well enough represented in my library. I bought Josipovici because I knew the two books I ordered were unlike any other I had. Next I will buy Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I’ve been thinking of making a separate shelf for all the strange authors whose work sets them apart for me somehow: Zweig, Bernhard, Kadare, Gombrowicz, Svevo.

I have been putting off buying the Pessoa as I had put off buying the Josipovici books. It had ceased to be a desire and become a necessity. I bought them to rid myself of the nagging desire to get them.

I don’t know how to answer the questions I’ve raised here. Please comment, and share your thoughts, insights and experiences.

Green Apple Moleskine

The moleskine phenomenon has been very strange. They’re an extremely popular notebook, often for very silly reasons. I won’t go into the company’s largely bogus claims that its product is the same kind of notebook that Chatwin, Hemingway and a bunch of Left Bank poets used. The very clever marketing of Modo & Modo, the company that brought the notebook (or something very similar to it) back in 1998 after a 12-year hiatus and — most importantly — bought the rights to the name moleskine, has given people the impression that if they get one, they’re tapping into some tradition of creativity.

They are, however, good notebooks, and anything that is a pleasure to write in increases creativity. But there are a number of very common complaints. They are that the covers are not durable enough, especially at the top and bottom of the spine. Another is that the paper is not very good for fountain pens. Flexible pen nibs will result in feathering and will bleed through to the other side of the page. Another complaint is the price. Here in Greece, the small one goes for about 12€ and the large one for 16€.

There are a lot of imitation moleskines by companies trying to cash in on the craze, but they almost always fail to capture all the advantages that moleskines have.

But yesterday I found one that’s even better than the “original”. It’s by GREENAPPLE. More on that later.

It has everything the moleskine has: the elastic band, the pocket at the back, the bookmark; the only thing it doesn’t have is the form on the inside cover to write your name and address, which is hardly necessary anyway. The cover is much more durable, since it’s not oilcloth, but a sort of fake leather, and the binding is much stronger. Even the elastic band is better. If it has any disadvantage it’s that it opens up only slightly less flat than molelskines do. But only very slightly less.

The paper is the same cream colour, and is perhaps a little thicker. Unfortunately, it’s not any better for fountain pens. I inked up my old Waterman Ideal, which has a very flexible nib and a very wet line, and it feathered and bled through. I used my Lamy AL-star, which is an ideal fountain pen for moleskine paper, and it was fine. In the picture it seems to have bled through, but it really hasn’t.

Now, here’s the best part: the price. The small notebook was a mere 3.80€ and the large one only 6.80€. They come in different colours, too. There’s a blue one, a dark brown-nearly black one, and a nice burgundy coloured one.

And here’s the worst part: I can’t find them online anywhere. I’ve been able to find a company that produces Green Apple notebooks, but they don’t seem to have this particular notebook. I’m not even sure if it’s the same one. The logo doesn’t seem to be the same.

If anyone knows anything about this company or this notebook, please let me know. They produce a very good product for a very good price, and deserve to be more widely known.

The imaginative space

In my experience, the single question most often asked during question-and-answer periods in university auditoriums and classrooms is: “Do you write with a pen, a typewriter, or what?” I suspect the question is more important than it seems on the surface. It brings up magical considerations — the kinds of things compulsive gamblers are said to worry about: When one plays roulette, should one wear a hat or not, and if one should, should one cock it to the left or to the right? What colour is the luckiest? The question about writing equipment also implies questions about that ancient daemon Writer’s Block, about vision and revision, and, at its deepest level, asks whether or not there is really, for the young writer, any hope.

As any writer knows — both the experienced and in the inexperienced — there is something mysterious about the writer’s ability, on any given day, to write. When the juices are flowing, or the writer is “hot,” an invisible wall seems to fall away, and the writer moves easily and surely from one kind of reality into another. In his noninspired state, the writer feels all the world to be mechanical, made up of numbered separate parts: he does not see wholes but particulars, not spirit but matter; or to put it another way, in this state the writer keeps looking at the words he’s written on the page and seeing only words on a page, not the living dream they’re meant to trigger. In the writing state — the state of inspiration — the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things — sees them clearly — and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead. This is the process he must learn to set off at will and to guard against hostile mental forces.

John Gardner, On Becoming A Novelist, pp 119-120 (Gardner’s italics)

Writers are often asked: “How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?” But the essential question is: “Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.” If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. “Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?”

Doris Lessing,  Nobel Lecture, 2007

Mitar’s Childhood

In my early years in Athens, the best thing about my job was that students had lessons twice a week — Mondays and Wednesdays, or Tuesdays and Thursdays — which meant that Fridays were free. All we had to do was go in for a half-hour meeting at 1.00. Raymond, the director of studies, would write the syllabus for the following week on the board and we would copy it down. Then we would all go to a nearby cafe-bar for a few beers.

(The cafe-bar, photo taken at a much later time, after we had stopped being regulars.)

Sometimes I would bring a magnetic chess set and Raymond and I would play a game or two. I always had the advantage in the opening but Raymond almost always managed to turn things around late in the middle game and win. This frustrated me so much that I took to recording the moves as we played so I could analyse them afterwards with the help of my Fritz program and see exactly where and how I had gone wrong.

One Friday the group broke up earlier than usual and I stayed behind to look over the chess game on my own. While I moved the pieces around over and over at the crucial point where I had lost the upper hand, I had the unmistakable feeling that someone was watching me.

A boy of about seven or eight years, whom I’d often seen selling little packs of tissues, was leaning against a nearby table. He often came into this cafe-bar. He had large blue eyes, and a few freckles scattered across his cheeks and his round, slightly wide nose. His short blond hair had cowlicks, and would probably be curly if he grew it long enough.

Once I looked up I thought he would ask if I wanted to buy some, but he was too busy looking at the chessboard. He approached slowly to get a closer look at the board. Did he know the game? Or was he interested simply because he knew it was a game?

In Canada I’d seen a lot of homeless people, and many of them teenagers. They came from all over the country to find work in the big city. They would sit on the sidewalk with their belongings in bags and with dogs curled up next to them. Many were kids who had probably fallen out with their parents. I often had the feeling they chose to live like this, and would some day soon enough find their way back into the world of houses and warm rooms, go back to school, or get a job.

But in Athens, things were different. There were a lot of beggars, but they didn’t seem to be homeless. At night they always went off somewhere and disappeared. The main difference, however, was the kind of person on the street. They almost always came from some other Balkan state. If they were Serbs they would hold up a paper icon to appeal to our Christian sense of charity, and to remind us that, unlike our other neighbours, they were our Orthodox brothers and sisters. They would also hold up a piece of cardboard on which they had written I AM SERBIAN in misspelled Greek. Or they would say how many children they had and needed to feed.

And there were the children, playing the same songs on the accordion or harmonica or looking at you sadly as they held out their packs of tissues, lighters, or key chains. People said they didn’t get to keep the money you gave them, that they worked for somebody who took everything they made. Some people had even told me they’d seen the person, waiting up the street, take the money afterwards.

(This sort of thing seems to have become a big business here in Greece. Organised business. Here in Heraklion, amputees started showing up this summer, waiting at traffic lights to come out on their crutches and ask for change. Sometimes within a kilometre you would see four or five of them, sometimes a couple at one intersection. Then, on another day, they’d all be gone. I’m not suspicious by nature, but I can’t help but feel that someone’s actually shipping them in and picking them up again afterwards.)

“I feel so sorry for the kids,” people would say. “But I don’t give them any money any more. If I could be sure they would keep it or it would go to their family, I would give it to them. What’s 50 or 100 drachmas, after all?”

I had seen this blond boy many times around Pangrati, my old neighbourhood in Athens, often with other kids. A lot of immigrant children would hang around Mesolongi Square, usually playing football. I thought of him as belonging to the area.

He came and stood next to my table and leaned on the wooden armrest. I moved the pint glass away into the centre of the table and pushed the chessboard closer to him.

“Do you know how to play?” I said.

