Ten Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “I must be private, secret, as anonymous and submerged as possible in order to write.” Given the multiple volumes of her diary, letters and memoirs, the outward facts of her life are well-documented, but the priority she gives to the inward life, to what lies obscured in night and shadow, leaves much yet unknown.
1. “The Mysterious Case of Miss V.” This is the title of a scrap of manuscript written in 1906 about a woman who passes unknown and silent through her lifetime. The challenge is “to track down the shadow, to see where she lived and if she lived, and talk to her…” Who was the unnamed Miss V? Might she bear some relation to Miss Virginia Stephen (Woolf’s maiden name)?
2. The Unnoticed Influence of Woolf’s Aunt. Virginia Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen put down his sister Miss Caroline Emilia Stephen as “Silly Milly” who wrote “little books.” It was the way of Victorian men towards spinsters (like the fictional Miss V). Leslie Stephen’s children took up his tone towards his sister, whom they called “the Nun.” This dismissal has distracted attention from what was formative for 22-year-old Virginia during the last months of 1904 when she lived with her 72-year-old aunt Caroline at The Perch, her home in Cambridge. It was, Virginia said, “an ideal retreat for me,” following a breakdown. A Quaker convert and theologian, her aunt’s chief book, Quaker Strongholds (1890)—reprinted three times—and her papers in London’s Metropolitan Museum reveal habits of mind that are precisely those of her niece: to switch off the clamor of public voices in favor of “the witness within” and demand more than votes for women: nothing less than “the disuse of power.” She did not wish women to imitate the abuses of male power and called for women to exercise their vote collectively.
3. The first published essay. It was while Virginia Stephen lived with her aunt Caroline that she picked up her pen to write professionally for the first time in November 1904. It was for a women’s supplement to a church magazine called The Guardian. The topic she chose was a pilgrimage to the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth. In the museum, above a bank on the steep village street, she’s “thrilled” to find the little oak stool “which Emily carried with her on her solitary moorland tramps, and on which she sat, if not to write, as they say, to think.”

4. “Thinking back through our mothers.” This famous phrase, which sparked a turn to women’s history, appeared in Woolf’s first feminist treatise, A Room Of One’s Own (1929). The book originated in lectures to women students at Cambridge in 1928, the year of the Equal Franchise Act, granting the vote to all women. But back in 1906 Virginia Stephen was already exploring the possibility of women’s history in a neglected but wonderful story, “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” about 15th century women who maintain domestic order while thugs (recorded by traditional history as the Wars of the Roses) rampage outside their walls.
5. A Question of “Madness.” A nervous temperament was thought to unfit people, especially females, for public life. In fact, Virginia Woolf shared a predisposition for mental illness with forebears who were particularly able in public office. Her grandfather, Sir James Stephen, had “a severe nervous illness” after drawing up the Parliamentary bill against slavery in 1833. As Colonial Under-Secretary, his anxiety over the colonies (when slave-owners resisted his bill) was so overwrought as to be “a test of insanity.” He apologized to his wife for being “moonstruck.” His son, Leslie Stephen, a successful man of letters, had what he termed “Berserker fits.” Caroline Stephen, who established a women’s refuge in the 1870s, had a breakdown of sorts after her mother died.



6. A “prelude” to marriage. “To be 29 and unmarried—to be a failure—childless—insane too, no writer,” Virginia Stephen groaned to her sister in June 1911. That very month Leonard Woolf turned up on leave from his Colonial Office post in Ceylon. Ten months later, when they announced their engagement, she wrote teasingly to two single friends, “I am marrying a penniless Jew.” It is impossible to document fully what happened when their union was put to the test early on, between 1913 and 1915 – a period Virginia Woolf later called the “prelude” to marriage. Following her breakdowns during those years, her second novel, Night and Day (1919), devises a positive reply to what is a critical and even adversarial stance in Leonard Woolf’s novel, The Wise Virgins (1914) with its ambiguous Virginia figure Camilla Lawrence, who is too classy, too non-Jewish for the hero, Harry. We can have some insight into this fraught time through the way their books talk to each other, and take in what Virginia did to heal what had been hurtful to Leonard.
7. The Russian Ballet. Dates in Leonard Woolf’s diary in 1911, 1912, and 1918, record visits to the Diaghilev Ballet when they performed to enraptured audiences. Among these was a performance of Act II of Swan Lake and it’s worth exploring a link between the revelation of the Swan Queen’s outsider existence in the dark woods (versus the routines of court) and the honeymoon-versus-marriage plot of Virginia Woolf’s greatest story, “Lappin and Lapinova.” Lopokova was the name of Diaghilev’s prima ballerina during the 1918 season in London at the time Virginia Woolf first conceived this story.

8. The Outsiders’ Society. Virginia Woolf is usually seen as an insider among her Bloomsbury set, made up largely of privileged, upper-middle-class men who had been at top schools and Cambridge University. But in her treatise, Three Guineas (1938), she positions herself as an “Outsider” and member of an “Outsiders’ Society.” This is a secret and anonymous organization of women. In her diary, on February 7, 1938, Virginia Woolf considers putting out an illustrated sheet to be called The Outsider, as a way of popularizing and politicizing an Outsider party. Members work for the same aims as men who are brothers: “liberty, equality and peace.” But women do this separately, “by their own methods,” resisting militancy and the temptation to imitate men.
9. Preparing for suicide. It is a fact that Virginia Woolf committed suicide on March 28, 1941 by weighting her pockets with stones and wading into the fast-running River Ouse near her writing room in the village of Rodmell in Sussex. What is less well-known is that in 1940 Leonard proposed joint suicide to a reluctant Virginia. At that time German invasion of Britain seemed imminent after the rest of Europe had fallen to the Nazis. As a Jew, Leonard expected to be seized and his wife too. In fact, they were already on Himmler’s list for immediate arrest.
10. Silencing and Voicing. In the 19th century nice women were quiet. Virginia Woolf said that she and her sister were taught the “tea-table” manner. This was designed to keep polite, self-effacing conversation flowing. The most vital fact in her life was the contrast between this stifling of utterance, this concealment in “shadow’—epitomized by Miss V—and the ground shaking under her like an earthquake when she brought out her full-throated “Outsider” voice, protesting against military or domestic violence in favour of nurture, listening and sympathy, values which the civilized of both sexes already share. The voice of her Outsider prepares the way for the present voice of the #MeToo generation.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

PoMo No Mo’: What Virginia Woolf Teaches Us About How to Write Today

In the end, Virginia Woolf went for a walk, filled her pockets with rocks, and waded into the river. After a lifetime of struggling with her mental health, the onset of another depressive episode, in conjunction with the impending war, ultimately defeated her. Since then, women writers across the world have recognized fragments of themselves in her and her work. For my part, growing up in rural Massachusetts, I used to end long winter walks standing at the edge of the pond across the field from the house where I grew up, and the gentle pulse of the water’s surface felt like a promise to take me if I wanted to go.

I didn’t have a connection to Woolf growing up. I was nineteen the summer I first read Mrs. Dalloway, lonely again in my humid hometown. At first pass, I found it dense and perplexing; it was difficult to follow the thread that Woolf masterfully weaves from one character to the next. But I was drawn to her even then, to that breathless style, to life, London, that moment of June.

Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I finally read all of Woolf’s novels and saw myself, not only in suicidal ideation but in literary aesthetic: in that persistent, if sometimes melancholy, optimism that pervades Woolf’s work despite mounting evidence that there is little left to hope for.

This realization came in my senior year of college, when I elected to put an end to my embarrassing lack of knowledge about one of history’s most prominent women writers by taking a senior thesis seminar on Woolf. Led by notable writer and Woolf scholar Mary Gordon, we read 10 books and two personal essays by Woolf, each student producing a 30-page thesis on the writer’s oeuvre.

I came to the class as something of a lapsed postmodernist. I’d taken a course in the literary school a few semesters prior and had only recently grown disillusioned with its tenets, the nihilistic rejection of reality and truth that filled me first with existential dread, then a numbing emptiness as I tried to apply it to my own writing. Reading Woolf with this lens, I found her work to present a thorough criticism of the ideas that would characterize postmodernism after her death. It wasn’t just that Woolf was a modernist, embodying the reassertion of reason against a growing alienation that individuals felt in response to advancing industrialization—this modernist aesthetic sets her up in obvious opposition to postmodernism, given that the latter movement grew out of a rejection of their modernist predecessors. Woolf’s work goes beyond this simplistic dichotomy, acknowledging and considering at great length the ideas that would later become postmodernism, but ultimately turning away from them in favor of what Woolf seems to consider the essential truth of being human. That is, the idea that while people’s true selves are masked beneath layers of constructed identities—making meaningful connection almost entirely impossible—the point of life, the beauty in it, is to continue to search for a glimpse at that true self below the surface. For Woolf, this is what makes life worth it all.

This aesthetic appears initially in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. Rachel Vinrace, the novel’s young leading lady, pushes against the boundaries of society, unable to conform to the polite expectations set for her. Her entrance into “proper” society midway through the book dovetails with her eventual death, with Rachel falling ill and never recovering soon after getting engaged. Once Rachel attains marriage, “the right thing, the only thing, the solution required by everyone she knew,” she is literally destroyed. In this way, Woolf seems to argue that the arbitrary structures of society do a sort of violence to individuals, taking away their agency in favor of fitting in with what is “proper.” This echoes the nihilist reaction to society that would come to characterize postmodernism after Woolf’s death.

However, an undercurrent of optimism flows through the novel. After Rachel dies, a thunderstorm hits, and the societal conventions that everyone adhered to throughout the book fall quite suddenly away. The otherwise relentlessly proper Mrs. Flushing asks her friends if they fear dying, and they all respond in turn. Unlike earlier in the book, when people would pointedly shy away from asking personal questions, the characters begin to say real, meaningful things. Rachel’s senseless death forces them to be more than they are; to create meaning, to communicate. While the spell breaks as the storm fades, Woolf is not pessimistic about the fact that meaning is only momentary. Rather, she notes the beauty in the fact that, despite this heartbreaking, meaningless death, the other characters go on living, as if to point out that there is something valuable in the going-on-ness of life. Even though meaning only comes in flashes, like lightning, people do not grow disillusioned in the face of the fact that they spend most of their lives stumbling around in the dark. One must push through these difficulties—that is, from a contemporary lens, push through postmodern solipsism—for the hope of momentary clarity. It is worth it for these moments.

In fact, beyond simply arguing for the existence of moments of clarity amidst the stilted performance of English society, Woolf seems to argue that these barriers preventing us from accessing this clarity are the only things that keep us alive. In The Voyage Out, Rachel finds herself paralyzed when she begins to consider the “unspeakable queerness” of life, which she considers “only a light passing over the surface and vanishing.” Through this paralysis, we see how it is destructive to think about the immense and desolate fact of human existence. In this way, while the barriers put up by the conscious presentation of society do serve the destructive end of making it impossible for people to really communicate with one another, these barriers also serve the very constructive end of making it possible to do anything at all. If one thinks too much about how, like Rachel, a person can die merely by forgetting to wash their vegetables before eating them, it becomes impossible to continue. This is why, as with lightning, clarity can only exist in moments. After any more than an instant, the absolute vulnerability of humans to the most absurd things becomes unbearable to consider. In Woolf’s formulation, the best we can hope for is to glimpse clarity in fragments. Any more would destroy us.

These ideas pervade all of Woolf’s novels. In Night and Day, she remarks that “to see the truth is our great chance in this world.” One of the novel’s heroines, Katharine, continually invokes Dostoyevsky, repeating, “It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering—the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.” In The Years, it’s the distant bombing of the war heard during a quiet English tea. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf re-emphasizes the beauty in the dogged going-on-ness of life, showing how even in the face of tremendous tragedy life continues as it did before simply because it must. The house is restored. Lily Briscoe returns to her painting. They finally sail towards the titular lighthouse, despite the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew.

Woolf is unquestionably a modernist, and the easy assumption would be to say that she has, as she might put it, “nothing whatever” to do with postmodernism as a school. Given that she died before postmodernism could begin to take hold, one might argue that her optimism has no purchase as a critique of contemporary postmodernism, and that to pose such a critique risks anachronism. But this argument falls apart under the weight of The Waves, that fluid and experimental work that firmly established Woolf not only as an extraordinary novelist but as an intensely conceptual writer fiercely pushing the boundaries of her craft.

