Sunday, June 30, 2013

Stand Still Like the Hummingbird....

Judging Books by Their Covers: Henry Miller

I've made a few literary pilgrimages in my life.  I spent a memorable afternoon with Joseph Heller in his Upper West Side apartment in July, 1967 (I was inviting him to read at my college, which he graciously, and memorably, agreed to do).  Under the spell of One Hundred Years of Solitude I flew to Mexico City in 1988 and took a bus to Cuernavaca hoping to waylay Garcia Marquez in one of his favorite cafes--nothing doing--but sitting night after night in the zocolo  (right there under the arches) drinking Dos Equis and pretending I was waiting for the genius of Macondo to drop by almost redeemed the trip.  In Toronto I looked up Margaret Atwood in the phone book and walked by what I was told was her house; I stalked Philip Roth at UPenn for years, never once laying eyes on him (he was perpetually on leave).  I imagined a trip to Big Sur and an afternoon with Henry Miller--one of the literary idols of my youth--but I never got around to visiting California and was a little frightened at the prospect of a writer whose most recent title was Crazy Cock.  Yes, pathetic stuff; being a literary groupie is really no better than hiding in the bushes in Bel Aire hoping for a glimpse of Kourtney Kardashian or Brad Pitt.  But I get the whole groupie thing: you want to affirm that these magicians--the writers I mean--are somehow like you; that they perspire and shop for groceries and worry about the pages they wrote that morning.  And you (or me anyway) want to say thank you for making life a hell of lot better than it would otherwise be.

Which brings me to the subject of Henry Miller and the greatest book title (in English) of all time: Stand Still Like the Hummingbird. I see hummingbirds most days in the summer--there's a feeder outside my window--and I've noticed that there is a manner in which hummingbirds "stand still" that is remarkable.  First of all, they don't quite stand still--they oscillate with the beat (up to one hundred per second) of their wings. They appear to pause, to consider, and then to veer off on the sort of mission that preoccupies nectarivores. With their tiny hearts beating up to 1200 times per second--1200!--these lovely ruby-throated specks haven't the leisure or the inclination to remain in one place for long. Nor did Mr. Miller.  He was the sort of restless writer who moved from one idea to another, one obsession to another, with the rapidity of trochilidae. Oh yes, the Tropics and Nexus trilogy were preoccupied with sex, and Miller's libido was his best-known characteristic (but no more so than his idol D.H. Lawrence fetishized his John Thomas or Mr. Updike admired his), but Miller was also a travel writer, a critic, a wonderful book reviewer, a philosopher, and, above all, a spiritual writer, a California Buddhist:

  "We live as ghosts amid a world in ruins. All is senseless repetition. 'There am I, and there I always am,' as Rimbaud said. Neither Lao-Tzu, nor the Enlightened One, nor the Prince of Peace made any excursions into outer space, unless in their astral bodies. They changed worlds, yes. They traveled far. But standing still."

Miller isn't much read these days.  His books first appeared in drab New Direction covers of black and white--every one of them stark and gorgeous and with the best titles ever imagined: The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Big Sur and Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, The Colossus of Maroussi (the book to carry with you to Greece), Black SpringThe Cosmological Eye, Remember to Remember, The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, The Wisdom of the Heart.  No author photos; never a blurb from the Times, no mention of awards as there never were any.  Miller never had a grant from the Guggenheims or the Rockefellers--in Paris, in the lost generation after the Lost Generation, he lived in Clichy (Quiet Days in Clichy) at 4 Avenue Anatole-France, another of my author-pilgrimage sites, and hung out with Anais Nin whose diaries are full of Henry's affairs and love-hate of June (his wife) and obsession with work. He neglected to get his MFA from Iowa, never taught creative writing, (wrote ad copy instead), never made it into the literary reviews, wasn't on Charlie Rose, didn't get an invite to Yaddo or a Big Contract with a corporate publisher.  Miller was a writer of the old school, the hand-to-mouth kind, but he found the great James Laughlin, and kept writing up to the end--in his 80's a parody of himself (the artist as lecher), but a great composer of sentences and of titles. A writer pure and simple.  Skip the lousy movies made of his books and pick up The Books in My Life or Time of the Assassins--the best thing ever written about Rimbaud.  

