Go ahead, congratulate me. As of Nov. 17 I am once again legal in Ukraine. That’s something in this place where illegality is endemic—as customary in the exceptional as it is in the mundane.
My adventure as an illegal immigrant kicked off in March of 2020. Fear not: given the very real challenges, threats to our family cohesion, our livelihood, and my wife’s capacity to handle two small boys alone, I am not insensitive to the implications of the term illegal. Still, I find it preferable to the evasive, politically charged blech of undocumented. Illegal has a nice, solid ring to it. Almost feels like an accomplishment.
So, March 2020: Covid had begun its global assault in earnest, an ailing clerk has misfiled my renewal paperwork, and with the Ukrainian Migration Service in a tailspin, my (almost) 26 years of legal residency in Ukraine went poof. My legal ability to earn along with it. For nearly 19 months my wife has carried the four of us. I hope you meet her one day. You’ll see.
With the Iron-Lite Curtain pulled, the consulates shuttered, and phone lines gone dead, I did what anyone of you would do when half-hearted cops with deportation papers show up at your door: I called in a favor. I turned to Instagram. And, navigating the intricacies of its messaging interface, I contacted a long-ago student who remembers with some fondness a long-haired priest. She made calls and got me my fix. It still took 19 months, but once she got things rolling my new Green Card was practically inevitable.
It’s a shame in a way—illegality runs in the blood. My grandfather was a kind of proto-antinomian American. He managed illegality for 28 years before my grandmother would hold his hand, walk into the court with him, and admit to the judge that the pride of this man—her husband and father to their five children—far superseded his grasp of English. He had routinely, at a string of immigration hearings, shoulders square and head held high, answered “No” instead of “Yes” to the question about alienation to Austria-Hungary. With legislation to expel eastern European immigrants chugging along in Congress in those days, grandma’s proxy “Yes”—delivered, no doubt, with a healthy dose of side-eye—couldn’t have been better timed.
I am loath to imagine a world without Slavic women.
The aftereffects of illegality linger. My nerves are frayed, my head is entirely silver, and I have lost 84 pounds but, what the hell, I’m legal. As if it mattered.
Which, of course, it does. It all matters. And if this little drama assures me of anything it’s of the truth that nothing and no one in the world matters quite as much as the inconsequential. When I read (which, reminding myself, this essay is about reading) I prefer a story about a street sweeper who’s lost his keys to one about a prime minister who’s lost the launch codes. Or the fragmented recollections of an Icelandic grandfather who hauled a stranded airplane off a glacier to anything ever tweeted by a blue checkmark.
Blame the Old Book, where they’ve tucked in this beautiful line about the nature of God that has haunted me since I was a kid. It says, “(he) calleth those things which be not as though they were.” In koine — street Greek of the day — it’s a line brimming with present active participles. From the perspective of the eternal, we are, at once, both nouns and verbs. Both active and present. Not being and being. What awaits us, now and beyond now, is both inconceivable and immeasurable. What can you do? There is no alternative but to just keep pushing ahead.
I like that.
What follows is a list—not a fan of lists but there you go—of books that make me rejoice at the gift of writers who try to conceive of the inconceivable but never dream of measuring the immeasurable. Books that I hope will linger awhile. Books that could lighten a heavy heart in a culture soiled by invective, one where pettiness is too often ascendant. Books that can hold our hand while we do the work to turn it around. Redemption is a real thing. As long as there are authors, translators, publishers large or small committed to the deliberate word deliberately committed to the page, and so many who still need those words on pages, legal or illegal, right, left, or center, we’ll find our feet again.
The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures by Jennifer Hofmann
“The self is a vessel that when turned upside down will empty itself of meaning.”
It’s East Berlin and The Wall is still up, though not for long. Nearby, a doe-eyed waitress from a corner café lays an unprompted hand on the shoulder of a customer. The customer is Bernd Zeiger, a quasi-celebrity in the Stasi (Ministry for State Security) whose star is now in decline.
As a natural consequence of his job, Zeiger knows where the bodies are buried. In fact, he’s the author of the book—the Standardization of Demoralization Procedures Manual, or SDP—detailing the soulless, unwavering mechanics of putting them there. But that unprompted touch trips a circuit in Zeiger, who ends up unburdening his heart to Lara, the waitress. Returning the next day to the café for his tea and toast, Zeiger discovers that Lara, too, has joined the ranks of the disappeared.
And so begins this debut novel that is much more than the lady vanishes. More than a convincing Cold War novel. More than a gripping fictional treatment of the historical scar of the Stasi/Soviet practice of Zersetzung—the deliberate, calculated corrosion of both individual and collective free will. More than an indictment of the impudence and banality of evil, of the deficit of grace and creative imagination at the heart of ideological piety of every stripe. More than a relentless detailing of the self-righteousness that drives acts of institutional coercion and a culture of public denunciation.
So much more.
And then, with just a handful of paragraphs remaining, just when you think it’s time to exhale, Jennifer Hofmann sinks the blade in deep. Lord, this is a terrifying writer; one who has produced with her first book—a word I’ll pay for—a masterpiece.
