There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
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I When I graduated from high school, my English teacher and advisor gave me The Berlin Stories, a New Directions paperback, with a note inside. The note said the book seemed right for me. It was written on the back of a Wallace Stevens poem. I was very lucky, and I had a great many fine teachers in high school. But this teacher glowered and stalked and had an ancient cat. He assigned The Whitsun Weddings. He was empathetic and caustic and kind. I was a difficult student (a terrible student), but he was always on my side. I think of him often. Largely because of this teacher, Philip Larkin is the only poet for me. Philip Larkin puts his finger in an aching, adolescent spot and presses just hard enough to leave one with a lingering delicious pain. Even so, I love that Wallace Stevens poem, the one tucked inside my graduation gift. It's called "The Poems of Our Climate." Here's how it goes: Clear water in a brilliantbowl, Pink and white carnations. The light In the room more like a snowy air, Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow A the end of winter when afternoons return. Pink and white carnations--one desires So much more than that. The day itself Is simplified: a bowl of white, Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round, With nothing more than the carnations there. Say even that this complete simplicity Stripped one of all one's torments, concealed The evilly compounded, vital I And made it fresh in a world of white, A world of clear water, brilliant-edged. Still one would want more, one would need more, More than a world of white and snowy scents. There would still remain the never-resting mind, So that one would want to escape, come back To what had been so long composed. The imperfect is our paradise. Note that, in this bitterness, delight, Since the imperfect is so hot in us, Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds. I'm so impatient, I'm a bad reader of poetry. I read poems like I read novels, rushing to find out what happens. A poem is what happens, though, and I usually arrive at the end of one breathless and flummoxed. It's like sprinting to the flight gate, heart bursting, only to find you've got the wrong day. The wrong month, even. So I read this poem a number of times before I understood that it had been written especially for me. I keep the note inside the book. They go together. They go together because I got them together and because "The imperfect is our paradise" could be the book's epigraph. It would make a hell of an epitaph, too. II The Berlin Stories is two short novels, published separately in the 1930s. New Directions put them together in 1945. It was an inspired pairing. The novels support one another. Together they flesh out the world Isherwood describes: Berlin of the very early 1930s, imperfect in the extreme, but a paradise for Isherwood's hitherto uneven talent. The first novel, The Last of Mr. Norris, is an affectionate panegyric to an old reprobate. Mr. Norris is into petty crime, BDSM, and poorly written porn. He wears an almost-convincing wig, and has two doors to his apartment: "Arthur Norris. Private" and "Arthus Norris. Import Export." A most unlikely communist, he's also an inveterate double-crosser, fooling no one but himself (and, sometimes, Isherwood). The details the novel provides about the Communist Party of the period are interesting, but mostly they lend to the farcical aspect of Isherwood's story. It's almost as silly as Travels With my Aunt, but it feels real. Perhaps it is. Goodbye to Berlin provides fine counterbalance. Its subject is the city, as it was gearing up to participate in one of civilization's greatest horrors. On the first page Isherwood tells us, in an rare meta moment, "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed." This novel is something like the first cantos of Inferno. Pre-war Berlin is the outskirts of hell, and its people, through Isherwood's lens, are its lesser sinners--the lustful, the slothful, the avaricious. In the Nowaks' cramped attic flat, Isherwood seems literally to inhabit a part of hell, what with the suffocating stove and the freezing draughts, Frau Nowak coughing out her lungs, fat Grete and piggish Otto and Nazi Lothar and Isherwood's suspicious rash and the sounds of the tenement all around him. They eat lung hash, cooked by the consumptive Frau. I don't know what lung hash is, but it sounds like hell. Even Bernard Landauer, the doomed department store scion, is something out of the first circle--a gentle, urbane philosopher, damned only for falling outside Jesus' jurisdiction. Like Dante writing Inferno, Isherwood knew the worst as he wrote. If Otto and Peter and Sally