Thursday, October 31, 2013

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Of Love and Bears

She had no idea what animals were about. They were creatures. They were not human. She supposed that their functions were defined by the size, shape and complications of their brains. She supposed that they led dim, flickering inarticulate psychic lives as well.
Could a great novel — or even two — arise from a premise as improbable as an interspecies relationship between a human being and a bear? Rafi Zabor's The Bear Comes Home, which is about a bear who, by some fluke of vocal anatomy, not only speaks but plays a mean alto sax, has long been a favorite of mine, and now here, not new but new to me, is this brief, exquisite 1976 novel by the Canadian writer Marion Engel, who died in 1985 at the age of 51. Engel's novel centers on Lou, an archivist who is dispatched to spend a few months cataloging the library of a 19th-century eccentric who constructed and inhabited an octagonal folly on a remote island in northern Ontario. Dropped off on the island, she learns, to her surprise, that one of her responsibilities during her sojourn will be to tend to its only other inhabitant, a quite inarticulate tame bear who formerly belonged to the family that descended from the original founder. As spring turns into summer the bear becomes Lou's constant companion, and in time one thing leads to another ...

The Bear looked out at New York City rocking past the taxi window. A stone jail with humans bunched at the major intersections. Ten million dazed and mortal beings hypnotized by love, work, hate, family and the past. What were the odds — the Bear asked himself, trying to be realistic — in all that multiplicity, on gaining sufficient purchase on real freedom? Looking out at this sampling of the millions is just the thing to convince me that I have no meaning and no chance. What could it possibly matter if one more or less creature toots on a horn?
Rafi Zabor's novel is told from the point of view of the Bear, as he is called throughout. It's a far more ambitious, sprawling book, in which romance (with human women, largely, though the Bear will occasionally dally with ordinary ursines) is a relatively minor element, secondary to the art and metaphysics of jazz and the mysteries of being. (If you're curious about the mechanics of bear-human copulation, though, Zabor's your man.) One of the amusing things about The Bear Comes Home is that the human characters, at least the musicians who are hip, by and large don't much care that the Bear is a bear, and there are some very droll set-pieces of him sitting in with other jazz musicians. It is, thus far, Zabor's only novel, discounting his unsatisfying 2005 autobiographical narrative I, Wabenzi.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alice Munro

Congratulations to Alice Munro, the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. The limited-edition chapbook shown here, which contains a single long story, was issued as a promotional item to coincide with her 1994 collection Open Secrets.

Here are the story's last four paragraphs, which, in keeping with the tale's daring oddness, describe more or less the chronological beginning of events.

The hotel moved her to one of the rooms for permanent guests, on the third floor. She could see the snow-covered hills over the rooftops. The town of Carstairs was in a river valley. It had three or four thousand people and a long main street that ran downhill, over the river, and up again. There was a piano and organ factory.

The houses were built for lifetimes and the yards were wide and the streets were lined with mature elm and maple trees. She had never been here when the leaves were on the trees. It must make a great difference. So much that lay open now would be concealed.

She was glad of a fresh start, her spirits were hushed and grateful. She had made fresh starts before and things had not turned out as she had hoped, but she believed in the swift decision, the unforeseen intervention, the uniqueness of her fate.

The town was full of the smell of horses. As evening came on, big blinkered horses with feathered hooves pulled the sleighs across the bridge, past the hotel, beyond the streetlights, down the dark side roads. Somewhere out in the country they would lose the sound of each other’s bells.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Drinks with Paddy

In spite of the title and its subject — the British traveler, wartime SOE operative, and writer Patrick Leigh Fermor — this little volume is thus far available only in Spanish, but hopefully an English-language version will be forthcoming soon.* The author, Dolores Payás, has translated several of Leigh Fermor's books into Spanish, and Drink Time! (En compañía de Patrick Leigh Fermor) is her affectionate memoir of her visits to his home in Greece, where he made his home for decades until his death in 2011. Paddy — that was what everybody called him, except some of the Greeks, for whom he retained the nom de guerre of Mihalis — was ninety-six when he died, but even at that advanced age he retained much of the eternal youthful optimism he possessed when he set out, as a teenager in 1935, to walk across Europe from the coast of Holland to Constantinople.

Fermor completed that journey, and would make two fine books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, out of his adventures along the way, but he never quite got around to narrating the last leg of the journey. (The parts he did write, found among his papers, are being published, this year in the UK and next year in the US, as The Broken Road.) Why didn't he finish the task? Old age, perhaps, or perfectionism, or too many distractions — Payás suggests that if Paddy and his wife had chosen to settle in Crete, where he spent much of World War II, rather than in the Mani Peninsula, the partying Cretans would have kept him from writing anything at all. Because Fermor was no solitary; a prodigious autodidact, polyglot, and lover of books, he also cherished companionship, conversation, good food, and plenty of wine — the local Greek stuff by preference, no need for fancy French vintages — and to the end, even as his eyesight and hearing failed him, he served as an eager host to a steady stream of old friends and new-found acquaintances in his book-crammed, disorderly, but welcoming house above the sea. Dolores Payás, when she visited, knew that every day, invariably, a knock would come at the door where she was working, and Leigh Fermor would cheerfully summon her time for drinks and conversation. It was an invitation few would have wanted to refuse.

*One has been issued by Bene Factum Publishing.