Category: Books

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau: domestic ennui on the foothills of the Alps

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau: domestic ennui on the foothills of the Alps

This was supposed to be a bit of light-as-Devonshire-cream reading, a fun refresher for a lazy weekend. Instead, it turned out to be a captivating page-turner about depression. On the surface, it’s a well worn out trope, standing on the shoulders of giants like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Bronte’s Madwoman in the Attic, all the way down to Sylvia Plath and her “domestic surreal.” A woefully unfulfilled housewife Anna Benz is tumbling down the nauseating rabbit hole of tepid, monotonous, safe, sated, comfortable middle-class life and all of its requisite trappings. There’s a picture-perfect house tucked in a village near Zurich. There’s the Swiss banker husband, reasonably kind, reasonably good-looking. There’s the kids, suitably sweet, and a statuesque mother-in-law hovering ever so diligently somewhere on the horizon peppered with school runs, play dates, and zoo excursions. Kinder, Küche, Kirche, living strong and proud in the land of scrupulous financiers, punctual trains, and premium chocolate.

The reader is never explained what is the poison festering under such picturesque a facade (there are some scant nods to childhood trauma, but not much to go on). We are only led to accept the facts – Anna Benz is a serial cheater, engaging in infidelity with a mechanical rigour of an athlete. She finds little comfort or solace in this walking on a razor’s edge. Instead, there’s only desperately delicious darkness, thick and viscous like licorice.

Leafing through these litanies of busy nothings, the reader just knows something is coming. A jolt. A bolt of lightning. A catharsis. The only thing left to unveil is whether this is going to be the kind of seminal event that gifts redemption, or the final plunge into the abyss.

“Grief is not simple sadness. Sadness is a feeling that wants nothing than to be sat with, held, and heard. Grief is a journey. It must be moved through. With a rucksack full of rocks, you hike through a black, pathless forest, brambles about your legs and wolf packs at your heels. 

The grief that never moves is called complicated grief. It doesn’t subside, you do not accept it, and it never – it never – goes to sleep. This is possessive grief. This is delusional grief. This is hysterical grief. Run if you will, this grief is faster. This is the grief that will chase you and beat you. 

This is the grief that will eat you.”

Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau

Two themes run in powerful streams through the heart of this book – psychotherapy and German grammar. Outside home, her therapist and her German classes are just about the only nodes on an otherwise barren network of Anna’s activities. Rolling off the tongue of Anna’s therapist are nods to Jungian mono-myths and origins of pragmatic Swiss mentality, and to Freudian dream interpretation. Dawdling over her German homework, Anna feels the clinical solitude of these complicated language rules: “The disconnect between ‘general’ and ‘specific.’ The vast, vapid chasm that divides ‘this particular one’ from ‘some of them.'” This language evades Anna, contributing massively to her alienation in this picture-perfect country:

“She thought about Switzerland. Where a smile will give you away as an American. Where what isn’t taboo is de rigueur. Cold, efficient Switzerland. Where the women are comely and the men are well groomed and everyone wears a determined face. Switzerland. The roof of Europe. Glacier carved. Most beautiful where it is most uninhabitable.” 

Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau

Anna, she says, “was a good wife, mostly.” Alas, depression doesn’t care much. And even in punctual Switzerland there are days when all trains run late well into the night…

Image: Nonchaloir, by John Singer Sargent.

Czeslaw Milosz’ Proud to be a Mammal – finding grace in the belly of a beast

Czeslaw Milosz’ Proud to be a Mammal – finding grace in the belly of a beast

Emmanuel Levinas said “God left in 1941.” Theodor Adorno said “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Czeslaw Milosz, writing from Warsaw, Nazi terror’s ground zero, said this:

“The poetry I wrote before the war and later in Nazi-occupied Poland would have been utterly without hope if not for my awareness of the beauty of the things of this earth, and that beauty was incomprehensible, as it coexisted with horror.”

Czeslaw Milosz, Happiness 

Milosz lived and wrote through twentieth century’s darkest hours, in Warsaw disemboweled by war, its citizenry fighting like lions for the very soul of Europe, that fatigued continent. He sold contraband sausage, cigarettes, whiskey, and undies. He traded passports and crossed illicit borders. He saved Jews and was imprisoned in a transit camp. He translated and published little clandestine volumes of poetry on a Ditto machine. He survived. Today we read him as we read Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, and Gunther Grass, all these austere witnesses of horrors doing a post mortem of humanity to decipher what the hell happened, why, and how it may happen again.

