Saturday, July 30, 2016

The city Beneath the City

The Other Paris by Luc Sante

The Matthew Scudder novels of Lawrence Block

Whenever someone stops me on the street to ask me what "neoliberalism" means--you'd be surprised--I suggest that the questioner Google some images of Times Square in the 1970's and then compare the gritty pictures of New York's demimonde (prostitutes, peep shows, pretzel stands, porn theaters, pizza by the slice, bucket-of-blood bars) with today's corporatized/Disneyified version--a mind-numbing onslaught of digital advertising, "cleaned up" by a succession of neolib mayors who wanted "the center of the universe" to cater to consumers rather than to the unwashed and, let's be honest, libidinous masses. "Family friendly," meaning no working girls, boys on the make, nobody nodding in doorways, no black guys with boom boxes--the smell of burnt chestnuts replaced by the smell of money.  The lowly hot dog, slathered in mustard and affordable for all--the great democratic street food of America--now sets you back a five spot at least, and the guy who hands it to you is wearing plastic gloves and not smoking a cigar. In other words, New York, once a place where a person could at least dip his or her toe in the real world has been gentrified and commodified out of existence. That's the meaning of neoliberalism.

New York in the Wagner-Lindsay-Beame era of grit and sleaze (of the best sort) is brilliantly captured in the Matthew Scudder novels of Lawrence Block, among the finest (in my view) writers of noir fiction, a dozen novels set in New York in the iron age before Giuliani and Bloomberg forged the World of Oz.  I want to get to Sante, but just a word about Block, whose books should be better known. His Matt Scudder series follows the life of an alcoholic, ex-cop (he quit the force after accidentally shooting a young Puerto Rican girl), who has moved out of his Long Island home and settled into a hotel room in what was once Hell's Kitchen but is now, appropriately, called Clinton. Scudder's lady friend is a call girl he met while trolling the streets around Times Square. Scudder isn't a detective, but he survives by doing favors for various people, including the ominious Mick Ballou, an Irish mob figure who is among the more interesting bad/good guys in all of genre fiction. Scudder walks around the city, attends two or three AA meetings each day, and with minimal help from NYPD, puts some very bad people in jail. But the finest part of Block's books, the irresistible sections, are his descriptions of that old New York. On a walking tour of Hell's Kitchen a few years back I looked for Scudder's hotel and for Armstrong's, his favorite watering hole. Both are still there, but spruced up. I went so far as to have a bourbon and coffee in Armstrong's Pub (Scudder's drink of choice before the black-outs got too bad), but it was no good--there were yuppies and ferns and a bartender who didn't want to talk.  Try When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes, really.

I loved that older, gritty New York; the new one, not so much. I never knew the old Paris, the one about which Luc Sante, our poet/scholar of the underside of urban life writes so brilliantly in The Other Paris. I've read everything I can about the Paris of Baudelaire and du Beauvoir, of Henry Miller and Hemingway, of Dabit and the witty Elaine Dundy. But the world opened for us by Sante is of an altogether different sort; perhaps only Henry Miller's wonderful Quiet Days in Clichy (my favorite of his books) comes close to evoking the city hidden with the City, the world of the underclass, the proletarian subbasement of a wealthy world-class metropolis, the wine bars and bistros and cafes and bordellos and back alleys--flâneurs and prostitutes, faded dandies, transvestites, and brawlers. 

The great historian of the rich life of Paris was of course Walter Benjamin, whose Arcades Project presents an unrivaled--rich and deep--inventory of the great city, especially of its inner life. But Luc Sante has done something original, and perhaps even more enlightening in The Other Paris. Sante, whose Low Life is a great accounting of 19th century New York, has performed a similar service for those who would know the "low life" of Paris--he's opened up neighborhoods and previously closed doors, and shown us lives that reveal a Paris quite different from that of the Michelin guides. As a bonus, he's also filled the text with hundreds of black and white photographs. 

"The dance halls of Montmarte were by that point [when the Impressionists began to paint them] as showcases for prostitution, but there were dance halls in most other neighborhoods...In Charonne stood the Bal des Lilas, known as the Bal des Punaises (cockroaches or bedbugs), which had, tucked away behind the orchestra, a bench reserved for women too drunk to dance, and those who lacked shoes..."

The sections on little known artists and artistes are brilliant: here's Frehel, the great chanteuse who died in 1951--"Her charisma and strength of personality, in addition to the map of her life in her face--her big eyes and full lips remaining as proof of lost beauty under the palimpsest--got her cast in movies, sixteen of them, mostly in the 1930's...In her last years she sold vegetables on the street. Her landlady said, 'She scared me. She was like a bull.' In 1950 a group of young admirers that included Jacques Yonnet [author of Paris Noir: The Secret Life of a City] and Robert Girand, working-class poet and journalist] got her to perform one last time...a year later she was dead in Pigalle."

There are hundreds of anecdotes like this one, of forgotten singers, of poets and painters not on the 'A' list, of dance halls and cafes now vanished to make way for offices and apartments. My favorite chapter, "Insurgents," surveys a territory unknown to me--the underground political/criminal history of France's capital, from the Commune (Louise Michel) to the notorious career of Edouard Carouy and the gang of which he was a part, a group immortalized (after a fashion) in Emile Michon's Un peu l' ame des Bandits (A Little of the Bandits' Soul)--apparently no relation to Magritte's painting of the same name.

And who cares? A forgotten New York, a Paris that is hardly present. Perhaps the point of reading Sante's marvelous hommage is to be reminded that the city, far from being a place of commerce, a monument to the egoism and elitism of the marketplace, was for most of its history simply a place where people of all kinds lived and worked and loved and died. In other words, a democratic and egalitarian space where one could hardly avoid rubbing shoulders with different sorts of people. Of course, that still happens, but in the city within the City the rubbing took a more intimate form, defined in fact the lives of citizens in a way that seems no longer to be the case. 


