A Lesser Day
(Spuyten Duyvil Press, rerelease 2014)
“I look around me and imagine that I have the wild look of a person who has five minutes to pack her things and flee,” the narrator recounts in Andrea Scrima’s provocative novel, A Lesser Day. Rendered in segments circumscribed by places in which she has lived, in a narrative that is not linear, but rather flows back and forth in time, Scrima’s intricately wrought story follows the life of a young woman suspended between past and present and uncertain about who she has become. Settings range from the East Village and Brooklyn to Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall, while the novel’s emotional climate shifts from loss to recovery and back again. As the narrator recalls her father’s death, or a visit to an uncle she has never before met who has spent much of his life in a sanatorium, political events enter the story with all of history’s sudden, disruptive momentum. An elderly neighbor describes the war and the dozens of corpses piled up on a nearby square, today a childrens’ tree-lined playground; a Croatian neighbor disappears during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, never to return. Moving accounts of the narrator’s family and friends are interwoven with detailed descriptions of places and objects, and as these gradually give way to displacement and dislocation, a form of disembodiment arises that mystically takes on the life of a character—a body of character that, paradoxically, creates a sense of wholeness, illumination, and coherence:
Kent Avenue, and the trees that had grown along the fences in the neighborhood, chain-link fences closing off empty lots filled with used refrigerators and rusty car parts. Weeds no one had bothered to cut back, supple shoots winding in and out between the diamond-shaped grids, weaving through like sewn threads and growing from year to year until their stalks began to stiffen into branches and there could no longer be a question of unraveling them; they were inextricable now. And then the spring came, and there was an explosion of green everywhere, the first fresh leaves sprouting from the bound trunks. And here and there a tree had been cut down, and a segment of chopped wood would remain caught in a fence, because the trunk had grown and swelled, incorporating the wire into its wounded flesh and covering it with layers of scarred bark.
Proust proposed that we only really experience experience itself as it reappears in our memory—that it’s this recovery of experience from the continuous flow of time, and not the present moment, that allows us to understand and to know ourselves. In A Lesser Day, this is the terrain in which the narrator undertakes her search for identity and emotional location, for the ways in which our lives are defined by what’s left behind. As she seeks to integrate her observations of everyday things into the larger landscape of her life, and probes them for clues to their hidden meaning, one feels the elusiveness of the present tense hum and the fragile thread of self-realization vibrate in response. Scrima’s specificity and precision in description give rise to an alchemy of association; details breathe life into words, conjuring a vividness of person and belonging, or sometimes unbelonging:
[A] paper coffee cup tossed from a passing truck, rolling along in the gutter and coming to a halt; a dog trotting up to a lamppost and raising its leg to urinate while a trickle of coffee leaked out through the cup’s lid and carved a path through the dust nearby. One thin trickle slowly snaking its way around a cigarette butt, a bottle cap, about to be met by the river of steaming urine. I gazed at the projected point of intersection and saw a slip of paper lying on the ground; I bent down and snatched it up a moment before the two streams crossed paths and the larger artery flooded into the smaller one, coffee mixing with dog urine. […] I looked down and studied the writing on the slip of paper, an address of three ones, and I had to think of this concatenation of three, the truck, the dog, the unknown individual, three factors mysteriously interconnected in an equation meant for me and me alone. And I thought of the hour, the minute before, and all three having no notion of their impending link: the person whose coffee had grown bitter, or cold; the dog, sniffing its way down a curb, accumulating the content, formulating the exact phrasing of the olfactory message it would presently leave behind; someone examining the contents of his pockets to count out his loose change: is it enough for a pack of cigarettes, or does he have to break a larger bill—and suddenly finding the slip of paper that had already served its purpose and tossing it into a garbage bin, and missing.
In his essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” which discusses a group of 17th-century poets that included John Donne and Abraham Cowley, T.S. Eliot coins the phrase “unification of sensibility,” which he defines as an ability to assimilate and synthesize thought and emotion, a quality he associated with the modern age and sought to embody in his own writing, most notably in The Four Quartets. Though the 17th-century conception of the metaphysical was entirely different from Eliot’s, he nonetheless draws parallels, praising them for “constantly amalgamating disparate experience” to form new wholes and staking a literary claim for these poets, who were previously shunned. In considering himself a metaphysical poet, Eliot stretched the term to refer to poetic work that goes beyond the concrete and the real into realms of unseen meaning that transcend object and place—and beyond time itself, with its restrictions, its linearity, and its causality—to effect “a direct sensuous apprehension of thought, or a recreation of thought into feeling.”
