Saturday, May 16, 2015


The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees

How easy it is to destroy what has taken so long to build! The ruins of Syria--the impulse toward destruction is irresistible. History: the struggle of a few to build something they are condemned to see blown to bits by the fanatics while the indifferent look on. 

“The split in America, [and elsewhere] rather than simply economic, is between those who embrace reason, who function in the real world of cause and effect, and those who, numbed by isolation and despair, now seek meaning in a mythical world of intuition, a world that is no longer reality-based, a world of magic.”  [Chris Hedges, American Fascists]

"O soldiers of the Islamic State, be ready for the final campaign of the crusaders. Yes, by Allah’s will, it will be the final one. We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted. If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market." [Public statement of ISIS, 2014]

"Mythical world of intuition"--this is surely the world of, among others, ISIS and its enemy Bashar al-Assad, the optometrist turned Leader of Syria.  The Arab Spring came late to Syria. "Bashar al-Assad, helped by the nasty reputation of his security services, looked as thought he would survive...What changed everything was an incident which threw into sharp relief the untackled problems of his security state. At the beginning of March 2011, children aged nine to fifteen wrote graffiti on the wall of their school in the depressed southern town of Der'a calling for the fall of the regime..." It was this simple act--and the later arrest, detention, and probable torture of these school children that brought the Arab Spring, at long last, to Syria. Assad's mythical world met reality in that year, and the unraveling of Syria began in earnest. [John McHugo, Syria]

"Where once your eyes met the walls of buildings, a silent plain now extended to infinity. Was it a cemetery? But what beings had buried their dead there and then put chimneys on the graves? Nothing grew there but the chimneys emerging from the ground like monuments, like dolmens or admonitory fingers. DId the dead lying below them breathe the blue ether through those chimneys?" [W.G. Sebald, "Between History and Natural History," from Campo Santo

"To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is a part of environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited." [Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, file under 'the treason of the intellectuals']

“Out of the night of history old shadows are appearing which menace their bourgeois complacency. Growing groups of unknown men out of the streets are laughing the unbeliever’s hollow laugh at all those things the democrat has taught the people to hold dear. Worst of all, a figure appears that they had thought was gone for ever over the great scaffolds of the Reformation … The oligarchs and the democrats dread this classic figure more than anarchy – for it is the figure of the Leader …” [James Drennan, Oswald Mosley and British Fascism]

The Silence and the Roar by the great Aleppian novelist Nihad Sirees asks the question: what is the cost of defying a corrupt status quo? The answer, not surprisingly, has it origins in Kafka, in all the obvious places, but also in one of the parables:

"Everything came to his aid during the construction work. Foreign workers brought the marble blocks, trimmed and fitted to one another. The stones rose and placed themselves according to the gauging motions of his fingers. No building ever came into being as easily as did this temple--or rather, this temple came into being the way a temple should. Except that, to wreak a spite or to desecrate or destroy it completely, instruments obviously of a magnificent sharpness had been used to scratch on every stone--from what quarry had they come?--for an eternity outlasting the temple, the clumsy scribblings of senseless children's hands, or rather the entries of barbaric mountain dwellers." [Kafka, "The Building of the Temple"]

Fathi Sheen, the protagonist of Sirees' deceptively simple novel, falls unwittingly into the mechanisms of the temple, the Temple of the Leader--and from the moment of Sheen's fall,  The Silence and the Roar becomes a savage satire of all dictatorial regimes, but of Syria's in particular. The first half of the novel certainly invokes Kafka; the second half Orwell--in any case, as Sirees puts it in the afterword (written in 2012 as Aleppo was destroyed), "We must ask, alongside the characters in this novel: What kind of surrealism is this?" 

Or perhaps a better way to approach the civil war in Syria--the formation of ISIS, Assad's deliberate destruction of his own country as a means of denying a dizzying array of rebel groups a nation to aspire toward governing, the exploitation of Syria's misery by cynical forces throughout the Middle East--how did the surreal become the real?

The Silence and the Roar, by Nihad Sirees, translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss, is published by The Other Press (2013).

George Ovitt (5/16/15)

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Where the Stones Come From

Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments by Oz Shelach

One Afternoon

            A professor of History from Bayit Va-Gan took his family for a picnic in a quiet pinewood 
            near Giv’at Shaul, formerly known as Deir Yassin. It was not too cold to be in the shade and 
            not too warm to build a fire, so the professor passed on to his son the camping skills he had 
            acquired in the army. They arranged three square stones in a U, to block the wind, leaving 
            access on the fourth side. They stacked broken branches on top of the twigs on top of dry pine 
            needles. He let his son put a match to it. Listening carefully, they heard a faint low hum from the 
            curves of the winding highway, hidden from view by the trees. The professor did not talk of the 
            village, origin of the stones. He did not talk of the village school, now a psychiatric hospital, on 
            the other side of the hill. He imagined that he and his family were having a picnic, unrelated to 
            the village; enjoying its grounds outside history.