George Ovitt (7/29/116)


Monday, July 18, 2016

The Natural Prayer of the Soul

The Eye of the Storm by Patrick White

The Australian novelist and Nobel Laureate Patrick White is one of those literary giants whose work few people seem to read any more. His voice, his style, while in many ways expressly, distinctly modern, are of another rhythm, another age.

In his illuminating short essay on the experience of translating the poetry of Paul Celan, John Felstiner quotes Celan as having remarked, as if as his credo, “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul…” It is a statement that naturally makes one think of poetry itself, and of the poets who write it, those who live by what they notice, what they see. Yet such is the purpose, finally, the achievement, of all great writing, that of lifting the blinders from our eyes. It is this devotion to patient, hard-won observation, to turning the world around him inside-out, that distinguishes the novels of Patrick White, the very pages of which seem to twitch and shudder with life. What he notices few of us have ever seen, at least with such intensity, such affection, detail; still, we know that he is right, that he has seen us (his characters) clearly, seen us well; we know it because he taps something ancient in us, something latent in our brains, perhaps reminding us of how we used to see, of how we once used to be.

I have now spent the better part of three days making my way through his extraordinarily fine novel, The Eye of the Storm, while sitting by the fountain in the small cool garden at the side of my house. I read and read until something—a phrase, a hummingbird—makes me look up and the effect is nearly always the same. The fine focus of White’s prose, that densely woven world in which I was just engrossed, has been superimposed upon the world about me here, in New Mexico, in the garden where I sit—upon the fountain, upon the lavender and rosemary, upon the clatter of dishes inside. For a shimmering instant it is as though I am sensing this too through the lens of White’s eye. And for a time—brief as that may be—I feel I actually do see better, see more, and more truly, as if the world itself is anxious to be seen.

As in so much great literature, this novel is born of a reunion, of the fateful gathering of a mother and a daughter and a son. Set in the Sydney suburb of Centennial Park, it focuses on the once-beautiful, now blind and embittered widow and matriarch, Elizabeth Hunter (the lilac wig, the deliquescent smile), who spends her days in bed, attended—like a diva or Fury or queen—by her trusty lawyer, and by an eccentric collection of nurses, each of whom (this too is White’s genius) we come to know quite well.

When the novel opens Elizabeth is awaiting the arrival from France of her recently divorced daughter, Dorothy, an adoptive aristocrat by the name of Princesse de Lascabane, and of her son, Basil, a celebrated, if increasingly superannuated stage actor in London. What follows is a finely textured family drama of cruelty, impotence, and longing that is worthy of the stage itself, an antipodean King Lear (as one critic put it) in which the stakes for each of the players are as tragic, as fateful, as they are petty, ruthless, and vain.

Well-known for his novel The Vivisector, White himself was a master of that same trade, peeling back the skin of his characters to consider the mysteries within. Here, to give you a taste of his language, his prose, is the chastened daughter, Dorothy, just returned from France, as she considers her mother holding court from her bed:

At her most loving, Mother had never been able to resist the cruel thrust. To have loved her in the prime of her beauty, as many had, was like loving, or ‘admiring’ rather, a jeweled scabbard in which a sword was hidden: which would clatter out under the influence of some peculiar frenzy, to slash off your ears, the fingers, the tongues, or worse, impale the hearts, of those who worshipped. And yet we continued to offer ourselves, if reluctantly. As they still do, it appears: to this ancient scabbard, from which the jewels have loosened and scattered, the blind sockets filled instead with verdigris, itself a vengeful semi-jewelry, the sword still sharp in spite of age and use.

“One seeks among debased superlatives for words that would convey the grandeur of The Eye of the Storm,” writes Shirley Hazzard, in her review of the novel for The New York Times, “not in destitute slogans but in tribute to its high intellect, its fidelity to our victories and confusions, its beauty and heroic maturity… every passage merits attention and gives satisfaction.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Seasons and Writers

 Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, David Reynolds, Rebecca Solnit

Does it seem to you as it does to me that some writers have their seasons? Just as a nicely chilled Pinot Grigio served with gazpacho on the back porch seems perfect for hot summer days, so do Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau seem the perfect literary companions. I could no more read Thomas Mann--say, Doctor Faustus--in July than I could sit down to a pot roast. Nor could I (I've tried) reread Paradise Lost or, heaven help us, a single stanza of The Faerie Queen, or dip into Shakespeare's problem plays on a 101 degree afternoon than I could consume a plate of fettuccine alfredo. American writers, and I mean the originals, not derivative figures like Fenimore Cooper (Walter Scott) or the ruthlessly sententious Ralph Waldo Emerson (our Plato), or Joseph Conrad's pale cousin Herman Melville (yes, yes, I am well aware of how absurd this statement is, but next time you pick up White Jacket be honest: wouldn't you rather read Heart of Darkness? ) but true originals like Whitman and Thoreau. Like the Hudson River painters, our great romantics offer the promise of sunny skies, cool mornings and languid afternoon walks, long evenings of conversation and light fare--exactly the two writers I pack on hikes or take to the beach.

Rereading the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass this past week, I was struck yet again by the felicity of Whitman's eye; truly he is not only the greatest poet of democracy, but the most philosophical American writer, Jefferson with a soul.

"All goes onward and outward...and nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier." 

What a line! You could brood on these words all afternoon, staring in the cumulus clouds bunching on the horizon, and not feel as if you'd wasted a minute. Or this piece of American Platonism, so much more digestible than Emerson, whose platitudes unfold like a bolt of cloth--

"If I and you and the worlds and all beneath or upon their surfaces, and all the palpable life, were this moment reduced back to a pallid float, it would not avail in the long run, /
We should surely bring up again where we now stand, /
And as surely go as much farther, and then farther and farther...

See ever so far...there is limitless space outside of that,
Count ever so much....there is limitless time around that.

Our rendezvous is fitly appointed...God will be there and wait till we come. 

