a la recherche du temps perdu

Month: April, 2015

Ten Ways to Remember a Year

i.
The mountain rocked like a clotheshorse you obscured my view     your breath reeked of the fact that you would stray     I did     we stood under its mass arguing over what’s on at the National Gallery how crude the sticky parts of sex are

ii.
Chrysanthemums lined the wainscoting that year     which country did I lose you in a lone drawn blind I snaked up hurling your convict’s prize ring from my finger out the window     you salvaged it in the morning along with a discarded but still smokable cigarette I took both

iii.
They painted the walls black and installed tracklighting bringing out the veins in the skins those severed limbs that populate any given Caravaggio murder scene      after I got drunk and sat beneath the queen’s Carrara petticoats     you weren’t bound for the cross but I let you have your way anyway

iv.
On the umpteenth trek across the pond I read poems shouting I was wrong dull telegraphing in wee hours for you were as fucked as I was     we read Akhmatova a different war entirely but by then we were on different shores my shoes long forgotten at the cobbler’s

v.
I positioned him in the center of the Rothkos at the Tate Modern reds so sedate they suggested a suicide attempt     “I understand it” he said slurring epiphany then skulked off to finger an array of baroqe codpieces     I stared at those squares for hours but it didn’t come

vi.
A Pimlico summer I was dreaming of mountains without you     you entered the hotel room grabbing my hipbones they were gambles I won or I lost depending on what name you called me the morning after     your heat was spent by my body or a dream

vii.
In rooms in seasons the claustrophobia accentuated the rifts     we played out our regular tricks donning Duras sans the deed     by then we were too familiar too bored too us     the chrysanthemums didn’t offer solace instead we packed them in cedar boxes like effigies

viii.
I pawn the retrieved ring     knuckle still whitemarked by it somewhere in Camden Town     outside a fringe theatre a man pins me to a wall calls me dashing then draws blood     when he leaves pigeons pluck at the ring this stranger rescued I slip it stupidly into my cigarette box

ix.
Winter wreaked damage to the clocktower in the roundabout     we no longer deal in time our ghost town knew our rhythms were antsy even criminal     I made dents hands measuring seconds (the scenes we enacted) in snowpiles     I remember that I’d yet again poisoned the drinking water

x.
Our last autumn we packed boxes lamenting how the city had ejected us some Eden     on the countertop beside the microwave and my expired passport a post-it note stuck to a print of Guernica read “I tried”     you could have been any man leaving everyone apart from me

Virginia Woolf’s “Reminiscences”: Figuring Death

Virginia Woolf claims to have written “Reminiscences” for her nephew Julian Bell, even if, as Jeanne Schulkind notes, he “can only be held responsible in a very remote sense for inspiring this memoir,” because Woolf began work on the piece during the summer of 1907, and Julian wasn’t born until February 1908. This was a pivotal time for Woolf: she was branching out from writing book reviews to writing fiction—e.g., by this time she had begun Melymbrosia, which would later be published in a watered-down version as The Voyage Out, her first novel—and, as stylistic experiments, she would, in Schulkind’s words, “assign” herself writing exercises, the content of which ranged from “descriptions of places visited [to] the lives of close friends or relations.”

Since “on various occasions she declared her intention of rewriting them at set intervals,” it is perhaps best to read a piece like “Reminiscences,” which opens the posthumously-published collections Moments of Being, as a biographical portrait housed within an autobiographical framework and also as a letter to the next generation. In the former mode, Woolf’s “reminiscences” here begin long before her birth; the piece opens with the admission: “Your mother was born in 1879, and as some six years at least must have passed before I knew that she was my sister [Vanessa], I can say nothing of that time.” And yet Woolf dips far beyond “that time” to consider her mother Julia’s first marriage to Herbert Duckworth—a marriage that yielded three children: George, Stella, and Gerald—and the early years of her second marriage to Leslie Stephen, the memories of which can hardly be vividly recalled by Woolf given that she was the penultimately born child of the four children the Stephens’ marriage produced.

