Chast is giving over a whole multi-tracked, multi-voiced, sensory feast of a book to something – something barely bearable sometimes, and infused with pain and dread always; something that gets sprinted past, or poeticised to within an inch of its life, or else chronicled with a deadly, breathless earnestness (in these matters earnestness can be deadly) – and she does it in such a way that I could not tear myself away from her book.
Why? How? Art Spiegelman said comics are the art ‘of turning time back into space’. Mark Twain said humour equals ‘tragedy plus time’. It must be some alchemic melding of the two. Chast lays down her parents’ final years, page after page, panel after unexpected panel, and the spatialisation of that extraterrestrial-seeming timeless time is part of the book’s magic, together with the gaps and cracks opened up between the verbal and visual tracks, the constant little fireworks set off by words and images rubbing against each other, riffs, deepenings, silences, gliding rhythmic shifts – and humour too, the sort that brings us closer than pathos or stripped-back somber witnessing can to the tragedy of a human’s protracted, anguished decline. Then there is the way the form itself allows Chast to slide hither and thither, as if on a well-oiled flying fox: side to side between different emotional and narrative registers; up, down and around through time.
A link, if I may, to my review of a new American book on cowardice. Big subject, meaty (as they say) and strangely little-thought-about. If you get far enough into the piece to spot ‘superficial’ in a sentence, please mentally replace it with ‘surfacy’ (subs!).
Michael Hofmann on ‘The Zone of Interest’ from Martin Amis in the latest issue of London Review of Books – this must be one of the best reviews I have ever read in my life. Ever. I almost ran to my laptop to google him (Hofmann) afterwards. Hands and knees trembling. Devastating too, but I suppose Amis, of all people, can take it. First sentence: ‘I Read The Zone of Interest straight through twice from beginning to end and it feels like I’ve read nothing at all.’ From the middle: ‘He puts – I am afraid – the camp in camp’ (Amis’s novel is set in Auschwitz) or ‘And the governing idea of the book, that love purifies, or the right sort of love purifies (…), that’s best not even mentioned.’ At the end: ‘Speech tends to be colour, not weight; which of course is hopeless (when Mandelstam writes about Stalin, he writes about weight.)’ I will leave the last para for you to discover.
Reading David Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service. Blown away.
From p.86: ‘It is such a lonely life, this life afterward. During the war, it wasn’t that way, even in the loneliest moments, when somewhere in the big night sky was a mortar that was on its way down and there was nothing to do but wait for it. Over time, the war came to mean less and less until it meant nothing at all, and meanwhile the other soldiers meant more and more until they came to mean everything.’
What am I doing at this year’s Melbourne Writers Fest? Not much. But the two things I am doing, I am genuinely excited about:
A session about his work with philosopher Raimond Gaita (whose thoughts and words mean a great deal to me) plus a conversation with Wayne Macauley and James Ley about the limits of narrative. No fluff.
I’ve been asked to suggest a writing exercise for Writers Vic. I am not a friend of writing exercises, i.e. I huffed and puffed, but, finally, something did come to me that felt true. I call it ‘Mess it Up’.
I am saying a few things here, including:
If your each chapter starts with a richly conjured ‘significant episode’, which is meant to set the tone for the rest of the chapter and/or to suggest the big themes to be explored, perhaps you could have one chapter start with a thought, or a song, or a small encounter that isn’t oversaturated with meaning? Or perhaps you could start with an excerpt from a newspaper article or a TV show of the time, a dream, a 50-word description of the way women wore dresses and men wore suspenders in those long-gone days when your parents were young?
Here is the text of my 8-minute speech at the gala opening of the inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival. 7 writers – Arnold Zable, Zeruya Shalev, Andrea Goldsmith, Lally Katz, Howard Goldenberg and Dara Horn; hosted by Rachel Berger. The theme – ‘It started with a Word’.
‘In English I can say ‘I love you’ to a man in a month or two. Not to any man, to a man I am with. The words fall out of my mouth like milk teeth. ‘I love you.’ ‘I hate you.’ ‘I am happy.’ ‘This feels like home.’ I can say whatever you want me to say. Easy. God is not listening when I speak English.
In Russian, my birth language, it would take years of not saying it – to say ‘I love you’. It would take a war we survived together. Bullets. Trenches. The last piece of bread you handed to me and I handed back to you. In Russian the word ‘love’ (lyubov) and the word ‘freedom’ (svoboda) can have a crushing weight. Just to lift them up to my mouth would take most of my strength.
We are chained to words in our birth languages.’