Bowles (later of Cabaret fame) are Isherwood's lesser criminals, there are intimations of the coming inner circles: the violent, the treacherous, the Devil himself. Isherwood left Berlin in '33. The writing was on the wall. But for all that these stories anticipate an onslaught of death, they celebrate life. Isherwood celebrates the lowlifes of Berlin, the bizarre modes of sex and romance, the vicissitudes of fortune, the indignities of poverty, the shabby glamor of his writer's life. I love when he gets a five mark piece from a wealthy pupil, tosses it in the air to celebrate, drops it, and scrambles to find it in a pile of sand. I like how he goes to bed drunk and worries about his rash. I like how he speaks German and listens to his landlady lament her large bosom. III I read this book every year. It is a good book for the end of December. It is piquant and sad, like New Year's Eve. Bittersweet is not the right word, it's too pat and saccharine for Isherwood and for this Berlin. When I began to think about the book for this essay, I wondered if there is something awful in enjoying a story that heralds the death of millions. But I don't think of it as a holocaust novel. (It's my privilege not to, I understand; it was Isherwood's privilege to leave Berlin, too.) No, I think of it as marking time. It's about storytelling and memory, for all it is about hell. It is a story about time and how it passes, and it reminds me of time that has passed. Isherwood used his story to call out to friends long-disappeared, to remember a part of his life that was gone. It was a way to remember a time when everything was uncertain, and better for that uncertainty. The worse had yet to happen. This book is one of my most treasured gifts. For me it is the dear memory of that teacher, and leaving school, and leaving adolescence. When I first read it, this book was a harbinger of freedom, even if freedom turned out to be different than I expected. I can't say it right, what it means to me. The imperfect is so hot in me, lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
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Published posthumously, Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels with Herodotus is very self consciously a final book. In it Kapuscinski reflects on his life as a writer, rarely delving much into the details of his travels with which his readers have become familiar, but instead dwelling more upon writing itself. But more so, his focus is on Herodotus, the historian from ancient Greece, who Kapuscinski counts as a great historian and whose books were a near constant companion of Kapuscinski's on his travels.Indeed Travels more than anything else reads like a companion text to Herodotus' book The Histories - a footnote early on refers readers to the Oxford University Press edition for those who want to follow along at home.And that may be a good idea because, for the most part, Travels is Herodotus seen through Kapuscinski's lens. He tells us that the book was given to him by an editor before his first journey abroad and he took it with him on nearly all of his assignments during his long career. In looking at Herodotus, Kapuscinski suggests to the reader the origins of journalism as well as its purpose while also marveling at the fantastical stories and bizarre cultures described by the Greek. Kapuscinski is a true fan.But this book is also a memoir of sorts, and Kapuscinski parcels out little nuggets of the Kapuscinski philosophy, a way of looking at the world that will be familiar to his readers.Describing his very first trip, to India, Kapuscinski describes devouring books about the country and about the power of the written word to transport and teach:With each new title I read, I felt as if I were taking a new journey to India, recalling places I had visited and discovering new depths and aspects, fresh meanings, of things which earlier I had assumed I knew. These journeys were much more multidimensional than my original one. I discovered also that these expeditions could be further prolonged, repeated, augmented by reading more books, studying maps, looking at paintings and photographs. What is more, they had a certain advantage over the actual trip - in an iconographic journey such as this one, one could stop at any point, calmly observe, rewind to the previous image, etc., something for which on a real journey there is neither the time nor the chance.And of course, I'm sure there are many readers, like myself, for whom Kapuscinski's books have had "a certain advantage over the actual trip." With Kapuscinski as a guide, his books offer more of an escape and more excitement than most of us can hope for from our planned excursions to non-threatening locales.In Herodotus, Kapuscinski undoubtedly sees