Last Week’s Reading: January 29-February 4

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The Constitution of the United States: It seemed like a good time to give this a thorough re-read. Highly recommended.

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories, by A. S. Byatt: After I read Possession, I started scooping up Byatt books whenever I ran across one, which is how this one has been on my shelves for two or three years. The first two fairy stories are pulled from Possession, but I was happy to revisit them. “Dragons’ Breath” is a political allegory that I found very uncomfortable to read in the current climate. “The Story of the Eldest Princess” is now in my pantheon of great fairy tales. And the title story–which, at well over 100 pages, is really more a novella–is exactly what I needed: a consuming, sumptuous tale of a strange creature trapped in a bottle, and the scholar who sets him free. A.S. Byatt’s writing is brilliant, in all senses—had her intellect been applied in a different direction, I’m suspect humanity would have colonized Mars or cured cancer decades ago.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, by Warsan Shire: Ms. Shire rose to prominence last year when her work was featured in Beyoncé’s Lemonade (and, in a nice piece of coincidence for this post, it turns out that Ms. Shire wrote a poem for Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement) Her poem “Home” has also been widely shared, and I suspect, given the events of the last ten days, that it will be making the rounds again soon. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is a chapbook-length collection of bruising poems about trauma, sensuality, exile and home, and women’s lives. Recommended. (You can find an earlier post about Warsan Shire here.)

The White Castle, by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Victoria Holbrook): I wanted to love this early novel by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, since his My Name is Red is one of my favorite books, but alas, it was not to be. The premise–in the seventeenth century, a young Italian scholar is taken captive by the Turks and given over to a master who looks exactly like him—is interesting, the writing lovely, the ending masterful. The frame narrative and unreliable narrator are two of my favorite devices and employed remarkably well here, but for me the weight of the psychodrama pulled down the middle, and I found myself wishing the novel were over sooner. Ah well.

Holding Company, by Major Jackson: This 2010 book is the first of Major Jackson’s collections I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. The poems in this collection are ten lines each (with one exception, I think), but there’s such variety among them! Allusive and elusive, lyrical and abstract, personal-political, descriptive: these poems are challenging and a pleasure to read. I’ll be coming back to them.

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Recommend Reading: The Heart, by Maylis de Kerangal, translated by Sam Taylor

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 10.53.56 PMMaylis de Kerangal’s The Heart* is utterly brilliant, and deeply moving.

The novel takes place during a single day, beginning with the final hours of Simon Limbres, a teenager who is fatally injured in a car accident on the way home from an early-morning surfing excursion with friends. As the day unfolds, Ms. de Kerangal’s narrative spirals out to encompass all the people who are immediately affected by Simon’s death, from his separated parents, Marianne and Sean, his girlfriend Juliette, and the doctors, nurses, and specialists who care for Simon, and ultimately make sure that his death will give life to others. 

Ms. de Kerangal (and I should note here the excellent translation by Sam Taylor) is particularly gifted when evoking grief. When Marianne first gets the call that her son has been horribly injured, she captures perfectly that sense of fissure that tragedy generates: “Part of her life—a huge part, still warm, compact—was detaching itself from the present, toppling into the past, where it would fall away, disappear.” When Sean and Marianne sit stunned after Pierre Révol, the doctor in charge of the ICU, explains to them that while their son’s heart and lungs are working with the assistance of machines, he is fact brain dead:

How long does it take them before they accept death’s new regime? For now, there is no possible translation for what they are feeling; it strikes them down in a language that precedes language, from before words, before grammar, an unshareable language that is perhaps another name for pain. Impossible to extricate themselves from it, impossible to substitute another description for it, impossible to reconstruct it in another image. They are, at once, cut off from themselves and from the world that surrounds them.

Contrast this understanding of language with an earlier passage, in which the Pierre Révol

closes his eyes and smooths his skull, from the forehead to the occiput: suspected cerebral hemorrhage after a TBI, nonreactive coma, Glasgow 3—he uses this shared language, this language that banishes prolixity as time-wasting, forbids any notions of eloquence or seductiveness in articulation, abuses nouns, codes, and acronyms, this language where to talk is to describe or provide information about a body, to lay down the parameters of a situation in order that a diagnosis can be made, tests ordered, that the patient can be treated, saved: the power of concision. Révol absorbs each piece of information, then orders a body scan.

This is a novel about surfaces and depths, the complicated histories that underpin characters in the present moment. While Révol must deliver news every parent dreads in careful wording (the French procedure for organ donation is complicated, a delicate dance requiring perfect timing), he is not only a man of science and acronyms:

[ . . . ] and suddenly the idea crosses his mind of a constantly expanding universe, a place where cellular death will be the operator of metamorphoses, where death will shape the living like silence shapes noise, or darkness light, or the static the immobile—a fleeting intuition that persists on his retina even as his eyes refocus on the computer screen, that sixteen-inch rectangle irradiated with black light where the cessation of all mental activity in Simon Limbre’s brain is announced. Unable to connect the young man’s face with death, he feels his throat tighten. And yet he’s been working in this area for nearly thirty years. Thirty years.

All the characters are more than the role they play in Simon’s drama (parent, girlfriend, doctor, nurse, specialist). The nurse, Cordelia Owl, is waiting for a call from a lover, working on almost no sleep. We learn how Thomas Rémige, the hospital’s organ donor specialist, came to acquire a very rare songbird, and how he loves to sing. It is he who must sound out (again, in precisely couched language) Simon’s parents to see if they will allow the organ donation to proceed, and it is he Marianne and Sean charge with delivering their last message to their son, before his heart stops beating.

And then there’s Claire, the middle-aged woman in whose chest Simon’s heart will beat, a translator, in a beautiful bit of writerly playfulness, working on the Brontës’ early poems:

Sometimes she feels she is replacing the painful contractions of her sick organ with a fluid back-and-forth, between her native French and the English she has learned, and that this reciprocal movement is digging a crevice inside her, a new cavity. She’d had to learn a new language in order to understand her own, so she wondered if this new heart would allow her better understand herself: I’m clearing a space for you, my heart, I’m making you a home.

In French, the original title of this novel was Réparer les vivants (Mend the Living), which perhaps gives a better sense of the novel’s depths, its fascination not only with the meaning of death, but how life breaks and is refashioned in its wake, through love and medicine and language. Ms. Kerangal favors long sentences, in which subjects roll and reappear like the waves Simon loves so much, and which allow complex ideas and feelings room to breathe. Though very often, I felt my own breath taken away.

Highly recommended reading.

And please, please consider becoming a registered organ donor if you aren’t one already.

*I received a copy of this novel from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.