Eco beckons…

…or: why I should improve my Italian, and soon. Il cimitero di Praga, Umberto Eco’s new book is about to be published. Apparently, it’s about 386 pages long. Waiting. And while we wait, there’s already a wiki as well as various interesting short blog entries on line.

Umberto Eco’s new novel will published this autumn in Italy. Titled Il Cimitero di Praga (The Cemetery of Prague), it is the story of a secret agent who “weaves plots, conspiracies, intrigues and attacks, and helps determine the historical and political fate of the Continent,” according to his publisher.

People of the book?

A depressing survey done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:

Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.

want some examples? Lookee here:

¶ Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation.

¶ Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.

¶ Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish.

How is it that adherents of religions based on reading and thinking in a time of low illiteracy rates, know so little about their own faith?

How surprised should we be?

A very readable, short essay called One Mean Jewish Settler, by Judah Ben-Yosef who gives tours for German tourists and journalists in a large Jewish settlement in the West Bank. I like this section especially:

A not unattractive lady journalist asked me how I feel when I read the kind of things that are written about Israel. The question was not especially provocative, but maybe I was just in a bad mood. Maybe my advancing years had made me lose my patience. For whatever reason, on that day, I didn’t feel like playing games. For once I’d say what I really felt.

“It reminds me of the story of the man who comes home unexpectedly one day to find his wife in bed with the neighbor. He was shocked! He was shocked….. but he wasn’t surprised. (laughter – timing the punch line is everything.)

Am I shocked? Am I shocked when I read the reports? Of course I am. Who could read such lies and not be shocked?

Am I surprised? Am I surprised that the grandchildren of the monsters who dragged by great-grandfather into a gas chamber or buried him alive write articles that are critical of Israel? How surprised should I be?”

(a conversation I had last Saturday when I exercised a great deal of restraint, reminded me of this bit, and so I took the opportunity to put it up.)

Worth the Pain

Elizabeth Lowell defends popular fiction in an essay that teems with straw men, but is still fun to read.

Contrary to what the critics tell us, popular fiction is not a swamp of barely literate escapism; popular fiction is composed of ancient myths newly reborn, telling and retelling a simple truth: ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Jack can plant a beanstalk that will provide endless food; a Tom Clancy character can successfully unravel a conspiracy that threatens the lives of millions. A knight can slay a dragon; a Stephen King character can defeat the massed forces of evil. Cinderella can attract the prince through her own innate decency rather than through family connections; a Nora Roberts heroine can, through her own strength, rise above a savagely unhappy past and bring happiness to herself and others.

[...]

And that’s why people read popular fiction. To be reminded that life is worth the pain.

David Foster Wallace Archive

Accidentally I stumbled over this

The archive of David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), author of “Infinite Jest” (1996), “The Broom of the System” (1987), “Girl with Curious Hair” (1989) and numerous collections of stories and essays, is now open at the Harry Ransom Center.

Among the treasures, there are copies of DFW’s teaching materials, you can see the inside of some of his books, or circled words in his dictionary and other things beside. Yummy.

Herta Mueller and Oskar Pastior

This weekend, the German literary scene was abuzz as absolutely stunning, and profoundly sad news surprised us all. Roll back the tape for a moment now: we all remember how Herta Müller, Literature Nobel winner 2009, discussed her most recent novel Atemschaukel (translated into English as Everything I Possess I Carry With Me). She had written this novel to commemorate a friend, the great German poet Oskar Pastior. Müller and Pastior, both of them exiles from Communist Romania had been friends for awhile when they suddenly started to look into Pastior’s experiences in a Soviet camp shortly after WWII; their long talks resulted in copious notes, which Müller turned into a book after Pastior’s death. Atemschaukel was a remarkable literary success, and her moving interviews and statements at readings about her dear old friend (who died in 2006, and was awarded the most prestigious German literary award posthumously), could not fail to move her listeners. For those who knew her work, Atemschaukel was a kind of departure. Hitherto, Müller’s work had always been shrouded in a darkness, a result of living under the watchful eyes of the Romanian secret service, the Securitate. Müller wrote at length, bleakly, and bitterly about the terrors of hiding one’s secrets from the informers, of fleeing the country. She also wrote and talked about how friendships were destroyed by the knowledge of someone having been an informer. This was something, Herta Müller confided, she was unable to forgive or bear in even a close friend.

