Thursday, September 25, 2008

Notes on Annotation: Ulysses, Pale Fire, and the Perils of Limited Professions

Notes on Annotation:

Ulysses, Pale Fire, and the Perils 

of Limited Professions

Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils.

—Dr. Johnson

Footnotes always seem comic to a certain type of mind.

—Vladimir Nabokov

Originally published on About.Coms Classic Literature Page

Before I read the Annotated Student Edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, I didn’t think there was much left to say about the art of annotation that Vladimir Nabokov hadn’t already illustrated in his 1962 novel Pale Fire. Ostensibly edited and annotated by an invented academic named Charles Kinbote (who turns out to be the mad, exiled king of the semi-mythic land Zembla), Pale Fire is a veritable map of misreading, a compendium of all the absurdities that could ever be perpetrated against a text by a so-called expert. Within the novel, Pale Fire is the title of a 999-line poem by Nabokov’s invented poet John Shade, and in a classic Nabokovian play of mirrors, the words “Pale Fire” lurk in the background of Kinbote’s 200+ pages of notes to the poem without him ever uncovering their source in Timon of Athens, which, in yet another Nabokovian gag, happens to be the only Shakespeare play that Kinbote has at hand, but it’s in his uncle’s Zemblan translation, and he can find no analogous phrase to the original Shakespearean lines: “The moon’s an arrant thief/And her pale fire she snatches from the sun (IV, iii, 437–8). Seemingly coincidentally, Kinbote even quotes his own retranslation of these lines from the Zemblan translation (“The moon is a thief:/he steals his silvery light from the sun.”), sending the reader on a hilarious goose chase that Kinbote has no idea about. It’s a perfect comment on the relationship between the artist and the commentator, the former a vibrant star reduced to a “Shade” by the latter—who, like Peter Sellers’ Quilty in the screen version of Lolita, ends up stealing the entire show. So hilariously feckless is Kinbote that even if he had discovered Timon’s statement that “there is boundless theft/In limited professions” (IV, iii, 426–7), he’d probably still have continued his notes as they were, unable to see that he was the butt of the entire joke.

Nabokov got the idea for the novel when he was translating and annotating Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, a project that ran into several volumes and that dedicated three times as many pages to the notes as it did to the text itself. Nabokov prided himself on being a religiously literal translator and his version of Eugene Onegin as a completely transparent window into the original text, but he also saw the potential irony in his own authority as a Pushkin expert—his supposed objectivity a completely subjective thing—and saw how easily he could mislead or be misled in his task. Nabokov was something of an exiled king himself, and to explore the depths of how far his notes could have been led astray by his own precarious circumstances, he adopted Kinbote as his Bizarro-self, the self-styled expert who got almost nothing right.

One of the obvious (and cruelly unfair) referents here is James Boswell, whose Life of Samuel Johnson comprises much of what we know (and almost all of what we believe) about the eminent literary critic. There’s even a quote from Boswell’s Life at the beginning of the book. But Nabokov’s joke goes much farther than just commenting on the perils of sycophantic fire-stealing. Kinbote does a real disservice to Shade’s work and life and family, and it’s possible that he’s dangerous to more people than just his readers.

Discounting Kinbote (as we’re meant to, other than as a brilliant entertainment), the question of notes still remains: How do we navigate the hazy line of objectivity when it’s not an insane neighbor/colleague who gets his hands on the text, when there’s no clear line demarking scholarship from narcissistic self-hagiography? And what happens when that text happens to be James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that the author boasted would have critics scratching their heads for centuries? It seems to me that critics living in the post-Nabokov age would automatically add Pale Fire to their repertoire of dos-and-don’ts before tackling such a project—that they’d laugh knowingly and then scramble to eradicate any Kinbotisms from their method. But with this new annotated edition of Ulysses, I think I’ve discovered an entirely new level of Kinbotian un-self-consciousness—and with it a brand new wrinkle to Nabokov’s game.

