Nearly two years ago, when I moved to England from California, I had a box of books shipped over from California to England. The box was full of books, some of which were my most beloved books, and some of which were books I needed to finish the novel I was writing. At the same time, there was a Royal Mail strike going on. The box of books never arrived.
Now I don’t live in that London flat anymore. I don’t know if those books will ever find their way to me. I desperately hope the striking workers opened the box up and read the books. Took the books for themselves. I hope they found something in them. Fell in love with them. With the life in them.
Have you ever lost books like that? These are the ones I lost.
Course reader for German 160D
(This reader was turned into a book, Germany in Transit: Nation and Migration, 1955-2005, so I should really buy the book now. There were articles about gastarbeiter, Thai mail-order brides in Germany, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Fassbender’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Katzelmacher. On Turkish rap and Kanak Attak; on citizenship laws, law of blood, law of soil. On the homes of refugees and exiles, the shelters and asylums, that were burned down.
There was also something on Fatih Akin’s film Head-On, which I loved so much. I remember that Professor Göktürk, like Masha Tupitsyn in LACONIA, also mourned Sibel Kekilli’s nose job.
I loved Birol Ünel in this film. His disastered face. What’s amazing is that while acting the first part of the film, Ünel was a heavy drinker. But for the last part of the film, Ünel had been obliged to quit drinking, on the advice of his doctor, who warned Ünel that he would die otherwise. The stark, transformative effect this difference has on his face, and on the film. On his character’s own stark transformation. Trying to be someone who wants to live.
I’m haunted by Ünel’s face at the end of the film. His gaunt, death-knowing and still life-loving face. A totally bare, open, vulnerable face. He’s just gotten out of prison. The way he looks at Sibel Kekilli’s character in the hotel room. The way he unfolds for her, with the most carefully and tenderly spoken words, the vision of the life he wants for them. The life they fucked up years ago. The life they’re not going to have together.
And earlier, in the middle of the film, when both Ünel is still drinking, when Ünel-as-Cahit is still in the life of this life, not yet in its after-life, not yet in its catastrophe: the way his character smashes the beer glasses into the bar counter with his bare hands, then cups the cheeks of his friend. Smearing blood everywhere. Opening himself up like a vein—like the veins that the woman he’s now in love with has attempted to open up in her own arm, many times, and will attempt again, soon.
Ünel/Cahit opening himself up all the way to the blood of him. Blood that comes from his heart.
Shouting: “I’m in love!”)
Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan
Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native Other
Agamben, Infancy and History
Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Derrida, Le monolingualism de l’autre
(I bought this book in a French-language bookstore in Munich, when I was nineteen, maybe. I was with a lover who I think at the time was not a lover, but perhaps I’m remembering this wrong. Maybe he was already my fiancé at that time. And now my husband. The book was like a gift. A way of saying I love you.
The gift of reading the words: “Je n’ai qu’une language, et ce n’est pas la mienne.” I only have one language, and it’s not mine.
Feeling that truth in my blood, in my lymph. Circulating in my body. Pinay-American girl reading French book in Germany. Not throwing myself in front of a train. You decided you want to live, so live, okay, okay.)
Michael Palmer, The Promises of Glass
Derrida and Ferrari, A Taste for the Secret
Lyn Hejinian, A Border Comedy
Shklovsky, Zoo or Letters Not About Love
(NO NO NO, NOT THIS ONE COPY NOT THIS ONE BODY NOT THE BOOK THAT IS PERHAPS MY MOST BELOVED BOOK AND ESPECIALLY THIS BOOK BOUGHT WHEN I WAS SO YOUNG NO NO NO I HAD TO LOSE THE PERSON WHO BOUGHT ME THIS BOOK AND NOW I HAVE TO LOSE THE BOOK TOO WHY WHY WHY EVERYTHING STILL HAS TO COME DOWN TO LOSS HAS TO RISK BEING LOST AND THEN BE LOST AND THEN FINALLY TRULY AND FOREVER BE LOST GODDAMN IT)
The Communist Manifesto
Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
(One of the only two friends I ever made at university taught this book in his class. In his terrific class we also watched the film deepest in my heart, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, which I even ended up making a film for. In his latest email to me, my friend said he’s moving from California to New York, to teach at NYU. He says that like me, he’s been wanting to get out of the Bay Area for a long time.
