Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tony Judt and Dumitru Tsepeneag

Hotel Europa by Dumitru Tsepeneag

It is now nearly four years since we lost the inimitable Tony Judt, the finest historian of Europe of our generation.  His magisterial Postwar: Europe Since 1945 stands as the most incisive work of historical scholarship and humane erudition produced in recent memory. Judt wore his learning lightly, wrote lucidly, judged according to clear and rational standards of historical conduct, and remained remarkably untainted by the ideological distortions that have diminished the writings of so many contemporary historians.  What reader of the New York Review of Books or of the London Review hasn't marveled at Judt's ability to distill a career ("Goodbye to All That? Leszek Kolakowski and the Marxist Legacy"), demolish the "useful idiots" of the early 2000's ("The Silence of the Lambs: On the Strange Death of Liberal America"), or cut to the heart of a complex contemporary political question ("The Country That Wouldn't Grow Up")?  Well, plenty of them. Because he refused to climb on board any bandwagon and was equally critical of all parties guilty of self-serving mendacity and gross stupidity, Judt had plenty of enemies--those blindly loyal to Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories, supporters of the intransigence of the PLO under Arafat, unreconstructed Marxists, the editors of the New York Times who supported W. Bush's war in Iraq, those who adored Pope John Paul ("A Pope of Ideas?" one of the most devastating essays ever written about the pretensions of papal power), and anyone hoodwinked by the fatuousness of Thomas Friedman.  Even when I didn't agree with Judt's viewpoint on some question it was difficult not to be charmed and persuaded by his prose, his deep and humane learning, and his ethical sincerity.

All of which is a long prologue to the tale of Hotel Europa by Dumitru Tsepeneag, surely a household name in the literary precincts of our republic (!).  Hotel Europa (a bit of a joke I think: Bucharest is closer to Istanbul than to Paris) was published in Romanian in 1996, not long after the political events it depicts, translated by Patrick Camiller, and issued by Dalkey in 2010, by which time the sclerotic memories of Romania's descent into chaos (from somewhat greater chaos) had already fallen into the black hole of forgetfulness that the zombies of the informationless age inhabit.  This is one thing among many I loved about Tony Judt--he knew everything worth knowing, he thought it was important to know everything, and he appeared never to forget what he knew. Even in his dying from ALS, he dictated a book to his secretary (Ill Fares the Land) that puts every other book about our nation's predicament to shame. And what are some of the things Judt hadn't forgotten?  The unspeakable crimes of Ceaușescu for one thing: the torture centers, the extra-judicial murders, the violence against dissenters, the lies he told to hoodwink three or four American presidents (Ceaușescu was a critic of the Soviet leadership during the Cold War and thus an ally of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and others).  Despite his brutality--for example, in an effort to increase the "pure Romanian population," beginning in 1966 both birth control and abortion were prohibited in Romania, a draconian measure which resulted in the deaths of at least 10,000 women--in spite of such Stalinist madness, Ceaușescu was granted IMF loans that he repaid on the backs of the poorest people in Europe, MFN trade status, membership in GATT, a state visit to London, and fawning attention by Western politicians who should have known better. 

Dumitru Tsepeneag, pictured above and to the left, is among the most popular writers in Romania and highly regarded in his adopted nation of France.  In the 1960's he was among the founders of the Oniric group of Surrealists--indeed his books have a strong surrealist strain: they are dreamlike, fracturing space and time, dispersing with chronology and causality, jumping from fiction to (purported) fact, from autobiography to novelistic invention.  Tsepeneag had his Romanian citizenship revoked by Ceaușescu's government in 1975 and in that year emigrated to Paris. At first he published in Romanian, and then, as he puts it, his publisher asked him to write in French to save money on translation. His most popular novel thus far, The Vain Art of the Fugue was his first to appear in his adopted language--it's a good place to start with this difficult writer.

Hotel Europa tells the story of the 1990 revolution in Romania through the eyes of both the narrator (who is trying to get away from Paris and his French wife in order to write the book that we are reading) and a group of students victimized by the riots of that year.  The novel is full of mordant playfulness--witty exchanges on the forever twinned subjects of  politics and sex, not unlike those that fill Hopscotch, replace traditional plot lines.  Who, for example, is Ion, whose principle role appears to be the mouthpiece of the author, but a most uncooperative one?

