Rumaan Alam: Leave the World Behind (Ecco, 2020)

There it was again: shuffle, a voice, a quiet murmur, a presence. A disruption, a change. Something. This time Amanda was more certain. Her heart quickened. She felt sober, awake. She put her cup down on the marble counter, quietly—suddenly that seemed right, to move stealthily. “I heard something.” She was whispering.
Such moments, Clay was called upon. He had to be the man. He didn’t mind it. Maybe he liked it. Maybe it made him feel necessary. From down the hall, he could almost hear Archie, snoring like a sleeping dog. “It’s probably just a deer in the front garden.” “It’s something.” Amanda held up a hand to silence him. Her mouth was metallic with fear. “I know I heard something.”
There it was, undeniable: noise. A cough, a voice, a step, a hesitation, that uncategorizable animal knowledge that there’s another of the species nearby and the pause, pregnant, to see if they mean harm. There was a knock at the door. A knock at the door of this house, where no one knew they were, not even the global positioning system, this house near the ocean but also lost in farmland, this house of red bricks painted white, the very material the smartest little piggy chose because it would keep him safest. There was a knock at the door.

This was not at all the book I expected it to be. That’s not a complaint: I wasn’t sure how the book I expected could possibly live up to they hype I’d heard. Now I understand how: by being a different book.

Descriptions typically read something like: A white couple rents a vacation house, then an older black couple show up, say they’re the owners, and there’s been some sort of blackout in the city, can they stay in the house. Naturally this sets the scene for racial tensions. It sounded a bit like Six Degrees of Separation (which the book mentions). But no one would say much about anything else, though there were indications that something else was going on. Not since The Sixth Sense have I felt such a refusal to reveal. I was driven by curiosity more than anything else: what could possibly happen, given the initiating event, that would be so surprising?

Well, for one thing, there’s more than one initiating event, and the knock at the door is just the first one.

Granted, that knock leads to some interesting moments, including a bit of casual racism (“This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house where black people lived. But what did she mean by that?”) and some class envy. For that matter, race and class run through the whole thing. But it’s not a dramatic version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (which the book also mentions, with a twinkle of humor). Nor does it disintegrate into a white-vs-black doubles match of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And no, I’m not going to tell you where it does go.

I will point out how all the usual markers, the guideposts we use to understand  fiction, the details that set expectations, are confounded. It’s right there in the paragraph above: a red brick house painted white, near ocean but in farmland, and lost to GPS. Amanda: “….it was unclear whether she was guest or host. She liked clarity about the role she was meant to discharge.” But there is no clarity. And we, too, as readers, are off the literary grid. And as the story tells us, “The brain abets the eye; eventually your expectations of a thing supersede the thing itself”, but when those expectations are contorted by conflicting messages, how do you get your bearings? You just let the story be what it is, as uncomfortable as that may be.

In an interview with Emma Straub, Alam addressed this kind of open, rolling genre idea directly. He said he wanted to “push through the vacation novel (a very specific thing) into the political novel; to go through the domestic into the very big.” He definitely achieved that. He also talks about dropping in elements from genre fiction – horror, thriller, suspense – but not following the expectations. “If the narrative chooses to deal with that in a way that you are not necessarily expecting, it can feel electric, and weird, and fun.” Yes, it can. It can feel like you’ve lost your GPS, your Wi-Fi.

Rose saw a deer, with abbreviated velvet antlers and a cautious yet somehow also bored mien, considering her through dark, strangely human eyes.
She wanted to say “A deer” but there was no one there to hear her. She looked over her shoulder into the house and saw her parents talking. She wasn’t supposed to go in the pool, but she wasn’t going to go in the pool. She walked down the steps onto the damp grass and the deer just watched her, barely curious. She hadn’t even seen that there was another beside it – no more. There were five deer, there were seven; every time Rose adjusted her eyes to try to understand what she was seeing, she was seeing something new. There were dozens of deer. Had she been up higher, she’d have understood that there were hundreds, more than a thousand, more than that, even. She wanted to run inside and tell her parents, but she also wanted to just stand there and see it.

The narration has an interesting twist to it. Most of the time it’s head-hopping: close third-person from one character then another. But eventually, a broader view pops in, just for a  moment in a few scattered places, which orients the main in a wider frame. In the quote above, this was the first occurrence of this that I noticed. While in this case the broader view is peculiar; later glances will be increasingly alarming. For me, this was reassuring; I was reading correctly, I wasn’t on some flight of fancy, and the narrator – the author – hadn’t left me behind.

To me, the book didn’t so much end as it just stopped. This would normally be a big flaw, but here it worked. And it’s maybe why so many readers are talking about it as the book that captures the off-GPS feeling of the pandemic, and the political tensions of the moment, though, published in the fall of 2020, it was obviously written before we were using words like pandemic and before the pro-life party turned out to be anti-public-health, before  anyone dreamed the Capitol could be attacked and the party of law and order wouldn’t want to investigate the origins. The book has the same feeling as some of us have now: we’re waiting to get back to normal, or for a new normal, but normal is nowhere to be seen.

I’m still trying to figure out if I “liked” the book; I’m in something like a state of literary shock. I’m waiting to see if it comes back to me over the coming weeks and months, and in what ways, particularly this idea of being “not lost but not quite not lost.” That feels more important than “what a great read” anyway.

I’m very glad I read it, though not for the reasons I thought I would be. Who needs GPS, just look at the scenery and enjoy wherever you are.

Wilton Barnhardt: Gospel (St. Martin’s, 1993)

I had lost my faith, Josephus.

I’ve always been a little embarrassed by my great fondness for this novel. It’s one of the books I used to read about once a year – all 773 pages –  back before I started living on the internet, blogging, and taking moocs. When I put it on my re-read list for this year, I wondered: would I find it a bit silly, a kind of Dan-Brown-writes-Indiana-Jones thing, the historical and religious background material that so captivated me now recognized as trivial at best, invented at worst? Would the characters – a cantankerous alcoholic professor, having failed academically and personally, out to redeem himself but unable to get along with anyone, a young earnest grad student sent to track him down who becomes enmeshed in his project against his will and hers – annoy me as stereotypes rather than captivate me as flawed people doing their best to recapture their own faith?

When you put it that way, this sounds like a really stupid book.

But it isn’t. And, in fact, as I re-read it this time, I discovered something I couldn’t have seen when I last read it about ten years ago: it’s Kierkegaard. At least, it’s what I think of as Kierkegaard. Granted, I’m no expert – and I’ve barely scratched the surface for this particular philosopher – but the thought crept in about halfway through, only to be strengthened by the final sentences. I went looking for more info on Kierkegaard, particularly his views on subjective vs objective truth, on faith vs reason, and his complaints against the church as an institution vs religion as personal experience. And I become more convinced: this is Kierkegaard.

The overall story of the novel can be summed up quite simply:  Patrick O’Hanrahan, a theology professor at the University of Chicago who’s been on the way down for a long time, is searching for a gospel rumored to be written in the first century, the earliest gospel recorded, written by an actual disciple rather than cobbled together from notes and letters a hundred years later. It’s been floating around for decades, but was considered untranslatable and/or heretical and/or dangerous, and bounced from one place to another between rich collectors and institutions academic and religious. A scholar-priest claimed to be deciphering it, but he met with an unfortunate, um, accident and the scroll disappeared. And now, it’s turned up again.

The problem is, O’Hanrahan has fallen off the radar screen since heading for Europe on his quest. The University sends Lucy Dantan, naïve and sheltered graduate student torn between her rigid Catholic background and academia, to find him. O’Hanrahan doesn’t particularly want to be found, especially by some dewy-eyed innocent. Nevertheless, she persisted, and found him. Then she decided to go home. Then she persisted again, then decided to go home, etc etc, and they travel through Northern Ireland, Italy, Greece, Jerusalem, Egypt, and Sudan over the course of a month or so, chasing the elusive Gospel and looking for research materials that will lead to its translation. And, in doing so, dealing with kidnappers, spies, mad monks, zealots, illness, and a language that will not yield to translation.

The gospel itself is embedded in the novel, a chapter preceding each change of venue.

Textual note: Throughout the gospel, the editor has arranged the text in paragraphs, punctuating as seemed reasonable, and using quotes in the dialogue for easier reading. The editor has endeavoured to retain a bit of the self-important and stilted tone of this confession, reminiscent of the Byzantine church historian Eusebius, but of an earlier era.

This is something of a self-spoiler – here is the Gospel, translated, edited, and notated, so someone must have had success finding and reading it – but there are other possibilities: what if it’s consigned to flames at the end, and  what is recorded exists only in the minds of the participants? Or what it if’s discovered to be a forgery, all that work down the drain?

It doesn’t really matter, because the story I’ve outlined isn’t what the book is about; it’s merely the engine, how it gets to what it’s about. And it is, as the first line states, about finding one’s faith. The three main characters – O’Hanrahan, Lucy, and the writer of the gospel – all have lost different kinds of faiths in different ways, and the book is about how they find it again. 

O’Hanrahan looked once more to the spires and would have prayed for a second chance to use his gifts anew, more wisely this time, more productively, if he thought such a prayer would be heard, let alone answered. Or if he thought prayer worked at all and wasn’t the vainest waste of words yet conceived.
(You have lost your faith, Patrick.)
“I have lost my faith,” he said aloud to the rain-soaked night.

Oh, wait – there is a fourth main character: God. Or, maybe more accurately, the Holy Spirit. It appears in parentheticals throughout the book, and as a literary device serves many functions: to point out a character’s misunderstanding or self-delusion, as foreshadowing, and sometimes as conversation. O’Hanrahan refers to “the voices,” indicating he’s heard them before, and engages in some back-and-forth. Lucy seems to be responding to something she interprets as her own thoughts, conscience, perhaps, though it’s unclear. What is clear is that these aren’t psychotic voices or delusions, since the Voice of God persists when no one hears it. And sometimes, it’s just to inject some humor. Yes, God has a sense of humor:

Lucy was a born worrier. Between the plane crashing and dealing with Dr. O’Hanrahan, whose ferocious presence she had witnessed in lecture halls a time or two, her body pumped and adrenaline of incessant worry….. [S]he looked out to see London in a soup of low-lying rain clouds. Oh thank you, Father, Jesus, and Holy Ghost, for delivering me safe and sound!
(No problem.)
Although, then again, most planes crash on takeoff or landing.
(This is not the fighting spirit we might have hoped for, Lucy.)

With O’Hanrahan, the humor is more sophisticated, but he’s up to the challenge, as when he finds himself ill in Jerusalem, and discouraged because of the problems with getting his hands on the scroll, for one thing, and figuring out the undeciphered language it seems to contain:

… And now in the Holy City of Jerusalem in the middle of the night on a deserted street with goddam Mt. Ararat between me and my bottle of pills – no, not Ararat with the dove and olive branch, but Pisgah, Mt. Nebo! With the Promised Land of his worldly ambitions glimmering at him from the valley, unreachable! And the Lord said to O’Hanrahan, this is the scroll that I swore to those before thee, and I will give it to thy rivals. I have let thee see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not translate it and make a pile of money.
(Because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people at the waters of Jack Daniels, in the wilderness of Jamisons…)
God the Heckler, now. Catcalls from the cheap seats!

Refer to Deuteronomy 32; this is a variation of God’s punishment of Moses for his impatience 40 years before, by taking him to Pisgah to look at Canaan, but not to enter. And come to think of it, most of the times when O’Hanrahan and the Voice of God converse, it’s when the professor is ill.

Now, what does all this have to do with Kierkegaard?

I see two, possibly three or four, uses of his ideas, all of which relate to each other. First is his concern, written in his journal at age 22, about finding the purpose of his life:

What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.

Kierkegaard, Journal 1A

For O’Hanrahan, this comes up, as in the quote above, when he realizes he’s squandered his talents and produced little. As a young man, he translated a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls and made a name for himself, but hasn’t published since, and that “publish or perish” thing is taken quite seriously, even for those who have made a name. He later looks at the bookshelf of his friend the Rabbi Hersch, and thinks of the books he could have written, but didn’t.

The first-century gospelist also has a similar moment when he realizes he’s been on the wrong path all along. He has been publishing, writing, though his works have mostly been destroyed (one burned by Peter himself). His travels in search of faith take him to visit Peter; when he mournfully admits he can’t perform healings or other miracles, Peter attempts to console him, but the effect is anything but, as he records in his Gospel:

A moment later, upon reflection, Peter volunteered a confession to ease my feelings: “My brother… I’ve never spoken in tongues. Yes, John gets to jabbering and I nod along pretending I understand. I’m frankly embarrassed; it looks so silly. Even at the Pentecost, I didn’t learn anything that I already didn’t know. Some people get some gifts and others others. Like Paul. He’s never healed a sore joint, to my mind – ah, but the difference he has made to us! A Roman and fine scholar that he is!”
And then I understood.
O bitter my revelation!
I saw clearly that it was to be my lot to teach and evangelize, to take my fortune and travel with the Nazirene message to the Gentiles, to dictate epistles like Saul’s to be read throughout the Church, to be revered and studied. And I did not do it! And therefore our Lord and Master, impatient but resolute, appeared by the grace of Our Father and recruited someone else – Saul of Tarsus! Mine enemy! The man I reviled! He was but fulfilling the mission that I did not complete!
I found myself weeping hopelessly before Peter.
‘I am a failure in the eyes of God,” I told him.
“But so are we all, dear friend,” he replied.

Lucy’s dilemma is different, as she hasn’t yet begun her career and still isn’t sure what it is she is working towards. Her dissertation on changes in Greek alphabets is dragging; when she describes it, she assures O’Hanrahan it’s more interesting than she’s making it sound, and the Voice of God mutters, (Not really). But she doesn’t know what else to do. She still considers her teenage idea of becoming a Poor Clare, but isn’t sure that suits her, either. By the end of the book, she has a much clearer vision.

While her revelation is life-changing and inspiring, it’s a decision she makes in connection with it that bothers me as a reader (I’m being discreet in the interests of limiting spoilers). In a novel where necessity of decisions is dictated by motivations, this decision seems less necessary than the others. I feel a little authorial intrusion here, the author’s wish to include a particular resolution, rather than it springing from the character herself. Her changing attitude toward the catechism seems pushed a bit too far. That may or may not be an accurate impression. It is a new impression on this read; I didn’t give it a second thought in earlier reads.

The clearest (to me, at least) Kierkegaardian aspect uses his idea of subjective vs. objective truth as the key to faith. This is related to his “leap of faith” (which both the journal of the College Theological Society and the TV show The Good Place, as well as various other sources inside and outside of Academia) will tell you is better translated as “leap to faith”. Religious faith, he argues, is not found by reason; in fact, it’s the uncertainty that makes it faith.

When subjectivity is truth, the definition of truth must also contain in itself an expression of the antithesis to objectivity, a memento of that fork in the road, and this expression will at the same time indicate the resilience of the inwardness. Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person. At the point where the road swings off (and where that is cannot be stated objectively, since it is precisely subjectivity), objective knowledge is suspended. Objectively he then has only uncertainty, but this is precisely what intensifies the infinite passion of inwardness, and truth is precisely the daring venture of choosing the objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite. I observe nature in order to find God, and I do indeed see omnipotence and wisdom, but I also see much that troubles and disturbs. The summa summarum [sum total] of this is an objective uncertainty, but the inwardness is so very great, precisely because it grasps this objective uncertainty with all the passion of the infinite…But the definition of truth stated above is a paraphrasing of faith…Faith is the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and the objective uncertainty.

Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments

That’s a lot of verbiage (he tends to do that) so let me repeat the key point: “Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty, held  fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth,  the highest truth there is for an existing person.” Don’t get me started on “existing;” I’m already way above my pay grade.

It is our disciple from antiquity who makes the clearest case for this embrace of objective uncertainty with the strongest passion, in the final paragraphs of his Gospel. Having spent years writing the most objective and factual treatises in the interests of research, and at the end of his long journey that makes up the Gospel, having visited the other Disciples and found little to restore his faith, he at last comes to a life-or-death decision that forces him to decide between Fact and Faith, and chooses Faith:

I preferred, dear brother, in this final gesture, Faith to Truth.…
The Master Of The Universe’s gift to us is not Truth, which we clearly don’t have the capacity to perceive; it is instead the capacity for Faith. These past years I have allowed my obsession with what was true to lead me down faint, irrelevant paths. One cannot retrieve Faith by a world of proofs, facts, histories, and tracts, as if it were Truth one had lost.

I am leaving out a great deal here, since to reveal more would spoil the impact of the novel; as such, I’m afraid it seems weak and diluted. But trust me, the circumstances under which he declares this are goosebump-inducing, and brings me to tears every time I read it. This was the passage, late as it is in the book, that convinced me of the connection to Kierkegaard.

The book as a whole, however, embodies another of Kierkegaard’s themes. Even ten years ago, I described this novel as making fun of religion while still revering God and faith. Those who have strong beliefs in the tenets of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Catholicism in particular, might well find it an offensive book, as O’Hanrahan needles Lucy with tales of what people have done in the name of God: martyrs, Crusades, extremes of asceticism. Yet there’s that Voice of God, which keeps the focus on Something beyond all that, Something that wants more for us. It’s this Voice that recounts St. Francis of Assisi rejecting the trappings of his own ascendency:

His conscience led him to oppose his followers who raised a monastery in his honor – are the sick eased in their suffering? Will the poor be served? Francis was not listened to. So as Lucy and Gabriel and all the other children of Mine spend the night in serious thoughts, dreaming of the security of rules, orders, traditions, habits, the set routine from matins to nones, they would do well to consider the first Franciscan to resign his place in the order to continue the search for God: in 1220, St. Francis himself.

The tradition of mocking what people do with God goes back a long ways, even for Catholics.

This, too, was a Kierkegaardian theme. Philosophy professor and Existentialism scholar Robert Solomon sums it up in a lecture:

The problem with organized religion is it transfers what in fact is a very personal experience to something which is at its very heart purely institutional.
Now of course in this one can see Kierkegaard’s Protestantism reacting against essentially Catholicism, something which was a very common move of the day, but also he wants to move against Lutheranism itself, which, as far as he was concerned, had become much too herdlike, much too organized, and for all its talk about the inner spirit and the emphasis on individual freedom, nevertheless it was still much too impersonal, much too social, for his taste.

Robert Solomon, lecture available online

One can mock what people have made of God without mocking God, and here we have are 772 pages showing how.

The potential fourth aspect of Kierkegaard that shows up is his three levels of existence, from the Aesthetic to the Ethical to the Religious. I suspect O’Hanrahan is the symbol of the first, though, interestingly enough, he started out as a Jesuit priest, so his journey is convoluted. Lucy might display characteristics of the Ethical stage. And that leaves our Disciple, the ancient Gospelist, to show us Religious Existence, if only briefly. I’m too uncertain about the meanings of these terms to claim this, so only cite it as a possibility. Maybe in ten more years, I’ll have the understanding to go into more depth.

There’s something  about absurdity as well. O’Hanrahan delights in recounting the crazy things done in the name of religion – self-mutilation, imaginary foreskins as wedding rings, sitting atop a tower for years – and I wonder if those things seem absurd from the outside, but are part of each individual’s construct of faith. But, like the notions of Existence, I’m groping in the dark here, and need to understand Kierkegaard’s use if the term better.

The net result of my re-read: I still love this book, it still makes me cry in spite of myself. Because I too find little for me in organized religion, but can’t help feeling there is Something that all of the religions point to, like the Blind Men and the Elephant. This book brings me closer to understanding that Something than the hours I spent in Sunday School and prayer meetings and worship services during my Misspent Youth as a Fundamentalist; and, by the way, O’Hanrahan’s mock etymology of the word “fundamentalist” is a special treat – and based on fact, to boot.

Our Gospelist confides to us while on his way to find Reason in the city of Meroe:

I confess to a brief, foolish flirtation with the adventures of my youth, my brother. I lay awake at night, in the camps of other travelers, looking at the desert night sky and imagining that I should go into the court of Meroe and perform miracles as Moses before Pharaoh, that I should win over a kingdom where Matthew before me had failed. And that finally my gospel alone would touch another man’s heart and that the world might change ever so slightly toward the good and then it would be my words and faith that engendered this inclination.

This fictional gospel touched at least two fictional lives in soul-changing ways, and perhaps, situated in this novel, has had other effects beyond the confines of the fictional world. I’ve quoted that opening line several times (once, in connection with a math mooc, of all things).

A Medievalist I follow on Twitter remarked back in May, “One thing I wish more people got about pre-modern history is how very *little*  documentation usually survives and how little we actually know.” I wonder if that’s why religion in antiquity provides such a rich setting for fiction: it allows great leeway of fact while weaving among some of society’s most strongly-held beliefs.

I count this as a highly successful re-read. And I’m glad to realize I may have learned something from all those philosophy moocs.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I’ve encountered this book several times over the years, but as I came to the end of this read, this re-read for my ReRead Project, I began to wonder: did I ever read the whole book before? Those last lines quoted above are practically memorized, of course, but the opening paragraph was unfamiliar, and my memory of the book seemed to end a couple of chapters before the book itself came to a close.

I don’t think it was a book I was assigned in high school, but when Robert Redford was cast as Gatsby, I dug in. [Hey, come on, some day Idris Elba will seem like an old man to your grandkids, too.] Then in college, when I did a teaching pre-practicum at a local high school, the class was studying Gatsby so I read it again. I again started it back when Colbert had his short-lived Book Club, but I got distracted by something I don’t remember now (see how that works?) and didn’t get very far. And now I’m beginning to wonder if I ever read the whole thing at all, if I’ve just picked up a lot of commentary so that it feels like I read it.

I decided to add it to my re-read list because of a tweet that happened to float by me a few months ago. Someone mentioned that there was a line of analysis claiming Gatsby was a black man, or part black, and was passing. I’d never heard that before; it sounded like a really interesting hypothesis. It’s based on several  factors: the forty acres on which Gatsby’s mansion sits, the predominance of the color yellow (“high yellow” is a term for a light-skinned or white-appearing black person), the honorary medal from Montenegro, the original working title Trimalchio (a freed Roman slave famous for his parties), and Tom Buchanan’s racist rant. Since so much of Gatsby’s persona is based on his escaping his childhood past on the North Dakota farm, it seemed plausible to me that race could be part of it.

Scholars don’t seem as easily swayed, however. One sputtered, “If Fitzgerald wanted to write about blacks, it wouldn’t have taken 75 years to figure it out. If that’s what Fitzgerald wanted, he would have made it perfectly clear in April 1925.” I had to laugh at that one given how good white America is at ignoring, or co-opting, anything that isn’t white, then claiming it doesn’t exist.

But while I’m intrigued by the theory, I had to step off the train when Gatsby’s father showed up for the funeral. Nothing in his demeanor suggested his son was black, or mixed race, or even had that proverbial one drop of blood that would have characterized him at the time. And, had Fitzgerald been deliberately inserting this theme, that would have been the place, giving Nick even more uncertainty about his friend. I’ll leave the analysis to those more qualified than I, but for this reason I remain skeptical. I don’t consider it a wasted trip, more of a detour full of interesting scenery.

And by the way: I didn’t remember the funeral at all from prior readings, which is a big reason I wonder if I ever read the entire book.

I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled me back as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

Other riches in the book came to my attention via a FiveBooks weekend reader (FiveBooks asks every Saturday: What are you reading this weekend? and the responses, and interactions, often show me interesting new directions) who recommended Maureen Corrigan’s book And So We Read On, a history of the book and its place in the literary canon. I don’t have a copy (yet) but listened to a talk she gave for the 2015 National Book Festival. I was surprised to learn that Gatsby was not that popular on publication. Fitzgerald never saw himself as a success; in later life, he’d wander into bookstores to see if his books were available, and they rarely were. That’s a book right there.

I have a fondness for Fitzgerald that comes from another story of his, “Thank You For the Light,” a story that was soundly rejected by The New Yorker in the 30s (“…this Fitzgerald story is altogether out of the question. It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him, and really too fantastic”). Even readers in 2012 when it was finally published, hated it, called it a story written to serve up a punch line. I loved it for my own reasons, reasons Fitzgerald probably didn’t share: the bestowal of compassion from an unusual source. He probably wrote it as a lark, but I can see how he might have craved the same kind of mercy his character received, and how he, too, might have made a joke out of it rather than turning maudlin.

But back to Gatsby. Another thing I didn’t remember was how beautifully he wrote. How can you read a book and forget the paragraphs of Nick’s musing. The opening paragraph itself should have stuck in my mind:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person…. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

It becomes obvious later, of course, that Nick, who holds himself to be the only honest man he’s ever met, turns out to be full of crap, and this paragraph, in which he interprets “advantages” a bit differently than we would expect, sets it up so that we can’t miss it. Yet I missed it, whenever I read the book earlier. If I ever did.

And that’s what I take with me from this entry in my ReRead project. Oh, I’m glad to more fully understand the book, but what horrifies me is how I thought I already did. I wonder what I’m reading now that I’m not really getting, or if I’m forgetting entire sections of novels that change the overall experience. I’m beginning to think re-reading is as important as reading; maybe I should incorporate more of it into my life. So I don’t continue to forget what I don’t remember.

* * *

Maureen Corrigan discusses her book, So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

Salon Article:  “Was Gatsby Black?”

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (Penguin 1985)

“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

I haven’t failed to notice that the number of visits to this blog follows the American school year; and thus I have surmised that students are looking for clues to help with their homework, with talking points for classroom discussions, for writing assignments, exams, etc. I hate to disappoint them, but there’s really nothing here that will help. Oh, I’ll throw in a few sources at the end, but for heaven’s sake there’s plenty of that out there and my two cents isn’t worth the effort to type.

My purpose for these re-reads, particularly with the two Literary Classics, is instead to trace my own reactions to the book over the years. It’s an idea that I found in a short story, “To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers (yes, The Overstory guy) in a Pushcart volume from ten years ago. That’s how long it’s taken me to follow through.

I first read P&P in high school. It would have been 1971 or so. It was not a good time for me; I was sunken into the first of what would be many major depressive episodes. So I didn’t think it was funny, or cheeky, or cute, or satirical. It scared the hell out of me. So many rules! How to talk, what to say, what to do, how to visit friends, how to go to a ball. And if someone didn’t follow the rules, there would be scathing gossip about their lapses. How did people learn to do all these things? You might think I was an idiot for not realizing it was a different era, but TV and movies at the time were full of people “dressing for dinner” and holding conversations with perfect strangers, knowing how to breeze into a town with a couple of lovebirds in a cage and end up hiding in the corner of a house when the birds attacked. I was scared to go to a football game; college was out of the question.

So I missed all the stuff that might have helped. Like Elizabeth’s terrific line, “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” Or the irony when she said, “That would be the greatest misfortune of all! – To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!”

I read it for a second time – really a first time, since I barely read it at all in high school, just a few lines from random pages – in college, and had a much better time. At least, I think I did. I don’t remember any details, just a lot of character shifts as Elizabeth goes from hating Darcy to liking him, and from admiring Wickham to realizing he’s a piece of work. I was quite taken with the letters, and wrote my required paper more on the English postal service of the era rather than on the ironies, plot twists, and character revelations.

And now I read it again, and find I’m still impatient with all the girls-fret-about-boys stuff in the first half of the novel. It gets a lot more interesting when set against the customs of the time, since marriage was a matter of survival. And that may be what I got out of it overall: no matter how badly textualists want to scream about literature existing in itself, context matters, and the novel doesn’t make sense unless 21st century social mores are held at bay and the realities of the 19th century are better understood. I think of Mrs. Bennett, a flibbertygibbet if there ever was one, cranking out one baby after another hoping for the male child who will assure the family’s future, but surrounding herself with daughters who will be victims of the entailment against the estate. Then there’s all of Elizabeth’s fretting about her family’s reputation ruining her prospects for marriage, particularly when Lydia takes off with Wickham.

It turned out that the Lydia episode caught my interest the most at this point. It was hilarious, in a kind of tragic way, that marrying her to this conniving and dishonest shark was seen as the best solution. But it made for a merry chase.

As an aside: I bought a used copy of the book, my college copy having long ago disappeared, and discovered someone had underlined all the passages I wanted to underlined, and had written brief summaries on the first page of each chapter. That isn’t so odd for a used copy of a widely-read text, but what kind of freaked me out was how much the handwriting resembled mine of thirty years ago! For all I know, this was my college copy, come back to haunt me!

