Archives for posts with tag: France

Van Gogh's Bad Cafe, Emily M Keeler, Bookside Table

Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe is an unusually beautiful novel, built on the fault lines between worship and addiction, artist and muse. Yet despite the immediate intrigue associated with these themes, Frederic Tuten has taken time itself as his primary obsession in this work. And why wouldn’t he? The narrative form of the novel is the perfect tool for experimenting with time; events described therein are pulled along by the knotted rope of plot, and the reader can momentarily occupy a noumenal rather than physical time, collapsing space and time into a single and dynamic entity.

Tuten skillfully engages this possibility, and gently, brilliantly, manages to separate time from history. Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe tells the story of a woman caught between two lovers, who are themselves a century apart. Ursula is a photographer with a morphine addiction, trying desperately to capture the fleeting formal beauty of light bursting through space. She has her first lover, Vincent Van Gogh, haul her heavy plate camera into the fields where she hopes to trap the miracle on paper, catch it like a child would a lightning bug. Her second lover, an artist in 1990’s New York named Louis, equips her with a Diana and a Leica, and she breaks out on her own to try to intercept the east river’s rally with the fading day light. In addition to her ability to travel forward a hundred years, or perhaps because of it, Ursula is also fascinated with plugging up time, she has the addict’s peculiar ability to speed up time by slowing herself down, to literally kill time by entering a magic stupor, the warm blooded sleep of opiates slowing her blood and eating through the hours.

Ursula covers her ultra feminine body in the 1880’s by occasionally dressing in menswear, and carrying a revolver around to shut up guff givers as she runs into them. In the 1990’s, she transgresses gendered boundaries by shaving her hair, donning docs, getting pierced and reading Sylvia Plath. She eventually turns away from photography in order to make her body her primary mode of expression, and rather than escaping the women’s ghetto of the muse she becomes imprisoned by temporality. Her flesh will rot, her ideas shouted however loud will go unrecorded, and though she traveled through a century in her body she can never undo time, she can never reach forward with the miracle of light caught on paper.

Tuten’s prose is sensuous and lyrical, and this love story between art and time is charged with eros as it moves through the ages. Eric Fischl’s visual contribution of several eerie and diluted sketches offer so many small islands in the sea of yearning that makes up Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe.

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Should you be lucky enough to find yourself in NYC on December 4th, you might enjoy a marathon reading of Frederic Tuten’s astounding first novel, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, hosted by The New Inquiry and BOMB Magazine in celebration of New Directions Publishing’s 75th anniversary. Click here to RSVP.

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The Pure and the Impure book cover, Emily M KeelerThe Pure and the Impure can be dark at times, even oppressively so, and Colette’s voluptuous prose feels suffocating and liberating in equal measure.  Herma Briffault’s translation yields a work that scans with varied yet consistently gorgeous cadences, and I actually found myself reading at least half of The Pure and the Impure out loud  into the night.

The book is a set of linked remembrances, a lucid investigation into the ways that our being is molded always by desire, by love, and sometimes, if we’re especially unlucky, by both at once. Colette chronicles her adventures in places where the light is low, where bodies lie entwined and the air is thick with the smells of incense, blond tobacco, opium and spirits. She transcribes some of the conversations she has had, and is not afraid to make herself look bad. Her stories, and her friends stories, show the ways in which desire can make a person callous, can be the exact point of their vulnerability, and, in my reading, can make you misremember as you shape the world of what was to  suit the needs of the terrific hunger within.

I really wish that I had read this before I read Nightwood, because I think it would’ve made a fabulous primer for that unmappable terrain.

I had a bit of trouble with some ideas in this book, as beautifully as they were expressed. Every word in the book bears the burden of truth, in a novelistic sense, and there are so many staggeringly strong lines up for the challenge. Yet, at its weakest, The Pure and the Impure reads as a catty and gossipy tell all from the days when a tell all was called a roman a clef. But at it’s best, the book is a clear evocation of the myriad forms that desire may take, a treatise on sensual pleasure, and an exploration of the divide between men and women, and between  masculine and feminine. Perhaps many of the problems I felt with relation to Colette’s sense of this difference are a function of time, of me being here rather than there, or vice versa. Nonetheless, it pained me to see her deride women who love women for being either childish or deluded, especially as she herself describes experiencing her own Sapphic desire. I also thought that there were one or two stray ideas or comments that alluded to a deeply anti-trans* position, though I may have misconstrued their intent. This last observation is not excusable through historically situating the novel, given that Collette was writing at the tail end of the Dada movement in Europe, where gender was fluidly understood and expressed in many circles, and certainly even within some of the ones in which Collette found herself. Despite that, there are parts of this book that I liked so immensely that I will undoubtedly find myself caressing these dog-eared pages for the rest of my life.

Nightwood Book Cover, Djuna Barnes, E.M. Keeler

Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is the story of a well loved woman: Robin Vote. In her name and character, Robin embodies certain freedoms. She is a pure line of flight, a painfully democratic animal that brings exquisite suffering to people just as she gives them pleasure.

Nora Flood, and Jenny, and Felix, the ignoble and decidedly ungentile Baron, all try their best to wrap her up in their civilized arms, but this woman who looks like a boy is wild, and willfully innocent. Robin is not a woman so much as a child, a bird, a doll, and a dog. Everywhere she escapes into images, into animals. Her children are fragile faced dolls and sensitive imbeciles. She denies the future in all things, and has no memories.

The story is told back to Nora by a madman, an illegitimate doctor, Mathew, a lost soul with a loud mouth who haunts the streets of Paris’ least reputable arrondissement. His cloaked and hunched body becomes the instrument of a Queer story, and yet he is reliable precisely because his narration is not official; he can only tell Nora and Felix what they need to hear. He is pure and pompous and yet he shifts the grounds of this story with such swift subtlety that you can just hold onto the thread of meaning even as the tapestry undoes and re-weaves itself.

This was a very complicated read, and I need to go back to it. More than once. T.S. Eliot went back into it again and again, and marveled at the dynamic power of this prose, of this story. I can only give you my very first thoughts, which are unstable and fragile.

Reading this hurt me, damaged me in some way. It was beautiful but never pretty, like a dying bird or a slab of meat. I couldn’t afford to read this the way it needs to be read. I need to go over each line with eyes like a scalpel, to parse out the beauty of every sinew of the beating muscle. There are treasures buried here, and though I saw the glinting gold I couldn’t bear to dig beneath the scarred surface. But I will. Next time.

Lydia Davis Translation, Madame Bovary, Book Cover, 2010

I totally cried.

Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was beautiful, clear, and her ability to perfectly translate the tone of the work is astounding. For a taste of what she can do, The Paris Review published a handful of Davis’ short stories that were modeled on Flaubert, and you can read them here.

Because this is a well known story that has permeated literary culture, I already knew what was going to happen.  And honestly, I decided to read this version because I like Lydia Davis’ writing; if she specifically hadn’t translated Flaubert, I may never have read this book. I mean, everyone knows the story anyway: A stupid but good looking woman marries without love, and then seeks passion elsewhere, and tragedy ensues. I was so prepared to hate the heroine in this book, so ready to be dismayed by another old story about a woman torn by the choice between two men, so anxious to feel the sting of a character built from the sexist archetype of beauty without brains.

Yet when I was actually reading this book I was really surprised by how much I liked Emma, how I recognized in her the anxieties and fits of naivete I have seen in myself and other people I know. And she wasn’t so dumb, really. She was callous, selfish, brutally unkind at times, and a wretched mother and careless wife. But somehow I felt for her, y’know? It seemed like the little fictional village in Normandy that Flaubert sets this drama in was built up of insidious illusions and untruths, that there were lies in the newspapers, and that the shop keepers and notaries were disingenuous at best. In that light, Emma isn’t a sexist archetype, just a player in a larger game. Her ideas about passion and love and being head over heels and having cosmically and improbably hot monkey sex are still ideas that circulate in the cultural landscape of right now. The lurid romance novels and poems that turn Emma on to impossible love are old time versions of pop songs and rom coms. We’re still looking for that spark, that special person that breathes fire and incinerates the desire for everything but love.

Sometimes, when I’m going to a party, I stand outside for a really long time. Like, a realllly long time, and I just listen in. Then my mind starts going, and I think about all of the possible interactions and outcomes; I write the party, I mentally rehearse the party; bare shoulders and bold thumb prints on the bowls of wine glasses, condensation on beer bottles, exclamations and padding around the kitchen, always the kitchen, in stocking feet.

Mystery Guesy Book Cover, Presents

Of course, if you’re partying at Sophie Calle‘s house, chances are pretty good that you’ll find yourself drinking from champagne flutes and wearing your shoes. Then again, Sophie Calle lives in France, where a house party means something else entirely. And for Grégoire Bouillier in particular, this party takes on such psycho-symbolic significance, that it becomes in and of itself a sort of cosmic event in the small universe of his life.

The Mystery Guest is an involuted party. The pre-party preening is a whorling cortex of pain and the pathetic, wrapped around the peculiar French take on spurned love. Because Bouillier’s relationship with a woman who remains unnamed was of the type that ‘died suddenly at home,’ Bouillier spends about a third of the book attaching meanings almost ad hoc to the objects that are in his orbit; turtleneck shirts, light bulbs, bottles of wine, cut roses in a vase.

In other parts of the book, Bouillier manages to gracefully connect his own prismatic and kaleidoscopic  interiority to another famous party; he traces the outline of Mrs. Dalloway onto the remembered flesh of his former lover, and in so doing reveals anew the circuitry of the mind.

I enjoyed this book immensely! Not having anything like fluency in French, I can’t say if Paris Review editor Lorin Stein’s translation was faithful, but I can tell you that it was beautiful. Great stuff!