his foundation, without whom Kapuscinski and many other journalists, historians, and travel writers wouldn't be possible. As Kapuscinski shows us, the world of the Greek nearly 2,500 years ago isn't all that far removed from what Kapuscinski has spent his career doing. At the same time, we wouldn't consider Herodotus a journalist in the modern sense, one who is beholden to proper sourcing, fact checking, and objectivity. Herodotus gathered up tales of mysterious faraway lands, relating even the ones that sound far-fetched, crafted narratives to suit his efforts, and passed judgment when it struck him to do so. Following his death, Kapuscinski was accused of just such things by Jack Shafer at Slate. Defending Kapuscinski, I wrote "To define [Kapuscinski's] books as journalism (or memoir, or "truth") exclusively does a disservice to journalism - offering a context within which this work fits, or even a disclaimer, is more appropriate - but to suggest that there isn't a place for writing and books like these does a disservice to readers." In speculating about Herodotus' way of life, Kapuscinski defends the writer's right to embellish in the service of both making a living and entertaining readers (two goals that often go hand in hand)It is possible... that the rhythm of Herodotus's life and work was as follows: he made a long journey, and upon his return traveled to various Greek cities and organized something akin to literary evenings, in the course of which he recounted the experiences, impressions, and observations he had gathered during his peregrinations. It is entirely likely that he made his living from such gatherings, and that he also financed his subsequent trips in this way, and so it was important to him to have the largest auditorium possible, to draw a crowd. It would be to his advantage, therefore, to begin with something that would rivet attention, arouse curiosity - something a tad sensational. Story plots meant to move, amaze, astonish, pop up throughout his entire opus; without such stimuli, his audience would have dispersed early, bored, leaving him with an empty purse.Perhaps it was a similar motivation that pushed Kapuscinski to not just send back terse wire service missives on the conflicts and battles he observed but also to keep a separate notebook of observations that he would craft into his books. But to suggest that Kapsucinski's motives were craven and profit-driven alone would be to ignore the profound empathy with which he treats his subjects and the care with which he observes the foreign lands he visits.In Travels, Kapuscinski describes being lured to Algiers in 1965 by a vague tip from a source. Upon his arrival he discovers that indeed a coup has occurred, but he is dismayed to find that it has been bloodless and so there are no scenes of battle and mayhem to describe to hungry readers back home. Then Kapuscinski realizes how misguided this attitude is:It was here in Algiers, several years after I had begun working as a reporter, that it slowly began to dawn on me that I had set myself on an erroneous path back then. Until that awakening, I had been searching for spectacular imagery, laboring under the illusion that it was compelling, observable tableaux that somehow justified my presence, absolving me of responsibility to understand the events at hand. It was the fallacy that one can interpret the world only by means of what it chooses to show us in the hours of its convulsions, when it is rocked by shots and explosions, engulfed in flames and smoke, choked in dust and the stench of burning, when everything collapses into rubble on which people sit despairing over the remains of their loved ones.If there is a philosophy that encapsulates Kapuscinski, that is it. Body counts and "colorful" descriptions of chaos and violence offer us no insight into our world. Only with time and effort come empathy and understanding. This holds true of all of our best journalism (cf. George Packer).But Kapuscinski does not romanticize this noble cause. He instead sees it as a symptom of his loneliness. He is not the swashbuckling hero journalist that some portray him as but a wandering lost soul imprisoned by his travels. Near the end of this odd little memoir, travelogue, and homage to Herodotus, Kapuscinski, as if knowing that this is his goodbye, lays himself bare to his readers:Such people, while useful, even agreeable, to others, are, if truth be told, frequently unhappy - lonely in fact. Yes, they seek out others, and it may even seem to them that in a certain country or city they have managed to find true kinship and fellowship, having come to know and learn about a people; but they wake up one day and suddenly feel that nothing actually binds them to these people, that they can leave here at once. They realize that another country, some other people, have now beguiled them, and that yesterday's most riveting event now pales and loses all meaning and significance.For all intents and purposes, they do not grow attached to anything, do not put down deep roots. Their empathy is sincere, but superficial.Kapuscinski's admission is stark and sad, but one must think that it was his lack of joy, of hubris, of a sense of heroism that underpinned the singular tone of his work and made it such a revelation to read.See Also: The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski
Near the start of The Flame Alphabet, we find the novel's narrator fretting over the falseness of narrative. The protagonist, Sam, is part put-upon husband, part picaresque everyman. Most of all, though, he's a storyteller; one of those “reliable narrators” of old-fashioned literary lore. Keen to set the scene, Sam’s on the lookout for novelistic “motifs,” and maybe even “a fine bit of foreshadowing.” But reality falls far short of such bookish ambitions. “What is it called when the landscape mirrors the condition of the poor fucks who live in it?” he wonders. “Whatever it is, it was not in effect.” This calls to mind Samuel Beckett’s aside, mid-description: ‘to hell with all this fucking scenery.’ What’s at stake in both cases is more than merely a rhetorical reflection on the rift between life and literature. With Ben Marcus, as with Beckett, such disruptions are signs of literature itself being stretched and tensed, pressed to express the process of a writer testing his limits. Ben Marcus’ earlier books – especially his debut, The Age of Wire and String – expressed much the same thing by foregrounding their formal experimentation. Yet the marvel of The Flame Alphabet is that it reads in an even more artfully alien way, with no fragmentation of form at all. The energy of the book is entirely embedded in narrative action; in content. Put simply, Marcus has managed to craft a story so disturbing that it’s best told with absolute clarity. The plot occurs in a parallel world whose place names echo our own (New York; Wisconsin) yet whose social reality quickly, queasily slips outside of any recognizable frame of reference. Sam, Claire, and their daughter Esther are an “ordinary” Jewish family, settled in an eerily serene suburban setting straight out of The Twilight Zone. This is B-movie blank canvas suburbia; the sort of place whose existence dictates that something is about to go wrong. And go wrong it does. The children (Jews first, then Gentiles) contract a condition that infects their speech. In other words, their words become toxic. While they remain healthy, their verbal vectors sicken their parents. Soon all adults fall ill, families collapse, quarantines are called, and the infection spreads so far that any form of spoken or written language is rendered “off-limits.” Likening language to a virus is an old Burroughsian trope, of course, but in Burroughs it’s basically just a routine; a clever abstraction. Marcus makes it more forcefully, hurtfully concrete. Indeed, his creation of a fully immersive fictional world (as opposed to a formal experiment) allows him to take a real emotional toll on his readers. After all, a life without language would be one of harrowing sadness. Deep down, then, The Flame Alphabet is less about linguistics than the decay of relationships, the fracturing of familial loyalties, and the everyday heartbreak of human estrangement. All of this is affectingly drawn by Marcus - particularly the teenage Esther’s alienation from her parents, a painfully familiar part of any family drama, viral or not. But while Marcus’ transparent narrative is supple enough to capture such subtleties, it also enables events to acquire a terrifying immediacy. Those events often are truly shocking; among several stomach-churning scenes, one involving a surgical needle cries out for adaptation by Cronenberg. On a more metaphysical level, we can note that this is a world which goes on getting worse - which is, like a nightmare, both believably realistic and, as Sam puts it at one point, “impossible.” Think of the revelation of the world’s unreality at the end of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Think, too, of the philosopher Ernst Bloch’s uneasy feeling that “the real world cannot be true.” This unreal realism, a background hum of incredulous horror, is what fans the flames of The Flame Alphabet. As Sam says, “we should have known that whatever we couldn’t imagine was exactly what was coming next.” Sure enough, the story only gets stranger. Soon it turns out that Sam and Claire aren’t “ordinary” Jews at all. They’re “Forest Jews,” members of a far-fetched mystery cult. The two of them worship alone in a hut in the woods, listening