Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

At first, I followed this wild boy hungering after his knowledge of the island--his deep understanding of everything that bloomed or swam or flew. Soon enough, a curiosity about an untamed soul had kindled, and this, too, caused me to seek him out. But it was his light temper and his easy laugh that drew me close to him, over time, until I forgot he was a half-naked, sassafras-scented heathen anointed with raccoon grease.

Martha's Vineyard, in the late 17th century, is a backwater outpost of a backwater outpost: Bethia Mayfield lives with her father, the Reverend Mayfield, and her brother Makepeace, live on the edge of a wilderness, having retreated from the strict Puritanism of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  But there are others, of course, for whom the island--as Bethia calls it--is no wilderness at all, but their home for millennia: the Wampanoag, with who the white Islanders have a tense and tenuous peace. Bethia's father sees himself as a missionary to the Wampanoag, and although he is respected by them, his mission is made difficult by the "wizard" Tequamuck, a powerful healer who agitates against the Christian religion among the Wampanoag.

Bethia's life is a proscribed one: she will grow up and marry, probably a local farmer. Yet she has a sharp mind and a gift for languages: while her lazy brother Makepeace struggles with his Latin and Greek, she listens on, learning twice as fast as he. From her father's dealings she even learns to speak the language of the Wampanoag, a feat that enables her to make secret friends with a Wampanoag boy she names Caleb. Caleb, the son of the sonquem, or chief, and nephew to the wizard Tequamuck, and Bethia are drawn to each other, despite their differences; though Bethia learns from her father to be suspicious of the Wampanoag religion--which they consider Satanic--she finds there is much to admire in it, like the way that Caleb awakes before the dawn to greet the personified sun. In their secret meetings, they spar curiously over these different ways of seeing the world. Bethia begins to fear for her own soul, but it's Caleb that should be worried: a plague of smallpox ravages the Wampanoag, and on his death bed the sonquem concedes to the Christianization of his people and asks Reverend Mayfield to take Caleb into his home.

Caleb is an interesting character, based on a real person, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. His father's death and his adoption by the Reverend places him in an uneasy place, caught between two worlds. He learns quickly that he can never be Christian enough for the Puritans of Harvard, where is constantly suspected and belittled. He acquits himself with talent and integrity, but are his talent and integrity being used to raise himself up, or destroy his people? These are interesting and powerful questions.

And yet the major flaw of Caleb's Crossing is that Caleb grapples with these things "off screen." Once Caleb joins Bethia's household, and then later at Harvard, their lives are too proscribed for them to continue their meetings, and somehow Caleb vanishes from the narrative right under our noses. Caleb never leaves Bethia's orbit, but as the viewpoint character she becomes focused on other things, like a pair of competing marriage proposals from a local farmer and the son of a Harvard master, and the mistreatment of a young Nimpuc woman who comes to stay with them at Cambridge. The interests of the book turn from the alienation of the indigenous to the contradictions of life as a woman, and while it does these themes justice, they seem to me much more familiar, perhaps too familiar.

At the novel's climax, Bethia must travel back to the island to consult with the dreaded Tequamuck to find a cure for a disease that has struck Caleb--a disease we suspect may be more of the spirit than the body--and yet this moment, which should bring resolution to the schisms of Caleb's psyche, seem to be the ending to a book we didn't actually get. You know, a while back I told myself I should try harder to review the book as it is, rather than imagining a book that doesn't exist that I might have liked better. That's something I do a lot. But the book is called Caleb's Crossing, and I think the way the novel holds Caleb at arm's length is ultimately unsatisfying.

Sunday, March 28, 2021


The Untouchable
. By John Banville


“Oh, Victor,” she said, and she relaxed her fist and lifted her hand and laid it tenderly along the length of my cheek, as she had so many times before had cause to do.  “Poor, poor Victor.  You’re right, you knew nothing, even less than you thought you did.  He kept it all from you.”

The tea tasted of clay.  In the silence I could clearly hear the pips for the six o’clock news from a wireless set in the house next door,  I had not realized there were so many early risers in Mayfair.  A jade figure of a pot-bellied monk – one of Big Beaver’s pieces – sat smirking to itself on the window sill beside me.  Things, in their silence, endure so much better than people.


“He?” I said dully.  “What are you saying?  What he?”

I could not bear her pitying smile.

Don’t you see?” she said.  “It was him.  It was always him . . .”

I really must look out that pistol.



In the 1930s a group of students at Cambridge University formed a Marxist club called “The Apostles.” While most of them went on to lead the lives of men of their class, successful in their chosen careers in government.  Five of them became spies for the Soviet Union and passed on sensitive information for decades until they were discovered in the late 1960s.  At that point, three of the men defected to the Soviet Union.  One, Anthony Blunt, was related to the royal family, worked in Buckingham Palace and had – in addition to his spying for The Soviets – provided valuable, but embarrassing work for the Crown during the war.  He was granted immunity from prosecution, allowed to keep his job as Keeper of the Crown’s pictures and his knighthood until 1980 when Margaret Thatcher uncovered his history and he was publicly humiliated.


The Untouchable is a novelized version of Blunt’s life, with the protagonist’s name changed to Victor Maskell.  One of the key details of what was eventually the Cambridge Five was that the men involved were all gay.  Banville has written a beautiful and moving novel about a man living a double secret – hiding his sexuality and his treason.  The novel is largely centered on that notion of hiding, how little Maskell understands the motives of those around him, how many secrets he has and the ultimate cost of that secrecy.