And now we learned (click here for a longer article) that Müller recently (two weeks ago) found out that Pastior had been himself, from 1961 to 1968, an informer of Securitate under the alias Otto Stein. So far, precious little is known about his involvement. The two researchers who found Pastior’s informant’s dossier and traced at least one report on a fellow writer in that writer’s dossier have found enough, however, to make us picture a deeply troubling story. What seems clear is that Pastior was pressured into signing up.

Immediately after the camps, returning to his home town, he wrote a couple of poems, some of which he kept. These poems criticized the camps and, by extension, the Soviet Union, and were dangerous material to have. Pastior knew this well, and although he gave copies to a friend of his, he swore her to secrecy and burned all his other copies when he moved to Bucharest, Romania’s capital, to study German literature; there, among writers and lovers of literature, found himself quickly in a peculiarly dangerous position again. Studying at university, gaining a reputation as a writer, he hung around with poets and novelists who were suspected of harboring a bourgeois attitude. This led quickly to the Securitate taking an interest in him. They came after that old friend of his, found the dangerous poems, and with a few more trumped-up charges they sentenced her to seven years in a penitentiary. And then they came for him. What’s odd, one of the researchers notes, is that Pastior’s informer’s file at the Securitate contains no reports apart from a small scrawled note. What it did contain is material that could be used to pressure Pastior. No reports by Pastior, but reports on Pastior aplenty. Everyone and his mother seemed to inform on him. Fellow students, university teachers, friends, Pastior’s environment was lousy with rats. And Pastior was afraid. Not just because of the evidence they already had against him and confronted him with.

There was also the fact that Pastior, despite being married, was secretly homosexual, and feared discovery and being persecuted for his sexual predilections. After seven years of fear, of going through the motions with the Securitate and of hiding his innermost self from everyone around him, he took a trip to Germany and never came back. Upon his arrival in Germany, he talked to the officials and came completely clean about his past as IM Stein. This was the last time he talked about it. Except for small notes found in his papers after his death, he never confessed what he must have felt an excruciating shame for. Not to friends, not to his editors, nor indeed to Herta Müller. In an interview with the FAZ, she said that the discovery was “like a slap in the face”. Müller had, in a recent interview with a Romanian newspaper, poured scorn over those former informants who had never come clean about their past, yet she seems to feel differently about Pastior. Of course she’s angry, but at the same time, Müller stresses that Pastior must have lived in perennial fear, and she takes his long silence as evidence of his deep, deep shame about the compromise he accepted in the face of a faceless, powerful and brutal regime. Pastior was a sensitive poet who created a unique body of work, which will have to be read differently from now on. In her interview, Müller tells us that Pastior always said that his language was broken in the camps. She adds that we might assume now that it’s been broken a second time when he returned home.

In a queer way, this story re-affirms that Herta Müller is a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize, because in her work, she has always taken on the demons of a country that has forced not just Oskar Pastior, but millions of other citizens to live in fear of discovery, in mistrust of their neighbors. In Müller’s work, one can’t, even in exile, escape the trauma of the Securitate. The life story of Oskar Pastior seems to be taken straight from the searing pages of Müller’s novels and novellas. We always knew that Pastior’s poetry bears witness to suffering, but we never knew how much of it actually hid in in the folds and creases of Pastior’s brilliant lines. The Pastior case remains open: we don’t know what and how much he told his tormentors, we can only guess why he kept quiet and whether he ever told anyone. We don’t know yet whether his behavior caused pain to others. What we do know, however, is that is case is a profoundly tragic one, whatever the final outcome. Denounced by his own poetry, and vulnerable because of his desires, Pastior signed a pact with the devil until he fled, a pact that kept consuming him for the rest of his life.

(other sources except those linked are two smaller pieces, from the same newspaper. An editorial called “Maß der Schuld” by S.K. and an opinion piece by Hanser director Michael Krüger (“Ein zarter, trauriger Mensch”)

Lisa Moore: February

Moore, Lisa (2010), February, Chatto & Windus
ISBN 9780701184902

February is the first book off this year’s Booker longlist I finished, and I am not happy. Luckily, it was not shortlisted. Originally published by House of Anansi Press in 2009, this novel, Canadian novelist Lisa Moore’s third offering to date, is an interesting little critter though. In slightly more than 300 pages, Moore attempts to present an account of loss to her readers, the loss suffered by a family when Cal O’Mara, husband and father, suddenly dies in a terrible accident, leaving a surprisingly large family. In a flurry of short chapters, Moore shuffles her reader through different points in time, looking not just at the fateful day when the family learned of Cal’s death, but at various small events between that day and the day, 16 years later, when his son becomes a father himself. This sequence of events suggests a saccharine ‘circle of life’ kind of rhetoric and structure, but Moore tries her utmost to sidestep this danger. Most noticeably, the sequence of events does not directly correspond to the sequence of chapters in the novel as the reader jumps back and forth between various points in time until dates start to matter less and less as various events start to develop a kind of synchronicity. Moore doesn’t dwell on the details of the accident, they are important only inasmuch as they matter to Helen O’Mara, Cal’s widow, and her process of grieving. Her focus on small everyday details and emotionally fraught observations function as attempts to ground Helen’s grief in a common understanding of depression and emotional duress. We feel with Helen because we recognize parts of what she is going through. At the same time, the book scorns actual realism, unfolding, rather, like a strange, melancholic dream. All this is interesting, intriguing, even, but Moore isn’t content with letting her material work its magic on its own, and so she laces her writing with sentences that try too hard, structuring her chapters like short stories aiming for the utmost effect. This makes for many moments that are at best precious, at worst terribly, terribly annoying.

On 15th February, 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank 267 kilometers east of Newfoundland. All 84 men who had worked on it died as a Rogue wave struck the cumbersome vessel and caused a chain reaction of malfunctions, that ultimately led to the rig’s capsizing and striking the bottom of the ocean. February looks at the aftermath of the Ocean Ranger disaster, taking a fictive family to illustrate the plight of the 84 families who were devastated by the events during Valentine’s night, 1982. In her acknowledgments, Moore tells us that she has researched this incident thoroughly, and throughout the book the only obvious inventions are the O’Mara family members themselves. All the details of the oil rig sinking seem/are genuine and well-researched. Given the recent oil spill catastrophe in the gulf of Mexico, Moore’s novel might seem oddly timely and prescient, but on the other hand, ecological concerns play at best a very minor role in a book that is concerned with the impact of such catastrophes on those who are left behind, the workers’ families. In fact, Moore’s book doesn’t need the exact incident in order to work, its emotional gambits are relatively independent of this exact incident, there is nothing in it that is intrinsic to this specific catastrophe. On the other hand, once picked, Moore makes the best out of the material at hand. She -excuse the pun- floods her book with maritime images and metaphors, linking her novel to a vast and rich literary tradition that contains the Bible, Herman Melville, Anatole France and countless more recent books (think The Perfect Storm). This, though, feels added to the book. Reading the book, we get an odd feeling of incongruity: on the one hand there is the emotional, personal aspect. With occasional flashes of great emotional insight, Moore works on the particulars of everyday feelings, confronted with loss and age, with childbirth and responsibility, with love and heartbreak. Her voice is very well suited to express this kind of discourse.

