Sometime in late March, I jotted down the names of three books that I was interested in. “Jotted” down was the wrong word–I “entered” them onto the “NOTES” feature on my iPhone. The three were Himself by Jess Kidd, Eggshells by Caitriona Lally and Slipping by John Toomey.
In late May, I went on AMAZON to order the first book, Himself, and AMAZON suggested that I might also be interested in two other books. They were the two other titles that I had written down on my phone. Now, I know it’s easy being paranoid in these technologically, dystopic times–but nevertheless it was eerie.
However, AMAZON was right. All three satisfied my reading needs.
Toomey’s Slipping is part of the Irish Literary Series published by the Dalkey Press (from
whom one can usually find a gem) and it is masterful in its plotting, its narration, and its style.
Albert Johnson is a middle-aged, high-school English teacher in a small village. He is dissatisfied with the path his life has taken, disgusted with the students who sit in front of him, and disparaging of most of the colleagues who teach with him. He also blames his wife for most of this.
And he saw a way out.
When the novel begins, Albert Johnson is in a psychiatric hospital for having killed his wife. Through his psychiatrist, Johnson hires Charles Vaughan, a local writer, to write his story, initially giving him a tape that explains what he did.
Obviously, this isn’t a murder mystery; we know who did it. Rather, it is an examination of storytelling itself, with multiple narrators and shifting points of view.
To research the story, Charlie Vaughan has the tapes Johnson has provided, (against the advice of his psychiatrist), the testimony of colleagues, of the arresting officer, and a problematic student who stumbled upon the scene. He also interviews Johnson’s adult daughter. A son wants nothing to do with Johnson or Vaughan.
The story Vaughan cobbles together, however, is sketchy and unsatisfying, despite Johnson’s own philosophical ruminations about what drove him to murder. Vaughan believes there is something missing, something that is not being said.
It is in the final section where some of these gaps are filled in, where the make-up of Johnson’s mind is more clearly illuminated.
Riveting is too clichéd a word, but it fits here. The novel moves quickly, moving us through Albert Johnson’s workday, through his fantasy life, through his years of married life. We see his dissatisfaction and his delusions. And we see his deliberateness.
Toomey, who has written two previous novels, Sleepwalker and Huddleston Road, is an English teacher in Dublin and his account of a day in the life of Albert Johnson is
humorously realistic and frighteningly real. But this single school day serves as only a backdrop to the destructive thoughts that have been swirling in Johnson’s mind for years…and which lead to his horrific outburst.
Silk Screen illustration 2016 by jpbohannon.
Winston Churchill called his bouts with depression “having the black dog on his back.” This was not original with him, but was a common saying, referring more often to moodiness than depression. One historian likened it to the phrase “getting up on the wrong side of the bed.” But nevertheless, the phrase has been attributed to Churchill and ever since been associated with depression.
God knows, the world that Churchill saw certainly could buckle the strongest man’s knees.
And so it seems to be these past few months, as well. From Paris to Brussles to Orlando to Dallas to Nice to Turkey to everyday traffic-stops, there has just been an onslaught of horrific and discouraging news. President Obama, in his speech after the Dallas shootings, said that “this is not who we are.”
But I wonder. Not we as Americans specifically–although I do wonder about that–but we as a species.
Sure, I know the heartwarming and hopeful stories as well: from high-school kids doing serious global service to individual neighbors coming together to help another in worse shape than they, from those who put their lives on the line to those who fight against power when it seems determined to crush the weak. I know people whose every thought seems to be how to better the lives of the sick and dispossessed, the impoverished and the abused.
And yet these past few months have been relentless.
Last week, I read two novels by Dag Solstad, Shyness and Dignity and Professor Andersen’s Night. Both deal with teachers–Norwegian literature teachers–at the end of their careers. They both (a high-school teacher and university teacher respectively) question the value of the literature they profess. (Both are teaching Ibsen.) The struggle to make students realize the value of literature has been ongoing throughout their career–that is always the natural give and take between student and teacher, although both feel it increasingly worse– but now they feel that that value is questioned by society itself. From evolving technologies–and the distractions they provide–to current pedagogical trends and goals that emphasize success in a future career, they feel out of place, like dinosaurs, supporting a cause that is no longer relevant in the ultra-modern world.
And it is easy to believe that.
As hundreds are gunned down, blown-up, crushed, drowned, stripped of their homes, it is hard to rationalize the need to read a 150 year old Norse play, or a 450 year British play , or a 2500 year old Greek. Novels, poetry, drama, short fiction…it all feels so powerless against men with efficient guns and deficient ideas.
And yet, never before has it been so important.
