Sunday, September 26, 2010

my tortured attention

On the first couple pages the scene is set - intellectual Warsaw during the war and what the thinkers discussed but I was thinking of the friend I'd just run into in the lobby who'd made a question of the sentence, "You knew I separated from B (?)." I'd answered "yes," censoring the pressing questions why and when and what else and the thinkers on page 2 were smoking heavily and debating God, art and the proletariat and I was wondering about the moment I'd run into this old friend, wondering whether you could call our embrace warm or spontaneous or perfunctory. I was uncertain about everything, including what arrangements would be made for the evening when a new character was introduced whose name I didn't catch though it didn't escape my notice that he'd come with four rabbit pelts (for what purpose?) and the sole of a shoe, and yet simultaneously I was wondering about my friend, who'd gone to her room to change. I was wondering what she was going to wear, whether she's dress up and if I were underdressed and suddenly I was on page 3, where the narrator and the rabbit pelt peddler (?) entered into a small and shady business which was to be short-lived and I was wondering if I, too, just by saying so could change into something else, something more comfortable, like clouds, say, or heavy smoke.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

rhymes with savage

It's been a couple weeks at least since I was truly devastated so here I am in America about to attend my college reunion. I'll be wearing my shock suit, and plan to appear in black&white. It's an unbelievable 30 degrees hotter in NJ than in Frankfurt, so I won't even have to use make-up to highlight the impression of complete ravagement.

As a warm-up, last night I watched "The Road" with my mother. I read the book last year and like many people went completely gaga. Unfortunately, since I'm hell-bent on the negative this week, I found the movie woefully inadequate. It's a textbook case of how the depth and beauty of a book can get lost in the translation into film. My mother kept asking, "did this happen in the book?" And how could I explain that, yes, it did, but the book somehow didn't come off like a sluggish zombie movie. Why didn't it? Because of language! About 15 minutes into it my mother asked, "Why didn't you tell me this was a comedy?" She's a card.

Tomorrow, my alma mater is hosting a lecture on Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian." I read this recently, too, and must admit that although McCarthy writes like an angel on LSD, the gore became somewhat tedious. I'll be attending the lecture anyway because, you know, I just can't get enough.

This morning I'm off to my favorite museum, MOMA. The last couple years something or other has always gotten in the way, and there was that year or more when they were renovating. But thanks to jetlag, today I am up very early and ready to go.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Camus, A Romance

Say you’re a college student studying philosophy and you spend hours trawling through Kant and Heidegger and Plato and even Sartre and maybe a female philosopher now and then and then you hit upon Camus with his melty good looks, his melancholy expression and his cute out-of-proportion ear. You are going to sit up and pay attention. He looks approachable, modern, if a bit retro. There’s no denying Albert Camus was an attractive man, a writer who was also a philosopher and moralist and who was fated to be an intellectual sex symbol. If he’d been American, Marilyn Monroe would have eaten him whole.

Elizabeth Hawes was writing her thesis on Camus when he died in a car crash. In college, she developed an obsession for him that lapsed, but never died out. Later in life, it was rekindled when she read the posthumous “The First Man.” She resolved to write a biography, but one that would allow her to actually befriend him, even find intimacy with him. Her own motives figure in the book, and I couldn’t help but ask– is Hawes a stalker? It is a bit off-kilter how she goes off in search of Camus “the man,” how she sometimes feels they’re walking along together, or she remembers one of his jokes and laughs. It’s only her professed admiration for Camus that makes sleuthing seem occasionally like stalking. Many biographers are motivated by a desire to get closer to their subject, they just don’t come out and say it.

Despite her confessed idolization, she’s not a gusher. She gives the reader enough distance, and a number of times when she entered the book I was HAPPY to see her. I admired her devotion and scholarship, and although I'd recommend this book above all to people who have an interest in Camus, existentialism or French Algeria, it is an accessible portrait of the times. While I was interested in Camus, I was more interested in experiencing postwar Europe from "his" perspective, socially and philosophically.

For all the warmth she brings her subject, Hawes’ obsession wasn’t contagious. I didn’t feel smitten. I thought Camus’ philandering, for example, was a huge weakness. I didn’t want to mother him through his tubercular suffering. When the big blowout between Sartre and Camus went down, I don’t think he handled it well, even though I sided with him. (Sartre, what an asshole! And with time Camus is vindicated, a major part of the conflict having centered on Sartre’s support of Stalin(ism). As it’s revealed what a monster Stalin is, Sartre defends himself by saying he was “right to be wrong.” Gawd, as my 10-grade English teacher would say: ship him off to 1950’s Russia and we’ll see how he feels about it then!)

Besides getting pretty darn close to the breathing&eating Camus, I liked how the book evoked the postwar atmosphere. I also never knew Camus was a bosom buddy of the poet René Char, a favorite of mine, or that the fallout with Sartre had so much to do with Russia. For all the warmth Hawes’ book brings to Camus, however, nothing brings him to life like his work. Two-thirds through this I picked up “The Stranger” and remembered what made Camus marvelous. Not his ear or his tuberculosis or the sultry cigarette dangling from his mug, but his writings.

(Full disclosure: I gladly read and reviewed this book on request!)

Friday, September 17, 2010


In bed I like to sleep on my stomach with my left foot/calf extended off the side, blanketless. For the fresh air. I call this snorkeling.

At work I get lunch vouchers worth 5.50 euros each and when I use one to buy a 2 euro sandwich I get 3.50 back in cash from the sandwich man. I call this spinning straw into gold.

At my desk I chew my nails, crack the sides with my incisor then peel them free in a nice, clean curve. This is known as mulling the great horizon

and it reminds me how yesterday I was going through the automatic revolving door that I hate and it occurred to me that teething and seething have more to do with each other than just a lot of phonemes.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Getting Fondled at the Country Fair

Here’s an amusing site that promises it will “cut through all the cryptic crap, and give you the meat of the story in one condensed image. Now you can read the greatest literary works of all time in mere seconds!”

What it does is rename the book with a title meant to reveal something about the story.

One of my favorites is Mrs. Dalloway, which is renamed “A Quaint, Mid-Afternoon Panic Attack.” Another funny one is Charles Bukowski’s Post Office (aka Factotum), which is called “Drunk Sex with Poor People.” That surely does reveal a lot more about the plot.

Bleak House is renamed “Lolita Gets Smallpox.” That made me laugh, too, disregarding that there was no 'Lolita' to refer to in 1852, which may be why Dickens didn't come up with the idea himself. Still, what a case of smallpox she had.

I was interested to learn that The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay would be better called “Gay Jewish Magicians Kill Nazis.” This did persuade me, though, that I don’t have to read the book. I also took Super Sad Love Story off my to-read list, finding out it’d be more aptly named “1984 in AOL Speak.” No thanks, especially since I never bothered to read 1984.

It’s funny but it doesn’t completely live up to its mission. Sometimes it simply takes a shot at the author or book. Nothing of the plot or content of Infinite Jest, for example, comes across in “Too Long.” And the title “I’m Only Reading This So My Friends Will Stop Telling Me To Read This Book” could be slapped on a number of books, not just The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Still the layout it great, and they put up a new book every day.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Char steps back from the phone

What a harangue of a day. And how nice to come to my room at home, the lamp lighting the wooden table, the book still open to the poem I left this morning: “To Drink to Friends,” André Frenaud (I will drink in remembrance of the whiteness of mountains. / I will draw wine from the bubbling of the spring / beyond the frozen high places . . .)

I’d taken the book (The Random House Book of 20th Century French Poetry! Highly recommended) out last night to look up René Char, bosom friend of Albert Camus. On p. 209 of the bio I’m reading, Char receives the bad news:

"Henri was with his parents and Char at Les Camphoux the next day when the call came telling him about the crash (that killed Camus). Char had stepped back from the phone and let out a heartrending cry, (Henri) said."

I’m almost done reading the Camus bio and serendipitously two days ago I found a copy of The Stranger in the basement. It’s always been there, I’d just never noticed it. I think I am now re-reading it, although my lack of recall suggests I’ve never read it at all. It has one of the best openings ever:

Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don’t know.

Song of the day: I want to hold your hand (auf deutsch)

Sunday, September 05, 2010


The Red Sox fan.
The woman who carved her heart in a tree.
The baboon who nursed lions.
The lioness who nursed deer.
Your brain on 2002 Chenin Blanc.
The man who really loved dancing.
Pineapple & cottage cheese.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

the burdens put on furniture

Nic Sebastian has read another of my poems, and she does it beautifully. Here it is - Feng Shui.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

eat, pray, love, an alternative

EAT: I read a cookbook review on Good Reads some months ago by a reader who complained about how the “foodie douchebags” had hijacked cooking. I thought that was a funny, wonderful expression, mostly for the /ooo/ of it. Yesterday I bought some “caffe latte almonds,” and while I was walking back to the office eating those fat beauties the expression came to me and I had the urge to say it out loud. I did, exactly at the moment someone I knew came up behind me. Should I act as if I’d said nothing, or explain I’d said something else? "Loopy duped hags?" "Pooperscoop fangs?"

PRAY: I’m no foodie, and caffe latte almonds will ever do much to shape my perception of place, but no one’s immune to flavor memories, which often begin when you’re away from home eating something you wouldn’t usually eat. My favorite comes from the town of Shanhaiguan in China, which I visited with my friend Sandy. We found a clean restaurant, where I ordered a fish soup that was little more than a fish flank floating in a bowl of broth with a few leaves of cilantro. In Chinese, cilantro is called “fragrant grass” and it’s sold in lovely bundles. In Chinese, you drink soup, you don’t eat it. In Chinese lore, cilantro was associated with immortality. In Shanhaiguan, there’s the ocean and the Great Wall and I’m surprised that also this soup is still going on.

LOVE: My step-father was always one of those people who remembered his vacations by what he’d eaten. My mother would say, ‘remember the year we stayed at the Watergate in DC,’ and he’d say, ‘oh yeah, that was where I ate the butter-crumb stuffed wild mushrooms in marsala sauce.’ There were those of us who thought he’d missed the point of the trip completely, and others who felt he’d hit the nail on the head. My step-father turns 86 next week. He was a good father to me. Although his short-term memory is shot and his overall awareness is ebbing I do hope he will again experience much deliciousness.
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