The Maturation of Etgar Keret

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“A man is sitting in the room, all by himself. He’s lonely. He’s a writer. He wants to write a story. It’s been a long time since he wrote his last story, and he misses it… The man decides to write a story about the situation. Not the political situation and not the social situation either. He decides to write a story about the human situation, the human condition. The human condition the way he’s experiencing it right now.”

This candid, semi-autobiographical admission, taken from the title tale of Etgar Keret’s stunning new collection of short stories, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, encapsulates the tenor of much of the best of Keret’s short fiction: The striving to chronicle the human situation, to get beyond the partisan politics, anger, and fear of the contemporary Middle East even while struggling (knowingly struggling) within those constraints.

In a 2006 interview with The Believer, when he was asked a particularly loaded question, Keret virtually said as much:

“Linda Grant,” the interviewer asked, or, perhaps, opined, “who had been living in Israel for four months…painted a very different picture of Israel from the one we get on CNN. She wrote of claustrophobia, defeat and powerlessness, of complete disillusion with the Zionist dream… When I went back to read your stories, I felt something similar.”

Keret, instead of calling out Grant on her self-righteous naïveté (she had been in Israel for four whole months), or her simplistic understanding of what it is like to truly live in and be a conscientious citizen of Israel, responded by pointing to the essential smallness of Grant’s argument:
I think that any authentic feeling one has of life should be a feeling of defeat. It’s a losing game. You’re going to die. Civilization is going to end. Our society is in decline, and we should feel OK about it because Roman society was in decline and before it the Assyrian one was, and they disappeared off this earth and we will disappear too… Many of the problems in Israel are not unique regional problems. They’re widespread human problems that in Israel are kind of extreme.
This is what makes Keret’s stories so uniquely powerful, so powerfully unique. The extreme right-nowness of the human condition in his stories is exacerbated and amplified by the Israeli backdrop, always present even if not always explicitly acknowledged. Far from losing himself in the terrible uniqueness of the Israeli situation, he uses that situation to explore and enlighten our essential human character.

Keret, who is in his forties, is probably the preeminent Israeli writer of his generation, a group too young to see the birth and the early years of the state with their own eyes, old enough to witness the dissolution of much their elders had come to believe in. He is certainly not your average Israeli fiction writer. He made his name by writing very short, often proto-fantastical stories with a whimsical yet often tragic tone. These can be three or four page stories that leave you heartbroken, stunned, or reaching for the box of tissues. It is a style he may or may not have created, but one that he has certainly perfected.

Keret’s quirky fictions quickly attracted a large audience in his native Israel. His stories generally stay away from the Arab-Israeli conflict. His characters – the child who falls in love with his piggy bank and sets it free, so as not to have to break it and retrieve his money; the man who buys a how-to-succeed-in-business book and receives, instead, a book teaching him to swim like a dolphin; the man who pushes a self-declared winged angel off a building to see if it can fly, only to watch him (the angel) rapidly fall to his death – while both intensely local and universal, seem somehow removed from what Israelis call hamatzav, the ever-present, all-encompassing situation. The world of the West Bank and Gaza, of Lebanon and Iran, not to mention the world of secular-religious in-fighting, could be a million miles away.

Most of Keret’s stories take place in or around Tel Aviv, on the sliver of land closest to the Mediterranean that feels most “normal,” most untouched (usually) by the constant war and threat of terrorism – of the man next to you exploding and killing you in the process – that is omnipresent in some other areas of the culture. Keret’s soldiers, if they exist at all, are more likely to be what Israelis semi-derisively call jobnikkim, which has no literal English translation but most closely approximates to gophers, men and women who see no real action, who spend the bulk of their military service in military office buildings, often in the heart of the country, staffing canteens or fixing computers.

Keret himself spent a good chunk of his three years of compulsory military service in a basement, fixing computers that for the most part didn’t break, biding time until his military service was over. It was there, as Keret tells it, in the basement where he spent his military service with his best friend (a computer programmer who had gotten him the cushy, mindless job), that that friend, who suffered from depression, from an oversensitivity to the pointlessness of life, killed himself. Keret was in the next room. It was there, two weeks later, that Keret wrote his first story. “Pipes” is a tale of a man who feels he isn’t fit for this world. He builds a pipe that leads him to a sort of heaven, populated not by people who were good (“God is too merciful and kind to make a decision like that”), but by others who feel they were not fit to live on earth.

Pipelines, the book containing Keret’s first story, was published in Israel in 1992. Three more books of short stories followed over the next ten years. A chronically vibrant outpouring (perhaps the better word is explosion) of work, almost a hundred and fifty stories in all, most which have been published in English in the collections The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, The Nimrod Flipout, Missing Kissinger, and The Girl on the Fridge.

These stories, like “Pipes,” are almost all very short, sometimes two or three pages, sometimes one, sometimes only a paragraph. The issues they deal with sometimes skirt Jewish history, Jewish memory, the Holocaust, hamatzav, but they never exactly touch it. “Siren,” perhaps Keret’s most famous story within his native Israel (it is required reading in Israeli high schools), available in English in both The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Four Stories, is a good representative example. In “Siren,” the narrator, a high school senior, tattles on a more popular, successful, virile classmate for stealing the bicycle of the school’s janitor, an old Holocaust survivor. The popular boy finds out, and corners the narrator behind the school:
I wanted to get away from there, to run, raise my hands to protect my face, but fear paralyzed me. Then suddenly, out of nowhere came the sound of the siren. I’d completely forgotten that it was Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers.
The narrator’s nemesis, along with the rest of the Jews in the country, stand at attention while the siren wails. Not the narrator, though:
I walked to the hole in the fence and stepped through slowly and quietly… I went on walking home through the streets with all the frozen people looking like wax dummies, the sound of the siren surrounding me with an invisible shield.
The siren – the official, legitimate, state-mandated manners of mourning, of remembrance – is what Keret continually questions in his stories, what he continually forces his readers to rethink. The boy who steals from a Holocaust survivor also obediently, without thinking, without being watched or told, stands at attention for the memory of the fallen soldiers of his country – a country that was created in part to ensure their would never be a second Holocaust. The story of what Israel is, what it could be, and what it should be is told more fluently in this five-page story of two high school kids than in most other hundred-odd paged novels or works of sociology.

