Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Falling In (and out) of Love

Alain de Botton, Essays in Love (a novel)

You see him (her) in a crowded room, on a plane, at a meeting, in a restaurant--someplace you weren't prepared to see anyone, all of your paltry defenses down, a neutral or even a meaningless encounter, a simple hello, a brushing of hands--nothing weighty, no ulterior motive at all. You went on a plane ride and sat next to (in this case) a woman. It was her.

Alain de Botton has the sort of talent I most admire--he can be brilliant anyplace, with any topic, and not only brilliant, but original--he thinks about things that you and I have thought about but never understood--he explains what we are reading or seeing or feeling. Architecture or Proust or, here, love. Not "explains" exactly: teases, probes, uncovers. You've thought about something one way and then, blissfully, you realize that you weren't wrong, just not paying sufficient attention.

In Chicago this summer, browsing in Powell's (yes, the Portland Powell's began in the City With Big Shoulders), I came upon a strange Picador paperback: Essays in Love by Alain de Botton, thick newsprint paper, the cover depicting a woman sitting on the floor in a library, seemingly in the ranges holding tedious government reports, reading a book.

De Botton once wrote this: "Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the numbers of books that were written because authors couldn't find anyone to talk to."

The narrator of Essays in Love--a novel that is a work of philosophy, a work of philosophy that is, ostensibly, a fiction--feels to me like a lonely man, someone who falls in love by accident and falls out by design. I didn't understand until the last page the meaning of the cover photograph or the structure of the novel. Everything in the book is simple on the surface, yet studded with mystery. Like love itself.

De Botton has read Proust and written brilliantly about the experience. My feeling is that the inspiration for Essays in Love is the story of Swann and Odette in volume one of Proust's masterpiece. De Botton, playing both roles, analyses the coming into love that is always so surprising and uplifting, and meditates in painful detail on the unraveling of feeling, the loss of love and the unbearable aftermath of that loss. But de Botton's book isn't Proustian--it's something else, something entirely new.

"By accident," the narrator sits with Chloe on a flight from Paris to London.  "Chloe later told me that she had intended to take the ten thirty Air France flight, but a bottle of shampoo in her bag had happened to leak as she was checking out of her room, which had meant repacking her bag and wasting a valuable ten minutes." I wondered if she had said "wasted" in narrating the bit of happenstance that put her on a British Airways flight instead of her Air France plane, in the seat next to our (I can't help but think) lonely narrator? She might have. Chloe is an honest woman, and one of the marvels of Essays on Love is the truth telling--the strangers, then lovers, speak plainly with one another. Often this hurts. In matters of the heart, truth, I think, might be overrated.

The chapter headings are those of a philosophical work rather than of a novel. "Romantic Fatalism," "Authenticity," "False Notes," "Love or Liberalism," "Intermittences of the Heart" (my special favorite), and so forth. The style is mixed--not unlike Menippian satire, though in this case the satire is directed at all of the conventions of romantic love rather than at politics. De Botton imitates Wittgenstein in the scrupulousness of his dissection of his own and his beloved's feelings. From the courtship ("Subtexts of Seduction"): "We talked abstractly of love, ignoring that lying on the table was not the nature of love per se but the burning question of who we were and would be to one another. Or was there in fact nothing on the table other than a half-eaten carrot cake and two cups of tea? Was Chloe being as abstract as she wished, meaning precisely what she said, the diametrical opposite of the first rule of flirtation, where what is said is never what is meant?" A little shuffle here: the narrator semi-accuses Chloe of precisely his own inclination--to cover up his feelings with abstractions and small talk. De Botton gets this perfectly: we ascribe to the beloved exactly the feelings and motives that we have and convince ourselves of our own objectivity. See Swann's Way.

It's a funny book, especially if you've ever been in love. Early on our hero, an architect, provokes a fight over the sorts of jam that Chloe has to offer at breakfast. It's their first sleep-over, and the idea that one would be put off, angered even, by a lack of strawberry jam ("I hate having breakfast without any decent jam") is farcical. But then this scene appears in the "Marxism" chapter, and the point is clear enough: "...the origins of a certain kind of love lie in an impulse to escape ourselves and our weaknesses by an alliance with the beautiful and the noble. But if the loved one loves us back, we are forced to return to ourselves, and are hence reminded of the things that have driven us into love in the first place. Perhaps it was not love we wanted after all, perhaps it was simply someone in whom to believe, but how can we continue to believe in the beloved now that [she] believes in us."? So, it isn't Karl but Groucho Marx at play here--if she loves me, who am so unworthy, there must be some mistake. How could she?

