Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Art of Interpretation: “Lu zhai” or “Deer Park” by Wang Wei

19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

by Eliot Weinberger & Octavio Paz

It was my wife, Annie, who introduced me to Eliot Weinberger through his superb collection of essays, Works on Paper—short, astute reflections on subjects ranging from India to Mateo Ricci to The Bomb.  It was also my wife who introduced me to the non-fiction of Octavio Paz, most notably his collection of essays, The Labyrinth of Solitude (with its brilliant disquisition on the extraordinarily versatile Spanish verb chingar) and his Convergences: Essay on Art and Literature.  It was therefore only natural that she, Annie, was the one to introduce me to a book that combined the strengths of both these men—as writers, translators, and critics—a work called 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei that focuses on the translation history of a single Chinese poem.

The poem ‘Lu zhai’ or ‘Deer Park’ by the wealthy Tang Dynasty Buddhist painter, calligrapher, and poet Wang Wei is one of the world’s most famous quatrains, taken from a series of twenty poems inspired by various sites along the Wang River in the Shanxi province of northeastern China. The poem, written as part of a massive horizontal landscape scroll (a genre Wei himself invented), and some 1200 years old, is now one of the most widely translated poems from the Chinese classical tradition.  It is generally believed that the title ‘Lu zhai’ is an allusion to the Deer Park in Sarnath, the site of the famous Bodhi Tree beneath which the Gautama Buddha preached his first sermon.

Everyone knows Wallace Steven’s poem “Thirteen Way of Looking at a Blackbird”.  Now consider 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, an attractively slim volume in which essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger and Mexican Nobel Laureate poet and essayist Octavio Paz have selected and critiqued a sampling—in English, Spanish, and French—of some of the most outstanding translations of this subtle, sophisticated, notoriously difficult poem.  As Weinberger remarks in his short introduction to the collection to emphasize the scale of this challenge, “Chinese prosody is largely concerned with the number of characters per line and the arrangement of tones—both of which are untranslatable.” Paz as well, in reflecting upon his own struggles to render the poem, notes: “The translation of this poem is particularly difficult, for the poem carries to an extreme the characteristics of Chinese poetry: universality, impersonality, absence of time, absence of subject.” 

Starting with W. J. B. Fletcher’s 1919 ‘The Form of the Deer’ and ending with Gary Snyder’s untitled version from 1978, this collection is extraordinary, not only for its focus on the translation of a single poem over time, with all the changes in poetic sensibility that that entails, but for Weinberger’s and Paz’s engaging, often Talmudic remarks regarding the subtleties of Chinese poetry, the strengths and weaknesses of the various renditions, and the art of translation in general, an art the particulars of which are certain to interest any student of language. While praising all of the translations by including them in the collection, the editors criticize some as attempts to “improve” upon the original, others as “poetic”(meaning Westernized, ironic), at least one as inaccurate, and still another as a typical example of Chinoiserie.   For Weinberger there are two types of translators at work in this collection: those who are scholars and read Chinese and those who are poets and don’t.  To his mind, each type has its strengths—the scholars their grasp of classical Chinese, the poets their mastery of English prosody and verse.  It is this combination that really gives life to these different, if consistently  illuminating renditions.

Surely one of the most engaging features of the book are the editors’ largely incidental reflections on the art of translation itself.  To Weinberger translation is nothing less than a spiritual exercise, and as such “…dependent on the dissolution of the translator’s ego: an absolute humility toward the text...” A good translator is but a conduit, a medium, through which the poem can speak. Of the essence of a poem, that part which survives translation, he insists, "The living matter functions somewhat like DNA, spinning out individual translations which are relatives, not clones, of the original. The relationship between original and translation is parent-child. And there are, inescapably, some translations that are overly attached to their originals, and others that are constantly rebelling.”  This is exactly what makes this collection of translations—and the editors’ tussle with them—such a pleasure to read.

