“There’s no normal life, Wyatt. There’s just life.”
From the movie Tombstone,
featuring Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday
“There’s no normal life, Wyatt. There’s just life.”
From the movie Tombstone,
featuring Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday
The Ripe Fig
Now that you live here in my chest,
anywhere we sit is a mountaintop.
And those other images,
which have enchanted people
like porcelain dolls from China,
which have made men and women weep
for centuries, even those have changed now.
What used to be pain is a lovely bench
where we can rest under the roses.
A left hand has become a right.
A dark wall, a window.
A cushion in a shoe heel,
the leader of the community!
Now silence. What we say
is poison to some
and nourishing to others.
What we say is a ripe fig,
but not every bird that flies
― Rumi, The Essential Rumi
“Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship with everything in the universe.”
His latter assertion, he bases on the fact that this novel deals with two “twenty-something” women and one male talking about relationships, hopes, dreams, and reality. Before Rachel, Monica and Ross dished, Rosenkrantz’s characters were doing the same.
And before Snooki and the “Situation” shared more than we wanted to know about their adventures at the Jersey Shore, Rosenkrantz’s kids were already at it.
And how she did it was that she took a tape-recorder (they were very bulky in the mid-1960s) everywhere she went one summer, on the beach, in the shore-houses, at clubs.The concept sounded wonderful. Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder and recorded her friends as they made dinners, basked on the beach, drove to clubs, and packed and unpacked.
At the end of the summer, she had more than twenty-five characters speaking the truth–or at the very least speaking. And they speak a lot.
Thankfully, she winnowed the twenty-five down to three: Vincent, a gay male painter; Emily, a struggling actress with a drinking problem; and Marsha, who has a “serious” job in New York, and who is the anchor of the novel. All of it is supposed to take place against the background of New York’s edgy art scene, with Warhol the subject of more than one name drop. (At the time, Rosenkrantz was editor of Sotheby’s Auction magazine and was quite cognizant of all the goings on in the art world at the time.)
The three are all at the shore. They are all in therapy. And they share their therapeutic insights with us. And on top of it all, there is an odd love triangle.
Emily loves Marsha. They are the best of friends and Marsha tries to nurture Emily through her psychiatric problems and her drinking. Vinnie understands Emily more than he understands Marsha, but Marsha is madly in love with him despite knowing he is gay. (And there are hints that Vinnie might also be in love with Marsha, but… .)
Take these three people, have their conversations recorded, and then transcribe them in a novel may have worked 50 years ago, but it does not work today. The psychoanalysis is juvenile, the relationships are sophomoric, and the conversations–for the most part–are deadening.
Koch was right when he said Talk was the precursor to reality television. He just didn’t tell us that it was the precursor of all that was inane, self-indulgent, and titallating about the genre. Talk might have been ground-breaking in 1968, but in the 21st century, it doesn’t even work as anthropology.
Imagine sitting on a towel on the beach next to these three people, discussing their analysis, their love lives and more. It would be enough for me to hope for a rip tide.
A friend on mine was in semi-seclusion and had begun reading the novel aloud to her cat. (Although, out of compassion, she did not read him the passages where Karenin the dog is in his final stages of cancer and must be euthanized.) The cat stayed attentive through all of it.
Kundera himself would love this story.
Having no immediate access to Kurenda’s latest, I pulled down from the shelf my worn copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and began reading it myself. It was the sixth or seventh time I had read it.
What draws the reader into the novel are the characters’ personalities, both heroic and damaged; the politics, both sexual and global; and the self-knowledge with which each of the three characters, Tomas, Teresa, and Sabina, work at achieving and which causes readers to reflect inward themselves. At least, that’s what happened to me.
And of course, there is the quirky, sometimes humorous interruptions by the narrator and the self-aware, redoubling rhythms of the narration.
During the course of my reading, I also had to attend a funeral. And at the luncheon that followed, I sat next to a woman who has always reminded me of the actress, Juliette Binoche, which of course reminded me of Binoche’s role in the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. That my friend was from East Germany underscored the connection with this Eastern European novel.
Here is the trailer from the 1988 film:
And so, I finally got the newest, The Festival of Insignificance, out of the public library, and began reading it the moment I finished the earlier work. It is a slim volume, a mere 115 pages in the American edition, and it features much of what is admirable in Kundera: Characters who “live examined lives” and are notable for their philosophic wonderings and reflective attitudes, a narrator who periodically pops into the story to discuss the workings of the novel itself, and a level of global political awareness that is not often present in American novels.
And there is Kundera’s wry humor.
