Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Literature and the environment

I've given myself permission to start this sabbatical differently from every other, and differently from the ways I usually start my summers.  I'm simply reading for the first two months.  I have much to learn about some of the issues and motifs my next novel,  Soul Weather, is going to explore, so I'm reading biographies of Simone Weil as well as her work, reading about climate change, learning how animals communicate.  But that's in the off hours, so to speak.  I have two scholarly tasks for the next two months.  One is to finish reading Woolf's essays (I'm about half way through volume 5--one more to go).  The other is to read ecocriticism so that Katherine Arbuthnott and I can more effectively apply for a SSHRCC grant to do research on the qualities or kinds of texts that might convince people to change behaviours that have a negative impact on our environment.  While  I'm reading ecocriticism, I'm also thinking about a class I'd like to teach when I return from sabbatical.  This is crazy:  I'm not even technically on sabbatical yet.  Yet ironically, just reading has made the first month very productive.  My ideas are free of the censorship that comes of trying to pack them tightly and too soon into well-shaped and well-argued paragraphs, and I feel my thinking has been liberated by this freedom.

A couple of things I've learned so far from the ecocritics seem to be resonating with the fiction I'm reading.  First, nature isn't an objective thing that's just "out there" somehow; rather, we project an idea, even a philosophy onto it.  I realized this when I began to think about whether I'd just do ecocriticism and Canadian Literature or ecocriticism and American, Canadian, and British literature.  How differently the Americans, particularly during the settlement of "the west" looked at nature:  it was something to be tamed, exploited--some of the language used by nineteenth-century settlers even evokes images of rape.  During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nature in Canada was something to be survived; we experience an element of awe that's not prominent in American readings of the natural world.  British and other European countries see the sublime in nature;  it continues to evoke something beyond their comprehension.  Might Kant explain why the Germans are so far ahead of us in developing and harnessing alternate energy sources?

Ecocriticism has its political wing, of course, that argues about the most politically correct way to depict the natural world in a literary text.  I'm not very interested in that particular argument; rather I'd say that ecocriticism, like most theory, has two primary uses.  First, it foregrounds or emphasizes things we might normally not notice.  Second, it reminds us that many of our preconceptions are...preconceptions--not necessarily a disinterested reflection of the way things are.

For example, I'm re-reading Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault, a book I both admired and thought ineffectively constructed the first time I read it.  (The jury is still out on that one; I`ll keep you posted.)  In my earlier reading, I could certainly see a kind of uneasy triangulation taking place between the flooding of the Nile (which, my internet research told me then was an ecological disaster); Avery`s uneasiness about moving the ancient temple, Abu Simbel; and Jean`s loss of her baby.  This time, ecocriticism has made me much more aware of Jean`s relationship with plants.  She and Avery, husband and wife for most of the novel, met when he was  working on the engineering for the flooding of the St. Lawrence Seaway.  He saw her in the distance stooping, standing up right, and putting something into a canvas bag on her back, only to repeat the bending, straightening, and stowing away.  Touched by her gestures, he catches up to her to ask what she`s doing.  She`s "keeping a record" she tells him, of the plants alive on the shoreline.  She'll plant them elsewhere, though of course they'll never grow and reproduce the way they would have undisturbed.  Changing the landscape, no matter what our motives, is never a neutral act.  While perhaps something positive is built--like the St. Lawrence Seaway--it is dishonest not to admit that an act of destruction preceded it.

Eventually these plants make their way to the home of Avery's mother, Marina, an avid gardener and illustrator who is particularly alive to the significance of the natural world.  She tells Jean about the way the Nazis tried to ensure the ethic purity of gardens with "strict landscape rules enforced in all the occupied territories, especially in Poland" which necessitated a "botanical purge" against a tiny forest flower, impatiens parviflora (93).  Hence, Marina puts a small blossom in everything she paints.  Even well after the war, there is talk in Germany, Marina tells Jean, of ripping out rhododendrons and forsythia because they're not native German plants. If nature isn't an idea, if it isn't part of our cultural identity, why would authorities even consider such time-consuming and futile gestures?

As readers, we don't miss the large issues.  One representative old Ontario woman is allowed to give voice to the sense of loss of place when her home--and with it her husband's grave--is flooded.  You can't simply move a house, however carefully it's done, (one woman puts a tea cup on the edge of the table to see if her house is moved as carefully as they promise--and it is) and still feel at home in a familiar landscape.  The light hits corners of the room and the reading chair differently; the shadows of an elm tree don't fall quite the way they used to on the floor of your bedroom at dawn; the skyline is different.  We have roots in place that you can't simply pull up.  Similarly, we're aware from Avery's growing uneasiness about moving Abu Simbel that something false is being done here.  The better he does his job--the more the reconstructed version looks like the original--the more dishonest he feels.  When the temple was built, there was a sense that a certain place or landscape was significant or even sacred.  Now all that matters is Abdul Nassar's egotistical desire to effect some monumental change to the landscape--a change that not only necessitates the heart-wrenching wholesale moving of villages, the cutting of family ties to a landscape and its history, but that immerses and erases thousands of years of the Nile's history and agricultural riches.

But once ecocriticism has articulated the way a particular time and culture can assign meaning to the natural world, we can see the disturbing connection between the flooding of the St. Lawrence Seaway, of the Nile, of the moving of Ontario and Nubian villages and households and the Nazis absurd purge of a small wild flower in the name of cultural purity. When we transform the landscape, we aren't simply building a new, more modern history; rather the old connections to the past and to place are being destroyed.  If nature has cultural significance, what's being changed isn't merely physical.  It's historical and sentimental.   

Timothy Clark, in The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment points out the small-l liberalism has been associated with numerous rights movements, with civil rights for African-Americans, with women's rights.  At the same time, though, liberalism seems to be failing the ecology movement precisely because of its emphasis on individual rights.  It would seem that, in North American at least, we have an inalienable right to do things that are destructive, like keep our SUV idling while we wait in the block-long line-up for drive-in coffee at Tim Hortons rather than getting out of our car--which would certainly be quicker.  Those of us who are worried about the planet and about the well-being of people whose homes and lives have been destroyed by an extreme tornado season in the States, or whose livelihoods and homes are threatened by various levels of flooding across the prairies, in Quebec, and on the Mississippi Delta, realize that we're going to have to give up our individual rights to protect the natural world.

Giving up our individual rights takes its most controversial and fraught manifestation in the issue of population control.  By definition, efforts to think about population control conflate the public and the private in a way most people find disturbing.  While some of us might, theoretically, approve China's "one child" policy, the more imaginative among us would realize the way in which this policy infiltrates a couple's most intimate moments.  In Franzen's Freedom, Walter Berglund argues that to protect the planet we're going to have to think in terms of population control.  If you've got twenty minutes, listen to David Attenborough's compelling message about this contentious issue.  You'll find it at

This afternoon, the wind rocked my car as I waited at the intersection of Albert and College.  Yet minutes later, when I took these photographs, the ornamental fruit trees still clung to their fragile petals.  What force of nature allows them to do that?

When Katherine and I have our grant application revised, we're going to start collecting stories about people's lives being changed by something they read.  So in the next couple of months, cast about in your memory for that moment when reading a novel or an essay or a poem profoundly changed the way you view the world and your place in it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Evening Reading: Combray

When I first moved to Regina 21 years ago this coming July, I was a single mother who found herself in a curious, lonely and wonderful situation.  Beginning in the summer of 1990, Veronica spent six weeks each summer with her dad in Winnipeg.  How does a mother describe, honestly and without guilt, what it is like to be temporarily childless?  I'm not sure I can capture the delicate balance between loss and freedom.  I can only describe how I answered the loneliness with reading.  Because my house is high above College Avenue and because I have two enormous evergreens in my front yard, in the summer my bedroom seems like a refuge up in the trees.  From my bed, I can watch the slight changes in the sky and the light, feel the breezes from two directions hovering above the sheets, listen as the human and animal world prepares for the slight silence of sleep. And read.  When my eyes and mind are tired, I simply stop reading (though I always have my notebook with me) and let my mind drift around in the problems a poem or a scene is giving me.

While fall and winter might have found me for a passive hour in front of the TV that would be an antidote to the day's busyness, watching TV in the summer seems almost heretical, as if I'm spurning one of the world's great lonely pleasures, though of course I'm only alone now until Bill comes to bed to read aloud to me, which seems to put a buffer between the mind-busy day world and the world of sleep that is sometimes so illusive for me.

Reading Combray, the first volume of my sabbatical reading, In Search of Lost Things, seemed like a doubled--even mirrored--pleasure.  I suspect this first book  functions as an introduction to the other eleven, so preoccupied is the ageless yet aging Marcel toward the end about his future as an artist.  His childhood memories are replete with sensual experience that might make passages of "fine writing," but he cannot imagine the point of view, the world view, the philosophy that will give shape to the sensuous beauty of his material.  In another way, this chapter is a single synecdotal night that is infused with loss.  It begins with a sleepless night and the grief he feels--and even anticipates--because his mother will not leave their dinner guests to kiss him and tuck him in for the night.  It ends with an equally sleepless night during which he recreates for himself his bedroom at Combray, only to find at the first glimmers of light that nothing is in his right place and that he's left that magic, if grief-filled, time.