Old Walt, the sly sensualist. Remember this line from Ginsburg? "I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys," written, I am certain, with wry affection, though Whitman, alone in Camden, wasn't the same man as the would-be seducer of Brooklyn, the man who wrote this beautiful line: "For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,/ For me children and the begetters of children." 

I hadn't read any of Whitman's prose since college, but then came upon this passage in Spiritual Laws:

A man is a method, a progressive arrangement; a selecting principle, gathering his like to him, wherever he goes. He takes only his own out of the multiplicity that sweeps and circles around him....Those facts, words, persons, which dwell in his memory without his being able to say why, remain, because they have a relation to him not less real for being as yet unapprehended. They are symbols of value to him, as they can interpret parts of his consciousness which he would vainly seek words for in the conventional images of books and other minds.

These few sentences offer a remarkably astute analysis of how poetry works, Whitman's included. The real poet isn't merely crafty with words, but is able to draw from memory and experience those "symbols of value" that help him and the reader interpret parts of consciousness that might otherwise remain inaccessible. A person is a method...a selecting principle. And the artist, the writer, is especially this, sorting through experience not for its Meaning, but for the way in which individual experiences tie the world together, the way in which they bind people, rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, together--yes, the finest democratic poet, perhaps the only democratic poet--a democratic vista rooted not in ideas but in the body, the source, as Whitman shows us, of all meaning.

The only critic of American literature I have read who recognizes the wit as opposed to the sagacity of Thoreau is David Reynolds, author of a very fine study designed to bring F. O. Matthiessen's magisterial American Renaissance up to date. In Beneath the American Renaissance, an investigation of what he calls "the subversive imagination," Reynolds writes: "Thoreau was confronted with a problem which faced several other major American writers of the period: theoretically committed to incorporating popular idioms, he nevertheless recoiled from the directionlessness and devilishness that characterized these idioms as they usually appeared in the popular press." Thoreau found beneath, or within, the crude wit of American popular literature an unhappiness, a despair, that he addressed in the first chapter of Walden. American angst, as Reinhold Niebuhr would later point out, was attributable to American materialism, precisely the point made by de Tocqueville, Harriet Martineau, and other dispassionate observers of 19th century American life.

This combination of sociological insight, humor, compassion, and social criticism make Thoreau the perfect companion for a long walk or a quiet hour in the hammock. While I love Walden, my favorite summer reading in Thoreau, an essay that I come back to again and again, is "Walking," found in the perfectly backpack-sized Modern Library edition (with a nice introduction by Brooks Atkinson) of Selected Thoreau, a book first published in 1937--think of that!--which I have owned since 1968. Last summer, at 57th Street Books in Chicago, I came upon Wanderlust: A History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit, a writer of whom I knew nothing. (Don't you love it when this happens? You're browsing and by chance pick a book off the shelf, page through it, read a few paragraphs, then sit down and read for half-an-hour, entranced. This happened with Ms. Solnit, whose other books I have slowly begun to read.)

Anyway, Ms. Solnit has this insight into Thoreau's essay: "For Thoreau, the desire to walk in the unaltered landscape no longer seemed to have a history, but to be natural--if nature means the timeless truth we have found, not the historic specific we have made." This is a smart rewording of Thoreau's wonderful opening sentence: "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society...." and then the wit of which Reynolds speaks takes over...."I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school-committee and every one of you will take care of that."

And here the two strands of our complicated history, our two most original writers, and our summer season come together. As Perry Miller noted many years ago, taking his title and theme from a famous sermon ("Errand into the Wilderness") by Samuel Danforth (1670), America was at first seen as a great opportunity, as a divinely inspired project, a utopian settlement designed to glorify God's works, a city upon a hill. But as Miller points out, the aspirations of the first generations of New England settlers ran aground on the realities of the wilderness, a wilderness that proved to be both physical and moral. How, the Puritans and America's most original writers asked, can one balance the spiritual errand into the wilderness (purification, temptation, preparation) with the material wealth this wilderness bestows and the rapaciousness this wealth inspires? Whitman's genius was to discover what was universal in American life--to lift the body electric out of greed and war and slavery and into the benign fantasy of his imagination. Thoreau walked away (with a scathing look back). He walked into the woods, along the Concord River, across the beaches of Cape Cod--to escape the din of the school-committee's "civilization."

And summer? I hope wherever you are--and I know we have readers from Moscow to Paris to London to Albuquerque--and, of course, for some of you, it's actually winter!--you have time to read the books you've set aside for this season of relative idleness.

George Ovitt (7/10/16)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

"Idiots, Morons, Imbeciles"

Adam Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

Don Carpenter, Hard Rain Falling (a novel)

That's Carrie on the left, with her mother, Vivian, both institutionalized at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble-Minded. Carrie, as the world knows, was sterilized via salpingectomy by Dr. John Bell. Here is Adam's Cohen's account of the crime against Carrie Buck:

"The first legal sterilization in Virginia began promptly on that Wednesday morning [October 19, 1927]. Carrie, who was now twenty-one years old, was taken to the infirmary in the colony's Halsey-Jennings Building at 9:30 a.m. The surgeon who would be performing the operation was no stranger to the patient: it was Dr. John Bell, who had conducted Carrie's physical examination on her arrival at the colony, and had given his name to the Supreme Court case. Carrie was anesthetized, and the operation began. Dr. Bell, working with another surgeon, removed an inch from each of Carrie's fallopian tubes. Her tubes were then ligated, or brought together, and the ends cauterized using carbolic acid followed by alcohol." (p. 283)

