Surrender and freedom

Georgia O'Keeffe Pelvis IV 1944 oil on canvas 36 1/16 x 40 3/8 " (91.5 x 102.5cm) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum © 1987, Private Collection

2016 was one of the best years of my life. This time last year I was struggling with an area of life that hadn’t been working for a long time. For years, I kept doing the same thing over and over again in this area, unable to see any other course of action and convinced that if I just tried harder or better, it would eventually work. Finally, in December 2015 I was left with nowhere else to go and I took the first steps to accepting the situation AS IT WAS.

In January 2016, the new reality had begun and though the situation was hard and unfamiliar and still NOT THE WAY IT SHOULD BE, I could see it was indeed something new in an area in which the new had died decades before. I suddenly had new problems, and new problems meant movement. So that encouraged me.

Then in March, at Easter, I had a big breakthrough. The situation was better, but come the Easter weekend, I was feeling sad and disempowered and was ruminating on old sorrows. Again, I did something different. I’d been reading and listening to Thich Nhat Hanh and I took his advice about dealing with sorrow and other strong emotions. Rather than trying to get away from it as I might have done previously, I allowed myself to experience it. I didn’t analyse it or interpret it or make up some story about myself as a result of it; I just let it be.

Two days went past, and then on the third day, Easter Sunday, something happened. Suddenly, I saw something about my view of the world and myself that I had had since I was  a child, and over the course of some hours the insight deepened. The stone had rolled away from the tomb!

From that day on, my life has gotten better and better. I have a new freedom and a love and respect for myself that continues to grow every day, and in the nine months since then I’ve experienced successes I previously thought impossible.

Looking back now, I see the genesis was that new move, that move that had been foreign to me for perhaps my whole life, the thing called acceptance or surrender. In her blog, Celia Hales refers to a Buddhist master describing it as “being willing to have it so” which is a very good way of putting it.

The second big thing I discovered in 2016 is what Paulo Coelho referred to in the post I published the other day: “nothing is irreplaceable.” I’ve often lived my life as if the option in front of me were the only option and I had to “put up with” whatever was on offer. In 2016, I discovered this is not the case, that there are always other options, they’re usually right there in front of me or just round the next corner, and they’re a much better fit for me.

At first glance it looks like this discovery is counter to my discovery of acceptance or surrender. But in ways I cannot explain or don’t want to explain, they go together. The freedom to choose, to say “no”, arises from surrender; surrender gives rise to freedom.

I’ve got more to discover about surrender and I’m excited.

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Image: I saw this painting in the flesh today. Very powerful!  Pelvis IV 1944 by Georgia O’Keeffe

Hot milk goodness #3

woman-3

One of the things Hot Milk by Deborah Levy is concerned with is what it means to be a woman, or a man for that matter. As many individuals and schools of thought have realised, the more one looks into the question the more one sees there is nothing there. There is no inherent meaning in the concept “woman” just as there is no inherent meaning in any other concept or thing, and Levy puts the case with great lightness and wit in the scene in which Sofia is speculating on what she might buy from the market if she were an adult woman with all the accoutrements …

“I picked up an aerosol of air freshener that had been designed in the shape of a curvaceous woman. She was wearing a polka-dot apron that did not disguise her massive belly and heavy breasts. Her eyelashes were long and curled, her lips tiny and puckered. The instructions for how to use her were translated into Italian, Greek, German, Danish and a language I did not recognise, but she was ‘Extremely Flammable’ in every language.

There were instructions in English, too. Shake her well. Point her towards the centre of the room and spray. The scale of her belly and breasts were not unlike early fertility goddesses found in Greece around 6000BC, except they did not wear polka-dot aprons. Did they suffer from hypochondria? Hysteria? Were they bold? Lame? Too full of the milk of human kindness?

I bought the air freshener for four euro because it was a kind of artefact translated into many languages, and also because it was clearly an interpretation of a woman (breasts belly apron eyelashes) and I had become confused by the sign for servicios in public places. I could not figure out why one sign was male and the other female. The most common stick-figure sign was not particularly male or female. Did I need this aerosol to make things clearer to me? What kind of clarity was I after?

I had conquered Juan who was Zeus the thunderer as far as I was concerned, but the signs were all mixed up because his job in the injury hut was to tend the wounded with his tube of ointment. He was maternal, brotherly, he was like a sister, perhaps paternal, he had become my lover. Are we all lurking in each other’s sign? Do I and the woman on the air freshener belong to the same sign? …

It wasn’t clarity I was after. I wanted things to be less clear …”

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Image: Man taking pic of the installation Narcissism: Dazzle Room by Shigeki Matsuyama

Hot milk goodness #2

deborah-levy

Today’s instalment from Hot Milk by Deborah Levy concerns Sofia and her mother, Rose, driving to a local market. They have come to the baked out, rocky coast of Spain to consult the famous doctor/quack, Dr Gómez, about Rose’s paralysis of the feet. In characteristically perverse style, Rose is suddenly able to drive a car, whereas 25-year-old Sofia is revealed to have failed her driving test four times.

