The Tartarus House on Crab, by George Szanto

Margaret Cooter  has issued me an aide-mémoire challenge: to take something from each book I read and write it down. She suggested using a hand-written diary, but as with New Year’s resolutions, I stop tending such diaries rather quickly.  So I thought I’d do little entries on Southeastmain and see if the resolve to record remains.

The ground rules for this book record, extrapolated from some other conversations with Margaret, are to grab just one thing from the reading — a sentence, an idea, a vision, an experiential moment —  and record it.

So, The Tartarus House on Crab is a good summer read, a narration embodying meditations on loss and grief and inchoate emotions sorted and put to rest through love and community. Author George Szanto is a dear friend of the family, so what I noticed in the book was the careful attention to details that George would himself has always noted: the choice of wines available on the small island of Crab; the connections between people, related and/or connected through time and experience.

What I also thought about as I read was the Phoenix, a metaphor directly related to the artistic triumph of Jack Tartarus, the novel’s protagonist who has photographed and ponders on fire extensively. The novel contains allusions to the Phoenix, who, burned to ashes, rises again to live for another 1000 years.

I have always found the image of the phoenix a bit much, myself.

According to Wikipedia:  “A phoenix is a mythical bird with a colorful plumage and a tail of gold and scarlet (or purple, blue, and green according to some legends). It has a 500 to 1000 year life-cycle, near the end of which it builds itself a nest of twigs that then ignites; both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes, from which a new, young phoenix or phoenix egg arises, reborn anew to live again. The new phoenix is destined to live as long as its old self.

For me, however,  rebirth after fire is a quiet thing, a tiny sprouting of new life, some of which will make it, some of which won’t. The rebirth is small and almost invisible through the debris of the fire. Tiny fingers of green, tentatively move upward from the dark. The new growth seems insignificant, but as with any new life on this earth, it’s extremely important. This imagery would perhaps make a less resolved and satisfying narrative arc, but one that resonates with me.

Of course I’m projecting here,  using the novel to think about my own life, a life  in which I was in some sense reborn, going from polly professor to scruffy artist. I put out tiny tentacles, seedlings, some of which caught and brought me back to life in a different guise, rising from the old self. –June

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2 Responses to The Tartarus House on Crab, by George Szanto

  1. June says:

    Thanks, Olga, fire is indeed bright, even when it’s dim:-)

    One of the fascinating things about the novel is Jack’s meditations on fire, the way it can quietly eat away under a stack of seemingly untouched materials until it blazes into full view. As a metaphor, fire covers a lot of territory.

    As an aside, one of our favorite places in eastern Oregon, a wide spot in the road with an old grange hall and a bridge was the source of a “dateline” in the Oregonian today. The newspaper story was about a batch of wildfires, set by lightning, but the more important element of the story, for us, was the dateline, “Clarno, Oregon”. The last time we were in the area, we spent some time trying to find Clarno, finally realizing that the single building at the end of the bridge was it. And now Clarno is official — hopefully not blazing.


  2. Olga says:

    One of the personal benefits of advances in medicine and technology is this chance for individuals to arise anew: to try out different hats, masks, and maps. There is just so much to learn about let alone do. I agree about the tentative progress; but the inner phoenix burns bright, don’t you think?


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