Study after study has linked reading literature with an increase in the development of EMPATHY. Even the youngest teenager, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, understands on the simplest of levels, the importance of “walking in another man’s shoes.” Reading has always been a way of experiencing different lives, different cultures, different ideas. And this is what it needs to continue to do. It is our insularity, our tribalism, our fear of (and intolerance to) the “other” that is that root of much of the world’s pain and horror.
I KNOW that art, music, literature, theater, dance are more than just “nice things” for entitled leisure. They are essential to us as a species.
I KNOW these things to be true. But these days I do not FEEL it.
But I must continue doing what I do, nevertheless: read and write.
However, as I read this, the “black dog” is wagging its tail frantically and banging up against the door.
A general statement would be that I greatly admire Ethan Hawke’s movies. (His “serious” movies. I’ve never seen his more commercial work.) Just as true is the fact that I rarely like the characters Ethan Hawke plays in these movies. Too often they seem to me to be self-involved posers. To wit, while I truly love the three Richard Linklater films (Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, and Before Midnight), I do not like the Ethan Hawke character, particularly in the last. (As his success as a writer grows in these movies, so does his self-involvement and pomposity.) I believe that Hawke himself to be an interesting, knowledgeable and intellectual artist, honest about his art and serious about his decisions, but playing one on film is another thing. My god, the most annoyingly self-centered intellectual twit of all time is Hamlet, and Ethan Hawke’s version of the character is true to form. Though I love this version of Hamlet, I’m pretty glad when Hawke’s Hamlet gets it in the end (by gun this time rather than sword.)
Having said that, Maggie’s Plan is a sweet, whimsical film, filled with quirky performances and centered around the Ethan Hawke typical role–a wannabe novelist, anguishing over his work, and pretty sure the world revolves around him.
Quickly, the film concerns a young girl in New York, Maggie (Greta Gerwig) who wants to get pregnant. She finds a potential sperm donor–a friend from her undergraduate days in Wisconsin (Travis Fimmel). However, at the same time she meets John (Ethan Hawke) a professor at New York’s New School where she also works.
And so, they begin an affair.
John is writing a novel, and is not getting the support he wants from his wife Georgette, a superstar intellectual played by Julianne Moore, who hilariously uses an accent that channels Madeline Kahn from her Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles days. John begins having Maggie read his work-in-progress, which is basically how he seduces her.
Quickly Maggie and John get married, they have a child, and just as quickly she wants to give him back to his wife. His self-centeredness is simply too much to cope with. So elaborate plans are made to “return him.” (This could be the “Maggie’s plan” of the title, or it could be her strategy to have a child.)The plot to get the original husband and wife together is humorous and flawed and is the gist of the film.
Helping Maggie along are her two friends Tony and Felicia, played by Bill Hader and Maya Rudolf. Both of these actors continue to grow their talents in a variety of interesting projects, and in Maggie’s Plan, they make the most of the minutes they are on the screen.
Maggie herself is quirky and likeable and somewhat innocent. Her wardrobe (which seems to be what can only be called 1950s Wisconsin-chic) places her as an outsider in savvy New York, and her contact with the intimidating Georgette only underscores this.
Maggie’s Plan is light fare–so much lighter than director Rebecca Miller’s previous work. There is a sweet and satisfying (though hinted at) ending and there are some wonderful performances. (Again, Julianne Moore is hilarious, and seems as if she is enjoying playing so over-the-top.)
It is not the kind of film where one goes for coffee afterwords to deconstruct and analyze it–and it is not intended to be such. Maggie’s Plan is simply a pleasant way to pass a few hours in the summer.
A very good friend of mine—an Italian woman—has lately been going through a very rough patch in her marriage. These last few years have been filled with much drama and melodrama, with betrayals and reconciliations, with threats and recriminations, and with lots and lots of pain.
I know much of this because she is also a very good and honest writer, and, at times, I have been a sounding board/early reader for her essays as she finalizes them prior to sending them out. With these, I am a bad critic because I cannot separate the raw, emotional writing from the woman I know and care about. The quality of the writing seems secondary to the pain being displayed. So I can’t focus on the writing as I should.
This was also the case when I first began Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Immediately, it too draws you in with the story of an intelligent woman–a writer–blindsided and abandoned by a careless husband. It too draws you in with the raw pain, the self-doubt, the self-incrimination of one who has been abandoned.
And Ferrante’s writing is such that we forget easily that this is all a fiction–we believe we are reading the true story of a real woman who is in pain and confusion and despair.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave,” reads the very first sentence.
And thus Olga, the narrator, is demolished. Her sense of self-worth is destroyed, her understanding of her past is shakened, her hope for the future vaporized. And through Ferrante’s words we feel that abandonment greatly.
Like one grieving at a death, the narrator experiences all the varying emotions of loss: she is in turn defeated and determined, angry and frustrated, confused and clear-minded. Besides the trauma of her husband’s leaving, she must also deal with the business of raising two children and running a household.