And may you stand still like the hummingbird.

George Ovitt (6/30/13)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Death In (Not Venice But) Rome

death in rome by Wolfgang Koeppen

Death in Rome is the most devastating novel about the Germans that I have ever read,” writes translator Michael Hofmann in his introduction, a case he makes compelling even before one considers the tale itself.

In the aftermath of World War II, German writers were forced to pick up the pieces of their world, while somehow coming to terms with the murder and destruction that they (and their parents and grandparents) had wrought. As the losers and “villains” of the war, villains of a stripe not seen before, their task was markedly different than that of, say, the French intellectuals and writers in Paris, whom I touched upon in my last post on Simone de Beauvoir. Some German writers, writers such as Arno Schmidt and Günter Eich, found it too much or not useful to confront the past directly, choosing instead to explore German racism, violence, and guilt through means more symbolic and abstract.

Then too there was the need, the desire, to forget, to start afresh. After a brief (some would say unconscionably brief) period of moral scrutiny the country was ready to move on, an instinct, a compulsion, that soon gave rise to the post-war “German Miracle”  or Wirtschaftswunder, a surge in economic growth and cultural regeneration, a “phoenix act,” for which many German writers (not to mention politicians) were happy to write the script. As Hofmann remarks, the status quo ante 1933 was not restored after the war. “Instead, the story was one of discontinuity. It was as though the literature had been bombed as the cities had been.” Indeed many of the new generation of writers, like those of the controversial Gruppe 47, chose to make a clean break from the country’s literary (if not historical) past, as represented by Thomas Mann, to turn their backs on the war, the results and verdict of which seemed clear enough. As Aaron Dennis Horton writes, “This group of writers believed their work represented a new beginning for German literature, just as 1945, the so-called ‘zero hour,’ allegedly signified the start of a new era in German history, separate from the Nazi past.” Writing what came to be known as Trümmerliteratur or "rubble literature," they were determined to start with a clean slate, their focus the here and now, the future rising fast before their eyes. This is not to say that these writers denied or attempted to ignore German culpability in the war, only that they were often torn in their aims. Most notable among them were Alfred Andersch, Heinrich Böll, Siegfried Lenz, and Günter Grass, all of whom fought under Hitler but were ardently anti-Nazi. With two Nobel laureates among them, they are undoubtedly the best-known German writers in the world. 

Then there were the lonely, lesser-known writers like Wolfgang Koeppen whose relentless condemnation of the new Germany, with its collective amnesia and devotion to Mammon, now rings like a bell. Shaped by the works of Proust, Kafka, Faulkner, Woolf, and Mann, he came of age as a writer in the 1930s then fled. “He went abroad. He wasn’t a Nazi.  He returned.” Unfortunately the cultural landscape had changed, so that his novels of the 1950s, “works of memory and continuance and criticism,” were met with widespread reproach and contempt, savaged by “the modish and dirigible German public” for their often brutal candor at a time when Germans were just beginning to like themselves again.

Of those novels, Death in Rome is an especially trenchant look at the sickness and psychology of post-war Germans. Focusing on the reunion of a large German family in Rome in the early 1950s, a story of fathers and sons, husbands and wives, cousins and cousins, the real Geist of the story is the megalomaniacal, “unreconstructed and unkillable SS man” Gottlieb Judejahn, who—on the run and uncover of false identity papers—storms about the ruins of Rome, addled by dreams of Valhalla and the certain redemption of Grossdeutschland.   

The title’s echoing of Mann’s Death in Venice is particularly apt. Written (as was Death in Venice) with a combination of what Mann called “myth plus psychology,” Death In Rome is densely layered with allusions to Scandinavian mythology (so dear to the Nazis) and to the near-mythical German history in Rome, from Alaric the Goth to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne to ‘Der Führer,’ Adolf Hitler. That Mann’s novella—shot through with contagion and death—was also a study in moral responsibility must surely have appealed to Koeppen as well. 

Of the author, finally, Hofmann writes, “There is something implacable, almost vindictive—like one of his Furies—about his pursuit of the Germans post-war, post-Holocaust, post-division, turning away from their crimes towards rehabilitation and their EC, once again exporting their goods and their culture and themselves. He shows them to us. All of them.” Like his Austrian counterpart, Thomas Bernhard, Koeppen was never afraid to dirty his own nest.*

Wolfgang Arthur Reinhold Koeppen (1906 – 1996) was born in Greifswald, Germany on the Baltic coast, some 200 kilometers north of Berlin. He is best know for his post-war trilogy: Pigeons on the Grass (1951), The Greenhouse (1953), and Death in Rome (1954). He also wrote a travelogue called Journey Through America (1959) that is available in English. He died in Munich in 1996.

Michael Hofmann is arguably the preeminent translator of modern and contemporary German language literature, having translated the work of such writers Franz Kafka, Ernst Jünger, Joseph Roth, Durs Grünbein, Hans Fallada, Thomas Bernhard, Herta Müller, and Peter Stamm. 

*For his vociferous criticism of his homeland, Austria, Bernhard was frequently criticized as a
       Nestbeschmutzer, one who dirties his own nest.
+Thanks in part to George Steiner’s controversial 1959 essay “The Hollow Miracle” and Aaron
       Dennis Horton’s “Catastrophe and Identity in Post-War German Literature”

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, June 23, 2013

What Love Is....

Oblivion, by Hector Abad

"These letters [from his father], and the memory of hundreds and hundreds of conversations I had with him, have helped me realize that, through we are not born good, if someone tolerates and directs our innate meanness, we may be guided down less harmful channels, or even led to change direction altogether. We don't have to learn to take revenge (we are born with vengeful feelings), but not to take revenge.  We must be taught not so much to be good, as not to be bad.  I have never felt like a good person, but I think that, thanks to father's influence, I have sometimes manged to be a nonpracticing bad man, a coward who with effort overcomes his cowardice and a miser who controls his avarice.  Most importantly, if there is any happiness in my life, if I am at all grown up, if most of the time I behave in decent and more or less normal fashion, if I'm not antisocial and have peacefully endured attacks and hardships, I believe it is simply because my father loved me just as I was, an amorphous bundle of good and bad feelings, and showed me how to get the best from this bad human nature, which perhaps we all share.  And although I don't always achieve it, in his memory I almost always try to be less bad than I am prompted to be by my natural inclinations."

This is great writing. Hector Abad made me weep: with pleasure at his words, in sadness at the story he tells.  

Abad's father, Hector Abad Gomez, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Antioquia in Medellin, Columbia, much beloved by his son Hector, a devout but broadminded Catholic, political liberal, champion of the poor, was murdered by  Colombian paramilitaries for his defense of the powerless, for defying the conservative rectors of the university and the leaders of the Catholic Church, for speaking out against the crime of allowing landless peasants to be treated as slaves--in other words, for arguing against the usual litany of offenses that, in Latin America, from Guatemala to Chile,  brought death at the hands of (all too often) U.S.-backed fascist governments.  It is wearying to rehearse these facts, to notice how often we Americans have been on the wrong side, how often--in the name of freedom--decent people have been murdered. The  Times reviewer of this memoir appears to object to the "hagiography" of Abad's portrait of his father--surely no one could be so good, so selfless.  But doesn't the reviewer's comment miss the point?  In the eyes of his son, Hector Abad Gomez was a saint; nowhere in the memoir does Abad pere claim to be other than what he was--an ordinary man attempting to live his ideals.  In fact, as the passage above shows, both father and son shared the Augustinian belief in original sin, the belief in human imperfection that Machiavelli transformed into a theory of government.  Political realism, leavened by modesty and the conviction that the Gospels teach compassion, led Abad's father to risk his life--to lose his life--for justice. Perhaps, though I doubt it, this memoir is exaggerated, but that would hardly matter--men like Hector Abad Gomez do exist, and the recognition of the possibility of decency and courage might give us hope.  Oblivion is sad enough to make you cry, but is also uplifting.

