Wednesday, January 18, 2017

No, It Isn't 'Other People'

Signs Preceding the End of the World (a novel), by Yuri Herrera

The Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. Much great literature has been made of our fear of the "undiscovered country." Rich indeed is the association between the afterlife as envisaged by Dante (shown here, with Virgil, spectators in hell) and the lives of ordinary people.

Yuri Herrera has crafted a brilliant novel out of the Dante's vision, out of the cruelty of life on the border, that ill-defined yet perfectly mapped piece of land that divides Mexico from my own state, the vast empty desert broken only by the dribble of the Rio Bravo and the flags that fly on each side of a line that matters most to politicians and cartographers. The land of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, replete with menace and violence thanks to the fact that borders are, by definition, spaces where the ordinary norms of behavior don't apply. "Border town" conjures six guns and sleazy cantinas, knots of dangerous characters out of a Roberto Rodriguez movie. 

In eight short chapters, Yuri Herrera creates a surreal tale, written in hallucinatory prose, of a young Mexican woman's crossing of the border to find her brother. Makina's journey is a condensed epic, the hero's journey compressed into sentences of remarkable power.

Dante, certainly, but I also thought of "The Waste Land" as I read (for example) these lines from a chapter entitled "The Water Crossing":  

"She couldn't get lost. Every time she came to the Big Chilango she trod softly, because that was not the place she wanted to leave her mark, and she told herself repeatedly that she couldn't get lost, and by get lost she meant not a detour or a sidetrack but lost for real, lost forever in the hills of hills cementing the horizon; or lost in the awe of all the living flesh that had built and paid for palaces." 

Signs is elusive: we have no idea where Makina is going, or what is in the package that she delivers to Mr. P, or how her brother came to think he owned land in El Norte, or even who she is, or if she is more or less than every man and woman who crosses a border looking for something that isn't there, that never existed in the first place.

The novel edges toward allegory in many places--in the remarkable scene of her river crossing, in the final dream-like moments of her descend into an underworld populated by lost souls--in the title itself. What world is ending, or whose?

The apocalyptic tone and hypnotic cadences of Herrera's prose feel just right at this moment in our history. It wouldn't surprise me to see the stars blinking out, or to watch the sun set in blood. Portents abound; time feels to be slowing, as if we've all embarked on a journey whose ending we both yearn for and dread.

And the place where the Antichrist resides is certain to be on some border or other, in the makeshift tent cities of the victims of war, in the forbidden zones that divide one people from another. Herrera has captured the porous quality of place perfectly.  None of the places where Makina travels has a unique identifying quality. No place names, no identifying signposts, only nameless ("the Old Man," Mr. P) entities whose role is to move Makina along on her journey. Makina, in keeping with her name, has a robotic quality--she is propelled forward to a vague destination that turns out to be beyond her imagining.

Where are the dispossessed welcome? Makina is stealthy, a woman with underworld connections, possessed of a power to use language in order to make her way in alien environments. Herrera is adamant on this point: the language of crossing over is primordial, coded, terse. Every encounter in the novel requires Makina to make sense of a riddle, or to intuit meanings from ambiguous directions. At one point Makina speaks to Chucho, her Virgil:

"Things are tough all over, but here I'm all mixed up.  I just don't understand this place."

"Don't let it get you down. They don't understand it either, they live in fear of the lights going out, as if every day wasn't already made of lightening and blackouts. They need us. They want to live forever but still can't see that for that to work that need to change color and number. But it's already happening."

Pretty cryptic. Is Chucho referring to the Anglos whose domain Makina is attempting to breach, or to the angels who guard all refugees and travelers, or to something else altogether? There's no telling, and that's because the border is a crossing not into another country but into another reality. A place where, as Makina describes it, people are ghostly, detached from one another and from what is around them, hostile and violent, afraid of something that has no name.

What are we afraid of, and how can we cope with our fear? Makina charges ahead, disinterested in her own safety, bent upon her quest--locating her missing brother. The novel begins with the yawning maw of an enormous sinkhole--frackers at work--and ends with a descent into some anteroom of eternity--perhaps hell, or perhaps--far more likely--one of the detention centers where we Anglos warehouse the unwanted, not unlike the windowless steel barracks that Teju Cole describes in a memorable scene of Open City. Incarceration has become the default position for those who are different. I finished Signs Preceding the End of the World believing that Makina was lost forever in her own Guantanamo, a limbo of no punishment and no escape. Just another brown-skinned person in an orange jump suit, squatting in the sun.

Signs Preceding the End of the World is published by Other Stories Press, London (2015) and translated by Lisa Dillman.

George Ovitt (1/17/17)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Into Africa

“The Ultimate Safari” by Nadine Gordimer

It was Nadine Gordimer herself who recommended to us, to my wife Annie and me, that we stay at Letaba Rest Camp in the heart of Kruger National Park. We had—by some miraculous conspiracy of forces—found ourselves sitting face to face with the world-famous author and her husband, Reinhold Cassirer, one evening in their modest, if eclectically tasteful living room at 7 Frere Road West in Johannesburg, South Africa. The year was 1990, a year that proved a curious window in time for us, as it was not only the year that Nelson Mandela was released from prison on Robben Island, what was surely the death-rattle of the apartheid regime, but was just months before Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, after which point it is unlikely I would have had the chance to meet her at all, let alone in such an frank and convivial way.

