Tuesday, April 10, 2012
My admiration for what Steeves and Dunfield accomplish has many branches, including their commitment to operating a small publishing house in a culture that has supposedly turned away from literature and books. Principally, though, I'm fascinated by the fact that Steeves and Dunfield entered into their project without any previous experience in the book trade and that their combined, extensive expertise with regard to design, typography, and printing is entirely self-taught. This is the dream I hold for myself—to build a career configured by writing, editing, bookbinding, printing, and publishing based on a set of skills I acquire myself, to shape a personal, life-long curriculum derived from my own vision. Yet, my confidence falters in the face of turning this ambition into action. It's a glitch that serves as the basis for my outsized interest in people like Steeves, who harness their unique abilities and face challenge and risk without succumbing to fear.
Nearly seven years ago I sent letters to various publishers seeking an apprenticeship opportunity. Gaspereau Press and a fine press based in San Francisco were among the businesses I contacted and were the only two to respond. Andrew Steeves kindly called me and we talked easily for almost an hour (which is notable because I don't like the telephone, much less using it to speak with people I've never met). His advice, to put it briefly, was that I should start out on my own, that I didn't need an external learning opportunity. I share his opinion. Still, I promptly ignored him and moved to California in a doomed, two-tiered bid to achieve my goals by shoehorning myself into someone else's enterprise, and to return to the more reckless self I'd been during my first stint in San Francisco.
Between then and now I moved to my current rural community in Prince Edward County, where I've made some misguided effort to be a kind of practicing bookbinder. This has taken the shape of producing handmade blank books of various sizes and attempting to sell them at craft and art sales ranging in size from the Milford Fair to Toronto's too-large, exhausting One of a Kind sale. However, it became increasingly evident that I began my tiny cottage industry for its psychological implications rather than its sound financial premise. Every conversation I entered into from behind my book display was a protracted, ruminative dialogue with myself.
I make all of my books with care and a fascination with the process. I enjoy it, for sure, and I'm happy when customers want to buy my work. But my trade and products are frequently met with skepticism of a particular and consistent nature. People claim to be afraid of a blank page, or profess to have no ideas. They say the books are too nice to be used, by which they mean of higher quality than their meager ability. I always urge them on, trying to persuade that all ideas are worthy chrysalises deserving of a strong, competent foundation. I say they shouldn't be intimidated, that attempting work you value is the important part. I advise starting without thinking, that books allow for writing or drawing to be private processes. Creativity is the best part of yourself and needs an outlet, I argue. Find out what you think. Be honest. I can't count the number of times I stationed myself behind a table of my empty, recriminating books before I acknowledged that to do so was a repeated, staged effort to talk myself into filling them.
Steeves' lecture was called "The Ecology of the Book" and served to outline both the philosophy behind Gaspereau Press and the role of literature generally. He explained, among other things, that "books exist where there are shared concerns," "books exist in a symbiotic relationship with the world around them," "books are the physical embodiment of thought," and "books are time machines." He invoked environmental thinkers like Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold to describe how books intersect with precious concepts like community, relationships, and responsibility. For me, Steeves' topics and assessments broadened to reflect political issues where I live. My local government recently threatened to close a handful of the County's libraries because they're supposedly too costly to run. But we urgently need libraries because they foster community in an increasingly fractured, modernity-obsessed world. And I don't mean community in the limited sense of providing a room where people gather to use computers. Reading is valuable because it connects us to a shared, human past. If we acquaint ourselves with the writing of people who came before us, we enable ourselves to flourish. Their experience helps us decide how to live. I once attended a small meeting at my library and the group discussed how services could be improved. I asked how books are culled and was told that if titles haven't been borrowed in a certain time frame, they're eligible to be removed from circulation. I thought this was an inadequate method for assessing a volume's relevance. It's a practice that prioritizes currency and popularity. A book might languish on a shelf for years until it's borrowed and informs someone's life. This is the process by which a book becomes a time machine, as Steeves put it. Digital resources are important, but books must circulate freely.
Book history is remarkable for being a mix of opposites, meaning that while the form of the book has remained static for centuries, content has undergone sizable shifts over the course of human development. We live in a time of excessive homogeneity mostly due to a marketplace with unwavering emphasis on what's sellable to the largest number of people. I'm alive for a moment in time when a renewed diversity of ideas is imperative to illustrate the multiplicity of ways there are to think and be. Intentionally small publishing houses like Gaspereau Press reassure that there are distinct voices. The owners, in consort with their stable of writers, have a cohesive point of view. I'll attempt to be bolstered by deliberate voices like Steeves, or by the quiet, unfashionable Barbara Pym novel I've borrowed that may lose its deserved slot in the library stacks. I crave ideas—reading them and writing them—and they make up the bulk of my self-defined skills set. Stringing words together in an effort to approach insight, and maybe even artistry, is what I have to contribute.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
I've recently developed a pronounced interest in horses but I haven't ridden one since I was a kid. I'm approaching my curiosity the way I always do - through books. I asked a friend - an avid reader fascinated by horse racing - to recommend fiction with equine subject matter. She helpfully suggested many titles, but singled out two of her favourites: Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven (2000), and the book I just completed, Josephine Tey's marvelous Brat Farrar (1949).
Josephine Tey was a novelist and playwright whose work enjoyed enormous popularity during the '30s, '40s, and '50s. She was scrupulous about her privacy, so disliked photographs or interviews. Consequently, little is known of her background or writing in terms of her ambition or process. In fact, the name Josephine Tey is a pseudonym, one of two she attached to her published work (the other being Gordon Daviot). These details might explain why Tey doesn't have greater renown despite her gifts for narrative and prose, her comprehensively drawn characters, and her great insight into human behaviour.
