Hazards of living in Alberta

I lived in Alberta for roughly twenty years before moving to New Brunswick about five years ago. Over the last few days, I’ve discovered one of the hazards of having lived there for so long. You are never where you were. (If you’re impatient, just scroll to the end for the capper.)

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Marquez and his Melancholy Whores

(Review of Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)

When I first read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores (translated by Edith Grossman), a novella published in English in 2005, I did not like it. I’ve recently re-read it and found it much more rewarding.

I believe my first reading was influenced by the name Marquez and thus by expectations. But this is a different kind of book than those he is best known for and while some of his former style remains, such as syntax and tone, the fantastic element found in books like One Hundred Years of Solitude has been replaced by the fantastic nature of memory, perception and ego.

In this book, Marquez offers his take on a story idea we’ve seen before, most notably for me in Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties (from which Marquez borrows a quote for the story’s epigraph).

The skeleton of the story is this: on his ninetieth birthday, an aging Lothario decides he will treat himself to a virgin. The madam of a brothel he has frequented throughout his life arranges this for him. She provides a young girl drugged with bromide and valerian.

That part is similar to Kawabata’s story. But while in House of the Sleeping Beauties the old man can only lie beside and observe the young girl sleeping, in Melancholy Whores the narrator is expected to have sex with his provided girl, taking her virginity.

He doesn’t, however. Rather, he becomes infatuated with her and falls in love, or so he would describe it.

Many people didn’t like this book when it came out finding it lacking what had attracted them to many of the books that had made Marquez famous. But I think the inevitable comparisons readers make when they read something new from an author they’re familiar with are, in this instance, misleading. This book isn’t like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera. If it is similar to anything it might be The Autumn of the Patriarch.

Colombia's Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Photo: AFP)

Marquez isn’t interested here in communities, families, relationships, history, fable and many of the other elements that appear in his famous books. He is interested in one person and one person alone. In Autumn of the Patriarch, his interest is in a man of power and exploring that man’s nature.

His narrator in Melancholy Whores is like the man of power, although in the world he is not a powerful man. (He is a newspaper columnist.) But like Patriarch, this book is an exploration of the male ego, or at least one of its manifestations.

The young virginal girl the narrator names Delgadina only exists in the narrator’s head. It could be any girl, really. He fashions a character for her; he falls in love with this imagined character.

But it is hardly love since what he imagines all returns to, focuses on and is born out of him. Everything relates back to him. Everything is about his gratification – not sexual gratification but the gratification of his imagination. And his imagination is his ego.

This relationship with Delgadina that he creates in his head is a variation of all the relationships he has ever had with women: sex paid for or taken (rape). In the story he relates how, to his surprise, he discovers his housekeeper (whom he had raped over twenty years ago) had been in love with him. He, however, had been oblivious. She had existed for keeping his house and sex. Beyond that, he was hardly aware she existed.

He is an utterly isolated man with no apparent awareness of this or why it should be so.

I read Autumn of the Patriarch many years ago and my recollection of it may not be the best, but it struck me as something recounted in a delirium, the dreamlike memory of a patriarch. Similarly, Memories of My Melancholy Whores makes me think of someone talking nonstop about himself. No matter what subject comes up, he relates it to himself. Like Patriarch, the focus is always the same: the narrator.

It is this obsession with self that is responsible for his isolation. It is also this self-obsession that poisons those who get close to him, like his housekeeper; like his Delgadina.

If this book lacks the breadth that books like One Hundred Years of Solitude had it is because the narrator’s world lacks that breadth. He can only see the world in terms of himself and that diminishes life’s possibilities and constrains it.

This is the story of man who has lived ninety years alone and with no true awareness of why and no ability (or desire) to change it.

And about child prostitution …

A scene from the miovie Memoria de mis putas tristes (Memories of my Melancholy Whores)

I saw on IMDb.com that a movie of this book has been completed (Memoria de mis putas tristes). I also saw this story from October 2009 about a group suing the film protesting that it promoted child prostitution.

And that brings up a disturbing aspect of Marquez’s book, as well as Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties.

They do concern child prostitution and pedophilia. In both cases, however, they are about the mind of the person with the attraction to children.

