Jenn Shapland’s hybridized memoir and biography straddles what its seemingly-impossible title suggests: an ability to write about oneself by writing about someone else. Far from taking on a myopic or narcissistic project, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is eager to talk about the self for the sake of empathy, to revive written-off lives, to question presumed heterosexualities, and to make a bodily connection with now-irrecoverable marginalized bodies. Spurred by discovering letters written between the Southern playwright and novelist Carson McCullers and a woman named Annemarie, Shapland dives into the paper trail of a writer she wasn’t previously researching. On the hinge that the letters she discovered while interning at the Harry Ransom Center were highly unexpected love letters between two women, Shapland opens the door into the book that follows and into her own still-forming identity simultaneously.
So much of this biography lives in flux. It jumps anachronistically between times and places, between Carson’s young adulthood, her time at Yaddo (an artist’s retreat in Saratoga, New York) and at the February house (an artistic commune in Brooklyn), and even back and forth between Carson’s narrative and Shapland’s personal life. The empathetic bridge Shapland constructs between herself and Carson McCullers is, too, incredibly watery and mobile. It’s a bridge set up largely on the word “queer,” which here can mean gay, LGBTQ, bizarre, failing at normalcy, and or can denote relationship between a myriad of these possible definitions. This bridge is crossed through mutual identities, through a longing for a lesbian history, which, as Shapland writes, “there hardly is,” and through a desire to find the language to cross a long-held lexical gap and retrieve the queer narratives that a normative history would abandon.
Consciously situated in this lexical gap that queer women have historically occupied, (particularly closeted queer women from points in history where queerness was not eagerly recorded and was often intentionallly erased,) Shapland’s experimental work of nonfition digs through muddled archives searching less for Carson’s exact life and more for the possiblility of her love. Shapland has written a speculative investigation on purpose. As she remarks “In a world built by men for men and their pursuits, a woman who loves women does not register– and is not registered, i.e. written down” she shows a sort of thesis early on: an intention to write down, to name, and in doing so, to have something which she, too, might go by. Unequipped with the word “lesbian,” McCullers calls “the women she loved her ‘imaginary friends’” and permits, even insists, that they navigate a space between the real and the covert, the actualized and the forged. The reader watches McCullers, without a vernacular for her loving, married twice to the same man whom she narrowly escaped dying with, given something of an extension, a clear empathy in the writing and recording that Shapland offers here.
As it embarks on an entirely unestablished form of biography, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is not afraid to show itself in progress. Readers encounter Shapland contending with partial accounts, content at finding shards and glimpses rather than neat and finished stories. Carson McCullers is also shown struggling with partial stories, unsuccessful pursuits of women she adored, and an unclear conception of her own sexuality and identity amongst real “imaginary friends.” Shapland sees this struggle for identity, this existence outside of easy or clearly accessible language, as a familiar “protracted becoming.” Shapland shows that queer history is always in contention with loss, with a lack of resources, of material, of proof, and even of language with which to preserve and communicate itself. To see Carson’s queer life amidst biographers who would straight-wash it, Shapland suggests “you have to read like a queer person.” It is less an immediate sharing of language, and actually, as Shapland astutely writes, a shared “dearth of language” that most characterizes how a contemporary queer writer might connect to one locked in a time where she could not easily write herself down.
There will always be less queer history than history. It may always be called “queer history” in a need to specify itself whereas the defaulted histories, the overwhelmingly heterosexual, white, male, and colonialsit histories will be, Shapland demonstrates, “given the benefit of the doubt.” Perhaps because of its roots in this sense of incompletion, as the book unfolds, it is always showing its own process rather than presenting a finality. Shapland notes that memoir itself “is peeking into the windows of your own life. A voyeurism of the self. An interior looting” and that in her work, she is “perched outside [her] own house as [she tries] to see into Carson’s.” Structured in short vignettes, some no longer than a page, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers arguably navigates queerly as well– maybe because it wants to, but also, more likely, because it has no other way to be. It is a queer piece of writing that teaches queer readership simply in being read. To empathize with Shapland’s work sifting through transcripts of Carson’s therapy sessions, which Carson recorded with the intention of writing her own biography, is to empathize with the longing to find longing that might look like your own. Here lies what the book might be said to be “about.” Less than any one life story, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers d etails a search and a want, a need for connection, and an effort to acquire language for what so much of history has deemed unspeakable.
Shapland peeks in to Carson’s life at different windows, detailing flashes of her living, her marriages and divorces with Reeves McCullers, her relationships with women, and her life’s possible relationship to Shapland’s own. In its sentences, this book opens the cupboards of Carson McCullers’ life and exhibits little-known inventories of Carson’s personal and emotional materials, down to a lost ashtray. However, as a whole, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is much less about Carson McCullers and much more about a need for queer women and queer artists to know that their lives are not alone, are not only in silences between speech, and have existed long before they were able to be spoken of.
Yes, unfailingly, the narrative is peppered with knowledge of Maggie Nelson, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, t he visual language of androgyny, Audre Lorde, and many other notes that may linger longer in a queer readers’ ears as a language that lingers behind individual words. It is fun and sad and as contemporary as it is historical, pulling from highly academic, nuanced, and difficult ways to relate to obscured literary pasts as well as punchier ways of relating. One of the latter is communicated early on in the text when Shapland writes “Like, same” in response to Carson’s title The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. F rom examining Carson’s wardrobe to eating pizza in Carson’s home in Georgia to unearthing the medical aftermath of her strokes to combing through her photographs, Jenn Shapland is, as she puts it “hunting lesbians” where other writers have only found Carson’s “traveling companions, good friends, roommates, close friends, dear friends, obsessions, crushes” and “special friends.” Shapland is renaming, is making real and whole the imagined and the partial.
Backed by extensive research, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers closes the lexical gaps that concern its opening with belief rather than a documented citation. Shapland decides that “When Carson says she was in love, I believe she meant she was in love.” With this act of believing comes an invitation to the reader, an ingenious and vital request to join Shapland in the same language, to allow a love to be sufficient to be known and named and sustained on its own mere utterance. Shapland’s writing transcends genre and bends established modes of language. She takes a grammatical descriptivist’s approach to liberating queerness form erasure, and, in insisting it be written, allows Carson’s history to become a bridge to readers and writers now, permission to have a history in the first place.
Cleaver Poetry Reviews Editor Claire Oleson is a writer hailing from Grand Rapids Michigan. She’s a 2019 grad of Kenyon College, where she studied English and Creative Writing. Her work has been published by the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, Siblíní Art and Literature journal, Newfound Journal, NEAT Magazine, Werkloos Magazine, and Bridge Eight Magazine, among others. She is also the 2019 winner of the Newfound Prose Prize. Her chapbook is forthcoming in May, 2020. Contact her by email.
SQUARE HAUNTING by Francesca Wade Tim Duggan Books, 383 pages reviewed by Gabriel Chazan
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In a short piece of writing on “London Under Siege,” written during World War II, Virginia Woolf wrote that “everybody is feeling the same thing: therefore no one is feeling anything in particular. The individual is merged in the mob.” Reading these words now, as we live through a different collective social crisis, I am reminded of the significance of individual intellectual and emotional life as a key form of sustenance and even political action.
I came across this quote in Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, an examination of the intellectual and personal lives of five furiously independent women living in Mecklenburgh Square, at the far edge of Bloomsbury, between the two world wars. In her introduction, Wade expressly notes that “these women were not a Bloomsbury Group: they lived in Mecklenburgh Square at separate times, though one or two knew each other, and others were connected through shared interests, friends, even lovers.” All five women were searching for ways to find fulfilling and engaged public lives in times of emergency, yet their views on how to do this often radically differ.
The emphasis in Wade’s book is on individuality, these women’s rooms of their own, rather than a monolithic view of a ‘feminist life.’ Besides Woolf, Square Hauntingintroduces us to the poet H.D., the classicist Jane Harrison, the economic historian Eileen Power and the detective novelist Dorothy Sayers. The vision of gender itself presented throughout the book is complex. H.D., once called the “perfect bisexual” by Freud in their analysis, wrote, “I have tried to be man or woman but I have to be both.” Sayers enjoyed wearing men’s clothing, writing “if the trousers do not attract you…for the moment I do not want to attract you, I want to enjoy myself as a human being.” These women are ambitious, not simply as women,but within their respective fields.
So how does Wade show this? She brings us through the peculiar turning points in which all these women lived in Mecklenburgh Square. These moments of transformations range from H.D.’s youthful tumult and unhappy first marriage to the late years of Harrison in which she turned abruptly from classics to Russian literature. Square Haunting is an episodic book, though one full of reverberations across different times. In the space of this review, I can’t hope to cover the full range of stories in the book. The two final sections, on Power and Woolf, had a surprising urgency as I sat reading during our current state of emergency.
Power was trained as a Medieval Historian at Cambridge and started her career as a lecturer there until 1920, a time when women were still not granted full membership of the university. She moved to teaching at the London School of Economics, an incubator for the developing Labour Party and a home of progressive ideas. Power was invested, both in her historical work and political engagements, in internationalism. She was an enthusiastic proponent of the League of Nations, the aspirational united global front set up after the First World War. Her major 1939 lectures on the wool trade in English medieval history, meanwhile, writes Wade, viewed it not as a time of small self contained communities but rather of
‘large scale international trade.’…For Eileen Power, the greatest horror of war lay in its negation of personal bonds: its infringement on private freedoms and its disdain for the human values of empathy and tolerance. As a historian, she wanted to mobilize against fascism and nationalism, and to affirm, through her writing, the value of a cultural tradition that transcends borders and rejects parochialism.
Reading Power’s passionate arguments for what she called “world citizenship” is striking now, as we find ourselves on a precipice between global solidarity and parochial isolationism. Power, notes Wade, was “always determined to define herself in opposition to what she thought of as stereotypical ‘Bloomsbury,’” focusing her gatherings in Mecklenburgh Square on “action, not aesthetics.” Woolf moved to Mecklenburgh Square as World War II raged and London lived in fear of bombings. The question which would occupy her was “how to go on, through war.” She moved through it writing through a complex tangle of the past and the present. She began writing her biography of the art critic Roger Fry, finding the current crisis “not so real as Roger in 1910 at Gordon Square, about which I’ve just been writing . . . how I bless Roger, & wish I could tell him so, for giving me himself to think of—what a help he remains—in this welter of unreality.” She also began writing about her own memories, finding them “‘more real than the present moment,’ and…she was able to ‘spin a kind of gauze over the war’ by retreating into a world that existed only in her mind.” Slowly, this extended to the present as Woolf “decided to interweave vignettes of the past with diary-like entries on the present.” In Woolf’s section, a commitment to creativity and individuality become what Wade terms “a form of resistance” amidst crisis.
Visiting Mecklenburgh Square through this book allows for a useful escape from our current moment to understand it better. Jane Harrison wrote, inspired by the French philosopher Henri Bergson, that “each of us is a snowball growing bigger every moment, and in which all ourpast, and also the past out of which we sprang, all the generations behind us, is rolled up, involved.” Wade’s book is the ideal type of biography for the moment with layers of enjoyable historical detail of all kinds as well as an argument for the independent life. By going into the past and particularly past moments of crisis, it is possible to start imagining a future.
Gabriel Chazan is an art historian and writer. Gabriel completed an MA at University College London and BA at Sarah Lawrence College. He writes a newsletter on art and books on The Expanded Field.
On a recent Sunday under quarantine, my spouse Susan Sheu and I donned costume wigs for our Zoom meeting. Twelve volunteers from the Los Angeles area sat at our respective kitchen tables, couches, and easy chairs and wrote postcards for California 38th District assembly member Christy Smith, who is running for Congress via a special election on May 12. Susan came up with the concept “wigging out for Democracy”; she thought that wearing wigs would be a festive and interesting way to make the Zoom meeting less tedious. It worked well: despite the quarantine and general malaise, wearing the wigs did add levity and made the afternoon go by faster.
Eitan Hersh, a political science professor at Tufts University, believes that Zoom meetings like this are critical for progressives. In his new book, Politics is for Power, he contrasts volunteer activity with posting rants on Facebook or watching the news, which he brands “hobbyism”. For decades, organizers from Saul Alinsky, infamous ‘radical’ and author of the classic Rules for Radicals, and Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz, the intellectual godfather of Obama For America, have pondered how to get liberals off their couches (and off social media) to take meaningful action.
Hersh wants to know why so many educated white Americans consume a tremendous amount of news but rarely volunteer or perform any type of political activity. One-third of Americans spend two hours a day on politics, and 80% of this group are hobbyists. Most hobbyists are men, and they tend to be white. Hersh’s theory and worry is that hobbyism masquerades as activism, leaving a vacuum that bad actors or extremists are filling. He gives the ominous example of the North Carolina KKK helping get opioid addicts off the street and then recruiting them. The Klan is pursuing political power.
Prior to 2016, I was one of the hobbyists that irritate Hersh; after 2016, I became an activist (he uses the word ‘volunteer’). Hersh has had a similar journey: he and I both have the fanaticism of the newly converted. Hersh’s analysis veers off track in places, but I support his general thesis: partisan news consumption is rampant, and bad for democracy, and is hurting the volunteer actions that would strength the country. We need to rebuild the state parties from the ground up, and to do so means engaging face-to-face with neighbors in a way that delivers service to them.
Hersh traces hobbyism to the decline of party control over the nominating process (i.e., the popular primary model—which started in 1972) and the rise of cable news in the 1990s. Since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and the advent of cable, news has become written for outrage and to entertain partisans. This combination of populism and an unrestrained political media business model has created political news consumers.
This has caused partisanship to explode. As one would expect, the most partisan people tend to be the best informed. However, despite the popular cliché of uninformed rubes consuming Russian propaganda, the best informed are the biggest consumers of fake news:
The researchers found that participants who were most interested in and most knowledgeable about politics consumed fake news the most. Those people weren’t easily duped by the lies of fake news stories. They were sophisticated consumers who sought the fake stories because they are junkies.
Hersh’s conclusion is that hardcore partisans are literally addicted to the highly partisan rivalry, identical to a rabid sports fan. They are also less likely to interact with those on the other side (or, presumably, to volunteer).
The make-up of the most engaged donors and primary voters have become sharply ideological on both sides, so that moderate politicians are disincentivized from running for office, and those in office are punished for compromise and rewarded for starkly partisan positions. The media environment is amplifying this—conflict is more entertaining than long, technical debates that grind towards legislative compromise:
On cable and social media, ideologues call out politicians who veer toward compromise. They one-up each other in taking more extreme positions. A politician presents a proposal, and a news network can instantly find someone who is outraged that the proposal doesn’t go far enough to please her or her side. To an audience, the outraged hot takes are more interesting that the commentators praising compromise or deals that cede an inch to the opposition.
The fact that media broadcasts conflict, and partisans share these clips on social media, make politicians focus on their media presence and image, to the detriment of their relationships across the political spectrum.
The author Brian Colker and spouse Susan Sheu hosting a “wig” party on Zoom in April 2020.
Hobbyists are drawn to national politics almost exclusively—Hersh likens it to casual football fans watching the Super Bowl. They ignore statewide contests (other than voting down ticket) and have a dismal record voting in local political races, in which less than 1 in 5 voters participate. Local news is boring and for wealthier hobbyists, it doesn’t really matter much. Working class, immigrants, and other vulnerable groups have a much greater stake in local elections because those policies impact their daily lives. Hobbyists focus on emotional issues —think puppy mills—and on charismatic leaders and gossipy races. It’s the theater, not the power, that excites the hobbyist.
Hersh has a test for those who believe they are doing something more than news consumption: he asks if anyone would notice if you stopped your activity. For those volunteering, there tends to be a commitment and a network that expects the volunteer to show up for events and actions. Dropping out would lead to questions about what happened and why. Passive news consumers have no such expectations or relationships. Rachel Maddow doesn’t call viewers when they skip her news hour.
Hersh’s evidence of hobbyism is stark—less than 5% of the general population did any volunteering at all—a single action—for the 2016 elections:
Among daily news consumers in 2016, less than 4% reported doing any work whatsoever on behalf of a campaign or party that election year. Even among those who reported they were afraid of Donald Trump, only 5 percent reported that they did any work to support their side.
And even that number is largely exaggerated. It is not for lack of leisure time—Americans average 5 hours a day of it, which is largely spent watching something. African Americans and Latinos are three times likelier to volunteer than whites, due to a collective sense of threat and bound fate. More affluent whites lack this fear and can afford to treat politics like sports —something to be passionate about, but ultimately entertainment that has little bearing on their lives.
Hersh offers several explanations as to why this is: local party organizations are very weak (by design, as a reaction to the corruption and racism of local leaders in the 1940s-1960s) and the actions they ask volunteers to take don’t feel very meaningful—using a canned script to call, text, or door knock with—and they tend to be very top down.
Interestingly, sociologist Theda Skocpol notes that Tea Party Republicans are much more comfortable with this top-down model than liberals, which explains why the Tea Party was very effective during the Obama years. However, it is unclear why this is the case: other than resorting to gross generalizations, like Republicans are more authoritarian and follow orders unthinkingly, what would explain their willingness to volunteer more? I would want to know if they are more motivated to action by fear, for example.
Throughout the book, Hersh interviews people who have become political organizers and describes how they learned this activity and what they’ve done with their power. The thread through all the cases is that political organization is all about local, face-to-face networks and providing something the community needs—helping neighbors with their immigration issues, helping neighbors get someone onto a local school board, helping neighbors solve a problem. By providing basic services like babysitting, disaster relief, and elder services, Democrats can rebuild political power at the grassroots level. Providing services could be the secret sauce to building networks—especially across partisan divides.
Where I take issue with Hersh is his approach the book as both a neutral analyst and as a burgeoning democratic activist. His analysis of political partisanship and the media are framed as a ‘both sides’ argument. This ignores major differences in the two camps. The Democratic party, and progressives, have moved leftward since the 1990s, but the Republican party and Conservatism has become so ideologically extreme as to be unrecognizable as a mainstream political party. According to the Manifesto Project, which analyzes political platforms across the globe, the American Republican Party has grown more akin to a European far-right party. Per the New York Times’ analysis in June of 2019:
According to its 2016 manifesto, the Republican Party lies far from the Conservative Party in Britain and the Christian Democratic Union in Germany — mainstream right-leaning parties — and closer to far-right parties like Alternative for Germany, whose platform contains plainly xenophobic, anti-Muslim statements.
Tea party Republicans denying Obama was a US citizen, stoked by their version of ‘mainstream’ news, is hardly equivalent to liberals protesting a ban on Muslim immigrants, an outright xenophobic and illegal policy. Since Trump’s election, his party has embraced anti-democratic attacks on the rule of law, the separation of powers, the media, and on voting itself. Opposition to this administration is not just liberal partisanship equivalent to the Tea Party movement. Resistance groups like Indivisible rose in 2016 as a desperate attempt to rescue American government itself, in addition to advancing a liberal policy agenda.
The book would have been stronger had Hersh not attempted to generalize his argument across the political spectrum. He is clearly not a Republican of the Trump era, nor does his analysis touch on why they have embraced radical anti-democratic values which would have been unthinkable as recently as the early 2000s.
Hersh describes on a key element of volunteerism that is highly problematic—the boring and robotic nature of volunteer engagement. Scripted calls, texts, hand-writing writing postcards and door knocks are not exciting ways to pass the time. This may explain a fundamental reason why people choose passive consumption over volunteerism—the former is effortless. Saul Alinsky, in Rules for Radicals, discusses a principle of organizing—it must be creative and have an element of fun. Hersh misses an opportunity to go deeper on this subject, because it is crucial for understanding the disconnect between the hobbyist and the volunteer. The local leader who rules the small organization recruit for foot soldiers to do the tedious work. For many affluent whites, this work is uninspiring and beneath their perceived skill level. Mid-career professionals do not relish tedious work, but more to the point—they don’t like following directions.
Volunteers need to feel better after an event. It is not JUST about servicing their needs—their emotional need for connection and efficacy must be harnessed. The same rules for talking to voters apply to volunteers—they need to be offered a genuine ability to contribute in a way THEY find meaningful. If a hobbyist is induced to make phone calls for a campaign, she or he will need to be recruited and managed with care to ensure it is a positive experience and it will be repeated.
One reason the Obama campaign was so successful in recruiting huge numbers of volunteers is that it encouraged small local groups (five to ten people) to work together. People were able to work with their friends and feel like they had a lot of autonomy. It also allowed the groups to be nimble and change strategy as the campaign went on.
Hersh’s book is an important one for Democrats and those who oppose Trump and Trumpism in 2020—we will need an army of volunteers to take back power at the local, state, and federal level, and hopefully the book will motivate some hobbyists to turn off the news and get off twitter.
Brian Colker is a management consultant for benefit organizations and a grassroots organizer in Los Angeles. He is CFO of the Grassroots Democrats HQ.
by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, illustrations by Andrea Ucini
Europa Editions, 112 pages reviewed by David Grandouiller
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“Me” who? We’ll always know too little about ourselves.—Elena Ferrante
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Who is the Italian novelist we call Elena Ferrante? Since her first novel’s publication in 1992, she—with the help of her publishers—has carefully maintained the real author’s anonymity. Many readers have treated this guarded privacy as a playful challenge, making theories and guesses, particularly in recent years as Ferrante has become increasingly celebrated. The Italian philologist Marco Santagata, after analyzing her oeuvre, suggested she might be the writer Marcella Marmo (Marmo and her publisher denied this). More controversially, the journalist Claudio Gatti dug up financial records to claim that Anita Raja is the author behind Ferrante—others suggest it may be Raja’s husband. One can imagine the confirmation of one of these claims could incite a variety of reactions in Ferrante’s readership, but there’s a more fundamental question behind that of the author’s identity: why do people want to know?
What makes some readers so curious about a writer’s “real life”? Do we (because I’m one of them) want the fiction to absorb reality—to make a fiction out of the writer? Or are we trying to absorb fiction into reality? Maybe we feel alienated by the wall that is fiction—artists giving their eyes and minds and hearts and imaginations to the reader without having to give themselves.
