November 30, 2012
"You ought to read The German Ideology" says Madame Michel, one of the
two voices in this rich, beguiling novel, thereby almost giving herself
away. For she has chosen to remain disguised as what she thinks of
herself--or as what she thinks the world takes her for, a 54 year old
concierge dressed in a "white nuptial meringue [undergarment] buried
beneath a lugubrious black pinafore," who only "gets through her
everyday life thanks to her ignorance of any alternatives." We are
therefore treated to her spasms of fear, palpitations of being outed as
the intellectual that she is (despite the fact that she only went to
school from five to twelve); she is overwhelmed by the huge chasm of
class/social distinction between the concierge and the occupants/owners of the apartments in this
The other voice belongs to Paloma, a
hyper-intelligent 12 year old who lives in fear of showing her freakish
intelligence--that's how her classmates and family would treat it, or so
she fears. She therefore hides it by reading everything her friend
(who is second in the class) and carefully imitating the latter's work:
French as "words in coherent strings, correctly spelled"; Math as the
"mechanical reproduction of operations devoid of meaning"; history as "a
list of events joined by logical connections"--all to "dumb down" the
appearance of her true intelligence.
Each of the two voices take
turns, more or less, to beguile us with considerations beyond the
ordinary, of the sort if not common or familiar, one would hope is at
least recognizable to those belonging to that which baccalaureate
exercises frequently describe as the "community of educated men and
women." Paloma's revelations are revealed as journal entries (in a sans
serif font) while Madame Michel's (Renee) are only sometimes referred
to as journal entries. One such memorable occasion is when she compares
her journal writing to the hypnotic, unconscious rhythm of mowing
grass: "The lines become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet
miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that
have eluded my will."
Both voices therefore hide their light
under the proverbial bushel; they are wabi, Japanese for an
understated form of beauty, of "refinement masked by rusticity." They
each recognize in the other the radiance of intelligence. Paloma, while
speaking of the concierge in her journal, cries out: "I implore fate
to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone." The
novel shows how they each eventually make their own way towards the
Along the way, guarded and repressed as they are, they
reveal flashes of gnomic insight. Paloma speaks of grammar as "an end
not simply a means ... pity the poor in spirit who know neither the
enchantment nor the beauty of language." Madame Michel makes
breathtakingly short work of Husserl's Cartesian Meditations:
Introduction to Phenomenology--a "ridiculous little book...[born of]
hard-core autism." Chancing on Paloma's older sister's thesis on
William of Ockham's Potentia Dei Absoluta, she concludes that academia
has not always chosen wisely or well between "elevating thought" and
"the self-reproduction of a sterile elite." Stunned by a still life by
Pieter Claesz, even though it is only a copy, she declares she would
without hesitation "trade the entire Italian Quattrocento [Fra Angelico?
Donatello? Leonardo?]" for Dutch still life.
Not to make this
review overlong, let it be said that there are passages of great
tenderness and humor, as well as more gentle disquisitions on philosophical
issues of moment. Madame Michel has found the library and it allowed
her to expand her horizons; the VCR and the DVD have transported her
senses. She is friends with pre-1910 Russian literature, movies from
Yasujiro Ozu's cinematic equivalents of Pieter Claesz to the Blade
Runner and the Terminator, music from Mozart (whose "Confutatis" appears at a most startling point) to Eminem; she reflects on
the difference between doors that swing open and those that slide.
You ought to read this book!
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