Thursday
Oct202016

The Dead of August by Panayotis Cacoyannis, reviewed by Casey Dorman

The Dead of August

Panayotis Cacoyannis

Amazon Digital Services LLC

2013.

 

The esteemed critic and novelist William Gass once claimed that novels require stories, literature does not. The Dead of August has a story, and unlike some of Gass’ novels—Middle C, for instance—the story has a plot. But the plot is not what this novel is about. It’s about character, the nature of reality, and words. And the words are a pyrotechnic display, providing enough pleasure in themselves to satisfy readers who enjoy what Gass would call, “literature.” 

James Linthwaite is a an obituarist; he writes obituaries for the London Herald. We never get to read any of his obituaries, but we hear about them. They are about “the tortured souls of those middling celebrity types who do have a talent of sorts – on occasion even a talent to speak of - but whose needy ambition exponentially exceeds it.” And he writes these obituaries “euphemistically” using “vastly more subtle and sophisticated one-off inventions” to describe what otherwise would be tragic or tragic-comic lives, depending, probably, upon one’s sense of humor. In fact, an anonymous reviewer’s claim that “Mr Linthwaite is able to wrest a sense of the perversely comic tragedy of existence, and through the paradox which his subjects embody, distil the very essence of our lives - of what it is, so absurdly, to be human,” is an almost perfect description of what Cacoyannis provides us in The Dead of August and its story of James, his acquaintances and his family.

James’ life is, for no particular reason except perhaps middle age ennui, if not disintegrating, at least sinking low enough to raise troubling questions in his mind. Why do he and his wife never have sex anymore? Does she value him or his work? Why is his son so contemptuous of him? His wife accuses him  of being “too abstract, …My focus was soft. My perception was fuzzy. I never paid attention.” In his words he’s a “Bigger Picture man.” In fact he regards that as the “hub of my character, and much more encompassing than a mere trait.” But in truth, the fact of the forest eludes him as he gazes at the trees.

Does James misunderstand himself? Probably no more than the next person, although he ponders the question more deeply (though without penetrating its surface), and with brilliant, often hilarious and sometimes perversely euphemistic, inner dialogue to which we are privy because of the first person narrative. But he understands his peers and family even less than he understands himself, and they appear to understand themselves not terribly more than he does. James’ real problem seems to be that this all too human characteristic of failing do understand what is happening within or around him leads him to passively accept the directions provided by others; he does not take charge of his own life.

The plot of the novel is simple, but inventive. A mysterious invitation to attend a week-long “happening” at the country home of a wealthy recluse arrives. Without anyone ever saying what the happening is to be, James is urged by his wife and editor (whom he suspects are having an affair) to head to the country for a week and attend the event. He has no inner sense of whether he should or should not go, he vacillates, makes up his mind not to then changes his mind to fit a minor conversational exigency and ends up going. Prior to that, we are treated to a dizzying sequence of meetings with his editor, with the sports writer who will take over the obituaries during his absence, with the sports writer’s sister, to whom James is attracted. None of these people proves to be whom he or she first appears to be.

Once at the country estate of the eccentric, who has assumed an identity as “Max,” we learn that the man is planning a happening at an avant garde gallery and that James is one of three people who, over a period of time, have been invited for a week to visit Max and pen a 900 word obituary of him.

We can guess that the “happening” will include Max’s demise, but James, faithful to type, fails to anticipate this. At any rate, the actual event doesn't occur until a year after James is thrown out of his house by his wife, with the help of his son, for reasons he of course fails to comprehend. In fact, his understanding is hampered by his focus upon details at the expense of the “Bigger Picture,” showing us how little James understands himself.

In the end, Max commits suicide  during the happening, James is shocked but uses his debilitating reaction to wangle his way back into the good graces (and house) of his wife, and is back writing his obituaries, but this time less worried about his sex life, the wanderings of his wife, and has taken up an affair with the owner of the gallery (who was at one time a lesbian, the object of desire of the unsuspecting dictatorial editor, and has now reverted to heterosexuality). The editor, with whom James had suspected his wife was having an affair, accidentally suffocates himself while attempting a sexual scene copied from James’ wife’s best-selling pornographic book. James is taken by surprise, another intricate example of his misapprehension of the character of those around him. James finally decides not to be untrue to his wife, and the book ends with a titillating suggestion that he had been right all along about his wife’ affair with his editor.

In Cacoyannis’ novel Bowl of Fruit (1907), Jack Faro, the protagonist, searches for an identity by copying that of others—Picasso, Kafka— and then learns that everything he thought was true about himself and his history was not. James Linthwaite is continually learning that everything he thought about the people around him was wrong, or at least only a glimpse of one side of them. He never quite addresses his own lack of self-understanding and as a result, he never grasps the forces that are propelling him hither and thither. I’ve read enough reviews of The Dead of August to realize that such a character irritates or even angers some readers, who demand the main character of a novel be more “appealing.” I would hazard the suggestion that such readers are denying, or at least underestimating, the degree to which James is each of us. He never realizes that he doesn’t have a clue why he does what he does or what is “happening” around him, but do I dare say, most of us don’t either? It’s a painful realization, but one that Cacoyannis presents with brilliant, verbally glistening humor. It was a book that, for me,  was an immense pleasure to read.

Casey Dorman

Wednesday
Sep282016

After the Gonads Stop Snapping: Daniel Klein's "Travels with Epicurus" reviewed by Casey Dorman

Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life

Daniel Klein

New York: Penguin Books (2012)

 

When I was a very young man, having just earned my degree and secured my first full-time job as a psychologist, I was given the assignment to consult to a preschool class for disturbed children taught by a woman in her late sixties. She not only shared her teaching philosophy with me, but also her views on life. One day I remarked on how broadly she seemed to consider her life in relation to the world around her. She offered that, it was wonderful how well one was able to think about things, “after the gonads stop snapping.”

Daniel Klein (Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, The History of Now) expresses a similar point of view, not so comically, but in a more reasoned way, in his 2012 book, Travels with Epicurus.” He talks about libido “having run its natural course.” Waning libido is not the central theme of Klein’s remarkable book, but allowing oneself to age gracefully and thoughtfully is.  He mentions a friend, who at age 73, had gotten prescriptions for both testosterone supplements and Cialis and who “felt like a young buck again.” Klein is skeptical, not about the truth of his friend’s report, but about the wisdom of trying to prolong or recapture youth. There is a natural rhythm, he says, in the way an older person walks slowly, takes rests, sits and thinks, spends time with friends, and mostly, enjoys the moments, rather than experiencing them as stepping stones on the way to some future goal.

In his early seventies, Klein revisited the Greek Island of Hydra, familiar to him from many earlier visits. His visit was “… a personal quest: I am an old man myself now—seventy-three—and I want to figure out the most satisfying way to live this stage of my life.” His inspiration was the fourth century BC, Greek philosopher, Epicurus, founder of a well known school called “The Garden” in Athens. In fact it was my own interest in Epicurean philosophy that originally attracted me to Klein’s book.

Epicurus is a remarkable and underrated philosopher, the latter fact being due to the paucity of his surviving writings. A believer in Democritus’ notion of the atom as the basis of all matter, his universe is infinite and nothing can be either created or destroyed, except in the momentary form it takes from the configuration of its atoms. While he does not deny the existence of gods, he views them neither as creators of the universe nor as meddlers in its course. For Epicurus there is no life after death. The soul resides within the body and when the body dies, the soul’s atoms are no longer attached to the person; they dissipate as an entity.  “Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved is devoid of sensation, and that which is devoid of sensation is nothing to us.” Much of his philosophy is based on the principle of not fearing death, nor bargaining with gods regarding a fictional afterlife. “Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are not terrors for them in ceasing to live.”

Epicurus is remarkable in a number of ways: Unlike virtually any of the ancient philosophers I have read, he is able to suspend judgment. He cites various natural phenomena—the stars, the movement of the stars, the wind, hurricanes, thunder, lightning, rainbows, lunar haloes, earthquakes and admits that the sense impressions we have from them (sense impressions, he believes,  being the source of our explanations) lead to many contradictory explanations and do not provide, in his time, a conclusive argument for any particular explanation. So the explanation of such phenomena is left open, to be decided by future observations. He is a naturalist and an empiricist when he says, “we must attend to present feelings and sense perceptions, whether those of mankind in general or to those peculiar to the individual and also to attend to all the clear evidence available, as given by each of the standards of truth.” This seems to me to be a stance that could support the development of science.

Daniel Klein is less concerned with Epicurus’ natural philosophy than with his social philosophy. Epicurus believed that happiness is the ultimate goal of living. “So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since if that be present, we have everything, and if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.”  But, in contrast to our modern-day use of the word “epicurean,” the ancient philosopher meant a more measured and sober pursuit of pleasure. “When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life,; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.”

Klein notes that Epicurus directed much of his attention to old age. He quotes Epicurus saying, “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate, but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.” Klein notes that Epicurus discourages wanting not only that which is unattainable, but also that which is so difficult to attain that it is not worth the trouble. Simple pleasures, Klein learns while on Hydra, are often easily attained. Enjoying the simple dinner that is readily available brings more pleasure than yearning for a more sumptuous and expensive one. Walking slowly, even with a stick, can bring a pleasure that hurrying, while one’s mind dwells on the destination, rather than the journey, cannot. And perhaps above all, spending time with friends is a pleasure uniquely satisfied in old age. Why uniquely, because, as Klein points out, “Wanting nothing from one’s friends is fundamentally different from the orientation of a person who is still immersed in professional life or its relationships.” He quotes Epicurus: “Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.”

Travels with Epicurus is a window into the musings of a 73 year old, intelligent, humorous, man, searching for the wisdom to guide his elder years before, in his words, old old age hits him. We sit with him in the Taverna, watching his friend Tasso, of a similar age, playing cards or talking to his friends, also old men with time on their hands, we observe with him other islanders going about their daily business, we watch Tasso and his friends admire a 19 year old beauty and joke about the beauties they have known in earlier years. Each of Klein’s observations is the occasion for reflection: on the pleasures of the people he is watching and on his own enjoyments and thoughts.

Klein began his journey after being told by his dentist that he needed dental implants. Either he must endure a year containing several painful dental surgeries and periods of recovery as he has his precariously balanced teeth removed and replaced or he will soon lose those teeth and require a denture, impairing his ability to eat some food and giving him “the unmistakable clunky smile of an old man.” Despite his initial choice to opt for the implants, he reconsidered, asking himself, “In my early seventies did I really care if I presented to the world and old man’s goofy smile? And even more to the point, with my years of clear thinking and reasonable mobility dwindling as quickly as my jawbone, did I honestly want to dedicate an entire year to regular visits to an oral surgeon?” He did not. Instead he decided to explore how best to live as a seventy-three year old man.

Most of us will never spend a month on the island of Hydra, probably not on any Greek island, for that matter. But some of us can afford a life of leisure in our old age, not necessarily an opulent one, but one which allows us to do things that we find pleasurable. Following Daniel Klein along on his journey to find what brought him happiness, was worthwhile. He and Epicurus and many other philosophers and thinkers whom he quoted learned that, especially as one gets older, it is the doing that is pleasurable, not some end to be attained if the doing is successful. And Klein takes special care to be sure that the doing fits not only what he enjoys, but what he is capable of doing at his age. For those like him who enjoy thinking and reading, much is available. Companionship is available to many and Klein shows us how to enjoy it by treating, in Kantian terms, our friends as ends not as means.

Epicurus is sometimes regarded as a Stoic and sometimes as the opposite of a Stoic. It is unstoical to seek pleasure in every action. But it is in line with stoicism to find one’s happiness in reasoning, in sober, prudent living, in enjoying what is available rather than striving after what might never be attained or attained only with great difficulty. Klein seems to see this Epicurean approach to life as a perfect fit for old age. When we are younger, we still are driven by goals, by ambition and yes, by our gonads. But pleasure is there for the taking even in our seventies and probably beyond. When he contemplates old old age, Klein is pessimistic. Death does not provoke dread, but  such ailments as dementia, incontinence, and chronic pain do. He muses about the choice of suicide and when to take such an action if that is one’s choice.

Traveling with Epicurus is a thoughtful book, one that can help to attain an insight into how to make one’s elder years pleasant ones. I almost said “meaningful” but that term has too many somber and profound connotations to fit the message of this book or Epicurus’ philosophy. Finding happiness in old age is not about leaving a legacy, not about making one’s impact extend beyond one’s life. It is about doing what brings pleasure and a sense that one is right with one’s conscience and one’s world. To me, that is a goal well worth seeking and this is a book well worth reading.

Wednesday
Sep142016

The Flesh and the Mortar Prophecy by Nathan Hassall, reviewed by Jeff Cannon

Nathan Hassall’s new collection of poems entitled, The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy, is far from an imaginary romp into the bizarre realms of madness. It is a deep and penetrating journey into the meaning of fleshy being that includes the poet and engages the reader. The author’s poems relate to each other in such a way that each one offers another clue to the descent into finding true consciousness: the way painted trees point out which path to take deeper into the forest.

Hassall is another explorer who marks a way for us to navigate the perilous and porous walls between madness and sanity; imprisonment and freedom. Read the preface. There, Hassall provides the reader with not only an intriguing background but more importantly a helpful framework for the reader to better jump into and engage these provocative poems.

This is a tightly written little chapbook. Its sharp, succinct words, sometimes rhymed, often free flowing, punctuate brisk paced verses. Each one has its own descriptive character and meditative tone, yet does not stand alone. Each poem relates to the others to form a distinctive and cohesive poetic piece. The sound of each one resonates with trembling urgency. As well, there is the pulse of revelations, Johannine apocalyptic, with a sprinkle of Mephistopheles. Lastly, there is more than a pinch of old time English asylum life and the physically wrenching and spirit wracked torment of finding a centered life and living it.

Ambivalence runs rampant with its antagonisms wrestling the reader. She or he gets pulled from one poetically descriptive tussle to another. Just when they might think they are free, Hassall reminds them that despite the fact “…the present clears…arms do not forget their shackles.” With the next bout the reader discovers “…the heart bleeds like sap, trickles to the roots, awakens hope.”

Here, body, spirit, soul and heart with their physical agony combine with the anguished mind to become wrapped in the metaphor of illness: one Susan Sontag deftly described in her prose book of the same name. Here they mingle and deliver not only the poet but also the reader to a place both discover where “…a familiar man… looks into me trembles, ‘welcome back’ ”.

Magic happens here. First, as every journey has clues, this one seeks keys that lock and unlock. With each twist of their iron fingers they change the adventure from ambiguous darkness to starry light or the wish for ‘comfort of frost just beyond the Asylum gates’. Second, pronouns join the fray. ‘I’, ‘your’ and ‘you’ play the Trickster dancing their own mischief throughout this work. Yet, the author, protagonist, is not undaunted. He proclaims near the end despite everything that has already transpired and what is yet to come: “I want to be aware, and I want to be awake.”

Another vital element that subtly augments Hassall’s poetry is Rachael Tester’s art work. Here artistic forms blend sound and visual image to stir dark shades of madness. Its Goth hues create a swirling stew that simmers into its own destination. Tester’s offerings not only compliment, but also with graceful presence, accent the work in a wonderful way.

Hassall’s The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy is an ingenious work. Stark poetic images unlock so many levels of individual madness and sanity. Yet the personal voice breaks through the restraints of the self. Its echo becomes an icebreaker that frees one to reach into the collective and social realm. It liberates meaning beyond the tiny, insulated island of individualism - hopefully for the better. I find this an intriguing and provocative work. It unlocked past crisis times for me. Unafraid, I could open those doors and re-enter those places to be more “aware and awake” myself!

BIO: Review by Jeff Cannon, poet and author of “Passionate Leaves’ (Chapbook, 2008, 2009, self- published), Intimate Witness: The Carol Poems (2009, Goose River Press), Eros Faces of Love and Finding the Father at Table, 2010, X-libris).

The Flesh and Mortar Prophecy is available at Amazon.com  CLICK HERE

Tuesday
Sep062016

Reflections on Salvation by Kiriti Sengupta, reviewed by Boudhayan Mukherjee

 

Title: Reflections on Salvation

Author: Kiriti Sengupta

Page: 48 [Paperback] First ed. July, 2016

Published by: Transcendent Zero Press (Houston, Texas)

ISBN-13: 978-0996270465

Price: 8.00 US Dollars

 

 

 

The Sreemad Bhagavad Gita (Gita in short) is a narration in the form of 699 Sanskrit verses, contained in 18 chapters, which were composed between 7th and the 6th centuries B.C. and later incorporated into the great Indian epic, The Mahabharata. Gita depicts the dialogue of Arjuna, the great Pandava warrior-prince with the Hindu avatar Lord Krishna. The entire dialogue between them took place on the war-field of Kurukshetra; Krishna trying to convince Arjuna why he should shake off his inhibitions to fight against his own cousins and relatives, the Kauravas. The discourse has been aimed to establish that if actions are performed with an unattached mind, then their defects cannot touch the performer. It is a two-person conversation about Philosophy and yogic principles as opposed to a treatise of battle. Lord Krishna insists that the righteous man will be focused on actions and will not be concerned about the fruits of action (results). By this will come detachment and attainment of godliness. No action should aim at personal benefit and thus, this would lead to the liberation of the mind and finally, renunciation. Gita is, in fact, a many-layered synthesis of ideas and interpretations.

The Gita is the strongest pillar of Vedic teachings, which the greatest minds of the world, both of the East and the West have acknowledged. It is of course the holy book of the Hindus, just like The Bible or The Quran. It is the Hindu custom to read out the slokas (verses) to one who is on the verge of death.  And finally to place an abridged edition of The Gita on the chest of the dead body on its way to the funeral. This is an external measure that makes sure that the deceased attains “salvation” by the grace of the holy text. But there are a few questions that stir a thinking mind. How many Indians, or more specifically Hindus have actually read The Gita? Do the Dalits, the economically downtrodden mass, or the illiterate multitudes of India know about its existence? Is the scripture meant only for the high-cast, the patrons of wealth and power, the so-called scholars and now the political Chanakyas? The sacrosanct scripture has no use for the rag-tags, alas! More so, it has no bearing in the life of our younger generation, who are deeply engrossed in the luxury of materialistic comforts, inappropriate imitation of the Western lifestyle and sometimes super-hedonism.

Kiriti Sengupta’s Reflections on Salvation has probably been written against the said backdrop. Sengupta is a known poet who has a wide range of published works to his credit. The aura of spirituality has always touched his poetry and it is no surprise that he will center on The Gita to ask relevant questions that must have haunted him during the course of his literary ventures. The chapbook is comprised of 18 poetic prose pieces of “anecdotal wisdom that serves to both illuminate and discuss the paradox of faith.” It often questions the logic of the teachings as laid down in The Gita, especially about action without aspiring about a fruitful result, the hypocrisy involved in the act of renunciation, the absurdity in the realm of salvation or moksha. Scriptures of all religions are flawed with their infallible instructions and authoritative dictum. The common man is barely encouraged to question, but to follow them as blindly as possible. The priest or the clergy entertains no questions about the sacrosanct teachings. Religion is made to play an evil role even in the 21st century, causing marked destruction and blood-shed everyday.

But the common man in India cannot shrug off religion completely. Sengupta writes, “I’m aware of a few families who give away funds to the monks and carefully preserve the receipts of their donation. Donors are proud owners of such receipts as those are useful to claim income-tax-exemption. (“Return”)” Indeed! It is also a means to convert black-money into white.

Sengupta believes that “salvation is but enlightenment, achievable only by actions and through your sensory gateways.” He is doubly sure that every action deserves a positive result, which the performer is keen to secure. Sengupta writes further, “Why won’t I dream of eating mangoes if I plant or intend to plant a mango tree?” He hardly believes in afterlife. In “Stagecraft” Sengupta says, “Pleasure of exploring and realizing the unknown arrives only through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue or skin.” He also refutes the advice in The Gita that if you “stop meditating, you are only giving up your zeal to carry it on” and therefore, as the holy text suggests, “benefits would be nullified. (“Meditation”)” This warning is notorious.

There are many such gems in this well-produced book. The foreword by Casey Dorman is a very well-written piece that also contains a candid discussion about the book and his personal opinion about the merits of such a book. The highly interesting post-script by Alan Jankowski followed by an interview of the author by the publisher, Dustin Pickering, are added attractions of this creative enterprise. A must read book by the innovative Kiriti Sengupta who has chosen prose instead of poetry to express his take on religious misconceptions.

 

 

*Boudhayan Mukherjee is a published poet and translator who resides in Calcutta. He has authored six books of poetry and has also taught creative writing. 

Friday
Aug192016

Michel Houellebecq's "Submission" reviewed by Casey Dorman

SUBMISSION

By Michel Houellebecq

Translated from the French by Lorin Stein

251 pp. William Heinemann (2015)

Michel Houellebecq’s Submission not only was published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, but a caricature of the author was on the cover of that week’s issue of the magazine. Because the novel dealt with a fictional takeover of France by a Muslim political party and attacked the society that made such an outcome welcome, Houellebecq and his publisher ended that infamous day under police protection from angry French citizens. Even outside of this context, as in Heller McAlpin’s NPR review, Submission has generated as much wrath as it has admiration. McAlpin titled her review, “Don’t take Submission lying down,” a message she directed at women readers because of the novel’s misogynist content, and she described the book as “discomfiting if not downright offensive,” and “too distasteful to be amusing.”

I picked up Submission from an airport bookstore, attracted by the author’s name, because I had previously read and reviewed three of his books in Lost Coast Review, titling my review, “French Nihilism.” Those earlier books, each of which angered some reviewers, particularly American women, as much as this one, left me with the impression that Houellebecq was, as he described himself, a “realist,” who accepted the meaningless of existence and had not found any hopeful alternative to a view that, as I said in my review, is “so deeply pessimistic about the human condition that … its only virtue [is] the brief enjoyment of youth and sexuality, both of which, even as they are being enjoyed, are permeated by the knowledge that with every day, the process of aging is eating away at this only source of happiness.”

Francois, the protagonist of Submission, is turning 44 and seems to have made little or no progress beyond the dilemma in which each of the protagonists of Houellebecq’s earlier novels found himself. In fact, the reality of his condition—his fading interest in sexuality, his loss of enthusiasm for his area of scholarly expertise (the study of the 19th century French novelist Joris-Karl Huysman, who endured a similar loss of meaning to his life before converting to Catholicism), his lack of feeling for either of his parents, and his vapid social life—has left him nearly nonfunctional in his occupation as a college professor and close to suicide.

In the middle of this slowly disintegrating existence, Francois is forced to turn his attention to the French political situation. The novel is set in 2022, in a France in which the secular and philosophically detached elite, who determine the state of the country’s culture, are, in Francois’ mind, floundering nearly as much as he is. In fact, as in his earlier books, it is Houellebecq’s characterization of the French society in this way, and in particular, his insistence that his protagonists are typical modern day French intellectuals, that is a major source of anger for his reviewers. The author is absolutely clear that he is characterizing the French in Submission. As the civil situation unravels and militants attack each other, when explosions are heard throughout Paris, when bodies are found brutally murdered in the streets, the faculty cocktail parties continue undisturbed and the conversations rarely touch on the chaos erupting around them.