This has its advantages and disadvantages. Lisa Moore opts for short sentences, writing, now and then, almost punchlines, but basically, her unsubtle and sentimental use of short sentences is yet another instance of the the stylistic miasma that Hemingway popularized in Western literature. Short, trenchant sentences that clearly aim for depth and miss far too often. It’s raining. We never slept. Fall apart. Not all sentences are like that, but Moore scatters them strategically throughout the book, and after a while, we read even hypotactic phrases with a glum low note at the end. To enforce these kinds of readings, Moore also often replaces the question mark at the end of a question with a full stop, giving her readers no choice but to strike a low note again. The same effect is produced by her constant need to repeat bits and pieces of dramatic monologue or dialogue, but in a shorter, glum voice. What’s more, from the evidence of this novel alone, Moore’s literary talent seems to be closer to the short than the long form. Almost all of the short little chapters are structured like short stories, and what’s worse, short stories tailored on O’Henry’s and Hemingway’s example. They tend to end on moody, emotional last paragraphs or even phrases, and they are weirdly closed affairs, in the sense that many of them produce puns and repetitions and allusions that point not to other places in the book, but that are restricted within the individual chapter. All of this is evidence of strong attention to craft and structure: there’s nothing accidental about these things, as they all feed into the overall mood and emotions of the book. Isolation, loneliness, fear are pervasive everywhere, and with this deft move, Moore manages to compare the surviving family emotionally with their husband and father who died hundreds of kilometers away from the coast, dying of hypothermia in the vastness of the ocean. If this sounds complex: it’s not really. In tone and depth, the book is closer to bestseller epics of the quotidian, for example Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books, Nick Hornby’s mush or any book from Sophie Kinsella’s growing repertoire.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think that February works best if you can connect to it in some way, if you recognize some of the details. I mean, despite a certain touch of the clichéd, I think many observations, while realized in cheaply sentimental writing, do hit their targets. The way the protagonist worries about aging and attractiveness, the way children can cling to their mother or become strangers to her, and small details, the smells of cooking, and everyday sounds rebounding off the walls of family homes. The plot isn’t as important as the characters are and their observations and the relationships between the characters. There is Helen, widowed by the sinking of the rig. Helen is no idealized wife, we know that there are tensions between Helen and Cal, and in the face of his death, she doesn’t behave as we would expect. She is helpless enough to allow her oldest son John to take over as head of the household. Despite being barely a teenager, he quickly assumes responsibility, starts to work early, and matures within few years. This rapid emotional and personal growth has left him scarred. His mother’s weakness didn’t leave him an opportunity to come to grips with his father’s death, and so he grew into a man who was afraid of open water, yet also a man determined to achieve anything he wanted. Highly successful professionally, we are led to assume that his personal relationships with the other sex are slightly aloof, and stop short of commitment. When an affair of his (the relationship lasted all of a week) tells him she’s pregnant, John panics and turns to his mother for advice. This is how the book starts. As a character, John is less well realized than his mother, and I think that the book, although it is about a circle of life coming together, and a deeply wounded family coming, finally, to terms with Cal’s death. See, although the small chapters are not linked by a narrator and although each chapter is related from the point of view of the specific character which that particular chapter focuses on, I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that most of this, in a way, takes place within Helen’s upset mind.

Or within her dreams and memories. Because here is another aspect of the book that fascinated me: the way that Moore weaves this tale of ordinary loss and emotional empathy into a highly literary web. Yes, observations and language are pretty down-to-earth, but within all this lurks a very literary sensibility. The moodiness and gloom, the surfeit of maritime images, allusions and metaphors, and the way that not just the chapters, but the whole book is like a mirror cabinet, references pointing to points within the novel rather than outside. This book, explicitly written with a real catastrophe in mind, based on sound research, seems, at times, almost like a fantasy. I think Moore herself realizes the strenuous and difficult relationship her book has to the real world and extra-literary facts: towards the end of the book, Helen first tells us about the incident by paraphrasing witnesses from another ship that was ready to pick up survivors. Then, after a paragraph that ends, typically, with a three-word phrase (“He is gone.”), Helen shifts gears and tells us: “But this is not a true account of what Cal faces, and Helen knows it. It’s better to keep to the true story [...].” What follows is an imaginative account of Cal’s last hours, not based on witnesses, but based on speculation and empathy. And here’s the fun part: we know that Cal, unlike his rig, is an invention, and the description of his death is anything but “the true story”. The part before was crammed with real world facts. This complete reversal of facticity in a book that uses, remember, the actual name of a real catastrophe, is endlessly fascinating. What Moore offers us is a different kind of truth, a poetic truth, and she liberally, and not without deftness and skill, employs the tools of her trade to get at this special truth. The dreaminess, the internal consistency of images and metaphors, the almost allegorical way plots unfold, all this is not in the service of being precise in a realistic way, it is in the service of being as truthful as possible, and more truthful than simple realism would allow for.

And while all this is interesting, and well realized, it clashes massively with the direct, realistic way her characters experience all this. Lisa Moore wants to have the cake and eat it too. She wants to write characters that are believable, that are realistic, that her readers can connect to instantly; and at the same time she wants to fill the gap in the known facts with poetry, with literary flourishes. She manages to do the first by sacrificing literary artifice and produces, to my ear, third rate sentimental mush that depends on emotional contact in order to work. She manages to do the second by sacrificing realism. The result is a book that is smaller than it could be, less powerful than it should be, and not a very good book overall. It’s not a bad book, by all means, but one can’t shake the impression that Moore has shrunk it on purpose to fit her goals. It’s not enough for me. It might be enough for you. It will not rattle your cage. It will not change your life. You’ll probably not reread it nor recommend it to others. It’s a small book with a huge subject. It may be enough for some readers. That’s the best I can say.

