Au Revoir

On this day in 2008, Marks in the Margins posted its first blog. Now, ten years later and after almost 1,000 posts, Marks in the Margins is saying goodbye.

Thank you for reading and commenting. I have appreciated knowing there have been a few readers of my remarks.

Marks in the Margin will continue to be online until the next deadline for renewing the server subscription, sometime later this year.

Best wishes to all of you,

Richard Katzev


On Rereading

In the “late season” of my life, I have been rereading some of my favorite books. Reading a book for the second or third time can be quite different than the first time. We are not the same, often view things differently and have forgotten a great deal of the book. From the Archives, here are Patricia Spacks comments about the rereading experience.

I am reading On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks. It is the first time I’ve read it, although I have reread the first chapter that sketches Spacks’ views on the value of rereading and the reasons that motivate her to devote a fair amount of time to rereading literary fiction.

She suggests we reread for enjoyment, a way to evoke memories, a reminder of forgotten truths, as well as a source of new ones. But we also reread, she says, to measure how we have changed or even if we have changed. “…but for most readers, rereading provides, in contrast, an experience of unexpected change.”

She cites a passage from an essay on rereading by Vivian Gornick:

 “When I read Colette in my twenties, I said to myself, That is exactly the way it is. Now I read her and I find myself thinking, How much smaller this all seems than it once did—cold, brilliant, limited—and silently I am saying to her, Why aren’t you making more sense of things?”

But for the most part Spacks suggests we reread fiction because we want to re-experience the pleasure we found when we first read a book, the enjoyment that can arise from an engaging story, stimulating truth or fine writing. 

The bulk of her text describes the various encounters she has had rereading books. She treats the books she read as a child, her favorite Jane Austen, those she read in the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s, the books she read as a professional teacher and critic, those she ought to have liked, but didn’t and the ones she has read as a member of a book group.

In the final chapter, Coda, she reviews what she has learned from all the books she’s reread. She wonders what the era of electronic books will do to reading and the experience of rereading and confesses she can’t begin to imagine what that will be. 

At the same time, she realizes how much she has “been shaped—personality, sensitivities, convictions—by reading.” She also comes to better understand how the extent to which her values and attitudes have changed over the years.

“If Herzog has meanings that I was earlier unable to detect; if The Golden Notebook, with large pretensions, now seems relatively trivial in import; if the facts of a book’s nature can shift in such ways, value judgments, too must be less stable than they appear.”

Most of the rereading I do is simply because I’ve forgotten so much, if not all, of what the book was about, why I liked it, and why it is (usually) still on my shelf. And then there are those special books that I don’t forget. Unlike Spacks, I know I don’t want to reread them again. I don’t want to do anything to alter the memory that I have of those days, the people in the book, their story and the great writing. None of it can ever be repeated. They were the best and I want to keep it just that way.

I’d rather not experience Gornick’s melancholy lament: “I want the reading of Colette to be the same as it once was, but it is not. Yet I am wrenched by the beauty of that which no longer feels large, and can never feel large again.”

Here is a brief video of Spacks talking about her book:



Each year I add to my Commonplace Book a section that I refer to as Briefs. Briefs are provocative comments, a word or phrase, a quotation from a random collection of almost anything I read—a newspaper, blog, journal, essay, book, etc. Here are a few of those I added last year.

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai 'Ngaje Ngai', the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

Martin Luther King
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Pascal Mercier
The merciless decline of all living things.

Isaiah Berlin
Transplanted flowers decay in unsympathetic climates; so do human beings.

T. S. Eliot
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

Bernhard Schlink

There is no need to talk because the truth of what one says lies in what one does.

Donna Leon
She was a woman who lived in her imagination, who immediately turned what she saw into stories, who caught a person’s expression and made up what had happened to them, and she believed in tragedy.

David Sax

Why bother writing articles, mounting investigations, and uncovering facts if they had no discernible impact?

George Steiner
There comes a time when it’s too late for many things.

Richard Flanagan
It became hard to believe that all the things that had happened to him had ever really happened, that he had seen all the things he had seen. Sometimes, it was hard to believe he had ever really been to war at all. He understood that all this would go on, and of him nothing would remain, that even his memory, though held by a few family and friends for a few years, perhaps decades, would ultimately be forgotten and mean no more than a fallen bamboo, than the inescapable mud.

Walker Percy
To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

San Shepard
The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning.

I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.

Anais Nin
We write to taste life twice: in the moment and in retrospection.


Migration Crisis

Richard has read Foucault and Baudrillard, and also Hegel and Nietzsche, but he doesn’t know what you can eat when you have no money to buy food. Jenny Erpenbeck

Almost every day I read another story about the plight of migrants. A boat capsized in the Mediterranean, almost one hundred drowned. The government of X turned back several hundred migrants who had walked all the way from Syria. The people of country Y have erected chain-linked fences to keep the migrants from entering.

I sit in my chair and am appalled. What good are my feelings in the face of these stories? What good are my feelings if I do nothing? But what can I do? I read two novels about migrants to see if they have an answer.

In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid writes about a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, who meet in an unnamed Middle Eastern city and fall in love. When violence erupts and Saeed’s mother is killed, the couple begin making plans to leave. They learn of magical doors that open to new lands.

The first door takes them to Mykonos, where they settle in a tent city. They meet a Greek girl there who helps them to another door that takes them to London. As more migrants arrive there, the hostility of the native-born convinces Nadia to leave through another door that opens in Marin County in California.

They seem welcome there, but in time they realize they no longer love one another and go their separate ways. Fifty years later they meet by chance again and Saeed offers to take Nadia to see the stars in Chile.

While I sympathize with Nadia and Saeed, Exit West has no answer for me, so I turn to another novel hoping it might.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck is the story of Richard, a retired, classics professor of comfortable means who, for reasons that are not entirely clear seeks to learn about the migrants he sees one day in a Berlin square. He wants to know where they are from, why they left, what they did before leaving, what their hopes are for the future.

They are from Nigeria, Syria, Ghana, Niger or Burkina Fasso. They are Awad, Rashid, Osarobo. They speak English, Italian, French and other less known languages. Richard begins talking to them, they begin to trust him and welcome his visits.

Richard starts to take them food, tries to teach them German and then invites them to his home. He teaches one to play his piano, another to cook meals and eventually allows a group of them to stay in his home.

In these ways, Richard begins to befriend and learn about the refugees he chanced upon one day in Berlin. He begins to understand their plight, the daily suffering they encounter and how they plan to avoid it.

In Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone I begin to find an answer to my initial question, to go beyond my feelings and translate them into action.

We are all migrants though time. Mohsin Hamid


Don't Save Anything

To write! What a marvelous thing!” Paul Léautaud

Not long after James Salter died, his wife began rummaging through the boxes of articles and essays he had written. While most had been published in magazines and newspapers, they had never been collected in one volume. However, the best of them have now been brought together in his Don't Save Anything: Uncollected Essays, Articles, and Profiles, Reviews. Here are passages from a few of them:

On Other Writers

The lesson in the books of Graham Greene is the great lesson of the times: one must take sides.

He interviewed Nabokov at a hotel in Switzerland “amid tables spread with white cloth and silver as if for dinners before the war, an apt setting for a man who didn’t embrace the modern world.”