Until the taste of the madeleine, this seems to be his single memory of childhood; the tea-infused baking bring back a plethora of free-floating memories that tell us much about the values held by his family and his childhood historical moment, about gardens, about religious observances, about illness and death.  Much of Combray is narrated in what the narratologists call the iterative:  that is, Marcel narrates one time what has happened many times, over and over, conflating individual occasions, as if Easter services or a particular walk or the habits of his Aunt Leonie and her visitors have become almost ritualized.  Among these memories are scattered a handful of scenes, like seeing Mademoiselle Gilberte Swan or glimpsing the Duchesse de Guermantes or overhearing Mlle Venteuil berate her father in a scene that will resonate throughout his life.  These thread their way through the two paths of his family's country walks, the Guermantes Way or the Meseglise Way, which seem to stand for ways of being, approaches to living, placing emphasis on sunshine or rain, on the choices one makes to accept the rhythms of weather, on formal gardens or on riverside meadows.  So this extraordinarily, floating,  almost-narrative--a narrative line as insubstantial and impressionistic as a large Monet water lily--is of course tightly and purposefully organized.

But at its centre lies the contemplation of the pleasure of open windows between spring and fall, the pleasure of sleeplessness on summer nights, the pleasure of  ritualized walks, of reading indoors during the heat of the day, the sound-world just outside the window.   Marcel's pleasurably-evoked yet grief-filled night left me feeling as if I were  looking into the strange ornate mirror of my own past sleepless summers.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Those turtles are layered

In Blue Duets, Rob's first line is "Julia Child taught me to cook."  I was trying, you see, to make him not completely unlikeable, and since he's about my age, like me he's a first-generation Mastering the Art of French Cooking cook.  When Veronica and I watched "Julie and Julia" several months ago, I got the books back out of that place where superannuated cookbooks go to live--where they become history.

So when Veronica had a birthday while we were in New York City (for which we shopped on Fifth Avenue, but don't be jealous.  Fifth Avenue is where strange, unwearable clothing goes to be auctioned off to the highest bidder), we talked about menus.  She wanted coq au vin and crepes with frangipane. When I cook coq au vin, something tugs at my history rib.    I'm very aware that this dish is a long-standing French classic with a definite purpose:  cook that useless old wiry rooster in so much wine--along with the right herbs and vegetables--and for so long that he'll be succulent and delicious.  Yet I have no way of knowing whether the skinless chicken breasts I'm using came from a cock or a hen, and making coq au vin with skinless chicken breasts is probably heretical anyway.  Nevertheless, the mingling smells in my kitchen of the bacon fat I'll brown the breasts in, of sauteing mushrooms, of wine and chicken stock, of bay and thyme, seem to connect me to a long line of French women and their American art-of-French-cooking sisters.

Making frangipane I similarly meet the layers of my own history.  First, I should say I bought both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the early seventies, shortly after they were published.  In the following decade I made Veal Prince Orloff--probably the most complicated thing I've ever cooked--Bavarian creams, croissants from scratch.  (You can't imagine how good they are, though if you work at them all day, folding and rolling out the buttered layers,  you can eat them for afternoon tea.)  When I found myself a single mother of a vegetarian child in the mid-eighties, Julia Child went to the back of the shelf of cookbooks, except for the recipe for frangipane.  Frangipane is a fairly thick pastry cream  (mostly eggs, milk, flour and sugar) to which you add ground almonds, almond extract, and a generous splash of Amaretto.  Although it's essentially a fairly thick pudding, it tastes like something from another world altogether.

If you've used Mastering the Art of French Cooking, you know that one of Childs' gifts lies in her ability to write the most precise instructions; these, if followed religiously, will lead to frangipane that is like silk.  First, you slowly, slowly, slowly whisk the sugar into the eggs until, when you lift the whisk, the mixture "forms a ribbon."  For some reason, this patient transformation leads the thick mixture of eggs and sugar to fall off your whisk not in blobs but in elegant ribbons.  Once you've whisked it to that point, there, it's unmistakable.  Then you beat in the flour that you've measured in quite a particular way that's illustrated, a pencil note in my cookbook tells me, on page 17, though I don't have to revisit it any more.  You put your measuring cup under your sifter and sift the flour carefully  into the cup and then level it with a knife, ensuring that there are absolutely no lumps in your flour and that nothing's been packed down as you spoon it into the measuring cup.  Once you've added the flour, you need to add boiling milk, and here's where I part ways with dear Julia.  Right below my note telling me exactly how to sift the flour is another notation:  "3 minutes in microwave. "  Boiling milk only makes the most unspeakable mess of your pan, and you have to watch it.  French cooking takes lots of time to begin with--whisking eggs and sugar until they form the ribbon--I don't have time to watch milk boil.  I am back on track when I add the milk to the sugar, eggs, and flour drop by drop, and I've also been conscientious about buying the kind of enamelled cast iron pans that spread the heat so evenly you don't need to use a double boiler.

