Gung Ho: Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother”

Doctorow, Cory (2008), Little Brother, Harper Voyage
ISBN 978-0-00-728842-7

Here’s the thing. I’m not one of those weirdos who make a distinction between good books and fun books. When I had fun reading a book, I had fun and that’s a good reason to recommend any book. But with Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, and his first young adult novel, I must say, I don’t know. Cory Doctorow is no relation to the great American master E.L. Doctorow, as far as I know, but if he were, the apple, as they say, would have fallen far from that beautiful tree (or has it?). Among several flaws, I’m tempted to call the writing sophomoric (but I’m not going to, for reasons detailed later) and, most damagingly, the novel appears to have been conceived in the early 1990s. Hackers, anyone? That said, the book was a whole lot of fun. Thursday on the train to Wuppertal, I was giggling with joy so much that people looked at me strangely (even more than usual). Also, I have ordered it for a friend’s birthday immediately and will continue to recommend it in the future. It’s an insane amount of fun, plus it’s smart and really educational. Any novel for kids that references Emma Goldman and contains a bibliographic essay that recommends Ginsberg’s “Howl” is very commendable. And really, it’s an awful amount of fun.

So, since I just reminded myself of the fun, I’ll start with the good stuff. The story, set in San Francisco, is about four kids who are engaged in a game of Harajuku Fun Madness, which is a quiz/geocaching type of game. The four of them are high school kids who are talented computer/tech whizzes. Marcus Yallow, the main character, has loaded up on gadgets and trickery to circumvent his high school’s increasingly oppressive surveillance tricks. He is the captain of their Harajuku Fun Madness team, and almost indecently paranoid. His home computer, which he has built from scratch, by the way, downloads his email from the server once per minute and then deletes it from the server. During that game of Harajuku Fun Madness, something happens. Terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge, killing thousands in the process. The four kids are near the site of destruction and in the ensuing chaos they are picked up by a group of masked men and thrown into a van. As it turns out, the masked marauders are actually agents of the Department of Home Security (DHS), who suspect the four of being perpetrators of the attack or at least associates of the perpetrators. The fact that they have backpacks loaded with technical devices that are, as I mentioned, indecently well protected, isn’t helping either.

In the course of the next days they are tortured, mostly because the DHS agents are irritated that someone who is so paranoid and thorough with encryption would have nothing to hide. When they are turned out again, one among their number is missing and Marcus and friends are in a state of complete shock. The city, meanwhile, has stepped up the surveillance, control and persecution as we see the DHS taking control of the city. Marcus, humiliated, concerned for his friends, comes home to a father who is trumpeting patriotic hooey, to a school where social sciences has been taken over by a class where patriotism and the importance of the DHS are taught, etc.. The hacker can’t believe his eyes. Powered by a different kind of patriotic fervor (the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are quoted roughly 6 or 7 times throughout the novel) he decides to do something. Among other things this involves creating and maintaining an underground Internet-ish web (ok, before we continue here, let me just state that I am probably the most inept guy of my age group when it comes to computers and technology and related issues, so ’tis is very rough and probably wildly inaccurate. If you know my other reviews, you know I’m bad with details, but this is worse. I won’t even attempt to describe what the kid does with Xboxes and chips I never heard of.), and building devices which turn some of the surveillance mechanisms in place into a farce. This then evolves into a nonviolent guerrilla war, complete with a war for media control and the truth. As I said: loads of fun.

And it’s educational, too. Every kid who watches the news and starts to believe the toss about security, Doctorow hands him the intellectual tools to understand the idiocy of such statements, by putting all of this into context. He evokes hallowed American icons such as the Bill of Rights and the American tradition of dissent and revolution. This is a point worth making: Marcus is in strong disagreement with the way the society around him changed, and he rebels. He stands up and takes action. This is no dystopia, the America depicted is not much different from the America (or Germany) today. These changes are all imaginable and quickly implementable. Doctorow is suggesting to his young readers: what would you do? In the final chapter, with everything cleared up (Oh c’mon, it’s a genre novel.), Doctorow has his protagonist work at a company that seems very similar to Doctorow’s own, making it easy for his readers to make the connection to the here and now. In a way his is a fictional enterprise similar to Philip Roth’s The Conspiracy against America, but whereas Roth’s smooth end that blended into history as we know it, was the most damaging weakness of an otherwise great novel, Doctorow’s last chapter invites his audience to do as Marcus does. Read online material, rethink your ideas, stand up for your convictions, hack something.

Here is where my two main gripes with the book come in: ideas and audience. We’ll start with Audience. The book is strangely written. The style is simple and artless, it is functional and generic, which is not a bad thing necessarily. The book is not badly written. To write a book in a way that makes for fluid and fun reading is no mean achievement. What bothered me is something else. A novel that talks about a scene as specialized as Marcus’ and about technologies so far removed from everyday speech habits, needs to make sure that those in the know are not bored and that everybody else knows, roughly, what all the hullabaloo is about. The most obvious way to do this is to include a nincompoop who needs to have all the complicated ideas and terms explained to. This is not just the most obvious way to do it, it is also the most usual. So it’s refreshing that Doctorow’s tactic is different: he opts for the direct address: Marcus appears to talk to someone. Since he turns into a semi-professional blogger at the end it is safe to assume that Little Brother is some kind of extended blog entry. There are two problems with this: one is disappointment: direct address can make for great effect, as all sorts of books have shown (I’ll review two of them within the next week). The other is awkwardness. There are numerous irksome phrases. For instance, each time the word “h4wt” comes up in a circuitous, generic phrase I cringed. Doctorow clearly has trouble fitting these two registers of speech. But then, see, I don’t think he’s interested in doing that.

The same applies to to my second main gripe, his awkward juggling of ideas. His discussion of revolutionary action takes place on a backdrop of American patriotism. The Internet, and especially the hacker scene has, if my outsider’s perception is right, always been highly international. Doctorow is having none of this. He does sprinkle his stars-and-stripes menu with a few international guests, but they are always just that, guests on the sideline. The most impact that other countries’ journalists and hackers have is this:

Most notable is the global attention the movement has received. […] The issue came to a head last night, when the British Broadcasting Corporation’s National News Evening program ran a special report on the fact that no American broadcaster or news agency has covered this story. Commenters on the BBC’s website noted that BBC America’s version of the news did not carry the report.

This is criticism of America, but patriotic, righteous criticism: look what these countries are doing! Why are we not doing this? Thus, it fits the rhetoric, that the journalist, who finally steps up to the plate, is not just an American journalist, but a local one. But compared to other aspects, this is no major problem.

What is one is this: the American system is shown to be fundamentally sound. Again, there are hints: his friend Jojo is trying to cut down on his activities in the revolt because he is likely to be targeted first, as a Chicano American, but the fact that he’s merely afraid of this is a joke. The events after 9/11, in most western countries have demonstrated, that repression is not color-blind. Jojo makes his point well, he criticizes the racial bias of the judicial system:

White people get caught with cocaine and do a little rehab time. Brown people get caught with crack and go to prison for twenty years. White people see cops on the streets and feel a little safer. Brown people see cops on the streets and wonder if they’re about to get searched.

But Jojo isn’t caught, and in the prison where Marcus and his friends are held and tortured, Marcus sees a few Arabs, but that’s it. This discussion feels forced, and in contrast with the main points, it falls by the wayside, and fails to make any didactic impact. If this were not as didactic a novel as it is, it would not be its fault. But it is, and it is. I won’t even mention the fundamental affirmation of capitalism that Doctorow’s romantic idea of hacking puts forth. Well. The book has a clear didactic goal and a laudable one, as well. Doctorow may have chosen right when he decided to narrow his focus as he has done in this book. And this is something he shares with the great E.L., whose novels are also often very focused upon a didactic goal, trying to drive one particular point home. And the results, in E.L.’s case, are masterpieces such as The March. Does Little Brother fall short because the vision it presents it too pedestrian? Maybe.

For a different take on the topic, tune in next week, when I’ll review Charles Stross’ SF novel Halting State. Minus points: no Emma Goldman. Plus points: less flag-waving. I’ll see you.

Frontiers: Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy”

Morrison, Toni (2008), A Mercy, Knopf
ISBN 978-0-307-26423-7

Toni Morrison is the last American winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and Americans have been whining about not getting another one ever since. Increasingly I have heard people complain that now that Updike has died and that Roth isn’t exactly young anymore, maybe Morrison should not have gotten that prize, if awarding it meant that neither Updike nor Roth would get one. Add to this the fact that her most famous and well-loved novel, Beloved, was published all the way back in 1987 and you understand why almost every single review of her latest novel, A Mercy, breathed an almost audible sigh of relief. Finally! Finally a return to form. And the topic was slavery again! Yes, I raised my eyebrows, too. But whatever the reasons for the exuberant praise that’s been showered on this novel, it’s well deserved. A Mercy is a very good novel. It’s smart, moving and, despite its short length, has a story is of epic proportions. With a writer of Morrison’s quality, this should not come as a great surprise, but it bears saying: the writing is so good, so clear, so sure that you read each page as you would a poem.

The book is ingeniously constructed: its story is told from multiple points of view, with chapters narrated by different characters. Most characters’ voices are relayed to us in a third person narrative, except for Florens’ voice and her mother’s which are told in the first person. We don’t get one long story, instead we get multiple stories, one for each important character,which actually, when we get down to it, form one vibrant history of a place and of the catastrophic events that the place and its inhabitants head towards. Morrison’s technique makes sure we understand every character and the society in which that character lives. At the center of the novel are three female slaves who work on a farm. We learn everything about the house, reading episodes about the acquisition of each of the slaves and similar events. Their owner is Jacob, a trader, who is very reluctant to become a slave owner.

When Jacob, a small-scale trader […] found himself an heir of sorts, he relished the thought of becoming a landowning, independent farmer. He didn’t change his mind about that. He did what was necessary: secured a wife, someone to help her, planted, built, fathered….he had simply added the trading life.

He opts for female slaves because he wants the “steady female labor” and is afraid of men causing mischief in his absence, since he was “a traveling man”. Jacob did not plan on having three slaves. He bought them as and when an opportunity arose. He bought Lina, his first slave, to do the kind of work a wife would do for him, which is a hint of the slots in place for people in Jacob’s society. Note that in the quote above, he talks about “securing” a wife. He and Rebekka, the woman he eventually marries, have not yet met.

In Rebekka’s voice we hear about her fate, about the reasons why she was married off to Jacob and how she experienced her arrival in the New World. In the discussion about slavery and racism, questions of class have increasingly cropped up during the past twenty years, for instance Ignatiev’s classic study on How the Irish became White (1995) or, better still, David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness (1991). While not foregrounding it here, Morrison is certainly highlighting the question when she choses this as the angle which ‘Rebekka’s chapter’ is exploring. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, we can’t help but notice similarities in the way that Rebekka was ‘sold’ and shipped off and the slaves were, not without being reminded of the differences time and again.

The similarities and the differences are reinforced in one of the most powerful episodes of the novel, one that is, perhaps, the turning-point for the events that form the main story. The youngest of the three slaves, Florens, is sent to get help. On her way she finds shelter at a widow’s home, whose daughter is accused of being a demon, because she has a lazy eye and is possibly exhibiting irregular behavior. A committee investigating the question arrives just that moment and the blackness of Florens’ skin is taken as evidence of Florens’ being a demon herself. Even after Florens produces a letter by her owner, the case is still not clear. The debate amongst the townsfolk is verging on absurdity:

A woman’s voice asks would Satan write a letter. Lucifer is all deceit and trickery says another.

So, clearly, there are similarities in what would raise suspicions among gullible puritans, but, as the widow’s daughter helps Florens with her escape, we are reminded, who, even among outcasts, is in charge and who is not. After all, it is Florens’ very skin that makes her suspicious, not her behavior. It’s her skin that she cannot shed, not change, even if she wanted to. Her being black is a clear signifier in the Manichean world of the townsmen and -women. The fact that her blackness is a cultural signifier, referring back to archaic notions of good and bad is important in a novel like A Mercy that works so much with archetypes. The three female slaves could be said to represent the virgin, the mother and crone, and so on.

