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Monday, April 29, 2013

=2013 Books Read=

Noctuary
Thomas Ligotti

The Drawer Where Dead Things Go

What mad impulse caused her to get off the train here, of all places, instead of her accustomed stop? She hadn't asked herself the question yet, but she would, and soon. And when she did, there would be no good answer.

Unlit and uninhabited, the derelict station looked as if it had been abandoned long ago. From a rusted chain, a sign banged in the hollow wind. But the name of whatever town had once been inscribed there was nearly erased by time and weather. The last disordered letters still legible formed no discernible appellation, not in English, nor in any other language meant for a human tongue.

What remained was a random combination of unpronounceable consonants. No vowels survived.

***

Odd that she'd never noticed this stop before on her daily commute, though she must have passed it at least twice a day, every working day, for the last fifteen years. Odd, but then again, as often is the case, a sensible explanation could be contrived.

At this point in her commute, she was usually napping, or deep into whatever book she was reading to pass the time.  And whatever town--if you could call the empty habitation barely visible down the road in the fading light--would be easy to miss from the window of a train moving at speed.

And yet, even as she formulated this explanation, it struck her as the contrivance it was, as not the real reason that she'd impulsively disembarked from the train at this most unwelcoming of destinations.

She would have to wait for the real reason to reveal itself; if it ever did.

Perhaps, and here she was merely speculating once again, it had something to do with the book she'd just finished. It was titled"Noctuary" and it was a curious volume of stories and midnight mediations by a reclusive author who went by the name Ligotti. The circumstances by which she came to be reading this book, like the circumstances of her disembarking from the train, seemed random as well.  For she had not chosen the book; she had never heard of Ligotti or his work before reading this particular book. Instead, in a way, the book had chosen her. It had been left behind on a seat by another passenger where she'd found it by chance only the day before.

However the book came into her hands,  she fell under its powerful spell within the first few pages. She was completely taken in by the sensuality of its gloom, it's heavy air of dread, it's helplessly fatal attraction to decay. There was something erotically charged in the author's descriptions of ruined landscapes that themselves were suggestive of other, more ancient worlds which stood parallel with our own. These worlds could be but half-glimpsed through an ancient drapery of apprehension. Ligotti's baroque language was irresistibly seductive as he came close to describing unnameable horrors that could only be caught, but not quite, from the corners of one's eyes.

For the last eighteen waking hours, she had fallen under this Ligotti's unwholesome enchantment. There was no other word that described better the effect his strange little book had on her. He had hypnotized her into believing in the reality of this other world, a world of oddity and anomaly which he described so vividly, yet so elusively, that it seemed to be more real than the workaday world  that up to now she took for the real thing. That was the main power of his spell. He left you, the reader, to fill in with your own imagination what he left blank. And, in so doing, you suddenly began to imagine what was real.

When she had finished the slender volume on the train that evening, she looked up and saw her own hollow, ghostly reflection on the window. And through her reflection on the glass she recognized what she imagined to be the very kind of place that Ligotti had described so obsessively, so painstakingly in story after story. Without thinking, she pulled the cord signaling the conductor to stop at the upcoming station. Against the shriek and pitch of the braking train, she gathered her possessions and made her way up the aisle, bent forward as if against a stiff wind. She positioned herself at the door, hand gripping the pole, balancing herself until the train ground to a stop and the door folded open.

Before she knew it, she found herself alone on the empty platform, the train receding into the distance. She watched it's lights until they were suddenly swallowed in the crouching darkness waiting for the train as the track twisted into the surrounding woods.

She felt as if she'd narrowly escaped some unnamed catastrophe.

***

And now, what? She descended the station platform not knowing where to go, what to do. The town which lay before her seemed to be set on a faulty axis. An air of vertigo prevailed in the very organization of the buildings, the lay-out of the streets. But the degree of error was so slight it was difficult to pinpoint what was wrong. She had read somewhere how only a few degrees of fever separated each of us from the hallucinating madman. Such was the case here. What she had taken to be the main street seemed to meander pointlessly, branching off into a meaningless network of back-alleys, dead-ends, and cul-de-sacs. The entire effect was ad hoc, labyrinthine without a goal, a jigsaw puzzle of forced pieces, as disorienting as if she were following the line of a mindless doodle.

There was scant illumination from the streetlights overhead, only one of every three or four lamps gave off any light at all. There wasn't much to see in what light there was. Most of the storefronts were boarded over, sprayed with indecipherable graffiti. Those that hadn't been covered revealed empty interiors behind blind windows grayed-over with grime. After half an hour of walking, she couldn't be sure if she hadn't circled back to where she'd begun.  Had she seen these same stores before or did they simply look so generic in their diminished state that she could fool herself into thinking them familiar?  

Beneath her feet, the sidewalk was cracked and buckled as if some great beast in the earth had once heaved restlessly in a sleep troubled by horrific dreams. She had to step carefully, watching where she put her feet for fear she might trip. When she did look up, she saw that the buildings rose several stories above the shops, providing what must be apartment  space. But these apartments, too, looked long abandoned. The rows of dark windows no more than charred-looking squares stretching into a black infinity.