Told in six soliloquies that ebb and break against each other, The Waves explicitly references numerous major tenets of what would become postmodernism without losing Woolf’s steadfast optimism. The character of Bernard destabilizes the strong sense of self inherent in many modernist texts, declaring, “To be myself…I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” He goes further, pointing out a whole host of ideas that would later characterize the postmodern movement: the flimsy nature of socially constructed reality, the instability of language, the dubiousness of concrete knowledge. Woolf writes:
There is no stability in this world. Who is to say what meaning there is in anything? Who is to foretell the flight of a word? It is a balloon that sails over tree-tops. To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are for ever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities. What is to come? I know not. But as I put down my glass I remember: I am engaged to be married. I am to dine with my friends tonight. I am Bernard, myself.
Throughout the passage, Bernard seems to be falling away from that optimism that carried Woolf throughout her literary career. Then, the word “but” in the middle. Despite all these grand questions, Bernard is able to situate himself in relation to his position in society. In this way, Bernard represents the point that Woolf makes again and again throughout her career: While nothing is perfect, it is all we have. While society is constructed, it is the only way that Bernard has to relate to the world, and that must be worth something. It must be worth fighting for. If not to keep it the same, then to salvage it, to turn it into something to hope for, rather than the postmodern alternative of nothing at all. As Bernard states, “Is this the utmost you can do? Then we have triumphed. You have done your utmost.”

Woolf’s relationship to postmodernism becomes more compelling when put in context with major critiques that postmodernists raised against modernism. In large part, literary criticism in Woolf’s time was dominated by men like Clive Bell, Joseph Frank, David Lodge, and John Barth. According to Patricia Waugh, a leading specialist in modern and postmodern literature, in her book Feminine Fictions, works by women were marginalized and misinterpreted by these critics. In Waugh’s formulation, fiction written by male modernists was characterized by splitting, fragmentation, and atomization of the story and of the self. In contrast, women’s writing at this time had more to do with dissolution and mergence. According to Waugh, this is because women were traditionally positioned as “other,” so the desire to become subjects overpowered the postmodern desire to deconstruct themselves. Rather, these women sought to experience their selves as strong and coherent while also acknowledging the socially constructed aspects of their identities. Thus, reading these women writers, including Woolf, with the lens of male modernists and critics would misrepresent their aims and concerns.

Furthermore, these women were not only misunderstood or overlooked in their time period, but formulations of modernism continue to misunderstand women like Woolf today. For example, Adam Kelly invokes modernism in his essay “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” setting up modernist sincerity in contrast with his idea of the New Sincerity, a burgeoning school of post-postmodernism. Kelly asserts that the modernist aesthetic was characterized by “impersonality,” but he exclusively cites male authors such as Joyce and Eliot to prove his point. It would certainly be strange to describe Woolf’s persistent search for meaningful connections between people as anything approaching impersonal, so one might think she was left out of Kelly’s formulation, destabilizing his arguments surrounding postmodernism and New Sincerity.

What does all this indicate? Given that postmodernism grew out of mainstream critiques of modernism, and given that these critiques generally did not focus on the work being done by women writers, the very existence of the school of postmodernism becomes suspect, because it appears to exclude women writers and writers of color. Woolf’s oeuvre is proof of this gaping oversight. While the world is in many ways more equitable than it was when Woolf was writing—at the very least, women can now enter the library at Cambridge without a male companion, unlike in A Room of One’s Own–the literary world remains troublingly gendered.

Ruth Franklin discusses this gendering in her article “Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women.” According to VIDA, and advocacy organization for women in literary arts, in 2013 The New York Review of Books reviewed 636 books by men and only 164 by women. Franklin notes how even today women writers struggle to be seen as writing about anything other than women, while male narratives continue to be considered universal. This echoes the sentiment Woolf expressed almost a century ago in A Room of One’s Own. She writes:
Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
If literary problems from 1929 that a prominent woman writer like Woolf considered at length still remain unsolved today, it seems fair to say that our contemporary literary schools developed out of a deliberate exclusion of women writers. This indicates that postmodernism is not only passé, but, in fact, that parts of postmodernism were never going to be useful for a progressive society. This is because postmodernism began as a movement by white men critiquing previous work by white men, never pausing to look outside of themselves to consider if people of other genders or races might have something interesting to contribute. Woolf’s contradictory relationship to postmodern tenets is proof that she, and likely others, were overlooked.

This isn’t to say that the entire project of postmodernism was useless. It did its work in exposing the arbitrary nature of many, if not most, aspects of our lives. It questioned our assumptions, our values, asked if we knew where things began and then asked us to look again. But for all its good, postmodernism has been ripping a hole in the literary fabric by failing to address this gendered critique, dragging the tapestry down as it overstays its welcome.

For my part, I think there’s nothing left to be gained from this irony, this solipsism, the extinguishing emptiness of the postmodern world. In a world where violence and hate speech are skyrocketing perhaps in part due to this rampant postmodern depersonalization, maybe what we need is not more explorations of how meaningless everything is, but a radical reassertion of that meaning, the kind of hope that kept Woolf alive.

It was the war that ultimately killed Virginia. She had been deeply unsettled by the First World War, and her diaries and letters indicate a growing sense of dread as the Second World War advanced in the last years of her life. While we’re not on the obvious brink of a world war now, it feels similarly easy to despair at advancing right-wing populism across the globe. But having grown up in postmodernism’s grasp, I would rather write towards hope, that truth that Woolf considered our great chance in this world.

In order to be productive, post-postmodern fiction must let go of the solipsistic irony borne out of exclusionary white male narratives. These post-postmodern works must allow writers of all perspectives to dismantle societal narratives and structures like a postmodernist. At the same time, such works must illuminate unseen spaces in literature, like Woolf called for in A Room of One’s Own, and they must resist postmodernism by remaining optimistic and unironic in the process. Drawing on Waugh, these writers must seek to understand their (whole) self in terms of problematic social structures rather than denying the existence of the self because of these structures.

We are never going to see the world or ourselves with complete objectivity, nor should we have to. The intrinsic failure of objectivity should not be taken as cause for despair, because this despair then masks the simple beauty that keeps us alive, as Woolf argued. That humans are fallible is part of what makes us endearing to each other. Woolf writes in Jacob’s Room, “In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.” It is merely because, “Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.”

Image credit: Flickr/Laura Miller.

Dear Match Book

In her New York Times column “Match Book,” Nicole Lamy “connects readers with book suggestions based on their questions, their tastes, their literary needs and desires.” Some of those questions, tastes, literary needs and desires are stranger than others.

1.Dear Match Book,

I
like sympathetic protagonists who become slightly, but not too, unsympathetic
following some kind of loss, then gradually become sympathetic again while
coping with said loss. Close third-person narration preferred, with some epistolary
bits (email only) judiciously sprinkled in. No second person please! A strong
sense of place is a must, though that place need not be named as long as the
protagonist is—or vice versa.

Dear
Anonymous,

My
advice would be to write this book yourself, and then check back in after it’s
published so l can recommend it to you.

2.Dear Match Book,

I love trilogies: Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, and more recently, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. My problem is I can’t stand quartets! The very thought of four books in a series—or their readers—makes me physically ill. And yet I’ve heard great things about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Help!

Dear
Fourth Wheel,

I am terribly sorry to hear about your tetralogical dysfunction, which is barring you off from experiencing the wonders of Ferrante’s Naples and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria. Has your therapist already suggested breaking the foursomes into two twosomes? (You do have a therapist, right?)

Alternatively, you could try wetting your feet with books with “four” in the title (e.g., Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s bibliophile mystery The Rule of Four)? I don’t know. I’m grasping at straws here.

What about Ali Smith’s in-progress Seasonal Quartet? Why don’t you read Winter, Autumn, and the forthcoming Spring, and then pretend that Smith got tired of the project? Next, hole up in a cabin somewhere. After 10 to 15 years, emerge from seclusion, visit a bookstore, and thumb through a copy of Summer. If you don’t retch, you’re cured!  

3.Dear Match Book,

You
up?

Dear
Romeo,

Is this a booty call? If so, this is a first for me at Match Book. I am indeed up, but I’d prefer to keep this professional. I can, however, recommend some saucy books to get you through the night. Philip Roth’s Deception and Nicolson’s Baker’s Vox each are dazzling verbal displays that plumb the depths of desire.

4.Dear Match Book,

I earn $400 a day working from home! Want to learn more? But first, do you have any well-observed family dramas to recommend? I loved the latest Ann Tyler.

Dear
Bot,

Domestic drama has been at the core of literature since Greek tragedy, so there is much to choose from. What about the Eca de Queiros’s 19th-century epic The Maias, which tells of forbidden love in a lively Lisbon? Or for something more contemporary, try Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, her era-spanning chronicle of two New Jersey families.

I
could think of more, but I’m intrigued by your offer. $400 a day you say? Would
I still have to write this column?
Please advise.

5.Dear Match Book,

A veritable and unrepentant gourmand, I’ve devoured Valerie Luiselli, inhaled Karl Ove Knaussgard, delected Ben Lerner and glutted on Ottessa Moshfegh in the last month alone. I really don’t need a recommendation. I was just writing to communicate how well read I am.

Dear
Voracious Reader,

Barf.

6.Dear Match Book,

Recommending
books is simply a matter of data analysis. For example, with the right
algorithm I could tell you which novel to read based on the kind of paper
towels you buy.

Dear
Bot Book,

You’ll never replace me with a machine, Bezos!

p.s.
Sorry about Queens. And the dick pics.

7.Dear Match Book,

I’m looking for the perfect bathroom read. It doesn’t necessarily have to be thematically related to defecation—though bonus points if it did—just gripping enough to get me through my morning ritual.

Dear Multitasker,

I believe the best time to ingest knowledge is when one is expelling waste. The urbane musings of Joseph Epstein are my favorite companion, but perhaps it’s easiest to tell you what’s in our bathroom here at The Times: Clives James’s Cultural Amnesia, his sharp, sardonic portraits of 20th-century intellectual and artistic figures; Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, a toilet-friendly collection of mesmerizing biographical vignettes; and The Selected Poems of Kay Ryan, whose whimsical, technically proficient verse helps to move things along, so to speak.

There’s also The Penguin Book of Similes, but that’s in Dwight Garner’s personal stall.

8.Dear Match Book,

I’ve always looked forward to reading the latest from Michael Chabon, whom I believe to be our greatest living author. This is an impossible question, but if you could choose just one masterpiece from his incredible oeuvre, what would it be?

Dear
Michael Chabon,

As I
tell you each week, I am particularly attached to The Yiddish Policeman’s
Union
.

9.Dear Match Book,

We’ve
been hosting a book club on the Victorian novel for several years now. Reading Daniel
Deronda
, Our Mutual Friend, and the Barchester novels has taught us
the indispensability of timeless literature and great friends.

The
problem is I can’t stand one member of the group—let’s call him Uriah. Can you
recommend a “loose baggy monster” that will get him to quit the club?

Dear
(Middle)Marching Orders,

Part of what makes Victorian literature so compelling are its villains, from Alec d’Urberville to Becky Sharpe. Why don’t you try Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White? Embrace your inner Count Fosco to lie, scheme, and gaslight the son of a bitch until the mere sight of a triple-decker sends shivers down his spine.

10.Dear Match Book,

I
recently murdered someone during an unfortunate encounter. I’m coping just
about as well as could be expected and devoting myself to self-care, including
reading literature about the ethics of killing a (former) friend. Any tips?

Dear
Raskolnikov,

N.B. The Times in no way condones murder. Having said that, reading is a great way to begin the healing process. I would start with Albert Camus’s haunting existentialist novel The Stranger. Another book to help you come to terms with your homicidal instincts is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And finally, for a more recent novel to help you cope with brutally ending another life, try Oyinkan Brathwaite’s delightful satire My Sister, the Serial Killer.

If
you don’t like these, don’t shoot the recommender! Please, don’t shoot me. I
have a family and a lot of readers dependent on my help.

11.Dear Match Book,

He
was a world-renowned roller-coaster engineer, but he couldn’t control the
precipitous decline of our marriage….

Dear Thrown for a Loop,

Let me stop you right there. I believe this is a “Modern Love” submission that was sent to me in error.

Image credit: Unsplash/Josh Felise.

