In his insightful book Meat: A Natural Symbol, Nick Fiddes points out we so often confuse “meat” with “food,” often treating them as synonymous. Summarizing recent anthropological work, Fiddes points how Ugandans trade “plantains that would feed a family for four days for one ‘scrawny’ chicken with less than a twentieth of the nutritional value;” Nazi Germany’s “wish to supply its forces with ‘excessive’ standards of protein” (meat) consequently dampened agricultural food production at a key moment in the Allied blockade. Our ontological trouble with “meat” is at the center of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian which is available to Anglophone readers nine years after becoming a critical hit in South Korea. The novel follows Yeong-he, a young woman who writes speech bubbles for magazines. Shaken by a terrible nightmare, she stops eating meat. She becomes disgusted by her husband who smells like meat and discards her leather clothes. Eventually, she refuses to eat any food at all. She communicates less and less. The Vegetarian is told from the "close-third" perspectives of three different characters, each one more empathetic but no more capable of “saving” her: her husband, a crude narcissist; her brother-in-law, an aesthete who attempts to incorporate her ethereal presence into his art; and her sister desperate to keep her alive. Their individual and collective failures are inscribed with Han's deep pessimism. To the Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo, Han said, “I wanted to show the extreme core of a dog-eat-dog world.” Han told The Guardian, when she explored Korea's Gwangju Massacre for a novel, her questions were “how can humans be so violent and cruel, and what can people do to counter such extreme violence?” Specifically in how her characters are prone to verbal, emotional, and physical abuse, The Vegetarian is dark, cynical, even antinatalist. That tone is well-earned, and balanced well with gallows humor. In the first section, Yeong-he and her husband attend a deeply unsettling dinner with his work colleagues. He has given them a tactful, misleading explanation for his wife's vegetarianism. The coworkers respond like a spiteful Greek chorus, threatened by her (inferred and never explicit) moral judgment, 'Well, I must say, I'm glad I've still never sat down with a proper vegetarian. I'd hate to share a meal with someone who considers meat repulsive, just because that's how they themselves personally feel...don't you agree?' 'Imagine you were snatching up a wriggling baby octopus with your chopsticks and chomping it to death -- and the woman across from you glared like you were some kind of animal. That must be how it feels to sit down and eat with a vegetarian!' The colleagues begin to ostracize him due to his wife’s odd behavior. To erode her defiance, her husband’s reaction is to provoke her family to intervene. Demanding that she conform to social convention, Yeong-he’s father, whose belligerence conjures up the patriarch of Franz Kafka’s “The Judgment,” berates her. The rest of the family cajoles her, as her husband watches. I expected my wife to say something in her defense, but the sole, silent answer she made to all those glaring faces was to set the pair of chopsticks she had picked up back down on the table. A small flurry of unease ran through the assembled family. This time, my mother-in-law picked up some sweet and sour pork with her chopsticks and thrust it right up in front of my wife's mouth, saying, 'Here. Come on, hurry up and eat.' After rushing her to the hospital in his arms, her brother-in-law, a video artist, feels compelled to feature her in his art. Troubled by his own sexual attraction to her, he ultimately exploits her fragility and vulnerability. Was he a normal human being? More than that, a moral human being? A strong human being, able to control his own impulses? In the end, he found himself unable to claim with any certainty that he knew the answers to these questions, though he'd been so sure before. In the final section, Yeong-he's sister cares for her sister. Her own complicated feelings, protective and resigned, are beautifully depicted. The novel plays on ideas of martyrdom and sacrifice; her sister comes to suspect the cruelty of the desperate need to sustain Yeong-he's life against her will. Martyred for what exactly?, a reader might ask. Simply because she doesn't like the taste or smell of something? In the first section, we gain some insight into Yeong-he with brief snatches of her dreams in which she blends into the animal world: Murderer or murderer...hazy distinctions, boundaries wearing thin. Familiarity bleeds into strangeness, certainy becomes impossible. Only the violence is vivid enough to stick. A sound, the elasticity of the instant when the metal struck the victim's head. As the novel progresses, her motives become increasingly inscrutable -- in many ways, the novel forgoes any clear thesis on the morality of eating meat. It situates her repugnance for meat in “taste,” an ephemeral but indispensable arrow. As John Ruskin argued in his essay, “Traffic,” “Taste is not only a part and an index of morality -- it is the ONLY morality. The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is, 'What do you like?'” The language we use betrays just how ingrained taste and our sense of right and wrong are. We feel disgusted (from dégoût, have a distaste for) when banking conglomerates defraud the public. To argue that a person, or groups of people, should not have a taste for something (meat, violence, your love) speaks to that person's fundamental moral maladjustment. All of which is to say that Han Kang's The Vegetarian is a sharply written allegory that extends far beyond its surreal premise to unexpected depths. The translation by Deborah Smith is by turns elegant and coarse. The narrators are perfectly pitched to their individual voices; they are looking for answers, or perhaps else. Throughout the novel, the characters search to hear or speak “words of comfort.” The narrator says at one point, “Whatever the words were, they hadn't been words of comfort.” “They were merciless.”
In 1934, the year Flash Gordon and The Three Stooges debuted, A.J.A. Symons published his great “experiment-in-biography,” The Quest for Corvo. In it, Symons, an aesthete bibliophile, describes first reading Hadrian the Seventh, an obscure Edwardian novel. The author, Frederick Rolfe, is a dazzling eccentric. Without any link to aristocracy, he assumes the name Baron Corvo and claims that England should submit to Italian dominion. Symons spends several years tracing the history of the painter-novelist from his dismissal as a young ecclesiastic to his last days in Venice. A prolific, irascible writer, Rolfe becomes increasingly frustrated by his own obscurity and failed commercial success: in the words of Rolfe's acquaintance, Leslie, he was “a self-tortured and defeated soul, who might have done much, had he been born in the proper era or surroundings.” Reading The Quest for Corvo, from a safe distance, I relished reading Rolfe's vitriolic letters, excerpts from his novels dense with Latinate neologisms and anecdotes about his idiosyncratic behavior. Chris Offutt, though, experienced first-hand life with The Difficult Writer: his father was a Rolfe-like pornographer and science-fiction writer named Andrew Offutt, who wrote under the alias John Cleve. My Father, the Pornographer contains reflections on Appalachian childhood, the portrait of the artist as a father, and literary analysis of mid-to-late-century genre writing. Most of all, it is a heartbreaking, hilarious, and humane exploration of the filial relationship. The father is a cankered patriarch right out of Fyodor Dostoevsky. He grew up in Appalachia, eventually getting married and starting an insurance business. He had literary ambitions from the age of 14, though. One of the pleasures of My Father, the Pornographer is watching Chris, the accomplished short-story writer and author of Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, attentively reading his father's work, trying to understand the man and the author. While at the University of Louisville, his father wrote a short story, “Requite Me, Baby,” or “The Other Side of the Story.” Chris writes: In the past fifteen years, I've taught creative writing at a number of universities, colleges, and conferences. If I'd come across this story in my teaching, I would have considered it among the most promising works I'd seen. A remarkable intelligence operates behind the prose...The voice is reminiscent of contemporary writers at the time, a combination of Salinger and Hemingway. One strong note is the handling of time...If I were a teacher conferring with the twenty-year-old who wrote it, I'd be extremely supportive. The reader asks: How much of this is filial loyalty, the impulse to protect or defend your father's achievement? The allusion to J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway seems hyperbolic. It would be unthinkable that a writing teacher today would compare an undergraduate student's story in a contemporary workshop to, say, William Trevor or Alice Munro. But My Father, the Pornographer is a better book because it doesn't assume a phony “objectivity” or “distance;” it's a searching, open-hearted memoir that doesn't contrive an easy position for its author in relationship to his father. Though he was raised in the Depression and succored on Silent Generation values (family, duty, community), he inadvertently is drawn into the world of sci-fi conventions. It was a heady time to be working in science fiction: books like Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and Samuel Delany's Babel-17 were winning Nebula Awards. Chris’s mother cuts her hair, his father doesn't cut his, and the house takes another spiritual direction: The Bible vanished from the dining room, replaced by an equally large copy of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. Dad gave our property the official address of the Funny Farm, putting it on legal documents, stationary, and bank checks. Over his career, his father wrote porn that touches on a range of fetishes, quirks, and predilections. Chris, the son, tries to catalogue the hundreds of published books but becomes “bogged down in subgenres.” He cultivated a porn-author persona, John Cleve, and ultimately in 1994 alone wrote 44 novels, including Punished Teens, The Chronicles of Stonewall 7: Captives of Stonewall, and Buns, Boots, & Hot Leather. To meet market demand, Andrew created a highly efficient system. He “created batches of raw material in advance -- phrases, sentences, descriptions, and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders.” Sections were dedicated to descriptions of the female body: breasts were “meaty pendants,” “bulging sides of her shapely creamballs,” and “thrusting artillery shells.” As he wrote, he would cut and paste the scenes into his novel and black out the used material. Like Rolfe, he was easily offended but pathologically incapable of physical confrontation or reconciliation. Apparently, he had an entirely one-sided but long-running feud with Harlan Ellison. He aired his grievances in compellingly splenetic correspondence. When a fan wrote him describing his own wife's painful and tragic death, with a post-script pointing out a grammatical mistake in one of his books, Andrew Offutt lashed out: Yes, of course it is nitpicking to PS an otherwise nice letter, requesting time and money-effort from a writer -- or any other human being, surely -- with the quoting of a slip on p. 24, in which “less” appears rather than “fewer.” Nitpicking and dumb, because it is designed to lose friends and intimidate people. Everything else is fascinating, though, including the ghastliness of your wife's dying. My Father, the Pornographer manages to give full expression to all the melancholy of his life -- the intellectual insecurity, the fiercely-protected isolation, the heroic work ethic, the creative tenacity, the protean gifts -- without losing sight of just how difficult the man was to be around.
