WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones

In search of elsewhere in literature

Posted in In search of...., Rediscovered by Adair Jones on March 13, 2014

Elsewhere in Literature

On the most superficial level, the idea of ‘elsewhere’ in literature is a vague one.  It rises up as the shadow to right here, right now.  Then, it positively looms.  It’s possible that characters in a story becomes so distracted by the here and now that the wider world remains unexperienced.  By ignoring it, the characters produce this other realm—this elsewhere—defining it as something that’s missing.  On the other hand, the wider world can impose itself with such force that it adds meaning, gravitas, depth to the present time and place, almost to the point of obscuring it. Elsewhere is what’s happening on the next block while you await a lover.  Elsewhere is arrived at in a split second through curiosity. Elsewhere is an ideal or the event you happen to witness or the life you might have led. Depending on the story, elsewhere is madness,  a longing for the past, or the world that is left behind.

.

Homer, The Odyssey, (350BC—?)

The Odyssey is an epic filled with elsewheres.  After a war that last ten years, our hero spends ten years traveling home, visiting a number of fabulous lands, each with its version of treacheries, dangers, temptations, and ironies. Odysseus skirts the land of the Sirens, who dwell on an island in a flowery meadow.  Having heard of their seductive songs, his curiosity overcomes him.  He orders his crew to fill their ears with beeswax and to chain him to the mast, so that he might hear them sing without ill effect.  He knows full well their song could lead to destruction, but his curiosity is stronger.

.

Dali

The tradition of courtly love in the chivalric age (11-15th centuries)

Courtly love is “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent”; an ideal achievable only at a huge cost, if at all.  The ‘elsewhere’ in this tradition is in the contrast—one quality evokes it’s opposite. When Petrarch courted Laura and Dante worshipped Beatrice, they were following a tradition that troubadours of earlier centuries had set in motion—one of unrequited love, sublimated passions, emotions channeled into poetry.  What existed at the end of their desire was another, unachievable world.

.

scholars do not believe this image (or any other) is authentic

Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha,

Published in two volumes a decade apart (in 1605 and 1615)

Following on from the tradition of courtly love, Alonso Quixano, a retired country gentleman, has become obsessed with books of chivalry, and believes their every word to be true, despite the fact that many of the events in them are clearly impossible. Quixano eventually appears to other people to have lost his mind from little sleep, not enough food, and too much reading.

.

Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, 1852

The exquisite  Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville, condemned universally for both its morals and its style.  Yet, the work contains some of Melville’s most concentrated and accomplished writing, and it is his most direct treatment of the literary life and the process of literary creation. His hero Pierre is torn between the world as he has always known it—the world of light—and a different world that is being revealed to him, something darker and more ambiguous.

.

Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education, (1869)

Frederic, the capricious main character of Sentimental Education, is infatuated with Madame Arnoux, falling in and out of love with her over years. True to character, he is also unable to decide on a profession, instead living on his uncle’s inheritance. Other characters, such as Mr Arnoux, are as capricious with business as Frederic is with love. Without their materialism and “instinctive worship of power”, the entire cast would be entirely unmoored.  While Frederic waits for Mme Arnoux on a street corner, the revolution unfolds a block away.  His fate might have been other, grander, more significant, but for this dead-end attachment.

.

ee cummings, “a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon” (1926)

a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon

(where once good lips stalked or eyes firmly stirred)

my mirror gives me, on this afternoon;

i am a shape that can but eat and turd

ere with the dirt death shall him vastly gird,

a coward waiting clumsily to cease

whom every perfect thing meanwhile doth miss;

a hand’s impression in an empty glove,

a soon forgotten tune, a house for lease.

I have never loved you dear as now i love…

.

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927

Brother Juniper, a devout Friar, witnesses the tragic collapse of the bridge and sets about to reconstruct the lives of those who perished.  He works for six years on his book about the tragedy, trying various mathematical formulae to measure spiritual traits of the victims, with no results. A council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square.  The novel ends with this observation: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

.

Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, 1949

Port and Kit Moresby, a married couple from New York travel to the North African desert accompanied by their friend Tunner. Initially, the journey is  an attempt by the Moresbys to resolve their marital difficulties, though this is quickly made more complicated by the travelers’ ignorance of the dangers that surround them. The three Americans, drifting through post-war North Africa, soon encounter the limits of human existence in the form of a land and a people utterly alien to them.

.

William Golding, Lord of the Flies, 1954

The ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a physical manifestation of the evil that resides within a group of boys, shipwrecked and far from civilization. The story attempts to trace the defects of human nature without society as a controlling force. The boys regress to a state of superstition, greed, and brutality.

.

Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere, 1973

Milan Kundera originally intended to call this novel, The Lyrical Age. He believed that the lyrical age in a life is youth, and Life is Elsewhere is an epic of adolescence—an ironic story that tenderly erodes the sacrosanct values of childhood, motherhood, revolution, and even art. The ridiculous, touching, totally innocent Jaromil is, at the same time, a true poet.

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In search of elsewhere in literature

Posted in Musings..., Rediscovered by Adair Jones on October 24, 2010

Elsewhere in Literature

On the most superficial level, the idea of ‘elsewhere’ in literature is a vague one.  It rises up as the shadow to right here, right now.  Then, it positively looms.  It’s possible that characters in a story becomes so distracted by the here and now that the wider world remains unexperienced.  By ignoring it, the characters produce this other realm—this elsewhere—defining it as something that’s missing.  On the other hand, the wider world can impose itself with such force that it adds meaning, gravitas, depth to the present time and place, almost to the point of obscuring it. Elsewhere is what’s happening on the next block while you await a lover.  Elsewhere is arrived at in a split second through curiosity. Elsewhere is an ideal or the event you happen to witness or the life you might have led. Depending on the story, elsewhere is madness,  a longing for the past, or the world that is left behind.

.

Homer, The Odyssey, (350BC—?)

The Odyssey is an epic filled with elsewheres.  After a war that last ten years, our hero spends ten years traveling home, visiting a number of fabulous lands, each with its version of treacheries, dangers, temptations, and ironies. Odysseus skirts the land of the Sirens, who dwell on an island in a flowery meadow.  Having heard of their seductive songs, his curiosity overcomes him.  He orders his crew to fill their ears with beeswax and to chain him to the mast, so that he might hear them sing without ill effect.  He knows full well their song could lead to destruction, but his curiosity is stronger.

.

Dali

The tradition of courtly love in the chivalric age (11-15th centuries)

Courtly love is “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent”; an ideal achievable only at a huge cost, if at all.  The ‘elsewhere’ in this tradition is in the contrast—one quality evokes it’s opposite. When Petrarch courted Laura and Dante worshipped Beatrice, they were following a tradition that troubadours of earlier centuries had set in motion—one of unrequited love, sublimated passions, emotions channeled into poetry.  What existed at the end of their desire was another, unachievable world.

.

scholars do not believe this image (or any other) is authentic

Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha,

Published in two volumes a decade apart (in 1605 and 1615)

Following on from the tradition of courtly love, Alonso Quixano, a retired country gentleman, has become obsessed with books of chivalry, and believes their every word to be true, despite the fact that many of the events in them are clearly impossible. Quixano eventually appears to other people to have lost his mind from little sleep, not enough food, and too much reading.

.

Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, 1852

The exquisite  Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville, condemned universally for both its morals and its style.  Yet, the work contains some of Melville’s most concentrated and accomplished writing, and it is his most direct treatment of the literary life and the process of literary creation. His hero Pierre is torn between the world as he has always known it—the world of light—and a different world that is being revealed to him, something darker and more ambiguous.

.

Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education, (1869)

Frederic, the capricious main character of Sentimental Education, is infatuated with Madame Arnoux, falling in and out of love with her over years. True to character, he is also unable to decide on a profession, instead living on his uncle’s inheritance. Other characters, such as Mr Arnoux, are as capricious with business as Frederic is with love. Without their materialism and “instinctive worship of power”, the entire cast would be entirely unmoored.  While Frederic waits for Mme Arnoux on a street corner, the revolution unfolds a block away.  His fate might have been other, grander, more significant, but for this dead-end attachment.