The author's real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh and she was born in the very late 19th century in Inverness, Scotland. As a young woman she trained and eventually worked as a Physical Education Instructor in England but returned to Scotland in 1923 to care for her dying mother and, subsequently, her widowed father. At this point she began writing in earnest, though it was an activity she'd enjoyed as a child. Tey, as Daviot, began publishing stories and poems in various newspapers and journals in the late 1920s. Her first novel, called The Man in the Queue, was initiated as a bid for a writing prize. She finished it in only two weeks. It was a mystery story, as are the majority of her eleven novels. Five of them feature the recurring character Richard Grant, an inspector for Scotland Yard. Tey didn't approach mystery as a formulaic genre exercise. Her writing evidences qualities genre practitioners often lack - style and originality. Mysteries engender interest by relying on the reader's need for answers to the story's questions, to sort out the logic at work in the book's own, separate universe. This is the source of Tey's pronounced talent for pacing too. But instead of merely approaching crime as a riddle in which characters are moved like pawns, Tey crafts fully-formed people in complex situations who struggle to define moral rectitude. Their thoughts and actions have relevance beyond the story's parameters. You crave knowledge of the book's outcome because you identify with its cast.
Brat Farrar incorporates three things Tey is known to have valued: concealed identities, horseback riding, and the English countryside. Titular character Brat Farrar was raised in an English foundling home and spent his youth working in stables in the American Southwest. His name is a misspelled version of a made-up designation - Farrell evolved to Farrar, and Bartholomew became Brat. His identity is as pliable as the fates allow. Upon returning to England, he's stopped mid-stride on a London street by Alec Loding, an actor who spent a pastoral childhood alongside the Ashby family. He's astonished by Brat's likeness to the Ashby clan. He deviously suggests that Brat pose as Patrick Ashby who, as a 13-year-old, was thought to have died by suicide. The child's body was never found. Simon, his remaining, younger twin, is poised to take ownership of the family's country estate Latchetts on his upcoming, twenty-first birthday. But if Patrick were to return, the estate would fall to him. Loding teaches Brat the family's history, as well as the layout of both the house and the surrounding villages. In exchange, he requests a regular stipend should Brat succeed. Family and home are attractive conquests for Brat, even if they're won through deception. Once his tutoring is completed, he contacts the Ashbys' lawyer.
Tey introduces us to the Ashbys and other local connections through Brat's attempt to insinuate himself into the family. In addition to Simon, there are three more siblings, Jane, Ruth and Eleanor. All are overseen by their Aunt Bee, who assumed guardianship of the children when their parents died shortly before Patrick's disappearance. Latchetts is a modest estate, as these things go. Maintaining the home in the absence of parents and in the lean years following the first World War is a challenge, but the Ashbys manage to generate income from the quality of their stables. The father was a talented horseman and this knowledge was inherited by his kids. In fact, it's Brat's affinity with horses that goes a long way to making his ruse operable. What we learn of the characters is transmitted through their respective reactions to Brat's arrival. Simon is the most reluctant. Among the book's greatest assets is Tey's use of Brat as a foil for the reader. He's in a foreign situation with a lot at stake, so he obligates himself to be quiet and watchful. He notices details, isolates curious facts, and perceives idiosyncrasies, particularly due to Simon's stubbornness. Many of Brat's observations relate to characters' attitudes towards horses. For example, Tey draws parallels between Simon and his arrogant, destructive racehorse. Brat wonders what kind of man would favour that kind of horse.
Since Brat is the individual perpetuating the deception, it's initially hard to discern where the book's mystery lies. We already know he's a culprit. But Brat Farrar doesn't perform like a typical "whodunit." Tey is more concerned with the complexities of human behaviour, like how unstated feelings come to light and what finally pushes characters to act boldly. Brat and Simon are paralleled for supposedly being twins, and it's through this pairing that Tey raises certain of the book's themes. Both men inhabit circumstances that allow fluidity in their identities. Since Brat is an impostor he can adopt and abandon behaviours at whim. Simon, on the other hand, has such a fixed role that friends and neighbours make assumptions about him. Aberrations in his conduct can therefore go unnoticed. Since Brat and Simon are free to craft their personalities, Tey uses them to consider traits like goodness and malignancy and which attribute will predominate in men unbound by ethics. A shared likeness and an adversarial position also mean that Simon and Brat serve as mirrors, each reflecting the other's actions and values back at him.
The fact that Brat Farrar is an impostor story made me think of Patricia Highsmith in general, and her Tom Ripley books, specifically. Highsmith, like Tey, is attracted to the idea that criminal impulses always issue from complex, interesting people. Her Ripley, a self-serving, duplicitous, shape-shifting character, raises juicy existential questions about what we owe society and whether or not that obligation should inhibit our appetites. Using Brat and Simon, Tey demonstrates that people can act well and poorly simultaneously, that some lies are more spurious than others, and that we can contain mixed, sometimes incompatible drives within us at once, all ideas that abound in Highsmith's work too. In short, good and bad are not mutually exclusive. But the essential topic in each author's fiction is the conundrum of interiority, the way the separating effect of individuality can lead a person away from empathy. In effect, Brat Farrar is an exploration of the concept of decency, if it's innate, enforced, or chosen like a name.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Sean had the presence of mind to record Marty (1955) last week, an ultimately moving film I didn't know but now love. It stars Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. The latter had early success in musical theatre, during which time she met and married Gene Kelly. She continued on the stage, working for William Saroyan among others, before transitioning into film in the late 1940s. She almost lost her career-defining role in Marty due to her involvement with Communism and the investigation by HUAC. Husband Kelly threatened to pull out of his film It's Always Fair Weather if she was denied the part. Once Blair and Kelly split, she married Czech-born British film critic and director Karel Reisz. He was embedded in Britain's Free Cinema documentary movement and went on to become a central figure in the British New Wave. His feature debut Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) typifies social realist filmmaking of the period, a mode associated with British cinema to this day. Marty possesses many of the genre's qualities - including depicting life as lived by average people - but precedes Reisz's seminal picture by five years.
