Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Esteemed Mother

Tranquility by Attila Bartis

…a set of stairs leading nowhere is still something very human.

“Reading like the bastard child of Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek,” writes Brian Evenson in his review of this fine 2009 novel, “Tranquility is political and personal suffering distilled perfectly and transformed into dark, viscid beauty.” Indeed there is a relentless, often claustrophobic darkness to this somehow-still-beautiful tale of the tortured relationship between a mother and son. Set in Communist-era Hungary, it is in fact deeply reminiscent of such novels as Bernhard’s The Limeworks and Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher in its smart and literate despair. What distinguishes Tranquility, however, what captivates the reader and holds her, what in fact saves the novel from itself, is the narrator’s almost Christ-like forbearance and equanimity when it comes to his descriptions of his mother. Given all he is forced to endure from her, his lack of cynicism (what is in essence the author’s own empathy for her) is nothing less than extraordinary.

The narrator, Andor Weér, is a beleaguered thirty-six year old writer living with his embittered, shut-in mother, a once-celebrated stage actress, in her wretched Budapest flat, an ‘eighty-two-square meter crypt with a northerly exposure’, an apartment decorated in large part with the props and furniture she has pilfered over the years from the sets of old plays. Included among these relics, these mementos, are a chest of drawers from the bedroom of Anna Karenina, a rug from The Merchant of Venice, a chandelier from some Czech comedy, and an armchair once belonging to Lady Macbeth, one of his mother’s starring roles.  

Compounding this cruel, plainly Oedipal relationship, are the narrator’s sister, Judit, a successful concert violinist and recent defector, and the narrator’s girlfriend, the beautiful Eszter, his only real hope to live.  

At the heart of what makes this otherwise pathetic narrator so compelling is his ardent if twisted devotion to his mother, an affection perhaps best expressed by the imaginary letters he writes to her from her estranged daughter, Judit, letters, posted by friends from places as near if still foreign as Paris, Venice, Zurich, and Cologne and as distant and exotic as Caracas, Istanbul, and Tel Aviv. “Esteemed Mother,” they always begin, a salutation, an entreaty really, that, for all its seeming sarcasm, always feels deeply and painfully real.

Like much of the best Eastern European fiction, this finely wrought roman noir is not for the faint of heart. To see if it is right for you, I recommend that you watch the opening scene from Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s 2011 film, The Turin Horse. While a different story altogether, it’ll put you in the mood of this bleak if haunting tale: The Turin Horse

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, August 20, 2017


Powell's Book Store, Portland

They call it "a city of books" and that's about right. You need a road map to navigate the floors and aisles and seemingly endless ranges of books, new and used. The store employs a clever color-coding system to steer you (for example) to a thousand small-press poetry books, a corner of one floor where I spent an hour in a mind-boggling world dedicated to the printed word. My second hour was spent in the fictional "A's" agog at the many editions of Jane Austen I had never seen before. Then there's a short break in Powell's cafeteria-sized coffee shop--folks carry piles of books to the long communal tables and flip through them as they recover from the overwhelming experience of browsing in this shrine to Logos, the universe of knowledge.

I won't be climbing Mt. Everest or traversing the North Pole in this lifetime, but I have made it a point to visit as many bookstores as possible--my bucket list. In no particular order, these are my favorite places to browse: Haslam's Book Store in St. Petersburg; Fifty-Seventh Street Books in Hyde Park, Chicago; Labyrinth Books on the Upper West Side of New York; The Book Warehouse in Vancouver, BC; Politics and Prose in D.C.; the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts; the Tattered Cover in Denver; and Page One in Albuquerque. There have been others, many of them  dead and gone, Amazoned into oblivion.  And now, at long last, I've visited Powell's--the granddaddy of them all, the Sans Souci of bookstores.

The town where I live--there are half-a-million people--has a stolid Barnes and Noble and a paltry handful of used-book stores. When I arrived here, seventeen years ago, the situation was quite different: there were dozens of bookstores, and my wife and I could spend a relaxing Saturday browsing books on Central Avenue, stopping now and again for a cup of coffee that didn't cost five bucks. No more. The bookstores are gone, replaced by upscale eateries, bars with the charm of airport hangers, and fly-by-night shops whose life expectancy is equal to the attention span of the average consumer.

