2011-02-28

Vemod, after a long, dark and cold winter

Remember the graffiti poet I posted about in August? The one who wrote the word for melancholy on a poster? I took that picture Christmas 2008 and now it seems that he (or she? no...) or someone with the same mindset has surfaced again. I took these pictures last week:

At my bus stop

The house opposite my mother-in-law´s

But what´s with the smiley face? How melancholy is that?

2011-02-26

Escapes

So finally, after a loooong wait (the library tried to buy a copy after having lost it´s own - stolen perhaps - but eventually decided to borrow it from another library) I have got my hands on Finn Skårderud´s "Känslosamma resor, En bok om livet i rörelse" (my translation: "Emotional journeys, a book about life in motion"). Skårderud, a Norwegian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, has, as far as I can tell, only two books translated to English, one book about eating disorders and one about Fellini. A few years ago I read a book of his about anxiety and I thought it was brilliant. So I was really looking forward to this one.

This is a collection of essays, on the general theme transition. It´s about travelling or escaping as a way to deal with anxiety, a symptom of modern society. He tells stories about people who are ill, but more often than not, it´s very easy to identify with his patients. The line between normally fucked-up and disorderly fucked-up is very fine indeed. He knows this of course, it´s why he writes his books, I guess, to help those of us who are too well-adapted to ever come in contact with psychiatry, but might benefit from some of it´s insights. In a way, the book is an emotional landscape in itself. I read my way through it, stop in some places, go past others without pause. I like that he often refers to literature, both Paul Auster, Göran Tunström and W G Sebald get a lot of room and I now have a lot more on my to-read-list.

There are a lot of good quotes in here that I have written down for later reflection. It´s a personal selection, of course, but I also think it pretty well represents some of the core points that Skårderud is trying to make. I´ll give you one example, in my own translation:

"We risk being over-stimulated by relationships, information and possiblities, and in such a state we can loose the relationship with ourselves. One strategy is to reduce, to stop, to phase out, to get rid of and to clean, an ascetic movement. The no is an active yes to a life with boundries. These literary characters are existential dieters. As often in dieting there is book-keeping, both by Perec and Loe. Perec´s ascetic is twenty-five years old, has twenty-nine teeth, three shirts and eight socks. To write lists can give an illusion of order."

This immediately made me think of the minimalist movement and some of it´s expressions, like The 100 things challenge. And look here. And here. There is an ocean of stuff like this. And here, one page where people post pictures and detailed descriptions of what´s in their bags. I personally find some of these ideas very tempting (I do have a bit of a pathology with order and list-making), but at the same time it´s incredibly boring. I mean, who cares what you own? These people expose every sock, every pot, and every hairpin in their lives, and they feel that it makes them free. I get the idea that too many things can weigh you down, but why showing it to the world? There is something extremely narcissistic about it. At the same time, there is a clearly expressed ambition in these people to get over themselves, to have time and focus for what really matters: most often art or politics or travel. Doing some good.

Perhaps this is a sound reaction to media´s constant requests that we look at ourselves, compare ourselves with others, find our faults and improve ourselves. Always the answer is a suggestion to buy something, a dress, a car, a book. Many minimalists are concerned with getting out of consumer debt. Good for them. But it´s a bit funny that the reaction results in an even more intense preoccupation with Things. It´s like being anorexic: you don´t want the stuff, but you can´t live without at least a minimum of it.

I wish Skårderud was available to everyone, in every language. Highly recommended.

2011-02-20

Tourist in one´s own backyard

I have a few half-read books lying around and just finished this one, "Apple of my Eye" by Helene Hanff. As you may remember, she wrote one of my favourite books, "84 Charing Cross Road". This book came in 1977, and is a sort of guide book to New York, by the quintessential New Yorker herself. It´s not any guide book of course, it´s more of a story about how Helene and her friend Patsy, who´s even born there, does New York and goes to all those places they tell every visiter to see, but have never actually been to themselves.

