Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Nine
By Lynn Crawford
When reading in public I sit straight, feet to the ground, book at eye-level. When home, or on Karl’s boat, I sit on a pillow or cushion, knees to my chest, head forward. Or legs crossed, spine curled—fetal postures that provide comfort, protect vital organs, boost patterns of thinking, and would take a toll on my posture without regular morning trapeze sessions with Rose. Our practice prevents, even reverses, misalignment.
I have my reading patterns but remain open to expansion. For example, when learning pianist Glenn Gould said he rarely practiced piano by playing it but by reading sheet music. I look forward (someday) to trying that form of absorbing. Not only with musical scores but with dress patterns, recipes, garden plots, and weather diagrams.
And when I read writer Gayl Jones say James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake “is an oral book. You can’t sight-read with any kind of truth,” I went straight to my copy and found a beloved line, “Bite my laughters, drink my tears” and for the very first time said it out loud. Then said it again. And again. The repeated vocalization felt wonderful and did something to my body. Try it.
Bite my laughters, drink my tears
2. The Second Glove
Robert’s Birth Mother: Christine
Robert’s Care Mother: Natalie
Reference: Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Seven
Robert, our visiting aquatic researcher, is certain that this second glove he found on the ocean floor did, indeed, belong to his birth mother Christine, but also that it is not the companion to the glove he found earlier.
That first glove was thick, warm, protective, made to shield hands from cold and damp when walking outdoors or riding a horse or traveling in a thin-walled carriage or on a train in deep winter.
This second glove, in contrast, is made of silk and meant to be worn at dinners, dances, wedding and birthday celebrations, or on casual warm-weather strolls.
Robert holds the glove up for us to see and passes it around for us to hold and touch. We feel its silky texture and see its luster, as if straight from a velvet-lined box and not the bottom of an ocean floor.
Robert often spoke about his care mother, Natalie, who took him to the ocean on cold days for walks up and down its beaches and told him stories of life before the war with his birth mother, Christine, who moved far away. The two young friends loved books and sometimes played dress-up and recreated select passages wearing clothes that their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents stored in trunks and closets.
Natalie spoke to Robert about books. He remembers particularly her speaking of a novel by Stanislaw Lem entitled Solaris, and a man she knew, Andrei, who made a film of the book. Speaking of the film, Andrei referred to an ocean as a thinking substance.1 She sensed he was wrong to conflate a human attribute (thinking) with a body of water, but could never bring herself to tell him.
She did not love the film as much as the book, and Natalie wished she had the confidence to tell Andrei that he was wrong to inject human ways of thinking into a planet. But she liked Andrei so much. She admired, even envied, his assurance and could not imagine how she’d defend her position if he disputed her point of view.
As time went on, she grew confident that Lem’s novel was about the universe and not, as Andrei’s film proposes, people.
Years later, this was confirmed when she came across words from Lem lamenting humans’ narrow focus when he said, “We’re not searching for anything except people.”
When Robert finds this second glove, he remembers another passage from Solaris his mother taught him:
“But what am I going to see?”
“I don’t know. In a certain sense, it depends on you.”
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
By Robin Wall Kimmerer
Milkweed Editions, 2013
Botanist, professor, mother, scientist, activist, and enrolled member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is “to create programs that draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge in support of our shared goals of environmental sustainability.”
Things: A Story of the Sixties
By Georges Perec
Grove Press, 1967
Translated from the French by Helen Lane
[Les choses, 1965, Éditions Julliard]
French novelist, filmmaker, documentarian, and essayist Georges Perec was known for his formally complex works that focus on ordinary, everyday minutiae that often go unnoticed. He was affiliated with the mainly French group of writers known as Oulipo, a “workshop of potential literature.”
Think about our success Kelvin; think about our cabins, the unbreakable plates, the immortal sinks, legions of faithful wardrobes devoted cupboards …
–Stanislav Lem, Solaris
I first read Perec’s 1965 novel Things in the early 1990s and was gripped by its agile blend of humor and language, its detailed portrayal of scenes and objects, and by its less precisely sketched main characters, Jerome and Sylvie, a Parisian couple, educated, employed, striving and stumbling (as detailed in previous installments of Imaginary Dinner Party). Below is a passage about their jobs as market researchers:
“A farming survey took them all over France. The silos were full of wheat. In great cobbled courtyards sparkling tractors faced the squires’ black saloon cars. They passed through the workers’ canteen, the vast kitchen where women toiled, the great hall with its yellowing floor—where no one went without first replacing his shoes with felt slippers...”
