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Reading Jealousy (5)

My problem with Jealousy was mainly one of motivation: my reasons for picking the book up again once I’d put it down. Generally speaking, I felt as if Robbe-Grillet had put his cards down on the table too soon. I had heard enough about the book to know it was one where nothing “happened” in the usual sense of the word. The obsessive quality of the narrator and narrative, the repeated examination of the same details, albeit with an increasingly sharpened focus, and the fact that I believed (had read and heard) that the “truth” would never be revealed, that there would not be a typical (or any) resolution, all created a sense of stasis. The book wasn’t going anywhere. Or rather, the only movement was the obsessive circling around the same details. Apart from the narrative, what interested me was Robbe-Grillet’s technique — his narrator’s evasiveness and apathy. But here especially I felt, or believed, that Robbe-Grillet had revealed things too early, that there was no reason to read on.

I was quite willing to admit that I was misreading the book, that I was expecting from it something it was not meant to give me, but I could not face reading a book that (I believed) had stopped developing or progressing. I was also willing to admit that I was wrong about everything, but I simply could not stay interested enough to find out. The one compromise I could not force myself to make was to give up my expectation that a book progress or develop in some linear fashion. In other words, the second chapter should do something that the first chapter didn’t do.

I mentioned the problem to Jamie, who read the book when he was studying French Literature in university and loved it. He urged me to finished it, and I said I’d try. But in the course of our conversation it occurred to me that there was, in fact, something in the book that I could concentrate on, something that moved forward and was developed: the state of the narrator himself, his mental or emotional health, and the possibility that his apathy and obsessiveness might wear him down or break him in the end.

I used to watch MAD TV back in Canada, and one of my favourite sketches was of the game show Vague. (Check it out. It’s very funny.)

Q: Who was that guy who did that thing?
A: The guy with the hair.
Q: That’s correct!

I remembered it recently when I got a composition from a student of mine. They were supposed to write a review of a film. I have corrected the grammatical errors.

The film is full of action and suspense. It is a mystery story with many strange things. The actors in the film, who are the French woman and the man, are searching for something very interesting and strange. But they are not alone in the story. The police are searching for them because they believe that they are the people who killed the person in the museum. Moreover, these two people are being followed by others who want the same strange thing, because it is interesting to them.

Blackbird

N. and I are having lunch. Through the balcony window I see a blackbird sitting in a tree, singing. It seems odd, the way it’s just sitting there, passing the time.

“There’s a bird in the tree,” I tell her.

“I know,” she said without turning to look.

“What do you mean, you know?”

“It’s been there for days. It’s been bothering me.”

“Bothering you?”

“It’s bad luck.”

I laugh. “Stop thinking like that. You’re going to create bad luck.”

Later on, I saw it plucking berries off the vine on the wall near the tree and swallowing them.

“Wow, they must have an incredible digestive system. They don’t chew at all. I read somewhere that they eat grains of sand to help them digest.”

“Stop it.”

“Stop what?”

“Do you realise that in a few months we’re getting married and there’s a blackbird outside our window?”

* * * * *

When I first came to Greece, I went to visit an aunt of mine that I’d just met. She was from a part of my family that had long ago gone to Alexandria. We went for a walk in her neighbourhood and visited a cousin of hers, which of course made her an aunt of mine too. I’d never met her before, and have never seen her again. (I’m not in touch with the first aunt any more either.)

The woman we visited was named Dora, and she was an archaeologist, and from what I could tell, an eminent one. She told us about her excavations in Olympia, for which she had been responsible at a time when women did not do that kind of work. It was very difficult for her to get the workmen to do what she wanted them to do. She finally managed to assert herself (I don’t remember the details of this story) and things were better.

Years later, on the site in Olympia, a blackbird came and landed near her. She became so scared that she couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t understand why. She’d never been aware of such a fear before.

Later, she remembered that when she was a little girl, she liked jumping on her mother’s bed. Her mother was afraid she would fall and hurt herself, so she plucked a black feather from the feather duster and laid it in the middle of the bed, on the white blanket. Dora came to get up on the bed and saw the stark black feather in the middle of the bed, and was frightened. She did not jump on the bed again.

A Handful of Rain

I’ve been thinking about the rain a lot lately. I’ve always liked it it. I like listening to it fall, especially when there’s a tree outside the window and you can hear it patter on the leaves. I know of no other sound I would rather go to sleep to. One of the things I miss about Canada is how it could sometimes rain for over 24 hours. You could go to sleep to it and in the middle of the night it would still be there when you woke up. It would still be there in the morning too. It was great if you didn’t have anywhere to go.

But I like walking in it without an umbrella. I bought a pair of good waterproof boots about a month ago. I like when the rain gets into my coat, yet not enough to reach the clothes underneath.

When I was a child the sound of somebody taking a shower would make me feel sleepy. There’s something womb-like about being in a room with all that water outside.

I love all those water scenes in Tarkovsky’s films, especially the one in Nostalghia when Gortchakov lies down on the bed in his hotel room and the rain begins to fall outside. You watch it stream down the decaying wall outside the window, collect on the sill, and spill onto the floor.

I think about how our children and grandchildren will value rain a great deal more than most of us do. N. and I are moving to Crete, which scientists predict will soon become a desert. Scientists have been predicting lately that all or most of the Mediterranean will become desert. It doesn’t surprise me, but it does sadden me. Greece is already a dry place, where vegetation seems to struggle to grow. But this struggle always seemed eternal to me. I wanted to think it would always be that way. I wanted it to stay eternal.

I went out for a short walk in the rain tonight. I wore a hat to keep my head dry. I only needed to go out and get a few things at a shop a couple of blocks away, but I wanted to keep walking for hours. I wanted to get drenched. I wanted to carry some of it home in my hands and put it on the table or on one of the bookshelves. I want to lie down and sleep with the window open and not care if the papers and notebooks on my desk get wet. I want to sleep for a long time to that sound and have my dream enter the room, like Gortchakov’s dog, which came and lay at the foot of his hotel bed. In my dream I am 17 or 18 again, walking along Queen Street again late on a Sunday night, in the rain, as far as the old Fox Theatre to see the poster behind the glass, with all the films that are playing that month. Behind the doors the lobby is empty and dark except for the weak yellowish light behind the snack bar. I am young still, with the illusion that I am old already, instead of old already, with illusion that I am still young. I walk back home, past the closed shops, each as dark as the lobby of the empty Fox Theatre, as dark as only memories and dreams are. I am impatient to be older, to start my real life, far from there, in a place where there is heart-breaking light on mountain and sea, and nothing my young mind could ever imagine as a desert.

Reading Jealousy (4)

Dr Zen writes:

You are going to be joining the long line of readers of R-G who finish his work with a vague — and sometimes not so vague — sense of dissatisfaction.

He doesn’t do answers. I think that is because his belief is that the question is (or ought to be) unaskable, and consequently unanswerable.

I’m going to keep trying. Sometimes being tired from work puts me in a bad mood. I should just close the book and forget about it till I feel like reading it. At the moment, I’m in a much more generous mood.

When I closed the book last night at about two AM, I wrote some notes.

If the narrator is so obsessed that he revisits the scenes over and over again, how can he, at the same time, seem so ignorant as to their significance? And if he is not ignorant of their significance, why does he avoid confronting or discussing it on the page? Is it because he has something to hide? Whatever the reason, why then is he telling any story whatsoever? Why have the words been set down? Under what pretext do we find ourselves together, as reader and writer? Why would anyone sit and labour over not saying what could be said?

When somebody reads a story he knows is not true, about characters he knows are not real, told by a narrator who pretends to be omniscient, he enjoys this illusion that he willingly and momentarily pretends to believe in. To subvert this arrangement seems arbitrary to me. Why would someone want to make a point of not knowing what was really going on in the minds of characters everyone knows don’t exist anyway? Why write such fiction at all? I know that we must stick to one point of view, and be careful about not writing what a narrator doesn’t know. But a narrator who doesn’t even speculate?

There are no thoughts to be known. All is imagined.

* * * * *

A… sits at a table and does not speak. Her husband (we assume), the narrator, watches her. We cannot know what she is thinking, or what she does when she’s away from him. Why is this so? Because R-G has decided to restrict himself only to what the narrator can see or know. Fair enough, and quite common. He has also decided, it seems, to conceal a great deal of what the narrator knows as well.

But if the situation and characters are products of the imagination and not of knowledge, then it seems largely arbitrary. How do I know that A… is even sitting at the table? If I say I don’t even accept her existence, I sound as though I naively think the writer was out to hoodwink me all along. I go so far that the extreme of clever scepticism because naivete, the way objectivity becomes subjectivity if you take it far enough.

The above is just a record of my frustrations. I don’t know how valid the questions are. I haven’t finished the reading the book yet. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a record of the reasons why I gave up and joined the long line Zen mentions.

Reading Jealousy (3)

Dr Zen wrote to me:

It is about only one thing. What is real? How does a writer describe what is real?

If Robbe-Grillet had other themes, they were purely incidental to that.

At first I wondered if I had been speculating about possible themes. “You ask why the narrator does not talk about what he seems to know.” I asked him why he didn’t make the comment on the blog and he said he didn’t want to sound too critical. I encouraged him to comment publicly, knowing that this would inevitably influence my reading, in one or another. I’ve glanced at the introduction of the book, and I read an article this weekend. They influence my reading too.

Last night when I lay in bed and tried reading, I felt discouraged, mainly with myself. What did I really have to say about this book? What interest was any of it to anyone who’s read the book themselves? Even the questions I’m asking have been asked and answered many times before. Then, when I wrote, “It can’t all be about catching the metaphors and understanding the narrative technique and the commentary about modern fiction”, Dr Zen wrote back and said:

Can’t it? Perhaps now you recognise that my comment was well aimed?

It was, although I don’t think I’m talking about themes. At least as I understand the word. The more that I want is for the illusion that there are real people and real action to continue, at least somewhat. I want the second half of the book to take that illusion forward, at least somewhat. The questions R-G poses come in the guise of character and setting and plot, and I want the two parts of the book — the questions and the “story” — to continue hand-in-hand. I don’t mind not getting, and don’t expect to get, answers, but half-way through the book, I want to want to look for them nonetheless. (That’s not a typo.)

Reading Jealousy (2)

Yesterday I happened to look at somebody’s newspaper and I found a review of a new Greek edition of Jealousy. It touched on a lot of the things I wrote about in the first post. It’s occured to me I don’t have anything original to say about the book.

What’s more, two things struck me. One is that it’s the kind of book that could only be written once. How could someone write another book about someone who watches but is not seen?

The second thing is that if the book is largely about what can’t be known for sure, and what the narrator doesn’t (at least consciously) reveal to us, why should I keep reading? The book seems to be the demonstration of a point, and I feel that I’ve got it, more or less. What will be added to that point if I read the second half of the book?

Surely there must be some secret, perhaps some solution, buried deep in the details, some details that are part of the game of pretending that these characters are reveal, that I can add to the picture I’m forming. It can’t all be about catching the metaphors and understanding the narrative technique and the commentary about modern fiction.