Oddly enough, the spying for The Soviet Union is not treated with great importance.  Maskell has already lost his faith in the Soviets when he is recruited on a trip to Moscow in the late 1930s.   Banville depicts that world as a paranoid, bureaucratic nightmare.  Maskell is honest that the kinds of secrets he finds and passes along are of little help – though he goes out of the way to detail how information about German tanks helped the Soviets in an important battle, a story which undercuts any sense I had that he was soft-pedalling his work.  The portrait of espionage here would be comic if it were not so unimportant.  The job that later saves him from prosecution involves travelling to Germany right after Hitler’s suicide to recover correspondence between the Royal Family and their German relatives before the war that would be embarrassing later.  In general, Britain’s upper-class government is portrayed as a somewhat silly distraction.


There is a more specific and interesting portrayal of gay life in England in the middle of the Twentieth Century.  Maskell, as narrator, plays down his emotional life and tries to convince himself and the reader that hanging around public toilets or risking humiliation propositioning men on the street was a great adventure – an alternative to the stultifying married life of the 50s and 60s portrayed here.  However, that attitude is never very convincing and as the book goes on, the portrait of an aging man, preparing to die alone, going back over his affairs and his failed attempt at a family life takes on the weight of tragedy.


There are curious details here.  The novel is densely structured in the manner of a 19th Century counterpart – there are some 20 characters who are important though they disappear for long periods of time.  And while it is part of the technique here to withhold some information early so as to deepen the portrait and the plot later, some of the information that comes out late is curious.  Victor does marry – Vivienne, whose brother Nick he has always been somewhat in love with.  Nick and Vivienne play important roles, especially early in the novel and then again, at the end.  So it is curious that it is only in the last thirty pages that we learn they are Jewish – on their mother’s side, to be sure, but Nick at least, seems to practice his religion.  There is another Jewish character among the group of Marxists, Leo Rothenstein, whose Jewishness and the anti-Semitism he faces are mentioned frequently. 


Saturday, March 27, 2021

Pew by Catherine Lacey

If you ever need to--and I hope you never need to, but a person cannot be sure--if you ever need to sleep, if you ever so tired that you feel nothing but the animal weight of your bones, and you're walking along a dark road with no one, and you're not sure how long you've been walking, and you keep looking down at your hands and not recognizing them, and you keep catching a reflection in darkened windows and not recognizing that reflection, and all you know is the desire to sleep, and all you have is no place to sleep, one thing you can do is look for a church.

The narrator of Catherine Lacey's Pew wakes up one morning in a church, where they've taken shelter for the night. It's a Sunday morning, so the service has begun, and the members of the church are a little surprised to see the narrator lying in their pew. But they are compassionate people--or perhaps they like to think of themselves as compassionate people--so they take in this obvious vagrant and give them a place to stay. Because the narrator won't tell anyone their name, or even speak, they christen them "Pew."

Pew is of indeterminate age, race, and sex. Some look at them and fill in the blanks on their own accord: they see a girl, a boy, a young person, an older person, a white person, a person who is "brown," like another refugee adoptee in town. Those who are more confused beg Pew to tell them: What are you, Pew? But Pew will not tell, and perhaps does not know. For the members of this community, Pew's indeterminacy is a threat, an obstacle into sorting them into an ordered society: "It's what makes us civilized," one person says, "we can identify ourselves and we can identify each other! That's how we keep track of things, hold people accountable. That's how we know who were' related to and who's related to us." Is Pew one of us--or one of them?

Over a week, Pew is shuttled between various members of the congregation, some of whom are kinder than others, but all of whom are baffled by Pew. They do speak, sometimes, but never much, and only to those who seem a little on the margins of the community themselves. And yet Pew has a way of getting people to open up: a man tells Pew of his despair over his daughter's recent conversion to Christianity; an old woman confesses that her husband once lynched four black men. It's Pew's nullity, the sense they give of a blank space waiting to be filled, that allows people to unburden themselves this way. It seems obvious to me--and bolstered by Lacey's reference to Carson McCullers in the acknowledgements--that Pew is modeled on the character of Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a deaf-mute whose silence allows all of the other characters to imagine he is just like them. Lacey takes the character of Singer and turns the dials to eleven, so that the blankness becomes not just appealing but also threatening.

What I admired most about Pew is that it manages to tie together disparate types of prejudice--racism and sexism, principally--in a way that explores the way they function at deep levels. It doesn't seem cheap ("We're all one race--the human race") but it does expose the way our craving for stable identities is, in part, insidious. The novel also offers a critique of the way that the modern church deals with these issues: we're told that Pew has arrived just in time for something called the "Forgiveness Festival," and that any rumors of ritual human sacrifices are just rumors. When the Forgiveness Festival does come, at the book's climax, it's pretty anodyne: people wander around a big room blindfolded, bumping into each other and confessing their most horrible sins. Then they take the blindfolds off and offer each other forgiveness.

I'm a big believer in forgiveness; I think our larger culture actually has no sense of what forgiveness is or how it might be conducted. But Lacey's more targeted critique is spot on: this model of forgiveness does nothing to heal the real divisions between people, or address systems of power, especially in a town we know has a long and deeply rooted history of racist violence. How can a community heal if it literally blinds itself to pain? And yet, we register the irony of what we are willing to see and not see: the people of the town cannot deal with the limitations of perception that Pew presents. The people of Pew demand everything be visible but the way we harm each other; that's something that remains hidden.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Paterson by William Carlos Williams

Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his machinations
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring river
animate a thousand automatons.

