Monday, September 18, 2017

Chaos in Fourteen Lines

“I will put chaos in fourteen lines” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The sonnet is known as the “Odysseus’ bow” of poetic forms. Here is a Petrarchan sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay about the art, the challenge, of this remarkable form:

I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon—his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet Order, where in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years, of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.

For those of you interested in the form and history of the sonnet, I highly recommend the book, The Making of a Sonnet, edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland. It is worth it for their introductions alone.

Peter Nash

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Esteemed Mother

Tranquility by Attila Bartis

…a set of stairs leading nowhere is still something very human.

“Reading like the bastard child of Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek,” writes Brian Evenson in his review of this fine 2009 novel, “Tranquility is political and personal suffering distilled perfectly and transformed into dark, viscid beauty.” Indeed there is a relentless, often claustrophobic darkness to this somehow-still-beautiful tale of the tortured relationship between a mother and son. Set in Communist-era Hungary, it is in fact deeply reminiscent of such novels as Bernhard’s The Limeworks and Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher in its smart and literate despair. What distinguishes Tranquility, however, what captivates the reader and holds her, what in fact saves the novel from itself, is the narrator’s almost Christ-like forbearance and equanimity when it comes to his descriptions of his mother. Given all he is forced to endure from her, his lack of cynicism (what is in essence the author’s own empathy for her) is nothing less than extraordinary.

The narrator, Andor Weér, is a beleaguered thirty-six year old writer living with his embittered, shut-in mother, a once-celebrated stage actress, in her wretched Budapest flat, an ‘eighty-two-square meter crypt with a northerly exposure’, an apartment decorated in large part with the props and furniture she has pilfered over the years from the sets of old plays. Included among these relics, these mementos, are a chest of drawers from the bedroom of Anna Karenina, a rug from The Merchant of Venice, a chandelier from some Czech comedy, and an armchair once belonging to Lady Macbeth, one of his mother’s starring roles.  

Compounding this cruel, plainly Oedipal relationship, are the narrator’s sister, Judit, a successful concert violinist and recent defector, and the narrator’s girlfriend, the beautiful Eszter, his only real hope to live.  

At the heart of what makes this otherwise pathetic narrator so compelling is his ardent if twisted devotion to his mother, an affection perhaps best expressed by the imaginary letters he writes to her from her estranged daughter, Judit, letters, posted by friends from places as near if still foreign as Paris, Venice, Zurich, and Cologne and as distant and exotic as Caracas, Istanbul, and Tel Aviv. “Esteemed Mother,” they always begin, a salutation, an entreaty really, that, for all its seeming sarcasm, always feels deeply and painfully real.

Like much of the best Eastern European fiction, this finely wrought roman noir is not for the faint of heart. To see if it is right for you, I recommend that you watch the opening scene from Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s 2011 film, The Turin Horse. While a different story altogether, it’ll put you in the mood of this bleak if haunting tale: The Turin Horse

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, August 20, 2017


Powell's Book Store, Portland

They call it "a city of books" and that's about right. You need a road map to navigate the floors and aisles and seemingly endless ranges of books, new and used. The store employs a clever color-coding system to steer you (for example) to a thousand small-press poetry books, a corner of one floor where I spent an hour in a mind-boggling world dedicated to the printed word. My second hour was spent in the fictional "A's" agog at the many editions of Jane Austen I had never seen before. Then there's a short break in Powell's cafeteria-sized coffee shop--folks carry piles of books to the long communal tables and flip through them as they recover from the overwhelming experience of browsing in this shrine to Logos, the universe of knowledge.

I won't be climbing Mt. Everest or traversing the North Pole in this lifetime, but I have made it a point to visit as many bookstores as possible--my bucket list. In no particular order, these are my favorite places to browse: Haslam's Book Store in St. Petersburg; Fifty-Seventh Street Books in Hyde Park, Chicago; Labyrinth Books on the Upper West Side of New York; The Book Warehouse in Vancouver, BC; Politics and Prose in D.C.; the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts; the Tattered Cover in Denver; and Page One in Albuquerque. There have been others, many of them  dead and gone, Amazoned into oblivion.  And now, at long last, I've visited Powell's--the granddaddy of them all, the Sans Souci of bookstores.

