What Is Love? #AsymptoteBookClub No. 3

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

A single mother arrives home tired but quietly triumphant after doing her first presentation at her new workplace. Her eight-year-old son is waiting for her, listening to every step as she walks in and starts cooking. They have dinner and some conversation, but each is wrapped up in their own thoughts and dreams. They only have each other, since they moved away from town, from the boy’s father. The mother settles down with a book and dozes off, the boy goes out to sell raffle tickets. The mother wakes up and decides to slip out to the library herself, believing her son is safely tucked in bed. And so they narrowly miss each other on this winter night in a village in Northern Norway.

It’s difficult and probably unwise not to read Hanne Ørstavik’s slim novel all in one gulp. You need to go somewhere with that sense of foreboding, the crescendo of compassion, pity and dread, the certainty that something bad will happen to Vibeke and her young son Jon as they wander about their village that evening like lost souls. Every mention of the birthday cake that the little boy keeps hoping that his mother will bake for him pierced my heart. Every time Vibeke looks at herself in the mirror, dreams of being admired and loved, is almost desperate to become visible in some way, my skin tingled in recognition and pity. I doubt I would have been able to keep on reading with such physical discomfort if the book had been any longer, or if I’d had to go back to it in dribs and drabs.

Both the title and the character of Vibeke have provoked debate on the Asymptote Book Club discussion thread. Why ‘love’ when the book shows us such an imperfect example of it, perhaps almost the absence of it? To my mind, both Jon and Vibeke are searching for love, desperate for it to the point of naivety and reckless endangerment. The love that they get from one another is not quite enough to fill this deep hole in the centre of their lives. The father would not have filled the hole either. They are both dreamers, they both desire something that they have never experienced but that they haven’t quite lost hope of finding, despite countless disappointments. The tragedy is that they are not quite aware of this hunger in themselves, so they cannot talk to each other about it, and not just because of the age gap.

I remember an instructor at a poetry workshop saying that we should never talk about love, hearts and the moon, as it is far too easy to descend into sentimentality and cliché. This book talks about all three but manages to avoid that dishonourable fate. How does it do that? Firstly, the style is unadorned and kept deliberately detached. Third person, moving swiftly from Jon to Vibeke’s point of view, but without dwelling on their emotions. Everything is implied in their reactions and gestures rather than through authorial intervention or judgement. At first I thought that the style alternated between long and short sentences, but in fact even the long sentences are often made up of short, coordinated clauses, loosely linked through commas. This, together with the use of the present tense, gives a breathless quality to the narration which contrasts with the cold observation. This really helps in the build-up of suspense, plus author selects just the right amount of telling details to give us a precise, almost step-by-step description of events which never feels repetitive.

I’ve read some great reviews of the book already by Asymptote Book Club subscribers. Ali comments on how love can be both good and terrible. Old Books Abe describes the feeling of helplessly watching the characters fall into peril behind a layer of ice, unable to stop it. Enrico Cioni is fascinated by Vibeke and compares the book to other two recent translations Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin and Die, My Love by Ariana Harwitz. I also found a resemblance to Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment – that same almost animal instinct for surviving pain, of blessed temporary selfishness, but set in a tighter-lipped, colder climate. For another powerful example of Ørstavik’s understated and elliptical style, see The Blue Room.

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Imagine Lights to the Rescue

Sole guide and friend when I am
lost on country lanes. It’s night
and the loss is sometimes straightforward,
sometimes
the strands of complication get plaited in
colouring warmth in where none was scheduled.
I imagine torches on scenes of small disasters.

Someone we love is always the shape of the missing
the gap unfilled
a careful step on the cracks in the pavement –
it never hurt anyone
to be doubly sure but
who’s to say superstition hasn’t cursed the world?

There can’t be one heart for hatred
and one for love. We only have one…
and it stains easily.

Definitions

Love is…

Reading each other newspaper tidbits until noon

Lingering over fresh-baked bread you did not have to fetch yourself

Making fresh coffee just the way you like it

Stretch and laugh, share opinions,

Sometimes crisscross, spar, advance, retreat,

But never interrupt

Or hold forth counter-Napoleon.

Then we clean up the table, go back to our work,

Maybe a spot of gardening, jam-preserving,

Equally well a poem might get written

A picture or photo now framed.

Having drunk from our wells of separate being

We can meet again for a walk on the hills

Gathering mushrooms or stopping to exclaim

Over wildlife hoofmarks

Or cloud patterns and airplane trails

As we shuffle on

Hand in hand towards

The welcoming, song-filled forest.

#Eu27Project: France – Marie Darrieussecq

Marie Darrieussecq: Men (transl. Penny Hueston)

The original title in French Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes is from a famous quote by Marguerite Duras:

Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Beaucoup les aimer pour les aimer. Sans cela, ce n’est pas possible on ne peut pas les supporter.