Suddenly, up ahead, one of the squares was illuminated and almost just as suddenly went black again, disappearing into the solid wall of night. Had she mistaken a streetlight flaring briefly back to life for a momentarily lighted window? Had she imagined, too, seeing the dark outline of a human figure standing in that anemic yellow light?

She stared intently at that square of darkness from which she thought she'd seen the apparition, until she might have convinced herself of anything, but the light did not appear again.

Then she walked on, the broken, heaving spine of concrete demanding most of her immediate attention.

***

She was looking for...what exactly? She couldn't say. No more than she could give a sensible answer to the question of why she'd gotten off the train. But is it so unusual not to know? Aren't we more often than not mute before the biggest questions of our lives? Why do we love those we love, for instance, and desire what we desire?  Why do we dream our dreams? What is the origin of our fears. And why are we so often attracted to what is evil and unwholesome and not repelled as we were taught we should be? 

These were all questions that Ligotti returned to again and again in the dark and unholy bible of stories that she had read. Against her own will and better judgment, she found herself more and more a believer, a disciple of his black revelation.

The clatter of a toppling garbage can startled her from these reveries.  She had just tiptoed passed the dark fetid maw of an alley. Turning, her heart racing, she saw a black cat, at least it looked black against whatever light it stood against, crouched and staring back at her. The cat opened its mouth in a slow-motion, silent cry. Then it dashed off down the street, disappearing into another alley. 

It must have been an after-image from her preoccupied thoughts that, free-floating before her mind's eye, superimposed itself upon the cat to convince her, if only momentarily, that the animal bore a human face.

Nothing but an apparition, she thought, and shuddered. 

On she walked.

***

Up ahead she came upon what passed for the town square: a small park that might have once been carefully tended, but which now was a tangled mass of overgrown vegetation of no discernible variety or origin. It was a chaotic mass of growth that seemed destined to one day strangle itself with its own undisciplined vitality. Here, upon a splintered bench which the vegetation was already in the process of devouring, she sat down to take stock of her situation. That's when it occurred to her that soon, if not already, she would be missed at home.

Funny, how she hadn't thought of that before this moment. Before long her absence would be a cause of some concern, then genuine worry, and finally outright alarm. What time was it anyway? In the murky light, she couldn't read her watch. She instinctively reached for the cell phone in her handbag and realized that in her haste to leave the train, though she had gathered up her possessions, or so she thought, she'd somehow managed to leave the bag with her most precious personal possessions, including her wallet and her cellphone behind. 

How could she have done such a stupid stupid thing? 

Still, aside from the initial familiar jolt of adrenaline such "disasters" usually produce, she felt strangely calm about what ordinarily she would have considered to be a reason for justifiable panic.

"Silly me," she thought, and smiled uneasily, and left it, for the time being, at that.

She glanced up to see the stars for no real reason, thinking, if there was any reason to her looking up to them at all, that they might provide a sense of familiarity in this strange place. But the trees that surrounded the park had stitched themselves together, covering like a shroud the sky above. Instead what captured her attention was the stone face of the statue looming over her. 

She hadn't noticed the statue before now.

How could she have overlooked it? It was larger than life, although one would be hard-pressed to identify anything that ever lived in its wildly chaotic shape. One might have been tempted to consider it a sculptural abstraction, but an abstraction of what? Besides, abstraction in art always had an organizing principle; this statue had none, or at least none that corresponded to any human sense of order. It seemed to be a fluid malignancy that was presented here. If the artist could have been said to have been working toward any discernible realization at all it was perhaps in capturing the very formless, amorphous, ever-creeping quality exhibited here in a medium as inert as stone. Film might have been a better choice for such an intent, a time-lapse sequence of a malignant proliferation of cells, perhaps, might have been a good approximation of what he'd accomplished. 

It might well have been the fluid quality of the statue that had caused her to miss it's looming presence in the first place. For the statue seemed to blend in with the dark vegetation all around it, seemed almost to appear and disappear, playing a macabre game of hide-and-seek against the background of squat inky bushes and spidery trees reaching, squiggling, itching, moving in a breeze that could only be assumed because it couldn't otherwise be sensed in this enclosed and windless sanctum.  Did some quirk of human vision itself, some explainable flux in the operation of the human eye, impart a life to even the dead world of statuary? Of course, the effects of imagination could not be ruled out, all the more so when it was under the influence of anxiety and fear, when it had been so recently fed by the words of Ligotti. 

That would explain, then, the face she saw looking down at her from atop the monstrous statue. A half-familiar face that she could not quite identify before it was subsumed again into the black anonymity  from which it momentarily emerged, like the face of a corpse rolling over in a bog, then turning face back downward into the muck again.

