Saturday, November 30, 2013

Why The Healing Gods Are Twins

                                                    Die Welt ist weit, die Welt ist schön,
                                                    wer weiss ob wir uns widersehen.

                                                    The world is wide, the world is beautiful
                                                    who knows if we shall meet each other again.

The Twins by Tessa de Loo 

Riddhi and Siddhi, Romulus and Remus, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu, Pemba and Musokoroni, Yama and Manu, Castor and Pollux, Jacob and Esau: world mythology is replete with such contentious, if complimentary, twins. Alternately cursed and revered, they are doppelgängers, alter egos; they are light and darkness, good and evil, halves of some strange,  uncanny whole. What is interesting is the extent to which twins, for all their legendary accursedness, have been linked to the salubrious, the healthful, the good. “It has long been noted in folklore, mythology, and religion, that a pair of divine or saintly twins were often associated with the healing arts,” writes Leon D. Hankoff in his fascinating essay, ‘Why the Healing Gods are Twins’. No wonder that healing—that of two sisters separated by war—lies at the heart of Dutch author Tessa de Loo’s internationally acclaimed novel, The Twins. 

The story opens in the present day, in the Belgian city of Spa, a resort town made famous by Pliny the Roman and Tsar Peter the Great, by Descartes, Christina of Sweden, and the Count of Orléans, where the principle character, an elderly Dutch woman named Lotte, has been sent by her children to take the cure for her arthritis, to relax and enjoy the health-giving waters.  There, one morning, while resting in the clinic between pristine sheets, she is torn from her reverie by the grating sound of German: “Goodness me, what is this, a morgue?”

Instinctively, she slid deeper into the bed.  The language the woman had made the inappropriate remark in was German. German! What was a German doing here, in Spa, where every square, every public garden, had a monument with lists of the fallen of two world wars carved in stone? Her own country was swarming with health resorts? Why Spa?

Hoping the “elderly Walküre” will simply leave her alone, Lotte does her best to ignore her, closing hers eyes and breathing deeply, but to no avail. When the bumptious woman inquires in French as to whether or not the water in the bottles on the table is safe to drink, Lotte makes the mistake—a reflex, a yearning?—of responding to the woman in German, perfect German. “Ach so! You’re German!” exclaims the German with delight, and the fuse between them is lit.

So begins this deeply gratifying tale of the painful reunion of two sisters, twins, separated in their youth by World War II, then drawn together again by chance, by arthritis, by fate. In a style and setting reminiscent of Mann’s Magic Mountain, Lotte and her sister, Anna—one Dutch, one German—grope their way back through the past, through the layers of guilt and longing and recrimination.

The setting is significant, both symbolically and logistically; pinched tightly between Germany, the Netherlands, and France, Belgium (in particular the famous healing resort of Spa) is the perfect stage for this humble, if allegorical reunion, an intermediate and relatively neutral corner of Europe that is nonetheless deeply scarred by the cataclysmic history of Europe. Writes Tony Judt, “There are probably more battlefields, battle sites, and reminders of ancient and modern wars in Belgium than in any comparatively sized territory in the world.” 

Bit by bit, between peat and carbonated baths, over coffee and pastries, and in the course of their many and aimless walks through the damp and wintry streets, Lotte and Anna struggle slowly, tentatively, in the course of this fine novel, to unravel the tangled history that binds them—as Germans, as sisters, as twins.   

Tessa de Loo (b. 1945) is a Dutch writer whose novel The Twins has been translated un 25 languages.  She is also the author of The Book of Doubt (2013). Splitting her time between Portugal and France, she is one of the most successful writers in the Dutch language.

* “Why The Healing Gods Are Twins” was published in The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 1977. 

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Up on the Roof

The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany

No doubt you've had the experience of walking down city streets or standing at a hotel window and imaging the lives being lived in the buildings around you.  With any luck, now and again, you might get a quick glimpse into someone's living room, or see a family just sitting down to dinner.  You're not a voyeur (or perhaps you are), in any case you enjoy the thrill of observing other lives "in the moment," no matter how ordinary those lives, or how like your own. As a fictional device, peering through open windows and doors, touring apartment buildings and hotels, violating the privacy of others, can be deployed with great skill and subtlety or in a ham-handed fashion--Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual or Arthur Hailey's Hotel.  I suppose it would be a stretch to point to Dante's Divine Comedy as the source of this voyeuristic tradition (Hotel Hell); more likely candidates would come from the modernist tradition, from Baudelaire perhaps, or from flâneurs like Walter Benjamin--from books like the Arcade Project or Edmund White's love songs to Paris--the stroller, idle, searching for "adventures," usually romantic, peering through open windows, intruding upon the lives of others.

