Saturday, October 18, 2014

Live Nude Writers

A busy season of literary events and one interesting event I saw last week was Live Nude Writers. The evening was held at Stock Bar, also known as one of Montreal's most popular gay strip clubs.

Peter Dubé reading from his work
The readings started with Jordan Coulombe who's the editor of Crooked Fagazine (one of the few magazines today that can't be read online). He read a segment from a book that he is currently working on. Next up was Christopher DiRaddo, author of The Geography of Pluto, a fascinating novel set in 1990s Montreal about a young gay man coming of age. Chris read a funny segment he wrote a few years back from an anthology, a piece about being hairy(!). Then my friend Peter Dubé read from his forthcoming collection of short fiction pieces, Beginning with the Mirror. Peter is always a treat to read, not just for his eyebrow-raising subject matter (lots of sex scenes) but for his very unique timbre of reading and inflection. Also I'm a huge fan of his writing, including The City's Gates and Subtle Bodies. Indeed, whenever I hear someone complain about the dearth of Canadian fiction that pushes the boundaries of form, I always bring up Peter whose work is always a revelation and always unpredictable.

Poet John Barton rounded out the evening with a reading from his most recent collection, Polari,
Christopher DiRaddo reads about being hairy
which explores the coded language which gay men used to communicate about their lives with each other. I'm not terribly familiar with Barton's work but his collection is one that is definitely at the top of my list.

All in all it was an entertaining evening full of solid writing in a space that hinted at sexiness (though there were no strippers to be had on this particular evening). A stroke of genius to hold a reading at this space and I hope to see others here in the future.

Saturday, October 11, 2014



     It usually begins innocently enough with an acceleration, unnoticeable
at first, of the turning of the earth. Leave home at once and do not bring
along any of your family. Take a few indispensable things. Place yourself as
far as possible from the centre, near the forests the seas or the mountains,
before the whirling motion as it gets stronger from minute to minute begins
to pour in towards the middle, suffocating in ghettoes, closets, basements.
Hang on forcefully to the outer circumference. Keep your head down.
Have your two hands constantly free. Take good care of the muscles of
your legs.
                                      --Zbigniew Herbert

Friday, October 10, 2014

Scenes from a Marriage at New York Theater Workshop

I was in New York over the weekend and saw a very interesting production of Scenes from a Marriage done by the New York Theater Workshop. Based on a 1973 Swedish television series written by Ingmar Bergman, the adaptation was fascinating. Not 100% successful but it certainly had me interested.

The premise is relatively simple: a couple at three crisis points in their marriage decide whether it's worth
continuing or not, a younger couple, a middle-aged couple and an older couple. The innovation in Ivo van Hove's version (the Flemish director who staged this NYTW version; the adaptation was written by Emily Mann) was that all three scenes were going on at the same time: though on three different stages with three different audiences. So the audience was divided up into three groups and each group saw a different scene first.

That's unusual enough but the way the set was done allowed each audience to see the other scenes going on at the same time. We couldn't necessarily hear them (only the loud parts where characters were shouting) but we could see the actors both on-stage and off-stage (in fact, the "off-stage" area was part of the set so we could even see the actors off-stage in between). This approach was fascinating and innovative. (Though I could see what they were doing by allowing the sound from other scenes to echo into whatever scene we were currently watching, often this was intrusive and distracting.)

The part that didn't work for me was that the interaction between each couple (played by different actors, so six main actors in total) was vastly different. The presence of each character varied radically depending on the actor portraying them: the young man had a vastly different persona than the middle-aged man, etc., and this naturally affected the way we reacted to each couple's interaction. Perhaps this was intentional but what I was left with was the sensation that each scene was really the iteration of a different couple's crisis, not the same couple at different points in their lives. Not the same crises, in other words. But that's kind of key to the Bergman story: crises evolve, shift, but at the core, they are the same crises and we repeat the same patterns over and over in a couple.

Scenes from a Marriage
The film series has been highly influential (and many, in fact, suggest that the popularity of the series caused Sweden's divorce rate to tick up in the early to mid 70s) so it's daring to take on something this important and well-known (despite this being some of Bergman's lesser known work). This version is available at Criterion.

So the first act is all three scenes going on at the same time and then after each scene, the audience moves to a different part of the room and sees the next scene and the actors all do it again. Then once more: so by the end of the first act, we've seen all three scenes but not all the audience has seen the scenes in the same order (and the actors repeat each scene three times).