The town where I live--there are half-a-million people--has a stolid Barnes and Noble and a paltry handful of used-book stores. When I arrived here, seventeen years ago, the situation was quite different: there were dozens of bookstores, and my wife and I could spend a relaxing Saturday browsing books on Central Avenue, stopping now and again for a cup of coffee that didn't cost five bucks. No more. The bookstores are gone, replaced by upscale eateries, bars with the charm of airport hangers, and fly-by-night shops whose life expectancy is equal to the attention span of the average consumer.

Traveling this summer, sitting in airports and restaurants in three states and two countries, I wasn't surprised to see that virtually no one reads books in his leisure moments. On airplanes, my fellow passengers flipped through in-flight magazines before watching Netflix on their phones and iPads. In coffee shops smart phones dominate everyone's attention; indeed, it was rare to see a person in her twenties not gazing at a cell phone, whether walking or sitting still, thumbs rapidly twirling out missives to someone glued to his phone. Outside of Powell's--an enclave for the literate that put me in mind of Fahrenheit 451, the book people desperately preserving our written past--one simply did not see a person holding, much less reading, a book.

Our President is proudly illiterate, a Twitterer, a man for whom anything worth saying can be condensed into a telegraphic sentence or two.  He isn't alone. When something happens these days, there ensues a race to comment in a pithy half-sentence--no longer do we have statesmen who ruminate and consider what they think, now the hacks rush to fill the blogosphere with unconsidered opinions. Those who don't have the concentration to engage with a book, to wind their way through a complex narrative or an intricate argument, are unlikely to develop the ability to untangle a momentous problem or to articulate a position that requires their own and their audience's attention.

These unhappy thoughts pressed on me as I leafed through dozens of biographies at Powell's. Lives lived with a purpose beyond self-aggrandizement, lives lived deeply and preserved in a language that isn't designed to be instantly superseded by another jumble of characters, by yet another quip whose shelf life will be no more than one news cycle. I was especially moved by Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered for its subtle evocation of a life lived on the perilous edge of a totalitarian regime. A study of the endurance of the mind in the face of mindlessness.

Fascism begins with the conviction that thinking diminishes our effectiveness as actors--fascists privilege the will over the intellect. Ideas are the product of individual cognition and silent meditation. Fascists have no patience for individuals--it is far easier to manipulate a mass of people than a lone individual--nor do fascists see the point of silence when it is far more distracting to fill the air with bluster. Books are an impediment to conformity, and they dull the edge of anger. Burn them, then burn their authors. Or, better still, ignore them. It's remarkably easy to do so.

Leaving Powell's for the last time, I couldn't help but feel both exhilarated and sad. I'd spent more money than I could afford, and I felt thankful that such a marvelous throwback to an earlier era could still exist, and perhaps even thrive, in a country that has abandoned reading for other pursuits.* But I also felt as if Powell's was as much a museum as a store, a monument to a time when reading books was not uncommon, when every town had a bookstore, even if weren't Powell's.

But there's hope. Young people, mostly thanks to the remarkable Ms. Rowling, are reading more than their elders. In 1970, only eight percent of adult Americans hadn't read a single book; that figure is up to twenty-four percent as of 2014. (Another twenty percent of American adults read only a single book per year). But those under fifteen are reading more than in the recent past. May they continue to do so! 


George Ovitt (6/20/17)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

On Not Being a Woman

Seven Sisters, Margaret Drabble

My wife bought me a telescope for my birthday.  In early summer, on a moonless night atop Granite Knob in the Zuni Mountains of west-central New Mexico, I turned my eye toward the heavens. This spot is so dark and isolated that even with the naked eye one is overwhelmed by the plenitude of stars. In winter, with ordinary binoculars, one can observe the dusty edge of our Milky Way. But I was unprepared for the spectacle I observed this past June--an infinite universe of stars punctuated by blackness, as if one had poured a bag of rice out on a coal-black floor. Each star a pinpoint of light, some pulsing, some seemingly melted into its neighbors, some appearing and then vanishing as I strained to count what I could see in my eyepiece. All the multitude in enduring silence. My family was tucked into sleeping bags--even in June the air is cold at 8000 feet--and, alone, I felt myself tearing up, perhaps from eyestrain, but more likely from the sublime first-hand weight of gazing into infinity. We are built to understand many things, but not what is most fundamental to our being in this world.


