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 (The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me[1])

 

1. Author As [not circus] Dog Trainer (Cris)

You can’t lie to a dog. Or you can’t lie badly. While training dogs, you need to be “telling” them, with both body-language and voice, that they are the center of the universe to you, and that what they do for you—and what you’re doing together—makes you happier, and means more to you, than anything else in the world. They can tell if you’re lying. If you’re unconsciously communicating to them that you’re disappointed or upset because you’re thinking about something else, something offstage—whether your life’s true dilemma or your most current disappointment—they take it on as stress. To dogs, it’s all about them. So the trainer has to be able to convince the dog of that, whether it’s true in the trainer’s larger life or not. Problem is, the dog can usually tell. A good trainer doesn’t have “a larger life.” It’s never “just a dog” and therefore easy to lie to.

I have long harbored the notion, no doubt foolishly, that incarceration wouldn’t be all that particularly bad. To the contrary. It would give me time to catch up on my reading. In this fanciful scenario I place myself in a minimum security facility. Anything other than that and the advantages quickly disappear. It was in prison that Genet discovered Proust. Edmund White relates that Genet once arrived late to the weekly prison book exchange and was resigned to the picked-over shelves. Proust had been summarily rejected by all the other prisoners. He took the book, read the opening: “For a long time I would go to bed early.” then shut it, savoring it. “Now I’m tranquil,” he said to himself. “I know I’m going to go from marvel to marvel.” That is how it seems to me prison would be: tranquil and full of good reads. Marvel to marvel. Indeed, self-proclaimed Prison Writer, Kenneth Hartman notes, “In my six by ten foot cell, the locker bolted to the concrete wall is loaded down with books. Big, fat hard-bound reference titles, philosophy, and writing mechanics books. I can’t conceive of a life absent the comfortable solidity of a book held in my hands.”

Bruce Chatwin held that there are two categories of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” He observed: “There are writers who can only function ‘at home’, with the right chair, the shelves of dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and now perhaps the word processor. And there are those, like myself, who are paralyzed by ‘home’, for whom home is synonymous with the proverbial writer’s block, and who believe naïvely that all would be well if only they were somewhere else.” I like this notion, but have no opinion about its veracity. I do, however, hold that when I read Chatwin I can detect the shuffle of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as, when I read Melville, I smell salt air.


DH: For many years now, I’ve been reading Montaigne’s Essays. They’ve won the place of honor on my night table, a highly contested space. And I’ve always dreamed of someday finding someone who could answer my questions about the mysterious M, who is my friend who lives inside a book.  But now that I’ve met Sarah Bakewell, whose new book, How to Live from the smashing Other Press, is all about Montaigne, I find myself tongue-tied.

I think my best course would be to reread Sarah’s book which is so suggestively rich with other literary pathways to follow. Reading How to Live is like wandering in a sun-dappled forest of literature. There are so many paths to take, so many hints of other great writers to explore, that you could never track them all down from one reading. This book’s a keeper, the most literate “self-help” book that you’ll ever find.

But there is one prime question that Sarah Bakewell’s WWFIL is designed to answer. And that is to get into the mind of the bibliophile who is only hinted at in her wonderfully singular  book about Montaigne.

I swear, wait till you read this WWFIL. It’s a pip.

“When we fell in love” - By Sarah Bakewell

Oct 2010

I think of myself as an impatient reader. I’m quick to throw any book aside the second it gets boring.  At the same time, I have a thing about monster-books – the kinds that make outrageous demands on the reader and defiantly outstay their welcome.  Thus, I like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Joseph and His Brothers, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and Michel de Montaigne’s Essays.  You could pile all those up and tie them together with string, and they would make a pretty good full-height barstool.

Of them all, Montaigne is the oldest and greatest.  He lived from 1533 to 1592 in southwestern France, and spent the best years of his life writing a hundred or so elaborate, rambling efforts which he called ‘Essays’, meaning something like ‘Tries’.  He put in everything that came to mind: snippets from his reading, stories about his neighbours, witty anecdotes, political reflections, obscene classical verses, tales of his cat stalking birds or his dog dreaming by the fire, and odd rumours picked up on his travels.  Above all, he wrote about his own existence – about what it felt like to be Michel de Montaigne.  He complained about his bad memory, mused on why his tastes had changed from red to white wine and back again, reflected on what it felt like to write essays, and wondered why his whole attitude to the world seemed to change when he had a headache or a corn on his toe.