That's the Yacoubian Building in Cairo, the setting for the vastly entertaining novel by Alaa Al Aswany, a bestseller in Egypt, a novel that places within one space the interwoven lives of two dozen characters, from an impoverished doorman to a playboy millionaire.  It's an engaging book, full of sexual longing, abortive ambition, political intrigue, and urban voyeurism.  The trajectories--tragic in the case of some of the denizens of the Yacoubian Building and comic in the case of others--are set out with precision and care in the first pages.  The young, idealist Taha el Shazli wishes to be a police officer but has to overcome the poverty of his upbringing (his is the saddest story of the lot); the ambitious tailor Malak who understands how to game the underground economy to get ahead; Zaki Bey el Dessouki whose amorousness is insatiable and whose pursuit of pleasure is sadly comic; Souad Gaber, second wife of the wealthy and ambitious Hagg Muhammad Azzam--she loathes her husband but tolerates him for her son's sake.  There's a bit of melodrama in all of these stories, a sense of "God's plenty," but never any banality--I wondered while reading The Yacoubian Building if I would have found the novel as enchanting if it had been set in New York or Albuquerque--probably not. The power of the book derives in large measure from its setting in Cairo in the 1980's, just prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.  This is a world I know, in small part, from Mahfouz (whose novels, like the Cairo Trilogy, are, however, set in an earlier period) from reading contemporary Egyptian history, and from having seen this past summer half-a-dozen contemporary Egyptian films.  The small details of life in this teeming city made this novel especially attractive, so much so that I abandoned all of my other reading projects as well as my paid work to follow the charming and sad lives lived in the Yacoubian Building.  There were moments when I surprised myself by flipping ahead in the story to see what would happen (to Taha mostly)--I'm not usually so engaged by mere stories that I cheat--I even read the last five pages long before I had a right to, something I haven't done since reading Natsuo Kirino's Out and being so eager to see how she would resolve her tale that I took a peek at the last page.  Al Aswany was, maybe still is, a dentist by profession.  What could be more quotidian than looking in people's mouths?  What more natural training could there be--far better than the pointless MFA--than dentistry for the dissection of human existence?

Al Aswany is the most popular contemporary novelist in Egypt and among the most popular in the Middle East.  Born in 1957, he became, during the eighteen days of Tahrir Square, "the face of the Egyptian Revolution."  His political views are controversial both in Egypt, where he has been an opponent of the two regimes that replaced Mubarak, and in the United States where he has been attacked by the center-right New Republic and the far-right Blaze as an "anti-Zionist conspiracy theorist. "  I'll leave the name-calling to the pundits and merely mention that the politics of Al Aswany's fiction appear to me to be even-handed--ironic and Voltarian rather than ideological.  His public statements are, of course, his business, as are his personal political views.  He is, after all, a dentist and a writer and not a politician.

The Yacoubian Building, translated by Humphrey Davies, is published by Harper Perennial.

George Ovitt (11/24/13)


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Critics Be Damned

The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump by Aharon Megged

Pour ce que rire est le propre de l’homme.

“Asking a working writer how he feels about critics,” declared English playwright, John Osborne, “is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs.” So might have gone the epigraph to this witty, erudite, ever-surprising exploration of the age-old relationship between writer and critic.  

My first taste of Aharon Megged’s work was his novel Foiglman, and I was so impressed by the strange and melancholy tale of an Israeli historian named Zvi Arbel and his anguished, ultimately tragic relationship with Foiglman, a Yiddish poet and Holocaust survivor, that I’d bought up every book in his name. Among them (and the subject of this post) was the curiously titled novel, The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump. Set in an apartment building in 1980’s Tel Aviv, it tells the story of a writer named Kalman Keren who makes the horrific discovery one day that his arch-enemy, the literary critic, Naphtali Schatz, has not only moved into his apartment building but into the apartment directly overhead!

Keren, having just started work on what is to be his masterpiece (the book to end all books, the ultimus liber), in short, the translation into modern Hebrew of François Rebelais’ five interconnected scatological novels, La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, suddenly finds himself paralyzed by the presence of this literary specter, this “Mr. Bookflayer,” this “degenerate descendent of Zoilus the Scourge.” It is too much for the hapless writer to believe: “Impossible!—I repeated to myself—the devil has tricks no mortal can imagine, but in the field of literature?! It’s inconceivable that he would think up an allegory like this, a literary critic living right above a writer, walking on his head, as it were. Especially a critic whose first book was a polemic against allegory!”

Brilliantly, the antipathy Keren feels for the critic is rooted, not in some harsh or captious review he’d received from the man, but in the unendurable fact that the widely esteemed Schatz never even acknowledged his last, most successful book, The Flying Camel of the Golden Hump, let alone reviewed it. “Twenty-eight articles written about this book of mine in six months after it was published. But Schatz—not a word!” It is a slight, a damnation, further compounded by the fact that the critic—now his neighbor—refuses even to greet him on the stairs. 

Stymied each day in his effort to make headway on his magnum opus by the machine-gun clatter of Schatz’s typewriter upstairs, and humiliated by the thought of the critic’s daily sewage gurgling past him through the pipes in the wall, Keren decides to exact his revenge upon the cocksure man, both by means of his disarmingly kind and sensuous wife, Naomi, who has made no secret of her interest in Keren and his work, and by viciously satirizing the man and every critic in Israel like him—the very tale this novel tells. Yet The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump is also the story of Keren himself—of his emigration from Romania, of his brief marriage and divorce, and of his life as a writer in Israel. Clever, allusive, punditic, it is delightful to read, a story, finally, about the wonder of wonders, that of literature itself.

Aharon Megged was born in Poland and came to Palestine at the age of six. He was a member of Kibbbutz Sdot Yam from 1938-1950, and later, a literary editor and journalist. He has been a pivotal figure in Israeli letters since the 1950’s.  His many novels, short stories, and plays reflect the complexities of Israeli society over the past fifty years.  He has won many literary awards, among them the Bialik Award, the Brenner Award, the Agnon Award, and the much-coveted Israel Price for Literature, 2003.  The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump is published by The Toby Press.  Check out their remarkable list at
Peter Adam Nash

Friday, November 8, 2013

House of the Dead in Bed-Stuy

A Meaningful Life, by L. J. Davis

     L. J. Davis's novel of absurdity, despair, and home repair--three topics linked in real life--reminded me at first of Kierkegaard's The Concept of Dred.  Lowell Lake of Idaho finds himself married and living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, working at a dead-end job as a technical editor, and drinking himself silly night after night.  Lake is the sort of person who drifts from one thing to another without volition, lacking energy, devoid of passion; he neither loves nor hates his wife, his job, or his life.  His existence is a fate he can neither embrace nor alter.  Although the novel is set in the middle 1960's--the Vietnam War unscrolls on television each night--Lowell pays no attention to politics or culture and appears to be one of those ethereal beings whose disconnection from the world  is absolute.  Davis uses scathing miniatures--Lake at home, Lake at work, Lake aimlessly wandering the streets--to convey his waifish "hero's" alienation from everyone and everything (to be fair, Lake's wife is herself a shadowy being about whom we know exactly three things: she's Jewish, has obnoxious parents, and wears a girdle--this is a one-man show). Inertness is the dominant theme of the novel's first hundred pages, that and a numbing sense of emptiness.  And, yes, Lake is annoying: he whines too much, drifts about in the way a pampered teenager might do, and refuses to "take hold."  In one witty section he notices, without a trace of feeling, that his wife is systematically throwing out all of his clothes and, indeed, during critical parts of the story, Lake must deport himself fully nude, like Adam, post culpa.  Lake is just the sort of self-hating narcissist one read about in the sociological classics of the 50's and 60's--The Organization Man, The Lonely Crowd, The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life.  We know that personal authenticity and identity were major American concerns in the 50's and 60's, perhaps even more so than today (it may not be an exaggeration to say that we've given up on the notion of authenticity and settled for spite).  I remember that my parents, who owned no more than half-a-dozen books, kept a copy of Norman Vincent Peale's longtime bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking on the coffee table, right next to a family Bible that was never opened. Everyone was trying, but without much luck.

"The relation of freedom to guilt is dread," wrote Kierkegaard, and this formulation might explain the American propensity for flirtations with meaninglessness indulged in by Lowell Lake and the millions of Americans who devour books like Peale's (or Billy Graham's, or the raft of other books designed to help us cope with our incredible good luck).  What can you do to fill up a life whose possibilities are endless?  You might finish up at Stanford (as Lake does) and hop in your car and drive anywhere--to New York!  And, back when such things were possible, you might rent a nice apartment, pick out a job from the many on offer, and commence a life whose luster quickly fades.  Is this all there is?  Perhaps we really believe the myth of "boundless freedom," or take our Whitman without irony--we sing of ourselves and celebrate ourselves, and worship our freedom without ever considering that dread lurks inside the bubble of self-regard we've constructed--our manifest destiny, our American melancholy. 

