Buildings and Dreams

Bancroft Hotel

I was flipping through my notebooks not too long ago, in search of material for a blog post, when I stumbled upon a couple of old fiction pieces that I had been wrestling with, then put aside. They were partially influenced by a motif one finds frequently in ghost stories written when “scientific” explanations of apparitions were de rigueur: ghosts as the “psychic recordings” of violent events or emotions. The idea, I believe, still circulates in ghost-hunting circles. Listen to the discussion/definition at about 2:55 or so of this YouTube video about the “10 Types of Ghosts”:

To me a ghost is an apparition… sort of a replay of an event that happened a long time ago because of an imprint or place memory…

Continue reading

On Reading Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

My readers may laugh at my foolishness, but my heart was full of adoration. I offered my worship to the pure joy of living, which is God’s own life.

Up until recently, the only piece by Rabindranath Tagore I knew was the lovely ghost-story/fairy tale “The Hungry Stones”. Ever since I first read it, I’d wanted to read more, yet for whatever reason never got around to it.

Then the other week while wandering the stacks of the San Francisco Main Library, I tripped over the Oxford Press collection Selected Short Stories, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri. This was a great place to start; the translations seem excellent (of course, I can’t read the original Bengali to compare), and the volume has an great introduction, with enough information about Tagore’s life and history to give his stories context. All the stories have extensive footnotes, to explain details that would be obvious to a South Asian reader, but not necessarily to a western one: points of Indian culture and history, literary and folkloric references.

I binge-read the whole thing. Then I found other collections on Project Gutenberg, and read more.

There’s all kinds of nerdy pseudo-intellectual things I could say about these stories. I could talk about how I love the way Tagore weaves Indian folklore and mythology through his stories (right down to the choice of characters’ names). Or about his criticism of contemporary Hindu society, with its caste-system and problematic attitude towards women (the editor has a great quote: “a society that cannot protect its women but is inhumanly insistent on their purity”). About the gentle, even sympathetic way he presents his flawed, weak characters — without ever leaving a doubt that, yes, some of them are very flawed indeed.

All of these things are true, and they’re points that I admire. But none of that really describes how I feel. I loved these stories. Some of them made me cry. But to say that isn’t enough. I’m an analytical person by profession, and I have a concrete viewpoint by nature. I often have a hard time describing something as abstract as my reaction to something that I’ve read and loved. So I’ll just quote this, from “The Victory:”

[The poet] took his seat. His hearers trembled with the sadness of an indefinable delight, immense and vague, and they forgot to applaud him.

That’s kind of how I feel about these stories. Often so sad, always so beautiful. Just read them.


Here are some of my favorites (that I could find online):

  • The Kabuliwala: I love this story.
  • The Hungry Stones: Of course.
  • The Renunciation: Pointed attack on the caste-system. Also one of the few instances I can think of in Tagore’s short stories where the heroine’s male ally stands up to society and supports the heroine.
  • The Wife’s Letter: A biting picture of woman’s position in the Hindu society of Tagore’s time. It’s a powerful story, though I like the translation in Selected Short Stories better.

Enjoy.


Image: Rabindranath Tagore, painted by his nephew, painter and cartoonist Gaganendranath Tagore.

Two More Literary Excavations

NewImage

I found and posted a couple more of my old short stories to Ephemera. I think this is it. Now I have to write more new ones….

I wrote Sally: A Fantasy a few years back to tell out loud at this kind of variety show thing a few friends of mine and I put on. We had a little social writing group together. One of my friends is an actress/dancer who wanted a venue for her one-woman monologues; another is an experimental documentary filmmaker who wanted a venue to try out her foray into live multimedia storytelling. Me? I was just there, and needed something to perform. And you know I like ghost stories.

Today is Marta’s birthday. It’s a big one: she’s turning seventy. All Marta really wants for her birthday is to see her grandkids. She hardly ever sees them, because her daughter, Ruth, is always “too busy” to come visit. She’s also “too busy” to talk on the phone, and she never invites Marta over, either. Marta can count on the fingers of one hand how often she’s seen Ruth’s family in the last few years.