1. On April 10, 1917, Dr. Siegfried Wolff of Berlin-Charlottenburg wrote to an unprolific but well-connected author about his recently republished story. The story had been originally rushed to publication under difficult wartime circumstances, but its author did have the opportunity to edit the galleys for a subsequent stand-alone volume. Anyway, Dr. Wolff was not interested in airy questions of prose style. He was unhappy: Dear Sir, You have made me unhappy. I bought your “Metamorphosis” as a present for my cousin, but she doesn't know what to make of this story. My cousin gave it to her mother, who doesn't know what to make of it either. Her mother gave the book to my other cousin, and she doesn't know what to make of it either. Now they've written to me. They want me to explain the story to them because I am the one with a doctorate in the family. But I am baffled. Sir! I spent months fighting it out with the Russians in the trenches without flinching, but if my reputation among my cousins went to hell, I would not be able to bear it. Only you can help me. You have to, because you are the one who landed me in this situation. So please tell me what my cousin ought to make of “The Metamorphosis.” Yours sincerely, Dr. Siegfried Wolff Though we have no record of Franz Kafka's response, his biographer Reiner Stach points out that Dr. Wolff's letter would be “a harmless harbringer of the enormous discursive surge that would descend upon [Kafka's] posthumous writings a generation later.” Several generations later, every student assigned to read "The Metamorphosis" is introduced to the myth: the quest to write a book that would serve as “an axe to break the frozen sea within us,” his unrecognized genius, the overbearing father, and the friend who refused to carry out his wish to have the unfinished work burned. Scholars and biographers have complicated that image without really challenging the myth. Kafka and friend and literary executor Max Brod, understandably, haven't made their work easy. When he prepared Kafka's work for publication, Brod excised passages from Kafka's work that contained anti-Semitic material or details about brothel visits. Even 40 years after Max Brod's death, papers important to Kafka's biographers were still mired in a long, complicated legal case. Towards the end of his life, Brod entrusted documents to his longtime lover Esther Hoffe. Instead of making them publicly available, she held onto almost all of the material until her death in 2008. Hoffe's daughters inherited them and stated their intention to sell them to the German Literature Archive, which had bought The Trial from Esther Hoffe in 1988, rather than the National Library of Israel, to which Brod had ambiguously promised to donate them. The public debate about the papers has touched on Nazi history, Brod and Hoffe's possible sexual debauchery, the “best interests of the scholars,” and the Hoffe daughters' cat-lady reputations. Which is all to say, the Kafka trial was improbably Dickensian. In 2012, the lawsuit was resolved, with the National Library of Israel being awarded the Kafka archives. Quoted in The New York Times, the Israeli writer Etgar Keret put it nicely, “The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughters who keep it in an apartment full of cats, right?” Biographer Reiner Stach held off on writing the first volume covering Kafka's childhood until the lawsuit was resolved. That volume will draw on letters from Kafka's childhood friends and Brod's notebooks and diary that were held by the Hoffes. What Stach has given us so far are two-thirds of a brilliant, authoritative portrait: translated into English by Shelley Frisch, Reiner Stach's Kafka: The Decisive Years and Kafka: The Years of Insight begin in 1910 and end with Kafka's death in 1924. Stach's Kafka belonged to his contemporary world and stood estranged from it. In many of his stories, he masterfully reworked the Symbolist and Expressionist tropes that featured in his contemporaries' writings -- surreal transformations, enigmatic dialogue, alienated protagonists -- as well as those of Jewish myth, Enlightenment philosophy, and the picaresque novel. Aside from the influence of Franz Grillparzer, Knut Hamsun, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (whom Kafka explicitly cited as influences), Stach also draws attention to the non-literary influences on Kafka's work. He was an early cinephile. Consider the Chaplin-esque sections in “Lawyer, Manufacturer, Painter,” (usually published as the seventh chapter of The Trial), in which lawyers charge up a flight of stairs only to be thrown down by a bouncer-like official: On the other hand, any day not spent in court is a day lost for them and it was a matter of some importance to force their way inside. In the end, they agreed that they would try to tire the old man out. One lawyer after another was sent out to run up the steps and let himself be thrown down again, offering what resistance he could as long as it was passive resistance, and his colleagues would catch him at the bottom of the steps. That went on for about an hour until the old gentleman, who was already exhausted from working all night, was very tired and went back to his office. His satire belies his own genius for legal work. Professionally, he was a diligent, detail-oriented bureaucrat. He spoke convincingly to groups of hostile entrepreneurs about the importance of insuring their employees at a time when the idea was exotic and strange. When he did choose to write prose that baffled Dr. Wolff, he did so with the same precision as he prepared legal memos. Kafka's interest in Yiddish theater also nourished his writing. He gave a successful speech before a performance by a group of “Eastern” Jewish theater troupes, pointing out the historical and literary significance of what amounted to “cultural exotica” for Jewish audiences in Prague. His performance, as a reporter described it, was remarkable: At the same time, he grew bored with or disenchanted with Yitzhak Löwy, a writer-actor who tried to bring artistic credibility to Yiddish theater. Doubtlessly, his own personal mythology was an important source for his fiction. The biography is, of course, an exhausted corner of the vast Kafka industry. We know: in addition to being a zealous bureaucrat and an active member of Prague's logrolling literati, Franz Kafka was an unusually fastidious craftsman of German prose. To wit, when he was near death, he demanded that his friend and literary executor Max Brod burn unfinished work, including The Trial, that did not meet his impossibly high standards. But he had worked hard and felt “The Metamorphosis” had fulfilled its potential, if it still was not quite on par with “The Judgment.” Among all the myths surrounding Kafka, perhaps his own self-mythology is the most misleading and misled. Few readers would rate “The Judgment,” a frantic, claustrophobic, and humorless story, better than “The Metamorphosis.” Kafka though considered “The Judgment” a moment of transcendent creation. He wrote it in a single night, in the midst of an anxious, awkward courtship. Contrastingly, on January 19, 1914, he disparaged “The Metamorphosis,” the greater story of the two, which he had written in spurts, in his diary: “Great aversion. Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its core.” Perhaps he was turning away from what his friends clearly recognized as autobiography. Or he was feinting. About “The Judgment,” he resisted the claim on technical grounds, saying “Then our father would have to be living in the toilet.” His Hebrew teacher recounts how, when speaking with someone who had read “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka “took a step back” and said “as though he were discussing a real occurrence, 'That was a dreadful thing.'” 2. One of the successes of Stach's biography is how well-drawn his friends and family are. Max Brod was a loyal friend and selfless promoter of others' work. When Brod engaged in an ill-advised public dispute with Karl Kraus, though, you can sense his frustration at his standing in the larger republic of letters -- a power-broker in a cultural outpost like Prague is considered a hack in Berlin. His father, Hermann, who owned a luxury-goods store on Aldstader Ring, is also thoughtfully sketched. Clearly, he was a man who recognized the vulnerability of his social standing; in his lifetime, he was required to maintain his reputation in the community, overcome the financial imprudence of one son-in-law, distinguish himself at a time when anti-Semitism erupted regularly, and navigate the slow decline of the Austrian-Hungarian empire and the sudden emergence of Czech nationalism. To him, his son's indifference to the family's financial solvency and his own career advancement seemed like fatal dilettantism. Kafka's fiance, Felice Bauer, was a middle-class Berliner, sometimes dismissed by his biographers as unworthy of his devotions. She emerges as a complex figure in The Decisive Years. She was an accomplished office worker, comfortable with the sudden mechanization of the workplace. As Stach puts it, “Pragmatic, straightforward, and always grounded in reality, she oscillated daily between the pressure cooker of her family and the cold rationality of her office with no apparent ill effects. She seems to have adapted well to a professional world in which both maternal behavior and daintiness were scorned.” She was pragmatic, even mercenary, in romance too. In the correspondence with Kafka, she also kept secrets to maintain an image of bourgeois propriety. From a private detective agency hired by Franz's parents, she impressively managed to hide both an unstable brother and an unmarried, pregnant sister. 3. The clubby literary world of early-20th-century Prague, the anxious and unfulfilled courtship, the grinding filial obligations -- none of it seems to promise an extraordinary literary career. What distinguished the Prague novelist and short-story writer from his contemporaries, the largely-forgotten Symbolist and Expressionist writers that he shared stage and page with? He remains singular because his choices are not inevitable. There are no clear lines between his work and his aesthetics, history, biography, and philosophy. His literature is defiant, organic, and idiosyncratic. The ending of “The Metamorphosis” that he disliked so much is one of those singular moments that distilled the difference between Kafka and his peers: the Samsas, having rid themselves of Gregor, enjoy an idyll outside of their cramped apartment. Similarly, in “The Stoker,” the first chapter of Amerika, Kafka re-imagines the Statue of Liberty with a sword in its hand. Despite setting his fiction in the U.S. or imperial colonies (neither of which he ever saw firsthand), it was Prague that he belonged to. Though Stach amply demonstrates how Kafka fully inhabited the city, its fringe theaters and its literary salons, Prague has had an uneasy relationship with its native son. He was Jewish and wrote highly personal fragments in German, which has not necessarily endeared him to later generations of nationalists. Yet there has been a reconciliation of sorts. Today, the Kafka Museum in Prague displays some of the seminal mementos of his life, including the unposted “Letter to His Father,” and scores of travel-visa requests when he was frantically trying to visit Germany during the war. It is located not far from the Charles Bridge, from which Kafka probably had Georg Bendemann leap to his doom. That semblance of proximity is illusory though. As Stach points out in his epilogue, in the next 20 years, The fate of many people he was close to was sealed, and countless traces of Kafka's life that were left behind in the collective memory were wiped out. Letters, photographs, literary estates, even entire archives were destroyed. The violence that gripped the era often made it impossible to identify what was lost, and even to ascertain that it was lost. […] He would not have recognized anything left after the end of this catastrophic blow to civilization. His world no longer exists. Only his language lives.