When I revisit the scene with the centipede, what new details will be revealed, and will these details lead anywhere I haven’t been already?

* * * * *

Who’s the native who has twice been shown to be bending over the water, as if looking for something? Why’s he looking? Is he actually looking for something, although the narrative says it’s impossible to see anything in such water?

Reading Jealousy (1)

I’ve started reading Jealousy, by Robbe-Grillet, and have been taking notes. It’s so far been one of the strangest reading experiences I’ve ever had.

I will be posting from time to time as I read.

* * * * *

A brief outline:

A… and Franck sit on the porch of a banana plantation somewhere in Africa. Franck is married, but his wife has stayed at home to look after their sick child. They sit, drinking, chatting. Nothing happens. During dinner A… sees a centipede on the wall, and Franck gets up to kill it. It leaves a mark on the wall. Some days later, A… and Franck go to town for the day, ostensibly because A… wants to do some shopping, and they do not return till the next day. Franck has been talking about car troubles, but when he returns he offers no explanation. There are minute descriptions of the house and the surrounding plantation, including two pages in which we are told precisely how many banana trees are in each field.These scenes are played over and over again. There is a fourth character. A…’s husband, the narrator. He never refers to himself directly. He never does anything. He does not seem to be present, except as a pair of eyes. He is nothing more than a witness, a narrator. But he is remarkably silent about a great many things.

* * * * *

There is a point where objectivity seems to become subjectivity.

Robbe-Grillet concentrates on what his narrator can see and makes no assumptions. We do not know what Franck and A… think, only what they do or seem to do or think. (Robbe-Grillet uses the word seem often but deliberately, perhaps as a crutch — since it solves a lot of potential problems for him — but surely to remind the reader that things may not be as they seem.) By concentrating only on what can be seen, we are stuck firmly, perhaps even trapped, in the consciousness and perceptions — the point of view — of the narrator, and so the attempt to be objective leads to subjectivity. We are resigned to the fact that we cannot know any more than what the narrator perceives and tells us — although he may slip and reveal things to us by omitting or misinterpreting details (and by misinterpreting I mean inviting us to interpret things differently). But this is now the writer working above or around his narrator, and the highest manifestation of art in this kind of writing.

* * * * *

Why is the narrator so invisible? Why does he take such pains to conceal himself? It seems pathological. Is he a passive person, who does not care if his wife is having an affair or not? Why does he not comment on what he seems to know?

* * * * *

The narrator gives countless details, he counts objects, like the banana trees in the fields, and precisely situates things, not because any of these details are important, but because his act of observing alone is important. Robbe-Grillet wants us to be aware of the narrator’s obsessive watching without drawing attention to it himself, without having to resort to characterisation.

Yet if the narrator is obsessed and jealous and seems to think that something is going on between A… and Franck, he is also deliberately avoiding saying so. He avoids any mention of what he is obsessed about. It is as though he is trying not to think about it, not to see it. He will count banana trees instead. He is a narrator who is trying not to see something and trying to convince himself (perhaps successfully) that nothing is happening, while Robbe-Grillet suggests that it’s there, that it is happening.

* * * * *

In the second section of the book, we see much of the action out on the balcony through the narrator’s window. He is hiding behind the blinds of his room. He can watch and not be seen. But he can’t hear. He can only guess at what is said, and sometimes the reader can’t help but feel he is guessing naively.

Throughout the story, the narrator reports to the reader what he sees and hears without ever referring to himself. We know nothing about him. We cannot see him. At first we don’t even realise he’s there. First we learn that the table has been set for four. A… and Franck are there, but Franck’s wife will not be coming. So one of the settings is removed. That leaves three. But no reference is ever made of a third person.

There is a map of the house on the first page. On the porch, where A… and Franck sit and talk, we can see four chairs and a table, if we look closely enough. The legend says

Veranda: 1) Franck’s chair. 2) A…’s chair. 3) Empty chair. 5) Cocktail table.

No mention is made of the fourth chair, where the narrator is sitting.

He is someone who watches without being seen.

The horizontal blinds that he hides behind are called jalousie blinds.

* * * * *

The narrator never seems to do anything. He never acts. When A… sees the centipede, he does nothing but watch her face. It is Franck who gets up and kills it. The only suggestion, so far, that he does anything but watch is on pages 46 and 47, when Franck is discussing buying a new truck:

But he is wrong to trust modern trucks to the Negro drivers who will wreck them just as fast, if not faster.

“All the same,” Franck says, “if the motor is new, the driver will not have to fool with it.”

[…]

[A…] has kept out of this discussion.

Since there has been a discussion, and since A… was not involved, that leaves only Franck and the narrator. But when the scene is revisited on page 63, there is no sign that the narrator was involved. It is as if he were fading out of the scene. The offer to take A… to town has been made for the first time, and the killing of the centipede is shown for the first time. Is the narrator’s inactivity caused by the shock of hearing the offer? He is definitely concentrating more on them now than on even the slightest hint of his involvement.

Hearing what we want to hear

In the beginning of The Conversation, a couple are walking around in a large square, and their conversation is being recorded by a surveillance team. The central character, played by Gene Hackman, hears the man say, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” He, like the viewers, is sure that the emphasis was on the word “kill” (which was probably how you read it), but at the end of the film, through a bit of cheating in the sound editing, we realise that what the man had really said was, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

The first time you see the film you aren’t sure if your memory isn’t playing tricks on you. Were you wrong in assuming that he said, “He’d kill us if he got the chance”, or did they re-record the words? (If you watch it on video or DVD, you go back and check, but the film was made in early seventies, before people could do such things.) You wonder if the context actually affects how you hear it. If so, who’s to say that the second time you’re hearing it correctly? The first time I saw it, it seemed like a subversive joke.

Not long after I met C. and fell in love with her, she decided for a number of reasons that we shouldn’t see each other any more. She could see where things were heading, even if I had not openly expressed my feelings for her yet, and the feelings were reciprocated to some extent. But things were complicated, for a number of reasons, some of which wouldn’t be apparent till years later. So she decided the best thing would be for us not to see each other, not even as friends. I was a very determined young man, and very much in love, and I was shattered by her decision. It made no sense. It was illogical. It simply could not be. Later that day, she agreed to see me again, to hear me out.

I poured my heart out to her, more than I’d ever done before. I was still an effusive teenager, and a lot of what I had to tell her wasn’t really relevant. I simply needed to open up and reveal myself and tell her I loved her.

When I had told her, she sat stunned. “But you don’t know me,” she said, and I asked her how that could be. She shrugged, and I could see that I had won. She took me into her arms and told me she could see more of me.

I clung to those words for months, even though I saw her very rarely for almost a year afterwards, while she finished her Master’s. I gave her the time and space she needed, or thought she needed, and I waited, remembering her words as if they had been a promise.

But then doubt began to set in, and one day it occurred to me that she might not actually have meant that she could see me more often, but that now that I had opened up and revealed so much of myself to her, I was more clearly visible to her. I can see more of you. It seemed like such a strange thing to say to somebody, and I began to think she can’t have meant either possibility. Surely a person would have phrased both sentiments differently. There might even have been a third meaning, which I could not determine. Had I ever understood her at all?

The more I thought about them, the more her words changed. I tried to remember the tone of her voice, the expression on her face. I searched for clues, but each time I revisited the scene, it would be a little different. And now, when I recall it, so many years later, the only things that present themselves when I try to remember are the couch she sat on across from my chair, the coffee table between us, the darkness outside the window, the framed print of Monet’s waterlilies on the wall. She and I are not there at all — just two manikins that would probably resemble us if I could see their faces, if their faces didn’t melt away every time I tried to look at them.

Kinds of Forgetting (recalling memory)

I often wonder how a memory dies, how we forget something, more often than I wonder how we remember. What’s more, I’ve been considering lately if these two things are more closely related than they seem at first, that they’re not so mutually exclusive as we think they are.

There is one kind of forgetting that seems to be nothing more than misplaced information. We see a face and can’t remember the name, or pick up a telephone and can’t remember the number we want to call. This is simply a failure to remember. We know we have the information, it is somewhere in our mind, but we don’t know where in our mind. In a similar manner we lose things, or can’t find them. We know the object is still somewhere in our house, that it hasn’t disappeared or ceased to exist, even though we look everywhere for it.

There is another kind of forgetting: when we abandon a memory, do not keep it alive in our mind. This is temporary, because one day, perhaps even decades later, you remember it again, usually involuntarily. Once, for example, V. jokingly used a Greek expression that is often used with children, an expression I had not heard for many, many years, and as soon as I heard it, I realised that in the decades that had passed since I had last heard it, I had not even once thought about it. And yet, there it was, suddenly presenting itself, suddenly appearing, summoned before I myself knew it had been summoned.

(I find the experience of saying I have not thought of this at all in x years very strange, although I can’t quite explain why.)

I have a memory of walking down the hall of the apartment where we lived until I was two years old. I see the living room as I enter it. A small white television set is on the floor, a black and white football game on the screen. I think I remember my father lying on the floor with his head resting on the green couch. I remember another time, in the same apartment, being taken from my crib and being carried — probably by my mother, but perhaps by another woman — and being taken out into the hall, where a group of people are leaving. The light hurts my eyes. One woman has a sort of beehive hairdo and is wearing horn-rimmed glasses. I am the centre of attention, although I am grumpy and don’t want to be. I don’t know how much of this is accurate. I may be embellishing.

It once occurred to me that I was keeping these memories alive simply by thinking about them again, by bringing them to life again and again, by running these short films over and over again, and that I was actually remembering the last time I remembered them, the last time I’d brought up the images. Remembering may be like a relay, the passing of a baton: the initial memory may have died a long time ago. I cannot remember the event itself, as I did the first time I remembered it. I only remember the last few recreations of the memory, the last recall, and I don’t know how much the memory is embellished or how much it loses and becomes poorer as time goes by and I keep recalling.

There is yet a third kind of forgetting, similar to the second, where we stop thinking about something, where we forget that we ever knew something, but unlike the second kind, we never have any occasion to remember it again. The possibility of remembering remains forever unfulfilled.

This is the darkest oblivion, and I find it oddly frightening, I suppose because my mind cannot fathom it. How can I imagine something I have forgotten without also at least imagining that I have remembered it?

Ten Years

Today is the tenth anniversary of my arrival here in Greece. Where has the decade gone?

(Why do we ask where time goes? Has something gone, while other things remain? Why do we think of time as passing? When we look around at what remains the same and think about what has changed, we must, I suppose, think that something has left — all those things that don’t exist any more — and we say that they have gone somewhere. To where time goes.)

It feels like only four or five years ago. But, really, what difference is there between five and ten years? In the long run, nothing. But in one’s life it makes a big difference, when you consider that life is too short. At the end of it, you would be glad to have another five. I wish I could go back five years and do some things differently, now that I’ve learned from my mistakes, or some of my mistakes. And yet in another twenty years I will look back at when I first came to Greece, first moved into this pokey little apartment, where so many important things happened to me, and where I was so happy, and I will say, “Was that really thirty years ago? It only feels like five.”

