Sheila Heti’s How should a person be? and Lena Dunham’s autobiographical essays Not that kind of girl could be said to have a similar theme: ‘How to be cool.’ Lena Dunham plainly IS cool, – she got a $3.2 million advance for her book – and Sheila Heti is in the same (over)thirtyish ‘cool’ league. Her solution to the question in her title for the ‘Sheila’ character (she describes her book as a novel from life as K O Knausgaard does) is to find a very cool friend who is an artist and then record their discussions as to what is wrong with ‘Sheila’s’ latest play.
Maybe it’s sour grapes, but Gert didn’t find these tales very gripping, nor could she care if one of Lena Dunham’s dates had ‘a tattoo that read MOM in Comic Sans.’ We prefer books about the very old, those who have lived and are still engaged in life. Those who have transcended caring about their own appearances and who only dye their hair blue by accident or who have trouble remembering where they have put their false teeth.
Two books with old protagonists we have read lately and would highly recommend are Who is Martha? by Marjana Gaponenko (New Vessel Press)* and An Unneccessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Text Publishing). Gaponenko’s world and range of writing couldn’t be more different from those of Heti and Dunham. Born in Odessa, she writes in German and Luca Levadski, her hero, is a 96- year-old Professor of Ornithology who has just been told (or concludes from a few words from his doctor, ‘We need to talk about your results- at the hospital, right away’) that he has terminal cancer. He decides to go on a journey back to Vienna where he lived as a young boy. We learn about his mother’s passion for birds and his upbringing with her against a background of war and dispossession. Theories or dreams of the possibility of a universal language where birds, men, and animals all understand each other, images of a girl oblivious to his gaze, her hand stretched out to take a piece of cake, nights at the opera with ancient relatives, are woven against the background of life in the penthouse suite of an expensive hotel in Vienna. In the days that follow the conviction that he is soon to die, he is attended by a gentle ‘butler’, he goes up and down in lifts, consumes enormous amounts of alcohol, and reflects upon life in conversations with barmen, taxi drivers and his new friend and drinking companion Mr Witzturn. He is buoyed up by the past, he is lives in the present. More and more he seems to weave in and out of hallucinatory (or drunken) images. The end of his story is mysterious, but any of the possibilities seem to fit. A wonderful read about a man supremely engaged and interested in every phase of his life and of the people and creatures around him.
The first words of seventy-two year old Aaliya in An Unneccessary Woman are immediately appealing: You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of wine didn’t help my concentration. Aaliya has lived all her life in Beirut. She knows she has never been a beauty and it jabs her sometimes. As a girl of sixteen she is married off to an ineffectual husband who soon leaves. He does leave her in possession of their flat and she fights to keep it against his brothers and her own mother. They bang on her door and threaten her until the day she gets an AK-47 rifle. Then they leave her alone. She keeps to herself, taking in the life of her neighbours by their sounds – flapping sandals, a woman calling her cat home. She keeps to herself because she has her work, the work of translation. Books and words are the most real things in her life. She had access to them during the years she worked in a bookshop. She is able to read in English and French, so her rule is to translate only books not written first in those languages. By this rule she cannot translate Beckett but can translate Saramago. W.G Sebald (another of our favourites), writing originally in German and then translated into English, also fills the bill and she has a particular love of his work. She translates from the translation into Arabic. When she finishes a project she wraps and labels it and puts it away in her store-room. At the beginning of each year she starts a new project. This is an engrossing, beautifully-written book about a very strange life, lived through periods of war. In her solitude Aaliya has the company of the writers she loves and the book has many intriguing quotes from writers not so well-known. Like Levadski, Aaliya is passionate about the things she loves. At seventy-two she finds that even in her stoical life things can change. Connection is possible, rules can be altered. She can go on.
There is a lot to be said for maturity.
*Thanks to Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations for putting us on to this one.