Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Dark Terminus Of All We Know

through the night by stig sæterbakken

Is this what death looks like? A house with nothing in it?

Driven from his home by his irate wife, Eva, following her discovery of his affair with a young woman in town, the narrator, a modest Norwegian dentist named Karl Christian Andreas Meyer, has just returned home to his sullen and resentful family after a period of contrition, when his teen-aged son, Ole-Jacob, commits suicide, shaking him to the core of his being:

Grief comes in so many forms. It’s like a light being turned on and off. It’s on, and it’s unbearable, and then it goes off, because it’s unbearable, because it’s not possible to have it on all the time. It fills you up and it drains you. A thousand times a day I forgot that Ole-Jakob was dead. A thousand times a day I remembered it again. Both were unbearable. Forgetting him was the worst thing I could do. Remembering him was the worst thing I could do. Cold came and went. But never warmth. There was only cold and the absence of cold. Like standing with your back to the sea. Ice-cold ankles every time a wave came in. Then it receded. Then it came in.

An arresting, truly brilliant study of guilt and misgiving, Through the Night is a the story of one man’s deeply affecting struggle to come to terms with his grief. Yet to say this, to state it in such prosaic, conventional terms, is to trivialize the force of such feeling, as it is described in this novel. Indeed so consuming, so total, is the loss this narrator feels that even of this commonplace objective—his own mental health—he remains fearful, unsure: “What will we do, I wondered. When this is over. When we’re finished with all the grief. When we’ve gotten through it, if we get through it, what on earth will we do then.” 
Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of grief, as it is depicted in this darkly radiant tale, is its potential to isolate one from others, from the people one knows and loves. The writer C.S Lewis captured this poignantly in his famous 1961 book, A Grief Observed, a work—written immediately following the death of his wife—in which, fumbling brilliantly for the words to do justice to the experience, he describes it as something akin to fear, though not fear itself, only to add, "At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me."

This is very much the case with Karl Meyer, the protagonist of this novel. And no wonder. Can even someone who has experienced grief firsthand truly fathom the grief of another? Is such an experience actually relative, commensurable, at all? Or is it—like its sister, love—in fact stubbornly, intrinsically personal, always and necessarily unique? For how else could we bear so many depictions of it—in the literature we read, in the films we watch, in the music to which we listen at night—but as signal variations on this grave and universal theme. 

As with any fresh depiction of grief, indeed with the fresh depiction of any emotion in fiction at all, the devil lies squarely in the detail. One has only to think of Joyce’s story “Araby” with its ‘high, cold, empty, gloomy rooms,’ its ‘dark, dripping gardens,’ its rusted bicycle pump, and the ‘brown imperturbable’ faces of the houses in the streets to reminded of this fact. Sæterbakken himself is especially adept at stringing his protagonist’s grief upon the nails of so many stark and original details. Undoubtedly one of the most effective, most jarring of his touches in this novel, that single detail that opened up this character’s grief to me, that made me feel it in the pit of my stomach, in the marrow of my bones, is the narrator’s habit, started almost by accident one day, of calling his dead son’s cell phone number, which continues to glow, to implore him, in the directory of his phone.

Ole-Jakob. I know that you’re there. You’re there somewhere, and I’ll find you.

Stig Sæterbakken (1966-2012) was one of Norway’s most acclaimed contemporary writers. His novels include Siamese and Self-Control, both published by Dalkey Archive Press. He committed suicide in 21012. Through the Night was translated by Seán Kinsella.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Wandering Soul

The River Below by François Cheng

Lifting my gaze, I scan the horizon:
The longed-for return, when will it come?
The bird takes flight to regain its nest:
And the fox, dying, turns to its lair,
Upright and loyal, yet I live in exile,
When shall I forget my fate, what day what night?

                                                          Qu Yuan

“French writing continues to emerge from unusual sources,” writes John Taylor in his 2008 essay on the matter in the Michigan Quarterly Review, a fascinating piece in which he introduces the reader to the work of three prominent Chinese-French writers, Dai Sijie, Gao Xingjian, and François Cheng, whose extraordinary novel, The River Below, is the subject of this post.

In The River Below Cheng “uses the conceit of the medieval dit to let one Tianyi, a Chinese artist, tell the story of his life, as he travels from China (where he was born in 1925) to Paris (where he lived in the 1950’s) and then back to Communist China.” The dit is a form of storytelling believed to have originated in late 12th Century France as a means of distinguishing allegorical tales, tales that concealed a truth within a purely fictional story or conte, from other more popular tales. Typically the dit signified a moral or instructive story, what soon proved to be a successful compromise “between the heaviness of didactic treatises and the lyricism of courtly poetry…”

No doubt this was precisely what Cheng had in mind when he wrote The River Below. As one reviewer describes the novel: “It unrolls like an allegorical scroll, its characters at once individuals and symbolic figures, as in the I Ching, in which the individual reflects the universal,” making the novel seem both ancient (timeless) and distinctly, significantly modern. 