I used to say most 60s sitcoms and romcoms would be ruined if anyone ever spoke honestly what was on their mind. That’s the case here, as well. Elizabeth begins to think she might like Darcy, but doesn’t want that to be evident to anyone. Jane doesn’t want anyone to know she’s heartbroken at losinn Bingley. In fact, the most honest character might be Lydia, who openly declares she wants to snare her a soldier, and everyone assumes she doesn’t really mean it until they hear she’s headed for Scotland (I’m still not sure exactly why Scotland is so evil, but it has something to do with marrying people without the usual strictures of English society, a less respectable marriage. I don’t even want to get into the burden on women to uphold all this respectablility, when it’s the men in the legal and governing professions who have placed such restrictions on their ability to survive outside of marriage.

All in all, I still view this as a fun book. Yes, I know, there’s all this literary gold, but it’s hard to keep a straight face when reading it. I gave up on Bridget Jones’ Diary one of the contemporary resettings of the general plot, pretty early in the film when it came out long ago, for the same reason. But I admire Jane Austen for putting it all out there at a time when no one else would.

* * *

Ten Things to Know before Reading “Pride and Prejudice” by Jay Pawlyk: a handy video review of the historical and social background.

John Green’s Crash Course on P&P: John Green has quite a following from his YA books, but I find his rapid-fire style exhausting; I’m out of breath after the first minute. Those younger than I will surely enjoy them more, and they do contain some good information.

The story of the  P&P Cake created by Night Kitchen Bakery in Philadelphia in March, 2021 (header image). The peacock edition, no less!

Nathan Englander, kaddish.com (Vintage, 2019)

This is what ritual does. It binds from chaos. Across time.

A typical description of this book tells you that Larry, the strayed oldest son of an Orthodox Jewish family, outsources his duty to recite Kaddish, in three services a day for eleven months in memory of his dead father, to an internet site. That, of course, is the setup. It’s what happens next that is the real book. This post is going to get a bit spoilery as it goes on, so be ready to bail when the warning light goes on.

The novel is divided into four parts. In Part One, we have the setup, an excellent examination of what it’s like to be an outsider in one’s own family, and to have a burden one cannot imagine either honoring or failing to honor. It’s 1999, and Larry is sitting Shiva at his sister Dina’s house in Memphis, which apparently rivals New York in the intensity of its Jewish neighborhood. Larry’s still in New York, in advertising (“Branding,” he’d correct me. “It’s part of advertising, but it’s different”), and is taking a lot of heat for his semi-observance of Shiva. He’s about to take a lot more heat as Dina reminds him of his filial duty to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in three separate shul services a day for the next eleven months. He can’t believe it really matters, but he can’t quite shake the feeling that it does.

That conflict is what interests me most about the book. I, too, have left behind a religion that just won’t vacate a few small strongholds in my mind. Mix that with the genuine grief Larry is feeling – I have no doubt he loved his father and misses him terribly – and I can understand his dilemma.

“I think the World to Come is just a long table where every­one, on both sides, sits, men and women—”
“Pets?”
“No pets,” his father said.
“None?”
“Fine,” his father said. “Under the table, the dogs and cats. But no birds. I can’t picture it with birds.”
“Fair enough,” Larry said.
“This long table, with its perfect white cloth, is set not with food and drink, but with the Torah, copies for everyone, so that you can read to yourself or learn in pairs.”
“I can picture that.”
“And you know what happens at this table?”
“What?”
“All you do for eternity is study. Nothing else. No interruption. No day, no night, no weekend or holiday, no y’mei chag or chol. For it is the afterlife. Time unbroken—all of it given over to one purpose.”
“Sure,” Larry said.
“This is why, for the souls gathered, that single place serves as both Heaven and Hell.”
Here his father had gulped at the air, fishlike himself.
“It goes like this,” his father said. “If you have a good mind and a good heart, if you like to learn Torah and take interest in knowledge, then studying for eternity is, for you, Heaven.”
He had looked to his son, and Larry had nodded.
“And if all you want is to waste time on narishkeit and bunk stuff, to think your greedy thoughts though the money is gone, and to think your dirty thoughts though your schvontz is buried down below, then for you that same table is torture. Then sitting there, with your bad brain, you find yourself in Hell.”
Larry considered the idea, poised at his father’s side.
Partly, he’d thought it was funny, and thought about making a Larry-like joke. But being his father’s son, Larry also took it seriously. He was awed at the notion and somehow afraid.
His father, who could read him like no one else, reached out with his liver-spotted hand and, laying it atop Larry’s, said, “I’m sure, in that place, for you, it would be Heaven.”
Larry had gasped, not from surprise, but choking back the rush of comfort he took in his father’s ruling.
“Trust me, Larry, it’s all right that you don’t believe. This period in your life—it feels like it’s forever, but if you’re lucky, life is long and each of these forevers will one day seem fleeting. You think when I was your age that I could have pictured this? That it would be 1999—the edge of a new millennium—and I’d be saying goodbye to a handsome, grown son at the end of my days? I can tell you that even back then, I already felt old and thought I knew it all.” His father gave a weak squeeze to Larry’s hand. “You’re a good boy. And I pray that I don’t see you across from me until you reach a hundred and twenty years. But for you, my boychick, when it’s the right time to take your seat, that table will feel like a blessing without end.”

Larry’s problem is that he can’t imagine himself actually carrying out the duty of reciting Kaddish so often for so long. Remember, it’s not just saying the prayer; that he could do. But it must be said in a minyan, a gathering of ten or more Jewish men, and that means it must be said in shul, which means attending services three times a day. Every day. For eleven months. When Dina spells it out, he promises, because he can’t imagine not promising. But he’s got his fingers crossed behind his back:

…As long as Larry promises he’ll say the prayer, what does it hurt Dina if it skips? And honestly, what does it hurt their dead father, in heaven above, if Larry says a prayer or not? Does anyone really think God sits up there with a scorecard, checking off every one of Larry’s blessings?

That’s a second theme that interests me greatly: just how seriously do we take our religions? Do we really believe in hell and purgatory and a day of judgment and that wine and bread becomes blood and body and that baptism has power and our prayers are heard and acted on? I’ve always felt that if we really took eternal life seriously, we’d be living this life a lot differently. Some areas of philosophy and evolutionary psychology wonder if all the guilt that’s built into Western religion is outsourced from our own consciousness, rather than the typical religious notion that it is God who implants conscience in us and without God there is no morality. So when Larry asks these questions – does it really matter if I say the Mourner’s Kaddish on schedule? – I understand how a ‘yes’ can lurk underneath the ‘no, of course not.’

This brought in something I wasn’t aware of. I’m not Jewish, so my (limited) knowledge of Orthodox tradition is based on what I’ve read in academic and popular reading, but I’d never heard this before: after death, the soul goes into a kind of purgatory for a year, to be purged of sin. Saying of the Mourner’s Kaddish (for there are several varieties of Kaddish) helps to ease that process, sort of like Dante depicts in his Comedia for Christians in Purgatory when prayers are received on their behalf. So the question “Does it matter” is more than tradition; it impacts his father’s afterlife experience, speeds along – or delays – his passage to paradise.

Because she’s a pretty good judge of character, Dina explodes at Larry’s promise to say Kaddish, because now she knows he’s lying. Enter her rabbi, who tries to come up with solutions. The most promising is a proxy, someone who will say Kaddish for him. So his responsibility has been pared down to: find a proxy.

Enter kaddish.com. And yes, there is a current website of that name offering this service, though I understand it was set up after the novel was published (how foolish of the publisher and/or Englander not to register the domain name themselves). The service has been, however, available for quite some time through other long-established Jewish organizations, so it’s not some newfangled thing. If it were me, I’d probably go to one of them. But this is about Larry. Englander plays the scene of Larry signing up for all it’s worth, including a pornographic pop-up involving a glass dildo (um… really?) that becomes visible when he closes the Kaddish site page. It’s very effective, with details that weave through the rest of the book.

Then we come to Part Two (this starts getting a bit spoilery, be forewarned), which starts a year later when Larry receives a letter from his proxy, Chemi, to indicate his service has come to an end. This sets Larry on a road back to Orthodoxy, via the word “assimilate.” The thing is, this crucial moment feels a bit skimmed-over to me. The bones are there, but I’d like a little more flesh padding them out. We understand the changes Larry goes through to become, twenty years later, Reb Shuli, teacher of Gemara at a Brooklyn yeshiva, but it’s thin. It’s as if Englander suddenly decided he didn’t want this to be that deep a novel, so kept this transition at beach-read level before moving on to the next order of business: Shuli realizes the depth of what he committed to on that website twenty years earlier. He explains to his wife:

What has left Shuli lightheaded is the understanding that all his years of t’shuvah, a lifetime of redemption, had – for his father – done nothing. Not the yahrzeit candles lit, nor the services led. It was twenty years of Kaddishes without meaning, as they were not Schuli’s just say….
“It’s the kinyan,” Shuli tells her, looking around nervously as if someone might overhear. “Just because I returned to the fold doesn’t mean I brought everything back with me. On that website, a lifetime ago, I gave up what was mine.”
“This isn’t news, Shuli. How many times have we discussed this over the years? You paid for a service, and that’s all.”
“But it’s not all. I don’t know if I ever told you. When I signed, there was a digital pen that I put into a digital hand. I made a kinyan. I transferred over my rights – for real. Which means, even now, remembering my father is that other man’s job….It was my intent to be rid of that responsibility for life. The privilege doesn’t just revert on its own. The other party would need to return it.”

This is where things get a bit frustrating for me. I don’t fully understand the kinyan, and I haven’t found an explanation that really makes sense to me. Shuli observes a wedding ritual involving a kinyan, and this reminds him of the twenty-year-old transaction. It seems like a real leap of logic to equate clicking on a web page, moving a pen icon into a hand icon, with the ritualistic and symbolic trading of tokens. His wife also finds it a bit of an exaggeration, and feels confident it’s not binding.

Maybe it makes sense if you’re more familiar with this Jewish custom than I am (though Shuli’s wife would be), but to me, it just seems like a way to carry forth the plot. Then again, we can look at it through the lense of character: Shuli’s guilt over shirking his duty creating a need to take further action. I think that’s the key to the whole novel: see everything through the eyes of the repentant, needing to atone for past sins, including not only outsourcing Kaddish, but leaving the fold in the first place.

Shuli makes his attempts to reconnect with Chemi, his proxy from so long ago, via the Kaddish.com website, still in operation. He enlists the help of a student. And my frustration mounts, because everything here is overcomplicated. Setting Gavriel’s age at twelve feels forced (since he hasn’t been bar mitzvah’ed, he’s not implicit in any sin), and the constant trading of extra recess for computer help just feels sleazy. By the way, do twelve year old boys do recess?

Be that as it may, a brilliant passage emerges from this scene:

When he first entered this miserable room and found his way back onto the web, Shuli had prided himself on the belief that all knowledge was contained inside the Torah. And now, as he waits for Gavriel to pinpoint the exact spot on the planet where this hidden yeshivah stood, he’s forced to admit that inside this terrible machine is a different kind of all knowingness. A toxic, shiftless omniscience.
To unlock the secrets of the Torah, one had to be disciplined. One had to work and to think. But this? If one only knew how to ask the question, all knowledge was lazily yours.
…And here in these machines is that exact knowing – for the advertisers and for the governments and for those with good and bad intentions to use as they saw fit. It’s all accessible, your wants and dreams, your sins and secrets, so that Gavriel, tapping away at the keys, can tell where someone around the world sits right then – a humble, hidden someone who does not want to be found. But the Internet knows, and it has no compass to guide it and no will to guard what was meant only for the Maker. Here, it all waits to be plucked out of the air by a child.

Those of us of a more secular bent are indeed quite aware by now of the perils of all that information just sitting somewhere that anyone could find it. It goes well beyond what ads show up on the websites you visit. Just a few days ago, a major effort at vote deterrence was discovered as a major source of voter suppression in 2016: people targeted as Democratic voters who could be persuaded, not to vote for the other guy, but not to vote at all. And think of AI, all those algorithms, programmed without morals, without judgment, without, well, soul. I can see how Shuli might see this through a religious lens.

SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT: But that raises another complaint I have with the book (hey, I often avoid negativity, but I think Englander can handle it). Shuli just seems hopelessly naïve. He was in New York advertising, people! He knew his way around internet porn. This isn’t some sheltered yeshiva bocher who’s never been outside Williamsburg. And yet he doesn’t catch on as Gavriel’s inquiries to kaddish.com go unanswered. He thinks Chemi is hiding from modesty. He really doesn’t get what the rest of us realized immediately, what we suspected back when we first read the words kaddish.com: that it’s a scam. This stretches credulity to the breaking point. But it’s still a book worth reading, if you can get into that mindset.

Part Three follows Shuli as he roams through Jerusalem trying to find the yeshiva, and thus the server, responsible for kaddish.com. And again he finds himself studying, waiting for a mysterious donor whose middle name might be abbreviated Chemi. Since I’ve given up on credibility at this point, I just went with it and enjoyed the chase. But it’s easily the least interesting part of the book.

Part Four is where the money shot is, and yes, I use that term advisedly, since Shuli’s father (as well as the Lady of the Glass Dildo) makes another appearance. Shuli, and through him, we as readers, finally gets the picture of the scam. It’s not as bad as it could have been, and I give a lot of credit for that. It would’ve been easy to have put the server in the back of someplace awful – a New Jersey muffler shop? – but this is more nuanced, though the upshot is the same: there was no recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. For Shuli, resolution comes while he sleeps. I’m not a big fan of the use of dreams to resolve metaphysical questions, but the interaction between Shuli and Dad is quite lovely, and there’s a religious question resolved quite handily:

One earthly year – what they’d always been taught, what he himself said to his students. This was the maximum period a soul might be purged in the afterlife. And yet, twenty years later, here his father is caught in a ceaseless kind of kaparah.
…”A year is still the maximum,” his father says. “Only without day and without night to signify change, without a son who has been studiously saying Kaddish to go silent at the eleventh month, how are we to know when judgment comes to an end without such markers?”
Shuli, already sweating, says, “I will fix it, Abba. Don’t worry. For you, and for all the others. I will put it right.”

Although I had my complaints, I did very much enjoy this book. The questions of religion and character overshadowed my misgivings about plausibility; for someone more interested in what a character does than in the philosophies raised, I think it might work just as well. I ended up feeling very warmly towards Shuli; he screwed up a lot, but he was able to find his heart and follow it when it mattered. And while some background, however vague, in either Judaism or internet configurations might be helpful, I think the action, and the thought, is accessible to just about anyone.

Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone: This Is How You Lose the Time War (Saga, 2020)

We wanted the war, and the whole of time and space, to be a backdrop to the characters. We’re in some ways anthologizing a war, drawing from the whole breadth and depth of science fiction, and… historical fiction for that matter. There are tropes and characters that we’re referencing… If you’re getting the references then oh, ok, all of a sudden I’m there, but if you’re not, the question is, how do you navigate the book? And the answer we settled on is: This is really the story of these two characters. Anyone who picks up the references is going to see how they connect; and anyone who is really used to the particular old-school science fictional game of taking tiny little hints of how worlds assemble and extrapolating from that to a complete sense of the society and culture will be able to do that too. But for people who are coming for the characters, they’re still going to be able to follow Red and Blue and understand them enough to enjoy the book, to go on the journey with them.

Interview: An Online Conversation with Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone via Read It Again Bookstore (14 minute mark)

I haven’t read much contemporary (that is, post-1970s) science fiction. Even though I can quote some scenes from ST:TNG by heart, I’ve never been a piece-it-together kind of viewer/reader, and my affection for Dr. Who never got beyond the Christmas Carol and Vincent episodes (which I love enough for the whole series to be dear to me, however). I do like a lot of the literary fiction that uses other-world settings, mostly because it invites a variety of interesting structural and stylistic elements. But at heart I am, I suppose, more of a litfic reader putting up with strange other worlds than a scific reader tolerating emotion and social meaning.

So it’s odd I would choose to read this book. Ah, the power of marketing: I just kept seeing it on my feeds, with words like “imaginative,” “chaos,”, “wordplay,” and, my favorite, “affective center of motion.” I don’t even know what that last one means, but it’s irresistible. And I will admit, my favorite ST episodes were always about time, or at least multiverses.

It was a very different experience for me. It’s the first time I’ve enjoyed a book while not really understanding the setting, and, even more strangely, not having a clue as to what happened at the end.

When Red wins, she stands alone.
Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world.
That was fun, she thinks, but the thought sours in the framing. It was clean, at least. Climb up time’s threads into the past and make sure no one survives this battle to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged — the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible. She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.

If it weren’t for the back cover synopsis and promotional teasers, I would’ve been completely lost. Red and Blue are on two sides of a war: Red, from the technologically-grounded Agency, and Blue, from the back-to-nature Garden. Both go into various strands of time to adjust events so their entity will come out in charge in the final analysis. Both try to undo, or compensate for, the other’s adjustments.

And they fall in love. But that’s just where their troubles begin: now what do they do?

Getting to that point is really half the fun. This is where words like “imaginative” come into play. They start leaving each other letters, but they’re letters on unusual media. A letter that must be burned before reading, then the ashes mixed to a paste. A letter that’s part of a fish, “sealed” in a seal – a cute little Arctic seal. Letters written in the rings of centuries-old trees (they are time travelers, after all), in the lava of the volcano that sank Atlantis, in berries and leaves and tea dregs. Letters that are smelled, tasted, consumed rather than read. And letters that would get both of them executed as traitors, if discovered by their superiors.

It starts out more as admiration for a worthy opponent, a kind of “Across the havoc of war, I salute you” kind of thing as Churchill was supposed to have said of Rommel (not quite; he said something similar). Then they get curious about the other side: “Do you eat?” “Do you laugh?” “Do you dream?” Admiration turns to fondness, turns to affection, turns to love for two solo warriors. Who are, by the way, both women.

…So in this letter I am yours. Not Garden’s, not your mission’s, but yours, alone.
I am yours in other ways as well: yours as I watch the world for your signs, apophenic as a haruspex; yours as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery; yours as I review your words by their sequence, their sound, smell, taste, taking care no one memory of them becomes too worn. Yours. Still, I suspect you will appreciate the token.

I found it interesting to watch them go through known history: Genghis Khan, London of various eras, the aforementioned Atlantis, World War II. And Ozymandias. Oh, yes, the literary references, those are great fun. “I’m contradicting myself. The geometers would be ashamed,” writes Red (or is it Blue?). Maybe, but Whitman would rejoice. And the fun stuff: “How many boards would the Mongols hoard if the Mongol horde got bored?” They must’ve spent time in the 20th century US.

As the earth shakes and the sky burns, even the bravest and most single-minded leave their work. Notes and sums and new engines remain behind. They take people and art. The math will burn, the engines melt, the arches fall to dust.
…That man built a steam and pinwheel engine six centuries earlier than the mean. This woman, through reason and ecstatic meditation, discerned the usefulness of zero to her mathematics. This shepherd built freestanding arches into the walls of his house. Small touches, ideas so fundamental they seem useless. Nobody here knows their worth, yet. But if they do not perish on this island, someone might realize their use a few centuries earlier and change everything.
So Red tries to give them time.
… the mathematician still has time to grab her wax tablets at least.

As for the ending, I have no idea what happened, but I was glued to the last thirty pages. I found a Reddit thread that tried to explain it, but it didn’t help much; I was that lost as to the overall setting. I would imagine those who recognize the tropes, as the authors say above, would have been quite happy. In looking at various reviews, it seems the romance was central to many readers. Though I am in neither camp, I did enjoy the book, as little as I understood of what was happening, mostly because of the references I got, and the idea of letters encrypted in ingenious forms.

It’s unusual for a book to be written by two authors. The interview quoted above gives some insight into the process (starting at about the 40 minute mark). They decided to work together on a project, then decided it would be a novella, then came up with the concept. Oh, and I discovered this is a post-singularity world. Singularity is one of those concepts I only vaguely understand: the point where machines take over from us. So that adds to the conflict: it’s a red pill/blue pill thing. One reader mentioned US political leanings associated with those colors. That never occurred to me; odd, really, since I’m fairly keyed in to politics, but I was perhaps distracted, given the jovial nature of it all, by Overly Sarcastic Production’s use of the pseudonyms Red and Blue.

I’ll admit I didn’t try all that hard to figure out the battleground or the sides or exactly what happened at the end. I didn’t feel any particular need or desire to do so, and I’m not sure it would have done me much good. So I’m not your typical reader for this sort of thing. But it was fun to visit.

Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea (Anchor, 2002)

On Monday, July 17, a most intriguing thing took place: one of the tiles from the top of the cenotaph at town center came loose and fell to the ground, shattering into a good many pieces. A young girl here, one Alice Butterworth, discovered the fallen tile at the base of the statue, carefully gathered up the bits and shards, and quickly conveyed them to the offices of the High Island Council. Tiny Alice delivered these fragments into the hands of Most Senior Gordon Willingham who promptly called an emergency meeting of that lofty body to glean purpose and design from this sudden and unexpected detachation.
This aforementioned gleaning – this is important.

My reaction to this novel went through a number of revisions as I read. I started out amused by the premise: a tiny island nation off the South Carolina coast, a nation named for and dedicated to the (fictitious) deceased creator of the quick-brown-fox pangram, interpreted the tiles falling off his cenotaph as a message that those letters should no longer be used, and thus language becomes more and more restricted. I’m not really a fan of the epistolary novel in general, but it’s the perfect form for this tale, as the text itself reflects the linguistic difficulties posed by the loss of each letter in turn.

I formulated the following reaction early on: “A clever one-page satire expanded into a 200 page YA-dystopia novel.” I rather dreaded reading through another 170 pages of shrinking alphabet. Fortunately, Dunn is far better writer than that, and he soon changed my mind. And the ending – and I mean, the very end, the last five pages – it really landed.

Although the central progression is the deletion of letters of the alphabet, a lot more happens. Ella, our title character, views the loss of the first letter – Z – with some amusement, but her friend Tassie is more alarmed. Sure enough, Ella discovers all books in the library have been destroyed. The punishment for using the forbidden letters is, for the first offense, a rather stern talking-to, but then gets draconian: second offense, whipping or being placed in the stocks in the village square (offender’s choice); third offense, banishment from the island, or death. Offender’s choice.

One family, condemned for a second offense as a unit, made a special request:

“We also wish to be flogged in the presence of as many town residents as choose to be in attendance. And if this produces no outcry – especially the laying of leather tassel upon the youthful backs of my nine-year-old twin daughters Becka and Henrietta – then please trundle us without delay from this island of cringe and cowardice, for we no longer wish to belong to such a Despicable confederacy of spinal-defectives.”

Neighbors start turning each other in. Mail is read (by a French savant who knows no English but can recognize the forbidden letters). The Council drives eminent domain into high gear. Various means of reversing the edict are proposed, and meet obstacles. Throughout there are subtle ironies and humorous passes that might escape notice, such as when one resident defends the edict (and her tendency to squeal on anyone who happens to accidentally let a forbidden letter pass their lips):

I sincerely believe, as do several who have joined me for biweekly talk group sessions, that Nollop, as one who put great emphasis upon the word, is now attempting to pry us away from our traditional heavidependence on linguistic orthodoxy. Through this challenge, he hopes to move us away from lexical discourse as we now know it, and toward the day in which we can relate to one another in sweet pureplicity through the taciteries of the heart.

And when this leopard-eating-faces-party supporter finds the leopard eating her own face, there’s a moment of forgiveness so pure, it would surely make Jesus weep.

I was impressed at how forward momentum was maintained in what could have been the one-trick-pony book I initially expected. And, even though the last twenty-five pages got pretty hard to read, by then it was impossible to stop.

The ending – not only a plot resolution but a bit of linguistic philosophy – left me laughing and shaking my head in disbelief. By the end, this had become minimalist fiction. The language restriction forced it, to some extent, but a typical novel would’ve had another thirty pages of everyone discussing what had happened and what was going to happen and how they felt about it all. But none of that was necessary. Paring down the letters also pared down discourse, as predicted, to the simplest possible presentation: here, this is how it ends, bye now. It’s perfect.

But I was left with one question: Is there such a thing as a reverse McGuffin?

As I understand it, the McGuffin, as described by Hitchcock, is an item that generates motive but in itself is essentially unimportant: “the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after….the engine that sets the story in motion.” What I am calling a reverse McGuffin (which others have already wondered about; feel free to google about) is, to my mind, something that enters unobtrusively, has no role whatsoever, until, at the end, it suddenly becomes the Key to Everything. It’s a tricky thing to do. I remember The Grasshopper King in which a certain character’s traits seemed clumsily inserted in preparation for their final role; here, the technique works so much better. In fact, its unobtrusiveness is the key to its success. To say more would be a spoiler.

Although this book was first published in 2001, some of the themes and elements seemed particularly suited to the present moment. Elements such as:

∘ The dangers of oligarchy, gerontocracy, theocracy, and various brands of authoritarianisms;
∘ Interpretation of events in mystical terms;
∘ Conflict between science and religion;
∘ Resistance and backlash;
∘ Censorship;
∘ Hero worship of a figure whose background is obscured by time and, perhaps, deliberate deceit;

By the way – you think it’s hard to launch a new book in the middle of a pandemic? Try in the month after 9/11. That this one succeeded – primarily by word of mouth – is a testimony to how good it is. By the way, the subtitle was changed between hardcover and paperback versions: from “A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable” to “A Novel in Letters”. I find that interesting and… disappointing. Given the voice of the letters – initially just a more formal and old-fashioned to the contemporary ear, relying more and more on esoteric vocabulary as common words must be stricken, and resorting at last to phonetic spellings that sometimes only come close to conveying the meaning – the first title seems far more appropriate. A marketing decision, perhaps? I see Dunn has written several novels since this, his first (he was originally a prolific playwright), and a lot of them have rather wacky descriptions. I may have to check these out.

This book came to my attention last March via a Twitter prompt from last March about books to be read while self-isolating. Dear @timtfj, you had me at “arbitrary banning of various letters of the alphabet” but “society collapses” helped, too.

Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Mariner edition 2000)

In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression. He was always Immaculate and very soberly dressed.

Once again, I was surprised that a book I expected to be tedious and difficult turned out to be engrossing and wonderfully readable from the first sentence.

I chose to read this book at this time as the end result of a conversation about authenticity and appropriation that started with Alan Gurganus’s essay “I Confess: My Cultural Misappropriation” in Pushcart 2020. Jake Weber and I have been having a long, ongoing conversation about appropriation, and in the comments to my blog post on Gurganus’s essay he pointed me to a 2016 TNY article by Sarah Schulman that gave McCullers as an example of a white writer who was able to portray black characters – many different types of characters, in fact – as individuals, as people instead of ideas. Schulman writes, after considering McCullers’ possible sexual identity as what today would be considered gay or transgender:

It may be that the “ease” with which Carson McCullers was able to inhabit any kind of person, in a manner that was recognizable to a reader as sophisticated as Richard Wright, did not come from empathy. No, perhaps it came from the simple fact of having an identity that history had not yet discovered. And, because she didn’t know who she was, she had no place to stand. So she could stand with others who officially did not exist.

Sarah Schulman, “White Writer”, TNY 10/21/16,

The descriptions of the characters in the article, as well as the near-universal praise McCullers has received for bringing them to such full, vivid life, made me want to read the book. But, as I implied, I expected a novel set in the Depression-era South to be a bit of a slog. How delightful to be wrong about that. But be forewarned: there are events – and language – in the book that reflect the era. So it’s often painful reading.

It’s something of a stranger-comes-to-town story, except the stranger was already in town, just in another part. The flip side of the stranger comes to town is usually the hero sets out on a quest, except Singer isn’t really a hero and he’s not questing for anything.

The first chapter sets the ball rolling: Singer and his Greek friend Antonoupolis have been living together for ten years. They’re complete opposites except for their deafness, but have a connection that’s a powerful blend of family and love.

Singer was always talking to Antonopoulis. His hands shaped the words in a swift series of designs. His face was eager and his gray-green eyes sparkled brightly. With his thin, strong hands he told Antonopoulis all that has happened during the day.
Antonopoulos sat back lazily and looked at Singer. It was seldom that he ever moved his hands to speak at all – and then it was to say that he wanted to eat or to sleep or to drink. These three things he always said with the same vague, fumbling signs. At night, if he were not too drunk, he would kneel down before his bed and pray awhile. Then his plump hands shaped the words ‘Holy Jesus’, or ‘God,’ or ‘Darling Mary.’ These were the only words Antonopoulis ever said. Singer never knew just how much his friend understood of all the things he told him. But it did not matter.

This is the first indication of a motif that seems to be part of everyone’s life in the book: everybody’s talking, whether anyone’s listening or not. Usually not. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: in this first chapter, “trouble came to the two friends.” Antonoupolis, deaf and possibly retarded or mentally ill (or both), begins decompensating, and is committed to a state institution by his cousin over Singer’s desperate pleas. This is how Singer comes to the other side of town, to a boarding house run near a diner where he lives and eats and goes to work and minds his own business. Or would, except four townspeople find him an excellent sounding board.