The flap of the book jacket cites a passage from an earlier novel, Slowness, in which the wife of the main character tells her husband:
“You’ve often told me you meant to write a book one day that would have not a single serious word in it. … I warn you: watch out. Your enemies are lying in wait.”
The Festival of Insignificance purportedly is that book, and it begins with a discussion of the navel. Or at least what one character, Alain, feels is the eroticization of the navel in the 21st century. This thought comes about as Alain walks down a street in Paris and notices the many cropped tops and low-hung jeans — and thus the navels — of so many young women. And, it is this immediate preoccupation with the navel that is the cord that binds the various stories of the novel together.
Through his musings about the navel’s surge in fashionable exposure, the middle-aged Alain remembers the last time he saw his mother, who had wanted him aborted and abandoned him when he was two and whom he last saw when he was six. This is paired with another friend whose mother is dying, which is then linked to Joseph Stalin who gave birth to an era of madness and horror in twentieth-century Europe.
In fact, Stalin appears throughout the novel, finally making an appearance in modern day Paris, at a children’s show in the Luxembourg Gardens, riding in a tiny children’s carriage.
As with all of Kundera, there are serious musings on European and human history, on disease and finality, on love and on sex. These are thoughtful and thought-provoking discussions which nest comfortably in the interior lives of his main characters.
Kundera’s thesis is that in the vastness of the universe, human life AND human history is relatively insignificant–that human history is merely a “festival of insignificance.” And while there is much that seems “insignificant” in Kundera’s novel, the reality is quite different.
Human significance might not have cosmic ramifications in the universe, at large. It is, however, greatly personal, and often has repercussions through the larger community. So in this novel, the spilled Armagnac, the little lie about one’s health, the lines of people at a Chagall exhibit, all play a “significant” role in the lives of a limited circle of acquaintances. Our lives, our acquaintances, our histories are all rather parochial, to be sure, but they are ours, and they are all that we have.
The Festival of Insignificance is at first look a slight and whimsical book. But it is much more than that. It is enjoyable and funny and thoughtful and wise.
And despite the cited desire of the writer in Kundera’s Slowness, there are more than a few serious words in it.
The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Simon Ley’s 1986 novella, La Mort de Napoleon was translated from the French in 1991 by Patricia Clancy. Twenty years later it was re-issued by The New York Review of Books as part of its Classics series. The decision was a wise one, for the novel is one that should be more greatly known. It is likely not to be forgotten by any who read it.
The novel begins with these words:
As he bore a vague resemblance to the Emperor, the sailors on board the Hernamm-Augustus Stoeffer had nicknamed him Napoleon. And so, for convenience, that is what we shall call him.
Besides, he was Napoleon.
And so the story begins. Napoleon has been smuggled off his St. Helena-exile and replaced by a look-alike, a sergeant who in the past had acted as the Emperor’s double. The crew of the hunting-ship is unaware of the identity of the new man among them. They knew only that as a sea-man, he is pretty ineffective. The plan was that when the ship stopped in Bordeaux, Napoleon would be met by an agent of the vast conspiracy that had freed him. This agent would bring him to the organization that would then propel him once more onto the world’s stage.
Unfortunately, at the last moment, the ship is given orders to sail past Bordeaux and head straight to Antwerp. From then on, what occurs to the Emperor is both comical and poignant, heart-wrenching and hopeful. From his visit to the tourist trap that is now Waterloo–he visits two separate places where Napoleon slept on the eve of the battle, not recognizing either; gets in an argument with a tour-guide about the positioning of the Grand Army; and is arrested for forgetting to pay his hotel bill–to his return to Paris, we follow the emperor as he tries to regain his footing in the world.
However, return to Paris he does. Though not necessarily in the way he thought he would.
Having attracted the love and devotion of an old fruit seller, he demonstrates his genius by rallying some old loyal soldiers into a more efficient program of selling melons and cantaloupes. And on the night when he intends to reveal himself to an old campaigner, he is brought to a sanitarium filled with men who believe they are Napoleon.
And in the end he dies.
The novel is short and momentous and moves quite quickly, and yet with every sentence you realize that you are in the hands of a master. Ley’s language is at times sublime. Here he is describing the sun-rise on Napoleon’s last day on-board the Hernamm-Augustus Stoeffer:
The sky was divided between night and dawn–blue-black from the west to the zenith, pearl-white in the east–and was completely filled with the most fantastic cloud architecture one could possibly imagine. The night breeze had erected huge unfinished palaces, colonnades, towers, and glaciers, and then had abandoned this heavenly chaos in solemn stillness, to be a pedestal for the dawn. The highest crest of a windblown cumulous was already brushed with yellow, the first beam of daylight against the rood of fading night. …
The unrecognized emperor had by wakened by the African cook and brought up on deck to witness this scene. At the end of the novel, it is this scene that greets him in death.
