Dispatches from Nicosia: Birds, Cats, and the Cyprus Talks

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Running the river path of Nicosia some mornings ago, I stumbled across two kittens. One small, orange, scrawny; the other gray and white. Both had a single weeping eye, yet the gray kitten seemed sadder. I watched long enough, the pair struggling forth on the bare sunbaked road before the path gives way to dry dirt hills covered with cracked irrigation tubing. Long ago I learned there is no way to visit a place or be visited by a person and stay unchanged.

Only two weeks earlier on a boarded-up Sunday street, my children and I similarly came across a barely breathing bird fallen on the ground, veins and legs red, a fledgling baking on a 106-degree afternoon when nothing stirred in Nicosia, one of the world’s last divided capitals. You walk from the end of Europe into a Turkish-controlled zone just by flashing your passport. Nicosia is torn into three as if the children of divorce in which the exes just cannot get along: the southern predominantly Greek Cypriot side; the U.N. buffer zone marking the Green Line between two halves; and then the northern part southerners call the Turkish-occupied zone while Turkish-speaking northerners call it Turkish Cyprus.

I am here to research, among other questions, the poet C.P. Cavafy. The entire enterprise bears an imprint of ridiculousness the poet himself might have appreciated: rumors abound regarding whether Cavafy, that dignified dandy of a poet who wrote such strange confessions about same-sex eros with such a clear eye on posterity, ever visited the island. He had a niece; he came. Others say, strongly, no, he is confused with Giorgos Seferis, who wrote about the nightingales of Platres, but Cavafy in Cyprus? No! And yet he has odd references in his poems which at least show a comfort with the island’s profound geography. A Kyrenian painter, he says in one place, or speaks of sailing seas of Cyprus and Syria. Cavafy writes less of birds and Cyprus, more of desire. While, during our bird debacle, two lines stayed with me: “And if you can’t shape your life the way you want/at least try as much as you can not to degrade it.”

We had been degrading in all sorts of ways, baking in southern heat. As we watched the bird, a passing spry Cypriot, the kind of man who in the States would be a bike messenger, aged into wiry skinniness, took interest in our crouch. Without hesitation, he intervened, lifting the bird to place it back in the nest we had spied in the crook of a nearby tree. And then laughed at our faces. We too had migratory status: unacclimated, we stared.

I leave such things to fate, he explained. The will of the gods! Shrugging: who knows?

Such capricious gods my daughters could not accept. After our messenger passed, we asked suggestions from an ironic restaurant owner who had espied our follies from his own perch: seated before an empty birdcage in an alley with sheets stretched overhead for shade, smoking shisha from an ornate purple pipe. A pale Russian man by him proffered a ramen box, the skeptical owner handed us a slice of American white bread, and the owner’s friendly wife from the Philippines offered a thimble of birdseed. Inside her friends hooted at a karaoke contest playing out over a vast television screen, melodies blaring a stereophonic and unsongbirdlike wail that had its own dirgelike human drama.

Collectively endowed, the three of us, mother and daughters, ended up parading back in heat, carrying the bird in the ramen container all the way home. Yet as we entered the apartment door, someone shoved by one daughter and so the bird fell to the ground, making a double impact.  In our apartment we twittered over it, creating a bed from torn bits of tissue paper. While we looked up how to feed such a defenseless creature, in the relative cool, the passerine started to look calmer, though outside, on the streets, no one moved, even after the muezzin called the faithful in for Ramadan’s afternoon prayers. In the southern part of Nicosia, the muezzin usually summons solo Bangladeshi, Pakistani, or Syrian boy students who aced their TOEFL in the British Councils back home, most of them here on restrictive visas and forced to find community by lingering in parks and take-out places. But on this day, because of the heat, no one walked through the street below our apartment.

Online, in our reading, two lines of thought prevailed: one was that we had kidnapped the bird, the other was that if it was a fledgling, we had done the right thing and there probably no longer existed any mother willing to adjudicate or tend.

This afternoon had started to feel the way many Turkish Cypriot folktales begin, a la: “once there was and once there wasn’t, when the sieve lay in the hay and yesterday was today.” Perhaps we could nurse the bird back to life and then set it free near its tree.

Cavafy can be an ornery muse, self-involved and yet hortatory. At one point he says: “Even this first step/is a long way above the ordinary world./To stand on this step/you must be in your own right/a member of the city of ideas.” He had, in many ways, been cheering me on in Cyprus.

And still, even as the bird calmed away from the heat, how awful to see the thinness of the life impulse, red pulsing the base of the scrawny legs. Ways to mistreat such a vulnerable creature multiplied; we probably already had been guilty of most. Yet we held out some dim hope: in some parallel universe of happy endings, the mother may yet have been hovering near, awaiting the return of her babe, though from the start, even given a hunting interval, we’d seen none, and fledglings ostensibly need to be fed every 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in another paralleloverse, macho heads of state from both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides showed masculine potency by eating, in clandestine hushed settings, this bird’s phylogenetic cousins, black caps and song thrushes called here ambelopoulia: eating these migratory songbirds is a newly illegal act.

Finally, we spoke to wildlife rehabilitation people, doing what we could toward resuscitation. We were to use dog kibble soaked in hot sugar water, mushed, cannibalistically, with baby formula and hard-boiled egg, but ended up only able to make a small ball of chicken yolk from our offering, poked on a toothpick toward the fledgling. At our offerings, it pecked only limply.

That weekend, endangerment was everywhere.

Monday, heads of Turkish and Greek communities were to convene in Geneva with the exhausted United Nations people yet again. Some dreamers still believed shuttle diplomacy might prevail. Even if, already that month, the U.N. itself had given up hope, leading to this occurrence: daily in the buffer zone between the two checkpoints, watched over by becapped Serbian and Bosnian peacekeepers with ironic smiles, a hardy group of Cypriot optimists had been gathering to sing Joan Baez songs, blow whistles and vuvuzelas, reading bicommunal poems with the hope of mobilizing a movement to get not just the U.N. but the whole country back in the Unite Cyprus platform. To participate in that rally, to stand in that raucous buffer zone, was to breathe the air of such beautifully antique idealism, it became harder to cross 20 meters over to the Turkish side (where water comes from a pipeline all the way from Turkey) and note the crumbling infrastructure and unsupported buildings.

Or, as Cavafy would have it:
…the Alexandrians thronged to the festival
full of enthusiasm, and shouted acclamations
in Greek, and Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
charmed by the lovely spectacle—
though they knew of course what all this was worth,
what empty words they really were, these kingships.
Could there be a reunited Cyprus?

It depends on who has your ear.

The island saw waves of immigration and conquest from the Minoans and Phoenicians, from the Ottoman Empire, from the Assyrians, Greeks, Venetians, French, and British. In 1960, after decades of fostering division and bicommunal identification—even Lawrence Durrell got into the meddling from his lemon house, via his work at an English newspaper—the British had foisted an idea of Cyprus and Cypriots on the people of the island, the concept of an independent country few in the country wanted, according to many, the country just riding the coattails of other independence movements: India and the other colonies. Before independence, in 1960, Greek Cypriots were linked with Greece and Turkish Cypriots with Turkey. By 1963, after a spate of violence that roared out of Greece and took over Cyprus, Turkish Cypriots lost trust in their former neighbors, which they then needed to cover over with some amnesia in order to get along until 1974, ending a period of unparalleled prosperity for the island during its sole 14 years of self-governance.

In 1974, instigated by the junta in Greece, Turkey took over the northern third of the island. To Turkish Cypriots in that moment, many women and children having had to flee north to follow their fathers and husbands who had already been rounded up, Turkey did not occupy the north, it provided a necessary peacekeeping force. So testifies the 50-foot statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk atop the mountain range near Kyrenia, or the massive Turkish flag design cut into the hills soon as you drive out past the Greek checkpoint, or the Turkish flags made of metal in order to be always visible over Nicosia.

One of many deleterious legacies of 1974 is that 40 percent of the population will identify as refugees. Turkish Cypriots fled generational homes in the south for protection to the north, paralleling the northern Greek Cypriots who fled south, all of which leaves the north a nation unrecognized by anyone but Saudi Arabia and Turkey, considered illegally occupied territory. And because many in the north are civil servants paid by Turkey, because infrastructure comes from Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains the parent in this situation: complained about (Turkey makes unconscionable profit from the water it diverts to Turkish Cypriots), yet also necessary, saber-rattling as it might be: many believe Turkey might yet bomb the oil drilling undertaken by a French company, Total, begun last July in one of the Cypriot “blocks” in the Mediterranean.

So that while the wounds may differ, they hurt equivalently. Turkish Cypriots tend to recall 1963 and its outbreak of bicommunal violence while some Greek Cypriots tend to stoke 1974. A Greek physicist mother will say she doesn’t want Erdogan a presence in her kids’ school in the southern Greek side and a Turkish refugee up north will say she doesn’t want to go south again to Paphos, where she once owned a restaurant, because neither Costas and Andreas remain—those friendly Greek neighbors with whom she once enjoyed her muddy coffee (called Cypriot coffee in the south, Turkish coffee up north).

While most Turkish-side locals say they do not trust Erdoğan, others feel he is a man of courage, worthy of admiration, preventing the rape by other nations, as they will say.  “Look, thousands of Muslims were killed in the very center of Europe, in Yugoslavia, while Europe just stood by,” one temperate Turkish Cypriot woman told me. “We need Turkey.”  Negotiations with the U.N. were meant to contemplate whether 40,000 Turkish soldiers got to remain on the island or whether there might be a third-party guarantor of Turkish Cypriot safety. Would they succeed? Theories abounded. While Greek Cypriots tend to remember their childhood homes in the north, often fetishizing the particular key, the fig tree, a substantial number of Turkish Cypriots now do not wish to unify, as economically fetching as it might be to become members of the European Union.

Ghostlike dates hover over all: 1964, the moment when a British general used a chinagraph pen to mark out the “Green Line” as a ceasefire between the two communities; 1974 when president and former archbishop Makarios was overthrown by a Greek coup, leading Turkey to use the opening for its partitionist plans, according to some; the opening of the checkpoints in 2004; the referenda that have been rejected; Cyprus joining the European Union.

History has a way of striking families obliquely yet creating villages of communal feeling: one moment can torque an entire habitat into being, creating odd bedfellows.

Turkey, for instance, has been shipping in busloads of loyal and religious peasants from Anatolia in order to change the numbers and culture of the north. In the south, one often hears Greek Cypriots state that while they are fine and happy with Turkish Cypriots, these new Turks are unlettered and rude, crass and different, descendents of Mongolian barbarians. And yet how often I heard a genteel Anatolian or westerner speak in glowing terms of Erdogan, who began his connection to Cyprus in a far more liberal and gentlemanly fashion than he now behaves.

And while recent genetic studies prove the deep connection between the Greek Cypriots and Turk Cypriots, ethnonational discourse lives among the most virulent Greek speakers, who revere Hellenism and the cult of Enosis, union with Greece. In their ancient rhetoric, you hear that Istanbul means barbarism and Athens gentility, a story older than Byzantium.

A man born after 1974 told me that he has seen every country in his region become a plaything for superpowers: Cyprus, Libya, and Afghanistan have served as toys for the U.K., Russia, Turkey, and the U.S., with China now determinedly snatching up land. These superpowers sow communal discord, while only the Nicosia sewage system, linking the two halves of the capital, offers an homage to peaceful cooperation, gurgling bicommunally: what gets worked out underground fails to be worked out aboveground.