On Paris
The new La Coupole has everything the earlier one had—appearance location—everything except one small detail, the soul.

On Venice
Off to Torcello for lunch jolting across the wide lagoon the wind blowing the dark green water to whiteness past San Michele with its brick walls the island on which Stravinsky and Diaghilev lay buried—the real and the false glory one moving past the other though there are times when one cannot tell which is which.

On Mountain Climbing

We will all die and be forgotten but there is in climbing a mythic element that draws one on. Half Dome El Capitan the Dru: these are names we have given to things that will be here almost as long as the earth itself.

On Writing
You cannot teach someone to write any more than you can teach them to be interesting.

The act of writing, though often tedious, can produce extraordinary pleasure.

Describe he is continually reminding himself describe.

The cynics say that if you do not write for money you are a dabbler or a fool, but this is not true. To see one’s work in print is the real desire, to have it read. In the end writing is like a prison an island from which you will never be released but which is a kind of paradise: the solitude the thoughts the incredible joy of putting into words the essence of what you for the moment understand and with your whole heart want to believe.

Latent in me, I suppose, there was always the belief that writing was greater than other things, or at least would prove to be greater in the end. Call it a delusion if you like, but within me was an insistence that whatever we did, the things that were said, the dawns, the cities, the lives, all of it had to be drawn together, made into pages, or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been. There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.

There is something called the true life, which I cannot describe and which perhaps varies as one sees it from different angles and at different times. At one point it is travel, at another a certain woman, at another a house somewhere with a view you will worship till you die. It is a life apart from money and to the side of ambition, a life lived in one way or another for beauty. It does not last indefinitely, but the survivors are usually not poorer for it.”


Ordinary Heroes

Principles are the main ingredient of courage. A man with principles can get the better of fear.

Scott Turow’s novel, Ordinary Heroes, is not what you might expect, one of his legal thrillers. Rather it is a saga of World War II, resulting in what Turow reminds us were 40 million deaths in Europe and 20 million in Asia.

The story begins as the son of David Dubin chances upon his deceased father’s account of his exploits during the war. What he learns stuns him: his father was court-martialed during the last days of the war. “Court-martialed! The last thing I could imagine of my tirelessly proper father was being charged with a serious crime.”

As a member of the Third Army’s legal team, Dubin was ordered to arrest Robert Martin, who was on an unauthorized mission for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a wartime intelligence agency, the forerunner of the CIA. Dubin found the major, but then deliberately allowed him to flee.

At his court-martial Dubin was convicted and sentenced. But shortly thereafter, without any official explanation, the verdict and charges were withdrawn. Dubin was set free when it became known that Martin was on a mission that had it been successful would have benefited the Allies significantly.

Turow’s characterizations are one of best features of the book. There is the complex and bombastic General Teedle who ordered Dubin to arrest Robert Martin. There is Martin, himself, and the group of resistance fighters who followed him. Among them is the mysterious Gita Lodz who dispenses words of wisdom throughout the novel. There is also Biddy, Dubin’s side kick and best pal, who it turns out is a light skinned black man from the South.

Who are we, Dubin, but the stories we tell about ourselves, particularly if we accent them?

Turow’s depictions of Dubin’s combat experiences are vivid. Dubin suddenly finds himself put in command of a rifle company during the Battle of the Bulge. It's freezing, snowing, with the enemy across the way, the casualties and horror. As the Germans begin to overrun his troops, he tells them to lie down and play dead. After the battle, he was celebrated for a strategy that he knows was simply cowardice.

"I had given my men saving advice mostly because it was what I had wanted to do, to lie down like a child and hope that the assault -- the war -- would be over soon. True, it was the wiser course. But I had taken it because at the center of my soul, I was a coward. And for this I was now being saluted."

Whatever happened to Robert Martin? Who is Gita Lotz anyway? What was the mission Martin was planning to undertake that allowed Dubin to be set free? And what became of the high-spirited Biddy? The answers are in the pages of Ordinary Heroes.

So much of civilization, Dubin, is merely the recovery periods between wars. We build things up and then tear them down again. Look at poor Europe. Some moments I find myself thinking about all the fighting that’s gone on here and expect blood to come welling out of the ground.


Literary Arts

The mission of Literary Arts is to engage readers, support writers, and inspire the next generation with great literature.

I arrived in Portland Oregon 50 years ago and, since then, I’ve seen some remarkable changes in this city. I was here when Powell’s Bookstore first opened. Now it is said to be the world’s largest.

I was here during the energy crises of the 70s when Governor Tom McCall introduced widely adopted energy conservation programs and when Mayor Neil Goldschmidt began planning a metropolitan area that is the envy of city planners throughout this country and abroad.

And I was here when Literary Arts, a nonprofit literary organization was founded 32 years ago. It began with the Portland Arts and Lectures which is now one of the country’s largest literary series.

I vividly recall some of those earlier lectures when the likes of Philip Roth, William Stryon and Robert Coles presented memorable lectures. They were not interviewed, nor did they speak off the cuff about one thing or another. Rather, they delivered a genuine lecture about one of their book(s) or an idea central to their writing life. This year’s speakers include George Saunders, Claudia Rankine, Jesmyn Ward, Dr. Reza Asian and Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Since then Literary Arts has expanded with a variety of new programs. They include:

Oregon Book Awards & Fellowships, which celebrates Oregon’s writers and independent publishers. 

Youth Programs that motivates students to write, publish, and perform their own creative writing. 

Wordstock: Portland’s Book Festival, that brings writers throughout the country for lectures, workshops, and discussions.

Literary Arts also hosts guided discussion groups around great works of literature through a program called Delve. A few of the current, 6 week offerings include:

• The works and correspondence of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop
• Shakespeare’s Complicated Romances
• The writings of Robert Bolano
• Discussion of Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon

Portland is a great town for readers. There’s nothing like reading a good book during the long and dreary winters we have around here.

Happy Holidays to everyone. Marks in the Margin will take a Holiday break and will be back early in the New Year.


False Papers

I had long ago learned to prefer the imagined encounter, or the memory of the imagined encounter to the thing itself. Andre Aciman

There is the experience, but before that is the anticipation of the experience, and after that its memory, and don’t forget, there is also the place where the memory occurred, so that you often come to like the place where you recalled the experience, even more than the original experience itself.

This is the way Andre Aciman writes about his experiences in the 14 linked essays of False Papers. His subject is nostalgia and loss. Consider his essay “Letter from Illiers-Combray” (Combray is the fictional town created by Proust in In Search of Lost Time, while Illiers is where Proust’s father was born and where he used to visit as a child. To mark the centennial of Proust’s birth, the little town of Illiers officially changed its name to Illiers-Combray.) Aciman writes:

“Illiers itself was simply a place where the young Proust dreamed of a better life to come. But because the dream never came true, he had learned to love instead the place where the dream was born.”

Or in his essay “Shadow Cities” about a park (Straus Park) he discovered in New York. It was a small park, being restored in the Upper East Side. It reminded him of Alexandria in Egypt where he was born. He writes:

“I come to Straus Park to remember Alexandria, albeit an unreal Alexandria, an Alexandria that does not exist, that I’ve invented … Straus Park itself, now reminding me of something that is not just elsewhere but that is perhaps more in me than it ever was out there, that it is, after all, perhaps just me, a me that is no less a figment of time than this city is a figment of space.”