I was curious enough about James Damore's Google memo--the one that argues that Google's gender diversity efforts are misguided due to women's biological differences from men--differences translated by Damore, ham-handedly, into intellectual and social differences--to read the document. I'm guessing Mr. Damore's circle of acquaintance includes few women, or else he could never have bundled half of the world's population into such a tidy and myopic stereotype.  Red meat for the alt-right to be sure, but not worth one's time aside from the shadowy light the document and its reception throws on the current revival of unabashed misogyny.  As the father of daughters, husband to a wife who could code with one hand and write sonnets with the other, the colleague of dozens of remarkable non-men, and the son of a mother, I often puzzle over what it is that upsets men so much about women. Mr. Damore, a self-described conservative and opponent of "political correctness," is a case in point. What bug in his bonnet could possibly have inspired him to write a ten-page memo opposing affirmative action (in regard to gender equity) in an industry notorious for its masculine culture?  His fatuous arguments--e.g. women are social and empathetic and therefore can't write code as well as aloof and intellectual men--clearly appeal to a broad range of American males, beginning with our Commander-in-Chief.  Isn't it possible to acknowledge differences without organizing a hierarchy around them? Must we cling to these outdated idols of the tribe?


This morning I read a piece on Claire Messud in the Times. I enjoy her books, though the interviewer made Ms. Massud sound like a privileged malcontent--one wonders how difficult it is to be a professor at Harvard, married to a professor at Harvard, a woman whose books are lauded and who is taken seriously enough to be the subject of a Times profile. One sentence caught my eye: "If Messud is angry about something, [note: she is] it’s the social constructs that work against women’s ambition and desire, rendering them invisible or even snuffing them out. ‘‘Women aren’t supposed to want stuff,’’ she said. 'They’re not supposed to have high emotions.'’’ I assume the pronoun refers to ambitions and desires and not to women; even so, I wondered if this generalization was true in the absolute sense that Messud's words imply. "Women aren't supposed to want stuff." Not being a woman, I can't presume to judge, but couldn't one say with equal certainty that an African-American man in America is not supposed to want stuff; that poor white men--coal miners and unemployed factory workers--are not supposed to want stuff, that the poor in general aren't visible enough to have emotions that matter to anyone? Who exactly is allowed to feel big emotions and to want things? And what are the "social constructs" of which Messud speaks?  I came away from the interview dazed by the untethered generalizations, puzzled by how Messud's purported views fit her novels, yet certain I had no business doubting the truth of what she feels.


Margaret Drabble writes intelligent books about women's lives, at least I believe that she does. I've launched myself in a leaky boat: I want to claim I've learned something while reading Drabble, something about the inner lives of women, but my presumption is as shaky as Messud's reported views. "Women's lives" tipples from the tongue, but is there such a thing? Is their a Woman's Life in the sense that there are (some) biological characteristics shared by most women, and if that's what we mean by the phrase, have we really said anything? It turns out, if you read the literature of neurobiology (I have dipped my toe in--the problems are really difficult*) that even the biological construction of gender is slippery. What is the correlation between testosterone and computer code? How does having male genitals lead to "linear thinking"?  Doesn't biological determinism give you the willies? It does me.


There aren't really Seven Sisters in the constellation Pleiades--M45 to you software engineers out there--but we place them in the night sky for the convenience, or the poetry, of making sense of the beads of light that left the Seven during Shakespeare's childhood.  That's what we do: we gather together into bundles, like natural-born Platonists, the disparate facts of the world so that they fit our language, a language that is fond of abstract nouns.  The "Right" and the "Left." "White and Black." "Legal and Illegal." "Gay and Straight." I'm not being obtuse, just wondering if, when we think about gender, we're not placing too great a faith in the comfort of a taxonomy that leaves out almost everything about a person--her body (which is more than her sex), her history, her age, her language. When Mr. Damore asserts that biologically, and therefore invariably, "women are more social then men" we shouldn't accuse him of sexism, we should accuse him of laziness.


Margaret Drabble has been writing excellent books for a very long time. I won't review her career here except to say that she's played the long game and is a writer of enormous intellectual gifts. I hadn't read Seven Sisters before, and I came to it right after her latest novel, The Dark Flood Rises, also excellent. Drabble excels in portraying the ambiguities of her characters' inner lives. She  deconstructs the myth of psychological rigidity--we aren't any one thing but contain multitudes of selves, some of which are surprising even to us. The story of Seven Sisters is far too interesting and complex for quick summary, suffice to say that the voice at the heart of the book belongs to Candida Wilton, an older, recently divorced woman who, living alone in a sketchy part of London, patches together a new life out of diverse acquaintances and interests (swimming and The Aeneid among them). What Drabble does exceptionally well is to simultaneously assert and undercut her characters' inner certainties--she understands and portrays the tentativeness of our lives better than most writers, while at the same time dispatching her lovingly imagined women into a world that deserves all the mockery it gets. Drabble is laugh-aloud funny, as mordant as Bernhard, Shakespearean in the richness of her language, and a brilliant analyst of character. Like Anne Tyler, Drabble's women live out quiet dramas--what to eat for dinner when you're suddenly eating alone--that are nonetheless compelling. The second half of Seven Sisters describes the journey of seven women to North Africa and to Italy, retracing the steps of Aeneas from the abandonment of Dido to the founding of Rome. The seven comprise a motley crew--older, but otherwise as different from one another as seven people could be. What Drabble does with the alchemy of these seven sisters is extraordinary--there is freshness and surprise on every page. And yet, like their heavenly counterparts, the Seven comprise a picture, a story that is more unified than not. Women alone or mostly so, sustaining themselves in different ways, but in no way that could be construed as "uniquely" female. One (Sally) craves companionship and gossip; one lives for the life of the mind (Mrs. Jerrold); one longs for recognition; another (Anais) quietly seeks out small moments of happiness in a tumultuous world. And Candida, our guide, our Virgil, longs to discover her own soul, a life apart from her two-timing husband. And she does. Who among us doesn't yearn for these same things?

The problem with reductive biological arguments is that in order for them to have predictive power, they must be universal. What do we say about anti-social women--that they deviate from the presumed biological norm in the way that a bicycle-riding dog deviates from four leggedness? I never had a male teacher until I got to high school; in my daughters' grade school, half the teachers are men. A pseudo-biological argument was used to justify my experience, but now we learn that what's required in a teacher can be taught, given certain predispositions that are mostly the product of one's upbringing (empathy, patience, an attention span, etc.).  Nineteen-percent of Google's engineers are women--that's too high a number to be anomalous; maybe the dearth of women coders lies in institutions and not in the brain. If Damore were right--David Brooks believes that he is--then, logically, there couldn't be any successful women writing computer code, or as few as dogs currently riding bicycles. When I first started playing competitive chess, few women participated in the tournaments that I attended. Far more play now, and many are very good. I'm pretty sure that biological adaptation isn't responsible for this change--nope, girls are now encouraged to take up the game, and they have, with increasingly impressive results.


I didn't actually learn anything about women this summer. I read a lot of books, starting with Merlin Stone's classic When God Was a Woman and ending, just the other day, with Siri Hustvedt's A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women.  The problem I had--the reason I learned nothing--was that every time I came upon a fact about a woman that someone might wish to ascribe to Women, I convinced myself that the fact was contingent upon a set of historical circumstances that undercut the claim to universality.  This is a point that some feminists make about Western feminism--that it is steeped in bourgeois culture and affected by the capitalist norms of one small part of the world and not representative of the experiences and viewpoints of all women. This criticism feels valid, but, to be honest, I can't excuse myself from believing, a priori, that biological determinism provides little help when it comes to understanding gender roles and human behavior. Mostly I think it's dangerous to ascribe behaviors to biology if the ascription is (covertly) in defense of some form of oppression.


Which is why I read novels. 

*For some flavor of the difficulty see Patricia Churchland, "Can Neurobiology Teach Us Anything About Consciousness?"

George Ovitt (8/12/17)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Defense of the Human, The Defense of the Mind

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts 
          by Clive James

                                      In a universe more and more abstract, it is up to us to make sure
                                      that the human voice does not cease to be heard.