I won't spoil the ending, but it isn't happy. But a happy ending would have precluded any philosophical meditation on loss. Our hero is cerebral, an over-thinker: "Few things are as antithetical to sex as thought." It is his brooding propensity to over-think every conversation, every act of his beloved that drives her away. In some things instinct should prevail. The road from intellect to instinct is impossible to traverse--better to start with the heart and inch toward the head then to make the futile attempt to move in the other direction.

I was left not only admiring the deft way in which de Botton had alternately skewered and caressed his love affair (it has to be his story), but I was left wondering what, exactly, love might be. One line of Essays in Love travels along the road traversed by Plato's Symposium--love is not a single thing but an individual's journey toward self-knowledge and, eventually, transcendence of this world. Physical love and human desire are self-negating and, like Wittgenstein's famous ladder out of the Tractatus, lead the lovers to a realm of being in which love no longer has meaning; love leads, in this view, to Love. But this isn't what de Botton was up to--I couldn't quite grasp what he wanted me to see until the final pages.

Love is sadness: in de Botton's account infatuation and desire provide the charm of attraction, but habit and familiarity lead a couple to weariness and even disgust. What must endure isn't "love" but friendship and trust. Our narrator and Chloe tire of one another quickly, not because of a lack of desire or a failure to share themselves with the other, but because their love as we see it (through the narrator's eyes) was never about them, it was only about him: "I did not simply love Chloe and then she left me. I loved Chloe in order that she would leave me." Chloe is "merely" an instrument designed to inflict punishment on the narrator for his naive faith in the existence of love. I chaffed a bit at what seemed to me a cheapened psychoanalytic resolution of the plot--after all, it is more difficult to understand the end of love then its beginning. And who believes, really, in love as self-flagellation? No, what I was reading, I thought, was a rationalization: Chloe fell out of love with the narrator because of his egotism and her capriciousness. Very tidy, and if the author weren't de Botton, a plausible enough plot (despite the philosophical asides) to render the book worthy of the Times best-seller list.

But on second reading it seemed to me that I needed above all to take the philosophical nature of Essays in Love seriously--the meditations on love aren't ancillary to the plot, they are the plot. De Botton has written a novel about love that recapitulates the history of philosophy, from Plato to Freud, with chapters that subtly invoke Aristotle, Descartes (on the mind-body problem), Hume, Rousseau (a section on pastoral romance in the spirit of his Nouvelle Heloise), Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche, and ending with ideas taken right out of The Ego and the Id.  Yes, this was it--a love story that is actually a work of philosophy, or, perhaps, a work of philosophy imbued with the idea that the truth resides in loving. Loving a person, yes, but also, more so, loving knowledge. Our hero doesn't live happily ever after but--just barely--he lives. Sadder, as they say, but wiser.

Published by Picador, Essays in Love was de Botton's first book.

George Ovitt 8/25/2015

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Ways of Pain

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

The world is what it is.

In rereading this fine, remarkably undemonstrative novel, I was struck, more profoundly than ever this time, by the notion (surely not an original one) that the story is a smart, often deeply ironic retelling of Conrad's famous Heart of Darkness, in this case from the jaded, fatalistic, sometimes painfully enervated perspective of a once-colonial subject, a fractious, headstrong young Indian named Salim.

When the novel opens, Salim, the narrator, has left his ancestral home on the coast to strike out on his own, and is living as a petty shopkeeper in a ruined town deep in the African bush, a region recently laid waste by the latest wars of independence. Ever since arriving, he has sensed his essential vulnerability there, for he is not only a man from the coast but an ethnic outsider, a 'bloody Asian,' a muhindi. "Ruins had been left as ruins; no attempt had been made to tidy up. The names of all the main streets had been changed. Rough boards carried the new, roughly lettered names. No one used the new names, because no one particularly cared about them. The wish had only been to get rid of the old, to wipe out the memory of the intruder. It was unnerving, the depth of that African rage, the wish to destroy, regardless of the consequences."   