Once, years ago in Canada, I was discussing such things with G., an old friend. I wondered about how time seemed to be passing more quickly than it used to, and he said that, as far as how we perceive time is concerned, the amount that seems to pass until we reach nineteen seems equal to the rest of our life. In other words, that time speeds up in such a way that the rest of your life seems to be nothing more than another nineteen years.

Six of my first twelve months here were spent in the army. Roughly 180 days. It seemed like such a long time, a big chunk of my life. It was a formative experience, I know, but at the same time it’s only a dim, brief memory. As soldiers approached the day of their discharge and return to freedom, they would count down: “Seventy-eight and today!” “Forty-six and today!” Someone once told me, “Here in the army, the hours and days crawl by; the weeks and months fly past.”

So do the years, and not just in the army.

Lakkos

When I go to the centre of Iraklio, I like walking through Lakkos, a poor area just inside the city walls by the Bethlehem Gate, by the Kommeno Bendeni area. The gate is actually seldom referred to by its name; people just call it Kommeno Bendeni. During the Ottoman Occupation it was also known as the Dark Gate (Σκοτεινή Πύλη), or Karanlik Kapi in Turkish. The traditional centre of Iraklio is a large fort or citadel, and the walls are still up.

Lakkos was traditionally a red-light district and a neighbourhood for refugees from Asia Minor, at least in the early twentieth century. N. gave me a book about the area written by someone she knows, and it has some pictures too. I haven’t read it yet. I can only imagine what the area was like even ten years ago, perhaps even five years ago. A lot of the low houses are being torn down and apartment buildings being put up in their place.

Continue Reading »

Christmas in Crete

It’s been a busy Christmas break. We’ve had a lot of running around, looking at furniture, and cleaning the house (which we’ve taken to calling Wuthering Heights because it’s up on a hill and is very windy), but somehow I’ve managed to type up the rest of my novel notebook, and even do some writing. So far, the document runs to 36,000 words. I’m happy with the way things are going. If only I could hold on to that feeling, bottle it up for whenever I need it.

Here are some photos I took on the way down. The winds were 7 or 8 Beaufort, and there was a possibility that we’d be stuck in the harbour till it passed. The Festos is a big ship, and we didn’t really feel anything. The waves don’t really give you a sense of how windy it was out on the deck.

On Boxing Day we went for lunch to a taverna up on a mountain in the Episkopi region, near an evergreen forest that was planted some years ago. The food was very good, and there was a fireplace in the middle of the room. I took this picture of the valley below from the balcony, where tables are set in the summer.

The Eternal Tourist, the Eternal Emigrant

If there is a single reason why I’m living in Greece today, it may be because, about 120 years ago, next to a river in Ethiopia, a shutter opened in a camera for a fraction of a second and allowed the light to reach some film.

I don’t remember how I discovered Arthur Rimbaud. I do remember that I bought the New Directions Season in Hell and later gave it to a friend before I could read it. I ended up buying another one, the well-thumbed copy I still have. That was about twenty years ago, when I was sixteen.

As an adolescent I was ripe for Rimbaud, except that I didn’t take drugs. I agreed with the principle of the derangement of the senses, or at least supported a metaphorical derangement of the imagination. Rimbaud himself renounced it in A Season in Hell, so I saw no reason to experiment with drugs just because he had (seemingly) advocated it.

Of course, when you’re sixteen, it’s hard not to become captivated by someone who had supposedly changed the face of literature at your age. I pored over A Season in Hell and Illuminations and Henry Miller’s Time of the Assassins (the worst example of self-aggrandisement ever published, but I liked it anyway). I wanted Enid Starkie’s biography of Rimbaud, but for copyright reasons the book wasn’t available in Canada. A neighbour of ours had a sister in Ohio, and I sent her the money to order it and mail it to me. I read it so much that the glued binding cracked and entire sections of the book came loose.

Before I got the biography, though, I had one of the strangest experiences in my life, the only one I could really call mystical, although there was nothing religious or spiritual about it.

One of the things I found fascinating about Rimbaud was how, at the age of nineteen, or more likely twenty-one, he turned his back on literature forever and went to Africa to strike it rich. There were letters home to his mother and sister, but no one else in France ever saw him again. He disappeared. He walked into the heart of darkness and didn’t emerge till it had eaten him up inside. I was fascinated by the idea of an unrecorded, unwitnessed life (in this case the nearly unrecorded life, since there were the letters, and the accounts of those who knew him and worked with him in Africa), a life in which one did not care if any evidence of one’s existence was left behind or not. I imagined the lives of people like Verlaine, through whose lives Rimbaud had passed so tumultuously, how he had left such a mark on them before he vanished and became an unreal memory and two collections of poetry.

One day I was in Letters, the bookshop owned and operated by Nicky Drumbolis, and I bought the edition of Rimbaud’s complete works translated by Wallace Fowlie. When he saw that I was interested in Rimbaud, Nicky showed me some small French editions he had found in some bargain bins at a book fair. One of them was a biography, and was full of photographs and facsimiles of manuscript pages and drawings Rimbaud had made, and which others had made of him. I was spellbound by the wealth of material. And then, I turned a page and saw that there were two photographs of Rimbaud in his thirties in Africa. Before this, I had only seen pictures of the adolescent.

In one he was standing by a railing, possibly on a balcony, and in the other he was next to a river, his foot upon a rock and his hand resting on his knee. (I have searched online for the latter, but can’t find it. There is, however, another photograph that seems to be from the same time.) In the first photograph there were blotches on it, which I imagined to be spatterings of mud. In the second photograph his facial features were barely visible, but his skin looked as dark as tough leather.

I can barely describe what happened to me as I stood in the bookshop looking at those two photographs, which, by some miracle, had found their way out of Africa so that I, a century later, could see them. The fact that these had been taken at all was miraculous enough, but this was too much.

When I left the shop I walked along Queen Street, and everywhere I looked I saw traces of the nineteenth century: crumbling bricks on a wall by an empty lot; a faded, peeling sign over an abandoned storefront; upstairs, a dingy shade pulled down behind a grimy window. All around me was the romantic squalor of the big city. I felt as if I could walk into one of those rooms somewhere and find, as if hiding all these years, some Rimbaud or Verlaine, dressed in rags and shuffling yellowed papers with poems written in blue-black ink, poems that would be consigned forever to oblivion. It was like seeing ghosts everywhere. I felt partly in the twentieth century and partly in the nineteenth. All around the city, rooms held secret, unwitnessed lives, eternal and timeless. (I remember a line from a poem I had written around that time: “miraculous Mozarts anonymous among us”.)

After all these years, it is difficult for me to recapture and convey what I felt then and what private and personal atmosphere I carried around with me. I had become unstuck from my time, and I experienced a riot of the imagination. It was also a very isolating experience: no one else was privy to it. And it lasted for years.

I became very interested in old photographs, and especially the clothes people wore in them. For some reason, I often found myself focussing on the lapels in them. I started wearing tweed jackets and old overcoats I had bought in the vintage clothing shops in Kensington Market. Old barbershops and the smell of talcum powder, for some reason, were also particularly evocative for me.

Looking back on that time, I realise that those were the years when my iron was the hottest, when I had the greatest potential for becoming. I romanticised hardship, and I believe still that I could have endured a great deal of it. I sometimes think I could have done anything — written an epic, joined the Foreign Legion, got a tattoo.

Then, in the summer of 1987, while I was still deep in this sense of timelessness, I came to Greece for the summer by myself. I had been looking forward to it for months before, and felt I was visiting another time, and not just another place. I had been looking forward to the heat, too, which had figured so much in Rimbaud’s poetry and letters (“Women nurse those fierce invalids, home from hot countries.”).

That summer I came across the Greek version of the Georges Moustaki song “Le Meteque”, and I was convinced that it had been written about Rimbaud.

Σαν σύννεφο απ’ τον καιρό, μονάχο μεσ’ τον ουρανό
πήρα παιδί τους δρόμους.
Περπάτησα όλη τη γη μ’ ένα τραγούδι στην καρδιά
και τη βροχή στους ώμους.
Μ’ αυτά τα χέρια σαν φτερά που δεν εγνώρισαν χαρά
πάλεψα με το κύμα
κι είχα βαθιά μου μια πληγή, αγάπη που δε βρήκε γη,
χαμένη μεσ’ το κρίμα.

Με πρόσωπο τόσο πικρό, από τον ήλιο τον σκληρό,
χάθηκα μεσ’ τη νύχτα,
κι ο έρωτας με πήγε εκεί πού ‘χα στα χείλη το φιλί
μα συντροφιά δεν είχα.
Με την καρδιά μου μια πληγή, περπάτησα σ’ αυτή τη γη
που είχα να τη ζήσω,
μα μου τα πήρανε μαζί, τ’ όνειρο και την αυγή
και φεύγω πριν αρχίσω.

Σαν σύννεφο απ’ τον καιρό, μονάχο μεσ’ τον ουρανό,
θά ‘ρθω ξανά κοντά σου,
μέσα σε κείνη τη βροχή που σ’ άφησα κάποιο πρωί
κι έχασα τη ζωή μου.
Θά ‘ρθω ξανά απ’ τα παλιά, σαν το πουλί απ’ το νοτιά
την πόρτα να χτυπήσω.
Θά ‘ναι μια άνοιξη πικρή, όλα θ’ ανοίγουνε στη γη
κι απ’ την αρχή θ’ αρχίσω.

Δημήτρης Χριστοδούλου

This is a loose translation, which does not pretend to be poetic:

Like a cloud alone in the sky, as a child I took to the roads. I walked the whole earth with a song in my heart and the rain on my shoulders. With these hands like wings that never felt joy I fought against the waves, and deep inside me was a wound, a love which never took root, lost in shame.

With a face made harsh by the fierce sun, I vanished into the night, and love took me to where I had a kiss ready on my lips, but I was all alone. With my heart a wound, I walked that piece of earth that it was my fate to walk, but they took away both my dream and the dawn, and I left again before I could begin.

Like a cloud alone in the sky, I will come to you again, in that same rain where I left you one morning, and my life was over. I will return from the past like a bird from the south to knock on your door. It will be a bitter spring, everything will be opening up on the earth, and from the beginning I will begin again.

Dimitris Christodoulou

The song captured all the melancholy (although perhaps melancholy is not a strong enough word) of Rimbaud’s story. It captured all the disillusionment, the sense of having lost everything that you held dear. Of course, it was the story any emigrant who was living in disappointment and was planning to return, but to me, back then, it was only Rimbaud. He never really returned, of course, but there’s nothing in the song that says the speaker will never return either.

(It is perhaps obvious to point out that in performance art, and in shorter literary works that can be read over again — I’m thinking about declarative lyric poetry — that future tenses repeatedly remain future tenses, but it needs to be pointed out because some writers can take advantage of the fact that if you return to the work twenty years later, the speaker will still be telling you about what he’s going to do any day now.)