Merriam-Webster defines metaphysics as a “traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it. […] Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms: What is ultimately there? What is it like?” Composed in words that initially read as literary realism, and with a moving, very human story as its narrative base, Scrima’s shimmering weave of textual imagery permeates these questions in a manner that is as piercing as it is unobtrusive. Ever alert to the gaps in our experience, like the underexposed photos the narrator takes on “a lesser day,” Scrima’s novel probes our perception of reality in relation to object, time, and place in an effort to recover parts of a self grown blind to itself by virtue of its position as observer. While this would be a difficult enough task if it were not for Scrima’s considerable gifts and literary skill, the unique achievement of A Lesser Day is to redefine metaphysical writing in a work merging philosophy and literature that is, to quote Eliot, “more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary,” language into its meaning.
Leora Skolkin-Smith (Rail): On the surface, A Lesser Day is a book about a woman who moves from Staten Island, where she grew up, to the Lower East Side of the 1980s, and then to Berlin, where she currently lives. On another level, though, A Lesser Day is about a person finding herself on a journey through places and objects, specifying and defining them to help restructure her memories and experiences, which seem to feel lost to her, into poignant meaning—“who I was,” as she says at the end of the book. Can you talk about the significance of the different places and objects you describe?
Andrea Scrima: I was striving to describe things as clearly as possible in the way I perceive them: just on the cusp of becoming a vessel for something else. In one sense, I am exploring the Proustian moment of recall from the other end of the experience—from the moment that potent bond is forged between object, sentiment, and acute awareness of self and of time. Stare at something long enough and it takes on an alien quality; stare at it even longer, and you’ve just poured some of your being into it. And it’s this being you are, right at this very moment, that will stare back at you in the future when you look at that object again, if you’re lucky. It’s a means of mnemonic storage.
These considerations are, of course, undercurrents and as such not entirely obvious—on the surface and in their substance, the actual narrative threads explore other things: family and memory, the sweep of history and political change, longing, love, and loss—but they’re reflected, echoed, refracted in microcosmic form in many of the images: a kind of reluctant, relentless return to the unsettling fact of the body and its vulnerability, and of physical existence itself; the boxes of “stuff” that remain from a given period of life, and the kinds of relationships we forge with the objects that surround us. It’s a kind of meta-narrative on the “thingness” of being; because it’s not at the center of the narrative, but seeps in from the edges, it’s cast into a different kind of focus that only comes together when you look askance.
It bears mentioning that I started writing A Lesser Day after my son was born. The unexpected thing about giving birth was experiencing myself as a kind of door from one world to another. And so the fact that this idea of place, of location, is central to the book, paired with the perplexity of physical existence in general, seems intimately connected to this experience. Moreover, what I soon realized after my son was born was that I had become a place. I was the door he had entered the world through, and I was now—more than a person—his place. Like a planet he revolves around, with the void all around us, all this empty space and this vast, seemingly empty cosmos, and I as the mothership—it’s hard to give words to these things without sounding a bit nuts. But the experience of pregnancy, of all this reproductive “equipment” that had gone unused for 40 years suddenly kicking in and going about the creation of a new human being, all on its own, my body doing all this inside me—this experience of being so very much a body, physical matter—lingered on long after he was born, and then evolved into something else. I suppose I’m still trying to understand it. Something to do with no longer being just a person, as you were before carrying a child and giving birth, but being very much a place in the universe for someone else, your child, to refer back to again and again, a fixed point in the world. We are drawn to (and, if things go wrong, repulsed by) our mothers’ bodies, their physical presence in the world—you capture this so brilliantly in your book Edges—and so I suppose I’m trying to find words for the other side of that phenomenon.
But I’m not sure if I’m fully answering your question. You ask about the significance of the locations in A Lesser Day: Eisenbahnstrasse and Fidicinstrasse in pre-Unification West Berlin; East Ninth Street in the early ’80s; pre-gentrification Bedford Avenue and Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Essentially, I’ve used these different addresses as a framing device, beginning each fragment with a place name to tell the story of a young artist’s peripatetic life: the never-ending scramble of hand to mouth, boxes stored here and there, works of art in the making, and always looking at things—looking and wondering. I’ve noticed that my experience of space structures my mechanisms of recollection; I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, but it’s certainly true for me. My memory tends to organize itself into blocks of time I’ve spent in particular locations. I have a coherent sense of the year I spent back in Brooklyn before my son was born, for instance—sitting in a chilly riverfront loft in the former Ronzoni spaghetti factory building, working on a first novel that was never completed with a blanket over my knees and my grandmother’s armchair nearby, which I’d rescued from the basement of the house I grew up in; staring every day at the World Trade Center across the river, the year before the towers fell. This time is clearly circumscribed in my mind, whereas other years blur together, years during which not much external change took place in terms of traveling from place to place.