in on an “underground signalling mechanism” by means of a biomechanical “Moses Mouth.” There’s a dense web of allusions at work here. The notion of a network of subterranean tunnels is deeply engrained in both urban legend and folklore. Then there are echoes, as well, of the paranoid narrative stylings of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Two points are worth taking away from this. Firstly, for Marcus the Forest Jews figure a non-toxic form of communication. Far from viral, their sermons are secret, hermetic, “necessarily private” – they’re underground in both the literal and the cultural sense, like when we speak of an “underground scene.” Secondly, the entire extended metaphor perfectly represents the world of The Flame Alphabet. It’s a world that takes its cue from our own, along with most of its content. Yet that content is skewed into odd new shapes by the novel’s mythology. Every object and every occurrence accrues its own mythic resonance, such that reality is restructured in line with (to borrow from Vladimir Propp) the “morphology of the folktale.” History is similarly mythologized. The book’s back-story posits prophetic references to the virus in everyone from Augustine to Pliny, but it’s all fabricated, as if by “someone reaching back into history, rearranging the parts with a filthy hand.” Famous linguists Sapir and Whorf crop up as well, in the context of a crazed experiment that could never have happened. And Marcus’ mad scientist villain, LeBov, is presumably named in homage to William Labov, the still-living founder of sociolinguistics. LeBov himself is more myth than man, veiled in a shifting disguise of pseudonyms and split personalities. Vague mentions of “the LeBovs” hint that there’s more than one of him; in fact, he’s been made in the image of a mish-mash of fictional archetypes. Not least, he’s partly a play on a James Bond supervillain - he even has his own secret hideout, a shady scientific facility called “Forsyth.” In the world of The Flame Alphabet, LeBov was the first to theorize the contagion – for him communication per se is “the primary allergy, allergen zero.” But unlike the underground Jews, his antidote is not one of apophasis, mystical silence. Rather, he wants to extract from the earth a sort of ur-language; an original, incorruptible common tongue. Hence, deep inside Forsyth he fixates on a hole in the ground (recalling Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger), probing it with weird, jerry-rigged listening devices. So we could say that The Flame Alphabet explores two solutions to linguistic crisis: firstly, religious reticence, and secondly a scientific search for origins. Yet there is also a third, artistic alternative: the creation of an entirely new form of language from scratch. By the book’s second half, Sam has been wrenched from his family and put to work in LeBov’s laboratory. Here he’s tasked to develop and test his own avant-garde alphabets. But his search for a non-toxic system of symbols drives him to ever more desperately delicate measures: I created white text on white paper, gray on gray, froze water into text-like shapes and allowed it to melt on select surfaces – slate, wood, felt – which it scarred so gently, you’d need a magnifying glass to spot the writing... I tried pointillizing type, whitening it or darkening it, making a scattered dust of it on the page, then blowing that dust free with a bellows until it could only be read under blue light... If the point of this passage is to dramatize the difficulties of working with language, perhaps it also reveals a self-reflective, writerly subtext. After all, isn’t Sam’s trial almost a model of that of most modern novelists? One challenge faced by writers these days is, as T.S. Eliot put it, to "purify the dialect of the tribe" - or at any rate to replenish language’s freshness, in the face of its exhaustion through everyday usage. The Flame Alphabet stages a scenario where language is literally "off-limits," but isn’t our own world one in which words no longer mean what they’re meant to? Where any sincerely meant "meaning" seems on the brink of slipping into cliché? In this respect, surely our language is out of reach too; our writing worn down, our speech obsolete. Marcus has sometimes shied away, shrewdly, from using the word "experimental" to describe his own writerly style. Yet if his protagonist, Sam, is in some sense a writer-by-proxy, it’s not insignificant that he should be placed in a lab (of all places!) working on what, in a way, is an exemplary literary experiment. Critics like Mark McGurl have remarked that craft shades into technique, or “technicity,” in some subfields of post-war American letters. A technocratic cult of technique, and an ethos of “experimentalism” – these