Thursday, August 27, 2015

O virtuous Atwood! Virtuous beer!

Great Canadian novelist, environmental activist, inventor, poet. Margaret Atwood is also a brewmaster.

A colleague stumbled across some NooBroo at a local dépanneur, and picked up a bottle for me. I couldn't be more chuffed (any chuffier?)!

Beau's All Natural teamed up with Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson to create MaddAddamites NooBroo, inspired by Atwood's novel MaddAddam and including many of the botanicals noted therein. Proceeds support the Pelee Island Bird Observatory.

According to the brewery website, "Atwood personally tasted and selected the bouquet of botanicals included in this delicate, delicious gruit." She describes it as, "Fresh and spring-like, confident and down-to-earth yet inspirational, rooted in the wild world of foraging and gathering."

Also: most excellent label. I especially love the bee. (Why yes, that is a wind-up frog sitting in the background on my desk at work.)

However, my daughter has raised a concern: she thought K~ was simply showing me the bottle, hadn't realized K~ gave it to me. And now I can't sleep because it seems to me I must've got it wrong. Just last week K~ was offering a taste of the honey her father had made, er, harvested, to the bossman at work, and he mistakenly claimed the whole jar. And so with NooBroo, I couldn't just admire the concept and the packaging; I had to take it, I have to drink it.

I have not yet sampled the brew. Quite in addition to clarifying the issue of ownership, I believe the gruit requires a leisurely weekend to serve as an excellent accompaniment to some fine literature. Perhaps it shall wait even, for The Heart Goes Last. (No, I don't think it can wait that long. Atwood's new novel comes out at the end of September.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

This most improbable of cities

I read Thomas Mann's Death in Venice in Venice recently, and it was a remarkably intense experience.

I began reading en route from Florence, in the train.
He saw it once more, that landing-place that takes the breath away, that amazing group of incredible structures the Republic set up to meet the awe-struck eye of the approaching seafarer: the airy splendour of the palace and Bridge of Sighs, the columns of lion and saint on the shore, the glory of the projecting flank of the fairy temple, the vista of the gateway and clock. Looking, he thought that to come to Venice by the station is like entering a palace by the back door. No one should approach, save by the high seas as he was doing now, this most improbable of cities.
I immediately regretted our approach. Although by our original plan we were to fly to Venice, and travel from the airport to the city by boat, we had been forced to revise several arrangements. Here we were on the railroad tracks stretching out from the mainland onto the sea with no inkling of what we were approaching — a train station like any other, the back door.

It would be days later that I fully understood, when we returned over water from neighbouring islands. Fairy-tale splendour, unreal city.

But at last we would leave with dignity and pride, not slinking through the servants' entrance.

Then I read about the gondolas.
Is there anyone but must repress a secret thrill, on arriving in Venice for the first time — or returning thither after long absence — and stepping into a Venetian gondola? That singular conveyance, come down unchanged from ballad times, black as nothing else on earth except a coffin-what pictures it calls up of lawless, silent adventures in the plashing night; or even more, what visions of death itself, the bier and solemn rites and last soundless voyage! And has anyone remarked that the seat in such a bark, the arm-chair lacquered in coffin-black and dully black-upholstered, is the softest, most luxurious, most relaxing seat in the world?
I was amused by Mann's description, but then shocked to discover its accuracy. They are blacker than black. Mann spoiled it for me. Why would I climb into that foreboding conveyance, glide to my afterlife? It took me some days to come to my senses: hundreds of people travel by gondola daily, my stepping into a gondola would not herald my death. Yes, it is the softest, most luxurious, most relaxing seat in the world. Maybe this is my afterlife.
Leaning back among soft, black cushions he swayed gently in the wake of the other black-snouted bark, to which the strength of his passion chained him. Sometimes it passed from his view, and then he was assailed by an anguish of unrest. But his guide appeared to have long practice in affairs like these; always, by dint of short cuts or deft maneuvers, he contrived to overtake the coveted sight. The air was heavy and foul, the sun burnt down through a slate-coloured haze. Water slapped gurgling against wood and stone. The gondolier's cry, half warning, half salute, was answered with singular accord from far within the silence of the labyrinth. They passed little gardens, high up the crumbling wall, hung with clustering white and purple flowers that sent down an odour of almonds. Moorish lattices showed shadowy in the gloom. The marble steps of a church descended into the canal, and on them a beggar squatted, displaying his misery to view, showing the whites of his eyes, holding out his hat for alms. Farther on a dealer in antiquities cringed before his lair, inviting the passer-by to enter and be duped. Yes, this was Venice, this the fair frailty that fawned and that betrayed, half fairy-tale, half snare; the city in whose stagnating air the art of painting once put forth so lusty a growth, and where musicians were moved to accords so weirdly lulling and lascivious.
Antonio drove us past the homes of Marco Polo and Casanova. He cries out before the bend. Kids in the upper story of some palazzo call out to him by name. This was Antonio's route. They all know him.