In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats, mourning the loss of what a younger self knew, says: “That is no country for old men.” Around the same time, Cavafy from his perch in Egypt and Turkey imagined ancient Hellene leaders at the cusp of losing power. In “Ithaka,” read at Jackie Kennedy’s funeral, Cavafy tells his reader, essentially, if you sail to Ithaka and find it lacking, the journey will have mattered: your perception is the only thing that might make it lack.

These many months we have been living in this sundered zone amid the din of trauma, nostalgia, and claims of worth, hearing the simultaneous clamor of muezzin and church bells. Many have given up hope for unification. The youth are a bit tired of all this talk of the katastasis. For our part we have been trying to offer up random spots of good, volunteering in a Turkish orphanage and a southern refugee camp housing Kurds, Syrians, Somalians, Lebanese, built over the site of a massacre in the 1960s. But it feels as if no effort can truly touch the central issue, which is what it has long been: who ever gets the story of identity right? Even a tiny bird fallen near us proved how very good we all are at bungling.

About that bird: finally, in the opposite of a triumphal march, we brought it back, past the restaurant where the owner no longer sat at his purple shisha in the alley but had retired inside to his wife and small boy.

At the tree near where the fledgling had fallen, we placed it back in the nest. Birds have little sense of smell; perhaps the mother had only gone out for a bit; perhaps nature or fate would reassert itself. The older daughter kindly consoled the younger: now the bird gets to rest.

Fortunately or not, a week ago showed the bird had gone to a happier perch somewhere: the nest was either empty by the bird’s choice or had been emptied by a greater power, a predator or disconsolate mother.

Which is why I hesitated today with the kittens.

I had dropped the kids off for their second day at a happily unheeding Cypriot summer camp lacking all American liability papers and went for a run through the municipal park where Sundays Filipina and Sri Lankan domestic workers gather for a day of picnicking and community on their single day off from government-mandated schedules as six-day maids, the state’s form of modern slavery. I ran through that park, once a cruising nighttime area for clandestine men, and into another where I practically stumbled over the kittens.

The pair seemed pathetically starved and ill-treated: perhaps someone had abandoned them. I waited long enough to be sure no mother lived in the picture, hunting or not. The orange one had some gregariousness, rubbing up against my leg. At first I wanted to bring them home so at least one kid would delight when coming home from camp, but then knew another in our family, allergic, would protest. Instead I picked them up in my shirt and carried them to a place along the river path which grew especially wild, where houses met a pedestrian ramp.

There I’d often seen a young woman in black flowing clothes tending to stray cats, putting out food and dishes of water and milk in late afternoon when the sun bent over the ravine toward the cracked walls of her house. A few centuries ago, the Venetians had brought cats to Cyprus as rat-killers, according to some, while others claimed the French were the first. Soon as we had landed, multiple cat eyes were staring at the new arrivals, peeking out from under corrugated tin, from the branches, from under cars. Only a grown black minx, self-assured with a small black cat, came toward me, the sleekest best-looking member of the pack. Was this a friendly confederacy or an autocracy? I brought the kittens to a bowl of water and the orange showed acumen, sipping with great thirst, while the small gray one practically fell in. I left not knowing whether I had done the right thing, only that I had done something.

At night my children and I passed through a square where reggae blasted, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” set to techno, courtesy of the amazing Home for Cooperation here, a place stationed in the U.N. Buffer Zone which tries to create free events that will bring Turkish and Greek Cypriots together in an easy appreciation of culture and the environ. Other non-governmental organizations dedicated to refugee rights sold small plastic-wrapped plates of tabouli. A young Somali teen in red hijab danced ecstatically with a group of small children. The NGO administrators kept hissing at the gathered cats to leave, but drawn by the music, the cats stayed lit by the floodlights in the square beneath the church, hopeful that some scrap of understanding might be shown them.

And then this morning again came the news. Negotiations had failed this time, perhaps for good. The Greek president, Nicos Anastasiades, had bewilderingly said no to the military presence of 750 Turkish soldiers, instead choosing to keep the status quo of 40,000. The United Nations decided to leave the two Cypriot parties, Greek and Turkish—groups different only by religion and language—to duke it out themselves. An exhausted António Guterres, the lead U.N. negotiator, wished Cyprus well. Everyone would be left with what the colonizers had torn asunder. “Before 1974, we used to live like brothers, sisters, cousins,” Turkish and Greek Cypriots often tell me.

And today when I ran the path again, to my horror, the mother cat—I am almost sure she is the mother—turned up in the spot from which I hoisted the kittens. Orange and black, stilled after she licked her paw, she sat patient as a cenotaph and is still there waiting on the path for her kittens to come home. “Wise as you will have become,” says Cavafy, “so full of experience/you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” I am still waiting.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Books as Constant Companion: The Millions Interviews Pamela Paul


I once knew a Holocaust survivor, a Russian non-native English speaker with a thirst for learning, who kept a wonderful book: a logbook of obsessive reading with highly particular summaries. “War and Peace,” the survivor notated, “a bunch of people, war, and countries — can’t anyone get along?” “Madame Bovary,” she wrote,  “a fancy lady spends a lot of time dreaming until all is lost for love.”

We are deep into a moment in which authors write of lives, often their own, through the habit of reading. Hearing of the trend from afar, a person could ask: does the practice  signify a retreat to a self-reflexive cave? A recherché activity, a hall-of-mirrors exercise, a willed innocence? And yet, these last 15 years, books on reading have proliferated at the same time that newspaper space for discussing the magic of reading has shrunk. Consider Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, a hundred others.

Such authors share the same gleam you find in the self-portrait of Diego Velázquez in “Las Meninas” in which the artist depicts himself as the aware but lowly court servant  painting the aristocratic family. The artist supersedes his content, eyes leaping out of the frame at us, becoming our proxy for understanding a given milieu. With similar esprit, in many of these books, the authors gaze back at us reading them, showing how at a crucial point in life, a book or series swayed them unalterably. Reader, I was never the same, these books whisper, confidingly. The earth moved. These books on reading often also move earth, however subtly, achieving what Aristotle demanded for drama: both recognition and catharsis.

In Pamela Paul’s fifth book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, she takes us traveling through a landscape of childhood aspiration and adolescently blind romanticism, the accruals and loss of adulthood, all told from a temperament with a fierce, passionate allegiance to principle. Her Bob is a logbook of reading and also a rueful, joyful autobiography of interests and selves, an elegy fond and bittersweet. Bob in its physical form — even when a mate, soon to be ex, actually writes in it himself — survives courtships, marriages, and the most Aristotelian of reversals.

On first reading, I felt the book created a new genre, the polemic picaresque, in which readers get to wander happily with a Michel de Montaigne-like narrator through varied realms while picking up bits of advice as buried treasure. Imagine a guide who seems at first to speak only of her small village and family while showing the reader a local tower, who meanwhile, subtly, persuades us of the greatness of the parish. On my second reading, Paul’s book seemed to be in conversation with Boswell’s travels with Johnson, Sei Shōnagon, or The Canterbury Tales, in which we roam aesthetic terrain with a hapless and memorable group of individuals, the world rich with surfaces while belying the deeper moral conviction and instruction to be had.

The journey is as good as the guide, and one of My Life with Bob’s pleasures is the humorous and affectionate light cast on the narrator’s strong convictions. As a young girl, Paul begins with reading as a quirky hagiography, finding lives to learn and emulate, the horizon of her worldliness as wide as her last book read. Older, she shows great, impulsive agency in making book-inspired choices while becoming increasingly nostalgic for an earlier temporal freedom, leaving her reader to understand that a life too far from books is not just unexamined, but unfelt, unknown, unarticulated.

From the joy-filled vantage of someone illuminated, and even dominated, by books she has read, Paul inspires her reader to revisit works canonical and unsung. As the best memoir writers do, the witty persona Paul creates for her narrator is not so much heroine but more in the spirit of Paul Klee’s “Hero with a Broken Wing”: gifted and burdened by aspiration, she lives the paradox of being the obedient rebel and contrarian student who delights in having a mind with a thousand pockets. If August Wilson says everyone should wake to see the face of our own god in the mirror, in this case, for a very singular reader, the mirror itself is literature.

Below, Paul speaks of seeing her recollection of Bob emerge.

The Millions: You were a reader with a great understanding of privacy. What is your experience of My Life with Bob, an exegesis of such an important relic of the self, traveling out in the world?

Pamela Paul: A certain amount of trepidation. I never thought I would write a memoir, and in fact, didn’t think of this book as a memoir until Publishers Weekly announced the deal and called it one. My first thought was, “Oh, no — but they’re right! I guess it is a memoir.”

To my mind, it was to be a book about books, a book about travels, a book about storytelling. But of course, it’s not really about those things. It’s about the intersection of books and life, and about how what we read infiltrates, influences, reflects, expands on, and colors everything else. When we read, even when the book is temporarily put down with a bookmark firmly in place, the stories from inside the book don’t entirely recede from our consciousness. They become part of us. My stories are part of me, and therefore a lot more “me” had to be in this book that I am used to putting. My previous books were all journalistic investigations that had one or two first-person sentences in the introductions before firmly leaving that voice behind. This book is not only about me — it’s about (I hope) all readers and the way all of us experience stories. But it’s obviously quite personal.

TM: What are you reading — or hoping to read — now?

PP: I choose my books on a gut level, to match a strong mood or an urge or even a need. But it’s not a one-step or simple process. That’s one of the reasons I ask what books people have on their nightstand in my By the Book interviews: I’m curious about how people narrow down and make their choices among all the possibilities. Personally, I keep a large pile on my nightstand — on the wide edge of my platform bed, actually — and then a few other piles across from the bed on a room-length wall of built-in bookshelves. Like all readers, I have so many books that I’d like to read, that I intend to read, that I feel I must read, but I never truly know what I’ll read next until the moment I finish the previous book.

This doesn’t mean I don’t plan. I do all kinds of planning! And then I cast those plans aside. Right now, for example, I was planning to be reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena because the reviews were strong and so many people I respect have recommended it. The glowing praise for his follow-up collection of short stories pushed that book further to the top of the list. So it was on my shortlist. Then I did something I’ve never done before: I enlisted my two older children to help me decide between reading the Marra, Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop next. I read the back covers and inside jackets aloud to them. My daughter voted for Marra and my son for Zola. I read the Zola first, and so had turned to the Marra next to be fair. But a few chapters in, I found that it wasn’t quite matching my mood. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it — thus far, I like it very much and I plan to go back to it. But it just wasn’t what I needed at the moment.

What I needed, I realized, and this is what had drawn me to all three of those books, was a book that was engrossing and serious and relevant to my life right now, but also an escape. And that was accompanied by an urge to read about an earlier era in journalism. Scoop wasn’t quite the right book because I didn’t want humor (I’ve kind of been adverse to comedy, overall, since the fall — read into that what you will, though I hope it means I haven’t permanently lost my sense of humor). “Scoop will be read one day…I do love Waugh.

