JULY 7, 2019
OVER THE YEARS, ambling through flea markets, I have retrieved a number of arcane items familiar from my mother’s long-ago kitchen, now likely candidates for museum collections. My most triumphant find was her heavy iron meat grinder, color of pewter, a complicated affair suggesting a miniature tuba, whose bottom was screwed onto a table or counter. At the top was a funnel, and then the works, concealed in a bulbous arrangement. The funnel mouth was a flat circle punctured by holes. I watched entranced as my mother put a handful of chopped meat or pieces of cooked liver into the funnel, turned the wooden handle round and round, and lo, the meat emerged from the holes transformed into long strings, something like the locks of Medusa or today’s hair extensions, which fell into a waiting bowl. I have this relic displayed on a shelf. I don’t use it when I make a meatloaf but instead toss the ingredients into a bowl and plunge my hands in to mix them. Feeling the ingredients merging, under the agitation of my fingers, into a satisfying consistency, is a great pleasure, comparable to repotting plants and plunging my fingers into the soil to turn it up like a manual Roto-Rooter.
The matter of consistency, in all its possible meanings, has intrigued me ever since I read Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), a collection of five essays on literature that he intended to present at Harvard as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. The literary topics he considers are Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity. The sixth was to be Consistency, but Calvino died before he could complete it or deliver the lectures. The five existing essays are tours de force of imaginative thinking, laced with examples and infused with his mellow wisdom. What, I wondered, would he have done with Consistency, a slippery word with several meanings?
I generally groan when writers rely on dictionary definitions, but I am about to succumb to this puerility. The OED calls consistency “material coherence and permanence of form; solidity or firmness sufficient to retain its form. Matter dense enough to cohere. Degree of density. Viscous or firm condition. Thickness, stiffness, firmness.” And in its more familiar sense, the least interesting to me, “agreement, harmony, compatibility.”
As a child, besides watching my mother cook and digging my fingers into raw concoctions, there was nothing I liked better than reading, and this is still true. I have always thought of words, sentences, and stories in terms of consistency — that is, their texture and density. Their quality, their feel. I can forget plots — who died, who stole, who betrayed — but I never forget the feel of a book. By that I mean the atmosphere, the quality nearly impossible to articulate. Some hold that smell is the most intimate sense, but my preference goes to touch, followed by taste. There is nothing so intimate as touch, nothing so sensitively aware as the fingertips, which is why people find a surprise touch, however slight or meaningless or even accidental, to be startling and even intrusive. Taste is almost equally intimate and unforgettable.
Like celebrity chefs, certain novelists achieve a miraculous transformation of the raw, not into the cooked, but into the more shapely, the unexpected, as when Clarissa in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway sits mending her dress. The needle’s rhythmic calm evolves into a cosmic tranquility:
Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “that is all” more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.
With a leap, with a simple “So,” the everyday and ordinary participates in the timeless. Woolf’s first analogy is to waves, which later became the title of the most Woolfian of her novels, in which six lives “collect and fall.”
In the same way, later on in Mrs. Dalloway, an ordinary London day moving into evening becomes magical and significant:
Like a woman who had slipped off her print dress and white apron to array herself in blue and pearls, the day changed, put off stuff, took gauze, changed to evening, and with the same sigh of exhilaration that a woman breathes, tumbling petticoats on the floor, it too shed dust, heat, color; the traffic thinned; motor cars, tinkling, darting, succeeded the lumber of vans; and here and there among the thick foliage of the squares an intense light hung. I resign, the evening seemed to say, as it paled and faded among the battlements and prominences …
Captivating as Woolf’s images are, I confess that, as regards consistency, they do not agree with me: too creamy, too smooth, like over-sweetened chocolate mousse. Some interfering lumps might leaven the texture. Or, thinking in terms of fabric, some satin or taffeta, constricting, stifling fabrics. Woolf’s virtuosity is even smoother by the time she writes The Waves, a brilliant performance that nonetheless feels to me like clawing my way through cotton candy.
Other examples of transforming raw material into elegant shapes offer a harder, flintier texture (“solidity or firmness”), as in the opening paragraph of Heinrich von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas:
Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, there lived on the banks of the Havel a horse dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day. Until his thirtieth year this extraordinary man would have been thought the very model of a good citizen […] if he had not carried one virtue to excess. But his sense of justice turned him into a brigand and a murderer.