This, too, she knew, was all in her head. But what did that mean, what did that solve? This familiar form of reductionism was meant, since childhood, to absolve us from our worst thoughts, to free us from our most terrifying fears. But did it really? Think about it. Where else did we live but in our heads, when all was said and done. If it was only "all in our heads," then so was the horror, so was hell, and it was inescapable. 

She felt suddenly exhausted, unable to move, and yet move on she must. She couldn't very well sleep here in on a bench in a dark and deserted park. Things hadn't yet come to that point, had they? 

And yet she felt the most profound resistance to getting up. It was as if she were subject to an atmospheric gravity three times that to which she were accustomed. Only the notion that if she didn't get up now, right this very moment, it would only get harder, more impossible to rise at all. Only this saved her from spending the night where she sat. Using what she felt like was all her remaining energy, she heaved herself up from the bench and shuffled up the scant path that led out of the park.

***

Back out on the street again, she found that she felt better, though only marginally. The heavy atmosphere of gloom and inertia had lightened somewhat. Emerging from the other side of the park, however, the town looked even more derelict and forlorn. Here a municipal building of some kind, a gas station, a library all stood abandoned. On a whim, she peered into the window of a laundromat and saw several rows of grim silent machines. The round windows on each of their  doors took on the appearance of blind cyclopean eyes in the underwater gloom. It struck her as an eerily melancholy sight, as if the washers and dryers were so many disconnected robots or life-support machines. But why that should be any particular cause for sadness would take some time to explain and she had none to spare. She might find shelter for the night.

She turned from the laundromat and her breath caught. She saw a figure stopped at the end of the street. He was observing her from the corner, standing by a graffiti-sprayed mailbox under one of the few working streetlamps. In one hand was a notebook and in the other a pen with which he was jotting down notes by the anemic illumination of the flickering lamp.

She raised her hand to hail him, but the moment she did so the man, for it seemed clear now that he was a man, looked up in alarm, as if he never expected to be seen, let alone discovered. He hurriedly pocketed the notebook and pen and rushed around the corner into the darkness.

She called out in desperation, without thinking, in violation of some unwritten code. This she felt instinctively. For without acknowledging it to be the case, it seemed to her unthinkable to break the oppressive silence of this place. No more would she considered shouting in a church or a cemetery. Even so, she cried out. Her voice sounded small and pitiful, growing smaller as it traveled down the avenue, ending in a question more than anything else. A question that went unanswered.

When her voice died away, she followed it down the street in the direction that the man had taken.

***

The district in which she found herself now was less developed. The lots between the buildings were larger and almost completely overgrown. The structures themselves, old factories and empty warehouses from the looks of them, had long ago crumbled into ruins. The ancient gloomy woods were reclaiming the land. Walls of brick stood around pits piled with debris. Thick mattresses of withered gray vines covered heaps of scrap metal. 

Forgetting her exhaustion, she quickened her step. She tried not to look too closely at the shadows which now and then seemed to detach themselves from the general darkness. These shadows would dash briefly through pools of sickly light. Her eyes averted, she did not want to see the glitter of greedy eyes, the whispered whip of a long colorless tail. 

She saw them, anyway.

Where had the town gone? It seemed to have simply ended--no sign, no warning. She turned and saw it behind her: a clutch of gray buildings bristling with a haphazard and broken vertebrae of utility poles, all of it loosely strung together by a falling network of decaying wires. It looked like a dead insect lying on its back.

She was acutely aware that it was colder here. The wind blew unimpeded from the east, over barren fields that may have once been farms. Flecks of ice and grit struck her face. A few trees here and there looked black and twisted, as if blasted by lightning. Somehow she didn't think she'd be too surprised to see a body hanging from the leafless branch of one of these grotesquely stunted growths. But when she did see the body and, staggering forward a few steps, recognized the face, she screamed all the same.

She  screamed and screamed and sunk down into colorless bracken with her broken face in her hands.

***

When she was done screaming, the problem remained. And now, Where to go?

Her eyes had been playing tricks on her, that was all. Or was it her mind playing tricks with her eyes? This place, whatever it was, leant itself to dreams and memories. Whatever border between the past and present usually existed, between the normal and the grotesque, it was dissolved here. But that was nothing unusual, when you considered it carefully. Every night, as we slept, that border dissolved as well. 

That is why she wasn't surprised to see the tall house rising out of the empty stubble field ahead. Like a wooden ship from the nineteenth century, it's masts stripped of sails, it sat stalled in the midst of an endless ocean of eerily becalmed waters. That is why she approached the house now without fear. Because she believed it could just as easily as not be a hallucination or a dream. Because desperation and exhaustion had made her bold. 

And because, as she drew closer to the dark silhouette of a house, she saw a wan light glowing from one of the turrets. Every other window was black. She needed that light.

To turn back now and retrace her steps toward the town and to the station seemed unthinkable. Just the idea made her want to lie down and give up. Ahead and all around, there seemed no other prospects for shelter. There seemed no other alternatives at all. She never would have approached the old house otherwise.