It´s like that for everyone. Where we live, we live, we don´t go touristing, unless we make a conscious decision to and put quite a bit of effort into it. I don´t know why it´s harder to be a tourist in one´s own backyard, but it is. It´s not about time and money, it´s something more deeply psychological.

It´s a charming book, as I absolutely expected any book written by Hanff to be. The facts are portioned out as part of the story about these two slightly potty middle-aged ladies, not always in agreement about what is useful information to a tourist. They are ambitious and brave, as when they venture up to the top of the World Trade Center, even though they both suffer badly from vertigo (which seems an unpractical affliction to have in the world´s most skyscraper-dense area).

It sounds a bit like this:

"President Washington," I told Patsy - though I knew from experience that the minute you start a sentence with "President Washington" everybody stops listening - "used to stroll here on summer evenings with his wife and the members of his Cabinet and their wives, back in 1789 when New York was the nation´s capital."
By this time, Patsy wasn´t even within earshot. There are memorial stones in Battery Park, honoring immigrants who died in their adopted country´s wars, and Patsy was darting from stone to stone, rapping out: "Who´s on this slab? Did you write him down? Who´s on that slab over there? Did you read this one? Write it down. You´re not writing anything down!"
"What do I want with every name on every stone?" I demanded.
"Well, I just think you´re being very haphazard about this!" said Patsy. "Somewhere in this book you´d better write: Everything in this book is half-accurate."

It´s rather clever and very amusing. For a while I thought that Patsy must be a literary invention, but at the end of the book there are a number of appendixes to this edition that came in 1988, and sadly one informs the reader that Patsy passed away from cancer only three years after this book first came out.

I´m sure the book works as a general orientation even now, if you are planning to make a New York trip, and it also works as just an amusing story about two ladies going touristing in their own town. It has that same feel-good quality that all Hanff´s books have. It makes me think of those travel stories by Jenny Diski. I wish she would write a book about her home town Cambridge, I´m sure that too would be something to read.

2011-02-18

2011-02-17

Elk sighting

Totally un-book-related, but I have to share this with you. This morning, at 03.10, outside my house in the middle of town, I found these two lounging in the snow, on our lawn.


Can you see them? It´s not that easy to take a picture when the light is sparse and you are a bit nervous, too. These things are huge, and they are not as far away from me as they seem. Ten, fifteen meters, perhaps. Trying to zoom in with the camera was impossible, the images became to blurry. I had to use a signpost as support to get it this good.


See his (or hers) profile there? Cool, isn´t it? My night-foreman was in the neighbourhood and came by in his car to see them. They didn´t seem to care, just watched us as we watched them, though hardly with as much interest, I bet. I wonder if it has anything to do with the cold snap we are having? It´s been minus 27-28 degrees Celsius the last three mornings. (Don´t feel sorry for me, it´s a very comfortable temperature to work in, provided you are properly dressed.)

Well, I go to bed feeling humbled and very, very lucky.

2011-02-11

Reading according to Bloom

This morning, as I was putting my socks on, my eyes fell on a shelved book from six years back, Harold Bloom´s "How to read and Why". I remember reading it, but I didn´t remember anything about it. So I thought I´d read it again. And properly this time. I thought I would let Bloom, who obviously knows a lot about reading, guide me through the canon, as he sees it. Seems like a good idea.

He starts with a prologue about why we should read at all. (I can´t make quotations, since my copy is in Swedish.) In short, he thinks we should read without preconcieved ideas, without the filter of some ideology or other. We should not read for others, but for ourselves. We should read for enlightenment. Then he goes into some detail about irony, but I didn´t really get that. He clearly thinks we should not waste our time on inferior literature. And I suppose he has a point. Personally, I always thought reading was taking part in the greatest conversation on Earth, with the cleverest people who ever lived, one that is unrestricted by time and place (in some sense, anyway). I understand fully why the great Controllers (at all levels in society, you know, them) are hostile to literature and to readers. Serious readers are open people. They allow themselves to change, to be formed, to change their minds. To be improved. They do not consider themselves as "having arrived" in life. I like that, I think reading slows aging more than any miracle cream, diet or excercise can do.

