Whether it's the warm weather, the annoying loudness of neighbors or, I don't know, the daily horrors in the news, sitting down with a book has never seemed more difficult.
In the past few weeks, I have opened many astounding novels to just stare at their pages. My eyes act of their own accord. When encountering a period, they refuse to go on. Though I urge them to continue, they seem to mock me and even, I imagine, light a cigarette. My mind, following suit, fleets away.
The narrator of Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre understands very well what it's like to try to read when the mind insists on overactive restlessness:
I did my best to lose myself in my book, to become as one with the book, to think of nothing outside it, to feel nothing except what was sensed by my eyes on the paper but of course I could see myself clearly trying to forget myself and trying to become as one and dissolve myself so really I wasn't absorbed in anything, was becoming nothing and could feel nothing at all.
Translated by Sophie Lewis, Blue Self-Portrait is the most recent release by Oakland-based publishing house Transit Books—and it is a godsend.
It's also a book with very unusual punctuation. A slim novel, Blue Self-Portrait sings in an endless arrangement of commas, semi-colons, dashes and, like a great musical epic, it is punctuated by the great cymbal crash of periods sparingly.
In the span of a flight from Berlin to Paris (a mere hour and forty minutes), a hilariously obsessive narrator combs through every gesture, facial tick and word uttered (and not uttered) in her short romantic interaction with a pianist in Berlin—which she initiates by assaulting the pianist with a "flood of verbiage" after a performance. She comments on his playing, on Beethoven, and miraculously stops herself just before explaining to the virtuoso how to better his performance.
Our narrator, you see, knows nothing about music, and she suffers from a self-described case of motormouth. "[It] was all coming back to me now in the plane between one cloud and the next," Lefebvre writes.
...a stroke of luck that I'd stopped myself just in time, I uttered my notorious Ich habe zu viel gesprochen for it was true, I had said too much, so much too much that I had to proclaim this brand-new truth the very moment it occurred to me; my noble pianist: no, not at all, it's quite all right, he sweetly replied, warmly replied, even though it wasn't fine, not only not fine but catastrophic, so catastrophic as to be irreparable, besides I didn't repair anything but on the contrary promptly went and dug myself in deeper: of course I had to interrupt again, when I had only just said Ich habe zu viel gesprochen, I didn't pause and count to ten, not to ten nor to any lesser number, I didn't count at all; I just had to go on and on...
The narrator's inability to reign in her tongue is a constant source of embarrassment for her, and constant source of entertainment for us. But beneath the constantly running motor of hilarious verbosity, a rich tapestry of ideas develops. Aided by observations of the narrator's in-flight surroundings—her sister seated next to her, the landscape below—Lefebvre is able to work in profound meditations on the Third Reich's influence on music, women's place in culture and art-making and Arnold Schoenberg, with whom the pianist is obsessed.
Schoenberg, an Austrian-American composer, was the father of atonality—that is music that lacks a tonal center or key—and taught such modern masters as John Cage. Schoenberg immigrated to the U.S. with the rise of the Third Reich. He was also a painter, and his Blue Self-Portrait, which our narrator and her pianist to go see, triggers ideas about art in the face of political upheaval.
The the sped-up tempo of this narrative rises like fumes from the sentences in a literary accompaniment to Schoenberg's musical innovation of atonality. It's a devilishly smart construction on the part of Lefebvre, and an impressive mission accomplie on the part of Lewis, her translator.
Blue Self-Portrait may be the antidote to our condition of having too many things on the mind—but I'd love to read it anytime, especially while on a plane. Go to this book for the lack of periods, but stay for deliciously absurd humor and the ideas just beneath the surface.
Read an excerpt of Blue Self-Portrait here.
The Spine is a bi-weekly column. Catch us back here in two weeks.