novel: Duras – Yann Andréa Steiner (1992)

I’ve restarted my list of personal goals that I’m forced to check every day. I did this a couple years ago but didn’t keep up with it. According to the list now, I have to read. So, I’ve begun with Yann Andréa Steiner, an odd intruduction to Duras, a book that’s very difficult to find in either French or English, but since I leant Jordan my copy of the Lover more than a year ago and doubt I’ll ever see it again, I figured I might as well go with this one, especially since it was sitting on my bed when I got home. I provide all this as a preface because I have very little to say about it–it’s beautiful, it refreshes my belief in love. And how does it do so?

It’s considered, though not by her definition of herself, antiliterature. But it functions in a way that is very close to my heart, because it functions in the ways that I think, in the ways that I communicate, the ways that I create: it’s impossible to nail down the objective truth, or even who the characters are from one page to the next, one’s never quite certain if the narrator is speaking of herself, her past, her imagination, or real people she is watching, made even more difficult because we know the narrator to be Duras herself. It focuses on at least two couples: the first is Duras, as an old woman, and her companion, a gay man who hunts her down and lives with her. The second is an 18-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy, who are sometimes in the present, and sometimes Holocaust survivors. There are plenty of other stories in between, but these are the ones the stick out, and the only one I care about is the one of the boy and the girl.

The child and she, the counselor. They are walking together. They are thin, skinny; they have the same body, the same long, lazy walks. This morning they are walking along the seashore. The same, both of them. Two Negroes, very thin and white. Fallen from the sky.

Concern about them seems to be spreading among the other counselors and the administrators. Because they never leave each other’s side.

Beneath the streetlamp she stopped, took the child’s face in her hands, and raised it toward the light to see his eyes: Gray, she said. Then she let go of his face and spoke to him.

She tells him that all his life he will remember this summer of 1980, the summer when he was six. She tells him to look at everything. Including the stars. And also the long line of oil tankers from Cap d’Antifer. Everything. She tells him to look carefully, this evening. The sea, this city, the cities across the river, the spinning lighthouses, look carefully, and at every kind of ship on the sea, the black oil tankers, so beautiful. And the large English ferries, the white boats…And all the fishing boats — Look over there, at all those lights — and she tells him to listen well to all the night’s sounds. That this is the summer when he is six. That that number will never come back again in his life. And to remember Rue de Londres — which only they know, she and he — which is the Temple of the Sun. She tells him that when he’s sixteen, on the same day as today, he can come here; that she will be here in this same spot on the beach but at a later hour, near midnight. He says that he doesn’t really understand what she’s saying but that he’ll come.

She says she’ll recognize him, that he is to wait for her opposite Rue de Londres. That he can’t miss it.

She says, We’ll make love together, you and I.
He says yes. He says he doesn’t understand.
She says, The seashore will be deserted. It will already be night and the beaches will be empty, everyone will be with their families.

They walk together toward the sea until they disappear in the sand, until the people following them with their eyes are horrified.

Until they return toward the tennis courts.

She is carrying him on her shoulders. She sings that by the clearwater stream she rested and never never shall she forget him.

They walk for a long time. It’s already late and the beaches are deserted.

There’s an innocence to their love that makes sense to me, because I don’t know if love can be real without both people allowing themselves to become children at times, so that at times he is taking care of her, because she looks into his eyes and sees how grey and old they are, and she is the child, and at other times he is tired and she carries him, or she washes his body off. In one scene he holds her breasts as they lie on the beach together, and finally she takes his hands off them, perhaps because everyone can see, but…this is the one episode that makes me uncomfortable, not that he held them, but that she took his hands off them. My only explanation is that she knows he doesn’t understand the concept of  making love, that when she expresses her desire for him he doesn’t understand, so that when he touches her this way it’s reaching beyond things he understands, and perhaps places her as his lost mother, which she is not, she is his lover. And if she can only be his lover by doing things he understands, then that is where they maintain their love. Okay, I’m comfortable now. I used to think love should be dirty and angular, but I don’t believe that anymore, because I’ve experienced love fluid and natural, like Blake’s Beulah, a higher innocence, and I am reminded of this, two people taking turns dominating each other with age and wisdom, pulling each other to the brink of fear, and then turning around and reassuring, never pushing each other too far, and finally being very brave together, and running away, kidnapping each other because they can never be apart again. It’s clean, it’s sweet, it’s a description of making love that, as in the novel’s construction, deconstructs the elements and shows on how many levels a thing can exist, and how physical something can be within the confines of experience.

At that moment, it happens; she joins him and I see it. She takes him on her shoulders and they walk into the sea as if to die together. But no. The child lets himself be taken by her into the ocean water. He’s still a little afraid, with a fear that makes him laugh, a lot.

They emerge from the sea. She’s the one who rubs down his body. And then she leaves him. And then she goes back into the sea. He watches her. She goes a long way; at low tide you have to walk far out to reach the deep water. He is still prey to fear when she escapes into the sea, but he says nothing. She stretches out on the waves and heads away. She barely turns around to blow him a kiss. And then he can’t see her anymore; she goes toward the wide open sea, head lowered in the ocean. He is still watching her. round her the sea has been forgotten by the wind. She is abandoned by her own strength; she has the grace of a deep sleeper.

The child is sitting.
Still he watches her.
The girl returns. She always comes back, this girl. She has always come back. Then she asks him if he remembers her name, which she wrote on the postcard. He says a first and last name. She says that’s right, that’s her name.

The counselor has drifted off to sleep.

