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Entries in Book reviews (94)

Tuesday
Jul042017

The Catcher in the Rye

If I were of a certain bent, it would behoove me to inquire with strict scientific objectivity, of course as to whether any other species apart from our own pass through that troubled period of alienation we conveniently dismiss as teenagery. Do penguins and goats suffer as much as the average privileged adolescent who cannot seem to handle the shift from doted-upon scion to responsible adult? What then of the changes chemical changes, everything we do is a symphony of chemicals that we incur as hormones detonate our every limb? How are we to survive this onslaught? Perhaps we can learn from less evolved monsters, and the measures taken against such rebellion and if you subscribe to the nonsense proponed in these last few sentences, please stop here. Go away. Don't come back. These pages are not for you. If, however, you believe that alienation is a specific phase in the development of a creative soul and is re-experienced then defeated as that same creative soul soars above the daily hypocrisy, hatred, and greed that preside over lesser minds, read on. For one such creative soul is the narrator of this iconic novel.  

Our seventeen-year-old protagonist is one of the most beloved in American literature, and it is of rather amazing coincidence that his name was not derived from the stars of this film. The name, Holden Caulfield, is sufficiently pompous and upper class that we know we are dealing with someone of extreme privilege, even if he doesn't seem to care much about what has been given to him in life ("Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad"), simply what has been taken away. He has an older brother, D.B., who is "prostituting" himself as a hack in Hollywood, a younger, highly precocious sister, Phoebe, who corrects a quote of his at a very critical juncture, and another younger brother, Allie, who died recently of leukemia. It is this last sibling and his wretched fate that shape Holden, inasmuch as teenagers can be sustainably molded by external events. Holden does not use his brother as an excuse; in fact, fairly the opposite occurs.  Holden's poor work ethic, general antisociality, and anger directed at the "phony" people around him (a word used dozens of times in the novel), are all typical teenage angsts, especially when the adolescent in question has a very sharp mind and a sensitive spirit to guide it. All these fears could have been discounted by an emphasis on Allie's death, but Holden only has good memories of his brother and does not wish to make him a martyr. He describes his brother's intellect ("He was terrifically intelligent"), his red hair (in a magnificent passage: "He was sitting there, about a hundred and fifty yards behind me, watching me tee off that's the kind of red hair he had"), and Allie's odd predilection for writing poems on the inside of his baseball glove the confluence of two typical strands of boyhood and, indeed, of manhood. Holden fails his way out of one expensive all-boys school after another and, as our story opens, has just been told just before that most giving time of the year in the Western world that he will not be invited back to Pencey Prep.

Apart from his family members, few if any persons have made an impact on his life. He has a ladykiller roommate, Stradlater, and a pimply, hopelessly mistrustful suitemate, Ackley. Both of these boys cannot be as real as Holden because Holden is their narrator and understands them as the sum of their flaws. In any case, both represent the stereotypes and stock confrontations to which a teenager must quickly accustom himself. Very early on comes the lone scene with Spencer, a pedantic old teacher complete with blanket, robe, and "Vicks nose drops"; his approach to Holden's expulsion is akin to a convalescent's raised brow and a tut-tut, a method that will be contrasted much later on with the sanguine wit of another professor, Mr. Antolini. But what really drives the vast majority of young men his age? That would be the fairer sex, and we have a lot of young ladies in The Catcher in the Rye: Sally Hayes, a former love interest who generates the fabulous observation, "If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she's late? Nobody"; three thirtyish women from Seattle, who are available for perhaps someone a bit older and suaver than Holden ("I thought the two ugly ones ... were sisters, but they got very insulted when I asked them.  You could tell neither one of them wanted to look like the other one, and you couldn't blame them"); and a prostitute named Sunny, who is assigned to Holden's hotel room by the lift operator and seems almost her customer's age. His observation of Sunny could be the novel's most telling:

I took her dress over to the closet and hung it up for her. It was funny. It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it up. I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell I don't know why exactly.

We, however, do know. We know that Holden Caulfield is a sensitive and thoughtful young man who does not force himself upon women like the rakish Stradlater (who apparently takes neither "no" nor "please, don't" for an answer). Although Holden has had "quite a few opportunities to lose [his] virginity," he "keeps stopping" whenever he is asked, by a girl who values her reputation, not to advance any further. Which makes his claims to being a sex maniac true: he obsesses with something he has never had, but has no real physical courage to get it, perhaps because he fears it will underwhelm him. 

Proof positive resides in the heroine of the novel, the heroine who is permanently absent, the subject of memory and rumors, Jane Gallagher. Jane is many things to Holden; some say she is his imagined soulmate; others may claim, with a great deal of insight into teenage boys, that what teenage boys need is someone to idealize, to talk about, to desire from afar, the classic princesse lointaine of the romantic poet. If you do not have an ideal woman as a romantic poet, then you are not a romantic poet, or at least not one anyone would ever bother about; precisely the same can be said for a teenage boy. So Jane, someone he once comforted and ended up kissing "all over .... her whole face except her mouth and all," becomes what Holden needs to sustain himself against the inevitable disappointment that is teenagery. Her quirk may be the checkers reference that does not impress Stradlater, who much to Holden's chagrin has a date with Jane at the beginning of the book, but another character trait is far more essential to understanding her:

Most girls if you hold hands with them, their goddam hand dies on you, or else they think they have to keep moving their hand all the time, as if they were afraid they'd bore you or something. Jane was different. We'd get into a goddam movie or something, and right away we'd start holding hands, and we wouldn't quit till the movie was over. And without changing the position or making a big deal out of it. You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not. All you knew was, you were happy. You really were.

This passage may be read several different ways, but the strict literal reading is what should be encouraged. I do not spoil anything of the novel by admitting that we never get to meet Jane, because that would violate her status and all those dramatic conventions we hold dear. Jane must remain apart; too much of her would show Holden what he most fears: that she is no different from any other girl.

What happens next is not predictable, not episodic, and, above all, not crude or vulgar. It is simply what adolescence comprises for a boy: a schedule imposed from without; a series of meaningless meetings with people who know more than you do about life or, in the case of some coevals, pretend that they do; and frustration with your lack of control, your inefficacy, your inability to be taken seriously even though you'll have the rest of your life never to be taken unseriously again. To ban this book, as it so often has been banned, is to eliminate all the madness of adolescence, the wildness that may not mean as much now but was our world then. There are undoubtedly more detailed works about being a teenager, but one would be hard pressed to come up with one that better captures its trials. The voice that Salinger chooses for this journey is so remarkable and original, we are stunned to look back on the novel and find the grating slang of the nineteen forties, utterly authentic, one presumes, at the time and now, in no small irony, utterly outdated or "phony" if compared to the current generation's lingo and buzz words. Every so often Holden makes grammatical errors (notice his idiosyncratic usage of "on account of" and "hell") and spells dialogue phonetically, which is the commonest fault of young writers aiming for authenticity, but the key word is still "phony." Being a teenager, in our modern age at least, means being neither fish nor fowl. It is not a real existence, clearly defined as a child's innocence or an adult's sober perception of life's vicissitudes and tragedies. For that reason alone, more wisdom and self-awareness can be found in The Catcher in the Rye than in all the combined works of all the so-called existentialists, who are, anyway, simply adolescents trapped in adult bodies. And why haven't we explained our work's mysterious title? Now that would be a lousy thing to give away and all.

Tuesday
Apr182017

A Suspension of Mercy

Most mystery novels published today follow recipes so tried and true that one cannot but marvel that people still savor them and lick their lips. The mystery is the most elemental of plots, a natural sentiment demonstrated by our own ignorance of the universe and its secrets, yet the novel is startlingly young. Taking (as is often agreed upon) this famous story as its inception, we have only had mysteries for somewhat less than two centuries. Now I am no fan of the plain whodunits that I devoured as a fourteen-year-old because the writing is generally ignored for the sake of momentum, the characters are all stock agents selected for their ability to facilitate that momentum, and the ending is always a bow tied far too prettily to reflect life's incongruities. So even if your neighborhood bookstores disagree in their filing, one should never really call the author of this novel a mystery writer.

Our protagonist is Sydney Bartleby, a twenty-nine-year-old American writer married to Alicia, a somewhat younger British woman who understands her husband because she paints. At least this is the basic assumption made of a couple who devote themselves to the liberal pursuit of creativity. America in the 1950s was apparently not sufficiently inspirational for the fine arts, so although the two meet in the States they quickly take up residence in Suffolk, England for the peace and quiet that can be so detrimental to the young who normally thrive on agitation. This basic premise – two (as we find out, quite immature) young people choosing a rustic retreat over the thrills of London – does not count among the most likely of situations, especially since Sydney has modest talent and Alicia far less. At one dinner they are observed by their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Lilybanks:   

Sydney was a nervous type, perhaps better fitted to be an actor than a writer. His face could show great changes of feeling, and when he laughed, it was a real laugh, as if he enjoyed it to his toes. He had black hair and blue eyes, like some Irish. But he was not a happy man, that she could see. Financial worries, perhaps. Alicia was far more easygoing, a bit of a spoiled child, but probably just the kind of wife he needed in the long run. But the Polk-Faradays were still better matched, looked as if they sang each other's praises constantly, and now were gazing into each other's eyes as if they had just met and were falling in love. And the Polk-Faradays were raising three small children, children raising children, Mrs. Lilybanks felt, and yet she and Clive had been no older when their two had been born.