Marty's story takes place over 24 hours and concerns a corpulent, still single, thoroughly decent 34-year-old butcher who lives in the Bronx with his Italian Mother. When it opens, he's preparing cuts of meat for neighbourhood customers who impertinently demand to know when he'll marry since all of his siblings have successfully partnered up and moved out. After work, he goes to the local bar and sits with his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell). They acknowledge that they could spend the evening inside drinking beers and watching Hit Parade or take another stab at meeting women. At home, his mother pesters him to go dancing until the otherwise patient, loving Marty, inflamed by frustration, yells that it's pointless and dispiriting to continue to try, that he's a fat, ugly man, and that he'll probably never marry. She successfully goads him, however, and he and Angie head out to the Stardust Ballroom. Blair's character Clara arrives with a friend who has paired her with a crass blind date. He's turned off by her plainness and coincidentally promises Marty five dollars if he'll pretend to like her and take her home. He refuses the money but his sympathy is ignited. He witnesses Clara crying, holds her in an embrace, and assures her she's not a "dog," terminology used liberally by his rough friends whose collective, juvenile vision of women is culled from Mickey Spillane and girly magazines rather than actual contact. Marty evinces a distinct lack of belief in romance, especially amongst the younger crowd whose dating approach is shallow, cold and strategic. Despite their acceptance that marriage is the inevitable endpoint, they presume it to mean a loss of selfhood and an end to fun. But in the midst of this, Marty and Clara hit it off and broach intimacy in spite of their friends. They spend the rest of the evening together dancing, talking animatedly, and walking around the city streets. Each noticeably teeters between excitement at finding long-sought companionship and apprehension that the other might not feel similarly.
Marty was directed by Delbert Mann and written by Paddy Chayefsky. In its previous life it was a television drama created in 1953 by the same authors but with a different cast. Both Mann and Chayefsky had a background in stage work with Mann graduating from Yale's drama school. During a stint in Nashville community theatre, he met Fred Coe who would go on to work for Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. His department employed such notable filmmakers as Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet, and the television version of Marty was produced under its auspices. Techniques used on the stage translated well to television at the time since everything was live and the cameras were massive and couldn't be moved. For example, the television edition's ballroom scene comprised a static shot and everyone was choreographed to move past the lens or look towards it at precise moments. Mann later said that both renditions of Marty were inspired by the ballroom at the Abbey Hotel in New York City, where single people gathered to find dates. Chayefsky felt it was a suitable setting in which to explore the complexities of romance, a subject usually treated too simplistically. "There is far more exciting drama in the reasons why a man gets married than in why he murders someone." A burgeoning love affair between two ordinary people could supply the topic with sufficient fuel.
Unraveling the intricacies of romance and marriage is not limited to the central pair. In fact, Marty emerges as a kind of ethnographic document, a portrait of a particular moment in time, due to its representation of women and the ways marriage, motherhood, and old age affect them. The film evidences a culture in transition. Surrounding Marty and Clara are the aforementioned confused, rough friends, Marty's mother Mrs. Piletti (Esther Minciotti), his Aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli), her son Tommy (Jerry Paris), and Tommy's wife Virginia (Karen Steele). Tommy and Virginia come to Mrs. Piletti in distress because widowed Catherine, who lives with them, constantly criticizes Virginia's parenting and housekeeping skills. Virginia argues that she requires privacy and the right to raise her children according to her own standards. Mrs. Piletti, also widowed, convinces Catherine to move in with her and Marty. During Catherine's first evening at the Piletti house, the two women discuss how narrow a woman's life becomes when her husband dies and her children have grown. Without someone to provide for, her days are marked by a lack of purpose. It's a remarkable scene for its frankness and prioritization of older women's points of view. They're probably only in their fifties, but presumed redundancy has made them prematurely old. The passage is also lovely for granting Catherine dimension. It's easy to find sympathy for Virginia since she deserves to run her own household and, in their scenes, Catherine behaves like a harping, reproving mother-in-law. But by allowing us to see that her hostility is born of disappointment and a fear of change, Mann and Chayefsky show Catherine considerable compassion.
With the conflict and regret in Marty's family, it's possible his avoidance of marriage is due as much to apprehension as lack of opportunity. Reasons for marrying are shown to be primarily social, but the charm of Marty lies with the suggestion, through the central couple's example, that relationships can involve mutual admiration and a commitment to the other's betterment. Betsy Blair's Clara is on the fence between being independent - she teaches High School Chemistry - and just another unwed, sheltered daughter still living with her parents. She's offered an opportunity to teach at a new, suburban school which would require her to move from home. Marty tells her she's capable and deserves the heightened responsibility. Similarly, Marty's employer invites him to buy the butcher shop because he wants to retire. Clara assures him butchery is a noble profession and he's smart enough to run his own business. At the end of their night, Marty brings Clara to his house where they encounter his Mother. She bemoans Virginia's selfishness and aligns with Catherine. Though she urges Marty to marry, Mrs. Piletti has absorbed her sister's concern for redundancy. Composed, Clara argues that Catherine ought to accept her stage of life by developing new interests. She treats Mrs. Piletti respectfully, but not by forsaking her confidence or her opinion.
Beyond delineating Marty's particular circumstance, the film portrays the lifestyle and social mores of an entire neighbourhood. (All exterior shots are actual Bronx locations, which lends the movie another degree of veracity.) This simultaneity of the specific and the general is complimented by other instances of doubling, like the shared presences of the mundane and the beautiful, and the simple and the complex. Marty and Clara's refusal to accept commonly held beliefs about who to choose as a partner and the gender roles they ought to play are bolstering, not least because they prove that limiting conventions have the potential to budge. The beginning of their romance looks easy. But at the film's end, Marty is found at the bar still persuaded by the values of his peers and his parent. He fails to call Clara right away as he'd promised. His hesitation reveals the difficulty of altering accepted tradition. It can take generations to evolve toward new modes of conduct. Still, after admonishing his critical friends, Marty enters the phone booth and picks up the receiver. The film doesn't convey the result of his actions. It's satisfied to end with the thrill of an independent, self-gratifying act that has repercussions far beyond Marty's purview.
Friday, February 3, 2012
An entry in Beatrix Potter's diary reminded me of something I wrote a couple of years ago about having a dog. Our beloved poodle Magnus died in October and I'm still struggling with the staggering loss of him. Though I mean to, I haven't yet addressed the experience through writing. So, below is the excerpt from Potter's journal. She deals with domestic cats which are, of course, distinctly different from and possibly more wild than their dog counterparts. Lately, I've had some thrilling interactions with cats. Our friend Kelly, who unfortunately just lost her pal George, has a beautiful Maine Coon named Abby who recently let me adore her for a solid ten minutes before I had to tear myself away and let Sean take a turn. Additionally, my yoga instructor Pam has a magnificent cat named Jack. He's massive and jet black with a lion's mane and a long, plumed tail. When I was lying still on my mat the other day, he emerged and sat within arm's reach. I abandoned the task of being interior in favour of stroking him and nuzzling up to his purr. I think he knows I'm trying to heal. Anyway, after the Potter entry, please find my dog piece. It's a mere start to the complex, humbling task of assessing how unbelievably enriching it is to be a dog's person.
