The Subterraneans – Jack Kerouac


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The Subterraneans (Grove Press)According to sources, Jack Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans in three days and three nights (benzedrine was possibly involved). Putting aside the obvious need for editing, this move on Kerouac’s part proves beyond doubt that despite what his detractors say he was a genuinely gifted writer – whether you consider the result an unholy mess or the opposite, it is quite readable for a 72 hour writing blitzkrieg. The prose habitually fractures – soaring rhapsodically for a longer or shorter time, coming apart in midair and finding new footing for a relaunch to do it all again. I can only describe this as “live” prose, a staged performance far outdoing On the Road as Kerouac unloads everything in a bid to prove that spontaneous prose is a real, viable and artistically pure form.

Like all of Kerouac’s work, The Subterraneans (his third novel, published in 1958) is based on his own life and times. A quick character conversion chart is needed for full understanding: he thinly disguises himself as Leo Percepiad, Allen Ginsburg as Adam Moorad, Gregory Corso as Yuri Gligoric, William S. Burroughs as Frank Carmody and Lucien Carr as Sam Vedder. There are cameos by stars-on-the-rise William Gaddis and Gore Vidal (called Harold Sand and Arial Lavalina, respectively) and in the starring role, Alene Lee as Mardou Fox – the mentally unstable hipster girl, half African-American, half Cherokee, whom Kerouac shacks up with and soon dumps. He regrets it too late and, life sliding down the drain, sits down to write this book, making his addition to the large canon of “literary exorcism.”


Here’s Alene Lee sharing a human moment with W.S. Burroughs. Photo by Allen Ginsburg.

Kerouac was, even as Beats go, an extremely pretentious writer. His San Francisco is “gray” and “tragic” and his writer friends are inevitably compared to great poets and the angels: Julien Alexander the Christlike unshaved thin youthful quiet strange almost as you or as Adam might say apocalyptic angel or saint of the subterraneans… It’s flashy and ridiculous yet strangely endearing, even attractive. Such words were a part of the lingo (“beat” was linked to beatification, after all) so all the while Kerouac over-uses “Christlike” as an adjective to the point of silliness it doesn’t really dent the romanticism of the Beat Generation.

The Subterraneans makes for a different impression than On the Road, written in a different style (think of it as portrait opposed to panorama). His scattered snapshots of the San Francisco underground are dizzy and inconclusive, leaving the reader hungry for more. It is the subtext of On the Road that comes to the foreground here: as all the friends Kerouac had at the start of On the Road didn’t want to hang with him at the end of it – four road trips in four years later Kerouac was still acting like an irresponsible man-child while others were starting families and holding down jobs. It was pretty clear to me as I read how Kerouac’s story would end and The Subterraneans functions as a commendably honest sequel, as he sets down an account of his growing problems as a self-described drunken maniac. Perhaps this is a poor place to get introduced to Kerouac but it is a necessary chapter for those interested in the man’s life story.

But enough about him for now. The Subterraneans is just as much about Mardou Fox, a gentle, confused soul with at least one major breakdown in her past. She wants to settle down with Leo Percepiad and work on their relationship. He doesn’t. And in those days her love meaning no more to me than that I had a nice convenient dog chasing after me… Sad for him but good for her when she finally gives up and decides to be independent, no longer the little woman waiting at home all hours of the night fulfilling his real secretive Mexican vision of her following me down dark dobe streets of slums of Mexico City not walking with me but following, like Indian woman… Leo makes little to no effort at supportive behaviour and struggles with his basic prejudices and expectations of a woman’s role unsuccessfully. There’s no future for Mardou with him and when she finally blows him off it gives her a chance at a happy ending. Leo is left alone with his book of self-recrimination – deep in the dark pit of night under the stars of the world you are lost, poor, no one cares, and now you threw away a little woman’s love because you wanted another drink with a rowdy fiend from the other side of your insanity.

The Subterraneans focuses not, as you might expect, on the anatomy of a break-up – rather, Kerouac makes a mental mapping of all the thoughts and erroneous conclusions that led Percepiad to blow his chances until there were none left. His tone is also remarkably free from any accusatory bitterness; even when describing the things which Mardou did to irritate him he heckles himself for being an unreasonable man: she was sloppy (always putting off everything till tomorrow, the dirty room unwashed sheets–what do I really for Christ’s sake care about sheets). Everything bouncing through his head, the good times and bad all thrown together madly scrambled between a formal beginning and end. He lays everything out: the complex poison of insecurity and egotism that he struggles with, the tenderness he feels towards Mardou and the unexpected moments of intimacy forging what feels like a real connection between them. Kerouac doesn’t stop there, depicting both his callous disinterest in Mardou and the paranoid jealousy he could feel, spurred on by nothing more than a bad dream and a lot of booze. In this way, Kerouac’s time with her is displayed as mania both in his descriptions and his prose. It’s impossible to sort out what happened when. What it offers is a dynamic glimpse inside Kerouac’s head, one filled with much ominous foreshadowing of his end:

…realizing it’s all myself, a big subjective phantasy that my mother really needs me and would die if I weren’t around… … …saying to myself “If you keep on drinking like that you’ll die…” Sadly, he did not listen to his own warnings, becoming demoralized, giving up on life and drinking himself to death in 1969. He was 47.

Yet this book also shows (better than On the Road) how much Kerouac needed to write and why always about himself: It was on a morning when I slept at Adam’s that I saw her again, I was going to rise, do some typing and coffee drinking in the kitchen all day since at that time work, work was my dominant thought, not love–not the pain which impels me to write this even while I don’t want to, the pain which won’t be eased by the writing of this but heightened, but which will be redeemed, and if only it were a dignified pain and could be placed somewhere other than this black gutter of shame and loss and noisemaking folly in the night and poor sweat on my brow… Writing redeemed Kerouac, perhaps as a confession or an attempt to find some scrap of absolution, and all his bad decisions became grist for the mill producing a stack of novels. He was a devout Catholic and seeker of spiritual truths, after all. But even in this most personal belief of his, it is the sympathetic Mardou who points out the bitterness of the deal. Discussing Baudelaire, her comment could as well have extended to her sad typewriting lover. “I would have preferred the happy man to the unhappy poems he’s left us.”

Jack Kerouac


Ellen Rogers – James T. Farrell


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Ellen Rogers (Signet)If you know James T. Farrell (1904 – 1979) you know him for a trilogy called Studs Lonigan (1932-35), a frank Irish-American slum saga of some kind which wowed the literati and inspired Norman Mailer to change his vocation in life. And that early success turned out to be all the world needed of Farrell, who published over 40 books with bulldozer determination, all the while being slowly forgotten. Yet he sold as a pulp to judge by the number of his works Signet put out (all with wonderful cover art by classic pulp artist James Avati) so it’s clear average readers didn’t forget him. Just goes to show the power academics have over our collective literary memory.