Singer, who is, remember, a deaf man, becomes a major listener to four who become the focus of the novel. He rarely indicates anything other than smiling and nodding, but they keep coming back and find the exchange immensely satisfying. It’s also interesting that we find out Singer isn’t actually mute; he just found no need to talk after Antonoupolis came into his life, and he continued that policy out of habit. Most of the time he keeps his hands, the instrument of his voice, hidden in his pockets, since the only person who can “hear” him is gone.

The bulk of the novel follows the four people through their lives in the town over the course of about a year. Biff Brannon owns the diner where Singer takes his meals. He seems like an Everyman who thinks deeply about many things and notices a lot of details. He also has some sexual quirks that are more hinted at than described. He and his wife barely see each other since they cover the diner at different times, but he’s impotent anyway so it doesn’t seem to matter. He notices a drunk stumbling around the diner, and watches as Singer takes care of him.

He was glad he had not told Alice about what had happened to the drunk. He had wanted to talk to somebody about it, because maybe if he told all the facts out loud he could put his finger on the thing that puzzled him. The poor son-of-a-bitch talking and talking and not ever getting anybody to understand what he meant. Not knowing himself, most likely. And the way he gravitated around the deaf-mute and picked him out and tried to make him a free present of everything in him.
Why?
Because in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons–throw it to some human being or some human idea. They have to. In some men it is in them – The text is ‘All men seek for Thee.’ Maybe that was why – maybe – He was a Chinaman, the fellow had said. And a nigger and a wop and a Jew. And if he believed it hard enough maybe it was so. Every person and every thing he said he was –
Biff stretched both of his arms outward and crossed his naked feet. His face was older in the morning light, with the closed, shrunken eyelids and the heavy, iron-like beard on his cheeks and jaw. Gradually his mouth softened and relaxed. The hard, yellow rays of the sun came in through the window so that the room was hot and bright. Biff turned wearily and covered his eyes with his hands. And he was nobody but – Bartholomew – old Biff with two fists and a quick tongue – Mister Brannon – by himself.

“All men seek for thee” could be a subtitle of the book, as Singer looks more and more like a Christ figure. After all, even the most devout have to admit that if one “hears” an answer to a prayer, it’s in the heart/head, not the ears. Maybe God is a deaf mute. Maybe we create him in our own image, as the four visitors do with Singer: he’s Jewish, or a music lover, or a Communist, or someone who’s figured it all out.

The second of the four spiritual pilgrims is Mick Kelly, the thriteen-year-old daughter of the boarding house owner. She’s an adventurer and a dreamer, full of hopes and the future, and she’s discovered music in a big way, thanks to Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and Mozart. And Mr. Singer has a radio, a radio he can’t hear, but he got it to provide entertainment for the four who visit him so often. “Mister Singer reminded her of this music.” She’s trying to turn a ukelele into a violin and wants to learn to read music, and she climbs up on the very top of the house that’s under construction – “But no matter how many Keep Out signs were put up, they couldn’t run kids away” – and sometimes wishes she were a boy. She’s claimed as McCullers’s most autobiographic character.

M.K.–That was what she would have written on everything when she was seventeen years old and very famous. She would ride back home in a red-and-white Packard automobile with her initials on the doors. She would have M.K. written in red on her handkerchiefs and underclothes. Maybe she would be a great inventor. She would invent little tiny radios the size of a green pea that people could carry around and stick in their ears. Also flying machines people could fasten on their backs like knapsacks and go zipping all over the world. After that she would be the first one to make a large tunnel through the world to China, and people could go down in big balloons. Those were the first things she would invent. They were already planned.

Jake Blount is a bit of a vagabond and a drunk. He shows up at the diner while Singer is having dinner, and Singer takes him back home with him so he can sleep it off. “The mute’s face was in his mind very clearly. It was like the face of a friend he had known for a long time.” He sticks around town for the year working at what I imagine is a mini-carnival consisting of one ride, a flying jinny. He’s also a devout Communist, and preaches the evils of communism in a desperate attempt to get people to “know” their labor is being exploited.

Words came to him and he dreamily spoke them aloud to himself. ‘Resentment is the most precious flower of poverty. Yeah.’
It was good to talk. The sound of his voice gave him pleasure. The tones seemed to echo and hang on in the air so that each word sounded twice. He swallowed and moistened his mouth to speak again. He suddenly wanted to return to the mute’s quiet room and tell him of the thoughts that were in his mind. It was a queer thing to want to talk with a deaf mute. But he was lonesome.

Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a highly educated black man (his children are named Portia, William, Harrison, and Karl Marx), is the doctor for the black folks in town, and is passionate about the betterment of the Negro race. Sadly, he hasn’t been that successful in bettering the lives of his own children, and his wife left him years ago. He met Singer briefly outside the diner, when Singer lit his cigarette for him, something no white man had ever done before. “He remembered the white man’s face when he smiled behind the yellow match flame on that raining night – and peace was in him.” Later he describes his desire to better the race to his daughter over coffee:

“The Negro race of its own accord climbs up on the cross on every Friday,” said Doctor Copeland.
Portia’s hands shook and coffee trickled down from the saucer she was holding. She licked it from her arm. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I am always looking. I mean that if I could just find ten Negroes – ten of my own people – with spine and brains and courage who are willing to give all that they have – “
Portia put down the coffee. “Us was not talking about anything like that.”
“Only four Negroes,” said Doctor Copeland. “Only the sum of Hamilton and Karl Marx and William and you. Only four Negroes with these real true qualities and backbone – “

If this sounds familiar, it’s because of the story of Lot pleading with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of fifty – no, forty-five – no, forty – no, ten righteous men.

In my travels of general commentary on this book, I found an interesting structural note (and now I’ve lost the link, sorry, it’s out there somewhere). I’d already figured out that Part I set the stage; Part II, the bulk of the book, shows what happened as it all falls apart; and Part III, very short, wraps up loose ends as a denouement. But wait, there’s more. If you take the first chapter off Part I, the next four chapters introduce the primary characters in the order I’ve listed them above. Then in Part III, the four characters are bid adieu in reverse order, and we see how the year has changed them. They’ve all lost their Christ, their confessor, their center (I’ve seen Singer described as the spoke of the wheel) as Singer is gone (I won’t say how, some things need to stay unspoiled). Dr. Copeland is dying without his Christ; Mick is working in a five and dime instead of dreaming of the future, her family having fallen on hard times and the music in her growing dimmer; Jake Blount is moving on to another town after losing his Christ; and Biff, well, Biff the everyman, having lost his Christ, is still trying to figure things out:

The silence in the room was deep as the night itself. Biff stood transfixed, lost in his meditations. Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror. Between the two worlds he was suspended. He saw that he was looking at his own face in the counter glass before him. Sweat glistened on his temples and his face was contorted. One eye was opened wider than the other. The left eye delved narrowly into the past while the right gazed wide and affrighted into a future of blackness, error, and ruin. And he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith. Sharply he turned away.

This is all of us in 2020, the year of our disaster.

What none of them knew, of course, was that war was only a couple of years away, and America would reshape itself afterwards in various ways. Many of the changes would not be welcomed by these people. But Dr. Copeland would find there are far more than four Negroes with spines, Mick would find other ways to approach her dreams, and Jake would probably end up in prison during the Red Scare years. But Biff, he’d keep trying to figure out what was going on, and who knows, maybe he’d come up with something.

There’s no one single event that carries the narrative of the story; it’s just a slow collapse of the important parts of the five characters’ lives. They struggle, but it seems inevitable. There is no safety net for these folks. Somehow, even though it’s pretty depressing, it still is engrossing to the last page.

I can see why it’s used as an example of “good appropriation.” The characters vary, even when related by race or class. All have flaws as well as assets, and they’re all very individual in their preferences and their reactions. Even when the four main characters have similar attachment to Singer, it’s always tailored to the individual quirks of each person.

There’s another aspect to my reading of this book that has little to do with the text itself. I bought a used copy, as I usually do with older books, and I found some hand-written notes inside. Often I find some underlinings or a word or two, but these were more extensive and seemed cohesive, like the former reader was comparing the book to something. I just can’t figure out what, so I’ll report, and hope either someone will recognize the references, or someday I’ll see something that brings me back here with a big “Aha!”

On the first page, containing only blurbs, is the notation “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men P. Agee.” I assume that should be J. Agee? I’m not familiar with it, but it seems Agee and photographer Walker Evans put this book together as part of a WPA project to document the South during the Depression era. The text is described as “inscrutable’ (having read some of it, I agree); the photos show exactly what you’d expect, the poor in their homes. But only white people; I remember reading somewhere that the face of poverty was, at that time, white, and poverty was a far more sympathetic state, and remedies far more acceptable, than when that face later became black.

Next to that notation is an outline:

I. Seeing – Joy (maybe Jox)
II. Suffering – Paz
III Needs & Wants
IV. Justice
V. Freedom
VI. Getting There

This doesn’t seem to refer to the plot of the book itself, or to the Agee/Evans book either.

In Part I chapter 4, right after Jake gets his job with the flying jinny, he’s on his way home: the book reads “Dusk softened the outline of the houses…”. There’s another note: “Hunger blurred the outline of the dead chicken”. There’s no chicken in the text, and nobody’s hungry. Could this refer to a photo, to another story?

In Part II, Chapter 2, Biff is buying black ribbon for mourning and cleaning out his dead wife’s clothing to give away; a marginal note reads, “Locky’s death vs pigs death”. This could be Lucky. Again, I have no idea. A few pages later, he’s visiting sister Lucille, and he thinks of his wife but can’t remember her face; the text reads, “The only thing about her that was clear in him mind was her feet…” and a marginal note reads “Mind was bacon”. Now I’m thoroughly confused.

In Part II Chapter 5, as Bubber watches Baby just before the tragedy that will take down the Kelly family, the text reads “Baby looked like a fairy or something in the picture show ….with her yellow hair she was all pink and white and gold – and so small and clean that it almost hurt to watch her. But she won’t talk to them or even look at them.” The marginal note: “It hurts to see what’s really happening to animals, but the pain is nothing comp. to theirs.”

There are other notes, but those are the most content-relevant ones. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know. This is one of the biggest bonuses of buying used books, by the way: it’s almost like a discussion, but, as in the book, you’re never sure if anyone’s hearing you, or if you’re hearing right.

The title is taken from the poem The Lonely Hunter by Fiona Macleod, who was eventually revealed to be the pen name for William Sharp. The final verse:

O never a green leaf whispers, where the green-gold branches swing:
O never a song I hear now, where one was wont to sing
Here in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.

Fiona Macleod/William Sharp, “The Lonely Hunter”

An embarrassing admission: until I read the article Jake pointed out, I’d thought the book was some domestic drama involving neighbors hungrily eyeing each other in secret, or maybe no-so-secretly, and the flare-ups that caused. If I’d known it was such a good book, I would’ve read it decades ago. Learn from my mistakes!

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Trans. Michael Henry Heim (Harper, 1984)

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurrs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? 
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, did in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.
….This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

Authorial intrusion used to be a common enough practice, but for the most part it’s fallen out of favor to the point where a writer can be scolded in workshop for indulging. But not here: Kundera begins his novel with an exegesis on Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, and pops in over and over again to explain what his characters are doing, why they’re doing it, and how it relates to Nietzsche. It’s disconcerting, sort of like reading a self-analytic novel.

But at least it gives the reader a chance to understand what’s going on. And, if you need more, the internet is full of explanations of Eternal Return (including several short and simple Youtube videos). Basically, it’s a thought experiment: what if you had to live your life over and over, just as you had lived it, without any chance to change anything? If you knew that was the case, you’d be weighted down by every decision. But we only live once, which implies a kind of lightness, but also brings some kind of meaninglessness, and even blanket absolution for the mistakes we make, since we only had one chance. Obviously this gets more convoluted – it’s Nietzsche, he can’t order breakfast without convolution – but the gist is that the price of weightlessness is meaning, and the cost of meaning is heaviness.

I have to take issue with the idea that life is meaningless because it is lived once. On an individual level, our choices often stay with us, haunting us if they were bad choices, uplifting us if they were good. As a personal example – and yes, I know I’m neurotic as hell – I often recall something nasty I said in high school, something I doubt anyone else remembers, but it sticks with me and affects my current emotional state and behavior. Our decisions likewise have effects that persist, whether for good or bad. And on a grander scale, what we do affects others, and has resonances that carry forward. Some of these might be greater than others, and some might be so minor as to be overwhelmed by other resonances, but the present is the sum of the past.

I decided to read this book because it kept coming up in connection to Mad Men, in which so many characters become who they want to be without looking back. Don Draper, of course, who literally became someone else, then told Peggy, as she recovered from a pregnancy she’d been unaware of until she went into labor: “It will shock you how much this never happened.” Then there’s Harry telling would-be writer Paul to forget his crappy Star Trek script, his long slide down the advertising ladder into unemployment, his absurd dalliance with Hare Krishna, and go to California: “You don’t understand what it’s like out there. This failure? This life? It’ll all seem like it happened to someone else.” I see the connection now. But all those characters, they still carried the past with them.

So back to the book: It’s a good thing we start with something thoughtful, because otherwise, the first quarter of the book is just a domestic drama about a guy justifying his need to screw as many women as possible while in a committed relationship with one woman who’s working out big-time mommy issues while the tanks roll in after the Prague Spring. If that gives the impression it’s not a philosophico-political novel, that impression will be corrected by the second half of the book.

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to each Hermitude as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht.
If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.
But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative called it “A Dirty Book for Philosophy Geeks.” As much as it pains me to agree with anything in The American Conservative, he’s not wrong. I have a fairly low tolerance for fiction that tries to turn sex into something with mystical, psychosocial, or existential meaning. Sometimes sex is just sex, y’know? But there’s so much in this book aside from that, it’s well worth reading anyway. And, of course, for those who think Freud didn’t psychologize sex enough, hey, enjoy yourself.

Considering my lack of interest in the primary characters of the first two sections, I was surprised by how fond of them I was by the end of the book. Tereza and Tomas meet by chance in her small town, flirt just as he’s lightly fluttering away, and she turns up at his Prague apartment bringing her heaviness and her emotional baggage with her in the form of an overpacked suitcase. Tomas doesn’t let her get in the way of his mission to sleep with as many different women as possible, but he improbably falls in love with her and does modify some of his rules: they sleep together, holding hands. He even marries her. She becomes a photographer. They move to Zurich to get out of the way of the tanks (there are other women in Zurich, after all, and he’s a doctor, he can go jut about anywhere), but Tereza is unhappy and returns to Prague. And to his own surprise, Tomas follows her.

For seven years he had been bound to her, his every step subject to her scrutiny. She might as well have chained iron balls to his ankles. Suddenly his step was much lighter. He soared. He had entered Parmenides’ magic field: he was enjoying the sweet lightness of being.

On Saturday and Sunday he felt the sweet lightness of being rise up to him out of the depths of the future. On Monday, he was hit by a weight the likes of which he had never known. The tons of steel of the Russian tanks were nothing compared with it. For there is nothing heavier than compassion.

Yes, it was unbearable for him to stay in Zurich imagining Teresa living on her own in Prague.

Unbearable lightness, indeed.

This compassion Tomas feels is a bit more involved than we might think, as Kundera explains in one of his intrusions. He distinguishes between the Latin-derived word compassion, and non-Latinate words from other languages, including Czech (the language in which he originally wrote the book), where the meaning is emotionally broader and less condescending:

All languages that derive from Latin form the word “compassion” by combining the prefix meaning “with” (com-) and the root meaning “suffering” (Late Latin, passio). In other languages, Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance – this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means “feeling”.
In languages that derive from Latin, “compassion” means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathize with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, “pity”, connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer. “To take pity on a woman” means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.
That is why the word “compassion” generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.
In languages that form the word “compassion” not from the root “suffering” but from the word “feeling,” the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion—joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, współczucie, Mitgefühl, medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.

I happen to know a native Czech speaker (hi, Andrew!), and he confirmed this, so it’s not just a technicality only a linguist would know, but is in fact part of the life-as-lived understanding of both words. Kundera wrote this book in Czech, while living in France (he started writing in French later on), and I would imagine this became an interesting point of translation. I have to wonder if the prospect of translation made this intrusion necessary. It’s rather a crucial point to realize Tomas’ connection to Tereza was not one of pity, but a bond over the entire range of emotions. He did not pity her; he connected with her. He wasn’t trying to help her or save her; he was trying to love her.

Another motif at play in the scene, and elsewhere, is courtesy of Beethoven. Though Tomas has obviously had more formal education, it’s Tereza who introduces him to the string quartet charmingly designated Op. 135. The final movement is titled “Der schwer gefasste Entschluss,” which can translate as “The difficult decision” or “The Weighty Resolution.” Keep in mind that resolution can be a musical term for the completion of a phrase in melody or harmony. The score itself reflects multiple resonances, as the musical phrase labeled “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) is followed by the musical phrase “Es muss sein!” (It must be!). Musician Martin Saving goes into some depth about the quartet on the Elias String quartet blog, a piece well worth reading to better understand what Beethoven might have meant (nobody’s sure) and, more importantly, its relevance to Tomas’s decision to return to Prague and Tereza. Did it have to be? Free will, or fate?

Lest you think Tereza and Tomas are the only characters in the book, let me introduce Sabine and Franz. They are another heavy/light couple, though in this case, Sabine is the light one and Franz the heavy. Sabine, a painter, intersects with both Tomas, as a lover, and Tereza, as a kind of artistic mentor for a short time. Sabine moves to Zurich and takes up with Franz, a married professor who keeps her a secret. He goes through some kind of epiphany in which he decides to “live in truth” and informs his wife, who says don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out, and Sabine, who takes of running for Paris. It’s ok, because he finds an undergrad with big glasses who worships him.

Sabine, the character most dedicated to lightness, despises kitsch, defined as what shows the good side and ignores the bad. The art mandated by the Communist regime, for example: smiling happy people praising the Movement. She does a different kind of painting, one she wasn’t free to do until she got out of Prague:

Here is a painting I happened to drip red paint on. At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with a building site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it. And that’s how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it Behind the Scenes. Of course, I couldn’t show them to anybody. I’d have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract. After pausing for a moment, she added, On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.

After leaving Franz, she is overcome with melancholy, the unbearable part of lightness. Still she travels the world, unwilling to be weighted down. My take is that too much lightness makes you float away.

Franz is the comic disaster of fakery, a study in trying to be heavy but really being a fool. After Sabine leaves him, he takes part in The Great March, a highly publicized trek of celebrities, intellectuals, and a few doctors to war-torn Cambodia on a mission to be famous treat sick people and the war-wounded. Alas, they aren’t allowed in, but Franz imagines Sabine watching him, following his great gesture of humanity, though she has been oblivious to him since she left him. He ends up murdered in Thailand because he’s a fool. Franz is the embodiment of kitsch, the kitsch Sabine despises.

That leaves us with Tereza and Tomas, who end up running afoul of the Communist regime once they’re back in Prague. They can’t leave because the borders are now closed (I was unaware the borders were ever open under the Soviet regime, so I learned something). Tomas writes a letter to the editor that has a special resonance in the current era:

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.
Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortunes (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hands of the Russians), for its judicial murders!
And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!
In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe?
….
It was in this connection that Tomas recalled the tale of Oedipus: Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realized what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by not knowing, he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.
When Tomas heard Communists shouting in defense of their inner purity, he said to himself, As a result of your not knowing, this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you’ve done? How is it you aren’t horrified? Have you no eyes to see? If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes!

This goes out to all those concerned senators who aren’t quite concerned enough to do anything about what they’re so concerned about.

Tomas goes through some machinations involving his son from his first marriage after the letter is published, and is eventually demoted from neurosurgeon to window washer. He’s still pretty much ok since it’s amazing how many women you can screw as a window washer. But that gig eventually is barred to him as well, and he and Tereza head for the hills: that is, the countryside, to work on a collective farm. And here is where Tomas finally settles down with his wife and their dog, Karenin.

The dog’s death is highly emotional, partly because, sure, I’m a sucker for a dying pet, but because of how the changes in Tomas and Tereza are demonstrated: he has become less light, and she less heavy. Nietzsche with Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Amor Fata, another Nietzscheism: love whatever fate brings you, the good and the bad. No kitsch. From Karenin’s Smile to the end of the book, I loved these people who I’d merely tolerated pages earlier. Because the stories are interwoven between various characters, we’ve already seen ahead what will happen; the book stops just before then, leaving a poignant ache as the last page turns. I can’t believe it worked on me, but it did.

Seven years earlier, a complex neurological case happened to have been discovered at the hospital in Tereza’s town. They called in the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital in Prague for consultation, what’s the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital happened to be suffering from sciatica, and because he could not move he sent Tomas to the provincial hospital in his place. The town had several hotels, but Tomas happened to be given a room in the one where Teresa was employed. He happened to have enough free time before his train left to stop at the hotel restaurant. Teresa happened to be on duty, and happened to be serving Tomas’s table. It had taken six chance happenings to push Tomas towards Tereza, as if he had little inclination to go to her on his own.

Amor fati. Whether it’s a dying dog, or a girl who just happens to blow your way and teaches you to hold hands in bed. It might take years, it might change your life into something you barely recognize, but love it anyway, because whether it’s guided by fate or our own choices, it’s the only life you’ve got.

Salman Rushdie, Quichotte (RH 2019)

There once lived, at a series of temporary addresses across the United States of America, a traveling man of Indian origin, advancing years, and retreating mental powers, who, on account of his love for mindless television, had spent far too much of his life in the yellow light of tawdry motel rooms watching an excess of it, and had suffered a peculiar form of brain damage as a result. He devoured morning shows, daytime shows, late-night talk shows, soaps, situation comedies, lifetime movies, hospital dramas, police series, vampires and zombie serials, the dramas of housewives from Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, and New York, the romances and quarrels of hotel fortune princesses and self-styled shahs, the cavorting of individuals made famous by happy nudities,…
As a consequence of his near-total preoccupation with the material offered up to him through, in the old days, the cathode-ray tube, and, in the new age of flat screens, through liquid-crystal, plasma, and organic light-emitting diode displays, he fell victim to that increasingly prevalent psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies became smudged and indistinct, so that at times he found himself incapable of distinguishing one from the other, reality from “reality”….

What kind of book is this? A road novel? A romance? A buddy story? A family saga? A science fiction tale? An homage, a pastiche, a picaresque, an indictment of contemporary American culture and attitudes? Yes.

I’ve seen some pretty tepid reviews out there. “Strenuous and grating” says NYT. “Internetitis” as The Guardian puts it. I can’t disagree. But I’m more with Jason Sheehan for NPR: “So Quichotte, as a book, is a mess. But it is a beautiful mess.” He also feels it’s so convoluted you might need one of those “boards made of index cards and string just to unpack the plot.” I happen to have the MSWord equivalent, because, he’s right. So? I do that with books that I expect to get complicated.

I’ve never read Rushdie before, so I have no idea how this fits into his oeuvre, and I’m not sophisticated enough to look at questions like “is it good literature.” My own yardstick is this: given my enthusiasm for the original Don Quixote, which I explored for a few months last Fall with the help of an OCW, a mooc, and a couple of supplementary texts, in preparation for reading this novel – an enthusiasm that has had me seeing the hidalgo in multiple stories ever since – did the present novel honor the past? Do I welcome it into the web of interrelated thoughts about DQ? Am I happy I invested the time in all of this?

Decidedly so.

The author of the preceding narrative – we will call him Brother – was a New York-based writer of Indian origin who had previously written eight modestly (un)successful spy fictions under the pen name of Sam DuChamp. Then in a surprising change of direction he conceived the idea of telling the story of the lunatic Quichotte and his doomed pursuit of the gorgeous Miss Salma R, in a book radically unlike any other he had ever attempted. No sooner had he conceived this idea then he became afraid of it. He could not at first fathom how such an eccentric notion had lodged in his brain, and why it insisted so vehemently on being written that he had no choice but to start work. Then as he thought about it further, he began to understand that in some fashion that he did not as yet fully grasp Quichotte – the loner in search of love, the loser-nobody who believed himself capable of winning the heart of a queen – had been with him all his life, a shadow-self he had glimpsed from time to time in the corner of his eye, but had not had the courage to confront.
His next thought was even more alarming: to make sense of the life of the strange man whose latter days he was setting out to chronicle, he would have to reveal himself alongside his subject, for the tale and the teller were yoked together by race, place, generation, and circumstance. Perhaps this bizarre story was a metamorphosed version of his own. Quichotte himself might say, if he were aware of Brother (which was impossible, naturally) that in fact the writer’s tale was the altered version of his history, rather than the other way around, and might have argued that is “imaginary” life added up to the more authentic narrative of the two.

The book crams in everything but the kitchen sink. The Odyssey to The Bachelor. Three countries on three continents. The opioid crisis, Elon Musk, violent racism. Family issues from trivial to tragic. Attar of Nishapur’s 12th century Persian poem, “The Conference of the Birds” and Ionescu’s play, Rhinoceros (while I was kind of impressed with myself for recognizing so many of the literary references, these last two were new to me, so thank you Wikipedia). I think, if I had to construct a pre-reading list, I’d only include Arthur C. Clarke’s story “The Nine Billion Names of God” which is probably not widely read (I happen to have his collection of the same name on my shelf; it’s a favorite story of mine). Everyone’s seen the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, right? And I assume the basics of DQ’s story – crazy guy thinks he’s a knight, adventuring to win the heart of the non-existent Dulcinea, sidekick Sancho Panza – are pretty much part of the general consciousness.

Let’s do some compare/contrast on those crucial points of intersection with the original. Where DQ was obsessed with romances about knight-errantry – the dime-store romances of his day – our more modern Quichotte has become obsessed with television, particularly reality TV featuring real housewives, Kardassians, and all the rest. DQ invented Dulcinea, his lady love, as an amalgam of damsels in distress, and went questing to prove his owrthiness of her. Quichotte is enamored with a former movie star from Bombay and current New York daytime talk show host, Salma R. Where DQ co-opted his neighbor, Sancho Panza, into serving as his squire with the promise of governorship of an island at some point in the future, Quichotte conjures up a son of his own at Devil’s Tower (hence, Close Encounters), a teenager named Sancho.

Going a little beyond those basics was very rewarding for me. One of the aspects of DQ I enjoyed the most – and would never have recognized had it not been for the Yale lectures – was the puzzle of narration. The first narrator bows out after eight chapters and we find ourselves reading the work of another narrator, plus a translator. Stories about storytellers telling stories. And, of course, Cervantes, the author behind it all. And behind him? If it’s turtles all the way down, it’s narrators all the way up. God, no longer the Unmoved Mover, but now the Unnarrated Narrator.

I know things. Educated things. But how do I know so much, being the teenage son of a seventy-year-old, and born just the other day? I guess the answer is, I know what he knows.…
There’s something else. It’s the strangest thing. Sometimes, when I’m in here, rummaging around in my own head, using the words he gave me and the knowledge he passed down , uncovering my memories which are his memories, his life story which I could claim as my own if I weren’t smart enough to know better …just sometimes, not every time …I get the weirdest sense that there’s someone else in here. Crazy, right?
I’m as crazy as he is, the old guy. But who or what is this third person? I’m just going to say this the way it comes to me just say it, even though it makes no sense and makes me sound…unreliable. It feels to me, at those moments when I have this sense of a stranger, as if there’s somebody under slash behind slash above the old man. Somebody – yes – making him the way he made me. Somebody putting his life, his thoughts, his feelings, his memories into the old man the way the old man put that stuff inside me. In which case whose life am I remembering here? The old man’s or the phantom’s?

Quichotte (which Rushdie goes to some effort to inform us, in “A Quixotic Note on Pronunciation,” is best pronounced “key-SHOT”) begins with “Chapter 1: Quichotte, an old Man, falls in Love, embarks on a Quest, & becomes a Father.” The descriptive chapter titles are another nod to the original DQ; they also help keep the reader focused in a book that does everything it can to derail focus. But in “Chapter 2: An Author, Sam DuChamp, reflects upon his Past, & enters new Territory” we learn Quichotte is a character in a book, which explains how a son, a “monochrome boy” could just appear out of nowhere. And we learn that Sam DuChamp is a pseudonym the writer has used for a series of spy novels; he refers to himself generally as Brother. In the next few chapters we learn about Quichotte’s inamorata, a TV star named Salma R, about Brother’s Sister, about Quichotte’s cousin and erstwhile employer, Dr. Smile, before returning to hear more from Sancho, the black-and-white son.