Saturday, March 28th, 1885: There are signs that the domestic animals are revolting. From Holborn comes news that one Mr. Ashton, returning home, discovered his black tom had two visitors in the passage, whom Mr. Ashton proceeded to eject, but all three set on him, and after a violent struggle Mr. Ashton was driven precipitously out at the front door, and fell into the arms of two policemen who took him to the hospital.
On their return, they found old Mrs. Ashton the other had retreated into the back drawing-room badly scratched, and she also was conveyed to the hospital. The two policemen returned a second time and had a tremendous battle, in which one cat jumped on the leading policeman's helmet. However, the two strangers were killed at last. Unfortunately the blackie leader took warning and escaped through a back window, since which a large body of cats are said to have been seen moving towards Oxford Street.
I don't consider cats thoroughly domesticated animals. I have twice been attacked by two which had not kittens, when trying to turn them out of the garden. Once I retreated at full speed, the other time I had a most unpleasant fight with a heavy walking stick.
January 6, 2010
The first thing I do everyday is let my dog out into the yard. Then, I stand where he can't see me and watch what he does. I want to glimpse his private life, to witness the personality he shows in my absence. His morning routine rarely varies and it fascinates us both. First, he pees, then ambles a little and sniffs a lot. Eventually he stands as still as a statue, amazingly able to channel the energy coursing through his body. His interest is focused as though he's intuiting the whole environment and no detail escapes his purview. And there's a lot to take in - bird flight and chatter, and scents left in the grass. My husband and I contain him with a field fence we built to keep him safe. Beyond it lie woods that house freer creatures than him. My dog's markings, refreshed throughout the day, are scripted messages to visitors, the wild interlopers who cross over our domestic border. He writes; This is who I am and this is where I live. I adore him to a degree I never imagined possible. I think about the ways my love circumscribes his life.
I'm the rare animal person who didn't get a dog until I turned thirty. After all, people have owned dogs since the beginning of recorded history, if not before. They were the first creatures we ever put to work for us (or, who put us to work for them, as a friend recently described it). Typically, the aristocracy kept dogs as pets and it wasn't until the Victorian period that people from all walks of life sought out their companionship. They were popular because they readily accepted mastery. Despite this, I brought a dog into my life to try and relinquish the control I expected to have over everything. At the mercy of my inhibitions, and highly self-conscious, I thought a dog's example could prod me to change.
I always craved the autonomy and enterprise needed to design my own life but grew up in a household that favoured yielding children over assertive ones, stifled feelings over directness and prudent decisions over irresistible urges. I hoped a dog could help me sniff out more fun. I wanted intimacy with a creature that was clear of purpose and found it impossible not to plunge ahead. I wanted to walk with a companion who saw life as an explorer did, and who could apparently be excited by simple things, even the same things, everyday. Worries about the future and a fear of failure lead me to analyze myself and my goals to the point of inaction. It was my hope that a dog's capacities for improvisation and openness could show me how to more fully occupy the present moment. And having an animal in my orbit who was so keen to meet new people would interrupt my tendency toward solitude and force me into the light. Most important, I required the ceaseless task of dominating my dog. If I asserted myself with calm authority and took full responsibility, the confidence I proved to him could extend into other areas. My plan meant committing for my dog's lifetime. It was my job to ensure that he felt safe, capable, loved beyond measure, and free to pursue anything that interested him. If a walk was exasperating, or training went badly, or play at the park ended with growls or worse, avoidance wasn't acceptable. I had to recognize and address all problems as they surfaced. From the outset, the drawbacks of my approach were apparent. I wanted a relationship coloured by mutual benefit and spontaneity that, contradictorily, I'd already defined by my expectations.
My sister got a dog the year before I did. She insisted it was demeaning to govern him with authority. Consequently, he's developed behaviours her family finds difficult to live with. In the absence of a leader, he's undertaken to protect her house, located in a densely populated city neighbourhood with ceaseless foot traffic past the front yard. He barks out the window, and frequently whines, which makes his family resent him. Outside, his actions are far worse. Their response has been to provide little exercise and to shut the drapes, even during the day. I thought his constant anxiety had come to dictate the mood of the household until it occurred to me that he'd grown into an emblem of my sister's own discomfort. Due to our shared childhood, as well as her innate personality, my sister lives inwardly and is careful and cautious. Avoiding situations that could summon her dog's aggression defines her fear of conflict more so than his fierceness. She's grown to mistrust his wildness, the primordial instinct he expresses within the freedom she allows. And, despite a proclaimed intent to avoid training, she's inadvertently enlisted his help in encountering the deep-seated unease that colours her life. With each day, he gives her a chance to step out of her own shadow. Without even being asked, it's the job to which he's giving his life.
When my dog came home as a tiny, fluffy, headstrong puppy, and the training, walking, and socializing began, I inevitably spent more time with dogs and their owners. Given my sister's example, and my own intentions, I developed a personal preference for obedient dogs, by which I mean dogs that acted in consultation with their owners, and had been given a code of conduct. Dogs that rely exclusively on their own wits are unsettling because they're governed by instincts and heightened senses I don't share so don't fully understand. But if these instincts amount to dogs' "animalness," it disturbs me to mistrust them. After all, I live with an animal and am devoted to his well-being. How can I therefore prefer his modified self to the version that comes forth naturally? I figure dogs are divided between their wild selves and the one that's resulted from human interference. Perhaps their appeal lies with this split and its similarity to our own condition, the ongoing choice we make between freedom and submitting to social roles. We admire dogs' malleability because it enables us to train them away from their scary traits. But the strength we limit in them may also be a quality we covet. And, so, everyday my dog reflects my options back to me, the balancing acts of assertion and compliance, vigilance and audacity.
