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no parentheses – post 4

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It hits hard, when you’re the sort of person inclined, as I am, to the critical analysis and evaluation of others’ behavior, when you do something yourself that you know is legible. By legible I mean open to readings that endow said action with a meaning beyond the immediately obvious and literal. All the chattering I do, spoken or un, about other people and their foibles returns with a vengeance – I have made myself available to skeptical treatment that is all the worse for the the fact that I will probably never hear it, only sympathetically imagine it.

I’ve done a few things that cause this rather reflexive – even paranoid – reaction in me. The other day I threw a strop outside of my house because there was a summer street party on and someone had stuffed my rubbish bin full of street party debris. The neighbors, with whom I’ve exchanged less than a hundred words since I moved here last November saw me do this, and now I avoid them at all costs, even more diligently than I avoided them before. I can almost hear them discussing my over the top reaction in their bed at night, which sits a few meters away from mine behind, of course, the wall between our places.

Even worse, perhaps, is the fact that I moved to this street in the first place. My current house is on the same street as my home during my previous marriage. It’s a street that runs for two blocks, so it’s not like once living at the bottom of 5th Avenue in Greenwich Village and then moving, a few years and a divorce later, to the same street on the Upper East Side. Or even the bottom of Tottenham Court road in Soho and then moving to one of those flats that sits atop Warren Street Station. My new place is exactly 50 house numbers away from the old one. And given the opposing sides of the streets, that places me 25 houses away from the place that I used to call home.

You can understand why I can hear, echoing, the readings of this development. “He wants to reset the clock. To start over. He’s trying to get it all back. Can you imagine, out of all the streets in London, or even just North London, he picked the selfsame one???”

One of the jokes, perhaps a bit defensive, that I used to make is that I can now go back to my old GP and simply claim that they have my house number wrong. I never bothered to transfer to another doctor, as I’ve not been to a doctor since I last lived here. Full circle, the trip has been, to the point that even the NHS won’t notice I’ve ever been gone.

I can’t decide if I am an incredibly sentimental person or a completely anti-sentimental person. Probably it’s the sort of geometric arrangement where everything meets at the poles, and the least becomes most and vice versa. But I do know that, on the one hand, there were clear reasons to me why I chose to buy this house, reasons that of course had nothing to do with my previous incarnation on this street. They are solidly sensible, middle-class sorts of, reasons. The space afforded, quality of presentation, school catchment zones, relative un-horrificness of the commute. And of course there’s a Waitrose in walking distance.  When asked or prodded, I respond, “I am good at the real estate business. If I picked well once, why wouldn’t I pick the same thing again?”

Definitely not a clincher in the decision, but something that was at the back of my mind, was the fact that when my daughters visit, as they are doing right now, they are in a neighbourhood that they know and love. That, during our last visit, when I still lived in Highbury, they begged me to return to over and over so that they could run into their friends at the park behind their old school. Which of course, now, we do.

But the funny thing is: now that they’re back, and recognized constantly on the street by people that are strangers or half-strangers to me, mothers of their friends or their old friends themselves, they draw away, reluctant to engage, half-heartedly waving and saying “hi” but basically pulling me back toward our house. And then they say, or at least the oldest does, “Please can we go home now. I’d rather just be at home with just my sister and you.” The same thing on the way to the park itself, that object of fascination and long bus rides just last year. “It would be cool if people were there. But I kind of hope they aren’t and we can just hang out. Is that weird, dadda?”