See? Even though there’s a lot going on, this is a nice introductory sequence to show you who each character is. If you can remember only Brother and Sister are actual people, while everyone else is a character in a book Brother is writing… oh, except, yeah, Brother and Sister are characters, too, but in the book they’re… hmmm.

An interjection, kind reader, if you will allow one: It may be argued that stories should not sprawl in this way, that they should be grounded in one place or the other, put down roots in the other or that one and flower in that singular soil; yet so many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations, families have been divided …And inside the broken families are broken people, broken by loss, poverty, maltreatment, failure, age, sickness, pain, and hatred, yet trying in spite of it all to cling to hope and love , and these broken people – we, the broken people! – may be the best mirrors of our times , shining shards that reflect the truth wherever we travel, wherever we land, wherever we remain. For we migrants have become like seed-spores, carried through the air, and lo, the breeze blows up where it will come up until we lodge in an alien soil, where very often – as for example now in this England with its wild nostalgia for an imaginary golden age when all attitudes were Anglo-Saxon and all English skins were white – we are made to feel unwelcome, no matter how beautiful the fruit hanging from the branches of the orchards of fruit trees that we grow into and become.

There’s a wonderful line in the book defining lunacy as “the inability to separate what-is-so from what-is-not-so.” This generally gets applied, aptly, to American culture and society throughout, but it often applies to the reader. It’s hard to keep straight who is and who is not, particularly since, ultimately, nobody is. As the novel progresses, the book-within-the-book and the author’s story converge more and more, increasing the potential for confusion. Maybe reading this book will give us a bit more compassion for those who fall down rabbit holes of misinformation, given it is so often presented alongside and in similar style to information.

The reader becomes aware of new elements and relationships slowly; often these change presumed motivations. There are brother/sister rifts; by coincidence I happen to be one party in a brother/sister rift, and even more coincidentally (really!) I wrote my estranged brother about a month ago for the first time since, oh, maybe the early 90s, before I started reading the book and knew about this element. I still haven’t heard a reply, but the letter (snail mail, how quaint!) hasn’t been returned as undeliverable, so I suppose that’s an answer of a sort. Moving on: Quichotte until recently worked for his cousin, Dr. Smile, who has made a bundle developing a sublingual Fentanyl derivative and he’s exactly as crooked and evil as that sounds. This sets up a connection between brothers and sisters that takes us through the later parts of the book.

“Is that what you believe,” Son asked him, “that life is meaningless and we are turning into animals without morality?”
“I think it’s legitimate for a work of art made in the present time to say, we are being crippled by the culture we have made, by its most popular elements above all,” he replied. “And by stupidity and ignorance and bigotry, yes.”
“So what have you done about it?” Son demanded. “What’s your contribution? What sort of mark do you think you’re leaving on the world?”
“I did my work, and then there’s you,” he said, hearing as he spoke the weakness of his reply.
Son shrugged and headed for the car. “OK,” he said. “Let’s move on.”
Your son, your grand inquisitor.

The Rhinoceros episode deserves special attention. It appears in the chapter titled “A Sequence of absurd Events during a brief Sojourn in New Jersey,” and features rampant panic as people are turning into mastodons. I was convinced the mastodon – an old, extinct form of elephant – was a pretty direct reference to the Republican party, but in an Interview with Dolen Perkins-Valdez at the Politics and Prose Booktore, Rushdie denied that was his intent. He says he deliberately kept the name of a certain President out of the book, because he didn’t want it to be about that; he wanted it to be about America.

By the way, in a different interview with Walter Isaacson for Amanpour & Co., he tells us his original vision did not include the writer’s story; he would just write the Quichotte story straight. The process of recognizing the story – which started, even more oddly, with a set of science-fiction scripts written for an abandoned cable TV project – is always fascinating, and here, with the intertwining of two stories and so many references, is miraculous.

The death of Don Quixote felt like the extinction in all of us of a special kind of beautiful foolishness, an innocent grandeur, a thing for which the world had no place, but which one might call humanity. The marginal man, the man laughably out of touch and doggedly out of step and also unarguably out of mind, revealed in his last moment as the one to care most about and mourn most deeply for. Remember this. Have this above all in mind.

As I came to the last chapters, I was surprised at the emotion I felt. the chapter “In which the Question of Sancho is Answered” was unexpectedly moving. The events were in the neighborhood of foreseeable; nevertheless, I didn’t see my reaction coming. I had to put the book down for a day to absorb it. And in the penultimate chapter, “Concerning the Author’s Heart,” a revelation is made so casually that its reverberation was again a shock, but this time, the entire book shifted for me. A line from a review of Mad Men came to me: “Who’d have guessed that in the end, it’d be all about family?” Of course, it was always about family, but the true point of origin, the knot that ties it all together, is left until just about the end.

And that leaves the very end, which, well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself. Anything else would be unfair.

Robert Long Foreman: I Am Here to Make Friends (Sundress, 2020)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

— Emily Dickinson

The stories in I’m Just Here to Make Friends are not what the stories are about. Wait, let me say that better. The stories – at least most of them – feature a character rather obsessed with something. Maybe it’s watching a woman give birth in order to experience awe. Or getting a random trinket appraised at an Antiques Road Show event. Or reading someone else’s dream journal. But it turns out, what the character is obsessed with, is not what the story is about; the story is about what’s going on while the character chases down pregnant ladies willing to give birth in front of a stranger, or invades an ARS venue and accidentally sets up shop as an appraiser, or reads a dream journal which itself has to be the product of someone who was in a story about something else.

A line from Mad Men comes back to me: “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.” [I had a long bit in here about how new iPhones every two years and designer coffees are distractions to keep us from noticing how everything’s going to hell, and how college debt isn’t a bug but a feature since by the time a kid racks up $20, $100, $300 grand of loans, she’s going to be distracted from social justice and instead worrying about the stock market and how that homeless guy is devaluing her property, but it seemed… inappropriate. So I cut it.] That these stories foreground the anything only highlights the anxiety in the background. The stories tell the truth – but tell it slant.

The thing is, the distractions, the surface stories, are mesmerizing. They’re bright shiny lights and Led Zeppelin and the man on the flying trapeze. And the Truth is quietly sitting alone under a tree, easy to miss.

After the first few stories, I was really confused. I knew I was missing the Truth, but I didn’t know how or where. So I went to story sherpa Jake Weber’s post, which I’d been so careful not to read other than a couple of phrases about bemused narrators and warm-hearted stories. And I saw what my problem was: I needed to stop looking for the usual landmarks.

We’re so used to the cycle of want, followed by inability to achieve the wanted thing, followed then by some kind of epiphany that allows the character to achieve what he wants–the “tyranny of the epiphany” as Jim Shepard calls it–that it’s entirely arresting to read Robert Long Foreman’s short story collection I Am Here To Make Friends (Sundress Publications, 2020, 215 pages). Arresting, because most of the stories involve a protagonist who breaks the rules by not being sure what they really want, mostly being passive and misunderstood, and yet every one of the stories is a joy with more than enough forward momentum to keep the reader happily flipping pages to the end….
Much more than this, though, is the way these stories remind us how appropriate it is to feel disoriented.

– Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic

If there was ever a time when we needed to be reminded that disorientation is a normal reaction to disorienting circumstances, it’s 2020.

The title of the collection isn’t the title of a story; it isn’t a quote from a story. It’s just the title of the collection. That’s not unheard of – I found a couple of examples on my own bookshelves – but it’s unusual. It plays off the reality-TV trope I’ve heard so many times on Top Chef and Project Runway, the well-armored, obnoxious contestant assuring viewers “I’m not here to make friends” but to win, because somehow they can’t conceive of doing both successfully. In this context, it’s more ironic: the characters in these stories may truly want friends, but their efforts are ineffective or counterproductive. Still, in most of the stories they connect: maybe not with the important people in their lives, maybe not with themselves, but with the reader. Maybe we see our own thrashing through their lives.

My curiosity about the title, some other questions that cropped up during my reading (as questions always do), and a few prior conversations with Foreman led me to ask if he’d be willing to answer a few questions for this post. Turns out he would. I don’t often do author interviews, mostly because few authors would bother with me, so when I have the opportunity I jump at the chance. I’m very grateful for his willingness to spend time answering what might seem some pretty strange questions:

1 The title – it looks like it’s not in the text anywhere (if i missed it, please let me know); obviously it’s not a title of a story. I’m assuming it’s an overall title – So many of the characters are losing relationships while they’re distracted by goofy stuff, or they’re distracting themselves from their relationships with goofy stuff, is it more of an overall title about all these people? With the melting snowman, it makes me so sad – like Frosty the Snowman, hurry up and make friends with me before I melt! Anything you want to say about it?

You’re right; the title is not in the text. I had thought of calling it Here to Make Friends; my friend Kate suggested adding I Am Here since all the stories are in the first-person, since it would indicate something about the collection. At first I just thought it would be a funny title, but then I realized it’s actually an accurate statement about me. I am indeed here to make friends! And my hope is that something else comes out in it, too, a sense of something bordering on desperation, which I think the narrators in the stories feel. They tell their stories because they want so badly to be better understood, and there’s so much about themselves they don’t see.

 
 
2 I often have trouble telling if the narrator/main char is male or female. Is that deliberate? It could be a statement about gender fluidity, or it could be, well, just the byproduct of first person narration.

I think it’s mostly the latter–a consequence of first-person narration. But I don’t usually make it a priority to identify the narrator’s gender. Sometimes you have to make gender apparent for the sake of clarity, but I like the idea of a story being read differently based on what you perceive the narrator’s gender to be. I’ve been told I need to make it clearer when my narrator is a woman, because I’m a man, but I still don’t usually do that.

 
 
3 Story order, selection – how did you decide the order of the stories? It seemed to me the last two stories are the most “traditional”. Is that a matter of your writing evolving, or a deliberate choice? How did you decide what stories to include or leave out?

I put the longest story last; that seemed to make sense. For the longest time, in earlier drafts of the collection, I had “Cadiz, Missouri” first in the collection, because it won a Pushcart, and is therefore the most decorated story, maybe the best one. But I think that was holding it back; it’s a subdued, essayistic story, and doesn’t leap out at the reader. “Awe” is a story that does, and once I put it first I found the collection got a much better reaction–was a finalist for a contest, was published by Sundress. I didn’t think that mattered for the longest time, that I needed to ensnare a reader quickly. But I did! Anyway, I mostly just wanted to make sure the collection was ordered in a way that would keep the reader interested, keep surprising them. It’s all about justifying putting the stories together in a collection by creating a book-length experience that you can’t get by reading each story out in the wild.

 
 
4 When was Gunmen written? In an interview after The Man with the Nightmare Gun, you said you’d lost interest in guns, couldn’t write it that way now (then). The scenario is very different, of course, but you did return to guns, was that to change the conversation the earlier story started, or was it more about reality calling for a reaction?

It’s true; I finished writing my other gun story in the collection right before I found out Trayvon Martin was shot, and I was then more repulsed by guns as a fact of American life than I ever was before. I felt gross for having written about guns with even a character’s fictionalized fascination, even if I still think that’s a good story. But then guns never went anywhere, and years later people were talking seriously about arming teachers. I was a teacher at the time, and knew what a horrible, stupid idea that was and still is. So I felt compelled to write about how I think that might actually look in practice, with all the decent people leaving the profession and the only teachers left being rotten and vacuous, hanging onto their jobs just because they’re willing to carry firearms into classrooms. I was also feeling really out-of-place in academia, which I then left, and that informs the story, too.

 
 
5 I’ve never read Cormac McCarthy, if I had, would I have noticed all kinds of connections and references in Gunmen? As much as I liked the story, I wonder if I missed a whole world.

I don’t think you missed too much. There are some jokes that are funnier if you’ve read McCarthy’s novels, like how the narrator says The Orchard Keeper is a terrible novel that no one should read. But all you really need to know is how McCarthy is perceived, as a kind of man’s man of writers, who writes about guns and horses, to get why he’s in that story.

 
 
6 This isn’t a question, though you’re welcome to respond if you’d like. I guess the Rob Save America tour is cancelled; too bad, I was hoping it would work. We’re screwed now. And I was hoping you’d get to Maine, though I communicate much better online than in person. I feel so bad for all of the writers who’ve worked so hard, and had their book releases coincide with this crap.

It’s not a great time to have a book coming out! Let alone to have two coming out (my novel’s out in October). I’m not with any big, monied presses, so it’s hard to get much attention on my books as it is; one way that works is to make personal appearances in different places. And that’s not possible right now. I wish I could do Rob, Save America! and visit all fifty states; it was always meant to be a comical way to set myself up for failure, since I have kids at home and lots of work always and can barely leave the house to do anything ever. But I would have liked to go to a few places. I really wanted to, like, go to Lawrence, Kansas with a map of the US and just two thumbtacks on it to mark the states I’ve been to, in November, and talk about how hard it would be to get to 48 more states by December 31st, and ask the audience if they knew anyone in Montana who owned a bookstore that could host me.

 
 
7 Is there anything you wish someone would ask you so you could say something in an answer?

I wish people would ask why I’m the way I am all the time. Like, what’s it like to wake up in the morning and be like that? My answer is that it’s really terrible, I hate being like this.
 
 
– Interview with Robert Long Foreman, July 2020

As to that last: I have no idea what it means, but to me it brings up Thomas Nagel, Stevie Smith, and BoJack Horseman (which I haven’t really watched, but my blogging buddy Jake Weber keeps dropping pearls of wisdom he’s found in it, so, like Cormac McCarthy, it’s one of those things I may need to grit my teeth and tolerate for a while to get to the good part). Rob’s whole Twitter feed is like this, I’m never sure if I should be laughing at a joke that went over my head, or calling a suicide hotline.

But let’s go back to his stories. Some of my favorites:

Gunmen

Had I known the gunman was on his way, had I known what I was dreaming when I dreamt his arrival in advance, I would have prepared for his coming. I would have stashed an extra gun in the desk at the front of the room and ensured that the students knew it was there. I would have planted a claymore at the entrance to the classroom, just above the door. I would have rigged a steel trap that might have kept the gunman from bringing any harm to the students I was meant to keep safe.
Better yet: I would have told the students not to come in that day. Had I known not only that he would come, but when, I would have cancelled my class and saved the lives of nine people.

Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler; it’s the first paragraph. This is the last story of the book – Foreman refers to it as a novella, and, at 62 pages, that makes sense – but I wanted to start off with it in case readers get discouraged by the length of this post and stop reading (who am I kidding; too late) to make sure at least this one gets on their radar screen. There’s a huge range here: one bit about adjuncts had me giggling, another about trademark violations got a full-blown snort; the climactic scene had me hyperventilating and brought me to the edge of a panic attack. And it almost has me wanting to read Cormac McCarthy. But not quite.

It’s a campus novella with a terrifyingly possible alternative-present premise: teachers at all levels are required to carry guns. Our protagonist is an English professor, and a pretty crappy one at that. When the Must Carry law went into effect, most of the professors quit, so he’s what’s left. To his credit, he knows he’s not much of a scholar or a professor. His students keep complaining that the World Literature course he’s teaching only covers Cormac McCarthy novels. He hopes that somehow, in a class with students fresh with ideas, he’ll find an idea worth writing about.

His transition to arms hasn’t gone totally smoothly. His girlfriend left him because he started checking for dangers everywhere, and talked about gunmen in his sleep. But he’s found the bright side of Must Carry: respect.

… before we had guns I’d found that the respect I was supposed to get as a professor eluded me….
The United States had always seemed to look on its teachers as an enormous population of lay-about distant cousins, living liabilities to the sensible and business-minded world. We were bad examples to the children, they seemed to think, and should have all gone to school for business and opened a business.
That attitude changed, when we got our guns. Everything changed, except how much students didn’t like the things I assigned them to read. They kept not liking any of that.

I’ve never read McCarthy, but I suspect I’d find multiple intersections. In fact, I noticed one even from my unenlightened state: the lack of quotation marks. Foreman uses them in other stories, so it’s a choice not to use them here. McCarthy wasn’t the first to eliminate quotation marks in his writing, but he’s rather famous for it (since even I know about it). The three epigraphs from Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West come into play. Wiki lists them and Shmoop tells me they’re about the continued savagery of the human animal even as we become supposedly more and more civilized. That certainly plays in a story about arming English professors and holding gun fairs on campus so they can choose their University-supplied firearms, because (and I’m editorializing here) it’s more profitable for campaign contributors than getting military weapons away from people who might be crazy enough to shoot up a classroom.

One comment the professor makes about McCarthy’s writing style also seems in line with the story:

When McCarthy has the novel trudge along the way it does, with significant events mixed with insignificant events, indiscriminately, in a perfectly linear fashion, it makes the narrative seem more real. It makes it plain that McCarthy is anchoring his imagination to a historical record.

This seems particularly appropriate when he interrupts an account of a class discussion to inform us that Philip, one of his students is black. Not only is it a bit of a digression, but he relates it directly to writing. And it’s one of those writing issues that gets tossed around once in a while: will a reader assume all characters are white unless they have characteristics associated with black people, and in that case, isn’t that stereotyping, etc etc. In the context of the story it’s more about how a McCarthy narrative suddenly stops and a long passage about a horse ensues, but it’s also a genuine social issue that’s pretty front-burner right now. The whole story is chock full of front-burner issues. Then again, right now just about everything is a front-burner issue.

And about Philip: it seems to me he’s the reason the students were still in the classroom when the gunman burst in. The narrator never states it outright, but does indicate Philip’s course evaluation was very long and they probably would have left earlier if he hadn’t been so diligent at outlining the Professor’s weaknesses. Which gives us a deeper answer to the question, who was the real reason the students were in the room? And then leaves us with, why the hell should it matter how long they were there, or why, since the real issue is why isn’t the classroom safe no matter how long they say?

At the center of all of it is the professor, whose name we never know, someone who isn’t up to his job or his relationship or much of anything, really. And he knows it, and seems to accept it without feeling a need to do anything about it. At the end, he’s alone, but he seems to have some direction for the future. Or at least, he knows one thing he doesn’t want to to do, which is a start.

Awe

Maybe he was right, I thought, and I could use some awe in my life. It was making Gary glow. What could it do for me?

This is a story that could have been written another way – a more traditional way – and it would have been sweet and sad and moving, but written this way, it’s kind of like white-water rafting (at least, as I imagine it, since I’ve never been anywhere close to white water nor have I ever been within shouting distance of a raft).

I happen to be very fond of awe, in the Edmund Burke sense (he’s kind of a jerk otherwise, but he knew awe), and I always feel like I find it in places I’m not supposed to. The night sky is beautiful, but awe? Naw. Ditto for the Grand Canyon. People who find awe there, are they serious? Then again, I’ve never been, so who knows. No, where I find awe is in an animation of DNA replication, in all of biology really: we need oxygen for the last of around 30 steps that somehow just happen, in every cell of our bodies, not because molecules make decisions but because positive and negative attract. It’s amazing we’re alive, let alone reading books and having babies. But people look at me like I’m weird when I say stuff like this.

Our narrator – nameless, again – gets some advice from a friend: get some awe in your life, watch a baby get born. The friend just watched his son being born, which it seems to me is a very different experience from watching a stranger give birth, but our guy doesn’t have a son in the oven, so he uses Craigslist to find a woman willing to give birth in front of him. I wasn’t kidding when I said these stories were full of bright shiny lights and stuff.

And then there’s the Truth, sitting in the corner smiling a half-smile:

“I haven’t touched a camera in a year,” I said. “Not since my last subject. She died. She killed herself.” With a half smile, I said, “I guess that’s what I get for making a film about people on the brink of suicide.”

Life and death weave around each other throughout the story, amid sinks and semicolons and a house that looks “as if Frank Lloyd Wright had designed it after banging his head and forgetting what century he lived in.”

As the first story in the collection, it sets the tone. It’s not as baffling as some other ones – there’s an actual resolution – but it’s not your standard How I Came Through the Darkness thing either. At the beginning of the story he’s recovering from having seen something awful. At the end, he’s healed by having seen something aweful.

Appraisals

I went to the Antiques Roadshow with my mother’s green marble frog in the inside pocket of the jacket of the black suit I wore to her funeral that morning. I had taken the frog from her house. I wanted to know what it was worth.

One of the best pieces of advice in the hundreds of pages Miss Manners has published (I love Miss Manners) is about answering a question like, “Would you like to see some pictures of my grandchildren?” A literal answer would almost always be “No,” but she fudges it by looking at “the truth of the situation, rather than the crude literal surface truth.” The grandparent is really asking for communication, sharing, some kind of connection, and only a heartless bastard would refuse that.

The problem is, Antiques Roadshow assumes that, when you show up with a useless trinket, you want to know the actual value of the thing. They don’t know it’s your mother’s, and that you just buried her hours before. They only know it’s worthless crap.

Our bereaved narrator (need I mention he is unnamed) tries to drink off his disappointment, but is mistaken for one of the appraisers. “I imagined that most of the Roadshow appraisers weren’t equipped to take harsh truths and soften them for the ones they told them to. They were like bad eulogists, one of which I heard that morning. It was my dad.” But he has more freedom than the appraisers, so he starts giving out more uplifting judgments. He gets more and more elaborate as time goes on – the “Sears” doesn’t refer to the store, but to subversive artists making a statement – and also more and more generous. “A theme of extinction ran through my late appraisals.” Of course it did.

The end feels wrenching, like any tragedy worth its salt.

The Vinyl Canal

I’ve spent enough of my life listening to weird men talk about things that matter to them but that don’t really matter at all.
How much more of my life would I spend doing that – sitting patiently while someone like Ben told me all about something that really meant something – to him?
How much longer would it be before I had a man living inside my head, droning on about records, or traffic, or the independent comedy scene, for the independent literature scene, or the independent scenery scene, whenever there wasn’t a real man around to do it? How long before I had a man living in my apartment, who would serve the same purpose?

Sometimes, the distraction of the story is, in fact, a lot more interesting to me than the story itself. In fact, I’m not even sure what the Truth is, besides this woman going through some lousy relationships she’s only half paying attention to, because they aren’t worth it. And because the Vinyl Canal is a lot more interesting.

The Vinyl Canal starts out as a way of skipping over tracks of a record you don’t like. I miss records. I still have a few, though I got rid of most of them, things that could be replaced, a long time ago. Records would develop their own quirks over time: skips, repeats, and so forth. Those of us with cheap phonographs (and cheap records that could be replaced) balanced quarters on the tone arm to keep the stylus in slightly damaged grooves, even though this resulted in more damage.

Ben found a way to use those skips to his advantage: by creating canals that would move across cuts he didn’t want to listen to. That’s pretty brilliant; I have to wonder if Foreman actually did this at some point, or knew someone who did. But Ben discovers it’s a lot more work to carve these canals than it is to just let the record play as it was made (by the way, there were turntables available from the late 70s that offered programmable track selection with linear tracking tonearms; my husband had a couple); thus the term Vinyl Canal evolves to mean a way of avoiding something you don’t want to deal with, but actually causing yourself more trouble than if you’d just gone ahead and faced it like a grownup.

This meaning keeps expanding, and he applies it to a wide variety of societal ills: The poisoned water in Flint, MI; the Iraq war; police violence; defunding libraries. It’s maybe the story most broadly pertinent to today, and by today, I mean literally today, this week, 2020 in general, as we’re at 130,000 deaths and the fourth month of pandemic affecting people’s lives every day because someone (we won’t name names) thought it would be better to ignore it. We’re in the Vinyl Canal right now.

The story is available online at Willow Springs, along with a contributor note from Foreman:

What surprised me most as I wrote the story was that it didn’t end where I meant it to, at first. I thought the narrator’s exit from the radio station, about 2/3 of the way into the story, would be the right place to leave her. I realized, when I extended the story to where it ultimately went, that it wasn’t until later that the story’s animating tension was resolved, or its anxiety soothed (I don’t like the word “conflict”). It seemed to me that the right place to leave the narrator was at the mouth of the canal her weird acquaintance had dug. And so I learned a lot from continuing to work on this story, even after I saw I could have decided it was finished and moved on. I used to be less patient than that.

~ Robert Foreman, contributor note

It seems to me that the shorter version makes the narrator the focus, and the longer version makes Ben the primary character; I far prefer it that way, since I have no idea what the narrator’s issues are. I’m too distracted by the Vinyl Canal. See, it works.

On Brian’s Dreams of Submarines

I told some of these dreams to Brian – my husband Brian – as we ate breakfast, but he wasn’t interested. It takes him an hour every morning to be ready to engage with the world, and he’d only been awake for thirty minutes when I relayed my dreams to him , so that was part of it , but I also think he just didn’t care.
I developed a theory, that dreams are interesting to people other than their dreamer only when they’ve been written down and processed through the act of writing into something more concrete. If I wrote down my dreams and left them in a folder in the apartment, Brian might find them when I was dead or at a conference, and he might be as engrossed in my dreams as I was in those had by work-Brian

I always feel inadequate when I read a story about dreams, because my dreams aren’t anything like the dreams in stories or books. I have categories of dreams (house dreams, still-married nightmares, pain dreams) but I never have the same dream, or even close to the same dream twice. And my dreams are very fragmented, but the fragments rarely connect.

In spite of my inferiority complex around dreams, this was another fascinating story with a brilliant distraction. It reminded me a lot, in fact, of “The Vinyl Canal” except to me it worked better as a story, since I understood the narrator’s underlying Truth: her marriage was dying of disinterest.

The narrator is tasked with cleaning out the desk of Brian, who quit his job precipitously some time ago. She finds a notebook which she initially thinks is a technical manual of some kind: it’s typed and has charts and diagrams. It turns out to be Brian’s dream journal. The charts are ways of categorizing his dreams by themes, by gender or race of the population in the dream, by deaths in the dream, etc. These charts are reproduced in the book, by the way; I can only assume that Mid-American Review also reproduced them when they printed the story in 2013, and offer them a high-five for doing so; it’s the sort of thing that befuddles text-only litmags, but allows so much to blossom forth from fiction.

The narrator’s husband is also named Brian. This is not the first time I’ve sensed Foreman playing with doubling. In this case, there’s a hint of the narrator being work-wife and home-wife, even though she and work-Brian rarely interacted. That just emphasizes how distant she and her husband have become.

The title refers to a series of submarine dreams, in which everyone on board is killed. There’s a lot of concern about whether this includes Brian, if he’s the crew, as the dreamer, or if he’s the captain, or something else. These aren’t just plug-in dreams, these are detailed examinations, which makes the story work. I’m reminded of Seth Fried explaining he kept a notebook of creative ways for people to be killed when writing his story “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” and at one point he got worried that if he left the notebook somewhere and someone else found it, they might call SWAT on him. Work went into these dreams. And it wasn’t Brian’s work.

Our narrator comments at one point she thinks this journal might be a practical joke played by her boss to freak her out. That sounds like a fun story right there.

The diary turns out to affect the narrator’s life as she and her husband discuss the submarine dreams. It’s a delightful pun on the cliché about marriage being founded on shared dreams. The graph that results from that evening (hey, I can’t reveal everything) makes a delightfully happy ending to a story.

—————————————————————–

I’ve followed Foreman on Twitter for quite some time, and usually have no idea what he’s talking about (I understand less and less of what’s on Twitter every day; pretty soon, it’ll be like a stream of undecipherable language, but I’ve arranged it so that I get lots of pretty pictures, which comfort me). I read his essay collection last year, and it surprised me: I always figured he was just too cool for me, but I discovered we have lots of intersections. This story collection sometimes gets beyond me, but much of it hits the target perfectly: I am these people, way too much. His novel, Weird Pig, is scheduled for release in October 2020.

Weike Wang, “Chemistry” (Vintage, 2018)

The Chinese word for chemistry is hua xue. The first character means to change, transform, melt. The second character means to learn. Said with a different inflection, xue could mean snow, hua could mean speech, and chemistry becomes the melting of snow, becomes the learning of speech.

No, this isn’t a chemistry text, nor is it a Chinese language guide; it’s a novel about a woman who comes to several dead ends in her life, and has no idea what to do next. In her NYT review, Alexandra Alter called it an “anti-coming-of-age story: Instead of figuring out how to be an adult, the narrator learns to live with uncertainty and indecision.” Wang pushed back on that a little in her Asia Society blog interview: “the novel ends in the middle of [the narrator’s] development. She’s on the upswing as far as potential for change, but you don’t see the victory dance.” I’m not sure I like “coming of age” for someone who’s well into adulthood, but there is a coming-to-terms with, or at least a recognition of, a number of problematic relationships she’s been at the mercy of: with her mother, her father, her boyfriend, her career goals, and her identity as a Chinese-American woman and daughter.