Or read this passage from another one of his essays. In it, he is speaking to a friend in Paris, while he is in New York, just before he is about to fly to Paris. He writes:

…I said I did not like traveling, I never found Paris relaxing, I would much rather stay in New York and imagine having wonderful dinners in Paris. “Yes, of course,” she agreed, already annoyed.” Since you’re going to Paris, you don’t want to go to Paris. But if you were staying in New York, you’d want to be in Paris. But since you’re not staying, but going, just do me a favor.”. Exasperation bristled in her voice. “When you’re in Paris, think of yourself in New York, longing for Paris, and everything will be fine.”

So it goes, from one essay to the next. I confess I rather like the Aciman’s roaming around, back and forth ambivalence and nostalgia. I also appreciate his view of the importance of putting this down on paper in order to record what is lost and what is recalled.

“Paper displaces place, the way writing displaces living.”


Good Ideas

House of Literature
Imagine a place in the center of your city where you can go to hear writers speak about their work, discuss literature with other readers, or have a meal when you’re in the mood. This is by no means a fanciful idea. The House of Literature in Oslo, Norway is Europe’s largest. “The purpose of the House of Literature is to communicate and promote interest in literature and reading.” The first floor has a bookstore, a café and six separate rooms for presentations and conversation. Another floor is devoted to children books. The loft has 50 work spaces for writers and a meeting room which has a large number of literary quarterlies and journals. Isn’t it time to establish a House of Literature in every major metropolitan area of this country?

Climate Solutions
The governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, recently signed two executive orders designed to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Under the governor’s first order, by September 2020 new homes and by October 2022 commercial buildings must be equipped for solar panel installation and by October 2022 all parking structures for new homes and commercial buildings must be wired for at least one electric vehicle charger. The governor's second executive order set a goal of at least 50,000 registered electric vehicles in the state by 2020, a significant increase from the 16,000 currently registered. These two orders demonstrate once again the State of Oregon’s leading role in taking action to preserve the environment.

Digital Pill
Millions of patients do not take the medications prescribed for them. In an effort to deal with this costly problem, the FDA recently approved a digital pill that can inform doctors if and when patients take their medicine. Once consumed, the pill sends a message to a wearable patch, which then relays the information to a app so a patient can track his ingestion of the medication on his smartphone. And with the patient's permission, his physician can also access the information through a special Web site. Currently, the digital pill has only been approved for schizophrenia, acute treatment of bipolar disorder and depression in adults." However, it is clear the technology can be applied far more widely.

Google Search
Of all the digital marvels that exist today, I believe the Google Search “engine” is one of the most remarkable. It is said to get more “traffic” than any other Web site. I have a question: Did the Golden State Warriors win tonight? What is the capital of Burkina Faso? More and more now I find myself turning to Goggle when I want to know or can’t remember something. But Google remembers if I enter the right search words and it does so in not more than a split second. Google's algorithm does the work for me by searching out Web pages that contain the keywords I used to search, then assigning a rank to each page. Higher ranked pages appear further up in the results, meaning that the best links relating to my search are the first ones. What did we do when we sought information before the introduction Google? Well, we trekked to the library and looked for a book or encyclopedia. But I suspect we were by no means as successful as Google is.



As I have got older, I have instead come to realize that we have no idea whatsoever as to how physical matter gives rise to consciousness, thought and feeling. Henry Marsh

Admissions is Henry Marsh’s second memoir of his life as a British neurosurgeon. It follows upon his earlier Do No Harm. Both describe why he turned to neurosurgery, the mistakes he has made and his anxieties about each new operation.

The operations require a steady hand, a range of technical equipment, skill in avoiding areas of the brain he doesn’t want to remove, hoping the patient will not be permanently disabled. Most of his operations entail removing a cancerous tumor.

In some cases, Marsh must decide whether it is better not to operate at all. The tumor is too large, the risk of operating is great, it may be better to let the patient live as long as possible, rather than ending it in a hospital hooked up to tubes for days on end. He writes:

But surgery, I told them, was almost impossibly difficult—at least, it was very difficult to operate without, at best, inflicting lifelong disability on the patient. So, what was better? To die within the next few years or face a longer life of awful disability?

He admits he has made mistakes that take a terrible toll on his patient’s lives, as well as troubling him for months. They are not confined to the operating room. He has had affairs, is divorced from his first wife, and now married again. He writes, “We always learn more from failure than from success. Success teaches us nothing.”

Yet he admits to a terrible temper, treating patients and physicians with condescension and deceiving some of his patients, “to pretend to a greater level of competence and knowledge than we know to be the case, and try to shield our patients a little from the frightening reality they often face.”

Several of the chapters in Admissions take place in Nepal and Ukraine, where Marsh has gone to help physicians who have trained with him in Britain. In Nepal, he assists his friend Dev in his private Kathmandu hospital. The country was recently ravaged by a civil war, is continuing to recover from its recent earthquake, where most patients have only a primitive understanding of modern medicine. If the surgery is not successful, the patient’s family is often furious, mounting protests and threatening both Dev and Marsh.

In Admissions, Marsh is facing his retirement. He worries he will succumb to dementia, as his father did and dreads dying in a hospital, cared for by unknown people trying to prolong his life as long as possible. He admits to having a suicide kit, hopes he will have the courage to use it if he wants. He concludes with a discussion of euthanasia.

…my concern is simply to achieve a good death. When the time comes, I want to get it over with. I do not want it to be some prolonged and unpleasant experience presided over by terminal-care professionals, who derive their own sense of meaning and purpose from my suffering. The only meaning of death is how I live my life now and what I will have to look back upon as I lie dying. If euthanasia is legalized, this question of how we can have a good death for those of us who want it, with pointless suffering avoided, can be openly discussed, and we can make our own choice, rather than having it imposed upon us.


The Missing Shade of Blue

It was 5 years ago that I first read Jennie Erdal’s The Missing Shade of Blue. I had forgotten what a great book it is. A philosophical tour-de-force. Plus, an intriguing story, engaging characters and a set of ideas that continue to linger in my mind. From the Archives, here is what I wrote about it:

Suppose there that a person…to have become perfectly well acquainted with colours of all kind, excepting one particular shade of blue…Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be placed before him…Now I ask, whether it is possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses.
David Hume

We are in Edinburgh. Edgar Logan, a young man from Paris, arrives to translate the essays of David Hume. “…most of my life has been spent in books, reading other people’s stories, living vicariously through characters that don’t exist.”

Early on he meets the bitter, physically crumbling, soon-to-be-dismissed-philosophy professor, Harry Sanderson and his enigmatic wife, Carrie. “Up until then I lacked the talent for friendship. Later I would sometimes wonder what it was about the Sandersons that made the difference, what it was the sucked me in…”

This is how Jennie Erdal begins her novel, The Missing Shade of Blue. It engrossed me from the first page. Several threads are interlaced throughout her tale.

On David Hume: Hume had not set out with the intention of being an unbeliever. Rather he had followed the arguments for religion and found them wanting. He was a man primarily interested in explaining our place in the world so that we might live better lives; and the art of living well, he soon discovered did not sit happily with clinging on to illusions.

