Meta, meta, murder…

June 18, 2015

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I just finished this book – not sure whether it’s a “crime novel” or a “mystery”.  Is there a difference?  Anyway, it was well written, very clever and suspenseful.  The characters it presented were good too.  That’s all I have to say about it, other than that the murders it describes are extremely gruesome, but I guess that’s old hat these days, what with Hannibal Lechter, Steven King, and so on.

Well, there’s this too:  the killer in the book is staging his crimes to duplicate murder scenes in books he admires.  He sees himself as some sort of artist.  One of the books, the one with the first murder scene used, is Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.  Near the end of the book, the author, the real author, not the would-be author who is murdering women, changes the name of a character so that we might think that all the time we have been reading a text written by the murderer and sent to the character in the book who is chasing him, rather than reading a book about a policeman chasing a murderer who sends him texts…  Very meta.

I started reading this sort of book sometime after I started watching film noir, a natural progression I guess.  At first, I read books that were the basis of films I’d seen, but now I’ve expanded my range a bit.  I’m not sure why they are entertaining; certainly it’s not the gore – that just adds to the suspense somehow.

In the Acknowledgements section of the book, after the end, Lemaitre praises the four novels he references in his narrative.  He notes that critics reacted very harshly to Ellis’ book, implying that they are hypocritical for wanting these novels to “exorcise our hyper-violent societies,” while not exceeding the limits of good taste.  I am not sure what he means by this other than that authors should be free to write what they like, and if critics don’t like it, but read it anyway, too bad for them.  As for “hyper-violent,” I don’t know at all what this means.  Compared to what?  Medieval towns with public executions, drawing and quartering, bear baiting in the Elizabethan age?  Mass starvation?  Slavery?  It all sounds very French-Intellectual to me:  I can just hear those academics intoning about the “violence inherent in the system,” as Monty Python put it, and so on.  I think he’s just fascinated by violence and gore, and makes a good living at it.  Better than teaching literature, which is what he used to do.


Another passage to India

April 26, 2015
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Beggars on the Street

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry was written in 1995, about twenty years after the period it describes, The Indira Gandhi era of The Emergency of 1975,  but perhaps not much had changed when he wrote, and even now that may be true.  I spent four or five months in India in 1979-1980, travelling very cheaply, surrounded by the types of people he describes.  That is, I was not cocooned in an air conditioned tour bus, and I ate where street workers and small businessmen ate, and sometimes they would talk with me.  Sometimes a lot…  This book brought back thoughts of that trip in vivid ways, and gave meaning to images that are still with me, and from which I have never been able to make much sense.  More on that later, perhaps.

The novel has an epigraph that is a quotation from Balzac:

Rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction.  All is true.

Many of the negative commentators on this book at Amazon (I always find the thumbs-down views of more interest than the raves) seem to want a fiction, or to want a book that is more according to their taste.  The story is almost unremittingly depressing, and I shared the feelings of many readers who commented that they found it difficult to return to it after putting it down, yet they did, as did I, because Mistry is a fine writer who draws you in with his first page.  (How DOES he do that? What is there in his craft that casts this spell; I mean, what exactly is it in his words, at the level of the sentence, as some critics say? When a book fails at this, it is easy to point out specific weaknesses, but when it succeeds, for me at least, it is like magic.) Some commentators were angry and disappointed that Mistry offers not a shred of a happy ending to redeem the horrors his characters endure.  “A fine balance” refers to the necessary attitude humans must take between hope and despair, but Mistry is definitely light on the hope side of the scales.  The only positive things about the happenings in this book are that many characters show great warmth towards one another, and some show the ability to change from indifference to love.  It is a measure of the horror of the situations he presents that even this, turning towards love, seems like a small, weak thing:  all the people who show decency are destroyed by physical mutilation, social smothering, or their own unbearable powerlessness.