At a certain point in his career, when Abad's father was agitating for the rights of landless peasants and on behalf of barrio dwellers without clean drinking water, young Hector's father would be forced to take a leave of absence from his university post--the rector of the Jesuit university, and almost everyone else, saw him as a troublemaker and was glad to see him go.  For six months or more Hector junior would be alone with the many women in his family (five girls; he was the only boy) trapped within their devout form of Catholicism.  Having been brought up as a Catholic myself, I laughed ruefully at Abad's descriptions of the intervals of his life he spent with the pious maternal side of family:

"There was Maria Castro, who'd been consumptive and had been left with a dry, muted, permanent cough and quick, anxious breathing, and who also had one cloudy, bluish-grey eye, because once while embroidering a chasuble she had priced her retina with a needle, and had lost her sight in that eye--that was how God had repaid her for doing charitable work for poor priests."

Indeed, God leaves no good deed unpunished.  God treats all of the Abads punitively, especially, of course, the liberal and therefore Godless father.  I was deeply moved by Abad junior's accounts of his father's courage in the face of persecution--from his university colleagues, from the Catholic Church (mostly on the side of the powerful in Latin America), from the many priests and nuns within his own family.  There is an especially engrossing part of this memoir that describes how Abad's father stood up for his civil rights against the  red-baiting accusations of the university faculty.  His defense of his freedom of speech and action was especially courageous since talk of civil rights in Latin America during the '80's was usually construed as subversive and used to  defend, in the name of anti-Communism, the destruction those who dared to exercise those rights.  Chastised for his work in bringing to the attention of the university the plight of Colombian agricultural workers, Abad Gomez responded to the University rector in this manner, thereby, in a sense, sealing his doom:

 "Sir: I must make it clear to you, with all due respect, that I have never understood my professorial position as requiring the renunciation of my civil rights or the free expression of my ideas and opinions as I see fit."

Nowadays the "free expression of opinions"--at least in our own country--isn't met with death at the hands of fascist paramilitary troops, but there is a price to be paid, and we are seeing it paid now, by those who demonstrate or speak out against the expanding power of the government. Hector Abad Gomez did not go willingly to his death; indeed, he wished not to be a martyr; nonetheless he was willing to sacrifice his job and his status, and, one must believe, his life, for the abstraction that we call justice. Dying for an idea; dying for people you don't even know--to render that kind of courage and sacrifice without melodrama or bathos is a rare literary feat.  I admire Abad's cool analysis of Columbia's political situation, his ironic and deft handling of the hypocrisy of the institutions of his country in the 1980's, his unwillingness to put his beloved father into the camp of leftist martyrs; on the contrary, Hector Abad Gomez emerges from Oblivion as a voice of moderation between extremes.

But mostly what I admired about this book was the author's honest--heartbreaking--exploration of the meaning of paternal love--not at all a common topic in contemporary fiction. What does it mean for a boy or a man to love his father and for a father to love his son? What can a father mean to his son, and how can his example shape the life of his child?  Hector Abad Gomez, teacher, doctor, defender of the poor, victim of a murderous regime, expressed his love for his son in the simplest way possible: he opened his heart unconditionally to him.  Sounds easy I suppose--it's not.

"I loved my father with an animal love. I liked his smell and also the memory of his smell on the bed when he was away on a trip. . . I liked his voice, I liked his hands, his immaculate clothes and the meticulous cleanliness of his body. I felt for my father the same way my friends said they felt about their mothers. When I was afraid during the night, I would go to his bed and he would always make a space for me at his side to lie down. He never said no to me... I inhaled my father's scent, put my arm around him, stuck my thumb in my mouth, and slept soundly until the sound of horses' hoofs and the jangling of the milk cart announced the dawn."

Hector Abad, born in 1958, has lived abroad for much of his adult life, translating Italian literature--Calvino, Eco, Levi, Lampedusa and others into Spanish.  He has lectured widely in the United States and is the author of, by my count, eight novels that have been translated into English.  If you read Spanish, there is a nice interview here

Oblivion has been beautifully translated by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey and is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

George Ovitt (6/23/13)