“I refused to form a relationship in which I would be in a subordinate position,” writes Ferrante, “forced to yield to the enormous power of someone who is silent while you ramble on, asking you questions without ever really responding to yours, concealing from you his drives—while you reveal yours in the most vulnerable way.” This comes from Ferrante’s new book, Incidental Inventions, a collection of weekly columns written for The Guardian from January 2018 to January 2019, released in November from Europa Editions. In this passage, she’s talking about therapy, but the description could be applied equally to a readership, and the idea of her relationship with readers makes this book particularly striking—a pseudonymous fiction writer exposes to the reader a comparatively unmediated self. The wonder she expresses is presumably her own, the shame, the joy, the generosity, the fear, the pride.
I say, “comparatively unmediated,” because in nonfiction, the writer assumes responsibility for the narrator in a way the fiction writer doesn’t, but this is not to say the narrator and the writer are the same—there is always mediation. In David Shields’s collage manifesto, Reality Hunger, he quotes memoirist Patricia Hampl saying, “It isn’t really me; it’s a character based on myself that I made up in order to illustrate things I want to say. In other words, I think memoir is as far from real life as fiction is. I think you’re obligated to use accurate details, but selection is as important a process as imagination.”
I suppose Hampl’s distinction is slightly beside the point when it comes to Ferrante, who does not exist. If the writer’s relationship to the narrator is the defining difference between nonfiction and fiction, what does the term nonfiction even mean when the writer’s identity is unknown? Can I really call it “comparatively unmediated”? Can I say, “The wonder she expresses is her own?” Does it even matter? Does it make my encounter with this narrator less legitimate? In the new book, Ferrante goes further than Hampl and points out the artifice inherent in writing at all:
My effort at faithfulness [in writing] cannot be separated from the search for coherence, the imposition of order and meaning, even the imitation of the lack of order and meaning. Because writing is innately artificial, its every use involves some form of fiction. The dividing line is rather, as Virginia Woolf said, how much truth the fiction inherent in writing is able to capture.
Maybe this is all I should need from a narrator—an effort at faithfulness as she constructs a self on the page. This makes me think, too, of how much the writer’s work, in this respect, is the work of every social being, how identity is often performance, in life as much as in art. “I invent myself for a journalist,” admits Ferrante, discussing her practice of taking interviews only by correspondence, so she has time to consider and compose her answers, “but the journalist—especially when she is herself a writer—invents herself for me, through her questions.”
If I begin to think of all human intercourse this way, I’m free to stop thinking of the invented narrator, in fiction or nonfiction, as a wall between the writer and me. I can begin to understand intimacy as the goal of invention. The writer behind Ferrante can’t give herself to readers, because the self can’t be contained—what she can do is create an artificial container, pour as much of herself into it as she wants, then offer it to the world, printed and bound and accompanied by Andrea Ucini’s illustrations. Which brings me back to the book—I’ve put off discussing it directly for too long.
In the fifty-one columns that comprise Incidental Inventions, each around five hundred words, Ferrante responds to prompts presented to her by Guardian editors at her own request. “I had no experience with that type of writing,” she explains in her introduction, “and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it […] I told the editors I would accept the offer if they would send me a series of questions.” Her self-awareness and humility are attractive, and the title itself—Incidental Inventions—understates the sense of purpose with which the narrator navigates each topic. But these pieces aren’t the work of someone who’s just trying her hand. Short and tightly woven, each of them meanders the landscape of the writer’s memories and thoughts with a practiced nonchalance, driving all the while toward a kind of volta in the last few sentences, and ending, usually, in a punchy, epigrammatic final line: “What perhaps should be feared most is the fury of frightened people” or “We can be much more than what we happen to be” or “All in all, I’m doing fine.”
I wish the prompts had been printed with Ferrante’s pieces. I wondered, leafing through this calendar of idiosyncrasy, about her reactions to the editors’ questions, and also about how forward the editors had been, knowing how carefully Ferrante maintains her anonymity. How many questions did they ask that related directly to her biography, and did she resent it when they did, or did she take it in stride, being used to it by now? Do any of these columns answer the questions directly, or does she interpret them freely, wandering the open water once the coast is out of sight?
These are greedy questions, in some ways—the person Ferrante presents in this one-sided conversation is already so full and rich. We get reading recommendations, film recommendations, career advice. We learn about her first love and about the reasons she laughs when she does, about her fear of old age and her fear of letting her fear be seen. We learn why she admires her daughters and why she admires women who chose not to be mothers. We read some of what she thinks of Caravaggio, exclamation marks, religion, sex, Italian fascism, of lying and learning and change. She says a lot about writing—writing when you’re young and when you’re older, writing before bed or when you wake up, smoking while you write or writing after you’ve quit smoking.
And underneath all these things, providing the energy with which she propels each thought, is the wonder, “the wonder—the wonder of knowing how to read, to write, to transform signs into things.”
As I write about Incidental Inventions, I’m thinking of another book that I consider linked to Ferrante’s collection—In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, published in English in 2016. The books share many characteristics: both were written in Italian, both translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Both writers are women whose novels are internationally acclaimed but who, before these books, had published little nonfiction. Each of these books was conceived as a series of weekly columns for a periodical (Ferrante for The Guardian, Lahiri for Internazionale).
Lahiri’s book is more focused than Ferrante’s. It follows a progression: she learned Italian, moved to Italy, transitioned from writing in English to writing in Italian. But she strikes many of the same topics as Ferrante—the wonder associated with learning to read, for example, or their interactions with journalists. Each of the books has a chapter on writing in a diary, in which they both describe having outgrown the diary. Ferrante remembers having begun to invent things in her diary when she was young, to account for lost time or missed entries, and so she gave up journaling and wrote stories instead. Lahiri, as an adult journaling in a foreign language, says, “Writing only in a diary is the equivalent of shutting myself in the house, talking to myself. What I express there remains a private, interior narration. At a certain point, in spite of the risk, I want to go out.”
A diary is not totally unselfconscious or unmediated, but this going out is still a momentous turning point in the life of the writing. A more elaborate, more conscious performance by the narrator is necessary, or at least expected. This going out is what Ferrante’s and Lahiri’s writings have in common, an emphasis on establishing a consistent voice, a persona, a narrator to whom readers can attribute each thought and experience, so that we begin to fill out the image of a figure, even if it isn’t exactly the image of the writer herself. Ferrante speaks in similar terms about the accumulation of qualities which makes possible the idea of a film star she admires: “[Daniel Day-Lewis] is a sort of title by which I refer to a valuable body of work […] If he should suddenly be transformed into a flesh-and-blood person, poor him, poor me. Reality can’t stay inside the elegant moulds of art; it always spills over, indecorously.”
But maybe it’s exactly this indecorous spilling that some reality-hungry readers want. “Books are the best means […] of overcoming reality,” writes Lahiri, but maybe we want reality to overcome the book. Maybe we want the diary and not the story. Or the diary as well as the story. Is that possible? Where do we find it?
“Literary novelty,” writes Ferrante, “if one wants to insist on the concept—exists in the way each individual inhabits the magma of forms he is immersed in. Thus ‘to be oneself’ is an arduous task—perhaps impossible.” I think this is true, and it makes me wonder: how little advantage do most writers take of the diversity of possible forms available to them? And would employing a greater range of forms fragment the invented narrator in such a way that readers would get (maybe not a truer but) a different kind of insight into the person behind the persona?
I think a form that does this fragmentation well is the “crônica.” A giant in this tradition is the Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector. Her Selected Crônicas, published individually in the Jornal do Brasil between 1967 and 1973, is like an encyclopedia of short forms—they range in length from a single line to one or two thousand words; they are proverbs, parables, and myths, short stories, reflections, interviews, memoirs, bits of transcribed dialogue, brief scenic sketches. Lispector makes little or no distinction, across these columns, or even within each column, between the fictional and the real, though she uses both first- and third-person narration throughout. This wide range may not have been a transgression of genre, in Lispector’s context, since she was taking advantage of the freedom of the form, which her translator, Giovanni Pontiero, calls, “a genre peculiar to Brazil which allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone,” he says, “is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or weekly columns in the European or U.S. press.” But to bring her indiscriminate range into a different literary context could be transgressive, could be productive.
Ferrante’s columns are not generically transgressive, except inasmuch as the frame of anonymity produces a unique reading experience. They’re much more consistent, even conservative, in style and structure—which is certainly not a weakness. But I think it’s important to note, by way of comparison, the possible breadth of the form she’s working in, and to call the breadth good. Ferrante’s narrator maintains her integrity, her wholeness, however artificially. That’s a different kind of victory than Lispector’s, but all of these writers help revive in us “the wonder—the wonder […] vivid and lasting.”
David Grandouiller lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about faith and religion, Christian education, film, cats, and music. He is a third-year candidate in the MFA in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University and the Nonfiction Editor at The Journal. His essay, “Holy Uselessness,” was a finalist for the 2019 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction, and a group of his essays won the 2019 Walter Rumsey Marvin grant from the Ohioana Library Association.
THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS: ON MUSHROOMS AND MOURNING
by Long Litt Woon
translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland
Spiegel & Grau, 292 pages reviewed by Beth Kephart
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When I read memoir I want: something to crack and something to rise, something to arc and something to stream, something to move across the page and, as it does, to move me.
I bought Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning for the promise embedded in the premise. How would Woon make her way back into the world after the shocking, sudden death of the fifty-four-year-old husband with whom she had spent all her adult years? What do mushrooms have to do with recovering from such a loss? Does anybody ever actually recover?
Woon, who moved to Norway from Malaysia as an exchange student at the age of eighteen and stayed because of her love for her husband, Eiolf, is not, as it turns out, interested in the literary fissures and expansions and movements that generally interest me. Her prose, as translated by Barbara J. Haveland, is determinedly straightforward, lavishly undecorated, direct and directly to the point. Her structure is neither chronological nor intuitive. She holds her memories of her husband close, revealing little of the man she clearly loved, disclosing only the smallest glimpses of herself. She begins:
This is the story of a journey that started on the day my life was turned upside down: the day when Eiolf went to work and didn’t come home. He never came home again. Life as I had known it was gone in that instant. The world would never be the same again.
It’s the mushrooms that primarily preoccupy Woon in this book—the hunt for them in Norwegian forests, the challenges presented to amateur students and foragers, the friendships that begin to form over mushroom-themed meals, the way Woon’s “concentration is sharpened and the tension mounts” as she goes out into the Fungi Kingdom and reports back on the wildly interesting species that bruise, poison, delight, elude, or (depending on your preference) catalyze hallucinations.
Woon is, as it turns out, a terrific guide to mushroom secrets, scents, and dishes. She gets so good at this mushroom thing that she passes the difficult-to-master inspector’s exam. Her plainspoken prose provides essential clarity when she reports, say, on the fact that “the bulk of the mushroom consists of a dynamic, living network of long, shoestring-like cells known as mycelium, which spread underground or through trees and other plants,” then goes on to describe the world’s largest organism, the honey fungus, which “covers a stretch of woodland corresponding to almost four square miles” and is “estimated to be between two thousand and eight thousand years old.” It’s interesting stuff, riveting in its way, and about halfway in I decided to stop looking for the lyric leap so that might I experience this tale the way Woon chose to tell it. To follow her as she zags from morels to brain mushrooms, from the vocabulary of mushroom smells to the art of catching mice, from psychedelia to mushroom “bacon.”
Sure, I would have liked to have seen so much more of the husband that was tragically lost too soon; Woon shares a few tidbits, but we rarely meet Eiolf inside a scene. Sure, I would have liked to have known more than what Woon shares about the essence of her once-shared home. But the more I read, the more I remembered that this memoir had not been written for me. It had been written because Woon discovered, in the dark country of her grief, so many lanterned forests. She discovered mushrooms hiding in plain sight, and she took them into her kitchen, and she invited friends, and she was alone no more.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of more than two-dozen books, an adjunct teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, and a co-founder of Juncture Workshops, which offers memoir resources and teaching. Her first memoir in many years, Wife|Daughter|Self, is due out from Forest Avenue Press in early 2021. More at bethkephartbooks.com.
ART CAN HELP by Robert Adams Yale University Art Gallery, distributed by Yale University Press, 88 pages reviewed by Beth Kephart
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“[I]f you begin with an idea you’re usually beat before you start,” writes Robert Adams in Art Can Help, as he tries to imagine Edward Ranney photographing the Canyon del Muerto, and, so, here I begin, having been holding this slender silver volume in my hand all afternoon, interrupted only by the sound of a neighbor’s lawn mower and the smell of some ambient spray paint.
(A long sentence, a beginning.)
The book marks Adams’ attempt to dissuade his readers from Jeff Koons-style glitz, which is to say “imitations that distract us or, openly or by implication, ridicule hope.” We are reminded of the power of art, Adams suggests, by studying art that is real.
The work of Edward Hopper is here in these pages, as are the images of Eugene Buechel, Ken Abbott, Julia Margaret Cameron, Dorothea Lange, and others, but if you are already concluding that this is a book of pictures and captions, you’d be wrong. This is a book of eclectic wisdoms and collegial awe.
“I am asked with surprising frequency, ‘How do you know where to make pictures?’” Adams, himself a famed photographer of the American West, announces as he ponders Eric Paddock’s miniaturized views of Colorado’s byways. Adams answers the question like this: “To the extent there is a rule, the answer is that it is usually where you stop long enough.”
(Where you stop. Long enough.)
The earned erudition is useful, it seems to me, for novelists and poets, memoirists and playwrights who wonder—an occupational hazard—where and what the story is. Indeed, so much of the book serves as a primer for the questing soul, as Adams encourages beauty without sentimentality; heralds the plausibility of gifts; hails Terri Weifenbach’s portrait of a hovering bee “as aeronautically improbable as an angel.” Adams reminds us that “some of the best photographs are both discouraging and encouraging at once.” He prompts us with this thought: “Is there anyone more comically, more courageously of another world than a grade-school music teacher, especially a band teacher?”
(Imagine a story about that. Pause to see it.)
When Adams quotes from Emmet Gowin, who photographed the Nevada test range—“What we all want in our lives is a way to put ourselves into accord with the mystery out of which we came and into which we will return.”—we have no choice but to close the book and close our eyes and ponder what this means while, beyond, the lawn mower mows and the can of spray paint sprays.
Adams wants us to take heart from the form of art. He wants us to choose to care. He knits a line from Marilynne Robinson into a brief appraisal of Dorothea Lange, and then, after all of this, he stands back and informs us that “We are in important ways the sum of the places we have walked.”
(Where have we walked?)
Which leaves those of us who have gone a handful of years without the sight of something new, those of us who have been walking with familiar dust upon our shoes, those of us who have felt the perimeters of our lives squeezing in, squeezing tight, grateful for the ambulation of this book, the places we have traveled through it, the pause that it has pressed upon the beginning, and now the end, of the afternoon.
Beth Kephart is the author of more than two-dozen books in multiple genres, an adjunct teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, and the co-founder of Juncture Workshops. Her essays appear in Ninth Letter, Catapult, Literary Hub, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere, and a new memoir in essays, Wife|Daughter|Self is due out in spring 2021. More at bethkephartbooks.com.
PASSING FOR HUMAN: A GRAPHIC MEMOIR
by Liana Finck
Random House, 222 pages reviewed by Alexandra Kanovsky
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Liana Finck wants to be seen. In creating Passing for Human, a graphic memoir and her second full-length work, she constructs her life story as Leola, and in doing so fantastically reimagines her youth and early adulthood in a quest to be seen and heard—by peers, by readers, and by herself.
Over the course of the novel Finck not only passes for human, but her work dissects what it means to be human. She ponders how to describe this sensation and ultimately realizes that “a human is someone who can see humanity in things”; the work is dedicated to exploring this experience and expression of humanity.
In creating Passing For Human Finck has tapped into the potential of the graphic medium to convey personal histories and memoirs. This is particularly true of Finck’s use of an animate shadow to represent her creativity and strangeness. (“Once upon a time, I lost something. Let’s call it ‘my shadow,’” she writes on the first page.) The shadow is clarified and strengthened by its visual representation, leading the reader to look forward to the moment when Leola and her shadow are finally reunited. The text also invites the reader to question their own personal definition of humanity and how it’s expressed in their lives. Passing for Human ultimately succeeds as a gorgeous tale about the trials and intricacies of anxiety, self-discovery, and the quirks of humanity.
Echoing Peter Pan, Passing for Human chronicles Leola’s quest to recover her shadow, a dark mirror of herself that offers companionship as a child and grows to represent her creativity and uniqueness. Leola thinks of her shadow as human, which is a testament to her own humanity. Finck’s drawings are particularly effective in detailing Leola’s introspection and tender relationship with her shadow and herself.
In a fit of insecurity at age eleven, Leola sends her shadow away and thus loses part of herself. This loss of her shadow signals a decline in her childhood creative freedom; Finck writes that “I was a real artist until I turned 11.” Of this point in her life, Finck describes how “I got my wish. I became someone else. Whatever happened over the course of the next ten years—did not happen to me.” Regardless of Finck’s disownership of her experiences, Leola’s story continues.
Leola and her shadow
The small and spritely illustrated Leola flits through her memories, both honest and anxious in her storytelling. She juxtaposes chapters describing her lonely childhood at a Montessori school run by nuns with anecdotes about a confused and undefined romantic relationship with “Mr. Neutral,” a comic artist who she classifies as her soulmate but who fails to be a reliable presence in her life.
Finck honors the parts of herself she inherited from her mother and father by devoting chapters to their individual and collective stories. Her mother, the bright and ambitious Bess, gives Leola the gift of the shadow. Bess’s shadow is a constant companion and friend, guiding her in her choices and encouraging her creativity, but as Bess’s early marriage implodes and she returns home, away from her abusive partner, she cuts her shadow free. Bess continues her schooling and becomes a brilliant architect, designing a perfect house for her new husband, Shamai, and their infant daughter Leola. This home is a repeated image throughout the text; a curved building shrouded in shade from the mountain behind it, the house is the essence of Leola’s close-knit home life and her childhood solidarity.
Shortly afterwards, anxious Leola changes tactics and restarts her memoir with the story of her father, the affectionate doctor Shamai, who shares his otherness with his daughter. Finck writes that Shamai is “secretly a huge weirdo;” he is “a stranger […] somehow zipped into a human body,” and he imbues the same sense of outsiderness in his child, a fact that concerns him deeply. Only later in her life Leola will acutely feel this otherness bestowed upon her by her father; she feels as if both of them are “passing for human,” just as she classifies her shadow. Here again, the concept of defining humanity is explored; Leola describes her father as not fully human to indicate not only his outsider status but his sense of discomfort with the world around him.
The penultimate chapter recounts Leola’s childhood from her shadow’s perspective; readers are meant to assume that Leola finally triumphs in reconciling with her other self and childhood creativity. This climax is visibly different than the rest of the work; the background is the inky black of Leola’s shadow and Finck’s lines are light scorings on this dark background, but her scratchy and doodly style are consistent. This chapter draws the reader into the world of otherness that Leola struggles with throughout the text.
Reunion with shadow
The narrative is peppered with interludes: short chapters detailing Finck’s interpretation of the story of creation, whimsically designed tessellations, and detailed and colorful chapter and cover pages. These constant restarts and intermittent doodles create the essence of the artist’s space and mind. Instead of presenting an unrealistically tidy retelling of life, Finck’s work mirrors the ephemeral haze of memory. Her assured and scrawling line drawings of animals and humans, sometimes featuring comically intense expressions of joy or despair, lend the text the quality of a childhood dreamscape that is not fully understood until adulthood.
Passing for Human chronicles not only the story of Finck’s parents and her own childhood, but the process of her creating her graphic memoir. She is plagued by anxiety in the face of detailing her personal history; these gnawing worries take the form of rats, sitting on her shoulders and nibbling at her graphic form.
Finck does not suppress any of her apprehension in her writing, and allows the rats to convince her to continually restart her story; thus, every chapter features a cover page and is titled “Chapter 1.” The repeated image of adult Leola pulling a blank sheet of paper towards her and doodling the heading Passing for Human is a merry-go-round of anxiety; the reader’s experience is akin to consuming the first chapters of several books in a series, randomized in sequence and abandoned shortly after commencing. Finck views the process of creating Passing for Human as not only producing a product for the reader, but an experiment in self-discovery. The heart of the work, with all its cyclical thoughts and false starts, is the process of Leola, and thus Liana, finding her lost shadow, her talent, her strangeness.
Restarting her work
Alexandra Kanovsky is an avid reader and editor and a recent graduate of Kenyon College, where she majored in English and completed her thesis on girlhood in graphic novels. She has interned and worked for a variety of literary locales including Restless Books, Lime Books, and Impress Books. She also served as the Editor-in-Chief of HIKA Literary Magazine, Kenyon’s oldest literary publication. Alexandra can be reached at [email protected].
THE REAL SKY by Valerie Fox & Jacklynn Niemiec Bent Window Books, 30 pages
reviewed by Kendra Jean Aquino
Within the first few pages of The Real Sky by Valerie Fox and Jacklynn Niemiec we meet a theatrical tour guide in a haunted town, a man named Andrew who might turn into someone else at the end of the day, and a mother, covered in plaster, who walks into a field and never returns. Valerie Fox’s hybrid writing in The Real Sky is unexpected and surreal. Her ten pieces in the chapbook range in style from dreamlike micro fiction to short snapshot-style poems. At any given moment, you may be introduced to a new place, character, or theme. This meandering and fantastical narrative takes the reader on an unpredictable adventure. Throughout The Real Sky one is left to question what is real, what is imagined, and where the boundaries of possibility lie.
Fox’s imaginative work is paired with equally exploratory architectural sketches by Jacklynn Niemiec. She combines harsh black lines, shadows, and pastel watercolors to recreate the spaces that Fox describes in her writing: the house the pet basilisk lives in, the haunted town the tour guide takes us through. Niemiec explained that she “considered the character of each place with Valerie, then used various photographic angles as well as memory to understand and reconstruct the structures as they were, and are now.” Interpretative sketches of these scenes are placed adjacent to passages of prose and poetry. This allows the reader to feel like they are inhabiting the space along with the narrator. The clouded pastel hues bordering the stark black pen strokes also add ambiguity to where the spaces, and reality, begin and end.