Politically, in the presidential elections, Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party fails to win a majority and coming in second is the Muslim Brotherhood, led by a charismatic and pragmatic man who is able to convince the Socialists and the Center Right to fall in behind his leadership to defeat the National Front. What follows is the imposition of Muslim values on the workforce (women are sent home, men take up the slack and unemployment is erased), drastic alteration of the educational system (public school ends at age 12 and private, religious schools take their place for further education and much of the state budget deficit disappears), the Sorbonne becomes an Islamic institution and only male Muslims are allowed to teach (but thanks to Saudi oil money, salaries skyrocket and teachers are allowed, in fact encouraged to take several wives). Throughout France polygamy is encouraged for those who convert to Islam, and women are encouraged to dress conservatively.

In the midst of this drastic change in power in France, Francois loses his professorship at the Sorbonne. He is offered an opportunity to edit a new collection and critique of Huysmans’ work, and he retraces the historical author’s steps to the religious community of Rocamadour to see the Black Virgin, a sacred wooden icon from the Middle Ages. Although he experiences a moment of deep spiritual feeling when he views the statue, it is neither sufficient nor intimate enough to envelop him and he comes away not only feeling estranged from Huysmans, but convinced that his literary hero’s conversion was a matter of trading isolation and the boredom of a civil service job for the comfort of living the life of a Catholic Oblate, dedicated to the Church and writing. In Francois’ mind, Huysman’s choice was one dictated by materialism and the depressing futility of a life spent going Against the Grain of French society (the title of Huysmans most successful pre-conversion novel).

Francois’ revelation about his literary mentor is enough to fuel his own decision to convert to Islam. There are many aspects of the religion that appeal to his biases—male dominance being one of the most salient—but the bottom line is that it allows him to work, to earn more than he has ever earned in the past and to have access to stimulating sex via a marriage to several young wives. Just because he is a French intellectual, he has no competing faith with which to rebut the appeal of Islam. He also sees, in its complete ordering of society as well as in its tenets of faith, the answer to most of society’s ills.

Much of Submission is tongue in cheek. Francois himself is a caricature, an intellectual with a single arcane area of expertise and virtually no knowledge or interest in other aspects of the world. He is both cynical and naïve. His comments on the human condition and on the society around him are worthy of a standup comic. On the verge of a mystical, hallucinatory experience while viewing the Black Virgin, he concludes “Or maybe I was just hungry. I’d forgotten to eat the day before, and possibly what I should do was go back to my hotel and sit down to a few ducks’ legs instead of falling down between the pews in an attack of mystical hypoglycaemia.” When Francois considers his career, he remarks, “The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time.” One of my favorite of Francois’ observations was that “It’s hard to understand people, to know what’s hidden in their hearts, and without the assistance of alcohol it might never be done at all.”

Houllebecq’s character, Francois, thinks he’s discovered the fundamental appeal of Islam to the French. It’s an appeal common to all religions, which is why the French Catholics do not seem alarmed. As one of his female colleagues’ husband, a former spy and self-proclaimed student of Islam and the Middle East, tells him, “For these Muslims, the real enemy—the thing they fear and hate—isn’t Catholicism. It’s secularism. It’s laicism. It’s atheistic materialism. They think of Catholics as fellow believers. Catholicism is a religion of the Book. Catholics are one step away from converting to Islam—that’s the true, original Muslim version of Christianity.” And it's French secularism, the nonbelief buoyed up by philosophical disapproval of faith, that is the real target of Houllebecq’s novel. Not so much because it creates a vulnerability to a fundamentalist, patriarchal religion such as Islam, which speaks to the human need for order, reasons, simplistic explanations and blind faith, but because secularism is a state of mind that characterizes Houllebecq’s view of the world and he has never found, within it, a counter to the depressing meaninglessness that seems to plague the characters in his novels.

Francois’ acceptance of Islam is clearly a submission, but only partly to the sense of meaning that accompanies any comprehensive world view, such as the one Islam provides. His acceptance is also a submission to the mechanical wheels of materialism that the Muslim Brotherhood has harnessed in its implementation of Islam in France. He will not only regain his professorship, he will increase his salary threefold, and, very importantly for Francois, he will obtain at least three subservient and probably teenage or barely above, wives. As it is explained to him, women are attracted to power and resources. If those men who are most successful in gaining power or wealth are allowed more wives, the women are satisfied because they get what they desire, and those men who have the most talent, and thus the most power and resources, will contribute more offspring to the genepool, thus insuring a constant improvement of the human race. For Francois, and perhaps Houellebecq, secularism provides no competitive argument to these principles.

And that is Houellebecq’s point.

Houellebecq has made the point before that a secular, materialistic stance is not sustainable. His novels trace the outcome of such a stance in his characters, who either lose themselves in a focus upon materialism, fall prey to false prophets, embark upon futile quests for human connection, or succumb to anomie. Francois is no different. While he preserves himself by submitting to Islam, we’re not really able to take his submission seriously. The impression is that he is simply too tired and lost to fight a system that controls the necessities of his life. He welcomes both Islam’s comforting worldview and the material perks that go with the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of Islam. But Francois is not a real person. He knows nothing about politics, the world, or history beyond his narrow focus upon one historical literary figure. His male chauvinism is blatant, crude and satirical. His values appear to be fluid and his lack of engagement with anyone on more than a superficial level is almost autistic, while his knowledge of his own emotional life is nonexistent. His own view that he is “normal” and “typical” is what angers other French intellectuals, who do not see themselves in him.

Francois is a caricature, but does he represent the endpoint of secularism taken to an extreme? In short, is he where France (and perhaps Europe) is headed? That the intellectual left, while being the dominant force in French culture, has no real message, leader, or answer to either rising nativist nationalism or the ominous undercurrent of fundamentalist Islam that characterizes some immigrant communities, may be true. The nativists, particularly in the form the National Front, may win the day, particularly if European immigration policies spawn more terrorist attacks. The likelihood of a viable Muslim Brotherhood-like political movement winning any sizeable portion of the electorate is pure fantasy and a device Houellebecq uses to provide an extreme example for his plot. But the vulnerabilities of the secular culture, which he identifies, may be real. We can see it in the frightened reactions Marine Le Pen has mined to drum up support for her party. We can see it in the acceptance of bigoted stances toward tokens of Islam, such as the wearing of headdresses or more recently the “burkini” flap in Cannes and other Riviera cities. Instead of liberté being the hallmark of French culture, something called “Frenchness” is—an insistence that French identity be protected by restrictions on clothing and language, that secularism be preserved by attacking tokens of religious belief (though always Muslim, rather than Christian tokens). These instances are signs of a cultural point of view that is failing to assert its assets and instead is falling back on defenses against what it considers its threats. Does that mean that it is an empty point of view, one that works when it is battling alternatives, but that ultimately leads nowhere?

My suspicion is that Houellebecq thinks so.

 

 

Wednesday
Jul062016

Novels of Identity: Bowl of Fruit (1907) and Fire in the Blood

During the 1960’s, which for me were my young adult formative years, the world seemed to be rapidly changing—as much as it is changing now. In 1959, the Communists led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, overthrew the repressive Batista government in Cuba and took over the island. In 1961 the Berlin wall was erected, dividing communist East Berlin from democratic West Berlin. In Algeria, a long series of battles and terror activities supported by demonstrating French students, intellectuals and Algerians (some of who were massacred by French police), resulted in de Gaulle giving Algeria its freedom, an act which was followed by terrorist reprisals from the OAS, the French paramilitary organization that wanted to keep Algeria a colony. In Northern Ireland, the “troubles” were beginning, and of course in America, we had the Vietnam War, which split the country into factions of left vs. right, young vs. old, and the civil rights movement, finally bringing the government sanctioned discrimination of African-Americans into the public’s consciousness. A series of assassinations took away John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King.

Throughout these tumultuous years, which for me involved political activity ranging from campaigning for Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, to street protests against the Vietnam War, I and many other young Americans were turned both inward and outward. Our actions were outward—some of us protesting, others serving in the military—but our attention was also directed inward. As we came of age we found ourselves questioning not just the wisdom and authority of our parents and their generation, as young people had done throughout history, but the morality of our country and its leaders, as well as others on the world scene. Defining ourselves became the task of adolescence and young adulthood.

What we were reading had this dual inward/outward orientation—Jean Paul Sartre, whose major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness addressed personal definition and responsibility, psychologist Erik Erikson, who analyzed identity formation as a stage of development, Black activists like Eldridge Cleaver and novelist James Baldwin who explored black identity, the ravages of discrimination and the need to respond to it. How we responded to social events was intimately connected to who we were, and who we were transcended the immediate social environment: it included our sexuality, our use of drugs (which were then part of learning about ourselves), our choice of occupations, our tastes in music and films. Learning about ourselves was a necessary part of our commitment to the society around us. And our novels reflected this focus: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Slaughterhouse Five, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22, Giovanni’s Room, Herzog, the list goes on.

Panayotis Cacoyannis’ novel, Bowl of Fruit (1907), published in 2015, brought back to me that topic of identity and how, in the hands of a good novelist, it can be explored in such a way that it both entertains and touches the reader’s own struggle with self-definition, which, as I will later discuss in talking about Fire in the Blood, never is finished. The title of the novel, “Bowl of Fruit (1907)” is the title of a painting, the first of many completed by the book’s protagonist, Jack Faro, or as he calls himself during the stage of his life captured in the novel, Leon Cheam. The painting is a Picasso—not a reproduction or an imitation, but a “real” Picasso, painted by Londoner, Jack Faro, who produced a series of such paintings, beginning when he was 13 and lasting until he grew tired of being someone else. As a child, at the behest of his father and because of a peculiar internal attraction, Jack had steeped himself in the paintings and life of Pablo Picasso. He was compelled to paint works that not only looked as if they had been painted by Picasso, but which reflected the subject matter of the periods of Picasso’s life during which they might have been painted, sometimes to the point that critics claimed they represented the paintings Picasso should have painted at that point in his life.

When Jack stopped painting, in order to do something that reflected himself, not someone else, he began writing. But Jack, who had changed his name to Leon Cheam, only read one author: Franz Kafka. He had become so absorbed in Kafka that he had transformed his own house into the room in which Kafka’s Metamorphosis takes place. But alas, his stories sounded exactly as if they were written by Kafka.

At the point in his life when the 40 year old Leon is giving up on writing, because when he forces himself to write as himself, he is unhappy with the product, he meets Anna Tor, a Chilean-born ghost writer who wants to write his biography (or more accurately, ghost write his autobiography). Anna, who resembles Leon in many ways, including having been born in Chile in the same hospital and on the same date as he, knows more about Leon’s heritage than does he. His father had an affair with Anna’s mother, although they are not sister and brother. His own mother was a Chilean activist who was killed by the Pinochet government soon after Leon (then Jack, but called Angel) was born. The baby Jack was spirited out of the country to England by his father and Mary, his father’s wife, who adopted him.

Leon (aka Jack) and Anna rapidly fall in love and spend a night in which Leon’s background is revealed to him, including the enigmatic fact that his mother left a small note to him with a replica of a Picasso picture drawn on it.

The protagonist of Bowl of Fruit (1907) desperately wants to find out who he is, and exit the cycle of being a talented mimic of a famous painter or writer, even though his choice of whom to mimic appears connected in some profound way to who he really is. He is only able to become himself when he and Anna, who is also intimately connected to his own background, commit themselves to writing his real story, confusing as it is.

I found Cacoyannis’ novel eminently readable, a story written with elegance and simplicity of style, yet with a circuitous plot containing deep psychological implications. In the end, when Leon’s/Jack’s discoveries about himself leave as many questions unanswered as answered,  the novel seemed to me to be a valid reflection of the insubstantiality, the mystery, and ultimately, the importance of constantly searching for who we are.

While Bowl of Fruit (1907) focuses upon the question of how one’s beginnings and heritage indelibly color the identity one forges as one becomes an adult, Irène Némirovsky’s Fire in the Blood, written in 1941-42, is about the changing of self as one ages. Sylvestre, or Silvio, as he is known, is somewhere post-60 years old. We are introduced to him as the narrator, a reclusive older “uncle” and close friend of the about to be married Colette and her parents Hélène and Francois, all who live in the French countryside near Bordeaux. There are hints of Silvio’s more than fondness for Hélène, but they are vague and understated, greatly overshadowed by his adoration of Colette and Hélène’s attachment to Francois. Colette is marrying Jean, who has inherited his father’s mill and lands, and she hopes to have a marriage that mirrors the absolute devotion and happiness of her parents. But Colette is too full of life for the retiring Jean and as the story unfolds Silvio discovers that Colette is having an affair with Marc, a local womanizer, who it turns out is also having an affair with Brigitte, a young woman, who, as a baby was abandoned by her mother and raised by Hélène’s half-sister. Brigitte is married to a rich farmer Silvio’s age, who is ailing.

When Colette’s husband Jean mysteriously drowns, the fabric of hidden relationships in the small community begins to unravel. Jean, it turns out was murdered. When Francois learns of this he tries to convince Colette, his daughter to go to the police. But it turns out that Marc killed Jean, after Brigitte, out of jealousy, had informed Jean about Marc and Colette’s affair. Brigitte is in fact a love-child of Silvio and Hélène, who when they had their brief affair, was married to an older man who was ailing. We see the dynamics of the parents being played out by the children, although with no or only dim awareness by the children of the parallels or of the relationships that support them. Silvio, who, along with Hélène, is the only one who knows everything, ends up reflecting upon the changes that brought him from the fiery, impulsive, adventurous and love-seeking young man who fathered Brigitte (whom he was not aware was his daughter until now), to become the sedentary, reclusive old man who now urges caution. Both he and Hélène, he muses, have become completely different people, a change everyone goes through, but to which they rarely give credence, as they gaze with incomprehension on the profligacies of the young. He casts a wistful look backward at the man he once was, and indeed at the young Hélène with whom he fell in love.

It has been a long while since I have read a novel that dealt with the issue of personal identity as explicitly as either Bowl of Fruit (1907) or Fire in the Blood. That the two novels were written nearly 75 years apart and in totally different circumstances attests to the enduring relevance of the topic. Despite the fact that it was only happenstance that led me to read the two novels consecutively, I found them to possess an eerie similarity. Both highlight the issue of changing identity by revealing new facts that fill in gaps in the historical background to the present narrative, often in unpredictable ways, as the story unfolds. Both are told from a first person perspective, and the narrator, in each instance, has some glaring gaps in self-awareness, which are only gradually revealed as his story changes and he and we become aware of what he has not allowed himself to remember or to see.

What is as surprising as the similarity in the subject matter and the style in which the two stories are told, is that the issue of identity should be at the forefront of the writer’s consciousness in times in which one might think that dramatic worldly events would have overshadowed such thoughts. Irène Némirovsky was a 39-year-old Russian Jewish woman, living in France during World War II. Having fled from Paris to escape the Nazis, Fire in the Blood, handwritten, was hidden among her papers she had given to her editors in late 1941 or early 1942 and only rediscovered recently and published in 2007. Némirovsky was captured by the Vichy and deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died. She was a successful novelist prior to the war, but her greatest novel, Suite Francaise was, like Fire in the Blood, hidden, this time when it was only partially completed, and only rediscovered by her daughter in 1998. Her writing is, like Cacoyannis’ elegantly simple in structure, while possessing strong emotional truths. Panayotis Cacoyannis is a Cypriot writer, artist and lawyer who lives in London. Needless to say, the present day contains dramatic events, in England, Cypress, and the world at large, but the focus on finding one’s identity remains, in writers such as Cacoyannis’ hands, an active artistic pursuit.

The world is too much with us. When we just look outside ourselves we fail to see the inner narrative that frames our perception. And each of our narratives has a protagonist—the self we each construct and constantly tinker with, enlarging it here, shrinking it there, chastising it at times, congratulating it at other times. Our self is an amalgam of our experiences, our heredity, our imprinting and traumas and our reach toward new horizons. Artists, particularly writers, explore this inner self and reveal for us  that of which we might not be aware.

There is much ugliness and desperation in the world and we each must decide how to react to it. Some people see themselves as responsible for making the world better, others for tearing down what displeases them, still others prefer denial. Some of us are afraid of facing who we are and others want to parade ourselves before the world. For me, novels such as Bowl of Fruit (1907) and Fire in the Blood provoke a turn inward, and a question of how honest I am being in what I allow myself to see. I think that’s a good thing.

  Casey Dorman

 

Wednesday
Jun222016

The Successors by Koushik Sen

The Successors

by Koushik Sen

Kolkata has its share of genuine poetic talents. The city thrives on nostalgia, academics, spirituality and poetry, writes Koushik Sen*.

 

There is a thing about the poets based in Kolkata — they are erudite, and being good readers, they imbibe the great works they read and eventually find their own language. They are by no means amateurs (the three poets whose works have been discussed here), since the youngest of them has overstepped the age of twenty-five by two decades — which is the threshold considered for becoming a genuine poet by T.S Eliot. True enough, it’s hard to find a Bengali who hasn’t written a page of poetry before that age. However, the Kolkata people who are seriously working on this genre, all have their own fields of interest, their own POVs of approaching the use of their voice in expressing their personal precincts, but they have one thing in common — their roots. To quote one of Sankha Ghosh’s poems, (taking the liberty of translating into English), they have succeeded in transforming the poison that clogs the roots into beautiful, blazing flowers of poetry. Their readings of Tagore, and unanimous love for him, their love for Calcutta, the small things it has to offer work up secret cahoots to bring them together.

Sanjukta Dasgupta’s book of poems, Dilemma (2002, Anustup), brings across her oceanic knowledge, seconded by her adroit choice of words and imagery. The title poem itself is poignant with the urbane conflict between romanticism and the urbanity that has long become deep rooted. The anthology reads like a sprinkling of her different moods, betraying her feminist standpoints and at places her love poems read like a girl’s quintessentially honest confessions about love; lines that are beautiful like a broken thing- “For you/ I can grow taller than every mountain/ Smaller than a grain of rice,” or “Loneliness/ when I write these lines to no one/ Loneliness when I sip lassi, in a café, on a monsoon afternoon.” These render a unique “private diary” quality to this collection, which makes it all the more irresistible. These are like soft reflections on a soft, rain sodden Calcutta afternoon. Again, lines like “I am the Mother-provider of every root/ Not just a delving earthworm,” makes a tremendous statement which is a superb example of a woman’s rage flowing through the realms of power, that progenitor of goddess Durga who slew the demon Mahishasura, who, at some levels, is a metaphor for male chauvinism. She has always believed in the words of Virginia Woolf that to be a woman, one must kill the “angel” in the house. One must have “a room of one’s own.” One must strip herself bare of the male stereotyping that has over the ages learnt to flow through the mouths of women, perpetrated to that extent by male “preaching.” One must not hail a woman by calling her Laxmi and thus tether her to a house. In one of her lectures, Professor Dasgupta had pointed out that this is a very old practice, and has long been invented and worked out to their advantage by the capitalists during the industrial revolution.

While poems like “Ecstasy” have a set of private, beautiful closing lines that sing of hope, “I now traverse the sunlight beaten track/ light suffused everywhere/ …To the benign sun/ shimmering silver union/ at last,” the poems on the Calcutta book fair of 1997 (inaugurated by Jaques Derrida), on Tagore, on Hemingway, and on Ernesto Che Guevara are informative and form another layer of this collection, like something written on half a page of a diary, praising one’s favorite writer. In all levels, this is a beautiful piece of work that needs to be read and treasured.

Sharmila Ray’s book With Salt and Brine (2013, Yeti Books) has aptly been described by Keki Daruwalla: “Not many poets have the gumption to venture into long poems these days, (mea culpa). That Sharmila Ray has gone about it with such élan is truly a surprise. While on the one hand it looks like a free floating poem, she has yet managed to keep a tight control over it. A fine and enjoyable read.” This book is written in a form that is similar to Tagore’s Sfulinga, four line short pieces that are rapid, but beautiful sketches of life. The poems of the first section (if it might be called so) smell of fragrant new love, but the voice is amazingly mature: “each of us with our primal poems/ each held by moist alphabets.” There is a superb blend of love and revolution, as we look, “with stardust on our eyelids” at the evanescent millennium. We can almost hear the Black Marias grooving their way to the Maidan as we are transcended to the Calcutta of the 70’s. There are vivid mentions of flabby politicians, of delirium, of darkness like black holes sucking in the blood of youth and leaving a shrunken image of love. The verse then tries to transcend, sometimes to the realm of Krishna, but the sniff of the briny seas of Dwarka, the distant lands seem all the more distant. Lines like “With stars in our chest/ we surfed the internet/ we tried to tell each and everyone/ stop gunning down little universes” are poignant. The poet asks with gusto the relevance of Allah and Buddha in a world where “Christs get crucified daily.

But then the verse takes a somewhat stoic approach, and tries to embellish coteries with heirloom- “Acid softens deep spots and knots/ we had inherited this precious heirloom, we tried to find ways and means/ to pour this on blood colored thoughts.” Towards the end, the lines are more childlike, but it is the childlikeness of an old soul which tries to fill up the void by making sandcastles. This volume of poems is beautiful in its own right, showing us the changing seasons in a way that is quite rare in contemporary Indian poetry.

Kiriti Sengupta’s newest poetry collection, The Earthen Flute (2016, Hawakal Publishers), has a language that it has found for itself, so delicate that it will crumble at every ostensible reading. The delightful part is that the poet himself is clearly aware of that; he knows his tradition, he knows he belongs to the era where you cannot denote silence simply by writing “silence,” that you need four blank pages to denote that profundity. The illustrations in charcoal form an innate part of this selection and themselves define the poems subtly — the effacing by the eraser of a small part in the sketches illumining the path to a new realm that this volume discovers. Besides, his poems would be so much more exciting if you are a resident of Kolkata, because you would actually find the opening poem “Keep an Eye” palpable among the Kumortuli lanes, you would find your corporeal eyes incapable, you’d feel the meta-presence among the sound of the morning trams and so on. Poems like “Womb” would make you treasure this book; you’d bask in the darkness, you’d be pleasantly confused in the maze, in the humanism lent to Mother Earth: “Only the Mother understands her rupture pain.”

The poet has drawn upon his tradition; he would remind you of Sukanta Bhattacharya, and yes, the famous line in which the moon becomes a toasted bread, in which the poet understands the vileness of “romantic” poetry in the age of hunger. Then come poems like “Kajal Deeghi,” where the water in the lake “house” and “reflect” your nostalgia. Your eyes are not left in tears, but they slobber in expectation of more and more of his poetry to seek refuge in. “Experience Personified” reminds us that sights, in their minuscule amounts accumulate into our experience. We are driven towards despair when he prophesies that “Like an inevitable death/ An enormous God steps in.” Variety steps in when we read prose poems like “Clean Gene,” and “Time and Tide,” where you would be left amazed at the mastery of the poet over the use of understatements to invoke your emotions.

The next section of this slim collection endeavors to justify its title. And this section offers prizes of a different kind. When you read “Clues to Name,” you dig into the poet’s knowledge of spiritual mythology for the first time; you know that “Mantra bears lust… petty you, you blame the luster,” you learn that giving away is surrender, you learn that lust is inevitable and a pathway to surrender. You know that you are expected to lust, as the “lion keeps awake with his eyes closed.” What an intermixing with the Christian “rough beast” of The Second Coming! Finally in “Cryptic Idioms” we find “the earthen flute” to be our subconscious spinal cord (Sushumna) that is essentially divine (drawing upon Patanjal’s Yoga Sutra). “(Un)Timely Grant” is somewhat morbid, but justly prepares us for the concluding poem “Struggle for Silence” where the poet speaks of the silence of the flute as the desired level of harmony with the frequency of the God-waves.