I didn’t notice until I read the Penguin Reader’s Guide that only the boyfriend Eric is named. That’s interesting. Except for the narrator – who, naturally enough in a first-person story, doesn’t refer to herself as anything other than “I” – everyone but Eric is referred to by their relationship to her: parents, best friend, lab mate, math student. It almost feels like this is an inversion of the usual thing where the named characters are the most important. That Eric’s relationship isn’t labeled fits with both the odd relationship they had at the outset, and his departure midway through the novel.

The brittle humor and style – many smallish sections, about a page or so – keep things from edging into sentimentality, but there’s plenty of emotional territory covered. As well, some scenes are downright hilarious. Early on, our narrator loses her place in grad school; whether it’s because she’s just not a good enough chemist, or because she doesn’t love chemistry enough to do it well, is one of the issues she’s struggling with. Best Friend tries to help:

The best friend has sent me a present. It is a stuffed doll with yellow yarn for hair and two Xs for eyes and a line for a mouth. It is called a Dammit Doll. I am to grasp this doll by the legs and whack the stuffing out of it, while shouting, Dammit, dammit, dammit. I try, but the doll has proven to be made from industrial grade stuff. I have named it Science, You Motherfucker.

I can sympathize; mine would be named Math.

The beginning of the novel finds our narrator working outrageously long hours as a graduate student in her chem lab, yet unable to produce the result she needs. The confidence she felt as an outstanding student in high school is long gone, and she’s losing the love she had for the field:

Coming in, I think myself the best at chemistry. In high school, I win a national award for it. I say, cockily, at orientation, Yes, that was me, only to realize that everyone else had won it as well, at some point, In addition to awards I have never won.

I am a senior in college when I decide to go into synthetic organic chemistry. I am mesmerized by the art of it. The purpose of this kind of chemistry is to build a molecule that is already present in nature, but to build it better than nature, in the least number of steps, with a beautiful key step. Technique is everything. Percent yield is everything. For months I am running the same reaction over and over again, the seventh step of a twenty-four-step synthesis, just so I can get the yield up from 50 percent to 65 because anything under 60 is unacceptable to the advisor. Then for months, I am running step eight. Then for years, the advisor is asking, Do we have it, the molecule? And I say, no, it is still at large.
In time, you find yourself no longer mesmerized.

I’m reminded of an article by Kamil Ahsan about the falling-out-of-love-with-biology that happens when you “inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years.”

Add to this her sense that her boyfriend’s academic career is soaring, and she feels left behind. “Please stop, just for a little while, and let me catch up. How do you expect me to marry you if you never let me catch up?” she whispers at night as he sleeps.

Then there are parental expectations, both expressed and unexpressed. Her father has set a high bar by example:

My father’s is the classic immigrant story.
He is the first in his family to go to high school and college and graduate school and America. He is the first to become an engineer. …
But such progress is made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.

Her mother has a very different story.

My mother’s mother was one of the best architects in Shanghai.
In the late 1970s, she helps reconstruct the Bund. During this time, she tells my mother, still a teenager, that if she were ever to settle down and have children, she need only had daughters. Daughters have more chu xi and xiao shun, she says. Chu xi is the ability to succeed. Xiao shun is filial piety. My grandmother believes this because she was one of those daughters – having accomplished a great deal, having married well, raised two kids, and taken care of her parents in the last years of their lives.
But to follow my father to America, my mother inevitably gives up both.
And for this reason, I think she believes herself to have failed.
Then the moment of shock sets in. A daughter? You must be mistaken. I do not have a daughter. And if I did, how would I raise her if I cannot set for her an example?
Upon putting that car in reverse and leaving, she thinks, finally, a chance to start anew. But then she realizes that she cannot get very far without my father. There are many things she cannot read or say. And money, she doesn’t have her own money.
Maybe she also comes back because of you, the shrink says. The maternal instinct kicking in.
If she does, she never shows it.

This not only sets up high expectations – anything less than a PhD is unacceptable – but adds to the narrator’s reluctance to marry Eric and follow him when he is offered the job of his dreams at Oberlin.

All of this culminates in a meltdown (chemistry, the study of melting) in the lab and the breaking of beakers. She is put on medical leave and sent to a shrink, then cut from the program. Eric gets his dream job and moves without her. Now what?

Now what turns out to be continuing therapy, watching her best friend have a baby and leave her husband when he cheats on her, and working as a math and science tutor. Without the pressure of the lab and the exhausting work schedule, without the constant self-comparison to Eric, and without the pressure to decide about marriage, some things start to sort themselves out. Her memories of her parents grow less damaging. Her confusion about how to keep her Chinese identity while remaining American starts to become less burdensome. And she starts to enjoy teaching.

Science is used as example and metaphor throughout the novel.

Biologically, physical strength comes from mitochondria, which are organelles that generate all of our body’s energy. A unique feature of mitochondria is that they have their own DNA. Whereas the rest of the body is built on code that is half paternal and half maternal, mitochondrial DNA is entirely maternal and passed down from the mother.

Thus the narrator, instead of fearing she will disappoint her mother, can claim the strength she has inherited from her. Finding a different path does not have to mean failure; it can mean success is redefined, and becomes more fulfilling.

And if you think in terms of the nuclear family, physics teaches more than equations:

For a long time, scientists did not know why the nucleus of an atom held together. Theoretically, it should not. It is made up of all positive charges that should repel, but somehow, it persists.

It’s not by accident Wang chose science for the background of her first novel. She did her undergraduate work at Harvard in Chemistry, completed a doctorate in Public Health, and then picked up an MFA from Boston University. It’s interesting, in this STEM-focused era, how some people find their way back to the humanities.

I put this book on my TBR list when I first heard about it a couple of years ago; the blend of science and cultural adaptation appealed to me. Then I came across Wang’s story “Omakase” in last year’s BASS. Interestingly, it involves a woman moving to another city for a man, a man who annoyed me greatly. In my wrap-up post for the volume, I said I wasn’t sure about it yet; that’s still the case, but it was enough to move this novel from list to bookshelf for this year’s read.

I think the style was used to great effect here; a novel with a more fluid style, scene transitions and more filled-out prose, would have felt unduly heavy and almost trite. Instead, the novel bubbles and bounces, leaving its marks in concentrated packets. Of course, I enjoyed the use of science. And it turns out I like academic novels even when they stop being academic halfway through.

Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin (Vintage International edition, 1989)

How should we diagnose his sad case? Pnin, it should be particularly stressed, was anything but the type of that good-natured German platitude of the last century, der zerstreute Professor. On the contrary, we was perhaps too wary, too persistently on the lookout for diabolical pitfalls, too painfully on the alert lest his erratic surroundings (unpredictable America) inveigle him into some bit of preposterous oversight. It was the world that was absent-minded and it was Pnin whose business it was to set it straight. His life was a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered the sphere of his existence. He was inept with his hands to a rare degree; but because he could manufacture in a twinkle a one-note mouth organ out of a pea pod, make a flat pebble skip ten times on a the surface of a pond, shadowgraph with his knuckles a rabbit (complete with blinking eye), and perform a number of other tame tricks that Russians have up their sleeves, he believed himself endowed with considerable manual and mechanical skill. On gadgets he doted with a kind of dazed, superstitious delight. Electric devices enchanted him. Plastics swept him off his feet. He had a deep admiration for the zipper. But the devoutly plugged-in clock would make nonsense of his mornings after a storm in the middle of the night had paralyzed the local power station. The frame of his spectacles would snap in mid-bridge, leaving him with two identical pieces, which he would vaguely attempt to unite, in the hope, perhaps, of some organic marvel of restoration coming to the rescue. The zipper a gentleman depends on most would come loose in his puzzled hand at some nightmare moment of haste and despair.
And he still did not know that he was on the wrong train.

How come no one ever told me how wonderful this book is?

I don’t even remember why I added it to my in-between read list this year; I vaguely recall reading somewhere something like “the novel about the very funny Professor Pnin.” I could be imagining that, but since I have a longstanding fondness for “campus novels” (a subgenre I didn’t realize, until I read David Lodge’s 2004 commentary on the novel, only came into existence in the early to mid-1950s, and thus of which Pnin serves as an early example) I would have been tempted by such a description.

It worked both as a casual surface read – wonderful turns of language, amusing characters, arpeggios running from preposterously funny entanglements to heartbreaking pathos, the incorporation of poignant phrases done so subtly it’s almost as if they were accidental – and, with some help from those more perceptive than I, as an example of literary skill as well.

It’s fairly short for a novel – less than 200 pages for my trade paperback edition – and divided into seven episodic chapters. It comes close to being the “novel in stories,” in fact. And I discovered there’s a reason for that: four of those chapters were serialized in The New Yorker over the course of a couple of years in the mid-fifties, before its publication as a novel in 1957.

Thanks to the paper “A Resolved Discord” by Gennady Barabtarlo, I discovered an additional structure to the inner chapters (excluding the first and seventh, which have a different relationship): they begin and end in ways to strengthen their themes:

Chapter Two opens to the tune of the Waindell College chimes, replaced by the ringing of the Clementses’ telephone (Pnin calls to inquire about renting a room in their house), and ends with a close-up of Joan Clements abstractly examining the cover of a local magazine with the Waindell belfry on it, while Pnin yields to utter despair.
Chapter Three begins with a description of Pnin’s uncomfortable, sound-leaking lodgings and closes at the point when Pnin will have to vacate the first room in which he feels really at home.
Chapter Four, which is central both compositionally and thematically, has been studied more thoroughly than any other chapter. Victor Wind dreams of his imaginary father, a lonely and betrayed King, at the beginning; at the end, Pnin (Victor’s water father, as his real father, Eric Wind, jokes, perhaps more aptly than he may suppose) sees a sequel to Victor’s fantasy in his own dream….
In Chapter Five the woods of “beautiful New England” fan out most tranquilly as far as the view from a watch-tower can afford. Towards the end of the chapter, however, they change gradually into, and then are replaced by, the ominous German forest where Pnin’s sweetheart was murdered in one of the extermination camps situated inside a serene environment, at the core of a German cultural memorial.
At the beginning of Chapter Six, a new semester at Waindell starts on its routine autumn course, and Pnin finds a suitable home at long last; at the end, he must give up his position at the university and the sweet hope of settling in the house for good.

~ Gennady Barabtalo: “A Resolved Discord”

The first and last chapters are something like bookends, giving us our first and last glimpses of both Pnin, and the narrator. Barabtalo calls them “outward facing,” a phrase I don’t quite understand but quite like, and notes they also face each other, a concept I can see more clearly and will get to presently.

The one writing technique I noticed on my own was the question of the narrator’s identity. In fact, the story often became less important to me than the question of who is telling the story, and it’s not a question that is ever definitively answered.

And, incredibly enough, this ends up relating to language, translation, pain, and … Don Quixote! Stephen Casmier ties them all together in his 2004 paper (2004 seems to have been a banner year for Pnin analysis, I’m not sure why), “A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation.” His thesis, as I interpret it (and I could be misreading; it’s a bit above my pay grade) is that Nabokov conceived of this novel while giving a series of lectures on Don Quixote (one of which is referred to, by the way, in Jason Brown’s “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas” from Pushcart 2020), and was intrigued by Quixote’s pain, how it was narrated, translated into language, alongside Wittgenstein’s and Scarry’s concepts that pain confounds language; all of this gets wrapped up in Pnin, who teaches Russian language and mangles English in hilarious ways (whisky and soda comes out as varnish and sawdust, yet his landlady knows exactly what he means).

In many ways, pain is the white noise of Pnin, a constant pulse, throbbing in the background. Pnin is a man in unrelenting, unforgettable and often unexpressed pain.

~ Stephen Casmier: “A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation”

Let’s start with pain; then we’ll look at narration, and let Casmier tie everything together.

Pnin’s narrator reveals his pain several times. Even his name – he gives explicit instructions on the pronunciation of his first name, Timofey, but we never know the correct way to say Pnin – speaks to the garbled language of pain. Several specific instances stand out to me. In the first chapter, for example, as he is struggling to get to a speaking engagement but has found himself on the wrong train, he suffers some kind of seizure, one of those moments of extreme emotionality in the middle of a comedic episode.

In the second chapter, we meet his ex-wife, a piece of work if there ever was one. That she is a psychiatrist is the icing on the cake. When they are still living in Europe, she dumps him for another guy, gets pregnant, claims to want Pnin back in order to use his possession of a special visa to obtain passage to the States, and sends the cuckolder to dump him again on board the ship even as Pnin is enthusiastically planning the adoption of his child. Now, thirteen years later, she shows up, insults his lodgings, his clothing, his salary, and asks him to send money monthly to the child, a gifted teen artist in boarding school, as she is again divorcing. It’s painful to read. Even as he agrees to her request, Pnin recognizes her flaws, and after she leaves, he contemplates the downside of heaven as being reunited with her. Then he encounters a highly symbolic squirrel:

He seemed to be quite unexpectedly (for human despair seldom leads to great truths ) on the verge of a simple solution of the universe but was interrupted by an urgent request. A squirrel under a tree had seen Pnin on the path. In one sinuous tendril-like moment, the intelligent animal climbed up to the brim of a drinking fountain and, as Pnin approached, thrust its oval face toward him with a rather coarse spluttering sound, its cheeks puffed out. Pnin understood and after some fumbling he found what had to be pressed for the necessary results. Eyeing him with contempt, the thirsty rodent forthwith began to sample the stocky sparkling pillar of water, and went on drinking for a considerable time. “She has fever, perhaps,” thought Pnin, weeping quietly and freely, and all the time politely pressing the contraption down while trying not to meet the unpleasant eye fixed upon him. Its thirst quenched, the squirrel departed without the least sign of gratitude.
The water father continued up on his way ….

I’ve noticed several commentators refer to the frequent appearance of squirrels in the book, but this is the only one that I noticed, perhaps because it has a neon sign flashing “I’m recreating the prior humiliation!” It’s not irrelevant that the ex-wife, when she told Pnin about the pregnancy, referred to Pnin as the boy’s “water father” because of the ocean voyage.

In Chapter 5, the émigré weekend at The Pines, a deeper agony is revealed. Pnin recalls his first love, Mira, who was lost to him by circumstances beyond their control: “The Civil War of 1918-22 separated them: history broke their engagement.” They each married others, and ran into each other in Berlin some time later. This might seem like enough pain, but we’re just getting started:

In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin — not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind (alas, recollections of his marriage to Liza were imperious enough to crowd out any former romance), but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget—because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past.

If Pnin suppresses his pain, he has not forgotten it, as we see in Chapter 6 when he, at his most buoyant in the novel, giving a “house-heating” party for his new home, looking forward to a new semester, unaware he is about to be fired, makes enthusiastic plans with the dean who is about to do the firing:

You and I will give next year some splendid new courses which I have planned long ago. On Tyranny. On the Boot. On Nicholas the First. On all the precursors of modern atrocity. Hagen, when we speak of injustice, we forget Armenian massacres, tortures which Tibet invented, colonists in Africa …The history of man is the history of pain.

This is also where he mentions he has been advised by doctors, upon x-ray examination, that there is “a shadow behind the heart.” There sure is. By the way, it’s interesting reading the above paragraph on a weekend when statues of slaveholders, slave traders, racists and exploiters of various nations are being torn down by those tired of honoring evil.

Now about that narration. Things start out as typically third-person omniscient, a narrator who has insight into Pnin’s thoughts and knowledge of all his past and present actions. Sometimes it seems to address the reader a bit – “Now a secret must be imparted,” we’re told, the secret being that Pnin is on the wrong train. “How should we diagnose his sad case?” as an introduction to an encapsulation of Pnin’s overall personality and manner. The narrator refers to him as “our friend”. All of this could be seen as a stylistic approach to a standard narration, a style generally abandoned over a hundred years ago when somehow it was decided that narrators should blend into the woodwork, but it seemed a bit odd to me beyond the now-abandoned technique of having a pseudo-personality as narrator.

And sure enough, about two-thirds of the way through chapter 1, in discussing the episode of physical distress Pnin experiences when he realizes the complexities of getting to his lecture on time and with his paper, the narrator coalesces into a person, though an unidentified one: “I do not know if it has ever been noted before…” leading into a metaphorical discussion of Pnin’s distress. “Was his seizure a heart attack? I doubt it. For the nonce, I am his physician, and let me repeat, I doubt it.” I was led astray by this sentence, and thought the narrator was indeed Pnin’s physician, thus could conceivably have more access to the material revealed. But that was a misreading. “For the nonce” makes physicianship a momentary function of the narrator, not their relationship. I would like to believe this was a deliberate misdirection on Nabokov’s part, but since I don’t see reference to it anywhere else, I will have to put it upon myself and my less-than-sophisticated reading skill.

This personhood of the narrator, though not the identity, is nailed down at the end of the first chapter, when we find he would have preferred to see more pain for Pnin:

Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I would have preferred him to discover, upon his arrival to Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next. Actually, however, he not only arrived safely but was in time for dinner ….

This narratorial intrusion (can that be a thing, please) continues throughout the book, but we don’t get a clue as to the identity of the person until the last chapter, when we discover he is an incoming Waindell professor, a replacement to Hagen, I presume, and claims to have met Pnin several times over his life, the first when they were children (though Pnin disputes those accounts). And here’s where the Casmier paper becomes an excellent guide to this mystery:

Nabokov uses several techniques to create a profoundly unsteady literary landscape—casting aspersions on the first-person narrator and what he actually knows about his subject, Pnin, and thus hopelessly alienating Pnin from the narrator and the instance of narration. Readers learn, for example, that Pnin leaves the scene at the same moment that the narrator enters the timeline of his own narrative. Pnin drives off down the highway while the narrator pursues him by foot, never catching up. Because of this, the reader surmises that knowledge that the narrator has about Pnin must be second-hand and garnered through the mostly unreliable sources of Waindell.
….
Indeed, by the end of the novel, it becomes manifest that much of what the reader knows about Pnin could have been made up just so the narrator could flaunt his own, brilliant writing abilities. In essence, Pnin (the character) seems like a horrible translation, presented by a translator with a dubious relationship to his subject.

~ Stephen Casmier: “A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation”

That last scene, literally the last page of the book, is so wonderful, it’s worth quoting here:

Hardly had I taken a couple of steps when a great truck carrying beer rumbled up the street, immediately followed by a small pale blue sedan with the white head of a dog looking out, after which came another great truck, exactly similar to the first. The humble sedan was crammed with bundles and suitcases; its driver was Pnin. I emitted a roar of greeting, but he did not see me ….I hurried past the rear truck, and had another glimpse of my old friend, in tense profile, wearing a cap with earflaps and a storm coat; but next moment the light turned green, the little white dog leaning out yapped at Sobakevitch, and everything surged forward – truck one, Pnin, truck two. From where I stood I watched them recede in the frame of the roadway, between the Moorish house and the Lombardy poplar. Then the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying which miracle might happen.
Cockerell, brown-robed and sandaled, let in the cocker and led me kitchenward, to a British breakfast of depressing kidney and fish.
“And now,” he said, “I am going to tell you the story of Pnin rising to address the Cremona Women’s Club and discovering he had brought the wrong lecture. .”

This brings us back to the beginning (I love circular structure; the first and last chapters facing each other, indeed) but, more importantly, it indicates there is a possible source for the material the narrator could not know: Jack Cockerell, fellow professor and skilled Pnin mimic (and possibly rooster-man), who has bored more than one party (such as the one in Chapter 2) with far too many re-enactments shading from humorous to caricature to cruelty. So not only could the writer/narrator be making things up to show off his literary skill (though his reluctance to change the Cremona ending to suit his taste for a more tragic ending might hint against that) but his source is likely exaggerating simply to give himself better performance material. And of course there could be other sources in addition to Cockerell.

What does this have to do with Don Quixote, with translation? The issue isn’t one of language translation, but of character translation from reality to page, via a writer and, possibly, a narrator. Then Casmier looks at how the character himself leaves the work and becomes something on his own, something outside the control of the writer, narrator, or anyone other than whoever is creating him in their mind, memory, and imagination. DQ with its multiple layers of narration – an original manuscript, a second manuscript, a translation, and someone who put it all together, reaching back to the creator of the universe, for that matter – is how Casmier sees the narrative structure of Pnin, all metaphorically reflecting how our pain gets conveyed. Philosophers would start using words like qualia – conscious experience, such as pain, that simply can’t be transferred from one to another but only described, the ultimate problematic translation – but I’m already way over my head here so I’ll just drop that there.

But let me drop in one more observation, one I didn’t recognize until I started putting together the header image for this post featuring the book cover of the edition I read. I confess that it is my favorite cover of the options I see, though it’s mere coincidence that this is the cover I ended up with; I ordered it used, sight unseen. Yet here I see Pnin, the title, author, and bow tie, is neatly encased in a frame or shadow box, which is neatly encased on a shaded background. Did the layers of narration make it to the cover art, or is this merely aesthetics?

None of this is really necessary to enjoy the book. There isn’t much plot; most of it is coming to know more about Pnin through his interactions with colleagues, landlords, his ex-wife, and her child. Some may find the wordiness annoying, in this age when minimalism rules, but that’s one of the things I liked most. I enjoyed the mystery of the narrator, the blend of joy and agony, Pnin’s rise to bliss, and if I’m sad that this bubble was popped at the end, I understand he shows up again in Pale Fire and so has landed on his feet. A happy ending, narrator be damned.

Daniel Kehlmann (Ross Benjamin, translator): Tyll (Pantheon, 2020)

The war had not yet come to us. We lived in fear and hope and tried not to draw God’s wrath down upon our securely walled town, with its hundred and five houses and the church and the cemetery, where our ancestors waited for the Day of Resurrection.
We prayed often to keep the war away. We prayed to the Almighty and to the kind Virgin, we prayed to the Lady of the Forest and to the Little People of Midnight, to Saint Gerwin, to Peter the Gatekeeper, to John the Evangelist, and to be safe we also prayed to Old Mela, who during the Twelve Nights, when the demons are let loose, roams the heavens at the head of her retinue. We prayed to the Horned Ones of ancient days and to Bishop Martin, who shared his cloak with the beggar when the latter was freezing, so that they were then both freezing and both pleasing to God, for what’s the use of half a cloak in winter, and of course we prayed to Saint Maurice, who had chosen death with a whole legion rather than betray his faith in the one just God.
Twice a year the tax collector came and always seemed surprised that we were still here. Now and then merchants came, but since we didn’t buy much they soon went on their way, which was all right with us. We needed nothing from the wide world and gave it no thought until one morning a covered wagon, pulled by a donkey, rolled down our main street. It was a Sunday at the beginning of spring, the stream was swollen with meltwater, and in those fields that weren’t lying fallow we had sown the seed.
A red canvas tent was pitched on the wagon. In front of it crouched an old woman. Her body looked like a bag, her face seemed made of leather, her eyes looked like tiny black buttons. A younger woman with freckles and dark hair stood behind her. But on the coach box sat a man we recognized even though he had never been here before, and when the first of us realized who he was and called his name, others too realized, and soon many voices were calling from all directions: “Tyll is here!” “Tyll has come!” “Look, it’s Tyll!” It could be no one else.

And here we go again: I love a book that teaches me something. Those who’ve read those words from me before know this will be one of my long, meandering posts that may not really address the book as much as the learning experience. So let me give you the short version up front: I loved this book. I loved the themes of decision points, of contrasting points of view, of modernity’s science and individuality emerging slowly from the pre-modern superstition and group identity, of the absurd juxtapositions of Christian words and deeds, of the obscenity of war. I loved the writing style that changed to fit the story from chapter to chapter, acting something like Tyll himself: now mocking, now thoughtful, now playful, now caring and kind, now terrifying, now uncertain. I loved the philosophy woven into the story, the art and drama, the historical personages, the major works of scholars. And I loved the touches of the supernatural, the hints that sometimes were never really nailed down, and the other outright magic.

If you’re wondering if you would enjoy reading it, I suggest you check out one of the many professional reviews can be found in all the usual places: TNY, the NYT, the Guardian. Rob Doyle for the TLS is the only clearly negative entry: while he admires the sprinkling of “Borgesian tidbits”, he feels “it is quite a slog – there’s lots of history and not enough story.” I would disagree, arguing that the history is presented as story, with the characters evincing their own unique qualities and undergoing various trials and adventures, all of which involve, at some point, meeting up with Tyll Ulenspiegel, himself a semi-historical character. Then again, I did my second read in front of my computer, checking out every name, place, and date, which, ok, some might consider a slog. I found it great fun.

I don’t remember how this book came to my attention, but someone said something that grabbed me. Kehlmann is a German writer, not likely to come across my screen by the usual channels. The book was published in German back in 2017 with great success in Europe; the English translation was released this year. I’ve read that it’s being filmed as a Netflix series (though who knows what the pandemic may do to that idea); I think that means it will be in German, since those notices preceded the English publication. If that’s the case, I hope Netflix will make English subtitles available. I’m very curious to see how they realize the book.

I knew nothing about the Thirty Years’ War in which it is set, and the only thing I thought I knew about Til Eulenspiegel turned out to be completely wrong (for some reason, I thought he was a female fairy or a nymph, not a male prankster). I hit Wikipedia and the Youtube for some general info before I read the book. The original Tyll Eulenspiegel (the spelling of both names varies; the novel uses Tyll Ulenspiegel) was possibly a real person from the fourteenth century, but was solidified as a prankster character by a sixteenth-century chapbook. The background image of Tyll I used in the header image above is from a 1921 German “emergency note”, temporary money issued after WWI. Seems a little weird to put a famous prankster on money, but it was a weird time. The war is way too complicated to really understand; I can’t keep straight who’s Catholic and who’s Protestant, and have no idea how all the many kingdoms are organized. I did some additional basic research on individuals as I read along, which helped; in one case I recognized a character from something I read last year, which really curled my toes. I’m guessing my toes would have curled more if I’d been more up on the war, but my lack of info didn’t get in the way of the read at all.

The chapters – or maybe sections would be a better word for it, since some of the longer ones are subdivided into numbered chapters – each have distinctive characteristics, and are set at various times during the Thirty Years’ War that devastated great portions of northern and central Europe in the seventeenth century. The sections aren’t in chronological order, they feature different characters, and different narrative styles and tones are used. There’s some mild confusion for a few pages at times until it becomes clear who’s who and when, but in general, I found it read easily. And of course, what ties it all together is Tyll, even though he barely appears in some sections.

Let’s go through it, shall we, and I’ll add in some extras along the way.

We start out with “Shoes,” which, as quoted above, opens in a small village as yet unaffected by the war. This chapter introduces us to Tyll’s travelling circus at perhaps the height of his fame as an entertainer, and to the qualities that sum him up as a person. For example, his signature talents are tightrope walking and juggling, which serve as metaphors for his life skills throughout the book. It’s told in third person plural from the point of view of the town; this gives the final paragraphs great impact.

In his NYT interview with Tobias Gray, Kehlmann explains how he heard the shoe story as a child as a moral tale, with Tyll’s pranks “showing people their folly.” He later disagreed with this; a purported translation of the original chapbook gives the impression the “Shoes” incident was more about revenge for the village boys dumping him in the river than about an ethics lesson. So Kehlmann has rewritten it in this book with a conversation that indicates more clearly that this Tyll’s point is shining a spotlight on hypocrisy and the evil that lurks even in the most upright towns: he chats with a young girl, asking her if the people are “good people…. Peaceful people, help each other, understand each other, like each other, is that the sort of people they are?” The girl assures him they are. Yet, during his tightrope stunt, they are easily goaded into attacking each other over, of all things, shoes. The town remembers:

We never spoke about what had happened. Nor did we speak about Ulenspiegel. Without having arranged it, we stuck to this; even Hans Semmler, who was so severely injured that from now on he was confined to his bed and could eat nothing but thick soup, pretended it had never been otherwise. And even the widow of Karl Schönknecht, whom we buried the next day in the churchyard, acted as if it had been a blow of fate and as if she didn’t know exactly whose knife it had been in his back. Only the rope still hung for days over the square, trembled in the wind and was a perch for sparrows and swallows until the priest, who had been roughed up especially badly during the brawl, because we didn’t like his boastfulness and his condescension, could climb up the bell tower again to cut it down.
At the same time, we didn’t forget. What had happened remained between us. It was there while we brought in the harvest, and it was there when we bargained over our grain or assembled on Sunday for the Mass, where the priest had a new facial expression, half wonder and half fear. And it was there especially when we held celebrations on the square and when we looked each other in the face while dancing. Then the air seemed heavier, the water different on our tongues, and the sky, where the rope had hung, not quite itself.

This entire first chapter is available online at Bomb Magazine; it’s short, entertaining, moving, and worth the read. But don’t be misled (and don’t worry, if you happen to hate first person plural); remember, each chapter has its own narrative style and tone.

