The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
1. RJ Smith doesn’t draw an exact line marking when James Brown, the 5’6” son of a South Carolina turpentine maker, became James Brown, Sex Machine/Black Elvis/Mr. Please, Please, Please/etc. But I will. It happens about a third of the way through Smith’s remarkable new book, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. Brown’s smash album, Live at the Apollo, has just spent 66 weeks on the pop charts, vaulting the performer from the sweaty dives of the chitlin’ circuit into a higher, neon-lit level of exposure. Money is pouring in fast enough for Brown to buy a mansion in Queens with a moat, and, after $65,000 in renovations, an interior lined with faux leather and pictures of himself. The singer has renovated his body, too. He pays a California dentist to fix the gap between his teeth and hires a traveling hairstylist to whirl his hair into shining bouffant praised, in the slang of the time, as “expoobident.” Meanwhile, Brown’s tour is becoming more militaristic. He hires goons to clear the way to and from shows. Onstage, he fines his musicians for missed notes or wrinkled uniforms. Offstage, he is armed and ready. “You notice how many pictures of James Brown, he’s got a coat over his arm?” the Rev. Al Sharpton asks, in the book. “That’s because he had his gun under it.” Most importantly, Brown is leaving behind blues, rock, doo-wop, and gospel in favor of a raw sound filled with screams, popping bass, and furious counter-rhythms. He is inventing the genre we currently refer to as “funk.” Smith describes the singer’s February 1965 stop in at a converted barn in Charlotte, N.C., where a control booth sits in the old hayloft. “It was time to record a tricky piece of rhythm Brown had been thinking about for a while,” he writes: The musicians set up, playing this and that while waiting for the boss to arrive. Finally, Brown’s customized white Cadillac with the tinted windows appeared, and the singer swaggered in. “He stopped the place. You just knew that somebody of significance was present,” said Clay Smith, Arthur’s [the owner of the studio] boy. Constantly in motion and talking so fast he could have used a translator, Brown was not one of the guys. “James was in charge,” Arthur Smith remembered later. “I knew I owned the studio, but I knew he was going to do what he wanted to there.” What Brown wanted to do was lay down a strutting, macho anthem marked by explosions of brass and a guitar that sounds like chrome wheels spinning. He hums a melody to the sax player and a bass line to the bassist. He thumps out a beat for the drummer. He watches a trumpet player struggle, fires him, then re-hires him moments later. And when the singer is ready, he screams out a set of lyrics scratched on a sheet of paper. The song is called “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” “Keep on Fighting” is the title of the chapter in which all of this takes place. And no matter how many superhero movies you have seen, the transformation it describes is exhilarating. Like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman or Clark Kent becoming Superman, we have just watched James Brown become Soul Brother Number One. 2. A former Los Angeles magazine editor and contributor to Blender, Spin, and The Village Voice, Smith is not the flashiest, most purely talented writer to take on the Godfather of Soul. That title, I believe, goes to Jonathan Lethem for his dazzling 2006 Rolling Stone profile, “Being James Brown.” (More on that in a minute.) In the beginning of The One, Smith struggles slightly to find the tone to tell this story. Some of his images fall flat, like when he writes that the chord structure of “Cold Sweat” was “as visionary and protean as Frida Kahlo’s one eyebrow.” At other times, his voice cracks when he reaches beyond his natural range. His description of the “lachrymose mood” of Brown’s early ballad “Try Me” feels over-academic for a performer as lusty and physical as Brown. Elsewhere, Smith sounds uncomfortably un-academic. After a street fight with estranged band members early in his career, Smith ventures inside Brown’s head. “At least them motherfuckers weren’t gonna be calling him Monk Brown to his face anymore,” he writes, in an ill-advised estimation of J.B.’s inner monologue. As a funk nerd (an oxymoron, but still true), I have other quibbles with the book. I would have liked to learn more about the nine children Brown fathered with nearly as many mothers. We see them playing Monopoly with real money during one scene, then suing for royalties later on, and that’s about it. I would have also relished a glimpse or two more inside the marathon, early-'70s recording sessions that produced “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing,” “Mind Power,” and other predecessors of modern hip-hop. But, it would be unfair to judge Smith’s book on a few slip-ups, especially when the majority of the book feels so good. Like his subject, Smith is man of stamina and drive. The fruits of his prodigious reporting are evident