Tag Archives: politics

“Masses Are Asses!”

This irrefutable statement is the title of chapter thirty-five in H.T. Tsiang’s delightful satire The Hanging on Union Square.

“‘Masses! Masses! New Masses; Old Masses!
“Nothing can be said that is new. Nothing can be said that is old. Masses are Asses in all ages.
“Stupid! Selfish! Contented! Short-sighted!…” (p 149)

It goes on for a couple of pages, this diatribe, coming towards the end of the novel’s 24 hour span in which our protagonist, Mr. Nut, traverses lower Manhattan in the 1930’s, transforming from anti-hero into hero. The humor and insight of this passage, among others, is what makes it such a fun read—laughing, but then also sighing. heavily. 1930’s America was a desperate age, but then so is this one, and so, and so….we laugh and sigh.

I came across this book while working my day job. The book was edited by Floyd Cheung, a professor at Smith College, our paths have minimally crossed but I know him to be a lovely man, so when I was looking into adding some his scholarly work to our library’s institutional repository, I was introduced to the nutty world of Mr. Nut and friends. Cheung also wrote the afterword and notes, beautifully contextualizing the man, H.T. Tsiang: in Tsiang’s time as well through our own. The introduction to the novel is written by Hua Hsu who hilariously describes Tsiang as a man, like many self-publishers of an “American Epic,” as someone worthy of interest, but “especially when they seem to luxuriate in their own marginality” (p x). Now, I’ve never self-published an American Epic or any other kind of epic for that matter, but I think I know a thing or two about luxuriating in my own marginality. So of course I was already deeply sympathetic to Tsiang’s sensibilities from the start.

While the book sets up an individual revolt against capitalism and highlights American communism of the day, the pulse of the story is felt through the likability and humanity of Mr. Nut. Ostensibly the characters are reduced to types—their names all clearly delineate the types: Miss Digger, Mr. Wiseguy, Mr. System, Miss Stubborn as well as the political systems they fall, or think they fall, in to. There are moments in the story that clearly evince a sort of commonality of human-ness, but that those moments happen within the stark coldness of the structures and typecasting we are all perpetually stuck in is the brilliant maneuver of this novel. Tsiang has a light, decentralized, and eccentric touch, but the style and substance of the writing are all of a piece, which is what makes the story much more than the sum of its parts.

Naturally the love story is where the distant types become familiar humans—at least for me—as I am a sucker for any and all who love. I should note that the love story part of this novel is used in a fascinating way to sum up the thesis, but I am compelled to point out the sweetness of a passage below, when Nut realizes “what all these mysterious feelings were about” and rushes towards that ‘what’ before contemplating retreat instead :

“He had his four reasons as to why he should not retreat
These four reasons Nut first evolved in his brain; then he wrote them down, in outline, on a bit of paper.
The points he made were logical, reasonable and scientific, he had courage.
Because he had courage, he went back towards Third Avenue.
He walked through the hallway.
He went from one step of the stairs to another.
He reached the door of Stubborn’s apartment.
All those four reasons that he had found, gave Nut the courage to come there.
Suddenly, he discovered that he had no reason at all.” (p 101)

This bit is soon followed by Miss Stubborn’s own frantic exchange between her heart and mind. It’s all very endearing. There is a sort of frenetic Dostoevsky-esque energy to all—as well— Tsiang’s intimate treatment of New York City reminded me of Dostoevsky’s handling of St. Petersburg. Don’t misunderstand me however, this is not a love story, it is more a political manifest of a novel, but within Tsiang’s satirization of the struggle of ‘man’ (read, people), he humanizes those who have been dehumanized, and that, I think, is rather the point of literature, if alas, not our political systems.

