Sunday, February 18, 2018

Poetry and Prose

Andrew Motion, Coming In To Land (poems)

Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles (stories)

I had an opportunity to travel to Santa Fe last week and to visit one of my favorite bookstores--it is intimate, has a tasteful but not overwhelming collection, possesses lots of cozy seating for reading, and a nice in-house coffee shop (de rigueur these days).  It reminds me of Politics and Prose, my old NW DC bookstore.  Of course I love Powell's in Portland and The Strand in New York, but those are different kinds of stores, ones where you need days to browse and where the overwhelming feeling one has is of one's own illiteracy. Collected Works, on the other hand, reminds me of small independent bookstores in cities like Chicago and New York and Paris--it's a reader's sanctuary. I passed an afternoon browsing and picked up two books that I read this week and wanted to recommend to readers of TR.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I had not read more than one or two poems by Andrew Motion, former poet laureate of the United Kingdom (1999-2009) until I found his selected poems, Coming In To Land, in Santa Fe. I grabbed a coffee and started reading, and was hooked after this poem:

Anne Frank Huis

Even now, after twice her lifetime of grief
and anger in the very place, whoever comes
to climb these narrow stairs, discovers how
the bookcase slides aside, then walks through
shadow into sunlit rooms, can never help

but break her secrecy again. Just listening
is a kind of guilt: the Westerkirk repeats
itself outside, as if all time worked round
towards her fear, and made each stroke
die down on guarded streets. Imagine it--

for years of whispering, and loneliness,
and plotting, day by day, the Allied line
in Europe with a yellow chalk. What hope
she had for ordinary love and interest
survives her here, displayed above the bed

as pictures of her family; some actors;
fashions chosen by Princess Elizabeth.
And those who stoop to see them find
not only patience missing its reward,
but one enduring wish for changes

like my own: to leave as simply
as I do, and walk at ease
up dusty tree-lined avenues, or watch
a silent barge come clear of bridges
setting their reflections in the blue canal.

Motion's poems rely on plain diction and ordinary meters to convey the richer meanings of things (e.g. "The Fence"), the hidden truths in everyday life ("A Pine Cone,"), or the inexorable facts of our existence--loss and sadness (as in the beautiful "Passing On.") Motion creates memorable lines in the midst of his poems without ever seeming studied or glib: "The hand of God/ is a burst of sun." He's also a marvelous ventriloquist, narrating his historical poems in the voices of dead or dying soldiers ("Home Front") or taking on the point of view of an animal with complete conviction ("The Fox Provides for Himself).  Motion writes compact lyrics as well as long, rambling narrative poems, always with an eye to the telling detail, the flash of meaning, that makes a poem about not only language, but the inquisitive eye of the poet himself--a record of consciousness.

I think that's Keats on the wall--a fitting image.


If you read, and you should, Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son (2012), you won't be surprised to learn that his recent story collection Fortune Smiles is imaginative, harrowing, and utterly engrossing. I don't like to make simplistic comparisons, but there is much in Johnson to remind one of Don DeLillo, especially the DeLillo of the earlier novels.  Both writers convey a sense of menace, of an emptiness at the heart of even the most ordinary of lives. Johnson is able to create a credible version of North Korean lives (in the title story of this collection for example), but he also has the ability to infuse what Daniel Mendelshon has called a "Blade Runner-esque" weirdness into the most banal existences imaginable.  The story I liked best--that's an understatement; I dreamed about it--is "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," a surreal recounting of the life of the warden of a Stasi torture prison after the Wall has come down and Germany has been unified.  The prison, just down the street from the narrator Prinz's ordinary bungalow, is, in post-Cold War Germany, the site of a museum of atrocities. Johnson has a gift for turning the horrors of recent history into memorials to our tendency to forget the past, or to reshape it to fit our naive view of the present.  Prinz interjects himself back into now "curated" prison (this word has taken on a new life in the age of Twitter--the collection and organizing of things best forgotten) with results that are both horrifying and enlightening. As I reread the story I not only relished the brilliance and economy of Johnson's story telling--every little piece fits, no image or encounter is wasted--but the profundity of the message. Orwell, it turns out, is a friend of us all.

"Hurricanes Anonymous" is the story of a FedEx driver in the wake of Katrina.  Check out these sentences: "Climbing the Lake Charles Bridge, None can see the muscles and elbows of the petrochemical plants, their vent stacks blowing off maroon-blue flame. Below are the driven edges of a brown tide, and everywhere is the open abdomen of Louisiana. At the top of the bridge, there is no sign of what happened here, not a sippy cup in the breakdown lane, not a little show. None looks out on the city. It looks like one of those end-times Bible paintings where everything is large and impressive, but when you look close, in all the corners, some major shit is befalling people."

