I find Boston an odd city, beyond the way that the center of it is intensely European. I have difficulties “letting go,” i.e. not working on some project or another, doing research, writing, something like that. I came here to present a paper and as I am wont, I spent much of the previous days rereading sources, cutting and adding some 1000 words. I don’t know how it turned out but what I do know is that now I have “nothing to do” – and I am bad at just relaxing. And I dislike densely planned touristing. What I instead prefer is a kind of dérive. I like feeling out cities by walking in – not a random motion, but one mostly inspired by quick decisions, attractions and angles. People around me don’t like it, but it is my preferred mode of discovering cities. Boston, however, is strangely resistant to it. There is the area where I am staying, an area of large grids, but interesting situations. But “downtown,” between Copley and Harvard Square, and between Packard’s Corner and Boston Harbor seems strangely resistant to that and I am not entirely sure why. Here is the oddest thing about this – sometimes this city makes me think of London. I mean, London is my favorite or second favorite city, and sometimes, when my mind is wandering, my brain prompts me to expect a London landmark. However, I love drifting through London, even with suitcases or tired, or when stressed. London, to me, opens up that way, almost as beautifully as Moscow does, my favorite city to drift through. And yet, despite the similarities, I do not get the same feeling from Boston. None of this is real or objective, but there you go.
I suppose this is true for many cities, but it is remarkable nonetheless: I am staying in a part of Boston that is roughly 30 minutes by bus away from downtown Boston. The area I live in is majority black. I say “majority” but I’ve looked at the clock: it usually takes ~25 minutes until I see the first white person on the bus or on the street, the first person, that is, that isn’t me. The difference to not just downtown but even just the parts that are more equally split is stunning. Just the way healthcare is delivered alone – and the astonishing frequency of churches, many of which are just inside regular houses. On the bus route I am taking there is on average one church per block. But also the poverty. Many of the bus stops are near clinics or “health centers,” and I see people entering and leaving. A disquieting visual, certainly, and it reminds me of how rarely truly open questions about economics are raised here. Someone once said that debates about racial justice, and policing are supplanting debates about economic equity in the US and sometimes, in Boston, it seems like those people are right. In the most affluent part of the center, just off Commonwealth Avenue and Boston Commons, on and around Newbury Street, there are a handful of churches, all of which have banners proclaiming (sometimes in arabic script) that refugees and Muslims are welcome. Two unitarian (I think?) churches even hung a “Black Lives Matter” banner in their window. And yet I wonder how concerned these same churches are about the lack of economic opportunities for the black people whose lives supposedly matter, how concerned they are with the fact that Boston is among the most segregated cities in the country. In an hour, I will get on that bus again, and will take a trip through a part of Boston that many Bostonians I talked to said they wouldn’t set foot in. They say it’s because it’s dangerous. What they mean is, it’s because it’s black.
I’m sorry for the relative silence here. I’ve been finishing my PhD draft and several conference papers and am generally trying to find some financing for said conferences which isn’t looking great, so this is all a bit stressful. Too broke to blog, is, I suppose, the summary of this blog post. But I have a bunch of book reviews in the pipeline. June should be better. I’m giving a paper on Pasternak in Boston this week and I can see a review of Dr. Zhivago coming out of the whole stressful mess. 🙂 So, stick around, come by now and then and maybe you’ll be surprised. 🙂 Have a lovely week. PS. SHould I blog from Boston?
I feel like I should tell you this but you are not someone who likes this kind of soppy sentimentality, so I am saying it here in a language you do not understand.
Today I talked to you on Mother’s Day and you expressed your feeling of maybe not having been a particularly great mother. I cannot possibly stress enough how wrong you are.
I have always had difficult emotions, have had emotional and personal conflicts that have led me all the way to a mental hospital. Through all this time I have been able to rely on your love. We all have in our family. For the longest time, my idea of love and family was a group of people that stick together even through the worst trouble, who may argue and fight, but who, ultimately, stick it out. That I lost it isn’t your fault. And these days, as I am slowly regaining it, I lean on your love, even at my advanced age.