Morrison is using these archetypes because her novel is less about telling a story (although it does tell a story and what a moving story it is!) than about history and the cultural assumptions that shape our understanding of it. These assumptions, clearly, involve religion. Everything here is tinged with religion, or rather religions. As we see Rebekka arrive at her new home country, we also see that this is not a New World. It is rather a conglomerate of old people owning a world they don’t understand nor care about, many of them getting rich off of the black backs of slaves. We hear Rebekka tell us about the religious intolerance in England, the intolerance that, as we all know, drove the Puritans to the shores of this New World. And we hear Rebekka’s sorrow at being confronted with the intolerance of the citizens there, who will not baptize her children. Thus, her grief at watching her children die early is deepened by her belief they will not be able to go to heaven.

Religious belief buttresses most of the cruelty that forms the backdrop to what happens. The reader should not that Morrison decides not to include the brutality within the pages of her book. A Mercy is insightful, not shocking. She channels the constant threats of brutality and cruelty through a few select emblematic episodes and images, such as, for instance, Florens’ decision to wear shoes.

When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes, even on the hottest days […]. As a result, Lina says, my feet are useless, will always be too tender for life and never have the strong soles, tougher than leather, that life requires.

And right enough, as worse comes to worst, she loses the pair of boots she is currently wearing, and, as her life breaks into pieces, so do the soles of her feet (as is typical of this novel, these images are much more layered than I can possibly convey here. Amongst many other things, the pair of boots she wears and then loses are a pair owned by her owner. So, when the boots are stolen, his protection vanishes as well. And I have not even touched upon the issue of sexuality that is raised in this context).

The novel works with oppositions, such as free versus enslaved, and toys with them. Thus, among the reduced cast of this short book we have a black freedman, two white male indentured workers, women, and, of course the three slaves. Thus, we have different varieties of shades between these two oppositions. Another of these oppositions is civilization versus wildness.

I am remembering what you tell me from long ago when Sir is not dead. You say you see slaves freer than free men. One is a lion in the skin of an ass. The other is an ass in the skin of a lion. That it is the withering inside that enslaves and opens the door for what is wild. I know my withering is born in the Widow’s closet.

This, spoken by Florens, states as clearly as it could that “the Widow’s closet”, by which the confrontation with the demon-hunting townsfolk is meant, woke the wildness in her, i.e., the conflict with the land-owning, slave-selling civilization there. It is here that we should perhaps mention, although it may have become rather obvious by now, one of the major literary allusions of the novel The Scarlet Letter and other texts by the divine Hawthorne, just, again, with roles reversed in interesting ways. In the first chapter of that novel, Hawthorne talks about the necessities when founding a new community–you need a prison and a cemetery. Hardened, Hawthorne puts his finger on the essential properties of what, in A Mercy, as well, constitutes civilization. Punishment, i.e., restricting religious and secular behavior and the control over life and death is necessary, since a civilization needs to make rooms for its own dead. It is greedy.

The tiny farmhouse society with two white owners, three slaves and two indentured workers differs from the society around them. Every single person there feels that difference, which is positive for the slaves, who are treated more humanely than their fellow slaves elsewhere, and hurtful for the whites, since the village does not let them forget they’re different. Thus, when Jacob is killed while building a stately mansion on his land, i.e., while he was trying to stop being a traveling man and settling down, becoming part of the society at hand, the tiny society is breaking down. At the same time it is, in a way, being subsumed into the larger society around them. There is, as expected, a bitterness in the title of the novel, and much of that bitterness is due to the fact that the novel’s main characters appear to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, as described.

As with Hawthorne’s work, we are made aware upon what sort of foundations modern society is erected. By interweaving the personal history of its characters with a steaming rich cultural subtext, it makes this story part of our story. I have elsewhere talked about how Hawthorne’s writing can feel like a fist jab to the stomach. There is an urgency and a drive to Hawthorne’s work that I have never found elsewhere. Morrison’s tone is different. She is a powerful, composed writer. Her level of verbal control sets her apart, but her characteristic way with images and archetypes introduces a different kind of urgency. Morrison is writing in a tradition that is a white tradition, that is the tradition of those who enslaved Florens, Lina and Sorrow. Hence the concern with slipping in and out of opposites. As we saw, the slavers are white male Puritans, with a Manichean mentality. They thrive off dichotomies. White and black. As I must have said a dozen times on this blog, Gilroy and Morrison herself in her landmark study, have demonstrated the extent to which these opposites have become culturally ingrained. There are many ways writers to deal with these complexities, none like Toni Morrison’s, who is one of the best novelists of her time. And then there are those who, ever so slightly, affirm the old oppositions, with elegance and irony, like John Updike. My allegiance as a reader is clear.


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Kulla Kämpft

Classless Kulla gibt sich kämpferisch und frustriert:

Ich will den Kapitalismus überwinden wegen der Dinge, die er den Menschen antut bzw. wegen der Dinge, die sich Menschen im Kapitalismus antun; aber in letzter Instanz will ich den Kapitalismus schon allein wegen der Dinge überwinden, die er mir antut. Und weil ich es hasse, mich angesichts des allgemeinen Elends mit diesem beschissenen Zustand auch noch privilegiert fühlen zu müssen.


James Merrill’s work contains many places; we have, in the past pages, mentioned a few of them. I could well have picked other poems, those I picked, however, offered enough diversity, in terms of publishing date, length and content, that the findings cannot be blamed on a cluster of any of those factors. They could indeed be blamed on selective choosing of poems yet I am confident that as the paper progressed my findings became more and more evident and plausible since I would argue that the general approach works for every poem of place in Merrill’s work. We also discussed how these places are portrayed or used in the poetry; from our discussion we developed, step by step, an understanding of the mechanism and developed our own terms to describe that mechanism.

In this conclusion we will take a final look at that mechanism and its range and limits. The first thing to notice is that we multiplied the number of places since we claimed that memories and dreams are treated in the poetry as if they were separate places. This is in no way a proposition about some actual place or something comparable. This proposition is only concerned with the workings of the poetry, where memory is, indeed, a sort of place, as is dream. There is one major difference between these sort of virtual places and actual places: With actual places we discussed the possibility of them being home or a home, we graded them on a scale from very far away from home, such as Japan in the “Prose of Departure”, to very close to home, such as New York. Memories and dreams are left out, since one cannot live in dreams or memories, much as one would like to do it.

Memories are places constructed by the remembering mind, which recollects a few salient objects. The same applies to dreams. This is rather similar to writing, which makes it especially important in a poet such as James Merrill. Merrill is a poet of detail: an abundance of puns, rhymes, meter, as well as countless allusions and numerous details are defining properties of his writing. The mechanism which creates the memory and dream places is thus one that is at the heart of James Merrill’s poetry. This is the first meaning of the title of the thesis. The second, and arguably more important one is concerned with ‘real’ places. We put “real” in inverted commas not because we adhere to a skepticist postmodern idea of reality, but because we found out quickly that real places and the cultural layer through which we perceive them, are virtually indistinguishable.

The speaker of Merrill’s poems casts this cultural layer over his descriptions, it is like tinted glass, without knowledge of the exact colors in the glass. The indistinguishable quality is mostly derived from selection and cannot be checked afterwards. Objects, persons and events that have fallen by the wayside are irretrievable, since our undertaking here is literary criticism and not biography. All we have, to cite that old chestnut, is the text, which presents the preselected, preformed version of reality. The cultural layer, insofar as it can be gleaned from the text, is not only a hindrance. It is also a key to understanding the speaker since it speaks volumes about his background. The important thing here is to step away from calling the cultural layer, as I have admittedly just done, a hindrance. Instead it is a special way of framing places.

Places in James Merrill’s poetry are a conglomerate of different factors. Roughly speaking they consist of real place plus the speaker’s perception of the place. We already noted that this perception is affected by what we called the cultural layer. This is, however, but half the story. In our discussion of poems like “The Thousand and Second Night” as well as “An Urban Convalescence”, we pointed to a second factor: the speaker’s body. Between the body of Merrill’s travelers and the place they visit strange relationships develop. The sickness of a city may translate into a immobilizing sickness of the speaker and the speaker’s convalescence may find a mirror in the city’s parallel process of convalescence. Again, the caveat: this is not about actual causality, but about the inner workings of Merrill’s poems. And there we find that the speakers, while perceiving places cerebrally through the cultural layer, also often perceive them viscerally, via their bodies. This dependence upon bodily travel is remarkable and noteworthy in as literary and abstract, even, a poetical language as Merrill’s. If we recall our chapter on Sandover, we find that the visceral, bodily kind of perception is also the one most directly involved in receiving the spirits at the Ouija board, where the reception takes place in the “RED CELLS”.

Thus, to iterate, places in Merrill’s poetry are real places plus the culturally or bodily mediated experience of them. This leads to a few points of interest which, due to length and focus of this thesis, we have not been able to address, yet are sure could and should be addressed at length in later studies of Merrill and his work. The first is the question of performativity. Merrill, as has been pointed out almost ad nauseam in secondary literature creates rooms within his poetry (cf. for instance Lundquist). They are not places in our understanding of the word, not if we want to keep the word meaningful and not a catch-all term. However, I did mention how close the process of mentally creating a place and the process of creating a poem is, especially since all we have is the created poem, which mimicks the mental process. Recollection is a gesture, a function of Merrill’s poetry. Performativity also, however, refers to questions of identity, which, whether it touches upon questions of gender or sexual preference, is highly interesting as a topic in Merrill’s poetry. Secondary literature on Merrill has focused too much on direct intentionality, which we owe to the fact that the leading scholars on Merrill, Kalstone, McClatchy and Yenser, have all been friends with the poet, and their understanding of the poet has developed in key with their communication with him, so that the two elements have become inseparable, which is, as I mentioned in the introduction the reason why I used so few secondary sources to argue my readings of the poems.

This leads us to the next large issue that I have not been able to touch upon yet which
seems to be a fecund issue to explore in more detail: language and communication. First the actual language used in the poems: James Merrill’s poetry is written in American English, sometimes it contains, for example, pieces of French, when expressing aspects of his speaker’s cultural layer, and sometimes it contains pieces of, for example, Greek, when focusing upon the local cultural layer. The second aspect is the way that language is molded in poems like Sandover: the spirits often deviate from common usage. Questions are turned into “?s”, for example, divinely inspired work is called “V work” and for a while, Mirabell prefaces each metaphor with a bracketed ‘m’. Also, the orthography is sloppy. This is so interesting because it raises questions of voice and questions about the boundary between the written and the spoken word. After all, Sandover is a dialogue, only one side never utters an audible word. Instead it makes a cup move upon a wooden board, letter by letter. This is remarkable. What seems like quick, effortless dialogue has been dictated letter by letter. Even if done at the utmost speed, taking such a dictation must take quite a while.

The last large issue is connected to the two already raised: unquestionably Merrill writes from a position of privilege. How is this reflected in his work? Secondary literature tends to either attack him for inhuman arrogance in Sandover or snobbish ignorance in his other work, or it completely exonerates him. I have yet to see either position cogently argued. Both positions are usually written like preachings to the choir. Here, again, much of the focus would rest upon Sandover, where a complex web of discourses about authority, racism, power, identity, has been woven, and people misrepresent it usually.

Merrill is, however, a writer easily misrepresented. The complexity of his work, both on the level of allusions, on the formal level and on the plain level of content assures that even a thorough study will pass some points by. By concentrating on a series of close readings I hope to have found a way to cope with the issue as good as possible. My intent was to demonstrate how places, be it cities or countries, are represented in James Merrill’s poetry and to argue that places are central to that poetry. The mechanics we uncovered/invented are useful instruments to tackle all poems by Merrill, because the tension between self and the environment, which is debated time and again in the poetry, is Merrill’s constant theme. Merrill’s is a poetry of places: it is a poetry about places, where the reader is transported all around the world. And it is a poetry where places play a formative role. Merrill’s speakers all have bodies, they are somewhere, they have had corporeal experience. If this sounds trite, please reconsider: Merrill uses, like few other poems of his caliber, his speaker’s bodies as a constant way of grounding them, while developing one of the most conceptually daring poetries of his time. His ability to reconcile these two extremes rests on his treatment of places.

John Hope Franklin died

John Hope Franklin died today at 94. The dear live-in philosopher just looked over my shoulder and said: at his age, wasn’t it to be expected? Easy to say, but in my heart, the loss still feels gargantuan. This here is from the NYTimes obit (linked above):

As a scholar, his research helped Thurgood Marshall win Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that outlawed the doctrine of ”separate but equal” in the nation’s public schools.

