Thursday, October 16, 2014

The infatuations - Javier Marias

With The infatuations, Spanish novelist Javier Marias sets another worthy effort alongside the long string of novels he’s given us already, the high points of which are perhaps A Heart So White (1992), Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1994), and the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow (2002-04-07). This new work possesses many of the qualities that have made his earlier ones so engaging: a ruminative yet mesmerizing narrative style, a touch of voyeurism, a crime or suspected crime, extensive analysis of a few lines of Shakespeare or the plot twist in a nineteenth-century novel, and an element of slowly accumulating suspense. It also introduces a new element—a female narrator.

Although the book is 330 pages long, the plot could be related in a few paragraphs. (Anyone who plans to read the book might want to stop right here, though I’m not going to give everything away. Those who don’t mind knowing a  little about “what happens,” read on.)
The narrator, a publishing executive named Maria, enjoys watching a middle-aged couple eat their breakfast every morning across the café from where she sits. They seem to her “the perfect couple,” always attentive to one another, always at ease, always laughing. 

One morning the man (his name, we later learn, is Miguel) is murdered on the street by a homeless man who mistakes him for someone else. Maria reads about it in the papers, and a few weeks later she steps across the café to the widow’s table to convey her condolences, whereupon Luisa greets her cordially and invites her over for a chat. Just as Maria had been observing her, Luisa and Miguel had also been observing Maria during those months they all shared a breakfast spot. They had referred to her as The Prudent Young Woman.

At Luisa’s apartment the two women have a long talk, full of nuances regarding the fact that they seem to know one another well, though they’re almost complete strangers. Maria feels that at any moment the veil will drop, Luisa will return to her state of despondency, and the two will never meet again. Later than night another man arrives—Javier, Miguel’s best friend, whom Miguel had entreated to “look after” Luisa, should any mishap befall him. Maria doesn’t know who he is, but finds it interesting observing his behavior, the familiar tone he adopts with Luisa—and the fact that in introducing Maria to Javier, Luisa can’t remember her name.

Maria soon becomes Javier’s lover, they discuss The Perfect Couple, the senseless murder, and a number of other things. But one evening at his apartment Maria eavesdrops on a conversation that seems to implicate Javier in his best friend’s death. Javier suspects that Maria heard the conversation, and he invites her over to “explain” what really happened. Should she go?

I will leave prospective readers the pleasure (or dread) of finding out for themselves what happens to Javier, Luisa, and Maria herself. My thumbnail sketch fails to even hint at (though readers of Marias’s earlier novels have come to expect such things) how much time Maria, and more especially Javier, spend teasing out how various elements of causation, motivation, chance and fate work in the world.

A single line from Macbeth resurfaces throughout the narrative: “She should have died hereafter.”  And perhaps the timing of Miguel’s death was equally inopportune. But for what reason? Meanwhile, elements of a Balzac novella about a soldier who returns from the dead only to find himself unwanted, and a few plot elements from The Three Musketeers, also serve an explanatory or meditative function.

And then there is the element of enamoramiento. It’s Important enough to serve as the title of the book. Javier claims there is no good translation into English, though “infatuation,” he suggests, may come close. Yet infatuation is by definition shallow, or at any rate doomed to be deflated—that’s what the word means—whereas the emotion Javier is describing is anything but.

It’s very rare to have a weakness, a genuine weakness for someone, and for that someone to provoke in us that feeling of weakness. That’s the determining factor, they break down our objectivity and disarm us in perpetuity, so that we cave in over every dispute…Generally speaking…people don’t experience such feelings for another adult, nor do they hope to. They don’t wait, they’re impatient, prosaic, perhaps they don’t even want to experience that feeling because it seems inconceivable, and so they get together with or get married to the first likely person they meet, which is not so very odd, in fact, it’s always been the norm….

Javier has long had such feelings toward Luisa—his best friend’s wife.