From 1947-1949 the newly minted Israelis, the majority of them just arrived as refugees from Hitler’s Europe, conspired, in their ironic and headlong embrace of nationalism, to forcibly remove more than 700, 000 Arabs from their homes and villages in what is now the State of Israel, terrorizing the people, burning their houses, and pillaging their goods—their livestock, their utensils, their tools. The photograph above depicts the remains of an Arab village after the Arabs themselves had been removed (see George Ovitt’s earlier post on the remarkable 1949 Israeli novel, Khirbet Khizeh, 9/2/13).

For all of the post-war wonder that was the birth of Israel, for all of its phoenix-like glory and potential as a force for good in the Middle East, it cannot be understood today (nor truly, justly, appreciated) without also recognizing the violent and systematic expulsion of Arabs from the land, a fact that is now and will always be an essential part of its national-cultural DNA. It is a practice (this ethnic cleansing avant le mot), begun as early as the 1930’s, that continues to this day in the cynical, nearly relentless government-sanctioned expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a movement now motivated less by the utopian (if still fundamentally racist) Zionism of the early European settlers than by the hidebound, often hateful, always fiercely anti-democratic fanaticism of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox, the aggressive, politically intractable Haredim, who exert (with the help of U.S. taxpayers and such bullying right-wing American lobbying groups as AIPAC) what is now a veritable stranglehold over public policy and discourse, both here in the U.S. and in Israel itself, what is still a predominantly secular, democratic, and cosmopolitan state.

Now here is where it gets tricky. Take all that you have ever read about Israel, about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, then spend a few weeks there and see what sifts out in the end. I can almost guarantee you (even those of you who—like me—are intensely critical of Israeli policy and practice toward the Palestinians) that you will leave the country charmed, not only by the general brilliance and sophistication of Israeli Jews, but by their humanity and compassion as a people, not to mention astounded by what they have done, in some sixty short years, to transform that arid, much disputed patch of land. You will leave deeply moved by them (for, such is the climate there that, unless you have connections, you are not likely to get to know any Arabs) and inspired by the land itself. Which is not to say that you will leave convinced of anything political at all. If anything your convictions will be muddled by your stay. What is clear is that, however deep and well-founded your criticism of the Israeli government itself, you will like the people there and suddenly find it hard, if not impossible, to generalize about them, to critique them as a lot. It is exactly what happened to me. It is why the Jews of Israel still fill me with hope.

Which brings me to the point of this post: In my many years of living and traveling, it has become clear to me that one of the truest ways of experiencing the lives of others, short of meeting them in person, in the homes and neighborhoods where they live, is by reading about them in their own books, by seeing them fleshed out before you—in novels and poems and plays—as living, breathing, struggling human beings. "Literature is by its very nature humanist," writes Jewish-Italian author Alberto Moravia in his cogent, deeply heartening collection of essays on humanism called Man As An End—making reading itself a powerful act of faith.  

So if you really want some clarity about what is happening in Israel today, if you wish, as author Damon Galgut puts it, to "see through events to the people behind them," then forget the newspapers and cable news programs for awhile and read a novel or a volume of poetry instead. As I have insisted before, what the regional novelists, playwrights, and poets have to tell us about the conflict there is exactly what we need most: the reminder that the wages of every political stunt and machination, every embedded news report, every grandstanding politician, political lobbyist, and religious extremist, are tallied in human lives—lives like yours, lives like mine. A good place to start might be this short, easily accessible novel, Picnic Grounds. 

When interviewed about this 2003 novel, author Oz Shelach, in an effort to describe the often deeply conflicted attitude of Israeli Jews toward their own history, told the following story, plainly echoed in the first short chapter of his novel with which I opened this post:

I think denial is built into the national culture… Let me illustrate with an example: My cousin’s husband published a guidebook in Hebrew called Fun Family Tours, which is basically an outdoors tour guide with additional games to play with the kids in the car. He took many of the pictures himself, and they’re striking—there’s so much rubble, so many structures that used to be people’s homes, and traces of their agriculture. Of course these are all indigenous Palestinian traces, but they’re described variously as “an abandoned orchard,” “a deserted village,” or as “ancient structures.” The people who used to live there are sometimes two miles away in a refugee camp, but they’re invisible. 

Inspired by Thomas Bernhard’s laconic miniatures, The Voice Imitator, Shelach’s “novel in fragments” reads like a collection of modern parables about the tormented land he loves, stories as remarkable for the things left unsaid as for those so beautifully said. Described as “the most relentlessly restrained cartographer of the current Israeli scene,” Shelach is also an archeologist, preoccupied with the ever-more-pressing facts and implications of the past, so that if history is in part the record of our complicity as human beings, we have writers like Shelach to show us the stones. 