Things also portrays a lurking sense of menace that tragically, violently, explodes.
Jerome and Sylvie’s disappointment, malaise, and (yet?) consistent commitment to their way of life expressed dis-ease to be sure but there was also some kind of trouble which I could not identify until, as mentioned in Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Eight, the introduction of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) and a war crime, kept secret, that took place right where they lived, Paris.
“They had watched with something approaching surprise as some of their old friends got themselves involved, cautiously or wholeheartedly, in helping the FLN, the Algerian freedom fighters. They hadn’t really grasped why, and could not manage to take seriously either the romantic explanation (which tended, rather, to make them smile) or the political explanation, which passed their understanding almost entirely.”
In The Guardian, Nabila Ramdani writes of the event:
“The French-Algerian massacre, when up to 200 peaceful protesters were slaughtered in cold blood around iconic national monuments, including the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral.
No one was ever brought to justice for the murder half a century ago of up to 200 French-Algerians.”2
Even decades later, these crimes remain not widely known. Journalist Laurel Berger states in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
“The first time I heard about the episode, on a French news program, I found it hard to credit. In 1961, Parisian police chucked an untold number of Algerian migrants into the Seine and left them to drown. Decades later, the massacre still has no name; it is known simply as October 17 and it exemplifies the Republic’s failure to reckon with its colonial history. When I asked ordinary people about this once-suppressed atrocity, I discovered that I was not alone in my ignorance.”3
Michael Haneke’s stunning 2005 film Caché (Hidden, in English) also covertly addresses reverberations of Algerian War of Independence in modern Paris. Reviewing the film, critic Roger Ebert writes,
“How is it possible to watch a thriller intently two times and completely miss a smoking gun that’s in full view? Yet I did. Only on my third trip through Michael Haneke’s Caché did I consciously observe a shot which forced me to redefine the film. I was not alone. I haven’t read all of the reviews of the film, but after seeing that shot I looked up a lot of them, and the shot is never referred to. For that matter, no one seems to point to a conclusion that it might suggest.”4
The crimes were—and to an extent, remain—secret.
Both Haneke’s film and Perec’s novel portray characters entwined with and distracted by jobs, dinners, friends, homes, and offices, avoiding (to paraphrase Edgar Allan Poe) their existence as clues in plain sight.
The condition emphasizes the wisdom of Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s first line in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world,” and cautions what can happen when we do not.
Imaginary Dinner Party is a literary series by Lynn Crawford that explores “what happens when books join forces.” Read the archive:
Part One, Under Stories (spring 2021)
Part Two, Heal the People (summer 2021)
Part Three, Think Like a Detective (fall 2021)
Part Four, Possession (winter 2022)
Part Five, Forms of Engagement (spring 2022)
Part Six, Conversations (summer 2022)
Part Seven (fall 2022)
Part Eight (winter 2023)
Part Nine (spring 2023)
Part Ten (summer 2023)
Part Eleven (winter 2023)
Lynn Crawford’s books include Simply Separate People (2002), Fortification Resort (2005), Shankus & Kitto: A Saga (2016), and Paula Regossy (2020). She is currently working on her next novel, Closely Touched Things. An excerpt from that book, Take Away From the Total, was published in issue no. one of Three Fold.
1. “Lem versus Tarkovsky: The Fight Over Solaris,” by Igor Belov, publsihed online in Culture.pl, June 16, 2020
2. “The Massacre that Paris Denied,” by Nabila Ramdani, published online in The Guardian, Oct. 16, 2011
3. “How to Forget a Massacre,” by Lauren Berger, published online in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Oct. 17, 2019
4. “A Mystery Hidden in Plain Sight,” by Roger Ebert, published online in rogerebert.com, Jan. 19, 2012