Writing in Circles

“You write not after you’ve thought things through; you write to think things through.”
Andre Aciman

An essay about the work of Andre Aciman by Teju Cole reminded me that some authors relish writing in circles.

I love being in Paris because when I am there, I dream about being in New York.

Yes, I love Alexandria but only because when I’m there, I can dream about what it is like in Rome.

When I am in Rome, I yearn only for the times I lived in Alexandria. And when I’m in Europe I miss the Egypt where I could dream of Europe

Those are paraphrases of the way Andre Aciman writes from time to time. His pleasure in meandering, almost contradictory sentences is, as Cole suggests, “intense and catching.”

Here is my favorite one, imaginary or otherwise, from a woman Aciman was hoping to see in Paris:

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. When you’re in Paris, think of yourself in New York longing for Paris, and everything will be fine.”

Yes, no, I do and I don’t, a way of expressing yourself that conveys the uncertainty and ambiguity of experience. The words circle back to the place you began as soon as you reach the place you were headed.

Once you become aware this writing style, you see it everywhere.

In her short story, “The Lost Order” published in The New Yorker (1/7/13) Rivka Galchen writes:

“I wasn’t happy about it. Although maybe I was happy about it.

“Although I don’t feel like I have a lot time, I feel constantly pressed for time, even though when I had a job I felt like I had plenty of time.”

One more example from a book I am rereading now, Joy Comes in the Morning, by Jonathan Rosen:

“I’d say the opposite is true,” said Lev. “Everything’s figured out.”

[Deborah said] “Yes, you’re right, too. The opposite is correct also.”

“You’re talking like the Talmud,” said Lev.

Why does this type of writing amuse me so much? Surely it is because it is the way I often think. Nothing is ever clear, nothing is without its contradictions and imperfections, certainty is largely unreachable and so I keep coming back to where I began. It’s like swimming laps.

Cole suggests the pleasure of reading Aciman “resides in the pleasure of his company. He knows a lot, and often gets carried away, but he also knows how to doubt himself.”


The Lost Wife

My adult life is cursed with a constant duality. It is as if someone came and took a cleaver to my existence, so that I cannot enjoy one thing without seeing the sadness of the other side. Alyson Richman

They meet at the wedding of his grandson and her granddaughter. They are both in their 80s now. There is something about her that seems familiar to him. He approaches her and asks if she remembers him. She doesn’t. He takes her arm and turns it over. He sees the number stamped above her wrist. His doubts disappear and eventually she recognizes him too.

This is the beginning of Alyson Richman’s A Lost Wife. The tale quickly shifts to Prague as the Nazis are about to invade Czechoslovakia. We are introduced to two Jewish families and their children. Joseph, the son of one and Lenka, the daughter of the other fall deeply in love. They marry and are immediately confronted with a dilemma.

Joseph’s father is only able to obtain exit visas his family and for Lenka, but not the rest of her family. Joseph is torn: should he leave with his family?

Lenka is even more torn: should she escape with Joseph and leave her parents and sister to try to get by in their Nazi occupied country? She considers the choice “terribly unfair.”

Lenka refuses to leave without her family, but Joseph departs on a ship bound for New York. The ship is torpeodoed and only Joseph of his family survives, although Lenka, after reading about the disaster, assumes he too had drowned.

Soon thereafter Lenka and her family were rounded up by the Nazis and taken to Terezin, a special camp the Germans created to fool the world into believing the Jews were treated well in the camps. Not long after, Lenka and her family were shipped east to Auschwitz, hardly a show camp.

There was also severe hunger in Terezin, illness, overcrowding, diseases that spread rapidly, exhaustion from the long days of working at aimless tasks.

Lenka survived as result of her artistic skills. In spite of appalling conditions in the camp, she somehow managed to create art. She was assigned to a group painting postcards sold to the German people or draw expansion plans for the camp. The rest of her family perished.

"But why, I wondered were we working—and working so hard—for an army whose objective was to corral us into a ghetto of disease and starvation. Where was the resistance?"

The Nazis fled the camp as the Russian army approached and Lenka managed to stumble out, starved, frail and barely able to walk. She was discovered in the woods by an American solder and taken to a displaced person’s camp.

They were married a few years latter; Joseph, a successful obstetrician, also married a woman he met in New York. And then, at the turn of the century, both of their second spouses having died, they met by chance again at the marriage of two of their grandchildren, whereupon the novel ends.