He shrugged. Did he understand the question? The shrug made me think that the question was somehow naive.

“What would you do next?” I said.

He laughed, very quietly. Just a breath of a laugh, little more than a smile and another shrug. Perhaps he laughed at the fact that I had asked him. He picked up the bishop. Almost embarrassed, though, he put it back down, careful to set it on the same square.

“Do you know what it’s called?” I said, but then I thought he might not know it in Greek. “Do you know how it moves?” Again he shrugged. He looked up at the door suddenly, as if remembering something. I had the sense that he was going to walk away.

Sometimes you see a dog or cat that are so hungry that they’re willing, despite their fear, to approach you. That’s what it felt like with this kid.

He pointed to the board and moved his finger back and forth diagonally.

“Right,” I said. “And how about this?” I showed him the knight. He frowned. Was it because he couldn’t remember it or because he couldn’t explain it? (Try explaining how a knight moves. It’s not easy. I know of some concise descriptions, but I’ve picked them up from good chess writers.) At last he pointed again and finally spoke.

“Like this,” he said. “A seven.”

I asked him if he wanted to play, but this time I lost him. He remembered the other tables, and the bar, and slowly went off to sell his tissues. Then he was gone.

The following Friday I took my chessboard with me even though Raymond and I were not going to play. I stayed behind when everyone had left and set up the pieces. I had taken a book with me, Alekhine‘s games, and played out the some of the annotation. But my mind wasn’t really on it. The truth is that I wasn’t good enough at chess to understand his annotations.

Soon enough, the boy came. I thought I saw him look for me when he came in. Or maybe it was the look of recognition when he saw me. I nodded to him. This time he made his round of the cafe. The Argentinean woman who worked there often gave coke or even a sandwich to these kids, which made the place popular with them. He came to the table, unwrapped his sandwich and started eating. He was intrigued by the book, especially by the tiny chess fonts. I set up the pieces to the initial position and turned the board so that the white pieces were in front of him.

“Go ahead,” I said. “Let’s play.”

He frowned. Was he thinking of his first move, or was he trying to decide if he should play or not? He seemed to have reservations. I waited. Finally, he picked up the King’s pawn and moved it forward two squares.

We only played part of a game. About ten to fifteen moves into it, he got restless and left. I don’t remember if he said why he was leaving so suddenly, or if we spoke at all. I wrote down the position so that we could continue the game from where left off the next time I saw him. But he didn’t come back.

I didn’t see him again until about a year later. M. and I went for a walk down to Zappeio and there was a photography exhibit there. We walked around looking at the large black and white photos, and there he was in a group of portraits, with the same serious, guarded expression. I asked M. if she remembered him, since she often came to the cafe-bar with us, but she had no recollection of him. I looked around at all the people strolling about looking at the photos. I wanted someone there to recognise him, to know who he was, so I could tell them that I used to see him often, and had even played a little bit of chess with him.

This was all about ten years ago.

* * * * *

One day I read in the newspaper that hundreds of children had disappeared from the streets of Athens, most likely sold by the child trafficking rings that had brought them down in the first place. Did it happen all at once, or slowly, child by child? Had anyone been paying attention? “Yeah, you’re right!” people said. “I hadn’t noticed it at first, but it’s true: you don’t see them around any more.”

According to Terre des Hommes and other organisations, up to 150,000 children of immigrants have been forced into child labour in Greece, usually selling tissues and trinkets. After years of pressure, the Greek government finally started doing something about the problem, but you still see a lot of children on the street, children even younger than the blond boy whose name I never learned.

Over the years, I tried to write a story about him. I made him Serbian and called him Mitar, a name I picked up from a friend years ago in Canada. I filled pages in notebooks about him, about his story. In all of the notes, he is at an intersection, at a crossroads; a change is coming, and it’s the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him next because I’ve never written beyond that point. I don’t know how the story ends. Everything is frozen, like the image of him that I saw at Zappeio long after he had disappeared.

All I have is my own image of him, of his interest in the game of chess and desire to play, but his hesitation, his fear of opening up, or perhaps his sense that, despite his youth, the desire to play was pointless, as if he had already learned that what the rest of us call childhood was nothing more than a delicate myth, which for him had long since shattered into a thousand little pieces.

Working For Happiness

Work has been difficult. In Athens I used to teach one level only, to university students. They were three-hour classes, the same lesson Monday and Tuesday, and another one Wednesday and Thursday. That meant that over a two-day period, I might do the same lesson four to six times, for a total of 12 to 18 hours. It could be boring at times, and voice often grew hoarse, but I had reached the point where I could do it in my sleep, and I liked knowing I could still do it well.

But now, I do four or five one-hour lessons a day, and very few of them are repeated. Out of my 25 hours a week, I do at least 18 different lessons, and they’re mostly with young children. I have so little experience at this that I have to do tons of planning and preparation and marking. For the first time since I came to Greece ten years ago, I hate my job.

Since the summer I’ve got married and our life has improved considerably, and we’re still only getting settled. But in one particular foul mood I told N. that I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up having happier memories of the year I was unemployed. “This is our first year of being married and I don’t have time to enjoy it,” I told her.

And the writing has ground to a halt. I write so little now that clichés like “ground to a halt” creep into my writing. I think about the ultimatum I made and I wonder if I should just take out that old dream and put it out of its misery.

Yesterday I learned that my boss has calculated my monthly salary at four weeks. October was closer to five weeks, though, and I got paid 20 hours less than I was expecting. This actually works in my favour over the whole year, especially at Christmas and Easter, when I only work two weeks a month, but I was quite angry and started thinking about finding work elsewhere. I decided I would do only the bare minimum of work from now on, and even cut corners. If I’m still teaching next year, I’ll take fewer hours, so I can concentrate on private lessons.

I ran a couple of errands in the centre yesterday while I waited for N. to finish work. I like the centre and had really begun to miss it. I had a coffee in the square next to St. Minas church. Then N. and I went shopping and on our way home we bought a couple of lavender plants to put in the garden. Later I went outside to wash the car before it got dark. I stopped for a moment. I looked at the light coming through the leaves of the almond and apricot trees and could smell the spearmint growing to my right. On the ground to my left was a crawling plant that is full of flower buds — buds I was surprised to learn this summer could be picked and pickled as capers. Beyond were some olive orchards and the distant mountains.

And then, without warning, I felt, despite everything, that I was happy. This moment, made up of so many seemingly insignificant things, had been enough to save everything. I thought of telling N. when I went inside and I imagined her laughing with a touch of cynicism and saying, “Well, you’re easy to please!”

And I thought, Am I? I’d love to have enough money so that I’d never have to work another day, but who wouldn’t be happy with that? That would be easy. But the stretch of road that had brought me to stand in the garden at that particular moment had been a difficult one. Happiness, even a moment of it, can be hard work sometimes.


Last Saturday I went to pick up N. from work and was parked on one of the busier streets in the centre of Heraklion. I found a place to park in front of a church, by a square. Across from the square a couple of streets emptied out into the one where I was parked.

It was two o’clock. A girl was on her moped next to the car in front of us, which made it very difficult for me to get out. When N. arrived I started the car and lightly honked at the girl to move. She was talking on her phone and gestured to me to move around her. I honked again, and she gestured again. I honked a third time, and she gestured a third time. By now, I was pretty angry. I should have reversed a bit to cut the angle — I’m sure I had enough room. If I had done so, I would have avoided what happened next.

I had signalled that I was going to turn right (it was a one-way street) and had looked ahead and back and there were no cars coming. But I didn’t look to my immediate right. I turned and then went on a head. A couple of seconds later — I think — I heard a bang and N. gasped. Two girls on their moped were up against the right-hand door. I had hit them.

They wobbled along for a bit, maybe hitting a few cars that were parked on the right side of the road, trying to keep their balance. Then they crashed into a parked car and fell to the ground.

