Sunday, May 04, 2008

PEN World Voices: Reading the World, again

If Resonances rambled like an old jalopy, Reading the World clicked along with all the professionalism and friendliness of a Volvo.

I don’t have much of an ethnicity nor a lot of ethnic pride, but what little I have lies in being half Scandinavian by heritage. And the sleek, modern room, the friendly manner of the staff (the first of four events where I just entered, got smiled at by volunteers, and sat down), and the handsomely friendly old lion in charge of Scandinavia House who welcomed us reminded me of why it’s not nuts to take some tiny pride in having ancestors from Norway and Denmark.

In any case, the readings were a delight: three powerful, professional readings of intense familial stress, ably and cheerfully introduced by NYT Book Review editor Rachel Donadio (wearing a really cool Mondrian-y skirt, appropriate to the Scandinavian design ethos).

I haven’t read Peter Carey, but I was so interested in what he said about His Illegal Self on WNYC a couple months ago, that I gave it to my mother-in-law for her birthday. She returned with a positive report. And Carey got up, joked about the intimidating podium (with only a slender stalk, there was no place to hide one’s legs), and said “All right. I’ll just start at the beginning and read for twelve minutes.” And so he did. He read from this story of a boy whose hippie mom is on the run, being raised not on the Upper East Side, where his grandma feels most at home, but, for safety’s sake, in “ a town of 400 people where no one lived.”

A brilliant phrase, “ a town of 400 people where no one lived,” capturing the anger, fear, and isolation of that woman, so at home in Bloomingdale’s and Zabar’s and luncheons with the ladies who give to the Met.

Hafdan Freihof’s reading from Dear Gabriel was an excruciatingly patient account of a dinner party interrupted by the temper tantrum (is that even a fair term) of an autistic son. Like Geoff, whose experience of the event seems to have been markedly similar to mine, I was under the very strong impression that this is memoir. For me, the great moment in this riveting story was of the father, wandering the rural neighborhood, in the dark, looking for his hiding son, “wherever you are you want to be found like a treasure,” he wrote.

That brought all the desires and pains of girlhood running away flooding back: wanting to be found “like a treasure” and reconciled with mommy and daddy, needing to be reassured that you are treasure, even when naughty. Gorgeous.

Like Geoff, Janet Malcolm’s reading from Two Lives was the highlight for me--for just the reasons he states.

It was nice to end with the reading from the hunky Catalan author Francesc Seres, but I longed to hear him read in Catalan and to have the chance to read a screen or handout in English: his accent was so strong, that too much passed me by.


Anonymous said...


First Portrait with Landscape in the Background

A short story by Francesc Serés

Translated from the Catalan ('El preu') by Graham Thomson

You're standing on the pool table, the felt all ripped, hurling the balls at the mirror behind the bar, I can still hear the bottles smashing and smell the different liquors spilling and splashing all over the place, the sound of the balls hitting off the floor, I'd never seen you so angry, it even seemed like your fury had given you some kind of impromptu dexterity, as if you'd been doing this all your life. And when you ran out of balls, you moved on to the cues, the chairs, I was crying in a corner and telling you we should go, but you were shouting, you were threatening them all and all they could do was cower in the corners... You were screaming that if anybody laid a finger on me again you would rip their guts out, that if anybody said anything you would torch the bar; you were swearing and cursing, somebody had tripped me up and I'd fallen flat on my face, there was blood on my nose and in my mouth and you came in and demanded to know who had done it, it was all grown men in there, it couldn't have been a kid, and I had only wanted to go to the bathroom. I can still see your face, the way you got out of the van and came into the bar. I remember all the broken glass, and when one of the balls smashed the TV screen the lights went out, the shouts of the owner and one of the men who was saying all right, that's enough, it was him, but it had been an accident, you were really wading into him and I was saying that's enough, too, but you weren't listening to anybody, all you could think of was that somebody had hurt me, that I'd come out of the bar with my nose bleeding and two teeth missing. I really don't understand why he did it, that guy, maybe because he was drunk, I was only five and I'd gone to the bathroom... But now it seems like it all means something when I see you on top of the pool table.

And the motorbike, the way you used to hurtle down those back roads and I would cling tight round your waist with my eyes shut so as not to see anything, I could only feel the warmth and the strength of your back, and the leaning into the bends, the weightlessness when we jumped, taking advantage of some ramp. I would answer you yes, I was fine, and you would tell me not to hold on to you so hard, that you couldn't breathe. I used to go and watch you race, dad says I used to end up hoarse from shouting...

I see you naked, I think I must have been three or four then, and you took my hand and we jumped together into the water from the very top rung of the water-tank ladder, so high I was scared, but I jumped because you were holding my hand, if it was my mum or my dad holding my hand I couldn't jump. You let me go down a bit and suddenly, I don't know how, you pushed me up to the surface and I laughed because you laughed. And I also see you naked at the back of the shed, when you brought one of your girlfriends over. I came from the outside, out of the house and through the bushes toward the brightness of the workshop windows, like a bug drawn by the light. I shimmied up without a sound and watched you undressing and touching each other. After watching you fuck I would stay out of your way for a day or two, terrified by the thought that you might have known I was so close, hidden, listening to what you said and watching what you did to each other.