Paterson, New Jersey is a cool place. At the edge of the great swathe of suburbia between New York City and Philadelphia, a place that--don't tell my wife I said this--feels clogged with Panera Breads and mattress stories, Paterson seems to me a real place with a real identity. Some might consider it a little rough and tumble these days, as cities who once relied on dead industries sometimes are, but it boasts a booming immigrant population, and its downtown still retains some of the striking manufacturing buildings of its earlier incarnations. In its heart is an immense waterfall that looks like something imported from the Adirondacks; these Great Falls of the Passaic were the engine of America's first industries, as dreamed by Alexander Hamilton. I've only been there once, but to stand at the falls felt to me like being at the intersection of nature, industry, immigration, urbanism--like being at center of something essentially American.

And all that is before you even consider that William Carlos Williams, one of the great American poets of the 20th century, lived there, and made the city of Paterson the subject of an epic poem composed over the course of decades. Williams' Paterson wears some of its influences on its sleeve, namely--and I think I'm repeating familiar knowledge here, though it is clear enough from the poem itself--the free verse and democratic fervor of Walt Whitman and the mythmaking of James Joyce. Williams, if I recall correctly, wanted to do for humble Paterson what Joyce did for Dublin.

But that's not exactly right, I think, Joyce used the vernacular of myth and history to turn Dublin into more than what it was, but Williams' long epic seems to collapse the scale of Paterson, rather than to enlarge it: the city, he tells us, serves as a metaphor for the poet himself: an agglomeration of parts that somehow has an essence of its own, a collective organism. At the heart of the poet is the falls itself, a representation of the churning and ever-changing mind, which "unseen / tumbles and rights itself / and refalls--and does not cease, falling / and refalling with a roar, a reverberation / not of the falls but of its rumor / unabated." In the first couple of books--Paterson is made of five, the first in 1946 and the last in 1948--the poet walks through Paterson itself, watching lovers and children, stirring up street preachers and grasshoppers, and the effect is of a man walking through himself. The city shrinks to the man, but the man expands to the city. Paterson becomes, at times, a kind of identity-formation on the page:

I cannot stay here

to spend my life looking into the past:

the future's no answer. I must
find my meaning and lay it, white,
beside the sliding water: myself--
comb out the language--or succumb

--whatever the complexion.

To this point, Paterson is punctuated with all sorts of prose material, from newspaper clippings about Paterson to historical anecdotes to letters from Williams' own correspondents, including his housekeeper and a young and star-struck Allen Ginsberg. The letters are unattributed, unless you have an edition like this one that scrupulously records Williams' sources. For a poet like Williams, who is so attuned to the music of vernacular speech, the letters are rich and musical, but for a reader like me they are often baffling, like looking over the shoulder of a man on the train, seeing his correspondence without context. They, like so much of the poem, seem to mean less than is desired, to point mostly to the reader's own inability to read them. Paterson is often seen as a response to Eliot, who thought that poetry ought to be entirely impersonal. Williams is right, I think, that that's a silly way to think about poetry, but much of Paterson felt to me like a locked box. "Or, Geeze, Doc, I guess it's all right," one imagined speaker says, "but what the hell does it mean?"

The poem's later books move far away from Paterson as a city; we are in Paris, perhaps, with Marie Curie, discovering uranium and unintentionally giving birth to the atom bomb. They become quite death haunted: "Though he is approaching / death," Williams writes, "he is possessed of many poems." I was quite touched by the tender hopefulness of this passage:

We shall not get to the bottom:
death is a hole
in which we are all buried
Gentile and Jew

The flower dies down
and rots away    .
But there is a hole in the bottom of the bag.

It is the imagination 
which cannot be fathomed.
It is through this hole
we escape    .    .

I liked, too, an extended riff on the famous unicorn tapestry at the Cloisters in Manhattan, a work of art that is familiar to me in a place that is quite dear. (Not least because my wife and I had an early date there, now nearly ten years ago.) "The Unicorn / has no match," Williams writes, "or mate    .    the artist / has no peer," like "Death / has no peer." The artist is unique like the unicorn, like death; he creates the uniqueness of himself on the page, as he creates the city by walking through it, the city that is not the same as it was a moment ago, anchored by the falls where water moves thousands of gallons by the second. I left Paterson wishing that the waterfall would stop for a moment, and the poem and the poet reveal more of themselves, but there's no stopping it.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro

I think of being an old maid, in another generation. There were plenty of old maids in my family. I came of straitened people, madly secretive, tenacious, economical. Like them, I could make a little go a long way. A piece of Chinese silk, folded in a drawer, worn by the touch of fingers in the dark. Or the one letter, hidden under maidenly garments, never needing to be opened or read because every word is known by heart, and a touch communicates the whole. Perhaps nothing so tangible, nothing but the memory of an ambiguous word, an intimate, casual tone of voice, a hard, helpless look. That could do. With no more than that I could manage, year after year as I scoured the milk pails, spit on the iron, followed the cows along the rough path among the alder and the black-eyed Susans, spread the clean wet overalls to dry on the fence, and the tea towels on the bushes.

