March 25, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In her debut novel A Lesser Day, Andrea Scrima paints an intimate portrait of her narrator's immediate urban New York and Berlin environments, capturing moments that poetically join together to create an unforgettable reading experience.
I am indebted to Robert Goolrick for introducing me to such a talented author and artist.
Kate Christensen wrote of the book:
"A Lesser Day is poetic, disturbing, elegiac, visceral, and beautiful. Scrima paints vivid, detailed memories of places to evoke a web of intimate relationships that emerges gradually from a temporal fog into shocking, unforgettable clarity."
On a Musician Friend's Geometrical Fever Dreams and the Separation of the Time and Space Continuum
I'm a kind of nervous person, a perpetually out-of-breath type of person, the kind who is always a little late, always rushing around in a state of semi-panic. I am also a swimmer. When I swim, I don't lose my breath at all, but fall into a steady rhythm of in/out, in/out, submerge, submerge, I have to plunge my entire head under water for it to work, in fact I need to be under water several times a week to keep myself from falling into a state of mild or acute panic. When I swim I feel no compulsion to think; I am suspended in time, as though I were dreaming.
What does this have to do with music, you ask, and what does this have to do with my book. Yesterday I sat at the table by the window wondering what to write for this series when suddenly something caught my eye; up above, in a double-paned attic window in the building opposite ours, was the reflection of two birds perched on our roof: a pair of ghostly reflections, the two silvery grey silhouettes on the outermost pane overlapping two nearly identical reflections a few inches behind them, producing two darker diaphanous shapes at the intersections, like the abstract essence of something. The birds were pecking at their tail feathers and soaking in the meager afternoon sun on this cold and exceptionally grey Berlin day; the image, twice removed from reality, agitated me, and all at once it reminded me of something I will attempt to describe shortly.
So yes, I wrote a book. And then, hopeful new author, I sent it around and after a while a steady stream of rejections started appearing in my mailbox, each envelope perversely addressed to me in my own handwriting, being, of course, the famous self-addressed stamped envelope in the absence of which immediate filing to the dustbin looms large. I don't like to whine, but in Europe we don't have access to American stamps or checking accounts—there are the lavish-looking International Postal Coupons which no American postal clerk has ever before seen or will consent to accept, and there is something called a direct bank transfer—it's actually quite easy, but for some reason Americans react to this suggestion with puzzlement, as though I were trying to wire money by chiseling it into a stone slab. I will not go into the fact that I can easily transfer money to any country in the European Union and the British Commonwealth; to the member states of OPEC; to China, Japan, and India; to all countries of the former Soviet Union, Scandinavia, and the entirety of the African and South American continents; in short, I can transfer money painlessly to almost any country on the planet—except to the United States, not because this is technically impossible or even difficult, but because most American bank tellers have never heard of an international banking code. And so I have to sheepishly ask my niece to send me a few blank checks in exchange for a few hundred bucks in cash to cover reading fees and submission fees and whatnot—and somehow it always feels like I'm asking if I can crash on her couch, her weirdo artist/writer aunt who's been living in Berlin for so long that she makes little mistakes in English, things like "with eighteen she ran away" instead of "at eighteen she ran away"—things like that. Where was I.
Oh yes, and so Spuyten Duyvil, being the in-spite-of-the-devil kind of Brooklyn press it is, took me on board and put an end to my fruitless submission process, put an end to the rejection letters written in my own hand and addressed, unforgivingly, to me, and here I am and my much-spurned book A Lesser Day has been published and will be released soon. And music did in fact play a role in its birth in an almost metaphysical kind of way—but I will get to that in a moment.
The dual image of the birds reminds me of an experimental film I saw many years ago by two Australian filmmakers; I've long since forgotten their names, but in any case what they essentially did was film a landscape—a tree standing at the center of a meadow in a park—in color separation. The camera remained firmly rooted in one spot, and a half-hour sequence was filmed using a red filter; then a half-hour sequence using a green filter; then one using a blue filter. These three separate color sequences were then superimposed and a single 16-mm copy was made. The result was a film of a tree in slightly surreal naturalistic hues, with a bright red or bright blue bird darting out of its branches here and there and a kind of multi-colored, psychedelic halo shimmering around the crown. Anything that had remained unmoving throughout—a bench, a part of a fence, the trunk of the tree—now appeared in full color, with the red, green, and blue separations conjoining to create a single color image. On the other hand, anything in motion had only been caught once on film, in one of the three separate color sequences, and consequently appeared in one of the these colors alone. So what you essentially had was an hour and a half of real time compressed into half an hour, with the naturalistic color being an optical illusion, a tripling of time—and the essence of the deception so counter-intuitive that it sent my mind reeling. It was like a metaphor for the density of memory and the fallacy of history—and it seemed to me that our perception consists of multiple layers of sediment with spots worn down here and there, like earlier layers of a painting peering through.
In A Lesser Day, the language is firmly rooted in the physicality of things; it takes location in space as its point of departure, as opposed to location in time, the other part of our wearisome ontological dichotomy. When I first began listening to Christian von der Goltz's CD of solo piano improvisation, really listening to it, I was living in an eighth-floor loft on the Brooklyn waterfront with an amazing view of the Manhattan skyline; I was also in a state of semi-panic half the time, with the neurons in my brain zigzagging in unpredictable lightning bolts of recollection. Fleeting bits of remembered things were assaulting me everywhere I went; here I was, after a decade and a half in Berlin, reestablishing myself in the city of my birth, gradually peeling off the linguistic layers concealing my native accent, unraveling the German inflections that had crept in, and grappling with all manner of cultural shock—in short, I felt like an alien and was taken for the proverbial ride by the taxi drivers of my own home town.
Christian von der Goltz: "Wheels of Time" [mp3] from Wheels of Time
Wheels of Time, the unreleased CD of solo improvisation by my friend Christian von der Goltz, a jazz pianist—although Wheels of Time is anything but jazz—was a kind of perpetual soundtrack to my life that year, a crystallization of an inner state I was unable to articulate. I would look out at the lights of the Manhattan skyline, as distant and disquieting as the nighttime sky, and recall that Christian had said how this particular recording reminded him of his fever dreams from childhood, with the unfathomable nature of time and infinity firmly implanted in a vast and exquisite machinery, which he, terrified, envisaged in geometric terms. For my part, the music soothed me; it became a kind of tolling bell, a meandering line in cyclical peregrination settling some part of my unquiet soul and offering it a chance to breathe—in/out, submerge, submerge, easing me back into the dreamlike state of my underwater imagination.
There is something in the way that lived time becomes distilled in the creative process and transmogrified into an amalgam, an abstraction of time. The elusive nature of the present tense— that forever-fleeting, indefinable entity that cannot be inhabited, but only imagined—chases my harried soul into the future, which takes my breath away; I recoil in fear, the irregular beat of my heart forever out of synch with the ticking clock, and turn to the past, to my past, and find not stories, but some kind of essence of lived life in the spaces I've occupied over the years: a noisy apartment in Fidicinstrasse, a studio in Eisenbahnstrasse, a stiflingly hot summer sublet on Bedford Avenue, a tenement apartment on East 9th Street, and of course Kent Avenue on the Brooklyn waterfront.
Andrea Scrima and A Lesser Day links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists