Florence in Words
May 6, 2016
I read Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills, as part of the course on “Memory in Fiction and Film” taught by Professor Robert White, last fall at Hunter College. As I’ve noted in other blogs, I’m a very fast reader, and with dense fiction, such rapid reading may cause me to lose significant detail. I get the outline, but I may be, in the end, puzzled because I’ve missed a clue here or there. And so I had to read A Pale View of Hills a second times time more carefully, in order to note, several pages before the end, a clue that firmly establishes the narrator as “unreliable.” She was, herself, responsible for the death of her own daughter. This shocked me as an allegedly reliable reader, and it also made me wonder about Ishiguro as a novelist. What is he really after?
So I bought two other novels. The Remains of the Day, well-known also as a successful film (which I had not seen), also has at its heart another kind of unreliable narrator, one who is so focused on his correct working behavior as butler in an important British house that he closes his mind not only to the politics of his employer, but even to the suffering of his own father. The novel also moves forward through the memory of the narrator, who unevenly understands the import of what he had once closed his mind to.
Never Let Me Go is a dystopian novel, set in a community of children seemingly without parents, given an idyllic education with recreational features, as though to produce well-rounded citizens. They are eventually told that they were being prepared to be organ-donors and the “carers” for other organ-donors. Again, memorable moments in the novel arise from memories of questions left unanswered, or answered partially, the chief of which has to do with the possibility of escaping their chosen fate.
Still unsatisfied, still wanting more, when next in a book store, I picked up When We Were Orphans, and in some ways, this novel may answer some of my questions about Ishiguro’s view of what he is doing. I mean general questions like “What is it that Ishiguro wants his readers to think about, to understand, to gain comfort from, or feel endless pain about?” I have had this sense from the beginning, especially since the first novel I read, A Pale View of Hills, was set mainly in a Japan following the two bombings, and only sideways and most indirectly focuses on a mother’s inability to deal with the suicide of a young daughter. In some ways similarly, in When We Were Orphans, the novel I’ve just finished, the young British boy who grows up in an idyllic Shanghai with idyllic parents and even an idyllic Japanese friend close to his age, becomes a world-famous detective, able to solve important international cases. Can he, in war-torn Shanghai find his parents who disappeared almost two decades ago? Can he find his boyhood Japanese friend? And how much responsibility has to be placed on the British for the destructive opium trade. This novel strikes me as more ambitious both politically and structurally than any I’ve read thus far. I am also certain that the plot pushed me to read too quickly. I am going to read this novel again, for I’m certain I need to.
And I am writing these notes very quickly, in the hope of finding others who enjoy Ishiguro’s fiction and would be willing to write about one or another of his novels, or about a theme. I’d be glad to give space to a brief or several page-long essay about some aspect of Ishiguro’s fiction, or to a comment about what I’ve said here, too quickly and too briefly.
April 11, 2016
This has been the shortest span of depression I can remember, and though I don’t feel completely free, I recognized the moment when the depression began to slip away. Paul Pombo was here, to deliver my tax return, and, yes, that had something to do with the relief I felt physically, especially since he coupled his remark that I don’t owe anything with another that I ought to go to Mallorca. And as if that were not enough, my daughter Alice Jackson called soon after Paul left to tell me that she’d booked us into a resort in Florida (formerly a navy base, since Alice was once in the navy) for a week in May. “You need to get out of New York’s weather for a bit,” she said.
So is that the solution? Movement? Or is it the water promised, the swimming and the snorkeling? And what does it all mean? Or is asking for meaning a waste of one’s energies? Why not just learn to live and enjoy the act of living, yes, despite infirmities, limitations, and the loss of independence and especially the loss of being able-bodied. Would that I could. Would that I were physically stronger, even as I was two or three years ago before the knee surgery and all that followed it.