Then, on a shelf I keep devoted to books about writing and about journalism, I noticed Ben Bradlee’s memoir, A Good Life: Newspaper and Other Adventures. I’ve been wanting to read this book since it was published, which to my embarrassment was in 1995, therefore making it a book I’ve meant to read for 22 years now. I adored Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which I’d read as soon as it came out. I picked up the Bradlee and it fits every need I have at this moment: Serious, yet also entertaining. Relevant to my life (journalism), yet also a departure (journalism back when it was strictly about print). Plus, Bradlee is a terrific narrator. You can hear his distinctive voice, his infectious personality. And the part I’m up to now is very much a different world: His experiences in the Navy in World War II, his early days at a startup weekly newspaper in New Hampshire, his experience as a press attaché in Paris. I’m just now getting back to Washington and his Newsweek years. It’s a delight on every level.

Do other readers go through a version of this elaborate mood-matching process when considering what to read next? I suspect many do. To me, it’s one of the great decisions we get to make in life, and we get to make it again and again: What to Read Next.

TM: What is the relation of risk to your practice of writing? And what was your process in sequencing and editing this book, and did it differ from your others?

PP: This book was completely different from any other book I’ve written. My previous books were essentially argument books: journalistic investigations that set out to explore a subject through research and reporting, marshal the evidence, and make a case. My first book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, came out of personal experience — an early marriage and divorce — but I quite adamantly didn’t want the book to be about me, so after the first paragraph, the first person dropped out. That book still felt personal. I discovered and learned through other people’s answers and lessons that I was seeking to help make sense of my own experience. What did these other young divorced people know that I didn’t yet know myself? What had they learned two or five years after their marriages ended that they didn’t know at the point of rupture? The next two books came out of reported stories that I wrote for Time magazine and expanded on issues around consumer culture that I thought worth further exploration. For all of those books, the driving goal was to prove a point.

By contrast, I had nothing to prove with this book. I am not trying to persuade anyone of anything. So the underlying motivation is altogether different, and that fundamentally changes the writing process. This book isn’t probably not going to change anyone’s mind about anything (except perhaps about the wisdom of writing down what you read). So it has to want to be read for other reasons.

If I had a driving sense of purpose with this book in terms of its relationship to readers, it was to write something that was a pleasure to read. Because I get so much pleasure from books, and from my Book of Books. When people have told me they’ve read my previous books, my knee-jerk response has always been, “I’m sorry.” That may sound ridiculous and self-defeating, but I don’t think my earlier books were particularly fun to read. Enlightening, in certain ways, perhaps. But not enjoyable. I wanted to write a book that might be an actual enjoyable reading experience. And that made the book an actual pleasure to write — even when I was writing about embarrassing or frightening or upsetting experiences, like the end of my first marriage or my father’s death.

But I like that you compare it to a journey because that’s how it feels to me. Like a journey through life with books as constant companion. With little discoveries made, both within and outside of books, along the way.

TM: Having also encountered Thalia Zepatos’s book of advice for the independent woman traveler at a young age, to my detriment or advantage, I was nonetheless happy to see her mentioned. Yet what makes your suitcase so singular  is the manner in which your narrator, like a lover or devotee, brings books as an offering to beautiful environments, most notably in an outdoor scene in China. Similarly, a landscape can be ruined for your narrator by the errancy of the particular author you happen to be reading, your mind infected by a particular voice. Books similarly permeate the courtships with men you end up marrying. In such moments, you do a great deal to erase the binary of life versus art, the dichotomy that Cynthia Ozick felt she misunderstood as a dictum from Henry James: “Life! Life, not art!” Was there something not mentioned in your  book, whether in early environ or temperament, that may have led to this happy erasure, a habit of convergence? The curiosity the reader has — having traveled with you through travel, jobs, marriages, divorces, children — is whether your narrator would say her highest self, her best part, was formed by reading rather than life?

PP: For me, reading Thalia Zepatos was inspiring in the most concrete sense of the word: It inspired me to something I didn’t feel capable of or well-suited for. I read her book and then did something that was highly unlikely given the cautious, ambitious, responsible, fearful person I was at that time. I threw aside all my life and career goals and set out to do something that I knew I might hate. Something that terrified me. Something that nobody like me would do. As I put it in the book, it was as if 5 percent of me made a decision and dragged along the other 95 percent. It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made.

 TM: Your narrator is similarly remarkable in the complexity of being a success-driven rebel: she is both the child who early on learns not to procrastinate, getting her work done first so she can with easier mind enjoy the poking of her pencil into the carpet, and the principle-driven rebel. Within aspirational milieus, in equal measure, she passionately protests and excels within received dictates. One of the abiding sub rosa questions in the book has to do with the quirkiness of free will and self-determination against given legacies: your narrator finds herself shooting out of a particular set of birthright assumptions. How does this complexity inform your relation to your life in writing and reading these days?

PP: I just wrote a piece adapted from the book called “The Joy of Hate Reading” in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times that describes one of the key ways I’ve come to read and write, which is to challenge myself through words. It’s a way to remind myself of how little I actually know. As a writer, with this book, I set out to write the kind of book I never thought I’d write — a memoir. And as a reader, I am always pushing myself to try out books I don’t think I’ll enjoy. I have a kind of perverse urge to constantly test my own assumptions. To a certain extent this has always been there. I was a supremely unathletic child, always picked second-to-last for sports teams in elementary school (an excruciating experience that I wrote about in my college application essay). But when I got to college, I ended up joining the rugby team. It was an entirely absurd decision to make — I have never once hit a ball with a baseball bat in my life. But I joined the rugby team and I loved it. I still have near-zero interest in sports, but I recently read The Throwback Special because it’s about football. (I loved that too.)

TM: “Without imagination of another’s mind there can be no understanding of that other and hence no love,” Sherwin Nuland writes in relation to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry,” a quotation you cite in your book when talking of a first love. How would you relate BOB to that very same imagination?

PP: Reading is ultimately about empathy — about experiencing another person’s story, his version of events, his voice, his way of viewing the world. To me one of the beauties of literature is that two different people from very different worlds can read the same book, and share that experience, even as if in different variations. You can have a 16-year-old girl in India read The Underground Railroad and a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother in Indiana read that same book. They will read it in different ways, but also, in similar ways, sharing a version of the characters’ experience, both with each other, and with the author. That’s connection.

TM: Everyone who has ever worked in publishing or known anyone with a foot near the industry knows something about towering piles of books that have arrived over the transom. Does your delighted, curatorial rapture about books remain intact or has it shifted emphasis? You speak movingly about your almost physical pain as, in an early bookstore job, you had to tear covers off books to be remaindered. Has the status of books as beloved fetish objects begun to alter or have you become just more focused in your pursuit?

PP: I feel like I live in a castle of riches at The New York Times Book Review. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel giddy by the unopened cartons of books awaiting me, eager to see the contents inside, excited by the galleys on the shelves and delighted and slightly stunned that I get to take finished copies home with me. Books to me are still treasures. I’m still greedy and I’m extremely grateful. I am not nearly as focused in my acquisitiveness as I should be and have towering shelves of books at home to attest to that weakness.

Image Credit: Marcia Ciriello.

There Is No Moral Symmetry in Real Life: The Millions Interviews Leela Corman


Here is what is magisterial about Leela Corman’s new graphic novel, Unterzakhn: it arrives with the force of artistic conviction, the unholy lovechild of Love and Rockets and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Corman, an author and illustrator, tells the tale of two sisters on the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century, her canvas crowded with fishmongers and fabric-sellers, and, as she adds to the mix, a loveless marriage, a dance cabaret/brothel and an illegal abortionist. Yet Corman’s story is economical: plucky twins Fanya and Esther, stark-nosed and smart-mouthed Jewesses, come of age in a place where choice is etched as sharply as Corman’s black-and-white lines. Fanya finds work too young in the apartment of a celibate abortionist, while Esther finds her way to the cabaret and tarnished stardom. Old Country pathos protrudes in the depiction of the twins’ likable father’s past. All the while, a deeper question thrums behind the catcalls, gossip, reproaches, survival strategies, and wit of Corman’s Lower East Side: does shared suffering alone create the tie that binds? And finally, the anger, love, and ultimate loyalty that lives between the sisters steals the show. It is a credit to Corman that you will not forget the outcome of these girls’ lives — a story simple and fabulistic, as in the best of Singer, with dark overtones that come from faithless characters in whom we can trust.

Edie Maidav: What extraordinary conjunction of forces inspired you to write Unterzakhn?

Leela Corman: What a great way to ask that hard-to-answer question of inspiration!

Well, the first thing that happened was kind of a weird conjunction in itself. I went to a Kim Deitch lecture at the West Side YMCA one evening in 2003. I went to day camp at this Y when I was little. The lecture was held in the same auditorium where we had to gather every morning to sing “The Other Day I Met A Bear” and, I kid you not, “Y.M.C.A.,” complete with hand gestures.

While waiting for the lecture to begin, Fanya suddenly appeared in a napkin doodle, with a pillow under her dress, looking into a mirror and saying Yuck! The lecture kind of took a while to begin, and more characters started to appear. By the end of the evening I knew that Fanya had a twin named Esther, that their mother owned a corset shop, and that their father was “Old Country” and didn’t talk much. I knew they lived on the Lower East Side, and that one became an abortionist/midwife, and the other a showgirl. That all came in one evening.

So, at that point, the ideas started percolating outwards, and I began to do a little research about that neighborhood. Actually, in some ways the idea started much earlier; I had a thought when I was still in art school to do a story about a Jewish showgirl in pre-war Poland. But I could never get that idea to walk. I think I was sick of pre-war Poland, and WWII in general. Some of the very raw material for her ended up evolving into Esther/Delilah.

Anyway, once I started researching all of the relevant subject matter — the history of contraception, the history of the Lower East Side, vaudeville — the story began to coalesce a little more. Megan Kelso asked me to contribute to her Scheherazade anthology, so I used it as an opportunity to work with those characters for the first time. And then after that there were years of research and note-taking. I tend to have the characters first, and then work outwards from them.

Oh, and I also wanted to add, I wanted to talk about the time when women did not have choices in reproduction. The consequences of not having a choice are gruesome. Slowly the book evolved much more towards the “fun” stuff — Esther’s story — but I did keep much of that original intention in there.

EM: One aspect that makes Unterzakhn so striking is your seeming fondness for the way complex characters slip out of any single moral judgment the author might rest upon them. You manage to make life messy, impossible, and lovable and yet do so with a clearly bifurcated structural axis. What sort of works, in any medium, have drawn you in the way in which their creators withhold judgment upon equivalently complex characters?

LC: My favorite works, and the ones that have had the greatest influence on me, do exactly what you describe. I dislike stories that treat human beings too simply, although it is often necessary to have secondary or tertiary characters who serve only one or two functions. I read a lot of fiction, but none of it really influences my work, because novels are such a different medium. In a novel, there is so much inner life. And when I read, I am deep in the world of the book, and not even thinking about its structure. I’m like an ant playing on a great piece of architecture.

Creating a graphic novel is more like manipulating actors, except mine can’t argue and they don’t get paid. So the works that have had the most influence are usually film and really good episodic TV writing, which we are blessed to have a lot of right now. Certain other cartoonists are also a big influence; in fact, the Hernandez Brothers, and Gilbert Hernandez in particular, loom very large over me with this book. I feel like Gilbert Hernandez is a very explicit influence here.