Fans of Marias’s earlier works will find much to enjoy in The Infatuations, yet the plot ends up being a little less compelling than it may sound. Maria is not a dynamic character, and Javier, prolix and full of cunning, cynical distain, worldly wisdom, and self-control, exhibits few qualities we can admire. Marias has made it easy for himself by leaving the widow, Luisa, and her dealings with Javier, largely out of the picture. She may provoke weakness in Javier, but we don’t see much of the effect she has on him face to face.

An added difficulty is that most of the book consists in complicated conversations that Maria is remembering. Yet Javier does most of the talking, and in one section running to many pages, she tells us what she remembers of Javier’s long-winded description of what he thinks she is thinking about what he may or may not have done—rather than simply telling her what he actually did do. She admits to us that whenever you hear a story being told, during the time you’re in its grip you believe it to be true. But the question continues to loom: is Javier really a murderer? Should she be sitting across from him late at night, mesmerized by the unending flow of words?

Finally, there is no way for us to know whether Javier and Miguel were good friends or not in the first place. We never actually see them interact. Yet it would appear that it hardly matters, once someone is in the grip of that weakness, that enamoramiento.

Once you've finished a novel," Javier says to Maria several times, "what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel's imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention."

Is this true? Perhaps. But for all its excellent qualities--the exquisite prose, the brooding suspense--the possibilities and ideas explored in The Infatuations remain a little thin, while events are few and far between.

Where is James M. Cain when we need him?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Local Wonders - Ted Kooser

Most books you read are a little bit like some other book you’ve read, but Ted Kooser’s Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps  is a thing apart. Sure, it describes living on a farm, and it follows the seasons. Lots of other books do those things. But no other book I’ve read records the minutia of daily life as economically as does this one, while never oozing out into an environmental harangue or collapsing inward toward a personal meditation, compete with quotes from Thoreau and Hugh of St. Victor. The closest Kooser comes to philosophizing is on those occasions when he repeats an old Bohemian saying such as “The cat makes sure which chin it may lick,” or “He who goes out seeking other people’s sausages often loses his own ham,” or "He who places his ladder too steeply will easily fall backward."   

Local Wonders is, then, an account of what one sees and hears in the course of a year when living in a stretch of hilly country twenty miles north and west of Lincoln, Nebraska. There are lots of cottonwood trees, antique farm machinery, bugs, snakes, weather (good and bad), neighborliness, chain saws, frozen pipes, political commentary, trips to the hardware store, and other rustic stuff.

But Kooser is a poet by trade, and he describes things very well. For example, in the first page he compares the meandering of the River Platte to that of “a man who has lost a hubcap and is looking for it in the high grass on both sides of the road.” The important detail, here, is that the man is looking on both sides. 

Immediately following that little gem, Kooser comes to the river’s quicksand, which contains (he tells us) not the bones of dead pioneers, but “dozens of cautionary tales about toddlers who wandered away from family picnics and were sucked out of sight.”

Once again, the brilliance resides in the fact that it isn’t corpses settling to the bottom of the quicksand, but tales about corpses. The hasty reader might breeze through such a passage, still wondering what the book is really about, oblivious to the wit and descriptive genius already on display.

Anyone who lives in the country is likely to look up into the night sky, largely free of ambient light, and begin to rhapsodize, pondering the meaning of a constellation or the distance to the nearest star. Kooser takes that path only so far:

…following their lesson, I ache all over from being reminded of how small and insignificant I am, that life is as brief as a spark, etc. The universe is always so patronizing, like a high school guidance counselor, like Woodrow Wilson looking down on the world with twinkling glasses, pursing his lips, knowing his history.

Kooser revolts against the rather vacuous astonishment the night sky often produces. He points out—

Compared to the dreary life of any star, flaring up to collapse into nothing, my life is rich in happenings. For example, a bat like a small black rag has been fluttering back and forth through the yard light all evening, harvesting the stars of tiny moths, catching one tiny star in its teeth at each pass.

What Kooser is saying here is true. Anything that lives is both more complex and more interesting than a flaming ball of very distant gas, and Kooser proves that point again and again. Such are the “local wonders” of which the book is constructed.