.

 

ee cummings, “a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon” (1926)

 

a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon

(where once good lips stalked or eyes firmly stirred)

my mirror gives me, on this afternoon;

i am a shape that can but eat and turd

ere with the dirt death shall him vastly gird,

a coward waiting clumsily to cease

whom every perfect thing meanwhile doth miss;

a hand’s impression in an empty glove,

a soon forgotten tune, a house for lease.

I have never loved you dear as now i love…

.

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927

Brother Juniper, a devout Friar, witnesses the tragic collapse of the bridge and sets about to reconstruct the lives of those who perished.  He works for six years on his book about the tragedy, trying various mathematical formulae to measure spiritual traits of the victims, with no results. A council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square.  The novel ends with this observation: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

.

Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, 1949

Port and Kit Moresby, a married couple from New York travel to the North African desert accompanied by their friend Tunner. Initially, the journey is  an attempt by the Moresbys to resolve their marital difficulties, though this is quickly made more complicated by the travelers’ ignorance of the dangers that surround them. The three Americans, drifting through post-war North Africa, soon encounter the limits of human existence in the form of a land and a people utterly alien to them.

.

William Golding, Lord of the Flies, 1954

The ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a physical manifestation of the evil that resides within a group of boys, shipwrecked and far from civilization. The story attempts to trace the defects of human nature without society as a controlling force. The boys regress to a state of superstition, greed, and brutality.

.

Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere, 1973

Milan Kundera originally intended to call this novel, The Lyrical Age. He believed that the lyrical age in a life is youth, and Life is Elsewhere is an epic of adolescence—an ironic story that tenderly erodes the sacrosanct values of childhood, motherhood, revolution, and even art. The ridiculous, touching, totally innocent Jaromil is, at the same time, a true poet.

.

Books in our Lives

Posted in Musings..., Rediscovered by Adair Jones on April 8, 2009

colorful_bookshelves

I meet a person who claims never to have read a book.

“Even in school, I just faked it,” she says matter-of-factly. “You can guess that I didn’t do very well in English class. And I don’t read to my kids either, although they are good readers on their own. We do other stuff. Rides bikes. Go swimming. That kind of thing.”

She’s pretty and soft-spoken, warm—really nice. The kind of woman I could easily become friends with. In the brief span of our conversation, she reveals insights that show a keen understanding of life. And she’s unashamedly never read a book.

I ponder this. I try to calculate the number of hours I’ve spent reading, at least one or two nearly everyday since I learned how. Days and days of reading. It’s true that I wasn’t reading much during the extended three-day labour with my first child, and occasionally I have been too busy with work, but surely those times are balanced out by the many long afternoons I’ve spent curled around a great novel, or the late nights, awakened by one of my children and unable to fall back asleep, when I’ve crept to the sofa and fallen instead into the book of the moment, reading until dawn. It’s a lot of time I’ve spent reading, thousands and thousands of hours, I estimate.

At home, my son pulls a book out from the book shelf, waves it in the air and asks with a cheeky grin, “I wonder what I’ll find in this one?”

He’s referring to an old habit I have of sticking things into the book I happen to be reading. All the tiny flotsam of life—movie stubs, bus tickets, phone numbers written on scraps of paper, work messages—are hidden among the pages of my library. We find treasures too—postcards, photos, even old love letters. My husband jokes that one day when our memories are bad, we’ll simply call in a team of archaeologists to dig through the book shelf in order to reconstruct my life.

My son flips the pages. I catch a glimpse of the cover: Virginia Woolf’s Letters, from the early years it looks like. Out falls a postcard of Frida Kahlo leaning against a column with a big shawl covering her shoulders. From my sister, I recall, who had once travelled through Mexico.I’m loving it here, she wrote, the women are so passionate about life and so comfortable with who they are. The men, not so greatOh, well. The years fall away. I hear her voice strong and clear, I’m loving it here. And somehow Frida Kahlo, my sister, Virginia Woolf and I are all jumbled up.