Kierkegaard gave up his fiance for obsessive writing about, well, his obsessions--sin mostly, and Christian identity, and the hypocrisy of his fellow Danes.  His books are one part Hegelian metaphysics, one part Christian apologetics, and more than one part melancholic self-examination.  But his mood, bleak as it may have been, was relieved now and again by flashes of wit and by an ironic sense of his own absurdity.  For this reason, after a while, I came to renounce the idea that Lowell Lake was a Kierkegaardian 'Knight of Faith' and began to see him as Dostoyevsky's Underground Man--"I, for instance, have a great deal of amour propre."  Lowell Lake might also have benefited from a slap in the face, or a kick in the pants.  But he's too obtuse to be humiliated; when his wife criticizes him, Lake misses the point, or fails to find an appropriate response: "Lowell opened his mouth, made a little sound, and closed it again for fear that nothing would come out but gibberish."  Post-modern psychology suggests that there is no fixed self, and no answer to the question "Who are we?"  But this is a bitter pill to swallow; our conviction that we are the voice in our head, the gestures we use to present ourselves to others, the poses we strike to gain acceptance is nearly impossible to overthrow.  The narcissist blots out the Other and refashions the world to suit his or her fantasies of the the self.  Or, maybe, he buys a rundown house in a decayed neighborhood and fixes it up.  Perhaps the American real estate fetish is the means through which a nation of self-regarding, anti-social egotists finds solace--in the House of the Dead.

So Lowell buys a house on a nightmarish block of Brooklyn.  A reeking, sewage-filled, ruin of a once-grand home--a metaphor, of course, for the ruin of the polis itself (this is the era of Jane Jacobs'  The Death and Life of Great American Cities), but for Lowell Lake the house is a chance at salvation--or authentication.  The problem is that he has to give up his wife and his sanity in order to rebuild his wreck of a house.  But as Kierkegaard was fond of reminding his readers, you must lose your life in order to save it, or, perhaps, you must take someone else's life, capriciously, without consequence, in order to find value in your own.

Here's Dostoyevsky: "We are oppressed at being men--men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man.  We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better."

And Davis: "It all meant nothing whatever to Lowell.  Standing in the parlor of a house no longer his, listening to the voices of people whose lives were closed to him forever, contemplating a future much like his past, he realized that it was finally too late for him. Everything had gone wrong, and he had succeeded at nothing, and he was never going to have any kind of life at all."

I can't say I enjoyed this novel, but I read it avidly, laughed once in a while, congratulated the (unfortunately) deceased L.J. Davis on his ability to pull off such a thing--a tragicomedy involving real estate--and vowed never to move again.

A Meaningful Life is published by New York Review Books, with an appreciative preface by the reigning novelist-in-residence of Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem.

George Ovitt (11/8/13)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Stalin's Quip

"The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks...and therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul."

Stalin, to Maxim Gorky, 1932*

Josef Skvorecky, The Engineer of Human Souls


That's Maxim Gorky, Stalin's favorite writer. though there is a reasonably good chance that Stalin had Gorky killed, despite the writer's (late) support of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Gulag, and of Stalin himself.  Being killed by Stalin was by no means an unusual fate for a close comrade, and Gorky was fortunate in his years of preferment and his rescue from the relative artistic obscurity that preceded the 1917 Revolution.

Of course, writers and intellectuals can be co-opted to serve inhumane causes--think of Heidegger in his service to the Reich as Party member (from 1933 to the bitter end) and as Rector of the University of Freiburg; the tainted associations of Celine with the Occupation in France; the traitorous pro-Nazi statements of Knut Hamsun, the 1920 Nobel Laureate in Literature (his racism was deep-seated and makes disturbing reading still); or of Ezra Pound's stint as an apologist for Italian fascism, an episode  glossed over by the poet's admirers.  The human soul can be engineered in many ways, and it seems to me that Stalin's quip, with its odd juxtaposition of the mechanical and the metaphysical, states the simple truth--great writing reconfigures "souls," that is, persons as entities doomed to act out powerful ideologies, or, in a less deterministic way, "souls" as "selves," as unique and autonomous beings.  Stalin wasn't much interested in the latter, and Gorky's "socialist realism" was the opposite of art--it was kitsch suborned by power, the thinnest surface of an unreal world offered as homage to a madman.  Nor has art subordinated to power disappeared with the passage of its most notorious proponents--far from it.

