Unglaublich. cosmoproletarian solidarity schreibt

Im Juli dieses Jahres hat das deutsche Innenministerium mit der Republik Kosovo die „Zurücknahme“ von als „überflüssig“ empfundenen kosovarischen Flüchtlingen vereinbart. Bis zu 24.000 Menschen, unter ihnen etwa 10.000 Roma, sollen bis Ende des Jahres abgeschoben werden. Unter den Augen der KFOR-Soldaten sind Ende der 1990`er Jahre zehntausende Roma von den nationalistischen UÇK-Banden gewaltsam zur Flucht gezwungen worden, insgesamt haben in jenen Jahren 150.000 Roma den Kosovo verlassen müssen. Diejenigen, die blieben, sind etwa in Lagern der UNHCR auf mit Blei, Cadmium und Quecksilber verseuchten Industriehalden einquartiert worden. Bis heute leben sie in ständiger Angst vor erneuten Pogromen in von der Majoritätsbevölkerung abgegrenzten Armutsenklaven, nahezu hundertprozentig vom legalen Arbeitsmarkt ausgeschlossen. (…)
. September steht in Düsseldorf die erste zentrale Sammelabschiebung von Roma in den Kosovo an. Auch der niedersächsische Innenminister drängt darauf die 4.000 Roma-Flüchtlinge aus seinem Standort-Gehege zügig abzuschieben.  (…)
Nähere Informationen hier. Verwiesen ist des weiteren auf eine Petition der VVN/BdA und des Flüchtlingsrats.

Die Taz schreibt

Der Europarat habe stets einmütig die Auffassung des UNHCR geteilt, dass eine Rückkehr für Roma in den Kosovo derzeit nicht in Frage komme. Doch bei einer Konferenz in Sevilla im Mai dieses Jahres habe die deutsche Delegation “von vornherein klargemacht, dass sie sich auf gar keinen Fall das Abschieberecht streitig machen lassen wird”. Daraufhin hätten auch die Schweiz, Schweden und Österreich erklärt, nun Roma zurückzuführen.

(Bild stammt von reflexion)

via classless kulla

Poem of the Day (Lowell)

Robert Lowell: Waking in the Blue

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the “mentally ill.”)

What use is my sense of humour?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with a muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson gold-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbert and ginger ale–
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean’s;
the hooded night lights bring out “Bobbie,”
Porcellian ’29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig–
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.

In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

Christine Su-Chen Lim: Hua Song: Stories of the Chinese Diaspora

Lim, Christine Suchen (2005), Hua Song: Stories of the Chinese Diaspora, Long River Press
ISBN 1-59265-043-0

The phrase ‘Hua Song’ means ‘in praise of the Chinese community’, the book claims. This well describes the intent and basic thrust of Christine Suchen Lim’s book (or Su-chen Christine Lim), which is wonderful and disappointing at the same time. The book is a large C-format paperback, with 264 thick, multicolor pages containing countless photographs and illustrations. In fact, these are the main reason to buy Hua Song: Stories of the Chinese Diaspora. The texts are short burst of information, of brief biographies of particularly remarkable individuals of the Chinese community throughout the past centuries. Among the little text that is provided in the first place, more than half consists of long quotes from historical accounts that, in turn, quote witnesses, letters, speeches and poems. Lim provides the order and the basic historical narrative, but her voice blends into the background so that the voices of Chinese immigrants and of eyewitnesses to the development of the Chinese diaspora function like subtitles to the photographs. We as readers are invited to acquire a feeling for these events, for these people, for their hardships and the resilient spirit that made them overcome these hardships.

The brevity of the text and the intent stated in the title, which is to praise the Chinese community also means that the book is intensely affirmative. It asks for your feeling, not so much for your brain. Any questions you might have, any questioning of the dull “if you want something badly enough, you’ll achieve it”-toss, the resilient spirit fairy tales, any question about how many people were left by the wayside, died of poverty and of similar, decidedly harsh causes, run into a nicely decorated wall here. Questions like these miss the point of this celebratory book yet the sheer expanse of the book’s historical narrative invites these questions all the time, which can make for a frustrating reading experience. As with some novels or movies, it is best to completely suspend disbelief or further questions in order to enjoy what is actually offered here, the warmth of Lim’s vision, the gritty, grainy, blown-up images of Chinese immigrants in the American Wild West, in the streets of Saigon, Vietnam, shops in Milan, Italy and Paris, France, a vision, that ends with a few high profile contemporary members of the Chinese diaspora, such as the French-born Yo-Yo Ma.

So, this is not a work of fiction, but neither is it a proper work of non-fiction. Its refusal to answer any questions makes it into an meditation, generously loaded with information, on the genesis and development of the Chinese diaspora, focusing on some Asian countries, the United States and Australia, with a few nods to other countries in between. It creates a sense of how that process worked rather than a historiographically sound account of it. A section in the back lists all the sources to the quotes littering the book but at no point are we availed a peek into Lim’s use of sources, into the availability of reliable sources on what clearly used to be a divisive topic at the time, which Lim emphasizes by repeatedly reminding us of the enormous amounts of racist discrimination and hate heaped upon the Chinese immigrants. The focus of the book is on these issues, on the relationships between the Chinese communities and the non-Chinese, the focus is external, not ever internal, there is almost no internal differentiation to speak of, which, again, is due to the basic thrust of the book.

Inasmuch as external relations are concerned, the book does does not make the mistake of creating the image of a Chinese diaspora, eternally linked to a Chinese homeland and intrinsically different from their neighbors. On the contrary. Lim’s narrative is clearly straining to depict the Chinese diasporic communities as trying to fit in, as identifying with their new home countries rather than their country of origin. This is in clear contrast to such cultural stories as HBO’s Deadwood, a TV show about a gold-miner’s town in the Dakota Territories, with Chinese characters clearly marked as ‘other’, beyond even language, let alone culture. The only links established there appear to be between criminal frontiersmen and the local tong. Lim concentrates rather on Chinese immigrants as gold-diggers, as toilers in river-beds, beside or behind their white neighbors. Lim concentrates upon successful communication, upon mixing of cultures and languages, rather than upon the difference between these Chinese communities and the ‘native’ cultures.

However, she doesn’t keep silent about the xenophobic or nationalist movements that have repeatedly pushed Chinese communities out into the periphery of countries where they thought to belong, to be successfully established. Lim’s story, with its photographs of ethnically Chinese men and women, is clearly written against a backdrop of racism, of essentialising nationalist narratives. Lim may be focusing upon mixing and acceptance, but the very project of the book blends this endeavor with a reminder of cultural origins. Becoming part of a society does not mean blending into the established culture and color. As Paul Gilroy has shown in The Black Atlantic, ethnic groups who are integrated into a society change the society by doing so, and despite his speaking out, in this book but especially in a later book called Against Race, against pan-African nationalism among African Americans, for example, his work is a reminder that integration changes identities and not just those of the ones who are integrated. It is a reminder to those who, from a basic feeling of entitlement, wish to scream accusations of racism back at the victims of institutionalized racism, of the structuring of their national narratives and how they create historical facts and about groups within those narratives that are unifying rather than submissive.

Gilroy’s trope for this is the eponymous Black Atlantic, since he shows, among other things, that blacks were not just the passive objects of transatlantic shipping, they actively participated in it, as well as in important political processes. Lim does something eminently similar in her book, although in a much less concise and much less well argued fashion. She presents the reader with little more than a suggestion, leaving it to him to fill in blanks. She also leaves him with a vivid image of people on the edge of important historic developments. The pictures and the voices quoted throughout the book are worth the price of the book alone. It isn’t Lim the writer who shines here. Lim as a writer is as frustrating as she’s illuminating. But Lim, the editor, can regard this book as a great success. I will most certainly return again and again to this book, just to indulge in the visual riches it offers.

Unless, that is, it doesn’t completely fall apart first. I don’t, as a rule, comment upon binding of books, but I will spare a few words for it here. I am a careful reader of books yet this one, before I even finished reading it, came apart in my hands. After having read roughly half of it, the cover was the first to part company with the book it was meant to envelop and shelter from dirt. Various other pages have since indicated their intention to do something comparable. This is unacceptable and although I want to recommend this book very much, I cannot do so since this kind of shoddy quality should not be rewarded. If you find the book done in hardcover or by a different publisher, by all means, go for it, it’s certainly worth your while, but do evade the paperback version I read (see biblio info above), published by Long River Press.

Anna Katharina Hahn: Kürzere Tage

Hahn, Anna Katharina (2009), Kürzere Tage, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42057-7

Anna Katharina Hahn is a young writer, born in 1970, who has published two volumes of stories before putting out this novel which, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel The Namesake, bears the traces of a mind trained on writing in the short form, but it’s most successful in the last third where Hahn pulls together all the threads of the book to make, no, to force it to cohere. Kürzere Tage (Shorter Days) is a bleak book, a dark book that finds hope in the end, but it’s a hope born of death and destruction, a hope for something different, better, new, a hope that is fed by the utter hopelessness of the present and the past. There has to be something better in the future, in other countries, doesn’t it? And even this is a hope that is only available to a few of the book’s miserable characters. It is one of Hahn’s few strengths that she can make this dark and utter misery into a light enough read, that she uses a language that does not reflect the pain and desperation it depicts. That may be one of the reasons why some people don’t like to read writers such as Jirgl, whose dark subject matter finds expression in a language that is just as dark and violent. That makes for an amazing, convincing reading experience, but it’s also taxing. Kürzere Tage, in contrast, isn’t either of those things.