Some other huge influences: Mad Men and Deadwood, two of the greatest things that have ever been on a screen of any size. I recently started re-watching Deadwood and I’m amazed at how much it influenced Unterzakhn. I originally saw it in 2006, before I really started working on it, and I guess I’d forgotten, or never really understood, how much it seeped into everything I did. That is a classic example of characters who would be easy to judge — most of them have blood on their hands. But as the long arc of the story progresses, it becomes more difficult for the viewer to do so, and even more difficult — if not impossible — for the characters to judge one another, or hold their lives apart from those they deem below them or of lesser morals. With the exception, of course, of the characters who are created for that purpose.

In the case of Mad Men, the characters are more modern, and are in a setting where they (mostly) aren’t going to do things that are explicitly horrible, with a few exceptions. But the things they do are more subtle, their motivations not simple, and generally driven by the deep and often unquestioned fears and needs we all experience.

The work of Pedro Almodóvar has long been a touchstone for me. But the single biggest influence on me while working on this book is a film called Head-On (Gegen Die Wand), by Fatih Akin. I watch it a few times a year, and always learn something new from it. It has been my school of storytelling. He never gives you what you think you want for the characters. He gives the story what it demands. This allegiance to the story above all else makes the movie breathtaking and almost unique, at least for an American audience. I could go on and on about that movie!

Every film I watch, I dissect; I can’t help it. Another brilliant storyteller who I like to think has some influence, though I think I’m really flattering myself to think so, is the Iranian-Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi, who may possibly be the greatest filmmaker on the planet. So maybe influence is the wrong word — I just love his work and try to take it in very deeply. The same can be said for Akin and Almodóvar.

I have to say, also, that Busby Berkeley and vaudeville/Depression-era movies are a big influence on my aesthetic, and probably on the way I write dialogue. I honestly don’t know where half my dialogue came from; the characters have smart mouths of their very own.

EM: The smart mouths make more complex what otherwise might be a more straightforward moral symmetry, the kind of black-and-white that punches a reader in the best way. And graphically, too, the boldness of your drawings of the Lower East Side connote such a stark world regarding a community’s idea of decency and stigma and the singular tipping points between these two realms. Interestingly, when you draw the Old World, you use more shades of gray. This nuance seems to heighten the vast distance — temporal, geographic, moral — between the damning past of the Old World and the hungry present of the New.

Back in the Old World, Isaac, the girls’ father, makes a series of scarring choices, never to be rewarded for his bravery, ethics, or passion, and I find your restraint, both in terms of construction of his character and how you draw his environ, so moving. Were you considering a different way of drawing when you depicted Isaac’s backstory?

LC: I didn’t intentionally use a different tonal landscape for those two parts of the story. I had originally planned to have Isaac’s part of the story printed in a different color. But ultimately I decided against that, because I realized it would look too much like a sepia-toned flashback. I think it happened organically. Isaac’s homeland is mostly farms and small towns; it’s muddy, hilly, forested. New York city was sooty, crowded, and shadowed. Life took place in close quarters, indoors and out. Of course I’m projecting my imagination back in time to two places I’ve never been. But my family did come from Poland and I did grow up in Manhattan, so it’s not that hard to extrapolate. And, you know, research. Research plus imagination takes you where you want to go.

There is no moral symmetry in real life. I was worried once I’d finished the book that I’d accidentally created a moral fable, but I hope that the characters are too complex for that.

The Millions Interview: Bradford Morrow

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“There are only three journals that matter and one of them is Conjunctions.”
— Walter Abish, author of How German Is It

Behold the man — Bradford Morrow, who spans in both biography and experience the best explorations of the teachers and writers of two centuries, the 20th and our new toddling era. Both a generous reader and writer, a community-maker in his years as founder and editor of the pioneering Conjunctions, bearing standards paradoxically rigorous, curious, and fluid, author of Giovanni’s Gift, among some other eight books, this year he came out with two new books: one, the novel The Diviner’s Tale, a genre cloverleaf, combining elements of paranormal mystery, the detective story, the confessional, and a shaggy-dog story, told by a woman whose credibility proves as convincing as Norman Rush’s similar feat of male-to-female ventriloquism in Mating. The second, the collection of short stories The Uninnocent, shows similar insight, plunging the reader again and again into some icy waters. Why? Because he pushes characters to extremes while luring us into unguessable sympathies: you, dear reader, become complicit with the metaphysical and actual body count of these stories. Who would you be under such complex circumstances? Would you dare call yourself good?

Such is the sly question in ghostly ink between Morrow’s lines. Meanwhile, his formal play (see, for instance, the highly pleasurable psychological Rubik’s cube of a story,”Mis(laid)”) is subtle; in its subtlety lies intrigue.

*And if you want more gritty specifics embracing Morrow’s upbringing and aesthetics, in addition to the interview that follows, may I direct you to the well-written biography?

** And if you want the opening of Paradise Lost, one of the undergirdings of postwar American fiction, see this:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us . . .

Edie Meidav: May I ask you to connect the two following dots in your first answer?

(First dot) You have tackled so many large topics in your work, and have used such varying technique, and yet your last novel, The Diviner’s Tale, as well as this most recent book of short stories, The Uninnocent, both come out of a truly American gothic sensibility. The Uninnocent bears every kind of smudged, glowing thumbprint of America gone awry: absentee fathers haunt these stories, as do grotesque physical accidents, incest, murder, subterfuge, numbing devices.

(Second dot) You have a deep connection to Willa Cather.

Can you connect these two points for your lay readers?

Brad Morrow: That’s a really intriguing question. I see several possible ways to connect those dots, although perhaps the simplest explanation for what on the surface might seem an affinity for two quite different aesthetics would be to cite Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” — as a writer my interests are wildly wide-ranging. My taste in literature, like my taste in music, and even in people, is eclectic. I’ve never been one to limit myself in my preoccupations, my affections. Which is not to say my taste is chaotic or even all that catholic. Just that for better or worse I manage a wide embrace. Besides Willa Cather, I’m completely devoted to John Donne, for instance, and Yeats. But also William Burroughs and William Gaddis. What these writers have in common, for want of a sharper word, is genius. Originality, dynamism, vision, and a gift for language that’s electric.

Two more specific vectors between the gothic and Willa Cather involve, first, her use of landscape as an active character — a trait that’s ever-present in my most gothic work — and, second, for all her reputation as a kind of pioneer realist, Cather is a modernist chronicler of all manner of violent and tragic behaviors. Her landscapes are often aggressive, uncooperative, and even fatally destructive to the humans who inhabit them. Likewise, her characters are capable of depravities that would take aback the darkest noir writer. When the cruel Wick Cutter blithely slits open the eyes of a woodpecker in A Lost Lady and enjoys watching the poor creature flop around helplessly trying to find its way back to its nest, you know you’re in the presence of a writer who understands evil. Murder, betrayal, deception, downfalls. Cather explores all these themes pretty relentlessly, though she also is a brilliant celebrant of human triumph against adversity, as well.

Another personal connection to Willa Cather, having nothing to do with the gothic, is that my mother was born and raised in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and my grandparents, great grandparents, and great-great grandparents farmed the same rolling Nebraska lands that Cather’s family did. Most are buried there, many a stone’s throw from the graves of Cather’s family and friends. So there’s that, as well. Cather and I, generations apart, left small towns in Nebraska and Colorado to end up in New York where we each became novelists and editors. Sentimental or not, I feel she’s a kind of forebear.

EM: Again, forgive me this dyadism, two quotations:

“We were uninnocent, but the very isolation that in some ways damned us has also acted as our benefactor and protector.” — The Uninnocent

“The druggist’s was empty, its row of stools with mottled vinyl aligned kind of sad somehow before the long counter, Coke taps, pie racks, ketchup bottles, the stainless-steel malted cup — ” — “Whom No Hate Stirs None Dances”

While I don’t feel this about every writer, may I venture that in your embrace of such complex and often evil characters, a lapsed idealism lives? Not that polemic pulses your fiction, but rather that some American nostalgia unites these stories. As if all might be better if we could get back to — to what? The land, perhaps, the freedom of an individual facing the vastness of the world and needing to make those insuperably huge American choices. Cather’s prairie redux! As if each character might, somewhere before the second coming or apocalypse, recognize the worth of ethics and community. Your characters are often anachronistic vigilantes, pursuing their own form of righteousness. I might be pushing it here, but the voice rising from your pages suggests that while your pariahs’ psychologies rarely bear Edenic backstories, the arcs of their stories contain a ghostly hint: some lost key lives in the backstory of the States. Discuss?

BM: I agree that many characters in these stories would like to get back to the Garden but that the path, if there ever was one, is overgrown with thorny flora and guarded by treacherous fauna. Indeed, Jack, in “All the Things That Are Wrong With Me,” tries to create his own Edenic animal garden in which the lion lies down with the lamb, but he is blinded by naïveté and an ignorance of community rules, and so is fated for a hard fall. Both narrators in “Lush” try their very best to overcome alcoholism and injury, but in the end it’s unclear if their dreams, despite their striving and hope, can finally create a haven that’s strong enough to protect them from their demons.

As for the role of America in the book, I can say simply that the stories were meant to be individual investigations rather than a political map of the patchwork quilt that is our culture. Having said that, though, it is interesting that the first story in the collection, “The Hoarder,” involves a family moving from place to place across the country, beginning in the Outer Banks on the East Coast, passing through the Midwest and pausing in the Southwest for a time, then ending up in California. The youthful collector, on his own westward journey, at first contents himself with innocent enough things to assemble — sea shells, birds’ nests, pottery shards; things he finds on beaches, in forests, and on the desert. But just as the country itself in its westward expansion, fueled by Manifest Destiny and other questionable political philosophies that hardly disguised an underlying rapacity, moved inevitably away from idealism, this boy increasingly finds himself driven to take things from others in order to feel in control of a life that’s slipping away from him.

While evil is obviously universal, various forms of evil portrayed in The Uninnocent do seem to me to be, as you suggest, distinctly American. An unstable idealism that sometimes erupts into irrevocable acts of violence or crime does reside in the hearts of many of these characters, which despite my better judgment is one of the reasons I so deeply empathize with even the worst among them. Some are naive, others psychotic, still others believe that they are doing the right thing even though the rest of the world would strongly disagree. Just as America is a young country, a number of people portrayed here struggle with maturity at a fairly tender age. Again, I’m not saying the characters in The Uninnocent are meant to be small portraits of the country itself. But all of them are in one way or another the products of America and, as William Carlos Williams put it, “The pure products of America go crazy.”

EM: How does music affect your writing?

BM: Music was crucial to my life long before I ever thought of writing, even well before I got into reading books beyond The Phantom Toll Booth or The Cat in the Hat. My mother was church organist and choir director at the First Methodist Church in Littleton, Colorado, and was an accomplished opera singer. She had me taking piano lessons before my hands could barely reach the ivories and my feet the pedals. So music is in my blood and soul. Every kind of music, I might add, from classical to jazz, rock to rap, from sea chanteys to you name it. I’ve learned a lot from Bach and Stravinsky, Debussy and Copland, Bird and Coltrane, Leadbelly and John McLaughlin, the Geto Boys and NWA. A list of all the composers and musicians who have influenced me would run into the hundreds. I doubt I could write any of the sentences that I do without that core musical background. Narrative, be it on the scale of a short paragraph or a long novel, is told in words whose origins are ultimately musical. Emerson wrote, Every word was once a poem. And I would suggest that every poem was once a musical phrase.