But whether the book was actually “constructed” seems doubtful to me. There is no pattern to the subjects, other than the overriding and obvious one—spring, summer, fall, winter. And Kooser devotes quite a few sections, regardless of the seasons, to reminiscences about his childhood and his eccentric relatives. He says very little about his wife or his son Jeff, who will soon be leaving home, and to whom the book is dedicated. And it remains unclear whether any genuine farming is being done in the vicinity.

I suppose the book’s dramatic crescendos, such as they are, would be Kooser’s description of the bout of pneumonia he endured at the age of twenty, and when he was diagnosed with cancer a year or two before writing the book. He pulled through the first illness by pouring over a book that didn’t actually exist, though he thought it did at the time. In his hallucinatory state he made the whole thing up, including not only the story-line but the binding and the texture of the paper. On the strength of that experience—a remarkable feat of imagination—he decided to become a writer.

Since those early years Kooser has developed a good deal of sang froid, and it allows him to describe local workmen wantonly spraying chemicals up and down the country roads with equanimity. He doesn't approve of it, but he knows why it happens. More importantly, he draws our attention to life’s seemingly trivial details with calm assurance, confident that a telling detail and a touch of wit will keep us engaged. And it does. 

Kooser devotes more than a page, for example, to describing the dilapidated crèche scene—a family heirloom—that he sets up every Christmas. The hats of the two kings who have arrived at the manager “look a little like foil-wrapped kisses.” The two shepherds have taken off their hats as a sign of respect. “This courtesy has not occurred to the two kings, but they are foreigners,” he points out. One of the lambs, slung over the shoulder of a shepherd, has a very alert look on his face. He is so alert, in fact, that “the shepherd can soon expect a warm trickle down his back.” Joseph is down on both knees, sporting “the brown hair and beard of a man much younger than the Joseph of the Gospels, but perhaps the Gospels were wrong about this.” And so on.

In another passage, he describes a bug that appears night after night on the arm of the couch while he’s reading. Looking it up, he finds it’s called a leaf-footed bug. Kooser gets into the habit of hunting high and low for the bug each day. “I was attracted to his melancholy dreariness. All day he wandered up and down walls, across ceilings, like a cardiac patient walking a shopping mall. If sometimes I felt as if I were wasting my life, well I always had the leaf-footed bug to show me things could be worse.” That isn’t the end of the story, but I wouldn’t want to give too much away.

A friend gives him a bowl turned from a piece of Osage orange. “It takes a fine, high polish,” he writes, “and has a remarkable, mysterious feeling to it, as if it might be radioactive. Just holding it you feel as if you are clinging to something flying through the universe at the speed of light.” This fanciful comparison takes on added meaning when Kooser informs us that the father of the man who made the bowl is a five-star general and commander of the Skylab project.

There is no end to the delights awaiting anyone who takes up this concatenation of  random observations and striking (yet unforced) turns of phrase. Kooser has no staggering wisdom to share, but his world is shaped by kindness, a bemused respect for the sometimes bizarre creatures (human and otherwise) he meets up with at every turn of the path, and a gift for producing precisely the right homespun metaphor the bring it all home to us.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Flamenco, Flamenco, a film by Carlos Suara

In 1995 Carlos Suara made a film called, simply, Flamenco, featuring a variety of flamenco stars performing set pieces one after another in an abandoned exposition hall. Fifteen years later, in 2011, he did the same thing again, using some of the same performers while adding some fresh blood as well. 

Both films are worth watching, but Suara’s more recent effort, which only trickled into general release in the United States this summer, is the better of the two, and well worth seeking out on the big screen. 

Cinematographer Vitorio Storraro (The Last Emporer, Reds, Apocalypse Now, etc) shot the film, and the lighting is superb. Meanwhile, the painted theatrical backdrops, usually with a glaring sun or a haunting moon and a few stunted trees, evoke a world of Goya-esque mystery and emotion.

