What Do Margaret Wise Brown & Georges Perec Have In Common?

At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Title:  An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris

Author:  Georges Perec

Translator:  Marc Lowenthal

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2010)

ISBN:  978 0 9841155 2 5

 

WakefieldExhausting4At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon has been a bedtime staple for decades.  If you didn’t have it read to you as a child then you have almost certainly read it as an adult to a child in your life.  I’ve yet to attend a baby shower where there wasn’t at least one copy – if not multiples – unwrapped.  Adults discovering or rediscovering Goodnight Moon often express surprise at the sophistication of this little book.  The rhythm of the prose, the way the room in the illustrations grows darker as the pages are turned, and the insertion of “Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush” (a surreal moment if there ever was one) – these things speak of an author who was interested in non-linear narrative and experimental literature.

For this all to make sense it’s important to understand that there’s more to Margaret Wise Brown and her books than meets the eye.  She was a product of the modernist period in art and literature.*  In the early 1930’s she worked as a teacher at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City.  At that time this cutting edge school’s focus was on early childhood education & development. She studied how children used rhymes to develop language. Sometimes, as in the case of her “Noisy Book” series, she would use the children as a kind of focus group and adjust some of the words based on their reactions & suggestions.  Toddlers would be shown picture book illustrations and teachers would time how long the pictures held their attention.  The Bank Street School was the epicenter of what became known as the golden age of children’s literature. And most of the ideas in Margaret Wise Brown’s books can be traced back to what she learned there.

 Goodnight Moon tells no story, per se.  There are no character arcs.  No morals explained. No dialogue. At the most basic level Goodnight Moon is a catalog of the items in a single room. And, yet, lovers of the book are as  familiar with the contents of that room as they are of any room in their own home.

What no one ever really discusses (and why should they? This is a children’s book we’re talking about) is the quiet, haunting quality of Brown’s writing.  There is none of the joyful silliness or made up rhymes you find in Dr. Seuss.  Or the reassuring sentimentalism found in many stories written for the very young. Goodnight Moon is poetry – childish, simplistic, naive – but poetry nonetheless.

…goodnight to the old lady

whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere

 

In words a small child can understand Brown describes the line between consciousness and sleep.  The gradual loss of consciousness.  Eyes open in the dark, even after the moon disappears behind the clouds, you can still see the stars. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breathing. Then sleep and then silence. This sixty-one page children’s book has been many a child’s first experience with a concrete representation of the forward passage of time, even if the passage spans only 15 minutes.

The charms of Georges Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris are not so far removed from Goodnight Moon as one would think. It is a catalog of the things that the author sees and hears while sitting in place Saint-Sulpice. People and dogs passing, flocks of pigeons, the sound of church bells, changing of streetlights and the endless waves of city buses. It should be boring. There’s no story to speak of. No sense of narrative progression. No dialogue or ideas.  None of the things we are told make literature. And yet, somehow, Perec’s writing moves beyond a catalog of people, animals and things to capture the rhythms of life and time.  When he recognizes the writer Jean-Paul Aron (translated to John-Paul, which seems a bit over-zealous) walking by and then, later, walking by again, you perk up.  Because a name has been assigned to one of the many pedestrians passing by your window.  The buses begin to lose their anonymity – they become the 96, the 87 and the 63 – their appearance jumping out from the text.  And as the day draws to an end the sun sets and the lights in the buildings grow brighter.

The light is beginning to fade, even if this is still barely noticeable; the red of the stoplights is increasingly visible.

Lights come on in the cafe.

Two buses, Cityrama and Paris-VIsion, are unable to get by each other. The Cityrama eventually takes rue Bonaparte, the Paris-Vision would like to take rue du Vieux-Colombier. Policeman no. 5976 (“Michel Lonsdale”), at first confused, eventually grabs his whistle and intervenes – effectively, in fact.

A man walks by with his nose in the air, followed by another man who is looking at the ground.