The Lost Wife was not a book I intended to read or even considered, but rather one left by someone at the check out counter of a bookstore I often frequent. I looked at the book, read the cover that proclaimed it was the “Sophie’s Choice of this generation,” and added it to my purchases.

Sophie’s Choice of this generation?” I doubt it will be translated to the screen.


On Hearing

As his hearing grew weaker in the years ahead he felt more and more isolated, trapped in an incompetent body, foolish and pathetic.
Andrew Motion

A few years ago, I noticed I wasn’t hearing as well as I used to. I didn’t always catch the questions my students were asking in large lecture classes, nor was I hearing much of the chatter on television with the same volume setting I always used.

Eventually the problem grew somewhat worse and I tried using tiny digital hearing aids. I found them disappointing, as I no longer sounded like myself, they amplified too many unpleasant sounds, and they were useless in a social situation with a fair amount of background noise. Hearing aids do not accomplish for the ears what glasses do for the eyes.

In time, I began to appreciate the new auditory world that I lived in. Closed captions on the television made hearing largely unnecessary and that was the same for the subtitles in the films I preferred. And when I went to the theater or to an English language film, I could usually obtain a wireless audio amplifier, if I wanted one.

My world became less noisy, the roar of the traffic didn’t bother me, and the overall quietude appealed to me. So did observing all the non-verbal cues of human behavior that I usually didn’t pay much attention to and yet often conveyed as much meaning, if not more, than spoken words.

My views about this new auditory world, differs from David Lodge’s expressed in Deaf Sentence. He writes: "Deafness is a kind of pre-death, a drawn-out introduction to the long silence into which we will all eventually lapse." Lodge had to give up teaching and greatly missed “the rhythm of the academic year.” However, I believe his hearing loss was far greater than mine.

As my social world narrowed, I began to wonder about the consequences of the limited number of conversations I have. There are days when I speak to no one, whether in person or on the phone. So I turn to the research to find out and am not surprised by the conflicting results. I look more closely at the studies to try to determine the most rigorous. It is impossible to identify them.

Absent that, I turn to those solitary souls who I most admire and here I see no change in their talent. I think of Beethoven who wrote his 9th Symphony when he was deaf. He said:

"Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, 'Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf…But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing.”

I do find it embarrassing when I turn down invitations to social gatherings where it is usually impossible for me to hear the speech of the person I am sitting next to. What can I say when a person talks to me? “Could you speak louder?” “Would you mind repeating that?” No, I say neither of these things. Instead I mumble something back and hope that I will not be thought deranged.

Beethoven was similarly embarrassed:

"Forgive me when you see me draw back when I would have gladly mingled with you. My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas."

In her Paris Review interview, Marilynne Robinson, who lives a largely solitary life, commented:

"… I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it. It’s a predisposition in my family. My brother is a solitary. My mother is a solitary. I grew up with the confidence that the greatest privilege was to be alone and have all the time you wanted. That was the cream of existence. I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It’s a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book."


On Longevity

Last October the Times published a lengthy article on individuals who live to be over 100. The article focused on the Aegean Island of Ikaria that is said to have the highest percentage of 90 year olds in the world—1 out of every 3 individuals live into their 90s. It also has a very high percentage of individuals who become centenarians.

I have no interest in living anywhere near that long. Instead, I was far more interested in the factors responsible for this degree of longevity and the methods used to identify them. The article was written by Dan Buettner, one of several investigators, currently engaged in research on the places where people live longest.

The article began by portraying Stamatis Moraitis who says he is 102. He left Ikaria in 1943 to receive treatment in this country for a combat wound. In 1976, in his mid-60s, he learned that he had lung cancer with a prognosis from 9 doctors that he had less than a year to live. He decided to return to Ikaria to be close by his children and enjoy his final days.

But as the years went by, he began to feel stronger and little by little was able to resume the island routine. That meant walking up and down the hilly landscape, planting and maintaining a vegetable garden, visiting with his friends, eating the regular diet of the island, and drinking the local herbal teas and red wine. Eventually his cancer simply disappeared.

From studying Moraitis and other Ikarians, Buettner identified several factors that he believed were responsible for their longevity, some of which are also true of other places where people live longest.

• Physical exercise
• A diet of vegetables, beans, and olive oil
• A close social community and the company of good friends
• Drinking plant-based teas and red wines high in antioxidants
• Fish twice a week, the absence of sugar and little red meat
• A regular daily nap

Buettner reports, “The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices. There’s no silver bullet to keep death and the diseases of old age at bay.”