1. Last April, parts of the Senate Intelligence Committee Study on the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Report -- “the Torture Report” -- were declassified. (Melville House has issued it in accessible print and digital editions.) The Report unequivocally refutes the justifications and rationalizations of Bush-era CIA interrogation tactics. Committee Chairperson Dianne Feinstein's foreword is characteristically candid: Existing U.S. law and treaty obligations should have prevented many of the abuses and mistakes made during this program. While the Office of Legal Counsel found otherwise between 2002 and 2007, it is my personal conclusion that, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured. I also believe that the conditions of confinement and the use of authorized and unauthorized interrogation and conditioning techniques were cruel, inhuman, and degrading. I believe the evidence of this is overwhelming and incontrovertible. According to the Report, the CIA deceived policymakers in Congress and the White House, as well Justice Department investigators, about detention conditions and methods. Additionally, the CIA's Office of Public Affairs released “inaccurate information concerning the effectiveness” of the program; contrary to its goals, the torture program “in some cases, impeded the national security missions of other Executive Branch agencies.” Many of the officers that were involved in the program “had serious documented personal and professional problems -- including histories of violence and records of abusive treatment of others.” Though the CIA held around 100 detainees at a given time, the agency didn't have accurate figures for the number of detainees in custody. The campaign to defend the program was extensive. One section of the report is dedicated to debunking the eight most commonly cited examples of “success stories.” In each of them, the role that enhanced interrogations played in thwarting attacks was misrepresented and often fabricated. For instance, the CIA frequently suggested that information gained during interrogations prevented attacks on Heathrow Airport in 2003. But the Al-Qaeda members charged with carrying out the attack (Ammar Al-Baluchi, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and others) were already in detention as of early 2003. Even under torture, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provided speculative and inaccurate answers to his interrogators about the Heathrow operation. Only “after being confronted by contradictory evidence” did he provide the name of a key accomplice. The Report makes it clear that the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program was, in every sense, a moral and strategic catastrophe. 2. Mohamedou Ould Slahi's Guantánamo Diary provides an intimate glimpse into the early years of the program. Slahi has been in CIA detention for almost 14 years, from the earliest years of the War on Terror, but has never been tried for a crime. His story implicates a number of foreign governments and corroborates many of the findings of the Torture Report: improperly supervised and often sadistic officers, undisciplined interrogation tactics, and the obstruction of the International Red Cross and other watchdog groups. Mohamedou Ould Slahi was born in Mauritania; he writes wryly about his home country: “In Mauritania, people fix everything. In Germany, they replace everything.” He describes wedding rituals and the sloppy work of mukhabarat, Arab-country secret police, who “are more well-known to the commoners” and “should think about a new nomenclature, something like 'The Most Obvious Police.'” He describes a Mauritanian ritual in which the bride is “kidnapped” by her friends and the groom must go in search of her; it sometimes takes days but eventually the two spouses are joyously reunited. In the early 1990s, he interrupted his studies in Germany to fight in Afghanistan. He swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda, which had not yet declared war on the United States. Over the next 12 years, Slahi worked in Germany and Canada, and distanced himself from militant Islam. At times, he came into contact with fellow mujahadeen, including fighters in transit to Chechnya. Slahi also had family connections to a high-level Al-Qaeda leader who opposed the 9/11 attacks and later defected; he wired money on his behalf to the leader's family. (That leader lives unbothered in Mauritania.) In Canada, he attended the same mosque as attempted LAX bomber, Ahmed Ressam. Evidently, the interactions were at most brief and not incriminating; according to Canadian intelligence, Ressam and Slahi may never have met. By 2000, he had settled in Nouakchott, Mauritania. After 9/11, he was detained by his own government. At the time of his arrest, “the Mauritanian President was hanging onto office by a spider's thread,” which made him both reluctant to deny the U.S.'s request for Slahi and reluctant to hand over a Mauritanian citizen too readily. In mid-November 2001, Slahi was arrested and handed over to American authorities. He was flown to Amman, where he was tortured brutally by Jordanian intelligence, then Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and finally Guantanámo. He began writing the diary in 2005. His lawyers spent years attempting to get the diary declassified. Slahi learned English during his detention. But his prose is shot through with moving pathos and beauty: “All I know is that one detainee sat on my right, and one on my left, and another against my back. It is always good to feel the warmth of your co-detainees, somehow it's solacing.” Later, he writes, “I hate small planes. I always feel I'm on the wing of a demon when I travel in them.” Slahi's voice is complex, wry, perceptive. During an interrogation, Slahi said, “I even think his whole [9/11] story was a fake, to unlock the terrorism budget and hurt the Muslims.” He reflected on his statement later, “Back then I didn't know a whole lot of things that I do now. I believed excessively in Conspiracy Theories -- though maybe not as much as the U.S. government does.” Slahi observes the changes in Guantanámo as tactics are introduced, changed, and discarded. Early in his detention, female CIA agents sexually molested him. One agent says, “I've always been successful. Having sex with someone is not considered torture.” (The use of these methods by CIA agents is confirmed in the Schmidt-Furlow report.) Later, the interrogators craft forgeries -- passports and letters from his family -- but the forgeries are awkward, riddled with mistakes, and transparent. When Slahi points out that a fake U.S. passport with Slahi's name on it doesn't prove anything (since the U.S. government could easily create one), the interrogator never mentions it again. To further illustrate how long-term detention fails to reach its goals, the detainees become more practiced in the techniques than their interrogators. Many of them begin to sign false confessions to earn basic rights. Slahi is awarded a DVD player and television for incriminating himself. Slahi observes that some of the interrogators are decent people following orders, and others are pathological sadists. He writes about an interrogator, “You could see that he had been doing this work for some time: there were no signs of humanity in his face. He hated himself more than anybody could hate him.” The text is heavily redacted. Offering further testimony to the incompetence of his captors, the redactions are clumsy, tone-deaf, and poorly weighed. Details about a female interrogator and the pronoun “she” is deleted but it's easy to infer from the rest of the text. “Gamal Abdel Nasser,” despite his death over 40 years ago, is obscured, presumably because the redactor didn't recognize the name of the most seminal Arab leader of the 20th century. The handwritten pages that are interspersed throughout the book have the chastening effect of authenticity. The pages are blotted with excisions that create a literal void, the names, details, and locations that are still classified. They also come to represent a more pervasive void: an incomplete reckoning with the unconscionable policies performed in the name of American citizens. 3. The first conclusion of the Torture Report is: “#1: The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.” The report goes on to point out that torture often led to fabrications about “critical intelligence issues.” In 2010, Judge James Robertson agreed: The government had to adduce evidence -- which is different from intelligence -- showing that it was more likely than not that Salahi was a part of al-Qaida. To do so, it had to show that the support Salahi undoubtedly did provide from time to time was provided within al-Qaida's command structure. The government has not done so. (sic) He continues, “The government's problem is that its proof that Salahi gave material support to terrorists is so attenuated, or so tainted by coercion and mistreatment, or so classified, that it cannot support a successful criminal prosecution.” The writ has not been executed. In September 2010, a Circuit Court found that the court left “unresolved key factual questions necessary for us to determine as a matter of law whether Salahi was 'part of' al-Qaida when captured.” They vacated Robertson's decision and “remanded [Slahi's case] for further proceedings.”
1. During summer break, sophomore year, my father and I took a short trip from our house on Sugarbush Drive (memorable streetname, unmemorable neighborhood) to visit the Jack Kerouac House. It was a 20 minute drive down I-4 to the small quaint house that is now situated a few blocks from a sprawling commercial development. Orlando was an agreeable town when Kerouac's mother moved there, and while Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums there. A few years later, the arrival of the Walt Disney Corporation would radically alter the landscape, physically and culturally. We walked around the House and knocked on the door. Answering the door was an early-career MFA graduate, the House's resident writing fellow. The three-month fellowship ostensibly afforded him the time to work on a play about a New Orleans jazz musician. A pair of sunglasses slid down his nose, exposing his puffy eyes: he was just then emerging from a hangover. Work, he explained, was going slowly. When we asked for details about the House and Kerouac, the playwright politely pointed us to a neighbor, a retiree who was walking across the street. The pensioner claimed to have known Kerouac's mother, who had actually owned the house, as well as Kerouac. She kept “a nice lawn” and “was a sweet woman,” but he was “a drunk” and a “druggy.” Whether or not it was true was beside the point. My father and I agreed the Orlando Tourism Board couldn't have dreamed up a better touch of embellished authenticity than a curmudgeonly, fist-waving, stay-off-my-lawn Floridian to America's Own Free-Love Dionysus. Granted, a residence of a 20th-century American novelist probably never earned much notice in the Tragic Kingdom. Years after visiting the Kerouac House, during a vacation in Prague, I visited Bohumil Hrabal's cherished pub, U zlatého tygra (At the Golden Tiger). He once shared a drink with Bill Clinton and Vaclav Havel in the same boisterous, salty, regulars' bar. At one of the shared tables in the backroom, I met a half-British, half-Czech jazz singer who boasted that he played cards with Hrabal's frequent collaborator, the film director Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, Larks on a String). According to the singer, who can be found performing a fine version of “Strange Fruit” on the west bank of the Charles River most nights, Menzel was the worst director of live opera in history and, at 75, an incorrigible womanizer. The latter, at least, was meant as high praise. These are examples in my long-held fascination with writer lore and the places they immortalized. It probably began, at eight, when I first checked out the collected short stories of Edgar Allan Poe from the Poplarville Public Library, and read the short, breathless biography in the introduction (Virginia Clemm, alcoholism, his vexed relationship with a father figure). Since, I have sabotaged dates, relationships, other people's vacation plans, among other things, for a few extra hours in the Eudora Welty House, Rowan Oak, the Lake Isle of Innisfree, Berggasse 19, Richard Wright's elementary school (or perhaps it was just his schoolchair and the school had been torn down -- I can't remember). How could anyone not be shaken up by reading Franz Kafka's famous (and