Enemy of the State: A Tribute to Jamal Khashoggi

Sitting on the balcony at the Izmir Palace Hotel in Turkey, gazing at the silvery vista, the sky is beginning to lift after a storm. Blackbirds, seagulls, and pigeons swoop down and bicker over a crust of bread. Peaceful and quiet, fishermen cast out their lines. The occasional passerby strolls down the path, walking a dog.  I feel happy to have escaped the news. But at the same time, I think of the recent brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and wonder if there are any developments in the case. The nature of the murder is a reminder of the courage needed to speak and write freely, especially under an authoritarian regime. Unfortunately, murders of journalists and writers have become commonplace under Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Vladimir Putin of Russia.  They are also reminiscent of the murders of writers and intellectuals under Joseph Stalin. I think of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who was sent to the gulag in Siberia for writing a sardonic poem about Stalin’s “ten thick worms for fingers.” His wife, Nadezhda, preserved much of his work by memorizing his poems—even writing them on paper was too dangerous.

Two novelists who write extensively about surveillance, interrogation, and the power of the authoritarian state are the prominent Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim and the famous Czech writer Milan Kundera. In Ibrahim’s novel The Committee, the narrator is accused of being disloyal to the state and appears before an interrogation committee to clear his name. In his briefcase, he brings “testimonials” that will vouch for his honesty; however, the committee forces him to strip naked and are not interested in denials or testimonials. The goal is humiliation and intimidation, not justice, or any kind of rendering of the truth. The evidence he carries in his briefcase is useless because the verdict is preordained: he is “an enemy of the state.”

In The Committee, the state has a file on the narrator but its contents are mysterious—and the charges against him are also a riddle. He is followed home by a committee member who monitors his every movement and even watches him defecate.  A commentary on the atmosphere during the Nasser era in Egypt, it is suggested that everything in the flat is being recorded.  Seeing the video of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and of two henchman joking after the killing, one realizes how sophisticated today’s surveillance methods have become since the 1960s and 1970s. And if we consider the fact that the Turkish government has an audio recording of Khashoggi’s execution within the Saudi Consulate—which President Trump famously refuses to listen to—one might also reflect upon the pernicious nature of paranoia of autocratic governments.

Milan Kundera, like Sonallah Ibrahim, also explores paranoia and surveillance. In his novella Lost Letters from his collection The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, even the most innocent and personal of documents—love letters—threaten to the state. The heroine in Lost Letters, a waitress named Tamina, is desperate to reclaim love letters from her late husband, which she left in her mother-in-law’s flat in Bohemia. Since he was an opposition figure, the love letters are of particular interest to the secret police. Tamina’s brother attempts to reclaim the letters from the flat in Bohemia, but someone has already rifled through the notebooks and papers. Nothing is private in the authoritarian state, even love letters in a forgotten desk.

For Jamal Khashoggi, the most innocuous and benign of documents—the state’s certification that one can marry a national from another country—turned out to be a trap. It is now early March—three months since I was looking off the balcony of the Izmir Palace Hotel at the bay. I wondered what would happen in the case of Jamal Khashoggi. A few weeks ago, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary killings reported that the “brutal and premeditated killing was planned and perpetuated by officials of the state of Saudi Arabia.”  The view out my window in Cairo is not the Izmir Bay, but a pink palace, a villa, home of a music institute—the occasional rare melody from a talented saxophonist floats up to the fourth floor. Too often it is discord: the repetition of the same note on a piano, the people below quarreling over a parking place, or the blaring of car horns. Pen International and Reporters Without Borders campaign tirelessly for writers and reporters who have been imprisoned or whose voices have been muffled by the state. Whatever the price—and the price is often times, dear: exile, alienation, penury, and even death—writers, intellectuals, and journalists are not destined to be slaves or flatterers of any state, democratic or authoritarian.

Ten Ways to Look at the Color Black

1.One of the most poignant of all passages in English literature occurs in The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman, serially published between the years of 1759 and 1767, when its author Laurence Sterne wrote: “████████████████████████████████████ ██████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████” Such is the melancholic shade of the 73rd page of Tristam Shandy, the entirety of the paper taken up with black ink, when the very book itself mourns the death of an innocent but witty parson with the Shakespearean name Yorick. Said black page appears after Yorick went to his doors and “closed them, – and never opened them more,” for it was that “he died… as was generally thought, quite broken hearted.”

Tristam Shandy is more than just an account of its titular character, for as Steven Moore explains in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800, the English writer engaged subjects including “pedantry, pedagogy, language, sex, writing, obsessions… obstetrics, warfare and fortifications, time and memory, birth and death, religion, philosophy, the law, politics, solipsism, habits, chance… sash-windows, chambermaids, maypoles, buttonholes,” ultimately concluding that it would be “simpler to list what it isn’t about.” Sterne’s novel is the sort that spends a substantial portion of its endlessly digressive plot with the narrator describing his own conception and birth. As Tristam says of his story, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – & they are the life, the soul of reading; – take them out of this book for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them.”

Eighteenth-century critics didn’t always go in for this sort of thing. Dr. Johnson, with poor prescience, said “Nothing odd will do long. Tristam Shandy did not last,” while Voltaire gave it a rather more generous appraisal, calling it “a very unaccountable book; an original.” Common readers were a bit more adventuresome; Moore records that the “sheer novelty of the first two volumes made Tristam Shandy a hit when they were reprinted in London in the early 1760s.” Sterne arguably produced the first “post-modern” novel, long before Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Central to Tristam Shandy are its typographical eccentricities, which Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography describes: “mock-marbling of the paper, the pointing hands, the expressive asterisks, squiggles, dingbats…the varying lengths of dashes.” None of those are as famous as poor Yorick’s pitch-black page, however.

It’s easy to see Sterne’s black page, its rectangle of darkness, as an
oddity, an affectation, an eccentricity, a gimmick. This is woefully
inconsiderate to English language’s greatest passage about the blankness of
grief. Sober critics have a tendency to mistake playfulness with lack of
seriousness, but a reading of Tristam Shandy shows that for all of its
strangeness, its scatological prose and its metafictional tricks, Sterne’s goal
was always to chart the “mechanism and menstruations in the brain,” as he
explained, to describe “what passes in a man’s mind.”

Which is why Tristam Shandy’s infamous black page represents grief
more truthfully than the millions of pages that use ink in a more conventional
way. Sterne’s prose, or rather the gaping dark absence where prose normally
would be, is the closest that he can get to genuinely conveying what loss’s
void feels like. What’s clear is that no “reading” or “interpretation” of
Yorick’s extinction can actually be proffered, no analysis of any human’s death
can be translated into something rationally approachable. Sterne reminds us
that grief is not amenable to literary criticism.  For anyone that has
ever lost someone they loved, seen that person die, you can understand that
there is an inability for mere words to be commensurate with the enormity of
that absence. Concerning such emotions beyond emotions, when it comes to
“meaning,” the most full and accurate portrayal can only ever be a black hole.

2.Black is the most parsimonious of all colors. Color is a question of what it is we’re seeing when contrasted with that which we can’t, and black is the null zero of the latter. Those Manichean symbolic associations that we have with black and white are culturally relative—they are contingent on the arbitrary associations that a people project onto colors.  Yet true to the ballet of binary oppositions, they are intractably related, for one could never read black ink on black paper, or its converse. If with feigned synesthesia we could imagine what each color would sound like, I’d suspect that they’d either be all piercing intensity and high pitches, or perhaps low, barely-heard thrum—but I’m unsure which would be which.

Their extremity is what haunts, allowing either only absorption or only
reflection, the two colors reject the russet cool of October and the blue chill
of December, or the May warmth of yellow and the July heat of red. Black and
white are both voids, both absences, both spouses in an absolutism. They are
singularities. Hardly anything is ever truly black, even the night sky awash in
the electromagnetic radiation of all those distant suns. Black and white are
abstractions, they are imagined mathematical potentials, for even the darkest
of shades must by necessity reflect something back. Save for one
thing—the black hole.

As early as 1796 the Frenchman Pierre-Simon Laplace conjectured the existence of objects with a gravitational field so strong that not even light could escape. Laplace, when asked of God, famously told Napoleon that he “had no need for that hypothesis,” but he knew of the black hole’s rapacious hunger. It wouldn’t be until 1916 that another scientist, the German Karl Schwarzschild, would use Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity to surmise the existence of the modern black hole. Physicist Brian Greene explains in The Elegant Universe that Schwarzschild’s calculations implied objects whose “resulting space-time warp is so radical that anything, including light, that gets too close… will be unable to escape its gravitational grip.”

Black holes were first invented as a bit of mathematical book-keeping, a theoretical concept to keep God’s ledger in order. However, as Charles Seife writes in Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe, though a “black hole is practically invisible, astronomers can infer its presence from the artifacts it has on spacetime itself.” Formed from the tremendous power of a supernova, a blackhole is a lacuna in space and time, the inky corpse of what was once a star, and an impenetrable passage from which no traveler may return.

A black hole is the simplest object in the universe. Even a hydrogen atom is composed of a proton and an electron, but a black hole is simply a singularity and an event horizon. The former is the infinitely dense core of a dead star, the ineffable heart of the darkest thing in existence, and the latter marks the point of no return for any wayward pilgrim. It’s at the singularity itself where the very presuppositions of physics breakdown, where our mathematics tells us that reality has no strictures. Though a black hole may be explained by physics, it’s also paradoxically a negation of physics. Obvious why the black hole would become such a potent metaphor, for physics has surmised the existence of locations for which logic has no dominion. A cosmological incognito if you will, where there be monsters.

God may not play dice with the universe, but as it turns out She is ironic. Stephen Hawking figured that the potent stew of virtual particles predicted by quantum mechanics, general relativity’s great rival in explaining things, meant that at the event horizon of a black hole there would be a slight escape of radiation, as implied by Werner Heisenberg’s infamous uncertainty principle. And so, from Hawking, we learn that though black may be black, nothing is ever totally just that, not even a black hole. Save maybe for death.

3.“Black hole” is the rare physics term that is evocative enough to attract public attention, especially compared to the previous phrase for the concept, “gravitationally collapsed object.” Coined by physicist Robert H. Dicke in the early ’60s, he appropriated it from the infamous dungeon in colonial India that held British prisoners and was known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” In Dicke’s mind, that hot, fetid, stinking, torturous hell-hole from which few men could emerge was an apt metaphor for the cosmological singularity that acts as a physical manifestation of Dante’s warning in Inferno to “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Dante was a poet, and the word “black hole” is a metaphor, but it’s important to remember that pain and loss go beyond language, they are not abstractions, but very real. That particular Calcutta hole was in actuality an 18-foot by 14-foot cell in the ruins of Ft. William that held 69 Indian and British soldiers upon the fall of that garrison in 1756, when it was taken by the Nawab of Bengal. According to a survivor of the imprisonment, John Zephaniah Howell, the soldiers “raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.” On the first night 46 of the men died.

What that enclosure in Calcutta signified was its own singularity, where meaning itself had no meaning. In such a context the absence of color becomes indicative of erasure and negation, such darkness signaling nothing. As Lear echoes Parmenides, “Nothing can come of nothing: speak again.” There have been many black holes, on all continents, in all epochs. During the 18th century the slave ships of the Middle Passage were their own hell, where little light was allowed to escape.

In Marcus Redicker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History, the scholar speaks of the “horror-filled lower deck,” a hell of “hot, crowded, miserable circumstances.” A rare contemporary account of the Middle Passage is found in the enslaved Nigerian Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Penned the year that French Jacobins stormed the Bastille, Equiano’s account is one of the rare voices of the slave ship to have been recorded and survived, an account of one who has been to a hell that they did not deserve and who yet returned to tell tale of that darkness. Equiano described being “put down under the decks” where he “received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experience in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat…I now wished for the last friend, death.”

There’s a risk in using any language, any metaphor, to describe the singularities of suffering endured by humans in such places, a tendency to turn the lives of actual people into fodder for theorizing and abstraction. Philosopher Elaine Scary in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World argues that much is at “stake in the attempt to invent linguistic structures that will reach and accommodate this area of experience normally so inaccessible to language… a project laden with practical and ethical consequence.” Any attempt to constrain such experience in language, especially if it’s not the author’s experience, runs a risk of limiting those stories. “Black hole” is an affective metaphor to an extent, in that implicit within it is the idea of logic and language breaking down, and yet it’s all the more important to realize that it is ultimately still a metaphor as well, what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago described as “the dark infinity.”