"Ion [the novel's main character, a student] might accuse me [the novelist] of speaking more about myself in this novel than him, despite the fact that he's the main character. Of course it would be easy for me to reply that he doesn't decide who the main character is. . . But that, I admit, would be unworthy of an author who hates appearing to his readers as a god or a father in relation to his characters. . . "  

Although he wrote a generation earlier, I often thought of Tsepeneag's countryman Eugene Ionesco as I read Hotel Europa.  The two exiles had a lot in common, including residence in Paris, a love-hate relationship with their country of birth, and the adoption of the French language.  I remember my first reading of Ionesco's brilliant absurdist play The Chairs, a farce not unlike Waiting for Godot (but darker)--Tsepeneag doesn't unhinge reality in quite the way that Ionesco did, but the comparison is apt. Both writers, coming from a country where, as Tony Judt pointed out, there has been an "obsession with identity," confront the facts of displacement and a lack of rootedness. Tsepeneag's books (of the two I've read) place his characters in predicaments that consistently undercut their sense of gravity.  No one belongs; no set of circumstances feels fixed beyond the moment, and political violence sweeps up everyone--"all that is solid melts into air"--even under communism.   

Back to Tony Judt: "'Some countries,' according to E.M. Cioran, looking back across Romania's twentieth century, 'are blessed with a sort of grace: everything works for them, even their misfortunes and catastrophes. There are others for whom nothing succeeds and whose very triumphs are but failures. When they try to assert themselves and take a step forward, some external fate intervenes to break their momentum and return them to their starting point.'"  This is from Judt's essay "Romania Between History and Europe," included in the collection Reappraisals, published in 2008.

There is an interview with Dumitru Tsepeneag, in French, here

Hotel Europa is published by Dalkey Archive.

George Ovitt 2/22/14

Saturday, February 15, 2014


"The problem for an engagé writer, as they call them now, is to continue being a writer. If what he writes becomes simply literature with a political content, it can be very mediocre. That’s what has happened to a number of writers. So, the problem is one of balance. For me, what I do must always be literature, the highest I can do . . . to go beyond the possible. But, at the same time, to try to put in a mix of contemporary reality. And that’s a very difficult balance."* 

Save Twilight and Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar

                                                                                  He was a beautiful man--there's a little of Chet Baker in this image, though Cortázar was darker and his face had more sadness in it.  (Chet would catch up in the sadness department, pretty quickly).  In my study I have lots of pictures, but only one image of a writer--Julio, bearded, smoking (of course), looking off into the distance, looking, perhaps, for La Maga in some Parisian cafe, or thinking about a philosophical paradox posed by Gregorovius, that spinner of paradoxes.  Oh to have lived in that Moveable Feast, Paris in the Fifties, cheap wine and jazz and conversations that lasted all night!  When I dip back into Hopsccotch, or, as now, reread it for the third or fourth time, I almost weep at the beauty of it--the gorgeous writing, the flow of ideas, the lost world, the riffs on politics and love and art that follow Oliveria/Cortázar as he wanders the streets in his lumberjack coat and leaky shoes, looking for, or trying to forget, La Maga, that life-force, that enigma, who just happens (among other things) to be a woman.

He was a poet of course, a poet in prose, like so many other writers in Spanish.  This morning, reeling from half-a-dozen poems from Save Twilight, I was thinking that, for sure, no language has more beautiful writing than Spanish--Cortázar, Márquez, Bolaño, Vila-Matas, Lispector, Abad--I could go on, but what's the point?  Russians and East Europeans do politics better than anyone; the French have no peer when it comes to malaise, the Brits are the great chroniclers of imperialist regret, Anglophone Indian writers are the best storytellers (Rohinton Mistry, e.g.), and Americans own bewildered self-regard--but literature in Spanish, whether peninsular or colonial, is by far the most poetic and passionate and beautiful.

From section 25 of Hopscotch: (I like to read the novel straight through and have never attempted playing rayuela according to Cortázar's directions in the preface): "Gregorovius thought that somewhere Chestov had written about aquariums with a removable glass partition which could be taken out any time and that the fish, who was accustomed to his compartment, would never try to go over to the other side. He would come to a point in the water, turn around and swim back, without discovering that the obstacle was gone, that all he had to do was to keep on going forward....."

He tosses this sort of thing off on every page--emblems of deeper truths, hints at the inner lives of his characters (who we know to be real people, thinly disguised).  Cortázar/Oliveria is this fish, walking and smoking and talking in riddles to his cercle intime--and then traveling back to Argentina to work in a circus that is an insane asylum and in an insane asylum that is a circus (yes, the glass partition can be removed and the fish never tries to go to the other side).  There is a yearning in Cortázar for truth and clarity that I find brave and touching and deeply moving; he is the greatest philosopher among writers, far more bracing than Dostoevsky because he is far less willing to capitulate to dogma or to divide the world up at all--no, Julio/Horacio swallows life whole, just as it is and must be.

 Look, I don't ask much,
just your hand, to hold it
like a little frog who'd sleep there happily.
I need that door you gave me
for coming into your world, that little chunk
of green sugar, of a lucky ring.
Can't you just spare me your hand tonight
at the end of a year of hoarse-voiced owls?
You can't, for technical reasons. So 
I weave it in the air, warping each finger, 
the silky peach of the palm
and the back, that country of blue trees.
That's how I take it and hold it, as 
if so much of the world
depended on it, 
the succession of the four seasons, 
the crowing of the roosters, the love of human beings.

This is "Happy New Year."  In interviews, like the one given to the "Paris Review," Cortázar often made the point that the real and the surreal are one and the same thing--I think he felt the glass partition between consciousness and the unconscious to be porous, or non-existent.  His novels, like 62: A Model Kit  aren't at all like dreams, but they are dreamy, the prose languorous rather than sharp; there's nothing business-like about Cortázar's writing, and he's never eager to take the reader to some destination of plot or character development. Things pop up in the stories embedded in Hopscotch, like that marvelous long account of Horacio/Julio wandering into an eccentric piano recital by the deluded impresario Berthe Trepat--this is writing as jazz, Charlie Parker put into words, and Horacio/Julio is, in La Maga's words, "like a glass of water in a storm."

He was a beautiful man who died too young (at 69), possibly from a blood transfusion.  He was born in Brussels, taught elementary school in rural Argentina where he began to write, then moved to Paris in 1951.  He offended the Peronists who ruled his native country and wasn't welcome--and that was all right since Paris was his natural home.  He translated for UNESCO, played the trumpet, collected books and art, wrote and thought and lived.

Here is a photo of his wife, Carol Dunlop who died in 1982.

Julio Cortázar died in Paris in 1984.  I visited his grave in Montparnasse; it was covered with flowers.

*From the Paris Review interview:

Hopscotch was translated by that genius Gregory Rabassa who has done so much to make Spanish and Latin American Literature available to us.

City Lights Books published Save Twilight in a nice pocketbook edition, with Spanish texts and translations by Stephen Kessler.  It's #53 in the City Lights Series.

Here he is, looking like Jean-Paul Belmondo. 

George Ovitt, 2/15/14

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Israel: Women at War

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

Only the dead have seen the end of war.

The first time I saw Israeli women in uniform was on the train ride between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Actually they were girls, teenaged girls in combat boots and sagging fatigues with machine guns slung low on their backs. Clustered between cars, they stood teasing each other, chewing gum, chatting on their cell phones, smoking cigarettes, and listening to their I-Pods like teenagers virtually everywhere in the industrialized world. As deterrents to terror, they seemed delightfully harmless, though the facts, the statistics, prove otherwise. It has long been a successful Israeli strategy to post soldiers everywhere—at border checkpoints, airports, and federal buildings, surely, but also on buses and trains, in markets, synagogues, parks, schools, hospitals, shops, museums, restaurants, nightclubs, movie theatres, hotel lobbies, and even on the beach, where we had occasion to see them, often uniformed girls with Kalashnikovs and M-16s, strolling arm-in-arm on the sand.

