Thursday, June 29, 2017

Looking Askance

Michael C. Keith, Perspective Drifts Like a Log on a River

In the glory days of the logging industry, tens of thousands of cut trees would float on the rivers of New England and the Northwest to saw mills situated near larger port cities, to be milled and shaped, and transported to markets here and abroad. Thirty years ago I witnessed such a log float in Vermont--a kind of round up, not unlike the cattleman's springtime gathering of the herd--and what struck me above all, aside from the sheer number of oak and pine logs harvested in the northern forests,  was the capriciousness and power with which they moved downstream. When not crowded together at bends in the river, the logs surged ahead, spinning and toppling over one another, again, not unlike (I imagine) the massive buffalo herds that trampled the Great Plains, as irresistible as an avalanche or tsunami.

I mention log floats in search of a metaphor to describe one of the fundamental dilemmas faced by writers and their readers today--how to capture the fragmented nature of experience without capitulating to the disorder inherent in fragments. It isn't enough to justify the production of gibberish by asserting that it mirrors the noise around us--art is charged with making order, however random and capricious that order might be. The great modernists, having been informed of the existence of the unconscious, apprised of the imprecision of language, and divested of any lingering faith in old- fashioned truths, sought new literary forms, apart from the realistic novel and the rhyming couplet,  to express their view of human experience. In doing so, the great modernist writers like Joyce and Woolf  expanded the range of possibilities available to the poet and novelist.

But the conundrum we now face is more serious--in a world divested not only of meaning but even of the presumed existence of facts themselves--where a kind of joyous, apocalyptic destruction of language has overtaken politics, the media, the arts, and even ordinary human discourse--where lying isn't lying but one's preferred version of events (individualism run amok!), what is the writer to do? The options appear to be a self-conscious reversion to older forms of expression, with a wink and a nod toward the reader, as if to say, "yeah right," or the embrace of the kind of sickening irony that makes a mockery of art--"I don't believe in what I'm writing, and you don't believe in what you're reading, but so what?"

But lots of writers, many occupying the edges of fiction--writers who aren't fashionable--have continued to search for authentic ways of expressing their vision of the world. Michael Keith is one such writer. Over the course of a long career--fifteen books of stories and one remarkable memoir--Keith has experimented with a wide range of voices, styles, subject matters, and vernaculars. His early stories were macabre--eerie and menacing tales heavily influenced by Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Their vision of the world was dark--nothing much could be trusted to be what it seemed...I often thought of Rod Sterling as I read the stories collected in  And Through the Trembling Air and Hoage's Object. In those early books, Keith's Everyman was a regular Joe who had underestimated the animosity of those around him--and the dangers of the world at large. Think of the Coen Brothers' films, of John Goodman cold-cocking  George Clooney in "Oh Brother"--the kind of world where it is folly to trust too much or to believe the ground is granite and not quicksand.

But Keith had other things he wanted to express--life isn't all quicksand. His deeply affecting 2003 memoir The Next Better Place--the story of his wanderings with his father--had already demonstrated another side of Keith's sensibility, and in particular his interest in character studies. The feckless Joe of the earlier books became, in later collections, a multi-faceted figure who, though still battered about by the forces that batter us all (other people!), operated with greater free will and to greater effect (see, for example, the stories in The Near Enough, 2015). I also note that in collections like Bits, Crumbs, Specks, Flecks, Keith was beginning to move toward greater compression, stripping away conventional narrative elements in favor of powerful psychological portraits of a society torn apart by irreconcilable forces.  I wasn't surprised to learn, in reading Keith's newest book--Perspective Drifts Like a Log on a River, that he had been reading Lydia Davis and Joy Williams--two masters of what I think of as the story of implication, that is, the story that invites the reader to fill in the blanks (a slice of a slice of reality).

Under their influence, and deploying his own mordant wit to good effect, Keith has produced one of his strongest books, not only of micro-stories, but of meditations on stories, or thoughts about bits of life that might become stories. A writer's notebook. There is flash fiction and micro-fiction--how much meaning can be packed into how few words--and what Keith has done in this beautifully produced book is to use both modes interchangeably, often in pursuit of the same themes.

"After finishing ninety-nine stories of God, I phone the author and ask why she gave the book that title since most of the pieces in it don't even mention God. When I sense she is about to say something, the line goes dead." Disappointment, hopes raised then dashed, an agenda uncovered, a feeling of failure momentarily exchanged for a (fleeting) sense of success. Like logs on a river, each of the 200 plus stories/observations/thoughts bumps against its fellows. The overall effect is of a writer looking askance at the world, not in mockery (though there is self-mockery in much of what Keith writes) or what I think of as destructive irony, but with a healthy appreciation of the many ways we fail to understand what is right there in front of us.Reading Keith is like having a cool drink of water on a hot day--not only is he refreshing, but his wry sensibility keeps one healthy.