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door is Keret’s latest collection of short stories. Published in Israel in 2010, and released in English this year, the collection shows a real maturation, while at the same time evoking a pleasant and perhaps necessary return to form.

And it is a return, in that between 2002 and 2010 Keret did not publish a single stand-alone collection of short stories. Not that he wasn’t busy. He wrote comic and children’s books and co-authored a collection with a Palestinian author, Samir El-Youssef. He also wrote and directed or co-directed a number of films, including the beautiful and whimsical $9.99, based on a number of his early stories. But for Keret, who published over a hundred stories in his first decade on the literary scene, a second decade without a single stand-alone collection seemed (was, in fact) too long.

What happened? Keret claims that life happened. He married, had a child, settled into a liberal upper-middle-class existence (as much of a upper-middle-class existence as a hyper-famous author can settle into in a country where authors are treated more like movie stars than twentieth century relics). This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for Keret’s growing American fan base, as it gave his publisher and translators (particularly the fabulous Miriam Shlesinger, who has translated the bulk of his work into English) the time and opportunity to catch up and translate many of the stories from Keret’s earlier collections. The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, his first book of stories to be released in America, was published in 2001. Five books of translated stories rapidly followed, culminating in Suddenly.

In any case, Keret was busy.

And it shows. While the protagonists of his earlier stories were likely to be about children or teenagers (like the protagonist in “Pipes”), or young lovers who would as soon contemplate jumping off a roof as settling down and having kids, the stories in Suddenly largely revolve around aging couples, parents with children, miserable husbands and wives (or, in some cases, ex-husbands and wives), men obsessed not with scoring attractive mates for a night but with the stock market, particularly with the rise and fall of the Israeli stocks on NASDAQ. Keret has grown up.

I almost cannot believe I am making this reference – one that would be quite unthinkable from a reading of any of Keret’s earlier, more juvenile-centric works, but reading these stories, I was repeatedly reminded of the middle-class malaise of John Updike. Not that any of these tales would feel at home in the world of Updike’s Rabbit. To be sure, many of the characters in these stories feel existential angst at the monotony or the depressions of monogamy and the nine-to-five workday. But, even when they don’t live in a fantastical world – a meta-Tel-Aviv where men just as easily turn into dolphins as confront their cheating spouses – the characters use their own imaginative powers (powers instilled in them by their imaginative creator) to help them understand and work through the messes they’ve got themselves in.

“Creative Writing,” possibly the finest story in this collection, is a prime example. The story begins with a character writing a story:
The first story Maya wrote was about a world in which people split themselves in two instead of reproducing. In that world, every person could, at any given moment, turn into two beings, each one half his/her age… The heroine of Maya’s story was splitless. She had reached the age of eighty and, despite constant social pressure, insisted on not splitting. At the end of the story, she died.
Only later does the reader discover that Maya wrote this story for a creative writing class she had enrolled in in response to losing her first child in a miscarriage. Throughout the story, Maya communicates her true feelings, her passions and misunderstandings that cannot somehow be conveyed in oral language, through these fantastic stories. The intended recipient, perhaps, is Maya’s busy, distant businessman husband. At the story’s end, the husband composes a story of his own:
The story he wrote was about a fish that was swimming happily along in the sea when a wicked witch turned it into a man… The fish kept doing better and better, until one day, when he was really old, he looked out the window of one of the dozens of huge shoreline buildings he’d purchased in a smart real-estate deal, and saw the sea. And suddenly he remembered that he was a fish. A very rich fish who controlled many subsidiary companies that were traded on stock markets around the world, but still a fish. A fish who, for years, had not tasted the salt of the sea.
Keret’s characters have the fantastic ability to retreat from their own world to create their own meta-stories in order to try to make sense of, or at the very least deal with, their often senseless surroundings. It is a trait they share with Keret himself. The strong, rapid prose and overarching themes of misplacement in “Creative Writing” echo the best stories of Keret’s earlier collections. His focus on the discomfort and trauma of married life, however, is both new and welcome.

As surprising as it is to witness Keret’s turn toward the life of the (externally) staid middle-class family, the move from viewing the world from the eyes of the deluded child to seeing it from the perspective of the just as deluded adult, this subtle shift in focus is not what strikes me most about these stories. What surprised (and, indeed, frightened) me most about these new stories, is how directly a number of them deal with hamatzav.

Take, for example, that truly fantastic title story, which serves both as an acknowledgment of how long Keret has been gone (for Israelis, if not for us) and as a hint at his new narrative persona. The story begins in medias res:
“Tell me a story,“ the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands. The situation, I must say, is anything but pleasant. I’m someone who writes stories, not someone who tells them. And even that isn’t something I do on demand. The last time anyone asked me to tell him a story, it was my son…But the situation [in Hebrew: hamatzav] is fundamentally different. Because my son doesn’t have a beard, or a pistol. Because my son asked for the story nicely, and this man is simply trying to rob me of it.

I try to explain to the bearded man that if he puts his pistol away it will only work in his favor, in our favor. It’s hard to think up a story with the barrel of a loaded pistol pointed at your head. But the guy insists. ”In this country,“ he explains, “if you want something, you have to use force.”
The striking power of these sentences is nothing but Keret at his best. Every word, every phrase, is packed with meaning. One could easily write a lengthy essay about the first paragraph alone. Suffice it to say that the phrase hamatzav here is used intentionally, that West Bank settlers stereotypically have beards, and that there are some obvious larger overtones to this story (also, that some people were very upset about the length between this collection of stories and Keret’s last work).

