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The readiness is all

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Seven months ago, I saw the (British) National Theatre's production of Hamlet in London, and it was brilliant.  The director, Nicholas Hynter, dropped the royal house of Denmark into the security apparatus of modern governments.  In addition to imbuing the play with the excitement and suspense of a political thriller, this present-day setting made the power dynamics of the play come violently alive.   

In keeping with the modernity of the production, Peter Holland - writing in the program's playbill - offered an interpretation of Hamlet's dilemma that seems tailored to today's psycho-analyzed, cosmopolitan, post-deconstructionist, alienated audience:

[Hamlet] approaches a paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached by his thinking: the more he is able to grasp his awareness of how he knows anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative . . . . Confronted with the enormity of that crisis of truth, the only response is to "Let be," to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes.
The quote to which Holland refers comes at the end of the play, when Horatio is exhorting Hamlet to listen to himself and decline to fight Laertes: "If your mind dislike any thing, obey it."  Hamlet responds by dismissing his feeling of foreboding, saying - in essence - we're all going to die and we don't know when, so what does it matter if it's soon?  "The readiness is all . . . Let be."

I don't know if Shakespeare ever ran a marathon.  I doubt it.

Nor do I have any insight as to whether Peter Holland ever ran a marathon, but he has a goatee, so I think it's unlikely.

Nonetheless, both men seem intimately familiar with the modern marathoner's mindset.  After months of single-minded physical labor, abstinence from late nights, booze and any semblance of vice, the marathoner surrenders to reality: the preparation is all you can do; after that, as my brother says, "anything can happen in a marathon."

In fact, the "anything" that happened to my brother during last Sunday's marathon in Prague, was a pretty damned impressive "anything."  He ran 3:15:57, which is not the kind of fate one can complain about.  Had my brother gone off to fight Laertes, the play would have had a different ending.

Not so with me.  My legs all but shattered, and I staggered across the finish line 5 hours, 9 minutes, and 54 seconds after I started.  I never ran slower in my life.  Indeed, during training, I ran 22 and 23 miles in roughly four hours; but the race was nothing like training: blisters on my toes, leg muscle cramps, and an extended stretch of walking were all present during the race and noticeably absent during training.  Had I been tapped to duel with Laertes, death would have arrived on the playwright's schedule.

While I've had enough exposure to truly rotten fates to refrain from describing mine as one about which I can complain, my situation is nonetheless dispiriting - all the more so because, from the outset, I saw running the marathon as a metaphor for how I live my life, a microcosm that reveals the whole.  I became attracted to this idea last year, when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and discovered that the key to reaching the peak was going slow and surrendering to the limitations imposed by the environment.  I blogged about the inspiration I drew from my mountain experience to persevere in my writing.

Unfortunately, the take-away here is less upbeat.  Months of planning and work, tireless effort, deprivation of socializing and fun, dieting, forswearing alcohol, money spent on clothes, shoes and supplements - not to mention all the acupuncturists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and masseuses who toiled to get my legs race-ready - resulted in a completely disastrous performance.  Enthusiasm, willpower, investment of resources: all easily come to nothing.

I thought I'd already learned this truism the hard way.  Six years of work, discipline and sacrifice to write novels have yielded (a) four novels on the shelf, as of yet unpublished and unread, and (b) a state of near bankruptcy.  Rejection is the only constant, and my life is so unstable that I've come to feel for rejection a wry and perverted gratitude: it's the only thing I can rely on. 

It also make me want to vomit.  Not just vomit, but curl up in a ball on the curb and stay there.  When your rock is rejection, maybe you're better off under the stone.

Of course, I'm not the first to feel this way.  I refer to the aforementioned "paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached" when "the more [I am] able to grasp [an] awareness of how [I] know[] anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative" - although I add, no less painful for being relative.  "[T]he only response is to 'Let be,' to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes."

While I'm constitutionally constrained from waiting patiently - the best I can muster is waiting in a state of thinly-veiled neurosis and sincerely-felt misery - I take the larger point.  "The readiness is all" because it's all we can control.  The loss of control reduces us to paralysis - metaphorically, literally or, if we're really unlucky, both.  Though being without control is an aspect of reality, living in that reality without being sabotaged by it requires a mental discipline of preferring, and prioritizing, what you can control.

That's our choice: lopsided or frozen.

And here, at last, is the metaphor I'll draw: even a lopsided runner (like myself, suffering from a biomechanical breakdown in her right leg) can finish a marathon.

(Images of Maya Alexandri and Talmon Alexandri running the Prague marathon on 8 May 2011 compiled by Maya Alexandri)

The incredible disappearing play

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Samuel Beckett makes Arthur Miller look like an amateur.

Within 18 hours last week, I saw Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" (at the Apollo Theater in London, pictured left) and Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" (at the Duchess Theater, pictured below).  The plays are quite different.  "All My Sons" has a relatively big cast and is about family and ideals.  "Krapp's Last Tape" is a one-man show about alienation and mortality.

