Tag Archives: World War II

Grasping Truth

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When I came to the sea, I was afraid I might have to spend whole days with hordes of strangers, shaking hands and passing compliments and making conversation—a regular labor of Sisyphus.
—Cesare Pavese, “The Beach” from The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese (22)

Once I got settled into my room and daily life here in Rome, I knew I had a problem. The book I had brought with me to fill in the hours I was not at my internship was all wrong. I don’t often give up on books, and it was not as if it was a bad book—it simply was not the right book.

I spend my hours on the weekends and after work walking the city. It is not unusual for me to get back to my room having walked ten miles or more (lately, a little more often on the less side of ten as I become more familiar with the labyrinth streets and therefore spend less time doubling back upon my lost way). But even I can not walk all day, and so, once I knew my reading situation was in a bad state—the book, being set in an even more foreign setting increased my feeling of disorientation, I could barely find the will to get ahold of the specific nomenclature of the trades and dialects discussed and I had no feeling for the characters and so nothing at all to hold on to in my own state of loneliness in a foreign city. What I wanted was someone here to speak to me. I headed to the first bookstore that came up on google—a far walk but well worth the effort. As soon as I began reading I knew I had found a friend.

I was finding my boyhood just to have a companion, a colleague, a son. I saw this country where I grew up with new eyes. We were alone together, the boy and myself; I relived the wild discoveries of earlier days. I was suffering, of course, but in the peevish spirit of someone who neither recognizes nor loves his neighbor. And I talked to myself incessantly, kept myself company. We were two people alone (66 “The House on the Hill”).

I had not heard of Cesare Pavese’s work before I picked the book up off the shelf: an acclaimed Italian writer and influential translator who lived from 1908–1950, but he is the one keeping me company now. His stories, mostly set in his hometown of Turin, in and around World War II are beautifully told. There is a melancholy I respond to here in my own isolation—which is to some degree self-imposed by my rather reserved personality which sees in Pavese a kindred spirit. As well as a familiarity and sheer interest of reading stories set in the country where I am, once again, temporarily situated. Having lived in Italy for a short while over ten years ago, but now here alone, I found myself getting lost in the labyrinth of my own mind. Feeling lonely, yes, and deeply reflective, but also the wonder of it all—the beauty of the sights, sounds, and energy of this ancient city.

The second story in my book of selected works is The House on the Hill. It is one of the most accomplished anti-war stories I have every read. Most anti-war stories can hardly avoid glorifying the very thing they are critiquing, but not Pavese’s. There are no heroes, just people—people who get tangled up in the war in the middle of their own already tangled lives.

They promised punishments, pardons, tortures. Disbanded soldiers, they said, your fatherland understands you and calls you back. Hitherto we were mistaken, they said; we promise you to do better. Come and save yourselves, come and save us, for the love of God. You are the people, you are our sons, you are scoundrels, traitors, cowards. I saw that the old empty phrases weren’t funny any more. Chains and death and the common hope took on a terrible daily immediacy. What had once floated around in the void, mere words, now gripped one’s insides. There is something indecent in words. Sometimes I wished I were more ashamed of using them (126).

Corrado is the emotionally distant protagonist of the story. His elegiac telling of the chaos and danger in the period of Nazi withdrawal and fascist defeat of Italy is terrifying. Not just because it is terrifying, but also because it is so hard to imagine and at the same time, given the recent lean towards neo-fascsim in the world—all too easy. And that is preciously the same feeling that Pavese relates in the midst of it all—does one worry about having a coffee in the morning, or whether or not the son of a woman whose heart he broke is his? Or does one worry about being arrested, murdered—or worse evading arrest when all your friends are taken? Life is big enough for all those worries at once. And then:

I came up below the spring, in a hollow of thick, muddy grasses. Patches of sky and airy hillsides showed among the trees. The coolness there smelled of the sea, almost briny. What did the war, what did bloodshed matter, I thought, when this kind of sky shone amid the trees? (92)

But, of course, it does matter, and it all begins to lose sense in the senselessness of war.