To say that the plot of this book is contrived is to miss the point of it:  it is, in some sense, an extended fable.  Like Dickens, to whom Mistry is compared by some reviewers, the book is filled with coincidences that seem, on reflection, to be improbable. By the time the reader is at the end of the tale, it should be obvious that this is not through carelessness, but is deliberate.  Just as calculated is the rain of misfortune that befalls the two tailors who make their escape from rural caste violence to the city where they seek their fortune.  Could everything happen to two people that happens to them?  They seem to always be at the wrong place, at just the worst moment:  rounded up for forced work gangs by Indira Gandhi’s City Beautification project; hauled in by thugs at a forced sterilization clinic;  caught in a brutal slum clearance episode, to name a few dark spots in their story.  To readers who feel that (I am paraphrasing some comments)… Mistry just piles on misery after misery, and should have held out some positive ray of hope…nobody would keep getting dumped on that way…  I wold reply, tell that to the five-year old child born to beggars in the street who has nothing in his future but just that.  To ask for something else from the novel is to deny the reality of these people, which is exactly what Mistry wants to force us to see.  To have all these things happen to oneself, or just one that is enough to destroy you, it hardly matters which is the case.

The epigraph of the book is from Balzac; reviewers mention Dickens; and I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.  It’s been so many years since I read it, perhaps I am off-base, but the relentless grinding down of the characters by uncaring social circumstances is common to both books.  And of course, there are the children of Jude’s who hang themselves “…because we are too menny,” that appear in the form of three young sisters who hang themselves with their saris.  The story of these sisters is related through an old newspaper story read by one of the characters in the epilogue to the book:  that character, one for whom we feel there is something of a chance of a decent life because of his education and his loving family, echoes the tragedy of Ana Karenina.  Whatever the literary influences acting upon Mistry, he is telling a story about India, not Europe.

When I traveled in India, I saw lots of beggars, horribly deformed.  I stepped over lots of families sleeping in the streets.  I saw a man walking along the street in a small town react with horror and fright when a field worker accidentally brushed his clothing in the street:  he immediately began to furiously brush at the fabric, peering intently at it to see if there was some stain.  He was not just worried about a laundry bill – he feared pollution.   I waited in line outside a barber’s shack to get a shave in a rural village, and watched the man’s eyes dilate with terror when a local Brahman pushed himself to the front of the line. The man was faced with a horrible dilemma; insult a white European, or the Brahman.  I just smiled and waved to set him at ease, and was eyed with contempt by the priest.  Just the teeny-tip-of-the-iceberg of the caste system in rural India.

The novel is filled with characters consumed with anxiety and feelings of disgust:  anxiety for their safety or their precarious livelihoods, and disgust for those limitless numbers of people who are worse off than they.  Usually, these characters are those with a little bit of authority or education:  business people, local functionaries, policemen, petty politicians.  Those with power use it brutally to enrich and protect themselves; their contempt acts as a spur to their actions and a justification for it, an old story.  Because the people of this strata of India often know some English, I tended to meet a lot of them.  I also met a lot who were not  brutal or totally self-serving, but who seemed consumed with anger and frustration at their situation, their powerlessness, the unfairness of it all.  To them, I was from a blessed world where people could actually do as they pleased.  And of course, compared to them, even traveling on $1.00 a day, I was vastly rich.  Often, they would beg me to help them.  It is this desperation that Mistry illuminated for me with his novel.

I have never returned to India:  I have no desire to travel there again as a tourist, but this book brought me back.


Senso e Senso

July 5, 2014

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After watching Visconti’s film, Senso (1954), I just had to read the original story (1882) by Camillo Boito. (It seems there is only one translation.)  Boito was a major figure in the development of  modern architectural restoration practice, as well as the designer of several buildings, and his brother was a major figure in opera, being Verdi’s librettist for twenty years.  From Wikipedia we learn that

The word “senso” is Italian for “sense,” “feeling,” or “sentiment.” The title refers to the delight Livia experiences while reflecting on her affair with a handsome lieutenant. The novella is typical of Scapigliatura literature…

“Scapigliatura” is Italian for “unkempt” or “disheveled,” and it was a major literary movement, heavily influenced by German Romanticism, Poe, Baudelaire, and the French Decadents.  In Boito’s stories that I have read so far, the macabre and grotesque, mixed with madly passionate attachments seems the norm.