She lives alone, with a cat named Valentino, and a hallucination named Sally.

The piece was well received, as I recall; several folks in the audience said that it had them on edge of their seat. Reading it back now, I still like it well enough, but I find it somehow unsatisfying from a craft point of view. In particular, the present-tense that I used doesn’t sit too well with me, though it felt natural in the oral storytelling. But it seemed worth putting up, and so I did.

Horsefly is something I worked on and then abandoned. The first draft of it is substantially what I posted to Ephemera; but I tried to fill it out, make it longer, extend it into the past and future of that single day. It didn’t go anywhere, and reading it back now, I like the short piece that I started with. I think it’s all it needs to be. The hypercritical part of my mind thinks that the characters are a bit one-dimensional; but maybe that’s inevitable in a piece this short? As with fairy tales, maybe brevity forces you to deal in archetypes rather than fully-realized, contradictory beings. Or maybe that’s all baloney and I’m just being hypercritical. Anyway, I like the ending, and so up on Ephemera it goes.

The mattress springs creaked overhead as he awoke and rolled over in bed. The coffee had just finished brewing, but the eggs weren’t done. I turned up the flame and stirred the eggs around in the frying pan even faster, keeping one ear attuned to the rasp of the springs and the creaking of the floorboards.

Clang clang.

I grabbed a plate from the cupboard and scooped the eggs on. A gobbet of egg missed the plate and fell to the breakfast tray. Oh, I would hear about that — but no time to deal with it now. Plate on the tray, napkin, fork, knife, coffee cup, coffee. The carafe dribbled as I poured the fresh brew; I mopped the drops off the saucer, and the drips from his cup, then carefully carried the tray up the stairs.

Clang clang.

Tom was sitting up in bed, his left hand just about to hit the little silver bell on the bedside table, the kind of bell you sometimes see at the desks of hotels. Tom had been a month in a convalescent home for intensive physical therapy after he’d broken his hip. When he was ready to be discharged, a young aide there had shown me how to buy the bell online. Like many things, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Hope you enjoy.


Image: The Reader, Frederico Zandomeneghi. Sourced from WikiArt.

A Darkish Little Fairy Tale, or An Anecdote on Writing

The last rays of the sun aspen forest 1897 jpg Large

A cool fact about aspens (from Wikipedia):

All of the aspens typically grow in large clonal colonies, derived from a single seedling, and spread by means of root suckers; new stems in the colony may appear at up to 30–40 m (98–131 ft) from the parent tree. Each individual tree can live for 40–150 years above ground, but the root system of the colony is long-lived. In some cases, this is for thousands of years, sending up new trunks as the older trunks die off above ground. For this reason, it is considered to be an indicator of ancient woodlands. One such colony in Utah, given the nickname of “Pando”, is estimated to be 80,000 years old, making it possibly the oldest living colony of aspens. Some aspen colonies become very large with time, spreading about 1 m (3.3 ft) per year, eventually covering many hectares.

In other words, a stand of aspens is really one organism. It’s like planting a piece of ginger root: eventually, these narrow, green, bamboo-like stalks will sprout from the rhizome. If you’ve buried the ginger, then each stalk looks like an individual plant, but they’re really all sprouts from the same root. Aspens are kind of the same way.

Continue reading

A Twenty-first Century Ghost Town

IMG 1511

I’m walking through the housing development where my parents live, in the Sierra foothills, a half-hour out of Reno. I can’t get over how silent it is. No cars drive by; no music or conversation leaks out of the houses that I pass. No birds. No insects. The sounds of the highway and the town don’t reach out here. There’s nothing but the sound of my footsteps. Even the lone dog that finally barks as I pass only serves to accentuate the stillness.

