Calamities

Tedious repetition of “I began the day…” introduces each new section. The only good parts were where she reveals some of herself, like the trip she took with sisters and mother to Hilton Head, eating Snickers the entire time. Problem is that she doesn’t do enough of this to carry you through, to make you care.

Obligatory recommendation from Eileen Myles because she’s mentioned in the book? I did also like the part where she’s written Gail Scott’s sentences up on her wall, but the parroting of Scott’s style made me blush; I, too, had been guilty of that trick, using Scott’s short sentences and gerunds to goad myself into writing.

Paris Speen by Baudelaire

Baudelaire has been on my mind lately, a bit because I’ve been hobnobbing with the French writers of the 20th century, but mostly from Brautigan’s poem, The Galilee Hitchhiker, wherein Baudelaire does various things like pick up a hitchhiking Jesus in his Model A Ford or open a hamburger stand in San Francisco or watch a baseball game or go into an insane asylum.

I read the Martin Sorrell translation, not being up on my French. In the intro, Sorrell reminds us that Baudelaire’s misogyny “permeates everything.” Oh goody. Suck it up, ladies, and open your mouths for another shit sandwich. Nevertheless, I persisted in reading his selection of poems because I’m curious about what he witnessed in 1860s Paris. One of the titles Baudelaire considered for the poems was Le Rôdeur parisien, “prowler around Paris,” which I love. He’s a “wanderer, ironic and eccentric, the flaneur adrift in a wasteland of deprivation, squalor, failed ambition, and rich in flawed and affecting humanity… The ordinary humanity of the wanderer, as well as of the ambitious artist, begins to find recompense in the teeming mess that is Paris.”

Baudelaire had been thinking about Paris as a subject as early as 1846, “Parisian life is rich in poetic, marvelous subjects. We are surrounded by the marvelous, which sustains us like air itself, but which we do not perceive.” An 1862 letter outlined his ambition for prose poems: “Who has not, in bouts of ambition, dreamt this miracle, a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the bump and lurch consciousness?” As Sorrell notes in the intro, “The idea of major interest here is that the prose should be poetic and musical without the support of meter and rhyme… The prose poem allows, more readily than verse, rapid and random changes of mood, contrasts, incongruities… the flexibility to place side by side such antagonists as lyricism and analysis, the glib and the intense, irony and sincerity, beauty and ugliness.”

The poems themselves give us a sense for Baudelaire the man, luring a glassmaker up six floors to pretend to want to purchase his wares only to shout at him that there is no colored glass, how dare he try to sell something that doesn’t make life look beautiful, shoving him down the stairs and dropping a pot of flowers on him from the 6th floor which caused him to smash his entire pack of glassware. “And drunk on my madness I raged at him: ‘Make life beautiful, make life beautiful.’ Such tortured antics are not without danger, and often they cost us dear. But what does eternal hellfire matter to someone who for one second has known an infinity of joy?” We see his hatred of women come out clearly in other works. But then he entertains us with poems like this 1864 gem entitled “Be Drunk”:

Be drunk always. Nothing else matters; there are no other subjects. Not to feel the grim weight of Time breaking your backs and bending you double, you must get drunk and stay drunk. But drunk on what? Wine, poetry, virtue—the choice is yours. Just be drunk. And if sometimes, on a palace staircase, on the green grass of a ditch, in the gloomy isolation of your chamber, you wake sober or just a little tipsy, ask the wind, waves, stars, birds, clocks, ask anything that flies, moans, moves, sings, speaks, ask it the time. And the wind, wave, star, bird, clock will reply: “Time to get drunk! To avoid the enslaved martyrdom of Time, get drunk and stay drunk! On wine, poetry, virtue, the choice is yours!

 

Witches’ Sabbath

This is the work Maurice Sachs was writing while holed up with Violette Leduc in Normandy during WWII, Leduc voicing her caution that he was being hard on Cocteau in his reminisces. Since we have Sachs to thank for pushing her to write her own autobiography, I felt required to read his.