This gave the song the same timeless, old-fashioned quality, the timelessness that had coloured everything around me after I saw the photographs in Letters.

When I came to Greece in 1987, it was only a few months after I saw the photographs, and when I arrived, I heard the song. The song was about a return that never occurs, about the unfulfilled desire to return, and I felt as if I was returning to a place where I’d never been before, as I have tried to describe before. Greece has changed a lot since then, so that it no longer resembles the Greece of my febrile imagination of that time, but by the time I moved here in 1997, I had already invested so much of myself into this place that its changes made no difference. A major part of my sense of identity had become inextricably linked with leaving one place and never arriving in another.


PS While searching for photographs to include in this post, I came across one that was recently discovered by Claude Jeancolas. Rimbaud must be the one standing on the far left. It was taken in 1882 at Sheikh-Uthman, near Aden.


PPS Frankie the C. noted in the comments that a copy of A Season in Hell, signed by Rimbaud, was sold for over $600,000. He has sent me the picture of the cover. Strangely, Rimbaud’s name seems to have been scratched out. It must have been Verlaine’s jealous wife.

Talking to myself

Inevitably there comes a time in any teacher’s life when they feel that they’re talking to a bunch of people who aren’t listening.

Last weekend I was on a bus to Kallithea and I saw a student I had two or three years ago. His name was Kostas and he worked, if I remember correctly, in a bank. He was one of those people who lack any talent whatsoever at learning a foreign language. (I’m probably one of them myself. I’ve known Greek and English my whole life.) He was well aware that the problem lay with him and not with the school, and he was a loyal customer, coming back year after year for more lessons. He had been at this school since it opened thirteen years before, and it had taken him ten or eleven years just to get the First Certificate. The year I was there he was planning to take both the Cambridge Advanced and Proficiency exams, as well the Michigan Proficiency exam. It’s the scatter-shot approach: aim everywhere and you might hit something.

The problem was that Kostas would come to class already exhausted after a day’s work. He often nodded off in class.

Once, he raised his hand and asked me to explain something. I had not finished even the first sentence of my explanation when his eyelids slowly closed and he started to sleep right there as he sat upright in class. It amazes me to this day that he could pass out mere seconds after asking a question. Within seconds his tired mind had strayed, had forgotten his question, and the fact that I was speaking to him and answering his question, and he dipped into unconsciousness. The other students didn’t notice, and I didn’t know how to react. Should I call out and wake him up? Should I tell the others,”Hey, look! He’s fallen asleep.”? Instead I pretended he was still awake and kept talking. The answer didn’t concern anyone else, so there I was, standing before a small room full of people, talking to myself.

I said hello to Kostas on the bus, but that was it. I thought of asking if he’d managed to hit any of the exams he’d been aiming at, but I was afraid of any possible embarrassment.

When I got to my stop, I shot a glance back at him. Once again, he was nodding off.

Ultimatum (or, Growing Up)

Yet we English have been so successful at the novel – and at poetry – very much because of this tension between private reality and public pretense. If the glory of the French is to be naked and lucid about what they realy feel and make, ours is to be veiled and oblique. I do not see this as evidence of our finer taste and greater seemliness. I think we just enjoy it more that way, in bed as in books; for the second simple truth is that creating another world, however imperfectly, is a haunting, isolating, and guilt-ridden experience, very similar to the creating of a “real” perspective on the actual world that every child must undertake. As with the child, this experience is heavy with loss – of all the discarded illusions and countermyths as well as of the desires and sensibilities that inexorable adulthood (or artistic good form) has no time for.

The cost of it is a contant grumbling-bass in the Hardy novel I wish to consider, The Well-Beloved. Pierston-Hardy feels cursed by his “inability to ossify,” to mature like other men. He feels himself arrested in eternal youth; yet he also knows(the empty maturity of his contemporaries, such as Somers, gets savagely short shrift elsewhere) that the artist who does not keep a profound part of himself not just open to his past but of his past, is like an electrical system without a current. When Pierston finally elects to be “mature,” he is dead as an artist.

John Fowles, “Hardy and the Hag” (1977)

* * * * *

I’ve often used this blog as a forum for writerly self-flagellation to lament that I wasn’t filling as many pages as I should be; lack of discipline; laziness; lack of ideas, and all the rest. Over the past year, my posts here have grown more sparse, partly because of work, and partly because I simply grew bored of it. (Most of my posts date back to a period of unemployment.)

My life is going to take a big change after this summer. N. and I are getting married, we’ll be moving and trying to start our own business. Discipline will be even more important if I am to continue (trying) (pretending?) to write. Perhaps my focus will sharpen. Perhaps I simply won’t have time. I’ve been preparing myself for both possibilities.

The more I read about the way the publishing industry is run, especially the way a product with such limited appeal is so desperately hyped and directed towards the general public, the less I think I actually want to be a published writer. I know I don’t want to write the sort of thing that would make me a more publishable writer. (How could I write that kind of stuff if I can’t even read it?)

So, about a month ago, I was thinking about how there’s no real excuse for my not writing more than I do, now that I have more time, and I decided to give myself an ultimatum. I have until this summer, until the wedding, to finish the first draft of my novel, the plot of which is clearly mapped out in my head, or I stop tormenting myself by wanting to much something I’m not willing to work hard enough at getting. If I don’t get the draft done by then, I will begin to work on not wanting it any more, and concentrate on the other things in my life.

(And if that doesn’t work, we’ll just have to see.)

When I made this ultimatum, I set about typing up everything I had in my notebooks – quite a lot, actually. I’ve been very busy with work the past couple of weeks, my schedule has filled, but I’ve managed to type up 20,000 words so far (not all of it is usable) and I estimate there’s at least another 20,000 or 30,000 to go. When I’ve finished typing it up, I’ll get to work on finishing telling the story.

* * * * *

An excerpt from one of the notebooks, a story one of the characters tells:

I was born during the German Occupation. I don’t remember anything of the hunger, of the famine, only what my parents, aunts and uncles told me afterwards, when I was a little older. But I do have some memories of the Civil War.

I grew up in a small village in the mountains outside Tripolis. Like the War of Independence in 1821 and after, that whole area saw a lot of action. Not for any real strategic reasons, but simply because the mountains allowed the fighting to go on for much longer. Classic guerrilla warfare. I remember the sound of gunfire, a cracking sound that echoed across the mountains. I was only five or six at the time, so I had no real sense of what was going on. And I don’t mean, of course, that I couldn’t understand the politics; I had no idea what politics was. I mean I couldn’t comprehend the danger of it. They were just noises that made my mother nervous. I suppose I thought it was something like hunting, although I don’t know if I understood much about hunting either. My father was rarely in the house. I have only a handful of memories of him in the house late at night, talking to my mother in near whispers. Then he’d leave again.

Once, a stray bullet entered through an open window. We had one of those old stone houses where the ground floor was used for storage, where some animals were kept too, and we lived up above. The bullet came in at an upward angle and went into the ceiling. My mother grabbed me and we fell to the floor. Even then I had no sense of fear, no sense of the danger.

When the war was over – when the cracking and popping sounds stopped echoing across the mountains, and when the men of the village started returning, my other memory of that time is of running through a forest with some other children and stopping at a ravine with a sheer drop. Along the opposite bank a man lay on his back. The bank was so sheer that he seemed to be standing upright. His arms were stretched out and one leg was bent back at the knee, as if he were walking. He had a thin pencil moustache and his teeth were showing in his rigid humourless grin. There was blood all over his stomach, on the jacket and trousers of his army uniform. I realise now it was blood. Then it was just a very large rust-brown stain. I think now he had probably been disembowelled.

I felt a kind of shock, as if I had seen something morally wrong or improper, something I should not have seen. Out there in the forest, in the outdoors, I felt as if I were intruding in something private.

We stood there breathless for a moment, although I remember it as a long time. I didn’t understand what I was looking at. It was something unnatural, grotesquely comic and undignified.

“He’s dead,” said one of the boys in a whisper.

“He’s from EAM,” another boy said, this time louder, with more confidence. I’ll never forget his name: Stephanos. “I know, I’ve heard my father talking about them.”

I remember that the word sounded new to me, I was sure I’d never heard it before. I thought, whatever it meant, it was something like a sickness, something that had made the man look like that. I had caught a tinge of disgust in the boy’s voice when he’d said it.

“Maybe he’s a German,” another boy said. “Or an Italian.”

“No, he’s an EAMite. That’s what they call them. My father says they’ve lost the war and he says they should kill the lot of them before they have a chance to run off to Russia.”

“Russia? Why Russia?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe that’s where they’re from.”

“No, they’re Greek. My father also said some of them were hanged in one of the squares. They even hanged Mitropoulos’s father.”

Everyone turned to me. Although I had heard my name, I hadn’t fully understood what they were saying, that they were talking about me. The words, of course, were burned in my memory. They looked at me and waited to see how I’d react. I was too stunned to move.

“They say he was already dead before they’d hanged him. They just put him there for everyone to see.”

I turned away. Could my father have become something as grotesque and undignified as this grinning soldier across the ravine? I should have punished Stephanos then and there for saying such a thing, but I only wanted to run home and hide. Days later, however, I got my revenge: after only the slightest provocation, I knocked him down and stomped on his head till a passing adult held me back.

* * * * *

For the curious: EAM

Attic Light

I took a break from my work today to step out onto the balcony and take a few pictures. The sun was starting to set, it had been a cloudy day. I liked the contrast of the sky, the clouds, the buildings across the street.


I took a few in black and white to see how they’d turn out.

Later on, I was in the kitchen, making a pot of tea. I went into the living room again to change some music I was listening to, and saw an almost unnatural burst of colour in the sky. I ran to get my camera. Despite the brightness and vividness in the pictures, they’re still not as impressive as they were in real life. But then, that’s always the case.

Pedestrian Alert

I forgot to mention that I finally got my driving license. It’s common practice here to bribe the examiners and just be done with the whole thing, a hundred euros each. My instructor said that 90% of them take the money. I wanted to avoid the test, and was willing to spend the money. Taking the test costs 150 euros alone, so if you need to take it three or more times, you end up saving money. There’s a lot of stupid unnecessary things you have to do in the test, like turn around a corner in reverse in three smooth movements, which you’d never have to do in real life, and this is where most people fail.

My test was on Friday the 13th, and I was sure that this was a good sign. That weekend there were municipal elections throughout Greece. Here, if you leave your home town or village and come to the big city, you’re still registered to vote back where you came from, unless you go through the bureaucracy of changing it. Most people don’t. (The whole process of offering election promises seems to work best locally.) Athens empties on such weekends as people return to their villages, towns and islands to vote. A lot of instructors had done the same that weekend, with the result that the director of the examining committee, who only tests people who are candidates for becoming instructors, came down to test us. He is not a man to accept a hundred-euro bribe. But he’s just.