I have never quite fit the categories and expectations placed upon me. Uncomfortable with professional, religious and gender categories, I have never felt pressure at home to conform to any particular role. The only thing you always wanted from me was my happiness. I cannot tell you how important that was to a strange teenager who read books on trees, secretly used nail polish sometimes and is erratically agnostic in his religious beliefs.
I have needed protection from my father in various ways throughout most of my life – and I have always been able to rely on you to provide it; even when I should have been able to protect myself, at least emotionally, you had my back, literally. In our small family, our almost claustrophobic family life, you created room for me to be safe, to be myself, to simply be.
You don’t know that I am a poet today, but I wouldn’t have been a poet without you, without your example of being willful and creative. I couldn’t have pushed past reasonable limits into trying to still work academically and poetically without having you in my life whether you know it or not. I have always tried to make you proud, even if you don’t know.
From you I learned how to love, how to be myself, how to persevere even in the most difficult situations. I am currently tangled in the manifold webs of your native language which isn’t mine. I don’t know whether I can ever truly communicate as clearly with you as I wish I could. As I appear to be the most healthy member of my family, despite all my unhealthy habits, I am terrified by the idea of losing you. I cannot possibly express my gratitude for the enormity of your influence on my life.
Thank you, mom.
Greg, Wioletta, Swallowing Mercury, Portobello
[Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak]
Look, it’s not that I regretted reading this book; it was, after all, fairly short. On the other hand, I’m not particularly elated about the fact either. The novel by Wioletta Grzegorzewska (who writes under the name Wioletta Greg) is fine. It’s okay. Swallowing Mercury is a solid entry into the canon of books on growing up. Much like many books in the genre, it’s written in short vignettes, which largely center around the way the world of things shaped this young Polish girl’s early life. It’s actually quite remarkable how overall pleasant this book is despite the decidedly unpleasant things that have apparently happened to Greg’s protagonist, young Wiola, including sexual assault and the death of her father. Part of that impression is due to the calm voice of the protagonist who talks about her life with a kind of detached air of curiosity and equanimity. Much of the book follows story-lines we probably expect from this kind of fiction. The overlap of objects and bodies, the examination of religion in her life, some elements of village humor (a trickster figure, here, the grandfather) and grotesquery and some unpleasant evocation of the discovery of sexuality. The incipient dullness of it all is forestalled by the author’s deft use of these elements and her intelligent connection of various elements, making the novel resonate with its themes again and again. The book is well written – or maybe well edited, that’s hard to tell, because all of the skill in the novel is structural. The writing is lamentably flat. Since I don’t know any Polish, I cannot tell whether the dullness of the writing is the author’s fault or the translators, but the novel exemplifies the worst qualities of so-called sparse and simple writing. Writing simply is, as I probably said before, much more difficult than writing a solid text in ornate prose. Swallowing Mercury’s prose isn’t always bad, but it is always inconsistent, and never particularly interesting. This is the kind of prose narrative where one gets the distinct impression that the author (or the translator) wasn’t extraordinarily interested in how the book works on a sentence by sentence level (in contrast to “genre” writers like Brian Evenson, by the way). This is not necessarily bad, but when that approach is wedded to a “simple” style, the result is not particularly enchanting. And in a book that uses so many well-worn elements, with political asides sometimes awkwardly shoehorned in, the writing is particularly important. As it is, Swallowing Mercury is a light, pleasant read. You won’t regret it, but with so many other books to read, I mean, why would you read this one?