For his part, Milosz searches for answers in Dante, circles of hell, Faust, and European fatalism at a time when, as he says, history started rapidly accelerating:

“In Europe, this ‘acceleration of history’ demonstrated its force in the span of one generation: the First World War broke out; seemingly indestructible powers – the Russian Czarist Empire and the Hapsburg monarchy – fell; the Revolution of 1917 flared up; Nazism and Fascism culminated in the Second World War and Russia marched far beyond its 1914 borders, taking into its orbit little countries which had previously separated themselves from it, as well as nearly all the former Hapsburg domain. To one witnessing these events, the rise and decline of State organisms, the appearance and disappearance of chiefs, the millions of graves and the ashes of other millions scattered over the fields, all combined to make up a film running at a crazy tempo. Human affairs exploded like the mushroom of the atomic blast.” 

Czeslaw Milosz, Speaking of a Mammal

A whole lot of stuff goes on during a world war but, in moments when the centre doesn’t hold, some things are surprisingly durable: a stone and two blades of grass, or a roof of a hut, or a plough. While governments fall, the land is “singularly naked.” There are moments of felicity to be found even as the world goes ablaze:

“One should not imagine that those who have been swallowed by a dragon won’t experience moments of perfect contentment.” 

Czeslaw Milosz, Saligia

Milosz is deeply humanist, as are most of these wartime writers, paternalistically reconciling our capacity to do evil with our capacity to be good. Milosz, probably owing to his deep Catholicism (or to what some critics called a “beautiful naivete”), goes further than his cohort in his enduring optimism in humanity – pain is transitory and harmony is eternal. Writing idyllic verses in the land he claims was called anus mundi, the cloaca of the world, he says:

“Horror is the law of the world of living creatures, and civilization is concerned with masking that truth. Literature and art refine and beautify, and if they were to depict reality naked, just as everyone suspects it is, no one would be able to stand it.” 

Czeslaw Milosz, Anus Mundi

It’s an eerie feeling today, strolling across Warsaw’s old town, looking all those fairytale-pretty houses, bustling cafes, watching tourists take selfies by the Mermaid of Warsaw monument, and knowing it was all rebuilt from scratch, brick by brick, a city drawing its new blood from an underground cavern of old blood, burnt blood, shed for the country, its people, and its freedom. Czeslaw Milosz, much like the heroic fighters of the Warsaw Uprising, knew that his (and their) chances of surviving and seeing “what came out of this cauldron” were slim to none. Nevertheless, the old humanist went with Martin Luther’s advice: “when asked what he would do if he knew tomorrow was going to be the end of the world, he said, ‘I would plant apple trees.” 

Image: The monument to Warsaw Uprising, shot by me this summer.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn: turning the everyday into metaphysical exercise

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn: turning the everyday into metaphysical exercise

Experiencing Autumn is a bit like newbie meditation. Wholesome intentions at the start, then excruciating boredom, and just then, when you, high-strung and anxious in all of your hyper-jacked always-on digital modernity, are ready to capitulate, just then you are (maybe) rewarded with It. That high-density particle of insight you’ve been sweating your saggy bits for. Momentarily relieved and perhaps even elated, you drag yourself back into supplication, back into that downward dog, back into the unassuming text whose cavalcades of wee chapters put you to difficult work again. That, or you call it drivel, and throw it behind the couch, a lifelong sentence of collecting cobwebs and lost buttons.

Only a well-established author of comfortably broad renown (and Knausgaard, that Scandinavian Proust, has earned his accolades through the widely popular My Struggle) can get away with a book as richly self-indulgent as this. Through the measured andante of the narrator, a salt-and-pepper-haired paterfamilias, we are invited to examine the intense materiality of this world. Apples. Badgers. Chimneys. Mouth. Churches. Piss. Forgiveness. Thermos. Vomit. Beds. Loneliness. Infants. Labia. Flaubert.

This is reality without makeup, as it appears in autumn within the bowels of a palpably hygge home to a “white middle-aged man with a frozen inner self, who walks stiffly and slightly stooped, and who never plays, never dances, never ventures into the wild, uninhibited darkness.” He makes coffee, writes, cooks breakfast, cleans, puts children to bed, and catalogs it all into his cabinet of banalities for the make benefit of his unborn daughter.  Perhaps one day, when she reaches the age at which adult children suddenly start enjoying spending time with their parents, she will thank him for these metaphysical lab notes, like the one about how pleasant it is to have a fever. Or how oddly satisfying it is to eat the entire apple, seeds and all. Or how war unleashes rational forces latent in humans. Or how sewing on buttons connects you with the spirit of your Norwegian grandmother. Or how  a thermos is “a kind of a family totem [that] discreetly embodies all that bound us together back then and which has now been broken.” 