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Heine, Klopstock, Mann & I

As promised, photographic evidence of my pilgrimage to Klopstock’s grave (top left)

Also, here I am in front of the Buddenbrook House (top right), the Heine Haus,and some random Russian Church and other places. Additionally featured: my sister and a crucifixion. More pictures may be added as the evening goes on.


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Vergebens erhub sich Satan wider den göttlichen Sohn

Visited Klopstock‘s grave today (photos later). Took the opportunity to start a reread of his magisterial Messias. Ah, poetry.

Sing, unsterbliche Seele, der sündigen Menschen Erlösung,
Die der Messias auf Erden in seiner Menschheit vollendet
Und durch die er Adams Geschlechte die Liebe der Gottheit
Mit dem Blute des heiligen Bundes von neuem geschenkt hat.
Also geschah des Ewigen Wille. Vergebens erhub sich
Satan wider den göttlichen Sohn, umsonst stand Judäa
Wider ihn auf; er tat’s und vollbrachte die große Versöhnung.

when my father had been dead a week

Donald Hall: White Apples

when my father had been dead a week
I woke
with his voice in my ear
I sat up in bed
and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door

white apples and the taste of stone

if he called again
I would put on my coat and galoshes

as promised, a poem by Jane Kenyon’s husband.

Malgré moi, j’y mettais mon amour

Quand je fus seul, Villeroy parti, sous mes couvertures je l’évoquais quelquefois, mais la tristesse de son départ perdit bien vite son sens primitif pour devenir une espèce de mélancolie chronique, pareille à un automne embrumé, et cet automne est la saison de base de ma vie car il réapparaît souvent, maintenant encore. Après les coups de soleil, pour que mon coeur, blessé par tant d’éclat, se repose, je me recroqueville en moi-même afin de retrouver les bois mouillés, les feuilles mortes, les brumes, et je rentre dans un manoir où flambe un feu de bois dans une haute cheminée. Le vent que j’écoute est plus berceur que celui qui geint dans les vrais sapins d’un vrai parc. Il me repose du vent qui fait vibrer les agrès de la galère. Cet automne est plus intense et plus insidieux que l’automne vrai, l’automne extérieur, car, pour en jouir, je dois à chaque seconde inventer un détail, un signe, et m’attarder sur lui. Je le crée à chaque instant. Je reste des minutes sur l’idée de la pluie, sur l’idée d’une grille rouillée, ou de la mousse pourrie, des champignons, d’une cape gonflée par le vent. Tout sentiment qui va naître en moi à l’époque que m’embue une pareille saison, au lieu de s’élever furieusement, au contraire s’incline et c’est pourquoi ma jalousie fut sans violence à l’égard de Bulkaen. Lorsque je lui écrivais je voulais que mes lettres fussent enjouées, banales, indifférentes. Malgré moi, j’y mettais mon amour. J’aurais voulu le montrer puissant, sûr de lui et sûr de moi, mais j’y mettais toute mon inquiétude malgré moi. Je pouvais recommencer ma lettre, mais la flemme me retenait. J’appelle flemme une espèce de sentiment qui me dit : ne recommence pas, c’est inutile. C’est quelque chose en moi qui sait très bien qu’il serait vain de me donner du mal pour paraître fort et maître de moi, car ma folle nature apparaîtra toujours par mille fissures. Non, j’ai perdu d’avance. Je crierai donc mon amour. Je ne compte plus que sur la beauté de mon chant.”

from my beloved Jean Genet and his book Miracle de la Rose

(via Anne-Francoise Kavauvaea)

God does not leave us comfortless

Jane Kenyon: Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

I came to Kenyon via her husband, Donald Hall, a poet I admire deeply (I’ll post one of his poems tomorrow). Kenyon’s own work is very interesting, and I do own her Collected Poems, where I took this poem. However, I’ll admit freely that I have trouble connecting to the lilt of her work sometimes. I do recommend reading Kenyon, though. Her voice is strong and her command and use of form is intriguing. I find myself frequently moved by her work, but for personal reasons more than anything else.

Extemporaneously and frank

For various reasons, I am plowing through all kinds of Nixon related stuff at the moment, and found the full so-called “Kitchen Debate” in full color. I’ve only ever heard audio of it. Great stuff. It’s an impromptu debate between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon, during a visit of Vice President Nixon , at the American National Exhibition in Moscow on July 24, 1959. It’s in two parts, I’m pasting both below. Part 1 contains a speech of sorts by Khrushchev and part 2 Nixon’s answer to that speech and an ensuing debate.