Dalloway Day

For the past five years the Royal Society of Literature has celebrated the writings of Virginia Woolf on a Wednesday in June. Today is that Wednesday. Interesting that this society has chosen the short novel Mrs Dalloway for the festival name. As much as I appreciate Mrs Dalloway, and have read it twice, of Woolf’s oeuvre, To the Lighthouse is a richer story, one that had me up until 3 am to finish it, and it remains at the top of my list.

I appreciate that Mrs Dalloway is more accessible than some of Woolf’s other books. It has also benefitted from an excellent film adaption (1997), with Vanessa Redgrave in the lead role. Written in a third-person omniscient narration as if in the mind of Clarissa Dalloway, the story takes place in London over a 24-hour period soon after the end of the First World war, moving continuously between the past and the present as remembered and interpreted by Clarissa. The intensity of the drama unfolds in otherwise mundane circumstances as Clarissa prepares for a party at her home, which she shares with her husband, a wealthy politician. Depicting an era full of hope and a renewed sense of freedom mixed with the unhealed wounds in the aftermath of war, one of key subplots involves a veteran suffering from what was then called shell shock (PTSD).

Stylistically, Mrs Dalloway is well worth reading. The dreamy stream-of-conscientiousness style with calculated repetitions weaves together emotions, actions and dialogues. While the book has many quotable lines, I’ll just give you this to savour:

‘She belonged to a different age, but being so entire, so complete, would always stand up on the horizon, stone-white, eminent, like a lighthouse marking some past stage on this adventurous, long, long voyage, this interminable—this interminable life.’

But is this enough to justify a day to celebrate the writings of Virginia Woolf? I think so for the simple reason that in modern parlance, she is an influencer. Her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own is an often-quoted title, edging on the verge of cliché. Mrs Dalloway served as the premise to the point of modern-day-rewrite for Michael Cunningham’s brilliant The Hours. Taking a somewhat cynical look at Woolf worship combined with social satire on reality television, I flagrantly purloined from the author’s life and works in my stage play Virginia Woolf Get a Makeover. This list of borrowings probably has no end.

Dare I say that people who have never read Woolf’s work know of her, and I’d like to think that this virtual holiday encourages more people to read one of the English language’s greatest writers.

Another Femicide

One of my former colleagues was stabbed to death, allegedly by her husband. After hearing about this from a former student of ours, I went online to find the story. There was very little in English press even though this had happened a couple of days earlier in England. The university announced her death and their sadness at the news but gave no details. The Italian press was full of stories about the killing, with headlines such as ‘Italian Professor murdered in Britain.’ One of the Italian papers reported this as a ‘jealous rage’ due to her ‘career success.’ Another focused on her husband as being ‘Turkish-Syrian and holding a British passport.’ Another still on how her family was helping her to return to Italy without him. These ways of explaining the tragedy and reducing it to a soap opera narrative, laced with xenophobia, only added more anger to my bag of emotions – shock being on top.

I stumbled upon the Italian version of Vanity Fair. They started their report with a simple fragment sentence – ‘Another femicide.’ My former colleague and friend is already a statistic.

Antonella and I worked together for four years. We had been hired within a year of each other and bonded as the only PhD’s and the only Italians in the English department (though our colleagues saw me as only American). She was from northern Italy and so fluent in English, we only spoke Italian to one another on a few occasions. My strongest memories of her involve her laughing – she had a wild and loud laugh. In our serious moments, we had some great conversations about literary criticism, language and her love for Pasolini. She authored a book on the controversial poet and film director, and to this very day, any mention of Pasolini makes me think of her.

As I was looking online trying to grab what I could of Antonella’s life and her untimely death, I kept on seeing the same photo – a university mug shot in black and white. I typed her name into Google Images, and one of the first pictures that came up was of her and me at a poetry reading. It’s a blurred image but seems appropriate as she has become blurry in my life. Academic politics can be vicious, and it appeared to come between us. I have to say ‘appeared’ as this was down to the machinations of others. I left the university, shaking off the whole mess, and lost touch with colleagues good and bad. One of my regrets was not re-establishing the friendship she and I once held.

