On Undercurrents, and assorted rushed fragments
From Undercurrents: A Life Under the Surface, by Martha Manning.
Depression is such a cruel punishment. There are no fevers, no rashes, no blood tests to send people scurrying in concern. Just the slow erosion of the self, as insidious as any cancer. And, like cancer, it is essentially a solitary experience. A room in hell with only your name on the door.
For nearly two years now, this quote has been kept in my moldering cell phone’s drafts folder. I brandish Manning’s words when only defiance can save me, or if I am in particular need of a ready, smug response, albeit borrowed. Here are the words. They are not mine. I wouldn’t say that, no, but this will have to do.
I found this book by accident. I recognized the spine without me knowing that it was of a book I’d wanted for a really long time.
It’s a strange thing, approaching literature dealing with depression when one has, for months now, felt confident that one does not currently have depression. Or, well, not as present a depression. I have dysthymia—I will always have this—and I have been wary of anything triggering the depression’s strengthened presence. Will reading this make me sad? is the question to every book that involves a character who is so much more than sad. I must not invite sadness. And when some sadnesses come unannounced, they must be scrutinized: a moment of extreme solitude in a roomful of friends and supposed joys—even boredom, the inability to hold a book until its end, those moments upon waking when you dread having to function. I give myself passes: You are allowed to skip work today; that commercial was so schmaltzy, of course you’d cry; there are too many people on this train, you’re allowed to feel unbearably weary; this book is so tedious, not even the prospect of lacerating it with snark proves exciting for you; you can go back to sleep, yes, you can.
A few months ago, I started The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon. I went into it the way some people would religion. This was going to be a bible. This was going to hold the answers. Or it would hold my hand. Or it would prepare me. I would simply know more. Do I do that with every book about depression that I encounter? Yes, I believe so.
This copy of Undercurrents has a child’s scribbles. The heavy press of pencil, the graphite grooves gleaming. Aimless: just lines flashing and pointing. I, of course, imagine that a mother must have read this. Her toddler must have disturbed this book from its place, trying to control a stub of pencil. Mother must have rescued the book, panicked at the defacement—or a sharp object so close to her child’s too-soft skin. Or maybe the child must have soon walked away, and the book drifted shut, to be found much later beneath the living room center table, when it was time to move out, and things no longer needed must be put in boxes and dropped into chainlinked stores.
In my third year of college, my Ethics professor’s assistant killed himself. The starchy Jesuit spoke of bravery, of courage: “Suicide isn’t cowardice. It takes supreme courage to stand up to life, to say that you rid of it. To take the choice away from Death.” The glasses folded on the table. Our Foucaults and Platos shut. The next weekend, the class planted trees. I don’t remember this dead boy’s name, but I remember how he died, I remember the Jesuit’s speech. Whenever I’d pass the plot of land, I’d tell whoever I was with, We planted trees for the dead boy. And they’d be in awe of the Jesuit’s heart.
Today is World Mental Health Day. I posted this a while ago, but it stands. There is much more I could tell you about living with this beast, this hulking black dog, though in the passages above, I know that I’ve already revealed so much more than usual. But still, but still. [That double fucked-uppage of having to live—having to find a reason to keep on living—despite the depression, and then having to contend with the possibility that the people around you find it hard to believe that such a darkness exists. “It’s all in your head,” some say. Or, “You know, you can snap out of it if you focus.” Some would accuse you of getting depression deliberately, as if it were the most convenient excuse to purposefully leave your life in shambles. Some keep quiet, and you feel their struggle to understand. Some just nod, and look away, as though they refuse to be tainted, as though they want very much to help, but how, dammit, how, when you can’t even reach inside you and point, “Here, here, this is where it’s darkest.”]
This is me. Those are my sensible shoes, that is my new haircut. That is a book in my hands. This is where I was an hour ago, brushing against the space where shelf and shelf met.
Q:The NYRB Classics that you most want to read next?
Delicious question, Anon. My heart is a-flutter. Aherm. So, what follows are the books from this kick-ass publisher that I would love to read next, soon, soonest—in no particular order, hah:
The NYRB Classics in my shelves:
- Irretrievable by Theodor Fontane.
- A Journey Round My Skull by Frigyes Karinthy.
- Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait by Francis Steegmuller. I’m trying not to reread Madame Bovary [I love Lydia Davis’ translation; I don’t think I would have ever discovered that Emma Bovary was my spirit animal were it not for her], but maybe I could read this?