The Polk-Faradays, Alex and Hittie, are a nice, plump couple (Hittie the wife is repeatedly referred to as something akin to "a blond Chinese") who seem as content and well-fed as Sydney and Alicia have grown loathsome to one another in their two years of acrimony. Sydney and Alex have been collaborating on a series of failed television scripts – those days, there was nothing newer than television – and Alicia hardly conceals her Schadenfreude for her husband's disappointment. A fact not lost on Sydney, who then does what any budding writer might try: he plans his wife's murder.

In a normal detective novel, such plotting would be a lurid, hairy affair mired with unnecessary obstacles and paranoid reasoning. But for all his temper – Sydney, by his own admission, had struck Alicia "once or twice" and early on there is a violent scene over a cup – we note that Sydney is a cool customer, calmer than his nervousness would suggest, and possessor of a very clear, methodical brain. We also learn that he has been considering all his bloody options for quite a while:

Sometimes he plotted the murders, the robbery, the blackmail of people he and Alicia knew, though the people themselves knew nothing about it. Alex had died five times at least in Sydney's imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way, for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London. Then Alicia wouldn't come back. The police wouldn't be able to find her. Sydney would admit to the police, to everyone, that their marriage hadn't been perfect lately, and that perhaps Alicia had wanted to run away from him and change her name, maybe even go to France on a false passport but the last was sort of wild, France involving complications not in character with Alicia.

Later it is revealed that Alicia suffers from a fear of flying, making her absconding to France all the less likely. What happens next, however, is one of the more remarkable experiments in fiction of any kind because it is so undeniably clever. The spouses have another bitter squabble and Alicia does indeed leave without specifying the destination; the departure is captioned as a move to benefit both partners, who really have no business being together. One is always a tad surprised that any woman could stay with an abusive lout, especially as Alicia is the only child of a very well-off couple who naturally disapprove of Sydney and his travails.  But Alicia does not think much of herself, perhaps because she does not really think much of her parents and their dapper and prim ways. She leaves to Brighton, or somewhere near Brighton, and does not report back. Sydney, adhering to their alleged bargain, refuses to try to contact her. Even when Alicia's influential parents get the police to interrogate Sydney and inquire about a rug he recently purchased – and buried.

Sydney's tale could have been made up from whole cloth, but we never quite know until the end and even then a few inconsistencies might point to an alternative interpretation. With virtuoso pacing the novel shuttles between Sydney, alone and highly productive with both his third novel, The Planners (the first two were not reprinted), and a macabre spy serial called The Whip, and Alicia's peregrinations. Apart from a lengthy synopsis of a Whip episode, Highsmith does not give us much of these texts, but they can be readily imagined. Sydney has particular trouble with The Planners although he is an experienced novelist, thanks in no small part to a belief antithetic to those of the mystery writer: 

He had never had much respect for plot, mainly because he thought in real life people were more separate than connected, and the connection of three or more people in a novel was an artifice of the author, who ruled out the rest of the world because it did not contribute.

Since I have never read a review of A Suspension of Mercy, I cannot say whether this is the novel's most-quoted passage, but it is certainly the most relevant. Sydney regards real life as a series of tasks that may or may not provide him with enough material to become a successful writer. Even lovemaking with Alicia is construed as laborious, and we never get a hint that he might utilize some of those experiences in his work, a sign of the prudishness of the times or, of course, something else. Perhaps that month off will do Alicia some good after all.  

Wednesday
Mar292017

The Grotesque

About seventy-two years ago Europe reached what may be called its nadir but which, in reality, was a lack of faith in itself. The reasons for such disappointment are obvious and need not concern us; what should gain our attention, however, is how art reacted to proclamations of the death of human feeling. If you bother to read this poet you may understand the fears that hastened his end, although for his defamation of the German language we will never forgive him. Other writers, who shall be thankful for anonymity on these pages, produced opportunistic treatises on mankind and its failings. And a certain segment, centered in France and headed by this writer, decided a return to the most basic of literary plots was the thrust that might restore our faith in art's grandeur (that they termed their movement the "new novel" is not devoid of irony). What is the most basic of literary plots? The mystery, of course. And how are we to take mysteries if not as a guilty pleasure? As perfectly serious works of art, that's how. In this setting, albeit written with forty years of wise hindsight, emerges this superb novel.     

Our year in 1949, our narrator is the fiendish Sir Hugo Coal, and our location is Coal's ancestral home, Crook Manor. Coal is a simple snob, an aspiring scientist, and an unabashed alcoholic. Although the family motto may be nil desperandum, Coal twists all his perceptions to do just that, boasting and fretting to no end about his career, his household, and his sanity. How does he find the time to unearth such concerns? Owing to a hideous accident, Sir Hugo has for some months now been vegetating and motionless in a wheelchair, and the accident involves (he assures us) his newly hired butler Fledge. Fledge is targeted early on, not only as the perpetrator of Coal's paraplegia but also as the usurper of his entire existence. Coal's self-imposed task is to compose a memoir on his healthy days as an indictment of his manservant. His first entry into Crook accompanied by his skinny, equally alcoholic wife, and fellow servant sets the tone for the confrontation:

Fledge himself is difficult to describe. Indeterminacy clings to the man like a mist. He has for so long concealed his true feelings that whatever core of real self yet glows within him, it is invisible to the naked eye. He is neat, of course, in fact he is impeccable, as befits a butler. Slim, slightly over medium height, with reddish-brown hair oiled back at a sleek angle from a peak dead in the middle of his forehead, he could be anything; but the presence at his side of Mrs. Fledge Doris situates and defines the man. For Doris is unmistakably a servant. As tall as her husband (and thus a clear head taller than me), thin as a rake, with a sharp, pinched face and black hair scraped back off her forehead and threaded with iron-gray wires, her being is indelibly stamped with the mark of domestic toil. Her nose is prominent and beaky, and her eyes are very dark, iris and pupil both so black they seem fused in a single orb with the merest pinprick of light dead in the center. Those black eyes lend her face a rather opaque, birdlike quality, and though the simplicity of the woman's nature very soon becomes apparent, at first sight she gives the appearance of a large crow, an unblinking alien to human affairs, a corvine transmigrated into woman's form. Only the tip of her nose, enlivened by a network of tiny broken blood vessels, lends color and humanity to her face. And thus they presented themselves, the ghoul and the crow, and then they were over the threshold and under my roof.

Our modern sensibilities dictate that most if not all of a story's loose ends be tied; in other words, we need to know what a work thinks of itself. Something will occur with the Fledges – indeed, in a way, this is the novel's primary event – that is never clarified in full, in as much as clarification could not be derived from languid hinting. Coal thinks the taciturn butler his enemy and is greatly suspicious of the Fledges' having arrived from Africa without any letters of recommendation from their prior employer. An employer who also happened to have been crushed to death by an ox – but here we drift into fruitless speculation.

Apart from whisky, Coal's other abiding interest lies, literally and figuratively, in the bones he keeps in his estate's barn. These compose the reassembled skeleton of a dinosaur that he, an amateur paleontologist, plans on presenting as the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. As his ideas, first put forth by this evolutionary theorist (also an autodidact), could not be any more radical given the conservative nature of his field, he foresees the rest of his life – he is no believer in much else – basking in eternal glory:

I paced up and down, reciting my revolutionary thesis on the taxonomic classification of the dinosaur and reveling, I admit, in my imagination, in the storm of applause and controversy I expected to arouse. I expected, frankly, soon to be dominating the discourse of natural history or at least its paleontological strand I, the gentleman naturalist, the amateur!

That the beast in question has been christened Phlegmosaurus carbonensis is all you need to know. Alas, his expected watershed panel discussion in London is only attended by four people including his elder daughter and grandson. This predictable pratfall acts as the clothesline for sidelights and anecdotes about fornicating Fledge and dipsomaniac Doris, including a wet dream that arouses long lost lusts in the lord of the manor, who has not slept in the same manor wing as the lady for almost twenty-five years. Yet plump and quite unstately Lady Harriet has a daughter of eighteen, Cleo, whom Coal proudly identifies as a "true Coal" – which means that she might be well-nigh deranged. There is also the small matter of Cleo's impecunious fiancé Sidney, who goes wandering off towards the moor one dark and stormy night – never, of course, to return.

It is perhaps ironic that the real restorer of the bird-dinosaur link died of dementia since Sir Hugo, deemed "ontologically dead" by the majority of London neurologists, betrays hints of incipient, well, something or other. What could be troubling Hugo? His African adventures with a very shady fellow named George who just so happens to resemble a soldier of fortune? The prods and pokes of Sidney's surprisingly old mother who does not believe that his disappearance will yield good tidings? Perhaps the best summation of Coal's conscience is a dreadful shock he incurs on the moor:

So one afternoon I set off with a flask of whisky and a stout stick, and after tramping down a soggy cart track between thick growths of birch and alder I found myself beneath a vast gray sky with miles of flat, boggy fen before me and a lake in the distance .... It was when I had settled myself on a hummock of dry bracken close to the edge of the lake, and was casting my eye idly over the gray, wind-furrowed water, that I noticed a bulky horned object half-submerged in a bed of reeds close by. I splashed forward through the shallows to investigate, and discovered to my astonishment that it was a dead cow. I poked at it with my walking stick, then with the crook of my stick I hooked its horn and dragged it further into the shallows, and as I did so I caused the head to rise and water poured from its empty eye sockets as through from a fountain. Then the great body began to turn, began to go belly-up, and suddenly a foul, nauseating stench was released into the air and a pike, a big one, four feet long, slid out of the cow's belly and gazed at me for an instant, its gills quietly lapping, before gliding away into the depths of the lake. 