Oddly enough, my Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a kind of synecdoche for our knowledge of history:  it's seldom unmediated and often our own experience, or those of our forenbears,  provides the mediation.  While I've got the "original text," it's been layered over, first by smudges from the bottom of my pan as I put it right on the cookbook to read the instructions while following them, then by the experience of never remembering from time to time how to properly sift flour, and finally by finding an improved, efficient way for boiling my milk.  I'm absolutely true to some of the recipe's instructions, like getting the egg and sugar to form the ribbon.  Veronica, in turn, knows the text mediated by years of watching me make frangipane and by the memories she has of her mother's cooking.

Quilt historian Barbara Brackman is celebrating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War by offering quilt makers a quilt block a week named after events and personages in the civil war.  The one I'm working on right now is called "Fort Sumter" after an important naval battle outside Charleston, South Carolina.  Brackman has created a wonderful display:  photographs and newspaper articles from the time, along with selections from the diary of Mary Chestnut, whose husband was at Fort Sumter.  So Brackman has been careful to give us lots of primary texts in this post, as in her others.  Yet there's no escaping the fact that the block itself was first found in the Chicago Tribune quilting column written by a fictional Nancy Cabot in 1932.  Brackman goes on to suggest the symbolism of the colours used in the block, but we can't help feeling that our genuine 2011 Civil War quilt which we're making a complicated block of every week, using only bona fide reproduction fabrics, is somehow faked.  Or is it?

Once an object comes into the historical record, whether it's a cookbook, a quilt block, or a package of letters, it is already implicated in its culture and in all that society values.  It doesn't come to us without the assumptions we always already make about its meaning.  Through these objects, we don't really know "how it was."  We'd like to assure ourselves that we're finding the meaning of the past, and that meaning comes down to us through an unbroken, unsullied chain.  But, as Hans Kellner argues in "Language and historical representation," there is no narrative there, waiting for us to discover it.  Rather, the historical narratives we create are exercises in self-understanding.  Through telling our stories, we create ourselves. I take pleasure, it seems, in creating--and being--a self that's tied to the pleasures of the past, regardless of how illusory it might be.  I like the sensual and intellectual anachronism that happens when past and present meet.  I'm taking Barbara Brackman's narratives and instructions, which she couldn't really give to us without the genre of the blog, straight from my netbook to my sewing machine. 

You can find Barbara Brackman's wonderful blog here:

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tender Buttons and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

We began the day at Tender Buttons, a tiny shop, perhaps 3 metres wide, just off Lexington.  Improbably, there are four people who work here, one tiny sixty-something blonde dynamo with her hair in an elegant French twist; another women in her sixties with chin-length curly gray hair; an older man who I suspect drinks too much but who does up your parcel in a most intriguing way, folding the top of the tiny paper bag like origami so the buttons don‘t fall out; and a young Asian man wearing one of the brightest things in the shop:  a turquoise T-shirt.  When the courier came in to drop off the weekend delivery, he greeted each of them by name and wished the chap in the T-shirt a happy mother’s day. 

You can see from the photographs that there are more buttons here than you’ve seen everywhere else.  One woman was there to buy antique buttons and dropped nearly $300 for them.  Another couple was in, he with a shirt and she with a brocade jacket, looking for something that would match (in his case) or replace (in hers) buttons that had been lost.  In sped-up weekend New York, people take time here.  You have no choice.  We found what we were looking for:  buttons for sweaters that Veronica, her friend Jenny, and I are making.  I wonder what it would have said about us if we hadn’t found the perfect button.