On philosophy: The unexamined life is much despised. According to Socrates, it is not worth living. But actually, the examined life can get you into all sorts of trouble.

On painting: At that point the language to interpret a painting was simply not available to me. Later Carrie would tell me this was an advantage. My eyes were innocent like those of a child, though to me they were simply crude and ignorant.

On vicarious experience: Nearly all of my experience of life—the highs and lows, the hopes and disappointments, the chaotic entanglements—everything that matters in fact—all of this has been mediated through the written word. With the result that novels have given me the sense—the illusion perhaps—of a connection with others, with the texture of real lives.

On marriage: My close reading of fiction had taught me that nearly all marriages occupied strange territory. But it was more vivid and startling to see it with you own eyes.

On happiness: …happiness often reveals itself as counterpoint. It is edged about with things that are opposite to it.

On novels: …a good novel was like a small miracle…fiction allowed us to live lives of other than our own….And every so often, I said, something emerged from a novel that could only be called truth—there was no other name for it. Which has a paradoxical ring to it, since of course, fiction is made up, full of lies.

These are but a fraction of the passages I noted in The Missing Shade of Blue. Is there a story along with Erdal’s philosophical ruminations? Yes, but on my reading, it plays a minor role. There is the tragic deterioration of a once fine philosopher and an emerging relationship between the Edgar, the translator and Carrie, the painter.

A Philosophical Adventure is the subtitle of The Missing Shade of Blue. That it is, the kind of book I am forever searching for. I found it one of those “small miracles.” For a philosopher, it will be a fictional treat. For a translator or painter, it is an endless debate. For any reader, it is a rich dialogue on Hume, happiness, friendship, language, and should you be the least bit interested, fly-fishing.


C. P. Cavafy

They change their sky, not their soul, who rush across the sea. Horace

When I was younger, I used to yearn for a warmer place to live. But I’m too old now to move anywhere and my lifelong spouse has no interest in taking leave of the city where we have lived for the past 50 years.

Still, when the days are dark and the rain is pouring down, I begin to yearn for that elusive place once again. However, in his poem The City C. P. Cavafy reminds me that no matter where I might find a warmer place to live, I will never be able to escape myself.

The City

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

Cavafy was born in Alexandria in 1863 to a Greek family of some wealth and at various times in his life he lived in England and Istanbul. He returned in Alexandria after the collapse of the family business where he died in 1933 at the age of 70.

In a comment about Cavafy’s poem The City, Orhan Pamuk wrote: I have read [it] again and again in Turkish and in English translation. There is no other city to go to: The city that makes us is the one within us. Reading Cavafy’s The City has changed the way I look at my own Istanbul.

Every now and then I read one of Cavafy’s poems that have been translated and published on the Web or in one of the volumes of his poems. He wrote only 154 that can be found here

From the Archives this is one I especially like for reasons that are not at all obscure:

An Old Man

At the noisy end of the café, head bent
over the table, an old man sits alone,
a newspaper in front of him.

And in the miserable banality of old age
he thinks how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strength, eloquence, and looks.

He knows he’s aged a lot: he sees it, feels it.
Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.
So brief an interval, so very brief.

And he thinks of Prudence, how it fooled him,
how he always believed—what madness—
that cheat who said: “Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”

He remembers impulses bridled, the joy
he sacrificed. Every chance he lost
now mocks his senseless caution.

But so much thinking, so much remembering
makes the old man dizzy. He falls asleep,
his head resting on the café table.


Starting Small

Community-Supported Models A C.S.A refers to a community-supported agricultural group that encourages its members to upfront funds to a farm that be drawn upon to pay for a portion of its future harvest. It also permits the farm to cover its costs during the slow growing months.

The Times recently reported an extension of the model for a bookstore—a C.S.B. It describes a bookstore in a coastal city in Maine that has a small population of residents during the winter, but much larger number during the summer months.

Like the C.S.A. model, C.S.B. members can “invest” various amounts of money to draw upon to buy books throughout the year. At the same time, the bookstore is able to sustain itself during the slow months.

In a way, it’s like owning a portion of the farm or bookstore or whatever other type of organization adopts the concept and thereby establishes a closer relationship between members and the business than otherwise be possible.

Tax the Rich Late last year in an attempt, albeit modest, to confront the growing economic inequalities in this country, the Portland City Council adopted a plan that imposes a surtax on companies whose chief executives earn more that 100 times the average pay of their workers.

Said to be the first of its kind in the nation, the companies are required to pay an additional 10% of their regular business tax, if their executive salaries are 100 times the median pay of their employees, or a surcharge of 25%, if they are paid more that 250 times the median employee pay.

At the time the city of Portland, was the first to impose such a tax. Thomas Piketty, the author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, said he was in favor of the tax as a “first step.” The Portland mayor at the time echoed Piketty’s view, acknowledging that while it is a small attempt to address the nation’s income inequalities, “…it is a start.”

(And not long after, Seattle became the second city to require a tax on the wealthy. The new measure requires individual city residents to pay a 2.25% tax on any income beyond $250,000 annually; couples who file jointly will pay the same rate on earnings beyond $500,000. The Seattle Times reports the tax is designed to support the city’s affordable housing, climate change, education and transit efforts.)

Offshore Wind Farms In the quest for renewable sources of energy, offshore wind farms hold considerable promise. The wind never stops blowing off the coastal states of this country. Harnessing it could provide an almost inexhaustible source of energy that might eventually make a significant contribution to reducing the nation’s pollution.

The first commercial offshore wind farm in the US is located 3.8 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. Known as the Block Island Wind Farm, it was launched last December and consists of five turbines capable of powering about 17,000 homes.

About 50,000 wind turbines have been installed in this country that provide roughly 5 percent of the nation’s electric power and even more in particularly windy states such as Kansas and Iowa. The turbines are much less costly to install on land than at sea, but the wind is also much weaker on land.

Like the two other projects I’ve mentioned, the Block Island Wind Farm is a relatively small project. At the same time, it could mark the start of much larger projects off the coastal waters of this country. The chairman of the company that built the turbines, said, “I do believe that starting small has made sense.”


Briefly Noted

I am reading Memories of Chekhov edited by Peter Sekirin. It is not a biography, or an autobiography but rather the recollections of the many people who knew Chekhov during his relatively short life-- he died from tuberculosis when he was only 44. The book recounts his early life from the members of his close and large family. He was described as outgoing, friendly, well-read and eager to pass along writing suggestions to the aspiring writers who knew him. One friend wrote that Chekhov was “a thin tall man with a fine, dark beard…who seemed to me a very joyful and happy young man.” Another recalled that “he was a very graceful, proud and tender man.” The book is a delightful account of a fascinating individual.

In a moving tribute to his wife, Iris Murdoch, John Bailey writes about their early life together and her gradual descent into the ravages of Alzheimer’s. He says: Alzheimer’s is, in fact, like an insidious fog, barely noticeable until everything around has disappeared. After that, it is no longer possible to believe that a world outside fog exists. It begins with forgetting words. Iris is talking or lecturing and then comes to a thought that she can’t find the word for. Sentences are not always completed. They start and then stop in mid-stream. Bayley comments, When writing about the onset of Alzheimer’s, it is difficult to remember a sequence of events—what happened when, in what order. There are 5 million people in the United States who have Alzheimer’s. And while much has been written about the neurophysiology of the disease, little is known about what it is like to experience it. Anyone who tries to write about it is limited by the fact that they are either beset with it or are only able to observe how the stricken person behaves.