Thursday, February 2, 2012
In the six years since I bought a car I've recently grown impatient with highway driving (and I don't even commute). So if I'm going to a nearby city from our tiny town, the voyage usually follows country roads and eventually involves the train. This time, I opted to drive to Cobourg, which lies about an hour and a quarter west by car, and board the train for Toronto there. And despite finding ways around my dislike of freeways, it's hard to live with this sensitivity. It seems yet another way in which I'm fearful and ill-adapted and I criticize myself harshly for my presumed deficiency.
When we left Milford, the sky was clear but, as is so often the case in the County, the weather changed dramatically after only a short time en route. We encountered heavy, wet snow that accumulated quickly and the driving became regrettably slow and slippery. I grew worried about missing the train I'd scheduled, stacking that anxiety on top of the concomitant anxiety of reduced safety. I dug in, focusing on the road and the Steven Wright episode of "WTF with Marc Maron" Sean was playing through the stereo.
Maron always devotes a healthy portion of the conversation to determining his subject's trajectory - how they found their way to their life's work. For me, this is one of the most enriching parts of the podcast (because, at the ripe old age of 39, I'm still looking for my life's work). Wright explains that he came relatively late to comedy and wasn't especially deliberate about his goals. After limited experience with stand-up, he moved to Denver, Colorado as a young man because he knew some guys who were going. He had $80 in his pocket and not a trace of concern about outcomes. After more unpremeditated moves to Boulder and then Aspen, he got a job removing snow from roofs. He wrote jokes while at work shoveling. As summarized in this interview, Wright speaks about his life as an accumulation of experiences and attendant realizations, amounting to a present, deep satisfaction with where and how he's living. He's based in a small town in Massachusetts and is perpetually stimulated by easy access to nature. Perhaps it provides ample opportunity for creative thinking given that the originality of his writing suggests he grants himself considerable freedom and enjoys the quality and content of his own mind. He rides a bike, paints, travels from home to work around the country, and has perhaps the most distinctive voice in current American comedy. Wright made one of the most memorable films I've ever seen - 1988's The Appointments of Dennis Jennings. Lines from that movie recur to me often and are still so funny it's as though they're memories from my own life. It was interesting to encounter, via the interview, how closely Wright's uniform, unhurried style of speaking mirrors his approach to life - amusement and reverence in the face of life's variances and absurdities.
So, I decided that we were merely attempting to meet the train's schedule. If we didn't make it on time, it wasn't a failure as there was little I could do control what happened. When I relinquished my assumption that our day's events should occur as I'd planned them, I relaxed, which felt good. We found a parking spot beside the front door of the station and the train rolled in five minutes later. We took our seats, listened to music together, and watched the scenery pass by the window as the train moved quickly, effortlessly through the snowstorm. Our rides to and from Toronto ended up being among the more pleasurable parts of our weekend. Trains are unlike cars because they enable you to attentively observe your surroundings. And they're unlike planes that lift you up and out of your environment. Our journey gave life to my romantic ideas of train travel, the way it allows you to feel acutely and immersively what it's like to move through time and space.
Improbably, there's a fantastic Japanese restaurant in Newmarket, the town next to the suburb where I grew up. It's located in an unremarkable strip mall next to an orthopedic supply shop. The chef's extreme competency is equalled by his gruffness. Sean and I ate there once with my parents and he had an outsized, hostile reaction to my Mother's request for a fork. I've always wanted to go back, despite feeling guilty for being willing to overlook his inhospitality. In my defense, however, I ate a mushroom and egg custard at this restaurant that constitutes one of the best, most comforting dishes I've ever eaten - silky, earthy, and savoury. Elements of the place are incongruous. The street outside is bleak but the interior is rich and warm, making it seem like stepping into an oasis or a parallel universe. The owner has decorated the walls with his daughter's childhood artwork - amateurish paintings of horses and other girlish concerns - whose sweetness contrasts with the sometimes churlish tone of the room. I learned recently that this chef has another location in Toronto. He doesn't cook there on weekends, but the food is still spoken of highly. After getting off the train, Sean and I marched up there to eat before going to the movie theatre. Blizzard-like conditions were forming while we made our way up Yonge Street, one of Toronto's least impressive promenades. But when we turned a corner, we found a small room glowing amidst dusk and winter's combined murk. The restaurant was completely lacking in pretension and boasted home-y touches like mismatched, cloth table linens, enveloping spice-coloured walls, and still more kid art, including a 1988 ink sketch of Garfield lying on his back on a small hill, cheerfully rubbing his comparably round tummy. Still, the familiar impatience was present. The waiter was accommodating, though she could never be described as pleased to see us. We selected seats and no pleasantries were exchanged. Once we ordered, she started carrying out plates of sushi, smoked mackerel, and pork belly, often irritatedly scolding Sean before she set them down; "Would you move that?" It was like the girl who crafted the juvenile horse pictures had grown into a petulant teenager. But we were charmed by the consistencies from the main restaurant to this outpost, the most essential being the quality of the food. After slurping down raw, luxurious, British Columbian scallops in contented silence, we waited for our last plate. I'd forgotten how long it takes to prepare Hamachi Kama - Yellowtail collar - and our meal lost some its delightful, fulfilling momentum. The first time I ate Hamachi Kama was while visiting my friend Mark Olsen in Los Angeles, and it made that meal a high watermark in my eating history. Waiting, we wondered if we should have ordered it at all. We were poised to devour it when it finally came. It was grilled, seasoned simply and presented with citrus and a soya dipping sauce with subtle tastes of onion and vinegar. We pulled the flesh out of the cartilage with our chopsticks, both fixated on the task at hand. The meat was buttery and tender and pried away easily in satisfying, large chunks. It was so succulent I could have cried.
Living in the country we miss two main things about the city: walking everywhere and seeing all the movies that interest us. Days before our departure, I searched a list of films playing in Toronto and talked exhaustively to Sean about what we should see. He was only moderately interested in weighing our options since he's capable of playing things by ear. We decided to see the Iranian film A Separation and arrived at the Varsity cinemas five minutes before showtime. I greatly dislike sitting in movie theatres before the film starts. The advertisements and entertainment trivia, and watching people find their seats make my heart race. I've directed much effort at determining why this is the case.