In fact one of the most remarkable characteristics of this layered, deeply sophisticated novel is the constant interplay between these different narrative modes—that of allegory and that of the anxious modern Bildungsroman. It is the nearly seamless interplay of these different narrative styles that gives the novel its unusual resonance, its force.

Early on in the story, the protagonist, Tianyi, in a line straight out of a fairy tale, reflects upon his discovery of the powers of traditional Chinese calligraphy: “…I was won over by the magical power of brush and ink. I sensed it was to be a weapon for me. Maybe the only one I would have to protect me from the overwhelming presence of the Outside.” Now contrast this passage with the novel’s modern, distinctly Tristram Shandy-like opening in which, with the same casual disregard with which Tristram’s mother—at the very moment of Tristram’s conception—interrupts his father at his business by asking him if he remembered to wind the clock, the young Tianyi makes the foolish mistake one night of calling out to a grieving wid0w in the voice of her dead husband, not knowing that “If by chance someone among the living answers her cry with a yes, he loses his body, which is quickly entered by the dead man’s wandering soul that then returns to the world of the living. And the soul of the one thus losing is body becomes in turn the wanderer…” Near the end of this opening section the elder Tianyi, looking back over his long and rootless life, remarks, in words that Laurence Sterne himself might have penned (if with no intended humor): “I was convinced that from then on everything in me would be perpetually out of joint.”

And so it is, as we follow young Tanyi in his wandering throughout China, to France, to Paris, then back again to China, a nation torn asunder by the zealotry of Mao Tsé-Tung. Juxtaposing an artist’s lyrical sensibility against the violent upheavals of revolutionary China, The River Below is a subtle, broadly challenging novel of ideas that is rich with rewards for the patient and talented reader.

François Cheng Is a Chinese-born French academician, novelist, poet, calligrapher, and translator.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, November 30, 2015

Only This Silence

Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrøm

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

                                                                           Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“Some days I cannot remember the distinctive character his voice had, whether it was as deep as I believe, I cannot imagine it.  His silence.” So broods the narrator, Eva, about her increasingly estranged husband, Simon, in this intimate and haunting tale about the ineluctable wages of the past.

Set in contemporary Norway, Eva, a teacher, and her husband, Simon, a respected physician, have led a life with their children that has all the hallmarks of modern, middle class success. While as imperfect as every family, not a one of this family’s members has ever wanted for anything—except perhaps for the truth, the truth about Simon’s past.

It began with some letters arriving, several letters. He [Simon] found out more about what happened to his relatives during the war, almost all his relations apart from his mother, father and brother were sent to extermination camps in the course of the war years… The others are crossed out of history.

Instead of sharing this information with their daughters when their daughters were young, Eva and Simon, unwilling to ruffle the still waters of their otherwise tranquil life together, put it off for another time, a time that—no surprise—never comes. By then, by the period in which the novel takes place, the past has already wreaked havoc on their lives, taking its mute if insidious toll on their hearts, their psyches, their nerves. Thinks Eva, “It is surprisingly easy not to say anything, not to tell, to remain silent.”
Yet in the end it is their very silence that haunts them in their alienation from their now-grown children and in their alienation from each other. So still, so cold, so silent is the house they share, that sometimes Eva thinks she hears her husband speak:
Perhaps I hear him from the living  room, and I go in, and he is sitting with his  
      eyes closed.
I hear his voice, because I want to hear it, a hallucination of sound, like an echo of
      music or noise than lingers when you have been to a party or concert and return 
      home, as though  the brain continues to transmit the sound, as though the inner ear
      continues to repeat  the oscillations, in the place where sound is converted and
      interpreted as something meaningful.

As Simon sinks further and further into the tragic silence of his past, the most Eva can hope for is the truth—grim, unforgiving, as that may be. “Like the story about two trolls,” she reflects sadly, “…the one says something, then a hundred years pass, and the other one replies.”

Merethe Lindstrøm has published several collections of short stories, novels, and a children’s book. She lives in Oslo, Norway. Days in the History of Silence was translated by Anne Bruce. 