Oz Shelach was born in West Jerusalem in 1968 and has been a journalist and editor for Israeli radio and magazines.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Blissless Ignorance

Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld

Books about endings, written in what Edward Said called "late style"--endings not of romances or of nations, but of epochs, of entire cultures: Joseph Roth, The Radetzkey March; Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh; Pat Barker, Regeneration (and the others of this trilogy); Lampedusa's The Leopard; John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga; Howard's End by E.M. Forester; Andrei Bely's Petersburg; and, the greatest of them all, Mann's Magic Mountain. Central to each of these novels (and there are many others) is a sense of cultural exhaustion, a mood of nostalgia and reminiscence, and a style that is deeply ironic. Each of these novels was written with retrospective knowledge of the disasters that they recount--the end of the Hapsburgs, the Great War, the Revolution of 1905, the long decline of the Ancient Regime. The novel in late style is a European and, with a writer like Oe and Kawabata, a Japanese phenomenon: I can't think of a single example of an American novel that fits the model unless one counts James as an American writer rather than as an English novelist who happened to have been born in Boston. (There's also Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools, but I hesitate to include this unwieldy and, ultimately, failed seaborne Magic Mountain with such august company.)  I have heard it said that Hawthorne is a novelist of cultural (Puritan) endings, but the genre that I am thinking of excludes allegory by definition--its focus is on human beings in their historical condition. Hemingway and Fitzgerald? No: fecklessness doesn't count--The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby have the moral depth of On the Road.

Anyway, among the very finest novels of endings, written in a perfect version of late style, is Aharon Appelfeld's remarkable Badenheim 1939.  On the cusp of the disaster that is about to overtake Europe's Jews, a group of dilettantes gathers in the German resort town of Badenheim for the annual arts festival organized by the impresario Dr. Pappenheim. There's not a word of politics spoken: all talk is of culture, pastries, romance, and, of course, past festivals (always the past). At the same time, and with the ominousness of a Biblical portent, a team of "Sanitary Inspectors" gathers in the town--nameless and indistinct representatives of the State--and, little by little, they enclose Badenheim in a cocoon of bureaucratic repression--they build a ghetto. With brilliant strokes whose power is cumulative rather than apparent, Appelfeld intimates the doom that is descending over the resort and its oblivious inhabitants. From a mere "sanitary inspection," to the closing of buildings, to the isolation of the town, Badenheim, like Warsaw or Lodz, is shut off from the outside world:

"Since one day ran into the next and the sentries [just now mentioned--they've materialized out of thin air] at the gate informed [the salesman] that there was no intention at present of opening it to free traffic, he came to the conclusion that there was no point in living like a thief in the back quarters of the hotel, and he took himself a proper room, as befitting the representative of a well-known firm. The other guests were as delighted with him as if he were a messenger bringing glad tidings from afar...[the waiter] never stopped talking about his two sons who had been imprisoned in a barracks by a General. 'They must be exercising now,' he would say. 'They must be running.'"

Pride in appearances; wishful thinking; a focus on empty gestures; deadened curiosity; days that lack the texture of change and that fold into one another so that time disappears (Mann evokes this sense of timelessness better than any other novelist); ominous persons, unnamed and unknown, come and go, causing ripples of unease; the volition of the characters is sapped by the weight of boredom. There is only indifference--no happiness, no bliss, only numb acceptance. Appelfeld's gradual evocation of a sense of dread is brilliant, unsparing. No one can choose or judge or even feel:

"...their amazement was cut short. An engine, an engine coupled to fifty freight cars, emerged from the hills and stopped at the station. Its appearance was as sudden as if it had risen from a pit in the ground. 'Get in!' yelled invisible voices. and the people were sucked in. Even those who were standing with a bottle of lemonade in their hands, a bar of chocolate, the headwaiter with his dog--they were all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel."

The train, naturally, is headed for Poland--for the Generalgouvernment, where most the killing would be done. The summer residents of Badenheim, the pleasure-seekers and connoisseurs, have been eagerly anticipating the journey to Warsaw--they've been told, not commanded, that Jews must register with the Sanitary Commission (they register eagerly, thanking the registrar for the good order of the process), and that they will be allowed to travel to Warsaw. The Polish musician Samitzky insists that "In Poland everything was beautiful, everything was interesting."

One of the most powerful stylistic and thematic devices found in novels like Badenheim 1939 is the evocation of yearning, the desire for something that cannot be named or described. This yearning is, of course, the psychological recognition that meaning has been emptied from the world--a fact that is the source of all literary irony. "The people were being driven out of their minds by their desires." But for what? There's art and love and Bienenstich and disjointed conversation, but something is missing. If it isn't to be found in Badenheim, then perhaps one will find it in Warsaw. Besides, "In Poland there are lots of Jews. The Jews help one another you know."

Which brings me to Hannah Arendt. You will perhaps recall her 1963 report on the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, a book whose title and contents inflamed a remarkable debate, a debate intense enough to incite a library of rebuttals--see especially The Ambiguity of Virtue by Bernard Wasserstein. Is Appelfeld "blaming the victim," as Arendt was accused of doing?

Is the obtuse acceptance of the creeping repressions of the "Sanitary Commission" more than satire--is Appelfeld's melancholy novel lamenting, or mocking, the naive refusal of European Jews, especially German and Austrian Jews, to see what was coming? Certainly not. Who could know, even in 1939, the extent of the murderous intentions of the Nazis and their allies? Who could believe that the filthy train carrying Dr. Pappenheim to the East was carrying him not to another arts festival, but to his doom? When I read Amos Elon's The Pity of It All: The History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 I finally understood how deeply Jews were assimilated into German life, and therefore how natural it would have been for the denizens of Badenheim in 1939 to ignore the signs.

