Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Three from Quebec: Awaiting the Barbarians (on the film The Barbarian Invasions)

Denys Arcand (writer and director) Les Invasions barbares/The Barbarian Invasions / 2003

—Why suddenly this unrest and this confusion,
(The faces how grave they have become).
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly
and everyone so pensively returning to their homes?

Because it’s night already and no barbarians have arrived.
And some people came from the frontiers,
and said that barbarians don’t exist any more.

And now what shall we become without barbarians.
These people were some kind of a solution.

Constantine Cavafy
Translated from the Greek by Nanos Valaoritis

Rémy, a Quebecois Canadian in his 60s, is dying of cancer, and his ex-wife, Louise, calls her son, Sébastian, who lives in London, to return to help her. Our first glimpse of the sick patient is of a man faced with the end of everything—of his life, his beliefs—even the welfare hospital system for which he voted, as seemingly hundreds of patients suffer their stay in the hospital corridors. He and his friends, we soon discover, are of the generation who came of age in the 1960s, and lived their lives with a strong sense of purpose, filled as they were with high sentiments regarding their pleasure in the intellect, books, food, wine, friendship and sex; but they were also a hedonistic generation—my own generation—perhaps the last group born within a particular decade that might be described as having a deep generational kinship.

Like many people his age, Rémy is distressed with the generations that have followed, represented by individuals like his son who make fabulous salaries, but live hollow lives, symbolized by their attachment to video games and various electronic gadgets. Late in the movie, Rémy and his friends humorously list the various causes which they momentarily embraced—at one time or another espousing the values of Separatists, Existentialists, Marxists, Troskyites, Situationists, Deconstructions, etc. None of these movements and value systems were sustained, but they represent for the individuals of that period a search for values in which the younger barbarians—as Rémy and some of his friends perceive their offspring—have no understanding or interest.

One of the most rewarding themes of this film—a film which gloriously embraces multiple views of life—is the sense of love and continuity among these older individuals, despite their recognition of one another’s failures and, at times, even betrayal.

In contrast Sébastian and his fiancée Gaëlle have little understanding of “love,” a word they believe has destroyed thousands of useful and valuable relationships; each in their own way, the younger figures of this film—Sébastian, his sister Sylvaine, Gaëlle, and Nathalie—act alone and
are cut off from one another, isolated in highly efficient acts of financial attainment and self-destruction.

Sébastian works with banks to broker financial transactions, and of all the characters in the film is the most competent in attaining what he seeks. The problem, quite obviously, is the value of that attainment. No sooner has he arrived in Montreal than he is able to broker a deal—oiled with large sums of money— between the formidable hospital bureaucracy and the equally hard-nosed unions to set up a room for his father in a currently unused (presumably for lack of funds) section of the hospital. It is he who brings the group of his father’s and mother’s friends together. When Rémy, a former history professor, complains of his quick dismissal from the university, Sébastian pays students to briefly attend his father’s deathbed. Told that heroin will relieve his father’s suffering, he goes in search of the drug, uncovering the drug-addicted daughter of one of his father’s former lovers. Later, when the beautiful addict is found to have overdosed, he is able to convince her—unlike her mother and friends—to undergo Methadone treatment. When his father speaks of his stay at a cottage by the lake as representing one of the most beautiful times of his life, Sébastian arranges for his father and friends to spend their last days there together. Somehow he convinces even the religiously minded nurse to provide him with the drugs needed to painlessly end his father’s life.

His wife, an art appraiser, performs in one of the most poignant scenes in the movie, when she is forced to tell the regional church officer that the religious objects and icons that all once held so dear are worthless in the art market.

Sébastian’s sister, Sylvaine, who works as a sailor delivering new ships to wealthy customers around the world, cannot even be there for her father’s death.

In short, each of these figures is quite capable of accomplishing his or her goals, but in relationship to the far more spectacular failings of their parents, they seem nearly lifeless, sleepwalking through their lives without wonderment and joy.