As the story progresses, more people come to hijack the narrator, to force him to tell a story. “I bet things like this never happen to Amos Oz or David Grossman,” he says. Those two writers (who happen to both be favorites of mine, though for very different reasons) would never have this happen in their stories, either.

To my mind, this is Keret’s most explicit fictional acknowledgment of his country’s unique narrative to date. Still, it ends with both hope and desperation, at the beginning of a new story. The narrator wants to integrate the terrorists into a story, to give the story the flavor of the human condition. They resist. Finally, one of them accedes to his demand:

“You want a knock on the door?” the terrorist says. “Okay, have your knock on the door. Just so long as it brings us a story.”

The terrorists, in their many forms, remain inside, haunting Keret’s narrator, haunting Keret. They are part of the land, part of what it means to live and write in Israel. They are part of what makes Keret a superb writer. There is a knock at the door. Keret invites them in.

If these stories are fuller, more mature, than what came before, they also, I think, lose something in the explicit fictional acknowledgment of the external world. There was something nice, something calming, about picking up The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and knowing that you would not encounter a terrorist. Even when the suicide bomb is in the background, lurking in the subtext of the story, the bomber himself is never front and center. In some of these stories – one of which involves a man who narrowly misses being killed by the suicide bomber who explodes feet away from him, killing the waitress who just served him – Keret has seemed to let the world of his daily life inch a bit closer to the surface in the pages of his fictions. It is a step, to be sure, that is both traumatizing and powerful, and Keret, being Keret, does explicit terror well in the instances he chooses to do so. I wonder, though, whether explicating the problems he so adeptly sidestepped, and thereby magnified, is a step in the right direction.

Still, cumulatively these stories only make up a small percentage of this new collection. When they do appear, they for the most part succeed as powerful and meaningful fiction. In any case, the Keret that keeps things a bit below the surface, always ready to but never entirely showing themselves, is still present in the bulk of these fictions.

Not all of Keret’s stories succeed. Suddenly, like most of the books that came before it, contains a few duds. Some, like “The Story, Victorious,” about the best story ever written (hint: it’s the one you’re reading), are too precious for their own good. But in the best of the stories in his new collection, the mature Keret hits a stride that matches or exceeds the best of his previous work. “Guava,” a three page story, starts, like “Suddenly,” in the midst of the action:

“There was no sound from the engines of the plane. There were no sounds at all. Except perhaps the soft crying of the flight attendants a few rows behind him.” Shkedi, the protagonist, is on a crashing plane. He is about to die. “‘Just don’t crash,’ Shkedi said. ‘Just don’t crash.’”

But wait. This is an Etgar Keret story.

“Forty seconds before Shkedi expired, an angel appeared, all dressed in white, and told him he’d been awarded a last wish.”

Shkedi wishes for peace on earth. The angel grants his wish. Meanwhile, Shkedi dies, and is reincarnated into a guava.
People beat their swords into plowshares and nuclear reactors soon began to be used for peaceful purposes. But none of this was of any comfort to the guava. Because the tree was tall and the ground seemed distant and painful. Just don’t crash, the guava shuddered wordlessly, just don’t crash.
This is the human condition. This is living in our flawed, imperfect, beautiful world. Keret gets it. And he conveys it in stories with an inventiveness and power unmatched in Israel, or anywhere else for that matter.

On Treating Books Badly

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In the building where I live, in the crevices of upper Manhattan, there also lives an Easter Bunny. This Easter Bunny leaves, every week or two (or three), one, or two, or a half dozen books in the foyer. These books are almost always fantastic. Sometimes, there are piles of lush NYRB Classics, waiting patiently to be coddled. Other times, they’ll be unreleased novels, obtained who knows where (this is how I read Karen Russell’s fantastic Swamplandia months before it was published).

Sometimes the books will seem new, unread. More often then not, the mysterious fairy leaves more…used goods.

Lately, I’ve been into taking baths. Baths are pleasures that until recently I thought were reserved for the very young and the very old. After a semi-recent running injury, though, I found that a nice, long bath was just the thing to revitalize sore knees.

The problem I have with baths is similar to my problem with massages. That is, no matter how pleasant they may feel, they are almost inherently boring, in that they consist of long minutes of doing absolutely nothing. I know some, more meditative people than myself would say that this is, in fact, the point, and I do think that taking time out of one’s hectic schedules to do precisely nothing is one of the great joys of life, but I still could never help feeling that long baths are simply boring.

Compounded with this fact is the idea I’ve always had that reading in the bath would be a sort of primal pleasure. Sort of like in that episode of Seinfeld where George realizes that sex would never be perfect unless he was also concurrently watching t.v. and eating pastrami. When you’re bathing, you’re sitting, doing nothing, alone with your thoughts. It seems like the perfect place to read.

Except. Except I have this thing against getting books dirty. The books I buy – whether they are new or used – tend to be in relatively good condition, and I try to keep them that way. I believe it is important to treat books, like people, with respect. Which makes it hard for me to do things like, for example, bring a fine book near a full bathtub, where it will more likely than not get wet.

Enter the Easter Bunny.

Last night, I started an old, stained hardcover copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full left to me by the Easter Bunny a few months back. I started the book in the bathtub. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a first edition. The book got wet, yes, but the pages were already brittle, having been turned and spilled on by at least one and more like numerous hands before mine.

There is some pleasure in reading a book and not caring about the surface the book is on. An aversion to this pleasure is one reason I have been reluctant to embrace e-readers. Books as books – as tangible things you can hold in your hands and show off to curious onlookers on the subway and friends who visit your apartment – are something I hold in high esteem. But there is, as I say, some pleasure in letting go, in allowing a book to get wet, in treasuring a book not for what it looks like but for what it says.

