The Bibliophile’s Dilemma

Bibliophile: (noun) A person who collects or has a great love of books

For several years now I’ve purchased more books that I can afford or store. Much more traumatic is the fact that I buy more books that I will ever be able to read in one lifetime, which is ironic, since reading allows the reader to live many lives over the course of one lifetime. Bibliophilia is the sickness that comes with the obsessive need to be surrounded by books. This, as all bibliophiles will inform you, is much different from hoarding. Books lend a certain prestige to the collector whereas hoarding is the inability to part with anything. For the serious bibliophile there is no situation too outlandish to stop one from obtaining a certain book. I, myself, have occasionally stooped to larceny to liberate a particular volume from a particular place.

Perhaps my “lowest” moment came a few years ago when a colleague in my department passed away. He was an English professor for over thirty years and had never married. I managed to find my way into his apartment to see what I could take out, all under the guise that I was willing to help unload a townhouse full of books. This was not entirely untrue, but to be honest, I was more interested in having the opportunity, the first crack if you will, at his collection. I spent the next hour or so combing over books that proved to be so specific that I left feeling more than a little disappointed since most of the books focused on the Catholic religion. However, I did manage to find one or two worthy books to liberate. Before I finished up I was searching the bookshelves in his bedroom, the last room I had left to search. Bending over at an odd angle, I lost my balance and fell onto his mattress, the mattress he had died in just a few days before. Thankfully the bed had been stripped of its sheets, but the feeling has attached to itself to me like a stain.

Unless the bibliophile is wealthy, he or she must be careful with buying books, as the habit works like a drug on the psyche of the afflicted. Every year I spend thousands of dollars on books, and every April when my taxes come due I wince at the thought of how much I spent during the previous year. My wife, bless her, has never really given me any grief when it comes to buying books, but she has drawn the line whenever I attempt to spend more than a few hundred dollars on a single volume. And who can blame her? I have at the moment at least four different versions of War and Peace, Madame Bovary, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Don Quixote, to name a few. Each time a new translation is published I rush out to purchase that translation. I have at least twelve translations of Dante’s Inferno alone! If I read a hardcover book that I really like I find that I must buy the paperback so that I can have a “reader’s copy,” which means one I can write in. I also try to buy paperback copies of all my first editions, so as to keep the integrity of the spines of the books in place.

Whenever I come across a certain book or author that I do not have I go to great lengths to obtain the desired item. In order to finance my book buying I have had to take on extra work and often teach over the summer to subsidize my habit. Moreover, when, in the midst of my research on this or that academic subject, and I come across the reference from a book I think I should read, I buy the book instead of checking it out from my home institution’s library. This, as one might imagine, is costly and, one might say, crazy. 2017-06-22 19.59.44

As understanding as my wife is with the amount of money I spend on books, she is less understanding because of the space the books take up in our home. In fact, we are now at the point where we either have to look for a new house or I have to stop buying books. I lack the moral courage to stop buying books, so that will never happen. Therefore, moving seems to be our only option. However, as anyone who has even a modest home library knows, moving books is perhaps the hardest part about moving. First, there is the psychological damage that occurs to the bibliophile when he or she packs away a library. Second, there is the weight of the books in countless boxes waiting to be moved. Space is a terrible enemy in the bibliophile’s life. There is never enough space and one finds oneself placing books in almost every conceivable location in one’s home. Digitizing one’s library in not an option for the bibliophile, for books are not like one’s musical or video library. Digitizing one’s library is the same as getting rid of one’s books altogether. No self-respecting bibliophile has a digital library that takes the place of the physical one.

Of course, enemy number one in the bibliophile’s life is time. There will never be enough time to read all of the books one has purchased in one’s lifetime. And yet, we continue to buy books despite, or perhaps in spite of, this knowledge.

The Fox was Ever the Hunter: A Review

Herta Müller. The Fox was Ever the Hunter. Philip Boehm, tr. New York: Metropolitan Books. 2016. 237 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8050-9302-5.

Occasionally, some of the reviews I’ve written get lost in the ether. I either forget that I’ve written them or they are not published on account of timeliness. There is also the possibility that I was just not happy with the writing. In any case, I frequently come upon files where I discover a review that slipped through the cracks. This is one of those reviews. I can’t recall why I didn’t publish this particular review, but if the writing is not up to snuff it is due to the reviewer’s negligence rather than the author of the reviewed book.

Herta Müller’s latest novel to be published in English, The Fox was Ever the Hunter, is actually an older novel that was first published in Germany in 1992. Like many of her Nobel Prize winning colleagues, her back catalogue is slowly making its way into English, and that is good for those wishing to experience this particular writer’s powerful prose. Like most of her novels, The Fox was Ever the Hunter takes place in Romania during the last months of Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime. The novel revolves around four characters, Adina, Clara, Paul, and Pavel. One of the four is working for the secret police and spying on the rest of the group.