The next thing I remember is that we were outside and the girls were trying to get up. They made it to the sidewalk and sat down on the steps of a shop. I remember seeing oil running out of the motor of the moped. My car was in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. N. was asking them if they were OK. I was trying to say something, but couldn’t speak. Anything that came to mind seem feeble, even pointless. What can you say? “I’m really sorry about that! Are you OK?” All you can think of is, is there anything you can do?

I ran to the car and parked it further up the street, in front of church driveway. Once again I had the girl with the phone in front of me, but this time she was sitting behind and her boyfriend or husband was getting ready to drive off. It didn’t occur to me to take down their number.

Someone had brought a stool out for one of the girls to sit on. They were checking themselves for injuries. The driver, who had been wearing a helmet, had scraped herself near her elbow, and that’s all, it seemed. Their legs were sore, there would doubtless be bruises, but nothing seemed broken. The passenger had not been wearing a helmet, but had been lucky not to have hit her head anywhere.

I ran to a nearby pharmacy to see if I could get something to tend to their scrapes, but it was closed.

The woman whose car they had crashed into had just turned up. Her light was broken, but that’s all. The moped, however, was in bad shape. It looked like a write-off.

“I just got it a week ago!” the girl said.

A man standing nearby took control of the situation. “You need to call your insurance company and the traffic police to report the accident.”

I took my phone out of my pocket and looked at it.

“Relax,” the man said. “Everything’ll be fine.”

I started dialling when the girl told me to hold on a minute. It turned out she had no license plates, no insurance, and hadn’t even got her license yet. She may have passed her exams and the license simply hadn’t been issued yet. I don’t know. I called my insurance company instead. Within a few minutes, someone came to assess the situation.

N. had called her brother and brother-in-law, who both know a lot about such situations. They were on the scene very soon. Every once in a while somebody would honk from where I had parked the car and I’d have to go and let them out.

I took a look at our car. It had a small scratch under the mirror. We had hit them only once, and not very hard. It wasn’t even anything worth troubling the insurance company about.

The assessment guy inevitably started lecturing the girl about driving without any papers. “If we call the police, you’ll get fined over 6,000 euros,” he told her. She was already quite shaken up, and this did not make her feel any better.

Her boyfriend had shown up by now, and so had the passenger’s boyfriend. They took off for the hospital and left the girl with the moped behind.

The assessment guy said that we wouldn’t need to call the police if they signed a paper promising not to attempt to ask for damages for injuries. He seemed to be saying that if the traffic police didn’t show up and take down a report of what had happened, they could turn around later and claim that they were hurt much worse than they really had been.

When I was telling him what had happened, I looked back. We were quite some ways from where I had been parked, further than I was expecting. Where had I actually hit them? Had they perhaps actually come up from behind and hit me? Had they come out from one of the side streets that emptied out onto the main street? I realised I didn’t really know what had happened. I was just willing to accept responsibility because I had knocked a couple of girls off their bike.

The driver’s boyfriend started saying that there was no need to call anyone, and was trying to get us to promise to pay for the bike, which had cost 2,500 euros. N’s brother-in-law got angry when he heard this. “How can you ask for that when you’re driving around without a license or insurance? Don’t you know that that’s illegal?”

It seemed tempers might flare up. I had no real idea what was going on. As a new driver who had never had an accident before, I didn’t know what to expect from my insurance company. I knew I had blanket insurance, so we were all covered, but I knew there could always be loop-holes for the company. The assessment guy took out a form. “Do you accept responsibility?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. I was afraid of committing myself until I understood the situation better.

“Oh, come on!” the girl said. “You came up from behind. Just admit it.” I said nothing. I waited. Everyone kept talking, trying to sort things out. Eventually, her boyfriend took her to the hospital too.

The assessment guy and I went to look at my car. “That’s nothing,” he said, and took pictures of the small scratch.

“What should I do?” I asked him. “Get them to sign what I said, and forget about them,” he said. “If you ask me, they’re trouble. You’re trying to make things easier for them, and keep them out of trouble, and they’re trying to get you to pay for the bike.”

“Do you think it was my fault?” I said.

“Definitely. But you have to decide for yourself whether you’re going to admit it.”

I admitted it then. I wrote out a description of what happened and accepted responsibility. Then we went to the hospital to see how the girls were doing. It was now 3 o’clock.

When we got there, they had done some tests, but were waiting to get them looked at. X-rays, blood tests, things like that. The passenger was very cheerful about the whole thing. She was in Crete for two or three days only, and thought it was funny that she should manage to find time for an accident. She lived in Santorini. The driver was still shaken up. We asked her if she’d sign the paper, and she said, “Write it up and I’ll sign.” Then she went off for more tests.

Her family started showing up. Her mother, and two brothers. They had spoken to a lawyer, who had said that she wouldn’t have to pay a fine if we went to the traffic police. Somehow the situation had altered: they seemed to think that we didn’t want them to go the traffic police to report the accident. We kept telling them that we didn’t mind either way, it was for their good that we weren’t going.

I also realised that they didn’t know that I had accepted responsibility for the accident. When I told them, they didn’t really believe me. Her brother, a rather aggressive guy, said he wanted proof. I took out a pink slip the assessment guy had given me and handed it to him, but it didn’t have the description of the accident. It wasn’t the paper I had signed.

“Where does it say you accepted responsibility?” he said. I looked at it. “I don’t have that paper,” I said.

“Why does it say here there aren’t any injuries?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“I’m photocopying this,” he said, and was gone.

I remembered that the assessment guy had given the girl his cell number. “Why don’t you call him,” I told her, “and ask him yourself.”

When the brother came back with my pink slip, he called the assessment guy. He made the call down the hall. After a couple of minutes we heard him yelling so loud that doctors and nurses came running. “You bums! Where do you get off talking to me like that?”

He came back furious and told us, everyone in the waiting area, that when he asked the assessment guy why he had put no injuries on the form, he had answered with “Listen here, pal…”

“Who does he think he is, calling me ‘pal’ like that? Bunch of god-damned bums! And then they want you to sign forms saying you’re not going to ask for anything!”

It was clear now that we would have to go to the traffic police and report the accident. No agreement would be reached.

A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was the assessment guy.

“Listen,” he said. “I told the girl that if she had any injuries, she should call me and I’d make the changes on the form. Then her brother gets on the phone and starts insulting me. I’ve never been insulted in all my years on this job. My own father doesn’t insult me like that! Tell him I’m going to sue him! I’m coming on Monday to the traffic police with you guys and I’m going to file a complaint. And you’re my witness. Tell him! I’ll call you back, and you tell me what he said.”

Well, there was no way I was going to tell the angry brother that the insurance guy wanted to sue him, so I kept my mouth shut.

It was after 8 o’clock when we left the hospital. The doctors told both girls not to sign anything, which we didn’t care about any more. Now they wanted me to sign a paper stating that I had accepted responsibility.

“But I’ve already done that!” I said. It was too surreal a thread to follow, and we let it drop.

I looked at my policy when I got home, and realised I had even better coverage than I’d thought. I was even insured against people with no insurance. I also had legal coverage, so if they tried to sue me for something, they’d have to tackle the insurance company.

N.’s brother came home with us, and we ordered a huge pizza. We hadn’t eaten all day, and hadn’t done our usual Saturday shopping. We opened a few cans of beer. A wave of relief washed over me. I understood the situation now, knew where I stood, and knew that nothing could happen to me. I wasn’t going to get in trouble.

And it occurred to me that there was something insidious about the situation. I could rest easy tonight. I could relax and enjoy myself now, even have a little party. Two girls had been hurt and would be very bruised and sore tomorrow, unable to get out of bed, and yet I had the sense that I had just escaped blame. I had done nothing wrong, because I didn’t have to pay. Someone else would take care of it. I had insurance.

Sketchy Stuff

I was drawing in my sketchbook today, something I do in fits and starts, and N. took a few pictures of me:

Then she came up with an idea: I should post the sketches on the blog. I don’t have a scanner, so I had to use a camera, which sometimes casts shadows on the page.