Hemingway is most often associated with Spain, Cuba and France, but he visited Italy frequently and wrote about it often. He first spent time there during World War I when he volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver. Then again in Venice after World War II, where he went duck hunting in the Venice Lagoon and wrote Across the River and Into the Trees at the Locanda Cipriani on the island of Torcello. Richard Owen’s Hemingway in Italy reminded me of the times I have visited those places and the good times I have had there. “If the Italian landscape, from the Venetian lagoons and marshes to the Dolomites as well as Liguria and Sicily, had a profound effect on him, so too did the Italian people – not just the aristocrats he came to know so well in Venetian high society, but also the ordinary Italians he came across, from soldiers, drivers and waiters to lace makers and hunters.”

Shortly before he died, David Hume wrote a short summary of his life and works. In My Own Life, he writes about his youth, family and especially his mother who devoted herself entirely to rearing and educating her children. What a difference that can make! From time to time he traveled to France to write and edit his books that were not well received initially. Late in life he suffered from gastrointestinal problems that led to his death. Although in some pain, he confessed, “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits…” My Own Life ends with a moving eulogy by his friend and fellow writer, Adam Smith.


To The Back of Beyond

Not everything you did had a reason. Peter Stamm

After a summer vacation in Spain, Astrid and Thomas and their two young children return to their home in Switzerland. They unpack their bags, have a light dinner and Astrid puts the children to bed. Afterwards the couple relax with a glass of wine outside on their garden terrace.

When Astrid goes back inside to console one of the children, Thomas gets up, goes to the garden gate, unlatches it and begins walking. He continues to walk through the night, the next day and night and continues walking through the hills, valleys and villages of Switzerland.

This is how Peter Stamm’s latest novel To the Back of Beyond begins and continues until the last page. The book alternates in short sections between Astrid’s thoughts and Thomas’ experiences. Astrid tries to explain to the children what has happened to Thomas. Thomas struggles to get by during cold winter days and nights in Switzerland.

Initially Thomas walks only at night so he won’t be recognized by anyone who might know him. As he walks further away from his village, he is more likely to walk during the day as well. Astrid contacts the police to report Thomas is missing. Even with trained search dogs, they have no luck in finding him.

Meanwhile Thomas takes on short term jobs, earns a little money, sleeps in hostels or someone’s hayloft and then moves on. One day he takes out a fair amount of cash from his bank account, goes to a recreational store to buy camping equipment and clothing with his credit card. But these records are no help to the police, as he disappears once again.

Astrid tells the children he has gone on a long business trip and the boss of the business where he works that he has shingles and won’t be able to come back for several months.

Large segments of time go by, their two children grow into adults, graduate from college, are married now with their own families. They have largely forgotten about Thomas. But Astrid hasn’t, she imagines he will return, hears the garden gate open and thinks it is him, carries on as best she can.

Nothing much happens in this novel, there is little we know about Astrid or Thomas, the village where they live, their daily life, except what we can infer from the few details Stamm provides. It is difficult to know what he is trying to convey.

To the Back of Beyond reads like a mystery with countless questions that seek answers. Why does Thomas leave what to all appearances is a contented family, marriage and social condition? What is he running away from? Where is he headed? Why does he leave to wander among the hills of Switzerland?

In spite of its simple plot and little action, I found the novel captivating, read it quickly, and regretted it ended without the slightest resolution of its many questions.


Every Third Thought

Every third thought shall be my grave. Shakespeare, The Tempest

Robert McCrum is an English writer, associate editor of the Sunday Observer and former editor-in-chief of Faber & Faber publishers. In 1995 at the age of 42, he suffered a severe stroke that paralyzed his right side and impaired his speech. In time, he recovered but realized he had to adjust to a slower pace of life.

However, a few years ago (19 years after his stroke) he had a very bad fall. Again, he survived but realized he was now entering “life’s endgame.” His new book, Every Third Thought, is an exploration of his own mortality, as well as the thoughts of others—writers, physicians, psychotherapists, and neuroscientists.

McCrum discusses the multiple effects of old age, the failing brain, the horrors of Alzheimer’s, cancer, how we die and the curse of falling in our later years. “That fall can be a gateway to incapacity and decrepitude.”

He writes: The remorseless passage of time, and the unwelcome intrusion of physical frailty, must finally confront everyone with the same inevitable reckoning. The endgame is also about finding late-life criteria for day-to-day conduct, and becoming reconciled to the loss of early-life ambitions. You might feel thirty-five, but it makes sense to behave as if you are actually closer to seventy.

How true that is, how often I feel that way, the desires that I can no longer fulfill. You reach a point in your life when you are unable to do the things you used to. And that isn’t easy to accept. And, yet, he notes that Oliver Sacks was strikingly calm just before his death writing, “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

He cites the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine who wrote, He who lives well, dies well, he who lives ill, dies ill. And he turns to Montaigne, who said,” It is not death, it is dying that alarms me.”

Toward the end of Every Third Thought, McCrum made a list of “Dos and Dont's" There are only three: 1. Try to keep fit. 2. Accept your fate/insignificance. 3. Live in the moment. Not easy to follow, are they, especially when you are in considerable pain?

Every Third Thought is not a grim book, but it’s surely not for everyone. I imagine you need to be approaching the endgame or caring for a one who is, to fully appreciate it.


Greene on Capri

Autumn is upon us now and I have the good fortune and the time to reread some of my favorite books. A few are about writers who have been to some of the places in Italy where I have visited in summer’s past. Shirley Hazzard spent many years in Italy, wrote several books about her time there, including Greene on Capri (where Greene refers to Graham Greene).

She writes about the meals she and her husband shared with Greene, the books and writers they discussed, some of whom (Henry James, Rilke, Norman Douglas, etc.) were also part-time residents of Capri. And, as always, it is a pleasure reading the pages of Shirley Hazzard’s books. From the Archives, here’s a slightly edited version of what I wrote about Greene on Capri.

One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand.
Graham Greene

For anyone who values humanistic traditions, reading the works of Shirley Hazzard is intellectually refreshing. As Geordie Williamson wrote (The Australian, 3/25/16) in a review of her essays, (We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think), an “antiquated world view comes roaring back into view.”

I have found this to be true in all of Hazzard’s books that I’ve read including most recently Greene on Capri. In this short memoir, she recalls the friendship she and her husband, the Flaubert scholar, Francis Steegmuller had with Greene when they were visiting the island of Capri. Greene owned a house there and together they met frequently for lunch and dinner at a restaurant Greene liked.

For the most part, they talked about literature, the books and authors they had read. These conversational rambles during their long meals and walks constitute the heart of the book and bring alive their mutual joy in reading and writing.

Hazzard writes, “Literature was the longest and most consistent pleasure of Graham’s life. It was the element in which he best existed, providing him with the equilibrium of affinity and a life time to the rational as well as the fantastic.”