There is always such a scene in McGrath, and the scene invariably suggests that evil's undercurrent enjoys a whirlpool's endless reflections. Doris has some affinities with that old dinosaur that bears Coal's name – as does, in a way, the lanky and rapturous Fledge – although no one could possibly believe Coal's theories about their dispositions. And after all, isn't the test of a scientist whether he has any followers?         

Wednesday
Mar082017

The Captive Mind

In the West man subconsciously regards society as unrelated to him. Society indicates the limits he must not exceed; in exchange for this he receives a guarantee that no one will meddle excessively in his affairs ... In the East there is no boundary between man and society. His games, and whether he loses or wins, is a public matter. He is never alone. If he loses it is not because of indifference on the part of his environment, but because his environment keeps him under such minute scrutiny.

                                                                                                              Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind

This famous book is an intellectual's view on Communism, or Marxism-Leninism, or Stalinism, or whatever it happened to be called at the time, movements that do not, by definition, allow for intellectuals to exist. To put it another way, intellectuals only gain such a title by being allowed to deviate intelligently from what we may call bourgeois values. Since Marxism-Leninism is also in opposition to bourgeois values (at least in theory) an alliance seems to take natural shape, and yet the seventy-odd years of Soviet dictatorship featured some of the most anti-intellectual regimes known to man. How this occurred sheds some light on the nature of power, as well as on the persons who spoke in shades of red but behaved like any other robber baron at any other time in history. 

Composed by Miłosz in the middle of life, at age forty-two, The Captive Mind was revised when the poet was already sixty-nine. In twenty-seven years of removing masks and exposing lies one by one, Miłosz saw nothing to indicate that Russians (who should really be called Soviets, but he insists on making the matter national rather than doctrinal) had changed their baleful ways. That he repeatedly denigrates Russia as "a backward nation" shows his nasty biases that betray his argument. In what was 1917 Russia backward? In industry? Is this the measure of a country's development in the eyes of an intellectual? Miłosz makes one mistake: he cannot decide whether he is a poet or an economist. To be certain, poets do not normally make good economists; and I have never heard of an economist becoming a good poet. In terms of art Russia was far from backward: he rightly praises its drama as the very best and occasionally has laudatory words for writers like Blok. But on the whole Russia to him is a primitive wasteland, whereas Poland and Lithuania are somehow among the most advanced countries in the world (the Baltic states "stood on a definitely higher level of civilization than other Soviet citizens"). But these are all cavils. We will forgive him his chauvinism because we cannot begrudge him his anger. And twenty-eight years after the Berlin Wall's last ballyhooed sighting and thirteen years after his own death, Miłosz's remarkable work possesses almost unrivaled relevance.

He begins with an examination of what it is like to be a socialist writer, a fate which in 1953 was no more pleasant than that of the Soviet-endorsed slag now polluting dark, unvisited corners of university libraries worldwide. His survey is initially framed around an obscure novel by this well-known Polish author, and throughout The Captive Mind the non-Polish reader will feel somewhat alien to the discussion. This is both a good and bad thing. The bad element is rather obvious, and becomes more evident in the four middle chapters. Named after the first four Greek letters, they compose a roman à clef to four other well-known Polish writers of varying stature. I should say, there is no roman to speak of, only, we are told, facts. And the facts are not complimentary. Take his opening description of this writer, to whom he refers as Beta:

When I met Beta in 1942, he was twenty years old. He was a lively boy with black, intelligent eyes. The palms of his hands perspired, and there was that exaggerated shyness in his behavior that usually bespeaks immense ambition. Behind his words one felt a mixture of arrogance and humility. In conversation he seemed inwardly convinced of his own superiority; he attacked ferociously yet retreated immediately, bashfully hiding his claws. His ripostes were full of pent-up irony. Probably, though, these characteristics were most pronounced when he spoke with me or with other writers older than he was. As a beginning poet, he felt he owed them a certain respect, but actually he believed they were none too deserving of it. He knew better; in him lay the promise of a truly great writer.

That this passage is almost boilerplate for any Romantic poet who subscribes to the aesthetic tendencies of Milton's most nefarious creation would be damning enough; what makes it more interesting is that Borowski is the only writer of the four consistently read in survey classes outside of Poland. Andrzejewski (Alpha) is best known for the novel on which this film was based (one of my father's favorites as a college student); the works of Putrament (Gamma) and Gałczyński (Delta) are really only discussed by professional Slavists. Although hailed first and foremost as a poet, Miłosz's malicious and thinly-veiled satire of his compatriots is a joy to read in the same way that any great characterizations in any great novel seem glowingly real. Half-Russian and quick to denounce his friends to save his own skin, Putrament is the easiest target and gets by far the roughest treatment ("Tall, slightly stooped, he had the long, ruddy face of a man who has spent much time with guns and dogs"). 

The benefit of the book's Polishness can be found in the plethora of insider details: Borowski's unnecessary boastings about his ingenious behavior while in a concentration camp; Putrament's inability to describe Miłosz's hometown in anything but the most banal of colors, his subsequent career as a diplomat "for Red Poland," and his odd second wife ("a Polish soldier-wife ... wearing heavy Russian boots"); the poet Gałczyński's drunken demands to be paid up front for any work, almost as if he were running a print-on-demand service; and the ironic stabs at the haughty Andrzejewski's moralizing and distance from his peers. The depictions of these four Poles, two of whom would die rather young, that form in the reader's mind are as striking and focused as their socialist messages are vague and contrived. Upon revising his work almost thirty years later, Miłosz saw little need to apologize for the venom that oozes out of most of his pages. After all, socialism or whatever it happened to be called at the time (never trust a movement that cannot decide on its own name) was ostensibly still going strong. There was still a need to smash the plastic matryoshka into smithereens and expose its hollowness; there was still a need to inform the West and the (albeit dwindling) number of Communist sympathizers that what they heard and saw was absolute poppycock. 

Yet whether they were true socialists or not might have to do with another phenomenon, which Miłosz calls Ketman. Miłosz takes the word from a work by this French writer whose legacy is mired in controversy (in a fantastic bit of understatement, Miłosz terms him "dangerous"), and the word is the same as the Arabic kamin, which means "secret" or "hidden." Generally it implied a method in Islamic thought whereby a dissenter could hide his spots, and Miłosz has no qualms about appropriating it for his context. Dissent did not need to be, however, the main impetus behind such chicanery:

The people of the Moslem East believe that 'He who is in possession of truth must not expose his person, his relatives or his reputation to the blindness, the folly, the perversity of those whom it has pleased God to place and maintain in error.' One must, therefore, keep silent about one's true convictions if possible.

There were also practical consequences for such modesties, but these, I assume, require no explanation. It is to Miłosz's credit that he attempts, if halfheartedly at times, to assign a form of Ketman to each of the four Polish writers he exposes in the following chapters. He assumes that they since there is something or a lot of the artist in them, they cannot possibly accede to the nonsense that the Soviet state wants Polish literature to become. They have the concerns of family, ostracizing, and, of course, finances to take into consideration.  But in the end they do not decide to emigrate or break openly with the party (Andrzejewski would be an exception later in life).  They are all prisoners, often well-fed and well-groomed ones, but prisoners nonetheless. Ketman also has far-reaching ramifications for the path of the human soul:

To say something is white when one thinks it is black, to smile inwardly when one is outwardly solemn, to hate when one manifests love, to know when one pretends not to know, and thus to play one's adversary for a fool (even as he is playing you for one) these actions lead one to prize one's own cunning above all else.

Communism in its European variant is over now, but it once was considered the greatest revolution in modern history. Strange that, when you consider how individual we have all become and how much we shun the collective good in favor of our own selfish needs. We may believe the aphorism that no one can imprison our minds, and that might be true with one qualification. The only imprisonment of our minds occurs when we choose to accept a truth imposed upon us from without, a truth we know to be as fabricated as the cheap clothing we are allowed to buy. It is much easier than waking up every morning and trying to escape.

Saturday
Mar042017

Die Panne

The unacted crimes on our conscience might not be subject to prosecution or trial, but we cannot so quickly dismiss them (and they never quit the territory of our nightmares). At many junctures of our life we will face a moral question that may be interpreted as envy but is better understood as learned ambition. We see what others have – a home, a career, wealth, a spouse, children, fame – and we wish the same for ourselves. The worst among us simultaneously desire their own gain and concomitant loss for the envied, and it should not surprise us that these are the sort of people whose unacted villainy often devolves into the stuff of police blotters and true crime bestsellers. Yet there is a third category of observer, he whose crimes are far more attenuated and remote. He did not pull the trigger as much as find the coin that slipped under the floor mat of a car at a toll that drove to a house where a bullet was found on a carpet next to a body whose fist was still clutching a list of names of people working at the toll. If this sounds a bit like a famous nursery rhyme, we should consider all the unacted deeds that nursery rhymes tend to enumerate. We should also consider this well-known tale.