                                                                                                Witold Gombrowicz

If there has ever been a time in my life that called for a wholesale re-appreciation of humanism as an essential way of being in the world that time is now. Donald Trump is but the witless, leering figurehead of a supranational  groundswell of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism that is currently laying siege to many of the greatest achievements of the human mind, an embarrassment of riches, ranging from philosophy, politics, rhetoric, education, science, medicine, psychology, and law to art, literature, music, and history to agriculture, journalism, architecture, theater, and dance. Touted by religious and political zealots, and exploited daily by corporate warlords in their ruthless pursuit of wealth, this vengeful backlash is apparent nearly everywhere one turns: in our politics and laws, in our schools and universities, in our healthcare and hospitals, in our policing and our prisons, and in our homes and civic spaces. It is a backlash that threatens to erode and redefine our hard-won thinking about the natural world itself, and our relationship to it, by attacking science at large, its very authority, now openly (if mostly cynically) impugned.

At least a part of the problem lies in the fracturing and general denigration of the humanities in the U.S. as a whole since WWII, by which in particular I mean the steady corporate-governmental takeover of the sciences (and of the mathematics they employ) for their own often mercenary, often violent, often starkly anti-democratic ends. These days largely divorced from the studia Humanitatis, the time-honored disciplines of science and mathematics are increasingly now but the tools, the handmaidens, of wealth and power, faithful servants of that menacing military industrial complex that sociologist C. Wright Mills warned us about, back in 1956, in his groundbreaking study, The Power Elite. More critical to the fate of humanity than ever, these ancient fields of inquiry must be wrested from the grip of this powerful and reckless elite, and brought back into the fold, so as once again to serve the interests of peace and justice, so as once again to serve the interests of the many instead of the few.    

“Humanism,” as defined by the American Humanist Association, “is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports the maximization of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. It advocates the extension of participatory democracy and the expression of the open society, standing for human rights and social justice. Free of supernaturalism, it recognizes human beings as a part of nature and holds that values—be they religious, ethical, social or political—have their source in human experience and culture. Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny.”

Adolf Hitler believed that the mind was inherently seditious, and therefore that the body alone should be the focus of a sound education, as only the body could be loyal and true. Of course he was right: it is the very seditiousness of the mind—its capacity to question, to reason, to imagine alternatives—that makes us most truly, most defiantly human.

To that end, I strongly recommend Clive James’ richly provocative compendium of short essays, Cultural Amnesia, a light, a beacon, in these deeply dark times. Praised as “a master of eloquent distemper”, Clive James “illuminates, rescues or occasionally demolishes” the careers of many of the greatest figures of the twentieth century—and all with an erudition and a faith in the human spirit that will make you shake your head in awe.  

Sweeping back and forth through time in his treatment of such famous (sometimes infamous) figures as Leon Trotsky, Albert Einstein, Josef Goebbels, Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, Louis Armstrong, Jean Cocteau, Albert Camus, and Mao Zedong, James is equally compelling in his portraits of such brilliant, if lesser known lights as Walter Benjamin, Anna Akmatova, Nirad C. Chauduri, Robert Brassilach, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Raymond Aron, Federico Fellini, Zinka Milanov, Isoroku Yamamoto, Witold Gombrowicz, Eugenio Montale, Octavio Paz, Edward Said, Beatrix Potter, Charlie Chaplin, and Coco Chanel.

Cultural Amnesia is a stirring, eclectic, often provocative exploration of “the mental life of modern times” that is plainly reminiscent of the great essays of Montaigne. As James himself reminds us in his introduction: “It has always been a part of the definition of humanism that true learning has no end in view except its own furtherance.” Read these essays and marvel; read these essays and think.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, July 17, 2017


Iris Origo, Leopardi: A Study in Solitude

Robert Galassi (translator), Canti

He lived under conditions of "unbearable oppression," in a Catholic household of such strictness that he felt himself always alone in his sinfulness; bereft of love, incapable of spontaneity, ill in body, sick at heart. (39-40). His father, Conte Monaldo, a banal reactionary and minor grandee,  belonged to an ancient, if fading family; he was, after a fashion, the master of Recanati a small hill town in the Marches, fifteen miles from the Adriatic. (Leopardi could smell the sea on his walks). The poet's mother, Countess Adelaide, a woman of narrow and fanatical piety, was the true master of Recanati, a domineering woman whom the Count deferred to in all matters relating to both his household and his children.  As a child, Leopardi was dressed as an abbot and surrounded by priests. To say he was cloistered is an understatement--he lived as a monk lives, secluded, repressed, fearful, and guilt-ridden. Yet he would become the greatest Italian poet since Dante, one of the finest philologists of the 19th century, and a philosopher of great depth and originality. He died, aged thirty-eight, in 1837.