David King in The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia provides a chilling warning about what happens when humans are reduced to such metaphor, when they are erased. King writes that that the “physical eradication of Stalin’s political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence.” What’s most disturbing are the primitively doctored photographs, where being able to see the alteration is the very point. These are illusions that don’t exist to trick, but to warn; their purpose is not to make you forget, but rather the opposite, to remind you of those whom you are never to speak of again. Examine the Damnatio memoriae of Akmal Ikramov, first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, who was condemned by Stalin and shot. In the archives his portrait was slathered in black paint. The task of memory is to never forget that underneath that mask there was a real face, that Ikramov’s eyes looked out as yours do now.

4.Even if the favored color of the Bolsheviks was red, black has also had its defenders in partisan fashion across the political spectrum, from the Anarchist flag of the left to the black-shirts of Benito Mussolini’s fascist right and the Hugo Boss-designed uniforms of the Nazi SS. Drawing on those halcyon days of the Paris Commune in 1871, anarchist Louis Michel first flew the black flag at a protest. His implications were clear—if a white flag meant surrender, then a black flag meant its opposite. For all who wear the color black certain connotations, sometimes divergent, can be potentially called upon; including authority, judiciousness, piety, purity, and power. Also, black makes you look thinner.

Recently departed fashion designer, creative director for the House of Chanel, and noted Teutonic vampire Karl Lagerfeld once told a Harper’s Baazar reporter that “Black, like white, is the best color,” and I see no reason to dispute that. Famous for his slicked-back powdered white pony-tail, his completely black suits, starched white detachable collars, black sunglasses, and leather riding gloves, Lagerfeld is part of a long tradition of that fabled French design firm. Coco Chanel, as quoted in The Allure of Chanel by Paul Morand and Euan Cameron, explains that “All those gaudy, resuscitated colors shocked me; those reds, those greens, those electric blues.” Chanel explains rather that she “imposed black; it’s still going strong today.”

Black may be the favored monochromatic palette for a certain school of haute couture; think black tie affairs and little black cocktail dresses—but the look is too good to be left to the elite. Black is the color of bohemians, spartan simplicity as a rebellion against square society. Beats were associated with it, they of stereotypical turtlenecks and thick-framed glasses. It’s always been a color for the avant-garde, signifying a certain austere rejection of the superficial cheerfulness of everyday life. Beats like Allen Ginsberg in his epic poem Howl, with its memorable black cover from City Lights Books, may have dragged himself through the streets at dawn burning for that “ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo,” but his friend William S. Burroughs would survey the fashion choices of his black-clad brethren and declare that the Beats were the “movement which launched a million Gaps.”

Appropriated or not, black has always been the color of the outlaw, a venerable genealogy that includes everything from Marlon Brando’s leather jacket in The Wild One to Keanu Reeves’s duster in The Matrix. Fashionable villains too, from Dracula to Darth Vader. That black is the color of rock music, on its wide highway to hell, is a given. There is no imagining goth music without black’s macabre associations, no paying attention to a Marilyn Manson wearing khaki, or the Cure embracing teal. No, black is the color of my true love’s band, for there’s no Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, or the members of Bauhaus in anything but a monochromatic darkness. When Elvis Presley launched his ’68 comeback he opted for a skin-tight black leather jumpsuit.

Nobody surpasses Johnny Cash though. The country musician is inextricably bound to the color, wearing it as a non-negotiable uniform that expressed radical politics. He sings “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, /Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.” Confessing that he’d “love to wear a rainbow every day,” he swears allegiance to his millennial commitments, promising that he’ll “carry off a little darkness on my back, /’Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.” Elaborating later in Cash: The Autobiography, cowritten with Patrick Carr, he says “I don’t see much reason to change my position today…There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”

Cash’s sartorial choices were informed by a Baptist upbringing; his clothes mourned a fallen world, it was the wardrobe of a preacher. Something similar motivates the clothing of a very different prophetic figure, the pragmatist philosopher Cornel West, who famously only wears a black three-piece suit, with matching scarf. In an interview with The New York Times, West calls the suit his “cemetery clothes,” with a preacher’s knowledge that one should never ask for whom the bell tolls, but also with the understanding that in America, the horrifying reality is that a black man may always need to be prepared for his own funeral when up against an unjust state. As he explained, “I am coffin-ready.” West uses his black suit, “my armor” as he calls it, as a fortification.

Black is a liturgical, sacred, divine color. It’s not a mistake that Cash
and West draw from the somber hue of the minister’s attire. Black has often
been associated with orders and clerics; the Benedictines with their black
robes and Roman collared Jesuits; Puritans and austere Quakers, all unified in
little but clothing. Sects as divergent as Hasidic Jews and the Amish are known
for their black hats. In realms of faith, black may as well be its own temple.

5.Deep in the Finsterwalde, the “Dark Forest” of northwestern Switzerland, not far from Zurich, there is a hermitage whose origins go back to the ninth century. Maintained by Benedictine monks, the monastery was founded by St. Meinard. The saint lived his life committed to solitude, to dwelling in the space between words that can stretch to an infinity, a black space that still radiates its own light. In his vocation as a hermit, where he would find the monastery known (and still known) as the Einsiedeln Abbey, he had a single companion gifted to him by the Abbes Hildegard of Zurich—a carved, wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ, who was himself clutching a small bird as if it was his play companion.

For more than a millennium, that figure, known as the “Lady of Einsiden,” has been visited by millions of pilgrims, as the humble anchorage has grown into a complex of ornate, gilded baroque buildings. These seekers are drawn to her gentle countenance, an eerie verisimilitude projecting some kind of interiority within her walnut head. She has survived both the degradations of entropy and Reformation, and is still a conduit for those who travel to witness that material evidence of that silent world beyond. Our Lady of Einsiden is only a few feet tall; her clothing is variable, sometimes wearing the celestial, cosmic blue of the Virgin, other times in resplendent gold, but the crown of heaven is always upon her brow. One aspect of her remains unchanging, however, and that’s that both her and Christ are painted black.

In 1799, during a restoration of the monastery, it was argued, in the words of one of the workers, that the Virgin’s “color is not attributable to a painter.” Deciding that a dose of revisionism was needed alongside restoration, the conclusion of restorer Johann Adam Fuetscher was that the Mary’s black skin was the result of the “smoke of the lights of the hanging lamps which for so many centuries always burned in the Holy Chapel of Einsideln.”

Fuetscher decided to repaint the statue, but when visitors saw the new Virgin they were outraged, and demanded she be returned to her original color, which has remained her hue for more than 200 years. Our Lady of Einsideln was not alone; depictions of Mary with dark skin can be found the width and breadth of the continent, from the famed Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland to Our Lady of Dublin in the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church; in the Sicilian town of Tindari, to the frigid environs of Lunds Domkyrka Lund Cathedral in Sweden. Depending on how one identifies the statues, there are arguably 500 medieval examples of the Virgin Mary depicted with dark skin.

Recently art historians have admitted that the hundreds of Black Madonnas are probably intentionally so, but there is still debate as to why she is so often that color. One possibility is that the statues are an attempt at realism, that European artists saw no compunctions about rendering the Virgin and Christ with an accurate skin-tone for Jews living in the Levant. Perhaps basing such renderings upon the accounts of pilgrims and crusaders who’d returned from the Holy Land, these craftsmen depicted the Mother of God with a face that wasn’t necessarily a mirror of their own.

Scholar Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum has her own interpretation of these carvings in her study Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy. For Birnbaum, the statues may represent a multicultural awareness among those who made them, but they also have a deep archetypal significance. She writes that “Black is the color of the earth and of the ancient color of regeneration, a matter of perception, imagination, and beliefs often not conscious, a phenomenon suggested in people’s continuing to call a madonna black even after the image had been whitened by the church.”

China Galland in Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, her account of global pilgrimage from California to Nepal, asks if there was in the “blackness of the Virgin a thread of connection to Tara, Kali, or Durga, or was its mere coincidence?”  These are goddesses, which as Galland writes, have a blackness that is “almost luminous,” beings of a “beneficent and redeeming dark.” Whatever the motivations of those who made the statues, it’s clear that they intended to depict them exactly as they appear now, candle smoke and incense besides. At the il Santuario della Madonna del Tindari in Sicily there is a celebrated Virgin Mary with dark skin. And just to dispel any hypothesis that her color is an accident, restorers in 1990 found inscribed upon her base a quotation from Song of Songs 1:5, when the Queen of Sheba declares to Solomon: “I am black but beautiful.”

6.Very different deities of darkness would come to adorn the walls of the suburban Madrid house that the Spanish painter Francisco Goya moved to 200 years ago, in the dusk of the Napoleonic conflicts (when Laplace had dismissed God). Already an old man, and deaf for decades, Goya would affix murals in thick, black oil to the plaster walls of his villa, a collection intended for an audience of one. As his biographer Robert Hughes would note in Goya, the so-called black paintings “revealed an aspect of Goya even more extreme, bizarre, and imposing” than the violent depictions of the Peninsular War for which he was famous. The black paintings were made for Goya’s eyes only. He was a man who’d witnessed the barbarity of war and inquisition, and now in his convalescence he chose to make representations of witches’ sabbaths and goat-headed Baphomet overseeing a Black Mass, of Judith in the seconds after she decapitated Holofernes, and of twisted, toothless, grinning old men. And, though now it hangs in the Museo del Prado, it was painted originally on the back wall of the first story of the Quinta del Sordo next to one window and perpendicular to another, was his terrifying depiction of a fearsome Saturn devouring his own young.

In the hands of Goya, the myth of the Titan who cannibalized his progeny is
rendered in stark, literal, horrifying reality. For Goya there is no forgetting
the implications of what that story implies, his Chronos appears as shaggy,
wild-eyed, orangish monstrosity; matted, bestial white hair falls uncombed from
his head, and past his scrawny shoulders. Saturn is angular, jutting bones and
knobby kneecaps, as if hunger has forced him to this unthinkable act. His eyes
are wide, and though wild, they’re somehow scared, dwelling in the darkness of
fear.

I wonder if that’s part of Goya’s intent, using this pagan theme to express something of Catholic guilt and death-obsession, that intuitive awareness of original sin. It makes sense to me that Saturn is the scared one; scared of what he’s capable of, scared of what he’s done. Clutching in both hands the dismembered body of a son, whose features and size are recognizably human, Chronos grips his child like a hoagie, his son’s right arm already devoured and his head in Saturn’s stomach, with the Titan biting directly into the final remaining hand. Appropriately enough for what is, after all, an act of deicide, the sacrificed god hangs in a cruciform position. A fringe of blood spills out from inside. His corpse has a pink flush to it, like a medium rare hamburger. That’s the horror of Chronos—of time—emerging from this undifferentiated darkness. When considering our final hour, time has a way of rendering the abstraction of a body into the literalism of meat. Saturn Devouring His Son hung in Goya’s dining room.

His later paintings may be the most striking evocation of blackness, but the
shade haunted Goya his entire life. His print The Sleep of Reason Produces
Monsters, made two decades before those murals in the Quinta del
Sordo, is a cross-hatched study of the somber tones, of black and grey.
Goya draws himself, head down on a desk containing the artist’s implements, and
above him fly the specters of his nocturnal imagination, bats and owls flapping
their wings in the ceaseless drone that is the soundtrack of our subconscious
irrationalities, of the blackness that defines that minor form of extinction we
call sleep.

7.The blackness of sleep both promises and threatens erasure. In that strange state of non-being there is an intimation of what it could mean to be dead. Telling that darkness is the most applicable metaphor when describing both death and sleep, for the bed or the coffin. Sigmund Freud famously said of his subject in The Interpretation of Dreams that they were the “royal road to the unconscious.” Even the laws of time and space seem voided within that nocturnal kingdom, where friends long dead come to speak with us, where hidden rooms are discovered in the dark confines of homes we’ve known our entire lives. Dreams are a singularity of sorts, but there is that more restful slumber that’s nothing but a calm blackness.

This reciprocal comparison between sleep and death is such a cliché precisely because it’s so obvious, from the configuration of our actual physical repose to our imagining of what the experiences might share with one another. Edmund Spenser in the Faerie Queene writing “For next to Death is Sleepe to be compared;” his contemporary the poet Thomas Sackville referring to sleep as the “Cousin of Death;” the immaculate Thomas Browne writing that sleep is the “Brother of Death;” and more than a century later Percy Shelley waxing “How wonderful is Death, Death and his brother Sleep!”