Feet and hands are especially important in the symbolic history of women, and books like Women Who Run With the Wolves contain many of the stories such as “The Red Shoes” and “The Handless Maiden”, each of them spelling out the ubiquity and consequences of women’s learned helplessness.

In my own life, I think of the thing I was forbidden to do as a child and teenager, and that was to express anger. My mother would shut it down before the words “How dare you?” were out of her mouth. Looking back now I can see she was terrified of her own rage being awakened. Instead it expressed itself in migraine headaches and the nightly near-severing of her fingers on the newly sharpened knife over the detested task of the evening meal.

“I looked down at my mother’s foot on the brake. Her toes moved off and then landed on it with delicacy and confidence. ‘I can imagine you walking the entire length of the beach,’ I said.

In reply she started to sing the words to a hymn: ‘And did those feet in ancient time/ Walk upon England’s mountains green.’

If only. My mother’s feet are mostly on strike, but I’m not sure what she is negotiating for or what the deal breaker would be. Her feet are an English size nine. Her jaw is large. Our ancestors developed a protruding jaw because they were constantly fighting. Grievance is very strenuous. My mother needs her jaw to see off anyone who will separate her from her stash of resentment.”

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Image: Deborah Levy

Hot milk goodness #1

man-with-sailfish

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy continues to be exhilarating. I’m going to share some over the next day or two. Here’s a section from the scene called “Boldness” in which Sofia finally takes action after Dr Gómez observes she lacks strength as a young woman. She needs “more purpose, less apathy” and he prescribes stealing a fish from the market to make her bolder, “It need not be the biggest fish, but it must not be the smallest either.”

Often, I think I need to steal a fish too …

“The first fish to snare my attention from the point of view of a thief was a monkfish with a monster face, mouth gaping open to reveal its two rows of sharp little teeth. I lightly poked my finger into its mouth and discovered a world that was totally unknown to me, like Columbus discovering the Bahamas. The cashier, a fierce woman in a yellow rubber apron, shouted in Spanish not to touch the fish. Already I had made myself visible, when the point of a thief is to slip unseen into the night and not into the mouth of a fish … I considered the whiskery langoustines … they were the professors of the ocean but they did not make me feel bolder. A huge tuna lay on a bed of ice … It was the most precious jewel in the market, the emerald of the sea. My hand reached towards it, but I couldn’t follow it through. A tuna was too ambitious, not so much bold as reckless.

… I looked away and that’s when I saw my fish. It was looking straight at me and its eyes were furious. It was a plump dorado in a rage. I knew it was destined to be mine.

… To steal the dorado, I had to conquer my fear of being found out and shamed … Very slowly, I moved closer to the dorado, and with my left hand I touched the price tag on the langoustines to distract the cashier from my right hand, which was sliding the grumpy dorado into my basket.

As far as I could make out, this was the model that most politicians had adopted to run their democracies and dictatorships. If the reality of the right hand is being messed up with the left hand, it would be true to say that reality is not a stable commodity …”

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Image: Man with sailfish

The passion and courage of women

If Michelle Obama’s mighty speech on the dignity of women wasn’t enough to cleanse the palate of recent events, here’s a tribute to a man who reveres women, the Spanish filmmaker, Pedro Almodovar.

I just saw his latest movie, Julieta, about women, their mothers and daughters, and how grief and guilt, amongst other wounds, is passed down through the generations by the mechanism of well-intentioned silence. It’s as good as Volver, starring the magnificent Penelope Cruz, which he made in 2006.

Pics from Volver and Julieta, starring Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte (click on an image to enlarge it).

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Carnality, intimacy, frankness: Edgar Degas at NGV, Melbourne

IMG_4611

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of seeing the paintings and drawings of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) that I loved and copied as a child here in my own city for the Degas exhibition at the NGV Melbourne.

I loved drawing as a child and, somehow, I recognised his draftmanship and used to copy them. I remember how happy I was with my version of one of his washer women for a school assignment.

I had a little cry at seeing many of them in the flesh, their lines so familiar to me. I also cried over the painting of his father and the Catalan musician, Lorenzo Pagans, which you can see below, his father listening intently to the Spanish man’s guitar. The accompanying note says that years after the deaths of his father and the musician, Degas took his friend and art connoisseur, Paul Poujaud, into his bedroom to show him the painting. Poujaud recalled,

“He showed me the precious painting hanging above the little iron bedstead … I’m sure he did not show me the Pagans in memory of his father, whom I never knew and of whom he had never spoken, but as one of those completed works he admired above all others.”

And I’m stunned that as a child I was also instinctively responding to his treatment of women. Look on his works and note it well. His women are carnal, real, with bodily functions. They’re not prettified or sexualised, and they are infinitely interesting. Above all, they are members of the human race, not objects.

Look at his little ballet dancer with her second-last button not quite done up; his absinthe drinker resigned and hopeless with her companion in her Parisian drinking shop; his fellow artist Victoria Dubourg staring out at the viewer “with the forthright interest of a professional equal”; the young working-class woman after the violence at the hands of the bourgeois man lounging by the door; his sister and her husband’s frozen grief over their lost child.

It’s all sensational, wonderful and I LOVE HIM.