By law, all able-bodied Israelis between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one are required to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, known by the Hebrew acronym Tzahal for Tzva Hahahgana Le Yisra’el, a national conscription that has always included women. Charged to “defend the existence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the state of Israel,” they—like their male counterparts—have done so, again and again, in the course of Israel’s brief and tumultuous history, if with an increasingly volatile mixture of loyalty and ambivalence, of courage, compassion, and fear.  

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid charts the boredom and yearning of three teenaged girls in a dusty outpost not far from the Lebanese border, as they struggle to make meaning out of their empty, conventionally hapless lives. It is only when they are conscripted into the army, when they are pressed to enact and enforce the absurdities and contradictions of modern Israeli life, in short, to defend the indefensible, that they come to understand what it means to be an Israeli today. 

The philosopher-historian Will Durant once calculated that there have only been twenty-nine years in the history of human civilization in which a war was not underway somewhere in the world. In the now sixty-six year history of the modern state of Israel there has never even been one, not a single year in which the nation was not at war. Politics aside, just think of it—the resources, the madness, the daily wear and tear on soldiers and civilians alike. While in Tel Aviv, my wife, my sons, and I had dinner with a friend of ours, a lovely evening with him and his wife and children in their home that ended with a tour of their bomb shelter, an architectural feature mandated for all Israeli homes, apartment buildings, and factories since 1951. To be an Israeli (or Palestinian) today, in my friend’s case a secular, cosmopolitan, politically progressive Israeli, is to live one’s life in a strangely normalized state of siege, a fraught, impossibly suspended now. Surely something soon must give. 

While I strongly believe that the world needs to continue to plead the case of the Palestinians and their equal right to a just, secure, and autonomous state, the effort will falter to the very degree that it inspires the vilification of Israel and of Israelis themselves. What this good novel does, what all good novels of the region do (including those of such tireless and courageous Palestinian writers as Elias Khoury, Susan Abulhawa, and Ghassan Kaanfani, to name just three), is to re-humanize the struggle there, to put a face—some very anguished human faces—on the latest philippics, invectives, and screeds. The wonder of such fiction as Boianjiu’s is the way in which it fleshes out and complicates the matters, clouding, precluding, that all-but-irresistible desire to simplify this war through caricature and propaganda, to paint it in black and white. For when this war is finally ended (as I’m convinced it will be, maybe even someday soon) the terms of peace are sure to be just as messy, complex. Then—just as now—the region’s best writers are sure to play their part.

Shani Boianjiu served in the Israeli Defense Forces for two years and still lives in Israel today.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Her Last Day on Earth

AVA, by Carole Maso

"Where is the ebullient, infinite woman who, immersed as she was in her naivete, kept in the dark about herself, led into self-disdain by the great arm of parental-conjugal phallocentricism, hasn't been ashamed of her strength?" 

Helen Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa"

Many of the ideas of  Cixous are rather more elegantly expressed in the great classic work of feminist aesthetics, A Room of One's Own.   My friend and I have discussed the question of a uniquely "women's writing" (ecriture feminine) at some length.  I have expressed the view that there is a form of literary expression unique to women, and though I am unable (still!) to specify what I mean, my view is that women's novels and poetry in the modernist and post-modernist mode encompass a sensibility that no male writer could duplicate.  By coincidence, I reread parts of Kate Millet's Sexual Politics this past week and found that she shared my view--Millet also asserted that there is a "writing of the body" that belongs to women (and to Jean Genet).  My friend has hesitated to accept this viewpoint and "yearns to believe" that gender can be overcome, that empathy and full identification with others is possible.  I wondered, foolishly as I now see it, if a man could write Sense and Sensibility; my friend rightly reminded me of Trollope and of George Eliot, writers whose male and female characters are equal in psychological depth and (in Cixous's terminology) bodily verisimilitude.  My counterpoint to the argument from fictional realism was to cite the great modernist novel Mrs. Dalloway, a book I cannot imagine a man could write, but then, of course, there is Michael Cunningham's The Hours, a more than competent piece of ventriloquism, a book that, once again, forces me to wonder about my thesis--that men cannot write women and that Cixous is right to find in women's fiction a unique form of expression, a literature freed from the phallocentricism--to use a convenient, if awkward and demeaning bit of shorthand--of Western culture.  