It had started at a faculty lunch table in the small cafeteria of the independent school in Manhattan where my wife and I were teaching high school. Lunches in hand, we’d joined a colleague of ours, a woman named Judy Platt. As usual we’d talked of school, of students, when she, knowing how we loved to travel, had asked us what we had planned for the summer vacation, which was due to begin in a matter of weeks. After three successive summers of travelling in South East Asia, we’d told her that were planning to go to southern Africa instead, to South Africa in particular, where we looked forward to staying with a couple we knew in Johannesburg before commencing our travels in the region. “South Africa? I love South Africa!” she’d exclaimed. “One of my best friends lives there, in Jo’burg. Perhaps you’ve heard of her. Her name’s Nadine Gordimer.” I remember gasping at the name. “Heard of her!” I’d cried. “Why, she’s my favorite writer in the world!”

I wasn’t exaggerating. I had fallen in love with her fiction—her short stories and novels—for their heady mixture of acute psychological insight and Chekhovian refinement of language and theme, as well as with the author herself for her morally courageous chronicling of apartheid in its most complex and pernicious forms. Elegant, cosmopolitan, a passionate reader of Gramsci and Proust, she was no ivory tower intellectual, but struggled daily in the trenches themselves, regularly berating the white Nationalist government in essays and editorials and letters to the editor, marching in protests, signing petitions, joining boycotts, and generally doing her best as an active and avid member of the ANC, Nelson Mandela’s long-outlawed African National Congress. 

Facing her there in her own home that evening was nearly too much for me to believe. Together we talked about New York, a city she loved, and about her friend Judy, and we talked about her books, her writing, so that soon  (and with a considerable amount of whiskey) the four of us were conversing and laughing with ease.

After it grew dark, and fearing for our safety at that time of night, she drove us back to our hotel in the once-Bohemian, then run-down, often violent neighborhood of Hillbrow (in fact we were awakened by gunshots that same night). Having made plans for her husband to pick us up tomorrow and show us his art gallery in town, in nearby Rosebank, we thanked her and said our goodbyes.

Surely one of the highlights of that extraordinary evening for me, one I could hardly have anticipated, was the very car in which she’d driven us back to our hotel, a yellow Volkswagen ‘Thing’ (remember those?), which—in what is perhaps my favorite of her novels, July’s People—she used as the model for the Smales family’s car in their escape into the countryside under the care and protection of their servant, July, a vehicle, a symbol of wealth and power and mobility, referred to repeatedly in the story as the ‘yellow bakkie’, so that it had felt to me that night, as she’d driven us back through the dark Johannesburg streets, as if I were riding through the novel itself!

Of all Gordimer’s short stories, surely one of the most poignant for me, for reasons I will explain, is her story “The Ultimate Safari”. Set largely in Kruger National Park, where we spent a few nights upon her recommendation, a wildlife reserve of more than 7,500 square miles in the northeastern part of the country that, by the time we’d arrived in South Africa, had become a treacherous no-man’s land between the Republic of South Africa and the neighboring country of Mozambique, then shattered by a violent civil war that had set tens of thousands of people on the move, each of them desperate to escape the fighting between the South African-sponsored Rhodesian rebel group RENAMO and the Marxist government forces known by the acronym FRELIMO. Gordimer herself secretly sheltered some of these refuges in her own home.
Of course the bitter irony of this, this situation, an irony deftly exploited by Gordimer in this story, is that what this meant for these many desperate Mozambicans was that, in order to escape the country with their lives, they had to cross the vast Kruger Park on foot, a park designed and rigorously maintained by white people so that white people could enjoy the African wildlife—the dense and dangerously congested population of hippos and lions and elephants, of antelopes, jackals, and zebras, of  giraffes, wildebeests, hyenas, and snakes—as it once must have been. As with virtually everything she wrote, it is a deeply humane tale, a story both simply and beautifully told.

My admiration for the works of Nadine Gordimer quickly lead me to seek out the work of other South African writers. I read Alex La Guma, Alan Paton, Bessie Head, Miriam Tlali, Peter Abrahams, J.M. Coetzee, Andre Brink, Dennis Brutus, Olive Shreiner, Zakes Mda, Richard Rive, Elsa Joubert, Breyton Breytenbach, Es’kia Mphahlele, Laurens van der Post, Rian Malan, Zoe Wicomb, and Damon Galgut. While in Johannesburg my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing Athol Fugard’s play My Children! My Africa! at the famous and revolutionary Market Theatre, a production directed by none other than the playwright himself. This reading lead me to cast my net even more widely in the years to come, reading the literature of writers throughout the African continent. Here, for your consideration, is a list of some of the African authors I read (so many of them made available to the west by the remarkable Heinemann Press): Naguib Mahfouz, Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Sonallah Ibrahim, Amy Djoleto, T. Obinkaram Echew, Narrudin Farah, Mariama Bâ, Ousmane Sembène, Amos Tutuola, Laila Lalami, Ayi Kwei Armah, Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, Alifa Rifaat, Tsitsi Dnagarembga, Albert Memmi, Yusuf Idris, Tahar Ben Jalloun, Mohamed Choukri, Mongo Beti, Camera Laye, Mia Couto, Assia Djebar, Tayeb Salih, Mongane Wally Serote, Leópold Sédar Senghor, Ali Ghalem, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Abdul Razak Gurnah, and Ben Okri—yes, why not start with Ben Okri’s brilliant novel The Famished Road—the perfect means by which to find your way in.