(Click on an image to enlarge)

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Main image: Therésè De Gas, his sister, and her husband, Edmundo Morbilli, after the miscarriage of their much-anticipated child, “depicting them physically close but in a pose of frozen stillness.”

Landscape duet

trapped_c

Just finished watching a new Scandinavian TV series called Trapped, this one set in a tiny town in Iceland. Incredible scenery and atmosphere, two lovable central characters – Andri and Hinrika – the town’s police officers, and opening titles of the highest art: the landscape of the body and the landscape of the earth in a duet.

If you’re in Australia, check it out on SBS OnDemand.

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Book review week: Signs and Symbols by Vladimir Nabokov

nabokov

This is the final in the book review week. I debated which review to include – I was tossing up between two – and then I read this one and started crying. Had to be this one. I trust my tears to tell me the truth about art. There’s something about contemplating the parents of a child with a disability that affects me like no other topic. I think of their dreams and hopes for their beloved child and their fears for the child’s suffering. And Nabokov is magnificent here.

His short stories are generally inferior to his novels. He needs the latitude of a novel to give full rein to his spectacular virtuosity of observation and language. And this virtuosity can be so dazzling that the emotional impact is muted. Not so here. It’s a tiny story, just a few pages, and it’s a masterpiece. It’s the devastating Signs and Symbols, about an elderly couple going off to visit their son in an asylum on his birthday. O my bleeding heart …

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Faced with the problem of finding him a present – man-made objects being “hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive” – they settle on “a dainty, innocent trifle: a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.”

Everything goes wrong. The bus is late, the train breaks down – “for a quarter of an hour one could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of one’s heart” – it rains, and when they arrive at the place, they are told a visit might disturb him as “he had again attempted to take his life.”

They re-trace their steps wearily, he “clearing his throat in a special resonant way he had when he was upset”, she looking around “trying to hook her mind onto something.” They ponder his delusion in which “everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme”, and the signs and symbols he sees writ in the clouds and in

pebbles or stains or sun flecks.

They arrive home. She cooks fish, he reads the Russian language newspaper and then goes to bed. She reviews her photo albums – “As a baby he looked more surprised than most babies”, “from a fold in the album, a German maid they had had in Leipzig … fell out”, “Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths, until the Germans put her to death”,

he again, aged about eight, already difficult to understand, afraid of the wallpaper in the passage … and an old cart wheel hanging from the branch of a leafless tree.

Her husband staggers in, unable to sleep and wearing over his nightgown the overcoat that he preferred to “the nice blue bathrobe” he had.

“We must get him out of there quick. Otherwise we’ll be responsible,” he says. “I have it all figured out. We will give him the bedroom. Each of us will spend part of the night near him and the other part on this couch. By turns.” It’ll only come out cheaper for “the Prince,” their nickname for his brother on whom they’re now wholly dependent.

Fired with false hope and the relief of a wrong number at midnight – “It frightened me,” she says – they feel unexpectedly festive. The birthday present is on the table. They have tea. He puts on his spectacles and re-examines

with pleasure the luminous yellow, green, red little jars.

The phone rings again.

And that’s it.

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Book review week: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

garbo-karenina

What’s a book review week without the Russians? Nothing, is what! Time to wheel out the big guns, in fact, the biggest gun of all, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, the best novel ever written, according to William Faulkner and me. This review I wrote some time ago is in two parts: the first, while I was reading it, the second, after I finished. Here it is, the best of the best …

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I’m re-reading Anna Karenina.  It’s the Penguin edition by the fêted translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and it says on the flyleaf:

William Faulkner, it’s said, was once asked to name the three best novels ever.  He replied: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina.”

I don’t know if it’s the translation or that I’ve grown up since, but it scarcely feels like a book now; it’s more like an animal.  It’s so lithe and fresh and vigorous, with long effortless sentences and smoothness without perfection.

I’ve just finished Part One. The stage has all been set.  The train, the accident at the station, the recounting of the short history of the Shcherbatsky sisters.  Stiva has blotted his marital copybook, and Levin has brought to town his painful honour.  Anna, wearing black not lilac, has looked down the staircase at Vronsky.  Kitty has missed the mazurka, and seen the answer to her question — “Who is it? … All or one?” — on Vronsky’s face.

And we’ve just had the masterpiece scene on the train at the halt between Moscow and Petersburg.  The scene in which Anna, probing her conscience and congratulating herself on her rigour, lives out the greatest joy she will ever have of Vronsky, the high point of their affair, alone in the train carriage, before it has even begun.

She went through all her Moscow memories.  They were all good, pleasant.  She remembered the ball, remembered Vronsky and his enamoured, obedient face, remembered all her relations with him: nothing was shameful.  But just there, at that very place in her memories, the feeling of shame became more intense, as if precisely then, when she remembered Vronsky, some inner voice were telling her: “Warm, very warm, hot!” …  She passed the paper-knife over the glass, then put its smooth and cold surface to her cheek and nearly laughed aloud from the joy that suddenly came over her for no reason.  She felt her nerves tighten more and more, like strings on winding pegs.  She felt her eyes open wider and wider, her fingers and toes move nervously …

The vividness of the whole scene is remarkable. I could hear the voice of the “bundled-up and snow-covered man” shouting something in her ear, and the wind, “as if only waiting for her,” whistling “joyfully.”  I could feel the “cold post” she grasps, as “holding her dress down,” she steps out of the carriage. And when Vronsky materialises on the platform I felt, like Anna, the same sense of almost tiresome inevitability.

