9.01.2014

Labor Day Rerun: The Role of Place in Literature

In yesterday’s, Bookends (Sunday Times Book Review) Moshin Hamid and Thomas Mallon were asked to comment on the role of where you live in how and what they write.

Both agreed it has considerable influence. Hamid suspects Nadine Gordimer would never have written July’s People if she had not lived in South Africa. And Tolkien’s The Hobbit might have been quite different had he lived in Osaka instead of Oxfordshire.

Mallon says much the same things with two examples. “One wouldn’t take Booth Tarkington out of Indiana any more than one would remove Proust from Paris.” And then he isn’t entire sure. “And yet Joyce wrote the most local novel of all time, not in Dublin but in Trieste and Zurich and Paris.”

I imagine a little of local place and imagination is responsible for the work of most novelists. The issue interests me every time I move from one town to another, although I’ve not noticed any difference in what or how I write.

Currently I’m in Honolulu, where surfing and the military seem to dominate local life. Yet, I’ve not written about either. Then again, I’m not a novelist but I have written about the subject and copied what I said below.

In Florence I begin to wonder about the role of place in literature. So many writers have come to this city--Montaigne, Shelly, Byron, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Henry James, George Eliot, Goethe, E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, and Dostoevsky.

Some settled here for long periods, others stayed for only a short time during their travels, and many have returned time and time again. More often than not they come to Italy and to this city in Tuscany to escape the cold, damp areas of the North and for some hoping that its sun and warmth will cure them of some ailment, primarily tuberculosis. However, once winter arrives in Tuscany they very quickly learn it can be as bitterly cold and damp here as it is in the North

How has living in Florence affected their writing? Would they have written differently had they remained in the city they left? If being here influences their work, does that depend on how long they stay?

Lawrence Durrell wrote, “What makes a “big book” is surely as much to do with their site as their characters and incidents." Eudora Welty agreed that, “fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?”

We know that Florence has been the setting of the many of the writers who have come here. One need only think of Forster’s A Room With a View:

It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not, with a painted ceiling…It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine, with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.”

Yes, very pleasant!

But what we really want to know is whether or not being here shaped their style or turned them in a new direction or solved a writerly problem they were facing. In general, is being here a source of literary inspiration?

Albeit a single example, I think the clearest answer to this question is provided by Dostoevsky, who came to Florence for the second time in 1868, then to escape the “damp and cold of Milan, where he and his wife [Anna] had been living for two months.”

In her Reminiscences Anna records how thrilled Dostoevsky was to be in Florence and that he was working productively on The Idiot. Yet, it did not take him long to realize there is more to writing than being in this benign place. He soon began to miss his friends or any form of congenial company. Anna writes in Reminiscences:

We did not know a single soul in Florence with whom we could talk, argue, joke, exchange reactions. Around us all were strangers, and sometimes hostile ones; and this total isolation from people was sometimes difficult to bear.

And in a letter to his niece, Dostoevsky wrote: I cannot write here. For that I must be in Russia without fail, must see, hear and take a direct part in Russian life; where’s here I am losing even the possibility of writing, since I lack both the essential material, namely Russian reality…and the Russian people.

Then the summer arrived and he and Anna found it almost unbearable to deal with ever increasing heat of this city. Some people seem to thrive in hot weather. Apparently Dostoevsky was not one of them, for he found it almost impossible to write under such “hellish” conditions.

At other times he felt differently. When the sun shines, it is almost Paradise. Impossible to imagine anywhere more beautiful than this sky, this air, this light.

In A Literary Companion to Florence, a rich source of information for this post, Francis King claims that Dostoevsky not only completed The Idiot in Florence, “but also began the gestation of The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov.”

Let us just say, then, that being here in this Tuscan town can offer some writers a comfortable place to work and sometimes give spark to their work. But that these sparks can occur just about anywhere, regardless of place and climate.

The life that Dostoyevsky led in Russia gave him a subject matter that ultimately led to his masterpieces. However, he did not have to be there to write them, at least, not all of the time. Eventually, he needed to return to the source of his tales. And while he did not write novels about the people or places he knew in Florence, he was able to write well while he was here, but only if it wasn’t too hot.

In answer to the general question about the role of place in literature, let us conclude that, as with all general literary questions, there are no general answers. Place has a role, but its role is highly variable and dependent on so many other factors that it is impossible to disentangle their effects from all the others that influence a writer.

8.28.2014

Our Broken Constitution

Late last year Jeffrey Toobin wrote an important essay on what he calls “Our Broken Constitution” (New Yorker 12/9/13). Most everyone believes our government isn’t working now. Toobin asks is that the result of the Constitution? He reviews the history of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the views of the founders, and some recent critiques of the Constitution

But nowhere does he propose a formal solution. He laments the difficulty of the amendment process and discusses some ideas about why we have such an obstructive Congress and a semi-paralytic Senate.

Anyone who reads the daily newspaper knows how dysfunctional Congress has become. We have read about it for years, a popular President from one party and a majority in Congress from the other party and so a Congress that does little else but argue and gets scarcely anything done, year after year.

We live in a time of rapid change that requires a more responsive legislature. The Constitution is clearly out of step with 21st Century. More recently Toobin continued this theme with a post about the unanimous Supreme Court ruling (the Noel Canning case) against the method by which President Obama made recess appointments.

The Constitution gives the President power to make such appointments because in the early days of the Republic travel was slow and the Congress was often in recess. That is clearly no longer necessary, yet the provision remains.

Perhaps part of the problem stems from the bicameral legislature mandated by the Constitution. This is unlike most countries in Western Europe that have a unicameral legislature, with a much greater turnover of members than we have in this country. This makes for a more responsive government, one that can adapt more quickly to change, and is less likely to get bogged down by an obstructive minority, especially one that is persistently so.

Would we have a more effective government with a unicameral legislature? We might at least avoid the inevitable conflict between a President of one party and a Congress from another. We would have a more experimental government, trying one approach and if it didn’t work, trying another.

I suppose we’ll never have an answer to this question. It is almost impossible to amend the Constitution. The country is too large and complicated now, the commitment to the Constitution is too firm, and the citizens of this country have little disposition to have a more experimental government.

Toobin concludes: The Noel Canning case is a reminder that nine Justices can agree on an interpretation of the Constitution that will, objectively, make the government function less well, less justly, and less democratically that it does now. This does little honor to the Constitution itself or the country that continues to venerate it.

We are supposed to have a government of laws, not men—a myth if there ever was one. Consider how current Constitutional law and the course of this country would be, if the Supreme Court in December of 2000 had decided not to end the recount of the Florida Presidential vote. It thereby handed presidential power to George W. Bush who became president with half- million fewer popular votes than Al Gore.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alioto would not be members of the Court today. As David Cole pointed out a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, affirmative action would be on firm constitutional grounds, the Second Amendment would not protect the right of private individuals to own guns, the rights of women to terminate a pregnancy would be protected and so too would regulations on corporate political campaign contributions.

Those are but a few of the differences that would exist today, if Al Gore had served as President. How dramatically different the recent history of this country would be if Roberts and Alioto had not been appointed to the Court.

8.25.2014

Words and Actions

My drama, like everyone’s, goes on upstairs, in the head. And I don’t think you can write the drama of the mind. All you have are the things people do. It’s always about what they do. Zia Haider Rahman

The people I admire most are those who translate their beliefs into action. Knowing and thinking is not enough in my book, nor are the words I write. Yet I am as guilty as anyone in failing to meet this standard.

From my first encounter during the Free Speech Movement while I was a graduate student at Berkeley, to the years not long after when this country was at war in Viet Nam, my beliefs were not followed by deeds. Instead, I stood by to complete my dissertation and teach my classes, while all around me my friends, students, and colleagues were out on the streets protesting.