Most of the emotion, of course, is provided by the performers. Flamenco can be slow or frisky, grave or light-hearted, but it seldom fails to engage the listener on a deep level—the listener that’s attuned to it. The music follows different patterns of harmonic development from what many of us are used to, and the rhythms are almost invariably either irregular and jumpy or agonizingly slow. Even the most diehard aficionado probably wouldn’t want to listen to three seguiriyas in a row, but Suara mixes the material artfully, the same way as it’s done in live performance, with a lively tangos or alegrias thrown in from time to time.

One thing I noticed while watching Flamenco, Flamenco is that several of the singers whose work I’m familiar with have matured. Miguel Poveda, who sings three songs in the film,  if I’m not mistaken, has always had a strong but slightly nasal voice. It’s become deeper, a little rougher, and more powerful. By the same token, Nina Pastora has moved beyond the brassy, youth-oriented  singing of her early career to a new level of expression.

And then there is Estrella Morente. The daughter of singing icon Enrico Morente, the steps in her early career were made easier by the family association, and her light singing style was not highly regarded by all aficionados. But she, too, has matured, and though her lengthy number is slightly more pop-oriented than the others, it doesn’t seem entirely out of place.

Jose Merce, considered by some to be the “king” of the male singers these days, appears on an empty stage to sing a martinetes—one of the oldest flamenco forms. The singer is usually accompanied by nothing other than a hammer and anvil, and so it is with Jose. His voice is fully up to the task of negotiating the melodic turns back and forth from major to Phrygian mode, but the camera moves in too close, and the effect of the gut-wrenching music is slightly diluted by our unavoidable examination of the singer’s lips, gums, and teeth.

Among the featured guitarists Manolo Sanlucar and Paco de Lucia stand out. When Sanlucar showed up I was shocked. Could he still be alive!? Turns out (I looked it up) he’s in his early seventies, and his forceful style is as engaging as ever, while the three female back-up singers—a flamenco version of the Shirelles or the Chiffons—also contribute to the number’s lively flair.

Paco de Lucia is no longer with us, but his performance here reminds us why he was (and continues to be) held in such high regard. His touch is lighter, his harmonies more subtle than the other guitarists in the film. It’s very “flamenco” but has drifted into a richer and more ethereal domain.

The film’s third noteworthy guitarist (that is to say, a guitarist I recognized) is Tomatito, who played a few falsetas during Nina Pastora’s number. They were brief, and contained some distressingly “jazzy” bent notes, but it was fun simply watching him bob confidently to the rhythm and deliver effortlessly when called upon.

In the course of their inspired duet, pianists Dorantes and Diego Amador demonstrate that genuine flamenco can be produced on “classical” instruments, although the number is seriously compromised by the fact that the two pianists can’t seem to stop smiling at one another across the opposing soundboards.

As for the dancing, it’s here, perhaps, that flamenco has gained its greatest popularity … and also diverged most radically from the spirit of the genre. The film begins with star-dancer Sara Baras, who has had her own dance company, works as a model and TV personality, and has even (so I'm told) designed a popular line of lingerie. She appeared in a flowing red dress with no back to it, impressively thin and limber. But there was something a little self-conscious and theatrical about her piece.

Even worse was the long solo piece by Israel Galván. Wearing white suit and shoes, he darted in and out from behind back-lit panels with flamenco images painted on them. It was Marcel Marceau doing flamenco. The artistry and body control were exceptional, but the performance was so heavily spiced with abrupt starts and stops that it began to seem self-indulgent, wearisome, and almost random. Flamenco rhythms were nowhere in the vicinity.

The several highly choreographed numbers with eight or ten women dancing in ensemble were pleasant but hardly gripping. On the other hand, Farruquito’s number was outstanding. He appears as a young boy in Saura’s first flamenco film, dancing alongside his famous grandfather, El Farruco, with another one of his eminent relatives, El Chocolate, singing accompaniment. It’s a wonderful number. Here we see him again, at age 28 (just a guess) dancing up a storm in seeming improvisatory style, interacting with a full complement of stage musicians—guitarists, clappers, vocalists, and even a violinist.

(The boy who dances earlier in this film is Farruquito’s little brother, Paquera, clearly a chip off the old block.)

Farruquito’s number is one of the high points in the film, and the grand finale also belongs in the same category. Guitarist Moraito Chico sits front and center in the midst of what looks like an extended clan, as various family members sing or stand up to do a few solo turns on the dance floor. Moraito himself hands off his guitar and does a a few steps. True aficionados would probably recognize about half of the people in the ensemble. But it’s hard to keep up with all the flamenco clans without a key.

The good news is, the genre continues to develop, absorbing popular elements and creative innovations, without entirely sacrificing the gripping, primitive emotions that define that world. As director Suara said himself in an interview a few years ago:

“…flamenco is something which has surprised us all, to the extent that it is a way opening up towards the future. It has that possibility of being able to be very orthodox and also very heterodox... and even more heterodox.”

Monday, September 22, 2014

La Boheme in Salzburg

In the long history of the Salzburg Music Festival, operas by Puccini had been performed only twice. Why? Because the Salzburg festival is a stuffy affair with sky-high ticket prices, and in those parts Puccini is considered to be a sentimental composer who appeals to the masses. No matter that three of the six most widely-performed operas is history are by Puccini (La Boheme, Tosca, Madame Butterfly). If you want to hear them, you can hear them somewhere else.

In 2012, the festival broke the ice for a third time, mounting a production of La Boheme that was captured on film, and the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul ran it on Sunday at St. Anthony Main. It was a beautiful afternoon outside, but more beautiful inside the theater, where Anna Nektrebko, Piotr Beczala, and an otherwise strong cast belted out the love duets and other tuneful arias that are so familiar and yet so moving.

We had seen the new Met production of La Boheme in April (at a movie theater, of course), and I was wondering if I was ready for another dose. The fact that the Salzburg version is set in modern times, with “poets” making DVDs and “painters” using cans of spray paint, might come as a refreshing change; it was inducement enough to give La Boheme another shot.

The sound in the theater wasn’t great, but it was loud, and the magic of Puccini’s orchestration took hold almost immediately. The modern settings made it possible for the set designer to introduce a pallet of  truly garish colors, and the torn jeans, ragged t-shirts, white-rimmed sunglasses, and colorful leather jackets did nothing to undermine the powerful musical effects. It was only in the second act, where a Parisian street scene was rendered with model hotels sitting on an enormous Google map of the city, that the update became slightly risible.

As if in compensation, that act was enlivened by the appearance of Musetta, with Nino Machaidze offering us a very modern slant on that character.

Meanwhile, Anna Netrebko played the seamstress Mimi as poor and also less than glamorous, though once again, she made the character fit the music. No opera in the repertoire is more emotional than La Boheme, and Netrebko’s powerful rendering went a long way toward making it all convincing.

In fact, at a certain point it occurred to me that the howling pains of anguished love that pepper the opera had an almost animal quality. The cacophony at the end of act three, for example, when Rodolfo and Mimi are splitting up on one side of the stage while Muesetta and Marcello are having a heated jealous spat on the other, seemed like a primal whorl of chaos…but very pleasant to listen to.

It’s sometimes suggested that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds, while Puccini’s music sounds better than it is. But this can’t be true, because music is no better or worse than it sounds. The sound is the music.

The Minneapolis / St. Paul Film Society will be bringing in four more operas this fall and winter, to be aired on Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons. They all sound pretty good. See you there?
The Magic Flute: Oct 21 and 26
Don Carlo: November 18 and 23
Eugene Onegin: December 16 and 21
Romeo and Juliette: January 27 and February 1

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Washing Windows

Anyone who was outside on Saturday afternoon would agree, it was a perfect day for washing windows.

The biggest challenge we face lies with the twelve-pane wooden storm window in the living room, which has been deteriorating little by little for decades. It’s a heavy window and it sits directly above a thick spreading yew that’s difficult to get behind. The saving grace is that once we’ve lifted the window out of its casing and off the sill, we can lower it and set it down on the bush. After we’ve made our way back out from behind the bush into the yard, we can then lift the window again and carry it over to the driveway to be cleaned.

The lower left corner of this massive storm window looked so shaky when we tried to lift it, I was afraid some of the panes were going to fall out. After lugging it across the yard and leaning it against the car, Hilary went inside to get some Gorilla Glue. 

After a few more trips inside to get a nail, then a pair of pliers, we finally succeeded in reaching some glue that hadn’t solidified in the bottle. I applied it to the loose sections of the corner using a toothpick, then squeezed about a tablespoon down into the seemingly hollow core of the pane. Then we carefully rotated the window ninety degrees so its weight would bear down forcibly on the newly repaired corner while the glue set.

My job would be to stand by the window, which is roughly five feet tall and seven feet wide, to make sure the wind didn’t blow it over. The glue would take an hour or more to set, so I had my work cut out for me.

I looked over at the globe cedar that needs sheering, and the zinnias that were laying on the ground, having been beaten down by the recent rains. A blue jay flew overhead, and then I saw some goldfinches across the roof of the house in the oak tree in the back yard.

The leaves of the oak have always been slightly yellow, due to the nutrients lacking in the clay soil hereabouts. I pondered whether it might be a good thing to lose that oak tree altogether. But its dead branches offers so many perches for the birds as they approach the feeders.

The sky was blue and there were isolated waves of wispy ice clouds here and there, like white cake decorations applied with a comb.

Hilary had gone inside to wash some other windows, and when she came back out I said, “How long have I been standing here?”

“About ten minutes.”

“Is that all?”

“Maybe fifteen.”

These are the critical minutes when the glue is setting, and I knew my continued patience would be rewarded. I’m unusually adept at staring off into space for extended periods when there’s work to be done. All the same,  I was getting bored, and a few minutes later we decided to lift the window again and move it between the two cars. There wasn’t much of a breeze anyway, and in that position a rising gust would hit the window harmlessly, face on, rather than waffling down its length.

For the next hour we washed pane after pane, using pages torn from old copies of The New York Review of Books. In one issue I spotted a three-year-old review by Philip Lopate of a book by Edward Hoagland that I purchased not long ago as a remainder, but didn’t like. I set those pages aside.

The glue set remarkably well, as it turns out. After washing the twelve panes on both sides we hoisted the massive storm window back up onto the yew, then scrambled behind the bush and set it carefully into place again. Magnificent.

A few minutes later, as I was settling in to read the review, I heard a loud thud. A bird had flown into the window. A thrush now lay motionless on the seat of a metal patio chair, his pale dotted breast exposed. At first I thought it was a veery—an elusive cinnamon-colored bird with an ethereal downward-looping flute-like song. But I later got to thinking it was a gray-cheeked thrush, due to the drab back and rather prominent spots.

One of the drawbacks of perfectly clean windows is that birds can’t see them. Sometimes they hit them. Often they revive; this one didn’t. Eventually I carried it down into the yard and set it in the shadows amid the ferns.

(Both veerys and gray-cheeked thrushes spend their winters in Venezuela and north-central Brazil. I wonder if Rima, the bird-spirit in W. H. Hudson’s once-famous South American novel, Green Mansions, was a veery, though I suppose there are plenty of other candidates in the southern hemisphere that I’ve never heard of.)
On a lighter note, when Hilary was wrestling one of the aluminum combination storms back into its track, she noticed a spindly insect climbing the outer pane. It was a grasshopper of some sort, though it was bright green, and looked like it was born yesterday. Its surface looked tender, like a spring leaf, and it was less compact than the standard, yellow-brown grasshoppers that leap off the trail in front of you in droves in late summer.

We watched it climb uncertainly up the glass, taking alternate steps with its four spindly front legs, two by two, while using the two long trailing legs for stability as needed. It continued up to the corner of the window, then proceeded slowly out of sight, up the painted clapboard wall of the house. 

Looking it up later, I determined that the creature was a katydid. (I’d never heard of such a thing.)

"That wasn't a grasshopper, that was a katydid," I shouted to Hilary in the next room.

"It'n not katydid," she shouted back, "It's KAY-tee-did."

Postscript: Sunday morning we stopped at the local bird store and picked up a set of window decals. The theory is that they reflect ultraviolet light, which the birds can see a lot better than we can. They see the leaves and avoid the glass, while we see nothing.

The truth of the matter is, I can see the leaves just fine. They don't entirely ruin the view, but once the fall migration is over ...

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Louise Penny Comes to Town

The news that mystery writer Louise Penny was going to appear at the Prior Lake Library, under the auspices of Club Book, was big news in the Twin Cities. She draws large crowds wherever she goes, but makes relatively few public appearances, and fans flew in from Washington D.C., Chicago, North Dakota, and Denver last Saturday to hear her at the Scott County Library venue.

Most of the three-hundred-odd fans who began to line up outside the building hours before the event were local, of course. By which I mean they were from Saint Cloud,  Menomonie, Rochester, and everywhere in between. The branch manager at the Prior Lake Library had been busy for weeks, recruiting volunteers, fielding phone calls from enthusiastic readers with various special needs who planned to attend, and generally devising solutions to a host of contingencies—few of which materialized, as luck would have it. (I happen to know this because my wife, Hilary, is the branch manager at Prior Lake.)

The atmosphere at the library when I arrived was festive, to say the least. (The farmer’s market being held just down the street didn’t hurt.) Many of the early arrivals had brought camp chairs, but soon the line stretched down and around the outside of the building for about fifty yards.

Three quarters of an hour before the event, the doors to the auditorium were opened and people began to shuffle in. Each guest was given a numbered ticket, to make sure the hall wasn’t filled beyond capacity and also to facilitate the orderly signing of books after the event.

Louise herself arrived in a limo and spent a few minutes eating a croissant sandwich at the Edelweiss Bakery around the corner before making her appearance. And what an appearance it was. She strode down the street from the bakery carrying a big white box of pastries she’d bought to share with the numerous volunteers working the event! 

By the time she got up to the microphone, she’d made about forty new friends, the atmosphere was electric, and roughly a third of those in attendance were clutching copies of her latest book, The Long Way Home, most of then newly purchased at a table outside the hall staffed by Common Good Books, one of the program sponsors.

Although the Gamache series of mysteries has its share of murders, most readers would agree, I think, that much of its charm derives from the appeal of detective Gamache himself, who seems a bit like a New World Inspector Maigret, and the quirky  and endearing characters who inhabit the village of Three Pines, located in a remote region of Quebec south of Montreal, where many of the tales take place. 

It didn’t take long for Louise to impress those same qualities—quirky and endearing—on her admirers in the audience, as she described, with humor and self-depreciation, her difficult path to “getting published,” the embarrassingly meager turnouts at her early public appearances, and other aspects of her life and career. 

For example, Louise was deathly afraid of insects as a child (along with a lot of other things) but when she was eight years old, she began to read, and love, Charlotte’s Web. She was halfway through the book before it dawned on her that Charlotte was a…spider! (Huge laugh here.) Thus she began to emerge, little by little,  from her shell of childhood phobias.

Louise told us a touching story about her mother taking a part-time job during a rough patch in the family’s income, and then bringing Louise downtown to buy, not food, but a painting, with the first money she earned. With the panache of a stand-up comedienne, she also described the unlikely string of coincidences that brought her face to face with the woman who became her agent, and took us down some slightly bawdy side streets as she wrestled with her scarf, before opening the forum for questions from the audience.

No doubt, Louise's years as a radio host for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have made it easier for her to wow an audience. But I also got the impression that she’s been through things worse than a hardscrabble upbringing, critical rejection, or spiders, and has emerged with a sensitivity to both the complexity and the goodness in people that makes it easy for her to engage her many readers and fans, on the printed page and also face to face.

Louise loves to talk about herself, and she’s delighted by her literary success, but there isn’t much vanity in it. It’s obvious that she loves people (including herself) and reaches out to strangers to acknowledge them as individuals, too, with the childlike avidly of a medieval saint.