EM: Who was your first ideal reader?

BM: I had a professor at the University of Colorado, the late and much-missed Edward Nolan, who had an enormous impact on me and read my work with care and blazing intelligence. He got me to read Woolf and Yeats and Ezra Pound and could discuss the dynamics of a sentence or phrase with dazzling precision and nuance. But in fact I have been blessed over the years with a number of dear friends who happen also to be super sharp readers of my work, and who’ve been unafraid to suggest possible improvements to this text or that. Rarely have I felt like I’m singing alone in the dark, thanks to these gracious intimates.

EM: When I first read your response, above, I thought you had written thanks to these gracious inmates. Which made me think, since I believe you have a great panopticon view of American letters (belles lettres?) and much recent literary history — what is your view of our current literary prison? Prison or paradise? While we are a rebellious clan, is there some uniting moment which we are living through? DeLillo once famously said the novelist had great freedom, living in the margins of a dying art, yet also that terrorists had usurped our ability to form compelling narrative. Answer any part of this, or go off on your own spree.

BM: I may be overly optimistic or utterly blind, but my view of contemporary American fiction is that it is as rich as ever. Some of the best work is being written in what until recently was considered, at least among the conventional literati, genre fiction. Horror, gothic, mystery, fantasy, fabulism. There are so many stunningly original and serious writers working these fields. I have to think that anybody reading this interview would agree. Just one example, though there are many, would be Elizabeth Hand. She composes sentences of ravishing beauty. She is capable of creating metaphor systems that are so dynamic and provocative. She can turn a fictive moment that seems deeply rooted in the everyday into something that, in fact, touches upon the sublime, the miraculous. Just read her novella Cleopatra Brimstone and tell me that American fiction isn’t pulsing with life. Like I say, I could list dozens of authors here whose work I admire and follow with care and excitement. That said, I do think that much contemporary criticism is stuck in the past and that too many reviewers want those who are exploring ways to revolutionize genre to stick to the rules. I think of them as genre police. They make too many false arrests and lead potential readers astray, keep them caged away from renegades whose work they might well dig reading.

EM: Coming off your rich response: did you have an early model in your young life of generosity, whether literary or existential?

BM: A few, Edie. Ezra Pound had a huge impact on me. Poet, critic, translator, editor, promoter of others’ works, shaper of Kulchur. Even now, looking back to the Pound Era (Hugh Kenner’s phrase for those astonishing years that saw everyone from Joyce to Eliot to Williams to H.D. rise into view with novels and poems sizzling with genius), I marvel at how crucial Ezra Pound’s generosity was to modernism. So certainly Pound. Also, I was devoted to Allen Ginsberg who similarly moved outward beyond his own poetry to help other writers find their voices and audiences. Kenneth Rexroth, who introduced Ginsberg’s first reading of Howl and was at least initially godfather to the Beat movement, was my mentor when I was in my 20s. Like Pound, Kenneth was a critic and translator as well as an exceptional poet who delved deeply into the mysteries of love. His generosity toward me, a young writer 50 years his junior, was a real inspiration. Kenneth was a polymath, knew everything about everything, truly the most exquisite mind I have ever encountered, and so he too was a model. Interesting that I’m only citing poets. The most generous prose fiction writer who inspired me in my 30s was John Hawkes. His generosity toward me I try to pay forward as often as I can. Jack was constantly encouraging me and a whole host of other writers — Jeff Eugenides, Rick Moody, Joanna Scott, Mary Caponegro, so many others. I will never forget his introducing me at Brown University when I gave my first public reading. He had a wild wit, a luminescence, that inspires me to this day.

A Year in Reading: Edie Meidav

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Stumble across any list and you know that always there lives a list beyond all lists: the list of books which you, reader, are unable to explore until you find some Kryptonlike strength over your own autobiographical impediment. This strange year, 2011, offered me force enough to pull the rock away from the cave entryway to two unparalleled literary voices, and now I wonder how I managed to live so long without these books, arising from such different universes: Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, translated by Nicholas de Lange, and Lorrie Moore’s fictive paean to lost friendship Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

To consider Oz first: when the intellectual history of our time is written, not on electronic tablets but on pop-up holograms, someone will wonder why our era dedicated itself to the declaration of moribund genres, most especially the memoir, pundits forever attending the flickering of the patient’s stats and vitals. Could the greater diagnosis be that we suffered a spate of memoirs written in haste, lacking the wisdom of sufficient retrospect, devoid of the doubleness, whether of persona or timeline, that invariably creates meaning? In the case of memoir, we have shown love for the premature epitaph. Repeatedly we declare the patient dead until once again it rises, our own favorite dirt-spattered zombie.

Oz, in his Rabelaisian memoir, could not be considered guilty of writing too close to some original timeline: with his form of genial chuckle, he is happy to say that he encompasses the entirety of modern Israel, that it’s as if he shook hands with George Washington, fought in the Revolutionary War, and has survived to see two tea parties come, and, perhaps (please?) go.

So that if all memoirs rise and fall in their treatment of time, time in Oz is untraceable, more wormhole than line or even double helix, much in the same way that the history of Israel presents such conundra, both ancient and present, lost and continuously redefined. You finish the memoir and realize the mother’s desperate end, a suicide in Oz’s teen years, casts a shadow forward and back, a lacuna in the overarching story. And yet Oz doesn’t play needlessly coy, nor is he melodramatic: the narrative of his one family cannot creak under history if history is the family’s blood. Elegant and excessive at the same time, Oz’s wit soars, his curious attentiveness that of a lover, his moral compass unwavering. While surely some might say the work would benefit from editing, it is in the excesses of history, happy or desperate, its atavistic claws forever seeking the living, that his saga lives with such reckless accuracy.

As for his politics, Oz says elsewhere that he does not wish to exist merely as a symbol in the minds of others, to represent either the shrewd, gifted, repulsive vampire or the sympathetic victim deserving both compensation and atonement. The Zionist enterprise, as he sees it, is that of a drowning man who has no other objective justification than to grasp at a plank, and yet for Oz, a crucial moral distinction hews to the man who does not grab the whole plank for himself and push others to the sea. Recently, despite all the flak he received from all sides, Oz sent his memoir to Marwan Barghouti, considered, depending on your perspective, either an activist or a terrorist. In sending the book, Oz — who benefits from a cultural landscape akin to Latin America’s, in which a writer can truly be an engaged citizen, helping to shape public discourse — hoped his memoir might be a peace token of sorts, a book acting as a bridge toward understanding. Is this act not the opposite of the recent razing of the Occupy Wall Street library?

But back to the subject: Oz’s memoir succeeds in transcending symbolism. In writing so specifically about both nations and the nations of literature, his memoir articulates the possibility of understanding beyond nation. In the meanest flower blows the most universal wind and so on. Yet maybe, for a final verdict on this, we should wait to hear not from another dead man, Wordsworth, but rather from the living Barghouti.

To end with something a bit more personal: last year, in these pages I wrote about the death of my father. As a footnote to that piece, when this same father was already a living cadaver, some two years ago, his brain easing the fear of death by transporting him to diverse sociocultural milieus, he nonetheless managed to keep a firm grasp on a voice of clarity. In his case,  such clarity was equivalent to the name Amos Oz. Edie, you must read the most recent piece by Oz. That Oz had been such a literary celebrity in our house for so long, his biography partly overlapping with my father’s, with their family friends in common, meant that the name Oz had come to mean all of the following things: lost turf, mind, glory. This concatenation meant that, so long as my father lived, I found it impossible to read more than snatches of Oz. Until randomly, or as randomly as such things work, someone asked me to introduce a speech by the great Oz himself, passing through our small upstate New York hamlet in honor of the apparition of Scenes from Village Life, the recent book of unsettling short stories, structured like Winesburg, Ohio, which could be read as a parable of uneasy coexistence. And the power of his earlier memoir transformed what had been mere epitaph — the name Oz — into living conscience, something mutable and present standing guard over the equally uneasy dead.

If Harold Bloom is right in saying that writers must come to grips with their literary, oedipal parentage and slay the masters in some crucial misreading of such masters, if our original thinking really could be structured in such clear-cut fashion, then where is the anxiety? For the space of this reductive review, let us think Bloom wrong and consider instead the pleasure of the choir, of many voices raised in praise of one unseeable supreme force. I came across Lorrie Moore’s amazing novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, written relatively early in her career, in one of those pleasurable serendipitous moments that only actual books can occasion. In a rare occurrence, I was clearing off bookshelves and out it tumbled, a British paperback with one of those faux-innocent covers the English favor, washed through with a murky yet childlike gloom, as if a painting created by a child the day she realized that there would be little more to look forward to than a spate of iron-gray skies and perhaps a teatime sweet.

I knew of Moore’s later work; she had been extolled to me by many I respected, but I had not yet had the crucial stumble. Coming across an overlauded author is like entering a romance with, take your pick, a movie star or a beachside house: one wants to make sure one’s appreciation arises from some deep inner lexicon of romance and not merely from the prefab, debased currency of everyone else’s adulation. Love is discovered but never curated. So it was for Moore and me and may it be, somehow, for you, unimaginable reader, despite this praise-song. For whatever this may be worth, before my crucial stumble, I had just sent away, finally, a novel I’d written which laid to bed whatever I wanted to explore about the primacy of friendship (of the female, wanton variety) and now felt the topic exhausted in myself: I was a perfect readerly receptacle. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, as well as some of the disconsolate stories of the late Gina Berriault, had explored some of the terrain I had wanted to explore, and yet, even if there is no scarcity to such turf, they had left vast blissful spaces. And so to find Moore was to find some new voice exploding in the choir, someone with vulnerable humor and psychological brilliance to spare, with a tender heart, a poet’s ear, and a comic’s timing, a lost wife in Raymond Carver’s realist attic, both mad and wise, spinning deceptively simple ironies.

A line, chosen in aleatory fashion:
. . . , and I again remembered that night last year, the one with the man and the gun springing up like a jack-in-the-box, the light summer midnight just beyond and past the branches. We had run, always heading for the next group of trees, and then for the next and then the next, like an enactment of all of life.
Note the dynamism, the use of what linguists call iconic language (and then for the next and then the next not being an apprentice’s tic but rather a visual representation of a stand of trees) and the widening out, subtle, cadenced, into the abstracted end of the line, where, pace Aristotle, we are forced to identify with the characters, experience catharsis, and reflect on our own categories, all in one lucid heartbeat.

We might not notice what happened. We might, as new neurological studies show, have increased social cognition after reading such fiction. We might find ourselves in James’ world, our sense of nuance refined. Or we might simply fall in love.

Reader, can fiction do anything more?

More from A Year in Reading 2011

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Daughter of California

- | 11

“There is no change of death in paradise.”
– Wallace Stevens

Pitch dirt onto a parent’s dead body and in that second understand that bits of dirt just became as much part of the parent as any other bit you might hold onto: a snapshot, a clock with bent hands, shoes still bearing the imprint of feet, ties scented with stale aspiration. We mortals grasp. In my father’s last minute as a living, breathing, incorporated entity, he was on the phone with me – or rather a nurse I’ll call Bob held the phone up to my father’s ear.

Before my last conversation with my father last September, the first of many unilateral discussions ever since, I had fallen asleep next to my three-year-old, helping her go to sleep, a custom probably far too common in our house with its tilt toward entropy.

