Saturday, May 20, 2017

Variations On What We Know

The Voice Imitator: 104 Stories by Thomas Bernhard

[one love affair]
[thirteen instances of lunacy]
[twenty surprises]
[four disappearances]
[twenty-six murders]
[two instances of libel]
[six painful deaths]
[three character attacks]
[five early deaths]
[one memory lapse]
[four cover-ups]
[eight suicides]

If you have never read the fiction of Thomas Bernhard, The Voice Imitator may be the perfect place for you to start. Comprised of 104 roughly paragraph-length stories that resonate with the dark profundity of parables, the collection captures—writ small—the very eye and obsessions of this grave and exacting writer (see George Ovitt’s earlier post: Climbing Mount Mordant). Best known for his novels, Correction and Extinction, each an ardent defense of the life of the mind, each a dazzling screed against the perennial scourges of bigotry, dogmatism, hypocrisy, and greed, as Bernard found them flourishing in his native Austria, a country out of which, in his fiction and plays, he fashioned a veritable gospel of loathing. In these novels (in which he is all but indistinguishable from his narrators) he is no Tartuffe, but raves like a prophet of old. 


And what he says will shake you. Of photography—that sacred cow of our age—the narrator of his ultimate novel, Extinction, declares brilliantly, outrageously:

Photography is a vulgar addiction that is gradually taking hold of the whole of humanity, which is not only enamored of such distortion and perversion but completely sold on them, and will in due course, given the proliferation of photography, take the distorted and perverted world of the photograph to be the only real one. Practitioners of photography are guilty of one of the worst crimes it is possible to commit—of turning nature into a grotesque. The people in their photographs are nothing but pathetic dolls, disfigured beyond recognition, staring in alarm into the pitiless lens, brainless and repellent. Photography is a base passion that has taken hold of every continent and every section of the population, a sickness that afflicts the whole of humanity and is no longer curable. The inventor of the photographic art was the inventor of the most inhumane of all arts. To him we owe the ultimate distortion of nature and the human beings who form part of it, the reduction of human beings to perverse caricatures—his and theirs. I have yet to see a photograph that shows a normal person, a true and genuine person, just as I have yet to see one that gives a true and genuine representation of nature. Photography is the greatest disaster of the twentieth century.*

His novels are like a purgative, like a ritual cleansing of the intellect and soul. Dark, relentless, seemingly unforgiving as reflections on the human race, his vision is ultimately anything but cynical, anything but unctuous or pedantic, shot through as it is with a mordant, bitter-black wit that not only saves the reader from drowning but sets him firmly on his feet again, then hands him a flower to sniff! It is almost a reflex for me now that, whenever I’m feeling depressed, whenever I feel I’ve lost my way in the world again, I read a few pages of Bernhard and grin. 

Reading The Voice Imitator is not nearly as demanding as reading his novels, yet still bears the unmistakable stamp of his intelligence and eye. Wry, quirky, provocatively understated, the simple stories set one’s eyes askew. Here—a favorite of mine—is the first from the collection:

Near Oslo we met a man of about sixty who told us more about the old people’s home than we already knew from reading Hamsun’s accounts of the last year of his life, because he had been working in the home at precisely the time  during which the greatest of Norwegian writers was living there. The man’s taciturnity had attracted our attention in the inn near Oslo—usually so noisy on a Friday evening—where we were staying for several nights. After we had sat down at his table and introduced ourselves, we learned that the man had originally been a philosophy student and had, among other things, spent four years studying at Göttingen.  We had taken him for  Norwegian ship’s captain and had come to his table to hear some more about seafaring, not about philosophy, from which, indeed, we had fled north from Central Europe. But the man didn’t bother us with philosophy and said he had actually given up philosophy overnight and put himself at the disposal of geriatrics at the age of twenty-seven. He said he did not regret his decision. He told us his first task had been to help an old man get out of bed, make the bed for him, and then put him back into it. The old man was Hamsun. He had looked after Hamsun every day for several months, had taken him out into the garden that lay behind the old people’s home, and had gone to the village for him to buy the pencils that Hamsun used to write his last book. He was, he said, the first person to see Hamsun dead. In the nature of things, he said, he was not yet certain who Hamsun was when he pulled the sheet up over his face.  