A little can suggest a lot. (Can´t remember the artist.)
Anyway, I decided to read one of his first recommendations, Anton Chekhov´s "The Lady with the Dog". A short story, says Bloom, should be read in one sitting, and we read it for the pleasure of the ending. He has a point there. I don´t like short stories that are too long, and I do like a clever ending. A twist of some sort. Chekhov´s story is a story of adultery. A 40-something Moscovite is on vacation alone in Yalta, has an affair with the dog-owning lady of the title. She is only 22, and calls her husband a "flunkey". I had to look that up (lakej, for the Swedes reading this). It´s not his first affair, he doesn´t like his wife and has no qualms about cheating on her. He goes home, expecting to forget the lady. But he does not. Instead, he seeks her out, and she comes to him in Moscow. As they fall into each other´s arms at her hotel, he thinks that now, finally, he has really fallen in love, and this is the woman he will make his own, at whatever cost. The End.

To me, he is clearly a man in a classic 40´s crisis. It´s not so much this woman, it´s that he is ready to go on now. She becomes the container of all his hope for a more meaningful life. It´s all about the timing. I got stuck on this:

"He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And [...] everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not decieve himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth [...] all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected."

I like that. Chekhov had that published in 1899 and I wonder what he would have written in the age of Facebook. Bloom thinks the man is a parody of Chekhov himself, and that the story is all about the banality of life, even when we think it holds profound truth and importance. Perhaps. I think most people can handle a certain amount of role playing, of mask wearing, and then it becomes unbearable and they bolt. Tension builds up and all it takes is a trigger. Banal it might be, but so are most proverbs. It does not make them less true. We all long for deliverance.

2011-02-08

The foundations of evil

I have just finished Magnus Dahlström´s very recent novel "Spådom" (means predicion, as in having one´s fortune told). A quick check with amazon shows that Dahlström has been translated before, to French at least. This last novel of his has been much talked of and if Stieg Larsson is translated to English, than why not Dahlström? But there is no justice in the world...

Anyway, it took me a while to finish it. Had to take a couple of breaks, as it is kind of demanding, emotionally. The narrative mode is stream of consciousness and it is very well executed, I think. We get to follow three men, one doctor, one police officer, and one social worker. They often have several strands of thought at the same time, like what´s being said on tv, what´s going on outside the window, what´s going on at work, at the same time as they are having a conversation with their wife or a colleague and brewing over a grudge. Actually, it could all be the same man, just in different circumstances. They all have an inner language completely modelled on the vocabulary of their professions and the bureaucracy and protocoll of their workplaces. It´s like they are personifications of the Swedish state. The wife is just a wife, their child is just a girl, or a boy. They have no capacity at all to directly experience or express their emotions. Instead, something happens to them, something trivial, that is misunderstood or blown out of proportion and it sets them off into a spiral of destructive behaviour fueled by some emotion that is totally beyond their understanding or control. With one, it´s a fear of dying, with another it´s anger and vindictiveness, and with a third it´s persecution mania.

One recurrent theme is an obsession with hands. Not sure what that signifies, but perhaps it´s something to do with the connection between our thoughts and actions. These men often act without thinking at all. All the same, their thoughts trigger those actions. But in a warped way, with that emotion kind of hijacking them. And I suppose they all cross over into real psychosis, at least once. Makes me think of all those psychopaths one reads of, saying they have no memory of when the butchered some innocent victim. Saying that they weren´t "themselves". Dahlström is saying, I think, that they are themselves, they just have no self-awareness. And I suppose the awareness of the emotionality that drives them is something the reader has to supply. I you have no awareness of your emotions, I don´t know how you would read this book. Not at all.

