Monday, December 31, 2018

Roma, Mexico, Me

Though I admired the earlier films of Alfonso Cuarón I didn’t know anything about Roma going into it.  Within a couple minutes I knew I was in Mexico City in the early 1970s.

I knew this because in the early 1970s I was twice in Mexico City, the second time for about three months.

Roma is loosely autobiographical and much of it takes place behind the gates of an upper-middle class family home.  Most of the residences in Mexico City lie behind these gates and when I was there I was acutely conscious of having no access to the lives inside them.  Thus the intimacy that Cuarón reveals now felt like a late and unlikely gift.

The Mexico that Cuarón shows us outside the family’s gate felt very familiar: the strange random musical paramilitary parades in the city streets, a casket business on a roadside, the vague threats of violence from protesters or policia, the low lying fog below the mountains in the countryside.  These details might have been drawn from my own memories.  I look forward to watching the film again to absorb more of its rich atmosphere, now that the story is known to me.

Thinking about my own time in Mexico, the winter of 1973–’74, I realized that I was only inside of two homes.  One was the home of the long-time ex-pat and mountain explorer, Otis McAlister, the other was the home of a young American couple who worked as teachers.  They kindly invited me to spend a few days recuperating at their house after I became sick high on Iztaccihuatl, the eighth highest summit in North America, an occasion marked by severe dehydration, mild frostbite, and brief hospital stay.

The rest of my time there I stayed in one-star hotels or slept in the mountains.

The occasion for me being in Mexico was my idea to write a guidebook to climbing the volcanoes of Mexico.  This plan was foiled by two facts, not the least of which was that I did not know how to write.  The other consideration was that the pleasure of my travels was precisely in not having a guidebook on which to rely.  If future mountain travelers needed a guidebook, maybe they should go elsewhere.  Or so I thought.  A guidebook in English would be published about ten years later.

What I never lost was the feeling that I wanted to write about the experience.  But I didn’t know what I would write and I would wildly underestimate the amount of time it would take to shape the experience.  And, when the book, Forty Crows, actually got written, almost forty years later, it was not a book I was capable of imagining when I was twenty years old.  It’s as if I shot a few rolls of film and they sat for decades in developing trays waiting for resolution that may or may not . . . develop.

Roma is described as loosely autobiographical.  Who knows what that means, exactly?  And whether it matters.  My own novel is probably exponentially more loosely autobiographical.  About twenty of its 400 pages might have been written as nonfiction.  And certain details of the protagonist’s past, told in flashbacks, are stolen from memory.  It’s not me in any literal sense.  In a figurative, what if? sense, it’s all me, in the way that all fiction is an answer to the question what if?

I look forward to my next viewing of Roma.  Forty Crows is not my Roma, but it is my Mexico.

Shameless self promotion:

Sunday, December 30, 2018

John K. King Books, Detroit 2018

I check the mountaineering section first.  Often it doesn’t change between my yearly visits. I find a copy of Scrambles Amongst the Alps, sixth edition, hardcover. Sixth edition is 1936.  The book had been in print 65 years at that point.  This edition has a dust cover (tattered) and the six foldout maps.  Since my only copy of this is cheap paperback, it’s a no-brainer to pick it up.   The story culminates in Edward Whymper’s tragic first ascent of the Matterhorn, its last paragraph remains among the truest observations ever made about climbing, oft-quoted and easily found, if you’re interested.
            In the “new” introduction, added to the original by Whymper in 1900, he observes: “The pleasure they [these scrambles] cannot be transferred to others.  The ablest pens have failed, and I think, must always fail, to give a true idea of the grandeur of the Alps.”

I wander around, aimless. John King  holds over a million books on its four floors, an abandoned glove factory in its previous incarnation.  A clerk sporting a black leather jacket adorned with patches and messages which I can’t casually inspect well enough to actually read, asks if he can help me.  I ask if he has any Wittgenstein, realizing immediately that I had meant Benjamin.  He strides ahead vigorously toward the Wittgenstein, as if to demonstrate that, of course, Wittgenstein is always at one’s fingertips.    
“We have Zettel,” he announces victoriously.
"You have Zettel,” I parrot back, as in disbelief.  I have never heard of Zettel, but try not to betray this suddenly embarrassing fact.
“Yes,” he says, “Zettel” and he takes it from the shelf and thrusts it into my hands in one quick motion.
I cannot hide my admiration for a person who in a building holding one million books knows the exact location of Zettel.
Zettel contaiuns the collected fragments found in a “box-file” after Wittgenstein’s death.  The text is in German on the left pages, translated to English on the right.  I turn randomly to entry 160: “The way music speaks.  Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.”
I decide instantly to acquire Zettel.
“Do you have any Benjamin?” I remember to ask, remembering also to pronounce Benjamin correctly.
“No,” he says, “we cannot keep Benjamin in stock.”  He pronounced Benjamin even more correctly than I had.
Somehow I find this a reason for hope, not just for the city of Detroit, but for the world in general.  The market for Benjamin has never been stronger!

