I’m grateful my book, Mongrel Tongue, has found a home at the wonderful 1913 Press, publisher of daring “poetry, poetics, prose, & their intersections with the arts of all forms.”
Written in English (a mongrel tongue), by a self-identified mongrel, the collection of prose poems explores moments where the “New World” takes on the Old, female bumps into male, surrealism invades politics, and easy living stumbles into the conceivable end of our story.
Mongrel Tongue, will be available in the fall of 2019.
Rachel Cusk has become my 2019 obsession, by which I mean that her books have been the irresistible ones, the ones I’m compelled to buy despite the piles of unread ones in the house. It’s because of the precision of her writing, her descriptions of persons, rooms, landscapes, atmospheres in the room, that are concise and vivid and simultaneously unusual and spot-on. The way emotion is intensely present but not overstated on the page. Her sense of humor, grim and dry, and the way she takes on difficult subjects without looking away. The way she dives straight into the essential question, problem, point of fracture or heartbreak.
Her so-called “Outline” or “Faye” trilogy, feels so much of this time, though I haven’t entirely figured out why I feel that. I don’t just mean references to Brexit or sideways commentary on the state of the publishing industry, though those kinds of things do make appearances in the books. I mean the narrative experiment going on, both in terms of the position Cusk takes as an author and Faye takes as a narrator.
Author v. narrator v. narrative
Cusk has essentially said that she had to step away from writing as herself after being viciously, personally attacked by the press, and some readers, following the publication of her memoirs on becoming a mother (A Life’s Work, which is stunning and hilarious and brilliant) and her divorce (Aftermath, which I haven’t read).
The author has put aside the construct of a plot, perhaps distrusting whatever use an invented storyline can be to our lives, and instead seeks to dig into the stories people tell each other or tell about themselves. The form is experimental in that the narrator, Faye, a writer who hides behind the retelling of other people’s stories. In the first book, travels to Athens to teach a writing workshop; buys and renovates an apartment in London in the second; and attends a writer’s conference in Portugal in the third. We learn that she is divorced, that she has two children. This is the slender framework of the trilogy. The meat of the books are the stories of the people she meets – strangers on an airplane, her writing students, her hairdresser, old friends, journalists who interview her. She retells and reshapes their accounts and confessions. Their stories are shards of a mirror that refract and reflect each other, and Faye in a more subtle way. There are many possible themes, or maybe these are better phrased as questions: What happens after you let go of the story of your life you imagined for yourself? What do parents do to children? What do men do to women? What does suffering bring? What does it create? What is static and what is changeable about the self? What generates the creative act?
It’s significant that Faye is a writer only insofar as that renders her capable of such vivid and at times scathing portraits. It seems like she’s erasing herself in favor of painting portraits of others, but she’s retelling their stories in her own words. She’s not repeating them verbatim.
Conversations with strangers on a plane occur early in two of the books, which sets the tone for the project. Why does that happen, people pouring their hearts out to strangers on a plane? Because it is temporary, because there is an intimacy borne of the close physical proximity, because the stranger will never be seen again, because there’s always a sense of mortality and powerlessness about being on a plane. There are other types of scenarios that inspire people to confide: the hairstylist’s chair (but in this case it’s the hairstylist who discloses), a gathering of writers, where there is almost a oneupmanship to prove who is the most damaged (and perhaps, then the more interesting writer?), a dinner with an old friend one hasn’t seen in years, a writing workshop where students are willing to make themselves vulnerable. Sometimes the revelations by the speaker are unconscious, and only a careful listener (or reader) would pick up on the hypocrisy or self-deceptions that emerge from contradictory assertions.