Continue Reading »

Allen: behind the mirror

Lately I’ve been thinking about Allen, my friend for 15 years before we lost touch. I’ve been thinking about much he changed over those 15 years, till he became something I could no longer relate to, and I’ve been thinking about how little I ever really knew him.

I met Allen in 1982, when we were both twelve. He was in my class in grade seven, which for me was the happiest year of all my public schooling. We both belonged to a small circle of friends, but I was better friends with a couple of other guys than I was with Allen. I don’t think he had very much patience for me; I probably struck him as a wide-eyed naive kid. He was more sophisticated than me. You could tell as soon as you saw him that he was different.

He was chubby and had longish hair. He wore a green jacket, much like an army jacket, somewhat in the mod style, and it had a greasy stain in one pocket where he’d put his pack of fish and chips. (They were still wrapped in newspaper in those days.) And he always wore t-shirts with the Beatles or the Sex Pistols or Marilyn Monroe or the cast of Leave It To Beaver on it. He was, as I’ve written elsewhere, precocious. He read adult literature and underground comics and wrote poetry and could speak intelligently about such things. That was the year Glenn Gould died. Gould had grown up just around the corner from our school, and when our teacher told us about him, he asked if any of us knew who he was. Only Allen did. He even had some of his records.

But he was odd, as well. He would wobble his one knee back and forth when he stood so that his whole body seemed to jiggle, and when he spoke, his sentences trailed off into a cross between an indolent mirthless laugh and a nervous mumble, even if there wasn’t anything even remotely funny in what he’d said. His vocabulary was advanced and often formal, especially with scatological humour. When asked about the grease stain on his jacket, he’d say it was a urine stain. He found proper words like “urine” and “excrement” much funnier than “piss” and “shit”, when most 12-year-olds didn’t even know what excrement was. It was as if by using these words he was deflating the dignity of the adult world and exposing the pathetic farcical nature that lay beneath the surface of it. I think he found the word “buttocks” the funniest word of all.

His strangeness could have an edge to it. The year before I met him, while he was still in grade six, he had belonged to the recorder club at school. (I still can’t picture Allen playing the recorder.) The club was supposed to perform for parents one night, and Allen didn’t want to. His teachers and his mother forced him to. So he got his revenge. When they were finished performing, he opened up his shirt and displayed a swastika that he had painted on the t-shirt underneath. His mother, understandably mortified, ran up and pulled him off the stage, trying also to pull the t-shirt off him.

Many of his friends were grown-ups. That doesn’t seem so strange now, but it did at the time, although I admired him for it, and liked the adults he knew. Allen was mature enough to hold interesting conversations with them, although I now suspect they were humouring him a little. The two friends that I’d met owned used bookshops, and one of these men, I later learned, was the son of one of Canada’s most famous poets.

The details escape me now, but gradually we became friends. In those years, I was a Beatles fan to the point of obsession, so when I saw the various Beatles t-shirts he wore I must have looked upon him as a kindred spirit. But as I said, that first year, we weren’t that close. I always felt he was mocking me a little. He was simply older than me in intellectual development.

I wanted to be a comic book artist at the time, and that was our first joint interest. He introduced me to good artists. Although I could draw quite well, it had never occurred to me to think of one artist as better than another. Allen collected artists though, not just superheroes. Through him I discovered the work of artists like Neil Adams, Frank Franzetta, Frank Miller, Robert Crumb, and Chester Brown (an Ontario artist whose self-published comics Allen collected). He read Zippy comics, Cerebus, Raw, The Freak Brothers. He had the Maus series in the original installments.

His record collection was interesting, too. If I try to remember randomly some of them, Miles Davis’s Round About Midnight comes to mind, or a couple of Richard and Mimi Farina records, or a red see-through record of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and other poems on the Fantasy label. He had a couple of Lenny Bruce records from the same label.

The first time I went to visit him at his house, I went to look at his comics, which he kept in mylar envelopes in acid-free boxes. (That was the first time I’d heard of acid-free paper, or even that normal paper had acid in it.) We sat around in his large spacious room and listened to music and talked while I also looked at the books on his shelves. His bed was just a mattress on the floor. He burned incense on a brick. He had a good stereo, too, and put on All Things Must Pass, an album I liked and wanted to get, although I never got round to hearing it again for another 23 years.

Some time towards the end of grade seven, I was riding the Queen Street streetcar with Allen and I — arbitrarily, it seems — decided to start collecting books like him. It seems strange to think that it was the object itself that drew me first, and not its content. (The desire to write came soon afterwards.) I announced the sudden decision to him and asked him to give me some recommendations to get me started. This was later in the day, leaning on a fence across the street from my house. I wrote down a list of authors he came up with on the spot: Kerouac, Burroughs, Orwell, Huxley, Joyce, Camus — a seemingly random selection of 20th century literature. And slowly I started spending my allowance on used books. And what’s strange, now that I think back on it, for a long time I would call him and tell him what I’d bought, reporting how my shelves were slowly filling up. It was as if I were an apprentice reporting to his master. Years later, when I was in university and my collection had long since surpassed his, whenever he’d come to my house, he’d casually look over my books, and if he saw something he hadn’t seen before, he’d take it out and leaf through it, often even asking, “When you did you get this?”

I must stress — and this is no exaggeration — that in those early years, Allen was my mentor, even though he was several months younger than me.

In grade eight (1983-1984), the small group of friends broke up a little in that we were in different classes. Only Allen was in my class, and this is how we became better friends. Grade eight was a very different year, at least for me. It was the beginning of a series of unhappy years at school. Peer pressure is always a problem when you’re a teenager, but I think those years, the Ralph Lauren years, were particularly conformist, not to mention expensive for our parents. (It’s no wonder that the image of Alex P. Keaton or the girls from Heathers come to mind as icons of that time.) For me those years were a tight-rope walk: I didn’t really want to be a part of it, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself; I wanted to belong and be popular, but I didn’t want to jump through hoops to be so. Allen did even less to belong, and paid for it dearly.

I don’t know why someone who never made any effort to belong should have suffered because his peers were not accepting him. Maybe something else was happening, which I never understood or even caught a glimpse of. At any rate, Allen became stranger and stranger as the year wore on. I don’t want to go into detail, but I’ll say that I was often embarrassed, sometimes even disgusted by his behaviour. One thing I will mention, which is not so strange, is that he refused to cut his hair. In the end I think he waited a year and a half before he got it cut. Although it wasn’t dirty, it just hung down. He could have tied it back or something, as so many men do now, but the way he did nothing with it made it seem like an act of rebellion, a deliberate act of negligence.

At this point, just as we were becoming better friends, I grew alienated from him, which no doubt must have made things worse.

In September 1984 we entered high school, which turned out to be a bigger, more intense version of the junior high school we’d just attended for two years. Whatever problems we’d had there also became bigger and more intense. I kept up my balancing act for the next couple of years, eventually leaving to go to another high school for the last two years when I could take it no more. Allen did not last even the first term of grade nine. He dropped out and refused to go back. His mother, a teacher, with whom he lived, was understanding and willing to wait till he found his way. His father, with whom he spent most weekends, had less patience and insisted he see a psychologist. He also wouldn’t let Allen watch Rumble Fish, one of his favourite films at the time, because he was convinced that it had encouraged him to be rebellious.

When the second term started Allen found his way. He enrolled in an alternative school with students who hadn’t fit into mainstream schools. It was at this time that we really began to be best friends; now that we weren’t in the same school together, no amount of strangeness on his part could embarrass me socially. The school he went to had a lot of interesting, eccentric and charismatic teachers and students, and I wanted very much to join him. My parents, however, wouldn’t let me because they didn’t trust it academically. In a few short years, a lot of the interesting characters who went to the school graduated or just left and it began to fill up with spoiled rich kids, probably because the school had become fashionable.

Allen cut his hair and started to dress differently, in a way more in tune with the times. (The way he dressed when he was twelve would become fashionable over a decade later.) In many ways, the people who had mocked him and found him odd two or three years earlier had caught up to him and could relate to him now. He became popular, started going to parties and clubs.