She would never otherwise have let herself inside unannounced. But she feared that if she used the old knocker or pulled the bell whoever was in residence in the turret above would douse the light and vanish once more. She was too tired, too hungry, too cold to play such games anymore. 

The door, though heavy opened. It wasn't locked. The lock, in fact, had long ago rotted out. 

Once inside, she climbed the buckling stairs, rising as if drawn through a crooked carpeted ascent of mold and decay. She reached the last of three pitched landings. She saw the light under the door at the end of a moldering lopsided hall. No other doors interested her. She didn't stop to look questioningly into the pictureless frames. She knew now where she was meant to go.

She approached the door and without knocking she threw it open and there he sat at a desk, the pen in his hand poised above the paper that lay before him. The sheet half covered with an illegible scrawl, the sentence he'd been writing, unfinished.

***

He didn't seemed startled or even surprised at the interruption. Instead, he seemed almost to be expecting her. His cold, phlegmatic eyes appraised her without seeming to come to a conclusion.

She had never seen him before in her life but she knew who he was. A recluse, he made only rare and sporadic, appearances in public, granted only the occasional interview. There existed, therefore, only the briefest descriptions of his physical appearance. These were provided by the chosen few who'd ever come to know him personally. This select handful had apparently felt compelled by loyalty and friendship to respect his secrecy. If they agreed to describe him at all, they did so only in the vaguest of terms. 

A Google search for his likeness turned up gray, out-of-focus, no doubt out-of-date photographs that gave only the barest suggestions of what he must look like now. Looking at these always poorly-developed photographs, it was if he were, indeed, some sort of ghostly apparition. He appeared changeable, even within the same picture. You might as well have been searching for the suggestion of faces in the smoke of a cigarette. 

Still, for all these difficulties, she knew without a shadow of doubt who he was upon first sight. He was the great and mysterious Ligotti, the writer whose works had so intrigued, so hypnotized her. The writer whose work had so irresistibly sucked her into his desultory and doomed world. She recognized him from earlier in the evening. She had seen him in the lighted window, in the form of the man at the end of the block, on the faces of the cat and the statue

He still hadn't spoken a word, nor did he seem inclined to do so. He gave every impression of a man who could sit silently for a thousand years or more without the least discomfort. His pale eyes continued to regard her without emotion. His wan and expressionless face showed no trace of recognition, nor of any interest in who she might be; indeed, it bore no sign of life whatsoever. It might have been a mask, except that it was even less human than even the most horrendous mask in it's absolute vacancy of any human trait whatsoever. 

It was like the nothing behind a mask. The nothing a mask was worn to mask.

At last, it was clear to her what had happened. He had brought her into his world through one of his tales, weaving a story around her that he found he could not finish. His pen was poised above the paper, his scrawl broken off mid-sentence not because she'd interrupted him, but because he simply didn't know what came next. She realized now what he had done, what he had hoped for. Writers often say that at a certain point in every story the characters take over. He had brought her here in desperation, in the vain hope that she would take over. That she would know what came next. But standing there now, frozen and tongue-tied in the presence of the great Ligotti, she realized that she didn't know either. How could he have expected anything different? If he didn't know where to go from here, great author that he was, how could she?

He must have seen at that moment the great disappointment that came over her. Even worse, he must have seen the dawning of contempt in her steady gaze. If He doesn't know, how can I?

He hurriedly gathered up the sheets of paper he'd been working on, opened a drawer in the desk, and stuffed them in a folder with other similarly abandoned pages. Every author has such a drawer, even the great Ligotti. A drawer for stories that didn't work out, for characters that, for one reason or another, usually unfathomable, never came to life. 

He slid shut the drawer--it was the bottommost drawer--and locked it with a key he kept in a secret inner pocket of his wallet.

***

On the train  a handbag sat, left behind by a passenger, still undiscovered. Inside it, a cell phone rang and rang and rang. The caller on the other end could have provided an answer, at least a suggestion, of what came next. But there was no one to receive the call. And when, at last, someone did answer, it was the wrong person, someone who didn't know the woman the caller was trying to reach, who'd only come across the bag that moment and the phone by accident.

Shortly after that, the police would become involved and the real mystery of the woman's disappearance would begin.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

=walking eyeball sketchbook=





=2013 Books Read=

The Messiah of Stockholm
Cynthia Ozick

Unmarked, of course, silent as a predator, the long black sedan pulls to the curb. It's there before you know it, like a cat upon a sparrow. I've feared this all along, and yet I go on courting arrest. I shouldn't be out walking, a woman alone, it's more than dangerous, it's downright foolish. And then there's the curfew. The siren sounded over an hour ago. I've been at my book club's reading group again. We meet once a week. We've been reading The Messiah of Stockholm by Cynthia Ozick.


The back door of the sedan is thrown open. A man leans out one hand still on the door handle. "How about a lift, young lady?"

His face is thin, his smile rubbery. He's wearing a long black leather trench coat, and, underneath, the sleek, gleaming black uniform of the Internal Security Service. Not a Nazi uniform, the Nazis are ancient history, but all uniforms are basically the same uniform. A point on a continuum. Just as all patriotism at its extreme is Nazism.