I discovered Montaigne by chance twenty years ago, when I was looking for something to read on a train from Budapest.  A selection from the Essays was the only English-language book available in the station bookshop, so I bought it out of desperation.  I was afraid it would be dull, but instead I found myself meeting a person I felt I already knew well – a person just like me.  Since then, I’ve never stopped reading Montaigne. He’s usually by my bedside, and five years ago I yielded to the obvious temptation and began writing a book about him myself.

The Essays is a barstool-book all right: in full, it runs to over a thousand pages.  But you can dip in and out of it to your heart’s content. No one expects you to read it from beginning to end, least of all Montaigne himself. As with any good barstool, you can fall off occasionally, then right yourself without much difficulty or loss of dignity.

But my reading adventures began with much smaller books, and I still love dreamlike miniatures like Kafka’s short stories (skewed gems like “The Cares of a Family Man” and “The Bucket Rider”), or Thomas Bernhard’s collection of 104 micro-narratives, The Voice Imitator.

One of my first loves was The Land of the Thinsies, by a long-forgotten 1940s children’s author called Dorothy Ann Lovell.  It was my mother’s book originally, but it crept on to my bookshelf and I read it when I was about eight.

In my memory, it tells a long and convoluted science-fiction story about a little girl who goes off by herself to catch a London Underground train.  Wearing a red cape and carrying a yellow basket, like Little Red Riding Hood, she enters the station using that strange modern device, an escalator.  (It wasn’t so strange or modern, actually: London’s first escalator had been introduced in 1911.)  She rides down, but fails to step off at the bottom, and so finds herself sucked through the crack into a weird underground world.

A subterranean sun shines above her head, and people go about their business, but everything is oddly different. At last it dawns on her: everybody is flat – and she is flat too!  They have all arrived through the escalator, which has squeezed them like laundry in a wringer.  They have become “thinsies”.

The girl tries to find her way back, but the new land’s geography is confusing, and she meets peculiar travelling companions who only compound the difficulties further. She finds herself on a railway platform, trying to buy a ticket from a flat ticket machine. Later she sets sail on a raft which sinks – but only a few inches, as the lake is flat.  Only after many adventures does she find her way back to the surface, though I forget exactly how.

That’s as much as I remember from my childhood.  About a year ago, I wanted to read it again and tracked the title down at the British Library.  Big mistake!  The experience was so disappointing that I expunged it from my mind, which is why I still can’t remember how the girl makes her escape.  What I’d previously recalled as a great baroque castle of a book, Alice-like in its labyrinthine clarity, is actually about 40 pages long, with a story as flimsy as the thinsies are thinsy.  I still like the pictures, which are unsettlingly large, flat and washed-out.  But the story itself is too small.

I wonder now, though, whether it matters.  A book is what happens in the minds of its readers, after all.  If I can dip into Montaigne’s Essays and Proust’s for a mere ten minutes at a time, and bob around spotting a few bright fish and shells under the surface before my attention drifts elsewhere, then why shouldn’t I keep the Thinsies as it always was – a vast lake, on which I can row for hours without striking land, and forget to come home until long after dark?  Both are just ways of loving a book, and both may have very little to do with the book itself.

threeguysonebook.com

Few books in recent memory have caused as much of a stir as Reality Hunger, the 219-page “manifesto” by David Shields.

It’s a book that defies easy classification.

An argument.  A clarion call.  An affront.  A life story.

An unapologetic assault on the literary status quo.

An essay-memoir-pointillistic-literary-collage-and-exercise-in-appropriation-art, one which argues that a new artistic movement is forming, a movement which prizes as its virtues things like randomness, self-reflexivity, reader/viewer participation, and the total obliteration of the line between fiction and nonfiction.