Here, in much the same tone, is another, this one called ‘Charity’:

An old lady who lived near us had gone too far in her charity, She had, as she thought, taken in a poor Turk, who at the outset was grateful that he no longer had to live in a hovel scheduled to be torn down but was now—through the charity of the old lady—allowed to live in her town house surrounded by a large garden. He had made himself useful to the old lady as a gardener and, as time went by, was not only completely re-outfitted with clothes by her but was actually pampered by her. One day the Turk appeared at the police station and reported that he had murdered the old lady who had, out of charity, taken him into her house. Strangled, as the officers of the court determined on the visit they immediately made to the scene of the crime. When the Turk was asked by the officers of the court why he had murdered the old lady by strangling her, he replied, out of charity.

Now ‘The Milkmaid’:

Last week we witnessed the spectacle of five cows running, one after the other, into the express train in which we had to return to Vienna and of seeing them all cut to pieces. After the track had been cleared by the train crew and even by the driver, who came along with a pick-ax, the train proceeded after a delay of about forty minutes. Looking out of the window I caught sight of the milkmaid as she ran screaming towards a farmyard in the dusk.

Finally, to conclude this post, a simple, haunting story called ‘Giant’:

In the cemetery in Elixhausen, some workmen who had been hired to build a crypt for the late owner of a cheese factory excavated, at a depth of about two feet, the skeleton of a man who must have been nine feet tall and who had apparently been buried 150 years ago. As far back as anyone can recall, only very short people are thought to have lived in Elixhausen.

* My apology for having quoted a part of this passage in an earlier post. I simply couldn’t resist.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Bottom of the World

Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison

Robert Lowell was a photogenic man--patrician, handsome, introspective and yet gregarious--there are hundreds of photos; this is among my favorites. The cigarette, the no-nonsense, black-framed glasses, thinning hair only serving to show off the high and brainy forehead. Lowell, it is reported, had read everything--they all had in those days--aside from drinking and teaching there were few things to keep the bookish from their books. Poets in the halcyon post-war (I and II) days were immersed in all of literature--they might have felt guilty about their obsession, but literature was worth living for, worth more than interest, worthy of devotion.

Do you feel it yourself sometimes, feel that great poems and plays and novels are enough, that all else seems measly, unworthy of your attention? And why not? Did Glenn Gould prattle on about politics, great chefs, ice hockey, or--heaven help us--pop culture? The great ones have been obsessives--Bobby Fisher with chess, Gould and recorded music, Heifetz and his fiddle, Einstein and his blackboard.  Nowadays we are enjoined to become "well-rounded," to "take an interest in many things," with an implied warning that not to do so will lead to "neurosis," the modern equivalent of Burton's melancholy, the malady of those who sit for too long, think too deeply, focus too much, care more than is seemly. Our mantra: "relax, enjoy yourself."

Not Lowell. He was a great obsessive, deeply conflicted for reasons that Kay Redfield Jamison teases out of his past--a Mayflower ancestry, a difficult childhood, Brahimhood, Harvard.  Lowell hated Harvard--he left for Kenyon and John Crowe Ransom, much to his parents' chagrin:

"'We are having trouble with our boy,'  Lowell's parents told [Boston psychiatrist Dr. Merrill] Moore. 'We don't know what to do. We want to see if psychiatry can help us.' His chief difficulties, they said, were his attitudes toward his parents, life in general, and Harvard.....'We tried to explain to him what we thought he should be like in order to live up to the expectations of what would be demanded of a member of our family, but he paid no attention." [my emphasis]

"What would be demanded." Such a strange and off-putting formulation--not "hoped" or even "expected," but demanded. Lowell's life-long rebellion against "what was demanded" explains a great deal about not only his bouts of depression and mania, but perhaps also a great deal about his art, his stripping bare of the self, his painful-to-regard private life made public, his self-flagellation.  Lowell wrote often about Jonathan Edwards, America's finest theologian during the age of the Great Awakening, and there is something Puritanical about Lowell, but only in the sense of his being deeply introspective--he wasn't a moral prig, nor did he find in himself the hopeless depravity that drove Edwards to think of himself as unredeemable.