In the case of Memories of My Melancholy Whores, we get a telling insight into what is really happening and why. Marquez’s narrator is consumed with himself. His ego obliterates all parts of his personality and tries to go beyond that by consuming the self of the young girl he calls Delgadina. As horrific as the physical aspects of child prostitution may be, perhaps the real violation is in being banished to non-existence; it’s in being obliterated by the other’s ego, as we see in Marquez’s story.

It’s not so much that they become chattel as it is they become props.

The aberrant behaviour results from the dominating ego that can’t incorporate with the rest of the world. It wants to shape and define the world in the service of itself. Like Marquez’s narrator who speaks of love, a person like this often talks about how much they love and care for their victim when it is anything but love. If anything, it is a kind of murder: a murder of the soul.

And that is what Memories of My Melancholy Whores is really about: a stunted, self-obsessed ego.

It is worth noting that the narrator is never named nor do we learn the real name of the girl in the story. In the romantic, sentimental fantasy the narrator’s ego constructs, individuality does not exist; only imagined characters do.

You don’t need a name if you don’t exist as an individual.

You need poetry in your posts

What the world really needs is poetry in posts. Seriously. Keep in mind, when we use the word poetry we usually mean it in one of two ways.

There is the very technical use when we are talking about something like a Shakespearean sonnet. But there is also the much more common use, in the general population, where it refers to really damn well done communication.

When it is damn well done communication it often uses metaphors, similes and analogies. It uses examples and descriptive language without going overboard. It creates images that communicate sense and makes what we read relatable and understandable.

Bald facts are boring. And they’re often difficult to wrap your head around. But poetry, in a very broad sense, makes them clear and drives home their meaning. Let’s try an example to see if I can communicate this notion.

I could write a post that would have the merit of being brief by simply writing, “Before any public speaking engagement, it is important to go to the bathroom beforehand.”

Or, I could write this:

About 45 minutes into my two hour lecture before 1,000 students at the University of Ottawa, I crossed my legs. Roughly five minutes later, I crossed them more tightly.

Not long after, perhaps five minutes, I began to perspire freely although the room was climate controlled and quite pleasant. Unfortunately, I had to pee. And I had about 50 more minutes to go at the lectern.

As it turned out, I humiliated myself by peeing my pants before a thousand eyes and thus learned my lesson: always pee before a public engagement!

Imagery conveys meaning and imagery is often the element that adds poetry to a post, in the sense I’m using the word.

Why would a news network send someone to a place devastated by an earthquake when they can simply say it registered 7.9 and over 500 people lost their lives? It costs money to send people all around the world. But the data doesn’t quite convey the meaning. Images of people and structures ravaged by the event do. It makes the event relatable and understandable.

So put some poetry in your posts. Make it mean something to me and everyone else.

Put another way, try telling a story that makes your message vivid.

Don’t have two Cinderellas in one story

This is about sports and stories – specifically, hockey and stories. So you’ve been warned.

We’re down to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s a big deal in Canada and, depending on who and where you are, it may be a big deal to you.

Two teams are in it: the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins. How people have been responding to them has been interesting, especially if you’re fascinated by stories.

It goes like this.

Vancouver started at a disadvantage. They were favoured to win by most people and had been for some time. Boston was not. Advantage Boston.

Still, Vancouver brought a great story to the table. They came into the NHL in 1970 and, despite coming close, had never won the Stanley Cup. That’s like 40 years. They’re due; the fans have been yearning for one since the day they began.

That’s a good story.

Unfortunately, Boston had a good story too. An “original six” team. They were founded in 1924! Over 80 years ago! They have won Stanley Cups – five, I believe – and last won the big prize in the 1971-1972 season. That, too, is almost 40 years. They’re due; the fans are pining.

The series begins in Vancouver and the Canucks win the first two games. Now the team that is expected to win is looking good, ahead 2 games to none. Disadvantage Vancouver. The Boston Bruins are clearly defined as the underdogs.

People love underdogs. And now we’re headed into Boston.

Those first two games are set up with a bit of action. The plot hasn’t really kicked in yet. Now that the scene shifts to Boston, the real action begins.

The Bruins trounce the favoured Canucks two straight games and suddenly the good guy isn’t so appealing and the bad guy isn’t such a bad guy. Not only that, the media are on the case of the favoured Canucks and they’re cherry-picking players to hang out to dry. The bastards!

Boston still has that underdog appeal but now some of it has moved over to the Canucks.

