Desolation Row

Before I start this, I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while, it just feels hard to be creative during lockdowns, plus I started working full-time which is great but it involves a 5.30am wake-up and my body clock’s still being a little bitch about it.

Anyway during my commute I’ve once again started attempting to learn Poe’s long-ass, 18-stanza-length poem, The Raven, off by heart because every now and again I convince myself it would be a useful skill to have.

Even if you’re not a huge fan of poetry, its pretty rad tale of someone who’s resistant to accept that he will never see the woman he loves again (and obscure side note: it’s probably a coincidence but I think its cool that in King of the Hill, the ex wife that Bill needs to accept is gone is also called Lenore).

The raven symbolises death, and the poem ends with its narrator’s soul forever living under the shadow of that loss, And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, Shall be lifted — Nevermore!”. It’s got me thinking of loneliness and desolation in books, specifically desolate places – some fictional, some real and some that are thinly veiled fictional versions of real places. It’s a theme which fits Victoria’s lockdown vibe right now, given lockdowns do leave the streets looking like empty ghost towns (I’m very over lockdowns, mainly because I desperately need a haircut).

The Plague (Albert Camus, 1947)

When I first read this in 2016, it kinda reminded me of The Simpsons movie plot where the town’s isolated under a dome and they all lose it. But rereading it last year, it not only reminded me of the experience of long-term lockdown but also made me appreciate how much worse it would’ve been in any other time period where technology and the ability to easily communicate wasn’t something you could take for granted. And thinking about it now, after recently turning 28, the same age Camus was when he wrote it hits me just how impressive his brain was and how young he was for a philosopher.

Set in Oran, Algeria; the cities experience of a plague outbreak is told in increments, largely through these four characters: Dr Rieuxs, Jean Tarrou who was visiting and gets suck in the city when the borders are closed, Joseph Grand – an elderly civil servant who long before the plague struck had struggled with his ability to express himself, and Raymond Rambert – a French journalist who like Tarrou finds himself trapped in Oran, so attempts to find a way to cross the border.

Beginning with the mysterious death of thousands of rats, high death rates of plague victims quickly becomes a reality citizens are numb to. And while the story and the outbreak its describing is fictional, the real history of the black death is delved into as Camus uses plague as a framework for exploring the human condition.

The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, 1959)

Dr Montague chooses the abandoned mansion, Hill House, to conduct a scientific experiment on the existence of the supernatural. Renting the house out for the summer, with the landlord agreeing on the proviso that her adult nephew, Luke can tag along; Montague plans to live there and take notes of his experience alongside the only two people to respond to his invitation, Theodora and Eleanor.

Naturally Hill House has an infamous past, yet what makes it distinctive from a classic ghost story is the uncertainty of a supernatural presence, as structurally the house was built with the intention of being disorientating.

Chernobyl Prayer (Svetlana Alexievich, 1997)

Not strictly a book rather a collection of short interviews of over 500 individuals who were effected in some way by the 26 April 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Why I chose to include this book in a post on desolation is some of the testimonies are from people discussing why they continued to live in Chernobyl following the disaster, and particularly interesting the testimonies of Chechen refugees who were relocated to Chernobyl in the 1990s who created a home in the abandoned city. It’s heart-breaking but its timeless.

Milkman (Anna Burns, 2018)

This one’s pretty Kafkaesque and confusing but worth sticking with. Set in the 1970s in an unnamed Northern Ireland city, its relevant to desolation when desolation is defined as ‘a state of complete emptiness or destruction’. While violence isn’t detailed heavily in the book, the unnamed teenage narrator’s existence is defined by communal policing and distrust of the state.

The main character makes every effort to keep her head down and not attract attention, yet her habit of walking alone and reading at the same time gives her an unwanted reputation. Suddenly when a well-known figure within the IRA who she doesn’t know and has never heard of, known as ‘milkman’, continually offers hers lifts and begins appearing in places she’s scheduled to be, a rumour develops that their in a relationship which gradually begins effecting what’s real.