The Fox was Ever the Hunter is a novel that plunges its reader into the dark labyrinth of paranoia and danger. There are no fairy tales when living under an oppressive regime, only nightmares. Yet, the scenes depicting the slow, systematic mutilation of Adina’s fox rug toward the end of the novel suggest that the specter of a fairy tale, however dark, looms over the narrative. It’s as if the characters are living in a world that has forgotten its roots in folklore and myth, and as a result, the citizens who inhabit the world of the novel find themselves trapped in an atmosphere of delusion. There is no security here, only the possibility of betrayal.

There is a profound sense of unease and bewilderment that pervades the novel, almost as if the narrator had trouble making up her mind on which story to tell us. This can be a bit disconcerting for readers not used to Müller’s style and subject matter. However, this narrative technique perfectly mirrors the atmosphere of the narrative. Like the characters inhabiting the novel, the reader feels he or she is missing something, that perhaps the whole story is not being told. This can be frustrating at first, but the reader will find a sense of gratification if he or she sticks it out to the end. Müller’s plot is not the most important aspect of the novel. As with most of her novels, plot gives way to the importance of the reader’s experience as one wanders around in its labyrinthine pages.

Most of us have never had to live under an oppressive political regime. The Fox was Ever the Hunter is a perfect introduction to what this nation might have been like during the Cold War. Moreover, now that the United States has entered into the truly bizarre land of Trump, The Fox was Ever the Hunter becomes that much more poignant. Philip Boehm’s translation of Müller’s prose is seamless and poetic, bridging a gap that could have easily caused problems for English speaking readers. Thankfully, Boehm’s translation provides us with a faithful echo of one the most striking voices writing today.

As A Man Grows Older

“He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent.”

Philip Roth, The Humbling

 

There comes a time in every man’s life when he realizes that he is no longer attractive to women. When this realization arrives, it is not with heartbreak or a debilitating bout of depression, instead it settles on him like a heavy coat. In fact, once you settle into middle age you can no longer stand up as straight as you once could. Friends see you shuffling down the sidewalk, shoulders a bit hunched, your neck drawn in, and looking very much like you are carrying the weight of the world on your back. The honest reality is that once a man reaches a certain age, he does carry more weight that he once did.

We hear a great deal about aging and women, and if we are honest, society likes to condemn nothing as strongly as an aging woman. Yet, this does not mean that we should not be unsympathetic to the male as he grows older. The bit where we collectively agree that men age much more gracefully than women, especially when our hair begins to grey, is really nonsense. Aging hurts. It’s a tragic blow to the ego as well as the body. Aging is one of the only things we have absolutely no control over. We all age; we are all heading toward death. That’s a fact; even someone as cool as Carey Grant was forced to wear those ridiculously thick glasses when he was older. What growing older does is reduce us, shrink us, in every conceivable way.

The unkindest cut may be that as we age we become increasingly irrelevant. Our contemporary society no longer views its elders in the same light as it once did. But then, did it ever? Shakespeare knew of this irrelevancy and wrote honestly on the topic. One need only read the first act of King Lear. I’ve been thinking a lot about Lear lately and about his increasing irrelevancy in old age. The play could be a moral tale for how we treat our own elderly in this country. That is, ship them off to homes and out of the way. The elderly have become our shame, a constant reminder of what awaits us all. Therefore, we move them to the background, yet cry over them once they’re dead. But perhaps it’s really our own mortality we are crying over.

Perhaps it’s part of the process of going through middle age, but lately I’ve felt like I’ve been bouncing through time, not like a yo-yo, but more like a pinball bouncing from episode to episode that once occurred in my life. My grip on time keeps slipping backwards and forwards and sideways, not letting up or giving me time to adjust. A childhood memory comes back and totally resituates itself where I am in my head. A song will begin to play somewhere and I am caught in the middle of a memory, increasingly detached from the here and now. I’m beginning to discover that the aging process also constitutes this discontinuity of time. We spend much time bouncing from memory to memory, from place to place, sometimes simultaneously bumping up against the sharp objects of our past, resulting in cuts and scrapes that others tell us is “just life.” Other times we become lost in the mists of the past, nostalgic or bitter for what once was.

“Just life.” What does that phrase really mean when one has crossed the threshold into middle age? John Lennon wrote that, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” As I grow older this statement is not as optimistic as it once was. I have now outlived Lennon by eight years, and I still feel that I will never catch up to his state of wisdom. In fact, I’m still waiting for that moment when I will feel “grown up.” Now that I have children, I know that I’m grown up, which usually translates as having responsibilities, but often I feel as if my life has yet to begin. Perhaps this is a good thing.