Here is a brief sampling:

                    The Form of the Deer
So lone seem the hills; there is no one in sight there.
     But whence is the echo of voices I hear?
The rays of the sunset pierce slanting the forest,
            And in their reflection green mosses appear.
                                               - W.J.B. Fletcher, 1919

                           La Forêt
Dans la montagne tout est solitaire,
On entend de bien loin l'écho des voix humaines,
Le soleil qui pénètre au fond de la forêt
Reflete son éclat sur la mousee vert.
                                 -G. Margoulies, 1948

              Deer Forest Hermitage
Through the deep woods, the slanting sunlight
Casts motley patterns on the jade-green mosses.
No glimpse of man in this lonely mountain,
Yet faint voices drift on the air.
                             -Chang Yin-nan & Lewis C. Walmsley, 1958

         Deep in the Mountain Wilderness
Deep in the mountain wilderness
where nobody ever comes
Only once in a great while
Something like the sound of a far off voice.
The low rays of the sun
Slip through the dark forest,
And gleam again on the shadowy moss.
                               -Kenneth Rexroth, 1970

             En la Ermita del Parque de los Venados 
No se ve gente en este monte.
Sólo se oyen, lejos, voces.
Por hos ramajes lasluz rompe.
Tendida entre las yerba brilla verde.
                           -Octavio Paz, 1974

Empty mountains:
            no one to be seen.
            human sounds and echoes.
Returning sunlight
            enters the dark woods;
Again shining
            on the green moss, above.
                              -Gary Snyder, 1978

Eliot Weinberger was born in New York City in 1949.  He is the primary translator of Octavio Paz into English. His anthology American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (1993) was a bestseller in Mexico, and his edition of Jorge Luis Borges's Selected Non-Fictions (1999) received the National Book Critics Circle prize for criticism. In 1992, he was given PEN's first Gregory Kolovakos Award for his work in promoting Hispanic literature in the United States, and in 2000 he was the first American literary writer to be awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle by the government of Mexico.

Eliot Weinberger's publications include the collection of essays Karmic Traces: 1993-1999 and a translation of Bei Dao's Unlock (with Iona Man-Cheong), both published by New Directions in 2000. He is the editor of The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry (2003).*

Octavio Paz.  Poet, essayist. Born on March 31, 1914, in Mexico City, Mexico. Paz was exposed to literature at an early age thanks to his grandfather's library. The son and grandson of political journalists, he followed the family tradition and became a writer, publishing his first volume of poetry, Luna silvestre, in 1933. Paz was also a skilled editor and helped found a literary magazine called Taller in 1938. He entered the diplomatic service in 1945 and was later appointed the Mexican ambassador to India, a position he held from 1962 to 1968. Paz resigned in protest over the Mexican government's handling of student demonstrations during the Olympic Games.
Adept at both poetry and prose, Paz moved back and forth between the two genres throughout his career. Poetry, such as Piedra de sol (1957), and critical and analytical works, such as El Laberinto de la soledad (1950) cemented his reputation as a master of language and a keen intellect. He produced more than 30 books and poetry collections in his lifetime. Paz received numerous awards for his work, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. He died on April 19, 1998, in Mexico City, Mexico.


19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei is published by Asphodel Press 

Peter Adam Nash

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Sometimes things fall apart"

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson

(These remarks are in memory of Chinua Achebe, died 21 March 2013)

Several of my friends are reading Katherine Boo's fine work of reportage, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a book that seemed to me as much a novel as a work of non-fiction.  Boo's is the story of  familes living atop a garbage dump in Mumbai--a story, in other words, of the world we live in, the poor surviving off of the effluvia of the rich, a story of fragile hopes in a hopeless world.  When I read Boo back in the fall I thought how touching it would be to turn this story into a novel, with all of the potential psychological richness of fiction filling in the inevitable gaps of reporting.  What would it feel like to live on less than a dollar a day, as a billion human beings do?  What is the look and feel and smell of poverty--its indignities, its daily grindings down?  Trolling my favorite independent bookseller--Alamosa Books of Albuquerque--I came upon a book that addressed my yearning for a great book about a subject that is nearly impossible for a writer from the wealthy West to engage--Christie Watson's Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away.

Watson was a pediatric nurse for twelve years, and the subject of healing is central to TSFA.  The story is set in Nigeria--first in Lagos and then in a small village near Warri in the Niger Delta.  The novel's narrator is another of those rare, insightful, wholly believable children who see the world with a clarity that adults never attain.  The child, aptly named Blessing, is precocious to be sure, but she is also thoughtful, impressionable, loving, and loyal, especially to her troubled older brother Ezikiel.  I don't like plot summaries since they diminish the pleasure of reading for oneself, but I will say this much: Blessing and her mother and brother are forced to leave a relatively comfortable life in Lagos and move in with Blessing's grandparents.  The family's world, already diminished by the constraints of life in contemporary Africa, becomes improverished; TSFA is the story of how Blessing, Ezikiel, their mother and vastly extended family adapt to the difficult circumstances of a world without electricity, running water, regular schooling, or the rule of law.  They live in a war zone where the police are called "Kill and Go" (not without reason), where school involves regular beatings, where the great Niger River is literally on fire.  In the midst of these dire circumstances, Blessing tries to hold her family together--through the power of her affection for her brother and of her complex and compromised loyalty to her mother. That this task proves impossible is not surprising, but Blessing's failure, if one can call it that, is ennobling, and the story of her family's travils and unraveling creates the art at the heart of this unpretentious novel.