And there we have it, a succinct précis of what will be examined in detail in the next hundred pages. This is hard stuff, something to gnash the teeth on. Equally tough is the opening of Kleist’s story “The Earthquake in Chile,” which sounds almost like a police report that offers suspense and intrigue:
In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the very moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands of lives were lost, a young Spaniard by the name of Jeronimo Rugera, who had been locked up on a criminal charge, was standing against a prison pillar, about to hang himself.
In a few words, we are given a great deal of information, not to mention a mystery and a tease. This is a mouthful indeed.
Another favorite recovered object is my mother’s washboard, a rectangular wooden frame about a foot and a half high and a foot wide, resting on two short legs. In the center is a rectangle of corrugated glass about the size of a sheet of lined paper, its ridges imitating the lines on that paper. When I came home from school for lunch, I would sometimes find my mother at the kitchen sink, which was filled with sudsy water, rubbing some undergarment vigorously against the ridged glass. She would stop and dry her hands to get my lunch on the table, and after she resumed scrubbing and I began eating, we would listen to soap operas on the radio, the story of Stella Dallas, a girl from a small town who might or might not find happiness as the wife of a wealthy businessman, or the peculiar lives of Jim and Jocelyn Brent, where in one unforgettable episode Jim is kidnapped for some nefarious reason and replaced at home by an identical substitute. Jocelyn doesn’t catch on for weeks. Even at 10 years old I knew enough to be incredulous at her accepting this substitute without question. Sometimes my mother let me try the washboard. What I enjoyed most was the sensation of rubbing the soft wet clothes against the hard slippery ridges — the feeling of resistance. The clothes would get cleaner, yes, but no matter how hard I rubbed, those ridges would never yield.
I find that same sense of resistance, of recalcitrant material, in the novels of the great Italian novelist and essayist Natalia Ginzburg. Born in 1916, Ginzburg came from an anti-fascist family in Turin and suffered through the war years, exiled to a remote village with her husband, an anti-fascist activist, and her two children. Toward the end of the war, after they were released, Leone Ginzburg was tortured to death by the fascists. Ginzburg’s fiction and essays are suffused with the agonies of the war years and, even more, by the melancholy, burnt-out feeling of the postwar period. Again and again she writes that nothing will ever be the same. “The Son of Man” (1946) is an essay informed throughout by the transformation of the collective sensibility:
There was the war, with so many houses collapsing all around us, and now people no longer feel safe and secure in their own houses, as once we did. Some things are incurable, and though years go by, we never recover. Even if we have lamps on the tables again, vases of flowers and portraits of our loved ones, we have no more faith in such things, not since we had to abandon them in haste or hunt for them in vain amid the rubble.
It is useless to think we can recover from twenty years of what we went through. Those of us who were persecuted will never again rest easy. For us the insistent blare of a doorbell in the middle of the night can mean only the one word, “police.”
The experience of evil, once suffered, is never forgotten.
The relentless repetition emphasizes and deepens the sense of imminent threat. The essay ends by comparing the new and terrible awareness with the comparative innocence of her parents’ generation (something they might well quarrel with). Then comes an unexpected note at the very close: “But we are bound to this our anguish and glad, at heart, of our destiny as human beings.”
Nowhere is the awareness of change more powerful — more tactile — than in her 1961 novel Voices in the Evening. At age 27, living with her parents, Elsa, the narrator, observes the changes that have come to her town after the war: the deaths, the divorces, the general malaise. Her focus is on the family of old Balotta, an outspoken socialist, self-made man, and factory owner. When fascism comes to the town, old Balotta goes around muttering, “I cannot endure it anymore.” In time his wife dies, the fascists destroy his home, and his memory starts to fail.
He would wake up with a start and ask the landlady,
“Where are my children?”
He asked her this with a threatening air as though she had got them hidden from him in the store-room cupboard.
“The boys, the grown-up ones, are at the war,” said the landlady. “Don’t you remember that they are at the war? Little Tommasino is at school; and the girls, Gemmina is in Switzerland and Raffaella is in the mountains with the Partisans.”
“What a life!” said old Balotta.
