The Ledger

February 2017

Intimacy is easy enough to define – closeness, coziness – and harder to practise. It is baked into certain relationships, romantic and familial, but you have to nurture it. It is spurned in public places: PDA (public display of affection) beyond hand-holding makes onlookers gag a little. But intimacy that’s too private can be corrosive to the soul. Take the late poet Francisco X. Alarcón, whose gift for language took him from the factory floor to Stanford University; he spilled secrets of the heart obliquely on the page but never told his family he was gay. And consider the case of Mildred and Richard Loving: the state of Virginia treated the interracial couple as criminals for being together, forcing them to live elsewhere until, in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down their home state's racist law against miscegenation, and with it similar laws nationwide. Think, too, on Emily Dickinson’s intense intellectual friendship with the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, conducted solely by letter until the near-invalid Dickinson insisted Higginson visit her at home, as if to prove to herself he was real. To wit: Human love, whatever its form, is messy. Perhaps it has occurred to you that you invest a lot of time and touch in your relationships with devices, caressing the screen of your smartphone, tickling the keyboard of your computer. Perhaps you love the dulcet tones and cheerful obedience of Siri. Reader, you can’t marry her (yet), but David Levy, founder of Love and Sex with Robots, is working on it. He foresees A.I. enhanced, socialised robots supplanting flesh-and-blood lovers. Once the stuff of fantasy, gamed out in films such as Spike Jonze’s Her or Hirokazu Koreeda’s Air Doll, intimacy with animate objects may render online matchmaking quaint as square-dancing in a not-too-distant future.


Sofar: up close and musical

‘Sofar’ is short for Songs from a Room, which pretty well encapsulates the mission of this ‘secret gig’ club now active in Barcelona, Berlin, London, Mumbai, New York, Paris, São Paulo and Sydney. Co-founder Rafe Offer felt disconnected from performers, whether major stars playing arenas or locals trying to capture the attention of bar patrons texting, talking, and scarcely listening. Sofar – which chimes nicely with shofar, the ram’s horn that rings in the Jewish New Year – seeks not so much to disrupt as to refocus. The premise is simple: Hosts volunteer a space; subscribers express interest in a scheduled event and hear about the artist and the location only at the last minute. Dry the River, Jesca Hoop, We Were Evergreen, and evergreen vampire Robert Pattinson are among the artists who have performed so far.


Branching out in Sweden’s upper reaches

Grownups who grew up reading Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series will want to flock to Treehotel in Swedish Lapland, where the rooms are on stilts and the stilts are tree-trunks. The brainchild of Britta and Kent Lindvall – she runs the B&B, he is a fishing guide – Treehotel is an ecologically responsible paradise of whimsy and good design. A different architect has designed each snug, podlike hideaway to take in the sweep of the Northern Lights in winter and catch the midnight sun in summer. Its best-known residence is the Mirrorcube, by Tham & Videgård, a gleaming feat of camouflage that sleeps two; the newest addition, by Snøhetta, is made of charred timber and sleeps four. A pine tree comes straight up through a rope-net floor, which cradles guests who may wish to slumber alfresco, like the birds.


Love in triplicate, from Taiwan’s Hou Hsao-hsien

The celebrated Taiwanese director Hou Hsao-hsien’s Three Times is his seventeenth film, and perhaps his most beautiful. Its three love stories jump around in time – 1966, 1911 and 2005 – and use the same pair of actors for each storyline. A soldier woos the hostess of a pool hall; a man with big dreams visits a prostitute in a brothel; a photographer falls for a pop singer who is distracted by another lover and by her blinking phone. The sweethearts know love only when they are together, but we are privy to it when they’re apart. In summary, the film is an accomplished study of simplicity and yearning.


The milestone triumph of Mildred and Richard Loving

‘We were married on the second day of June, and the police came after us the 14th of July,’ recalled Mildred Loving in an oral history of the case she and her husband brought against the state of Virginia, recently memorialised by Hollywood in the film Loving. Mildred and Richard Loving, for whom nomen really was omen, were sentenced to a year of prison for marrying a person of a different race. They moved to Washington, D.C., to avoid prison time, but eventually grew homesick and wanted to return to Virginia with their three children. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agreed to represent them, and their case went all the way to the country’s apex court, which ruled in their favour in 1967. Their story is remarkable for how steady and unflamboyant was their forbidden love, so distant from a silver-screen poster couple.


A poet of singularly exquisite voice

Francisco X. Alarcón, who died last year, wrote nine books of poetry, studied in Mexico and in California, worked as a migrant labourer and in a manufacturing plant, attended Stanford University and became a professor, and was a pillar of the poetry scene in San Francisco’s Mission District. He wrote in Spanish and English, translated his own verse and spoke French, Portuguese and Nahuatl, an indigenous Mexican language. He was also gay, something he kept secret from his Catholic family but wrote about movingly in his poems. Of Dark Love, published in 1991, is the culmination of an activist, homoerotic sensibility. ‘Be the ax that breaks this lock,’ the speaker commands his lover. ‘There has never been sunlight for this love, / like a crazed flower it buds in the dark.’ Later, Alarcón sought to free himself from the first-person voice by writing haikus. He also wrote bilingual poetry for children: ‘the best thing I’ve done in my life.’


Andrés Barba tells The Paris Review of his work, his influences, and his page-a-day method.

‘The quintessential territory of literature is the private realm, the intimate world, the “incommunicable,”’ Andrés Barba tells The Paris Review. Barba is the author of twelve novels in Spanish. His most recent, August, October, is a moody coming-of-age tale in which Tomás, a teenager on holiday with his family, falls in with a feral group of local boys and atones after they rape a young girl. ‘I’m not interested in the sex per se – I hate writers who use sex for shock value – so much as I am in what takes place around sex,’ Barba says. ‘The people we become, the gap that opens up between what we feel and what we wish we felt.’ August, October captures an intensity of feeling between family members, especially between Tomás and his little sister Anita, who keeps him company when he gets sick, ‘sitting on the floor with a handkerchief tied over her mouth like a miniature bank robber.’


A São Paulo exhibition of saintly inspirations

In his Canticle of the Creatures (1225), Saint Francis of Assisi tenderly describes the natural world as a family – ‘Sister Moon and the stars’, ‘Brother wind’. This chant inspired the curator Felipe Chaimovich to put together ‘Natureza Franciscana’ (Franciscan Nature), a major exhibition at Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo in 2016. Thirty works by ecological artists such as Lucia Koch, Paulo Lima Buenos and Thiago Rocha Pitta engage with the elements (sun and fire, for instance) and themes (sickness and trials) mentioned by Saint Francis.


Familiarity breeds a taste for more at Motoï

Chef Motoi Maeda’s French-inflected riff on Japanese cuisine can be sampled at Motoï, a restaurant in Kyoto that operates out of a traditional Japanese home. There’s a tranquil garden, demure lighting and a great many small courses (ten at lunch, thirteen at dinner). ‘As we offer the best ingredients of the season,’ Motoï warns its English-speaking clientele, ‘the courses might be the same when you visit us several times in a month.’ Such familiarity might lead to unlikely but wonderful new comfort foods, such as soft-shell-turtle pie and cream puff of Jerusalem artichoke served with a glass of bubbles.