It is out of this precariousness that the narrator's bleak, often scarifying vision of the modern world unfolds. For, while Naipaul is clearly writing about East Africa, about what he viewed as the post-colonial catastrophe that is Africa today, he is also writing about the ravages of European colonialism writ large, so that, for all of the particularity of the novel's setting (a region which Naipaul got to know quite well), there is something of the allegory to this complex and bewildering tale. As writer Neel Muhkerjee put it in his incisive 2011 reassessment of the novel, "At times, it is a book about the tension between being and becoming, played out on the bass and treble clefs of the individual and the global; at others, about the silent, patient rage of history; about how free, if at all, one can be of history and its burdens."

It is no secret to Naipaul's fans, that he, an Indian born and raised as a colonial subject in Trinidad, the precocious grandson of indentured servants, spent the better part of his life, as a man and writer, and finally as a naturalized English citizen and knight of the realm, locked in a twisted, often brilliant, finally deeply bitter struggle to find place for himself in this world. As with Naipaul himself, Salim, the narrator of this superb re-imagining of Conrad's darkest vision, is both Marlow and Kurtz, at once the innocent, the acolyte, and the one who has seen too much.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Wish to Eye God

Some years ago, when my wife and I were travelling in southern Africa, we had the chance to hear a reading in Swaziland by the South African writers, Nadine Gordimer and her longtime friend and fellow activist, Mongane Wally Serote. While Gordimer read her story "The Ultimate Safari", Serote followed with a number of his poems, including (if I remember it correctly) the anguished "A Wish to Eye God".

A Wish to Eye God

May it happen that one day
When the sun wipes its face
and the moon shakes its sweat like a dog removing flies
I will no longer write about people
dying in the street and bleeding through the ears and eyes
and babies suffocating in suitcases in muddy dongas;
I am not pleading or praying
I am just polite
choking my shout from rushing out
I am calm
Since that other day when I saw that mother shout at you
     at the grave
and I knew
even her dead silent scream won't help
and I was not wrong
Since I have been to the graveyard to lay down a stabbed
You know that
I think
and think
about you and all they say about you
and what I see and hear and live
I have never had a life
but maybe I won't live for you
I feel like shouting.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Obelisk Index

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

                  A Militia major is driving along when he sees a militiaman standing with a penguin. "Take  
                  him to the zoo, " he orders. Some time later the same major is driving along when he sees the 
                  militiaman still standing with the penguin. "What have you been doing?" he asks. "I said take 
                  him to the zoo." We've been to the zoo, Comrade Major," says the militiaman, "and the circus. 
                  And now we're going to the pictures."

A few weeks ago I was struck by a story in the news about how, after massive flooding in the city of Tbilisi, Georgia, some zoo animals were on the loose. The residents, many of them homeless, had been warned of lions and tigers afoot. Included in the article was a photograph of a hippo standing bewildered in the street. What had struck me most about the st0ry was not the event itself, surely a sad and sensational one, but the fact that it had seemed familiar to me, as though I had read about something like it before, though for the life of me I could not remember what. Then it struck me this morning: Death and the Penguin! Where the hell was that book? Had I leant it, lost it; had I given it away, but, no, there it was, covered with dust and old spider webs, on the bottom shelf behind my chair.   

As the novel opens, Viktor, a lonely, desperate young writer living with his pet penguin in a small apartment in Soviet-controlled Kiev, has just been offered the opportunity to write copy for a major national newspaper. Excited by the prospect of money, and eager to finally see his name in print, he readily accepts the position, only to discover that the job entails writing obituaries, pithy, thumbnail biographies of many of Kiev's doyens, kingpins, and politicians—each of them still very much alive. As one character puts it to Viktor, he is "writing for the drawer," a troubling euphemism soon compounded by the more sinister description of the work as 'obelisk jobs', his task: "painting vital images of the future departed."  Not surprisingly, in a city then ruled by violence and corruption, his work proves predictive. Shortly after submitting his first obituary about a well-known State Deputy named Aleksandr Yakornitsky, he is informed by his delighted Editor-in-Chief that (miracle of miracles!) the very same man has just died: "Fell from a sixth-floor window—was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn't his. And at night." While frightened, aghast, Viktor continues to write. It is only when a recently acquired friend of his disappears, and he is forced to assume responsibility for his daughter, that the stakes of the game become clear. 