The second section, “Lord of the Air”, is much longer and serves as a sort of origin story, laying down a foundation that will return again and again throughout later chapters. Tyll is just a boy; his father Claus married himself into the town miller job, but is at heart a philosopher. That made it one of the most fun chapters for me, as I watched him wrestle with the sorities paradox, aka the Problem of the Heaps (if you take a grain of sand from a heap of sand, is it still a heap? At what point is it not a heap?) which became the 20th century’s fuzzy logic exemplar, the Indiscernability of Identicals that Liebniz formulated just a few decades after Claus, infinities, and other topics those of us fond of philosophy and logic moocs have encountered along the way. At the same time, he works on spells, potions, and amulets. It’s a wonderful reminder that, even with the spells and superstitions, this is the world on the brink of modernity, with science on its way down the birth canal.

Tyll as well does some thinking that could be considered philosophical; he wonders what it’s like to be a donkey. Thomas Nagel will later write a famous paper about consciousness titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, but for Tyll, the donkey experience is alien enough. He retains an affinity with donkeys for the rest of the novel. I’ve tried to figure out if there’s some symbolism involved, but all I come up with is the helper animal of Christianity, and I’m not sure that fits.

[Addendum: A couple of hours after this post went live, Egyptologist/Historian (and tweeter of Papyrus Stories) Jenny Cromwell tweeted a link to a new French Egyptology book (English title In The Footsteps Of The Donkey In The Egyptian Religion. There’s an English abstract on the publisher’s website:

Donkeys were essential in ancient Egyptian trade and agriculture, but their value was nuanced by their perception in religion. The animal appears in funerary, magical or ritual sources, where it often reflects an ambivalent nature, while its well-known association to the evil god Seth is constantly reminded in the modern literature.
Either benevolent or evil, donkeys are ambiguous entities that can be recognized as dreadful beings possessing powers praised for their protective efficiency. Although they can be associated to Seth, they also followed their own path. In magical texts, the animal was feared and revered at the same time, becoming a powerful entity holding spears and evoked as a protector, while in the context of the temple it will be annihilated as the archetype of evil.

Marie Vandenbeusch: Sur les pas de l’âne dans la religion egyptienne, website English abstract

This sounds a lot more like Tyll than the Christian symbolism. It’s only connected to him via Kircher’s hieroglyphics work, so it’s tenuous at best, but there might be another connection I’m unaware of. And I do love a good coincidence (even if it’s really just confirmation bias).]

Tyll has a bizarre experience in the forest while transporting flour to another town in the care of his mother and a farmhand. The exact details are uncertain, but there are clues that some kind of fundamental shift takes place. His interest in the donkey is cemented here. Yet the highlight is his father’s execution for heresy, a prosecution Tyll unwittingly sparks when he has a brief conversation with a Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher. Kircher (as well as his mentor, Oswald Tesimond) is a historical person, a scholar of great reputation. He will come back into the picture later, and there is much to explore about him, but for now, a brief detour into his expertise in draconology aside, his role as a mini-inquisitor takes center stage.

Tyll realizes his childhood is over; he might have to become a day laborer, unless the Jesuits decide to come after him as well. He asks his friend Nele to run away with him:

Suddenly she felt a wondrous excitement, and her throat seemed constricted, and her heart pounded. “Why do you say we?”
“Because you’re coming with me.”
“With you?”
“That’s why I was waiting.”
She knew she must not think, or else she would lose her courage, or else she would stay here, as was in store for her; but he was right, you really could leave. The place where everyone thought you had to stay – in actuality nothing was keeping you there.
…there are only a few moments when two things are possible, one path as much as another. Only a few moments when you can decide.

This becomes another theme that carries through the book: decision points.

They spend a rough night in the forest, then fall in with a third-rate balladeer, Gottfried. He’s a decent sort, though, and their dancing improves his balladeering, so they team up. They, and we, are introduced to the idea that those in the travelling trades give up the protection of the authorities: “That is the price of freedom,” which sounds something like Hobbes contrasting the state of nature with the social contract.

They encounter Pirmin, another entertainer, and a better one, but a bit of a scary guy. Do you go with the guy who is good to you, or the guy who can teach you something? For Tyll, there is no question, but Nele is more hesitant, and we have another decision point:

It’s true, of course, that Gottfried can’t do much. But he has been good to them. And she doesn’t like this fellow. There is something not right about him. On the other hand, it’s true, of course: Gottfried will not be able to teach them anything.
On the other hand, on the other hand. Pirmin winks as if he were reading her thoughts.
Tyll jerks his head impatiently. “Come on, Nele!”
She need only extend her arm.

Then we zoom forward with the section titled “Zusmarschausen,” named for what would be the last major battle of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. The primary character is the Fat Count, Martin von Wolkenstein, who has been sent by the Kaiser to fetch the now-famous jester Tyll Ulenspiegel from the Abbey of Andechs, where he has taken refuge from the war raging in the area. It’s basically an expose on the horrors of war, punctuated by the hilarity of the Fat Count’s future writings of his life’s chronicle. It’s an interesting narrative technique: the voice of the future following up the events that occur with how the Fat Count will related them in his Chronicle. Whether it’s his memory or his desire to appear less lazy, or both, it’s a bit of a poke at these kinds of memoirs and a reminder that, in the absence of documentation, they might be taken with a grain of salt.

And again, the style of the writing fits the chapter:

In his life’s chronicle, the style of which was still beholden to the fashionable tone of his youthful days, that is, of erudite arabesque and florid ornamentation, the fat count depicted in sentences that, precisely due to their exemplary tortuousness, have since found their way into many a schoolbook, the leisurely ride through the green of the Vienna Woods: at Melk we reached the wide blue of the Danube, alighting there at the magnificent Abbey to pillow our weary heads for the night.
Once again this was not entirely true; in reality they stayed for a month.

Exemplary tortuousness, indeed.

I found a dozen or so examples of this “not entirely true” approach to Wolkenstein’s memoir. Sometimes he doesn’t remember what happened, so he inserts digressions of twelve or seventeen pages on his mother or some other irrelevant topic; sometimes he just shaves the truth to make his journey appear more courageous than it was; he leaves out one incident, it seems, because it felt too personally meaningful, even though that’s what a life chronicle should express. I’ll include just one exemplar. After he retrieves Tyll from the Abbey and is on his way back to the Kaiser in Augsburg, he is caught in a bloody artillery attack, one of the more gruesome scenes in the book (there are several which are worse). I include this because, not only is the Fat Count plagiarizing, but the source he’s stealing is also plagiarized:

Even then he sensed that all this would have to be told differently in his book one day. He would not succeed in any description, for everything would elude him, and the sentences he would be able to form would not match the pictures in his memory.
And indeed: that which had happened did not even appear in his dreams. Only occasionally did he recognize in what seemed utterly different dream events a distant echo of those moments when he had come under fire at the edge of Streitheim Forest near Zusmarshausen.
Years later he questioned the unfortunate Count Gronsfeld, whom the Bavarian Elector had summarily arrested after the defeat. Toothless, weary, and coughing, the former commander of the Bavarian troops named the names and places, he described the strength of the various units and drew deployment maps so that the fat count managed to some extent to account for roughly where he had been and what had befallen him and his companions. Yet the sentences refused to fall into line. And so he stole others.
In a popular novel he found a description he liked, and when people urged him to recount the last battle of the great German war, he told them what he had read in Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus. It didn’t quite fit, because that passage was about the Battle of Wittstock, but it didn’t bother anyone, no one ever raised any questions. What the fat count could not have known, however, was that Grimmelshausen, though he did experience the Battle of Wittstock firsthand, had himself been unable to describe it and instead had stolen the sentences of an English novel translated by Martin Opitz, the author of which had never witnessed a battle in his life.

While the Fat Count Martin von Wolkenstein appears to be a fictional character (it’s implied he is a descendant of 15th century poet and composer Oscar von Wolkenstein) and thus his life chronicle exists only within this book, the rest is from fact. The picaresque novel Simplicissimus from 1668, which by the way has some similarities with the original Eulenspiegel chapbook, was assumed to be semiautobiographical until it was pointed out that Grimmelshausen never participated in the war at all. In the foreword to a 2008 translation of Simplicissimus by John C. Osborne, Prof. Lynne Tatlock tells us: “The vivid description of the Battle of Wittstock in chapter 27 of book 2, for example, that can tempt modern readers to speak of realism, borrows liberally from an encyclopedic work of the seventeenth century, the Theatrum Europaeum.” Opitz is often considered the Father of German Poetry, and did a great deal of translating, though I can’t verify he translated that particular work.

None of this really affects the reading of the novel; I just find it interesting how Kehlmann chooses what bits and pieces to weave into his work. And I love diving into these rabbit holes. This is what the internet was made for!

Although the Fat Count is played as a blowhard, he has his moments and is deeply affected by what he witnessed. Tyll, meanwhile, comments on a couple of incidents from other chapters. As they are wandering in the forest before the artillery attack, he tells them, “I know the forest. I became a forest spirit when I was a small boy….A white forest spirit…. For the great devil.” This recalls the flour experience in “Lord of the Air” and hints at, but doesn’t quite explain, what happened. After the attack, he tells the Count about his experience in the mine of Brno three years earlier; this will be a later chapter. But, again, he stops short of explanation of his escape.

And so each chapter needs to be read mindful of each of the other chapters, even though they exist more or less independently. It’s why I ended up going through the novel three times: once as a straight read, a second time to pull quotes and research the historical mentions, and a third time to make connections. A fourth straight read wouldn’t hurt. It’s a novel that unfolds more and more with each read.

The next section, “Kings in Winter,” begins with someone named Liz in the Hague; it takes a while to figure out who this is and where we are in time, but as near as I can tell, it’s 1632 and Liz is Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England, wife of Frederick V, the Elector Palatine of Bohemia. None of this meant anything to me, and it’s still pretty hazy, but apparently his coronation kicked off the Thirty Years’ War and he fled in exile after less than a year, earning him the title The Winter King – and, for Liz, the Winter Queen. She is now ensconced in the Hague, is running out of money, and is waiting for her husband to return from his mission to reclaim his palatinate (is that a word?). As you can tell, for me the details of the political machinations don’t particularly inspire the research that other things do.

Liz starts out as something of an out-of-touch elite, but by the end of the novel she was one of my favorite characters. In this chapter, she affords the opportunity to bring in John Donne (who wrote a poem for her upon her marriage to Frederick, referring to her as “fair phoenix bride”), Shakespeare (who appears, uncredited and briefly, and then by implication), and a great deal of venom towards the German language. Oh, and Daddy issues: “This was just how Papa was. When you were counting on him, he left you in the lurch.”

Daddy – who, remember, is King James I of England – is also the mechanism by which the hypocrisy of Christianity is revealed in this chapter. Following the failed Gunpowder Plot (which I finally understand to some degree), her father deals with the conspirators:

He summoned not only the best torturers of his two kingdoms but also three pain experts from Persia and the emperor of China’s most learned tormentor. He commanded them to cause the prisoners every kind of agony that was known to be possible for a person to cause other people, and in addition he had tortures invented that no one yet envisioned. All the specialists were ordered to devise procedures more refined and dreadful than any the great painters of the inferno had dreamed. The one condition was that the light of the soul not be extinguished and that the prisoner not go mad: the perpetrators still had to name their confidants, after all, and they should have time to ask God’s forgiveness and to repent. For Papa was a good Christian.

Tyll showed up on her doorstep one day, along with Nele. They danced, he juggled, and finally they put on a little play with clear similarities to the death scene of Romeo and Juliet. Given Liz’s fondness for theatre, and particularly the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s acting troupe), she invited them to stay. She needed a court jester, to further convince herself she was still a Queen. And here I learned about the fool’s license: it’s the jester’s duty to make fun of the royal, since no one else is allowed to.

Tyll plays a joke on the entire court:

He had made his debut by giving her a painting. No, it was not a painting, it was a white canvas with nothing on it. “Have it framed, little Liz, hang it up. Show it to the others!… Show it to your husband, the beautiful picture, let the poor King see it. And everyone else!”…
“It’s a magic picture, little lives. No one born out of wedlock can see it. No one stupid can see it. No one who has stolen money can see it . No one option no good, no one who cannot be trusted, no one who’s a gallows bird or a thievish knave or an arsehole with ears can see it – for him, there’s no picture there!”
She hasn’t been able to help laughing.
“No, really, little Liz, tell the people!…. Tell them, watch what happens!”
What had happened still astonished her, every single day, and it would never cease to astonish her period the visitors stood helplessly before the white picture and didn’t know what they were supposed to say. For it was complicated, after all. They knew there was nothing there, of course, but they weren’t sure whether Liz knew it too, and thus it was also conceivable that she would take someone who told her there was nothing there for illegitimate, stupid, or thieving. They racked their brains. Had a spell been cast on the picture, or had someone fooled Liz, or was she playing a joke on everyone? The fact that by then almost everyone who came to the court of the winter King and Queen was either illegitimate or stupid or a thief or a person with ill intentions didn’t make matters easier.

Among the many things Kehlmann does so well in this chapter is his capturing of the marriage between Liz and Frederick. Both of them think the other is stupid; one of them is right. Royal Marriages were, of course, dynastic and more about power than love. It seems Daddy had some trouble figuring out just whom Liz should marry. The King of Sweden was an option, but she feels he didn’t want her, while sources I found seem to imply it was Daddy who nixed that deal. We see both sides of the wedding night, with one detail – rose petals floating like little boats on a puddle of water –as a lovely point of comparison. Which version is true? Maybe both, maybe neither.

We find out that it was Liz who persuaded Frederick to accept the crown of Bohemia, or whatever it should be called. Others advised against it, but she said, hey, how often does someone offer you a crown? And later, when he muttered, “I listened to the wrong people,” she knew that was her.

At that moment she realized that he would not forgive her for this. But he would still love her, just as she loved him. The nature of marriage consisted not only in the fact that you had children, it also consisted of all the wounds you had inflicted on each other, all the mistakes you had made together, all the things you held against each other forever. He would not forgive her for persuading him to accept the Crown, just as she would not forgive him for having always been too stupid for her.

The chapter gets a bit confusing, since there are comings and goings and two sets of characters. We’re with Liz and then with Frederick, and Tyll is with both, and then he isn’t. It’s full of interpersonal betrayals and loyalties, and a great deal of political barter as Frederick visits the King of Sweden to get back his Palatinate (is that the word?). The characters themselves are often confused. Frederick wanders in the snow, having failed in his mission, and thinks, “A king without a country in a storm, alone with his fool – something like this would never happen in a play, it was too absurd” as he tries to compose a message for Liz, the theatre lover, the admirer of Shakespeare, with whose King Lear she would be quite familiar. But it’s a wonderful confusion, laden with significance.

And by the end of the section, the King is dead, the Queen is alone, and Tyll, Nele, and the donkey have headed off to somewhere else.

Then we return to Tyll and Nele in their early days with Pirmin in the section titled “Hunger.” It’s a very short section, more of a transition. It is Pirmin who first tells Tyll and Nele about Liz and Frederick, as he was in London when they married. Tyll becomes aware that aging is not easy for travelling performers; he is young here, so it seems far away, but it’s something he tucks away. He and Nele refer to each other as brother and sister; sorry for those of you who were looking for romance, but you won’t find it here. But they have learned some skills, and with those skills they just might be able to eke out a living as performers.

“The Great Art of Light and Shadow” brings us back to the scholars Adam Olearius, Athanasius Kircher, and Paul Fleming. All three are historic personages. We have met Kircher, who prosecuted Tyll’s father Claus for witchcraft, before. He now comes to Olearius for assistance in hunting down a dragon so that he can make medicine for the plague. It’s pretty weird reading this at this moment, by the way, but let’s not go there, the book is so much more fun than hydroxychloroquine.

This section again really drives home how close the world is to modernity, and how far it still has to go. Parts are hilarious. Kircher embodies the know-it-all so certain of his certainty he can’t conceive of alternative possibilities, who spouts illogical logic. To wit:

“… The experiment gave me the idea of having a decoction of sulfur and snail’s blood administered to a plague victim. For on the one hand the sulfur drives out the Marian component of the disease out of him, while on the other hand the snail’s blood as a dracontological substitution sweetens that which sours the humors.”
“Excuse me?”
Kircher again contemplated his fingertips.
“Snail’s blood is a substitute for dragon’s blood?” asked Olearius.
“No,” Kricher said forbearingly, “dragon’s bile.”
“And what brings you here now?”
“The substitution has its limits. The plague victim in the experiment died despite thick decoction, which clearly proves that real dragon’s blood would have cured him. Thus we need a dragon, and one of the last dragons of the North lives in Holstein.”

“Has it been sighted then, the dragon?”
“Of course not. A dragon that has been sighted would be a dragon that did not possess the most important quality of dragons – that of making itself undetectable. For this very reason one must treat all reports by people of having cited dragons with extreme skepticism. For a dragon that let itself be cited would be recognized a priori as a dragon that is no real dragon.”
Olearius rubbed his forehead.
“In this region, evidently, a dragon has never before been witnessed. Hence I am confident that there must be one here.”

Ya gotta love this guy. By the way, he’s not entirely wrong. Jordan Ellenberg’s book How Not to be Wrong starts off with the story of Abraham Wald, who solved the problem of where to reinforce airplanes to reduce the likelihood they would be shot down: don’t reinforce the areas with bullet holes on the planes that have returned; they survived the damage. Reinforce the areas where you rarely see bullet holes on returned planes; those are the ones that needed reinforcing. Kircher had some twisted inkling of this idea called survivorship bias, but started with a false premise: that dragons exist. I mean, they don’t, do they?

I mentioned before that I would return to Kirchner, and here we are. At some point he mentions his prior work on hieroglyphs, how he found the true Christian significance to them, and I thought, wait, I’ve seen this before. But where? Oh, yes – last year I read Eco’s Serendipities, a collection of lectures on topics of scientific errors that turned into valuable research avenues nonetheless. Kirchner’s work on hieroglyphics – and on Chinese characters – was central to Chapter 3, From Marco Polo to Leibniz, Stories of Intellectual Misunderstandings. Eco acknowledges that Kircher was “one of the most learned men of the seventeenth century” and was also “insatiable in his lunatic curiosity.”

When Kircher set out to decipher hieroglyphs in the seventeenth century, there was no Rosetta stone to guide him. This explains his double mistake, namely, believing that hieroglyphs had only symbolic meaning and the absolutely fanciful way in which he identified their meaning. …But it was his conviction that, finally, hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world that prevented him from ever finding the right track.

Kircher was then wildly wrong. Still, notwithstanding his eventual failure, he is the father of Egyptology, though in the same way that Ptolemy is the father of astronomy: in spite of the fact that his main hypothesis was mistaken.

Umberto Eco, Serendipities, Ch. 3

The hieroglyphs are irrelevant to this book, but Kircher’s belief in his own infallibility, his tendency to prove what he wanted to prove instead of hypothesizing, experimenting, and following the evidence, is one of the things the practice that will become Science needed to change to move out of the pre-modern and into the modern. Not that we don’t have trouble with the same issue today. But science aspires to be a self-correcting mechanism, willing to change theories when new evidence emerges.

And come on, Kirchner wrote a book on dragons. Because never having seen a dragon is the surest sign there is one. I suppose if I mentioned his Katzenklavier, it would be going too far? But, hey, Kehlmann uses it, so it’s fair game:

“Several princes wants to have a water organ constructed according to my design. And in Braunschweig there are plans to build my cat piano. It astounds me a little. Really I presented the idea mainly as an intellectual game, and I doubt that the results will please the ear.”
“What is a cat piano?” asked Olearius
…“A piano that produces sounds by torturing animals,” said Kircher. “One strikes a note, and instead of a hammer hitting a string, well-dosed pain is inflicted on a small animal – I propose cats, but it would work with the voles too, dogs would be too big, crickets too small – so that the animal makes a noise. When one releases the key, the pain stops too, the animal falls silent. By arranging the animals according to their pitches, the most extraordinary music can be produced. “
For a little while it was quiet. Olearius looked into Kircher’s face. Fleming chewed on his lower lip.

To be fair, Kircher’s works on music and medicine were considered masterpieces and are still respected as great works today. Everyone should be forgiven one cat piano.

This section does have a plot, and it concerns the musicians Kircher needs to tranquilize the dragon. It just so happens a travelling circus complete with musicians is in Holstein at that moment, the circus headlined by… Tyll Ulenspiegel.

First they meet the donkey, whose name, Origenes, might invite some speculation. For the characters, however, the fact that the donkey is talking to them is curious enough. Even Kircher is “aware that it could damage his reputation to talk to a donkey before witnesses.” But they need the musicians, and they must get through the talking donkey first. It’s a nice little scene showing how those who take themselves too seriously can be utterly confused by a little unexpected fun. Then they need to get past Nele, and the old woman travelling with them, before they get to the musicians.

But Kircher has another meeting, one that shakes him to the core, one that sends him back to the safety of Rome and his books for good.

The meeting of the scholars and the travelers is significant for another reason: Olearius is taken with Nele, and asks her to marry him. Here Kehlmann shows his versatility, and the last portion of this section turns gentle and sweet as she and Tyll part. It’s quite lovely.

But the loveliest is yet to come: the chapter ends with the last dragon of the north, seventeen thousand years old, and tired of hiding. I didn’t know I could cry over a dragon.

I found the section titled “In the Shaft” to be the least to my liking. It’s 1645, the town of Brno has been under siege, and Tyll and several miners are trapped in a mine shaft that has collapsed. The chapter itself is claustrophobic, which may be why I had trouble with it. Tyll is more uncertain than he was as a child lost in the woods. He mentions a couple of incidents, but we get no explanation. And then it’s over. We don’t find out how he escaped, or if anyone escaped with him. To me, it was unsatisfying, but I suspect I just missed the point, which is why I so want to discuss this book with someone.

“Westphalia” is the final chapter, and as might be expected, is primarily about the negotiations around the end of the war and the establishment of what would be called The Peace of Westphalia. Liz is the primary character, and she is motivated to fight all the assembled powers of Europe to obtain a Palatinate for her son Charles, showing a loyalty to her son that her father never showed to her. For it is here she finally thinks the thought: “Ultimately Papa had sacrificed her and Friedrich to keep his country out of the war.” Was that sacrifice justified? I don’t have the background to decide, but if it comes down to one daughter or a country at war, I’m not so sure I’d be outraged by this decision.

In a 2018 interview with Marc-Christoph Wagner for the Danish Louisiana Literature Festival (in English), Kehlmann discusses, among other things, the difficulty of the negotiations in an age when diplomacy had not yet been invented. He expresses this clearly via Liz’s attempts to meet with various representatives while keeping herself in a position to be respected, a position that requires many behavioral signs such as who asks whom for refreshments, who opens doors, and on what type of chair she should sit.

Without pausing, she walked towards the doors. Now she could not afford to hesitate. The briefest hint of uncertainty would be enough to remind the two lackeys standing to the right and to the left of the doors that it was also entirely conceivable not to open them for her. If that should happen, her advance would be staved off….She would all at once no longer be a queen but a complaining old woman in the anteroom.
That was why it had to work. There could be no second attempt. One had to move as if the door weren’t there, not be slowed down by it; one had to walk in such a way that if no one opened the doors, one would crash into them at full force.…for that very reason, they would open them; that was the whole trick.
It worked. With confused expressions the lackeys reached for the handles and heaved open the doors.

Liz, 1; the confederacy of self-important men, 0. But wait, there’s more: in the next meeting, she executes her right to sit, but then realizes she is sitting on a stool. A stool! Liz’s reaction as she realizes what she’s sitting on tells us how crucial this detail is.

Of course she could neither remain standing nor let him invite her to sit, but a chair without a backrest, that should not have happened to her under any circumstances. As a Queen, she was entitled to sit on a chair with a backrest and armrests even in the presence of the Kaiser, a mere arm chair would be an indignity, but a stool was out of the question. And he had deliberately placed stools all around the reception room, yet only behind his desk was there an arm chair.
What should she do? She smiled too and decided to pretend it was of no consequence. But now he had the advantage …

I wonder if diplomacy has progressed much, really. Every scene I’ve watched on TV or in the movies has involved worrying about placement of flags and water glasses and making sure no one’s notepad is even a quarter inch further away than anyone else’s. Then again, maybe that’s fictional fantasy. But the news footage I’ve seen of some US Presidents meeting with foreign leaders clearly indicate some gamesmanship at work.

Tyll shows up as Liz gets a breath of air on a balcony. She invites him to return to England with her, offers him safety and comfort, a place to grow old safely. There’s a kindness between them that speaks of mutual respect. Another decision point.

If you’ve come this far, chances are you’ve read the book and found it as interesting as I did. I hope I can find a couple of readers who would be willing to discuss it, perhaps starting with reactions to my impressions above (which, of course, could be completely off base), and I hope progressing to areas I’ve overlooked. I think this is a book that offers real opportunity for deep dives.

A Lot More Than Windmills: Three Months with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

In short, our hidalgo was soon so absorbed in these books that his nights were spent reading from dusk till dawn, and his days from dawn till dusk, until the lack of sleep and the excess of reading withered his brain, and he went mad. Everything he read in his books took possession of his imagination: enchantments, fights, battles, challenges, wounds, sweet nothings, love affairs, storms and impossible absurdities. The idea that this whole fabric of famous fabrications was real so established itself in his mind that no history in the world was truer for him….
And so, by quite insane, he conceived the strangest notion that ever took shape in a madman’s head, considering it desirable and necessary, both for the increase of his honor and for the common good, to become a knight errant, and to travel the world with his armor and his arms and his horse in search of adventures, and to practice all those activities that he knew from his books were practiced by knights errant, redressing all kinds of grievances, and exposing himself to perils and dangers that he would overcome and thus gain eternal fame and renown.

Don QuixoteI.1, Rutherford

Three months, one thousand pages of source text, two additional critical/historical texts, one mooc and one OCW later – I have some idea of how that madness feels.

It’s all Salman Rushdie’s fault.

I saw some comments about his newest novel, Quichotte, and thought, yeah, it’s time I read him, and that sounds kind of interesting. But I’d never read Don Quixote, and knew nothing about it beyond windmills, Sancho Panza, and To Dream the Impossible Dream. I remember observing a high school English class, a multi-level experiment that had the “smart” kids reading the original work (in English translation) and the “regular” kids reading/watching Man of La Mancha, which struck me as a really good way to grind teenage egos into dust. One of my favorite movies of all time, They Might Be Giants (the band took their name from the film) was a big reference to Cervantes, turning a crazy judge into Sherlock Holmes instead of an hidalgo into a knight errant.

Dr. Mildred Watson: You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.
Justin Playfair: Well, he had a point. ‘Course he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.

They Might Be Giants, James Goldman, screenwriter

It’s such an intimidating work: a thousand pages, written four hundred years ago in a language not mine (two years of college Spanish and 121 days of Duolingo don’t really count). Fortunately, there’s a mooc for that – or rather, a series of twenty-four one-hour lectures from Yale’s Open Courses (not quite a mooc, but close enough) by Prof. Roberto González Echevarría. This course not only cover the entire text but throw in a few other of Cervantes’ works, and uses a casebook of academic essays on various literary aspects of the novel (which was great), plus a history of Renaissance and early modern Spain (which was a little too detailed for my purposes). The Rutherford translation of Quixote – or, more accurately, “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha” but I’m going to abbreviate where I can – was recommended as Prof. González wrote the Introduction, but the lectures often quoted the Jarvis translation, which is available online.

And then there’s Overly Sarcastic Production’s humorous version (part 1 only, unfortunately) which was useful for solidifying plot points in a book that has so much plot, so many characters, it’s easy to forget them when they come back around 400 pages after they first blew through. And I just love Red’s style.

And oh by the way… since I was watching both OSP and the Yale lectures on Youtube, other Don Quixote videos cropped up, and I discovered a mooc offered by Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala, featuring Prof. Eric Clifford Graf. This course focused more on scene-by-scene events and characters with brief mentions of literary and historical elements; it also included numerous original illustrations of various scenes (I’m including several in this post), which was helpful in visualizing exactly what was meant by certain descriptions. It was a very nice complement to the Yale OCW, which took a much broader view and discussed selected literary and historical features more deeply, rather than plot.

I was surprised that the book, while huge, was so readable. Some of that might be the translation, though Prof. González mentioned that the original Spanish, while quaint to contemporary readers, is less arcane than Shakespeare seems to today’s American readers. It’s also divided into fairly short chapters, which made it easier to read in short sessions. I also found the chapter headings useful, as they set up what would follow (usually; once in a while, there would be a goofy “Which relates what will be in it” kind of thing). But mostly, the characters and their activities just carried it right along.