The Hanging on Union Square, by H.T. Tsiang. Penguin Classic, 2019. Copyright, 2013 Kaya Press. First published in the United States of America by H.T. Tsiang, 1935

In the Face of Kitsch

The birds of fortuity had alighted once more on her shoulders. There were tears in her eyes, and she was unutterably happy to hear him breathing at her side (78).
—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


Strangely, when I picked the book up off a friend’s shelf, I couldn’t quite remember if I had read it— Kundera’s most beloved novel. But I couldn’t put it down (again?). Thanks to my soveryvery archive I can go back and relive The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (a post, now that I am speaking of not remembering, which I coincidentally titled “What I Remember”—but with Kundera one can never clearly delineate the remembered from the forgotten) and Slowness (in which I posted the excellent Slow Love by Prince to accompany my thoughts which is sadly no longer available for viewing, but you can sing it to yourself while you read if you are so inclined).

Happiness, as Kundera writes, is to repeat: “the sweet law of repetition” (299). The unbearable lightness of the non-repeatable is what leaves us in a state of abject unease. And so I let myself be taken away, repeated or not, inside the weight of love between Tereza and Tomas.

Woven in between that story is the tragic story of political hypocrisy and fakery, or as Kundera names it: kitsch.

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch (251).

In these days where we appear on the brink of a cyclical, reactionary return to the dark and stupid days of authoritarian bleakness, it is the fakery of it all that really rankles me: The forced cheers of political pyrrhic victories, the outright lies and gaudy veneer of those claiming to represent the “real folks.” The intellectual dishonesty and cowardice is sickening at best, deadly at worst.

When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end up by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); and the mothers who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women, thereby calling into question the holy decree “Be fruitful and multiply” (252).

What to do? In this novel, Kundera takes seriously this question. We only live one life. We can not repeat. At this point in time, most of us can choose to shout out against the fuckery of injustices facing our environment and fellow inhabitants—but there is a time looming in the future, and already here for those at the margins, where laughing out loud, shouting, resisting, and fighting against the backward steps, leads to our hastened ignominious erasure.

Which is why I find such solace and sweetness in Tomas and Tereza. It’s not that they describe a perfect love—theirs is full of troubles, pain, and worries, in addition to the crushing political world around them. Their love is a vagabond pushed, or pushing them, farther and farther away from the vacant up-righteousness of kitsch. Tereza nearly lets it go uncredited as love, believing that their love can’t be equal since her love acted as a mission that Tomas seemed incapable, to her, of sharing. But their love is not a mission. It must be. In the end, it’s simple.

“Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions” (313).

It’s an obvious statement to say—we only have one life to live, but this makes it clear to me that there is no mission, there is only each day and hour. The weight of that is freeing. “Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” Tomas asks. Reason and love will meet us on the other side of history. It must be.

Sins of Denial

The word “lie,” like the word “truth,” is banned in art, and during the normalization neither of them can be used (251). 

IMG_2587When writing fiction, an author strives to make a story feel real and true, the reader must believe. Breaking the suspension of disbelief with questions like, “could that have really happened?” is naturally to be avoided. Unfortunately, non-fiction never ceases to mercilessly move the goalpost of plausible truth. It is difficult to compete with the awful, endless absurdity that is reality.  Mariusz Szczygiel has rather brilliantly shown fiction to be a mere sliver of the horrors of non-fiction. Exhibit A, his brilliant book of creative non-fiction,  Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia. 

2. not succumbing to idleness (so it is best to read, but with one reservation: DO NOT READ RUSSIAN NOVELS, says the slogan thought up by Bata and posted on the wall of the felting unit. Why not? Bata’s reply is on the wall of the rubber unit: RUSSIAN NOVELS KILL YOUR JOIE DE VIVRE) (17-18).

Szczygiel collection of vignettes in dark, despairing humor give a history of Czechoslovakia through the 1900s. It is fascinating, heartbreaking, and puzzling. Whywhywhy? Totalitarianism is formidable in its exercise and precision of terror.  The truth that it is nearly impossible to be heroic under total surveillance is made plain- at best the sound of your soul squashing will be second guessed and dissected by future gawkers of history, further robbing it of meaning and complexity.

Beginning the book with the grand rise of  the Plato/Henry Ford-esque utopian entrepreneur Tomás Bata (legendary Czechoslovakian canvas shoe maker) sets the perfect tone to a tale of societal engineering gone so incomprehensibly wrong.