If I were honest, I’d reply that it is a bit weird, but at the same time utterly understandable. For we, as a family, are town people – the bourgeoisie, if you take the term literally – and we I think corporately believe in the “good fences make good neighbors” stuff. They are sisters, but they seem to have inherited my only child’s love of solitude, or the relative solitude of family life behind chained front doors and closed shutters. I can’t remember ever knowing my New Jersey neighbors during my childhood. And now they themselves, my daughters, primarily live in New Jersey. Plus ça change…

I wonder further sometimes whether all of this has anything to do with my interest in the novel as a form. After all, as I tell my students over and over again, the form gets its start in an increasingly bourgeois-ifying world, when the doors are more often shut and the shutters more often pulled. One started to wonder – as I tell my classes – what exactly is happening over the reception room, the kitchen, the bedroom next door. And so the novel pulls down the walls, doll house style, and shows…. The spousal argument in the reception room, the euphemized or not sex in the bedroom, the man with his children who normally live in New York, feeding breakfast to them in the kitchen one Kellogg’s box and yogurt pot at at time, and wondering what exactly it is that we’ll do together today to make day fourteen of thirty-nine go well in a memorable sort of way.

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July 31, 2015 at 12:38 am

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no parentheses – post 2

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We rented an Airbnb place for tonight and the next two nights in Paris. We are in Paris because, due to extravagant airfares, I had to cancel a trip to see the kids last September. “We could do other things with that money – great things” I said on the phone. Disneyland was broached, by one of us, both of us, so we are here.

I saved at least £1500 by staying in an Airbnb in Paris rather than the park itself. Earlier this year, they visited the proper Disney World, in Florida, with their mother and their new step-father, so I felt I could get away with it.

Somehow I missed the right stop. I had convinced myself that we were staying on one of the spurs off of Place de la Nation. When in fact it was Place Voltaire. And so we backtracked. And we are here.

What was interesting though was the entry to the apartment. Here are the instructions that the owner sent us:

Hi Michael, a few information to get in my home…

  • First, when you are in front of the big brown door on the street, you’ll have to make the following code : 472B.
  • Then, in the hall, you’ll see on your left some mailboxes. Mine is the one with ‘X’ written on it and a little orange sticker. You can open it with a coin, or your own key… And get the 2 sets of keys which open the door of the flat.
  • To open the glass door in the hall, put the green pad that hangs on the keys on the black pad just beside the door.
  • Then my flat is at the 5th floor, on your left. The very little key opens it. You’re home!

I let you the phone number of my friend if you have any problem : (phone number hidden). Could you confirm when you’re home that everything’s okay? (I am currently in Rio so I just woke up…)

If you need any information about the house, ask me!

Best regards,

X

Despite all my apprehensions, the directions worked to a T. So much so that I developed a soft sort of respect for our landlord of three days. But my girls, at least temporarily, had other ideas.

It was dark upon entry. We had to use the light on my iPhone to guide us around. Clearly the woman who rented us this place is a person with a penchant for atmospheric lighting. Children react badly to such things, especially when they are initially sceptical about what we are doing in somebody’s flat, off the beaten path, rather than – as my daughter put it – a ‘hotel like the ones in Memphis or wherever.’ She meant a chain hotel.

And so there was a bout of worry to get over. Things seemed to improve when we turned the TV on. I cannot now seem to turn it off, but we will get to that in due time. Nonetheless, I had to turn some pictures – I think a cover of a book about transvestites – over before they would sleep. The French love images – in every corner someone or something peeps out in this place.

But the point of Paris, especially to young Americans, which I was once, is estrangement. I hope that is what happens and it sticks. They are starting Paris in a different place than I did. But let’s hope it sticks.

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July 25, 2015 at 12:41 am

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no parentheses – post 1

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My father burst into tears today. His face scrunched up like a child’s – like himself as a child, his face as a child – and the tears began to flow. Did he leave himself like that, visible, just long enough for me to see before plunging his face into his hands? He will be 70 next month.

He cried because he’d fucked his flight reservations. For the second time this week. The day before he flew from the US, he called me in a panic to say that he’d messed up, really messed up. That he was supposed to fly out of London and back home on Friday but had somehow booked the return for Sunday. He asked if we would be around over the weekend, if it would matter if he and mum stayed on. I responded that – as he already knew – we were taking the kids to Paris on Friday night.