Not only is it a good book on desolation because of the habitual loneliness the unnamed character lives under, but often it describes her nightly walking path through dead streets and past buildings destroyed by bombings.

In the Dream House (Carmen Maria Machado, 2019)

Interesting side note, horror writer Carman Maria Machado is a huge fan of The Haunting of Hill House and chose it as the scariest book of fiction.

Anyway In the Dream House is a memoir of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a three year relationship, and ‘the dream house’ is both a real place where Machado and her unnamed girlfriend start living together shortly after meeting, as well as a framework for exploring why the history of domestic abuse in same-sex partnerships are often treated as non-existent.

Trapped within ‘the dream house’ by the ideal of the women she fell in love with, the book recounts Machado’s rationale for staying, alongside examples of folklore and cultural representations of abusive and what it means to be queer.

Poe versus Griswold: Fight! Fight! Fight!

EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.

I’ve never watched RuPaul’s Drag Race (personally I only dig reality tv when it centres around people going on terrible dates or weddings going wrong), but apparently ‘reading someone’ or ‘taking someone to the library’ is drag slang for getting into a verbal war/throwing a barrage of insults somebody’s way – as in you’re reading someone and pointing out all the ways in which they’re shit.

I like it; even though the expression flagrantly disregards the fact that the library is a place for quiet, and the only acceptable type of fight you can have in there is one with a lot of whispering, rude hand gestures and miming ‘fuck you!’.

Anyway, learning this double-meaning got me thinking about literary rivalries and how a war of words is particularly spicy when one or both parties happen to be talented wordsmiths. Because you just know that they’re packing some quality hurtful insults if they’re coming to the table with a proven ability to eloquently string words together.

So let’s talk Poe’s heated exchanges with Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815-1857) – his rival in life and the sneaky snake who managed to worm his way into writing the first biography of Poe following his death in 1849.

The top quote is a slice from Poe’s scathing obituary in the New-York Daily Tribune written under the name “Ludwig”. Republished in many newspapers, it was the start of what are longstanding myths surrounding Poe’s character – namely that he was a bitter erratic genius; talented, but nevertheless a drunk, paranoid, opiate addicted madman with no friends.

“Ludwig” was Rufus Griswold – a fellow editor and critic, who Poe wasn’t shy about slagging off publicly. Whether any of Griswold’s harsh assessment of Poe’s character is fair, remains debateable – and yet their rivalry is pivotal to understanding every biography written on Poe.

First meeting in 1841, when Poe was the editor at Graham’s Magazine and Griswold was working on the first of his anthology series, The Poets and Poetry of America; initially their relationship was amicable, with both praising the other in reviews.

Things soured in 1842, when Poe left Graham’s Magazine and Griswold was hired and paid more to be his successor. Around about the same time, Griswold paid Poe to write a review on The Poets and Poetry of America (in which three of Poe’s poems were included) and while this review didn’t go full bus stop it wasn’t as positive as Griswold expected, with Poe suggesting in a letter to a friend that Griswold’s payment was a bribe and commenting, “that review has not yet appeared, and I am doubtful if it ever will”.

Poe then went on to write two anonymous articles in 1893 where he criticized Griswold; stating that Griswold was “wholly unfit either by intellect or character, to occupy the editorial chair of Graham’s”, that he was “one of the most clumsy of literary thieves” and his anthology was “a very muttonish production”. In turn an article defaming Poe’s character was subsequently published, that he understandably suspected Griswold of writing (according to a letter from Poe to Griswold).

From 1843-1845, Poe was on an American poetry lecture tour of the East coast; here he publicly discussed The Poets and Poetry of America and accused Griswold of favouring his friends and New England writers rather than good poetry. My personal favourite catty remark was about one of Griswold’s friends, Charles F. Briggs, saying that he, “. . . has never composed in his life three consecutive sentences of grammatical English”.