Thus, The Earthen Flute is, as aptly described by Lorna Dee Cervantes: “brief as a firefly’s single pulse from the darkness, some, brightly lit as the long bridge between cultures.” It is like a Constable or a Turner painting of a beautiful edifice on a sunny day — washes of watercolor, and the subtle details which are delightfully delicate.

 

*Koushik Sen is studying (M.A.) English Literature in the University of Calcutta. He is an avid reader and is passionate about creative writing.     

Wednesday
May112016

Chakraborty: The Magic of Magical Realism by Dustin Pickering

Title: Bougainvillea and Other Stories

Author: Bitan Chakraborty

Translated by: Pranab Ghosh

Publisher: Shambhabi

ISBN: 97893-85783-99-9

In the opening dedication of Bougainvillea and Other Stories, Chakraborty notes that his inspirations are the working and middle classes. Such sympathies have fueled the aspiration of writers worldwide, including John Steinbeck in America and in France, Jean Genet. In 20th and 21st Century literature, the heroes tend to be common people who are portrayed in situations of their failures and shortcomings—and occasionally seen as resilient, hapless heroes. Working class gentlemen in literature run parallel to the soldiers of the Great Man Theory studied in history classes.

The difficulty presented in this collection of stories is the tediousness of translating texts into well-crafted versions of their originals. There are some noteworthy admissions, as in “Bougainvillea”, when the language barrier is revealed for what it is. We have a character who isn’t cosmopolitan enough to speak English as well as do those acculturated to it. He candidly admits his English is good enough for Calcutta. The reader is aware at this point that he or she is watching a man lie to himself, imagining a greater knowledge of English is a great knowledge. In translation, prose and verse alike are distinct in two differing languages. There often aren’t words to depict certain meanings in the alternate language, especially in the creative spontaneity of poetry. All translations are short of truth and actual word-for-word synthesis.

Translators are faced with the singular problem of being true to the original, knowing the limits of translation, and hence having to adapt the work to their own imaginations. Translators are forced to use poetic license to make a circle fit into a square. When all else fails, the best vehicle is one’s own original thought. No translation will be complete. Phrasing is different in each language, characters are different, and even the sound of words is unique to each work. When moving a text from its original to a new place, some of the thought and feeling can be lost because the heart of each language is unique. Some languages are perhaps more romantic, or religious, and English (as we know it today) is perhaps a language best suited for contracts and business arrangements. In many ways, the language is upside down compared to others.

Yet we must admit the importance of language and translation. Seeing a work in letters in one’s own tongue introduces you to new cultures and themes. What many don’t realize is how language creates the character of a people. There are languages in use that don’t differentiate between genders. One language I read about was place and direction oriented, and the people who spoke it understood those things intuitively. Language is what we as humans use to convey and preserve signs, thoughts, attitudes, and manners. Words are vehicles that drive the spirit of a country. Poets seek to redefine culture using language’s barriers and distinct patterns, and myth centralizes after a people’s literary achievements are surveyed. For instance, the archeology of ancient Palestine would have no context without the literature of Scripture. Archaeological discoveries are compared and discussed, and myths surveyed for clues until a consensus (a guess based on sensible conclusions) is reached. Art tells the future who we are, where we went, and what of their own footing our deed was. The torch is passed and myth contains the mysteries of eternity. It is a meeting place between a nation and a nation’s god. Pluralism encourages competition in culture—not cutthroat competition, but mutually beneficial exchange—and a transfer of ideas from one place to the next. Sometimes misunderstandings push you to boundaries when you may have dropped your knapsack sooner. Variety challenges our assumptions, awakens healthy doubts, and enriches our lives—diversity keeps things interesting, alive, and prevents cultural stagnation. Those who are pushed to the margins of a culture will embrace an outsider’s view-in. Keep in mind the Bible was written by Hebrews, the bastard children of ancient Israel. Let’s remember how Hebrew was a term of ridicule and contempt in the Ancient Orient, reserved for those in the lower classes.

Common men and women are portrayed in this collection, sometimes in their discontents and at other times in their shortcomings. We also see how weighty their realities are as characters are assaulted with commercial images when they are down on their luck. This is especially true of “The City in Winter,” a story that captured my imagination most in this collection. The central character sees his hopes build as he contemplates a love interest sending him a Happy Birthday. In the end, however, his hope is dashed and confused. Modern technology is shown throughout as a hindrance to communication and success, the very opposite of its intent. The average fellow is constantly frustrated, afraid, dejected, and lost spiritually. Civilization and its discontents irk and disenfranchise our noble characters in each story.

“Bougainvillea” is unique in that it seems to ascribe value to these sufferings. The protagonist is injured by a flowerless plant and decides this monstrosity should be destroyed. He is reminded by his family that the plant will show flowers someday and that it needs to be trimmed, not completely ripped asunder. The protagonist seems appalled and is reminded of his incompetence and petty grievances. The moral begins to unravel: this plant may prick you frequently but if tamed carefully, it won’t prick you and in fact will grow beautiful flowers. This seems to remind us that it’s our perception of things that make us failures to our own eyes. The metaphorical “pricks” are the sharp heartaches and damnations we face when we reach out into the world for employment, scholarship, or to achieve our goals, and instead face our own backsliding and inability to actualize our dreams.

I have often faced this trouble in my own life, and I am sure very few haven’t. Each step in the ladder offers an opportunity to fall. Christian doctrine teaches that we are fallen creatures, but that in spite of our fallen nature we can be redeemed through Jesus Christ and his teachings—which are thought to stimulate new outlooks and help us forgive ourselves. Letting go of mistakes is the first step to moving forward again. You may not be a Christian (I myself am not), but you can’t deny this powerful lesson.

One of the most provoking stories (other than “The Assassinator”) is “Martyr’s Column.” The reason I single this story out is its mournful irony is deep.  You may interpret the ideas differently. However, the strange mysticism of the plot awakens discreet thoughts and may engage you in self-discussion. This story is powerful.

Clearly the author is a sympathizer with humanity—a humanist, a traditionalist who recognizes the troubles of modern technology and commercialism, and a sincere and imaginative storyteller who can capture your mind as long as you are ensconced within his stories. Perhaps “ensconced” is not the right word. I’ll let you, reader, choose your own.

Dustin Pickering is the editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum, and he is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press in Texas. 

Monday
May022016

Book Reviews: Language No Bar— by Kiriti Sengupta

While commenting on One Hundred Years of Solitude (OHYOS) Salman Rushdie wrote, “The greatest novel in any language of the last fifty years.” OHYOS was originally written by Marquez in the Spanish language, and later it was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa. What moved my mind was the remark, especially “in any language.” I wonder how many languages Rushdie is aware of! And how well-read an author can probably think of himself to write an appreciation in such a unique way? These were not the questions that surfaced on my mind when I read the book in 2015, but they popped up all of a sudden when I went on to launch a poetry book, Air & Age — Linked Since Eternity, in the department of Bengali in Banaras Hindu University (B.H.U.), Varanasi on April 6, 2016. The department professors primarily launched a Bengali book of short stories, Santiram-er Cha, by emergent writer Bitan Chakraborty who is based in Calcutta. The department might share their exclusive logic on launching two books of two different languages — belonging to two definitive genres; one was short story, while the other was poetry, which has jointly been authored by Pranab Ghosh and Tanmoy Bhattacharjee.

Given a chance, I would love to ask the teachers of the English department of any college or university if they would prefer to launch a Bengali book and initiate discussions on it. They would hopefully deny if the concerned book is not widely popular, or if the author is not hugely famous. But then, they would perhaps conduct a translation workshop based on the said book. Conducting a bilingual seminar takes tremendous effort on the organizers’ part, for they need to balance both the languages and the flow of related discussions.

Bitan’s Santiram-er Cha has not only been appreciated by the professors in Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalaya (otherwise referred to as Banaras Hindu University), his stories have received critical acclaim in a recent seminar, held in Raiganj University, which was convened by Nirjhar Sarkar, the deputy registrar. I was present there in the capacity of a chief guest and I have been lucky to have heard the papers presented by teachers-cum-researchers who have emphasized on Bitan’s work. I can remember I have read Santiram-er Cha in the month of December, 2015 and I quickly wrote a critical note on one of the short stories, “Hantarak.” I advised the publisher to commission an able translator for wider dissemination of Bitan’s prowess as a storyteller. I can now take pride in the fact that I was probably the first reader to have identified elements of ‘magic realism’ in the said story. The Bengali “Hantarak” was later translated into English as “The Assassinator” by Pranab Ghosh, and it was soon published on the official website of Transcendent Zero Press, a small publishing concern that is based in Texas (United States of America). Dustin Pickering who is the founder of the press was pretty excited as he read the story. While publishing the translated story on their website, Dustin commented on, “Very symbolic! “The Assassinator” engages in a symbolism of cause and effect. Why people fight revolution and why desperation encourages discontent! This is a story of intrigue and importance. It portrays a sense of unjustified fear — something in the lurch — and the changing of pace only escalates the overall impression. The story is translated coherently and I assume accurately. There is almost a dream-like hinge of climax, a sudden awakening, and a feeling of resolution at the end. You almost get a sense of refreshing news, that the previous lines were not real, that everything is fine, the story was a daydream.”

 

During the formal launch of Santiram-er Cha in the Bengali department of BHU, Professor Namita Bhattacharya opined that Bitan’s story telling bore magical effects as found in the stories by the legendary Bengali short story writer, Banaphul (Dr. Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay). Professor Prakas Kumar Maiti, who heads the department, spoke highly of Bitan’s writing and admired the lucidity of the language used in the book. He particularly remarked on “Bougainvillea,” a story that deals with the struggle and mental turmoil of an unemployed Bengali young man in his personal life. No wonder, the publisher of Santiram-er Cha, Shambhabi Imprint, has decided to bring out a translated version (English rendering) of the book under the title Bougainvillea and Other Stories before late.  

 

Now the question is: How would the English speaking readers receive the work of a Bengali writer? Here lies the proficiency of an able translator! But, is it solely the translator who can be held responsible for the success or failure of a translated work? I’m afraid, Selected Poems by Joy Goswami (HarperCollins) has failed to fetch much acclaim in India, let alone other countries in the world. It will be unfair to point my fingers at Sampurna Chattaji, the translator, who, I believe, did fairly well in translating Goswami’s immensely rich Bengali poetry, but did the publisher commission an editor before publishing the book? I have no clue, honestly, but, it is extremely important to understand the impact of the translated text on the target audience beforehand. It is equally significant to grasp the dynamics of successful translation, which essentially deserves apt editing by an editor whose speaks, writes, and thinks in the language the target readers use. Translated literature, if not well planned and projected, often fails to reach the audience it is meant for.

 

We would wait and watch to witness the fate of Bitan Chakraborty’s Bougainvillea and Other Stories and if the translated work would be as well-accepted as is the original book, Santiram-er Cha, but then, will the English speaking readers take interest in reading the struggle and pain of the lower middle class Bengali families? Bitan’s stories do not merely depict existential crisis, they amicably sit on the interface of the conscious and subconscious minds of the people around and traverse the path that leads to the horizon of much awaited liberation. Bitan sounds righteous when he says, “Downtrodden people, middle class and lower middle class Bengali families and their lives have been my inspiration. We essentially ignore the basics of Indian constitution that has been principally formed to protect and uplift the interests of the underprivileged.”

 

Two years back I had the honor to co-edit an anthology of poems by a few Bengali English poets and the anthology was titled, Jora Sanko — The Joined Bridge. It was published by The Poetry Society of India (Gurgaon), and Madan Gandhi was my co-editor. We included twenty-one poets from different locations and the collection received rave reviews across the globe. Bestselling author and editor, Don Martin aptly remarked on the volume: “I really do think that Bengali poets, and Indian writers more generally, are underexposed among Western readers. Sure, we might recognize someone like Tagore, but not many of us read much contemporary Bengali work. And that is a real shame, because Bengali poets write beautiful, expressive, and distinctive verse.” While discussing the anthology, Sahitya (January 2015), the official journal of the Comparative Literature Association of India (CLAI) opined: “[Kiriti Sengupta’s] “Memorandum of Understanding” is a fitting finale. It emphasizes that “air and age are linked since eternity” and the sorrows of life revisit every human being at different points in life, the sorrows are not restricted to one individual and human beings need to understand this.” Let’s have a look:

I’m no linguist…

I know

air and age are linked

since eternity…

 

and the wounds surface again

in all directions…

sporting the guise of youth…

I was evidently thrilled as Pranab Ghosh and Tanmoy Bhattacharjee informed me that they would love to use my lines as the title and subtitle of their proposed anthology of poems. Air & AgeLinked Since Eternity is a nicely produced work of poetry, published by Chitrangi, a newly formed publishing imprint based in Calcutta. Dr. Panchanan Dalai, who is serving as an Assistant Professor in the English department of BHU was present during the launch and he appreciated both the poets. He also aired his views on the politics of publishing, but I wonder, if a book-launch event could possibly afford a room for such theoretically sensitive talk. Let me site a poem by each of the poets concerned. In “Jesus” Pranab writes: “The sky fell on the pavement. //The beggar drew a Jesus /On the stone. //Rain drenched the earth. //Jesus did not bleed.

What is Jesus if he is not bleeding? Jesus continues to bleed even now, for the holy blood is believed to remind us his sacrifice towards mankind. Here the poet fetched the sky to the pavement and made the beggar draw a Jesus on the stone. The poet showered enough water unto the stone, and in spite of every effort Jesus failed to come alive and bleed. I believe “Jesus” by Pranab Ghosh is a poem inspired by Marxism.

On the other hand, evolving Indian English poet Tanmoy writes: “I kiss you and take /the contagious being /from your saliva //I wish your fast recovery /hope you receive better care //I’ll give you a new lease of life /as I depart.” In “Donor” Tanmoy revives the age-old tradition of India. Here the poet invites and receives the fatal poison from his beloved’s circulation and happily departs while rendering a new lease of life to the affected being. True love makes one selfless, but then where is true love nowadays? In a world badly infested with materialistic and physical pleasures, Tanmoy urges to fall back to the Indian tradition, and thus, awaits a world filled with love, peace and unconditional relationship.

Irrespective of the language of the books launched in Banaras Hindu University, the authors shared a common indication. They were essentially Bengali people, aimed at leaving their marks in world literature. Here ‘language’ creates no hindrance, nor does it play any role in securing the shelf-life of a work. Time, as they say, will remain as the prime witness of the lingering effects of honest literature!

 

Kiriti Sengupta is the author of the bestselling poetic trilogy: My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree and Healing Waters Floating Lamps. He is a bilingual poet, writer, and translator and is based in Calcutta. 

Saturday
Jan092016

Book Reviews: The Translator, Late in the Day, My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree, and Healing Waters Floating Lamps

The Translator by Dah

Transcendent Zero Press (2015)

Reviewed by Michael Minassian

 

            Dah shows his skill and a careful craftsmanship in his latest collection of poetry, the aptly named The Translator. This collection is a rich journey into the mind and words of the poet. From the moment I stepped into Dah’s poems, I felt I was entering a place of magic, memory, and sight. Questioning his place in the universe, and sometimes answering, the poet seems to be seeking a moral compass to navigate through the world. In the title poem, “The Translator” the speaker hints that the poet and poetry can help us find our way:

 

                        in between there is a message

                        that we can neither locate nor decipher

                        and we can only hope that it surfaces on time

                        with a proper translator

 

            The “You” voice, the sensuous feminine voice that speaks in the poems, suggests answers, some of them uncomfortable truths, about life and death and the mutability of existence. From the excellent poem, “The Moon’s Deep Wounds”:

 

            You said: ‘Maybe life is an invalid

            or a guide gone astray and inside each

            circle of breath there is a path of light’

 

The speaker doesn’t linger in the grip of melancholy and the reader is able to see the “path of light” as images of hope appear near the end of the poem:

 

            We hear voices coming from along the river,

            children’s delicate voices, gentle laughter

            happiness the color of autumn

Yet the reality of existence is its non-permanence, and the speaker’s lingering fears and doubts creep into the last stanza:

 

            and the wind shifted to a steady chilled motion

            You shuddered in silence.

            Overhead, the noisy geese made their escape

            and every leaf was shaking.

 

            Throughout the book, the poet seems to be asking the question: How do you translate the natural and sensory world so that it has meaning. In many of the poems, the reader gets a sense of place and the contemplation of what is seen and heard. And the poet’s other self, the constant “You” of the poems provides a touchstone through this journey:

 

            Your face, your open eyes

            thrive in memory, mythology.

 

            In one of my favorite poems in the collection, “Harbor Scene” the poet uses fresh images and metaphors to paint the landscape and give the reader a window to the natural world. In the penultimate stanza, the young couple is briefly introduced and painted in bold strokes, anchoring the poem in the physical world:

 

            a young couple presses into each other’s warmth

            the way noon shadows press into hot adobe walls

            as the imposing air from autumn’s icy saturation delivers

            a tight aching emptiness seldom known by lovers

 

            My only complaint about the collection is that a few of the poems are printed double-spaced, rather than single-spaced as the majority of the poems. I’m not sure if that was the poet’s intent or a decision by the publisher, but I found it distracting and felt it didn’t add to any of the poems in question.

            Throughout the collection, Dah’s poems explore the natural world around him: the earth, sea, sun, and wind and the creatures, large and small that populate it. Through his poems, he explores his inter-relationship to the natural world and probes it for meaning. Sometimes this leads the speaker in the poem to recognize the negative side of human behavior. But there seems to be a hope to tame the negative impulses with kindness and compassion. He does this through graceful poetic metaphor such as in the poem “We Are Only  Sleeping”:

 

We must hold tight to the harmony/that is left…

            words of love in the cockpits of our mouths,

            dive bombing, softly dive bombing

 

Often, I was startled and moved by an image such as the opening lines of the poem “Dust”

 

What we think about

            is our motion

            almost never our stillness

 

What Dah has created in these poems is a space for us to think about our own stillness and in that stillness to drink in his poems and savor what is contained.

 

Late in the Day by Ursula K. LeGuin

PM Press, 2015

Reviewed by Anca Vlasopolos

 

Late in the Day, the title of Ursula Le Guin’s most recent poetry collection, sounds a valedictory note that is borne out only by a few poems in this astute, incisive, wide-ranging book that is beautifully designed and fits nicely in the hand. I expected no less than to have my breath taken away by a writer whose works I’ve admired, learned from, and taught for several decades. This book did not disappoint.

I will not discuss the masterly prosody of these poems since Ms. Le Guin herself does so in her Afterword, where she even lists the poems in the book by form, for the convenience of readers unfamiliar with quatrains and sonnets, free verse, etc.  Her exacting method—“By free form I mean a discernible pattern”—if followed by people professing to write free verse would elevate the genre above the abuses into which it so often falls.

The erudition and passion that underlie these poems make them a discovery and joy to read. Each thematically selected or prosodic section becomes a journey into complexity. Both “Relations” and “Four Lines” are reminiscent of Neruda’s Odas Elementales, poems that zero in with minute attention on the seemingly ordinary, the every day, the object of use: “a tool” that by sonnet’s end becomes “this weight that wants to fall and, falling, sing.” “The Salt” is an equally stunning four-line poem that sums up earth and its beings. The last section, “The Old Music,” takes us to the beginnings of poetry—folk songs, ballads, hymns—yet with this poet’s inimitable imprimatur: an “unblessèd” America where no “god or priest” rules; a medieval Sir Thomas whose pursuit of the “gleeful Happy Beast” ends in defeat.

Brought up with Greek mythology as my nightly going-to-sleep tales, I was surprised and moved by Le Guin’s version of the Eurydice-Orpheus myth, in “Hermes Betrayed.” The poem begins with a stanza quietly announcing a supposed fact: “When a god grieves/ the deep stones/ at the four corners/ of the world tremble.” That Le Guin celebrates Hermes/Mercury, “airy, jaunty,” should not come as a surprise to those of us steeped in her writings: she’s always seen the trickster, the go-between worlds, the bi-being as attractive since that foot in both worlds allows such a being a more rounded, more encompassing vision; Coyote and the protagonist of Always Coming Home, to name but two, attest to this authorial affection. Yet in this poem, even Hermes of the “cool aplomb” is betrayed, as is his charge, Eurydice, for, as “The burden of his deathlessness/ weighed ever less/ at every step of that/ brightening way with her,” it’s the poet who “turns” and breaks the god’s only chance of learning mortality. And though Hermes, given his nature, “would not grieve,” “the deep stones shook.”

There are devastating statements on the lateness of the day: one such is “Disremembering,” where the specter of a body that goes on without its mind is as chilling as it gets: “the soul plods onward to no end.” Yet this is a book that celebrates life, its last word a benediction upon our much-benighted earth: “dancing.” If there is a cluster of images that dominates this collection, it’s stones—their stillness and silence, which the poet prizes. In Late in the Day Le Guin herself to some extent embodies her own character, Stone Telling, showing us through this great variety of utterly mastered poetic forms the way home.

 

My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree, and Healing Waters Floating Lamps by Kiriti Sengupta

Hawakaal Press, Moments Publication

Reviewed by Dustin Pickering

 

 

Waiting in the Garden of Eden

I read Kiriti Sengupta’s three collections My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree, and Healing Waters Floating Lamps.

My Glass of Wine advocates a return to religious principles and compassion. The author truly believes the world left sane compassion and sweetness when it began to deny the truths of religion. Sengupta discusses everything from namesake to the Bhagavad Gita in this prose and poetry collection. Lately I have noticed a new form of literature being written by Indian writers. A combination of prose and poetry that mutually complement one another is emerging from this sacred land where literature is honored and adored. My Glass of Wine fits this category and is a national bestseller. We are first introduced to Sengupta’s key concepts in this small volume.

His work reads like an exploration of life—seen from the Yogi’s angle—and an acceptance of its universality and uniqueness. We are taught that Yogis meditate to bring the Mother to the Father, a metaphorical journey that describes the climb of energy up the spine in meditation. Much of Sengupta’s imagery stems from this symbolic process.

There is one odd poem in Healing Waters Floating Lamps called “Fish-Lip” that seems to have caught the Foreword writer’s attention as well. It turns from the imaginative and accessible to the strange and uniquely personal symbolism presented by the author. In this poem, I am reminded to review the opening thoughts of the book:

 

“On the ascending shoots

Your fear matures

A few apprehensions as well

Your roots hold it tighter

Desperately deeper

 

And much deeper rests your God”

 

This reminds me of the poetry of The Reverse Tree. I am also brought to the Biblical proverb, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Wisdom is distinctly universal and perennial in its goodness. Much life is lived before it presents itself and is brought to the light. Fear is what brings us closer to our deepest values; we feel the world tugging at our Selfhood, wanting to avenge its confusion; and, we cling tighter to our sense of Self as our roots are exposed upward. The Reverse Tree is an extended metaphor for human nature, a life of service, and just how strong we, as people, must become to expose our graces toward others.  “With service evolves dependence, and honestly, it is the ladies who turn out to provide better shade than the men,” Sengupta opens in the first chapter. Why then is the tree commonly conformed to men? Being flows through all things like water and wisdom is the greatest joy. Sengupta quotes the Bengali of Tagore, “I envisioned the external through the light of my eyes.” The Soul is God Himself, so the light of the eyes is the revelation we experience as we live. The Soul is Master, Commander, and the lens through which we perceive our golden glories.

I think a bit on the Garden of Eden and the allegory it presents in light of this book. Much of the myth’s imagery can be reconciled with the Guru’s meditation metaphors. Adam and Eve as Father and Mother, but the Mother turns away instead of rising up toward the Father. She is “tempted”, perhaps distracted, by a wise and clever serpent. This serpent is assumed to be the Devil in traditional interpretations. Perhaps the snake is rather a symbol of the spine, and this allegory reflects the very same wisdom as holy India’s religion! The Mother turns directly to the spine, and takes its advice to eat the fruit (the core of the head where the Father and Mother meet), and the result is the expulsion of the couple—yet they are expelled as one, in unity. The snake is forced to consume dust—recall the dust that accumulates on our self-image. Adam and Eve have already attained wisdom but are now guarded from picking the fruit of the Tree of Life. This Tree is protected by a young angel with a flaming sword. This is symbolic of the process mentioned in The Reverse Tree: “Removing agony from life is not an easy task unless we recognize the source. This is all about the worldly attachments that we grow knowingly or unknowingly…” Even the great Sufi poet Rumi explores the tarnishing of Self by worldly attachment. Our humanness is distinct in worldly attachments. They are why we live.

Why does Eve turn from Adam after all? In Genesis 2:7, there is a pun on the Hebrew “Adam” and “adama”—adama means “ground.” It is woman, Eve, a reflection of Man, who turns him from the Garden and worldly pursuits to knowledge of good and bad. Adam is a reflection of God in his dominion over the fertile plain, yet he is evicted from his paradise and punished with death. To know good and evil is a death itself, the “sickness unto death”, the separation of Self and Other, and the hesitation we experience in our apprehensions. God, wise and primal, tricked the original couple by putting the pieces in place—expecting them to learn the powerful lesson they would only understand from experience. A very similar expulsion and detachment occurs during Adam’s sleep when Eve is brought from his rib. We are taunted with reminders of our origins we cannot understand. Things aren’t ideal for this very reason. We learn distinctions. We learn judgment, the very vice the Savior advised us to harness. The cherubim and its revolving sword of flame, mentioned in Genesis 3:24, are acknowledgements for the insatiable quest of humankind to find permanence and its ultimate truth of origins.

Sengupta, page 36 of The Reverse Tree:

 

“and the wounds surface again

in all directions

sporting the guise of youth…”

 

Is he not reflecting the same paradox?

Eve, mother of all living, is cause of our mysterious life and our long thirst for paradise. She was the first to survey the land and truly seek dominion in ways her husband could not imagine. She implores him to remember her birth so he can find himself. She was the one in true service to the betterment of humankind by fulfilling human destiny, and leaving a legacy of wonders.

Friday
Oct162015

Book Reviews: I Meet Geronimo and Other Stories, The Wine and Chocolate Workout, Portland Beer Stories, Benchere in Wonderland, Cartographies of Scale (and Wing), Healing Waters Floating Lamps

“Then, You Run”

I Meet Geronimo and Other Stories,

by Charles Bane, Jr.

Reviewed by Randall Mawer

 

This very short collect of very very short stories is compelling. Whether Bane deliberately chooses to link the tales with significant themes or merely writes this way, each yarn focuses on an important historical episode or circumstance (I am reminded of Hamlin Garland and John Dos Passos.)

The title piece follows an adolescent farm boy to a Wild West show where he meets the aging, now harmless Geronimo. The boy recognizes the chief’s erstwhile heroism but not his own—he works hard on his father’s farm, and the old Indian, impressed by his steadiness, gives him a keepsake, and some advice: “tomorrow, you go to the field, and cut the heads from the wheat. Then you run.”

Much later, in “Daddy and Arnold,” the boy, now grown (is this the same character?”) hears how his older brother died in WWI. His larger lesson, though, comes in the confession of his father to the murder of the officer who ordered the attack in which his brother was killed. There are class differences here, which Americans don’t like to think about.

Colonialism is central to “The Man-Eater of Kotali,” in which an aging British lord stalks a savage leopard. (India is the setting.) His hunt succeeds, but the narrator regrets being on the side of the European hunters, not the native prey. “Zapata and the Pony” takes us to Mexico, where the revolutionary arrives in a rural village to the delight of the population. Again as in the title yarn, a boy’s hero worship is proved appropriate. “The Sabbath Bride” shows a New York Jew reacting rather guiltily but needfully to an anti-Semitic remark. His girlfriend endorses his action.

“Collier and the Hurricane” takes place in Puerto Rico, where an epileptic boy (third person here) and his father face down a hurricane. The father’s tyrannical behavior cannot hide his love for his son, but he looks far too scornfully down on the local population. In “The Meeting,” a climatologist warns his female president of Armageddon brought on by global warming. This tale simply ends, rather pointlessly.

“Summer of the Horseshoe Crab” glances at the first flicker of love in a young man. In “The Jewel Fish,” a local Amazonian tries to buy off invading loggers with jewels he finds in a fish he catches. “The Man-Eater of Kotali” is echoed.

“’Then, you run,’” says a defeated Indian, swilling beer but aware of courage and its importance. The third world, despised races, a threatened environment, all require our defense, but we must “run” until we are strong, and cherish other people of spirit in the meantime.

 

The Wine and Chocolate Workout by Greta Boris

Fitness Inside Out (2012);

Portland Beer Stories by Steve Shomler

American Palate (2015)

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

 I’ve never been a heavy drinker, but I’ve always enjoyed a cocktail, a glass of wine or a pint of beer to add to a social occasion. Over the last several years I’ve limited myself to wine or beer and, as I’ve gotten older, to less and less of either. That means that I have to be choosier about when and what I drink. And I have to think about how my drinking habits fit into my lifestyle, which, again as a function of my aging, has to include health benefits as well as enjoyment. I’ve recently read a couple of books which, each for different reasons, gave me new insight into my favorite alcoholic beverages.

The Wine and Chocolate Workout wins the prize for best recent book title.  The book is classified under health and fitness by Amazon and appropriately so. It’s really a self-help book about how to make  a realistic lifestyle change to eat and live healthier. As such, it’s a friendly, folksy set of instructions and instruments for recording progress, interspersed with  tidbits about health. The author, a fitness instructor herself, emphasizes activities that can be incorporated into a permanent lifestyle. These activities include a better diet, more exercise, rest, meditation and breaks. None of the prescriptions is meant to be difficult nor burdensome or even boring. In fact the emphasis is upon enjoying what one is doing so that he or she keeps doing it.

What about the wine and chocolate? Besides recommending either or both of these special treats as rewards or for enjoyment during the periodic breaks that the author recommends taking, throughout the book are gems of information about the health benefits of wine and chocolate. Did you know that dark chocolate contains oleoylethanolamide, which increases metabolism and satiety, helping you to lose weight?  Not only that, but “the antioxidant properties of chocolate  help lower LDL cholesterol, increase HDL cholesterol, lower blood sugar levels and increase blood flow to the brain and heart.” Dark chocolate has many advantages not found in milk chocolate and there is a section on “How to Choose Chocolate.”

Wine, as a healthy addition to your diet gets even more attention than chocolate. The author reminds us that several studies have shown that drinking wine is associated with longer life spans, lower cholesterol, less risk of stroke and heart disease and even decreased risk of dementia. In addition,  “the average wine drinker, when compared to the rest of the population, has a smaller waistline, less belly fat, and lower body mass.” And of course wine makes you feel better. It also may make you look better. The polyphenols contained in wine “help to maintain the skin’s elasticity by promoting collagen production.”  And, according to the author, wine can protect against the sun’s UV rays, lowering the risk of skin cancer.

Reading this book I not only took a second look at my eating and exercise habits to assess whether I was living as healthy a lifestyle as I could, but I reassessed my prohibitions against wine, which had been in effect because I had twice endured mild episodes of gout (which might or might not be related to wine intake and probably is related to beer intake, not to mention red meat, shellfish and even mushrooms and spinach!). Perhaps the health benefits of wine outweighed the risks. With regard to chocolate, the only risk appears to be overindulgence. Despite this, because of all of its health benefits, I may actually increase my intake of chocolate.

This book is an easy to read, truly helpful recipe for honest, permanent lifestyle change with as little pain as possible, sweetened by its recommendations for the pleasures and benefits of wine and chocolate.

 

Portland Beer Stories is a glimpse at a good number of the eighty or so breweries and brewpubs in Portland Oregon and the surrounding area. Portland likes to think of itself as America’s craft beer capital and it may well be. Travel and Leisure Magazine thinks so and ranked Portland number 1 in its 2015 list of “American’s 20 best cities for beer lovers.” In this fascinating book, Steve Shomler, the author, has focused upon about  twenty breweries and another fifteen or so individuals who are central to the Portland beer scene. It’s a book that tells a history, gives a picture of the present and the most likely future, and, surprisingly for me, has an inspirational message.

Portland is not just a good place to drink beer, it’s also a good place to brew beer, to learn how to brew beer and to go into the beer brewing or selling business. The reason, according to Steve Shomler, is that in Portland, the craft beer brewing community is just that—a community. Newcomers are invited in, most of those in who now are entrepreneurs in one of the beer related businesses worked their way up from interning to helping out, to becoming assistant brewers to finally moving out on their own to establish their own brand and their own style of beer. And all along the way they were taught, encouraged, and supported by those who had gone ahead of them. There is a camaraderie  within the community that seems unusual for people in businesses that compete with each other. I guess Portlanders figure that there are plenty of customers to go around, that the thirst for beer is unquenchable.

The inspiring aspect of the book is its description of this vibrant, supportive community in an atmosphere that might easily foster cutthroat competition. There’s a message here for other communities of entrepreneurs—independent authors and small presses (my community) for instance.

Most of the stories are interesting, some are remarkable. John Harris, “a truly legendary Oregon brewer” was the founding brewer at Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, a small town which itself has been called the best craft beer town in America on more than one occasion and Deschutes Brewery is the main reason for this distinction (have you tried their Mirror Pond Pale Ale or their Cinder Cone Red Ale?). After leaving Deschutes, John came to Portland and was the founding brewer at the famous Red Sail Brewery. In 2012, John took the big step of starting his own brewery and restaurant, calling it Ecliptic named after planets’ orbit around the sun and in honor of the seasonal beers and food he offers. A brewery owned and run by someone with John’s background is something special in the field of craft beer.

James Neumeister was an award-winning home brewer who had a friend with celiac disease, which required a gluten-free diet. James decided to take the bull by the horns and in 2011 he teamed up with brewmaster, Tim Barr and founded the  gluten-free Ground Breaker Brewery, then two years later he brought in chef Neil Davidson and opened Ground Breaker Gastropub, which offers gluten-free food to go along with the gluten-free beer

The stories are not all about brewers and breweries. One of the most fascinating tales focuses upon  Ashley Rose Salvitti, a former server  at brewpubs in both North Carolina and Portland. In 2009, Ashley decided that there were so many breweries and pubs in Portland that the time was ripe for a brewery tour. She started Brewvana, which opened with a single bus in 2011 and now has three. Brewvana offers both bus and walking tours and it’s a chance to get “an insider’s tour” of the Portland beer scene.

There is a generous quality to Portland Beer Stories, a quality of wanting to give everyone his or her due, of sharing the glory of the Portland beer scene equally among its participants. There are even guest writers within the book—beer writers from local newspapers, radio stations, and of other beer-oriented books. An appendix lists other Northwest beer books. The book is a good representation of the community spirit it celebrates. The author, Steve Shomler, has also written Portland Food Cart Stories and is now working on a book on Oregon Wines. He is the host of Tasty Tuesday radio show on Portland Radio Project.

He has promised to give me a guided tour of the Portland beer scene. I can hardly wait.

 

Crownfeathers and Effigies

by Jerry Bradley.

Lamar University Press (2015)

Reviewed by Anne Britting Oleson

 

Of the many delights of Jerry Bradley's third collection, Crownfeathers and Effigies, two stand out:  Bradley's constant play with structure and mechanics, and his wry—yet warm—tone, especially when he writers of the characters of his poetic world.  His poetry appeals to both the reader's intellect and her emotional intelligence.

While Bradley varies his poems' stanza length, he frequently combines short, tight stanzas with the choice to write without capitals nor end punctuation.  This construction emphasizes the importance of line and stanza breaks, while at the same time stresses a kind of stream-of-consciousness, where all thoughts are interconnected, but where the reader is forced to take a mental breath before crossing the white space into the next stanza.  For example, in “My Grandmother's Song,” he writes 

 

            my grandmother got up early

            and sang to the well pump's crank

            the water sang too 

 

            the clothes she washed

            came clean and hung

            joyfully on the slack line 

 

The poem moves on from there, the line and stanza breaks acting as punctuation, providing visual clues  to the reader where a more traditional structure would provide capital letters, periods, or commas.

That same poem follows the speaker's grandmother further through her day, as she kills a chicken that makes a wash-flavored soup.  The tone recognizes the hardships of that life, the small failures, but honors them as well.  There are family members traipsing through this collection, lovers, ex-wives, friends, and all are viewed wryly, though not unkindly.  Take the unnamed woman of “This Close,” who is not faring well in love:


            She is this close to killing him,

            seconds away from handing him

            his hat or his head,

            from aiming a glass or a plate 

 

or, in “Pictures from London,” another woman who mis-identifies or mangles names of the places she's visited, such as “the Tim's River,” “Buckminster Cathedral” and “Pig Pen, the clock,” and the speaker tells us playfully, 

 

            You say you wish I were there.  I wish

            so too.  Better to see with my own eyes

            what you have failed to hear with yours. 

 

There are many treasures in Bradley's collection.  It is difficult to choose representative pieces, as these poems are obviously the work of a poet with a wide-ranging intellect and emotional sensitivity.  Crownfeathers and Effigies is a strong offering from a strong writer, and a pleasure to explore. 

 

Vox Clamantis in Deserto 

Benchere in Wonderland by Steven Gillis

Portland, OR: Hawthorne Books (2015)

Reviewed by Conrad Geller

 

 

Steven Gillis' sixth novel, Benchere in Wonderland, begins with a failed attempt at masturbation and ends with the triumph of pure art over the evils of the mundane world.  In between is an expertly told story of loss, love and conflict that ranges from Rhode Island to Africa and finally beyond to the whole world. That should be enough scope to satisfy any reader.

This writer clearly knows how to tell a complex story, in a way no one can learn in a writing workshop. His narrative involves more than a dozen major characters and a span of some thirty years. There are sudden leaps back and forward in time, probes into several minds, even some sudden switches from past to present in the telling, yet the reader never needs to be in doubt about where he is or what is happening.

Michael Benchere is a sculptor in Rhode Island whose career is just slogging along. He teaches at the local Backwater Arts Academy—that's its real name—and sells one of his pieces now and then. Suddenly, without training or intention, he becomes a world-famous architect whose works are avidly sought and handsomely paid. Now a wealthy celebrity, he gives up architecture and returns to the purer art of sculpture, deciding, on the death of his wife, to erect a three-hundred-foot abstract statue in Botswana, in the middle of the Kalihari desert. What happens during his struggles with that project, with his adversaries private and governmental, and with his own feelings of grief and renewal, is the main business of the book.

The story involves intriguing parallels and contrasts. As Benchere builds his monumental structure with the help of friends, assorted volunteers, and paying guests, his son is working to create a housing project back home, with an advanced design that includes a yoga studio.

The more significant parallel is deeper and less obvious. Benchere is mourning the death of his wife Marti at the same time he is creating his masterwork. Grief has been well described biographically, by Joan Didion a while ago and more recently by Sheryl Sandberg, but here the male version is imaginatively explored in what may be Gillis' best writing.  I wish there were more of that lyricism in telling, but maybe it's in the story of Marti that the deepest feelings surface:

 

On the shelf above the sink were Marti’s pills, the anastrozole and clonazepam, tamoxifen, pain meds and digestive aids, homeopathies and hardcore pharmaceuticals; a potpourri of would-be curatives. Benchere left the meds as they were, left Marti’s clothes and books, notes handwritten and hanging from a magnet on the fridge, her slippers and soaps, magazines and voice on the message machine. “ We’re not here to take your call ... ”

 

The dominant theme in the novel, however, involves not Benchere's inner life but the nature and purpose of art. Benchere insists categorically that true art should have no purpose, that if it means to effect a social good it is mere propaganda, akin to Stalinist realism. Even Guernica, he argues, stands apart from its political purpose. The great irony here is that his imposing desert sculpture, which he says will be art even if no one ever sees it, becomes a focus of revolution, inciting war-ravaged refugees in South Sudan to sing and dance around a replica of Benchere's work as a symbol of their aspirations. It even becomes the focus of an international movement for peace and freedom:

 

In Kadugli a new sculpture has been built from the scraps  gathered after the blast. In the Kalahari, too, the shards of metal are reused. In Zambia, Angola and Zaire, in Syria and Sierra Leone, the Nuba Mountains, Mali and Darfur, in Mali and Senegal, Gaborone, Makhado and Francistown, in Spain and England, France and America, Russia and China, North Korea and Cyprus, the effort gains momentum.

 

In the course of his telling, the author manages to sound echoes of some of the best fiction of the last century or so. Benchere's daughter is named Zooie, and Salinger's shadow looms  saliently in the description of his place back home, “. . . the roof beams raised high.” The African venue recalls Hemingway, and the novel's title goes all the way back to suggest Lewis Carroll.  But the most significant intertextuality of all is to Saul Bellow, specifically to Henderson the Rain King. Both Henderson and Benchere are large men physically, both hear an incessant voice crying I want!, both must go to Africa to accomplish their dreams, and both become icons to the natives and a kind of kings. The richness of those interactions help give the story an additional substance and meaning .

In a few places, unfortunately, the narrative drags. With the introduction of each important character there is a long  and mostly unnecessary exposition. There is some fussy descriptive detail, often involving the brand names of objects used.  Most intrusive of all are the moments when the author pauses to make a point by having characters debate at length. Benchere sees himself as a pure artist, and his wife is an engineer, so their discussions extend weightily about imagination and practicality. Of their two children Zooie takes after her father, becoming a performance artist and assistant in the desert enterprise, while Kyle, the son, becomes a social activist involved in the practical matter of building public housing. Other long interludes, with abundant references to people and works familiar and obscure, are about the need for social action, the role of free capitalism in the betterment of downtrodden peoples (this between Benchere and the stereotypical villain Mund, so we know where the author's sympathies lie), and between Benchere and his soon-to-be lover Deyna (not much of a spoiler-alert here), about purpose and reconciliation in life.

These cavils aside, Benchere in Wonderland  is a large book, a meaningful book, its story told by a masterful storyteller. Too often I agree with the nineteenth-century wit and poet Samuel Rogers, who said, “When a new book comes out, I read an old one.” I did read, for example, only the first book of the Harry Potter series, loved it, but didn't go on to the others. Fifty Shades of Grey is as unknown to me as the Anabasis.  Nevertheless, I'm happy to have made an exception this time.

 

Cartographies of Scale (and Wing)

By Anca Vlasopolos

Reviewed by Randall Mawer

 

This poetic homage to things natural takes its thematic frame from the work of Gerardus Mercator and Nathaniel Bowditch, whose maps made detailed navigation possible for ordinary seamen. Vlasopolos is more impressed by the instinctive way-finding of birds, insects, fish, and whales, now so often endangered by works of men. Her favorite (but hardly her only) setting is a landscape all but ruined by technology—a modern urban university, a busy freeway—where close observation reveals sparrows, finches, starlings, and wrens surviving, if with difficulty, while most people, Vlasopolos and her binoculars excepted, “teeter…toward” a far more “certain crash.”

The book’s final poem, which repeatedly quotes William Carlos Williams’ “So Much Depends,” finds glory in the commonplace—baby birds feeding, milkweed perfuming the air. Elsewhere chickadees adapt a householder’s misbuilt birdhouse, swans gather to migrate. And mankind? Even our pets (“the stupid dog / who couldn’t find a bone if he tripped on it”) add to the total of “drab small quiet deaths” in the bushes by our doors.

Nature is not idealized, though. Hawks hunt here, and vultures have their natural diet. Rats and coyotes spread across the landscape. But human nouns ring stronger—Chernobyl, Bangladesh.

Technically, Vlasopolos likes broken lines, radically mixed levels of diction, low-ish humor. (“How smart is a smart phone when it’s dropped into an aquarium?”)

Her verse is all control in a world where control is in very short supply.

 

 

Journey with the Self

 

Healing Waters Floating Lamps 

by Kiriti Sengupta

Ahmedabad: Moments Publication (2015)

Reviewed by Sharmila Ray

 

 

Going through Healing Waters Floating Lamps, a selection of poems by Kiriti Sengupta made me remember few lines of Tocqueville (1835):

"In democracies it is by no means the case that all who cultivate literature have received a literary education, and most of those who have some belles-lettres are engaged in professions that only allow them to taste occasionally and by stealth the pleasures of the mind. Accustomed to the struggle, the crosses, and the monotony of practical life, poets require strong and rapid emotions, startling passages, truths or errors brilliant enough to rouse them up and to plunge them at once, as if by violence, into the midst of the subject."

 

Why have I entertained these sentences is because the poet is a doctor by profession and going through his poems there is a feeling of well balanced liberation from the clutches of the laws of poetry. What emerges are encounters with the self, prodding the self to respond and contemplate.

This sleek volume conveys small poems, which are double-layered. First there is the observation with the five senses, the reality, we are comfortable with and then a second reading leads to another reality beyond words and sounds, smell and touch, where the ‘I’ withers to be at one with all.

The first poem in the volume, “Beyond The Eyes” (mark the title) prepares the reader for other words, other lines on the next pages of the book. It prepares us for an unknown universe, a space of different representations where the smell of infinity lingers.

 

I reach the sky

While I draw a circle in the water

Looking at the image

I take a dip

 

These lines invite the reader to take a dip in the water to create a world of his or her own. Water flows and so each pattern is replaced by another circle or oblong. In fact, transient. So is our material world. 

As the poems progress the feeling of awareness snowballs into an all pervasive consciousness, an inner knowledge, attaining harmony with the outer world. Kiriti pushes us, prods us in each of his poems to listen, observe and be attentive to ourselves. The poet believes in living here and now, in enjoying the world that encircles us and participating in the experience of the present. This is very much reflected in his poem titled “Celluloid.”

 

…I was hesitant, you know,

 I never said goodbye

Signs are private, and I keep my eyes open.

Round the clock.

 

As the collection winds its way down the  path of aloneness, a journey with the self,  a certain certitude emerge—like putting faith in ordinary things and not accepting old mental program and rejecting external manipulation.

 

…The word “denser” does not

Necessarily mean thicker… (“Secure A River”)

 

Also in “Color Code”:

They said you were black

They knew they were white

And I said

This has been the Nelson Mandela patch.

 

The poems in Healing Waters Floating Lamps are to be read slowly, to ponder and think. Take for instance the poem on Varanasi. The title is the key. Here the poet does not name the poem Evening in Varanasi. He writes “Evening Varanasi”—as if Varanasi is a being, a symbol of spirituality, the mystic soul of India,  its body the meditating ground for those in search of oneness.

 

Have you seen the floating lamps in the river?

Water here is not the fire-extinguisher, but

The flames ascend through water

Prayers reach the meditating Lord

 

Both Bhagirath and Prometheus bought down river Ganga and Fire, respectively, from the heavens to bless mankind. So they are both images of life and all that is divine in the human. They are life-givers and mind-openers. The floating lamps are a reminder of this ephemeral world, which is floating and changing. Only mindfulness is real and that opens the door of super consciousness or God (Prayers reach the meditating Lord).

Again the poet very subtly plays with the theme of eternity in his poem “Memorandum Of Understanding.” Age is a human perception and we cannot bottle air in ancient and medieval, modern and post-modern bottles.

 

…I know

Air and age are linked

Since eternity…

 

Kiriti’s poems are a montage of responses to the everyday philosophy that runs subterranean in the orient.  These experiences are common to all men. But the poet remembers them and gives them form through words without frills. The poems are short and deeply suggestive, unlocking hidden areas of the self and not simply illustrating an object or an event. What is interesting is that there are many ways of reading his poems. They are not restricted. They are like one long abstract painting, inviting the readers to come up with their own meaning, thereby making them participate in the poem. So as readers they are also writing. Perhaps, after reading Kiriti’s poetry the reader would turn to love and compassion in these days of online shopping, virtual friends and emotions in the shapes of smilies. 

 

Thursday
Jul162015

Book Reviews: The Grand Mcluckless Road Atlas by John Domeni; Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Little; If You Find Yourself by Brian Patrick Heston

John Domini: The Grand Mcluckless Road Atlas

Oakland: Pedestrian Press, 2013

Reviewed by David Klein

 

     It isn’t so much luck that Domini’s lonely traveler needs, as a place to belong. One of the last of a dying breed, genus Romantic, Mcluckless is lost at sea in a world suffering the end stages of cultural lysis, a virus that bleeds the joie from all vivre. For instance, in the poem, “Pane Di San Francesco,” he longs for a classic treat out of a “candied past,” the eponymous raison-stuffed honeyed bread, but instead must make do with what’s become a tourist treat, “eggy (and) limp,” not unlike Mcluckless himself, who, with the same scalpel eye that pares dross from beauty everywhere he looks, can’t help but see in himself a sad sack Odysseus whose passion for culture has devolved into the pretense and “pale scam,” of, as in “A Museum, A Thought, and Priam’s Luck,” a “Lone Professor…defending painters everybody loved already.” He runs from the bread shop, only to be greeted by storms of pigeons and tourists: there’s no escape from this era of iPods, flip-flops and McDonalds, ruled by accountants. Nor any escape from his own inward eye.    

     Mcluckless begins his journey with “Gate Change,” in an anonymous airport in a nameless city. Having missed the announcement, disoriented and clueless where to embark on his adventure, all Mcluckless has as a guide is his instinct for transforming drear existence through the revivifying lens of poetry making. “You’re out of joint,” he tells himself. “Your poem, that’s on.”

     We then follow him on a haphazard journey from sapless American cities through Paris, Naples, and what appears to be Rome, grand old bastions of history and art, reduced now to tourist attractions. He’s always alone, our Mcluckless, his only companions the memory ghosts of a much younger woman, in “Beach Motel, Oregon,” or an ex-student, in “Detroit Scenery,” or, in “Lakeshore, L.A., Long Island, Ex-O-Skel.,” a woman whose “tiara shed its glitter on the windows of the train, the New Year’s speckle winking in the smut.”

     The voice of these poems is arch and rueful, like that of Donald Barthleme, whom Domini quotes at the start; the style declamatory. Each poem is a sort of soliloquy, as if Mcluckless commands an imagined stage, performing partly as vagabond poet in the hope of a sympathetic audience, and partly for himself, to feel less alone.

     In my favorite of the bunch, “Okie Monarchs,” the poet finds himself stuck in rush hour traffic in Oklahoma City, the first stop on the road atlas, an American inferno:

          Derricks jacking in and out, obscene beside the swings, the library…crude rules;

          mall posterboard and neon wink their lies

          across the Broadway shaft, like mica flickers

          across a pit, across the tumbling wrappers…

          like condoms, sacks of children’s souls               

     But emissaries from the natural world suddenly flock as if to lift his spirits, Monarch butterflies migrating south. Still, he can’t accept the gift as-is, because, though lovely, the Monarch is too common a creature for the poet who can never be at home in either the man-ruined or the natural worlds. His thoughts fly to a singular moment, in “glossy springtime,” when he was startled by a giant luna moth. Even then, with Cape Cod blooming all around him, he reflexively resorts to analogy. Instead of celebrating the moment, he cerebrates it:

          a luna moth, a monster, startled me,

          and it was green, and I thought, Dickinson,

          gone midnight, strange, her “noon” gone moon; I thought,

          Nabokov, sexy lepidopterist,

          ripe youth and beauty in his net… 

      Cast rudely from Cape Cod reverie back to Oklahoma City traffic jam, alone in a crawling car, his only escape is to imagine that two Monarchs are mating in the air:

          vivid upward love coils, 

          a couple climbing spiral steeps, at work 

          against the vertigo, a pair of pilgrims…

     Iowa is the road atlas’s ultimate destination, Domini’s home state, where the poet, struggling to write, already grows restless. Images of freedom intrude: a heart and arrow scratched on a prison wall, feathers poking from a shaft, and finally, a hitchhiker’s thumb, singing. 

     This is a fine collection of high energy poems, funny and sad, highly recommended.

The Details Of History

Jonathan Littell: Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising 

Translated by Charlotte Mandell, New York: Verso, 2015

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

As I read my newly arrived copy of Jonathan Littell’s Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising, which I had ordered prior to its English-language release in late-April of this year, I realized that the book was originally written (in French) and published in 2012. This was before ISIS became everyone’s focus, and at a point when the Syrian revolution still seemed to be a simple good-guys vs. bad guys confrontation between the Assad government and the civilian opposition. I wondered if I had wasted my money on a story that was now irrelevant.  But an accurate portrayal of a moment in time, particularly a pivotal moment, possesses its own validity. I was reminded of Littells’ earlier novel, The Kindly Ones, which dealt with World War II and the character of Germany as seen through the eyes of a middle-level Nazi officer. Despite being a novel about people long-dead and events, which occurred 75 years ago,  The Kindly Ones dealt with an eternal truth, the corruption of individuals. Although it is a novel about the past, its message is relevant today.

No less so, Littell’s Syrian Notebooks. Told with a terse, plain language reminiscent of Hemingway (despite it’s having been translated), Littell’s notebook is just that, an almost diary-like account of three weeks spent with the opposition, both the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and protesting civilians just prior to the brutal 2012 Homs massacre that killed over 200 people in a barrage of shelling of civilian residential neighborhoods. We are able to see not only the progression from peaceful protests to violent confrontations and brutal government countermeasures, but also the seeds of the present sectarian, jihadist movement that has turned a local skirmish into a regional war.

Assad’s army, his secret police and his private militias perpetrated atrocities approaching the extremes, if not the magnitude of those of the Nazis, both as an effort to stamp out opposition and to maintain control of the citizenry in such hotspots as Homs. Most of Littell’s and his photographer’s efforts were to document such activities and their toll upon the civilian population for the French newspaper Le Monde. They rushed from one battle site to another in a frenzied effort to interview and photograph victims and witnesses of attacks on civilians. In the process they were carefully managed by their FSA “minders” who were acutely aware of the propaganda value of such material, but wary of having their own, often violent activities give the impression that what was going on was a war, not government repression of civilians.

Indeed, the lines between peaceful protests and violent insurrection were constantly blurred, even in the days before the infamous massacre. Protests were routinely guarded by armed FSA “soldiers.” Although they claimed to only mount “counterattacks,” the FSA fired on the Syrian Army outposts, checkpoints and snipers nearly as often as they were fired upon. Most telling, Littell describes the civilian demonstrations, filled with singing and dancing. “The extraordinary thing about these demonstrations is the power they let loose. It’s a collective, popular jubilation, a jubilation of resistance.” But the chants are pejorative, not celebratory. “Bashar (Assad), we don’t know who you are, Muslim or Jew!” “Bashar, you have a giraffe’s neck!” “Bashar, get out, you and your dogs!” Eventually, the slogans demand retribution. “The people demand capital punishment for the butcher.” “The people demand the militarization of the revolution!”

Among the civilians the FSA soldiers are treated as heroes. Boys want to emulate them, to join them. Within the FSA, Bin Laden and Abu Musad al Zarqawri, the dead leader of Al Queda in Iraq are admired. The FSA in Homs is split between those who want jihad in order to bring in militants from outside Syria to help with the fight and those who are fearful that such a move will cause the revolution to spiral out of control. Religion is deeply embedded within the daily behavior and rhetoric of the opposition. They are more fundamentalist than the Alawites who control Damascus and the government. When Littell visits an opposition family’s house, even for a meal, women are rarely seen and always hidden away. In government controlled areas, this is often not the case. Are these the seeds for the eventual progression to Islamist jihad led by ISIS? From outside the culture it is difficult to determine because we are so used to associating fundamentalist Islam with jihad and violence that is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that one necessarily breeds the other. Littell only reports. He makes no value judgments regarding Islamic practices. In his view, which he makes clear in an introduction to the 2015 English edition, the ascendance of jihadists was fostered by the Assad regime in order to marshal world opinion against the revolutionary forces in his country. But his reporting reveals military-like organization, religious fervor and perhaps most telling, sectarian animosity against Shiite Muslims within the ranks of the opposition itself, long before the fight was taken up by so-called “outside” forces, such as ISIS. The fundamentalism is taken so seriously that, more than once,  Littell and his photographer are jokingly threatened with death for drinking whiskey among the FSA men.

By the time Littell is ready to leave Syria, only weeks before the Homs massacre, the revolution has clearly become a war. As a former Syrian Army soldier who joined the FSA said, “I deserted in June, in Dara ‘a. I did it so as not to shoot at people, and I immediately took up arms. I saw that you can’t take down this regime without arms.” In Littell’s own words, “At first they just wanted reforms, more freedom. Then confronted with the repression, things went further."

Homs is once again in the line of war. On May 13, an AP headline shouted, “ISIS Captures More Territory in Central Syria’s Homs.” For the West, ISIS has become the face of the Syrian revolution. Littell and some American politicians seem to believe that the dominance of ISIS is the result of the West’s failure to confront Assad militarily or to provide adequate support for those who originally formed the opposition within the country. Who knows? The opposition was militarized well before ISIS came upon the scene. Within it were jihadists who were also strongly sectarian in their leanings and who favored a fundamentalist version of Islam. Most importantly, the path of violence had been chosen. And in one Middle Eastern country after another, the violent overthrow of admittedly dictatorial and evil regimes has led to chaos and the rise of equally dictatorial and repressive fundamentalist elements—or, as in Egypt, military rule.

In Syria, cultural forces at work within the opposition to Assad led to violent conflict that, in hindsight, reading Littell’s notebook, seems to have been inevitable. Insulting and demonizing the enemy, using weapons, at first for protection of peaceful demonstrators, then to “counterattack” enemy assaults, celebrating the character and exploits of those who take up arms—even without religious fundamentalism and the concept of jihad, is incompatible with nonviolence. But what about Assad? Didn’t his measures necessitate such a reaction on the part of the opposition? Who is to say? Assad’s regime was dictatorial, repressive, used violence against innocent civilians. But its greatest atrocities, such as the Homs massacre, were in response to pushback from an opposition that had already embraced militarism as a method of protest.

Jonathan Littell reports events. The events were not random; he sought out those that emphasized the conflict between Assad and those who opposed him and he further sought out those that demonstrated the virulence of the Syrian regime and revealed the character of those who fought against it. He did so with almost no editorial commentary. What his reporting revealed was the anatomy of a particular revolution in its infancy. Many of the characteristics of what went on in Homs and in Syria are unique to that country, or that region, or to Islam, but many are not. The situation is now, in most Westerner’s minds, worse than before the revolution began, when Assad was comfortably in power. To others in the region (e.g. those who sympathize with ISIS), this may not seem to be the case. But anyone seeking to fight the repressive powers of a government which uses violence as its means of repression must keep in mind that there are definite things that lead  peaceful opposition to become violent—things that may lead to consequences worse than the situation that provoked the opposition in the first place. Jonathan Littell has documented some of those things in his book.

 

If You Find Yourself

Poetry by Brian Patrick Heston

Charlotte: Main Street Rag, 2014

Reviewed by Randall Mawer

 

I lived in and around Philadelphia for several years and since it is a fine, interesting city and my first “real” one, it remains attractive in ways Brian Heston’s collection of poems touches again and again. Everything enters the street vernacular in ways at once startling and convincing. Take science: “They got black holes now. / Just a dead piece of star that eats up / everything… / Shit, I got ex-wives that give / them holes a run for their money.”

Well-meaning but not terribly aware parents, the exoticism of grade-school learning—hibernation, evolution, volcanoes—all wrapped up in language continually vivid. The poet’s brother, building a ceiling, has “messed up somewhere / and now looks to fix it.” Do the “little radios” in horseflies heads ‘tell them when to die?” “Brian doesn’t know, so he decides to go to the zoo… / When his mother was alive, she would always be home from work and missing him.”

Tender like this is more than offset by the unconscious coldness of juvenile criminals like the ones who beat Dude to death with a ball bat. “What really stopped us / was boredom. After a while it didn’t mean anything, / like burning a dead cat.”

And there are the purely “found” proper nouns: the Arimingo Diner, the Schuylkill River, Graterford Prison, Kingsessing Avenue, “Abimael Smith who, / at seventeen, froze at Valley Forge,” Termini Bros. Cannoli. There is romance and myth in such names, enough to elevate the adventures of tired fathers, thrill-seeking kids, and bored wives to meaningful heights. “[I]n the dream hours / …I’m unable to distinguish Elysian fields / from the abandoned lot next door,” says Brian Heston.

 

Friday
Apr102015

Book Review: Einstein's Beach House by Jacob Appel

Einstein’s Beach House

By Jacob Appel

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

Did Einstein own a beach house?  With considerable literary license, Jacob Appel suggests that the renowned genius did indeed own such a house, but its exact location remains a mystery. As in several of the stories in his collection, Einstein’s Beach House, Appel embraces absurdity to the point that reality becomes as ephemeral as possibility. In the title story, a misprint in the AAA guidebook for New Jersey misidentifies the location of the famous physicist’s summer residence by transposing the numerals in its address. The  owner of the misidentified cottage, taking advantage of the error, begins offering tours of the house. Unfortunately, one of his first customers is a university student who is doing research on Einstein, and when the  ersatz tour guide claims that he bought the house from the physicist’s niece, the student writes to the niece to inquire further. Somehow, the niece produces a deed to the house, despite its having been in the real owner’s family for four generations, and the faux tour guide and his entire family are  evicted.

“Paracosmos,” is a story in which a young girl develops an obsession with an imaginary friend. When her parents forbid her to “play” with the friend any longer, fearing for her mental health, the girl’s mother is visited by the imaginary friend’s father, with whom she begins an affair.

Whimsical, paradoxical, absurd?  

What these stories, as well as the others in Einstein’s Beach House have in common is a charmingly playful approach to reality, couched within familiar, often touching, settings involving family and relationships. The author’s sense of humor is present, either as foreground or background, in every story, making each a delight to read.

Some themes are repeated. Two of the stories involve taking care of an unusual pet: a box turtle in one and a hedgehog in another, and the consequences of taking such custodial relationships too seriously, so that they dominate the characters’ relationships with other humans.  In two of the stories the father is  portrayed as a fast-talking psychopath who nevertheless devotes his scheming and lying to the welfare of, and in one case to  exacting revenge in the name of, his family. Whether such characters are busy duping the public or secretly killing off the relatives of wealthy doctors, they nevertheless come across as human and ultimately lovable.

Throughout the stories, Appel displays a talent for exposing the weaknesses of humans, even in situations where they are presented as irritating, defiant, or vengeful. Often he achieves this by presenting the story through recollections of a child within a family—a child who embodies the innocence and faith in his or her parents that only a child possesses.

What emerges from this collection of stories is a subtle but telling argument for tolerance and understanding, an appreciation of the common human motivations behind what can appear to be aberrant or misguided behavior. And Appel’s story-telling skills are considerable. Each story unfolds with an effortless progression, which snares the reader’s curiosity, arouses his or her emotions, and makes the story hard to put down. At the close of each story,  I found myself pausing to reflect on the emotional insights which had been plumbed within me—but pausing only until my need for reflection was outweighed by my eagerness to begin the next story and see what the author’s quirky, original imagination would come up with next.

Einstein’s Beach House is published by Pressgang, an affiliate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Butler University and  it won their 2013 Pressgang Prize contest. It is available in paperback.

 

 

 

Tuesday
Jan132015

Book Review: The Great Courses by Robert Greenberg

The Great Courses of Robert Greenberg

 Reviewed by Noel Mawer, Book Review Editor

 

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

Understanding the Fundamentals of Music

How to Listen to and Understand Opera

The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works

The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works

Bach and the High Baroque

 

Robert Greenberg, a scholar, composer, and professor of music, has so far produced 26 audio courses for the Great Courses series, six of which I have acquired. Some people have it all: encyclopedic knowledge, boundless enthusiasm, and a witty and entertaining teaching style. This is a very rare combination in the academic world, and these qualities explain professor Greenberg’s stunningly prolific production of these recorded courses. One would like to call him a “natural,” but, having spent my life in the academic world, I know that these qualities are hard won. They are the product of years of study and practice—a good deal of trial and error.

Prof. Greenberg’s enthusiasm is contagious, and after six of his courses I’m looking forward to the next six. As the above list indicates, Greenberg offers courses that include the expected survey (“How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” is a survey of Western music from the ancient Greeks to the present day), as well as examinations of individual genres (opera, symphony, solo piano) and eras and individual composers (Bach and the High Baroque). There’s also a course (Understanding the Fundamentals …) in what is generally known as “music theory”—and all of these are accessible to the non-musician.

I’ve been a Bach enthusiast forever, and had no idea how much I was missing and not just in the music. The biographical and historical background is fascinating. Did you know that Brahms was only five feet tall and didn’t sprout facial hair until the age of 45? And when his beard did grow, he refused to shave—which explains the photographs of him with a lavish white beard. He wouldn’t even remove it for Clara Schumann, with whom he was in love. But as much as he may have loved Clara, he loved his beard more.

Then there’s Bach: universally admired by other composers, J.S. was considered in his lifetime to be inferior to his two composer sons, C.P.E. and J.C.. Further, if you are fond of Bach’s compositions for the piano, you are being fooled: the modern piano, its strings being struck with mallets and its frame made of iron, was not in common use during Bach’s lifetime. Bach had his magnificent organ repertoire and, before the piano, the harpsichord—which, like the harp, had plucked strings and a wooden frame. Even in the early 19th century, the pianos available to Beethoven had wood frames, which Beethoven’s ferocious playing would crack and shatter, routinely breaking strings.

“Piano” is short for “piano-forte”—indicating the instrument’s ability to produce both soft and loud tones, unlike the harpsichord, which had only one level of sound. These limitations in his instruments at least partially explain why Bach is so often performed in transcriptions—and not just for the piano. I’ve heard Bach played on Caribbean steel drums, the marimba, and the Japanese koto. And there are the (to my mind unnecessary) transcriptions of Bach’s organ works for orchestras of various sizes.

The performances Greenberg chooses as illustrations are uniformly illuminating, and even sound good on my ancient boom box. And the selections are often surprising, at least to this non-musician. The music that’s familiar from your classical music station is certainly represented—but much else is offered. Debussy is represented by La Mer—but also by Nuages; Schoenberg by Pierrot Lumare—which belongs on your bucket list. There are even composers I swear absolutely never get played on the radio. How about Alekssander Scriabin? Nicolas Slonskky?

These courses are, to coin a few phrases, both eye-opening and mind-bending. My life is truly enriched by them. How much I was missing!

 

 

Thursday
Nov202014

Book Review: Amercan Blues by Evan Guilford Blake

Writing the Blues

American Blues by Evan Guilford-Blake

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

Every once in a while I make the rounds of the local music venues and bars, searching for some classic jazz or blues. I’m always disappointed.  The jazz is usually something Latin and the blues is thinly disguised, or not disguised at all, rock and roll or grunge, sometimes with some rap thrown in for good measure. Earlier this  year I took my search to New Orleans, which I was sure would reveal the sound I was yearning for, but it didn’t.  I’d last  been to the city in the early 80s and remembered open-front bars with Dixieland or barrel-house blasting from a dark interior, or solitary, ancient black men, picking their guitars and telling me about the life of the down and out. Thirty years later I might just as well have been back in LA. The music I was seeking had become a thing of the past.

So it makes sense, that, in his new collection of short stories, American Blues, Evan Guilford-Blake sets all but one of his stories at least 35 years ago. Guilford-Blake is known for his affection for noir fiction (his only novel is titled Noir(ish)). Even the  collection’s one “modern” story, Animation, set in 2010 at the height of the recent recession, deals with the hopelessness of  unemployment in middle-age—a suitable blues theme even without the central theme of music, which characterizes the other four stories..

With the exception of  Animation, the stories in American Blues span the years from 1943 to 1977. They are all blues stories: hard tales of the vanishing dreams of those who find themselves lost in the society in which they live, their thoughts as much on what might have been as on the reality around them.

 Sonny’s Blues  (1977) tells the story of Sonny Curtis, a fifty-year old jazz saxophone player, barely able to make a living playing at a Chicago club, divorced by a wife who gave up on him because of his lack of income, his travel, and the fact that he cared only for his music. Sonny lives an isolated existence, his social relations confined to his sometime girlfriend, and a childhood friend, who plays in his jazz band. He is plagued by stomach pains, which are worsening. When he finally visits a doctor he finds out that he has incurable cancer, only a few months to live. He tries to fight the pain with medication, but it is a losing battle. When he can no longer make it through an evening’s gig, he gives in to the disease and, while listening to a recording of his favorite jazz, commits  suicide.  It’s an end we can see coming and the only one that seems to make sense for Sonny, who dies alone with no companion other than the one thing to which  he related with any success in his life,  music.

In Tio’s Blues (1957), Tio,  a twenty-eight year old mildly retarded man with a gift for playing trumpet,  lives with his younger brother, Matt, in the home of his Aunt. Tio is ignorant of the world. Much of his time is spent alone, “practicing” his trumpet  by imitating  recordings of classical jazz trumpeters. Tio idolizes Matt, who tells Tio about girls but secretly has Tio masturbate him. When Tio meets a girl, and begins his first sexual exploration, he also tells her about masturbating his brother. The girl, who carries a knife, reacts violently. Summoned by the noise from the altercation, Matt bursts in and  intervenes but ends up grabbing the knife and stabbing Tio’s girl friend, then running away, leaving Tio alone with his bleeding girlfriend, whom the impaired young man does not realize has died.

Nighthawks (1943), the most lyrical of the stories, is a poetic slice of life covering a few hours at a late night diner. The characters mirror those in Edward Hopper’s famous painting: Jimmy, an older man behind the counter, a young couple, Gil and Donna, and a solitary male customer, Wray,  a young black former baseball player who is a veteran of the war and who limps from an injured leg. When the young woman, Donna, shows an interest in Wray, Gil becomes jealous and threatens the black man.  The counterman intervenes with a baseball bat, vowing to hit both men if they don’t stop. Wray takes the bat from him and threatens Gil, while revealing that his “war wound” was inflicted by a gang of white soldiers who beat him with a baseball bat. Eventually things settle down and everyone goes back to his or her own business.  This is a poignant, poetic story about how lives, frustrations, and misunderstandings can interweave in an evening’s interaction.

In  Animation (2010),  “Aggie” is a 52 year-old unemployed divorced man, down on his luck, looking for work and spending his days watching cartoons on TV. His ex-wife is about to remarry, his daughter is in college across the US. in California, and his son, Oliver, is a successful broker who despises his father. Aggie is not a heavy drinker, but one evening he enters a bar and meets a young man who tells him about a job opening. Aggie begins to see his life turning around. He starts going to the gym, watching his diet, and getting ready for a job interview. The interview goes reasonably well, but Aggie has growing doubts about whether he will get the job. He gets drunk and goes to his wife’s fiance’s apartment and takes a swing at the man, then has to be  driven home by his son, who berates him as a failure. The next morning  Aggie finds an email from the HR director telling him that he didn’t get the job. He goes back to watching cartoons.  Although the story has nothing to do with music, it is a realistic, gritty picture of middle-age depression in an era of vanishing employment, a theme suitable for the blues.

The Easy Lovin’ Blues (1962) is the most complex of the five stories, focusing upon a number of characters.  Naurean is a forty-one year old widow and dance teacher who lives with her twenty year old daughter, Amanda. Naurean spends a lot of her time dreaming about her earlier life as a sought-after dance partner.

Upstairs lives a couple: a singer and a trumpeter who are drug addicts. Naurean can hear them practicing from her apartment.  Naurean has met  Rex, an unemployed professional dancer in his mid-twenties. Rex  sweeps Naurean off her feet, partly because she is living in the past, having hallucinatory dreams about her earlier conquests, particularly on the dance floor. Rex is scheming to get his hands on her dance studio. Amanda sees what’s happening but cannot convince her mother of Rex’s dishonest motives. She confides in “Trumpy” the trumpet player from upstairs, but his woman, “Ladyblue,” becomes jealous. Finally Ladyblue demands that Trumpy kill Amanda, which he does. Naurean  finds her daughter’s body then retreats into her fantasies even further, while Rex uses the opportunity to take even greater advantage of her.

I may not have found the classic blues I was looking for in New Orleans, but it resides in every page of American Blues. All of the stories are decidedly downbeat, with  a  gritty, noir flavor fitting the era in which each occurs. The author is at his best when using his poetic skills to describe the inner lives of his characters, such as Jimmy, the counterman in Nighthawks or  Naurean in The Easy Lovin’ Blues. The plots are hardly original.  Tio  has enough of an urban Of Mice and Men quality to foreshadow the tragic ending.  The Easy  Lovin’ Blues is The Glass Menagerie transported to New York in the 60s.   The familiarity of the tragic plots adds to the negative aura  surrounding each story, and the reader reads them with a sense of foreboding, waiting for the final disaster to occur. Despite the unremitting moodiness of each piece, I found that the fine writing kept me reading.  And after all, moodiness is what  the blues is all about.

Saturday
Aug162014

Book Review: Middle C by William Gass

The Sound of Music

Middle C by William Gass

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

I first cursed my misfortune to  have not discovered William Gass until I was in my seventies and he already in his nineties.  But then I realized that the real tragedy would have been for me to happen upon him when I was in my nineties and he in his seventies. He remains prolific into his nineties, although many of these latter-year publications were written when he was younger. Middle C, his  third  novel, was published in 2013, when he was eighty-nine years old, although it was reportedly begun in 1998 and bits and pieces of it published in various formats sprinkled across the intervening years.

Gass is a master of verbal pyrotechnics. In one instance in Middle C he goes on for more than a page on variations on the tune,  Polly Wolly Doodle. Another whole chapter is a poem. The entire book appears to revolve around variations on a single sentence. The only thing lacking in what Publisher’s Weekly called “The unprecedented work  of a master,” is a plot.

Joseph Skizzen,  born Yussel, then becoming Joey and later, Professor Skizzen, is the son of a Polish village fiddle player named Rudi Skizzen and Nita Rouse, a catholic country girl, who, in a turnabout of the traditional story,  adopted the identity of Jews in order to receive assistance fleeing their country as the Nazis approached. The family landed in England, passed themselves off as Jews until it became more advantageous for Rudi, who now went by the name of Yankel Fixel, with a wife named Miriam, to take on the identity of Raymond Scofield, a London lowlife, who eventually won big at the track and left his family for whereabouts unknown. Miriam took her two children, Yussel and Dvorah, to America and set up a household in the small town of Woodbine, Ohio where she readopted her original married name of Skizzen and renamed her two children Joseph and Deborah.

The flurry of names and identities is near-mind-boggling and for the first few chapters it is difficult to keep identities and time periods straight. This is complicated by periodic jumps to the present, where Professor Skizzen is either obsessing about a sentence he cannot stop modifying,  teaching his class on contemporary music at the local religious college, or cutting out clippings of horrific, mostly man-made, catastrophes to pin to the wall of the “Inhumanity Museum” he is constructing in his attic.

Although the pattern is for the story to shift between the present, in which Professor Joseph Skizzen teaches his class (or sometimes barely eludes discovery of his faked CV and academic record) and the past, in which the younger Joey grows up in Woodbine, attends college, obtains and then loses various jobs,  the plot is essentially a string of episodes. Every episode reveals the same truth, which is that neither Joey, Joseph, nor the people or institutions around them are what they seem.

Joey is the supreme faker, although, not quite supreme since he is probably second to his father, Rudi/Yankel/Raymond. But it’s not just Joey. Everyone and everything is a fake. The colleges don’t really teach, the music store where he works sells out-of-date records, the French teacher and the librarian are mostly interested in seducing Joey, and everyone is so immersed in his or her charade that none of them ever catches on to Joey’s shenanigans. Nothing is as it seems—which appears to be the chief message of Middle C. Or perhaps the entire novel is just an excuse for Gass  to dazzle us with his facility with language.

Gass’ verbal gymnastics are not to be underestimated. Take the sentence over which Joseph obsesses. We first hear it as “The fear that the human race  might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.” It appears to be a summing up of Joseph’s estimation of the human race (and, based upon evidence from other writings and interviews, the author’s).  At an intermediate stage, the sentence becomes “Joseph Skizzen’s surmise that mankind might not survive its own profligate and murderous nature has been supplanted by the suspicion that nonetheless it will.” Its penultimate form reads, “The evidence initially pointed in the direction of human extinction, but biologists suggested that, although no one would admire what they had become, a few, the most adaptable to execrable conditions (with their claws, fangs, and double stomachs), would survive.” But music professor Skizzen is not satisfied until he can phrase the sentence in twelve words, to mirror  the twelve tone musical technique of the composer about which he is a supposed expert, Arnold Schoenberg. “First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might survive.”

The word games are mostly humorous and often cynical. When describing the religious  college Joey attended, the students’ “… brains were inactive yet otherwise unharmed beneath the mulch of superstition that lay thickly over them.” Madame Mieux “taught French in a loud raucous voice that went with that language as smoothly as wool with silk, though her gutturals were okay and her r’s rolled like dice.” The rector, Dr. Gunthar Luthardt had a white  face that “glowed like a malignant moon… His eyes were small and his lips were as thin as the edges of a letter slot.”

There are three poems within the novel, two rather long. The one titled, “The Faculty Meeting” is hilarious. Its first stanza reads:

 

This is the way we smirk and sigh, lurk

    and spy, favor buy

this is the way we smile and lie

to prepare for the faculty meeting.

 

The concluding two stanzas are true to the rest of the poem’s message.

 

This is how our tenure concludes, in

               pissy moods and platitudes,

            a career of complaint and attitudes

            in the course of the faculty meetings.

 

           

This is the way retirement starts, with a

chorus of jeers and a volley of farts.

They’re the true heart of academy

          sorts,

            who depart the faculty meeting.

 

So where is Gass going with all of this?

 

He’s not really going anywhere, which is what makes Middle C as much a demonstration of what can be done with sentence construction and metaphor (Gass’ two main obsessions) and sometimes even pun, as it is a fictional narrative.

I first heard of William Gass in the context of a reference to him as a proponent of post-modernism, a label he himself eschews. Given such an orientation, it was easy for me to read a postmodern theme into Rudi’s and Joey’s identity changes, their fakery, and Gass’ unearthing of the superficiality and temporariness of each of his characters’ understanding of reality. In fact  one clear interpretation of the book  is that it is simply saying that reality is what we  make it through our words (not too simply said, it must be admitted).  But this too easy interpretation of the written text  fails to see the statement that is being made about language as a highly  skilled game, which can either dazzle and befuddle, or reveal truths that no other avenue to reality is able.

Is Middle C  then a novel about language? The characters, including the protagonist, Joey/Joseph are not fleshed out in any interior sense. Many are stereotypes, especially those who teach or administer college. The librarian tries to defy being stereotyped, but fails. Both Rudi and Joey, father and son, are guilty of assuming stereotypical identities in order to “pass” in society without drawing attention to themselves. Joey’s personality, limited as it is, does not grow, except in his acquisition of evidence of man’s inhumanity. Twice he rejects advances by women for no apparent reason except his reluctance to become seriously involved in anyone else’s emotional life, or possibly even his own. Whatever his motivations,  other than to remain obscure, they are never examined.

What emerges in the narrative is variation, possibly as an experiment, possibly for its own sake. Rudi and Joey accomplish this variation by changing their personalities, Rudi with some reason behind his changes, Joey with less reason and sometimes simply because he can get away with it. The question then that Gass seems determined to answer, is, in how many ways can the same thing be described? Can the sentences used in such descriptions range from confident to hesitant, from triumphant to dejected, from serious to absurd, yet all apply to the same character and often the same situation?

Not only does Gass answer the above question through his descriptions of the musings of his protagonist, he makes the dilemma explicit through Joseph’s obsession about the correct phrasing of the sentence, the aim of which is to describe his change of heart about the fate of humanity. Can the sentence end with a preposition? Should it be phrased in the first person? The third person? As a universal concern? As a thought with no thinker? Should the author of the sentence “fear” that humanity survive or should he harbor the “suspicion” that it will? The variations could be endless and Joseph tries out a fair share of them. His final choice opts for form above substance (although Gass would probably not concur with this conclusion) and symbolism (Schoenberg’s twelve tones) to suggest perhaps deeper meanings and the inevitable similarity between music and words. It is the perfect choice for a literatus.

We should not be surprised. Gass has been accused of being in love with the sentence, a “vice” to which he readily admits. His essays “The aesthetic structure of a sentence,” and “Narrative sentences,” both reprinted in the 2011 volume, Life Sentences, dwell upon exactly this point.  Sentences,  he says, have the capacity for infinite additions, each of which changes both the meaning and the sound. In fact, in the former essay, Gass takes the sentence, “The man at the door was an encyclopedia salesman,” and subjects it to the same permutations and examination as Joseph’s problematical sentence in Middle C.

Middle C examines less than did Gass’ acknowledged masterpiece, The Tunnel, which explored the identity of a character in more depth and raised questions about the role of the historian in shaping history and underneath that, the role that composing language can play in providing understanding of oneself. Middle C does not reach these heights or depths. William Kohler, the character in The Tunnel was detestable but self-aware. Joseph Skizzen is pathetic, but to himself, unexamined. This is mostly because there is no there, there, so far as his character is concerned. Kohler hated humanity while Skizzen is repulsed by it, although from whence the repulsion stems in terms of Joseph’s own standards, is difficult to discern.

Elsewhere, Gass has said that there is a difference between a story and a work of fiction. “Fiction revels in its antagonism to story. It needs story, but often only to abuse it,” he says in his essay, “The nature of narrative and its philosophical implications,”  in his 2002 collection, Tests of Time. Only fiction, not story, is dependent upon form. Good stories, he says, make good movies. Good fiction not necessarily. Novels require stories, literature does not. Middle C  is literature, but I am not sure that it is a novel. I would give it more than a middle C, but not quite an A.

 

 

Sunday
May182014

Book Reviews: The Jefferson Bible, The Sense of an Ending, The Great Courses

The Faith of Our Fathers

Review of  The Jefferson Bible

By Casey Dorman

 

An unending debate between some on the American right and others on the American left concerns whether or not our country was founded upon “Christian principles.” Central to this debate for some is the question of the extent to which our so-called “founding fathers” embraced the Christian religion. An important question, at least in terms of this debate (the importance of which itself can be questioned), is whether or not the founding fathers derived their ideas primarily from their personal Christian theologies. A examination of the writings by and about such historic figures as Franklin, Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson might give us some clues as to the answer  to this question.

Brooke Allen has done an admirable, although not necessarily even-handed, job of examining the lives and writings of the founding fathers in pursuit of the answer to the question about  each of their religions and its role in determining their views of the principles they wished to have govern the United States. Her 2006 book, Moral Minority, delves into the views of each of the six afore-mentioned patriots. Her conclusion was that all six of them were, to varying degrees, deists and not Christians—believers in a higher power which may have created the universe, but not believers in an anthropomorphic  god nor in Jesus as his son. Their philosophy, which was instantiated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, was not only heavily influenced by enlightenment thinking, particularly John Locke, but, in most cases it specifically excluded god as having anything to do with the conduct of government. The failure to include any reference to Jesus Christ in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution and no references even to God in the latter was not because they took the Christian basis for these documents for granted, but because they specifically did not want any religious dogma to have a role in the governing of the new nation. Most of them, like Thomas Jefferson, went so far as to say that whatsoever a person’s religion, even if it was no belief in god at all, it should have no bearing on that person’s legitimate right not only to participate in government as a citizen, but to guide that government as an elected officer.

But what of these men’s private beliefs? Allen and many others have gone into this topic at length. Some of the early patriots, such as Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine,  made no secret of their lack of religious faith, which included at most a deistic philosophy and perhaps atheism. Most of the others, such as Benjamin Franklin, were severely critical of the Christian religion, but gave at least lip service and probably their real belief to a vague, deistic presence, which they referred to in the least specific terms, such as “providence.” Thomas Jefferson was forthright in his homage to Jesus as an exemplar of "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” But he did not regard Jesus as divine, nor as having produced miracles, including being born from a virgin and being resurrected after death.

Jefferson was so sincere in his desire to rid the teachings of Jesus from the trappings of divinity and miracles, that he took a razor and cut out parts of the first four books of the New Testament, leaving out the miracles and signs of divinity, and pasted them into a new book. In fact he did this four times, pasting English, Greek, Latin and French, side by side in his own version of the book. The first version of this book, which he constructed in 1804, was titled The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, being Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrassed [uncomplicated] with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions. The title implies that the book, which was never published, was merely a simplification of the New Testament, meant for unlettered Indians, who would have been confused by discussion of Jesus’ divinity or of miracles (Benjamin Franklin’s brief article, Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America, pokes fun at the missionaries who ridiculed  Indian spiritual stories as being “fable, fiction and falsehood,” while expecting the Indians to take their own stories of Jesus seriously). Modern Christians and conservative pundits have fastened upon Jefferson’s lengthy title to suggest that he really did believe in Jesus’ divinity, but was just “dumbing down” the Bible stories for the sake of the Indians. However, when Jefferson revised his Bible fifteen years later, he also revised its title to be The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, with no mention of Indians. He was reported to have read his self-constructed Bible every night before retiring.

So what does Jefferson’s Bible contain and what did he leave out? The “Jefferson Bible” is a very slim volume when reprinted as a modern paperback. It consists of seventeen chapters, containing excerpts from Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, often jumping from one book to another, sometimes in mid-story, pasted together to avoid repetition and to maintain a coherent narrative. There is no commentary or non-biblical content in the book. Jefferson did not reference any of the passages  to their biblical sources—a fact which makes verifying each of them tedious, given the many parallel passages among the telling and retelling of Jesus’ story in the four New Testament books. His Bible begins with the simple statement of Jesus’ birth, including the trip to Bethlehem to pay taxes, the birth in the manger and then the circumcision at eight days of age. There is no mention of Mary being a virgin, of a visitation from an angel, none of the Christmas pageant characters such as shepherds from the fields or wise men, no star in the sky, etc. The story then jumps to Jesus being 12 years old and preaching in the synagogue, leaving out some phrases such as Jesus saying he is “about my father’s business” (Luke 2:49), which might either signify Jesus’ divinity or his fulfillment of prophesy.

John the Baptist is included in Jefferson’s pasted together story, including his baptism of Jesus and his own beheading, but John’s prophesies about Jesus and his words about someone “mightier than I” (Mark 1:7) coming after him are omitted, as are all other references to God speaking to Jesus, the detailing of Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, Jesus’ conversation with the devil, as well as every instance of Jesus performing a healing or a miracle. Virtually all of Jesus’ examples of breaking the Jewish laws in order to be more fair or compassionate are cited in Jefferson’s story, as are some of Jesus’ greatest sermons, such as his “sermon on the mount” in the book of Mathew, in which he recites the beatitudes and amplifies the meaning of the ten commandments.

Many of the well-known sayings of Jesus are found in Jefferson’s text, such as “Judge not that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1), his reference to the “lilies of the field” (Matt. 6:28), the house “built on a rock” (Matt. 7:24), etc. Also  included are some of the famous stories, such as the woman washing Jesus’ feet, his saving of the adulteress about to be stoned to death, and a great many of the parables. The final chapters of Jefferson’s book jump from one biblical source to another, but quote extended passages, such as nearly all of Mathew 26 in its account of the last supper (leaving out the passages 26-28  that are the basis for communion, i.e. “Take, eat; this is my body,” and “Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed   for the remission of sins” ). The story of Jesus’ capture and trial and crucifixion is pieced together from a dizzying alternation between sources and excludes Jesus’ claim of divinity in Mark 14, in his answer to the priests’ question, “art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” with the answer,” I am, and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in  the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14: 61-62). The final two passages from the book , the first from John and the second from Mathew, are completely devoid of even a hint of Jesus’ resurrection.

“There laid they Jesus”

“And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre and departed.”

Despite some claims to the contrary, Jefferson’s book is not devoid of some hints that Jesus might be divine. He includes Jesus referring  to the “Son of Man” on several occasions, although in most cases, it is not clear from the biblical text if Jesus is referring to himself  or to someone else, and the interpretation of the phrase is murky, anyway. Jefferson does include the passage, “for the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10), which is said in a context  that implies that Jesus is referring to himself, although the passage does not strongly imply the divinity of the “Son of Man.”  Perhaps just as puzzling is the fact that Jefferson tells the story of the Passover supper, the capture in Gethsemane garden, the trial of Jesus and the crucifixion, in great detail covering several of his last chapters. Almost none of this part of Jesus’ story in the Bible contains any moral lessons or pronouncements. Was Jefferson so diligent about telling this part of the story because he wanted to make the narrative complete, right up to the end, or did he include these parts out of reverence for Jesus?  The answer is not clear.

Almost inexplicably, Jefferson also included some seemingly irrelevant details from the New Testament, such as Jesus writing an unknown something on the ground as he was talking to the men who were about to stone the adulteress (John 8:6-8). He also includes two passages referring to a young man in a “linen cloth” who pursues Jesus’ captors after the disciples have fled and who has the cloth taken from him, forcing him to run away naked (Mark14: 51-52). These details, which appear to serve no function in the Bible, are a mystery in terms of why Jefferson would keep them in his carefully considered collection of excerpts.

It is abundantly clear that Jefferson’s aim, in constructing his bible, was to remove the miraculous and the divine (and the repetitive) components of the story of Jesus found in the New Testament. He did an admirable job. There are not even any hints that Jesus possessed extraordinary powers beyond those of other humans. There are the merest hints that Jesus considered himself divine, mostly related to his ambiguous use of the ambiguous term, “Son of Man.”  The virgin birth and the resurrection are simply left out of the story. None of Jesus’ moral teachings is left out.

Jefferson seemed mostly to be interested in constructing a book of Jesus’ moral teachings, which fits with his well-known adulation for Jesus as a great moral teacher. The testimonies from his children that he read the book nearly every night, indicate that he used the book for his own edification. The real question that is relevant to the larger issue of whether Jefferson himself was an atheist or deist, as opposed to a believing Christian, hinges upon why he left out the parts of the Bible that show Jesus performing miracles or  which imply his divinity. This will probably continue to be debated.

 

 

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Reviewed by Noel Mawer

 

Although Julian Barnes’ 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending seems to be intended as a member of the class “literary fiction” (it did win the Man Booker prize, after all), it also slips handily into the Agatha Christie genre “locked room whodunit.”

When Agatha Christie employed a first-person narrator in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, she clearly did it to entrap the reader. As we have no authorial voice to tell us what really happened, we are at the mercy of a narrator who is not only a character in the story but also may, deliberately or unwittingly, mislead us. Christie’s narrator is the former: he tells us what he wants us to know and we are misled up to the very end and the inevitable (this is Agatha Christie) unmasking.

Julian Barnes falls into the second category. The narrator himself is deluded and so tells us only what he believes to be true. Until the ending (?), the title would lead us to believe that it is the ending, we are led down the garden path with the narrator and at the end we either know or don’t know what he knows or thinks he knows.

If this is some sort of post-modernism, well, my take is rather a traditional enough novel, reminiscent of Henry James, who achieves a similar effect by limiting the author’s omniscience to the mind of the narrator. (Point of view is a fraught question in the literary world, with authors trying to reveal or obscure the “truth” and ponder the question of whether it’s “dishonest” for a narrator to deliberately mislead the reader about what is, after all, a fabrication.)

Surely we are long past Samuel Richardson and the epistolary novel constructed as a series of letters to increase its believability. Alice Walker, in The Color Purple, turned the form into a cloying “Dear God.”

And so our protagonist sets out to find what really happened forty years before. In the present he meditates on the vagaries of time and memory, which, I suppose, could be taken more seriously if he weren’t such a self-deluding person.

The story begins with Tony Webster, the narrator, receiving a bequest from the recently deceased mother of his lover of forty years ago. His attempts to understand why this happened motivate his search that will reveal … something. Tony had, after all, only met this mother once, on one weekend visit to her family, the details of which he remembers quite clearly, as well as the questions they raised at the time.

As Tony discovers more about the events of that weekend, he reinterprets them as does the reader. Tony’s reconstructions of these and other events in the past are the subject of intense examination. We get to draw our own conclusions about Tony and the rest of the cast, and, as Tony tries to recall his life, we may see him as self-deluding while the reader’s narrative runs parallel to his and leads us to believe that it was, indeed, Tony who killed Roger Ackroyd. But nothing so melodramatic as murder occurs, though the reader might suppose such.