[You have to love men a lot, love them so much in order to love them. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to put up with them.]

So that gives you a clue that this is not necessarily going to be a feminist treatise. Yet, although readers seem to find the first person narrator, French film star Solange, irritating, she strikes me as quite an independent, strong woman, who just happens to become smitten with a younger man. It’s a bit more complex than that, though, because her paramour, Kouhouesso, is a black man who has ambitions to direct a revamped version of The Heart of Darkness on the river Congo. All the clichés about l’amour fou (crazy love), gender and race are examined, although Solange herself seems unaware of the facile assumptions she makes.

I’m not sure why this book has received so much critical dissent. Yes, the first part of the book is all Hollywood froth, very easy to read on the surface, a bit like the gossip magazines.  This serves to make the contrast or gap between Lalaland and the African jungle all the wider. Solange has all the reactions one might expect to the ‘natives’, the insects, the primitive accommodation, although she so badly wants to make this work. Underneath the apparently banal interracial love story, there is a lot lurking: objectification, the attraction of ‘otherness’, construction of identity through gender, race and passion. Fascination with the other yet ultimately a lack of genuine curiosity and desire to embark upon the interior journey (on both sides). It is indeed a modern answer to The Heart of Darkness, written from a woman’s perspective.

There is an excellent review of the book by Compulsive Reader, but I can understand why many people found the story not very original or the characters at all likable. I flip-flopped a lot in my opinion as well: it is a hair’s breadth away from being silly, but I think it just stayed within the realm of the painfully dissecting scalpel.

The reason I chose it for my #EU27Project to represent France (although I will probably read and review other French authors as well) is because I think it says something about the way the EU countries view ‘the others’, the refugees spilling over the borders. Lip service to liberalism and humanity, rhetoric about helping and supporting, but beneath all of that: a lot of fear, stereotypes and excuses. (Incidentally, the English language cover could be said to be objectifying black men somewhat…)

Another Ode to Our Cat

Zoe, also known as Zozo, also known as 'Ma puce', doing sucky-sucky on her blanket.
Zoe, also known as Zozo, also known as ‘Ma puce’, doing sucky-sucky on her blanket.

She binds us with cooing when we find no words
save to admire her licks, trusting gaze, her faults.
She endures the laying on of hands
when they cannot tell their mother of their love
or their father how much they miss him.
They bury their faces in her butter-golden fur
warmed by sunbeams, chased by catnip,
listen for the reassuring snore and rumble in her purrrr.

In a few days, it will be three years exactly since we adopted our cat. She has brought such love, comfort and fun to our lives that she deserves a new poem. Here are some previous poems in her honour: by me and my boys.

 

#WIT Month: How to Be Happy by Mme du Chatelet

Just got time to squeeze in one more author for Women in Translation Month and it’s the effervescent, smart, charming and loyal Emilie du Chatelet, who deserves to be far better known as a scientist in her own right rather than merely as Voltaire’s great love. Her slender volume Discours sur le bonheur (Essay on Happiness) has not been translated in its entirety in English yet, but there are extracts to be found in the biography by Esther Ehrman in Berg Women’s Series.

The portrait by Latour.
The portrait by Latour.

It was a bit of a fashion to write about happiness and how to acquire it in the 18th century. However, Mme du Chatelet’s essay stands out for its fearsome honesty. It was not written for publication and so is remarkably clear-eyed and candid, at a time when the author had laid to rest the sadness over ending her relationship with Voltaire (or at least the physical part of their love affair, for they remained good friends until the end of her life). She had not yet met the playboy Saint-Lambert, who was to upset the last couple of years of her life and (indirectly) cause her death. She was apparently serene and content at the time, and certainly had not lost any of her idealism. [All the quotes below are my translations, so apologies for any inaccuracies.]

In order to be happy, you need to strip yourself of any prejudice, be virtuous and healthy, have your tastes and passions, and be susceptible to illusions, because we owe a great part of our pleasures to illusions, so woe the person who loses them! Far be it from us to kill off our illusions through the torch of reason and remove the varnish they put on most things…

She distinguishes between male and female happiness, subtly pointing out how women’s subordinate position limits their capacity for attaining full satisfaction and happiness.

Love of learning is less essential for the happiness of men than for that of women. Men have endless other resources for happiness, which women lack. They have other means to attain glory, and it’s almost certain that the satisfactions of rendering service to one’s country through one’s talents, or serving one’s fellow citizens through the art of war or government or negotiations are vastly superior to the satisfactions of learning alone… but chasing after glory is nothing but an illusion…

The portrait by Largiliere, commissioned especially for Voltaire.
The portrait by Largiliere, commissioned especially for Voltaire.

