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.

The Name Game

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was the first time I’d heard about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language and ostensive definition: or as summarized by Nelson, the idea that ‘the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed’. 

Roughly, this quote is a summary of Wittgenstein’s lifelong pondering’s into language, and how much power words have to effectively represent every nuance of what reality they are attempting to describe.

A name, assigned to define something through language, and the physical entity itself, have two separate existences. Thus leading a name/word to acquire its meaning through the context its used.

Wittgenstein referred to our everyday intermingling of reality and words as ‘the language game’, and its a theory which has me thinking about how much the names that people know us by reflect the individual they’re there to represent.

Personally, I think my own name (selected in 1993 when Mum was watching a lot of Family Ties reruns) does suit my personality and the look I’ve got going. But sometimes I do wonder to what extent – if any – my life or personality might have alternated had I been carting around another title for the last 26 years. Classic literature after all, is peppered with instances where a character’s name, sculpts their fate or defines their reality. Here are a few I could think of,

The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967)

The first time I attempted to read this Russian classic was five years ago. I quit about twenty pages in, and now after revisiting it I can’t believe how quick I was to dismiss it.

It’s such an incredible book and I could’ve so easily never bothered picking it up again.  I’m such a fool! I missed finding one of my favourite books early – why didn’t I stick with it for a few more pages? A book about Satan working in Moscow as a magician and being cheeky and messing with everyone – that’s well up my alley (and I love that Satan is a smoker – of course Satan doesn’t give a shit about lung health of course!!!).

I’m mad at past me but at the same time it’s so exciting to be able to read it for the first time now.

Anyway the reason it’s relevant to a discussion on whether or not names determine your fate is that in The Master and Margarita, the Prince of Darkness holds a ball whenever he’s visiting a city, and his ongoing tradition is finding a girl from that city  whose name is Margarita to be his date. In exchange, for attending what promises to a wicked part-tay for the damned, el Diablo will grant Margarita her deepest wish.

The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde, 1895)

So it’s a play about two rich Victorian socialites who have a weirdly specific type, and are only interested in dating fellows called ‘Earnest’. So naturally two incorrigible gents pretend their names are Earnest to win these fair maidens affections. It’s a comedy, but people were easier to make laugh in Victorian times.

Basically I couldn’t get into it because I just kept thinking, was there ever a point in history where the name Earnest was the ultimate bachelor name? It just makes me think of those of those stupid 1990s flicks where doofus Ernest gets into various jams, like needing to save Christmas or assemble hard furniture.

The delightful twist (and sorry for spoilers) is that the two gents find out their names were Earnest all along so they were technically never liars – isn’t life funny like that?

Tess of the D’urbervilles (Thomas Hardy,  ‎1891)

Tess Durbeyfield is the eldest of John and Joan Durbeyfield – a dirt poor couple, whose hopes go up when they learn that they may be descendants of a noble family the d’Urbervilles.

Tess’ family name is the reason she is sent by her parents to ‘claim kin’ and ultimately work at the d’Urberville estate for Alec d’Urberville. Yet the reason I’m bringing this book up in this post, is for the name she gives her son – the product of Alec’s crime against Tess – baby Sorrow.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Márquez, 1970)

The saga of six generations of the Buendía family, all living within the isolated village  their family founded called Macondo, one reason this book gets progressively more difficult to follow is that names are passed down through the generations. The most extreme example being the second son of José Arcadio Buendía (the first generation’s patriarch), Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who names his seventeen sons (to seventeen different women – the Colonel was a dog!) all Aureliano. 

Here, the consistent repetition of names within the family is part of the novel’s ongoing point that history is a cycle repeating itself. 

 

Fictional Couples whose happiness won’t make you want to be sick in a bucket

In hindsight, I think the main reason I didn’t have any interest in reading as a teenager was that – in my experience anyway, a lot of books directed primarily towards adolescent girls, tended to have a strong sappy romantic sub-plot; and being the cold-hearted cynic that I was/am, I genuinely believed that it was impossible for a novel to have romantic themes and not be a complete load of dull shite.

And while yes, I still wouldn’t be caught dead reading Romeo and Juliet (YOU’RE THIRTEEN, you will meet other people! A bit of get the fuck over it is in order), I’m proud to say that my palette has slightly widened over time. I won’t automatically dismiss reading something anymore based purely on the knowledge that a loved-up couple will be featuring a lot in it.

Don’t get me wrong, if a book isn’t a little dark, I will probably lose interest, BUT I’ve learned not to be so narrow minded. Falling in love is a big theme, and of course not every single fictional representation of it, is doomed to feel simplistic and clique. So here are a few fictional couples whose stories have helped me broaden my horizons.