"Everything that will follow in two centuries of Western lyric poetry is here [in Leopardi]: a new self-consciousness of the writer's alienation from life, with the constant companionship of pain and the consolation of the power of memory--all evoked with unmediated directness and haunting, expressive beauty." (Jonathan Glassi, from the Introduction to the Canti).

Iris Origo, Leopardi's fine biographer, evokes the fruits of the poet's melancholy solitude in the pages of her engaging and empathetic Study in Solitude--how, for example, after an idyllic spring wandering the "fields and lanes" of Pisa, and experiencing--as was the norm with Leopardi--the pangs of unrequited love--he returned to his solitary study at Recanti to write the beautiful song "Silvia":

Silvia, rimembri ancora
Quel tempo della tua vita mortale, 
Quando belta splendea
Negli occhi tuoi ridenti e fuggitivi,
E tu, lieta e pensosa, il limitare
Di gioventu salivi?  

(Silvia, do you still recall
the time during your mortal life,
when beauty shone
in your laughing and startled eyes 
And you, lively and thoughtful, 
arrived at the threshold of youth?)
[my translation]

Origo provides readings of many of the Idylls and Canti, as well as ongoing psychological insights into the poet's state of mind as he wrote his verses and the great, unclassifiable text we know as Zibaldone. In terms of the reach of his interests, his erudition and clarity of mind, no one rivals Leopardi among early nineteenth century poets aside from Coleridge--indeed, the two poets, different in so many respects, were remarkably alike in their engagement with poetic expression as a form of world-making. For Leopardi, words were real--more real than anything else--and from them one could, as he did, craft a reality more accommodating, more habitable, than the one in which he lived.

Anyone new to Leopardi, or wishing to extend his or her grasp of this great poet's work, could do no better than to read Origo along with Galassi's accurate and poetic renditions of Leopardi's finest work. At some level, I believe that Leopardi is like Rilke--untranslateable for the simple reason that his language is so uniquely his own--but Galassi has done a remarkable job of bringing these great lyrics to English readers.

Leopardi: A Study in Solitude, is published by Books and Co./Helen Marx Books' Galassi's versions of the Canti, with an excellent introduction by FSG.

George Ovitt (7/17/17)

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Uses of History

News from the Empire by Fernando Del Paso

                        “I’ll tell you,” she said, in the same hurried and passionate whisper,
                        “what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation,
                        utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole  
                        world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter—as I did!

                                                                                               Charles Dickens

True history, insists historian J.H. Plumb in his 1969 book The Death of the Past, is basically destructive in the way that, by its very nature, it attacks those mythical, religious, and political interpretations of the past by which cultures and nations sanctify themselves, cleansing “the story of mankind from those deceiving visions of a purposeful past.” It is a passage that might very well be used to describe certain types of literary fiction as well, novels—like War and Peace and The Man Without Qualities, like Del Paso’s truly magisterial News from the Empire—that not only cleanse the story of mankind from those deceiving visions of a purposeful, mythical past, but enrich and complicate it by adding flesh and feeling to its bones. History—as novelists know well—is finally an eminently personal thing.  

“In 1861,” writes Del Paso in his prefatory remarks to the novel, “Benito Juárez suspended payment on the foreign debt of Mexico. This suspension was the pretext that the Emperor of the French, Napoleon III, used to send an army of occupation to Mexico with the purpose of creating a monarchy there, at the helm of which would be a European Catholic monarch. An Austrian, Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg, was chosen. He arrived in Mexico in the middle of 18164 accompanied by his wife, Princess Charlotte of Belgium.  The book is based on these historical facts, and on the story of the tragic end of this ephemeral Emperor and Empress of Mexico.”  