As I began the novel of Atlanta society chronicled by the great Tom Wolfe, I felt free to lose myself in his well-wrought world, to ignore the splashes that were doubtlessly increasing the already significant wear the book had sustained.

Don’t get me wrong. I would still never take a book in good condition and do anything consciously to harm it. Books do have value, to me, as objects. There is something to be said for the cover, the pages, the (dare I say it) e-readers themselves.

But, that said, it is nice to let go, sometimes. Everyone deserves to read a good book in the bathtub once in a while.

(Image credit: accent on eclectic/Flickr.)

‘Was Guilt Innocent?’ The Books of Harry Mulisch

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Harry Mulisch, the Dutch novelist, passed away late last year. Mulisch, born in 1927, was the child of a Jewish mother and a Nazi collaborator father whose pro-German efforts during the Second World War almost certainly saved his young son’s life.  Probably due to this fateful if unusual personal history, the patina of the Holocaust and the question of who was truly guilty in the war continually find their way to the center of his work.

Mulisch grew up in the town of Haarlem, about twenty kilometers west of Amsterdam but at the same time a world away. Pre-war Haarlem was a far cry from the economic and political hub of Amsterdam, and Mulisch, whose parents divorced in 1936, spent a relatively quiet childhood there.

While Haarlem may not have been a major city for the Dutch, during World War II it became an important locus for the Germans, due to a simple fact of location: the city, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, is one of the closest spots on the European continent to England.  The young Mulisch’s life would doubtless have quickly become unpleasant under Nazi rule, had his father, Karl Mulisch – who had been born in Austria and had served under the Germans in World War I before moving to the Netherlands – not taken a position with the Lippman-Rosenthal bank.  Despite (actually because of) the Jewish sounding name, this “bank” was in fact a Nazi enterprise: by Nazi decree, all Jewish valuables were to be deposited there. All of these valuables were then appropriated by the Germans. Most of the Jews whose moneys were taken were sent to concentration camps. Mulisch’s father became one of the Lippman-Rosenthal’s directors.

Because of his father’s intense collaboration with the Nazis during the war, Mulisch and his mother were spared. All of the rest of his family on his mother’s side was killed.

Knowing that he would most likely have died had his father not collaborated with the Nazis must have been tormenting for Mulisch. It certainly produced fine, conflicted writing in novels that convey something unique about the nature of guilt and survival.

The Assault, probably Mulisch’s most well known work, is to my mind the best account ever written of being a non-Jew in an occupied Nazi territory. The Assault tells, in an episodic fashion, the story of Anton, a non-Jewish Dutchman who is a child living in Haarlem when the novel begins. In the first, heart-wrenchingly painful episode, a Dutch Nazi collaborator is shot and killed by unknown assailants in the middle of the night in front of the house next to Anton’s. As Anton’s horrified family looks on, their neighbors – an aging father and his adult daughter – run from their own house, drag the body in front of Anton’s dwelling, and quickly run back inside. Before Anton’s family can react, the Nazi police have arrived.

A little history is in order here. The events recounted in this first episode take place in January of 1945, when almost all of Europe had already “been liberated and was once more rejoicing, eating, drinking, making love, and beginning to forget the War.” Due to a number of tactical errors by the Allied forces, though – culminating in the tragedy of Operation Market Garden in which many British, Canadian and American troops and a great many Dutch partisans were slaughtered – the Nazis were to control the bulk of the Netherlands until the very end of the European war.

While the Nazis by this time knew they would almost certainly lose the war, that did not make any of their retaliatory policies less harsh. This is what makes the event related in the opening pages of The Assault so awful. Because the dead Nazi was found in front of Anton’s house, the house is incinerated and the rest of his family is murdered. Anton survives mostly because he is forgotten. The event, told like the rest of the novel in a beautifully direct close third-person, is tear inducing:

Anton had the feeling that by doing something which was within his power but which he could not quite think of, he could undo everything and return to the way they had been before, sitting around the table playing a game. It was as if he had forgotten a name remembered a hundred times before and now on the tip of his tongue, but the harder he tried to recall it, the more elusive it became. Or it was like the time when he had suddenly realized that he was breathing in and out continuously and must make sure to keep doing it or else suffocate – and at that moment he almost did suffocate.

The agony of an only somewhat comprehending child watching everything he cares for literally go up in flames is told here in evocative and painfully precise prose. One wonders whether it mirrors the pain Mulisch must have felt when he realized how many Jews his father let die so he could live.

The rest of the novel details Anton’s growth into maturity and adulthood as well as his attempts to simultaneously understand and forget what happened that cold January night. On one level, the book is a riveting mystery, if mystery novels could be considered as frightening and evil as the reality of the final months of the Second World War. It is also, though, a strong and poignant look at the question of civilian guilt.

I will not do you the injustice of revealing the particulars of the fascinating and deftly told story of what actually happened in front of Anton’s house that night.  Suffice it to say that by the end of this great, great novel, it is very hard to say who is evil and who is good. Having met many of the protagonists who lived through that awful night – the killers of the Nazi collaborator, the collaborator’s son, the daughter who moved the dead man’s body – Anton, with the reader, ultimately realizes that nobody’s hands are truly clean. “Was everyone both guilty and not guilty?” an adult Anton asks, near the end of the novel. “Was guilt innocent, and innocence guilty?” In war, you are a victim, a persecutor, or both. There is no such thing as a civilian.

With The Assault, Mulisch did not simply question the nature of civilians in war.  He also confronted the very real question of Dutch complicity in the Holocaust. The idea that the Dutch – widely considered to be victims of the Germans – could also have been facilitators of Nazi crimes, was anathema for many in the immediate post-war years.  It was arguably Mulisch who forced his countrymen to face the consequences of their inaction, to realize that their victimization tells only a portion of the story of what happened during the war.

Anne Frank is a case in point.  While Anne Frank was hidden by a sympathetic Dutchman, it was another Dutchman that informed the Nazis of her hiding place, which led to her murder.  While there were many Dutch who were sympathetic to the Jews, many more turned a blind eye toward the deportations and murders, and a large minority of the Dutch actively participated in the Nazi regime.

Over seventy percent of Dutch Jewry died during World War II, a far higher percentage than in all Western European countries other than Germany. The question of why so many Dutch Jews died, and whether more of them could have been saved is one that the Dutch continue to grapple with today.

In 1961, already a rising star as a novelist, Mulisch became fascinated by the upcoming trial of Adolf Eichmann. He arranged to cover the trial for an Amsterdam newspaper, and the resulting articles became a necessary book, Criminal Case 40/61, the Trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Mulisch’s account of the Eichmann trial and its relationship to the nascent state of Israel, world Jewry, and civilian guilt, bears a necessary comparison with Hannah Arendt’s famous work Eichmann in Jerusalem. Given similar tasks and with similarly articulated goals, Mulisch’s book comes out as both more thoughtful and far less defensive than Arendt’s. In many ways, it was the work that woke up the Dutch to Nazi atrocities and called out to the world the world’s indifference. “The opinion could be heard” he writes, a mere four days into Eichmann’s trial, “that the Jews had better stop talking about their misery; we knew already.”

But the point is that the world did not know, and it was Mulisch who was telling them. Unfortunately this book, published in Dutch in 1963, was only translated into English (with a wonderful forward by Deborah Dwork) in 2005. One wonders how prominent Mulisch’s account of Eichmann’s trial would have become in relation to Arendt’s had it received contemporary American attention.

One of the great minor tragedies of the Netherlands, a small country – about twice the size of Israel – with a language spoken by fewer than thirty million people, is that the rest of the world often overlooks great Dutch writing. So it is that Harry Mulisch, who in the Netherlands was considered something of a national treasure and a fitting candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, is still relatively unknown in the English-speaking world.

Mulisch’s relative obscurity outside of the Dutch-speaking world for a long time was unavoidable.  Now in large part accessible to the English speaking public, his corpus should be embraced by it.

Hemingway, Michaels, Bellows: The Art of the Episodic Short Story

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It started with Nick Adams.

I discovered Nick while reading through the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway a while back, and it is his voice, more than any others in the Hemingway corpus, that sticks with me years later.  Nick Adams is in many ways Hemingway’s alter ego.  Like Hemingway, Nick grew up in a rural part of the Midwest that still felt like (that still was, perhaps) Indian territory.  Like Hemingway, Nick had a doctor for a father.  Like Hemingway, Nick’s father commits suicide when Nick is a boy – this is the subject, by the way, of one of Hemingway’s most arresting Nick Adams stories, “Fathers and Sons”.  As Nick grows up, and the stories progress and begin to slightly contradict one another (these are distinct stories, after all, and were never meant to be a coherent novel) his life grows murkier.

The Nick Adams stories, though published as a complete volume in 1972 – years after Hemingway killed himself in a manner similar to his own father – were never meant, I think, to be read in one sitting.  The Nick Adams stories were written over a period of decades – during, not coincidentally, Hemingway’s most productive and most fruitful period – and they are each one of them distinct, many of them gems.  They can be read together, that is certain.  But part of the beauty of these stories is how well they stand on their own, each one highlighting a facet of Nick’s character, a specific moment in time.  A day, as it were, in the life.

Don’t get me wrong.  It is a pleasure to piece these stories together, to chronologize them and evaluate them – and the character of Nick Adams – fully.  But the real pleasure of these stories, for me, is in realizing that while they do not exist in solitude, they can and do stand alone as complete works of art.

Nick Adams hooked me on the episodic short story.  By which I mean, as it should by now be obvious, the tale of an individual told over several loosely related episodes.  Finishing a story – a good, well-written story – about a character both well developed and personally intriguing, and knowing that another story about that very same character is out there somewhere, has become, for me, one of the best feelings in the world.

One of the finest modern practitioners of the episodic short story was the late Leonard Michaels.  Though Michaels is most well known for his 1981 novella of male angst, The Men’s Club, in my opinion his greatest achievement came near the end of his life, when he started chronicling the fictional life of a mathematician named Nachman.  Nachman, a professor at Berkeley (where Michaels himself taught) is a lonely, trusting man who understands the most complex equations but cannot begin to comprehend the subtleties of human interaction.

Michaels, along with his character Nachman, pulls you in from the very first sentence of the very first story, and never lets go.  Here is that first sentence, of the eponymously titled story, “Nachman”: “In 1982, Raphael Nachman, visiting lecturer in mathematics at the university in Cracow, declined the tour of Auschwitz, where his grandparents had died, and asked instead to visit the ghetto where they had lived.”

There may be a better first sentence to a short story in existence, but I don’t know what it is.

The Nachman stories, like those of Nick Adams, stand well (stand very well indeed) on their own.  Pieced together, though, they really are something of a masterpiece.  The seven Nachman stories Michaels completed before his untimely death can be found at the end of Leonard Michael’s Collected Stories.  They are well worth the price of the book.

In my opinion, the most promising episodic short story sequence currently being published is being written by Nathaniel Bellows.  Bellows is the author of On This Day – a beautiful, painfully moving novel of a pair of siblings who lose both parents in the same year – as well as a magnificent poetry collection, Why Speak.  While I am a great fan of all of Bellows’ writing, it is his Nan stories that really blew me away.

Bellows has a strong New England sensibility.  With his vivid evocations of cold Maine winters and lonely, ice-strewn landscape, the poet he most consistently reminds me of (in content if not in form) is Robert Frost.  Wisps of Emersonian self-reliance – as well as, perhaps, tacit acknowledgments of self-reliance’s limits – also carry through his work.  In his Nan stories, Bellows takes that lonely New England self-reliance and brings it to New York in the character of Nan, a magnificently drawn Columbia University undergrad who comes from a sheltered, broken (in ways that I won’t ruin for you here) lower-middle class Maine family.