The Annotated Student Edition of Ulysses was published by Penguin Classics in 2000, and until recently it was only available in Europe and Canada (I got my copy at Shakespeare & Company in Paris, the namesake of Ulysses’ original publisher). The book is edited by Declan Kiberd, who provides ninety pages of introduction and 300 pages of David-Foster-Wallace-sized endnotes for the 900 pages of text. Kiberd is a professor at University College, Dublin, and his biography-blurb calls him the author of “many articles and television scripts,” which I guess gives him both academic authority and street credibility. Since it looks like Kiberd even wrote the book’s jacket copy (generously quoting his own introduction), this version of Ulysses seems to be entirely in his hands.

Kiberd’s launch into Ulysses begins plausibly enough, with his examinations of the book’s  structure, language, characters, and place in Irish literature starting out fairly even-handedly, but then as the introduction progresses, Kiberd’s biases, blind spots, and pet theories rise far above his exposition of the various critical views that he’s pretending to summarize. In the section on the book’s characters, he becomes absolutely (and endlessly) adamant about how Bloom represents the Androgyne (an opinion that seems to have some validity) and about how the book largely concerns discovering the ideal of genderlessness (which is an outrageous overstatement). When that section ends and the part on Irish writing begins, his diatribe on gender then spills over and shapes everything that he has to say about that too, as if Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality and the Celticization of the androgynous Shakespeare were the entire history of Irish literature. Kiberd also goes to great lengths to stress Joyce’s conformity to then-current critical ideas about gender, even when the Foucauldian and feminist approaches are at complete odds with the book’s evidence, much like when John Shade’s poem fails to live up to everything that Kinbote hopes to find in it.

As is often necessary, I figured I’d give Kiberd the benefit of the doubt and just navigate my way around the distortions and exaggerations that his obsequious academic fealties lead him into, but then just a few pages into the novel itself, I had an epiphany that put the pale fire back into perspective. When Kiberd’s notes strangely didn’t say anything at all about the word “Kinch” (Buck Mulligan’s nickname for Steven Dedalus), I looked it up in the OED (it means “A loop or twist on a rope or cord, esp. the loop of a slip-knot; a noose” [1]) and then saw that the entry two spaces above it was the word “Kinboot.” It struck me as I sat there with the dictionary in my hand that Nabokov must have done the exact same thing (Joyce fanatic that he was) and that for just that split-second I was in on one of his grand jokes. What struck me even more, though, was how quickly Kiberd had led me to Kinbote (which is a variant of Kinboot and which means “Compensation paid, according to Old English usage, for injury or wrong-doing.” The “kin-boot” is booty paid to the surviving kin of the deceased/murdered). When I saw that the two annotators had somehow become one—and that Nabokov’s shade had left me yet another text-game to unravel—I knew that Ulysses was going to be an even more amusing challenge with the notes than it was without.

Reading at about ten pages an hour, with the notes taking almost as much time as the text, I once again relished what Mulligan says to the Englishman Haines about Mrs. Cahill’s Irishisms: “That’s folk, he said very earnestly, for your book, Haines. Five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum. Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind.” Joyce was clearly making a joke about how his own book would one day need extensive notes for anyone to understand it, but I doubt that even he could have foreseen how garbled the whole undertaking would become. (2)
Nabokov’s hand-drawn map of Ulysses’ action
Kiberd seems to have a fair grasp of the text of Ulysses (although there are many instances where he misquotes it in his notes [3]), but what seems to confuse him is what actually happens in the book. Presumably, he’s read all the other books of notes and references (his account of song lyrics and street names and political appointments and timelines is mostly pretty solid), but something about how he describes certain scenes makes me wonder how observant he is about what the book actually dramatizes. For example, when Stephen pees on the beach in the Proteus chapter, the waves behind him make a “fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseiss, oos,” which Kiberd somehow interprets as the sound of Stephen’s urine. Similarly, on the beach again in the Nausikaa chapter, Cissy Caffrey tells Edy Boardman to take Tommy behind the pushcar “where the gentlemen couldn’t see,” and Kiberd writes in his notes, “the gentleman: Bloom,” somehow not noticing that the word “gentlemen” is plural. These are small annoyances that any attentive reader can ignore, but after a while they start to add up, undermining what credibility Kiberd actually does have. Another snowballing annoyance is the sheer number of notes Kiberd makes, about half of them either useless (nose out of joint: peeved; pistachios: nuts, P.O.: post office) or else wildly inflating any possible (or impossible) reference to gender. He’s also not very attentive to when and where words first come up: In the Cyclops chapter, when we’ve read the word “Gob” about half a dozen times (and easily figured out what it means), he finally notes its definition: “slang for ‘by God.’” And when words and references not directly concerning 1904 Dublin come up, it’s almost like you can hear him reading his annotations right out of his Zemblan dictionary. He annotates demimondaines as “people in the twilight world” (in a chapter concerning prostitutes!). He dutifully translates the words la belle dame sans merci (“the beautiful woman without pity”) but fails to note the connotations of the reference to Keats. And he annotates the Aurora Borealis as the “so-called ‘Northern Lights’ constellation.” And beyond even these are the plain Kinbotian weirdnesses. My favorite is Kiberd’s ongoing obsession with cricket, which he defines at one point as “the English national game, one of the subtlest sports.” It makes me think of Kinbote’s increasing annoyance over the very loud amusement park across the street (which later turns out to be a radio).