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Only Submit

Michel Houellebecq, Submission

. . . The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

The melancholy and misanthropic Jacques ("Jakes") possesses the gift of truth-telling that might be the only succor of old age; why delude yourself when you stand on the edge of a vast chasm into which you are about to tumble? Dylan Thomas's "Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight/ Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, /Rage, rage against the dying of the light" captures the rage of the person whose life is receding into memory, but provides at least the comfort of defiance. Aging is frightful, death is terrifying, but how much more terrifying and horrible when one's dying coincides with the passing away of the order of the world, with "civilization" itself? The misreaders of Houellebecq miss this nuance in his work--easy enough to do with a writer who sets out to offend, and does.

Cultural pessimism has a long and distinguished history, beginning with Thucydides and traveling a great arc through the rise and fall of nations and empires--even in the midst of the Enlightenment, the age of optimism and belief in continuous liberal progress, there was Vico to remind us that the  glorious age of humanity had passed with Rome, and that sour-puss Joseph de Maistre, whose reactionary attachment to absolute authority--in an age that embraced personal liberty as the only gospel--anticipated Oswald Spengler and the fascist movements of the twentieth century. (Fascism is the only possible resolution of cultural decadence this side of suicide). But pessimism about the products of a rationality unchecked by religious belief and political hierarchy was routed by both the material and cultural products of enlightened cosmopolitanism. Capitalism appeared to supply proof that reason deployed in the service of material progress would make a paradise of this world; the romantics offered the hope that a purely personal spiritual vision could transcend any use people might have for a providential God; and liberalism--the struggle to extend the promise of democratic empowerment--seemed to fulfill the Western dream of individual autonomy sketched out by Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and Kant.

  The pillars of modern cultural pessimism--Nietzsche and Thomas Mann and T. S. Eliot--understood that the shucking off of the Old Order, however desirable, must have its cost. In Beyond Good and Evil and Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche's scathing indictment of bourgeois Christian (and, perforce, hypocritical) morality is so entertaining that the careless reader, inclined to agree with Nietzsche, is likely to miss the undertone of nostalgia that seeps into Nietzsche's aphorisms. With Mann, there can be no mistaking the sense of loss; the long Scholastic arguments that occupy the final third of Magic Mountain both dismiss as superannuated and defend as essential the unifying vision of the Middle Ages--the vision that held Europe together, according to Mann, until the catastrophe of 1914. It became fashionable during the decadent years leading up to the Great War for disillusioned intellectuals, their youthful folly spent, to convert to Catholicism (or Anglicanism), finding in Holy Mother Church the meaning that personal liberty could not supply. The reek of incense and the Latin chants of celibate priests guided many thoughtful but unhappy men and women to the oblivion of Faith.

Among those who made the journey back to the Church was Joris-Karl Huysmans, pictured here as an oblate of the Benedictine order associated with Liguge Abby in Poitiers. Huysmans, a clerical worker in the French ministry, was of course the author of the scandalous A Rebous (Against the Grain, 1884), the literary model for Michel Houellebecq's Submission. Huysmans's literary alter ego, Jean de Esseintes, a decadent Parisian noblemen, a Nietzschean aesthete, a dandy who loathes the hollow pretensions of middle-class life, passes his time in pursuit of ever more esoteric sensual and aesthetic pleasures. The tone and mood of the novel are, to put it mildly, overwrought, self-conscious to the point of neurasthenia--in other words, just like virtually any contemporary memoir: 

"When all was said and done, the future was the same for all, and neither one nor the other class, if they had had a particle of common sense, could possibly have desired it. For the rich, it was, in different surroundings, the same passions, the same vexations, the same sorrows, the same diseases, and likewise the same poor satisfactions, whether these were alcoholic, literary or carnal. There was even a vague compensation for all the sufferings, a kind of rude justice that restored the balance of misery as between the classes, enabling the poor to endure more easily the physical sufferings that broke down more mercilessly the feebler and more emaciated bodies of the rich." (Chapter 13)

A bit too didactic--precisely in the voice (whiny, hectoring, self-absorbed) of Houellebecq's narrator. De Esseintes quotes Baudelaire, grows poisonous flowers, and loads a tortoise's shell up with enough gems to crush the poor beast. He drinks too much and ruins his health; mocks the Church, but in the tone of a jilted lover. Throughout the novel the abiding questions revolve around the problem of meaning--what to make of this comfortable modern life of ours? Now that God is dead, superstition is vanquished, reason is triumphant, and "freedom" has been achieved--what do we do until we die? There appear to be only three options: suicide, political engagement (but with Communism dead this option appears cut off), and submission to one of the three overweening monotheisms available to modern persons. Decadents don't do politics and they generally enjoy something enough to stay alive (sex or food or reading), so what's left is the Temple or Church or, in this case, the Mosque.