on every page: a secret tape of Richard Nixon whining “I don’t want any more blacks, and I don’t want any more Jews, between now and the election,” before a visit from Brown at the White House; a heartwrenching moment when Brown’s guitarist, Jimmy Nolen, asks his wife to pass on a message to Brown after Nolen’s death. “'The next person you get to work for you,' the wife dutifully reports to The Godfather, ‘I hope you treat them better than you did us.’” These facts and details provide a driving, powerful rhythm for the book, and, over time, the story seeps into your bones. In a scene that is jarringly reminiscent of the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, we learn that, as a young man in Augusta, Ga., Brown was blindfolded and thrust into a boxing ring for a “battle royal,” while wealthy white men smoked cigars and looked on. Later in Brown’s career, we learn that country musicians in Nashville recorded a white-response to “Say it Loud -- I’m Black and I’m Proud” with the lyrics, “I’m proud and I’m white with a song to sing...” We are also there inside Brown’s Learjet when the engine stalls and the plane begins to drop precipitously. After the engines kick back in, Brown calmly turned to an acquaintance and asks if he was scared. When the man says, “Yes,” Brown responds, “It’s not your time. You with me.” Smith’s reporting is never better than his account of the singer’s 1967 trip to perform for troops in Vietnam. From the USO press release describing “primitive and somewhat savage” beat of Brown’s music to a walkie-talkie squawking, “Get 'em out of there, there’s a mortar attack coming in” as the band traveled between shows, we are not simply reading, anymore. We are being hauled across time and space to an amphitheatre carved out of a hillside east of Saigon: At the end of a song, from behind the stage, the musicians suddenly heard the unmistakable ack-ack-ack of American guns firing on VC to the rear. Everybody was watching the band, and now they were really watching, as confusion and then anxiety played across the musicians’ faces. Finally, one of the guys sitting cross-legged at the front of the stage spoke to the band: “Aw, don’t worry. We won’t let Charlie get ya!” And then Brown took the microphone and continued the show: “Hit me!” Indeed, it Smith’s dogged research that leads to the book’s greatest achievement. James Brown was a man who went to extreme lengths to conceal any signs of weakness. The author includes plenty of examples of this -- going back on tour the day after his son Teddy’s funeral, for example -- but he also provides access to the man during rare moments of distress. We watch Brown nearly knock out his teeth as he learns the tip-the-mic-drop-to-a-split-then-bounce-back-catch-the-mic trick that would later appear effortless. As his grip on the singles charts weakens in the late 1970s, we see him tell his trombonist, Fred Wesley, to write knockoffs of other artists’ hits, like David Bowie’s “Fame.” (This was “a head-scratcher,” Smith writes, “because ‘Fame’ itself is a pale version of Brown’s 1970s sound.”) And when the IRS comes searching for millions in unpaid taxes we watch the collision of Brown’s colossal ego with one of the few forces strong enough to tame it. With the government threatening to throw a padlock on his mansion, Brown summons his accountant, Fred Daviss, to downtown Augusta one night, where they sit quietly in the singer’s van. His hair was tousled. He was sweating. “Finally, he reached under the seat and pulled out a sack of money, like he was extracting a molar,” Smith writes. “'Hold on to it as long as you can,' he told Daviss, 'But then pay 'em.'” 3. “Someday, someone will write a great biography of James Brown,” Lethem wrote in Rolling Stone in 2006. “It will by necessity, though, be more than a biography. It will be the history of a half-century of the contradictions and tragedies embodied in the fate of African Americans in the New World; it will be a parable, even of the contradictions of the individual in the capitalist society, portentous as that may sound.” Smith has written such a book: a clear, linear, trustworthy account of one of the most complex and influential musicians in American history. His biography upholds the mystique of a man whom characters in the book call “black messiah,” “the personification of Blackness,” “the ultimate god of funk,” a man with “more musical genius than Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart put together,” and, in the case of a disgruntled former drummer, “a black Hitler.” At the same time, it gamely steers through the cloud of myth and misinformation that Lethem identified as “The James Brown Zone of Confusion,” and returns the singer back to earth. Toward the end of Brown’s life, the author ushers readers into a new James Brown Zone of Confusion -- one based entirely in reality. The elderly Brown’s life was marked, on one hand, by laurels from the Kennedy Center and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and, on the other, ever-stranger behavior due to drug