”It was evident how much the lawyers appreciated what the historians could offer,” Franklin later wrote. ”For me, and I suspect the same was true for the others, it was exhilarating.”

Franklin broke numerous color barriers. He was the first black department chair at a predominantly white institution, Brooklyn College; the first black professor to hold an endowed chair at Duke University; and the first black president of the American Historical Association.

Above all, he documented how blacks had lived and served alongside whites from the nation’s birth. Black patriots fought at Lexington and Concord, Franklin pointed out in ”From Slavery to Freedom,” published in 1947. They crossed the Delaware with Washington and explored with Lewis and Clark. The text sold million of copies and remains required reading in college classrooms.

Bad Moses: Wilhelm Raabe’s “Der Hungerpastor”

Raabe, Wilhelm (2002), Der Hungerpastor, Edition Anker
ISBN 3-7675-6945-0
[Originally published in 1864]

This review’s going to be very short, since I am really tired and the book’s really not great. Look, even it’s author hated it. Wilhelm Raabe was a German writer of the late 19th century. His work is generally divided into two distinct phases. His very first novel, Die Chronik der Sperlinggasse (1856), was his breakthrough, and its style, Bürgerlicher Realismus, i.e. bourgeois realism, proved defining for the first part of his oeuvre. Bürgerlicher Realismus was torn between its two main intentions: showing the real circumstances of that new class, the bourgeoisie, and celebrating the ideals and values of that class. This led to a literature that was curiously Dickensian; the realism never rose to social criticism, but it came close, at times. In its worst moments it was dull and moralistic. A great example of the latter is Der Hungerpastor (1864), which has been translated into English as The Hunger Pastor. The novel’s plot is simple enough. It is a classic Bildungsroman: it details the life of Hans Jakob Unwirrsch, who is born a son of a shoemaker, and manages to go to university where he studies theology and becomes a pastor. He finds a wife and weathers many mishaps until he finally settles in a poor parish at the Ostsee. His best childhood friend, a Jew named Moses Freudenstein, becomes his antagonist when he meets him again many years later.

The writing is a marvel. It’s not, strictly speaking, good, it often feels clumsy or awkward, it’s usually circuitous, and weighted by learned allusions that feel superfluous and gratuitous. But the further you progress in the book, the more it all seems to cohere in a strange way, especially if you factor in another important element: the vividness of so many of his descriptions. In its best moments the book feels like a children’s book, highly illustrative, and suffused with a quirky humor, which extends even to aptronyms. Quirky humor, however, isn’t the only sort of mirth Raabe offers his readers. Another one’s irony. Reading the book is so much like listening to someone tell a story that some phrases appear to be equipped with a video file with the narrator’s smirk in it. Take note: this is not the sophisticated irony of Thomas Mann, it is its obvious and grimy-faced cousin. The narrator has important things to say, and he’s not taking chances: he wants everybody to understand him. He makes clear points about proper moral behavior. Raabe wrote his early novels to be accessible to the lower classes, educating them about right and wrong, in a style that he thought would appeal even to a peasant or a worker. The Hungerpastor can, in many ways, be seen as the culmination of this enterprise; indeed, although Raabe frequently referred to his novels of that period as “Volksbücher”, he always singled out the Hungerpastor as the one where he achieved his purpose most completely. And, as many of his earlier books, it was a resounding success. When Raabe died in 1910, the novel had known 34 pressings.

Today, several of his novels and novellas are in print at large publishing houses, but the Hungerpastor, a huge popular and critical success at its time, has needed the efforts of an obscure Christian publisher to stay in print. One reason is the change in taste. Raabe himself has come to hate his earlier work, referring to it as apprentice and even child’s work. His masterpieces, such as Stopfkuchen (1891), which he personally considered his best, are far more adept at social criticism and far more ambiguous and complex works of art. By this time Raabe had lost all the simple yet circuitous elements that are so prominent in the Hungerpastor. The critical establishment, these days, agrees with Raabe’s own assessment, thus, clearly, a taste in change could account for this, but other works of the same period, such as Die Chronik der Sperlinggasse (1856), or Schüdderump (1870) are alive and well. The linchpin here is antisemitism. Der Hungerpastor, as well as one of the novels its modeled on, Gustav Freytag’s Soll und Haben (1855) has frequently been accused of antisemitism. In contrast to Freytag’s patriotic novel, which is among the most important German novels of the 19th century (and also dependent on a small niche publisher for staying in print), the case for the Hungerpastor isn’t as straightforward.

In fact, the novel explicitly addresses the issue, taking a clear stance against antisemitism, bafflingly. On the other hand, the antagonist of the simple Christian German Hans is a greedy rich Jew, who betrays his former friend. What Raabe is doing, basically, is telling his readers that not all Jews are bad. There are good Jews, actually, Jews are generally nice smart cosmopolitan merchants. But there are evil Jews who conform to stereotype. These are not just a disgrace to Germans, they are a disgrace to their own race. History tells us that this is not a minor point. Many famous antisemites have held Jews in high esteem, this is why, they claim, they have become a danger to the Germanic race (cf. for instance, Marr’s Der Sieg des Germanenthums über das Judenthum). Additionally, Germans have a unpleasant history of claiming to know what’s best for Jews. See any debate about Israel on TV these days. The book is an enjoyable read, but some parts of it are hard to swallow. The unease resulting from this is the reason why the book has dropped out of print for decades. That’s no reason not to read it. It is of its time and of its genre, but it’s certainly worth reading. It’s a good bad book, so to say. Flawed, but fun.

Nicolas Hughes s’est suicidé

This sad news just in. In today’s New York Times:

Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath and the British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, killed himself at his home in Alaska, nearly a half-century after his mother and stepmother took their own lives, according to a statement from his sister. Mr. Hughes, 47, was an evolutionary biologist who studied stream fish and spent much of his time trekking across Alaska on field studies. Shielded from stories about his mother’s suicide until he was a teenager, Mr. Hughes had lived an academic life largely outside the public eye. But friends and family said he had long struggled with depression. Last Monday, he hanged himself at his home in Alaska, his sister, Frieda Hughes, said over the weekend. “It is with profound sorrow that I must announce the death of my brother, Nicholas Hughes, who died by his own hand on Monday 16th March 2009 at his home in Alaska,” she said in a statement to the Times of London. “He had been battling depression for some time.”

Second Thoughts: Christa Wolf’s “Nachdenken über Christa T.”

Wolf, Christa (1999), Nachdenken über Christa T., Luchterhand
ISBN 3-630-62032-9
[Originally published in 1968]

This is Christa Wolf’s second novel, published in 1968, which established her as a major writer of the GDR, and made her world famous. Nachdenken über Christa T. has been translated into several languages, the most recent translation into English is Christopher Middleton’s, which is titled Quest for Christa T. (not a good title for various reasons. We’ll return to this later). Christa Wolf, born in 1929, is one of the best prose writers in the German language after WWII, and, at least in Germany, among the most popular, judging from the fact that all her books (for someone who has been writing with success for such a long time she has a surprisingly slim body of work, in more ways than one; she has not written awfully many books and the books she’s written are rather thin, for the most part) after the reunification have been bestsellers.

Her popularity is puzzling inasmuch as Wolf is one of the darkest and most disturbing of German writers, and clearly one of the most idiosyncratic. It’s not often that you could take any paragraph from someone’s work and be sure to be able to pin it on that writer. Christa Wolf’s voice is unmistakably strong in the face of an intense hurt. Her books are equal portions cerebral and emotional. She is an exceptional writer and Nachdenken über Christa T. is my favorite novel of hers, although Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood) comes close and some of her novellas are considerably more powerful. Together with Sarah Kirsch and Irmtraud Morgner she can be said to belong to a trias of visionary and effervescently original GDR writers (incidentally, in 1980, they came together to publish a collection of novellas (Geschlechtertausch) to which each contributed one; I can only recommend their work inasmuch as it has been translated and published in English (or French, as it is, dear Fausto)).

This is one of Wolf’s most conventional books. It basically traces a nameless narrator’s reminiscences of a woman named Christa T., who has died, at 35, of leukemia. The way this idea is realized in the novel is hinted at by the title, which would be translated as “Thinking about Christa T.”. It is a quest to find out about that elusive strange woman who died so early, but not in the way that a quest is supposed to work, hence the inappropriateness of Middleton’s choice for a title. The original title is more to the point: the novel traces the narrator’s process of thought. The novel may, on the surface, be about Christa T., and to a large extent, it is, but on a second, just as important level, it is about the narrator figuring out her world as she tries to make sense of Christa T.’s making sense of it. The most significant factor here is that the narrator has little personal memory of Christa T., so she’s not scouting the dark hallways and alleys of her memory: instead she’s thinking by writing.

Thus, the extent of our knowledge about Christa T. is subject to most of the known vicissitudes of biographical writing. We see the narrator trying to figure out Christa T’s thinking by reading her journals and stories: how reliable are written accounts? To her credit, the narrator doesn’t buy into a simple concept of knowledge. We don’t get a Dan-Brown-esque examination of records, no semiotic analysis. The narrator’s approach is more old-school, so to say. I’m talking hermeneutics here, the Schleiermacher approach. Reading a text and intuiting the intention. As Schleiermacher pointed out, predating modern reception theories by roughly 150 years, this is extremely dependent on the reader. Thus, following the traces of Christa T., we watch the narrator’s mind unfold. This way of reading does not only concern the written legacy of Christa T., it also concerns the narrator’s actual memories and her trying to make sense of those periods where she has neither actual memories not written testimony. She not only tries to fictionalize situations that were roughly related to her by Christa T., she also invents possible discussions she herself could have had with a classmate whom both of them had known, playing off her own opinion of Christa on what she thinks is a so-called outside opinion.

This unfolding of the narrator’s mind involves three parameters, roughly. The first is cultural: the book is as much informed by literary history and tradition as it is by original, personal thinking. Wolf’s great novel about WWII and the Third Reich, Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood) starts with a loose translation of Faulkner’s famous dictum “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (from Requiem for a Nun, if I am not mistaken). Nachdenken über Christa T. frequently echoes other texts. Among many other references, we have a phrase echoing Melville’s “Call me Ishmael”. This, a classic reference for narrative unreliability, is one of many such references shaking our confidence in whatever truth the narrator’s search dredges up. It is typical of Wolf’s work that her references glitter through the different languages that make our understanding of literature. The second parameter is political, which is also typical of Wolf’s oeuvre in which everything personal is also, as the quip would have it, political.

Christa Wolf is highly sensitive to the extent that language, culture and other aspects of our lives are permeated by politics. Generally, sex and gender are one of her major preoccupations and on this field her work yields interesting and frequently apposite insights. This is not the case in this novel, however, which takes up a different topic. As I have frequently mentioned elsewhere, the greatest GDR novels are often torn between two extremes. There’s hope and enthusiasm on the one hand, which are fueled by a passion for a communist paradise. These passions are buttressed by visions from young minds who had no problem getting fired up about the idea of a country free from oppression. Small wonder the young GDR literature was so dominated by brilliant women such as Wolf, Morgner, or Reimann. After having lived through the Third Reich, which was, in a way, the apotheosis of oppression, they smelled spring, especially for the ongoing process of emancipation. It was clear, soon after the WWII, that West Germany, i.e. the BRD was not going to go the way of freedom, taking up many age-old tropes of repression (see how people were cheated when they were handed “anti-discrimination” for “emancipation”), but the GDR explicitly promised to provide a society free from oppression; then, within a few years, everything went sour on them.

This change is at the center of the novel which starts with childhood under the Nazi banner and ends with death in the early 1960s (not entirely sure. I’m bad with details), as most people’s dreams of a better society slowly died a sad death as well. Christa is teacher, first, who then turns into a student of German literature, who then returns to being a teacher. Her understanding of what it means to teach rests on a solid moral foundation that is informed by humanism and Marxism. As mentioned before, she has learned from the inhuman behavior of her fellow human beings during the dark decades. And she expects as much from the younger generation. So when she watches students from her class rob a bird’s nest and throw the young against a wall, or bite the head off a toad she is so shocked by this petty display of brutality that she sits down to cry. The revelation that human nature has not changed even in the young generation is terrible. How is a society to change if even the children are damaged?