Farrell wrote in the social-realist style and his 1941 novel Ellen Rogers can be seen as a reasonable demonstration of his flaws and talents (though judging by the Amazon sneak peak of Studs Lonigan his writing style became a good deal more simplified in the ensuing decade). The plot: Small-time manipulative bitch Ellen Rogers meets her match in lady-killer Ed “Hellfire” Lanson, who reduces her to a “bewildered lovesick girl” (quoting cover copy there). This is a novelistic equivalent to Hollywood melodramas of the era and has the two-fisted prose to match: She felt like crying. But she gritted her teeth, tautened her limbs, clenched her fists. She would be dry-eyed. She would not be weak.

But, oh God, how could she prevent Ed from leaving?

Clearly the feminists won’t be staging a Farrell revival and as a writer he was unconcerned with style, lacking the polish even of a Dashiell Hammett and rarely bothering with the descriptive pleasures Steinbeck would employ – perhaps all to the good, considering lines like the miracle of dawn was preparing for its unfolding before her eyes like a honeymoon in the sky. He boasted of never suffering writer’s block – all he wanted was to get his stories down on paper. No frills, no fuss. And this makes him a good example of literary pulp.

Like good pulpists, Farrell skipped the boring bits. The chapters of Ellen Rogers are short and broken into numerous sub-chapters, averaging 3-4 pages each. The book is character-driven, sticking to dialogue and amoral actions. Farrell was into socialism for parts of his life but unlike Steinbeck, B. Traven or Upton Sinclair he wouldn’t interrupt his story to deliver a conscientious plea or sermon – social awareness and moral condemnation are left to the reader’s own business and that, to me, gives Farrell a leg up over those guys.

So what does Ellen Rogers offer? The simple pleasure of a good story. A chance to brush-up on some 20s-30s lingo (The gaffer was a curious cuss). And despicable characters the author makes no apologies for; nor does he cast the blame on some societal scapegoat. Ellen is spoiled, bored, a femme fatale without the necessary wit to make a career of it. She starts the novel stringing along a local boy with a false pregnancy but when she meets Ed Lanson she quickly goes gooey-eyed and helpless. She’s upstaged from her own book and Ed takes over.

Ed is a hilarious, disgusting creation, a poseur intellectual of such magnitude I suspect some parody on Farrell’s part. He lives by a cod Nietzschean code, spouting all kinds of bullshit about how he and Ellen will “conquer” and “the world will be our onion” (seriously now, I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at a book) all while plotting to make it big without doing any actual work. A chronic liar, he’s hauled to jail for non-payment of rent and tells anyone who’ll listen that he’s in for safe cracking. He acts the aristocrat and goes on about his pride while “borrowing” money – usually from women. He calls himself a writer but has never written; this doesn’t prevent him from telling random girls about his almost-finished work. “It seeks to depict the romance of reality, and the reality of romance,” he said, and she was unable to mask her bewilderment.

Bottomline: Ed Lanson is a smarmy, conceited ass and a layabout. Ellen Rogers is a weak, watery excuse for a femme fatale whose protests to the contrary ring hollow. “You don’t think I’m hard, do you, Ed? You think I’m soft, pliant. Well, I’m hard. Oh, yes I am. Hard. If you knew what I did to men, what I could do to them.” With such a cast, a biting comedy is introduced to the pages of flattery, ego-stroking and sentimental cooing they engage in together. A dime-store romance shown up in all its wishful cheapness by the paltry, contemptible duo at its heart. It doesn’t end well.

The book is a hoot yet there’s also more to it than simple entertainment. The women in Ellen Rogers are of a piece: stupid, needy, compliant. Exactly the type a player would go for. They listen to Ed expound his poisonous philosophy of the users and the used, unaware that he puts them in the second category. They respond with confusion, laugh it off, saying “you talk funny, Ed.” They go on believing he’ll make good and marry them. It’s sad. It also reminded me of A Hero of Our Time, concerning itself with the same moral themes as Lermontov, trickled down from the literary greats to the pulp realists. Some topics never fade.

Ellen Rogers is not so well written as his famous work, which he must have spent plenty of time polishing up. However, it’s a darkly funny snapshot of a time in America when “babbitry” was hot off the presses. Reading the entertainment of any era can give a surprising vantage point on the lives and concerns of ordinary people (and for all the Ivory Tower’s wish to represent them, probably more accurate). Average Joes of the 40s-50s might have read Ellen Rogers – they probably didn’t read Thus Spake Zarathustra. And books like Ellen Rogers are a great way to get your reading fix when you need to lighten up and take a break from the demand and focus of highbrow literature.

James T. Farrell

An African in Greenland – Tété-Michel Kpomassie


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African in Greenland There is a saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Very few people visiting foreign countries are willing to assimilate to that degree. They stay in hotels, they pick and choose their food, they don’t participate in any pursuits traditional to the area. They’re tourists or they’re travel writers. If the former, they don’t see the country they’re staying in; if the latter, they only tell you what fits the purview of their article, ignoring the rest. Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland offers an unvarnished account closer to amateur cultural anthropology than a memoir.

The modern tendency in memoirs is to talk about oneself and this can be particularly irritating when the writer is offering an eyewitness account of note (Suki Kim mooning after her “lover” while in North Korea, for instance). Kpomassie embarked on his account in a far more professional manner: the early portion of the book is given over to a personable depiction of the events which led him to travel from Togo to Greenland. Once he arrives, the book ceases to be about him and is instead wholly about the country. And yet, ironically, this is the rare time I would have welcomed a little egotism on the author’s part because Kpomassie is interesting enough to warrant it.

Kpomassie was born in Togo in 1941. He was raised in a traditional family – his father had eight wives, older siblings had unequivocal authority over younger ones and in the grip of sickness a white chicken may be sacrificed to postpone death. As a teenager harvesting coconuts from the top of a 60 foot palm tree, Kpomassie had a run-in with a python, knocking it from its perch only to meet it climbing up again. Halfway down the trunk, in terror of getting bit, he launched into space and fell about 30 feet. His father, grateful that the snake had spared his life, intended to dedicate his son to the python cult. Understandably, Kpomassie was a bit put off by the idea. A book he read in the local missionary bookstore gave him the idea of going to Greenland and he ran away from home in 1958.

Kpomassie’s journey was by no means simple. Each step of the way he needed funds. He’d go as far as cash would take him, find friends, get a job and settle in, preparing for the next leg and wrangling an education out of his nomadic lifestyle. During the first few years my lessons came regularly by post, and all was well. But because of my frequent moves, my exercises, corrected in Paris, were seriously delayed before reaching me. So I decided to teach myself, as this seemed to be the best answer for a wanderer like myself, and I embarked on a thorough study of all the French classics, beginning with the sixteenth century. My large suitcases eventually contained more books than clothes. It took him eight years to get from Togo to Greenland. That’s dedication, and it makes for an entertaining human-interest narrative. Once he arrives and meets the Inuit, the tone shifts to a darker register.