Fox and Niemiec collaborated to create a mixed-genre chapbook that delightfully blurs the lines between what is “real” and what is not. The two mediums draw seamlessly from each other, creating a picaresque reading experience. At once you can be transported to a “big party house with a lot of grown-ups floating around wearing goggles,” a “small boat, facing the center of Lake Harmony,” or a small New York City apartment with music playing on vinyl. Stories that drip with curious imagery, paired with ethereal sketches, bring the scenes to life. The best part is, you get to decide what you believe, and interpret the meaning for yourself. Examine this phenomenon in an excerpt from “For the Kiddos”:
Consider my life, and learn. Exhibit A. An imp in my water tumbler leaps up onto my shoulder. He has a leafy celery nose. His graffiti face is surprisingly complex. I am clutching this imp’s knitted goods, which he is trying to seize away from me.
This is all happening right now inside my human house. The ceilings are blown out, the curtains azure. From speakeasy days there’s a painted upright piano. Staying inside all day used to be such a joy, wearing a taffy tie and a slipper of green cheese, reading The Pickwick Papers.
In this instance, you could interpret the imp as a physical creature that is jumping about, or possibly as a pestering thought that is distracting you. Fox implies that it is real (“This is all happening right now inside my human house”), but the language is coy and mysterious. The content of each page promotes the use of innovative thinking and imagination. What does it mean for the ceilings to be blown out? What is a slipper of green cheese?
A final aspect of the chapbook that I admired was how the artists did not shy away from confronting more serious topics, in conversation with the wondrous and whimsical ones. One notable example is the marauding behavior of a skeleton man in the prose piece “Ribs, Cat Claws.” He focuses his attention on a naked woman who is seated on a parlor couch. He moves toward her and his words “reach her with a beckon and growl: I was once flesh, too. We should be together. Your skin will cover me.” He is merciless in his pursuit. This scene could serve as a commentary on sexual harassment, or a reflection on the imminence of death. Either way, it is a reference to issues that occur in reality. Whimsical as well as moving, abstract forms in the chapbook link to serious themes. In The Real Sky Fox and Niemiec create surreal spaces and narratives that exist somewhere between dreams and reality—both puzzling and astonishing.
Kendra Jean Aquino is a recent graduate of Cornell College, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in English & Sociology. She has completed internships for the Chautauqua Writers’ Center and Cleaver Magazine, and is an experienced web editor. In her free time you can find her reading her favorite poets and authors, writing, and spending time with her family and pets.
ALL THE FIERCE TETHERS by Lia Purpura Sarabande Books, 128 pages
reviewed by David Grandouiller
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It’s hard to find communion with a living thing in winter. Anyone with a burrow crawls in, wraps their tail around their eyes. The other night, when snow had just started falling, I braved the interstate on my way to another city, to share a friend’s burrow. Some black ice spun me around, and I slid off the road, stopped in the median, my tread marks looping back through the new snow like a confused shadow. I’m fine, thanks. I didn’t turn around, kept driving, couldn’t bear missing a chance not to be alone. The car’s fine, too, just brown all over from the dirt I scooped up. I haven’t washed it yet. I like chauffeuring dirt around the city, an unanswered text message from the world of matter: I’m still here.
Spring is coming, and with it a new book by the poet and essayist Lia Purpura, All the Fierce Tethers. These essays are the kind of encounters I’d drive in bad weather for. Some are a lot like the heat of another warm body in a small space, some like skidding through snow-covered mud at seventy miles an hour.
My introduction to Purpura (many readers’ introduction, maybe) was her “Autopsy Report,” several years ago. I wondered at the musicality of Purpura’s diction, the rhythm and efficiency of her syntax, in sentences like the opening ones: “I shall begin with the chests of drowned men, bound with ropes and diesel-slicked. Their ears sludge-filled. Their legs mud-smeared.” Her language, in that essay, serves the essayist’s talent for paying attention. Seeing, framing, re-viewing, re-framing, Purpura takes human bodies, invisible in their familiarity, and returns their strangeness, their individuality, baring them on the coroner’s operating table. “Have I thought of the body as a sanctuary?” she asks, almost scoffing at herself as she watches it dissembled. Re-encountering organic matter she thought she knew, Purpura sees “mitral valves sealing like the lids of ice cream cups. And in the doctor’s hand, the spleen, shining, as if pulled from a river.”
The narrator makes herself as naked as her subject, showing us her unbidden laughter at the bodies whose “weird gestures looked entirely staged,” her unexpected calm as the dead were emptied. She doesn’t stop at her reactions but interrogates them: “proof I held other images dear: shrouds, perhaps? Veils? A pall hanging […] Was I awaiting some sign of passage […] the solemnity of procession?” This change in her perception is what Purpura’s seeking, and finding it’s as easy as looking, which is maybe harder than it sounds. In time, the essay turns toward ars poetica, describing the type of confrontation that brings her to the page: “By seeing I called to things, and in turn, things called me, applied me to their sight and we became each as treasure, startling to one another, and rare.”
Purpura’s emphasis on sight provides the title of the book in which “Autopsy Report” appears (On Looking), but it’s characteristic of all her work. All the Fierce Tethers is often concerned with point of view. In “Loss Collection,” she looks down at a sparrow’s carcass on a path. Its decomposing marks time. In a series of numbered pieces each titled, “Bloodspots,” she looks down, morbidly scanning the sidewalk after a local homicide. In “Dot,” she looks down: at herself (“I’m a dot”) and her dog (“a white dot”) pausing in an empty parking lot, held by the searchlight of a (possibly imagined) police helicopter. This vantage point affords her thrilling nimbleness of thought, and she flits from one idea to the next:
[The family cow is] a dot I hover over—in mind, because my uncle now has it. It isn’t gone; it just requires an aerial view. As the past often does. Danger does, too: skulking, milling, suspicious dots a police helicopter doubles back on. Bigger dot close to smaller? Copter flying lower to check: Big dot throttling smaller dot? Dots in train yards, busting out windows? Single dot running with…what? TV? Dot hauling sacks of dot belongings—across tracks, across fields, to dot camp under highway?
This mental agility demonstrates itself, also, in the variety of subject matter this book brings into cohesion. Purpura writes on the mass reproduction of art (and other objects), on irony, metaphor, symbol, on the government rationing of eagle body parts for use in religious ceremonies, on the intersections of race and class and city planning in the east/west divide of her Baltimore neighborhood, on death and the inscrutable moments before death and the personal and collective disbelief after, the scramble to explain a tragedy as one would plot a story, as one would stitch a quilt, the inability to do so. Always, at the failure of narrative or of meaning in the face of loss or of institutional absurdity, she returns to being, to seeing: “these are my shoes and I laced them this morning?”
Many of these essays find their subject matter in the natural world, and though it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call them nature essays, the pieces are doing many different kinds of work. “Study with Crape Myrtle” is about a tree, on one hand, but it’s really about the narrator’s loss of language in the presence of a living thing whose being is so independent from language and naming. “I should’ve been able to think something—to say what a beauty or stopping short, at least give an Oh of surprise. But it would not come forth as a specimen. ‘It’ isn’t right at all—and there was the immediate problem: the tree would not be called anything.” This encounter leads her to a piece of wisdom from the existentialist philosopher Martin Buber, about how to be in the world. “Certain forms of apprehending, seeing, or contemplating […] aren’t wrong,” Purpura paraphrases, “just not necessary, in order to be in relation to a tree.” Earlier in the collection, in an essay called, “On Photographing Children in Trees,” a similar idea surfaces: “the birch and I spoke like a couple who, from different countries, used a third language between them.”
This communion of Purpura’s with the natural world reminds me of an old passage from Robert Capon’s philosophical/theological/poetic/melodic/comedic cookbook, The Supper of the Lamb. He writes, “You will note, to begin with, that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are. Savor that for a moment. The two of you sit here in mutual confrontation […] the uniqueness, the placiness, of place derives not from abstractions like location, but from confrontations like man-onion.” What Purpura’s book offers to a reader are thingly confrontations, rendered with more sincerity than irony, with more self-awareness than self-consciousness, and that’s all I want from any writer.
David Grandouiller writes essays, poetry, songs, and plays, and lives in Columbus, Ohio. He’s interested in work that complicates or collapses genre boundaries.
by Elissa Washuta
Instant Future Books, 50 pages
reviewed by Michelle E. Crouch
Originally released as an E-book by Instant Future in 2015, essayist Elissa Washuta’s Starvation Mode is now reborn in corporeal chapbook form. At 50 pages, it can be read in one sitting, and I recommend this approach for best absorption of its nutrients. Nutrients, numbers, rules—Washuta is constantly searching for a calculus that will solve the problem of what goes into the body: “I would like to return to a time before it got so hard to eat,” she writes in the chapbook’s opening, “but eating has always been the hardest work I’ve ever had to do.”
For some readers, such words may kindle curiosity, a chance to peek into someone else’s affliction. Others will burn with instant recognition. I fall squarely into the second camp. I grew up reading my grandmother’s copies of Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal, fascinated by the image of womanhood they presented. These magazines imagine their reader as a straight, middle-class woman with a nuclear family, and it’s assumed that her post-childbirth body is the site of an endless struggle against weight gain. The body needs to be managed in the same way that linens need to be washed and the Thanksgiving turkey brined. These magazines didn’t talk explicitly about sex, so the idea of maintaining a slim figure seemed more of an aesthetic question, part of keeping an attractive home. Messy rooms and tummy bulges both indicated a slovenly moral character. The women around me, blood relations and teachers, imparted the message that being on a diet was the natural state of affairs, that hunger is not a signal to eat but the sensation of victory. When I got old enough to purchase my own copies of Seventeen, then Glamour and Elle and Vogue, the message was the same, although in the 2000s often cloaked in language of being “your best self” and “body confidence” and “eating clean.”
Part 1 of Starvation Mode, structured like one of these women’s lifestyle magazines gone haywire, enumerates a series of 36 rules, some of which sound ripped from glossy pages (11 – Don’t eat before bed; 21 – Focus your eating upon low caloric density foods) and some that show how quickly rule-making becomes a pathology (22 – If you eliminate foods from your diet, one by one, you’ll be a smaller person for it). The rules are chronological. As a picky child, the narrator finds that eating ham is “too much like chewing on a human.” A teen, she learns from her boyfriend that sharing indulgent processed foods (which she always buys; the economics of trying to feed oneself are not ignored here) is an expression of love. In her early adult years, she turns a book on the Okinawa diet into her Bible, notebooks of recorded glycemic indices into a grimoire of transformative spells. Alcohol and a bum gallbladder complicate the math. Psychiatric meds suppress hunger, then stoke it.
Beyond its inventive form and vital subject matter, Starvation Mode’s language is rich, startling, and evocative. “The fridge is a cage I fill with bluebirds and neglect to feed them,” she writes of purchasing the expensive and delicate organic produce and meat that comprise a “balanced diet of hope,” later leaving them to rot in favor of English muffins with butter. Graduating from college at a perilously low weight is a moment of dark triumph: “My effort brought me the things I worked for: a hollow face, a 4.0, a wiry neck, summa cum laude, a bundle of tassels and cords to adorn me at commencement, arms like crow’s legs, a heart and brain like a pair of fists, a stomach like a terrapin’s shell with not even a dead thing hiding inside, a swollen liver weeping bile all the way down my boa constrictor intestine.” The animals that appear throughout the imagery call to mind both their misfortune (to be hunted, farmed and consumed, or otherwise destroyed through human greed and carelessness) and their blessing (to eat when they are hungry, ruled by instinct, a reproach to our ridiculous hang-ups).
Washuta knows that it is more comfortable to imagine various food issues as a war against the self than as a power grab but decides to risk reader sympathy anyway: “I was born into the privilege of big-eyed, small-boned beauty. I wanted all of it. If I’d been instructed in amputation by Disney princesses with missing limbs instead of strangled waists, I might have sliced off my own fingers.”
Part 2 takes the dietary memoir of Part 1 and complicates it further, doubling back in meta-narrative: “I can no longer bear to continue telling this story. This bunch of stuff is not interesting to me. I have been telling slant-truths because I am afraid to divulge too much and turn you against me.” The redemptive arc of a narrator making peace with her body, a conclusion I always mistrust, is refused. Amending the 36 rules, Washuta offers a list of lies told in Part 1. These lies are the conventions of eating disorder stories: that it’s about control, fear of adulthood, an inward-directed mania. Anorexics aren’t trying to be sexy, after-school specials and young adult novels lectured me, because obviously they look disgusting. Washuta lays bare what such moralizing narratives often elide that yes, it is about men. It is about wanting them to want to fuck you. It is watching The Little Mermaid on a loop when you are five and learning so deeply that you cannot unlearn it even when you know better, that the fat sea witch must transform into a slender vixen to compete with Ariel, and that winning or losing is all in who the prince chooses to love. Washuta knows that it is more comfortable to imagine various food issues as a war against the self than as a power grab but decides to risk reader sympathy anyway: “I was born into the privilege of big-eyed, small-boned beauty. I wanted all of it. If I’d been instructed in amputation by Disney princesses with missing limbs instead of strangled waists, I might have sliced off my own fingers.”
And why should it feel threatening to admit this? In part because talking about privilege in general can make people uncomfortable. Pretty privilege and thin privilege also function differently from the privileges of whiteness or maleness or straightness in that they can be lost—
and inevitably will be lost. That precarity lends itself to anxiety and obsession. The fact that people, mostly women, will destroy their own bodies, their sanity, and their bank accounts for the spoils of conventional beauty demonstrates just how hard it is to get someone to relinquish any sort of privilege. Women’s magazines’ shift in terms from thinness and dieting to wellness and self-care can easily serve as a smokescreen for the same unflattering pursuit of power.
Worse than that, it’s power that isn’t power. It can feel like power to draw a man’s eyes to your body, but it’s still power granted by another. What feels like power might really be vulnerability. Washuta puts it in blunt terms: “Too many times, I’d found that there was no magic in the beckoning of my coy glance that pulled someone toward my body; there was only the beacon signaling to a predator that he might succeed in penetrating me in the night, reaching into my drunk vagina, fucking my flesh dry for five hours, or telling my mouth to shut up so he could put his dick in it.” Even when you win, you don’t win. If you eat too many calories, you get fat, but if you don’t eat enough, your body goes into starvation mode, retaining weight out of fear of scarcity.
In the chapbook’s final pages, Washuta offers no easy resolution, but Part 3 bears the subtitle “Reconciliation.” Our narrator finds a place of necessary compromise, embracing the brain as a part of the body that must be fed in order to function. Eating merely to live is not compelling, but eating to think and write is a more solid place to start. “My brain knows nothing without the skin and the tissues encased inside it. I want to help this good flesh do its work.”
Starvation Mode’s narrow focus befits its subject; it is cut down to bone.
My Body is a Book of Rules, Washuta’s full-length 2014 memoir, is a title that could also suit this volume. That longer book is more wide-ranging, a tumult of data and narrative concerning mental health, sexuality, sexual violence, Native identity, and experimental essayistic forms. Starvation Mode’s narrow focus befits its subject; it is cut down to bone. While Washuta never presents her experience as universal or anything other than uniquely her own, it illuminates a predicament in which many women find themselves: when you have worked for years to unlink hunger and eating, what is food for? After that tie is severed, the idea that food is fuel for your body makes as much sense as sex being for only procreation. Food becomes an instrument of pleasure and pain, punishment and reward—addressing anything but literal hunger. The thousands of rule-filled diet books and mantras of lifestyle gurus promise more than weight loss; they offer a path out of this void of confusion and just so happen to profit immensely by dangling dream-thin lifelines. Washuta’s clarity is a welcome alternative.
Michelle E. Crouch, a co-founder of APIARY Magazine, has published fiction and non-fiction in Gigantic Sequins, Indiana Review, The Rumpus, and others. She received an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and lives in Philadelphia. Her website is mcrouch.com.
WAYWARD LIVES, BEAUTIFUL EXPERIMENTS: INTIMATE HISTORIES OF SOCIAL UPHEAVAL
by Saidiya Hartman
W.W. Norton & Company, 304 pages reviewed by Gabriel Chazan
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What is a free life? This seemingly simple question is, of course, anything but simple. Theorizing a possibility of a free life with a recognition of the various structural oppressions in society is a challenge brought to vivid life in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman.
For her study of the alternative paths traced by young black women in New York and Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century, Hartman, a professor of English at Columbia, adopts a literary rather than an academic register. She gives voice to a wide-ranging chorus of women telling a story of resistance to an oppressive reality. In search of the ordinary, the anonymous, she turns to the archives: to police reports, photographs, and clinical notes with the aim of locating those who are otherwise lost. These ‘ordinary’ lives offer glimpses of thrilling possibilities of how to live.
Hartman allows these historical voices to fluidly reverberate in the body of the narrative. Although the theoretical and cultural world of our contemporary moment, from Fred Moten to Audre Lorde, is not absent, the principle artists and theorists here are the chorus girls, free women, and other forgotten figures. This book is an offering of possibilities within waywardness that should be read widely as an active text within the present, not simply a chronicle of the past. The various narratives are rich and strongly written with the work carefully structured.
An “art of subsistence,” Hartman suggests, is as resonant and worthy of study as that of a Thomas Eakins photograph or painting.
An “art of subsistence,” Hartman suggests, is as resonant and worthy of study as that of a Thomas Eakins photograph or painting. Hartman begins her inquiry by looking at a troubling Eakins photograph of a very young girl. Hartman then looks not for a way to erase the traces of trauma and violence but searches for other images and stories to find a possible lifeworld for the girl. It is in thinking about art and what art might be that Hartman’s book is at its most resonant and wide ranging.
A riot at the cruel ‘reformatory’ to which many of the women are sent is “sonic tumult and upheaval—it was resistance as music.” In the case of a chorus girl, “choreography—the practice of bodies in motion—was a call to freedom… It was an inquiry about how to live when the future is foreclosed.” The erotic provides both a frequent excuse for arrest and the sending of women to the reformatory yet also allows a possible freedom: “a small rented room was a laboratory for trying to live free in a world where freedom was thwarted.” Gender is brought forward as a space for experimentation and variance as well. What is foregrounded is possibility: what could an art of living be, particularly when one “wasn’t meant to survive?” We see how freedom is possible amidst oppression and against all odds.
Late in the book, Hartman writes that, in an erotic instance, “the utter dissolution of the bounded, discrete self was the gift.” This book is this kind of gift. Through a disparate archive and a lyrical and rich use of language, Hartman finds and reveals a collective revolution, one of culture, sexuality, and art and away from any singularity. There is an opportunity offered in the collective, apart from the singular. Now the question is what echoes will reverberate for new possibilities today.
Gabriel Chazan is an art historian, focusing on photography and gender. Gabriel recently completed an MA at University College London.
ROOM FOR GRACE by Maureen and Daniel Kenner Silver Boot Imprints, 213 pages reviewed by Colleen Davis
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Grief is a waiting room with broken blinds. Cracks in the slats reveal some light outside, but since the pulleys won’t move, it’s impossible to know when—or if—the sun will shine on us again. The first time you lose a parent, this room feels strange and its shadows thwart your compass. Like death itself, you’ve been told that grief brings anguish. Yet until it happens, it’s hard to imagine what it really feels like to lose your mom or dad. When my father died, I barely ate a thing. I started buying coffee on the way to work each day because the hot cup gave me a weird kind of comfort. If you can feel that heat burning through winter gloves, you know you’re still alive. If you can swallow the coffee, your heart will beat its way through another gloomy day. Six months after my dad’s funeral I wore a red dress to the office. A friend looked at me and said, “Now you look more like yourself.” I was not aware that I’d ever been any different.
Three weeks after Daniel Kenner lost his father—a retired Performing Arts teacher—he also lost his mother. She had recently ended a career in the teaching profession, too. Both parents were admired by flocks of students and colleagues; each won accolades in their field. Kenner’s book, Room for Grace, captures the essence of their lives as a family. His work is the product of a true collaboration with his mother, who taped hours of interviews with her son while she fought cancer and helped her husband wrestle with dementia. Kenner turned her audio interviews into a touching memoir that tracks the slow decline of both parents as they battled devastating illnesses.
Grief is a waiting room with broken blinds.
I had a strong interest in the book because my mother suffered with the same strange variant of dementia that plagued Kenner’s father. Frontal Temporal Dementia (FTD) is an excruciating disease. People are typically stricken at much younger ages than those who get Alzheimer’s. Like Daniel’s father, Buddy, many FTD patients, are still employed when they begin to display odd behavior. Symptoms can progress slowly and steal each neurological function—from manual dexterity to moral judgment.
At first I was disappointed that most of the book was comprised of direct transcription from interviews with Maureen Kenner, but after I read more I became mesmerized by her insight and character. She had dedicated her teaching career to working with Special Needs students. Mrs. Kenner had a real passion for helping kids who’d faced grim physical and emotional setbacks before arriving in her class. Daniel Kenner weaves her observations about these children into the fabric of a life story. Student vignettes serve as apt illustrations of Maureen’s determined efforts to nurture the gifts kids brought to the table, regardless of their circumstances. The stories of students plucked from trauma or abandoned by parents offer a stark comparison to the Kenner household, which is lavish with love and resources.
While the book offers many examples of good Kenner parenting, it is most powerful as a testament to the value of skilled educators. Teaching in today’s public school system requires creative use of limited resources, extensive collaboration with colleagues of different backgrounds and temperaments, and ceaseless struggle to raise student test scores. Gone are the days when good intentions and a textbook series could carry an instructor through a school year.
Maureen Kenner seemed to be invigorated by the challenges of her field. Even after her cancer was diagnosed, she threw herself headlong into the daunting process of finding innovative ways to teach students who had varying disabilities. In her view, the tragedies she faced as a parent, teacher, and a wife taught her “courage, teamwork and tenacity.” They did not derail her with a sense of futility or learned helplessness. When a succession of chemotherapies failed to reverse the growth of her cancer, she still struggled to care for her husband and refused to throw in the towel.