Certain books have been the backdrop to events in my life. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is forever linked to my first trip to New York as a teenager. I read the novel the week before my flight, wishing I wasn’t going as a tourist, daydreaming that, like the heroine of Plath’s novel, I had won a writing contest and was going to New York to be the guest editor of a magazine. Because of The Bell Jar, I was also prompted to visit the UN on that trip, where I would later work for many years. Funny when that happens.

Once, on a trip to the Caribbean prompted by my first real broken heart, I lugged Anna Karenina along from New York and turned the pages all alone under a palm tree. While the sun shone hot and bright, I sat in a bathing suit on a placid beach, turning page after page. The real me was far away, experiencing Russian blizzards and poor Anna’s journey from the heights of love to the her tragic last moments. I occasionally swam and once took a walk, otherwise I read and read and read. On my final day, turning the pages of the last sad chapter, I hadn’t noticed that the sun had nearly set.

A hotel attendant interrupted, “Senorita, excuse me, is everything alright?” I looked up, startled. I nearly answered, Da.

“Yes, everything’s fine.” He smiled tentatively and left.

I closed the book and watched the last whispers of light fade. If everything wasn’t yet fine, I knew it would be.

Another year when my finances and work commitments prevented me from having a holiday of any sort, I visited the South Pacific in The Lord of the Flies, Europe in The Good Soldier; and the Andes in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I read The Sheltering Sky on the bus to and from work. It must have been late autumn or winter, because I remember it was crisp and dark outside while the Moroccan sun blazed from the pages of Bowles’ wonderful story. The book itself felt warm in my hands.

On the first date with the man who was to later become my husband, another book figured. We met as prearranged at the Peacock Café on Greenwich Street in the West Village. I arrived first. He stumbled in a few minutes later, smiling and breathless, with a small parcel in his hand.

“I wanted to give you something. A bookstore was next to the flower shop, and I stood in front of them both wondering if I should get you flowers or a book. I decided to get you a book, and then I had to decide which one.”

I unwrapped it. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.

We ordered coffee and while we chatted, I kept thinking, “Hmmn. He gave me a book. He must understand.”

Years later, awaiting the birth of our third child, a girl, we thumbed through the book together looking for an exotic middle name. Zaira, Anastasia, Zenobia, Chloe, Esmeralda…. In the end, we chose none of these, but it made for an enjoyable afternoon. We were reminded too of our early time together, before Australia, before children, before we knew the other quite so well.

“Remember when…” one of us would start, bringing up another memory. Invisible Cities is a door to this earlier time. Opening the book takes us back there.

I collect the mail. Along with the usual bills, I have a new book to review. Something by the Pulitzer Prize winning critic Michael Dirda, calledBook by Book. On the inside jacket cover the book is described as a “meditation on the intersection between life and books”. I laugh out loud. How appropriate!

Book by Book is a slim volume, old-fashioned-looking and lovely to hold. Dirda’s premise is that we read not only for pleasure but also “to learn how to live.” He organises the material thematically around various aspects of our lives—youth, education, love, work, leisure, sprit—and gives a touchingly personal, idiosyncratic list of his favourites for each.

I read a couple of chapters at random. Dotted with quotations, recommendations, advice and philosophical insight, Dirda has looked over a long career as a book reviewer, a critic and, most importantly, as a reader and produced a delightful book that provokes and inspires. Some of the works he mentions, I’ve never read. I promise myself I will. Some of his choices, I disagree with; some of my favourites are omitted. And then I see what he’s aiming for: each of us could write a book like this and for each it would be completely different. Personal, individual. Because books intersect with our lives in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons. It’s not the same for any one of us.

I put Book by Book on the top of the towering stack at the edge of my desk. Deadlines loom. There’s research to do. I have a lot of reading and writing to get through this week.

“Please, please,” my young daughter begs. “Can’t we do something?”

I’ll be back, I say to myself, but for now I’m taking my kids for a bike ride.

First published in Arts Hub in 2007.