Greene on Capri
is not meant to be a complete portrait of Greene but from time to time Hazzard does reflect on his personality. In The Man Within, Greene wrote: “Always while one part of him spoke, another part stood on one side and wondered, Is this I who am speaking? Can I really exist like this?” Hazzard comments:

“I think that Graham was not simply made up of two persons. Rather, that he gave rein to disparate states of mind as they successively possessed him, putting these to service in his work…with years, however, it had come to prevail for its own sake as a mood of defiance, directed against the tedium of rational existence.”

Elsewhere she notes how little Greene valued contentment “…pleasure could not be an assumption and was not a goal; whereas suffering was a constant, and almost a code of honour. Suffering was the attestable key to imaginative existence.”

Is suffering where writers really belong, what they need to experience in order to write fiction? If we can believe Hazzard, it was for Greene. However, I doubt it is necessary for most writers but perhaps it is why many of them become alcoholics.

In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Lang explores the reasons why some authors were destroyed by excessive drinking. She writes: [Eugene] O’Neill had a terrible problem with alcohol. Most writers do. American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that. And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking.



Memory is a willful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know. Elliot Perlman

Alan Lightman’s novel, Reunion, is a meditation on memory and its limitations. We are introduced to a 52-year old Charles who teaches literature at a small liberal arts college. He lives alone in a comfortable house that his ex-wife left him after their divorce.

Out of the blue, he decides to attend his 30th college reunion, where, in the midst of meeting his former classmates, he begins to recall his first passionate love affair with an aspiring ballerina, Juliana. These recollections form the bulk of the novel.

Charles muses often about youth. “Could I ever have been that young? Not a wrinkle in my forehead. Not a crease around the eyes. A thick scalp of hair, broad shoulders, erect posture. Flat lean stomach. It makes me want to cry.”

But how much of what he recalls was true or happened in the way he remembered it? Charles begins to confront the vagaries of memory. Did he really skip classes to take the bus to New York to visit Juliana? Did he actually sleep with her one night? Did she simultaneously carry on an affair with a college professor? Or has he made all of it up with the passage of time?

“How pitiful his life suddenly seems compared to hers. Her life is so simple, focused on one single thing. His mind is filled with uncertainty, hers seems to be certain. He tries to make beauty with words, she creates beauty with her body.”

Reunion reminds the reader that the way we reconstruct the past may not be all that reliable, especially for those experiences that retain an emotional impact. At times they seem veridical, at other times, contradictory and then again, more dream-like than anything else

Do you recall your first love? And how much of what you recall in fact happened? I do very vividly recall my college love. It was to be my last, as she is now my wife and has been for almost 60 years.

Occasionally we talk about those days and how she remembers them is not always the way I do. She may also recall an experience I have completely forgotten about and she has also forgotten much of what I recall. And both of us recall experiences that neither of us believe occurred in just that way.

In The Missing Shade of Blue, Jennie Erdal wrote: “Memory is a slippery customer…And in no time at all and with no evil intent, the truth turns into a kind of fiction.”

Yes, the mystery of memory, the elusiveness of memory, the necessity of memory. Without it, what would we be?


Beautiful Animals

PARIS — A French farmer who smuggled migrants across the Italian border was sentenced on Tuesday to a suspended four-month prison term in a case that has shone a light on the government’s immigration policies…. “I will continue my actions because it must be done,” Mr. Herrou said. New York Times 8/8/17

Lawrence Osborn's Beautiful Animals is set on the Greek Island of Hydra, now a favorite of the super-rich. Naomi, 24, is spending the summer as she always did with her wealthy father and stepmother in their villa high in the hills above the port. On her morning swim, she meets the slightly younger Samantha who is vacationing with her parents.

They strike up a friendship, travel around the island together, and share their meals in one of the many port-side tavernas. While sailing around the island one day, they notice an Arab migrant, Faoud, asleep on a distant beach. They begin a discussion of whether or not to help the migrant.

So begins this moral thriller. Naomi is one of those individuals who exerts a strong influence on others. She argues persuasively that it is important to aid the helpless.

“Wanting to help the helpless is not an uncommon desire, and if you want me to explain it I’d say that I’m determined to make a difference. It’s not just an adventure. And if it is, it’s one with a purpose.”

Samantha is not so sure. She thought about ditching the charity and simply going back to her family and their games of chess and backgammon. She thought it would be much easier than the uncertain effort to help Faoud.

But she was the weaker of the two and gradually succumbs to Naomi’s view. They begin by taking Faoud small baskets of food, then they find him a shelter to live in for a while and finally devise a plan to help him leave Hydra and begin his journey to Greece and then Italy.

Naomi relished the role of a savior. Osborne writes, “It made her feel vital in a new way. To save another person: it wasn’t nothing. It wasn’t exactly and achievement but it was a small shift in the balance of power towards the weak. Such shifts were the substance of one’s moral life—they made the intolerable tolerable.”

But Naomi’s plan to help Faoud leave Hydra goes horribly wrong. So, begins the second half of the novel. Osborne describes Faoud’s motivations and beliefs about Islam and his Western pursuers. Here I must stop or you’ll have little desire to read the book.

I found Beautiful Animals an exciting novel, found it hard to put down and, at times, didn’t want it to end. It’s one of those that are in my mind, among my favorites.

If there is a message to be found in the novel it is that altruism, like anything else, has effects which are impossible to predict at the time. Naomi’s attempt to help Faoud fails, fails badly.

You might find the novel changing your views on the current refugee crisis. What is the nature of your engagement with the issue? At one point, Naomi tries to understand her desire to help Faoud, but she does so without anticipating the possible consequences of doing so.

Osborne writes, “What beautiful animals we are, Samantha thought, beautiful as panthers.”


On Protesting

It’s been 6 years since the Occupy Wall Street protests began on September 17, 2011 in New York’s Zuccotti Park. We are the 99%, they chanted. Similar protests spread rapidly throughout the United States and in some European cities, as well.

And then they were gone. The police cleared the protesters from Zuccotti Park two months after it began and that was pretty much the end of Occupy Wall Street. Has it had any lasting impact?

While it wasn’t the first to highlight the growing income inequalities in this country, it was surely the first large-scale protest movement to do so. And while there was much discussion of the magnitude of the problem and the importance of rectifying it, there was little in the way of doing anything about it.

Some have attributed the success of Bernie Sanders’ Democratic presidential campaign to the receptive audience Occupy Wall Street created. Sanders argued forcefully to increase the minimum wage, reduce outrageous income inequalities, and end the enormous role of money in politics. However, all these issues had been discussed long before Occupy Wall Street and Sanders did not become the Democratic Party’s candidate for President

The same holds for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign when she declared, “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.” And later when she compared the annual salaries of the C.E.O.’s to those of kindergarten teachers. While less forceful than Sanders, she nevertheless made it a feature of her campaign. But in the end, she lost the Presidential election

Six years since Occupy Wall Street some of the rhetoric continues, but the problems persist. In a word, nothing much has happened in the intervening years. If anything, income disparities have increased, money still plays a powerful role in politics, and even though some states and cities have introduced minimum wage requirements, real wages have declined as living costs have increased and far too many people struggle to get by.

The larger question becomes, as Nathan Heller puts it in the August 21st New Yorker, “Is There Any Point to Protesting?” He too cites the Occupy Wall Street protest and says, “No US policies have changed.”