Reading it isn’t as much of an exhausting emotional and aesthetic experience, but despite being light and readable it is still able to transport content that is serious and important. That is, clearly, another reason for the huge critical success of the book (Ingo Schulze’s strange critical and popular success can be chalked down to similar reasons, although Anna Katharina Hahn is a far, far better writer than the curly-haired hack). The issues it raises, like nationalism, racism, sexism, as well as gender and class issues and the newly popular and, by now, well-explored fate of German refugees after WWII (‘Germans as victims’ is perhaps the most popular new topos in German fiction and non-fiction in this decade) assure it’s ‘significance’ in the wide field of recent publications.To cut a long story short, it is an ok book. Not great, certainly, much of the writing is sub-par and the characters are flawed as literary creations, but now and then the writing soars (or hops) and, after all, the characters serve their purpose, which is illustrating certain ideas, well enough, and the writer’s perceptiveness in regard to the city she writes about is incredible. The major flaw of the book is its cowardice or laziness: almost all of it reads as if the writer held back, tried to keep to a certain convention, to keep her book from any kind of excess, make it dark, but still pleasant, but she’s too good a writer not to show the possibilities of the book, to display what could have been.

One of the most interesting yet also most disappointing aspects of Kürzere Tage is its use of local color. The book is set in Stuttgart, a large city in south-west Germany, the capital of one of the largest and most prosperous of Germany’s 16 states, Baden-Württemberg. Politically and culturally, Baden-Württemberg has a strange mixture of progressivism and conservativism, and it has always been that way. It is the state where the first post-French Revolution revolution in what we today call Germany (Germany is a very young country, first established in 1871) has taken place, but that revolution marks also the birth of a particular insidious and persistent brand of nationalism. It is the only state where regularly mayors are elected who are members of the Green Party (Bündnis 90/ Grüne), but it is also the state that is firmly, on a statewide level, in the hands of the Christian Conservatives and was once governed by a former Nazi judge (who used to sign death warrants for deserters) and, until his death last year was a venerated and well-respected figure in Baden-Württemberg’s political culture. It is the state where rebellious and genius writers like Hölderlin, Wieland and Schiller came from, and it is the state where the staging of a play critical of Christianity raised death threats and such a furor that some cities declined staging it at all, afraid of the public reaction (death threats can have that effect…).

The state is dominated by two different (but very similar) cultural groups who even speak different (but actually very similar) dialects. Stuttgart is part of the ‘Württemberg’ part of the state which is, in many ways, more conservative than its brother, ‘Baden’. As any major city here and in the world, there is a big, traditional part of town, where the established families live, crime rates are low and rent is high, and the abandoned quarters for the poor and the immigrants. Anna Katharina Hahn makes heavy use of this briefly sketched background, and it is one of the strengths of the book that she rarely explains herself, that she uses, uncommented, words only used in the local dialect and local reference and these words, another strength, are not marked as dialect, either. This subtle, unmarked use of localized language is very interesting, but Hahn displays a very different use of dialect in other places. None of her characters habitually appear to use dialect in their everyday speech except for a few choice times when Hahn, orthographically, marks dialectical pronunciation. Since this is not always used to mark out stressful situations or particular words or anything else, the reader only associates a certain cuteness with it, a nice quirk. This is the first of many instances where Hahn reduces an interesting possibility in her writing, one which she had already been using, to an easily palatable gimmick.

Much more consistently interesting is the way Kürzere Tage employs local social structures and how they pattern Stuttgart’s citizens’ behaviors. Anna Katharina Hahn, born and raised in Stuttgart, has a fine sense of how living in the city influences issues of class and gender, but at the same time she manages to elevate these issues to a level that makes them relevant to others as well. Her characters are carefully constructed to achieve this. There is Judith, who studied art history, fell in with a student of medicine, Sören, who took her into his life of parties, debauchery and addiction, from which she tried to extricate herself, which she didn’t manage to do until it was too late, and she was made to drop out. Subsequently, she married a dull neighbor of hers, Klaus, who went on to become a university professor, while she became a stay-at-home mom. She became part of a conservative yet vaguely progressive part of society which is among the biggest support groups for the state’s Green Party. Her two sons are not sent to private nor public school, but to Rudolf Steiner’s Waldorf schools. They are not exposed to television nor are they allowed any kind of excess. Just very few sweets, controlled but wholesome periods of playing in the garden and little contact with non-Waldorf kids, so as not to poison them with the unhealthy tendencies of today’s tv-based education. Those are very happy kids. No irony. It is their mother who has lapsed into a depression that seems to know no bounds. She takes medication but Klaus appears to neither know nor care. Being a housewife and not having any vigorous intellectual exercise and not working devastates her on a daily basis and has done so for the past decade. She is profoundly unhappy, yet, to outsiders, she appears to be the most happy woman on the block.

Another character, living in the same neighborhood, is Leonie, who is a working mother, with two daughters and a husband, Simon, who also works and supports her working (although his support for this is waning fast). Their marriage is interesting in a different way from Judith’s. Her husband, while rich now, is basically nouveau riche, he worked his way up from the bottom, coming from a poor neighborhood. He has since honed his speech and appearances to hide his provenance, but Leonie, who is from a rich and well-established Stuttgart family, aus gutem Hause, is still disgusted by his signs of the proletariat. There are two basic tensions in that family. One is the class tension, with Leonie constantly on edge about signs of her husband misbehaving; the other is her own background, in the sense that she is constantly racked by guilt over her working, not being ‘a good mother’, a worry that becomes even more prominent when she meets Judith and sees her well-behaved kids, which contrast with her own unruly brats. Leonie’s break with traditional gender roles is focused on as such, which already says a lot about how strict and traditional the background here is. The book itself further implicates Leonie in such issues as sexuality, adultery and even, but subtly, pedophilia, thereby casting her in the role of morally unsound, at least potentially.

These two modern women are offered a third woman by means of comparison late in the book, where, for two chapters we slip into the pov of an older woman, a neighbor of the two, someone, actually, whom we’ve already, glancingly, met. In those two chapters Hahn connects the present with the past by telling us the old woman’s story, a story of emigration from the East, marrying different men and the like. She isn’t a working woman nor has she ever been but the issues plaguing her are not much different from modern issues. She, broad-hipped but childless, has also, always, had trouble with gender expectations, she’s every bit as unhappy as the two younger woman. Her chapters are the two best chapters of the whole book. Here Hahn allows herself to indulge in her language and the result is moving, sumptuous, amazing. Although I would have embraced this kind of writing from the start, I understand the effect that Hahn aimed for in pulling out that character so late. At this point, we know so much about the two younger characters and their issues that every info here, every remembrance in from the older woman strikes the reader as a necessary insight, and it speeds up the book in surprising ways. A similar, but more pronounced effect is achieved by introducing a character called Marco, a young German from a poor background, beaten and clubbed regularly by his stepfather, a nationalist, broad-shouldered macho. Since his character and his actions provide a surprise of sorts, a change of pace, that make him a catalyst for this book’s attempt to achieve a resolution, I won’t go into many details here, but it is amazing to what extent the final third of the book calls up many issues of the previous sections of the book and connects them with other issues, like racism, and nationalism, and builds on them by introducing literary references (Sören turns out to be “Dr. Sören Rönne”, clearly a reference to Benn’s immortal creation Dr. Rönne) or by letting some emotional, cerebral issues find a concrete, direct embodiment.

Now, I do think that the last third is the best section of the book, but the end, when it comes, is terribly weak. Hope is a mere gesture for Hahn, at least in this book. The logic of the book doesn’t allow for light, or even hope. This extends even into the language Hahn is using. Apart from the two outstanding chapters I mentioned, the writing is very weak, mostly because Hahn usually employs a third person personal narrator, but shows no intent to make an aesthetically ore realistically satisfying use of this. Instead she lets slip words of a slightly different register, words that in German journalism are frequently supposed to mark colloquial speech, but are actually nothing like colloquial German speech. This lack of aesthetic determination amply reflects the way of life that the two women are trapped in. It fits the book in interesting ways, one could go into further details here, but sadly, this doesn’t make for great reading. This is the lack of resolve to think or work things through I mentioned earlier: the book could be so much better and Hahn demonstrates that she, in fact could do it better, but for whatever reasons, she doesn’t, which is a big disappointment. Language, and the ending, is its weakest point but I’m not awed by the other sections either. The ideas are good, her perceptiveness and her understanding of the milieu she writes about is great, but as a novel, Anna Katharina Hahn has not made it work.