Yup, major shit.  That's about it in the world of Johnson's stories, which is, minus just the tiniest bit of weirdness, our very own.

George Ovitt (2/21/18)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Rainbow-Colored Soap Bubbles

The Hotel Years by Joseph Roth

It was on January 28, 1800 that the first feuilleton appeared in the great French newspaper, Journal des débats. Literally “a leaf” or “a scrap of paper”, the new supplement quickly distinguished itself in France as a highly popular chronicle of the latest non-political news—that of art, literature, music, theatre, gossip, and fashion. The “The Talk of the Town” section in The New Yorker magazine is a contemporary version of the same.

Admired and practiced as a form by writers as varied as Heinrich Heine, Theodor Herzl, Marcel Proust, Isaac Babel, Peter Altenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, Ilya Ehrenberg, and Walter Benjamin, it found a particularly worthy muse in the Viennese writer and drunkard, Joseph Roth. Best known for his novels Radetsky March and The Emperor’s Tomb, Roth spent the better part of his adult life living in hotels and cafés where he passed the time reading, eavesdropping, and generally surveying the world around him. I am a hotel citizen,” he once wrote, “a hotel patriot.” Indeed it was in hotels and cafés that Roth developed his particular vision as a writer, working daily to capture what he witnessed, to sketch what he called “the portrait of an age”, an age—that doomed if glittering interregnum between the wars—which for Roth stretched roughly from his return from the War in 1919 to his death from alcoholism in Paris in 1939. 
It is in Roth’s feuilletons, writes translator Michael Hofmann in his illuminating introduction to the collection, “…with his variable thoughts on exile, on monarchy, on literature, on the military, on nations, on east and West, that he regales us. He is capable of hanging a set of political opinions on a quirk of facial hair styling (‘a large blond mustache that went out into a couple of butcher’s hooks’) and of turning a manicure into a threat (‘a hand with flashing pink nails dangled over the chairback’); of inferring the state of the nation from a chance observation (‘the railway conductor wolfing chocolates), and of shrinking another nation into a natty synecdoche (‘on the right a mosque, on the left a rudimentary café terrace where guests bake and fezzes talk’). He has at times a wonderfully simple, radical imagination…”

It then was largely in the troubled years between the wars, when Roth lived in Vienna and Paris, when he traveled  through Germany, Galicia, Poland, Albania, Italy, and the USSR, that he wrote these many feuilletons, what he himself called his “rainbow-colored soap bubbles”. Indeed their variety and lightness are striking, though such a characterization fails to do justice to what, in many of the pieces, is a startling moral-political clarity. 

Here, by way of example, are a few selections from the book, the first and third but the opening paragraphs, the second one complete:

Arrival in the Hotel

The hotel that I love like a fatherland is situated in one of the great port cities of Europe, and the heavy gold Antiqua letters in which its banal name is spelled out (shining across the roofs of the gently banked houses) are in my eye metal flags, metal bannerets that instead of fluttering blink out their greeting. Other men may return to hearth and home, and wife and child; I celebrate my return to lobby and chandelier, porter and chambermaid—and between us we put on such a consummate performance that the notion of merely checking into a hotel doesn’t even raise its head. The look with which the doorman welcomes me is more than a father’s embrace. As  though he actually were my father, he discreetly pays my taxi out of his own waistcoat pocket, saving me form having to think about it. The receptionist emerges from his glass booth with a smile as wide as his bow is deep. My arrival seems to delight him so much that his back imparts friendliness to his mouth, and the professional and the human are mingled in his greeting. He would be ashamed to greet me with a registration form; so deeply does he understand the way I see such a  legal requirement as a personal insult. He will fill in my details himself, later on, when I am installed my room, even though he has no idea here I have come from. He will write out some name or other, some place he thinks deserving of having been visited by me. He is a greater authority on my personal data than I am. Probably over the years namesakes of mine have stayed in the hotel. But he doesn’t know their details, and they seem a little suspicious to him, as if they were unlawful borrowers of my name. The lift-boy takes my suitcases one under each arm. Probably it’s the way an angel spreads his wings. No one asks me how long I plan on staying, an hour or a year, my fatherland is happy either way…