I had always kept a certain distance from everyone, seeing most of them only during school. But in 1987, the year I visited Greece, the year I found the Rimbaud pictures and my life changed, I withdrew completely from the circle on whose periphery I’d always been, and changed high schools. I never told Allen that he had to choose between me and the others, and never thought of things in those terms, but somehow he started to get tired of them too.

After 1987, something strange began to happen, although it took me some time to realise it.

I began to discover Greek music and literature and wanted to move to Greece. Allen shared these interests with me and also planned to move to Greece. I think he craved a feeling of rootedness, of tradition. Then he started to dress like me. The reason I didn’t notice this at first was because it was so gradual. For example, I remember looking at some photos of James Dean and thinking that I’d like an overcoat like the one he was wearing. We went down to the vintage clothing stores in Kensington Market and I found one that was a bit too big for me. Allen saw one and bought it too, even though he hadn’t been planning to. When we left, we put them on. My mother saw us coming up the street, dressed in these long black coats. “You look like a couple of pallbearers,” she said.

In the summer of 1988, Allen went to Greece too. Then, in September, when he got back, he transferred to the high school I had changed to, and it was only then, when someone pointed it out to me, that I realised he was becoming me. I didn’t dress unusually, but I did dress somewhat unlike people my age. I dressed like an older person then (nowadays I look younger than I really am), in a tweed jacket. And so did Allen. My mother, amused by all this, would often say, “If you shit purple, so will he.”

I suddenly got embarrassed by him at school again, and kept my distance from him for a while. I remember the day this girl I knew was commenting on all of this as we were walking down the hall. “I’ve created a monster,” I said as we turned the corner. Just then Allen was standing in front of me. I don’t know if he understood what I had been talking about.

He must have realised the transfer had not been a good idea, and soon he changed schools again. After that things were all right again. He slowly started at least to dress less like me.

Allen had been with me during those feverishly formative years between 1987 and 1990, during the Rimbaud fascination, the discovery of Greece and Greek culture, and he shared in all my enthusiasms. He took them on too. I had become the writer, not he. I was now introducing books to him. Slowly, our roles had reversed. I had become the mentor.

I wonder if my passions were too much for him. Something happened to him during those years. He lost something, his brilliance and his originality. A flame went out.

I graduated from high school with mediocre marks, but spent a year upgrading them, and just managed to get into university. Allen, who had always and effortlessly done well in school, also got admitted to university. We both started at the same time.

Whereas I flourished and enjoyed myself, Allen drifted with no sense of purpose and dropped out in the first term, early enough to get a partial refund from his tuition fees. He decided to try again the following year, 1991-1992, but the same thing happened, only more quickly. And that was the beginning of the end for him.

University had a powerful effect on me. It matured me intellectually. Allen and I were still best friends, listening to music together or watching films, but I couldn’t share what I was experiencing in university. He lost interest in books and could barely read any more. He’d start books and abandon them. He wasn’t interested in getting a good job; he worked in a teleresearch firm, and would save up enough money to float through periods of chosen unemployment. If I remember correctly, somewhere around 1992 or 1993 he went to Greece again. Although he never said so, I think he may have been disappointed somehow. His passion may have cooled, but he had nothing to replace it with, nothing to move on to. He still listened to Greek music, read Greek poetry, but somewhat half-heartedly.

He became lazy, without any direction or ambition or motivation. He’d sprawl out on the couch and watch TV all day. He got fatter. And he developed the annoying habit of yawning loudly at least once or twice a minute.

His mother sold their house around this time, and he had to move out. He rented a room from one of the adult friends he’d had back when he was twelve. Eventually, his mother agreed to let him move back in with her in her new house.

At some point in 1996 I found I couldn’t relate to him any more. I saw less and less of him. He depressed me and the yawning got on my nerves. In January 1997, on the night before I left to come to Greece, I called him to say goodbye. It had been weeks, perhaps even months, since we had last spoken.

I wrote to him when I got here, but he would barely respond. His letters were short notes written in block letters. When they stopped coming, I wrote to him and said that if he didn’t write to me as well, I doubted our friendship would be able to survive. (This was still two or three years before I went online, and I don’t think Allen has ever done so.) I decided that as his friend for all these years, I would be honest with him and tell him it was time he’d got his act together. His reply was brief:



And that was it. He did actually try to write once more, a few months later, saying that he would now “BE ABLE” to write more often, though he didn’t explain why he was able to now, or what had prevented him before. The rest of the short letter was nothing more than brief notes about impersonal news and inconsequential information. The only thing I remember is his mentioning that John Fowles had recently visited Canada and was depressed by its lack of wildflowers.

I never heard from him again. I probably only wrote back once myself. In December 2000, when I returned to Canada for the first time since I’d left, I didn’t even call him. I didn’t have his mother’s new number. I ran into his younger brother one day and he told me nothing had changed: Allen just lay around on the couch “collecting static”. He gave me their number, and said, “You’ll probably have to leave a message first. He’s developed a habit of not answering. He just looks at the call display and waits to hear the message.” Hearing that put me off the idea completely. I visited again in 2003 and 2004, and still couldn’t call. By that time, too much time had passed.

Although Allen and I spent a lot of time together, we weren’t really close. We were the kind of friends who could sit around for long periods of time in silence, each doing his own thing, and I really enjoyed that. We were comfortable with that. But we never really confided in each other. As a result, I often wonder now, was something bothering him all those years? Something that had caused problems for him when he had dropped out and wouldn’t get his hair cut? I can only guess now. After all these years, Allen is a mystery to me.

* * * * *

Last year, I began exchanging emails with Paul, another friend from those early years in the eighties. We were reminiscing and I mentioned Allen. Paul started to tell me his view of Allen from the years 1987-1988, and how he had decided to keep his distance from Allen too.

A get-together at my house with A.S. and his girlfriend. Allen was so drunk, walking around my street in the middle of the night spinning his underwear over his head – that terrible naked appearance only a man can have – shirt on, socks on and nothing else.

Another time, it was New Year’s Eve. After this incident I wasn’t hanging around him much anymore. It felt like a dividing line for some reason. That could be because I am looking back at it. I have not thought about these things in years.

Anyway, it was a New Years party at Matt’s house and I invited Allen to it. I had just begun to hang out with a new group of people in the dramatic arts program, and was getting involved in that program more and more. Allen had this huge glass jug of either homemade wine or the very cheap stuff. The glass jug was huge. Like a jug from a hillbilly band…

Anyway, Allen was being his usual anti-social self and was drinking and spewing off things that I’m sure he thought were cryptic and Morrisonesque. They weren’t. I remember trying to get him involved in conversations – trying to get him talking to girls etc. At a certain point he became so loaded that he started pouring this cheap red wine over all of the girls’ heads. Not the boys. I found that strange at the time, but now I tend to think that he wasn’t so loaded that he couldn’t figure out that he would have gotten his ass kicked if he had. There were all different types of people at this party – dramies [i.e. people from the drama department], jocks, M.J. and all of her friends, older, big jocks.

He was stumbling around leaning on girls and trying to pour wine over their heads. They were all dressed up as well, seeing that it was New Years. He was wrecking their clothes. I look back on this and see that some of these kids had summer jobs and weekend jobs and bought their clothes – you know, worked for them. I think Matt kicked him out… but I can’t be sure of that. I am pretty sure that I got him home or he stayed at my place.

That was it, really. But I was trying to make a good impression and he fucked it up. People would ask me about it for months after. What’s wrong with your loser friend etc. I always felt a little sorry for Allen, but that was it for me. Allen had a way of really annoying the hell out of me. You know, pushing things too far. And after that – I may have hung around with him, but I was pretty much through.

Then the next year – we totally lost touch.

Did Allen experience any trauma in his childhood? I don’t want to speculate – maybe not. But if this whole double way of behaving and his ultimate 15-year couch-nap tells me that there is more going on than just a lazy poet.

