10 April 2016

Necessary Women: Here and There

Rabin Alamdeddine had me
convinced he was a woman
Writer Rabin Alamdeddine entitled his exquisite fictional meditation on an older woman’s life AN UNECESSARY WOMAN because Aaliya Saleh feels she is. Living a reclusive life in Beirut, she spends a good deal of time reflecting on the before and after of the civil war and how her friends and neighbors relate to each other in the city and the region. Childless and divorced, without religious faith and estranged from her family, she has survived primarily through reading. She has no sense of a future. She regularly eavesdrops on the women who live in the apartments below and who seem to live simpler lives, and who quietly watch out for her. Mostly she devotes her time to translating great works of literature. One each year. And once complete, she stores them in the attic, never to be seen. Why would her work matter? And, because she cannot access or read many of the masters in their native tongue, she translates from either the English or French translations, the languages she knows, and this sets up a perfect metaphor: the one-step remove that exists between one’s way of life and the way in which we perceive that life. She is captivated by what seem the more important lives depicted in great books and the storylines we invent for ourselves. Aaliya’s narrative fluctuates from past to present and we learn much about the culture, and struggles, of a country so recently in the throes of war and in a region forever at war. The prose is first rate – every page worthy of underlining – and much to think about for those of us beginning to look back on long lives. Great title for book groups. 

I wake up every morning not knowing whether I’ll be able to switch on the lights. When my toilet broke down last year, I had to set up three appointments with three plumbers because the first two didn’t show and the third appeared four hours late. Rarely can I walk the same path from point A to point B, say from apartment to supermarket, for more than a month. I constantly have to adjust my walking maps; any of a multitude of minor politicians will block off entire neighborhoods because one day they decide they[re important enough to feel threatened. Life in Beirut is much too random. I can’t force myself to believe I’m in charge of much of my life.

The great and glorious Patti Smith: Better with Age
I bookended the novel with the new memoir by poet/rock star/philosopher Patti Smith: M TRAIN. Talk about an existential journey! In classic stream-of-consciousness, this narrative focuses more on the years since her beloved husband passed away, and her quest for the fulfillment of her inner spirit. I relate especially to Patti because we are the same age, she was legend even as a young women in Manhattan when I still resided there, and because she writes every day at a favorite cafĂ©, as I do. From there, we part company. She is head and shoulders above most of us by virtue of intellect and passion. The memoir invites us to her haunts in Greenwich Village, her late-life studio in Far Rockaway, nearly destroyed by hurricane Sandy, her early life in Michigan, travels in Mexico and beyond, her unique membership in a prestigious explorer’s club, a late night with Bobby Fisher, a nap in Diego Rivera’s bed at Frida’s house… all captured in the signature Polaroids she takes everywhere, many of which are scattered throughout the book. We see her obsessions with writers like Bulgakov and Murakami, endless crime television series, and for coffee, and her drive to explore the outer reaches of ordinary life, with occasional revelations on her music and art. However it is far more than her talent or accomplishments that make Patti Smith a fascination – it is her sheer embrace of living, with a total honesty and lack of pretense rare among celebrity. I always admired her, and I loved JUST KIDS, her memoir of early days in New York with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Now she is on my short list of most admired women. This is a short book with a long view. A must read, and to be read again. 

I have always hated loose ends. Dangling phrases, unopened packages, or a character that inexplicably disappears, like a lone sheet on a clothesline before a vague storm, left to flap in the wind until that same wind carries it away to become the skin of a ghost or a child’s tent. If I read a book or see a film and some seemingly insignificant thing is left unresolved, I can get remarkably unsettled, going back and forth and looking for clues or wishing I had a number to call or that I could write someone a letter. Not to complain, but just to request clarification or to answer a few questions, so I can concentrate on other things.