The book has been greeted as a revelation.  A game-changer.  A thunderous ars poetica.

The book has been greeted as reprehensible.  Tired.  An irresponsible attempt to subvert existing copyright law, all while generating a massive wave of cheap publicity.

Writers in particular have reacted strongly to the book.  Some with venemous anger; others, a fit of nervousness; others still with unbridled enthusiasm.

“To call something a manifesto is a brave step,” writes Luc Sante in the New York Times.  ”It signals that you are hoisting a flag and are prepared to go down with the ship.”

Shields—as far as I can tell—is still afloat, and he was kind enough to speak with me recently about his life, his work, and his assessment of the cultural moment.

I’ve lived without a television for just over two months now.

At first I panicked.

I come from a family who firmly believes that Katie Couric and Alex Trebek are immediate family members and should be laid places akin to Elijah’s at the family dining table.

When I still lived at home, my parents’ Christmas card list should have included Bob Newhart (with Larry, his cousin Darryl and his other cousin Darryl), Sgt. Frank Furrillo, the Seavers, the Huxtables, the Carringtons, the Ewings, and the entire staff of St. Eligius Hospital for the amount of time we spent with each other.

For some, talk about television shows is considered merely a ‘water cooler conversation’ at best. For us, it was like my entire house had one giant Britta filter on it. We rarely talked about the world or our place in it. Literature was homework (unless you include Danielle Steele, which my mother absolutely did), Politics was verboten, as Momma was a Democrat and Daddy was a staunch Republican and Religion was reduced to the Walter Cronkite defense: “Because ‘that’s the way it is’.”

We didn’t do much else as a family otherwise. Oh, I mean sure, there was church and the thrice-annual trips to Walt Disney World, but mostly, when we convened, it was around the T.V.

So as a rebellious teen, when I left home for college, I eschewed all of it to try and find my own way. I started reading Proust (in French, no less). I gave up Catholicism for Lent, I embraced radical liberal politics and I devoted myself to the theatre (pronounced á là Danny Kaye in White Christmas: “The thee-uh-tre! The thee-uh-tre! What’s happened to the thee-uh-tre?”)

Most of all though, I pronounced my disdain for the absolutely pedestrian habit of watching television loudly and to the masses.

Those were the years that 90210 and Melrose Place hit big. Seinfeld and Friends were making T.V. a “must see” and Twin Peaks made my good friend, Laura Palmer (no, the real one) a household name. But I would have none of it. I was all about Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Shepard – the usual suspects. Bochco, Griffin, Wolf, Lynch – morons, all.

But no matter how much I have publicly poo-pooed it, I have always had one. I’ve never had the cojones to get rid of it. Something about having that little glowing box in my house turns me right into Carol Ann the minute it beckons.

It’s comfort. It’s family. It’s home.

And sometimes, it’s all I need to make me feel a part of something bigger than myself, since Religion escapes me, Politics usually bore me and Swann’s Way, from what I can understand, (in English, since it was fucking IMPOSSIBLE to read en Français), is just one long pretentious, narcissistic, misanthropic, dump.

Which brings me to yesterday.

* * * * *

I moved into my new apartment less than a week before I started shooting a new film. I had absolutely no time to unpack anything, save the suitcases I had been living out of while I was between apartments.

Luckily, I discovered that one of my neighbors had an unprotected wireless internet feed, so if I balanced my laptop on my left knee just-so while sitting on the Northeast corner of my bed, I had free wi-fi.  So I was covered. Hooking up the cable was the last thing on my mind.

And oddly, I liked it.

On my days off, I went out, I read, I went to yoga classes, and I slept soundly: many of the things that T.V. keeps you from doing.

But as time progressed and the empty screen became increasingly dark, I found that something was wrong. I was betraying my upbringing, disowning my family, wrecking my home.

Just like my family, television and I don’t have much in common and we don’t visit often, but I like knowing that it’s there.  And as much as I tried to ignore it, without it, there was a hole, a need, a void that just had to be filled.

* * * * *

The appointment was Thursday, between 12:00 – 4:00pm. I got no less than three precursory calls from Time Warner Cable to assure them that I would be home for the installation.