Something feels missing from the first few stories in Alice Munro's collection The Moons of Jupiter. In "Dulse," a jilted woman on a holiday in Nova Scotia meets several men: a stately old man researching Willa Cather, a middle-aged fisherman, his young apprentice. We wait to see which of these men will become her lover, but none ever does--only in the quiet of her room at night does she think on what it might have been like to be with one of them.Other stories are composed of absences like these, absences that do not quite inspire the mind to fill them: In the marvelous second section of "Chaddeleys and Flemings," titled "The Stone in the Field," the narrator seeks out a large flat stone on the land where her father once lived, a stone which served as the marker of the grave of an old hermit who lived and died among her aunts. "If I had been younger," she says, "I would have figured out a story. I would have insisted on Mr. Black's being in love with one of my aunts, and on one of them--not necessarily the one he was in love with--being in love with him."

But the stone is gone, carted away for planting, and the story never gets written by the older and wiser narrator, who knows that little can be gained or revealed by making them. In the charming "Turkey Season," a younger--and less wise--narrator speculates on the relationship between her enigmatic coworker Herb and the rude but beautiful young man he has hired. "Later still," she writes, "I backed off from this explanation. I got to a stage of backing off from the things I couldn't really know." I got the sense of a writer frustrated with the entire hoopla of making things up about people who have never existed, as though Munro, a decade into her occupation as a writer of short fiction, was already banging against certain assumptions she would later find ways to circumvent, or explode.

All of which made it such a surprise to get to "Accident," a story in which, in the sometimes-style of Ms. Munro, horrible and bloody things occur. Here, it's the death of a young boy, crushed beneath an automobile on his sled. The news is broken to the father, a school teacher, from the other side of a door to a closet where is in the middle of a sexual liaison with a coworker, one who is not his wife. The accident sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to him leaving his wife and marrying the coworker, and to one of those very Munro time jumps, where the new wife returns to her old town to reflect on just how she arrived at the life she is leading. Meeting the man who was driving the fateful car, she thinks:

If he had not gone out in the snow that day to take a baby carriage across town, Frances would not live in Ottawa now, she would not have her two children, she would not have her life, the same life. That is true. She is sure of it, but it is too ugly to think about. The angle from which she has to see that can never be admitted to; it would seem monstrous.

And yet is she herself any different?: "She's had her love, her scandal, her man, her children. But inside she's ticking away, all by herself, the same Frances who was there before any of it. Not altogether the same, surely. The same." What is so wonderful about this moment, I think, is that the observation itself is so commonplace. Who hasn't looked back on some small moment, some blot of chance, and thought, if not for that, everything would be different? But what Munro does so well is capture the great shock of the observation, and the frightful disorienting wonder that our lives, and thus ourselves, may be only the productions of happenstance. And while "Accident" stands out amid a collection of stories where few things "happen," I wonder if it doesn't come to the same place, bumping up against that hard wall of imagination.

There's an honesty to that, to the observation that we live so much of our lives in our minds and that, in spite of that, the life we live in our minds is so weightless. Honest is a word that I associate with Munro's writing; you hardly ever feel as if the characters have been pulled in one direction or another to make a point against their will, as I think you often do even in very good short fiction. In "Dulse," Lydia doesn't sleep with the Cather fan or the fisherman because she wouldn't; the fleeting and imaginary life in which she does has to suffice for her and us both. And yet, even as I say this, I remember a story like "Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd," about two old friends who end up in the same nursing home, fighting over the affection of new friends, only to return to each other in the end--what might be another writer's most perfectly crafted story feels, for Munro, a little too stagey.

My feeling was that The Moons of Jupiter isn't among Munro's best, that it seems like a relic of a transitional period in which she was rethinking the methods that make The Lives of Girls and Women and Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You so engaging. It ends terrifically, with the title story, which is a surprise sequel of sorts to the first: the woman who once scoured her father's farm for a headstone to tell her something of her distant, unknowable family, finds herself a mother, distant from and unknown from her daughters, and her father in the hospital facing what may be his death. She goes to the planetarium, she discusses the Galilean moons of Jupiter with her father in his hospital bed. It's such a silly conversation, not at all equal to the gravity of the moment, but what could be? It's enough. She goes outside and imagines that her estranged daughter might be there in the Toronto crowd. She's not, of course; Munro would never. But the imagining, that too is enough.

Monday, March 15, 2021

His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem

With an exaggeration that is necessary for the clarification of my meaning, I will say that in the course of my work (it is difficult to say exactly when this occurred) I began to suspect that the "letter from the stars" was, for us who attempted to decipher it, a kind of psychological Rorschach test. For a subject, believing he sees in the colored blotches angels or birds of ill omen, in reality fills the vagueness of the thing shown with what is "on his mind," so did we attempt, behind the veil of incomprehensible signs, to discern the presence of what lay, first and foremost, within ourselves.

Like many of the world's great scientific discoveries, the "letter from the stars" is discovered by sheer accident: a recording of a stream of neutrinos emitted from the region of Canis Minor, used--because of its presumed randomness--to generate random number tables for industrial use, proves not to be so random after all. In fact, it appears to repeat at a regular interval, a trait that should not appear if the source of the neutrino stream is natural. It is suggested that the neutrino stream may encode a message from a distant civilization; from this suggestion all the resources of the American military are marshaled in the distant Nevada desert, where hundreds of the world's top scientists are dedicated to a project codenamed, with a bit humor, "His Master's Voice."