famously unsent) 1918 letter to his father now on display at the Kafka Museum? Imbued with the authenticity of Franz's own cramped, unerringly legible handwriting? Partly, in all these journeys, I was looking for that very same authenticity, the dirt and the air Hrabal or William Faulkner had actually breathed, the unmediated sources of their perfect art. But I was also looking for, and more often finding, myth. Sometimes there were anecdotes embellished by the author, for instance, the public images enthusiastically promoted by Sigmund Freud and Nathaniel Hawthorne; other times, the rumors had been mooted by rivals, promoters, surviving family, and friends. Over a recent weekend, I consumed Sarah Stodola's Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors. Stodola reconstructs the careers, habits, and influences of major writers in English of the last century, from Edith Wharton to David Foster Wallace; each section ends by summarizing the author's daily writing routine, and anything that might have disrupted it (Wharton's frustration over an unsatisfactorily arranged hotel room, Wallace's lack of discipline). It's a well-researched book that is affably written and organized, though the choice to avoid quoting or expanding on each writer's career development seems like a missed opportunity. Though each chapter takes a writer in detail, Stodola has focused on the “horizontal and vertical,” things that avid readers might find interesting, such as the controlling “image” that guides Toni Morrison's work or how much time Ernest Hemingway really gave over to socializing. I was reminded of peculiar trivia I had read years ago, but hadn't fully appreciated at the time: James Joyce's early infatuation with Henrik Ibsen, Philip Roth's habit of writing hundreds of pages before finding the first useable syllable. I'll almost certainly return to Process when my own enthusiasm for revising wanes, or when I finally start The Custom of the Country, and would like to pluck some well-curated details about its author. Though I also know my interest is slight compared with the insatiable, obsessive appetite of some writers, my fascination is not just a type of highbrow celebrity cult, which tends to be less about the person's work and more about Puritan pillorying. There is no prying into their intimate lives, either, since I'm mostly interested in things that the authors considered “fair play” -- documents sold to libraries, autobiographical writing published with their permission, property that their families curate on their behalves -- rather than, say, Henry James's sexuality. Instead, I, and thousands of others, are interested in how they chose to live with their work. I too live with their work, sometimes comfortably, sometimes miserably, the terrible beauty that their novels and poems are. Stodola offers some research, but I still wonder: How did Faulkner gain perspective on a place and people that were in such uncomfortable proximity to his Oxford house, while Joyce was able to sustain an intimacy with his city, his country, and its politics from more than 1,600- kilometers away? 2. Megan Mayhew Bergman's Almost Famous Women explores this theme with deft control and cool poise: how we mortals interact with genius. In these 13 stories, Bergman observes a range of influential, often-mythic, often-thwarted women: a jazz singer, bit actresses, artists. The collection's stories examine how both their fame and femininity exerts a powerful attraction on the hangers-on, attendants, and survivors that orbit them. The “almost famous” are alternately callous, benevolent, brilliant, self-effacing, self-serving, merciless, and wounded. That word, “almost,” is singly devastating, salvific, and penetrating: their failures haunt them but haven't doomed them. “The Autobiography of Allegra Byron” envisions the too-short life of Lord Byron's tragically neglected daughter by Claire Clairmont. Sent to the Convento di San Giovanni before she had turned four, Allegra is a confused, frustrated child patiently nurtured by one novice nun. In one indelible scene, the abbess begins to praise the theological education of her wards to Percy Bysshe Shelley, a surprise visitor. Shelley, the formidable Romantic poet and polemicist who was expelled from Oxford in 1811 after he published The Necessity of Atheism, has turned up at the Convento to visit his niece, but is appalled to discover that the child of a Romantic arch-firebrand has to recite church creed. Can you recite the Apostles' Creed for your friend? the abbess said, a note of pride in her voice, as if she was eager for Shelley to report Allegra's progress to her father. I believe in God, the Father almighty. Allegra looked up at Shelley's eyes, perhaps sensing his horror. Her voice fell flat. That won't be necessary, Shelley said, holding up one hand in protest. I'm quite confident in Allegra's recitation. After the girl is taken away for her evening prayers, he says to the narrator, the younger nun, She appears greatly tamed, Shelley said to me as the abbess and Allegra disappeared down the hall, though not for the better. A story that balances mischief and bleakness, “Romaine Returns” is about a servant named Mario, who manipulates the household of the early-20th-century artist Romaine Brooks. Brooks's decadent youth has been ravaged by post-traumatic stress disorder, and she has become a reclusive shut-in and virtually given up art. When her friend-dealer contacts her, Mario is surprised that she had ever had friends. He wonders, “It's hard for Mario to imagine Romaine deep in anyone's heart. He stares at the lavender card stock with disbelief and jealousy. He wants words this intense, this loving, coming in a letter with his name on it. But he's never been in love.” In “Saving Butterfly McQueen,” a medical student remembers a semester she spent as a confused young religious proselytizer. In Augusta, Ga., her vanity and ambition leads her to the doorstep of McQueen. The well-known African-American actress has publicly disowned her celebrated career as a racially stereotyped movie actress and any belief in God. In Bergman's imagined Augusta neighborhood in 1994, McQueen is glimpsed in a pitch-perfect scene: her most famous role, as Prissy in Gone With the Wind, is profoundly embarrassing in post-Civil-Rights America -- the cringe-worthy “I don't know nothing bout birthing no babies,” the staircase scene in which Scarlett O'Hara shoves her down. McQueen attempts to reclaim part of that dignity. She renounces her faith. She donates her body to science. She proudly reminds a reporter that she wouldn't allow Vivien Leigh to slap her. The narrator, the proselytizer, has the grace and wisdom not to explicitly point out her hypocrisy or other failings. Marco's soul-destroying jealousy is also tautly drawn. As in many of Bergman's stories, the writing shines through understatement, the well-placed detail, the disciplined accumulation of theme and style. That few of the sentences or passages pull at your cuff to highlight them and paste them on a Goodreads page is a testament to Bergman's craft. Each sentence is deeply rooted in story and voice and is more effective for not having too-precious prose. Another strength is the way that she manages to balance romanticizing her subjects with providing characters with depth and mystery. I think about my trips to see subjects when I read Bergman, because she has accomplished the hope of every literary pilgrim: reaching for a greater depth of understanding without grasping, seeing without gazing. 3. None of this cult-worship started with my generation. Remember that Aristotle tells a fanboy story about Heraclitus: a group of foreigners decide to go out of their way on a journey to visit the famous Greek philosopher. When they arrive at his house, “they saw him warming himself at his stove.” Surprised, they stood there in consternation -- above all because he encouraged them, the astounded ones, and called for them to come in, with the words, “For here too the gods are present.” Martin Heidegger, in his “Letter on Humanism,” claimed that the anecdote illustrates the banal, everyday dwelling of genius, or godliness. He suggests that the unfamiliar thing (god or genius) happens here among all these familiar things. They expect intellectual charisma -- incendiary, paradigm-shattering, irascible -- or at least a man baking bread, but find an old man in a quaint house, the most ordinary of places, where the great Heraclitus is heating his bare feet. Another recent novel has also shone some insight on impressionable youth, the cult of genius, and the problem of familiarity and estrangement. Lars Iyer's novel Wittgenstein Jr is set at a British university, among a group of graduate students enrolled in a seminar by a man who might either commit suicide or write a great philosophical work in the style of Being and Time or Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The students half-mockingly name him after the great German philosopher. Iyer mirrors some of Jr's behavior on the actual Wittgenstein's own insane antics, including beating a sick child unconscious in the 1930s Austria, as catalogued in Wittgenstein's Poker. Aside from picking off biographical details, the novel itself seems to draw inspiration from the arc of Wittgenstein's career. The first half is dense with the study of logic and propositions, before the second half gives way to a looser, direct, yet more conventional and approachable style. In the second half, Iyer almost completely discards the preoccupation with philosophical puzzle-solving altogether. The last hundred pages could be described as a kind of campus love story. The flinty personalities. The abrupt changes in style and approach. The disembodied philosophical chatter. It's a triumph that Iyer pulls off this high-wire act so brilliantly. It's irreverent, smart, and off-kilter. One of my favorite passages describes the professor's arrival at the university: He's trying to see Cambridge, Wittgenstein says. He's done nothing else since he arrived. But all he sees is rubble. The famous Wren Library!, he says, and laughs. The famous Magdalene Bridge! Rubble, he says, all rubble! We look around us—immense courts, magnificent lawns, immemorial trees, towers, buttresses and castellated walls, heavy wooden gates barred with iron, tradition incarnate, continuity in stone, the greatest university in the world: all rubble? What does Wittgenstein see that we do not? The bitterly wry tone comes to inform how his students respond to Wittgenstein's baffling lectures. Wittgenstein's classes dwindle in size, and his remaining students are mostly half-hearted in their attempts to emulate his philosophical dedication. Instead they're preoccupied by his general oddness, his sexuality, his comments that seem to indicate that he plans to kill himself, and his tendency to use intellectual palaver to disrupt Cambridge's bourgeois conventionality: A don, walking his dog, greets Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein nods back. The dog is a disgusting creature, Wittgenstein says when the don is out of earshot. Bred for dependency. Bred for slobbering. We think our dogs love us because we have a debased idea of love, he says. We think our dogs are loyal to us because we have a corrupted sense of loyalty. People object to pit bulls and Rottweilers, but pit bulls and Rottweilers are his favourite dogs, Wittgenstein says. They don't hide what they are. People love Labradors, of course. But the Labrador is the most disgusting of dogs, he says, because of its apparent gentleness. Some undergraduates might be able to resist such deliberately provocative cant. But a handful of students can't resist those kinds of observations, the type that seem to reanimate the banal surface of things, spoken by a deeply knowledgeable university professor. They form a quasi-cult around him and can't resist his unusual charisma. To this day, I can't resist charismatic thought, however flawed or incomplete the idea might be, and I'm not likely to learn how to anytime soon. For that matter, I can't resist putting together a “lit-itinerary” for a trip I plan to take to East Asia later this year. Did you know there is a recreated statue of Apollo on display at the Yukio Mishima Museum? How well did Kenzaburō Ōe's mother keep her lawn? Perhaps, the Museum has a recorded testimonial from one of his neighbors, complaining how he was really just a lazy, drunk slob -- I can hope. And I ask myself, in what Kyoto bar might a fellow literary pilgrim relate to me the praiseworthy sexual longevity of one of Japan's great dilettante artists?