In light of recent events--you may fill in the blanks--I have had Yeats' great poem of cultural exhaustion very much in mind. You know the opening stanza well: 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 
It is ever so. The best do still lack all conviction, and the worst, alas, periodically redouble their passionate, and malicious, intensity. The irony of irony is that there is nothing more important to our survival than imaging a world we cannot imagine. Appelfeld's genius was to see clearly what most of us never see at all. He warned us. We should pay attention.

George Ovitt (5/2/15)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Animal Rites

Confessions of a Carnivore, Diane Lefer

The Bleeding Stone, Ibrahim al-Koni

"I learned long ago that conservation has no victories, that one must retain connections and remain involved with animals and places that have captured the heart, to prevent their destruction." George Schaller

Our relationship with animals is that of rational master to brute creature. Here's Montesquieu:

"Brutes are deprived of the high advantages which we have; but they have some which we have not. They have not our hopes, but they are without our fears; they are subject like us to death, but without knowing it; even most of them are more attentive than we to self-preservation, and do not make so bad a use of their passions." 

This sort of language is uncomfortably like the language used by slave-owners to describe their relationship to their species of property

"[Slaves] enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care nor labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The Negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, not more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon."

Perfect abandon

It has struck me more than once in reading Orientalist texts, white accounts of slaves' lives in the Old South, the literature of animal rights (Peter Singer, e.g.), and much post-modern literary criticism that the key subliminal message of Anglo-Saxon, male, white, patriarchal, mammal writers is--a wistful longing for release from Reason. The burdens of rationality loom large in racist tracts purporting to describe the idle promiscuity of great apes and lesser men...if only we were allowed to throw over the responsibilities imposed by our Christian moral conscience. If only we could enjoy a freely libidinal existence--copulate at will, idle about in perfect abandon, muck about in fecal matter. Freud thought--more or less--that we might enjoy such an existence, though we would rue its un-Victorian idleness and pleasures and therefore wallow in the guilt that we wallow in anyway so--why not? If you've read the extensive social Darwinian racist literature of the late 19th century you know what I mean: all that finger wagging at the irrepressible copulations of the "dusky races;" a less wistful version of Passage to India dressed up as biological truth. Beware their rapacious sexuality, their child-like delight in life! Our immortal soul is defended only by our reason, which comes from God (see e.g. Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments). Is it too reductive to write that the history of the West has been waged not between nations or religious persuasions but over the extent to which we are permitted to enjoy being the irrational animals that we in fact are?

Descartes thought animals were soulless--they were, in his view, automatons. Kant may have ascribed to animals a form of conscious perception--the philosophical jury is still out. In his seminal "What Is It Like to be a Bat," Thomas Nagel admits that he has no idea what it is like to echo-locate, but makes a persuasive argument to the effect that it is like something.* There is a bat way-of-being. I couldn't agree more. It's their being mute (in our view) that damns them: but then, it wouldn't be sufficient if bats merely spoke; they would have to speak English. And have the ability to divide the world up into neat piles for further sorting. What happens, after all, when you are said to have "knowledge of a field"? You've mastered a vocabulary. Mute is brute.

Animals: we share the planet with them, we slaughter them by the billions for our gustatory pleasure**, we domesticate them, become attached to them, even, in some cases, love and worship them. But do we take the trouble to think about them? What is like to be one, to be one of my dogs or one of the primates Diane Lefer's character Rae works with at the Los Angeles Zoo?

No truth appears to me more evident, than that beasts are endow'd with thought and reason as well as men," wrote David Hume, hardly a soft-headed romantic. And John Searle offered that he assumed the existence of consciousness in animals just as he did so in his fellow persons. But these are the views of eccentrics, outliers in a world dominated by homo sapiens. It seems almost perverse to ask, as Diane Lefer does in many different ways: what's the difference between us and them? Between any us and any them?

Jennie, another of Diane Lefer's characters in her picaresque Confessions of a Carnivore--Lefer, I'm pleased to report, is a true original, a wit in the Boswell/Johnson sense--"won't eat anything with a face." A fine rule, especially if you've visited one of the horrifying farms on which chickens or pigs are bred for cellophane and weird taxonomies of the supermarket's meat section. Rae, the carnivore of Lefer's title, does eat meat, ambivalently. I wonder if it's fair to think of Rae as "picar," as "roguish"? In any case, rather like Tom Jones, she is funny and irreverent, and she appears to have an underdeveloped super-ego, or perhaps her animal love has lowered her threshold for human forms of social shame.

Rae speaks a version of the vernacular that I ascribe to Sterne or Fielding:

"The smile was what you had to see. It was not a dazzling smile. It was not a placating smile. It was not a forced, rehearsed, smile-on-command calculated to guarantee the efficacy of some brand of toothpaste or religion. It was effortless. It matched the mildness in her eyes. She could no more keep her mouth from turning up at the corners than a turtle can. It was a pleasant smile. And this in spite of bad bridgework and a couple of gaps."

