Reconnecting

French Novelist Marie NDiaye

For one month out of every year, I attempt to read only authors I have not previously read. One of the biggest surprises this month as been French novelist Marie NDiaye, whose novel My Heart Hemmed In [Mon coeur à l’étroit] I have just finished reading. Unlike many postmodern writers, who do not shy away from boring their readers to tears, NDiaye carries out a relentless examination of the life of her heroine, a teacher who, along with her husband, suddenly finds herself roundly hated by most of her acquaintances. Nadia has distanced herself from her ex-husband, her son, and her parents. She has gained weight, and several of the people she meets assume that she is pregnant.

The story begins when her husband Ange returns from the class he has been teaching with a serious stomach wound. A neighbor shows up who is known to everyone she meets as an educator and television personality, but whom she does not know as both she and Ange do not even own a TV, being disconnected from their popular culture. NDiaye follows Nadia closely as she begins to try to reconnect with her past and try to come to terms with the pain she feels. The process is a wonderfully told voyage of self-discovery that transforms her.

I have always felt that the best novels involve a radical transformation of the main character. What NDiaye has done is make this voyage exciting rather than the usual banal. I can see myself reading more of her works in the months to come, most recent of which is La Cheffe, which is on my TBR pile.

 

 

Plague Diary 8: Beginning to Fray

Santa Monica Bay in the Plague

We have had two full weeks of staying in place during the coronavirus epidemic. I have managed to develop a routine that sees me through the day, but the stress is beginning to tell on Martine. She cannot bear to stay in the apartment except to sleep, wash, and eat. The rest of the time, she takes long walks while listening to old 1960s rock tunes on a Sansa Clip MP3 player I got for her.

It is tough not having any place to go. No restaurants. No book stores. No museums. No movie theaters. No parks. Even the beach scene above from the Los Angeles Times will be difficult, as the beach parking lots are closed. In the meantime, the U.S. is getting some 18,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, and the growth rate is looking frighteningly logarithmic. For someone like Martine who doesn’t like to read and who dreads the “Bring Out Your Dead” tone of the news media, escape is an answer of sorts.

I fear that the stay in place orders will continue through the month of April—at the very least. I will do whatever I can to ease Martine’s restless desperation, though it won’t be easy.

 

Plague Diary 7: Who Was That Masked Man?

Public Transit at a Time of Plague

I wish I had my camera with me. Why? Because I am witnessing things during this time of plague that may not be seen for another hundred years.

This morning, I took a two-mile walk down Broadway to Bay Cities Italian Deli on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica. It was a cool, crisp, sunny day, free from the lowering clouds that have beset us during the last couple of weeks. Since the long spell of rain, together with an ingrown toenail, kept me indoors, I thought it would be best to take the bus back.

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, there had been some changes. Passengers on foot had to board from the rear door and did not have to pay any fare. There was a yellow cord stretched just past the two sideways-facing seats in front separating the front from the rear of the bus. The front seats were reserved for wheelchair passengers and passengers with strollers who needed the ramp to be lowered for them. The whole idea is to minimize interaction between driver and passengers. Even so, the driver probably still has to help secure wheelchairs to the side of the bus.

Even so, during the ride from Lincoln to my stop at Bundy Drive, there were never more than four passengers aboard, all sitting several feet from one another for social distancing purposes.

The Big Blue Bus (as the Santa Monica Municipal Bus Lines is known) is a well-run public transportation service. I can see that, given the restrictions enforced by Coronavirus, they are losing beaucoup bucks during this strange period, but I am reassured that, even now, public transportation is still available, and that it is free of charge.

 

 

Plague Diary 6: Good News from My Dentist

Watching the News These Days Is Like the Dance of Death

There’s nothing like a spell of plague to make one doubt one’s sources of information. And mainly, I mean the news.

On Saturday, I bit into some fruit, only to have one of my dental crowns pop out. Inwardly, I cursed. Can the crown be glued on? Will a new super-expensive crown be necessary? Or is the underlying tooth rotten, requiring an implant? Fortunately, my dentist was able to see me today. It looks like I’ll need a new crown.

During our conversation, I learned a few things that seem to go against most of the news stories I’ve been seeing lately about the coronavirus. (And really, it seems that over 75% of the news is about just that.)

My dentist came in just for me, her office being closed for more routine dental procedures. So the atmosphere was more casual than usual. We started talking about the “plague” that is gobbling up all the news services. She expected that she expected that the virus would be old news within a couple of weeks. All viruses have a life of somewhere around four to six days. The two weeks isolation described by the news services was because many people are infected by contact with multiple carriers of the virus.