The gondolas have names. Some of them are engraved on a silver plaque affixed at the front: Cristina, Laura, Elena. Antonio's boat is called Pruna, after his mother.
Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous — to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.
Today the gondoliers all steer while texting.
Passion paralyses good taste and makes its victim accept with rapture what a man in his senses would either laugh at or turn from with disgust.
Venice is absurd in its luxury, it drips with overindulgence, the lushness of its interiors, the richness of its food, the mystery of its labyrinths, the magic of its squares.

Death in Venice I knew by reputation to be a tragic love story of sorts. I was prepared for this, the perverse ramblings of an ailing old man. He obsesses over youth and beauty. I sat on Lido beach and watched, as Mann did, young bodies. I was prepared for despair.

I had expected something nostalgic and mournful. What I found was something altogether sinister. Not only is a plague of lusts, desires, and disappointments visited upon the central character, a literal plague descends upon Venice, not for the first time. A conspiracy of silence supports the bubble of the Venetian fairy tale. I regret that we were not present for the festa del redentore, which celebrates the end of the plague of 1576; perhaps the plague has not really ended.

Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice in 1911. In 1954 he published The Black Swan, which I read last winter, which revisits many of the same themes, but this time from a female perspective. I'm astounded by Mann's ability to convey human experience in all its complexity, its joy and shame.

The contrast between youth and age is aligned with that of passion and knowledge. The passion of youth, the wisdom of age. With age, one should know better. The heart and the head. Forget the head.
Knowledge is all-knowing, understanding, forgiving; it takes up no position, sets no store by form. It has compassion with the abyss — it is the abyss. So we reject it, firmly, and henceforward our concern shall be with beauty only. And by beauty we mean simplicity, largeness, and renewed severity of discipline; we mean a return to detachment and to form.
Today marks the 60th anniversary of Thomas Mann's death, not in Venice.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Art heightens life

Art heightens life. She gives deeper joy, she consumes more swiftly. She engraves adventures of the spirit and the mind in the faces of her votaries; let them lead outwardly a life of the most cloistered calm, she will in the end produce in them a fastidiousness, and over-refinement, a nervous fever and exhaustion, such as a career of extravagant passions and pleasures can hardly show.
— from Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Venetian comfort

The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan, is a strange little novel, set in Venice. One of his early works. It's short, and nothing much happens.

I'm not sure how he achieves it, but the novel has a very sinister tone — the sense that something's lurking in an alleyway or canal. Venice is labyrinthine and mysterious.

McEwan in my view excels at depicting relationships in all their nuance; what little is spoken between characters speaks volumes. Although the details of the story may seems far-fetched, the characters are very real.

And the title tantalizes. I'm still wondering who is seeking comfort from whom, who are the real strangers in this story?
She appeared greedy for the fact of conversation rather than its content; she inclined her head towards him, as though bathing her face in the flow of his speech.
I like this review in New York Times that manages to tell you everything about the novel without actually spoiling any of it, and still make you want to read it. "No reader will begin The Comfort of Strangers and fail to finish it; a black magician is at work."

The movie also is worth watching. It has a terrific cast. And scripted by Harold Pinter, it's mostly true to the novel.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Reading Italian style

I leave for Italy next week, and as such I've been reading all things Italian.