Tony not only kills no one; he actually doesn’t do much that merits the reader’s attention or concern. And Tony thinks so too. But the novel is a fairly intricate puzzle, its mysteries rather excessively compounded by the behavior of the former girlfriend, who sees the obtuseness of the narrator, and seems deliberately to exploit it.

The author, and many readers, may think the book is about time and memory. But Tony isn’t interesting or profound enough to really have much to say on these subjects. To me, this works best as a puzzle mystery, one that is unresolved at its conclusion. This locked room seems as if it will remain for Tony, but to the reader it may keep revealing new facets for some time after she has closed the book. A sad tale about a sad man who never, despite his efforts, was able to look into himself or into the people around him.

 

The Great Courses: Are They Really?

By Noel Mawer

 

I recently encountered an item in my local newspaper about the discovery in Spain of a bone believed to be a specimen of homo erectus (a precursor to our species, homo sapiens) and to be 400,000 years old. If you’ve been following the quest for human origins you will note that this is about 300,000 years older than other pre-human species and not in the right place—the accepted theory is that humans originated in Africa and migrated to Europe and Asia 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.

This is the kind of discovery that causes wholesale rethinking by archaeologists and anthropologists. Early in 2013, eastern European scientists announced the finding of a 1.8 million-year-old in Georgia (the European one), a skull which they believed to be “pre-human” (again, homo erectus). If E.O. Wilson, the sociobiologist, is correct in assuming that language was necessary for mass migrations, and, as many linguists think, language dates back only 100-150 thousand years, there are a lot of blanks to fill in.

So what do these facts and speculations have to base their conclusions on? A few fortuitously preserved bones (where will your bones be in 400,000 years?) and the sciences of carbon dating and DNA retrieval and analysis. These are apparently reliable tools, but the scientists who use them are not claiming absolute certainty. They may espouse theories, but they temper them with elaborate cautions.

Take, for one example, the archaeologist Brian Fagan, author of many books and of Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations, a 2003 contribution to the “Great Courses” series of lectures on various topics. (You may have seen the ads in a magazine or received a mailer about them.) The lectures are produced by what was originally called The Teaching Company. More recently the prices of Great Courses have been reduced significantly and the company has engaged in aggressive marketing. I find their pitch irresistible and have completed eight courses while ordering several more. In this review, I will deal with courses in science.

And this brings us back to Brian Fagan. Professor Fagan, as a good scientist should, qualifies all theoretical assertions not only by citing the evidence but by giving competing interpretations. He does these things in a most engaging manner: this Cambridge-educated gentleman always wears an ascot and peppers his speech with Britishisms and archaisms. The past tense of “eat” is pronounced “et” (though spelled “ate”); “di” is pronounced as “j,” as in “immejiate.” And the lectures (36 of them) are models for undergraduate teaching—accessible to the neophyte, yet sufficiently complex for the advanced student. Professor Fagan begins each lecture by outlining what he will say, then says it, and ends by summarizing what he has said. These lectures are uniformly clear and informative, with the occasional dramatic flourish (think Patrick Stewart speaking always in complete sentences). Like all the Great Courses, this one comes with a booklet containing outlines of each lecture, bibliography, and extensive and useful glossary.

I mentioned Fagan’s scientific method—presenting the evidence and then describing the theories that have been posited by scientists in the field, because I have found other scientists in these courses who take what seems to me to be a much less rigorous approach. “Science” is one of those terms like “love” or “closure” that mean all things to all people. Few would quibble with chemists in their classification of elements. The elements are, after all, accessible phenomena, and the scientists who work with them agree about their properties.

The problems arise with scientists that rely on very little evidence (like archaeologists), but Fagan’s approach, presenting the conflicting theories, addresses the problem. However, let’s take the sciences (mostly labeled “social” or “behavioral”) that rely on the various assertions of various authorities: anthropology, sociology, linguistics. I won’t even mention library science, creation science, Christian Science. Which leads us to the next Great Course: “Linguistics, the Science of Language.” Like the other social/behavioral sciences mentioned, the “facts” upon which theories are constructed are a body of observations which often cannot be verified. And this leads to these disciplines being perpetually mired in strife over what theories would come out of “evidence” that may lead observers to various conclusions.

But Fagan has it easy. Those old bones and rocks on which archaeology is based have a limited scope for interpretation. In most cases, the scientists can agree on a great deal, such as the age of the fossils, thanks to carbon dating.

To return to linguistics, what the specialists seem to be doing is attempting to base their theories on the first uses of language. Such theories as “universal grammar” are based on languages which no longer exist. Yet that theory has captured the imagination of linguists since the 1950’s. But if the proper study of mankind is man, the proper study of linguistics is language. And here’s the rub: the few extant artifacts of prehistoric people are, as “prehistoric” would imply, completely lacking in language. Yet linguists base their theories on their “reconstruction” of these non-existent languages, which most scientists agree were spoken before writing by at least a hundred thousand years. Archaeological finds have confirmed that human animals had the necessary biological organs for speech, but left nothing written, presumably because writing had yet to be invented.

Linguists can take the languages that exist today and try to reconstruct what their original versions might have been. But the uncountable number of changes that occur even now in languages make this method of searching for a source more wishful than scientific. Our very own language, which stemmed from Anglo-Saxon (usually called Old English), was the written language used only 1,500 years ago, yet to present-day English speakers, it is incomprehensible, in effect a foreign language. And when languages have no written form to provide some sort of uniformity and stability, they change with stunning rapidity. (This has been observed in recent times in preliterate cultures).

So how do linguists create the “science of language”? For the answer, we turn to Professor John McWhorter’s “Great Course.” Much of the course is devoted to lists of details about extant languages and their relationship to one another. But then, when McWhorter gets to theories of language origin and grammar, we are led into the realm of unsubstantiated speculation. McWhorter explicitly bases his theories on those described by Steven Pinker in his 1994 work The Language Instinct, which assumes that there are such things as universal human nature and an “instinct for language.”

It has been for some time an accepted tenet of social and behavioral sciences that “instinct” is, to quote E.O. Wilson, “[b]ehavior that is highly stereotyped, more complex than the simplest reflexes—usually directed at particular objects in the environment. Learning may or may not be involved in the development of instinctive behavior; the important point is that the behavior develops toward a narrow, predictable end product.” Like mating behavior in many species, and like the songs of birds, which seem to be the same from place to place and over time, many of these are learned: parents teach their offspring, and they always teach them exactly what they and all their fellows learned.

Obviously, Pinker is thinking of some other meaning for “instinct.” First: “Learning is not an alternative to innateness; without our innate mechanisms to do the learning, it could not happen at all.” So far, no problem. But then: “mental language mechanisms must have a complex design, with many interacting parts.” So human experience may become part of the human’s culture, “just as there is a universal design to the computations of grammar, there is a universal design to the rest of the human mind.” The brain contains “different modules each keyed to the peculiar logic and laws of one domain.”

This is the theory of learning and mind that McWhorter espouses. However, not every linguist agrees. David J. Buller in his 2005 Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature devotes the entire (500 page) volume to demonstrating that the mechanisms that Pinker et al point to in explaining language are “ deeply antithetical to a truly evolutionary view of our species,” because this view seems to suggest  the long-discredited Lamarckian theory that acquired characteristics are heritable. Those “modules,” I would suggest, come from the same bag of tricks that some cosmologists have used to posit “superstrings” as the ultimate reality. But here’s my point: McWhorter, unlike Brian Fagan and others, chooses to espouse an unsubstantiated theory to “explain” the mysteries of language. Unlike Fagan and others practicing inductive reasoning, McWhorter simply asserts but doesn’t explain and certainly makes no attempt to consider alternative theories.

Thus I conclude that McWhorter’s “Great Course” is full of interesting tidbits but lacks the methodology that science demands, to make linguistics truly a science.

The third “Great Course” I explored is, again, labeled “science.” That course, “Chaos,” is taught by Steven Strogatz , professor of mechanics and mathematics at Cornell. Professor Strogatz defines chaos, as, colloquially, confusion; but “scientifically,” as “seemingly random, unpredictable behavior in a system that is nevertheless governed by deterministic laws.” It is predictable in the short run (because of determinism), but, therefore, unstable in the long run because of sensitivity to material conditions.

The problem leaps off the page: is he saying that if we know all the elements involved, anything would be predictable? I have heard this about weather prediction. But chaos theory seems to suggest that this applies to all of science and means that all conclusions are tentative.

Professor Strogatz’s admirably clear explanations depend on such entities as “state space” and “strange attractor.” To me, this seems to venture into the realm of “human nature” and “language instinct.” Chaos theory may ultimately be another case of a “theory of everything”—the chimerical siren song that seems to lure scientists in many different disciplines.

In summary: The Great Courses I have sampled are genuinely college level material, often but not always presented engagingly. The supporting written material is uniformly useful. I intend to pursue more of these offerings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Thursday
Jan302014

Book Review

Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naes

Edited by Alan Drengson and Bill Devall

Counterpoint: Berkeley

 

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

I had never heard the phrase “deep ecology” until I began searching for groups that might be interested in reading my ecologically-oriented, science fiction novel, Morality: Book Two—The Peacemaker.  According to Alan Drengson, one of the editors of Ecology of Wisdom and a leader in the deep ecology movement, “The distinguishing and original characteristics of the deep ecology movement were its recognition of the inherent value of all living beings and the use of this view in shaping environmental policies.” Additionally, the deep ecology philosophy includes the idea that human activity, both in terms of population size and the push for an ever-increasing standard of living through technological progress, threatens the diversity of life on our planet. These sentiments may sound pretty standard among environmentalists, but in the words, the practices and the life of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, they took on new meaning, which gave definition to the title deep ecology and distinguished it from other movements.

 

Arne Naess (1912-2009) was a Norwegian philosopher, mountaineer, educator, and environmental activist. He worked with psychologist Edward Chace Tolman at U.C. Berkeley in the 1930s, studying the behavior of the psychologists who studied rats and was a devotee of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein as well as Spinoza. His philosophical work in the area of semantics, which built upon both Wittgenstein and Charles Ogden, led him to communicate even his most sophisticated ideas in ordinary language and consistently to argue for a multiplicity of meanings that depended upon contextual factors, a tolerance for ambiguity which translated into a  more general tolerance, influenced also by his belief in Gandhian non-violence, toward the opinions of others. His writings are characteristically inviting, undogmatic and respectful of those who disagree with him.

 

Naess’ efforts to civilize dialogue and to express his philosophical point of view in ideas that could be applied to real life is most evident in his “rules for serious discussion,” which he claims may be derived from Gandhi’s teachings. To quote Naess, his rules “do not consider all kinds of verbal communication, but only those in which questions are posed in a serious way and where plain, serious answers are expected.” He refers to such communication “simply as discussion.” It is probably evident that, for a philosopher, he writes like a layman. His rules include (paraphrased as needed):

Keep to the point, even if it may sometimes harm one’s own position and clever evasion would strengthen it.

Avoid characterizing another’s point of view inaccurately in order to further your own.

Resist the temptation to strengthen your case by the use of ambiguities that mislead the opponent.

Avoid giving firsthand reports that convey a distorted and unfavorable impression or give a false impression

Avoid creating a non-neutral context for a discussion by such things as using derogatory language about the speaker, or his or her associates, etc.

Do not claim that your opponent supports a conclusion you believe follows from his argument unless he or she agrees that it follows.

While Naess’ rules could apply to any discussion or debate, he is concerned about applying them to both sides of discussions dealing with ecology.  It should be readily apparent that both  environmentalists and non-environmentalists ordinarily violate many if not most of these rules in their claims about each other and their discussions with one another.

 

In an essay with the title, “The Basics Of The Deep Ecology Movement,” Naess gives his “tentative suggestions” as to the content of the deep ecological theoretical point of view. He refers to his formulation as a common platform of deep ecology, which he distinguishes from the philosophies and religions that might lead one to adopt such a platform.  Although he named his position deep ecology and distinguished it from what he called shallow ecology because of the level of philosophical thinking involved in the former but not the latter, he was also aware that supporters of deep ecology may derive their support from a variety of otherwise incompatible philosophical or religious bases. While he urges everyone to examine the relationship between his or her commitment to deep ecological principles and his or her own fundamental philosophy or religion, he is adamant that acceptance of deep ecology does not imply any particular underlying philosophy or religion. His platform is as follows:

 

  1. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
  2. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
  3. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
  4. In view of the foregoing points, policies must be changed. The changes in policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present and make possible a more joyful experience of the connectedness of all things.
  5. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to  an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.
  6. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

Naess’ deep ecology platform is a call to action on the implementation of a vision of a smaller, simpler lifestyle, lived by a smaller population, which values the plant, animal and inanimate environment around it for its own sake. His caveat that humans have a right to do what they must to satisfy their vital needs, makes his platform one of mutual survival among the other inhabitants of the planet, not suicide for the human race.

 

This book is filled with Arne Naess’ writings on a variety of subjects, some of which are more pertinent to his own underlying philosophy than to the deep ecology movement, per se. The sections on Methodology and Systems, for instance contain more general philosophical material, although several of the pieces related his thinking in these areas to deep ecology. Similarly, his discussions of Buddhism and of the philosophy of Spinoza seem to reflect his personal framework from which his own adherence to deep ecology is derived, but are not essential to understanding the movement. I found his thoughts on nonmilitary defense and nonmilitary resistance fascinating, although most appropriate for small nations in danger of being gobbled up by larger ones, as was Norway during World War II and the Cold War. As a nonviolent resistance leader against the Nazi occupation of his country, Naess was well aware of both the effectiveness and the dangers involved in following his approach.

 

The opening sections of Ecology of Wisdom include Naess’ reflections on the importance of a sense of place in developing one’s appreciation of the world and he focuses upon Tvergastein, his name for a hut he often occupied high on the side of a Norwegian mountain. His descriptions are thrilling and perceptive enough to give the reader a greater sense of the wonder of the environment around him.

 

This is a book filled with many messages, but perhaps the most useful takeaway messages are found in the final section, called Problems and Ways Forward. Here he discusses our views of nonindustrialized cultures and the need to appreciate how they have interacted with their environment as well  as the tendencies of their modern members to go along with the industrialized world’s  devaluation of them. His thinking is influenced by all of the philosophy he discussed in earlier parts of the book, such as the limits of thinking in subject/object dichotomies. He has comments and suggestions about education, particularly the need to focus upon bioregional and global history, rather than national history, to remove discussions that serve to elevate one culture and denigrate another and to include a history of the planet and of all life, not just human events, while not leaving out the negative effects of events caused by humans on the planet as a whole.

 

Perhaps the most useful discussions, for those of us looking for guidelines on what to do, are Naess’ views on how to achieve sustainability. He is explicit on what he means by the term: “There is ecological sustainability if, and only if, the richness and diversity of life-forms are sustained.” Thus, he clearly views sustainability not just in human terms. Many definitions of sustainability put forward by political or governmental groups emphasize the need to maintain a world that will support future generations of humans. While Naess agrees with such a limited goal, he does not stop there. He points out that, for instance, a plan for reforestation of decimated lands in order to provide wood for human fuel, building, goods, etc., which reforested with fast-growing trees of a limited number of species would perhaps meet the needs of humans but it would not support the biodiversity of the forest. Thus it fails to meet his criterion of ecological sustainability.

 

What are Naess’ reasons for valuing life forms other than humans (and in fact, he values more than life forms, including also mountain ranges, lakes deserts, etc. as valuable in their own right)? He declines to give his reasons, instead saying that some things are just intuitively obvious to him. He names several.

 

Every life-form has a worth of its own independent of its usefulness for human beings.

 

Animals have a right to exist, no less of a right than that of human beings.

 

Life diversity is a good thing, independent of human usefulness.

 

Life on earth is a value even without human beings to value it.

 

 

In the final pages of the book Naess goes back to the fourth point of his deep ecology platform:

The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

 

He calls for a serious discussion of the consequences of population reduction and puts forth some interesting speculations. For instance, although  a reduction in birth rate would likely alter the ratio of young to old humans, with fewer young people supporting more elderly people, he points out that it may be as costly to support children as it is to support old people. The number of children and their cost would be reduced. He also points out that, in modern societies, the costs of supporting children are often paid for by families while the costs of supporting the elderly are paid for by societies, so there is a greater public cost to the latter, requiring greater taxes to support it. But fewer children would also cost less to school, which is also a public cost, so the actual burden is difficult to gauge and merits serious economic forecasting.

 

Naess’ final argument for population reduction is based upon values. He defines the ultimate goals of individuals as an increase in pleasure, which he defines sensually, an increase in happiness, which he defines as long term positive feelings not reducible to the senses, and an increase in perfection, which he defines as such things as “authenticity,” “doing one’s duty in life,” “letting God lead,” or “self-realization.”  He then goes on to posit two additional propositions:

 

 

 

Naess’ words are, as the title of the book suggests, wise, but they are also inspiring, although in a way that requires serious thought and analysis. But he  has coined some inspirational gems, which sprinkle not only his own works, but those of many of his followers.  I will leave you with several of my favorites:

 

Seek truth but do not claim it.

 

Be nonviolent in language, judgment, and action.

 

Question yourself deeply.

 

Every event has many descriptions and aspects.

 

The more diversity the better.

 

High quality of life does not depend on high material consumption.

 

Find joy in simple things.

 

Simple in means, rich in ends.

 

 

 

 

Thursday
Oct172013

Book Reviews 

Cuba:  The Island I Treasure

By Walter de Jesus Fitzwater

 

Reviewed by Noel Mawer

 

Thomas Wolfe told us that you can’t go home again, but that never stopped anyone from trying.  And how alluring must the thought of returning be when the home from which one was precipitously removed almost fifty years ago is Cuba, a land that has become almost mythical to Americans as the U.S. government’s embargo has gone on for an unbelievable half century. 

 

Walter de Jesus Fitzwater (the name alone suggests the conflict he experienced as a Cuban American), along with his mother and sister, was abruptly spirited out of Cuba at the time of the Cuban missile crisis (1962).  After taking refuge at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo, where Fitzwater’s mother was employed, the family did as so many others did at that time:  boarded a plane for Florida, not knowing if or when they might return.                     

 

But years passed, and Cuba grew more and more mysterious to Americans and  Fitzwater became more and more convinced that he wanted to go back and see what the land of his childhood had become.  If we have tried this ourselves, going back to our childhood homes, we know the strangeness of the experience.  Once we were little, while everything else was big, and the change in our perceptions was not limited to size.  Everything has shrunk and does not match the reality we remember.  Not only is everything smaller; it is also shabbier or even gone—ruined or replaced.  And with a country as affected by isolation as Cuba there is the inevitable decline in the appearance and reality imposed by its estrangement from the United States, once its close ally and trading partner.

 

Fitzwater was able to participate in a cultural exchange to conduct AIDS-awareness workshops and theatrical presentations on the island.  This alone could be life-changing, but the past and present coming together is a story that appeals not only to one’s own memories of one’s childhood but also to those who want to experience this first-hand encounter with the mysterious island which is only now, if slowly, being opened to us.  

 

Cuba, the Island I Treasure is published by Xlibris and available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 

 

 

 

The Cambridge Quintet

 by John L. Casti

 

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

 

I entered college the year after publication of C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. It was required reading in my Freshman English class. Three years later I took my first upper division philosophy course (actually a graduate course) called “Philosophy of Mind,” and I was introduced to Gilbert Ryle, Norman Malcolm and, most importantly, Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose Philosophical Investigations remains the most well-thumbed book on my bookshelf. I read it at least yearly to sharpen my mind, and to remind myself that being smart can be fun.

 

I’m retired now, but John Casti’s The Cambridge Quintet, brought back all of these experiences. Once again I felt the thrill of thinking about how marvelous the human brain is, how miraculous its computational power. Reading The Cambridge Quintet is pure fun, probably more so for someone of my age and background, who cut my intellectual teeth on the writings of the “quintet” and who wrestled with the same problems as they did for much of my professional career, including my post-psychology career as a novelist.

 

The quintet consists of Charles Percy Snow, the host for the evening, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, mathematician Alan Turing, biologist J.B.S. Haldane and physicist Erwin Schrödinger. The setting is Christ’s College, Cambridge. The year is 1949. Snow has been asked by his government to explore the idea of “thinking machines,” an idea pioneered by Turing in Great Britain and by John von Neumann in the United States, by discussing it with a group of the U.K.’s greatest thinkers. To do so, he invites Wittgenstein, Turing, Haldane and Schrödinger for dinner at his alma mater.

 

The author, John L. Casti, a mathematician and futurist who has authored numerous books, some scientific or mathematical, some historical and some fiction is well qualified and well-versed in the work of each member of the quintet and the issues discussed in the book. He calls it a work of “scientific speculation,” rather than a novel.

 

Wittgenstein and Turing are two of my personal heroes. The first because he has given what I continue to believe is the most cogent analysis of what philosophy is about and what it should not be about that I have ever read. His statement, “The first mistake is to ask the question, the second is to try to answer it,” sums up, for me, most of the speculative conversations that have been spoken or written. Turing was a brilliant mathematician whose “Turing Machine” provided the theoretical basis for the computer revolution. His “Turing Test” to determine if humans can distinguish the output of a computer from that of a human being is still regarded as the best way to determine whether or not a computer can really think.

 

Turing and Wittgenstein provide the tension for the evening. Snow is the mediator and the Haldane and Schrödinger provide input from their respective fields of science (and Schrödinger from his studies of Eastern philosophy). While Turing asserts that a machine that follows a set of computational operations to solve any problem can be described as “thinking,” in the human sense of the word, the others are not so sure. Wittgenstein is the most vehement in his objection, arguing that the term “thinking” is not appropriate for a computer. The others question whether the machine’s ability to do circumscribed operations, such as solve math problems or play chess, brings it any closer to the way humans think.

 

Casti claims poetic license and pulls his arguments and even some of his science from the post-1949 period. An example is Wittgenstein’s use of Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought experiment, relabeled as the “Hieroglyphic Room,” or Chomsky’s argument for a deep structure of language and a special language acquisition device, which Turing introduces as an “organ of language” inherited in all humans. The discussion of computing, which is led by Turing, cites the work of McCulloch and Pitts (1943) on neural nets but goes well beyond that into some of the connectionist models and experiments, which came decades later.

 

I was somewhat puzzled by Wittgenstein’s implacable stance against Turing’s position, based as it was on the philosopher’s argument that it didn’t capture what went on “inside” of a human when they were thinking. Wittgenstein, in his later work was one of the staunchest opponents to the claim that the essence of thought or language (as we use those words in ordinary language) was what went on inside of a person, as opposed to what was evident in their social behavior. In fact, for this reason, most behaviorists have claimed him as one of their own. But it is Turing who champions the behaviorist position, at least during some moments in the dinner conversation. He, in fact, arrives at the conclusion that a computer could learn through the same kind of operant conditioning posited by behaviorists (he seems prescient here with regard to connectionist experiments with neural network learning, especially in the area of language).

 

Casti throws a lot into the dinner-time colloquy. The conversation ranges over culture, religion and evolution. Turing defends the evolutionary point of view by introducing an “inclusive fitness” idea to explain altruism. And Snow comes up with the concept of “reciprocal altruism.” Casti is putting them both ahead of their time (and the concepts they voice are those of others, rather than their own).

