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Archive for June, 2007

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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