Senso, however, is the tale of a cold, thoroughly narcissistic young woman who starts a torrid love affair shortly after her marriage to a boring older gentleman.  She is Venetian, and that city, as well as much of northern Italy, is under the rule of the Austrian Empire.  The story takes place near the end of the Risorgimento (Resurgence), that was the Italian movement to expel the foreign rulers and unite as one modern nation.  The politics of the era, however,  are hardly relevant to the story, although they are central to Visconti’s adaptation of it.

In fact, nothing is very relevant to Countess Livia, except for her own self-regard, and the longing and admiration she inspires in others.  When she is jilted by her lover, what really stings is:

That blonde minx brazenly boasts of being more beautiful than me, and (this was the supreme insult that really rankled) he himself proclaims her more beautiful!

In the film, Alida Valli portrays a mature woman, but Boito’s character is barely past twenty, already thoroughly corrupt.  She revels in the cowardice, dishonesty, and selfishness of her lover, who is an Austrian officer – it seems to increase his erotic charge:

Perfect virtue would have seemed dull and worthless compared with his vices. To me, his infidelity, dishonesty, wantonness and lack of restraint constituted a mysterious but powerful strength to which I was happy, and proud, to enslave myself. The more depraved his heart appeared, the more wonderfully handsome his body.

She does have reservations once in a while:  his unwillingness to get his uniform wet to save a boy who has fallen into a canal strikes her as a bit much.

The story is told through the device of Livia re-reading her diary years after the affair has ended, before she intends to burn it.  Although now middle-aged, she still thrills to the story as when she was young, and the sensuality is quite graphic.  Here she recounts finding her lover lodging with a local prostitute, leading to the last straw in their relationship.  I love the bit about tickling her armpit.

I could already feel the arms of my lover – the man for whom I would unhesitatingly have given everything I owned, including my life – crushing me to his broad chest. I could feel his teeth biting into my skin, and I was overwhelmed in anticipation with ineffable bliss. I felt weak with relief, and had to sit down on a chair in the hall. Hearing and seeing as if in a deep dream, I had lost all sense of reality. But someone nearby was laughing and laughing: it was a woman’s laughter, shrill, coarse and boisterous, and it gradually roused me. I listened, rising from my seat, and, holding my breath, approached a door that stood wide open, through which I could see into a huge, brightly lit room. I was standing in shadow, out of sight.  Oh, why did God not strike me blind at that moment? There was a table with the remains of a meal on it. Beyond the table was a big green sofa: there lay Remigio, playfully tickling a girl’s armpit. She was hooting and shrieking with laughter, wriggling and writhing…

Remigio didn’t know he had met his match for amorality.  He avoided combat by bribing some doctors to give him a medical deferment using money given him by Livia.  (In the film, the money was intended to support the Risorgimento troops, making her an adulterer and a traitor.)  The Countess has a letter from Remegio in which he thanks her for the cash, and details to her his current pleasant arrangements, hoping to see her soon of course.  She shows the letter to the local Austrian commander, telling him she wishes to be a “loyal citizen”.  No, she’s not German, but her family was always on good terms with the rulers, and in fact, her husband is rather wary of the Italian nationalists.

The commander reads the letter and understands the situation instantly:  a jilted lover wishes to revenge herself by having the man shot for desertion.  “Despicable!” he tells her, but she replies, “Do your duty!”  He does, and Remigio is arrested:  Livia receives an invitation to the execution, which, of course, she attends:

What happened next, I do not know.  Something was read out, I think. Then there was a deafening noise and I saw the dark young man [one of the doctors] fall to the ground, and in the same instant I noticed that Remigio was stripped to the waist, and I was blinded by those arms, shoulders, neck, and limbs that I had so loved. Into my mind flashed a picture of my lover, full of ardour and joy, when he held me for the first time in his steely embrace, in Venice at the Sirena. I was startled by a second burst of sound. On his chest that still quivered, whiter than marble, a blonde woman had thrown herself, and was spattered with spurting blood. At the sight of that shameless hussy all my anger and resentment returned to me, and with them came dignity and strength. I had acted within my rights, and I turned to leave, serene in the self-respect that came from having fulfilled a difficult duty.