He also is aware of the limitations of his study and admits he had a very incomplete understanding of why Ikarians live so long. To conduct a rigorous, long-term study of longevity, you need to carefully monitor individuals from several regions where individuals have long life spans and compare them to matched (ideally) control group.

This is an extremely difficult study to conduct, probably requiring more than one generation of researchers and stability in the participant’s life so that they remain in the general area where they live and stay in contact with the investigators.

The best than Buettner could do was comparing Ikarians with those who live on nearby islands. When he did that, he observed that the people who live on Ikaria do outlive those on the surrounding islands.

Twenty-five years after returning to Ikaria Moraitis went back to America to ask his doctors why his cancer disappeared. He told Buettner: “My doctors were all dead.”


Bergman Island

A writer is dear and necessary for us only in the measure of which he reveals to us the inner workings of his very soul. Tolstoy

I have always been profoundly attracted to the films of Ingmar Bergman. I’ve viewed them over and over again. His films are among the very few DVD’s that I’ve purchased and there are always a few in my Netflix Queue.

Bergman has captured his inner life with as much honesty as any director or writer I know. To a certain extent, it is the inner life of every man. I know it bears a certain similarity to my own. This is especially true of his films Persona, Scenes of a Marriage, Saraband, and Autumn Sonata,

Ingmar Bergman died in 2007 at the age of 89 at his home on Faro an isolated, tiny island in the Baltic with only five hundred year-round residents. Faro has no school, no post office, no doctor’s office, but there is a market and a church. For many years Bergman lived alone by the seashore, sometimes going for days without speaking to anyone. He said, “When I’m on Faro, I’m never alone.”

Bergman Island is a documentary in which for the first time he agreed to be interviewed. During the holidays I watched it once again. The several interviews depicted in the film were culled from hours of footage originally shown in three episodes on Swedish television.

They were conducted after Bergman completed his last film, Saraband, when he finally seemed ready to talk with someone about his life, family (5 wives, 9 children, and various romantic relations), and his varied artistic experiences in the cinema and theater.

These reminiscences are interspersed with scenes from his films to illustrate the way he translated his life to the screen. His films have always been intensely personal. They pose questions about:

• Mortality: Not a day has gone by in my life when I haven’t thought about death.

• Guilt: I had a bad conscience until I discovered that having a bad conscience about something so gravely serious as leaving your children is an affectation, a way of achieving a little suffering that can’t for a moment be equal to the suffering you’ve caused.

• Sex: …the manifestation of sex is very important, and particularly to me, for above all, I don’t want to make merely intellectual films. I want audiences to feel, to sense my films.

• Silence: There’s something quite pleasurable about not talking…silence is wonderful.

The film is an intimate, compelling portrait of a man who many regard among the greats of the cinema. Woody Allen, who at times, has written and directed films modeled on Bergman’s (Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors) referred to him as “… probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera.”

And Krzysztof Kieslowski, who directed the Trois Couleurs (Blue, White, and Red), believes Bergman “…is one of the few directors—perhaps the only one in the world—to have said as much about human nature as Dostoevsky or Camus.”

For me Bergman Island is a beautiful depiction of a deeply reflective man as his life draws to a close and his efforts to understand his past and the daemons that have always haunted him. His music, his film library, and his rich memories are more than enough for him now.

And he seems utterly at peace in talking about them, perhaps even longing to do so. He is also in a place where he continues to find great beauty. It is his home, his “querencia,” as he knew it was the first time he set foot on Faro.

Here is a preview of the film:


A Sense of Place

You think if you change location, your problems will vanish, so you move somewhere or change something radically in you life and then, well, there you are again. Jennifer Vandever

Over the holidays I moved to a small village in the south of France, not far from the coast. There are two small bookstores a block away. Next to each one is a small, family run bistro where I can take my meal each night. Down the way a bit is a market with fresh fish, vegetables and fruits.

There is a cinema in the next block that I often frequent and across the street a coffeehouse where I feel welcome to linger for a while. There is a university two blocks away where I sometimes audit classes and make ample use of its exceptional library. It is a delight to be among students once again.

The village has become my querencia. Querencia is a Spanish word that refers to the place one calls home and the sense of well being and belonging that it gives rise to. You are glad to be there. It nourishes and informs you. You are at peace in your querencia and feel a deep affection for it.