As Antonella is the victim of yet ‘another femicide,’ in my mind memories of her life will forever be entwined with the manner of her death. I am angry, resentful at the ways of the world. I return to Pasolini and find one of his most famous poems translated into English. Rest in peace, Antonella.

The Day of My Death

In a city, Trieste or Undine
along an avenue bordered by linden trees
in spring when the leaves
change colour

I will fall dead
under a burning noonday sun
my eyes closing upon
the sky and its splendour.

Beneath the mild green of the lindens
I will sink into the
black of my death
parting from the sun and the leaves.
Beautiful young boys
will run in the light
I will now have lost
streaming from their schools
curls on their brows.

I will still be young,
in a bright shirt,
my hair tender in the rain
falling on the bitter dust.
I will still be warm
and a child running on the
soft asphalt of the avenue
will come and rest his hand
on my crystal loins.

Pier Paolo Pasolini
Translated by Steve Light

Belonging

I usually don’t start with quotes, but this time I will:

‘Does an American belong more in America than elsewhere when most of us came from elsewhere? How to account for the violence of founding a country on someone else’s land? How can any model of American belonging function unproblematically on top of such a heritage? But then wasn’t every country in the world formed out of conflict over who owned the land? All of human history is a story of migrations and conquests. All of us are exiles, but some of us are more aware of it than others.’

This is from Lauren Elkin’s book-length essay, Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London.

Given the current prominence of replacement theory and its proponents among the extreme right in Western countries, especially America, I do wonder about the role of belonging, or this false sense of belonging, in this twisted ideology.

The New York Times recently published their study of 1,150 episodes of Tucker Carlson Tonight. Among the many disturbing findings was Carlson’s version of replacement theory, where ‘they‘ want to replace ‘you’ with ‘third world immigrants,’ who are more ‘obedient voters.’ The ‘they’ is the powerful ‘ruling class’ of left-wing so-called liberals, and the ‘you’ is supposed to be his audience, who are perhaps best defined when Carlson points out ‘They call you a racist.’ The reference to ‘immigrant’ suggests that they do not belong in America. Belonging also slinks into Carlson’s diatribes with comments such as ‘They care more about foreigners than their own people.’ Carlson’s idealised American belongs to a grouping of people. Which group of people is never specified. If Carlson tried to specify and delineate this group, he would run into the problem that Elkin writes about.

All of this reminds me that race is a sociocultural concept. But this idea is nothing new, I remember reading an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic Monthly some nine years ago – which shows the powerful impression it left on me, as opposed to any superb memory on my part. The article was entitled ‘What We Mean When We Say “Race Is a Social Construct.”’ After quoting the historian Nell Irvin Painter who said, ‘Race is an idea, not a fact,’ Coates concludes ‘Indeed. Race does not need biology. Race only requires some… guys with big guns looking for a reason.’ Nine years on, this could still help explain the latest hate-related mass shooting in America in a literal sense and figuratively the likes of Tucker Carlson.

The moral of all of this brings me back to where I started, with a quote from Lauren Elkin: ‘Beware roots. Beware purity. Beware fixity. Beware the creeping feeling that you belong. Embrace flow, impurity, fusion.’  

Dark Tourism

Disasters fascinate. The Titanic still garners interest after 100-plus years. Though I suspect some of that has to do with the lost ship and its treasures. The other side of Titanic fetish comes from the high number of casualties, that mass grave in the North Atlantic, arguably an example of what’s been called ‘dark tourism.’