We spent the next nearly seven hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we did not see Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein (which ordinarily lives, I think, at MoMA).  That bit of serendipity might have been a bit too much to ask, even of New York City.  In spite of the fact that they closed late on Saturday, so we had until nearly 9 p.m., we had to make fairly rigorous choices.  I can’t really summarize the art for you, can perhaps barely describe its effect on me.  We looked at contemporary American and European art, standing stunned by the reality of Georgia O’Keefe’s too-well-reproduced canvases.  Her is a woman who paints flowers, but there is nothing polite or cute or pretty about them; they are strong statements about her and about the world she lives in.  We saw Picasso in all his incarnations:  it’s amazing that he had so many entirely different styles, and yet that they claim your attention all the way across the room.  We sat stunned by Mark Rothko’s ability to get colour and all its subtlety to speak to a part of us we have no idea we can lay claim to.  We went to a special exhibition documenting the progress and genre of Cezanne’s “Card Players.”  I didn't know that card-playing was so well represented in art, usually underlining and critiquing the rowdy immoral side of playing cards.  Cezanne, well beyond morals, liked the men he depicted, studying each of them over a number of years before painting the two canvases that are his full appreciation, in Meyer Shapiro’s words of “Four men playing collective solitaire.” They reflect back to us the thought we put into them; in this frozen moment they are provocatively opaque.

Of course we spent hours among the Met’s enormous Impressionist collection.  I particularly love Monet, who depicts a world of water and light (even when he’s painting the Houses of Parliament or haystacks in snow) that shows how easily the world before us might dissolve and become something entirely different; he reminds us that the substance of the world is mysterious.  Veronica loves Cezanne (as do I) who has the opposite effect.  If you could take his fruit off the canvas, they would have heft in your hand.  An exhibition of small nineteenth-century paintings examined the genre of the open window that sometimes spoke of dreamy possibilities, sometimes was the only light in a painter’s studio.  Rembrandt catches the mystery of the human face’s ability to accrue and express experience.  Vermeer’s everydayness is completely comforting, though the maps that are often pinned to the wall behind the young woman with a lute remind the viewer of the colonial project that this serenity depends on--though I have no idea if he saw it that way.  An exhibition of night photography completely transformed the urban world. 

Late afternoon our feet needed a rest and we needed caffeine and sugar to be able to go another three hours, so we took ourselves to the little cafĂ© in the American wing.  It was full of people hunched and leaning into deep conversation.  No one was noisy; everyone--speakers and listeners alike--was fervent, passionate.  Perhaps they weren’t even talking about the art, but their conversations nevertheleess spoke of  its ability to remind us of the depth and engagement we should have in our own lives.  Denis Donoghue in his book Speaking of Beauty argues that there is no single definition of beauty that any of us would find completely convincing, so the result is that we must speak about what we find beautiful and in so doing speaking about what is important to us.  Art, I believe, works the same way, prompting the kinds of conversations that go to the core of our lives and beliefs.

Sunday in Central Park

In spite of the forecast for grey, rainy weather, we've had days of sun and temperatures around 20 degrees.  It was to be particularly beautiful on Sunday--none of the wind that has been blowing hair in our face.  Central Park demanded our attention.

I want to describe Central Park as a work of art.  Of course, there is Frederick Law Olmstead's vision of nature in the centre of the busy city.  There are the most remarkable outcrops of rock that people feel compelled to climb.  They lay in the sun above the city streets or simply stare off into space like an urbanized adventurer in Capsar David Friederich's famous painting of the man staring down the Alps.  I don't know whether the landscape of the whole city was like this or whether the outcrops determined where the park should go. Unlike the city itself, which is more or less a triscuit (except in areas like Greenwich Village), the paths here wander; it's very easy to become disoriented and to find yourself fetching up for advice at the Chess House where the Conservancy has volunteers to sort you out and where a mother and son spread their chess pieces out under the wysteria on tables that have chessboards marked right into the stone.

But when I say Central Park is a work of art, I'm referring to a kind of urban theatre that happens here.  A young man offers jokes for $1 and promises laughter.  Judging by the women collected about him, he's delivered.  A Chinese dance troupe (sorry:  no pictures of this one:  it was too crowded) tells an ancient story just across from Lincoln Centre. 

The skateboarders strut their stuff in a small ampitheatre.  You can find any kind of music you want:  a lone saxophonist wailing the popular mellow love songs of the fifties and sixties, a small band playing (one guesses) popular Mexican music that almost prompts people to dance in the streets, a small jazz band playing Gershwin.