Traveling this summer, sitting in airports and restaurants in three states and two countries, I wasn't surprised to see that virtually no one reads books in his leisure moments. On airplanes, my fellow passengers flipped through in-flight magazines before watching Netflix on their phones and iPads. In coffee shops smart phones dominate everyone's attention; indeed, it was rare to see a person in her twenties not gazing at a cell phone, whether walking or sitting still, thumbs rapidly twirling out missives to someone glued to his phone. Outside of Powell's--an enclave for the literate that put me in mind of Fahrenheit 451, the book people desperately preserving our written past--one simply did not see a person holding, much less reading, a book.

Our President is proudly illiterate, a Twitterer, a man for whom anything worth saying can be condensed into a telegraphic sentence or two.  He isn't alone. When something happens these days, there ensues a race to comment in a pithy half-sentence--no longer do we have statesmen who ruminate and consider what they think, now the hacks rush to fill the blogosphere with unconsidered opinions. Those who don't have the concentration to engage with a book, to wind their way through a complex narrative or an intricate argument, are unlikely to develop the ability to untangle a momentous problem or to articulate a position that requires their own and their audience's attention.

These unhappy thoughts pressed on me as I leafed through dozens of biographies at Powell's. Lives lived with a purpose beyond self-aggrandizement, lives lived deeply and preserved in a language that isn't designed to be instantly superseded by another jumble of characters, by yet another quip whose shelf life will be no more than one news cycle. I was especially moved by Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered for its subtle evocation of a life lived on the perilous edge of a totalitarian regime. A study of the endurance of the mind in the face of mindlessness.

Fascism begins with the conviction that thinking diminishes our effectiveness as actors--fascists privilege the will over the intellect. Ideas are the product of individual cognition and silent meditation. Fascists have no patience for individuals--it is far easier to manipulate a mass of people than a lone individual--nor do fascists see the point of silence when it is far more distracting to fill the air with bluster. Books are an impediment to conformity, and they dull the edge of anger. Burn them, then burn their authors. Or, better still, ignore them. It's remarkably easy to do so.

Leaving Powell's for the last time, I couldn't help but feel both exhilarated and sad. I'd spent more money than I could afford, and I felt thankful that such a marvelous throwback to an earlier era could still exist, and perhaps even thrive, in a country that has abandoned reading for other pursuits.* But I also felt as if Powell's was as much a museum as a store, a monument to a time when reading books was not uncommon, when every town had a bookstore, even if weren't Powell's.

But there's hope. Young people, mostly thanks to the remarkable Ms. Rowling, are reading more than their elders. In 1970, only eight percent of adult Americans hadn't read a single book; that figure is up to twenty-four percent as of 2014. (Another twenty percent of American adults read only a single book per year). But those under fifteen are reading more than in the recent past. May they continue to do so! 


George Ovitt (6/20/17)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

On Not Being a Woman

Seven Sisters, Margaret Drabble

My wife bought me a telescope for my birthday.  In early summer, on a moonless night atop Granite Knob in the Zuni Mountains of west-central New Mexico, I turned my eye toward the heavens. This spot is so dark and isolated that even with the naked eye one is overwhelmed by the plenitude of stars. In winter, with ordinary binoculars, one can observe the dusty edge of our Milky Way. But I was unprepared for the spectacle I observed this past June--an infinite universe of stars punctuated by blackness, as if one had poured a bag of rice out on a coal-black floor. Each star a pinpoint of light, some pulsing, some seemingly melted into its neighbors, some appearing and then vanishing as I strained to count what I could see in my eyepiece. All the multitude in enduring silence. My family was tucked into sleeping bags--even in June the air is cold at 8000 feet--and, alone, I felt myself tearing up, perhaps from eyestrain, but more likely from the sublime first-hand weight of gazing into infinity. We are built to understand many things, but not what is most fundamental to our being in this world.