In any event, the cinema lobby was filled with bodies in a chaotic swarm of discordant inactivity and intentionality. Pockets of tangible frustration amongst the crowd lead us to realize that our film was sold out. We opted for our backup, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method. This is not to suggest that the fortunate opportunity to see any Cronenberg film in the cinema is second rate. Just that I'd already seen it and wanted our only movie night in Toronto to afford something new. We found the theatre, took our seats, then endured the process by which last-minute stragglers crane their necks to spot vacancies, weigh the merits of the poor seats still available, discuss whether or not to split up, oblige people who got there in plenty of time to move over, then shuffle, stamp, and shimmy in an entitled fashion towards their selected chairs. Two women in expensive, elaborate winter-wear, including flue-shaped fur hats topping their distractedly tousled salon-hair, sauntered in with a couple of minutes to spare and proceeded to hit all of the aforementioned marks. They reeked of a kind of flakiness that results from being wealthy and therefore used to getting what they want. They opted to sit near us, one behind the other as this formation was all that was left. I intuited right away that they would never settle, in any sense of the word. The woman beside Sean moved to and from her seat multiple times, crawling over the rest of the row as though they were in her way. When she returned for the last time, she recounted to her friend that she'd experienced conflict at the snack bar, had to insist on speaking to the manager, and capped off her tale with the withering observation, "Incompetence, incompetence everywhere." As the lights dimmed a humiliated woman appeared and hand-delivered a giant quantity of popcorn to our neighbour.
Yet, I noticed a shift take place in my body once the film started. A calmness supplanted the anxiety I always feel preceding any moviegoing experience. Is it the dark? Is it my supposition that the action onscreen, the audience's purpose in gathering, will enforce order? Some claim that David Cronenberg's recent work constitutes a movement toward classical narrative cinema and away from sensationalism, genre gore, and moral provocation. If this is true it doesn't matter. As an artist, he can change if he wants to. He's still among the greatest living filmmakers we have. Personally, I value him for his consistency, among other things. A Dangerous Method marks another confident step in his continued assessment of certain themes. The film portrays Sigmund Freud's mentorship of Carl Jung. Their connection is paralleled by Jung's affair with patient Sabine Spielrein. All three pioneered the study of self-actualization and their intersecting relationships are explored to elucidate this topic. On multiple occasions, it's stated that the goal of psychoanalysis is to lead patients toward freedom. Viewing the film this time around, it was clearer that it demonstrates that being a social animal complicates the effort of developing the self. Each of the characters enlists someone's close help in order to progress as an individual. When they each make strides, the aid they've solicited becomes less necessary but disentangling is fraught due to the intimacy they've forged in the name of their own betterment. Freedom is the goal but it can only be sought through dependency and influence, making it counterintuitive if not impossible. Or, looked at another way, freedom opposes repression but both require great personal sacrifice. So, the basic human impulse is contradictory and this always hits home for me at the movie theatre. The cinema is a haven because it offers a solution, an ideal way to be alone together, to strike a balance between self-administered edification while observing social codes. But the experiment won't work when others are present who see all situations as mere extensions of their own fur-hatted, self-gratifying, pleasure-principled drives.
When A Dangerous Method ended, we walked back to our hotel room. We turned on the television because it's fun to watch it from bed, something we don't do at home. Saratoga was playing on TCM so we settled in. The movie stars previously-paired Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, who died suddenly from kidney failure during filming. She was only 26 years old. The film is set in the world of racetracks but the plot is negligible. The overarching objective is to pit Harlow against Gable until she realizes her obstinacy is really evidence of love. Because Harlow died before the film was completed they opted to use stand-ins now and again rather than shelf the effort entirely. It was shot out of sequence, so the whole movie is peppered with instances in which Harlow's character is either concealed by expansive hats or holds her back to the camera. These moments stick out because her involvement makes you expect glamorous close-ups that capitalize on her incandescent presence. More than that, they're really sad. Towards the end, when the leads' romantic contract is finally sealed, what would ordinarily have constituted a shared gaze of romantic longing is reduced to a gloved hand, not Harlow's own, resting on Gable's leg. It's an eerie shot, at once the female lead's capitulation as well as Harlow's posthumous adieu. Movie stars die - people die - but somehow Harlow's end is especially tragic. I think it's because legend tells of her difficult life - a controlling mother, spate of scandals, and several unfulfilling marriages. She seemed poised to come into her own.
On Sunday night, we walked up Spadina, through Toronto's Chinatown, on our way to dinner. It's a lovely route to take since there are so many bright signs that the lighting, even though it's mostly practical and promotional, appears festive. The environment grew still brighter as we began to pass in front of an enormous duvet shop. Its front windows are almost the height of the building and the interior lights were all on, bouncing off the expanse of stark, white linens. Suddenly, a fat raccoon rounded the north corner of the building and came galloping toward us in a pool of virtual daylight. It had a determined look in its eyes, its body sending its brain the message, "Get out of the light!" Its sense of purpose combined with its size made me stop in my tracks. I hollered, "I don't know what to do!" It made an apparent bid to obliterate all obstacles and I sincerely think it could have succeeded. We stepped to the side, breathing quickly. You could hear the thunderous pounding of its unvarying, willful footfall on the pavement.
The climax of our weekend took place at Woodlot, a restaurant on Palmerston, just off of College, and then Soundscapes, where Sean treated himself to three cds (Real Estate's "Days", Harlem's "Hippies," and an anthology of Alex Chilton's solo work). The restaurant is in a somewhat awkward space that's been adapted to good effect. There's an open kitchen, featuring a monstrously large wood oven, beside which they've placed a communal table we wanted desperately to avoid (and did!). The main dining room is on a mezzanine and the small bar is tucked underneath it. The space was noisy and teemed with patrons and staff of comparable youth and effortless style. We were ourselves and among the older people there. The overall aesthetic is a mix of rustic and industrial and appearances reflected this bifurcation through either loose, plaid shirts or fitted, conservative versions buttoned up to the throat. When we arrived, the stereo was blaring St. Vincent and I worried that the rest of the evening would be characterized by self-conscious food and sounds meant to hit voguish markers. Since we were early, we walked to the bar to the pulses of Joy Division. We each ordered a cocktail. Sean's was a bourbon drink that made overtures to an Old Fashioned recipe but was liberally spiced with black pepper. Mine was Hendrick's gin, which already has a pronounced herbal taste, mixed with tonic (the restaurant makes its own), sweet Vermouth, and Orris Root. The latter smells like violets, derives from irises, and sometimes features in gin distillation. It might be the best cocktail I've ever had. At my first sip, the soundtrack took a detour and commenced Rod Stewart's stirring "Young Turks," a song I'd forgotten I loved. The drink and the song in combination settled any concern I had about pretense. We were at ease, flushed, happy to be together, and ready to eat.
