Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie

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Thank God for the Kindle, without it, I wouldn’t have been able to read this book. At the very least, it would have taken me 4 weeks to get it. She is more known for her New Yorker short stories, but Chilly Scenes of Winter is a novel. Her first, published in 1976.

It is the story of Charles whose girlfriend has left him. She left him to go back to her husband leaving Charles completely down. I can’t use any other word than down, because Beattie herself refrains, as much as possible, from employing adjectives or describing the state of her characters. I found that she employs descriptions when referring to the weather. And I loved her writing. After the first two pages (or the first dozen locations since I read it on the Kindle), I noticed how much sentences end with he says, she says, Sam says, Charles says.

 

“Hi,” Sam says to Elise, walking back into the living room.

“Hi,” Elise says. She does not move over on the sofa.

“Move over,” Sam says, sitting down next to her. “How’s school?” He says to Susan.

“I’m sick of it”

“Beats walking the streerts,” Sam says.

Sam, Charles’ only friend, and Elise, the friend of Charles’ sister, Susan, end up spending the night together. But this does not matter. Virtually, nothing outside of Charles’ brooding over Laura leaving him matters in this story, but I found, that because the writing is so stripped-down, and the others characters’ actions so insignificant, that I started to pay attention to their little details, like walking, or sitting down, or turning on the car. It feels like a long-camera shot in a movie, where the viewer cannot avert his/her eyes, and gradually realizes that this is what the movie is about.

Charles and Susan’s mother is suicidal, or so she seems, according to Charles. She tries to kill herself three times throughout this short book, and at every attempt, Charles reacts as calmly as possible, as if news of her attempted suicide have become so commonplace to him, they don’t induce any reaction from him.

“I’m so glad you’re here.”

“What’s the matter, Mom?”

“If you weren’t there I was going to kill myself, I’ve been in the bathtub, trying to get the pain to go away. The pain won’t go away.”

“What are you talking about? Where’s Pete?”

“Is the appendix on the left or the right side, Charles? I think that must be what it is.”

“Susan,” Charles says. He gives her the phone, walks away, still trying to undo the lid.

The little plot knots are laid out pretty early. When Charles drives his sister to check on their mother, he tells the latter “I despair of your ever acting normal again, but I do want you to be all right.” This sums pretty much how he feels about the people that cross his life, and maybe even about himself. Charles, despite his growing obsession with getting back Laura, acts as a stable rock to people around him

Sam, his friend who could have had a better future, and is instead selling ties and shirts at some store, finds himself suddenly unemployed and unable to afford rent. Charles offers him to stay at his place. His ex-girlfriend who ran away to California following her lover, thinking she is a lesbian, calls him to ask for a place to stay, and he offers her his place for a while. Without any resentment, without demanding anything in return, he is helpful towards others.

That said, Charles spends most of his time wallowing in sorrow over Laura leaving him. I was worried the growing references towards things Laura made or said or even baked might make Charles seem pathetic and the book a bit cheap with sentimentality, but on the contrary I felt that Beattie perfectly captured what it must feel for a guy to be heart-broken, painting pictures of everyday changes in a typically masculine fashion.

She was Laura’s friend. He wants to think that she knows all about the two of them, but Laura said that she never told anybody. He wishes she had; then he wouldn’t doubt, as he sometimes does, that it happened at all.

He rests his head against the foggy side window. He closes his eyes and imagines scenes that never took place: he and Laura went to the beach, and he she got sunburned and he rubbed Solarcaine on her back; Laura cooked a ten-course Chinese dinner for him, have him a surprise birthday party

Laura buys plants that are dying in the supermarkets – ones that have four or five leaves, marked down to nineteen cents, because she feels sorry for them. Couldn’t she feel sorry for him?