The life of the nameless narrator of Zia Haider Rahman’s recent novel, In the Light of What We Know, was not unlike mine. It’s true that I’ve lived as someone who stands aside, choices determined by the sweep of ease and opportunity—and the corollary of standing by is not participating.

So it was that I was deeply impressed with what I learned about a man by the name of Andy Bachman, who lived and worked in the affluent Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. Andy Bachman was a much-loved Rabbi at a Reform Congregation that drew more than a thousand families, including some of the well-known writers who live in the area.

To everyone’s surprise, Rabbi Bachman recently resigned from his congregation and his other Jewish obligations. He said he wanted to help the poor, regardless of their religion.

“I think that I deliver really good and really inspiring sermons about social justice, but is that really enough. It’s crazy to thank that’s enough. In order to maintain my sense of integrity and to keep the flame burning strongly about my commitments, I knew it was time to step away.”

Insuring justice and acting to preserve it are long-standing Jewish traditions. Bachman no longer felt he really was doing that. And he didn’t feel leaving his congregation was abandoning Judaism. Rather he was simply going to express it in a different way.

Like Rabbi Bachman, Simone Weil is another individual who put their convictions into practice. Weil graduated from the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, became a professor of philosophy and teacher at a number of schools throughout France. But that was not enough.

She worked as a laborer among the working class at factories in France. While there she conducted classes for the workers. She did the same with each of the farm families where she lived, harvesting the crops, milking the cows, cleaning up the barns etc.

She said, “From the moment that I act, I make myself exist….What I am is defined by what I can do."

Weil felt that hard labor is the truest road to knowledge, not the academic world in which she excelled. And so, like Andy Bachman, she “resigned” from her academic profession to devote her life to the plight of the working class. She believed it demanded the best efforts of each of us.

She also believed that physical work was important for an intellectual, “lest the mind become all too taken with itself, all too removed from the concrete realities of everyday life, the burdens that rest upon the overwhelming majority of the earth’s population.”

Both Andy Bachman and Simone Weil are among those individuals who serve as models of intelligent activism for me. It wasn’t sufficient for Weil to worry or feel compassion for the poor, nor was it enough for Andy Bachman to preach the importance of justice.

Rather what was required was acting in accordance with their convictions, even if it meant depriving themselves of ordinary satisfactions.


8.21.2014

Henri Cole's Paris Diary

In the Summer Issue (#209) of the Paris Review, Henri Cole remarks that poetry is primarily “finding the right words and getting them in the right order.” Later when asked why he writes, he replied:

For the completely selfish pleasure of composition, which for me surpasses the trumped-up pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex. Since I do not write to teach anybody anything, it’s a completely selfish act, but it gives me a sense of equilibrium and a reason for existence. Nothing gives me as much pleasure, when I’m doing it well, as writing.

I have had the same experience, as I write almost entirely for myself, viewing it as an exercise to put my thoughts to words as clearly as I can. If I didn’t write, those thoughts would never be put to the test, to see if they had any merit. Writing clarifies. Writing corrects.

Writing also takes me away from myself. This happens when I have something to say. I write and the time flashes by. Sometimes I look at the clock and cannot believe what time it is. When this happens writing becomes a kind of mindlessness.

But I have also come to recognize that in part, I write to converse, to make contact with someone, even though the person isn’t present or offers a reply.

Henri Cole is a prize-winning poet. While I’ve not read many of his poems I have come to know him through the poetic-like prose-picture essays he has been writing on the New Yorker’s web site. The most recent installment of his Paris Diary, “Street of the Iron Po(e)t” describes the early arrival of Spring in Paris.





A mild winter has prompted the vegetation in Paris to wake up early. Since February, plum, cherry, and almond trees have been blossoming in France, and the buds on the hazelnut trees are releasing grains of pollen into the wind. Has grim winter really ended?






It is followed by an extensive photo-essay on bees, their arrival, the role of each bee in the hive, and reference to the poetry of bees.


Here in France, bees, symbolizing immortality, were once an emblem of the sovereigns. Napoleon Bonaparte wore them embroidered into his regal garments and they ornamented many of his possessions. Surely the idea of a kingdom originates in nature with the bees. Perhaps the kingdom of poetry is not so different from that of a bee hive.


**Note: The latest chapter in Cole's Paris Diary can be found here.

8.18.2014

Moral Dimensions of Economic Inequality

There has been an enormous erosion of opportunities for people who are at the lower end of the scale. We have faltered in our commitment to create communities where everybody gets a share of the good life. A. Kornblum

While the subject of economic inequality has of late become more prominent, the defining issue of our time as the President once called it, there is scarcely any discussion of the moral issues posed by the enormous and growing disparities between the super-rich and the poor.

Instead, we have charts and tables, data and observations, liberal and conservative disputes, historical trends, recent findings and occasionally a proposed solution. And we have the widespread discussion of Thomas Piketty’s frequently discussed, frequently purchased, and, I suspect, not so frequently finished treatise, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

However, I am not overwhelmed with discussions of the merits, the morality or fairness of the “Great Divide.” Perhaps its moral unfairness is simply assumed. It’s hard to be sure about that. Are not the struggles and yes they are daily struggles of the poor even more important than all the oft-repeated facts? Have we grown to accept, desensitized, to the degree of economic inequality that currently exists in this country?

But is it right? Is it unjust? Is it cruel? What moral principles does it violate? Do we have to study philosophy all over again to answer these questions? Or can they be swiftly answered on grounds of simple fairness, commonsense moral arguments for justice?

Why such widespread silence on this issue? Where is the outrage, the protest, the demand for change?

William Sundstrom, an associate professor at Santa Clara University is one of the few who has confronted this issue head on (Santa Clara University Mark Kula Center for Applied Ethics, Vol. 9, Fall/Winter 1998).

Sundstrom doesn’t explore the claims he makes in any depth or provide their philosophical foundations. Rather he simply lists a set of moral concerns with a sentence of two describing each one. Conceivably he imagines they are self-evidently true. They include:

Compassion: As members of a larger community, we ought to care about individuals who are struggling to get by.

Fairness: Drastic inequalities between individuals in a market economy are incompatible with basic principles of human welfare.

Deservingness: A person’s income should have some relationship to what they deserve. “The low-skilled worker who puts in a long, hard day’s work may in the sense be as deserving as the high-powered lawyer or CEO.”

Opportunity: The limited opportunities of the poor to obtain an education, employment or exert political influence are inconsistent with a free, democratic society.

Individuals who seek to redress economic inequalities in this or other country might be well served by turning to these moral principles. In turn, those who wish to do nothing about the current and apparently growing differences between the rich and poor are obliged, in my mind, to formulate reasonable objections to those who believe the Great Divide violates basic principles of a just society.

Public discourse about the economic inequality seems to wax and wane. Piketty’s book stimulated interest for a while, as did the speech that Obama gave earlier this year. But he has not returned to the matter in any forceful way, preoccupied as he is by both large and small concerns elsewhere.

What will it take to focus public attention on this issue and, above all, its solution? Piketty’s book for all its intelligence and data is too academic. The broad economic policy speech the President delivered is all but forgotten. The economy seems to have recovered a bit from the Great Recession. The Occupy Wall Street movement has come and gone. Again, what is it going to take?