"I prefer to walk. It's not far."

"Nonsense. It's beginning to rain. Come inside. It's warm and dry. Out there, you'll catch your death." By way of assurance, he displays his humorless, death's-head grin.

It's the same old dream again. I can see he won't take no for an answer. It's not a question that he's asking. It's not an invitation that he's offering. He looks away and motions me brusquely inside the car.

It's best to obey, up to a point. He slides back into the dark interior and I climb inside. The door, as if on its own, shuts with a sound hushed and well-machined. Shuts, definitively, I can't help but think, like the lid of a coffin.

Then I wake up.

***

His name is Bruno Schulz. And he cannot wake up. He doesn't have that luxury. If he wakes up, he will return to the horrors of the real world and he will die.

He is, in ordinary life, an unremarkable school teacher. But his "real" identity marks him as a visionary artist and writer of fantastical tales. Up to this point in his life, age fifty, he has compiled two collections of stories "Cinnamon Shops" and "Sanitarium Under the Sign of the Hourglass." These magical, absurdist fables out-Kafka Kafka in their weirdness and poignancy. But few know this for at this time Schulz is all but unread except for a handful of admiring friends. Tonight, this virtually unknown man is walking through the streets of Nazi-occupied Poland with a loaf of bread. He is returning home through the restricted sector. Jews are not allowed in this neighborhood after dark, but Schulz has protection. He tries to sidestep the Gestapo officer striding towards him. But the officer purposely sidesteps with him, blocking his path. Schulz feels his heart sink. This is a dance he cannot refuse. He carries papers permitting him passage, but that doesn't mean that he can't be harassed, that he can't be abused.

"I know you," the Gestapo man declares. "You're Landau's Jew."

His voice rings out on the quiet street like an accusation. But what is there to accuse? Schulz does not deny it. So this man knows him. Yes, it's true. He has been fortunate enough to have the patronage of a ranking Gestapo officer who has seen and admired Schulz's drawings. Schulz has even drawn a mural depicting a fairy tale on the bedroom wall of the officer's son. For his artistic skill, Schulz has been given a certain degree of protection.

"May I pass then?" Schulz asks. "The hour is late and I should be home. Even with the proper papers."

"Yes, you should be home. But you won't be going there tonight, Jew."

Bruno sighs. It is so tiresome. Will he be beaten up and arrested or merely humiliated? No, the Gestapo man probably won't beat him up, at least not too badly, knowing he is Landau's Jew. He often feels guilty getting these special privileges, but what practical point would refusing them prove? A man is given enough of a burden of misery in life. What harm is there in accepting what luck comes his way every so often. So long as it hurts no one else. And now the "gift" itself has turned into another few pounds of misery in the form of this belligerent Gestapo agent bearing some sort of grudge against his patron, who has recognized Schulz as "Landau's Jew." Isn't that just the way? The irony and absurdity of life, where a blessing turns a curse and, sometimes, though far less often, vice-versa? Should he produce his papers anyway? He begins to do so when he sees the Walther pistol in the Gestapo agent's fist. What is this then? He looks up questioningly, daring in his puzzlement to look the Nazi eye-to-eye for the first time.

"A Jew for Jew," the Gestapo officer laughs, barking like a Doberman. "He killed mine. Now I kill his."

This must be a dream, Schulz thinks, lying in the gutter, bleeding. How did this happen? He heard no shots. There is surprisingly little pain. That is because he has instinctively decided that the entire encounter is a dream; in fact, his entire life has been a dream, a monstrous nightmarish dream that he only dreamt he remembered. Lying there, close to death, he begins to tell himself a story and immediately he finds him walking down the Street of Crocodiles, which, as it happens, is the title and subject of one his most famous tales. But the story he tells himself now is even stranger, even more fantastic than any he has ever written. And he must keep telling it to himself. For every sentence is another step into this new interior world, a world he is creating as he goes in order to escape his sordid dying in the gutter.

***

In literary circles, there has long-circulating rumor that Bruno Schulz was working on a third book when he died. The manuscript of this unpublished tome was to be called The Messiah and it would have been his masterpiece. So the story goes. But let's admit it: stories such as these are the stuff of literary legends and those who love books cannot resist falling under the spell of such legends.

Of course, it's a necessary part of the legend that the book must be irretrievably lost and so it is in this case. No trace of Bruno Schulz's Messiah, if it exists, if it ever existed, has ever been found. But evidence, or lack thereof, means little in the survival of a legend. In fact, such lack of evidence only feeds a legend, gives it life.