Joyce’s drawing of Leopold Bloom
Aside from all the annoyances and amusements, though, there are real, detrimental holes in Kiberd’s annotation. The most glaring is that while he picks up on anything even vaguely related to gender, he seems to have very little idea about another one of the book’s most important issues: Bloom’s Jewishness. Kiberd is sensitive to the existence of the Jewishness question, but he just doesn’t seem to know much about Judaism itself. He’s completely silent on the fact that Bloom doesn’t keep kosher (somehow even missing the scene in the Circe chapter when Bloom hides the pig crubeen from his father’s ghost). He fails to note that the “pillar of cloud” that Stephen mentions in the Scylla and Charybdis chapter, ostensibly “linking Stephen to Bloom,” is actually a reference to the Israelites’ Sinai wanderings. He annotates the words “ben Bloom” as “a pun on Slieve Bloom, the inland mountain,” which it may be as well, but he fails to note that “ben” means “son of” in Hebrew. He mis-identifies a Yiddish phrase that Bloom says to his father as German (!). And in the most astonishing lapse, he seems to have no idea what the rite of circumcision entails, either socially or physically. In the Nausikaa chapter, he fails to comment on Bloom’s reference to his foreskin (a reference that speaks volumes about Bloom’s identity as Jew and Irishman), and in the Ithaca chapter, when the narrative mentions Jesus’ foreskin, Kiberd notes that its relic had been “stolen by a centurion after the death of Jesus and conveyed after many removals to Calcata, near Rome.” Apparently, Kiberd thinks that the foreskin is something that’s still in place when Jews die, not only garbling the reference that he attributes to Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, but betraying his utter ignorance of the most basic fact of Jewish male anatomy.(4)

Another major issue with this edition is its basic text, which reprints the original 1922 version of the book rather than the current critically accepted version. In 1984, Joyce scholar Hans Walter Gabler published a “corrected text” of Ulysses, incorporating approximately 5,000 emendations to the 1922 printing, ranging from tiny punctuation errors to entire sentence changes. Some of the changes correct the inevitable typos that Sylvia Beach’s small French press introduced into the book, but many changes derive from Joyce’s last-minute revisions to the serially published chapters that he then neglected to incorporate into the full text that was used for the book version. Gabler’s edition isn’t totally ideal, and Kiberd makes some very good criticisms of it in his introduction (along with many extremely petty and far-fetched criticisms of it), but the fact remains that despite its problems, Gabler’s text is the one that Joyce scholars currently use, and Kiberd doesn’t acknowledge this fact.  It’s not anywhere near as scandalous as Kinbote ferreting away Shade’s poem for his own use immediately after the poet’s spectacular death and manipulating Shade’s grieving widow into letting him edit and annotate it, but it does seem as if Penguin books just wanted to print its own new edition of the book, using a royalty-free public-domain version rather than either the Gabler or the 1960 edition (which was the previously preferred text) and that Kiberd took advantage of this opportunity, despite the larger consensus of the world’s Joyceans, a scenario that definitely seems a bit shady/Kinboty.