Then I read Carole Maso's extraordinary novel AVA and felt vindicated: surely this is a book that no man could write (I asserted, phallocentrically).

Ava Klein is dying of a "rare blood disease."  The novel is a recording, or perhaps an opening,  of the rich contents of Ava's mind, the vestiges of her flickering consciousness, as it alights on memories, dreams, desires, and illusions--evoking lovers, travels, ideas and associations, as well as plenty of banalities--just in the way one imagines the diminishing consciousness of any person (of you or I) dancing among sentences that are mere (!) representations of who we once were. A few pages into AVA and  I thought I was in for another take-off on the Tractatus--a fictionalized rehash of those aphoristic paradoxes Wittgenstein offered as the end of philosophy.  But after twenty pages I felt myself fall into Ava herself--there was no need to make comparisons or to think of some other writer or character.  In her dying, Ava became gloriously alive. 

It's pointless to review-quote AVA since the impact of the novel is cumulative--any one page seems meaningless or at least too cryptic to bear much significance by itself.  This novel isn't just "stream of consciousness" in the Joycean sense but something more subtle; Maso recreates ("pictures" is, I think, just the right word, in a Wittgenstein mode) the horrible reality of dying, the sheer intensity of one's desire to cling to life through the exercise of memory.  AVA is all eros and no thantos.

"Who gave me life/Continues to give me life."  Yes, this is a novel as poetry: fragments of thought that are broken and reassembled a few lines later; tropes repeated over two-hundred and fifty pages; themes that need to be recomposed by the reader: theories of feminist literature (Cixous), Schubert's brief life and works, the streets of Paris, the Holocaust, the difficulty of writing...Maso breaks consciousness down to the level of aide-de-memoir: "The poet writes love; the poet writes death," or the single word, "Treblinka" repeated over and over in slightly different contexts and therefore each time possessing a unique resonance.

Maso, like David Markson, breaks the traditional novel down into its most basic unit--the sentence. No, that isn't quite right. In fact, Maso's text has a staccato quality that makes Markson seem long-winded: there are about 5,000 or so individual bits of Ava Klein's memory in AVA--words, sentence fragments, sentences, short paragraphs.  Naturally as I read the book I thought of the unlikelihood of any traditional venue reviewing such an odd duck of a novel: where's the plot? The character development? And at the same time I was stirred by the possibilities for fictional expression Maso opens for those who find the realist novel stultifying.  In an interview given to the editor of "Rain Taxi," Maso says this about traditional narrative forms:

"The kinds of mysterious, hypnotic, lyric leaps that happen in the first two books become the method of AVA. To me all my work is of a piece. I feel slightly perplexed I must say when I hear AVA is not narrative. I think it just redefines narrative, reformulates it. It's like where Ava says somewhere "and if not the real story, then what the story was for me." I don't think it's such a good idea to assign to old definitions of what narrative is to new work. The worst thing of all, and I've probably already said this, is to emerge already constructed. Somewhere most writers entered a pact, some weird silent agreement was made as to what story is, character, time, all of that. What passes for narrative in most fiction I just find senseless. Literally, I cannot make sense of it. For me, narrative does not reside in these old, artificial notions. Narrative in AVA is refigured; I think that is true."

I love her comments on the "weird silent agreement".  A narrative must be whatever it needs to be to convey the mystery of character or the depths of the "story".  Honestly, is life lived as stories or as  shards of memory?  How do we go through the day?  Do we think in "rational arguments," mystical koans, or bits of trivia mixed in with images of the past that express our longings and desires? Are we screens onto which are projected Aristotelian rising action, denouements, tragedies, and climaxes, or the bearers of mostly incoherent bits and pieces of memories and dreams?   I can't speak for anyone else, but my internal life is far more closely allied to Ava Klein's than to Nathan Zuckerman's. 

Then there remains the question--could a man have written this Ava?  I wish I knew.

AVA is published by Dalkey Archive.

Interview with Carole Maso here

George Ovitt (2/5/14)