Robert and Maria (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1941)

This is such a beautiful book, seriously get on it.

Inspired by Hemingway’s own experiences travelling across Spain, reporting on the Spanish Civil War; For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place over the course of four days, and tells the story of an American volunteer Robert Jordan, who must blow up a bridge of strategic importance behind enemy (Fascist) lines.

For the offensive attack to be successful, the bridge needs to be blown up at a minutely specific time; and the story begins with Robert meeting a small group of guerrilla fighters, living within the mountains, who have been assigned to help him.

This group includes Maria – who they found in a horrifically traumatised state and took in. The cruelty inflicted on her, following the Fascist takeover of her town, is still a very fresh wound – yet her gentle demeanour hasn’t been poisoned. She and Robert are instantly drawn to each other and from the first night they are an item.

What’s particularly poignant about their relationship, is that while it moves fast as a consequence of the immense instability surrounding them, it feels realistic because Robert is frequently ruminating whether his passion for Maria is genuine, or if his feelings have only been intensified by the knowledge he could easily die during this mission.

Although some contemporary criticisms feel that Maria’s character is far too one-dimensional: factoring in its cultural/historical context, I’m not sure if that’s a fair assessment. But I would’ve loved to have known more about Maria’s personality outside of Robert.

Stephen and Mary (The Well of Loneliness, 1928)

As my previous blogpost on The Well of Loneliness, focused more on its obscenity trials rather than the book’s actual story, I figure I could talk about it here without doubling up.

Now the reason you’ll feel particularly invested in Stephen Gordon and Mary Llewellyn’s happiness is because prior to meeting each other as ambulance drivers during World War I, the novel details all of Stephen’s personal history.

Her incapacity, growing up, to comprehend her difference, her crippling loneliness, her unrequited obsession over a married neighbour, her mother’s eventual disownment of her – all of these experiences, despite the long held criticism that this book hasn’t aged well, have a deep, and timeless resonance. Plus, having a nuanced understanding of who Stephen is before she finds love, means as a reader you have a greater impression of how much Mary enriches her existence.

Another great quality of this class piece of literature is Hall’s additional effort to highlight the strong class element that restricted the freedom of queer women during this time. In the story Mary and Stephen are close friends with another lesbian couple, Jamie and Barbara, whose choice to live as a couple has left them ostracised from their small village destitute and ‘starvation poor’. As well as their influence on the overall plot progression, Jamie and Barbara’s existence within the story is vital because it highlighted the freedom Stephen’s wealth had given her.

Jean and Helene (The Blood of Others, 1945)

I was debating for a bit whether or not Jean and Helene belonged on this list, given technically it’s really not a love story – more an exploration into personal responsibility and what we owe other people. But when I read it years ago, I remember it partially strengthening my own, very limited, understanding of why certain things had turned to shit. And that’s pretty impressive from a book that’s premise was completely unknown to me before starting it (my motives for reading it were basically – I wanted to read some Simone de Beauvoir and it was the thinnest book I could find).

Set within a German occupied France, and like For Whom the Bell Tolls, also inspired by Beauvior’s own personal experience working for the French Resistance: The Blood of Others is the story of a brief affair relived through a succession of flashbacks, as the main protagonist, Jean, watches his former lover Helene, die of a gunshot wound (he wasn’t the one who shot her by the way, it was a French Resistance related accident).

What’s central to Jean and Helene’s story is that Jean is never sure that he loves Helene, yet he tells her he loves her anyway because he is fascinated by how Helene’s happiness becomes dependant on this imperfect understanding she has of him. In other words, it’s the classic existentialist mind-fuck where it dawns on you that you can only know a person to an extent.

 

 

Books that teach you how to do a smooth stalking

Back in olden times – before the internet was a deeply entrenched part of our culture, and we weren’t all technologically savvy – if you wanted to do a stalking you had to rely on your own wits.

Our poor ancestors couldn’t just do a sneaky stalk of someones Facebook wall, they needed to put in the man-hours to gain valuable intel.

This is quite noticeable in older literature. Here are some examples from classics that are about as subtle as a brick to the face.

The Great Gatsby (Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)

I like to think that there was one Gatsby party that was so excruciatingly shit and awkward that it didn’t make it into the novel. One that wasn’t exactly off the chain, and everyone was in bed by 8.30pm. I’ll level with you, I only made it up to page 52 of The Great Gatsby, then I lost interest. For all I know the rest of the book could’ve just been 100 pages detailing this one crap party Jay held.

Anyway, if this novel has taught us nothing else, its that if you’re trying to win back your former lover, she’ll be nothing but massively impressed if you buy the house directly across from her and throw loud parties every single night.