The direct address with which “Reminiscences” opens (“your mother”) signals that Julian Bell is the reader for whom Woolf intended this piece, but given the dates above, her experimentation with new forms as she made the shift from nonfiction to fiction, and how Woolf offers the “you”—who is both Julian and yet also not Julian—a portrait of her sister Vanessa’s youth before she, Virginia, had even been born, “Reminiscences” is a piece that is more complex than a simple letter to the next generation. Because Woolf is present as the narrator, and because in recollected scenes from her childhood—which she remembers as mostly composed of “two large spaces”: “the drawing room and nursery” and “Kensington gardens”—are interspersed with “memories” of her mother Julia’s earlier life (which Woolf pieces together based on behaviors, words, and even silences from her own reminiscences of her mother’s magnanimous personality), it seems fair to read this piece is a hybrid. As Schulkind remarks: “in addressing the memoir to the next generation and in broadening her subject to include the Stephen family[,]… no meaningful distinction can be made … between biography (of Vanessa) and autobiography.”

And this integration of personal history into her fiction is something with which all Woolf’s readers are accustomed, especially in terms of the spectral figure of Leslie Stephen who haunts much of Woolf’s work—as does her brother Thoby, whose death is fictionalized in Jacob’s Room, as well as in the elusive character Percival in her masterpiece The Waves (very much Woolf’s attempt at working through, in the Freudian sense, this trauma). Julia’s death has been remarked upon by countless critics as the inspiration for Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, and the writing of that novel caused Woolf to feel she had finally been able to lay her mother’s memory to rest in an analytic way: “I suppose that I did for myself what psychoanalysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.”

The fact that Julia Stephens figures so prominently in the opening sections of “Reminiscences,” as an eternally living memory and as a ghost that will never fully relinquish its grasp on Woolf and her sister’s children, stresses just how traumatic her mother’s death was for the young Virginia (to Julian: “your grandmother’s death was disastrous”)—yet another autobiographical working-through that makes itself manifest in her fiction. Woolf recollects: “She kept herself marvellously alive to all the changes that went on round her, as though she heard perpetually the ticking of a vast clock and could never forget that some day it would cease for all of us.” Big Ben strikes each passing hour in Mrs. Dalloway, the uninvited reminder of time running away from and outside of us, tempus fugit, but—in that novel’s counterpoint narrative method, joining together Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith—the fact that we all must die, each strike a reverberative memento mori.

And, of course, Thoby’s full Christian name was Julian Thoby, a fact that lends a deeper level to Woolf’s opening address to Julian Bell. It is, in many ways, a text addressed both to the living and to the dead. One of the most moving passages in the first section of “Reminiscences” recalls what Woolf terms her mother’s “last fantastic farewell”:

The dead, so people say, are forgotten, or they should rather say, that life has for the most part little significance to any of us. But now and again on more occasions than I can number, in bed at night, or in the street, or as I come into the room, there she is; beautiful, emphatic, with her familiar phrase and her laugh; closer than any of the living are, lighting our random lives as with a burning torch, infinitely noble and delightful to her children.

At the same time, Woolf acknowledges that writing is a futile act to paint an accurate picture of the dead; this accounts for her iterative, often obsessive lifelong project of working-through such a primary trauma in her fictional and nonfictional work, most especially in those pieces blurring the lines between genre or medium (these “flying narrative[s]”)—writing about death risks obscuring the subject it so wishes to immortalize: “Written words of a person who is dead or still alive tend most unfortunately to drape themselves in smooth folds annulling all evidence of life.” As soon as the words have been spent, so, too, has any surviving shred of the life they wish to revivify:

But when we exclaim at the extravagant waste of such a life we are inclined no doubt to lose that view of the surrounding parts, the husband and child and home which if you see them as a whole surrounding her, completing her, robs the single life of its arrow-like speed, and its tragic departure… [T]hey speak of her as a thing that happened, recalling, as though all round her grew significant, how she stood and turned and how the bird sang loudly, or a great cloud passed across the sky. Where has she gone? What she said has never ceased.