The hero, so to speak, is a certain Alfredo Traps, a traveling textile salesman and a well-off citizen of notoriously well-off Switzerland, his choice of travel in his landlocked native land being a fancy car, more specifically a red Studebaker. My profound ignorance of cars, Studebakers and all others, prevents me from offering an opinion of any value on the object in question; but Traps will later confirm that its acquisition, a year ago now, fulfilled a long-time dream (Traps is the type of person who does not have cheap long-time dreams, unless you count his floozier extramarital episodes). As sole account manager of the Hephaestus plastic product, he assures us as all well-trained salesmen must that it is the "king of plastics, untearable, transparent ... as good for industrial use as for fashion, for war and for peace." From this diatribe we get the feeling that Traps is not only talking about Hephaestus – but anyway. Traps is somewhere on the way back from his habitual "four-hundred-kilometer" business day when his beloved Studebaker endures a breakdown, our story's ostensible namesake, and the towing authorities inform him that repairs will keep the car garaged overnight. As he contemplates the nearest village, we get a brief but telling glimpse into our traveler:

There was also a little factory nearby and numerous bars and inns which Traps had heard much about, but the rooms were full, a meeting of small livestock breeders having claimed all the beds, and the textile salesman was directed to a villa where people were sometimes put up for the night. Traps hesitated. It was still possible for him to head home by train, but he was tempted by the hope of having a little fun, as there were often girls in these villages as there had been in Großbiestringen recently who appreciated textile salesmen.

There remains little doubt as to the mores of our Traps, whom relativists would immediately exonerate for being a child of Catholic oppressiveness that does not allow for divorce – but relativists can go relativize elsewhere. No, we are dealing with someone of loose virtues who remains on constant vigil for advantage, be that advantage material or maidenly, a trait swiftly detected by the four grizzled widowers at that famous villa.

Villa or not, an evening with four old widowers certainly does not sound like what Traps had in mind. Yet his destiny has already been chosen when the condition of a free room for the night entails keeping four old men company for dinner. Traps being, despite a later claim, unalterably bourgeois as well as someone of "adequate manners," accepts the offer and sits down to a decadent meal the likes of which he has never had. His commensals are: Pilet, the sommelier and manager; his nameless moustached host who occupies, in apparent creeping senility, a footstool; Kummer, a red-faced salami of a man in a rocking chair; and the monocled Zorn, a "long and haggard" fellow with a hooked nose and unmatched socks whose "vest is incorrectly buttoned." German speakers will know that Kummer means "worry" or "concern" and Zorn "wrath," which will make sense given their former professions. And our aged quartet are also all members of the Schlaraffia, an organization I think I will leave to the curious to investigate through the intergalactic weapon known as Google; suffice it to say that "the land of milk and honey" can be translated into German as Schlaraffenland (we add that pilet is French for a pintail, a duck with a knife-like appendage). What were these former professions? The salami was once a defense attorney, the monocled icicle a prosecutor, and the budding dementia case – a very long time ago, it seems – a judge. Pilet was involved in the field of law enforcement, but his exact role is discussed towards the middle of our tale and does not need to be mentioned here. That said, careful artists pay close attention to the exact center of their works (Dürrenmatt is generally a careful artist), and at the center of Die Panne we find the following:

'Bad luck, I'm afraid, Mr. Prosecutor,' yelled Traps boisterously, 'terribly bad luck.  Gygax died of a heart attack, and it wasn't even his first. Years ago he had been victim to one, and was told that he would have to be careful. He tried to keep up the appearance of a healthy man, but every time he got anxious or worked up, one feared a relapse. I know this for a fact.'

'Ah, and from whom, then, do you know it?'

'From his wife, Mr. Prosecutor.'

'From his wife?'

'Be careful, for Heaven's sake,' whispered the defense attorney.

Who is Gygax? Traps's former boss. When did Gygax die? Oh, about a year ago. And why is Gygax's sad lot a subject of discussion? Because Gygax's timely decease allowed Traps to take his job, which he celebrated with the purchase of a certain red Studebaker, a car he needed since his last car suffered a breakdown also about a year ago, and we have said more than enough. 

Die Panne has been hailed as one of the finest German-language prose works of the twentieth century, and its accolades are not unmerited. Had it been originally composed for the screen, we could imagine another fate for Mr. Traps (oddly, the book, play, and film all feature somewhat different dénouements), one that bespoke his remorse in all its devastating hues. But Traps has been living in that oblivion unique to the bourgeois everyday: a land of milk and honey and Studebakers. The other oddity about the book must be its introduction, a regrettably topical rant about how almost every tale has already been told (providing the novella's subtitle, "A still-possible story"), considering that a mock trial is one of fiction's oldest conceits and the backhanded modesty of exhausted storytelling even older. Still, we read on with more than amusement and enthusiasm: we actually begin to wonder about Traps, about what he may or may not have done, about why he is so willing to go along with such geriatric nostalgia and throw himself headlong into the theatrical aspect of this extraordinary 'dinner theater.' One also gets the distinct impression that a little slap-and-tickle with the local barmaid would never have been as fulfilling.         

Wednesday
Feb222017

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Without some mild prompting, horror fans may not be able to confirm that there exist two types of scare tales: those about the unfamiliar awash in the shadows and tricks of the light, and those about very familiar things that turn out to be not what they seem. For whatever reason, I have on numerous occasions toyed with scenarios from the latter grouping and they have invariably resulted in dissatisfaction. Why is our first type so superior? Perhaps because in our second, there is no suspense, no chance for understanding when something you have always treated as safe is transformed into a parlous and despicable trap (zombies, those beloved catch-all cannibals, come to mind). And while many a work has been constructed on the premise that someone – a family member, a co-worker, a respected citizen – is not what he or she appears to be, a pervasive obliviousness is the only plausible explanation; otherwise, we would simply have random whims and haphazard betrayal. It is this first premise that both makes this work so outstanding and reduces numerous whodunits to a pure guessing game. And yet there is also another genre that borrows liberally from both these types, a perfect example of which careens through the pages of this short novel.

Our eponymous character is a young man in Rhode Island; the time is that brief, sweet lull between the twentieth century's two European cataclysms. The young man has been diagnosed by alienists and other nostrum-peddlers as mentally ill, but the cause of his malady is never ascertained by modern science (and since we are reading this author, we know it never will be). No, our man is ill all right, but his is the illness of having crossed boundaries of human experiences that should remain just that, boundaries. Boundaries, as it were, to gaze upon from a comfortable distance and then be forever shown the backs of us. Young Ward's life was changed in dramatic fashion by uncovering a hitherto unknown ancestor with the ominous name of Curwen, a corruption of the Latin word for this bird. Joseph Curwen, as his forebear was called, seemed to have lived a very long and ignominious life in the region, and was somehow implicated in the witch trials that devoured Puritan England over two centuries before. And yet, chroniclers maintain that Curwen didn't age, or at least, not enough ("this strange, pallid man, hardly middle-aged in aspect yet certainly not less than a full century old"). Stranger still is this greedy and reclusive hermit's Georgian habitat, from where the wickedest midnight sounds and smells are said to emerge. This attracts the attention of local law enforcement, who choose to do nothing that could repercuss in their disfavor. Instead, one dark night they assemble an extrajudicial band and invade the premises. What they find is never made explicit, but we gather they may have been better off not interfering in such machinations:   

It was just before dawn that a single haggard messenger with wild eyes and a hideous unknown odor about his clothing appeared and told the detachment to disperse quietly to their homes and never think or speak of the night's doings or of him who had been Joseph Curwen. Something about the bearing of the messenger carried a conviction which his mere words could never have conveyed; for though he was a seaman well known to many of them, there was something obscurely lost or gained in his soul which set him evermore apart.

Curwen may well represent Poe's ancestry to Lovecraft since the latter considered the author of The Raven to be the greatest of all literary influences on his artistic development, but Poe's worlds are small and self-destructive. They collapse upon themselves like tombs or old, creaking houses, with a character or two invariably trapped within. Lovecraft's work is, however, about the abyss, the immensity of horror that is only intensified by our basal apprehensions about hell or nothingness or an oblivion that will consume us over the course of millions of years. How much better then to leave undescribed what these soldiers saw that fateful night in what they had expected would be a warlock's cave, a night during which Joseph Curwen – ageless, baleful, deal-hungry Joseph Curwen – was at last destroyed.

This terrible event, of course, does nothing to dissuade young Ward, who is under the care of a certain Dr. Willett. Willett, true to his oaths, likes facts and treatments. He is averse to the spiritual in the same way that one can be allergic to something as fundamental as milk. Even when Ward betakes himself for three years to Europe to visit notorious black magic practitioners, Willett implies that Ward could be actively mimicking his ancestor's activities and language in his correspondence out of some kind of obsessive fascination. There is, of course, another explanation, and one that has to do with the menacing portrait of Joseph Curwen uncovered at the house that Ward will soon inhabit. Giving away too much of Ward's psychic shift would be unfair to the tale's future readers, but we can mention Willett's venture to the house that Curwen built:    

It is hard to explain just how a single sight of a tangible object with measurable dimensions could so shake and change a man; and we may only say that there is about certain outlines and entities a power of symbolism and suggestion which acts frightfully on a sensitive thinker's perspective and whispers terrible hints of obscure cosmic relationships and unnamable realities behind the protective illusions of common vision.