Women are often encouraged, of course, to find their solace in love rather than glory, and Emilie admits that there is no greater joy if you are lucky enough to find that twin soul, that marriage of true minds, which she admits she did find with Voltaire, but such loves are rare, she warns, perhaps one a century. However, the careful reader (or one prone to melancholia) will detect certain notes of regret and wistfulness. All was not perfect even in this most envy-inducing of relationships:

I don’t know if love has ever featured two people so much made for each other that they never experienced boredom or the coolness that comes from security, nor the indolence and tepidness that seems conjoined with ease of access and continuity of passion, in both good and bad times… For ten years I was happy, in the love of the man who subjugated my soul and I passed those ten years, alone with him, without a moment of doubt or boredom… I have now lost that happy state, and it cost me endless tears. It takes an earthquake to break such ties and the wound in my heart bled for a long time. I felt sorry for myself but I have forgiven everything now. I think I now understand that my heart alone has got that constancy which defies time…

The official version of their break-up was that Voltaire (who was far more advanced in age) was no longer able to satisfy his mistress physically, but his dalliances with actresses and particularly with his widowed niece, who later went to live with him as his housekeeper and mistress in Ferney, would demonstrate that this was not quite the case. For a fascinating insight into this complicated relationship, I would recommend David Bodanis’ book Passionate Minds, although it left me feeling that poor Emilie was forever being let down by her male companions (although her father and her husband were surprisingly enlightened and understanding for their time).

Portrait by Marianne Loir. In almost all of her portraits, Emilie faces her viewers directly, unashamedly, a pose which was highly unusual for women at the time. Notice also she nearly always holds a compass or other elements denoting her scientific passions.
Portrait by Marianne Loir. In almost all of her portraits, Emilie faces her viewers directly, unashamedly, a pose which was highly unusual for women at the time. Notice also she nearly always holds a compass or other elements denoting her scientific passions.

This is more a personal memoir than a self-help manual, but there are echoes of the latter in the way Emilie muses about the importance of setting goals or, as she calls it, deciding the path you want to take in life, ‘what you want to be and what you want to do’, otherwise you are perpetually swimming in a sea of uncertainty and vagueness, full of regrets.

This feeling of regret is one of the most useless and disagreeable that a human soul is capable of.

So… echoes of the famous Piaf chanson, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. Perhaps this is the greatest wisdom I can learn from this admirable woman: I need not feel sorry for her, she led a good life and enjoyed it to the full. And, in the end, she made her mark in the world without the help of any famous male companions. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and her theoretical work on the nature of light paved the way to the great discoveries in physics in the next two centuries.

I leave you with this touching scene described by Voltaire’s secretary Longchamp (and quoted in the Bodanis book). It’s February 1749 (Emilie was to die in on September 8th of that year). Emilie has found out that she is pregnant at what was then a dangerous age of 42. She becomes convinced that this will be her death knell and she fears not being able to finish her scientific work. She sets off for Paris (where her scientific papers are) with Voltaire in a carriage, but the rear axle breaks and they have to wait for hours in the cold and snow for help to arrive. Covered in furs and blankets, instead of despairing, the remarkable couple lay back beneath the stars and enjoy their last truly peaceful moment together.

Despite the extreme froideur, Madame and Monsieur admired the beauty of the sky. It was serene, and stars were burning with a most vivid brightness… Ravished by this magnificent spectacle spread above and around them, they discoursed – while shivering, I should point out – on the nature and paths of the stars, and on the destiny of so many immense globes spread in space.

For a modern-day interpretation of Mme du Chatelet and her proto-feminism, see the notes for this play. For a review of her scientific work, see Stanford University’s biographical entry. For a French take on it (and a much better translation than mine), here is Emma’s review.

 

Twenty Years After in Cecile’s Writers’ Magazine

I don’t usually celebrate my publications on my blog [And why exactly don’t I? That is a subject for another day.], but I do want to share this one with you. I am very pleased that Cecile’s Writers’ Magazine has just published one of the poems which has meant the most to me, Twenty Years After.

This is a poem I wrote three years ago in a sudden fit of inspiration on a business trip to London. The first draft of it is here. It’s about the person I fell in love with during my first year as a student in the UK, someone who broke my heart. I’d forgotten or buried the memory for many years, and have never seen that person again, but revisiting the Barbican brought it all back. On a frozen winter day, we’d practised our ballroom dancing on its empty terraces, just before going to a theatre performance. As the snowflakes started to fall around us, I thought I’d met the love of my life. Now, older and wiser, I know that life is constant flow. And so is love.

I’m really pleased it’s this particular magazine, which I’ve been reading online for a few years now, because I really admire its mission of interculturalism, more important than ever in today’s world. So, if you want to hear some international voices, all united by a love of the English language, do join me there.

Barbican Centre, from euron.co.uk
Barbican Centre, from euron.co.uk