Contemporary editions of DQ almost always include both Parts I and II, but Prof. González points out that Cervantes did not originally intend to write a second book. Given how well Part II recapitulates, and un-enchants (I’ll get to this), part I, it’s hard to believe this was not in the works, but he finished Part I and did some other things before realizing he’d written a best-seller, and a sequel might be a good idea. They were published ten years apart, but another writer, using the pseudonym Alonzo Fernandez de Avellaneda, wrote a “False Quixote” in between. Cervantes became aware of this as he was writing Part II, and – this is where I get goosebumps – references it several times. It’s part of the self-reflexivity of the novel, a feature I particularly enjoyed.

And about that reflexivity: the first printing of Part I contained errors, most notably, the disappearance and reappearance of Sancho’s donkey, and the misalignment of several chapter headings. Apparently it’s great sport to assign blame to the printer or to Cervantes. Part II mentions these errors. And in the most amusing example, combining reflexivity with metafiction and just plain weirdness, DQ happens across someone mentioned in the False Quixote and demands that he sign a statement that, having now met the real DQ, the history in which he appeared featured someone else.

“In short, Don Alvaro Tarfe sir, I am the Don Quixote de la Mancha of whom fame speaks – not that wretch who sought to usurp my name and exalt himself with my thoughts. I entreat you Sir, as you are a gentleman, to be so kind as to make a formal declaration before the mayor of his village to the effect that you have never in all the days of your life seen me until now, and that I am not the Don Quixote who appears in the second part, nor is this squire of mine Sancho Panza the man whom you knew.”
“I shall be delighted to do so,” Don Alvaro replied, “Even though it amazes me to see two Don Quixotes and two Sancho Panzas at the same time, as identical in name as they are antithetical in action; and I repeat and confirm that I have not seen what I have seen and that what has happened to me has not happened.”
….And the mayor took all the appropriate steps; the deposition was drawn up with all the legal requisites, as is proper in such cases, which delighted Don Quixote and Sancho, as if such a deposition were vital to their welfare, and as if their deeds and their words didn’t clearly show the difference between the two Don Quixotes and between the two Sanchos.

Don Quixote II.71, Rutherford

That’s the thing that most intrigues me about this book. It’s often considered the first Western novel, building on a foundation of piquaresques, romances, and chivalric novels. It incorporates those genres in tales related by characters in Part I (Cervantes avoided this technique in Part II, as it apparently drew complaints). It’s full of self-referential material. There’s a lot of metafiction going on. The narration is triple-layered. In short, it’s a mid-20th century novel that somehow kicked off 17th century fiction, which then took took 400 years to find its way back to the fun stuff.

I love the layered narration. The text has a narrator, of course. But this narrator, at the end of Part I, Chapter 8 (remember, Part I has 52 chapters) announces that “at this very point the author of this history leaves the battle unfinished, excusing himself on the ground that he hasn’t found anything more written about these exploits of Don Quixote than what he has narrated.” In Chapter 9, this narrator tells us he came across a street vendor selling notebooks written in Arabic. A Moorish passerby translated the title: History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian – a relative of whom, by the way, may be one of the minor characters in one chapter. Our in-story narrator hired the anonymous Moor to translate the whole thing, which the narrator has set down. And of course all of this is written by Cervantes. It raises the question of the God-like status of writers creating worlds, and also leads to the question, so who, or Who, wrote Cervantes? From the little I’ve read about it, this technique features prominently in the Rushdie work as well.

This narrative technique, linked to the Master Pedro puppet show (II.25-26) is featured in the George Haley essay in the Casebook, appropriately titled “The Narrator in Don Quixote: Maesa Pedro’s Puppet Show.” Prof. González also put a little sketch on the board in his Lecture 17; it’s one of my favorite elements in the lectures.

This is one aspect of the composition en abîme, the hall-of-mirrors effect, which, coincidentally, Jake Weber had just mentioned in a BASS 2019 post. Prof. González further used the story-within-a-story structure of some parts of the novel – in one case, a character tells a story that includes a character telling a story – as another example of this composition en abîme, using Spanish painter Velázquez’ Las Meninas as an extended metaphor.

Another of my favorite elements was that of the journey from enchantment, or illusion, or engaño, to disenchantment, disillusionment, desengaño. This is not disillusionment in the negative sense; this is more of an awakening to truth. Don Quixote starts out in a state of illusion, enchantment: he’s a knight errant, out to right the wrongs of the world. This is Part I, and corresponds to the Renaissance humanist vision that the world can be fixed by people acting morally. Part II moves to the Spanish Baroque, which is characterized by the loss of that illusion, the realization that the world is grotesque and we are only ornamenting our sarcophagus. Or, in Christian Neoplatonic terms, we leave the cave through the grave and enter the really-real of God. From the Yale lectures:

So desengaño is perhaps the most important concept of the Spanish Baroque; it means undeceiving, opening ones eyes to reality, awakening to the truth; these are all valid translations of the term. Engaño, in Spanish, means ‘deceit,’ to be fooled; ‘te engaño’ means ‘I fool you’; ‘engañarse’ is ‘to fool one self.’
This concept is fundamental to Part II because the whole plot of the novel seems to be moving towards disillusionment.
….Deceits are all of Don Quixote’s illusions, and those of the other characters in the novel. While desengaño is what they wind up or what they reach, disillusionment, realizing that it is all vanity of vanities. This is the reason why so much of what happens in Part II is staged. Deceit is the theatricality of so many events which are made up, constructed; deceit is the dream of books that Don Quixote dreams, it is the unbroken chain of texts masked in reality, and even of language also masking reality.

Prof. Roberto González Echevarría, Yale OCW, Lecture 14 10:13

I got so carried away with this idea I saw it in my other reading, particularly the BASS 2019 story “Natural Disasters” which I read just after I encountered this section.

The feminism of some of the female characters also makes the novel seem more modern than it is. Throughout the book, women come up with clever solutions to problems, design intricate plots, and decide what they want and then go after it. But one of the most contemporary instances occurs early, in Part I, chapters 12 through 14. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza come across a group of shepherds holding a funeral for their fallen comrade Grisóstomo who died of a broken heart (there are hints it might have been suicide) after the beautiful Marcela rejected his love. The bros are all hanging around complaining about Marcela, calling her a basilisk and blaming her for all the woes of mankind, when she shows up and gives them a piece of her mind:

You all say that heaven made me beautiful, so much so that this beauty of mine, with a force you can’t resist, makes you love me; and you say and even demand that, in return for the love you show me, I must love you. By the natural understanding which God has granted me I know that whatever is beautiful is lovable; but I can’t conceive why, for this reason alone, a woman who’s loved for her beauty should be obliged to love whoever loves her.
….Well then, if chastity is one of the virtues that most embellish the soul and the body, why should the woman who’s loved for her beauty lose her chastity by responding to the advances of the man who, merely for his own pleasure, employs all his strength and cunning to make her lose it?
I was born free, and to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside…. He who calls me fierce and a basilisk can leave me alone, as something evil and dangerous; he who calls me an ingrate can stop courting me; he who calls me distant can keep his distance; he who calls me cruel can stop following me: because this fierce basilisk, this ingrate, this cruel and distant woman is most certainly not going to seek, court, approach or follow any of them.

DQ I.14

Marcela, 1; incels, 0.

While he creates a new form, Cervantes drew upon a wide variety of literature in his plots, particularly the Iliad, the Aeneid, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the penultimate chapter, in fact, DQ and Sancho stay in a room decorated with sub-par paintings of Helen and Dido, and Sancho predicts: “I bet that before long there won’t be a single eating-house or roadside inn or hostelry or barber’s shop where there isn’t a painting of the story of our deeds. But I’d like it to be done by a better artist than the one who painted these.” And of course, he’s right; not only visual artists, but writers (such as Borges) and thinkers (Freud was obsessed with DQ) have used this work as a springboard.

There’s so much more. Every aspect of Spanish political, religious, social, and economic culture is brought into the tale, either symbolically or literally. Sancho turns out to be a natural logician, as he solves a problem closely resembling the Liar’s Paradox. Don Quixote offers a good deal of advice to writers in various places, mostly following Aristotle, which is particularly ironic since Cervantes left Aristotle in the dust. The Cave of Montesinos as an analog of Dante’s Inferno; Sancho’s ceremony at Altisadora’s catafalque as an analog of the Inquisition. George Mason Professor of Spanish Literature Antonio Carreño-Rodríguez’ paper (“Costello + Panza = Costanza: Paradigmatic Pairs in Don Quixote and American Popular Culture”) citing DQ and Sancho as the original comedy team, leading to Abbott & Costello, and later, Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza. The death of Don Quixote, which Borges considers the reason for the entire book. And the opening question: can books drive one insane?

And here I thought it was just about windmills.

About those windmills: Just as I was finishing up the last chapters, a Presidential rant about the evils of windmills made the rounds, and every pundit who wasn’t on Christmas vacation dragged Don Quixote into it. I got a bit upset. Ok, the windmill connection is funny, but when you spend three months with people who make you laugh, who have a core of kindness and decency even though they’re sometimes selfish or greedy or make things worse, you find yourself caring about them, even if they exist only in the pages of a book. And you don’t want them compared with someone whose only yardstick is personal gain and grandiosity. So I got a bit snippy with a good friend, and I apologize for that. But maybe now he can see why I’m a bit protective of these characters, and don’t want them seen in shady light.

And I wonder if I’ve gone a little crazy, too. Books can do that to you, I hear.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon, 2010)

Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world.
Call it the world.
The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard, churning up issues that they had thought had settled forever beneath the earth’s crust. The more sophisticated they are, the more annotated their mental life, the more taken aback they’re likely to feel, seeing what the world’s lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires they had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.
What is this stuff, they ask one another, and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know? It looks like the kind of relics that archaeologists dig up and dust off, speculating about the beliefs that once had animated them, to the best that they can be reconstructed, gone as they are now, those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing, and all but forgotten.
Now it’s all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It’s a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it’s happened on their watch….
None of this is particularly good for the world, but it has been good for Cass Seltzer. That’s what he’s thinking at this moment, gazing down at the frozen Charles and regarding the improbable swerve his life has lately taken. He’s thinking his life has gotten better because the world has gone bonkers.

Back in the 90’s, I fell in love with Sophie’s World, a Norwegian novel about the history of philosophy written primarily for teenagers. It featured long speeches about philosophers from Thales to Sartre sprinkled within a mystery featuring a fifteen-year-old. 36 Arguments… is that book’s grown-up cousin. I adored it.

It’s not a book for everyone. Both critics and readers are divided on whether it’s a pretentious mess lacking plot or characters, or a tour de force stirring in everything from religion and philosophy to math and science in a slickly snarky romance and/or academic roman à clef. It probably depends on what you like to read. Just because I loved it doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the very good reasons it might not appeal to some. There are long, sometimes arcane (deliberately so; these are academics, reveling in arcanity) splitting of hairs, the timeline is hard to follow, many of the characters are cardboard cutouts. Even the main character is pretty bland. The climax is an academic debate that didn’t seem all that brilliant to me. But in spite of all that, I loved it.

The overall present of the story covers one week in the life of Cass Seltzer, psychology professor and recent “intellectual celebrity” for his book Varieties of Religious Illusion which includes an appendix titled “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” and counterarguments to each one.

Cass is still trying to assimilate the fact that his book has become an international sensation, translated into twenty-seven languages, including Latvian. He understands that it’s not just a matter of what he’s written – as much as he’d like to believe it is – but also a matter of the rare intersection of the preoccupation of his lifetime with the turmoil of the age. When Cass, in all the safety of his obscurity, set about writing a book that would explain how irrelevant the belief in God can be to religious experience – so irrelevant that the emotional structure of religious experiences can be transplanted to completely godless contexts with little of the impact lost – and when he had also, almost as an afterthought, included as an appendix thirty-six arguments for the existence of God, with rebuttals, his claim being that the most thorough demolition of these arguments would make little difference to the felt qualities of religious experience, he had no idea of the massive response his efforts would provoke.
He never would have dubbed himself an atheist in the first place, not because he believes – he certainly doesn’t – but because he believes that belief is beside the point. It’s the appendix that’s pushed him into the role of atheism’s spokesperson, a literary afterthought that has remade his life.

The book is structured in thirty-six chapters, each purporting to be an argument for the existence of religious experience without God. The usual philosophical arguments are included in an appendix (you can see why some reviewers thought this book was too clever for its own good). It’s a handy reference, since much of the discussion uses points from those arguments.

While the present-story is only a week, most of the book deals with the past, following Cass’ academic training from the time he switched from pre-med to follow iconic-but-kinda-crazy Professor Jonas Elijah Klapper (because every academia novel must have a Mad Professor) into grad school in psychology. We also go through Cass’ romantic history, which is pretty tragic. Anyone who doesn’t realize his current girlfriend, the exceptionally ambitious and self-focused Lucinda, is bad news, isn’t paying attention.

Lucinda’s away tonight, away for the entire bleak week to come. Cass is missing Lucinda in his bones, missing her in the marrow that’s presently crystallizing into ice. She’s in warmer climes, at a conference in Santa Barbara on “Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games”….
Technically, Lucinda’s a psychologist, like Cass, only not like Cass at all. Her work is so mathematical that almost no one would suspect it has anything to do with mental life. Cass, on the other hand, is about as far away on the continuum as you can get and still be in the same field. He’s so far away that he is knee-deep in the swampy humanities. Until recently, Cass had felt almost apologetic explaining that his interest is in the whole wide range of religious experience — a bloated category on anyone’s account, but especially on Cass’s, who sees religious frames of mind lurking everywhere, masking themselves in the most secular of settings, in politics and scholarship and art and even in personal relationships.

Still, she’s a step up from his former wife, a poet who rejected probability theory in all its guises because something either happens or it doesn’t. An anthropologist girlfriend, now a friend, is sandwiched in there. She seems like more of a keeper, but that didn’t work out for vague reasons and now she’s looking for financing for her longevity project, so maybe she’s a little crazy too.

Those are all amusing and entertaining, if often shallow and/or annoying, characters, but the real plot of the book is a subplot that doesn’t even start until about halfway through when Cass meets a six-year-old boy who’s pretty much inventing number theory while nobody watches. Over the course of the backstory, the boy grows to be sixteen, at which point he is faced with a decision between the necessary but impossible, and the impossible but necessary. The resolution to this closes the book, and it crushed me; yet I see how essential it was, both to the character, and to the book, and the more I thought about it, the less crushed I felt: it’s a perfect counterpoint to the final act of the Mad Professor, and shows that even Messiahood may not require a God.

Because this is a novel of academia, reviewers in the know have some opinions about the real-life inspirations for the characters. Klapper, the Mad Professor, is nearly universally assumed to be Harold Bloom. There’s a fascinating interview on Youtube: Steven Pinker asks Goldstein, “Who is Cass Selzer?” She goes through a brief character sketch, and he asks, “Who is Cass Seltzer really?” she answers: “It’s a misconception that characters in a novel are based on real people,” and claims many people, including herself, contributed bits and pieces of him. This strikes me as fascinating because, first, some reviewers have speculated that Pinker is the basis for the character as he did a highly publicized debate on the existence of God some years before. And second, because Pinker happens to be Goldstein’s husband.

In that same interview, Goldstein does a lovely summary of the book:

It’s one of the points of Cass’ book – and it’s one of the points of my book – that religion is about much more than belief in God. It’s about loyalties to community, it’s about spiritual experiences, it’s about existential dilemmas.

Along the way we’re introduced to a great deal of philosophy and religion, particularly Hasidic Judaism and Kabbalah, some game theory, number theory, and brief visits to neuroscience and music. And probably some other things I’ve forgotten about because it’s just too much to keep in my head after one reading.

I was tempted to make an appendix for this post titled “36 moocs to help with reading this book” because, honestly, when I read “Thomas Nagel” I mentally jumped up and yelled. “What’s it like to be a bat!” and when we got to the “What” region of the brain, I went nuts trying to find which neuroscience mooc showed me exactly where that is (I haven’t found it yet, the down side of taking so many different neuroscience moocs, but it’s in there somewhere/addendum: found it, the ventral visual pathway is the “what” and the dorsal visual pathway is the “where”, Harvard’s MCB80 part 3. That’s 2 hours of my life I spent finding that, but I had to do it) and I wanted to thank all the math teachers who’ve taught me about the infinitude of primes and successive differences. I’ve often said I love a book that teaches me something; I did learn some things here (and I have a couple of new entries on my reading list, including everything Goldstein has ever written) but in this case, it was more about confirming that I’d actually learned something in those 120+ moocs.

And that is why I loved this book. That, and Azarya. And come on, how can you not love a book that includes the line, “There’s no way I’m writing a dissertation on the hermeneutics of potato kugel.”

Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (FSG, 2001)

Alfred gestured at his blue chair, which under the paperhanger’s plastic dropcloths looked like something you might deliver to a power station on a flatbed truck. He was trembling with incredulity, unable to believe that Enid could have forgotten this crushing refutation of her arguments, this overwhelming impediment to her plans. It was as if all the unfreedom in which he spent his seven decades of life were embodied in this six-year-old but essentially brand new chair. He was grinning, his face aglow with the awful perfection of his logic.
…But the chair? The chair was a monument and a symbol and could not be parted from Alfred. It could only be relocated, and so it went into the basement and Alfred followed. And so in the house of the Lamberts, as in St. Jude, as in the country as a whole, life came to be lived underground.

I’m always intimidated by things labeled Great Books, whether they be old classics or more contemporary works like this one. On the bright side, there are so many interviews and analyses and reviews of books like this, I don’t feel like I have to actually come up with anything original, but stick to my experience. In this case, I can appreciate the kind of imaginative detail that went into the book, and I loved some of the individual scenes, but overall, I was kind of meh in the end.

The Corrections of the title refers to numerous actions of the book’s characters, but also references the dot-com bubble of the late 90s and the resultant crash in the first months of the 2000s. Each character has his or her own little scheme going on, and each of those schemes eventually crash. I kept waiting for those schemes to be brought together in some way: the railroad reorg that kicked Alfred out of his job, the various forms of shame-removing drugs variously called Aslan (yes, like the lion in Narnia; one of the kids is reading the CS Lewis books, in fact) and Correktal (yes, like the laxative, but a different spelling, and no, they didn’t want to change it) manufactured by some kind of neuroscience guru who seems to be running a scam rather than treating anything; and the scam website set up by a Lithuanian statesman-turned-mobster; and a high-concept restaurant entangled in the love lives of the chef and owner; and a patent dispute; and a cruise. I was looking for some kind of overall mastermind behind them, or at least a common origin.

But no; these threads never came together. Here, I’m with David Gates, whose NYT review points out that a lot of these whacko threads tend to just peter out without resolution,

…but I can’t scrape together much outrage when I’m basically having a good time. Anyhow, you have to expect a degree of indeterminacy in an ambitious novel these days….it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we’re under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read.

He also notices nods to DeLillo and Pynchon, but that’s way over my head; I mention them only for those who want to go find out more.

Much has been made of these being unlikeable characters, but I find them far more sympathetic than unlikeable because of their inability to cope with the world falling out beneath their feet. Chip, the younger son, is an academic until he gets caught screwing the wrong student. To me, it seemed like he was set up, to clear the way for his competition to be awarded tenure, but I don’t see any confirmation of that in any of the reviews I’ve read, so either I’m missing something, or it’s so obvious no one feels the need to state it outright. At that point he goes spiraling down until he’s held by Lithuanian “police” in ski masks. Yeah, he made some very poor decisions, looking for easy outs and quick fixes instead of facing reality. And, oh, he’s writing a screenplay that begins with a six-page lecture on literary criticism. He considers this a “hump” the reader needs to get over in order to get to the good stuff. Here I’m again reminded of the Gates review, in which he feels the first chapters are tough going. But I’m more reminded of an interview – I’m not sure which one, maybe Charlie Rose or Terry Gross, where Franzen says he was writing a more directly serious book, but these characters kept recurring, and he realized they were the story and turned it into more of a tragicomedy. This is also played out in Chip’s resolution late in the book:

His great revelation came when he was a few kilometers from the Polish border. He was straining to hear whether any of the homicidal farm dogs in the surrounding darkness might be unleashed, had he his arms outstretched, he was feeling more than a little ridiculous, when he remembered Gitanas’ remark: tragedy rewritten as a farce. All of a sudden he understood why nobody, including himself, had ever liked his screenplay: he’d written a thriller where he should have written farce.

Chip gets a second compact articulations of the overall theme of the book (he’s something of an alter-ego for Franzen), a theme that I’ve been howling about for a couple of years now: as long as we’re kept entertained by our phones and our apps and our avocado toast, we’ll let the evil powers run the world because, hey, things aren’t so bad for tech-savvy white guys, and all that stuff about kids in cages and rapists in the White House and Russia basically running the country is just so much hot air that has nothing to do with getting our Blue Apron box or listening to cool jazz:

The main difference between America and Lithuania, as far as Chip could see, was that in America the wealthy few subdued the unwealthy many by means of mind-numbing and soul-killing entertainments and gadgetry and pharmaceuticals, whereas in Lithuania the powerful few subdued the unpowerful many by threatening violence.
It warmed his Foucaultian heart, in a way, to live in a land where property ownership and the control of public discourse were so obviously a matter of who had the guns.

I have to keep reminding myself this book was published in 2001. And, by the way, see again what David Gates had to say above, about not being able to complain too much about a book that might seem flawed, but is so much fun to read. Not exactly the same thing – I think the “flaws” are deliberate, but an indication of our fragmented attention and the overwhelming number of forces at work against everyday life – but a similar principle. Entertain people enough, and they’ll forgive pretty much anything.

And, oh, by the way, there’s another interesting side note. The publication date was, in fact, September 1, 2001. I’m sure a lot of books fell by the wayside in the wake of 9/11, but this one seemed to encapsulate so much that was ready to happen, it fit right in. And, as people were stuck in all kinds of places unable to get home for days as air traffic came to a halt, it seemed fitting that Enid Lambert was desperately hoping to get her kids together for one last Christmas.

Enid is both the backbone of the family, and the overlooked matriarch. Somehow she reminded me of my mother-in-law: a wonderful, generous, caring woman, but a little ditzy. She isn’t ditzy, not at all. The fact that she’s managing in the face of the physical and mental collapse of her husband is miraculous. She’s a strong lady, and all she wants is this Christmas that no one else cares about. She despairs of her kids:

[H]er children didn’t match. They didn’t want the things that she and all her friends and all her friends’ children wanted. Her children wanted radically, shamefully other things.

Alfred, the aging father, isn’t unlikeable as much as he is deteriorating with some kind of Parkinson-like condition that includes hallucinations, nightmares, and serious depression. There’s hope of getting him into this neurochemical scam for treatment after the Christmas that Enid wants, but only if they keep denying the dementia.

Gary, the older son, has the stable respectable job and beautiful family, seems kind of insane, keeping track of “factor 3 and factor 6” to track his moods and reactions. I thought at first he was on some kind of treatment, but seems it’s more do-it-yourself neuropsychiatric analysis. His wife, Carolyn, is the character I did dislike; she’s at her most evil when she aligns the kids against Gary.

Denise, the daughter, makes some bad romantic choices, but again, she seems sympathetic to me, maybe because she’s pretty much ignored, and she’s given Chip a lot of money to keep him afloat. She’s a chef, and starts a high-end restaurant based on… sauerkraut. This harkens back to the nuclear family: there’s a great dinnertime scene when the boys were children – Denise wasn’t even born yet – with Chip refusing to eat his liver soaked in the juice from rutabagas and beet greens. I don’t blame him. But this becomes pivotal later, when Alfred and Enid have sex during her pregnancy with Denise:

Worst was the image of the little girl curled up inside her, a girl not much larger than a large bug but already a witness to such harm. Witness to a totally engorged little brain that dipped in and out beyond the cervix and then, with a quick double spasm that could hardly be considered adequate warning, spat thick alkaline webs of spunk into her private room. Not even born and already drenched in sticky knowledge.
Alfred lay catching his breath and repenting his defiling of the baby. A last child was a last opportunity to learn from ones mistakes and make corrections, and he resolved to seize this opportunity. From the day she was born he would treat her more gently than he’d treated Gary or Chipper. Relax the law for her, indulge her outright, even, and never once force her to sit at the table after everyone was gone.
But he squirted such filth on her when she was helpless. She’d witnessed such scenes of marriage, and so of course, when she was older, she betrayed him.
What made correction possible also doomed it.

Yeah, Alfred seems a little around the bend even then. Sort of like Gary, who mirrors him in a lot of ways.

Christmas somehow happens, mostly, and everyone has their revelation. Chip understands what’s wrong with his screenplay, Denise understands a sacrifice Alfred made for her a long time ago, and Gary realizes how sick his father actually is. But the threads, as both I and David Gates have noticed, don’t come together. The family is still mostly separate and apart, though there are some improvements.

The book ends with Enid at her most hopeful; I’m almost afraid for what might lie ahead for her, given how many times great expectations have turned to dust.

I’m glad I’ve finally read Franzen. No, I’m not going to go into the whole Oprah thing; at this point, it seems pretty tame. Thing is, he did the work. This isn’t some famous-for-being-famous vanity publication. If I’m less than awed, it’s maybe because the ground shifts so quickly these days. 2001 seems like a long time ago. So does 2008. And in a year, 2019 may seem long ago and far away. But at least I’ve read Franzen.

Jo Walton, Lent (Tor, 2019)

What keeps some things the same, while others change? If history is a tide sweeping down a river, and individuals are leaves being swept along on top of the current, what makes Isabella come back and the emperor stay at home? How much can be changed? Can all of it?

A bit of preliminary housekeeping: in order to write about my experience with this book, I need to include spoilers. Most professional reviews include some indication of what the book is about (or else how would we know whether we want to read it?), but I will go beyond what they reveal. So be forewarned: SPOILER ALERT.

Most of the aforementioned reviews will tell you it’s Dante-meets-Groundhog-Day, as Cory Doctorow put it in his LATimes review (I would add Milton to the mix). Girolamo Savonarola, the 15th century Florentine monk who is today famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities, lives his life, dies, goes to hell, and does it all over again, trying each time to find a way to stop the cycle. That’s a decent summary, and I impulsively decided to read it (it’s an addition to my summer reading list in the Religion category) since it includes several special interests of mine. Historical fiction meets religion via fantasy, you might call it. Or, “A historical fantasy set in Florence and Hell between 1492 and 1498, pretty much,” as Walton says in her introduction for Tor Books; “The first time through it’s pretty close to what really historically happened, give or take a few demons and the holy grail.” But the heart of the book is much deeper than this playfulness might indicate.

The Groundhog Day repetition is accomplished by structuring the book in Parts, alternating between Florence and Hell; each chapter within Parts One, Three, and Seven, the Florence parts, begins with a consecutive line from the Lord’s Prayer. The even Parts Two, Four, and Six, taking place in Hell, have only one short chapter each. The final Part Seven is a bit different, as it telescopes many, many iterations, and brings things to a conclusion, a single sentence that is climax and denouement. Given there are only two possible outcomes – the iterations continue indefinitely, or they terminate – there is a definitive resolution, yet many questions are left hanging.

Let me again say how much I enjoy a book that teaches me something, and I learned a great deal about the history of Renaissance Florence, her art, and theology from this read; I even created a very small Cerego set so I’d remember some of it. I actually studied a bit before I even started reading by finding a couple of academic lectures on Youtube about Florence and Savonarola (fortunately, I’d already taken a couple of moocs on Dante and Milton). Since the first 168 pages were historically accurate (excepting, as Walton mentions, demons and the Grail, and a few private conversations and a few characters who exist beyond the historical record), it was another read-at-my-computer session, as with Azazeel a few weeks ago. Savonarola, Lorenzo di Medici, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Angelo Poliziano, and Camilla Rucellai (the Savonarola follower and seer, not the one obliquely related to the Mona Lisa, if I’m reading correctly) are the primary historically documented players, along with assorted religious and government people. The most important non-historical character is Isabella, who is something like a live-in girlfriend to Pico.

I have to admit I had some misgivings early on. I considered putting the book aside, in fact, but given that I’d just abandoned three Sinclair Lewis novels, I thought maybe I was in a bad pattern so just kept reading. I’m very glad I did; the more I read, the more I had to keep reading.

I learned about such things as the Medici Giraffe (which occasionally finds its way into art of the period as a tribute to Lorenzo) and the Pelican of Piety, a symbol used in Renaissance art of the charity of Christ. Then there’s Camilla’s prophecy that Pico would forswear his evil ways (besides a girlfriend, he had written 900 theses that were considered heretical) and take Dominican vows “in the time of lilies”; everyone thought she meant in Spring, which was good news since, in November he seemed to be dying. But he died anyway, as the French, with their fleur de lis flags, passed through Florence by the grace of negotiations and tribute towards other battles. It seems that story has been borrowed by several writers, most notably George Eliot.