Hogarth, the pugnacious mathematician whose reflections on the Project are recorded here, tells us from the very beginning that His Master's Voice has been a failure: "The reader who has plowed his way to this point and is waiting, with growing impatience, to be led into the inner sanctum of the famous enigma, in the hope that I will regale him with thrills and chills every bit as delightful as those he experiences viewing horror movies, I advise to set my book down now, because he will be disappointed." Only Stanislaw Lem could write a book about first contact in which no one is really contacted, or a book about aliens in which there are no aliens--and perhaps there never were. His Master's Voice, rather, becomes a treatise on exactly why translating the neutrino message is so impossible. Lem offers several deft metaphors to illustrate the disadvantage of our knowledge and our capabilities. Once we are like amoebas, receiving a telegram about a human funeral; next we are like ancient Egyptians trying to interpret a modern paper about the chemical composition of Amenhotep's funeral mask.

Science-minded folks, sometimes a little too glibly, like to say that there are no failures in science. Our knowledge is built on many such experimental failures. But such an attitude, and such glibness, are predicated on the perspective of those who have little interest in the way knowledge is really accumulated. His Master's Voice is, above everything else, a treatise on the function and practice of science, its history and limitations. Unlike people that follow the "I F*cking Love Science" Facebook page, Lem offers a fairly jaundiced view of the way science operates: balkanized into hermetic pursuits, ways of seeing the world that do not touch, and tainted always by the bias of the observer. Several fascinating hypotheses emerge from His Master's Voice--perhaps the neutrinos are a message from a dead universe, or perhaps it isn't a message at all, but a kind of cosmic excretion, like urine--but none will or can be disentangled from the hypothesizer. When knowledge is in short supply, Lem shows, what is human in us will fill in the gaps.

In many ways, His Master's Voice is reflection of the story of science in the 20th century: the great paradigm shifts of relativity and quantum theory, and the emergence of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which more or less did away with the idea that we can ever understand the universe from a position of true objectivity. (No doubt a real scientist would quibble with this formulation, but I think I got it more or less.) But it also reflects how the greatest discoveries of the 20th century became fodder for human history's bloodiest projects. One of the peculiar traits of the "letter" is that seems to be both a recipe for life and a catalyst for life: from the snippet that the researchers are able to "decode" organic compounds are created; these organic compounds in turn change and grow when subjected to the neutrino stream itself. For this reason some researchers believe the "letter" is meant to encourage life to grow throughout the universe. But these traits threaten to destroy life, also; Hogarth and his peers discover that these compounds are capable of propagating nuclear fission at a distance--imagine pressing a button that could release a nuclear blast anywhere on earth, of any size, without warning.

Is this property intentional? Is the "letter" the instructions for a weapon? Or is it "the kind of error, whereby someone reads, in a kitchen recipe, the word 'amanita' instead of 'amandine,' and concocts a dish that sends all his guests to their graves?" The question, like nearly all the questions surrounding the Project, will never be answered, even as it threatens the end of the earth. Lem seems to tell us that the process that led to the atom bomb was not simply the work of good scientists perverted by those with evil intentions; war, like science, is a process in which we take part but which we do not control:

A perfect equilibrium of forces, an exact equals-sign between them, was a state so improbable as to be virtually impossible. One could arrive at such a balance only by coincidence. Social fusion was one series of process, and the acquiring of instrumental knowledge was another series.

That is, perhaps the "letter" is a kind of poisoned present: for a society advanced enough in both social fusion and instrumental knowledge, it acts as an invitation to join a brotherhood in the stars. For a society advanced enough in instrumental knowledge but deficient in social fusion, like ours, it will rub us out before we become a threat. This is only one of many theories, and not the one that the more optimistic Hogarth prefers. But if it's the right one, we needn't have worried; for now, we haven't proved smart enough to end ourselves.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Zuleikha by Yuzel Gakhina

Sometimes it seems she is already dead. The people around her are emaciated, pale, and spend entire days whispering and quietly weeping: so who are they if not the dead? This place--frigid and crowded, the stone walls wet from damp, deep under the ground, without a single ray of sun--what is it if not a burial vault? Only when Zuleikha makes her way to the latrine, a large echoing tin bucket in the corner of the  cell, and feels her cheeks warm with shame is she convinced that, no, she is still alive. The dead do not know shame.

Zuleikha lives with her husband Murtaza and mother-in-law--a domineering woman she thinks of to herself as the Vampire Hag--on a small farm in Tataria, in the south central Soviet Union. She is a devout woman, dedicated to the service of her husband, whom she believes Allah has placed over her, but sometimes she sneaks an offering of candy to the local spirits, to convince them to protect the graves of her daughters, all three of whom died in infancy. Murtaza and the Vampire Hag make her life a hell, but Zuleikha does not know there are darker days to come: when Murtaza is killed by a Red Army officer--because he is a kulak, or peasant landholder, who refuses the collectivization of his farm--Zuleikha, pregnant again, is placed on a train to Siberia, where she will be dekulakized. That is, interned in a distant gulag.