‘I realized that, in Czechoslovakia, a hospital for the mentally ill was the only normal place, because there everyone could say what they really thought with impunity’ (journalist Eda Kriseova quoted, 167).

The stories of various screen stars, writers, singers and artists coping with life under extremely unfunny and cruel conditions that are shoved down every Czech citizen’s throat with an arrogant “it’s good for you” attitude are just devastating. The people that don’t kill themselves, must distort themselves into, as Szcygiel makes beautiful reference to, cubist versions of themselves: broken up, disjointed, disconnected. And still, goodness knows why, but there are always the unflappable spirits among us:

Though haggard and deprived of a job, he is always happy about something. He says that in prison he sang arias from Wagner’s operas. (“And if I hadn’t ended up in there, it never would have occurred to me to sing.”) (235).

The style of Szczygiel’s prose perfectly accentuates his theme of human fragility coping with the absurdity, cruelty, and bureaucratic black humor that history endlessly doles out. That people even survive societies where intellectuals are imprisoned for being the enemy of the “working man” (what ever that actually means…) while pulp fiction is literally being pulped for the crime of corrupting the intellect of the working man, (say what?) is remarkable. Little that would give pleasure through escapism survived, 70%, Szczygiel reports, of all “trash” crime fiction, horror, thrillers, adventure, science fiction and romance novels were liquidated. All pleasurable fiction was to be replaced with “social-realist trash.” Because, why just live it, eh? Besides why would you want to escape? Are you a traitor? Unsurprisingly,  the reverberations live on. I have difficulty understanding the totalitarianism mind-set, but no difficulty at all fearing it.

“Oh, that’s Procházka’s writing. Take a look, I think he wrote something about The Ear there,” he says.
Yes, he did.
“This story is made up. The things that really happened were far more terrible.” (director Karel Kachyna quoted, 145).

No doubt.

*Title from page 102: Taking note of linguistic details in the Czech Republic can offer clues. Thus, in situations where someone ought to say: “I was afraid to talk about it,” “I hadn’t the courage to ask about it,” or “I had no idea about it,” they say:
“THERE WAS NO TALK about it.”
“that WASN’T ASKED about.”
I often hear the impersonal form when people have to talk about communism. As if people had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility. As if to remind me that they were just part of a greater whole, which also had some sin of denial on its conscience.

I would only add that, it seems to me, “communism” in this context is a mutable term. It is fundamentalists of any kind for whom freedom of thought and human dignity is actively suppressed, violently or in more subtle forms of propaganda and dogmatic ideologies, that are a plague upon peace and compassion. Haven’t we fought this battle, didn’t others cover this ground? Perhaps, but it seems to me reckless to neglect stating that this proclivity for fundamentalism is very much a part of present current affairs in many places around the world. I can’t just gawk. And as history has shown, simply speaking is a lot.

** Gottland translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Dissimulate Days

IMG_0006Bitter Lemons

In an island of bitter lemons
Where the moon’s cool fevers burn
From the dark globes of the fruit,

And the dry grass underfoot
Tortures memory and revises
Habits half a lifetime dead

Better leave the rest unsaid,
Beauty, darkness, vehemence
Let the old sea-nurse keep

Their memorials of sleep
And the Greek sea’s curly head
Keep its calms like tears unshed

Keep its calms like tears unshed.

– Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell’s non-fiction book, of the same title as his poem, Bitter Lemons, describing his time spent living in Cyprus (1953-56), is a beautiful account of one man’s attempt to assimilate himself into a culture not his own, to understand and illustrate through words what traveling does to one’s interior as well as exterior being.

How sad it is that so many of our national characteristics are misinterpreted! Our timidity and lack of imagination seem to foreigners to be churlishness, taciturnity the deepest misanthropy. But are these choking suburbanizes with which we seem infused when we are abroad any worse than the tireless dissimulation and insincerity of the Mediterranean way of life? (35)

The joy with which he describes the landscape, the people, the mood, and the air of Cyprus is wonderful. The difference between his English humor and the humor of Greek island people is some sort of beautiful mathematical equation.