What would be the most earth-shattering vision one could imagine? Many works have tapped into the personal, that which is unknowable except to the visionary himself, as in this incredible masterpiece, but this is not the picture painted here. What our doctor sees is objectively horrendous, not simply a byproduct of an active imagination and a few too many late night readings; in fact, Willett absconds from the house with the firm conviction that he may never sleep well again.   

What remains valuable in reading something like Charles Dexter Ward (not that there is much like it) is the holistic notion of terror that can grip any mind, non-believing or staunchly devout, broad enough to allow its horizon to expand to the width of our ignorance. Any stab at that ignorance, any advance in the ways of realm and reason, must be attributed to otherworldly sources, even if this has evolved in contemporary literature into a variant of deus ex machina, an extraterrestrial. Lovecraft enjoyed the world in its crevices and secrets and did not care much for justifying his nightmares; he dreamt up savage lands and weird chants and thought little of their implications. In this way his art is the finest of its kind: visions without egoism, fears without psychobabble, evil without redemption. His worlds cannot be captioned as the neuroses of a single, fretful mind, and not only because they draw upon centuries of lore. His truth is a hellish abyss, and one of luxurious malevolence where things that seem foul are undoubtedly foul, fouler than one could have ever feared. Too bad no one told young Ward.       

Monday
Jan162017

The Coup

We Africans like de Gaulle.  He reminds us of the giraffe, of the gods that no longer visit us.

                                                                                                                    Félix Ellelloû

 

Many splendid books have come from the pen of this American writer (who died eight years ago this month), none finer than this monograph on the fictional African kingdom of Kush. The Kush of Félix Ellelloû, our cultured and self-serving narrator, is certainly fictional, although Kush has a real history in the Upper Nile region, a fact which most readers forty years ago would not have bothered to verify (perhaps no better are the readers of today, who would limit their curiosity to the trappings of a single intergalactic search engine). And Ellelloû, “short, prim, and black … produced, in 1933, of the rape of Salu woman by a Nubian raider,” has an almost mystical sense of his value to us and the annals of great men and their evil deeds. His tale is well-known to students of literature: that of the talented, educated, artistic, and yes, at times, brilliant mind who just so happens to have his all his iron fingers in the political cake. Philosopher-kings are what we used to call these individuals (we moved on at some point to the hilariously oxymoronic “enlightened despots”). But by now we have witnessed and shuddered at the fall of so many first-rate minds to the rosy couplets of their own Machiavellian romanticism that we yearn for the simple man whom money and power could never change; indeed, one wonders whether a truly first-rate mind would bother with such stupidities. Then we remember endless legends of great men and women wanting more and, in their avarice, losing their souls. But let us return to our half-Nubian, half-Salu.

The Coup does not boast nor need a discernible plot. It is the memoirs of a great man, now no longer great (usually the only time such individuals can stop to reflect). One might ask whether a reader might expect a violent overthrow of a government in these pages, and the response would simply redirect the reader to the word "memoirs." The only people who write about coups are victims or failed rebels; the results of successful coups are included in the newly amended constitution. Our man in Kush has plans and musings, which usually biomagnify as he meanders the large halls of his few superiors. In addition to the school-mandated French and Arabic and a smattering of other languages for cosmopolitan effect, Ellelloû is distinguished by his mastery of English, acquired stateside at, in no small irony for the era, a certain McCarthy College “deep in the reign of Dwight Eisenhower.” He is at his ministerial best when left to consider in smiling disdain the details of simpler existences. He walks outside and beholds “the clay of the square … accepting yet another day’s merciless brilliance”; the sand around him and one of his mistresses “was strange, black and white like salt and pepper, and at moments seemed an immense print of page too tiny to read”; and a Kush drugstore becomes:

Like a witch’s hut of murky oddments hurled to infinity by omnipresent mirrors, even mirrors overhead, circular suspended convex mirrors which foreshortened into dwarves the slack-faced toubab sons and daughters as they shuffled along these artificially cooled aisles like drugged worshipers selecting a pious trinket or potion from the garish variety of aids to self-worship.

He is a proud Muslim and husband to four wives. He has served in the army and attained the rank of Colonel, a title which seems to merge into his surname. He cavorts with an array of operatives, agents, visitors, and government officials with the hackneyed sarcasm of the majority of raconteurs forced to chat with lesser lights and surprised when, on occasion, one of these dim bulbs actually says something worth remembering. He thinks constantly and aloud about God and hopes the favor is returned. By his own humble estimation, he has much in common with his Creator:

What can be purer than non-existence? What more soothing and scourging? Allah’s option is to exist or not; mine, to worship or not. No fervor overtops that which arises from contact with the Absolute, though the contact be all one way. The wall of pale-blue tiles echoed the repose and equilibrium within me, a silence never heard in the lands of doubt and mockery.

An option is one way of looking at it. And these lands of doubt and mockery? We only hear about them when Ellelloû needs a strawman for his Marxist rhetoric, which is scattershot and insincere, and somehow not in conflict with his faith.

For all his faults, Ellelloû (likely patterned after this leader, Updike's exact coeval on a six-month delay) has more than glorious talent wasted on totalitarian aims. He can also triage any group of frauds, con artists, and aspiring thinkers into the necessary pigeonholes. One such figure is his professor at the Government department of McCarthy College, Frederic Craven:

In that sinister way of American intellectual men, he had grown handsomer with age, his boyishly gaunt figure filling out without ceasing to be essentially youthful; kept tendony by tennis and tan by sailing through September on the cerulean, polluted surface of Lake Timmebago, he had created in time a kind of vertical harem of undergraduate mistresses, whom graduation disposed of without his even having to provide a dismissive dowry.

Small, prim, dark Ellelloû finds his counterpart across the seas, a man whose teaching load includes “U.S. vs. USSR: Two Wayward Children of the Enlightenment,” a man who insists on addressing Ellelloû as “Hakim Félix” as if he were a Russian boyar. Why then are we not surprised that it is Ellelloû, not his instructor, who seems to be the congenial man of letters we trust with our imaginations? “I hope,” says the young African, “you will forward my parting regards to Mrs. Craven,” to which Updike rejoins one of the finest lines in English literature. There is also the matter of that titular putsch. But I think you know how that will end.

Thursday
Dec222016

Dracula

Let us forget for a moment all associations with the name of this novel, the subject of hundreds of books and films and owner of permanent territory in the landscape of our nightmares. While such an exercise is almost impossible, we might imagine a world in which the vampire had not yet been accorded the title of legend and to a certain segment of Europe was still very real. What then would be the response to a Western work that tried with solemn research and Victorian restraint to capture the essence of fear? Fear of an aristocratic and evil genius, practically immortal and unstoppable, capable of feats of superhuman strength and diabolical skill? Do not think that I subscribe to the ridiculous theories about the sexuality and foreignness of Dracula as indicative of Victorian England’s threatened moral structure and pending hoards of migrants who will suck the British Crown dry. Nor is the repetition of the Mongol invasion to blame; instead, it is the fear of esoteric truths that conflicts the minds of the steady, righteous Victorian citizen, and of lust, greed, and cruelty as the new traits of the new century. England is not afraid for England; rather, it is humans who are afraid for humanity.   

As it were, these predictions were hideously accurate. The book itself, a masterpiece of the epistolary genre, is composed in the lush style of the Gothic romances such as these earlier novels, with a scrupulous eye for detail and no frail moral backbone. Stoker was never quite able to replicate the magic of Dracula in any other of his many works, perhaps because the subject matter was not as compelling. Consider this novel or this one and their forays into, respectively, the pagan worship of a giant snake and the revivification of an Egyptian mummy, and we see that these are generally subjects for horror buffs, even if the books themselves are fantastically beautiful. But a vampire has an added element that urges us to read on and wonder about the damnation that may ensue, however silly the whole premise must seem to a logical mind, if certain criteria are not met. The legend was born because death itself remains a mystery.

Dracula’s beginning has no parallel in modern literature: it is simply the best opening to a modern novel of suspense or horror ever written. Until Jonathan Harker is abandoned in Castle Dracula to the whims of a triptych of female bloodsuckers, the book is hypnotic and impeccable. An excerpt does small justice to the precision with which Stoker describes the indescribable: 
Suddenly, away on our left I saw a faint flickering blue flame. The driver saw it at the same moment. He at once checked the horses, and, jumping to the ground, disappeared into the darkness. I did not know what to do, the less as the howling of the wolves grew closer. But while I wondered, the driver suddenly appeared again, and without a word took his seat, and we resumed our journey. I think I must have fallen asleep and kept dreaming of the incident, for it seemed to be repeated endlessly, and now looking back, it is like a sort of awful nightmare. Once the flame appeared so near the road, that even in the darkness around us I could watch the driver’s motions. He went rapidly to where the blue flame arose, it must have been very faint, for it did not seem to illumine the place around it at all, and gathering a few stones, formed them into some device. Once there appeared a strange optical effect. When he stood between me and the flame he did not obstruct it, for I could see its ghostly flicker all the same. This startled me, but as the effect was only momentary, I took it that my eyes deceived me straining through the darkness. Then for a time there were no blue flames, and we sped onwards through the gloom, with the howling of the wolves around us, as though they were following in a moving circle.  
One wonders whether a better account could be rendered of the hellfire that will surround and plague Jonathan for the entirety of the novel. How is a modern author able to present demons on earth without evoking suffocating laughter? Perhaps as the most evil of humans, with communion with the vilest beasts (although I have a soft spot for wolves), and control over the harshest weather. This is the world into which a naive young barrister enters for the sake of career advancement and for his fiancée, Mina Murray, and which they may never leave unscathed.