Sometimes actors say that evil people are so much more interesting to play. But historians and psychologists often say that evil is boring and banal, with the mechanics of the Holocaust as prime example. I think Dahlström is trying to expose the foundations of evil in the human psyche. Some critics have written that the novel needs editing, but I think not. I think Dahlström knows exactly what he wants to achieve, and the length of the novel and the monotony and repetition of the thought-processes are necessary to really get across that feeling of being trapped inside the skulls of these men, trapped in Hell. Like, Forever.

This is not a book to love. It´s a book to be impressed by and informed by. It´s meant to educate. Make us realize that not everyone has that connection to themselves or others, that emotional stability that most of us take for granted. It´s there to remind us that evil can be brewing very close by, indeed.

2011-02-07

The story that wouldn´t leave

I had to watch this film, "The Good Soldier",  twice, with a nights sleep in between, to make up my mind about it. Much like the book, as I wrote in my previous post, gave me resistance, so did the film. My opinion keeps improving and I can´t seem to stop thinking about the story. I find myself wanting to talk about this book. And I think, despite of what I thought two weeks ago, I will put it up there on my list of books to re-read. (Perhaps it was also that the film - a US release from 2007 - has no English subtitles, which is always a bit of a support. I know a lot of Swedes think they speak English fluently, but I dare anyone to watch a decently scripted English film and get it all at a first viewing. It´s a bit humbling. And earphones help.)

The adaptation has been made by Julian Mitchell ("Wilde", ten episodes of "Inspector Morse", etc), and I think he has done a good job of it. There are bits missing from the book of course, that is to be expected with a film of only an hour and forty minutes. The gaps are filled in by narrative voices, John Dowell´s and Leonora Ashburnham´s. On the other hand, the actors have added something to the story that the novel didn´t have, some kind of emotional realism. And the atmosphere of the period really comes across (I suppose a 1915 reader would have taken this for granted), you really feel drawn in to this other world of fin de siècle upper class end-of-the-Victorian-era decadence. The locations are wonderful and grand, as are the costumes and the hair and all of it.

Susan Fleetwood as Leonora is perhaps the best cast actor of the whole piece. She is pitch-perfect the whole time. It´s a bit like she is the pillar around which it all revolves. And perhaps it was like that in the book as well. It´s she who makes the rational decisions for Edward Ashburnham, she who enables his "goodness" and respectability. Jeremy Brett as Edward unfortunately does not have enough room to more than hint at his character´s childishness behind the mask of stiff-upper-lip. In one telling scene he giggles at Leonora the way a child giggles at his mother. Don´t remember that from the book, but it says a lot about their relationship and his state of mind.

Robin Ellis, as John Dowell, has a funny-sounding American accent which irritates me slightly. But he is otherwise just like I imagined him in the book: tall, kind and a bit slow. Vickery Turner is a disappointment as Florence. Not that she´s a bad actress, she does Florence´s silly and self-centered talkativeness and flirtyness very well, but I pictured her as having that charm that only the very unlikely beautiful have. And Jimmy too (Florence´s first lover, played by John Ratzenberger, if you remember, Cliff in "Cheers"). They are both rather plain and while I can´t really criticize anyone for the way they physically look, they are just not what I expected. In the film it´s hard to imagine why Edward Ashburnham falls for Florence, other than boredom, perhaps. In the book, I saw her as an angelic kind of beauty. But I suppose that was my personal construction.

One other character I didn´t mention in my post about the book was Nancy, the Ashburnham´s foster-daughter, who get´s caught and smashed in the emotional turmoil between her foster-parents. Elisabeth Garvie is equally well cast as Fleetwood and gets a few scenes where we really get to see her as the teenage girl she is, with hormones raging and so on. There is also a lot of reference to the convent and Catholicism. This explains to me, at least, why she is as affected as she is by the events, in the end.

Do I recommend it? Well, yes, I will have to, as I will have to recommend the book. But it must be read/watched with a certain attitude. Don´t expect to be mindlessly entertained. This is a story, and a narrative (perhaps more that) that will give you a lot to brood on. And I suppose that is what makes the finest literature.