other times, the radically honest confidences are not in the context of any
special relationship or setting, they just come. In the world of the trilogy,
Faye is able to conjure this sort of atmosphere with, apparently, anyone she
talks to. Faye usually omits the questions that lead to these radical
disclosures from friends, and at times, near strangers. It’s fiction in that
sense, a world more interesting than the one we inhabit. We aren’t usually
privy to the questions she asks that makes the other person reveal the
unutterable secret that holds their marriage together, the time they beat their
children’s beloved dog, the assault by a stranger that made them unable to
create. It’s an intense and double-edged fantasy, and certainly the fantasy of
I think Cusk, in her memoirs, and also in the character of Faye, takes on a hapless persona, a character who is always uncomfortable, but not afraid to express that discomfort, as if everyone should feel that way. She’s not afraid to be a bummer and I found this quality enchanting, the unapologetic quality of it. London is hostile, but Athens is too bright, the sunshine harsh and disorienting. For Faye, in the first two books, this discomfort comes from heartbreak, but heartbreak that goes deeper than the romantic kind. She, and her children, are survivors of the rending of their domestic life, the obliteration of certainties in the life the family had built together. In the first two books she is blinking in the rubble, still obligated to tend to the needs of students, to men wanting an audience, to malicious neighbors, to her children, in this state of aftershock.
The grim tone is a foil to the funny scenes and could perhaps lead one to miss the humor. When Faye’s plane “neighbor, ” who has twice taken her out on his boat for a swim in the Greek heat, and who, with each of his monologues has revealed the straight-out lies he told about his two wives and himself, makes a pass at Faye, the action is startling and somehow hilarious. Maybe because we’re jolted to attention with live action actually taking place, as opposed to happening via a second- or third-hand account. But it’s also the description of the man’s advance itself, where she depicts him as moving like some kind of prehistoric creatures.
There’s also the scene in Transit, back in Britain, set in a posh country house, where a glamorous set of guests and their children and their collective troubles have gathered. Faye’s gourmand cousin, who is peevishly trying to develop the children’s picky palates, sets down plates of tiny roasted fowl before all, and the children scream and weep at the dead little animals, candles blazing all around them, illuminating and flushing their faces like a painting. It’s a perverse and funny kind of climax near the very end of the book before Faye slips away from the mess the next morning.
I haven’t talked to anyone in person who has read the trilogy, though I’m frequently praising Cusk to reader friends, so maybe my proselytizing will lead to a chance to talk about it. In the meantime, I’ve read all of the reviews and profiles of Cusk I’ve been able to access. The critical consensus seems to be that Kudos, the last book, is the culmination of the three. My theory is that this is because it’s the one that deals most explicitly with the publishing industry and its troubled marketing apparatus, with the fake and tedious aspects of the book fair, with the parrying done by writers at the after-panel dinners. It’s like how film critics love films about film-making and art critics love paintings about painting (“painters’ painters”).
But I think Faye/Cusk could make anywhere interesting – I remember starting Outline and being dazzled by how she made that familiar ritual of flight takeoff and the safety demonstration seem alien and new. And while it could be argued that Outline, too, is about the writing life (teaching a workshop), this is more the framework than the atmosphere or substance of the book, which are concerned with that sense of separation that comes from flying somewhere, being away from home, taking in others’ pain. She is preternaturally sensitive while also standing behind glass. In Transit, the middle book, we see more of Faye because she’s at home. It’s full of a different tension. As she seeks to rebuild her life, most visibly by renovating dilapidated apartment, there’s an underlying anxiety about how quickly anything can get destroyed – her monstrous downstairs neighbors befoul her attempts at starting fresh. The novel is full of shattered glass: the glass door at her hairdressers destroyed by a nervous boy slamming the door, the windows of Faye’s car, broken by a date who had to get his stuff she locked the keys in.
favorite of the three was Outline,
maybe simply because it was my first encounter with Cusk’s writing, but I think
also because it so tangibly conveys the feeling of travel: the launch of the
journey on the plane, increasing sense of separation from home life, the
intensity that that weather, that every street corner takes on, because it is
new, and because of the knowledge that it is all temporary.