He recalls the winter of 2003 “when the world assembled, arms linked, to protest the prospect of war in Iraq…Three weeks later the United States was at war.”

And he points to the Women’s March this past January. “Throughout the nation and in nearly seven hundred cities all across the world, millions of people assembled …. Then on the following Monday the new administration went about its work as planned.”

Protests continue to this day, even more frequently now as a result of our current President and his policies. We express ourselves, we are there, our views spread, sometimes widely. But in the end, they have little effect on policies. We are still an imperfect nation, a developing nation. And as Heller concludes, “The march goes on, and someday, not just in our dreams, we’ll make it home.”


September 11, 2001

We knew we had just witnessed thousands of deaths; we clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling. John Updike

It was a Tuesday, about 9 am, West Coast time, sixteen years ago today. For one reason or another I was in the kitchen of our Portland home. The TV was on: “We interrupt this broadcast for a special announcement.”

The sky was bright blue, not a cloud in sight and the North tower of the World Trade Towers was on fire. A plane was approaching the South tower. It wasn’t clear why until dark smoke began to fill the air and even then, I wasn’t sure.

Eventually we learned about the four coordinated attacks. The Pentagon was hit, a plane headed for the White House crashed in a Pennsylvania field, as the hijackers were overwhelmed by a group of brave passengers.

The towers fell, those who were lucky managed to get out, the dust and debris was everywhere and reporters were describing the chaos, hiding in building entry alcoves. Almost 3,000 individuals were killed in what remains the deadliest terrorist attack in this country. And it led to a war in Afghanistan that has become America’s longest.

Not everyone was waving the flag. Susan Sontag wrote: Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?

Anyway, that’s how I remember that day. I think I have it right. I wasn’t terribly upset other than being angry. But it wasn’t an emotional experience, the kind that is often incorrectly recalled on repeated occasions, a so-called flashbulb memory.

Right away I thought it was the work of Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist organization, al Qaeda. I thought we need to put an end to him.

Eventually, I learned how complex the plan was, the degree of training and preparation that went into the attacks, the skill involved. And I thought, if you will pardon me, what a clever guy he is.

The next morning, I went back to the open vantage from which we had watched the tower so dreadfully slip from sight. The fresh sun shone on the eastward façades, a few boats tentatively moved in the river, the ruins were still sending out smoke, but New York looked glorious. John Updike



We cast the shadows of our emotions on others and they theirs on us. Sometimes we threaten to choke on them. But without them there would be no light in our lives.
Ancient Armenian grave inscription

In Pascal Mercier’s Lea, two men, the narrator and Martin van Vliet, first meet each other at a café in Provence. Van Vliet has come to the Provence to visit his daughter, Lea, who is patient at a hospital in Avignon.

When the two learn, they are both from Bern, van Vliet invites the narrator to drive with him back to Switzerland. Along the way, van Vliet unfolds the sad tale of his daughter, Lea, and professional life as a surgeon.

The tale begins with the death of van Vliet’s wife. Their grief stricken young daughter, Lea, falls into a deep depression and isolates herself from the world. Then one day by chance, she comes alive, when she hears a violinist playing Bach in a train station.

“Now I heard what had made Lea pause: the sound of a violin. How often I have wondered what would have become of my daughter if we hadn’t done that! If chance had not played those sounds to us.”

She begins to learn how to play the instrument after he buys her a violin and vows to do everything possible to keep her content. In turn, Lea practices relentlessly and in time becomes a superb violinist, winning competition after competition.

“…she picked it up and started to play. Just as if she had been waiting all that time for someone to bring her, at long last, the instrument for which she was born.”

“The aimlessness that had accompanied her grief over her dead mother had come to an end. She had a will again! And what made me overjoyed: I could do something. The time of being a helpless onlooker was over.”

But then, Lea makes a mistake and loses a competition. Once again, she becomes depressed, van Vliet tries to think of what he can do to bring her back to life one more time. He hits upon the idea of buying her a priceless Guarneri Del Gusu violin.

This draws van Vliet into the theft of his research grant, whereupon he travels to Italy to use the embezzled funds to purchase the violin. The auction doesn’t go as planned, nor does Lea’s use of the violin.

However, for a while Lea plays beautifully once again. “After months in which that face had lost all its tension and prematurely aged, it was once again the face of Lea van Vliet, the radiant violinist who filled the whole auditoria.”

After Pascal Mercier wrote Night Train to Lisbon, which I have read at least three times, as well as seeing the movie adaptation, I looked upon anything he wrote as a “must read.” However, I didn’t finish his Perlmann’s Silence and, while I finished Lea, it didn’t bring me as much pleasure as Night Train to Lisbon. Indeed, far from it.

I found the novel repetitious and overly dramatic. On the other hand, I was intrigued by the friendship between the narrator and van Vliet, the fraught relationship between Lea and her father, as well and the power of the violin to both give meaning and destroy a person’s life.


Notes on a Calamity

I’ve been watching the scenes from Houston. The television coverage is as relentless as the rain. The subject is catastrophic. What I see is incredible courage, helpfulness, kindness.

Rain pounding down on the reporters, standing in knee-deep water, interviewing individuals whose homes are uninhabitable.

I cringe when I see the older people struggling to survive. Wheel chairs deep in water. Nursing homes swamped. The confused and mystified elderly. Only the struggle for life.

Helicopters hauling people from rooftops. Parents hugging their children. Volunteers pulling boats in chest-high water down the main streets of Houston. Densely crowded shelters, long lines to get inside.

Each day I hear of new rainfall records. I am informed schools have been closed all week. I see wreckage everywhere. And now the storm is making a new landfall now in Louisiana, as if they needed another one.

I read a blogger who lives in Houston. Normally he writes a scholarly comment on a book, poem, writer, or issue every day of the year, weekends and holidays included. However, he hasn’t written much all week. But here are a few thoughts he has somehow transmitted:

Wednesday, August 30, 2017 Dispatch from Houston IV
We have sunshine, blue skies and a modest breeze. The first hummingbird of the season visited this morning, briefly. The pavement is dry again. Still no power but with the generator, we have a functioning refrigerator.

"Tell me, Apollo, tell me where
The sunbeams go, when they do disappear."

Tuesday, August 29, 2017 Dispatch from Houston III
The joy of coffee and dry clothing; friends with gasoline-powered generators and mechanical know-how; books crisp on the shelves.

"Grief is a puddle, and reflects not clear
Your beauty's rays.
Joys are pure streams."

Monday, August 28, 2017 Dispatch from Houston II
"Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered."

Sunday, August 27, 2017 Dispatch from Houston
Power out. Car flooded. Books dry.

I listen to the Governor calmly describing the situation, the mayor justifying his decision not to evacuate, the President making the most of it.

People say they have lost everything, their homes, their furniture, possessions, their car(s), everything. What are they to do? Where can they possible go? Imagine yourself in this situation.

Is a tragedy necessary to bring us together? It seems the only way now.


There Goes the Sun

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun, And I say it's all right. George Harrison

A week ago, on Monday, August 21st, the eclipse in Portland (Oregon) began round 9:45. It started to get dark.  Then it became darker and darker over the next half hour.  But never totally, not like the middle of the night.  And then it grew lighter and lighter so that by 10:45 it was back to normal sunlight.