Continue reading

Before there was Multo…

… there was Ephemera, a blog I originally had to share little pieces I wrote with my friends. I stopped using it after I started Multo, but I never deleted it.

I’ve been unearthing a few other pieces I wrote back in those days, pieces I wrote for writing classes and whatnot. Most of them are cringeworthy, but a few I can read and think, “Huh. Not too bad.”

Of all the old pieces I found, the one I like best is “Temptation,” which has a bit of a fantastic theme, and so fits with this blog. I’ve put it up on Ephemera, along with a couple of others, just because.

“Eating alone again, I see.” His tongue tickles my left ear as he whispers this, sliding past my shoulder to slip into the place across from me in the diner booth. “This is getting to be a habit.”

“She was tired. And I don’t like conversation over breakfast, anyway,” I reply, hoping that for once he’ll get the hint. He just tilts his diamond-shaped head to one side and smirks, his tongue continuing to flick in and out. The waitress comes by to take his order: rabbit, live, and a bowl of water. I look down at my plate and concentrate on my bacon and eggs over hard, hoping he’ll just find a newspaper and not torture me. But no.

When I wrote it, the group I read it to didn’t get it, but I’m hoping that people more attuned to the sort of things I like to read might be in a better position to see what I was trying to do.

Read the rest here.

Hope you enjoy.

Ghosts, Moments, and Miracles

Book2

Somewhere else, I called Ghosts, by Argentinian writer César Aira, “a charming, meandering book of philosophical musings disguised as a novel.” That’s meant as a compliment. The story is nominally about the laborers, mostly Chilean immigrants, who are working on the construction of a luxury condominium high-rise in Buenos Aires. The construction site is haunted by ghosts, bawdy naked men covered in construction dust. The ghosts are invisible to the architects, designers, and project developers, as well as to the building’s wealthy future residents. They can only be seen by the workmen, who are about as visible to the project developers and future residents as the ghosts are. The Chilean foreman and his family live on the construction site as caretakers, and the ghosts take a special interest in the foreman’s thoughtful, dreamy, teenage stepdaughter Patri.

It’s a slim novel at 139 pages, and the plot itself is about enough for a short story. The rest of the book is filled with digressions, some by the omniscient narrator, some put in the thoughts of the characters. I picked up the novel expecting a regular ghost story, so at first the book seemed slow — it is slow — but after I adjusted to its reality, I enjoyed it. Aira rambles on about art, literature, architecture, how the arrangement of buildings in an African village reflect the expected modes of interaction among the villagers, homeopathy, marriage, the difference between the complacent Argentinian upper-middle-class and the immigrant Chileans…

This is a long-winded way of saying that arguing with the book while reading it seems like a perfectly natural thing to do.

What happened? Late in the book, the ghosts invite Patri to their New Year’s eve party. She has to think about it.

Invitations to a magic party with ghosts were obviously going to be very rare. There might be another chance, but for Patri that was beside the point. She was wondering how many such invitations there could be in eternity. That was a different question. Repetition in eternity was not a matter of probabilities, no matter how large the numbers. In eternity, as distinct from “in life” or “outside life,” this party was an absolutely unique occasion.

No, no, NO! I wanted to shout at the book (I was in a restaurant, so I didn’t). In all eternity, this invitation is bound to happen again.

Continue reading

Footprints in the Sand, Messages in Bottles

Beach1

That’s how I think of my social media presence, and really about this blog, too. Will anyone follow the footprints that I leave along the beach? Will they pluck my bottles from the surf? It’s up to you, they’re there to find. It’s haphazard, to be sure, but there it is.

Folks in my circle have been wandering over to Ello, ever since the Facebook “real names” kerfluffle. I don’t know if it will stick (indications right now are that it won’t, with my set), but I was curious, and I wrangled myself an account. The various kinds of social media each have their strengths and shortcomings; I haven’t found one that fits me well, but maybe that’s more about me than anything else.