At the Nuremberg trial of the Nazi war criminal Otto Hoffmann, head of the SS Race and Settlement Office, the defense was based in part on Hoffmann's citation of the notorious opinion of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in Buck versus Bell ("Three generations of imbeciles are enough"). The Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt der SS was responsible for "safeguarding the Racial Purity of the Reich." Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., whose mustachioed visage appeared on the cover of Time Magazine on the occasion of his 85th birthday, was considered "the greatest jurist in American history" by none other than Walter Lippmann. He was also, as Cohen's painstakingly researched book shows, a racist and eugenicist, a not unusual combination of views among America's educated classes during the Progressive period. Progress meant purity and the dissemination of American bourgeois values by every means possible, through settlement houses, education, war, and eugenics. The irony of Cohen's title--one can't miss it--is that the "imbeciles" weren't Carrie and Vivian Buck--Carrie was a normal girl who had been raped while working as a virtual slave in the household of the family that had taken her from her birth mother--but Drs. Holmes, Buck, Albert Priddy, and the rest of the cast of eugenicists whose delusions of racial purity based on pseudo-science and social prejudice antedated and inspired the Nazi campaign to rid the world of "undesirables." Hitler, praised by the American eugenicist Clarence Campbell in 1935 ("that great leader"), was moved by America's example in pursuing his own mad dreams of Aryan race hygiene. Even the horrors of the Holocaust didn't deter American eugenicists: as late as 1958 Virginia hospitals were sterilizing inmates against their will--"deviates, criminals, idiots, morons, and imbeciles."


What explains this obsession with racial purity? Carrie Buck did well in school, but she wasn't allowed to continue beyond sixth-grade. Her family was poor and powerless; as a result she was "adopted" by the Dobbs family when she was a toddler. "Less a daughter and more a housemaid," Carrie was raped by a cousin of John Dobbs when she was seventeen. Pregnant, unmarried, and therefore immoral, Dobbs had her committed to the Virginia Colony. The moral of this tale isn't difficult to discover: at a time when American society was changing dramatically under the twin pressures of industrial capitalism and immigration, traditional "white" and Protestant Americans discovered in "scientific racism" a defense of their values,  of Anglo-Saxonism, race hygiene, and Christian sexual mores.  Carrie wasn't sterilized for being feeble-minded--she was an average, but poor and friendless young woman--but for representing the caste of down-and-outs whose presence in the landscape of early twentieth-century America was troubling to those who make the rules--to academics, scientists, judges, ministers, and politicians (the only institutional opponent of forced sterilization was the Catholic Church, but not for the right reasons). The Supreme Court's decision in Buck versus Bell has never been overturned, although Virginia and a handful of other states have issued apologies for the practice of forced sterilization.*


David Goodis
We all know that Portland (above) is the coolest place in America, but in Don Carpenter's noir novel of 1964 Portland is a squalid town, full of grifters, hustlers, pool-sharks, gamblers, hookers, and thugs. Carpenter's novel, Hard Rain Falling is the bleak story of Jack Levitt, a brutish but introspective loser whose existence in the prosperous booster culture of post-War America was an affront to the dominant ethos, much as some white Americans today find the "browning" of American society deeply disturbing ("Make America White Again" is a slogan that showed up at the Trump rally here in majority-Hispanic Albuquerque). Levitt is the sort of kid who would have been sterilized had he born a decade earlier, the kind of person spawned by the thousands in a society of winners and losers, a nobody whose life comes to a inevitable nothing. This is a novel that is especially valuable for its sociological and historical insight into the lives of the poor and the incarcerated. Carpenter, who lived most of his life in Mill Valley, California, is among that group of largely unknown writers who drifted back and forth between Hollywood script work and writing serious books.  Thanks to  biographers and scholars, we know of Faulkner's catastrophic stint in Hollywood, but what of Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, and Charles Williams--all writers of popular and, in some instances, excellent noir fiction who supplemented their income writing for (mostly B) films? All are writers worth reclaiming and reading.**

The power of these writers lies in their having glimpsed--reveled in--the darker side of American life. Their hard-boiled realism challenged the facade of mainstream culture, the happy endings, the preoccupation with the rich and famous, the moral posturing that dominates much of American popular fiction. Carpenter spares the reader no horror in peeling away the psychological torments endured by Jack Levitt as orphan, reform school kid, inmate at San Quentin, and parolee. Carpenter's description of Levitt's long sojourn in solitary confinement in reform school--three months spent naked, in utter darkness in a tiny concrete cell, subsisting on a single meal each day (food laced with soap designed to induce diarrhea) is a tour de force of naturalistic style. Carpenter's sharp prose, his ability to show Levitt transformed by his ordeal, reminded me of passages in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Dostoevsky's House of the Dead, the touchstone for the novel dissecting the psychological effects of imprisonment. As more Americans find themselves slipping from respectability into debt, marginality, and, for 2.2 million of our fellow citizens, prison, the insights of writers like Carpenter, a liminal figure himself, assume greater weight.

But Carpenter doesn't believe in the triumph of the human spirit, and Levitt isn't transformed into a saint by his ordeal.  He's a thoughtful and complex figure, but loutish--the offspring of a society that puts the highest premium on wealth and breeding while denying to most individuals the means of attaining either one. Levitt exists in a moral limbo: a world that has its own rules and rituals, but a world from which there is no escape, where following the rules keeps one alive but not much more. The rule of American naturalistic fiction is that one's genetic predispositions and socio-economic circumstances cannot be overcome through the exercise of will or through love, money, God, or anything else. As was the case with poor Carrie Buck, Jack Levitt is condemned by a society that has no use for his kind--no romantic outlaw, Levitt is among the many (many!) victims of the great American hustle.

Curt Gentry, Don Carpenter, Richard Brautigan, and Enrico at Enrico's Bar

Hard Rain Falling, with an introduction by my favorite crime novelist, George Pelecanos, is in the New York Review Classics Series.

Imbeciles, by Adam Cohen, is published by Penguin.

*See Stephan Jay Gould's classic The Mismeasure of Man for details of the means by which "intelligence," as a fixed and heritable quality of a person, was determined.
**I'm making my way through the novels of Goodis in the Library of America series right now--they're excellent.

George Ovitt (7/6/16)

Friday, July 1, 2016

Under My Skin

The Infatuations by Javier Marías

I have now been reading the novels of Spanish writer Javier Marías on and off for about seven years, and it has taken me this long to truly begin to appreciate them, to warm to his cool, aloof, expressly cerebral style. It has taken me nearly seven years to grasp just what an extraordinarily fine writer he is (mind you, most of Europe has known this for decades), nearly seven years of patient reading for his novels to really get under my skin.