Here are two guidebooks I recommend:

Italy, Insight Guides is a little short on logistical details but big on flavour. This is the book I turned to to help me decide what regions I wanted to visit, but I'll probably leave the book at home.

Secret Venice is a treasure trove of weird and wonderful stories concerning the nooks and crannies of Venice, of which there appear to be plenty. Like the graffiti image of a human heart, scratched by a stonecutter who slept in the doorway upon witnessing a Levantine Venetian stab his mother and tear out her heart.

So yes, Venice is on the itinerary, followed by Florence, then Rome, with day trips here and there. (And as part of our preparation, we've been replaying Assassin's Creed II, to familiarize ourselves with the lay of the land.)

Quite apart from practical research, I've also been stocking up on novels set in those places. My reading material for the journey includes:

I've already started the McEwan, and it's short and very compelling and it'll be done before I leave. And I'm excited about the Moravia because it was referenced in Mad Men. But it strikes me that these novels are all a little dark. Perhaps something a little lighter, more gelato-inspired, is in order.

Do you have any Venice-to-Rome reading recommendations for me?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Only poetry could win the vote

We were packing our bags. There was nothing that they could say now. Now they were trying anything to make us stay. Like a lover who was trying to talk reason into you as you were throwing your clothes into a suitcase, they went from saying soothing, reconciliatory, sweet things to calling you a complete idiot and telling you that you'd regret it for a sure. Well it was too late for all that.

We would go off on our own. We just wanted to speak French in peace. We wanted to whisper dirty things to our loved ones in French. There was a certain kind of love that could only be expressed in this way.

There was no difference between the expressions I like you and I love you in French. You could never declare love like that in English.

We loved in a self-destructive, over-the-top way. A way that was popular in sixties experimental theatre and certain Shakespeare plays. We loved like Napoleonic soldiers in Russia, penning beautiful letters while seated on the corpses of our dead horses. We were like drunk detectives who carried around tiny notebooks full of clues and fell for our suspects. We were crazy about the objects of our affection the way that ex-criminals in Pentecostal churches were crazy about Jesus. We went after people who didn't know we existed, like Captain Ahab did. We loved awkwardly and hopelessly, like a wolf ringing a doorbell while wearing a sheepskin coat that is way too small for him.

How could you explain that in a political platform? I wondered. I began to write a speech for Etienne. The only way that we would win the referendum would be if the speech-makes came out. Only poetry could win the vote.
— from The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O'Neill.

Harkening back to the pre-referendum days of 1995.

Happy St. Jean-Baptiste Day, Quebec!

Monday, June 22, 2015

The joules of men

I started reading The Windup Girl some time ago, by Paolo Bacigalupi. It's slow going and fairly demanding reading, but in a rewarding way. There are no infodumps here; the reader has to figure out the terminology and the society and the politics as they go. It's rich world-building. (In this way this book is reminiscent of the work of China Miéville. These authors give their readers a lot of credit.)
Hock Seng's treadle loses its rhythm. "This is a difficult thing, I think. Even the Dung Lord must bow before the Megodont Union. Without the labor of the megodonts, one must resort to the joules of men. Not a powerful bargaining position."
I love this passage from early on in the book, because it makes no sense (what's a megodont? what's a dung lord?), but of course it makes all kinds of sense.

I imagine breaking the lines, for it to take the form of a poem.
Hock Seng's treadle
loses its rhythm.
"This is a difficult thing,
I think. Even the Dung Lord must
bow before the Megodont Union.
Without the labor of the megodonts,
one must resort
to the joules of men.
Not a powerful
bargaining position."
The language of science fiction is poetry.

So I'm plodding along and figuring things out, but also reminded of the value of taking things slow, the richness of slow reading.

Here we have calorie companies and generipping and seedbanks.
Best to trust no one, even if they seem friendly. A smiling girl one day is a girl with a stone bashing in the brains of a baby the next. This is the only truth. One can think there are such things as loyalty and trust and kindness but they are devil cats.