Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book #54: The Other Side of My Bookshelf

"Darwinians, with their unconscious teleology, as usual put forward hypotheses about the possible selective advantages of the emergence of consciousness, but, as usual, these didn't explain anything; they were just so-so stories, no more.  Then again, the anthropogenic model was hardly more convincing: life had thrown up something which could contemplate itself, a mind capable of understanding it, but so what?  That in itself didn't make understanding human consciousness any easier."                                                           -Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles

A couple weeks ago, my agent Sam had a bunch of us over, and upon opening the second bottle of wine, one of the other writers there put forth the question: if you had to recommend just one book to the group, what would it be?  We went around the room, and people waxed lyrical about Flannery O'Connor, Marguerite Duras and Toni Morrison . . . all beloved friends on my bookshelf.  But Sam's choice caught my attention: The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq.  I was struck by this title because I have it on my bookshelf - or to be more precise, I should say we have it on our bookshelf.  When my boyfriend Chris and I moved in together a little over a year ago, we combined our two book collections into an encyclopedic wall of books, and I often find myself, late at night, if I can't sleep, venturing over to the shelves dominated by Camus, Sartre and Musil - all those existentialist Continental authors whom I've never really gotten into.  The Elementary Particles was tucked alongside this set.  I'd observed Chris flipping through it and rereading sections a few times; he'd mentioned that the novel had stayed with him.  So in picking up this book, I had high hopes indeed: I was hoping to gain insight into both my agent's and boyfriend's unique minds (and the male mind more generally, if such an abstraction can be said to exist).

I was not disappointed.  The Elementary Particles puts under the microscope the strange, symbiotic relationship between two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, who on the surface appear polar opposites.  Michel is an almost asexual, brilliantly gifted molecular biologist whose only sense of connection to humanity is through his beloved body of research into the origins of human consciousness and individuality from the primal muck of animal life.  Bruno, on the other hand, is animal man incarnate.  The novel traces the vicissitudes in their love lives, as Michel is granted a second chance with Annabelle, his childhood sweetheart, a girl of extraordinary delicate beauty, and Bruno find love in the most unlikely of places: at a beachside orgy, where he meets Christiane, a cynical older woman whose taste for orgies proves not at all incompatible with a sensitive, wonderfully generous soul.  Fleeting moments of connection and lyrical beauty are possible in such relationships, the author seems to suggest, but in the end both Michel's and Bruno's affections are exposed as elusive and unstable.  Perhaps the most moving scene occurs just after Christiane has been paralyzed - depriving her of the carnal pleasure so core to her being.  Bruno steps forward for a glimmering moment:  "He kissed her on both cheeks, then on the lips. 'Now you can come to Paris and move in with me,' he said.  'Are you sure that's what you want?'  He didn't answer, or at least he hesitated."

Ultimately, Bruno's disappointment with his own inability to overcome the bounds of his own selfishness and believe in a form of love that transcends the fragile, ruined body seems to be at the heart of the author's disenchantment with the human race.  Yet I was surprised to discover that some reviewers - most notably, The New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani - have dismissed this novel as nothing more than an unsparing case study of humanity's vileness.  For me, Michel's and Bruno's search for something more - whatever that "more" might be (a new mode of existence? a new mode of writing? a new way of inhabiting the world and our bodies?) - is a pay-off unto itself.  Reading about their search and its tragic limits filled me with melancholy awe and moments of piercing awareness that few authors are capable of provoking.

Photo from: here  


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book #53: The Paradox of Holocaust Fiction

"She closed the door on the little white face, turned the key in the lock.  Then slipped the key into her pocket."                                                              -Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah's Key

I just finished reading Sarah's Key, a novel that I wanted to love.  I wanted to love it and indeed learn from it, since I'm currently working on an intergenerational historical novel - and who better to learn from than an author whose novel has been made into a successful filmTatiana de Rosnay carries off her interweaving of past and present storylines with consummate skill, and yet I have to say I found something profoundly unsatisfying about the result.  