Writer and director Arcand, however, makes it apparent through what is basically an extended series of tableaus that it is the parents and the selfishness of their passionate involvement with living that may have left their often ignored children so incapable of expressing or experiencing love. Or perhaps it is simply that the expression of love for these younger figures is not the same emphatic, melodramatic expressions of pleasures employed by the older generation. Perhaps the pleasures themselves have changed—or even the evaluation of those pleasures. As Rémy and the others face the end of their lives, they generally note that much of their sexual drive has dissipated; the dying man is unable even to join them in their final feast of scrambled eggs with cavier and fresh truffles. Most importantly, despite their determined efforts to embrace pleasure, they too must finally come to terms with the horrors of the previous century and the post-9/11 world of the present. In the end, Rémy is distressed that, despite all his ideals, he has done nothing of importance for the human race.

On the other hand, just as the nurse has urged him to do, Sébastian physically embraces his father, demonstrating his love of the man who has spent much of his life verbally abusing him; later, as Sébastian arranges for the drug-addicted girl Nathalie to stay at his father’s apartment, she awkwardly leans forward with a kiss. Can this “barbarian” generation recover the passion of living despite themselves? Arcand does not attempt to answer the question

In may be, as Cavafy warned us, there are no barbarians at the city’s gate, or that the barbarians will never arrive because they were they here all the time; they were ourselves.

Los Angeles, December 9, 2003

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Three From Quebec: Negotiation (on Nicole Brossard's Shadow Soft et Soif)

Nicole Brossard, Shadow Soft et Soif, translated from the French by Guy Bennett (Los Angeles: Seeing Eye Books, 2003)

The coincidence of Nicole Brossard’s short book of poetry Shadow Soft et Soif being published at the same time as the Canadian poet and fiction writer’s three fictions, The Blue Book (Toronto: Coach House Press, 2003), gives joy to those, like me, who think Brossard is one of the most outstanding of North American writers.

Like many of her other works, the book is written in a voice that is at once highly lyrical and extremely private. The reader often has the feeling in Brossard’s work that he or she is a sort of voyeur, listening in to an immediate series of events and thoughts expressed by the poet to a loved one. But then, perhaps the reader can also feel herself or himself as the lover, and that creates a kind of sensual thrill in reading her work.

As in her other books, also, there is a feeling of “negotiation,” of the poet straddling worlds. As a French-speaking Canadian, her work in translation often contains both English and French lines. As the title indicates, the shadow about which Brossard is writing is both soft and “thirsty,” something both gentle (as if she had reversed Dylan Thomas’s plea to “not go gentle into that good night.”) yet slightly rapacious. As a poet and fiction writer, Brossard often crosses genres, and in this book she reminds the reader several times that, while it is a work of poetry, it is also a narrative:

for now
we’re still narrating
night falls slowly

In order to create the “shadow” one must have the sun and such oppositions as the morning and evening, the fresh beginning of life and potential death. Love is often proffered and just as quickly pulled away. Order and precision alternate with “avalanches of shattered glass.” Indeed, Brossard’s world is pulled between “pleasure” and “gestures / bites, bedrooms with their shadowy, supple, hollow spaces, knotted brows.”

By the time the narrative is complete and, at the end of the series of short poetic sequences, “night falls,” the poet is left with no answers, only “questions,” lingering “bubbles of silence.” But the language she has used to get there has expanded her comprehension of life. And one perceives that even while the human experience has been utterly fragmented (“nights displace knees,” and “heads or tails” are “scattered”), at dawn once more life is put into motion, “the verb to be courses / in the veins, a heavenly body, it flies / after love or a grain of salt.” The cycle, the negotiation between self and lover, between reader and poet, will begin anew.

