Archive for the ‘Mind’ Category

Grand Tour #15 – Greece. Kassandra and the Wolf / Margarita Karapanou

June 28, 2017

‘I’ll tell you the one about the Birdman,’ I said. ‘The Birdman lived on a high mountain and loved the Fishwoman very much. But they could never manage to meet each other, you see, because he couldn’t get in the water and she couldn’t fly. That’s why the Bird always flew over the sea, and the Fish always followed in the waves, until, finally, the Bird covered it and became its Shadow. Before that none of us had a Shadow. We walked about quite plain and we were cold too. But from that time on, the Shadow was born, and now we all have one to keep us company.’

I’ll be honest, I hadn’t been looking forward especially to this stretch of the journey. Just because modern Greek writers aren’t widely read down my way, I’d probably assumed the place had been a cultural wasteland for the past two and a half millennia. It turns out I was wrong: there is at least one book written in Greece during that period that is worth reading, and it is Margarita Karapanou’s Kassandra and the Wolf (Η Κασσάνδρα και ο Λύκος), which I read in the translation by N.C. Germanacos. I fell head over heels in love with it.

Karapanou’s book dates from 1974, when she was 28. It consists of a series of 56 short chapters, vignettes in the life of a six-year-old girl, Kassandra. A picture is built up of Kassandra’s life, which mainly takes place in Greece where she is cared for by her grandparents, her mother being in Paris and her father absent. It feels in some ways like a privileged childhood. ‘Grandmother strolls around the parlor, showing me the ancestors,’ says Kassandra. The servants and visiting grandees put me in mind of a favourite film of mine, Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos, also about a young girl’s interior life.

From a chapter about Christmas:

On Saturday nights, Miss Benbridge tells me the miracles in order. Last night it was the turn of the bread rolls and fish. Which is why I am now swallowing the bread and melting with sweetness. I make little girls and seat them around the table to keep me company. I put myself among them too, and we look at each other. I make compliments to them so that they’ll love me. We all stare at the snow together, our hair is freshly brushed and drawn back, we’re wearing pink ribbons, and we smell of soap.

Although the tone is always that of a child, the chapters vary widely in subject matter, ranging from the quotidian (a trip to the cinema to watch The Red Shoes, an elocution lesson to cure Kassandra’s silence) to the fantastical. A game of hide-and-seek with a boy, Zakoúlis, ends after three days when Zakoúlis is belatedly discovered, having shrunk to the size of an olive. Later, after being read The Turn of the Screw as a bedtime story, Kassandra is visited by its characters.

At night, Flora and Miles come to my room. Bending over, the Governess covers me with her wet hair. I’ve made friends with them.

It’s impossible to write about the book without at some point confronting its great darkness (Karapanou herself called it ‘a scary monster of a book’), and The Turn of the Screw may be a useful reference point, as another book with a menace whose precise nature is obscure. The main antagonist of Kassandra and the Wolf (as with The Turn of the Screw) is a Peter, in this case Kassandra’s grandmother’s servant. Peter is an unpindownable presence, at times a playmate of Kassandra, his gender fluidity the conduit for a game in which she plays at being a lady, at others a sexual threat. Sex is a frequent theme, occasional as innocent sex play or as childish misunderstanding of sex (Kassandra finds Peter having sex with the maid Faní but doesn’t comprehend what she sees), but more often as something that can only be read as sexual abuse. As Miles identifies Peter Quint as the devil, so Kassandra identifies Peter to her uncle as the son of the Devil.

It is at the times she talks about sex that Kassandra relies most heavily on the language of metaphor and fantasy. That’s the way it has to be, perhaps: children’s ignorance of sex means they do not have the words to describe it. I remembered Claude Barras’s marvellous animated film My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette), which I saw a few weeks ago, in which the children’s incomplete concept of sex is manifested in their talk of exploding willies: ‘Tu t’es fait exploser le zizi!’

What is the wolf of the title? There are wolves in the book, but the wolf might just as easily be a metaphorical one, like the opoponax in Monique Wittig’s book of that name. Perhaps the wolf is a personification of sexuality. Although Kassandra is not so traumatised by her abuse that she cannot talk about it (however obliquely), it may be the root of her disturbing behaviour elsewhere. There is a chapter in which she looks after with great care a kitten she has been lent but, confronted with the prospect of losing it at the end of the week, she begins to torture it systematically, and finally kills it. I felt quite desolate on reading it. Could it be just another fantasy?

This morning I woke up in bed and ran off to Grandmother to tell her the nice dream I’d had, but then I remembered that Grandmother had forbidden me to dream the dreams I like, so I’m keeping it secret.

A disturbing book, then, but one whose blurring of fantasy and reality felt to me as accurate a representation of the non-representational nature of memory as anything I’ve read. It really blew my mind.

For those who have read and loved it, or for those whose interest is piqued by what I’ve written, I must recommend this fascinating round-table discussion of the book and of Karapanou’s work more widely. One of the panel is Nick Germanacos, the translator of this volume.

Grand Tour #2 – Spain. Living’s the Strange Thing / Carmen Martín Gaite

March 6, 2017

From Portugal to Spain (my route through Europe is largely contiguous). I must apologise for the delay in posting this. I had been going to read a novel by Esther Tusquets that we had in the library, but it looked so unpleasant that I couldn’t face it. After some digging around online I settled on Living’s the Strange Thing (Lo raro es vivir) by Carmen Martín Gaite, translated by Anne McLean. Only it got lost in the post, hence my lateness.

‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Magda, I’m more confused every day. I know other researchers concentrate on their theme, get to the point and that’s it, they can separate it out from the rest. But I can’t. For me everything’s important.’

‘From the rest? What do you mean?’

‘I don’t know, I mean a bit of everything, like when what happens to me at each moment gets mixed up in my head with what happened to me before, and with other people’s stories, living, dead, ghosts, scenes from movies, everything folded up together in a mess, so much so that I say to myself: It’s not worth separating things out from other things, what’s the point?’

This is the gist of the book, I suspect, the connectedness of human existence (and the absurdity of being here at all, hence the title, which recurs like a mantra). Águeda is a 35-year-old woman dealing with the fallout from her mother’s death a couple of months earlier. The book opens with Águeda visiting her grandfather’s nursing home, where its manager suggests to her that she impersonate her mother (also called Águeda) so that her grandfather might see his daughter one last time. Meanwhile, her research on the 18th-century adventurer Don Luis Vidal y Villalba is stagnating.

If the first chapter suggests intrigue, that’s not quite what follows, and I suspect the experience of reading the book is an infinitely less frustrating one if you abandon expectations and let yourself be led by Águeda’s thoughts. Though it has a large cast of people and places, the novel’s focus is largely inward- and backward-looking.

The nature of the book makes it a very hard thing to write about, and all I feel able to do here is to choose a few individual moments to illustrate Martín Gaite’s oblique approach to storytelling.

The idea that Águeda (or any of us) lives in multiple worlds – in the present, in the past, in dreams and fantasies, in the world of films, and perhaps elsewhere too – is a beautiful one to me. There are close affinities between Águeda’s several worlds. She contemplates Don Luis Vidal y Villalba and his loyal servant Juan de Edad imprisoned in separate cells and unable to communicate with one another, and draws a parallel with her own relationship with her mother.

In the shower one morning, Águeda has an epiphany: she realises that she imagines Rosario, the woman she perceives has usurped her in her mother’s affections, with the features of Anne Baxter, the usurping starlet in All About Eve. I love this depiction of illogical logic. I can’t think of examples, but I’m sure I have allowed people’s resemblances to others to colour the way I view them.

Águeda is visited by the ghost of a dead relationship when she encounters an ex-boyfriend, Roque, performing in the street as a human statue. She isn’t sure it’s him and tries to engage his attention, but, being a human statue, he doesn’t respond. This meeting prompts her to remember that she fell for him because he was the embodiment of a man she had dreamed of, her real life at the mercy of her dream life.

The delicacy of the tapestries woven by our minds is another theme. In one chapter, Águeda writes that her memory of Tangiers is of a stairwell where her mother had to rest during a visit to the city during Águeda’s infancy. This is bound up with the memory of a self-portrait painted by her mother, and of a cruel lie told by Águeda that was intended to prompt a rebuke from her mother but failed to. When we most want to connect with someone, we fall short.

