A Resolution

Warning: this week's Feminist Sunday post will be 2/3 pure, undiluted rant and 1/3 a New Year's resolution I can get behind. It started with a post I read earlier this week on Blog of a Bookslut. Jessa Crispin talks about how she's never read some of the so-called great male authors:
It's not like if you decide not to read any John Updike, because it just sounds like being trapped in a car with a narcissist with his dick out, it's not like you run out of books. For a while I thought I should read everything, back when I was trying to be a book critic. So I read that dreadful Franzen, I read that dreadful Messud. I had opinions about Dale Peck reviews! God help me, why did I do that. And then I remembered again, that one could decide not to read things. (...) And I'm beginning to think that this stance of non-participation might be a more important one than, you know, this bores me I don't want to read it.

Music and The Other City

Because my review for The Other City turned out so long, I decided to leave out one clever detail from the book that I initially wanted to discuss. But since it's my blog and since I had the inspiration to institute the footnotes & reviews system for situations such as this, there's nothing stopping me from discussing it separately. So here it is.

It's about music. We discussed previously about how the other city has a weird language that has the same words like ours but seems to be incomprehensible gibberish otherwise. As you read, the temptation to find hidden meanings in every sentence is very strong. The narrator describes this impulse so well when he says
I had encountered the words and gestures of the inhabitants of the other city, the screeches of its creatures, and the stiff poses of its statues like a hieroglyphic text, whose shapes from time to time have been penetratingly and almost painfully cut through by the incandescent discharge of unifying meaning, but every time it had been extinguished before I managed to grasp it. 
But it's not only the language that is obscure. Music itself is different in the other city. (Does music qualify as a language? I'm not sure.) When the narrator first hears it, at the end of a religious service in a subterranean church of the other city, he describes it as "a monotonous tinkling" that "maybe (...) was supposed to be music." And then, when people sing, this is what it sounds like to him, not so much music as noise: 
The worshipers (...) started to sing a long drawn-out wordless melody in which I could detect no rhythm or system, and which most resembled the random sounds of wind shaking tin window seals on winter evenings. I listened to the strange song and waited to see if anything else would happen, but there was simply the sound of that formless singing, just unending intonements of a single note, after which the melody would abruptly rise or fall and remain fixed once more into a long single note. The singing was putting me to sleep (...).
In the absence of a rhythm or system, this is barely recognizable as music. This is at the end of chapter 3. At the end of chapter 5, after hearing some stories about the other city and chasing the marble streetcar that takes people away from the normal world, the narrator is in a garden. He hears a "magical music to which [he] felt irresistibly drawn." He follows it and discovers that what he took to be liturgical singing was actually a piece of tin roof shaken by the wind. Like the music in the subterranean church, the sound is soporific.

What is so nice about these two episodes is how they illustrate the constant search for meaning and structure, applied even to music. Seeing that the music in the garden was only his mind attributing intentionality where there was none should make the narrator doubt that there is any meaning to be found in the other city as well. (It doesn't.) But seeing how this sound was very similar to the one he heard in the church and yet this time he immediately recognized it as music instead of random noise, how his mind imposed an intentional pattern on nature on the basis of a prior experience, should perhaps make us, readers, wonder about the source of all demarcations like those between language and nonsense, music and noise. Is familiarity the only difference between what we are willing to accept as music and what we deem to be noise?

Review: The Other City by Michal Ajvaz

"Fantasy is a place where it rains." This is how Italo Calvino begins what would have been one of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, with a riff on a line from Dante’s Purgatory. In Michal Ajvaz’s world, fantasy is a place where it snows. Prague in winter is a space of pure possibility. It snows heavily from the very first chapter – the one where our hero and narrator finds a mysterious book on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop. The snow and darkness outside contrast with the coziness of the interior: warm, quiet, smelling pleasantly of old books. But the contrast is deceptive. The books inside are described as if alive: “pages rustled as they were turned, as if the books were sighing in their sleep,” when one book is withdrawn from the shelves the others “draw breath” and fill the space. The snow outside seems to have a life of its own as well; it arranges itself in “snowy chimeras” that hypnotize and entice the narrator. It’s part of what makes him buy a book written in a strange alphabet, part of why he decides to pursue the source of the mysterious script. As he says:
(...) the snow lying everywhere is almost already the beginning of the unreal. It too urges us to leave: we are bound to find in it footprints of chimerical beings, footsteps that will lead us to secret lairs in the depths of the city.
In this novel's world, the decision to buy a strange book is not a minor one. It is a step towards crossing the frontiers of our ordinary, normal, logical lives, and it is described as such from the start:

A Gripe about Ernesto Sabato's The Tunnel

Hello, everyone! I'm delighted to see you around in a new year, and I hope it will be a good one for you (and me as well)! I'd like to be able to say I have big plans for 2014, but right now my great ambition is to choose a good book to start my year with. I finished 2013 on a not-so-great note, with Sabato's The Tunnel, and I want to get the bad taste out of my mouth as soon as possible.

I read The Tunnel because it’s one of those books that are inescapable in my social circle. The author, Ernesto Sabato, used to be a physicist, and a rather successful one at that. He got a PhD in Theoretical Physics, a fellowship at the Marie Curie Institute, a position at MIT, the works. Then he quit and started writing and became successful as a writer, providing inspiration and hope for physics students with a taste in books and secret literary ambitions everywhere.

So I read The Tunnel fully expecting it to blow my mind. That didn’t happen: I think it’s a bad book and I also didn’t enjoy reading it. I will get around to reviewing it sometime soon, hopefully. In the meantime, I want to use this footnote to elaborate on the “not enjoying reading it” part. 

I realize that compartmentalizing my criticism like this may sound weird, since the intellectual assessment I make of a book and the experience of reading it can never be completely different things. But the peculiar thing about reading The Tunnel is that, even though I realized within the first few pages that I was not going to enjoy it, I had high hopes until the very end that it would turn out to be a good book. It had such good recommendations from people I trust (and I so wanted to like the writer) that I was sure there will be a great pay-off. I was waiting for, not hoping for, the twist or revelation that would illuminate the subject matter in an original way, making the obnoxiousness I was putting up with worth it. So now that I know there is no pay-off, I am amazed I managed to stand the torturously bad writing for so long, and I need to vent.