Baudelaire, who could well have been Huysmans's model for des Esseintes, smoked opium and drank himself to death, and proclaimed (like Rimbaud) the "derangement of the senses," saw fit to take the sacrament of extreme unction on his deathbed, hoping, perhaps, like Pascal, to hedge his bets. This, I think, is real decadence.

Submission's plot is fairly straightforward: In the near future (the 2020's) a close election and an alliance with the disillusioned French Socialist Party hands the presidency of France to a presentable representative of the Muslim Brotherhood (no talk of jihad; western business attire). The narrator, a disillusioned professor at the Sorbonne, a specialist in Huysmans, a decadent himself, looks on with cynical disinterest as France quietly accepts Islam as its new religion/ideology--an Islam cloaked in terms of traditional family values (women out of the workforce, back into the nursery), a new Mediterranean empire with Paris as its capital (Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, and the Arab Middle East are quickly admitted to the EU), and an abandonment of secular education (the Sorbonne becomes a center of Islamic scholarship; all professors must pronounce the Shahada). The narrator, a half-hearted atheist, is retired on a generous pension. The trouble is, his life has no meaning. He is alone--his lover has left for Israel, as have many other French Jews--he is friendless, alienated from politics and dismissive of his former life as an intellectual. He still has his prostitutes--there's a generous amount of raw sex sprinkled throughout the book, but it's entirely joyless. Fucking and eating and drinking--like de Esseintes, Houellebecq's narrator finds nothing much to attract him in any pleasure, and mulls over the meaninglessness of life in the style of an angst-ridden teenager, without much belief even in despair. Eventually, after an abortive journey to the scene of his hero's Benedictine monastery in Poitiers, the nameless narrator is offered a chance to return to the Sorbonne, to revive his study of Huysmans, to take up a well-paid academic existence. Is he interested? Not really. But the other attraction, the lure of submission, that is tempting, almost irresistible.  Why think or feel when you can surrender to Creator of the Universe?

Not an especially good book--Houellebecq is more of polemicist than a novelist, and Submission is full of the sort of long speeches on the absurdity of life that are the mainstay of French literature--the book does hold out the attraction of timeliness and painful relevance. It was published in France around the time of the Charlie Hebon massacre; I read it during the weekend surrounding the most recent ISIS atrocities in Paris. It's nonsense to accuse Houellebecq of being "anti-Muslim": he's against everything, religion, academics, women, men, and even the pleasures his characters so mindlessly pursue. He is a nihilist, and for the reviewers at the Times and other publications to wring their hands over his depictions of sodomy and his mockery of religion (Houellebecq has a "twisted outlook on the sacred" according to Adam Gollner of the New Yorker) misses the point. This isn't a book about Islam or even about religion--it's a work of cultural pessimism, a lament for the end of Western civilization, an ending that has been announced often in the past, but never before with as much conviction that this time we're not kidding.

I have two immediate reactions to the criticisms of Houellebecq as (frankly) an unpleasant writer and person: first, when did book reviewers become so complacent about the ideas expressed in novels? The main outlets for cultural opinion in this country appear to have tacitly agreed that no work of fiction that is "offensive" can be taken seriously, no matter how serious its intentions (see my review of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones from October 20th). Second is the fact that the media in which these reviews appear are replete with respectful essays on the trashiest products of Hollywood, the misogynistic music churned out by hip-hop "artists," and the sex-and-violence-laden pulp fiction that graces the New York Times bestseller list every week. Put simply, books and movies and music that make money are treated with respect, no matter how ghastly and immoral their content, while literary fiction, committed to awakening readers' senses to some of the difficult truths of life, are dismissed on moral grounds. (He insults Islam? He's contemptible; but if Houellebecq were a member of the Republican Party he could be running for president). Or perhaps the upside-down values of our age are a sign of our decadence. Kant's "dare to know" has become "don't you dare," as we close our eyes to what is difficult in favor of what affirms our fantasies.