8.16.2014

Smartphone Reading

The ebook will overtake the paperback and hardback as Britons' preferred format for reading their favourite novels by 2018, according to a report. The UK consumer ebook market – which excludes professional and educational books – is forecast to almost triple from £380m to £1bn over the next four years. The Guardian 6/3/14

The other night I took my iPhone with me to a restaurant in Honolulu. I normally take a book when I’m alone or simply enjoy the meal and the view out to the sea. As I deliberated about taking it, having never done so before, I recalled reading about a person who observed Philip Roth reading on his iPhone at a restaurant in New York. I thought: If it’s OK with Philip, it’s OK with me.

I was surprised by how much I liked it. The text was readable, not too small, the screen was bright and clear, as they are on Apple products. Really it wasn’t much different than reading on the larger iPad. I didn’t text anyone, read emails, or search the web. Of course, I didn’t get very far, as the meal was great and the sunset was dazzling.

I have a friend who listens to audiobooks on her iPhone, as she walks along the sunny avenues hereabouts. She says she likes it in a way I will never be able to. In my experience, most of the people who record audiobooks sound so bland and uninvolved in the tale. She assures me that isn’t true most of the time. I reply: Give me an author’s words on the page, not in my ears. I hear them better on the page anyway.

I confess it bothers me when most everyone I see in public places has their nose in a cell phone screen. Can’t they wait until they arrive wherever they’re going to see what’s up? What’s the urgency? Have we also lost the fine art of patience? We live in a beautiful place on this earth. Why not pay attention to it, think about it for a while? Surely we have plans and ideas to ponder. Why not reflect on them for a while? And stop bumping into me.

Serious reading is increasingly difficult in an age of so many distractions. You really have to concentrate for a dedicated period of time if you are to get much out of a book. I was raised long before the advent of cell phones, even before TV, to say nothing of the web and Internet those countless apps. How lucky I was. Sure, it was sometimes a struggle to find the time to read, but then the distractions were textbooks, essay assignments, class presentations, that kind of thing, all of which required concentrated reading.

As far as I can tell, none of these cell phone-users are reading a book. Perhaps I am wrong. Laura Miller writes on Salon (5/14/14):

Those who enjoy wringing their hands in Spenglerian despair whenever they see heads bent over glossy black rectangles in public might want to check their pessimism. For all you know, those smartphone devotees are reveling in the fruits of Western Civilization—rather than playing Floppy Bird while it crumbles around them.

It seems to me most of these people appear to be texting, thumbs typing away with jet-like speed. The younger, the faster. Or playing one of the mindless games that draw people to these gadgets. No doubt there are subway or bus readers, but I doubt those I see on the street wouldn’t be typing away if they were reading Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy.

I have to also admit that there is something about a smart phone and other digital reading devices that have a Kindle App that is somewhat of an advantage. Namely, you can highlight notable passages, save them on your Amazon’s highlighting page, and then copy them in a Word document. In my case, they are then added to my commonplace book. There I can review them, use them if I want in something I am writing, and pass them on to others who express some interest.

I say it is “somewhat of an advantage” because I’m not sure if it really is. Perhaps it is better if I copy each one from a record I keep when I read a printed book. I know I don’t review each of the passages I’ve saved when I copy the Amazon highlights in one fell swoop. But I do when I re-type each one of them in a Word document. I suspect that consolidates their meaning, clarifies why I saved them in the first place and enables me to recall them much more readily than is possible with a single action of copying highlights.

In the past few years, I’ve changed my views about reading digital versions of books. When they first made their appearance, I was an ardent opponent. And while I still prefer reading printed versions of books, I no longer feel reading one on a smart phone or tablet signals the demise of literate culture. It is reading that’s important, not the format you prefer. It is also about what you read and what you make of the experience, if anything.

It seems I am in good company. Margaret Drabble writes of her “deep attachment to my e-reader…It enables you to read, anywhere, anytime, almost anything. It enables you to purchase or acquire texts at midnight, in the small hours, on a train to Tauton, at a bus stop, in a bunk on a ferry in the Arctic Circle.” Now, there is a devoted e-reader.

She claims her device, one that I believe is the Kindle Paperwhite, is almost perfect and, like myself, she too began and still prefers reading printed books. She admits there are so many ways of reading now, it no longer makes sense to ignore the advantages or e-readers, among them highlighting, traveling, being in a town without a bookstore, etc. She concludes, “…but I can feel myself being tempted into colour. The future is bright.”

8.13.2014

Portable Hell


Charles Simic writes that the world has become a portable hell (NYRB 8/6/14). He says he ought to be used to it, but he’s not. No one ever is.

The list of Simic’s hells is a long one beginning with those who grumble about “the laziness of our poor and the insatiable sexual appetite of our women…”

Simic says he “hated the Germans and wished them all dead. However, later on, when I saw the extent of destruction the Allied bombing had done to their cities, I was horrified by what was obviously pure malice.”

He is highly critical of collective punishment, authoritarian governments, “just” wars, the disregard of the poor by the rich, gourmet recipes, privatization, “the transfer of public funds into the pockets of the few.”

Such news bears down upon us from everywhere, cannot be avoided, arriving on phones, newspapers, television, tablets, and, oh, yes, the radio, friends, overheard conversations, tweets emails and blogs, like this one.

My country is bombing a distant country again, we are informed it is going to last a while. It is parachuting survival kits to people stranded on a mountaintop, chased by Islamic militants who command them to convert or be killed.

Government officials say the ISIS terrorist threat to this country is the most extreme we’ve ever faced.

Another country that I have some attachment to is at war with its neighbors, blasting buildings and its people. Collateral damage it is called. It has been going since the country was founded.

The Russians are massing troops on the Ukraine border. Do they plan to invade? If they do, what possible response can we and our allies make?

Planes are shot out the sky presumably by pro-Russians separatists in eastern Ukraine. Several hundred people are killed. Another is lost somewhere in the ocean, hundreds more died.

Conservatives are ranting about everything, our legislature is paralyzed, the President is helpless. He is first thoughtful one we’ve had in ages, reasons with care and insight. I feel sorry for him and my country.

Rebels are at war throughout the world, too many citizens are starving and dying of thirst, a deadly virus has broken out in Africa where young women are raped and taken prisoner, never to be found

Thousands of men and women are held in our prisons, potential terrorists are kept in solitary confinement, our troops are being killed in another far off land by the people we are there to protect.

The rich are getting richer, the rest of us poorer, and nothing is being done about it, the country is virtually mute about the subject.

People are streaming across our borders but Congress cannot agree on emergency measures to manage the influx.

The Red Sox are in last place, having their worst season in my memory after wining the World Series last year.

Portable hell—I’ve barely scratched the surface. What have I forgotten?

8.10.2014

The Secret of Raven Point

A hospital alone shows what war is. Erick Maria Remarque

Jennifer Vanderbes’ novel, The Secret of Raven Point is a World War II saga among areas of Italy that I know well. Both are subjects in which I have an unquenchable interest. It is also the story of a deep love between a brother and sister, Tuck and Juliet, who lost their mother early in their youth.

We read about the stories they told one another, the code words they used, their secret, and relationship with their physician father, who served in World War I. At the outset of the second War, Tuck joins the Army in order to rid the world of Nazi evil, as he puts it.

His father tells him: “…grenades have no sense of justice. That bullets and bayonets care nothing for morality. Being right doesn’t protect you from having your brain blow to bits.”

Tuck writes letters home and, then one day, his last, enigmatic one arrives. Yes, he has enlisted to rid the world from evil. But he didn’t expect what it turned out to be like, “the mud and shit and freeze your asses off while you watch your friends bleed to death. Expect frostbite, crappy food, bad attitudes, no sleep, shitty maps, old weapons and lousy leadership, all while a psychotic enemy pursues you night and day.”

Soon after, Tuck is reported missing in action. Juliet lies about her age, enlists in the Army nursing program, undergoes training and is sent to Italy. She is assigned to a hospital near the front.

The Italian campaign is less well known than the one in France and Germany. But in many respects it was far more difficult with German solders hiding in their bunkers, high in the mountains up the “boot.” One by one, ever so slowly, the hills were taken with heavy loss of young lives, morale, desertions and damaged futures for the men who somehow managed to survive.

A patient, Barnaby, arrives at the hospital, severely damaged, appears to have shot himself, one eye hanging out of the socket. He is accused of cowardice, desertion, and will be tried and eventually sentenced to death. But he is comatose, can’t speak and appears in a semi-coma. And he also served in the same unit as Tuck and may have information about what happened to him.

Willard, a doctor, arrives to assess Barnaby’s condition, tries to get him ready to stand trial. He decides to give him treatments of sodium pentobarbital. We learn that Barnaby and Tuck became separated from their company, that Tuck did everything he could to save him. After leaving to seek help, Tuck was never seen again.

Juliet gives up all hope. “At first I loved the hope, the possibility that he’d come home. Now I hate it. I want to smash it out of me. I can’t bear the endless disappointment.”

In time, Barnaby recovers, realizes he will likely be sentenced to death, and escapes one night with the hospital chaplain. Willard and Juliet are sent on a mission to find them. The War drags on and the case against Barnaby is dropped as the truth about his experience is learned.

The Secret of Raven Point became two mysteries—the disappearance of Tuck and the motive for Barnaby’s attempted suicide. Their solution took hold of me. If there is any greater truth is this tale it is oft-repeated story of war, how it is always worse than expected, always worse than the one before, with inevitable disillusionment, regardless of the outcome.

“How do you save the world from evil? No idea. You take out an ad in the classifieds. Wanted: brave young men to defeat the forces of evil in the world. Every boy in every high school across the country is going to sign right up. What you don’t say in the ad? Expect to live in the mud and shit and freeze your asses off while you watch your friends bleed to death. Expect frostbite, crappy food, bad attitudes, no sleep, shitty maps, old weapons and lousy leadership, all while a psychotic enemy pursues you night and day. If you manage to survive, you get the honor of knowing you helped save the world from Nazi maniacs. But you think that anyone fifty years from now will bat an eyelash over it.”

8.07.2014

Ceremony of Losses


After a life of loving the old, by natural law, I turned old myself. Donald Hall

It was the middle of March, earlier this year, and I was sitting at my desk looking out at the sea. The yacht harbor, beautiful sailing ships, cargo and cruise liners passing by. I was not getting any younger, reasonably fit with most of my marbles still in working order.

No so, claimed eighty-five year old Donald Hall, former US Poet Laureate, who reported the view from his window in the middle of a New England winter. (New Yorker, 1/23/12)

Today it is January, midmonth, mid-day, and mid-New Hampshire. I sit in my blue armchair looking out the window.

Hall watches the snow falling, the visitors to his birdfeeder, the barn, no longer a place to work but one to look at. He laments all that he has lost in his antiquity. The poetic metaphors no longer come to him with ease. The young won’t let him forget how old he is. Neither will their condescending treatment.

“…old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to set at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.”

Sometime in 2000 he started working on his poem, Affirmation, says he revised it 35 times, fewer than normal. He submitted it to the New Yorker and it was published immediately, unlike most of his submissions.

Affirmation

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond's edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.



8.04.2014

In the Light of What We Know

What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend and only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. Albert Einstein

Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, is a magnificent book. Not for the story that meanders about in a disjointed fashion. But for the ideas, the abundance of ideas and the questions that lead only to more ideas and questions.

It is a philosophical tour-de-force and if you like philosophical fiction, In the Light of What We Know will delight you, as it did for me on almost every one of its 500 pages.

The story is straightforward: one day a bedraggled man arrives at the south Kensington (London) door of a well-healed investment banker. The nameless narrator soon recognizes Zafar, his great friend at Oxford and later in the New York and London financial world.

Zia Haider Rahman was born in Bangladesh, was raised in poverty, came to England as a boy, where his father was a bus conductor. He gained a place at Oxford, excelled in mathematics, went on to study at Cambridge and Yale and eventually worked in finance, thereafter as an international human rights lawyer.

In these respects his life mirrors that of the fictional Zarfar. It appears as if the nameless narrator is in fact, the author, with Zafar his fictional counterpart, and the two in an autobiographical dialogue to understand the life of Zia Haider Rahman.

Zafar is invited to stay at the narrator’s home as long as he wants and the two close friends begin talking, day after day, about their respective lives, mostly Zafars’ who eventually left investment banking to become a lawyer and later an NGO representative in Afghanistan.

Ideas abound from the first words, the first chapter. At the beginning of each chapter, Rahman cites one or more epigraphs. In the first there is one on Exile:

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever. Edward W. Said, “Reflections on Exile.”

Then early in that chapter there is the first on mathematics, it’s beauty, the satisfaction it brings to Zafar and one of the many discussions of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem:

Described as the greatest mathematical discovery of the last century, it is a theorem with the simple message that the farthest reaches of what we can ever know fall short of the limits of what is true, even in mathematics. In a sense, then, I have sat down to venture somewhere undiscovered, without the certainty that it is discoverable.

This is preceded by one of the equally frequent reflections on memory:

At the time, the details of those moments did not impress themselves individually upon my consciousness; only later, when I started to put things down on paper, did they give themselves up to the effort of reflection.

And it is like this in virtually every chapter, sometimes on every consecutive page. It took me forever to read the book, as I had to pause, read the passage again, make note of it (highlight in the Kindle version I was reading) and ponder, sometimes until I took up the book again.

The narrator’s life is in shambles, his childless marriage has all but ended, as has his work as an mortgage-backed securities trader, where his dealings in complex derivatives has been called into question. He realizes that the choices he made failed to express his truest self and he never needed the money anyway, as he had been favored with a family fortune. And so he wonders if in recounting Zafar’s life he might learn something about how things could have been better.

I am reminded of a similar question Pascal Mercier poses in his novel, Night Train to Lisbon, while writing about the life of the Portuguese scholar and physician, Amadeau de Prado. In The Goldsmith of Words, Prado asks, Can we better understand ourselves by studying the life of someone else? The question leads Gregorious, the protagonist of Night Train to Lisbon to abandon his post at his school in Basel in a quest to learn as much as he could about Prado, his family, friends and life he led in Lisbon.

We realize how difficult it is to know another person or our self and how often we misunderstand one another. The narrator of In the Light of What We Know realizes this in his effort to understand the life of his friend. Yet, throughout the novel, as Sebald noted “…the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.”

The narration, which really resists any summary, also includes a fair amount of Zafar’s on and off love affair with Emily Hampton-Wyvern, whose father was an eminent judge and the family of an entirely different class than Zafar’s. The difficult relationships between the classes in England underlies much of Rahman’s characterization of Zafar and his thwarted loved affair with Emily.

In the Light of What We Know comes face-to-face with the limits of knowledge, of memory, perception, knowing our self, international aid programs, etc. That is the point of its obsession with Godel’s Theorem: “Within any given system there are claims which are true, but which cannot be proven to be true.”

In this respect, the novel is also a fictional account of this mathematical truth. It reminds us over and over that we know less than we think we do, that metaphors are a poor method of reaching the truth, that memories are often distorted and refashioned over time and that doubt and intellectual modesty is the source of wisdom.