 

But Wittgenstein’s point about language being learned as part of a “language game” within a community of speakers and the semantic aspects of language being socially determined, added to his claim that a computer would not have a community around it to give meaning to its behaviors may contain a kernel of the most telling criticism of Turing’s position. The output of computers only makes sense in terms of the “culture” surrounding the humans who program it so that it fits into their community. In fact, the situations in which computers can actually solve problems or produce creative results is pretty much restricted to those mathematical or mathematical-like situations that do not involve a social community anything like the one in which humans solve problems and create responses every day. How to get the rest of the culture, which, as Wittgenstein said, gives meaning to language and behavior, inside of the computer remains a daunting problem.

 

The debate is inconclusive, although the tenor of the discussion, with Turing providing the earnest voice of logic and Wittgenstein (the logician) flying off the handle in exasperation, seems to favor a positive outcome for the “machines can think” position. Snow is not convinced but he, like this reader, was quite satisfied with the  vitality of the discussion and settled down to write his report to the government.

 

The Cambridge Quintet was published in 1998. I only discovered it now. The debate is still alive, carried out by philosophers, roboticists, computer scientists, cognitive neuroscientists and fiction writers. We are not a lot closer to a computer that can mimic the thinking or behavior of a human than were these scientists and philosophers of the last century. But the gauntlet cast down by Turing has been picked up and the work on designing such a computer continues. The technical details are much better defined today than in 1949 and, probably pleasing to Wittgenstein, the cultural implications of designing such a device have been explored in depth in both the popular and academic cultures. The most intriguing aspect of this debate is the subject of the “personhood” of computers if it turns out that they really can think. Casti’s dinner guests discuss the topic. Philip K. Dick has examined it in depth. An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was devoted to the question of whether “Data” the android on the starship Enterprise deserved the rights accorded to a person or was just an object. And of course, I attempted to address the same question in my novel I, Carlos, perhaps less elegantly, but more dramatically than some of these others have.

 

I just wish I had read The Cambridge Quintet before I wrote my novel.

 

 

 

 

Saturday
Aug032013

Book Reviews by Noel Mawer, Randall Mawer and Warren Bull

Out of South Africa

By Noel Mawer

 

To those of us who have lived most of our lives in the twentieth century, the words “South Africa” invariably call up the specter of apartheid—just as the Confederate flag or the strains of “Dixie” call up segregation and even slavery. Apartheid, the South African version of segregation, lasted only forty-three years (1948-91), the result of a political culture dominated by the white 10 percent of the population--three quarters of whom were (are) Afrikaners (Boers), Dutch immigrants or their descendants. Only white citizens could vote, even before the advent of apartheid, which left unrepresented the 90 percent of the population classified as black, colored (mixed race), or Asian (mostly Indian).

Led by the African National Party, the Afrikaners were able to institute a complex and rigid form of segregation, separating the four groups from one another, which contained the seeds of its own destruction. When in mid-twentieth-century America segregation was challenged and then abolished, South Africa was on the way to the same fate. Interestingly, the U.S. was one of the countries that boycotted South Africa because of apartheid, at the same time as Americans were fighting their own battles over segregation. America additionally had (and still has) its regional divide dating from the centuries of slavery before the Civil War.

This bare outline of these two nations’ cultural travails cannot account for the differing literary response to segregation/apartheid in the two countries. To look at most of the best known, most esteemed writers of the American South during the period of segregation is to illuminate a stark contrast with comparable South African writers. William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor: put them up against Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Athol Fugard--these are world figures in literature. (Two of them are Nobel laureates.) Paton and Gordimer especially attained international fame as the voice of the small minority of liberal whites (mostly of English ancestry) who were willing to write and speak about their country’s racial situation in spite of the threat of harsh penalties.

America’s most noted commentators on race, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker--all are black Americans, living mostly in the North. The sole Southern white voice that I can think of, though not generally as highly esteemed as the writers on the previous list, is Lillian Smith.

Some of the most distinguished Southern writers of the period gathered at Vanderbilt University and called themselves the “Fugitive” or “Agrarian” poets, evoking the plantation past: Warren, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom. Of these writers, Lillian Smith writes in her 1949 Killers of the Dream: “No writers in literary history have failed their region so completely as they did.” A few years later, similar sentiments would emerge in Nadine Gordimer’s chastising of J.M. Coetzee for what she perceived as his insufficient attention to the country’s racial problems.

The first South African writer to achieve international fame with his portrayal of his country, Alan Paton, did not devote most of his life to writing. Rather, he was an educator and administrator in Africa’s juvenile prisons, where he strove to achieve humanitarian reforms. Paton (1903-88) published the first of his three novels, Cry, the Beloved Country, in 1948, just as Lillian Smith was excoriating the American South with her works, both fictional and non-fictional. (Her best-known novel, Strange Fruit, referring to lynching as in the Billie Holiday song—was published in 1944. In 1901, the Missourian Mark Twain published “The United States of Lyncherdom.” After Twain, most Southern writers seemed to have lost their nerve.)

Both Paton and the more recent Nadine Gordimer (born 1923) produced works that might be classified as in the Great Tradition, F.R. Leavis’ designation for the linear narrative and realism of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Joseph Conrad. What made Paton’s work an international phenomenon was not the style but the subject matter. The title is suggestive: the book is a lament for Paton’s native land, torn and disfigured by brutal racism. This searing document, which portrays a black family’s disintegration at the hands of the dominant white culture, was written and published outside South Africa, and, though Paton returned to his home at the time of the legalization of apartheid, he later had his passport confiscated for a ten-year period. Other writers who portrayed their country unfavorably were sometimes imprisoned, sometimes forced into exile.

While the battle against apartheid and racism was central to Paton’s life and writing, he was able to transcend stereotypes in his novels. The dominant Boers were the force behind apartheid. Paton, as with many others among the remaining one quarter of the white population who were of English heritage, helped form the integrated Liberal Party to combat racism. The Afrikaners may have lost the Boer War to the English, but their very numbers assured them legal control and political hegemony.

The cultural divide exacerbated the conflict between the two groups of whites, leading to a general feeling among those of British heritage that the Boers were not only bigoted but also culturally deficient. However, like J.M. Coetzee a half century later, Paton refused to condescend to Afrikaans speakers, but rather to treat all his characters simply as human beings. This is a difficult task for these two writers, as Paton, in the European tradition, is creating real people in a real South Africa, while Coetzee is creating his own sometimes post-modern surrealist vision in which race is often irrelevant. In Paton’s realism, blacks may exploit their race, or try to save it, or be destroyed by the culture, and Boers can see the light and become friends to black citizens. The situation is perilous, but there is hope.

Nadine Gordimer, now in her ninetieth year, is even more in the European tradition. She is sometimes compared to another colonial English writer, the New Zealander Katherine Mansfield, particularly in her short stories. In her introduction to a 1976 collection of her stories from the previous quarter century, Gordimer describes her own development as a writer, using the stories as illustrations. Like Mansfield’s “The Garden Party,” many of Gordimer’s early stories recount the effect on a naïve and privileged young white woman of her first encounter with the “other”—the poor and/or the black from whom she has been sheltered.

Not only her own development but also that of her country is apparent in Gordimer’s stories. In the early story “Is There Nowhere Else We Can Meet” the young protagonist encounters a black youth traveling toward her on the same deserted path. The girl is warmly clad for the weather while “the native” is shabbily, inadequately dressed. The girl, not yet fully socialized to the world of black and white, is shocked when the youth grabs her purse and runs. The girl’s initial fear is followed by regret: she should have just given him her money rather than struggling with him. Her confusion is suggested by the story’s title. The girl wishes for a place where she and the young man would safely meet, but the absence of a “where” emphasizes the depth of the cultural, political, and economic divide of the nation.

“The Train from Rhodesia” continues the theme. Here two white newlyweds on their honeymoon stop at a train station where black Africans are offering trinkets for sale. When the young woman praises a carving offered by an old black man, the husband gets off the train to buy it for her. The young woman, who has been struck by the shabbiness of the old man, seems at first delighted with her new husband’s acquisition, but the young man boasts of his forcefulness in pushing down the price that the old man was asking. He obviously did not see what his wife had seen, and the wife is appalled at his insensitivity. The wife turns away from her husband, and we are left with the implication that something is irretrievably broken between them.

These stories from the 1950’s are followed later by more overtly political writings, culminating in the 1979 novel Burger’s Daughter, about a family whose father is in prison for his anti-apartheid activities. From the 1960’s, Gordimer writes of the collaboration of whites and blacks in the fight against racism. A story from that period, “The Smell of Death and Flowers,” shows another young woman not only becoming aware of the complexity of South African society but starting to take steps to participate in the process of change. Here the protagonist joins a racially integrated group which illegally visit’s a black township. Her initial misgivings give way to an almost euphoric sense of power and purpose. This transformative moment seems to portend a new life for the young woman. The threatened arrest of the protesters seals the young woman’s fate: she is now part of something very big and very important.

Nadine Gordimer received the Nobel Prize in 1991 (the same year in which apartheid was declared illegal). But other writers had taken up the fight. Athol Fugard (born 1933) wrote and staged dramas (The Blood Knot, Master Harold and the Boys) that featured not only racial themes but multi-racial casts. (The English-speaking Fugard, half Afrikaans, half British, cast himself in these dramas along with native blacks.) His international stature was assured when his plays were great successes in London and New York. Breaking with the traditionalism of Paton and Gordimer, Fugard casts his works in the mold of the then-fashionable Theater of the Absurd of Samuel Becket and Eugene Ionesco. He also harks back to Brecht, as in Boesman and Lena (1973), which portrays characters and a situation suggestive of Mother Courage and Her Children. Fugard’s protagonists, bound together by their misery, persevere in a hostile land where unnamed wars rage and they must move from place to place to survive. Fugard acknowledges the influence of Brecht, so the resemblance is no coincidence. The two characters in Fugard’s play are “coloreds” whom society has condemned to rootless poverty.

Fugard portrays oppressed people inevitably turning on one another as the only safe object of their anger and frustration. Boesman mercilessly abuses Lena, and her momentary rebellions subside into her only possible course: acceptance. So too in Fugard’s The Blood Knot (1963), two colored brothers, one virtually white, the other dark, live together in one room. Incessant race baiting leads to the same result as in the later play: the brothers are bound together in misery (consigned to lives of menial labor and poverty) by their “blood knot.” In Fugard’s world, as in that of Camus (an important influence as Fugard acknowledged), in spite of the essential meaninglessness of it all, one goes on. “Other men,” one of the characters says, “get by without a future.”

Fugard made his own future by producing many of his plays outside South Africa (when his passport was suspended). So, too, his wife Sheila Mering Fugard (born 1932), who acted in his theater company while pursuing her own literary career. Sheila Fugard, an immigrant from the UK, in 1983 published her best-known novel, Revolutionary Woman. The “revolution” is of course the protest against, and subversion of, apartheid. The novel concerns race relations not between white and black but between whites and Asian Indians. The profundity of the scourge of apartheid is shown by the legal segregation of these two groups of non-African immigrants.

What seems at first another specimen of traditional realism, becomes, as the story progresses, a sort of fantasy on the theme of cultural revolution. As the narrator attempts to educate a young Indian man, her Boer neighbors become more and more insistent in their demands that she play by the rules and shun the “others.” The protagonist models her revolutionary behavior on that of Gandhi, who once lived in South Africa.

Gandhi, strident Boers, and Indians all come together in an almost surreal conclusion—not a happy ending but a hopeful one. This foray into the surreal is of a piece with other works being produced by South African writers, as the country is imploding under the crushing weight of an apartheid that has made the nation an international pariah.

But, of course, the battle is not yet over, and a writer who seems to think it is—as evidenced by his writing about other things--is still subject to censure. I have mentioned Nadine Gordimer’s criticizing J.M. Coetzee (a native English-speaker, but also a Boer), who was to follow Gordimer as South Africa’s second literary Nobelist in 2004. Unlike his literary predecessors, Coetzee has not only largely eschewed racial themes, but, spending most of his life outside South Africa, has finally taken out citizenship in Australia.

Coetzee collaborated with other Boer writers (Breyten Breytenbach, Andre Brink) registering his disapproval of apartheid. That he would do so--collaborate with Boers--indicates how far outside of the mainstream of South African writers he is. For most South African English speakers, Afrikaans is a second-class language used chiefly by the uneducated or culturally backward. As in other former English colonies, Nigeria and India, English is the language of education and literature. It was common for English speakers to make sport of Boer vocabulary and pronunciation, just as they disdain Boer politics.

Coetzee would have none of that. He has refused to join in the scorn shown toward Boers, just as he has steadfastly followed his own singular literary path. Whether or not he shares the Boer siege mentality is hard to say. His permanently abandoning his nation suggests that he may not have felt at home with any group, English or Afrikaans. Perhaps speaking against Boer politics while also being derided by the esteemed Nadine Gordimer has taken its toll, and he is, as his works reveal, a man of literature who has dedicated his life to his art.

Whatever the mind set of Coetzee, he isn’t saying. He not only has refused to join other English speakers in mocking the Boers, but is clearly in the European literary tradition, so much so that he has taken to rewriting such authors as Kafka, Dostoevsky, and DeFoe. Though born in 1940 and therefore having spent most of his life as a citizen of an apartheid-scarred nation, Coetzee often comes across as an apolitical aesthete, someone from another world than that of Paton, Gordimer, and Fugard. Coetzee’s highly-esteemed 1983 novel The Life and Times of Michael K, like Boesman and Lena, has both surreal touches and a mostly unidentified landscape, though it clearly takes place in South Africa. (It has the place names and perpetual conflict of that country.) And though Michael’s taking up residence in a “location” would identify him as “colored,” Coetzee never explicitly names his protagonist’s race nor does race seem to be Michael’s biggest problem. The novel was published not long after Fugard’s plays achieved international fame and Gordimer had published Burger’s Daughter. Critics both in South Africa and abroad sensed Coetzee’s seeming lack of concern with race, or with creating a realistic portrait of his country.

Nadine Gordimer is so unwilling to accept Coetzee’s creations that she invents a “colored” name for “K.” However, to me the name “K” (and it remains “K” throughout the novel) suggests those other great “K‘s” of literature, the protagonists in Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle. Whether or not Coetzee is evading the duty of the artist as interpreted by Gordimer, he is producing what is recognizably art. His “K” is his rewriting of Kafka--what Kafka’s K would experience in contemporary South Africa. Michael K would never be identified with Coetzee (as Kafka’s K is with Kafka). Michael is somewhat mentally impaired and most certainly deformed by a cleft palate.

What Gordimer calls the “revolutionary gesture” is a principle she denies to her countryman, Coetzee. However, she strangely alters her perception when discussing Samuel Beckett, an Irishman writing in the time of Ireland’s “troubles.” You would never guess Beckett’s background from Waiting for Godot, or the fact that he, like Coetzee, spent most of his life outside his native land. But Gordimer gives Beckett a pass. “Beckett,” she has written, “has chosen to be answerable to the twentieth century condition, which has its camp everywhere and nowhere.” No doubt Beckett’s being Irish rather than South African is one factor here, but it seems rather hard on Coetzee not to be allowed to focus on the human condition without being taken to task by his distinguished countrywoman.

Michael K is no more a real person living in a real world than is Kafka’s K. Coetzee’s world, like Kafka’s, is the world seen through dreams and phantasms, where paranoia and alienation are ubiquitous. Coetzee’s landscape begins where Boesman and Lena began, then becomes increasingly bizarre and threatening. (In Foe we will see Coetzee go to a place that is finally sheer hallucination.)

Michael K’s world is not only threatening and bizarre; it is also beset by endless war, which seems to permeate every facet of life, determining much of the action. Michael K’s behavior, beginning with his acquiescence to his mother’s wish to go to her home town, through innumerable encounters with soldiers and other hostile figures. The journey ends only when Michael goes (literally) underground and starves himself.

Coetzee’s 1986 Foe is named for Daniel DeFoe, who thought, erroneously, to make himself respectable by tarting up the Foe with a “De.” “Cruso” and Friday are joined after many years on their island by a shipwrecked woman who has earned her passage to the island by becoming the captain’s mistress. Though not named “Moll Flanders,” she is recognizably in that mold, and like Moll becomes the narrator of the story. The only allusion to race in Coetzee’s novel is black Friday, who, unlike in DeFoe’s novel, remains mute no matter what is done to him.

Coetzee portrays Cruso as a rigid, unimaginative sort who could never have survived on the island. But he does survive only to be killed off aboard a ship that has rescued the castaways. The Moll character, Susan Barton, sails on (with Friday) to London, where she seeks out the famous Foe with the intent of having him write her and Cruso’s story. Friday behaves as if he were Michael K—uncomprehending. Foe, the character, as profligate and mercurial as the actual DeFoe, eventually moves in with Susan, and they proceed to hold long conversations on the nature of art, particularly fiction.

At the same time, Susan sees (or hallucinates) either her younger self or her lost daughter haunting the halls of DeFoe’s home. The final scenes show Susan returning to the ship that originally stranded her on the island, eventually finding her own bloated, dead self and Friday’s living self. As she had been doing for years, she tries to teach Friday to speak, but nothing emerges from his mouth except a stream of sounds echoing the sound of the island. Susan perceives this as Friday’s home, the hull of the sunken ship, the realm where no language exists. Finally, a “stream” pours from Friday’s mouth on its way to encompassing the whole world.

This is the kind of thing that seems to cry for interpretation. Is it symbolism? Allegory? The mute black man, his tongue cut out by a brutal master, swallows up the world, language, and all other people.

In 1994, Coetzee published The Master of Petersburg, an imagining of Dostoevsky’s trip to St. Petersburg to find the cause of his beloved stepson Pavel’s death. As one might guess, the dead stepson is as enigmatic as Friday or Michael K. (Dostoevsky communes with his spirit.) Everyone who knew Pavel has a theory about his death. Coetzee’s novel is full of characters and scenes which could be called “Dostoevskyan.” But once again, at the heart of the matter, is silence, or at least the absence of language. Coetzee again goes where no writer can go. The character Dostoevsky sees this disintegration in himself: “If he were to look in a mirror he would not be surprised if another face were to loom up, staring back at him.” It is hard not to read Coetzee the novelist in Dostoevsky’s bitter cry questioning his own life and seeing only the writing of “fictions for which he had to give up his soul.”

As the years pass, Coetzee seems more and more detached from life and conflicted about life’s relationship to art, of truth to fiction.

As devastating as was the collapse of the Soviet Union for eastern Europe, the fall of apartheid in 1991 was to South Africa. Everything in society changes, not least the South Africans’ view of themselves. And with the change in writers’ views of their country comes a work such as Achmat Dangor’s 1997 novel Kafka’s Curse, a chronicle of the Indian community after apartheid, a time when one could freely mix with South Africans of other races. The Indian family at the center of the story is immersed in their personal lives; Dangor barely acknowledges the chaos the country is experiencing. Kafka’s Curse, with its focus on domesticity as well as its touches of magic realism, suggests the changing course of South African literature.

The world Dangor portrays is barely recognizable as that of Paton and Gordimer. The “curse” in the novel is that which in an ancient tale is visited upon a gardener who falls in love with a princess. For his transgression he is turned into a tree, as is one of Dangor’s characters. The tree endures, but the new world goes on around it. I won’t hazard even a guess about whether this is symbolic or not. But we see a parallel to the movement of other English-speaking émigrés: from V.S. Naipaul’s all-encompassing world to Zadie Smith’s focus on the family and its fortunes.

South Africa in the twentieth century produced literature that both mirrored and defined its political travails. Obviously the last word has not been written; perhaps it never can be.

 

 Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City (by Gordon Young, U. of California Press, 2013)

 By Randall Mawer

 

Aside from having one of the great titles ever, this “memoir” is unusual in several ways. The “city” is Flint, Michigan, the manufacturing town which became the nation’s signature slum when its industrial base, General Motors, walked away; factories became ruins and denuded fields in a matter of mere months before the prosperous, “mixed” neighborhoods around them became checkerboards of the title’s empty houses, erstwhile homes of the unionized “shop-rats” and the small-business owners who served them. These homes were quickly “scrapped” by scavengers stripping away plumbing and wiring. Schools (public and Catholic) closed or shrank. Public and quasi-public social programs likewise vanished. (The recent bankruptcy claim of nearby Detroit reminds us again of Flint’s disaster.)

The vocabulary of the modern city—crime, guns, race, drugs—took over, leaving behind the relatively few home owners who maintained their lawns, talked to their few left-over neighbors, and fought hard for the support of politicians, social workers, and clergy who would listen to them.

Gordon Young is a journalist-turned-academic who grew up in Flint and looks back on his youth-in-prosperity as an ideal time. Struggling to live something like a social life in ultra-modern San Francisco, he wonders whether one of the dirt-cheap shells now on sale in Flint might be bought and more or less self-saved, while his free-lance journalism maintains the operation. He goes “home” (repeatedly) to find out.

The style of Teardown is Rolling-Stone-style journalism, relatively informal, strongly first person, loosely organized. But there is modern history, too, and wide-ranging inquiry into economics and (especially) politics. The strongest narrative interest, though, springs from Gordon’s contacts with Flintites old and new, people doing what he is contemplating. They are attractive, enthusiastic, clearly willing to help Gordon with his project. The heart of the writer’s ambition is not the hypothetical house, effective symbol of the whole--the city, the citizenry--though it may be. This rather is the friendships of the house-holders, who provide one another expertise, save one another cash, and embody the genuine citizenship represented by loyalty to one’s block, one’s lawn, one’s “residence” in the largest sense of the word. The small, locally owned coffee shop, market, and bar are thus extensions of the homes, and the lack of waste ground between them shows quite literally how such residences fuse into real community.

 

Limitations by Scott Turow

Reviewed by Warren Bull

 

Review ratings of Scott Turow’s Limitations on Amazon approximate a bell curve, i.e. they vary tremendously with most falling close to the middle. In some ways this is an unusual book for the author.  The book is relatively short. It started as a magazine article.  Some reviewers obviously wanted more.  On the other hand a number of Turow’s characters who are protagonists in longer novels, appear in “cameo roles,” which gave the reader a look at the characters as seen by others.  I also thought the book was well-written and offered a look at the legal system from the point-of-view of a practicing attorney.

George Murphy, a fifty-nine year old former criminal defense attorney is now an appellate court judge charged with reviewing lower court decisions.  The current case under review involves the conviction of four white men who, while they were in high school, raped a then fifteen–year-old black adolescent and videotaped the assault.  Years later someone saw the tape and told the police about it.  The men were convicted. They are out on bond while the appeal is considered.

One of the three judges reviewing the case wants to consider information not brought out at trial (which is unusual but possible) to support the conviction. Another judge wants to overturn the decision because the statute of limitations passed before the trial began and the tape should not have been admitted as evidence.  Murphy feels guilty about a sexual indiscretion he committed during his college years and wonders if his behavior was any different from that of the convicted men.

Other stresses in Murphy’s life include his wife being treated for cancer and him receiving  a series of anonymous threatening messages, possibly from the leader of a street gang whose conviction Murphy upheld.

Turow provides an inside look at the appellant court and relationships between judges and their staff.  Readers are presented with the task of interpreting a complex legal situation when laws are unclear.  They are offered the opportunity to think about how they would decide the fate of the accused.  I am a fan of Scott Turow and I recommend this novel.