Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Man With the Golden Pencil

Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make (and others)(and parentheses)

He was the son of Polish Jews, born in Detroit. Like Joseph Mitchell, Pete Dexter, Mark Royko, A. J. Liebling, Luc Sante, and a handful of others, Algren wrote about urban life without mentioning the swells. Chicago, where he lived for most of his life, provided him with his subject matter--the hard lives of working class men and women, the scams of grifters and politicians, the tragedy of bad choices or of no choices at all. His best-known novel, The Man With A Golden Arm possesses the same foreboding sense of doom as James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy--the city's dynamics, its teeming inner life, bring out some of what is best and all of what is worst in everyone. Survival is possible, but at great cost, and much that other writers think of as growing out of our ethical nature, in fact depends upon blind chance. In other words, Algren, like many of the other naturalists of the period just before and just after the Second World War, worked within the social Darwinian framework exploited for different purposes by racists like William Graham Sumner and Theodore Roosevelt--the difference being that Algren and his journalist/novelist brethren felt compassion for the victims of an economic and social system that exploited their worst instincts. Reading Algren I think: nothing much has changed, except, of course, nobody writes about the world without blinking in the way that Algren did; or, better, no one writes as well from within that world.

He had an affair with Simone de Beauvoir in the late 40's and early 50's (Algren is "Lewis Brogan" in The Mandarins), was investigated by the FBI (a badge of honor in those days; Algren never joined the Party, and though he was a man of the Left, he wasn't especially political), and he was condemned by his own Chicago Polish community for his novel Never Come Morning.  His 1956 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side has the distinction of being (I think) the darkest of noir writing--the plot reads like an Elizabethan revenge tragedy--drunks, prostitutes, pimps, orphans, and murderers (dark enough to inspire Lou Reed). Algren at his best makes Jim Harrison seem upbeat. Algren disliked fiction that tipped over into propaganda or sociology. His characters are real, if unimaginable. I picked up Naked Lunch the other day to see if there was any Algren in Burroughs; not a drop. Algren brings the purity of art to his stories; Burroughs rambles on like Falstaff--a junky jester. *

Not precisely the home of the Blues, but close enough, Chicago's African-American population has known/knows a thing or two about hard living. (See Wayne F. Miller, Chicago's South Side, 1946-1948). The lyrical element in the music of someone like Jimmy Davis is reflected in Algren's prose, especially in the essay under review here.  Chicago: City on the Make, like many a blues lament, is a love-hate song: "My baby done me wrong, but I can't live without her..."

Here's a sample:

"Chicago keeps two faces...one for sunlit traffic's noontime bustle. And one for midnight subway watches when stations swing past like ferris wheels of light, yet leave the moving window wet with rain or tears."

"When chairs are stacked and glasses are turned and arc-lamps all are dimmed. By days when the wind bangs alley gates ajar and the sun goes by on the wind. By nights when the moon is an only child above the measured thunder of the cars, you may know Chicago's heart at last:
   You'll know it's the place built out of Man's ceaseless failure to overcome himself. Out of Man's endless war against himself we build our successes as well as our failures. Making it the city of all cities most like Man himself--loneliest creation of all this very old poor earth."

In Algren's hands Chicago becomes what it is in geographic terms--the middle ground dividing us (Saul Bellow loved Chicago but yearned for New York; Algren was all about the odd perch of Porkopolis on Lake Michigan)--our grasping nature, our vulnerability; our indifference to others, our rare but genuine compassion; our imagination and our banality--in the end, what wins out depends on the man or woman: the City, any city, has a life of its own, disconnected from ours ("like the indifferent stars"); it is the theater in which we act out the tragicomic existence of "Man". The Mandarin herself found Algren (at first) charming, hard-edged, a man of conviction (perhaps unlike her Parisian lover); later on he bored her, or perhaps he acted badly--probably he did act badly (he sometimes did).

He was hardly a "writer's writer." In a Paris Review interview (1955) Algren disavows connections with just about every other writer, including Hemingway (he grudgingly admits to admiring Hemingway's style). Algren says a lot of interesting things about the craft of writing, including this:

"I do have the feeling that other writers can’t help you with writing. I’ve gone to writers’ conferences and writers’ sessions and writers’ clinics, and the more I see of them, the more I’m sure it’s the wrong direction. It isn’t the place where you learn to write. I’ve always felt strongly that a writer shouldn’t be engaged with other writers, or with people who make books, or even with people who read them. I think the farther away you get from the literary traffic, the closer you are to sources. I mean, a writer doesn’t really live, he observes."

A writer doesn't really live...though Algren did live, richly.  Does one choose to write, or does writing choose you? Algren had no choice--writing was his means of living, of making a living, but also the way he made sense of the world. I suppose he's a footnote in American literary history; his early books are just coming back into print. It's a shame--he should be better known since his world and this one aren't all that different.

Algren died in, of all places, Sag Harbor, on Long Island, in 1981.

"The Paris Review" Interview (The Art of Fiction #11, 1955), conducted by Terry Southern, is worth reading here:

*My late-in-life disenchantment with Naked Lunch, a book I loved when I was twenty, doesn't diminish my affection for Bill Burroughs, especially for the shambling YouTube performances of his poems. And if Burroughs on "What Keeps Mankind Alive" is precious, Tom Waits singing Burroughs' lines is sublime.

Chicago: City on the Make is available from the University of Chicago Press.

George Ovitt (6/30/15)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Love After Love

House of Waiting by Marina Tamar Budhos

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger that was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photograph, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

                                Derek Walcott

One could vacation for years in the Caribbean without ever tapping its wealth. For all of its sad and violent history, by which I mean the European destruction of its native peoples and the subsequent scourges of the slave, sugar, and drug trades, the region, best known in the U.S. for its reggae, cruise ships, and Club Med, boasts an extraordinary number of fine, even world-class writers—novelists, poets, philosophers, and historians like George Lamming, V.S. Naipaul, Shiva Naipaul, Jean Rhys, Franz Fanon, José Martí, C.L.R. James, Paula Marshall, Aimé Césaire, Roy Heath, Kamau Brathwaite, Claude McKay, Jamaica Kincaid, Maryse Condé, Simone Schwarz-Bart, Beryl Gilroy, Velma Pollard, Olive Senior, Earl Lovelace, Samuel Selvon, Patrick Chamoiseau, Rosario Ferré, Julia Alvarez, Patricia Powell, Caryl Phillips, Edwidge Dandicat, and, of course, the 1992 Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott.

House of Waiting, set in the early 1950's in New York City and in pre-independence British Guiana, tells the refreshingly unusual story of the tumultuous if finally redemptive relationship and marriage between a Jewish Orthodox New Yorker named Sarah Weissberg and an Indo-Caribbean man named Roland Singh who has fled his greater family and its desperation in colonial Guiana to try to make a life for himself in the U.S., only to return to his native land to take part in its long struggle for independence. 

Guiana or Guyana, meaning 'the land of many waters', was first colonized by the Dutch in the early 1600's and finally seized by the British in 1831 to where they imported thousands of slaves from western Africa to work their highly profitable sugar plantations as a means of meeting the ever-growing European demand for sweets.  With the British abolition of slavery the sugar industry collapsed, though it was eventually replaced by the mining and distribution of the still more profitable resources of diamonds, bauxite, and gold. While blacks suffered miserably under British rule, so too did the sizeable community of East Indians or Arya Hindavi (the People of Hind), recruited en masse from British India as indentured laborers in the wake of the abolition of slavery to work on the failing sugar plantations. While the sugar industry had all but completely collapsed by the time in which this novel is set, it is against this background of colonial greed and exploitation, that the bitter struggle for independence is being waged when narrator and protagonist, Sarah Weissberg's husband, Roland Singh, leaves her in New York to return to Guiana in order to join the radical PPP, the People's Progressive Party, under the populist and charismatic leadership of Cheddi Jagan. 
Unfortunately, as history would tell, the dream was very short-lived. When Jagan and his party won the right to govern and quickly advocated a program for the radical redistribution of the nation's wealth, entailing first and foremost the immediate seizure of the highly exploitative sugar industry, the British government (in league with the CIA) dispatched warships and 700 troops to overthrow the new government under the bogus pretext that they were acting against "part of the international communist conspiracy". 

While simply learning about this—about Guiana, about its Indian community, about its valiant, ultimately successful struggle for independence from the British—would be reason enough to read this short novel, the story itself, an intimate, deeply personal one, makes it especially worthwhile. As you might have guessed, the novel ends with the still-innocent, now pregnant Sarah traveling on her own to Guiana, to Georgetown, to save her marriage and to finally discover the truth about her husband's troubled, if significant past.   

Marina Tamar Budhos, the daughter of an Indo-Guyanese father and a Jewish American mother, was born in Queens, N.Y.  Author, journalist, and educator, she has written two novels, House of Waiting and The Professor of Light.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, June 22, 2015

Could We Please Stop It, Please?

"We live, let’s imagine, in a city where [adults and] children are dying of a ravaging infection. The good news is that its cause is well understood and its cure, an antibiotic, easily at hand. The bad news is that our city council has been taken over by a faith-healing cult that will go to any lengths to keep the antibiotic from the kids. Some citizens would doubtless point out meekly that faith healing has an ancient history in our city, and we must regard the faith healers with respect—to do otherwise would show a lack of respect for their freedom to faith-heal. (The faith healers’ proposition is that if there were a faith healer praying in every kindergarten the kids wouldn’t get infections in the first place.) A few Tartuffes would see the children writhe and heave in pain and then wring their hands in self-congratulatory piety and wonder why a good God would send such a terrible affliction on the innocent—surely he must have a plan! Most of us—every sane person in the city, actually—would tell the faith healers to go to hell, put off worrying about the Problem of Evil till Friday or Saturday or Sunday, and do everything we could to get as much penicillin to the kids as quickly we could."

"We do live in such a city."

--Adam Gopnik (December 19, 2012)


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Fathers and Husbands

A Distant Father, Antonio Skarmeta

I Must Be the Wind, Moon Chung-hee

This illustration is "The Death of Adam," from Piero Della Francesca's great fresco on the Western wall of San Francesco Church in Arezzo. There are three narratives here, and, following the model of most medieval story telling, they are juxtaposed within the flattened picture plane of this single image. On the right, seated, is Adam, father of us all, who is sending his son Seth to the Archangel Michael; in the background you can just make out the angelic meeting, while, on the left, the now-deceased Adam is laid to rest, surrounded by his family, some of whom prefer not to wear much clothing--Piero's way of incorporating classical motifs in what is an otherwise sacred picture (see Heinrich Zimmer, The Survival of the Pagan Gods on this convention).  The text that inspired this depiction of Adam's dying--our father, who art of earth--is found in the Golden Legend or Legenda Sanctorum--Lives of the Saints--compiled in the thirteenth century by Jacobus de Voragine. Any reader of Chaucer is familiar with some of this material: the Second Nun's Tale of St. Cecilia (Englished by that genius William Caxton in 1486) and a portion of the Physician's Tale of Virginius (whose roots are ultimately in Roman literature) have connections to the Golden Legend.  The Tree under which Adam was buried provided the wood for the True Cross; it is under this same tree that one finds the opening to hell--this spot is the omphalos of Christian legend.

"And in the end of his life when he [Adam] should die, it is said, but of none authority, that he sent Seth his son into Paradise for to fetch the oil of mercy, where he received certain grains of the fruit of the tree of mercy by an angel. And when he came again he found his father Adam yet alive and told him what he had done. And then Adam laughed first and then died. And then he laid the grains or kernels under his father's tongue and buried him in the vale of Hebron; and out of his mouth grew three trees of the three grains, of which trees the cross that our Lord suffered his passion on was made, by virtue of which he gat very mercy, and was brought out of darkness into very light of heaven. To the which he bring us that liveth and reigneth God, world without end." 

I love the line: "Adam laughed first and then died." And: "...out of his mouth grew three trees..." Fascinating iconography. Here is Christ crucified on the Tree of Life, with the serpent still in residence.This is a confusing reading of Genesis as it was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that tempted Adam (Gen. 3: 22-24); it was to keep Adam and his suggestible companion away from the Tree of Life that our primordial parents were banished from Eden. We need to recall that medieval and Renaissance artists relied as often on legendary texts for their iconography as on Scripture, which is, of course, full of its own ambiguities. (e.g. Gen. 4:17)

This interesting image is from the church of San Petronio in Bologna, painted by Giovanni de Modena, whose work includes several versions of this scene, all conflating origins with redemption--the sacral tree at the center of the drama of creation, fall, and appeasement.

The primal father in the three monotheistic religions (Adam shows up in the Qu'ran not only as the first human being, but as the person who has taught us all we know, the source of civilization and culture--Prometheus--see e.g. Sura II) is an complex figure. Progenitor and renegade; beloved of God and cursed by Him; awarded Paradise and banished to the realm of the fixed stars (in Dante, see Paradiso, Canto 26--the constellation that Adam shares with St. Peter is Gemini, Dante's own), which I take to be a demotion. Catholic theology's mansion has too many rooms, and Adam, who, let's face it, neither asked to be created nor solicited temptation, got a raw deal. But don't fathers always fare poorly in the mythopoetic literature? Perhaps they deserve to be nothing more than fixed stars, eternally rotating to a tune played by God and his Divine Mother (l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle...)


Distant Fathers: is there any other kind?  The heavenly version, to be sure, is the archetype of the earthly--silent, absent, obsessed, it appears, with His own concerns. Mine worked late and took long naps on the couch while, miraculously, smoking a cigarette. Then, as sometimes happens, he disappeared altogether. In Antonio Skarmeta's charming mini-novella (I read it in an hour and a half), the narrator's father goes away unexpectedly--presumably to Paris (he's French, so where else), leaving Jacques and his bereft mother alone in their backwater Chilean village, lost without a man who, given the condensed nature of the narrative, has no real substance.  The mythical father, shortcomings aside, is the very best kind: e.g. attentive and tender Leopold Bloom, childless, father to Stephan Daedalus. Or, from my reading this morning, Philip Roth's portrayal of his father in Patrimony. Skarmeta's Jacques, who is a schoolteacher enamored of the younger sister of one of his pupils, stumbles upon his past on his way to the bordello in a neighboring town. Fictional boys wishing to become fictional men must lose their virginity to a whore who is sexually condescending; does this sort of thing ever happen? My hometown had a YMCA but no bordello (alas). Little more can be said plot-wise without ruining the story--this small tale, a tidy Fathers Day present of a book, an uplifting tale to be stuffed into Dad's backpack as he sets off for the Sports Bar--hinges upon a plot twist worthy of Chaucer. The book is nearly artless, and that is its art. There isn't any psychological complexity to deal with, no mysteries: Jacques seeks his father and....well, he might find him. Antonio Skarmeta wrote the novel and the screenplay for the popular film "The Postman." I didn't see the film but it is easy enough to see that Skarmeta is the sort of writer who could easily write screenplays--A Distant Father would make a nice film.  Skarmeta is not at all your typical Latin American--especially Chilean--writer. He is fond of every character in this book, he works outside the usual political boundaries of Chilean writing, and deploys not an iota of irony in telling a story that is engaging and uplifting. It turns out that the lost father might be found and returned to us without a drop of blood being shed.


As for husbands, those illusive beings who hope that on one day a year they will receive the pampering (breakfast in bed!) no longer their birthright in this fallen world--there is this, by the Korean poet Moon Chung-hee:


Neither father nor brother,
but somewhere between the two,
when a restless love keeps me awake,
I yearn to talk to him, alas,
I can bare everything to him
but this: I spin
in bed
the closest, the farthest man on Earth.
I'm amazed at times what a foe he is,
yet he could be the one
who loves my babies best.
I cook dinner for him.
He, I realize, is the one I shared
most meals with, who taught me
how to fight.

I Must Be the WInd by Moon Chung-hee, translated by ClareYou and Richard Silberg is Volume 19 in the excellent Korean Voices Series, published by White Pine Press in Buffalo--


The good people at Other Press in New York publish Skarmeta's A Distant Father, translated by John Cullen. It's a beautiful book.

