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I read Ali Smith’s first  book in her planned “season” quartet, Autumn, last December, and loved it. Like that novel, Winter is set soon after the Brexit vote and is the story of two generations — one struggling with the implications of adulthood in the Brexit/Trump presidency world, and one that came before. Smith has plenty to critique about now, but doesn’t idealize the past, either. And as in Autumn, the world we live in plays a huge role, with art and nature both serving to bring people together and feed our souls, and sociopolitical issues hanging over the characters’ heads — in Winter, sometimes literally in the artistic hallucinations two of the characters experience.

Winter’s protagonists are mostly difficult folks; Art, whose life and work is steeped in the alternate reality of the Internet; his aging mother, Sophia, who lives in a house she owns in part out of spite, and that she’s letting go; Iris, Sophia’s elder sister who in Sophia’s eyes has always selfishly, foolishly, follower her ideals, ignoring her family in the process; and Lux, a student from Croatia whose funds have run out, who Art hires to pretend to be his girlfriend Charlotte because Charlotte has left him just before Christmas. Lux is the most likable, not only because her fate is at the mercy of populist nationalism and contemporary capitalism, both greedy “I’ve got mine” movements, but also because she manages to get Sophia and Iris to really talk with each other, she gets Sophia to eat, and she helps Art see the actual world he’s been oblivious to (or hiding from?) with his online work.

As in Autumn, Smith manages to shine a light on much of what is absurd about contemporary society: Art works for a bot, and writes a blog called “Art in Nature” that is mostly made up; the library is now “The Ideas Store” and is mainly a small public space (in an otherwise privatized building of luxury flats) where people wait to use computers; when Art’s awareness is awakened he is horrified to hear about people paying to fund boats that stop other boats from rescuing refugees at sea; the Grenfell Tower disaster happening in one of the wealthiest cities in the world; Trump’s actual speech to the Boyscouts in summer 2017. But she also allows for past absurdities that were different because they were less selfish — like women who chained themselves to a missile site in Britain, art that playfully exposes human foibles, from Shakespeare and Dickens to Barbara Hepworth.

In other words, this is a very political book but it is still fun, and somehow Smith doesn’t even leave readers feeling too pessimistic. Even as Smith draws attention to history’s ill effects (She alludes to the long lasting impacts of WWI & WWII on the British psyche, as well as the Cold War), she shows people surviving, adapting. If self-absorbed Art and his dysfunctional mother and sister can get along, so can we. If people like Lux still believe in the benefits of beauty when so much is taken from them, well, shouldn’t we?

Art, looking for Lux ,when he can’t find her actual person, in the things they learned about each other by spending Christmas at his mother’s, visits the British Library asking about a Shakespearean manuscript with the residue of a flower pressed in it. He tells the librarian that Cymbeline is “about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated.” Winter too seems to be about those very things.

There is so much more to enjoy, including the love story that resulted in Art, and the writing style — similar to Autumn, but not exactly the same– that infuses the book with a dreamy quality, and also a sort of art film sense of scenes more thematically than narratively linked. Despite the unconventional narrative and chronology, I was never lost.  I find myself wanting to discuss this book with someone, so if you’re in a book club, this may be a good choice for you.

Summer may be approaching, but trust me, you should treat yourself to Winter. My only regret is that I didn’t get to read it in one go like I did Autumn. 

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I picked up The Polish Boxer expecting excellent literary fiction — it’s published by Bellevue Literary Press. What I got was that and much more; a semi-autobiographical tale of a Guatemalan Jew, a trip around the world, insight into Balkan cultural fragmentation, jazz and the nature of improvisation, Gypsy music and culture particularly in Belgrade, the meaning of fiction and its place in reality, the preservation of Holocaust stories,the human psyche’s adaptation of beliefs and mythology/storytelling as a way to reconcile daily life with universal truths . . . . I could go on, but it would be better if you would just read this genre-bending novel for yourself.

In publicity materials and interviews, Eduardo Halfon has described the book as semi-autobiographical, and he’s said, “To me, all literature is fiction disguised as memoir. Or perhaps memoir disguised as fiction.”  The book felt to me like a novel-in-stories, especially in the early chapters, which follow the main character (also called Eduardo) from his literature classes at a Guatelmalan university to literary conferences in North Carolina and Portugal to the streets of Belgrade, where he is looking for a half-Serbian, half-Roma pianist he met at an arts festival in Guatemala.

We meet his lover, Lia, his musician friend Milan, and an eminent Twain scholar who recognizes Eduardo’s b.s. at a conference and chooses to tell jokes when it is his turn to speak. We also meet Eduardo’s grandfather, Leon. Leon is an Auschwitz survivor whose story of a fellow Pole, a boxer, coaching him to survive his trial becomes truth to Eduardo, until he reads another version of the story in a newspaper interview Leon gives shortly before his death. In the new version, there is no Polish boxer; Leon survives by other means.

This revelation causes Eduardo to say, in his speech at a conference in Portugal on how “Literature Tears Through Reality,” “Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a witch might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing.” He recounts the ending of an Ingmar Bergman film, Shame, and explains, “That is exactly what literature is like. As we write we know there is something very important to be said about reality, that we have this something within reach, just there, so close, on the tip of our tongue, and that we mustn’t forget it. But always, without fail, we do.”

I’ve only just finished The Polish Boxer so I’m not sure I’ve fully processed what it’s said to me about reality. But it’s a book full of sex, smoking and drinking, language, music, friendship, culture and identity. It’s about loss — the kind you feel without really understanding what it is that’s missing, only knowing it’s not there.

It’s about whether or not a Gypsy pirouetting means anything, and what it means, and what meaning means. It’s about the ways people in a Belgrade slum and a Guatemalan village and a Polish neighborhood and Brooklyn and a million other places live and love and get by the same as you and I. It’s about love, not just between lovers, but love of family and love of place, love of tribe (by birth or by art), love of humanity and the way love is the humanity between us, even at times when hate is the currency of power.

It’s about the need to write, to tell what urgently needs to be told, or to sing it or play it. It’s about poetry, which in the Mayan language Cakchikel  is “a braid of words . . . an embroidered blouse of words.”  That’s it too: The Polish Boxer is an embroidered blouse of words. And a tattoo on on old man’s arm,of his number at Auschwitz, the one he told his grand-kids was a phone number. And it’s the patterns we fall into, in loving and judging each other. In defining the world around us. In making reality and writing it into our consciousness.

Confused? Don’t be. I can’t do this book justice. Get yourself to your local bookstore or your library and ask for Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer. Get comfortable — the most frustrating thing about reading this book was that I didn’t have a good long stretch to read it in one sitting. Pour yourself a drink. Put on some music — jazz, gypsy, or whatever inspires your heart to longing. And enjoy this magical, unreal trip through reality.

 

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