Archive for February, 2009

25
Feb
09

D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: Aesthetic Bliss

An Italian edition. I recently read Lolita and found myself unable to describe its impact on me –  making my heart spin, my brain fog up, and my mouth hang open in rapturous disbelief – until I came to Nabokov’s supplement at the end of the book and found that he’d done it for me.

He offers a few notes on his reason for writing what would become his masterpiece; he called it a “throbbing” that grew in him over a number of years until he plainly needed to just get the thing out of himself (with mixed reception, to put it simply). Without restraint, Nabokov criticizes those who cannot read a piece of fiction without asking “Why?” Why did he write it? Why should it be read? What does it have to teach us? Of course we’ve all been instructed to ask these questions by simple-minded English teachers who were instructed to ask us these questions by their simple-minded superiors, but in the end, do we (should we)  always need a reason, a lesson, to glean from fiction? Nabokov writes,

There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books.

So why read something that doesn’t teach us anything? Is it worth the hours spent squinting over page after page, sentence after sentence, word after word in hopes that we might find something that can briefly give us the sense of another state of being? Three important reasons come to mind when I think of Lolita (none of them seeking the didactic):

-1- To better understand language in itself as an artistic medium and discover the surprising, unique and beautiful things that can be done with it (by a non-native speaker, nonetheless).

-2- To think things and feel things that you may not have known possible.

And -3-  To taste for even a fleeting moment – like those waiting and writhing on the trembling pages of Nabokov’s book – pure and complicated and shining aesthetic bliss.

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23
Feb
09

Wiener Wonderland, Part Zwei

5 euro scarves in the Naschmarkt.

Our second day in Vienna started early with quiet snow falling on the window of our hostel room. It had been a while since I stayed in a hostel and I was surprised by the distinct contentment I felt when I rolled over in my sterile sheets that morning, waking to the soft light and the kindly muted sounds of strangers moving about the room. There’s a certain youthful innocence to the hostel experience, kind of like camp; except instead of rolling out of your bunk bed and going downstairs to your archery lesson or nature talk, you roll out of your bunk bed and go downstairs to a grungy bar, pool table, and a dozen 20-somethings using their 50-cent block of internet time to update their Facebook statuses: So-and-so “is in VIENNA! Hell yes!! Europe 2009!!!” or some other equally obnoxious, overly-exclamated way of making sure all their friends know they’re doing something cool. (Admittedly, I do not exclude myself from this group.)

So we pulled on a few thick layers and went for a stroll through the colorful sunlit Naschmarkt, Vienna’s largest outdoor market, before exploring the enormous Belvedere gallery where we were lucky enough to brave the crowd and stare – numb with awe and adoration – at Gustav Klimt’s great shimmering masterpiece, “The Kiss.” From the museum we rushed back to our hostel to get dressed for our evening out. This time we wouldn’t be going out to sit in a cloud of smoke and laser lights only to be overcharged for drinks and dodge the eyes of sleezy drunks with greased up hair. No, instead we went to the opera. Guiseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” at the Vienna State Opera, to be specific. It felt rather incongruous to be pulling on evening dresses and heels in our hostel, the dirty water on the floor of the bathroom soaking through the feet of my tights as I did my best to apply mascara in the dim light.

But while we may not have fit in there, we certainly looked the part at the opera house, even if we didn’t act it. Arriving late, we crept through the heavy door of the stately building some 20 minutes after the start of the first act, and flew up the empty stone staircases – our heels clicking on each cold step – to our seats. We then really embarrassed ourselves when the usher reprimanded us for arriving late for the second act as well, having spent too much time taking pictures against the resplendent backdrop.

Our 10 euro tickets did not include a view of the stage, as we were seated so high up and to the side that we could only see the giant donut-shaped chandelier. But we read our translator boxes, let the music move through us, and stood up for a good look when anything exciting happened. The man next to me – Austrian, simply dressed and alone – was strong evidence that one doesn’t need a good view to enjoy the opera. The way he moved – the subtle but frenzied flicks of his wrists and the thrilled twitch of his smile – showed his thorough knowledge of the music, of every rise and fall, every sparkling moment. When it ended, he invited us down a few rows with him to lean over the banister and have a better look at the triumphant performers, then he walked slowly out of the room, his hands raised high above his head as he clapped them together with the reverberating boom of a man truly moved.