For Tolstoy understands, like Flaubert too — who somewhere in his notebooks describes the greatest erotic event of his life as the planning of a visit to a brothel that never eventuated — that two thirds of love consists in anticipation, not consummation.

For the same reason, it’s almost a shame to keep reading.

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I finished Anna Karenina last week. Was shattered and moved. By Anna crouching next to the train, red bag discarded, waiting for the “midpoint between the two wheels” to come even with her; by the glimpse of Vronsky after her death, “his face, aged and full of suffering”; and, most of all, by the revelation of what the book has been about: the question of how to live.

Levin is the character explicitly shown to be seeking an answer to this question, but Anna too is preoccupied by it. She’s the hither side of Levin, the side that fails to find a satisfactory, good enough answer to the question, who takes her life as a consequence. Levin also contemplates not living without an answer. Tolstoy has him remark, shockingly casually, even after the longed-for marriage to Kitty and the birth of their son:

And, happy in his family life, a healthy man, Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself with it, and was afraid to go about with a rifle lest he shoot himself.

But, unlike Anna, Levin “went on living” and, by accident, he comes on his answer in the wonderful scene with the peasant in the barn:

“Mityukha makes it pay right enough, Konstantin Dmitrich! He pushes till he gets his own. He takes no pity on a peasant. But Uncle Fokanych … he won’t skin a man. He lends to you, he lets you off. So he comes out short. He’s a man, too.”

“But why should he let anyone off?”

“Well, that’s how it is – people are different. One man just lives for his own needs, take Mityukha even, just stuffs his belly, but Fokanych – he’s an upright old man. He lives for the soul. He remembers God.”

“How’s that? Remembers God? Lives for the soul?” Levin almost shouted.

“Everybody knows how – by the truth, by God’s way. People are different. Now, take you even, you wouldn’t offend anybody either …”

“Yes, yes, goodbye!” said Levin, breathless with excitement, and, turning, he took his stick and quickly walked off towards home.

A new, joyful feeling came over him. At the muzhik’s words about Fokanych living for the soul, by the truth, by God’s way, it was as if a host of vague but important thoughts burst from some locked-up place and, all rushing towards the same goal, whirled through his head, blinding him with their light.

Tolstoy captures the experience of revelation with effortless accuracy: the slightness of what’s said, Levin’s instant recognition of what he calls the “hint”, the quick work of elaboration and incorporation and, indeed, the conventionality of the answer when it comes.

These final chapters are majestic.  As the translators note, the stream of consciousness in which Tolstoy narrates Anna’s last hours,

… gives us what are surely the most remarkable pages in the novel, and some of the most remarkable ever written.

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She has woken in the morning from the nightmare Vronsky himself has had much earlier, the nightmare that has prefigured her death throughout:

In the morning a dreadful nightmare, which had come to her repeatedly even before her liaison with Vronsky, came to her again and woke her up. A little old muzhik with a dishevelled beard was doing something, bent over some iron, muttering meaningless French words, and, as always in this nightmare (here lay its terror), she felt that this little muzhik paid no attention to her, but was doing this dreadful thing with iron over her, was doing something dreadful over her. And she awoke in a cold sweat.

The muzhik appears again just before her death, and just after it, playing out the nightmare scene:

A little muzhik, muttering to himself, was working over some iron. And the candle by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil, flared up brighter than ever, lit up for her all that had once been in darkness, sputtered, grew dim, and went out for ever.

Tolstoy gets the nightmare image so right and I feel the horror of it alongside Anna.

But what does he mean by the reference to the book she’s been reading of evil?  That she deserves her death because of the adultery? In the Introduction, the translators suggest this is the main idea of the novel, “the one he struggled with most bitterly and never could resolve,” that her suicide “was the punishment for her adultery.”

I disagree that this is the main idea of the novel. If it were the meaning of the recurring goblin figure and the idea of a “book”, it will have been the first time Tolstoy has failed in a masterpiece of 800 pages. And I do not think he failed.

He saw the danger of the conclusion, yes, but he trusted Anna herself to overcome it. And so she does. It’s not her culpability that leads to her death, it’s her fidelity.

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Reading the translators’ Introduction I was thrilled to discover I’d noted something about Tolstoy’s style that my hero, Vladimir Nabokov, also noted. The translators cite the example of the incident at the railway station early in the novel when the watchman is killed:

… several men with frightened faces suddenly ran past. The stationmaster, in a peaked cap of an extraordinary colour, also ran past. Evidently something extraordinary had happened.

They note:

Vladimir Nabokov says of this passage: “There is of course no actual connection between the two [uses of ‘extraordinary’], but the repetition is characteristic of Tolstoy’s style with its rejection of false elegancies and its readiness to admit any robust awkwardness if that is the shortest way to sense.”

