I Want you to Read The Idiot

Photo courtesy of Grace Cameron

I Want You to Read The Idiot

Grace Cameron

May 28, 2021

 

“Writers appear to be trying to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words.”

—Elif Batuman, Short Story & Novel

This year, my favorite book is The Idiot. I’m not referring to the Russian tome I’ll one day bully myself into reading, but to the near 500-page book by Elif Batuman. The Idiot is about an awkward Harvard freshman to whom absolutely nothing happens. There is virtually no action in the book, little drama, few discernable conflicts, and no real character growth. So far, my evangelizing has been effective on both my partner and my best friend. The reviews are mixed: my partner liked it and my best friend warned me to never again recommend a book so boring.

This essay by Batuman has been rattling in my head ever since I read it. The directive to buck the accepted literary standard of brevity seems, to someone who has been charged thousands of dollars to be told to be more concise, downright scandalous. It feels like advice given by a novelistic giant, sitting atop a throne of decades of accolades and widespread veneration, like offhandedly recommending that you only date people who have pursued you for a minimum of three months. It doesn’t feel applicable.

“The directive to buck the accepted literary standard of brevity seems, to someone who has been charged thousands of dollars to be told to be more concise, downright scandalous.”

Unlike a return to old school courtship however, Batuman’s suggestion is neither anachronistic nor relevant to only a niche audience. While her novel has been successful among New York Times types and humanities students, she is far from a household name or consistent literary darling. If the suggestion came from Joan Didion or the late David Foster Wallace, it would be easier to dismiss as a well-intended piece of non-transferable advice. But The Idiot is Batuman’s first novel, not her fiftieth.

I loved the book because it felt like reading an unremarkable person’s journal, who poorly navigates through feelings and situations too mundane to be ineffable but nevertheless difficult to convey. The Idiot reads like a love letter to writing, one that isn’t blinded to its fundamental flaws or significant margin of error.

The Idiot reads like a love letter to writing, one that isn’t blinded to its fundamental flaws or significant margin of error.”

The novel’s main thread is the relationship between the protagonist, Selin, and a guy she met in Russian class, Ivan. The crux of their relationship is the intimate and undefined nature of their regular email exchange. They exchange long, pretentious emails discussing linguistics, abstract mathematics, and their Russian class. Their correspondence resembles a bizarre mixture of diary entries and half-baked grant proposals. They rarely acknowledge or respond to what the other writes, yet the mutual reinforcement of their beliefs that they each have unique and fascinating theories about language and people propagates a quasi-connection that is as affective as it is confusing.

The novel is verbose and boring. Batuman shows us how writing builds complex and meaningful relationships and then, with as much care and sardonic retrospection, how those relationships painfully deform off the page (or in Batuman’s novel, the screen). The substance of the novel is in Selin’s head, in the way she writes and rewrites her life and the people she knows. It’s the repetition that gets to you; reading exchange after exchange of ultimately meaningless emails from a guy who cares more about making sure his idea comes across than he does about the person it’s coming across to.

My partner and my best friend hated Ivan very quickly, it took me until my second read through. Batuman inundates the reader with absolutely pointless and mundane details, offhand comments about a supposed emotional affair between tertiary characters, the marginalia that we never come back to. The book could be described, arrogantly and in earnest, as an extended analysis of marginalia. Both structurally and narratively, The Idiot lingers on the inconsequential realities of (slowly) becoming a grown-up, stubbornly following every observation to its logical conclusion.

“The novel is verbose and boring. Batuman shows us how writing builds complex and meaningful relationships and then, with as much care and sardonic retrospection, how those relationships painfully deform off the page (or in Batuman’s novel, the screen).”

Although I’ve written a jacket quote taken directly from a publisher’s worst nightmare, I love this book and stand firm in my conviction that everyone should read it. There is no sense of embarrassment for the book’s length and lack of satisfaction. Batuman argues that “the single greatest obstacle to American literature” is “guilt,” writers’ internalized belief “that all writing is self-indulgence” (Batuman n+1). The Idiot is not a bound and published account of navel-gazing, the product of an extended vacation taken by someone with the privilege to ‘just’ write. Her words are there on purpose and warrant neither apology nor explanation.

 

 

 

Grace Cameron is a graduating student at U of T majoring in English and Women and Gender Studies with a minor in Equity Studies. She is a lifelong resident of Toronto living in Little Portugal who loves biking around Toronto’s numerous parks. In the fall, she’ll be starting a Masters in Women and Gender Studies at U of T.