There’s a fatal woman for you!  But in Visconti’s telling, she is driven mad by her passion, and in the end, wanders the streets of occupied Verona shouting the name of her lover.

Visconti’s Senso is a luxuriant depiction of the society, mostly its upper crust, a world that is changing fast and so to crumble – a favorite topic of his by his own admission.  Farley Granger plays the lover, now called Franz, and seems appropriately vulgar and creepy under his beautiful uniform.  Here he meets Livia, and admires the view…of the opera stage.

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Here, Visconti cleverly represents the past, the present, and the decay of the ruling class society he depicts in the film.

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Things move pretty quickly, Franz and Livia become lovers, despite Livia’s misgivings.  Her cinema incarnation is tortured by her concerns about her reputation and propriety (unlike her literary version), but she always gives into passion.

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Long vista shots, often involving doors within doors, are a frequent image in the film.  In the one below, Livia is nearly lost in the palatial architecture, trapped in rooms within rooms, deceits within deceits…

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A tense moment when she fears Franz will be discovered in his hiding place in the granary:

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The shots of Venice are gloomy and magnificent!

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Even the countryside provides no spiritual solace for Countess Livia.

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Visconti was legendary for his preoccupation with ‘realism’ as he thought of it.  The decor is lush, each object reinforcing the evocation of the time and place.  Yet, the entire film has a very “stagey” appearance, deliberately so:  we are clued-in to this because it all begins at an opera performance!  Even the military operations, unromantic and confusing, like the opening scenes in The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, look like faithful reproductions of artists’ drawings and paintings of the events, works which Visconti studied carefully.

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The costumes and sets are magnificent – veils are a frequent element in their erotic encounters.  Visconti related how as a child, his mother always wore them, lifting them to kiss him goodnight in his bedroom.  (Visconti and Granger were both gay men in the 1950s, long before it was ‘acceptable’, though Visconti was open about it.  I suppose you could write an entire analysis of the film from that angle.)

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The stunning beauty, Marcella Mariani, only 18 or 19 years old, plays the prostitute who drives Livia around the bend.  (Nice armpits!)  She had won the Miss Italy pageant, and was breaking into acting, but died in a plane crash after the film was completed.

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The lovers in happy times, and at the end of it all.

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In Academe’s Groves

July 1, 2014

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The Gray Notebook, by Josep Pla, from a long entry about his days as a university student in Barcelona:

22 March – High Culture

…Syllogisms poured forth.  One pupil piped up confidently:  “Trees breathe through their leaves.”

Sr. Daurella replied gruffly, in his baritone bass pitch:  “The pear tree is a tree.”

And the pupil completed the round enthusiastically:  “Therefore the pear tree breathes through its leaves.”

We were all so pleased as punch we would readily have gone on for another hour or so.  It literally was a land of make-believe.

…How can you refute something you don’t understand or grasp?  It made no difference.  Every year the same episode was rehearsed, an episode I experienced and witnessed repeatedly, and if one ever describes it to anyone not deformed by our official seats of learning, they burst their sides in laughter because it reveals such stupidity – it is the legendary anecdote about Professor Arana.

“Sr. So-and-so,” said the professor in his mellifluous Spanish.  “Today we are doing Kant’s theory (or Rousseau’s).  Tell me about Kant’s theory.  What do you know about Kant’s theory?”

The student stood up, opened the syllabus, shifted his body slightly so his ear was better positioned to hear his prompter on the next-door bench, wet his lips, scratched the nape of his neck, and came out with drivel.  The prompter that day, for whatever reason, was a dreadful prompter.  He was a failure as a prompter.  A tense silence reigned in the lecture theatre.  In the meantime, Sr. Arana glanced at his student register through the gold-rimmed spectacles on the end of his nose.  Finally, the wet fish of a student – to describe him accurately-confessed.