Here, finally, is Gordimer herself reading her story “The Ultimate Safari” at the 2007 PEN World Voices Festival:

Peter Adam Nash

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


                                   The virtue of maps, they show what can be done with limited
                                        space,  they foresee that everything can happen therein.

                                                                                               José Saramago

It is largely through maps (mostly visual representations of our perceptions, our beliefs, our dreams, our fears) that we as human beings have learned to orient ourselves within the otherwise bewildering phenomena of Time (that is, Death) and Space. From ancient cosmological, religious, and nautical maps to globes, atlases, tarot cards, horoscopes, memory palaces, astrological charts, and Michelin road maps to astronomical, topographical, geological, historical, medical, political, biological, climatological, mathematical, grammatical, and neurological maps, to algorithms, political polling, spread sheets, mind maps, flow charts, the Human Genome Project, and our increasing reliance on Global Positioning Systems to find our way there and back, cartography (in the broadest sense of the term) has helped us to define and enforce our realities with a brilliance and tenacity that is telling.

And what about the book as map? Is literature too a kind of essential human mapping? What is certain is that when an author begins to write a novel or short story one of her fundamental concerns is the matter of orientation. She must think: Who is my narrator, my protagonist, and what does she want? What is the psychic distance (to use John Gardner’s term) I wish to establish between my reader and my principal character(s), that is, the immediate degree of sympathy/empathy one feels for her? Are we watching her from a distance or actually trundling about in her skin? Then there are the matters of subject, time frame, and setting? An author must determine her style, her tone (her particular attitude toward her subject), the mood of the story, her diction. Finally, significantly, what in the story is at issue, at stake?

While important in all forms of writing, such basic stocktaking is all the more significant when what is to follow is unusually demanding or unconventional in language, style or form. For the sake of her reader, the author herself must get her sea-legs before the voyage can rightly begin.

Good writing is a kind of witchcraft; before we know it we have fallen under its  spell. Indeed what distinguishes the best, most effective openings is the fact that we scarcely notice them at all, so deftly have they been wrought that the imagery, characters, and setting seem less the product of the particular words before us on the page than the fruits of our of own soft-humming brains.

First, there is the more conventional type of orientation—by which I do not mean predictable, prosaic, dull. Here is the inimitable Dickens from his novel, Nicholas Nickleby:

There once lived in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr. Godfrey Nickleby, a worthy gentleman, who taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason: thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.  

Here now is Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua from his novel, Five Seasons:

Molkho’s wife died at 4 a.m., and Mokho did his best to mark the moment forever, because he wished to be able to remember it. And indeed, thinking back on it weeks and even months later, he was convinced that he had managed to refine the instant of her passing (her passing? He wasn’t sure the word was right) into something clear and vivid containing not only thought and feeling but also sound and light, such as the maroon glow of the small electric cheater, the greenish radiance of the numbers on the digital clock, the yellow shaft of light from the bathroom that cast large shadows in the hallway, and perhaps, too, the color of the sky, a pinkish ivory set off by the deep obscurity around it.

Note how much is initiated, established, achieved–and how quickly, concisely. Next, consider this opening from Vietnamese author Duong Thu Huong’s novel, Beyond Illusions:

     How could I have loved him like that?
She stared at him in the green glow of dawn. Still sleeping soundly, he was both strange and familiar to her, like a waxen effigy. That face. The curve of the nose, those earlobes. He was the same man, the same flesh, that had once been  a beacon inside her. Now he no longer radiated life, love.
     The man rolled over, his beard grazing her cheek. Repulsed, she sat up.
     Odd, how his beard had thinned.

Simple, yet amazing. We feel an instant sympathy for this narrator—and without even knowing her name. We see the light as it creeps into the room, hear the traffic outside, smell her husband’s rammish breath. Look now at Heinrich Boll’s opening to his novel, The Clown, a story about a struggling entertainer trying to find meaning in his life as a German after the war:

It was dark by the time I reached Bonn, and I forced myself not to succumb to the series of mechanical actions which had taken hold of me in five years if travelling back and forth: down the station steps, up the station steps, put down my suitcase, take my ticket out of my coat pocket, pick up my suitcase, hand in my ticket, cross over to the newsstand, buy the evening papers, go outside, and signal for a taxi. Almost every day for five years I had left for somewhere and arrived somewhere; in the morning I had gone up station steps and down again, in the afternoon down the steps and up again, signaled for a taxi, felt in my pockets for money to pay for my ticket, bought evening papers at kiosks, and savored in a corner of my mind the studied casualness of these mechanical actions.

Here then is Elizabeth Hardwick in her singular novel, Sleepless Nights, carefully arranging her props for the performance to come:

It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and gray squares and diamonds. How nice it is—this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home. The niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle—that is what I see. More beautiful is the table with the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street.