I was curious enough about James Damore's Google memo--the one that argues that Google's gender diversity efforts are misguided due to women's biological differences from men--differences translated by Damore, ham-handedly, into intellectual and social differences--to read the document. I'm guessing Mr. Damore's circle of acquaintance includes few women, or else he could never have bundled half of the world's population into such a tidy and myopic stereotype.  Red meat for the alt-right to be sure, but not worth one's time aside from the shadowy light the document and its reception throws on the current revival of unabashed misogyny.  As the father of daughters, husband to a wife who could code with one hand and write sonnets with the other, the colleague of dozens of remarkable non-men, and the son of a mother, I often puzzle over what it is that upsets men so much about women. Mr. Damore, a self-described conservative and opponent of "political correctness," is a case in point. What bug in his bonnet could possibly have inspired him to write a ten-page memo opposing affirmative action (in regard to gender equity) in an industry notorious for its masculine culture?  His fatuous arguments--e.g. women are social and empathetic and therefore can't write code as well as aloof and intellectual men--clearly appeal to a broad range of American males, beginning with our Commander-in-Chief.  Isn't it possible to acknowledge differences without organizing a hierarchy around them? Must we cling to these outdated idols of the tribe?


This morning I read a piece on Claire Messud in the Times. I enjoy her books, though the interviewer made Ms. Massud sound like a privileged malcontent--one wonders how difficult it is to be a professor at Harvard, married to a professor at Harvard, a woman whose books are lauded and who is taken seriously enough to be the subject of a Times profile. One sentence caught my eye: "If Messud is angry about something, [note: she is] it’s the social constructs that work against women’s ambition and desire, rendering them invisible or even snuffing them out. ‘‘Women aren’t supposed to want stuff,’’ she said. 'They’re not supposed to have high emotions.'’’ I assume the pronoun refers to ambitions and desires and not to women; even so, I wondered if this generalization was true in the absolute sense that Messud's words imply. "Women aren't supposed to want stuff." Not being a woman, I can't presume to judge, but couldn't one say with equal certainty that an African-American man in America is not supposed to want stuff; that poor white men--coal miners and unemployed factory workers--are not supposed to want stuff, that the poor in general aren't visible enough to have emotions that matter to anyone? Who exactly is allowed to feel big emotions and to want things? And what are the "social constructs" of which Messud speaks?  I came away from the interview dazed by the untethered generalizations, puzzled by how Messud's purported views fit her novels, yet certain I had no business doubting the truth of what she feels.


Margaret Drabble writes intelligent books about women's lives, at least I believe that she does. I've launched myself in a leaky boat: I want to claim I've learned something while reading Drabble, something about the inner lives of women, but my presumption is as shaky as Messud's reported views. "Women's lives" tipples from the tongue, but is there such a thing? Is their a Woman's Life in the sense that there are (some) biological characteristics shared by most women, and if that's what we mean by the phrase, have we really said anything? It turns out, if you read the literature of neurobiology (I have dipped my toe in--the problems are really difficult*) that even the biological construction of gender is slippery. What is the correlation between testosterone and computer code? How does having male genitals lead to "linear thinking"?  Doesn't biological determinism give you the willies? It does me.


There aren't really Seven Sisters in the constellation Pleiades--M45 to you software engineers out there--but we place them in the night sky for the convenience, or the poetry, of making sense of the beads of light that left the Seven during Shakespeare's childhood.  That's what we do: we gather together into bundles, like natural-born Platonists, the disparate facts of the world so that they fit our language, a language that is fond of abstract nouns.  The "Right" and the "Left." "White and Black." "Legal and Illegal." "Gay and Straight." I'm not being obtuse, just wondering if, when we think about gender, we're not placing too great a faith in the comfort of a taxonomy that leaves out almost everything about a person--her body (which is more than her sex), her history, her age, her language. When Mr. Damore asserts that biologically, and therefore invariably, "women are more social then men" we shouldn't accuse him of sexism, we should accuse him of laziness.