Los Angeles, 2003

Monday, December 22, 2008

Three From Quebec: Gabrielle of the Spirits (on Denyse Delcourt's Gabrielle and the Long Sleep into Mourning)

Denyse Delcourt Gabrielle au bois dormant (Laval, Québec: Éditions Trois, 2001), translated from the French by Eugene Vance as Gabrielle and the Long Sleep into Mourning (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2007)

As in the film The Barbarian Invasions Denyse Delcourt’s 2001 novel, Gabrielle and the Long Sleep into Mourning—a book first published in English in 2007 by my own Green Integer press—is structured around the gathering of several friends on a weekend retreat. These individuals, Thérèse—the one who has invited them all to join her at a rented lake house—Marguerite, Cécile, François, Paul, Mimi, Suzanne, Jacqueline, and Léo, now all in their fifties, grew up together around a lagoon of the Palus River in a semi-rural town near Montreal. Accordingly, their links are those of childhood, each of the nine now living at some distance from one another, some, like Paul—a doctor by day who “does drugs before setting out each night for the toughest gay bars in the city,” who we later discover has AIDS—now living lives that have little in common.

As an adult group, they remain cordial to, if slightly at odds with one another. They do not share the lifetime interconnections of the friends gathered around the dying Rémy of the 2003 movie, and their conversations and interrelationships, accordingly, are less intense than the 60-year- olds of The Barbarian Invasions. Yet one cannot help but note the kinship of the two works, for like the later movie, Delcourt’s lyrical fiction is centered upon love and death—in this case the mysterious loves and death of the fifteen-year-old Gabrielle in 1951.

The survivors’ conversations and walks into the nearby woods occasion a series of memories as, one by one, they come to terms with Gabrielle’s and their own lives in the Palus, which came to a sudden end by a government decision to buy their homes and cover the back waters they describe as a lake with concrete. In this sense, Delcourt’s short masterwork is a work aimed at digging up the past, another kind of “unburying” and “reburying” of the dead.

Growing up in a home where their father is seldom in residence, Mimi, Marc, Gabrielle, and François live a life very different from most of the other children around them. Their mother, Éveline, hates housework and cooking equally, and although she is socially likeable, often leaves the family to its own means:

…the children often ate alone or together the dishes that they them-selves, or else Mimi, had prepared. Their father, an absent-minded man, sometimes joined them. On the tablecloth, traces of jam, butter or molasses formed mottled patterns. You could see leftovers of the previous night’s supper lingering on the counters. There were breadcrumbs everywhere.

When Éveline is unable to pay a traveling salesman for her purchases of children’s clothing, she pays by staying “shut up” for the salesman in a room “for a long time,” a source of confusion for Gabrielle and her friends, but an act bringing only a shrug from the elder Marc and a blush to Mimi’s cheeks. Later in the fiction, it is revealed that Gabrielle’s father may have another family, and that his wife is having an affair with a man—who also sexually flirts with Gabrielle—whom they call Uncle Georges. We later discover that her brother Marc’s night wanderings may be related to his trafficking in drugs. In short, it is the kind of family in which neighborhood children delight and about which their parents gossip.

One day while riding in the woods with another girl (Jacqueline), Gabrielle falls from her bicycle, scraping her knee. Suddenly a man, Walter Black, appears out of nowhere and offers to take her in his large, black car to his house in the woods. There the girls meet Walter’s sister, Maria, who bandages the wound and asks Gabrielle to return in three days. As the girls prepare to leave, a headless bird flys out of the window from the second storey of the dilapidated building. Soon, we discover that Gabrielle is also disappearing on long journeys each night.