And so we are left with a wonderful read that makes us ask the all-important questions: What is real? And what is true? Is Edmund, the ineffective cabin-hand, actually Napoleon? Is Edmund’s belief that he is Napoleon any different than the inmates’ of the asylum in Paris? (We are told on page one that he IS Napoleon.) Are the stories passed on to the tourists at Waterloo any truer or less true than the jumbled memories of our hero? These are the fun little boxes that Ley opens up for us, and which ultimately makes The Death of Napoleon such a satisfying read.
“When I was a child I truly loved:
Unthinking love as calm and deep
As the North Sea. But I have lived,
And now I do not sleep.”
— John Gardner, Grendel
On two separate occasions, my friend Jim has stopped the car on the way to dropping me off at the train station to finish listening to Neil Young’s “Country Girl.” For him, he remembers a particular girlfriend who broke up with him oddly and for whom this song is a reminder. For me, I remember hitchhiking across Canada, sitting on the floor of a Winnipeg record store (Winnipeg was where Neil was born) and copying down the chords from a fake book. For both of us, the song is a lot more than just music and lyrics.
Jim and I often do this. The “where” and “when” of a song, the lives we were leading, the dreams we were having, the people we were hanging with, are as much a part of a song than any of its recordable parts. And for each of us, those elements are different and recall a thousand different memories.
This is the basis of Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love is a Mixed Tape. Sheffield–a writer for Rolling Stone–writes about his late wife and himself through the skeleton of different mixed tapes. The sub-title of the book is Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, and this is exactly it: the life of a man and the life of the woman he loved told through the soundtrack of their lives. And, for some of us, it is our lives as well.
Sheffield starts off going through his dead wife Renee’s belongings and discovering several of her mixed tapes, spending a sad night listening to the first one–The Smiths, Pavement, 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., Morrissey, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Boy George among them–commenting on her choices and their lives together when she made them. He talks about the various types of mixed tapes: the Party Tape, the “I Want You” tape, the “We’re Doing It” tape, the Road Tape, the “You Broke My Heart and Made Me Cry” tape, the Walking Tape, the Washing the Dishes tape. etc. From here he sets up his frame work–the tapes of our lives are the record of of our lives.
And so he begins. He starts by dissecting his own tapes, chronologically starting from a mixed tape he made as a thirteen-year old for an 8th-grade dance through his first romance and subsequent break up to his meeting Renee, their courtship and marriage, her sudden death and his struggles to continue on afterwards. It is poignant and wise writing about love and loss and survival.
Many of the bands I had never heard of–both he and his wife were music writers–but the pure affection and excitement that these two shared for new and old music was infectious. He was an Irish-Catholic boy from Boston who grew up on Led Zeppelin, the J. Giles Band, and Aerosmith; she, an Appalachian girl from West Virginia as familiar with George Jones and Hank Williams as she was with the punk bands she adored. Together they made a likeable pair. And their knowledge and love for music is wide and inclusive.
Sheffield met his wife in 1989 and she died in 1997. Their relationship lasted most of the 1990s and this is where Sheffield the music critic is at his best. His analysis of that decade, where the music was going and what it was doing is trenchant: he understands the phenomenon of Kurt Cobain, the importance of female empowerment in 90s’ music, the resurgence of guitar bands. (His discussion of Cobain’s late music/performances as the plights and pleas of a pained husband is unique and insightful and bittersweet.)
The naturally shy Sheffield–understandably–reverts into himself after his wife’s death. He is more and more asocial, awkward and uncomfortable. He writes eloquently about the pain of loss, of the condition of “widow-hood,” of unexpected kindness, and of the haunting of the past. Sadly, music–which once was his buoy in life–is pulling him down, especially the music that he and Renee had shared. In the end, however, it is music that pulls him together as well. He moves out of the south and to New York City, he reconnects with friends, makes new friends, and–of course–starts seeing and listening to new bands.
Love is a Mixed Tape was recommended to me by a friend, Brendan McLaughlin. Brendan was born in the mid-80’s, not long before Sheffield and his wife first met. He is connected much more closely to the music than I am, and I am sure that he recognized a lot more of the bands and songs cited than I did. But that is the great thing about Sheffield’s memoir: you don’t have to be completely tuned into what he is listening to, just to what he is saying.
And what he says is true.
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