In an attempt to patch things up, Poe made an effort in his 1845 lectures to omit anything which had the potential to offend Griswold and for little while there was a truce. On speaking terms long enough for Griswold to help Poe keep his magazine, The Broadway Journal, in print; in 1847 Griswold critiqued Poe’s editorial skills amongst general bitching and it was back on!

Needless to say they both shared a mutual suspicion for the other [one scholar even suggests that a large factor of their longstanding quarrel was fancying the same poet, Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood]. Griswold was likely the last person who Poe would want having any authority over his legacy; and yet, following Poe’s death in 1849 Griswold managed to gain the post-humous rights to publish a collection of Poe’s work through Poe’s mother-in-law, Maria Clemm (who was unaware of their history and the fact that those rights actually belonged to Poe’s sister, Rosalie).

Doubling down on the less-than-flattering obituary; in 1850, Griswold began publishing volumes of Poe’s work, which included a much nastier ‘memoir’ of Poe’s life, where he exaggerated details to make Poe sound like ten-times more of a dropkick than was actually the case (going so far as to forge letters to validate his fabrications).

Griswold died in 1857, and published four volumes of Poe’s work. He was in a position where he was profiting off Poe, and thus it became in his interest to perpetuate the myth that Poe was a train wreck. Until 1875, Griswold’s memoir was the only available account of Poe’s life – and while Poe had his defenders, and more well-balanced biographies were later created, Griswold marred the public image of Poe in a way that was irreversible.

I guess my point is, if you do have a Machiavellian-level nemesis who you’ve ‘taken to the library’ on more than one occasion make sure they don’t have the ability to write a bitter memoir about how shit you were. But at the same time, their exaggerations may also spark a greater popular interest in your bird poetry so it’s not all bad.

“Quoth the Raven: what a shine

Siblings in books

At 28 years old, a blindfolded Fyodor Dostoevsky narrowly avoided execution for anti-government activities, right as he stood in line of the firing squad, instead sent to a Siberian labour camp at the last minute (I swear I am going somewhere with this).

Unbeknown to the young Dostoevsky, this was a mock execution intended to instil fear in dissidents of Tsar Nicholas I. Yet, convinced he was about to die, Dostoevsky’s final thoughts before he was spared were of his brother,

“I remembered you, brother, and all yours; during
the last minute you, you alone, were in my mind,
only then I realised how I love you, dear brother
mine!” 

Despite this likely being one of Dostoevsky’s least favourite moments, I do love this story. It’s incredibly sweet that the future novelist shared that kind of relationship with his brother, and that perhaps it took facing death for him to fully appreciate how strong their bond truly was.

I’m reading Little Women at the moment, and was reminded of Dostoevsky’s ‘final’ thoughts within the ‘Dark Days’ chapter, where it takes Beth being close to death for each of her sisters to reflect on just how much she means to them, and what losing her would mean.*

“Then it was that Jo, living in the darkened room with that suffering little sister always before her eyes, and that pathetic voice sounding in her ears, learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition, to live for others, and make home happy by the exercise of those simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth or beauty.”

[*But I’m also super childish and, in between being sad, the fact that Beth’s doctor is named Dr Bangs is giving me big laughs – I don’t deserve classic literature!]

Sibling’s are interesting; they’re essentially friends your parents assign you for life. Yet despite them looking like you and being raised by the same crowd, there’s no guarantee you’ll hit it off or even like each other (obviously though I lucked out with my sister whose a legend – and I’m not just saying that cause she reads my blog). 

Plus given I only have the one sister, I can only imagine what it’s like to experience multiple siblings (and to see multiple alternative results of your parents’ parenting technique walking around). 

It’s interesting what’s unique and what’s universal about these relationships. So let’s brood over a few sibling relationships found in fiction and memoirs, to see what bits feel comparable to our own complex ties. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962)

For some reason, I do disproportionately go for American books and/or books written in the 1960’s. I’m not sure why that is, it’s just a pattern I’ve started to notice lately.