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
I got both of the aforementioned volumes at an annual book sale in Prince Edward County that typically falls on the August long weekend. A local woman is a book dealer who formerly ran a store in Picton. She keeps her large collection in a barn on her property and infrequently opens it to the public to sell off her stock. I've purchased a few great books from her - an example, Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak's wonderful Open House for Butterflies. I selected Bemelmans' Are You Hungry Are You Cold to act on my interest in the author. Plus, the particular version I bought has a compelling provenance. There's a stamp in red ink on the flyleaf that says, "From the library of Anita Loos."
Bemelmans is of Austrian descent - born in 1898 - and is most known for writing and illustrating the Madeline series. The first of six was published in 1939 and the last in 1961. In all, he wrote fifteen books for children. Bemelmans didn't begin his writing and illustrating career until 1934 when a friend in publishing told him the paintings he made on his apartment walls would be effective in juvenile literature. I viewed a mural he completed later in life in the bar of New York's Carlyle hotel (a commission he accepted in order to secure room and board). It depicts many Madeline characters exploring different Central Park landmarks and is, I guess, a point on a continuum of marking up walls. I was consumed by it and the bar's pianist, and trying desperately not to watch one of the most flagrant displays of exhibitionistic PDA I've ever seen. I didn't pay attention when my dear friend Julie nudged me and pointed out that Kate Moss was traipsing through the room.
Bemelmans was a rebellious child and was kicked out of a variety of schools. For lack of knowing what else to do with him, he was apprenticed to an uncle in the hospitality trade. Bemelmans was bounced out of his establishments too. He moved to the US in 1914 with letters of recommendation to a handful of major hotels, working his way up to the position of waiter at the Ritz-Carlton before enlisting in the US Army in 1917. He returned to the hotel business after the war and even opened his own restaurant. He was itinerant, fiercely independent, and a bon-vivant. Still, the Madeline series aside, brutality and madness are commonly present in his art, perhaps due to his historical context.
Bemelmans' writing style is hugely appealing to me. His subjects are exclusively derived from real events and people he knew and are filtered through his keen perception, irreverence, and aptitude for what's funny. He approaches everything with curiosity and openness in a manner that's detached and distinctly uncomplicated. Humor, cruelty, greed, kindness, and peculiarity are presented even-handedly as components of human behaviour to be marveled at rather than judged. His sentences are clipped and lacking in excess - he includes just enough and no more. There are many similarities between his illustrations and writing. Each line and brush stroke is so loose as to appear effortless but conveys considerable movement and character. His style of composition is naive, verging on incompleteness, and the images and scenes appear almost flat. Yet they're fully rounded in terms of feeling and activity, and transmit bursts of colour and vitality in the most expedient ways.
Are You Hungry Are You Cold is a coming of age story coloured by anger and despair that's set during World War Two. In the face of this, the unnamed main character demonstrates fierce will. Relief from the book's bleakness comes from her self-determination, as well as Bemelmans' concise, inventive prose. As in his other work, Bemelmans shows great insight towards children's behaviour and thinking. The narrative is delivered in an episodic fashion comparable to his essay books and the writing is straightforward and unadorned so as to appear concrete and truthful.
The girl belongs to a Spanish mother and a French General father who directs the same dogmatism toward his children (she has a brother, Hugo) that he shows to his regiment and cavalry school. The children's best friends are siblings Alain and Veronique who are treated just as savagely by their military parent. The pairs become allies based on shared suffering. Over the course of the novel, the girl moves through a series of prison-like circumstances - a couple of convent schools, life in occupied Germany - that outwardly mimic the coldness and sadism of her family's parenting style. And while resenting her militaristic home life, she still absorbs her father's mindset and modes of conduct. She repeatedly states that she doesn't like to be touched and responds to all situations with soldier-like strategy and subterfuge. She sees every circumstance as a test to escape authority and obtain independence, and always attempts both through violence - she becomes practiced at knife-throwing and plots successfully how to start a building fire without getting caught.
The centerpiece of the book, and its most bravura passage, is a traditional Spanish bullfight. She and her mother are living in her grandmother's home and while there, she's forced to observe her First Communion. The bullfight is part of the festivities. She's horrified to be present and dreads the barbarism she's obliged to witness. A friend of her grandmother's attempts to reassure her:
"'...it's very beautiful, and there is nothing to worry about, one gets used to it very quickly - but the first time, my dear, there is a part when the horse comes on...' and she said that she herself had never got used to that. 'So when that happens, I don't look. I think about my clothes, or my next dinner party, and that is perhaps what you should do, also - don't look when the horse comes, think about your dolls - or your friends - or your lovely dresses.'"
Her mother and grandmother, and the women in their coterie, are consumed by family status, religious tradition, and domestic governance, all of which represent the narrator's meager allotment and limited potential. She rejects both wholeheartedly, though not easily. When a male family friend says the bullfight might be damaging for a young girl to watch, the narrator's mother balks. "Mama turned her coldest face to him, and with waxen nostrils hissed: 'She stays here.'" But she bolts, and descends the ramps of the stadium, unfortunately winding up in an open space adjacent to the bull ring.
"...gates from the arena were opened, and three mules, whipped, and with their legs pounding upwards, galloped in past me, dragging the dead bull. A man in a red suit whipped them, they came to a halt, and then a dozen men with bloody aprons unhooked the bull and dragged him to the centre of the place and in a moment they each had axes and long knives.