And one day you'd been out with a bunch of your friends, one night, you skidded into the cars in the yard. I had never seen you like that, you were smashed, granddad and grandma were trying to hit you and dad had to almost carry you up because you kept missing the steps. Mum was laughing like crazy and saying to me, look at your uncle, look at your uncle. I came out onto the stairs in my pyjamas, dad was hauling you up by your belt as if you were a sack, and when he'd managed to tip you over the bathtub he poured cold water over your head. I came to your room first thing next morning, it smelled so bad I thought the dogs had pissed in it. Mum and dad laughed when I told them, I suppose I was six or seven, granddad and grandma were disgusted.

You used to take me hunting and fishing whenever mum and dad let me go with you. I didn't like having to kill the creatures, but you told me I'd got to learn, that it was the first thing everyone ought to learn, how to hunt and fish. We would rub ourselves with herbs and wait hidden in the middle of the maize or the cane brakes where the dogs had smelled out the boar, we would follow their tracks to their lair, burn dry brush to drive them out. I couldn't shoot, you wouldn't let me, I wasn't able to kill a boar yet, I wasn't strong enough to take the recoil of the shotgun, you said that was the force the boar lost, a reaction from the body of the animal to the hunter, you told me it was the same force a fish used struggling to get off the hook, only that the line that connects the hunter and the boar is invisible, but that you thought it wasn't the inertia of the shotgun, the kick of the shot, but the last judder of the boar. Until I was stronger than they were, I couldn't kill them. I always believed you.

How I miss that time... Dad told me that one day you went into town, and you went into a classy restaurant and they didn't want to serve you because you weren't smartly dressed. So you went to a tailor's shop to buy a suit and new shoes and you went back to the restaurant. This time the head waiter showed you to a table where two other waiters were setting out the plates and the cutlery. As soon as they had served you your wine, your soup, you stood up and pushed the table over and walked out, to everyone's amazement. When you got home you gave him the suit, he still has it in his wardrobe.

And so many other things. The rainy nights I saw you and dad come home wet and muddied, and mum and grandma would help you dry yourselves. And the evenings of feast days, when you played cards and wagered, maybe it was no big thing, really, but how I loved it, how I love it, that no big thing.

One Sunday one of the girls I'd seen you with in the van came to lunch. Grandma, to scare her and make her laugh, told her lots of stupid things you'd done, and when grandma stopped, granddad started, and dad and mum carried on. I didn't want you to leave home, I think I said so half way through lunch. You all tried to convince me that you weren't really going for good, that you would come back at the weekends, but I knew it wasn't true, that you wouldn't be coming back, that nothing would be the way it used to. As far as I was concerned, you went away for good

How old was I? Seven, eight? Was I nine, when you went away? I don't want to reckon it up, you know I can't count on my fingers. Was it possible that someone like you could be anxious about your job, about the future? For that boy who used to do wheelie starts on his motorbike to have any fear for the future? I just couldn't get my head around it, I couldn't understand it was all over, the races, the jumps into the water tank, the pretend fights with your friends and the endless games of football in the yard, how many hours did we spend out there...? I still remember you standing on the pool table, hurling the balls at the mirrors and the shelves of bottles smashing, and I couldn't understand how you could come over all scared like that when you talked about the bosses and the managers at the factory.

I guess I did it because it was the only way to feel clean, to answer you, to give you back everything you had given me and I no longer wanted, you can see that all I've got left now are memories, but you have vanished for good. You remember that weekend I came over to your place with my helmet so we could go race the motorbike on the back roads? You told me I'd grown, and you'd put on weight, that the bike wouldn't jump any more like it used to, and you couldn't take the chance in case you got hurt, Mercè was pregnant. I think it was that neither you or me was the same, I suppose that explains everything.

It probably wasn't a month later you came by, the two of you, you asked me if I felt like going hunting, it was duck season, and you would let me take the good gun, the two-barrel. I remember we rubbed ourselves with herbs so the birds wouldn't smell the oil from the shotguns. The truth is I didn't want to go hunting any more, I could tell straight away you were doing it out of obligation, just so I couldn't cast it up to you.

We set off into the marsh, to where the ducks roosted. I was at your side, you were to fire the first shot, you had to make sure of getting the first duck and I had to be ready for the second shot, the flock would be startled and take wing, I didn't even have to aim, just fire first one barrel then the other as I tracked the ducks' flight with the gun. Why do I recall it so sharply? You're on the left of me, your duck simply spun round, the force of the shot had nailed it there, floating in the middle of a bed of feathers. Then the flock flapped up out of the rushes, yours dropped like a stone, and mine, after two beats of its wings, fell into the water too. The recoil no longer knocked me over. There was no third, the arc the shotgun had described wasn't pointing at the ducks, it was pointing at you, and the ducks vanished, far away, and I had fired both shots, you didn't realize, or maybe you did and you've never told me, but for a moment it was you I was pointing at, it was you I had in front of me. I had no cartridges left, even if I'd wanted to I couldn't have fired, but I knew then there was something that had come to an end for ever.

We ate breakfast in silence, the excuse was that the ducks would have heard us, that sooner or later they would start coming back to the marsh. We stayed like that for a long time, neither of us speaking, sitting on the ground. I don't know why I did it, I really and truly don't know, I was sad, I was riled... I put my hand over the end of the barrels, I don't know now if I knew I didn't have the safety catch on. I felt something hit me on the eyebrow, the barrels struck me on the forehead and the nose with the force of the recoil. I didn't even realize that the shot had blown off two fingers, index and middle, my palm was peppered with pellets. I must have been dreaming, or maybe not, maybe I did it deliberately, that's what I don't remember. I remember them taking flight again, the ducks flying over the marsh again.

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