abuse. The collision of these two worlds, as Smith reports, was often surreal. At one point Brown gets a young Wall Street investment banker to secure a $30 million loan against his future music royalties. When they meet each other to finalize the deal, Brown asks the startled banker, “You ever smoke gorilla [PCP]?” All of this is not to say that The One is the “definitive biography of James Brown,” as the book’s promotional copy reads. Such a book will never exist. Smith’s book is not a substitute for Fred Wesley’s indispensable, Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman or many of the pieces (including Lethem’s) in 2008’s The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul. “Entire forests have been decimated to build the newsprint mountain that recounts his exploits, declarations, and influence,” wrote Nelson George in the introduction to that anthology. The term “definitive” attempts to seal off a man whose music, if not his heart, still thumps on. On vinyl, on YouTube, and in the musical DNA of countless current performers, James Brown lives for a new generation of writers like me, who want to drop to the floor in splits; to dance, scream, and sweat, in his honor. RJ Smith has perhaps gone further than any writer before in telling this man’s story, but his book is not definitive. It is merely expoobident. Image Credit: Wikipedia
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Scott of Conversational Reading invited me to participate in his "Reading the World" series this month. My contribution was reading and posting about Per Petterson's In the Wake.I don't read enough fiction in translation, maybe a couple of books per year. When I do the experience elicits one of two reactions. Either the book is so rooted in its place and culture that I can't imagine it being written in another language, or the book, despite its overseas origins, shows that there are universals in literature, no matter the language in which a book was conceived. Norwegian Per Petterson's In the Wake falls mostly into the latter camp, as it draws from the grand tradition of books about ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads.Saul Bellow's Seize the Day comes to mind, and Richard Ford has made a career out of this type of book. But my favorite example from this crowded genre is Walker Percy's pitch perfect The Moviegoer.Read the rest of the review at Conversational reading.Also of Note: Petterson just won the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his book Out Stealing Horses. We took a look at the IMPAC shortlist in April.
It's probably not a surprise to anyone that, in its early years, Twitter suffered from a lot of internal turmoil. After all, the company has cycled through three different CEOs in four years. But the power struggle depicted in Nick Bilton's Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal is likely far greater than anyone could have imagined. Culling from some 65 hours of interviews with current and former Twitter employees, in addition to employee emails, IMs, and confidential legal notices, Bilton has used all his access to write a compelling exposé of Twitter’s cofounders -- a startup soap opera for the Valleywag age. From the ruins of the stalled podcasting startup Odeo, Twitter emerged in 2006 as an idea then-nobody programmer Jack Dorsey had about "status updates." Later that year, he, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone would dismantle Odeo to work on Twitter full time, which is more or less where the good times ended. The company would struggle under Dorsey's "incompetent" leadership as CEO, Williams would take over, and later be replaced himself by current CEO Dick Costolo, with Dorsey also being brought back onboard. Costolo and Stone are mentioned throughout the book, but remain largely background characters. Bilton centers Hatching Twitter around the relationship between Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams because that's where all the melodrama is. The book seems to generally come down harder on Dorsey than it does on Williams, but Bilton discovers an interesting divide in what each cofounder believes Twitter should be. Dorsey sees Twitter as an outlet to express oneself outward, while Williams's vision is based around telling stories about people. These philosophical differences influence the site's technical development as well. (Dorsey, for example, believes in focusing on mobile while Williams believes more time should be put toward the website.) In one of the book's best moments, Dorsey and Williams are arguing about whether the pre-populated question in the status update box should ask the user "what are you doing?" or "what's happening?" Bilton writes: To many this might sound like semantics. Yet these were two completely different ways of using Twitter. Was it about me, or was it about you? Was it about ego, or was it about others? In reality, it was about both. One never would have worked without the other. Here, Bilton is accomplishing several things at once: he's remarking on the