Recently meeting someone who’d studied with Kiberd, I asked about this edition, and the man just laughed and said of the professor, “Great guy, terrible scholar.” Then he simply added, “It could have been a lot worse.” Which, after weeding out the nonsense and really learning a lot from this edition, I guess is probably true.

Now that I’ve read Ulysses with Kiberd’s notes, I have this incredibly distracting annotator buzzing around in my head, doing his best to make Joyce’s book his own. But far more than that, I have Ulysses (or at least the Ulysses that was read by everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Nabokov to Thomas Pynchon). And with so much of the staggeringly esoteric information plugged into the book’s vast formula, Kiberd isn’t all that hard to factor out. Joyce is such a luminary that an entire legion of Kinbotes couldn’t steal his fire. And since I’ve heard talk of an annotated Pale Fire in the works somewhere, I guess the next step here is for me to publish my own annotation of Kiberd’s annotation and snatch some of the fire for myself.

—David Wiley

1 This definition is as unsatisfying as any of the other explanations of why Mulligan calls Dedalus “Kinch.” Gifford’s note in Ulysses Annotated says that it derives from the word “kinchin,” which according to the OED is “the term used by 16th c. tramps to denote a [child] belonging to their community.” This makes a certain amount of sense, but it doesn’t explain why Dedalus is “Kinch, the knife-blade” (so many years before The Threepenny Opera [the term isn’t used in John Gay’s original version, The Beggar’s Opera, either]) or why the name tickles Mulligan so much (“O, my name for you is the best. . . .”). Some commentators simply assume that “Kinch” means “knife,” but there doesn’t seem to be any real basis for this. Looking into the stacks, I discovered a site in Greece called the “Kinch Tomb,” from around 300 BCE, but it seems like Kinch was the archeologist who found the tomb rather than the person buried in it. Then looking online, I came across a bunch of genealogy sites for names associated with “Kinch” (Kincheloe, Kinchella, Kinsella, etc.) and found an origin for “Kinch” that’s probably as close as I’ll be able to get without asking Joyce himself. According to Professor John Kincheloe of Meredith College, Raleigh, the surname “Kinch” originated with the twelfth-century Enna Cheinnselaig, the son of Dermot McMurrough (who named Enna after the fourth-century BCE warrior-king Enna Cinnsealach). In a typically gruesome medieval power-play, Dermot gave Enna over to his enemies as a hostage, and to prevent Enna from succeeding his father as King of Leinster, they blinded him (which Dermot did to his other son himself). This may have some bearing on Dedalus’ (and Joyce’s) poor eyesight and problematic relationships with pater and patria. And since the word “Cheinnselaig” has sifted down through the Irish language to mean “haughty, proud, or overbearing,” this might also have some relevance to the young bullockbefriending bard. It’s hard to say whether Joyce (or his character Mulligan) knew the story or the adjective, but since everything else eventually makes its way into Ulysses, maybe this is just another one of Joyce’s labyrinthine word-games.