If this event has the sound of a fairytale, it is clear that Delcourt—herself a specialist in medieval French fiction—intends it to call up various tales, as within her realist construct she projects a magical world where the young Gabrielle nightly travels to the house in the woods, where she is welcomed by Maria, a black snake, and her courtier, Walter. As the other children get word of her adventures—some clearly imagined, others perhaps embroidered versions of real events—the tale of Gabrielle’s descent into a relationship with these figures gradually becomes intertwined with tales of wolves and underground chambers, calling up a number of childhood fables, from the Brothers Grimm to Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s early version and Jeanne-Marie Leprinces de Beaumont’s retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” Certainly some of the elements of that latter tale—the missing father, the beast-lover, and the final late return of the young girl—are similar; but other elements of Delcourt’s story of Gabrielle remind one of elements of “Sleeping Beauty” and similar fables of a young girl lured to her death within a woods. All represent various versions of adolescent sexuality, and the author of Gabrielle allows these concerns to emanate throughout the book, as we witness Gabrielle and her fifteen-year-old friends entering into a world of sexuality that is always potentially dangerous.

In a letter from Walter—or perhaps a romantic epistle from Gabrielle to herself—the wolf-lover warns his princess of just those possible dangers:

Gabrielle of the Spirits,
At eleven o’clock this evening you will go down the stairs covered with moss—you know them: there are

wildflowers in the cracks. Be careful not to fall. Remember that you must lean against the wall beside the steps, but watch out for the plants creeping along the wall, making for a confusion of stone and vegetation. Beware, the moss offers no sure footing and there will be no hope if you miss a step and reach for a hold to save yourself. Then push the worm-eaten door, but remember: it will creak as soon as you touch it because the hinges are rusted. You will enter the vault. The darkness there is total, but do not be afraid, Sweet Thing. On each side of the door there are niches in the walls with oil lamps darkened by smoke and by the years. Light them and wait for me, my beloved. I will soon be there.

Like Beauty, Gabrielle arrives too late and cannot find the entrance to the magical vault. And in her rush to reach it she has aggravated her asthma; unable to breathe, she falls to the forest floor, dead.

For the survivors, life in the Palus, ending with Gabrielle’s death, has served almost as a mirror for the many possibilities of love in their own lives. From Éveline’s desperate affairs to Mimi’s almost secret wedding (the bridegroom refusing to participate in a public ceremony and the sharing of wedding rings), from Gabrielle’s romantically conceived encounters to Paul’s sexually-acquired illness, love is always a spirit to be reckoned with, a spirit to be brought into the light, just as Jacqueline, sitting in the night, finally sees her long-dead friend:

The lake is flat. Night. A white dress. Gabrielle is on the beach. She runs. Her hair is flowing. She glides through the tall grass. Oh, the snow of her dress. She speeds toward the wood. Faster, faster. She is barefoot.
She seems to be flying. It is night. She is free. The shadow of her dress bathes her like cool water. Faster, faster. Her dress, the ribbons, diaphanous. Gabrielle.

And now, she has disappeared.

In their gathering and their various retellings of events, these friends have laid the past to rest. It is the even more terrifying future which they now must face.

Los Angeles, August 19, 2007

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Nine Nearly Forgotten Nights in Our Nation's Capital: The 8th Night (Roger)

I had known Fluxus poet Dick Higgins for several years, meeting him several times at small press book fairs, where he showed books published by his renowned Something Else press (which published Gertrude Stein, Marshall McLuhan, Emmett Williams, Claes Oldenburg, George Brecht, and Ray Johnson, among others). I also published a story by Higgins, “The Truth about Sadie Mee,” in the fiction/narrative issue of Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art, 6/7 (1978-79). But I did not know Dick well, and our correspondence over the years had not been extensive.

I did know that early on in his career, Higgins he had studied with John Cage, and in 1960 he’d married Alison Knowles, with whom he later taught at CalArts near Los Angeles. Yet I hadn’t followed his writing or performances over the years. Recently he had sent me a gay story that rather startled me with its porno-like content. I wrote saying that I felt it wouldn’t work for Sun & Moon. Dick wrote, explaining that he had recently realized that he was gay!

Later that same year in 1980 someone at the Folger Shakespeare Library—a noted D.C. institution, recognized for its remarkable Shakespeare collection and productions of his plays—called to ask if I might introduce Dick Higgins at his reading there in a few months. At first I was simply surprised to hear that such an august and orthodox institution had invited a figure such as Higgins to perform; my first reaction was to explain that I was not well-acquainted with the author or his work. Yet I quickly comprehended that the Library was perhaps finding it difficult in Washington to even come up with someone who knew his name! Ultimately, I agreed to introduce.

