Thursday, June 19, 2014

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

An obsessive seventy-two-year old woman lives alone in Beirut, where she translates her favourite books into Arabic and then stores her manuscripts without sharing them with another soul. Aaliya is a recluse whose "colourful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese civil war and [her] own volatile past."

That quotation is from the jacket flap of Rabih Alameddine's An Unnecessary Woman. I'm going to fill this blog post with quotes because this is definitely a book for readers who love language. If you are that kind of reader, get a copy of this magnificent novel and start from the beginning. ("You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn't help my concentration.")

Do it now. Then come back and savour some great passages. There are no spoilers ahead.

  "I stand up carefully, lean and twist to stretch my back. The lower back pain isn't necessarily age related -- I've lived with mild back pain for years. What has changed is the complexity of the knots: in my younger years the back muscles felt like a simple bowline knot, whereas this morning they feel more like a couple of angler's loops and a sheepshank. I'm able to name a few knots used by sailors, but I have never been on a boat. Joseph Conrad's novels planted the seeds of love for sea stories. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News led me to read The Ashley Book of Knots.
  I am a reader. Yes, I am that, a reader with nagging back pain."

  "We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you're the one person who wouldn't have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you.
  When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved.
  I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.
  I am you."

(The passage above explains why I'm feeling distressed about a book I'm currently partway through: 419 by Will Ferguson. I find myself resisting my natural inclination to identify with the character Winston because he is a swindler, even though he is also a pawn in a larger game. I look forward to discussing this aspect of my reading experience with others at the CanLit Book Club next week at Jasper Place Library.)

  "I walk myself back to my bedroom, back to the stack of books on my mirrorless vanity, unread books that I intend to read, a large stack. Choosing which book isn't difficult. The choice is typically the last one I brought home. I acquire books constantly and place them in the to-read pile. When I finish with whatever book I'm reading, I begin the last book I bought, the one that caught my attention last. Of course, the pile grows and grows until I decide that I'm not going to buy a single book until I read my stack. Sometimes that works."

  "To paraphrase the everparaphraseable Freud, who said something to the effect that when you speak about the past you lie with every breath you take, I will say this:
  When you write about the past, you lie with each letter, with every grapheme, including the goddamn comma.
  Memory, memoir, autobiography -- lies, lies, all lies."

"As much as I loved it and felt at home within its cages, school is more Hades than Heaven -- a ritual killing of childhood is performed in school, children are put to death."

  "I don't like to complain, truly, I don't, but I do find that I am doing so often. To age is to whine.
  Should I tell you about my bowel movements?
  I'm joking, I'm joking. However, if you have the misfortune of reading Thomas Mann's journals, you'll notice that all he thinks about are his misbehaving bowels, and the perfumed boorish bore was not joking. He wouldn't have been able to joke if his Nobel Prize depended on it.
  Most of the books published these days consist of a series of whines followed by an epiphany. I call these memoirs and confessional novels happy tragedies."

Henri Matisse. La Gerbe. 1953
"No nostalgia is felt as keenly as nostalgia for things that never existed."

  "Henri Matisse once said, 'It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.'
  I love this quote, love the fact that the most incandescent painter of the twentieth century felt this way. Being different troubled him. Did he genuinely want to paint like everybody else, to be like everybody else? Did he truly wish to belong?
  It has bothered me all my life that I am not like everybody else."

  "'Every man guards in his heart a royal chamber,' wrote Flaubert. 'I have sealed mine.'
  I haven't done as good a job as Gustave. My sealant leaks. Jagged cracks have surfaced in my walls through the years. [...]
  I wonder at what age Flaubert wrote the line above. He died a couple of years before he turned sixty.
  Pessoa, more a connoisseur of alienation than even Flaubert, wrote: 'I've surrounded the garden of my being with high iron gratings -- more imposing than any stone wall -- in such a way that I can perfectly see others while perfectly excluding them, keeping them in their place as others.'
  I am becoming one of the many things I despised when I was younger, a sentimental fool. These corroding walls can't even defend me against the predictable emotionalism of bad movies; bad Hollywood movies starring big heroes with bigger motivations now make me cry."

  "Unlike the main streets that cut the city with a butcher's cleaver, this ancient one wiggles its hips quite a bit."

"To write is to know that you are not home. I stopped loving Odysseus as soon as he landed back in Ithaca."

  "Throughout our marriage, we would go for weeks without exchanging more than perfunctory communications, sharing little but the bewildered quiet.
  And you think that I am lonely now? Heavens.
  I wish I'd listened to Chekhov, or had read him then: 'If you are afraid of loneliness, don't marry.'"

Yay! Alice Munro's work is  praised
in Alameddine's novel.
"I'll translate Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or better yet, the creme de la creme of short story writers, Alice Munro. I can live in Alice's skin for a while."

I loved living in Aaliya's skin for the duration of Alameddine's intimate and heartwarming novel.

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