                                                                                                         Frankfurter Zeitung, 9 January 1929


I am woken by the sound of carpets being beaten overhead. The muffled thudding  provokes my neighbor’s canary, and he cheep and twitters and warbles like a bird song imitator. In the yard a window flies open, a second, a third: the whole building seems to be tearing off its windows.
     A ray of sunshine splashes in my violet inkwell. The bronze maiden on my desk protects her bosoms from the intrusive beam and sweetly tans.
     A hurdy-gurdy is playing in the yard. The streams of melody burst through, melting and freed.
                 From these and other signs, one notices eventually that it is spring.
     On the Kurfürstendamm the cafes put out spring awnings, the ladies have new wardrobes, the gentlemen natty yellow twittering gloves. In side streets the children  play with shiny buttons and marbles. The blue-bedizened sky checks its reflection in the brass shaving bowl outside the barber’s shop.
     Everyone is freshly varnished and ”please don’t touch”. Slips of girls wander about on the asphalt in sheer stockings and new boots looking like costumed willow trees.
     In the afternoon I sit in the window and think that Sunday is on it sway. To Grunewald, for instance.
                 After six or still later, a girl in purple rings the doorbell. Love is like that.

                                                                                                   Freie Deutsche Bühne, 16 June 1921
The Third Reich, a Dependence of Hell on Earth

After seventeen moths, we are now sued to the fact that in Germany more blood is spilled than the newspapers use printers’ ink to report on it. Probably Goebbels, the overlord of German printers’ ink, has more dead bodies on the conscience he doesn’t have , than he has journalists to do his bidding, which is to silence the great number of these deaths. For we know now that the task of the German press is not to publicize events but to silence them; not only to spread lies but to suggest them; not just to mislead world opinion—the pathetic remnant of the world that still has an opinion—but also to impart false news on it with a baffling naïvieté. Not since this earth frit had blood spilled on it has there been a murderer who has washed his bloodstained hands in as much printers’ ink. Not since lies were first told in this world has a liar has so many powerful loudspeakers at his disposal. Not since betrayal was first perpetrated  in this world was a traitor by another, greater traitor: has there been such a contest between traitors. And, alas, never has the part of the world that has not yet sunk into the night of dictatorships been so dazzled by the hellish glow of lies, or so deafened and dulled by the screaming of so many lies. For hundreds of years, we have been accustomed too lies going around on tiptoe. The epoch-making discovery of modern dictatorships is the invention of the loud lie, based on the psychologically correct assumption that people will believe a shout when they doubt speech. Since the onset of the Third Reich the lie, in spite of the saying, has walked on long legs. It no longer follows on the heels of the truth, it races on ahead of it. If Goebbels is to be credited with a stroke of genius, then surely it is this: he has caused official truth to walk with the limp he has himself. The officially sanctioned German truth has been given its own club foot. It is no fluke but a knowing joke on the part of history that the first German minister of propaganda has a limp…

                                                                                                    Pariser Tageblatt, 6 July 1934
Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Wonderful Place to Be

Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

Elif Batuman: The Idiot (a novel)

I assigned my students the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Demons (aka The Possessed, aka The Devils). I assumed, incorrectly, as usual, that the fact that this novel had "changed my life" (as I told my wary class), that it would do the same for them. What I should have done was assigned Elif Batuman's witty essays on Russian literature instead; not only would the kids be having a lot more fun, they'd be learning that it's possible to love life-changing books and still be hip, funny, engaging, and cool.

If I had a cell phone I'd follow Ms. Batuman's tweets. @BananaKarenina is her code name.  One made me laugh out loud: twice-divorced birds.

I half-imagined The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them would provide me with some tips on turning young (non)-readers onto Dostoevsky's baffling and wonderful tale of political intrigue in Russia in the 1860's, just after the emancipation of the serfs. There's so much to enjoy in Dostoevsky's maze of a book--so much that illuminates Russian history and its contending Westernizers and Slavophils, its tendency to embrace both individualism and autocracy (see Masha Gessen's brilliant The Future is History). Her chapter on The Possessed captures all of the confusions and oddities of Dostoevsky's masterpiece, but, best of all, are the chapters on Batuman's sojourn in Samarkand studying Uzbek, a Turkic language (Batuman speaks Turkish), and having the kind of zany adventures in misunderstanding that Selin, the hero of The Idiot, has while teaching English in a Hungarian village.