Nan, like Bellows, comes from upstate New England.  Also like Bellows, Nan comes to Columbia to study literature and to become a writer (Bellows received his MFA from Columbia).  Nan, like Michaels’ Nachman, has a fundamentally good although somewhat naïve personality.  In these stories, she faces a world, often complex and underhanded, that she does not (at first, at least) really understand.  The beautiful imagery of the stories, as well as the slow-paced, heart-piercing development of Nan’s character, make these stories not simply delights but, I would argue, necessary reading.

The three Nan stories that have so far been published – here is a link to the first one, published in the excellent literary magazine Post Road – are uniformly fantastic.  According to Bellows’ website, there are at least four more Nan stories awaiting publication.  I am sure I am not the only one who eagerly awaits piecing the rest of the puzzle of Nan’s life together.

On Coincidence, Love, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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A few weeks ago, in a small town in the southern Netherlands, I found myself in a cramped and musty used bookstore.  If the bookshop was small, the section of books in English was miniscule, barely taking up two thin shelves.  Not expecting much, I stumbled upon not one but two copies of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  The price, at a euro fifty, was right, and I snagged one of the copies off the shelf.

Back when I was in college, not all that many years ago, back when I read more books in an average week than I do now in a good month, I picked up Kundera’s magnificent novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.  I think I read the whole novel in one sitting, a rare occurrence.  It’s a book I still think about fondly.  For me, the best books are the ones that do not sacrifice form for function or function for form.  That is, the writing must work well both stylistically and on the plain level of plot, and I remember The Book of Laughter and Forgetting doing both.

I meant to pick up The Unbearable Lightness of Being immediately upon finishing Laughter and Forgetting, but something else got in the way.  Maybe it was Joyce, maybe it was Faulkner, maybe it was some obscure book of Twain’s that I needed to reread for my thesis.  I don’t remember anymore, but Kundera somehow fell by the wayside, and I never read what today I assume is his masterpiece.

If it hadn’t been for a fortunate coincidence, I probably would have let The Unbearable Lightness of Being sit on my shelf for another few months or years while I made my way through the books in a to-be-read pile that never seems to grow any smaller.

The day after my purchase of Lightness, I happened to be reading a review of Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story.  I am a big fan of Shteyngart, and am just as excited to delve into his new dystopian world as I was to devour his painfully funny novel Absurdistan.  In the course of reading the review, I was surprised to find that The Unbearable Lightness of Being plays a semi-significant role in Shteyngart’s new work.  Apparently one of the protagonists of Love Story, a bibliophile in an age of hyperactive technojunkies, in which books are all but obsolete, dreams of reading passages of Lightness to his girlfriend in bed.

After reading the review, I did a little Googling and discovered that Lightness is indeed considered one of those romantic books that lovers have been reading to each other in bed for decades.

A romantic Czech novel endorsed by a character in a Shteyngart novel?  The coincidence, along with the approbation, was almost too much to bear.

I decided to eschew the pile of novels currently sitting on my nightstand for the moment, and jump right in to Lightness.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of those books that you don’t know you need to read until after you’ve read it.

Possibly the perfect post-modern novel (written in the early eighties, at what I think of as the zenith of the post-modern period), Lightness plays wonderfully inventive games with the reader without sacrificing an iota of plot or detail.  The book is written in a close third person, with the omniscient narrator butting in every now and again to provide commentary and remind the reader that the characters you are reading about and identifying with are his creations and nothing more.

The book’s first five chapters form a chiasmus (A-B-C-B-A).  The outsides of the chiasmus follow the story of Tomas, a Prague physician and philanderer who makes a point of sleeping in his own bed alone every night, while at the same time sleeping with hundreds of women.

Tomas meets Tereza, a waitress from a small Czech town whose personal story is followed in the B sections of the chiasmus.  Tomas is unbearably stricken with Tereza: “It occurred to [Tomas] that Tereza was a child put in a pitch-daubed bulrush basket and sent downstream.  He couldn’t very well let a basket with a child in it float down a stormy river!”

A paragraph later, Kundera’s narrator explains: “Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous.  Metaphors are not to be trifled with.  A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

The center of the novel’s chiasmus, the C-section, tracks the life of Sabina, an artist who is for a time a lover of Tomas and a rival/mentor of Tereza.

Near the end of this third section of the book, long before the novel is over, we learn that Tomas and Tereza died in a car crash.  The rest of the book backtracks and details the lives of Tomas and Tereza, although now, of course, everything is different.  Now we know that their every step foretells an impending doom.

The protagonist of Super Sad True Love Story, the one who wanted to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being to his girlfriend in bed, had it wrong.  Lightness is anything but a love story.  At the very least, it is not a love story one should desire to read in bed to their beloved.

Tomas, the book’s main character, cannot stay faithful to his lover and wife Tereza.  He spends the bulk of their lives together cheating on her, so she goes to sleep at night smelling “the aroma of a[nother] woman’s sex organs.”  When he finally does come around and stop sleeping with other women, it is only because they are living in a small hamlet in the countryside, and there are no eligible women available.

Tereza, for her part, becomes so disenchanted with the love she has for Tomas that she dreams continually of his abandonment and her suicide, or alternately of his ordering her execution.  It becomes so bad that, even after they move to the country, even when Tomas is a beaten down and weary old man, she still suspects him of cheating on her.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is not a love story.  It is a story about survival in the face of a power so overwhelming there is nothing one can do to stop it.

Tereza survives Tomas’s overwhelming destructiveness.  Tomas survives the loss of his position as a doctor and, along with it, his sense of purpose, in the face of Soviet repression and Czech indifference.