For Perspective and the other books mentioned here, see

George Ovitt (6/28/17)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

To Double Business Bound

The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq

While the narrator in every work of fiction is charged with the task of seeing, of serving—at least to some degree—as the reader’s own eyes, there are those narrators who seem to see more, to see differently, more complexly, their eyes not simply their own. Agents, emissaries, they are bound in what they experience by a sort of tortured double vision, their own often gravely human reckonings compounded at every turn by what they’ve been sent there to look for, to see.

Western literature is crowded with such figures, men mostly, often middling, reluctant witnesses, who’ve been shunted off to the margins of empire, men like Marlow from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Don Diego from Di Benedetto’s Zama, Geoffrey Firmin from Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Giovanni Drogo from Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe (see my earlier post on The Tartar Steppe), Major Scobie from Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, and, more recently, the hapless Magistrate from Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.

Then there is Aldo from, Julien Gracq’s lush, unsettling 1951 novel, The Opposing Shore, a protagonist and anti-hero very much in this line. Dispatched from the capitol to the rugged, once-hostile coast of Syrtes, Aldo soon finds himself lost in a menacing labyrinth of secrets, innuendo, and subterfuge, that he struggles alone and in vain to map. Centered upon the themes of boundaries and borders (both real an imaginary), and upon the stubbornly dichotomous, endlessly destructive mentalities of Us vs. Them/Good vs. Evil, Gracq’s The Opposing Shore remains a smart, telling study of our times.  

Yet what strikes me most about the novel (at least in translation) is his language itself—both its syntactical strangeness and its saturated, densely lyrical, nearly Conradian diction and phrasing. Much as when I first read Moncrieff’s translation of À la recherche du temps perdu, I suffered the odd if liberating impression, in reading this novel, that I was not reading it in English after all, but in some other, more florid tongue. As with Moncrieff’s translation, I also felt that I was not just experiencing the original novel (at least an approximation of it), but seeing the English language itself, its scope and potential, refashioned before my eyes—just one more reason I am grateful to the many fine translators I’ve read.

Gracq himself is no less intriguing than his novel. Born Louis Poirier in 1910, he spent twenty-three all but invisible years teaching history and geography at the Lyce Claude Bernard in Paris. He, this modest, Walser-like man, this friend and admirer of Andre Breton, is known by many as writer whose fiction was often brilliantly tinged by Surrealism.  Deeply averse to celebrity, he refused to accept the Prix Goncourt, which he was awarded for this novel in 1951. He never married nor had children, and, in the later years of his life, lived quietly with his sister until she died in 1996. Alone (to quote from The Guardian’s fine obituary of him), “…he would spend the evenings watching television, particularly football. He continued to read.” He died in 2007.

* Special thanks to my friend, Eric Diler, for sending me this novel from France. Remarkably, for all my love of French literature, I had not read anything by Gracq. I am happy I have.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, June 11, 2017


Amos Oz, Judas

Nietzsche wrote in The Antichrist that the last Christian had died on the cross. He may have been right. Another thought, even more radical, is that the most devoted disciple of Jesus wasn't Peter or John but Judas, reviled as the agent of betrayal, but at the same time the man without whom the drama of atonement would have been unthinkable. As a boy in catechism class, and as a young man in Catholic school, I was taught to despise Iscariot (we were told to note the "scar" in his name).  Dante put Judas in the lowest pit of hell, literally in the jaws of Satan, a punishment the otherwise meek nuns who trotted me through the Baltimore Catechism would have approved had they been familiar with the great Florentine poet. But even as a child I couldn't help but wonder about the punishments of hell fire and eternal damnation that were visited upon Judas, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and the Roman soldiers for their part in a drama that was, after all, ordained from the beginning of time. How, I remember wondering in grade school, could you send a man to hell for doing what he was condemned to do?  Masaccio pictures Judas in dark shadow, makes him an outsider, but without him would the sin of Adam have been expiated? As with the horrible "hardening of Pharaoh's heart" in Exodus, so too with the Betrayal: is God playing fair with his victims by punishing them for a role that, in the scheme of things, they have no control over? Do we blame the butcher for shedding the blood of the paschal lamb?