As Christa T. grows older, the situation grows steadily worse as her environment starts to put increasing pressure on her to assimilate. To become one of the many. A turning point is reached when a former student of Christa’s reproaches her for having taught idealism to her students, for not having prepared her students sufficiently for “the real world”. This is eerie since it comes right on the heels of a discussion that Christa T. and friends had in West Germany, where they encounter the typical inane comments still rampant today when talk turns to Socialism and/or Communism. We see arrogant, well-fed, self-satisfied people talking about how the Socialist state has robbed its citizens of a desire for freedom and how cute its citizens’ idealism, considering how the real world is in need of real thinking. We are clearly told that this society is no alternative. Christa T. and the narrator are both aware of the fact that any change would have to come from within the system. This is the world’s pitch for a better life. And both Christa and the narrator sense that this project is not going well. Here’s where we enter into the third parameter: personal. What we watch is the narrator’s sense of a world imploding on itself.

By monitoring Christa T.’s life and death, the narrator appears to try to hold the pieces of her disintegrating world together. She does this, paradoxically, by using a writing that is disintegrating itself, that is filled with insecurity about all sorts of truth and narrative. As the novel progresses, however, we feel the tension mount; as Christa T. slowly gives up on herself, becoming a veterinarian’s wife &c, the narrator is more and more forced to rely on her own means. Consequently, she tightens the narrative, trying to squeeze as much as she can from her subject. And at this point, all she has to turn to is Christa T.’s sickness and death.

Sickness is not a metaphor here, not in the way that it is the case in her weaker, late novella Leibhaftig (2002). Christa T. is actually sick, the novel involves Christa’s body in other ways as well. Christa succumbs to leukemia twice, bearing a child between recovering and falling sick again. It is frequently speculated that she may be guilty of her own death in the sense of precipitating it. This does not, however, make of the sickness a metaphor. She has the same sickness as everybody else, the sickness is not the nexus to her emotional state of well-being. It is her weakened resolve that leads to her ‘decision’ to drop out. The last section, which details her sickness is complex in that it allows for both of these readings at the same time. Make no mistake, I am not talking alternative readings here: both of these readings are equally important. Wolf makes sure that the sickness is always just that: a sickness, which is likely why it’s shuffled to the end as it is.

I have talked about many aspects of the novel so far, but it is a marvel. There’s infinitely more and as you will read it, as I urge everyone who read this to do, you will see how crude my summary is of this short but incredible novel. The title “Nachdenken über Christa T.” is ambiguous. On the one hand, as I said, it is a reflection of the way the book is constructed. On the other hand it is a description of what is wants its readers to do: think about Christa T. See, I have met a few guy online, who glibly talk about a “percentage” of the population that is “just bad”, and which it would be better to murder via devices such as the death penalty. If thinking about Christa T. can make you see the problems in such an assertion, much is achieved. It is a grand book. Read it.


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Boycott & Bankruptcy

Stanley Fish, while providing one of the more balanced statement on the unbelievable and odious call for a boycott of Israeli academics, opts for moral bankruptcy in his column.

The American Association of University Professors ties itself up in knots explaining that while its own history includes “support for divestiture during the anti-apartheid campaigns in South Africa,” it nevertheless opposes this boycott. The rationale seems to be that South Africa was a special, one time case — “South Africa is the only instance in which the organization endorsed some form of boycott” — but that is hardly going to satisfy those who are prosecuting the “if-you-protested-injustice-then–you-should-protest-it-now” argument.

The better course would be for the AAUP and other boycott opponents to accept the equivalence of the two situations, and repudiate what they did in the past. Not “what we did then is different from what we decline to do now,” but “we won’t boycott now and we were wrong to boycott then.”

Whether or not divestiture and other actions taken by academics were decisive in, or even strongly contributory to, ending the apartheid regime is in dispute. What should not be in dispute is that those actions, however salutary and productive of good results, were and are antithetical to the academic enterprise, which while it may provide the tools (of argument, fact and historical research) that enable good and righteous deeds, should never presume to perform them.

It’s the Dentist, Bitch

hortense over at Jezebel has been to the Circus. As an old Britney fan, I enjoyed it and so will you. Follow the link for the full article and a lot of pictures. Here’s some of her impressions:

The Circus experience is a bit like watching your best friend from high school do karaoke in an awesome series of costumes. You stand in a row surrounded by women your own age, staring at this girl you feel you’ve known since you were 16, and everyone in the entire stadium is excited and laughing and singing along. There is also a weird Britney video montage to Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams” which was too much for my 90’s pop culture radar to handle and made my brain explode. A few of the concert reviews I read this morning were filled with bitching about how Britney doesn’t sing her own songs. To which I say this: if you pay money to see Britney Spears, you’re paying to see the spectacle of things. Going to see Britney Spears for her vocal skills is like going to see a podiatrist to get your teeth fixed.

Just so you know: I’m the jealous kind. I wish I had been there. I’ll take any good concert (I hear Waterdown are coming to town!), but Britney… why else would I know half of her songs by heart? I am meant to go to one of her concerts.

Some remarks on A.R. Ammons’ “Corsons Inlet”

This is a brief reading of one of the most famous poems of post-WWII American poetry. I have not read or used any secondary literature, so probably most of these points have been made ad nauseam already, so feel free to skip this skimpy post. I wrote it to make up my mind about this poem, so instead of preparing notes, I wrote this bit here. I’m a wee bit drunk so, y’know, blame it on the Vodka. Also, let me say that you can find the poem here and to really give it its due you might look at a famous essay of Ammons’ called “A Poem is a walk” and at Emerson’s even more famous essay “Nature” (even if you skip this post and can’t stand Ammons, you still need to read Emerson’s essay, btw.!).

The two word line “continuous overcast” ends what after finishing the poem is clearly an introductory section. It starts with action. The speaker walks “over the dunes” and returns along the shore. In this small section the poem introduces its main themes. The shore as the place where land and sea meet fits in with the two stanzas with descriptions of the weather. It’s “muggy sunny”, i.e. humid, oppressive. The word “sunny” in descriptions of weather tends to have positive connotations. The modifier “muggy” reverses the usually positive image. There is a steady inland wind which is apparently creating the humid weather, interrupted by “crisp” “breakthroughs of sun”, which cannot relieve the atmosphere. The last line/stanza of this section consists of only two words, “continuous overcast”, practically creating a hanging cloud all on their own.

This is a good place to point out some issues about Ammons’ use of lines. His lines do not fit a metrical scheme, although they do ‘break into song’ at times, such as in “along the inlet shore”, but often breaking patterns in the middle of a line. The lines are indented in a way that conforms with content. The line mentioning breakthroughs is indented as are the two lines wherein the poet recounts rounding the headland. The two lines thus form a headland of their own within the text of the poem. This is a basic property of his style in the poem: he creates small units of order. It seems “free verse” but every line break, every indented line, it all seems purposeful. There is no scheme that covers the whole poem but this is the point, isn’t it? “small clumps” of poetical order.

The first section is an exposition, preparing the ground for the next section that follows, which basically contains the argument that the poem is trying to make. That section, too, is preparatory, although in a different manner: The poem started with the speaker recounting his actions, segued over into a description of the weather and is now returning to the speaker, as he describes the effect the walk had on him. It liberated him, it released him from what, in short, could be called ‘reason’. It is reason that categorizes things, that, in a sense, creates forms by making patterns visible in what could be seen as unordered chaos. The word “perpendiculars” is curiously upbeat. It breaks up what could be read as a somber argument. The alliterative “blocks, boxes, binds” especially create a strong audible stream. The “perpendiculars”, on the level of sounds, already form “eddies” of sorts. On the other hand, the very fact that it breaks up the flow of enumerative phrases makes it very fitting, since thought, i.e. reason is contrasted with sight, which is characterized by “flowing bends and blends”. Interestingly the two contrasting elements are not a perfect fit. “hues”, “shadings” explicitly refer to color, whereas only in hindsight the boxes, for instance, can be said to imply color.

This is the poet’s first clear statement of the dichotomy he is about to expand on. Although, in the context of this poem, “dichotomy” may not be the best word, it is suitable at this point, since we as readers are furnished with a dichotomy here. The second stanza starts differently. The line “I allow myself eddies of meaning” is ambiguous. It may mean “to let do or happen; permit” or . The poem doesn’t resolve this. Instead it enters into a communication with the reader, fitting, since the poem is rather didactic. The address to the reader is, in tone, reminiscent of Whitman, the speaker is opening up an internal landscape to his reader. Not internal as in within the speaker, but within the poetry. The directness of the communication is further underscored by the fact that the word used is “sayings” not “writings” or anything like it. He likens his writing to nature, by saying that in his writing there is not just ye olde perpendicular reason, there are also “eddies of meaning”, places where his writing is like nature. This lets us reconsider the word “sight”. Apparently he was not talking about the faculty at all. It was not about seeing, it was about things that can be seen, i.e. external things.

The fact that the self is disembodied is remarkable and points to a certain ease with human society. The speaker is not situated, he has leisure enough to perambulate along the beach but this is no indication of status. It’s safe to assume the speaker’s a ‘he’, by the way, since he appears to be norm personified, at least as far as his involvement/ties to the biopolitics of the society he belongs to are concerned. As an aside: small wonder Ammons is a favorite poet of Harold Bloom’s if the taste on display in “Genius” is anything to go by.

There is a limit to the similarities with Whitman. Although Whitman boasted he could “contain multitudes”, the speaker in Ammons’ poem claims nothing of the sort. Instead he proclaims that, while being similar to nature in parts, he is unable to understand the “Overall”. Here’s one of many instances that Ammons uses repetition to make a point. The contrast between “overall wanderings” and “Overall”, the capital ‘O’ indicating transcendence, is enough, actually, to make his point. Instead of making a point he is, so to say, pointing things out. Sometimes it’s to create an effect as his indenting of lines does, as in his repeated use of “reeds” which point out to the reader what a sensation –sight!- it may be walking through a swamp where mainly reeds, “not reeds alone but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all / predominantly reeds” grow. Another point where he uses repetition is the repeated use of “flight”, which is once used in the sense of describing the harmless act of travel through air, and later points out that flight can also refer to the act of fleeing from something or someone. In this case the first “flight”, on reread, becomes ambiguous, although the reader had no reason to assume other meaning apart from the obvious before. A last, very similar instance are the swallows which recur in “swallowed”. Both this example and the last stress the closeness of peaceful and violent acts in nature.

The basic argument of the poem is quite easily summed up. Ammons doesn’t just do it once, he repeats and repeats and repeats his point until it starts to feel like watching someone flog a dead horse. There is a surprising twist at the end but until then it’s the same over and over again. Why don’t I just quote one of the many mentions: “in nature there are few sharp lines”. The third section of the poem deals with this property of nature and the speaker’s acceptance of this. He is “willing to go along”. Nature as it presents itself also seems to prove its point. The gull, a symbol for freedom and autonomy, the waving in and out of the waterline, “manifold events of sand / chang[ing] the dune’s shape” and a flock of birds.

O but I promised a twist. It’s violence. As in many other poems celebrating the steady unsteady property of nature, the order of natural things, this poem, too comes to terms with the violence inherent in acts of nature. Gulls killing crabs, swallows fleeing winter, minnows with full bellies. Orders are without, such as the “order held / in constant change” of the swallows. Orders, however, are also within, such as the “orders swallowed, / broken down, transferred through membranes / to strengthen larger orders”. The twist turns out not to be a twist so much as another instance of the same phenomenon.

The poem, finally, ends with a return to the speaker. He iterates the limits of his capabilities, and closes with a statement of intent: he will try to contain as much in his poetry (“fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder” is clearly poetological) as possible, feeling freed by the knowledge that ultimately, Order, with a capital ‘O’, eludes him, that “tomorrow a new walk is a new walk”. The poem is rich with allusions to philosophy and literature, but they are mostly very similar, in a way. Expected. Whitman? Check. Emerson? Check. Heraclitus? Check. Ammons’ poetry is about reading a poet who controls language fully knowing that his control is, by its very nature, limited. Language will find a way out, as nature does. Ammons is, in poems such as this one, an affirmative poet, affirming life, the course of nature and, it bears repeating, the biopolitical frame he is working in. He is constantly, blandly, affirming the norm, which makes reading him for a sustained period of time boring and thus difficult yet he is worth your while since his limitations and gifts have led to one of the most idiosyncratic bodies of poetry of our time.