This “rejection of false elegancies” is brilliant. Both in Tolstoy and its description, and more elegant than my  “smoothness without perfection.”

The fact I can notice and respond to this vigour in Tolstoy’s prose as well as a native Russian speaker like Nabokov is testament to the translators’ decision to retain such passages rather than tone them down, as in other English translations.

If you’re going to read this marvel of a book make sure it’s the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They’ve been rightly awarded the highest honours for their translation.

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Image: Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina

Book review week: If This is a Man by Primo Levi

Levi

What is chastening about Levi’s writing is its freedom from self-indulgence. There isn’t even a hint of hysterical recrimination. How easy, and how understandable, it would have been for him to have adopted such a tone. He chose to build instead: out of the mud, the blows dealt without anger, out of that unique humiliation he has constructed two incomparable works of art … (Paul Bailey, introduction to If This is a Man)

Bailey is right. One of the first things you notice about Primo Levi’s If This is a Man is what’s not there: the absence of hysteria, of hand-wringing, even — with one exception — the absence of anger.

It’s not what I was expecting from the story of Levi’s capture in Italy at the end of 1943 as the leader of a band of anti-Fascist partisans, his deportation to Auschwitz — “We had learnt of our destination with relief. Auschwitz: a name without significance for us at that time, but it at least implied some place on this earth” — and his survival against the odds until the entry into the camp of the Russians in January 1945.

I also wasn’t expecting the joy of the companion book, The Truce, the story of the nine months he and the other survivors of Auschwitz spent afterwards wandering through Poland and the Soviet Union before their return to Italy.

The version of If This is a Man we read today was published in 1958, though parts of an early version had also been published in a Communist Party newspaper in 1947. As Mirna Cicioni notes, the book is firmly within the genre of Holocaust literature, and features a similar sequence of events to those of other survivor accounts, “arrest, journey to the camp, arrival, initiation, conditions, liberation”. However, Levi’s account is more than a survivor’s account of the Holocaust. It’s also a philosophical and sociological examination of what it means to be human, and this is signalled from the outset in his intention and approach.

His intention is always to witness, not to accuse or appeal or condemn.

I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge.

He succeeds magnificently, adopting the demeanour of the authentic witness: quiet, calm, sober, curious, faithful, observant. It’s also a stance close to what we might guess was his natural bent. In civilian life he was a chemist, and at many points in the book, the scientist is manifest.

Levi was also a man with a great love of literature and culture, and the book is filled with literary references. In one of the famous passages he attempts to teach Jean, the French pikolo (messenger clerk), to speak Italian while walking with him — brief hiatus from drudgery — to get the soup ration. In desperation at how to do it, he hits on reciting the canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno.

He ransacks his deadened memory for the precious fragments: ” … So on the open sea I set forth … Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance/Your mettle was not made; you were made men/To follow after knowledge and excellence … And over our heads the hollow seas closed up …”

… oh, Pikolo, Pikolo, say something, speak, do not let me think of my mountains which used to show up against the dusk of evening as I returned by train from Milan to Turin!

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There was not one camp at Auschwitz: there were 39 of them. There was the town of Auschwitz and inside it there was a camp, which was Auschwitz proper, that is to say, the capital of the system. Two kilometres further down there was Birkenau, that is to say Auschwitz II, where the gas chambers were … Further up there was the factory, and by the factory there was Monowitz, or Auschwitz III. That is where I was … In my camp there were about 10,000 of us; in Auschwitz I there were 15 or 20,000; in Birkenau many more, 70 or 80,000 …

If This is a Man is a story of numbers. When he starts on the train journey for Poland, Levi is one of 650 Italian “pieces.” On arriving at the train station at Auschwitz, he is one of 96 men selected to work at Monowitz camp. Another 29 women are selected to work at Birkenau. Of “all the others, more than five hundred in number, not one was living two days later.”

When he enters Monowitz, he enters a realm where numbers are all.

I have learnt that I am Häftling [prisoner]. My number is 174517; we have been baptised, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die.

This number, which will become famous after the war as a symbol of resistance to fascism, racism and anti-semitism, locates him precisely within the unique pecking order of the camp. He’s a “high number” or newcomer, naive, dumb, a tormenting interrogator of the other more seasoned prisoners, one who “can be convinced that leather shoes are distributed at the infirmary to all those with delicate feet.”

It also locates him as one of the shipment of Italian Jews as distinct from those in the range 30,000 to 80,000 whom “everyone will treat with respect … there are only a few hundred left and they represented the few survivals from the Polish ghettos,” or those with a 116,000 or a 117,000, the Greeks from Salonica, who “now number only about forty” and whom one must watch closely in commercial dealings to make sure “they do not pull the wool over your eyes.”

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The “funereal science of numbers” determines Primo Levi’s life in Auschwitz at every point. During the first days and weeks, his number has betokened a naivety fearful to those around him. By the time of his first visit to the camp infirmary, it measures the distance he has yet to travel when he asks of a fellow patient,

Is it true what one hears of selections, of gas, of crematoriums?

Schmulek, the other patient replies.