The both of them survive a lifetime of pain together, until they don’t.  The two of them die, together.  Their death is hidden somewhere in the middle of the book, and it doesn’t mean a thing.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a love story.  It is a story about two people surviving together in the face of a power so overwhelming there is nothing they can do to stop it.

It is a story of two people who die together, needlessly and hopelessly in love.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is full of coincidences.  In fact, the novel can easily be read as a treatise on the nature of coincidence.

Tomas broods throughout the book on the nature of his relationship with Tereza:

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, but 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 Tereza was employed.  He happened to have had enough free time before his train left to stop at the hotel restaurant.  Tereza happened to be on duty, and happened to be serving Tomas’s table.  It had taken six chance happenings to push Tomas towards Tereza.

That afternoon a few weeks ago, I too suffered six chance happenings.  I happened to be in Den Bosch.   I happened to wander down a small side street and notice a tiny bookshop.  I happened to go in and notice a worn copy of a book I had wanted to read for a number of years.  I happened to purchase it, planning to put it aside and read it some time in the future.  The next day, I happened to read an article about a book by a contemporary writer I greatly admire, touting (if only through that book’s narrator) the book I had just picked up.  As I read the article, I happened to have the book by my side, so I could begin to read it immediately, before life got in the way.

Six coincidences that are not really coincidences.  After all, isn’t everything we do a coincidence?  I choose to walk down street A over street B.  I meet a woman on street A I would have missed had I walked down street B.  We fall in love.  We get married.  We spend our life together.

Is my walking down street A and not street B a coincidence?  Had I walked down street B and met a different woman and spent a similar life with her, would that have been a coincidence as well?

Life, all life, can be read as coincidence, as a series of happenings that could just as easily not have happened.  But where does that leave us?

Nowhere.  Looking back, like Tomas, wondering how different things would have been had he chosen street C or street Z.

By the end of the novel (not the middle of the novel, where Tomas and Teresa are killed, but the end of the novel, where they are hopelessly alive), Tomas has stopped his endless questioning.  There is no more what happened to be.  There is only what is.

In this manner, the experience of reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being is reflected in the text itself.

Sure, it was a coincidence that I stumbled on this book and almost immediately read it after years of benign neglect.  But the coincidence isn’t what matters.

What matters isn’t what street you walked down.  What really matters, ultimately, is that you married the woman you met walking down street A.

What really matters is that you read this magnificent book.  And, of course, that reading the book changed your life.

The Impish Delight of Edward Gorey

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Two assumptions are often made about the magnificent writer and illustrator Edward Gorey. First, that he is British. Second, that he is long dead. Although graced with a British sensibility – his work contains a distinctive London fog, a dark, in equal parts menacing and comforting Englishness about it – Gorey was in fact born in Chicago and left America only once, for a brief sojourn in the Scottish isles. And while his work seems perhaps more Victorian than modern or post-modern, Gorey actually died in 2000, and he was active as an artist and writer for the bulk of the second half of the twentieth century.

I had the good fortune to be reminded of Gorey recently, when on my birthday I received one of his singularly remarkable books. Titled The Curious Sofa (the author’s name is given as Ogden Weary, a wonderful anagram), Gorey’s book is both hilarious and darkly suggestive. The book, subtitled “a pornographic work”, contains no actual pornography, if by pornography one thinks of naked people. Instead, with a mix of childish innocence and impish delight, Gorey creates eminently suggestive scenarios, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. “Lady Celia,” for example, “led Alice to her boudoir, where she requested the girl to perform a rather surprising service.” The accompanying picture, just this side of lewd, shows Alice, her head peeking over a Chinese wall, leering suggestively at Lady Celia. One can imagine Gorey, with a crooked half-smile on his devious face, impeaching the reader that the obvious erotic reading is not the one he meant at all.

This glorious impishness pops up, indeed overwhelms the bulk of Gorey’s work. His sly humor is only part of the pleasure of his books, though. Mostly, I turn to Gorey for his delightful illustrations. His evocative ink-marks, the way he draws darkness on the page, are simply fantastic. Gorey succeeds like not other in pulling you in to his own imaginative world, creating a child-like wonder that is somehow not child-like, that is mature and full and yet profoundly uncynical.

I was pleased to discover recently that a documentary on Gorey’s life, shot from 1996 to his death in 2000, is currently in its finishing stages. I am excited to hear the author and artist speak in his waning years about his life’s work and what exactly he was trying to attain with his delightful drawings. I will admit, though, that while I am thrilled to see Gorey interviewed, I am loath to lose my fantasy of his British accent.

