Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reading Anais Nin

Sometimes, I think I'm a bit whimsical. As I nearly finished cooking dinner today, I was seized with a sudden craving for onion soup. Despite having no idea how onion soup is made, I proceeded to cook and invent a recipe for onion soup out of the contents of my fridge, while eating the dinner that I'd already made.

Yesterday, I was seized with a sudden compulsion to read the diaries of Anais Nin. Exercising great self-restraint, I did not immediately drop my studies and rush to nearby bookstores and libraries in a frenzied book hunt but, instead, waited until wrapping up classes and meetings today to head to the library.

Now, I'm reading volume one of The Diary of Anais Nin (1931-1934). I was completely drawn in on page one; she writes of living in the provincial town where Madame Bovary poisoned herself, of a townsman being one of "Balzac's misers", and of lanes through which Marcel Swann would drive to dinner. Here's another passage that made me stop and reread:

"You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book (Lady Chatterly, for instance), or you take a trip [...] and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death.

"Some never awaken. They are like the people who go to sleep in the snow and never awaken. But I am not in danger because my home, my garden, my beautiful life do not lull me. I am aware of being in a beautiful prison, from which I can only escape by writing."

(Anais Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin, Volume One)

I liked reading that; I often do feel as if reading a book (Herman Hesse, Demian or, perhaps, The Diary of Anais Nin) or hearing a symphony (The Rite of Spring for one) had the effect of shaking me out of a stupor.

photo at top © 2009 Kay

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wrapping up the September/October reading list

I started this reading project with the noble ambition of making a large dent in the Nobel Laureates book list and am moving on to other books and other horizons.

Most of these books that I've read (the Piano Teacher, Auto-da-fe, Mourning Becomes Electra) are about such extraordinary people. Here, I'm not using the word "extraordinary" as one describes superheroes or gods, but as in the sense of being an island amongst people - these characters (Erika Kohut, Kien, Herzog, the Buendias) have festered so long in their isolated world that they are unable to reconcile their perception of the world with reality. It apparently makes for great literature. It's really quite something.

On dust jacket flaps and in book reviews, one often reads about so-and-so being an extraordinary character, and so special ("an extraordinary girl in an ordinary life breaks out into stardom" or "the extraordinary adventures of Becky Sharp") but I always feel a little let down by the description. Those characters still react to situations as I might and think as I might. They don't read while their child is being eaten to death by fire ants. They don't stalk around a consignment store, giving people money so that they don't have to sell their books. They don't turn all of their thousands of books in their bookcases so that the spines face inward as a domestic battle tactic. Good one, Kien.

For a concrete example, take Temperance Brennan on the popular tv show Bones. Not only is she named after my personal favourite knightly virtue, she isn't your average person. Highly intelligent, slightly socially awkward, overly rational and, of course, beautiful, she's really not the girl next door. But, on the extraordinary fictional personage scale, she doesn't hold her own against Kien and the life. Despite her apparent inability to perceive sarcasm or bounds of socially accepted conversation, she still has human emotions. She has friends and shows concern for her coworkers. At times, viewers can still relate to her. If you, however, want to read about someone intelligent, socially awkward, overly rational/idealistic, and is guaranteed to react different from you in every possible situation, then let me refer you to Auto-da-fe.

Rushdie once wrote: "If from speed you get your thrill, take precaution - make your will." Well, if from deviance you get your thrill, read on - but make your will. I'm glad I read on. Now, my first thought when dealing with troublesome cohabitants is an impulse to rearrange all my books in battle position.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Reading Herzog

Buried under a pile of graduate student drudgery as I am, I am still reading and ticking off Nobel Literature laureates. This week, I'm reading Saul Bellow's Herzog.

Herzog is a professor who is so afflicted by the cruelties of his ex-wife that he is reduced to a semi-sane state, wherein he stops in the middle of his lectures of scribble down snippets of letters. These letters - to various people from various points in his life and also to politicians and other stranger - are a kind exorcism of the things bottled up in Herzog. But everything is so abstracted; Herzog can only talk of his life problems in philosophical settings.

Usually, the act of writing unsent letters should be cathartic and, ultimately, healing. It's like journaling - a way to shake off depression and repression. In Herzog, however, I think this letter-writing is not some optimistic sign, but the exact opposite. The aspect of the letters that Herzog writes which is brought out in the book is not that the letters unburden Herzog in any way (which they don't) but, instead, that they are letters to no one. These letters and scribblings contribute to the isolation of Herzog as opposed to alleviating it.

These books by these Nobel Literature laureates - they're never about people who, through some arduous process, can retreat back to the human norm, settle down and become an ordinary Joe Schmoe. Nope, the main characters in these books are all characters who have gone too far down some path of their own to come back to any form of mainstream happiness. The Buendias in One Hundred Years of Solitude live in their solitude - the worst kind of solitude; solitude amongst fellow human beings - until there is no chance of any of them integrating back into society. In The Piano Teacher, Erika is isolated in her own world, which she shares with no one. Kien was so buried in his library that he could not understand the meaning of people outside his sanctuary of books, leading to his ultimate destruction. Herzog, too, is insular, sharing in this kind of insularity amongst people.

Some of his snippets are intriguing, though. Here are a few quotes from Herzog's:

"Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead."

"Will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

17: One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich

This is one of those books that I always wanted to read, but never got around to it. I thought it might be depressing and, like a hypochondriac, I often suspect myself of depression, read about symptoms of various mental illnesses, and fall under the impression that one depressing book will plunge me into a fit of depression and completely ruin my life by spur-of-the-moment neurotic choices. Not that this has ever happened to me before or anything ...

This book is set in a Soviet labour camp and details a common prisoner's day, from waking to sleeping. That's a lot of promise for misery - mostly coming from the words "labour" and "prisoner". But, I was, fortunately, wrong. If anything, this book is very opposite of disheartening. The prisoner whose day we follow is actually very optimistic. He has accepted the harsh conditions of the camp as normal and works within the constraints to get the best situations possible. He takes pride in the work that he does and savours the thin rations like the fancy food at fabulous restaurants that come in tiny servings. His day is actually quite bright. I'd even say that this would be a book to read to get out of depression.

Really, people can adapt to any situation, as long as they have the right mindset. What is the mindset? Somewhere towards the end of the day, our prisoner reflects that he feels bad for one of the other prisoners because he hadn't the right attitude that would let him survive. So, there is a right mindset and a wrong one. What is it? Acceptance and forebearance? Or learning to ignore unpleasant things rather than dwelling on them? Or taking things as they come and not worry about the far future? After all, our prisoner only ever concentrates on this day that we've been shown and doesn't worry about the other 3562 days of his 10 year prison term.

The extra three were for leap years."

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.