This house: it is situated in the kind of town for which Manhattanites leave the grid. Faces radiant, they come to trip over our uneven sidewalks, aquiver with the possibility of serendipity and rustication. Obedient to hebdomadal divisions, they rise for their upstate sabbath fully pagan, rousting in ancient corporeal nostalgia: antiques and wine, jam, farmers’ markets, holiday festivals, round bread, any ritual useful in making sense of time, not to mention the oddity of toting around a body bearing desire and all its malfunctions.

My father, a geophysicist, would have remarked less on the Manhattan tourists and more on the old granite of upstate New York, its igneous intrusive so different from the endless metamorphic slop and shift of soft Californian plates in which sections of oceanside cliff change overnight, where if a tsunami won’t get you, a shark will.

This same scientist once stood in his office, an old, almost condemned Art Deco building in an Oakland not yet refurbished by Jerry Brown’s idealism. Under and around him the great earthquake of 1989 terrorized the earth. In a building not up to code in its seismic retrofitting, there my father stood under an antique chandelier and not under a doorframe as all Californian schoolchildren learn early in primary school, nor under a desk or table, but keeping his balance on the rolling earth.

From timing the swings of that potentially lethal lamp, my father factored the P and S waves on the surface of the land and in this way estimated the geographic navel of the earthquake, its epicenter. Later he was pleased not so much to have survived without a scratch, given that the quake figured 6.9 on the Richter scale and caused scads of devastation, but rather more tickled that his knowledge of California fault lines and mathematics had positioned the epicenter accurately, some fifty-six miles away on the coast of Santa Cruz.

The night of his death, while half-sleeping in New York, the night that started a period of not just unilateral conversation but unknowable maps, I heard my husband say: I got a call. Your father’s dying. This time it’s real.

For years this father, half bon vivant and half scientist, had been creeping farther and farther out onto an isthmus of abstraction. I found it easiest to understand the clouds that increasingly populated his watery blue eyes and his similarly aqueous mind as some brilliant philtre the body seeped into one’s brain as a way to soften the fear of dying.

My father loved to put on a brave show. Despite his early years in Israel that had made him a chalutznik, yet another pioneer taught that men should sport only fur but no sensitivity, like all of us he had his favorite talismans against fear and the frequency of their apparition could show even a casual observer how afraid he really was. His military posture, for one, with its rigid grace, which made his bearded self look at, say, a party – this was a man who loved parties – like a blue-eyed Lincoln reconfigured as your average broad-shouldered lieutenant. He would sit smiling and upright as if to say: I am here, I claim this spot on the mobile earth, nothing threatens me, I am ready for pleasure.

Another talisman against fear would be one of his favorite morning songs, a kabbalistic melody whose words, translated from Hebrew, told him that all the world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to fear (the passage from life to death). In his long, stretched-out dying, he showed a survivor’s tenacity, his final talisman: if theoretically he wanted to die, in reality he found it hard to leave the party.

We the living become quick adepts in our trafficking in the jargon of meds which, in our modern-day business of dying, act as a professional undertaker, fake in their helpfulness, the words that slither and whisper and prompt us alongside our slow processionals toward a funeral.

Or you could say we become a kind of snake swallowing the elephant of death, à la the illustration in the early pages of The Little Prince which shows the elephant bulging inside the boa constrictor.

Therefore, to use the jargon our family so obediently swallowed: for months prior to the flash and siren of the last ambulance taking him to the last hospital, my father could be found in a “skilled nursing facility”, an infelicitous phrase which always made me wonder, what, as opposed to that other facility known for its staff so judiciously unskilled?

In his non-home, attended to by those with skills, he had been lying in bed or in a wheelchair, playing pioneer tunes on his harmonica in desultory fashion near the nurses’ station, positioned on an island which was a decommissioned naval base out in northern California. Could it have been more perfect that the name of his home, dedicated to liminal states, was Water’s Edge?

What I tried to understand that mapless last night of his life was that this time his dying was real. From our entropic New York aerie, this was the totality of what I could divine.

I sat in our tiny dining room next to my husband who was dialing the hospital and using his best Brooklyn-bred diplomacy to get through the telephone lines into the exact right artery that would lead into the ER and whatever last bit of listening might be left in my father’s ear.

I should say that I sat like a penitent schoolgirl, fists clenched between tight knees, waiting in a room that had just lost its circulation. I chilled, for once the phrase right, since the temperature of the world had just dropped. While my mate tried getting through, it seemed everyone else in my family also tried the lines, this being a family not known for its lack of words. Of course at this second the lines would be getting clogged, heart to head, family flocking to its cerebral patriarch, and in seconds I would lose the chance to – to do what? Use words to sustain a last moment? Did the urgency of needing to talk to him have to do with affirming our connection? To say life and all its recent indignities had mattered? To show that despite being geographically challenged I would care and then care always, memory conjugated out over the rest of my lifetime?  I cared, I care, I will care, those who don’t know you will care, you have a legacy.

Before those crucial seven ounces of consciousness left his body, I had to tell him he mattered, that all of the suffering and aspiration of his life had been worthwhile, that we mattered, that he would continue to matter within the context of the living.

Since the dawn of the answering machine, I have been a phone-phobe, voice seeming such a poor substitute for presence. This unfortunate sensibility makes me lack the grace of friends who sound ready and delighted to answer a ring, those with the talent of making time expand accordionlike in their affinity with Graham Bell’s invention. Instead, and this serves as no apologia, I seem always to hang up first, cavemanlike, unrefined and coarse: there should be a twelve-step program for those like me. Hi, I’m Edie and I do bad phone. While email redeemed most of my social life, which it did, my aversion to the phone stood as one of many traits which my father, with his take-all-comers attitude but his unfamiliarity with computerized letters, accepted as a quirk.

Simply, therefore what I was awaiting in that pendulous minute before my minute to talk with my father arrived was this: make of the phone a friend. It was all I had.

My husband handed me the receiver and Bob the nurse came on to say: You want to say your goodbyes.

Right, I thought in that nanosecond, brilliant, that’s the name for it, I’m going to say my goodbyes.

The plural fit for a man of my father’s complexity, suspended in a metaphysical state of so many parts, within a state of so many pluralities.

And until that moment I had not realized that every person has stored within some finite amount of goodbyes for each person who matters and that right now, despite all brink moments and prior goodbyes, I was about to use up the last goodbye, tagged for him alone. This time the goodbye reverted to a greater status. I was about to spend my last goodbye as if some Maximum Leader had just declared the currency of goodbye not debased by all its manifold apparitions. This time the currency would count.

For five years, all my father’s near-deaths had summoned me from New York back to what will forever feel like home: California. Each death seemed realer than the one that came before. Each time my father’s Egyptian lady doctor said to me if it were my dad I’d come now. Westward I flew, often with a baby on my lap, and the babies grew. The youngest especially became a fan of firetrucks, given the coincidence of their hectic arrival, coming to oxygenate her grandfather every second day after we arrived for a visit to California.

There he would be, in his medically outfitted room off the kitchen on the lower level of my parents’ house, his heart exalted by the nearness of family but his lungs drowning in the fluid that kept wanting to fill that aqueous spirit, and once again we would be summoning empirical data and conventional logic in order to persuade the scientist, the traveler who now wanted to stay home, that this was something of an emergency. There I would be, fingers robotic in dialing 911 for the firemen to come again – I got to know them — up the fifty-one stairs to the house in order to put yet another oxygen mask on him and spirit him away and me into the plethora of questions that came in his wake, all from the young truck-lover (who now every night, her choice, her subliminal Yahrzeit, sleeps in a plastic replica of all those firetrucks):

Where do the firemen take him? Why does Saba wear that mask? Will they fix Saba so he can walk again?

And my own questions, all mainly circulating around this question: did he not once get me to promise that his life’s coda would have the dignity of freedom he had found in his adopted state?

But who was not to say that in his travels, bedbound, he was not fulfilling the imaginative promise of California?

Consider the name. Unlike other states drawn from Spanish – Colorado (“red”), Florida (“flowered”), Nevada (“snowy”)  – the name California itself is a made-up place, drawn from a fantasy land mentioned in Don Quixote. Which suggests how readily you, too, can project on a land made up of such shifting plates. It is a shock to encounter, say, a tenth-generation Californian – though they do exist, great-grandchildren of dusty legacy and agricultural ingenuity, usually the great-grandsons of early ranchers with some Mexican or Spanish romance thrown in.

Consider that whenever America encountered problems with coexistence, which sounds better in Spanish, convivencia, it expanded its territories westward, so that a slow seep of individualism spread from the tight eastern harbors out toward the hyper-individualism of California, which may go a long way toward explaining why people from the middle states tend to be so other-directed and polite, a legacy of making do enough to declare, as in the license plates of Oklahoma, hey, this state is okay.

While people in California must perform elaborate yogic or Buddhist tricks to come out feeling their state is okay. They come to California to go beyond the quais, to find their big dreams, seeing it as Don Quixote might have: the state will be a kindly queen, allowing them to realize in large acres and billboards their fantasies.

This was how my father, a resourceful, adaptable person, well-suited in psyche and profession to the state, used it. An ambitious restless geophysicist, he was dedicated to, as one of his company’s business cards had it, the evaluation and exploration of natural resources.

Part of the liberty of the state, of course, has to do with the weather: it rarely constrains you, and when it does, the constraint has the dimensions of a Greek tragedy, as only the biggest ecological disasters take foot here: earthquakes, tsunamis, mudslides, fires, geological capstones fitting the dimensions of the state, the heroic flaws and grand destinies of those drawn to it. If every state has a psychological age appropriate to it, California is forever an adolescent, dreaming in bright colors and assuming suicidal proportions at its misfortunes.

Which may be one of the reasons, right before we moved into its take-all-comers embrace, the state assumed leadership in that youngest of decades, the sixties: the civil rights movement, the free speech movement, the rollicking music and the rocking hills of Haight-Ashbury all fit the national demographic bulge of youth. Accordingly, the majority of my friends’ parents came from the following range, one drawn from the disappointed dreams of youth: drifters, horse-race gamblers, Vietnam vets, café chess players, social agitators, drug users, therapists, famous musicians, polyamorists or ex-psych ward types.

Many were divorced, or separated, or lived in alternative arrangements. By contrast my family seemed solid and well-endowed, conventional, with two working parents, their indiscretions unknowable. California and the times may not have made much of a dent in my parents’ Old World creamed herring and Mediterranean tomato-cucumber-lemon-onion diet, but it did allow them to wear peasant shirts from my father’s many travels at all the many parties they hosted, parties in which my mother, an engineer at the public transit system, would invariably at some point don her green jeweled bellydance outfit to shimmy before the guests, ululating as she had taught many of them to do, often accompanied by the happy jiggling students she also taught in a swirl of cloths on Sunday mornings, all before she invited my father up to do a sort of loose-hipped sheikh host imitation with her before all of them: California at its multiethnic apotheosis.

Come to the party and we’ll dance for you!

The one common social denominator in any setting was this: the body, its hopes, its staving off of decay.