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Autumn is its perfect stillness. There is no ebbing conflict to resolve in glorious crescendo. Instead, there is a near-perpetual but ever so irritating tension, like electricity static. An existential cul de sac. There is no untying this knot, there is no solving this mathematical equation, because it is life itself. It cannot be squared. It cannot be compartmentalized. It can only be endured or, better yet, accepted. A kind of Scandinavian stoicism, standing strong like a solitary autumnal leaf, grasping on while all his brothers have long tumbled into that early November frost.

 

Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast: deceptively simple Scandinavian wisdom

Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast: deceptively simple Scandinavian wisdom

Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke had a complicated  but colourful life. Reared in a conservative monarchist family in a stately manor house on the outskirts of Copenhagen, she fell in love with some kind of a dashing equestrian, but, rejected, married his rogue twin brother instead. Then, fate threw her to a coffee farm in Africa, where she experienced financial ruin, infidelity, illness, death of her second big love, and a disgraced return to the native shores. And then there was war, and another war, and a sprinkling of successful books under various pseudonyms like Tania Blixen (for Anglophone audiences) and Isak Dinesen (for German-speakers). At the zenith of her literary fame, Blixen journeyed to the United States where, as a bona fide aristocrat, she subsisted on oysters, grapes, and champagne while giggling up a storm with the likes of Marilyn Monroe…

But before all those accolades there was the mysterious French Babette, a culinary therapist, a dark-eyed saviour of prudish Norwegian spinsters, and overall a much-beloved character of Blixen’s Babette’s Feast, immortalized on screen in an 1987 Academy Award laureate.

At forty pages of literary minimalism, Babette’s Feast is not to be underestimated, for it takes a mightier writing muscle to craft something meaningful laconically than it does through flowery diarrhea of verbosity. And so, in a simple story of a French refugee thanking her pious Norwegian hosts, the reader learns that 1) excess asceticism is not necessarily the truest path to righteousness and God and 2) when spiritual and corporeal realms are well-nurtured one gets the purest Nirvana.

“This woman is now turning a dinner at the Cafe Anglais into a kind of love-affair of the noble and romantic category in which one no longer distinguishes between bodily and spiritual appetite or satiety.”

Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast

Babette, fleeing from the bloodbath of French Revolution, finds safety in the kind of place where split cod and ale-and-bread soup are the height of culinary sophistication. She is taken in by devout ecclesiastics who renounce the pleasures of this world, “for earth and all that it held to them was but a kind of illusion, and the true reality was the New Jerusalem towards which they were longing.” There is kindness here, true, but a lot of reservation. Open affection is scant, but regret is bountiful, and the scales ever more tip in its favour as wrinkles and grey hair make their inevitable advances.

Babette unwittingly throws a flaming Molotov cocktail right at the heart of this stoic philosophy by spending her entire fortune of a very lavish and very French feast for her benefactors and their uptight friends. There’s the fabled turtle soup with Amontillado sherry, Blinis Demidoff with Veuve Cliquot champagne, quail in puff pastry with foie gras and truffle sauce, and numerous other luxuries to impress even the toughest critic, let alone Babette’s unsophisticated guests. With each spoonful, with each glass of effervescent refreshment, their eyes glow brighter, their hearts beat louder, and all those putrid lumps of guilt, shame, submission, and denial melt away. They eat their way to God and emerge, with the last sip of their digestif, innocent like children.

There are clearly common themes between Blixen’s Babette and a 90s novel by Joanne Harris Chocolat (and its successful same-name film adaptation with the immaculate Juliette Binoche). Other adorably saccharine genre buddies such as Ratatouille or Julie and Julia also hammer home the same universally palatable thought – there is something patently magical about food, some artistry that leads to redemption, salvation, or at the very least self-actualization to be found at the tip of that brimming ladle.

Image: A still from Babette’s Feast film adaptation (1987).

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: A love sonnet to literature and all its students

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: A love sonnet to literature and all its students

A long, pained decade of crudely administered austerity medicine after the global financial apocalypse of 2008 has left opulent scars on academia. Fewer students today choose to embark upon the study of humanities and, specifically, literature, than ever before in history of democratized access to education in the West. Countless pearls of our common literary heritage are lingering untasted and untested, all the while the increasingly dwindling number of PhDs, associate profs, fellows, and other knights of assorted regalia continue firing off essays, articles, and books that even fewer leaf through. It’s bleak and it sucks, and while the fine craft of belles lettres is ghosted by policy-makers who robotically herd the young’uns into science, tech, engineering, and maths, we’ve got Elif Batuman, her golden feather pen, and the kind of unwilting love of literature that makes one miss grad school with its all-nighters, caffeinated seminars, ulcers, halitosis, and overdue library books.

