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Excerpt: Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova

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In her debut novel Everything Happens as It Does, Bulgarian writer Albena Stambolova tells the story of seven characters, their lives weaved together through an experimental structuring of events and relationships. Here is a brief excerpt, taken from the opening chapter.

1. Little Boys and Their Parents

In the beginning, Boris was unable to think about the surrounding world. Things just happened to him, and he had no way of avoiding them.

His parents, for example, meek as they were, looked like a grandpa and grandma rather than a mother and father, and that always unsettled him. His sister was eighteen years older than him, and people mistook her for his mother.

Later, as he grew older, he devised a way to escape. He would try to lose himself in uninhabited worlds, where it was hard to establish relationships of the family kind.

It was with the bees that he first managed to draw the boundaries of something he could call his own.

Before he enrolled in the English Language School in Plovdiv, he had a lot of time on his hands and nothing to do. He made it his purpose simply to pass the time. Afterward the opposite happened: he learned to stretch time to fit whatever work he was doing. And to stay in his room, while his sister’s family, although he was supposed to be living with them, carried on a life of its own.

When he started to wear glasses, the painful awkwardness of his childish face shifted into a look of seriousness. The glasses somehow set everyone at ease, as if things had finally slipped into place. Wearing glasses had the effect of calming the vague fears the family harbored about Boris. Not that they now knew him better than before. But an introverted boy with glasses was less worrisome than an introverted boy without glasses.

Boris could feel the change in people’s perception of him and immediately saw its advantages. Later, when he grew a beard, he could see how, just as the glasses before, the beard replaced whatever it was in him that provoked fear in others. One thing substituted for another. And behind it all stood the child named Boris.

He never asked himself how others did it. Getting to an inviolable place of his own was all that mattered, and he could always tell when he was there.

He learned to do things no one paid attention to. Or to do things in such a way that no one paid attention to him. For instance, he was willing to eat something he couldn’t stand, rather than give himself away and make his dislike known to others. He realized that his mother felt anxiety and, although he could not understand why, he felt he knew enough already.

Excerpted from Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova, published by Open Letter. ©2002 Albena Stambolova. Translation ©2012 Olga Nikolova

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Written by Gabrielle

January 28, 2014 at 6:49 am

Charlie Chaplin in New York

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Born in London in 1889, legendary comic actor Charlie Chaplin grew up poor. He was the son of a singer who often found herself out of work due to poor health. Together with his older brother, Sydney, he found ways to make ends meet by following in the family’s entertaining footsteps. The two Chaplins were successful both on stage and on screen, each signing million dollar contracts at some point in their career.

Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, simply titled My Autobiography, recently published as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library series, is a fascinating life story. Not only is it a portrait of the film industry from the early 1920s to the 60s, it’s a look at how a mixture of luck, talent, and business savvy created one of the era’s top performers.

Around 1910, Chaplin landed in New York for the first time. Here is his first impression:

At ten o’clock on a Sunday morning we at last arrived in New York. When we got off the street-car at Times Square, it was somewhat of a let-down. Newspapers were blowing about the road and pavement, and Broadway looked seedy, like a slovenly woman just out of bed. …

However, this was New York, adventurous, bewildering, a little frightening. Paris, on the other hand, had been friendlier. Even though I could not speak the language, Paris had welcomed me on every street corner with its bistros and outside cafes. But New York was essentially a place of big business. The tall skyscrapers seemd ruthlessly arrogant and to care little for the convenience of ordinary people; even the saloon bars had no place for the customers to sit, only a long brass rail to rest a foot on, and the popular eating places, though clean and done in white marble, looked cold and clinical.

I took a back room in one of the brownstone houses off Forty-third Street, where the Times building now stands. It was dismal and dirty and made me homesick for London and our little flat. In the basement was a cleaning and pressing establishment and during the week the fetid odour of clothes being pressed and steam wafted up and added to my discomfort.

That first day I felt quite inadequate. It was an ordeal to go into a restaurant and order something because of my English accent — and the fact that I spoke slowly. So many spoke in a rapid, clipped way that I felt uncomfortable for fear I might stutter and waste their time.

I was alien to the slick tempo. In New York even the owner of the smallest enterprise acts with alacrity. The shoe-black flips his polishing rag with alacrity, the bartender serves beer with alacrity, sliding it up to you along the polished surface of the bar. The soda clerk, when serving egg malted milk, performs like a hopped-up juggler. In a fury of speed he snatches up a glass, attacking everything he puts into it, vanilla flavour, blob of ice cream, two spoonfuls of malt, a raw egg which he deposits with one crack, then adding milk, all of which he shakes in a container and delivers in less than a minute.