At times, Olga can also be quite funny in her frustration and anger. Once when she goes to the telephone offices to complain that her service has been cut off, she is told that all complaints must be phoned in. Where do I go, she asks “if I want to spit in somebody’s face”? And her attacking her ex the first day she sees him in the street with his mistress is very funny–and satisfying.
There is a sex scene–one that ends prematurely and unsatisfyingly for Olga– in which Olga attempts to grasp some sense of self-worth, and while sad and pathetic, it also highlights Ferrante’s skill as a writer for it is well-written and unique and believable–never an easy thing to do when describing sex.
There are sick children and dying dogs and grumpy natives and the usual manipulations that accompany a formal separation between couples. And through it all we see Olga hit bottom, recover and then survive.
At one point, Olga says, “In order to write well, I need to go to the heart of every question, of a smaller, safer place. Eliminate the superfluous. Narrow the field. To write truly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb.”
And this is what Ferrante herself has done with her novel–she has stripped away the “superfluous,” she has asked the essential questions, and she has written from the very depths.
One reviewer wrote that The Days of Abandonment could have been written only by someone who has experienced the pain and despair of sudden separation, and implied that this is Ferrante’s own story. I don’t know if that is true or not.
I do know that such an assumption is a critical fallacy, and it demeans the artistry that Ferrante possesses. The Days of Abandonment is a novel; it is a piece of fiction. Whether Ferrante has drawn on her own experiences or not does not matter. She has created a work of art that stands on its own.
Olga’s story is ours to read, to think about and to empathize with. And in the process, she becomes someone we care about and worry about and celebrate with.
It is like having a good friend tell you her story.
The Days of Abandoment by Elena Ferrante
translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa editions, 2005
Reading Patti Smith is like listening to an old friend–but an old friend who is better read, better traveled and better experienced than you. And certainly wiser. And though she states several times at the beginning of M Train she has nothing to write about, her sense of nothing is quite different than mine.
As a means of remembering and reminiscing about her deceased husband–Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died in 1994–M Train begins by documenting a trip to French Guiana that the two of them took with the express purpose of gathering pebbles at an abandoned jail in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. It is a trip filled with obstacles and difficulties, but the three pebbles she has gathered are for placing on Jean Genet’s grave– the type of gesture of reverence and respect that Smith repeats throughout her account. And though her remembered moments with her husband anchor the memoir, more of it chronicles her life that continues on afterwards.
And what we find in that chronicle is an extraordinarily interested human being. (And generally, those who are most interested in the world around them are usually the most interesting themselves!) Smith is a voracious reader and much of her writing deals with what she is reading and the directions it sends her. (Here is a list of books–from Rimbaud to Susan Sontag–that Patti Smith once recommended.) The writer Maria Popova, in her wonderful blog BrainPickings, also has amassed a list of Smith’s literary references from M Train alone.
Her relationship with books goes well beyond the printed page. She engages with the authors and the characters and the places. (In actuality, she knew a good number of writers: Burroughs, Bowles, Ginsberg.) When she first reads Murakami, she reads nothing else, going from one novel to the next (though not in chronological order.) When she reads his The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, she immediately rereads it, fixating on a specific fountain that appears in the novel.
For Smith, the writers and artists who create the things she loves are very real–and she feels very close to them and their spirits. Thus, she visits Frieda Kahlo’s bedroom and Sylvia Plath’s grave, photographs Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Beckett’s spectacles, Tolstoy’s bear. In Japan she makes pilgrimages to the graves of her most beloved writers and honors them reverently. To her, the spirit of these creative individuals remains. Like her husband, they too are dead, but still inform her world.
And while she is an extraordinary reader and traveler, she is also very much an ordinary person: addicted to detective shows (The Killing, Law and Order, and the gamut of BBC detectives), sits on her front stoop to smoke a cigarette, feeds her cats, and hangs out in a favorite coffee shop. (A hilarious scene occurs when a woman takes her regular table while she’s in the bathroom and Smith fantasizes how the woman’s murdered body would be positioned in various detective shows.)
It is this ordinariness that is the most charming. We easily forget that she is more than an artist–is in some senses a celebrity. But one never meets the celebrity; instead we meet a woman who is at times gregarious and at other times meditative, who lives simply and cherishes the little moments of our lives, and who is still capable of being overpowered by a book she has read or awed by a celebrity she has met. (She tells an amusing tale of running into the British actor, Robbie Coltrane, who starred in the rarely televised detective series Cracker.)
She reads with an artist’s eye and a writer’s ear; yet she writes like an old lost friend. And that is what has made both of her memoirs —Just Kids and M Train–such a joy to read.
Below is a lovely (6 minute) video of Patti Smith “giving advice to the young.” It is a good example of her wisdom, her kindness, and her hope.