Last week I became so caught up in my preparations to teach Ulysses that (alas!) I never got a chance to write the second, promised Sunday Salon post of the day. I suspect the same problem might rear its exhausted head later today, since this is my last day of prep for Joyce's novel. Soon the semester will be over, and I will (I hope) return triumphantly to unfettered pleasure reading on Sundays.
Meanwhile, a quick update on the week:
I caught up a bit with my groaningly full Tivo, watching both Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander(not my favorite Bergman so far, but really terrifying and delightful in, among other things, its Shakespearean use of ghosts*) and Hal Ashby's cult classic Harold and Maude (the most frolickingly upbeat film about death I know**). I also finally got around to posting a review of The Lambs of London, which I read a full month ago. Next up for review, two quite opposite reading experiences: The Translator, Daoud Hari's account of his time guiding journalists through the perilous situation in Darfur, and The Light Fantastic, my second experience with Terry Pratchett's Discworld.
I am continuing to read the first volume of The Complete Peanuts, which contains at least one wryly philosophical or historically prescient shock per week of strips, like the day in May of 1951 when Charlie Brown rushes to the more literate Patty to get her advice on a letter he has received. She tells him with perplexity that it is just an advertisement. "*Whew* What a relief ..." he says, with an enormous grin, "I thought I had been drafted." I have just gotten to the point (about nine months into the show's life, appropriately) when a baby appears who will later become of central importance to the strip: Schroeder. Of course, first he will have to grow up to the age of the other characters, while they remain eternally young, in defiance of all temporal laws.
Although it has been a long, long time since I have actually finished a book (I blame Ulysses and its monstrous and engrossing vastness), and my "Currently Reading" list is reaching impossible lengths (see sidebar), I have also recently picked up a copy of Gabrielle Calvocoressi's brilliantly titled The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart in honor of National Poetry Month. The title poem is a ten-part reflection on the famous aviatrix, on the desire to disappear and the incomprehensibility of absence, and on the need for figures on which to screen the dramas of psychological projection. Ten witnesses, of sorts, describe their last encounters with Earheart (the ground control officer, a bystander from the crowd that saw her off at the field, a miner whose daughter is obsessed with the possibility for escape, her husband). At first what is so striking about these memories is their imprecision, the inability to hold on to iconic moments in the hubbub of real living. "I was distracted / by a bird, which was no more / than shoal-dust kicked up by wind," says the bystander, "I missed her waving good-bye, / saw only her back, her body / bowing to enter the thing" (4). This imprecision has its echo in the final, wrenching testimony from Earhart's husband, who also catches a Magritte glimpse of Amelia from behind:
The last time I saw Amelia Earhart
she was three steps ahead of me,
crossing to the other side
of the street. I almost died trying
to reach her, called her name over
the traffic and when she turned back
it was a young man, startled
by my grasping hand, saying sorry
but I was mistaken. (14-15) ***
Calvocoressi has a real genius for revealing the way loss echoes through the simplest, most direct (even sometimes reportorial) of language. Earhart's stepson testifies that
Even at home or on the streetAnd in the next section a housewife argues that "It's easy to lose someone," telling of her shock at turning to find her son has run off into the street in a mere moment of inattention from her. This is how figures disappear, in the slight forgetfulness of the quotidian, the traffic of a street-crossing, individuals disappearing into the crowd, until everyone begins to look like the one you love, because you didn't pay quite enough attention (how could you?) to freeze them in their individuality before the inevitable loss.
you would look away and she
would be gone, walking between
cars or just standing there not
answering as you said her name
or touched the arm of her coat.
She was already gone. I knew
because there was no difference
between the sky swallowing her
and living in her house. (7)
[You can hear Calvocoressi read at the Fishouse.]
In a grim turn of events for my pocketbook, I discovered Amazon's Bargain Books section yesterday. How could I have avoided this Siren song for all these years? I can only attribute it to a subconscious self-defense mechanism. At any rate, these books are now speeding their way towards my library:
- Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 Tony Judt
- Sacred Games Vikram Chandra
- One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding Rebecca Mead
- Consequences Penelope Lively
- The Janissary Tree Jason Goodwin
- James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon Julie Phillips
- The Hungry Tide Amitov Ghosh
- The Brooklyn Follies Paul Auster
- The Tenderness of Wolves Stef Penney
So, the order of the day is Ulysses-reading. Wish me luck. I will try to break up the tsunami of modernist prose innovation with short interjections from Peanuts, To Hate Like This is To Be Happy Forever (a book about the North Carolina-Duke basketball rivalry that I am finding it very difficult to finish now that Carolina has exited the season so ignominiously), and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which I have only just started). Happy reading to you all!
To find out more about the Sunday Salon, or to join, click here.
* I was particularly impressed by the scene in Fanny and Alexander in which the young Alexander, staying at the house of a family friend, gets lost in the middle of the night after going in search of a chamber pot, and wanders through room after room filled with grotesque and unnerving puppets. The scene ends with a sort of a restaging (with a puppet-God) of the phenomenal mad scene from Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly, in which the heroine is convinced that a god is about to reveal itself to her through the tattered, peeling walls of an empty room, but what emerges is in fact (or rather, in mind, for we don't see it) a horrific vision of a violating spider-god. It shows how much I love Bergman that a film with such a phenomenal scene can still be "not my favorite Bergman film so far."
** Hear that, Ingmar Bergman? Your films about death are just not very jolly by comparison. Although, to be honest, the 8 or 10 films I have seen by Bergman haven't really been that death-obsessed (with the notable exceptions of The Seventh Seal and The Silence). They are more compulsively focused on the nature of human connection, and are fairly rarely utterly hopeless on the subject.
*** Notice the complex way in which this innovates the mythic archetype of Orpheus and Eurydice: a husband pursues his wife even unto/into death, but in this poem, it is the pursued who turns and thus reasserts the finality of death. This makes me wonder: is the point of the Orpheus myth that the real problem is not that he turned back in distrust to make sure Eurydice was still there as he rescued her from death, but rather his original turning back, his desire to rescue her in the first place - the urge in grief to turn back to what is of necessity forever lost?