It turns out that the UCLA Dental School, with which she is affiliated, will be re-opening within a couple of weeks. Why would they do that if there is any substantial danger to the dentists?

She re-iterated the usual advice about washing one’s hands, but added one very useful piece of information: Be sure to dry your hands. Viruses like a moist, warm environment.  Social distancing generally works. The main danger is being in close contact with someone who cynically does not believe in changing his or her lifestyle, which is a danger to the sick and elderly, who are most likely to die of the virus.

 

 

The Old World and the New

Columbus’s Landing on San Salvador in 1492

Because of my extensive travels in Latin America, I have become interested in the subject of how the discovery of the New World impacted on Europe. Due to the circumstances of my Coronavirus related social distancing, I have been reading up a storm. One thin book I noticed in my history collection was J. H. Elliott’s The Old World and the New 1492-1650 (Cambridge University Press, 1970).

The discovery of America was such a big event with so many aspects to it that Europeans had a difficult time wrapping their heads around it. Even though so much of the economy of Spain and the rest of Europe was affected by the flood of gold and silver brought to Seville by the treasure fleets, and even though so many new foods and social habits (smoking) spread across the continent, Europeans were somewhat nonplussed for the first couple of centuries after the conquest.

Elliott quotes 1 Corinthians 14:10-11 to summarize the effect:

There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.  Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

In his essay “On Cannibals,” Montaigne speculated on the Brazilian natives through the eyes of the Greek philosophers:

These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but ‘tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them; for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.

Sometimes, I still think that Europeans still are trying to wrap their heads around the New World.

 

Plague Diary 5: Social Distancing

The Intersection of the 101 and 110 Freeways in Downtown L.A.

The above picture from the Los Angeles Times says it all: Even at 4 am, it is not otherwise so uncrowded. Of course, I haven’t been using the freeways lately, as there is quite literally nowhere to go. No restaurants, no parks, no museums—and no sun either. Ever since the “Stay in Place” order went out, Southern California has been assailed by an untypical chain of rainy weather for this time of year, what we call the Pineapple Express.

My main forays from my apartment have been unsatisfying trips to food markets to pick over the bare bones of what the hoarders have left in their wake. And just to make things worse, I popped another crown on Saturday and have to make an appointment with my dentist to see whether it could be glued back in. Now I have partly or wholly missing teeth on both sets of my uppers. The wholly missing one will, with luck, be replaced by an implant … sometime in July.

Right now, the rain is falling steadily; and Martine is coming down with a sore throat. For now, I am watching old movies (Robert Aldrich’s 4 for Texas and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, neither of which I particularly liked) and reading books by authors with home I am unfamiliar (currently R. A. Lafferty). Also I am doing all the cooking. I have managed to scrounge up the ingredients to make a potato and cauliflower curry that should last us for a while.

It was nice talking to my brother this morning. I should call up more of my old friends. The problem is that I get too busy with cooking, reading, and TV film viewing to take the time out.

 

Plague Diary 4: The Empanadas Run

Our Local Empanada Take-Out Restaurant

Near the corner of Sawtelle and Venice is our local Argentinian take-out restaurant, called Empanadas Place. I have been to Argentina three times, and I find that Empanadas Place has tastier empanadas than the South American versions. I decided to pick up a bunch of them for Martine, myself, and my elderly Mexican neighbor Luis, who is particularly fond of the place.

So I drove down there and placed my order. The tables for the sit-down part of the restaurant were all in storage, except for one for people waiting for take-out. I had a nice chat with the owner, an Argentinian of Italian ancestry (like about 75% of all Argentinians). Because his business had always been heavily oriented toward take-out, his business did not seem to be suffering from the forced closure of all sit-down restaurants. Unlike most Americans, he did not see his business as a path to riches: He was quite happy to make a small living selling delicious empanadas to the residents of Culver City and West Los Angeles.

For myself, I got four items: an Arabe (lemon-flavored ground beef and onions), spicy beef with cheese, spinach, and potatoes with cheese. I ate two of them for lunch, saving the remainder for tomorrow. Luis was pleased with his empanadas. (I think I will try to do an occasional take-out run at least once a week for the duration of the plague.

A Selection of Goodies from Empanadas Place

In addition to the featured items, Empanadas Place also sells a selection of Argentinian groceries, such as yerba mate tea, dolce de leche, and cookies known as alfajores. You can also get sandwiches and salads, as well as a refreshing glass of iced yerba mate tea.