What are these places in which we spend our days, live our lives—these vessels that contain us and keep us warm, that absorb our memories and store them in some mysterious form—and that have the power to reflect our selves back to us? What happens when we return to a place we used to live in? I’m interested in how a period of life becomes, in retrospect, circumscribed by the walls that contained it—the time I lived here, the time I lived there—in ways that go beyond a mere framing of experience. It’s as though a time and a place merged into some other synthesis of being that we become part of not only in a physical sense, but perhaps a mystical sense as well. And while the marks we leave behind are one manifestation of the time we’ve spent somewhere, I often find myself wondering if some part of our spirit remains as well, some part of whatever it is that perhaps transcends place and time.
Rail: I was impressed by the way you blend the boundaries between memoir, autobiography, and poetic prose. A Lesser Day has the substance of memoir and yet, in the end, it becomes a stunning work of poetry and prose. Did you intend this? What part did real-life experience play in this transformation from memory to fiction-like expression?
Scrima: There’s more fiction to A Lesser Day than it might seem. Each of the individual texts was triggered by a concrete memory and then wanders off into things partly remembered and partly invented or imagined. I don’t seem to be able to stick to the facts, or at least not entirely; the images take me elsewhere, as though they had their own intrinsic logic, an inner truth that’s not always identical to how things “really” happened. My version of reality—or anyone’s, for that matter—is shaped by a desire to create meaning in the things one finds scattered in one’s mind. We know well enough how much invention is involved in the process of remembering; it’s something that can be observed in any family, when one sibling’s recollection of the past differs enormously from another’s, so much so that you’d think they had different mothers and fathers. As for the poetry of the language, while many of the descriptions in A Lesser Day are visual in nature, I am also sensitive to the musicality of language, to its rhythms and cadences. I read everything out loud; the words have to flow in my ears, like a song. And so I suppose it’s this concatenation between the musical and the visual that lends the book its poetic character.
Rail: And in the midst of this poetic sensibility, you occasionally alert the reader to something occurring behind or apart from the text. One of the ways you achieve this is by introducing recurrent phrases, for instance “but that came later.”
Scrima: The use of this arose from a kind of awkwardness of chronology; I found myself describing past events with a sense of unease deriving from the fact that I was looking back from a point in the future and knew things I hadn’t known at the time. “But that came later” became a kind of refrain, a chant I reverted to when my sense of temporal order was disturbed. As though it were important to try to unknow, in retrospect, what one knows about a time in order to more fully inhabit it, to more accurately or truthfully remember and describe it. It’s related to that strange feeling we sometimes have when we look at old photographs—as though we were privy to a secret of some kind, one we shouldn’t have the right to know. It feels obscene. It’s a peculiar perspective that Elias Canetti wrote about in The Play of the Eyes, but in his case, he speaks, for me disturbingly, about the sense of power he felt over the dead, simply because he was still alive—doing things, writing books, shaping history. Looking into the eyes of a stranger who is long since dead, aware of things to come, things that have happened since, I do not feel a sense of power, but rather a powerlessness at the passage of time. When I use the refrain “but that came later,” it’s a way of saying, but wait, I didn’t know this at the time, and you shouldn’t know this, either—a way of alerting the reader to the fact that something is being revealed that veils our understanding and fosters the illusion that we know more than we actually do at any given moment in our own lives. It’s an act of resistance against the omniscient narrator, in a sense.
Rail: Another thing you repeatedly use is this continuously shifting “you” that seems to speak not to one, but several different people:
You, and you. Sitting in the old Peugeot; you suddenly turned to ask me a question, and the face of another appeared, there, in place of yours, vivid and fleeting. And the twilight, a deep blue luminescence unwilling to relinquish its hold on the day and lingering for hours. And sometimes an eerie orange light at sundown, when the faces of passers-by seemed to glow from within, burning in their very being. This other face, a momentary hallucination: another you, for years, but then one day no more.