The story of the town after the war, with so many neighbors and friends either killed in battle or murdered by the fascists, is told starkly, in factual description and swift dialogue, as is Elsa’s love affair with Tommasino, Balotta’s youngest son. Despite the spareness of the narration, the novel is a wrenching masterpiece of smothered emotion and loss. For a long time, Elsa and Tommasino have been meeting secretly in an apartment he rents for that purpose. Finally, at her urging, they agree to marry, but as soon as the formalities begin and they partake of the worn-out traditions of the older generation — the meeting of the relatives, the buying of furniture — the affair starts to go dead. An exhaustion overcomes Tommasino, who was too young to go to war but endured all the losses it brought. As he and Elsa talk about the marriage they begin to understand can never happen, Tommasino says:
“You see, it is not in me […] no real vitality. This is my great want. I feel a shudder of disgust when I should assert myself. I want to assert myself, and then I have this shudder. […]
“It is because I have the feeling,” he said, “that they have already lived enough, those others before me; that they have already consumed all the reserves, all the vitality that there was for us. […] Nothing was left over for me. […]
“It seems to me that I am only their shadow.”
The vulnerability and delicacy of Elsa’s predicament, set against the intransigent legacy of the war, brings me back to the consistency of the wet clothes being rubbed against the hard washboard. Nothing will ever be the same, and the new reality is unyielding; struggle against it is hopeless.
It might be suggested that these are examples of voice, or sensibility, and that is true as far as it goes. But the kind of tactile consistency — the texture — that I’m after is even more intimate than the writer’s sensibility. A layer below, as it were. It comes from the errant, inborn stirrings of the mind, the stuff of the inner nature from which sensibility arises.
The same vulnerability and delicacy — like a butterfly, or a “thing with feathers” — confronting the recalcitrance of life and the certainty of death animate Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Unlike Ginzburg’s work, Dickinson’s is not linked to a particular event or era but is universal, outside of time, however much it laments the cruelties of time.
We knew not that we were to live –
Nor when – we are to die –
Our ignorance – our Cuirass is –
We wear Mortality
As lightly as an Option Gown
Till asked to take it off –
By his intrusion, God is known
It is the same with Life –
Not all of Dickinson’s poems are as hopeless as the characters in Voices in the Evening. After all, besides her poetry, she has an unstable notion of God or a possible afterlife to sustain her. But every now and then a poem turns up with the same quality of impotence in the face of realities too solid to contest:
From Blank to Blank –
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet –
To stop – or perish – or advance –
Alike indifferent –
If end I gained
It ends beyond
Indefinite disclosed –
I shut my eyes – and groped as well
’Twas lighter – to be Blind –
The consistency of such poems, as well as Ginzburg’s novel, is painful, like rubbing your knuckles too hard against the ridges of the washboard, as I sometimes did as a child, maybe in an attempt to smooth them out, before I learned that was not possible.
The kind of juicer my mother used was a more modest find, at least in terms of size. But not in terms of drama, even aggression, in its use. It was a smallish shallow glass bowl whose center was a pointed, fluted dome three or so inches high. A hemisphere of orange was placed on the point of the dome, where it suffered, as I perceived it, a kind of prolonged torture: twisted and turned, hard, again and again, until it had yielded up all its juice and pulp into the bowl. Orange juice today can be bought with or without pulp, but our juice was full of pulp, though it could be strained for anyone too finicky to deal with it.
A writer who illustrates this kind of consistency is José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist who first came to my attention with Blindness (1995), published in English translation in 1997. Reading his magnificent novels demands energetic concentration, just like squeezing the orange. And the books are all pulp, all the time (nothing to do with pulp fiction, a term that derives from the cheap paper it was printed on). Saramago’s sentences, rivaling in length and complexity those of Proust or Henry James, never lose their shape or firmness, unlike the poor orange. They move with vigor, each making a distinctive point, or quite often several.
Besides the heft, density, and tartness of those sentences, Blindness is consistent in the more commonplace sense as well. It proceeds from complete unity of action: on a certain day, everyone in a nameless city goes blind, one after the other, except for the character called “the doctor’s wife,” who guides the others as they are herded into large holding spaces and descend into squalor, deprivation, and authoritarian rule. Saramago depicts in scrupulous detail what barbarism might feel like. Strict and impossible orders from the powers that be are broadcast through unseen microphones. No aspect of the state of nature in one’s worst imaginings is omitted — hunger, filth, theft, rape, intimidation by gangs (the blind tormenting the blind), even murder. Death is ubiquitous, and the bodies must be buried by the blind.