I’m sitting alone at a table in an outdoor café in Milan. The weather is warm and the tables are all taken. It’s evening and the sun is starting to set. Nearly everyone seems to be younger than me. In Milan, especially in the evening, people come out to the cafes and the bars to drink and to eat what amounts to discounted appetizers, thus, the crowded tables. There are a number of pretty women surrounding me. They are all caught up in conversations and I might as well be a ghost. But I like it like this. I like people watching over a drink in a foreign city. However, as more women come and go I think: “If I had only come here twenty years ago.” Of course, twenty years ago it might never had occurred to me to stop at this particular café, and I almost certainly would not have known what to say in order to initiate a conversation, but still… Now, with the weight of middle age firmly planted on my shoulders I have a kind of resolve, a peace with the way things are. As Roth writes above, growing old is a humbling experience. But it can also be the greatest gift life has to offer. Nothing can compare with the experience of living for decades.

Two pretty women standing beside me are asking if I’m leaving, thus knock me out of a reverie. I hadn’t noticed that my drink was empty and the bill had been paid. Two coins and a slip of white paper are resting on a black plastic rectangle. I can only smile and say, “Of course, the table is yours.”

“The table is yours.” It’s a powerful metaphor for not being in the game anymore. What we hold onto, however, is a sense of pride for having survived our youth, to have reached the one more corner before it all dissipates into nothingness.

 

The Roots of Hometowns

When I was a child there was a tree that grew just outside my front door on a thin strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road. Each year the roots of the tree would disturb the sidewalk a little more, pushing up through the concrete. The result was a small mound in the sidewalk that my brother and I used as a ramp from which to launch ourselves into the air on our bikes, racing down the rest of the street in a carefree abandon that only the young enjoy. In fall leaves would collect on the sidewalk, and the ones over the bump looked as if it was covering a small body, like that of a child, hiding from friends. In the winter I can remember cursing the bump because my shovel always became caught in the crumbling sidewalk, stopping me in my stride and hurry to finish the chore so that I could then move on to activities that were more fun. During the spring and summer, once the snow had melted, the bump always seemed to have grown, slight, but not imperceptive. As an adult I might never have noticed, but as a child I still carried within me the wonder of a changing world.

I’ve always considered the roots of that tree coming up through the sidewalk a metaphor for my life in my hometown. I’ve always thought it the most unfortunate of accidents that I was born and grew up in the place where I did. There is not much to say about its good characteristics, and even less to say about its future. The roots coming up through the sidewalk, or so I’ve always thought, constituted an undeniable need for me to break away from my hometown, not only to leave it behind, but to forget it completely, to erase it from my consciousness. That old adage that one should never forget where one came from, is, in many respects, a pathetic attempt to stay attuned to a nostalgia that can only be dangerous and upsetting for those wishing to make something of their lives. Of course, not all hometowns are as dreadful as mine. Still, those traditions and the hold they have over us can sabotage our innate desire to wander, to err into life, which is something we should always strive for. Roots, for better or worse, and in this case I am arguing for worse, keep us moored to our pasts, unable to move forward.

I’ve just returned from a trip to my hometown, and that old tree is no longer there, but was replaced years ago by a new tree when the street was redone. I looked closely and discovered that the roots of this new tree, now more than twenty years old, is also breaking up through the concrete. The metaphor still lives and nature, our essential human nature, which is to wander, remains stubbornly alive. Not all of us make it out of our hometowns alive, and if I’m being honest, there are those who choose to stay. For me, the earliest impulse, one might say, the evolutionary impulse, was to get as far away as possible from the territory of my childhood and young adult life. I finally left for good when I was 36 years old. I never thought I would escape, and I nearly perished there. 36 years is a long time to live in one place, and far too long for someone to remain in one’s hometown.

Perhaps it is a mistake to think of our hometowns as geographically specific places only. I can honestly say that I grew up and came of age in the wonderful library that was downtown, a Carnegie library that was sadly closed years ago for a new, modern (boring, lacking in any imaginative sense of place) building. That wonderful old library remains vacant to this day, slowly decaying and becoming increasingly irrelevant and forgotten. That library has become a metaphor for my hometown, a forgotten backwater on the banks of the Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers. Of course, there is also the university, the only shining star in an otherwise dark sky, but I’ve never felt nostalgia for my alma mater, only a deep-seated sadness that I didn’t go elsewhere.