On the Avenue that first day many looked as I felt, lone and isolated; others swaggered along as though they owned the place. The behaviour of many people seemed dour and metallic as if to be agreeable or polite would prove a weakness. But in the evening as I walked along Broadway with the crowd dressed in their summer clothes, I became reassured. We had left England in the middle of a bitter cold September and arrived in New York in an Indian summer with a temperature of eighty degrees; and as I walked along Broadway it began to light up with myriads of coloured electric bulbs and sparkled like a brilliant jewel. And in the warm night my attitude changed and the meaning of America came to me: the tall skyscrapers, the brilliant, gay lights, the thrilling display of advertisements stirred me with hope and a sense of adventure. ‘That is it!’ I said to myself. ‘This is where I belong!’

Written by Gabrielle

November 20, 2013 at 7:20 am

The Clockwork Man by E.V. Odle

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Clockwork ManSmall press HiLoBooks has been reviving stories from the “Radium Age,” a term coined by publisher Joshua Glenn to mean the era in science fiction encompassing 1904 to 1933. The Clockwork Man, having come out last week, is their most recent title in the series.

Written by Edwin Vincent (E.V.) Odle, a British playwright, critic, and short-story author, The Clockwork Man is considered by many to be the first cyborg novel. Unfortunately it came out in 1923, the same year as Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., which succeeded in taking all the glory.

For years The Clockwork Man languished in obscurity, ultimately becoming out-of-print. Joshua Glenn, having heard about the book, was tired of waiting for someone else to reissue it, found a first edition, and brought it back to life.

A forgotten classic, first serialized online at HiLoBrow, now published in paperback with an introduction from Annalee Newitz of io9, The Clockwork Man should be on the shelf of every science fiction fan.

Here’s an excerpt:

It was just as Doctor Allingham had congratulated himself upon the fact that the bowling was broken, and he had only to hit now and save the trouble of running, just as he was scanning the boundaries with one eye and with the other following Tanner’s short, crooked arm raised high above the white sheet at the back of the opposite wicket, that he noticed the strange figure. Its abrupt appearance, at first sight like a scarecrow dumped suddenly on the horizon, caused him to lessen his grip upon the bat in his hand. His mind wandered for just that fatal moment, and his vision of the oncoming bowler was swept away and its place taken by that arresting figure of a man coming over the path at the top of the hill, a man whose attitude, on closer examination, seemed extraordinarily like another man in the act of bowling.

That was why its effect was so distracting. It seemed to the doctor that the figure had popped up there on purpose to imitate the action of a bowler and so baulk him. During the fraction of a second in which the ball reached him, the second image had blotted out everything else. But the behavior of the figure was certainly abnormal. Its movements were violently ataxic. Its arms revolved like sails of a windmill. Its legs shot out in all directions, enveloped in dust.

The doctor’s astonishment was turned into annoyance by the spectacle of his shattered wicket. A vague clatter of applause broke out. The wicket keeper stooped down to pick up the bails. The fielders relaxed and flopped down on the grass. They seemed to have discovered suddenly that it was a hot afternoon, and that cricket was, after all, a comparatively strenuous game. One of the umpires, a sly nasty fellow, screwed up his eyes and looked hard at the doctor as the latter passed him, walking with the slow, meditative gait of the bowled out, and swinging his gloves. There was nothing to do but glare back, and make the umpire feel a worm. The doctor wore an eye-glass, and he succeeded admirably. His irritation boiled over and produced a sense of ungovernable childish rage. Somehow, he had not been able to make any runs this season, and his bowling average was all to pieces. He began to think he ought to give up cricket. He was getting past the age when a man can accept reverses in the spirit of the game, and he was sick and tired of seeing his name every week in the Great Wymering Gazette as having been dismissed for a “mere handful.”

He looked out the window, and there was that confounded figure still jiggling about. It had come nearer to the ground. It hovered, with a curious air of not being related to its surroundings that was more than puzzling. It did not seem to know what it was about, but hopped along aimlessly, as though scenting a track, stopped for a moment, blundered forward again and made a zig-zag course towards the ground. The doctor watched it advancing through the broad meadow that bounded the pitch, threading its way between the little groups of grazing cows, that raised their heads with more than their ordinary, slow persistency, as though startled by some noise. The figure seemed to be aiming for the barrier of hurdles that surrounded the pitch, but whether its desire was for cricket or merely to reach some kind of goal, whether it sought recreation or a mere pause from its restless convulsions, it was difficult to tell. Finally, it fell against the fence and hung there, two hands crooked over the hurdle and its legs drawn together at the knees. It became suddenly very still—so still that it was hard to believe it ever moved.