Josef Skvorecky was born in Bohemia, in what was then Czechoslovakia, in 1924.  He was a contemporary, colleague, and friend of Vaclav Havel, Milan Kundera, Jaroslav Seifert, Milos Forman, and Bohumil Hrabal--playwrights, poets, novelists, and a filmmaker, all of whom labored under both German and Stalinist occupations, men whose "country was the Czech language," as Skvorecky put it.  Skvorecky left Czechoslovakia in 1968, after the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks, and began to teach at the University of Toronto.  He resided in Canada for the remainder of his life, publishing over thirty books and establishing, with his wife, the emigre press "68" in order to bring to light Czech literature banned during the dictatorship.  He died in January 2012, just a week after Vaclav Havel.

So how does one respond to oppression--to the terror of fascists or of self-proclaimed communists?  Does one commit suicide in despair at the death of civilization as Stefan Zweig and his wife elected to do? ("I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth")? Does one fight back, with words and moral righteousness, in the manner of Alexander Solzhenitsyn ("So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth")?  Weapons are, of course, out of the question--the ideologues are too well armed. Another option in times of crisis--political or existential--is to deploy wit and irony, undermining the oppressor by pointing out his absurdity.  Kundera took this path rather directly, and Hrabal took it with great subtlety.  This is also the course taken by Josef Skvorecky in his major (in length, in capaciousness) novel The Engineer of Human Souls.  A serious tenor sax player, Skvorecky riffs effortlessly in Engineer among three settings--contemporary Toronto, where Danny Smiricky (Skvorecky's perennial alter ego) teaches American literature to mostly disinterested students; 1940's, Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, where Danny and his girlfriend Nadia work in a Messerschmidt plant and attempt, amateurishly, to sabotage the German war effort; and, finally, in the Czech emigre community in Canada, a viper's nest of spies and apparatchiks, of artists and writers, prostitutes and gamblers, all of whom assume that their life in Canada can be made to imitate life in their home country if they duplicate the intrigues with which they have always lived. The novel alternates scenes and themes and character focus and styles; hell, it violates every precept of MFA workshopping you could imagine--there's telling instead of showing, characters who aren't "rounded," flat patches that should have been edited out but which carry the theme of totalitarian absurdity in subtle ways, and no question that if Engineer had been submitted to a commercial American publisher it would have been rejected.  For all of these reasons I found it refreshing; it forced me to think yet again about how fiction prepares us to live with absurdity, especially political absurdity. Even in as mundane a setting as one's place of employment there are often reasons to retreat to the kind of belly-warming irony (like a meal of comfort food, saurerbraten and dumplings) Skvorecky serves up in his astute re-creations of our collective past, present, and future. 

That's the interior of City Lights Books in San Francisco, the very room, in fact, where I picked up my Dalkey Archive edition of The Engineer of Human Souls this past summer.  If you're reading this blog and ever get to America's most beautiful city, be sure to stop by City Lights.  There's an entire floor dedicated to poetry! But the best investment on that day in early August seemed to me to be a novel about how we ordinary folk can keep our sanity in the shadow of political systems that see the human soul as a problem in engineering rather than as the fragile repository of memory and dreams and desires it is. "Truth lies in the nuances," as Anatole France puts case, and, as we all know, the purveyors of systems--political, moral, educational--are nothing if not enemies of nuance.  Indeed, we have the misfortune of living in an age bereft of all that is subtle; ours is the "age of extremes" as Eric Hobsbawm put it, a sad time in which wit and feeling have given way to demagoguery--the age of Cruz and the Pauls and Boehner--those would-be engineers of our souls.

God help us.

"Come now let us consider the generations of man,
Compund of dust and clay, strengthless,
Tentative, passing away as leaves in autumn
Pass, shadows, wingless, forlorn, 
Phantoms deathbound, a dream.

(Aristophanes: Skvorecky's epigram)

A Dalkey Archive book, translated from the Czech by the wonderful Paul Wilson, to whom we owe many great works of Czech literature. A writer and a Canadian, a close colleague of Havel and Skvorecky and dozens of other Czech intellectuals, he is the author recently of Bohemian Rhapsodies.

George Ovitt (11/2/13)

*It is likely that Stalin stole this quip from Yuri Olesha.