His name is Frangos,’ he said, with an air of a man who explains everything in a single word. (39)

If you have read Lawrence’s brother, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, then you might find, as I did, a revisiting of a similar spirit in the first half of this book. But this is not a book told (retrospectively) from the eyes of a ten year old. As events and relations between England and Cyprus deteriorate, it takes on a much more lugubrious tone. Fear and paranoia permeate the air, but as happens, people forget to remember their grudges, especially once they have got to know and like one another. The tension within each person to toe the national line and conjure up hostilities for former friends is sad and moving, if not predictable.

My one cavil is that if I hadn’t read Amateurs in Eden (biography about the marriage between Nancy and Lawrence written by Nancy, but not Lawrence’s daughter) I never would have known that Nancy was with Lawrence for the duration of this period. In fact, if I’m not mistaken it is her simple and lovely line drawings that end each chapter, although, again I could find no credit given in Bitter Lemons that confirms the identity of the illustrator. That is strange. And unsettling. I wish I didn’t even have that piece of information because the amount of extra energy such an omission in an autobiographical piece of literature requires is so great as to perversely focus my attention where Lawrence clearly did not want it to go.

She walked about the harbor at Kyrenia with a book and with the distracted air which betokened to my inexpert eye evidence of some terrible preoccupation- perhaps one of those love-affairs which mark one for life. (97)

Durrell’s eye for subtle details and succinct suggestions of what lies beneath a look, posture, or smile is powerful.  I found the above quote haunting. Is there such a thing? To be marked for life? The sensitivity of Durrell’s observations are arresting, entertaining, and at times, simply profound.

Propaganda Deshabille

It’s a poor world where we are impartial through ignorance, prudent through impotence, and equal through mediocrity. – Freya Stark, Dust in the Lion’s Paw (271)

Eric Ryan in his Studio at Colgate University

Eric Ryan in his Studio at Colgate University

I came across an old newspaper article recently in which my father’s art was being reviewed. In the article he spoke about the conceptual aspects of his work and related it to the sort of literature which is something of a travel guide in the vein of Lawrence Durrell or Freya Stark. I have written about Durrell and his wonderful Alexandria Quartet, but I had not heard of Freya Stark, so I sought out her books and settled on Dust in the Lion’s Paw.

The fascists are bringing all their guns to bear against me. Nagi says ‘their hearts are boiling’ – long may they boil. But, dear Stewart, I do dislike this job. (28)

“This job” was her work as a propagandist for the English government throughout World War II in the Middle East. Stark was fluent in Arabic and slightly less so in Persian and so, despite her sex, was very easily employed in the seemingly unsavory line of work.

“A main obstacle was the unfortunate word propaganda itself. (64)

That’s probably more true now then it was at the time, but Stark makes an eloquent and impassioned defense of what she really considered to be persuasion. She had three rules of thumb she lived by:

1) To believe one’s own sermon.
2) To see that it must be advantageous not only to one’s own side but to that of the listeners also.
3) To influence indirectly, making one’s friends among the people of the country distribute and interpret one’s words. (65)

Number 3, was “not quite as vital,” (although led to a wonderful manifesto on words, translations, and humanity: Perhaps it is language, more than any other shackle, that circumscribes our freedom in the family of men? (48)) and barely merits a direct mention again, but 1 and 2 are rules to live by. Again and again in her dealings in Yemen, Egypt, Palestine and India she is true to her philosophy- the simplicity of which is profound and as far as I can tell, unarguable. Admittedly she and I have both been accused of naivete.

A woman asked if I didn’t think it time for us to give up using our lipsticks but I mean to be killed, if it comes to that, with my face in proper order. (102)

Stark is a marvelous writer. Punto.  Her sentences are gorgeous, with perfect clarity. While her oeuvre was by and large travel books, this was an autobiography full of letters and diary entries concerning the period between 1939-46.

The subtitle: The personal story of an extraordinary woman whose gift with words became a tactical weapon of war, struck me odd at first- I wondered a) who wrote it, and b) how true it would play out in the book. Still not sure about a, but on point b I can say, it’s all true. An old school humanitarian, her forthright English charm at once makes one sit up straighter in the chair, while her intellect and respect for the intellect of others disarms absolutely.