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Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1985)

In this book Florentino shows his lady-love that smooth is his middle name by cracking onto her at her husbands funeral. Dude! I know you’ve been waiting a really long time for her to be back on the market but maybe pick a better time.

Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham, 1915)

Look there’s no denying that in this book Mildred is a piece of human shit, BUT in fairness she did repeatedly say to the main character Phillip that she wasn’t interested. She even made a point of telling him more than once that she didn’t like having to kiss him. This doesn’t deter Phillip though, he knows that he can’t change her mind but he still can’t let go of hope.

This is actually a pretty good book, but you do feel quite drained reading about these futile feelings Phillip holds. I just wish I could give him a hug and say please just let her go.

Perfume Story of a Murderer (Patrick Süskind, 1985)

This is a pretty odd book. I think the moral of the story was virgins smell fantastic.

Anyway, I’m over-simplifying the plot here, but majority of Perfume is Jean Baptiste Grenouille lurking around French markets then secretly following around women who happen to have a nice natural scent. He’s a bit of a wrongin – there were also some blatant un-dealt with mummy issues here.

Rebecca (Daphne de Maurier, 1938)

Rebecca is about an unnamed protagonist who marries a older man, Maxim. When Maxim takes her back to his giant house (called Manderley), she is haunted by constant reminders of his deceased first wife Rebecca. Specifically, the housekeeper – Mrs Danvers, is not particularly impressed that Maxim has remarried, and throughout the book gets increasingly more passive-aggressive towards the main character.

Its very much a book of its time, in that the main character could’ve just told Mrs Danvers to fuck off if she wasn’t bound by very British conventions of social etiquette.

Anyway, while Mrs Danvers doesn’t teach you how to do a stalking, but she’s filled with diamond tips on how to do an obsession.

She loathes Maxim’s new wife only because she adored Rebecca so much; and the house is kept precisely as Rebecca had left it not because Maxim likes it that way, but because Mrs Danvers wants it preserved.

Using Neruda to crack onto people

At the moment I’m hearing the song ‘Treat you Better’ all the time, and its really shitting me to tears. I hate those kinds of songs where the basis is, a persons significant other is shit and they should really consider chucking them because in my (the singer’s) humble, and completely unbiased*, opinion I’m way better to date. 

I’d love to hear a response song to ‘Treat you Better’ called ‘I still stand by my decision Shawn Mendes! I’m a grown woman who can make my own choices. Fuck off’** . 

Anyway, the reason I’m bringing this song up is because its clearly an attempt to entice this woman using the medium of song – and therefore poetry, and frankly it sucks. It instantly made me think of Pablo Neruda’s beautiful poem If you Forget Me in comparison.

If you want to win somebody’s heart with words, my advice is to seek Pablo Neruda for inspiration. In If you Forget Me, Neruda writes that he will respect her feelings if she does not love him – ‘I shall lift my arms and my roots will set off to seek another land’.

However if she feels that they are destined for each other ‘ah my love, ah my own, in me all that fire is repeated’ – now that’s a man.

Neruda is my favourite poet, and he is hands down the smoothest mother-fucker in poetry! When he wrote about romantic love he wrote with a burning passion.

He described his subjects in intrinsic detail, and as though the whole universe conspired for them to be together. In Your Feethe writes ‘I love your feet only because they walked upon the earth and upon the wind and upon the waters, until they found me.’

When Neruda described their beauty or their body, he would do so with nature metaphors and in way that suggested complete adoration -‘Body of my woman, I will persist in your grace. My thirst, my boundless desire, my shifting road’.

So I guess my point is if you’re planning on writing a song and/or poem to a love interest that details how much you fancy them and outlines what a fabulous catch you are, read some Neruda. Here’s a few more quotes to get you started:

‘I have gone marking the atlas of your body with crosses of fire’ – I Have Gone Marking 

‘In you the rivers sing and my soul flees in them’ – Ah Vastness of Pines

‘Naked, you are simple as a hand, minimal, supple, earthy, transparent, round. The lunar markings, the pathway through the apple, are yours; naked, you are slender as the wheat.’  – Morning

‘I waken and widen my eyes, and you plant in my flesh the darkening stars that rise in my soul’ – Girl Gardening

‘I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry trees’ – Everyday you Play

How could one not love her great still eyes’ – Tonight I can Write 

 

 

(*its just such a shit song! of course you think she’s in ‘the wrong situation’ if you’re also trying to tap in)

(** also while we’re on the topic, in Taylor Swift’s song ‘You Belong With Me’ I really would love to know the joke Taylor refers to at the start that she found amusing but this boy’s girlfriend didn’t. Was the joke concerning the girlfriends physical appearance? Did he give her an unflattering nickname like Chewbacca?)