Already Guilty

The incredible Toni Morrison clarifies a misconception

Do you regret referring to Bill Clinton as the first black President?
People misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.

Storyseller: Helene Hanff’s “84 Charing Cross Road”

Hanff, Helene (2007), 84 Charing Cross Road, Sphere
ISBN 978-0-7515-0384-5
[Originally published in 1971]

This is a very short review of a very short book. It’s Helene Hanff’s 1971 book “ 84 Charing Cross Road”, a collection of letters she wrote to and received from the antiquarian London bookseller Marks & Co, at 84, Charing Cross Road. When the letter exchange took off in1949, Helene Hanff was a 33 year old New Yorker, trying to make a living off screen writing and similar enterprises, living in a barely heated brownstone, driven by a desire to own beautiful books. Frustrated by what American second-hand bookshops had to offer, i.e. “very expensive rare editions, or Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up school-boy copies”, she decided to send Marks & Co a list of books, or in her words, “a list of my most pressing problems”, asking them to consider the list a “purchase order” provided they didn’t cost more than $ 5.00. During the next 20 years she continued to send letters to England and receive books and letters in return. The clerk who she’s conducting most of her correspondence with is called Frank Doel, and the two of them develop a strange platonic relationship.

The account of that relationship is one of the most beautiful and charming books I have read in quite some time; of all the books I have recently been reading, this is clearly closest to what they call a feel good book. But it’s considerably more interesting than that. To start with, it shares the fascinating qualities all letter exchanges have. When we don’t have an editor providing a commentary, we are thoroughly at the mercy of the intricacies of letter writing. We find that letters are sometimes missing, we find that sometimes between one letter and the next a whole year has passed, things like that. Unless, however, this is your first volume of letters, this is not surprising. In this case, though it makes for a particular effect: her letters are little nuggets of glee. Hanff, who published her own letters, has chosen wisely to chose this form, and we are happier for it. Many letters feel as if I were meeting a kindred spirit. I recognize her joy at hearing about a great book in mint condition

he has a first edition of Newman’s University for six bucks, do I want it, he asks innocently. Dear Frank: Yes, I want it. I won’t be fit to live with myself. I’ve never cared about first editions per se, but a first edition of THAT book -! oh my.

And her indignation at being sent the wrong book:

this is not pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary
may he rot.
i could just spit. […]
i enclose two limp singles, I will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys.
THEN I will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.

See? And there are many more moments like these. Additionally, we learn of her bafflement that some NY library expects her to read without smoking or drinking an occasional martini or two (Yes, I immediately thought of Irene. I half-seriously expected the Wilde Childe to leap from one of the next letters) Please. It is impossible not to love that mad Helene Hanff. And not for these reasons alone. The book gives us a protagonist who is constantly broke, but who sends food packages to her favorite London bookshop because she knows that times are hard and that London citizens are living off rations (also, she voted for Adlai Stevenson).

Interwoven with all these things are issues like translation and other finicky aspects of cultural exchange, not to forget the beauty of how the book employs different levels and perceptions of class, but I cannot be bothered with all these at the moment, while I am still in thrall with that wonderful little book. There are enough of these issues in the book, though, that one marvels at the fact that this is so light and enjoyable a read. It is certainly a book that I will reread a few times. If you give this book the time it needs, I guarantee you’ll laugh, you’ll be moved, and you will be cursing that woman while you run to the retailer of your own choice to compile a list of your own with English books you forgot you wanted. And all of this in under a hundred pages. If that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is. If you read this blog, you will like this book. Now go and read it.

Historytelling: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "The House of Seven Gables"

This is a brief bit about “The House of Seven Gables”, published 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s second major novel, a follow-up to his stupendous “Scarlet Letter” (1850), which was, in many ways, a complex and troubling novel. “The House of Seven Gables” is a smooth read, by comparison. It is, by all accounts, a straight Gothic novel, combining a pleasurable amount of horror, melodrama and romance in a book that combines many of Hawthorne’s favorite concerns. After finishing “The Scarlet Letter”, which famously gave Mrs. Hawthorne a headache, he managed to streamline his concerns into one focused well-paced novel. Among the central issues is the one that dwarfs them all: genealogy. Hawthorne is almost obsessively concerned with continuance and discontinuance in American culture. His central image is the eponymous House, built by a Puritan called Colonel Pyncheon (yes, related) upon a plot of land stolen from a simple farmer called Matthew Maule in the 1600s.

In order to get his hands on the property, Colonel Pyncheon accused Maule of witchcraft and had him hung. A few years later he had a mansion built on that property. There is a powerful line of thought in Hawthorne’s work about disenfranchisement and related issues. He is often reproached for ‘whitening’ his characters, thereby blanking out one of the most pressing issues of his day: the Fugitive Slave Law. As I have argued in my most recent (botched?) exams, this line of attack is based on poor reading skills. Hawthorne’s two major novels are almost claustrophobically dense constructs that develop their own points of reference; Hawthorne is a writer who is surprisingly close to Melville in that regard. Although most books will tell you how to read them, the two novels I speak of seem, at times, to develop a language of their own. As an aside, I think this is a reason why both Melville and Hawthorne often sound like awkward writers. I think that, at times, both are writers who, sometimes, do not have a literary tradition to fall back on because what they have to say has not been said before. This is, however, not as much the case for “The House of the Seven Gables”.

So this novel, unlike “The Scarlet Letter”, smooths its ideas into a clear narrative, grounded in one of the dominant genres of English literature. Thus, the disenfranchised are afforded their revenge and everyone accepts that in a matter-of-fact way: after the Colonel died when the house was finished, it was generally understood that the house and the hereditary line of the Pyncheons (i.e. the House in the literal and figurative sense!) were cursed; from then on, several Pyncheons dying an unexplained and sudden death, as people foretold:

[T]hey . . . hinted that he was about to build his house over an unquiet grave. . . . The terror and ugliness of Maule’s crime, and the wretchedness of his punishment, would darken the freshly plastered walls, and infect them early with the scent of an old and melancholy house.

We are never told who or what killed them, but what we are left with is the suspicion that their deaths were neither accidental nor natural, but results of that curse. This suspended explanation, very much in line with the Gothic genre, accounts for much of the suspense and intrigue that made this novel so popular in its day and that ensures its readability today.

Since we are never apprised of what, exactly, is killing the Pyncheons, we are left to our own devices and turn to the two houses for guidance. The blood line of the family is cursed, but that curse is, in a way, bound to the seven-gabled edifice. As we learn further on in the novel, the house itself has been built by Thomas Maule, the grandson of the swindled and murdered Matthew Maule. The book is pervaded by a suspicion: has Maule, the grandson, constructed this house in a way that could and would harm the Pyncheons? An even later descendant of the Maule line, Matthew Maule (the younger), opts for a more overt way of harming the house: he mesmerizes Alice, the daughter of Gervayse Pyncheon, who was then heading both the literal and figurative house, and, accidentally, kills her. So what we have are two blood lines, which are inimical to each other. The Maule family is an invisible enemy, flitting in and out of the Pyncheon family history like a ghost, sometimes surfacing to wreak damage, only to disappear again.

The ghostliness of the Maules is due to the fact that we see history, naturally, only through the eyes of the Pyncheons. They represent the dominant powers in America: they own land, have houses built there and they, most importantly, wield political power. Owning land, and controlling what’s built upon that land and being in control of the judiciary, to wit: of the means of punishment and discipline, does not, however, ensure complete dominance. The Maule family represents a force of resistance; their power derives from their control of knowledge. We have the paradoxical situation that the mighty Pyncheons are crippled by the fact that this small element eludes them. That the dominance of the Pyncheon family comes to an end at the time the story takes place, which we can safely assume to be roughly contemporary to Hawthorne’s publication of the novel, is salient, as we witness a shift in the power balances in the world at large.

To provide a brief overview on the plot: an old, nearsighted woman named Hepzibah, who lives in the Pyncheon residence and who is wearing a perpetual scowl, is forced to open a small store in the venerable “House of the Seven Gables”, to keep from starving. She even has to turn front windows into shop windows. The implications such a transformation has, are innumerable. As a true Pyncheon spawn, Hepzibah considers this change a source of great shame; she is able to go through with it because of the support of some neighbors and of Holgrave, Hepzibah’s rebellious young lodger, who is by profession a daguerrotypist. Although Hepzibah tries her best, her scowling face frightens customers and makes for bad business. On the day that she opens her shop, Hepzibah receives a visit from Phoebe, a young cousin from an extended branch of the Pyncheons. At first, Hepzibah worries that Phoebe will upset Hepzibah’s brother, Clifford, who is returning home from prison. Through her charm and her success with the customers, Phoebe convinces Hepzibah to let her stay.

Clifford is one of the most intriguing characters in the novel. He returns from prison where he has been imprisoned on false charges. He is severely disturbed, so much he seems almost imbecilic at times. His jail time has completely broken him, but meeting Phoebe calms him. Clifford may have reached rock bottom, but his first concern upon returning is complaining about the transformation of the Pyncheon estate. Clifford and Hepzibah are marginalized in their family yet being part of that house comes with certain estimations and concerns. The current head of the family, however, is Judge Pyncheon, who bears uncanny resemblance to Colonel Pyncheon, whose picture is still hanging prominently in the mansion. Judge Pyncheon inspires a wave of blind fear in Clifford, who flees his relative in terror, hiding in a back room. The Judge is very amenable, very charismatic, he greets Hepzibah with warmth and offers her financial support. But, as with the house, which rots invisibly from the deed of their ancestor, the Judge’s facade hides a moral rot. He is, as they say, a bad apple.

Hawthorne explores the house/character parallel extensively:

[A]n individual of this class builds up, as it were, a tall and stately edifice, which, in the view of other people, and ultimately in his own view, is no other than the man’s character, or the man himself. Behold, therefore, a palace!… [I]n some low and obscure nook . . . may lie a corpse, half-decayed, and still decaying, and diffusing its death-scent all through the palace! The inhabitant will not be conscious of it; for it has long been his daily breath! . . . Here, then, we are to seek the true emblem of the man’s character, and of the deed that gives whatever reality it possesses, to his life. The novel suggests that this corpse, in Judge Pyncheon’s character, is part of the inheritance.

By coupling it with the house, which is representative of a certain power constellation, as outlined before, he goes beyond simple genealogical concerns and turns to what Nietzsche would later term the genealogical method, by which we don’t look at the way ideas and things change in time but at the circumstances, structures and institutions which have induced that change. Hawthorne’s novel is not a realistic novel, it’s characters and incidents down to every single mentioned object are injected into the book to display exactly these circumstances, structures and institutions. Hawthorne may not be a subtle writer, but the way he manages to make use of everything in his books, is impressive beyond words. Reading a book like “The Scarlet Letter” is more like having someone take a swing to you than appreciating a fine portrait, but the power Hawthorne’s swings carry is rare.

As the novel heads towards catastrophe and resolution, we find out that a descendant of the Maule family has been hiding among us all a long and we find that to end the curse is to abandon the house, to turn to new structures. Although Hawthorne himself was never a strong supporter and later even resented it (despite having been a founding member), it’s hard not to think of Brook Farm here and the philosophy of Charles Fourier. However, rereading “The House of Seven Gables”, I also found that the failure of projects like that has also been written into the novel. We hear Holgrave’s entreaty to start anew

“[I]t will startle you to see what slaves we are to by-gone times—to Death, if we give the matter the right word! . . . We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! . . . Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!”

but new things do not just materialize, they develop from old things, through new circumstances. So how much has changed? As the good guys walk off into the sunset, we find that things have but been rearranged. Those who have held knowledge still hold it and the financial imbalance between the figurative houses has not changed either. The literal house has been abandoned and the Judge, representative of the culture belonging to the house. The new culture, in other words, may look different, and be more fluid in the way that it works, it is no longer rooted in the same earth, but the power structure is still the same, basically. It’s what we all notice when we step outside and ask ourselves what decades of thought and rebellion have changed. Is there something rotting in us? Doesn’t make you suffocate sometimes?