At the heart of this darkly pleasing satire of life in Soviet Ukraine is Viktor's depressed and insomniac penguin, Misha. Rescued by Viktor from the bankrupt city zoo, which could no longer afford to feed him, Misha spends most of his time "roaming the flat, leaving doors open, occasionally stopping and heaving a deep sigh, like an old man weary of both life and himself." He eats frozen fish, he stares at the wall, he splashes around in the bathtub; and, sometimes, when Viktor is restless, when Misha gets too hot, the two of them venture outside at night, exploring the grim-faced  streets and wandering back and forth across the frozen Dnieper.

Andrey Kurov was born in St. Petersburg and now lives in Kiev with his English wife and her three children. He has published numerous other novels, including Penguin Lost, A Matter of Life and Death, The Case of the General’s Thumb, and The Milkman in the Night

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Man With the Golden Pencil

Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make (and others)(and parentheses)

He was the son of Polish Jews, born in Detroit. Like Joseph Mitchell, Pete Dexter, Mark Royko, A. J. Liebling, Luc Sante, and a handful of others, Algren wrote about urban life without mentioning the swells. Chicago, where he lived for most of his life, provided him with his subject matter--the hard lives of working class men and women, the scams of grifters and politicians, the tragedy of bad choices or of no choices at all. His best-known novel, The Man With A Golden Arm possesses the same foreboding sense of doom as James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy--the city's dynamics, its teeming inner life, bring out some of what is best and all of what is worst in everyone. Survival is possible, but at great cost, and much that other writers think of as growing out of our ethical nature, in fact depends upon blind chance. In other words, Algren, like many of the other naturalists of the period just before and just after the Second World War, worked within the social Darwinian framework exploited for different purposes by racists like William Graham Sumner and Theodore Roosevelt--the difference being that Algren and his journalist/novelist brethren felt compassion for the victims of an economic and social system that exploited their worst instincts. Reading Algren I think: nothing much has changed, except, of course, nobody writes about the world without blinking in the way that Algren did; or, better, no one writes as well from within that world.

He had an affair with Simone de Beauvoir in the late 40's and early 50's (Algren is "Lewis Brogan" in The Mandarins), was investigated by the FBI (a badge of honor in those days; Algren never joined the Party, and though he was a man of the Left, he wasn't especially political), and he was condemned by his own Chicago Polish community for his novel Never Come Morning.  His 1956 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side has the distinction of being (I think) the darkest of noir writing--the plot reads like an Elizabethan revenge tragedy--drunks, prostitutes, pimps, orphans, and murderers (dark enough to inspire Lou Reed). Algren at his best makes Jim Harrison seem upbeat. Algren disliked fiction that tipped over into propaganda or sociology. His characters are real, if unimaginable. I picked up Naked Lunch the other day to see if there was any Algren in Burroughs; not a drop. Algren brings the purity of art to his stories; Burroughs rambles on like Falstaff--a junky jester. *

Not precisely the home of the Blues, but close enough, Chicago's African-American population has known/knows a thing or two about hard living. (See Wayne F. Miller, Chicago's South Side, 1946-1948). The lyrical element in the music of someone like Jimmy Davis is reflected in Algren's prose, especially in the essay under review here.  Chicago: City on the Make, like many a blues lament, is a love-hate song: "My baby done me wrong, but I can't live without her..."

Here's a sample:

"Chicago keeps two faces...one for sunlit traffic's noontime bustle. And one for midnight subway watches when stations swing past like ferris wheels of light, yet leave the moving window wet with rain or tears."

"When chairs are stacked and glasses are turned and arc-lamps all are dimmed. By days when the wind bangs alley gates ajar and the sun goes by on the wind. By nights when the moon is an only child above the measured thunder of the cars, you may know Chicago's heart at last:
   You'll know it's the place built out of Man's ceaseless failure to overcome himself. Out of Man's endless war against himself we build our successes as well as our failures. Making it the city of all cities most like Man himself--loneliest creation of all this very old poor earth."

In Algren's hands Chicago becomes what it is in geographic terms--the middle ground dividing us (Saul Bellow loved Chicago but yearned for New York; Algren was all about the odd perch of Porkopolis on Lake Michigan)--our grasping nature, our vulnerability; our indifference to others, our rare but genuine compassion; our imagination and our banality--in the end, what wins out depends on the man or woman: the City, any city, has a life of its own, disconnected from ours ("like the indifferent stars"); it is the theater in which we act out the tragicomic existence of "Man". The Mandarin herself found Algren (at first) charming, hard-edged, a man of conviction (perhaps unlike her Parisian lover); later on he bored her, or perhaps he acted badly--probably he did act badly (he sometimes did).