If we allow ourselves to think of trees as a metaphor for what ties us to the past, to our essence, then there are all sorts of trees in our lives. What is far beneath the surface may be too painful to explore, or too much work to dig up, but dig them up and plant them elsewhere we should. The image of the roots of that tree outside my childhood home, those roots that refused to be contained, domesticated by the nostalgic impulse, hold for me a secret to my essence that I have yet to discover. I know the answer, to wander, but I have yet to stumble upon the question. Perhaps someday I’ll find it, out there in the distance.

The Ghost of Her Anger

IMG_0219C marks the spot on the floor where the body had fallen. She moves heavily from the sunlight brought out by the open windows to the shadowed corner on the right of the sofa. On the floor a broken ceramic ashtray lay in pieces. She doesn’t think now, she doesn’t breathe; all matters less in the quiet afternoon. The air smells of blood and anger, filling up the room like a fog. To pass the time, and to put her thoughts together, she takes a cigarette out of her back pocket, lights it, inhales quickly and exhales slowly through her mouth and holds the cigarette between her right index and middle fingers staring at the stain on the floor and absently stroking the bruise on her face. To the left of where she stands a clock ticks the seconds away. In the bedroom down the hall she can hear the faint conversation of the television, which had been previously turned up to help drown out the crying and the voices of she and M as they argued. M’s body now lay at the front of their bed wrapped in a sheet; the sheet still aromatic with the scent of sweat and sex they had the night before. No trail of blood from the stain where M’s body had hit the floor to the bedroom. She had been carefully conscious of the need to wrap his upper body with a sheet as fully as possible. She had known what to do almost instinctively. A telephone rings in the apartment next door.

 

C thinks of the first time she had met M. They had been students in the same class. She was intent on thinking through the outrageous adventures of an errant knight from La Mancha through a feminist lens, and M was intent on her. M’s persual of C lasted four months, three weeks, and two days before he could finally convince her to have coffee with him one day after class. That all seemed so long ago now as she stood above the stain of his blood on the floor; a stain she herself had caused.

They arranged to meet at a café not far from campus, one that was frequented by students and faculty. C arrived first, deciding to wait for him outside since the day was cool but not uncomfortable. She had been waiting for only a few minutes when she saw him come walking toward her, beaming. His longish hair, disheveled from the wind, his blue jeans and sneakers, his leather jacket and that red scarf he seemed to wear everyplace he went, and which was now an infamous part of his persona, trailing him like some blood red vapor trail. As he draws closer she remembers the feeling of time slowing down, almost as if she (or he) were in a dream, or moving under water; his steps, beaming smile, leather jacket and scarf suspended in midstride, holding its place a second, then moving forward; not in fits and starts, but in some kind of barely perceptible movement. She thinks of him at this moment as a movie star, stepping out of the screen to approach her as she stands in the aisle of some ancient theater. What she recalls through the cloudiness of time is that she sees him and his surroundings in black and white, with the sole exception of his scarf, red against the mono-chromatic street.

He rushes then, disrupting the stoppage of time and embraces her—holding her a bit longer than appropriate, she thinks. They quickly find a table inside. Although she feels as if his gaze never leaves her, M is always a gentleman. He buys the coffee, he waits for her to sit before he does (although he fails to pull her chair out for her—but she is okay with this since such behavior would only embarrass her), he lights her cigarettes. They both smoke continually, she slowly and methodically, he one after the other, in unhealthy succession. M’s eyes never leave her, not even when a friend of his stops at their table to say hello. C feels slightly disconcerted, slightly aroused.

So they sit there, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and talking about nothing. Small talk bores her, but she can’t think of anything to say that might raise the level of conversation. As the afternoon moves on, the shadow from the waning light crosses over his face. “He’s in,” she thinks. “It’s only a matter of time before he asks me home.” He does, and to her surprise, she refuses. She won’t be that easy. The barely perceptible hint of disappointment does little to reduce his charm.

 

C did not intend to kill him it just worked out that way. As she stands there, straddling the stain, she thinks of how the afternoon sunlight catches the shards of the ashtray, smashed to pieces and scattered over the floor like specs of new-fallen snow beneath a full moon in the middle of winter. She does not shake now, she does not sweat. She thinks of how eerily calm she has remained throughout the whole affair. But then it comes, the surging nausea and the urgent need to be sick. She runs to the bathroom and vomits loudly into the toilet. Later, resting her head against the cold porcelain she thinks of how the plumber said that all toilets sweat. Funny, she’s suddenly preoccupied and bothered by the condensation of water on her toilet. Sweating toilets, sweating perfume, sweating blood. How many things in her life are unable to contain the buildup of pressure? At that moment she knows that things will never be the same. It has taken her nearly two hours since she struck M in the head with the ashtray to realize this. Out there, beyond the numbness, she knows that she’s a human being capable of love. She knows that she feels. She was once a wife, a mother, a friend. But now, enveloped in this fog of numbness she realizes what it means to leave one’s humanity behind. By striking M she closes the door behind her, not shutting him up, but shutting herself out. Beyond the reach of her love, of her compassion, of her humanity, lurks the ghost of her anger, lying in wait.