are arguably part of a cultural dynamic that’s gone some way toward shaping the cutting edge of contemporary fiction. Whatever it all means, such themes do seem expertly condensed in the image of Sam crafting his alphabets: the writer reinventing the word in a literary laboratory. But maybe I’m misreading Marcus, or rather, reading too much into him. It’s easy to ask a richly symbolic book like The Flame Alphabet to furnish us with all sorts of subtexts, yet the basic question of what the book means may turn out to be somewhat more slippery. What gives it its strength is that, in one sense, it’s densely, unsettlingly meaningful – while, in another, it remains enigmatically silent whenever we search it for some sort of “message.” This isn’t a book that delivers a didactic payload; instead, it quietly builds up an aura of strangeness around itself. How does it pull off this artistic trick? It’s a complicated accomplishment, but it could come down to a matter of style. Anyone who’s read Marcus’ friend (and Columbia colleague) Sam Lipsyte will be aware of a trademark Lipsytian trait: in a book like The Ask, an unfolding argument acquires literary force and thickness by being embedded in a finely-tuned stylistic system. This system seems to be driven by the coining of particular words and proper names that are peculiar to the world of the novel, and that any description of that world will then refer back to. That is to say, Lipsyte’s narratives always take care to touch base with their own emblematic inventions. In The Ask, one example would be the authorial act of naming a character “Vargina.” The first time we see this, it’s (apart from being funny) jarringly strange; it’s alienating, in the sense of Viktor Shklovsky’s ideal literary estrangement – what he called “östranenie.” Yet once we’re immersed in its imaginative context, the term is repeated so many times (each repetition furthering our immersion) that it makes perfect sense: it’s part of a closed circle of signs, a private language that we, the book’s readers, are privy to. I think The Flame Alphabet proceeds by means of a strikingly similar method. But, in Marcus, it’s pushed to a bizarre and beautiful breaking point. As with Lipsyte’s fictions, when reading this novel we enter a “world” by being pulled into a pact with its highly particular language. Yet where Lipsyte’s literary landscape is realistically sociological, Marcus’ is more like a mad anthropologist’s fantasy: our own world made over in the mode of misremembered myths and fairy tales. It’s no coincidence that Aesop’s Fables crop up toward the end of The Flame Alphabet. As Lee Rourke has recently argued, these archaic yarns could be read as “blueprints for our entire literary tradition.” What Marcus does is rewind literary history, recover those blueprints, and put them to perverse new uses. He borrows the terms of existing traditions and translates them into a tongue for which they were never intended. In this way that technique of “estrangement,” of stylistic disorientation, is brought to a boil and kept simmering, always perched on the brink of becoming bewilderingly extreme. Thus, a bit like Lipsyte’s books, and perhaps even more like the gnomic late works of Beckett, The Flame Alphabet can be read as a self-contained structure of signs, which only make sense when they’re seen from inside that structure. If we follow Ferdinand de Saussure, we could even claim that the book itself is a language: not an innately “meaningful” thing, more like a machine for making meaning. And this claim might be as close as we’ll come to figuring out The Flame Alphabet. In the end, Sam’s fantastical story doesn’t really mean anything in the sense of “referring” to something that makes it intelligible. This isn’t a “big book” with “something to say.” It’s one that wants to be left alone to conduct what Marcus would call its “smallwork” – subtly constructing its own inner life from the scraps of half-familiar symbols. In so doing, it doesn’t convey a definite meaning so much as a deeper, stranger sensation of meaning: how meaning “means” to begin with. Louis Sass has described how some schizophrenic patients, when confronted with a Rorschach card, don’t interpret the inkblot (“this is a horse”) but instead give a concrete account of its makeup (“this is a piece of cardboard with ink on it”). In the same way, Marcus burrows beneath the fabric of fiction to get at its grammar, which isn’t a set of rules but something more wild, freewheeling, and primitive. The meaning of The Flame Alphabet is what the philosopher C.K. Ogden once called “the meaning of meaning.” Unreal yet real, unknowable but totally tangible: this is the territory that Ben Marcus takes us to.
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