Were the pages of Schulz's lost classic scattered in the gutter the night he died, fluttering away down the street like doves scattered at the sound of the gunshots that ended their author's life? Were they hidden in the wall of a building subsequently reduced to a smoking rubble by a Russian tank when the tide of war reversed and the Soviet army swept  with inexorable vengeance toward Berlin? Perhaps the manuscript was entrusted to a friend of Bruno's, who was eventually rounded up and sent to a camp where the pages were used to stuff shoes and line threadbare coats against the cold, ultimately burned up in Hitler's furnaces? No one knows, but many have come up with answers. Most unthinkable of all...did the very man who murdered Schulz, the Gestapo officer Karl Gunther, discover the pages on Schulz's body--a grotesque irony that would be worthy of a story by Bruno Schulz himself.

***

I thought I had woken myself up, but no, I am still dreaming, or dreaming once again. The story has continued. I am with my once-a-week reading group again and we are discussing The Messiah of Stockholm. It is a novel by Cynthia Ozick and it is about the discovery of Bruno Schulz's lost manuscript, the one that he may have composed in his mind as he lay dying in a Polish gutter, at fifty, on the night of November 19th, 1942.

In Ozick's novel, a Swedish book reviewer of unknown parentage convinces himself that he is the long-lost son of Bruno Schulz, that he has inherited his "father's eye." He has no proof other than his affinity for the works and world that Schulz has left behind. This world--in all its absurdity--looks to Lars the same to him as it did to his putative father. If it is a delusion under which he lives, then Lars is content to live within a delusion; it gives his otherwise drab and meaningless life a magic and a meaning.

And who's to say what is a fantasy when one believes in it wholeheartedly? When one believes in a fantasy with a will just as strong if not stronger than others believe in what is agreed to be "reality" can not the fantasy prevail? After all, it's generally agreed that the power of the imagination is limitless, is it not? In his works, Bruno Schulz had concretized a world to rival the Nazi nightmare; and Lars has created his own reality to counter the drab existence he ekes out in Stockholm. In fact, Lars does so fine a job of imagining himself to be the son of Bruno Schulz that he attracts the attention of an old elfin bookseller named Heidi, her mysterious sea-captain husband "Dr. Elkund" who is a broker of, among other things, literary artifacts, and a young woman who claims to be the long-lost daughter of Bruno Schulz...and, therefore, Lars's own long-lost half-sister.  This young woman arrives in Stockholm with a manuscript she claims is the long-lost "Messiah."

We are in the midst of discussing this novel at my weekly book club, debating whether the bookseller and her shady husband aren't, in fact, swindlers. Whether the young woman isn't in on the plot and her manuscript a forgery meant to dupe Lars and, through him, utilizing his role as a book reviewer, a gullible public; whether Lars, himself, is really the long-lost son of Bruno Schulz or himself just another sort of "counterfeit," an ordinary man attempting to make of himself and his life something extraordinary. And we are debating whether, in the end, these sorts of lies we tell ourselves are such a bad a thing, after all, given the grim realities of life. Is it really so bad a thing to make a little magic in the world, even if, ultimately, magic is no more than a trick, a sleight-of-hand, a fraud? Isn't that better than the dark "truths" of our existence: the dreary grinding days, the dead-end jobs, the ever-present headlines of war and famine, the daily signs of our aging and diminishment, the cancer, the dying in the gutter?

We are in the midst of this heated discussion, the members of my book club and I, when the door bursts open and the windows shatter and a fog rises that replaces most of the breathable air in the room and through this sudden fog one can make out the looming, ominous shapes of the black-clad agents of Internal Security, their weapons drawn, set on overkill. They are figures in a postmodern Grimm fairy-tale, telling us through their insectoid breathing masks that we are all under arrest.

As I lie there on my belly, my wrists cuffed behind my back, gasping, my blind eyes stinging, I remember to wake myself up and once again I get away...

***

We are living in a bad time. It is a Dark Age though very few think of it as such with all the flashy gadgetry available to us, devices that we use to spirit us here and there, anywhere but away from here, the way an amputee uses an artificial limb. It is an age that has the outward look of accelerating progress, where the sounds are louder and the chatter more incessant, the lights brighter and more dazzling than they ever were before, but, in truth, what no one sees, or few see, is that this only because the dark has never before been darker.

This is what we are not meant to see.

What is the crime in reading, you might well ask. Where is the danger? There is none. By the same token, there is no merit in reading either if you read books that are merely the equivalent of what you see on television. Books that don't question anything, that don't lead you to think, that are merely passive entertainment whose added virtue, if any, are that they provide a little extra in the way of calisthenics for your eyes.

This is what is generally considered "reading" today.

***

There is something about a bookshop, not just any bookshop, not, certainly, one of those mega book malls that sell everything from greeting cards to feathered pens to children's stuff animals, but a real bookshop, the dusty, cluttered kind, where the unalphabetized volumes teeter in leaning towers in ever imminent danger of collapse and an ancient proprietor lurks somewhere or other, a bald little gnome of a man or woman, making an inventory of a moldering box of books brought in just that morning from the attic of a deceased professor of philosophy.

Real book lovers live to stumble upon little shops such as these. Their hearts pick up speed when they come upon them on some well-trafficked street, popping up seemingly from out of nowhere, sandwiched between an eyeglass outlet and a laundromat, or down a flight of broken concrete steps, a damp little basement below the level of the sidewalk, out of sight and out of mind, in the hustle-bustle of daily commerce.