Everyone failed. I was second last. Everything was OK till about sixty seconds into the test. I came to a corner where I was told to turn left. I came to a full stop, but to my right, someone had parked right at the corner, blocking my vision. I started edging out slowly so that I could see better. It was a two-way street, so I shot a quick glance to my right. At that precise moment, some guy came barrelling down the road on my left. My instructor, who was sitting in the passenger seat, stepped on the brakes. The car is fitted with an alarm for when he does this. The examiners in the back seat, a woman and the director, heard it, and the test was over.

The guy after me failed before even getting started. When he started in parked position, on the right of the road, he looked back before starting and moving into traffic, but he took too long to do so, and by the time he did, a car had appeared, coming up behind him. He didn’t see it, and started moving out. That was it.

My instructor and I decided not to take the test the following weekend, because there were still more elections. We didn’t want to run the same risk. So I took it two weeks later. I paid the 200, went out for a little spin, and that was all.

Driving back afterwards, I asked my instructor what he thought about this bribe-taking business. He said that most people fail out of sheer nervousness, and do something stupid.

“When your time has come to take the test, you’re ready,” he said. “I decide when you’re ready. I’ve been in the car with you for days. They’re in the car with you for ten-fifteen minutes. I won’t put you in the position to take the test if I don’t think you’re ready.”

He added, of course, that if someone is not ready but insists on doing the test, after the obligatory 20 hours of practical lessons, he can’t stop them, but he will refuse to pass the bribe on. He said he would be responsible for letting someone who’s not ready out onto the road.

This system only works, of course, as long as there are instructors like mine, who are actually quite passionate about teaching people to drive safely and responsible.

Alexander Knaifel

I blogged about Alexander Knaifel a few weeks ago, and his piece Svete Tikhiy, or O Gladsome Light.  The music is so simple, in a manner of speaking, yet I never tire of listening to it. I listen to it on my way to work, if I’m travelling alone. I listen to it in bed. I can listen to it three or four times a day. It puts me in the mood to write. It creates a space around me in which I can imagine and create another world, a space on which the real world does not impinge. It’s a quiet, solemn world, though, perhaps not suitable to all kinds of writing. One would not be able to do humour in that world, for example.

When the music is so-called minimalist (which Knaifel is not, and perhaps no one really is) you can begin to perceive just how complex music can be. Knaifel allows you to contemplate each note and anticipate the next one. And the note that comes never fails to surprise, to be other than what you had expected, to be other than what music most often leads you to expect. In Svete Tikhiy, you can savour each individual note.

In the second half of the piece, the voices begin. Two or three women begin to murmur fervently what I can only assume is a prayer in Russian. What amazed me when I first heard it was just quickly the words were spoken/sung. How did they say them all without ever stumbling? (I must assume they don’t stumble. Even if it’s gibberish, you’d expect some stumbling or hesitation. Probably even more so in that case, since words with recognisable meaning, meaning you can anticipate, would help with the flow.) Then one woman’s voice begins a melody which hovers over the murmured prayer, which is like a drone in eastern music. Later, the voice joins the murmur, which assumes more melody and harmony. When the prayer-like part ends, the instruments begin (a piano and some strings) accompanied by the singers. This part is the haziest in my memory. What I do remember is that I’m never sure when it’s going to end. When I do think it’s going to end, it doesn’t. And when it does end, I never realise it has, and always expect more.

Blind Spot

K., a friend of mine, was a chemical engineer before taking an early retirement. A few weekends ago we sat around and talked about beer and he told us all about how it’s made, how it goes off, how it’s preserved and transported. (He used to work for Heineken.) It was all fascinating.

He’s very intelligent and has a very scientific frame of mind. He knows a lot about a lot of different things, is inquisitive and has a good memory. (He’s a good story-teller in general, and a good person to invite to a social event if you’re worried people won’t hit it off and have much to say. He’s also, it’s important to note, a funny guy too.)

But it’s interesting how people who excel in technical and scientific things can sometimes have blind spots in other areas. Their scientific thinking can actually get in the way.

K. was asking me about my driving lessons and I told him that I find the “difficult” things easy, like going into first gear on an incline, parking, reversing around a corner, but when I simply change gears I get nervous and grip the steering wheel too hard. I’m not so aware of being nervous; my body simply reacts by tensing up.

“How do you hold the steering wheel?” he said.

I told him I put my hands at ten and two. He told me that now he keeps his right hand at seven o’clock.

“A car in good condition,” he said “should continue going straight unless prevented from doing so by something like a bump in the road. At 7.00 your hand is closer to your body and you’re more in control.”

He told me he had done a lot of driving over the years. He often had to drive to Holland for work. He gave me some figure, how many hundreds of thousands of kilometers he’d driven in one car alone. I told him about my father’s Toyota Corona, which he bought in 1981 and which he kept till 1995, a very long time for a place like Canada, where salt is thrown on the roads in the winter. With that car he drove from Toronto to Florida and back a few times.

K. explained how that sort of driving, without much starting and stopping, did not wear down the car much.

Then I remembered a Newfie joke. I explained who the Newfies are (there’s a Greek equivalent, as I’m sure there is everywhere) and told him.

“This guy wanted to sell his car and when his friend took a look at it he said:

“‘Are you crazy? This thing’s got 350,000 km on it! No one’s ever going to buy it. Don’t worry, though, I know this guy, he can change the odometer so that it’s really low.’

“So the guy goes and gets it adjusted so that it says only 20,000 km. A couple of weeks later they run into each other in the street and the friend says, ‘Hey, did you ever sell that car?’

“And the Newfie says, ‘Are you nuts? Why would I sell a car with only 20,000 km on it?'”

“Well, of course,” K. said. “No one would buy it. It’s an impossibly low number. They’d know right away that something was wrong. They’d say, ‘Haven’t you driven this thing at all?'”

I thought about this for a moment.

“K.,” I said, “it’s a joke.”

“Oh,” he said.

Meteora

I’ve been to Meteora several times over the years, but I wanted to take N. this summer because she’d never been. Before we stopped to get a room in Kalabaka, we drove up and took a look around. N. later said that this was the most impressive part of the trip.

If you look close enough at the rock, it looks like cement. The little mountains the monasteries are built on were formed by the sea, which covered the plain of Thessalia sixty million years ago.

The next day we went up to visit some of the monasteries. There were signs everywhere telling you not to take pictures, but this, I was sure, was not for religious reasons, but economic ones. They sell a lot of books and postcards up there. I turned the flash off and took as many pictures as I could. Because I did so furtively, a lot of them are blurry, since the shutter (or whatever it is digital cameras have) stays open for longer.

I don’t remember ever having gone to the monastery of St Stephanos before, which is a nunnery. In fact, I didn’t know until this summer that there was a nunnery up there. The main church inside was built in 1790, and the icons, as a result, are in much better condition than they are in other monasteries. There were actually one being painted still, and are unfinished.

N. and my parents left the church and I stayed behind to snap some more pictures. Just then, though, a nun came in. She was short and wore black-rimmed glasses, the kind all nuns seem to wear. I waited for her to leave, but she showed no signs of doing so. I held the camera behind my back and looked at two panels by the entrance. Both icons featured ladders, and they were what I wanted to photograph. I looked closely at them, waiting for her to leave. Instead she came up and asked me if I was Greek. I said I was, and she asked me from where. To keep things simple, I told her from Canada, and didn’t mentioned that I lived here.

The first icon, she told me, depicted the Heavenly Ladder of John Scholasticus or Climacus. She told me he had written a book explaining how one rises up the heavenly ladder to holiness. The icon showed angels helping along the men who were making their way up towards Christ. Several men were falling off towards a serpent-dragon, and one man had into its jaws.

(I apologise for the poor quality of the photograph, but I was rushed and the camera moved too much. You can see other examples of the subject here, here and here.)

She added, almost with embarrassment, that it was allegorical or symbolic. I suppose she wasn’t comfortable with the question of why they should suffer such damnation for failing to reach the top when they had been good enough to rise three quarters of the way.

On the other side of the door, was an icon of Jacob’s Ladder, with Jacob sleeping at the bottom.

(Again, the picture is not good. It doesn’t even show Jacob.)

The ladder, she said, symbolised the Virgin Mary, the second Eve who had come to reunite heaven and earth, which had split when the first Eve introduced original sin. There were only angels ascending this ladder.

Next she showed me the icon of the Second Coming, a particularly beautiful one on the wall behind us. On the upper left side of the river of fire were the damned being judged (notice the scales). On the right and at the top were the blessed. The river of fire led down to the jaws of another serpent-dragon. On the right near the bottom was a horizontal river and beneath them some chambers with dismembered limbs and severed heads in it. The nun told me that after the Second Coming, they would be restored, when the souls returned to their bodies.

It struck me as I looked at the medieval style of the painting that one tends to look at what it depicts as having taken place in the past, in biblical times, or at the latest in the Middle Ages, rather than something which is supposed to happen in the future. The visual arts, even with something as fantastic as Bosch, eventually lose their prophetic power.

The last icon she showed me was of St Stephanos or Charalambos, I can’t remember which, who when he knew his time had come (as it explains on the icon itself) lay down, crossed his hands on his chest, and died. It was in the middle of the day, but a star kept shining in the sky.

“Making icons is a good thing,” she said to me. “It keeps you close to God.”

On another wall there was an icon which had recently been started. It was to depict the martyrdom of St Charalambos. She took me and we left the narthex, or foyer, and went into the main part of the church, which had in the mean time filled with Italian tourists. She showed me a wooden case before the altar. She took out some keys and opened it and showed me a silver case with the saint’s head in it. At the top it seemed sealed with wax. The silver case was inside a glass case.

“Worship him,” she said [Προσκύνησέ τον]. It was an awkward moment. I don’t believe in God, but unfortunately people are sometimes offended when you don’t believe what they believe. I generally avoid confrontations and don’t feel it necessary to assert myself in such situations, although I suppose I should. To keep things simple (don’t forget that despite the interesting tour I was getting, I was looking forward eventually to having an opportunity to take some pictures), I made the cross, leaned forward and kissed the glass case.

Just then my mobile phone rang and I excused myself. It was N. I hadn’t told them anything when they left the church. I had just stayed behind, and she was wondering where I was. I told her I’d find her in a moment. I got off the phone and went back to thank the nun. She pointed out where the museum was and urged me to see it. Before I left, I snapped the pictures, which is why they didn’t turn out very well.

Other pictures:

The above photograph shows how things and people are carried over to at least one of the monasteries today, which tourists are not allowed to visit. At one point, two monks went across on it, which alarmed many tourists who were watching from below.

N. was very displeased with me for taking this picture. “Those are dead people!” she said. Well, they’ve left the door open for tourists haven’t they? I saw the photo in one of the books they themselves sell, so I’m not bothered by it. I’ve used part of the photo for the masthead photo of this blog.

Although I’m not at all religious, I love Byzantine art. This was on the ceiling of a balcony outside a church.