My disaster fascination is with Pompeii, where some 2,000 people died when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. I first caught Pompeii fever as a child when an exhibit about Pompeii toured America and came to the Art Institute of Chicago. I was mesmerized by the plaster casts made from the ashen moulds of bodies frozen in time at the moment of horrific death. My recollection of this includes seeing people screaming. But that’s an unfaithful childhood memory. The reality wasn’t so detailed or morbidly vivid. Most of the figures are covering their heads, crouched or lying down. My adult self looks at these casts and imagines people being in a state of meditative acceptance of their mortality I visited the remains of Pompeii on two occasions, once in the 80s and sometime around 2005-06. The disaster is still fascinating, but more so for what it has left behind – the artifacts and structures that reveal how the inhabitants of the ancient town lived.

More recently, I had the pleasure of hearing the historian and classicist Mary Beard talk about her book and television series on Pompeii. Beard has changed my way of thinking about these people, for instance, pointing out that it would be wrong to call them Romans. The graffiti and inscribed objects indicate a diverse population, with speakers of Latin, Oscan, Greek and Hebrew.

Mary Beard among the human remains of Pompeii

This point is also picked up in Robert Harris’s brilliant novel Pompeii, a true page-turner set in the days before and during the eruption, with well-drawn characters and an attention to detail praised by historians. Harris digs into the minds of the people of that time who regarded such disasters as vengeance from the gods and the warnings that they had that went unceded. His protagonist, the region’s aquarius responsible for the aqueducts feeding into the towns, makes this observation: ‘Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails – and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger?’ This underlying environmental message also makes this worth a read.

There’s another type of dark tourism that I’ve been thinking about lately. The phrase is also used for visiting places like the concentration camp at Auschwitz, the Rwandan genocide towns (Kigali, Nyamata and Ntarma) and the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, where apparently the rubble and twisted metal from the immediate aftermath of the bomb remain in situ. I’d argue that these sites, though they might hold a morbid fascination for some, are more about education, pointing the finger at human destruction and the mistakes of those who turned a blind eye. Watching, reading and hearing the news day in and day out, I wonder if Bucha and Mariupol will become sites for dark tourism.

Caryatids and Turning 60

Wandering around Paris with her camera, the director Agnès Varda once made a short film about them, Les Dites-Cariatides (The So-Called Caryatids). Caryatids are stone statues of women which form load-bearing columns at the front of buildings. Sometimes these women appear to be supporting the lintel above an entranceway, other times they’re preventing a terrace from crumbling down. For all this arduous work, they never grimace or perspire.

According to Lauren Elkin, author of Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, ‘They’re all over Paris, these caryatids. They come in sets of two or four and sometimes many more than that, depending on the building’s ostentation.’ With this in mind, before heading off to Paris last weekend, I investigated caryatids online and found claims of over 500 of these stone women holding up Parisian buildings. The first was sculpted in 1550 by Jean Goujon and can be found in the Louvre – which having seen it years ago, is the last museum I would want to see in Paris, overrated with too many tourists ticking their bucket lists.

Walking all over the 18th arrondissement near Sacré Coeur, I couldn’t find any caryatids, not even a pair of them that I had read about online and knew which street they were on – or not, as the case may be. It wasn’t until the end of our second full day that my David spotted a couple of caryatids on the edge of the 10th arrondissement where we were staying. Typical of the caryatids I’d seen in photos, they were draped in tunics, held neutral expressions and had smooth wrinkleless even-toned skin. Idealised women.

I on the other hand am not a caryatid. In Paris celebrating my 60th birthday, I was aware of the fine wrinkles around my eyes, the patches of dark beige on my hands and those internal signs of aging – the knee that aches after jogging and feeling dozy before 10 pm among them. By the time we were in Paris, I was past the how-could-this-be-happening-to-me stage and had come to accept this milestone birthday as the start of a new, and hopefully worthwhile and productive, stage of life. It is a new stage. As much as I still feel ‘middle-aged,’ sixty has given me my ‘senior’ railcard and other discounts all over Europe. It has also made me think more about full retirement – if a writer can ever be fully retired – and how I will spend the years ahead, hoping to stay active in every sense and to experience new things, discovering writers and artists and the hidden gems – such as caryatids – in cities like Paris, Nice and London.