Beattie-Adelman

I don’t remember saving so many quotes that reflect the inner state of a heartbroken man, as I did with this book. In a Paris Review interview, Beattie seems offended when the interviewer repeats to her that she was once known as the voice of a generation, and she finds this belittling to a writer. I’m glad she replied this way, because I for one am not an east coast guy who grew up in the late 70s, (Beattie’s generation apparently) and I was drawn to that book and couldn’t put it down. Apparently, she is capable of understanding what Lebanese men who lived through a civil war go through. Of course, this all sounds ridiculous and, in my opinion, applies to second-rate writers who rely on current events and newspaper clippings to produce their innumerable works.

While I was searching for this book, I stumbled on some review that described this book as extremely funny. I’m not sure if this a correct description it. I can understand the bizarrely humorous touches in the conversations between Pete, the husband of Charles’ mother and Charles. But that’s all what they are, to me, touches:

“If you ever want a good car wax, let me recommend Turtle Wax,” Pete says. “That’s really the stuff.”

“I’ll remember that,” Charles says.

“No you won’t” Pete says.

“Turtle Wax,” Charles repeats, not wanting to have to hear again that he doesn’t like Pete.

Yes, this might sound funny, but this is a conversation that was going in the parking of the hospital where Charles’ mother, Clara, is being kept under psychological and medical care following her suicide attempt. The relationship between Pete and Charles reflects the inversion of the roles where Charles seems the steady one, and Pete the drunkard who flies off to Chicago on business trips when his wife’s state is the most fragile, who calls at inappropriate times to tell Charles he bought a car, who refers to Charles’ mother as Mommy and who has no clue about taking care of her, and has to get the support of Charles (even if only a moral support) whenever something strikes Clara.

In conclusion, I loved the book. I will give it a 5-star rating on my Goodreads profile. It feels quite modern, in that the it rests on this question-to-be-answered: What will Charles do now that Laura has left him? It is such a trivial question in comparison to the psychological state of his mother who runs the risk of killing, or badly hurting herself, at any moment. What reassures us that nothing will happen to the mother is, weirdly, a 60-year old inefficient teenager, whose ridiculous presence acts as a safeguard against her destructive nature. The lack of any ornamental language makes the characters stand out for how they truly ought to be, even though we see them through the eyes of Charles.

The Penguin Book of Jewish Short Stories

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What can I say? I can’t believe I own this book, not because it is a collection edition or it’s rare to be found, but simply because I live in Lebanon and unfortunately we live at a time where Jewish / Israeli cultural output is not possible to be found here. Even the distinction between Jewish and Israeli is no longer made here. I was able to get this at an English bookstore in Berlin, St. George’s English Bookshop. I was also lucky to buy another Hebrew anthology: 8 Great Hebrew Short Novels. Months later, somebody in Lebanon was bold enough to sell Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer (in French though, L’Homme de Kiev) and I managed to snag that one too. I read them all, and hope to be posting my reviews of them quite soon.

This book features the works of 16 Jewish authors, from I L Peretz to Muriel Spark, one short story per author except for the 19th century writers who have two stories included. It’s quite small considering the number of authors, at around 350 pages.

I started reading it expecting some Jewish humor; there is a bit of that with stories like Sholom Aleichem’s Hodel, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Friend of Kafka, even The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth. That said, I was quite shocked with some of the stories and the harrowing details they include, having forgotten at one point the bloody history itself of the Jews especially in Eastern Europe.

The first of those was White Chalah by Lamed Shapiro. A story of such graphical violence that I had to escape online researching it to make sure I was reading it correctly. This is how it opens:

One day a neighbor broke the leg of a stray dog with a heavy stone, and when Vasil saw the sharp edge of the bone piercing the skin he cried. The tears streamed from his eyes, his mouth, and his nose; the towhead on his short neck shrank deeper between his shoulders; his entire face became distorted and shriveled, and he did not utter a sound. He was then about seven years old.

It is told from the point of view of a gentile, Vasil,  -exceptionally in this anthology- to whom Jews were “people who wore strange clothes, sat in stores, ate white chalah and had sold Christ”. Chalah is the braided bread that observant Jews consume on Sabbath. He is recruited in the army and for the following couple of pages we ride with army destroying and crushing villages on its way while witnessing the violent deaths of its own casualties. One day someone says that all this is the fault of the Jews and the army towards internally cleansing itself from Jewish soldiers and the marches on towards villages where Jews reside. The gruesome descriptions end in a climax of Vasil, having been days without food, consuming the flesh of a Jewish woman as if it were white chalah itself.

I thought one story about the pogroms should be enough for such a small book, but as brutal as White Chalah is, I found The Story of My Dovecot by Isaac Babel Singer more gripping and yet more heartfelt. It is longer, and so allows a bit of background to filter through. It is written in the first person narrative from the viewpoint of a boy competing for admission to middle school, and on what should have been a normal day, comes face to face (literally) with the pogroms of 1905. This feeling of safety being robbed from us is an experience I should never forget as our own Lebanese history, during the civil war, is riddled with. Naturally, in such times, the synagogue offers both worldly and spiritual safety, and throughout the stories one always notices the omnipresence of the synagogue, of its warmth and of the sense of familiarity it offers to the Jews of the Eastern European countries.

Another story that echoed quite vividly with our own, recent history, is Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld.

Spring returned to Badenheim. Bells rang in the near-by country church. The shadows of the forest drew back into the forest. The sun scattered the remaining darkness, and its light spilled out along the main street. It was a moment of transition. Soon the holidaymakers would invade the town.

You’d think that you are in for some idyllic novel, but the date in the title never leaves your mind, and you are reading with apprehension knowing that 1939 can’t bring anything good for the Jews in Europe.  Badenheim is getting ready for the yearly festival, and artists and bands and spectators are flooding the town. Amidst the normal commotion and preparations and the lives of the locals who endure the coming of the visitors, the Department of Sanitations tarts making more than usual inspections and little by little its jurisdiction grows, and the inspections become more like interrogations, and yet the people and the organizers go on with their habitual preparations; all except one Trudy who is prone to hallucinations and who senses that the faces of the people are looking paler than usual.

Without spoiling the rest of the story, I wonder whether Appelfeld wasn’t harsh on the Jews who went on with their lives not expecting or probably not giving due attention to the changes the Nazis started enforcing on their living conditions. The parallels that Badenheim 1939 presents with our own history are remarkable. In July 2006, we also were going on with our regular lives, expecting a flood of tourists for the months of July and August and barely waking up form the euphoria of the end of the World Cup of 2006, we come face to face with the shocking news that Israel is bombing the airport to retaliate for an attack perpetrated by Hizbollah on the southern border with Israel. Gradually, the dream (as it is for every Lebanese) of a busy summer start crumbling, and slowly we find ourselves under an aerial and naval embargo, with half the country in war against Israel and the other half stuck in queues trying to get gas for their cars and food from supermarkets. Of course the proportion between World War 2 and the July War is negligible and the July War only lasted 33 days, but it felt that all this was too real, and too vivid in my mind when I was going through Badenheim 1939.

To conclude, this anthology is one to be considered as an introduction to Jewish literature, and it presents such a wide array of Jewish authors – it even features a South African Jewish writer I have never heard of – that the reader is sure to select one author for further consideration. It’s a pleasant read and because the editor, Emanuel Litvinoff wonders what can be considered Jewish writing and who can be considered a Jewish writer, the reader gets the chance of enjoying the variations of Jewish writing across periods and locations as well.

Other stories I would recommend are: Setting the World to Rights by Amos Oz about the disappointment or the realities of the Kibbutz life, a theme that is partially reconsidered  in The Hill of Evil Counsel (to be reviewed soon), The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth, about the blindly gulped religious indoctrination by religious institutions, and The Man in the Drawer, by Bernard Malamud (Malamud, who’s book The Fixer, L’Homme de Kiev, I will be reviewing soon as well). I think the latter story is directly inspired from Philip Roth’s smuggling of Eastern European literature in the mid 70s during Communism.