Reading Submission, I kept seeing the benign countenance of Ben Carson in my mind's eye: Carson became Ben Abbes, Houellebecq's Muslim President of France, also a benign-seeming man, whose brand of low-volume politics was pitched exactly right for a France that had (fictionally) tired of the indignities of the contemporary world. Gentle Ben's platitudes, reducing their disguised ideological fervor in the mush of banalities that we seem to prefer. Here's Spengler:

"A Culture is born in the moment when a great soul awakens out of the proto-spirtuality of ever-childish humanity and detaches itself, a form from the formless, a bounded and mortal thing from the boundless and enduring. . . It dies when this soul has actualized the full sum of its possibilities in the shape of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts, states, sciences, and reverts to the proto-soul." (Part III, "Cultures as Organisms)

Spengler doesn't mention this, but it seems clear that the universalizing aspirations of the Enlightenment--a French inclination, born in the wars of Louis XIV and at the heart of the Revolution, systematized by Diderot in the Encyclopedia, and detested by Germans like Herder, Hegel, and Fichte--are what led to the "decline of the West." If Culture at its foundation is a set of spiritual aspirations that generate a particular cultural soul (Europe in its golden Roman and medieval periods), then decadence arrives with the rejection of this universalizing spirit in favor of an atomized individual. All of the great decadents are loners--the flâneur, the solitary poet wandering the countryside in search of lost gods, the despairing intellectual alone in his chateau with his books and tortoises (Huysmans), or the despairing Frenchman pumping himself dry into a woman he's paid for the privilege.  How do we reverse this decline and fall, how do we restore hope if not meaning to the declining West? Find another universal, another great spiritual truth. Ben Carson has the Lord and Houellebecq imagines France with Ben Abba's Allah. Decadence dissolved in the Absolute; Mind in mindlessness; politics in Authority; love in reproduction; thought in blessed ignorance.

All will be well. Only submit.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

My Seventh Room

Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai

                                      "You can come so far, darling, but no further. Here is my seventh 
                                        room. Here, I want to be alone."

If—as James Wood insists—the gift of literature is to teach us to notice, then read this book and see. Set in Budapest between the wars, Portraits of a Marriage is an astonishingly well-wrought tale about the sometimes byzantine complexity of a marriage and its painful—in this case revelatory—dissolution. Told in three parts, first from the husband’s perspective, then from his wife’s, and finally from his mistress’s, the novel probes the depths of this outwardly unremarkable love triangle with a tenacity and precision that makes one feel positively obtuse, as if one has never considered one’s closest relationships at all. 

Of course that is the purview and triumph of great fiction, its ability to condense and refine experience so as to show us more in a minute than we could grasp (let alone assimilate) in a year. Real as it is (for the authenticity of this vision will shake you), the three portraits that comprise this extraordinary novel are too probing, too accurate, too finely distilled to be real. In their meticulous depictions of the warp and weft of human passions, they feel too real to be real, so real, so familiar, in fact, as to seem strange, exotic, as if they were not the studies of people, after all, but of so many crayfish or squid. 

1930s Budapest was part of the decaying cultural heart of the once-great Hapsburg Empire. As Hungary asserted its independence, political turmoil ensued, followed closely by a precipitous drop in the country’s standard of living, so that the general climate of the decade became increasingly defensive, reactionary, and jingoistic. The smugly stable bourgeois life for which the city was known began to unravel at the seams.

There is a certain human process that is more to be feared, that is worse than anything… It’s the process whereby we become cut off from each other, when we become little more than machines. We live according to stern domestic codes, work to an even stricter code of duty, surrounded by a social order governed by a thoroughgoing strictness that produces orderly forms of amusements, preferences, and affections, so our entire lives become predictable, knowing what time to dress, to take breakfast, to go to work, to make love, to be entertained, to engage in social refinements. There is order everywhere, a mad order. And in the grip of that order life freezes about us, as around an expedition that is prepared for a long journey to lush shores, but finds both sea and land icebound, so that eventually there is no plan, no desire, just cold and immobility. And cold and immobility are the definitions of death.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the inter-war years, Portraits of a Marriage, is a beautiful, deeply gratifying examination of the parallel collapse of a quintessentially bourgeois marriage, of that spell and convention we call love.

Sándor Márai was born in Kassa, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, in 1900. He rose to fame as one of the leading literary novelists in Hungary in the 1930’s. Profoundly anti-Fascist, he survived World War II, but persecution from the Communists drove him from the country in 1948, first to Italy and then to the United States. The author of some 46 books, he was also the first person to review Kafka's work. Márai committed suicide in San Diego in 1989.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Practice of Hell

The Theory and Practice of Hell, Eugen Kogon 

Life and Fate, Vassily Grossman

The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, Antony Beevor

We ourselves, even if we must rise up from the grave,
will deal with those who break the oath I take -
baffle them with disasters, curse their marches,
send them hawks on the left at every crossing -
make their pains recoil upon their heads. 