After Bud Kenner suffered a catastrophic accident, Maureen seemed to finally run out of answers. A terrible fall put Bud in the hospital for surgery to repair a spinal cord injury. Maureen created a list of questions and doubts she couldn’t neutralize with her customary optimism. She asked, “Will you ever have a catch, throw a football, toss a baseball? Will we ever go hand in hand again?”
Daniel Kenner’s book succeeds in creating a portrait of love and unity that is burnished by the off-stage specter of suffering and death.
Bud had, like his wife, earned praise for his commitment to excellence in teaching. But he had also faced professional censure when his disease prompted erratic behavior that was out of character in such a beloved teacher. After his accident, he applied his professional work ethic to the process of physical rehabilitation. His efforts, however, brought meager results that helped his wife understand he would never be himself again. Over time she was able to accept Bud’s limitations, much the same way that she recognized the constraints of her Special Needs students. She noted, “Buddy gave me the soft sense of peace I sought… From deep inside him, somewhere past the static of the dementia, he still knew exactly what to say and how to reassure me.”
Daniel Kenner’s book succeeds in creating a portrait of love and unity that is burnished by the off-stage specter of suffering and death. He employs literary tools to bring some measure of catharsis after a losing campaign against fate. The Kenner family offers an important example of how caring for others can add meaning and great value to life. Compassion is the only real bulwark against despair. It doesn’t cure everything but it brings some measure of radiance to our moments in the dark.
THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM
by Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan Books, 279 pages reviewed by Susan Sheu
“America will have both forms of equality, racial and economic, or it will have neither. If it has neither, eternity will prevail, racial oligarchy will emerge, and American democracy will come to a close.” –Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom
Since 2016, many journalists—as well as academic, political, and literary writers—have been sounding the alarm about the future of American democracy. The writers trying to shake Americans out of their manifest-destiny stupor are a diverse cast, ranging from activists who wouldn’t hesitate to label themselves members of “the resistance,” like New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow, to people like David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, who is still reviled by many on the left for his role promoting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
One of the most prominent writers is Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, who rose to non-academic prominence shortly after the presidential election in 2016 when he wrote a set of guidelines for ordinary citizens to resist the incoming Trump regime. Written succinctly and in the imperative voice, the guidelines implored the reader to have courage, not to panic, but to know that the window to act against an authoritarian regime is shorter than anyone realizes. The list spread quickly on Facebook and other social media platforms and was the genesis for the short book (Snyder refers to it as a pamphlet) published in 2017, On Tyranny.
A number of activists, including this reviewer, used copies of On Tyranny as a means to engage with members of the press and Congress, along with letters and in-person deliveries, to remind them of the foundations of democracy. Grounded in history and scholarship, but with the same urgent and communal language as his viral Facebook post, On Tyranny is part civics and history class refresher and part boost of nonpartisan moral courage against a nationalist, anti-democratic President. Snyder’s 2018 book, The Road to Unfreedom, a far more scholarly book, provides twentieth-century context for the twenty-first century worldwide rise of authoritarians, in particular Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
Snyder is willing to speak of secular and civic institutions in terms of virtue and morality; a central theme in both of his recent books is that there is no free lunch for citizens of any society that is worth living in. Lulled into a cycle of outrage and entertainment by demagogues and hucksters, ordinary people trapped in the “the politics of eternity” will feign innocence in order to avoid responsibility. Mistaking ignorance for goodness, they create an “immaculate victimhood” that obscures and denies inconvenient historical facts. Some of this behavior is out of self-preservation, a desire to follow long-standing political norms as a matter of tradition, so as not to appear paranoid or radical.
Putin and Russia expert Masha Gessen notes in “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” an essay published a few days after the 2016 American election in the New York Review of Books, the impulse among ordinary people, the media, and leaders of both major political parties is to normalize a new leader, even though “Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat—and won.” Politicians and powerful individuals such as Russian oligarchs and American billionaires who gain from autocratic governments have no interest in change but instead manufacturing crises and focusing on external bogeymen to deflect from the rot that infects their own system of government. In Russia, these fictional external threats may be violence and unrest from Chechen rebels or Ukrainian protesters; in United States, they may be hordes of Latin American immigrants coming over the southern border, local politicians implementing Muslim sharia law, or Black Lives Matter protesters.
Snyder is willing to speak of secular and civic institutions in terms of virtue and morality; a central theme in both of his recent books is that there is no free lunch for citizens of any society that is worth living in.
Snyder and others have written about the similarities of the current American administration to the early Third Reich and the relative ease in convincing a plurality of citizens that a Reichstag Fire, a Benghazi, or another terrorist act had taken place. But what concerns Snyder is the political and military tinderbox of social media and virtual groups purporting to represent minority and activist communities while elevating conspiracy theories. While politicians seeking to win office may claim that there is more that unites Americans than divides us, the factions that make up the United States electorate often rely on two different media-crafted versions of reality—one that has been claiming for the last few decades that there is no man-made climate change, nor any remaining bigotry against LGBTQ people and communities of color, and one that relies upon scientific observation and data to state that American democracy has a long way to go to become a representative one. False flags are only obvious in hindsight, and as Snyder writes of Putin’s victory in 2000 in the wake of the murky Second Chechen War, “The ink of political fiction is blood.”
In the United States, the anti-democratic regime has been in power for less than two years. But blood has been spilled. The 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia culminated in a white supremacist driving into a crowd of liberal opposition protesters, murdering one and injuring several others. In July of 2018, a gunman who had previously threatened journalists opened fire in the Annapolis, Maryland offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper, killing five employees. The Southern Poverty Law Center calculated a 12.5% increase in hate crimes from 2016 to 2017. More bloodshed is almost certain because of the administration’s rhetoric against its political “enemies” and those who profit from these divisions. Supporters of an authoritarian regime and other people easily swayed by internet memes and Facebook posts advocating taking up arms against imaginary enemies, including the free press, Snyder would argue, are falling too easily into the politics of eternity. Snyder refers to this desire for revenge as “sadopopulism:”
Like all immortality, eternity politics begins by making an exception for itself. All else in creation might be evil, but I and my group are good […] Those who accept eternity politics do not expect to live longer, happier, or more fruitful lives. They accept suffering as a mark of righteousness if they think that guilty others are suffering more. Life is nasty, brutish, and short; the pleasure of life is that it can be made nastier, more brutish, and shorter for others.
Or, as a Trump supporter characterized her disappointment during the government shutdown to a New York Times reporter in January 2019: “He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.” In his revealing why some citizens of Russia and the former Eastern Bloc countries eventually support their fascist leaders, Snyder also explains the racism and resentment that account for the punitive and trolling nature of Trump voters in America when they describe their perplexing reasons for supporting a destructive and corrupt regime as “owning the libs.” He writes, “It was more important to humiliate a black president than it was to defend the independence of the United States of America. That is how wars are lost.”
Like Snyder, Gessen, writing in the New Yorker, examines threats to democracy through a moral lens. To do so, she indicates, requires making the future present:
There will come a time after Trump, and we need to consider how we will enter it. What are we going to take with us into that time—what kind of politics, language, and culture? How will we recover from years of policy (if you can call it that) being made by tweet? How will we reclaim simple and essential words? Most important, how will we restart a political conversation?
Gessen’s perspective derives from her years in the Soviet Union and later Russia, as well as her family’s history of having served as apparatchiks (functionaries) under the Soviet and Nazi regimes: Gessen’s great-grandfather was one of the Bialystok Judenrat appointed by Nazis in the Jewish ghetto, her grandmother was an official Soviet censor, and Gessen herself served as an editor for a Putin-regime-sponsored, propaganda-filled science magazine. Her family history is one of collaboration in the belief that tinkering with the authoritarian regime from the inside serves a greater good than open rebellion. Gessen’s conclusion, based on three generations of personal history with dictators, is that it is not possible to know whether collaboration or resistance leads to the least harm. But with an irrational person like the current American president, everyone must maintain an accurate moral compass.
Snyder’s scholarship, particularly on the authoritarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, gives context to Gessen’s conclusion. He places his work in the tradition of Thucydides’ writing about the Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece, citing the imperative for “discussions of the past insofar as this was necessary to clarify the stakes at present.” Using the political and historical frame of “the politics of inevitability” vs. “the politics of eternity,” Snyder avoids poorly understood terms like “neoliberalism,” “trickle-down economics,” and “identity politics.” Snyder refers to “inevitability” as a nation’s mistaken belief that a trust in market forces and Enlightenment liberalism is enough to avoid autocracy. “Eternity,” as Snyder writes of it, is belief in mythic narratives of past greatness as guides for the future. In the politics of inevitability, little is required of the average citizen other than to believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, or that an abstract ideal such as “American exceptionalism” will be strong enough to withstand illiberal assaults to the rule of law.
In the politics of eternity, people define themselves by sharing a set of enemies who they believe have always been the aggressors: “Facts do not matter, and responsibility vanishes.” The politics of eternity look like an Orwellian world of constant wars, whether they are military, cyber, or cultural; patriotism is defined as unwavering support for leadership and fealty to a national history that is subject to official revision and mass forgetting. Rulers place little faith in discourse and diplomacy and live in underlying despair that any individual’s actions, including voting, can change powerful groups’ control over politics and resources. Neither eternity nor inevitability will lead to prosperity and equality, and both assume a passive, powerless electorate, guided by a lofty and untouchable cadre of leaders or the unseen, amoral hand of the market.
While the United States and other countries falling under the sway of autocrats do not share Russia’s unique history, they are also vulnerable to convenient fictions that enable men like Donald Trump to stitch together unlikely alliances of aggrieved voters, rich men with ambitions to oligarchy, and religious extremists who benefit from patriarchal authoritarianism, to gain power while giving lip service to traditional values and a mythical past.
Snyder’s opening chapter descriptions of the early years of the Soviet Union set up the idea that the “simulacrum of democracy” or “managed democracy” is the most valuable Russian export in the twenty-first century, as first imagined by Ivan Ilyin, Vladimir Putin’s favorite philosopher, not long after the Bolshevik Revolution. Ilyin’s mythic notion of Russian God-granted exceptionalism, a “special relationship of the soul,” required a leader a who would fulfill a preordained role. Manipulating this strange formula allowed Putin and the new class of post-Soviet oligarchs to “help robbers present themselves as redeemers.” While Russia appeared poised to dismantle its autocratic history after the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the oligarchs sought to manage the outcomes of elections to maximize their continued wealth and dominance: “Democracy never took hold in Russia, in the sense that power never changed hands after freely contested elections.”
While the United States and other countries falling under the sway of autocrats do not share Russia’s unique history, they are also vulnerable to convenient fictions that enable men like Donald Trump to stitch together unlikely alliances of aggrieved voters, rich men with ambitions to oligarchy, and religious extremists who benefit from patriarchal authoritarianism, to gain power while giving lip service to traditional values and a mythical past. Once he has consolidated power and removed enough obstacles, like independent judges and a free press, a leader like this has no plans to share or willingly give up governing. No enforceable succession principle exists in countries governed by the politics of eternity, which makes the idea of government dependent on the persona of the leader and not an independent set of laws and institutions.
Snyder’s sections on Ilyin also serve to illuminate connections between contemporary fascism and its reactionary policies towards women and religious minorities and the brutal treatment of the LGBTQ community. The ipso facto innocence of Russian fascism begins with the purity of a mythical Russian past against the Western external threats of jazz and sexual freedom in the 1920s. Putin, after his initial gestures towards democracy in the late 1990s, began to speak of gay rights as part of a degenerate Western agenda to corrupt traditional societies like Russia. While Putin’s policies and values appear to originate with Ilyin, American ultra-conservative obsessions with issues like immigrants, gun rights, and abortion originate from fundamentalist interpretations of Christian religion and are spread by far-right conspiracy theory propaganda outlets such as Fox News, the Daily Caller, Breitbart, Info Wars, and the amorphous QAnon social media network. There is a free flow of content from these fringe media sources to the current administration’s talking points and policies, making it difficult for observers to see where the line where the Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson show ends and Donald Trump’s bizarre daily tweets and other public statements begin.
Journalists from ProPublica and others researching the connections between white nationalists in the United States and Europe have noted that the movement’s leaders share not only separatist and nativist ideologies but also traffic in the same kind of viral whataboutism in the form of far-right memes and conspiracies. Snyder argues that Donald Trump’s racist claim that Barack Obama was a Muslim who was born in Kenya originated in this European-Russian corner of the internet. These cross-national far-right movements spread chaotic and dubious news reports and give the appearance of popular support to separatist and anti-democratic leaders such as Britain’s Nigel Farage, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Hungary’s Viktor Ortoban. Kremlin-supported movements contributed to the disastrous Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the fascist regime in Hungary, and with the 2018 arrest of Russian agent Maria Butina, it appears likely that the Russian effort to destabilize elections and the political process in the United States traveled not only through the vector of internet bots and trolls but also through funding the powerful conservative gun lobbying firm, the National Rifle Association.
Snyder examines Putin’s transformation from seemingly innocuous Western-style leader to repressive oligarch ruler in 2011, when pro-democracy protesters questioning the legitimacy of the Russian election unsettled him. He bolstered his vulnerable government and machismo public image with shirtless, muscular photos of himself in nature, pursuing policies of ostracizing LGBTQ citizens, and blaming protests on Hillary Clinton, the American Secretary of State, a powerful female diplomat working in the administration of a liberal African American president.
Snyder argues that Putin’s implied bargain for Russians in a time of insecurity was for “masculinity as an argument against democracy.” This explanation, that “it’s the misogyny, stupid,” makes sense in the context of the worldwide rise in fascism. In a recent article in The Atlantic, “The New Authoritarians are Waging War on Women,” Peter Beinart observed that the current crop of authoritarians throughout the world, including Europe, the United States, Brazil, and the Philippines, share the rhetoric of imprisoning, ridiculing, physically assaulting and killing female opponents, whether they are elected officials, powerful women in the media, or protesters. In all of these countries, women have been holding positions of authority at higher rates than in previous decades. That this violent and misogynistic language has appeared to be a unifying theme in seeking and consolidating their power shows how threatening women and other minority groups are, violating what political scientist Valerie Hudson calls the ancient social contract: “Men agreed to be ruled over by other men in return for all men ruling over women.” In the United States, Beinart argues, this counterrevolutionary ire explains conservative Christians’ support for the Donald Trump:
Commentators sometimes describe Trump’s alliance with the Christian right as incongruous given his libertine history. But whatever their differences when it comes to the proper behavior of men, Trump and his evangelical backers are united by a common desire to constrain the behavior of women. That alliance was consecrated during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when Republicans raged against Judiciary Committee Democrats for supposedly degrading the Senate by orchestrating a public hearing for Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault.
Snyder and other writers have noted that Russia’s attacks on Western democracy and its values of equality came at the same time that Putin expanded his reach into neighboring countries, proposing that Russia become the center of a global counterweight to the U.S. and the E.U., which he called Eurasia. In early 2014, the Russian-government sanctioned news agency RT spread misinformation and sowed dissent among the American left and mainstream press to compel them to ignore Russia as an expansionist threat and turn away from the notion that Ukraine might be under invasion from Russia in favor of the spurious reports that rebels in Ukraine were stealing an election and terrorizing law-abiding citizens. Exploiting some of the American left’s innate “susceptibilities” to trust Russian foreign policy narratives more than NATO’s revealed that Russian intelligence knew enough about American politics and culture to bombard social media and influential writers with false news in “the attention economy,” with the goal of creating useful idiots and an overall climate of paralytic skepticism and uncertainty as a means of control:
If Russians believed that all leaders and all media lied, then they would learn to dismiss Western models for themselves. If the citizens of Europe and the United States joined in the general distrust of one another and their institutions, then Europe and American could be expected to disintegrate. Journalists cannot function amidst total skepticism; civil societies wane when citizens cannot count on one another; the rule of law depends upon the beliefs that people will follow law without its being enforced and that enforcement when it comes will be impartial. The very idea of impartiality assumes that there are truths that can be understood regardless of perspective.
Snyder argues that the idea of American exceptionalism enabled the current, two-year-long political crisis in the form of the Trump government. “The politics of inevitability tempted Americans to think that the world had to become like the United States and therefore more friendly and democratic, but this was not the case.” (Because of that confidence, we allowed democracy to fall into such disrepair that it was ripe for attack through the Trojan horse techniques of cyber warfare, to the point where too many voters in 2016 would “lose control of reality.”
“Authoritarianism arrives not because people say they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.” —Timothy Snyder
In August 2018, Paul Krugman, the noted economist and regular New York Times contributor, made a related case against American exceptionalism in an op-ed called “Why It Can Happen Here.” Trump voters’ main concern isn’t the economy, he writes. Instead the administration and its boosters care about white nationalism and “illiberalism”—which is not conservatism but instead the willingness of autocratic leaders and their supporters in Poland, Hungary, and now the United States to make up for their minority-vote status by embracing voter suppression, “destroy[ing] the independence of the judiciary, suppressed freedom of the press, institutionalized large-scale corruption and effectively delegitimized dissent.” A few weeks later in an Atlantic essay, “America’s Slide Towards Autocracy,” David Frum wrote that while liberal candidates’ victories in the midterm elections may have provided a temporary correction, there will be no quick cure for American democracy. Extreme beliefs lead to divided notions of reality. Shared institutions and values, and commitment to the same set of facts and history need strengthening:
Restoring democracy will require more from each of us than the casting of a single election ballot. It will demand a sustained commitment to renew American institutions, reinvigorate common citizenship, and expand national prosperity. The road to autocracy is long—which means that we still have time to halt and turn back. It also means that the longer we wait, the farther we must travel to return home.
“We should be asking what each one of us can do to assert a fact-based reality at any given time,” offers Masha Gessen. Despite the ubiquity of lies from the administration and the consequent warping of reality, insisting on truth and accurate representation is the most basic way to resist:
From Snyder, Krugman, Frum, Gessen, and others writing about how we arrived in this timeline and how we will get out comes the imperative that we must demand more from our leaders, the press, and the powerful people who control our media, and we also must demand more of ourselves. As Snyder writes near the end of The Road to Unfreedom, “Authoritarianism arrives not because people say they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.” In this sense, Donald Trump and his administration’s lies and his party’s complicity are especially dangerous in the era of fragmented and viral media. The path back to a functional, vibrant, and sovereign democracy will require unprecedented political will.
Susan Sheu lives in Los Angeles and received the 2017 Bennington Prize in Nonfiction for her memoir-in-progress, The Rag and Bone Man.
I’M FINE. HOW ARE YOU? by Catherine Pikula Newfound, 46 Pages reviewed by Robert Sorrell
A few days after I finished Catherine Pikula’s chapbook I’m Fine. How are You? I read the following sentence: “I would like to make a book out of crumpled-up pieces of paper: you start a sentence, it doesn’t work and you throw the page away. I’m collecting a few … maybe this is, in fact, the only literature possible today.” The sentence came in the last hundred pages of The Story of a New Name, the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. And while the “today” referenced above was Italy in the 1960s, the description was oddly reminiscent of the small, thread-bound chapbook published in 2018 that I’d recently put down, I’m Fine. How Are You?
Composed in a fine but digressive and fragmented prose, with short sections ranging from a few paragraphs to a few lines, I’m Fine. How Are You? is a work that doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre. “‘Is it a Lyric Essay? Is it a Long Poem? Is it Meditations?’” wonders poet Matthew Rohrer in a blurb for the book, but Pikula doesn’t seem interested in parsing genre. Instead, I’m Fine offers an intimate view into the author’s life in New York City, in an engaged voice that knits together disparate topics and ideas, blending the personal and intellectual in passages like the following:
It’s a reach, but I’ve chosen to take it as a sign. To understand why, when I set out to write about sex positivity, I instead found myself writing about loss, requires that I enlarge and examine the ashes from old flames.
In my memory, an old flame says: Don’t expect a particular result, you’ll only be disappointed.
Pikula is often switching between these two registers: a poetic, academic speak and a droll, personal tone that’s like a friend telling you a story at a bar, stopping every now and then to say, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but…” Pikula often broaches a topic (sex positivity and loss) only to deflate it with a poignant—and sometimes funny—anecdote (“you’ll only be disappointed”).
The main arc of I’m Fine details Pikula following a lover’s road trip from afar. In Instagram posts, she watches him travel across the country over the span of weeks. “At our meeting, my teacher E compared the lover on a road trip to the lover having an affair. Is it still an affair if you’re not ‘dating’ but it feels like you are?” While the lover is away, Pikula’s street in Brooklyn is transformed into the 19th century for a filming of the TV show The Knick. She sends him pictures and even tries to watch the show a few times. In the space of this trip and the lover’s non-presence, Pikula thinks through a friend’s death, gender, body image, sexuality, trauma, and abuse.
Pikula’s use of terms like “old flame” and “lover” push a tension, or perhaps a better description would be a balance, between the abstract and personal. Sometimes I’d forget I was reading a work of nonfiction only to be pulled back in by a sharp comment or snatch of dialogue. As a way of protecting people’s privacy, Pikula identifies characters by one letter or, in the case of “the lover,” a phrase. These specific-yet-generic people, people who do not really appear in the work except in reference, provide the cast for I’m Fine, a cast that feels viscerally real while also, by virtue of their names, archetypal—the lover on a road trip, a string of friends and acquaintances, past versions of the author who seem painfully close but distant.
Reading I’m Fine. How Are You? reminded me of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts. Both authors manage to collage complicated emotional landscapes out of fragments, mixing an almost-academic approach to research art, literature, science, and linguistics with highly personal stories. Sometimes for Pikula, these personal moments are just observations, like a moment in the bathroom, when she sees a stranger tying their boot, adjusting their stockings. “I’m having the kind of day where I don’t know how to talk to anybody,” Pikula writes before relating this image. But there is also a fascination with language and the power of naming. She writes:
C uses gender neutral pronouns. To overcompensate for mistakenly using masculine pronouns when referring to C, I have started mistakenly misgendering those who use the binary ‘he/she’ with the gender neutral ‘they,’ and yet, this feels right somewhat in that nobody is ever one thing all the time.