A typical Batuman-Selin interaction with another human being involves misunderstanding, a deftly deployed mix of earnestness and klutziness, and self-abasement that would be pathological were it not so endearing, all rendered in a crisp, epigrammatic style that you will want to copy snippets of in your notebook. Batuman-Selin writes a lot down; she plans to be a novelist, but, more than that, her tendency toward second guessing each event in her life makes record-keeping a must. At some point one has to sort things out. I loved her voice, whoever she was imitating. So smart to see that the study of language has both everything and nothing to do with the living of one's life, with the understanding of other people. Selin, the "idiot" of the title of Batuman's novel, is Myshkin, that is, a truly good person baffled by her own impulses and, while eager to understand other people, especially the Chekhovian Ivan, too innocent to do so.

Ms. Batuman is wicked smart (as we say in New Jersey).  If you haven't read much Isaac Babel you should by all means read her fresh take on this great and doomed Ukrainian writer, murdered on Stalin's orders in 1940. Batuman is especially good on Babel's relationship with Maxim Gorky, Babel's sometime patron and protector.  (Batuman, who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford, isn't making anything up).

Babel's NKVD photo from the time of his arrest

The two weeks I spent reading Batuman's books were refreshing. Her quirky brain was a wonderful place to be. She does a lot of things well, e.g. write a really engaging and original novel about being in college--at Harvard of all places. When was the last time you read a decent novel about a college student? A novel in which there is no sex, drugs, or even, aside from a couple of beers, any drinking. Or a collection of essays on Russian literature that is as engaging as Joseph Frank's great biography of Dostoevsky?

I've been reading Ms. Batuman's New Yorker pieces when I can find them. She's got a gig there doing cultural criticism, whatever that means. A piece she wrote on Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is particularly good. When I finished it I had two thoughts: first, what a pain in the neck to not only have to read such an awful book but then to have to sit through the movie made of it, and then to have to write something intelligent about it--Batuman chose marriage as abduction. But then it occurred to me that the NYer will be paying Elif well enough so that she can finish up her new novel. I can't wait.


Absurdly, I've pledged--that is, I have written in my notebook--to read one hundred books this year. Fifty of them will be collections of poetry, so the total page count won't be impossible. All I wanted to say about this New Year's resolution was that one poet I wanted to "do," as in read all of, was Mary Oliver. I read three of her books this week--they're slim and easygoing--and my fondness for the simplicity and honesty of her poems, their quiet wisdom, was confirmed. Then I read an essay about Ms. Oliver in a back issue of the New Yorker (I knew nothing of her life), and I was surprised to learn that her work is disparaged by "serious readers of poetry," and by "critics." It appears her subject matters--nature, the inward life, even, god help us,  God--are out of style. I wondered if this condemnation would include other of my go-to poets--Maxim Kumin, Gerald Stern, Stanley Kunitz (also a long-time resident of Cape Cod), Wesley McNair and others who don't blanch at searching out deeper meanings. Strange this whole business of poetry criticism. With novels one might see the utility of reviews and critiques as a means of directing readers to books they might prefer, but with poetry, which already has so few readers, why disparage a poet who has won the Pulitzer Prize, who has pursued the craft for half a century, who has lived as a poet lives and not as an academic? Anyway, I'm baffled. How does one dislike Mary Oliver? And here's something else I love about Elif Batuman: she laughs without mocking.

George Ovitt (1/28/2018)

Sunday, January 21, 2018


To the Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm

So many great novels begin in disruption, with a sudden breach or fracture in what are otherwise equable, often commonplace lives. One day Tolstoy’s respectable Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky is discovered by his wife to be having an affair with their French governess; Thomas Bernhard’s captious intellectual hero, Franz-Josef Marau, receives a telegram one afternoon, informing him of the death of his parents and brother in a car accident, so that he is compelled to return home from his exile in Rome to the dreaded family estate of Wolfsegg; Nadine Gordimer’s Maureen Smales, a white middle class liberal in apartheid South Africa, is forced one night to flee her comfortable home under the protection of her black servant, July, in order to escape the revolution that is fast destroying her world; Ian McEwan’s Henry Perowne, involved one day in a minor car accident in London, finds himself helplessly ensnared in a confrontation with a mentally disturbed man named Baxter; Toni Morrison’s runaway slave, Sethe, living safely in the free state of Ohio at the novel’s start, is haunted by the ghost of her murdered daughter, Beloved; and Franz Kafka’s innocuous, finally anonymous bank teller, Joseph K., is arrested one fine morning without having done anything wrong. 

Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s novel To the Back of Beyond begins much this same way. As described on the flyleaf: “Happily married with two children and a comfortable home in a Swiss town, Thomas and Astrid enjoy a glass of wine in their garden on a night like any other. Called back to the house by their son’s cries, Astrid goes inside, expecting her husband to join her in a bit. But Thomas gets up and, after a brief moment of hesitation, opens the gate and walks out.”