In the end I only saw ten caryatids (five sets of two). Agnès Varda’s film is 12 minutes long and only shows some 30 caryatids, which confirms my suspicion of the exaggerated claims of their ubiquity in Paris. The film is worth seeing for the beauty of the images and the accompanying poetry of Charles Baudelaire, a film made when Varda was 56. She continued making films well past her sixtieth birthday.

Ai Qing’s Wetnurse

I’ve been listening to Ai Wie Wie’s memoir 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, where he writes eloquently about his father’s life that in so many ways mirrored his own. Both father and son had been persecuted by the state. Although I’ve been following Ai Weiwei’s life and works for years, his father was always in the background until now. That is, a good book is one that leads me to another.

Ai’s father, Ai Qing was a well-known poet. Pablo Neruda, a contemporary and friend, referred to Ai Qing as the ‘Prince of Poets.’ Of the many fascinating episodes in his father’s life that Ai Weiwei recounts, there’s one that I can’t get out of my head. Ai Qing’s family belonged to the gentry in China in the early 1900s and as was the custom, babies were fed and mostly cared for by their wetnurses. In Ai Qing’s case, his wetnurse Dayanhe had several children of her own. For Dayanhe to secure employment as a wetnurse, she had her last child – a girl – killed. As Ai Weiwei explains it (forgive the paraphrase, but I’m working from an Audible book), so was the need for income from being a wetnurse and the prestige of working for Ai Qing’s family, the sacrifice was understood and not uncommon. Ai Weiwei adds that even today it is not unheard of in poor rural areas of China.

This is one of those examples of the lives of women and girls being expendable, disposable, and defined by their willingness to forgo something precious for themselves and others to survive.

AI Qing’s’ his first collection of verse (1936) was titled after a poem about his wetnurse that bore her name Dayanhe. Trying to find a copy of this book in English, I’ve stumbled across summaries of the poem which euphemistically call her a ‘foster nurse,’ a ‘childhood nurse’ or ‘the woman who reared him.’ There appears to be something about wetnurses that requires censoring.

In ‘Dayanhe’ Qing praises his nurse’s character as steadfast and kind-hearted, describing her life of poverty. Without a specific mention of the infanticide that she and her family committed, he writes of her ‘lifetime of humiliation at the hands of the world’ and suggests her fate was shared by all oppressed women in China. The poem ends with a dedication to these Chinese women: ‘Dedicated to all of them on earth, the wet-nurses like my Dayanhe, and all their sons.’

Women who wander

For International Women’s Day, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the flâneuse. She’s a woman who wanders city streets dawdling, observing and thinking. Not a streetwalker in the sex-worker sense. The term comes from the French male equivalent flâneur, once used to describe famous writers and painters who strolled the streets of Paris. I recently read Lauren Elkin’s highly engaging Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. Straightaway, Elkin points out that a flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur, ‘but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own. She voyages out, and goes where she’s not supposed to.’

I’ve long been a flâneuse myself, walking alone the streets of towns and cities I’ve lived in and visited. Part of this is for the love of walking, but also out of curiosity and for the stimulation of city life – the architecture, the buses and trains, the workers, shoppers, runners and tourists, the aromas from cafes and restaurants and those cherished green spaces of public parks and squares. I was reminded of my walking excursions in old European cities with this passage, where Elkin describes her flânerie in Paris:

‘I am always looking for ghosts on the boulevards. So many people have passed through Paris; did they leave any residue? Some parts of town seem still to be inhabited by older souls who won’t leave – up towards the Portes Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin I think I can feel them, crowds of people in bowler hats and long skirts, I can sense them pressing past me along with the people I recognise from my own time, bare-headed and in short skirts.’

As you can see, some of this book is memoir and travelogue about her own experiences, but equally interesting, it’s also biography and literary criticism. Elkin delves into the lives and writings of famous flâneuses, including Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Martha Gellhorn and George Sand (who dressed as a man to freely walk the streets). One of the flâneuses not mentioned that I would have included is Phyllis Pearsall (1906-1996), who created the A-to-Z maps of London. In producing the first edition of the detailed maps, she walked for 18 hours each day traversing over 23,000 roads covering more than 3,000 miles.