During his stopover at JFK on the way here, he managed to change the flight. As it turns out though, he changed it to the wrong day – Thursday, today, instead of Friday, tomorrow. Which we discovered as we tried to print out his boarding passes in my kitchen – he is obsessive about printing his boarding passes at the earliest possible moment – and the screen indicated that the flight in question was delayed, but would begin boarding within half-an-hour.

Upon examination, we further discovered that the flight he’d thought was booked for Sunday was actually booked for Saturday morning. He’d confused the dates. And even more: we remembered that Saturday morning was the date and time we’d agreed they would leave all those months ago when he was booking his trip.

After the tears, a phone call which sorts it out at a price of $1000 for the two of them. He’d already paid $1000 to sort it out, erroneously, earlier this week. He has the money to cover it – and I remind him of as much. I also bark when, in the midst of the tears and the calling, he utters the phrase, “I’m not sure I can take this much longer,” which I know refers to my mother. I reply: “This has nothing to do with anything other than an airplane flight. What does it have to do with anything else?”

He is gone now – off to a hotel by Heathrow where he will anxiously pack and repack his bags and perhaps take the shuttle over, a night early, to try to pick up his boarding passes, which we never were able to print. Of course one wonders about senility, given what an expensive debacle he’s made of his travel arrangements for this trip. When others speculate, I ward them off.

My barking is not a new thing. I suppose I learned it from him. But it is odd, when one is 38 and one’s father is 69, how quickly the tone shifts. How quickly the once scolded son becomes the scolding son, on alert for faux pas, childish projection, and other behavioral anomalies. I do it to my children, bark, and I do it to my parents too now.

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July 24, 2015 at 12:29 am

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‘sisyphean epic’

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sisyphus-1549

From this morning’s FT:

Monday’s emergency summit of eurozone leaders is likely to set the tone for markets for the week and could even be the tipping point in the Sisyphean epic being played out between Greece and its creditors.

A ‘Sisyphean epic’ is an interestingly semi-oxymoronic concept. Sisyphus’s whole story in Greek myth is a bit epical – meaning, at least, that it’s a long story, and a rather convoluted one. (Some versions of it have him as the father of Odysseus too – which would at least make him the progenitor of the greatest epical protagonist ever).

But generally when we today refer to Sisyphus, we’re talking about the end of his story, which involves a tragical turn. And in particular, we don’t so much remember the hubris or even the chain of events that lead to his punishment – but only the punishment itself, the perpetually fruitless rock rolling. It’s hard to think of this scene, the only one most of us know, as epical: Coming soon, to a cinema near you – the latest and bestest CGI epic masterpiece: Sisyphus Rolls His Stone, Forever – in 3D. 

But despite – or perhaps because of – its oxymoronic nature, the concept of a ‘Sisyphean epic’ does have a certain ring of truth when it comes to Greece, and its citizens, and citizens around the world who are dealing with life in the age of austerity. Sisyphus receives a form of punishment disproportionate to his crimes, and one that turns the momentary crisis into a perpetual situation. But most importantly, Sisyphus’s end mirrors  the festina lente experience of life under austerity – an ever increasing struggle for ever diminishing possibilities of reward. For what Sisyphus’s problem is is not simply pushing the stone up the hill over and over and over again. It’s also – perhaps more deeply – the fact that he must be aware of the fruitlessness of his task, as well, hellishly, of his inability to do anything other than to continue to participate in this sadistic game.

For, true to the oxymoron, austerity shrouds life in an anti-narrative structure. Not non-narratives: there are stories, struggles, and the like. But, as with Sisyphus as he time and time again dramatically shoulders his stone and once more begins his ascent, the stories and struggles are haunted from the start by an ever decreasing chance of a turn, a resolution, a positive accomplishment at the end. The stories keep running, but for more and more, the efforts that would be chronicled are rendered absurd right from the start. But we, like Sisyphus, are doomed to to keep on playing them out nonetheless.