Nigeria is blessed, or perhaps cursed, with enormous oil reserves. Shell Oil has been busy expropriating the natural resrouces of the region for decades.  Oil spills have been common; Niger Delta farmers have brought suit against the Dutch company for pipeline spills over the past decade, without success. 

This is from the New York Times:

[Shell's] Nigerian operations were its largest source of oil and gas with about 377,000 barrels per day of production in 2011, the most recent full year for which figures are available.
Much of the output comes from the swampy areas of the Niger Delta, a densely populated and impoverished region.  
Shell and other operators in the Delta have long clashed with some of the local population, who blame the companies for polluting their land and waterways and for not doing enough for people living around the oil facilities.
Among the many things to admire in Watson's first novel--aside from the deftness of the plotting, the convincing and utterly unironic voice of Blessing (none of the authorial persona leaks into her authentic thirteen-year-old narrator's voice), and the humane depiction of proud people living in poverty--is the subtle and indirect way in which she shows the destructive effects of a profit-seeking multinational company on the lives of people who have no recourse to law courts and only the most naive sense of the their own rights.  In one of the most touching scenes of the novel, the paterfamilias, Alhaji, decides to write a letter to the Prime Minister of England the President of the U.S. to plea for intervention in the civil war and police brutality that plagues Warri and the surrounding Delta.    Alhaji dictates the letter to Blessing, who "does not change any of the words":
Dear Sir,
I am sorry to write in such circumstance....I need justice to happen and your help to rectify problem of fighting between different area boys....Violence here is becoming worse. Please no longer send guns, or let local soldiers bring guns back from peacekeeping in Sierra Leone, or sell to our boys...Our government is killing local boys.  The are working with the oil companies. Please no longer allow your oil companies to fund a military regime. Your help is appreciated.
Alhaji, it comes as no surprise to learn, waits in vain for a reply to his letter.  "I need justice to happen..."  The world of Blessing is fraught with wishes that cannot come true.  And yet there is a way to live with dignity--again, I was reminded of the story of the residents of Annawadi in Katherine Boo's fine book.  Reading these two volumes together provides a refreshing dose of realism amidst the propaganda about a "flattened world" and the benefits of capitalism for the poor.  Neither book is overtly political, but the message is clear.  
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is a lovely, moving, and quite extraordinary novel by a young writer whose intelligence and compassion shine through every page.

Published by the good people at Other Press, whose list is enough to make any passionate reader wish for more free time in the day and perhaps a larger disposable income.  Take a look--

For Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, see her National Book Award remarks and citation.

George Ovitt (3/27/13)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Necessities/The Real and the Surreal

Many of your new poems take the reader on a journey through a series of unsettling landscapes. Indeed, we seem to enter each poem precisely at the moment when the ordinary suddenly becomes bizarre."*

Christopher Merrill

Surrealism in art and literature afforded a glimpse into the unconscious mind, juxtaposing ideas and images from dreams and the buried recesses of memory with the stuff of everyday life. The surrealists (speaking broadly) wanted to shock bourgeois sensibilities by suggesting that "reality"--that comfortable film of perceptions we take to be a mirror of what is really real--is far less than half the story. Romantics, surrealists, and madmen understand that life is as much hallucination as linear narrative, as much a process of uncovering what is buried as of recording what is (we think) simply perceived. A fish with a tree house attached to its back: a bit of Dali, of Bosch, and Pavel Tchelitchew--or of Andre Breton-- "Surrealism, such as I conceive of it, asserts our complete non-conformism clearly enough so that there can be no question of translating it, at the trial of the real world, as evidence for the defense." 