Lying there with her head against the toilet she remembers the first time M had hit her. She was three months pregnant with their first child and M was out late after work. She had intended to wait up for him, but had fallen asleep with the television on sometime after midnight. On the coffee table beside her was a glass with the ashes and stubbed out ends of four cigarettes. She meant to take the glass to the kitchen for empting and rinsing out during the next commercial, but had fallen asleep just as Harry Lime emerged from the shadow of a doorway. The sound of M’s keys in the door woke her. Groggy, she lifted herself onto one elbow, waiting for him to enter. M stumbles through the door and into the kitchen, which looks out into the living room where C lays propped up on one elbow on the couch. The room is lit only by the flickering light of the television. M walks across the kitchen and lays his keys and cigarettes down on the coffee table right next to the glass containing the stubbed out cigarettes C has been using. He looks from her to the glass and back again. Before she has time to register his intention he slaps her across the face. The slap (as she recalls) is not particularly hard, but it is quick. He stands over her saying nothing, not even looking angry. After several seconds, and just as she is about to say something, he begins to hit her repeatedly in the face and on her arms as she raises them to protect her head. In the background the light of the television continues to flicker. Outside, a siren from an ambulance begins to whine, first softly, then louder, until it passes and recedes into the night. She thinks of how this is happening to her right here, right now. She thinks of the absurdity of the situation she now finds herself in; a situation that she might have read about in a magazine or newspaper article, or story that might have been reported on the evening news. She thinks of herself, not as a victim, but as a character from a story caught in an absurd situation. She feels less and less as M continues to pound. Now, thinking back, what C remembers most is the angle of M’s cigarettes and keys on the coffee table and its proximity to the glass containing the stubs.

When she finally emerges from the bathroom she walks over to the stain of M’s blood on the floor. The room has grown a shade or two darker in the waning afternoon. She crosses the floor, carefully stepping over the stain and broken shards of ashtray and moves into the kitchen. She gets a glass down from the cabinet and turns on the sink. Filling the glass all the way to the top (so that the water overflows and comes down the sides like a waterfall), she drinks down almost a quarter of the water and splashes the rest into the sink. She watches as the water trails down the drain. She turns her back and leans against the sink. Over on the kitchen table she notices the remains of their lunch. Suddenly panic overtakes her and she moves across the floor, unconscious that she is following a pattern of light laid across the room by the remains of the afternoon sun. She paces from the kitchen to the bathroom to the bedroom and stands at the door gazing down at M. She bends over him and gently, almost lovingly untangles the sheet from his head. She studies his face and notices that it’s not exactly in pain, but neither does it have a look of repose. She notices for the first time that he isn’t wearing any socks and this strikes her as strange. It’s so unpredictably unlike him not to have something on his feet. Then she remembers that the fight started in the bedroom just as he was getting dressed after his shower. She recalls the faint smell of his shaving cream following him from room to room as the argument started. She had not been a willing participant at first, but she never was. M displayed his emotions as he lived his life, on the surface, where the nerve always lay exposed. She can’t recall what started the fight, but she thinks it was something she said about his outfit, and the fact that he always chose his clothes with great care and attention, “like a woman,” she said. Yes, that’s what started this. She had made the allusion that he took care of himself like a woman, and, since M believed himself to be fiercely masculine, he blew up at her, or more accurately, all over her.

 

At the living room window C gazes down toward the park below. A woman wearing a babushka is walking her dog. C remembers that when she had first arrived in Paris she was astounded by the amount of dog waste everywhere on the street. At certain times of the day it seemed as if one could not stroll the sidewalk without stepping into something. Later, when she had gotten used to it, she affectionally referred to Paris as “Dog Shit City.” She took great amusement in mentioning this in every letter or phone call home. When M and she bought this apartment they did it for two reasons: the view of the city, and the light. In a city that valued space above all else (there was so little of it left that what was left was going for prices that only the privileged few could afford) they were lucky in picking a location that would, for the most part, still remain much the same as it had a century ago. Now, things were changing and they would never be able to afford this place today had it been on the market, had they been looking. But, of course, they weren’t. M’s inability to move beyond adjunct professor status kept them tied to the apartment in a way that suffocated him. He was never shy about telling her that he was suffocating, and she took his outbursts in stride, ignoring them for the most part, but silently keeping track of each time he said it. Now, at this particular moment, as she gazes down toward the park below, she thinks of dog shit, blood, and tears.

