“A face that seemed so sturdy as to defy even the devastating pickax of misery,” Balzac


…Godefroid examined [the stranger] closely and was surprised at his exceptional thinness, no doubt caused by sorrow, and perhaps hunger, and very likely hard work. Each of these debilitating forces had left its mark on that face, whose withered skin clung tightly to the bones, as if baked by the fires of Africa. His high, looming forehead sheltered two steel blue eyes beneath its cupola, eyes as cold, hard, wise, and penetrating as the eyes of the savages but marred by two deep and very wrinkled dark circles. His long slender nose and proudly raised chin gave the old man a certain resemblance to the popular image of Don Quixote, but this was the face of a cruel Don Quixote, a Don Quixote without illusions, Don Quixote as a formidable figure.

In spite of this severity, the old man could not entirely conceal the fear and frailty that indigence confers on all its victims. These two afflictions had created something like cracks in a face that seemed so sturdy as to defy even the devastating pickax of misery. His mouth was eloquent and serious. Don Quixote was complicated by the President de Montesquieu.


Le grand vieillard hésitait à répondre; il voyait venir Mme. Vauthier; mais Godefroid, qui l’examinait attentivement, fut surpris du degré de maigreur auquel les chagrins, la faim peut-être, peut-être le travail, l’avaient fait arriver; il y avait trace de toutes ces causes d’affaiblissement sur cette figure, où la peau desséchée se collait avec ardeur sur les os, comme si elle avait été exposée aux feux de l’Afrique. Le front, haut et d’un aspect menaçant, abritait sous sa coupole deux yeux d’un bleu d’acier, deux yeux froids, durs, sagaces et perspicaces comme ceux des sauvages, mais meurtris par un profond cercle noir très ridé. Le nez, grand, long et mince, et le menton, très relevé, donnaient à ce vieillard une ressemblance avec le masque si connu, si populaire attribué à don Quichotte; mais c’était don Quichotte méchant, sans illusions, un don Quichotte terrible.

Ce vieillard, malgré cette sévérité générale, laissait percer la crainte et la faiblesse que prête l’indigence à tous les malheureux. Ces deux sentiments produisaient comme des lézardes dans cette face construite si solidement que le pic dévastateur de la misère semblait s’y ébrécher. La bouche était éloquente et sérieuse. Don Quichotte se compliquait du président de Montesquieu.

—Balzac, The Wrong Side of Paris (L’envers de l’histoire contemporaine), Part II, Chapter 3, translated by Jordan Stump

Do we still see our fellows in the same detailed way? I wonder if this kind of descriptive language, this way of introducing a character, still exists in the language of the present day. I know that it’s often easier to look for a shorthand metaphor, a kind of picture-word that’s worth at least five hundred other words; I’m thinking of this kind of description in particular:

The headmistress was a tall, slim woman who looked a little like Charles de Gaulle.

To me Balzac’s description reeks of the past, of a different way of looking at people, of close examination of appearance as a way to better understanding of character. This kind of quote takes those old saws about how “suffering was written on his face” and walks the reader through one such face: M. Bernard’s thinness as the result of hard work and sorrow and hunger, the forehead-as-cupola, the steely blue eyes, and the reference to popular views of Don Quixote.

The larger question is this: do people even look like M. Bernard any more, especially in novels?

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picture via flickr.com

“The sky is going all slatey like in a painting people say is important,” Terese Svoboda

The father comes up behind him. Furthest away the mother halts. They look up. The sky is going all slatey like in a painting people say is important. In the second they take to glance up, the rocketship retracts its legs and tail and plays dead.

—Terese Svoboda, “Leadership”

The best of Terese Svoboda’s words read themselves in your head like hearing a Steve Lacy line, perhaps from Only Monk, his solo recordings of Thelonious Monk compositions, all tight and ropy and in a single strand encompassing melody and harmony both, such as it is. They are quick and expressive and in every story in her collection Trailer Girl there is something strange, something you could call “modal” that comes about, like changing the harmonic structure of the story while the melody plays on, like listening to something new emerging out of the swamp off in the distance.

In “Leadership,” there’s a family: mom, dad, son. There’s also a rocket ship that lands on their lawn. Read the quote above, and see how in less than 30 words she’s drawn an entire poster in the Constructivist style, complete with dramatic lighting and a family unit.

Reduced rent was what the parlor floor got in exchange for letting everyone in the building roll through their window onto their bed, where they liked the light, though everyone entered snow-dusted or iced, and at any hour, often with them in it.

