The Woman Who Waited – Andreï Makine

One of my cherished keepsakes is a small, handmade kaleidoscope purchased years ago from an artisan’s shop in Colorado. It’s a simple affair, a roughly imperfect and very bubbly green marble tethered by a thin wire to the end of a triangular, glass-lined tube. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much…

Months and even years may pass between the moments when I pick up the kaleidoscope for a short visit. Always of course, I hold the scope into light and manipulate the marble to create new patterns; this makes me smile because after all, the purpose of a kaleidoscope is nothing but a glimpse back at the viewer’s unique and private eyeful. The only thing a kaleidoscope can produce is reaction, either the dismissal or delight of such minuscule events.

A good novel brings much the same effect, that of holding a slice of life in mutable relief, inviting the reader to turn the marble of perception and consider the patterns that are revealed. The French writer Andreï Makine’s 2004 work, La Femme qui attendait or The Woman Who Waited, casts this kaleidoscope effect brilliantly.

Outwardly, The Woman Who Waited might appear to be an overly romanticized story, that of a young man who sets forth to write a satire about the lives and customs of small town folk and finds himself in thrall to a middle-aged woman who has placed herself on the shelf waiting for…someone, or is it something?

The narrator, a young man of sardonic disposition, begins to closely follow the life of Vera, a middle-aged woman of no apparent exception save the one, as she dwells within the northern Russian village of Mirnoe. There she teaches children by day while in her spare time she befriends, cares for, and buries the old, forgotten women sprinkled in poverty throughout the village and surrounding woodlands. Vera is bound to her life amid the thatched roofs and tree-darkened doorways of her village. Makine uses the forest imagery to distinguish Vera’s environ from the cynicism of Brezhnev’s Moscow and the harsh world of the young sophisticate who finds himself drawn into the physical and emotional thicket of village living.

In Leningrad, at the Wigwam, we were forever making clear-cut distinctions between good and evil in the world. I knew the evil that had laid waste to these villages in the North was boundless. And yet never had the world appeared so beautiful to me…

Within this deceptively simple premise, Makine wields muscular, clear language as translated by Geoffrey Strachan, vibrant prose that holds up and turns around for a look-see the lovely marble which is the emotional contradiction found in the act and art of waiting. The Woman Who Waited reveals the great variegation within what would appear to be a lonely woman’s existence, and it constantly surprises with challenges to the notion of waiting as simply a state of forbearance. The expressions of delicacy and exoticism in Vera’s suspended animation along with those of the narrator, himself yielding to knowledge of his new friend, cart-wheel before the reader in an athletic display that welcomes the incongruity of slow, close reading. Yet Makine never plows the reader with sentiment.

But life, easy-going life, caring little for elegance, is nothing more than a constant mixture of genres.

Makine’s ability to access the fluctuating inner life of his characters is profound. He writes into and around Vera and her nameless friend, charging them equally with the sense of both the quiescence and the purpose found in waiting.

In the boat she took one oar, leaving the other for me… Our rhythms were quickly matched. Each effort made by the other felt like a response to one’s own, down to the slightest tensing of the muscles. We touched shoulders but our real closeness was in this slow, rhythmic action, the care we took to wait for each other, pulling together once more after too powerful a stroke or the skipping of a blade over the crest of a wave…We were quite simply there, side by side, amid the somnolent hissing of the rain, in a dusk as cool as fish scales…

The French philosopher Michel Foucault once wrote, “Waiting is directed at nothing: any object that could gratify it would only efface it. Still, it is not confined to one place, it is not a resigned immobility; it has the endurance of a movement that will never end and would never promise itself the reward of rest…”

The Woman Who Waited is like that beautiful, rough marble at the end of the long tube. Read the book, turn the marble, let the kaleidoscope come in.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Last winter, I met up with a snail at the fringes of an oatmeal packet. It happened just like this: early one desperately cold morning, a brain teaser from the instant oats papers caught my eye as I stood, sleepy headed, in a thin gown waiting for breakfast to cool. The cereal sleeve read, Q: Which garden creature can sleep for three years? A: the snail. I felt suddenly and warmly touched by the notion of such a small, vulnerable thing bedding down for so long, instinctively knowing that all would be well upon return. For a moment, I wished to be just as deeply slept. That morning began what’s become a slight fascination with the ancient forest dweller who chews through my hosta leaves each summer and whom I can never bring myself to banish with home remedies or harsh treatment.

Forward then to last Sunday, a merciless July day that resulted in my first ever drive to Iowa City and the iconic Prairie Lights Bookstore. After an hour or so of inspired browsing, parking meter and budget constraints forced me to get serious about one or two titles. That’s when I spied the cover of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, shyly posed on the staff picks shelf. I almost tripped in delight as I dove to pick it up. Who wouldn’t?

Bailey’s ode to the snail begins briefly recounting an illness, her own, and with it her harrowing removal from the activities of her well ordered life into forced recumbency within a sickroom. She addresses the malady and its course with grace such that her eye, and the reader’s, remains upon the gastropod who is lovingly plucked by a friend from the woods just outside her home and gifted within a pot of field violets.

These field violets in the pot at my bedside were fresh and full of life, unlike the usual cut flowers brought by other friends. Those lasted just a few days, leaving murky, odiferous vase water…But what about this snail? What would I do with it? As tiny as it was, it had been going about its day when it was picked up. What right did my friend  and I have to disrupt its life?

The disrupted life is at the heart of Bailey’s meditation upon her snail. What happens to us when things happen? Can we “love the questions”, as the poet Rilke suggests, or is there shrinking and defending afoot whenever change and uncertainty are about. Through Bailey’s thoughtful words, the life of the woodland snail provides a small template for contemplation of our larger animal selves. Snails possess so much more than their slimy reputation suggests. They have a heart, a lung, rudimentary eyes, and a sleep-wake rhythm that normally occurs within the same 24 hours as ours, though it’s true they can sleep for years. They meet disruption with slow and careful tentacles, feeling and sensing in a beautiful proportion that allows for sure footed balance.

Bailey sprinkles numerous poetic, scientific, and literary references to the snail, from the ancient Mandarin Chinese to Darwin, from mollusc experts to Emily Dickinson, all people who have thought and written about the nature of snail explorations, their architecture, slimy abilities, and their social graces.  Snails, I am just finding out, know where they are and what they are about. Though they do use some defenses, their tactics are more in line with some of my own such as hiding when the sun is too hot and cherishing a good portobello mushroom in small bites.

Then, there’s that special connection snails enjoy…

A romantic encounter between a pair of snails can take up to seven hours from start to finish and involves three phases. First there is the lengthy courtship, in which the snails draw slowly closer, often circling each other, smooching, and exchanging tentacle touches…In the second phase, the snails embrace in a spiral direction and mate…Consummation is followed by the last phase, resting; the snails, still quite near each other, both withdraw into their shells and remain immobile, sometimes for several hours.

This lovely book about the little snail traveled with me this week to Chicago and helped me to keep perspective and smile at passersby while shepherding two teenagers through the urban landscape. Snail and The City, anyone? Truth is, I would recommend this immensely charming book for just about anyone, anywhere. Who needs a noise machine, a chemical habit, or satin eye shades when there is some time to be spent unwinding with a woodland snail?

Marauder by ono no komachi courtesy of Flickr