I picked up Balkan Ghosts because I was interested in the subject matter, and I hadn’t read anything by Robert D. Kaplan before this. It’s interesting that this book was published in the “Vintage Departures” series because it might not have occurred to me that this book is a travelogue, even though Kaplan does spend much of the book on rickety trains and in decrepit hotels throughout the Balkans. So unmethodical are his travels that “travelogue” seems a misnomer. Nonetheless, Kaplan’s descriptions of the Balkans just months after the fall of Communism are illuminating. At every turn, he is digging up hidden details unseen by Western eyes during the decades of communism. Through the shattered republics of Yugoslavia he travels, then on to Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Kaplan imbues the book with an impressive amount of historical context, going to great lengths to avoid the generalizations that are more typically employed to explain the seemingly perpetual strife of the Balkans. The book was published in 1995, the mid-point of a bloody decade in the Balkans, and it contains a good deal of forewarning of what was to come to pass in the region in the coming years. In this sense the book is impressive in a third way. Beyond a travelogue, beyond a regional history, Balkan Ghosts is the rare “current events” book that will not soon become obsolete.
With books that you planned to read this year still sitting on your shelf unread, and countless other recommendations swimming in your head, why should you even consider making room on your reading queue for a one originally published ten years ago in German and containing pieces dating back to 1970? But there is plenty fresh about Gert Jonke’s The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square. Like the bulk of his work, this novel is musical, innovative, and difficult, not in a dusty academic way, but as a delightful puzzle, as a well-constructed argument, as a challenging game of chess. Thanks to Dalkey Archive Press, readers may now become acquainted with Gert Jonke’s work. Prior to Dalkey’s releases, Jonke’s books were unavailable in English. Having already published his Geometric Regional Novel and Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique, with this new edition of The System of Vienna, Dalkey has distinguished itself as the American purveyor of the work of one of Austria’s most important writers.
Jonke’s The System of Vienna is a sprawling autobiographical novel (some describe it as a collection of linked stories) full of outrageous characters bustling through even more outrageous scenes. Beginning with a recounting of the narrator’s birth, and how his skin was tinged blue, the novel proceeds with descriptions of events that helped shape his personality, his consciousness, his obsessions: he encounters a man who thinks the French Embassy was built in the wrong place; he meets another who is unsure whether he is or isn’t the Chancellor’s confidant; he bumps into an eccentric stamp collector in the woods he thinks was imitating a tawny owl’s call; he meets another man (perhaps Jonke’s tribute to André Gide’s The Counterfeiters) who hands him a book called The System of Vienna; and he meets a paranoid fish merchant who believes that he masterminds Austrian politics from his stall.
Jonke is adept at blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. And he ably navigates metafictional and musical composition elements with comedic and fabulist registers while also experimenting with language, with unique syntactic strategies that convincingly depict a person’s psychology, particularly one that is in crisis, on the page. The reading of the novel is hurried along by expressive hyphenations like “wrinkled-lined-shriveled” and “sheen-glinting,” and brimming with portmanteaus like “eveninglikemorningishly afternoonnight” and “opendoorclosedoorslyness.” These neologisms visually capture the speed in which the character experiences his rush of thoughts and sometimes even threaten to take over the narrative:
And were you not then actually inside the bakery and suddenly seated on the padded red plastic chair, and did you in all likelihood not even really take notice of the closingtheglassdoorbehindyou, your enteringthecoffeehouse-aroma, lookingforandchoosingaseat, goingovertooneofthosepaddedredplasticchairs and the seating of your person in such a way that it seemed to you as if nothing like this had ever occurred before…
And the rush of cumulative sentences, insane, qualifying and self-correcting sentences that collapse upon each other, perfectly mirror the narrator’s decreased confidence, his fragmented consciousness, his quickly devolving sense of self:
Therein was to be sought the reason and the cause why things are sometimes, mostly sometimes, rather often, sometimes rather often, mostly sometimes rather often, mostly rather often, sometimes mostly mostly, mostly mostly not as they should be.
As the novel progresses, the narrator falls into endless repetitions. It reaches its apotheosis in “Philosophy of Household Management”:
Since that time I don’t put flowers out onto the hallway window any more; I’ve given up putting flowers onto the hallway window, because it makes no sense to put flowers onto the hallway window, no, it’s not just senseless, but impossible, for that matter, since it’s not a common thing to set flowers onto hallway windows, and setting flowers onto hallway windows can even be grounds for having your lease canceled.