Poem of the Day (Marcus Jackson)

Found a poem today by an extraordinary young poet called Marcus Jackson in an oldish edition of the New Yorker (July 21, 2008). Typed it up and here it is

Marcus Jackson: Mary at the Tattoo Shop

She counted her money
before we went in,
avenue beside us anxious
with Friday-evening traffic.
Both fourteen, we shared a Newport,
its manila butt salty to our lips.
Inside, from a huge book
of designs and letter styles,
she chose to get “MARY”
in a black, Old English script
on the back of her neck.
The guy who ran the shop
leaned over her for forty minutes
with a needled gun
that buzzed loud
as if trying to get free.
He took her twenty-five dollars
then another ten
for being under age.
Back outside, the sun
dipped behind rooftops,
about to hand the sky over to night.
Lifting her hazel hair,
she asked me to rub
some A&D ointment
on her new tattoo;
my finger glistened in salve
as I reached for her swollen name.

It also said he was preparing his first book for publication. I’m looking forward to it.

Remarks on Christa Wolf’s “New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat”

Wolf, Christa, “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers”,
in; Wolf, Christa, Erzählungen 1960-1980, Luchterhand
ISBN 3-630-62034-5

This is not a proper review, more like brief remarks which own their brevity to the shortness of the text in question. It’s a story by major GDR writer Christa Wolf, written in the early 1970s, published together with two other stories in 1974 in a collection that was subtitled “Drei unwahrscheinliche Geschichten” (that is ‘three improbable stories’). All three of those stories are masterful, the best of the three probably the scintillating titular story “Unter den Linden”. “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” (New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat) is, technically, probably the weakest story of the bunch, but it’s still fascinating reading. It pretends to be a ‘continuation’ of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (my review here), but in many ways it just employs its satirical spirit, while actually departing quite a bit from Hoffmann’s text. Wolf is passionate and direct, bleeding commitment into her text, she has no patience for Hoffmann’s genteel games; in this and other stories and books she portrays the outcry of the soul against stifling, destructive structures.

“Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” is a much more earnest and serious text, really, much more direct in its criticism of society and the direction its heading towards than Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. What Hoffmann did was provide an oblique critique channeled through a literary maze. Instead of commenting upon an issue directly, he comments upon other texts, presenting a multi-pronged kind of criticism that is as readable and topical, really, as it was when it was first published. Christa Wolf’s story is much more directly relevant to the social, political and cultural context of her time, down to phrases that echo the peculiar kind of neologisms common in the GDR (and the Third Reich, curiously). Its connection to Hoffmann’s text is a small one, constituted by the title and the conceit of the text being written by a tomcat on pages from a manuscript. However, while Hoffmann invented this in order to construct an elaborate book of fragments and two separate stories running in parallel, it serves no other purpose in Wolf’s story but to create the link to Hoffmann’s novel.

Wolf does not have two story-lines but she doesn’t just throw half of Hoffmann away, either. Instead, she brilliantly injects the basic thrust of the Kreisler story, if we subtract the Gothic plot, into the cat’s narrative. See, in Kreisler, Hoffmann depicts a romantic subjectivity which is at odds with the society around him and instead of succumbing to ‘reason’ persists as artistic spirit and is almost broken due to that decision. Wolf’s story is about a similar problem. It is about a group of scientists and thinkers who want to create a system that will make mankind happy, a system that ensures a maximum of spiritual and bodily health. And wouldn’t we all love that. Their proposals are then fed into a computer who, however, tells them that their ideas won’t work out. The model human being that the system is based on and the actual submitted system do not fit, they have to change one or the other. During the following weeks they work on the model human being, slowly stripping it of all things that are incompatible with a smoothly running system like they envisioned it.

Things to go first are elements like artistic creativity but reason and sexuality are thrown off board as well, in due course, as the computer continues to hand back to them their proposal as flawed and wrong, but it keeps assuring them they are on the right path. The computer is basically a mechanism forcing the scientists to ‘think things through’. It’s a wonder this story got published at all, since it clearly constitutes a criticism of the socialist (not Communist, mind you) enterprise, the attempt to think up, construct and maintain a system that nominally has man’s best interests at heart but, in actuality, does not have much room for human beings in it, unless they conform strictly to the ruling ideology. Individuals, here as in other places in Wolf’s work, such as the Quest for Christa T. (my review here) are at odds with that restrictive society. Wolf does not damn the idea of Communism, per se, in fact, as her work repeatedly clarifies, she considers it necessary, it is also liberating, but it must revolve around the individual and not an idea. If you have to adapt something, adapt the system and not the individuals living in it.

It’s quite clear how this connects to the ideas that drive the Kreisler sections of Hoffmann’s novel. But what about Murr and his equivalent in Wolf’s story, Max? Both are first person narrators of their story, both are philistines of a kind, but while Murr’s story is basically Murr’s Bildungsroman (a parody, actually, of the genre), Max is just an observer of the events. While Murr is talking about his life and reflecting mainly on himself, and his pet friends, Max is almost exclusively focused on humans. Murr’s reflections were part of a complex metafictional web Hoffmann was weaving in his book, which largely references and targets other books, while Wolf is having none of that. She is focused on the message and delivers it with few distractions, and she largely references and targets real world life and politics. Her dismay with the inflexible society that she was living in, is plain, and she’s clear about the fact that she doesn’t pit creativity against reason, since ‘reason”s another property that is left out of the model character. Like Hoffmann, she’s very clear about her commitments and unlike him, she delivers a scathing critique of the socialist state.

It is not her best story but indicative of qualities all her stories have, qualities that make her best stories shine like they do. Hers is a literary sensibility that is upfront about her criticisms and concerns yet is able to weave a complex literary text, with a use of intertextuality that frequently reminds me of Genette’s idea of a “continuation infidéle”. In this case, Wolf took on more than she could handle, her grip on the source text is weak, and the simple structure is too simple to do any kind of justice to Hoffmann’s novel, which really hurts the impact of the story. In other texts, she is far more proficient in this. It is nevertheless recommended, like everything of hers. If you cannot read German, do not despair: the story can be found in a collection of her short prose, What Remains and other stories, translated by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1995. Pick it up, why don’t you.

Fair and Balanced?

Some of these days it hurts to look at the paper or at message boards I usually frequent, especially when the name ‘Israel’ crops up. I’m glad there’s some sanity in the world still, though. There’s Max Boot, bitter and flippant but sadly correct in saying this in the Commentary

After reading the Goldstone Report on human-rights abuses committed during the Gaza War (December 27, 2008–January 19, 2009), all I can say is, it’s a good thing that the United Nations wasn’t around during World War II. I can just imagine its producing a supposedly evenhanded report that condemned the Nazis for “grave” abuses such as incinerating Jews, while also condemning the Allies for their equally “grave” abuses such as fire-bombing German and Japanese cities. The recommendation, no doubt, would have been that both sides be tried for war crimes, with Adolf Hitler in the dock alongside Franklin Roosevelt. Actually, that may be giving the UN more credit than it deserves. To judge by the evidence before us, the likelihood is that the UN in those days would have devoted far more space to Allied “abuses” than to those of the Axis and would have recommended that FDR stand alone before the world court.

and on the more careful side, Dan Kosky, in a very considered, well argued article in the Guardian states, among other things

Grave doubts over the investigative process have been realised by the mission’s conclusions. … The report is replete with dubious statistics and sources. Casualty figures are quoted from the Gaza based Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), a politically motivated organisation, which consistently refers to terrorism as “resistance”. PCHR’s faulty statistics include senior Hamas military figures such as Nizar Rayan and Said Siam, as civilians.

Reading the report, one would be unaware of Hamas’s human-shield strategy, a significant contributory factor to the civilian deaths in Gaza. … Although he states: “Palestinian armed groups were present in urban areas during the military operations and launched rockets from urban areas”, he avoids the logical conclusion of the massive use of human shields. … Yet, rather than state the inconvenient truth, the report reinforces preconceived Israeli culpability.

Goldstone is similarly evasive over the unreliability of key “eyewitnesses”. … The report applies entirely illogical reasoning, failing to elaborate on “a certain reluctance by the persons … interviewed in Gaza to discuss the activities of armed groups”. This observation provides a glimpse of the dangers faced by those speaking out against the regime in Gaza, yet Goldstone omits to mention how Hamas intimidation undermines witnesses and with it the very foundation for his conclusions.

Brian Wood: DMZ

Wood, Brian; Riccardo Burchielli (2006), DMZ: On the Ground, Vertigo
ISBN 978-4012-1062-5

Wood, Brian; Riccardo Burchielli (2007), DMZ: Body of a Journalist, Vertigo
ISBN 978-4012-1247-6

Wood, Brian; Riccardo Burchielli (2007), DMZ: Public Works, Vertigo
ISBN 978-4012-1476-0

Sometimes I’m confused. Sometimes, a book will come along that confuses me for one reason or other. I recently finished Erwin Mortier’s novel Marcel which I really wanted to like but which is actually bad, I think, for various reasons, but my heart is still with it. Another kind of confusion is caused by books like Brian Wood’s DMZ series of graphic novels/comics. Really, they are excellently written, well conceived and all three artists that I’ve so far encountered within the pages of DMZ did an excellent job, nuanced, expressive, precise. What’s more, they are eminently readable, it takes restraint not to go out and read every volume that has so far been published. But when I stacked the books on my desk a moment ago and decided to write a review, I was confused, confused mostly by the fact that I find myself dissatisfied with the whole enterprise, and it’s not something that is likely to improve in later volumes. For me there is something deeply unsatisfactory in what Wood attempts here. Bear with me and I’ll try to explain.