 

In all of their years together (now more than twenty) C had never thought of herself as M’s wife. In fact, she hadn’t thought of herself as a wife at all; being a wife was a role she felt she was expected but unprepared to play. She did think of herself as a lover, however. Over the years she had taken many lovers, but always with the stipulation, the personal promise to herself, that she would never have the same encounter twice. Over the course of twenty years she had engaged in over one hundred one-night stands, each ending in the same way: a gesture of farewell in the form of placing a kiss upon the forehead of her lover. The gesture always struck her as maternal, as if she were kissing her children through her lovers and protecting them from what she was doing. She had been good at adultery. It came easy to her and not long after her first affair she began to crave the excitement of sneaking around on M. Not that M would have noticed, since he was busy with affairs of his own. Was M equally as skilled at marital deception as C? C could only think that he was. And in this she drew (strangely enough) much comfort. Had M discovered that C was unfaithful he surely would have killed her, which was why she had not engaged in her first affair until their children were in school. For the first eight or nine years of their marriage C had been the perfect wife: thoughtful, compassionate, sexual (but not sexually aggressive), and obedient. Because she had always thought of herself as a sensible woman, she found it increasingly difficult to argue in favor of leaving him. She would sooner have made a break with herself than tear apart what semblance of a family she had tried to build. It wasn’t so much that M had hit her on occasion as it was his remoteness from their marriage that drove her into the arms of countless anonymous lovers (for she had never asked their names—something she remembered from a Brando film—she didn’t want to know their names, because that would have signaled an intimacy she was more than reluctant to grant on these occasions). Time and again she told herself that it was M’s inability to find a teaching position that kept him on constant edge, and for a great amount of time she did indeed believe this. Soon, however, C found ways to become remote from their marriage as well. And it didn’t take long before either of them felt anything close to love. She had quickly gotten used to being in the background, first to M, then to their children. Although she believed that her children loved her, she had rarely heard from them since they moved away; one child had moved to Spain, and the other to Santa Cruz, California. Both were successful, both were happy, and both learned early that in order to be happy they would have to leave home.

 

It is ten steps to the door from where C is standing, just above the stain of M’s blood. The need to escape, to breathe (she’s suffocating, she cannot get the smell of M’s blood off her) suddenly overcomes her. She realizes that her coat lay just to her right, casually draped over the arm of the black leather captain’s chair M had insisted on buying years ago. She steps over the stain, gives it a glance, then picks up her coat. Slipping into the sleeves she opens the door to the apartment. She doesn’t look back as she slams the door behind her and moves toward the stairs. Moments later, when she emerges from the lobby door and steps into the early evening, she thinks of M in the apartment above. She stands there for several minutes, undecided whether to cross the boulevard or take the metro to some as yet unknown location. Lighting a cigarette, she moves toward the Café Lorre some twenty paces from her building. The seats on the terrace are beginning to fill up, and she glances at the faces buried in their evening papers or their drinks as she begins to walk more quickly down the boulevard and away from her building.

 

Time after time she told herself that if she had been a passionate woman then maybe her life would not have ended up so empty, so devoid of love. She did have love for her children, but it was a parental kind of love: sanitary and safe. She enjoyed the fact that her children, at least when they were young, had loved her unconditionally, as only very young children do. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her children; it was that she had failed at finding a passion for life. She was the organizer, the expeditor, but never the initiator. Her children needed to show their love for her, and they did, long before she could allow herself even that much emotional investment. Once, when her youngest child had slipped down some steps and landed head first into the corner of a wall, revealing a vertical line on her forehead, first white (and the shocked look on the child’s face, as if she was scared she had done something wrong rather than showing the fear of being hurt) then as she began to breathe and cry, the blood came like a deluge down into her eyes, then onto her face and neck, soaking her shirt, C rushed her to a nearby hospital. Waiting for nearly four hours in Emergency, she was surprised to discover that she only felt mild concern for her little girl as she sat in her lap bleeding and sobbing. What C did feel was mild annoyance. It wasn’t so much that she blamed the nurses on staff for keeping them waiting as she blamed the child for placing her in this position. In the darkest, most hidden part of her consciousness she did not want to wait with her child; she did not want to hold and comfort the child. It was not that she had failed to love her daughter; it was more of a mild annoyance at having someone depend upon her for comfort, for love itself. Earlier that day she had arranged to meet a man she had met at the hotel pool for that evening. M had been busy getting drunk in the hotel bar. (M didn’t swim, so taking the children to the pool had not been an option for them.) As she sat there holding her child in the emergency room of this foreign hospital, she thought of that man she had planned to meet and the missed possibility of what that meeting promised. So, it wasn’t that she didn’t love her children; it was more of a remoteness she had trained herself to practice in times of crisis. She would carefully remove herself from the situation as totally as possible. So there, in that hospital, and miles from home, she fantasized of fucking another man while she held her trembling daughter and waited for the attending physician to see them.