And so it continues for pages. In less accomplished hands these repetitions would prove tiresome, but the voice here perfectly meshes with the narrator’s desire to get things right, captures his tendency to get lost in mundanities and life’s day-to-day minutiae, and also reflects his mind’s slow dissolution.
As much as the novel is a series of progressions from one trolley-stop to another, many of its encounters are driven by digressions, that is, characters are likely to deliver tangent-filled monologues that go all over the place. Jonke’s meeting with the sculptor in “Furniture Show—Main Promenade in the Prater” is as stunning as it is baffling, where the sculptor’s speechifying is marked by constant qualifications, apologies, and all kinds of circuitous asides.
The narrator is plagued by his dreams. At one moment he dreamed he saw his great-aunt flying over hills “powered by two gigantic wings of a nose out of her shoulder blades.” But as bizarre as his dreams are, his waking life is sometimes just as vivid and overwhelming:
I look down at the dark spots with which the sidewalks and streets here are strewn, as if I were being drawn to the ground by these faint patterns of glinting mica eyes in the paving material.
At first I believe they are the remaining marks of large raindrops fallen out of the night onto the sidewalks and streets. But when the spots have not been absorbed by the heat of midday, I can only think that the sidewalks and streets are constantly being spit on in profusion by the burning sky of the given day or much likely, by the good people of Vienna themselves, the latter speculation making it no surprise at all to me that these blotches never disappear.
We find the narrator increasingly losing control of his hold on reality, where at one point he asks:
Is it not altogether possible that the course of our life in its entirety is determined by nothing other than an unremitting and regrettable or even lamentable captivity founded on a curious aggregation of altogether ceaseless and incredibly unremitting post-hypnotic suggestions?
But it is the novel’s penultimate chapter wherein we observe the fullness of Jonke’s imaginative, visionary writing. In “Caryatids and Atlantes—Vienna’s First Guest Workers,” the narrator discovers that he is able to commune with stone sculptures. He learns that they “apprehended” time “as a physically concrete reality” and that they “required eternity-dimensional masses of time clouds” in order to exist. But their relationship isn’t one-sided: he teaches them about sleep and dreams. His “sleep performances came to be esteemed” by the stone sculptures as a
wondrously exotic, serenity-inducing form of Gesamtkunstwerk or all-encompassing work of art matchlessly flung high aloft by [him], in all its incalculable vastness, into the air of those day-nights and night-days, aided by the sheer force of [his] individual personality.
It is an imaginative end to a highly experimental and visionary novel.
And this hasn’t even covered the narrator’s grappling with suicidal thoughts, his synesthetic experiences where he often feels like he were hearing with his eyes, his repeated anthropomorphizing of the elements and inanimate objects, or how the narrative, even with its many bifurcations, still closely resembles the structure of the hero’s quest wherein the hero meets and overcomes numerous challenges and emerges victorious. The System of Vienna, with its commanding cadences, self-absorbed insistence, and entrancing repetitions, not to mention its childlike surrender to fantasy, is boundless fiction that both puzzles and entertains.
Anyone who has attended or sent a child to college in the last thirty years has to be asking themselves: what do universities do with all that tuition money? Sure, the dorms are nicer than they used to be and the dining hall food is closer to something a person might actually eat, and, yes, some university presidents are paying themselves like CEOs, but a few new buildings and some overpaid executives cannot possibly cause tuition to rise at four times the rate of inflation for a generation. So, where is all that money going?
Not toward making undergraduates smarter, according to a hard-hitting new report, Academically Adrift, by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The authors followed 2,322 students at 24 universities around the U.S. and found that after two years in college, 45 percent of them had made no appreciable progress in “critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills” – the very things college students are supposed to be learning during their freshman and sophomore years. After four years of college, according to follow-up figures available online, only 36 percent of students made gains in those areas. Perhaps even more damningly, the authors found that these students spent an average of only 27 hours a week on their coursework, down from 40 hours a week in the early 1960s. The average high school kid, the authors say, spends more time on school work than today’s college students do.
Arum and Roksa pin the blame for this grim state of affairs on a campus culture that emphasizes social rather than academic pursuits and rewards professors for publishing articles in their fields more than for teaching their students. “As a college class, they deserve and have earned our sympathy,” the authors say of their subjects.