What happens after this first seventh of the novel is less satisfying: Dracula comes to England aboard a ship whose crew meets with a horrific fate; he seduces Lucy, a close friend of Mina’s and tries to get to Mina herself; and he is supported (if mostly in spirit) by Renfield, a former barrister now held in a London asylum. Fraught with twists typical of any modern thriller, the end chase is decidedly humdrum in comparison with the onset of this great expedition. In the intermediate scenes we are plagued by the stratagems of scholar and physician Abraham van Helsing, destined to become almost as famous as the monstrosity he has hunted for decades. Van Helsing’s diction is curious to an English ear, and has much of his native Dutch about it although it often makes for poetic interludes. His organization of a team to destroy a centuries-old source of evil is undermined by the frenetic pace of the plot, needlessly weaving together side stories to make it seem that Dracula is fenced in on many fronts, which he certainly isn’t. In the end, he is forced to scamper back to his native Transylvania, and we still do not know why he chose to forsake his local omnipotence to brave the dangers that the distant post of London provides. No particular explanation, apart from plot furtherance, is ever given. If it is boredom or isolation that drives the Count to pick up and move, one wonders what he has really been doing all these centuries. Why not take London during the Great Fire or interregnum? Let us hope that it is indeed boredom, which would be much more plausible for a character of ambition.                
 
The origin of Dracula is notably never revealed in full. He may very well be this historical figure known for impaling his opponents in battle, but he is hardly the first despot to inflict horrific suffering on his enemies. Why then would he be chosen as king of the damned? Many modern films and books have delved in speculation ranging from the most mundane (psychological and scientific references to acute taphephobia and the concomitant madness) to the most vivid (this most famous of betrayers). If it is indeed Judas behind the slaughter of centuries, then the character is well chosen and portrayed. There can be no greater penalty on a soul than a mockery of life sustained by death after death.
Thursday
Dec082016

Envy

Of all human vices, Schadenfreude is most likely the worst: those afflicted do not seek their own success but the failure of others. Hoping that your neighbor, your brother, or that lovely girl in the office meets with some disastrous circumstance just so that you may feel better about your own mediocrity hints at another form of malicious glee. The one which arises when you daydream about stripping a fellow human of his or her accolades, spouse, money, or anything else they might have earned. In countries where egalitarianism is promoted and preferred, it is not uncommon to see others looking over their shoulders at your small plot of land which, in essence, is just like everyone else's. Or so you think. Upon further scrutiny you realize that in contradistinction to adjoining plots yours boasts, in a small, shaded, almost inconspicuous corner, one dark blue violet of infinite beauty. You have not really noticed this violet before, but everyone in your vicinity cannot take their eyes off it. After a certain amount of time, you begin to hear rumors of others' having had similar flower seeds and good earth, only to have seen their flowers killed by an errant footprint or simply scooped up by an enterprising passer-by. What you will never hear is that everyone tried with equal effort but unequal talent to grow such a violet, and only you succeeded. In fact, you will soon learn that you, of all people, tried the least and were also granted by whatever grants people such powers, the least amount of talent to make a violet bloom. And yet only you have it, which can only mean skulduggery. Germany, a country of unabashed egalitarianism, even coined a word for such a "conspiracy of feelings," a Neidgesellschaft, or society of envy, a place where people are supposed to be equal or close to equal, or at least given as many opportunities as possible to be equal, but where oftentimes human beings' competitive nature gets the better of them. Which brings us to this sensational novel.

The time is the 1920s and the scene is the New Russia. Today we have, admittedly, another New Russia; but back then the legacy of the Soviets was yet to be sensed by anyone except the most prescient and cynical among us. A new society meant reinventing not only the wheel, but also poetry, government, sexual relations, sports, and, perhaps most importantly, simple creature comforts such as sausages and pillows. The sausage maker is a man called Andrei Babichev. He is a large, boisterous fortyish businessman – appropriate socialist terminology is "Director of the Food Industry Trust" – drunk on his own salubrity and boundless, throbbing volition (calling him energetic would be incredibly unfair to marathon runners and other such slouches). As all good citizens do, he dreams of a new world where everything is better than it once was, and where men like Andrei can rule because they have the greatest amount of resilience to creeping mortality. He sings, bellows, and generally expects to be the center of attention wherever he finds himself drumming up business. Despite being a self-made man, he was attacked by some hooligans about ten years ago and survived only thanks to the timely intervention of a burgeoning soccer star, Volodya Markov. Since that fateful incident Markov and Andrei have been like son and father to the point that Andrei would like Markov to marry his lovely niece Valya. Valya is sixteen and Volodya twenty-seven but soon to be capped by the Soviet squad and therefore very eligible. His stated goal is to become a football "machine," to have no superfluous movements or thoughts in the perfection of his craft – the purest allegorical illusion that the Soviets could foist upon their supporters and citizens. This all sounds like a dandy setup for a new, improved society bereft of any malice, underachievement, or selfishness. And it would be were it not for the introduction of two characters – Andrei's older brother Ivan, and a mysterious fellow called Nikolai Kavalerov.

Once upon a time, we are told, there were three Babichev brothers: Roman, the eldest and most gung-ho about defending the homeland; Ivan, a devout non-conformist and a bit of a parasite; and Andrei, the bright-eyed baby who went abroad to pursue his studies and whatever else needed to be pursued. Roman was executed for his role in a revolutionary force's terrorist actions, and we all know what happened to Andrei. But what about Ivan? It is an accepted premise that artistic types, bless them all, often have little inclination to do anything else except engage in their art, a formula which this philosopher rationalized and ultimately justified in a famous discourse. Ivan is most definitely such a man: creative, moody, impractical to a preposterous degree, he too dreams of transforming the New Russia – but not by means of the platitudinous robotic achievements that would so typify Soviet culture at its apex and nadir. No, Ivan is a true artist, which means his genius stems from both originality and a thorough knowledge of the work of his forerunners. While Andrei wants to build a better salami, Ivan's brazen mind envisions a dream machine, soap bubbles that would expand to the size of a hot-air balloon, and his most enigmatic creation, the so-called "Ophelia" machine. What this latter construct entails is not immediately revealed, although it is clear that Ivan considers it his masterpiece and legacy. He finds, however, few sympathizers. Andrei wants no part of him and is only interested in Valya for the sake of Markov; everyone else seems to think him raving mad, a Bohemian louse or some combination of the two. His disheveled appearance and crushing negativity regarding the achievements of his younger brother are reflected in his overwhelming ambition to annihilate Andrei, an ambition shared by Kavalerov, who dances innocuously across the novel's stage without affecting anyone or anything. He and Ivan share a striking number of opinions on matters great and small, and even end up bedding the same widow despite her repulsive demeanor and shape. Kavalerov talks to Andrei, but is brushed aside as if he doesn't really exist; Ivan does exist, or at least we think he exists, and is given similar treatment. Neither one can dissuade Valya from her upcoming nuptials with Volodya, and the effete duo continue to stir up trouble in local pubs with the overt intent of overthrowing Andrei or some substantial chunk of Andrei's world. Ivan – or Kavalerov, a bit hard to tell them apart at times – even mistakenly absconds with a letter from Volodya in which the goalie recommends that Andrei sever all ties with Kavalerov. This infuriates Ivan and Kavalerov in equal measure, which leads them to do, of course, nothing of consequence except scheme.

There are more than a few indications about Ivan and Kavalerov's real identities, although secondary literature conveniently tends to overlook them in lieu of more traditional reading approaches. One important clue is Valya's reaction to both men: she does not treat Ivan like her father, nor does she even acknowledge that Kavalerov, who becomes obsessed with her, actually breathes much of the same air she does. Another hint might be derived from a solid knowledge of the oeuvre of this writer, who specialized in long-winded diatribes about the humiliated, those in life who do not have voices because they are drowned out by guffaws of ridicule. Unlike Dostoevsky, Olesha presents his tale in the most compact of forms, and one that bends in a green arch over every last sumptuous detail. The "Vainglorious and Thoughtless Man," Kavalerov, will be known forever and ever for his envy, just like Iago – and just like, for that matter, Ivan, who once grew a blue violet out of a wart after claiming he had a remedy. But some people have more ambition than simply growing exotic flowers.

Friday
Nov112016

The Untouchable

I wanted to tell her about the blade of sunlight cleaving the velvet shadows of the public urinal that post-war spring afternoon in Regensburg, of the incongruous gaiety of the rain shower that fell the day of my father's funeral, of that last night with Boy when I saw the red ship under Blackfriars Bridge and conceived of the tragic significance of my life; in other words, the real things; the true things.

Why do so many betray all that they love?  An expert or three will aver that these traitors are ashamed of what they love, ashamed either of humble roots or past generations, or simply and unavoidably attracted to the garish limelight (which soon will resemble the pale moonlight, but anyway). There are other reasons, of course, reasons that involve one's own identity, so quietly and carefully folded up in a hidden suitcase, a suitcase that one cannot help but look at every time one enters the room. A suitcase one begins to imagine, as one begins to imagine entering the room and finding it again and again to make sure it's still there intact, undiscovered, sealed from oxygen and mankind. It is then, we may suppose, that the dreams commence. The nightmares or day-mares about walking in one dire day and not finding a suitcase anywhere. Because the suitcase was never there; nothing was ever hidden; and one's past comes crashing into one's present like two mirrored doors in close collision. A summary of the life and fate of the narrator of this novel. 

