A Reading Journal of the Plague Year (Pete)

I recently promised that I’d be starting a series of posts on poems about food and drink and that the first entry would be coming soon. It has not yet arrived. But I bring to you instead the first installment in another book-ish series: A Reading Journal of the Plague Year. I had not thought to give it that title but quickly stole it from the author of this first installment, my old friend, Peter. You may remember him from such previous guest posts as “2019: A Year in Books (Pete)” and…well, that’s the lazy bastard’s only previous contribution. I asked Pete and the rest of the crew that had contributed to that series earlier in the year if they’d be interested in writing a bit about what they’re reading in isolation/quarantine. Not all were into it but I have roped in a new contributor (maybe two) and this time around I might get around to writing an entry myself. One a week probably until I run out of contributions. Here, to start with, is Pete.

(Most of the purchase links below once again go to Content, the excellent indie bookstore in our town (one goes to Alibris). Content is owned by friends but I have no financial relationship with them and make nothing from these links. They ship all over the country so please consider buying from them and supporting an indie bookstore. Indie bookstores need support at the best of times and even more so in these times that are so far from being the best of times.)

A Reading Journal of the Plague Year ~ Peter Stokes

I have long loved trilogies and tetralogies: they’re episodically meaty, but still with the promise of a tight structure that an open-ended series can’t match. The ones that stand out for me right now are Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy (finishing that is next on the agenda), Naguib Mahfouz’s excellent Cairo Trilogy, James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, Will Self’s quasi-modernist Umbrella trilogy, and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. The project I was embarking on as Covid-19 was coming to dominate was to read Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy (so named apparently because of the irony of the fecund name and the barrenness of the lunar landscape feature that bears it). I have abandoned this project, for now, after crossing, haltingly, only the first hurdle (Spring Snow). The problem is not that I think it’s bad—on the contrary, the prose is extraordinary, filled with surprising similes. And the plot is intriguingly unusual, about the perverse love of a young man for the woman he has known since childhood, a love he denies rather misogynistically at first when he resents the power she has over him, and then embraces with implacable and cruel passion once the consummation of their love can ultimately only spell total ruin for her and grim desolation for him. The sense of implacably advancing doom, prefigured early on with the discovery of a dead dog in the stream in an otherwise idyllic garden, is not the mood I crave just now. And the narrator invites us to see the beauty in suffering; that is not a beauty I am currently ready to admit.

My effort to right the mood through some couch-bound travel was to start The Seine: The River That Made Paris, by Elaine Sciolino. This book has been well reviewed and under normal circumstances I would probably enjoy its low-key travel narrative, its unthreatening cultural explorations, and its gentle mining of trivia. But right now, the differences in manners between American and Parisian dinner parties and the campaign to have a statue built of the river goddess Sequana are matters about which I cannot bring myself to give two shits. I didn’t get very far, and didn’t really give this a fair shake. I’ll come back to it later, inshallah.

Much more successful was my decision to read Syrian poet Adonis’s long poem Concerto al-Quds, except that for some reason I thought poetry would be good for an anxiety-driven shorter attention span, when in fact this is highly demanding stuff which I will need to come back to a few times to feel like I more than 10% get it, despite the excellent notes of translator Khaled Mattawa, a poet in his own right who seems to have made brilliant decisions to convey apparently untranslatable puns in the Arabic. Al-Quds, for anyone as ignorant as me, is the Arabic name for Jerusalem, and this is a poem of love and despair for that city. Adonis gets compared to T.S. Eliot and is credited with revolutionizing Arabic poetry; I’m not remotely qualified to judge, but I suspect that if a certain feckless group of Swedes were willing to take more seriously those who come from beyond Europe then he’d have a Nobel prize. Anyway, the Eliot comparison makes sense in that language and orthography sometimes break down here—the first section is punctuated with unadorned lists of ills: “Terrorism. Kidnapping. Unknown entity. Extremism” and so forth. But against those ruins, and allusions to contemporary conflicts in a place that could and should represent the unity of three major religions, are shored fragments of Koranic stories, Hadiths, and reference to Arabic scholarship of past centuries, positing the perhaps-fading possibility of reason and order. The modernist that Adonis quotes in the poem is not Eliot but Joyce, interestingly (a passage from Ulysses, or actually, originally, its Arabic translation), and his project for describing and lamenting Jerusalem, having it stand in for a larger, global predicament, is parallel, I suppose, to Joyce’s Dublinized epic (or epicized Dublin?). And there’s just some beautiful images and language here; I particularly enjoyed, for example:

The wind reads the roses.
Perfume writes them.

My other success has been The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom, a highly personal yet also highly socially-located memoir which won the National Book Award for non-fiction last year. The “M.” is important—for a long time she was known to her family as Monique (or just Mo), and as Sarah to outsiders only, and this doubling is a theme that runs through her family and her community (she was raised in New Orleans East, a neglected area excluded from the tourist narratives that make up the official identity of New Orleans): “Like her mother, my mother buried her rage and despair deep within, underneath layers and layers of poise. America required these dualities anyway and we were good at presenting our double selves.” The yellow house of the title was both a source of pride and shame (proudly owned, and yet run-down enough, for lack of money for repairs, to be considered unfit to bring friends to). And it was flooded during Hurricane Katrina and subsequently destroyed. The narrative isn’t all that obviously dramatic—Broom was actually living in New York at the time of Katrina, and a lot of the book is about the disconnection she feels and is trying to repair, though also about the larger racial and class injustices that her family’s story reflects and embodies. The book (which I’m just finishing now; I’m about 40 pages from the end) serves as a salutary reminder that disasters strike different communities unequally—and more than that, that the members of those communities we disadvantage are feeling the psychic and often physical damage wrought by that inequality long before and long after the disaster strikes.

Peter Stokes lives outside Philadelphia and beyond all hope of redemption. Though born in Scotland he knows little about whisky, but he’s working on a massive bottle of Glenmorangie.

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