 

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June 22, 2015 at 8:38 am

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baudelaire (almost) on hipsters

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One of my brilliant PhD students quoted this passage from Charles Baudelaire’s A Painter of Modern Life in his thesis:

Dandyism appears especially in those periods of transition when democracy has not yet become all-powerful, and when aristocracy is only partially weakened and discredited. In the confusion of such times, a certain number of men, disenchanted and leisured ‘outsiders’, but all of them richly endowed with native energy, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy.

It’s tempting to rewrite this for our times. It doesn’t require much of a transformation to do this.

Hipsterism appears especially in those periods of transition when democratic meritocracy has not yet completely disappeared, but when a new aristocracy is being born out of what remains of it. In the confusion of such times, a certain number of men, disenchanted and leisured ‘outsiders’, but all of them richly endowed with the inherited and rapidly redoubling spoils of their ancestors, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy.

 

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June 20, 2014 at 12:57 pm

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finance vs. academia

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According to The Financial Times today:

In 1975, more than a decade before the Big Bang that deregulated the City, the average London financial services worker was paid about £3,800 a year, a salary that was outstripped by a sizeable proportion of other professionals. Academics were paid about £5,000, around a third more, while natural scientists and engineers received roughly 10 per cent more than finance workers.

Now the average London financial services salary is about £102,000 including bonuses while academics are paid about £48,000, natural scientists average about £42,000 and mechanical engineers £46,000.

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February 15, 2014 at 8:30 pm

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americans in limbo

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Most Americans – me included before I moved here – have a difficult time reading British “class” through accent and its other accoutrements. Sure, there’s My Fair Lady cockneyism on the one side and chinless Royal Familyism on the other, we can detect that, but between lies just a fast undifferentiated middle. Which of course not how British people hear it, not in the least, as they sniff each other out with the subtle discernment of dogs testing each others’ asses.

But on the other hand: Americans are completely indiscernable to Brits as well. They can’t detect the subtle differences of speech and gesture that mark the well-born or earned-through from the other sorts, and all the complicating and obsfucating play that goes on in between. But whereas Americans default to “rich and polished” when they hear Brits, I think Americans are assigned a lower and more ambiguous place in the eyes of my hosts here. The best analogy I can come up with for where we are placed is the way that Dante handles the virtuous non-Christians in Inferno. Greek philosophers and the like aren’t mixed into the bottom, not quite, but they don’t quite merit the middle berthing either.

They are placed in Limbo, for lack of anywhere else to settle them – technically in the game but ultimately not really.

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October 10, 2013 at 11:01 am

south downs

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Should I go for a walk on the South Downs today? It’s cloudy, and there’s work to be done. But….

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September 3, 2011 at 7:56 am

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mixy

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After a conversation tonight, I feel that I should re-elevate this post. Read the comments too – there’s some very good stuff about Peter et al.

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August 23, 2011 at 2:16 am

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awp giveaway: free lrb subscription

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Pretty sure you need to live in the UK to do this, but if you’d like a free yearlong subscription to the LRB, write me an email with your name and address. First to contact gets it. I get a £5 gift voucher to the lovely LRB bookshop, which I will assuredly use on morally-improving literature and definitely not Penguin coffee mugs, if you do.

UPDATE: It’s claimed!

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July 28, 2011 at 5:48 pm

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chavs in new york

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No, I don’t mean me… But it’s good to see a review of Owen Jones’s Chavs in the paper of record, hereside.

(It took me a year or so of English living to learn to pronounce the word in his title correctly… Hints for Americans: there’s a little bit of a J, at least to our provincial ears, in the opening sound, and it definitely doesn’t sound like George Bernard Shawvs…)

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July 13, 2011 at 11:33 am

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“overgeneral memory” / depression / flaubert

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From the NYT:

OXFORD, England — The task given to participants in an Oxford University depression study sounds straightforward. After investigators read them a cue word, they have 30 seconds to recount a single specific memory, meaning an event that lasted less than one day.

Cues may be positive (“loved”), negative (“heartless”) or neutral (“green”). For “rejected,” one participant answered, “A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with my boss, and my ideas were rejected.” Another said, “My brothers are always talking about going on holiday without me.”