 

As evening approaches C makes her way through the Paris streets. At first she wanders down the Boulevard Saint Germain toward the Quartier Latin with the intention of walking around the Sorbonne for a while until she could pull herself together. But she’s walking so quickly and so intently that she keeps on going until she makes it to the Pont De Sully. Stopping to gaze down at the Seine, she takes out her last cigarette and lights it. As she inhales she comes to the realization that she really doesn’t want to “pull herself together.” In fact, as she feels herself coming apart she begins to enjoy the sensation that it brings with it—a sensation of timelessness and spacelessness. It’s as if she was leaving bits of her consciousness behind the further she walked away from M. Coming apart was the answer then. Coming apart would finally set her free from the entanglements of a life she only barely wanted to live.

Coming out of her reverie she begins to move down the Quai La Tourrelle, occasionally reaching up to touch the bruise on her face. She thinks of the smashed ashtray still scattered over the floor and remembers the trip to Marrakech and the hotel from which it was taken. Together, she and M had filled the ashtray with countless cigarette butts as they talked and fucked through the night. It was, she now thinks, the closest they were to being really happy, to being almost normal.

 

C continues walking until she reaches the Quai Voltaire, where she descends a set of steps that lead to a walkway running parallel with the Seine. A slight breeze begins to blow and she pulls her coat tighter to keep herself warm. The further she walks, she thinks, the further away from her life she gets. With each step she tells herself that she’s tossing another memory out of her head. As she threads her way through the other walkers she begins to feel the weight of her life fall away little by little. The street lamps begin to go on as people hurry back to their warm homes. C is left with no one now except the ghost of her anger trailing her along the Paris streets. In the early October evening the wind stirs the leaves from the trees and C thinks that with each falling leaf she is leaving another part of herself behind. As she stops to gaze out over the Seine she starts to feel confined and confused. She begins to take her coat off, and the wind rushes over her. It is a feeling she enjoys, like drinking a very cold glass of water on a hot day. Hoping to sustain the sensation she begins to remove each article of clothing one by one slowly and methodically. Soon she is standing stark naked staring down at the waters of the Seine. She doesn’t notice the people who stop and begin to stare. A small crowd begins to gather around her but she is no longer there to notice. As she gazes out over the Seine she starts to feel as light as air. She thinks of herself as just another dead leaf tossed around on the wind in the Paris evening. When the cold waters of the Seine envelop her she’s smiling.

 

 

You Want it Darker: Leonard Cohen’s Last Gift

Coming off the worst week in recent memory, a week capped off by Donald Trump’s stunning win in the 2016 United States Presidential Election, one would be hard pressed to find something positive to consider. Trump’s campaign had as its central message hate, hate against nearly everything and everyone who isn’t white. It’s difficult to get one’s head around the fact that a madman will be POTUS, but then, we’ve had madmen serve before, just not this outspoken in hate.

News of Leonard Cohen’s passing at the age of 82 came just hours within Trump’s victory. Talk about being kicked while down. Yet, Cohen’s timing was as impeccable as his style of dress. News of Cohen’s failing health first came to us in a letter he wrote for Marianne Ihlen, a former lover and muse. Part of that letter reads: “Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.” Just two weeks ago the New Yorker published a long piece by David Remnick on Cohen, in which Cohen claimed that, “I’m ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” Social media lit up with speculation as to what Cohen was trying to tell us. He had always had a semi-morbid sense of humor, so we dwelled within speculation for a few weeks. When we finally got the news that Cohen had passed from this life we were caught off guard because most of us were already in mourning from the election.

I have been listening to You Want it Darker, Cohen last album, released less than a month ago, almost continually. I wasn’t that crazy about it at first. With the exception of the title track, I though the songs too slow, too somber. But then, as I continued to listen I came to the realization that You Want it Darker is one of Cohen’s best albums. It’s a work that grows on you, that takes time to seep into the consciousness of its listeners. The poetry informing the work is not a cynical as I first thought. In fact, it’s a realistic take on a life beholding its own end. It’s beautiful and hypnotic. Its power comes from its honesty and compassion for the mind, as well as the body, as we are close to death. The poetry is deeply personal, but it’s also universal and humanizing. Our lives are finite, and the grace and dignity with which Cohen stared down the Angel of Death, and I can only hope that when my own time comes I have the same grace and dignity, is as poetic as anything he’d done. The poetry also comforts us with the possibility that as we step into death the fear of the unknown, of an altogether different way of being, will bring comfort or at the very least, resolve.

