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.

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Mon Ami Maigret

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When I woke up last Saturday to a gorgeously dark sky brooding with heavy clouds, I knew it was ripe time to pick-up a new Simenon.

I have 6 Volumes of the Tout-Maigret, from Omnibus, and I am starting with the fourth volume.
To my (slight) disappointment, the story I chose Mon Ami Maigret, is set at an island, Porquerolles, with its flanelle-clad dwellers and harsh sunlight casting golden reflections over the sea. One of the rare “sunny” cases, but yep, it had to be this one.

Brushing such a minor letdown aside, the book was fun to read. The first chapter opens up a tad on the hyperbole, when the reader learns that Mr. Pyke, the title name of the first chapter, is dispatched from Scotland Yard to observe the investigative methods of Maigret. Since this is Simenon writing, this inflated Maigret figure, himself suddenly under scrutiny from Mr. Pyke, is barely given much space, and we are directed back in, to the reality of the Quai des Orfevres, a bit too bluntly even, when Maigret receives a phone call from a brigadier relaying him the news that a man was murdered in Porquerolles because of his friendship with him.

Though I find Simenon favoring, often too much, the silent dialogues between the guest characters and Maigret, in Mon Ami Maigret, I had the feeling that such an exchange between the two was not given enough space to develop. Perhaps, this has to do with the sunny, not quite serious Porquerolles, which allegedly strikes new visitors with “Porquerollite” a virus that causes people to shed all formalities and embrace the sun and the sea, and the joie-de-vivre.
Nevertheless, what furtive exchanges occur between Maigret and Pyke remain the most interesting parts of the story; in fact, it is because of one of those, that I thought it would be interesting to review this book.

Here we are in 1949, an Englishman of the same profession as his French host, expresses his opinion about a suspect in the case. We are outside the café of the hotel, under the warm sunlight, there was between the Englishman and the suspect no interrogation, only a game of chess, and yet the Englishman is able to draw a portrait of the suspect, who is Dutch, because of general traits that he noticed and which are common among young people coming form morally rigid countries (comparing the Netherlands, back then, to England, is funny to me). He is even able to extend such an observation to the host country, France, claiming that the Dutch suspect must not seem a unique specimen to the French. Incidentally, his profiling of the Dutch came to confirm a mild uneasiness that Maigret felt around Mr. Pyke, because of the different approach he adopted questioning some of the suspects.

Maigret était un peu soucieux, un peu crispé. Sans être attaqué, il était chatouillé par l’envie de se défendre

Further ahead, Mr. Pyke informs Maigret that the Dutch speaks perfect English, an additional characteristic that adds definition to the Dutch’s portrait.

I appreciated those two pages for the simple reason that they feel quite distanced from us; how easy was it back then to sketch the identity of a character out of the general identity of a group, of a bigger sample. I find that these days everything is about assuming one’s own identity, about finding ourselves, uniqueness, differentiation. A crime writer of this present age cannot risk going into the familiar, or into the assumption, or into pre-defined types.

Before I close my review, and since this is Simenon writing, I find that the receding importance of the investigative techniques and procedures (to the disappointment of Pyke and his Scotland Yard superiors) and the untangling of the mystery in the background are what I enjoy most about every Maigret.

We are nearing the end of the story, the interrogation of the two suspects, which Maigret wanted to be done in confidentiality, at least as much as the island would allow it, is almost over

“Avouez, Monsieur X, que vous n’êtes pas fâché que ça craque!”

Jusqu’à ce “monsieur” qui blessait Y ay plus profond de lui-même.

at the same time, outside the interrogation room:

Le déjeuner avait commençé à l’Arche. Jojo n’avait pas dû se taire tout à fait, ou alors les gens flairaient quelque chose car on voyait de temps en temps des silhouettes rôder autour de la mairie.

Even though Maigret gave his orders to Jojo,t he girl who works at the café l’Arche, not to blabber about who is being interrogated and where, “word got out” as the saying goes and people started to gather around the mayor’s office.

We, readers, will never know how exactly word got out, and if it did, for that matter. It’s a totally inconsequential matter, because the book ends shortly after that, but I love that Simenon is able to move from ascertaining the psychology of the suspect, down to its minutest details, then gradually leaving the focal point of the interrogation to what is happening out there, without himself offering much about it, but nevertheless, creating a completely realistic and tangible atmosphere, very vivid in our mind, despite of (or maybe because of) the lack of any attempt to clearly resolve out every detail of the plot.

 

La Neige Était Sale -The beginning-

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To read Simenon in his native language; to grasp his world, to indulge in every word he carefully selects, to capture his elusive characters is, without a doubt, to be privileged.

This book, “La Neige Etait Sale” (In English, Dirty Snow) is supposedly his best. Perhaps.

I’m only at the 22nd page and already feel the need to write something about them.

The story, I don’t care much about it to be honest, starts with Frank losing his virginity. Nothing sexual; it’s the first time he kills, not commits murder. Simenon differentiates between the two. (In Maigret et le Tueur, he highlights this distinction). The opening sentence reads: “Sans un événement fortuit, le geste de Frank Friedmaier, cette nuit-là, n’aurait eu qu’une importance relative.” Knowing Simenon beforehand, one assumes that this act could only mean killing; and it sounds alarming; taking another human’s life does not represent much of a significance to Frank. But Simenon is rarely harsh on his protagonists, possibly because he lives with them this short time span writing the novel.

We can only guess why Frank does what he does or thinks the way he thinks; Simenon generously distributes question marks when defining his characters: “Est-ce parce qu’il était à l’affût que cela a fait figure d’occasion?” […] “Alors pourquoi toussa-t-il juste au moment ou l’homme allait atteindre l’impasse?” […] “Est-ce à cause de Sissy, la fille de Holst?”

But I daresay that it’s because of these questions, because of so many “cela etait sans aucune importance” that one enjoys his books… Because this protagonist is not a murderer, he is not a calculating psychopath, his psychological portrait is open to interpretation; Simenon’s characters do not fit a pre-defined classification; after all they are people whom he sees in cafés, strolling down sidewalks, strangers he briefly encounters. These everyday beings, he transports them into his world, and proceeds with his social and psychological experimentation. (As much as writing allows experimentation)

Moving a couple of pages along, Frank starts making some sense to us, not because of a psychological elaboration; rather we begin by sensing this relation that develops between an individual and a surrounding society. This relationship is paradoxical; it feels as if Frank is dependent on it, yet at the same time he wants to detach himself, he wants to demonstrate his indifference towards it; this is perfectly reasonable in Simenoian world: being part of this society was not Frank’s choice. It was imposed on him, not in the negative sense, no; simply, as a matter-of-fact.

For the moment, I content myself with this short introduction, transcribing below, what I consider to be, Simenon at his best.

“Il les obligeait presque à manger. Il mangeait avec elles. Il les pelotaient devant tout le monde. Il regardait ses doigts mouillés et il riait. Puis, régulièrement, un moment venait où il débouclait son ceinturon et le posait sur la table.

À ce ceinturon, il y avait un étui contenant un revolver à répétition.

En soi, tout cela était sans importance.”

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Is Paul Auster worth your time?

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Review of Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies

This is my second Auster, the first was “Travels in the Scriptorium”Both works I have “read” as audiobooks while taking interminable journeys around the country. The journeys themselves were less taxing than the books.
The reason I checked both is because of -and I’m not ashamed to admit it- the publicity this guy gets!

“The Brooklyn Follies”, written in the first person narrative form, is about an ex-insurance salesman, Nathan Wood, well into his 60s, who survives cancer and returns back to his native Brooklyn (Auster’s perpetual home). Does this return symbolize or mean anything? No. Do we get to feel Brooklyn? No.

Serendipity brings him in contact with his nephew; a would-have-been brilliant author / critic, had it not been for… Well we don’t really know. Tom Glass, Nathan Wood’s nephew (and yes, Nathan/Auster does mention this brilliant pun), foregoes his writing ambition for the “safe” job of a cab-driver.
Gradually, characters inhabit the story, effacing any potential interest it might spur, besides it being a family-reunion fiction.

It feels tedious, and possibly boring, to give an account of what happens along, but I can safely say that, in comparison with third-degree storytellers, no other writer I know of uses this “magical wand” so frequently, and liberally, to make things happen and work like Auster does: Love develops, people are reunited, oppressed freed, money distributed to those in-need, people cured… So much, that at the end of the story, I am impatiently waiting for: “And they lived happily ever after”

In all fairness, real life is real life; monotonous, uneventful, duplicate acquaintances tending towards normality… and it is about this ever-flow with its stubborn perturbations, here and there, that Auster writes. But he could have done it with style, with some depth, with something original, something different, than the everyday banter we engage in.

Throughout the book, a couple of stories are told about Poe, Thoreau, and Kafka, though they feel to me as”Did you know?” blurbs.

To the post’s question, my answer is No! This will definitely be my last Auster; there are other contemporary writers out there, some certainly in Brooklyn, who better deserve our time and support.

Deleted, against my wish…

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This post was originally published here, on my WordPress blog tabadoul.wordpress.com

I never thought I would have to do this, but I took it out… After I initially promoted it on twitter and facebook, I had to delete the corresponding tweets and posts, but objected to the removal of the post altogether. Eventually, I had to take it off; living among friends and family, and not expecting much from the local readers aside bigotry, ignorance and violence, I succumbed and changed its visibility to private. 

I re-post the Tumblr link below, as a possibility for me to link WordPress to it, without the corresponding political tags, without the possibility of promoting it on other social media; Tumblr apparently is not as popular as WordPress is in Lebanon, and so, quite inconspicuously, I attempt to face-up to the bigot system one more time.

Here goes… (I took out the names, for obvious reasons)

What does a Lebanese think?