This, as further illustration of the more conventional opening, is the first paragraph of V.S Pritchett’s comic novel, Mr. Beluncle:

Twenty-five minutes from the centre of London the trees lose their towniness, the playing fields, tennis courts and parks are as fresh as lettuce, and the train appears to be squirting through thousands of little gardens. Here was Boystone before its churches and its High street were burned out and before its roofs were stripped off a quarter of a mile at a time. It had its little eighteenth-century face—the parish church, the alms-house, the hotel, the Hall—squeezed by the rolls and folds of pink suburban fat. People came out of the train and said the air was better—Mr Beluncle always did—it was an old town with a dormitory encampment, and a fizz and fuss of small private vegetation.

Here Pritchett not only establishes the conventional suburban setting for his story with but a few deft strokes, but does so comically, satirically, so that we have a bead on this Mr. Beluncle (and his world) well before we actually meet him. Finally, note here the highly conventional way that the Japanese novelist Kobe Abe begins his highly unconventional novel, The Box Man—first with the title itself, then with this blunt (if all the more peculiar) statement of the story’s central facts:

     This is the record of a box man.  
     I am beginning this account in a box. A cardboard box that reaches just to my hips when I put it on over my head.
     That is to say, at this juncture the box man is me. A box man, in his box, is recording the chronicle of a box man.

Yet not all great fiction begins with such apparent clarity, such obvious direction and purpose. There is also another form of orientation—a largely modernist convention—I will call deliberate disorientation. It is a type of orientation that no reader can fail to miss, for it often stops one in one’s tracks. Armed with one’s ropes and crampons, one goggles at the page as though gazing up at Mount Everest itself. Rest assured: such writers want you to climb the mountain—only by different, less conventional means. This is what makes modernist novels so remarkable, the fact they actually teach you to read them, establishing at once (often by challenging your very confidence as a reader) the terms by which they demand to be known.

Arguably no novelist was more determined to teach (or re-teach) his readers to read (that is, to read better—more deeply, more responsively) than the crass and courtly ‘Sunny Jim’. See here how he opens his last novel, Finnegan’s Wake:

     riverrrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
     Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wieldorfight his penisolate war; nor had topsawyers’ rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s Gorgios while they went doubling their mumper all the time: not avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venisoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old Isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.  

It hardly seems a beginning at all (nor should it, in this case). Just two brief paragraphs and one finds oneself reeling! Fast on Joyce’s heels is Brazilian author Clarice Lispector with the opening of her novel, Near to the Wild Heart (the title itself taken from Joyce’s own Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man):

Her father’s typewriter went clack-clack…clack-clack-clack…The clock awoke in dustless tin-dlen. The silence dragged out zzzzzz. What did the wardrobe say? Clothes-clothes-clothes. No, no. amidst the lock, the typewriter and the silence there was an ear listening, large pink, and dead…

Strange, jarring—one clutches at straws. Here now is Vladimir Nabokov from the opening of his novel, Lolita:

     Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three. On the teeth. Lo Lee. Ta.
     She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
     Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
     Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

Note how little (how much) he gives us, how little (how much) we know! Here, at last, is Shirley Jackson’s seemingly conventional, if in fact deftly disorienting first paragraph from her well-known short story, “The Lottery,” a contemporary tale—so one gradually discovers—about a ritual stoning in an average American town:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 2nd, but in this village, where they were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so that it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

Each of these openings—the conventional and unconventional alike—gives the reader as much as he needs (at least as much as the author thinks he needs) to whet his appetite (and expectations), to get his bearings in the particular tale to come. Yet the matter of orientation in great fiction does not end there, but applies equally to individual chapters, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and words, yes, even—perhaps especially—to words, to one’s particular choice of words.

Of course the importance of orientation far exceeds the technical concerns of the individual writer. In these increasingly irrational, increasingly fanatical times, a blind and blundering age of fake news, Twitter wars, and celebrity gospels, of ideologues, megalomaniacs, and would-be messiahs, there is also the fact of literature itself, of reading widely and deeply and well. I can think of no finer compass that that.

Peter Adam Nash

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


"The calm and ordinary/is always based on a most delicate rite." --Ruth Stone "Order and Design"


This is Henry Miller at Big Sur, sitting, somehow, with swagger. The author, ostensibly alone with his work (imagine no photographer). He is thinking hard, smoking (naturally), sipping strong coffee, not paying the bills, scribbling on legal pads or composing on a Smith-Remington portable. The life of the mind--let's cling to it in the days ahead.

A good year for reading--if not for much else. Here are a few of the books that brought me a degree of solace or, in some cases, a jolt of righteous indignation, during 2016. 


Jane Hirshfield, The Beauty--has Hirshfield ever written a mediocre poem?

Amy Clampitt, The Kingfisher and Maxine Kumin, Where I Live--older books that I keep on my desk and read regularly.

David Kirby, House on Boulevard St.--new to me this year are Kirby's wildly inventive musings on his life.

Kim Garcia, The Brighter House and Drone--my favorite new (to me) poet.

Harvey Shapiro, The Sights Along the River--Shapiro writes simple elegies for a lost world of thoughtful decency.

