Monday, March 31, 2014


or Ejaculatio Praecox (Bohumil Hrabal, Part II*)

 Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Woe betide the country that needs heroes.
                                                                                            Bertolt Brecht

Reading this short, funny novel, this “optimistic tragedy,” was for me a bit like a roller-coaster ride in the dark: at the start I was thrilled, then toward the middle my interest dipped precipitously, only to soar sky-high in the magnificent final pages. Thank you, Joseph Škvorecký, for pressing me to ride it through to the end. 

Like so much modern fiction, this novel is about heroism in one of its unlikely modern forms. The hero (think—sans cynicism—of a Czech Holden Caulfield; think—sans Jim—of a Czech Huck Finn), a timid failed suicide and virgin named Miloš Hrma, discovers one day, when naked with a woman he admires, that he cannot stay erect, that when called to action his penis “wilted like a lily.” What follows is a sad and quirky tale of sex and trains and paranoia, as the hero, a young railroad traffic apprentice, grapples with his fate and masculinity against the menacing backdrop of daily life in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Like the work of William Faulkner, Hrabal’s fiction is a compelling mixture of the “high” and “low,” of the vernacular and folkloric “filtered through a sophisticated intellect.” Indeed Hrabal is deceptively complex in his vision and craft, imbuing this seemingly simple, nearly plot-less tale with great resonance and depth. Described by countrymen and fellow writer, Josef Skvorecky, as “a national hero, a revolutionary of prose, an innovator, a revitalizer of language” who extricated Czech writing “from the vicious cycle of propaganda and set in back on the path of art,” Bohumil Hrabal writes here with an irony and humor, with a nimbly eccentric realism that is as bold and tonic today as it must have been to the art-starved, sex-starved, truth-starved Czech public in 1965, by then all but vanquished, in flesh and spirit, by nearly three decades of Soviet rule.

While the fumbling heroism of this novel’s protagonist, the young railroad signalman Miloš Hrma, is not the heroism of any formal, organized Czech resistance to the Nazis, nor surely does it presume the nature of the epic in either its motives or consequence, it is nonetheless remarkable for its ringing depiction of innocence lost—of innocence lost and gained. 

BOHUMIL HRABAL TRAGICALLY DEAD,” ran the headline of the front page of the daily Mladá fronta, 4 February 1997. The 82-year-old Hrabal died instantly when, on 3 February, he fell from a fifth-floor window at the Bulovka hospital in Prague. He had been at the hospital’s orthopedic clinic since December 1996 for back and joint pain and was scheduled to be released soon. According to witnesses, Hrabal was trying to feed the pigeons on his window sill when the table he was standing on tipped and fell.” (The Art Bin)
Closely Watched Trains was translated by the late, great Edith Pargeter, a lifelong Czechophile who almost singlehandedly brought Czech literature to the attention of the world.

* see George Ovitt’s post “The End of the Book” (February 25, 2013)
 Peter Adam Nash

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Post-Modern Family

Tirza, by Arnon Grunberg

How many books have actually caused you to laugh out loud?  I remember laughing to the point of crying at the Major Major sections of Catch-22.  Vonnegut can still make me laugh in one paragraph and nearly weep in the next; Dorothy Parker's little stories ("The Cradle of Civilization") are quite funny, and while I don't think this is entirely normal, whenever I need to cheer up I reach for Thomas Bernhard--the only writer I know of who can make suicide seem witty--or I'll reread the sections of Pale King that reliably do the trick (e.g. David Cusk's sweating episodes).  On the other hand I don't find the New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" funny--ever--nor do I even chuckle at David Sedaris, Calvin Trillin, or the late Nora Ephron. But I at least smile when I try to read Heidegger or Hegel--what else can one do?--and so I admit that my sense of humor is quirky and probably says more about the oddities of my character than anything else.  I've been reading The Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen (which is why I haven't been writing here), and it occurred to me at about page 150 that it was the heavy-handed, almost self-parodying irony that, more than anything else, was keeping me from enjoying the book.  But irony, deftly deployed, can be funny, as it is, for example, in A.M. Homes's delightfully weird novels.  Bernhard's running joke is the same one that made MAD magazine so smart back in its Al Feldstein/William Gaines years--namely the conceit that everything is absurd if examined properly, that is, honestly.  Irony, of course, is the recognition that the "meaning" (scare quotes de rigueur) of experience is slippery at best, that there are no "final" or definitive correspondences to anything in our relationships and our inner lives; every human exchange has an ulterior motive or is fraught with ambiguity.  There's nothing in this formulation that is inherently funny, so that Thelen's pounding away at the quirkiness of his alter ego's experiences isn't funny, while Bernhard's repetitive, Beckettian, over-the-top formulas (the Cone!) do the necessary work of humor, which is to relieve us of the burden of seriousness--after all, comedy releases us from fate, assuring us that either we are in control of our lives or no one is. I remember reading once that there could be no Christian tragedy; maybe so, but there can't be any Christian comedy either, except in Dante's sense of comedy as transcendence.  There is no point in lamenting a world that makes no sense, so one might as well laugh at it.  (See Watt, page 37)  The forbidden is funny, as is the gross, and even the unspeakable can be funny in context--comic relief--but then all of these things are stupid and embarrassing if not done with intelligence.  Tragedy is natural in storytelling--the narrative arc is built in--but the comedic plot presents an altogether difference sort of problem.  I respect a writer that does tragedy well; I marvel at one who can do comedy.