My favourite, though, was a young woman on roller skates (not roller blades) dancing to her own music.  She--and other skateboarders and skaters--had found this central place along the wide arborial Mall.  On one side of her we could hear the saxophonist wailing; on the other side the band played Gershwin.  But she was listening to her own song, occasionally belting out the music and words which belonged to her alone, but which she danced into the air around her.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A day of art galleries

Today was a gallery day.  We began at the International Center for Photography, where four exhibitions illustrated the range of what photography can do.  On the main floor there were contact strips and photographs taken by a group of photographers documenting the Spanish Civil War, Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim.  While much of their photojournalism appeared in German, British, French, and American magazines and newspapers, it has long been believed that there was an archive of all their photographs that had been stored in a suitcase.  This archive surfaced in Mexico in 2007, not in a suitcase but in cardboard boxes that had been handed from person to person  for safekeeping.  The International Centre printed some of the more startling photographs, but put most of the archive on their walls in contact sheets, offering viewers utterly inadequate large plastic magnifiers to deal with the small sizes of the images.  Unfortunately, these wouldn’t rotate the images 90%, so the challenge was often to study a small photograph sideways to your line of sight.   Despite these frustrations, this was a remarkable exhibition.  First, it demonstrates the enormous range of photojournalism.  This loosely-knit group took pictures of textile workers and peasants at a land reform meeting; an outdoor mass on the Basque front, the necessities for a mass sitting on a broken cane chair; civilians leaving Tereul in the cold, many of them old and struggling to make their way through the snow; Republican soldiers moving art in Madrid to protect it from Franco’s forces; a woman selling cabbages and eggs; children finding a way to play in the war‘s rubble.  The viewer is made aware of how much framing matters:  close-ups capture the individual in pain or attempting with a cigarette and something to drink to create a calm, almost domestic moment.  Longer shots instead speak of the collective experience of marchers in a demonstration or bodies on a battlefield.  Many of these images are aesthetically striking compositions, balances of high-lights and low-lights, posing the question of what happens when we aesthetisize horror.  But if the aesthetics of the image cause us to look more closely at subjects we might ordinarily ignore, perhaps the result is that our sense of the range of human experiences is expanded.

I wish I’d have had an archive like this for my Britain in the Sixties class this winter term because the variety of photographs representing the factories, the streets, the battlefields, the emptying art galleries makes it clear how many places history unfolds.

The second exhibition of post-Mao photographs by Chinese photographer Wang Quingsong  were very carefully staged on a movie set to represent elements of Chinese culture and mythology “updated” by the cultural revolution.  These are developed on a huge scale (3 feet high and perhaps 10 feet long), many of which have cultural allusions that are largely “in” jokes.  They remind us of photography’s ability to reach for a monumental scale both in terms of the size of the photograph in in terms of the image’s ability to bear symbolic weight.  Yet probably because of my cultural ignorance, I found this the least successful exhibition.

Alonzo Jordan was the community photographer in Jasper Texas, a small African-American town.  He photographed high school graduates, prom queens posed on the hoods of the huge cars of the fifties and sixties, weddings, a neighbour mowing the lawn, family reunions.  I very much doubt Jordan would have expected his well-composed images to reach a New York City museum, but they’re  undoubtedly a valuable and evocative record of what his community chose to celebrate.

The final exhibition was of postcards of enormous baptisms in rivers, streams, lakes.  The didactic panel pointed out that photographs could be developed onto a card stock whose obverse identified it as a postcard and provided space for a message and an address.  This information helps me to make sense of some of the photographs in my mother’s box of family memorabilia.  Baptisms provided an intriguing spectacle--who knew there was such a genre of photograph/postcard?--to be both celebrated and, in the event of African-American communities, to mock for their enthusiasm.  Racist postcards of baptisms?  What won’t we do with images?

We took a break in Bryant Park, watching young men play ping pong, noting the shelves of books left out for anyone to borrow and the signs giving times for yoga classes,  laughing at children on the merry-go-round, feeding the sparrows.  We didn’t arrive until well after 1 p.m., but there were very few free seats.  Sitting in one of the tippy slatted chairs, you’re aware of being in the midst of theatre, but you’re not quite certain whether you’re a member of the audience or an inadvertent actor.  You catch fragments of conversations as people pass you by.  One friend tells another that she has a short attention….and then the wind takes her words.  A thirty-something man is talking rather loudly, one suspects, to his wife:  “Oh, that’s right.  Then I’ll come home.  No, I’m totally okay with that.”  Then he takes his story out of range.

MoMA filled the second half of our day.  I’m dismayed that I simply don’t know how to read some contemporary art, so I didn’t really understand the “language” until we came to an entire and large exhibition of Picasso guitars.  You can see Picasso using this familiar instrument to work out the language of cubism and abstraction, but no one answered my rather basic question: why the guitar?  Was it primarily a Spanish folk instrument that could be played by anyone with a little training?  He probes the very terms of representation:  what does it mean to paint on  your canvas a slice of, of something--you‘re not quite sure how it contributes to our sense of what‘s being represented--and make it look like fake wood?  Why does a representation need only two planes?  How many lines do we really need to recognize an icon like the guitar?  Can we add a few more lines that will provoke us to see that this is a conflation of several images?  This was an intriguing exhibit. 