‘Most of my life is in the Man’s world,’ I find written in a rather morose note of my diary at this time. ‘Women are apt to think of it as the real one, but it is not so to me- filled with jealousies and now bloodshed. If women live more in the spirit, theirs is the real world-but I don’t know that they do.’ (51)

The heart of her book is not her struggles as a woman in unfriendly times and places. She doesn’t hesitate to mention the attempts to minimize and dismiss based on her sex, (unequal pay was a constant bother she never deigned to knowingly accept) but one feels through her words and view of the world all that is or could be good. All that really matters.

Art in objects or words- these are the markers that guide us through each other’s hearts, exciting us with fresh views in the familiar terrain of our humanity.

We have debased our words and pay for it by seeing nothing but counterfeit coins. They are forcing me to become a Press Attaché here in the north.[…] I hope to get out of it and sit quietly and move softly and love mercy and forget the atom bomb and all- and perhaps write a book or two about non-controversial matters such as the human heart. (260)

*Punto is Italian for period. Stark lived in Asolo, Italy before and after the war.

Expertise and its Exposé

Margarita recognized him immediately, she let out a moan, clasped her hands and ran to him. She kissed his forehead, his lips, pressed her face against his prickly cheek, and long pent-up tears streamed freely down her face. She uttered only one word, senselessly repeating it over and over, “You…you…you…”
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (243)


One of the many wonderful jokes in the book The Master and Margarita is the Devil’s inability to impress the good people of Moscow circa 1930 of his unsavory powers, poor Dear. Time and again he is assumed to be a German or an agent of some frightening official governmental agency- and really, what could be worse?

“Well,” the latter said pensively, “they are like people anywhere. They love money, but that has always been true…People love money, no matter what it is made of, leather, paper , bronze, or gold. And they are thoughtless…but, then again, sometimes mercy enters their hearts…they are ordinary people…On the whole, they remind me of their predecessors…only the housing shortage has had a bad effect on them.” (104)

Just so- as only a housing shortage can. I sympathize. In this reworking of Faust and Pontius Pilate, Bulgakov combines life’s most ordinary details with the theater of mystery. The eponymous Master and Margarita do not even enter the novel until about one hundred pages in, it’s the Devil’s work apparently to earn the respect of the already fearful, weary denizens of Russia and establish oneself as the cynosure. But, Satan, although necessary, never was the center and finally the heart of the story unfolds:

“Just like a murderer jumps out of nowhere in an alley, love jumped out in front of us and struck us both at once! The way lightening strikes, or a Finnish knife! She, by the way, would later say that it wasn’t like that, that we had, of course, loved each other for a very long time, without knowing or even having seen each other, and that she was living with another man…and I was then…with that…what’s her name…” (116)

A Finnish knife, I love that. The Devil is a magician and a consultant, a fair dealer that understands compassion, not to mention what is perhaps particularly devastating to human beings: when Margarita helps host Satan’s ball she is given the most sage advice:

And another thing: don’t ignore anyone! Give a little smile if you don’t have time for a word. Even the tiniest nod of your head will do. Anything you wish, but not indifference. That causes them to wither…” (224)

Bulgakov invariably speaks in code, leaving hints and tidbits throughout the novel to exact revenge, or poke fun at individuals, groups and even certain apartment buildings. Musical, literary and religious references abound, every number, name, and event is significant and adds to the fun of reading the book.

As it turns out we are, most of us, alike. Not even the Devil’s minions are immune to life’s humiliations- Trying to get seated at a restaurant frequented by writers, even they cannot escape the double whammy of bureaucratic harassment and artistic limitations:

“Are you writers?” asked the woman in turn.
“Of course we are,” replied Korovyov with dignity.
“May I see your ID’s” repeated the woman.
“My charming creature…” began Korovyoy, tenderly.
“I am not a charming creature,” interrupted the woman.
“Oh what a pity[…]But here is my point, in order to ascertain that Dostoevsky is a writer, do you really need to ask him for ID? Just look at any five pages of any of his novels, and you will surely know, even without ID, that you are dealing with a writer[…]”
“You are not Dostoevsky.”