Gender aside, nobody is one thing.
This segment gets at a sense of multiplicity, a space for the endless strangeness of individuals in I’m Fine that keeps the autobiographical content from feeling myopic. One feels that the narrator would not necessarily be surprised or angered by anyone’s actions. Pikula’s prose is wonderful in these moments, turning so quickly and smoothly from the personal to the abstract and back again.
However, underneath this ease is diligent organization and attention to detail. According to an interview on the Newfound website, Pikula spent three years on the piece before submitting it to the Newfound Prose Prize, which it won in 2018. Her background in poetry—she holds an MFA in the genre from NYU—also shows in her diction and careful modulations of voice.
In that same interview, Pikula mentions that “The smartphone is a kind of phantom and complex character in the background of this piece.” And in a strange way, I found this to ring true. Like trying to piece together someone else’s life through their text messages, I’m Fine gives you a fractured and sideways-yet-intimate view into Pikula’s life, including both the everyday and the fantastical. The result is often melancholic but surprisingly comedic, like when Pikula writes:
Loss does not fully contain the feeling of ‘sometime’ no longer being possible.
It comes from Old English, los, ruin or destruction; Old Norse, los, the breaking up of an army; and Proto-Germanic, lausa, dissolution.
In moments of linguistic inaccuracy, I grope helplessly toward the internet.
I’m Fine has the mysterious force of a story found on a message board, a poem read on Twitter over lunch break. There’s an anonymity to it, an unassuming air that makes it feel strangely vital and memorable. It’s something you read without expectation and find that, two weeks later, it’s stuck in the back of your head.
I’m Fine has the mysterious force of a story found on a message board, a poem read on Twitter over lunch break. There’s an anonymity to it, an unassuming air that makes it feel strangely vital and memorable. It’s something you read without expectation and find that, two weeks later, it’s stuck in the back of your head.
This is something that Maggie Nelson also does masterfully. In the first few pages of Bluets she writes, “Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning. ‘We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it,’ wrote Goethe, and perhaps he is right.” Shortly after this, she adds, “Above all, I want to stop missing you.”
I worried that comparing Pikula and Nelson may be a bit facile, but the more I wonder whether my mind is making this connection based mainly on the author’s gender, subject matter, or writing style, I realize that these books feel like they are joined in a similar conversation. A conversation around gender and writing about pain and trauma, but also a conversation around rethinking new and radical forms for written expression, modes of writing that can perhaps free themselves, ever so slightly, from the constraints and baggage of more traditional verse, essay, or story.
But, as Nelson writes in The Argonauts, (citing Pema Chödrön in italics) “Perhaps it’s the word radical that needs rethinking. But what could we angle ourselves toward instead, or in addition? Openness? Is that good enough, strong enough? You’re the only one who knows when you’re using things to protect yourself and keep your ego together and when you’re opening and letting things fall apart, letting the world come as it is—working with it rather than struggling against it. You’re the only one who knows. And the thing is, even you don’t always know.”
In I’m Fine. How Are You? Pikula crafts a kind of literature that is not afraid of openness, letting the world come as it is, and admitting it might not always know the answers. “How am I doing?” Pikula writes near the chapbook’s end. Her response is simply: “Alive.”
Robert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.
SACRED DARKNESS: THE LAST DAYS OF THE GULAG by Levan Berdzenishvili translated from the Russian by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner Europa editions, 240 pages reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
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“As with any book, my book had its own special fate—it was born by mistake,” claims Levan Berdzenishvili, in the opening chapter of Sacred Darkness. Levan wakes up in a hospital, sick and disoriented, with a high fever. He realizes he has some debts to pay before he can jaunt off to Hades. Levan is a specialist in Greek literature, so he doesn’t talk of “dying.” He refers to “my departure to Hades.”
Fortunately, Levan recovers from his fever and decides he has to deal with those debts. His debts have names: Misha, Borya, Vadim, and many others Levan knew when he was a political prisoner in the Soviet Gulag in 1983-1987. (The “Gulag” is a Soviet system of forced labor camps, where people convicted of everything from petty theft to political crimes were sent.)
The first person Levan wants to write about is Arkady Dudkin: “I set pen to paper (or rather, glued myself to a keyboard) not to write a great work of literature or to search for ‘lost time’ (Ah, Proust!) but to rescue a character who was about to disappear. I was fighting to rescue Arkady Dudkin. If it weren’t for me, Arkady would be lost, and no one would ever know that he’d existed and that his life had meaning.” Levan “rescues” fifteen people in Sacred Darkness. Each individual gets their own chapter. While Levan is always the narrator, his recollections of his incarceration are organized around the personalities and stories of these individuals, which he fears will disappear if he does not record what he knows about them. Of course, we learn much about Levan when he writes about others—he is witty, literary, and philosophical. We also learn about the complex—and sometimes comical—web of relationships that formed in the Dubravny prison in the mid-eighties.
Levan is Georgian, a non-Slavic ethnic and linguistic group in the Caucasus region by the Black Sea. Sacred Darkness was originally published in the Georgian language, in 2010. It made its way into Russian, and now appears in English for the first time, translated from the Russian by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner. Thanks to the Soviet penchant for prisons, there are many extant Gulag memoirs, the most famous being Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, and many of them waiting to be translated. Levan’s book, however, is of special interest. Like many Soviet prison memoirs, it testifies to the power of language and humor as a survival skill and illustrates the prisoners’ determination to survive and the lengths to which they went to cope with the extreme conditions. Levan’s use of humor is especially witty; he employs humor to touch on themes of language and identity. The memoir as a whole poses questions about nationalism and independence, especially for the minority ethnic and linguistic groups that were subsumed by the Soviet Union.
Levan’s use of humor is especially witty; he employs humor to touch on themes of language and identity. The memoir as a whole poses questions about nationalism and independence, especially for the minority ethnic and linguistic groups that were subsumed by the Soviet Union.
It might seem strange to say that a Gulag memoir is funny, but Levan’s writing is full of paradoxical descriptions that are both comical and reveal the sad absurdity of the Soviet prison system. Given the subject matter, much of his humor is situational irony that serves to lighten his descriptions of prison life while piquing the reader’s interest. Startlingly, he describes his three years in prison as “the best three years of my life.” He explains: “When I say ‘the best years,’ I mean that in two ways: they were the best years of my life because at that time I was young—and what can be more beautiful than youth—but also because of the people that surrounded me, people the KGB had so zealously brought together.” An important aspect of Soviet incarceration by the mid-80s was that Soviet prisons differentiated between political prisoners and others. Hence, political prisoners were housed with other political prisoners. Levan, a linguist and specialist in classical literature, was imprisoned with other intellectuals. Prison life was no less harsh, but the company was different, and that made the intellectual and spiritual experience of prison qualitatively unique. Levan’s prison acquaintances include linguists, scholars, scientists, psychologists, writers, professional military officers, and teachers. They all represent the intelligentsia, the educated, intellectual class that influences cultural direction.
But the intelligentsia for the Soviet Union was “a bit of a problem,” explains Stephen James, Slavic language specialist at Mt. Holyoke College, who became friends with Levan in the 1990s and who I tracked down to shed light on Levan’s experience. “You educate people like Levan and then you expect them to just keep their heads down and be subservient,” James told me. “Sometimes that worked, of course. But then, in cases like Levan, you’ve got someone who actually believes what he reads and thinks he should act on what he believes.”
Levan was arrested in 1983 for “anti-Soviet agitation,” a charge that made him a “political prisoner.” These kinds of political charges arose from any behavior that challenged the sovereignty of the Soviet state. Levan had founded a secret Georgian Republican Party. Competing political parties were illegal. Moreover, advocating for Georgian independence from the Soviet Union was considered “anti-Soviet agitation,” a criminal charge that could carry up to twelve years in a labor camp.
Often times political charges were trumped up in order to get troublesome intellectuals out of the way, but in Levan’s case, James says with a laugh, “It was relatively honest!” in the sense that Levan was fighting for the liberation of his country from the dominant Soviet culture. In James’ mock amazement at the stunning honesty of the KGB, I could see how he would be friends with the dryly humorous writer of Sacred Darkness.
Levan writes that people who had been incarcerated during earlier eras describe the camps as “especially unbearable,” but he doesn’t mean that in the 80s it had become prosaic. Prisoners worked long days at labor-intensive jobs, were barely provided clothing or food, and were only allowed to write a certain number of letters home. Family visits were allowed once a year for two hours. The prison guards (who, Levan says, liked referring to themselves as “controllers”) could rescind any privileges at any time, for any reason, and often did so. In earlier eras, it was more common for people to simply be executed by firing squad, as the writer Gogol was.
Levan describes the 80s Gulag as having “one very distinct feature. We weren’t serving time in the scary 1930s, during the war or at the height of the dissident movement, or even during the Brezhnev period of stagnation, but in the era of Soviet democracy, glasnost, and perestroika […] one day the TV would offer us the typical Soviet news hogwash, then the next day, Ronald Reagan would be wishing us Happy New Year from the same screen.”
This seems funny, but again, it points out an ugly inconsistency: While Ronald Reagan is on the screen, and while the newspapers print previously outlawed texts like Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog (a satire of the “new Soviet man”), Levan sits in prison with Misha Polyakov, who was sentenced to five years in prison for making copies of The Heart of a Dog. Under these circumstances, it takes a peculiar amount of grace to maintain good humor. But Levan and his friends often do, spending their free moments debating whether or not the Soviet Union should stay together or break up, whether Lenin is the true heir to Marx, and whether or not it is okay to eat doves in prison, since doves are a symbol of peace. Clearly, one should be careful about eating symbols.
After his release from prison, Levan became active in politics, helping re-create Georgia’s Republican Party and serving as a member of Parliament. Several of the people he met in prison went on to have political careers as well, especially in nationalistic movements that took hold as the Soviet Union broke up. One of these was Henrikh Altunyan, a Major in the Soviet Air Force that Levan seems to recall with particular affection. Henrikh was arrested on charges of anti-Soviet agitation. After 1987, when political prisoners were released, Henrikh went on to figure in Ukrainian politics and published his own memoir.
At the time of Sacred Darkness, one of Levan’s favorite stories about Henrikh seems to be the story of his arrest. The KGB knocked several times on his apartment door and threatened to break it down. Finally, Henrikh opened the door to reveal that the apartment behind him was full of smoke. Smiling kindly and gesturing to his “guests,” he said: “I saw you from the window, my dear guests. So sorry I kept you waiting. I had a few extra papers at home, so it took me some time to burn them. My sincere apologies. But now, please, come in, good people, search as much as you like!” Comical story-telling like this is the way that Levan memorializes Henrikh’s bravery, but he also can’t resist switching point of view if it will allow him to make a joke at the KGB’s expense. Levan says that the chief investigator is only concerned that Henrikh has used the phrase “good people,” a clear “anti-Soviet” idiom from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. “That’s not a good sign,” thinks the investigator as he enters the smoke-filled apartment. The perspicacity of KGB investigators is generally comical too, but in an entirely different way.
Perhaps because of Levan’s literary range, Amazon presents Sacred Darkness as a novel. The website says the book is “based on true events […] a thrilling marriage of reportage and fiction.” This sells Levan short. This is, after all, a prison memoir. The fact that he is witty and comedic, or that the work is literary in many ways, does not warrant a description which implies that the characters were not necessarily real people or that Levan’s narration itself is potentially less credible and “fictionalized.”
Once the idea that Sacred Darkness is “fiction” is introduced, the subversive strength and power of Levan’s—and the other prisoners’—humor and wit is dramatically reduced.
And here is my real complaint about that: Once the idea that Sacred Darkness is “fiction” is introduced, the subversive strength and power of Levan’s—and the other prisoners’—humor and wit is dramatically reduced. The humor is powerful not because it makes me chuckle, but because of its use as a survival mechanism and as a way for the prisoners to highlight the paradoxes and absurdities of a system that is denying their human rights. Humor is hope. It keeps despondency at bay and allows the men in this memoir (prisons were segregated by sex) to assert their identity in the face of a controlling totalitarian state. For this reason, I hope that the book does not end up being misunderstood as a novel or taken less seriously by readers.
Apart from the book’s historical value and comedic intelligence, Sacred Darkness also maintains an internal debate about national independence and national identity for the minority nations of the Soviet Union. It is not a Western view of the problems of the Soviet 80s. Interestingly, Levan seems to feel that at one time, he had as naïve a view of the West as we sometimes have of non-Western countries like Georgia.
One scene powerfully illustrates this. The prisoners find an old news reel, which shows British soldiers at the end of WWII returning their Soviet prisoners to Soviet territory. The British soldiers force the crowd across a bridge; if they turn back to the British, they will be shot. If they go ahead, they will walk back home into Soviet territory. Many of them choose to jump off the bridge and die.
This news footage alters the way that Levan understands the West. It is not that the problems of the Soviet system seem less problematic, but the reality of “democracy” and the collective imperfections of any regime, democratic or not, coming alive to him: “The West, which had seemed so picture perfect and flawless, became alive and real, and I realized that it had always had its own shortcomings.” Levan didn’t change his belief that democracy was preferable to the Soviet government or that Georgia should be independent, but he seems to think that the West suffers some naiveté when it comes to the Soviet world.
It might be that we still suffer some naivete about non-Western contexts in general, and that part of the value of memoirs like Levan’s is that it provides a little window into the world that we are missing when we consider present-day Russia. When I asked the memoir’s translator, Brian Baer, what drew him to this memoir, he said it was the text’s internal debate about the future of the Soviet Union. He explained that one of the reasons to keep the Union together “was out of fear that the Soviet republics would devolve into hard-right nationalism,” a fear that did become a reality. “Overall,” said Baer, “the memoir offers a look at late-Soviet dissident politics that cannot be simply mapped onto our Western political positions.” James, of Mount Holyoke College, would likely agree; he pointed out that Levan comes from a place that Western audiences know virtually nothing about, with Georgian writers, their complex history with Russia, and their perspective of the West being mysteries to us.
I have a strange fondness for Gulag memoirs whose authors writers often argue for a life perspective that is divergent from what we are used to. This perspective is epitomized by the paradox of Levan’s title, Sacred Darkness. Stephen James, one of the few Westerners who speaks Georgian, explained to me that the first word of the title can be translated as “pure, holy, or clean,” and the second word means “pitch black darkness.” To describe prison as a time of “absolute darkness” makes sense to us: the physical privation, privation of liberty, and the moral darkness of a system that uses imprisonment to repress subversive ideas.
But Levan also describes prison as “holy” or “sacred,” and the darkness as “cleansing,” an idea that doesn’t always make sense right away and can even seem ludicrous. He means that his prison experiences emphasized what was important in life, that he built unique relationships that changed who he was and helped him to re-formulate his understanding of personhood and politics. The “aesthetic of suffering” as it is sometimes called in Gulag memoirs, argues for hope and a renewed vision of truth from the trials of prison.
This isn’t a new aesthetic, or a new way of describing “dark” experiences; similar themes are overt in the prison memoirs of writers from other backgrounds and traditions. For example, the work of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian survivor of the Nazi camps, or Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who led Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution after spending more than four years in a Soviet prison. What all of these writers have in common is that they argue for a specific view of intrinsic human value and identity: we are a someone. And we know what we are partly by knowing what we are not. By refusing to collude with powers that would silence our one, or our nationality, or our political orientation, we assert that we are. Levan writes that when the KGB was in his apartment going through his books and preparing to arrest him and his brother, his fear slowly left him, and his “courage and sense of self-esteem returned and increased gradually in the presence of those people who, in carrying out their jobs, were so far from truth and honor simply because the very business they were in was so disgraceful.” These elements of Levan’s perspective on dignity and identity can certainly map from East to West and back again.
Ryan K. Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.
EVERYDAY MADNESS:On Grief, Anger, and Love by Lisa Appignanesi 4th Estate, 261 pages reviewed by Gabriel Chazan
Lisa Appignanesi’s latest book comes at a time in which most of us regularly feel beside ourselves in what she describes as an “everyday madness.” She devotes herself to describing this mundane madness, something which could be called trauma but is experienced by almost everyone, in three manifestations. The first section of the memoir, on grieving her late husband John, is already startling in its blunt reality: his last words to her, which I will not include here, are far from kind. Already here, however, the reader finds something different from the narrative that might be expected: “this is not a romantic tale,” she writes. Although we see a slow healing, what is presented here and what interests her most is a close examination of the taboo moments of anger and unmooring so bound up in grief. This is a book of ideas almost masquerading as a memoir. Appignanesi is a writer acutely interested in psychoanalysis and literature, swiftly bringing both Freud and Hamlet to bear on her own story and toward thinking about the role of the widow. If this were all the book was about, it would already be somewhat unconventional but Appignanesi aims toward something wider, an analysis of a kind of feeling. This is a book of ideas almost masquerading as a memoir. Appignanesi is a writer acutely interested in psychoanalysis and literature, swiftly bringing both Freud and Hamlet to bear on her own story and toward thinking about the role of the widow.
The second section, on politics and society in this moment of Trump and Brexit, is riskier than the first, aiming like Olivia Laing’s recent Crudo to map the incessantly frustrating moment in which we live. While this section is somewhat more general, it fits into the writer’s attempts to make sense of our wider social context through literature, psychoanalysis and art. Appignanesi’s assortment of voices can be astonishingly prescient and helpful. For example, during the hearings of an aggravated Brett Kavanaugh, Appignanesi’s book almost miraculously responded to me, in the midst of her riff on Seneca, “you do not place justice in the hands of an angry man.” She moves deeper into looking at the feelings of anger here, in a moment in which so many of us are angry at this administration and feel an urge to rage. Appignanesi moves for a more balanced perspective. She offers strong connections and an attempt at perspective to our polarized moment.
The final section is the strongest. Appignanesi shows the complex relation of a sibling relationship through observing her oldest grandson after a younger brother is born, revealing the “everyday madness” of this jealousy that must be passed through. She takes the “inner turmoil” of moving from being an only child to having a sibling seriously. She also moves recursively into her own memories of her extraordinarily challenging sibling relationship. She finds in children an echo of her own grief and anger as well as the wider anger of the current political world. While the things she seeks to tie together are disparate and not all of the connections work, it is the very trying that makes the book what it is. What makes Everyday Madness particularly interesting and worthwhile is its unpredictability, an almost real time chronicle of a progressing line of thought.
Gabriel Chazan is currently completing an MA at University College London in the History of Art.
The paradox in writing a postmodern memoir is that the author must somehow convince readers she’s telling the truth—typically by admitting to subjectivity and fallible memory, and by interrogating her version of events.
But that’s not the strategy Vanya Erickson employs in her post-WWII coming-of-age story, Boot Language. With vivid detail and some implausibly long passages of remembered dialogue, she presents herself as the sole reliable narrator of her life in California, where she was raised by an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who failed to protect her (but did “soften Dad’s blows” with inherited money). If Erickson asks readers to trust her story without evident corroboration, it may be because she’s had to learn to trust herself to discern the truth, in order to steer safely through her parents’ contradictory behavior and conflicting beliefs.
Mom was compassionate, musically talented, and although independently wealthy, searching for some deeper meaning to life other than social standing. A staunch supporter of the underdog, the arts, and liberal politics, she found her way to Christian Science not long after she married my father. Dad was of humbler stock, stoic and charming in his Naval dress-whites when they first met. But years later he returned war-worn, a staunch atheist. When Mom converted to Christian Science, the sparks flew.
This incendiary debate begins in the author’s infancy, as her mother prays over new baby Vanya to heal severe bleeding from her umbilical knot. For Erickson, this harrowing event has the power of an origin story, casting her parents in the conflict that will drive family life for decades. Recounting how her mother’s helper fortuitously interceded in the crisis, calling the grandfather who rushed the listless baby to the hospital, she writes,
Had my mother healed me? Or had the blood transfusion? It all depended on who was telling the story. But no matter the truth, I knew I was lucky. My earliest memory is of being four years old, lying on a blanket in the backyard of my home in Saratoga, California, looking up at the lush Santa Cruz Mountains and marveling that I was alive.
Signaling perspective with lines like these, Erickson both banks the reader’s trust in her sincere intentions, and reassures us she’s survived her mother’s faith and her father’s cruelty, which she goes on to relate in scene after scene. Rather than replicate her trauma through a fragmented narrative, she employs a more traditional psychotherapeutic plot for her story, one that progresses from confusion to clarity. But in the process, her tendency to casually reference significant events has an interesting effect of suggesting hidden wounds beneath visible scars. “Walt was in Canada, avoiding the draft, and Don had left for Vietnam. I was struck by the emptiness their absence created,” she writes, startling me with this abrupt reminder of the tumultuous times and these shadow siblings, neither of whom bear her scrutiny for long. Whether this is a stylistic tic or a deliberate strategy, this tendency conveys trauma that feels authentic, like surfacing evidence of a long-running, private rumination to which we are only partially privy.
Erickson comes to understand her complicated parents in terms of the California terrain: her opera-loving mother craves the city culture of nearby San Francisco, while her father seeks—and sabotages with his drinking—a big-sky life of ranching at the family’s summer home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. She makes meaningful use of the physical landscape not only to characterize her parents in opposition, but also to convey the emotional effects of her father’s abuse. In an especially revealing scene, Erickson’s father tries to teach her to graft fruit trees. He’s inspired by a family trip to horticulturist Axel Erlandson’s “Tree Circus” in Santa Cruz; she recalls the trees they saw there as “contorted into some manner of madness, forced to grow at disturbing angles and curves.” Back on the ranch, he hands her a knife and then mocks her as she hesitates before the damaged mother tree, now a mere trunk with amputated stubs. When she says, “I can’t do it,” she invites his rage—but begins to free herself from her father’s designs.
If Erickson asks readers to trust her story without evident corroboration, it may be because she’s had to learn to trust herself to discern the truth, in order to steer safely through her parents’ contradictory behavior and conflicting beliefs.
