Hot milk goodness #4

greek-gods

There’s another ancient topic in Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, maybe the only topic there ever is: families, or as Sofia, the stalled anthropologist, whose full name is Sofia Irina Papastergiadis, puts it: kinship structures.

“F=Father. M=Mother. SS=Same sex. OS=Opposite sex. I have no G (Siblings) or C (Children) or H (Husband), nor do I have a Godparent (who we classify as fictive kin because godparents can make up their responsibilities and duties).”

But maybe it’s all fictive kin. As she says on meeting her Greek father (named Christos, what else) for the first time in 11 years, each of us plays parts not denoted by our sign, sons being husbands to mothers, daughters being mothers to mothers, and so on.

“I have no plan B to replace my father because I am not sure that I want a husband who is like a father, though I can see this is part of the mix in kinship structures. A wife can be a mother to her husband and a son can be a husband or a mother to his mother and a daughter can be a sister or a mother to her mother who can be a father and a mother to her daughter, which is probably why we are all lurking in each other’s sign. It’s my bad luck that my father never showed up for me, but I had not changed my surname to Booth, even though it was tempting to have a name that people could spell. He had given me his name and I had not given it away. I had found something to do with it. The name of my father had placed me in a bigger world of names that cannot be easily said or spelt.”

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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

My tiny house of language

 

 

hotmilk

Sometimes I feel like I’m going to die of boredom in conversations and one of my dearest wishes is to wake up one day free to open my mouth and let any old thing fall out. Of course, I am free, though I appear not to know it, or as my Landmark buddies understand, knowing makes no difference anyway. To anything. Least of all to knowing oneself as free to say … what? What is it I haven’t yet said or haven’t been courageous enough to say?

There are many times I want to tell someone they’re a fool. Lately, it’s been parents. As a non-parent, listening to what parents say about their children is often alarming and I want to tell them do you realise the misery you’re storing up for yourself and your child.

But it’s not really about being free to tell someone they’re a fool. It’s about being free not to go through the old conversational motions, free to say something stupid, eccentric or seemingly off topic, like answering a question that will arise next week or last week, and in turn, to be said to.

Like my trainer giving me instructions last week. “Do one more here,” he said, “and then I’ll meet you in the bushes over there”, gesturing to a quieter corner of the gym. I was enchanted. If I didn’t already love him, his remark would have done it.

And like Dr Gómez in a new novel I’m reading called Hot Milk by Deborah Levy which is full of the kind of conversations I dream of. Dr Gómez is the specialist Sofia and her intermittently paralysed mother consult in a town on the Spanish coast. Here’s a taste.

I regarded Gómez as my research assistant. I have been on the case all my life and he is just starting. There are no clear boundaries between victory and defeat when it comes to my mother’s symptoms. As soon as he makes a diagnosis, she will grow another one to confound him. He seems to know this. Yesterday he told her to recite her latest ailment to the body of a dead insect, perhaps to a fly, because they are easy to swat. He suggested she surrender to this strange action and listen carefully to the monotony of the way it buzzes before it dies. It is likely, he said, that she will discover that the buzzing sound, often so irritating to the human ear, resembles the timbre and pitch of Russian folk music.

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