Surely a part of my preoccupation with his work (too impatient to wait for the American edition of his latest, I have just this morning ordered it in its British edition) springs from the anxiety, the despair, I often feel, living here in the U.S., at the prospect of not being able to regularly replenish my supply of the dense, unapologetically intellectual sort of novels I love, those artistically uncompromising, often tryingly original tales that have not only defined the novel for me as one of the highest forms of human and aesthetic expression but have literally made me who I am.

More and more I crave the work of writers (and characters) who really like to think—and to think hard, those who make no excuses for their obsession with character and language and form, whose idea of plot (to paraphrase a popular criticism of Proust) is often just some man or woman turning over in bed. 
The great modernist Joseph Conrad once wrote: “We live, as we dream—alone.” It is this, this recognition of the fundamental loneliness of human existence that sits at the heart of so much of my favorite fiction. In fact the kind of novels I most admire, those I read and reread, those I study some days like scripture, are often little more than the stories of a man or woman thinking, usually in isolation or grief. While I am no misanthrope, in fact every day more grateful for the people in my life, little is plainer (and perhaps more significant) to me than the fact that far and away the majority of my time here on earth is spent in silent communion with myself, with my own joys and sorrows, with my own fictions, plaints, and fears. Think about it: is there anything more quintessentially human than this private daily grinding we do, this Sisyphean sentence to think—and without respite, to live like monks, like nuns, within the confines of our own small heads?

It is this painful, often reluctant solipsism that lies at the heart of so many of the greatest modern novels I’ve read, from (here comes a list, for those of you who are interested) those of Conrad, Woolf, Proust, Dosotevsky, Melville, Joyce, Kafka, Roth (Joseph), Goncharov, Musil, Forster, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Svevo, and Mann to Pessoa, Lowry, Barnes, Cela, Ellison, Castellanos, Bellow, Qian, Saramago, Camus, Carpentier, Oe, Böll, Dorfman, Niwa, Voinovich, Manea, Ishiguro, Rushdie, Gordimer, Saghal, Jin, Brink, Malamud, Cortázar, Gao, McCarthy, Styron, Amado, Pamuk, Vargas Llosa, Jelinek, Klíma, Wright, Grossman, Mistry, Gombrowicz, Lispector, Morrison, Sabato, Silko, Pavese, Coetzee, Nabakov, Kahout, Olesha, Oz, Levi, Okri, Appelfeld, Platanov, Bernhard, Farah, Aksyonov, Fuentes, Bolaño, Ulitskaya, Emecheta, Sebald, Unsworth, Martin, Trevor, Kaniuk, Petry, Naipaul, Szabó, Hong, Chacel, Borges, Bowles, Yehoshua, Sōseki, Tišma, Walser, Ford, Head, Greene, Duffy, Abish, Cohen. Ghalem, Agnon, Baldwin, Handke, Ivo, Rulfo, Benet, Mahfouz, Ali, Megged, Murdoch, Hrabal, Novakovich, Bowen, Houllebecq, Ocampo, Zhang, Rodoreda, Asturias, Sábato, Soyinka, Müller, Fox, White, Adler, Vollmann, Ford, Lenz, Garcia Márquez, Platonov, Toer, Narayan, Schulze, Pekić, Carey, Wallace, Bedford, Ying, Nooteboom, Achebe, Arenas, Desai, Páral, Énard, Robbe-Grillet, Lamming, Kraznahorkai, Machado de Assis, and Gass. It is a condition, a syndrome, that also lies at the heart of Marías’s fine novel The Infatuations

Set in contemporary Madrid, The Infatuations explores, with elegant intelligence (and with more than a passing nod to the masterworks of Shakespeare, to Othello and Macbeth), the experience of a single woman, an editor in a local publishing house, named María Dolz who finds herself eavesdropping on the life of a handsome young couple near whom she sits each morning in her favorite café before work. At first just a passing fancy, of which she hardly thinks once she leaves the café, her interest in the couple takes a significant turn when one day they fail to appear, a disruption in the quiet, pensive routine of her life that is soon exacerbated by the news—detailed in all of the daily papers—that the man, the husband, was brutally murdered in an act of apparently random violence by a demented homeless man armed with a butterfly knife. From there the story  traces María’s growing, ultimately fateful obsession with the dead man’s wife, Luisa. Finely, eloquently told, the novel is at heart a metaphysical inquiry into the timeless issues of love and death, a catechism of betrayal and obsession and truth. It is wonderfully heady stuff.

Javier Marías has written thirteen novels, three story collections, and nineteen works of collected articles and essays. The Infatuations was translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, June 20, 2016

Small Bombs

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan

It happens (literally) every single day. Thirty-two thousand seven-hundred people died in terrorist bomb attacks in 2015. Mostly, but no longer exclusively, in the Middle East. A big bomb will kill two hundred, perhaps more. A "small bomb" placed in a car or left in a backpack, five or six, wounding dozens more. We say, "It is terrible." Or, "Madness." Or, "Why did they do it?" And then we forget until the next time, rather as with mass shootings in our own unhappy country. "What can we do?" It turns out that "we" (that is, those paid to govern) can do nothing. Perhaps we wait our turn, hope for the best, turn off the news, stop reading the newspaper. Maybe elect a president who will do it to them before they can do it to us.  That's why they call it "terrorism."

What happens to the people who survive a "small bomb"? The logic of small bombs is that there are fewer victims with whom a survivor can connect and commiserate. Compassion requires a large object: the Holocaust; 9/11; maybe Biafra. Small disasters evoke curiosity, which isn't yet compassion or even empathy. It takes a lot to wake up sleepwalkers, but a small bomb--for those who have given terror some thought--is a fine way to create ripples of fear and disenchantment. Just the thing if chaos is your ultimate goal. Those merely maimed are basically alone. If the bomb goes off in India (or Iraq, or Syria) the government takes no interest in the victims, or in the perpetrators. What do the survivors feel? How do their lives go on, or do they? You could think about this problem all day long, maybe go a little crazy wondering at the waste of lives. But there's something important for us to consider, and, I admit, I hadn't, at least until I read Mahajan.