My response to this awareness of social disparity – all that we seemed to have in relation to all others seemed to lack – was to try to bring people in to what seemed the potluck bounty of our house, and even without my intervention, an uncountable many came and lived with us. A lost mother of a friend with her daughter; the daughter of a pot-smoking vet who later became something of a celebrity murderer; a German exchange student; a therapist; a secretary; a massage therapist; a lost philosopher; a friend with stepmother troubles; a friend with stepfather troubles. The list goes on. We had a succession of housekeepers who lived in the basement apartment, and one had an ex-boyfriend who came by, parking his red-painted former milk truck on our cul-de-sac for a week. I would bring him treats until I finally asked my parents if he too could not live in the house, one that had been bought for $25,000 back when that area of South Berkeley, not far from the invisible but real border with Oakland, was considered too close to racial troubles. In our basement kitchen, this latest of our inhabitants penned for his dented guitar a song that ricochets around my head sometimes, a Californian anthem with one of those strident melodies of childhood:

I’m a drifter and I drift this world around
And I know who I want to be and just where I’ve been
To be free to flow with the wind (2x)

And despite or because of all its disappointed dreaming drifters, the town seemed to function, believing itself a microcosm of the world, the best of the best to be found there, believing itself potent on the world stage. Alice Waters was starting Chez Panisse, the gourmet ghetto mentality of the town was radiating out, the town was claiming its position as the only American city to have its own foreign policy and my father’s grandiosity linked with the town’s.

Just as, after an early rise and fall in sheep husbandry, my father had gotten involved with geothermal energy, because geophysics seemed a concrete, practical way to help Israel and also, somehow, to save the world, just as every family trip we ever took had to do, inevitably, less with pleasure and more with a visit to sulfurous, spitting sections of the earth where you would be dwarfed by the grandeur of nature and its machinations, even after the fog of his dementia started to cloud in, my father never proved lazy.

As he started his long slow dying, I would, as ever, try to make of the phone a friend and call him. If I asked how he was doing, he might say: well, some medieval colleagues and I were trying to figure out all the names of god and the colleagues were really quite congenial. Or: someone handed me a capsule containing a worm that could destroy humanity and I was just figuring out the best way to save everyone.

He had, like the small liberal town he had chosen, long had a utopian mission to save the world. He had started an Israeli cultural circle and would invite prominent Bedouins, Palestinians, and Arabs to come speak to that volatile group of talkers. He supported causes, soup kitchens, candidates. The Department of Energy named him, with great ceremony and a placard, an energy pioneer. He did what he could in his way, writing a poem that appeared in a millennial anthology Prayers for a Thousand Years that had a last line that went something like this

May I in my small way do the best I can, knowing that for my time I did the best I could for others

And for all his love of trafficking with high and mighty causes, people, places, he remained a socialist, a person who wore the same holey plaid shirts, who would say, if a vase broke: it’s just a thing. He never went out without a roll of quarters in one of his threadbare pockets, ready to dispense change to people in need. He was unafraid of homeless people found sleeping in his car and would give them a ride wherever they needed. When at age fourteen I was caught stealing sunglasses for my brother’s birthday, from a drugstore on Telegraph Avenue, the open-air post-hippie emporium street that hosted so many lost denizens, under the influence of all those friends the product of those broken post-sixties Californian homes, my father did not scold me. Instead he merely shook his head, hours after my release from a scary graffiti’d cell, and said: Look, Edie, it’s never the thing that counts when you give a gift, it is the thought. Thought is everything.

In later life, accordingly, he also inhabited his body as if it were an uneasy, stolen perch, an afterthought, a car in which his homeless self happened to find itself. Once, on a business trip while I was living on the Upper West Side, he visited me and said goodbye to me on Broadway. I watched him walk away, his back disappearing into the sidewalk masses. A father barely skimming the earth, he carried not even a briefcase, a stick-skinny man whose movement radiated out from a loose central axis, his wrists flopping out a bit as if the wind could spirit him and his untailored suit away.

Sometimes, during my father’s long dying, our upstate-New York family flew west to spend some summer month in one housesitting situation or another, caring for this canary or that dog, my daughters delighted to be in the ease of extended family and the weather that surrounded them. Their sociable grandfather, who had always had a bipolar way of saying goodbye – either expert in the gooey and endless Jewish art of goodbye, or Israeli in the way he could say, for example, to someone he was chauffeuring I love you, now get out! – would be equally delighted by the multiplication of family.

His party never ended, the goodbyes never stopped, and meanwhile the meds worked their damage, fighting a war in his liver, the meds that said to his corporeal being, essentially, the opposite of I love you, now get out!

I destroy you; now you must stay in life!

A few months after my father’s death, the attending doctor described Bob, the last person in that last room, as a kind and dedicated representative of the art of nursing, a practice for which I only gain respect each passing year of my own life as a two-time mother and mortal.

There Bob was, on the phone in that expanse of time, his voice so dry and tight it almost sounded sarcastic, conveying over the unclotted line the atmosphere of the emergency room, thick with death, telling me: You want to say your goodbyes.

Yes? I said.

You can talk, he can hear you, he said.

He could hear but could he listen? Back to the character of this father of mine. In the same way that I was living in exile, out in New York, forever hankering for the calm skies of my northern Californian childhood, the freedom of being able to go outdoors with your children any time you darn well chose, my father had lived his whole life in exile. We grew up in a little Israel of the imagination, set, provisionally, in the liberal airs of Berkeley. My father’s Israel had begun in 1933, where he had moved when he was three. Prior to that, his family had lived in the small Polish town of Przmsl where his father, Joshua, had been a woodsman and a community leader. When anti-Semitism roved their town like some fanged beast, Joshua scented survival and took his family to Haifa. Soon after, all the family — the uncles and grandfathers and cousins who remained in Poland — were killed.

Survival instinct, therefore, lived deep in the nature or nurture of the family.

Someone who married into the Meidavs traced our geneology back point by diasporic point through the Maharal of Prague, the Baal Shem Tov and Rashi, through Lucca, Italy, through the house of David and all the way back to some humble Palestinian second-century BC sandalmaker named Yohanan, and something about this millennial-long connection to the land paradoxically provided succor to my increasingly leftist father who loved the ideation of the Palestinian thinker Sari Nusseibeh. To his death, this American exile remained an exponent of the two-state solution, clearly a “yored”, a person who had “come down from” Israel, a distant survivor of an era and not, as our Israeli cousins liked to point out, a person on the ground, like his more rightist brother who had remained in Haifa.

Part of my father’s lofty idealism – so well suited to both California and his Israel, the Israel of the 1950s, before a moral conscience started riddling certain sectors —  meant that a favorite book among the many antique books in his collections was a set of lithographs done by David Roberts, Travels to the Holy Land, in which the Englishman had penned lovely romanticizing images of Bedouins hunkered down by a well, little aquarelle-like images of the land and its peoples coexisting, and for copies of books such as these, preserving the memory of a time before strife, my father would travel to book fairs seeking out unfoxed copies of the early Holy Land.

In this way and in so many others, my father was ideally suited to California. Because California seems to listen but insists on rose-colored landscapes. It has the compelling charisma of a narcissist, one which lures emigrants out to fulfill internal, narcissistic dictates. In its royal beneficence it makes lifestyle urges, ethical or sybaritic, holy, the body its temple.

Stay simple, a handwritten imperative on the cover of a notebook of one of our Berkeley house’s many inmates dictated. Stay simple, an idea perplexing my child’s mind. Was it better to stay simple so one could feel the world and all its categories better, anew, as if one were truly an innocent? Or was it better to gain in the intricacies of the world, cultural or natural, so that one could better understand its phenomena? Is it better to know the name of a leaf or does knowing the name mask appreciation of the leaf?

If you could, hypothetically, wash yourself clean of culture, would you then live the life of the body more purely? Our California had all the romantic-savage idealism of Truffaut’s Wild Child, in which the wolf-boy loses the inner truth of his body once he is civilized, yet our California also had the gourmet jadedness of your average American international food court: sample the best of everywhere else, become a multiplied citizen, and why ever leave? Motion could become stasis in the perfect microcosm of Berkeley.

We came to the zion of California, and specifically Berkeley, after my family had already tried out Saint Louis, Haifa, Toronto, Westbury. We came the year the sixties truly ended, that is, in 1974, when the whole city was entering what I would later realize was one prolonged hangover, the buzzkill that included Reagan, the Charles Manson years, the various propositions announcing that people did not want to pay taxes to support anyone other than themselves. Vietnam veterans smoked their only pleasant artifacts of the war, their tiny pinched hoardables, sitting on the curbs along Telegraph Avenue, the main drag toward the university, steeping the whole area in sickly sweet fumes. Open-air sellers sold hippie jewelry – and what did ever happen to macramé, which seemed such an important art to my young self, as important as basket-weaving or the making of incense-holders? – underneath a mural depicting the people’s struggle to save People’s Park from the pigs, the police. There was a sense of revolution mutely dimmed. Now the bourgeoisie got to eat their massive alfalfa-sprout salads while kids growing up during that time in that place got to see what happened if you went the way of drugs, a massive cautionary display on every corner.

So in the end the body became the path of improvement

California’s adolescent desire to make a better world, once nipped, became the realpolitik of someone entering their late twenties and early thirties, the more mature evaluation made by someone who realizes their own risks and mortality and who then makes adjustments.

In the buzzkill years, seeded by a genealogy beginning with the Jack LaLannes and continued by the Jane Fondas, what the state’s citizens were left with was the body. In the state I grew up in, the body was everything. You could retreat into the body and its nurturance and rejuvenation, its vitamin protocol or cryogenic suspension. Retreat into a fanfold of body therapies because the body would not betray, or if it did, it was your fault. You could control your health, as well as your fate, and any illness was a sign of poor internal combustion. Every adult I knew was dedicated toward some form of self-development, and these forms usually radiated from and toward the body.

From northern California all these body therapies – what we could see from another vantage as focused outcomes of the gold rush — were introduced, refined, reified, consolidated. Trager points, polarity, dance continuum, Rolfing, tai chi. Because, finally, when you had renounced your birthright, when politics had betrayed you, when you could not believe in your dreams, in community or connection or culture, you would always have the body, its urges, and the sophrosyne of the state writ upon it. You could endlessly self-improve, climb fire trails, eat more phytonutrients, meditate for hours a day and thus insure your own longevity or at least your survival when the great cataclysms would come, and bet your earthquake insurance come they would.

On the east coast and perhaps everywhere else, when people find a body therapy they like, they cling to it as if it is a splintered board after a shipwreck, singular and intense in their devotion to it, truly zealous acolytes in crowded corridors in Manhattan or in meetings in little hard-to-find restaurants. But on the west coast, people slip in and out of the ever-present therapies – because to survive in a place that doesn’t squeeze your contours with a social contract as, say, with New England’s lawns and flags, you need to have some kind of pressure around your corporeal self – with an ease and blending akin to all the state’s experiments with pineapple and pimiento: California Pizza Kitchen indeed.

My parents were not wholly immune to these new-fangled body therapies but also, interestingly, managed to remain in a prior century. My mother used olive oil on her face; my father used hair grease, part of a storm-cloud gathering of intention prior to any important business meeting. Of course he had other icons, all bespeaking the dream of ultimate mobility: the cologne of departure, the briefcase, the traveler’s Dopp kit with its tweezers, band-aids, scissors, shoe polish, an open briefcase. Most of my father’s life was spent in movement. When I was young, he would travel for months at a time for the United Nations to develop sustainable energy projects in Ethiopia, Honduras, Kenya, the Philippines and who knows where else.