Zuleikha has the scope of a grand historical novel: its subject is not just Zuleikha, whose meekness will be molded into assertiveness and self-determination by the harsh life of the gulag, but the gulag itself, which is a conglomeration of other kulaks and political prisoners from Leningrad, all of whom must come together to form a community in Siberia. The dissident painter, the agronomist, the denounced doctor, each of these takes their role in the gulag, which grows from a clearing in the forest--there aren't even any buildings when they first are dropped off and forced to build shelter to survive the coming winter--to a bustling village in its own right. This happens under the aegis of Ignatov, the officer who killed Zuleikha's husband, and who himself experiences a kind of exile, flung by his superiors to the corner of the country, and who quickly falls in love with the widow of the man he's killed.

Zuleikha has a funny historical perspective on the gulag. On one level, it's clearly a condemnation of the haphazard and zealous way that collectivization and the gulag system tossed thousands into suffering and death, but it's possible to see the ultimate success of the outpost, which becomes a town named Semruk, as a vindication of these systems also: hasn't it turned these people into productive citizens after all? Zuleikha struggles, I think, with the passing of time; seven years pass by in an instant, but when its pace slows it's full of wonderful moments. I liked, for instance, how Murtaza gives Zuleikha a poisoned lump of sugar to feed their livestock if he's taken; the lump sits in her pocket during the long godforsaken train ride like a ticket out of pain. But at the last minute, during a disastrous river crossing, the sugar melts away, showing symbolically that Zuleikha has only one option: to move forward.

Last summer I joined a website called Postcrossing that facilitates the sending of postcards to strangers around the world. I like to ask my would-be pen pals to recommend a book from their country; Zuleikha is the first of these suggestions I've been able to read. I can see why my Russian pen pal was so enamored with it--I don't know if the book is super-popular in Russia, but the fact that it has an English translation is probably a clue--it's the kind of sweeping historical tale that we seem to have mostly forgotten how to write these days. It reminded me of, perhaps, Doctor Zhivago with a little more mass appeal--which is pretty strong praise, I think.

Friday, March 5, 2021

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives, we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose. And Sabina--what had come over her? Nothing. She had left a man because she felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? Had he tried to take revenge on her? No. Her drama was not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being.

Tomas is a distinguished surgeon in Prague; Tereza is a woman he meets at a hotel while on holiday. She follows him to Prague on a whim, coming like a "baby in a bulrush basket," as he describes it, and though they fall in love and are quickly married, he continues his many affairs with other women. His infidelities continue against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of the Czech Republic and Tomas' political downfall; even as a window washer, blacklisted from practicing medicine, he cannot stop himself. Tereza, for her part, is tortured by Tomas' affairs but cannot leave him; she is too desperate for his love which has come to define her.

At times The Unbearable Lightness of Being struck me as little more than a cinematic romantic drama polished by sophisticated language, the kind of movie that believes there is nothing more important than the conflict between two lovers for the possession of each other, and how the shape of each one's personality stands in their way. Its notions about men and women struck me as mostly unpleasant. It might be perceptive to observe that there are two kinds of womanizers--those who are looking for a single "ideal woman" they can never find, and those who want to "possess the endless variety of the objective female world"--but I'm suspicious of Kundera's claim that women prefer the former to the latter. Furthermore, it seems to me that the reasons that men cheat on their wives are possibly the least interesting topic in the world.

On top of that, it's one of those books where women are always looking at their naked bodies in mirrors, if you know what I mean. And what am I supposed to make of the moment when Sabina, one of Tomas' former lovers, dons a bowler hat, an act that's described as doing "violence" to her body? How do women's bodies become these sacred spaces that call out for defilement? How and why do Tereza and Sabina get conscripted into that process? And why do I need to know that Tomas' favorite spot on a woman is her anus?

Much more interesting, I thought, were the novel's ideas about history and politics. Kundera's alter ego-narrator is imperious, a trait I found mostly annoying, but always ready with a theory to explain the social context in which Tomas and Tereza live and struggle. Chief among these is a discussion of the idea of eternal return and the German phrase Einmal ist keinmal, which means something like, "That which happens once doesn't happen at all." We are always looking for patterns in history and cling to the belief that it must repeat, because it formalizes our understanding of cause and effect. But history, Kundera explains, has no control group against which to measure itself, and there is no way to say that one historical decision is better than another. History, as he describes it, is a mere "sketch," and it wears lightly on the earth--as per the title.

For Tomas, this means there is no way to make a "right" decision under Soviet occupation: again and again, people demand that the distinguished surgeon sign his name to a statement he has not written. Sometimes it's Russian officials looking for a pledge of fealty to the new regime and sometimes it's Czech dissidents looking to make a statement about the treatment of political prisoners, but the repetition is never instructive, and Tomas--who refuses to sign every time--is never in possession of knowledge that will help him make these decisions which determine the path of his life. Chased away from Prague and into manual labor, Tomas and Tereza enact a very Candide-like flight from politics, happy--at least in part, and seemingly for the first time--to live in a little village with their little dog.

Marriage, too, is like history. Tomas and Tereza choose to see each other as a kind of fate which has been entrusted to them, the baby in the basket--love often begins with a metaphor, Kundera tells us, and metaphors are dangerous--but their relationship is only a sketch which they are writing. I wish, for me, it were a sketch that were a little more pleasant to witness.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

A Coin in Nine Hands by Marguerite Yourcenar

Well before Giulio, men had appropriated the labor of bees to offer the results to the gods; century after century, they had surrounded their holy relics with an honor guard of tiny flames, as they projected on their gods their own instinctive fear of the dark. Giulio's ancestors had needed rest, health, money, love: these unknown people had offered candles to the Virgin Mary in the same way that their ancestors, buried even deeper in the accumulations of time, had offered honey cakes to Venus' hot mouth. These flickerings had been consumed infinitely faster than brief human lives: some wishes had been denied; others, on the contrary, granted: the unfortunate thing is that, because wishes sometimes come true, the agony of hoping is perpetuated. Then, without asking for it, these people had obtained the only salvation that's certain, the dark gift that obliterates all others.