DMZ: On the Ground, the first volume, introduces the characters and the basic problem they face. Matt Roth, a young man, filled with the ambition to make it as a journalist, has a father with enough influence to get him onto a helicopter that flies Ferguson, a famous TV journalist into a New York, which has become a front in a new civil war between the United States of America and the Free States, who rose against the US, leading a guerrilla warfare all across the country. Since the Free States appear to operate in cells, there is no steady front line, except for New York, i.e. the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, adjacent both to the Free States and the United States. The DMZ, as its name suggests, contains no soldiers, just civilians, except for the occasional hostile action by one or the other party. As we learn in a story in the second volume, “Zee York”, events that led to the establishment of the DMZ happened so quick that those who stayed did not necessarily do so intentionally. So what happened was that a microcosm was created containing civilians committed to New York, crooks, and terrorists. Due to the constant shooting and the dangers of living there, no journalists are living there as DMZ: On the Ground sets in, which is the main reason for Ferguson to want to go there.

Once they arrive there, however, the helicopter is shot down; Matt Roth barely escapes with his life and some of the equipment that Ferguson and the crew were carrying. Henceforth Roth is the only photojournalist in the DMZ, with exclusive access to the people and events in one of the hottest zones of conflict in the world (at one point, we are told about the international reactions to events taking place there, which reveals just how important and central the DMZ is to the historical narrative outside). In the three books I read, he learns to survive, he learns about both parties involved, is confronted with corruption and the limits of freedom of the press in times of war. We get to know some of the people living in the DMZ and the motivations that make them get up in the morning and go about their business. At its heart, it is an ode to New York, because much that is said to distinguish the DMZ has already been said in praise of New York, of the particular kind of people who live there, the atmosphere. When I read an article about gardens created along a on old, unused railway in New York, images of that intriguing place meshed in my head with similar gardens on roofs among the rubble, overseeing the ruined remains of the once-proud city. The pride is still there, but it feels as if New York is just one big neighborhood, where people care for one another and try to make life worth living.

Zee, Roth’s first friend and constant ally, who was a med student when the war broke out and is now a slightly rougher, tougher version of Florence Nightingale, says at one point that the people in the DMZ are no longer Americans, but something new, which is a nice thought, but wrong in an interesting way. While the two parties fighting each other each claim true “American-ness” for their side, their definition of what it means to be American is the partisan, McCarthyite definition many right (and left-) wingers hold today. It’s the definition on the basis of which the likes of Glenn Beck start enterprises like his “9/12 Project”, seething with self-righteousness, despising each and everyone who is even slightly different. But there is a different kind of positive self-image that pervades American culture, it’s the one that has engendered the term “Melting Pot”. The United States, a country where different kinds of people from different kinds of nations and backgrounds come and are welcomed, where they forge, together, a new identity. That kind of place is the DMZ, which appears to be, in fact, the most American of the three parties we’ve met so far. And Wood develops this idea not without issuing it with its own batch of righteousness, noticeably in the way that he paints the United States, especially, as cold, corrupt and callous, which is confronted with the warm, helpful and positive depiction of the DMZ citizens.

Clearly, when Wood wants something to count, when he wants to make a point, he isn’t above resorting to cliché and eschewing subtlety, something that is common to the genre he works in but that’s not necessarily in good taste or appropriate with regard to the topics he tackles. It’s weird, but although the DMZ is not-America, the closeness of descriptions of the spirit of the DMZ to praise of America, well-known and culturally ingrained, produces a kind of underhanded patriotism, which, in nuce, isn’t really that different from the one that bogged down Cory Doctorow’s otherwise fine YA novel Little Brother (my review). That is a problem for a book that is basically a sustained critique of nocive contemporary developments, because it stifles the possibilities of the criticism, instead of making people understand the subject of the criticism, this form of critique throws them back into oppositions, I think, which is also lazy thinking. Woods does a far better job of portraying smaller details of photojournalism. Yes, there are good and bad journalists, so far so boring, but then, especially in the first volume, but intermittently in the others as well, Woods raises concerns about the limits of a lens, the way things are selected, presented.

I said this is done best in the first volume and not just because it throws lots of different aspects of this idea of identity and visibility at the reader. There are, unforgettably, two marksmen, looking at each other through super-powerful spy-glasses, from one end of NY to the other, who fall in love. There is the danger Roth suddenly finds himself in when he loses his press jacket, with the letters PRESS printed visibly on the back, so that he is suddenly, without a role, easy bait for sharpshooters and scavengers. And there are all the things Roth sees and photographs for the first time, things we, too, see for the first time. And Roth frames the images in order to send them to his bosses, just as the artist frames the same images, but one level removed, for us. And we see both more and less than Roth. In the first volume, we are frequently made aware of what detail Roth focuses on, with a panel of the comic following his gaze, highlighting the image for us, as well. This was one of the reasons I was so drawn to this series, but little of this survives in the next volumes, reflexiveness is pretty much out the window, supplanted by old oppositions and a rebellious sentimentality, for lack of better words, which has its advantages but it is a step down.

The weird patriotism has to do with the writing but generally, writing is this series’ strong suit. DMZ‘s major weakness, however, is the artwork. Not that it’s not, generally speaking, good. Burchielli is wonderful as main artist, Brian Woods’ own covers are great and the one guest artist so far, un nommé Kristian Donaldson, adds a fascinating and well-executed angle to the story he drew and inked. But compared to the writing the art just doesn’t keep up, it fails to add anything, that’s just it, all it does is hasten to present, it illustrates, never illuminates. It’s best in the first volume, which contains inserts penciled and inked by Wood himself, panels that are drawn in the style of the cover art and enhance the stories. No, really, it’s not fair to Burchielli who really does a great job, who is as comfortable and accomplished with sweeping, epic scenes as with dynamic action sequences, but as a whole it left me shrugging. It is well done, and the gritty look certainly fits the story, but the visual aspects of the comic are here always and clearly secondary to the writing.

Anyone who has ever publicly talked in a positive manner about comics or graphic novels will have met their share of people convinced that graphic novels are a parasitic form of literature, basically unnecessary, adding little that could not be included in a novel. Generally, this approach is easily fought off. Millar’s work with the Marvel canon (Millar’s work wouldn’t, largely, even work as novels. As I said elsewhere, Millar’s work is highly dependent upon the artists he works with) or Moore’s exploration of the Swamp Thing, or Moore’s meditation on space and time in From Hell, all these things make ample use of their medium, in a way that would not work as a novel.

Now, DMZ, that’s a different case altogether. Take the marvelous third volume, DMZ: Public Works. It has a spellbinding story, contains interesting ideas about class and identity, and is wonderfully drawn, yet as a novel it would lose nothing. It doesn’t need to be a comic, it just happens to be one. In a way Woods/Burchielli are like novelists whose writing displays little sensitivity to or interest in language. So, to return to the review’s first paragraph, there you have it. This is good on multiple levels, but the apparent arbitrariness of its choice of medium is disappointing although its hard to say why. You wouldn’t reproach a novel for not being a movie, after all. Maybe it’s the fact that I expected more, that I expected author and artist to care more about their creation, that there would be a different rationale for the artwork than just competence. That said, it is a great series, so far, and I love so many things about it. But, well, it could be so much better. Wood and Burchielli settle for too little here. Far too little, and it leaves a bland aftertaste.


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Sarah Water: The Little Stranger

Waters, Sarah (2009), The Little Stranger, Virago
ISBN 978-1-84408-601-6

I have heard good things about Sarah Waters, which is probably the reason why I picked her most recent novel, The Little Stranger, as my my next stop on my attempted odyssey through the Booker shortlist, although my reading speed is so dismal that between finishing this one and the last, the shortlist has been announced and I might just pick book number three 3 off of that one. As I’d hoped, Ed O’Loughlin’s awful novel has not been shortlisted, but Sarah Waters’ Gothic novel, deservedly, has. The Little Stranger is a very well written and well constructed book, marvelous, really. It’s not without its flaws but its strengths clearly overshadow its weaknesses; I found it a satisfying read, both on an emotional as well as on a cerebral level.