Olivia MacDonald

Photo courtesy of Olivia MacDonald

Artist Spotlight: Olivia MacDonald

Olivia MacDonald

May 6, 2021

 

Since the winter of 2018, Olivia MacDonald creates one ink drawing every day to post to her Instagram to provide daily positivity and hope to others, as well as practice her skills. She now has a collection of over 850 drawings that continues growing and a following of 19.4k. Her work is inspired by her everyday life and feelings, along with her loves of nature, the complexities of mechanics, literature, and things that have soul. She enjoys the rawness and contrast achieved by black fineliner pens. Her work also includes many juxtapositions that combine different objects or ideas into one piece. Some are silly and some are deep, but in all, her hope is that viewers take a moment to ponder the message and imaginative combinations.

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Olivia MacDonald is a 23-year-old ink artist from Boston, Massachusetts. Art has been her passion since early childhood. After graduating college with a creative writing major and illustration minor in 2020, she now works as a full-time artist which she considers her dream job. She is able to connect with so many people around the world, learn about their unique stories, and design commissions, tattoos, logos, product labels, album covers, and book illustrations that have a far-reaching impact.

Website: inkbyolivia.com

Instagram:  @inkbyolivia

Tiktok:  @inkbyolivia

Illustration by Jaynielyn dela Paz

Ode to Earth

Aasfi Sadeque

April 22, 2021

 

Dear Earth,

We are never taught to love you. Instead, we are born with that love deep within us: with every wish made on a dandelion, every skipped stone across an endless lake, every dewdrop nestled in the morning haze as you house us in the infinite void we call the universe.

Since the dawn of time, you have been our muse. Countless bards ruminate on your marvel. In the presence of your wonder, we are but mere shadows and dust, yet you shower us with a warmth that rivals that of the sun. And the scent of your roses, well, they’re as intoxicating as the moonlight. It’s hard not to be enamoured by your beauty.

Our lives, its noise, are so entangled in the roots of your being. With each breath, you sustain us.

Why are we so hellbent on destroying you? Soon we will be seas apart from the streets that raised us, displaced by a monster of our own creation.

I apologize that we don’t care. We don’t care to give our children a chance at the childhood you gave us, a childhood where we climb trees, breathe air unencumbered by pollutants, and see lush valleys rather than seas of smog.

I apologize that we’re so passive in your destruction. So adamant about trying to convince ourselves that climate change isn’t real when the proof is clearly in front of us. With veins alive, eyes alight, we are overwhelmingly oblivious to this heaven presented before us.

Each generation that you create is an exemplification of your beauty, each mountain an homage to your strength. Yet we squander it, all of it. All of you.

The good in you radiates. Manifested by sunrises, fireflies, and the lone patches of daisies in an asphalt crack. While the bad in us percolates into indigenous lands, melting ice caps, and now uninhabitable ecosystems.

I wonder if the tenderness of the sunset air is your attempt to comfort us in this time of grave urgency. After all, false hope is better than drowning.

Dear Earth, please inhale our chaos and exhale your beauty that we all take for granted.

In the end, as waves sway softly to a gentle percussion, minute wildflowers grow in unkept yards, and sunlight shines on our fragile skin, the melody of Earth is one that we cannot let end.

Dear Earth,

The Flora, the Fauna, and the Finite

 

 

 

Aasfi Sadeque is a first year Social Sciences student at the University of Toronto.

Jaynielyn dela Paz is currently a third-year student at the University of Toronto studying a degree in Life Sciences. When she’s not studying, she’s busy as a co-owner for an Etsy shop which she produces art for. In her free time, she also loves to draw and write calligraphy.

Artful Anorexia

Illustration by Katharina Davoudian

Artful Anorexia

Isabel Armiento

March 2, 2021

 

I was starving when I read Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist.” This is different than being hungry: where hunger pounds at your ribcage, loud and violent, starvation quietly settles across your body, resigned. Hunger motivates you toward action; starvation convinces you you’d be fine if you never ate again, as long as you don’t have to do anything else either.

During my struggle with eating disorder, everything became exhausting – and I mean everything, even watching Netflix from the comfort of my couch. Yet Kafka’s prose energized me. I found myself rereading “A Hunger Artist,” circling phrases that revealed some profound truth I had failed to articulate to my worried, uncomprehending friends: “He alone knew…how easy it was to starve,” Kafka writes of the titular hunger-artist, “It was the easiest thing in the world.” My excitement grew as I realized that this great writer had once starved himself, too, and in this moment I was connected to genius.