It wasn’t discomfort or the ruins, perhaps not even a threat of death from the sky; rather it was a final grasp of truth that sweet hills could exist, a city softened by fog, a comfortable tomorrow, while at any moment bestial things might be taking place only a few yards away, things people only discussed in whispers (125).

As I wander, mostly in a wonderful, timeless, aimlessness around the city of Rome, I can not help but be struck by the beauty, yes—but also by the ravages—the evidence of the rise and fall of empires, religions, individual fortunes, even the Tiber itself.  “At any moment bestial things” have and are still taking place. We are all human beings on this planet, and so, for Pavese, “every war is a civil war” and every victim of war a body that calls us to account.

Pavese’s voice comforts me in a cautionary sort of way, and gives context to the country that I am immersed in. Of course I am watching my own nation’s news from afar. So while I  worry about where to get coffee without getting lost and missing my loves while relishing being here, I also read the news and worry about whether or not the unimaginable will happen….because we must grasp the truth that it can.

*The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese is translated by R.W. Flint

 

 

 

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.

You Are What You See

Depth Mine with Sharks by Malcolm Morley

After spending the morning in back to back dental appointments, I took my two youngest boys to an exhibition of Malcolm Morley at the Yale School of Art’s gallery. I parked the car and we browsed about in a bookstore as the gallery was not yet open. My 13 year old Luke was underwhelmed by my method of killing time but soon got lost in a book by Banksy. Augie occupied himself by bringing me books whose images or text he wanted me to decipher. He wanted me to ask someone behind the counter how to get to the gallery. But I resisted.

I had a vague idea of how to get there. We walked a few blocks. It was cold and we were seemingly walking into a slum, so we went into a Dunkin Donuts to ask the employees how to get to Edgewood Ave. Apparently they were all teleported to work that day because no one had any idea of the surrounding streets. We continued.  We asked a lady on the street. She was very nice, possible strung out, but very nice. She named 5 to 6 streets that we would have to pass until we came to the right one at which point we were to turn right and Edgewood would be the next street. As we followed her instructions I wondered why we couldn’t just turn right now. Luke was cold and apprehensive. “I’m just walking!” Augie announced happily. Finally we came to the correct street, turned, got to Edgewood and sure enough walked back 5 or 6 blocks to the gallery.

The gallery was a large bright rectangular room. The paintings were joyful, boyishly enthusiastic works of (mostly) World War II imagery: airplanes, airplane parts, airplanes crashing, submarines, ocean liners. Morley was a boy in London during the war and his vivid and kind-of innocent renderings are wonderful. We also really liked a hawk that he had built out of cut and painted paper clutching a fish as it emerged from an oil painting. It was really beautiful. The kind man sitting in a chair against the wall in the middle of the room told us that the artists got a lot of his ideas from his dreams. Augie wanted to know why the sinking ship in the above painting was named ERIKA, but he did not know.

We made our way around the perimeter. Augie noticed that the the wall ended and on the other side was a ramp leading down to another level. There was a small lone painting on this wall. It was so close to the edge of the wall that when you stood looking at it you could see the paintings on the opposite wall.

“Oh look, another painting” I said, wondering why it was tucked away in this manner.

“It’s a smaller version of that one,” Luke observed. We all looked at the large painting of a red airplane on the opposite wall.

“You’re right.” I answered.

“No, it’s a smaller version of both of them,” Augie declared. We all looked at the large painting of the blue airplane next to the large painting of the red plane. I sheepishly looked back to the small painting of…the red plane colliding with the blue plane.

Is this how it is going to be? I sighed. As we age we lose the ability to just see what we are looking at without thinking about what we are seeing. At least I managed to find a direct route back to the car.
I will take my accomplishments where I can, thank you very much.