News of Cohen’s death distracted us from the madness of the election. I cannot help but think of the timing as Cohen last gift to humanity. True, the world is a lot darker and colder without him, but, thankfully, we still have his music, his poetry, and his somber self-reflection from which we can draw our own strength as we wander through these dark days. In June of this year the New Yorker published a poem, “Steer Your Way,” that ended up as a song on You Want it Darker. The first stanza runs as follows:

“Steer your way through the ruins of the Alter and the Mall

Steer your way through the fables of Creation and the Fall

Steer your way past the Palaces that rise above the rot

Year by year

Month by month

Day by day

Thought by thought”

Of course, we steer our way through all sorts of things during a lifetime, yet most of the time we fail to notice what it is that surrounds us, what informs us on our journey. The music and poetry of Leonard Cohen shed more than a little light on what it is that life can teach us if only we stopped to become aware. The truth is that we are distracted by everything we think of as life, when the fact is that we are unaware of the life as it is happening.

In the song “Treaty” Cohen writes: “I heard the snake was baffled by his sin, he shed his scales to find the snake within, but born again is born without a skin, the poison enters into everything.” The biblical connotations of the song are in keeping with Cohen’s poetic preoccupations. What strikes me about the lyric is that we are all snakes, we are the serpents in the Garden, and most of us fail to notice the change in our lives.

The sun comes up in the morning, and we continue to go round with our hectic and tortured lives. Yet, the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen gave us food for thought in the most humane way possible: he reminded us that to be human is to suffer, but that suffering with dignity is what makes us human. Cohen’s revelatory poetry strips back the cover of the psyche that offers protection from the endless night and hands us over to the revelation. The revelation is in human feeling, human understanding, of what it means to be human.

Au revoir, Leonard.

And thank you for the gifts you gave us.

But wait, there’s more!

I’ve never been one to obsess about getting older. When I turned 30 I felt that I was still in the prime of my life. When I turned 40 I felt slightly older, but no worse for wear. Now that I am just a few years away from turning 50, however, I feel an anxiety about age that I have never felt. The anxiety I feel doesn’t have anything to do with the actuality of getting older, at least I don’t think it does, but, instead, the anxiety is becoming more of a fear with an intense focus. I now realize that I will never have the time to read all of the books I desire to read. Despite this undeniable fact, I keep buying books. This logic can only make sense to my fellow bibliophiles. My intellectual area focuses on modern and contemporary world literature. This means that I feel the responsibility to keep up with those authors who are still publishing books, both fiction and non-fiction. As long as I keep buying newly published books I will never be able to exhaust my working bibliography, a living biography, if you will. This is a frightening situation to face when I know full well that my own time is increasingly limited on this planet. One of the reasons I will never read David Foster Wallace’s The Infinite Jest is that the book is just too long and would demand my attention for a period of time I am not willing to devote to the reading. The same is true for A Book of Memories, by Péter Nádas, a book that has occupied a space on my shelf for years.

I read books like the most serious chain smokers smoke cigarettes; before I’m finished with one I’ve already started another. I never read one book at a time, and especially during the periods when I’m teaching I often read five or six books simultaneously. Some people express their amazement that I can keep the details of all the books I read straight, and I am at a loss as to how to explain this process. But it somehow works for me and I am able to differentiate each book that I read. Perhaps the secret is that I am never reading without my beloved Palomino Blackwing 602 pencil. A great deal of my time is also spent rereading books, sometimes dozens of times. I’ve read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky at least ten times, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (all 893 pages) four or five times, and Hamlet more times than I can count. I’ve even read Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow four times, a feat many readers would consider torture. Each time I reread these works I find something new and exciting in the worlds they offer me. In fact, most of the time a really great book can offer its reader more the second or third time around.

There is always more to read. There will always be another book to locate and peruse, another author to discover. The reading life is mostly a solitary life, often robbing our friends and family of our presence for extended periods of time. Perhaps this is not so bad, since every serious reader I know is an introvert at heart. I read because it’s my job, but that is actually reducing the commitment I have made to a utilitarian function. I have devoted most of my life to literature, and since I find most things in the empirical world intolerable, I lose myself in a book like the worst addict. Perhaps this is why I suffer an anxiety attack every time I step into a bookstore. Bookstores are cruel reminders of all that you will never have time to experience, to feel, to explore. They are cruel reminders of all the books that will be left unread and undiscovered at the time of one’s death.

I’m certain that at the hour of my death I will be surrounded by books, and my last words will be, “But wait, there’s more!”