1. In Germany, in the late 1790s and early 1800s, university curators and other supervisors struggled with the balance of power between faculties and centralized administrators. As William Clark details in his book, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, private correspondence between administrators and specialists carried the most weight in promotions and hiring. “A 1795 article in Berlinische Monatsschrift recommended that sovereigns should not consult universities corporately in formal correspondence,” writes Clark. Instead, “a sovereign should consult with a few scholars via confidential correspondence.” Clark quotes a contemporary history professor who pointed out an eternal truth: “Although the faculties of learned academies recognize the men who most merit a vacant position, they are still seldom or never inclined to suggest the most capable fellow they know.” The University of Göttingen would be the first to shift away from the correspondence model and inaugurate the era of “publish-or-perish.” But the letter of recommendation, that grim genre of guarded praise and veiled contempt, is still as ubiquitous as ever. The protagonist of Julie Schumacher's seventh book, Dear Committee Members, a professor of creative writing named Jay Fitger, is deluged by these requests. In his hands, the letter of recommendation becomes a means of expressing his wider dissatisfaction with his career and his life, only perfunctorily addressing the question of his students' and colleagues' “reliability,” “relevant experience,” and “preparedness.” Fitger eschews form in both senses of the word. His letters are incisive instead of workmanlike, garrulous instead of discreet. Some of the targets of Schumacher's piquant satire will be familiar: exploitative graduate program schemes that saddle students with debt and unrealistic expectations; automated human-resource systems; and the strained relationship between the university's idealists (read: humanities professors) and pragmatists (read: bottom-line administrators), the latter of which will willingly trade a nationally-renowned Department of Slavic Studies for a more attractive salad bar. But Fitger's letters are also laced with subtle observations about the writing life. The friends he met in the “the Seminar” (which seem to be modeled on Gordon Lish's courses at Columbia and the Iowa Writers' Workshop), writers who were once poised for glory, have experienced setbacks. One novelist's life story is Job-like, including the sudden death of a wife, but with the manuscript of his magnum opus in place of the seven children. Schumacher hints that Fitger, a middle-aged man (who happens to be a professional writer), has come to the recognition that the choices he made as a egotistical young aspirant have poisoned his relationships with friends, mentors, and former lovers. Schumacher doesn't allow any “all-for-the-art” grandstanding for Fitger either, whose career has nosedived since his early success. Instead, with refreshingly honesty, the letters are shot through with palpable regret. He's still patiently, vainly, attempting to undo the damage 20 years later. A writer who long ago exhausted his own talent, he is especially invested in a shy young writer who is working on a “Bartleby-in-a-Bordello” updating of Herman Melville. The story, which unfolds tragicomically, is redemptive gesture for Fitger. At one point, Fitger rails against an MFA program (in what is ostensibly a letter of recommendation for a prospective student) by claiming, fairly, that the program exploits the naïveté of students. He writes, “The point of this digression...is not to discourage the practice of writing: What, after all, is a writer's life without a dose of despair,” before listing off all the “formidable” obstacles of the contemporary writers. But he finishes by saying, the writing life “despite its horrors, is possibly one of the few sorts of life worth living at all.” 2. Earlier this year, Eric Bennett claimed in The Chronicle of Higher Eduction that the Cold War axis of humanist academics and Pentagon spooks shaped the ideological clay feet upon which MFA programs stand: “Creative writing has successfully embedded itself in the university by imitating other disciplines without treading on their ground.” Of course, Cold War politics also shaped a much worse example of the writing life: the exceedingly horrific and efficient system of patronage and intimidation administered by the Soviet Union. The persecution of Boris Pasternak, Isaak Babel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Osip Mandelstam, and many other writers, journalists, and intellectuals underlines the fact that Soviet government was deeply insinuated in the art world, as sponsor as well as censor. Finally published in 1967, 28 years after its author died, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita cleverly dovetails the persecution of Yeshua (Jesus of Nazareth) by Pontius Pilate in ancient Palestine and the literary-bureaucratic order of 1930s Soviet Russia. In the latter plot, “Professor Woland,” a satanic figure, terrorizes a group of obsequious, craven hacks belonging to the writer's organization, MASSOLIT, who mostly pander to the secular, brutal Stalinist regime. (For Bulgakov, those two adjectives do tandem duty.) During their assault on literary Moscow, two demons visit the headquarters of the Soviet writer's union, Griboyedov's House, a stand-in for the Gorky House. During the Communist era, the House brought together writers from throughout the Soviet world to meet, teach, and write great literature. “You know, Behemoth, I've heard many good and flattering things said about this house. Take a look at it, my friend! How nice to think that a veritable multitude of talent is sheltered and ripening under this roof!” “Like pineapples in a hothouse,” said Behemoth... “And a sweet terror clutches your heart when you think that at this very minute the author of a future Don Quixote, or Faust, or, the devil take me, Dead Souls may be ripening inside that house!” If Bulgakov's fictionalized account and Ismail Kadare's fictionalized memoir Twilight of the Eastern Gods are accurate, though, the Soviet Goethes and Soviet Gogols weren't doing much creative “ripening” in the house. Instead, they were carousing, drinking heavily, and engaging in mercenary character assassination against rivals, students, allies, supervisors, cronies, family, and friends. Ismail Kadare's Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a brilliant non-fiction treatment of Soviet literary culture during the later Leonid Brezhnev years, a non-fiction response to Bulgakov's novel. As a promising Albanian writer, Kadare was invited to Moscow, where he met the odd mix of Party sycophants and belles-lettrists that was the Soviet intelligentsia. Of course, the explicit goal of the House was to build a Soviet literature that would undermine nationalist culture, but the reverse-refugee program is comical. Siberian and Ukrainian writers, one Russian notes, have the real problem of enforcing literary convention on a surrealistically unconventional existence: Can you imagine living your whole life in six-month-long days and nights, and then being required to divide your time into artificial chunks when you sit down to write? For instance, [a Ukrainian writer] couldn't write 'Next morning he left' because 'next morning' for him meant in six months' time. Kadare also writes about how the literary history of the city was being distorted by the intense political scrutiny: Not a single Soviet novel contained anything like an exact description of Moscow. Even characters who lived there or were visiting always remained in some imaginary street, as I did in my dreams, and almost never turned into Gorky Street, Tverskoy Boulevard, Okhotny Road, or the environs of the Metropole Hotel...and if they did wander into it they seemed stunned: they heard nothing, and saw nothing -- or, rather, they had eyes and ears only for the Kremlin and its bells. Literary-political events unsettle the young Kadare's mock-idyll. The first occurs in 1958: Boris Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize, in part for his novel, Dr. Zhivago. Kadare's own interaction with the book begins auspiciously when he finds the illegal manuscript in one of the rooms at Gorky House. Having accidentally read a few incoherent and scattered pages surreptitiously, Kadare then witnesses the full force of the Soviet media machine as it pummels its dissident and newly-minted Nobel laureate. Forgoing political outrage, he renders the melancholy disquiet of the anti-Pasternak media blizzard evocatively. He writes: All the same, newspapers, radio and TV carried on campaigning. Doctor...Doctor...the wailing of the transcontinental wind made it seem as if the entire, and now almost entirely snow-covered Soviet Union was calling for a man in a white coat. Doctor...Doctor...Sometimes, at dusk or in the half-light of dawn, you could almost hear the deep-throated moaning of an invalid waiting for the arrival from who knew where of a doctor who had so far failed to turn up. Then, as quickly as it began, the smear campaign stops: no one talks about Pasternak or the Nobel Prize again. A “spontaneous” demonstration is held, under the suspicion that the West secured the prize for Pasternak to undermine to Soviet culture. (Recently declassified CIA documents have shown that, apparently, they were right.) It is eventually decided that Pasternak will have to turn down the prize. Sometime later, an artist from Moscow becomes infected with smallpox in Delhi, while sketching an Indian princess. Once news of the infection spreads, the Soviet government immediately quarantines the possibly infected. Muscovites rush to vaccination clinics. During the panic, the young Kadare spots a friend who had seemingly given him a cryptic warning, “for me -- or rather, for my country.” The friend demurs, then confesses that there are rumors that Russian-Albanian relations are cooling. Gorky House suddenly turns on the young, anonymous Albanian writer. They fear contagion: because of spurious rumors about faraway political machinations, his one-time mentors and colleagues quickly ostracize and marginalize Ismail Kadare, a great 20th-century novelist. If he had been embraced, his work would have inevitably been co-opted or at least compromised by his sponsor-censors. Reading Twilight of the Eastern Gods, I thought about another writer who had the similar mixed blessing of being banished from his home country, Witold Gombrowicz. In his Diary, he offered as an archetype the great French humanist François Rabelais, "a writer who had no idea whether he was 'historical' or 'ahistorical.'" (I would add “national” or “internationalist,” “reactionary” or “revolutionary.”.) The author of Gargantua and Pantaguel “had no intention of cultivating 'absolute writing' or of paying homage to 'pure art,' or, too, the opposite of that, articulating his epoch. He intended nothing at all because he wrote the way a child pees against a tree, in order to relieve himself.” Gorky House was formative for Kadare. But being rejected by its writers was hardly an obstacle. In fact, the Soviet literary elite might have been doing Kadare a favor by disfavoring him. The concerns of that circle have proven to be parochial, venal, insular. Yet, it produced Kadare, who has managed to craft a nuanced, luminous memoir to commemorate the time when Moscow cried with “the deep-throated moaning of an invalid.”
1. In Paolo Sorrentino's film The Great Beauty, a louche writer named Jep Gambardella, spends much of his time strolling through the cobble-stone streets of Rome and soaking up impressions and experience, that will figure, we assume, in a long-delayed follow-up to his first acclaimed novel. He reflects on the ineffable qualities that mark good writing. “As kids, my friends always gave the same answer: ‘Pussy’,” Jep recalls. “Whereas I answered 'The smell of old people's houses.' The question was 'What do you really like the most in life?' “I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.” At another point, while responding to the flattery of a beautiful, young female admirer, who quotes from his book, Jep says the sentiment he was expressing had been better written by the Italian prose master Alberto Moravia. Born in 1907, Alberto Moravia achieved at 21 critical and commercial success with his first novel, The Time of Indifference, a cause célèbre eschewing middle-class mores. Before his death in 1990, he would publish over 40 novels, including The Conformist (1951), the adaptation of which in 1970 by Bernardo Bertolucci has the unusual distinction of being both a classic of post-war Italian cinema and of early-1970s zeitgeist. In his recollections to the Paris Review, after Mussolini came to power, he struggled to get his books published (though Mussolini himself approved the 1940 publication of The Dream of the Lazy) and eventually fled for refuge to the Apennine mountains in 1943. He spent the war years trying to get his scandalous novels past Fascist censors: I sent Agostino to them two months before the fall of Fascism, two months before the end. While all about them everything was toppling, falling to ruin, the Ministry of Popular Culture was doing business as usual. Approval looked not to be forthcoming; so one day I went up there, to Via Veneto -- you know the place; they’re still there, incidentally; I know them all -- to see what the trouble was. They told me that they were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to give approval to the book. My dossier was lying open on the desk, and when the secretary left the room for a moment I glanced at it. There was a letter from the Brazilian cultural attaché in it, some poet, informing the Minister that in Brazil I was considered a subversive. In Brazil of all places! But that letter, that alone, was enough to prevent the book’s publication. Moravia himself spent most of the second half of the 20th century strolling along the Via dell'Oca (which means “Street of the Goose”). Anna Maria de Dominicis and Ben Johnson, in the introduction to his Paris Review interview, describe the street as “houses of working-class people: a line of narrow doorways with dark, dank little stairs, cramped windows, a string of tiny shops; the smells of candied fruit, repair shops, wines of the Castelli, engine exhaust” on one side and on the other side “the serene imperiousness of unchipped cornices and balconies overspilling with potted vines, tended creepers: homes of the well-to-do.” His fiction would explore both sides of Italy. In an introduction to Moravia's Boredom, William Weaver says, “Moravia was a great friend to walk with: a born Roman, he knew every brick of the city; even the most drab apartment block or the scruffiest little church could set a sparkling train of associations and memories. But, on encountering him, I would first, automatically, ask him how he was. “'Mi annoio,' he would usually reply, in his clipped telegraphic way. “'I'm bored.'” 