Nabokov, Wallace, and the Incredible Shrinking Book

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I was vaguely shocked and cautiously appalled to learn last week that Vladimir Nabokov’s “new” novel, The Original of Laura, due for release in August, isn’t, in fact, much of a novel at all.”This very unfinished work reads largely like an outline, full of seeming notes-to-self, references to source material, self-critique, sentence fragments and commentary” Publishers Weekly writes, in the first review of Nabokov’s posthumous work. “It would be a mistake, in other words, for readers to come to this expecting anything resembling a novel.”Yet, the hype that has been building around this book for years – years! – has totally eclipsed the fact that the book is, in fact, actually “138 index cards”. This hype, by the by, has enjoyed more than a little support from Nabokov’s son Dmitri, and his, in retrospect, frenzy-building public questioning about whether to publish the text, which his father asked to be destroyed.Given a charitable guess of 50 words per index card (Publishers Weekly says most of the index cards contain less than a paragraph of notes), this comes out to a “novel” of a little under 7,000 words. In other words, the text being published would be comparable to a 25-page short story (if, indeed, it were a story at all). Which makes one wonder how bad a deal Playboy, which bought the rights to excerpt the new book, got. Is the Playboy tease going to be flash fiction?I guess the fact that this book will soon be published (and the fact that I will almost certainly purchase and read it) leads me to ask two big (to my mind) questions, one Nabokov specific and one more general to the world of publishing today.First, why is it that when it comes to the world of Nabokov we are all suddenly academics? I know of few people outside of the academic world who purchase annotated works, yet I have literally dozens of friends who have purchased, and devoured, The Annotated Lolita. Now, Knopf is publishing The Original of Laura by reproducing the original cards, “with a transcription below of each card’s contents.” Obviously, the main reason Knopf is doing this is to fill the pages – it is hard, even in the best of times, to sell a 25-page book for 35 dollars. But there is also the thrill that I know I get and others must get as well of Nabokov scholarship. Enjoying what the master wrote, how he wrote it. Puzzling the pieces together.Perhaps this scholarship-craze is particular to Nabokov (a strong and unverifiable contention, I know) because his novels demand it. You can’t read a book like Pale Fire, or even a relatively simple book like Pnin, without knowing that you’re entering a world, Borges-like, of so many levels, of labyrinths upon labyrinths. Breaking the labyrinths down into the fundamentals of the maze (to draw this metaphor out) seems helpful not only in receiving new material from the master, but in analyzing this new composition to shed light on how the older, more familiar works were composed.Second, though (and this is the more problematic question for me), why is it that books are being published in the contemporary market that don’t have the length or stamina of books. I am thinking, in particular, of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the Kenyon College 2005 graduating class, published posthumously as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. I had read the commencement speech long before it was officially published. In fact, shortly after Wallace delivered it a friend sent it to me over e-mail. It took me about fifteen minutes to read. And I read slowly.Not that it shouldn’t be written, or read. On the contrary, Wallace’s commencement speech is both moving and necessary, in a way that many full-length texts are not. Yet, why the subterfuge? Sell it as an essay, in a magazine, or in a volume with other texts. But why pretend that this is a stand-alone book?In order to fatten up Wallace’s speech (lacking the help of index cards that Nabokov so conveniently provided), the publisher decided to print only one sentence on every page. So, not only is this essay published in book form, it is actually less pleasant and more cumbersome to read than the e-mail I received of the speech was four years ago.I guess, my plea is, then, to stop the games. If you’re publishing something that’s great writing but that clearly isn’t a book, don’t call it a book. Call it an essay. True, you probably won’t be able to sell it for $15 (the list price of Wallace’s speech). But on the other hand, think of all the paper you’ll save.

Recession Reading: Independence Day by Richard Ford

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Bezalel Stern is a lawyer and freelance writer who lives in New York. He is currently at work on his first novel about the life and times of a Wall Street day trader.For some obvious reasons (and others not quite so obvious) around this time of year I often go back to Richard Ford’s masterful novel Independence Day. Independence Day, the second book in the Frank Bascombe trilogy, revolves around the eponymous holiday. It takes place, like the other books in the trilogy, over a single weekend. Also like the other two books, it aims not just to chronicle a couple of days in the life of its narrator, but also to digest the ethos of the holiday into a concrete space.Independence Day is especially relevant, perhaps, this year, as the book’s backdrop is the 1988 financial and housing slump, which, when reading Frank Bascombe’s perspective of it, at least, seems awfully similar to the contemporary housing crisis. Bascombe, a former fiction writer cum sportswriter, is now a real estate agent, and one who seemed to have gotten into the gig at the worst possible time. The heady buying frenzy of the arguably irresponsible Reagan years is coming to an abrupt end, as home values are on the verge of a steep and then virtually unprecedented decline, and the economy teeters toward a freefall (history does seem to repeat itself, doesn’t it). Frank Bascombe, a lonely divorcee with two children he hardly ever sees and an on again off again girlfriend, is in a sort of freefall of his own. He is simply trying, as the book begins, to remain independent, from relationships, from feelings, from everything. In a word, Bascombe is simply trying to exist. It is no surprise, then, that he terms this period in his life the “Existence Period”.The problem is that, as Bascombe comes to realize, it is hard to simply exist in a world where you have to interact with others. And so, over the course of a jam-packed four day weekend during which Frank interacts with all sorts of Americans of different socio-economic, religious, and racial backgrounds (this is no accident, of course), Frank slowly learns to wean himself away from the dependencies of the Existence Period. Meanwhile, Frank’s teenage son, Paul, who’s meant to stand for the wrong kind of independence (but because the novel is so well written, comes across as much more than a simple metaphor), loses himself in anger and alienation. While he is free, in a sense, Paul seems adrift, unable to know what he is declaring his independence from or his allegiance to.Ford is a masterful storyteller. In my opinion, he’s one of the great American novelists writing today. I find the layers of his Bascombe novels in particular – each sentence seems virtually packed with meaning and thought – just short of miraculous. Independence Day is a book that, especially in times of national instability (and, dare I say it, crisis?) bears a second (or third) read.It’s amazing to me the way Ford can make simple truths not simply seem profound, but actually be profound. So, by the end of the novel, when, after having thrown around Emerson and Jefferson and revolutionary philosophy, Frank comes to the conclusion that true independence means not going it alone, but dealing with the world around you in a mature and concentrated manner, interacting with and building relationships with others; when, in other words, Frank leaves his Existence Period for a new, perhaps scarier, more challenging, but certainly more fulfilling life of personal interactions that matter, the verities Frank Bascombe professes no longer seem so simple.The book contains ideas worth thinking about, and seriously. True independence, for Ford, consists, it seems to me at least, of actually being able to understand why people who are different from yourself – perhaps incredibly so – do what they do. In being able to work with them, and to learn from them as well.”The original framers” of the constitution, Frank says at one point in the novel, “wanted to be free to make new mistakes, not just to keep making the same old ones over and over as separate colonies and without showing much progress. That’s why they decided to band together and be independent and were willing to sacrifice some controls they’d always had in hopes of getting something better.”People who have practically nothing in common banding together to be independent. As counterproductive as it sounds, it’s what made this country free. Real independence, Ford posits, is all about making connections. Independence is with people.