Elif Batuman takes us on a journey of her Russian literature studies, with some quintessentially academic self-congratulatory circle-jerking, plenty of beautifully phrased intertextual tapestry of Tolstoy, Babel, and Dostoyevsky, and a curious passeggiata through mythical Uzbekistan (birds, melons, and Timurids galore). In an inadvertent nod to the hilarious father of the campus novel genre David Lodge, much of all this literary analysis with the side of Derrida is steeped in a grad school cocktail of beer-cigarettes-infatuation. Like billiard balls, these academic pilgrims stumble into bits and morsels of knowledge, beautiful and fragile, holding it “like a Christmas ornament without a Christmas tree.” Not in vain:

“If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.” 

Elif Batuman, The Possessed

In order to find these answers, Batuman’s character first needs to answer the two fundamental Russian problems (“What is To Be Done?” and “Who Is To Blame?” of course). She also has to figure out, after all these linguistic, literary, and logistical acrobatics, What Is Russia? Sadly, she never does, her gaze always already corrupted by the kind of apologist lens Nabokov himself would get pissed about when confronting some Oxbridge Russophiles who waxed poetic over Bolshevism. It’s all fun and games when your character dreams about playing tennis against Tolstoy, but when it comes to truly unpacking the toxic sediment of imperialism, colonialism, and a plethora of other -isms of the Russian Empire/USSR, The Possessed bashfully skirts around the hard stuff, and traipses away. Maybe next time. As such, the original question still stands very much open, even after some very sincere epistemological exercises:

“I became aware of a deep flaw in my understanding of the world and human knowledge. I had previously thought of knowledge as a network of connections that somehow preserved and safeguarded the memory of what they were connecting. But of course it was only people who remembered things; words and ideas themselves had no memory.”

Elif Batuman, The Possessed

Words and ideas have no memory? The entire field of etymology (along with millions of post-colonial peoples of this planet) beg to differ. One shouldn’t fault Batuman’s character too harshly though. She is, after all, a student (and a bloody good one), passing the flaming torch to the next generation of curious spirits with appetite for learning and love of beauty. And that’s the point.

Image: Portrait of Tolstoy and Wife by Ilya Repin

Amara Lakhous’ multicultural Italy, or how to be suckled by Rome’s wolf without getting bitten

Amara Lakhous’ multicultural Italy, or how to be suckled by Rome’s wolf without getting bitten

Do you think yourself civilized enough to use an elevator? And how about pork – would an image of a genuine Piedmontese piglet with a Juventus scarf encircling its lovably rotund head evoke any particularly strong emotions? These are not some extravagant conversation ice-breakers. These are litmus tests for racism, identity, and belonging, intermittently passed and failed by a flavourful assortment of characters inhabiting, by birthright or through labyrinthine journeys of immigration, the merry chaos of Amara Lakhous’ two thrillingly playful novels. Straight from the titles, we know we are about to seep through an alluring oyster shell crack of contemporary folklore : Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet and Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio.

Inside, it’s a veritable cornucopia of sights, smells, languages, and people, a pungent stew of stories and places peppered with satire, melancholy, and drama. Calabrian matriarchs, Albanian and Romanian mafiosi, a sagely madame from Casablanca and a pizzaphobic cook from Shiraz – all of them scale the walls of the Eternal City, their knees scraping against millennia of brutal and glorious history. Moscow does not believe in tears, but Rome doesn’t believe you period. Like an eye-rolling auntie, Rome has seen it all. It may permit some nomadic urchin to suckle from its live-preserving teat, but that’s not a ironclad contract. Rome is forever. Its deals? Ça dépend:

“By now I know Rome as if I had been born here and never left. I have the right to wonder: am I a bastard like the twins Romulus and Remus, or an adopted son? The basic question is: how to be suckled by the wolf without being bitten.”

Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

As the Old World clumsily dances around racial and ethnic tensions, Lakhous breaches these dynamite themes with candour and satire that work. Too often in contemporary fiction these topics are stillborn, suffocated by unhelpful sanctimoniousness, their death only accelerated by political urgency (especially in contemporary Italy, with . Everyone rushes to talk about the vibrancy of multicultural life without stepping back and giving space for said life to bloom. In steps Lakhous whose characters are not sieves for political themes. They are their natural engines:

“I know a proverb that the Italians often repeat: “Guests are like fish, after three days they stink.” The immigrant is a guest, no more or less, and, like fish, you eat him when he’s fresh and throw him in the garbage when loses his colour. There are two types of immigrants: the fresh ones, who are exploited inhumanly in the factories of the north or the agricultural lands of the south, and the frozen, who fill the freezers and are used only in an emergency.” 

Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

After an entertaining merry-go-round of the novels’ city life scenes, the reader is not sated. The Piedmontese piglet is saved, the baddies meet their just desserts, and life goes on, with cornetto or with kubideh kebab, no matter. A Fellini sunset. We still don’t know though what to do with this identity problem of ours. Perhaps, after all that’s been said and eaten, it’s not a problem at all.

“It’s marvelous to be able to free ourselves from the chains of identity which lead us to ruin. Who am I? Who are you? Who are they? These are pointless and stupid questions.” 

Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

Image: Artnet.

Tony Parsons’ Departures: The magic of travel in seven stories from Heathrow

Tony Parsons’ Departures: The magic of travel in seven stories from Heathrow

“Airports were often just the punctuation marks of a lifetime, the twilight spaces between places and people, the no-man’s-land between what had happened and what was yet to be.”

Tony Parsons, Departures

Few who have been subjected, willingly or through insidious pop culture osmosis, to romantic comedies’ crown jewel Love Actually, endeavour to forget the legendary airport scene. Not even the most granite-hearted of misanthropes could roll their skeptical eyes at that endearing thread of faces and embraces, all to (formerly) dishy Hugh Grant’s velvety tenor going on and on about how “love is everywhere,” how “love is all around,” and all this life’s hapless pilgrim has to do to resurrect their faith in humanity is to pop over to the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport.

Next time you’re sequestered in some nauseatingly bureaucratic queue at Heathrow (or CDG or any other three-letter IATA combination for that matter), pick up a wee collection  of Tony Parsons’ short stories Departures, a 100-odd pages of smirk, hope, stress, ridiculousness, enthusiasm, regret, new beginnings and yes, love, that irreplaceable conductor of life’s symphony. Unlike the analyzed-to-bits scene in Love Actually, these morsels of airport life are not so much about what goes on in the Arrivals gate as they are about the humble yet vital work that throbs, every minute of every day, in the labyrinthine innards of world’s second busiest airport. What occasionally reads like a manifest promo piece to Heathrow, this collection is, above all, an appreciative hat tip to men and women of aviation who feed and water that enormous heaving beast of an airport and all those who come through (and those, for legitimate or not-so reasons, who don’t).

The stories are seven and all different. There’s a woman confronting her very banal fear of flying (and an even more banal one of seeing the in-laws). There’s an airport animal health inspector cloistered in the animal reception centre with a red milk snake wrapped around his arm and a blue-eyed starlet by his side. There’s a pair of geeky air traffic controllers exceedingly proud of their job, a pilot stoked to be flying Boeing 777s and another who lost his license (and his marriage), a no-nonsense passport officer taking down drug mules but showing clemency to two very different girls stepping onto British soil on the same day toward their pink unicorn wish “to marry their boyfriend Prince Harry.”

None of it is terribly genre-bending. Not all of it is even particularly moving or insightful. There is one quality, however, that not only unifies these stories but also animates them with the kind of unmistakable spirit that makes an aesthetic grouping of words worth reading. The knights of Heathrow all without exception share genuine, effervescent enthusiasm for their work, a childlike excitement, a purity of spirit, and honest passion for their respective 9-to-5s. In our cynical age of boarding pass + passport Instagram posts, in a time where air travel is notably less glamorous, a perfunctory bourgeois activity almost wholly stripped of its former vestiges of romanticism, exoticism, or at the very least exclusivity, Tony Parsons’ Departures show air travel through the fairy dust of childhood wonder for what it truly is and what we, scoffing globetrotters, chose to forget – air travel is pure unadulterated magic. From birds, to bats, to Leonardo da Vinci’s visionary ornithopter sketches, to the stuffy tin can that takes us to that all-inclusive summer beach holiday, it’s all pretty amazing. Perhaps next time at Arrivals we, exhausted, sweaty, and jet-lagged, can exchange our “ugh” for:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., High Flight

Image: IMithila Madhubani, Depiction Of People Onboarding At Darbhanga Airport. iMithila