It was certainly odd. The doctor was so struck by something altogether wrong about the figure, something so suggestive of a pathological phenomenon, that he almost forgot his annoyance and remained watching it with an unlighted cigarette between his lips.

::[Links]::
Find The Clockwork Man at your local bookstore
Listen to Joshua Glenn on Gweek (second segment)
Read The Clockwork Man online
Check out the other books in the HiLoBooks Radium Age series

Written by Gabrielle

September 17, 2013 at 6:54 am

The Difficulty of Being Jean Cocteau

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Difficulty of BeingJean Cocteau, who died at the age of 74 in 1963, was a man of many talents—a poet, a novelist, a filmmaker, and an artist. He wrote the libretto for Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and was best known for his 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles and the 1946 film adaptation Beauty and the Beast. After his death, in 1965, he was named the Honorary President of the Cannes Film Festival.

I once read that if you’re in a rut, creative or otherwise, you should read a biography of someone who did great things. Benjamin Franklin comes to mind, as does any social movement leader, but when I saw The Difficulty of Being, Cocteau’s collection of biographical essays—written in 1947— I was curious to know what this polymath had thought about life. As I thumbed through the copy in the bookstore, I noticed that the chapter headings read like Montaigue: “On conversation,” “On my style,” “On friendship,” “On death,” and “On beauty” are just a few.

In his introduction to Melville House’s Neversink Library edition, Geoffrey O’Brien, a critic and the Editor-in-Chief of the Library of America, notes that the book is written in “a mood of detached self-examination” and that Cocteau “makes himself his own portraitist … determined to work out some basic definitions.” He goes on to say, “It is most fundamentally a work of criticism, in which by paying close attention to his own writing process he creates a different kind of writing, opaque and deliberate.”

From my own reading, I found a poignancy in many of the questions Cocteau seeks to answer and the observations he puts on the page. Here is a very small selection of what is a great read—whether you choose to go from cover to cover or open at will.

On Reading

I cannot read or write. And when the census form asks me this question, I am tempted to say no.

Who knows how to write? It is to battle with ink to try to make oneself understood.

Either one takes too much care over one’s work or one does not take enough. Seldom does one find the happy mean that limps with grace. Reading is another matter. I read. I think I am reading. Each time I re-read, I perceive that I have not read. That is the trouble with a letter. One finds in it what one looks for. One is satisfied. One puts it aside. If one finds it again, on re-reading one reads into it another which one had not read.

Books play the same trick. If they do not suit our present mood we do not consider them good. If they disturb us we criticize them, and this criticism is superimposed upon them and prevents us from reading them fairly.

What the reader wants is to read himself. When he reads what he approves of he thinks he could have written it. He may even have a grudge against the book for taking his place, for saying what he did not know how to say, and which according to him he would have said better.

The more a book means to us the less well we read it. Our substance slips into it and thinks it round to our own outlook. That is why if I want to read and convince myself that I can read. I read books into which my substance does not penetrate. In the hospitals in which I spent long periods, I used to read what the nurse brought me or what fell into my hands by chance. … you often hear a tubercular patient say of Thomas Mann’s book The Magic Mountain: ‘That is a book one couldn’t understand if one hadn’t been tubercular.’ In fact Thomas Mann wrote it without being this and for the very purpose of making those who had not experienced tuberculosis understand it.

We are all ill and only know how to read book which deal with our malady. This is why books dealing with love are so successful, since everyone believes that he is the only one to experience it. He thinks: ‘This book is addressed to me. What can anyone else see in it?’

On the Rule of the Soul

We cannot run from place to place without losing something, suddenly move all our goods from one place to another and change our work all in a moment just as we please. Nothing takes so long over its journey as the soul, and it is slowly, if it detaches itself, that it rejoins the body. Hence those who think themselves speedy are thrown into confusion, badly reassembled, since the soul, joining them little by little and having rejoined them when they departed, is found by them to perform the same exercise in reverse. IN the end they come to believe they are, and are no longer.

The same thing applies to the discomfort of passing from one work to another, since the finished work goes on living in us and only leaves a very confused place for the new work. It is important, in regard to a journey, to wait for the body to reassemble itself and not to rely on an appearance in which only those who do not know us well can have any faith.