Breton also deployed the fish as an image--perhaps of poets out of water: From The Soluble Fish (1924): "Looking back I no longer see clearly, it is as if a waterfall stood between the theatre of my life and me, who am not the principal actor in it." Yes, that's precisely what we need to understand to enter into the surrealists' slightly tipsy world--we are not the principal actors in our own lives and we see things as if through falling water (or a glass darkly, take your pick). We've all felt this way, felt the skull beneath the skin, the pulsing blood, the muscles turning our eyes, the waterfalls of the blood. Tchelitchew, the surrealist, shows us the illusion of wholeness, the reality that is hidden.

Should Christopher Merrill--poet, translator, journalist, and teacher--read this little journal entry he might take offense, and I can't claim to know his (very extensive!) opus well enough to assert that he is a surrealist. But consider these facts: Merrill worked with the great Slovenian poet Tomaža Šalamuna on translations of Šalamuna's poetry; Šalamuna is regarded as among the finest of contemporary European avant-garde poets, and we may therefore assume some affinity with Merrill's own work; and, perhaps more to the point, is Merrill's recent Necessities, a series of connected (thematically, loosely) prose poems in an unmistakably surrealist mode:
"The blacksmith speaks in tongues to settle the horse that kicked him in the head, the white mare that he must shoe before the exodus begins. The metal plate in his skull functions as a lightening rod for the church; his congregation thinks the rusted nails he uses once belonged to a saint."
"The print's a fake, the guard assures us, winking at the woman in the blue sari, Starry Night? We were waiting for the press conference to begin, when the museum would unveil the latest scandal, our investigation into the woman's role in the curator's downfall having left us vulnerable to her charms. She's no Hindu, we declared, checking our money belts....."
Merrill's joy, like Breton's, or Apollinaire's, is in language. Merrill is never obscure, but he does keep the reader off balance. Here is the last stanza (there are no end stops) from Apollinaire's short poem "Clotilde" as translated by Donald Revell:

Gods of living water
Let down their hair
And now you must follow

A craving for shadow

And Merrill, from Part II of Necessities: The hairless men in saffron robes burning themselves alive--we had no language with which to shield them from the saint's wrath and nowhere to hide the roses they tossed to us as the flames consumed them. The effect is not unlike the hair of the Gods--an image catches us by surprise and forces us to pay attention--and it is akin to the Metaphysical poet's use of startling images and comparisons, Andrew Marvell's "pestilence of love" or Nature's "perhaps hand" that even now is opening the window.

Perhaps all poetry is surreal in forcing the mind away from the presumption of a unitary and wholly perceivable reality. Merrill's deeply felt "necessities"--for honesty in the face of lies, for political justice, for a clear-eyed view of the world we now live in ("Fences were falling everywhere, spurring the migration of refugees, caribou, and currency. It was herding time...")--are all the more compelling because of the way they come to us joined to their opposites, to what appears to be disconnected from the space they occupy. But of course this is the deception practiced by politics and (partially) rectified by literature--the notion that experience is fragmentary and that objects, like fish and trees, Gods and water, hands and spring are not one and the same thing.
Necessities is published by White Pine Press. Merrill (surreally) may be one of the few poets to blog on a distinctly political web site.
The quotation at the top of this entry is from Transom, issue is the link
George Ovitt (3/23/13)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ireland: ‘The Troubles’

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen and The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

“Ils ont les chagrins qu’ont les vierges et les paresseux,” quotes Elizabeth Bowen, from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, for the epigraph of her monumental novel The Last September, in this way preparing the readers for the sorrows and heartbreak to come.  Set in Ireland, in the year 1920, the story centers upon a lonely teenaged orphan named Lois Farquhar living with her wealthy uncle and aunt, Sir Richard and Lady Myra Naylor, in their country home in County Cork.  Still reeling from the wounds and uncertainty of the Great War, from its material and spiritual depredations, the characters are faced to confront the civil unrest in Ireland itself, the Irish War of Independence or Cogadh na Saoirse (1919-1921), with its rapidly escalating violence between the British forces and the Irish rebels, the IRA, determined—to the last man and woman—to drive the English out of Ireland for good.  It is an anger and hostility directed not only at the British soldiers, the Black and Tans, as they were known, but also—indeed especially—at the wealthy Anglo-Irish gentry or ‘Protestant Ascendency’, people like the Naylors, who for centuries, and for all of their loyalty to England, have been happy to call Ireland their home. 

Such country estates or ‘Big Houses’ as owned by the Naylors and their class (which class included Bowen’s own family with their house called Bowen's Court)had flourished throughout Ireland since the mid-eighteenth century, built with the easy profits that came of cheap land and cheap labor, making them a potent symbol of English exploitation and an easy target for the rebels who burned down, blew up, or otherwise destroyed more than 275 of them  in the years between 1920-1923. 

This is the very danger that threatens the Naylors in The Last September who struggle, throughout the story, to maintain their illusion of happiness and security by throwing dinner parties, playing tennis, and generally carrying on as if their fate—the signs of which are everywhere apparent—is not yet sealed.  Only Lois, their niece, has the chance to escape this doom, if only she can get free. This simple story, in the hands of Elizabeth Bowen, achieves a moral depth and complexity, an artistic resonance, that has earned it the distinction of being one of the great novels of the twentieth century. For a High Modernist like Bowen, at least half of the tale is in its telling, in its style and language, which is sharp with angles and rich with metaphor and symbol, so that the novel is as compelling in its plot as it is poetic in its prose.

Differently if equally affecting is William’s Trevor’s short, melancholy novel The Story of Lucy Gault. Set in the same time period as The Last September—indeed under almost identical circumstances—in an Anglo-Irish manor house called Lahardane, this haunting story opens upon an evening when Captain Everard Gault, the latest in a long line of Irish-born Gaults, fires upon a trespasser whom he suspects is a Catholic rebel trying to burn down his house, triggering a chain of events that proves tragic for him, his wife, and his daughter, Lucy, as they are forced—each in his or her own way—to pay their history’s dues.  A spare, finely-felt tale, it was described in the San Francisco Chronicle as “A perfect Irish ballad in prose: sad, fateful and impossible to get out of your head.”

Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973) Anglo-Irish novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, was born Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen in Protestant, Georgian Dublin and at the family home in County Cork, which she described in Bowen's Court (1942). Her novels are The Hotel (1927); The Last September (1929), her own favourite, set in Ireland in the Troubles; Friends and Relations (1931); To the North (1932), a story of sexual betrayal set in London; The House in Paris (1935), of a memorable day spent by two children, Henrietta and Leopold, in Mme Fisher's Gothic house, intercut with the passionate story of Leopold's parents; The Death of the Heart (1938); The Heat of the Day (1949); A World of Love (1955), a romantic Irish ghost story; The Little Girls (1964); and Eva Trout (1969). Of her many short stories, the best deal with the supernatural (‘Foothold’, ‘The Cat Jumps’), English betrayal and deracination (‘The Disinherited’, ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’), Anglo-Irish relations (‘Her Table Spread’, ‘Sunday Afternoon’), children (‘The Tommy Crans’, ‘Tears, Idle Tears’), and above all the atmosphere of wartime London (‘Mysterious Kor’, ‘The Demon Lover’, ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’). Her style --mannered, elegant, and witty—was highly influenced by the  great Literary Modernists,  Proust and Woolf, as well as by the writing of Henry James. 

From her Anglo-Irish background she derives a mixture of edgy alienation and a respect for classical impersonality and good form. Her characters are reckless, romantic sensationalists—orphans, spies, criminals, adulterers—and there is violence and danger in her books.  Above all, she evokes a spiritual condition through a landscape—the ‘Bowen terrain’—whether it is the ‘Big House’ in Ireland, out-of-season resorts, London flats and houses, or claustrophobic suburban villas. (

William Trevor,  a short story writer, novelist, and playwright, was born William Trevor Cox on May 24, 1928, in Mitchelstown, County Cork.  In his career as a writer, he  has published over 40 novels, short story collections, plays, and collections of nonfiction.  He has won three Whitbread Awards, a PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In 1977 Trevor was awarded an honorary CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his services to literature.  Trevor regularly spends half the year in Italy or Switzerland, often visiting Ireland in the other half. His home is in Devon, in South West England, on an old mill surrounded by 40 acres of land. (Book Browse)

Peter Adam Nash

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Cure for Fanatics

Amos Oz says he has never seen a fanatic with a sense of humour. Photo: AP      Amos Oz

How does one cure a fanatic? With wit and empathy.  Or: what makes someone into a fanatic: a lack of human feeling, a lack of humor, ignorance, rigidity. 

Amos Oz (born Amos Klausner, in 1939) has all the gifts of the anti-fanatic--imagination, humor, compassion, and a humane sense of the tragedies of history.   The writer, in Oz's view, is above all else the mediator of experience, the person able to examine both sides of a question with dispassion, the calm voice of imagination ("calm reason" is now, unfortunately, a chimera). 

I have been on a bit of an Amos Oz tear this winter, reading Rhyming Life and Death, Scenes from Village Life, Don't Call It Night, and Black Box--and his tiny, brilliant book How to Cure a Fanatic during the bleak, cold season here in the high desert. I love to imagine the warm roll of hills in Israel, the blue Mediterranean, the olive trees and--please God--the peace that must someday be the legacy of Oz's generation's struggles (on both sides of the question of Palestine--for as Oz acknowleges, peace will only come through  painful compromise).  Above all else, what shines through Oz's work is his intelligence and humanity.  On the subject of Israel and the Palestinians, Oz offers realism in place of ideology, a recognition of the pragmatic options available to both sides:

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a clash of right and right. Tragedies are resolved in one of two ways: The Shakespearean way or the Anton Chekhov way. In a tragedy by Shakespeare, the stage at the end is littered with dead bodies. In a tragedy by Chekhov everyone is unhappy, bitter, disillusioned and melancholy but they are alive. My colleagues in the peace movement and I are working for a Chekhovian not a Shakespearean conclusion.”

It is better to be alive than dead.   In both his fiction and non-fiction, Oz comes down on the side of life, recognizing that idealism causes suffering, and that a life based on compromise--in love and friendship and politics--is not only sensible but necessary. When Oz wins the Nobel Prize in Literature--as he will, perhaps this year, perhaps next--I feel certain the Nobel Committee will speak of Oz's humanity (you can't go wrong  mentioning a writer's humanity), the vast scope  of his work (I count twenty novels and nine works of non-fiction as well as hundreds of newspaper articles, political commentaries, speeches, and so forth--translated into forty languages), and his commitment, since 1967, to peace in his country.  I would add to these notable qualities the characteristic of Oz's work that I find most attractive--the tone of self-deprecation with which his characters observe the world.  Oz's fictional landscape is full of provisional events and people who are  unmoored from certainty--his recognition of contingency is perhaps a reflection of, or perhaps the cause of Oz's humane and liberal political views.

Oz has been well-served by his translator, Nicholas de Lange--there is an elegance in Oz's prose, a simple grace that I admire. Here are some of the musings of the "old poet" in  Rhyming Life and Death: 

"He sits peacefully for hours on end without moving, placidly breathing the country air and smelling the smells, with a faint snort, chewing his bread pulp, dozing or wide awake, with the book by the young woman from the religious neighborhood lying open face down on his lap, thinking about her and wondering whether death can be entirely, unrecognizably different from life....Maybe that is how the poet sits all day staring with his thoughtful blue eyes at the swaying of the treetops and the movement of the clouds." 

Maybe it is!  I love this small passage for lots of reasons--the reality of it, the feeling of a human life at its end that Oz so effortlessly conveys, the delicate way Oz suggests that the poet's mind wanders--there's no mockery here, or pity, but there is compassion.

Oz portrays Arab lives, women's lives, the lives of writers and intellectuals, the lives of the poor, of the dispossessed and of the ambitious, all of them, with equal magnanimity--always with a recognition of the imperfect ways we negotiate a hostile world--and the world of Oz's books is, make no mistake, a hostile one.  Oz is no fool when it comes to the political realities of Israel/Palestine, no romantic when it comes to the enemies of his country, but he is above all else a writer who conveys hope, whose characters wish above all else simply to live. 

If you are new to Oz I heartily recommend Scenes from Village Life, a portrayal of Arab and Israeli lives in a small village--interconnected short stores, bright and clear as the desert sun.  For a more complex version of Oz's view of the world, check out Rhyming Life and Death, or Black Box, novels that feel like a memoirs, portraits of the artist as an old dog, books of wisdom and sadness, Biblical in their historical scope and ethical promise.  

When Amos Oz wins the Nobel Prize, please remember you heard it here first.

For a good interview with Amos Oz, see the wonderful Paris Review series, here

George Ovitt (3/20/13)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Der ewige Spießer/The Eternal Philistine

Ödön von Horváth (1901–1939)
Was born near Trieste, the son of a Hungarian diplomat. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 he relocated to Vienna, but on the day of the Anschluss — March 13, 1938 — he fled to Budapest. From there, he soon moved to Paris, but on June 1, 1938, he was killed when, caught in a rainstorm coming out of a theater on the Champs-Élysées, he took shelter under a tree that was hit by lightning; von Horváth was struck by a falling tree limb and killed instantly.