thoughtful subtleties that made Twitter so powerful, illustrating the conceptual divide between Jack and Ev, and developing their irreconcilable relationship to the reader. It's unfortunate that we don't see more of this throughout the book. Later, it becomes clear Bilton is interested in painting Dorsey as a tragic figure, a 28 year old who came to Odeo to work with industry role models and friends, whose creation of Twitter would ironically sever those ties he sought so desperately to make. It feels like a stretch, especially at the end when, in a moment of loneliness, Dorsey dramatically checks Twitter. In fact, the entire theme of loneliness throughout Hatching Twitter comes across as particularly facile. Bilton attributes a shared sense of isolation as the genesis for Twitter: It could be a technology that would erase a feeling that an entire generation felt while staring into their computer screens. An emotion that Noah and Jack and Biz and Ev had grown up feeling, finding solace in a monitor. An emotion that Noah [Glass] felt night after night as his marriage and company fell apart: loneliness. In a book where Bilton touts the accuracy of what he details in an author's note, Hatching Twitter still feels like it's constantly making leaps when it comes to its subjects' motives and emotions. Many of these sections are notably light on quotations in a book that is otherwise so abundant with them. It's disappointing to watch Bilton commit to such an obvious trope: the despair of the lonely computer nerd. Dorsey is drawn as a caricature of a developer, a man-child whose desires have the maturity of an early high schooler. There's a moment, too, when Dorsey's relationship with Odeo founder Noah Glass is sullied when he becomes jealous of Glass's friendship with another coworker named Crystal Taylor. Dorsey's infatuation is solidified early on when Taylor teaches him what "texting" is -- making a crush literally the inspiration for Twitter. The moment reminded me of something Mark Zuckerberg said after seeing The Social Network. According to Zuckerberg, the most inaccurate part of the movie is the way it's framed. Aaron Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg is motivated by getting back at an ex-girlfriend; in real life, Zuckerberg had been dating the same girl since Facebook's inception. "It’s such a big disconnect from the way people who make movies think about what we do in Silicon Valley -- building stuff," Zuckerberg said. "They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things." Similar comments were echoed by Dorsey's boss at Odeo, Tony Stubblebine, in a Quora post about the accuracy of Bilton's adapted excerpt of Hatching Twitter from The New York Times Magazine. Is the notion that Dorsey just wants to be in control of a product he’s created so unbelievable or so unconvincing that his motives need to be supplemented by adolescent jealousy? And yet while the characters featured in Hatching Twitter feel more like archetypes than actual humans, it's hard not to eat this stuff up. Aspects of Dorsey's behavior are hilariously juvenile. After being ousted from the company, he continued to take any and all interviews about Twitter, feigning authority when answering questions he did not know the answer to. Dorsey would also set up meetings with his @twitter.com email address as a bait-and-switch to talk about his new startup Square (he would have his email address revoked). Bilton has an excellent sense of pace, and there are several scenes -- in particular, the chapter where Dorsey gets fired -- that are exciting enough to be lifted word-for-word into a film adaptation. Of course, this all depends how exciting you can find a chapter cliffhanger that ends with someone calling Mark Zuckerberg. In the final pages of Hatching Twitter, I questioned whether the book really had anything meaningful to say about Twitter, its founders, or even any of the tumultuous things that transpired between them. Bilton is less concerned about what Twitter is and more interested in the human drama between its founders. The company itself is just the battleground for an ego-driven power struggle, and as gripping as it is to see some of the smartest minds in tech tell each other to go fuck themselves, I couldn't help but feel like I had just read nearly 300 pages of privileged white men yelling at each other.