Anyway, written by the author of The Lottery (which does not include any tips on how to win the lottery), We Have Always Lived in The Castle tells the story of two ostracised sisters, Merricat (18) and Constance (28) Blackwood.

Both live with their elderly, wheelchair bound, uncle, on the margins of a town that despises them for the suspicious poisoning of the rest of the Blackwood family six years prior.

Although she is eighteen, Merricat is incredibly childlike, to the point where you will flip back at least once to double-check you got the age right. Whereas Constance refuses to leave the house as she is unofficially blamed by the townspeople for her family’s murder despite being formally acquitted.

The good/infuriating thing about this short novel is how many unanswered questions it raises and leaves open for interpretation. I’m into it, but at the same time I’m lazy and I wouldn’t have been against everything eventually being spelt out for me.

Plus from a sibling standpoint, I think it’s touching/miraculous that Constance and Merricat live in such isolation for so long, with essentially only each other for company, yet rarely piss each other off. I love my own sister dearly, but it would take less than a week living in similar conditions for a scrag fight to kick off.

A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams, 1947)

That’s another thing, I generally go for books which are on the shorter side or at least have a bigger font – I think it’s cause I’m impatient and like to get through things fast; and A Streetcar Named Desire is under 100 pages so here we are.

Blanche DuBois is Stella Kowalski’s older sister. It’s presumed that they haven’t been in contact for a while given Blanche hasn’t yet met Stella’s husband Stanley, and Stella wasn’t aware that they’d lost their family property or that Blanche has been fired from her teaching job (for sleeping with a student – Blanche is a bit of a hot mess).

As the family home is gone, what Stella thought was Blanche visiting is now her crashing at their very tiny New Orleans flat indefinitely, and immediately Stanley can’t stand Blanche for being a car-wreck as well as somehow convinced she’s still upper-class.

The feeling is mutual, as Blanche considers Stanley belligerent and coarse, and she regularly make’s it known to Stella that she can’t understand why she chooses to stay with him.

Without giving too much away, after Blanche and Stanley’s hostility reaches its peak, ultimately Stella chooses denial and her husband over believing her sister, who is too easily dismissable [and I don’t know why I’m so scared about giving spoilers, the play is over 70 years old. But I don’t know though, you might want to read/see it and go in fresh].

One reason Streetcar is considered Williams’ greatest work is its frank portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics. It is very of its time yet its timeless and if you’re going to watch it, try and see it as a play – they change the ending in the 1951 film adaption because it was considered too dark (or alternatively you can always get a not-so-great gist from watching the Streetcar episode of The Simpsons, A Streetcar named Marge – that’s where I learnt prior to reading that there is some bowling in it but no partial nudity).

High School (Tegan and Sara Quin, 2019)

I really wish this book existed when I was a teenager. Rarely do I reread books but I will read this again next summer when its less fresh in my head.

So this one is a shared memoir of Canadian musicians and twin sisters Tegan and Sara, which primarily focuses on high school and their 1990’s adolescence. Starting in grade 10 (when they’re 15), each chapter swaps between which sister is narrating, and begins with Tegan’s perspective and hurt confusion when Sara starts wanting to spend more time alone with their shared best friend.

Unbeknown to Tegan, this becomes Sara’s first serious relationship, and it’s fascinating reading how two people, who are so close and in a lot of ways similar, how their story’s of self discovery and coming out could be so distinctive, as well as reading about two siblings both realising this huge part of themselves, for a long time in secret. 

Each chapter is a fragment story from high school, which lead to the sisters winning their first music competition and getting their first taste of success at 18. It’s touching and relatable no matter what decade high school was for you, and the line that stuck with me the most is close to the end, when Sara remembers her aunt’s response to her shaving her head – “you look exactly like yourself”

[Plus (in a non-creepy way) I’m a huge fan of other people’s family photos, and there’s lots of them in this book]

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000)

This is the breakout memoir of Dave Eggers, published two years after McSweeneys came into existence (the publishing house Eggers founded), and I’m not going to lie, a large part of why I wanted to read this was how good that title is. 