Alternating between Thomas’ and Astrid’s perspectives, what follows is a gently philosophical, at points bewitchingly opaque novel about a middle-class couple adrift in the contemporary world. Beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann, the final pages virtually shimmer with light. 
Peter Adam Nash 

Monday, January 1, 2018

A Good Flower-Eye

The Gardener’s Essential by Gertrude Jekyll

It is often around this time of year, when the plants in the garden have withered, gone to seed, and the last of the trees have shed their leaves, that I find myself thinking of the great English horticulturalist and gardener, Gertrude Jekyll, in particular of her book, The Gardener’s Essential, which I keep on a shelf by my desk. Understand, I myself am no gardener. Much as such books interest me I usually do not read them. Still, there is something about her books, this book, there is something about her sensible, no-nonsense approach to gardening, to flowers and shrubs and trees, to their color and pattern and scent, an outlook so earnest and forthright, so eminently reassuring, that I cannot help but imagine that one day I too might develop what she calls “a good flower-eye”. Here, from the opening of her book, from a section called “A Gardening Credo”, is Jekyll herself:

I lay no claim either to literary ability, or to botanical knowledge, or even to knowing the best practical methods of cultivation; but I have lived among outdoor flowers for many years, and have not spared myself in the way of actual labor, and have come to be on closely intimate and friendly terms with a great many growing things, and have acquired certain instincts which, though not clearly defined, are of the nature of useful knowledge.

Her language, when she writes of gardening, is distinctly moral. She speaks often and with conviction of her own “critical garden conscience”, of the need to resist “mental slothfulness”, and of “the just appreciation of the merits and uses of all our garden plants.” Indeed of gardens and their worth she speaks with an all but  missionary zeal. 

Born into a prosperous family in London in 1843, at the height of the British Empire, friend and cohort to various  leaders and thinkers of the time (including the Pre-Raphaelite artist and textile designer, William Morris, the architect Edwin Lutyens, and the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who—so it is widely accepted—borrowed the family name, Jekyll, for his story, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), she grew up confident in her belief that the British not only did things well but better than any other people on earth. Horticulture and gardening were no exception. 

Yet for all of her national-cultural pride, there is a frankness and humility to her, a willingness to learn and change and grow, that quickly endears one to her and her vision of what is beautiful, worthy, and good.

One of my favorite sections to reread each year is the part, near the opening, in which she writes about the importance—to any good gardener—of being attentive, aware. “Throughout my life I have found one of the things most worth doing was to cultivate the habit of close observation.” Indeed so much of the book is ultimately about training oneself to see, to see more and more truly, that is, with less dependence on experts and trends. At heart it is about learning—in time and with patience—to rely on one’s instincts, to trust and nurture one’s own good flower-eye.
Get a copy of this book—or of any of her other books. You are sure to be charmed.

Here is the official website for her and her estate: gertrudejekyll.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Apathic, and Not

Katie Kitamura, A Separation

Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language

Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power

I realize that it is banal to think such a thing, but those indelible lines from Yeats's "The Second Coming" have been bouncing around my brain all week, in particular the line about the best lacking all conviction (and the worst, well, you know how it goes). As I say, not an original thought, but the great insight that flows through much of the poetry of Yeats is that more often than not courage isn't equal to desire, and that the age in which we live (the one in which he lived), prefers conformity to conviction. What was once thought of as honesty and plain speaking is now the worse form of gaucherie; what was known (long ago) as having convictions or being passionate is now seen as stridency. My circle of the world is diminutive, and I have no doubt these generalizations are faulty, but the evidence that something has given way, that a consensus has been achieved among liberal persons that moral neutrality spares one the sorts of collisions that we now prefer to avoid.  Many of the brightest people I know are cynical or apathetic. Even irony feels like a commitment to a point of view. And, the truth is, with the current regime in power, we've moved past satire and irony, into a darker realm. Perhaps the Second Coming is at hand--not the Gnostic ascent into higher wisdom of which Yeats dreamed, but an epiphany more akin to Dante's--to the Circles of Fraud, Duplicity, and Violence.  Or perhaps we must go about numbed, our feelings shot through with Novocaine.