Lefer specializes in wise-guys, in women (mostly) who can finish your sentences, look into your soul, dismantle your pretensions. Rae doesn't prefer animals to humans--she levels out the difference, she takes everyone from the mad cat-fancier Weezie to her squeeze David to the gibbons Luke and Lulu with deadly seriousness and dollops of irony. And the plot? I don't do plots, and even if I did, I couldn't begin to summarize this one. I haven't read a novel in ages with so much packed into every sentence--Confessions is romp, satire, stand-up schtick, Restoration comedy. All about: gorilla/guerrilla theater, sex and love, driving in LA, standing up for those who have no one else to bother, Buddhism, the Church of Neoproctology (colonics and LA seem to go, well, hand in glove), vivisection, life on the Rez, murder in Tijuana...Diane Lefer has stories to tell, and she's clearly lived on the edges of things and thoughts that most people only read about.

And there's deep ecology, the possibility of thinking about Luke and Lulu in the same way one thinks about a boyfriend or a best friend. Not anthropomorphizing but the kind of simple caring that's not simple at all. Being as curious about a cat's inner life as your own, turning Montaigne upside down: we are the ones who are living without advantage. Prosthetic gods. Pathetic in our belief that we are masters of the universe. Perfectly abandoned.

The same week I read Confessions of a Carnivore I read, in one long sitting, the mysterious novel by Ibrahim Al-Koni (titled in Arabic) Nazif al-Uhajar, The Bleeding of the Stone, published in Beirut in 1992 and apparently out of print in Arabic but now translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley in the indispensable Emerging Voices series of Interlink Books. I can't imagine a book more removed from the contemporary concerns of Lefer's novel, or a book with less of a sense of humor. Al-Koni (or Kuni) has created a spare, harrowing story of a goat-herder's lonely desire to preserve the waddan, a rare mountain goat that inhabits the mountainous regions of the southern provinces of Libya. (The book jacket confuses the waddan with the moufflon, a wild sheep found in Iraq; I parade this recently acquired fact as if I were George Schaller). Asouf has a feral personality--raised in isolation in the desert, he can't bring himself to interact with human beings even to the extent of trading, face-to-face, a goat for a bag of barley. When Asouf is confronted by a pair of sadistic hunters who want to kill a waddan, he does his best to mislead them. The animal, after all, is not only endangered but a living symbol of the desert he inhabits, a talisman representing a dying way of life. The story has a strange timelessness: Al-Koni moves the narrative from past to present in ways that conflate the two; at times one feels pulled back into a mythic world (the parts I liked best), but for much of the novel one is living in the brutal present, men with guns and a taste for meat and murder mindlessly eradicating life because they can do so. As I was reading the novel I thought about the armed militias (if they are that) now roaming the southern portions of Libya and Tunisia. It isn't only mountain goats who are at risk in the violent reaches of Fezzan, but innocent people like Asouf. The ending of the novel confirmed, in its ritualized but senseless slaughter, my feeling that what Al-Koni was aiming for was the depiction of a mythic bond between (some) men and animals, and the fragility of that bond in a world gone mad.

The Bleeding of the Stone introduced me to a writer, a place, and a theme that I had never before encountered. An unsettling book, it complemented Lefer's wry consideration of some of the same questions: what happens when the innocent are confronted by the cruel and indifferent, when the weak face off against the men with guns and clipboards? Who wins and who loses?  I think you can guess the answer.

George Ovitt (4/22/15)

*Here's the Nagel.

**See the title essay in David Foster Wallace's collection Consider the Lobster for an impassioned defense of a creature whose pain would seem beyond the imagination of most people.

Check out Diane Lefer's web page here:

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Lebenslüge or Life-Lies

 Forgetfulness by Ward Just

Aquitaine, often billed as ‘the other south of France,’ is a culturally, geographically diverse region in southwestern France stretching from the world-famous vineyards of Bordeaux in the north to the precipitous Pyrenees of the Basque country in the south. It is there, in the south, in the mountainous village of St. Michel du Valcabrère, that this poetic, quietly unsettling novel is set. Thomas Railles, an American artist and former odd-jobber for the CIA, is living happily there in a self-imposed exile with his beloved French wife, Florette, painting, enjoying good food and wine, wandering the countryside, and listening to his favorite jazz records. One day, while he is busy chatting with some American guests in their home after a long and leisurely lunch, his wife sets out for a walk in the nearby mountains, as she is accustomed to do, and never returns. Night falls, the air grows cold, yet she is nowhere to be found. Set in the wake of 9/11 and the Bush administration’s blundering ‘War on Terror,’ Forgetfulness is an often poignant mediation on the personal, starkly human cost of the violent, evermore fateful intersection of nationalism, religious fanaticism, and unfettered global capitalism.  

When his wife’s body is discovered on the mountain, Railles learns that she had broken her ankle while hiking and then been murdered by unknown assailants, probably North African smugglers who regularly plied the region’s rugged mountain trails. The story that ensues is that of Railles’ struggle, in a country not his own, to come to terms with his grief and loneliness and to reorient himself in an age increasingly rife with both State and terrorist violence. Finally, Forgetfulness is the story of his own conflicted relationship with the U.S., with what it means to be an American today. Appalled, bewildered, by the events of 9/11 and eager that justice be served, Railles somehow “lacked anger of the sort that swept all before it and became a cause in itself, a way of life, the anger of the American…” Even when later he finds himself face to face with his wife’s killers, four recently captured Moroccan terrorists, he finds he cannot indulge even the urge to avenge his wife’s death, an impulse that—some would say—is both his duty and due. Instead he simply wants to meet the men, to talk to them, to understand what happened to his wife on the mountain that day, and in this way to puzzle back together at least a little of the world he knew.