I leapt eagerly into the large body of scholarship arguing that Kafka, an artist so important that he has an adjective named after him, suffered from anorexia. His letters, his diaries, his fiction – all of it trembled with the weight of his affliction, our affliction. I reasoned that if Kafka had an eating disorder, then maybe I wasn’t suffering because I was “frivolous” or “vain” – words that are so often used to talk about traditionally female struggles.

I am ashamed to say that I grasped hungrily at “A Hunger Artist,” at Kafka’s depiction of a defeminized anorexia.

 

In Kafka’s story, a hunger artist is locked in a cage without food for forty days. His starvation is a public spectacle witnessed by fascinated crowds; his self-flagellation is lauded and rewarded. At the peak of his career, the hunger artist’s “magnificent productions” are “cheered by thousands;” the well-fed masses are enchanted by his fleshless frame, his poking button-ribs and sharp smile of a collarbone.

Kafka depicts the anorexic man as an artist who starves himself according to “the honour code of his art.” Even when his audience loses interest, he remains hopelessly devoted to his craft, giving new meaning to the phrase starving artist: “Try and explain the art of starving! It needs to be felt, it’s not something that can be explained,” the hunger-artist laments. Kafka does not see his hero as the “victim” of an “illness” – words I used to describe myself as I struggled to recover from my eating disorder. No, Kafka’s hunger artist does not want to be cured; to him, starvation is not a symptom, but a product. His body of work is literally his body.

“Kafka’s hunger artist does not want to be cured; to him, starvation is not a symptom, but a product. His body of work is literally his body.”

Kafka’s hunger artist starves himself in service of a lofty, even sacred vocation, creating a model of male anorexia tied to not only artistry but also spirituality and monastic discipline. The hunger artist starves for exactly forty days, Christ-like, as the “heavens” watch, casting down benevolent wishes to “this pitiable martyr.”

This discourse of male anorexia is wildly different than how we speak about female self-starvation, which is often hidden beneath dangerous pseudonyms like “dieting,” or worse, “self-care,” and is seen as a habit of privilege, even a luxury. A woman’s anorexia is often dismissed as upper-class malaise, rather than revered as “the lofty endeavour, the good will, the great self-denial” of Kafka’s hunger artist.

“A woman’s anorexia is often dismissed as upper-class malaise, rather than revered as ‘the lofty endeavour, the good will, the great self-denial’ of Kafka’s hunger artist.”

 

Notably, Kafka does not explicitly discuss female anorexia, yet the story’s gendered implications still exist, made even more evident by this ellipsis. At the time Kafka was writing, “fasting girls” were already a major phenomenon. The real-life female equivalent of Kafka’s hunger artist, a “fasting girl” could survive for extended periods of time without food, a feat which she claimed was due to religious fervor, not mental illness. Kafka’s decision to make his hunger artist a singularly male character although “fasting girls” were a fixture of Victorian culture feels strangely intentional. Clearly, Kafka depicts male anorexia as somehow separate from female anorexia.  

The intentions of “fasting girls” were a subject of much debate in the 19th century. Were these women fasting in service of a noble spiritual goal, or was their refusal to eat a womanly weakness, a symptom of hysteria? Fasting girls were given one of two diagnoses: anorexia mirabilis – in which fasting is seen as a divine miracle, a triumph of asceticism – or anorexia nervosa – in which fasting is a hysterical pathology, often present in particularly independent or stubborn women. Kafka’s male hunger artist emblematizes anorexia mirabilis, offering a neat answer to the “fasting girls” debate: a fasting woman was nervosa; a fasting man, mirabilis.

 

“A Hunger Artist” ends with the debasement of Kafka’s smaller-than-life hero: he is now locked in a neglected cage at the circus, where spectators stroll by without noticing his emaciated body buried in the hay. He is as close to nonexistence as a person can get; yet absurdly, he is empowered. He is exactly where he wants to be. This is a problematic ending for a character with a chronic mental illness, yet it also feels deeply unjust. My eating disorder made me feel trapped, while the hunger artist’s enables him to feel free. Even when suffering, he has agency. After all, he chose his cage, locked it himself.

An anorexic woman’s cage is not a choice: it is her birthright. She clings to the bright metal bars as they tighten around her; they are fashioned from a society that intuits thinness as an automatic marker of her social currency; from a multi-billion dollar diet industry; from a culture that told her that to gain value, she must shrink; from the majority of women who, at any given time, are actively trying to lose weight.