On the day of his reading, I picked Dick up for lunch, at which time I hoped to discuss with him some details of his life. But he spent most of the afternoon discussing his new lover, a boy named Roger, who, he almost proudly declared, he had met through his daughter. “She came home with this boy,” he chuckled, “and I took him to bed. It seems amazing that he found me attractive.”

“Yes,” it did, I thought to myself when I encountered the willowy kid. Soon after, I began to realize that one of the enticements that Dick had provided him was a constant source of marijuana.

Roger, evidently, was a drummer, and Dick intended to employ him in the performance. Higgins gave me a large hardback publication which he had recently published containing numerous photos of their “performances to the sun,” Dick looking up at the skies, Roger, stark-naked, beating upon something that looked to me more like a can than a drum.

I had a sinking feeling that Dick’s infatuation might not be so easily assimilated by the Folger Shakespeare crowd.

I introduced him as best I could, noting his remarkable career and pointing to his evident achievements. Dick stood and began to read. So far everything was fine. But then, he announced, that several of his works featured an accompanist, and Roger, dressed in white T-shirt and blue jeans, was called out to pound the drums. Several of the audience members’ faces turned pale, others had frozen in rigid smiles.

A short while later, Roger was called out again. “Roger, Roger,” Dick called. But no Roger appeared. “Roger, Roger,” he repeated. Still no drummer in sight. Finally, the boy stumbled out from backstage ready again to thump upon his instrument.

After a brief intermission, the remaining audience members returned to their seats to encounter yet another piece featuring the duo. “Roger, Roger,” Dick screamed out. Once again, Roger did not appear. “Douglas,” Dick called over, “will you go back and bring Roger out?” I found the boy huddled in a corner puffing away. “You’re wanted,” I told him. He stood and shuffled off.

I returned to my seat, somewhat red-faced, but still delighted that Dick had dared to confront this obviously puzzled room of people with something different from their previous experiences.

Later that year, I was asked to return to the Folger, this time to introduce my dear friend David Antin. Things were apparently changing, and a few years later my friend and former student, Joe Ross, joined the Folger Shakespeare committee for performances.

Los Angeles, October 6, 2001

Friday, December 12, 2008

Nine Nearly Forgotten Nights in Our Nation's Capital: The 7th Night (Free Tickets)

The Kennedy Center Opera House

In the graduate student bullpen I shared with others at the University of Maryland, a large basement room crammed full of desks, I became friends with Donald Duncan. Duncan had been in a couple of seminars I'd taken, and he was interested in theater and opera. Moreover, he worked regularly as an usher at the Opera House of the Kennedy Center.

Some time into our friendship, Duncan suggested that Howard and I come one night to the Kennedy Center to meet the head usher, Pat, since she often was able to find free seats for those recommended to her. Howard and I had attended a number of events of the Center, but on our teaching assistant salaries we could simply not afford to go to the theater, opera, etc. very often. Pat took us to her hearts the very first time we met her, and over the following months we able to see numerous plays and performances—including productions of Salome, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Bolshi Opera's Eugene Onegin, Moon for the Misbegotten, and others—for free.

Despite Pat's great friendliness and seeming affection, however, both Howard and I felt somewhat guilty for the pleasures she offered us, and we alternated the free events with ones for which we had paid. In fact, we probably spent more money on drama and opera than we could afford.

Moreover, when we did attend we were often asked to join Pat and Don with cast members at nearby bars and restaurants after the performances. Although these were generally enjoyable events—I recall a long conversation after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with actress Elizabeth Ashley, who we had also seen in Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth—everyone had to wait for rather long periods for the actors to remove their makeup and for the closing down of the theater before we could began our group treks to the selected locations. And once there, Howard and I felt beholden to pay since, after all, we had been given "free tickets." Accordingly, we often spent more money on these after-theater celebrations that we would had we simply paid for the tickets in the first place.