2 The entire question of notes is a problem that not only gets at the heart of the reading public’s general bafflement over Ulysses, but that underlines one of the fundamental dilemmas of western civilization: the question of intrinsic versus extrinsic meaning/agency/salvation. Read solely from within its own parameters, Ulysses doesn’t seem to contain all of its own keys (unlike its great rival for Novel of the Twentieth Century, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which, rather than daunting you like a tower, surrounds and immerses you like a cathedral), and it’s this non-self-containment that keeps many readers from unlocking all of its levels—or from even entering it in the first place. So great is its humanity that Ulysses could have saved the world, had anyone in humanity been able to understand it, but unfortunately the only Bloom that this novel is meant to be understood by is Harold Bloom. (A) As a flesh-and-blood entity, Ulysses can thus be likened to the human body, which in Christian doctrine is formed imperfect and incomplete and needing an outside source to give it full life. Like the Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece and the Egyptian (and, later, Roman) cult of Isis—which both offer eternal life to their communicants—Christianity is a mystery cult, and it necessarily entails indoctrination (and exclusion). In St. Augustine’s view of eternity, even the greatest heights of pagan sublimity fell short of the required dogma, and it’s this position that worked to stamp out the Pelagian heresy of human perfectibility and that held sway over Western minds for nearly a thousand years, culminating poetically when Dante came along and finally raised a structure that matched the blueprint—a structure that, in an outstripping that would have greatly relieved St. Augustine, eclipsed even the Aeneid in sublimity. Aquinas, though (and, later, Erasmus, who read his Aquinas in a light that Dante had lacked, and who famously referred to Socrates as “Saint Socrates” in one of his Colloquies), had no need to damn Virgil, and he saw that many of the ancient pagans had achieved a moral greatness that was not only exclusive of Christ, but that far exceeded that of Christianity, which permitted torture as a means of conversion. While neither he nor any other medieval theologian would ever have gone so far as to think that eternal salvation could exist without Christ, Aquinas saw the human mind as a rational mirror of the divine universal mind, and despite the subtle counter-arguments of theologians such as Duns Scotus, who saw humanity as irrational, will-driven, and evil (the word “dunce” derives from the name Duns Scotus), salvation gradually came to be seen by the Humanists as intrinsic—as something built into our system and that could be attained from within rather than accepted from without—and it’s precisely this sense of intrinsic salvation that seems to be missing from Ulysses. With notes to explain what the fishgods of Dundrum are, Ulysses is one of the ultimate reading experiences, approaching the Aeneid and The Divine Comedy and even Hamlet at times, but even so, the barrier that the text puts up between the reader and the world that it portrays keeps it from standing on its own and functioning as an organic whole. In terms of linguistic agility and technical skill and attention to detail, Joyce far exceeds any other twentieth-century writer, but I have to admit that I prefer Proust (which may or may not be the criteria for what makes a book “great”). And even though Joyce is far more “post” than anything that the postmodernists achieved, I may even prefer Thomas Pynchon. (B) But then like no other book except the Bible, Ulysses is a hypertext that rewards with each new layer of interpretation and commentary and research. We read in Herodotus of Cyrus’ conquest of Assyria and are given an entirely new understanding of Israel’s release from its Babylonian Captivity in the Bible. And likewise Kiberd supplies the lyrics to “The Croppy Boy,” and all of Irish history bursts out through Joyce’s opaque prism. It may simply be that Ulysses is as great as the Bible and that all we need in order to save the world and ourselves it to read it repeatedly and faithfully. (C) Or maybe it’s just that, like the Bible, its greatness rises up from the fact that no one in the world understands it—or has really even read it. Like the Bible, we just accept its centrality because of what the authorities say about it.

(A) Anthony Burgess was wrong when said that Ulysses was for Everybody. Ulysses is a novel of democracy and equality and peace, but it’s organized in a way that systematically weeds out all but the intellectually elect. Leopold Bloom may be the great equalizer, but only the strongest are able to battle through the text to understand this equality (a conundrum that gets at another one of Western civilization’s great dilemmas: the question of top-down versus bottom-up).

(B) In addition to having a nearly endless wealth of innovation and variety and complexity and depth, Proust and Pynchon are both eminently rich in storytelling, in narrative development, in plot twists, and—especially in the case of Proust—in characters: all the other things that we normally want in fiction but that Joyce either refuses or is unable to give us. (I) Jorge Luis Borges said that Ulysses has no characters, only lists of traits. And as in Dante’s circumscribed labyrinth (or in Christian theology in general), there’s simply a lot that’s been left out. But in place of the swirl of storytelling that we’d hope to find in a novel of this scope, there’s a whirlwind of words and images and ideas and mini- and maxi-structures without parallel in any language. And even though he’s little more than a series of flashing thoughts, Bloom truly blooms in the reader’s consciousness into a living, breathing human being. It’s just that the pleasures of Proust and Pynchon are so extraordinarily great—and challenge us almost as much as Ulysses does—that my own scales of aesthetic bliss tend to tilt in their favor.

(I) One of the most startling aspects of Ulysses is the absence of any kind of story anywhere in the text. There are facts—and memories of facts—that slowly add up to a kind of history (especially in Molly’s soliloquy), but neither Joyce nor any of his characters ever tells a story to anyone: a remarkably deliberate omission in a culture of pubs and churches and funerals.