Such details from the natural landscape are fascinating, and one could read Erickson’s debut memoir just for a glimpse of ranching life most of us only know from watching television westerns. But Erickson’s real subject is the inner landscape of her parents’ failing marriage and her father’s long decline. The story gains momentum when he bottoms out and Erickson reflects, “I didn’t kid myself that this was the last time I’d have to confront my drunken father, or shield myself from the terror of his words, but tonight I felt an opening of something new. I had faced him, spoken the truth, and survived.” Still, a shadow of love and longing hangs over her memory of this time and place as she laments “that good Dad” that might have been. Artfully rendered yet devoid of artifice, Erickson’s heartfelt, emotionally honest book is like a letter to that father, whom she sought but never knew.
Elizabeth Mosier logged 1,000 volunteer hours processing colonial-era artifacts at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory to write Excavating Memory: Archaeology and Home (forthcoming from New Rivers Press in 2019). A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her nonfiction has been selected as notable in Best American Essays and appears widely in journals and newspapers including Cleaver, Creative Nonfiction, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She writes the “Intersections” column for the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin.
GASLIGHT: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century
by Joachim Kalka
translated by Isabel Fargo Cole
New York Review Books, 233 pages
reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver
With a title and subtitle like Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century, the reader will be forgiven for thinking Joachim Kalka’s book is a collection of visual art. It is not. Though it does contain a handful of visual descriptions, it bears not one illustration, woodcut, or photograph. No lantern slides, and no visual depictions of gaslight. What it has instead are words, many of them, artfully arranged. Kalka’s words, assembled into eleven essays and a preface, are densely packed and remarkably pointed. Although his purpose is to glance back at the nineteenth century, not to historicize it, or even to theorize about it with a particular agenda, Kalka is a highly organized thinker. His insights prove scintillating, if specialized.
The specialization is the rub. Few of the essays in this book are likely to be suitable for a reader without a preexisting interest in the essay’s subject matter. For example, this reviewer has particular interest in Richard Wagner and Marcel Proust, and so I found the essays about those two topics engaging and novel, appreciating Kalka’s acute insights and nodding along vehemently. On the Ring cycle: “The music so magnificently…unifies the whole complicated narrative of the Ring of the Nibelung that only closer examination of the plot logic reveals how confused and contradictory it is.” This is wholly true, and as a flaw, it both overshadows the work and is easily overshadowed by the work—but if you have never seen or listened to the Ring cycle, how would you know that, and why would you care? It’s unfortunate when prior knowledge is necessary for enjoyment, but in this case, the enjoyment gets ramped up significantly when the prior knowledge is there. The book is focused primarily on German literature and history, which is suitable, as Kalka is a German critic. However, this focus might limit Gaslight’s accessibility for readers of mostly English literature.
In fact, the literary aura of this book is a healthy reminder that for Western literary scholars and readers based in Europe, France is the key wellspring of the canon, more so than is Britain. Kalka speaks of Balzac the way an American critic might speak of Dickens; Proust and Flaubert are foundational figures, rather than Joyce and (George) Eliot. Frankenstein is mentioned here and there as an important novel of the nineteenth century, but a book written by an American critic focused on the same century might position Shelley’s novel as one of the load-bearing posts of the era’s technological excitement/anxiety, not an incidental part of it. Then again, Kalka does point out that the canon itself is a construct:
For us the literary canon, at least up until the late nineteenth century, presents itself as a fixed, well-ordered whole, something we take for granted, almost like a natural phenomenon, and we must exert our imaginations to reconstruct how controversial this canon of our classics actually was, how precarious, how historically contingent.
Though stuffed with adjectives and adverbs (“brilliant” is a particular favorite), Kalka’s writing is highly readable, flowing like a mountain stream. But it hops from one topic to another so quickly, rushing over figures and historical events as if stones at the bottom of the water, that people who have not logged significant time in academic libraries might find themselves bewildered. What’s so unusual about his writing is its in-between nature. It flits between topics so rapidly, and lacks a meaningful thesis so frequently, that it isn’t recognizable as scholarship; however, Kalka writes about such heavily literary topics, and touches on such a wide range of difficult literature, that it’s not really general-interest work. Scholars of the nineteenth century will find this light reading, and civilian readers will find it potentially impenetrable.
Part of the reason for this impenetrability is the organization of the essays. One of the least entertaining essays, about Friedrich Schiller, is the opener, and an amusing essay about cake in Madame Bovary and elsewhere, and British food in a Robert Louis Stevenson novel and elsewhere, comes past the halfway point. The essays are roughly chronological in terms of their primary topic: essays on the early nineteenth century appear toward the beginning of the collection, while later figures like Alfred Dreyfus and Jack the Ripper come toward the end. But the subject matter jumps around so frequently that this chronological sense is not all-consuming. Indeed, the only connecting thread across all the essays is the focus on the nineteenth century itself. Otherwise, only one other topic appears across several of the essays: anti-Semitism.
GASLIGHT is not what it seems, in nearly any way. Non-visual despite its visual title and subtitle, non-scholarly despite the scholarly titles of its essays, lively despite its focus on a period remembered in British and American history as being tightly buttoned up. It’s David Markson without the conciseness, and Harold Bloom without the sourness. Should your interests inhabit the same turf as Kalka, he’ll make your neurons hum.
Translator Isabel Fargo Cole
Perhaps this topic is unavoidable for a German critic writing after World War II about events taking place in or near Germany prior to World War II. The Holocaust may be an unavoidable lens for a look back, even if that look is at something so far back as lantern slides. But Kalka offers useful information and fresh analysis about European anti-Semitism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He explains the Dreyfus affair thoroughly, yet succinctly, and his emphasis on the way the incident tore society apart resonates distinctly with the current right-wing movements here, in the UK, and in Europe. “As with many things we take for granted,” he notes in his essay about Jack the Ripper, “a chance circumstance can open up a chink into the past.” In his long essay about Wolfgang Menzel, Kalka calls Menzel’s appalling caricature of Jews “the mad, racist rejection of all that is ‘foreign.’” The closing essay, “Bucolic Anti-Semitism: A Commentary,” uses folk songs, postcards, and other artifacts of middle-class Germany to trace an odd, “jocular” anti-Semitism woven into the fabric of German culture.
From a purely abstract perspective, the exploration of the history of anti-Semitism […] could be just as entertaining as the structurally comparable lunatic fringes of cultural history: UFOs, the true author of Shakespeare’s works, the pyramid prophecies. But the pages of these pamphlets and books are shadowed by a vast horror…
Of course, it was Hitler who changed the character of German anti-Semitism into something not at all bucolic. But Kalka’s point is useful: bigotry appears harmless until it isn’t. “Lunatic fringes” such as birtherism would, today, be much funnier, had they not evolved into our current predicament. But Kalka does not go that far. And why should he? He is a German critic, as this collection does not allow the reader to forget.
Gaslight is not what it seems, in nearly any way. Non-visual despite its visual title and subtitle, non-scholarly despite the scholarly titles of its essays, lively despite its focus on a period remembered in British and American history as being tightly buttoned up. It’s David Markson without the conciseness, and Harold Bloom without the sourness. Should your interests inhabit the same turf as Kalka, he’ll make your neurons hum.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, Brevity, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.
AARDVARK TO AXOLOTL by Karen Donovan Etruscan Press, 91 pages
TALES FROM WEBSTER’S: The Verminous Resuscitator and the Monsignor in the Zoot Suit by John Shea Livingston Press, 222 pages
reviewed by Michelle E. Crouch
My son’s name begins with G, and so any other word containing the letter, or especially starting with it, brings him immense joy. “G! For me!” he exclaims as we take the Girard exit off I-95. He is three-and-a-half, not able to read but conversant in consonants and their sounds. G-words exist on a higher plane than all others in his toddler cosmology.
To any adult, this identification with a specific letter of the alphabet likely seems arbitrary. The soft G in Girard doesn’t even sound like the hard G in his name. And yet I suspect I’ve unconsciously favored a Marissa or a Megan over someone equally deserving who didn’t happen to have an M in common with me. Belgian psychologist Jozef Nuttin called this preference the name-letter effect; psychologists at the University of Michigan even concluded that people are more likely to donate to hurricane relief when the storms share their initials.
Just as we may accidentally act on a preference for the letters of our names, the standard practice of organizing things and people in alphabetical order can have an unintentional influence (as cataloged here by Alexander Cauley and Jeffrey Zax, each of whom has personal experience as alpha or omega). Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed an encyclopedia arranged by chronology and subject matter rather than “the accident of initial letters,” which he deemed “the impudent ignorance of your Presbyterian bookmakers.” Of course, he lost this battle. So much is governed by the rules of alphabetization that, arbitrary or not, it shapes our world and how we record our knowledge of it.
Karen Donovan’s Aardvark to Axolotl and John Shea’s Tales from Webster engage with this paradox via the dictionary, that great alphabetizer of language. The dictionary is the reference-book-of-all-reference-books. It is writing broken down to its most basic components, as a color wheel separates out the most basic tools of the painter. It also makes for dry reading. As far as plots go, it’s lackluster.
But just as letters pulse with our own emotional attachments, the dictionary isn’t without its own poetry, evocative moments that reward the sort of reader who obsesses over words and their various combinations. On some pages, the entries may all be of a family or a common root, perhaps revealing a previously unconsidered shared etymology. In other cases, the juxtaposition of two very different words creates a friction that here becomes an expressive possibility. Shea mines amoral-amoretto, dreadnought-dream, lycanthropy-lycee, and dozens more, for rollicking turns in his brief but action-packed narratives.
Donovan, who published an excerpt from Aardvark to Axolotl in Issue 16 of Cleaver, considers the images in addition to the words, taking the engraved illustrations from the A section of a 1925 Webster’s dictionary as a starting point. Specifically, a copy that belonged to her grandfather, “easily five inches thick and currently open to the entry on the West Indian guapena (it’s a fish),” she notes in the acknowledgments.
Going from the abstracted idea of a dictionary (which most readers of this review likely now encounter online most frequently, word by disembodied word, than on paper) to the physicality of a specific copy owned and paged through by a particular person suits Donovan’s project well. For each prose-poem or miniature essay in Aardvark to Axolotl, Donovan considers a single engraved image, responding to it in a few lines, ranging from a long paragraph to a single sentence. Detached from a definition, each illustration takes on its own persona, its power as an object expanded by Donovan’s attention.
In some instances, the connection between word and image is direct, often a memory trigger: artiodactyla toe-bones inspire “Pedicure,” the polish administered once by a niece; alpaca turns into “Sweater,” borrowed from a friend in childhood; arabesque (the decorative pattern) causes the author to bodily enact an arabesque (the ballet formation) in a reflexive muscle memory, in “Take the Position, Please.” In other pieces, there’s an additional mental step, sometimes easy to follow, sometimes known only to Donovan. Aphrodite riding a swan conjures the tale of a bike accident. Arbutus, a flowering plant of some kind, is addressed in hardboiled patter by none other than Sam Spade: “So. I did my homework on you, sister.”
The book is not, however, just a collection of impressionistic anecdotes. Within the humorous one-liners, word games, and glimpses of autobiography, there runs a deeper strain of contemplation. The aforementioned pedicure, mostly a warm memory, ends with: “At bedtime I slide into my sheets aware of color in a place where there usually isn’t. Every breath of hope required to keep the whole human project afloat.”
Keeping afloat may be apt; coastal imagery of shells and lighthouses appear throughout. More than one aquatic creature offers wisdom. The archer fish anchors a short piece titled “Language,” which reads in its entirety: “It was then I understood I had a razor-tipped device inside me that could spear any prey I desired.” And the titular axolotl, near the end of the book, comes to embody the poet, left behind by friends headed for more stable careers: “For high finance, engineering, law. For houses in suburbs, and children with braces, and commitments and engagements and mojitos with neighbors. Meanwhile, you stay in the pond, working on how to accept your gills, your strange ability to regenerate anything at all, even a new brain if you want one.” Perhaps this watery writer’s life requires a scaffold like the alphabet to bring it to a state of order. For the most orderly of taxonomy nerds, Donovan includes an “Index of Proper Nouns and Other Terms” (Home Depot, hypocycloid, Janet) and another of figures organized by category (Fossils, Geology, Greek Stuff).
Shea’s Tales from Webster’s adheres to an even stricter system than Aardvark to Axolotl. It amounts, he tells us in the introduction, to a new literary form. On the left of the page, a list of consecutive dictionary terms appears in bold. On the right side of the page, Shea uses no more than fifty words of his choosing as connective tissue between each dictionary term to create a short story. The stories are all titled for their first and last dictionary words.
A representative excerpt from “Amon-Re—Amort”:
As in this sample, the narrative voice tends toward a heightened diction, as demanded by ancient deities and other more obscure terms. The table of contents, reading like a poem of its own, gives each story a descriptive subheading in the style of a 19th-century novel’s chapters: “In which a scion of a prominent family reveals a new source of income.” The characters are often well-traveled, as place-names like Illimani (a mountain in Bolivia) and Rawalpindi (a city in Pakistan) keep cropping up between the non-proper nouns. For something that resembles poetry more than prose in its formatting, the stories are surprisingly plot-driven. There are sailors, spies, cursed bracelets, incidents of international concern, and visions of the afterlife as a never-ending classical music concert, at least as punishment for one particular anti-capitalist who falls victim to his own car bomb.
Although the appearance of the stories on the page emphasizes the dictionary as source material, it can also make the flow of reading more difficult, especially in passages heavy with dialogue. For example, “Where—Wicker,” which is entirely dialogue, features a sort of “Who’s on first?” bickering between its two very lost interlocutors. Line breaks determined by a poet can be helpful in extracting meaning, and paragraph breaks following basic prose conventions are helpful in guiding the reader. Here the function of the line breaks is to highlight the dictionary word device, not to enhance understanding. Is it better to show off the device, rather than submerge it and find out how the stories read in a conventional prose format? The decision is philosophical, or at least stylistic. I personally tend to be an advocate for compromise—I wish I had an alternated copy of the book with the stories in paragraphs, but the dictionary words kept bolded.
Shea’s strategy here calls to mind the writing constraints practiced by Oulipo writers, such as George Perec’s novel La Disparition (translated in English as A Void), written entirely without the letter “e.” Like Shea’s work, Perec’s book contains a necessarily erudite narrative voice and a tendency to toy with genre conventions, though Shea is less self-conscious than Perec (the plot of La Disparition involves a missing character named Vowl).
For readers who would shy away from Shea or others on the grounds that their formal experiments are a showcase for virtuosity but not emotional depth, I’d ask them to consider that a considerable chunk of literature features a constraint of some type—how different are the requirements of a villanelle or a pantoum from those of Shea’s dictionary tales? In his fascinating nonfiction book The Letter & The Cosmos: How the Alphabet Has Shaped the Western View of the World, Laurence De Looze connects twentieth century surrealists and Oulipoeans with Carolingian monks who created religious palindromes. The key difference he observes is that in past centuries, letters were considered to have a metaphysical or spiritual quality, whereas modern writers are concerned with the “letter as letter.” The twentieth century (and, we might surmise, at least the early part of the twenty-first) have taken a linguistic turn. “Meaning does not reside in some transcendent signifier—God—but rather it slips away along a chain of minimal differences.” Although the term minimal differences here refers to a specific usage by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, A Chain of Minimal Differences would make a great alternate subtitle for Shea’s book.
Harryette Mullen, another author who’s used Oulipo techniques for her own purposes, borrows the group’s N + 7 technique for “Any Lit,” a poem in her book Sleeping with the Dictionary. N + 7 involves substituting the noun in a phrase with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary, like a very structured mad lib. Mullen takes the line “You are a huckleberry beyond my persimmon” and substitutes other nouns for huckleberry and persimmon—though clearly not quite following the “plus 7” rule in lines like “You are a universe beyond my mitochondria / you are a Eucharist beyond my Miles Davis,” subverting the alphabetic constraint to play off sound and association. Mullen connects the original phrase with African American courtship conversations. Her work has a political dimension, fusing wordplay and writing constraints with questions of power and language: whose language is considered correct and valid, who has been historically prevented from gaining literacy? A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A is another volume of poetry that throws the relationship of language and authority into sharp relief; some of the poems take on the form of dictionary definitions while telling the story of MacNolia Cox, the first black finalist in the National Spelling Bee Competition. In the final rounds in 1936, she was given a word not on the official list for the competition—nemesis—by the judges as a successful strategy to ensure the winner would be white. In LOOK, Solmaz Sharif takes the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated terms as source material, examining how language describes, and becomes, both a weapon and a disguise.
Perhaps the eternal appeal of the dictionary is the tension between the writer and the words themselves—the search to wrest them from their inert, alphabetized and dissected and defined form and into their hidden order, the one that elicits a truth.
Shea and Donovan’s work lacks some of the bite that comes from interrogating linguistic authority in this way—their relationship to the dictionary is more playful, more dance than critique. Engaging with the alphabet in a self-conscious manner is as old as the Greeks who first borrowed the letters of the Phoenicians and arranged them into an order we still recognize today. De Looze references the fifth century BCE writer Kallais, who produced the play Grammatike Theoria, translated in English as ABC Show, with an alphabetic chorus. Before I finished writing this review, I heard a radio interview with Jezz Burrows, just out with a new book, Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings. I can picture a time in the not-too-distant future when my son will be puzzling over an acrostic poem of his name for a school assignment, deciding what word to select for G. Allow me to imagine him consulting a hard-copy dictionary, although it’s more likely to be adjectivestarting.com: will he choose good, great, gentle, garrulous? Perhaps the eternal appeal of the dictionary is the tension between the writer and the words themselves—the search to wrest them from their inert, alphabetized and dissected and defined form and into their hidden order, the one that elicits a truth.
Michelle E. Crouch, a co-founder of APIARY Magazine, has published fiction and non-fiction in Gigantic Sequins, Indiana Review, The Rumpus, and others. She received an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and lives in Philadelphia. Her website is mcrouch.com.
DIFFICULT WOMEN by David Plante NYRB Classics, 182 pages
reviewed by Susan Sheu
Acclaimed writer David Plante’s book, published originally in 1983, is an account of his friendships with three women central to the artistic and intellectual world of the 1970s. It is a rare act of memoir writing to describe oneself as the shadowy sidekick to other, presumably greater and more interesting characters. In nonfiction writing classes, this point of view would be discouraged. The first question this memoir might have earned in a contemporary writers’ workshop is where are you in all of this? Describing the suns around which a protagonist orbits is more commonly found in fiction. Think of Humbert Humbert describing Lolita in more vivid detail than he narrates himself, as a way of defining himself through his obsession.
Perhaps one way to view Difficult Women, a controversial book that cost Plante, now retired from the creative writing faculty of Columbia University, many of his literary friends, is as an inversion of Lolita. Rather than a leering middle-aged man with a little girl, Plante the protagonist is younger and more of an artistic ingénue than two of his three female subjects (and the same age as the third), but he observes and devours them in a similar way. In his first sketch of his friendships, with Jean Rhys, he presents the central tension within himself and all three women and the trust he earns and arguably abuses:
I said, “For some mad reason, I love you.” “You’re not pretending that? “I said it was mad. Could madness be a pretense?” “No, it couldn’t. I do trust you.” I thought: But why do I love her?
All three women are connected through the literary European world they inhabit. Yet the three of them are only in the same place once in Plante’s narrative, when the third, Germaine Greer, is at one of Sonia Orwell’s parties where Jean Rhys is also a guest. Like Humbert Humbert’s desire for prepubescent girls, Plante is obsessed with these three difficult women for reasons he does not understand. And like Truman Capote and other writers whose unsparing, perhaps unkind portraits of friends ended those friendships, Plante’s book appears to have ended his relationship with Greer, the one still-surviving subject. The central question for the reader becomes one of literary ethics. What does the nonfiction writer have the right to publish, and what is the artistic value of a warts-and-all book about people who helped and cared for the writer?
It is a rare act of memoir writing to describe oneself as the shadowy sidekick to other, presumably greater and more interesting characters.
Reading Difficult Women thirty-five years after its initial publication in the era of #metoo takes on new meaning. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, when much of the press coverage and political criticism of the major female candidate seemed to boil down to branding a qualified, brilliant woman unlikable, the book can serve as depressing reminder of how little the world has changed in the last thirty-five years in its view of what constitutes appropriate behavior for a woman. In 2018, readers might view the book as a meditation on how much space in society women, particularly aging women, are allowed to take up and on the friendships between heterosexual women and their homosexual male friends (Plante hints at his homosexuality in Difficult Women). It could also be read as a primer on female rage, depression, and disappointment.
When Plante first meets Rhys he is a newcomer from the United States to England. Rhys is an elderly fiction writer most known for her book The Wide Sargasso Sea. They drink excessively during their afternoons together discussing Rhys’s life and writing and both usually become drunk. Drinking and talk about writing are the forces that animate the elderly, alcoholic Rhys, whose literary fame is behind her by the time Plante meets her in England. Rhys seems to view Plante’s role in spending time with her as akin to James Boswell chronicling the life of Samuel Johnson—they spend many afternoons drunkenly bickering as she dictates her autobiography—or as a kind of platonic and secular confessor for her last rites.
But Plante’s own reasons are harder to discern. While Plante does not divulge what his intentions were in first seeking a meeting with Rhys, he reveals that he is comfortable in the company of women who speak more than they listen. Rhys reminds Plante of his mother, a fact that enrages her. But this clue poses the question of whether Plante was seeking literary inspiration and patronage or an actual literary family. The question is important. If Plante was seeking a network and writing material, then his frank descriptions of the women and his reactions to them are a betrayal from the start. If he seeks the company of mentors and like-minded souls and then chronicles them including all of their drunken, neurotic, vulgar life force, his work becomes more complicated to judge. Through this lens, the women are like mothers to him, and he is like a son who has no choice but to describe them as he experienced them.
Were Plante’s reasons for writing and his true feelings for his once-beloved mentors and friends in violation of unwritten rules, or was Difficult Women the only book he could have written after spending his youth in pursuit of the eponymous women?