Scrima: Yes, that’s the other “device.” Some readers have told me that they were confused at first, wondering who this “you” was that the narrator addresses, but then it becomes clear that it’s an ever-changing “you,” beginning with her deceased father and proceeding through a series of past lovers.
Rail: I couldn’t help feeling, as I said earlier, that there were modernist influences to your writing, particularly in the shorter fragments:
How many times has my thinking become caught in a loop; how many times has my mind circled around a certain word, an expression that passed over a face and vanished, around and around, trying to get closer, but to what. That feeling of something being there, circling around and around; but what. That uneasy feeling of something about to be revealed, the quiet panic. And then, the moment of realization, its anaesthetizing effect. I see this, understand this, yet I don’t see, I don’t understand. The amnesia that follows, when the mind carefully buries its new discovery, only digging it up some time later when it’s certain of being alone, unobserved, turning it over and over, sniffing at it as though it were a dried-out bone.
You seem to be dealing in a kind of metaphysical self-biography, but you make it fiction by virtue of the form. Can you talk about what literary influences led to selecting this form to tell your story?
Scrima: I suppose it’s the austerity of the form that brings this work so close to the modernists. The book’s rhythm, its entire formal structure, consists of a sequence of trios of shorts—with each fragment a story in its own right and each trio a discrete and autonomous three-part narrative. These groups of three are then separated by more abstract texts of the kind you quote above—shorter fragments that address thinking itself or home in on an isolated instance of perception in an effort to capture and analyze it. And then, in the larger perspective, the overall sequence forms a kind of novel in which some narrative threads are continued and others abandoned, with the real “story” less about story as such than the deeper-lying themes that recur again and again: place, time, love, loss, etc.
In writing A Lesser Day, I worked on the fragments for around a year before I began looking at them in different sequences. When I started grouping the shorts together, I began to see the contours of a narrative take shape; I saw what was there, and what was missing. And then, unexpectedly, I wrote a fragment that was clearly the end of the book—and all at once everything came together, and I understood what it was all about. In this sense, the form and content of the book are interwoven in complex ways that carry into the writing process itself.
I’m never quite sure what to say when I’m asked about my influences. I’ve been working as a visual artist most of my life, and I actually think my writing is more influenced by my artwork than by anything else. The descriptions of places and objects are often very visual, while my sense of form derives from composition. I actually feel I’m moving words around on a page like paint, or like pieces of a collage—I need to manipulate the material, to juxtapose one image with another to know what I think. I need to see the ideas on the page, string them out in sequences and see what happens to them before I know if they make any sense. There are many authors I feel very close to and have no doubt been influenced by: Proust, W.G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard, Marguerite Duras, Natalia Ginzburg—but also authors less well known to the Anglophone world, such as Marie Luise Kaschnitz, who wrote a beautiful book titled Orte (Locations) that is structured very similarly to A Lesser Day.
Rail: “A lesser day” is a phrase that arises in a key section of the book in which the book’s structure is presented as a kind of visual metaphor:
A handbag with a sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil and the instamatic camera I carried around with me like a precious secret, anticipating the moment when I would find what I was waiting for and press the little red button, once each day, one photograph each day. Rust stains spreading out from a spigot and patterns of erosion on a building’s façade, and sometimes just garbage on the street or a swirl of oil in a dirty puddle. On some days I found nothing at all, having waited too long and the light having grown too dim, but I always took the picture anyway, even though the film couldn’t record much more than a murky blur; a lesser day. And how difficult it was to get those blank days developed; how the laboratories automatically skipped over them, and I had to make a special request each time, had to explain that I wanted these worthless pictures developed too, and in the end I had to pay for a hand development because the machines couldn’t be made to print the underexposed negatives, but that came later. Searching for clues, searching for myself, for patterns that seemed to carry some kind of meaning, to contain something that might lead me to who I am.
Can you explain how your choice of title contributes to the meaning of your novel?
Scrima: “A lesser day” is a day when the film records too little for the cheap photo lab to produce anything more than a grainy, grayish picture—a day that is somehow less than others because it yields no image. Like a gap in the memory, or something faulty in our understanding of our own lives—some blank spot that obscures an entire episode that is simply lost. The paragraph continues, linking the phrase “a lesser day” to the image of the paving stones I photographed for the book’s cover: “What had once been a winding snake of spilled paint on a sidewalk of granite stones, long since dried and hardened, the fluid line fragmented now, the stones having been dug up at some point to fix a gas pipe, a water pipe, and then replaced, fit back together again, but in a different order, cutting the flow into segments of equal length going first this way and then that.” And so the link between two metaphors—the photographic metaphor of a “lesser day” and the reconstruction of the flowing line of paint on the paving stones that have been taken apart and then put back together, but in the wrong order, as a metaphor for the way we reconstruct the past in our memory—corresponds to the link between title and cover image.