There was a word in his language, I said, that was hard to translate but that could be summed up as a feeling of homesickness even when you are at home, in other words as a sorrow that has no cause. This feeling was perhaps what had once driven his people to roam the world, seeking the home that would cure them of it. It may be the case that to find that home is to end one’s quest, I said, but it is with the feeling of displacement itself that the true intimacy develops and that constitutes, as it were, the story. Whatever the kind of affliction it is, I said, its nature is that of the compass, and the owner of such a compass puts all his faith in it and goes where it tells him to go, despite appearances telling him the opposite. It is impossible for such a person to attain serenity, I said, and he might spend his whole life marvelling at that quality in others or failing to understand it, and perhaps the best he can hope for is to give a good imitation of it, as certain addicts accept that while they will never be free of their impulses they can live alongside them without acting on them. What such a person cannot tolerate, I said, is the suggestion that his experiences have not arisen out of universal conditions but instead can be blamed on particular or exceptional circumstances, and that what he was treating as truth was in fact no more than personal fortune; any more than the addict, I said, ought to believe that he can regain his innocence of things of which he already has a fatal knowledge.
From Kudos, by Rachel Cusk
I finished this last book in Cusk’s incredible “Outline” trilogy today, and I’m still pondering this passage. Faye is responding to a young interviewer who’s trying to persuade her that she would be happy if she lived somewhere sunny. Her response appears to be that the questing dissatisfaction that drives her shouldn’t be attributed to her personal misfortunes, and that it is not ultimately a quality that she can or perhaps even wants to reject. This follows on one of the central questions Faye/Cusk seems to be asking: What does suffering bring? What does it make possible?
I’m excited to be teaching a creative writing course for beginners with the International Writers’ Collective at the American Book Center in The Hague this spring. All of the details are here. UPDATE: The class is full!
This struggle to get the words out of my mouth took me right back to a year in my childhood when I did not speak at all. Every time I was asked to speak up, to speak louder, the words ran away, trembling and ashamed. It is always the struggle to find language that tells me it is alive, vital, of great importance. We are told from an early age that it is a good thing to be able to express ourselves, but there is as much invested in putting a stop to language as there is in finding it. Truth is not always the most entertaining guest at the dinner table, and anyway, as Duras suggests, we are always more unreal to ourselves than other people are.
I’ll be reading at Verso, a multidisciplinary literary and arts event put together by the lovely people at Versal journal. There will be performances and presentations by a dancer, an astronomer, novelist, and more. It will be good! Details below.
Sunday, April 14, 2019, 7-11 p.m. Mezrab Veemkade 576, Amsterdam (map) Event page and link to Versal journal here.
The scales have tipped. The glass is overflowing. I’m not sure when the drop that caused the overflow happened, but it feels different now, the fact of women’s writing, women’s words in the world. As a child, a teenager in school, I felt the general tokenization of women. I received by osmosis (from textbooks, from teachers), the sense that “women writers” needed to be included in curricula to fill a quota, but that they weren’t quite as good as the writers that didn’t require a modifier (male writers).
Then, when trying to write, learning to write, there was the sense, also transmitted by teachers, anthologies, peers, that I should try to write to fit in with the men, to impress the men in the room, in the canon, at the publishers. Gradually, this fueled a rebellion and I wanted to read only women, discover women’s writing that wasn’t anthologized or talked about in institutions, and write like a woman (whatever that means, if anything). But this felt like a kind of isolation, marginalization in my reading and writing life. [The usual disclaimer: I’m writing from a mostly English-language, mostly American perspective…]
But the chauvinism isn’t a given now. The rejection of it is palpable! Women writers are becoming just writers, no modifier required. Joan Didion is the aspiration, not Norman Mailer. Women, who comprise the majority of fiction readers, now number among the critics. So many more varied women’s voices are being published, on a large scale, by major publishers, from mass market to literary. That’s not to say there’s still not a way to go, of course. This is the beginning and it feels great.