We finished off the night with dinner in a fancy Italian restaurant and drinks in a 6th floor lounge/bar sitting against huge windows with a view dominated by the adjacent St. Stephen’s Cathedral, lit dramatically against the black sky. All in all it was a high class evening, but I didn’t get through it without losing at least some of my dignity with a minor incident that truly demonstrates Austrian politeness. As our waiter removed my coat before seating us at the restaurant, my heavy wool shroud (and the static cling that it had been devilishly propagating against my satin dress) came off only to lift my skirt above my rear end and attach it to my back, revealing my ass – thinly veiled by sheer gray tights, but clearly there nonetheless – to the entire restaurant. And although I am regrettably certain that people saw, including our wait staff, I noticed not a single reaction then or throughout the meal.

I thanked the heavens for this the following morning at the Hofburg Imperial Chapel where we sat through mass with nuns and tourists alike to hear the angelic voices of the famous Vienna Boys Choir. It was one of the strangest, most unbelievable things I have ever seen. Truly unworldly, seraphic sounds coming from the diaphragms and vocal chords of 25 bony, scraggly 10-14-year-old boys with shaggy hair and wrinkly sweaters.

We too, it seemed, proved unable to fit ourselves into our surroundings there quite like we’d hoped. Though so much of the city calls for solemnity and dignity, we couldn’t help but laugh at inappropriate times throughout the weekend as we pulled our inadequate clothing around our shivering shoulders. I mean, although it is simply the German word for “Viennese” – a word that evokes only rich history, art and grandeur – it’s difficult not to giggle when “WIENER” is posted with such exuberance and pride everywhere you look.

09
Feb
09

Wiener Wonderland, Part Eins

Winter festival!My weekend in Vienna was one of contrast–high and low culture, extravagance and simplicity, chance encounters with people both delightful and dreadful.

We started off the trip with a fancy lunch at the beautiful Palmenhaus. On our way there we found an old woman who had fallen on the icy curb, seemingly landing on her face, and had been laying there unable to get up for who knows how long.  Her nose was purple and lumpy and seemed to be swelling by the minute, and her lovely coat was splashed with blood from a small cut on her face. Fortunately my travel companion, Tiffany, had a stash of Kleenex to offer, so we and the woman who’d found her first helped her up to a bench and just stood there dumbly offering sympathy and something to catch the blood. In spite of the trauma, though, both ladies were extremely friendly as they waited for the ambulance, the old bird smiling and nodding and thanking us profusely in German as she soaked tissue after tissue with her own blood, tried to catch her breath, and fussed with her furs and felts in an attempt to look composed. I’d heard that Austrians are polite, by my goodness.

After getting over the shock of finding a bloody old lady on the street, we ate and enjoyed an afternoon of modern art at the Kunsthalle where they were showing an Edward Hopper exhibit, including a photo set for visitors constructed and lit as an exact replica of “Western Motel” so you could be your own lonely and brooding Hopper character. After refueling with some perfect lattes in their swanky cafe, we wandered upon the Wiener Winter Festival with colored lights everywhere, an enormous ice skating track, and stand after stand of traditional treats (we went for the enormous donuts).

That evening we reminisced about our college days (oh, how distant they seem) over more coffee and Austrian cakes in a velvety cafe with a horribly rude waiter, conspicuously scoffing and shaking his head at everything we said and did. Their kitchen was closed, so we satisfied our appetites at a street cart outside serving shoarma and enormous portions of slimy, yet delicious, pizza. A large Turk served us up the cheap food with plenty of pet names to go. So we sat and ate on a bench at a tram stop on a yellow-lit street, freezing as we wiped the grease off our hands and did our best to deter a pair of fat, drunk, middle-aged, blue-collar Austrian brothers who accosted us with every other bite. We shooed them off and didn’t get too nervous because we knew our burly Turkish prince would come to our rescue if things got too real. Then it was on to a recommended nightclub that turned out to be over-priced, under-ventilated, and brimming with some serious Euro-trash.

Oh well. Tomorrow night we’d try again.




"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
February 2009
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