The bull's head was put on a wooden block as if on a pillow and they cut off his ears and gave them to a waiting man who ran with them, and then they all worked together without a word, and they chopped off his head and cut him open and the quivering red flesh was steaming. Two with smaller knives started to skin him, and a boy, barelegged and with a knife, stepped into the bull as it was opened, and he took out the entrails and the stomach and sliced it open, and out of it came a liquid mass of spinach soup that ran all over the floor and mixed with blood, and then I fell into this mess as someone pushed me out of the way.
I felt as if I were drowning in blood, and I saw everything as if it were under water. I was picked up and put on a stretcher and then carried around the space between the arena and the bull ring. It all turned like a huge carousel above me, the thousands of faces looking down on me all filled with pity...
The men who carried me were of the lot that had beaten the old horse. I was carried past banderillas stuck in the wooden side of the barrera, and men sharpening the points, and then past bullfighters, and where their capes were hung up. The people shouted in sounds that were like the waves of the sea. In the sky the setting sun gilded a plane very high, very small, and then the men turned right and I was taken inside the infirmary, and placed on a table. Two nuns came and took off my dress and started to wash me. I was naked. It smelled of carbolic solution and on the wall, where my feet were, up where the tiling ended, hung a print of the Madonna in a gilded frame."
The girl spends the duration of the novel fighting to avoid fulfilling her status as a sacrifice - a victim of her gender and her circumstance in history. Others in her peer group don't succeed, as children of either side, enemy or ally, are caught up in the murky entrails of their parents' battle. Its proportions are made dubious by the inexact morality of their actions, the parameters of which are expertly portrayed by Bemelmans. Eventually the narrator devotes herself to Alain, perhaps simply because they both made it out alive. He endured his war service but was severely hurt. Traces of Rochester can be seen in Alain's initially harsh treatment of the narrator, as well as in the disfigurement he suffers before their their romantic contract is sealed.
My husband recently shared an essay with me called "The Art of Fiction" that was written by Henry James. He laments that detractors criticize fiction for its lack of integrity due to being made up rather than based on fact. He insists that the best fiction aspires to truthfulness in its insights and conveyance of feeling and behaviour, if not in the events depicted. It was interesting to encounter this piece while reading of Are You Hungry Are You Cold. Bemelmans' prolific output spans from the truth of factual recounting to the falsity of fictive imaginings. But his work is consistently idiosyncratic, intelligent, and bare, never obfuscating who he is or what's real, as he sees it. Honesty is imperative.
(And, as it goes with reading, Are You Hungry Are You Cold dovetailed in lovely ways with the formidably talented Lorrie Moore's wonderful novel A Gate At the Stairs, the book I completed just prior to starting in with Bemelmans (though the Louisa May Alcott biography fell in there too). Both were portraits of a type of adolescence in which the person depicted demonstrates intelligence beyond their years that their life experience hasn't caught up to yet. Both novels depict the accrual of that hard experience. And, further, Moore and Bemelmans share a capacity for humour and, in particular, introducing it into dark conditions so as to modulate them and make them more human.)
Friday, January 13, 2012
As with many of my goals and practices, my blog has languished. I can't say why I have such a hard time writing with dedication. It's a source of disappointment and the single most important thing I want to change. So! I've returned to my blog with the intention of publishing writing with more frequency. I'll add new pieces as topics occur to me, and simultaneously work on other writing that corresponds with bookbinding. This means some writing will appear on the Internet and some will take the form of books.
Perhaps a large part of my difficulty with writing relates to not knowing where it should land. I want to be the ambassador for all of my work, so how do I deliver it to an audience? Should I even imagine them when I'm working? Creative expression depends on being met by a reader, viewer, or listener since it constitutes the dual purpose of becoming known to yourself and then to others. Currently, I'm reading Madeleine Stern's 1950 biography of Louisa May Alcott (I'm not sure yet if I like Stern's writing style). Alcott was able to write with diligence from the time she was a girl. This was probably due to her Mother's devoted interest in her progress. Her family was her first audience - they dutifully watched her plays and listened to her read aloud. (Alcott's father nurtured her intellect, but he was so self-absorbed his encouragement rarely took on practical proportions.) When Alcott was little, she received this note from her Mother:
"I am sure your life has many fine passages well worth recording, and to me they are always precious... Do write a little each day, dear, if but a line, to show me how bravely you begin the battle, how patiently you wait for the rewards sure to come when the victory is nobly won."
Alcott also enjoyed the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson who acted as her father's benefactor for much of their lives. Emerson explained, "He that writes to himself writes to an eternal public. That which is done at home must be the history of the times and the spirit of the age to us."
So, self-improvement and self-discovery have widespread, beneficial consequences. Perhaps this relates to keeping a diary, an impulse to write that doesn't conceive of a reader. I became even more interested in Beatrix Potter's journal once I learned that, for over 15 years, she wrote it devotedly in a code of her own devising. The journal was discovered after her death and delivered to a Potter scholar, Leslie Linder, who had a particular interest in her visual art. For years he attempted to break the code and was continually frustrated. He finally chose to set it aside but, after one more look, had a breakthrough. Then he began the arduous task of translating it for publication. I now have it on loan from the library.
The published version of Potter's journal starts when she's 14 years old (though Linder indicates she began composing it at a younger age but went back as an older woman and destroyed early installments). She didn't publish the work she's most known for until her mid-thirties. She didn't leave her parents home until she was fifty. There's no doubt her code was a bid for privacy. But, in the preface to the edition I've borrowed, H.L. Cox argues that Potter also wanted to write and train her memory. There was no reason for her to write so she crafted one and, at times, it was simply automatic. Portions of her diary are transcriptions of hymns she'd committed to memory. She wrote them out to exercise her mind and enjoy the sensation of moving a pen with her hand. She sketched a lot too. Potter was an earnest fungologist who produced two hundred and seventy paintings of fungi, most of which were completed alongside her journal between the years 1893 and 1898. Cox defines Potter's journal as "a pertinacious search for the medium in which her own innate talent was to find expression...". It comprised a steady effort at preparation. It doesn't really elucidate her context or clearly outline progress toward the literary masterpieces she'd eventually create. It does, however, demarcate the union of influence and personality that lead to her greatest achievements, timeless contributions to art, farming, and land stewardship that were meant for and resoundingly found an audience.