Zafar had set himself to the pursuit of knowledge, and it is apparent to me now, in a way it was not before, that he had done so not in order to “better himself,” as the expression goes, but in order to lay ground for his feet to stand upon; in order, that is, to go home, somewhere, and take root. I believe that he had failed in this mission and had come to see, as he himself said in so many words, that understanding is not what this life has given us, that answers can only beget questions, that honesty commands a declaration not of faith but ignorance, and that the only mission available to us, one laid to our charge, if any hand was in it, is to let unfold the questions, to take to the river knowing not if it runs to the sea, and accept our place as servants of life.

7.31.2014

The Theory and Practice of Elevators

The elevator. What an odd subject to write about. But in an essay (Boston Globe, 3/2/14), earlier this year, Leon Neyfakh reviews a book by Daniel Wilk that criticizes academics for failing to recognize the importance of elevators, how they transformed American residential and commercial life. Wilk writes:

“The lack of interest scholars have shown in the cultural life of elevators is appalling.” I know well what he means as I find myself in elevators all too often throughout the day in the high rise condominiums where I’ve lived lately.

I take the elevator to the gym and then back up, to the picnic area and then back up, to the pool and back up again, to check the mail, take a walk, get the car, walk to the grocery, take a stroll in the evening. Up and down several times a day.

Most of the time no one else is in the elevator, but sometimes there are one or more individuals. I greet them. Some return a smile. Others turn away. Some ignore my greeting. And once in a while I engage a person in conversation, albeit a brief one. But never once have I developed a friendship with a person I’ve met in an elevator.

My extensive observations during the past several years of this experience indicate there are two types of people in the world: the friendly and the unfriendly. As I ponder this cosmic distinction, I realize it has far reaching implications

I have also observed the unremarkable fact that the likelihood of conversation varies as function of several factors. The more individuals there are in the elevator, the more likely there will total silence. Conversation also decreases as the size of the elevator increases. People also distance themselves as far as possible from anyone else inside the space. No doubt there are other such relationships. Neyfakh suggests:

“If we tend to ignore the significance of elevators, it might be because riding in them tends to be such a brief, boring experience, and even awkward experience—one that can involve unplanned encounters between people with whom we have nothing in common, internal turmoil over where to stare, and a vaguely unpleasant awareness of the fact that we’re hanging from a cable in a long, invisible shaft.”

In Honolulu, where I currently live a fair number of months each year, the central areas are teaming with high rising condominiums and new ones under construction. You can’t avoid seeing the enormous building cranes dotting the sky in every direction, a Manhattan clone on a distant island in the middle of the ocean.

After dinner one night, I got in the elevator to go down for a stroll. The elevator stops, the doors open and a young girl walks in with her puppy. He sniffs my shoes, seems agitated. I say he is eager to go out. She says he’s always like this. How many times do you take him out? Only twice a day. What is his name? Mo Jo. I like that. We head outside. She says good night. Short and sweet.

The other day I went to an apartment in one of these new residential towers, with state of the art elevators, if it is an art. To fetch the elevator you first need to use a fob to beckon it down, then you press a keypad with the number of the floor you wish to reach. At the same time, it informs you which of the several elevators to take. So you walk over to that one and wait, sometimes you wait for quite a while, as your blood pressure surges. Finally the elevator arrives, you hop in and bingo it takes you to the very floor you had hoped to reach.

Coming back down is a breeze: no fob this time (since you were able to reach one of the distant floors, you are no longer considered an undesirable), simply call for the elevator, move to the one the keypad tells you is just the one for you, hop in, press the floor number you want on the keypad and in a flash you are there. Wonder of wonders.

I haven’t been living in a single family home lately and while I really prefer to take the stairs, most of the buildings I’ve lived in l have been tall towers. Who wants to walk up 40 flights of stairs to reach your home? I know it is good for the heart and bones and all that, but really now, I have more important things to worry about. Like, do I really need to go down to get the mail today?

7.28.2014

Stoner Again

It is the most marvelous discovery for everyone who loves literature. Ian McEwan

Stoner by John Williams is a great favorite of mine. The novel isn’t widely read in this country. In contrast, Steve Almond reports (Times 4/11/14) that last year it topped the best seller list in Europe. It was prominently displayed in every bookstore I visited in Europe this summer. And a recent review by Keith Oatley may spark some interest in this country.

Although Oatley, like everyone else recognizes how depressing the novel is, he admires Williams’ skill in describing Stoner’s deep feelings, even occasional joy in spite of the tragedies in his life. “…Williams has a strong sense of the importance of actually telling us the subtleties of what Stoner is feeling; he is not embarrassed to call emotions by their names and to linger over them…”

I have read the novel twice and blogged about it each time and will no doubt read it again. After my first reading I wrote that it was one of the saddest novels I’ve ever read. It is also, as one reviewer put it a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.” Another called it a “joy to read.”

William Stoner was raised on a farm in Missouri that was a constant struggle to maintain. He entered college to learn modern agricultural techniques. Early on he was so profoundly moved by a course on Shakespeare that he decided to change his studies to literature.

“But the required survey of English literature troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.”

“The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly and then proudly.”


After completing graduate studies he became a teacher of English at the University of Missouri. From the beginning though he found it difficult to establish himself in the department and gain the respect of his students and colleagues.

Stoner never advanced beyond the assistant professor level, although there were times when he was a rather popular teacher. Yet he was held back by a bitter dispute with another member of the department who also had the power to expose a close and deeply felt relationship Stoner had with one of his students.

“Lust and learning, Katherine [the student] once said. That’s really all there is, isn’t it?”

His life took few truly happy turns. His marriage soon grew stale: “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one persona attempts to know another.”

After he dies, Stoner is scarcely remembered by those in his department: “Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

Stoner wanted so much out of life. He loved his work, the books he treasured in the library and the great pleasure in spending hours there, he cherished the joy that literature brought to his life. And yet he knew that “what he wished was impossible, and the knowledge saddened him.”

He knew that it was the love of a thing that was essential and that he truly loved the life he led. He knew that without that kind of devotion no one would ever achieve any degree of distinction. He never abandoned this belief and so through it all he had retained to the full his integrity.

Stoner seems rather passive in tackling head on his misfortunes and, in his review, Oatley complains that he sits back, takes his punches and hasn’t a clue to how to overcome them. He asks: “If reading literature does not allow us to more clearly, or more economically, or more thoroughly, or more compassionately think through and take action in our life, what good is it?” An excellent question.

After my second reading I was led to wonder why we don’t hear more about Stoner? I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who has read it or seen more than a handful of commentators write about.

C. P. Snow’s explanation is that “…we live in a peculiarly silly age and it doesn’t fit the triviality of the day.” Earlier he said, “Very few novels in English, or literary productions of any kind, have come anywhere near its level for human wisdom or as a work of art.”

There is something else about Stoner that led me to feel similarly moved. It has nothing to do with its structure or how it was written or the fact that Stoner’s life in the university bore a certain similarity to my own. Rather it was the way in which literature transformed his life, gave him a new life and identity.

“His teaching excels not because he is brilliant of creative, or flashing—none of which he is, as the novel shows—but because he is witness to such a consciousness and is dedicated to the literature that has brought it into being and because he demands much of his students.”


Note: In an interview a few years before he died, John Williams said he viewed Stoner as a "real hero." A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad... life. I think he had a very good life...He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important.

7.24.2014

Economic Inequality Silence

Where is the outrage, the indignation, the protesting over the enormous gap between the rich, especially the very rich and the rest of us? What ever happened to the spirit of Occupy Wall Street? Why is the country at large so serenely quiet about the rising economic inequality in this country, the outrageous annual pay of some CEOs and Hedge Fund managers? Other than a very few economic scholars and media commentators, there is scarcely any effort to confront the problem head on.