O Gladsome Sound

I’d meant to write a few posts earlier this summer, and still plan to write about a trip to Meteora. (I’ve been there several times, but this time I took a lot of pictures, and had a conversation with a nun.) But I’ve been going through one of those periods where you simply lose interest in your blog. Sometimes you just have to throw yourself back into it.

So here goes.

* * * * *

Last year I was listening to the radio and I heard part of a piece of music that struck me as excruciatingly beautiful. There was, perhaps, a cello or two, or perhaps some violins, and then a very slowly played piano. Sometimes the notes were between five and ten seconds apart. I stopped whatever I was doing and sat listening to it, waiting for each crystal-clear note from the piano. It had a strange physical effect. I imagined that my body — my heart, the blood in my veins — that everything in it was slowing down peacefully.

I remember once, when I was a teenager, lying on the couch on a cool summer day, listening to a dog barking somewhere outside. I had closed my eyes and every time the dog barked, I thought I could see a faint burst of light on the inside of my eyelids, like a small fireworks display. I never had this experience again, but listening to this music, I almost had it again.

When the music was over, I got a pen and some paper to write the composer’s name down, but I didn’t catch it. It sounded German, though. I did a search for minimalist music, hoping that I’d see a name that sounded familiar, but nothing came of it.

Another time in my teens I was listening to a radio station in Toronto that played Greek music for a few hours each day. One night they played a song with the most ethereal voice I’d ever heard. I was struck motionless. I had chills. When it was over, they played something else or went to a commercial, and the spell was broken. They never announced who had sung it.

For years, though, it haunted me. I wanted to know so much who had sung it. They actually never played that kind of music on that radio station, so I knew it was very unlikely that I’d hear it again. I thought about it from time to time and resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably never hear it again, that it would remain forever an experience that could never be repeated.

Years later, in university, I was attending a bi-monthly poetry seminar held by Derek Walcott. (One day I should blog about that. It was a great experience.) One of the poets he introduced us to was Edward Thomas. It was, for me, a real discovery. This poem had a particular resonance for me.

The Unknown Bird

Three lovely notes he whistled, too soft to be heard
If others sang; but others never sang
In the great beech-wood all that May and June.
No one saw him: I alone could hear him
Though many listened. Was it but four years
Ago? or five? He never came again.

Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,
Nor could I ever make another hear.
La-la-la! he called, seeming far-off —
As if a cock crowed past the edge of the world,
As if a bird or I were in a dream.
Yet that he travelled through the trees and sometimes
Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still
He sounded. All the proof is — I told men
What I had heard.

I never knew a voice,
Man, beast, or bird, better than this. I told
The naturalists; but neither had they heard
Anything like the notes that did so haunt me,
I had them clear by heart and have them still.
Four years, or five, have made no difference. Then
As now that La-la-la! was bodiless sweet:
Sad more than joyful it was, if I must say
That it was one or other, but if sad
‘Twas sad only with joy too, too far off
For me to taste it. But I cannot tell
If truly never anything but fair
The days were when he sang, as now they seem.
This surely I know, that I who listened then,
Happy sometimes, sometimes suffering
A heavy body and a heavy heart,
Now straightway, if I think of it, become
Light as that bird wandering beyond my shore.

* * * * *

Then, when I turned 35, and I was twice as old as I had been when I heard the song, N. gave me a CD for my birthday. It was simply called Karyotakis, the surname of the poet whose lyrics had been used for the songs. The music was by Lena Platonos, and the songs were sung by Savina Yannatou. The first track was the song I’d heard and had never forgotten. Often when you revisit an experience many years later, you are disappointed and wish you had stayed away, with your memory intact and unsullied by age. This, however, was not one of them. It was just as beautiful as it had been seventeen years earlier. And it still is now.

Listen to the song.

* * * * *

Last week I was listening to the radio and I heard the music again, with strings and the very slow piano. But this time I caught the composer’s name. It’s Alexander Knaifel. The piece is called Svete Tikhiy, which means “O Gladsome Light”. I’ve found the piece, as well as another one called The Eighth Chapter. I wish I could play it for you. I wish you could hear it.

Here is part of it on YouTube.

Updates

1

A little over a year ago, I wrote about a blogger who was getting strange comments from people who thought he could pimp their ride. (When the comments reached 200, he closed the post to more comments.) Strangely enough, a year later, I got two elegant cries for help too. (See comments at the bottom.)

2

Back in May, I wrote about a student who had gone nuts and was spooking me out. I forgot to update about him. I never saw him again. Neither he nor the girl he was smitten with came back. He did drop by one day to say goodbye to the staff, when I wasn’t there, and said he had received his transfer to Thessaloniki. That’s a relief. I later learned that the girl had brought some of his letters to school to show the secretary, and in one of them he had scrawled that he was either going to kill himself or someone else. This man works in vice and carries a service revolver.

3.

I’m finally taking driving lessons. I still can’t get used to the idea that I’ll be steering a huge piece of machinery around the road. I was speaking to a British colleague and he said he had recently got his license. “Athens is the best place to learn,” he said. “Straight into the deep end.”

4.

Tomorrow I’ll be taking a little trip with N. and my parents, who arrived here a couple of weeks ago. We’re not sure yet where we’re going, but Meteora is definitely one of them, because N.’s never been there. I’ll be taking lots of pictures and notes. I plan to write here more often. I got some very kind words from E.J. Knapp, which have made my thoughts turn more often to this blog.

Baghdad Burning is a blog that gets a lot of coverage, and has even been published in book form, but just in case anyone stumbles across my blog somehow and has never seen it, there was this post today.

It’s hard to imagine what it’s like when people around you get dragged out of their house and are shot in the street, when you’ve never heard people scream the way they must when it’s happening, when you’ve only heard the sound of guns on television and in films, when dead bodies in television and film are so briefly shown.

But I imagine that in real life, the sounds and the sights must be all the more unsettling for not resembling what you see and hear on the screen. Life almost seems like a poor imitation of the drama that occurs in entertainment. The sound of a gun is not so loud and dramatic, there’s no emotional soundtrack. A man or woman is dragged out in the street, quickly, in an undignified manner, their screams for mercy — if they’re not stunned into silence — desperate and clinging, and then there is the sound of the gun. If it’s a pistol, then it strikes you as more of pop than anything you’ve seen in films or on TV. “Is that all there is?” you ask yourself. And the screaming stops. The body twitches for a moment and goes limp. You turn away in disgust, or in fear, or in rage, but when you turn back, the body is still there. You try to comprehend that body, now so lifeless, which only yesterday said hello to you, or wept in despair, or laughed at a joke in spite of everything, or bargained for milk or eggs. All those little details that have been cut off from the body now, which lies awkward and even more undignified, half on the curb, half on the road. You turn away; you turn back again; but unlike in the film, it won’t go away. You don’t cut to the next scene. It all ends anti-climactically. Somebody should come and take the body away, you say, and eventually somebody does.

Am I making any sense? I don’t know. I’m grasping at something ineffable, something that escapes each time I try to describe it.

Riverbend’s friend T., passing by the house with news of his sister’s engagement, with talk of his plans. T.’s emails, how he clicked on SEND, not knowing what the next day held for him. I keep thinking about his sister, the family that cannot now rejoice in her engagement, of the plans that cannot be fulfilled, and of those emails — which seem grotesque now in their total ignorance of the coming death. Pictures of cats sent by a man whose body lies in the street, his face rendered unrecognisable by the bullets that killed him.

In the likeness of truth

A few days ago a friend of mine in Toronto sent me an email linking to this story about yet another writer who’s been caught faking his memoirs. When the James Frey story broke, I followed it with interest, even though I didn’t know who Frey was. (I know I’d seen his name and the titles of his books around, but I hadn’t retained them.) At the same time, I thought it was a lot of fuss over nothing much. I remember having the feeling that it had been a long time coming. I also suspected that this sort of exposure was going to be a lot more common.

I wondered what people would have made of Bruce Chatwin if he were an emerging writer today, or if people had had Google back in the 80s. He was both a celebrated and a notorious teller of tall tales; some people who knew him speculated that he couldn’t always tell the difference between what was true and what he’d made up. More than once he denied that there was any division between fiction and nonfiction in his work, and was amused that The Songlines had been nominated for both fiction and nonfiction prizes. He defended the blurring of the border between the two by pointing to Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary was made up of so much research that, according to Chatwin, “very little is invented”.

What is interesting about this is that it shows what value they placed on fiction in those days, that they would try to disguise the truth as something made up. Today, the trend has been reversed.

Anyone who is interested in what’s going on in the publishing world today will be well aware of how much nonfiction outsells fiction. A lot of people don’t see the point of reading something that’s not true. I’ve met a great many people who feel this way. A former colleague of mine often told me that what he wanted from books — even works of fiction — was the opportunity to extract from them some kind, perhaps even any kind, of knowledge, and ideas. At first glance this seems noble enough, but I find the notion that literature must be useful rather philistine. (How do we measure its usefulness? That was a very good book: I learned many more facts than I usually do.) And I think people are deluded if they think anything they learn from a book (with the exception of textbooks about technical subjects, etc.) ends up making any difference their lives. These people seem to distrust pleasure as something not serious enough.

According to this former colleague’s line of reasoning, a good book is one that teaches you something you didn’t know. Follow this to its logical conclusion, and a book’s value depends on its reader’s ignorance.

I knew a writer back in Toronto who was desperate to get published and would come up with gimmicks and theories about what good writing had to be. For a long time, he insisted that it had to be, if not entirely, then mostly, autobiographical. (If he had said writing had to be self-absorbed and boring, the result would have been the same.) I tried to argue that whether a work was based on the writer’s life or imagination was extra-literary and irrelevant: only the quality mattered. He refused to accept this. He astounded me during one of our discussions by saying that he had originally admired “The Dead” by James Joyce and had thought it a great work of art, but then found his respect for it diminished when he learned that it was not as autobiographical as he’d first thought it was.

My parents don’t read, but they approach the films they watch on television in the same way. I used to walk past the livingroom while my mother was watching television and she would say, “Come and see this: it’s a true story!” My sister and I have been joking about this for years. When we talk on the phone about films we’ve seen, I’ll tell her, “You should rent it for the parents: it’s a true story.” They’ll sit and watch the worst crap imaginable as long as it’s a true story.

A few years ago, while my parents were visiting me here, I put on a DVD of Fargo and told my mother, “Come and see this — you won’t believe it, and it’s a true story.” It’s not, although the Coen brothers say it is at the beginning of the film. My mother was gripped by it, from beginning to end. And that’s no surprise: it’s a great story.

And this is why I wasn’t surprised, and was even a little pleased, when the Frey story broke. People need a good story, regardless of whether they think it’s true or not when they’re reading it. The telling of tales is one of our oldest traditions, and one that unites all peoples. It’s what Homer called saying false things that were like the truth. The scorn some of us have now for fantasy, for the imagination, for that faculty which has become shamefully underdeveloped, is a sign of our cultural decline, of our innocence lost. We are losing the sense that art and culture are rooted in games. We are like a people who do not remember how to laugh. We are losing the ability to open a book, or our ears, or our mind, and say, “Let’s play.”

Nodding on the bus

In ancient times, they had interesting notions about the body — mainly interesting because they're so different from ours.

For example, the word phren (φρην), midriff, also meant heart and mind, since the heart is obviously located in the torso, and they believed the mind was found in the heart. Later on, they believed that the personality was made up of different combinations of liquids in the body: black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. These ideas seem very strange to us now, even if remnants of these ideas still persist. Black bile, which has never been observed in nature, was too good a metaphor to give up. It's where we get melancholia. And although we don't believe the mind is found in the midriff, we still have words like phrenetic and schizophrenia.

There seems to have been in Homeric times the belief that strength had its seat in the knees. Probably this comes from the observation that when one is terrified, the knees give way.

"Aged sir, if only, as the spirit is in your bosom,
so might your knees be also and the strength stay steady with you" (IV.313-314)

"Come then, hold up your hands to Zeus, and let go an arrow
at this strong man, whoever he may be, who does so much evil
to the Trojans, since many and great are those whose knees he has broken." (V.174-176)

This leads, no doubt, to another custom which I find the strangest in Homer: the gestures in the act of supplication. When Thetis goes to see Zeus to petition in favour of her son Achilles,

She came and sat beside him with her left hand embracing
his knees, but took him underneath the chin with her right hand
and spoke in supplication to lord Zeus son of Kronos. (I.500-502)

I imagine they held the knees in recognition of the person's (or god's) power. It's hard to imagine this, especially the part about the chin, but it survives in at least one famous vase painting.

Nessus the centaur is begging Heracles to spare him, and is reaching back to take his chin. Clearly, he has no time to hold the knees.

But what did the chin symbolise? The question is too much for me, but I notice one thing: if the person or god agreed or consented to what was being asked, they turned their chin down towards the suppliant. If they denied their request, they turned their chin away. Homer even had a verb for each gesture. The first, κατανεύω (kataneuo), meant to turn the chin down, or to nod. It meant to give assent, or to promise something. The second, ανανεύω (ananeuo), meant to refuse or make a motion of prohibition.

She spoke in prayer, but Pallas Athene turned her head from her. (VI.311)

The curious thing is that these gestures still exist among Greeks today, after so many years. When a Greek says no, he nods upwards, raising his chin. Sometimes he will also raise his eyebrows. (Sometimes, if he is lazy — which is quite often — he will only raise the eyebrows.) Often, too, this gesture is accompanied by a clicking or tsk sound.

Growing up in Canada, I never made this gesture, of course. I would shake my head from left to right, like everyone else. Here in Greece, when I do this, people often think I'm saying I didn't hear them, and repeat themselves.

A Greek professor I had in university had told us once, "What separates us from Homer? Eighty grandfathers. That's all." It seems dubious, but an amusing thought nonetheless.

* * * * *

I really shouldn't, I know, but I get really annoyed when people stand at the bus door, or even get on, and ask people where the bus is going, or what bus it is. I myself never get on a bus if I don't know where it's going, or which one it is, but some people don't have time. People look absolutely stupid when they do it: they look around with a wide-eyed look of panic and say, "Is this the 203?!"

"It's a little late to be asking now, isn't it, you moron!" I feel like saying, but I can't be bothered. Most people ignore them, but someone eventually tells them whether it is or not. If it isn't, they get off at the next stop, and try their luck with whatever other public transport vehicle happens to stop near them.

Today I was going to work, and I was seated near the back door. We came to a stop on Vasilissis Sophias Street, near the Benaki Museum. A woman came to the door when it opened and shouted, "Is this going to Syntagma?"

No bus or trolley on that street goes to Syntagma, not exactly, and anyway she was close enough to walk. But no one was answering her. When I saw the beseeching, desperate look on her face, I felt nearly overcome with weariness. How do you explain such things to people like her? All I did was raise my eyebrows. I couldn't even be bothered to raise my chin.

And I thought, a moment or two later, how far I've come.


The translations are from Richmond Lattimore's Iliad, which follows the same line breaks as the original.

A Troubled Student

Yesterday I had one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult lessons I've ever had. I have a student, A., who's very quiet, sits at the back of the room and hardly ever speaks. In the first lesson, when we were introducing ourselves, I asked him what he did for a living, and he refused to answer. I found out later from one of the secretaries that he's a cop.

He seemed to get along well with everyone in the class, which wasn't really difficult, because everyone in that group got along well. They're a friendly bunch of people, ranging from about 20 to 36 years old. Occasionally he would refuse to answer a question, even if it was multiple choice. I'd say, "Come on, you have a 25% chance of getting it right," but he would shrug his shoulders helplessly. (This is not uncommon. I've seen people do this when there were only two choices.) But apart from that, he participated when asked to. He wrote a lot of compositions, too, in a large, messy script. Once we had a composition about what job we had or wanted to have, and he wrote the whole thing without ever stating what he actually did.

One thing that sticks out in my mind as atypical of what I imagine cops to be like is that he liked Rimbaud and Baudelaire a lot.

Sometimes he came to class without his books. I thought that maybe the course was being paid for by some sort of work-related programme, and he simply had to put in the hours. I still don't know if this was the case. At any rate, I've seen this sort of thing many, many times, and I thought nothing of it. After the Easter break, though, he started to get very strange. He'd sit in class with these huge sunglasses that made him look like a fly. At the school where I work, we share classes with another teacher. For example, I teach this class on Tuesdays, and the other teacher on Thursdays. The other teacher told me that A. had said some strange things in class. He'd raised his hand and started talking about music and radio, when it had nothing to do with what the class was discussing. He left after only an hour. He'd left early in my class too, but had not spoken.

Yesterday I saw him sitting at his desk at the back, without the huge sunglasses this time, with a pack of Marlboros and a CPE textbook on his desk. But it was the wrong book. We don't use that one. In a joking sort of tone, I asked him what he was doing with that one.

"I prefer this one," he said, in broken English. (He usually responds to English with Greek.) "I think it's a very good book."

I told him that the author of it produces good stuff.

"But actually at the moment I'm not interested in Cambridge or Michigan. I listen to the radio. [He may have said something about Eurovision.] And I'm smoking a lot."

Before you joke about what he's smoking, let me make it clear that I immediately understood this as a sign that he was under stress of some kind, and was smoking the way some people drink when things are difficult. I don't remember people resorting to cigarettes so much in Canada at times like that, although I know they do. But it seems they do it even more here in Greece.

Anyway, the lesson got under way. I knew better than to ask him any questions, since he didn't have the book, and I knew he wasn't interested enough. I didn't ask him to sit with someone who had the book. The first hour was fine. I don't remember him doing or saying anything. In the teacher's room during the break, I was telling the others about the little exchange we'd had about the book when one of the secretaries came in and said, "You wouldn't happen to have a student who's acting a little strangely today?" I said I did. He told me that A. had been saying strange things things to some students in the waiting room before class had started, and had alarmed them. I learned from the secretary that he had told one of the girls in the class that he wanted her to be the mother of his children.

In the second hour, the situation became clearer to me. A. was in love with the girl whose children he said he wanted to father. After the first break, he began to talk more in class, and things became awkward. I hoped he would leave again, but he didn't. He didn't even leave the room to smoke — he stood at the window at the back of the classroom.

In the second hour, he took out a blank sheet of paper from somewhere and began to write quickly. In only a few minutes he'd written a page and a half. He seemed inspired. Later, he started tearing up paper in small squares, about 3×3 inches, and writing on those. When the hour was over, and I was leaving the room, he asked me a question. It started out having to do with English, but in mid-sentence was about Madonna and a few other things. "You know?" he said at the end of it, and I just said, "No." Some people laughed.

In the third hour, he was much more talkative, and I spent it dreading every time he opened his mouth or raised his hands. The rest of the class were trying very hard to be conscientious about the lesson, and keep up the appearance of order.

"Have you seen the video clip for 'November Rain'?" he asked me at one point, although it had nothing to do with anything. I told him I hadn't, and he shrugged, disappointed, and remarked that I was obviously clueless then.

At one point he suddenly spoke up and said he was dying for a cigarette. I told him he could go out and have one if he wanted to. He started saying things I couldn't understand, although the others in the class realised he was talking about the girl who was ignoring his advances. The oldest student, who is my age, and who sits at the front of the class, told him to give it a rest. I gathered that he'd talked about it before. Then she said quietly, so that only those around her could her, "He's not well."

There were moments of lucidity, though. He raised his hand and proposed that, since the course is ending, I tell them how I thought they had done in things like their compositions, if I was disappointed with them in any way, or give them any last bits of advice. I made a few brief comments and moved on. Another time, he raised his hand and asked a question that had nothing to do with what we were discussing, and then, realising his mistake, said, "Don't mind me — I'm raving."

The verb defect came up, and I was explaining what it meant. The oldest student, who is often the only one to pick up on the cultural references that I make in class, mentioned Baryshnikov, whom the others didn't even know. She wondered if Nureyev had defected. I mentioned Solzhenitsyn, but jokingly, since I knew that if they hadn't heard of the other two, they would have a clue who he was. A. raised his hand and said there was also Dostoevsky and Pushkin, and that the latter was a philhellene.

"But they lived before the formation of the USSR," I said.

"And then there's Lorca, who said he was going to burn the Parthenon," he quickly added. He made some remark to the effect that this is the kind of stuff we Greeks have to deal with.

Finally, the last hour came to an end. I knew the girl he was in love with was not going to leave alone. She went to the secretary, who's a much bigger guy than A., and some of the students waited for her, I believe. (I know they went as a group and complained.) I had to get ready for the next class. (I have a weird one in that class too, probably on medication, but I'll take ten of him before A.) When A. was leaving, he passed the drinking fountain and slammed his book on it, and left it there. Later in the evening, I looked at it in the secretary's office. It was new, untouched, except for the indentations his writing had made on the cover when he was writing on the paper.

I dread to think what he'll be like next time, if he comes back. I hope he doesn't. I dread the thought of him becoming violent, if it comes to that. It's tough when you know that, should it come to that, you'll have to do something. If he does something to bother the girl, you'll have to step in, even though he may be able to send you flying.

And I hope he's not working. I can't imagine him staying at work (let alone carrying a gun) in that state. I hope he's on some kind of disability leave. They say he was being transferred to Thessaloniki and wasn't going to register for the rest of the course. But who knows now.


Update:

Tonight I said to my boss, "I guess you heard about the incident with A." Not only had she heard, but she knew much more than I did. She told me that A. had given a letter to the girl saying that he was either going to kill somebody or kill himself, or both. Her parents called the school and said that they were going to take legal action against him.

Unfortunately, the administration's attitude has been to wait and see. They don't want to do anything about it because there are only three more lessons, and he's not going to come back anyway when the course ends. Meanwhile, we teachers (not to mention the girl, if she decides to come again) have to go into a classroom with a disturbed policeman who has threatened to kill "someone".