The Little Stranger is a Gothic novel, hewing rather close to many exponents of the genre, not just in its adherence to rules and use of motifs, but also in as fundamental aspects as setting and vocabulary, even. It was the latter part that led me to read the book’s project as one of pastiche. That can have a limiting effect. If we look back upon the book, having read and absorbed it all, wanting to write a positive review, it can be a bit disheartening to see how it’s all rather well contained within the genre limits, how little of a thrust outside, of a broader vision, a clearer grasp of situations etc. we actually find. While reading, the impression can be a different one, but any look back will reveal the book as looking inward, curled up like a frightened hedgehog. This, however, is not just a limitation, it’s also one of the strengths of the book. There is no need for it to strain for a broader vision, it strains, on the contrast, to fill the nooks and crannies of the mansion at the center of its narrative with anxieties, constructions, and ideas about sexuality and rationality. While it is definitely true that the novel rarely breaks the mold of the genre it’s set up to be part of, I don’t regard ‘making it new’ necessarily as a hallmark of great literature. Sarah Waters has given us a very good book that picks up quite a few ideas and arranges them by making them part of a Gothic novel. The genre, and this is a sign of her success, doesn’t read as restraining, although it could well have. It feels so necessary, so much part and parcel of the stories and ideas Waters relates to us, that I can’t help but wonder if the genre wasn’t picked because it was such a good fit.

The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Doctor Faraday, is a physician in the countryside in the United Kingdom between the two World Wars. He isn’t exactly young anymore and he’s not successful either. He shares a practice with an established physician, daily combating fears of losing all his patient if his partner should retire and die. He does not have a particularly remarkable vision for what he does, although he isn’t incapable of developing one, as we see later. In fact, although the story is written from his point of view, bits and pieces of ideas keep floating to the surface that he evidently harbored but kept from his conscious thoughts. And ideas and visions are not the only things, I think, that he represses or shuts away. He isn’t forceful in any way, and when, later on, he tries to go down that path, he missteps frequently, behaving like a sullen boy and not like a man with convictions. This is not to say that he does not, in fact, have convictions. Indeed, he has a series of strongly held convictions, the most central, at least for The Little Stranger, is his view of himself as a man of science, a man of reason, his very name indicative of his allegiances. But although he has a backbone, has convictions that he isn’t ready or willing to abandon, even under strong emotional stress, he lacks a personal impetus, a force. He will take opportunities if and when they present themselves, he will state his opinion if and when called upon to do so, but he is largely passive and throughout the novel, that’s how he’ll stay.

The book is constructed around a large mansion, and people will return to that mansion or flee from it. It is immobile and much of the novel’s conflict results from the fact that the people, the Ayreses, who live in there, appear to be similarly immobile, clinging to their holdings, their old status, their house, trying to salvage as much of what they used to own as the country moves into modernity and Attlee’s Labor government makes laws that appear to be less than kind to the beleaguered nobility, yet as far as the characters are concerned, Faraday is the passive one, the immobile aging man, despite spending much of his time traveling to and from the mansion, immobile in more ways than one. The Ayreses, in contrast, are, at least initially, more interesting. This is a family of three, with old Mrs. Ayres and the two children, adults by now. One of those is Roderick Ayres, the brother, who was in the Great War and suffered grievous wounds, his leg still not recovered and, as the book sets in, not likely to ever do. He is bitter, suffering, and exhausted yet determined to hold everything together. His desk is swamped in documents, bills, letters, contracts, and he also, despite his bad leg, works on the field and with the animals. His sister, Caroline, is the most finely realized character in the novel. She is, apparently, a bit dumpy looking, frequently described as a “clever girl” which Faraday translates as meaning that she’s rather ordinary as far as looks are concerned, and, overall, “a natural spinster”. She doesn’t attract men, but then she doesn’t try to, she dresses in functional clothes, which often means men’s clothes, she never or rarely goes out.

It is, interestingly, Faraday, the narrator, who keeps returning to this point, who keeps presenting other peoples’ remarks about this, just to, more often than not, record his protest. Methinks he doth protest too much. In fact, it is as a narrator, that Faraday is most consistently entertaining and interesting. The whole novel, as I said, is written from his perspective, utilizing a first person narrator. Since he doesn’t live in the mansion, and many decisive and disturbing things happen in his absence at the mansion, this presents certain problems as to what information Waters is able to impart to the reader and how she does that. Basically, she chooses to use two different ways and its significant that one of them dominates the first half (eh, more than exactly half, maybe ‘part’ would be the better word) and the other the second. One is an announcement of strange events that happened in his absence, and then a seemingly third person narrative of these events. In fact, this is not what we have. The reader is given a lot of indicators that these sections are Faraday’s version of the events, as he was able to piece them together from different talks with the relevant witnesses. We know that both these talks must have taken place and that there must have been different volleys of talk, since we get different hierarchies of information, some clearly predating others. We know these things through small hints, words like “apparently” and phrases like “she said later” (the latter often about integral parts of the narrative, making a construction as straight third person impossible to uphold), scattered throughout the text.

The other kind of re-telling contains the act of telling within it, as Faraday includes his talk with those who witness it as part of the narrative. This is increasingly important in the book, as his own relationship with the Ayreses becomes more and more central and his attitude to what is told become more important, as well. Waters is very subtle about this, as she is about many things in this book. As a writer she’s often frightfully good and complex, despite using deceptively simple means to go about her business. By having these two basic kinds of re-tellings, she pushes Faraday into the reader’s gaze, forcing him (the reader) to consider the dull doctor, to remember to what extent the narrative and information is, indeed, shaped by him. At the end of the novel, he is, literally called upon to be a witness in a trial, the book thus materializing an immaterial, an implicit function, which is a trick very frequently used by Gothic novels, but here it’s largely with a focus on narrative. So what happens, the impatient reader, wading through hundreds of words looking for a point or plot in this review, may ask? Well, Doctor Faraday, born to a former servant at the Ayreses’ mansion, strikes up a relationship with the current owners of that house, Roderick, Caroline and their mother. When he offers to use an experimental method to relieve Roderick’s pain in his leg, he becomes, in a way, part of that family, and witness to many things that happen there. Strange events suddenly start happening, signs appearing on high, unreachable ceilings, tame dogs biting the cheek of the neighbors’ daughter, fires rising inexplicably all over the house. As the story starts to pick up speed, and more and more strange things happen, madness and death ensues until the book, in part, starts to exhibit the qualities of a Greek tragedy.

It is never, this much I’ll tell you, unambiguously explained what the reason for the events is, although we’re offered a few, some more consistent than others. Any explanation for the events will also be a large part of what the person, who holds that opinion, thinks the novel is ‘about’, this is how central this is to the story. One, easily the most boring kind of explanation, would focus upon the social role of the Ayreses, on their attempt to cling to the past etc. There are all kinds of sections that tie into that, for example the complex role allotted to Faraday as a friend of the family who would not, under normal circumstances, be admitted into the inner sanctum of relationships in that family. Part of this is the rising sense of entitlement among the nouveaux riches and even the poor compatriots of the Ayreses, a sense that Faraday cannot disengage himself of either, although Faraday’s attitude is a strange mixture of entitlement and low self-esteem. An indicator for this would be the excess of self-pity that speaks of his assertion that, when at one point, he’s told to be handsome, the woman uses “the voice that nice women use for complimenting unhandsome men”. Instead of making him more interesting, this dichotomy in his character makes Faraday one of the most annoying narrators and protagonists I have recently had the displeasure of encountering, although it serves a distinct purpose. I called this explanation boring because it’s the one the novel offers directly, it’s even quite frequently debated within the book and as such, barely worth mentioning, it’s that obvious.

Two other aspects and explanations can be constructed around sexuality and rationality. Although sexuality is also debated now and then, there are fascinating undercurrents to it. The “sexual impulse” is presented as a “dangerous energy” and not only is Caroline a “natural spinster”, but Faraday is a bachelor, as well. Now, as is obvious, there are lots of pent-up sexual energies in the book, repressed sexuality, and this kind of repression can almost be expected from a Gothic novel, but, and in this I am not sure, I think that this sexuality isn’t strictly heterosexual in nature. There is no homosexual or even homo-erotic relationship in the book, but allusions and hints abound, as when Roderick’s embarrassment sexualizes a largely clinical procedure. Also, even for a bachelor, Faraday is astonishingly gauche when handling a woman, and the male gaze in his narrative is keps very well under wraps in the narrative that he, after all, controls himself. Is it propriety or is repression a factor in this? Hard to tell. Faraday does propose marriage to a woman, but it’s less a question of desire and sexual love, it’s more a question of custom and conventions. Faraday clearly has warm feelings but I think he misreads them, under pressure from, as I said, the customs and conventions of his time, which is why, for example, as I mentioned earlier, he so emphasizes Caroline’s eventual spinsterhood. After all, in Faraday’s time it was still possible to use “bachelor” as shorthand for “homosexual”.