In regard to one’s works, it is important to wait after each one, and let the body free itself of the vapours which remain in it and which may take a long time to disperse. … In my estimation it takes a month, after a work or a journey, to regain control of one’s individuality. Until then it is in limbo. … Each time I find myself in this intermediate state, I wonder if it is permanent. It upsets me to the point of making me exaggerate the void it creates and convinces me that it will never be filled.

Here I am then between two rhythms, unbalanced, weak in body and lame in mind. Woe to him who rebels against this. An attempt to bypass it would only make things worse. … What is one to do against this fear of emptiness? It dries me up. One must forget it. I practise doing so. I go to the point of reading children’s books. I avoid any contact which might make me aware of the passing of time. I vegetate. I talk to dogs.

On Words

I attach no importance to what people call style and by which they flatter themselves that they can recognize an author. I want to be recognized by my ideas, or better still, by the results of them. All I attempt is to make myself understood as succinctly as possible. I have noticed that when a story does not grip the mind, it has shown a tendency to read too quickly, to grease its own slope. That is why, in this book, I turn my writing around, which prevents it from sliding into a straight line, makes one revise it twice over and reread the sentences so as not to lose the thread.

Whenever I read a book, I marvel at the number of words I meet in it and I long to use them. I make a note of them. When I am at work this is impossible for me. I restrict myself to my own vocabulary. I cannot get away from it, and it is so limited that the work becomes a brain-twister.

I wonder, at every line, if I can go any further, if the combination of these words that I use, always the same ones, will not end by seizing up and compelling me to hold my peace. This would be a blessing for everyone, but it is with words as with numbers, or with the letters of the alphabet. They have the faculty of rearranging themselves differently and perpetually at the end of the kaleidoscope.

Reprinted from The Difficulty of Being by Jean Cocteau; English translation ©1966 Elizabeth Sprigge; Published by Melville House

::[Links]::
Buy The Difficulty of Being from your local bookstore
Read an interview with Jean Cocteau in The Paris Review
Explore the Neversink Library collection

Written by Gabrielle

June 18, 2013 at 6:49 am

Posted in books, excerpt

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Book of the Week: Enrique Vila-Matas’s Dublinesque [Excerpt]

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Dublinesque by contemporary Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas is a surprisingly humorous story about a failed publisher, Riba, living in Barcelona. Rather than admit his company’s demise is attributed to his poor financial skills, he places the blame on the current state of the publishing industry.

Throughout the book Riba makes plans to visit Dublin in order to stage a metaphorical funeral for the printed word, a “requiem for the Gutenberg age”. A review of Dublinesque is forthcoming but until then, enjoy the opening page of this wonderful book. If you’ve read it, please share your comments below. If you haven’t, pick it up now. It’s perfect for a read-along.

He belongs to an increasingly rare breed of sophisticated, literary publishers. And every day, since the beginning of this century, he has watched in despair the spectacle of the noble branch of his trade—publishers who still read and who have always been drawn to literature—gradually, surreptitiously dying out. He had financial trouble two years ago, but managed to shut the publishing house down without having to declare bankruptcy, toward which it had been heading with terrifying obstinacy, despite its prestige. In over thirty years as an independent he has seen it all, successes but also huge failures. He attributes the loss of direction in the end to his resistance to publishing the gothic vampire tales and other nonsense now in fashion, and so forgets part of the truth: he was never renowned for good financial management, and what’s more, his exaggerated fanaticism for literature was probably harmful.

Samuel Riba—known to everyone as Riba—has published many of the great writers of his time. In some cases only one book, but enough so they appear in his catalog. Sometimes, although aware that in the honorable sector of his trade there are still some valiant Quixotes, he likes to see himself as the last publisher. He has a somewhat romantic image of himself, and spends his life feeling that it’s the end of an era, the end of the world, doubtless influenced by the sudden cessation of his activities. He has a remarkable tendency to read his life as a literary text, interpreting it with the distortions befitting the compulsive reader he’s been for so many years. Aside from this, he is hoping to sell his assets to a foreign publishing house, but talks have been stalled for some time. He lives in an anxious state of powerful, end-of-everything psychosis. Nothing, and no one, has yet convinced him that getting old has its good points. Does it?

From Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas. Copyright 2010 by Enrique Vila-Matas.

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Written by Gabrielle

July 12, 2012 at 6:52 am

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