A single ten-lira coin, on a single day, in Italy in 1933, passes through the hands of nine people: A lovesick divorcee pays a prostitute; the prostitute, recently diagnosed with cancer, gives it to a pharmacist; the aged and weary pharmacist to the candle-seller at the church; the candle-seller uses it to buy hot coals from a woman planning to assassinate Mussolini; the would-be assassin gives it to her fascist ex-husband; her ex-husband buys flowers from an old street vendor; the vendor gives it to a visiting painter she believes to be a beggar; the painter gives it to a radical Russian caught up in the assassination plot; he chucks it into a fountain where it's found, at last, by a drunk.

The coin, which you might expect to have some symbolic quality it never really possesses, is more or less a gimmick that allows Yourcenar to sketch these many characters, their private desires and woes. More ties the characters together, in fact, than the coin itself, which provides a structural pattern rather than a thematic one: when the doctor Alessandro Sarte engages in a tryst with a woman in a dark theater, he cannot know that this is Angiola, the former wife of the divorcee and the sister of the candle-seller Rosalia. (He doesn't even know that Angiola is the same woman appearing on the screen of the movie, thinking only with contempt that she's a woman trying, with desperate makeup, to look like Angiola the actress.) The nine possessors of the coin are intimately connected with each other, but again and again they fail to recognize that connection. Connection, like the passing of the coin, is ephemeral; isolation is eternal.

Among other things, A Coin in Nine Hands is an effective snapshot of life in fascist Italy. The center of the novel--literally and metaphorically--is Marcella, the woman who has vowed to shoot Mussolini. The novel sketches both radicals and reactionaries, and both are haunted by the absence of a reformer named Carlo Stevo who is said to be near death on the prison island of Lipari. Marcella, a kind of lover-admirer of Stevo, knows that her attempt on Mussolini's life will mean the end of her own no matter what happens; there's something poignant in the way that the absent Stevo seems to loom larger in everyone's lives than the real people to and from whom the coin passes. I thought the most compelling sketch, though, was that of Mother Dida, the ordinary flower-vendor, who illustrates the way fascism is perpetuated. Politics pass only glancingly through the thoughts of Dida, who mulls over her failed marriages and estranged children, but who has convictions, both vague and strong, about Mussolini's reclamation of national strength.

The ten-cent lira is used to buy lots of things: sex, candles, flowers, coals, booze. At its end the novel feels curiously meager, as if nothing has really been purchased or obtained for all the coin's movement. Surely this is by design; a book of sketches like these is, at the end, a book of sketches, and though the lives of these nine figures overlap tightly the many lines between them create an emptiness, a loneliness, in them like the hole in the middle of a cat's cradle.

Monday, March 1, 2021


 by Marilyn Robinson

I do not necessarily disagree with Chris’s statement a few weeks ago that Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels represent the masterpiece of the century so far.  It takes nothing away from Ferrante to suggest that Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead Novels offer stiff competition.  The story two ministers and their families in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa in the late 1950s, these novels take a hard yet lyrical look at some major questions – right and wrong, love and desire, the nature of faith, the relationship of pride and shame, the balance between individual agency and community obligation.  While the characters are of varying levels of education and experience, they are collectively an amazingly articulate family of heady thinkers.

Jack, published last year, is the fourth in the series (Gilead [2004], Home [2008], and Lila [2014] are the others).  Jack tells the back story of Jack Ames Boughton, son of one of the ministers back in Gilead, namesake of the other.  Readers of the series already know a great deal about Jack:  He is the prodigal son of the Boughton family, having left home years earlier after a youth and young adulthood that brought constant tension and shame to his family.  He has, seemingly from birth, been a petty thief and a liar.  As a young man, he seduced and impregnated a local girl, then abandoned her and their child.  We also know that, after years away from home, he will return to Gilead broke and jobless, separated from the African American woman who is the mother of their son.  The family has had to flee St. Louis to avoid scandal and prison because mixed-race marriage is illegal in both Missouri and Iowa.  We know that Jack waits for some weeks in Gilead, then leaves just days before Della arrives with their child, leaving them again lost and homeless.  In this novel, we see the dawn and maturation of this spiritual marriage, and track its effect on Jack.  

Jack Boughton is no ordinary reprobate.  His stealing is of a kind of compulsion that fuels his internal debate about the nature of sin, crime, agency and predetermination.  This debate within his head gets so complex and heated that taking the opportunity to steal is the only way out.  His drinking is driven by a complex cycle of shame.  He has recently been released from prison and is living in a shady boarding house off money made from odd jobs and left for him at by his brother, who he refuses to see.  Jack refers to himself as the Prince of Darkness and is convinced he brings both moral and practical harm to those around him.  