"We drank and eyed / the chicken-hearted shadows of the world." No, Lowell wasn't a life-denier but a life-embracer--his lovely poems to Harriet, his late-in-life daughter, display a touching and deeply moving attachment, a gentleness and love. His tributes to the wide range of poets and public figures with whom he was intimate--from William Carlos Williams and Randall Jarrell to Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy--demonstrate Lowell's compassion and capacity for friendship--"I love you so...." begins the sonnet he wrote to the anti-war, poet/Senator McCarthy. Jamison is brilliant in her depiction of Lowell's multiple sides, his kindness, his capacity--limitless--for friendship, his thoughtfulness. I loved reading the volume of his letters of Elizabeth Bishop earlier this year; they display sides of both poets we'd never come to know were it not for the richness of letter writing (now, alas lost to us forever).

"We were surprised to find that, though tall and powerfully built, he seemed the gentlest of mortals, clumsily anxious to please," wrote W.D. Snodgrass. "I always found him gentle, sweet, and considerate--if somewhat wild," was William Phillips' [of the Partisan Review] comment.

And yet he was ill. As Lowell put the case himself, his depression was a "formless time of irresolution, foregetfulness, inertia," "the bottom of the world." But, as Helen Vendler noted in her book on Lowell--and this seems both an obvious and profound point--Lowell used his art to impose order on his inner life, to lift himself out of the doldrums when he could, to shape a way to carry on living when living seemed pointless.

Lowell with Eugene McCarthy, 1967

On a deeper level, what can we say of madness and poetry? Was Lowell a great poet who was mad, or mad because America drives poets mad, or does poetry, more than paining or composing tend to unhinge its practitioners? That Lowell was periodically subject to debilitating bouts of mania, that he was hospitalized at regular intervals, that he was subject to blackouts and hallucinations, that he required regular administrations of ECT in order to function--all of this is well documented by Jamison, whose access to Lowell's medical records makes her book invaluable for the student of Lowell.

But I have no deeper insight into the relationship between mental illness and poetry after reading Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire than I had before I read it. This failure to understand isn't Jamison's fault--no, her accounting of Lowell's cycle of intense poetic creativity followed by headlong rushes into incapacity and institutionalization is meticulous and well-documented. It's simply that I can find no convincing causal relation between Lowell's creative life and his therapeutic history.  Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, James Wright--distinguished contemporaries of Lowell, poets and critics and teachers--all suffered from clinical depression, morbid alcoholism, and suicidal tendencies (or committed suicide). But then there's Wallace Stevens, arguably America's greatest poet, trudging off across a snowy park each morning in overcoat and galoshes to administer the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.

No, poetry and madness are not "near-allied*," except in the Romantic sense that the poet becomes a conduit for the gods, the "lamp" described by M.H. Abrams, rather than the "maker" of beauty, pure and simple. The daily struggle with language is like any other--concentration opens the world in both its beauty and terror, the strong-willed make art and survive; those who dive especially deeply, who are unable to feign detachment, might fail to come back from the bottom of the world.

"We are poor passing facts,
Warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name."

*Of course Dryden's word was 'wit', but he would have no objection to 'poet.'

George Ovitt (5/13/2017)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The First Czech in Space

Jaroslave Kalfar, Spaceman of Bohemia

Back in the aughts--they're looking pretty good these days--I thought it might be a good idea if I were to find a literary agent to represent my "work"--collections of short stories, several novels and novellas, a memoir, writings on history. All of it drivel, but still, it appeared from the acknowledgments pages of the books I read, no matter how bad, that every scribbler had an agent, "who first believed in my work," and, more to the point, sold it to a New York publisher for lots of money. One heard stories of fine writers who went it alone, but such writers were exceptional. An agent, I thought, would do what I could never do, namely get some editor to read what I wrote, a view as naive as, say, the view that hard work leads to success. I labored over proposals and then began the process of looking up agents, first in New York, then in increasingly smaller cities, hoping to make the kind of magical connection that David Foster Wallace made with Bonnie Nadell. Every day for six months I mailed or emailed submissions, query letters, synopses. Mostly I head nothing; once in a great while I received a form rejection via email, usually along the lines of..."we receive far too more proposals..." "not of interest at the present time (suggesting, falsely, there would be such a time)"..."not marketable." What a waste of time!

This unhappy memory occurred to me as I finished Spaceman of Bohemia.  I was imagining the proposal that Kalfar might have written to countless Big Apple literary hustlers to describe his extraordinary and oddball novel:

Dear Agent:

My novel tells the story of a skinny Czech astrophysicist, son of a Communist-era torturer, who is launched into space in order to determine the chemical composition of a glowing cloud of space dust floating in proximity to the orbit of Venus...his spacecraft is infiltrated (not sure how) by a giant alien spider with red lips and thirty-five mouths who speaks Czech and every other human language, reads minds, and belongs to a tribe as old as the universe. The spider converses with the Skinny Human about love, death, and the origins of the world. They die, sort of, and come back to life. They float, untethered, through the cosmos, chatting (telepathically) while eating Nutella. One of them is rescued by a Russian space ship that happens to be in the vicinity. The Russian ship crash lands in a lake.....This isn't, by the way, a science fiction novel. Are you interested? 

A long shot, right? But mostly Kalfar pulls it off, and you have to hand it to his agent and to Little, Brown for taking a chance on such an odd duck of a novel. The first half of the book in particular is full of engaging details--life in space, life under communism, life with a spider-alien. Kalfar subtly invokes various space-travel parables and I kept thinking of Jules Verne and Tom Swift as I read about the routines and hazards of long-term weightlessness. There's also a little of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in Spaceman--philosophical rambles on the subjects of fear, love, death, the mystery of being, and, of course, under the circumstances, God. Kalfar aims high, and mostly hits the mark. I couldn't get interested in the love story since Lenka, the earthbound wife, remains an idealized shadow--mysterious to the point of invisibility. But I loved the spider, and the whole notion of being utterly alone--so far beyond human concerns that one develops at secondhand the kind of thoughtful detachment and feeling of insignificance that I still get whenever I look through a telescope. My enjoyment of the vicarious sensation of solitude worried me a little: reading through long soliloquies on space and time--the bloody incredible distances!--I grew dreamy and imagined myself floating, likewise untethered, above it all. A sign of the times.

The earthbound sections in the last third of the novel felt a little contrived to me, as if Kalfar himself lost interest once he had to return his imagination to the mundane facts of life. But in the end I felt as if he had achieved something stunning: Kalfar's Spaceman of Bohemia reminds us of the extent to which we make up our own world and then do our best to live in it without becoming too lonely or too crazy. It's the Robinson Crusoe problem done up in post-modern guise--what passes as a habitable world, and how does any individual communicate the slippery reality of that world to another (alien) mind? Language isn't enough any longer; we've lost our faith in words. Admitting this is difficult for a novelist, but Kalfar finds a solution--his alien spider, a Being in direct contact with deeper truths, a sci-fi Friday, clears up all the mysteries, or at least translates the spaceman's incoherent yearnings into something resembling meaning.

                                                      Kalfar with astronaut interviewer

George Ovitt, written on May Day, 2017

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Hope and Humility

Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.

                                                                                                         F. Scott Fitzgerald

If great literature does anything it humbles us. We are humbled by its artistry, by the force of its vision, by its insistence upon the messiness and complexity of life. At its best literature checks our need and proclivity to judge. 

This seemingly reflexive human practice of rating and ranking, of calculating, simplifying, typecasting, and generalizing, of pronouncing upon, of presuming to know, seems all but ubiquitous these days, aided and abetted as it is (to a degree I fear we are no longer capable of tracking) by the crass, essentially consumerist nature of the internet, that is, by the corporate, self-centered, often civically inimical logic by which each day we are training ourselves to live.

While founded surely in a natural, even evolutionary, need to organize and classify the world around us, this restless propensity to judge, and judge quickly, with impunity, to compare value, to make ever finer distinctions between celebrities and products and brands, seems more and more to me, and for all the apparent abundance of this age, to signify the opposite, the reverse—that in fact we are happy and satisfied with less.

When I was a student in college I had somehow been convinced (or had convinced myself) that being opinionated and judgmental was synonymous with being intelligent and intellectual. If someone asked me about an issue, about a particular politician or writer or painter, or about some moral or philosophical conundrum, I didn’t even pause to consider the matter but told them exactly, succinctly, what I thought. Yet what I told them wasn’t actually what I thought, for most of the time I wasn’t thinking at all. What I was doing was judging—judging swiftly, prematurely. For all my purported love of books and ideas, I had little patience for analysis, for the taxing, deeply humbling discipline of thought. What mattered was that I had an answer, an opinion. What mattered was that I knew.

I’ve changed a bit since then—thanks to my wife, thanks to the fact and complexity of my sons, thanks to the many good friends and colleagues I’ve known. Of course I am also deeply indebted to the literature I’ve read, to the countless poems and novels and plays, some of which I’ve discussed in this blog. And I must thank my students as well. Over the years they too have helped to shape and temper who I am. Directly and indirectly, they have helped me to refine the way I think about literature and language, the way I think about life.

Often now I advise them, my students, that before they can rightly judge a work of literature (as they are nearly always eager to do), they first need to know what it is. What exactly (to use the term broadly) is the argument it makes? Each time we read a story or poem or essay, each time we read a novel or play, I insist that before they render their verdict on it they must turn it inside-out, describing it as thoroughly and objectively as possible. I ask them to tell me everything they notice about it, everything they see. Not surprisingly this radically changes the dynamic of the class. Instead of judging (with all its inherent pressures, its stakes) they find themselves merely looking, observing, seeing. Without knowing it, they have made themselves susceptible.


Even less surprising to me, now that I’ve done it for years, is the fact that once my students have invested the time required to get to know a piece of literature on its own terms, in its own right, they often find that the need, the impulse, to judge it has faded, if not vanished altogether. This is not to say that they always come to love what we read—certainly not. In fact they often end our study of a given text with clear reservations about it. That of course is their due. They have earned it; it is theirs.

Which brings me to the matter of literature in general, and why the act of reading widely, deeply, patiently, is more important today than ever. “The poet judges not as a judge, but as the sun falling around a helpless thing,” writes Walt Whitman, an insight, an assertion, that applies equally to writers of fiction and plays. Simple on the face of it, what he proposes is astounding—that literature is something different, special, that literature is something else. Milan Kundera, in his defense of the novel, of its power to render the world more justly, truly, insists that “Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel [or poem or play]; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil.”

Literature then is that rare, imaginary terrain wherein moral judgment is suspended, a realm in which characters move and interact “not as a function of some preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, or as representations of objective laws in conflict, but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws.” As readers we are pressed to see them not as they could be or should be but as they are. That—of all its merits—is literature’s greatest gift.

Judging is easy; I do it every day. It is withholding one’s judgment—taking the time to really know a poem, a person, an issue, a place—that is hard, a discipline that not only requires trust and patience, but humility, forbearance, and hope. 

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, April 17, 2017

Feels Like An Old Friend

Joel Oppenheimer, Lessons (Selected Poems)

That's Francine du Plessix Grey ("beauty") with Joel Oppenheimer {"the beast") at Black Mountain College in 1951. Oppenheimer was a free spirit, and his poems reflect a dedication not only to craft, but to the joy he felt in the pleasures of ordinary life:

The Lover

every time
the same way
wondering when
this when that.
if you were
a plum tree. if you
were a peach

Oppenheimer drank from the same lower-case font as cummings and Creeley--he wrote modest poems whose rejection of the complexities of the better-known poets of that era--Bishop and Lowell, Auden and Robert Duncan--fit the rebellious spirit of the age. Oppenheimer turned his back on romantic sentiment, on the bloated diction of the moderns, on allusiveness and ambiguity, but at the same time he eschewed the reveling in the morbid self-analysis--see Lowell, Sexton, Plath or Snodgrass--that was a staple of post-War verse. Oppenheimer's self-reflections are wry and self-deprecating; he took many things seriously, but treated his own ego with delicate irony.

Oppenheimer was an outlier: I've checked the two touchstone anthologies of 1969--Mark Strand's The Contemporary Poets, and Berg and Mezey's Naked Poetry and Oppenheimer isn't included in either collection (Oppenheimer's first book appeared, to the best of my knowledge, in 1951). It's hardly fair to generalize about this rich era of American verse--it's mind-boggling to read through these anthologies and to consider the remarkable poetic genius of the period 1945-1970--but sad to see nothing of Oppenheimer's included. This fact makes Dennis Maloney's Lessons all the more welcome. 

Oppenheimer's best poets are transparent, under-stated, and quietly moving. He reminds me of Kenneth Rexroth and early Robert Bly (of Silence in the Snowy Fields), producing the same loose-jointed, Japanese-inflected pinpoints of introspection and wry observation that still feel fresh and immediate. I love this one, reproduced in part, written on the death of his colleague, William Carlos Williams:

now you are dead
no more to see
flowers or women,
no more great
mullen in jersey
salt flats, now
you are bones that
dog can worry, now
you have eternity to
consider those mysteries
your life was
built on, now, if
like marc antony you
too are listening in
heaven, you are even
permitted to laugh
at all of us working
in your woodpile, where
you knew enough to
settle anyone
              ----and yet, you
                    were always a loudmouth, did
                    it have to be so silent, and
                    you who all of us knew
                    the waste of news, how does it
                    happen i hear of your death in
                    the middle of music, and ......

I was fortunate to hear Oppenheimer read a couple of times in New York back in the 60's. He was funny and sly and erudite. All of the great ones from that period had imbibed Shakespeare and Milton, Dante and Chaucer, Donne and Eliot and Yeats....the canon as we used to say, all those dead white males who have fallen on hard times, not so much because they are DWM's but because who reads Paradise Lost or The Canterbury Tales anymore?  So much of contemporary poetry feels unmoored from tradition; as a result, a great deal of what I read in Poetry and The American Poetry Review feels pretentious and inscrutable. But the generation that came of age right after World War II was full of men and women who wanted to make a place for themselves in F.R. Leavis's great tradition, in Frye's universe of language.  Oppenheimer wore his learning lightly; he knew what he was doing and went about his business simply, but if you read his criticism, his pieces in the Village Voice, you saw first-hand his intelligence and passion for literature, music, politics.  In this way too he reminds me of Bob Creeley and Rexroth, polymaths who happened to write poems but whose interests in literature and languages ran deep.

The Black Mountaineers must have had a grand old time drinking and sleeping around, writing poems that were loose-limbed and irreverent--thumbing their noses at the buttoned-down Fifties. Always I imagine the age in the black and white tones of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, the finest novel of the era, and then think of how good these poets were at prose--Oppenheimer wrote brilliantly on every subject under the sun.  It would have been grand to live in those days when literature was something more than a commodity, when being a writer was brave and eccentric and important. Not that there weren't philistines galore, but philistinism wasn't our culture's default setting. Never mind that. There never was a golden age, and if I project false happiness on the now distant past it's because the present feels so unbearably awful. Progress, we must recall, is a myth.


Oppenheimer died at 58, far too young. the quiet 
light of early spring one
comes on strange things in 

(A line from "The Fourth Ark Royal")


on the left branch, a
blossom, on the
top branch, a blossom,
which child is this.
which flowering
of me, which
gold white bloom,
which the force of my life.

("The Gardener")

Lessons: Selected Poems, edited by Dennis Maloney, is published by White Pine Press

 George Ovitt, Easter Sunday, 2017

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Every Word a Vicious Circle

The Passport by Herta Müller

                                          As it rushes madly ahead, this vicious circle of words imposes
                                                         a kind of cursed logic on what has been lived.

Whenever there is a buzz around a particular author, when everyone is reading her and talking about her and writing about her work, I have to wait until long after the dust has settled again before I myself can begin. Such certainly has been the case with the 2009 Nobel Laureate, the German-speaking Romanian author, Herta Müller. I simply couldn’t read her then–not because I didn’t think she was worth reading, a compelling choice for the prize, but because there was simply too much noise, too much interference, too much intellectual preening around her, for me to see her work freshly, to know it at first on my own.

After roughly eight years the hype around her has finally—most certainly—died down (In fact I hardly see her name mentioned anymore—Herta Müller, are you still there?), so that recently I began to work my way through her novels, some of which I’ve kept on a shelf by my desk. Among them, one of my favorites is her short, elegiac novel, The Passport. Set in Romania during the bleak Ceauşescu years, an era of violent political oppression, strict media censorship, and crippling shortages of food, clothing, and fuel (see my post Skinned about the contemporary Romanian poet, Mariana Marin), The Passport, originally entitled Der Mensch ist ein Grober Fasan auf der Welt or Man is a Great Pheasant in the World, tells the story of a modest village miller named Windisch who seeks to return with his family to West Germany, from where he has lived in Romania since he was trapped there, just after the war, by the redoubtable Berlin Wall:

Every day when Windisch is jolted by the pot hole, he thinks, “The end is here.” Since Windisch made the decision to emigrate, he sees the end everywhere in the village. And time standing still for those who want to stay. And Windisch sees that the night watchman will stay beyond the end.

The plot that ensues is simple, its implications horrific: Windsich, in an effort to attain permission to emigrate to West Germany, attempts to bribe the local mayor with sacks of flour, a desperate, naïve gesture that ultimately costs him much more.

Told in short sections, each with a title of its own, each at once integral to the narrative as a whole and pleasingly, poetically independent, the story unfolds as an accumulation of stark, sometimes disconnected images, visual non sequiturs, so that the process of reading the novel is something akin to opening a drawer in some beloved old uncle’ s house, just after he has died, and discovering a jumble of black and white photographs, each one more commanding, more unsettling, than the one before it. Of course, as a novel—here the deliberate creation of a formidable intelligence—the story is not nearly so random as it seems. Indeed the details and images ultimately take shape together with a remarkable cogency and force, so that one is struck dumb, at the end, by Müller’s darkly allegorical remaking of Romanian lives under the weight of decades of harsh, totalitarian rule, lives measured daily, surreally, by the anguished longing to escape. Over all of it flies an owl—to some the bird of death—seeking another roof on which to rest.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, March 13, 2017

This Stranger In Our Midst

But how shall we understand this stranger?
And how are we ever to make amends to him?

Surely two of the earliest, best-known depictions of the father-son relationship are in Homer’s The Iliad, with Priam and Hector, and in The Odyssey, with Odysseus and Telemachus. Different as the cases are, what links them is the emotional (even archetypal) distance between these fathers and sons, a divide, a chasm, that fundamentally defines their relationships. It is a distance to which James Joyce, in his 1922 novel Ulysses, gives his own special twist. In his version of The Odyssey, set in modern Dublin in the course of a single day, the young Stephen Daedalus is looking for a father and the rambling humanist Leopold Bloom is searching (blindly, without knowing it) for a son. Thinks Stephen, as he walks along the beach one day: “A lex eterna stays about him. Is that then the divine substance wherein Father and Son are consubstantial?”

Then of course (to name another more recent example) there is Franz Kafka’s heartbreaking, originally 47-page letter to his tyrannical and narcissistic father in which he struggles in vain to bridge the distance between them: The Letter. More recently still is John Cheever's remarkable short story "Reunion," set in New York's Grand Central Station: "He was a stranger to me—my mother had divorced him three years ago and I hadn't seen him since—but as soon as I saw him I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom."

Modern poetry too is filled with such confused and painful musings, with the generally futile attempts of sons to reckon with the distance, the mystery, of their fathers. Here first is the poet, Robert Hayden, in his brilliant, finely-chiseled poem, ‘Those Winter Sundays’:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking,
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
And polished by good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Here now (note ‘the controlled grace of movement’) is Theodore Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz’:

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hang on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Now consider the way that Stanley Kunitz describes this yearning, this bewilderment:

Father and Son

Now in the suburbs and the falling light
I followed him, and now down sandy road
Whiter than bone-dust, through the sweet
Curdle of fields, where the plums
Dropped with their load of ripeness, one by one.
Mile after mile I followed, with skimming feet,
After the secret master of my blood,
Him, steeped in the odor of ponds, whose indomitable love
Kept me in chains. Strode years; stretched into bird;
Raced through the sleeping country where I was young,
The silence unrolling before me as I came,
The night nailed like an orange to my brow.

How should I tell him my fable and the fears,
How bridge the chasm in a casual tone,
Saying, “The house, the stucco one you built,
We lost. Sister married and went from home,
And nothing comes back, it’s strange, from where she goes.
I lived on a hill that has too many rooms:
Light we could make, but not enough of warmth,
And when the light failed, I climbed under the hill.
The papers are delivered every day;
I am alone and never shed a tear.”
At the water’s edge, where the smothering ferns lifted
Their arms, “Father!” I cried, “Return! You know
The way. I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes;
No trace, I promise, will remain. Instruct
Your son, whirling between two wars,
In the Gemara* of your gentleness,
For I would be a child to those who mourn
And brother to the foundlings of the field
And friend of innocence and all bright eyes.
O teach me how to work and keep me kind.”

Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me
The white ignorant hollow of his face.

* The second division of the Talmud, a commentary on Jewish civil and religious laws.

Here, now famously, is the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, as he reckons with the same strange relationship in his poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old rage should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightening they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Lastly, from a book I found in secondhand bookshop in Bellingham, is the poet Irving Feldman, to whom I will give these final, anguished lines:

Our Father

This stranger whose flesh we never ate,
who, rather, sat at table with us, eating,
who for our sakes clothed himself in pelts like ours
and went away far all times to everywhere until,
clambering down starways into our street,
he stood in the door, the dusk-loaf under his arm,
and unpacked the lamp light of the parlor corner
where he called us to him and told us we were his,
and lost in thought led away our little army
of mimics to parade the deep lanes of silence.
Of our mother we ate always and plentifully,
her body was ours to possess and we did so,
thoughtlessly, yes, and also in adoration.
But how shall we understand this stranger?
And how ever are we to make amends to him?
—who had the power to eat us and didn’t,
who consented to abide in one house with us,
and hailed the sun down to make the dinner hour,
and bid bread to rise daily out of white dust,
peopling it with mysterious vacancies,
and new night after old washed the odd smells
from himself with sleep and forgot his strangeness
and was, one moment at dawn, little again
hungry like us, like us wanting to be fed.
How then can we renew his acquaintance, that boy
lost in the man, this man missing in the world,
walking among all that must be inexplicable?
And how are we to thank him properly?
who salted our cheerful, selfish tongues with farewell,
and gave us his name to ponder, to pass on, to keep.

Peter Adam Nash

* Paintings by Egon Schiele