For it is here, in shops such as these, that the true lover of books seeks, conscious of it or not, that one magical book that will change his or her life forever. The lost "Messiah" of Bruno Schulz is such a book. The very fact that it is lost makes it such a book. Somewhere in those uncategorized and uncategorizable stacks the manuscript exists. In it, the spell, the secret, the cure for grief and death and is perpetually awaiting our discovery.

We are always awaiting the "Messiah" in one form or another. In whatever form it takes, book or god, what we seek is that which will resurrect us into a new life. It is a variation of this archetypal search that Cynthia Ozick describes in her novel The Messiah of Stockholm. We never find the book we are looking for. The Messiah never comes. But it is the search, it is the expectation that revelation is just around the corner on the Street of Crocodiles that saves us. 

As it saved Bruno Schulz who bled to death in the gutter, shot by a jealous Gestapo agent, on November 19th, 1942.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

=2013 Books Read=

Later The Same Day
Grace Paley

I Dumped Mr. Right for Grace Paley
A True Romance Story

Ten seconds, that's all you've got. Ten seconds before I go online and tweet everyone I know that I just heard the craziest thing ever in my entire thirty-two years of life. Jilly pretended to look at the watch she wasn't wearing.

You don't even have a Twitter account.

I'll open one special. Don't change the subject. The countdown has started. Seven-six-five.

What's so crazy anyway? You once broke up with a guy because of his name.

Jilly put her arm down. Well, Roland is an impossible name. I simply couldn't go through life saying Good morning, Roland. She made a face. Besides, he wasn't the perfect man.

Who said Jake was the perfect man?

You did. Last week. Ah, Jake. Now there's a name a girl can wake up to.

I did not say he was the perfect man.

Well, words to that effect.

I still don't understand what you find so crazy.

Breaking up with a guy just because of a little literary squabble over Grace Paley.

It wasn't a literary squabble. It was a defining of positions.

Still. To end a relationship with Mr. Right over a feminist writer dead for a decade.

He wasn't Mr. Right.

You said yourself he was.

Then I was wrong.

***

We were sitting in the park that Grace Paley routinely used as settings in her short stories. Jilly was eating a big pretzel bought from one of the oppressed proletarian vendors working the lunchtime crowd. I was not. I'd already had my full of pretzels. It was the same park where I'd had it out with Jake only the day before.

***

That day, as it happens, I was eating a big pretzel. Me, and the pigeons. I was sharing.

Don't encourage them, Jake said.

He was right. They were beginning to crowd around us on the bench. They were getting pretty aggressive. But I broke off another piece all the same. Disgusting as they could be, I tried to remember, the pigeon is the proletariat of birds. I  tossed the chewy, nearly indigestible chunk into the center of the burbling squalid ever-growing boil of sharp beaks and dirty feathers that threatened any moment to overwhelm us. Like the Russian Revolution.

You're reading her? That's how Jake started it. He was looking at the book on my lap. Later the Same Day by Grace Paley. Why, if you don't mind me asking?

I didn't mind him asking; it was the way he asked to which I found myself taking particular exception. Why not?

She was a rabid communist for one thing.

So? Jesus was a communist. Or he would be, if he came back today. Have you read the Gospels, by the way? Did you ever hear him asking for a health insurance card before he healed some cripple or made the blind to see? Did he ever bark at some hungry beggar, Take a hike! Go and get a job instead you lazy bum! You people tend to forget that.

Us People? What do you mean Us People?

You know what I mean.

No, I really don't.

The same thing you mean when you give me that superior look and say, You People.

From that point the conversation traveled, as they say, from bad to worse.

***

Okay look, Jake said, forget the politics. Although I don't know how you can. It's practically all she ever writes about. It's in just about every story in one guise or another. All that radical leftist hoo-ha. Old news even before they rolled the sod over her.

Bull. Ever hear of the Occupy Movement?

Jake waved his hand dismissively. Just dumb kids reviving a trend. Like hipsters going in for their dad's old fedoras and cardigans. Retro-protest. Dress-up. Playacting for the pampered. Like spending a weekend at a dude ranch. Someone should open a theme-park: Protest USA. Be a hippie for an afternoon. Probably make a fortune. None of it to be taken seriously.

Says you.

What I said is forget the leftist rant. You people never can, though. But humor me. Put the message aside for just a moment. Take the medium. The style. Everything elliptical, clipped, oblique, telegraphic. As if she were too smart and clever to finish a scene or a point or a conversation to it's end. Shards of meaning. Intimations. Like all the cool people are in on this together. They get the lingo. She doesn't even use quotation marks when people speak. I mean, how cool is that, right?

He was being sarcastic. I'm not one of those people who claim they don't like sarcasm. Actually, I love it. Sarcasm adds something to a conversation, like a fiery spice.  Some people just can't handle; they like it bland. Not me. Brevity is good enough for Raymond Carver.