(C) Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit (from “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) said that Jesus “thown everything off balance,” and this may also be said of Joyce. With Ulysses, Joyce pulls out every stop imaginable, forcing us to disregard all the rules that normally apply to literature, and this may be argument alone for his literary deification. After Joyce, there’s not one jot or tittle left in its assigned place.

3 He sometimes gets word tenses wrong, or misspells names, or simply re-works Joyce’s phrasing to fit the form of the notes. I have a feeling that Kiberd, like so many of the academic types in William Gaddis’ novel The Recognitions, had an unreliable amanuensis.

4 Note to Declan Kiberd: The word “circumcise” comes from the Latin word circumcidere, which means “to cut around.” During circumcision, which for Jews happens on the eighth day after birth, the Mohel (or doctor, in the case of Gentiles like me) cuts the entire way around the penis, removing the foreskin altogether. The reason Bloom still has foreskin is because he was never circumcised.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom: Proust, Nabokov, and the Tyranny of Memory

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom:

Proust, Nabokov, and the Tyranny of Memory

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Vladimir Nabokov
In his Lectures on Literature, which were originally delivered to his students at Cornell University in the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov calls Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time “the greatest novel of the first half of our century.” Although he makes this statement as an aside in his lecture on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, this is no mere throwaway remark. It may in fact be a vast understatement, as many critics consider In Search of Lost Time to be perhaps the greatest work in the history of narrative prose fiction. Whether Proust’s masterpiece surpasses Don Quixote or Moby-Dick or Anna Karenina (or its own near-contemporary, Ulysses) is a pointless question, of course; what matters is that Nabokov read Proust deeply and lovingly and with the eye of a master who was himself in the process of writing his own greatest masterpiece, Lolita.

On the first page of Lolita the narrator, Humbert Humbert, writes, “Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer.” Although the immediate literary reference is to Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Annabelle Lee,” in point of fact there might have been no Lolita at all had Nabokov not loved Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The Proustian themes running through Nabokov’s varied works—the themes of time, memory, identity, sensation, jealousy, loss, etc.—have long been explicated by other critics, but it’s only in the last hundred pages of Proust’s final volume, Time Regained, the book that culminates the 4,300-page novel and that even few critics have actually read, that so many of these themes come together and create a new theme that Nabokov was to extrapolate to such an extreme extent in Lolita.

Marcel Proust, painted by Jacques-Emile Blanche
In recalling how he’d forced his much younger girlfriend Albertine, whom he’d first encountered by the sea, to relive and replay many of his memories of Gilberte, the girlfriend of his adolescence, Proust’s narrator (Marcel, for convenience’s sake) writes about how painful it is to realize that humans grow older while their memories often remains static and amber-trapped: “Indeed nothing is more painful than this contrast between the mutability of people and the fixity of memory, when it is borne in upon us that what has preserved so much freshness in our memory can no longer possess any trace of that quality in life, that we cannot now, outside ourselves, approach and behold again what inside our mind seems so beautiful, what excites in us a desire (a desire apparently so individual) to see it again, except by seeing it in a person of the same age, by seeking it, that is to say, in a different person.”

Humbert similarly forces the young “nymphet” Dolores Haze (aka Lolita) to replay the role of his lost Annabel Leigh, who died soon after their youthful romance by the sea. In her book Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafasi writes astutely about how the tyranny of memory can be forced upon the helpless, and when Lolita’s mother, Charlotte (whom Humbert marries to instate himself in the house) dies while running out into traffic after confronting him about what she reads in his diary—her flight an ostensible attempt to mail damning letters, but also perhaps a suicide—Humbert’s tyranny over the girl-child becomes complete. As he slowly discovers, however, he can ravage her by imposing his memory’s demands upon her, but as a living, growing human being, she will never be able to satisfy his static needs, the same way that Albertine was never able satisfy Marcel’s.