The fifth floor might be loosely titled “Impressionism and After.”  I’ll admit that as a little old lady I was beginning to feel rather frustrated with MoMA’s failure to provide any benches in the galleries.  There is neither any space for us to rest our weary backs and feet nor to simply contemplate a sequence of paintings--of guitars, say--to consider their relationship to one another.   Or to sit staring at three serene Seurat landscapes (though I understand why there’s no bench in front of the very popular version of “Starry Night”).  There is no time for reflection; yet what are art galleries for? Nevertheless, this was like coming home to old friends who spoke at least one of your languages--the surrealists, de Chirico’s nightmare landscapes, Rousseau’s calmly curious lion.  But for me--and judging by the benches that were entirely full, for others as well--one of the magical rooms held a Monet Water Lily painting that he worked on for the 12 years between 1914 and 1926.  Three enormous canvases, each about four metres long, cover an entirely wall.  Cezanne, I believe, said Monet was only an eye--but what an eye!  These are about the miracle of vision, a feast for our eyes.  While we sat there just remembering what the magic of seeing was like, allowing our eyes to simply play over the enormous canvases, several people performed what I called “the Monet shuffle.”  They’d use their cell phone camera to phone one segment, shuffle down the room to keep their camera the same distance from the floor, take another picture, shuffle some more and take a third, then a fourth.  This made me sad:  here were these enormous inflected, textured, subtle canvases of deep water and translucent light, and people were looking at them primarily through their cell phone cameras.

In spite of not entirely understanding some of the work in a display of printing making in South America, I can see that modern art--maybe all art--wants to do a number of things.  There is the art of witness--of posters calling the violence of apartheid into question.  And there is the art of  Matisse, Bonnard, and Monet that is visionary in its own way, reminding us of the power of beauty to assuage and to envision a frame of mind that is peaceful in its own moment.  And there is art that engages with the ideas of the time and takes them further, always probing, never settling--just as we should never settle.  We need all of these.

The photograph at the top of the post was taken by Veronica Geminder; reflections of the New York skyline are captured in the glass of MoMA.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Holidays and Curiosity

One of the gifts of holidays is that one's curiosity is on full throttle.  You notice the smell of the subway and of the spirea blooming in Union Square.  You shamelessly eavesdrop as two fervent young men in yarmulkes talk about abortion and penalties for killing pregnant women as they carry a long table down Fifth Avenue toward Washington Square.  "It all depends on what you mean by...." one of them says, as they realize that ethics almost always come down to definitions. It is noon on a blustery sunny New York spring day and two different bands gust music through the park.  A man with sandwich boards on a jerry-rigged cart dances to the beat of one of the bands until he is in the circumferance of the second, when he must force his hips and knees and feet into another rhythm.  In a quieter corner of Washington Square, a man in fatigues teaches a couple how to play chess.

Greenwich Village is full of colour and stories.  Beautiful Tibet has shawls in every gradation of every colour, making me want to go home and make an Amish quilt.  At Mood, three floors of fabric, we are greeted first by a young man who calls me "young lady" and wants me to check my parcels.  Then the store's black and white boston terrier snuffles at my feet.  Every colour is celebrated in silk georgette, in shantung silk, in jersey, brocade and tulle.  There is a quieter palette in men's suitings.  The store bustles with people's visions as twenty-somethings with fat design notebooks and either tattoos or very creatively coloured hair and a playful sense of style troll the aisles of industrial shelving looking for inspiration.  A grandmother buys lime-green netting for her granddaughter's dance recital tutu.  A young man with an understated shirt of black Egyptian hieroglyphs on a cream background and one turquoise earring explains to a svelte young woman whose lining he's cutting "I love to sew.  It's so satisfying."

McNulty's tea, established in 1895, has a smell of tea and coffee so thick I can almost chew it.  Hundreds of glass jars can be opened and inhaled.  When I have made my choice, an elderly Chinese man (who knew intuitively or by long experience that the customer ahead of me wanted his coffee ground coarsely for a coffee press) finds the right rubber stamp to label my small but heavy white bag before he weighed out my choices.  His partner, also an elderly oriental man (named Mc Nulty?) charged me very little for the hundreds of cups of tea I was carrying away.

In spite of its bustle and crowds, New York City takes time to delight.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Reading as a Writer: literature and history

One of the few reviews of Blue Duets was written by Roger Brunyate for the MostlyFiction web site.  It's a kind and generous review, but he comments in his paragraph of misgivings (he still gave BD 4 out of 5 stars) that "There seems no reason for the 2002 date other than to get in a few spurious references to Bush and Iraq."   Actually, the date is quite purposeful:  Rob's big scene (no spoiler alert) comes at an anti-Bush, anti-war demonstration, so 2002 is integral to the character's development.  Also, I actually checked the weather for 2002 and the length of days in Montreal, mostly to provide me with a suggestive background to paint my characters' lives on.  So when, toward the end, Lila watches the days get shorter from her mother's room in a palliative care home, I'm being quite accurate.   