Indeed Maximillian, for all his good, liberal intentions, proved particularly ill-suited to the post, to the demands of successfully contending with both the international intrigues that had brought him to power there and with the increasingly violent divisions within Mexico itself. Preferring to ‘chase butterflies’ on his estate at the ancient Borda Gardens in Cuernavaca, gardens perhaps most recently made famous as the site of the final scene of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano in which the body of the novel’s hero, the British consul Geoffrey Firmin, is dumped like so much rubbish into the barranca below:


Maximillian’s death, by firing squad, was scarcely more distinguished than that. 

What is particularly remarkable about this novel, aside from its often extraordinarily fine prose, is that, for all its historical sweep and grandeur, it is rendered up for the reader on a decidedly intimate, decidedly human scale, filtered as it is, in large part, through the mad and fevered reveries of the aged, long-widowed Carlota, an embittered, broken-hearted, remarkably Miss Havisham-like woman who, passes the time, following her inglorious return to Europe, in “mercurial madness,” pining daily for her late husband and true love, Maximilian, and berating the world for its indifference to such refined, once-noble fates.  

The novel opens with her haughty, still imperious voice:

I am Marie Charlotte of Belgium, Empress of Mexico and America. I am Marie Charlotte Amelie, cousin of the Queen of England, Grand magister of the Cross of Saint Charles, and Vicereine of the Lombardo-Veneto Provinces, which Austria’s clemency and mercy has submitted under the two-headed eagle of the House of Habsburg I am Marie Charlotte Amélie Victoria, daughter of Leopold. Prince of Saxe-Coburg and King of Belgium, known as ‘The Nestor of Europe,’ and who would take me onto his lap, caress my chestnut tresses, and call me the little sylph of the Castle of Laeken. I am Marie Charlotte Amélie Victoria Clémentine, daughter of Louise Marie of Orléans, the saintly queen with the blue eyes and the Bourbon nose who died of consumption and of the sorrow caused by the exile and death of Louis Philippe, my grandfather, who, as King of France, showered me with chestnuts and covered my face with kisses in the Tuileries Gardens. I am Marie Charlotte Amélie Victoria Clémentine Léopoldine, niece of Prince Joinville and cousin of the Count of Paris; I am sister of the Duke of Brabant, who became King of Belgium and colonized the Congo, and of the Counts of Flanders in whose arms I learned to dance, at the age of ten, under the shade of flowering hawthorns. I am Charlotte Amélie, wife of Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, Prince of Loraine, Emperor of Mexico and King of the World, who was born in the Imperial Palace of Schönbrunn, and who was the first descent of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to cross the ocean and tread on America soil; who built a white palace for me with a view of the sea on the shores of the Adriatic; who later took me to Mexico to live in a gray castle with a view of the valley and the snowcapped volcanoes and who, on a June morning, many years ago, was executed in the city of Querétero. I am Charlotte Amélie, Regent of Anahuac, Queen of Nicaragua, Baroness of Matto Grosso, and Princess of Chichén Itzá. I am Charlotte Amélie of Belgium, Empress of Mexico and America. I am eighty-six years old and for sixty years now I’ve quenched my lunatic thirst with water from Roman fountains…

Rounding out this singular voice and perspective are those of a wide variety of contemporary players, both distinguished and prosaic, ranging from Napoleon III, Count Metternich, Emperor Maximillian, and Benito Juárez to a patriotic camp follower, a cuckolded palace gardener, and a randy Basque priest. For those with a fondness for Mexico, News from the Empire is a demanding, if exceptionally rewarding tale.

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Looking Askance

Michael C. Keith, Perspective Drifts Like a Log on a River

In the glory days of the logging industry, tens of thousands of cut trees would float on the rivers of New England and the Northwest to saw mills situated near larger port cities, to be milled and shaped, and transported to markets here and abroad. Thirty years ago I witnessed such a log float in Vermont--a kind of round up, not unlike the cattleman's springtime gathering of the herd--and what struck me above all, aside from the sheer number of oak and pine logs harvested in the northern forests,  was the capriciousness and power with which they moved downstream. When not crowded together at bends in the river, the logs surged ahead, spinning and toppling over one another, again, not unlike (I imagine) the massive buffalo herds that trampled the Great Plains, as irresistible as an avalanche or tsunami.

