Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Ten
By Lynn Crawford
For a long time, I thought it was one thing to rely on books and another to love them.
Because I understood rely as depend, which evoked passivity, and which captures nothing between books and me.
Then I learned that rely, in its early use, meant to gather or assemble. And with that definition, the two words—rely and love—do, in fact, express us.
While home, I read deeply, carefully, understanding this is what brought me to, and keeps me in, this town on the sea.
Being here allows me to be rooted and free-floating at once,
To be a fortress and a permeable membrane.
It is not an easy state to achieve and a harder one to maintain, and is only possible—even here—with structured dailiness,
And my tree house
And his boat.
And the library
And my random (but impactful) midnight train trips.
And our trapeze practices
And our book discussions (recently that’s been narratives of rescuing lost children and heroic struggles battling storms and troops and lone villains)
But mostly it is Karl.
Or more accurately, us.
Late at night in a forest or bed or on his boat anchored at sea or on some island in our deep, private embrace.
A fortress and a permeable membrane.
This morning, Robert, our visiting aquatic researcher, addresses town residents from a podium in our square, a large, grassy space between the library and ocean:
Encountering two lone, different styles of gloves that once belonged to my long-deceased birth mother—who I have no memory of—on your ocean floor, is a stunner.
The gloves may be clues, distractions, or neither.
You, the community, are understandably curious.
I am too.
Wonder is why you brought me here in the first place: to lead an investigation into the bafflingly pristine condition of your seabed beneath water teeming with sea life.
I found no evidence of the marine debris dominating the planet’s waters, no plastics, microplastics, chemicals, abandoned fishing gear, sunken vessels, rags, shoes, equipment, or even noise.
It remains a pristine patch in a toxic sea.
What we did find, as you know, are two single, mismatched gloves that belonged to my birth mother.
To recap: One is thick, sturdy, designed for bitter cold. The other seems to be made of silk, but it is also pliable, dotted with inset jewels (we’ve authenticated them) and meant to be form-fitting for—we learned just this morning—a very large hand.
Their presence is mysterious and may or may not explain the health of this seabed section.
Recall we identified the first glove from this book sentence:
“I remember her eyelashes, her bulky gloves, and, once she removes them, all of the rings on her fingers.”1
The same book, whose line served us so well, also contains this sentence:
“The lost glove is happy.”2
I believe this means something for our investigation, but it is too early to say what, so I ask you all to keep it in mind along with other evidence.
I will leave you there today.
As always, let’s all pursue inner vision and be team players at once. Be well.
Robert waves his hand before turning, plunging it into his coat pocket, and heading, with rapid and long strides, back to the laboratory.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey
By Robert Macfarlane
W. W. Norton & Company, 2019
Robert Macfarlane’s books include Mountains of the Mind, The Old Ways, Landmarks, and, with Jackie Morris, The Lost Words. He lives in Cambridge, England, where he is a Fellow of the University of Cambridge.
Species of Spaces and Other Pieces
By Georges Perec
Edited and translated by John Sturrock
Penguin Books Ltd, 1998
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.”
Years after I read Things and before reading Braiding Sweetgrass, I read the wondrous Underland: A Deep Time Journey, by British author and academic Robert Macfarlane. It is a stunning book, packed with solid facts, precise language, and varied literary references: from folk epics to Edgar Allan Poe to Walter Benjamin.
I loved it also for its multiple examples of emotional and creative human responses to our planet, its psychological and philosophical complexity, and its copious information.
Here is a lovely passage on being in the Epping Forest:
“Growl of roads. Whirr of a low-flying bumblebee, stirring the leaf litter with its downdraught. Buzzard overhead, turning, mewing. Old coppice trees left uncut, hydra-head pollards.”3
Equally impressive were Macfarlane’s references to other scientists, including mycologist Merlin Sheldrake, whose work explores the ways trees communicate through underground fungal networks:
“‘My childhood superheroes weren’t Marvel characters,’ Merlin said to me, ‘they were lichens and fungi.’”4
I loved Underland and was excited when I saw MacFarlane wrote an article for the UK Guardian.5
It began as a beautiful read. Then at the end came this:
“Force yourself to see more flatly,” orders Georges Perec in Species of Spaces.
Force yourself to see more deeply, I would counter. Now, more than ever, we need to understand the underland. Our “flat perspectives” feel increasingly inadequate to the deep worlds we now fashion and inhabit—and to the deep-time legacies we are leaving. …
… A flat ontology entices: all life is equally insignificant in the face of eventual ruin.
I was stunned.
I knew Perec’s fragment from a longer passage in a section (“The Street”) appearing in his book Species of Spaces and Other Pieces6 and MacFarlane’s excerpt was truncated and therefore misleading.
Here is Perec’s passage. I’ve quoted it at length and highlighted the six words Macfarlane quotes:
Note down what you can see. Anything worthy of note going on. Do you know how to see what’s worthy of note? Is there anything that strikes you?”
Nothing strikes you …
The cafés. How many cafés are there? One, two, three, four. why did you choose this one? Because you know it, because it’s in the sun, because it sells cigarettes. The other shops: antique shops, clothes, hi-fi, etc. Don’t say, don’t write ‘etc.’. Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if that seems grotesque or pointless or stupid. You still haven’t looked at anything, you’ve merely picked out what you’ve long ago picked out.
Force yourself to see more flatly.
Detect a rhythm : the passing of cars. …
Or again: strive to picture to yourself, with the greatest possible precision, beneath the network of streets, the tangle of sewers, the lines of the Métro, the invisible underground proliferation of conduits (electricity, gas, telephone lines, water mains, express letter tubes), without which no life would be possible on the surface.
Underneath, just underneath, resuscitate the eocene; the limestone, the marl and the soft chalk, the gypsum, the lacustrian Saint-Ouen limestone, the Beauchamp sands, the rough limestone, the Soissons sands and lignites, the plastic clay, the hard chalk.
–Georges Perec, Species and Spaces and Other Pieces
Macfarlane took a single line away from its home, draining Perec’s words of his intended meaning.
I was sad but dead-set on repair. Words matter. Allies do too. The words of Perec and Macfarlane share an invaluable connection; Their varied skillsets make them stronger together. I knew these two books, Species of Spaces and Underland, could join forces with me, if needed, as instigator, and was encouraged, again by words, this time from Jules Verne: “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”
And with this, Imaginary Dinner Party series was born.
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)
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. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
3. Robert Macfarlane, Underland (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020), 95
4. Ibid, 94
5. “What lies beneath: Robert Macfarlane travels ‘Underland’,” Robert Macfarlane, published online April 20, 2019, The Guardian
6. Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1998), 50-54