The second answer was wrong — it is not specific, and it refers to something that took place on several occasions. But in studies under way at Oxford and elsewhere, scientists are looking to such failures to gain new insights into the diagnosis and treatment of depression. They are focusing not on what people remember, but how.

The phenomenon is called overgeneral memory, a tendency to recall past events in a broad, vague manner. “It’s an unsung vulnerability factor for unhelpful reactions when things go wrong in life,” said Mark Williams, the clinical psychologist who has been leading the Oxford studies.

Want to come back to this when there’s more time, but it’s interesting to think about this in relation to certain “trick” temporalities in modern narratives. Here’s an extract from the thing I’m (interminably) working on (footnotes below main text):

And it is fitting that when Emma meets Rodolphe again, they make love in the same forest, with Emma “lui demandait, en le contemplant les paupières demi closes, de l’appeler encore par son nom et de répéter qu’il l’aimait” (1, 440). [1] The relationship quickly slides into pure repetitiveness, repeat performances of the same romantic gestures and acts of love, as Flaubert renders in brilliantly irregular verb tenses in paragraphs such as the following:

Les rideaux jaunes, le long des fenêtres laissaient passer doucement une lourde lumière blonde. Emma tâtonnait en clignant des yeux, tandis que les gouttes de rosée suspendues à ses bandeaux faisaient comme une auréole de topazes tout autour de sa figure. Rodolphe, en riant, l’attirait à lui et il la prenait sur son coeur.

Ensuite, elle examinait l’appartement, elle ouvrait les tiroirs des meubles, elle se peignait avec son peigne et se regardait dans le miroir à barbe. Souvent même, elle mettait entre ses dents le tuyau d’une grosse pipe qui était sur la table de nuit, parmi des citrons et des morceaux de sucre, près d’une carafe d’eau. (1, 441)[2]

This is one of Flaubert’s trademark techniques for rendering the everyday. Here, he describes a highly detailed action, too detailed to be precisely repeated again and again, in the imparfait tense, as if they were habitual actions. [3] Passages such as these are challenges for translators, since they border on the absurd: were drops of dew really often hanging in Emma’s hair “like a topaz halo around her face”? These magical moments of illicit love just keep happening, or so we are told, and it is no wonder that the thrill begins to fade almost immediately, especially for Rodolphe. After six months of this sort of thing, their romance has itself become like a marriage: “quand le printemps arriva, ils se trouvaient, l’un vis-à-vis de l’autre, comme deux mariés qui entretiennent tranquillement une flamme domestique” (1, 447). [4]

FOOTNOTES

[1] and watching him with eyes half shut, she insisted that he speak her name again, that he repeat the words of love (131).

[2]             The long yellow curtains, over the windows, softened the light to a dense golden blur. Emma would grope her way, eyes blinking, and the drops of dew hanging in her hair were just like a topaz halo around her face. Rodolphe, with a laugh, would draw her to him and press her to his heart.

She would explore his room, opening the drawers, combing her hair with his comb and looking at herself in his shaving-mirror. Often she would pick up the big pipe from the bedside-table, where it lay beside a carafe of water, among pieces of lemon and lumps of sugar. She put the stem between her teeth (132).

[3] Flaubert uses this technique, writing what would seem to be a unique and highly specific event in the habitual and repetitive tense of the imparfait, throughout the novel. A brilliant example of this approach comes early in the novel, during Charles’s first meetings with Emma while he is treating her father:

Elle le reconduisait toujours jusqu’à la première marche du perron. Lorsqu’on n’avait pas encore amené son cheval, elle restait là. On s’était dit adieu, on ne parlait plus ; le grand air l’entourait, levant pêle-mêle les petits cheveux follets de sa nuque, ou secouant sur sa hanche les cordons de son tablier, qui se tortillaient comme des banderoles. (I, 307)