I’ve left out for the moment my metaphysical connections to the world and so let me comment on what I did Sunday and review what the day’s politics have to do with my depression. I attended a fine panel of political commentators gathered together at Roosevelt House by the Board of the Hunter College High School Alumni Association (on which I sit as secretary). They were all our own alumni—graduates from classes mainly in the 1990s: two people from the New York Times, Ian Trontz and Aaron Retica, who was a brilliant chair of the panel; Amy Davidson of the New Yorker; Jamal Greene, professor of law at Columbia University; and perhaps the best known, Chris Hayes of MSNBC. (A niggling point I will mention only is that of attire: the token woman and the token Black professor were dressed formally. The three white men might have just gotten out of bed to romp with their kids in a park. So nothing has changed in that regard: women and blacks are still expected to show up looking appropriate. White menfolks can arrive in any condition and they are accepted for the brilliant light they shine.)
And I’m not taking anything away from them: the panelists were all fine. The chair was particularly effective; Amy Davidson and Chris Hayes talked the most. And Ian and Jamal were called on for their particular expertise. And there was much talk about the impact of “movements” upon the “rules” of the two political parties, especially with regard to decisions about whether they were “free” or “locked in,” and how an electorate might respond to unseating Trump, for example, or to seating Clinton rather than Sanders.
On the other hand, I was not easy with the discussion about young women choosing Sanders over Clinton, saying that gender had nothing to do with their choice. More important, I was more than annoyed by several in the audience emphasizing that Hillary Clinton was not the “last chance” for a woman to lead this country, that Elizabeth Warren “could get a nomination in a second,” and that there were more than a dozen women in the senate with more experience and acumen than Cruz, or even than Obama had eight years ago.
All this makes me very sad. I wish I could say “energized” and ready to go work for Hillary’s election. I am convinced intellectually and emotionally that we need Hillary Clinton now, and that there is no one who combines her quality of experience, knowledge, and heart. And she clearly has the energy for the job. I would not call Bernie Sanders a windbag, though his speeches are by now tedious repetitions that anyone could offer. But he’s had no experience that matches hers not only in foreign affairs, but in the politics of a large state like New York, and in spending eight years in the White House working on many issues including health care. Nor can I see him moving his pie-in-the-sky promises into bills that would pass Congress.
I am sorry I didn’t get to say this, but I say it here: We’d be fools not to use the competence and knowledge and heart of Hillary Clinton right now. Yes, other women will follow her, but there is only Hillary right now.
March 28, 2016
I cannot remember the last time I was depressed, but here I am back again in that state. And I can’t explain it. Of course I can’t explain it. And I’ve talked only with the two people who are trying to help me physically, and who don’t know me very well, and who are therapists, but not talk-therapists. I must say at once that I chose very well, since both of them told me that they, too, have suffered from depression, and they are never absolutely free of it.
Yes, that was not only surprising; it was comforting. I expect that they would like their privacy maintained and so I won’t even use their first names. My goal here is to explain my absence and perhaps to tell “you”—whoever you are reading these blogs—why I’ve been silent. And perhaps say something about what I’ve been doing.
I did a long proofreading job for Feminist Press—a WSQ volume on the theme of Survival, and, yes, with many depressing pieces. And yes, as a news-junkie I continue to fear the craziness of the current stream of political chatter. Only hearing Hillary calms me. I don’t often listen to Bernie, since he doesn’t change his speech enough to make this anything but a chore. But I did hear him out as he spoke to a few thousand young people in Oregon last night, and he’s still talking in generalities about a world that he couldn’t produce even in two terms in the White House, and even with Congressional partners. And people cheer and seemingly believe him. I find this so disheartening, especially since no one can comment on the absence of the emperor’s clothes, not Hillary, of course, and not other Democrats who are in awe of the young, enthusiastic crowds who chant “Bernie, Bernie,” as though he were a media rock star.
And I’ve been avoiding the Republican chatter these past few days. The less said about them the better. They seem to be in need of shooting themselves in the foot. And perhaps the glow is fading from Mr. Trump’s hairpiece, if that’s what it is up there.
But I have one or two things to report that are cheery. First, Helene’s surgery went well and she (who has not as much as a single depressed bone in her body) is already going to parties. What a lucky duck she is!
Second, I’ve been reading Marilynne Robinson again, this time Home, which for some unknown reason I had skipped over—went from Housekeeping to Gilead to Lila. And now I’m two-thirds through Home, and finding it splendid. Yes, cheering, amazing. I have put it down today only because I need to finish assembling the material for my income taxes so that they can be sent off with my dear friend/accountant on Monday morning. No, I won’t talk with him about depression.