He was hardly a "writer's writer." In a Paris Review interview (1955) Algren disavows connections with just about every other writer, including Hemingway (he grudgingly admits to admiring Hemingway's style). Algren says a lot of interesting things about the craft of writing, including this:

"I do have the feeling that other writers can’t help you with writing. I’ve gone to writers’ conferences and writers’ sessions and writers’ clinics, and the more I see of them, the more I’m sure it’s the wrong direction. It isn’t the place where you learn to write. I’ve always felt strongly that a writer shouldn’t be engaged with other writers, or with people who make books, or even with people who read them. I think the farther away you get from the literary traffic, the closer you are to sources. I mean, a writer doesn’t really live, he observes."

A writer doesn't really live...though Algren did live, richly.  Does one choose to write, or does writing choose you? Algren had no choice--writing was his means of living, of making a living, but also the way he made sense of the world. I suppose he's a footnote in American literary history; his early books are just coming back into print. It's a shame--he should be better known since his world and this one aren't all that different.

Algren died in, of all places, Sag Harbor, on Long Island, in 1981.

"The Paris Review" Interview (The Art of Fiction #11, 1955), conducted by Terry Southern, is worth reading here:

*My late-in-life disenchantment with Naked Lunch, a book I loved when I was twenty, doesn't diminish my affection for Bill Burroughs, especially for the shambling YouTube performances of his poems. And if Burroughs on "What Keeps Mankind Alive" is precious, Tom Waits singing Burroughs' lines is sublime.

Chicago: City on the Make is available from the University of Chicago Press.

George Ovitt (6/30/15)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Love After Love

House of Waiting by Marina Tamar Budhos

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger that was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photograph, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

                                Derek Walcott

One could vacation for years in the Caribbean without ever tapping its wealth. For all of its sad and violent history, by which I mean the European destruction of its native peoples and the subsequent scourges of the slave, sugar, and drug trades, the region, best known in the U.S. for its reggae, cruise ships, and Club Med, boasts an extraordinary number of fine, even world-class writers—novelists, poets, philosophers, and historians like George Lamming, V.S. Naipaul, Shiva Naipaul, Jean Rhys, Franz Fanon, José Martí, C.L.R. James, Paula Marshall, Aimé Césaire, Roy Heath, Kamau Brathwaite, Claude McKay, Jamaica Kincaid, Maryse Condé, Simone Schwarz-Bart, Beryl Gilroy, Velma Pollard, Olive Senior, Earl Lovelace, Samuel Selvon, Patrick Chamoiseau, Rosario Ferré, Julia Alvarez, Patricia Powell, Caryl Phillips, Edwidge Dandicat, and, of course, the 1992 Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott.

House of Waiting, set in the early 1950's in New York City and in pre-independence British Guiana, tells the refreshingly unusual story of the tumultuous if finally redemptive relationship and marriage between a Jewish Orthodox New Yorker named Sarah Weissberg and an Indo-Caribbean man named Roland Singh who has fled his greater family and its desperation in colonial Guiana to try to make a life for himself in the U.S., only to return to his native land to take part in its long struggle for independence. 

Guiana or Guyana, meaning 'the land of many waters', was first colonized by the Dutch in the early 1600's and finally seized by the British in 1831 to where they imported thousands of slaves from western Africa to work their highly profitable sugar plantations as a means of meeting the ever-growing European demand for sweets.  With the British abolition of slavery the sugar industry collapsed, though it was eventually replaced by the mining and distribution of the still more profitable resources of diamonds, bauxite, and gold. While blacks suffered miserably under British rule, so too did the sizeable community of East Indians or Arya Hindavi (the People of Hind), recruited en masse from British India as indentured laborers in the wake of the abolition of slavery to work on the failing sugar plantations. While the sugar industry had all but completely collapsed by the time in which this novel is set, it is against this background of colonial greed and exploitation, that the bitter struggle for independence is being waged when narrator and protagonist, Sarah Weissberg's husband, Roland Singh, leaves her in New York to return to Guiana in order to join the radical PPP, the People's Progressive Party, under the populist and charismatic leadership of Cheddi Jagan. 
Unfortunately, as history would tell, the dream was very short-lived. When Jagan and his party won the right to govern and quickly advocated a program for the radical redistribution of the nation's wealth, entailing first and foremost the immediate seizure of the highly exploitative sugar industry, the British government (in league with the CIA) dispatched warships and 700 troops to overthrow the new government under the bogus pretext that they were acting against "part of the international communist conspiracy". 