The title make’s it sound like it’s going to be hilarous, and while there are many little funny moments, the book’s focus is Eggers losing both his parents to cancer at 21 within weeks of each other, and becoming a guardian to his eight year old brother, Christopher “Toph”.

While this divides people, and admittedly the later chapters where he’s starting up Might magazine are weaker than the first chapters, Eggers’ shifting relationship with his younger brother and their experiences creating a new normal after such a heavy loss is uplifting and does make you think about what you were up to age 21 and whether you had your life together enough to handle that level of responsibility.

Susan Sontag’s Journal Entries

Susan Sontag2.pngsusan-sontagIn a way I’m sort of happy that my hair’s starting to go a little grey. At the moment it’s only happening at the front, so if all goes well maybe I’ll get to have a suave streak just like Susan Sontag had. And on that note, things are about to get fan-girly here.

Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004) was a renowned intellectual whose work as a writer, essayist and director offer seminal commentaries on society, culture, metaphors and the human experience.

But what I want to talk about here is her journal entries, which were published posthumously and give such a touching impression of her vulnerabilities and of a life truly lived.

In the preface of the first collection of entries; Sontag’s only child, David Rieff writes about the surreal experience of reading these deeply personal journals his mother had kept from her adolescence up until her death, and wishing he could warn her about all the pain and heartbreak which awaited her,

‘but of course I’m too late: the play has already been performed and its protagonist is gone’

Rieff continuously wondered whether his mother would have approved of his decision to make her journal entries public. For me personally though, I’m so grateful he did, these snippets are why I love books – a person who I will never know has been able to give me solace at so many different points in life, years after her death.

It’s touching to get a deeper glimpse of the fragile human behind her work, as well as an impression of her personality during different points in her life.

Plus, her lifelong thirst for further knowledge would inspire anyone to strive towards greater understanding and intelligence. Here are a few entries that particularly struck a chord with me:

‘…I just felt enormous anger at her, exactly as you would feel toward someone who has just announced that she is about to cause you terrible pain’

‘ “X” is when you feel yourself an object not a subject. When you want to please and impress people, either by saying what they want to hear, or by shocking them, or by boasting and name dropping, or by being very cool.’

‘Two fundamental needs are at war within me: need for the approval of others, fear of others’

Book Fate

Look, I don’t believe things happen for a predetermined cosmic reason. What’s the point in trying and living in this moment if it’s all already planned? But I do believe in book fate – I know it sounds strange, but let me explain.

I used to have a to-read list; but its length was getting more and more intimating, until it dawned on me that even if I ran away from all of my commitments and started living in a cave and drinking my own piss, there’s no way known I’d be done with that list in no less than thirty years.

So now I just let whatever I’m going to read next find me instead, and scarily what I’m reading tends to find me at exactly the right time and when I’m able to take the most out of it.

There are certain quotes and snippets of narrative, that I still love partly because of the solace they were able to give me at a certain point in my life when I first read them.

I needed to read Stephen Fry’s first two autobiographies – Moab is my Washpot and The Fry Chronicles, as an anxiety-ridden eighteen year old. This one line in particular made me feel like I wasn’t alone,

“I would always be the same maddening, monstrous, mixture of pedantry, egoism, politeness, selfishness, kindliness, sneakiness, larkiness, sociability, loneliness, ambition, ordered calmness & hidden intensity”

There’s the Fig Tree Analogy from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which at the time I remember thinking, it perfectly summed up that underlying fear of inadequacy when you’re surrounded by endless choice.

“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

And then there are certain books which I probably would’ve quit if I had started reading them at any other time. For instance, Confederacy of Dunces: if I hadn’t have gone into reading it knowing that it was on Bowie’s list of top 100 books I would’ve quit it at the start (IF IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR DAVID IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU ELLEN YOU SCUM).

I just love letting some scungy looking second-hand book walk into my life and suddenly it’s changed me a little, for the better. It also gets bonus points if it has one of those old library stamp cards taped on the inside.