She always went with him as far as the doorstep. Waiting for them to bring his horse, she stood there by him. They had said goodbye, they had no more to say; the fresh air wrapped all about her, fondling the stray locks of hair at the nape of her neck, or tugging on the strings of the apron around her hips, fluttering them like streamers. (17)

Or another, which captures Emma’s voluptuous boredom early in her marriage and which concludes with a line brilliantly evocative of her ambivalence toward her everyday life:

Elle portait une robe de chambre tout ouverte, qui laissait voir, entre les revers à châle du corsage, une chemisette plissée avec trois boutons d’or. Sa ceinture était une cordelière à gros glands, et ses petites pantoufles de couleur grenat avaient une touffe de rubans larges, qui s’étalait sur le couvre-pied. Elle s’était acheté un buvard, une papeterie, un porte-plume et des enveloppes, quoiqu’elle n’eût personne à qui écrire ; elle époussetait son étagère, se regardait dans la glace, prenait un livre, puis, rêvant entre les lignes, le laissait tomber sur ses genoux. Elle avait envie de faire des voyages ou de retourner vivre à son couvent. Elle souhaitait à la fois mourir et habiter Paris. (I, 346)

She would be wearing her dressing-gown unbuttoned, revealing, between the copious folds of her corsage, a pleated chemisette with gold buttons. Round her waist she had a cord with big tassels, and her little wine-red slippers had large knots of ribbon, spreading down over the instep. She had bought herself a blotting-pad, a writing-case, a pen-holder and envelopes, though she had nobody to write to; she would dust her ornaments, look at herself in the mirror, pick up a book, then, dreaming between the lines, let it fall into her lap. She yearned to travel or to go back to living in the convent. She wanted equally to die and to live in Paris. (56)

[4] when spring came around, they were, with each other, like a married couple tranquilly nourishing a domestic flame (138).

Anyway, I’d like to say more soon about this, actually draw out the connection between the one and the other…

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May 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm

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privatising the mail…

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Apropos to some of what I’ve been on about lately with regard to bureaucracy and the like, there’s an absolutely excellent long piece in the LRB by James Meek about mail privatisation in the Netherlands and here… Love this sort of piece that moves dexterously from the situation on the ground, the structures that make it what it is, and the history of the whole deal…

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April 22, 2011 at 11:51 am

the politics of parrots

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Was just reminded that Felicite never would have gotten her parrot in Flaubert’s “Un Coeur simple” if it weren’t for the 1830 Revolution.

Years passed, all alike and marked by no other events than the return of the great church holidays: Easter, Assumption, All Saints’ Day. Household happenings constituted the only data to which in later years they often referred. Thus, in 1825, workmen painted the vestibule; in 1827, a portion of the roof almost killed a man by falling into the yard. In the summer of 1828, it was Madame’s turn to offer the hallowed bread; at that time, Bourais disappeared mysteriously; and the old acquaintances, Guyot, Liebard, Madame Lechaptois, Robelin, old Gremanville, paralysed since a long time, passed away one by one. One night, the driver of the mail in Pont-l’Eveque announced the Revolution of July. A few days afterward a new sub-prefect was nominated, the Baron de Larsonniere, ex-consul in America, who, besides his wife, had his sister-in-law and her three grown daughters with him. They were often seen on their lawn, dressed in loose blouses, and they had a parrot and a negro servant. Madame Aubain received a call, which she returned promptly. As soon as she caught sight of them, Felicite would run and notify her mistress. But only one thing was capable of arousing her: a letter from her son.

This is a strange business, sitting here in my office trying to foment in myself a work burst in order to finish the book by… repoliticizing it in accordance with the demands of the UP that I’m working with. Odd….

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March 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm

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egypt

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Have little to say, other than that we might all have just watched one of the most colossal political fuckups of all time. Let’s hope.

(Interested in the tweets, and sure things like this, as a strangely now form of prayer. No one is listening, but one feels the need to say it anyway….)

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February 10, 2011 at 10:33 pm

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