(The Eumenides, 779-784, Trans. Robert Fagles)

In his brilliant novel Life and Fate, Vassily Grossman--a Jewish journalist who reported from inside Red Army units throughout the war*--explores the events that surrounded the fateful Battle of Stalingrad with an eye for historical detail that reminds one of Tolstoy while at the same time probing the psychology of cruelty. Every one of the hundred or so characters in his sprawling novel of history's greatest battle is a victim of fate; no one escapes the war, the Holocaust, the enforced starvation imposed by Stalin on the Ukraine, the torture chambers of Beria and the NKVD, or the execution squads of the Sonderkommandos. In the Great Leader's mad dystopia every janitor spies on her building's residents, loyal workers turn in their bosses for off-handed criticisms of the regime, and parents casually consider ratting out their own children when they stray from the Party line. For Grossman, the structure of bureaucracies, the requirement of unquestioning obedience, is what makes mass murder possible. The Party, as a fascist organization, has systematically stripped away the concept of a shared humanity, confiscated the "traitors'" government-issued identification cards, turned ordinary men and women into non-persons, and then--what else?-- killed them. As we know from Antony Beevor's study of the Battle of Stalingrad, even in the midst of the June invasion Stalin was busy ordering the deaths of as many members of the Red Army as  the invading Germans were massacring in the one-sided battles of that first summer. Retreat in the Red Army was punishable by death; capture was treasonous; questioning an order, no matter how insane, was the end of an officer's career and likely his life. Stalin ordered the murder over 36,000 officers in the purges of 1937-1938; what occurred in 1941was simply a continuation of the regime's modus operandi.  Beevor informs us that two million Soviet soldiers and an uncounted number of civilians died during the first three weeks of Barbarossa. (p. 28) Here is a number I cannot comprehend, so I scroll through as many photographs of soldiers and civilians as I can find on the internet (there are many). I force myself to look at pictures that will later keep me awake. But still--two million.

                                      "Churchill presenting Stalin with the 'Sword of Stalingrad', 1943"

Look around your peaceful house and yard (or the view from your apartment window). Then try to imagine this world, evoked so devastatingly by Jonathan Littell:

"If the awful massacres of the East prove one thing, paradoxically, it is the awful, inalterable solidarity of humanity. As brutalized and habituated as they may have become, none of our men could kill a Jewish woman without thinking about his wife, his sister or his mother, or kill a Jewish child without seeing his own children in front of him in the pit. Their reaction, their violence, their alcoholism, the nervous depressions, the suicides, my own own sadness, all that demonstrated that the other exists, exists as an other, as a human, and that no will, no ideology, no amount of stupidity or alcohol can break this bond, tenuous but not indestructible." (The Kindly Ones).

When Littell's novel was published to acclaim in France I was eager to read it. When it was translated by Charlotte Mandell in 2009 (the French edition came out in 2006) the American reviews were mostly negative. Famously panned by both David Gates (whom I respect) and Michiko Kakutani (whose literary taste I don't share) in the Times--"obscene," "disgusting," "hopeless," executed by a sadist," and so forth. I wondered if any of the book's severest critics had ever read a Greek tragedy where sadism, incest, and murder are always on the menu. Or if Ms. Kakutani, upset by the graphic depiction of Holocaust atrocities, had ever read Raul Hilberg or Saul Friedlander's meticulously researched histories of the war in the East. Or seen a Quentin Tarantino film.  The Kindly Ones is deeply upsetting, but Littell's literary intelligence should be apparent to any serious reader. Not only has he told in tedious and banal detail (one thinks of Hannah Arendt's ill-considered subtitle, her story of Eichmann, indeed a banal figure, a character who has a cameo in The Kindly Ones) the horrifying story of the massacres of Jewish, partisan, gypsy, and slavic populations across the Eastern front, and then, when you think you can't take any more, goes on to describe the living hell of Auschwitz, the bureaucratic world of the camps so chillingly rendered by Eugen Kogen in his autobiographical Theory and Practice of Hell.  In other words, Littell provides a graphic account of the Rassenkampf on the Eastern front. But that isn't the whole of it. The Kindly Ones is also a deeply moral story--and I'm surprised that most critics didn't see this--for Maximilien Aue, the monster at the heart of Littell's novel, is the mouthpiece for a story that probes the Hobbesian assumption of a "war of all against all." Few of the monsters of Aue's tale are sadists; most are the "ordinary men" of Christopher Browning's books. Though Aue narrates his tale of horror and genocide after the fact, and while he is by no means a credible witness to his own actions, the novel relates the evolution of human degradation in a way that is not so much credible (for we know it's that) but fated. Aue takes mincing steps toward embracing his corrupt soul, or perhaps, better, his authentic self. He is appalled, sickened, by the first murders he witnesses--he vomits continually, drinks to dull the pain, and engages in a ceaseless rationalizing dialogue that invokes duty, honor, philosophy, and history. But never politics. Aue hasn't a political bone in his body; he never speaks of Hitler except in reporting another officer's opinion of the Fuhrer. Gradually, over hundreds of pages and thousand of murders, Aue is able to rationalize his clerk's role in the unfolding genocide. But even this much wouldn't make The Kindly Ones a great novel--there's sadism enough in contemporary literature. At the heart of The Kindly Ones is something worse than depictions of mass murder, serial sodomy, incest, and matricide--this is a novel that succeeds in negating all of the assumptions of Western rationality and Christian morality. Littell sets out to show us that what took thousands of years to build was destroyed in the ravine of Babi Yar on three September days. Aue might have been a character in Mann's Magic Mountain: an educated German bourgeois who one day finds himself stepping over dead people, delivering the coup de grace.