What’s struck me recently is that not only are new voices being published, but women writers from the past are being resurrected and appreciated. In the U.S., Eve Babitz, Lucia Berlin, Clarice Lispector, Elizabeth Hardwick, Penelope Fitzgerald, Renata Adler have all had a recent renaissance as major literary figures of the 20th century. (Parul Sehgal of the New York Times wrote an interesting piece about this phenomenon and paying attention to what caused the vanishing in the first place.) Not only was Zora Neale Hurston’s book on a former slave published in 2018, 90 years after it was written, it got a surprising amount of ink when it did (History.com, NPR, The Huffington Post, The New Yorker, The Daily Mail!).
I’ve been thinking of all of the Modernist women I skipped over in my education, whose work I still haven’t read. I was reading T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound hungrily, but skipped over Mina Loy, H.D. I didn’t know about Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, who were there all along, drinking and smoking with the dudes, and writing, too.
As someone with an interest but no particular expertise on visual art, I’ve been peripherally aware of a similar tendency in that realm, as well. I was delighted by Peter Schjeldahl decrying the title “Woman Impressionist” of the big 2018 Berthe Morisot show at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (“a great artist who is not so much underrated in standard art history as not rated at all”). There was the recent astounding Hilma Af Klint show at the Guggenheim. She was painting abstract forms in the early 20th century on her own, as part of a spiritual search, long before Kandinsky, and didn’t want to be shown in her time for fear of being misunderstood. There was Yayoi Kusama’s triumphant, late-career world domination, beginning with the blockbuster show at the Hirshhorn in 2017. A big Frida Kahlo show now at the Brooklyn Museum. Joan Mitchell’s work setting auction records. (I’d never heard of her before last year, but of course had heard of de Kooning and Pollock.) I’ve seen lots of Artemisia Gentileschi’s images pop up all over the Internet. Hopefully the art history books are being rewritten. These people, their work, have been there the whole time.
I don’t have the same evidence, but a sense or hope that this transformation–the recognition of women who were there all along, making history and culture–is happening in other areas, too, ones that I track less, like comedy, film, food, and science.
This resurrection of women from the past makes me think of an ancient civilization that’s discovered beneath the living city. It was there all along. We are excavating, removing the layers of dirt that was dumped on women’s work. We’re carefully lifting it up, dusting it, examining it, valuing it, attempting to connect it to other fragments. We’re realizing, too, what’s been lost and can’t be recovered.
Evidence of this past civilization goes even further back. I don’t know why we’ve assumed it was only men drafting illuminated manuscripts, sculpting goddess figures, painting on cave walls, but we do, I do. We need scientific proof that it was possible women were doing these things, otherwise we don’t believe it, can’t picture it. I saw several articles making the rounds recently about flecks of blue lapis lazuli being found in the teeth of a 1,000 skull of a nun in a German monastery. It’s evidence that women, too, created beautiful illuminated manuscripts. There’s scientific proof that most cave paintings were done by women. And there’s the theory that “the first images of the human figure [fertility goddesses] were made from the point of view of self rather than other” and “Paleolithic ‘Venus’ figurines represent ordinary women’s views of their own bodies.”
The uncovering of women’s part in our civilization and culture isn’t a physical discovering. It’s been there all along. We covered it up and made ourselves blind to it. We have to remove the layers of dirt from history books, museums, our own minds and consciousness…
When I read On Photography a few years ago, I was blown away by Susan Sontag’s prescience about how central the image has become in our culture (over the word): an object of constant consumption, a form of communication, a signal of ownership or status, etc… Via photography, and also advertising, TV, and now, Instagram, Facebook, etc. I was longing for her to still be around to philosophize about the Internet, memes, social media. (Like I wished Andy Warhol had been alive to see RuPaul’s Drag Race when it launched in 2009.) She would have had such fascinating insights into this new common consciousness.