The thing is, I don’t know if I still want to get out of the Bay Area, now that I’m out of it. I don’t know if the hole has really closed up behind me. Or rather: it opened up again, I’m falling backwards through it. Missing things like great Asian food in strip malls, Honda Civics, not-being-an-alien-because-so-brown.)
Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers
Rilke, Selected poems
Wittig, Les Guérrillères
The Marvelous Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca
(This was a gift, too. From the other friend I made at university. Who was only there for a year, on exchange. My only and closest French friend, adopted from South Korea when she was an infant. During a period when she was looking for her biological mother—and the painful period afterwards, when she finally found her—I gave her Kim Hyesoon’s Mummy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers. I also gave her a book of Paul Celan poems and prose. A different one from the one on this list.
She, like me, hates France. I went to visit her in Lyon and we went to see a museum of miniatures together. I didn’t even know there was a Musée des Miniatures in Lyon! She knew that I loved miniatures, so while we were there, she obsessively took pictures of everything and then sent me a CD of those pictures, and this book.
We loved each other. When friendship was still possible. The day of my father’s funeral, she called me out of the blue, just because she wanted to hear my voice. Her voice in France, my voice in California. But I couldn’t speak. I had just given my eulogy. I did something impossible, with that eulogy. I spoke about my dead love as if it was something I could speak about. I spoke about my dead love instead of dying, as years before I promised I would. As months before I promised I wouldn’t. Being bound to life, then bound to speech. I couldn’t believe how much I hated everything on earth. Every day is an attempt not to return to that place of hate and loss. Not every day is a success.
That eulogy. Everyone knew it was me that was going to give it, being my father’s soulmate and being the writer and the English speaker in the family. Even though I knew my eldest brother—twenty-six years older than me, old enough to be my father, but in terms of personality, young enough to be my kid—had wanted to say something. But he had no confidence in the realm of public speaking, and only tentatively mentioned things he would have liked to say, if only he were “good with words.”
Things I later put in the eulogy, attributed to him. When I spoke those words—in the detestable Catholic church where a detestable Catholic priest who did not know my father said detestable Catholic things—I heard a primal scream. All I saw was one black-haired head, collapsing into the knees in front of it. It was my brother. He was crying. He hadn’t been able to cry since the death.
Later he found me in the parking lot of the church. “That was so great, Elaine, really great, thank you,” he said. He was already back in his signature ease, charm, grin. He took me into his arms. His head on my head. Then I felt him start to break apart again. Felt his body sag into mine. Felt the heaviness of his love for me. Felt the beginning of another scream start to vibrate from his body. Felt him saying—felt, rather than heard—in a voice next to neck, next to my pulse, in a voice only for me, in a voice instead of a scream, but still a voice no longer quite speech: Thank you. Thank you.
My brother’s thank you was the only good thing that came out of my speaking that day. On the phone, I couldn’t speak anymore and my friend, being a true friend, didn’t make me speak. And after that day, I barely spoke, wrote or read for the next three years, give or take.
Give or take. Take. Taken.
Vergers. Rilke’s French poems. One of the poems goes something like: “A voice, close to mine, / lured by too much silence, / rises and decides / to never return.”
I think the actual poem is more hopeful than that, but how I feel always leaks out onto what I cite. What I lift. What I think I can bear.
My friend’s gift. We used to send each other long, handwritten letters, but both of us moved around too much for that to last.
I love you, —. Thank you for giving me this book. I didn’t mean to lose it. To lose anyone.)
Zlatko Dizda, Sarajevo: A War Journal
Softic, Sarajevo Days, Sarajevo Nights
Canfora, The Vanished Library
Pierre Loti, Egypt
Pierre Loti, Morocco
(Pierre Loti, the French Orientalist writer, who wrote the book Madame Chrysanthème, which inspired Madame Butterfly, and then Miss Saigon. I watched videos of a young Lea Salonga at the time when she was playing Kim in Miss Saigon. Lea Salonga, that Ultimate Filipina Celebrity.