Book of the Year

Since I have not mentioned it here before, and most of my regular readers will know about it anyway, I will only mention it in passing: the book I am most looking forward this year is Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. To prepare, I will reread all Pynchon novels (except for Crying of Lot 49, which I don’t really like) and you will have to suffer the consequences (i.e. the reviews). Here’s the blurb for Inherent Vice, which appears, as the last one, to have been written by the master himself.

It’s been awhile since Doc Sportello has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly out of nowhere she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say. It’s the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that “love” is another of those words going around at the moment, like “trip” or “groovy,” except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite which he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists. In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there . . . or . . . if you were there, then you . . . or, wait, is it . . . Part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon—private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog…

Reading Wright (1)

What follows are short remarks on a poem by the wonderful James Wright. I’ll link the poem, not quote it.

I’ll post readings of three different poems during the coming weeks. The first of these poems is “Autumn begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”. As with many of Wright’s poems of that period, it starts from a single image, here it is the “Shreve High football stadium”, and spins other images from it. Read superficially, one could think that all it contains are a few observations, slightly enhanced poetically. This is not the case. The second line already is startling: in that stadium he thinks of “Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville”, completely dashing the reader’s expectations. What is happening in that stadium? We are not allowed a peek, not a single observation. Instead, the poet turns inside. What is happening in the stadium? Thinking. The stadium is but a backdrop to the poet’s thinking, and the reader has been tricked to read it as observation, both by the title and the first line.

Now, the thinking process of the poet, in turn, does not contain abstract thoughts or concepts either, as we would think, but, in turn, images. The whole poem is like a Matryoshka doll, shuffling images into other images, leaving the reader to hunt down what they contain. So, in rapid succession, we get aforementioned Polacks, then “gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood” and then the “night watchman of Wheeling Steel”. These three places (Wheeling Steel, today “Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel) are neigbors along the Ohio river, even though Benwood and Wheeling are both in West Virginia whereas Tiltonsville’s in Ohio. These three locations, together, form a community, of sorts, and thus, in a way, we have caught up with the football stadium and the implied community in that image. The poem does not, however, let us off so easily; from these images it spins an idea, not just of community but of the other need behind public consumption of sports: the three individuals (which are so much more than simple individuals) are, the poet maintains, “[d]reaming of heroes”.

This first stanza, which has apparently moved away from the stadium has, on the contrary, spend this time away, to concentrate upon the depth of the image it introduced in the first line. The second stanza is like an afterthought, shorter in length and considerably less focused, formally, although it partly mirrors the first stanza. It shows what depth the image of the first stanza actually had, demonstrating that we were served a complete cultural context, and it reinforces some central issues, fear, shame and power. The oxymoronically Freudian last line of the stanza, “Dying for love” forms an eerie unity with the last line of the preceding stanza, “Dreaming of heroes”.

It is the third stanza which really packs a punch. Again, we are informed that we have been offered an abbreviated analysis through these pictures by the word “therefore”, which implies that we are present in an ongoing argument. As the poem, matryoshka doll by doll slipped from the grander social context to the family as the smallest social unit of despair, it is fitting that the poet is now focusing upon “[t]heir sons”, who “grow suicidally beautiful”. I must honestly admit that this image troubles me and I am reduced to guessing. It appears to me to invoke a doomed bloom, the suicidal aspect mostly due to the fact that the investment into becoming an accomplished, muscular football player, i.e. beautiful, comes with a detriment to the other faculties, it means being not cautious, giving your all at the start of the season, so the sons will not follow in the footsteps of their shamefaced fathers who live a life of drudgery in the industrial area of Martins Ferry, Tiltonsville, Benwood and Wheeling. The sons make a full-throated pitch for success, which is suicidal because of the energies it depletes. They “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies”, the poet tells us in the last line, invoking another kind of place, a different stadium, and keeping both the homoeroticism of this stanza as well as the desperation.

The image also continues a strain of animal imagery in Wright’s poems, which, in “Autumn begins at Martins Ferry, Ohio” already produced the phrase “Their women cluck like starved pullets / Dying for love”. As with James Dickey’s famous disturbing poem about folksy sodomy, this poem, too, mischievously, suggests a reason for the lack of matrimonial warmth. What we are also left with is an image of someone who is not running of his or her own accord, the sons are driven not by personal ambition but by desperation, which sits on their necks like an imp and whips them forward. It is not personal choice, it is the need born out of circumstances that the families may find hard to bear. This power and urgency are what we leave the poem with.

The second poem is, incidentally, the very next poem in the same collection. It’s called “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”. More next week.


From a New York Times article on the rebuilt house at 18 West 11th Street, NYC

Houses have personal histories. As they pass between owners, they become carriers of family chronicles. The house at 18 West 11th Street and those surrounding it, beautifully matched four-story town houses of Federal design, were built in the 1840’s by Henry Brevoort Jr. and were known as the Brevoort Row. Early in the 20th century, No. 18 was owned by Charles Merrill, a founder of Merrill Lynch & Company. His son, the poet James Merrill, was born there. (…) Every March 6, people place flowers around the tree in front of the building. One day in the early 1990’s, Francis Mason invited James Merrill and his mother, Hellen Plummer, to see the house that had replaced their former home. After her son’s death in 1995, Mrs. Plummer, then 95, reminisced about the original house at No. 18. (…) ”We were happy there,” she said. About returning to the site, she added: ”It didn’t feel like our old house. It was totally different architecture. But it was soothing to us that someone cared enough to put something else on the property.”

"Un parfum de contradiction"

Fausto @ tabula rasa has something interesting to say about Roberto Saviano’s mafia bestseller

L’un des leitmotivs théorique du livre est celui de la camorra comme avant-garde de l’ultralibéralisme radical. Il devient vite évident que derrière cette idée il y a déjà un problème fondamental de connaissance en philosophie politique. Ce qui est considéré ici comme libéralisme correspond à la vision du vulgus pecum et n’a pas grand-chose de commun avec la théorie politique et économique du même nom qui, rappelons le tout de même, se base sur le droit, qu’il soit garanti par l’Etat, pour les plus modérés, ou naturel, pour certains des plus radicaux. Le libéralisme dénoncé est un fantasme absolu qui rappelle les cris délirants de certains pour qui des politiques tout simplement sociales-démocrates sont communistes. En fait, Saviano décrit les processus typiques du capitalisme corporatiste statodépendant justement dénoncés par les libéraux radicaux. De plus, un parfum de contradiction plane régulièrement sur le rôle de l’Etat dans ce montage où l’on a un peu l’impression qu’il est la solution avant d’être identifié comme le problème et vice-versa.


This year’s Tournament of Books is under way. Don’t miss the carnage, and 2666’s inevitable win. Here is the first round:

2666 v. Steer Toward Rock
judged by Brockman

Netherland v. A Partisan’s Daughter
judged by Kate Schlegel

The White Tiger vs. Harry, Revised
judged by Jonah Lehrer

Unaccustomed Earth v. City of Refuge
judged by Mary Roach

Shadow Country v. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
judged by Anthony Doerr

The Lazarus Project v. The Northern Clemency
judged by Monica Ali

A Mercy v. The Dart League King
judged by Jonathan Eig

Home v. My Revolutions
judged by Witold Riedel

On Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove”

James, Henry (2003), The Wings of the Dove, Norton
ISBN 0-393-97881-8

It is with trepidation that one attempts to jot down remarks on a rich novel such as Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove”, which has long since seized a place on the canon of world literature, a place which, unless axiomatic values change thoroughly, is pretty much unassailable. This novel has been originally published in 1902, although the edition I have used is the revised New York Edition, published in 1909. The late period in Henry James’ writing has been written about ad nauseam, the books on this novel would not fit on all my shelves. I have not read any of this, so please excuse any and all redundancy. This is not very original, I am just gathering my impressions. That said, what caught my attention most was the interlinking system of travel and reading. As with many novels by The Master, travel is a central element of “The Wings of the Dove”, which is set in London and Venice and includes Englishmen, Americans, Italians and others.

The novel is divided into two volumes, but the structures are more complicated, and dominated by changes of place as well as by changes of perspective. We start in London where we meet a family of distrustful Englishmen. There is Kate Croy, poor half-orphan, who is financially dependent on her aunt Maude Lowder. Kate is in love with Merton Densher, a journalist and writer, who is perennially broke, thus, every inch as poor as Kate. These two want to marry, but then as now, a penniless marriage is not something to built one’s future upon, and aunt Maud makes sure the two youngsters know that; she is also trying to marry Kate to Lord Mark. So between the aunt on the one hand, and Kate and Merton on the other, we find that there is quite a bit of subterfuge in this family. Clandestine meetings, propositions and plans as quickly abandoned as they were embraced earlier. This is the environment we find ourselves in from page one. Learning to know these characters also means learning to know their habit of intrigue. We quickly get used to their way of thinking. Henry James’ long, ornate, yet precise sentences are astonishingly helpful in achieving that goal.

Henry James’ language has changed a lot during the course of his career. Always a creator of novels of manner, his subject has started to affect his language. Instead of using the language that is usually associated with the genre he started to use a language that reflected the objects in his novels. It’s not mannered, but purposeful. James Merrill once said that, when wondering how to proceed in writing a poem, he started to focus upon the furniture (very rough paraphrase). “The Wings of the Dove” doesn’t contain very much furniture, at least not an abundance of furniture descriptions, but, if that makes any sense, James has internalized the interiors and his smooth but bulky phrases provide quite a threshold for any reader not familiar with his late work. Thus, the reader attunes to his style at the same time that he habituates himself to the tangled relationships among our London family. Thus, when we suddenly meet Milly Theale, one of the most endearing (if boring) characters in literature, who comes from a completely different background and whose manners are subjected to a different logic, the reader, most likely experiences a pleasant shock.

At the end of the first section, Kate and Merton have found themselves unable to resolve their financial troubles and Merton leaves for New York because of a job. The next section sets in with Milly Theale, a naïve, but insanely rich American heiress, who is on vacation in Switzerland. Milly Theale is a very sweet, warm person, who is trustful and easily hurt. She is also, possibly, dying. That’s why she comes to London, to visit the famous Dr. Luke Strett. There is a different, possibly just as important reason for her travel to the old city on the Thames: in New York she met a nice young good-looking journalist, someone called Merton Densher. Now, Merton Densher told his secretly affianced Kate about it, but when Kate and Milly finally meet, she feigns complete surprise. Milly meets the whole gang, and we the readers recognize them. The narrative focus, however, has shifted from the lascivious Londoners to the amenable American. Milly’s way of thinking is completely different. She appears to expect the best of people and believes what people tell her.

When she starts to talk to the different parties involved, and tries to make sense of the persons and relationships involved, we feel as if the whole Atlantic ocean was between her and the people she talks to. We as readers have taken quite some time to acclimate to the London environment; so we see Milly walk abound the city, and we instantly recognize how incapable she is of understanding what’s happening around her. She is, up to the end, constantly trying to read Densher, Kate and the others, but we watch her try and fail, except for one crucial instance, later on. I think an apt way of describing the distance between her thinking and the social realities in London, is the image of a thick, semi-transparent curtain. Any traveler will regard a foreign culture through the lens of his home culture, this we all know. Among Henry James’ many achievements in “The Wings of the Dove” is the way that he manages to convey to us what this exactly means, how this enables the creation of misunderstandings; between Kate’s and Milly’s voice, two completely different worlds have been presented to us, and we watch one savaging the other, but nicely, friendly, and in an underhanded manner.

It is also in London that one of the book’s pivotal scenes is set. In Lord Aldershaw’s house, Milly comes upon a Renaissance picture that looks exactly like her. This shocks her:

Perhaps it was her tears that made it just then so strange and fair – as wonderful as he had said: the face of a young woman, all splendidly drawn, down to the hands, and splendidly dressed; a face almost livid in hue, yet handsome in sadness and crowned with a mass of hair, rolled back and high, that must, before fading with time, have had a family resemblance to her own. The lady in question, at all events, with her slightly Michael-angel-esque squareness, her eyes of other days, her full lips, her long neck, her recorded jewels, her brocaded and wasted reds, was a very great personage – only unaccompanied by a joy. And she was dead, dead, dead. Milly recognized her exactly in words that had nothing to do with her. “I shall never be better than this.”