Unfortunately their inflated ambitions and high aspirations have not institutionally been met by equivalently high academic demands from their professors, nor have many of them found a sense of academic purpose or academic commitment at contemporary colleges.
Given how important – and timely – this report is, it’s a shame that its authors cannot write any better than this. Reading Academically Adrift is like being harangued over Thanksgiving dinner by your grumpy Uncle Fred, who just happens to have brought along a stack of bar graphs and regression analyses. Like your Uncle Fred, Arum and Roksa repeat themselves, a lot. They also have a gift for the laboriously documented statement of the obvious. (Turns out that teachers who expect more from their students tend to teach those students more. Who knew?) And, like your Uncle Fred, they are shocked – shocked, I tell you! – that the average 19-year-old, given a choice between studying and partying, will reach for the beer bong every time. But just because your Uncle Fred is a long-winded old fogey doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
As someone who has spent the past fifteen years teaching writing to college freshmen and sophomores, I picked up this book expecting to disagree with it. I like my students. I’ve taught my share of dullards, but as a group, the young people in my classes are smart, hard-working, and willing to learn. But I came away from Academically Adrift with the unpleasant sense that its authors had put their fingers on an ugly truth: that we are not asking near enough of college students these days. This isn’t because the youth of today is any lazier or more debauched than their forebears or because my fellow profs are bunch of careerist bums, or even because the administrators are craven capitalists. The problem on the contemporary American college campus has little to do with bad people or bad faith and everything to do with a complex system of skewed incentives.
At the heart of all university funding is an economic disconnect: the people footing the bill, primarily parents and the federal government, have a strong interest in seeing students get the best education they can, but they’re not the ones picking the college the student will attend. For the most part, the students themselves make that call, and while some are burning for knowledge and will go to any length to get it, many more want the degree and are aware that some studying might be involved, but mostly they just want to spend four years creating memories that will last a lifetime. Add to this the fact that modern universities have become factories for all manner of societal goods, from cutting-edge scientific research to star wide receivers, that have nothing to do with teaching kids to think, and you have a recipe for educational mediocrity.
As Arum and Roksa put it:
No actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduate academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence. Limited learning on college campuses is not a crisis because the institutional actors implicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes that they seek, and therefore neither the institutions themselves nor the system as a whole is in any way challenged or threatened.
This is godawful prose, but still an incisive insight: the system isn’t working, but no one is raising the alarm because everyone is getting what they want. Administrators are getting ever-increasing tuition payments. Professors are getting paid good money to work on their obscure intellectual obsessions. Parents are getting prestigious decals to put on the back windows of their SUVs. The U.S. government is getting a machine that churns out intellectual capital and draws smart immigrants from around the world. And students are getting four fun years of thirty-hour weeks and all the beer they can drink, with the promise of a valuable degree at the end.
Arum and Roksa argue that we can do much better – and that, in fact, we must. Not only did college students fifty years ago work harder than their grandchildren do today, but students at better schools are being asked to put in about 50 percent more hours of studying a week than kids at less prestigious schools. Now, as anyone who has taught at a state university can tell you, students there put in many more hours at off-campus jobs to pay their way – but not that much. Arum and Roksa cite one study of University of California students who put in 13 hours a week studying outside their classes, but “also spent twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies, and three hours on other forms of entertainment.”
Nice work if you can get it, kids.
In the final chapter, the authors speak half-heartedly about making universities report how much their students are actually learning during their four years rather than simply touting the SAT scores of their incoming freshmen, but even they admit that isn’t going to happen any time soon. In a society like ours, where tuition at public universities is going up not down, the problems seem particularly intractable. Except for one potentially heartening fact: Arum and Roksa focused on students entering college in 2005, at the peak of a national madness in which people believed one could get rich by merely buying a home and living in it. It’s not hard to imagine that nineteen-year-olds, watching their parents flip through bestsellers like The 4-Hour Work Week, might think all they needed to do to get a great job was hang out for four years doing bong hits until the degree came through. But it’s also not hard to imagine that kids entering college in the face of today’s rampant unemployment and the rise of China and India might decide that they’d better learn something, quick, or spend their twenties living above their parents’ garage.