Greenland in the 60s was an unhappy place. Long a colonial state under Danish rule, in 1953 they decided to give Greenlanders Danish citizenship – a new policy requiring cultural assimilation. Attempting to graft a modern economic program of wage-earning (where fishing is the chief industry) onto a traditional community of hunters was a bad idea. The result: a lot of able-bodied Greenlanders simply live on allowances from the Danish government. Social engineering didn’t end there, as children were required to complete their post-secondary education in Denmark, resulting in widespread loss of the old ways, a discovery which clearly disturbed Kpomassie. Children are sent to school but are not taught anything about the traditional activities. Even worse, that way of life is disparaged to their faces, although it is their own. When they grow up, they can’t even paddle a kayak. That’s how things are for the Greenlanders on the southern coast. His response was to go further north and the entire book documents his restless drive to meet the true Greenlanders, even trying to reach Thule (though that doesn’t work out and he settles for Upernavik).

Pushback against Denmark came in the 70s and I dearly hope conditions have improved since Kpomassie’s account as An African in Greenland is as much a chronicle of unemployment, casual sex, rampant alcoholism and starving huskies as it is of warm hospitality and natural wonder.

Any travel account has to be judged keenly on the author’s landscape evocations though, and Kpomassie passes muster. There are lovely passages throughout which focus on landscape and weather patterns, from his first view of the northern lights to an early thaw and its surreal demise:

In less than twenty-four hours, the returning ice was thick enough to halt eight fishing vessels as they headed for the coast. The most powerful of them just managed to break a channel, and the others followed slowly into the bay, where they anchored one behind the other. That same night the channel froze, closed in on their hulls, and held them prisoner.

The temperature dropped back to minus forty degrees, so that in mid-March — while winter was drawing to its end in Europe — the Arctic faced intense cold once again … The sea was once more a vast, solid expanse in which captured icebergs alternated with snow dunes polished by the wind and ice hummocks that looked like frozen waves.

The canted ships caught in the pack-ice were like wrecks half buried in the sands of some immense white desert. There being no playgrounds or open fields in the neighbourhood, to my astonishment the young men began playing soccer on the frozen bay during the few hours of light we had each day.

Kpomassie’s anthropological eye takes note of customs, taboos, etiquette and family dynamics. He depicts the Greenland sense of humour, their generosity toward him and their resilience. He eats as they do (though he draws the line at dog meat) and gives unvarnished accounts of fishing, meat processing and dog sledding. He closely observes the different tasks of men and women, their traditional crafts and the treatment of children and old people.

Sometimes, particularly late in the book, he compares Inuit and Togolese culture – comparisons which show Togo to have a higher cultural resiliency, as a disappointed Kpomassie learns that in their amusements, the inhabitants of this western coast have retained hardly anything of their own cultural heritage, nothing that really belongs to them. The accordion which Hendrick tirelessly played was a foreign instrument. As for the Eskimo drums, made of a circular wooden frame covered with a stretched membrane which is tapped on the edge with a slender stick (strangely enough, never on the membrane itself), nowadays they can be found only at the National Museum in Copenhagen! I rather missed the New Year festivities in my home village, where our dances, not copied from anyone else’s, are cadenced to the rhythms of the tom-toms.

As an account of the country, An African in Greenland is not pretty or uplifting. Once he pushes far enough north to where there are still hunters among the fishermen, he discovers packs of huskies, neglected or wholly abandoned by families who’ve gone into fishing to make a living. They aren’t domesticated, are barely fed and as a result they scrounge for food, kill and eat each other and are known to go for children and even grown men on occasion. He also ends up, through a rare failure of local hospitality, left to stay with a degenerate named Thue, in what is the most disturbing part of the book. Thue lives with his family in total squalor and poverty, hunting for a minimal two hours a day, leaving his children in perpetual hunger – and no one in the village offers any aid, for reasons which soon become apparent when Kpomassie tries: Thue had brought back no game, not even a bird, so he asked me for money to buy coffee, biscuits, and some poliki (bacon). Instead of all that, however, he bought ten bottles of beer. Just as he was entering the house with the carton clasped to his stomach, one of his own dogs attacked him, and two of the bottles were smashed. No protective custody, no AA, no good samaritans stepping in, just an old man boozing it up while his children starve. Eventually, they eat the dogs.

These are the moments when I wanted some reflection on the part of the author. The oddest thing about An African in Greenland is in the lack of an emotional culmination. As I said, it’s not written in the modern style. Having made it to Upernavik and met old-timer Robert Mattaaq, he has found what he wanted. He stays with Mattaaq and his family in a traditional turf dwelling, listening to his folktales. He’s content, confidently awaiting a second winter in the Arctic, apparently grown quite close to Mattaaq….and then he changes his mind and decides to return to Africa. The goal no sooner reached than given up. The duty to one’s homeland stronger than the love of a new world. The regret at leaving Mattaaq whom he knows he’ll never see again. The long journey ahead as he prepares the return trip. This is big stuff. Six pages are all it gets. Frustrating.

An African in Greenland was published in 1981, translated by James Kirkup in 1983 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2001. I am happy to see it easily available. Kpomassie settled in France but in this age of air travel has visited both Greenland and Togo often. As far as other reviews go, I seem to be alone in my grim impressions. Maybe most people filter it out. Whatever your impressions, it is an important document and a compelling human-interest story.

Tete-Michel Kpomassie

Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews: Third Anniversary



Three years now I’ve been at this, so here is the annual commemorative post. As well as being the day I decided to start blogging in earnest, April 15 is also Tax Day. That’s not fun so here are four people who were born this day in history:

1452: Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15 (Old Style) and the world still stands in awe. Incidentally, until it was stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia in 1911 (subsequently earning plenty of publicity) the Mona Lisa was not actually all that famous or well-known.


The Washington Post dutifully reported the theft.


1843: Henry James was born. A powerhouse man of letters from an intellectual family, James is considered in some circles one of the greatest writers in English – in others merely an anemic waste of space. Among many other works, he wrote The Turn of the Screw (1898), one of the greatest skin-crawling ghost stories ever made and certainly the most ambiguous.

1916: Helene Hanff was born. She went on to write a series of letters to a British bookseller which, when published as 84 Charing Cross Road (1970), earned her an adoring audience. To connect with a stranger through a shared affection for the written word is doubtless a dream held by many book lovers as the slim volume of correspondence is still widely read today.

1960: Susanne Bier was born. A notable Danish filmmaker whose titles include After the Wedding (2006) and In a Better World (2010). Of the two, In a Better World won the Oscar. While it was a deeply disturbing film about parental weakness, violence among children and the “friend” mentality, it was also a melodrama with a falsely positive ending whereas the earlier After the Wedding did all it could to subvert the expectations of melodrama and came across to me as the more mature work.

after the wedding

There you go! That’s your April 15 trivia for this year.

So here are the books I am currently on file to review:

Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin
The Balkan Trilogy & The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning
An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie
The Assault by Harry Mulisch

And here are ten books somewhere near the top of my to-be-read pile:

Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
The Three Leaps of Wang Lun by Alfred Doblin
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
The Symposium by Plato
Essays, Civil and Moral by Francis Bacon
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by Joao Cerqueira
Georgian Poetry edited by Lyn Coffin
Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

girl reading

The Harvard Classics Vol. 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – Part 3, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius


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Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (AD 121-180), known as the last of the Five Good Emperors, was a rare ray of light in the den of depravity, the sink of iniquity that was the Roman Empire. I have a rather strong aversion to the Roman Empire. Fantastic engineers though they were, nothing will make me warm to a country whose chief architectural relic is a glorified abattoir. For this and other reasons, the latest entry in my Harvard series will be somewhat more disapproving than usual.

marcus aurelius bustMarcus Aurelius was not born an emperor. His father died when he was three and he was raised by his paternal grandfather amongst the posh villas on Caelian Hill. He was tutored at home. This time period was noted for the new Imperial practice of adoptive successions and he became the last of the adopted line stemming from Nerva in 96 AD.

As of 138, the current ruler Hadrian was ailing and selected Aurelius Antoninus, the husband of Marcus’ aunt, for successor. Marcus was adopted into the fold and lived with Antoninus and Hadrian until the latter perished. He received a bundle of titles and promotions, was taught administration and oratory and succeeded Antoninus in 161. Remarkably, this sudden elevation did not result in a ruined character. As he later wrote: …where a man can live, there he can also live well. But he must live in a palace–well then, he can also live well in a palace.

Aurelius’ reign was marked by the Marcomannic Wars (166-180), a series of invasions and rebellions fought along the Danube on the part of Rome’s Germanic and Sarmatian (Iranian) neighbours. Equestrian AureliusAurelius spent time on the campaigns and it was “among the Quadi at the Granua” that he began his Meditations. He never saw the conflict properly resolved in his lifetime – and of course these were merely the burning bushfires that would go on to one day subsume the Empire.

As Caesars go, he was really the best you could hope for. His Meditations are not a record of this life, however, nor were they written with an audience in mind – they are an account of good conduct, a way for Marcus Aurelius to focus, channel his inner Stoic and keep the “form” of Emperor from destroying the “substance” of himself as a humble man. The problem inherent with this noble undertaking was that the result is not remotely user-friendly and has no great originality. Epictetus was a Stoic instructor and his sayings, recorded by an earnest pupil, are as perfect an introduction to the philosophy as a patient reader could wish for. Marcus Aurelius was a student, not a teacher, and his Meditations are an exercise book: rigorous and thoughtful but also plodding and repetitive. There’s none of the personal touch that brought a level of intrigue to Plato’s Socrates and none of the well-exercised brevity that Arrian’s Epictetus put to such wonderful use. Take away his Imperial status and what is left? A philosophy student’s notebook.

I have no doubt some of my problem with this book stems from the antiquated translation by George Long, M.A. and would recommend readers to aim for a more streamlined version. There are of course various excellent passages scattered throughout the book and I shall quote one in full from chapter two, which works as an accurate summary of the themes Aurelius gave his focus and also gives good indication of his style in the Long translation: 17. Of the human life the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux, and the perception dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to putrefaction, and the soul of a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a thing devoid of judgment. And, to man-in-life-man-on-deathbed1say all in a word, everything which belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapour, and life is a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion. What, then, is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing, and only one–philosophy. But this consists in keeping the daemon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, nor yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man’s doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens, and all that is allotted, as coming from thence, wherever it is, from whence he himself came; and, finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.

Sober reflections, stern moralizing, rinse and repeat for the next hundred pages. This is why I would not recommend the Meditations to anyone who isn’t in a scholarly capacity. I understand that Marcus couldn’t just write a quick essay on the subject and hang it on the wall above his bed. To preserve and practice Stoicism in his position he had to remain focused, rewriting his personal mandates and shaping them anew on his travels. Doubtless it provided a calming task while on campaign. So I can see how this would have been a compelling necessity and I respect him for carrying it out but nothing will compel me to call the leftover husk of his endeavor an interesting read. These pages truly were meditations and unless you are willing to read them as such, they will be a source of some frustration.

There are dynamic texts to engage with and static texts to absorb. The Meditations is an example of the latter and unlike the similar Journal of John Woolman it lacks those light touches of the personal, the mystical and the anecdotal that I found so rewarding on a second read. The Meditations keeps up a continuous mantra that human life is not worth experiencing. Everything transient is scorned, all enjoyments derided as animalistic and emotions are censured as “womanish” and worthless. All that is left of value in his eyes are the rigours of asceticism, which I cannot agree with as the very transience of human experience is precisely what makes it so valuable to me. And probably to the majority of sensitive people. Oleg Oprisco Not, however, to Marcus Aurelius who takes a hard line on the matter: To receive the impressions of forms by means of appearances belongs even to animals; to be pulled by the strings of desire belongs both to wild beasts and to men who have made themselves into women, and to a Phalaris and a Nero: and to have the intelligence that guides to the things which appear suitable belongs also to those who do not believe in the gods, and who betray their country, and do their impure deeds when they have shut the doors.

In this Aurelius can be seen as trying to answer the question of what makes some men good if all aspects of their being are shared alike with animals, criminals, the weak and the foolish. The answer he found was uncomplaining trust in the gods and the nature of things – to be a man without any compulsion perfectly reconciled to his lot. This piety helped to establish him as part of the Western Canon and when you consider the examples of such Emperors as Caligula, Caracalla, and Nero he does look miraculous. His book is a testament to that but it also raises a question about Stoicism and how far it can reasonably be taken.

Stoicism can be seen as an attempt to diminish pain in what was surely a deeply traumatic and brutish era to be born into with its “games,” crucifixions, rudimentary medicine and other difficulties. A measure of Stoic training would be a natural aid in such a time period but for Aurelius it was likely a state of living as much as being, and perhaps that had a hand in the disastrous rulership of his son Commodus. After all, if you grew up in an atmosphere of deliberate austerity and at eighteen found yourself released from it and declared sole Emperor, what is the likelihood you would be able to moderate yourself in that environment? Commodus (161-192), Aurelius’ son and successor is quite possibly an example of how such matchless dedication to the higher things can go awry (or maybe he was just a bad egg regardless).

Note the difference.

Commodus took the throne at eighteen and put a spectacular end to the legacy of the five rational emperors. He reigned for twelve years before finally getting whacked and although his career started quietly enough, before long conspiracies were in the air and he became increasingly unhinged. He sought to fashion himself as the new Romulus, stuck statues of himself as Hercules up all over the place and named everything that wasn’t nailed down after himself (including the months of the year, for which he had to first give himself twelve names).

All of this would make him just a figure of fun but on a darker note he showed off his manliness in the arena, where he would slaughter exotic animals and the wounded and the maimed (I guess he figured nobody would miss them). He didn’t perform for free either – yes, as the ruler of Rome nobody could stop him from entering the arena but he charged them for each appearance anyway. In short, the man descended into complete megalomania. He was finally strangled by his wrestling trainer whose name (I am not making this up) was Narcissus. Oh, the irony.

An Athlete Wrestling with a Python 1877 Frederic, Lord Leighton 1830-1896 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1877

Who better to kill a megalomaniac?

Historical humour aside, what a disastrous legacy for Marcus Aurelius. In leaving Rome to his son (not that he had much choice, as naming anyone else would likely have led to civil war), he undid the measured rule and result of the adoptive system, heading straight back to dynasties of the unfit and the assassinations and suicides that go along with it. Have a look at Wikipedia’s list of Roman Emperors and study the “cause of death” column – it’s extraordinarily illuminating.

And this is where I pull the plug. I read the Meditations a few years back and a reread of the first four chapters has sparked well over a thousand words (as you see here) while confirming my earlier impression of the book being dull and unwieldy. I am now consumed with a nagging sense that there are other books waiting for my attention and that a complete reread of the Long translation is not required of me. I have filled my quota and while I staunchly defend the Western Canon under normal circumstances I have to admit that this one stumps me.

Up next: Essays, Civil and Moral by Francis Bacon. Goodbye to the Greco-Roman, hello to the Elizabethan!

Ilona: My Life with the Bard – Jana Juráňová


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Ilona. My Life with the Bard (Calypso Editions)A recent title from Calypso Editions, Ilona: My Life with the Bard was published at the tail end of 2014 to vanishingly little press. Jana Juráňová, while entirely unknown in the United States, is renowned in her native Slovakia as a writer and publisher, having co-founded the feminist journal ASPEKT in 1993 (during that period of cultural exploration following the end of Communist rule and the separation of former Czechoslovakia). ASPEKT did well and eventually morphed from anthology to publishing house, bringing out the first edition of Ilona back in 2008.

This slim novel positions itself as the life story of Ilona Nováková (1856-1932), “known” to history only as the wife of Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav (1849-1921), one of Slovakia’s most revered poets, though now little read outside of classrooms and rumored to be all but impossible to translate. He never mentioned his wife in his work, they had no children, and so she has vanished from history. But Ilona was an educated woman from a well-off family, married to a great poet. What was it she wanted? To what did she aspire? Was she content with the only role available to her or were her thoughts filled with the heady mix of ideas that spread through and defined Europe during the fin de siècle and which so animated her nationally-conscious husband?

Ilona is therefore a feminist work but this is an undogmatic feminism capable of a nuanced look at women in recent European history. Rather than portraying Ilona as a free spirit shackled to a misogynist pig, Juránová chose to tell of a truly ordinary life. Ilona is bright, modest and accepting of the limits of her time, finding a measure of happiness in what she’s offered. She possesses so little daring that the book is more unsettling than any number of novels with ahead-of-their-time, freedom-seeking heroines, reassuring modern readers with their similarity of outlook. This story is told in a narrative looking backward as a gray-haired woman recalls the past. We know at the beginning what the end will be:

She stretches out to reach the leaves of the houseplants. She is here, she is still here. All alone, without him. He has slipped away from her. Just like he had always done. To his study, for a walk, to the health resort. And, eventually, to the cemetery.

Just as Ilona is depicted as a woman of her time, the same measured treatment is allotted to Hviezdoslav. A flawed gentleman, grateful to his wife, respectful of her in a limited way and clumsily kind but also fussy, needy and of low self-esteem in the very thing that defines him as a poet and a person. He shores up his confidence by receiving admirers, fretting lest he fall out of fashion or be forgotten and Juránová treats his suffocating stature with gentle irony: The visits usually consist of conversations relating to the Bard’s work. This is the Great Poet’s favorite topic, although he feigns reticence. As a matter of fact, he is finding every other topic increasingly tiresome. Of course, it does happen that a visitor also has other matters to discuss but fortunately, one way or another, these usually also relate to the one and only topic that is of interest to him, such as the publications of his writings, his participation in some festival or other, or the translation of his works into other languages. Her husband is not vain. He is very modest. This is a well-known fact; it’s what everyone says about him. 

More sobering is the reveal that his feelings will not permit him to let his wife take any part in the creative process: Early in their relationship, once or twice she pointed out to him that a particular passage was too wordy or that another passage was too lengthy. He didn’t take it well and stopped speaking to her for a day or two, or just mumbled something. And although subsequently he was embarrassed to have reacted like this, he just couldn’t get over it. So she stopped offering her criticism. Most likely these matters were beyond her anyway. That last sentence shows her own failing. Ilona has no fight in her and lets Pavol’s frail ego and poetic requirements rule her life. One chapter outlines all the things she learned in finishing school (drawing, singing, geography, gymnastics, etc) and how she let all of it slide as soon as she married. Even though a man doesn’t leave a perfectly good wife because she does exercises in the morning.

In a way, Ilona is very similar to her husband – where his ego revolves around his status as an eminent poet, hers is every bit as tied up with the thought of being a perfect wife. So she tiptoes around her life-partner, making more concessions than he even asks her to. She tends him, tends her flowers and cleans the house obsessively. Her entire identity is bound to her role and it’s clear she takes pride in it. While it’s true she was hemmed in by her time period, women throughout history have bucked tradition. She had leisure time, she could have written or sketched or pursued something of private importance but she didn’t. The one thing she wanted very much was to have children, which unfortunately did not come about, though they ended up adopting her brother-in-law’s children, Jarko and Sidka, when his drunken widow proved incapable – a consolation of sorts. Throughout she tirelessly plays a role, allowing herself paltry self-expression, to what end?

This is not to wholesale “blame the victim” as Juránová depicts very well how tradition was stacked against Ilona finding any means of fulfillment outside of her marriage and she often primes the perfect targets of chauvinism to skewer. Hviezdoslav is a conservative man and his wife is not his equal. Juránová portrays this casual imbalance simply but unsparingly and it was the following scene, excerpted on B O D Y, that convinced me Ilona would be worth it:

When her husband decided to go to the seaside she hoped she might accompany him. She wanted to see foreign countries with him, she wanted to see famous paintings in famous galleries with her own eyes. But he chose to travel without her, taking her brother instead. When the protestant church in Dolný Kubín burnt down in 1893, Ilona’s brother went to Germany to collect money for a new one. He invited his brother-in-law to come along. She wanted to join them. But they would not let her.

During the preparations for the trip she kept raising the subject with her husband, trying to persuade him, hoping he might yet change his mind. But he was adamant. Sometimes he did not even respond to her. She went so far as to bring up the subject in the company of strangers but it was no use.

Once, when they had visitors, he asked her suddenly: “Tell me, my dear wife, what should a good husband and wife be like?”

“One body and soul,” she was quick to respond.

“You see. And when I go to the seaside it’s as if you were there with me.”

The company laughed appreciatively at his wit. She couldn’t contradict him. Had they been alone she would certainly have come up with a sharp retort. She wanted to say something after the visitors left. But he locked himself in his study because he needed his peace and quiet. And then he glossed over the whole thing. It was all very civil, well-mannered, as befits a good couple.

The novel ends up telling a very sad story about the common run of things. A life with its sorrows, growing older, losing family – only in this case sharpened by Ilona’s stunted sense of self. She ages gracefully but seeing the colors have vanished somewhere wonders which of her faces is the real one. Comparing her own safe existence with the unhappy lives of the rebellious women she’s known, she feels a chill – as if she had walked into a dead forest. Juránová gives regular glimpses into the lives of Ilona’s peers, women who divorced or betrayed their husbands, whose motivations she cannot begin to fathom and to drive the point home Timrava has a cameo.

Timrava (1867-1951) was the most notable woman writer of the time and like Ilona she was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. She lived with relatives most of her life and never married. She held a few jobs, didn’t make much money from her writing and traveled even less than Ilona did. That was her decision. It was Ilona’s decision to be conventional. Women make that choice all the time – some find it miserable and others make the best of it. There are Ilonas everywhere. They go to college because it’s expected of them, then they marry and forget it all. Some raise families and are fulfilled, some get divorced and try again.

So was Ilona’s choice “wrong?” Does being a good wife and loving foster parent count for less than leading an extraordinary life? After all, it’s only those who leave footprints that are remembered and Hviezdoslav wrote no love poems. A happy marriage–isn’t that more than a complete poetic oeuvre from which nothing is missing? Their love wasn’t for sale after all. … She’s been the lifetime companion to a Great Poet, a part of his life. Part of his life, for sure, but not part of his writing. But what is more? Literature or life? And is this the right question to ask?

Juránová asks these questions and more as she charts an ordinary life lived in the shadows of the intelligentsia. Aside from the cover art, I have no technical complaints to make. The translation by Julia and Peter Sherwood is quite good – I had previously been confused by the text’s tendency to see-saw between past and present tense but have since heard from the translators that this was based on the complex time shifts of the original work, which it could not have been easy to convey from one language to another.

In short, Ilona is a fine book. Subtle, moving and thought-provoking, the sort of novel that should be featured in feminist literature studies. I am left curious and hopeful that more of Juránová’s work will be brought stateside.

Jana Juranova

Honeymoon – Patrick Modiano


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Honeymoon (Verba Mundi)All the bookshops are stocking Patrick Modiano since he won the 2014 Nobel Prize, leading new translations to be rushed to print (Suspended Sentences) and to reissues from David R. Godine’s imprint Verba Mundi, taking advantage of the new sales pitch to make a fresh attempt at selling the unknown French writer to American audiences. I stood in the store with Honeymoon or Missing Person to pick from and chose Honeymoon because of its enticing first page.

Honeymoon (1990; translated by Barbara Wright, 1992) follows Jean B. as he disappears, booking a flight to Rio de Janeiro which he neglects to take; opting instead to remain in Paris, abandoning wife and work in pursuit of a couple he met twenty years before, Ingrid and Rigaud. Impressed by their hospitality as a young hitch-hiker, later learning that Ingrid had killed herself in Milan, his obsession only begins as he grows discontented with life and embarks on his rather bizarre excursion: to disappear without going anywhere.

Jean’s dream was to become an explorer but, finding there was no more virgin territory to explore turned instead to documentary films on the subject. Dissatisfied with this proxy, his escape seems at first a vicarious way to live out his Colonel Fawcett dream. Disappeared, yes, I’d disappeared. Like Colonel Fawcett. But with this difference: I had vanished at the very start of the expedition… Returning to his old haunts in Paris would seem counter-intuitive but the next reveal is that Jean has no intention of living without his wife Annette’s support – at which point the reader realises that none of this is genuine. This is an escapade, a boyish fantasy being played out. Thus Honeymoon has two entwined narratives: the story of Ingrid and Rigaud, Parisian refugees during the occupation, and the story of a spoiled man’s mid-life crisis causing him to romanticize the lives of desperate, disengaged people.

It is clear that Jean feels some ambiguous sense of kinship toward the couple, but what that is based on is never made clear. He seeks to emulate their life, living in the places they lived, walking the same roads, indulging in the same anonymity that kept them safely under the radar but in the end the differences between their lives couldn’t be more clear. Here are Ingrid and Rigaud trying to stay safe:

The days, the months, the seasons, the years, went monotonously by, in a kind of eternity. Ingrid and Rigaud barely remembered that they were waiting for something, which must be the end of the war.

Sometimes it forced itself on their attention, and disturbed what Rigaud called their honeymoon. One November evening, some Bersaglieri advanced at the double and took over Juan-les-Pins. A few months later it was the Germans. They built fortifications along the coast and came prowling round the villa. Ingrid and Rigaud had to put out the lights and pretend to be dead.

And here is Jean B. using the same tactics he learned from his brief encounter with the couple:

For twenty years [Annette] had found me a good teacher in the art of concealing oneself, of avoiding bores, or of giving people the slip: cupboards you hide in as a last resort, windows you climb out of, back stairs or emergency exits you take at the double, escalators you race down in the wrong direction… And all those far-off journeys I had gone on, not to satisfy the curiosity or vocation of an explorer, but to escape. My life had been nothing but evasion. 

Jean’s sense of a shared affinity begins to look increasingly unlikely and rather distasteful (they fled Germans, curfews and police; he flees from bores, tedium and his wife), and the more of their tale he recounts the more you’re left to wonder just how much he’s embellishing the facts at his disposal. And no matter the details Jean includes, the tale he tells remains puzzlingly vague, almost illusory – an effect that’s only heightened by Modiano’s pure and uncluttered writing style, time-oriented and imagistic. The interior, emotional plane is scrupulously avoided. Jean betrays not a hint of turmoil, serene in description of everything from his wife’s adultery to Ingrid’s suicide, focusing all attention on sensory perceptions (roads, furnished rooms, the heat of summer) and the dissolving passage of time. Consequently, the story of Ingrid and Rigaud is related by where they are and what they do, more attention given to the lavish villas they hide in than to whatever’s going on inside their heads.

This total emotional silence turns Honeymoon into a hermetic reading experience. Rather like an inverse companion to Marguerite Duras, using that same French minimalism – the writing style simplicity itself, the same compression of time, the same oblique strategy of telling the story without letting the reader meet it head-on – to remarkably contrasting results. The Lover was blistering, thick with emotions Duras pointedly gave no outlet. Honeymoon holds itself perfectly still, delivering every line in a peaceful monotone, giving no indication of what it is that’s below the surface. However, there is some patient artistry at work here that you have to wait for the final paragraph to truly see. Unfortunately, I can’t disclose it without spoilers but I will say it gave me a chill wholly separate to the novel itself as I finished, sweeping aside everything that had been Jean’s focus and getting to the root of his fixation. And out of nowhere, Honeymoon becomes haunting. A truly remarkable paragraph.

I can’t say it transformed the rest of the book, though, which is one of those occasional reads where experiencing it is less interesting than attempting to review it afterward. Possibly this is just not a book for someone in their twenties and I should try again at fifty. Or possibly it is badly timed, eclipsed in impact by my recent read of Harry Mulisch’s The Assault, another novel dealing with WWII occupation which had a wholly different form, style and aim. Though again, what the aim of Honeymoon is I do not know. A strange sealed bubble of a book. Perhaps reading more Modiano would enlighten me?

Patrick Modiano

The Skating Rink – Roberto Bolaño


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The Skating Rink (Picador)The large sheet metal doors were open. I went in. Inside, someone animated by a fierce childish willfulness had used an enormous number of packing cases to build a series of awkward passages, with walls about nine feet high for a start, but dropping to just over a foot and a half as you went further in. The passages formed concentric circles around the skating rink. In the center of the rink was a dark huddled mass, black like some of the beams running clear across the ceiling. Blood, from various parts of the fallen body, had flowed in all directions, forming patterns and geometrical figures that I mistook at first for shadows. In some places it had almost reached the edge of the rink. Kneeling down, feeling dizzy and nauseated, I observed how the ice had begun to absorb and harden around all that butchery. In a corner of the rink I spotted the knife.

Originally published in 1993, The Skating Rink was Roberto Bolaño’s (1953-2003) first novel and as a gift this Christmas it became my first Bolaño as well, hopping over The Savage Detectives on my TBR pile. Translated by Chris Andrews in 2009, The Skating Rink is not considered one of Bolaño’s best works and I can perhaps see why that would be, but it does have an incredibly tasty plot: passion, corruption, embezzlement, murder and obsession centered around a derelict mansion on the seashore of the Costa Brava. Set in the city of Z (nearest neighbours X and Y of course), it is narrated in turn by three men: failed writer and successful entrepreneur Remo Morán, struggling poet Gaspar Heredia and Enric Rosquelles, the mayor of Z’s right hand man, whose infatuation with the figure skater Nuria Martí leads him to build her a private skating rink with embezzled funds. And once others find out about the rink, ruin threatens…

The three narrators are only tangentially related to one another and one of the elements of the book I most enjoyed was watching Bolaño assemble their disparate lives and slowly bring them into parallel. The murder does not occur until about the halfway point in this 182 page novel; every moment until then is spent getting the protagonists to the skating rink on time. Trust is required and seeing the connections finally click into place is one of those satisfying readerly moments in action. Telling the story in separate channels also heightens the mystery, leaving the reader uncertain just where it’s headed and what the varied cast has to do with any of it.

To be sure, this isn’t a murder mystery per say, more of a variation on noir themes (and would make a fine film, by the way). All three men have a seedy or unsavoury element about them and there exists a delicate tension to their rare interactions – Morán and Heredia are old friends from Mexico City (back in the vague shifty territory of our adolescence) and Morán gets Heredia a job as night watchman at a campground he owns, yet they are uneasy and avoid each other afterward. Rosquelles meanwhile has no knowledge of Heredia but has long sought to put Morán out of business and their enmity only increases as they come into rivalry for the same woman. It could have been an amusing variation on the love triangle, if death hadn’t butted in.

In addition to these men are equally vivid and ambiguous secondary characters. Bolaño never gets too close to anyone here and each person is left to the shadows, their past and future indistinct and their behaviour a question mark. Nuria is at the heart of the plot and it’s never clear if she’s a scared innocent or a manipulator, only that what happens at the skating rink summons her demons out of the woodwork. Carmen, elderly and sly, scheming for retirement, sings opera in the streets for money, defined by her regal past even while subsisting as a beggar. Then there is Caridad, a half-mad, knife-wielding wanderer who exerts a magnetic pull on Heredia. Once when he’s trying to break up a fight between a pair of German drunks, she unexpectedly intervenes:

Caridad was behind me, holding a broad kitchen knife, whose blade seemed to be concentrating the sepia glow of the clouds, filtered through the branches above her. Luckily she gave me a wink; otherwise I would have thought she was intending to plant that knife in me. She looked for all the world like a ghost. With a chilling delicacy, she displayed the knife as if displaying one of her breasts. And the Germans must have seen, because now their gazes seemed to be saying, We don’t want to die, we don’t want to be wounded, we were joking, we don’t want anything to do with this.

What Bolaño excels at in this novel is pure atmosphere. Z is a landscape just begging for crimes to be committed and its narrators seem equally drawn to that walk of life. Heredia obsessively pursues Caridad without any concern for the consequences while Rosquelles cannot disguise his pride in engineering his own ruin, in feeling for a moment as if he had no limits: How could they have swallowed everything I told them? It’s a testament to human gullibility… they were swayed by my confidence; my willpower was irresistible… I had never felt better in my life, that’s the truth.

As for Morán, he prefers to observe: Sometimes in the mornings, when I’m having breakfast on my own, I think I would have loved to be a detective. I’m pretty observant and I can reason deductively, and I’m a keen reader of crime fiction. If that’s any use… which it isn’t… Anyway, as Hans Henny Jahn, I think, once wrote: if you find a murder victim, better brace yourself, because the bodies will soon be coming thick and fast…

With its impeccable noir atmosphere, intriguing cast, exotic location and pageturning plot, is there anything to complain of? For me, there was only one slight drawback. The paragraph was invented for a reason. Perhaps discarding it is meant to “propel” the reader forward; if so, I disagree with its use here. If the narrators were recounting in a frenzied, feverish state, it would stylistically gel but only Rosquelles approaches such a mentality – both Morán and Heredia are careful, collected tellers. The chapters are quite short on average, so it wasn’t overwhelming but it did seem wholly unnecessary on Bolaño’s part.

Looking back, I see that most of my chosen quotes are from the Remo Morán segments, a clear indication that I found him the most compelling character, or perhaps the hardest to figure out. The Skating Rink is a novel of ambiance. I am strongly reminded of the John Hawkes approach to crime fiction – the bigger picture is still there but the focus is so narrowed as to ignore explanation in favour of mood and imagery. There is no unveiling, no moment of truth, only intangible motivations, strange synchronicities and eventual disappearances. This is a book that deserves multiple readings.

Roberto Bolano

Building the Barricade and Other Poems – Anna Swir


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Building-the-Barricade-coverAnna Swir (1909-1984) was a Polish poet whose verse, arid and ominous yet full of life, is too little known today. Thankfully, in 2011 Calypso Editions made a selection of her war poems available in a new translation by Piotr Florczyk with a foreward by Jericho Brown. This decision can only be applauded (though I still hope to see the Complete Poems one day).

Swir worked as a military nurse during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and her first-hand experience led to the sequence of poems Building the Barricade, first published in Poland in 1974. While her later love poems are psychological labyrinths with a strongly feminist outlook, Building the Barricade recounts incidents, reviving the small and forgotten characters of war: civilians, volunteers, looters, infants, nurses; all the people that history remembers on the sidelines even while being in the middle of it all. The sole poem to make mention of the higher military is not actually about them at all but the girls who deliver their orders:

‘Said the Major’

“This order must be delivered within an hour,”
said the Major.
“That’s not possible, it’s an inferno out there,”
said the second lieutenant.
Five messenger girls went out,
one made it.

The order was delivered within an hour.

The poems are arranged as an evolving narrative; this if anything heightens the intensity of Building the Barricade – from the immediacy of ‘Beauty Dies’ and ‘Conversation Through a Door’ it leads us to the uprising’s end and then come Madrigals, ‘Waiting Thirty Years’ and ‘Poetry Reading’ as the war becomes internalized and life somehow continues. More than that, when you read the Madrigals (That first night of love…” the first after the War?) they perfectly match the tone of her love poems (collected in Happy as a Dog’s Tail and Talking to My Body). Piotr Florczyk preserves the voice from the earlier Czesław Miłosz/Leonard Nathan translations, which is the highest praise I can give any translator.

It was only a moment of life,
though it wanted to be a conclusion.
By dying
it wanted to understand the mystery of the world.

That night of love
had ambitions.

Above all else, Building the Barricade is a survivor’s narrative, exhausting and stark. The more I read it, the more it drained me. The titular poem shows Swir surviving as others die at random, a motley assortment, smuggler girl, dressmaker, tram driver / all of us cowards. The chaos and unpredictability of the uprising is a common theme. ‘He Got Lucky’ refers to a professor who escaped with only a beating while ‘The Child Lives One More Hour’ deals with infant starvation with brutal calmness. Looters perish by the very chaos that enables them to steal and museums burn.

What a sin to spy
on naked flames,
what a sin to eavesdrop
on breathing fire.

I flee this speech
which sounded
on earth before the speech of man.

‘Talking with Corpses’ eventually finds her apologizing for being alive but the dead have no envy of the living and forgive her: Life / after all was so dangerous back then. I would not hesitate to call this necessary poetry. Truthful, vivid memories of the rubble of World War Two.

Anna Swir

Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 – Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee


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 Here and Now (Viking)On the one hand, fans of the authors should be considered the only audience for this book of correspondence between South African J.M. Coetzee (twice winner of the Man Booker Prize and Nobel recipient) and American Paul Auster (author of the much-loved New York Trilogy). And yet it seems to be the “fans” who are the most disappointed with this easy-going epistolary document – disappointed in the very thing that I most enjoyed about it, namely the lack of insight it gives into the writing process. Auster and Coetzee are not interviewing one another; they are engaging in chit-chat. If at the end of four years and 247 pages they had mostly discussed their creations I would be denouncing them both as insane egotists. Happily, that is not the case.

I am not actually a “fan” of either author, having had some prior enjoyment of Auster (through Leviathan, The New York Trilogy and the films Smoke and Blue in the Face) but never yet of Coetzee. While this meant I latched onto Auster as the recognizable voice, before I was halfway through I found myself more and more invested in what the stranger Coetzee was saying. Discovering an author through their letters turns out to be an immensely enjoyable experience.

Meaningful, broad-ranging yet quite casual, Here and Now flows almost giddily from one subject to the next, topics ranging from sports to the treatment of incest in literature to the notion of a “mother tongue.” Their two styles form a complement to one another. Auster is more inclined to ramble; a gifted spinner-of-yarns, his anecdotes take up much of the room in the book. Coetzee’s letters are shorter, preferring ethical analysis and psychological study (with Freud at his elbow), eschewing the personal – which is a pity, because he’s no slouch at storytelling either and his “chess story–which is also a kind of horror story” tells of a random ocean-voyage chess match made on his first trip to America. It ended in a draw and the feeling that he could have won plagued him across the States, consuming all his energy:

We docked. I was in the legendary city of New York. But the mood of the contest would not leave me, a mood of cerebral excitement, feverish and slightly sick, like a real inflammation of the brain. I had no interest in my surroundings. Something kept humming inside me.

…All I wanted was to be alone, so that I could replay the chess game on paper and settle the doubt that nagged me. All the way to Texas in the Greyhound bus (two days? three days?) I pored over my notations, following a hunch that I should never have accepted a draw; that in three or four or five moves Robert the German would have been forced to capitulate.

I should have been drinking in my first sights of the New World. I should have been making plans for the new life that was opening up before me. But no, I was in the grip of a fever. In a quiet way, I was raving mad. I was the madman in the last row of the bus.

That episode is what comes to mind when you write about the pleasures of competition. What I associate with competition is not pleasure at all but a state of possession in which the mind is focused on a single absurd goal: to defeat some stranger in whom one has no interest, whom one has never seen before and will never see again.

Be warned that there is a fair amount of sporting discussion over the course of these four years. I found it slightly irritating (they’re both aware that sport is, unless you participate, “an utter waste of time” and yet they persist) but I have to admit that they kept my interest far, far better than I would have expected. This is one of the subjects that Coetzee rescues with his focus on ethics, pettiness, grace and “the great school of losing

On the other hand, their political views are pretty bleak (in particular, Auster seems to be hopelessly naive about the way money works). Thankfully these conversations take up a very small portion of the book and the rest is given over to more enjoyable subjects: modern poets, modern communication, Philip Roth, critics (surprise, surprise, they don’t like them), Philippe Petit, travel writing (they both suck at it) and family dinners, among other things. This is Here and Now‘s strong suit: humanizing a couple of literary lions.

Authors tend to be thought of as “different” – collectors of the strange, omnivorously stealing from other people’s lives to fuel their work, or solitary souls tormented by the blank page, whose personal lives invariably house a number of demons. While Auster and Coetzee acknowledge some measure of truth behind the “romantic bullshit” of the writing life, their letters show two well-adjusted men who enjoy a good film, suffer jet lag, are frequently baffled by their reader’s reactions and seem to be in happy relationships. Is any of this profound? Not really. Is it interesting? Surprisingly so.

As well as being pleasant to read, there is also a subtle evolution in their friendship over the course of Here and Now. Right from the start they maintain an almost-Victorian level of propriety regarding personal matters and though they sometimes disagree, they remain affable. Anyone hoping for soul-searching (or mud-slinging) won’t get it; Auster and Coetzee are the very soul of discretion. At the start of their correspondence Auster has this to say about friendship: “Friendship is good manners, kindness, steadiness of affect. Friends who shout at each other rarely remain friends.” They take this as their gospel and scrupulously stay out of each other’s personal lives, leaving the reader with no sense of voyeurism (an almost impossible feat in the realm of private correspondence). It is therefore a bit of a jolt when Auster expresses deep concern for Coetzee’s insomnia, pushing their previous boundaries of decorum in the process.

This incident comes at the tail-end of the book and leads me to wonder: Here and Now was published in 2013 and the letters cut off in August 2011, leaving (I presume) well over a year of continued correspondence out of the picture. Considering the greater degree of whimsicality/warmth on Coetzee’s part in his final letters, is it possible their conversation continued on a somewhat more personal level? Is that why it wasn’t included? I find myself hoping so. Politeness is a good thing but when it’s so painstakingly thorough it does seem to be selling the ideals of friendship a little short.

Coetzee (left), Auster (right). Not politically though.