My favorite poem of the year? Perhaps it's this one--apt and moving:

For What Binds Us
There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they've been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

As the world around us become more difficult to absorb, as it makes less "sense" in the antediluvian Enlightenment context of "facts" and "reason" and "virtue," poetry assumes a more central place in the lives of (some) people. The poet's work is to make sense of her own experience and then to communicate that sense to the rest of us in language that is necessarily personal but also--here's what separates the poets from the fakers--universal. It's a big responsibility.



History and Politics

Rick Perlstein, Nixonland. I read Perlstein's trilogy out of order (Before the Storm, Nixonland, and Invisible Bridge, dealing with, respectively, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.) I can't recommend the Reagan volume, but Before the Storm and Nixonland are among the great political histories of our age.

Jane Mayer, Dark Money. Bound to make you want to emigrate to Portugal.

Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion --a history of 19th century political thought that is so detailed and nuanced and rich in recreating the lives of minor figures like Bruno Bauer and the other Young Hegelians that it feels like I've taken a graduate course from a scholar who has read everything.

Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? Not well. Streeck's essay "The Citizen as Consumer" was the best political analysis of our ongoing crisis that I read all year.

Seymour M. Hersh, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Lies our presidents (and Secretaries of State) tell us.

Andrew Bacevich, America's War for the Greater Middle East. 

Volker Weidermann, Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark.


I read fewer than usual due to the load of politics and history that I felt impelled to read. But a lot of good novels came my way--again, not all of them new.

Yasmine El Rashidi, Chronicle of a Last Summer. Egypt after Mubarak. Cairo comes alive and the novel feels deeply topical.

Karan Mahajan: The Association of Small Bombs. Among the best novels I read this year. Discussed somewhere in TR.

Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker. A novel of Haiti and therefore of politics and hopes deferred.

Chris Bachelder, The Throwback Special. What Balzac did for post-Napoleonic France, that is, create an etudes des mœurs, Bachelder has done in a little over two-hundred pages. A mini-panorama of the (male) human comedy. An unlikely likeable book.

Irène Némirovsk, All Our Worldly Goods [Les Biens de ce monde]. Némirovsky was among the great realists of the 20th century, and this short novel, a prequel to Suite Française, is pitch perfect in its depiction of French society before, during, and after World War I. A kind of love story, but not in a traditional sense. Not one wasted word.

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say That We Have Nothing. Mao's Cultural Revolution destroys two families; the survivors tell their stories through folklore, magical realism, and grueling naturalism. I was entranced by the seemingly effortlessness with which this complex novel unfolded.

Han Kang, The Vegetarian. Harrowing. Ruthlessly explores the nuances of domestic cruelty. I wonder how many persons bought this book thinking it was the autobiography of a vegetarian?

Richard Ford. Let Me Be Frank With You. Yes, an awful title. What were they thinking at Random House? The last hurrah, in four long stories, of Frank Bascombe (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land). White, late-middle-aged male writers aren't especially popular these days. That's too bad, because Ford writes like a dream. He's Updike with a sense of proportion and a far greater degree of modesty. A genial craftsman.

Peter Stamm, Seven Years. A love triangle involving three utterly despicable people. How did he pull it off? All that nonsense about "identifying with the characters" is just that, and Stamm proves it.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle. Volume five. My favorite volume in this gargantuan enterprise that demonstrates Norwegian narcissism is more interesting than its American counterpart. I eagerly await the denouement of volume six, coming, like the winds of New Mexico, in April.

Other Books 

Music is still our great source of solace. A few fine books relating to music that fell into my hands during the past few weeks:

Ted Gioia, The Jazz Standards. The stories, and best recordings, of 250 jazz classics. While there's a lot missing, there's plenty here for the lover of standards. Gioia is the best writer on jazz since Nat Hentoff.

John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. Title of the year. "Bach in the breath of his vision, grasped and then revealed to us his conception of the universe as a harmonious whole; yet he was composing at a time when the breakdown of social unity was well advanced and the old structures of religion were fast being eroded by Enlightenment thinkers." Many brilliant insights by this great musicologist and Bach interpreter into the greatest musical genius who ever lived.

For Christmas, my brother sent me Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon's massive The Rolling Stones: All the Songs/The Story Behind Every Track. The French write wonderful books about American music. What most impresses me about my favorite band is how true they've stayed to their roots in the blues. (e.g. the new CD, "Blue and Lonesome").

Speaking of which....

My wife gave me Bill Dahl's gorgeous The Art of the Blues: A Visual Treasury of Black Music's Golden Age. Great photos of persons, record jackets, and venues (juke joints in the Delta). As one would expect, Dahl's text is informative and lively.

There were others--biographies (James A. Harris, Hume was the best of these), memoirs (Michael C. Keith's The Next Better Place), oral histories (the brilliant Secondhand Time by Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich), and some books that defy categorization (Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?) A question I ask myself almost daily these days.

I hope that you readers of TR found good books to fill your days and that you will find lots more in the year to come. Peter and I hope to provide some suggestions. Meanwhile, peace and good reading.

George Ovitt (12/28/2016)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


The Bed Moved, Rebecca Schiff

Infinite Distraction, Dominic Pettman

Dark Money, Jane Mayer

How Will Capitalism End? Wolfgang Streeck

"White Christmas," directed by Michael Curtiz

"In becoming a habit, distraction becomes a tool for dissolving regimes of thought, modes of understanding, by admitting an empirical moment into the transcendental structure of apperception."
Paul North, quoted by Dominic Pettman (133)


Professor North is referring to Kant's discussion of the seemingly insurmountable complications we face in making sense of the world, of sorting through the myriad and dense layers of sense impressions that bombard us, of making what is inchoate a part of the quiet inner story that is our consciousness. Distractions further complicate this process; perhaps distractions make making"sense" of our lives an impossible project. And yet we seek out distractions, as Dominic Pettman suggests in Infinite Distraction, precisely to obfuscate a world that is not only too diffuse to comprehend, but too disturbing. Pettman speaks of "pervasive bewilderment and insecurity," of a loss of "shared chronology, direction, or purpose." I would add our willful jettisoning of facts, of empathy, of a common humanity. A decade ago we were assured that those in power "made up their own facts." It's now common knowledge that there are no facts whatsoever. Ironically, it was a pack of mordant Frenchmen who were accused of destroying traditional values in favor of an amoral "post-modern" vision. Now it's the pols, the media, and Organization Men who have taken up the cry: "Truth is dead, and we killed it!"  


Sick of Brooklyn? The restaurants, the craft beers, the renovations, the self-regard? The authors? The book jackets weighted down with gush from other Brooklyn writers? Is anyone in Brooklyn not a writer? Case in point, The Bed Moved, a collection of stories by Rebecca Schiff. A book my eyes passed over but which touched me not at all...

Adam Wilson, another young writer who lives in Brooklyn, is convinced that Schiff is the real deal. Mr. Wilson feels that the era of authors like Proust and Virginia Woolf is over. But on the subject of Schiff he is unequivocal.  "If you see a bald man running through the streets of Brooklyn screaming Rebecca Schiff's name, do not fear for her life--it's just me, after one too many, singing the gospel of Schiff!" The Gospel of Schiff. Just the sort of thing Edmund Wilson might have written.

Or Claire Luchette's (also from Brooklyn. Her motto? "I write for bummed folks." She interviewed Schiff for Politico or some such. For all we know these people all drink at the same bar.) take on Schiff's "tart, powerful, sexy, and very, very funny stories":  "What I loved most about these stories is how stripped they are of all the often-clunky narrative stuff that shows up in more traditional stories, where it can seem like character, biographical details and situational context are dumped into the text" (my emphasis). 

Chekhov's clunky character details? Having to wade through all that "stuff" in a story by Cheever? Or Yates, or Charles Baxter? Character! Who has time for a story of more than a thousand words? A Schiff story is hip, a shtick, a routine, patter. It's a Netflix series full of hipsters and sex and one-liners that are very, very funny. No Schiff character has a face, a body, a tone of voice, a personality--nobody does anything but quip. Are quips literature? Will Woody Allen get the Nobel Prize next year? I'm trying as I read these stories to get it, to get why someone would run drunken through the streets of Brooklyn over these skeletal, affectless vignettes. To figure out why they are witty. Proust makes me giddy with pleasure; Bernhard makes me laugh until I weep; any story by Alice Munro makes me shake my head in awe of the woman's craft; Yates and Cheever I could read all day for their psychological insights, their humanity. But these dabs of prose--I kept circling Hamlet's "words, words, words" as I made my way through the book:

     "'There were film majors in my bed--they talked about film. There were poets, coxswains, guys trying to grow beards.'
     'Kids get really scared when their Dad grows a beard,' I said." (from "The Bed Moved").

     "'The ad said "I will rate your vagina," so I sent it in. It got two. Warts.'" ("Rate Me")

     "They said keep an eye on it, they said it was nothing, they took a picture, took a sample, they burned it, they froze it, they biopsied it, they told me to come back in a year, they winced when they saw me coming, they wrote down everything I said or dictated it to a woman who had to be in the room for legal reasons, they wrote me a prescription, they said, "You write fiction, that must be interesting."
     In fiction, it's never benign."  ("Keep and Eye on It" in its entirety)

I read the whole book. Two hours and twenty minutes. Published by Knopf--Alfred A.

What is this book about, really?

(Very) Late Capitalism

In her brilliant and disturbing Dark Money, Jane Mayer, perhaps without meaning to do so, demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that in twenty-first century America, even consciousness is for sale. Example after example shows that calculating, amoral, rapacious billionaires can actually get people to think things that are not only untrue, but actually hurtful to them (e.g. that mine safety in West Virginia is a bad idea for miners; that pollution is actually good). So money isn't just able to purchase newspapers, book publishers, politicians, and "think" tanks, but it can also, readily, be the medium though which human consciousness--yours and mine--is defined. 

What is capitalism? A form of human intercourse based upon the premise that everything--everything!--is reducible to quantifiable value and can, therefore, be exchanged in the framework of an entirely artificial space called "the market," which is, in fact, nothing more than the reification of any person's basest motives--fear, envy, pride, and lust ("cupidity" in the old days).

Almost every word of Pettman's Infinite Distraction is nonsense (see, e.g. p. 116), but here's the pearl amongst the sand: "....we are being systematically deprived not only of human freedoms, but our own capacity to be subjects of our own lives." Yes, this is just how one feels. Not only that we are being duped into buying objects we don't wish to own, but that we are being enticed into thinking thoughts that are beneath us, that diminish our humanity.

The phrase from Streeck's How Will Capitalism End? that has stuck with me is this: "...the nightmare of elites confident that they will outlive the social system that is making them rich." (p. 68)

The game is over. "Social life in an age of entropy is necessarily individualistic." (p. 40) But not quite, since the individualism that Streeck describes and that Jane Mayer's libertarians yearn to impose on the rest of us isn't individualistic in the sense of defending individual rights or parsing the value of a human being's consciousness, but rather individual in the sense of imposing a view of human nature that privileges 'fulfillment' (a vague notion) above all else. My students all believe that "human beings are basically selfish." And when I ask them what leads them to this Darwinian conclusion they have no answer--they've absorbed the message with the air they breath. They too understand that our habits of consumption define what used to be called character but is now thought of as a "profile." That's why it's a waste of time to create characters in literature or to write stories with psychological depth. The notion of a person as a nexus of complex yearnings, of hopes and dreams and inexpressible feelings is antiquated in just the way that stories about virgins pining after wealthy English landowners are antiquated. One could still write Pride and Prejudice but what would be the point?

The Bed Moved:

It turns out that Schiff is right. All we have is yearning and sex and distractions. If you read her book you will see that not paying attention is the only intelligent response to our world. Kant was right to see apperception as an impossible project--and he was writing in a candle-lit world. But then again, in reading interviews and reviews for this post, I couldn't help but think that the younger generation of writers was selling literature short, giving up not only on the beauty of art, but on its subversive qualities. Somewhere Pettman quotes an Italian theorist who says "we are cowards." That's it.

Bing at the Window

In "White Christmas," Bing returns from the Good War to go into show business with Danny Kaye. He meets Rosemary Clooney and falls in love. He and his Army buddies put on a show at a snowy inn in Vermont. A story that in some odd way feels familiar even if you've never seen the film--not the romance of it or the plot that's just an excuse for songs and dances (as in all those glorious Fred Astaire films). What grabs you, or should, is the comfort of it, the maudlin claustrophobic feeling that when Bing turns back into the room and looks at the fake tree and the bows on the packages he will feel a sense of happiness and security that we will never feel. And if you're writing stories these days, if you're the age of Rebecca Schiff or Adam Wilson or my older daughter, you may never have had this feeling. And if you've never felt in your bones, never felt to the core of your being, that the world isn't but could be, and should be, and will, on some snowy Christmas day in Vermont, in fact be benign and decent and humane--what can you be expected to make of stories and poems that have the nerve to play pretend, that set out to fool you, to turn your gaze away from the fact that all we've got is joyless sex, the lust for money, on-line communities, and the kind of sad wit that isn't so much shallow as hollow? What's left is a scrim of words on a page or a screen that is added to everything else whose only purpose is to distract us from the emptiness we feel, day after day. 

Happy holidays.

 George Ovitt (12/21/2016)



Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn: Writings From Japan, edited by Francis King

The year my girlfriend (now wife), Annie, asked me to spend the summer travelling around Japan with her, I didn’t know what to expect. Of course I’d eaten sushi, teriyaki, and tempura, and had seen a couple of Kurasawa films—if with the bright unknowing of a pilgrim at Plymouth Rock. I was as ignorant of the country as I was happy and eager to see it.

Annie, a former East Asian Studies minor in college, did her best, in the months preceding our trip, to prepare me for the adventure to come, lending me books about Buddhism and Shintoism, pressing me to read the various travels guides she’d collected, and speaking with wonder about her own first trip there the previous summer to visit a close college friend. Just before we left for Japan Annie’s stepfather, the late sociologist Robert Nisbet, gave me a book, Hearn’s Writings From Japan, a number of the essays of which he had read and liked very much when he was stationed on Saipan during World War II. I thanked him kindly for the gift and packed it away.
It wasn’t until we’d already been in Japan for some weeks, settled for a spell, after our first stint of travelling, in a handsome old house in the town of Hayama, overlooking the long, wide curve of Sagami Bay, that I actually opened the book and read. What I discovered in those pages not only transformed the country I saw before me each day, but kindled in me an affection for Japan—for the dreamlike strangeness of the land, its people, and its past—that haunts me to this day.

My initial hours in the country were a glorious, intoxicated blur, an experience perhaps best captured by Hearn himself when he first set foot in the country, in nearby Yokohama, nearly a hundred years before me, in the spring of 1890:

It is with the delicious surprise of the first journey through Japanese streets—unable to make one’s kurama-runner understand anything but gestures, frantic gestures to roll on anywhere, everywhere, since all is unspeakably pleasurable and new… ‘Tis at first a delightfully odd confusion only, as you look down one of them [the streets], through an interminable flutter of flags and swaying of dark blue drapery, all made beautiful and mysterious with Japanese or Chinese lettering. For there are no immediately discernable laws of construction or decoration: each building seems to have a fantastic prettiness of its own; nothing is exactly like anything else, and all is bewilderingly novel. 