But there's also a philosophical and aesthetic reason why each of the chapters is dated.  Most simply, it gives the reader a sense of the novel's pace and allows them to see that I'm not giving my characters much time to reflect before they tell their part of the story.  But on a larger scale, the dates come out of my sense that literature is always already embedded in a historical moment.  When I teach almost any class, I appropriate a story Thomas King tells in his Massey Lecture, "'You'll Never Believe What Happened' Is Always a Great Way to Start."  He opens this lecture by telling the First Nations story about how the earth "floats in space on the back of the turtle."  After some play with an audience that knows this story and is enjoying his particular way of telling it, King admits "It's turtles all the way down."  For me, it's history all the way down.  Perhaps what Brunyate caught was that I haven't thoroughly learned how to do this yet.

So in the reading I'm doing this summer before I sit down to pick up the threads of the next novel, Soul Weather,  I'm watching to see how writers accomplish this marriage of fiction and history.  In Franzen's Freedom, the larger structure of the novel, its concern with the damage we're causing to the environment, ties it to the last part of the previous century and the early part of this one.  But Franzen is also good at name-dropping, mostly of pop/rock musical groups and artists and songs.  Like Nick Hornby, he realizes how resonant popular music is, how  the mention of a  song or a group (particularly the music from our own youths) can evoke a particular time and space.  Unfortunately, this isn't a trick I can pull off, being blissfully unaware of trends in popular music.  Franzen is also quite good at recognizing how child-rearing styles change; he can plant you in a particular moment by referring to a parent's beliefs or practices.  I thought this was an uncanny bit of social history; if even child-rearing can be historicized, you know it's turtles all the way down.

I've just finished re-reading Carol Shield's Larry's Party.  I still remember Carol mentioning in a CBC interview that she wrote her draft, had a bevy of men read it, and then revised with fine-grained sandpaper, ensuring that she didn't leave any sharp, harsh unsympathetic corners on her depiction of Larry's character.  Her chapters are dated and titled; a close reader will see repetitions of background that point to the fact that this is almost a collection of short stories.  Carol throws in a ton of detail to contextualize the lives of Larry, Dorrie, Ryan, and Beth:  what they eat and what they drink, what they wear, how they shave, whether beards are in or out, where one goes on trips, the styles in furniture and particularly kitchen furnishings, styles in gardening, the names of maze styles and the names of the shrubs you can successfully build a maze out of.  Sometimes this detail seems like a surfeit, as if there's too much there and the reader can't sort out what's important and what's not.  And then we come across a moment when a single detail blooms into the illumination of character, a revelation about the human condition that Shields wouldn't have arrived at without the particular object Larry holds in his hand or in his mind's eye.  At the outset of the novel, Larry picks up the wrong Harris Tweed jacket in his favourite coffee shop--a better jacket:  "The fabric swayed around him, shifting and reshifting on his shoulders with every step he took.  It seemed like something alive.  Inside him, and outside him too.  It was like an apartment.  He could move into this jacket and live there.  Take up residence, get himself a new phone number and a set of cereal bowls."  This is what we love Shields for:  her detailed, meticulous, nuanced ability to get inside our minds and our bodies, in this case to illuminate (that word again!) how it feels physically and psychologically to occupy a piece of clothing that suggests there's an incipient new you waiting around the corner.

The other characteristic of this novel, a notable stylistic strength or quirk (depending on your viewpoint)  is its tendency to let the big events, like deaths or marriages or farewells to your husband or wife, happen off stage.  In many ways, though, this is linked to all that detail.  If there's a philosophy inherent in the style of Larry's Party, it's a celebration of the daily, the sense that it's through our daily lives and through our contact with ordinary objects and  routines that we take the opportunity to reflect or meditate on our lives and make our own personal meaning out of an otherwise arbitrary sequence of events.  This is the other reason we love Carol Shields. 

On an entirely different note, Veronica and I are leaving tomorrow morning for an apparently cloudy New York City.  I'll be blogging, of course, but Veronica suggested that we pair her photographs with my postcard stories or poems.  Look for those here in the days to come.

You can read all of Roger Brunyate's review of Blue Duets at http://bookreview.mostlyfiction.com/2010/blue-duets-by-kathleen-wall/