But it has been helpful to talk with people who know what it’s like and who are in the helping professions. As a teacher many years ago, I could sometimes talk with a student about her feelings, or convince her to write about them. And perhaps I’ll try more directly in the next few days to describe how I feel. No, there’s no quilt wrapped around me, not this time.
January 19, 2016
I’ve been unusually slow about writing the last two blogs about the course that is now history in my life. And I’m glad I waited, for I can now see the course’s curve more clearly. The course moves from a focus on individual memory—from an individual’s unusually gifted memory to the total loss of a person’s memory, and various shades in between—to collective or communal memory, what we also call history. And I feel particular admiration for Professor White as he not only reminds the class of the international history of individual words, but as he also remembers the recent history of the Holocaust. Perhaps for that reason the final book was Philippe Grimbert’s Memory, and the final class was devoted to communal memory, including a film about Paris’ famous cemetery, and a host of images on a screen that many in the class could identify selectively.
I will begin with the book that I have read twice, in part because it is the kind of brief, easy read that a fast reader like me can skim and thereby lose details. And indeed, when I read the 154 pages for the second time, I saw that I had skipped over the sentences mentioning “President Laval,” at the end of the volume, the French collaborator with the Nazis, of whom Grimbert writes, “President Laval, who in his defense hearing said that he had encouraged the deportation of children under sixteen so as not to separate families.” Coincidentally, just a few weeks earlier I had seen a brilliant performance of Arthur Miller’s lesser-known play, “Incident at Vichy,” which documents in vivid drama the treatment of a dozen French Jews, ranging in age from youths to the elderly. Professor White outlined Laval’s nefarious history of collaboration with the Nazis, including the remark that “not one Jewish child will survive in France.” Laval was, in the end, brought to justice and executed in 1945.
In the novel, Grimbert, who is also a psychoanalyst, is writing part of his own family history. As an only child, he invented an older brother, not knowing that, indeed there had been one he was not to learn about until his own fifteenth year. I won’t spoil the novel for you by saying much more about its plot. But I will say again that I enjoyed the spare prose style of Polly McLean, the translator. And from Professor White I learned that Grimbert wrote the novel 20 years after the double suicide of his parents, in part to make sense of their lives. The result, Professor White insisted, is fiction, not memoir. He wrote the book, the professor said, “as an act of love for his parents and [his brother] Simon,” who died in the gas chamber at the age of eight, accompanied by his mother.
We had one more class meeting, and it was to be partly a party. As the students turned in their final papers, they picked up soda or water and some snacks, and eventually settled down to Professor White’s final gift to the class: two films. The first was a depiction of the famous cemetery outside of Paris that holds, among other treasures, the remains of Marcel Proust. We saw the Parisian women who come daily to water plants, arrange fresh flowers, and clean the marble, all in homage to the memories of the artists and other heroes of France. One section of the film depicted a taxi-driver who came often because of his love of music, and in the film, he sings movingly in his native Eastern European language. The second film was a string of photographs of famous men and women from history, film, sports, etc. And the class was called upon to identify the image. I wish I had kept track, for though I could identify all but one athlete, the majority of young people in the class could not. It was interesting to see which photos they could identify, and I regret not having the wit at the moment to take notes. It was just so much fun.
And I must end this saga with that sentence. Few experiences in my life, or perhaps any life, could be concluded with those six words. So I bless the powers that sent me into this course, and I will note that I do hope to have another such experience next fall.
January 16, 2016
On the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, the hero of this novella decides that, as a birthday present, he’d like to give himself a teenage virgin, and he proceeds to ask his favorite madam to find a choice specimen for him. Despicable? That’s only the start of it. His monologue fills over one hundred pages, and reveals him as not only unreliable but egotistical, amoral, and altogether as unpleasant a character that one is likely to meet in fiction. Why did the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, to mention only two of his novels, end his life with this one? I didn’t ask this question of Professor White, but I asked only what has this book to do with the theme of memory, the idea behind this course.