As I reflect on these courageous and somewhat quirky women, I’m aware that they have had the fortune of being for the most part middle class and living in the West, with some freedoms not afforded to poorer women or to women even today, rich or poor, living in some other parts of the world. I am also aware in our present day that these women, these lucky flâneuses, were wandering through cities not under siege – another stark reminder of what people lose at times of war.

Novelist Jean Rhys

Blue and Yellow

There’s an awful lot of blue and yellow out there these days. According to a few online ‘-edias’ and ‘-ictionaries’, the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag represent the sky and fields of wheat. This combination of colours comes from the flag of the Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia, used in the 12th century for the lands that include modern-day Ukraine.

Even the Covid-19 pandemic has failed to unite people the way Putin’s attack on Ukraine has. The pandemic was beleaguered from the start with different theories on how it spreads and what strategies governments should take to protect people. And let’s not forget the covid-deniers and anti-vaxers. The war in Ukraine is more straightforward. Though the solutions and ways of taming Putin are complex, we have all witnessed this unprovoked attack on a liberal democracy and recognise propaganda when we hear it.

I suspect that we’re sporting the blue and yellow, not only because we’re humanitarians, but because we feel vulnerable. I sure do. The possibility of another world war, one that would be, unlike its predecessors, fuelled in part by cyber-attacks and nuclear arsenals leaves me edging towards panic, that sensation of falling from high without a net.

Everyone has their own means of dealing with this feeling of vulnerability. I find myself meditating longer and more often, trying to live in the moment as vulnerability entails some projection into the future. I’ve also tried to do something for the people of Ukraine in a couple of small ways – a donation to the Red Cross and participating in a march through the streets of Cambridge, UK. (I’m aware that by mentioning this I risk being accused of virtue signalling.)

March in Cambridge, 5 March 2022

Above all else, I’ve sought solace in the Ukrainian writings and artistic works that have been surfacing en masse in mainstream and social media. Before this war, I was only familiar with a handful of Ukrainian writers, including Natalka Bilotserkivets. I found one of her poems again and reread it, forced by the present to interpret it differently:

ROSE

It’s time to pack your bag and go.
You don’t know what to take – something easy
to carry; everything you’d possibly need,
instantly found.

Two or three brushes, soap and a towel.
Clean underwear, just in case your lover
meets you – or God. Either way,
you should have clean underwear.

In a secluded place, among weeds
of a dense, heavenly forest, I’ll meet a rose.
Like Blake’s symbol of delicate mysticism –
the rose who loves the worm.

Having allowed him into her alluring womb,
she trembles, hidden, to avoid me,
and all poetry – a shame, a bore,
oh, poor flower, lovely, dear . . .

© Translation: 2002, Dzvinia Orlowsky
First published on Poetry International, 2006

Now I imagine a yellow rose against a blue sky and people packing hurriedly as if leaving their lovers, but with the hope of meeting them again.

‘Support’ by Olga Shtonda

Putin’s Words

“‘When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”’ I’ve been thinking about this well-worn quote from Lewis Carroll in recent days as I listen to the verbal gymnastics performed by Vladimir Putin.

Much of what Putin is saying about Ukraine can be found in the bully’s handbook as well as the propagandist’s handbook: Create a false narrative that makes you look like a victim and that leaves you with no other choice but to attack. Putin has claimed that Ukraine is committing ‘genocide’ against the Russian diaspora in the separatists’ regions of the country, and that his military actions will ‘liberate’ the people. This might at first sound like reckless hyperbole, but I think Putin has chosen his words carefully. ‘Genocide’ induces a heady mix of anger and fear, while ‘liberation’ is what most of us desire in some form or another. He’s manipulating the most basic of human instincts. The falsity of Putin’s claims doesn’t matter. He knows if something is said enough, there are people out there who will believe it. Trump’s ludicrous claims of a rigged presidential election are a case in point.