Wioletta Greg is a poet, which makes me think the blame for the writing should be placed at the feet of the translator maybe. But maybe I’m just a bit put out by the “Translator’s Note.” Usually that note explains words and terms, explains why certain choices were made over others, sometimes maybe some background is offered, but in this case, the “note” is basically like a regular afterword, offering a cohesive reading of the book in light of its political and historical background. It doesn’t just explain facts that are unclear to the reader who isn’t well versed in the history of Poland in the 1980s, it also explains and elaborates on suggestions that are clear to the reader. The only real “translator’s note,” i.e. the only remark that discusses her work on the novel, is a short paragraph towards the end: in it we discover that the book’s title, which is also the title of one of its chapters/anecdotes, wasn’t the title of the book when it was published in Polish. It was, in English, “unripe fruit,” which, in hindsight, makes a ton of sense, as the novel consistently alludes to its title directly and indirectly. After I spent an hour reading a book and connecting its various elements to the title and that specific story in my head (after all, it is a book that asks for, even requires this kind of reading, spinning a web like the holy spiders that recur in the novel), I was a bit put out that the structure I imagined was created by the translator or the publisher or both; who knows. So maybe that’s why I suspect a sloppy translation here rather than a carelessly prosaic writer.
The book has two main themes threaded throughout: one are the fruits of the (original) title. Ripe and unripe fruits are present in many moments of Wiola’s life. The sticky juice from raspberries is smeared over her face as she first meets her father after his release from prison, she is arms deep in sour cherries when she meets, dirty and disheveled, an ex-boyfriend at a fair, unripe fruit are eaten, strawberries and finally, her father, who leaves her again at the end of the novel, tells her he always considered himself an unripe fruit on the inside. There are echoes of fruits in the way the body treats bodily fluids and other wet things, most remarkably, her period and the mercury of the (English) title. The insistent, and sometimes quite gently and skillfully done, mirroring of different elements connects these various things in sometimes powerful and interesting ways. The book begins with various Catholic rites, but never allows religion to be a transformative element. Neither eucharist nor confirmation are accorded that place – instead, we have Wiola “swallowing mercury,” an element associated with transformation, and we have the pagan webs of various juices and fluids that are involved in shaping this girl. It is accidents that push her to become who she is. This novel is very emphatically not a Bildungsroman. Wiola is nudged, pushed, and she demurs, acquiesces, follows the paths suggested by others. Not until the very final page do we see her make a firm, autonomous decision, and even then, it is presented as Wiola choosing one current to drag her rather than another. In this, Wiola is certainly her father’s child – he still considers himself an unripe fruit, internally. If you start reading a novel about childhood called “unripe fruit,” as polish readers of the novel did, the expectation is to see the fruit ripen, expectations formed by many other books in the genre. But, the novel suggests, maybe some people always remain unripe fruit inside, aging only outside, from the years and events that the world has forced on them.
The second theme of the novel is the father. His presence and absence form, more or less, the beginning and end of the book, and his travails offer the book’s most potent metaphor: taxidermy. Wiola’s father is a passionate taxidermist, who cannot keep up with the dead animals in his house. As we learned in the 1980s from Donna Haraway’s magnificent essay on taxidermy (“Teddy Bear Patriarchy”), modern taxidermy was put in the service of realism, of creating the magic of epiphany from within the world of modern man’s tools and concepts. If I don’t misremember, Haraway insists that this is a continuation of the enlightenment-borne attempts to contain and categorize nature, but to offer, to the audience, a magic situation that appears to remove all traces of man’s hand from the created product. It is creating a story and then hiding all the elements of creation. Wioletta Greg’s use of taxidermy as the father’s predominant metaphor (much as his daughter’s are fruits, ripe and unripe) is her most impressive trick. It allows her to connect the various single stories in the book, about childhood, about womanhood, as well as the single story of socialism, using the opaque figure of taxidermy as the connecting element. It is also an explanation for the novel’s refusal of the enlightenment genre of the Bildungsroman, built right into the narrative. In many ways, Swallowing Mercury is a novel about secrets, but really, it is a novel about that which we cannot know or contain. The animal elements of our world prove to be uncontainable for the father, who is poisoned by an angry critter; similarly, adulthood, as viewed through the eyes of a young girl, is something that is opaque. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t plan for it. You just go. Wiola, Greg’s protagonist, is pushed, and occasionally resists, but she goes on, inevitably. One wishes Wioletta Greg (or her translator) had found a better language for this the overall interestingly structured book. Grzegorzewska lives in England. Maybe she’ll write her next novel in English and allow us to take a full measurement of her achievement as a writer without the tempering pen of a translator.