I admit that these are sophomoric theological questions, roughly akin to wondering if God can contradict herself, but they are questions that have rich bearing on Amos Oz's new novel, a book that examines the paradoxes of fate and asks non-trivial questions about what might have been the case had certain historical actors possessed free will, or, to put the question another way, if human frailty were not so closely allied to to historical contingency. For those of us schooled in the "great man" view of the past, Oz is the perfect antidote, for his is the "average-man-as-victim" view of history. Things might have been different, but only if we were different. And that, of course, is the meaning of tragedy. 

Every great drama requires a great villain.  Without Lucifer, Milton's epic of salvation history would be the dullest poem ever written (after The Faerie Queen); no Shylock, no Portia; be honest, who do you prefer, literary wimps like Alyosha Karamazov or dastardly scoundrels like Ivan? Which is not to say that we should revel in the crimes of non-fictional criminals, psychopaths, and murderers--on the contrary, what we learn from novels is how to spot the sociopath in the crowd; empathy, after all, is not sympathy, but understanding. But Judas doesn't even rate as a run-of-the-mill sociopath: he loved Jesus; he wanted the Son of Man to be the Messiah and not just another false prophet; he wanted a miracle, the End Times, a world reborn.* Or, as Luke puts it, Satan "entered into Judas," and all questions of free will flew out the window. (See Matthew 26:23 for the ambiguity of Judas's betrayal; also the contradictory accounts found in the Gospel of John).

 Few Israeli writers have been as sensitive to the paradox of the Jewish state as Amos Oz. His novels depict not only the plight of the European Jews after the war, but treat with compassion the plight of the Palestinian and other Arabic-speaking peoples of Palestine--Muslims, Christians, and secular men and women caught in a maelstrom of historical forces--Zionism, socialism, Arab nationalism, and, above all else, the aftermath of the Holocaust. Oz has negotiated the desert ground of his beloved Israel for forty years, drawing richly textured stories out of a painful reality that most Westerners cannot imagine, or that they choose to imagine in a purely politcal way. Oz has never been above politics, but he has seldom allowed politics to undermine his humane vision of an inclusive Israel.**

"Rabbi Elbaz Lane led down the slope of Sha'arei Hesed toward the Valley of the Cross." Oz's richly imagined novel occurs, appropriately enough--given that it is a novel about Palestine--in the cramped rooms of a tiny house in Jerusalem. Three lost souls occupy the house in the winter of 1959-1960. A young man, Shmuel Ash, a young university drop-out whose heart was broken when his girlfriend left him to marry an engineer and technocrat. Gershom Wald, an old and broken man who is housebound but whose intellect and penchant for polemics is very much alive. And Atalia Abravanel, the beautiful and aloof daughter of one of Israel's founders, the widow of Misha Wald, son of Gershom, who was a brilliant mathematician killed in the fighting of 1948-1949. Three grieving souls whose lives briefly rub against one another and against a shared but by no means identical sense of the immediate past. (Whether or not the multiple views of Israel's history are commensurable is a question Oz asks in most of his novels). Wald, a Zionist and admirer of David Ben-Gurion, describes for Ash, a lukewarm socialist and cosmopolitan, a hard-headed view of Israel's founding--a small country surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors, an enclave settlement forced to fight for its survival. Ash agrees, but is intrigued by the views of Atalia's dead father Shealtiel Abravanel--Ben-Gurion's bitter enemy--who forswore the idea of a Jewish state in favor of an inclusive, bi-national, Jewish-Arab nation. Most interesting of all are the views of Atalia--a shadowy figure, sensuous and distant--whose melancholy has hardened into misanthropy, a hatred of the cant of men with their wars and politics.

Atalia's father was a noble idealist and in the Israel of 1948 his defense of Arab interests branded him a traitor; his daughter, who Oz cleverly makes a private investigator, a connoisseur of others' secrets--having lost her husband, has renounced the world and hides on Rabbi Elbaz Lane with her father-in-law.

Here are words of Gershom Wald, describing Shealtiel's political views: "'The real tragedy of human kind, Shealtiel used to say, 'is not that the persecuted and enslaved crave to be liberated and to hold thier heads high. No. The worst thing is that the enslaved secretly dream of enslaving their enslavers. The persecuted year to be persecutors. The slaves dream of being masters...' Shealtiel lived in a Manichean world. He had set up a sort of utopian paradise and portrayed the opposite as hell. Meanwhile, they had started calling him a traitor. They said he had sold himself to the Arabs for a lot of money. They said he was the bastard son of an Arab..." (226-7)

And Judas? The shadow of betrayal lingers over every page of Oz's novel. Ash has been betrayed in love; Wald's body has betrayed him; Atalia's father was thought to have betrayed his country. And, the question is implicit, Israel--has it betrayed the ideals of its founding by becoming just another belligerent nation state? Deftly, and with great compassion, Oz allows each of his three characters to appear reasonable in their assumptions about their country and themselves. There are no epiphanies in this quiet and affecting book, no resolutions, but only the glacial evolution of the self that is in accordance with real life. The wisdom of the desert feels connected to the sense of imperceptible nature of change, to the sense of the eternity that overwhelms the passage of time.