Karan Mahajan has asked lots of good questions about small bombs. The Association of Small Bombs is a very smart novel, not only for the compassion it evokes for the the innocent victims of terror, but for the honesty with which Mahajan confronts the fundamental fact that suffering is always personal and that the consequences of any political act (it needn't be a terrorist bomb) unfold endlessly. The "association" is both the organization of survivors of a Kashmir-terrorist bombing in Delhi in 1996, and the bonds that forever link the victims, the bombers, the police, and the dozens of others whose own lives are forever altered by a single, relatively low-key political act. And the implication of the novel--searingly revealed in the final pages--is that the Association is rapidly growing to include all of us. And the really smart thing I learned from Mahajan is that suffering and chaos unites us in a way that happiness and order cannot. "Unites" might be the wrong word: it is more along the lines of a brother- and sisterhood of suffering creating bonds that would otherwise never have existed. In a strange way the association of small bombs is like the association of believers, a few of whom subscribe to dogmas of violence as central to their creed. The believers create a new dispensation: that of the victims.

Bakunin took up the idea of the "propaganda of the deed" in his struggle against the Tsarist regime in Russia. Revolutionary violence was thought to be more effective than mere propaganda--ideally, the terrorist act stirs revolutionary fervor among the supine masses (Bakunin, Paul Broursse). Modern terrorism may or may not be directed at bringing down a particular state; its purpose may be to draw attention to a particular injustice, to undermine an ideology ("the West"), or simply to spread terror without a definable political goal. Mahajan's terrorists mix all of these motives with a baser alloy: a fascination with terror for its own sake. Murder, it appears, can become a job, rather like engineering or computer programming. Shockie, the bomb builder in TAOSB is a haunted, inscrutable figure. He hates the Indian government for its occupation of Kashmir, but his politics are vague. Mostly he builds and detonates bombs because that is his profession. He doesn't represent the "banality of evil," just evil's unreflecting nature. Killing innocent people is, for some, a default setting. It's difficult to hate Shockie, even though what he does is terrible. It's a very strange kind of art that can create such a figure, strange and wonderful.

Shockie sets off a small bomb in a crowded market in Delhi in 1996. Two boys, the sons of the Khurana's, are killed; their best friend, Mansoor, survives, but is wounded. The bomb is detonated on page three. What happens "next" is both a linear description of effects and a multilayered accounting of the complexity of a catastrophic event. The Khurana's lives are, of course, ruined, but not simply torn apart--rather they are blown up slowly, as if in slow motion, briefly healing and then torn open again. Mansoor grows up but he would have been better off if he too had been killed. His suffering is most acutely felt; Mahajan is at his most brilliant in his painstaking stripping away of everything that Mansoor once was, breaking him, as it were, on the rack of his own innocence. The bombers themselves suffer in various ways, but not, I suspect, enough to satisfy any sort of karmic balance. And other characters, not a part of the initial event, are also drawn into the great skein of its tragic consequences. No one survives. That too is why it is called "terrorism." Terrorism is the most acute modern reminder of the fragility of life and the impotence of politics in the face of ideology. You go to work and someone blows you up. Terrorism is the principle tool of the ideologically-inclined, just as peace might have been the natural outgrowth of politics, if politics were motivated by a desire for justice. It's a wonder that a novel so focused on individual peoples' lives could have so much to say (between the lines) about the ordering of everyday life.

Mahajan writes beautifully, with remarkable (he's very young!) compassion. I underlined dozens of passages to reproduce here. Let me quote only one.  Years after their sons' deaths, Vika and Deepa Khurana establish The Association of Small Bombs, a victims' aid group, though they can do little for the victims of bombings but visit the newly blown up in the hospital. Here is a tender passage whose description turns out to be terribly ironic:

"Together, aged, having experienced so much, [Vika and Deepa] cut warm, comforting, watchful figures in the hospitals. Often, they were observing not the victims but each other. How had they come from marriage to the death of their boys--to this? And yet, it gave them enormous solace to know that their suffering had not been for naught, that they had been able to eke a larger meaning out of it; they felt the closeness couples sometimes experience when they become rich after years of poverty, a mutual appreciation and gratefulness and wonder and an awareness of the depths of the other person--an awareness that is stronger than any affection or love."

I can think of few novels that examine evil and its consequences with as much intelligence, clarity, and compassion as this great book by Karan Mahajan. It's published by Viking, and worth your while.

George Ovitt (6/20/16)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Summer He Died

The summer he died
My father discovered plants.
He grew sunflowers that leapt
over his tiny house, tomatoes
that burst in the heat, stunted
corn and rows of string beans
eaten over one July night
by a pack of ravenous moles.
He could hardly stand; he’d
lost fifty pounds—his hair,
thick and brown into his 80’s,
simply disappeared. We rose
together at mid-morning; he
ate Wheaties with strawberries
that I bought at the Farmers
Market—he told me he hated
the thought of dying and missing
his breakfast, the newspaper,
the thought of that first cigarette
(he’d quit a decade before—like all
men his age he’d ash his Lucky in
the orange half-moon of his eggs.)
Then we’d reminisce for an hour:
I knew nothing about him, nor did
he know a thing about me: fathers
and sons practice silence like monks
locked together in a desert of love.
After lunch we’d find a ballgame.
He would fall asleep and quietly fart;
I’d go for a walk, up and down blocks
of large empty houses--I never saw a soul.
Later I would drive to the store for corn
and steaks; he had no appetite and would
vomit while I cooked. I wasn’t
sad—we were standing on the edge
of something we couldn’t name or feel--
time ended in the blackness of his dying.
On the phone my wife told me about the
children; I could picture her in our bright
living room, thousands of miles from where
I stood. The house would be hot and loud
with music—my father’s house was silent
and smelled of rust and mildew;
the cicadas chorused in a manic circle—
the heat pushed the outdoors
onto the porch where we sat, remembering
the lightning bugs that I had caught
in Mason jars, the cool nights when we
could smell the faintly salty Eastern breeze,
the far off sound of fireworks from the
boardwalk, the men laughing as they
played bocce and drank beer,
the way your hand would hurt as you
dug into the icy tub for a Coke,
the snap of the church key and the cold
that hurt your throat and eye—
my mother calling us in for dessert,
my father telling me to go ahead, he’d sit a while
longer on the stoop, watching the kids play
stickball in the gathering darkness.
And the way the house was so full of us,
the five of us, the rooms dense with our
lives, the dishes drying in the sink, the
tired way my legs would feel after another
day of being alive. And my father would
come in the sit and not say a word: he was
locked up in himself even then, as I would
be when I was his age, a silence that was
watching and waiting for something better
to come along, when there was nothing better,
when there was nothing better to come.