2. NYRB Classics has recently republished Moravia's early novella Agostino, in a fine translation by Michael F. Moore. Agostino is a young boy who has an unusually close attachment to his widowed mother, and the novel takes place during their extended stay at a beach resort. His sensitivity and jealousy drive them apart in the first chapters of the book, a closely reworked Swann's Way: Agostino's mother was a big and beautiful woman still in her prime, and Agostino was filled with pride every time he got in the boat with her for one of their morning rides. The novel, though, soon plunges from Proust into the hard-knock fringes of the beach resort. Driven away by his mother's interest in a “tanned, dark-haired” young man, Agostino falls in with a group of working-class boys who are inarticulate, violent, inscrutable. He is drawn to them, as a kind of foil to his predictable upper-middle-class universe: For a moment Agostino felt happy as he swam while the cold powerful stream tugged at his legs, and he forgot every hurt and every wrong. The boys were swimming in all directions, their heads and arms breaking through the smooth green surface. Their voices echoed clearly in the still air. Through the glassy transparency of the water, their bodies looked like white offshoots of plants that, rising to the surface from the darkness below, moved whichever way the current took them. Eventually, the privileged Agostino whose home has 20 bedrooms (an unimaginable number for the other boys) begins to beg for change. He encounters a father and son, and the father unadvisedly takes the opportunity to teach his son about the have's and have-not's. “And how old are you?” the man inquired. “Thirteen,” said Agostino. “You see,” said the man to his son, “this boy is almost the same age as you and he's already working.” Then to Agostino, “Do you go to school?” “I wish...but how can I?” replied Agostino, taking on the deceitful tone he had often heard the boys in the gang adopt to address similar questions. “I gotta make a living, mister.” “You see,” the father turned to his son again, “this boy can't go to school because he has to work, and you have the nerve to complain because you have to study?” Moravia maintained an interest in intellectuals who rationalize their own impulsive behaviors and others'. In stark contrast to Agostino, his later novel, Contempt, rereleased a decade ago by NYRB Classics, features a first-person narrator, a screenwriter whose disgust for movie-writing is matched only by his wife’s inexplicable contempt for him. Throughout, the narrator interrogates his wife, and by extension the mystery of attraction itself: Suddenly, the suspicion that she no longer loved me sprang into my mind again, in an abrupt, haunting sort of way, as a feeling of the impossibility of contact and communion between my body and hers...And I, like a person who suddenly realizes he is hanging over an abyss, felt a kind of painful nausea at the thought that our intimacy had turned for no reason at all, into estrangement, absence, separation. Since so many of his themes touch on the unconscious and taboo sexuality, it might be surprising how skeptical his novels are to psychoanalytic techniques. Throughout Contempt, Moravia satirizes a character who has embraced a very schematic version of Freudianism. Moravia suggests that ratiocination is a poor substitute for taste. One of his great themes is how sensibility is wrecked by negotiations with other people, other classes, other individuals, and thereby reinvigorated. As the screenwriter-narrator of Contempt says of his wife when she tells him she despises him, “It was the tone of the virgin word that springs directly from the thing itself and pronounced by someone who had perhaps never spoken that word before, and who, urged on by necessity, had fished it up from the ancestral depths of the language, without searching for it, almost involuntarily.” Both Contempt and Agostino have an almost Neoclassical form, unlike, say, The Leopard. Lampedusa and Moravia point toward two very different directions for Italian fiction, though Contempt, a bracingly austere book that harkens back to naturalism, was published in 1954, and Lampedusa's inventive, comic experiment was published in 1958. Though his work deeply engaged with early-20th-century social and intellectual concerns, he claimed his fiction was informed most by the big “C” Canon. In his conversation with the Paris Review, he comes across as alternately fusty and cantankerous in his observations on the Moderns. He rejects O'Neill and Shaw as major dramatists because they “resorted to everyday language and, in consequence, by my definition failed to create true drama.” If the first chapter takes off from Proust, the last movement of Agostino is a poignant revision of the ending of Sentimental Education. In Flaubert's novel, Frédéric and Deslauriers, after several intervening years of disillusionment and disappointment, reminisce about a youthful visit to a brothel. During the visit, Frédéric becomes embarrassed and flees into the street, and his friend follows him. They are both seen coming out, and it causes a “local scandal which was still remembered three years later.” The novel ends with the two failed romantics remarking on the story: “That was the happiest time we ever had,” said Frédéric. “Yes, perhaps you're right. That was the happiest time we ever had,” Deslauriers says. In the final pages of his novella, Moravia has the prepubescent Agostino visit a brothel with his piggybank savings. When the encounter at the brothel predictably ends badly, he goes back home and demands of his mother that he be treated like a man. It is a moving depiction of a young person's thwarted autonomy. “But he wasn't a man,” Moravia writes, “and many unhappy days would pass before he became one.”
1. This year, to celebrate the centennial of the great Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, the University of Chicago Press published an early short-story collection previously unavailable in English. Rambling On: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of Gab was written and published in the 1960s, a mid-career work bringing together some of his best short fiction, like “The Feast” and “A Moonlit Night.” In the final story, “An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of Gab,” written by Hrabal as part postscript, part manifesto, he writes, I’m a corresponding member of the Academy of Rambling-on, a student at the Department of Euphoria, my god is Dionysos, a drunken, sensuous young man, jocundity given human form, my church father is the ironic Socrates, who patiently engages with anybody so as to lead them by the tongue and through language to the very threshold of nescience, my first-born son is Jaroslav Hašek, the inventor of the cock-and-bull story and a fertile genius and scribe who added human flesh to the firmament of prose and left writing to others, with unblinking lashes I gaze into the blue pupils of this Holy Trinity without attaining the acme of vacuity, intoxication without alcohol, education without knowledge, inter urinas et faeces nascimur.(We are born between urine and feces.) Bohumil Hrabal was born near the beginning of World War I in Brno, in the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was raised by a gallery of colorful relatives, including an uncle who served as an early model for the gregarious and unscrupulous type that populated his later novels. His legal studies at Charles University in Prague were interrupted by the Second World War. After the Communists took over, he worked as a stage hand and industrial worker. He published one book of poetry in the late 1940s, but didn't publish fiction until he was 42. When he did begin writing stories and novels, his methods for composing fiction were radical. According to David Short, one of his translators, the Czech writer was a prolific cut-and-paste stylist. The expansive tone and patient rhythms of Hrabal's writing belies just how drastic his revisions were. According to Short, Hrabal uses “words unknown to anyone;” his cryptologisms still confound lexicographers. Married in 1956, Hrabal traveled between a co-op flat in a northern district of Prague and a chalet in the Kersko in central Czechoslovakia. He routinely fled the cramped Soviet-style apartment for the more idyllic countryside. A film adaptation of his novel Closely Watched Trains came out in 1967, and it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, a high point of the Czech New Wave. According to the film historian Philip Kerr, Hrabal preferred the movie over his novel. Less than two years after the high point of his success, the Soviets invaded, removed the reformer Alexander Dubček, and initiated “normalization.” In post-normalization Czechoslovakia, his manuscripts were heavily censored by the publisher Československý Spisovatel. Nevertheless, Hrabal was being praised internationally as a prose master. He influenced Philip Roth and Louise Erdich. Roth, as the editor of the series Writers from the Other Europe, called Hrabal, in 1990, “one of the greatest living European prose writers” and it's difficult to imagine the barbed mania of Sabbath's Theater or the absurd feast scene in American Pastoral without Hrabal's earlier Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age or I Served the King of England. During the 1970s and 1980s, Hrabal was noticeably silent and did not sign Charter 77. In the cant of Soviet occupation, he “released self-critical statements that made it possible for him to publish.” He died in 1997, after falling out of a fifth-floor hospital window while feeding a cat. 2. “Ambiguous” and “ambivalent” are overworked terms in the critic's vocabulary, and vague. The words are accurate for Hrabal, though: a writer engaged with how meaning can shift in the telling and understanding of a story. He dramatizes story-telling (anecdotes, confession, harangue) and he also dramatizes interpretation. Hrabal is preoccupied with how a story can seem to change with an alteration of mood or perspective. How, to pick up a concept from Ludwig Wittgenstein, understanding is deeply aspectual. In his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein explained this concept of “seeing-as.” First, you see a man's face. Then, you might see a resemblance between the face and another face, a familial resemblance. You haven't seen the face differently, but an “aspect” of the face has “dawned on you.” You now see the face as resembling another face. Or take the picture of the “duck-rabbit:” Looking at the picture, you might see the “duck,” then see the “rabbit.” There's a cognitive shift between seeing the one and seeing the other. Nothing has changed about the picture. Wittgenstein writes, “I distinguish between the 'continuous seeing' of an aspect and the 'dawning' of an aspect.” Wittgenstein writes: “If you ask me what I saw, perhaps I shall be able to make a sketch which shows you; but I shall mostly have no recollection of the way my glance shifted in looking at it.” Produced in the Academy of Rambling-on, at the Department of Euphoria, Hrabal's fiction teases out these effects. His protagonists begin as typically superficial readers, who linger on those damaged surfaces or mordant anecdotes for a little longer than they're comfortable with. They glimpse briefly past the equivocations and the evasions. Finally, their tone becomes urgent and fraught, and their perspective begins to disintegrate. Translated by Short, the story “Friends” takes up what seems like a hopelessly trite premise, two handicapped friends who teach a friend a deeper life lesson: And the two friends each had their own truth, their moral fibre was so awesome that all who knew Lothar and Pavel, however slightly, if ever they were a bit despondent, if ever they began to wonder if life was worth living under such-and-such conditions, they’d all..., me too, when, at moments of such blasphemous thoughts, I think of Pavel and Lothar, I feel ashamed of myself compared to the moral compass that backs Pavel and Lothar’s view of the world. Drawing inspiration from the handicapped? A cliché, sure. Editors who draw a red line through each “batted eyelash” or “on