A Break

Marks in the Margin is taking an unexpected break for a while. Hope to be back soon.


God's Country

In 1979 Louis Malle, the much respected French film director, visited the town of Glencoe, Minnesota, population 5,000. I have no idea why that town. But while there he made a 90-minute documentary, God’s Country, of some of the residents who lived there. I was totally engrossed by each of the individuals he interviewed.

Glencoe is about 60 miles west of Minneapolis and is a farming community with a population that is mostly of German extraction. We meet seed farmers, dairy farmers, those who raise and bred cattle and pigs. There are 9 churches and most of the people are religious.

Malle spends a fair amount of time probing the individuals he depicts in the film—an elderly woman who tends a large garden, a free-spirited woman who works in the Social Security office, a policeman, residents of a nursing home and several farmers. He is amused by how much lawn mowing they do. (Soon the communities in drought-stricken California will be forbidden to have lawns.}

What struck me most about these people was how articulate they were, the intelligence and downright wisdom they display in responding to Malle’s questions. Several had not graduated from high school, none had attended college. And yet they conveyed the kind of intelligence you might find in any group of college graduates.

Yet, not everyone in Glencoe is so open-minded. No African Americans live there, and there appears to be a great deal of prejudice against them, as well as gays. One farmer makes it clear he resents Jews who, he claims, govern the market for his products. A bright young woman claims that Glencoe men “have never had a conversation with a woman.” I doubt Glencoe is unique in that respect.

Many of the younger people are moving elsewhere, giving up on a long family tradition of farming. They feel there is no longer any financial future is staying on the land. One seed grower reported he lost $100,000 the year before he was interviewed.

I imagine the people who live in Glencoe and the life they lead there are not a great deal different than anywhere, big city or small. People get by, they have successes and failures, some years are better than others, and everyone keeps dreaming.

Six years later, Malle returned to see if anything had changed. To some degree it had. Farm prices were down even further and the economy was struggling. The film concludes at the family dinner of a Glencoe lawyer, who says the country now has,

an obsession with greed… it’s horrible but good people won’t take it much longer: They aren’t going to subscribe with this philosophy of greed.”

Sounds pretty contemporary, doesn’t it?


Hitler's Children

The documentary Hitler’s Children is not about the life and times of his offspring. In fact, it is presumed he never had any children. Rather, the film portrays a small group of descendants of some of the highest-ranking Nazi leaders.

All of them appeared to be grappling with considerable conflict. One did everything to avoid talking about it. Another broke down at Auschwitz. One traveled the country to speak about his experiences.

An Israeli filmmaker interviewed each of them about their life now and what it meant to be closely related to a high-ranking Nazi leader. All of them found it difficult to answer his questions, there were many long pauses, a few tears, confessions, denials.

Bettina Goering, the grandniece of Hermann Goering, left Germany, changed her name and lives in a house in the desert near Santa Fe, New Mexico. She wants nothing to do with her past.

Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, Governor General of Nazi occupied Poland, travels throughout Germany delivering lectures, many to young students, denouncing his father and the Third Reich. His actions cost him many friendships, including members of his family who disbelieve Frank’s account of what he did in Nazi Germany.

Monika Goeth, daughter of Amon Goeth, commandant of the Nazi labor camp in Plaszow in Poland, spoke eloquently and with considerable emotion about her memories and the guilt she experiences to this day. She quite clearly displays her shame and distress about her heritage.

None of these individuals lives at peace. No doubt their grief and guilt comes and goes. But it is always there, impossible to ignore, a presence of times not so long ago.


Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been on the Times Hardcover Best Seller list for the past 20 weeks and is currently ranked #15. The book is a dense, lengthy treatise on the distribution of income and wealth in more than twenty countries. Piketty attempts to explain its underlying mechanisms and future dimensions. Who would have believed that a rigorous economic analysis like this would be so popular?

I also wonder how many purchasers actually read the entire book, 577 pages plus another 177 pages of detailed notes. But Piketty, who has become something of a rock star, does provide a cogent Introduction that pretty well outlines his major points. A summary follows:

Discussion about economic inequality has been largely based on prejudice, opinions and very little on facts or research. Piketty calls it a “dialogue of the deaf.” At the same time he acknowledges that even research is always provisional and tentative.

His goal is to provide comprehensive and historically accurate data on income, inheritance and taxes in every country where it is available. It is also supplemented by historical data from other investigators.

Piketty’s findings point to a sharp rise in overall income taken by the top ten percent of households after the decade following the Great Depression. During World War II until 2007, the income of the top 10% and within that group the top 0.1 stayed relatively constant and then rose sharply to its steadily increasing level.

In addition to income, he believes it is essential to assess the distribution of wealth. Wealth is determined by the amount of unexpended income and inheritance that accrues to individuals and families on a year-to-year basis. Piketty believes wealth contributes far more to rising inequality than most people had realized. His analysis of wealth may be the most original contribution of his work.

People with inherited wealth and surplus income are able to save a fair amount of capital each year. Piketty then suggests that, “When the rate of return on capital significantly exceeds the growth rate of the economy then it logically follows that inherited wealth grows faster than output and income.

This is the condition in the developed world today and the reason the income levels of the top 10% and higher is rising so rapidly. In a sense we have become a “patrimonial society,” of the sort that existed in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries when inherited wealth and family dynasties played such a dominant role in the economy.

It also suggests that great wealth brings with it considerable political power that only reinforces the increasing concentration of wealth at the higher brackets. This is also a feature of current political reality that, in my view bodes ill for breaking the cycle of the rising political power of the rich and very rich.

Then there are the rest of us--the not-so-very-rich, the middle class and the poor, whose economic conditions have stagnated and continued to decline in recent years.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning Economics professor at Princeton says Piketty “gives something we didn’t know we needed—a sweeping, elegant integration of growth theory…and the personal distribution of income and wealth.” He also confesses to a certain jealousy that he didn’t write the book that Piketty did.

I am left with the question when and how is economic inequality going to be reigned in and, thereby, making possible a more equitable distribution of the economic resources of this country. Piketty does suggest a worldwide wealth tax but implementing this idea is utterly fanciful in today’s political climate.

Piketty concludes on a modest tone: “Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. I offer them to readers without presuming to know their full import.”


Labor Day Rerun: The Role of Place in Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, very pleasant!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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