By the time of Hearn’s arrival, Japan had been visited and written about at length by writers as esteemed and varied as Pierre Loti and Rudyard Kipling. Following the invasion of Commodore Perry and his fleet of American warships in 1853, the modest, introverted, once-insular Japan had been overrun by westerners, by “diplomats, advisers, teachers, businessmen and journalists”, each armed with something new to teach the Japanese, something by which to draw them out (meaning westward) into the bright and ‘civilized’ world.

Lafcadio Hearn was different, precisely in that regard, encountering all he saw before him in the country with a child’s wonder, with a mute and goggling awe. Yet in his thinking he was hardly simplistic, naïve. Indeed his critical acumen in these essays (his extraordinary ability to see) is unmistakable, buoyed—though it nearly always is—by his enchantment, his humility, his glee. 
What followed for me, that long, chimerical summer in Japan, were weeks of reading and rereading the essays in this collection, and of wandering the nearby towns and villages with my intrepid guide and girlfriend, Annie. Together we’d delighted in the shops and temples, and in the local festivals (Tanabata and Obon), while admiring the gardens and graveyards and shrines—and all through Hearn’s deeply observant, deeply affectionate eyes.

Surely a part of the charm of Hearn’s work for me that summer was the house in which we happened to be staying, a traditional Japanese house on a narrow street above the bay, complete with a genkan, tatami, shoji, and a tokonama, as well as a free standing teahouse from which we’d had an unbroken view of Mt. Fuji (This photo could have been taken from our backyard!). 

We could hardly believe our good fortune, our luck. Tired, our resources already strained by the cost of living in ryokans and hostels, we’d all but stumbled  into taking care of the house for a retired U.S. Navy nurse, then on emergency medical leave in the States, a distinctly Hearn-like woman who, since her arrival in Japan at the end of WWII, had come to love the country so much that she’d made it her home. Not surprisingly, the house was filled with Japanese antiques—porcelain, screens, various tansu or chests, woodblock prints, and a fantastical array of Buddhist statues. If that were not enough to set the scene for that magical summer of ours, we’d received a letter one day, from the owner herself, thanking us again for taking care of her house and encouraging us to have a look at her collection of netsuke in the shoeboxes beneath the guestroom beds. Netsuke? we wondered. What in the world were netsuke
Nestuke—so we learned (so many of you must know)—are small, sculptural objects made of porcelain, ivory, wood, boar tusk or stone that were traditionally designed to prevent one’s purse from slipping through the belt or obi worn over one’s kimono. Both functional and aesthetic, netsuke were commonly designed after people, plants, and animals, after gods and religious symbols, after folkloric figures and mythological beasts. 

The netsuke we found in the shoe boxes that summer left us speechless for their strangeness and variety, as well as for their extraordinary workmanship and beauty—charms, tokens, of a long-gone, bygone age. Purchased by the owner of the house from the many desperate Japanese she had met in Tokyo and Yokohama immediately following the war, men and women often on the verge of starvation and madness, she’d collected the netsuke in the shoe boxes beneath her guestroom beds for close to a decade, originally knowing little or nothing about their function or worth. Was it kindness or simple opportunism that had motivated her to buy them, these extraordinary artifacts? We didn’t know; not having met her before, we couldn’t even guess. Only later, in a follow-up letter that same summer, when she’d nearly recovered and was planning her return, did we learn that, years before, and whatever her initial motive for buying them, she had willed the entire collection of netsuke, appraised at over a million dollars, back to the nation of Japan, to the country and people she loved. It is something Hearn himself would have done.

Of course Hearn (the writer and ethnographer, the avid devotee) made his own fine bequest to the Japanese people—his nearly countless essays and observations about a Japan now largely vanished beneath the flash and clamor of the modern world, so that today the Japanese themselves rely on his writings to revisit and remember who they were and what they valued, to reacquaint themselves with their once-singular customs and ways. 

Surely one of my favorite passages from this collection of essays, one I’d like to leave you with, is Hearn’s awestruck description of a legendary sea-cave near Matsue, which he had heard about upon his arrival in the city and had hoped dearly to see:

Few pilgrims go thither there by sea, and boatmen are forbidden to go there if there be even enough wind ’to move three hairs.’ So that whoever wishes to visit Kaka must either wait for a period of dead calm—very rare upon the coast of the Japanese Sea—or journey thereunto by land; and by land the way is difficult and wearisome. But I must see Kaka. For at Kaka, in a great cavern by the sea, there is a famous Jizō of stone; and each night, it is said, the ghosts of little children climb to the high cavern and pile up before the statue small heaps of pebbles; and every morning, in the soft sand, there may be seen the fresh prints of tiny naked feet, the feet of the infant ghosts. It is also said that in the cavern there is a rock out of which comes a stream of milk, as from a woman’s breast; and the white stream flows forever, and the phantom children drink of it. Pilgrims bring with them gifts of straw sandals—the zori that children wear—and leave them before the cavern, that the feet of the little ghosts may not be wounded by the sharp rocks. And the pilgrim treads with caution, lest he should overturn any of the many heaps of stones; for if this be done the children cry.

Peter Adam Nash