- The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig. Because Zweig is love and I want to reunite with Zweig. But am almost afraid to open this because it’s the last unread Zweig in my shelves.
- Boredom by Alberto Moravia. Because I remember saving up for two months before buying this book and now that I have it and it’s been in my shelves for longer than that, well, that makes me sad.
- Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang. The second NYRB Classics I ever owned, a gift from an aunt. [The first was Stoner.] I really ought to get on this.
The NYRB Classics that, unfortunately, are not in my shelves:
- I just discovered this, actually [um, two hours ago?]: The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irène Némirovsky by Her Daughter by Élisabeth Gille. I love me my Némirovsky, and have been really curious about her life ever since that first book of hers I read. Sigh. Also, I want to know what that subtitle means.
- Love’s Work by Gillian Rose.
- Acts of Passion by Georges Simenon. I’ve read a negligible fraction of Simenon’s prolific body of work, but, you know, you can never have enough Simenon.
- Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists by Rudolf and Margot Wittkower. I really do need this in my life.
My answer is quite obviously the cheat-y kind.
Such madness! When you’re twenty, love is like a fever. It makes you almost delirious. When it’s over you can hardly remember how it happened. Fire in the blood, how quickly it burns itself out. Faced with this blaze of dreams and desires, I felt so old, so cold, so wise.
From Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith.
A random picture of random books from my hard drive. Look at all that noise.
Currently reading: Still spending time with Herr Voss and Laura and the wastelands of 19th-century Australia. Also, Tony and Susan by Austin Wright.
Currently considering: I have been feeling the urge to make friends with [conquer?] Moby-Dick. Also, The House of Mirth.
Currently trying to strangle: A post on Simon Mawer, a post on an atlas of depression, a post on the extreme solitude of A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments.
Currently dreading: The coming workweek.
I make no progress with Patrick White’s Voss. At the end of every chapter I read, I go back and read it from the beginning, lingering over scenes and passages, adding to the annotations I’ve already littered the margins with. Technically, I am about to begin Chapter 6. But I’ve backtracked so many times, reliving pages—I’ve even gone ahead [something I rarely do] to read more and more, and eager to experience those scenes as they fit into the narrative, but appreciating them still out of context. What is wrong with me?
It’s a strange book, a stranger book for me to read. It’s about the wastelands of Australia in the 19th century, dared to be explored by one Johann Ulrich Voss, madman misfit genius, arrogant and awkward and doubly estranged to a land that is nonetheless his home. It’s also about the love between him and headstrong, independent Laura Trevelyan—another foreigner forced to adapt to the land, another misfit. It’s an adventure, it’s hidden love, it’s damnably good prose, it’s the most alive and complex characters filling a world so alien to me, but now so very much welcome.
Questions about home abound. Laura, in her first meeting with Voss, is struck by how both possessive the man is of Australia and how at ease he is there. Her? “She was so afraid of the country which, for lack of any other, she supposed was hers.” We find echoes of this sentiment as we move on—mostly from observations of the astute Laura. This is an adopted home; Australia’s essential history is one of exile or dead-ends or second chances. At a dinner party, the topic of Voss’s venture is discussed, and Voss himself:
‘He is obsessed by this country,’ said Laura Trevelyan. ‘That was at once obvious.’
‘He is a bit mad,’ pursued the Lieutenant monotonously.
‘But he is not afraid,’ said Laura.
‘Who is afraid?’ asked Tom Radclyffe.
‘Everyone is still afraid, or most of us, of this country, and will not say it. We are not yet possessed of understanding.’
The Lieutenant snorted, to whom there was nothing to understand.
‘I would like not like to ride very far into it,’ admitted Belle, ‘and meet a lot of blacks, and deserts, and rocks, and skeletons, they say, of men that have died.’
‘But Laura, together with the obsessed Herr Voss, is unafraid. Is that it?’ asked Lieutenant Radclyffe.
‘I have been afraid,’ said Laura Trevelyan. ‘And it will be some time, I expect, before I am able to grasp anything so foreign and incomprehensible. It is not my country, although I have lived in it.’
Tom Radclyffe laughed.
‘It is not that German’s.’
‘It is his by right of vision,’ answered the young woman.
And it is. Indeed, Voss, earlier, quite plainly says: “I am compelled into this country.” That this uncharted land is his home is matter-of-fact—it’s such a ridiculous claim, but one made with conviction. He may be right, he may be wrong. This might just be a bad idea, if a foolish one. His purpose for discovering a land he feels already his? “I will cross the continent from one end to the other. I have every intention to know it with my heart.” That, simply, that.