Walton’s Girolamo is not at all the fanatical Savonarola that I had in the back of my mind. He disagrees with the Church in many instances, but on things that need disagreement, such as corruption, oppression, and the misbehavior of Popes who not only eschew celibacy but install their children in positions of power. As Walton presents it, the Bonfire of the Vanities was not his idea; it was recommended in a meeting (of all things – a meeting!) as a kind of energizing stunt, since the Medici Giraffe was no longer available. It’s based on a prior event by Bernardino of Siena. Girolamo is seen going over all books and art to determine if they should be rescued; he wavers over Boccaccio, but figures there are enough copies to allow one to burn. Botticelli and other artist donated pieces to the pyre, presumably because they had better works. And, in a fascinating little tribute to Shakespeare, on the night before the Bonfire, a merchant of Venice named Antonio shows up and offers Girolamo a great deal of money for all the items on the pile. The thought process Girolamo goes through before turning down the offer is quite reasonable. This is not an obsessed madman, but a thoughtful monk who appreciates art and literature and philosophy, but has a genuine set of principles.

The Grail comes into things early on as a small stone hidden in a book. Girolamo finds this, wonders about it, hangs onto it, but isn’t sure what it means. And it sits there for about 170 pages doing nothing. Don’t worry; it will come into its own in another lifetime.

In the final pages of Part One, Girolamo is hanged over fire, as he indeed was in history. The superstition is that those who are good, who are going to heaven, fall from the gallows onto the fire on their faces (prostrate before God, perhaps?) so do not feel the flames, while those who are destined for Hell fall backwards and feel everything. This moment after execution becomes a resonating trope opening every Return part. But it is here, in Part Two, that we first learn who – or what – Girolamo actually is (seriously, SPOILER ALERT, it’s the last time I’m telling you):

And the rope breaks, and he falls into the fire, not forward onto his face, like good people, but onto his back, like the damned.
He lands on his back, slamming into Hell with a force that would have knocked out the breath and broken all the bones of a living man. He knows he is not that, nor never has been…. He is a demon, beaked and bat-winged and foul; he was sent into the world to live without this knowledge only to make this moment of returning what it is: Hell.
It is the utmost imaginable anguish. Of course it is, for this is truly Hell, and torment is Hell’s only handicraft. This moment of utter knowledge and despair is his earned and well-deserved punishment for opposing God. For he had been an Angel, long ago, spending all his days praising God, in heaven. …and from that, he had, through his own will, fall into this.

Well, that was unexpected.

If this raises some questions, be assured that Girolamo will spend the rest of the book, his multiple iterations, asking the same questions. Few will be definitively answered, but some light will be shed on most. I’m left with many, but they are questions more of faith and interpretation than of fact; Walton’s answers wouldn’t be any more satisfying than my own.

One of the theological ideas presented again and again over time is apocatastasis, the theory that Hell is itself a kind of purgatory, and that all souls will eventually be purified and redeemed. This was rejected long before, however, by no less than St. Augustine. Apparently it survives in some sects, but in Girolamo’s time, it is considered untrue. Even if true, he doubts it applies to the demons, the fallen angels. Yet he hopes. “Hope hurts,” he says.

What stood out to me, given the whole Dante-does-Groundhog-Day prompting, was the difference between Dante’s Hell, and Walton’s. Dante constructed an elaborate system of punishments for various categories of sins, relating each punishment to the sin with exquisite specificity: wind, water, fire, ice, disembowelment, decapitation. In Girolamo’s Hell, there is only despair of everlasting separation from God. Now, many years ago, the Baptists and Pentecostals tried to sell us on fire and brimstone being metaphorical equivalents this separation, but given the prominence of the former and the occasional mention of the latter, I suspect they would be disappointed in Walton’s version (and tweens-teens are far more impressed by flames and screaming than by despair). However, she is extraordinarily good at conveying Girolamo’s pain, a pain that has little to do with physical discomfort and everything to do with loss and hopelessness:

He could summon up his own cell, as he has done before. Only the crucifix of his bedside he cannot summon, or the painted likeness of the Savior on the wall, or the faces of the Virgin or the Saints. He is filled with the emptiness of where those things should be.
He has done it before. He can do it again. Yet it is only now that he realizes the full horror of his predicament. He has been lent to earth again and again, and in endless iteration will go on being lent, be born again and to go through that same life of hope and ignorance, only to return again and again to this first appalling moment where he must face the fact that he has forever lost God, and all hope and possibility of God’s love.
That is what it means to be damned.

Notice also the punny twist on Lent. The odd-numbered Parts do begin, typically, in the spring, when Lent would fall, but now there is this other meaning.

Milton comes into play as well through the fallen angel thread, though Paradise Lost would not be written for over a century after Savonarola. For while Girolamo’s struggles on earth take up most of the book, it is this falling of angels that intrigues me the most. It’s a topic that’s always been addressed mostly in legend and speculative theology with only a few verses of biblical support. Milton started his poem with Satan, cast out, as an antihero, rebelling against a tyrannical God, then goes on to destroy humanity’s sacredness. As the poem evolves, he becomes less and less sympathetic, until at last God again is victorious over him by having the last word.

In Walton’s book, the details of the rebellion are unclear throughout, a technique I appreciate since more detail would necessarily entail its own theology. There’s a puzzling use of the name Asbiel, similar to Abdiel, one of the angels in Milton’s poem, the angel who tattled on Lucifer; I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be the same being, since that would create a pair of brothers who started the rebellion. My read at the moment is that Crookback (I’ll get there, don’t worry) is indeed Lucifer, Girolamo/Asbiel is his brother, and they were the initial troublemakers. The had “wanted a world without pain, when pain was just an intellectual concept.” They had pride, to believe they knew better than God.

As Bill Murray’s weatherman had to lose his cynical, narcissistic way of viewing everyone else as instrumental to his own needs in order to break out of his loop, so must Girolamo overcome his pride. And that involves his brother, who on earth is the mercenary soldier called Crookback (and sometimes Richard III), who sent the Grail to Florence where Girolamo finds it and discovers it unleashes his memories of past lives, deaths, and his demonic nature.

In addition to the Shakespeare references, I found a few others (and who knows what I missed through my own ignorance): my manuscript-hunting buddy from The Swerve, Poggio Bracciolini; and Michelangelo, who plays a bit part in a couple of Girolamo’s lifetimes:

Michelangelo Buonarroti comes over, a cup of wine in his hand. He is growing a beard. “I have it !” he says delightedly.
“What?” Girolamo asks, but Marsilio knows.
“That huge block of marble that’s been standing about for so long?“
“Yes. I am going to carve the prophet Amos, to go high up on the cathedral. I thought him with the face of brother Giovanni. What do you think? “
Isabella and Girolamo exchange a glance. Marsilio nods gravely. “I think that would be splendid,“ he says.
Michelangelo looks at the others. “And his body too,” he says, with a hint of defiance in his tone.

Yes, there is humor, probably more than I recognized. In one spot, Girolamo offers an apple to a beggar, and sheepishly tells his earthly companion, “I like apples.” In another spot, when a plan involving the Grail goes awry and it is lost to Crookback, Girolamo’s great friend Pico says, “Well, that went badly”, perhaps an anachronistic understatement, but one that, under the circumstances, made me laugh. Out loud.

But again, I come back to the religious component. See the comparison between Girolamo’s Heaven and Hell:

“Will there be poetry in heaven?“ [Angelo, the poet] asks, like a child, as he hands back the cup.
“I think there will be something better, “ Girolamo confides. “Something that poetry reminds us of, and that is why we are drawn to love it. I think loving all earthly beauty is a way to lead us to love heavenly beauty. So there will not be sunsets or poetry, but there will be something like them but even better.“

There is no relief in Hell, so he cannot weep for his innocence, his lost illusions. Will is power here, and he has his place in the ranks of power. That is all he has. … There is no fellowship in hell, the only relationship possible is that of tormenting one another. Spite, Hell’s closest approach to joy.

Through Girolamo’s subsequent earthly lives, some details change a little, some a lot. He has different close allies each time; given that he is a demon and Hell has no relationships, his earthly relationships are wonderful, even as he bears the knowledge of his despair. He formulates plans to break the cycle, to harrow hell, as it were, to free the demons there. This is like Milton’s hell, not Dante’s: Girolamo’s Hell has only demons. Questions of atonement, of forgiveness, of salvation in the face of eternal damnation, of hope and despair, become more prominent as the cycles proceed. It’s truly wonderful. Girolamo may be a demon, but he’s a demon with a mission, and a heart of gold, just about the most sympathetic demon you could ever know.

I am, as I’ve said, left with questions. Where did the Grail come from? Sure, it’s a gift from the King of Hungary, and Girolamo discovers it by chance, but how did that happen? How does it have the power to harrow hell? How does the time looping work: does the entire world loop indefinitely? Does it go back to the day in April when he discovers the stone, or back to the beginning of the universe? If/when he stops looping, will that be the End of Time, or just the End of Hell? And then, not a question but an interpretation I wish I could verify: I see a strong parallelism between Christ harrowing people and Girolamo harrowing demons. Christ is the begotten of God, sent to live on earth, die, and redeem human souls. Girolamo is the brother of Lucifer (my interpretation; in any case he is the brother of a Prince of Hell) who is “lent” to earth to redeem the unredeemable, using the Key to the Kingdom Christ gave Peter. Why is it Girolamo who is the earthly figure for the demon Asbiel, instead of someone else, in another time or place?

None of these questions, or the others that flit by once in a while, are really answerable, since this is a fantasy based on religious imagery and story. I’ve never been comfortable with the category of fantasy, but I keep running into such wonderful examples such as this, and Helen Oyeyemi, and various authors from my Pushcart and BASS editions. And now, Jo Walton, an author new to me.

Given that I gave up on organized religion fifty years ago (though I do hang out in churches sometimes, because, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the music is), it’s odd that I’m so drawn to these kinds of stories about holy forgiveness and damnation on such cosmic scales. That’s what story does: it brings us closer to what was far away. Girolamo, Pico, Angelo, Camilla, Isabella, they have all captivated me, and now that I have finished the book, I find I miss them. The good news is: I can come back to them any time, just by opening to page one.

Addendum: FMI, listen to the podcast about this book by Julie Davis and Scott Danielson at A Good Story is Hard to Find

A Sinclair Lewis sampler: Babbitt, Main Street, It Can’t Happen Here

“I tell you, my friends, the trouble with this whole country is that so many are selfish! Here’s a hundred and twenty million people, with 95 per cent of ‘em only thinking of self, instead of turning to and helping the responsible business men to bring back prosperity! All these corrupt and self-seeking labor unions! Money grubbers! Thinking only of how much wages they can extort out of their unfortunate employer, with all the responsibilities he has to bear!
“What this country needs is Discipline! Peace is a great dream, but maybe sometimes it’s only a pipe dream! I’m not so sure—now this will shock you, but I want you to listen to one woman who will tell you the unadulterated hard truth instead of a lot of sentimental taffy, and I’m not sure but that we need to be in a real war again, in order to learn Discipline! We don’t want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning. That’s good enough in its way, but isn’t it, after all, just a nice toy for grownups? No, what we all of us must have, if this great land is going to go on maintaining its high position among the Congress of Nations, is Discipline—Will Power—Character!”

It Can’t Happen Here

A couple of years ago, It Can’t Happen Here was the hottest book in America. Written in 1935, it painted a satirical picture of the US to succumbing to the same fascism that was overtaking Europe. Hence its recent popularity.

I wanted to read it, but I also wanted to read some other Lewis works (and I’ll admit, I hoped this might help with my persistent tendency to confuse Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, as a minor side bonus). Because I’m fond of medical stuff, I initially thought of Arrowsmith, but from the description it seemed like medicine was a side detail, so I ruled that out. I decided against Elmer Gantry as being too familiar from more modern situations.

Babbitt was often cited as the book that earned Lewis the Nobel Prize, so that was high on my list. Main Street was one of the few books with a female protagonist, and has also been frequently mentioned in recent years, so that was a definite possibility. That gave me with three possibilities. I couldn’t decide on just one, so I checked all three out of the library.

I didn’t finish any of them. Hey, sometimes that’s how it goes.

It Can’t Happen Here had me pissed off by page 6 (thanks to passages like the one quoted above), and I realized I did not want to read an overtly political novel right now. I particularly didn’t want to read one that could have been taken from Twitter (I’ve muted nearly all the news-and-opinion people, and increased the art, humor, literature, and medicine, but it’s still like running a gauntlet some days). And I don’t need any convincing that of course it can happen here, particularly since it is happening here right now.

Babbitt went better, for a while.

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practise, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y. M. C. A.; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery—though, as he explained to Paul Riesling:
“Course I don’t mean to say that every ad I write is literally true or that I always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling-spiel….”

After 200 pages, ok, ok, I get it, they’re all hypocrites, decrying labor unions for forcing membership while insisting every business owner must be a Booster. They’re shallow, letting the Church and the Republican Party and whatever advertisement looks prettiest in the magazine determine what they believe, think, and buy. They measure the perfection of life by the possession of a sun-porch. And then there’s the racism, displayed when the porter on a train doesn’t know the exact time:

“They’re getting so they don’t have a single bit of respect for you. The old-fashioned coon was a fine old cuss—he knew his place—but these young dinges don’t want to be porters or cotton-pickers. Oh, no! They got to be lawyers and professors and Lord knows what all! I tell you, it’s becoming a pretty serious problem. We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place. Now, I haven’t got one particle of race-prejudice. I’m the first to be glad when a nigger succeeds—so long as he stays where he belongs and doesn’t try to usurp the rightful authority and business ability of the white man.”

But my main problem was one of boredom. I knew there would be a turning point, but I didn’t want to read another 150 pages to get there. So I stopped reading and found a quick-and-dirty summary that told me how Babbitt would fall out with the Right People and come to some kind of minor revelation about what freedom is and isn’t, culminating in the final page, a page that is almost worth reading the 400 pages before it, when his 18-year-old son, who Babbitt wants to be a lawyer, shows up married and skips college to work in mechanics. It’s a lovely scene, Babbitt’s “new voice, booming, authoritative, dominated the room.” I’m not typically in favor of a man telling his wife to shut the hell up, but in this case, it feels earned. “Babbitt crossed the floor slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old” to reach his son, and after a few faint protests, the changing of the guard is finally accomplished on several levels:

I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life! I don’t know ‘s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I’ve made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you’ll carry things on further. I don’t know. But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it. Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell ’em to go to the devil! I’ll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don’t be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!”
Arms about each other’s shoulders, the Babbitt men marched into the living-room and faced the swooping family.

Made me feel bad that I skipped 200 pages. But not bad enough to go back and read them.

I had much the same experience with Main Street. After enjoying the first 100 pages or so, I felt jerked around by the midpoint of the book. Carol feels defeated in her quest to liberalize Gopher Prairie; she feels content by some aspect of her life; oops, no, she’s down again; and no, here she is up. I had much the same back-and-forth with myself: as much as I appreciate her zeal for creativity and thought, I was annoyed by her Great White Savior attitude. I sympathized with it as well. I’ve never been able to find a group where I felt comfortable to be who I am; I’ve always struggled to fit in as what the group wanted me to be. Which is why I avoid groups. And even on the internet, I’m mostly alone, save for a few intersections. But that’s my comfort zone; I don’t have to change who I am, and neither does anyone else. And of course, I’m a lot older than Carol, so our approaches would naturally differ.

I see the same sort of irony as in the other books. Take for example, the scene where she’s trying to convey her frustration with small-town life to her husband:

This is an independent town, not like these Eastern holes where you have to watch your step all the time, and live up to fool demands and social customs, and a lot of old tabbies always busy criticizing. Everybody’s free here to do what he wants to.” He said it with a flourish, and Carol perceived that he believed it. She turned her breath of fury into a yawn.
“By the way, Carrie, while we’re talking of this: Of course I like to keep independent, and I don’t believe in this business of binding yourself to trade with the man that trades with you unless you really want to, but same time: I’d be just as glad if you dealt with Jenson or Ludelmeyer as much as you ran, instead of Howland & Gould, who go to Dr. Gould every last time, and the whole tribe of ’em the same way…”

But I still want to ask Carol, hey, you’re the one who married him, how could you not know this would be your life? That, when you tell him you want to “do something with life”, would reply, “What’s better than making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids and knowing nice only people?“

There’s a nicely done scene that shows, without telling, the exact relationship between husband and wife. When Carol comes home debating herself about whether she’s happily married or not, and does her best to convince herself she is, she finds her husband reading a magazine:

She dropped into his lap and (after he had jerked back his head to save his eye glasses, and removed the glasses, and settled her in a position less cramping to his legs, and casually cleared his throat ) he kissed her amiably ….

She starts up a kind of pre-affair relationship with Guy Pollock, a quiet man she sees as sympathetic. But then she realizes, “he had never been anything but a frame on which she had hung shining garments.” Everyone we meet is a frame on which we hang garments, some shining, some stained. And again I want to tell her, hey, you did the same thing with your husband, and now you’re disappointed, how could you not have known. And then I remember my own marriage. I didn’t know anything. So maybe I should give Carol a break.

I found some perverse enjoyment in the conflict between Carol and the townspeople. When Carol, having worked in the Minneapolis library herself, proposes to the Gopher Prairie librarian that the job of a librarian is to increase reading, Miss Villets disagrees: “The first duty of the conscientious librarian is to preserve the books.” Carol likes that shopkeepers pay attention to her preferences, “even if they weren’t worth fulfilling.”

One thing that struck me while reading this was Carol’s tendency to think, I must go on, I will go on, lending a slight Beckettsian flavor to the novel. Beckett was decades later, of course, but it’s an interesting link. Yet I got bored about halfway through. That’s my pattern for all three books: I feel like, about halfway through, I’m done, it’s time to skip to the end. In Carol’s case, that’s less the minor revelation of George Babbitt, and more the sense of “resistance is futile” as she resigns herself to Gopher Prairie. I think it’d be interesting to see her twenty years hence, as another young, eager-to-reform ingenue moves into town.

I think one reason I had so much trouble with these books is what I call the “Pope and Shakespeare problem”. A wag in a former English class joked, “Alexander Pope has to stop writing in clichés”, the joke being they weren’t clichés when he wrote the them. It’s nearly impossible to read the Hamlet speech, or portions of Romeo and Juliet, or entire Shakespearean sonnets, and really hear the words; the impressions of repetitions over the years make the words a kind of trigger for recollection, rather than an aesthetic encounter. Lewis is credited with writing about small towns, about conservatism, in a less idealistic way (to say the least); since his heyday, so many others have covered this field (especially in the 50s), it’s hard to read him as original. It’s like taking a kid to see the first Star Wars, Episode IV: they don’t understand what a big deal it was – the light sabers, the saloon scene, The Force – back in 1977.

It’s one thing to know a Babbitt is a “a materialistic, complacent, and conformist businessman”; it’s another to have experienced just how hypocritical and boring he is, and to have witnessed the potential for change. This reading was a necessary and positive experience, even if I didn’t finish any of the books. It accomplished what I’d intended: to see more of what is the American canon, to better understand when these works serve as reference points for other works.

Youssef Ziedan, Azazeel (translation, Atlantic 2012)

Where should I begin my narrative? The beginnings are intertwined, teeming in my head. Perhaps, as my old teacher Syriana used to say, beginnings are merely delusions we believe in, for the beginning and the ending exist only along a straight line, and there are no straight lines except in our imagination or on the scraps of paper where we trace our delusions. In life and in all creation, however, everything is circular, returning to where it began, interwoven with whatever is connected. There is in reality no beginning and no ending, only an unbroken succession. In the universe the connections never break, the weft never unravels, and the branching never ceases, nor the filling and the emptying.

I know exactly what he means. I’ve spent a couple of days now staring at my computer screen, or mulling over how to write about this book, and I still don’t know. The theme of writing is, indeed, part of the book, but it’s a book that has many themes, and which one stands out at any moment is likely to be more about the reader than the book itself.

Like most stories, this one is told out of order. Let’s start with the basic plotline: a 5th century Egyptian monk/physician who refers to himself as Hypa (we never learn his given name; he renames himself after Hypatia of Alexandria) leaves his Coptic monastery/school and travels to Alexandria to study medicine, in the hopes of returning to his homeland. He runs into some trouble in Alexandria, but eventually settles in, then runs into more catastrophic trouble, at which point he heads eastward in despair. He spends a few years wandering the Holy Land in the footsteps of Christ, then makes his way to a monastery in Jerusalem, where he meets up with the priest Nestorius. At his urging, he heads towards a monastery between Aleppo and Antioch, where things go fine until they don’t. After a fevered illness, he writes up the story of his travels, buries the manuscript in a chest, and heads off for who knows where. The manuscript, which is the novel itself, is discovered in a 1994 archaeological dig, though occasional margin notes indicate someone writing in an Arabic script of the 10th century had found the manuscript, and reburied it with the notation: “I will rebury this treasure, because it is not yet time for it to appear.”

So this gives us several levels of storytelling: we have the monk Hypa writing his autobiography; we have a 10th century commentator; we have a fictional contemporary translator presenting the work; and we have the reader and the book in reality (or what passes for it these days). The novel opens with a “Translator’s Introduction”; this is the fictional translator, not the actual translator (the book was originally written in Arabic), whose translator note appears at the end.

I adopted a time-consuming but necessary reading process for most of the book: I’d read 20 or 30 pages, then spend an hour or two at my computer, looking up references for the people, places, and events referenced. I’ve had some introduction to all of this through a variety of moocs, but I wanted to be sure I understood what I was reading. Several of the characters and events are historical, some (including Hypa himself) are fictional.

I also wanted to figure out the timeline, since the story starts in Jerusalem and refers back to some horror in Alexandria for the first half, then proceeds more or less chronologically, referring forward to a character named Martha who will have some major impact later. I still don’t feel confident about the timeline. Hypa seems to be 20 years old in Alexandria, 30 in Jerusalem, and 40 at the end, but don’t quote me on that. And then there’s all the fifth-century ecclesiastical and political history. Oh, and philosophy: knowledge of Plotinus (and the fine points of Catholic Christology) helpful.

See why it took a while to read? But oh, I enjoyed it. It’s a book that’s going to require several readings over time to really nail down.

Let’s go back to a basic question: who or what is Azazeel? Those who paid attention in Sunday School might recognize it as a word for the devil, but it’s a lot more complicated than that, and there’s little agreement. The Bible mentions Azazel (one e) in Leviticus as part of an annual cleansing of sin from the Hebrews wandering around the Sinai after escaping Egypt:

6 And Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 Then he shall take the two goats, and set them before the Lord at the door of the tent of meeting; 8 and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Aza′zel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Aza′zel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Aza′zel.

Leviticus 16:6-10 RSV

The King James Version translates the word to scapegoat (the goat that escapes with the sins of the people). So it isn’t the goat itself that’s evil, but the sins of humanity placed on it. Other material shows the goat was led to a cliff, where it was hurled to its death, and it was the cliff that was called Azazel.

In the non-canonical (to most religions) Book of Enoch, Azazel comes up again, this time more clearly as a person, angel, or demon who teaches people to make weapons, and jewelry: “And there arose much godlessness… and they were led astray and became corrupt in all their ways.” Yep, you throw weapons and money into the mix, that’s gonna happen. Devil knows how to corrupt.

I advise a grain of salt here since I have no idea of the reliability of this source, but I’m very taken with one particular interpretation, as it relates extraordinarily well to Hypa:

Each goat represents one type of person. The goat selected for YHWH represents the obedient servant who is committed to God; this one sacrifices his life to serve before YHWH. The other goat represents the haughty and proud who is free to live his life his own way, separate from YHWH and sent out into the wilderness.
While it would seem that the goat released into the wilderness has the better deal, this is not true, the goat that is sacrificed to YHWH is completely dedicated to YHWH while the other is sent out into the wilderness, probably to die from starvation. The Jewish tradition actually says that the goat was taken to a high place, a cliff, and thrown over it.

Jeff A. Benner, Ancient Hebrew Research Center

This is Hypa’s primary dilemma, the choice between the monastic life and the joys of the world, which range from sex to philosophy to music. This conflict is made more real by his conversations with an imaginary voice in his head who he comes to call Azazeel, a voice that can only be from a part of Hypa himself; a repressed subconscious, if you will. It is this voice that expresses doubts and alternate interpretations, and eventually tells Hypa to write his story. But it is his own voice that raises questions like, Was Jesus really crucified? And, did Mary truly bear this child? Throughout there are references that could be interpreted as biblical allusions: the walk across the Sinai out of Egypt, the three temptations over his life, and, of course, this conversation with the devil.

All of this plays out in a time when not only was the Church of Alexandria on the warpath against pagans (several slaughters in the book are historical events), but divided in itself over the fine points of the nature of Christ: homoousios or homoiousios. Priests and bishops were excommunicated as heretics, even murdered, over that one letter, this fine point over whether Jesus was begotten or created, as the lyrics of “O Come All Ye Faithful” put it. Nestorius, Hypa’s eventual friend and confidant, rejects the doctrine of Theotokos, Mother of God, in favor of Christotokos, mother of Christ, and thus is one of those cast out. This final loss breaks Hypa.

Several characters refer to this conflict over insanely small details – which lasted for the first thousand years of the Church, by the way, and eventually caused the Great Schism in the 11th century – as motivated more by power than by the love of God. Nestorius, for example, privately denounces both events in Alexandria, and the Council of Nicaea of 325, to Hypa:

The truth is, Hypa, that it is all a fraud. Satan was the driving force behind everything that happened one hundred years ago at the council of Niceae. By Satan I mean the devil in the form of temporal power, which goes to people’s heads. Then they challenge the authority of the Lord and tear each other to pieces, then they lose heart and are scattered to the wind. Their passions overwhelm them and they act foolishly and violate the spirit of the faith in seeking to obtain the vanities of the transient world. What happened in Nicaea, Hypa, was null and void through and through.

This fictional conversation is particularly interesting, since I have read in several places that Nestorius was in fact vigorously anti-Arian. I don’t have the background to assess the issue, but I wonder why Ziedan would include it, possibly to further underline the confusion of the time. Towards the end of the book, when Nestorius is proclaimed Bishop of Constantinople, Hypa finds many of the reports he hears of his edicts to be disturbing and not at all in keeping with the priest he came to admire and consider a mentor of sorts.

A very interesting language trick caught my attention. Remember, the book was originally in Arabic, so I have no idea if this language is in the original: during a particularly important murderous rampage, the Christians shout, “We will cleanse the land of the Lord” as their rallying cry. Notice this can be read two different ways: We will cleanse (the land of the Lord), that is, we will cleanse Alexandria, OR We will clean the Lord out of Alexandria. It’s a particularly brilliant turn of phrase at a particularly important moment in the book. And, by the way, the rampage follows a particularly vicious sermon preached by Cyril which blamed pagans as the root of all sorts of trouble; historians vary on how much blame falls on him for the subsequent murders. Nestorius will later tell Hypa that an investigation found no fault with anyone. “The people of Alexandria have no mercy and do not fear punishment for their deeds,” says Hypa. It’s interesting to read a novel, written by an Egyptian scholar of Islamic manuscripts and set 1500 years ago, that seems so terrifyingly relevant to today’s America.

Another theme, mentioned a couple of times, is the association of ignorance and bliss. Hypa puzzles over this:

Why was the Lord angry when Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge? …. Why in the first place did God want man to remain ignorant? Was the knowledge that Adam obtained a prelude to him obtaining eternal life? Who are those about whom the Lord said that Adam had become one of them? If Adam and Eve had remained ignorant, would they have lived forever in the Garden of Eden? Is it right that immortality should go along with ignorance and disregard for nature?

Theologists through the ages have had various answers for that one. Again, it rings so true with the contemporary climate, where history and philosophy and art are being forsaken for computer science, where truth itself is what power says it is.

It’s something of a niche book. I don’t remember where I came across it, but I would have been attracted to the historical aspect. It was awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009 (a division of the Booker prizes), and created quite a bit of controversy in Egypt where Cyril is regarded as a saint in the Coptic Church. To be fair, we have to remember many early Christians were slaughtered by the Romans, so it isn’t completely unexpected that they would become bloodthirsty once power was obtained.

I’ve often said that I’m never happier when a book teaches me something. I did a lot of extra reading while reading this book, and I think I’ve at least gained some idea of the breadth of what there is to learn, even if my learning is still incomplete. I’m glad I got to know Hypa, and I will know him better next time I read this book. He vanishes from our sight with the last sentence of his manuscript; I hope he found some measure of peace.