Using cunning and ruthlessness, the characters eventually escape their imprisonment, and at the end their sight is restored as mysteriously as it was taken away; they begin the first steps toward resuming normal life. But the beastliness cannot be forgotten. Even the doctor’s wife, who has maintained her humanity throughout and helped others survive, resorts to murder to protect the women from repeated rape. At the close, what remains for the reader from Saramago’s vision of barbarity is a tactile sense of grime and slime on the fingers.
Saramago is far from an observer of the classical unities. But the unity of action — or, better still, the unity of original impulse — informs almost all his novels. The Stone Raft (1986) begins with the premise that the Iberian Peninsula is separating from the European continent and drifting west in the direction of Boston. The protagonist of All the Names (1997), a clerk who keeps records of deaths in an immense underground file, becomes obsessed with one particular name, seeking out the circumstances of this woman’s death. The Cave (2000) concerns a rural family of potters who are threatened by mass production spread by the nearby urban mall, which is gradually taking over all of life. There are very few great and long novels so unified and consistent in purpose, and whose purpose, moreover, has such broad social and philosophical implications.
Yet within this unity of impulse, Saramago’s novels range far and wide, both syntactically and in subject matter, illustrating what Calvino, in his essay on “Multiplicity,” calls “a tangled skein of yarn.” Multiplicity, Calvino says, characterizes the modern or postmodern novel, in which such dense networks of connections are created that “the matter in hand spreads out and out” to include, potentially, the entire universe. That Saramago manages so fertile a multiplicity within his singular topical focus is the root of his genius.
I try to believe, and often I succeed, that these old household objects (marked up to ridiculous prices, like works of art) are actually the same ones from my mother’s kitchen. “My mother’s meat grinder!” I shouted when I first came upon it, and none of my companions was unkind enough to disabuse me. But there is one object I know for sure is genuine because I took it from my mother’s kitchen after she died. That is her beautiful amber wooden rolling pin, large and thick as a cop’s baton, which now stands propped up in a corner of my own kitchen. I watched her use it to roll out dough that she shaped into piecrusts, carefully primping the circular rim. She would save chunks of dough for me to play with, to roll around between my palms, feeling their sticky, powdery consistency — less sticky and powdery the longer I rolled them. I could form shapes as with store-bought clay, but the consistency of the dough was more yielding. It was pliable, responsive, almost alive to the touch.
This brings me to the inimitable brief essays of the Swiss writer Robert Walser, who was born in 1878 and died in 1956, after more than 30 unwilling years in a mental hospital, dubiously diagnosed with schizophrenia. In his youth, he held various jobs for very short periods, working as a butler, a secretary, a factory worker, a brewery employee, and more. Walser was prolific, writing and publishing nine novels and over a thousand of the very brief essays or fictions that have brought him renown — a kind of link between Kleist and Kafka. An eccentric in many ways, he wrote in a minuscule script that future editors and translators have had to patiently decipher. No description of his prose can really do it justice. The two-page piece, “Nervous,” begins:
I am a little worn out, raddled, squashed, downtrodden, shot full of holes. Mortars have mortared me to bits. I am a little crumbly, decaying, yes, yes. I am sinking and drying up a little. I am a bit scalded and scorched, yes, yes. That’s what it does to you. That’s life. I am not old, not in the least, certainly I am not eighty, by no means, but I am not sixteen any more either. Quite definitely I am a bit old and used up. That’s what it does to you.
He continues in this vein, not becoming tedious but, on the contrary, hypnotic, drawing the reader deeper into the eddying sentences. It is this repetition, the obsessive, near-addictive quality, that recalls precisely the texture of the lumps of dough in my hands, which I could squeeze, shape and reshape, roll out into a string or flatten into a pancake or make into a ball. Whatever the shape, the feel of the dough remained the same. The prose — like the act of rolling the dough — has the contradictory qualities of concentration and offhandedness. This tension, typical of Walser’s work, makes it irresistible. From “Nothing at All”:
A woman who was only just a little flighty went to town to buy something good for supper for herself and her husband. Of course, many a woman has gone shopping and in so doing been just a little absentminded. So in no way is this story new; all the same, I shall continue and relate that the woman who had wanted to buy something good for supper for herself and her husband and for this reason had gone to town did not exactly have her mind on the matter.