"One more thing about paranoia and irony: paranoia without irony is unbearable. And the combination of paranoia and irony might still be the best answer to the horror of our times." 

Aaron Grunberg, the Dutch novelist who lives in New York, and who is, I suspect, right at this moment working in his kitchen in Queens (he writes in the morning, in his kitchen, listening to music, and, apparently, hooked up to an EKG as part of a study of the creative process--I like picturing this), also writes a blog that I have been enjoying--he has opinions on everything, and they're often good ones: as in the quotation above: paranoia without irony is unbearable.   You can tell Grunberg has been in the U.S. a while--paranoia has replaced optimism everywhere: we're being watched, and what we're doing, though hardly worth a second thought, is probably illegal.  His novel Tirza, which I enjoyed, is set in an upscale enclave of Amsterdam, though its disturbed and disturbing central character Jorgen Hofmeester could just as easily live in Gotham City, though not in Ed Koch's favorite borough--maybe on the Upper East Side--where the horrifying and hysterical (in both senses of the word) unraveling of his family would seem no more absurd that anything else currently transpiring (how's this: "A Generation Redefines Mourning: Millennials have begun projecting their own digitalized sensibilities onto rituals and discussions surrounding death," NYT, 3/23/14; my emphasis). 

 So: Hofmeester's wife has left him, but, spectacularly, returns on the eve of the big party he is throwing for his youngest daughter, Tirza.  Mrs. H has been off with a lover or ten, living on a houseboat; she is, it transpires, a slut, while hyper-bourgeoise Jorgen has fantasies of "dirty" salesgirls. Hofmeester's reunion with his estranged wife is one of the funniest and most cringe-inducing enactments of marital hatred I have ever read.  Ibi, Hofmeester's oldest daughter, loathes her parents and has run off to France; Tirza has what can only be described as unnatural affection for her father--who reciprocates by making his youngest daughter the center of his paranoid and ironic universe. Hofmeester himself has been let go from his job as an editor and passes his days at the airport, acting the role of a person who awaits the arrival of a loved one; he also cooks and cultivates the image, but not the substance, of a concerned father.  Tirza has a boyfriend who looks like Mohammed Atta, at least to her father, and is ingenuous to the point of idiocy.  The party, which occupies much of the book, is hellish and yet utterly banal--Grunberg excels at depicting the calamity that is everyday life.

Yes, we've come a long way from "Father Knows Best," all the way from bland patriarchy through emasculating feminism to unmitigated domestic horror.  But the horror stories no longer require ghosts or vampires or zombies--now everyone is a monster, and the wittiness of a book like Tirza derives from the absurd notion that there ever could have been such a thing as a happy family.  I won't mention the Sopranos here, or Walter White, but what Grundberg does with the nuclear family evokes the sort of rueful smiles of recognition one often had in watching Tony at table with Carmela and Meadow and little Anthony.  The post-modern family: no longer is the home a refuge from an unkind world but rather a perfect replica of that world.  Cruelty has become the face of love, and aside from the banality of pop fiction and network TV, everyone gets it--from Amsterdam to New York--the family is where we sharpen our claws, nothing but a dress rehearsal for the flaying we are expected to dish out in the "real" world. Ironically the roles have been reversed: now one goes to work to find a modicum of peace and quiet, bracing oneself for the return home, to the horrors of one's family.

   "Ibi was at a cafe with friends, the wife was painting in her studio and receiving her almost exclusively male models. Jorgen Hofmeester sat in the living room and underlined one paragraph after the other in the informative book about his youngest daughter's disorder, and in her bedroom beside the cello Tirza was busy giftedly starving herself to death.
   That was how the Hofmeester family lived at the start of the new millennium."

Tirza is published by Open Letter, University of Rochester, and translated by Sam Garrett.

George Ovitt, 3/24/14

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Words Never Said

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin

Above the laugher, above the miseries, above the clatter of glasses and the cries of children, I hear a voice saying: Isn’t there some statement you'd like to make? Anything noted while alive? Anything felt, seen, heard, done? You are here. You’re having your turn. Isn’t there something you know and nobody else does?...What about all the words that were said and all the words that were never said.
                                                                                                                        Ann Oakley
“It has been one week since Mom went missing.” So begins this original and engrossing novel, a story set in motion when a woman suffering from dementia gets separated from her husband and disappears while en route to see her grown children in Seoul. As the children scramble to draft a flyer to post around the city, they realize that none of them has a recent photograph of their mother. Moreover they realize—each individually, each with horror—that they cannot even describe her with any accuracy, that they scarcely know her at all:

NAME: Park So-nyo
DATE OF BIRTH: July 24th, 1938 (69 years old)
APPEARANCE: Short, salt-and-pepper permed hair, prominent cheekbones, last seen wearing a sky-blue shirt, a white jacket, and a beige pleated skirt.
LAST SEEN: Seoul Station subway

In the style of a detective novel, three members of the family—a daughter, a son, and the father himself—struggle to reckon with the disappearance, delving deeply into the past, deeply into themselves, in an effort to come to terms with this stoic, long-suffering woman who is at once essential to their lives and oddly so negligible that, in their minds, their memories, they have to piece her together in bits. 

That children sometimes take their parents for granted is hardly news. That, in their restless self-interest, they fail to see them as fully human perhaps even less so. For we tend to know people best through our particular need of them, an emotional myopia as natural as it is regrettable. Still there comes a time for most of us when, abruptly, in a way we might never have anticipated, our parents suddenly bloom before us in full. In that moment we see them as they are, with all their strengths and weaknesses, with all their angers, obsessions, and fears. They are both young and old, happy and sad, lost in the rubble of their nightmares and dreams. So blooms the mother of this story in the minds and lives of her children and her husband as they search in vain for clues that might help them to find her.

Told in the second-person, a typically clumsy, pretentious point of view, the author of this fine novel makes this voice and perspective sing. Indeed for all its initial flatness, it proves haunting in its particular resonance, in its dark and unfamiliar chords. The more I read of it, the more I grew accustomed to its rhythms, its timbre, the more it reminded me of the chorus in Antigone or Oedipus Rex. Not that this was Shin’s intention, though there is no denying the fateful and prophetic in this voice, a strangely oracular quality rendered most acutely when, toward the end of the novel, the mother herself (her whereabouts still unknown) is given a chance to speak. It is like a voice from the void, a voice from the dead.

Yet it is the eldest daughter, Chi-hon, who really sets the tone for this affecting novel. Unmarried, a novelist by profession, she travels widely, so that by the time her illiterate and senile mother disappears the distance between them is great. At one point she reflects glibly, in despair: “Either a mother and daughter know each other well, or they are strangers.” Yet it is only much later, when she travels with her husband to Rome for his work and finds herself standing before Michelangelo’s magnificent Pietà, that she realizes just what strangers they've  been.  

Kyung-sook Shin is the author of numerous works of fiction and is one of South Korea’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists. She lives in Seoul. Please Look After Mom, her first novel to appear in English, was translated by Chi-Young Kim.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Dear Self: Two Poets

Cloud Pharmacy by Susan Rich

Hourglass Museum by Kelli Russell Agodon

How do you read poetry? I admit that I don't ever pick up a book of poems and read it from cover to cover.  Nor do I sit with poems for a long time, reading one after another, thinking about each one, coaxing out its meaning, before moving to the next.  My preferred method is to carry a book of poems and a novel around with me at the same time and to read a poem or two at random before dipping back into whatever novel I'm reading.  Or I'll carry two or three volumes of poetry to a soccer game or a meeting and, when no one is looking, do a little reading so as to insure that my impossibly high daily requirement of ingested print is satisfied (in these cases I may seem rude to those around me, and I regret it, but I don't seem to be able to break the habit).  Given the irregularity of my poetry reading habits, my reactions to individual poems come at me surreptitiously, often as I am cooking dinner or thinking about something else--in other words, I'm a reader of poetry who doesn't pay enough attention to get what is going on right away; I go for the surface beauty of language first, and only later, after some incomprehensible cogitation has taken place, do I begin to understand what a poet was getting at.