At 1:15, the buzzer rang and I sang gaily into the little box, “Be right down!”

I sailed down the two flights of steps, anxious to greet The Cable Guy.  I was wearing my little “it’s-my-day-off-and-I-don’t-give-a-shit” dress, which is short, blowzy, and doesn’t require too much understructure.

This is important, because he took one look at me in that dress and graciously let me lead him up the stairs.

Feeling his eyes burn on my ‘inter-diameter slope’, I immediately knew the kind of guy I was dealing with.

Ahem.

My suspicions were cemented when he said to me:

“So what do you do to stay in such good shape? You look fit, mami.”

Nevermind that I’ve just spent five weeks eating catered food from a film set – a whole different kind of Omnivore’s Dilemma. He made it apparent that he was willing to fill my ‘void’, and how.

Oy.

After assessing what he would need to get the cable and internet installed, TCG announced to me, “I gonna go get my things and then I gonna use your bathroom, ok, mami?”

“Sure.  Of course. Make yourself at home.” (Yes, I said it. I’m Southern. I can’t help it. It’s ingrained.)

He goes to his truck and I quickly tidied the bathroom. Hide the tampons, close the shower curtain, wipe down the sink. Just because he’s The Cable Guy, doesn’t mean he should think me a slob…

So the buzzer blares again – this time with a fat and sleazy bleat. The first time ‘round I told TCG that the buzzer didn’t work, hence my personal greeting at the bottom on the stairs. So naturally, he didn’t pin open the door and thus required me to go down a second time to let him in.

Figures.

So under the “second time, shame on me” theory of single-girl safety, I made him go up the stairs first. He did his installation thing and got everything taken care of pretty quickly.

Almost.

He says Nextel/Sprint has no reception in my apartment, so he needs to use my phone to connect with HQ and finalize the install. I offer him my iPhone and have to walk him thru how to use the touch screen.

“Ooh. You smell nice, mami.”

I hadn’t taken a shower in two days.

I question his lack of reception; both his phone’s and his own of my unbathed, unkempt, undressed and otherwise un-appearance.

He makes his call, completes the install and then says to me (again):

“Now I gonna need your bathroom.”

Right. Okay. I had said “Make yourself at home.” It would be rude not to oblige.

I show him the way and start checking my email at my desk for the first time in months.

After a three full minutes of silence, the door remained closed.

Fuck. He’s either masturbating or releasing his bowels in ways unfathomable.

Six minutes in and I’m suddenly really uncomfortable with some stranger in my house, locked in the bathroom doing God knows what. It’s at this point that I really begin to miss my dog; nevermind that she was a beagle-mix and would sooner kiss you than attack.

I look through my iTunes collection, searching for the most aggressive music I can find. Motörhead.  That oughta do it. The umlaut is very threatening.  I crank up the volume.

He finally emerges; the door to the bathroom conspicuously closed.

TCG exhales deeply while rubbing his paunch – a huge sigh of relief – and plops down on the couch.

“I gonna test the channels now. I can sit here, mami?”

Knee-jerk reaction. I say: “Make yourself at home.” (Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!)

He flips on the T.V. (mind you, the Motörhead is still playing in the background) and begins to surf. The channels work fine, but he’s clearly not going anywhere.

The remote stops on the Olympics.

He lays back and nestles himself into my chenille sleeper sofa.

It’s obvious to me that his task (of many) is now fully complete. “Well,” I say, “is there anything else you need?”

“A pillow.  And a beer?  I had such a long day.”

The time is 1:50pm.

I grab his clipboard and a pen and point to the bottom of the work order.

“I sign here, right? I’m sure you’ve got plenty more folks to visit today.”

He finally gets the picture (in-picture) and reluctantly lumbers off the couch. He takes his clipboard, gives me my receipt and with his Commerce Bank pen, he taps the patch on his shirt; his name, Peter, embroidered in bright blue.

“Axe for me direkt if you ever need anything, mami.”

He picks up his tool box, blows me a kiss and goes.

* * * * *

I blame my parents.