the horizon,” though, would be well-advised to read Hrabal closely, because he understands how cliché eloquently obscures fatigue, despair, and tragedy -- writers who work under juntas and dictatorships are especially familiar with the sinister authority of cliches. Hrabal turns the cliché inside out toward the end of the story. The narrator accompanies them on a trip in which they are bizarrely hassled by a police officer who is interested in how well Lothar speaks Czech. He takes them home and then waits outside the house, watching the two men struggle up the stairs. I saw Lothar disappear from his wheelchair and then I saw him, like when soldiers crawl through hostile territory, haul himself up with his powerful arms one step at a time, dragging his powerless legs behind him...and then Pavel the same, by his elbows… and I saw how they both had to pause half-way, how though the trip to the pub hadn’t got the better of them, those twelve stairs had, and they had to summon all their strength, turn and turn about, to haul themselves up to the top. The protagonist Ditie, of Hrabal's masterpiece I Served the King of England, hides behind cliché, too. Ditie repeats the phrase, “how the unbelievable came true,” in the novel, by my count 12 times. But the narrator's trite expressions seem to gloss over his own moral dubiousness. One of the finest novels of the 20th century, I Served the King of England was written in 1971, only a few years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the removal of President Dubcek from office. Shortly thereafter, Hrabal began working on the novel, a searing indictment of Czech complicity during World War II, with a protagonist that affects powerlessness and servility. After being inspected by Nazi doctors for his suitability to marry and procreate with a German woman, Ditie marries Lise. She brings him a suitcase full of stamps. “At first I didn't realize how valuable the contents were,” the narrator explains, “because it was full of postage stamps, and I wondered how Lise had come by them.” She explains to him that “after the war they would be worth a fortune, enough to buy us any hotel we wanted.” As the Nazis are losing battles, Ditie is mistaken for a resistance fighter -- according to his explanations, he is often mistaken for being much worse (a thief, a murderer) and much better than he actually is (an anti-Nazi fighter and activist several times). The interrogation becomes a happy accident, since his being targeted by the Nazis will gain him purchase as a subversive in post-war Prague. After being released, Ditie helps an elderly prisoner on a long journey to his home. “I was doing this not out of any kindness,” Ditie explains, while hesitating to return home, “but to give myself as many alibis as possible once the war was over, and it would be over before we knew it.” Though Ditie goes to great lengths to exculpate himself from the horrors of Nazism, his own alibi-forging strains credibility: how could he have married a woman like Lise and not recognized her involvement? Wouldn't the gaps and evasions in his story indicate a more significant crime? Is his confession more significant because of the large-scale omissions that seem implied? 3. Hrabal, following Joyce, offers up several instances of how mirrors and reflections can misapprehend our true selves, or how we can misapprehend ourselves in reflection. In Joyce's “Araby,” the narrator's reflection gives rise to misconceived feelings of piety and self-loathing. Hrabal picked up the theme in I Served the King of England. The main character becomes a waiter in a prominent hotel and becomes entranced by how pomp can elide one's own vulnerable identity: I saw myself in the mirror carrying the bright Pilsner beer, I seemed different somehow, I saw that I'd have to stop thinking of myself as small and ugly. The tuxedo looked good on me here, and when I stood beside the headwaiter, who had curly gray hair that looked as though a hairdresser had done it, I could also see in the mirror that all I really wanted was to work right here at this station with this headwaiter, who radiated serenity, who knew everything there was to know... Being a waiter requires Ditie to cultivate a kind of passive omniscience. The headwaiter, not Ditie, served the King of England. When a character asks how he knows that a couple is Bavarian, or how a customer likes his veal, the headwaiter simply says, “I served the King of England.” High Culture is another way Hrabal's protagonists conceal their motives. Like By Night in Chile's priest-critic, Ditie's confession is gilded with references to literature, culture, sophistication, but in stark denial of any moral purpose. The narrator of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age tells his employer, “Like Goethe, I have a weak heart and was more inclined to poetry, which slowed them down for a while.” Ditie is entranced by the rituals and culture of European decadence and hides behind them. After a lavish feast during which the exiled Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie honors him with a sash, the protagonist is accused of stealing a spoon. Devastated, he takes a taxi to a remote spot in the countryside. He laughs and tells the taxi driver he plans to hang himself. He says it impulsively, but saying the words propels him inextricably towards suicide. Seriously? The cab driver said, laughing. With what? He was right, I had nothing to do it with, so I said, My handkerchief. The driver got out of his cab, opened the trunk, rummaged around with a flashlight, then handed me a piece of rope. Still laughing, he made an eye in one end and ran the other end through it to make a noose and showed me the proper way to hang myself. Ditie stumbles into the stand of darkened woods. I made up my mind to hang myself. As I knelt there, I felt something touch my head, so I reached up and touched the toes of a pair of boots, and then I groped higher and felt two ankles, then socks covering a pair of cold legs. When I stood up, my nose was right up against the stomach of a hanged man. That reversal might seem familiar. Philip Roth re-imagined the scene in Sabbath's Theater, a novel deeply influenced by Hrabal. In that scene, the puppeteer Mickey Sabbath has gone to his mistress's grave to pay homage by writhing in the dirt and simulating sex. As he's approaching the grave, he sees another figure near the grave: When Sabbath saw Lewis bending over the grave to place the bouquet on the plot, he thought, But she's mine! She belongs to me! What Lewis did next was such an abomination that Sabbath reached crazily about in the dark for a rock or a stick with which to rush forward and beat the son of a bitch over the head. Lewis unzipped his fly... Roth follows Hrabal in a mode of amplified realism -- never magical but wryly attuned to absurdity -- and featuring narrators and protagonists whose appetites match their verbosity. Hrabal's palpable influence, acknowledged by writers such as Roth and Erdich, is a reminder of how vital his work has been to American contemporary fiction. 4. Months before the Velvet Revolution, at a time when the Czech Communist party was showing its frailty but its decline did not seem inevitable, Hrabal reported on Czech politics in early 1989, with excerpts appearing in the New York Review of Books. He wrote in direct, austere sentences, as if acknowledging that irony was giving way to deeper melancholy impulses: I walked down deserted Parizska Avenue. A police car quietly pulled up at the curb, a man got out and began quietly placing parking tickets on the windshields of illegally parked cars, then quietly the headlights turned toward Maison Oppelt, from the fifth floor of which Franz Kafka once wanted to jump, and then I stood all alone in the square. The place was deserted. I sat down on a bench and began to reflect...In front of me loomed the monument to Master Jan Hus. In his afterword to Rambling On, Václav Kadlec points out how Hrabal had begun to focus on longer fiction by the late 1960s, eventually leading to the triumph of I Served the King of England and Too Loud a Solitude. But Hrabal was a great short-story writer, whose works were strained with pathos, absurdity, and beauty. The stories in Rambling On also show a unique range, partly because in 1960s Czechoslovakia, he was able to experiment with theme and language more freely and partly because he is still deciding on a tone, a style, and a subject. Read the stories. Read the novels. Just read Hrabal.
1. The Booker McConnell Prize was a belated arrival on the world lit scene. It was founded in 1969, sixty-six years after the first Prix Goncourt and fifty-two after the first Pulitzer. Booker McConnell, a U.K. food conglomerate, had a sideline interest in books. In the hopes that a prize might boost consumer interest, they ponied up the cash for the largest prize at the time. When The Guardian made the announcement, W.L. Webb (both The Guardian literary editor and the selection committee's chairman) sent a telegram from Czechoslovakia in the throes of the Prague Spring: “Booker Prize is notable sign that Britain too is learning to value the writer and his work more hugely. With you soon Brezhnev willing.” Since then, the Booker shortlist and the eventual winners have been decried for being too populist, too elitist, too imperialist, too predictable. The prize is announced on television each year, and each year, the closed-door politicking, arm-twisting, and neck-wringing leading up to the ceremony have been more indelible than most of the novels under consideration. Next year, the prize is expanding to consider any book published in English, dragging us all into the fracas. Edward St. Aubyn's new novel, Lost for Words, is a briskly readable satire on the annual circus. St. Aubyn has incorporated thinly veiled representations of past scandals, like Anthony Burgess demanding to know if his novel had won before he would commit to attending the event. The novel features a gallery of bumbling publishers, egomaniacal critics, emotionally-stunted authors. They are all angling for the Elysian Prize — the British literary world's laurus nobilis, the evergreen plant associated with public validation — even if they don't have much hope for literary immortality. In picking out the gossip from the freely invented, I found myself drawn further into the Booker's long, ignoble history. 2. The first winner was P.H. Newby's Something to Answer For, a Greene-influenced metafictional novel set during the Suez Crisis. The novel's protagonist, Townrow, is hit on the head early in the novel. After being drawn into a web of international espionage, he has a difficult time grasping reality. “The old girl kept writing and complaining about the police,” the novel opens. “It was enough to start Townrow on a sequence of dreams.” When Newby won, there was no televised ceremony. Newby received notification by mail. The book has fallen out of print, though Sam Jordison and other readers have suggested it's an unjustly overlooked gem. 3. St. Aubyn is renowned for the Patrick Melrose books, a five-volume exploration of privilege and menace. In his new novel, we get a St. Aubyn avatar in Sam Black, a writer who has shelved his ambitious first novel to write a harrowing autobiographical novel, The Frozen Torrent, that is shortlisted for the prize. He hopes that success will vault him beyond mining his own personal trauma again and “win his freedom from the tyranny of pain-based art.” The other hapless candidates on the Elysian Prize shortlist are wot u starin at, a work of slumsploitation set in squalid public estates; The Greasy Pole, a political novel promoted by the chairman for his personal advantage; All The World's A Stage, a historical novel set on the Elizabethan stage; and The Palace Cookbook. The last book is written by an unassuming Indian aristocrat who is baffled when her modest collection of traditional Indian recipes is mistaken for a post-modern novel. That plot point is one of the weakest in Lost for Words. It's a move that belongs more to 1996 — the year Alan Sokal “punked” the post-modern academic journal Social Text with a nonsense article — than 2013. St. Aubyn relishes writing pastiches of faux-literary trash. There are parodies of sub-Fleming thrillers, “risque” urban-dialect writing, and Continental philosophy. Possibly the funniest writing in the novel are the excerpts of All the World's A Stage: Before William [Shakespeare] could respond to this amazing tale of murder most foul, strange, and unnatural, John [Webster] rose up in his chair, in a state of great excitation, and pointed through the window. “All eyes! All eyes! My lord of Essex comes hard upon us with a great retinue of men. How finely caparisoned they are, and point device in their accoutrement.” 