While doing a quick search about their relationship, I stumbled on horridly misogynistic Harold Acton’s 1966 NYRB review of Leduc’s work wherein he states (among vicious rips on Leduc’s prose): “The insistence on ovaries throughout this tome is a leitmotiv which eventually gets on one’s nerves to such an extent that one sympathizes wholeheartedly with her friend Maurice Sachs when he explodes: ‘Your unhappy childhood is beginning to bore me to distraction. This afternoon you will take your basket, a pen, and an exercise book, and you will go and sit under an apple tree. Then you will write down all the things you tell me.'”

But back to Sachs. This book, compared to Leduc’s masterpiece, is a tepid bath swirling with soap scum and the occasional rubber ducky. We follow his progress through life, from his childhood yearning to be a girl, his family losing its fortune, realizing his preference for boys, his desperation to become a writer, sudden conversion to Catholicism and entry into a monastery, departure into army life, life as an art dealer, years living in New York (where he acquires and abandons a wife, then departs with boyfriend to France), life in Paris then the provinces mostly in poverty, etc.

An invocation at the beginning:

May this book ultimately free me of my first self so that when I have completed it I can exclaim: Here is a life over and done with! It has been lived, confessed, expiated; I say farewell to it in order ot begin another in accord with the ideal I have conceived in misfortune, the result of all my follies.

On how writing can help one’s sanity:

It’s extraordinary how it drains off your moods; the composition of a novel clears your mind! You sweat out your bitterness exactly the way you sweat out your acidity when you do calisthenics. Doubtless that’s why everyone writes today, as a form of hygiene…

I was pleased by what he said about my own city after a visit in the 1930s:

When autumn came, we set out on my second lecture tour. It brought us, after several intermediary stops, to San Francisco, where I would rather end my days than in any other city. Here are the seven hills of Rome, and a bay that stands comparison with Rio’s. The glowing skies, the forests of mimosa that grow down to a sea incredibly bluer than the Mediterranean, a mild climate, a wildly luxuriant flora that blossoms in a thousand ravishing gardens, and below them, a port, last guard of the West and already partaking of the Oriental mystery: everything continues to make San Francisco a city without a peer.

Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure

Joseph Wechsberg takes you on a culinary tour of Europe in the early 20th century, dropping mouth-watering descriptions of the sumptuous feasts he attended (although I was less fond of the endless pages describing the meat dishes). Also enjoyable are the depictions of his own growing up, moving out from under the wealthy family thumb in Austria and trying to make it on his own as a violinist in Paris. His first trip to Paris is in 1926, intending to study at the Sorbonne but getting immersed in street life instead. By mispronouncing Montparnasse, his cab driver dropped him in the middle of Monmartre instead, and he gets a room in a fleabag brothel for a month. After a terrible first night trying to sleep, he discovers harmony with the place by staying up as late as the girls and sleeping till afternoon, completely abandoning his plan to study. In this atmosphere he finds a delightful hole in the wall prix-fixe restaurant where he takes all his meals. An entertaining romp through the restaurants of post-war Europe, peppered with tales from the waiters who bemoan the years gone by.

Convenience Store Woman

Sayaka Murata’s story (translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori) about a weirdo woman who just can’t fit in with society. She knows from an early age she’s not quite right, clanging one kid over the head with a shovel to stop a fight, gleefully bringing a dead bird to her mom and saying they should cook it for dad’s dinner. She struggles through school then ends up taking a wrong turn and spotting a convenience store that’s about to open in a business district. By the next week, she’s all trained up and ready to help them open. The employee manual is the first time anyone has given her explicit instructions on how she’s supposed to behave, what to say, what facial expressions to make, and she loves it, she fits in. Eighteen years later, she’s still there, working diligently and absorbing speech patterns and fashion tips from her coworkers. Her so-called friends worry about her having a dead end job and no husband, so she asks the guy who just got fired from the store if he wants to get married. He moves in and hides from the world and from his debt, sponging off her meager salary and encouraging her to find a different job that pays more, to take care of him. He flips through the help wanted ads, happy to peruse them as long as the job isn’t for him. On the day of her interview, she wanders back into a convenience store and realizes that’s where she belongs, so dumps him and dives back into her life.