 Katie Kitamura's strange, disaffecting little tale of a marriage on the rocks, while domestic to the point of claustrophobia, embodies this ἀπάθεια--in Greek "without passion," a Stoic notion, and a positive characteristic for those yearning to rise above the tribulations of this world. Apathy has come to describe slackers, burn-outs, compulsive gamers, the apolitical and the narcissistic.  But Ms. Kitamura does something far more interesting in her novel than merely describe (yet another!) thirty-something, educated white woman who has been burned in love and is in danger of self-immolation. (To be fair, there are plenty of educated white males in the same boat). 

The unnamed narrator receives a phone call from her mother-in-law, a preemptive demand that the (presumed) wife travel to Greece, to the tiny fishing village of Gerolimenas, to find her husband who has been uncharacteristically out of touch. What Isabella, the mother-in-law, doesn't know is that the narrator and her son have been separated for six months; there's no reason for the wife to seek out her philanderer of a husband, and yet she agrees, travels to Greece, and begins a half-hearted search for clues as to her husband's whereabouts.  

There were plenty of echoes of Paul Bowles The Sheltering Sky in A Separation--cynics abroad, the anti-Jamesian view of no-longer-innocent Americans mucking about the poorer precincts of the globe--the Greek landscape has been decimated by fires; everything is covered in gray-black ash, and the Greeks themselves, though formally hospitable, appear to the narrator to radiate a kind of menace, as if they knew something about Christopher's disappearance that they weren't disclosing. In fact, one of the female members of the hotel staff has had a fling with Christopher, at least she claims that she has done so, though in this and in much else we are left in the dark.  So much ambiguity surrounds the story that one isn't certain if there is any truth to be found, or if the narrator's mission isn't merely to confirm her own ambivalence. All we know for certain is that days pass in a desultory pursuit of a missing husband about whom we know practically nothing (he is found, spoiler alert, but I will withhold the details).

Kitamura's flat, uninflected style reminded me of an essay I read recently by James Wood on Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  McCarthy's novel is, of course, much, much darker than Kitamura's, but in I think The Road and A Separation share certain stylistic traits: Wood writes: "Minimalism can be very good for the life of fiction: description, thrown back onto its essentials, flourishes as it justifies its own existence. Worlds are returned to their original function as names." Like McCarthy, Kitamura's prose is stripped to the bone. She runs her narrator's ruminative sentences together, but the descriptive language is anything but lyrical--clinical is more like it, strangely precise yet resolutely ambiguous. 

The narrator of Kitamura's strange tale--a novel without a hero, a story without a plot--observes the world as if through the lens of a camera, with both sincerity and detachment. Here's Kitamura's narrator as voyeur, telling us her impressions of the (presumed) meaning of an interaction between a Greek cab driver and the hotel concierge who may or may not have been Christopher's lover: 

"The contempt [the concierge] felt for the [Stefano, the cab driver] man who held her in his arms! And yet there were plenty of women who would have been only too delighted to love the driver, he was handsome and not without charm, and evidently he was capable of loyalty. There was of course the problem of his temper, but women could be surprisingly accommodating, as well as optimistic, one could live in the hope that his anger would subside, especially once he was loved in return, it was not impossible. Yes, it would have been better if she let him go--if she told him that she would never loved him, that they had no future together."

Such a strange passage! The galloping parataxis, the presumptions ("evidently," "there were plenty of women," "it would have been better"). Naturally one assumes that the narrator wants the cab driver for herself, but there's little more than innuendo to support this supposition. What is striking is that Kitamura maintains this curious judgemental detachment throughout the novel. That her husband has cheated on her, that her mother-in-law demands that she travel to Greece to search for Christopher, that the concierge boasts of sleeping with her husband, that there is something both attractive and frightening about the cab driver--none of these facts do more than pique the narrator's curiosity and her penchant for what can only be called philosophical analysis: 

"She spoke with enthusiasm, nonetheless I was aware that her words did not make much sense, these things that were not true and about which I did not know (how could I have known about them, if they were not true, what there have been to know about? Or did she only mean that I did not have the same false suspicions, had not heard the false rumors?)

Such a remarkable passage.  Direct discourse punctuated with parenthetical clarifications; the aside, worthy of J. L. Austin, that one can't know anything about something that isn't true; the almost wistful "or did she only mean," regretful of a lost chance for clarity now that Maria is no longer available for questioning? I image that if Wittgenstein had read novels he'd have enjoyed A Separation.