The child stares insistently at the beach; he can hardly understand how this beach happens to be here without him ever having seen it. Then finally he no longer tries to understand, he pulls nearer the counselor. She is asleep. He gently slips his hand beneath hers so she won’t forget him. Her hand hasn’t moved. Right afterward, the child, too, falls asleep.

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poetry: Blake: Poetical Sketches (1783)

Bloom shows how elements of Poetical Sketches I’ve hitherto taken seriously are actually meant to be ironic, parodic of Augustan verse. Ohh. I didn’t recognize there was a history of “mad songs” nor was I quite sure what they were. It’s hard to separate oneself from some era and read its verse properly. What struck me this time around was reading the poems that have become somewhat ingrained in me and thinking, “this is Blake? this is Blake?” How sweet I roam’d from field to field? I would have guessed Byron wrote that, that it fits in with his Occasional Pieces, written from the forests, not from the London sweatshops. The importance of Poetical Sketches, in my opinion, is that it shows Blake as being a well-read, opinionated poet from the start–being very fluent in classical and biblical mythology as well as more contemporary literature, even having a large store of imagery and metaphors to play with. It’s sometimes difficult to jump into “Thel” or “Heaven and Hell” without somewhat a sense of Blake’s unreliability unless you can be quite sure he’s grounded as a poet, the same as “Songs of Innocence” may come across as immature if one isn’t fully convinced that the poet is quite self-assured, directed precisely as an arrow.

film: Newmeyer, Taylor: Safety Last! (1923)

Click picture for licensing details.
Click picture for licensing details.

Drinking for seven hours, and suddenly the inclination to make fun like this, and it’s not unusual? Mentioning Kafka is rarely a smart idea. The only instance I can recall when it was okay was during a discussion over whether the Germans or the Czechs have more claim to him. Using the word Kafkaesque is never a smart idea. Ever. No, I take this all back: one has to earn the right to use the word in the same way Milton claimed to have earned the right to blank verse, something one earns through perseverance and bleeding fingers. Mostly I hear the word dribbling out of the mouths of people whose reading lists comprise little more than The Metamorphosis, On the Road, and maybe something by Bukowski. And would the word be better replaced by “nightmarish?” Yes, I think we could successfully eschew Kafka in our idle chatter and the sun might continue circling the earth.

The idea of “Kafkaesque” brings another detail to my mind, something that the term does not mean, something I’ve never heard anyone mention before. And the reason I call it forth now is because this slapstick romantic comedy uses a similar technique. I meant to discuss the importance of Harold Lloyd here, but this technique is more important to me:

A technique Kafka enjoyed using, at least in his short stories, was to begin by presenting a major problem, and instead of solving it, to instead solve an extremely minor and unrelated problem and present that as the dénouement. What this means, essentially, is that we’re dealing with a tragedy masquerading as a comedy. I just came up with this shit, my head hurts, but golly, thanks booze! This differs from my general theory of tragedy, in which what’s bad for the protagonist is generally good for some lollygagging third party, e.g., what’s bad for Hamlet is ultimately good for Denmark, differs because what’s good for the protagonist is bad for the protagonist. I cannot remember a specific example in Kafka, but I do recall observing this.

So, now we have Harold Lloyd, and here’s a brief synopsis: he moves to the city to make his fortune so his girlfriend can marry him. He gets a shit job, barely makes ends meet, and writes to her that he’s very wealthy. She finally comes out to see him and hilarity ensues as he repeatedly convinces her that he’s rich and important. And then he invents a zany scheme to become rich, very dangerous, and pulls it off so that he’ll win $1,000. Super. The film ends as he and his gal walk off arm in arm, presumably to get married the following day. Is he worse off than before? Yes. Because in the beginning:
• His girlfriend is an idiot.
• He landed his best friend a police record.
• He needs money to eat.

And by the end:

• He’s now also got a police record.
• He’s been lying to his girlfriend and has a lot of ‘splainin to do.
• He landed his best friend in jail.
• He alienated all his coworkers.
• He got hurt a whole bunch and now has to cover medical expenses.
• He broke a very large and expensive clock.
• He needs new clothes after his adventure.
• His girlfriend is still an idiot.
And where did all his problem-solving energy go? Easy. He spent the last half hour of the film trying to climb a tall building in a publicity stunt. Climbing the building becomes the main problem. But what about all the money he wins in doing so? I mean, really, $1000 is a lot of money, especially when we see that his rent is $14 per 3 weeks, and a meal is only 15 cents. Let’s do the arithmetic, shall we? Roughly, rent for two equals $880 per year, and food for two is around $365. That’s $1,245. What I mean is that he’s by no means wealthy, and will probably spend most of that money on fixing all the things he’s damaged. This should all be beside the point, and I’m writing now 14 hours later, with a hangover, because it’s early cinema doing comedy, and there’s something of an appeal to the down-and-out American that we love so well. Chaplin, for instance. We don’t consider it a tragedy to leave an American in rags, because we know that there’s always riches in the future. Horatio Alger’s bootblack Ragged Dick doesn’t begin in tragic circumstances like a chimney sweep of Blake’s, and there’s the great American dream, that the future always looks brighter. Recent polls show that for the first time in the history of the U.S., a majority of citizens believe that the nation’s best years have passed. And perhaps it’s that new mentality that forces our comedies to tie up all loose ends positively, why we’re not going to create a comic hero with the depth of Chaplin, Lloyd, or Keaton these days.

A last note: this film exploits the capabilities of the new medium immediately by tricking the viewer into believing the protagonist to be in jail as the film begins, about to be hung. When the camera changes position, we see that he’s only on a train platform and our eyes deceived us.