In a review of Pierre Rosanvallon’s new book The Society of Equals, Paul Starr writes (5/22/14): The passive consent to inequality is the point of departure for the French historian and political theorist Pierre Rosanvallon in his new book, The Society of Equals. As Rosanvallon writes, there is a generalized sense that inequalities have grown too large or even become scandalous, but that sense coexists with tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and with silent resistance to any practical steps to correct them.

Even the President, who professes to find it the defining issue of our time, doesn’t do much about it. Of course, he is constrained, cannot apply the major remedies without the consent of Congress. And that isn’t going to be possible for the unknowable future.

Perhaps Americans don’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the enormous gap between the rich, including the very rich, and the poor. If they did, there might be less silence and more outrage. To find out Michael Norton and Dan Ariely undertook a study (Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 2011) of popular beliefs and the distribution of wealth in this country.

They asked a nationally representative sample of 5,222 individuals, equally divided between males and females, to estimate the current distribution of wealth in the US and then their ideal level of inequality. Before beginning the survey they asked each person to read the following definition of wealth:

“Wealth, also known as net worth, is defined as the total value of everything someone owns minus any debt that he or she owes. A person’s net worth includes his or her bank account savings plus the value of other things such as property, stocks, bonds, art, collections, etc., minus the value of things like loans and mortgages.”

The individuals in the study vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth believing that the wealthiest “quintile” held 59 percent of the wealth when the actual percentage is close to 84 percent. Perhaps this divergent perception from reality accounts for the lack of widespread public outcry to the enormous and growing economic inequalities in this country?

Norton and Ariey also asked their subjects to state their ideal distribution of wealth in the US. They found a slight preference for some inequality, rather than perfect equality, but by no means close the degree currently present in this country

When given examples of the distributions in other countries, they expressed a preference for the distribution that most closely resembled Sweden’s, where the top wealth quintile holds 36 percent of that countries wealth and the lowest 11 percent.

Finally, Norton and Ariely noted there was a considerable, and, to them, surprising consensus among different demographic groups in this country--gender, income level, voting history, etc. in both their estimates of actual and ideal wealth distribution in this country.

Thomas Piketty, the now well-known, highly-praised author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, claims, in light of his data, that the great gap between the rich and poor will continue unless major policy changes are made in taxing wealth, income, and inheritance.

He admits, the future looks bleak, yet it often can surprise us. Picketty is a scholar, not an advocate and while we need both, I think it is well beyond time for widespread advocacy to take hold in this land.

Note: Results from a recent survey in France are consistent with the public’s perception of economic inequality in the United States. Nearly 90 percent of the French respondents said income disparities ought to be reduced, yet 85 percent said the differences are acceptable to reward individual achievement.


7.21.2014

1954 Nobel Prize in Literature

Ernest Hemingway was born on this day, 115 years ago. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. However, following two plane crashes in Africa, his injuries prevented him from traveling to Stockholm. John C. Cabot, United States Ambassador to Sweden delivered his address. And here is what Hemingway wrote:

“Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.

No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.”

Prior to Ambassador Cabot’s reading, H.S. Nyberg, Member of the Swedish Academy, made the following comment:

“Another deep regret is that the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, Mr. Ernest Hemingway, on account of ill health has to be absent from our celebration.

We wish to express our admiration for the eagle eye with which he has observed, and for the accuracy with which he has interpreted the human existence of our turbulent times; also for the admirable restraint with which he has described their naked struggle.

The human problems which he has treated are relevant to all of us, living as we do in the confused conditions of modern life; and few authors have exercised such a wide influence on contemporary literature in all countries. It is our sincere hope that he will soon recover health and strength in pursuit of his life-work.”

7.17.2014

Briefly Noted: Two James Salter Novels



“But knowledge does not protect one. Life is contemptuous of knowledge; it forces it to sit in the anterooms, to wait outside. Passion, energy, lies: these are what life admires.”


I’m on a Salter binge that began after reading his new novel All That Is, a summing up, I imagine.

The sentences are short, the mood is clear, and the scenes shift unpredictably. Salter is 87. Perhaps he is looking back as it seems most people do when they reach old age.

Philip Bowman remembers his life as a pilot during World War II, then as an editor of a publishing house, his first marriage that was wrong from the beginning, and the various loves of his life, some who betray him, some who were already married. All the disappointments that followed the pleasures. The times in France, the days in the sun, and hours in bed.

Bowman liked people, liked talking with them, eating with them. And he liked reading, an inexhaustible pleasure, he said.

“There was all that happened in the world during one’s life.” And that is what we learn about the life of Philip Bowman from James Salter in his easy to enjoy novel, All That Is.

Then I read Solo Faces and I wrote about it earlier this year. I followed that by rereading Light Years. Recently I’ve been reading Dusk, a collection of his short stories.

I don’t remember when I first read Light Years. About 40 passages are recorded in my commonplace book. This time I recorded 137 passages. Why so many more?

“I don’t believe in marriage, and I have no time for it. It’s a concept from another age, another way of living. If you do what you really should do, you will have what you want.”

Light Years describes the gradual erosion of a marriage, a marriage like most that began with passion, continued with increasing routine, and ended with disappointment. I first read the book relatively early in my long marriage and read it again, some 25 years later. The book I read 25 years ago is not the same one I read most recently, as my marriage approaches its 56th anniversary.

The first time I read the book it was in a printed version; this time I read it on an e-book. The ease of highlighting and then saving passages in Kindle books no doubt played a role in contributing to the greater number of saved passages.

Regardless, Light Years is written with all the style and vigor, the compelling short, sentences and quick cutting between scenes of Salter’s novels. Its moods darken gradually as Viri and Nedra’s grow further apart. There are infidelities, never voiced, desire for independence, rituals barely sustained, parties where everything is concealed.

“Things had somehow changed between them. She would always have affection for him, but the summer had passed.”

Eventually there is the break up, wanderings, failures, aimless relationships. They remain devoted to one another and to their children. Nedra succumbs to an early death, Viri to a marriage with a clinging woman in Rome.

“It happens in an instant. It is all one long day, one endless afternoon, friends leave, we sand on the shore. Yes, he thought, I am ready, I have always been ready, I am ready at last.”

7.14.2014

Fazit (Account Rendered)


I first read about the German book, Fazit, by Melita Maschmann, a former Nazi, in an article on the New Yorker’s online blog (5/29/13). The blog, “I was a Nazi, and Here’s Why,” described the book as Maschmann’s explanation of why she joined the Hitler Youth and continued her allegiance to the principles of the Third Reich throughout the war, extending even four weeks after the ceasefire, when she was captured by American troops.

What led so many Germans to become followers of National Socialism? Maschmann’s account is a first-hand attempt to answer this question.

She wrote Fazit (titled Account Rendered in the English translation) in the form of a letter to a friend, a Jew, trying to explain why she fell under the sway of Nazism, joined the Hitler Youth movement, and sustained her conviction, in spite of all that she came to know. She also hoped the book would lead her colleagues and other Germans, to reflect on their own actions

She is very clear and often repeats the several reasons that explain what she did:

• To escape from her narrow, authoritarian upbringing by attaching herself to something that offered a more promising life.

• In the belief that National Socialism would bring people of all classes together and live together like brothers and sisters.

• That the program of the Third Reich would go a long way toward overcoming the German defeat in World War I, the onerous conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, and reduce the toll of unemployment in Germany, where six million people had no jobs and were living in virtual poverty.

• She never imagined that the leaders of Nazi Germany would launch a war, one that spread throughout Europe and then eventually easterly into Russia. Yet even then, she clung to her allegiance to the Hitler regime and service in the Hitler Youth.