A man with a can of Ribolin goes by.

people people cars

An old lady with a very beautiful Sherlock Holmes-style waterproof fitted coat

The crowd is dense, almost no more lulls

A woman with two baguettes under her arm

It is four thirty

 

As I said: there is no story in An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. In place of narrative Perec offers experience. Evokes a sense of place. We inhabit his senses – a brief possession. A windy, rainy day. Fading light. The world waking up on Sunday morning. As I write these things down I can’t help wondering how accurately he described what he saw. How much editing and revising happened afterwards.  Or whether accuracy even matters. Perec accomplished a far more difficult task than simply cataloging a place in Paris. On these pages he captured the relentless, forward progression of time and transformed it into poetry.

 

*In 1936 Méret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Tea Cup was a part of the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Brown’s book, Little Fur Family was published ten years later.  The first edition was covered in real rabbit fur.

The “Private” Library

Reading has been slow these last few weeks.  So my apologies, dear readers.  More reviews are in the works – promise.

I’ve been thinking a lot about personal libraries of late, and not just my own (though I do have design drawings for bookshelves I’m planning for the living room).  It started with Phantoms on the Bookshelves, which made me reconsider the value of a working over a collector’s library.  Now a friend is renovating a beach house and plans to dedicate an entire room to books.  Doesn’t that sound brilliant?  She loves to entertain, travels a lot and has friends from all over the world who will be coming to enjoy the ocean.  My solution?  A library built almost entirely of paperbacks that can be taken back and forth from the beach – with an emphasis on international and translated authors. Nothing to cerebral or precious.  Here’s a version of the perfect beach house library –

  • complete works of John le Carre & Ian Fleming,
  • rows of New Directions and Open Letter paperbacks
  • Philippe Claudel
  • Cesar Aira
  • Haruki Murakami
  • Roberto Bolano
  • Umberto Eco
  • some nonfiction books on World War 2 (because, for some unexplainable reason, even people who aren’t interested in history will read about WWII).
  • a copy of HhHH by Laurent Binet, perhaps?
  • back-issues of The Paris Review
  • every Calvin & Hobbes paperback collection ever published.
  • Alain Mabanckou
  • anything written by or about a Mitford sister
  • Moby Dick

The library may just exist in my imagination, but I’m working on a personalized bookplate (with a note on where to return lost books) as a surprise housewarming gift.

If Dan Simmon’s Drood is to be believed, and I can’t imagine why not, Charles Dickens would leave specially chosen books on the bedside tables of overnight guests.

Continuing on with the theme – on my journeys through the internet I discovered THE PRIVATE LIBRARY and Jumel Terrace Books.  Kurt Thometz curates and develops libraries for the rich and famous in NYC, with a client list that includes Diana Vreeland, Calvin Klein, Fran Lebowitz and Diane Sawyer.  His blog, though not updated as much as I’d like (pot meet kettle!), is filled with fascinating insights on books, book collecting and the inexhaustible topic of cataloging and organization.  Any bibliophile worthy of the name should have this page bookmarked.  As for Jumel Terrace – it’s a bookshop in Harlem that specializes in local history (by which I think they mean Harlem), African and African-American subjects/literature.  It’s also a Bed & Breakfast that shares an entrance with the bookshop.

The guestroom at our house has a fully stocked bookcase.  I’m in trouble if someone ever starts a book and then *shudder* wants to take it home to finish.

I know it’s an oddball topic.  Still.  Have you ever stayed at a hotel, inn, b&b or just a friend’s house that had an amazing library?

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Just Another American Expat in London

Tomorrow, darling readers, youll find me in rainy London.  Thats right, Im jumping the pond for a day.  Kimbofo (a.k.a – Kim Forrester, one of my blogger icons) invited me to spend this Tuesday at her blog Reading Matters.  It’s Triple Choice Tuesday  – where each week she has a reader, author or blogger discuss three books that are important to them.  Past Tuesdays’ line-ups have featured some of my favorite authors and bloggers, and Im hugely honored to be included among them.

So, come take a peek at my choices and spend some time exploring Reading Matters.

And don’t forget to check in at Three Percent.  They’ll be announcing the Best Translated Book Award shortlist sometime tomorrow.

Cheers!