There is no question that there was something exciting about these seemingly covert acts; we were always seated or positioned at the very last moment before the curtain rose, one time taking over the President's box in the balcony, at the Bolshoi production standing behind the last row of the orchestra seats until it became clear that there were two empty seats in the house into which we were clandestinely moved. Yet this very sense of undercover theater-going also made us uncomfortable. Was there danger should the management discover our secret? Probably not; I am certain most theaters have such arrangements, if for no other reason than to fill the house.

But with the often added cost of food and liquor, the late hour of our returning home, and this sense of discomfort, we began to take less and less advantage of this gracious arrangement. And over the period of about a year we stopped going, feeling somewhat guilty, given the generousness of Pat and her staff, for even attending as paying members of the audience. Were we rejecting the kindnesses they so readily offered us?

So, I recall, it happened that we began attending more theater at Washington, D.C.'s famed Arena Stage and the theater at Catholic University than at the renowned Kennedy Center.

Los Angeles, November 11, 2001

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On the Other Side of the Page (on Ascher/Straus's ABC Street)

Ascher/Straus ABC Street (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002)

In April 1992 Sheila Ascher and Dennis Straus wrote me to ask if I'd be willing to read a manuscript of theirs, ABC Street. I suspect the manuscript arrived soon thereafter, but in my files the next serious correspondence was dated five years later, July 1997, at which time they sent me the dedication to the book. Only this year (2001) did they send photographs for the cover of the book now scheduled for 2002. My only reaction is that Ascher/Straus must be the most patient couple in the universe, having now waited nearly 10 years for their book to appear—combined with the fact that another manuscript of theirs, to have been issued as a early side-stapled book on the nascent Sun & Moon Press in 1978, was never published!

These incidents are made even more ironic by the fact that, although Dennis and I have kept in fairly close touch by telephone over the years, I have never met Sheila or Dennis, but simply followed their migrations from Rockaway Park and Canaan, New York to Captiva Island, Florida through phone conversations and occasional correspondence.

Given their immense patience, I thought it might be appropriate to at least indicate through this short essay what I found so interesting about their writing, particularly since a history has developed around this work that makes it very appropriate to this year's thematic stitching of My Year.

For despite the rather long relationship I have now had with Ascher/Straus, like the writing itself, it is a narrative without a coherent story. ABC Street is part of an ongoing project on which the two have been working since 1977, titled Monica's Chronicle, a day-by-day journal penned by the seemingly observant, but determinedly passive narrator, Monica. This chronicle alternates between intense depictions of the daily weather—evocative descriptions of the rain, snow, and sun Monica observes through her window and on her occasional walks—and the often gossipy comments of a large cast of characters Monica describes as "A Constellation," mostly lesbian women friends, and the various neighbors of what is obviously a location similar to Rockaway Park.

There are also silences ("Days intervene, unwritten"), undated entries, and sporadic ruminations on the nature of her writing activities. There is a strong sense that in writing Monica is forgetting or, at least, replacing the act of memory with the writing itself. If, as Lyn Hejinian argued early in her career, "Writing Is an Aid to Memory," in ABC Street "Writing isn't an aid to memory, but a replacement for it." History, accordingly, is eaten up by the narrator's acts, and as quickly becomes part of the ongoing snowfall of words that pour from Monica's pen. Individuals and their statements just as quickly are swallowed up into a kind of nonjudgmental commentary.

Just as the landscape Monica describes, the numerous human figures she portrays often collide in the reader's mind as a jumble of abstract flesh. Some families are so extended with sons and daughters, their best friends, various lovers and boarders that, although on the "Monica's Chronicle Website" created by the authors all characters are listed, the reader loses sight of the individual, and ultimately can hear only the chorus of communal voices, which is perhaps appropriate, since all the choristers are themselves singing of one another. Accordingly, although Monica can see Manhattan's Empire State Tower from her window, ABC Street is a tale of small-town living, a world in which everybody is somehow interrelated and involved in each other's lives.