“But I bowed to the tragic and, as I thought, inevitable law governing this country that ran: He who will not suffer wrong must commit wrong. Only he who possesses the power and exercises it can be master of this world.”

She claims she wasn’t trying to justify her actions that included supervising the eviction of Polish farmers and resettlement of Germans on their farms and working for the press and propaganda divisions of Nazi youth organizations. I confess I’m not entirely persuaded by her claim

At the same time, she recognizes the various ways she was deluded. Throughout Fazit, Maschman admits to her naivety, uncritical thinking and ready acceptance of “idealistic fantasies and illusions” about what National Socialism could accomplish.

She seems almost blind to the consequences of Hitler’s rule, claims to be unaware of the Holocaust until the War was over and admits that Germans had become “accomplices of a policy of hatred and banditry.”

Maschmann draws her account to an end with one lesson: “It is from such experiences that one can recognize the terrible power which so called ideologies can exercise over young people. Once they have surrendered to them, they see without seeing and hear without hearing.”

Need I add, that the power of ideologies is not restricted to the young?

7.10.2014

Every Day is for the Thief

“This should be a time of joy. You Know? Going home should be a thing of joy.”

The home you left long ago is never the home you come back to. It’s always a disappointment and your memories are always better anyway. Yes, a cliché, but that doesn't stop anyone from writing about the experience. It is the subject of Teju Cole’s recently published novel, Every Day is for the Thief.

Cole was born in this country, raised in Nigeria and author of the widely praised Open City. Every Day is For the Thief was written before Open City but only recently published in this country. It recounts the tale of an American psychiatrist-in-training who returns to Lagos for a short visit.

At once he is struck by the rampant corruption, thievery and bribery that even begins in New York as he applies to have his passport renewed at the Nigerian consulate. After arriving, it continues. Cole notes that the assumptions of life in America—obeying the law, moral constraints, due process—seem entirely absent from the city in which he was raised

On the streets in Lagos lawlessness is everywhere. “For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms—the categories are fluid are not thought of in moral terms.”


He never sees anyone reading, until one day, as he is traveling on a mini-bus he observes a woman holding a book. He strains his neck to find out what it is. “What I see makes my heart leap up into my mouth and thrash about like a catfish in a bucket." Michael Ondaatje”

The rarity of an adult reading a stimulating work of literary fiction on public transportation or most anywhere else astounds him. He wonders where could she have bought it or how could she afford it as it looked new. He is eager to talk to her and carries on a silent conversation. “What lady, do you make of Ondaatje’s labyrinthine sentences, his sensuous prose? How does his intense visuality strike you?” Where could she have bought it?"

And he hopes they will both get off at the same stop. Of course they don’t, as she gets off and disappears into the bookless crowd, long before Cole’s destination. It is the one of the few encounters in Lagos that brings him any pleasure, any intellectual pleasure. Cole confesses that Nigeria is “a hostile environment for the life of the mind.”

Before returning to Lagos, he had given some thought to staying permanently. But his week or so there convinced him, that was no longer possible. He isn’t the person he was when he left. Neither is Lagos, the city it was when he left. He knows that he loves the life he had created in the U.S. and had no desire to deal with what life is like in the country of his youth.

7.07.2014

Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Part III

Two young law students walk into a lawyer’s office to interview for a position. You see one has tattoos on her left arm, stretching from her shoulder to her wrist. The other has no tattoos. Who do you think will be working at the firm?

There is little doubt about the answer. The bias that appearance plays on our judgments is among the most powerful sources of discrimination. We rely too heavily on a single feature of a person and then to anchor our judgment thereafter, on that characteristic or trait.

Inferences about a person based on their physical appearance are risky. Consider the same two examples when men are interviewing. They may have the same tattoos as the women, but because they are wearing a suit, shirt, and tie, they are unobservable.

Other cues must then be drawn upon to predict their future performance. Regardless, something about their appearance can often be decisive—are they clean-shaven, with well-combed hair, shoes shined, etc

Rachel Cusk gives examples of this bias in the third segment of her serialized novel, Outline, published in the Summer 2014 issue of the "Paris Review," #209. For example she writes,

It was quite common, the man to her left presently observed, for young people now to use their appearance as a means of shocking or disturbing others: he himself…had seen … tattoos and piercings of sometimes an apparently violent nature, which all the same said nothing whatever about their owners, who were often people of the greatest sweetness and docility. It had taken him a long time to accept this fact, for he was predisposed to be judgmental and to find the meaning of a thing commensurate with its appearance... and though he didn’t strictly speaking, comprehend why people might choose to mutilate themselves, he had learned not to read too much into it.

Cusk also dwells at length on how individuals react to the same experience quite differently. Each person views the experience in the light of their own history and because each person’s history is usually quite different than anyone else’s, they are bound to attach a different meaning to the same experience. She describes the reactions of a woman, who had hoped to become a professional musician, as she was passing by an open window and recognized a piece of music she had always loved.

And instead of appreciating the beauty of the Bach piece, she felt an extraordinary sense of loss. The music she once loved no longer belonged and instead was possessed by someone else or so she felt. Cusk writes:

Certainly another person, she said, passing that window and hearing the D minor fugue, would have felt something entirely different. In itself the music coming out of the window means nothing at all, … And even a person observing these events, she said, from across the road, could not have guessed, simply by seeing and hearing what the story really was. What they would have seen was a girl walking past, at the same time as hearing some music being played inside a building.

How little we know of another person, how easily we are deceived or mislead by what we can observe. How superficial that is and how easily we succumb to its influence with results that are often unfortunate. Of course, none of this is new—“Appearance is only skin deep.” “You can’t tell a book by its cover.”

Cusk gives these generalities a life, she takes them out of the lab, and puts them in concrete situations, situations that we may find ourselves experiencing. By doing this, I think she makes them far more memorable, with much greater impact than reading about a research study of the same phenomena.

Knowing about the pitfalls of this bias does not prevent us from succumbing to it. But perhaps Cusk’s descriptions will keep us from falling prey to it as often as we usually do. It isn’t easy, except perhaps by learning to pause for a moment or two before you judge another person on the basis of some physical characteristic.

We also might spend far less time than we ordinarily do in judging other people in the first place.

7.04.2014

Unbroken

Note: Louis Zamperini died yesterday after a remarkable life that I wrote about in reviewing Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, reposted below. A film of his survival and triumphs will be released this December.

“If I knew I had to go through these experiences again, I’d kill myself.” Louis Zamperini

In Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand unfolds the astonishing life of Louis Zamperini. You may not believe what I say about her account, but I have not distorted or imagined anything. Still my summary is nothing like the experiences Zamperini endured.

Louis Zamperni was a rambunctious kid who grew up in Torrance, California, where he broke into homes, robbed merchants, and had a great knack at getting into trouble. But he was never jailed, was usually successful, and must have learned then that he could do just about anything.

It was his older brother who finally found a way to channel his energy by means of long distance running, a mile and beyond. Apparently Zamperini took to the sport at once, he had a long stride, and a tremendous kick at the end of a race.

He qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, finished 8th in the 5,000 meter race and caught the eye of Hitler who came up to congratulate him after his record-breaking time in the last lap. Hillenbrand suggests he did not do better because he overate to the extreme on the long ship ride over the Atlantic and was terribly out of shape by the time he arrived in Berlin.

When the war broke out, he enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Hawaii. In May of 1943, the B-24 that he was flying went down on a search mission over the Pacific. Eight of his crew were killed, he and 2 others survived, one of whom eventually died on the raft they were drifting in.

They floated over 2,000 miles for 47 days. That’s 47 long days and nights without much in the way of food or water. They managed to survive by catching rainwater and an occasional fish they were able to snatch from the sea. This itself was an unbelievable ordeal. But there is more.