May I say that I think the Philistines have gotten a bum rap?
 At one time they ruled five kingdoms, including the Gaza; no one appears to know the origin of their tribal name, and yet, according to Trude Dothan--foremost scholar of Philistine culture--they were a formidable enemy of the Egyptians and others, fermenters of strong spirits, and speakers of an Indo-European language. So, what gives? They worshipped Baal--everyone was supposed to figure out monotheism, and I suppose the fact that they didn't was a strike against them--and I remember from the story of Samson in, what was it? Judges? that the Philistines were the bad guys, but what was so great about Mr. Longhair?

Yes indeed, as my tattered Catholic Encyclopedia informs me, the Philistines show up in Judges 13 as enemies of the Israelites, and in Samuel (1) the Philistines run off with the Ark of the Covenant. And the Philistines were not only enemies of the ultimate rulers of Palestine, but also of the formidable Assyrians. But there isn't a word in the Bible--I've been checking just now--that would justify their association with "materialism. capitalism, and bourgeois culture" as well as a long list of other unsavory associations.

Well, as you know, it was Matthew Muttonchops himself, Mr. Arnold, who appropriated the word 'philistine' to denote those who were anti-intellectual, who despised the fine arts and the "best that was thought and written" in the Western tradition. But this was pure snobbery. Arnold, like Goethe, used the word to refer to those who hadn't the benefit of a university education--indeed, the "philister" was the lout from town who battled the university student--the uncouth, materialistic numskull who not only was unlettered, but an enemy of letters; in Jena, scholars (imagine!) fought philistines to the death over the value of learning. How did this happen? Apparently Goethe and Arnold took Judges' Samson to be a kind of intellectual hero, while his enemies, the Philistines, were relegated to the status of vulgarians. I remember reading Nabokov's lectures on literature many years ago and wondering at his characterization of Emma as a "philistine"--what gives, I remember wondering, the poor woman has a boring husband and likes novels, what's so bad about that? But Nabokov was echoing a long tradition of viewing anyone with the slightest material interests as contemptible--and an enemy of culture.


But wait--the unhappily fated Ödön von Horváth had a different view: "The philistine is, as is generally known [sic], an egotist who suffers from hypochondria, and this is why he seeks, like a coward, to fit in wherever he goes and to distort every new formulation of the idea by calling it his own."

Say what? It appears that the pejorative power of the term 'philistine' is unlimited--a materialist, a cultural pretender, a bourgeois, a hypochondriac, a hypocrite....and all because of a few obscure verses in an unread book of the Bible! The more I read about the Philistines, the more I find to admire...they need a publicist, an apologist, and not, certainly, Ödön von Horváth's little novel, published in 1930, that tells the story of a dishonest used-car salesman (yes, oxymoron) who travels to Barcelona for the World's Fair but who is, in fact, running away from a society that is, at its heart, corrupt and replete with philistines--no, worse, with the bourgeois.  This salesman, Kobler, is perhaps a little grasping, but no more so than any other European of the "low dishonest decade" between the wars--he would have fit nicely on Miss Porter's Ship of Fools--and who can blame him, given the times? 

Such an odd little book! It's like a literate borscht-belt monologue, full of one-liners, gags really, that push the the story (which is, honestly, rather clunky) from set piece to set piece. Kobler, the putative philistine, isn't a bad sort, just an ordinary man in a world that is falling apart, and his attending the World's Fair is a bad joke, a celebration of progress at the time when liberalism was dead as a doornail, machine-gunned on the battlefields of the Great War. Reviving one's fortunes by visiting Spain--a very bad joke, given what the political and moral condition of Spain was in the '30's.

And that is the point of The Eternal Philistine--the world is corrupt, and everyone in it partakes of this corruption....As I read this novel I couldn't help but think that it was the perfect book-end to Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. All of the terrible things that Jake thinks and feels in the darkest passages of Hemingway's book are filled out, deepened, and rendered both more satirical and more terrible in von Horvath's novel. Knowing what's coming is awful, and being a philistine (as I am) makes knowing what's coming even worse because, in the end, I have no idea what to make of the folly of the age, and I ask myself, as a good bourgeois--why couldn't they see it? Such folly!

The Eternal Philistine is published by the wonderful people at Melville House, with a rather annoying introduction by Shalom Auslander (why berate people who have purchased the book?)....