For a couple of weeks now I've been carrying books by Susan Rich and Kelli Russell Agodon (above) with me everywhere.  We have some horrendous traffic jams here in Albuquerque, and I managed to read this little gem while stuck in one the other morning:

Perhaps the painter's angry
with her art--the ocean--the gallery--
a comprehension that arrives too easily;

or is this simply Irish weather; a stormscape
well-lived in unsettled blues, long
undercoat of grey? What could it mean

that I look and can't see? Perhaps
there is no such thing as clarity.
In the middle ground, for instance,

an oblong labyrinth of mustard seed
or hay rolled tight, promise of 
a light unfurling, a light you work to see.

This is "Abstract," by Susan Rich, and it is typical of her work in Cloud Pharmacy--condensed, incisive, meditative and quiet, but also provocative, as in "Perhaps/there is no such thing as clarity." There's a little of Elizabeth Bishop in this collection ("Geography IV") but not to the point of imitation or even clear influence--Rich has a voice that is her own, a formalism and measured cadence to her lines, but also a view of the world that is deeply felt and not adopted for the sake of versifying.  Here's what I mean--

"It is so hard to say what the dead really want.

In the lost fires of the notebook, words stumble

down the columns of green and white paper.

In the notebook of the unknown index, blank

description, we lose our blue hours. " [from, "Clouds, Begin Here"]

Or this playful poem:

Dear Self

The word I object to in the poem is blue
as in aquamarine, periwindkle, cornflower;

the shade of rain, of wind, of a girl's bicycle
stolen from the beach last July.  I object

to the semi-colon; the commonplace
comma, the dash--as in Blue Danube--

blue fool--the sheen of a junkyard cat.

I object to the monogamous couplet

the iambic flash,   the turn
in the line like a magician who displays his jackrabbit

sheer entertainment done strictly for cash.
I abhor the smooth paper, the vision fine pen, 

the hand missing the ink, yes, even the author
who praises acres of tulips, orgasms in France.

Hourglass Museum by Kelli Russell Agodon is a different sort of book.  While Rich's lines feel weighted and studied (in the best sense), Agodon's feel more casual, as if we were being allowed to read her journal or to have a direct look at her unmediated sensibility:  "I don't really blame the weather/for being beautiful/when I wanted rain,/but blame myself/for being distracted by the sky." (from, "Untitled, Composition in Blue").  Like Rich, Agodon's concerns are derived from introspective or thoughtful observation of what is at hand and with the evocations of feeling precipitated by the world around her--"I don't want to be absorbed/by the chaos/but things are beautiful/because of the chaos" (from "Sketchbook of Nudes").  There are "he's" and "she's" in these poems, but most often they seem placed there to reflect the poet's feelings, or evoke them, or parry them back into deeper thoughtfulness: "Listen, love--the cliffs are tired of restraining us, tired of the questions/we ask each other about time." (from "Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea").  Like Rich, Agodon's poems often refer to paintings or other works of art--to Joseph Cornell's whimsical boxes for example--and play on color and visual images; neither poet relies much on metaphor, each is direct with the reader, favoring simple diction and mostly open (though not unconsidered) poetic forms: 

Meaningless Consequence
     life on paper, unlimited edition

To suffer together is to suffer
with beauty, the white shirt
of glistening black ink, the fortune

of a wet print worn across a heart-
beating chest. This is what we have
--words letterpressed to our bodies.

To suffer beautifully is still to suffer 

on a bench, and unseen fog in the cracks
and wings of the owl flying to the end 
of the sea.  Sometimes we follow

the glint of rosebuds through the light
of wine, our glasses unsure of why
we have loss.  We drink what we have left.

Agodon's poetry is quietly skeptical of all piety, open to beauty, sensitive to the rapidity and indifference of the passage of time, melancholy but not sad, in tune with the objects of everyday life, and, especially, moved not only by the beauty of art, but by its reliability as a source of meaning.  Joseph Cornell, as one presiding genius within the Hourglass Museum, seems to me to be apt choice--a muse--a lonely, eccentric, visionary, committed to making sense of the cast-off products of a world for which he felt little sympathy and in which he had little trust. Agodon has done a lovely job of evoking this off-kilter but inviting vision of things.

Both Susan Rich's Cloud Pharmacy and Kelli Russell Agodon's Hourglass Museum are available
from White Pine Press, surely among the publishers of not only the best, but the most visually pleasing books of contemporary poetry.