I wander about, pausing to inspect a copy of Unter dem Vulkan.  I guess a have a strain of the German language running through my mind today, unbidden.  Even though can’t read German I desire this for some reason, even though I have five copies of it in English. I exercise a smidgen of self control and pass.

Being in John K. King Books is one of my life’s greatest pleasures. You could go to Detroit for two days and spend half your time at the Detroit Institute of Arts and half the time in John King.  Two of the richest days you could ever have. You should do it.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Notes, Marginalia, Ephemera

I am moving offices, from larger to smaller (of course).  Thus I have had to deal with books, of which I clearly have too many, even though they are my life’s blood.  Okay, moved the books.  Now for the papers, which have proliferated apace with the books.  Multiple drafts of published works, multiple drafts of unpublished works.  Notes.  Meeting notes.  Notes written on meeting agendae.  Notes written on conference programs. Notes written on the backs of file folders.  Ephemera. Marginalia. Most of this stuff I have just tossed (recycled) but I saved a few notes, because, well, once I found them to be noteworthy.  Unfortunately, some are unattributed.

•“I don’t see the difference between a flash flood and a story.”  ­––unattributed, but most likely a Padget Powell-ism, written on an MFA residency schedule

•“You are living your life and you have your pen in your hand.”  --unattributed, but sounds Craig Childs-ish, written on MFA residency schedule

•Within five minutes of meeting my surgeon for the first time, he told me I had a large cancerous tumor on my kidney. And nearly simultaneously he explained that he would simply remove it and I would be fine.
         This was surprising news because I was without symptoms, but I believed him, that I would be fine.
         I was 51 years old and just a few weeks earlier I had made a long difficult ascent of an obscure peak in the Teton Range. At the time I would have denied this, but I know now it was my unstated assumption that I was more or less invincible.
        The moment that illusion began to crack was upon breaking the news of my impending surgery to my mother over the telephone. I was casual but she broke into tears and put the phone down
       After a long pause my father picked up the phone and I realized that my attitude with my mother had been all wrong.  I realized that age 51 is a late date to understand that I was no longer 17.

––Written (unedited) in margins of conference handout, “Vital Signs” by Natalie Kucz, and pictured above

•“Headboard-slamming sexfest.” ––unattributed, on the back of file folder. 

•“She said the worst thing: “You have a novel here.” I said, “I hate you.”
                        —Unattributed, on a Kachemak Bay Writers Conference program

•“It’s easy to be sloppy when you know you’re delivering what people already want.” ––Rich “Yoda” Chiappone

•The lawn is infested with dandelions.  What’s wrong with that? You secretly wonder.
The numbers on the fertilizer bag describe the nitrogen levels, you think, but all you care about is the weed killer.
You fertilize the lawn with a spreader.  You hold the spreader open with your left hand which begins to strain and cramp before the fertilizer is all dispersed.  To make the fertilizer actually spread you spin the cranking apparatus with your right hand, similar to a fishing reel, but more precisely like the winding of a toy Jack-in-the-Box.
The fertilizer covers your shoes and you wonder how much of it you have inhaled.  You wonder if your sons will really keep the dog out of the yard as they have promised.  And then you think of the three incidences of cancer that you have survived.  And how not once did a surgeon or oncologist speculate as to their causes.

––unedited, written in the margins of an essay by Scott Russell Sanders

•“Experience is abundant.  Language is scarce.  Poetic language is more scarce.”––unattributed, on a Kachemak Bay Writers Conference program

•“Crevasses must not yawn or gape.”—note to self

 •“I was groupie, and then . . . I found out I was bipolar.” ––unattributed, how
  not to write a memoir

• “In order to embark [you must first believe]: ‘I am worthy of an exception.’”