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Chessex, Jacques (2009), Un Juif Pour L’exemple, Grasset
[English edition: Chessex, Jacques, A Jew Must Die, Bitter Lemon Press
translated by W. Donald Wilson]
I’ve long meant to write something about the Swiss novelist and poet Jacques Chessex, whose work I admire greatly. Today’s election pushed me to reread the last novel he published during his lifetime (it’s not his final novel, two additional novels were published posthumously), the searing and quite excellent A Jew Must Die. The sensational English title hides the matter-of-fact nature of the book. In French, its title is Un Juif Pour L’Exemple (~ “a Jew to make an example of”) and while some of the leading characters in the book are indeed subsumed by hate, the murder at the center of the book is based on political calculations, in addition to antisemitic hatred. The story had been told in a book and documentary in the 1970s (“Le crime nazi de Payerne – Un juif tué pour l’exemple”), hence the title of the original novel. The murder and its description is horrifying, but this is not about the murder per se. Chessex wrote a novel about the village he was born in and the social context in which a murder like this could have arisen. The novel shows us the complacent, maybe complicit village population, and a police force that doesn’t particularly care about the fate of this missing Jew. The reaction to the novel’s publication, finally, that treated Chessex with anger and derision, confirms the quiet anger that spurred Chessex to write a book about an event that both anticipates the Shoah and exemplifies much that led to it. Chessex’s writing in the novel is excellent, using a nominally neutral, sober style, but infusing it with passion, with occasional cascades of rhetoric and description. The description of the murder, with its three entrances, like a dark mirror of a fairy tale quest, is terrifying and compelling. Everything about this novel, except for its size, is enormous; towering above it all is the conscience and care of Chessex and his literary and historical conscience. I don’t think it is his best novel necessarily (from the ones I read, I think both L’Ogre and Hosanna are slightly better?), but it is a very good novel and certainly better than most fiction that is published about the Shoah these days. Chessex was a great writer and this novel shows why: a sharp intelligence, sense of style and conscience combined to create this dense but essential book. I have not read the translation, and while the change in titles makes me worry a bit, the novel doesn’t pose obvious linguistic puzzles, so I can’t see why the translation shouldn’t be fine. Read this book in whatever form you can find it. It is very good.
A Jew Must Die is based on a true story which the inhabitants of the village in question would love to forget. It’s ancient history! tells him one of the antisemites he portrays in the book upon meeting him 25 years after the events (though this particular person regrets nothing). An ardent Nazi, an antisemitic priest, and some farmers get together and decide to murder a Jew as a sign to all the other Jews who are sucking the lifeblood from the country, as they see it. Chessex is clear to distinguish between the general opinion and resentment towards Jews, which is generally shared in the area at the time, and the gruesome murder of the specific Jew in the novel, which is undertaken in secret by a small group of people. They decide to make an example of one of the Jews and pick a local merchant. After murdering him (in a spectacularly written scene, as I said), they cut him up and stuff him into milk cans like the one on the cover of the English edition. I’m not really spoiling you here – Chessex doesn’t rely on that kind of suspense. He introduces the Jew who will be murdered pretty late – he’s more interested in the social and psychological description of the murderers. Villages being villages, eventually they are found out, and convicted to jail sentences of varying lengths. The antisemitic priest fled the country and moved to Germany where he was arrested after the war and extradited to Switzerland. Yet there is no sense of relief in that. No jail can erase the tragedy from history – and moreover, the fellow villagers, murmuring assent to calumnies hurled at Jews in bars and casual conversations, have not been jailed or even prosecuted, not having committed a crime in the conventional sense.