The historical plot focuses on Sarah Starzynski, a young Jewish French girl who suddenly finds her entire life under siege, when the French police, working under Nazi orders, evict the Starzynski family from their apartment in Paris and throw them into concentration camps in the French countryside.  But Sarah's torment is compounded by a personal guilt: in an attempt to save her little brother from the police, she locks him in a tiny closet, and only later, after she and her parents have been dragged away, realizes the consequences of her actions.  This strand of the novel I found utterly compelling and moving in how vividly it brings to life the horror of everyday-life-turned-upside-down through the eyes of a young girl.

Yet the present storyline that intersects with this narrative falls flat.  Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, discovers that the apartment her French husband has inherited was once inhabited by the Starzynski family and the tragic events that unfolded there come to haunt her conscience - leading to upheaval in her personal life.  While all the characters are skillfully depicted enough, I found myself unable to become emotionally invested in their crises: a marriage on the rocks, an unplanned pregnancy, the stresses of busy careers.  These normal concerns of contemporary life seem trivial and meaningless, juxtaposed with the unfathomable sadness of Sarah's plight.

And yet, don't get me wrong, it isn't that I wished de Rosnay had stuck strictly with the historical plot by telling the entire novel from Sarah's perspective.  To do so would have led to an utterly bleak novel (for who can honestly imagine a happy outcome for Sarah?)  No, I see why the author felt the need to allow for some moment of redemption through Julia's coming to terms with her sense of collective guilt.  Yet by creating Julia as a kind of stand-in for me, the reader, guiding my emotional response, I found my emotions invariably falling short of what I felt they should be, given the history at stake.  Perhaps this is the risk or paradox that any novelist may face in attempting to represent the Holocaust?  Shedding a few tears over Julia's angst felt like an overly sentimental and self-indulgent response, and yet I can't say how I would have told this story differently.

Photo from: here 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

At The Glass Menagerie

Over the weekend, I saw a marvellous play with my mother – The Glass Menagerie, at Soulpepper Theatre.  I took her to see it for her birthday.  As my mom and I were waiting for the play to start, I was reading Tennessee Williams’ bio in the programme and a couple sentences jumped out at me.  I read aloud: “Success came after poverty and odd jobs, a nervous breakdown, three attempts to get his undergraduate degree and a first play that flopped.  He was 34 years old.”

My mom looked over with mirthful, ironic eyes.  “That is so you!”

I’m turning 34 this year, and my first book will be published shortly (hopefully this fall, though my publisher tells me we may need to delay until early spring….)  I’m crossing my fingers it won’t be a flop, like Williams’ first play.  My dissertation rather fell on its face, so I’m counting that as getting my initial flop out of my system.  And like Williams, I suffered a breakdown while peddling my trade as an adjunct prof in the backwaters of Nova Scotia, which I definitely consider an “odd job.” 

My mother smiled and we settled back in our seats to a play that we both agreed was the best we’d seen in quite a while.  The matriarch at the centre of The Glass Menagerie is Amanda Wingfield, a faded southern beauty who parades around the living room of her shabby apartment in St. Louis, driving her two adult children, Tom and Laura, mad with stories of all her “gentleman callers” and former glory.  The actor who plays Amanda (Nancy Palk) brings just the right balance of manic energy and melancholy nostalgia to the role.  That her search to find a husband for timid, awkward Laura is doomed from the beginning is something everyone in the audience can just feel in their bones.  Laura is a strange, almost autistic young woman caught in a perpetual state of girlhood, her only interest playing with a menagerie of tiny glass animals.  Meanwhile, Tom – a factory worker and would-be poet – proves no less fragile and fallible on his own journey to escape the stifling conditions of home.

Their vulnerability makes these characters fascinating to watch, and most importantly, you can really feel their suffering.  And yet, even the darkest scenes are cut through with flashes of levity and beauty – a boy Laura had a crush on in high school nicknames her “Blue Roses,” because he misheard her say she suffers from pleurosis.  These fleeting moments of connection, humour and intense feeling somehow make all the suffering of life worthwhile, the play seems to suggest. 

The following evening, “Blue Roses” still lingering in my mind, I couldn’t resist renting Blue Valentine – a no less tragic, beautiful movie about lost love and thwarted expectations.  Just to make sure I’d thoroughly worked myself up into an emotional lather.

And the next morning, after a lethargic spell of a few days, I found that the words were flowing again.  What a relief.  I didn’t leave my desk for the next several hours, immersed once again in writing the world of my novel.

Photo from: here


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.