In this interview she gave in 1977, she touches on this contemporary consciousness, which at the time she identified as an “electronic, multimedia, multi-tracked McLuhanite world,” the embryo of our 2019 way of being. This sounds like an insightful description of our social media lives. It really sounds like the Internet, it’s amazing:
“You can say anything in any context–the nature of modern communication systems is that anything can be said, any context is equivalent to any other context so that things can be placed in many different contexts at the same time, like photography. But there’s something profoundly compromising about that situation. Of course, there’s also a great advantage to it because it allows for a liberty of action and consciousness that people have never had before. But it means that you can’t keep original or profound meanings intact because inevitably they’re disappointed, adulterated, transformed and transmuted–it’s a world in which everything is being recycled and recombined and things are being reduced to a common denominator. So when you launch an idea for a fantasy or a theme or an image to the world, it has this tremendous career that you can’t possibly control or limit. And that’s perhaps another more immediate reason why one is tempted to be silent sometimes. You want to share things with other people, but on the other hand you don’t want to just feed the machine that needs millions of fantasies and objects and products and opinions to be fed into it every day in order to keep going.“
From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott (Yale University Press, 2013).
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh This was one of last year’s big fiction books I kept hearing about.
Outline by Rachel Cusk Rachel Cusk also keeps coming up as someone I should read, both for her themes and style. This is the first in a trilogy, the third of which was published last year.
A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell I read a fragment of Powell’s diaries (excerpted in The New Yorker and was intrigued). She seems to have fallen into obscurity, though was a friend of Hemingway’s and Edmund White’s and published several novels. This one is about NYC before and during WWII.
Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel A non-fiction account of five New York School women painters (Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell) and their time. Published last year, big and fat, which is exciting in a biography, sounds really good.
Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro A memoir/meditation on marriage, recommended by a friend whose taste I trust.
I just noticed I don’t actually own any of these, which means there is still a big pile of unread books at home I should put on this list, as well…
In 2018, I read 21 fiction and non-fiction books. (Poetry to be dealt with separately.) I probably spent the equivalent of 10 books’ worth of time on stupid Twitter, though. I don’t know what the sum of these tweets have contributed to my life or understanding of the world yet. I can’t even remember the funny memes at the moment. OH WELL. I also tried to keep up with a New Yorker subscription, which cut into book-reading time. I’m discontinuing this in 2019 and have subscribed to Granta, which is quarterly, instead. I’m also engaging in periodic social media fasts to break addictive patterns. We’ll see how that goes!
Reading trends in 2018: more European fiction, more novels and fewer short story collections than I usually read. Each year, there’s been a single author I become obsessed with and seek out (Anais Nin, Deborah Levy, Elena Ferrante, Joan Didion), but that didn’t really happen in 2018. The list is rather eclectic and there was nothing that made me rave and buy multiple copies and press into friends’ hands, which is my favorite thing that happens. I do want to read more by Elizabeth Strout, Rebecca Solnit and Virginie Despentes, but the desire isn’t at obsession level.
• 64% by women, 36% by men (out of 22 total writers)
• Authors were from the U.S.A. (11), United Kingdom (3), France (2), Italy (2), Canada, Colombia, Germany, and Greece (1 each). I read 19 books in English, 5 of these were in translation, and 1 book in Spanish and 1 in French.
• Original dates of publication span 1946-2018. About half of what I read was published within the past ten years.
The list, ranked in order of how much I enjoyed the book, its scope of impact on the life of the mind and imagination, and how likely I am to re-read and recommend it.
1. The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)
This is the second volume in what Levy herself has termed a “working autobiography”. The first volume, Things I Don’t Want to Know, was probably one of my favorite books I’ve read, ever, so I was excited for this one. The second volume doesn’t dive as deep as the first, but that deep dive is also something that can’t be done twice. (The first book contended with her childhood in South Africa and her first graspings of injustice as a fact of life). In this volume, she recounts starting over at age 50, post-divorce, making a new life with her daughters, losing her mother, writing through it. She does it her way, which is in a Modernist spirit, understatedly, through metaphor, and weaving in objects (a bird clock, a necklace, a heavy e-bike), recurring phrases, and other pieces of writing (in this one, Beauvoir’s, Duras’) as way of coming at the narrative elliptically and lyrically. Her piercing analysis and sense of humor make her writing about anything a pleasure.