My favorite memory of him from my kindergarten years is of a card he sent to me in his careful, floral immigrant cursive, a bird’s African feathers tufted on the front. In his absence, like our last phone call, the token became everything, a talisman of presence.

After his brief stint for the U.N., where he couldn’t stand being a company man, out in California, the land of possibility and future attainment, he started two companies. Over his career, he traveled the world and it was only after his death, as I took the plane westward that chilly middle of the night, that I realized that on planes, trains, boats, in any movement whatsoever, I had always been closest to him.

A few months after his death, I went on an already planned research trip to Nicaragua and realized, as the plane began its touch-down in Managua, the local women around me busily applying eye-makeup against the backdrop of volcanos, how so many moments of his life were spent in true California sybaritic fashion, enjoying and appreciating the artistry of the people around him.

Of, say, the chef at the Hotel Cesar in Managua.

I knew how much he loved this hotel because he had taken me to it once, on a business trip where I would serve, nominally, as his interpreter. For him, as with any Californian doing tai chi in the sun, any pleasure could be justified if it could somehow be categorized as being in the service of utopian work. Since he was forever a man confident about his children’s capacities and blithe about risk, being the kind of person who had fallen many times in his life – once down an elevator shaft in Haifa, once into a geothermal hot spring in Greece — he decided to send me, on this first trip to Nicaragua, packing with a team of boys on laden burros up the volcano of Momotombo so that, using machetes ahead of the burros as we rode, we could place antiquated seismic monitors in strategic locales.

He wanted me to know the liberals’ favorite fantasy, the pleasure of being one with the people; he thought I would want this experience and in this he was not wholly wrong. While he certainly liked knowing fancy people, he was also wholly unpretentious in how he tried to connect with anyone he met, whether parking attendant or fellow passenger, and was always filled with stories of strangers he had met on a trip, humble or grand, this woman whose charity in Nicaragua he had decided to support or some Oakland Baptist evangelist whose family needed succor.

In his desire to give me this common touch, that first trip to Nicaragua, of course he could not have predicted that perhaps it formed part of the strategy of this team of Nicaraguan brothers to lose me and the youngest brother in the endless jungle so that the youngest could entertain half a hope of losing his virginity, and that this meant that the brother and I ended up truly lost, with no water or food, clinging to trees above the nighttime cobras. Nor could my father have predicted that in the morning we would magically manage to pull the reluctant burros on circular paths toward, finally, an exit from those miles of wilderness.

After the slow return back to the safety of his Hotel Cesar, his home, after this life-or-death jungle experience, I was perplexed by the way my father sighed, relieved: I am just glad I did not know it was happening. I would have sent helicopters to try to rescue you.

Perhaps this meant that he would rather remain in hopeful ignorance than have to admit to friction. This possibly Israeli trait was another that suited him well to California, where people prefer to pursue the specificities of lifestyle, each one facing the ocean, rather than being aware of the particularities of all who rub shoulders next to them.

During that first visit to Nicaragua, after the life-or-death experience in the jungle, he and I stayed a few more days at Hotel Cesar where he chatted often with the chef, a bit like Hemingway in Cuba if without the drink. He was apparently happy to sit poolside, speaking an intelligible if slow Spanish to one after another person in endlessly futile business meetings.

His Nicaraguan ventures, motivated by a typically idealistic desire to provide a sustainable clean energy source to poor people, never quite got off the ground. Part of this failure, as one associate later told me, had to do with his refusal to adhere to  important local customs, bribery paramount among them. And clinging to some self-spun philosophy, his fortunes went down, as they often did, like those of your average 1849 gold miner.

When I came for the second time to Nicaragua, I was glad to be in a space not demarcated by him, a tatty little inn and not his Hotel Cesar, though I, nonetheless, like him, relied hugely on the kindness of strangers. On this trip, soon after his death, I felt especially close to him, a father who easily made of random new acquaintances a mobile family, much like the energies of his chosen profession and our California. What he had bequeathed me: to be in exile, making only of the body and one’s immediate acquaintances a home.

His most religious custom was to check into a hotel in some foreign city and then to call home, call my mother, call any one of us to tell us he had gotten in and what his latest geographical coordinates were: the purpose had arrived at its goal, and in this, my parents accorded each other great latitude. In movement – the dream shared by Zion and California – one could find meaning, purpose, belonging.

Say your goodbyes then, said Bob the unflappable nurse.

In other words, make a cord to a man of so many moveable parts.

In that one last second I had to talk to him – fittingly exiled — the trumpet-blast of a lifetime together came out of me:

Dad, I said, never having really known what name fit a man of so many origins, you are responsible for so much of anything that is good in me and your children and grandchildren love you and we’ll do what we can to honor your memory and legacy and all the good you’ve sown and you’ve been holding on so long and now it might be your time to let go and do you remember that song you loved about all the world being a narrow bridge, the important thing being not to fear and –

I got to hang up now, said Bob the knowledgeable, sixty seconds into my swan song.

Thirty seconds later, according to later reportage, my father, who allegedly smiled and nodded lightly as I spoke, was dead.

No one gives you a user’s manual to how such moments proceed. Somewhere inside I had signed a contract that I would be by my father’s side when he died, a kind of fellow traveler, as if my childhood in Berkeley – that made-up Californian confection, a pastiche of a bardo, made up of everyone else’s in-between  spaces, a kind of tunnel — meant I had to be with him in this final threshold zone.

That we had that last moment could have relieved me, just as my father was relieved not to have sent helicopters to rescue me from near-death in that Nicaraguan jungle. To be close but not to have to feel the pain of potential separation.

I could have said: jeez, at least I got to talk to my dad in his last second. He heard me, he smiled.

Instead, when a minute later the doctor called us in New York to tell us what we already knew, I felt I had betrayed my father’s legacy. I had not been by his side. I had taken his California Zion lesson too deeply. I was a person too much in movement, too much a traveler, exiled, too far away, following dreams of my own.

And still that doctor’s call released me from a deep freeze. I ran through our house as if on amphetamines, middle of the night on tiptoes, unable not to rush, as if it would change anything if I were speedy in booking a ticket from Albany, the nearest airport, so I could fly toward California. We the living scurry while our dead have all the time in the world. History sleeps and we hurry toward our ends. Plus I did not want to wake my kids to say I was going. Their relative innocence, lips fluttering over crucial dream-words, seemed crucial, almost more important than whatever had just happened. This was how my psyche compartmentalized its loss, organizing its metaphysical sock drawer. If you don’t orphan the details, you won’t have to see your own orphaning.

In a cold car in a parking lot in the middle of the night at that Albany airport, I pretended to sleep before my flight, enjoying the physical discomfort. No bed of nails could have been spiky enough. Already in movement I was closer to him but I still needed a physical correlate to the metaphysical dislodging death performs, some way to show my father I understood what his body might have known, despite its hyper-sedation, in all its recent injustices.

When I got to California, it was somehow fitting that the religious mandates around his burial kept me from seeing his body on that first day. My siblings and I sat  outside the back door of the locked, squat suburban building within which a guard sat praying over his body. We looked past native wildflowers into a valley half river-rift and half tectonic shift, with a large silver aqueduct lacking, in typical drought fashion, its water that could spill down into the canyon, exactly the kind of landscape my father would have appreciated: the grandeur of nature with a small token of failed human intervention, your archetypal Californian scene.

The next day, I sat in a room in that squat building alone with his body, so oddly still and yet alive, his huge bony head looking peaceful, the love that he radiated out to so many chillingly present in the room.

My youngest daughter, the firetruck lover, the three-year-old who has something of my father’s brow, had told me that morning she had glimpsed Saba walking in the house again and that, scared, she had hidden from him. The night of his death, before we knew he was dying, before I had put her to sleep in that upstate house with its tilt toward entropic custom, she had been trying to tell me, with strange insistence, that sometimes people go to hospitals and then they die.

I had chalked this up to, merely, her metabolism of some talk she’d heard about a month prior.

Earlier that same day of his death, I had been teaching two classes. In the first, after hearing a particular student story, I’d had an uncanny urge to tell my students the story of the death of one of my father’s closest relatives, but had suppressed the urge, as it had no obvious correlation with any pedagogical point. In the next class, I had been struck with the urge to laugh uncontrollably, much as had happened at the exact moment of death of a best friend of mine, many cities away from me, years ago and soon after the shoplifting incident, while I had been sitting in a class in a troubled Jerusalem.

Perhaps these occurrences – my daughter’s insistence on the suddenness of death, the odd telegraphs I wanted to convey to my students but did not — were nothing or perhaps they are as strong as the telephone cord. What ties the living to the dead, after a while, has mostly to do with the cord of belief, while the soul of writing will always be elegy: one uses words to create a trail back to some missing source, the platonic home you hope for but can never quite reach. Like the hundreds of unfinished highways you find in California, founded in big dreams and crashing in reality, all the roads that begin, continue, and never reach its end, this bit of writing is, perhaps necessarily, unilateral, incapable of neat conclusion.

I write this now from the lobby of a Cuban hotel under a statue of the one omnipresent heroic American you find here, Lincoln, the emaciated liberator, almost as ubiquitous as Che or Fidel, Bolivar, Allende, Maceo, Martí. My family, daughters and all, have been living in this country in an apartment owned by a slumlord on a street spilling over occasionally with rivers of sewage. For days at a time, we will have no water; on other days, the gas or electricity goes. To live here you live inside a national body, the scent of cologne and urinals and sugar everywhere, sugar being a useful substance for keeping a population somewhat peppy. It seems that only on certain government-decreed days, the chickens lay and you find hundreds of people gleeful as they carry gray open trays of eggs home for safekeeping. At scheduled hours, bread appears in the bakeries and every passerby hoists a triumphant loaf of fifty grams, no more and no less. Every restaurant’s menu lists tantalizing items that will never be obtained by anyone.

As legend would have it, the people, however, are mostly a constant party.

In this travel, its deprivations and pleasures, I seem still to be performing some kind of wake for my father, a man who always managed, in his way, to find gold in dirt.

This hotel from where I write is a sybarite’s enclave in an uneasy socialist utopia. As if I have just crawled out of some gasless, waterless outback, I deeply appreciate its café con leche. The months here have made it easy to recognize travelers from Berkeley, flocked here in disproportionate number: they talk out of the corners of their mouths as if their next restless thought tugs for flight. If they are older, they are fit and wear practical many-pocketed vests and floppy hats, their gestures loose and expressive. If younger, they are tattooed, hefty in calf muscle and committed to years of travel, either as foreign guides in Latin America or still fighting the good fight for Che’s idea of the new man motivated by moral profit and not financial gain.

On this early Sunday morning in the spring, over the loudspeaker comes, on endlessly hopeful loop, a Muzak version, replete with Andean pipes and a rumba swing, of the one American song ubiquitous in Cuba, The Eagles’ “Hotel California”.

There she stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bells ring
I was thinking to myself
This could be heaven or this could be hell

In a purgatory of exile, movement, and endless hope, having carried no more than the government-mandated forty-five pounds of luggage into this country, light-handed and skimming the earth, I recognize: right now I am probably as close as I could possibly be to my father’s California, that rosy future and its impossible state, the one I’m pointed toward, the one that can never be.

March, 2011

All photos courtesy the author