She was also the singing voice for Fa Mulan in Mulan, a movie I loved and saw again recently on German television, dubbed.
Lea Salonga, who Wikipedia says was the first Asian to play Éponine and Fantine in Les Misérables on Broadway. Lea Salonga, in this interview with Terry Wogan. Just in a t-shirt and baggy pants. Messy ponytail, naked face. No one gets interviewed looking like that anymore. At least, not women.
She talks about never falling in love before. And her accent! A transatlantic English. Transpacific. Transoceanic. A trans English. An Oceanic English.
When I was in high school, this kid I was sort of into informed me that Filipinos were not real Asians. Not the way Chinese people like him, or Japanese people, or Korean people, were real Asians. So what are Filipinos, I said, feeling my desire wither. He said, Oceanic. They’re part of Oceania.)
Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet
Anne Carson, Decreation
Anne Carson, Men in the Off Hours
Anne Carson, Plainwater
(Gosh, I really wanted to be Anne Carson at a certain point in my life. I think some part of me still does.
Today I read her words, from Eros the Bittersweet, the new copy I bought for myself which has nothing to do with the copy I had when I was a teenager:
“If we follow the trajectory of eros we consistently find it tracing out this same route: it moves out from the lover toward the beloved, then ricochets back to the lover himself and the hole in him, unnoticed before. Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole.”)
Laura Moriary, Symmetry
Theresa Cha, Dictee
Marx and Engels, On Dialectical Materialism
Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets
The Homeric Gods
Reading Sappho, Contemporary Approaches
Guthrie, The Greeks and their Gods
Calasso, La littérature et les dieux
Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational
The Homeric Hymns
(Needed these for the book I was writing. The book on Sappho and Aphrodite. When am I going to accept the fact that I’m not a classicist anymore, that in the end I didn’t become a classicist? That I died instead. I still don’t know what I’ve come back as.)
Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary
Simone de Beauvoir, All Men Are Mortals
Heidegger, On the Way to Language
(Jesus Christ, why the hell did I want this book? Was it good? But I think I liked it. It’s a short book, right? It’s easy to read, if I’m thinking of the right one. Easy for Heidegger. I think I read it in a car, waiting for my husband’s kung-fu class to end. I was waiting in the car, reading. In the parking lot, people were running laps. One of them was my husband. We waved.)
MFK Fisher, An Alphabet for Gourmets
(I bought this book at the Librarie Galignani in Paris. I had just moved there, and had both my true love and my appendix torn out of me. During my appendicitis, one of the paramedics in the ambulance was a total asshole who kept shaming me about having called an ambulance when clearly I should have just taken a taxi to the hospital. What did I know? The other paramedic kept giving me these looks of deep, wry attraction and conspiracy. It was his way of comforting me about his colleague. It was his way of showing me that he was on my side, on the side of the wounded and the just; which is to say, it was his way of flirting.
But it turned out that the asshole paramedic was actually flirting, too, because even when I was already successfully delivered to the hospital, he stuck around, kept checking on me. He seemed to have realized that I thought he was an asshole and wanted to redeem himself in my eyes. When he finally had to leave for another pickup, he barked to me, “Bon courage,” in this really gruff way that would have been cute, if I was into that kind of thing.
I wasn’t. I’m not. I liked the quiet faithful conspirator paramedic, whom I saw leaving through a partially open door, through a partially open window, in the hallway of the hospital. He saw me, too, and we exchanged the most knowing of smiles. Desire like a palimpsest. Sexual attraction while my organs were exploding. I wasn’t mad at it.
After that, first I was in the Hôpital Cochin, where two young nurses, a boy and a girl, fucked up my IV and left me in the hallway, where my blood started literally pouring onto the ground. An older nurse had to come and fix it, cursing the young nurses, cursing me, cursing her life.