Without focusing too much on how the two have moved closer to one another on the family tree, what seems to unify tenor and vehicle in the metaphorical comparisons between sleep and death is this quality of blackness, non-existence of color the same as non-existence. Both imply a certain radical freedom, for in dreams everyone has an independence, at least for a few hours. Consider that in our own society, where our totalizing system is the consumerism which controls our every waking moment, that the only place where you won’t see anything designed by humans (other than yourself) is in dreams, at least until Amazon finds a way to beam advertisements directly into our skulls.

Then there is Shakespeare, who speaks of sleep as the “ape of death,” who in Hamlet’s monologue writes of the “sleep of death,” and in the Scottish play calls sleep “death’s counterfeit.” If centuries have a general disposition, then my beloved 17th century was a golden age of morbidity when the ars Moriendi of the “good death” was celebrated by essayists like Browne and Robert Burton in the magisterial Anatomy of Melancholy. In my own reading and writing there are few essayists whom I love more, or try to emulate more, than the good Dr. Browne. That under-read writer and physician, he who both coined the terms “literary” and “medical,” among much else besides, wrote one of the most moving and wondrous tracts about faith and skepticism in his 1642 Religio Medici. Browne writes “Sleep is a death, /O make me try, /By sleeping, what it is to die:/And as gently lay my head/On my grave, as now my bed.” Maybe it resonates with me because when I was (mostly) younger, I’d sometimes lay on my back and pretend that I was in my coffin. I still can only sleep in pitch blackness.

8.Far easier to imagine that upon death you go someplace not unlike here, in either direction, or into the life of some future person yet unborn. Far harder to imagine non-existence, that state of being nothing, so that the most accessible way that it can be envisioned is as a field of black, as being the view when you close your eyes. That’s simply blackness as a metaphor, another inexact and thus incorrect portrayal of something fundamentally unknowable. In trying to conceive of non-existence, blackness is all that’s accessible, and yet it’s a blackness where the very power of metaphor ceases to make sense, where language itself breaks down as if it were the laws of physics at the dark heart of the singularity.

In the Talmud, at Brachot 57b, the sages tell us that “Sleep is 1/60th of death,” and this equation has always struck me as just about right. It begs certain questions though: is the sleep that is 1/60th of death those evenings when we have a pyrotechnic, psychedelic panoply of colors before us in the form of surrealistic dreams, or is it the sleep we have that is blacker than midnight, devoid of any being, of any semblance of our waking identities? This would seem to me to be the very point on which all questions of skepticism and faith must hang. That sleep, that strangest of activities, for which neurologists still have no clear answers as to its necessities (though we do know that it is), is a missive from the future grave, a seven-hour slice of death, seems obvious to me. So strange that we mock the “irrationalities” of ages past, when so instrumental to our own lives is something as otherworldly as sleep, when we die for a third of our day and return from realms of non-being to bore our friends with accounts of our dreams.

When we use the darkness of repose as metaphor for death, we brush against the extremity of naked reality and the limitations of our own language. In imagining non-existence as a field of undifferentiated black, we may trick ourselves into experiencing what it would be to no longer be here, but that’s a fallacy. Black is still a thing. Less than encouraging, this inability to conceive of that reality, which may be why deep down all of us, whether we’re to admit it or not, are pretty sure that we’ll never die, or at least not completely. And yet the blackness of non-existence disturbs, how couldn’t it? Epicurus wrote as an argument against fear of our own mortality that “Death… is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

Maybe that’s a palliative to some people, but it’s never been to me. More of
sophistry than wisdom in the formulation, for it eludes the psychology of being
terrified at the thought of our own non-existence. Stoics and Epicureans have
sometimes asked why we’re afraid of the non-existence of death, since we’ve
already experienced the non-existence before we’re born? When I think back to
the years before 1984, I don’t have a sense of an undifferentiated blackness,
rather I have a sense of…. well…. nothing. That’s not exactly
consoling to me. Maybe this is the height of egocentricity, but hasn’t anyone
ever looked at photographs of your family from before you’re born, and felt a
bit of the uncanny about it? Asking for a friend.

In 1714, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz asked in the Monadology “Why is there something rather than nothing,” and that remains the rub. For Martin Heidegger in the 20th century, that issue remained the “fundamental question of metaphysics.” I proffer no solution to it here, only to notice that when confronted with the enormity of non-existence, prudence forces us to admit the equivalently disturbing question of existence. Physicist Max Delbrück in Mind from Matter: An Essay on Evolutionary Epistemology quotes his colleague Niels Bohr, the father of quantum theory, as having once said that the “hallmark of any deep truth [is] that its negation is also a deep truth.” Certainly, the case with existence and non-existence, equally profound and equally disquieting. If we’re to apply colors to either, I can’t help but see oppositional white and black, with an ambiguity to which is which.

9.If there can be a standard picture of God, I suspect that for most people it is a variation on the bearded, old man in the sky trope, sort of a more avuncular version of Michelangelo’s rendering from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such is an embodied deity, of dimensions in length, breadth, and width, and also such is the Lord as defined through that modern heresy of literalism. The ancients were often more sophisticated than both our fundamentalists and our atheists (as connected as black and white). Older methods of speaking about something as intractable as God were too often pass over in silence, with an awareness that to limit God to mere existence was to limit too much.

In that silence there was the ever-heavy blossom of blackness, the all-encompassing field of darkness that contains every mystery to which there aren’t even any questions. Solzhenitsyn observed that “even blackness [can]… partake of the heavens.” Not even blackness, but especially blackness, for dark is the night. Theologians call this way of speaking about God “apophasis.” For those who embrace apophatic language, there is an acknowledgement that a clear definition of the divine is impossible, so that it is better to dwell in sacred, uncertainties. This experience of God can often be a blackness in itself, what St. John of the Cross spoke of in his 1577 Spanish poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Content with how an absence can often be more holy than an image, the saint emphasized that such a dark night is “lovelier than the dawn.” A profound equality in undifferentiated blackness, in that darkness where features, even of God, are obscured. Maybe the question of whether or not God is real is as nonsensical as those issues of non-existence and death; maybe the question itself doesn’t make any sense, understanding rather that God isn’t just black. God is blackness.

10. On an ivory wall within the National Gallery, in Andrew Mellon’s palace constructed within this gleaming white city, there is a painting made late in life by Mark Rothko entitled Black on Grey. Measuring some 80 inches by 69.1 inches, the canvas is much taller than the average man, and true to its informal title it is given over to only two colors—a dark black on top fading into a dusty lunar grey below. Few among Rothko’s contemporaries in his abstract expressionist circle, that movement that moved the capital of the art world from Paris to New York, had quite the sublimity of color as he did. Jackson Pollock certainly had the kinetic frenzy of the drip, Willem de Kooning the connection to something still figurative in his pastel swirl. But Rothko, he had a panoply of color, from his nuclear oranges and reds to those arctic blues and pacific greens, what he described to Selden Rodman in Conversations with Artists as a desire to express “basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”

Black on Grey looks a bit like what I imagine it would be to survey the infinity of space from the emptiness of the moon’s surface. These paintings towards the end of the artist’s life, made before he committed suicide by barbiturate and razor blade in his East 69th Street studio, took an increasingly melancholic hue. Perhaps Rothko experienced what his friend the poet Frank O’Hara had written about as the “darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions.” Rothko confirmed that his black paintings were, as with Goya, fundamentally about death.

In a coffee-table book, Rothko’s work can look like something from a paint
sample catalog. It does no justice compared to standing before the images
themselves, of what Rothko described as the phenomenon of how “people break
down and cry when confronted with my pictures.” For Rothko, such reactions were
a type of communion, these spectators were “having the same religious experience
I had when I painted them.” When you stand before Black on Grey, when
it’s taken out from the sterile confines of the art history book or the
reductions of digital reproduction, you’re confronted with a blackness that
dominates your vision, as seeing with your eyes closed, as experiencing death,
as standing in the empty Holy of Holies and seeing God.

With a giant field of black, the most elemental abstraction that could be
imagined, this Jewish mystic most fully practiced the stricture to not make any
graven image. He paradoxically arrived at the most accurate portrayal of God
ever committed to paint. For all of their oppositions, both Infinity and
Nothing become identical, being the same shade of deep and beautiful black, so
that any differences between them are rendered moot.

Image credit: Unsplash/David Jorre.

Remade in His Own Image: Mark Hogancamp’s Marwencol

1.

Kingston, New York, sits two hours north of New York City on the Hudson. Refugees from Brooklyn have recently put down their version of roots in the historic and formerly abeyant small city—vinyl record shops, bookstores purveying the kind of coffee topped with microfoam tulips, lounges serving Instagram-ready handcrafted cocktails. In a less frivolous development, an LGBTQ community center now occupies a corner of uptown’s most prominent block.

If this Kingston of 2018 had been the Kingston of the turn of the millennium, the one that is the setting of Welcome to Marwen, the new movie directed by Robert Zemeckis, it is possible that its originating event might never have occurred. Then again maybe it would. Hate has no fixed address.

In that Kingston of yore begins a story about storytelling, revealed from multiple points of view in three different media. It starts in the first hours of April 8, 2000, when a 38-year-old restaurant worker and former U.S. Navy petty officer with a drinking problem was set upon by five men outside a bar. He was beaten so mercilessly that when a bartender found him in the street he was near death. She initially thought he was a garbage bag. Mark Hogancamp spent 40 days in the hospital, nine of them in a coma. The bone around his right eye required reconstruction. When he came to, he remembered nothing of life before the assault. He had to relearn how to eat, to walk. He returned home and thought the pairs of women’s high heels piled in the closet must belong to a girlfriend he couldn’t recall. In fact they were his, and they may well have provoked his attack. At trial people testified they’d overheard Hogancamp tell the men he enjoyed cross-dressing.

A heartbreaking story that might have stayed within the confines of a forgotten city, like the numberless tragedies that daily occur on a thousand other cultural islands, instead broke free because of what the otherwise unremarkable city of Kingston was becoming. And because this transformation intersected with who Mark Hogancamp already was.

He had long kept diaries—dubbed “drunk journals” because they recounted self-destructive behavior that to him was “like something Stephen King wrote”—filled with accomplished drawings informed by comic book illustration. These were neither the product of a trained artist nor overtly intentional artmaking: Hogancamp is the consummate example of an outsider artist.

It was pure chance that a photographer named David Naugle then living in Kingston witnessed a curious sight. A man, frequently dressed in Army drab, used a modified pool cue to pilot a 1:6 scale model jeep filled with costumed dolls down his semi-rural neighborhood’s road. He’d walk to the local deli and back, again and again.

Hogancamp was walking in search of verisimilitude. After his release from the hospital, he embarked on a project that was more like a need. Left with a right hand that now shook too much for drawing, he went about creating a new type of world. It would only look old, meticulously detailed and appropriately weathered. He named his fictional town, set in World War II Belgium, Marwencol. Hogancamp built it in 1:6 scale beside his rented trailer using scavenged materials and peopled it with an alter ego named Hogie and other characters of Hogancamp’s acquaintance. Under his obsessive attention it grew until the realest part of his existence took place inside its miniature precincts. The world reversed. It was women (some of them Barbies) who were the fiercest avengers; Axis and Allied soldiers respected a pact to peacefully coexist. The bar at the center of town life was named the Ruined Stocking Catfight Club. A tiny sign reassured patrons the vicious fights were only staged. Hogancamp’s Marwencol was a matryoshka creation, a hall of mirrors in which personal storylines set in motion by fate were reenacted by characters of his own making. He arranged and photographed figures that appeared to build the town church as he himself was building it. Sometimes a larger figure, identically dressed as Hogie but holding a camera, arranged the smaller figures in Hogancamp’s stead. He photographed big Hogie photograping little Hogie.

The true evildoers were handily provided by history. The SS was the town’s persistent threat. Five soldiers, the number of Hogancamp’s attackers, might appear at any time. In one of the recurring narratives Hogancamp conceived, the SS rampaged through town—desperate for drink. The soldiers attacked Hogie and savagely beat him. After being saved by a cadre of invincible women, as Hogancamp himself had been (the barkeep who found him, the mother who advocated for his recovery and strong penalties for his attackers, the neighbor and colleagues at work who became objects of desire and thus reawakened an essential drive to master destiny by picturing a narrative in which his affections were requited), Hogie was left with a dashing scar over his diminutive right eye.

Alone among the denizens of Hogancamp’s imagined world, the SS were revenants. They could never be killed except by supernatural powers. Their existence speaks to the issue of creative control even as they effectively personify post-traumatic stress, the ordeal that won’t stop.

2.

After David Naugle introduced himself, Hogancamp gave him a packet of photos. They recorded moments—panels, really—of the staged action in Marwencol. If the essence of photography is its apparent capture of frozen moments, these were frozen moments of frozen moments. Everything Hogancamp did stood at a double remove from either life or its representation. His photos were pre-cinematic: film stills of a film that had yet to be made. Perhaps—or perhaps not—Hogancamp’s world was ripe for onscreen realization.

It could be that Hogancamp’s story is necessarily resistant to any effort to cinematize it. The pictures he took were the ultimate step in the creation of a self-enclosed new world through which he could comprehend, reshape, and re-present the past. Only by way of photography’s evocation of the permanent eternal was the creation sealed and complete. It would in effect be unmade if reeled backwards into action, into the recursive present that is film.

Action, along with special effects, is what Robert Zemeckis is known for. It is understandable that the director of earnest movies like Forrest Gump and Cast Away was attracted to a tale that on its surface appears about art’s ability to deliver personal salvation. By combining Mark Hogancamp’s story with animations of Marwencol that jolt the viewer with scale trickery, Welcome to Marwen ironically diminishes both. Not that it isn’t marginally fulfilling, to some degree; Steve Carrell as Hogancamp is affecting. At least when he has not been converted into plastic via motion capture. The film’s narrative, smoothed into the requisite symmetricality by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) and Zemeckis, is a good one. It just isn’t about what Hogancamp has truly done: artistically transfiguring a complex, dark, and insular experience. It is about what popular movies do with others’ stories. It is, finally, about Hollywood itself.

3.

As a photographer, David Naugle knew the rawly surreal art brut the man had shown him was unprecedented. Hogancamp’s work recalled that of David Levinthal, another artist who photographed toy soldiers, but without the self-aware guile that permeates the established artist’s pictures. Naugle alerted his friend Tod Lippy, the founder and editor of the arts magazine Esopus, to Hogancamp’s work, which the magazine then featured. A show at New York’s White Columns followed, as did an excellent documentary by Jeff Malmberg in 2010 and six years later the Princeton Architectural Press publication of Welcome to Marwencol, by Hogancamp and Chris Shellen.

It is worth making explicit that Hogancamp’s project spans both the making of his fictional town and the photographing of it. They are inextricable parts of the same endeavor. How to define “art”? Let me not count the ways. Out of infinity, though, I might pull the one that seems most germane to Mark Hogancamp’s singular achievement: an object or experience predicated on its potential for consumption by someone other than its maker. He could have posed his figures and then, alone, looked at them for a time. No one would’ve known about the secret act. Instead, the artist was compelled to make an enduring record. If he hadn’t taken that ambitious step, Marwencol might have remained a doleful oddity, a self-therapy of interest mainly to its creator. Instead, with the first snap of a shutter, Hogancamp imagined into existence a viewer. In that moment, when we were invited into this made-up village with its heroic plastic denizens, we became real too. His small world joined ours, his lens the bridge between the world of the imagination and the world at large.

Hogancamp’s photos speak to the line between believability and fakery, between simulation and the surprise inherent in finding “life” inside the obviously unreal. His photos capture weather and mud, sun filtering through tree branches, drops of “blood” on actual snow: Dislocation is the subject of these works. Shallow depth of field blurs what is in the distance, making it look realer than real, because it looks familiar from a thousand posters for movies we’ve seen. (In a caption in the book, Shellen explains, “The natural environment of Kingston is incorporated into Mark’s photos, with faraway vistas looking size appropriate.”) Then there are the figures, caught in “active” poses—carrying a wounded comrade through deep muck, checking a map unfurled on the hood of a jeep, running away, taking aim, dressing wounds. They bear permanent expressions, ones molded right into their faces, their very “beings.” The viewer’s brain is required to recalibrate basic notions of motion versus permanence. What hurts the head to explain is immediately grasped by the eye: Hogancamp’s pictures represent dynamism through picturing the clearly static.

Their sense of the surreal is not limited to their method. One of the most often reproduced of his photographs is a wedding picture, bride-doll in gauzy white dress and Hogie in black suit and shiny tie. The backdrop consists of the five SS soldiers strung up by their feet. An image of wartime brutality collides with a photographic convention, love’s happy future.

In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a book about photos that contains no photos, she writes, “As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.” Mark Hogancamp’s past was indeed beaten into unreality. And the space of which he is insecure is the one where he still lives, the Kingston forever changed into an ominously shifting landscape.

***

In Malmberg’s documentary, the photographer Hogancamp tells the camera that has been turned on him for a change, “I built Marwencol for me—now it’s everybody’s. It’s the one last thing I don’t want taken from me.” One is reminded of those innocents who once feared cameras would steal the soul of their subjects.

In Kingston, the dark and unadorned hobby shop where Hogancamp bought many of his models has become a store that sells a “beautifully curated” selection of home goods: modernist porcelain and cooking tools. In a nod to its predecessor, the shop recently hung some Hogancamps in the window. Through fictional eyes Hogie looked out on the streets of the city that is no longer his. It is the one where he almost died and came to life, again and again.

Image credit: Unsplash/Hanny Naibaho.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Day, Würger, Owuor, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Kate Hope Day, Takis Würger, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

If, Then by Kate Hope Day

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about If, Then: “The lives of three neighboring families in Clearing, Ore., become inexorably entwined in Day’s captivating debut novel of parallel worlds. Dr. Ginny McDonnell, a surgeon, feels disconnected from her son, Noah, and her husband, Mark, a behavioral ecologist convinced that nearby Broken Mountain, a volcano, isn’t quite as dormant as many believe. Realtor Samara Mehta is still reeling from her mother’s death on the operating table and blames the surgeon, Ginny. Cass Stuart is taking a break from earning her PhD in metaphysics to care for her baby girl but longs to continue her research on the theory of everything and the possibility of a multiverse. Cass, Ginny, and Mark start to glimpse different versions of themselves and Samara of her mother, preceded by a bad taste and a trembling under their feet, while Broken Mountain awakens nearby. Often, Day seamlessly slips readers in and out of realities with little warning, and the scenes in which characters observe and, at times, interact with, their alternate realities are intimate, eerie, and startling, such as Mark’s encounters with the wild, disheveled man he dubs “Other Mark.” Effortlessly meshing the dreamlike and the realistic, Day’s well-crafted mix of literary and speculative fiction is an enthralling meditation on the interconnectedness of all things.”

The Club by Takis Würger (translated by Charlotte Collins)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Club: “Würger’s chilling if obvious debut opens as Hans Stichler, an orphaned German 19-year-old, is contacted by his English aunt, Alexandra Birk. She teaches art history at Cambridge and says that she can get him accepted into St. John’s College, but there’s a catch: she wants him to infiltrate a Cambridge institution known as the Pitt Club, which is 200 years old and whose members past and present are generations of the English establishment. To help him, Aunt Alex introduces Hans to one of her PhD students, Charlotte, whose father, financier Sir Angus Farewell, is a former member of the club. Charlotte arranges a dinner with Hans and her father, so the latter can nominate the former to the club. Despite Charlotte’s initial reservations about Hans, they are soon an item. A boxer for the school’s highly competitive varsity team, Hans is asked to join the Butterflies, a secret subset of the Pitt Club. Delving into the real purpose of this club-within-a-club, Hans finds sinister links to Charlotte, Aunt Alex, and Angus on the way to a dramatic and inevitable ending. Though it moves at a good pace, the novel is contrived in its depiction of upper-class snobbism, hypocrisy, and corruption, resulting in a diverting if thin story.”

The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Dragonfly Sea: “In this sprawling, beautiful novel from Owuor (Dust), a real-life occurrence of a Kenyan woman travelling to China after learning of her Chinese heritage forms the backdrop for a moving story of loss and discovery. In 1992, on Pate Island, a small island off the coast of Kenya, six-year-old Ayaana spends her days scanning the seas for boats and the return of a father she never knew. One day, a ‘sun-blackened, salt-water-seared, bug-eyed and brawny’ sailor appears and Ayaana chooses him for a father, much to his surprise—and to the chagrin of her mother. Then, years later, when cultural emissaries from China arrive at Pate, 20-year-old Ayaana discovers she is a descendant of one of the members aboard the ship of 14th-century mariner Admiral Zhang He, whose seafaring expeditions brought him to Africa, and agrees to set sail for China to be united with distant relatives. Once there, she serves as living justification for a commercial Chinese stake in an increasingly globalized Africa: ‘Cohabiting with shadows—here was the weight of a culture with a hulking history now preparing itself to digest her continent.’ Attracting attention wherever she goes, Ayaana struggles to assimilate to Chinese culture and is as drawn to the sea as ever. Brilliantly capturing Ayaana’s sense of loss of her home and her family, as well as her hope for the future, Owuor’s mesmerizing prose lays bare the swirling global currents that Ayaana is trapped within. With a rollicking narrative and exceptional writing, this epic establishes Owuor as a considerable talent.”

Running Home by Kate Arnold 

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Running Home: “A woman’s crippling grief over her father’s death is the starter pistol for this marathon of self-discovery from Arnold, former Outside magazine editor and daughter of National Geographic photographer David Arnold. When a terminal cancer diagnosis halts her father’s retirement project of archiving thousands of photos, those images reopen old wounds for Katie. Recalling her parents’ separation when she was two, she writes, ‘It’s nearly impossible to untangle my earliest memories from Dad’s photographs.’ Shuttling between his rural Virginia home to care for him and her life in Santa Fe raising two children, she suppressed her anguish. After he died in 2010, she found his diaries, in which he had divulged mixed feelings about fatherhood and ‘deep resentment’ of her. Arnold’s narrative includes flashbacks of her need for her father’s acceptance; she reveals how at age seven, ‘desperate for Dad’s attention,’ she agreed to his dare to run a 10K race, and from that point became ‘a runner by accident.’ After his death, she relied on ultrarunning to manage anxiety and developed a friendship with Zen writer Natalie Goldberg (author of Writing Down the Bones) who offered koans during their weekly walks together (‘You need to know death in order to blossom fully’). While her summations of lessons learned feel too pat, this is a bittersweet recollection of a father-daughter relationship.”

The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack by H.M. Naqvi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack: “Naqvi’s second novel (after Homeboy) is an uproariously funny, poignant family saga told by a glib septuagenarian contemplating life in his beloved city of Karachi. Once manager of his father’s Hotel Olympus, the philosophical Abdullah, nicknamed ‘Cossack’ because he once outdrank a contingent of visiting Russians, now lives, overweight and diabetic, in the upstairs quarters of a crumbling family house shared with his brother Babu’s family. Beloved uncle of the ‘Childoos’ downstairs, and fancying himself a phenomenologist, Abdullah is nevertheless seen by the majority of his relatives as profligate and irresponsible. Things go treacherously haywire after he’s rescued from thugs in the street by a mysterious lady named Jugnu, and his old friend, a jazz musician dubbed ‘the Caliph of Cool,’ asks him to act as guardian for his grandson Bosco. It so happens that both Jugnu and Bosco’s family are in danger from the Karachi mob. As threats mount, including from Abdullah’s own family, who are pressuring him to give up the title deed to the house so they can sell it, the nostalgic, courageous Abdullah comes up with a scheme to save everyone. Touching on the metaphysical, the moral, and the absurd, this bawdy epic is a fresh-voiced testament to place, family, and the importance of loyalty.”

Fall Back Down When I Die by Joe Wilkins

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fall Back Down When I Die: “Montana’s rugged beauty is poetically evoked in Wilkins’s fine debut. The story is divided into three narratives. First, readers meet Wendell Newman, a high school basketball star turned rancher whose family operation is in financial trouble after paying for his late mother’s failed surgeries. Things become even more complicated when he is asked to become guardian for his possibly mute, seven-year-old cousin, Rowdy Burns, whose mother has just been arrested for possession of methamphetamines. Next, there is Gillian Houlton, an assistant principal who is having a difficult time raising her teenage daughter, Maddy, after the death of her husband, a game warden who was killed by a rancher. Finally, readers get the written apologia of a man named Verl, who is on the run from the law and hiding out in the mountains. The three stories converge when a militia group, the Bull Mountain Resistance, shows up at Wendell’s door just as a deputy sheriff and social worker arrive to check up on Rowdy. Shots are fired, and Wendell is forced to flee into the mountains with Rowdy and Maddy. Though the plot depends on too many coincidences, the novel achieves an undeniable cumulative emotional power as the fates of its memorable characters play out. This is an accomplished first novel, notable in particular for its strong depiction of the timeless landscape of Montana’s big sky country.”

Mirror, Mirror: On the Nature of Literature

Because of the mirror I cannot touch the me-inside-the mirrorBecause of the mirror I get to meet the me-inside-the mirror     —Yisang, “Mirror,” translated from Korean by Jack Jung
God has created nighttime, which he armsWith dreams, and mirrors, to make clearTo man he is a reflection and a mereVanity. Therefore these alarms.     —Jorge Luis Borges, “Mirrors,” translated from Portuguese by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland
Sometimes it takes a probeand a camera’s eye to show you 
what you’re looking for.       —Maureen Doallas, “How Argument Go.”
1.
Many people, especially during their teenage years, spend a lot of time gazing at themselves in the mirror. One of my dorm-mates in high school was a pretty dancer. One day she started to get up an hour earlier every morning—the reason, she said, was to study. She did get up early, but she spent that extra hour looking in the mirror and combing her hair. Boys do similar things, too. Walking to the cafeteria during high school, I occasionally passed by a boy: Feet glued to the hallway, he held a stainless-steel spoon and kept glancing at the reflection of his face.
I never took a fancy to mirrors. They bear ill omens in childhood stories. Narcissus, in Greek mythology, grows infatuated with his reflection in the water and eventually dies of unrequited love. The magic mirror in Snow White stirs up the queen’s jealousy and causes a series of misfortunes to befall the innocent princess. My fear of mirrors developed when I turned 14. Two weeks after a friend broke her mirror at lunch break, she was diagnosed with leukemia. That night I did some googling and found that breaking a mirror was considered bad luck in many cultures. I knew I was being superstitious, but immediately checked all three mirrors my mother kept at home to make sure they were stable.
I don’t know whether this is related, but whenever I hear people say great literary works “mirror” society, I pause. The mirror analogy seems universal and timeless. A genre of literature known as Specula Principum became popular in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Specula Principum, which translates to Mirrors for Princes, provided political instructions for rulers. One of the most famous compilations of Chinese history completed in Song Dynasty (1084 AD) is titled Zizhi Tongjian or Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government.

Last year, Shanghai Translation Publishing House, a leading press in China, asked me to translate Mystery and Manners and The Habit of Being for their forthcoming project, The Complete Works of Flannery O’Connor. I was surprised to find that in her time (the 1950s), American critics and readers wanted to enforce an orthodoxy of sorts on fiction writing:

They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden the novel’s scope. They associate the only legitimate material for long fiction with the movement of social forces, with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life. (“Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”)


 In the same essay, O’Connor quoted Van Wyck Brooks, a literary critic, biographer, and historian, who called for literature to return to its “traditional” role as a “mirror and guide for society.” To O’Connor, such literature would only “satisfy tired readers” and flatten the originality of the American Southern voice. Interestingly though, the same orthodoxy is actually the literary tradition in China that still prevails today. All the best contemporary works in Chinese are about typical characters involved in big social movements. To Live by Yu Hua chronicles the fate of Fu Gui, an average Chinese man, during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Sorghum by Mo Yan revolves around a group of peasants fighting Japanese invaders during World War II.
As a writer, I—like all other responsible citizens—agree that we need to be socially engaged. But something feels wrong about the aforementioned demand: first the words “typical,” and “social forces.” These terms suggest the life of an individual is unimportant unless it is tied to social movements, and that the artistic elements of fiction are only a vehicle for the work’s larger societal message. Second, the word “fidelity.” I never really liked that word. In her essay “Erasing the Signs of Labor under the Signs of Happiness: ‘Joy’ and ‘Fidelity’ as Bromides in Literary Translation,” poet and translator Sophie Collins discusses the feminine connotation of the word fidelity—women are required to be faithful to men. Fidelity implies a subordinate nature: Translations are asked to be the handmaids of the original texts, fiction that of reality, society, and nation.
I can see why the mirror analogy persists. The reflection of a mirror is objective, dehumanized, and thus faithful. But that doesn’t work in fiction writing (or in nonfiction writing). Art is a selective process, and selection is inherently subjective. If we require writers to exactly follow the orthodoxy, to record the “typical” in a “faithful” fashion, then we are done with fiction.
2.
For the contemporary American reader who respects and cherishes original voices, perhaps there is no need to defend the importance of writers’ subjective feelings. But subjectivity doesn’t only involve insight and point of view. It also contains presupposition and judgment. We are now more conscious of racism, homophobia, and sexism in older American works of literature; and we demand a more faithful representation of minorities in present-day writing. So, the idea of fiction as a mirror endures—writers should be fair, balanced, and objective.
In practice, being fair often turns into being generous. Writers may feel obligated to “correct” for the prejudices of the past. They believe that their writing should reflect their values or group identity. Feminists may avoid showing any female character that is too frail or emotional; minority writers feel the urge to present a positive picture of their ethnic group. As a result, fidelity takes the form of loyalty; art serves as the handmaid of collective values.
In August 2018, after my op-ed was published in The New York Times, I was targeted by cyber bullies. I wrote the piece two days after I learned of my mother’s stroke. Grief, guilt, and grievance overwhelmed me; I couldn’t help but unleash my feelings on the page. I criticized the pragmatic tendency of Chinese culture and medical institutions that are dominated by nepotism and wealth. My Weibo account, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, was soon filled with hundreds of angry and hateful comments. My countrymen called me a “traitor” who “drank her mom’s blood to lip the American dick.”
After the storm passed, I told my friends at home I didn’t care what people had said. But that was a lie. For four months, I wasn’t able to write down a single Chinese word. My English writing also became difficult. I kept torturing myself with the following questions:
1) Was I smearing my country?
2) For whom was I writing?
3) Was my writing contributing to my country anymore?
And soon I had the answers:
1) No. All the points in my essay were facts.
2) When I write in English, I write for readers who speak that language.
3) Probably not.
The last answer killed me. Growing up in China, I had been taught to be patriotic and responsible. What value does my writing have if it doesn’t do my country any good?

In my darkest moment, I started reading Philip Roth, the great American author who, as Brett Ashley Kaplan puts it, was once considered an “enemy” by his fellow Jewish people. Roth’s characters are not pleasant. Take Goodbye, Columbus, his first major work. The Patimkins are filthy rich and snobbish, while Neil’s working-class family seem like boorish fools. But because the portrait is so raw, I can relate to Neil’s desire to fit in with the upper-middle class Jewish American community. Aunt Gladys sounds exactly like my working-class relatives in Shanghai. I understand Neil’s feelings about living with her—he fears being drowned in the unintellectual life that he despises, and he is afraid that all his hard work will come to nothing. Neil is not pleasant either: He bears the defects of both sides. Reading Roth, I know I am Neil, and Neil is me.

I probably sound like I was seeking legitimacy in Roth’s work. Perhaps I was. But I recall my days as a writer in Chinese. After my first collection, People Grow Old, But Never Die, came out in 2014, a friend brought her husband to meet me after a reading. It turned out we’d gone to the same high school. We talked about our shared memories and had a very good time. He said he couldn’t wait to read my stories. Two days later, he was the first person who posted a negative comment online. My friend told me that the dark picture of the neighborhood in my book offended him.
Back then I didn’t question whether my stories were a faithful representation of the lower-class Shanghainese, because, like many authors, my first book is largely autobiographical.
Take “A Sick Tooth,” the short story that earned me a China Times Literary Award in Taiwan in 2011. The father is useless and timid, like my father; the mother extremely economical and pragmatic, like my mother. They are good people, only stricken with poverty. But, looking back, I wonder what good that story did for my city, Shanghai. Or for my parents. As Czeslaw Milosz’s famous quote goes: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
But my Shanghai stories never aroused controversy; the readers who enjoy my book find in it their own images, not happy ones though, mostly their deep-buried woes and sorrows. Will the image of Shanghai and Shanghainese be tarnished by my stories? I would not be arrogant enough to think so. The question of whether my stories were useful to my city never arose while I was writing. Lost in a world of insults and curses that people hurled at me last year, I forgot the nature of art. Art is good in and of itself, as Thomas Aquinas puts it. For all my writing, I am performing painful self-reflection and I would be grateful if my readers would do the same after reading my work.
Back in my school days, Japanese horror stories were very popular. There was one titled “Miss Mirror.” One day, a young doctor works the night shift. While washing her hands in the restroom, she sings spells into a mirror. Soon, the image of a ghost appears in the mirror. After I came to the States, I learned about the legend of Bloody Mary. If you chant her name into a mirror, she will emerge.
These thoughts about mirrors came to me randomly, while I was still considering my writing identity. It struck me that I do hope my writing serves as a mirror, not an ordinary one, but a magic mirror that can summon ghosts. I have a theory about the abundance of ghost-in-mirror stories around the world: The ghost is not “the other;” when we look at ourselves long enough, we see our own grotesqueness.
Humans are born self-centered. If I don’t remind myself of the dark and ugly side that I have, I would become a narcissistic being, like in Greek mythology. I need the magic mirror on the wall to tell me the fairest girl is someone else. I may end up feeling unhappy, but at least I can have true self-knowledge. The same can be said of every individual, social group, generation, culture, and nation. As Flannery O’Connor said it, “The first product of self-knowledge is humility, and this is not a virtue conspicuous in any national character.”


3.
In real life, I am all for inclusion and acceptance, for political correctness, that American obsession. I owe everything I have here to social justice advocates. But sometimes I wonder: What would be Philip Roth’s fate if he were a young writer today?
Author and professor Brian Morton, in his essay “Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite,” points out today’s college students’ tendency to condemn canonical authors for moral failings. I love the comparison he draws between reading literature of the past and time traveling.     

When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.
If, whenever we open old books, we understand from the get-go that their authors have motes in their eyes regarding important ethical or political questions, it might help us understand that the same thing could be said of us today.

Morton’s analogy reminds me of a story about Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master during Meiji era. Once a university professor came to ask for his teachings. While serving tea, Nan-in kept pouring hot water into the cup after it was full. The professor looked at the cup and said, “It’s already full. No more water.” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions. How can I teach you Zen?”
If we are too full of our own opinions, we will never be able to see the richness of our predecessors. We must recognize our own limitations (or at least accept the possibility of our limitations) so we can begin to appreciate the merits of others.
On the other hand, racism, sexism, and prejudice persist. In “The Snow Queen,” one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous fairy tales, a wicked hobgoblin makes a mirror that reduces everything good and beautiful to nothing. When this mirror breaks into billions of pieces, the shards fall across the earth and become embedded in people’s hearts and eyes, causing them to only see the bad and ugly in other people.
As a writer, how can I be sure that I am not making the same wicked mirror? What is the dividing line between being critical and being hateful? How much liberty can writers take to reveal the darker side of our collective selves?
My answer is: as long as I am making the mirror of truth, and as long as I am using the mirror to reflect myself.
Writers are often called truth seekers. But what is truth? Etymologically, the Middle English word for “truth” is “trewthe,” which derives from Old English word trēowth, which mean fidelity and is akin to the Old English word trēowe, which means faithful. Here it is again: fidelity. That doesn’t help: fidelity to what?
In an indirect way, Flannery O’Connor addresses my question. As a Roman Catholic, the nature of truth is transparent to her: It is with God and with mystery. In a letter she wrote to Alfred Con, then a freshman at Emory University, who felt lost in college, O’Connor says: 

Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. The reason this clash [clash of different world religions] doesn’t bother me any longer is because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth.

I am not religious, though Christianity appeals to me intellectually. However, while translating O’Connor, I realized that she, like all the great writers of the past, shines a light on my narrow-mindedness. Like Alfred Con, I have become biased by “the stimulation of an intellectual life that happens in college.” Meanwhile, without realizing it, I have been experiencing what O’Connor calls a “shrinking of the imaginative life.” Nowadays, truth has mutated into its many degraded kin: values, reality, perspective, and group image. Exposed to them, I took the side of the majority and stuck to it. I rested my skepticism. I have stopped looking for God (truth).
Perhaps, truth is something that transcends all the comprehensible things around us. It is not something that we hold in our hands or that we fight for, but something that keeps us searching and wondering.
Truth also affords writers the liberty to be unfaithful to its degraded kin. In 2016, shortly before I came to the U.S., I asked Gish Jen at her reading in Shanghai the same question that I ask myself today: Immigrant writers take bits and pieces of their native land with them; how can they deliver a full faithful picture of their homeland or ancestors’ land to a foreign readership? Jen’s answer was refreshing, and recalling the moment now, I feel even more grateful. “They can’t,” she said. “Nobody can give a full faithful picture of his/her homeland. But writers have the liberty to be disloyal. And we pay the price for being expelled from Plato’s Republic.”
Today, I find many writers, myself included, driven by the moral demand to write “what it should be” instead of “what it is”—that is, we use the “correctness” of our values to determine “what it should be.” But, as I see it, writing for or against certain values creates propaganda. The problem with the creation of this type of propaganda is that we close our eyes and let our values do the seeing for us. In doing so, we give ourselves the illusion of flawlessness and absolute correctness. When we are complacent in this way, we have turned away from truth.
In the tradition of Zen Buddhism, the mind—the higher self—is compared to a bright mirror. There was a fierce debate between the Northern and Southern Schools in seventh-century China: one school believed that the mirror needs constant cleaning; the other believed that it was fundamentally pure, free, and unconditioned.
This is a polemical debate, and I am no expert on Zen. But this bright mirror matches my ultimate image of the mirror of truth.  To me, a look at our internal ghosts won’t result in a distorted reality, like it does in “The Snow Queen.” When looking in the mirror, we also see our fundamentally good higher selves. We see what we could be. Allow me to once again quote Flannery O’Connor: “to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around.” Speak to the mirror. Don’t shy away from anything we see. Grope your way out of the darkness and the unknown. Ultimately, we will see the light, in every corner of the world, in others, and in ourselves.
Image credit: Snapwire/Will Milne.

The Man Who Couldn’t Scan

The poetry community is looking inward after revelations about the treatment of a 34-year-old subject suffering from an extremely rare condition called aprosodia: the total inability to detect poetic meter. The subject’s identity remains undisclosed for privacy reasons, but officials did reveal that he is a college English professor and that his name is trochaic. “It has a nice tripping lilt to it,” said the lead meter scientist at the National Prosody Center, which bills itself as the world’s most stressful workplace.

The NPC had long been aware of the subject’s existence. His high school English teacher queried the center after the otherwise sharp student failed to grasp the basics of iambic pentameter. “The wóods decáy, the wóods decáy and fáll. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Nothing. He would just stare at me in utter incomprehension,” said the teacher.

The subject learned to fake the ability to scan during his graduate studies, nodding sagely when a classmate pointed out an inverted foot or a cheeky instance of catalexis. And yet, because he could not hear any of the metrical effects described, he began to think of himself as the victim of an elaborate hoax. His psychological state deteriorated, and he was finally admitted to the National Prosody Center after accusing a colleague of communicating with foreign agents via his metrical notation of Elizabethan verse.

A subsequent MRI revealed that the areas of the subject’s brain
that normally lit up during scansion remained completely dark. Over the next
several months, researchers devised an audacious plan to rehabilitate him that pushed
the bounds of prosodical ethics.

First, they tried animal therapy. The subject received daily
visits from Donovan the Dactylic Duck, a waterfowl trained to vocalize in a
distinctive pattern: “Qúack quack quack, Qúack quack quack.” He enjoyed these
visits but consistently failed to replicate Donovan’s dactyls on a decoy.

Next, NPC researchers attempted sleep deprivation therapy,
locking the subject in a padded room while piping in Anglo Saxon verse day and
night. By the third morning, he seemed to be grasping the basics of the
alliterative-stress meter, but the experiment had to be suspended after he attacked
an orderly he thought was Grendel’s mother. (“A brief caesura until his visions
subside,” a NPC spokesperson noted.)  

The subject was then put on a diet of limericks, the restorative effects of anapestic trimester being well documented. Indeed, he gave researchers hope when he appeared to have correctly identified a pyrrhic foot, but subsequent tests revealed it to have been a lucky guess. (“An ultimately hollow victory,” admitted a NPC spokesperson.)

Stymied, the brass decided to bring in its heavy hitter: U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. She saw it as her mission not only to spread the love of poetry to the general public, but also to beat the principles of poetic stress into any and all. Meeting the subject in the NPC’s boxing ring each morning, Smith demonstrated flawless pugilistic and poetic technique in pummeling the refractory denier with virtuosic combinations of weak and strong punches—all according to the strictures of various meters.

Preliminary results were promising, as the daily lessons appeared to be penetrating the subject’s thick skull. However, Smith took things too far in one sparring session when, feeling she was nearing a breakthrough, she unleashed a hard thud of a spondee that knocked him senseless.

This time the AMA intervened, calling a halt to any future experiments. Furthermore, the ACLU declared that even mentioning the metrical complexities of Hopkins’s sprung rhythm within the patient’s earshot would violate his civil liberties.      

The failure was a blow to the reputation of the National
Prosody Center, which had earned plaudits for its work with another subject, “The
Ear,” known for her ability to detect over 300 distinct stress levels. (She
currently presides over a metrical review board that resolves disputes between bickering
prosodists.) The controversy also affected the center financially. Owing to the
backlash, sales of the NPC’s footware line, Fresh
Kictus, plummeted.   

The case of the man who couldn’t scan thrust scansion to the forefront of roiling intellectual debates. Some claimed the subject was the ideal poetic reader, immune to the hegemonic structures embedded in both meter and society. “I prefer not to scan” became the rallying cry for those seeking a radical democratization of the heretofore fascistic poetic line. Others took a reactionary stance, arguing that he was a symptom of metrical decadence: His inability to discern the most basic pattern of stresses reflected a larger societal collapse of moral values.

After recovering from his Tracy K. Smith tutorial, the subject seemed baffled by the buzz surrounding his strange affliction and expressed an eagerness to return to his normal life. One sympathetic NPC researcher slipped a copy of Pope’s An Essay on Criticism in his bag as he was being discharged. In the hopes that the shoddy treatment wouldn’t turn the metrically challenged man off poetry for good, she had highlighted the following passage:

But most by numbers judge a poet’s song;And smooth or rough, with them is right or wrong:In the bright Muse though thousand charms conspire,Her voice is all these tuneful fools admire,Who haunt Parnassus but to please their ear,Not mend their minds; as some to church repair,Not for the doctrine, but the music there.

The subject
has adjusted to life outside the center and resumed teaching. He still has
weekly visits with Donovan the duck.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Stalin’s Scheherazade: Was Nobel Prize-Winner Mikhail Sholokhov a Brilliant Writer or a Communist Con Man?

Stalin’s Russia was full of self-promoting con-men with invented personas, ambitious intellectuals with questionable credentials, and audacious imposters who for a time succeeded in both faking it and making it. Even some of the highest officials of the Communist Party were revolutionary improvisers lacking either the experience or training to do what history demanded of them. Mikhail Sholokhov (1905?- 1984) can be viewed as the most talented and successful of them all. Rising from obscure, rural origins, he impersonated a great writer long enough to truly become one. He earned the admiration of Joseph Stalin. Sholokhov gamed the most important mark in the Soviet Union. Or was it perhaps the other way around?

Sholokhov had written several promising, but by no means brilliant, short stories by his early twenties. His writing career was on the verge of stalling when he somehow managed to acquire an archive that was left behind when anti-Soviet forces were routed by the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. At a minimum, this archive appears to have included an unfinished novel that ended around 1919 and a trove of scrapbooks consisting of stories, sketches, newspaper clippings, and articles spanning over a decade of Cossack history. In 1926-27 his work with “the big thing,” as he sometimes called it, became more than a novel. It became a mission. From the moment he started to connect narrative threads and patch seams, he transformed from passive consumer to passionate co-creator. He moved, merged, and juxtaposed texts, combining them with new sections drawn from his own background. He added communist threads and amplified communist characters to create the Soviet Union’s epic equivalent to Gone with the Wind.  The result was the first volume of Quiet Don, a deeply tragic epic centered on two star-crossed lovers and the twilight of a culture swept up into a whirlwind of war and revolution.

In 1927-28, the first volume of the planned trilogy became an overnight success. Sholokhov was immediately vaulted into the spotlight of Soviet celebrity and acclaimed as a rising star of Russian literature. The novel was hailed as a War and Peace of the revolutionary era. With fame came envy and suspicion. In Moscow, one of Sholokov’s first editors, Feoktist Berezovskii, became highly skeptical of his rapid metamorphosis from an apprentice into a virtuoso. It just seemed too good to be true. He doubted that astonishing prose could emanate from the pen of the same young author whose short story he had laboriously edited just three years earlier.

The ensuing plagiarism scandal brought Sholokhov to Stalin’s attention. In early 1929, rumors began to circulate in Moscow that an old woman had written to Soviet authorities claiming that her son, who disappeared during the Civil War, had written a novel. She insisted that the recently published chapters of Quiet Don were identical to her son’s book. As the story spread, it became more and more elaborate. In some versions the poor old woman was going from publisher to publisher hoping to arrange a tearful reunion with her missing son. In others, she was angrily demanding justice from the authorities. When the rumors reached Stalin, the controversy became a matter of life and death for Sholokhov.

In March 1929, the editorial board of Pravda (the Soviet Union’s most important daily newspaper) convened an ad hoc tribunal to examine the allegations that Sholokhov had plagiarized Quiet Don. Several days later, Pravda publicly exonerated Sholokhov and pronounced the plagiarism gossip to be “malicious slander being spread by enemies of the proletarian dictatorship.” Although Sholokhov weathered the plagiarism scandal, bureaucrats soon banned the newest installments of his novel as anti-Soviet.

Critics complained that his sympathies were not unequivocally on the side of the proletariat. They accused him of humanism, pacifism, and worst of all, objectivism. He dared to portray class enemies without expressing excessive, exaggerated hatred of them. In a desperate effort to save Quiet Don, in the spring of 1931 Sholokhov appealed to Maxim Gorky, Russia’s most famous living writer. The ploy worked. A few weeks later Gorky invited him to a meeting to discuss the novel at his mansion in the heart of Moscow. When Sholokhov arrived Gorky was not alone. A remarkably familiar mustachioed face filled the large room with his presence. The mustache belonged to a face made famous by newspaper engravings and grainy photos of May day parades.

That evening Joseph Stalin decided to discuss characters and scenes in Quiet Don rather than unravel conspiracies or analyze grain reports. Following introductions, Gorky receded into the background. Stalin beckoned Sholokhov to approach. In seconds it became clear that this was no social call. Stalin immediately accused Sholokhov of sympathizing with some of the revolution’s most vicious adversaries. Resorting to one of his favorite tactics, Stalin advanced a series of damning allegations. These were calculated to knock his adversary off balance and unmask his true character. Would his target retreat? Would he submit and become subservient? Or would he push back?

Sholokhov saw the dictator’s eyes burning like those of a tiger ready to pounce. The snap decision he made in that instant had the potential to either influence his life for decades or to end it. He stood his ground. With his career on the line, he confidently argued with Stalin and vigorously defended his audacious decision to write sympathetically about the Cossacks, the former tsarist military caste which rose in rebellion against the Soviet government.

Stalin was impressed by Sholokhov’s tenacity. Concluding his barrage of questions, he started to reminisce about his first, albeit temporary, taste of dictatorship in 1918. The dictator and the writer bonded over conversations about battles which had faded from public memory but would soon become central to the emerging Stalin cult. Elated, Sholokhov departed from the mansion with the most coveted prize in the USSR—Stalin’s telephone number.

Though fate had smiled upon him that evening, Sholokhov soon discovered that a dictator’s favor comes with daily dangers and crushing burdens. As Stalin’s prized protégé he would have to become a new man. That fateful meeting in a mansion forever changed the calculus of young Sholokhov’s literary gambit. The instant Stalin revealed that he too was a fan of the novel, Sholokhov understood that he was in way too deep. The novel transformed him into a Soviet Scheherazade. His very fate now hinged on satisfying a dictator’s literary cravings. He would have to become a cunning courtier to stay alive during the Great Terror. An opportunistic, literary caper became a life-long con…with no possibility of escape.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.