The State was mobbed. People from around the world made their way to Oregon. The traffic was terrible. The population in the town of Madras in central Oregon must have increased six-fold.  The TV made it into a media event.  For some it was almost a religious experience.  Then it was over.  But they are still talking about it.

It is not difficult to understand why some cultures worshiped the sun. In a way, I worship the sun, the summer sun, the months of light and warmth. And when sun disappears here during the long and dreary winter, I turn into a lapsed sun worshiper.

In ancient Egypt, the sun god Re was the dominant figure among the gods. Sun worship in one form or another also occurred in medieval cultures and during the later periods of Roman history. I am also aware of solar cults among the Plains Indians in North America and ancient civilizations in Mexico and Peru.

In “Ode to the Sun,” a short section in his Autumn, Karl Knausgaard writes, “Every single day since I was born the sun has been there, but somehow, I’ve never quite got used to it, perhaps because it is so unlike everything else we know.”

He goes on to point out that we cannot get close to it, any effort to do so would be obliterated. And as we were reminded over and over again, we will ruin our eyes if we try to look directly at the sun.

We take the sun for granted, like fresh water, the food on our plates and electricity. It’s important to be reminded of this from time to time. Be grateful for it as a sun worshiper is. Without it would there would be no life.

Knausgaard concludes his Ode this way, “When we eat dinner outside, beneath the apple tree, the air is full of children’s voices, the clatter of cutlery, the rustle of leaves in the mild breeze, and no one notices that the sun is hanging right above the roof of the guest house, no longer blazing yellow but orange, burning silently.”

I was raised in the land of sun, but have spent most of my life in the land of clouds and rain. I miss the sun most of the year. And that is why I traveled to Hawaii, whenever I could.

But those days are over now and I will have to learn how to accept living in the far Northwest of this land. It won’t be easy, as it is mostly sunny on average only 68 days of the year and partly sunny on average another 74 days of the year. Partly sunny days have cloud covering from 40% to 70% of the sky during the daytime. The rest of the days are mainly overcast, with at least 80% cloud cover.

As a friend of mine always says, “It is what it is.” The latest philosophy of life.


On Poetry

In the July 31st issue of the New Yorker, Louis Menand asks “Can Poetry Change Your Life?” It’s a long and discursive discussion of pop culture, pop criticism, pop music and pop philosophy among other things.

He cites Ben Lerner who in his book, The Hatred of Poetry, says that “poems simply can’t do what people want them to do—create timeless moments, or express individual experiences with universal appeal, or create a sense of communal identity, or overturn existing social mores, or articulate a measure of value beyond money.”

If they can’t do any of these things, what can they achieve? My own view is that questions of this sort, can’t be answered in any general terms. You have to look at the particulars of each individuals experience of reading poetry or even a single poem.

Some might be moved by a poem and want to read more by the same author. Others might learn an important lesson from a poem. And then others might never want to read a poem again. But what about Menand who raised the question about the effects of poetry in the first place?

He finally confronts this matter in the last paragraphs of his essay. He says a book of “Immortal Poems of the English Language” changed his life. “It made me want to become a writer.”

He says he started out as a poet, but soon realized his poems weren’t very good. Then he switched to writing prose, where he learned “the pleasure of trying to put the right words in the right order. And I took away from my experience with poetry something else. I understood the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.”

It’s not only that they have something to say but also that they want to try to say it as clearly as possible. And the only way to try to do that is put it to the page.

I also take Menand’s question to mean something broader. Namely, Can Literature Change Your Life? It may have changed my life. When I came across a striking sentence or paragraph in the early days of my reading experience, I wondered if I could write like that. So, I would copy down the sentences and eventually began trying to imitate them. I’ve been writing ever since.

Can literature change lives? was one of the questions I began investigating when I was doing academic work in psychology. Very early on, I found experimental attempts to answer this question wanting, largely on methodological grounds. The samples were too small, mostly conducted in the laboratory under highly artificial conditions, with an unrepresentative sample of readers.

It seemed clear to me that academic research on the effects of literature might best examine anecdotal reports of individuals, as well as the analysis of the literary influences on particular writers. Charles Darwin described a paradigm case of this kind in recalling how Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population influenced his own work:

I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observations of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work…

In commenting on this example, Edwin Castagna noted:

This was one of the most significant reading experiences in the history of science. A bright light had been kindled in the brain of an obscure young scientist. The tinder was a book in another field. Where can one find a clearer or more convincing illustration of the powerful impact of reading on intellectual progress?

It appears that the effort to determine the effects of reading on the life and work of individuals will have to be content with examples of this sort. Some have claimed that even trying to answer this question in a more systematic manner is folly: that it is impossible to disentangle the various effects of reading experiences. Others have suggested it is unlikely that literature of any form can change a person's life, but that every now and then a book comes along that simply reinforces the way the person already thinks and acts.

The truth probably lies somewhere between these extremes. Lorrie Moore put it this way: "Everything one reads is nourishment of some sort—good food or junk food—and one assumes it all goes in and has its way with your brain cells." When put this way, I think most persons could hardly take issue with such a claim: that even though it is difficult to say much more, they are surely influenced in one way or another by the literature they read, no doubt by some books more than others.


Near Death Experience

In an excerpt from her book, The Art of Death, Edwidge Danticat writes about the power of near death experiences (New Yorker blog, 7/10/17). Although Danticat hasn’t had such an experience, she says she has come close.

She describes an experience she once had while driving an old used car. Suddenly the car turned on its own and headed directly for a garbage truck coming in the opposite direction. She writes: There were only a few inches between us when both the truck and my car miraculously stopped. If the truck had hit me at the speed we were both going, I might have died.

On another occasion, she was standing on a landing of steps in front of a friend’s apartment. It was a snowy day, ice covered the steps, when she started slipping. “My arms flailed, and for a moment I felt as though I was flying.” Somehow, she managed to catch the railing before falling down those icy steps. Had she not, once again, she might have died or at least been brain dead.

She describes a somewhat similar near death experience that Montaigne had while riding his horse. One day he was thrown off his horse and was unconscious for several hours. Then, as he recovered from his accident, Montaigne realized that dying might not be so bad. He’d felt no pain, no fear.

I felt the same way when I had a near death experience one day in Florence. At breakfast several years ago I drank too much of the strong coffee they make around there and experienced what later was diagnosed as a vasovagal reaction, a mild form of fainting. I desperately wanted to lie down and sleep for a bit. Frankly, I thought it might be the end.

Luckily, I happened to be passing by the Palazzo Strozzi, a center of cultural events in Florence. The Palazzo is furnished on three of its sides with large stone benches originally intended as a shady resting place for servants and the motley assortment of characters the palace attracted long ago. The bench now gives everybody a welcome opportunity to rest for a moment and let their latest vasovagal reaction fade away.

I remember feeling at peace, a sense of serenity overcame me. I didn’t travel to heaven, have my past unfold before me or was not the least bit frightened. I realized then that dying wasn’t so bad after all. To feel such contentment at what I thought was the end was quite simply a perfect moment.

Although there are several ways to describe a near-death experience the dictionary defines it this way:

Noun: an unusual experience taking place on the brink of death and recounted by a person after recovery, typically an out-of-body experience or a vision of a tunnel of light.

Have you ever had a such an experience? If so, what was it like?