George Ovitt (6/17/15)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Paper Children by Mariana Marin

One day the Great Them will come.
It will throw open the windows,
sit at our table,
drink the untasted wine—
then tear us to tatters.
The most beautiful Mediterranean civilization
will have long ago drowned in the sea,
and the thirteen months of the Ethiopian calendar
set ablaze our Flemish gloom.
One day, like a child in its mother-of-pearl placenta,
the Greta Theme will come,
and we'll set out for the swamps.
We'll exult in the vision of horizontal (universal) mud
swallowing the surrealist sleep that still shelters us.
The insomnia of reason produces monsters—
soon the mud will start to howl.
And the hours of salvation when the poem writhes every which way;
the desert fresh with fiery ashes;
the gaiety of these open arteries
through which I the mud rush, howling...
One day the Great Theme will come.
Possibly it will find us rereading passages
from Gabriela Mistral.
In its wake the wind
will continue
to tear to tatters
your white shirt,
my fire-bright nails,
their red like roses.

My clearest, most persistent memory of the Romanian Revolution of 1989, of the  popular overthrow of the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, was the rumor I'd heard on the news that he'd escaped with his wife, Elena, under cover of darkness in one of the army tanks patrolling the city that night. I pictured them cowering in the small, cramped space, trembling with outrage and fear. As it turned out, they were not hiding out in a tank after all; instead they had escaped by helicopter from the roof of Bucharest's Central Committee building, had been tricked into landing shortly thereafter, when they were promptly arrested. Once in custody, they were tried by a kangaroo court and summarily executed by firing squad, thus ending what was a nearly 25 year reign of terror and oppression, a toxic cult of personality from which the nation has still not recovered.

While initially championed by his fellow Romanians for his open, often defiant challenge to Soviet control, Ceauşescu remained strict, even creedbound, in his communism—in the centralization of his authority and in his notorious use of the secret police, the Securitate, to control education and the media, and to crush all heterodox expression and dissent. Under Ceauşescu, the Securitate, employing over 11,000 agents and at least a half a million informers, was one of the most brutal secret police forces in the world, responsible for the torture and killing of thousands of people, including, if not limited to, the usual suspects: teachers, intellectuals, artists, and writers.

On the Fifth Floor

when the putrefied loneliness of each morning
thunders inside your skull.
On the fifth floor of a drab apartment building
in a notorious proletarian district,
poetry restores to you the migratory instinct
of small gray birds.
How much love
              “When must everything depart from us?”
              Does everything abandon us?”
(yes, time once held cherry trees and ivy).
In your rabbit-like shamelessness
what kind of death
did you make your bedfellow in these recent years?
Oh, poor earthbound terror!
when inside your skull, like a miracle,
you feast on yourself.
There will come a time for frost and for the snout,
a time for the whip that lashes your cheek
and for small gray pigs.

Mariana Marin lived most of her life—as a woman and poet—under Ceauşescu's imperious thumb. Silenced, forbidden to publish her work, for her outspoken criticism of the government and for her "proud, accusatory" poems, Marin was widely recognized as one of Romania's most gifted poets by the time she died in 2003 at the age of forty-seven. For years a grade school teacher and librarian, she made a name for herself among poets and critics with her first book of poetry, A Hundred Years' War, for which she was awarded the Romanian Writers' Union Prize. Yet it was her membership in the eminent critic Nicolae Manolescu's Monday Poetry Circle, "a self-aware, productive and influential avant-garde," that really brought her work to fruition throughout the 1980's, most of which was first published in France. While translator and fellow Romanian, Adam Sorkin argues, in his fine introduction to Paper Children, that Marin was "not at heart a political poet"  as illustrated by her often knot-like syntax and by the stubborn opacity of her imagery, her poetry is nevertheless distinguished, not by wordplay and wit, conventions for which she'd had little patience as a poet, but by "its mood of stoic resignation and attitude of moral condemnation," by her stern assessment of the world around her, a verdict, a judgment, rendered up—like the words of the Prophets—by means she herself described as "the machinery of  my sickened glance." In her poems there is no vanity, no self-pity. Indeed, as Adam Sorkin remarks in his introduction, Marin’s poems are often so raw it is as if, in writing them, she had skinned herself alive. 

Elegy IX

Oh, the guilt and horror
before so many strangled truths!
Who will testify
about the crimes committed against us?
Today's simple words,
screwed into our only body
which can be given over to death,
will they, I wonder, make us good?
I am not a moral being,
Yet can anyone alive manage to remain
unsullied, maintain integrity?
Sometimes on tropical summer nights
when I climb down the evolutionary ladder of the species,
I see and think with a single eye in my forehead,
isolated and shattered.

Then I seem to hear curses and incantations
in a language in which we used to dream.

Paper Children, translated by Adam J. Sorkin, is published in a beautiful bilingual edition by Ugly Duck Presse as part of their Eastern European Poets Series.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, June 1, 2015

Almost Summer: Knausgaard, Farrell, Bellow, Murakami, Wright, and Shlaim

Summer comes early to the high desert--it was 86 degrees today, clear until late afternoon, then a brief shower--not the monsoon season, but a foretaste. We had an oddball May: lots of rain, winds of the sort that usually peter out by the end of April, and too many (for my taste) overcast days--more than I can remember. June is a double relief: it finally gets scorchingly hot and my day job is temporarily suspended, which means I can lounge about the house and read the books I've been accumulating through the interminable winter. I have read a few these past ten days that I wanted to recommend to any reader who is casting about for something to take on holiday.

I haven't written here about volume four of Knausgaard's My Struggle, the story of his teaching job and (mostly fruitless) search for sex at age nineteen.  If you've been reading this series then you've already read volume four and I have nothing to add to the multitude of reviews already published (Dwight Gardner's in the Times was quite good). I have noticed that though Knausgaard is as puerile and mawkish as ever, the critics have taken a shine to his life story. Indeed, in the mainstream press, where the early volumes were mostly ignored, the artlessness of KOK's monumental memoir has become part of its charm. My friend Peter Nash dislikes the books; I find them, well, charming. A great idea for a literary salon in your own home would be a discussion of Knausgaard as a literary litmus test. No one I know is neutral on these four books (with two more in the offing)--it's interesting to think about why this chronicle of the life of an insecure, priapistic, vain, and gloriously loquacious Norwegian should have taken hold of so many readers, myself included. If I were to say I "identify" with Knausgaard I'd be lying; nor do I like him "as a person." No, what I find irresistible is the ambition, the dogged recording of every cigarette, every lustful thought, every car ride, every piece of bread and cheese consumed. That KOK writes "Hi Mom!" just like that, on every fifth page, seems to me as beautiful as literature gets. Hi Mom! What else is there to say? The plums are cold and delicious--here, taste it, life.

I have written in these pages about my Murakami problem: I start every one of his books the minute it appears and have about a 50% rate of completion (I only batted .333 with IQ84: it sits on my desk, taunting me). Murakami is someone I like immensely--his energy, his devotion to his craft, his being at one and the same time utterly hip and completely serious. But his books...As with Knausgaard, the problem I have with Murakami grows out of my suspicion that the novel is dying. Not just because there are so few readers, but because the culture that spawned the form is disappearing. The novel grew out of a particular aspect of 18th century bourgeois experience--its earliest practitioners took ordinary life, mythologized it, and invested it with both philosophical and ironic meaning (it was a lie, and we all knew it: see Sterne, Fielding, Samuel Richardson). Auerbach wrote a monumental study of mimesis, beginning with Homer and ending with Mrs. Dalloway. His thesis was that "the representation of reality" in western fiction was not only a representation of the world but a central mode through which reality was created--fiction of the highest ambitions was not only a form of entertainment--Mr. Bennett sequestered in his study, chuckling over a jape of Fielding's--but the real thing, life itself offered up to a literate and critical public. The greatest of these novels, a book like Madame Bovary, wasn't only a character study, it was also a merciless dissection of the hypocrisy of provincial France--it wasn't only a mirror held up to nature but the lamp of genius illuminating and preserving for us a part of the world in all of its complexity. But with writers like Knausgaard or Murakami I feel as if I am in a different realm. The world of these books feels diminished, neither representative nor exemplary--Knausgaard isn't Everyman, and Murakami's mythologized Tokyo, full of aimless young people leading the kinds of mysterious lives that make contemporary urban experience both interesting and unknowable, are fables that veer between profundity and banality--too often, for me, the latter. I read the latest--Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki--in a day, almost against my will, waiting for a revelation that never came. It's a clever book, readable and engaging, but like many of Murakami's fables it feels a little like a trick, a dazzling magic trip--forgettable.

On the other hand, I won't soon forget the two books I've read on the Middle East. I've just finished Lawrence Wright's Thirteen Days in September, an account of Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin, and Anwar Sadat attempting to make peace at Camp David in 1978. The outcome of nearly two weeks of grueling and acrimonious talks among this trio and their closest advisers is called an"accord" in the history books, but as Wright makes clear, the two-weeks that the American, Israeli, and Egyptian delegations spent sequestered atop Mt. Catocin (there was a single day trip, to the Gettysburg battle ground, chosen as a destination by President Carter for tactical reasons) were anything but concordant. Begin had no intention of following through on the promises he made to Carter on day twelve; both sides were intransigent, though Sadat had resolved to solidify Egypt's relationship with the US and to preserve his own friendship with Mr. Carter. Wright, deftly, tells not only the story of Camp David, but sketches the entire tragic tale of the Middle East since 1948. Reading about the negotiations concerning the governance of Jerusalem made me despair of a solution, under any regime, to the most profound and intractable human tragedy of the age. It's an utterly compelling story, told with Wright's typical attention to detail and in sparkling prose. Will every reader agree with his analysis and conclusions? Not likely.

Reading Wright led me directly to Avi Shlaim's revisionist history of Israel and the Arabs, The Iron Wall (after a theory developed by Ze'ev Jabotinsky regarding the impossibility of Jewish-Arab coexistence). This comprehensive history--from the Balfour Declaration to the "Road Map to Nowhere," explores in great detail the terrible history of Zionist-Arab (especially Palestinian) relations, focusing in particular on the Ben-Gurion/Golda Meir regime and Israel's early relationship to Jordan. This is an impossible book to review, at least for a non-specialist like myself, but I've read a bit in this area, including other revisionist histories by Benny Morris and Simha Flapan, and so feel confident at the very least in recommending this detailed (850 pages) history to any serious student of the Middle East.

Since I will be spending a month in Chicago this summer I'm reading the two great Chicago novels--James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy and Saul Bellow's Adventures of Augie March: the Irish and the Jews and their gritty neighborhoods not unlike the one in which I grew up, though ours was also Italian. Marx was right: the working classes have no country, and the distinctness of their culture pales beside the similarities of their lives. Studs and Augie are hardly soul brothers--Studs is a pugilistic punk doomed from the moment he has his first street corner brawl; Augie is an up and comer, a poor boy who uses his brains and mettle to live the American Dream, not unlike Bellow himself. Both books are epic in scope, vernacular in language, and as densely plotted as classic Russian fiction (Farrell and Bellow had read their Gogol).  I have been going back and forth between them, conflating the stories in my imagination, dreaming about Chicago in the 30's and 40's, a city I often visited in the 60's, the most American of American cities, far more "authentic" than New York, whatever that means. Manhattan has pushed out the working class, gentrified and Disneyfied every neighborhood from the Lower East Side to Times Square to Harlem, ruined the rest of us with its greed and self-regard, demolished and commodified literature, baseball, and food, and pushed the price of viewing the great masterpieces of European art outside the reach of ordinary people. All the more reason to read about Chicago, which is hardly a workingman's paradise either. In any case, Farrell's compassion for his pathetic Irish poor is touching; Bellow's nostalgia for Jewish life in burly and corrupt Chicago pays homage in memorable fashion to a lost world. What city better represents us? Large and diverse and obsessed with money--rotting factories, clogged streets, gun shots in the night: it's us in a nutshell. US. Read about Studs and Augie--and weep.