Show me your number: you are 174517. This numbering began eighteen months ago and applies to Auschwitz and the dependent camps. There are now ten thousand of us here at Buna-Monowitz; perhaps thirty thousand between Auschwitz and Birkenau. Wo sind die Andere? Where are the others?

The logic of numbers also powers the camp economy.

A “high number”, that is, a new arrival, only recently but sufficiently besotted by hunger and by the extreme tension of life in the camp, is noticed by a “low number” for the number of his gold teeth; the “low” offers the “high” three or four rations of bread to be paid in return for extraction.

By the summer, just a few months later, his number speaks of his ascension to the Low Numbers and the magnitude of his feat in staying alive. The respect and awe he once accorded others is now accorded him.

We were old Häftlinge: our wisdom lay in “not trying to understand”, not imagining the future, not tormenting ourselves as to how and when it would all be over; not asking others or ourselves any questions.

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After the war, Levi attributed his survival chiefly to luck.

He was “lucky” in being deported to Auschwitz in 1944, “that is, after the German Government had decided, owing the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average life-span of prisoners destined for elimination …”

He was lucky in being a chemist and being conscripted to work inside at the chemical laboratory attached to the camp during the worst of the winter months. He was lucky in always having a close comrade – Leonardo, Cesare, Alberto, Charles – with whom to share the battle for survival.

He was lucky in Lorenzo, an Italian civilian working in the surrounding countryside who brought him a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months, and gave him a vest “full of patches.” Levi honoured him ever after, not least in the naming of his children, son Renzo, and daughter, Lisa Lorenza.

Most of all, he was lucky in avoiding the selections, the process by which individuals are sized up in a glance as having some particle of usefulness still remaining in them or else selected for transport to Birkenau, meaning death by gas within two days. Though intimated several times, Levi withholds the description of the selections until quite close to the end of the book, as if he’s been preparing himself, and we, the readers.

On the day of the dread event, foretold for weeks by way of a thousand microscopic signs and nuances, each block of prisoners is locked in and ordered to undress except for shoes. They wait for hours for their turn. When it comes they crowd into the small Tagesraum, or Quartermaster’s office, squashed against each other, holding up their nose above the pack “so as to breathe.”

Each one of us, as he comes naked out of the Tagesraum into the cold October air, has to run the few steps between the two doors, give the card to the SS man and enter the dormitory door. The SS man, in the fraction of a second between two successive crossings, with a glance at one’s back and front, judges everyone’s fate, and in turn gives the card to the man on his right or his left, and this is the life or death of each of us.

The obscene, central fact of Levi’s account is the indiscrimination of death. It had been introduced at the railway station on their arrival:

We also know that not even this tenuous principle of discrimination between fit and unfit was always followed, and that later the simpler method was often adopted of merely opening both the doors of the wagon without warning or instructions to the new arrivals. Those who by chance climbed down on one side of the convoy entered the camp; the others went to the gas chamber.

Now it reaches its apotheosis in the selection scene. It is the horror of this indiscrimination that also underlies Levi’s violent reaction to the selection described, the one time in the book where he displays anger.

… I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.

Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realise that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?

If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.

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There are two final numbers I want to mention before concluding.

In January 1945, about 11 months after Levi’s entry to the camp, the Russian front was about to arrive in Auschwitz. The Germans, panicked and disbelieving, evacuated all the healthy prisoners from the camp. Around 20,000 in number, they “vanished on the march”.

Levi, ill with scarlet fever, was left behind. The ten days he passed in the infirmary between the Germans’ departure – “The Germans were no longer there. The towers were empty” – and the arrival of the Russians, abandoned with the typhus and dysentery cases, without help, without food, without heat, are the subject of the most harrowing chapter of the book.

Among hundreds of patients dying in their beds, corpses falling lifeless from the upper bunks, the floor covered in frozen excrement, Levi survives again this belated, ultimate test, and for ten days, manages to keep alive all but one of the men with whom he shared the ward.

The second number comes at the end of companion book, The Truce.

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Bailey notes, “Although a crude over-simplification, it is nevertheless essentially true that If This is a Man is about the descent into, and The Truce about the flight away from, hell.”

The statement is crude, he says, because If This is a Man, despite its appalling subject, is not dispiriting. And this is very true. The Truce, on the other hand, “is almost all light.”

The story of Levi’s sojourns in the transit camp of Katowice, and, unforgettably, the Red House in Starye Dorogi in the Soviet Union, is magical. As well as the wonderful scenes and characters, and the endearing portrait of the Russians, there are two moments of majesty, albeit conveyed with Levi’s characteristic understatement.

There is the moment when the train which has finally been prepared to take them home, after travelling southward for days and weeks through the USSR and Romania, swings around at last towards the west, the west where Italy lies. Then there’s the moment when they finally pass into Italy. And it’s here Levi makes the final accounting.

Late at night we crossed the Brenner, which we had passed in our exile twenty months before; our less tired companions celebrated with a cheerful uproar; Leonardo and I remained lost in a silence crowded with memories. Of 650, our number when we had left, three of us were remaining.

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Book review week: L’Assommoir by Emile Zola

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Today’s review concerns the 1877 realist masterpiece, L’Assommoir by Émile Zola. The book still disturbs me.