This scene demonstrates a few essential qualities of the book. Everything here is constructed at a remove, through a mannered mirror like the picture in this scene: the Londoners do not interact directly, they never speak their minds except mirrored, re-directed. And although Milly is wonderfully plainspoken, she is, from the first, thrown into a mirror cabinet of a family, so all her thrusts sorely miss their targets as well. Throughout the rest of the novel the Londoners will be at her heels, spinning her to and fro, lying about things and revealing parts of the truth at the same time.

Additionally, we are made aware of the artful way that our narratives, pictorial and otherwise, reflect ourselves, but with crucial differences. I found it interesting that a writer such as Henry James, whose fame rests, at least in part, upon the verisimitude of his psychological portraits, would go to such lengths to undercut a realistic reading of his novel. In James’ view of realism, however, the distortion of reality’s reflection in the picture corresponds to the general distortion that all of our points of view effect on our representation of reality. ’tis here that we have an opportunity to mention the structures of the novel that touch the topics of places and travel. We find that changes of place are accompanied by changes of points of view, so that the two lenses of personal and cultural distortion are both shown to be at work, that their effects can be both cumulative and contradictory.

It is with dread that one sees Milly Theale become enmeshed in their petty intrigue and see her become hurt, she’s a person to be cherished and adored, surely, but from the moment we see her completely misreading her London environment we see her headed towards doom and although Milly is afraid of being diagnosed with that dreadful illness, her death is not the tragedy her life is heading towards; in the end, when death, mercifully, arrives, one would almost see/read it as relief. The poor American girl is doubly doomed and she tries to escape both by not thinking about it. When she tells Densher to leave, she doesn’t even look at him, her friend describes the fact that her illness has returned, with the sentence: “she has turned towards the wall”, looking away from the center of the room, concentrating upon interiors; in a way, I would think, her behavior when under stress, starts mirroring James’ language. Does this reflect back upon James’ prose? In a way James, by moving towards the intricacies and rhythms of poetry, has hit upon the means to deal with grave tragedy. His is no Grecian beating of drums, it’s not a speech to be declaimed by a chorus of masked singers, his is a different source; the artificiality, the structure, the remove created with these means is, however, kin to that. I am woefully aware of how inadequate this brief brainstorming was, but if anything it should have conveyed my awe, admiration and passion for this wondrous book.

In his landmark study, Richard Chase talks about the American novel and its “profound poetry of disorder”. “Wings of the Dove” is a typical American novel inasmuch as this well-composed, supremely well-written novel appears to be deeply flawed: the first chapter, one of the novel’s best, introduce Kate Croy and her circle only to subsequently ensure through multiple changes of focus, that she, as a character, becomes shrouded in shadows; the longer we spend time with Milly, the more we start to see thing from her perspective, perceive the world as she does and thus Kate, whose way of worldmaking is so starkly different from Milly’s, becomes but a ghost haunting Merton Densher. When Densher finally returns to England, after having spent a long time with Milly in Venice, his relations with the Londoners are flawed. His attempts to communicate with Kate resemble awkward fumbling in the dark more than the meaningful web of intrigue and double entendres that we had come to know in the first section. There is a gap between where the English end and the Americans begin and communication in the novel as the main method of bridging said gap, is shown to be inadequate. This is, I would argue, one of the reasons why the novel does not end with Milly’s tragedy: it must make us understand the failure in Kate Croy’s terms as well, because we as readers cannot be expected to make that leap that the characters cannot make themselves.

Poem of the Day

Dreamsong 28 by John Berryman

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
sats heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

Different Worlds

Today, on i09: Annalee Newitz on Feminism in Battlestar Galactica, one of the best TV shows of recent years. Her excellent article is a nuanced piece of thinking about her subject. This crucial distinction here’s from the conclusion:

If we define feminism as the critique of a world where men unfairly wield power over women, then BSG is post-feminist. In other words, that critique is no longer necessary in the world of BSG: The show more or less successfully depicts a universe where women and men are equal in the realms of work and family. However, BSG was not made in a post-feminist world, so there are all kinds of hiccups where you get retrograde characters like Cally, or naked cylon chick fetishism, that are relics of our own society, which still so desperately needs a feminist slap upside the head on a regular basis.


After March 15 you will find a brief text on Whiteness and “White Trash” here. I decided to not explain these issues on a forum, where some bright bulbs react to criticism of Valkyrie with a simple-minded reference to “Original Sin”. Meanwhile, here’s a salient quote from a NYT review on a new book by Martha Sandweiss:

King, you see, was a white man who for 13 years passed as black. For many, that is unimaginable. Didn’t pigmentation give him up? It didn’t, because, as King’s story reaffirms, race is not really about skin color. If it were, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Walter White, for instance, could never have identified himself as “a Negro,” served as executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P. or written this paradoxical sentence: “The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.” Race is the emperor’s new clothes: we don’t see it; we think it.

Pendragon: Norman Mailer’s “Armies of the Night”

Mailer, Norman (1994), The Armies of the Night, Plume
ISBN 0-452-27279-3

On October 21, 1967, 70.000 people traveled to Washington, DC to protest the Vietnam war. Speeches were given, and as many as 50.000 united to march to the Pentagon to voice their anger over an unjustified war. Among this crowd were found Americans of all stripes; the only thing they had in common was their outrage. The protests had been approved by the government, but with strict rules, among them a line marked by a rope. A few of those present wanted to commit civil disobedience and stepped over the line, only to be arrested; after the weekend, 681 persons had been arrested, some 100 persons were treated for injuries, due to the mounting aggression among the 200 US Marshals. A large number of famous people was present, among them Robert Lowell, possibly the most important American poet after WWII, eminent pediatrician Dr. Spock, major critic Dwight Macdonald and the renowned novelist Norman Mailer. Of these, only Mailer was arrested. The Armies of the Night is his attempt to make artistic and journalistic sense of that weekend and what it meant for the United States.

The book, published in 1968 and recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, is subtitled “History as a Novel, The Novel as History”. It is one of his best known works, together with The Naked and the Dead and Executioner’s Song, and one of the few which are likely to endure, even as the others drop out of print. Published three years after Truman Capote’s groundbreaking In Cold Blood, and a year after Richard Brook’s movie adaption, it turns Capote’s device, the mixing of fact and fiction in the creation of the non-fiction novel, into a novelty act. Capote created the tools by using them: by writing what to all appearances read and worked like a novel, but basing it on well-known and widely publicized facts, he did not need to advertise his enterprise, it was clear as day. For Mailer, too, especially after the huge impact of Capote’s book, there was no need to flaunt the novelty of what he was doing. The fact that he used so self-important subtitles implies that, at least to an extent, he was commenting on In Cold Blood.

Capote used a journalistic point of view in choosing an apparently objective third person narrator. Capote never entered the novel as a character himself, at least not in an explicit fashion. In contrast to that, The Armies of the Night is, first of all, a paean to Norman Mailer. The book is separated into two sections, “History as a Novel” and “The Novel as History”. The first section, which is considerably longer than the first, is a novel the protagonist of which is Norman Mailer. It’s written in a third person subjective mode, following “Norman Mailer” through the weekend, with all his thoughts, drunk and sober. The novel starts with a party Thursday evening at “Washington’s scruffy Ambassador Theater”, where a few of the luminaries who were to take part in the march later, assemble and listen to speeches by various celebrities. We find Norman Mailer drunk, ogling the function of Master of Ceremonies, eying other guests jealously. What to say to the critic who is currently reviewing his latest novel Why are we in Vietnam?, how to best talk to the grand Lowell, how to find courteous enough words for a writer one despises, ephemeral issues like these.

Mailer the character is both grandiose and insecure. He bows to the superior capabilities of Lowell even as he looks down upon writers and readers he considers inferior to himself, not without being self-deprecating about the whole business:

Mailer, of course, was not without respect for Goodman. He thought Goodman had had an enormous influence in the colleges and much of it had been, from his own point of view, very much to the good. […] But, oh, the style! It set Mailer’s teeth on edge to read it; he was inclined to think that the body of students who followed Goodman must have something de-animalized to put up with the style or at least such was Mailer’s bigoted view.

More importantly for this novel, however, he uses the same voice in order to convey his political beliefs. It is fitting that we start with Mailer’s private confusions and beliefs, in order to have a pattern which will help us make sense of the rest of the novel. It may be an ode to Norman Mailer, but we the readers witness the creation of a political person. It’s not the private that’s become political: Norman Mailer the character is almost completely shorn of his private aspects, and the few left to him are imbued with political significance. It is this change that the narrator links to the ambiguous structure of this section (novel/history) of the book:

Of course if this were a novel, Mailer would spend the rest of the night with a lady. But it is history and so the Novelist is for once blissfully removed from any description of the hump-your-backs of sex.

Central among the private things that have become political is religion. The Christian religion, especially, is offered as a key to understanding the American experience, both the visionary strength of the American people and its bigotries. These two sides become obvious when Mailer, at the end of the first section, launches a grandiose speech, invoking the former, but is getting browbeaten by the latter, when the newspaper reporting on it follows a quote up with the simple sentence “Mailer is a Jew”.

The narrator tells us this:

Lowell is of a good weight, not too heavy, not too light, but the hollows speak of the great Puritan gloom in which the country was founded – man was simply not good enough for God.

It is, as in many religions, not finding God which he extols, but the search for God. Consequently, in his own speech, it is that part he stresses, by invoking the Arthurian legend:

“I think of Saturday, and that March and do you know, fellow carriers of the holy unendurable grail, for the first time in my life I don’t know whether I have the piss or the shit scared out of me the most. […] We’re going to try to stick it up the government’s ass,” he shouted, “right into the sphincter of the pentagon. […] Will reporters please get every word accurately,” he called out dryly to warm the chill. But humor may have been too late. The New Yorker did not have strictures against the use of sh*t for nothing […] Mailer looked to his right to see Macdonald approaching, a book in his hands, arms at his side, a sorrowing look of concern in his face. “Norman,” said Macdonald quietly, “I can’t possibly follow you after all this.”

The following here is but Macdonald’s comment upon Mailer’s drunk capabilities as Master of Ceremonies, but it is significant in more respect than one. In a novel that treats a march of multitudes, united under one concern, one conviction, it is a sound idea to look for leaders and followers. The speakers, Lowell, Macdonald, Spock and others, are the coterie at the round table but who is Arthur? Following Mailer’s adventures what we notice first of all is the lack of a firm direction, the decided lack of leaders. Mailer, who, after all, is predestined to be a leader, due to the weight of his name and reputation, stumbles through this weekend. We see him attending the march, listening to the speakers, admiring Lowell, above all, walking with others to the steps of the Pentagon. He is among those who cross the line, partly by accident, partly by a belief in the importance of the American vision, the importance of civil disobedience. If this sounds vague and confused, it is because Mailer the character is. He is unabashedly racist and believes in the civil rights movement, he is a lefty and a conservative, he likes and abhors violence, he is for and against the Vietnam war. It is these beliefs, contradictory though they may be, which guide him.

Mailer is not a leader, nor is he a historian. The writer does not use Mailer the character as a means to depict that weekend. This is “history as a novel”, after all, and we are thrust into the narrow head of Mailer. He barely understands what happens, and when he is arrested, we leave the march with him, as we follow him into a van and then further into prison. He, again, is led there, as are others, not by a single leader, but both by his decisions on the steps of the pentagon and by the decisions of the marshals in place. The “history as a novel” never returns to the march. We have to wait for the second section to commence in order for us to learn more about the march. That second section is taut. It does not start or end with the speakers, Mailer makes but rarely an appearance in this section. It tells a different story of the march, it speaks of the organization of it, of quarrels and discussions among the marchers, it tells of the acts of civil disobedience, it speaks of the morning of the march and the evening of it. We learn that as the allotted time is up, the marshals gather the remaining protesters. Not just crossing a line, but staying, as well, turns out to be an act of disobedience.