That our man is called Victor Maskell should not influence our impression: he has lost and will continue to lose, and the masks he has chosen are facsimiles of his own countenance. As we begin our tale, Maskell has been outed as having been far less patriotic than he might have seemed in the preceding decades establishing himself as one of Britain's finest Baroque experts, in particular of this painter of genius. Now at the threshold of his eighth decade on an ungrateful earth, he has become a widower, a lover of his "own kind," and an occasional parent, his son loathing him for what he was, his daughter pitying him for what he wasn't. He has long pondered the nature of his quandary:

In the spy's world, as in dreams, the terrain is always uncertain. You put your foot on what looks like solid ground and it gives way under you and you go into a kind of free fall, turning slowly tail up and clutching on to things that are themselves falling. This instability, this myriadness that the world takes on, is both the attraction and the terror of being a spy. Attraction, because in the midst of such uncertainty you are never required to be yourself; whatever you do, there is another, alternative you standing invisibly to one side, observing, evaluating, remembering. This is the secret power of the spy, different from the power that orders armies into battle; it is purely personal; it is the power to be and not to be, to detach oneself from oneself, to be oneself and at the same time another. The trouble is, if I were always two versions of myself, so all others must be similarly twinned with themselves in this awful, slippery way.

And where did Maskell split his being, dividing the poor son of an Irish preacher from the soon-to-be Soviet informer ("the fact is, I was both a Marxist and a Royalist")? Cambridge University of the 1920s and 1930s, a hotbed of radical thought and, on occasion, even radical action. The Great War has led to a peace once unimaginable, and the fervent idealism that courses through the veins of able-bodied intellectuals when serenity and prosperity have been secured has now embraced a new approach to humanity: a destruction of greed. The atmosphere in those years, says Maskell, "had something thrillingly suppressed in it, as if at any moment the most amazing events might suddenly begin to happen." And what events might he mean? Oh, the downfall of capitalism, the founding of a worker-based government which would control the means of production – and I believe we don't need to go on. Himself a distant relative of the queen, Maskell was not alone in his endeavors: there is Boy, who splits his day evenly between cottaging and stealing state secrets; Nick, a rich, ambitious, and rather sleek operator, whose sister Maskell would eventually marry, even if it is her brother he more greatly desired; and Leo Rothenstein, who buys Maskell his first Poussin, although maybe not for the reasons supplied at the time of purchase. There were others, of course; but their roles were mostly as supporting actors, which is another way of saying they were granted brief spurts of magniloquence then killed for the cause. One exception to this rule is the man known as Querell.  

Querell is a spy alright, but unlike his confederates he is also a writer of a series of potboilers ("He was genuinely curious about people  the sure mark of the second-rate novelist"). Maskell wonders and wonders some more about Querell, who does not seem to eat or sleep or do anything except lurk, smoking "the same, everlasting cigarette, for I never seemed able to catch him in the act of lighting up." A rather revolting scene early on in the novel, coupled with his professed Catholic faith, make Querell an even more unlikely human being and a much more likely Frankenstein's monster. So when someone informs Maskell, that "that Querell now, he has the measure of us all," our art historian begins to reconsider the popular novelist:    

Querell would come round, tall, thin, sardonic, standing with his back against the wall and smoking a cigarette, somehow crooked, like the villain in a cautionary tale, one eyebrow arched and the corners of his mouth turned down, and a hand in the pocket of his tightly buttoned jacket that I always thought could be holding a gun .... You would glance at the spot where he had been standing and find him gone, and seem to see a shadowy after-image of him, like the paler shadow left on a wall when a picture is removed.

If Querell is meant to represent, as some have surmised, this writer, then this is cruelty indeed. And it should not detract from our enjoyment of The Untouchable that Victor Maskell is modeled, hewn, and traced on this infamous figure (with the name a punning reference to this scholar), nor that many other characters, most notably Boy, have historical archetypes. Blunt was a spy, an art historian, a Communist, and a homosexual, basically in that order, and the proud Briton will always shudder at the mention of his name. Maskell knows very little about the cause he supposedly serves, probably because, for a spy, he is a very poor judge of man. An orphaned chapter segment prattles on about this anarchist, the idol of many a collegiate ignoramus, a quickly-abandoned tactic which, while oddly out of line with the narrative, spares us the stale biscuit aphorisms of the hidebound comrade. The passage is fake just like Marxism is fake, the lazy imposition of an artificial understanding on a world far more natural and complicated than even the most perspicacious Marxist could ever suspect. The only thing we are convinced of is Victor Maskell's utter selfishness, which he admits, his flimsy homosexuality (which, for most of the novel, he experiences vicariously through Boy), his family feelings (which he barely senses), and that the only thing he truly seeks is to imbue his life with some profundity, to be as memorable as the Poussin masterpieces he knows he can merely admire but never replicate.  

As in all of Banville, passages of extreme beauty grace page after page ("The Daimler .... vast, sleek, and intent, like a wild beast that had blundered into captivity and could only be let out, coughing and growling, on occasions of rare significance"; "We sat opposite each other ... in a polite, unexpectedly easy, almost companionable silence, like two voyagers sharing a cocktail before joining the captain's table, knowing we had a whole ocean of time before us in which to get acquainted"; "You will find my people at the top, or if not at the top, then determinedly scaling the rigging, with cutlasses in their teeth"), but to his credit Maskell does not drift into unabashed sentimentality, even when he fully succumbs to his genetic programming. And who is the female interlocutor in the quote beginning this review? One Serena Vandeleur (whose name recalls characters in both this novel and this one), in principle a young journalist yearning for a breakthrough as the biographer of an outcast, although Maskell has his suspicions about her true agenda. As, it should be said, he comes to have about everyone's agenda; such are the wages of duplicity. Perhaps he could just take a group photograph of his backstabbing brethren for his biography and title it The Shepherds of Arkady.

Wednesday
Oct122016

Der Verdacht

Novels are cumbersome beasts, for one very good reason: they are expected to coalesce into a solid shape. Modern novels have recognized this awkwardness and decided, rather stupidly, to eschew the tightness of structure altogether in favor of a hippie motto such as "life is a mess, so why shouldn't art be as well?" Surely, there are certain patterns in life, both salubrious and detrimental, and people can be wholly aware of the damage they are inflicting upon themselves and still persist in their bad habits (dating the wrong type of partners; smoking; picking arguments and criticizing others instead of ameliorating their own conditions; lamenting their lazy bourgeois fate). Yet few are those who assume the Archimedean point and absorb the wavelengths of their existence in their totality. When we reach the twilight of our days we may reflect on what has and has not passed, the opportunities forsaken or abused, the lives we touched and those we could not reach, but it takes a certain attitude to weave these threads into a tapestry. Much easier to leave it all in an untangled knot – and here I'm afraid I must dissent. I may walk the beach of my past, step gently into the spindrift, and recollect all at once every other moment in which I inhaled the sea air, but leaving the shreds of life in a corner unattended is beyond my capacity. Closure is not as important as knowing what lies at the heart of our machinations, a basic but paramount premise and one that fuels this fine novel.

Little can be expected of a dying protagonist, which might work to his advantage. We are therefore necessarily underwhelmed by the appearance of Bern police commissioner Hans Bärlach, a crusty, deathly ill old snoop whose faith in his own abilities wends its way through treacherous paths. For a large portion of the novel, Bärlach is bedridden and visited by a motley crew of colleagues: Hungertobel, his physician and friend, Gulliver, a ragamuffin behemoth and alcoholic, and Fortschig, a penniless, slightly mad writer of a feuilleton called the Apfelschuss (in the tradition of this Swiss hero). And it is precisely leafing through a magazine during bedrest that our Commissioner finds a picture of a certain Doctor Nehle who worked for some unwholesome forces at their worse outposts in the recently concluded Second World War. What is interesting about this Nehle, otherwise a common barbarian made famous by his cruelty, is his resemblance to a Doctor Emmenberger, who happens to run one of the choicest private clinics Switzerland has to offer. Sick and somewhat delirious, Bärlach pursues the likeness to the point of suggesting that this haphazard photo is anything but the residue of design and that Emmenberger and Nehle have much more in common.

Facts are then gathered: Emmenberger went off during the war to Chile, where he continued publishing esoteric articles and developing his fantastic career; Nehle, on the other hand, opted to serve the devil and would die by his own hand in a Hamburg hotel. His specialization were procedures without anesthesia, whose survival was rewarded with freedom – but he made sure that no one survived. No one, that is, except the giant Gulliver, a learned man of tremendous spirituality who one night tells Bärlach of his horrifying experiences in a torture camp:

This figure with countless victims on his conscience became something legendary, an outlaw, as if even the Nazis had been ashamed of their own. And yet Nehle lived on and no one doubted that he existed, not even the most diehard of atheists, because one most readily believes in a God who concocts devilish torments.