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Before he was famous for the Dreyfus Affair, before his reputation was trounced and then rehabilitated and his body moved from ignominy to the pomp of the Pantheon, Émile Zola was famous for his novels, particularly the Rougon-Macquart novels, a series of social realist novels about the history of two families in the working-class Paris of the 19th century.

One of the most famous is the 1877 novel, L’Assommoir. The word translates as “the drinking shop,” though the title is usually left untranslated to retain the connotation of the French verb, assommer, meaning to stun, bludgeon or render senseless.

L’Assommoir tells the story of a laundress called Gervaise living in the Paris of the 1850s and 60s, who, for a time, enjoys success and happiness in the small laundry she starts. Alas, everything changes when Gervaise’s husband, Coupeau falls from a roof and, unable to work, takes up drinking absinthe – the deadly green liquor of wormwood – at the local drinking shop. Some time later, her business failing through debt and the loss of Coupeau’s income, Gervaise succumbs to absinthe herself.

The story of Gervaise and Coupeau’s descent into alcoholism and degradation is the most harrowing thing I’ve read. And though it’s many years since, I can still feel its horror.

The novel was a bestseller and the cause of an immense scandal among Parisians. Could this be how the poor really lived? Surely Zola was exaggerating for his own ends? Zola, meanwhile, went on declaring the book,

“… the first novel about the common people that does not lie.”

There are many reasons for it to have caused an uproar, but it’s the horror of predestination that’s most disturbing.

As it says in the introduction to my copy, in no other Zola novel is the influence of historical and social factors “so insistently foregrounded.” Gervaise and her family are doomed, he dares to show, by the historical moment in which they live, how they live, and where they live. The novel’s setting, in every sense of the word, is the characters’ fate.

That’s why many years later when I alighted at Barbès Rochechouart station in Paris, map in hand, looking for Gervaise’s neighbourhood, it wasn’t what I imagine literary pilgrimages are usually about: paying homage or viewing something like a stage set. I wanted to enter a world. I think I wanted to save Gervaise.

Rue de la Goutte d’Or still exists. Named “drop of gold” after a 15th century hamlet on the same site famed for its golden white wine, it’s in the 18th arrondisement, north of Gare du Nord. It remains, according to my copy,

… a bustling neighbourhood of the underprivileged, but now populated by North African immigrants. In newspaper reports on crime in the French capital, it is often singled out as being infested by drug dealers; it is certainly not an area where readers of this translation will be made to feel welcome if they venture into it with camera in hand.

I can’t have read that passage before visiting. Or maybe I did, and it seemed right it should be dangerous. On the day I visited, the menace was palpable. People stopped and stared; in shop windows, sheeps’ heads grilled in rotisseries.

In the novel, Gervaise and her family live in an apartment block built around an internal courtyard. By the end, she is living under the stairs in a cardboard box.

Wait, this must be it!  A tall, 19th century building with two unvarnished wooden doors opened on to a cobbled courtyard. I could see this because someone had just entered and the heavy door was not yet closed. I looked and thought “yes, I could get through that door if I run now”. For a few seconds I was tempted. But then, “Would I be able to get out?”  And not wanting, in the end, to get too close to the ghost of Gervaise’s tragedy, we turned and went back to the station.

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Book review week: The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

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In 1883, somewhere in South Africa, a young white woman named Olive Schreiner writes her first novel.  She calls it The Story of an African Farm and invents the pseudonym, Ralph Iron, under which it is published to great acclaim and controversy in London.

It is one of the first feminist novels ever published and contains devastating passages on the situation of women in relation to men.

It is delightful to be a woman; but every man thanks the Lord devoutly that he isn’t one.

It is not what is done to us, but what is made of us, that wrongs us. No man can be really injured but by what modifies himself. We all enter the world little plastic beings, with so much natural force, perhaps, but for the rest — blank, and the world tells us what we are to be, and shapes us by the ends it sets before us. To you it says — Work ! and to us it says — Seem ! To you it says — As you approximate to man’s highest ideal of God, as your arm is strong and your knowledge great, and the power to labour is with you, so you shall gain all that human heart desires. To us it says — Strength shall not help you, nor knowledge, nor labour. You shall gain what men gain, but by other means. And so the world makes men and women.

Not only does the novel deal with the situation of women, it deals with racism, religion, atheism, “freethinking”, sex outside marriage, illegitimate children and transvestitism.

It breaks every kind of literary and cultural convention.  One scholar calls it a “literary platypus” whose “ungainly combination of parts and functions seem to flummox both classification and periodization.”

The female protagonist chooses to marry a man she thinks a fool, she eschews marriage to her lover to preserve her autonomy, she goes on a quest and a man follows (rather than vice versa), a man validates his existence through service to a woman, a good and devout man is abused, the two protagonists die incidentally, justice and redemption do not arrive.

The dog [Doss] jumped on to his back and snapped at [his] black curls, till, finding that no notice was taken, he walked off to play with a black beetle.  The beetle was hard at work trying to roll home a great ball of dung it had been collecting all the morning; but Doss broke the ball, and ate the beetle’s hind legs, and then bit off its head.  And it was all play, and no one could tell what it had lived and worked for.  A striving, and a striving, and an ending in nothing.

