seeking a fixed point.
I was hanging out at Dolores Park last weekend and, well, if you haven’t been to Dolores Park in San Francisco, it is mostly a huge outdoor party. Traveling vendors dragging overflowing Radio Flyers display their Venmo handles in exchange for joints, margaritas, and coconuts filled with rum. Someone always has a bubble gun and someone else has a hula hoop and the day just gets lost in a lens flare. The heat pounding down on my limbs brought into sharp relief the bodily shift I’ve been feeling lately, that the world is pulling me more firmly into solidity when for so long I’ve felt temporal.
Then, last night, I did a virtual reading for The Drowned Woman and the reception and warmth from the community of readers fed my soul in a similarly tangible way. It felt like a hug, or healing. I’ve spent a long time seeking out community while living in a physical place where people are often transient and, all of a sudden, it seems I’ve found my place. I feel present.
The concepts of impermanence and transience permeate much of what I’ve been reading lately, books coming to you at the right time and all that. In Intimacies by Katie Kitmura, a translator tries to make a home for herself in The Hague, in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys the narrator, Julia, wanders from Paris to England and back again, settling nowhere and then there’s the titular nomadic ‘street-urchin’ character in Amélie Nothomb’s Pétronille, which was brilliant and boozy and a must-read.
I picked up Intimacies right after publishing my last newsletter about anonymous female narrators and, yet again, I found myself following a nameless woman in a foreign land en route to escaping her past and forging a place for herself.
Kitamura uses spare writing to create an atmospheric story of an interpreter working in The Hague. Her daily life requires her to step out of her body to become a tool through which the court can work.
“It is surprisingly easy to forget what you have witnessed, the horrifying image or the voice speaking the unspeakable, in order to exist in the world we must and we do forget, we live in a state of I know but I do not know.”
Intimacies has elements of a psychological thriller — a mysterious attack on an acquaintance, the 'ghosting' by her boyfriend when he goes to Lisbon to meet the wife he is somewhat still involved with, the war criminals on trial and for whom she must work as a guide. However, it’s not a thriller at all and the narrative focuses instead on the interior world of the character and Kitmaura's precise use of language and tone. It’s quietly disquieting, and I enjoyed it.
Jean Rhys has been a novelist of interest for some time and I finally read After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. There is much said of ‘the Rhys woman,’ but often the defining characteristics referenced are their lack of money that often creates a dependence on others and lack of a true home through either dislocation or alienation. Julia Martin embodies both of these.
Julia is a once glamorous woman, a now cast-aside mistress, who travels through the streets of Paris with a weight strapped to her chest. She laments, "My life's like death. It's like being buried alive. It isn't fair, it isn't fair." There is a sense of doom in the way Julia drinks herself to sleep each night and wakes again hoping things will be better the next morning, only to find darkness once more.
"It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls round you, and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out. And after a while you got used to it. Of course. And then you stopped believing that there was anything else anywhere."
Julia returns to England to visit her sister and ailing mother and discovers they’d cast her out before she’d even arrived. Through the brief monetary kindnesses of ambivalent men Julia finds her way back to Paris and a continuation of the handouts she’s more or less relied on since her teens. She has no middle-class solution to her situation, she doesn’t turn to religion or become a part of polite society, and the reader doesn’t expect her to figure it all out by the end. But we are still rooting for her all the same.
Jean Rhys, it turns out, writes exactly the sort of novels I love. After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie still feels fresh and modern despite being written in 1931 and reminded me a bit of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore and even Happy Hour by Marlowe Granados. I am looking forward to reading Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, which I have on hand, next.
I am leaving for London on Sunday and will be in the UK for two weeks, then off to Texas, so June promises to provide some excellent plane and train travel reading time. Maybe I will even share some photos upon my return.