With Rhys, Plante grapples with why he spends time with her, whether he loves or hates her, and what value he can glean from her self-centered, boozy ramblings. Every time he seems on the verge of giving up on her because of her narrow, ill-educated views, she draws him in again by invoking the fire that drives them both: writing. Talk of writing brings out the best in Rhys, transforming her back into a lively artist who believes that the tradition of writing is greater than any one writer. Rhys rages and is often melancholy, and Plante observes that melancholy is Rhys’s default emotion, which is actually a perverse form of happiness:
One of the signs of Jean’s happiness, I came to realize, was her sadness: happy, she allowed herself to be, at least a little, sad. When she was really unhappy, she was angry.
Her rages are part of the inchoate intuition that governs her life and writing. She is a woman who has grown old and dependent on others, living an unexamined life. Sometimes Plante observes this fundamental narcissism about Rhys:
People have always been shadows to me, and are so more and more. I’m not curious about other people—not about what they do, a little about what they think—and the more dependent I become on people, as I must, the more I shy away from them.
At other times, he notes that her fictional characters share this quality, and he seems to conclude that he is spending his time with an incurious old bigot:
She never asked why her main female characters acted as they did: they just did, as she did. There is about them a great dark space in which they do not ask themselves, removing themselves from themselves to see themselves in the world in which they live: Why do I suffer? When Jean said she delved and delved into herself, I didn’t understand: it was certainly not to question her happiness, or, more, unhappiness, in terms of the world she lived in, and certainly not her prejudices. These prejudices were many, and sometimes odd: Protestants, Elizabethans.
When Plante visits Rhys near the end of her life, he questions his entire relationship with the elderly writer and does not conclude that his interests were pure:
I knew that in my outer bright believing heart I had been false to Jean, because in my inner dark unbelieving heart I had loved her as a writer. I thought, But she might forgive me my cheap literary curiosity, she might even condone it; she might, perhaps, tell me that my literary interest, not only in her but in the world, was the deepest possible interest. And then it came to me that Jean was dead, because she was dead as a writer.
Her physical death occurs not long afterwards. But Plante is still connected to the woman who introduced them, his next difficult woman subject: Sonia Orwell. Orwell was the widow of George Orwell, although according to Plante’s description less the keeper of his literary legacy than the bearer of his name. Sonia Orwell was a fiction editor, translator, and artistic socialite, but not a writer herself.
Plante’s friendship with Orwell in particular seemed to reflect what standup comedians of the era called “recognition humor,” minus the humor. This approach assumed that most people are unsympathetic and unkind to one another and change little as a result of their everyday experiences. Throughout the sections of Plante’s book on Rhys and Orwell, Plante appears to be learning this unglamorous truth. While Plante tries to draw Orwell into the kind of friendship he craves—one where each person deeply understands the other—Orwell is prickly and duty-bound, seeing friendship as taking care of the other’s quotidian needs:
We made a date for me to come to fix the falling shelf to the bathroom wall, and then I thought we’d get down to talking about what, to me, would give the luncheon its importance: I would tell Sonia a little about my inner world, and she would tell me a little about hers. But she went on talking about what else was needed for the shelf, and when we parted she said, “That was lovely,” and I wondered why she thought it was lovely when nothing we’d talked about, it seemed to me, had been what I considered important.
Orwell and Rhys had been bound by Orwell’s dedication to making sure that Rhys had stimulating visitors, a decent place to live, and clean clothing. Orwell grows fonder of Plante after he installs the shelf in her home. Later, when Orwell visits him in Italy, she is only an agreeable guest when she imagines helping him with his domestic and homeowner chores. Plante realizes that sometimes it is not shared secrets but helping with needs and comforts that cemented adult friendships:
But the only world that mattered, I saw now, was the world outside one’s thoughts and feelings, and friends communicated with one another in terms of that world—not talking to one another about thoughts and feelings, but helping one another to put their houses in order.
Orwell frustrates Plante less than Rhys does and draws him into a more stimulating, and probably career-enhancing, circle. However, Plante also questions his attachment to Orwell. He observes that she takes no pleasure in her many London parties and the tireless wheel of social obligations she shackles herself to. She can be unkind to him and a bore, and her perfectionism and depressed irritability are a strain. But in the end, he pierces the veil that she holds over her public persona, and understanding her depression and anger is a form of intimacy:
I saw Sonia as an unspeakably unhappy woman. I was in love with the unhappiness in her, and yet reassured that, no matter what I did, what I felt it my duty to do, to lessen that unhappiness, I couldn’t: Sonia wouldn’t allow me to. Sonia reassured me in her frightening unhappiness. It was her secret.
After Orwell stays with him in Italy, she confronts Plante with her suspicions and her disappointment in him:
I’m not as frivolous as you think. You think I’m frivolous. I’m not. And I’ll tell you this about yourself, though you may not want to hear it: you are. And I’ll tell you the difference. I think. What you don’t do is think.
In one of Plante’s last accounts of Orwell, she reveals that she is difficult because she believes she has wasted her life and holds onto her deceased husband’s name as a talisman against mediocrity and an inconsequential life:
“Why? Why am I so filled with anger?” I said nothing. She said, “I’ve fucked up my life. I’m angry because I’ve fucked up my life.”
Plante notes conversations with another unnamed friend, who opines that Orwell became bitter when she realized that she had no talent. He passes little judgment other than to guess that she had killed her own creativity even as she nurtured it in others. When he visits her during an illness near the end of her life, he notes, “She suddenly looked very beautiful.” She smiles as though she is being relieved of a burden. He moves on, having collected her secrets like a lepidopterist pinning a rare specimen.
Germaine Greer is a wholly other kind of difficult woman. Notably about the same age as Plante, she is a formidable feminist writer and scholar whose book The Female Eunuch and outspoken body of work has made her famous and rich. She is a large-bodied woman with a matching persona, at ease in her sexuality, her mixture of erudite and coarse language, and her frank opinions of the people she encounters and the social ills in the world. She is a crusader and an enigmatic polymath, as comfortable discussing the scourge of female circumcision in African tribes as she is cooking a gourmet meal. In cultivating her friendship, Plante discovers Greer’s way of being a difficult woman:
My thinking made of her as a large public woman obsessed with the world, the entire world: she was difficult towards people in the world because so few cared a fuck about it.
Plante is drawn to her because her expansive manner and intelligence, and her competence and confidence make him feel significant as an intimate acquaintance. But he soon realizes that when Greer speaks to him about intellectual matters, her bodily needs, or about the way to solve a mutual friend’s problems, she might as well be speaking to anyone. She is an open book, and when she shares her observations and erudition, she is speaking as a public figure. But she is cagey about her past:
Her only secret was this: she would not reveal how she had become Germaine Greer, how she had learned everything she had had to learn to become the person she was. She would reveal everything about the Germaine Greer who actually was, who was entirely public, and about whom she kept no secrets.
As Plante spends time with Greer, first in Italy, then on a car trip through Europe, and at last at a university in Oklahoma, he becomes enthralled with her in a way that appears more complete and worshipful than with either Rhys or Orwell. He studies her, noting that her polymath knowledge comes from an empathic connection to individuals she meets such as a drag queen in Tulsa, and from intuition and concern about global problems, like birth control and unwanted children. He imagines that her vast intelligence is female and valuable to him:
So, if I with some degree of logic believed Germaine understood me, it followed that I believed she understood me with a woman’s intelligence. I wanted to know what she understood. […] A relationship with a woman did this to me: it made me feel complicated.
Greer, like the previous two difficult women, has difficulty maintaining friendships with other women. In learning this, Plante finds her Achilles heel. Women friends, Greer tells him, inevitably tell her what they observed:
That she was self-involved, and if she considered other people at all it was only an audience to whom she gave lectures.
She put her fingers over her lips. “They think I can’t be hurt. I suppose they can’t imagine I don’t know the way I am, and they feel impelled, for some reason which they call friendship but which is their convoluted idea of friendship, to tell me. They don’t know at all the way I am.”
Greer makes Plante uncomfortable with her comfort in the earthiness and blood of the world. One of the first times he meets her she is speaking lovingly to her cats as she feeds them chopped cow testicles. Another time, she describes female circumcision so graphically that he instinctively shields his own genitals. As he grows closer to Greer, Plante reveals the nature of female vitality that he is drawn to:
I knew I felt guilt towards, not all women, but difficult women, and I felt guilt because, somewhere in my life which I could not recall, I had done something, perhaps simply said something, which was wrong, which had hurt them, and the only reaction possible for them to what I had done or said was to be difficult. I had made them difficult.
Yet they gave me something, these women, or at least promised me something, for which I wanted to be close to them. They could justify me in my body and soul.
The tension in Plante’s friendships with the three women reveals itself in the discomfort they evoke in him coexisting with the love he professes for each one.
The tension in Plante’s friendships with the three women reveals itself in the discomfort they evoke in him coexisting with the love he professes for each one. In the case of Greer, he finds that he loves her as he watches her give a public, televised lecture on abortion. Beneath her knowledge and opinions, he observes the performance and imagines the metanarrative of the private Germaine Greer, whose solitary life had regrets, untidiness, passion, and vitality. Throughout the book, Plante interrogates himself about his purposes in collecting these difficult women. In his friendship with Greer, he reveals that, while he might grow to love the women, his motives remain obscure:
“You smile, and I find I smile too. You’re going to get me into the awful American habit of smiling at people when they look at you. You’re going to make me as nice as you are.” “I’m not nice,” I said. “So you’ve told me.”
Were Plante’s reasons for writing and his true feelings for his once-beloved mentors and friends in violation of unwritten rules, or was Difficult Women the only book he could have written after spending his youth in pursuit of the eponymous women? It is tempting to indict him for outing his friends and their psychological secrets. It is also possible to believe that he was following their examples of candor—Greer as a woman in a profane, panoptic embrace of the world and the people in her care, Orwell as an obsessive, demanding collector of writers and artists, and Jean as a crotchety, drunken, end-stage diva. All three women followed their own rules of behavior because of their accomplishments or age, which is why their friends and followers considered them difficult. Plante, whatever his initial reasons were in befriending them, might have consumed and become one of them. In one of the last conversations he reports with Jean Rhys, he writes, revealing the imperative of his project:
“You know what you must do in your writing,” she said. I became reassured: she was going to say that I must in my writing save all of civilization. But she stared keenly at me, expecting me to reply to her repeated, “Don’t you know?” I smiled. She said, “You must tell the truth about them.” She slammed her hand on the arm of the chair. “You must tell the truth against their lies.” My anger gave way to sudden sadness.
Susan Sheu lives in Los Angeles and received the 2017 Bennington Prize in Nonfiction for her memoir-in-progress, The Rag and Bone Man.
PLAYING CATCH WITH STRANGERS A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes Of Age by Bob Brody Heliotrope Books, 230 pages
reviewed by Colleen Davis
Most mornings I lie in bed wondering how I can summon the courage to get out from under my big, warm comforter. It seems to be the only thing protecting me from the harshness of this ceaseless winter and the bitter talk that plagues our land. Over the course of the past year, our nation’s Talker in Chief— and the media in general—have encouraged us to despise foreigners, hate losers, question the motives of practically every man we’ve ever met, transform our neighbors’ health care subsidy into a tax break for the wealthy, and offer our children as targets for assault weapon enthusiasts. If you’re not endowed with a strong sense of irony, it can be hard to summon a smile.
Since today’s newspapers rarely have the resources to support journalism that’s more than skin deep, I’ve been reading books to help me through this dark cultural period. I read with the hope that I’ll learn something to help me cope with the meanness around me, to escape from the meanness completely, or to simply help me figure out how so many normal people suddenly turned so crazy. As part of my therapy, I started reading Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age by Bob Brody. The title alone is intriguing considering that the contemporary environment provides an object lesson in how to avoid catching anything from strangers—including empathy, insight, or any form of knowledge. Since Brody is the adult child of two deaf parents, I was also hoping he might offer some tips on how to communicate with those who cannot hear us. Today, practically all of us must address someone who falls in that category—though the state is seldom biologically induced, as it was in the case of Brody’s parents.
Playing Catch with Strangers consists of a long series of short essays. Most were written for print or online publications and not originally intended as book chapters. They are clean, straightforward, and easy to read. They are also salutary—in the sense of promoting better mental health and positive emotions. Brody reminds us of the many gifts that life offers to those who pay it close attention.
If you’re immersed in the national dialogue, you may have come to believe that no one loves anyone anymore. Or: that your value is determined solely by the billions in your bank account—which eliminates most of us from the value equation altogether. Brody, however, offers readers accounts of his deep love for his children, boundless affection for his wife, and late-blooming appreciation for his talkative mother-in-law. Instead of hurling smack talk at foreigners, he revels in the ethnic diversity of Queens and explains how much he admires immigrants and their basketball ethics. All this approbation is not some weird product of a perfect life. Brody describes fumbling around in the early part of his career and surviving a recession layoff. Because his parents were both deaf, he also spent a lot of time searching for clues that he was, indeed, understood and loved by them. As a kid, he struggled to create a bond with his emotionally distant father. He found it hard to escape the role of interpreter when his mother made him play that role too often.
Yet Brody is not bitter. Even his worst grievances are modest in tone. Though the author is a New Yorker through and through, he sets a vivid counterexample to our nation’s Talker in Chief. Brody is not boastful; he is not harsh. He sees how the melding of cultures has shaped powerful, harmonious communities in parts of New York where ethnic tensions might have turned combustible. When he encounters parents who fail to—or don’t know how to—encourage their children, he tries to model good behavior instead of insulting them. The essays that describe how Brody helped his kids overcome basic fears are especially endearing. Although he discusses the ever-present barrier that separated him from parents who could not hear, Brody clearly committed himself to leveling any walls between himself and his own children. He even devoted a now-defunct blog to his children called Letters to my Kids.
The most refreshing thing about this book is the easy way that Brody expresses his love for the most important people in his life. In “A Word of Thanks,” he writes to his daughter, Caroline, saying, “Your brother showed me how deeply I could love someone new, and you’ve shown me I could love someone else new just as deeply. In a single stroke, you doubled everything.” In another essay, “The Miracle of the Pies,” he pays homage to his deceased mother-in-law, who left some of her homemade pizza pies in the freezer before she died. Brody writes, “I’d eaten her pie every spring for more than 20 years and they had always tasted good. But now, flavored with grief, the pie tasted better than it ever had. It was as if I could somehow taste the essence of its maker, her spirit, her soul. I’d never felt so deeply my love and gratitude for her.” It’s hard to think of a current book where a male protagonist so thoroughly appreciates the people around him. Today’s non-fiction bestseller list displays authorial obsessions with conflict politics, serial killers, cults, and plain old death. Brody celebrates life instead.
It’s hard to think of a current book where a male protagonist so thoroughly appreciates the people around him. Today’s non-fiction bestseller list displays authorial obsessions with conflict politics, serial killers, cults, and plain old death. Brody celebrates life instead.
Although I like hearing a man discuss deep sentiments so bravely, I wish an editor had sculpted the essays into a better-defined story arc. Some pieces are written in first person and some in second person, which creates a few awkward reading gaps. While I value what I’ve learned about Brody’s childhood in a household governed by deaf parents, I was also hoping to hear some self-reflection on how that experience might have shaped his character. He does observe that becoming a writer gave him a more reliable vehicle for communicating with his mother. Yet I wonder if having deaf parents made him more amenable to people who live outside the mainstream—like the immigrant basketball players in Queens. In a feat that would challenge most of us, those non-English speakers have only their bodies and their game to convey toughness, skill, and diplomacy. Maybe one day Brody will write an addendum that provides a deeper analysis of his experience. In the meantime, I’m happy to have the gift of knowing that not all New Yorkers are blowhards, not all men are ravagers, and not all fathers pack their children off to China to strike trade deals. I think I knew these things before winter began, but it’s comforting to be reminded.
BAD JOBS AND POOR DECISIONS Dispatches from the Working Class by J.R. Helton Liveright Publishing Corporation, 259 Pages
reviewed by Robert Sorrell
The jacket of J.R. Helton’s memoir, Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions: Dispatches from the Working Class, shows an assortment of loose black-and-white sketches: a marijuana leaf, a packet of cigarettes, a typewriter, crumpled beer cans, lines of (presumably) cocaine, a gun, a cockroach. Among them, figures emerge: A man’s face covered in huge beads of sweat, a woman with long dark hair shown from the shoulders up, a pole dancer. These images appear regularly in each of the seven long anecdotes that make up Bad Jobs, working as signifiers of a place, time, and social class. The place is Austin, Texas and the time is when the tail end of the 1970s met the Reagan 1980s. The class setting is a bit more complicated, but I’ll get to that later.
When we meet J.R. Helton—or Jake, as his character is known in the book—he’s a 20-year-old writer who’s just dropped out of the University of Texas in Austin to write full time after winning a small literary prize. “I thought, Man, this is gonna be easy,” Helton writes, and quickly finds himself broke and in need of a job.
Austin, Texas’s capital and where Jake lives for the majority of Bad Jobs, is undergoing growing pains, along with much of the Sunbelt in the 1980s. “The city was booming then,” Helton writes, “and the skies were filled with steel cranes, the streets suddenly lined with many more men and women in suits. I enjoyed watching the big-haired young women who seemed free and attractive and windblown downtown, all of them dressed in different colors, walking alone or in pairs,” observes Jake, who figures himself a sort of Texan flaneur.
Yet Helton’s descriptions hint at a key characteristic of Jake’s personality. He is a watcher and as such, most of the book focuses not on things that Jake himself is doing, but things that he observes: coworkers he watches on job sites, neighbors, corporate types and politicians wandering downtown Austin. He commands a very male position, one he doesn’t think to complicate or comment upon.
The book’s first section, “Other People,” gives the reader a quick background on Jake’s upbringing and adolescence in a small town, Cypress, outside of Austin in the Hill Country. We’re told that he grew up in a working-class family, but his seemingly unhappy family life is given little attention minus allusions to a father who works much of the time. Most of the flashback serves instead to introduce us to Jake’s girlfriend, later wife, Susan, and her family. Her mother Betty Sue is an actress and her father, Dean, was a football player who quit after several injuries to become a successful writer. “More than anything,” Helton writes, “I was deeply impressed by Dean Hampton, a real writer. It felt good to have this intelligent, tough, sarcastic, and funny man take such a genuine interest in me.” Dean encourages Jake to write, and it’s not much of a reach to say that his fascination with Dean may have encouraged or reinforced his desire to date Susan.
Dean, however, is far from perfect. He suffers terribly from NFL injuries, including a twice-broken back, which makes him irritable, and he abuses substances constantly. It doesn’t take much for this big, tough man who shoots rifles to relieve stress and stays up all night writing, high on codeine and cocaine, to turn from father figure to monster. He terrorizes Susan and her mother, and after he’s kicked out of the house, he sometimes calls Jake demanding to know where Susan and her mother are.
For Helton, “working class” refers mostly to a certain set of lifestyle traits (often abusive ones) and certain cultural markers like alcohol, addiction, guns, cigarettes, and old cars, and less about actual class structure or economic opportunity.
Anyone skeptical of the way Helton deploys the term “working class” to describe his life may look at this relationship for some clarity. For Helton, “working class” refers mostly to a certain set of lifestyle traits (often abusive ones) and certain cultural markers like alcohol, addiction, guns, cigarettes, and old cars, and less about actual class structure or economic opportunity. Jake’s connections to folks in the upper middle class and in certain industries, like the color of his skin and his gender, seem to bypass economic class lines without causing any sort of ethical quandary for Helton the way they do in, say, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. In his memoir, Vance is always hedging and explaining his privileges, sometimes stressing his connection to poverty, addiction, violence, and instability, and at other times admitting that he was lucky enough to have enjoyed stability and resources at key points in his life. Helton is not interested in such investigations, whatever their intention.
The deceitfulness of this exclusion is further evidenced when Jake drops out of college. He makes this decision not because he can’t afford to keep going to school, needs to support parents or a family, or is having mental or physical health problems, but because he wins a small literary prize and wants to write full time. And it is here, when Jake intentionally leaves an institution of the middle and upper classes, that he begins his life in the “working class.”
Not long after he leaves school, Susan and Jake get married and find themselves, “one sad cold day, in the real world of adults.” So, in between getting drunk and doing various drugs, Susan gets a “grim job in a cubicle” and Jake decides to try painting houses and offices because he thought it would be “much less noisy than some of the other industrial trades and seemed like the least work for the most money.” Amid all this “grimness”—which, to be honest, isn’t really all that grim except in the heads of the not-ready-to-grow-up main characters—there are a few moments of joy or warmth, like when Jake takes Susan to her first day at a new job and they end up sitting in the parking lot talking for half an hour before she heads inside. But by and large their relationship takes a backseat in Bad Jobs, and Helton dips into it sparingly. The conversation in the car doesn’t even get its own scene: it’s done in summary. This approach may be related to the way that Jake comes across as an almost stereotypically bad partner. He dislikes and distrusts any new friends Susan makes. He’s cranky and surly, non-communicative. He comes home from work angry and tired and leaves the next morning in much the same way, often hungover. Before too long, Jake’s behavior backfires. They spend much of the book separated.
Once Helton has tied up this short foray into Jake’s earlier life and the beginnings of his relationships with Susan, he begins the focus of the book, the “dispatches from the working class,” a series of long anecdotes centering around particular jobs he held down for a few months or years and the people he interacted with daily. His first job is at Austin Paint and Spray, a do-it-all paint company that marks Jake’s entry into a string of terrible paint jobs where he is often forced to work with caustic chemicals without a respirator, and where the workers usually smoke a few joints or snort some lines before they open up the paint cans.
In the room where they wait for assignments, Helton writes, “All of us smoked, so the room was usually hazy and smelled of tobacco and paint thinner. I usually read the paper, the front page, first section, and sat in the corner trying not to talk to anybody.” The anybodys, though, were less interested in sitting quietly in the corner. Despite trying to remain aloof, Jake is almost always drawn into the complicated lives of his coworkers. A typical case is Tyler, “a tall curly-headed guy from West Texas. He was missing his two front teeth and covered in scars and tattoos, Bugs Bunny on his left forearm and the Tasmanian Devil on the right, flipping you the bird.” Each morning Tyler regales Jake with the lurid and often disturbing stories of his sexual exploits. Tyler is one example of a stock character in Bad Jobs, a Texan with over the top physical characteristics and strange, often violent, stories.