“An anorexic woman’s cage is not a choice: it is her birthright…from a culture that told her that to gain value, she must shrink.”

How to escape a cage gifted to us by our mothers, sisters, friends, mentors; a cage passed on like a legacy? Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” leaves no room for women and their complex history of fasting and fat-shaming – and for this, it fails profoundly.

Years later, I read the story again, no longer starving but still nursing a fraught relationship with my body. This time, it lost its appeal. What made me like it the first time around – it’s masculinization of eating disorder – now made it seem lustreless, simplistic, overly concerned with its own gravity.

“A Hunger Artist” may satisfy a very specific male reader. However, I think the average woman – who is wearied and disillusioned by a lifetime of celebrating starving bodies – will likely dismiss it as sparse and unnuanced. She will be left frustrated; hungry.

 

References

Fichter MM. “Franz Kafkas Magersucht [Franz Kafka’s anorexia nervosa]”. Fortschritte der Neurologie-Psychiatrie, 1988, 56(7):231-238.

Heywood, Leslie. “The Metaphysics of the Flame: Fasting Girls, Kafka’s Letters to Felice, and “A Hunger Artist”.” Dedication to Hunger: The Anorexic Aesthetic in Modern Culture, University of California Press, 1996.

Kafka, Franz. “A Hunger Artist.” Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2015.

Martin, Crescent B.; Herrick, Kirsten A.; Sarafrazi, Neda; Ogden, Cynthia L. “Attempts to Lose Weight Among Adults in the United States, 2013–2016.” National Centre for Health Statistics, 2018, No. 313.

 

 

 

Isabel Armiento is an MA student of English literature at the University of Toronto, where she works at The Varsity newspaper and is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Mnerva Literary Journal. Her creative work can be found in Oyster River Pages, Lines + Stars, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere.

Uliana Hlynchak in Windsor, Ontario

The author, Uliana Hlynchak, in Windsor.  Photo courtesy of Uliana Hlynchak

Road Trip to Windsor

Uliana Hlynchak

March 24, 2021

 

We travelled to the end of Canada’s 401 highway to Windsor. At least, that’s how I imagined it. The road was empty; hardly any cars. The landscapes bathing in the afternoon sun promised the velvet evening of an Indian summer. 

The Detroit River met us with a light chill breeze. Across the river, the urban landscape of Detroit glistened in the setting sun. Along the river’s Canadian side was a strip of hotels. We didn’t book any room ahead. During pandemics there’s no problem finding a room on arrival day. Or so we thought.

“Let’s check this one.”

We walked to the hotel entrance: Temporarily Closed. 

“Let’s go to this neighbouring one…”

After a short walk we met the same sign: Hotel temporarily closed for business. We walked further. Finally—an open hotel. But we didn’t go inside; all this room hunting made us hungry for dinner.

Behind the main street there were two patio restaurants. Italian was busy and French was empty. Italian had music and a lovely crowd. We took the last table on the patio.

The perfect dinner and slow service let us enjoy every moment of each other’s company. Our trip was long overdue. We love travelling and move easily without specific plans; before the pandemic, we explored cities in Europe or South America. Now, we were happy for the opportunity to travel locally.

Outside Café Amor & Art

Enjoying breakfast at Café Amor & Art. Photo courtesy of Uliana Hlynchak

The hotel registered us in a flash. My partner went to park the car while I enjoyed a bath.

“There’s no showercap in the room. Could you get one at the reception please?” I texted and smiled at the absurdity of my request. But I didn’t want to wet my covid haircut, since my hair had grown long and it took some time to manage. Tomorrow I had a livestream appearance.

“Disaster,” he texted. 

I laughed. He did bring me that showercap. I did save my hairdo.

 

“We love travelling and move easily without specific plans; before the pandemic, we explored cities in Europe or South America. Now, we were happy for the opportunity to travel locally.”

 

In the morning, the Detroit River lay in full beauty. The busy cityscape behind it was in its Sunday best. I imagined a time when this river was busied with boats and barges, with heavy smoke coming out from smokestacks.

“We need to rush to the unveiling ceremony, but first let’s find a nice breakfast place,”  he said.

And we did. On Ottawa Street. Café Amor & Art: where South American food, literature, and art are served. Their chef explained Latin American items on the menu: chicken or sweet corn tamales, pupusas, empanadas Colombianas, and many more. They proudly served our breakfast in South American style pottery with bright and beautiful ornamental decor. 