No, but Bulgakov understands and wants to say that the possibility exists, and the way is through mercy. In his novel, that is an area of agreement between both Satan and Jesus. Compassion is the key to art, to peace, and to life.

“Follow me, reader! Who ever told you there is no such thing in the world as real, true, everlasting love? May the liar have his despicable tongue cut out!
Follow me, my reader, and only me, and I’ll show you that kind of love!”

If we are going to be followers, we might as well follow the love.

*Title from page 100-101, The Devil (as the magician Mr. Woland) is introduced onto the stage- “And so, since we all applaud both expertise and its exposé, let us welcome Mr. Woland!”

*Thanks to the wonderfully named tumblr blog wordskillunltd for the recommendation.

Palimpsest of History

“I’d three times sooner go to war than suffer childbirth once.” – Euripedes, Medea

Shield, at the ready

A woman that I work for loaned me the book Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Mater by Thomas Cahill. I had read Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization which is wonderful. But that was not the only reason that I was excited to read it – it was just the thing I needed to propel me to finish The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. In  THotPW, after an early bout of what would be regular spates of protracted speechifying by various parties I read:

The long speech of the Athenians I do not pretend to understand. They said a good deal in praise of themselves, but nowhere denied that they are injuring our allies and Pelopannese.  – Thucydides

You said it brother! 21 years later…
I suppose the point is that we never change. And here poor Thucydides went to all the trouble of relating with exactitude and extreme tedium the method by which we justify and convince ourselves to what amounts to base butchery for what ever reason someone can make sound noble and “right.” And how do we show our respects? By completely ignoring the point. Our wars are always justified- no no, really, this time it’s true. Although, sad to say, today we even lack the fancy rhetoric and sophisticated sophist warping of our ancient forebears, our modern political discourse is blatantly fallacious and downright stupid.

And! Furthermore! After all that- the Spartans won. The Spartans?! Their lifestyle of choice was about as miserable a mode of living as one could possibly conceive of…boggles the mind.

But, according to Cahill, there is more that matters in the Greeks than their oh-so-mundane proclivity for war. He does, for instance,  a wonderful job of showing why we (by which I of course mean- me) love Hector so much. Cahill cites Homer’s passages concerning Hector: some of the first instances, in the history of literature, of romantic and familial love.

“Andromache, dear one, why so desperate? Why so much grief for me?”

Why? Because she loves, and she is loved. That’s why.

Cahill’s insights into Euripedes are also fascinating. As one of the first writers to depict some “real life,” outside of the purlieu of the capricious gods and interminable warfare, he was not exactly the ancient world’s winner of Athenian Idol but there are not many instances of men anywhere in ancient history showing even an interest in the lives of mere people or Zeus forbid – women.

At one point in Thucydides’ version of the world, I had to suffer through an advisory bit on how a woman should properly conduct herself. The message was something like – you can achieve excellence as a female by never being talk about for bad or good.  We are, sadly, not very far from that mindset today. Cahill too quotes at length this famous speech which was given by Pericles. Well, it is swell of Pericles to include the ladies, my goodness I think he gave us at least two sentences – why am I even complaining?

“…hers greatest of all whose praise or blame is least bruited on the lips of men.”

It’s an especially rich sentiment coming from a man who married a former courtesan- and they were a famously fabulous couple to boot.

Cahill’s praise of Odysseus left me a bit cold as well. I was not amused at the bloody vengeance brought down on the heads of the woman that consorted with the suitors. I thought it was gratuitous and shabby treatment of an underclass. Cahill suggests that I should have “enjoyed” the revenge as one would enjoy a modern-day violent cartoon.  It just seemed mean to me.

Never the less, Cahill gives real and fascinating insight into the Ancient Greek world- their influence as a whole. Our human history colors our experience, we may ignore it, but it cannot be erased. We only add to it – if we were clever we would learn from it. Maybe someday.

I love what is delicate,
luminous, brave –
what belongs to the sunlight.

That’s what I crave.