I do think he had an aura of something different around him – but I really just think he was sick. And he never wrote anything from what I remember and he never really did anything. Never had girlfriends, etc. Just very sad. Very little living experience.

When I expressed amazement at how differently he acted around Paul, Paul wrote back:

It makes more sense in light of what has come to pass – that the real Allen was the drunk, incoherent, attention-seeking guy and maybe the fake Allen was the one you knew. Who the hell knows. See that was the last Allen I knew and then I hear what ends up happening to him and I am not at all surprised.

* * * * *

I met Allen twenty-five years ago. I last saw him ten or eleven years ago. In my mind, though, he lives in a place frozen in time, a place of arrested development. I want to break the silence, find his mother’s latest address and send a letter, or call, but it would be awkward. If I was in Toronto I’d be scared to see him. How has the past decade been to him? How obese will he be? How much will he have aged? If Allen had become nothing more than a reflection of those around him, what would I behold now? Would I recognise him at all?

The Book of Faces

I had been planning a post about Facebook, and wrote some thoughts down, but then a few weeks ago, somebody I knew in high school posted nearly 200 photographs he’d taken of people in the halls and in classrooms, and a second post emerged. I’ve divided them up, because they represent two different ways of looking at it.


I find the faces of people I knew when I was a child or a teenagers. Sometimes the person I knew is hiding behind behind the skin, peering out from the eyes. We are all approaching 40, and all, to varying degrees, showing the signs of age.

I wonder what they think when they see me. I’ve put on a little weight, which shows in my face more than anywhere else. There’s a freshness gone from my skin, but generally I don’t think I’ve aged much in the past twenty years. I look at pictures of myself back then, and I just seem thinner.

But there are some people there I can barely recognise. And it’s not because their present faces don’t conform with the faces that had been frozen in eternal youth in my mind. In most cases I can’t remember how they looked back then. The only moment of recognition is when when I see their names. The faces are strange, someone else, barely the shadow of who they once were.

And yet others remain very much as they were when I knew them, as if they have only changed their haircuts. I wonder why some have aged more quickly than others. Have they not treated themselves well, or even abused themselves? Has luck been not as kind to some? Too much stress and worry can make them look old and tired and can lead to being overweight.

Have some of us refused to age emotionally too? I still feel as I felt 20 years ago. (I feel more confident and less anxious than I did then, so perhaps I even feel younger. Only my body feels older, more sore in the morning when I get out of bed. And there’s a bit of grey in my hair.)

I began to imagine a real face book, a sort of atlas of a person’s life, built up over time, where you could turn the pages and see on each one how a person’s face progressed and aged and decayed. Before I got my digital camera, I planned to take one picture of myself every day, to record those changes, the fluctuations in weight, or how my skin grew dark or pale through the seasons. But I never did. Or at least not yet.

I think I’m more interested in seeing change after it has passed unnoticed, in being surprised by it. I want the process removed, with only the results to show. A.W.’s father, a photographer, had come up with the idea of having all the residents of a street stand out in the front of their houses as someone drove down and filmed them all. The idea was to put the film away and see how many people were still there ten or 20 years later.


There are faces of those I haven’t even thought about in years, faces I’d forgotten until I saw them again, but they are different now. It can’t be a trick of memory because my memory hasn’t been exercising itself on them all these years. They’re younger and fresher and more alive. Why would I expect them to be otherwise? Did I expect them to be pictures of Dorian Gray? Did I expect their faces to grow older on film as mine has in reality, in life, since then? I must have. Why else would I be so surprised to see them now?

Or is it because I felt so much wearier and older then (I’m sure we all did) that I’m surprised to see what fresh children we actually were on the outside? I look as deep into the eyes as I can now for signs of the corruption I was so sure was eating us up inside, but it’s not there. Just sweet lovely youth.

If those faces could see us now, if those children could see the 40-year-olds we’ve become, would they also be fooled, see age and weariness in our faces and think them a reflection of our souls?

It occurs to me though that it was all in my head; I had projected that sense of corruption on others. They would all say to me now, “What are you talking about? You’ve got it all backwards. We always felt young and free and fresh.” It makes me sad. I want to go back and get it right, to open the windows of my poor misspent youth and let in the light and fresh air, the light that I later followed here and which has come to fill my life. My face is not among those I see, but if it was, I would apologise to it. For years I had blamed my youth and said it was black. But wasn’t my youth — it was me all along. I was green and didn’t know it. I don’t want to go back, but I want to give myself happier memories. I want to put myself in those pictures among all those faces I wish I had known better.

You, the universe

I’ve never published a book (there were a couple of chapbooks back when I was too young to know any better) but I’ve been able to imagine the sense, which published writers often describe, of letting their book go into the world, of it not belonging to them any more, but to the public. You don’t know who’s reading it, or if anyone is really reading it at all. Maybe you hear from a reader or two, or are approached by someone at a reading or book signing.

Writing in a blog is similar in this respect, although there is greater opportunity for readers to leave comments, and stats trackers can give you even more information if you’re interested. WordPress doesn’t give very thorough statistics, which is for the best, really. When I was on Blogger I had a better stats service, and like many people I often spent too much time looking at them. I knew that there was someone in Toronto who read my blog often and they got to it by googling my full name, and that they did this from a public library computer. I used to wonder who this could be. Was it someone I’d lost touch with? If they read the blog, they could easily get in touch with me again. Was it someone who knew of me, but didn’t know me well enough to contact me? This was a particularly intriguing thought. Recently somebody linked to my Meteora post on a travel discussion board and said, “Here’s some pictures a guy I know took last year.” But I can’t tell from this person’s name who she is, and where I know her from. Perhaps I don’t really know her, or perhaps I know her and she’s not using her real name.

It doesn’t pay to think about these things too much. You’ll waste your time and probably driver yourself crazy. I remember one blogger actually putting an end to his blog because of all the time he was spending on this kind of stuff.

For a number of reasons, I don’t write here as often as I used to. But whenever I get a new link, I get a short-lived urge to start writing more regularly again, to keep up the numbers (i.e. the interest). But I don’t act on it.

The best reader is an imaginary one, one you have in mind as you write, as if you are writing that person a letter. (Of course, this reader need not be imaginary. You can write to someone you actually know, someone you feel understands you.)

A couple of nights ago I was listening to the latest album by Thanasis Papakonstantinou (Θανάσης Παπακωνσταντίνου) and when I got to the tenth track, “You, the universe”, I heard the sound of a dial-up modem, then the beginning of the music, and then a voice reciting words and phrases:

A Casa d’Irene
Academia Nervosa
Accidental Kitty
Anatomy of Melancholy

It was a list of Greek blogs. When I heard mine, and others that I’ve read since I started keeping one, I felt very strange. I can’t help associating those blogs, and even mine, with the front room of the apartment in Athens where I wrote and read them. It struck me that this act of posting things and reading others’ posts, leaving and receiving comments and sometimes even emails, activities which were essentially acts of communication, all along had felt like a private activity. Suddenly, hearing those names in a piece of music I felt as if something that belonged to me had been flung out into some brightly lit public place where people would be hearing of them for the first time. (Never mind that most people, unless they know the blogs already, won’t know what they are.)

And then I thought, does this mean that Papakonstantinou, of whom I am a fan, has read my blog? What about his occasional singer, Socratis Malamas (Σωκράτης Μάλαμας), whose music I love so much? Who knows? Something even more unusual and unthinkable has already taken place.

Reading Jealousy (6)

When I finally finished Jealousy a few months ago, I wrote some notes but never got round to posting anything. I got more interested in it towards the end, but it still it didn’t leave me with much. Here are some of the notes I made. They are basically my thoughts straight onto the paper. Some of it is very obvious, because I like to spell out what’s obvious and make sure it’s understood. Strange ideas are usually hiding underneath somewhere. Sometimes I can’t really remember what I was going on about, but I type them up nonetheless.