However, one day while wearing a good suit (purchased with funds his brother gave him so he might attend his mother’s funeral, which he does not) he helps Della Miles retrieve some papers that have blown from her bag as she walks home from her job as a high school English teacher in a rain storm.  He walks her home under the protection of an umbrella he stole earlier in the day and the two feel an immediate and powerful connection and attraction.  This gives Jack the idea that the suit is a kind of false advertising – Della has mistaken him for a minister – and he trades it in for rattier clothing to avoid giving people a false impression of decency.  

Shortly after this, they meet and spend the night in a graveyard.  Jack is there to sleep because he sometimes makes extra money by subletting his room for the night.  Della is there to see the monuments because Jack has praised them during their brief conversation, but has accidentally been locked in for the night.  It is an all-white graveyard and the shame of being caught might cost Della her job.  So might the shame of spending the night there with Jack, but they have a long, remarkable conversation about sin and redemption, spending some time imagining that they are the last two people on earth and can make new rules for behavior, can in effect redefine sin.  The issue of race hangs over every moment of this encounter, but only by implication.  They never clearly state that Jim Crow is the source of danger for Della and the reason their relationship is impossible.  In this world, segregation is as accepted as, and far less remarked upon than the weather

One of the curious aspects of Jack, and of the entire series of novels, is that they present a deeply detailed and nuanced examination of the world these characters live in without any evidence that anyone is really paying critical attention to that world.  Though the novel is set at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, there is no real hint that such change is possible.  Jack spends a good deal of time reading the papers, but we hear very little about the news they contain – just that a series of urban renewal projects is poised to decimate Black neighborhoods in St. Louis and that there is little anyone can do about it.  This is a world without the concepts of protest, civic action or social change.    

Racial attitudes are entrenched all around.  Della’s family disapproves of her relationship with Jack not because he is a broke ex-con with no job prospects and a serious drinking habit, but because he is white.  In the years that Martin Luther King is making the case for integration, Robinson turns back half a century, presenting a family of morally rigid black separatists who live quite consciously in the tradition of Marcus Garvey.  Jack is thrown out of one very nice rooming house when the landlord finds out he is involved with a Black woman. There is a tense scene involving a segregated bus trip, with no reference to the injustice of the segregation or the ongoing fight against such segregation.  Jack and Della imagine a world without rules, with the rules preventing their relationship being the first to go, make attempts to see each other surreptitiously, and ultimately defy the racial norms, but no one ever discusses any attempt to change those norms.  

It is obvious that this is not because Robinson either approves of these laws or is unaware of civil rights history.  She presents segregation as a part of the world order and then examines that context of injustice in her characters’ moral decision making.  Robinson’s view of morality, her theology if you will, centers on the human connections that give us both the responsibility and the obligation to care for one another.  It is, in these books, inherently individualistic – not in a right-wing, selfish way, but in a kind of Calvinist, personal responsibility vein.

Jack’s thinking around the morality of his relationship to Della centers on his capacity to hurt her.  While he senses immediately – while still holding the umbrella over her head – that she gives him an acceptance and comfort he has never felt before, he also understands (and is repeatedly told) that being with him will cost her dearly.  He accepts the notion that his love for her might best be expressed by leaving her alone.  He also understands that she feels a similar acceptance and comfort around him and that leaving her will cost her perhaps just as dearly.  This then becomes the moral dilemma the novel centers on.  Jack, who sees himself as a permanent, innate source of harm to others and himself, is faced with the opportunity to do someone some good, if he is willing to make a choice.  

All of the advice Jack receives – from Della’s minster father, from a Baptist minister he seeks out for advice and from the hostility of the white world, tells him to leave.  His understanding of the cost to Della is tempered by his own desire to stay, which he interprets as selfishness.  Since his involvement with Della he has found jobs, given up drinking and begun to think of himself as belonging in society.  He sometimes imagines that he will honor the sacrifice they have to make through separation by continuing to live a productive, appropriate life, but the reader suspects he will drift headlong into dissolution. For Robinson, love is not a simple or easy solution to loneliness or shame, but it is the only solution – there is no sense that politics or social change will let us off the hook.  We must love one another or spiritually die.   

Part of the power of this novel is conveyed by the fact that through their various trials and separations, I was fervently hoping that they would find a way to stay together in spite not simply of the social pressures they would face, but of the fact that I have already read Home and know that they are together at least long enough to have a child and lose one another in the social maelstrom that brings on.  It has become clear, however, that Robinson does not simply eschew happy endings.  She calls into question the concept of endings themselves:  in this series, which opens up continually to new facets of the questions John Ames was asking when we started, to new, deeper looks at characters whose plots have already closed in other volumes.  As a reader, I am capable of revisiting certain questions and ideas many times – Robinson seems to have known this before I did.

Ferrante’s great achievement is to examine the formation of a self over the course of a single character’s lifetime and a single friendship.  Her character, Lena, wants to be her truest, best self alone and struggles throughout her life with the fact that she can only rise to the demands of that self through her friendship with Lila.  Society seems to exist to limit her and her need for Lila is as often a source of frustration as liberation.  Robinson’s world view has similarities in that the world is inherently limiting and destructive.  But there is little sense that anyone might ever hope to stand up to it alone.  Jack certainly can’t, and we see that Della’s proud position of status is, in her own eyes, empty and stultifying.  These two can offer each other a way to be themselves that is not available to them as individuals, if they can muster the courage to take it. In the series,  Robinson examines the social formation of the self, the soul, through many different characters, each trying to assert some individual sense of self and finding that impossible outside of the web of relationships that reveals them.