4. The Booker McConnell Prize of 1972 was awarded to John Berger's G., a novel of ideas about an Italian-American living on an English farm and lusting after a governess. “All generalizations are opposed to sex,” the narrator says. “Every feature that makes her desirable asserts its contingency — here, here, here, here, here, here. That is the only poem to be written about sex — here, here, here, here — now.” When given the floor at the Booker ceremony, Berger critiqued the crass publicity stunts surrounding the prize, and then predictably praised the selection committee's taste and good judgment, before finally excoriating its corporate sponsor. “Yet one does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came,” Berger said. “Booker-McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors.” 5. Literary prizes ought to offer the kind of validation that alleviates a writer's anxiety. There's evidence laurus nobilis only gives those fears and insecurities a wider ambit. Even after winning the Booker Prize, and having a long career of brisk sales, Newby confessed that he worried that only old women read his books. St. Aubyn's insight into the writer's psyche are well-deployed in Lost for Words. The novelist-character Sam Black wonders if writing is only an “ingenious decoy, drawing attention away from his own decaying body towards a potentially immaculate body of work. He named this deflection the 'Hephaestus complex,' as if it had always been part of the annals of psychoanalysis.” Another character, Sonny, is in London to pitch his tastelessly nostalgic novel about his family of Indian aristocrats. The novel is described as something like Downton Abbey in India — as a publisher-character suggests, it has “a wearisome emphasis on the insults dealt by modernity to the glory of the princely states, and without any hint of relief from his cloying self-regard.” He also is nephew to The Palace Cookbook author and has the second indignity of watching her absurd success from close proximity. Sonny's grasping and unknowing talentlessness is a genuine fear stalking the writer's psyche. 6. In 1981, John Banville published a public letter to the Booker foundation after being announced as a runner-up to the shortlist. “The five hard-pressed judges should forget about shortlists and secret conclaves and so on,” he wrote, “and instead forthwith award the prize to me.” Then, he claimed that he would spend the money on buying copies of all the novels on the longlist and donating them to libraries, ensuring wryly that they might be read, “surely a unique occurrence,” in his wording. Salman Rushdie won that year for Midnight's Children, which would go on to win the oddly-named Booker of Bookers in 1993, on the 25th anniversary of the prize, and the Best of the Booker, on the 40th anniversary of the prize. When Banville won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, he said in his acceptance speech, “It is nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize.” 7. In Lost for Words, the Elysian Prize committee is chaired by Malcolm Craig, a recently-disgraced MP, who takes a swipe at the “Imperial ash heap of the Commonwealth” while accepting the position. The rest of the committee includes Malcolm's ex-girlfriend, a popular writer named Penny Feathers, and a blogger, Jo Cross, who is “fiercely loyal” to her blog subscribers. The panel is filled out by the requisite Oxbridge academic, Vanessa Shaw, and Tobias Benedict, a vacuous actor featured in a hip-hop version of Waiting for Godot. Malcolm opens the first meeting by talking about the social responsibility involved in awarding the prize. “It's of paramount importance that the money goes to someone who really needs it,” he says. To which, the blogger adds, “no pseuds and no aristos.” The Oxbridge professor provokes him by name-dropping Nabokov and Proust, as talented aristocrats, but she sabotages herself by sinking into pedantic diatribes on “the true nature of literature.” St. Aubyn gives the members conventional flaws: they are easily flattered and easily wounded, and animated by an unfocused belligerence. The blogger says, “The vested interests are certainly not going to thank us. And all I can say is that if they want a fight, we're ready for them.” The satire in these passages goes broad and lifeless, and the execution is predictable. St. Aubyn, it goes without saying, is said to have nursed a grudge about not winning for any of the Melrose novels, and his rancor is unfulfilled and directionless when he takes aim at the committee. These passages also have the air of wish-fulfillment, as if the author were indulging is his most self-serving judgments of panelists. They are incapable of searching critique and indifferent to books generally. By setting up such easy targets, St. Aubyn is dragging his net in the shallows. 8. In 2002, the website of the Man Booker Prize (renamed that year) announced Yann Martel's Life of Pi as the winner. The chair of the Booker committee, Lisa Jardine, claimed that the book “would make you believe in God.” “My suffering left me sad and gloomy,” the novel begins, prompting me to ask: what kind of suffering leaves one happy and exuberant? The question goes unanswered. Unfortunately, the prize announcement was posted a full week before the televised ceremony, while William Hill plc and other bookmakers were still taking bets on the winner. 9. St. Aubyn points out in Lost for Words something worth remembering: even in the middle of the frenzy, while the judges are weighing “relevance” and “readability” of the nominees, the serious authors are finding refuge in the writing of sentences. After being shortlisted, Sam Black is working out whether he should be excited, or how excited he should be, or what his responsibility to the non-shortlisted are. He thinks: Hubris was bad, but insincere anti-hubris was no better. In the middle of the day, a word like "humility" would present itself, like a sunlit colonnade in all its elegance and simplicity, but by the middle of the night it was transformed into a sinister ruin, with a murderer concealed behind every column. He compulsively writes down the line for use in a future book. It is enough, we hope, to start him on a sequence of dreams.
1. Picked up by a deputy police officer, a man claiming to get lost ghost-hunting in the woods was actually cooking meth. A man who won a competition to party with the Breaking Bad cast and crew was busted for manufacturing narcotics. A Hialeh, Florida, official pulled over by the cops secreted a meth pipe in his rectum. Even forgoing the bleakest cases, meth fact is stranger than meth fiction. It's fair to ask why a young writer would take on a subject when the finished novel will be less astonishing than the day's headlines. (Granted, if that was a requisite, all fiction would go unwritten.) Some plucky writers, I assume, hope their writing acquires by association some of the drug's features: highly addictive, vivid extra-sensory illusions, the intimations of ruin and transcendence. The story of a thirteen-year-old heir to a family drug operation, Katherine Faw Morris's Young God takes its title from a song by Swans. When they recorded “Young God,” Swans was still in its most harrowing, dissonant period before Michael Gira made slightly less harrowing, less dissonant music later in that decade. The song takes the perspective of Ed Gein, the serial-killer inspiration for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho movies. The macabre lyrics, as bellowed by frontman Gira, are all jagged edge: I don't know where I am I'm dancing in my corpse I don't remember anything I'm wearing your flesh Your flesh is my face I love your face Though Morris's writing shares some of that song's dark, cryptic tone, the novel has a conventional five-act structure. In spare, piquant prose, we watch as the protagonist Nikki flees a Department of Social Services home and seeks out her father, Coy Hawkins. Nikki might not have courage, but, as Lorrie Moore once described a very different character, she has “bitterness and impulsiveness, which could look like the same thing.” The first scene begins at a perch overhanging a swimming hole (formatting is consistent with the book): This is the jumping off place. everywhere else is the wrong side. Nikki bends at the knees and moves her feet one by one. With a lunge she grabs the head of the shrub. Now the river flings its white froth at her. The falls roar in her ears. “i'll go first.” “No,” Nikki says. “Just walk down on the path,” Wesley says. “No.” “Nikki,” Mama says. “God,” Nikki says. Since she is going to die she would like to be remembered, spoken of in the backs of cars in words that shudder. Nikki pictures this. she turns the shrub loose and stands up. “Nikki.” she slips a step and then jumps. Years after her mother commits suicide (in a mordant parallel, by leaping to her death) and a stay in DSS, she decides to return to her father's house. The father, Coy Hawkins, is an appealingly grotesque villain, formerly “the biggest coke dealer in the county,” now a fading specter. The narrator says, “iN her MoUth his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin.” Tragically, she find her father's expressions of sympathy as inexplicable and unfamiliar as his paroxysms of violence. In her conversations with her father, she is both naïve and clinical: “is it BeCaUse oF the eCoNoMY?” “What?” “That you're a pimp?” Coy hawkins laughs with his head thrown back. “What?” Nikki says. she laughs, too. Though she doesn't think it's funny. “You used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county.” Coy hawkins rests his elbow on the bench seat. He looks at her. “You were,” she says. “everybody's on pills now,” Coy hawkins says. “so?” “This is my new thing. This is the future.” Nikki looks out at the motel parking lot. her teeth are grinding. As in Winter's Bone, the devastation caused by the meth trade in this rural North Carolina region has unsettled all the usual social structures that might constrain the impulses of a smart, ruthless teenage girl. Either novel could be mistaken for professing a kind of feminism, but I would prefer to call it selective misanthropy. Each chapter is a fresh descent. Nikki endures the rape and murder of her friend, the mutilation of a rival drug dealer, and a dangerous stick-up. She becomes aware of how he has made her vulnerability a weapon: “i don't need you,” he says. [...] all NiGht she sits oN the CoUCh in the dark with her mind racing. he does need her. He couldn't have gotten into that apartment without her, for one thing. she pictures the black girls, with their mouths wide open, but she doesn't hear them scream. Watching her father's casual brutality, of course, Nikki becomes more jaundiced about life generally, and more cynical about family ties specifically. Violence is something she masters, but Morris isn't particularly interested in a sociology of the drug trade or criminal pathology. Instead, Young God unfolds unselfconciously, as character study. One of the strengths of the novel is how Nikki's emotional disfigurement is subtle and teased out patiently over the course of the novel so that, until the final pages, neither the reader nor Nikki herself fully grasp what heinous acts she is capable of doing in order to restore her family's status. The unconventional capitalization and grammars, as in Sapphire's Push, is meant to convey the main character's lack of formal education, though I found it mostly distracting. In her first novel, Morris also allows a few quirks to clutter the prose. For instance, “muscle,” “chin,” and “shoulder” are all used as verbs. Those choices might be naturalistic, but I thought they were fussy diversions from a taut, concise plot. 2. What “young god”? Nikki does possess the sort of inarticulate, elemental impulses (rage, pity, hatred) that used to drive the gods of ancient Greek mythology and the Old Testament. It's clear that her godliness is some mix of her ability to take life and her Nietschzean amorality. Paradoxically, her omnipotence is representative of the narrowness of her worldview, like the narrator of Ted Hughes's poem, “Hawk Roosting:” Now I hold Creation in my foot Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly — I kill where I please because it is all mine. There is no sophistry in my body. Why a “young god”? Throughout his career, Kenneth Burke pointed out the perversity of metaphor. In the essay, “Why Satire,” he quoted the phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Burke suggests that this aphorism has discomfiting implications for our perspective on “need” and “motherhood.” If a meth-dealing teenager is a “young god,” how radically changed is Morris's secular world from O'Connor's “Christ-haunted” South. The central metaphor of Morris's novel — Nikki as god — is a provocation, sure, and one that indicates a rift in Southern literature. Though their works diverged widely in subject matter and method, Faulkner, O'Connor, and McCullers wrote novels and short stories in riot against the modern assumption of the rational, knowable self, and that self's ability to master history and nature. Their skepticism about modernity has been so widely embraced – by thinkers who have no interest in Sutpen genealogy, and those who might think of the Southern Agrarians as little more than a historical curiosity — that it seems de rigueur. Perhaps the concerns of O'Connor, et al, were prescient, and prescience is obsolescence in a flattering alias. The novels of Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, and Morris have a much narrower philosophical scope. Young God is a strong entry in the tradition of the Southern Gothic Novel (redneck noir subcategory), but, while reading it and after watching the HBO series True Detective, I began to wonder if the genre still has any explanatory power for contemporary America. Stripped of its context and without invigorating it with new significance, that familiar mood has become an affectation. The style is still there, nestled between the derelict churches and the epic violence, but without the expansive critique that ran like a quicksilver thread through Wise Blood and Absalom! Absalom! Late in Young God, the narrator repeats her father's words: “This is the future.” Then, Nikki disposes of a body by hacking it into pieces. I suspect the Southern Gothic Novel (like many of the characters that have populated it) will have an even less tranquil afterlife.