What's Raymond Carver got to do with it?

You like him as I recall. Or did. When you still read beyond the Wall Street Journal and the Kiplinger's Report or whatever it's called. Loved him, in fact.

I repeat: What's that got to do with it?

Well, I guess its okay for a male author to be elliptical, oblique, telegraphic, laconic. It's okay for a male author to be smart and clever and to expect a reader to be just as with it as he is and not have to spell everything out and if the reader isn't sharp enough than the hell with them. Right? But for a woman, it's a different story.

He grinned. Is that a pun?

Jake had a killer grin. But I wasn't falling for it. Not this time. A woman is expected to drone on and on instead. I guess so you guys can roll your eyes and grin and elbow each other, give each other the look, the look that says, Well, there she goes again. God forbid Paley's characters had been as big a bunch of adulterous booze hounds as Carver's were. I shudder to think what you'd have called Grace Paley then. You what to know what I really think? I think you just discount what Grace Paley is really writing about as unimportant. Because she's writing about a woman's experience, about woman in full. She's not just writing about a woman vis-a-vis men, which is about all you men are interested in hearing about from a woman. She's writing about about motherhood, about friendships between women, about family, about children. What's more, she's writing about politics and the environment and a woman's sense of being a caretaker of the earth. She's writing of a woman as a multi-faced human being. And that just doesn't interest you Jake, why don't you admit it, instead of just nitpicking that her sentences jump around.

Jake laughed, though uneasily, I thought. Listen, I think you're making way too much of this, he said.

Don't tell me what I think.

Jeez.

***

Jeez, Jilly echoed Jake's sentiments exactly when I finished. So you broke up with him right then and there?

No. Later. When he called that night as if nothing had happened. I'd had some time to think it over. I still wasn't sure what I'd do, but when he acted as if nothing had happened, that tipped the balance. I told him that I didn't see a point in going on. I couldn't continue seeing a man whose fundamental attitudes towards life and society and women and gender relations as revealed by his position on the stories of Grace Paley are so diametrically opposed to mine. The fact is, I feel I've wasted too much of my life already not being informed by the work of Grace Paley. From here on out, Grace Paley would be an important person in my life.

Wow. What did he say?

Pretty much what you said.

About telling everyone on Twitter?

About me being crazy.

Jilly looked thoughtfully at what remained of her pretzel.  I see. Then she looked up. Do you mind, she said, if I explore the possibility of  Jake myself? After a respectful period of mourning in consideration of the end of your relationship of course.

Of course. I said, spicing the words with sarcasm. Be my guest.

Do you mean it?

I shrugged. Why not? But I don't think I really meant it.

I've got to say one thing for you Liz, Jilly said.

What's that?

You sure do take your literature seriously.

Someone has to.

***

Jilly did just as she said she would. When it came to men, if nothing else, she usually did. She hooked up with Jake, although I beg to differ on what her idea of a respectful period of mourning for the end of a relationship might be. I didn't think a week showed a lot of respect for our relationship. Or grief, either, for that matter. Anyway, I didn't give their relationship much of a chance of lasting. I was right; it didn't. But it lasted longer than I would have thought, or liked.

Jake and I circled around the idea of getting back together again, but I think it was clear to both of us that it just wouldn't work. Our basic positions were just too entrenched, too opposed. Grace Paley had made that clear to both of us. And she was still, just as I had foreseen, a big part of my life.

Instead of getting back with Jake, I hunted down the rest of Grace Paley's books. Her smart lucid prose. Her political engagement. Her ethnic Jewish earthiness. They were like a tonic to me. Not just for my broken heart. But a tonic for something I hadn't even known was ailing me.

There is something about the way Grace Paley looks in the author photo of Later The Same Day. It's hard to define. But whatever it is,  I decided I couldn't live without that quality. I defaced library property to remind me of it.

In this photo I stole Grace Paley appears to be in later middle age. Her broad face is open, clear, and simple. Her eyes are dark and level, the brows cut straight across. It's a serious, no-nonsense face,  a peasant's face, an immigrant's face, a yenta's face; it radiates down-to-earth wisdom. She seems to be in attendance at some kind of women's conference but she looks like she could be sitting across from you having coffee at a cafe or, better yet, at her kitchen table on the Lower East Side. She is sitting there intently listening as you spilled your heart out. Her chin is propped on her hand and she is gazing with such benevolent interest at whatever you're saying that you know that no matter what your problem, it's going to be okay. You're both going to be laughing about it in about five minutes. Just her presence is enough to calm you. Her intelligence, her integrity, her conviction, and, yes, her courage.

Her expression says, Don't worry darling.

It says, Stand up for what you believe in, but don't be ashamed to sit down every once in a while.

It says, Everything is going to be okay, even if it isn't.

It says, A single life can matter but only if you act like it does.

I keep the photo in my purse. She's there whenever I need her. She's like a mom-in-the-pocket. But in some ways even better.