Yet unlike, say Winesburg, Ohio or any of Sinclair Lewis's tales, ABC Street does not comment on or evaluate—and only seldom satirizes— its characters. Rather, they become somewhat flattened reporters of their own destinies without an audience to coherently receive their messages. As Monica describes her own conversation with one of the most memorable figures of the book, Nancy St. Cloud:

It was windy and Nancy's navy blue wraparound skirt kept
blowing open in the middle of sentences. Every time she
reached down words got irretrievably whisked away across
the flat, dazzling surface littered all the way to the horizon
with sparkling bits of green, blue and amber bottle glass, so
Monica remembered the story as incoherent, though it may
not have been.

Unlike the utter falsity of normalized fictions, accordingly, Ascher/Straus's collaborative work is not just a collaboration between authors, but a collaboration between characters and readers. As in our everyday experiences, what we receive from one another is not always what has been communicated—or even what each of us attempted to communicate. People make their own conclusions and impact one another much as in the old game of "Telephone," through incredibly garbled readings of one another's lives by people they have never met.

Although the members of the "constellation" have all had regular encounters with Dr. DaVinci, a psychiatrist influenced by Wilhelm Reich, their psychological interpretations of one another are most often mistaken and motives are regularly confused or, as in Monica's encounter with Nancy's handsome and charming husband, Andre, are represented in multiple possibilities:

(1) Real, husbandly concern. (2) Enlisting the aid of a trust-
worthy friend who happens to be intruding in any case. (3)
Aligning himself with Monica's involuntary look of distress...
(4) Distancing himself (and not only in the eyes of others) from any
accusation of complicity.

In short, in Monica's chronicles of the world around her there are no answers and relationships between people and events are at best tentative.

While normative fiction carefully constructs a set of interrelated histories that ultimately work together to present a vision of an individual or community, Ascher/Straus' work, like the characters and events of real life, keep their histories secret—even while attempting to reveal them. Like the streets and lawns of this primarily wintertime landscape, history is buried under an avalanche of information: readings and misreadings, interpretations and interventions. As Monica writes: "Our lost history is a daily panorama though not necessarily a panorama of the everyday."

Despite the enormous joy of encountering this canvas of colorful characters, accordingly, the reader realizes that in Monica's chronicle there is no way to imaginatively reach out and touch these figures, nor any way to interweave their actions into a coherent or even consistent pattern. Writing is ink on paper, and any narrative, as much as it may seek mimesis, is as absolutely flat as unprimed canvas. At the end of Ascher/Straus's book, Monica closes her winter night's tale with the words:

February turns its sharp edge, black winter on the other side of
the page.

Not only is the tale over, but the human beings it has mentioned have yet to appear, as they stand in wait on the "other side of the page."

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Los Angeles, December 22, 2001

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Melancholiacs and the Missing Bucket (on Aksel Sandemoses's The Werewolf)

Aksel Sandemose Varulven (Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co., 1958), translated from the Norwegian by Gustaf Lannestock as The Werewolf (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966; reprinted 2002)

I first purchased a cloth copy of Sandemose's The Werewolf during my sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin, one year after the publication of the translation into English. The book sat unread on my shelves as a desired but foreboding object (the book is 375 pages long in a 6 x 9 format) for 35 years until this year, when Wisconsin reissued it in a paperback edition. In many respects, it was fortunate that I did not attempt to read it at the age of 19. I would not have understood it, and probably would have grown impatient with its rambling, dissociative structure. Even today, as an admitted admirer of fictional genres that lay outside of the more normative psychological novel, I was annoyed, at times, by its seeming lack of narrative continuity—at least until I recognized it as a kind of encyclopedic work that was attempting to reveal Norwegian culture from the 1930s until the date of its publication, 1958. And even then there were numerous times when Sandemose's long journeys into metaphoric ideation—the figure of the werewolf as a being who must have control over others is, quite obviously, at the center of this fiction—bothered and, at times, even confused me.