“I didn’t find time to study,” he said, looking distressed, oppressed, and completely at a loss.

“So, Sr. So-and-so,” the professor replied, not at all sourly, smoothing his moustache, as if he were commenting on the weather, “you don’t know Kant’s theory.  But I expect you know how to refute it.  Now, be so good as to refute Kant’s theory.”

As the prompters were a waste of time, sometimes a holy spirit arose from the most unlikely corner of the lecture theater to help the person questioned to survive.  The student heard various noises behind him, (what was known as “rhubarb-rhubarb”) and began to stammer.  Sr. Arana immediately struck the pose of a man who is completely entranced.  He wiped his chin as if he were stroking a goat’s nipple.  The rhubarb-rhubarb made sense and the student bore up.  The professor listened with growing admiration.  The amazing scene always ended with a professorial comment.

“You didn’t know the theory but you did manage to refute it.  That is quite an achievement.”

I don’t think high culture has ever scaled such heights as those exemplified by these absolutely authentic scenes.


The Ideal of Figueres

May 23, 2014

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From The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla:

I personally enjoy city milieus that have the spirit Figueres embodies.  I feel at ease there.  I think this is a city, properly speaking, what one should call a city.  Denser, more extensive concentrations of humanity may exist…but without the same degree of urbanity.  Figueres is a small, yet fully rounded city.  And if it is enchanting because it is fully rounded, it is all the more so because it is small.  Large cities are tiring, stressful, uncomfortable, pretentious, and grandiose:  they tend to give a false idea of life.  Small cities seem more made-to-measure for ordinary mortals, more advantageous for work and leisure, and offer a life that is more direct.  One doesn’t waste so much time, though naturally one doesn’t earn so much money.

Amen to that. Figures was nice, and so was Narbonne!


Bleak House

May 21, 2014

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What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.”

So, true, except for the God part, of course.  I have begun to read Bleak House, a long-term project, and already I find it enthralling.  The story is wrapped around a lawsuit that has gone on for so long that nobody even seems to know what it is about anymore.  The lawyers don’t care of course:  they are busy making money off the legal costs to both sides.  Dickens was drawing upon his first-hand knowledge of the Chancery Court to attack, ridicule, and satirize the institution, which was, in fact, being reformed at about the time his book was written.

The beginning of the book has a dismal, eerie atmosphere that can’t help but make me think of Kafka’s The Trial (both are comic in a dark way) and Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy.  I read the latter over thirty years ago, but what stays with me, and what brings it to mind, is the setting in a bizarre self-contained world populated by all sorts of strange creatures who thrive on the strange and stifling current order of things.

Dickens lays into quite a few things in this book, including do-gooders that cannot seem to do good for themselves or their own families.  The Jellybys and the Pardiggles, the women, that is, are philanthropists who most certainly do not think that charity begins at home.  Mrs. Jellyby is called the “telescopic philanthropist,” because her eyes are always on the plight of the distant Africans, while her children grow hungry, dirty, and wild.  The offspring of these women made me think of An American Tragedy, with its protagonist who endured street-corner missionary life as a tot, and Katy Perry, who was raised by evangelicals who would not allow her to listen to or watch…just about anything other kids were watching and listening to. (She’s certainly done all right.)

Here’s a snip about one tortured tot who is referred to as the Bond of Joy on account of some group he’s been impressed into.  Clearly, spiritual discipline is having unintended side-effects:

And the Bond of Joy, who on account of always having the whole of his little income anticipated stood in fact pledged to abstain from cakes as well as tobacco, so swelled with grief and rage when we passed a pastry-cook’s shop that he terrified me by becoming purple. I never underwent so much, both in body and mind, in the course of a walk with young people as from these unnaturally constrained children when they paid me the compliment of being natural.