Anyway, it gave me an excuse to update my “About” page with a more complete list of places to find me (places that have to do with Multo, that is). I’ll add it here, as well.

Twitter: (@MultoGhost) (this button is also on the side). Almost exclusively tweets about things that might be interesting to those who read this blog: new posts, posts from the archives, tweets about what I’ve been reading or watching that others might find interesting. The occasional video.

Google Plus: (Nina Zumel) Notifications about new blog posts to Multo or to my other blogs (ninazumel.com or win-vector.com/blog). I don’t use it for much else.

Ello: (@NinaZumel) Ello isn’t fully public yet, but I think you can see my profile (such as it is) by clicking on the link. I’m leaving this one open to any possible content: about my blogs, about my dancing, random photos and musings. There’s not much here yet; how it evolves depends on whether anyone follows me here, and who they are. I see it right now as “Twitter without the character limit”, and will probably use it accordingly. I would like a place to leave things for you (my readers) that are longer than a tweet, shorter than a blog post. We’ll see…

Yes, I’m on Facebook, too, but I haven’t enabled following on my account, and I don’t plan to.

And if any much of you are on Google Plus, well, I can revive that, as well.

Carlos and Julio (and Monty)

The good news: it was a beautiful weekend to celebrate Non Stop Bhangra‘s ten year anniversary. The bad news: I danced so hard I think I broke my toe. This at least gave me an excuse to sit around all Sunday, finishing up Julio Cortázar’s Blow-Up and other stories.

Foot

Owwwww.

I couldn’t help comparing him (well, this collection) to my recent bout of Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes (or what I’ve read of him, this time around) has a distinct set of preoccupations that permeate all his work. The primary one is the intrusion of the past into the present, or the revisiting of the past in the present. This often expresses itself in his work as reincarnation, ghosts, doubles, history repeating itself. Memory and history are recurrent themes as well, closely related to the first, and also rife with ghost story possibilities. Oh, and there’s sex and erotic longing. The second usually leads to the first, of course — but not always.

If Cortázar has an obsession, then it’s transmigration. Not just in the sense of reincarnation, but more generally in the sense of the transference of essence, of souls. It might be across species (“Axolotl”), across centuries (“The Night, Face Up”, “The Idol of the Cyclades”),  or between people (“The Distances”, “Secret Weapons”, “A Yellow Flower”). One also senses in many of these stories the fear of losing control (“House Taken Over”; the just-released “Headache“, translated into English for the first time by Michael Cisco). There’s a fair bit of longing in his stories, too – the unrequited kind. Perhaps it’s for the best friend’s wife, or even a blood relative (a commenter on The Weird Fiction Review‘s profile of Cortázar mentions the author’s “complicated feelings towards his own sister” — this is the first and only thing I’ve heard about it, but it is true that “House Taken Over” and “Bestiary” both have a weird vibe).

Continue reading

Aura and Constancia: Ghost Stories from Carlos Fuentes

2563738494 1725dc78df z

I’m on a Carlos Fuentes kick right now. A Latin American kick, really, but Fuentes seemed like a good place to start, if for no other reason than I’ve been meaning to read The Crystal Frontier for a while, and because I recently read an excerpt from Terra Nostra that blew me away (and another one that, unfortunately, really didn’t). Of course, being me, I didn’t actually start with The Crystal Frontier, but with the 1962 short novel Aura, relatively unknown to English-language readers, but arguably Fuentes’ most popular work among the Spanish-language reading public, and one that a Mexican blogger once wrote me was his favorite of Fuentes’ “horror stories.” Oh, and look: there on my bookshelf, patient and forgotten, is the collection Constancia, and other stories for virgins (1989) — I don’t go down my to-be-read pile in the order of purchase, and, well, sometimes things fall through the cracks. Or off my bedside table, as the case may be.

So, Aura first, Constancia next. This was a fortuitous ordering, because the novella Constancia (the first novella from the collection) is in many ways Aura revisited….

Continue reading