Café Amor & Art

Inside Café Amor & Art (top) and their patio breakfast (bottom). Photos courtesy of Uliana Hlynchak

We made it on time to our engagement as it was only a block away. The Ukrainian National Federation held a mural unveiling on the side of its building. The ceremony was heartfelt as most public events are online these days. Steve Romaniuk’s mural depicted two dancers whirling in Ukrainian dance costumes; I could almost hear the music. 

After the unveiling, I hoped to return back to Café Amor & Art for their Latin American soup dish, but our Ukrainian hosts didn’t let us go without welcoming us with a full buffet of Ukrainian dishes. What beautiful people of Windsor; we will be back.

Oh, yes. I brought the showercap with me. Not taking any chances to end up somewhere without it until I cut my hair. But again—where will I go?  For now, it’s a no to nonessential travel.

 

 

 

Uliana Hlynchak is a Toronto-based producer and journalist for KONTAKT TV, a weekly Ukrainian TV show. She works with young talents on developing the show Kontakt Next Gen. She is a member of the Board of Directors at the Canadian Ukrainian Art Foundation and volunteers for the Toronto Ukrainian Festival. Her most recent projects are interviews on the contemporary art scene Art Talk and the webinar series Contemporary Ukrainian Émigré and Diaspora Literature. Uliana writes articles, poetry, and short stories in Ukrainian and English. 

Mango Sorbet

Illustrated by Katharina Davoudian

Mango Sorbet

Enri Boshti

March 7, 2021

 

Tucked away in Toronto’s vibrant Kensington Market is Dolce Gelato—a café serving coffee, desserts, and of course, gelato. Their mango gelato is arguably the most wonderful treat on a hot summer day, which I was looking forward to indulging after a particularly chilly winter. Unfortunately, quarantine crushed my gelato dreams and I was left to improvise. I scoured the internet for an alternative to mango gelato to satiate my craving and realized I could make mango sorbet, where water substitutes dairy. As I don’t own an ice cream machine, a little manual mixing was involved during the freezing process, but the effort is worth it for delicious mango sorbet!

Recipe

 

 

Mango Sorbet

Ingredients

  • 3 mangoes cut up and cubed
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • lemon juice from one lemon

 

Mango Sorbet

Steps

1. Cut your mangoes into cubes and add to a blender.

2. Add sugar, water, and lemon juice to the blender.

3. Blend on high for a few minutes until smooth.

4. Transfer mixture to bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and place in freezer.

5. To prevent the formation of a giant mango popsicle, remove mixture from freezer and stir well every half hour for 4 hours before placing back in freezer.

6. Remove from freezer and allow to thaw before serving and enjoying!

 

 

Enri Boshti is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto, having studied neuroscience and biochemistry. Looking at the world through the lens of a vintage camera, she’s inspired by the simple pleasures in life like a warm mug of tea and a view of the moon on a clear night.

Gogh by Car

Illustration by Katharina Davoudian

Experiencing Gogh by Car

Katharina Davoudian

February 27, 2021

 

A spinning sunflower. A twinkling and shimmering starry night. Olive trees that grow and dance.

These are some of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. His colours, brushstrokes, and mood are reimagined in a large, white, industrial room that smells of fresh paint. Some ten cars are parked here; their windows rolled down and engines off. As the walls and floor transform into a selection of Van Gogh’s oeuvre, these cars become seats in a theatre and the entire room its stage.

Cars in a theatre? This car-friendly theatrical art exhibit is an innovative way to social distance at Immersive Van Gogh. No need to get out of your car; you literally drive into the exhibit and remain in your seat. It’s a wonderful opportunity to share this experience with fellow art enthusiasts, a way to stay connected while distant through art.

“Van Gogh’s art floods the room and becomes alive, as if he paints before your eyes. You can smell his oils, hear his brush stroke the canvas.”

Van Gogh’s genius, coupled with the “technical wizardry” of the exhibit, feels like rediscovering his art. The vivid colours, kaleidoscopic animations, eclectic music; it’s beyond a visual and auditory experience, but blurs into a dream. Van Gogh’s art floods the room and becomes alive, as if he paints before your eyes. You can smell his oils, hear his brush stroke the canvas. 

The exhibit re-opens on May 20th. “Gogh” there—it’s an unforgettable experience that can change how you see Vincent Van Gogh’s art.

 

 

 

Katharina Davoudian is a Toronto-based artist  and writer. She is the editor-in-chief of Vinci.