On Time and Water by Andri Snær Magnason, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
“Again and again, tragedy spreads because we don’t believe it will happen to us.”
I grew up with a fan zone view—on days when the Mountain was out—of Tahoma, aka Mt. Rainier, the most heavily glaciated mass in the contiguous 48 states. Should they stay fit, my sons will still be able to climb on those glaciers in the year 2100. Either that, or they’ll be gasping for breath in an atmosphere comprised of pure ammonia and scorching their toes in the boiling coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean somewhere near Denver. Given the competing hyperboles that define so much political, economic, and environmental writing these days, it can be hard to discern where the truth of climate change lies.
And then a book like On Time and Water shows up in my mailbox. In it, Magnason combines family memoir, ancient myth, climate science, common sense, and (trigger warning for cynics) love to write a very different kind of climate science book. In doing so, he has constructed an argument that should effectively defuse resistance of all but the most hard-hearted to the truth of what’s taking place in the natural world and what that means for us.
Certainly, the disappearance of a glacier in his lifetime in his native Iceland has shaped his perspective. But should you dismiss that loss as anecdotal, the least of your sins is ignorance. This the best kind of science writing—the kind that grounds complex data in lived experience, a reverence for beauty, and an argument for the preservation of life.
“It should be said…that the completely profane world, the wholly desacralized cosmos, is a recent discovery in the history of the human spirit.”
It was certainly my own existential travails of a bureaucratic nature during this Covid crisis that prompted me to re-read a book I last opened 40 years ago, and at that time in German. And, oh, the treasures that I (re-)unearthed. Like, how Marxism, that bellwether of the Profane, is not much more than a dressed up mythological framework for city folk. Or that unless a traditionally religious person immerses himself in the phenomena that define the natural world the way his pagan ancestors did, his religion’s not worth much. And that we have Judaism, not the Greeks, to thank for the existence of the weekend.
If you insist that you’re not inclined to the metaphysical, then this one will test you. But isn’t that the point? To test ourselves? In addition, if you’re a writer and you haven’t at least dipped your toe into some Joseph Campbell, well, this could serve as a Campbell primer. With a European accent.
The Sacred and the Profane is—much like its subject matter—a bit of the best of both worlds: a short book that manages not at all to be a quick read. But for a good grip on the conflict that undergirds the best fiction (and some game-changing esoterica that should help out during conversation lulls at office Christmas parties) Eliade is essential reading.
Via Negativa by Dan Hornsby
“Hitchhikers are anachronisms. So are priests. I think it’s safe to say hitchhikers have more in common with Jesus than most priests do.”
Father Dan has lost his parish, not that he was ever much of a pastor to it. But he’s got a serviceable Toyota Camry and an invitation to stay with old friends out in Seattle, two-thirds of the American continent distant. A nice drive, with time to think and see some sights, might be just the thing.
But it’s also the last thing that this road is ready to afford Father Dan—peace. The kind of contemplative space necessary to deal with the near-half-century’s worth of regret that began to accumulate hard upon his ordination can be tough to find when you’re obligated to an injured coyote, a pyromaniac teenage stowaway, and have booked a tour of the world’s largest ball of paint.
This debut novel has a solid episodic quality but one that offers no neat resolutions. At every juncture where the old priest might begin to draw on his beloved apophatic theology—the via negativa of the title—something interrupts. His plan to execute long-delayed justice, to visit a dying friend, or attend to some personal spiritual housecleaning—nothing ever quite goes to plan. And with each new disappointment met in this very funny novel, the pile of regret that’s sucking up all the oxygen in Father Dan’s inner life just gets a little deeper.
Father Dan is everything that God cannot, must not, be. Much like just about every person I’ve ever known. Very funny. If you’re Roman Catholic, heretically so.
The Other Walk by Sven Birkerts
“Fury is the point past which reason cannot intercede, and I can only pine for it. Pine to be the kind of person who is helpless in its torque, who flashes red and feels swept clean when it has run its course.”
I hadn’t read this or anything by Sven Birkerts for about five years, until a letter from a friend prompted me to pick up this gorgeous and odd set of short essays once again.
Upon reading Birkerts’s descriptions of a tape dispenser from his childhood, a decorative cigarillo tin, or a walking tour of Riga, the temptation to lump him in with Karl Ove Knausgård in whatever category that kind of writer is supposed to represent, is never far away. And I suppose there is some resemblance: they both write about art, about the quotidian, about the homely joys of the analog world. But with Birkerts, the writing lacks the stasis that can make Knausgård a struggle, at least for me.
Birkerts’s prose moves and prods. Regardless of subject matter, it never fails to provoke that tickle of unease, that whiff of corruption. But its greatest value, adjacent to its beauty, is the sotto voce encouragement, with every line, every filigreed detail, to slow down. To notice.
You’re asking what the practical value is of reading an American essayist of the mundane? You want to write? Want to understand what’s under the hood? Want to sharpen your aesthetic, get a grip on discerning good writing from the other thing? Here’s the manual.
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