Professor White spent the first hour on Marquez’s biography, his literary achievement (including his admiration for William Faulkner), and his risk-taking left-wing politics, his love for film, and then his illness (cancer and dementia, among other things), and his death at 87. And then Professor White named other novels in this genre—Death in Venice and Lolita, for example. But of course this novella is different because the hero’s desire is, right to the end, unconsummated, despite the fact that he can remember 514 whores, he never touches this young girl who sleeps peacefully in the nude, and beside whom eventually he also sleeps.
In the course of thinking about his life, the hero of this novel tells unflattering things about himself, including turning all women into whores. He claims he has never slept with anyone without paying her. All his tastes are organized for snobbery: theatre rather than film; European culture rather than Latin American, for example. He was unsuccessful as a teacher, possibly because he was a bully. Ultimately, as Professor White put it, “He squandered his talent and inheritance in the brothels.”
He names the young girl Delgadina, and falls in love with her. At first this feeling sends him into remembering other women he loved or nearly loved but abandoned. His only friend is his housekeeper, who has never married, but has kept his house for much of her life. She and the madam urge him not to lose the child he loves, for “There’s no greater misfortune than dying alone.” Near the end of the novella, the hero takes the family jewels to a pawn shop, only to discover that his mother had probably done the same thing, since the jewels were paste. Professor White: “the narrator is just as phony as his mother’s jewels.”
What about memory? As a prelude to the next class, Professor White opened with this question. One theory: “Is this a conversion narrative—about a man who squandered his life?” The time with Delgadina awakens his memory of other women and allows him to think about his life. Professor White asked, “Why did Marquez write this book?” In his opinion, “not on behalf of pedophiles.” Still, “morally, the book is disturbing—desire made to seem like a message from God. Or is this a satire, a joke? Whatever the answer, this is not my favorite book of the course.
December 16, 2015
He was attracted to cinema early, and broke into silent films by using his artistic talent to produce cards with words on them, attractive enough for him to be hired as director of that department. He worked his way up from assistant director to director, and made several films that have been lost. In 1926, his first picture, “The Lodger,” was said by the company he worked for as “too arty,” but the film “put him on the map.” And in 1929, he made his first English talkie, “Blackmail,” largely ignored. The films that drew attention to him in the nineteen-thirties were “34 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.”
In 1939, he signed a contract with David O. Selznick, a control-freak who that year released “Gone with the Wind.” Hitchcock hated the control, circumvented what he could, and left at the end of seven years to go into business for himself. The fifties, as Professor Sgammato described it, “was his decade: 'North by Northwest,' 'Psycho,' 'The Birds,' and 'Frenzy.'"
Hitchcock, according to Professor Sgammato, had “whole pictures in his head and shot them so that he could not be edited—by Selznick or anyone else.” He learned his craft from Germans and Russians, apparently, “who used montage for propaganda purposes.” Hitch used montage to “juxtapose one scene with another, to move viewers.” He was also particularly inventive. For example he used a rare string instrument to provide the eerie sound that pervades “Spellbound.” About that film Hitchcock said what attracted him was “the implausible. Logic is dull. I’m not interested in logic.”
We were running out of time and Professor Sgammato described something of Hitch’s brilliant way of presenting opening credits—as in “Spellbound,” where spinning images created a vortex that was also threatening. With regard to “Vertigo,” Professor Sgammato said that Hitch was “constantly risking absurdity,” He got the story from the American poet Ferlinghetti. “And critics dismissed the film; years later, they had to look again.”
I found both films—“Vertigo” and “Spellbound”—thrilling to see especially after a few clues from our own professor about what to watch for. They are both a little unlikely as logical narratives, but they are transformed into hugely rich and compellingly interesting films. I am, as a result of the lecture and the films, ready to see more and to hear more.