When we read a work of fiction, we know the characters do not really exist. We don’t quite pretend to believe that they exist, because we don’t intend to fool anyone, not even ourselves, that we actually do believe this. Perhaps we pretend to have momentarily forgotten that the characters are not real, but again we don’t intend to fool anyone believing that we have forgotten. I am sure, however, that we are imaginatively hypothesising about the characters and the events: If this were true, how would he feel? What would she do next?

Can the reader or even the writer know the thoughts and intentions of a character in a fiction? This may seem like an odd question. How can thoughts and motives be off-limits to us if the person who has them doesn’t even exist? If the person doesn’t exist, then surely the thoughts and motives don’t exist.

And yet, sometimes the thoughts and motives of a character, who doesn’t even exist, are not revealed to us and cannot be known, but only when the writer has decided to draw a veil or curtain over them and to say, “This character, which doesn’t exist, had thoughts which don’t exist, and I’m not going to tell you what they are.” Or he might say, “I’m going to pretend I don’t know what they are.” He could if he wanted to, and if he did we would have to believe him because there would no way he could be wrong. To say that he was wrong would be to believe that the characters had a reality outside the fiction, that they really existed. And we know this is not so.

(I am, of course, talking about the third person narrative voice, where the voice telling you the story is not one of the characters in it. Otherwise we would have a narrator we know did not exist, telling us a story we know is not true.)

In fact, there are only two options. A writer will either pretend to know everything, or he will pretend not to know everything. Except that we cannot talk about pretending to know or really knowing when there is really nothing to know. You cannot pretend to know something that doesn’t exist any more than you can pretend not to know it. There is nothing to know or not to know. So a writer’s two choices are really to give us details or not to give us details.

A writer must still try to create the illusion of reality. Or maybe I should say “a story-teller”. He must create this even though no one will believe it — although they may momentarily forget that they don’t believe it. And this is often easier to do when he withholds information. When he says, “I know almost as little about this character as I do about you, reader,” then that suggests that the character is real outside and beyond the confines of the story and the writer’s mind, and that the character is almost as real as you and I, the readers.

In the greatest works of fiction, the narrator who claims not to know something is observant enough to quietly and accidentally give you the details you need so you can see for yourself what the narrator doesn’t or can’t see or understand.

How far can a writer take all this? How do we take Robbe-Grillet’s apparent point of nothing being knowable in his fiction when our first assumption, our premise, is that there is nothing to know anyway? We have only a writer who agrees or refuses to create details.

Is there any point in claiming not to know everything about something you yourself have invented? The point that that’s how life is is too obvious to need making. Besides, art is not life, and this sounds like art that is trying to preach or teach a lesson.

So, in the end, it’s a question of simply creating the illusion that there is something real beyond what we behold in the book. Writers who use this technique never actually say, “I am going to create an incomplete picture and thus make comments about how you perceive it.”


On page 96 of the Grove edition a centipede is killed in the bedroom, and not in the dining room. It is not stated who kills it — a sign so far of the narrator’s actions. Then the wall is cleaned with a hard eraser. It is not clearly stated that it has been crushed against the wall — only that “it is nothing more than a reddish pulp” on the floor — since it falls first to the tiles.

But then, on page 113, after the narrator has been describing the calendar and walls in the bedroom, the narrator seems to confuse the two scenes. Franck stands up with his napkin and kills it in the bedroom.

Does the second centipede remind the narrator of the first one, seen in the dining room? If he is confused, can we be sure there are even two of them?

There is yet another possibility. As the day progresses (the time is given at the beginning of each chapter, with the movement of the column’s shadow on the balcony) we are given descriptions of the same events over and over again. These events are, of course, not repeated, but remembered repeatedly during A…’s and Franck’s absence. Most of the events seem to have occurred the previous day, but since among this jumble of memories are both memories of their absence and their return, the remembering must be happening afterwards.

The other possibility: The narrator is in the house alone. (“A… should have been back long since.”) He is concentrating on the calendar and the walls of the bedroom. Perhaps there is a centipede on one of them, perhaps not. (The description is identical to the one in the dining room.) The narrator remembers the scene, which like a film, is projected onto the wall. He sees the memory of Franck killing the centipede, but in the bedroom where he is remembering it, not in the dining room where it happened.

If the narration occurs when the narrator is alone in the house (since he cannot be sitting on the balcony with them and remembering events which come later, after they have left) and since he also remembers their absence and return, it is quite likely that the narrator goes over all the events during a later absence.

But then on pages 113-114 the narrator describes the accident that presumably kills A… and Franck. But how has he seen it? Only what he actually sees is described, and not what he “knows”.

After this, he returns to his usual circling around the same scenes: the centipede, the balcony, the dinner, the conversations. In retrospect, it seems the crash was described once and so unexpectedly for its shock value. Why would this obsessive narrator forget or neglect to mention it through the rest of the book? If he’s trying to forget it, why mention it even once?

Another detail. Two or three times, the narrator mentions a man, perhaps a worker, bent over some water (a river?), looking into it, as if at something underwater. (In the calendar photo or painting, someone is looking at something in the water, some flotsam. It is mentioned twice.) I thought perhaps there is evidence of a crime, something the narrator has thrown in the water and is afraid the worker will find. But nothing comes of it.

In A…’s bedroom the narrator finds the leather writing case, from which she took paper to write a letter. (The narrator has described watching her write it.) He opens the case and tries to read from the indentations in the paper, from the ink blottings, but can’t. Is he simply trying to learn what the letter said, or is he looking to see if A… wrote something that incriminates him?

Then it settles back into the same repetition and ends. I’m left with the feeling that there must be some clue to the narrator’s state, even his actions, some suggestion or possibility about what he has done, if indeed he has done anything. But I read it rather carelessly, and probably missed a lot. The question of whether A.. was having an affair with Franck does not concern me, and I’m sure that it shouldn’t. The narrator himself probably doesn’t know. In that sense, when we read the book we are in the same position as the narrator is, looking and searching and suspecting and never finding an answer.

And there is the problem of Franck’s wife Christiane, who never appears. Is that because her relationship with Franck has spoiled, as the narrator’s and A…’s has? Why does the narrator give us her name, but never his own or his wife’s? Is there some secret history between her and the narrator? Does the undercurrent of guilt come from that?

Moving Home 2

We found a mover who wanted to take us down this weekend. He said it was better for him than the next one. That meant that we’ve spent our last week in Athens not going to the Cycladic Museum, for example, which is a short walk from here, and which I’ve been telling myself for the past ten years that I absolutely must visit, but locked up in the house trying to get everything in boxes by the weekend. Nothing to blog about.

So this is it.

Moving Home

Kieslowski explained that when the Double Life of Veronique was shown in the US, viewers were confused when Veronique returns to her father’s house. They didn’t understand who he was, and whose house it was. Europeans understood immediately, but for Americans he had to add a shot of her addressing him as her father.

He tells a story of when he found himself sitting next to a Polish ex-pat millionaire on a flight to the US. The ex-pat had opened a factory that made windows. He was very proud of their quality. They were the best on the market, and he guaranteed them for 50 years. Nevertheless, business wasn’t good. So he tried reducing the guarantee to 25 years. Suddenly, business improved. He lowered the guarantee to twelve years, and sales started to boom. The more he reduced the guarantee, the more windows he sold. Now they were guaranteed for a mere five years, and he could hardly produce them fast enough.

“You see,” the man told Kieslowski, “Americans like to move. No American wants to think of himself as living in the same house for 25 to 50 years.”

The European family home, Kieslowski explained, is a concept North Americans find difficult to relate to. I had friends in Canada who thought it strange that I was in my twenties and still living in the house we’d moved into when I was two, the house my parents still live in. My sister and brother-in-law are saving up to buy a house, and are living there too, so that my little niece is living in the same house her mother has spent her whole life in.

I moved out much later than any of the people I knew. I was 27. I was in university till I was 25, and I wasn’t the kind of student who could hold down a job and go to university at the same time, so earning enough money for rent in Toronto was out of the question. But when I finally did move, I crossed an entire ocean.