As for reason, well, much of the last third of the book appears to consist of a conflict between reason and superstition. If you’ve ever been in a protracted discussion about an issue that has an important impact on your personal life, if you’ve ever been in contact with a highly irrational person and his or her family, you may be in a position to understand Faraday’s vexation near the end. Far from even considering a reading of him and his behavior as naïve or strange, the whole situation sent shivers down my spine, it was so well captured, sp well constructed. When Faraday talks to the one he loves, and considers that she might be insane, this is incredibly well done, pitch-perfect, as I said, it frightened me, reminding me of my own experiences. The utter impossibility of communication between Faraday and his disturbed friends is meaningful, this is by no means just about a jilted lover, Faraday fails to comprehend his lover. As we project that which we label as madness onto the outside, as not-speaking (again, the choice of Faraday as speaker is perfect), the other of acceptable discourse, we rob ourselves of possible meanings and communications, especially if we stick to those limits and set up camp within our rationality, our communication. The final disaster happens, maybe, because Faraday operates with a very strict dichotomy, not allowing other rationalities to get a foot in the door and his love prevents him from chucking his love completely out of his own camp, but incomprehension has already set in. The Little Stranger strikingly and powerfully makes this point yet on the other hand, it’s use of pastiche, its adherence to tradition, to genre, means that it itself sets up camp with the doctor. While criticizing and illuminating his and its own position, which is an impressive and laudable feat, it does not try nor manage to illuminate the others’ positions.

In fact, its use of the Gothic, its inward gaze, can even be said to contain a disregard for anything outside the norm. This is the effect of the intense focus upon Faraday and this is a large and, perhaps, damaging weakness. It’s significant that Faraday’s tending to a patient mental exhaustion, his treatment of her mental problems, leads her to feel “as though I’m invalid”. However, you can’t have the cake and eat it, too. Many of the novel’s results may be problematic, but where it succeeds, it does in an admirable, powerful manner. It portrays superstition as ‘the little stranger’ in the middle of the house of modern rational thought, and this has its problems, but its exploration of that house and its depiction of repressions and energies active in that family and its friends is frequently a joy to observe. It’s a great read, although it can appear to be slow at times. It’s true, Waters doesn’t rush it, she waits for details to accumulate, but she uses the time thus gained to pepper her readers with hints and allusions, and the reader, in a way, is disciplined to adhere to a certain reading speed, to follow the slow turns and changes with patience. It may be that part of the novel closes itself to the reader who insists on speeding through it, it’s in a way a punishing effect. Much of this book is actually rather unkind. If you have the patience, however, this is a wonderful read and I am very glad it was shortlisted. It’s certainly one of the best books I’ve recently read and it’s my first novel by Waters but it certainly won’t be my last. Thank you, Booker.

Poem of the Day

Of Suicide
by John Berryman

Reflexions on suicide, & on my father, possess me.
I drink too much. My wife threatens separation.
She won’t ‘nurse’ me. She feels ‘inadequate.’
We don’t mix together.

It’s an hour later in the East.
I could call up Mother in Washington, D.C.
But could she help me?
And all this postal adulation & reproach?

A basis rock-like of love & friendship
for all this world-wide madness seems to be needed.
Epicetus is in some ways my favourite philosopher.
Happy men have died earlier.

I still plan to go to Mexico this summer.
The Olmec images! Chichèn Itzài!
D. H. Lawrence has a wild dream of it.
Malcolm Lowry’s book when it came out I taught to my precept at Princeton.

I don’t entirely resign. I may teach the Third Gospel
this afternoon. I haven’t made up my mind.
It seems to me sometimes that others have easier jobs
& do them worse.

Well, we must labour & dream. Gogol was impotent,
somebody in Pittsburgh told me.
I said: At what age? They couldn’t answer.
That is a damned serious matter.

Rembrandt was sober. There we differ. Sober.
Terrors came on him. To us too they come.
Of suicide I continually think.
Apparently he didn’t. I’ll teach Luke.

Samuel Fisher Dodson: Berryman’s Henry: Living at the Intersection of Need and Art

Dodson, Samuel Fisher (2006), Berryman’s Henry: living at the intersection of need and art, Rodopi
ISBN 9789042016897

For a poet as accomplished and unique and, ultimately, well-known as John Berryman, the field of scholarship focused on his work is remarkably small. Apart from a handful of monographs published in the 1970s and 1980s, Berryman’s work has largely been neglected although now and then a new work surfaced, such as Mariani’s biography Dream Song; The Life of John Berryman in 1990 and Recovering Berryman, edited by the invaluable Richard J. Kelly, in 1993. It is only during the past few years that we can witness something close to a renaissance of John Berryman. In short succession, books like After Thirty Falls: New Essays on John Berryman, edited by Philip Coleman and Philip McGowan, Philip Coleman’s own Berryman’s Fate (which I’ve not yet been able to procure) and Samuel Fisher Dodson’s Berryman’s Henry: Living at the Intersection of Need and Art were published and more are being prepared for publication. Much as I applaud this renascent interest in what must surely be one of the best and most significant American poets after the Second World War, the limited breadth of previous Berryman scholarship demands original readings, readings that draw more from Berryman’s own poetry and thinking than on previously published scholarship. Perceptive critics such as Tom Rogers, writing about “The Life of Berryman’s Christ” in After the Fall have achieved just that and a careful look at that collection and individual articles elsewhere reveals that there are more of those kinds of critics around. Sadly, Samuel Fisher Dodson isn’t one of them.

In his book, Dodson attempts to write a comprehensive study of the Dream Songs. Not a definitive study, mind you, but one which discusses the whole of the Dream Songs, pointing out how they cohere as a whole, what individual motifs are and how they resurface throughout the Songs. As far as I know, as a book-length study devoted exclusively to the Dream Songs, Dodson’s book is rare (the ubiquitous Gary Q. Arpin has written the only other one); I assume you would also be hard pressed to find another book (apart from Haffenden’s Commentary perhaps) that discusses the same amount of Songs. Clocking in at about 170 pages, it’s only to be expected that most of the songs mentioned only get a brief treatment, usually by having a verse or two quoted in defense or support of one of Dodson’s arguments. Dodson also provides rather sweeping accounts of the genre of the epic and the elegy, quoting copiously from a handful of books on the subject, such as Peter Sacks’ The English Elegy. He tries to make a case for Berryman as one of the greats by placing him in the tradition of Homer, Virgil and Dante, an attempt that, while interesting, even intriguing in concept, is executed in a confused and confusing manner. Dodson’s wild mixture of names, of major and minor characters, is less a sustained and reasoned argument and more a riff on books and ideas. It is quite fitting that this is part of the “Prologue” (Dodson’s book has both a “Preface” and a “Prologue”), since the flawed methodological thinking it betrays informs much of the rest of the book as well. Nevertheless, Dodson’s book is comprehensive and it is one of the most extensive studies of the Dream Songs, so far, even though I found it of little use as a work of Berryman scholarship.

Dodson’s book focuses on four major areas, which correspond to his four chapters: Berryman’s language, Berryman’s father, Berryman’s elegies and Berryman’s answers to the existential questions. Although this structure makes sense, Dodson makes very little use of the possibilities of building one chapter upon the results of another. Indeed, the reader is frequently led to wonder whether Dodson suffered a mild kind of amnesia while writing his study. To pick, almost at random, one example out of many: in the first of these chapters, he remarks upon Berryman’s use of the pronoun and discusses “the freedom [Berryman] discovered when he allowed his narrating persona to refer to himself in first, second and third person”, explaining lucidly enough how this mechanism works in Berryman’s poetry and to what ends Berryman uses it. Two chapters later, however, as he discusses different drafts of a dream song and notes that a first person reference has been replaced by a third person reference, these insights are all out the window. Instead, it now turned into a personal choice to better hide grief and feelings. At no point in the book are changes like this ever explained. A similarly baffling case is presented by Dodson’s shuffling about of Berryman and the persona (personas?) of his poems. At no point in the book does Dodson take some time to elaborate upon the relationship between Henry and Berryman; make no mistake, he frequently remarks upon it, but the conclusions he draws from these remarks vary from chapter to chapter. Dodson is content to let the rhetoric of his chapters form the methodology of his book, whereas I hoped to see the reverse taking place, especially with a complex poet like Berryman.

The complexity of Berryman’s work is nevertheless well served by that first chapter, which does a good job of explaining some important aspects of Berryman’s language and form. The fact that a closer look frequently reveals flaws, mistakes or superficial readings doesn’t change that. The chapter is most valuable in its discussion of the poetic form of the dream songs, providing a very good overview of the variations and the constants in Berryman’s use of the form he invented. In other areas, however, Dodson’s performance is less than satisfactory. In his discussion, for example, of Berryman’s use of blackface, Berryman’s source on blackface, Carl Wittke’s Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage, from which one of the epigraphs to the dream songs is taken, is not mentioned (it doesn’t surface in the bibliography either); a theory, however, which isn’t uncontroversial, from what I gather, that reads minstrel shows as white parodies of black parodies of whites, which is a concept with interesting but difficult implications, this theory is nonchalantly introduced in a footnote, while the main body of the text is kept surprisingly free from any trace of other research. In writing about as brilliant a scholar as Berryman, who drew from multiple sources and who could be relied on to provide a complex and glitteringly ambiguous statement on many topics in his work, this is almost insulting. Dodson proceeds to elaborate on the way that the Dream Songs attack racism, but his failure to include research into blackface causes him to miss a few central points, two of which are these: One, Wittke’s book is very interesting. It’s not reprinted today because, from what I read of it so far, it’s faintly racist, Wittke writes approvingly of blackface, he invokes the burnt cork circle with longing. Since Dodson correctly points out Berryman’s concerns with racism, this is an interesting tangent worth pursuing. Another tangent can be derived from the confluence of Berryman’s use of blackface and of his complex evocation and identification with Jews (“The Imaginary Jew” is not just an early story of his, the phrase also resurfaces in the Dream Songs). Even a cursory research into blackface and minstrelsy would have uncovered the intriguing relationship between the Jewish experience in America and blackface (as discussed, for example, in Michael Rogin’s helpful study Blackface, White Noise). None of this is part of Berryman’s Henry and economy does not appear to be the probable reason for that absence.

