Tuesday, March 14, 2006

So I was looking for a reference

and started leafing through my particular favorite Chester Himes novel Cotton Comes to Harlem, soon enough I was completely immersed in it and reading it with love and devotion. Himes makes in these books a Harlem of the mind, it is the most extraordinary thing: the language (its savagery, its humor), the people, the places, the intellectual force and the political rage and the sex and the funniness ... indescribable, really. However I never found the reference in the end. Perhaps it is in one of Himes's other novels? If you think of it, let me know: what I want is the moment where the narration lingers on the sound of a rooster crowing amidst city tenements.

Every page of this novel is bursting with energy and remarkable moments and phrases, but I'll just give one here as a taster, it's both typical and distinctive. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones stop by "a joint on East 116th Street called Spotty's, run by a big black man with white skin spots and his albino wife":

After years of bemoaning the fact that he looked like an overgrown Dalmation, Spotty had made a peace with life and opened a restaurant specializing in ham hocks, red beans and rice. It sat between a store-front church and a box factory and had no side windows, and the front was so heavily curtained the light of day never entered. Spotty's prices were too moderate and his helpings too big to afford bright electric lights all day. Therefore it attracted customers such as people in hiding, finicky people who couldn't bear the sight of flies in their food, poor people who wanted as much as they could get for their money, weedheads avoiding bright lights, and blind people who didn't know the difference.

And the other thing I've just read back through, also slowing down and speeding up depending on what caught my eye (I have dipped into this book many times before, I have bought several copies but always give them away because I love it so much and am yet again reading one from the library): Georges Perec's Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (very ably edited and translated by John Sturrock). This book is quite simply indispensable. It's on my short list of--what? Short list of most indispensable books, short list of books I'd ask students to buy for a creative writing class, short list of books that every writer should read.

It includes several of my favorite sort-of-frivolities ("Some of the Things I Really Must Do Before I Die," "Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four") and a lot of more obviously serious and sometimes really moving stuff (though it's also almost always playful), some of which I'm going to be mining for an essay and won't discuss here. So I have confined myself to two passages that for some reason particularly resonated with me tonight.

The first, the final two paragraphs of Perec's essay about his analysis, "The Scene of a Stratagem":

Of the actual movement that enabled me to emerge from these repetitive and exhausting gymnastics, and gave me access to my own story and my voice, I shall only say that it was infinitely slow: it was the movement of the analysis it[s]elf, but I only found that out later on. First, the carapace of writing behind which I had concealed my desire to write had to crumble, the great wall of ready-made memories to erode, the rationalizations I had taken refuge in to fall into dust. I had to retrace my steps, to remake the journey I had already made but all of whose threads I had broken.

Of this subterranean place I have nothing to say. I know that it happened and that, from that time on, its trace was inscribed in me and in the texts that I write. It lasted for the time it took for my story to come together. It was given to me one day, violently, to my surprise and amazement, like a memory restored to its space, like a gesture, like a warmth I had rediscovered. On that day, the analyst heard what I had to say to him, what for four years he had listened to without hearing, for the simple reason that I wasn't telling it to him, because I wasn't telling it to myself.

And then, from the (surely tongue-in-cheek) weightily titled "Reading: A Socio-Physiological Outline"--this one of course makes me laugh:

A good ten years ago, I was dining with some friends in a small restaurant (hors d'oeuvres, plat du jour, cheese or dessert). At another table there was dining a philosopher who was already justly renowned. He was eating alone, while reading a cyclostyled text that was most likely a thesis. He read between courses and often even between mouthfuls, and my companions and I wondered ourselves what the effects of this double activity might be, what the mixture was like, what the words tasted of and what meaning the cheese had: one mouthful, one concept, one mouthful, one concept. How do you masticate a concept, or ingurgitate it, or digest it? And how could you give an account of the effect of this double nourishment, how describe or measure it?

If anyone knows who that philosopher was (or what kind of cheese he was eating), do please leave details in the comments. Or where I can find the rooster crowing in Himes.

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