In Memory of George Ovitt, Sr. November 13, 1919-July 6, 2010

Happy Fathers Day to all of our readers....(that's my sister, Patricia, with my father, mid-1950's)

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Kingfisher

The Kingfisher, Amy Clampitt

Amy Clampitt, the Iowa Quaker, published her first book of poetry in 1983--she was sixty-three years old--and while she had been writing poetry since her undergraduate days at Grinnell College, she had only started to publish in the late 1970's.  Simply put, The Kingfisher is among the finest sustained poetic achievements in the English language. Clampitt, who died in 1994, was born on June 15, 1920, and it was the proximity of her birthday that led me to reread this extraordinary book.

Wheeling, the careening
winds arrive with lariets
and tambourines of rain.
Torn-to-pieces, mud-dark
flounces of Caribbean

cumulus keep passing, 
keep passing.  By afternoon
rinsed transparencies begin
to open overhead, Mediterranean
windowpanes of clearness

crossed by young gusts'
vaporous fripperies, liquid
footprints flying, lacewing
leaf-shade brightning
and fading....

[From "The Edge of the Hurricane"]

Miss Clampitt's closest progenitor was Gerard Manley Hopkins (her title is taken from a line of Hopkins); both share a baroque and mystical connection to the natural world, an extraordinary lexical richness, stunning imagery, and the metaphysical poet's ability to link the seemingly disconnected into unforgettable synthesis.  Her work at Oxford University Press and the Audubon Society appear to have leached both language and observational acuity into her verse--like Hopkins, but better, Clampitt uncovers the rich symbiotic connection between poet and nature, not in search of God, and not in search of Meaning, but purely for the beauty of being alive, the wry and charming oddity of being in this world. Here's one of my favorite Clampitt poems, "Sea Mouse":

The orphanage of possibility
has had to be expanded to 
admit the sea mouse. No one
had asked for such a thing, 
or prophesied its advent,

sheltering under ruching
edges of sea lettuce--
a wet thing but pettable
as, seen in the distance, 
the tops of copses, 

sun-honeyed, needle pelted
pine trees, bearded barley, 
or anything newborn not bald
but furred. No rodent this 
scabrous, this unlooked-for

foundling, no catnip plaything
for a cat to worry, not even
an echinoderm, the creature
seems to be a worm. Silk-spiny, 
baby-mummy-swaddled, it's

at home where every corridor
is mop-and-bucket scrubbed
and aired from wall to wall
twice daily by the inde-
fatigable tidal head nurse.  

Such chewy language! Ruchy, needle-pelted, silk-spiny. And in other poems the same joyful playing with language. But not just playing, Clampitt's not a "language poet," no, there's meaning and feeling at every turn: "the nodding/campanula of bell buoys" ("Fog"); "a tatting/ of foam out where the rocks are" ("Gradual Clearing"); "Strawstacks' beveled loaves" ("Stacking the Straws"). She's one of the few poets who sends me, gratefully, to the OED--"furred with a velouté/of looking glass"--velouté, one of the Mother Sauces of French cuisine (who knew?). Then there is "scenes of transhumance," "a chromo of Hobbema," "grisaille." I especially admire the way Clampitt uses possessives and compounding hyphens to join ideas that one might not conceive of as joined, but which, in her capable hands, are effortlessly put together; her striking adjectives: "wing-dragging" killdeer or "berry-eyed and bark-brown" kingfisher. The freshness with which she looks at the every day. Great poets are always youthful, vigorous, joyful. Except if they are mopes, but in the summer I am opting for the joyful ones, Clampitt above all--a romantic in the American idiom.

Not only does she send me to the dictionary. Clampitt taken on a meandering stroll in the local landscape incites me to look more carefully: "Nightfall/hangs up a single moon/bleached white as laundry;" and this: "spilled/and scattered like/a gust of lost pollen."  No seas near me, but I do remember the coast in a storm well enough for this image: "gales hurled gnashing like seawater over fences'/laddered apertures..." ("The Woodlot").

My copy--now 33 years old--is full of pencil markings, grass stains, stuffed with cottonwood leaves, scuffed from being packed along on hikes and camping trips (along with Annie Dillard, who, like Hopkins, is a bit too pious for my tastes, but who nonetheless has the keen eye and immersion in poetic language we find in Clampitt). Clampitt wrote poems about Maine and New York City (where she mostly lived--you wouldn't know it), about Iowa and farm life in that beautiful corny rectangle of a place. About the many countries she visited--Italy and England in particular--and, some of her best and wittiest, about music. Especially memorable is her long poem "Beethoven, Opus 111," too beautiful simply to quote from and too long to type out here.

Buy the book. Write your name in it. Carry it around all summer (with a pocket dictionary). You'll be happy you did.