Where I felt unsure was the second act: all six actors come out on to the stage and they act out a scene together: all six of them saying their lines. So the women will speak (all three of them) with the men responding (all three of them). It was confusing and complicated and a bit overwrought emotionally, I thought. Hard to follow and hard to crack the notion that we were right in the middle of a production. The artifice was very apparent, in other words (one thing I love about good theatre is that ability to just forget that you're seeing a theatre piece). That said, it made me think about how vital the actor is in portraying a role. Whereas in the first act, the different actors meant a different kind of relationship each time, in the second act, you could really see how each actor put their own individual stamp on the part in a really immediate way (the way each one performed the lines, right after one another). It was also here that I felt that it was becoming overly long (the entire piece is 3 1/2 hours long!).

It's the first production I've seen at NYTW though I've heard other friends talk about this company before. I'd definitely recommend them to anyone who happens to be in New York for a few days. The acting was superb. I'm not a huge fan of Broadway, to be honest, and when I'm in New York, I am often struck with how bland and mainstream most of the crap is that Broadway. I don't care about famous actors: I just want to see a well-written show with good acting that's interesting. So I generally avoid Broadway and try to visit productions at these smaller off-Broadway companies (with varying quality). It's also the first work I've seen by stage director Van Hove.

Now I really want to revisit the Swedish television series while it's fresh in my mind. But with all the books I have to read, no time right now...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Daniel Mendelsohn in Montreal: November 3

As part of their ongoing 100th anniversary celebrations, the Jewish Public Library has invited American writer, Daniel Mendelsohn, as one of their key note speakers in early November. I'm looking forward to this.

Mendelsohn is one of the most engaging and fascinating non-fiction writers working today, and his oeuvre is as varied as it is intellectually rigorous.

New Yorker writer, Daniel Mendelsohn
He is perhaps most recently known for his skewering of Mad Men a few years ago, an essay that is funny and incredibly insightful. (Though I was a fan of the show, I also found it frequently irritating and clumsy and so I appreciated hearing his opinion and judgement since no one seemed to be willing to say anything negative about it. Many people mentioned this article to me when it came out.).

But the book of Mendelsohn's which I really love is his translations of C. P. Cavafy. The Greek poet's words have rarely felt so immediate, so vivid and so moving. This is one of my most treasured books of poetry.

Mendelsohn has also written memoirs and treatises on popular culture. Most recently, he wrote a very interesting piece in the New Yorker about his pen-pal relationship with the writer Mary Renault and how she "mentored" him in a certain way and inspired him to become a writer.

I have no doubt that Mendelsohn will have a lot to say at the Jewish Public Library on November 3 at 8pm. (Tickets here).

Saturday, September 13, 2014

To Go to Lvov by Adam Zagajewski

To Go to Lvov

To go to Lvov. Which station
for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew
gleams on a suitcase, when express
trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave
in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September
or in March. But only if Lvov exists,
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport, if lances of trees
- of poplar and ash - still breathe aloud
like Indians, and if streams mumble
their dark Esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs
in the Russian language disappear
into thickets. To pack and set off, to leave
without a trace, at noon, to vanish
like fainting maidens. And burdocks, green
armies of burdocks, and below, under the canvas
of a Venetian café, the snails converse
about eternity. But the cathedral rises,
you remember, so straight, as straight
as Sunday and white napkins and a bucket
full of raspberries standing on the floor, and
my desire which wasn't born yet,
only gardens and weeds and the amber
of Queen Anne cherries, and indecent Fredro.
There was always too much of Lvov, no one could
comprehend its boroughs, hear
the murmur of each stone scorched
by the sun, at night the Orthodox church's silence was unlike
that of the cathedral, the Jesuits
baptized plants, leaf by leaf, but they grew,
grew so mindlessly, and joy hovered
everywhere in hallways and in coffee mills
revolving by themselves, in blue
teapots, in starch, which was the first
formalist, in drops of rain and in the thorns
of roses. Frozen forsythia yellowed by the window.
The bells pealed and the air vibrated, the cornets
of nuns sailed like schooners near
the theater, there was so much of the world that
it had to do encores over and over,
the audience was in frenzy and didn't want
to leave the house. My aunts couldn't have known
yet that I'd resurrect them,
and lived so trustfully; so singly;
servants, clean and ironed, ran for
fresh cream, inside the houses
a bit of anger and great expectation, Brzozowski
came as a visiting lecturer, one of my
uncles kept writing a poem entitled Why,
dedicated to the Almighty, and there was too much
of Lvov, it brimmed the container,
it burst glasses, overflowed
each pond, lake, smoked through every
chimney, turned into fire, storm,
laughed with lightning, grew meek,
returned home, read the New Testament,
slept on a sofa beside the Carpathian rug,
there was too much of Lvov, and now
there isn't any, it grew relentlessly
and the scissors cut it, chilly gardeners
as always in May, without mercy,
without love, ah, wait till warm June
comes with soft ferns, boundless
fields of summer, i.e., the reality.
But scissors cut it, along the line and through
the fiber, tailors, gardeners, censors
cut the body and the wreaths, pruning shears worked
diligently, as in a child's cutout
along the dotted line of a roe deer or a swan.
Scissors, penknives, and razor blades scratched,
cut, and shortened the voluptuous dresses
of prelates, of squares and houses, and trees
fell soundlessly, as in a jungle,
and the cathedral trembled, people bade goodbye
without handkerchiefs, no tears, such a dry
mouth, I won't see you anymore, so much death
awaits you, why must every city
become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,
and no in a hurry just
pack, always, each day
and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.

