Wednesday, June 29, 2011

a mouse would hardly find a foothold

Despair, despair: among other things I've been trying to find a way to segue, on this blog, into the book of Faroese short stories I found in the library two weeks ago, and so far no luck, I can find no doorway into the subject, no guiding loving star, no mineshaft, and it feels as if I might as well be trying to climb up the cliffs that, I am told, rise from the sea around the shores of the Faroe Islands where all of these stories are set.

The Faroese writers associate the subject of cliffs so naturally with the subject of birds that I assume that it is normal for all of the other islanders to think like this as well, first cliffs and then birds, birds and then cliffs, specifically nesting birds. Characters go "fowling in the cliffs." A man who wants to kill a pair of ravens ("black as pitch and shiny as steel") in Sverri Patursson's Winning of the Bounty first acquires his bait in the shape of a dead lamb and then tosses it down a scarp. "Then he went all the way out to the edge of the bluff where the ravens were nesting lower down. He dropped the lamb so that it went rushing right past the nest and didn't stop until it reached a shelf below it. The birds were at the nest with their young, and when the carcass came tumbling down past them, they both flew out and began to circle close to the cliff."

The hero of one of the other stories, M.A. Winthers' To Catch a Thief, is a bird-poacher, one of those cunning but poor folk tale characters who outwit the rich and powerful. When he wants to trap himself some birds he goes to "one of the best of the Lað farmers' fowling places. It was impossible to walk down to the ledges in the face of the cliff here, and anyone who wanted to get to them had to use a line -- about twenty fathoms of it. The cliff was sheer from the edge down to the ledges, so sheer and smooth that a mouse would hardly find a foothold."

The Lað farmers try to catch him but he turns the tables on them and by the last paragraph of the story they're paying him to do their fowling.

I realise that I've found my way in. Here is my doorway: cliffs and birds. But before this, trust me, I was sitting here like Mr Toots in Dombey and Son, who never can work out how to tell Florence Dombey that he loves her. Instead he flails at the topic, hesitates, helplessly sabotages himself, "goes home to his Hotel in a state of desperation, locks himself into his bedroom, flings himself upon his bed, and lies there for a long time," moving the heart of the reader, who sees that he is a poor fool. Chesterton calls him "this little dunce and cad." Yet "Toots," he says, "expresses certain permanent dignities in human nature more than any of Dickens's more dignified characters can do it. For instance, Toots expresses admirably the enduring fear, which is the very essence of falling in love. When Toots is invited by Florence to come in, when he longs to come in, but still stays out, he is embodying a sort of insane and perverse humility which is elementary in the lover."

When Nicholson Baker perceived this love and humility in himself he wrote about it in U and I, a book which is both a memoir and a record of being haunted by thoughts of John Updike. Updike is the U. As he reaches the end of the book Baker the admirer meets Updike in the flesh -- twice -- and blurts at him -- maladroitly -- trying to be suave -- and goes away feeling that he has made the older writer dislike him. He stammers, he lies, he makes a gawky reference to The New Yorker. "I would never have done it either -- drag in The New Yorker name so obviously to get his attention -- except that life was too short not to. Those ticking seconds of signature might be the only chance I would ever get to embarrass myself in his presence.

When the excessively shy force themselves to be forward, they are frequently surprisingly unsubtle and overdirect and even rude: they have entered an extreme region beyond their normal personality where gradations don't count."

But Toots is very delicate, he doesn't blurt enough, that's one of his problems. And me, I hesitate, I think, "That doesn't work." I am Tootsish, though I do not express certain permanent dignities of human nature. Baker says that a writer who wants to introduce a new topic should be bold and charge in -- take command, change it, make it change. Chutzpah is vital. In February and March after VIDA put out that report about the low number of women who published reviews, articles in magazines, and so on, some magazine editors said, well, women lack confidence, they don't stand up and propose articles on subjects they know almost nothing about, as men do; they don't volunteer.

More maladroit blurting may be the answer, or else women will be condemned to go home to their hotels in states of desperation, fling themselves on their beds, and lie there for a very long time, never embarking on blog posts about the Faroe Islands, and knowing that they are not as brave as that utter lunatic in the M.A. Winthers story who climbs down twenty fathoms of rope and risks his life above a peeling sea to trap a few birds when nowadays he could just take himself off to the SMS Mall in the capital Tórshavn and buy off the menu at Burger King instead. But the Lað farmers are not going to employ him for doing that.

Faroese Short Stories was translated by Hedin Brønner. Photographs of those cliffs "so sheer and smooth that a mouse would hardly find a foothold" are not difficult to find online, and here is one of them. Here are some birds sitting on tiny ledges on the cliff-face. Here are people lying on the ground at the top of a Faroese cliff as if they're at a picnic. Here is a waterfall coming off a cliff into the sea near the village of Gásadalur. "In 2002 there were only sixteen people living in Gásadalur, and several of the houses stand empty today," reports Wikipedia. Two bucks and I'd move there. I should point out that the book was published in 1972 so the cliff plus bird combination may not have the grip on the Faroese imagination that it once did.

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