On September 11th my brother-in-law, Greg Rodriquez, was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center where he was working that morning in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald on the 103rd Floor at One World Trade Center. What makes his story remarkable, what makes it especially remarkable, as well as relevant to this post, was the all-but-immediate reaction of his parents. Within days of Greg’s death, before they had even begun to reckon with their loss, their grief, they wrote an open letter to The New York Times called “Not in Our Son’s Name” in which they spoke out against the use of their son’s death as a pretext for the war then already underway. Even in the midst of their suffering, they understood the trap and futility of vengeance. So, too, Just’s character, Thomas Railles, refuses to seek vengeance as the solution to his own anguish and loss, consoling himself instead with the illusion of forgetfulness, a simple lie that allows him to rise each morning and paint, that allows him to live.

Here, for those interested, is a link to my in-law’s short open letter to The New York Times as read aloud by Benjamin Bratt, as well as a link to a trailer for the documentary made about their brave, affecting, and truly inspirational response to their son’s death, In Our Son’s Name.

Ward Just, born in Michigan in 1953, is best known for his novels, A Family Trust, An Unfinished Season, Exiles in the Garden, and The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert.
Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Moveable Feast

The Wheeling Year, Ted Kooser

Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner

I may have mentioned this 365 days ago, but as a kid, the idea of a rabbit large enough to carry candy baskets to all the well-behaved kids in the neighborhood--a large stretch of Asbury Park, blue-collar Irish and Italian, boys enough for two full baseball teams--creeped me out. Unlike Santa with his benign and perhaps bourbon besotted red cheeks--a person I equated with my German grandfather, minus the red suit--the EB looked eerily like my Aunt Helen, pasty, with an egregious overbite. Helen smelled like roses and gave all of her nephews and nieces quarters instead of candy, which was fine by me. We'd have to dress up and go to church, then there was a big Easter egg hunt at the golf course--real eggs in those days, dyed by the Moms the night before. Even in dour New Jersey it seemed never to rain on Easter, and the day stretched on into deep darkness with the evening meal, processions of relatives, an Easter Promenade on the Boardwalk, and the stomach ache that comes from eating too much candy. Chocolate rabbits, hard boiled eggs, lamb stew, new shoes, and the priest showering us with holy water: what a mess of symbols, all adding up to the idea of life renewed: popping trees (oaks and red maples in front of our apartment), irises redolent of lemon licorice, school's penultimate month, Giants games on the radio, stickball in the street, and, even for a ten-year-old, undefinable yearning.  A moveable feast: medieval European math was pretty much invented for the purpose of locating the correct day for the Paschal feast. I liked it late: in those days there would be snow on the ground all through March, and you wanted it warm for Easter, so the later the better.

Sure enough, the Old English word Ēosturmōnaþ (Latin Eostur-monath) is right here in Venerable Bede--the Paschal month named for a pagan goddess of rebirth--though the more orthodox insist that the feast has only to do with the business of the empty tomb and nothing to do with pagans and Jews.

 Eostur-monath, qui nunc Paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit: a cujus nomine nunc Paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquæ observationis vocabulo gaudia novæ solemnitatis vocantes...

Eos is of course proto-Indo-European for "dawn." Most of the images I can find in my books and on-line picture Ostara as a flying or hovering female cloaked in white and wielding a flowering branch. Trees surround her, and there are some images with serpents, another symbol of fertility. There's a late 19th century image featuring a flying rabbit surrounded by angels--oh I love these conflations of paganism with Christianity! The bunny appears to come into the story later on, in Middle High German, perhaps as a companion of Ostara--but I'm thinking more of hares in terms of fecundity and carnality: in medieval manuscripts, the presence of a rabbit--a coney--nearly always indicates sexual activity, or at least carnal desire--D.W. Robertson analyzes this imagery in his Preface to Chaucer. The egg, it appears, is a symbol of the tomb--Jesus as the yolk, wrapped in white--I can't remember where I read this so I might be making it up. Purity and sex--how the Christians worked to purge their mythology--all borrowed from pagan sources--of any trace of carnality. Birds and bees and rabbits did it, but not them. "Better to marry than to burn" as Paul put it, "but best is to be even as I am," a virgin. But then there's spring: how to explain away the life that pulses through everything, even Christians? Allegorize it. Not life, but eternal life, not birth but rebirth.

Here's an image, province unknown, that covers several of the iconic themes:

For years, when I lived in civilization, I would attend a performance of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion during Holy Week. Is there any better choral music? And could there be a finer book on J.S. Bach than Gardiner's magisterial Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven?  Listen to this (from page 428):

"As always, the music is the place to find Bach himself...Much as his whole endeavor is to give a voice to others--the protagonists, the crowd, the Gospel writer--his own is always present in the story. We hear it in his fervour, in his empathy with  the suffering to the innocent Christ, in his sense of propriety, in his choices and juxtapositions of narrative and commentary, and most of all in the abrupt way he stems the tide of vengeful hysteria, cutting into Matthew's narration and interrupting it with a chorale expressive of profound contrition and outrage."

Bach's faithful heart at work, as Bruno Walter put it. Here's the opening....

and the entire Passion:

Gardiner's book is full of brilliant insights: "What most distinguishes [Bach's] Passions from operas of the time is the way he does away with the convention of a fixed point of reference for the audience, rejecting the idea of a listener who surveys the development of the dramatic narrative more like a consumer--entertained, perhaps moved, ingesting spoon-fed images, but never a part of the action."

Sitting in church this morning, I nipped a moment here and there during the homily (what has happened to the once-great art of sermonizing?) to partake of Ted Kooser's delightful The Wheeling Year. Like other fine journal-keepers, and (I thought), like Marcus Aurelius, with Kooser I only needed a single paragraph and could then chew on it, like a stalk of longstem prairie grass. Here's the one I masticated this morning, from "April":

"Month of my birth. What record do we poets leave? Not on stone tablets, but in books like leaves that have matted together under the snows of indifference. That we were fretful, mostly, but that now and then we looked up and glimpsed something wonderful passing away." 

Perfect.  Kooser is all over the map in this book--tidy observations of the natural world, thoughts on aging, lines that will become part of his poetry. He occupies a small corner of an immense middle America, yet his reach exceeds that of almost any any other poet working today.

"Imagine this bluestem as salt grass, and these crows as a species of gull, and you will know what it's like to live on the coast of the sky, waves of light slapping the barns, splashing the windows with a blue that has come all the way from the other side." 

And then back to the Passion, playing as I type these words:

"Gerne will ich mich bequeman/Kreuz und Becher anzunehmen."*

Happy Spring.

*Act I, scene iv, "Gladly will I fear disdaining/drink the cup without complaining."

George Ovitt (4/5/15)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Lack Somewhere

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

In his 1899 short story “The Wife of His Youth,” Charles Chesnutt tells the tale of the pretentious and conservative Mr. Ryder, a Southerner and man of mixed ancestry who runs a club known colloquially as ‘The Blue Vein Society,’ a relatively exclusive association patronized by up-and-coming members of the fictional town of Groveland who are ‘more white than black,’ that is, ‘white enough to show blue veins.’ “I have no race prejudice,” he is proud to declare, “but we people of mixed blood are the ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black.” They are words that might very well have been spoken by the fearless, brilliant, if now sadly little-read author, Nella Larsen. Indeed there is perhaps no American writer who was more haunted by and preoccupied with the punishing existential stigma of mixed-race ancestry than Larsen. Born to a white Danish mother and a black Danish West-Indian father who, as a couple, chose to cross the color line, Nella, “a visibly brown child,” writes Thadious M. Davis in his introduction to Larsen’s novel, Passing, “was raised as the lone ‘colored’ person in a family that had refashioned itself, consciously changed its name, erased its racial past, and, with the disappearance of that past, obscured familial ties to the dark child in its midst.” For this Larsen suffered all her life, inspiring in her (just as in her protagonist, Helga Crane) a desperate, often angry iconoclasm that kept her shuttling restlessly between one people and another, always searching, never satisfied, rarely if ever happy in her skin:

Helga Crane couldn’t, she told herself and others, live in America. In spite of its glamour, existence in America, even in Harlem, was for Negroes too cramped, too uncertain, too cruel; something not to be endured for a lifetime if one could escape; something demanding a courage greater than was in her. No. She couldn’t stay. Nor, she saw now, could she remain away. Leaving, she would have to come back.

Such, in broad strokes, is the story of Helga Crane in this grim, uncompromising, if highly readable and deeply worthwhile first novel. The title alone, Quicksand, is nearly sufficient to describe the painful daily crisis of so many African Americans in the 1920’s who suffered the triple curse of miscegenation (whether forced or consensual)—alienation from both the greater black and white communities, as well as from themselves. The ubiquitous and insidious racism that Larsen describes in the story of Helga Crane, in her life in the South, in Harlem, and in Copenhagen, to where, briefly, she flees, must eventually penetrate even the toughest of skins, as it does in time with hers, manifesting itself first as chronic dissatisfaction, self-censorship, insecurity, denial, and self-reproach, coupled at points with a bitter arrogance, then finally—if not inevitably—as bitterness itself, as apathy, submission, and self-loathing. Tragically, and for all of the evidence to the contrary, Helga’s problem seems to her, by the end of the novel, to stem less from the cruel and inhuman strictures of America at large as from a personal failing or flaw in her nature, from a lack within. To say, as a host of critics once did, that such an ending is overly pessimistic, is almost obscenely ridiculous—as if the pain Larsen describes was contrived for narrative effect alone, as if the novel itself has no greater function than to please us as readers. Larsen didn’t write to be clever, to exercise her imagination, to be creative; she wrote to tell the truth and, by telling the truth, to dignify her own life in all its pain and complexity. One has only to think of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, of the virulent, widespread, and blatantly systematic racism that still thrives in the U.S. today, to appreciate just how astute and courageous she was. 