Most of all, I was left with the impression that what Kitamura had achieved was the perfect novel of apathy--not of indifference or disengagement, but of detached and philosophical observation (perhaps the Greek setting evokes such stoicism).  Many sentences begin with conditionals--"I suppose," "perhaps," "and yet," "on the other hand," "at the same time." Most of the direct discourse is offered as a preliminary to understanding, propositions that may later be falsified, tentative conclusions awaiting further evidence: "...Perhaps all deaths were unjust, but some were more so...." and then "No, it was almost certainly as it had appeared" and the ending which drops a dark curtain of ambiguity over the entire novel: "I could only say that I was sorry, and that I agreed--although what we were waiting for, what exactly it was, neither of us could say." 


The feud between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates has caught me up short since I am an admirer of both men, and, in ordinary times, I would have thought them to be natural allies. I must admit that I was disappointed when I read We Were Eight Years in Power for Coates has overlooked all of the less savory aspects of the Obama presidency--the drone wars, the unfulfilled promises (to close Guantanamo for example), the alliance with Wall Street that has allowed the perpetration of the conditions that brought down the world economy under Bush/Cheney. There is no doubt that Obama's election was a significant event, a moment that should have made all Americans proud. But an honest accounting of Obama's achievements must move beyond symbolism to governing.  Cornel West, never one to tread lightly, savaged Coates in an article published in the Guardian, accusing Coates of being a neoliberal (not a good thing to be these days), of betraying the struggle for social justice, and other crimes. While Coates leaves out too much, West probably goes too far--there's no clear middle ground in their debate; perhaps this reflects the overall erosion of constructive political discourse. Still, it pains me to see these two men so at odds when what is needed now are strong agreements and a way forward.


On a lighter note, I've just finished Laurent Binet's The Seventh Function of Language, an utterly engaging quasi-detective novel set in the hothouse of French intellectual history circa 1980.  The plot revolves around the investigation of the infamous laundry truck accident that eventually killed Roland Barthes. A hapless assistant professor, Simon Herzog and a humorless French police investigator, Jacques Bayard, interview such intellectual luminaries as Michel Foucault (in a bathhouse), Julia Kristeva, Bernard-Henri Levy, Gilles Deleuze, and a dozen other famous and notorious figures. Binet's heady mix of intellectual history, detective-mystery tropes (parsing obscure clues, Bayard can't refrain from mocking the pointlessness of academic culture; I kept thinking of Jim Rockford and Columbo). Yes, there are games galore, word-play and oodles of literary references--from Saul Bellow to William Empson.  Binet's is the best kind of literary entertainment--witty and provocative.  A wonderful end-of-the-year read for any talented reader. 

Happy Holidays and Good Reading in the New Year.

George Ovitt (Christmas Eve, 2017)

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Indian Macabre

In the southern Indian city of Bangalore where this short novel is set, the nonsense expression ghachar ghochar translates roughly—in the private parlance of one particular family—as “tangled beyond repair”. The fact that Bangalore is the setting of this novel about the trials and vicissitudes of contemporary middle class Indian life is anything but arbitrary. As India’s second fastest-growing metropolis, Bangalore, once known primarily as the Garden City of India, is now known internationally as the Silicon Valley of India, home to IT companies like Infosys and Wipro, as well as to such varied multinational corporations as Bosch, Boeing, GM, Google, Microsoft, and Mercedes-Benz. What this has meant for the local population is a new, greater, often violently disorienting social mobility, so that virtually overnight literally thousands of Indians have moved from lives of grim subsistence to ones of solidly middle class conventions, fears, and dreams.  

Ghachar Ghochar is the story of just such a family, in this case a poor family made suddenly prosperous by the profits of a spice company they founded. Not surprisingly the members are not entirely at ease in this new role of theirs, wrestling daily with the many challenges and responsibilities that accompany this radical change of fortune. Told in a spare, restrained, often finely distilled prose, a cleanly wry style reminiscent of R.K. Narayan, the novel, this parody really, is first and foremost that of the unnamed narrator, the son in the family, who surveys the swiftly unraveling scene around him with a cool, sardonic eye. Perhaps only at the very end does one of his eyelids twitch! Best read in a single day. Enjoy.

Ghachar Ghochar was translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur.

Peter Adam Nash  

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Work Women Do

Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English
Philip Davis, in the introduction to his recent biography of George Eliot, states that “Literature is transmitted being.” It is an expression I love and one that seems ideal for describing the poems in this fine collection, each of which, if variously, seems an attempt to do just that, to transmit one’s life as it is lived and felt in a particular moment, in a particular place, in a particular frame of heart or mind. Consisting of the work of over 250 contributors, the poems vary greatly in style and form, and cover subjects as wide-ranging as love, loss, marriage, betrayal, memory, work, childhood, politics, race, religion, language, war, history, exile, displacement, identity, nature, longing, and death.