That was slightly insulting to Berryman, since it ignored the intellectual wealth and strength of his mind, but a different aspect, Dodson’s discussion of Henry’s obsession with sex is problematic in a different way because it ignores a direct reference by Berryman himself. Now, I am not yet sure about the extent to which different parts of Berryman’s work can be connected and whether the author’s intention should carry any weight at all in a work of literary criticism, but since Dodson clearly has no comparable qualms, he must be judged by his own standards. Upon mentioning sexuality, Dodson tells us that Henry “uses sex as a way to feel both alive and needed” and maintains that “Henry’s clouded view that sex will reinforce his ego is revealed for its hollow premise”. I suggest that this reading tells us more about Dodson’s prejudice and boudoir morals than about Berryman’s attitude as expressed in his work. I’m referring, of course, to a rather famous passage in Berryman’s unfinished and only novel Recovery. Berryman describes the protagonist Alan Severance (who, according to Dodson, is Berryman’s “most thinly veiled” persona) as having been “a rigid Freudian for thirty years, with heavy admixture however from Reich’s early work”. It’s easy to see that a consideration of Reichian psychology would shed much light on the issue of sexuality, especially on the scholarly foundations of the aforementioned “hollow premise”. This is not to say that, overall, Dodson may not be right, but that claim, without recourse to Berryman’s sources and his frame of reference, is just utterly baseless. These two instances are not the only ones where Dodson treats Berryman like a hysterical woman instead of a serious scholar, but, apart from the last chapter, where religion gets the exact same treatment, these two are the most blatant and bothersome cases.

The next two chapters are less problematic overall but also less interesting. In the first of these chapters Samuel Fisher Dodson sketches Berryman’s relationship to his father, not failing to mention Paul Mariani’s Courtney Love-esque theory about John Smith’s apparent suicide. This biographical knowledge is then tied into a reading of the Dream Songs as a continuous conflict with paternal figures, a continuous attempt to provide an elegy to his father and the struggle with his own role as a father. While one may take issue with the nonchalant mixing of biographic and literary fact, doing so is pretty orthodox in the realm of Berryman scholarship, so Dodson is hardly to blame. In fact, this chapter is neatly done, with discussions of letters, older drafts of dreams songs. There is little here that exceeds previous scholarship but since the book attempts to provide an introduction of sorts to the Dream Songs, there doesn’t need to be. The only bigger flaw that becomes more obvious in a chapter that is less fraught with other problems, is Dodson’s use of sources, especially those sources that do not talk about Berryman or the Dream Songs. Throughout the book, Dodson quotes extensively from books on the form of the elegy, for example or on the predicament of modern American poetry, at the beginning of the fourth chapter he even spends half a page retelling Pär Lagerkvist’s Barnabas (which is not a book on Berryman nor does Berryman ever refer to it in any way), but he makes no actual use of these quotes. Frequently there are stunning insights or interesting ideas in these quotes but Dodson is apparently content handing them to us. It would make next to no difference to the rest of the text of you were to cut these quotes from it, so little use does Dodson make of it. Each and every one of these quotes feels like an afterthought, added moments before the deadline, not disturbing yet also not enhancing Dodson’s thinking.

What I said about the second chapter, “I repeat that & increase it” (to quote John Allyn) in respect to the third chapter, which is the most stringent, well-constructed and, at the same time, dull of Berryman’s Henry‘s chapters. Here Dodson carefully, slowly and scrupulously recounts Berryman’s elegies, showing how mourning and Berryman’s oft-quoted “epistemology of loss” have as much a part in their construction, as Berryman’s self-image as a writer, and Berryman’s grappling with death. Again, he doesn’t expand the field of Berryman scholarship in any significant way, and again, he is upstaged by the people he quotes, such as Albert Gelpi. Where Gelpi interestingly claims Berryman as a “Neoromantic” who believes “that the word can effect personal and social change” (quoted by Dodson!) Dodson seamlessly goes on to tell us that Berryman “used the elegy to isolate his grief in a world that wants him to move on”, a much less interesting, much less trenchant observation, an observation, indeed, that’s barely worth making, especially since it’s not the first time in the book he’s made a comparable claim. However, it is this chapter’s function to prepare the ground for the last chapter, which is about belief, doubt and death.

Dodson has correctly assumed that question of salvation, of belief, of religious doubt, questions that border on theodicy are most central to Berryman’s literary work. I share that opinion. Berryman’s poetry is deeply invested in theological thinking, as “The Search” from the collection Love & Fame demonstrates, which recounts a lifetime of research. Now, I am aware of the fact that Berryman’s religiosity has frequently been badly served by his scholars, even as insightful and valuable a critic as John Haffenden insists upon all religious reference to be largely personal, secular in nature, leaning towards disbelief; how skewed his opinion in this respect is becomes clear when he reads the Karl Heim reference in “The Search” as proof of Berryman’s need to disbelief, that Berryman “allows that Jesus is an enthusiast”, when that exact reference, if anything, is proof of the opposite, as Tom Rogers in his aforementioned essay pointed out. Dodson, like Haffenden and many others (including historians such as Jennifer Michael Hecht in her study Doubt: A History) confuses doubt with disbelief. Earlier I mentioned the disregard that some critics have for Berryman as a thinker; this disregard is most blatant in this area. Although numerous allusions to Pascal and Kierkegaard should clarify the role of doubt as religious doubt, as part of a religiously informed thinking and search that takes place within the bounds of Christian lore and thinking, although, as Haffenden, in his “Appendix 2” to his Commentary points out, there is a good deal of thinking about Buddhism (similarities with the work of American Catholic Thomas Merton, author of The Seven Storey Mountain are undeniable, though his Asian Journal was published a year after Berryman’s death) in the songs as well. Dodson is similarly wrong and unfaithful to Berryman when he maintains that “Henry rejects God because he sees suffering in the lives of so many”, instead of raising both the question of theodicy and drawing a connection to the Dream Songs’ epigraphs, among which, as he mentions himself, is a quote from the Lamentations. The role of the lamentations has, I think, been severely underestimated, mostly due to the disregard for the complexity of Berryman’s thinking. His reference to Celan in Dream gives his game away. Both the lamentations, as well as the Book of Job, which Haffenden correctly recognizes as another of the poems’ Biblical sources, are, in turn, connected to the death of Henry’s father, mourning and the genre of the elegy. It all ties in with the blackface and Jews and modern horrors as well and is, indeed, the best and most fruitful angle from which to do Berryman scholarship.

None of this, which is in plain sight, is taken up by Dodson, although he prepared the ground for it. One reason may simply be sloppy research. Not only does he not use a good deal of existing Berryman scholarship, he’s also not thorough in his own. This is the only explanation for his reading, in the conclusion of his book, of a stanza in the “11th Adress to the Lord” as containing “praise toward an early Christian Martyr, Germanicus and a loyal servant, ‘Polycarp (…)’”. In fact, the stanza contains a direct quote (minus an ‘and’) from Kirsopp Lake’s translation of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, who is a servant to the Lord. Now, Dodson’s formulation is ambiguous, it could refer to both, but it’s likely he did not understand or research the allusion. However, Dodson’s resistance here is understandable, if not excusable. He needs to create a secular Henry, a modern, disbelieving protagonist who wants to believe but can’t, in order to sustain his thesis which is that Henry is a modern Everyman. This is where he finds Berryman’s significance and it is not a bad place for his study to end up. This study that I have been so dissatisfied with might be palatable or even enjoyable to a novice of Berryman’s work. It’s not a bad work, as introduction; the task has been daunting enough and kudos to Dodson for taking it on. What is a problem is his riding all over the poet he’s so centrally concerned with. He is a thrifty scholar, giving Berryman only as much space as his skewered methodology allows him. He needs Berryman to be a sufferer, a pained secular Christ figure, almost, and the way he pounces on those instances where that aspect of Berryman/Henry becomes clearer is almost distasteful. John Berryman is an exquisite poet and a complex thinker, who thinks through his poetry, frequently, and he deserves a critic who reads him on his own terms, who takes him seriously.


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Invisible Others

Here’s Tabish Khair in The Hindu on reading Rushdie and others as Indian or Caribbean. It’s a bit thin on actual arguments but a very nice read nonetheless.