This was also when I saw the conspirator paramedic. When we looked at each other and smiled. Already half-in-love. Already lost. My blood spilling out. Blood from my heart.
Later I was transferred to Hôtel-Dieu. One of my doctors, a very handsome young man, was also being flirtatious, but in a more straightforward, professional way. Because he was a doctor, and not a paramedic? He looked just like the true love I had lost. For some reason we kept talking about the Golden State Warriors, of which he was a great fan. He was really happy to meet someone from California.
No girls ever flirted with me, why? Maybe I’m not a French girl’s type. But in Irma Vep, Nathalie Richard’s Zoe develops a crush on Maggie Cheung’s Maggie Cheung. I’m never Maggie Cheung, though. I’m Tony Leung.
All in all, it wasn’t a great end to my teenage years. Still, it was a time when bookstores didn’t make me feel totally paranoid and nauseated. What I remember most about buying this book at the Librairie Galignani was how cool the bookstore was. It was so hot in Paris and my stitches still itched and the store was so wonderfully cold. After I bought this book, I went outside into the Jardin des Tuileries and bought a pear sorbet and pretended not to be poor, or sad. Pretended to be whole. I was already hating Paris. At least the pear sorbet really tasted like pears.)
The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress
Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses
Marx, The Class Struggles in France
Gaugin, Intimate Journals
Simone Weil, Waiting for God
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff, War and the Iliad
(Classicist, ha. More like a girl whose first love was Patroclus. A girl in love with fictional dead boys, girls.
I always loved this line by Bespaloff: “It is not through action that Homer reveals man’s profoundest nature but rather through man’s ways of loving and choosing his love. For Hector, love is the forgetfulness of self. For Achilles, self is at the center of love. What he adores in Patroclus* is his own reflection, purified.”
Why did I love Achilles and hate him at the same time? I used to write tons of Achilles/Patroclus stories. There was a terrible footnote at the end of this page from Bespaloff’s essay, part of which I transcribed into a Word document years ago. That asterisk. Next to the asterisk: “Patroclus is the only character in the Iliad whose personality remains dim.”
But isn’t that because Patroclus is already a ghost? Someone you love who is already dead. Someone who erases himself in his love for you. Patroclus is defined only insofar as he loves and is loved by Achilles.
If for Hector love is a forgetfulness of self, then for Patroclus it’s a total erasure of self. He never says “I love you” in the epic and I can’t imagine Patroclus saying “I love you.” Such an utterance already being an admission to vanity. He makes no such outward gesture of personality, subjecthood. When he goes to Achilles to admonish the latter’s refusal to fight, he’s crying for the other Greeks, not for himself. Achilles says he looks like a baby girl crying, but it’s not an insult. He says it with the tenderness of a friend-brother-lover. Someone who’s seen you naked.
Patroclus gives him a litany of the Greek dead and wounded. Injured words from a grieving ghost. But his admonishment isn’t even really an admonishment. Before long he’s asking Achilles to give him his famous armor and send him into battle in his place. You already know how this is going to end.
By this time I’m already crying, every time.
And so Patroclus dies in the armor of Achilles. Confused for Achilles, by the Trojans. Killed in Achilles’ place. Killed for Achilles. And even when he dies he’s still talking about Achilles to Hector, his killer. Talking about how Achilles is going to kick Hector’s ass.
Patroclus turns his entire body into a shrine for Achilles. A tomb for Achilles. A rehearsal for Achilles’ real death, which doesn’t happen in the Iliad. Homer has Patroclus do it for him. And of course it’s Patroclus’ death that brings Achilles into the war. Into his destiny; that is to say, his own death.
Today, years later, I find that I still fall in love with a Patroclus. With the earnest, melancholy, honor-bound one who gives his entire life up for you. In myth often the priest of the shrine resembles the god. Patroclus blurs into Achilles. This radical absence or erasure of self has always seemed to me the most heroic act in the entire epic. The hole where Patroclus is. Where you are. The hole where Patroclus is already lost. Where — is.)