I’ve also been struck by Putin’s characterisation of the Ukrainian government as a ‘gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.’ Apparently for Putin drug addicts are not only a blight on society, but they should be feared. I see drug addicts as substance abusers in the same way I would regard alcoholics, people struggling with psychological and/or societal ills. The real danger is the drug lord and those who aid and abet the distribution network.

As for neo-Nazis, or just plain Nazis, this word has the currency of being both powerful and meaningless at the same time. The Nazis of the Weimar Republic were anti-Semitic, racists, homophobic thugs responsible for one of the worst acts of genocide of recent centuries. Since I’m not hearing or reading about anything like this taking place in Ukraine, and certainly not under the auspices of the Ukrainian government, I have to assume that Putin (if he were being truthful) must be using the word Nazi in its other sense. I remember as a child thinking my older sister was a Nazi because of the way she ordered me around when it came to making my bed and washing the dishes. Perhaps Putin is using Nazis to mean something else, something between the literal/historical meaning and the anodyne sense for a bossy person. If Putin is calling the Ukrainian government authoritarian or dictatorial, again he’s missing the mark as by all other accounts, Ukraine is a liberal democracy.

I started with Humpty Dumpty, so I’ll end with a metonymic meaning of a humpty-dumpty. Today a humpty-dumpty is a person or thing that once destroyed cannot be restored. In this battle for Ukraine, I’m seeing humpty-dumpties on both sides. While I relish the idea that this will ultimately be Putin’s downfall, I also fear for the Ukrainian people who won’t be able to put their lives back together again.

Everyone’s Talking Ulysses

As this month marks the 100-year anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s impossible to avoid.

My confession: I’ve read it one and two thirds’ times. That is, I first tackled this 700+page tome as an undergraduate in Chicago and failed to finish it – this is what happens when you work fulltime and take on a full schedule of classes. Self-pity aside, I managed two thirds of the book and with fastidious notes from the prof’s lectures, I partly bluffed my way through an essay exam, emerging with a B+. Fast forward to some 25 years later, I was in my forties and decided it was time to read the book cover-to-cover, including the 200+ pages of annotations at the back.

Such a reading exercise is hard work, simply because so much is involved in following the wandering thoughts and observations of Leopold Bloom and in understanding the political and social references of the time (those annotations come in handy). Ezra Pound described Ulysses as an ‘encyclopedia in the form of farce,’ and it is encyclopedic in that it covers a mass of subjects and ideas. But I don’t think ‘farce’ does it justice – the humour in Ulysses is at times situational, but is more often subtle and satirical.

Even though getting through Ulysses is an undertaking, it is worth it, especially in middle age. My undergraduate self couldn’t have possibly appreciated the nuance of emotions and the reflections on life:

‘Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.’

The 25-year gap between my first and second readings was filled with, among other things, living in the UK and reading other modernist writers, such as Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. While I recall my younger self appreciating the turns of phrase and the love of language that trickles throughout the novel, I value it more from the vantage point of being a literary stylistician, noticing the occasional wink to the reader.

Would I read it again? People certainly do. I remember the poet Anthony Thwaite telling me that he read it about once every decade. For the true Ulysses aficionados, there’s the Twitter account UlyssesReader, which tweets out quotes from the book every ten minutes – it’s a corpus-fed bot. Serious fans make the pilgrimage to Dublin for the Bloomsday celebrations every 16th of June, the day the story takes place. It all sounds like good fun, but when it comes to rereading, I’d rather reread Joyce’s short story collection, The Dubliners, with one of my favourite stories, ‘Eveline.’ Or better still, read something for the first time. There’s Finnegan’s Wake, a Joyce book I found unreadable when I tried it some 30 years ago – it makes Ulysses read like a child’s nursey rhyme – and there it sits in my Kindle, waiting for me.