This passage in which Esther is dragged with Mrs. Pardiggle on an uninvited and unwanted visit to a family in distress is choice:

Mrs. Pardiggle, leading the way with a great show of moral determination and talking with much volubility about the untidy habits of the people (though I doubted if the best of us could have been tidy in such a place), conducted us into a cottage at the farthest corner, the ground-floor room of which we nearly filled. Besides ourselves, there were in this damp, offensive room a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire; a man, all stained with clay and mud and looking very dissipated, lying at full length on the ground, smoking a pipe; a powerful young man fastening a collar on a dog; and a bold girl doing some kind of washing in very dirty water. They all looked up at us as we came in, and the woman seemed to turn her face towards the fire as if to hide her bruised eye; nobody gave us any welcome.

“Well, my friends,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, but her voice had not a friendly sound, I thought; it was much too business-like and systematic. “How do you do, all of you? I am here again. I told you, you couldn’t tire me, you know. I am fond of hard work, and am true to my word.”

“There an’t,” growled the man on the floor, whose head rested on his hand as he stared at us, “any more on you to come in, is there?”

“No, my friend,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, seating herself on one stool and knocking down another. “We are all here.”

“Because I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?” said the man, with his pipe between his lips as he looked round upon us.

The young man and the girl both laughed. Two friends of the young man, whom we had attracted to the doorway and who stood there with their hands in their pockets, echoed the laugh noisily.

“You can’t tire me, good people,” said Mrs. Pardiggle to these latter. “I enjoy hard work, and the harder you make mine, the better I like it.”

“Then make it easy for her!” growled the man upon the floor. “I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you’re a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom—I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! You haven’t got no occasion to be up to it. I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she IS a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty—it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I’ve been drunk for three days; and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go to church? No, I don’t never mean for to go to church. I shouldn’t be expected there, if I did; the beadle’s too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t, she’s a lie!”

The poor are right in front of Mrs. P’s face, but she cannot know them, and doesn’t want to, really.

At the conclusion of this scene, Esther sees that the sick baby being held by an exhausted women in the room has died, and she is distraught.  The mother collapses in exhaustion while her worn out friend guards the door so she can sleep, as she has not had the chance for several days.


la boutique obscure

May 15, 2014

I am new to Perec, a member of the French Oulipo group.  They were intent on creating literature with systems and constraints:  a premier example is Perec’s novel, La disparition (A Void), written without using the letter ‘e’. (I’m not sure about the English translation!) Personally, I’m not keen on this sort of stuff, but Italo Calvino was an enthusiastic member, so, I’ll try some of it, even though his works that play with such number/word games are, to me, his least appealing.

La boutique obscure is a journal of dreams from the early 1970s. I’ve always been drawn to surrealism, outré romanticism, and films that incorporate dream sequences, so I found it very enjoyable.  He records his dreams pretty straight; not at all the way Freud records dreams, as if they were taken from the text of a dense Victorian novel.

On and off during my life, I have recorded my own dreams.  The more you do it, the more dreams you remember it seems!  I was inspired by La boutique to start a new journal of my unwaking experience.  Here are the first two entries, with explanatory, non-dream, info in brackets.  Obviously, I am time-travelling:

Meeting with J. [a girlfriend from high school]

I am in a library, or some such public building.  I am standing at a high table, like the ones they used to have in the card catalog section, or that you find at a post office.  J comes in.  We are both middle-aged adults. [J. died of a brain tumor before she was forty.]  She is a tiny bit plump, as you might expect of a woman in her fifties who was extremely petite.  She is wearing a brown business suit, and her long blonde hair is touched with some grey.  She is rummaging in a very large, reddish  shoulder bag that she throws on the table.

She tells me, “You stole my mother’s inheritance[?]”

I am indignant, and reply loudly, “I most certainly did not!”

She continues to rummage in her bag, and then says, “Oh, I found it.  I see.”

Meeting with G. [a very wild male friend of mine from junior high school days]

We are sitting, with a table between us, sort of a card table.  We are both adults, dressed in suits.  G.’s hair is still full, and wild as usual.  He is not so thin as when we were boys.  There is half of a large Italian hero on the table between us.  It looks very good; lots of meat and vegetables on good bread.  G. is yelling at me about it, saying that it is somehow wrong that I am eating it.  He is being outrageous and purposely irrational in a way that was typical of him.