—Terese Svoboda, “Cave Life”

Though the sentence starts out practically and rationally to discuss household economy, the writer switches on the absurd lamp after the first clause. Then, there’s a nifty chiasmus, xy-yx, that tells you as much about the people who live on the parlor floor as their housemates. The elaborate construction, which seems to strand the phrases “they liked the light” and “with them in it” on their own little inaccessible semantic islands, signifies that something is bound to happen in the house, if only to resolve the tensions Ms. Svoboda has created in this single sentence.

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V-for-velocity, M-for-metaphor

What can you say about speed? Stereolab songs, racehorses, gazelles and orbital velocity, and pistons, just to name a few off my recent postings. The more I work on the blog here the more I see speed as a kind of metaphor I’m using more frequently for other things in my life, things that I’m still trying to put their own words to.

Every time I come up with a new metaphor for “fast” it is as if I’m asking myself to identify the mystery object in a game of 20 Questions.

Going faster entails the promise of liberation, the hope of improvement, the badge of hard training, and the motivation to keep pushing. You may not be subject to all these varied forces, but I feel them keenly here in the secret city, my little exile’s bubble.

As you can see from the accompanying chart, this has been a pretty good week for biking. The pink line is January’s rides, the fastest seven-mile lap on each day, and the green line is December’s rides, same procedure. (I have no idea what the background is or where it came from, only that it’s a photograph I took.) My personal theory to explain the improvement is that by writing about going faster, it makes it easier to do it. I hope it works for you, too.

Today, matched against a modest Boreal breeze, was a particular red-letter day. Much as I enjoy complaining about it, I slightly prefer riding with the north wind to the south wind because it means I get an extra ten minutes to warm up before I start doing laps. Today I brought my heart rate up to just over 70% as I turned the corner into the headwind and managed to sustain that level for the next 44 minutes as I fit two entire laps into that time period. I haven’t before done two laps at that speed, more than 19 mph.

As I go over the ride in my head, it seems to be composed of the same little episodes that every ride shares, many of which I’ve written about already: e.g., the Funny Hat People doing their little afternoon run; the potential lapse in concentration (avoided!) on the firehouse straightaway; the flip around onto the back stretch and accompanying realization that I’m making good time and can ride fast with the wind for the rest of the way; even the soundtrack for today, Tune-Yards’ “Fiya,” off the same record that “Sunlight” comes from, this one with a monster ukulele riff. Somehow I put everything together like a good little editor and wound up on a pace to be proud of.

V is for velocity

Azda by Franco

(My grandmother has driven a Volkswagen for the longest, which I mention in case you need an excuse for why I’m talking about the stone classic “AZDA” today, one of the classics of African music and the theme song for a Kinshasa VW, pronounced fay-vay in Lingala, dealership.)

This is where soukous comes from: start with a fairly conventional rhumba, the kind of thing that you could hear all over Africa in the fifties and sixties, courtesy of a stream of Cuban rhumba vinyls that helped create and indulge the rage for “international” sounds. All of a sudden, at six minutes in, Franco’s guitar pops out of the mix and he throws down an absolutely incandescent solo, the kind of thing that I imagine lighting up the entire Kinshasa nightclub district. But wait! At seven minutes, he pulls into this insane hammer-on theme, and it makes me break down and cry for joy and excitement, as if all of a sudden the bay horse on which I’ve staked my wages is making his move!  He’s edging through the pack, galloping around the back turn, tail  waving, going for absolute broke, foaming at the bit, his tiny jockey  up in the stirrups coaxing the beast to embody the pen-and-ink drawing  on the children’s primer page for “V is for velocity.”

Tune-Yards, “Sunlight”

This song has pretty much everything tossed in, as if it was some kind
of whirling food processor of a pop-song. There’s a rock-solid drum
beat, the girl’s vocal, the bass drops in at just the right time to
make the grove swing. Then the chorus pops out, like the girl from the
cake in “Some Like It Hot,”
“I could be the sunlight in your eyes/couldn’t I?”
The singer (Merrill Garbus, a proud Vermont product, evidently) must
have listened to lots of Brigitte Fontaine while making this record.
MG has exactly the same balance between threat and vulnerability as
BF, but sings more lightly .
Is that a car alarm sound in the background of the second chorus, and
a symphonic string section coming in around the bridge, or what? Plus
the disco-like breaks here and there, where the whole song is reduced
to a single note, a single instrument, a single pulse or beat. But you
don’t need to wait for those moments to come up, at any moment, like
some kind of hologram, each individual instrument or drum contains its
own solitary, perfected nature; I could spend hours just listening to
the decay of the hi-hat.
Obtain your own copy here.