November 24, 2015
Even before I had finished this novel, I knew I had to read it again. I knew I had “missed” something, since I felt confused about the narrator and the friend she had so willingly accepted, who seemed unreliable. But the question I couldn’t answer, even though I had read with my eyes open, focused on the narrator herself: how reliable was she, since every event in this novel hangs on memory, the memory of the narrator, Etsuko. And I want to say right from the start that I recommend the book: it’s memorable, as well as compelling. The setting is Nagasaki, and one of its suburbs, many years after the bomb. Ishiguro’s Japanese parents moved to Britain in 1960, when their son was about four. He went to college in England and usually talks of himself as someone who grew up in a Japanese household. I have not read his six other novels, but I am interested in doing so. His spare, clean prose in his first novel allowed me to read the book a second time with as much pleasure. And in this second reading I found what I was looking for: a clear “clue” to the unreliability of the narrator—on the penultimate page of the novel. I’m sure you will find it for yourselves.
The novel’s subject is the memory of a mother, Etsuko, who has lost a grown daughter to suicide, though we learn that only gradually, incidentally. The novel opens in the present, in a suburb of London, following the separate deaths of the narrator’s husband and the daughter, and focused on a visit from Etsuko’s second daughter, who lives in London, and has not attended either funeral. Then the novel moves back into the past, when the mother was pregnant (I assume) with the now dead daughter. In memory, she is in a suburb of Nagasaki, where she makes a friend who has a distinctly anti-social daughter. She grows attached to the daughter who does not go to school, and often disobeys her mother. She wanders freely, responds little to adults, and seems content only when she has a few kittens to care for. Her mother seems pleased to have the narrator as friend, and willingly accepts various favors, including a loan of money. In return, she lectures the pregnant woman about how important it is to care for one’s daughter, whose existence changes one’s life.
Eventually, since the novel moves between present and past, we learn that the narrator, Etsuko, has had two husbands, one Japanese, one British, and with each of them a daughter. As Professor White put it succinctly, this is a “novel about memory, dark memory, about pieces of life that can’t be restored.” He also described several of the academic debates about the meaning of the novel and especially about the relationship of the narrator to her friend. As the narrator states, “Memory, I realize can be an unreliable thing…colored by the circumstances.”
November 16, 2015
Getting to see the film was itself difficult, for Netflix seemingly could not fill my request, telling me for nearly two months that there was “a long wait.” In some wonderment, I went to Wikipedia where “Memento (film)” rated an entry I printed out at twelve pages, including 81 footnotes and other scholarly apparatus. Ultimately unsatisfied, on the day of class I went to the Honors Office (sponsors of the seminar) and watched the film on an old television set in a small room across from their office, along with another (young) student in the class.
First impression: Yes, it seemed endless, and almost pointless, for what I didn’t understand, even from reading the Wikipedia pages, was that, considering its subject matter, the film was and had to have been endless. I didn’t know what I am revealing now: the film runs backwards from the “end” to the “beginning.” And I have to put those words in quotation marks because they are, in one basic sense, meaningless here. One could argue that the film, in illuminating the central condition of its hero, horrifyingly illuminates T.S. Eliot’s claim that “the end is the beginning.”
I will take you out of the pain I was in for nearly two hours: the subject of the film is the affliction of its main character’s total loss of short term memory. He can retain what is happening while it is happening, but after something else happens, the prior event disappears from his mind. He doesn’t remember people or places; he doesn’t remember what he has done or what has been done to him, at least after the initiating event that created his condition. The initiating event: which we glimpse, but perhaps do not understand at first, is a violent attack on himself and his wife. The attacker rapes and then kills his wife and hits him in the head, causing his condition. He cannot remember anything post the vision of his wife being raped and killed. I’m not sure he remembers his own head being struck.
He spends the rest of his time—and the body of the film—searching for the man who has killed his wife, though he doesn’t remember that he has already killed him. He knows his affliction and tries to keep track of what is happening to him by using a polaroid camera to take pictures of people, mark them with names and with “clues” like “do not believe his lies.” Because he fears losing these, he has also had his body tattooed with some of this vital information. People around him, the manager of the motel, a supposed cop, a woman drug dealer, understand and take advantage of his affliction, cheating him by registering him in two different rooms, and manipulating his murder of one of their enemies by convincing him that the man is the one who killed his wife.
According to the Wikipedia entry, the film “was acclaimed by critics, who praised its nonlinear narrative structure and motifs of memory, perception, grief, and self-deception.” Professor White said in his closing remarks about the film, “Memory is an interpretation, not a record. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there.”