By the way, this Cornell piece--officially "Untitled"--is known as "Paul and Virginia" and dates from 1946-8.   I strongly recommend Deborah Solomon's biography of Cornell, Utopia Parkway, for anyone interested in the life and work of this reclusive genius.

George Ovitt (3/7/14)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Let Me Have A War

The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati

                          Let me have a war, say I: It exceeds peace as far as day
                            Does Night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, full of vent.
                            Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy, mull’d, deaf, sleepy,
                                                        William Shakespeare
                                                                 Coriolanus, Act IV, Scene v

War, writes veteran correspondent, Chris Hedges, in his trenchant book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, “is peddled by mythmakers—historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state—all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty…” So too this novel moves one with its dark and strange beauty. The Tartar Steppe (Il Deserto dei Tartari) tells the story of a young man named Giovanni Drogo who is posted to a remote fort overlooking the desolate Tartar steppe, the first line of defense against a long-anticipated barbarian invasion. As he himself reflects at the start of the novel, his departure for the fort “was the day he had looked forward to for years—the beginning of his real life.” Yet significantly the day is filled with trepidation and foreboding: infecting his joy is the stubborn impression that he is setting out “on a journey of no return,” the future that lies in wait for him both “serious and unknown.”

If this sounds a bit like Kafka, then you know your Kafka well. By the first few pages one is trapped, intrigued by the spare, nightmarish style and plotting made famous by that ardent, inward Czech. Even in English, it is clear that Buzzati is writer of extraordinary fineness and command, The Tartar Steppe told to us (confided almost) in the lean, unvarnished language of apologue and myth:

In a gap in the nearby crags (they were already deep in darkness), behind a disorderly range of crests and incredibly far off, Giovanni Drogo saw a bare hill which was bathed in the red light of the sunset—a hill which seemed to have sprung from an enchanted land; on its crest there was a regular geometric band of a peculiar yellowish color—the silhouette of the fort… Drogo gazed with fascination and wondered what attraction there could be in that solitary and almost inaccessible keep, so cut off from the world. What secrets did it hide?

What Drogo discovers there is as mundane as it is horrific, obscene. Framed in miniature by the rumored threat of a barbarian invasion—a perennial, symbolic, ineluctable threat—The Tartar Steppe is a somber, graceful meditation on human vanity, on solitude and silence, and on the promise and deceits of war. Above all it is a penetrating study of that implacable, most formidable of human enemies—Time itself, which, so our hero is appalled to realize one day, “flowed over the fort, crumbled the walls, swept down dust and fragments of stone, wore away the stairs and chains,” leaving him—suddenly, it seemed—an old and broken man. 

Written during World War II, this story also succeeds as a parable of the fascist years in Italy, its “bitter wisdom of dissent” a scathing critique of Mussolini’s parched and belligerent reign. Yet, as with all allegories, all parables, the novel’s implications are as universal as they are particular, so that, having read it, I cannot help but see it as a cautionary tale as well, cannot help but reflect upon what West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, and History professor, Andrew J. Bacevich, calls “the new American militarism,” a reckless, fanatical, increasingly pernicious devotion to military virtues and war:

The marriage of military metaphysics with eschatological ambition is a misbegotten one, contrary to the long-term interest of either the American people or the world beyond our borders. It invites endless war and the ever-deepening militarization of U.S. policy. As it subordinates concern for the common good to the paramount value of military effectiveness, it promises not to perfect but to distort American ideals. As it concentrates ever more authority in the hands of a few more concerned with order abroad than with justice at home, it will accelerate the hollowing out of American democracy. As it alienates peoples and nations around the world, it will leave the United States increasingly isolated. If history is any guide, it will end in bankruptcy, moral as well as economic, and in abject failure.*    

So powerful, so universal, so darkly prognostic is this novel that it served as the inspiration for South African Noble laureate, J.M. Coetzee’s remarkable 1980 novel, Waiting for the Barbarians—surely the highest praise one writer can offer another. Read them both and be moved. 

Dino Buzzati is widely considered to be one of Italy’s greatest modern writers. He was also a noted graphic artist and painter, as well as a correspondent for the newspaper Corriere della Sera. He came to international prominence in 1945 with the publication of The Tartar Steppe, which was written during the fascist regime. He died in Milan in 1972. (Thanks to Verba Mundi, David R. Godine)  The novel was translated by Stuart C. Hood.

* from The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War by Andrew J. Bacevich (2005)
+Thanks to Casey Citrin for recommending this book to me.

Peter Adam Nash