She comes home with nothing at all and explains herself to her husband:
“Over and over I considered, but came to no decision, because the choice was too difficult for me to make. Also it was already late, and my time was limited. I wasn’t lacking in good will or the best of all intentions, but I just didn’t have my mind on the matter. […] It seems that I was only just a little flighty and because of that I didn’t succeed. I went to town and I wanted to have something truly delicious and good for me and you, I wasn’t lacking in good will, over and over I considered, but the choice was too difficult, and my mind wasn’t on the matter, and therefore I didn’t succeed, and therefore I bought nothing at all. We will have to be satisfied today with nothing at all for once, won’t we. Nothing at all can be prepared most quickly and, at any rate, doesn’t cause indigestion.”
And so it continues for another page, going nowhere really but spellbinding all the same.
A contemporary writer who should be better known, and who seduces by the same obsessive, hypnotic gift, is Stephen Dixon, also astonishingly prolific — the author, at latest count, of 18 story collections and 18 novels (two of them, Frog and Interstate, were nominated for the National Book Award). His work is quite different from Walser’s: it is realistic for the most part; the sentences are long and circuitous; in the midst of tragedy flickers a throwaway humor. Dixon’s work feels very much like rolling raw dough or clay between the palms, shaping and reshaping to see just how many shapes the same material can be given. And the result is enriching and nourishing, like the pies and cakes that raw dough becomes.
In the last couple of years, Dixon has published several first-person stories in literary magazines, using a narrator whose wife has recently died. They are small masterpieces of grief, memory, and the struggle to go on. In “The Kiss,” which appeared last year in AGNI, the narrator recalls kissing his wife on the lips. Paragraphs are spent parsing various kisses:
They were sitting on the sofa in her apartment. He’d been sitting in a chair across from her on the sofa. It was their third date. […] He said: “Would you mind very much if I sat next to you?” “Not at all,” she said. “Plenty of room.” He sat beside her, took her hand, said, “I suppose you know what’s coming next,” and she said, “If it’s what I think it is, go ahead.” […] The first time she came to his apartment — it was in the afternoon — and he said “This is a memorable event. The first time we kiss in my apartment. I won’t forget it.” “If I do,” she said, “you can always remind me.” The kiss after their wedding ceremony in her apartment, now theirs.
This passage is from the last paragraph of a very short story, and it continues, kiss after kiss, rising to an almost unbearable poignancy as he recalls how happy they were together. “‘That was some kiss. I almost stopped breathing. But it was worth it.’ ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I remember it exactly like that too.’”
Another story, “They Used To,” appeared in the spring 2018 in Fifth Wednesday Journal. It’s much longer than “The Kiss” and goes into greater detail about the couple’s life together, their children, and the wife’s final illness, pondering the loss of so great a love. Though the details come from daily life, there is nothing ordinary or banal about the telling; tragic loss is rendered in its rawest, most tactile state. Many passages begin with “They used to” or “He used to,” not recalled chronologically but at random, just as the mind flits from memory to memory.
He used to go to her hospital room right after morning visiting hours started. If she was sleeping, he’d sit in the one comfortable chair in the room and read the Times and drink his coffee. He’d turn the pages very carefully, so as not to crinkle them and wake her. […] Sometimes her eyes were open when he entered the room. He’d say, “Good morning, my sweetheart,” and smile at her. If she didn’t have the vent down her throat, she’d say “Good morning,” and smile back.
It’s that final detail about the vent down her throat that keeps sentiment at bay and reminds us of what a final illness is like.
Of all the writers quoted here, Saramago and Stephen Dixon embody most powerfully Calvino’s marvelous summing up near the end of Six Memos. The lines, tantalizing in their suggestiveness, make me regret all the more that he never finished this brief book:
Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.
So it is that distant memories, as of my mother’s kitchen tools, yield up images and sensations we carry with us forever, linking us to all that we encounter in adult life.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of the novels Disturbances in the Field, Leaving Brooklyn, the memoir Ruined by Reading, and many other works of fiction and nonfiction. Her third collection of poetry, No Way Out But Through, was published in 2017 by the University of Pittsburgh Press Poetry Series.
Banner image by Milton Keynes Museum.