For now, at least.
There is still so much, so much. And I’m only yet to begin the sixth chapter! I want to talk about Voss’s madness, his ridiculousness, but how heroic he seems to my eyes. And silly, yes, that too. I want to talk about the inscrutable Laura as best I could. I want to linger over their few moments together, corporeally, their bodies occupying the same space—this is, after all, not just about hidden love, but love that spans lands, connected only by letters and thoughts and visions and dreams. I want to talk about how disquieting this book is, and how alive it is in my hand—the winds thick with dry dust, the heat against one’s burning nape, the sweat curling down backs.
I continue to make no progress, walking around in circles, talking to myself, plucking lines and passages out of memory and air.
(Yes, there is a [bookmark in the shape of a] hand flailing out of the cover image’s waistband, um ok, crotch. Yes, there is. No, I didn’t do it on purpose. I find it really funny now, though, because I am immature.)
Having long stared at the cover of How to Keep a Volkswagen Alive—that baffling creature by Christopher Boucher—I see its resemblance with some of Pancho’s doodles. This, apparently, is how he doodles.
A snippet of my thoughts on Moondogs by Alexander Yates:
The novel—for all its focus on special operatives with superpowers, on the glitz of actors-turned-politicians, on the spectacle of a kidnapping carried out by pseudo-terrorists—insists on grounding itself on questions about family, about home, and how the places we find ourselves in influence our very identity. That’s the earnestness, that’s the bigger risk.
Its realism may be playfully skewed, with comic book tropes turning camp and vice versa, but this book is all heart, with a keen sensitivity to emotional narrative regardless of the spectacles. And yes, it’s so rare to see a novel about the cray-cray capital that is Manila (and I say that with much fondness) as engagingly, as sensitively—as inoffensively, haha—as Yates has crafted.
Beyond being bruhos and token expats and mainstays in seedy-sensational Manila, these are people, ya hear? People who apologize through locked doors, people who keep boxes full of returned letters, people who are sick and tired of “food cooked in vinegar and soy sauce … [and] spaghetti with sugar and hotdogs”—people who, dammit, would like to figure out what home means exactly, even for just a single clearest moment, even if through the crosshairs of a sniper rifle’s viewfinder. Oh, and that cover? I want that on a shirt.
More at: Sticking Up for the Unstuckup For, over at the book blog.
A snippet of my thoughts on Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the debut novel of Ransom Riggs:
The story is simple enough, though the first third of the book will have you following the tracks predicted by the wildly speculative judge-y voice in your head. The first chapter itself, about a grandfather who tells stories to his grandson, big fish stories, and not even that among the most horrific, the Holocaust—there are stories about, say, a little girl who couldn’t help but levitate that they had to wear leaden boots, else she’d float to the sky.
You’re lulled into thinking that this book will be a tug-at-your-heartstrings-then-step-on-them book about passing down stories, about a growing boy’s decision to refuse to believe them, about an old man’s silence.
But it’s not, although it tries to keep coming back to that, particularly the consequences of our narrator Jacob’s decision. But not as impactful as I would want, not as solid an elaboration. This book is not the book you think—you hope—it is in Chapter One. Neither is it the book you dread it’s going to be in the next handful of chapters—rich kid being all outsider-y and shiitake. And then Jacob sees his grandfather’s mangled corpse, and you wait for the adventure to begin, its grief-rage drive.
But, no. You wait some more, and then you realize you have to settle for a Jacob Portman turned into this placid sponge who just accepts everything—the fire that springs from a girl’s hand, someone’s brother dead and untouched on a bed, a boy you cannot see.
The rest of the shiznit here.
“Let’s wait for winter. The first, the second, the third winter… Let’s wait for monotonous evenings of this place, the courses of the moon, the howling-wolf nights. We’ll just have to make sure to wind the clocks each day, bury our memories, sit in tranquility by the warm fireside, play enough tric-trac, and never, ever write letters without each other’s knowledge, no matter how overcast the twilight.”
“I’ll be waiting for you.”
“Let crazy life rush headlong on the highway, for others; we shall contemplate the sunflowers, watch them sprout, blossom, fade away. Yesterday they were still giants, but now, in autumn, they are thatch on the roof.”
The last lines of Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy, translated from the Hungarian by John Bátki, with an introduction by John Lukacs. Published by NYRB Classics.
(via Sasha & The Silverfish)