While the events have happened as described, and all the people in the novel go by their real names, Chessex never makes the documentary character of the novel into a character in the book that competes with the horrifying events described within, in stark contrast to the vain self-reflections in books like Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which I like less with every year that passes. My too favorable review is here. There are a few asides, some conversations with the reader about plausibility but they don’t serve to undercut the story, they just underline the authorial urgency that powers the whole novel. Chessex never discusses or cites his sources, but since he was a boy when the murder happened, and the principal actors all went on trial, he has access to both firsthand knowledge and an obvious source of documentation. Yet by not discussing this, we are not asked to admire his skill or ability to research or present the information, we are free to deal with the nature of what happened. He devotes one single chapter to reflections about himself and his motivations in writing the book, but he closes with remarks on the murder victim’s funeral. The self-reflections are primarily meant to assuage the writer’s guilt – not in inventing details, but in writing fiction about the Shoah at all. “Je raconte une histoire immonde et j’ai honte d’en ecrire le moindre mot,” he writes, and it is a testament to his writing that we fully believe that he feels conflicted and shameful about writing this book. In Binet’s book, an assertion like that would have smelled of a performance of shame, and yet in Chessex writing, it becomes part of the urgent fabric of the book. Writing about the events makes the author complicit, in a sense, but coming from the same village, going to school with the children of the murderers already puts the author in a difficult situation. The novel ends on a prayer for forgiveness and we understand. There are people who are able to shrug off the way they are complicit in the horrors of this world, and it never fails to stun me. Chessex goes down a different path: understanding what happened and why it happened is step one to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
I may have reread the book today because of the possibility of Marine LePen becoming President of France, in connection with the French language of the book and the rural support of the FN in France. It seemed fitting. However. Chessex is a Swiss writer and the two books that most came to mind upon rereading this one are also Swiss. They are two plays by Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, two of Switzerland’s best writers in all of that country’s literary history. Both spent a good deal of their writing life criticizing Switzerland, and criticizing the Swiss role during the Third Reich. Frisch’s play Andorra, read by practically all German high school students at some point, focuses on the mob mentality of hate, as does Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit. Frisch doesn’t name anyone, in fact, his play is a thought exercise, not even naming Jews as the persecuted group, and Dürrenmatt’s play is even further removed from the historical background. Both, however, manage to describe with remarkable skill how volatile villages and small towns can be if given the right ideology and the right solution to perceived problems. However, their playful distance to historical events, the authorial insistence on cleverness and skill over historical urgency has always felt a bit off to me. If you look at Frisch’s reaction to and treatment of Celan, you should feel an even stronger sense of unease. Jacques Chessex wrote a novel that insists on the historical and local roots of the events that happened; you can’t abstract from the facts without losing some vital elements. Both Frisch and Dürrenmatt’s plays are important, but the extraordinary quality of Chessex novel becomes more pronounced when you compare it to the work of fellow French writers.
Chessex’s novel caused outrage in his home village. Insults rained, ranging from articles, speeches to a carnival float showing the writer pulling a bunch of milk cans out of which bones poked, in essence confirming much the author didn’t make entirely explicit. Payenne, even many decades after the murder, is still Payenne. There is a straight line leading from the events of the novel to us today, the contingency of history, and this book, quiet and angry, gruesome and sad, offers us a link. As a German, this link between 1940s hate and today’s population rings true, as does the wish to forget about history. My East German grandmother’s village used to have a small, but infamous concentration camp but nobody in the village ever mentions it or likes it being mentioned. It’s a village full of people complicit in unbelievable crimes against humanity where nobody ever talks about it, except to discuss tales of being sometimes hungry during war time. Today, the village’s youth is full of current or former neo-nazis and nobody sees the connection. German culture and literature performs shame, dishonest, with a slight self-righteous twist. It is what makes so much of German literature not written by immigrants so dull, as I’ve noted here and there. Care and honesty in this literature is rare these days. So as someone feeling the need for an écriture like that, Jacques Chessex’ achievement shines even brighter. Jacques Chessex was a fantastic writer and Un Juif Pour L’Exemple is an important, a great novel – and I’m not sure the title and layout picked by Bitter Lemon Press are entirely appropriate, but my misgivings are entirely overshadowed by the gratitude I feel for the fact that they translated this book to begin with. There’s also a movie out, directed by Jacob Berger. I have not been able to get my hands on a copy, virtual or physical, yet, but as far as I can tell, Berger includes the reaction to the novel as part of the movie’s story, which is an interesting and laudable decision. I cannot vouch for the movie but I can vouch for the novel. Read it. That is all. PS. If you have an idea how I can get my fingers on that dang movie, please tell me.