The next class for that group is tomorrow night (18 May). Then there are two more lessons next week. I hope the girl doesn't come. She's a sweet kid, but she should stay home. She'll continue the course when he's gone anyway. (Unless her parents decide — quite logically, in my opinion — to put her somewhere he won't be able to find her.) 

4th European Social Forum

I don’t normally go to demonstrations or marches — in fact, I hardly ever go. I went to the big march on Sunday 6 May more for research than anything else, because there’s a march like this in the novel I’m writing. I took quite a few pictures, most of which I’ve uploaded to my Flickr page.

Last pictures from Crete…

… till next time, that is.

When I returned to Athens, I noticed that none of the photos looked good on my own computer. I thought my monitor was good, but the one I was using in Crete was much better.

I took this as a flight of pigeons began to take off. I thought they were going to hit me.

It was hard to get a good picture of all of St Minas in one shot. It’s huge. You can check out more of them here. In the larger versions you can see the same seagull sitting on top of the uppermost cross in all the pictures. It never moved. The view must have been great from up there.

This is a marble plaque in the wall of the small St Matthew’s church in the old district of Lakkos, which is being fixed up. I have a book on the area, written by an anthropologist. When you walk through it, you can see that a colourful piece of the city’s history is disappearing. And I didn’t even take any pictures of it. I’ll try again later this summer, when I visit again.

I took a lot of pictures of churches. I’ve never been particularly interested them, but you tend to see things differently through the lens of a camera.

A response to the screenplay-novel

I have been challenged by Finn Harvor to answer some questions about the state of things in the publishing world, and in the novel in general, a challenge I won't take up in its entirety. The main reason is that I'm not qualified to talk about the publishing industry; I have no first-hand experience of it. (I'm talking about fiction here, not EFL publishing.) I can only repeat what I've read in articles and other blogs. My main concern is the novel itself — how to write it and how to read it. As far as the latter is concerned, so many have been written, in so many languages, that I can't possibly hope to skim the surface. I have so many unread books in my own library that if I could manage to read one a week, I would need more than thirty years. I still buy books even though I know I already have more than I will ever be able to read in my lifetime. It's hard, then, for me to get too worried about the state of things.

I won't get into what a novel is for me and what I want from it, mainly because I'm not interested in persuading anyone that it is the way. But for me this is something fixed (even though it's exciting when a writer comes along and writes one in a very different way, and seems to reinvent the novel). It is a kind of ideal. And by that I mean that if the novel changes in such a way that it no longer offers me what I want, then I will have no problem with turning my back on its future. As I said, I already have enough to me keep me busy for the rest of my life, and there are many great works I haven't even bought, let alone read. So publishing for me is not an end in itself. My main concern as a writer is to write the kind of book I like, or the kind of book I'd like to read but which hasn't been written yet. For me, writing is a long process of discovery and surprise, which is why I could never write a novel that had already been tightly plotted out beforehand. I enjoy the sense of not knowing exactly where it's going. If I lost that, I would never be able to maintain my interest in writing. I'd simply give up. Even if the prospect of publication were ensured, it would be too much of a chore. My point, then, is that, although I would love to be a successful novelist, I would only want to be so on my terms. If those terms were not accepted by any publisher, I'd either give up or publish it myself. For this reason, I would also prefer to be published by a small publisher whose vision of literature I shared than with a big publisher whose main concern is to sell a blockbuster (the kind of book I don't read anyway). I had begun another post, and have left some comments on Harvor's blog, with some objections to his "manifesto", but have since thought better of it. I will only respond on a personal level and try to account for why the kind of writing he is advocating offers me no enjoyment at all.

* * * * *

A couple of months ago, I watched Apocalypse Now for the first time in years, and I was struck again by something that occurred to me when I first read Heart of Darkness. (I had seen the film first.)

For me, the most fundamental difference between the two works is how they approach Kurtz. Both the book and the film create a strong sense of anticipation; you hear a lot about him, for a long time, before you see him, and he begins to grow in your imagination. But in the film, when we finally see Kurtz, it's someone who pontificates, whereas in the book he remains relatively silent. Brando's semi-improvised speeches have an anticlimactic effect. They are, for the most part, a combination of the pretentious and pedestrian. (Anyone who has seen Hearts of Darkness, the documentary, cannot envy Coppolla having to salvage something from the two weeks he worked with Brando. Perhaps the now-classic line, "I swallowed a bug!" could have been left in the film without detracting from it much.)

Conrad, though, knew what he was doing, and had his Kurtz keep his mouth shut. No one knows — except Marlowe, who tells you that you simply had to be there — what Kurtz experienced. But we see the result, and we get this final judgement: "The horror!" Our imagination must work on the material to justify the unquestionable result: Kurtz's state at the end of the book. And the imagination cannot fail to convince itself. If it does, you try again, or say, "I can't imagine, but it must have been horrible if it had such an effect."

The film, however invites the viewer to say, "I'm not convinced that those experiences would lead to this." We can even fail to be impressed with the result. This is because film as a medium must show. The novel has access to the interior world of its characters, and film is a direct, simultaneous representation of the exterior world.

(Of course, there are exceptions to this. Ironically, Apocalypse Now fails where it tries to show the interior — if Coppolla had left more to the imagination, it would have worked — and Heart of Darkness succeeds because it avoids delving first-hand into Kurtz's inner life.)

To have access to the interior world of its characters in such a way, a film must use some kind technique like the voice-over or have the actor think aloud. When voice-over is used too often, critics often complain that the film is using the technique as a crutch, to compensate for what it has not been able to do in the language and with the methods of film. It's using methods that are not visual and therefore not best suited to the medium.

I don't want to sound rigid in my expectations. I'm not. I'm well aware that novels can deal almost entirely with appearances. Robbes-Grillet comes to mind, and then there's this curious example:

The temperature is in the nineties, and the boulevard is absolutely empty.

Lower down, the inky water of a canal reaches in a straight line. Midway between two locks is barge full of timber. On the bank, two rows of barrels.

Beyond the canal, between houses separated by workyards, a huge, cloudless, tropical sky. Under the throbbing sun, white facades, slate roofs, and granite quays hurt the eyes. An obscure distant murmur rises in the hot air. All seems drugged by the Sunday peace and the sadness of summer days.

Two men appear.

In his "Notes on an Unfinished Novel", John Fowles made this comment:

Here (the opening four paragraphs of a novel) is a flagrant bit of writing for the cinema. The man has obviously spent too much time on film scripts and can now think only of his movie sale. […] It first appeared on March 25, 1881. The writer's name is Flaubert. All I have done to his novel Bouvard et Pecuchet is to transpose its past historic into the present.

I recommend the essay to anyone interested in the question of the two media. You can find it in his Wormholes.

* * * * *

My main objection is with Harvor's notion of vividness in writing. "Less is more vivid" says the header on his blog. He has also rightly said that we get more mileage out of Jack Nicholson raising his eyebrow and sighing than we can with some dialogue. Robert De Niro once said that such a gesture was worth an entire page of script. The irony, of course, is that these examples serve to reduce the script, to do away with the cumbersome, less effective written word in the visual medium of film. Both are examples of an immediate vividness that writing cannot aspire to.

A writer, however, can try to create the vivid image. Some may write, "Jack smirked ironically", but this is hardly vivid. A vivid image is always impressed upon us. In this example, the reader needs to have a clear idea beforehand of what an ironic smirk looks like and then to consult this image quickly. This is a considerable amount of imaginative work on the part of the reader, more even than the writer was prepared to do. A careful, attentive and imaginative reader, however, is quite likely to lose patience here, to demand more from a writer. The reader who does not lose patience is the one who does not consult an image, but simply takes in the ironic smirk as a mere fact, as a bit of information, and moves on. Reader and writer are doing a small but equal amount of imaginative work.

If the writer had described the raising of an eyebrow, the crooked smile, the sideways glance, the brief puff of breath out of the nose (all the while never resorting to the word "ironic"), then a vivid image perhaps would have been created. (I can't speak for the success of an off-hand attempt.) The reader would see it clearly. They might not understand it as ironic, but that's a risk all writers must take.

Grumpy Old Bookman made some good observations in this post:

But you see, while the literati despise cliches, the truth is that, in certain contexts, they serve a useful purpose. You and I, being sophisticated folk, probably would not use a phrase such as 'avoid like the plague' in writing; and maybe not in conversation. But to many readers/listeners, such a phrase communicates an idea instantly and effectively.

Instant and effective communication is what commercial fiction is all about. And to criticise an artefact for being eminently suitable for its purpose seems to me to be unreasonable.

Ditto for 'cardboard characters'. Which might more fairly be described as broadbrush, or well defined characters. And ditto for repetitions of key facts. Modern readers, as I keep on saying, are not reading their books for two hours at a stretch in a peaceful environment. They read commercial novels, in particular, in snatched moments, on crowded trains. Giving such readers a few reminders of key facts is not a practice which is deserving of criticism. On the contrary.

The democratic, interactive sounding "We are all directors now" overlooks the fact that readers don't want to be directors. They want the writer to be the director. Some of them want the sort of chunks of ready-made information that the Grumpy Old Bookman talks about, which can be quickly processed with little effort, and others want sharper, more discrete details that can be put together and interpreted.

When Harvor writes

NEVILLE: [nervously, clearly wanting to say something more] Sure. Let's go for coffee. I'd like that.

or

PAUL: Oh. Okay. Thanks. [beat] Did the person say who they were?
JENNIFER: [without significance] Your dad.
PAUL: Oh. Great. [Sighs] Okay. I’ll be there in a sec.
JENNIFER: [cheerfully] Bye!

or

PAUL’S FATHER: [astounded] Tomorrow?! But this is important!
PAUL: Well, okay, if it’s so important, what is it?
PAUL’S FATHER: [dramatically] I can’t say.

this is not vivid. It does not invite the reader to create a vivid image. It is lazy writing. At times it is cartoonish:

ASIAN FRIEND: She not like you, Luis.
LUIS, THE HANDSOME MEXICAN GUY: [astounded by the suggestion] Not like?!

The "direction" is so superfluous even the comic-book punctuation explains it. In general, the directions are trying to do something the dialogue itself can handle. Another example:

PAUL: [to Jennifer] Where is it?
JENNIFER: What?
PAUL: The phone.
JENNIFER: Oh. Right here. [She indicates a phone mere inches away from her.]

When the secretary says "Right here", we don't need to be told that she points to the telephone on her desk. We understand that it's close. Otherwise she would have said, "Over there."

And sometimes, as with "without significance", they're simply perplexing.

I believe I've known Finn for a long enough time to say that if he'd seen it himself in a block of prose, in a conventional or traditional piece of fiction, he would agree.

One could say that the problem lies with the practioner. Surely there's room in the screenplay novel for more vivid description? There is, but then we are turning back to the methods already used in the novel. The reader who is willing to do the work to properly read a carefully written piece of fiction has no need to turn to the screenplay novel (unless it contains advantages I can't see). The only thing that changes is the way we write the dialogue.

Check out Finn Harvor's blog, http://screen-novel.blogspot.com, and read his novel here, and decide for yourselves.