The story, such as it is, is a fairly simple love story between Erling Vik and Felicia Ormsund, who meet and then—for a number of reasons, including World War II and their participation in the underground—go their various ways before meeting up again. Meanwhile, Felica encounters and marries Jan Venhaug, but with Jan's tacit approval returns to a sexual relationship with Erling. The three, accordingly, live in an unconventional triangular relationship, all having, as Erling describes it, faced down and won out over the werewolf, permitting each other to live as free and distinct individuals.

This simple love story, however, is merely one ingredient in a stew of dozens of characters that include Erling's former lovers and wife, his illegitimate daughter, Julie (who has been invited to live at Venhaug), brothers, strangers, and war-time heroes and traitors. Not only does Sandemose attempt to capture the whole of Norwegian culture during these years, but explores, through his major figures, particularly Erling and Jan, some basic dichotomies in the Norwegian psyche.

From my outsider's point of view, I have come to see two elements of the Norwegian sensibility, elements that are seemingly opposed, but which are perhaps only two sides to a single entity. Perhaps because of the differences in Norway's rulers before its independence, Norwegians are often represented, at least in literature, in two different manners, both presented in Sandemose's work: the melancholiac and the devilish imp, Brand and Per Gynt—differences one might attribute to the dour Swedish questioning of the meaning of life (which Americans know best through filmmaker Ingmar Bergman) and the Danish comedic vision (recognized by Americans in Hans Christian Andersen, the Norwegian-born Dane Ludvig Holberg, or Norway's own storytellers Asbjørnson and Moe). In Sandemose's work the darker, werewolf-vision of Norwegian society might be said to be best expressed in the problem plays of Ibsen as opposed to the Holberg or Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. Sandemose's novel nods to both Holberg and Hamsun several times, Erling quoting from Holberg and described as living a life as young man in Oslo that recalls Hamsun's novel Hunger. In another instance, Erling has an affair with his landlady, Master-Mason Pedersen's wife, Pedersen being Hamsun's birth name. Indeed many of Erling's legendary experiences, particularly his sexual adventures with a young girl trapped in a huge pot and his story about a bucket he has purchased that suddenly vanishes into thin air, remind one of early Hamsun, Per Gynt, and other magical Norwegian tales.

Jan, on the other hand, a man of ideas and great practicality, is much closer to a character out of Ibsen's social dramas, Sigurd Hoel's great war-time novel Meeting at the Milestone, or the intense social encounters of the novels of Jens Bjørneboe. In short, Jan provides Felicia with a house, food, and gentle love, as opposed to the often uncontrollable urges for sex and alcohol that face Erling. Yet, quite obviously, Erling is the more exciting, and in that sense, more beloved by the whole family and most envied by those outside of Venhaug.

It is clear that Felicia, the strong heroine of this book, must have both in order to survive and, as the work suggests at its end, such bi-lateral love is necessary in order to become part of the Norwegian myth represented in its enduring histories and sagas. But it is that very pull between these two—the inability of the average man or woman to live up to either of these ideals—that often tears the society apart allowing the werewolf entry into the heart, and ultimately it is that failure that revenges itself on the woman both men love.

What Sandemose most clearly reveals in this remarkable encyclopedia of mid-20th century Norwegian affairs is that World War II served almost as a crucible for Norwegian culture, asking its citizens to accept these extremes of identity or stand meekly in the middle awaiting the bite of the beast. The obvious answer is, like Erling's brother Gustav, too many hunkered down in terror, nearly allowing the nation to be swallowed up in hate.

At fiction's end, Erling finally joins Jan and his daughter Julie—the new mistress of Venhaug—in making history, in determining their own fates.

Los Angeles, November 18, 2002