Rail: Can you describe how the current climate in publishing—this culture of linear and exclusively entertainment-value prose—impacts your freedom to continue to create experimental work? Do you feel yourself writing against the mainstream environment?
Scrima: To be honest, I resist the label “experimental”—to my mind, it seems like something artificial, used to marginalize contemporary literary fiction that doesn’t conform easily to mainstream American literature. It took me a long time to find a publisher for A Lesser Day. When Spuyten Duyvil wrote to me to say they loved the book, it was like a curse being lifted. And the fact that they gave me artistic carte blanche was a fantastically satisfying experience. As I’ve mentioned, the cover image is intimately intertwined with the title of the book. A larger publisher never would have allowed me to do my own design, to choose the slightly smaller format I did, to essentially lay the entire thing out myself, all the way down to the typography.
A lot has been written recently about the infantilization of American literature and reading habits; about how adults are reading books that would have, until recently, been considered genre literature, young adult. Have we become a culture that’s too lazy to read serious books? I don’t necessarily think so, but it’s clear that we’re looking at a very difficult environment for serious writing. The critical attention currently being paid to two very important contemporary European writers in translation—Karl Ove Knausgård and Elena Ferrante—gives me hope. Yet there are still very few major publishers willing to take a risk on literature that presents even the slightest challenge to the reader. We all know how hard it is to get a book noticed without a larger publisher’s support. Like anyone else, of course I’d like to think that my next book will appeal to a major publisher, but if it doesn’t, if my home remains in independent publishing, so be it. When A Lesser Day was released in 2010, it received a lovely little review here in the Rail, and this review caught the eye of someone on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, who requested it for their 2010 read. I was ecstatic—and while I’ll never know if any of the board members actually read the book, I was pleased that A Lesser Day got the traction it did. It seemed like a miracle to me—this little book with a very small print run and no publicity behind it whatsoever—I was grateful for every review the book received.
Rail: Can you talk about your next book?
Scrima: I’m currently working on a novel that’s shaped as a kind of diptych—two halves that spread out from a kind of hinge, an invisible line that separates everything that went before from everything that follows. And so it’s a two-part book, divided by a pivotal moment that also triggers a transformation from one voice to another. I hope this doesn’t all sound too abstract—basically, I am trying to tell the story of a family from the perspective of a narrator situated in different periods in her life. Is she the same woman at 20, 40, 50? I can’t really say, but I hope to find out by writing the book.
As interested as I am in story, I always seem to gravitate toward fragmented narrative, to what happens in the gaps between things—I always think that’s where reality is, hiding in the interstice between one thought and the next, one perception and another. And so I’m working with several narrative threads at once, interweaving them to reflect how the past impacts the present in ways that don’t always fit easily into familiar patterns. We’re always trying to make sense of life—of the jumble of things that happen to us, the way we evolve over time without ever really having a full grasp of how or why, apart from a handful of more or less plausible psychological explanations and insights—and one of the ways we do this is to tell ourselves stories. But storytelling can also blind us to aspects of reality that have nothing to do with plot lines or beginnings, middles, and ends; with climax or resolution. Life is far more chaotic and equivocal. Yet there’s meaning to be found, and the question, to my mind, is how to present this meaning without falsifying it. And so I am trying to find a way to write a story and still retain that sense of elusiveness, a between-the-lines emanation of the strangeness and beauty of life, which bears no resemblance to story at all, at least for me.
LEORA SKOLKIN-SMITH is the author of Edges and Hystera. Edges was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award and The PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award by Grace Paley; it was a National Women's Studies Association Conference Selection, a Bloomsbury Review Pick, and a Jewish Book Council Selection; and it won the 2008 Earphones Award for an original audio production narrated by Tovah Feldshuh. Hystera was selected by Princeton University for their series "The Fertile Crescent: Women Writers from the Middle East." It was also the winner of the 2012 USA Book Award and the 2012 Global E-Books Award, as well as a finalist in the International Book Awards and the National Indie Excellence Awards.