          - Adam Zagajewski from Without End: New and Selected Poems

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New Elena Ferrante out today!

I am crazy about this Neopolitan tetralogy by Italian writer Elena Ferrante.

The novels chronicle the friendship between two girls growing up in Naples in the 1950s and through the 60s (I just finished the 2nd novel which ends in the late 60s). They are fascinating books and they detail a world that has vanished: a violent, rough and tumble neighborhood of working class kids in poverty who rarely, if ever, have the chance to get out and improve their lives.

Lina, the best friend, is from a desperately poor background and her best friend, Elena (the novels' protagonist), is no better. They are connected through their intelligence (it's never clear who "My Brilliant Friend" is supposed to refer to exactly: at times Lina seems the more brilliant one, though Elena is the one who manages to "get out" of the neighborhood through her intelligence and hard work) but their relationship is complex and contradictory, full of betrayals and resentments.

Anyone who's ever had a lifelong friend will relate to these books: the complex ways we love someone, the ways in which we compete, even if we don't want to.

I kept thinking of my first few years in Montreal: I was working at a community centre in Verdun and so many kids (people) who were born there never leave: they get pregnant at 16 or 17, get married, move a few doors down from their families and just stay. Once when some kids asked me where I lived and I said near McGill, they almost acted amazed that I lived "so far away," and only one had ever been there (once). I hardly ever go to Verdun nowadays and I wonder if things have changed much...

Of course, Verdun isn't nearly as violent as Naples of the 1950s but it reflects a similar kind of mentality: never put on airs, never try and forget where you come from. How place (poverty, dialect) is both a mark of identity and a limitation. How place is as much a badge as gender or race (maybe more so). It's something that North Americans, perhaps, don't quite understand in the same way as Italians which is so regional. In Verdun I witnessed a small aspect of it though perhaps it is something Canadians can grasp in a more limited way.

Another thing which struck me was the simple fact that violence is impossible to get away from: all the kids are beaten by their parents and then they get married and their husbands beat their wives and the wives beat their children. It's just the way life is. But that's not to say that the books are depressing or self-pitying, not at all. They are funny, moving, intelligent and the kind of book where you have to stop now and then and just reflect on what the author's doing or trying to communicate.

I raced through the first two novels and wanted moremoremore. The 3rd novel in the series (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) is out today but I am battling with myself: I want to read it but I also want something to look forward to reading over the Christmas break. So we'll see how long I can hold out.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Wanting by Ruth Stone


Wanting and dissatisfaction
are the main ingredients
of happiness.
To want is to believe
there is something worth getting.
Whereas getting only shows
how worthless the thing is.
And this is why destruction
is so useful.
It gets rid of what was wanted
and so makes room
for more to be wanted.
How valueless is the orderly.
It cries out for disorder.
And life that thinks it fears death,
spends all of its time
courting death.
To violate beauty
is the essence of sexual desire.
To procreate is the essence of decay.
                                                            -Ruth Stone (from In the Next Galaxy)