Betrayed with a kiss. 

*Such, in any case, is the view of Judas propounded by Ash in Oz's novel. I can't help but wonder if Oz had Borges's story "Three Versions of Judas" (in Ficciones, 1944) in mind as he wrote Judas.

**I am well aware of the complexity of Oz's political views, but I am content, on balance, to view him as a voice of reason in a place where reason is often in short supply. See this profile for more nuance than I can supply here:

George Ovitt (6/11/2017) 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

That the Soul May Wax Plump

Nature: Poems Old and New by May Swenson

It was in reading Megan Marshall’s recent biography of Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, that I was reminded of the poet May Swenson, of her friendship with Bishop, of their lengthy correspondence, and of her poems themselves, which I’d remembered liking very much. Considering them again, I was pleasantly surprised.

Water Picture

In the pond in the park
all things are doubled:
Long buildings hang and
wriggle gently. Chimneys
are bent legs bouncing
on clouds below. A flag
wags like a fishhook
down there in the sky.

The arched stone bridge
is an eye, with underlid
in the water. In its lens
dip crinkled heads with hats
that don’t fall off. Dogs go by,
barking on their backs.
A baby, taken to feed the
ducks, dangles upside-down,
a pink balloon for a buoy.

Treetops deploy a haze of
cherry bloom for roots,
where birds coast belly-up
in the glass bowl of a hill;
from its bottom a bunch
of peanut-munching children
is suspended by their
sneakers, waveringly.

A swan, with twin necks
forming the figure 3,
steers between two dimpled
towers doubled. Fondly
hissing, she kisses herself,
and all the scene is troubled:
water-windows splinter,
tree-limbs tangle, the bridge
folds like a fan.

Digging in the Garden of Age I Uncover a Live Root
                                          ( For E.W.)

The smell of wet geraniums. On furry
    leaves, transparent drops rounded
         as cat’s eyes seen sideways.
    Smell of the dark earth, and damp
brick of the pots you held, tamped empty.
    Flash of the new trowel. Your eyes
    green in greenhouse light. Smell of
       your cotton smock, of your neck
      in the freckled shade of your hair.
A gleam of sweat in your lip’s scoop.
   Pungent germanium leaves, their wet
smell when our widening pupils met.

Anna Thilda May Swenson was born to Swedish immigrants in Logan, Utah in 1913. After college she settled all but permanently in New York City where she worked—while writing and publishing her poetry—as a stenographer, a ghost writer, and a manuscript reader at the groundbreaking New Direction Press. Her honors included fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur foundations, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Of the poet and her work writer Cynthia Ozick remarked, “Swenson sees more minutely than anyone, and with a nearly holy exactitude.”  Note for yourself the ‘nearly holy exactitude’ in this, perhaps my favorite of all her poems:

That the Soul May Wax Plump

My dumpy little mother on the undertaker’s slab
had a mannequin’s grace. From chin to foot
the sheet outlined her, thin and tall. Her face
uptilted, bloodless, smooth, had a long smile.
Her head rested on a block under her nape,
her neck was long, her hair waved, upswept. But later,
at ‘the viewing,’ sunk in the casket in pink tulle,
an expensive present that might spoil, dressed
in Eden’s green apron, organdy bonnet on,
she shrank, grew short again, and yellow. Who
put the gold-rimmed glasses on her shut face, who
laid her left hand with the wedding ring on
her stomach that really didn’t seem to be there
under the fake lace?

Mother’s work before she died was self-purification,
A regimen of near starvation, to be worthy to go
To Our Father, Whom she confused (or, more aptly, fused)
With our father, in Heaven long since. She believed
In evacuation, an often and fierce purgation,
Meant to teach the body to be hollow, that the soul
May wax plump. At the moment of her death, the wind
Rushed out from all her pipes at once. Throat and rectum
Sang together, a galvanic spasm, hiss of ecstasy.
Then, a flat collapse. Legs and arms flung wide,
Like that female Spanish saint slung by the ankles
To a cross, her mouth stayed open in a dark O. So,
Her vigorous soul whizzed free. On the undertaker’s slab, she
Lay youthful, cool, triumphant, with a long smile.

Here, bristling with intelligence, with life, is one of her many long letters to Elizabeth Bishop:


Finally, this is Swenson reading some of her own work at the Poetry Center in New York: Click Here

Peter Adam Nash