And mining this field of grief means that the dead can continue to speak through the living: in reliving “the greatest disaster that could happen,” fueled by a writer’s compulsion to repeat trauma in order to work through it, the risk of succumbing to the sorrow (“I came to conceive of this tree as the symbol of sorrow, for it was silent, enduring and without fruit”) is an ever-present danger. However, to live without remembering one’s dead is to risk forgetting not only where one comes from, but who one is, how one’s story repeats or resists those of the prior generations:

[W]hen you examine feelings with the intense microscope that sorry lends, it is amazing how they stretch, like the finest goldbearer’s skin, over immense tracts of substance. And we, poor children that we were, conceived it to be our duty evermore to go searching for these atoms, wherever they might lie sprinkled about the surface, the great mountains and oceans, of the world. It is pitiable to remember the hours we spent in such minute speculations.

What is “pitiable” in “searching for these atoms” of sorrow is not that sorrow should be ignored; it is not that children or adults should flee from sorrow, fearing it will somehow mar their experiences of happiness, joy, contentment. Rather, what Woolf suggests here is that one mustn’t waste time spending hours examining sorrow underneath “intense microscope[s]”: whether viewed from afar or whether broken down into atoms, sorrow remains a rupture in the fabric of our daily existence. And it is only through writing, an act of therapeutic reckoning with such grief, such age-old rents in our psychological makeups, that we can fuse fact and fiction, history and correspondence, lamentation and outpourings of wonderment: as life is lived across boundary lines, so death must be processed by by following the journey wherever it takes one—so long as it does not take one deeper into the unproductive realm of silence. If what Leslie Stephen said while living “has never ceased,” then it is Woolf’s task to interpret these words, fragments, vestiges, and then transmute them into the written word so that death is not the end of their stories or their stories’ future transmissions.

two recent reviews

Two reviews of mine were published recently, but I’ve been remiss with updating this blog—hence the belated announcement:

1. “‘My dream of a fictional archive’: Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden,” Music & Literature, March 2015.

New-Wanda-1-cropped_web-728x1024Léger’s book began as a short film notice commissioned for an encyclopedia, a brief notice that was to give an objective, factual summary of cult American filmmaker Barbara Loden, known almost solely for being Hollywood giant Elia Kazan’s wife despite the fact that she directed and starred in one film during her short life: a 1970 film entitled Wanda, an anti-Bonnie-and-Clyde film in the cinéma verité mode. Léger’s project soon grows, morphing into a consideration (one that she terms several time as an “excavation”) of female artistry, how one can write the history of a woman when others’ histories eclipsing a more marginal figure like Loden. How much of trying to unearth a woman about whom no one knows very much—and about whom there are either no materials extant, or else only fragments to be pieced together—an act of writing not only her narrative, but also the narrative of the female artist embarking on such a project? Léger’s prix-winning book is a must-read for all writers, but especially women writers, in how she centralizes the act of discovering one’s subject alongside pieces of oneself in the journey that writing invariably is.

belomor2. “Ruins, Mourning, and Cigarettes: Nicolas Rothwell’s Belomor,” Open Letters Monthly, April 2015.

Belomor, in particularly, is one of the finest, more erudite, and shatteringly profound books I have read in at least the past several years. (Unfortunately, I read it just prior to 2014’s end-of-year holiday season, so it did not make my end-of-year picks—which I posted on my Tumblr, along with those selected by fellow critics, writers, and publishers who were kind enough to get involved in my own brand of a “year in reading” series when I asked them to take part.) Fans of W. G. Sebald and Gerald Murnane will be magnetically drawn to Rothwell’s wholly unique work, a project that synthesizes aesthetics, histories, temporalities, and narratives in such a profoundly melancholy way, and yet with such humanity and respect for our shared—albeit different—experiences of loss, suffering, and cultural shifts that I dare anyone to read Belomor and not be breathless, floored, and beyond impressed with Rothwell’s very singular skill.