Let’s hope they do. For better or for worse, college students are the customers, and they’re paying top dollar. If they want that money spent on hotel-quality dorm rooms and state-of-the-art gym equipment, that’s what they’ll get. But if they start demanding good teaching and training in the skills that will help them in the decades to come, then the educational-industrial complex will have to shift its gears to give them what they want.
I’m not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick’s books praised many times. Most satisfying about Last Train to Memphis, volume one of Guralnick’s two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick’s ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year’s time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis’ music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick’s portraits of Elvis’ supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis’ mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.
There are three worlds in The Curfew: the unsettling police state in which William and his 8-year-old daughter Molly live, the shared world of games, riddles, and sadness that William and Molly create together, and the world through Molly’s eyes as she tries to reconcile the first two.
That first world was formed when the government was overthrown, quietly, overnight. “An ordinary nation… had gone to sleep one night and woken the next morning to find in the place of the old government an invisible state, with its own concerns, difficulties, cruelties, injustices. Everything was strictly controlled and maintained, so much so that it was possible, within certain bounds, to pretend nothing had changed at all.” In this new state, the government and the police were unseen. The mysterious disappearances of suspected rebels are the chief proof of their existence. In return, those suspected of being the secret police, or police informers, are in danger of being killed in broad daylight – shot on the sidewalk, pushed in front of a bus – by a seething citizenry.
Brief, unremarked-upon episodes of violence are therefore frequent, as the government and its resistors wage anonymous war on the street, and the rest of the population try to stay out of the way. The book opens with the sound of a gunshot outside William and Molly’s home, which they sleep through.
William is a former violinist, now an epitaphorist, employed by a mason to visit families of the dead and collaborate on the epitaph for the gravestone. He is no longer a violinist because music is forbidden, and because his wife mysteriously disappeared, and there’s no point in inviting more trouble when he’s the only one left to take care of Molly.
Their life together is William’s attempt at an antidote to Molly’s bleak childhood — motherless, a student at a school where she is “told repeatedly to repeat things,” and increasingly aware of the bizarre violence around her. It’s a familiar tale — a parent trying to shelter their child from the harshest reality, knowing that everything they want for their child’s life is unavailable, and having to compensate. William is Molly’s guardian, teacher, and only friend. They spend their evenings playing logic games and solving riddles. In this world bereft of any candor, even this feels subversive. “Is it possible, wonders Molly, for the finest things to be hidden? To be hidden and never shared?”
Much of Ball’s writing takes place in worlds that are slightly off, where the rules of society have been changed, and both the characters in these worlds and we, the readers, aren’t entirely clear what the new rules are. I’ve never felt oriented in one of Ball’s novels, but I’m quite sure I’m not meant to. When you’re in one of these muddled worlds, and something authentic happens – a daughter solves her father’s riddle, or two friends meet on the street – it shines like a beacon.
Ball cultivates these quiet moments for us to see. When William asks bereaved families what they want as their loved one’s epitaph, he always ignores their first suggestion, like “rest in peace” or “dutiful son.” If he sits and waits, the unique details and talents come out, and he’ll eventually add “friend of cats” or “could skin a pig in the dark.” (N.B. One of the men he visits, who wants to decide on his own epitaph before his death, is named Stan Milgram. Stanley Milgram was a noted social psychologist who conducted a famous experiment on people’s ability to torture each other.)
One day, as William is walking from one appointment to the next, he “passed through several alleys, which were themselves connected to other alleys. Here, the backs of things could be seen, unrepaired, unconstructed, unrepentant. Still, one was watched.” In The Curfew, everything and everyone has a hidden life incongruous with the conformity of the police state. One assumes that this is their sustenance, and they’ll make do with it. But one day William runs into someone who claims to have information about the disappearance of his wife. William can meet him later, to collect this information, but he’d be leaving Molly alone, and breaking the curfew.
At this point in the novel, the narration shifts to Molly’s point of view. As William risks his and Molly’s existence in order to learn the truth, we are re-introduced to their lives through her eyes, emphasizing the fact that if William’s risk turns foul, hers will be the only perspective left.
The Curfew is a refracted book, showing that each person is several different stories, depending on who’s looking. As such, it’s a book that evades rational conclusion. But, as someone says to Molly, “The effect of irrational beliefs on your art is invaluable. You must shepherd and protect them.”
See Also: The Millions Interview: Jesse Ball