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My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson)

Like the narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s novel My Two Worlds, I am an inveterate walker.  Never to be confused with a hiker, city walkers are an entirely separate category who delight in the organized, the man-made, the carefully choreographed.    We choose “To walk and nothing but.  Not to walk without a destination, as modern characters have been pleased to do, attentive to the novelties of chance and the terrain, but instead to distant destinations, nearly unreachable or inaccessible ones, putting maps to the test.”  While I have explored most of the major U.S. cities on foot – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, etc., my international resume is limited.  I have never been to Brazil, yet Sergio Chejfec so thoroughly captures the essential place-ness of the park through which his narrator travels that I feel I could add it (my guess is Parque Farroupilha/A Redenção in Porto Alegre?) to my Top 10 list of  best walks. Ev-er.

Because reading My Two Worlds is the literary equivalent to taking a leisurely, meandering and  companionable walk with a new friend.   He talks while you enjoy the scenery.  Quickly you learn that our anonymous narrator is male, an author and a few days away from turning fifty.  He is shy.  He is in the habit of greeting people he does not know and who do not return his greeting.  He’s also a bit paranoid.  We learn few specifics about his background such as that he has friends, but no children and is not currently in a romantic relationship.  He talks about a niece and two nephews of whom he seems vaguely fond of (or is he just fond the idea that he is fond of them?  Like some people are in love with the idea of being in love?).  He tells you that his last novel is not being reviewed well, but can only cite his own dissatisfaction with his writing and  a malicious email containing a link to a bad review as evidence of this.

This new friend is in the city attending a literary conference.  As is his habit when traveling, he has obtained a map from the hotel front desk and carefully planned his walk the night before.  He carries his writing supplies with him in a backpack.  Other than his compulsion to walk he’s not particularly quirky or strange (as far as narrator’s go he’s amazingly tame).  While his thoughts trend towards the philosophical and the introspective at no point did I detect self-pity. Just an underlying dissatisfaction.  I do not want to give the impression that My Two Worlds is depressing – it’s not at all!  Probably due to the narrator’s dry sense of humor – which pops up frequently and unexpectedly.   And also because the narrator/companion/stranger is easy to like. He’s oddly endearing.  Someone I find myself wanting to spend more time with  than the 103 page book allows for.

As the author moves us from one section of the park to another we listen to the narrator’s opinions of himself and his surroundings.  It’s a fine park – the star of the novel.  It has an aviary, a fountain, a labyrinth, a lake filled with aquatic life (fish, turtles, frogs), paddle boats for rent and a little cafe with a lovely view.  The writing shines in the descriptions of these landscapes.  Somehow Chejfec has struck just the right note: providing enough detail to place his reader on the path beside his narrator, but avoids becoming bogged down by minutia.  He beautifully recreates the sense of discovery that occurs while wandering through a well designed park – the wonder of turning a corner and stepping in front of a carefully planned perspective.  The narrator is constantly projecting his emotional state onto these environments.  (As we all do to a greater or lesser extent).   Chejfec uses this interaction between man and terrain to explore how the interior and exterior worlds reflect each other.  The narrator seems to feel he must be, or is, constantly choosing between them.  What he does not realize is that they are one in the same.

As had happened several times earlier on this outing, before long I spotted a light area toward the end of the path; and when I drew closer, some ten minutes later, I glimpsed a tableau that at first disturbed me, I don’t know why:  over there a good-sized, tranquil lake lay hidden, and from where I was approaching I could make out some unexpected, gigantic swans, stock-still and arrayed as if in regimental formation.  As I drew nearer to the water and the scene grew better lit, I felt a mixture of wariness and wonder.  Wariness owing to something quite primal, for which I realized I wasn’t prepared:  simply the size of those pedal boats in the shape of swans, which one associated more with some monstrous scale than with any idea of a replica or an amusement; and wonder because of the illusion of standing before an inanimate army, but one that seemed subject to a latent vitality, ready to awaken or be activated at any moment.

Whether you approach it at a symbolic level, or go with a more superficial interpretation, My Two Worlds is a deeply satisfying read.  It is easily my favorite novel of 2011.  Wonderful, charming and intelligent – I believe Sergio Chejfec is a master.  What I love most about this book is probably what many reviewers have found frustrating: how atypical it is of the majority of what is published by the larger houses.  It is less a story than it is an experience.  Because of that, and the high quality of the writing, I am impatient for more of this author’s work to be translated into English. (Note:  I vaguely remember hearing at BEA that Open Letter Books, the publisher of the English translation of My Two Worlds, is planning to release a second book by Sergio Chejfec.  I still need to confirm that information).

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 28 3