At first I was somewhat puzzled that this piece of journalism deserves the label “the novel as history”, until I remembered the missing Arthur. It is the American people who are Arthur, it’s the American people who both lead the march and quell the disobedience. “There is something loose in American life”, the narrator maintained in the first section, pointing both to the fact that “[o]ne did not have to look for who would work in the concentration camps and the liquidation centers”, i.e. the authoritarian amongst Americans, and to the fact that rebellion, too, is ingrained in the Americans. This is not a spectacular insight, seeing as Mailer is merely pointing to one of the basic dichotomies structuring all modern societies. It is this last fact, however, that Mailer needs us to understand, in order to understand under whose orders the “Armies of the Night” march. Thus, Mailer manages to provide a fascinatingly full and emotional portrait of that weekend. It’s not Gonzo journalism, Mailer does not have the ability to write this. The book is too cerebral, too ‘cultured’, too forced, to go down that road. But what Mailer achieved here is unique. The non-fiction novel has a long history, but none of its proponents could have written this. It is one-of-a-kind, it depicts a time and a society’s state with remarkable assurance and precision. I would not have expected the writer of The Naked and the Dead to pull off something like this.


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On Herman Melville’s “Omoo”

Melville, Herman (1982), Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Library of America
ISBN 0-940450-00-3

Herman Melville is among my very favorite writers. Everything about his work is subtle, fresh and interesting, whether we talk about the Great American Novel, Moby Dick, or the very early works: Typee or Omoo. I have spend quite some time thinking about Typee early in February, but as this blog shows, it didn’t amount to anything. After having had a few thoughts rumbling through my skull again after finishing my reread of Omoo today, and since I have nothing better to do, I’ll just bother you with them. As I said, Omoo was the second book Melville published. It was printed in 1947, a year after Typee. Within ten years he would go on to publish all of his other novels, among them marvels such as the aforementioned Moby Dick, The Confidence Man or the scintillating Pierre. One masterpiece per year. Since most of them are concerned with life at sea and since Moby Dick is the most famous novel about the sea and especially whaling, the preceding novels are seen as studies for the grand masterpiece.

It is, as many people have pointed out, a great injustice to read Typee and Omoo only as imperfect tryouts. They are both completely and utterly astonishing, and bear almost no direct resemblance to each other, since they treat different modes of travel. Omoo is the direct sequel to Typee, picking up the plot where Typee leaves off: the protagonist who has finally escaped Nukuhavi, which is one of the Marquesas Islands, has entered service on the ship that saved him, not that he had much of a choice there. That ship, the lovely Julia, is a breeding ground for unrest, which is a good indicator of many of the concerns in Omoo. Guy, the captain, is not a sailor, he is

in no wise competent. He was essentially a landsman, and though a man of education, no more meant for the sea than a hair-dresser.

He shows, time and again, that he does not understand the necessities of a sailor’s life. The captain is little more than a meek and weak figurehead, since he isn’t able to handle even the smallest technical decisions and the one he does handle leads to mutiny and him losing a large part of his crew.

The actual work of a captain is done by the chief mate, John Jermin. Jermin is a strong, smart and pugnacious man, able to make the crew obey his commands. As a member of the ruling caste, especially since he is the one who has to make tough decisions and has to ensure that the captain’s unpopular commands are carried out, he is constantly at odds with the crew. He looks and acts like one of the crew yet the mere fact of his being in power sets him apart. We encounter quite a different situation with the resident doctor, who only goes by the name of Doctor Long Ghost. He, who could be the third member of the ruling caste, is actually a jester of sorts. Although he is educated and could possibly wield power, he is too unruly, too much of a “wag”, for the captain to put up with him. In due course he has to set up camp amongst the sailors. As we all know, rulers and workers are clearly separated on a ship, so forcing Doctor Long John to literally change sides is highly significant. The physician, however, quickly accommodates himself to the new situation, becoming, in effect, one of the crew. As we see, the main difference here is not education: it’s both power and the line of work you’re in. This may seem uninteresting at this point, yet the novel dwells extensively upon the dynamics on board and rightly so, as we will see.

Upon coming to Tahiti, the captain gets off the ship, being friends with Consul Wilson, who is the British representative on the island. In the meantime, he expects the crew of the ship to stay on board. This, apparently, is viewed almost as an offense by the sailors, who subsequently contrive to get ashore despite the captain’s strict orders. The captain’s behavior is shown to be due to his not being a sailor, to his being a land man. A different captain, later on, is described as “a sailor, not a tyrant.” The contrast between sailors and people who live and work on land, is marked, and it’s not a simple difference either. The sailors show clear contempt for so-called “landlubbers”, as the character called “Rope Yarn” shows, who is not nearly as unlikeable as the captain, who is part of the crew, yet who is not suited to work on a ship; the crew is constantly making fun of him and harassing him at every turn. Among the crew, on the working-class end of the ship, there is a hierarchy as well, equally strict as the one I previously mentioned. The main difference, however, is that it is solely based upon merit.

In a way, although I referred to the sailors as “workers”, this word, with its modern connotations, is not quite fitting. The sailors are more like nomads, with a division of work as in a nomadic hunter-gatherer (and are whalers not, to an extent, hunter-gatherers?) society, which is usually based on merit and not entitlement or race or even gender. This strong focus upon the society aboard ship is a stark difference to Typee, which was largely concerned with a reflection upon a single village in a vale on Nukuhavi. I would argue that one of Omoo‘s main concerns is work, and, at that, work in different environments, and by people of different cultures. Our protagonist is going off board with the others, and due to a mishap, finds himself apprehended by the consul as one of the ring leaders.

This appellation is thoroughly undeserved, if we can trust the protagonist’s assurances, but he and we quickly see that it is due to his being an intellectual of sorts, who can write and reads books, that he is thought and assumed to be a ring leader. The captain expresses a deep dislike ans suspicion towards the readers/writers among the crew. Since the captain’s logic is not ship- but land logic, he thinks in terms of class. In his understanding of the world, a worker doesn’t read, he works. The dangers of being able to read and write are all too obvious: they lead to, or at least aid, mutiny, revolt, and similar distasteful incidents. In a way, it is hard to argue this point with the captain, since, after all, a mutiny has taken place and the two readers are involved. As readers we must never make the mistake of believing the protagonist’s testimony. He is the one whose voice has carried far enough for us to hear it, but must we not think of the sailors, too, as a silenced class, and of the protagonist’s narration as a colonization of sorts?

The concepts of speaking for someone else, of displacing a former way of reading and understanding the world with a new, alien form, is also a central concern of the novel, which dwells quite extensively upon the work of the missionaries. In Typee, which is a novelization of an ethnographer’s wet dreams, we found an almost untouched society, which dealt with the British and French intruders only at its borders. Tahiti and its surrounding islands, has been subjugated by the French and British and is accordingly much changed. Although the events take place at roughly the same time, a few weeks after Typee, the reader is under the impression of seeing the aftermath of aggression and proselytizing upon the society he came to know in Typee. And it has been a disaster which has led to a destruction of a culture and to the death of numerous individuals. Officially, the Tahitians are Christians now, although the narrator never tires of explaining why the Christian creed is ill fitted to the Polynesians:

An air of softness in their manners, great apparent ingenuousness and docility, at first misled; but these were the mere accompaniments of an indolence, bodily and mental; a constitutional voluptuousness; and an aversion to the least restraint; which, however fitted for the luxurious state of nature, in the tropics, are the greatest possible hindrances to the strict moralities of Christianity.

I will not go into details on the proselytizing of Tahiti, it’s an interesting topic in itself, but not the focus of these remarks.

However, the quote on the hindrances is interesting in other ways as well. Omoo expounds on the links between Christian religion and the Western economic system as evidenced by their interaction with the Tahitians. Both of these elements are not suited to the native culture in Tahiti, they are both built on an idea of discipline and sensual renunciation, whereas the Tahitians have parameters such as need, interest and passion. The re-invention of leisure time in the course of industrialization may be the Western countries’ valve to let off some of the steam generated by the need created by being so strict on the passions, but this has come from a state of oppression. The Tahitians are expected to give up their freedoms all at once and that they’re not prepared to do. They do not, however, resort to classical western ways of expressing their reluctance: when their interest abates, they just stop working, creating, to the uncomprehending Colonialists an impression of “sluggishness” or even plain laziness.

Several years ago, the cultivation of cotton was introduced; and, with their usual love of novelty, they went to work with great alacrity; but the interest excited quickly subsided, and now, not a pound of the article is raised.

I found this attitude to work and duty reminiscent of Melville’s slightly later short piece of greatness, “Bartleby the Scrivener”, and that story’s protagonist’s mantra “I’d prefer not to”. As Bartleby dies at the end, so the Tahitian civilization suffers from the fact that those who subjugated them failed to understand the culture of those they meant to rule. It is the old confusion of the man-made, culturally conditioned with the natural, that obfuscates issues to this day. This makes the progression from Typee to Omoo particularly salient: Typee focuses on seeing and reading a culture that is so very different from one’s own, while Omoo shows what happens when we actively rule a country without investing into our understanding what makes it what it is. We just assume, so often, that the basic reading of things is alright for everyone. The conditio humana is so often invoked in so idiotic contexts that it makes you, at times, despair. That’s just how we are? Please.

And Omoo, as most of Melville’s stupendous work, concentrates upon these issues. We find variations of people who live their lives according not to their individual creed (and isn’t, for example, the hypocritical celebration of the individual in American popular culture/criticism among the most depressingly inane ideologies?), but according as to how their culture understands life and work (take care: again, no false identifications: cultures do not equal nations, so don’t come complaining). The strongest characterization besides the British and the Tahitians are Zeke and his associate, the Yankees who believe in working hard and partying hard. After having been imprisoned and let free again, the protagonist and Doctor Long Ghost roam the island. The further they progress inland, the healthier and happier the natives become, at the same time, paradoxically, they are working more:

The next day we rambled about, and found a happy little community, comparatively free from many deplorable evils to which the rest of their countrymen are subject. Their time, too, was more occupied. To my surprise, the manufacture of tappa was going on in several buildings. European calicoes were seldom seen, and not many articles of foreign origin of any description.

Melville is all but shouting at his countrymen to stop calling the Tahitians lazy or deficient.

The most fascinating passage in Omoo, however, can be found in the last fifth, where he tells us about white travelers (“roving whites”) to the islands who are “generally domesticated in the family of the head chief or king” and become personal attendants, violinists, cupbearers or what Melville winking refers to as “commissioner of the arts and sciences”. These people are travelers, or rovers in more ways than one, the cultural contexts, the power relationships are shifting slightly, for these few individuals. I hope that the previous paragraphs have made it clear how magnificently Omoo shifts to and fro in terms of cultural preconceptions as related to work etc. and now we see how well Melville chose to pick the sailors as a ‘control group’. The sailors’ friction with the landlubber captain demonstrates their difference to the dominant culture on the islands; there are other, more obvious reasons why they don’t mesh with some of the other, the Polynesian cultures. On land, they have turned even more into hunterer-gatherers, hunting with Zeke and gathering food, shelter and goodwill from the Polynesians.

In the end, the protagonist returns to his own culture, signing on on a whaler once again. It is a completely different whaler from the two he’s been on before. In a way, experiencing that travel has changed something in both of the rovers. As I indicated earlier,these insipid remarks touch but upon one aspect, which is hard to separate from others, possibly more important ones, such as religion or race. Omoo, as any novel by Melville, is stacked with subtle and not so subtle ideas and criticism. Melville is always in need of being read. A grand, grand writer.


Wieso lese ich eigentlich noch SPON-Artikel? Das hier in einem Artikel über die Gaza-Geberkonferenz. Mal abgesehen von den anderen problematischen Sachen – das hier ist doch fast unverschämt.

Zahlreiche Politiker wirkten auf der Konferenz ungewohnt frei in ihren Aussagen – womöglich weil Mubarak keine Delegation aus Israel eingeladen hatte und die israelische Presse dem großen Treffen fernblieb.

When Genius Goes Poof!

With High Castle, and Martian Time-Slip, I thought I had bridged the gap between the experimental mainstream novel and science fiction. Suddenly I’d found a way to do everything I wanted to do as a writer. I had in mind a whole series of books, a vision of a new kind of science fiction progressing from those two novels. Then Time-Slip was rejected by Putnam’s and every other hardcover publisher we sent it to. My vision collapsed. I was crushed. I had made a miscalculation somewhere, and I didn’t know where. The evaluation I had made of myself, of the marketplace, went poof! I reverted to a more primitive concept of my writing. The books that might have followed Time-Slip were gone.

Philip K. Dick in the Rolling Stone, 1975. (via, via)