It’s hard to accept how incidental we are, our inability to convey to each other anything more than travesties of vacillating souls; and to accept at the same time the gestures and babbling we stubbornly use to try to get close to those we’ve supposed form part of our stories.

A lot of threads are tied up at the end – an unexpected message from the grandfather, a coming full circle – which is satisfying to the reader who likes neatness, but it doesn’t quite ring true. Surely the other worlds continue; they can’t just dissolve.

It seems appropriate, given the novel’s preoccupation with the difficulty of communicating with people, that I’ve done such a poor job of expressing why I liked it so much. It is very much worth your time.

Diary excerpts 7

February 26, 2017

4 January
Looking at old home videos I realise I peaked physically at New Year 1998. But I’m better now than I was at ten, which is a consolation.

13 January
Glimpsed through a window on Hertford Street: a middle-aged couple watching Up Pompeii in stony-faced silence.

30 January
M’s idea, several years ago, of an 11-year-old maths prodigy coming up to Cambridge and leaving with a third because he spends all his time with Footlights seems to me as brilliant now as it did then.

8 February
Wandering past the gift shop on the corner of Rose Crescent, I spot the same Mr Bean coaster set that’s been there for several years. Thinking of Mr Bean coasters as status symbol. Who would own such a thing? Someone who loves Mr Bean, perhaps. Thinking of the universal appeal of Mr Bean, given the absence of any language barrier, and the jarring notion of a family in Ethiopia, say, using their set of Mr Bean coasters (which isn’t after all so unlikely, given the work of Comic Relief). In a gift shop on King’s Parade, a Queen figurine and a Mr Bean figurine side by side. Perhaps Mr Bean would be one of the, say, ten most globally recognised British people. I can certainly think of several less desirable candidates.

8 March
We’re all so full of unacknowledged prejudices, aren’t we. I just walked past a pigeon in Webb’s and called it a fat fucker for no reason.

pigeon

21 March
Message just received on my voicemail: ‘I’m really sorry, I called your number by mistake and I think I might have sworn, which wasn’t intentional, so please accept my apologies.’

24 March
I like to think of Lemsip as the proprietary name of a generic drink called lemon sip.

13 April
Awoke today to hear myself singing ‘Was ist Silvia?’ What a lovely voice I’ve got, I thought. Turned out to be Fischer-Dieskau.

Diary excerpts 6 — walking to work edition

November 30, 2016

7 January
Chalked on the back of a lorry in Trinity Street: HAPPY XMAS MUMMY

17 March
Seen on the way to work today: a builder singing ‘Cowabunga’ to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus, and a cyclist wearing a baseball cap with horns attached.

12 April
Woman dragging her heels in front of me this morning. When I got to where she’d been dawdling, I saw why – a female blackbird hopping about on a wheelie bin. Just the most beautiful of birds. I didn’t care for blackbirds as a boy, I liked the showy ones, kingfishers and peacocks, even pigeons with their shiny feathers.

pigeon-at-st-pauls

13 May
On the way to work this morning: a father bending down to kiss his 10-year-old son as they walked to St Luke’s. A swan with a titanic wingspan flapping under Magdalene Bridge. Boulez on a bike. Daniel Zeichner. A male blackbird alighting on the King’s Parade wall, flapping his wings and stomping his tail and tweeting vociferously. I wanted to put him in a little box.

18 September
Senses simultaneously heightened and blurred by slight drunkenness last night. Waking up with my voice a fifth lower because of the beer, singing along with songs down the octave as I got dressed, humming pedal D’s on ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ as I walked to work.

22 September
A few days ago I walked past a dead pigeon on the pavement at the bottom of the road. I didn’t stop to inspect it, but it appeared to have died peacefully, albeit surrounded by its own droppings. Now the body is gone, but the droppings remain. Can a bird shit itself to death, I find myself wondering.

29 September
Listened to the first movement of Brahms 2 (Harnoncourt) as I walked to work through the teeming rain. A realisation later that Brahms is my great hero, maybe my greatest hero, for that piece as much as for anything else. It’s remarkable.

3 November
It’s not every day you get leered at on the way to work by a ponytailed man carrying a banana in a threatening manner. Just some days.