Provenance: Van Stockum bookstore in Leiden (RIP)
Fate: On the keeper shelf
2. My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Viking, 2016)
A slim, absorbing, funny, affecting novel. Lucy Barton starts by remembering a period she spent hospitalized in New York and her mother came to visit. Her mother, who had never been on a plane before, who she hadn’t seen in years. The story weaves around like memory itself, making lateral, associative leaps between different episodes about growing up in poverty and becoming a writer. The narrative also mimics the writing process itself, now that I think of it. My only quibble is that this is a piece of fiction where the narrator is a writer, writing about writing, writing about writing workshops and writing about another writer. It all gets too much into itself – the premise would somehow be more acceptable to me if it were a piece of non-fiction.
Provenance: Gift from my sweet mother-in-law
Fate: Passed on to a friend
3. Fellini on Fellini, various translators (1976)
This was a re-read. Essays by and interviews with Federico Fellini. Things I take away from Fellini: his (Jungian) trust in dreams, the image as a source of creation; appreciation of artifice (the film set above reality, hyper-real characters); improvisation and a sense of humor as requisite for survival; not doing it for the money. There’s a beautiful essay about Rimini, the place he grew up, in the 1930s (essentially an essay version of Amarcord). There’s an interesting coda, when he goes back to the town in the late 60s and barely recognizes the place. He is older than the revolutionary youth, but he admires their ideas and bravery, recognizes the limitations religion and fascism placed on his own youth and how their freedom from those strictures will take them into new, unknown discoveries. Curiously, he view his own time as producing outsized artists, and the post-60s times as producing more, but smaller figures, a society of small artists. Is this true?
Provenance: a used bookstore in New York
Fate: On the keeper shelf
4. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis (1946), translated by Carl Wildman
If you can set aside a feminist perspective and pretend you’re a pre-1970s dude while reading this, then it’s a classic. I don’t mean that facetiously – the character of Zorba is a useful point of reference in life. I think about him a lot, and the wimpy narrator, too. We all have a bit of both in us. (I am OK with reading like a pre-1970s dude at the moment, maybe because there are so many interesting women’s voices out there, it’s almost like assumed patriarchal views are historical, like feudalism, and not annoyingly ubiquitous. Almost. I also have times of only wanting to read women, insisting on our personhood, etc. With Zorba, beyond even issues with the female characters and what happens to them, there’s the basic world view it departs from, that women are like nature, religion, war, learning: one of those things in life men must contend with, rather than heroes of their own stories, too.)
So, Zorba versus the narrator: eating up life all has to offer vs. ascetic withdrawal; a life of experiences over a life of contemplation; choosing experience over morality. The spiritual life? Monks reveal themselves to be as depraved and greedy as anyone else. The simple country life? Apparently innocent villagers can transform into a killer, misogynist mob. Zen withdrawal? When a beautiful woman offers herself to you, you take her! You might as well be honest and not buy into any of those rigid life paths. But then there are the sacrifices you make if you choose to be a Zorba, too, going all the way, doing it all, leaving everyone behind at some point or another…
5. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff (Henry Holt, 2018)
I couldn’t put this book down. I’ve figured out why it was comforting: It was a confirmation of reality, of a timeline of events in objective reality, in this awful moment when we’re spun in circles by media, social media, fake news, real news, bad news, until we’re dizzy, can’t see straight, think straight. Particularly notable was Wolff’s account of election night and the weeks that followed. I wanted it to go on and on, up through the present day. Wolff writes vividly and entertainingly. He also has a nuanced grasp of the media landscape, which shaped Trump and the people around him more than politics did, and isn’t afraid to be critical of Democrats and figures on the left, either. I wrote more about this book here. (God, it seems like this was published years ago, the scandal it caused, but it was only a year ago.)
Provenance: Purchased by Dan from a Dutch bookstore, he ordered it as soon as it came out.