I still call the house in Toronto “home”, even though I know I’ll never go back to stay. I guess I call it that because my family’s there, and by force of habit. There’s a sign on the door to my old bedroom that says “Tom’s Room”. It won’t come off. My sister has her computer in there, and they all still call it my room.

I’ve lived in this apartment for the past ten years, and in a week or two I’ll be moving again. This will be the first time I’m moving lots of furniture — at least lots for me — and I get anxious about it sometimes. I keep worrying that something will go wrong and I’ll be stuck between places with all my furniture and books and things out on the street somewhere. I’m worried about the expense, which is mainly due to all my books. I’m going to try to get rid of as many as I can, but it’s difficult. I already got rid of a couple hundred of them last year when N. moved in. I’ll probably have less time than ever to read them, but it’s still hard to part with them, even painful. I’ve always liked having them around because it offered me choice. It’s hard to tell yourself there’s not enough time left in your life for some things.

So, this month I’ll be going to Wuthering Heights, only the third house I’ll ever have lived in, not counting the apartment my parents had until I was two. I’ve been to it several times, have cleaned it after builders did some work on it, and have chosen furniture for it with N., so it already feels like home. And because I tend to stay in one place, I know I’ll stay there too. I look forward to our being happy there. It will be our house; our rent-paying days are over.

Lots of other things are uncertain, though, like how easily we’ll find work, and what we’ll do when we eventually try to start our own business.

I’ve never been a very regular blog-keeper, and I’m sure to be even less so for the next few months. The house doesn’t even have a phone line yet, and we won’t actually be living in the house till after the wedding at the end of July. (I think it’s supposed to be bad luck when the house is new. Things would be a lot easier if we could, but what can you do.)

I’ll try to write a few more posts by the time we leave, most likely about how N. and I are managing to find boxes, and how we’re running around trying to savour our last few days in this city we’ve loved so much.

Seeing Savina Yannatou

Last Friday we went to see Savina Yannatou, who I’ve blogged about before. She and her band Primavera en Salonico played for two nights in a small club in Nea Smyrni, and we were lucky enough to get the centre front table, right under her while she sang. When she came out for an encore at the end of the night, M., who had seen her perform before, asked her to sing a particular Greek folk song (Γιάννη μου το μαντήλι σου) that she does in Chinese style. Yannatou looked around at the band and said they didn’t have the violin they need for the song, as well as some percussion instrument whose name I didn’t catch. M. told her she had the only instrument she, or any of us, needed: her voice. So she sang it.

She did it in a high-pitch nasally voice, and the band also gave it a Chinese sound. Two things that struck me, and continue to strike me:

1. My first reaction, although there was nothing funny or humorous about the performance, was to laugh. Rather, I wanted to laugh, but managed to control it. I have read that an essential element of humour is the unexpected, and I think sometimes we laugh once this prerequisite is satisfied, even if it’s not funny. We laugh out of shock.

(I remember once, when we were 14, G. and I were singing “A Day in the Life” in the music room at school. He was at the piano, I was on the guitar, and we were taping it. After the words “Somebody spoke and I went into a dream” he and I sang the melody differently, by accident, and the result was a harmony so surprisingly good that every time we played the tape back, I would burst out laughing at the sound of it.)

2. The lyrics and fundamental melody of the Yannatou performance were familiar enough that they had all the usual evocations of time and place, all the things that could make a song — especially a familiar one — moving. But at the same time, it was foreign, a kind of music I cannot really relate to. I don’t have nearly as many of those associations, but there were just enough for me to feel that a window had opened up onto another culture, even another life. I could imagine being Chinese, that the lyrics were Chinese, and that the melody was Chinese. It was as if I were being moved by the familiarity of something which is, in fact, utterly foreign to me.


When I was a young child I savoured the chill and pounding heart in that disorienting moment right after I woke and realised that whatever had been threatening me was nothing but a fading receding nightmare. I enjoyed describing it and trying to recreate the feeling for others, as if I were telling a ghost story.

My mother claims to have seen a possessed woman on Cephalonia in 1966 and to have witnessed her exorcism outside the church of St Gerasimos. My grandfather captured it all on 8mm film, despite warnings that he shouldn’t film it. Somehow the reel disappeared before he could return to Canada and develop it. My mother told other stories she’d heard about the saint, how during a drought on the island he’d put his hand on the ground to show people where to dig and find water, and how they dug a well there, and how a tree eventually grew next to it in the shape of a hand. (I don’t know how historically “accurate” this is; I was just a kid when she told me.) I loved stories of religious miracles — saints or the Virgin Mary appearing to people in their sleep with a message — because they were not only eerie but supposedly true. I would tell my friends about them, but I don’t think they were impressed.

Once I spent a weekend at my cousin’s house near Bass Lake just outside of Orillia Ontario, and across the country road they lived on was a provincial park. My cousin and I found an old abandoned farm house there and went looking around in it. I wanted to go upstairs, but I didn’t trust the staircase, and I wanted to check out the basement, but it was too dark. I was sure the house had a history, of the people who had lived their lives in those rooms where there was now nothing but dirty floors and peeling wallpaper. But nobody knew anything, or was very impressed by what we’d found. By the end of the weekend I’d created my own story and when I returned to Toronto I had an elaborate experience to relate to my friends, whom I swore to secrecy. It was about the ghost that I had seen there. (I was the oldest kid in the group, and could often persuade them to believe ridiculous things.)

There are dreams I vividly remember waking terrified from even though thirty years have passed since then. One of them was a black and white film of a goaltender on the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1930s or 40s. He was a figment of my imagination, but I can still remember his face. A distinctive feature of his appearance was that his oiled hair was parted in the middle. I had seen a lot of old footage of hockey games from that time on TV, and the film clip in my dream was full of realistic detail, down to the way the much skated-on ice seemed both black where it was smooth and white where the blades had scratched it.

The scene was very short. The goaltender was crouched in front of the net, poised behind his leather goalpads, right hand behind the square blocker holding the stick, his gloved left hand out to the side. The camera, my point of view, was right in front of him, near the blue line. Someone shot the puck at him, but weakly, so that it only dribbled towards him. Nevertheless, even though it probably would have petered out before it could go into the net, the goaltender feel dramatically on his side, stretching his goalpads flat along the ice. The crowds booed at this cheap display — they knew it had been an easy shot.

But something strange happened. The sound of crowds was slowed down and drawn out as if I were hearing thousands of cows lowing angrily. The sound terrified me and I woke up with my heart in my throat.

A lot of my night terrors were aural, and are almost impossible to describe. I have nothing but impressions, which I can remember only because they were recurrent. One of them is a fervent mental activity accompanied by an electric buzzing, the aural equivalent of TV snow. I was always partly awake during this. I seem to remember myself in bed experiencing it. (My mother told me once that I sometimes would wake up terrified of a fly I believed was somewhere in the room. I don’t know if there’s a connection between that and the buzzing.)

Another is of two voices perhaps arguing. Perhaps it was only one voice. I am not really aware of words being spoken, only of a certain tone of voice. Each “sentence” begins fairly normally, but increasing acquires an urgent hysterical tone of anger, over and over again, like someone trying to explain something, probably to me.

There was something trance-like about these terrors. My mother would come in and find me sitting up in bed, talking but not making sense. “Who am I?” she would ask me. At first the question would shock and embarrass me; I would laugh uncomfortably. “Who am I?” she would say again. The shock and embarrassment would gradually disappear as it dawned on my that I didn’t know the answer. “Who am I?” she would ask and I would become calmer and more serious. By the time I knew the answer, I was fully awake.

I enjoyed being afraid when I was young because there was always the moment when it turned out that the fear had been an illusion. I enjoyed the feeling of relief and safety that followed. I have lost that feeling. Fear is no longer something that visits my sleep and flees when I wake. It hovers over my bed and keeps me awake. It’s always before me, in the future, waiting and snickering, “Who are you?”