Sappho, from –  Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

Abscissa and Ordinate

To make it plain and simple, you can kiss my arse a hundred and twenty-seven times. – Heinrich Böll, Billiards At Half-Past Nine

Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards At Half-Past Nine is a portrait of the horrors of mankind at its worst, and best. The rhythm of Böll’s prose expresses the full trauma of surviving the incomprehensible. Within three generations that hover around and in the aftermath of Germany’s two wars, the reflections of muted rage, and defeated hope by the men that are left are heart wrenching. The story is a tightly wound ball that tangles and crimps under the duress of the telling.

‘He’s harmless.’ ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘but you’ll see what harmless people are capable of.’

whywhywhy, is the sad refrain of one woman reduced to a mere lament. What’s the use? We live in a world, as the book tells us again and again, where you can be killed for raising your arm. And we still live in that world- we are simply, many of us, lucky enough to not live in that town or that country for the time being.

‘Haven’t you been around long enough to know that only a new religion can cure their boredom? And the more stupid it is, the better, Oh, go away, you’re too stupid.”

But from whence does this stupidity stem? What are we to think of one family that produces four children, two that die in their sweet youth, one that tries to avenge all of the sins committed against the lambs of the world, and another that turns his own family in? Whywhywhy?

Böll does not know the answer, but he does know that life…goes on. We carry on. The persistence of blind devotion, or blind disaffection is a present and very scary danger. I may have no real idea of the exact coordinates of the horror of humankind, but I certainly know the chill: of the unkind, of people who say they care but do not, of individual and mob cruelty, of the unloved – I know it well.

That human beings, such as Böll, are capable of such moving literature of the kind that seek to find the axis of these feelings and so clearly express the hollowness  in the pit of our hearts that the horror produces, makes me at once proud but also ashamed, because – we never learn.

I’m afraid of houses you move into, then let yourself be convinced of the banal fact that life goes on and that you get used to anything in time.

How do you say…

“That sounds like hell. Like…damnation. Waiting. After your one chance has gone by.” 
The Translator -John Crowley


The Translator by John Crowley is a beautiful story about – love. A Russian poet/professor and young American student have a deep, quiet, sort of an affair. The clarity of their love is contrasted with the complexity of actually living the love in a world on the cusp of the Cuban missile crisis and modern-world madness. The poet, Innokenti, asks her to help him translate his poetry into English:

“She thought, long after, that she had not then ever explored a lover’s body, learned its folds and articulations, muscle under skin, bone under muscle, but this was really most like that: this slow probing and working in his language, taking it in or taking hold of it, his words, his life, in her heart, in her mouth too.”

That passage is so wonderful: all at once Crowley connects the sensual beauty of communication in words, spirit and body.

At the very start of the book, the now adult protagonist, Kit, travels to glasnost Russia, having to defend/explain the quasi-secret relationship and man that she’s not sure she understood; she tells the story of her younger self. Kit’s initial defensive feeling highlights the judgments and secrets absorbed by the younger Kit. Consequently there is a profound yet subtle commentary throughout the story that exposes our constant need to justify and often hide ourselves. Afraid to be ambitious for our hearts, the horror is that all too often we pre-empt the process by talking ourselves out of our desires- we simply swallow our pain. Repression is our prison.

“She had let him say these things, she had let him put her out and had said nothing.”

Life is relentlessly complicated and love gets tangled up and smothered along the way. But through the telling she begins to understand him better. The fears we all face are terrifying, and sometimes, just knowing that someone loves you, just knowing that you love with an endless depth- is, for a few moments, everything. “Through him she had recovered a way to speak…” In this story words are powerful, perhaps world changing, still, I felt Kit’s wound: left open.

“There was a time when she refused to sleep, afraid that in the anti world it would come again, the huge hollow that opened in the world, or in her heart.”

I was fortunate enough to make Prof. Crowley’s acquaintance during the Yale Writer’s Conference that I attended. A lovely man, although not my teacher for the conference, he generously spent time with many of the participants. After an engaging discussion with him I ask, based on our conversation of (what else?) books,  which one of his I should read (he has written many). This was his suggestion, and I turn the suggestion, now a recommendation, around to all of you…