The whole is shocking, dreamy, discordant and strangely relaxing to read.

The book becomes a best-seller, and the young woman, famous for the rest of her life.

She marries her husband in 1894 and he takes her surname.  She lives out one of the key scenes of the novel when she gives birth to a stillborn child in 1895.  She becomes one of the leading figures in the female suffrage movement in South Africa and a champion of equal rights for all, black and white.  When she dies in Cape Town in 1920 at the age of 65 thousands line the railway along which her body is transported to its burial place.

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Of human bondage and the chocolate chip of life

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You can apply the following thought to any aspect of life where one part is seen as a necessary, to-be-gotten-through obligation and the other part, the release or freedom from the obligation.

While he’s talking about the contrast between meditation (the obligation) and the rest of life (the release), I can easily apply it to a current situation in my life.

Several times a week, I’m doing some work for a client which is challenging and tedious. Each time, in the hours before going to the client’s, I’m thinking about having to go, wishing I didn’t have to, wanting it to be over. Then, when it’s over, I feel like I’ve won the lottery for a few hours.

I know this is a very common experience and nothing remarkable, and that you could also say there’s nothing wrong with it, indeed, that the experience of release is one you might even consider “worth” the discomfort that went beforehand.

All the same, I’d like to learn to handle it differently. And as Trungpa suggests, the situation is unnecessary.

“Another challenging aspect of a group retreat is mealtimes … [which]  are often seen as a moment of release, a moment of freedom – which is unnecessary … there can be a quality of meals as time off, a gap, a vacation. You are eating and drinking – no doubt having a relatively pleasant time – and you regard it as completely outside of what you are doing in the meditation hall. There’s a dichotomy, a shockingly big contrast, which is unnecessary.  If you cultivate such an approach during the mealtimes or during personal time – thinking that this is your free time, your time to release energy – then obviously your sitting practice is going to feel like imprisonment. You are creating your own jail.

You might feel that the meditation hall is where serious practice takes place, and when you get out the door, everything’s free, back to normality or something like that … By doing that, you might develop a negative reaction toward the meditation hall, considering it a jail, while the other places, away from practice, come to represent freedom and having a good time.

The suggestion here is that we could even out the whole thing and have a good time all over the place. This is not so much a jail, and that is not so much a vacation, freedom, a holiday. Everything should be evened out. That is the basic approach: if you sit, if you stand, if you eat, if you walk – whatever you do is all part of the same good old world. You are carrying your world with you in any case. You cannot cut your world into different slices and put them into different pigeonholes.

We don’t have to be so poverty-stricken about our life. We don’t have to try to get a little chocolate chip from just one part of our life. All the rest will be sour, but here I can take a dip in pleasure! If your body is hot and you dip your finger in ice water, it feels good. In actual fact, it’s painful at the same time, not completely pleasurable. If you really know the meaning of pleasure in the total sense, this dip in pleasure is a further punishment and an unnecessary trick that we play on ourselves.”

~ from Mindfulness in Action by Chögyam Trungpa

Image: Red and Yellow Cliffs, 1940, by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986); in July, the Tate Modern in London will host a major retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work.

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Let difficulty transform you

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“When we’re putting up the barriers and the sense of ‘me’ as separate from ‘you’ gets stronger, right there in the midst of difficulty and pain, the whole thing could turn around simply by not erecting barriers; simply by staying open to the difficulty, to the feelings that you’re going through; simply by not talking to ourselves about what’s happening. That is a revolutionary step. Becoming intimate with pain is the key to changing at the core of our being – staying open to everything we experience, letting the sharpness of difficult times pierce us to the heart, letting these times open us, humble us, and make us wiser and more brave.  Let difficulty transform you. And it will. In my experience, we just need help in learning how not to run away.”

~ Pema Chödrön

Image: Detail from a bookmark design by Australian boy, Zane Austen-Young, which won a prize in a bookmark competition for the Book Depository site, based on his favourite book, Where is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek; notice the love hearts he’s drawn on the sheep’s face and the nostrils and the speech bubble that says “Roar”.

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“A majestic mass of futuristic vessels … “

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Since 2011, Laurent Kronental has been photographing the Grands Ensembles housing estates built around Paris from the 1950s to the 1980s, and their elderly residents. The results are haunting, melancholy and magnificent at once. Here are some of the images featured in The Guardian last week. For more information about Kronental and his Souvenir d’un Futur project, please visit his website.

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Images by Laurent Kronental: (from top) Jacques, 82, Le Viaduc et les Arcades du Lac, Montigny-le-Bretonneux, 2015; Joseph, 88, Les Espaces d’Abraxas, Noisy-le-Grand, 2014; José, 89, Les Damiers, Courbevoie, 2012; Joseph, 88, Les Espaces d’Abraxas, Noisy-le-Grand, 2014; Les Tours Aillaud, Cité Pablo Picasso, Nanterre, 2013 (two photos); Roland, 85, Le Viaduc et les Arcades du Lac, Montigny-le-Bretonneux, 2015

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