After a very short period of looking around, the West has increasingly turned its gaze onto itself in recent years. There it stands in front of gilded mirrors, gazing at itself in admiration. What it sees is no longer the whiteness it saw in the far past. What it sees now is multi-hued, variously dressed, many voiced. For, the Western self, particularly in literary and cultural circles, has long accepted the fact of being creolised. Even the opponents of multiculturalism cannot see themselves (thank god for small mercies) as snow white. When the West gazes into its mirrors, it sees its own new post-war multicultural self. It sees Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Hari Kunzru, Zadie Smith. And it likes to pretend that it is seeing the Other. (…) There are other Asian, African, post-colonial writers, but they are hardly visible today. After a short period in which at least some Western critics and writers were genuinely interested in difference, in other cultures — a period that enabled the publication of novels like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart — the West is back to gazing at gilded mirrors. And by chanting the mantra of “global” literature or multiculturalism, the West conveniently forgets that the reflections it sees in those mirrors are, after all, its own.

Ed O’Loughlin: Not Untrue And Not Unkind

O’Loughlin, Ed (2009), Not Untrue And Not Unkind, Penguin
ISBN 978-1-844-88185-7

I used to look forward to the announcement of the Booker long- and shortlist and the eventual winner. Many books and writers I hold dear I pilfered off those lists, but in recent years I’ve found the Booker judges’ decisions and choices frequently bewildering. Now, I’m well aware that people tend to complain about prizes a lot, claiming objective stances for their own peculiar tastes. So, I’m well aware that it’s my literary taste-buds that led me to disliking Hensher’s last novel and loving Rushdie’s most recent. So what I said is not a general complaint about the deterioration of culture or literary prizes, it’s a personal complaint, a dissatisfaction with the reliability of literary authorities. It’s laziness, basically. Thus, it won’t do to start with winners or short-listed writers; as I commenced to do last year, I’ll start reading books at random off of the longlist, hopefully turning up a gem or two. This here, Ed O’Loughlin’s debut novel Not Untrue And Not Unkind is the first of those reads and most certainly not a gem. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be the worst book on this year’s longlist. It’s just a thoroughly bad novel, a disappointment on almost every level, although there is much that is, potentially, interesting about this book’s enterprise, starting with the structure, which appears, at first, to be intriguing.

Not Untrue And Not Unkind contains two narratives, basically, both relayed to us through a first person narrator named Owen, who’s a journalist and reporter. One, we could call it the frame narrative, although that would not be quite true, is set in Dublin, the other is set in various countries in Africa. The Dublin narrative tells us about the inside workings of a newspaper and it is roughly divided into past and present. The past part is about Owen’s faltering career in the newsroom, doing odd jobs, hoping for a promotion, before deciding to try his hand at freelance reporting in Africa. But, as in the Africa section, the contexts and environments are kind of blended into the background while Owen is busy drawing a portrait of the people in these environments (without making any insightful connections between one and the other, really). The character he’s centrally occupied with in these parts, is Cartwright, a mean editor, who keeps tabs on ‘his’ journalists, compiling, as it turns out, extensive reports on each. He enjoys confronting and humiliating them over their mistakes and errors, to which end he invites them out for a coffee where he takes his time to slowly erode and dismember their self-esteem. It is after such a humiliation (although not necessarily because of it) that Owen decides to go to Africa. The present part sets in after Cartwright vanishes and Owen goes through his desk (and, later, his apartment), remembering his past life as a journalist and reporter.

Cartwright is a catalyst of sorts and in one of the final chapters you can clearly see how O’Loughlin means to use this narrative to close the meandering Africa story but the book rather hobbles to a close, adding chapters upon chapters that make the obvious just more obvious; to be honest, I felt manhandled by the author during the closing pages, due to the relief of finishing the book, however, I wasn’t overly bothered by it. But the fact remains that the author doesn’t appear to have confidence in his own creations. The poet James Merrill once, famously, said, roughly, that whenever he stalled in writing a poem, he focused on the objects in the poem, the furniture and things like that. Not Untrue And Not Unkind is not that kind of novel. The environment just consists of props for O’Loughlin’s characters and they themselves are but hastily constructed scaffolds for his plot and other ideas. This is something to regret when encountering characters such as Cartwright, where we can almost smell the wasted potential. Like the close of the book, wasted potential is marked by the reader’s disappointment at the end of the book. Throughout the book I kept thinking there was more good stuff in the back, more good stuff to come, that all this was just preparatory, that it was a lead-in for something that would make reading all the toss worth it, until the great catastrophe near the end disabused me of such a notion. Cartwright’s character is unrealized but then he doesn’t play such a major role in the book.

A much larger role is played by Owen’s fellow journalists in the sections of the book that deal with Africa, and the flaws of O’Loughlin’s characterizations are more of a problem there, as is his disregard for contexts and environments. Superficially, these sections are quite interesting. We, who usually only consume the end product of journalistic work, get to see the photographers and writers at work, but actually, we hear little about that aspect of their lives. When we do, it can be arresting, and O’Loughlin is clearly capable of constructing compelling images, such as a correspondent who is confined to a small room where he talks to TV stations around the world and there, in his chair, in front of the camera he spends his life waiting for the next call, slowly going mad. Images like this are very few and far between. Most of the time, we hear the journalists bicker, drink, fall in and out of love with one another. The group of journalists isn’t a constant entity, people drift in and out again, the only constant is Owen. The literary reference that came to mind when I read the book was Ernest Hemingway’s masterful The Sun Also Rises, which is, I think, one of the best short books of its time, or of its century. One of my favorite novels, in any case.

There is much that connects these two books, but O’Loughlin falls short in almost every respect. Now, it’s no big flaw to fall short of as well made a novel as The Sun Also Rises but it is if the results are as singularly uninteresting as they are in this case. It’s a big risk to assume the stance, to use the tools that Hemingway uses. He himself, in some late novels, showed how easily this kind of writing turns into dullness, into unconvincing posture. What aggravates the problem in Not Untrue And Not Unkind is the fact that everything else that Owen talks about becomes unconvincing as well, and this is a problem with a book that tackles as fickle a subject as African politics and their reflection in the Western media. For a novel of places, a novel that is concerned with all kinds of places in Africa (it does mark places in Africa as places, in contrast to Dublin, which is basically the unmarked backdrop to the whole thing), it is remarkably weak on that count as well. All the African countries are treated as one big ‘African’ country, except for the few passages that contain explicit references to persons and events. This approach completely wipes out any possibility to understand something or to have any kind of insight into any of these events. All we have is a group of vaguely neurotic journalists who travel through Africa, taking notes and pictures. It’s not actually bad, just uninteresting. Disappointing. It’s not moving nor intellectually challenging in any way. It’s just there.

Even the huge amount of violence in the book doesn’t change that. Although, again, O’Loughlin is capable of producing affecting images, as he demonstrates in the story of a man mistakenly left for dead, he makes little enough use of this capability. Mostly, we are confronted with images that are calculated to shock but fail to achieve that goal. There is a weird kind of economy behind this writing, as if the author drew up a table, assigning moments of shock to a portion of the book and moments of emotional distress to others and so forth. They are not genuinely shocking, they are there as objects, the intent to shock in plain sight, which thwarts any opportunity to actually shock or move somebody. However, I may have come to this opinion due to the fact that I was reading a literary novel. Had I encountered the same in a newspaper, in a magazine or something similar, I may not have judged it so harshly; because this, really, is another point of reference for the Africa sections. It all reads rather like routine journalism, spruced up to fit a novel. This explains why it’s so disappointing yet at the same time rather decently written, decently structured, and so on.

The sprucing up also explains why so many ideas appear to be pasted onto the book. One of those ideas is a rather ineptly done metafictional element, with one of the characters writing a thinly disguised memoir with the title “Not Untrue and Not Unkind”, a book that Owen has less than kind words to say about. The infrequent essayistic remarks feel similarly out of place. One of the most memorable one of them is about the changes in journalistic practice which, Owen tells us, is more and more about rewriting, regurgitating the same babble over and over and not going into the field anymore. But, the reader may ask, if these morons in the field, dense as a log of wood, if we source our news from their reports, how is that better? It’s certainly not going to help with insights. Yet, at the same time, this exact question might be one of Not Untrue And Not Unkind‘s points. It is undeniable that there is one, only one, well-drawn character, and that’s Owen himself. His observations, his thoughts, his perceptions, they paint a vivid picture of a deeply unsympathetic person, one who is in a position to help shape public opinion on important issues but who appears to not be qualified to do this in a helpful and satisfying manner. If it was his intention to show this, he succeeded admirably.

It does not, however, make reading the book more of an enjoyable experience. It’s a point well made but the dullness of the whole book can be exhausting, as is the ham-handed way that Owen has with Africa, writing and other issues. At least it’s a light enough read. Maybe it’s a better book than I make it out to be, maybe I’m being misled by my disappointment. But really, even if all this sounds harsh, I’ve been holding back. Some of its portrayal of Africa is highly problematic and having Owen as a lens doesn’t protect the book at all times. If you trust me, don’t read it. It’s not worth your time or your money. Let’s hope it doesn’t get shortlisted.