Margaret Drabble has been writing excellent books for a very long time. I won't review her career here except to say that she's played the long game and is a writer of enormous intellectual gifts. I hadn't read Seven Sisters before, and I came to it right after her latest novel, The Dark Flood Rises, also excellent. Drabble excels in portraying the ambiguities of her characters' inner lives. She  deconstructs the myth of psychological rigidity--we aren't any one thing but contain multitudes of selves, some of which are surprising even to us. The story of Seven Sisters is far too interesting and complex for quick summary, suffice to say that the voice at the heart of the book belongs to Candida Wilton, an older, recently divorced woman who, living alone in a sketchy part of London, patches together a new life out of diverse acquaintances and interests (swimming and The Aeneid among them). What Drabble does exceptionally well is to simultaneously assert and undercut her characters' inner certainties--she understands and portrays the tentativeness of our lives better than most writers, while at the same time dispatching her lovingly imagined women into a world that deserves all the mockery it gets. Drabble is laugh-aloud funny, as mordant as Bernhard, Shakespearean in the richness of her language, and a brilliant analyst of character. Like Anne Tyler, Drabble's women live out quiet dramas--what to eat for dinner when you're suddenly eating alone--that are nonetheless compelling. The second half of Seven Sisters describes the journey of seven women to North Africa and to Italy, retracing the steps of Aeneas from the abandonment of Dido to the founding of Rome. The seven comprise a motley crew--older, but otherwise as different from one another as seven people could be. What Drabble does with the alchemy of these seven sisters is extraordinary--there is freshness and surprise on every page. And yet, like their heavenly counterparts, the Seven comprise a picture, a story that is more unified than not. Women alone or mostly so, sustaining themselves in different ways, but in no way that could be construed as "uniquely" female. One (Sally) craves companionship and gossip; one lives for the life of the mind (Mrs. Jerrold); one longs for recognition; another (Anais) quietly seeks out small moments of happiness in a tumultuous world. And Candida, our guide, our Virgil, longs to discover her own soul, a life apart from her two-timing husband. And she does. Who among us doesn't yearn for these same things?

The problem with reductive biological arguments is that in order for them to have predictive power, they must be universal. What do we say about anti-social women--that they deviate from the presumed biological norm in the way that a bicycle-riding dog deviates from four leggedness? I never had a male teacher until I got to high school; in my daughters' grade school, half the teachers are men. A pseudo-biological argument was used to justify my experience, but now we learn that what's required in a teacher can be taught, given certain predispositions that are mostly the product of one's upbringing (empathy, patience, an attention span, etc.).  Nineteen-percent of Google's engineers are women--that's too high a number to be anomalous; maybe the dearth of women coders lies in institutions and not in the brain. If Damore were right--David Brooks believes that he is--then, logically, there couldn't be any successful women writing computer code, or as few as dogs currently riding bicycles. When I first started playing competitive chess, few women participated in the tournaments that I attended. Far more play now, and many are very good. I'm pretty sure that biological adaptation isn't responsible for this change--nope, girls are now encouraged to take up the game, and they have, with increasingly impressive results.


I didn't actually learn anything about women this summer. I read a lot of books, starting with Merlin Stone's classic When God Was a Woman and ending, just the other day, with Siri Hustvedt's A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women.  The problem I had--the reason I learned nothing--was that every time I came upon a fact about a woman that someone might wish to ascribe to Women, I convinced myself that the fact was contingent upon a set of historical circumstances that undercut the claim to universality.  This is a point that some feminists make about Western feminism--that it is steeped in bourgeois culture and affected by the capitalist norms of one small part of the world and not representative of the experiences and viewpoints of all women. This criticism feels valid, but, to be honest, I can't excuse myself from believing, a priori, that biological determinism provides little help when it comes to understanding gender roles and human behavior. Mostly I think it's dangerous to ascribe behaviors to biology if the ascription is (covertly) in defense of some form of oppression.


Which is why I read novels. 

*For some flavor of the difficulty see Patricia Churchland, "Can Neurobiology Teach Us Anything About Consciousness?"

George Ovitt (8/12/17)