“Those few seconds it takes to terminate a person’s life comprise the idea of an incredible, almost superhuman, power.” This idea is the obsession of the nameless narrator of Gaito Gazdanov’s mesmerizing novel, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. Yet what is superhuman in the ability to kill a person? With a gun it’s exceedingly simple; ordinary humans do it every day. Gazdanov’s narrator has done it -- once. He was 16 years old, and a soldier in the Russian Civil War. This opening scene is tinged with surreality, primarily because the young narrator is so bleary with sleep-deprivation. The blurred background of gunfire could be any war, the “scorched grass” and “hot, drowsy haze” could be almost any country. The narrator leans against a tree to rest and finds himself alone, separated from his troop. He comes across a black horse and mounts it, and they gallop off down the road before a crack of rifle fire brings them crashing to the dust. Unhurt, the narrator stands and dazedly watches a rider on a white horse approach from down the road, shouldering a rifle. “It was so quiet I could distinctly make out the dry sobbing of hooves against the cracked earth, the horse’s heavy breathing...” Without really thinking, the narrator raises his revolver and fires. The rider falls. The numbed narrator walks to him. “Bubbles of pink foam frothed up and burst on his lips. He opened his dull eyes, said nothing, and closed them again.” It’s a commonplace wartime killing, senseless and sudden, and no one’s fault in particular. Yet for years after, the narrator cannot fully rid himself of the feeling of guilty regret. By the time he’s a grown man, an émigré living in Paris, he has nearly managed to forget the episode. Then he comes into possession of a collection of short stories by an English author, Alexander Wolf, rather ominously titled I’ll Come Tomorrow. In the last story, “The Adventure in the Steppe,” he finds an eerily exact reproduction of the murder from the perspective of the rider he had supposedly killed. As if in a mirror he looks up from the ground into his own “commonplace, ugly little face that expressed nothing other than manifest fatigue.” He sees himself mount the great white mare and gallop away. “There remained little doubt,” the narrator says, “that the author of the story really was the same pale stranger whom I’d shot.” Gaito Gazdanov was born in St. Petersburg in 1903, and like his narrator participated in “the exhausting senselessness of the Civil War” when he was 16. He was evacuated to Gallipoli, moved to Constantinople, before arriving in Paris along with many other Russian émigrés, Vladimir Nabokov famously among them. Gazdanov worked in the Citroen factory, and then later as a taxi driver (“there were thousands of them [Russians] plying that fool’s trade in Paris,” Humbert Humbert snidely remarks). Gazdanov drove at night and attended lectures and wrote during the day. Gradually he began to publish pieces in Russian journals and infiltrate the Parisian literary scene. The Spectre of Alexander Wolf was written in 1947, and like many quiet masterpieces it fell unfairly into obscurity for many decades -- until now, elegantly translated by Bryan Karetnyk and beautifully republished by Pushkin Press. Gazdanov’s writing career -- nine celebrated psychological crime novels -- was one which the nameless narrator of Alexander Wolf might have envied. This narrator has literary aspirations but settles for the more practical and less taxing field of journalism. His life thus far, he claims, is loaded with “regrets, dissatisfaction and a sense of manifest futility of everything I did.” His desire to meet Alexander Wolf, author of I’ll Come Tomorrow, is composed partly of curiosity about this ghost of the man he swore he had killed, and partly of jealous wonder at the ex-soldier’s skill with a pen, his “taut, flawless rhythm.” By chance -- or its opposite, one of the many mechanisms of fate grinding its gears behind the scenes -- the narrator meets one of his countrymen in a local Russian restaurant in Paris. Voznesensky is a drunkard and “something of a Don Juan,” who begins regaling our narrator with anecdotes of war and love. With a casual inevitability that attends all the book’s intersections, Voznesensky produces a book, which the narrator recognizes at once: I’ll Come Tomorrow. It is revealed that Voznesensky and Alexander “Sasha” Wolf were comrades in the Civil War. Pressing the drunk raconteur for details, the narrator is rewarded by yet another version of that hot, awful afternoon, this time told from the vantage of the rider whose approaching clatter made him mount the white mare and gallop away. Voznesensky found Wolf in the road, “coughing up blood and foam,” and took him to a hospital. Gazdanov is brilliant at tracing the unexpected twists of life’s forking paths, the interconnectedness of his various characters. A mysterious seductress sways into the novel at a boxing match our narrator is covering for a newspaper. Yelena Nikolayevna is another Russian émigré, with an icy, languid loveliness; their meeting has a tingle of déjà vu, as though they had known each other before. “‘They say that’s a very dark omen,’” the narrator suggests. Indeed, it is. The love affair is a welcome distraction from his obsession with Alexander Wolf, and his own morbid navel gazing. But as Wolf will say later on, “Every love affair is an attempt to thwart fate.” And fate, the narrator suspects, cannot easily be thwarted. He can feel a chill reaching up from Yelena’s past, the shiver of a former lover who had marked her life forever. Ineluctably, one day Yelena begins to speak of this man. He was charming, erudite, acute, and doomed, obsessed with his own impending death. His fatalism