What is the duty of a writer when faced with monumental historical events? Should fiction release us from the discomfort of history's terrible truths or immerse us in them, forcing us to come to terms with the past, to make sense of it as best we can, and if we can't, well, as Michael Korda put it in his review of Littell, "tough shit:" Should we have to squirm and flinch and feel nauseous ourselves? Has Littell gone "too far"?

"[Littell] isn’t trying to make you feel good about yourself, or feel morally superior to the Germans, or come away from the book with the feeling that anything has been gained or proved by the murder in cold blood of six million people. Most of the people who did it got away with it, like the hero of this novel, and didn’t lose a night’s sleep over it, and the people who were murdered are—dead. Deader than dead, actually, because all over the world there are people who refuse to believe that they were ever killed in the first place, not just among jihadists, or in the Arab mainstream press, or in the tattooed ranks of the Aryan Nation, or Catholic bishops, but also among otherwise respectable people and educators who still don’t get it that perfectly ordinary Germans committed mass murder, then, when the war was over, went home and got on with their lives, and even collected their pensions." (Korda, The Daily Beast)

Neither Littell nor Grossman lets the reader off the hook. After two novels totaling 1700 pages the lesson is that...there is no lesson. "We should learn about the mass murders of the Second World War--in Kiev, in Nanjing, or, for that matter, in Dresden and Hiroshima so that events like these don't happen again." Really? I'm afraid I've lost my faith in history's catechism.

Here's Aue:

"Why couldn't an SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer have an inner life, desires, passions, just like any other man? There have been hundreds of thousands of us whom you still judge as criminals: among them, as among all human beings, there were ordinary men, of course, but also extraordinary men....I started out within the bounds of my service and then, under the pressure of events, I overstepped these bounds....Those who kill are humans, just as those who are killed, that's what terrible...I tell you, I am just like you!" 

I applaud Littell for not resorting to Nietzschean nonsense--the Superman above others who must fulfill his romantic destiny by killing a bunch of women and children--and for taking the time to make Aue's monstrosity if not credible at least not trivial. Aue devolves from a man into a demon, but must we accept the moral of the story to be something stupid like "There but for fortune go you and I?" We know that many men refused to participate in the aktions. War is hell, but some wars are more hell than others. Beevor argues that a significant proportion of the Wehrmacht's officers posted to Stalingrad were not in sympathy with National Socialist ideology, and yet they knew about, and did not protest, the "reprisals" undertaken against Ukrainian and Soviet civilians, partisans, Slavs, and Jews. Grossman is especially good on this point. Life and Fate is full of men and women who capitulate out of a terrible fear of not doing so. Party members sell their souls to Stalin; Soviet commanders sent thousands of men to their deaths rather than question an order; Germans and Red Army soldiers alike ignored the suffering of civilians. Not life and fate, but life against fate. Here's a lesson: it isn't a fair fight.

Many years ago, when I first began to read serious books, I was hoping to discover a unique form of enjoyment, one that bound my reason to my feelings. As I got older I read serious books in order to "understand" something that I could never pin down. Now, in my late age, I read to be confounded, nothing less. Here are four books to do just that.

*A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, ed. Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, New York, Pantheon Books, 2005.