How I wish all this was true. I’ve been searching for such a place all my life. The search itself, I suppose, has become my querencia. While the quest is never far from my thoughts, I was reminded of it once again by a special issue of a journal, “The Writer’s Sense of Place,” that a friend sent to me recently.

The journal consists of a number of author’s responses to questions about the importance of place in their work. The authors are not well known, at least to me and they vary widely in their views about place. One poses the following hypothetical question:

…what kind of books do you think Marcel Proust would have written had he been born in Sundance, Wyoming, and what kind of books would Mark Twain have written had he been born in Paris?

Elsewhere I wrote: In her "Reminiscences" Dostoevsky’s wife, Anna, records how thrilled Dostoevsky was to be back in Florence once again and 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, even Florence in the summer. He soon began to miss his friends or any form of congenial company.

During a summer in Florence, Dostoevsky wrote to his niece: 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.

Some of the authors in the volume describe a similar sentiment. They were largely from the South or from a western state where they lived in rural areas of open spaces, not isolated but far from a city.

Most days I don’t feel at home or that I’ve found my querencia, regardless of where I am. No doubt I am one of those doomed to chronic dissatisfaction and restlessness. If anything my desk has become my home.

As long as I have a few books around me, a bookstore and library nearby and nimble fingers to hit the keyboard, I am relatively content. It isn’t a grand sense of happiness or overwhelming pleasure. But if the sun is out and the days are warm, I can manage just fine and continue to feel grateful to be here on this island in the middle of the Pacific.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Bob Dylan


Sophie Scholl

An optimistic, life-loving student with a boyfriend and a rich future ahead of her, she is the kind of decent, principled person we would all like to be. Stephen Holden

The film, “Sophie Scholl—The Final Days,” begins in February 1943 at the University of Munich. Sophie and her brother, Hans, both students there (Sophie in biology and philosophy, Hans in medicine) enter the main building while classes are meeting, walk rapidly up the stairs, and hurriedly begin leaving stacks of leaflets outside the classroom doors. As they are about to leave, Sophie notices a few are left in her suitcase and lets them fly over the balustrade.

The leaflets protest Hitler’s regime, its acts of oppression, denial of free expression, and the prolongation of the war (The German army had just been defeated at Stalingrad). From one of the leaflets:

“…why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right—or rather, your moral duty—to eliminate this system?”

Distributing leaflets like this was an extremely risky step to take. Before then, they had been sent by mail throughout Germany. Sophie and Hans were members of the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany, a relatively small group of intellectuals, largely students, who actively opposed Hitler’s regime.

Their act was observed by a university janitor who informed the Gestapo and within moments both Sophie, Hans and their collaborator Christoph (father of three young children) were arrested and thrown into prison. We know at the outset they are guilty of breaking the law then in force in Germany. The rest of the film depicts Sophie’s interrogation and trial, if you can call it that, and the last six days of her life.

The questioning by Robert Mohr, a Nazi investigator, is grueling, goes on for three consecutive days. Mohr is relentless in his interrogation, is a patient listener, and in my mind shows more sympathy for Sophie than he will ever acknowledge. He owes everything to the Nazi party where he became a high ranking investigator, rather than the country policeman he used to be.

Sophie is articulate, smart, forceful in response to Mohr’s questions. She is clever in devising elaborate excuses in defense of her actions. She knows what she did and sticks to the truth as much as possible. She retains her composure knowing things that she will never reveal.

The dialogue between the two is based upon the actual transcript of the trial that was discovered in East Germany after the country was unified. I wish I had a copy of those records for the eloquence of Sophie’s statements in defense of her resistance is memorable.

At one point Mohr offers to release her if she will acknowledge her role in distributing the leaflets. She refuses. It is only after Mohr informs her that Hans has confessed, that she finally admits her complicity. She believes Mohr is not trying to trick her into confessing and wants to believe that he is not entirely unmoved by her arguments.

It isn’t easy denying the truth when all the evidence about you confirms it. You can pretend otherwise and hope to find a sympathetic ear. I sense that might have been the case by observing Mohr’s expression after an especially powerful statement by Sophie during her subsequent show trial.

She and Hans, along with their friend Cristoph were convicted and sentenced to death. They were executed two days later. Sophie’s last words were … “your heads will fall as well.”

During her interrogation Sophie said: “I knew what I took upon myself and I was prepared to lose my life by doing so.”