While simply learning about this—about Guiana, about its Indian community, about its valiant, ultimately successful struggle for independence from the British—would be reason enough to read this short novel, the story itself, an intimate, deeply personal one, makes it especially worthwhile. As you might have guessed, the novel ends with the still-innocent, now pregnant Sarah traveling on her own to Guiana, to Georgetown, to save her marriage and to finally discover the truth about her husband's troubled, if significant past.   

Marina Tamar Budhos, the daughter of an Indo-Guyanese father and a Jewish American mother, was born in Queens, N.Y.  Author, journalist, and educator, she has written two novels, House of Waiting and The Professor of Light.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, June 22, 2015

Could We Please Stop It, Please?

"We live, let’s imagine, in a city where [adults and] children are dying of a ravaging infection. The good news is that its cause is well understood and its cure, an antibiotic, easily at hand. The bad news is that our city council has been taken over by a faith-healing cult that will go to any lengths to keep the antibiotic from the kids. Some citizens would doubtless point out meekly that faith healing has an ancient history in our city, and we must regard the faith healers with respect—to do otherwise would show a lack of respect for their freedom to faith-heal. (The faith healers’ proposition is that if there were a faith healer praying in every kindergarten the kids wouldn’t get infections in the first place.) A few Tartuffes would see the children writhe and heave in pain and then wring their hands in self-congratulatory piety and wonder why a good God would send such a terrible affliction on the innocent—surely he must have a plan! Most of us—every sane person in the city, actually—would tell the faith healers to go to hell, put off worrying about the Problem of Evil till Friday or Saturday or Sunday, and do everything we could to get as much penicillin to the kids as quickly we could."

"We do live in such a city."

--Adam Gopnik (December 19, 2012)


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Fathers and Husbands

A Distant Father, Antonio Skarmeta

I Must Be the Wind, Moon Chung-hee

This illustration is "The Death of Adam," from Piero Della Francesca's great fresco on the Western wall of San Francesco Church in Arezzo. There are three narratives here, and, following the model of most medieval story telling, they are juxtaposed within the flattened picture plane of this single image. On the right, seated, is Adam, father of us all, who is sending his son Seth to the Archangel Michael; in the background you can just make out the angelic meeting, while, on the left, the now-deceased Adam is laid to rest, surrounded by his family, some of whom prefer not to wear much clothing--Piero's way of incorporating classical motifs in what is an otherwise sacred picture (see Heinrich Zimmer, The Survival of the Pagan Gods on this convention).  The text that inspired this depiction of Adam's dying--our father, who art of earth--is found in the Golden Legend or Legenda Sanctorum--Lives of the Saints--compiled in the thirteenth century by Jacobus de Voragine. Any reader of Chaucer is familiar with some of this material: the Second Nun's Tale of St. Cecilia (Englished by that genius William Caxton in 1486) and a portion of the Physician's Tale of Virginius (whose roots are ultimately in Roman literature) have connections to the Golden Legend.  The Tree under which Adam was buried provided the wood for the True Cross; it is under this same tree that one finds the opening to hell--this spot is the omphalos of Christian legend.

"And in the end of his life when he [Adam] should die, it is said, but of none authority, that he sent Seth his son into Paradise for to fetch the oil of mercy, where he received certain grains of the fruit of the tree of mercy by an angel. And when he came again he found his father Adam yet alive and told him what he had done. And then Adam laughed first and then died. And then he laid the grains or kernels under his father's tongue and buried him in the vale of Hebron; and out of his mouth grew three trees of the three grains, of which trees the cross that our Lord suffered his passion on was made, by virtue of which he gat very mercy, and was brought out of darkness into very light of heaven. To the which he bring us that liveth and reigneth God, world without end." 

I love the line: "Adam laughed first and then died." And: "...out of his mouth grew three trees..." Fascinating iconography. Here is Christ crucified on the Tree of Life, with the serpent still in residence.This is a confusing reading of Genesis as it was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that tempted Adam (Gen. 3: 22-24); it was to keep Adam and his suggestible companion away from the Tree of Life that our primordial parents were banished from Eden. We need to recall that medieval and Renaissance artists relied as often on legendary texts for their iconography as on Scripture, which is, of course, full of its own ambiguities. (e.g. Gen. 4:17)

This interesting image is from the church of San Petronio in Bologna, painted by Giovanni de Modena, whose work includes several versions of this scene, all conflating origins with redemption--the sacral tree at the center of the drama of creation, fall, and appeasement.