was apparent in everything he said: “‘Every life becomes clear -- its path, its twists and turns -- only in its final moments.’” To illustrate the point he recounted a story of a poor Jewish boy who dreamed of becoming a tailor, who strived through war and hardship; upon finally receiving his first order as a tailor, he died of pneumonia. “‘It was a race towards death...Finally, when his dream comes true, it turns out that its very realization heralds his own death, towards which he’s been striving all this time.’” Yelena Nikolayevna escaped this lover’s dangerous, entrancing clutches. But we know who this man is, even if our narrator feigns ignorance. It’s a short matter of time before he emerges at last. The narrator enters his local Russian restaurant and there is Alexander Wolf dining with Voznesensky. Wolf’s face is hauntingly familiar, handsome and disturbing, bearing “an obscure expression, some sort of deathly significance -- a look that seemed entirely impossible on the face of any living man.” This is because Alexander Wolf is not truly alive. He is a spectre, who is certain he knows what awaits him. “I am sure,” he later tells the narrator, “that I’ll die just like that -- suddenly and violently, in much that same way as when we first met.” The question implicit in Gazdanov’s fascinating novel is whether such macabre determinism is self-perpetuated or inalterably woven into the fabric of our existence. Does believing we are doomed to die in a particular way bring about that very end -- or do we believe it because we know in our prescient soul it’s the inexorable truth? “‘It isn’t fatalism, it’s the direction of life,’” Wolf explains to Yelena. Yet this is cyclical philosophy. For if the direction of a life is illuminated by its end, then its winding path has offered merely the illusion of forking possibilities. There was only the one, fated way. In which case, is it a fallacy to speak of points of origin, crucial links where the chain of causality actually began? The narrator cannot help but wonder: It would seem as though a whole world had sprung into existence from a single action of mine. Assuming the origin of this long chain of events was my outstretched hand holding a revolver and the bullet that pierced Wolf’s chest, then in this brief space of time...a complex process was born, which could be neither foreseen nor accounted for by any human mind possessed of even the most powerful, grotesque imagination. Yet if the “complex process” extends forwards then it reaches backwards, as well, in which case there is no origin. There is only an unending chain. Except that a chain implies singularity, when in actuality all lives are interconnected into the weft of continuous time. One is reminded of Nabokov’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the first the great Russian wrote in English. His character Sebastian Knight fled from Russia during the Civil War and wrote his novels in English like Alexander Wolf (who explains Voznesensky, “it’s more profitable to do it in English, it’s better paid”). After Sebastian Knight’s death, his half-brother turns literary detective and tracks down the details of his sibling’s life and downfall. He comes at last to this lovely, if wistful, realization: “The hereafter may be the full ability of consciously living in any chosen soul, in any number of souls, all of them unconscious of their interchangeable burden. Thus...I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows.” Gazdanov’s narrator does not reach such a tranquil conclusion. But the novel’s violent, exciting climax has a similar, circular quality, a return to the source. A final confrontation between the narrator and Wolf is inevitable. The two men are aching to reenact their fateful first encounter, as if they wish to test the limits of the baleful hypothesis that figures as the subtext of their existence. That is, the man who manages to subvert causality by killing another “is given the opportunity to become, for some short space of time, more powerful than fate and chance, earthquake and tempest, and to know the exact moment when he’ll put a stop to that long and complex evolution...Love, hatred, fear, regret, remorse, will, passion…all is helpless before the momentary power of murder.” This applies equally well to suicide. And herein lies the supposed “superhuman power” of the murderer, and the self-destructor. This power, however, is fallacious. Any chain of fate will have anticipated this abortive link as clearly as any “natural” death. The power of murder, in the end, is nothing more or less than the ability to discontinue life, which, as Wolf unexpectedly proclaims, is “the sole thing whose value we can truly comprehend.” The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is a compulsive read, playful yet sinister, meandering yet impressively trim, old-world and modern. It is to Pushkin Press’s great credit that this gorgeously restored relic, from an age when books could be spectral and slip elusively through your fingers, has been revived from untimely oblivion.