Putatively, Gulliver is talking about Nehle; but Emmenberger keeps surfacing as someone who could have attempted to force Nehle, a less cultured man with no classical education and an overly Berliner flavor to his German, to do his bidding. It just so happens that Hungertobel and Emmenberger were at medical school together, which leads Hungertobel to narrate a climbing accident from those years involving both doctors and three other young colleagues:

We knew full well that there was an emergency operation that could help, but no one dared think about it. Only Emmenberger understood and did not hesitate to act. He immediately examined the man from Lucerne, disinfected his knife in boiling water on the stove range and then performed an incision called a cricothyrotomy that occasionally has to be used in emergency situations in which the larynx is pierced between the Adam's apple and the cricoid to open up an air passage. This procedure was not the horrible part .... it was what was reflected in both their faces. The victim was almost numb owing to a lack of oxygen but his eyes were still open, wide open, and so he must have seen everything that happened, even if it all appeared to be a dream. And as Emmenberger made his incision, my God, Hans, his eyes also opened wide and his face became distorted; it was as if suddenly something devilish gleamed in his eyes, a kind of excessive pleasure in inflicting torture, or whatever you want to call it, a gleam so great that fear seized my every joint, if only for a second.

This description may be labeled a "filthy wealth of coincidence," and we can hope it is only that, even in the mid-twentieth century where such butchers were suddenly abundant. On the basis of the data from his two friends, Bärlach attempts to infiltrate Emmenberger's clinic as a terminally ill patient in need of special attention. Yet the attention he ultimately receives goes above and beyond any oath, Hippocratic or otherwise.

Some of us may think of Switzerland as a fecund and neutral land with persons of all ages and languages cycling around town on their red-and-white pillions (a quaint and lovely picture, and not wholly untrue). Dürrenmatt wisely refrains from destroying our paradise with hard-boiled noir based on cynicism, selfishness and skulduggery. What he presents, albeit shortly after a war in which his compatriots did not participate, is a soft haven, a reef amidst the endless storms of man's ambitions, a pocket of nature still susceptible to plots and craven silence. It is perhaps most telling that the novel does not harbor any pretense of ambiguity as to the guilty parties, nor really how matters will be settled. Suspense is replaced by the slow stream of the commissioner's suspicion, hence the title, and the elaborate details that compose its development. On several occasions the very sick Bärlach's doubts are gently dismissed as the whims of someone well on his way to his final destination, but the text's narrator never allows us for a minute to share in that doubt. One hundred twenty pages on a criminal about whose guilt we haven't the slightest reservation? Perhaps that's why the only person in the novel who claims the devil doesn't exist can neither speak nor hear.

Monday
Oct032016

What's Wrong With the World

Philosophy, we have heard many a time in many a formulation, is a luxury of the rich. A keenly true statement even if genuine philosophers tend to side with the poor because siding with the rich means endorsing what has already been accomplished – but I digress. It is no surprise that national suicide rates in peaceful places are often in direct proportion to two factors: the level of the country's economic development and the degree of its secularization, and the correlation seems frightfully clear. The closer to money and the farther from God, the more likely your earthly business will hasten you to contemplate closure and finality, and the less the smaller pleasures in life – which are, of course, really the greater pleasures – seem to be worthwhile. Readers of these pages know of my passion for Northern Europe and its pagan prosperity; they may also suspect that I have always believed in Something far greater than myself. How one might go about reconciling these ostensible incongruities is outlined in this fantastic book.

You may have heard the argument before, capitalism versus socialism, but you will have rarely heard it so eloquently summarized. Capitalism certainly has a handful of advantages, the most important of which is social mobility; after all, bloodlines and banquets were overthrown with the Bastille. The freedom of social mobility means allowing the poorest and hardest working to break their cycle of indigence and achieve a better life. But capitalism left unchecked becomes as ruthless and self-justifying as any evil prince wont to getting whatever he wishes, explaining his affluence with a terse motto from a coat of arms which, as it were, will uncannily resemble a company logo and slogan. Socialism, on the other hand, chokes these robber barons into sharing everything with everyone but then prevents anyone from enjoying it. This naturally has led in socialism's numerous earthbound manifestations to hoarding, complete and unwavering corruption, and an utter lack of trust in the government. Somewhere in between these distant towers lies paradise, the sane, Christian approach to society, and much of our problem has to do with how we have perceived the past:

There are two things, and two things only, for the human mind, a dogma and a prejudice. The Middle Ages were a rational epoch, an age of doctrine. Our age is, at its best, a poetical epoch, an age of prejudice. A doctrine is a definite point; a prejudice is a direction. That an ox may be eaten, while a man should not be eaten, is a doctrine. That as little as possible of anything should be eaten is a prejudice.

The modern mind, steeped in its bewildering ignorance, may snap a crooked smile at the notion that the Middle Ages – often darkened by their detractors – could have been anything in the way of rational. But they most certainly were. What needs to be clarified is the definition of rational. It is rational to want the salvation of man, and quite irrational to settle for his survival. It is also rational to change the world so that man's soul may flourish while it is grossly irrational to change man's soul so that the evils of the world may seem like logical inevitabilities. Rational and religious are held by some of these same unlearned contemporary thinkers as polar opposites, when any religious person will tell you how much more rational it is to believe that someone died for our sins two thousand years ago, someone who was both God and man, than to believe that a universe created itself billions of years ago out of absolutely nothing. That same religious person would tell you that the notion that our conscience is our guiding force through this life makes much more sense than claiming we are simply a very complex chemical experiment that can be shaken and stirred like an alembic. The corollary to such an understanding of the world, of course, is not that science and its shape-shifting pundits have replaced religion because the latter failed, but that religion never failed at all. In fact, says our author, even at the height of its dominion it was never close to attaining its ends.   

The ends of the Middle Ages can be attained with the help of, well, everyone. Democracy may have once been the rule of the people, but the people have grown unwieldy. Now we have nations of millions who elect hundreds to make decisions that will affect every home of one, two, three or more individuals. What the Middle Ages had, for better or worse, is a code of how things should be and how to make them that way; what we have now, greatly for the worse, is how things will be and how to make ourselves into those things. Instead of the world changing to suit the man, the man changes to suit the world, which leads to the very dastardly notion that man's position is to adapt, and that those who don't adapt were meant to die out anyway. Thus when industrialists get filthy rich, they drop the filthy and keep the rich. Their rise to the top is as pure and unchallengeable as the rise of a virtuous soul to heaven because that is where each of them rightly belongs. But how great amounts of money that no good person could ever possibly need have become equated with great amounts of beneficence that no bad person could ever endure is one of the most baffling mysteries of mankind. Then again, perhaps it is one of the simplest. The modern mind thinks religion has failed, when religion has not begun; the very modern mind thinks property has failed, when property was usually hoarded and thus also hardly begun. One tries to abolish the other and aggrandizes its own achievements as natural, when there is nothing more natural than a small, self-sufficient familial unit in a decent, safe home with enough food and enough space. And, it should be said, a certain amount of creative latitude:     

For the mass of men the idea of artistic creation can only be expressed by an idea unpopular in present discussions the idea of property. The average man cannot cut clay into the shape of a man; but he can cut earth into the shape of a garden; and though he arranges it with red geraniums and blue potatoes in alternate straight lines, he is still an artist because he has chosen. The average man cannot paint the sunset whose colors he admires; but he can paint his own house with what color he chooses, and though he paints it pea green with pink spots, he is still an artist because that is his choice. Property is merely the art of the democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self-expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and even small.

Something akin to such self-expression, wonderful to relate, has been facilitated by that awesome leveller of playing fields, the Internet, which doesn't quite allow everyone to see everything, but does allow most people to see most things, a few flights of steps in the right direction. Indiscretions and mistakes can really no longer be concealed, and personal tastes now rule our senses as if the ineluctable modality of the visible came equipped with a like button. You may opine, and you would not be entirely wrong, that both Chesterton's description and our current reality plagued by ego surfing and solipsistic rants suggest that permitting the simple man his motley home makes the man a narcissist. But a man is only a narcissist if he gladly comes home to a house full of mirrors. If he comes home, however, to be greeted by a partner and smaller versions of themselves, and if he understands that all that he does is for them and that they are his world, then he can create a love and life in his own image as love and life have been created for him.

As it is first absorbed, What's Wrong With the World, like many books of pure genius, seems as true and reliable as oxygen, so a clarification should be made regarding its portrayal of women. When Chesterton says that women should not vote, he means – and is probably correct – that if women really were the rulers of every household and every household were more important than any town or city, then voting for some local umbrella organization to see to the erection of a public house or a statue would strike a woman of even average intelligence as more than a bit daft. Since households have been replaced by statistics for household income and women have been given all the rights of men and women except their inalienable rights to be women and different, these same familial units, the backbone of any society, have crumbled into fractured ruins, roofless huts after the wrath of a tornado, and skinny shacks teetering on a precipice. Women are not inferior to men, but they are also not men. And the most important way in which they are not men is the only way we have been able to propagate our species and win a modicum of terrestrial immortality. The world's basic shortcoming is that we have demeaned the family, the notion of hard work and equitable payment, the notion of fairness and justice, the notion of ideals that will allow man's soul to bask in its innate glory, all in favor of a theory that what has happened was bound to happen and what will happen may be streamlined but cannot be stopped. And there is something very wrong in thinking that we live in a world that cannot be wrong simply because it is supposed to be inevitable.