The primal father in the three monotheistic religions (Adam shows up in the Qu'ran not only as the first human being, but as the person who has taught us all we know, the source of civilization and culture--Prometheus--see e.g. Sura II) is an complex figure. Progenitor and renegade; beloved of God and cursed by Him; awarded Paradise and banished to the realm of the fixed stars (in Dante, see Paradiso, Canto 26--the constellation that Adam shares with St. Peter is Gemini, Dante's own), which I take to be a demotion. Catholic theology's mansion has too many rooms, and Adam, who, let's face it, neither asked to be created nor solicited temptation, got a raw deal. But don't fathers always fare poorly in the mythopoetic literature? Perhaps they deserve to be nothing more than fixed stars, eternally rotating to a tune played by God and his Divine Mother (l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle...)


Distant Fathers: is there any other kind?  The heavenly version, to be sure, is the archetype of the earthly--silent, absent, obsessed, it appears, with His own concerns. Mine worked late and took long naps on the couch while, miraculously, smoking a cigarette. Then, as sometimes happens, he disappeared altogether. In Antonio Skarmeta's charming mini-novella (I read it in an hour and a half), the narrator's father goes away unexpectedly--presumably to Paris (he's French, so where else), leaving Jacques and his bereft mother alone in their backwater Chilean village, lost without a man who, given the condensed nature of the narrative, has no real substance.  The mythical father, shortcomings aside, is the very best kind: e.g. attentive and tender Leopold Bloom, childless, father to Stephan Daedalus. Or, from my reading this morning, Philip Roth's portrayal of his father in Patrimony. Skarmeta's Jacques, who is a schoolteacher enamored of the younger sister of one of his pupils, stumbles upon his past on his way to the bordello in a neighboring town. Fictional boys wishing to become fictional men must lose their virginity to a whore who is sexually condescending; does this sort of thing ever happen? My hometown had a YMCA but no bordello (alas). Little more can be said plot-wise without ruining the story--this small tale, a tidy Fathers Day present of a book, an uplifting tale to be stuffed into Dad's backpack as he sets off for the Sports Bar--hinges upon a plot twist worthy of Chaucer. The book is nearly artless, and that is its art. There isn't any psychological complexity to deal with, no mysteries: Jacques seeks his father and....well, he might find him. Antonio Skarmeta wrote the novel and the screenplay for the popular film "The Postman." I didn't see the film but it is easy enough to see that Skarmeta is the sort of writer who could easily write screenplays--A Distant Father would make a nice film.  Skarmeta is not at all your typical Latin American--especially Chilean--writer. He is fond of every character in this book, he works outside the usual political boundaries of Chilean writing, and deploys not an iota of irony in telling a story that is engaging and uplifting. It turns out that the lost father might be found and returned to us without a drop of blood being shed.


As for husbands, those illusive beings who hope that on one day a year they will receive the pampering (breakfast in bed!) no longer their birthright in this fallen world--there is this, by the Korean poet Moon Chung-hee:


Neither father nor brother,
but somewhere between the two,
when a restless love keeps me awake,
I yearn to talk to him, alas,
I can bare everything to him
but this: I spin
in bed
the closest, the farthest man on Earth.
I'm amazed at times what a foe he is,
yet he could be the one
who loves my babies best.
I cook dinner for him.
He, I realize, is the one I shared
most meals with, who taught me
how to fight.

I Must Be the WInd by Moon Chung-hee, translated by ClareYou and Richard Silberg is Volume 19 in the excellent Korean Voices Series, published by White Pine Press in Buffalo--


The good people at Other Press in New York publish Skarmeta's A Distant Father, translated by John Cullen. It's a beautiful book.

George Ovitt (6/17/15)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Paper Children by Mariana Marin

One day the Great Them will come.
It will throw open the windows,
sit at our table,
drink the untasted wine—
then tear us to tatters.
The most beautiful Mediterranean civilization
will have long ago drowned in the sea,
and the thirteen months of the Ethiopian calendar
set ablaze our Flemish gloom.
One day, like a child in its mother-of-pearl placenta,
the Greta Theme will come,
and we'll set out for the swamps.
We'll exult in the vision of horizontal (universal) mud
swallowing the surrealist sleep that still shelters us.
The insomnia of reason produces monsters—
soon the mud will start to howl.
And the hours of salvation when the poem writhes every which way;
the desert fresh with fiery ashes;
the gaiety of these open arteries
through which I the mud rush, howling...
One day the Great Theme will come.
Possibly it will find us rereading passages
from Gabriela Mistral.
In its wake the wind
will continue
to tear to tatters
your white shirt,
my fire-bright nails,
their red like roses.