I mention log floats in search of a metaphor to describe one of the fundamental dilemmas faced by writers and their readers today--how to capture the fragmented nature of experience without capitulating to the disorder inherent in fragments. It isn't enough to justify the production of gibberish by asserting that it mirrors the noise around us--art is charged with making order, however random and capricious that order might be. The great modernists, having been informed of the existence of the unconscious, apprised of the imprecision of language, and divested of any lingering faith in old- fashioned truths, sought new literary forms, apart from the realistic novel and the rhyming couplet,  to express their view of human experience. In doing so, the great modernist writers like Joyce and Woolf  expanded the range of possibilities available to the poet and novelist.

But the conundrum we now face is more serious--in a world divested not only of meaning but even of the presumed existence of facts themselves--where a kind of joyous, apocalyptic destruction of language has overtaken politics, the media, the arts, and even ordinary human discourse--where lying isn't lying but one's preferred version of events (individualism run amok!), what is the writer to do? The options appear to be a self-conscious reversion to older forms of expression, with a wink and a nod toward the reader, as if to say, "yeah right," or the embrace of the kind of sickening irony that makes a mockery of art--"I don't believe in what I'm writing, and you don't believe in what you're reading, but so what?"

But lots of writers, many occupying the edges of fiction--writers who aren't fashionable--have continued to search for authentic ways of expressing their vision of the world. Michael Keith is one such writer. Over the course of a long career--fifteen books of stories and one remarkable memoir--Keith has experimented with a wide range of voices, styles, subject matters, and vernaculars. His early stories were macabre--eerie and menacing tales heavily influenced by Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Their vision of the world was dark--nothing much could be trusted to be what it seemed...I often thought of Rod Sterling as I read the stories collected in  And Through the Trembling Air and Hoage's Object. In those early books, Keith's Everyman was a regular Joe who had underestimated the animosity of those around him--and the dangers of the world at large. Think of the Coen Brothers' films, of John Goodman cold-cocking  George Clooney in "Oh Brother"--the kind of world where it is folly to trust too much or to believe the ground is granite and not quicksand.

But Keith had other things he wanted to express--life isn't all quicksand. His deeply affecting 2003 memoir The Next Better Place--the story of his wanderings with his father--had already demonstrated another side of Keith's sensibility, and in particular his interest in character studies. The feckless Joe of the earlier books became, in later collections, a multi-faceted figure who, though still battered about by the forces that batter us all (other people!), operated with greater free will and to greater effect (see, for example, the stories in The Near Enough, 2015). I also note that in collections like Bits, Crumbs, Specks, Flecks, Keith was beginning to move toward greater compression, stripping away conventional narrative elements in favor of powerful psychological portraits of a society torn apart by irreconcilable forces.  I wasn't surprised to learn, in reading Keith's newest book--Perspective Drifts Like a Log on a River, that he had been reading Lydia Davis and Joy Williams--two masters of what I think of as the story of implication, that is, the story that invites the reader to fill in the blanks (a slice of a slice of reality).

Under their influence, and deploying his own mordant wit to good effect, Keith has produced one of his strongest books, not only of micro-stories, but of meditations on stories, or thoughts about bits of life that might become stories. A writer's notebook. There is flash fiction and micro-fiction--how much meaning can be packed into how few words--and what Keith has done in this beautifully produced book is to use both modes interchangeably, often in pursuit of the same themes.

"After finishing ninety-nine stories of God, I phone the author and ask why she gave the book that title since most of the pieces in it don't even mention God. When I sense she is about to say something, the line goes dead." Disappointment, hopes raised then dashed, an agenda uncovered, a feeling of failure momentarily exchanged for a (fleeting) sense of success. Like logs on a river, each of the 200 plus stories/observations/thoughts bumps against its fellows. The overall effect is of a writer looking askance at the world, not in mockery (though there is self-mockery in much of what Keith writes) or what I think of as destructive irony, but with a healthy appreciation of the many ways we fail to understand what is right there in front of us.Reading Keith is like having a cool drink of water on a hot day--not only is he refreshing, but his wry sensibility keeps one healthy.

For Perspective and the other books mentioned here, see

George Ovitt (6/28/17)