People love the underdog story. I’ve said that but it’s worth repeating. We get confused when the favourites start looking like underdogs too. Advantage Vancouver. They have us all muddled.

Then back to Vancouver for Game 5. The Canucks win. Now they’re up 3 games to 2 and we all realize that yes, the Bruins are the underdogs and we never really liked those Vancouver Canucks anyway. They’re too … They’re too … They’re too something. We’ll think of the word eventually.

Back to Boston.

Ah geez … Sure we wanted Boston to win, but not like that. Now we’re confused again. They thumped the Canucks. Now we think maybe Vancouver is the underdog. Forty years is a long time waiting, you know.

Oh yeah. Boston’s been waiting almost forty years too. They’re the underdog.

Or are they?

You see the basic problem with this particular story? We’ve got two Cinderellas. Who do you love? Who do you hate?

Whoever wrote this Stanley Cup Final story didn’t know what they were doing. Underdogs, buried beneath innumerable obstacles, lifting themselves up to win … People love that story, as Kurt Vonnegut might say.

But when you have two underdogs it’s vexing to say the least.

So today’s lesson is simply this: Never have two Cinderellas in your story.

And in case you’ve not seen it yet, here is Mr. Vonnegut describing the shape of stories:

YouTube Preview Image

If the door is locked, use a window

When you find a door locked it’s not unusual to waste a lot of time trying to open it. But it’s locked and no matter what you do it won’t open.

That is when you pause, take a look around and notice the window – and it’s open.

That’s your way in. It can take a while to notice it, however, because you are so focused on that locked door.

That is, in part, what I’ve recently noticed.

I’ve deliberately dropped off from this blog and social media in general the last few months because it was consuming too much time and I have many things that need attending – reworking, restructuring and just plain completed.

Unexpectedly, however, I found myself posting quite a bit on my other site, Piddleville. Why is that?

I’ve wondered about that and have concluded there are a few reasons. Creatively, I can’t just stop. I have to write. And even though a I do a good deal of it in my various jobs, I need to write something that really engages me. (Not that the jobs don’t, but they don’t in quite the same way.)

It also keeps me engaged with the subject of storytelling because movies (which the site is about) are stories and that is what I love. They are also something unconnected to my work (though there is some relationship, albeit tenuous.) In a sense, focusing on them is a kind of mental break from the work, finances and other things I’m focused on. It’s relaxing, even meditative.

From a practical point of view, it is also relatively easy to post on Piddleville because I have such an archive of material that when I can’t post something new, I can re-post material – possibly with some updating – and it is still valid and relevant.

In other words, the Writelife door is shut and locked (though I do have the key, as this post suggests). But the Piddleville window is open and I’m using, though I hadn’t intended to.

I suspect I’ll be returning to Writelife soon since much of what I have been taking care of the last few months is about 85 to 90 percent in place. Just today I started two posts – one on social media, another on Google and usability – but they are “in progress” for now. And somewhere in my head I think I have about sorted out my thinking on the subjects of storytelling and curation.

Hopefully, I will be reengaging very soon.

(Photo: Kal111 — Flickr)

The editor steps in again

It’s been unusually quiet at Writelife. You can blame the editor for that. I have three posts unpublished because the editor has nixed them. Yes, the editor is me. The editor is a self-editor.

What was wrong with the posts? They were cranky. Whiny. The tone was all bitchiness.

The editor doesn’t like that. Not when that is all that’s being generated. There is nothing wrong with those kinds of posts. Some people have huge followings because they’ve made a point of finding things to complain and rant about. But I tire of reading those kinds of things quickly and soon find them more annoying than anything. Not wishing to become that kind of blog, my editor politely declines such posts.

I have been posting, however. But I’ve been doing it at my other site, Piddleville, a site about movies — another form of storytelling.

I’m fascinated by storytelling, have little more to add on the subject of it, but have all kinds of enthusiasm for stories, which movies are.

But here on Writelife? Today’s original post (declined by the editor) was about the why behind the lengthy silence. It may show up following a rewrite but for now the explanation it contained sounded too whiny. So the editor said, “No.”

I have to go back to Seth Godin. He manages to post every day. He’s able to because he knows each post needn’t be a book, lengthy essay, dissertation. They are often so short you wonder if it’s a post or a headline. But there is value in each one.

I must learn how to do that.Православни икони