My clearest, most persistent memory of the Romanian Revolution of 1989, of the  popular overthrow of the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, was the rumor I'd heard on the news that he'd escaped with his wife, Elena, under cover of darkness in one of the army tanks patrolling the city that night. I pictured them cowering in the small, cramped space, trembling with outrage and fear. As it turned out, they were not hiding out in a tank after all; instead they had escaped by helicopter from the roof of Bucharest's Central Committee building, had been tricked into landing shortly thereafter, when they were promptly arrested. Once in custody, they were tried by a kangaroo court and summarily executed by firing squad, thus ending what was a nearly 25 year reign of terror and oppression, a toxic cult of personality from which the nation has still not recovered.

While initially championed by his fellow Romanians for his open, often defiant challenge to Soviet control, Ceauşescu remained strict, even creedbound, in his communism—in the centralization of his authority and in his notorious use of the secret police, the Securitate, to control education and the media, and to crush all heterodox expression and dissent. Under Ceauşescu, the Securitate, employing over 11,000 agents and at least a half a million informers, was one of the most brutal secret police forces in the world, responsible for the torture and killing of thousands of people, including, if not limited to, the usual suspects: teachers, intellectuals, artists, and writers.

On the Fifth Floor

when the putrefied loneliness of each morning
thunders inside your skull.
On the fifth floor of a drab apartment building
in a notorious proletarian district,
poetry restores to you the migratory instinct
of small gray birds.
How much love
              “When must everything depart from us?”
              Does everything abandon us?”
(yes, time once held cherry trees and ivy).
In your rabbit-like shamelessness
what kind of death
did you make your bedfellow in these recent years?
Oh, poor earthbound terror!
when inside your skull, like a miracle,
you feast on yourself.
There will come a time for frost and for the snout,
a time for the whip that lashes your cheek
and for small gray pigs.

Mariana Marin lived most of her life—as a woman and poet—under Ceauşescu's imperious thumb. Silenced, forbidden to publish her work, for her outspoken criticism of the government and for her "proud, accusatory" poems, Marin was widely recognized as one of Romania's most gifted poets by the time she died in 2003 at the age of forty-seven. For years a grade school teacher and librarian, she made a name for herself among poets and critics with her first book of poetry, A Hundred Years' War, for which she was awarded the Romanian Writers' Union Prize. Yet it was her membership in the eminent critic Nicolae Manolescu's Monday Poetry Circle, "a self-aware, productive and influential avant-garde," that really brought her work to fruition throughout the 1980's, most of which was first published in France. While translator and fellow Romanian, Adam Sorkin argues, in his fine introduction to Paper Children, that Marin was "not at heart a political poet"  as illustrated by her often knot-like syntax and by the stubborn opacity of her imagery, her poetry is nevertheless distinguished, not by wordplay and wit, conventions for which she'd had little patience as a poet, but by "its mood of stoic resignation and attitude of moral condemnation," by her stern assessment of the world around her, a verdict, a judgment, rendered up—like the words of the Prophets—by means she herself described as "the machinery of  my sickened glance." In her poems there is no vanity, no self-pity. Indeed, as Adam Sorkin remarks in his introduction, Marin’s poems are often so raw it is as if, in writing them, she had skinned herself alive. 

Elegy IX

Oh, the guilt and horror
before so many strangled truths!
Who will testify
about the crimes committed against us?
Today's simple words,
screwed into our only body
which can be given over to death,
will they, I wonder, make us good?
I am not a moral being,
Yet can anyone alive manage to remain
unsullied, maintain integrity?
Sometimes on tropical summer nights
when I climb down the evolutionary ladder of the species,
I see and think with a single eye in my forehead,
isolated and shattered.

Then I seem to hear curses and incantations
in a language in which we used to dream.

Paper Children, translated by Adam J. Sorkin, is published in a beautiful bilingual edition by Ugly Duck Presse as part of their Eastern European Poets Series.

Peter Adam Nash