In the very final pages of Time Regained, the perhaps fifty-year-old Marcel makes his preparations to withdraw from society and finally begin writing his novel, but before doing so he asks the still living Gilberte, who has aged so much as to be unrecognizable and grotesque, to help introduce him to young girls. Gilberte is the daughter of Swann and Odette, whose unhappy love story forms much of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s novel, and whose patterns of frustration and betrayal formed the template that the young Marcel would relive in his relationship with their daughter and then later with Albertine. Seeing these patterns and realizing that real life could provide him nothing but dissatisfaction and that his only possible happiness lay in extracting life’s essences from his memory and turning them into a book, he makes this audacious last request of his childhood girlfriend not because he feels that he can find love with any of these young girls. He is far past Humbert’s stage of actually trying to relive the past with someone new. The second volume of Proust’s novel—the volume in which Marcel breaks with Gilberte and then later meets Albertine—can be translated as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom (in the original French, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, with the “en fleurs” suggesting young girls getting their first period), and in making his request to Gilberte, it’s simply the bloom of youth that he wants to be near, to caress in his free time and to use to refresh his aging senses as he delves through their sense-stimulus into the deepest recesses of memory to create his book.

Gilberte’s response to his request is beyond audacious. Unlike Lolita’s mother, who perhaps chooses death when she discovers Humbert’s monstrous nature, this child of Swann and Odette simply perpetuates the past yet again by presenting Marcel with her own teenage daughter. “I thought her very beautiful,” writes Proust’s narrator, “still rich in hopes, full of laughter, formed from those very years which I had lost, she was like my own youth.” The pattern now reset, this exquisite girl, this “masterpiece” of time, as Proust describes her, is now, like her literary successor Lolita, fated to relinquish her hopes, her laughter, her bloom, and the very time that her existence has allotted her to be young and free, to be subjected to the inexorably fixated imagination of a sick old man obsessed with recapturing his own lost time.

—David Wiley

Monday, September 1, 2008

Taxi, by Khaled Al Khamissi

A Review of Khaled Al Khamissi’s Taxi

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2008

By Khaled Al Khamissi
Translated by Jonathan Wright
Aflame Books ($14.95)

. . . mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.
—John Dos Passos, U.S.A.

Khaled Al Khamissi’s fascinating new book, Taxi, is a collection of fifty-eight fictionalized experiences with cab drivers in the author’s beloved and detested Cairo. Taxi drivers are in many ways the voice of the street, creating in this book a kind of oral history in which every story is filtered through dirty windows and is therefore wholly subjective and impossible to verify. After hitting a pedestrian and continuing on his way, one of Al Khamissi’s drivers begins a tirade about Egyptian hospitals that leads to a discussion of the 2006 ferry disaster in the Red Sea, and after detailing his (perhaps credible) account of the ensuing coverups and conspiracies, the driver admits, “I heard this from people and I don’t know where the truth is and where the untruth.” In fact, even much of what Al Khamissi reports as statistical fact about his own subject comes from the subjects themselves. He writes in his introduction that there are 80,000 taxis operating in greater Cairo and that this staggering number is the result of two specific government decrees, but then—far into the book, after having absorbed dozens of stories with this larger picture in mind—the reader discovers that Al Khamissi learned this information from a taxi driver.

Despite its numerous layers of human filters (including translation from Arabic), Taxi is a strikingly immediate portrayal of the lives of Cairo’s struggling cab drivers. Al Khamissi sometimes acts as interpreter and judge of the book’s more extreme moments, but mostly Taxi is the speech of the people, reproduced simply and in the style of the streets. His drivers tell him of endless ripoffs, financial disasters, health and family struggles, corrupt police, and trails of red tape that seem to interweave the nightmares of Kafka with the labyrinths of the Arabian Nights. Each driver is a Scheherazade trying to fend off death for just one more day, and many of them work for days on end without sleep simply to pay the car’s owner and continue working. (Al Khamissi notes that “calculated scientifically… it’s 100 percent a losing proposition.”) As I’ve personally witnessed in innumerable Egyptian taxis, the cars are death traps whose mandatory (and extremely expensive) seatbelts don’t work, and with the also mandatory, expensive, and nonfunctioning meters serving as literal dashboard ornaments, there’s no way to calculate fares without haggling with each customer every time.

For the drivers stuck in this life, these cars are true death traps heading inexorably toward the grave, but as in any life, which inevitably taxis us toward the same destination, Taxi offers moments of levity, quiet joy, and even transcendence. The drivers’ voices ring with pleas for pity, perhaps only to be answered in the end by God, but we are all on the same journey, and these voices deserve to be heard.

—David Wiley