Opening the collection at random, I read this poem first:

The Shipfitter’s Wife

I loved him most
when he came home from work,
his fingers still curled from fitting pipe,
his denim shirt ringed with sweat,
smelling of salt, the drying weeds
of the ocean. I’d go to where he sat
on the edge of the bed, his forehead
anointed with grease, his cracked  hands
jammed between his thighs, and unlace
the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles
and calves, the pads and bones of his feet.
Then I’d open his clothes and take
the whole day inside me—the ship’s
gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,
the voice of the foreman clanging
off the hull’s silver ribs. Spark of lead
kissing metal. The clamp, the winch,
the white fire of the torch, the whistle,
and the long drive home.

                                  Dorianne Laux

Sujata Bhatt

Brazilian Fazenda

The day all the slaves were freed
their manacles, anklets
left on the window ledge to rust in the moist air

and all the coffee ripened
like beads on a bush or balls of fire
as merry as Christmas

and the cows all calved and the calves all lived
such a moo.

On the wide verandah where birds in cages
snag among the bell flowers
I in a bridal hammock
white and tasseled

and bits fell out of the sky near Nossa Senhora
who had walked all the way in bare feet from Bahia

and the chapel was lit by a child’s
fistful of marigolds on the red velvet altar
thrown like a golden ball.

Oh, let me come back on a day
when nothing extraordinary happens
so I can stare
at the sugar white pillars
and black lace grills
of this pink house.

                                P.K. Page

June Jordan

Muriel Rukeyser


Sit down among the boxes and write a poem,
he told me; obedient, I’m writing.
Moving house, he said, is such an ordinary
thing to do—a regular activity,
especially for you—no obligation
to unpack at once or be dutiful.

Find a vacant corner and there among
half-empty cartons spilling crumpled paper,
piles of sofa cushions and rolled-up carpets,
dining chairs like acrobatic couples
or swimmers, chest to chest, one pair of legs
trialing through water, the other flailing air,

and think about important things—not builders,
plumbers, electricians. I try to remember
how it began, this restlessness: a lifetime
trying to feel at home. A need and hope, he
hints, which might be programmed in my genes,
bred in the bone—nothing to do with him—

and makes me realise again those complex
ties that hold us together: everywhere,
both of us are strangers. Then: “Let’s open
a bottle of wine and drink a toast to life,”
he smiles and holds me close, “then go upstairs.”
Why not? I ponder, putting the poem aside.

                                       Ruth Fainlight

Kay Ryan

Lucille Clifton


The universe is sad.
I heard it when Artur Rubenstein played the piano.
He was a little man with small hands.
We were bombing Germany by then.
I went to see him in a dark warehouse
Where a piano had been placed for his practice—
Or whatever he did before a recital.
He signed the book I had with me—
It was called Warsaw Ghetto.
I later heard about him—
His affairs with young women
—if only I had known—but I was
in love with you.
Artur is dead;
And you, my darling,
The imprint of your face, alert like a deer—
oh god, it is eaten away—
The earth has taken it back
But I listen to Artur—
He springs out of the grave—
His genius wired to this tape—
A sad trick of the neural pathways, resonating flesh
And my old body remembers the way you touched me.

                                                     Ruth Stone

Vona Groarke 

Anne Sexton

The men wore human skins
but removed them at night
and fell to the bottom of darkness
like crows without wings.

War was the perfect disguise.
Their mothers would not have known them,
and the swarming flies could not find them.

When they met a sprit in the forest
it thought they were bags of misfortune
and walked away
without taking their lives.

In this way, they tricked the deer.
It had wandered into the forest at night,
thinking antlers of trees
were other deer.

If I told you the deer was a hide of light
you wouldn’t believe it, or that it was a hunting song
that walked out of a diviner’s bag
sewn from human skin.

I knew it could pass
through the bodies of men and could return.
It knew the arrow belonged to the bow,
and that men only think they are following
the deaths of animals
or other men
when they are walking into the fire.

That’s why fire is restless
and smoke has become
the escaped wings of crows,
why war is only another skin,
and hunting,
and why men are just the pulled-back curve of the bow.

                                                      Linda Hogan

Mimi Khalvati
Mrs Darwin
7 April 1852

Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him—
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of

                                                  Carol Ann Duffy 

Janet Frame

This remarkably engaging collection was edited by Eva Salzman and Amy Wack. Enjoy. 
*The lead photograph is of poet, Judith Wright

Peter Adam Nash