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Secret Handshake

Last summer at our mfa residency our guest Lance Olsen (self descriptor: "teacher of experimental narrative theory and practice."  Much practice!)  described that moment of recognition between lovers of the same lesser known literary work as a kind of “secret handshake.”  Our own secret handshake was based on a mutual appreciation for the works of David Markson.   But in that talk he was referring to  books like Mark Danielewki’s House of Leaves.  It’s quite a . . . literary artifact for those of you who don’t know it.  The text begins on the title page and a few pages in is what appears to be an epigraph: “This is not for you.”  The reader has been warned.

            At the Banff Film and Book Festival in the fall of 2017 David Roberts in conversation with the Canadian climber and writer Geoff Powter (Strange and Dangerous Dreams), spoke of a similar moment of recognition shared by him and his one-time student, long-time friend Jon Krakauer: “Does person x pass the Wilfrid Noyce test?”  I mention this pridefully because I  “pass,” knowing even that he was a Wilfrid with an i, not a Wilfred with an e.

            Roberts’ first book, the now classic Mountain of My Fear, has the rare distinction of having been blurbed (still hate that verb) by W.H. Auden. This is not too surprising if you know that Auden’s brother was a Himalayan explorer (geologist, more precisely) much discussed by Eric Shipton in A Blank on the Map.  And, it was that brother who supplied the inspiration for Auden’s collaboration with Christopher Isherwood on the drama The Ascent of F6.  Auden, too had his benchmark for measuring readers: “Do you love the names of the ships in the Illiad?” (Note: it’s an interminable list.  I wouldn’t have made it into Auden’s club.  I think you have to be poet.)
At another moment in the conversation Roberts recited the last paragraph of Lionel Terray’s Conquistadors of the Useless (I prefer the original French title:
Les Conquérants de l'inutile, even though I am sure it is accurately translated) as follows:

My own scope must now go back down the scale.  My strength and my courage will not cease to diminish.  It will not be long before the Alps once again become the terrible mountains of my youth, and if truly, no stone, no tower of ice, no crevasse lies somewhere in wait for me, the day will come when, old and tired, I find peace among the animals and flowers.  The wheel will have turned full circle: I will be at last the simple peasant that once, as a child, I dreamed of becoming.

Someone else in the audience knew the paragraph by heart as well, and joined him in the recitation.  I was very envious of that exclusive little club and have vowed to join.
Terray, alas, perished four short years after writing those words in a climbing accident never having returned to his longed for simple peasant existence.

I finally have read Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives.  It was published at the end of the last century and I knew from everything I read about it that I would love it, and I did.  But I waited to read it until my own novel, Forty Crows, was out of my hands and a thing in the world.  This because, like The Savage Detectives, my novel is set mostly in Mexico City.  I knew I would give up if I had read Bolano first. His, as I suspected is an intimate Mexico City.  I like to think my Mexico City is a place the reader can believe in, but that’s not for me to say.  In any case, my version of the city is an imagined place based on forty year old impressions and pre-Google research.  I took my marching orders from John Irving, who in A Son of a Circus created an India that was “unknown and unknowable” to its main character.  A fictional India.

In any case, one of the beauties of The Savage Detectives is not only its portrayal of Mexico City but its litany of its street names.  Thus, going forward, for me it’s not the names of the warships in The Illiad but the names of the streets in Bolano’s The Savage Detectives:

            Calle Republica de Venezuela
            Calle Leonardo Da Vinci
Calle Independencia and Luis Moya
Camino Desierto de los Leones
Rue des Petites Écuries (Paris!)
And on and on.  There are hundreds.  Do you love them?

We readers, wandering through labyrinths of words of our own choosing.  The purpose of our reading is not to read what everyone else does, but works that reflect somehow our own peculiarities of thinking.  Why do I own four editions of René Daumal’s Mount Analogue?  (pictured here in the 1968 City Lights edition, the one I originally read and love best, its cover hinting [mostly falsely!] of  enlightenment.  Even finding a copy of this back in the early 70s was along journey in and of itself). Also, why one in French, which I will never read? 

Why do I own four editions of Under the Volcano?  (Again, Mexico City!)

Why the two different translations of Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow?  Why do I need both it and the F. David translation: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow?  I can’t explain it. 

“By their deeds they shall be known” the New Testament wisely tells us.  The corollary is: by the books they love they shall be known, or if not known, formed.  We are what we read.

Someday I hope to exchange secret handshakes with the literary traveler who has been lost in this labyrinth, also known as Dreamlives of Debris:

I have already exchanged a secret handshake with its author.