I felt a little of that myself, a few hours earlier, when, on a tip from one of the library volunteers, I wandered over to the bakery to say hi to Louise and perhaps get a photo. There she was, sitting alone by the window in an empty room, munching on a croissant sandwich.

I ordered a croissant myself at the counter and then said, “Are you Louise Penny? Do you mind if I take your picture? I don’t want to disturb your lunch…”

“No, please sit down,” she said. (The fact that I was wearing a Scott County volunteer badge may have helped.)

So I sat and took the picture. Then I felt obliged to come clean: “I’ve only read one of your books, the first one, but my wife says I ought to try Bury Your Dead. That’s the one about Samuel Champlain. Right?”

“Oh, so you’re interested in history?” All of this in a cheery, sing-song voice, accompanied by a slightly pained expression, which I hoped was the result of trying to eat while talking...

“Yes. European history. That was my field.”

“Prior Lake is such a pretty town,” she immediately volunteered. So I mumbled a few things about the older part of town, the lake itself, current development. And then, pushing my luck, I said.

“So, you live south of Quebec?”

“South of Montreal, actually. Quite close to the Vermont border.”

At this point I could not resist mentioning that the only time I’d been in the area, we’d flown in to Burlington, Vermont, and driven across the border to Quebec province, where we were struck by the antique agricultural patterns—those long, thin farms stretching down to the St. Lawrence River. Who knows? We might have driven right by her house.

“Well, you should go to Quebec City,” she said.

“Oh, we did go there,” I replied. Elaborate lines of travel conversation were beginning to take shape in the back of my mind: bicycling in Quebec City; Shadows on the Rock; the shrimp fishermen (on strike) we once came upon before dawn near Matane on the Gaspé Peninsula; the huge gannet colony on Bonaventure Island  ….

But what I said was, “I’m going to leave you in peace to enjoy your lunch.”

“Oh, but you haven’t taken your picture,” she replied.

So I took a second photo and scurried out…then slunk back in to snatch my croissant, which had been sitting in a bag on the counter the whole time.

A few minutes before the program was set to begin, I was standing near the back of the room, surveying the sea of book-lovers in front of me, when someone came up from behind and shook my arm. It was Louise! "Hi, there," she said, with a big smile before hurrying off.

The intent was clear enough. She wanted to reassure me that I hadn't ruined her lunch.

Louise stuck around for two hours after the program, signing books, adding personalized greetings, and having her picture taken with anyone who was interested. Then she was off in her limo to the airport and on to Seattle, where she had an evening engagement, leaving behind a welter of good feelings to remind us all, as her mother had reminded her, of what a powerful and beneficent force art (and personality) can be in this often crazy, mixed-up world.  

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Elena Ferrante: The Story of a New Name

Elena Ferrante is the mystery woman of Italian fiction. No one knows much about her. No one knows who she is. James Wood wrote a profile in the New Yorker a while back, but it was mostly speculation and analysis of her works. The recent speculation is Italy in that she's really a man. I doubt it.

Readers are usually fascinated to know, after reading a novel, “How much of this really happened?”

In the case of Ferrante, there’s no one to ask.

Yet to judge by the second installment of her trilogy, The Story of a New Name, much of it probably close to the truth. I say this because the book is sprawling and full of incidental details that seem to be lifted from someone’s personal diary rather than concocted as structural elements of a plot.

The book is set largely in Naples, and it deals with two young women, friends since childhood, who become estranged after one marries into a successful but crime-tinged family while the other continues her education, falling in love with the son of her favorite professor.

That's a very simplistic description of a 400-page novel, needless to say. It reminds me of the TV Guide description I saw once of Hamlet: "Man returns home to find father dead."

The novel is well worth reading, I think, if you can survive the occasionally long-winded and irrelevant passages. Rather than describing it in greater detail, I might just as well refer you to the review I wrote, which appeared in Rain Taxi a few days ago. 

In case you’re interested.