The raft eventually drifted on to one of the Marshall Islands held by the Japanese, to the dismay of the two survivors. They were captured, subjected to the most brutal treatment imaginable, especially Zamperini who was well known to the camp commander through his running feats.

He endured over two years of daily, intense assaults, starvation, slave labor, dysentery, beriberi, respiratory diseases, and physical injuries delivered by a succession of sadistic guards.

According to Hillenbrand, “…of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935—more than 37 percent—died. By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died.”

Not surprisingly, after the Japanese surrendered and Zamperini was discharged from the Air Force, nothing was ever the same. He tried running again, but the injuries he sustained in the camps made it clear that was impossible. He had nightmares, terrible flashbacks, anxieties, and bouts of alcoholism.

He married, was separated from his wife several times, and finally, at her instigation, attended a crusade led by Billy Graham. Hillenbrand ends her account with an upbeat tale of his new career as a born again Christian and inspirational speaker.

I simply cannot comprehend how Louis Zamperini survived the ordeals he experienced during World War II, first the month and a half on the raft floating in the Pacific and then the years of torture in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.

Hillenbrand attributes his endurance to those early years in Torrance. Zamperini is currently 93 and lives in Hollywood. He has received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and made television appearances in this country, Europe, and Japan.

As she brings her account to a close, Hillenbrand writes: “When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird [the most brutal of the guards] had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away."

7.02.2014

Three Italian Parks

We change, we age, we stay or move away, and in time we end. The park, however, endures. John Banville

Zadie Smith visits Italy. She writes about the Boboli Gardens in City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts, by Catie Marron.


Smith considers the Boboli too formal, few people, nothing like an English garden. I feel the same, although I never expressed it before. That is what good writing often does. It put words to the unarticulated feelings and thoughts we have.

Then she goes to Rome and writes about her visits to the Borghese Gardens. Unlike the Boboli, the Borghese is alive. There are children, couples, old and young, solitary strollers, and dogs and more dogs. There is a zoo, fountains small ponds, a museum, cafes and ice cream vendors.


Benches along each side of the paths, once in a while you see a reader, and in the spring and summer a great many readers. Everything is old, mossy statues, algae-filled ponds, ancient pines. Nothing formal about the Borghese Gardens, you are never quite sure where you’re headed. All you know is you don’t want to leave, don’t want to head down to the crowded, noisy, city below.

I first heard of the Borghese Gardens in reading Mark Helprin’s The Soldier of the Great War. Before he goes to war, the young man rides his horses under the pines in the Borghese. Each time I’ve been in Rome, sometimes alone, at other times with my wife and then once with our children, I’ve wandered through that very open and very public park. It never changes.

In Mary Gordon’s The Love of Our Youth two former lovers chance upon one another in Rome. They spend most of the time catching up as they stroll along the paths of the Borghese Gardens.

“In a public Italian garden a Briton has all the things she loves about Italy—the sun, the food, the sky, the art, the sound of the language—without any of the inconvenient rules that attend their proper enjoyment.” Zadie Smith

The Parco Delle Cascine is an enormous park on the western edge of Florence that stretches along the Arno for miles. Over the years I have gone there often, first as a runner, then as a walker, and now as a sunbather. I marvel at how few people I usually see in the Cascine. It is surely because the park is so vast and so heavily treed that the people are simply hidden in between the bushes and shrubs and down the long pathways that traverse the park from one end to the other.


A few miles into the park there is a public swimming pool, the Publico Piscina where I used to swim. It is far from luxurious; I was reluctant to shower there. But it is the sun and surrounded by lovely tall trees and open fields. On day I realize that the sun that shines on the sunbathers at the Publico Piscina is the very same one that shines on the beautiful people by the pool at the Splendido in Portofino.


As I prepare to return home, I am once again reminded that we are what our situations hand us. In Florence it is warm; at home it is cold. In Florence it is quiet; at home it is “noisy.” I am a different person in Florence. I am turned upside down mostly by the warmth that seems in some strange way to be remarkably therapeutic. Each time I go there I realize how much difference the temperature and light can make, how much they seem to matter to me, how noticeable they are. I feel more at home here than anywhere else.







6.29.2014

A Room With a View

All we knew was that we helplessly loved the place, and did not pause to ask why. C. Lewis The City of Florence

The apartment I’ve rented this year in Florence is located on the Lungarno Grazie, not far from the historical center of Florence. From its tall windows, I look out at the Arno, the hills across the way, dotted with trees and villas.


Higher up, I see the Piazza Michelangelo with is panoramic view of the entire city of Florence, the Brunelleschi’s Dumo and Giotto’s bell tower.


Even further up the hill is the Basilica of San Minato al Monte at one of the highest points in the city and is among the most beautiful churches in Italy.


On the other side of the Arno, down a few blocks, is a beautiful park, where I take a picnic lunch to each day.


It was always difficult, she said, to come home. She adored Italy. Apart from everything else, it was one of the few places where one’s hopes for the future could be restored. Beautiful, unspoiled fields and hills. Great houses that families had lived in for five hundred years. It was deeply consoling. Also the general sweetness of the people. James Salter All That Is

6.25.2014

Two Italian Tales

The ending of Marco Vichi’s, Death in Florence was such a letdown. I was hoping for a happy one. Fifty-six year old Inspector Bordelli did not capture the culprits of the crime he was investigating.

The young boy who had been missing for days was killed. Two of those involved committed suicide. Two others began their own vendetta. His young lover leaves him after an excruciating experience, for which he had not taken steps to prevent. He turns in his badge and Beretta and retires to the countryside. He has failed, failed his lover, himself and colleagues.

The novel takes place in 1966, the year of the massive floods that ruined parts of the city of Florence and its historic treasures. The streets were filled with mud and the litter of the rampaging Arno. The rain never stopped. Food was scare, so was water, there was no electricity, heat or telephone communication.

The city seemed ruined. Bodcelli was ruined. And the pleasure I had in reading the novel left me somewhat ruined too. It will pass for me. But not for Inspector Bordelli. “He didn’t feel like asking himself any more pointless questions. It made no sense. He should let whatever happened happen.” He was alone again.

“…the nobility and greatness that are at times hidden within mental illness.”

Giuseppe Pardo was an Italian Pardo, a leader of Jewish individuals in the community of Pisa. He lived there at the time of Nazi Germany’s occupation of the country during World War II.

Silvano Arieti, now an American psychiatrist, also lived in Pisa then and was a member of the Pardo’s synagogue and a close friend. Arieti describes Pardo’s life in The Parnas, A Scene from the Holocaust.

It’s a short book, primarily focused on Pardo’s great fear of animals, especially dogs whenever he went outside. The origin of his serious phobia is unknown and, while Arieti attempts to give a psychoanalytic interpretation, it isn’t very persuasive.

“I am constantly in a state of expectation that animals will come after me, jump on me, bite me, torture me, or even kill me.”

Arieti makes clear that Pardo was at his best, quite normal, with the group of individuals who gathered in his home. “No trace of his illness remained in him when he was with them. He was no longer the afflicted man, but a much respected person…” This was particularly true of the young people who were part of his group and with whom he engaged in debates both as leader and peer.

What’s important in Arieti’s account is that Pardo refused to leave his home for a safer place as the Nazis retreated from the advancing American troops and began to wreck havoc on the towns in Italy they left. Eventually they discovered Pardo and remaining friends, all of whom were killed during a Nazi raid.

“Am I more afraid of my illness than of the Nazis? Is that all there is in this matter and no more? Had I not been ill, probably I would had left.”