Postscript. Two days after seeing the film, I woke up thinking about a summer in Easthampton perhaps fifteen or twenty years ago, when a friend and I took long walks daily, talking about books, one of which, Memory Board by Jane Rule (and published by the ground-breaking lesbian-feminist Naiad Press in 1987). This novel tells the story of two lifetime companions, whose relationship is now marked by the loss of short-term memory for one of the pair. I recommend the novel, but for me there is also a live irony here, for the person with whom I spent many wonderful hours walking and talking about books has had the same kind of memory loss depicted in the book we read together and the film I just saw that vividly reminded me of such losses.
But there is a bit more. Each day that I live I also bear witness to my own diminishing short-term memory. I must write everything down. Of course, people say, we all have to write everything down. But then I used to be different: I never had to write anything down: I simply remembered. It’s hard today to believe that I could memorize a whole poem in German, “Der Erlkonig,” overnight, and recite it in class with no errors. And I can still recite a few of its opening lines. But could I remember all I must do next week?
November 3, 2015
Like the other books read for this course, this one is also memorable, but unlike the others, this one is built around the missing memory of childhood, and the creation of a dystopic society that functions as a nation valuing athletes. One young student said to me, as we were waiting for our room, that the depiction of women in Perec’s book, forced to run, nude, to escape the rape by also nude male athletes forced to compete for them, was almost more than she could bear to read. So, yes, while I recommend this book for the brilliance of its execution, you will need to bear the pain.
I was so intrigued by the strands of Perec’s plotting, and his insistence that the two “stories” are connected, that I read the book twice: once straight through; and a second time, reading every other chapter as if each made up its own book, which, of course, they do and do not. Every other chapter is printed in italics to distinguish it from the other: as Perec says, there is “history” and there is “story.” Perhaps this is one way to view the book: First, the bare-bones history of the man without a memory of childhood, having lost his father and mother very early, to death and to the holocaust. For some reason we do not understand, this child, now a man, bears the name of a deaf-and-dumb child lost either before or during the crash of a yacht the child’s family had been sailing. Then second, the story as told by the hero, who has lived and fought using the name of this child, and who, urged to go in search of him, finds the dystopia, “W,” the fascist state built on the model of the perfect athlete. I keep coming back to the brilliance of the structure, which, I probably have focused on because the pain of the portrait is, otherwise, so severe.
Professor White described memorably the effect of the author: “Perec is constantly telling us that memory is a house made of sand.” Towards the close of the two-and-a-half-hour class, Professor White showed a film of the opening of the Olympic Games in Germany made in 1938 by Leni Riefenstahl. It just occurred to me to search out the date this book was first published: 1975. Perec’s dates are 1936-1982: he lived for 46 years, escaping death because his parents sent him into what they hoped would be safety. He was two years old at the time of the 1938 Olympic Games. Yes, I want to know more about him.
November 2, 2015
Eco’s hero, Yambo, generously autobiographical, suffers at first from almost total memory loss after one stroke, then gains total recall after another, though he appears to his family as comatose. But readers enter his fully recalled childhood and youth, including fascists on the one hand and such heroes as Flash Gordon on the other. Most gripping are several sections on the war, and the way in which a profound tactile memory enables Yambo’s feet to lead a group, including eight partisans, across a dangerous Gorge.
In opening the class, Professor White asked—as a little quiz—what the ending signified, what meaning does the author intend to communicate with the sudden question that forms the last words of the novel, “Why is the sun turning black?” Death, of course, is the answer, though it’s hardly the point of this novel. For this course, like Proust, Eco provides a guide to the various kinds of memory humans can call on.
Finally, Professor White showed two bits of film: the first film made of the comic strip in which Flash Gordon is played by Buster Crabbe. Yes, this sophisticated twenty-first century class were left panting for “what happens next,” as the film ended. And then we watch the last eight minutes of Fellini’s “81/2,” as Professor White suggested that Eco was thinking of this film as he wrote his startling, sudden ending of The Mysterious Flame.
Yes, need I say it? I am enjoying the course immensely, both the reading and the class time. Some of the students sparkle and of course Professor White is in tireless motion throughout the hour.