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Anthony (on Twitter as @timesflow) asked people on Twitter to talk about their personal canon – and since I am emotionally unwell today and can’t get anything done I decided to give this a stab. It’s hard, I love making lists as much as anyone and I admire a great many writers and novels, but I’m going to list the writers and books that 1) I would take with me if I had to move and get rid of 99% of my personal library or that I would immediately rebuy if my apartment burns to the ground and 2) had the biggest impact on me as a writer and reader. As a result this list skews more German and more towards older books, despite so many excellent books coming out recently. I’m also limiting myself to 20 fiction books, 20 nonfiction books and 20 poets because, I mean, you know. I’m also writing this in one sitting. I mean the list would probably look different tomorrow. Who knows. Finally, only one book per writer.
I have one exception: the following 15 writers I cannot possibly pick one book and skip all others. Their whole oeuvre is important to me, in different genres and across many volumes (paradigmatic here is probably Thomas Bernhard who is one of my favorite poets, playwrights and novelists and whose books in all three genres I’ve been reading since I was a teenager). Not on this particular list, but on lists lower, writers where I do place importance on their complete work, but whose complete work basically fits into one book (i.e. Emily Dickinson, Hertha Kräftner).
- Ingeborg Bachmann (Malina is the single novel by anyone. living or dead, that is most important to me)
- Herman Melville
- Uwe Johnson
- Paul Celan
- Iris Murdoch
- Sarah Kane
- Sam Beckett
- Thomas Bernhard
- Alfred Döblin
- Christa Wolf
- Heinrich v. Kleist
- Elfriede Jelinek
- Jean Rhys
- Heiner Müller
- Gustave Flaubert
- Gerald Murnane
- John Berryman
- Emily Dickinson
- Boris Pasternak
- Hilde Domin
- James Merrill
- Delmore Schwartz
- Hart Crane
- Sylvia Plath
- Peter Huchel
- Rose Ausländer
- Ted Hughes
- Elizabeth Bishop
- Philip Larkin
- Ezra Pound
- Christine Lavant
- Thomas Brasch
- John Ashbery
- James Wright
- Hans-Magnus Enzensberger
- Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
- William Gaddis, Recognitions
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov (narrowly didn’t make the list of 15 writers, because I dislike The Idiot)
- Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks
- Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day (really, would be on 15 writers list above, if not for my dislike of early prose and Lot 49)
- Don DeLillo, Libra
- Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans
- Proust, the whole Récherche, but particularly Le côté de Guermantes
- Irmtraud Morgner, Trobadora Beatriz
- Samuel R. Delany, Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand (should probably be on the 15 writers list above)
- Hans Henny Jahnn, Fluß ohne Ufer
- A.L. Kennedy, Everything You Need
- Henry James, Wings of the Dove
- Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
- Lawrence Norfolk, The Pope’s Rhinoceros
- Josef Winkler, Das wilde Kärnten
- Harold Brodkey, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode
- Patrick White, The Vivisector
- Robert Walser, Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet
- Hemingway, The Sun Als0 Rises
- Yukio Mishima, The Sea of Fertility
- E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class
- Wilhelm Reich, Die Massenpsychologie des Faschismus
- Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen
- Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic
- Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa
- Thomas Browne, The Major Works
- Adorno/Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung
- Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity
- Louis Althusser et al., Lire Le Capital
- James Clifford, Routes
- Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man
- Wilhelm Dilthey, Der Aufbau der Geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften
- Emmanuel Lévinas, Totalité et Infini
- Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
- Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Soziologische Theorie der Erkenntnis
- Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History
- Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode
- Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse