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