George Ovitt (10/20/15)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

That Within Us


Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems by Aleš Debeljak

                                              With all, that within them finds Room,
                                              even without
                                                                               Paul Celan

“According to German translator and poet Paul Celan, one of Debeljak’s major influences,” writes translator Andrew Zawacki in his introduction to this intriguing collection, “a poem is always en route, moving ceaselessly toward a possible reception by someone else.” I thought about this idea as I read each of Debeljak’s poems, impressed both by the poems themselves and by the simple fact that I was reading them at all, given that they were originally written in Slovenian by a man whose life experience, whose frame of reference, could hardly be more different than my own. Of course what his poems insist, what all poems (even the cryptic scribblings of his hero Celan) insist, is that we—all of us—have more in common than we know. This is no mere platitude, for we, as humans beings, are also profoundly, even irreconcilably different, depending on our culture, nationality, politics, race, faith, class, creed, education, and particular fate. In my travels around the world, and in my wide-ranging hunger for books, nothing has been made clearer to me than the fact that people, people with the same number of limbs, with the same number of fingers and toes that I have, men and women who fall in love, work hard, raise children, watch television, pray to their god(s), and die, are often radically different in their essential conception of the world—of truth, of beauty, of the nature of reality itself. What the best writers in every language tap are the links within those very real, not-be-neutered  distinctions that make us who we are. See how the content of this poem is both familiar and decidedly, enticingly strange:


You see everything: the breath flies, a teapot
whistling, a cartridge recklessly shot off at daybreak, a pattern
on the wallpaper, the gloom of a concert hall, dusty violins left
in haste on the floor, an inscription in the language of the two

prophets who came to the Slavs, things drowning in infinite
light, a scream tearing suddenly across the sky, gleaming metal,
a column of children and women carrying newborn babies, the scent
of basil in a garden, a trickle of plum juice oozing into the rutted

tracks left by retreating armies. Everything. You see graveyards.
And metastases of white-hot pyres. Here the world we know lets out
Its final gasp. The ancient order of violence is returning to the hearths.
The magic of words is dying out. And a girls’ choir stands in silence.
A trail points east, across a snowy pass. Nothing erases it.
Now you know the bell tolls for you and us.
One feels the weight of history here, a history at once general and localized, discrete. An no wonder: in Debeljak’s homeland the wounds of history are deep:

Debeljak’s earlier poems, composed when his homeland of Slovenia had just emerged form Josep Broz Tito’s reign as Marshal of Yugoslavia, are marked by solitude and acute metaphysical anxiety—not fear per se, but worry that knows no object. This anguish, a fracturing of identity as global as it was personal, seemed to eerily presage the Third Balkan war… The traumas of that conflict’s  ethnic cleansing and sniper-fire, international pussyfooting and eventual disintegration, erupted on the edges of Slovenia in 1991. After centuries of dominance by foreign powers (Hapsburg, Austro-Hungarian, Napoleonic, Axis) and subsequent autonomy within the Socialist Federal republic of Yugoslavia, Slovenia finally gained independence after a Ten Day War…

 Here, too, the weight and illumination of the past:


Banks, flags, ships, holidays, cock fights, epaulets,
copper engravings of English horses, dead guards
and elite divisions. All this slides by. Disappears
like talk during an afternoon slumber.—

Face it. Arrival and desolate scenes are the same thing.
Instead of a planted tree an d pages of a will only a name
remains, which someone enters in a dictionary. Nothing
more. Oh, perhaps someone for a moment remembers

the metamorphosis from pale to purple: like old times with
lords. Otherwise it is really nothing.—Rip the crumpled
carnation off the chest, lean over the geometric granite
cubes, exhale. Now. Like those in the Stammheim Prison.

Finally, a mediation:

        The Émigré Writer on the Dragon Bridge

An open suitcase, they used to say,
hides destinies unknown out here:
from hotel to the central station and farther,
through the many years of wind, the passengers
touch Orion above, looking for comfort
in rituals down here, in a sleep countryside,
a consolation  they no longer get
from photographs and books about
the lives their ancestors led. The everyday
favor could now be a prayer, a cup of herbal tea,
patience with endless explanations,
and a silent handshake when language will not obey,
like scattered coins, or a ceiling so low
it suffocates, big things putting fear
in little souls. From the the south,
an alluring heat brings whiffs of memory,
for everyone, of course, is guiltiest
when love’s at stake.
The one thing they still hunger for
rises without a sound from the waiting-rooms
and chairs too stiff for mercy,
and hangs, deceptively, like haze above
a fence which groans and splits beneath him
and allows him, for a second only, to rise—
why would he be an exception?—
before he vanishes in the river’s waves
which swell against the banks and over,
taking with them the suitcases, carrying off
the books, toward a delta,  a false reprieve,
a song that’s poorly sung.

                                           Ljubljana, summer 1994

Aleš Debeljak is a poet, literary essayist, cultural critic, and translator. Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems is published by Persea Books.

Peter Adam Nash