Quicksand, while available in a number of different editions, has recently been republished as part of a beautiful collection of short novels called Harlem Renaissance: Five Novels of the 1920’s. Edited by Rafia Zafar, the collection includes work by such African American greats Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Wallace Thurman. There is also a companion volume called Harlem Renaissance: Five Novels of the 1930’s. Do yourself a favor and buy them both. They are beautiful books.

Nella Larsen, one of the most acclaimed and influential writers of the Harlem renaissance, was born Nellie Walker on April 13, 1891, in Chicago. She began publishing stories in the mid-1920’a and published her first novel, Quicksand, in 1928. Passing came out the following year.

Peter Adam Nash

Friday, March 13, 2015

What's Wrong With Me? Part I

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

Gyula Krudy, Sunflower


A list of things that I admire includes literary novels, the beautiful and damned city of Beirut (any beautiful and damned city), bucolic Transylvania, the art of literary translation, novels that are wholly lacking in the conventions of ordinary fiction--lacking plots, dialogue, and obvious authorial grasping after popularity or sales. I am drawn to books of all kinds written by East Europeans, especially Romanians and Hungarians, to claustrophobic fiction that keeps its story in a room in a small village or in a dank Stalinesque apartment in an unimaginable city like Bucharest. Frankly I've grown weary of New York City as the center of the literary universe and eagerly await the first novel to be set entirely in Szigetszentmiklós. I enjoy books about solitary characters and dislike fiction that is focused on suburban life, "self-realization," and love affairs that don't end badly. So: Bernhard, Beckett, Skvorecky, Manea, that sort of thing. If you've been paying attention these past two-and-one-half years none of this will come as a surprise. But what I don't get is why I sometimes turn my back on novels that seem to fit all of my idiosyncratic (idiotic?) criteria--books like the two under review here.

Gyula Krúdy was born in Nyiregyhaza, in Hungry. I've left out the many diacritical marks. How could you not love a novel by "the Hungarian Proust," a man whose collected works fill fifty volumes in the world's most inscrutable language, a writer beloved of Sandor Marai, whose gem of a novel Embers (A gyertyák csonkig égnek in Hungarian, if you can believe it) is one of my all time favorite books--how? Yet Sunflower, recently Englished by John Bakti and published by the saintly people at New York Review Books, nearly did me in. I couldn't finish it. Perhaps it was that I kept imagining I was reading Dracula, a novel I loathed in high school--the popular culture of blood-sucking fiction has always left me cold. Krudy's landscape is bleak; his central character (with a whiff of succubus) Eveline resides in a "country estate" in a place that must be Transylvania--emptiness to spare and an eccentric neighbor named Almos-Dreamer who periodically dies and comes back to life. (I kept wondering: Is he a bat?)  "Life is a mere flick of the hand. It isn't important. And not very interesting either." I like this sentiment, but it's what everyone believes in Eveline's corner of the world, a place where creepy attachments reeking of suppressed sexuality are the order of the day and where counts and princes play the violin and shoot themselves. But none of this is sufficient reason not to love this masterpiece (John Lukacs, who is often right, calls it that). So what's my problem? Is it that spring has come and a book like this one requires a pitch-black and wintery night? Don't I care about the characters? Not that. I never care about the characters; I've too many real-life people to care about. Isn't the novel psychologically interesting, rich in Freudian innuendo, replete with hints of dark passion? Yes, it most certainly is possessed of these qualities, if they are qualities. Is it that Krudy published the novel in 1918, a year whose deeper resonances keep me from understanding the frivolity that lies at the heart of the story? What's my problem with this novel--it's obscure, Hungarian, and cheerless. Everything one wants in a good read.

Having given the matter some thought I've concluded that my problem is with Krudy's style, his florid prose (at least in Batki's translation), the hothouse atmosphere; it's as if the novel transpired in a room full of orchids. By page 100 I was gasping for air: "Eveline strapped the red garter around her knees, and dug up a warm crimson house coat. She bustled about like a colorful pollen-laden moth, above the midnight flower-bed." A "bustling" moth?

                                      (A splendid example of Hyalophora cecropia, not bustling)

It came to me that Krudy's style, at least in English, bears a distinct kinship to early 19th century English fiction of the Wuthering Heights variety. Overwrought. Sentimental and chilling, poetic but in the mode of the worst Romantics--George Crabbe's "The Village" or some of the insufferable stanzas of Byron's "Don Juan": "She lay, her dark eyes flashing through their [sic] tears,/Like skies that rain and lighten: as a veil/Waved and o'ershading her wan cheek/appears/her streaming hair." 

One thing I've never cared for is fiction or poetry that pitches emotions so high that their credibility is unsustainable. Of course depicting deep feeling is at the heart of all great writing, but the romantic flaw, and perhaps Krudy's in this book, is to push the limits of feeling too hard, to go too far in a direction that leads to bathos rather than art. I will try Sunflower again next winter. And I've ordered Krudy's other novels in English as well. And Marai's Sinbad Comes Home, a novel about the last day in the life of Gyula Krudy, Marai's, and most other Hungarians, literary idol.  What's wrong with me?

[to be continued]

George Ovitt (3/13/15)