Nonetheless, the comparison is illuminating.  The aim of both plays is to affirm for each audience member his or her connectedness with the rest of humanity.  "They were all my sons," the father, Joe Keller, says of the twenty-one pilots who died because of faulty parts that he shipped to the military in "All My Sons."  "Let me in," Krapp says to a lover, whose half-moon slit eyes open all the way.  Miller roots moral responsibility in our common humanity; Beckett finds solace from the inevitability of death.

Despite this similarity, the plays' methodologies could not diverge more radically.  Miller works very, very hard to manipulate the audience in "All My Sons."  The plot is painfully contrived and teeters on the brink of melodrama.  The extreme compression of time and events forces the characters into hairpin emotional flip-flops that are tiresome and eventually strain credibility.  Moreover, Miller is hectoringly didactic.  Chris, the son in "All My Sons," resists his father's autocratic worldview, but Miller is just as autocratic with the audience: you will learn this, you will feel this, he intones in the play's subtext.

Beckett, on the other hand, endows "Krapp's Last Tape" with no plot, simply a scenario: Krapp, on this 69th birthday, listens to a tape he made on his 39th birthday, and then tries to make a tape to mark his 69th year.  Krapp makes no decisions in the play, unless you count his decision to abandon any attempt to finish his 69th birthday tape and return, instead, to listening to the tape he'd made 30 years earlier.  The play happens in real time: the audience peeks in on Krapp for 50 minutes of his life.  Rather than didactic, Beckett is poetic: the play conjures a mood of terrible sorrow about being shut out from life, and holding oneself clenched and aloof from life.  

All theater, of course, is contrived.  The brilliance of the medium is the way the contrivance falls away, and the illusion takes over, allowing the audience a very intense experience of vicarious living - both for its pleasure and edification.  

Miller doesn't trust the audience to be edified, and so he freights his play until the contrivance is too heavy, and suspension of disbelief becomes impossible.  While I wouldn't hazard that Beckett trusts the audience more than Miller, he's more confident: the contrivance of "Krapp's Last Tape" utterly dissolves in the illusion of spying on Krapp's life.  The result is testament to Beckett's genius: the light touch elicits a shattering effect.

(Image from "All My Sons" cast from The Telegraph; image of Michael Gambon in "Krapp's Last Tape" from The Guardian)

Trees, not flags

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Today I went to Sweden.  You should, too.

I went to the Moderna Museet in Malmö, where I saw an exhibit of five films by the Israeli video artist, Yael Bartana.  The show is called, "and Europe will be stunned."  I was stunned, too.

One of the films, called "A Declaration," involves a man rowing out to Andromeda's rock, off the coast of Jaffa near Tel-Aviv, on which stands an Israeli flag.  The man has an olive tree in his boat.  He docks the boat by the rock, takes down the flag and replaces it with the olive tree.

The swap - plant for flag - is deeply moving, despite its apparent ambiguity.  As curator Joa Ljungberg observes in the exhibition catalog,

To exchange the Israeli flag for an olive tree can mean to remove a national symbol in favor of a universal symbol of peace.  But the olive tree is also closely associated with Palestinian nationalism and thus the gesture can mean to replace one national symbol with another.  As an integral part of the Israeli national emblem, the olive tree could furthermore represent two nations, or two peoples in one nation.
(p. 15.)  I realize that "ambiguity" is the watch-word of today's pluralistic, multi-perspective, globalized society, but I think you have to place too-heavy emphasis on the conceptual to find ambiguity in "A Declaration."  My own interpretation is rooted in the aesthetics of the film, which is visually gorgeous.

I was inspired by the arresting images of the man rowing an olive tree out to sea.  A man, a boat, an olive plant: I saw Noah, as Noah might have been in a different narrative. 

Say that, instead of landing on Mount Ararat, Noah had kept sailing.  Naturally, others on the boat - like the animals in their two-by-twos and the other humans on board - objected, so Noah dropped them off and kept going: "Sorry guys," he said, "but I'm a sea dog by nature.  This whole flood episode helped me find myself, and I can't give up this hard won self-knowledge just because some of the water is drying up."

So Noah keeps going, just him and the olive branch brought to him by the dove.  And eventually the ark suffers some wear-and-tear, until it's reduced to a dingy.  But Noah's unfazed; he just starts rowing.  And the olive branch keeps growing because it's a hardy creature.  And Noah's pleased; he's grateful for the company, even if it is a plant.

So Noah sails on - and since 6,000 years is a long time for anyone to live, even a Biblical character caught in a fanciful alternative narrative, let's have him sail through a time portal that transports him to the Med coast, off Israel, in 2006, in time for Yael Bartana's video shoot.

And so there he is: Noah, the last good man on earth, pre-flood, pre-Abraham, pre-Ishmael and pre-Isaac, pre-nation state politics.  Noah is back-to-basics humanity, our common ancestor returned to remind us that what every inhospitable rock needs is a plant, not a flag.

Seems pretty straightforward to me.

(Still image from "A Declaration" from Artnet)

Too real for pleasure, too impressive to deny

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Roberto_Bolaño.jpgRoberto Bolaño's 2666 is impressive beyond praise that can be offered in modern English.  Like Milan Kundera, Bolaño's achievement is utterly unique and un-replicable.

At 893 pages in the English edition (apparently over 1,000 in the original Spanish), Bolaño's feat in 2666 is perhaps beyond summarization.  But despite its heft and ambition, I think Bolaño's accomplishment is straightforward: he's modern literature's consummate realist.

Calling Bolaño a "realist" may strike those familiar with his work as odd.  Bolaño, after all, began his writing life as a poet and, as Franscisco Goldman asserts in his New York Review of Books piece, Bolaño seems to have considered himself fundamentally a poet despite his turn to fiction writing.  Indeed, reading 2666 (even in translation) evoked the active visceral engagement that usually only occurs with poetry: the book riled up my guts for irrational and inarticulable reasons, the way a poem might make me want to cry without knowing why.

Because of Bolaño's power to tap into the subliminal and the unconscious, he might readily be termed a stylist, in the model of Anne Enright, whose The Gathering operates similarly, or W.G. Sebold, whose The Emigrants has been reputed to have like power (though I found it merely boring when I read it six years ago).  And, unquestionably, Bolaño's writing classes him among the leading stylists of literature.

But Bolaño distinguishes himself from the poet-stylist set in a significant way.  Most poets and stylists transport the reader from reality: when their writing works, it grips the reader's viscera and pulls him or her into a realm that departs from the quotidian.  The point of such writing is not to depict life realistically, but to evoke (and provoke) feelings, sensations and engagement.

Whereas Bolaño uses poetic-stylist techniques to depict reality.  Indeed, the reality that emerges from 2666 is more "real" than any other attempt at literary realism I have encountered.  As Benjamin Kunkel, writing in The London Review of Books, says of a Bolaño short story called "Enrique Martín":

You don't feel that Enrique Martín is a robust character inhabiting a well-made story; you feel - whether or not any real-life original ever existed - something perhaps more powerful and certainly, in fiction, more unusual: namely, that he is simply a person, and that instead of having a story he had a life.
Reading 2666, I didn't feel that I was inhabiting the world of a story: I felt that I caught in the sweep of 20th century history.  Common themes and characters abounded, yes, but plot was only what I imposed on the events, and indeterminacy was the only honest conclusion.   

Composed of five sub-novellas, 2666 can be read in any order.  I read it in the order in which the novellas were assembled in the English-language edition, but I'm going to read the book again in a different order.  The conviction intrinsic in 2666's construction is the same truth that informs the modern construction of consciousness: however one looks at the facts, doubt must temper clarity because story-lines are imposed, not organic.

To use literature as Bolaño does is a departure from the norm.  His approach cannot be described as "escapist."  My guess is that most people's realities are more escapist than Bolaño's literature.  Nor does Bolaño's technique generate pleasure reading.  The sub-novella, "The Part About the Crimes," in 2666 is almost unbearable to read - just as life is sometimes unbearable to endure.  By depicting reality so . . . realistically, Bolaño has in some sense made the ultimate argument against realism: it's too intense.

And yet, enjoyable or no, Bolaño's triumph is impossible not to admire or praise (however inadequate the English language is for the task).  In taking reality and wrestling it between the covers of a book, where it stays and performs at the command of the conjurer and the whim of the reader, Bolaño has assumed the mantle of a god.  A Greek god, perhaps - flawed and ambiguous and happy to muck around with humans - but the progenitor of one a hell of a branch of literature.

(Image of Roberto Bolaño from The New York Times book review)

Warriors women

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Maya_Hanley.jpgOver the last couple of days I've been corresponding with Maya Hanley, the daughter of Gerald Hanley, who wrote Warriors, about which I've blogged at this post and this post

Maya Hanley is currently at work on a memoir - spectacularly titled Silence and the Black Wolf.  In the course of researching her memoir, she came across my blog posts.  She has thoughtfully written some responses to the posts, and about corresponding with one of her father's readers (me), on her blog, The Sound of the Night, here.

Maya's father, Gerald, wrote Warriors many years before it found a publisher, and now the original book in which it appeared, Warriors and Strangers, is shamefully out of print.  In her correspondence with me, Maya Hanley expressed a desire to see her father's books return to print - a sentiment with which I could not agree more fully. 

But conversations about books are also a means of honoring the author, his or her text, the book's story and its ideas; dialogue is nothing short of keeping alive a book - or a person - liable to slip from our grasp.  In writing about Warriors, I was invigorated to participate in that process; in dialogue with Maya Hanley, that "keeping alive" function seems (to me) to have deepened considerably - one of the most moving rewards I've yet experienced from blogging.

Best of luck to Maya Hanley with her memoir.  May the conversation about her work - and her father's - continue, and may many voices join! 

(Image of Maya Hanley from Twitter)
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