And finally, this:

Easter Morning

a stone at dawn
cold water in the basin
these walls' rough plaster
after the hammering
of so much insistence
on the need for naming
after the travesties
that passed as faces,
grace : the unction
of sheer nonexistence
upwelling in this
hyacinthine freshet
of the unnamed
the faceless

There are no bad photographs of Amy Clampitt. Here is my favorite.

George Ovitt (6/10/16)

The Kingfisher is published by Knopf and is still in print, thank God. 

For the sea mouse:

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Eros, Philos, Agape

Seven Years, by Peter Stamm

translated by Michael Hofmann

 It was the great scholar and saint, Augustine of Hippo, who first explored with remarkable psychological acuity the nuances of human love and the connection between human erotic passion and the love of God. In the Confessions, Augustine delineates with exquisite--at times excruciating--self-awareness his journey from cupidity to caritas, from love of the flesh to love of the spirit:

“I was in misery, and misery is the state of every soul overcome by love of mortal things and lacerated when they are lost. Then the soul becomes aware of the misery which is its actual condition even before it loses them.” 

In his short, exegetical work, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine argues that Scripture, as God's Word, must always be read and interpreted as tending toward the enhancement of divine love--the word alone is merely dross; its meaning uplifts the devout to knowledge of, and love for, the Divine.

Strange as it may seem, it was Augustine who came to mind as I read through the unusual and unsettling 2009 novel Sieben Jahre, translated with typical felicity by Michael Hofmann as Seven Years and published by Other Press. Believe me, there is nothing remotely Augustinian or even especially religious about this novel, yet I was compelled to think, as the story of Sonia, Alexander, and Ivona unwound, not of the physical compulsions of human love but of the mysterious psychological or, in this case, spiritual dimensions of attraction and obsession. The force fields of this particular triangle are oddly proportioned--unbalanced and disjointed: Alexander has married Sonia. He is a handsome, charming, and not especially ambitious architect, more deeply engaged by the practical side of design than the aesthetic; he offhandedly woos and eventually marries Sonia. Sonia, we are told (repeatedly) is beautiful, brilliant, dynamic, alluring, etc. Unlike Alex, Sonia is drawn to the aesthetics of architecture, in particular to the murky--authoritarian--utopianism of Le Corbusier. Indeed, the novel's epigram is from the great Swiss-French architect, an often-quoted modernist koan: "Light and shadow reveal form." If Alexander and Sonia are light and shadow--he all practicality, down-to-earthiness, muddle; she a ravishing mystery--then the nearly mute, devout, lower-class and decidedly unattractive Ivona is "revealed form." For what Stamm has achieved, brilliantly if incredibly, is to make a silent outcast, a mystical washerwoman, the real center of the novel, the source of its energy and cryptic meaning. How so?

Alexander has a brief tryst with Ivona, not out of attraction, but out of (self) loathing; he finds Ivona repulsive but compelling; he strips off her clothes and lies on top of her, fondles her, but does not "possess her." It's a disturbing scene: not rape, but not consensual, and it's not sexual but contractual, a tacit acknowledgment of a connection that persists over years and years, even though Alex has virtually no contact with Ivona, his life is shaped by her being, and hers by him. It is as if Ivona, the victim of a callous and unfeeling man's assault, is the seducer. For thereafter, all through his profitable marriage and business partnership with Sonia, Alexander cannot excise Ivona from his consciousness. He cannot be happy with Sonia (it appears) largely because the woman he desires is someone he doesn't love. It's a muddle, implausible, but entirely believable. The form of a life is made not by anything real, but by contrasting ideals.

We live in a building that we build ourselves. This "building" is not only our life--that's the least of it--this building is what we think about our life. The modernist ethos prescribed functionality, a prescription that grew out of the embrace of positivism and technology that swept through European intellectual life in the late 19th century. The great monuments of modernist writing accept as given the fact that we have built a world and that we are compelled to constantly reconstruct and remodel our view of our place in that world. The tension between a lived and an examined life is the source of what is loosely called "irony."* The magisterial work of modernist irony is Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, a novel that excavates the tension between the world we actually live in and the world we think we live in... Joyce, Woolf, James, Eliot, all wrote from the same ironic perspective, trying or not trying to bring into harmony light and shadow, life and thought, the building and the space it defines.

Augustine, as a believer in an omniscient deity, had no such paradoxes to resolve, and if he thought of irony at all he thought of it in the Greek sense of εἰρωνεία, the rhetorical trope for "dissimulation" or "delusion." Augustinian love is "ironic" when the the lover mistakes his erotic fascination for the real thing, as when Chaucer's Troilus, released at last from the surly bonds of earth, looks down on the world and, at long last, gets it.

SPOILER ALERT: So here is the joke, the irony in the Augustinian sense: only Ivona--fat, covered with moles, naive, unfashionable, etc. is fruitful. Only Ivona is fully alive. Only Ivona has bridged the unbridgeable gap between life-as-lived and life-as-reflection. And how does she manage this miracle? Here's where Augustine popped to mind: she is a medieval woman; she is the annunciate, the true Child of God. Sonia cannot conceive; she can design and create soulless buildings, but she cannot love her husband, or the child (Sophia!) whom he creates with unloved Ivona. It is with these unexpected developments that Stamm is most original. His love triangle offers no clarity, no resolution; there is no "happily ever after," no "blended family." Sonia runs off. Alexander broods. Ivona, out of love, gives up her baby. Stamm's wonderful insight is that "making sense" of our lives isn't a solitary pursuit, and in any case, isn't really worth the time and suffering we put into it. "Making sense" of things is a modern madness--things in themselves have sense, are meaningful, and our role is to accept that fact, or, rather, to make the leap to belief. This belief isn't--I say again--religious--but psychological. But, in the end, what's the difference?

*Among the Ancients, Socrates, as he comes to us via Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, was an "ironic" figure ("The Apology"). The next great ironist was Shakespeare (compare "The Tempest" to "On Cannibals" for the difference between irony and not-irony). This said, I am probably wrong, and if I had paid closer attention to my teachers I would have avoided this sort of shameless generalization. 

George Ovitt (6/7/16)