Jake’s habit of being an observer, as well as his constant attempts to avoid his co-workers despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to really have any friends, hint at the fact that there is a separation between him and the other men on these jobs (they are exclusively men). He is a part of the work crew, but at the same time always separate, like a reporter embedded in a platoon. This separation becomes especially clear when Jake joins his brother in a gig picking up discarded railroads ties in Kansas. Surprisingly, the ties are worth quite a bit of money, and as Jake’s brother is the boss, Jake is guaranteed a job and high salary. The rest of the work crew, largely made up of undocumented workers, is treated and paid horribly. At one point they are forced to huddle in the back of a moving pickup truck for hundreds of miles between Texas and Kansas in the dead of winter. Once they arrive, things aren’t much better. Jake describes their daily routine: “At lunch, we left them huddled together out on the tracks with their cold tortillas and water and went into Cassoday to have a lunch of steak and potatoes on the company’s tab. When we returned, full of beer and food, the men were already back at work.”
In these moments, Bad Jobs reminds me of another memoir about work in a very different context: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Both books feature a rotating cast of working-class guys (again, mainly guys) with drug problems and disturbing stories. Both contain an excess of sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice (usually coming in dialogue from the mouths of others, but it’s still in there nonetheless). Both are founded on a particular kind of American white masculinity. And when I read them, I got the feeling they were both using characters and stories for purposes of shock and awe.
Bourdain’s and Helton’s stories of sexual harassment in the kitchen or hazardous work conditions for industrial painters are not told for purposes of solidarity, education, criticism, or even entertainment. Their anecdotes are designed, rather, to amaze and impress. Their writing is the literary equivalent of rolling up a sleeve to show off a nasty scar or a giant tattoo. The main problem is that the scars and tattoos usually belong to someone else.
Bourdain’s and Helton’s stories of sexual harassment in the kitchen or hazardous work conditions for industrial painters are not told for purposes of solidarity, education, criticism, or even entertainment. Their anecdotes are designed, rather, to amaze and impress. Their writing is the literary equivalent of rolling up a sleeve to show off a nasty scar or a giant tattoo. The main problem is that the scars and tattoos usually belong to someone else.
Robert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.
Who we are is a complicated thing. Interactions influence perceptions, and perceptions influence memories. Having lost her father in a tragic accident when she was only seven, author Sharon Harrigan attempts to unravel the mystery of the man her father was in the powerful new memoir Playing with Dynamite. “I was relieved when he died,” her brother wrote her in an email. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s true.”
“I was relieved when he died,” her brother wrote her in an email. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s true.”
The email causes her to question her own memories of the father who had died decades earlier and she set forth on a fact-finding journey in the fall of 2013 from her home in Virginia back to Detroit and northern Michigan where she grew up. Informed by interviews with those who knew her father best, the memoir expertly weaves Harrigan’s own life story with memories shared by her family. And in the process of learning more about her dad, Harrigan comes to more fully know herself and other members of her family.
“If we want to find out anything, we have to ask,” Harrigan writes, and so she does. Her mother, brother, sister, and uncle contribute countless tales—many of which are astonishing—to clear the air and breathe life into a ghost. The stories of how he met her mother, of how he would treat his children—including Harrigan herself—of his intense work ethic and intellectual curiosity are colorful and insightful but shift or change depending on the teller. If there is one definite Harrigan learns, it is that truth is subjective.
Facts, Harrigan discovers through her quest, don’t often fit the picture she had assembled. “I don’t know anything,” she says to her uncle regarding events he believed were common knowledge to the family. So much of her father’s life and character were misremembered, completely unknown, or perhaps even intentionally forgotten. Partial truths and imagined truths make completely knowing someone a challenge, if not impossible. More so when that person lives on only through memories and photographs, as is the case with Harrigan’s father.
The compelling mysteries surrounding the circumstances of her father’s death and how, years earlier, he’d lost a hand “playing with dynamite” offer satisfying, surprising conclusions. That knowledge makes not only for entertaining and heart-wrenching narratives, but for revealing glimpses into the man she’s desperate to know. As she explores, the facts seem to change and this alters her sense of connection to her father and her own sense of identity. As Harrigan struggles with her changing reality, she asks profound questions: “How often is the way we see ourselves different from how the world perceives us?” and “If my memories change, will I change too?”
Harrigan’s journey is beautiful, emotional. “I went looking for my father. And found my mother instead,” she writes. he discovers the significance of her mother’s “room of one’s own” at the local Y, of the reservations her mother felt in marrying her father, and of the challenges she endured through that marriage.
But Harrigan also discovers more about herself. Decades after her father’s tragic passing, she comes to a deeper understanding of who she is—intellectually curious and sometimes dangerously reckless—through knowing more of where she came from. “I’d been running my whole life,” she writes, “without stopping to pick up the pieces of myself I’d left behind.” Her story—while just that, her story—is intoxicatingly relatable. Missed connections. Unasked questions. The desire to know our family, loved ones, and selves better. Her story is our story, too. And it’s a gift: through knowing hers, we can feel inspired to relearn who we are as well.
Brian Burmeister teaches communication at Iowa State University. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and he can be followed on Twitter: @bdburmeister.
NEAPOLITAN CHRONICLES by Anna Maria Ortese translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee New Vessel Press, 192 pages
reviewed by Jeanne Bonner
Any book that has a ringing endorsement on its cover from Elena Ferrante these days will merit a second look.
But there is another, potentially more important endorsement of Neapolitan Chronicles—a silent endorsement on the part of the translators of this Italian story collection by Anna Maria Ortese, originally published in Italy in 1953.
The translator is often hidden in publishing’s shadows (indeed, the series of events for translators at Italy’s biggest book fair is actually called “The Invisible Author.”) But many readers of Ortese may actually find their way to this book through the two translators that have brought her work to English-speaking readers: Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator, and Jenny McPhee, an accomplished novelist whose new translation last year of Natalia Ginzburg’s seminal work of nonfiction, Family Lexicon, was widely lauded (see the Cleaver review here.)
When it came out more than 60 years ago (under the title Il mare non bagna Napoli, or Naples Is Not Bathed by the Sea),Neapolitan Chronicles signaled to the Italian literary world that a new talent had arrived from the south, and the book won the important Viareggio Prize. Ortese, who was born in 1914 and died in 1998, would go on to win Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. This new translation of what’s considered Ortese’s most important book signals something similar in the Ferrante era: here’s another female Italian writer (from southern Italy, no less) for English language readers to feast on.
The book is divided between fictional short stories and nonfiction sketches (three of the former, two of the latter). From the first short fiction piece in the collection, “A Pair of Eyeglasses,” it becomes clear Ortese is a keen cataloger of precious details and a diviner of people’s characters. A young girl, Eugenia, lives with her extended family in Naples. She desperately needs glasses. Ortese quickly teases out the contradictions in her Aunt Nunziata, who graciously ponies up the money for the young girl’s glasses but never fails to note the amount she spent (“a grand total of a good 8,000 Lira”). When Eugenia, whom the doctor deems practically blind, thanks her aunt for this kindness, Nunziata, who never married and has no children of her own, replies, in a kind of inoculating mantra of perpetually disappointed southern Italy, “My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it.”
With a few, fast strokes, Ortese has sketched out the world of her characters. To paraphrase the Italian novelist Rossella Milone, who wrote an appreciation of the story in 2015, Ortese quickly produces the first miracle necessary for a story’s success: evoke a world.
And what a world it is. Here, poverty and powerlessness can embitter, even to the point of robbing a young girl of the natural joy of seeing. Indeed, one can well imagine the people Ortese knew who inspired the character of Aunt Nunziata, a nagging, melancholic, nothing-is-ever-good-enough curmudgeon for whom life is more or less over even as death remains years off. Which is not to say the aunt in this story doesn’t have a point. In the poverty-stricken, post-war Naples milieu so skillfully evoked by Ortese anything of value is in scarce supply. The poor stay poor. To wit, Eugenia, Nunziata and the rest of the family live in a basement apartment lorded over by aristocrat landlords who expect the poor tenants to be at their beck and call.
Anna Maria Ortese
It’s also a world in which bad luck and violence can seem so arbitrary and unavoidable. Eugenia—whose exquisite innocence is captured so expertly by Ortese and rendered equally as beatific in this fine translation—is at one point delayed while running an errand. As she returns, she daydreams about the new glasses, wondering if they will have gold frames and whether her mother will collect them that day for her from the eye doctor. But these beautifully girlish thoughts of hope are bluntly cut short by what Ortese describes as “a frenzy of blows.” Ortese writes, “It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious of her delay… ‘Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl!’” The words are as violent as the blows in Ortese’s prose. Such an abrupt turn should prepare the reader for the sad ending in which Eugenia is so overcome by the power of the glasses, she becomes sick to her stomach and doubles over, vomiting, while her aunt insists the money was a waste. That little bit of joy inherent in giving a young girl sight? Ortese stomps it out, as if to warn that there are no happy endings in her Naples.
“Family Interior,” another short work of fiction in the book, is likewise a gem. Here the momentum builds slowly but once Ortese reveals the central premise the reader turns the pages as if sprinting through a mystery. Much of the book doubles as insightful social commentary, with Ortese punctuating her prose with stunning, pointed asides about the interactions among Naples’ various social classes. And in the case of “Family Interior,” Ortese also slyly inserts gender politics (the phrase didn’t exist in 1953 but the condition of life did). She uses the story of a shopkeeper to zero in on the carefully proscribed roles a woman was allowed to inhabit in post-war Naples (and arguably many other places, until quite recently). With a successful dress shop, Anastasia Finizio is her family’s breadwinner. But she has never married, choosing instead to live the life of a shrewd, well-clad merchant, what she terms “a man’s life.” She’s satisfied, or so she thinks, until she learns from a chance comment from an acquaintance that a long-lost love is returning to Naples and has sent her a special greeting.
What’s stunning is the fiction Anastasia invents based on this thinnest of premises. Even before she can meet with the lost lover, Antonio Laurano, she imagines selling her shop and moving to a house him, where she would take care of him for the rest of her life “the way a true man serves a man.” Ortese turns a simple short story into a work of suspense as the reader, especially the female reader, desperately reads along to learn if anything comes of this fantasy.
The story also provides a canvas for Ortese’s world-defining asides; she dresses down one character with “his air of a studious cockroach.” She describes Anastasia as resigned to a “servile and silent life in the house of the married sister.” But perhaps her sharpest observations come in the form of descriptions of Anastasia’s mother as someone “who in her meager existence drew obscure consolation from the misfortunes of others.” Indeed, Sra. Finizio doesn’t exactly feel sympathy for Anastasia as the question of the long-lost love hangs in the air. That’s because Anastasia chose a different path—or chance conspired to give her a different path in life. Ortese writes of the mother, “Her youth had quickly run its course and she didn’t forgive anyone who wished to avoid the law that she had been subjected to.” Woe to any women—including her daughter—who doesn’t quietly accept the strait-jacket that 1950s Naples society aims to slap on them.
The Ortese collection was first translated in 1955 in Britain in an abridged edition but according to the publisher of this new translation, New Vessel Press, it has been out of print in English for decades. This is the first time the whole work has been published in English by a U.S. publisher.
Such descriptions are not only exhilarating, as literature goes, but they also hint at the complexity of the characters in Ortese’s fiction: a mother who would resent her own daughter because she attempted to evade the arbitrary, punishing mores of her society.
Put another way, people in Ortese’s world, and especially women born to poor, lower class families, should be “unconsciously prepared for a life without joy,” as Ortese describes Eugenia in “A Pair of Eyeglasses.”
These small observations distinguish her fiction. Similarly, in a nonfiction piece midway through the book, “The Involuntary City,” Ortese describes southern Italy as “dead to the progress of time” (One faintly hears Don Fabrizio ruminating on Sicily of the nineteenth century.) And given the fantastical nature of Naples—even among Italians it has a reputation as a city where anything can happen—one often finds the people mentioned in the nonfiction accounts are as memorable as the characters in the short works of fiction. Later on in “The Involuntary City,” which concerns a temporary homeless shelter, Ortese describes a woman she meets there as “queen of the house of the dead.” Ortese goes on to say the woman is “a crushed figure, bloated, horrendous, the fruit, in her turn, of profoundly defective creatures, and yet something regal remained in her.” It paints a picture of Naples as a city that harbors a bit of heaven and a lot of hell.
In some ways, the plots in the fictional works are beside the point and the premises of some of the nonfiction pieces may appear dated and of passing interest to modern readers (the dynamics of the relationship among Italian writers living in the midcentury, for example, which is the backdrop of several of the chapters, will appeal only to a select group of readers). Indeed, some of the nonfiction reflects a return visit Ortese made to Naples after living for a time in other parts of Italy, and they include reminiscences and personal observations that sound almost as though they have sprung from her diary. At times, the observations and the exchanges with old friends are of such a personal nature, and also pertaining to a bygone era scarcely imaginable in some ways today, that they detract from the overall volume. Moreover, given the quality of stories like “A Pair of Eyeglasses,” the reader may sometimes wish there were more fiction in the collection. The chapter “Evening Descends Upon the Hills,” for example, is a piece about a piece: Ortese had been commissioned to write about up-and-coming writers living in Naples and in this essay, she relays a journey she took by tram to the house of a writer. It may be of interest to a literary scholar who specializes in Italian writers of that era, however, the significance is somewhat muted with the passage of time and the trip over the ocean.
But Ortese’s descriptions of people, places, and states of mind are masterful. It can also be said that some of the nonfiction reads like fiction (which is a credit to Ortese and Goldstein and McPhee, her translators). In one of the nonfiction pieces, in fact, she tells us she sat by “a woman without a nose, who had an enormous plant on her lap.” Such passages make the reader glad to be along for the ride.
The Ortese translation comes as book buyers in America and Britain continue to gobble up the works of Ferrante, which are set partly in Naples. And that’s an important milestone in the spread of Italian literature beyond Italy’s borders because Naples, as a travel destination or a fount of literature, even in the Ferrante era, remains scarcely known to Americans. Ortese’s stories remedy this gap in many ways.
Moreover, there is growing awareness of the scarcity of works translated into English specifically by Italian women. According to statistics gathered by Open Letter Press at the University of Rochester, the overwhelming majority of the Italian works translated into English in 2017 were written by men (and in 2016, and 2015, etc.). One could say there’s a backlog of works by female authors not translated, including some who won Italy’s most prestigious literary prizes. To wit: the Ortese collection was first translated in 1955 in Britain in an abridged edition but according to the publisher of this new translation, New Vessel Press, it has been out of print in English for decades. This is the first time the whole work has been published in English by a U.S. publisher.
Ortese is an important touchstone for contemporary Italian authors, particularly women authors such as Ferrante. There’s been much debate over Ferrante’s identity and also her literary value. (One Italian critic has even asserted that her prose is better in English thanks, of course, to Ann Goldstein). But if Ferrante’s only lasting legacy is to secure a place for Italian women writers in the English-speaking world, lovers of literary fiction should be feeling awfully optimistic.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and journalist based in Connecticut. She is the 2018 winner of the PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature, given by PEN America. Her essays have been published by The New York Times, CNN Travel, Literary Hub and Catapult. She studied Italian literature at Wesleyan University and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.
BIRTH OF A NEW EARTH:
The Radical Politics of Environmentalism by Adrian Parr Columbia University Press, 328 Pages
reviewed by Robert Sorrell
Near the beginning of his ecstatic, beautiful “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be,” Ross Gay writes:
I wonder, little bubble
of unbudded capillaries, little one ever aswirl in my vascular galaxies, what would you think
of this world which turns itself steadily into an oblivion that hurts, and hurts bad?
Would you curse me my careless caressing you into this world or would you rise up
and, mustering all your strength into that tiny throat which one day, no doubt, would grow big and strong,
scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice, or at least get to your knees to kiss back to life
I first read this poem as Hurricane Harvey and Maria devastated the Caribbean and parts of the southern United States. The poem captivated me. In Gay’s steady hands the prospect of the future, symbolized by this possible child, is explored with deep empathy, imagination, and emotional complexity. The question at the center of these stanzas—how would a child react to being brought into this world?—is one that seemed especially apt in the aftermath of such destruction and our government’s skewed, inadequate response.
This connection, between climate change and children, is made frequently. Just a few weeks before reading Gay’s words, I’d heard a friend say that one of the main reasons she wasn’t sure about having kids was fear of climate change. A quick search found a charity called Save the Children with pictures, stories, and infographics dedicated to explaining how climate change specifically affects children. And many articles and books on climate change, even those trying hardest to refrain from nostalgia and sentimentality, end up relating climate change to children, as emblem of the future.
But in terms of climate change, and maybe in culture more generally, there are a few problems with viewing the future this way. The first is that as in Gay’s poem, these “children” are often more conceptual than real. This lack of specificity allows for children to be turned into a semantic tool that can be twisted to fit a variety of arguments across the political spectrum. Maybe more importantly, however, is the way that (hypothetical) children are often used to discount the lives and experiences of humans living today. Conservative politicians and advocacy groups often prioritize the lives of unborn fetuses over the parents’, and bombings or other terrorist acts are carried out in abortion clinics in the name of “saving the children.”
In the context of climate change, imagining children as the inheritors of a wounded earth is equally dangerous. Not only do these formulations escape any attempt at specificity regarding gender, class, race, ethnicity, geography, and other factors, but they also allow us to perpetually push climate change to the horizon. If climate change is always a problem for our children, then it stands to reason that it isn’t really a problem for us in the present.
Yet in the case of climate change, the “future” and “now” are so inherently connected that any separation of the two is an illusion. Right now the ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, the global surface temperature continues to increase. Climate change has already taken victims, both human and non. When will we stop imaging climate change in the future and how can we reorient ourselves to this reality?
Adrian Parr’s new academic work on climate change, Birth of a New Earth, attempts to answer this question by tapping into the recent trend of considering the positive, some might even say utopian, possibilities that the crisis of climate change allows. She argues, “Regardless of environmental harms and changes in climate impacting people differently, there remains a shared human experience of hardship that will intensify as time passes. For this reason, the environmental and climate crises contain the political potential to radically change social life so it evolves into a more equitable, inclusive, collaborative, and voluntary social system.”
Parr’s book follows particularly on Naomi Klein’s 2014 polemic This Changes Everything, which marked a radical shift in how climate change was discussed in popular books and mainstream media. While certainly not the first to have these ideas, Klein argues forcefully that the crisis of climate change opens up a space for reevaluating and reorganizing our entire society. She writes, “I have begun to understand how climate change–if treated as a true planetary emergency akin to those rising flood waters–could become a galvanising force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well.” In short, Klein argues, climate change offers an opportunity to create a more just, inclusive society. How and why this crisis could become an opportunity is tied to her book’s fundamental idea: that climate change will change everything and perhaps some of those changes, if we work hard, will be for the better.
Klein’s book was a response to a very recognizable problem: how do we, in our daily lives, wrap our heads around the enormity of climate change? How do we respond to the often terrifying deluge of scientific reports, news stories, and dire projections? Sometimes we change our behavior. Most often we rationalize. Believing that changes in technology or state intervention will provide a cure allows us to continue our lives guilt-free; on the other hand, only focusing on one’s own consumption disregards the fact that climate change is a global problem that requires a large scale solution. Klein herself lived in this cognitive dissonance for years: worried, but avoiding some of the bleaker scientific reports, trying to consume less, but traveling often enough to have elite frequent flyer status.
The difficulty of simply comprehending climate change, holding it all in our head at one time, is more or less what caused philosopher Timothy Morton to call the climate change phenomena a “hyperobject,” something that is so vast in both space and time that it effectively overwhelms reason. Yet even if we could comprehend the entirety of climate change, the sheer terror it invokes makes it difficult to focus on for very long. Klein’s revelation comes in turning this vision of climate change on its head. Shifting the lens, in her words, “from one of crisis to possibility.” Once that change had been made, she writes, “I discovered that I no longer feared immersing myself in the scientific reality of the climate threat. And like many others, I have begun to see all kinds of ways that climate change could become a catalysing force for positive change.”
Parr asks the question lurking behind Klein’s work: if climate change will change everything, what if the changes aren’t good? In trying to answer this question, Parr takes the agnostic view, claiming that climate change not only presents an opportunity for negative political change, but further, that “environmental politics is [sic] well positioned to change how exploitation and oppression are normalized.” And reinforcing this idea, “environmentalism is curtailed if it turns into the ideological supplement of neoliberal capitalism and militarism.”
What Parr warns of can be compared to two post-9/11 actions: the passage of the Patriot Act, and the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a tricky bit of legalese that allowed the U.S. President to undertake the “war on terror” without ever officially declaring war (which would involve Congress). Moments of crisis can deputize a government with extralegal power and suppress checks and balances. At times this allows a government to respond quickly to a time-sensitive situation, but it can also result in abuses of civil rights and civil liberties and set dangerous legal precedents that can be used down the line to justify actions that otherwise would have been deemed illegal. Parr sees in climate change the dual possibilities of a more just, equitable state as well as a more militaristic, authoritarian one.
In general, Parr is skeptical of top-down approaches, and given this country’s—and much of the rest of the world’s—track record on this front it is hard to blame her. She is highly skeptical of governments’ and organizations’ abilities to enact meaningful progress. One of her manifestos is in the line, “Green growth will never be exclusive.” Here “green growth” refers to green and sustainable initiatives, usually in business. These initiatives, she argues, are no more than ways of protecting a status quo, the having your cake and eating it too of climate policy. Here she refers to sustainable clothing and food (which many cannot afford), as well as green initiatives within industrial multi-national corporations like BP or Ford.
Yet it is equally difficult to imagine a consistent, sustainable, and targeted response to climate change that is driven entirely by community actors. As it stands now, changing personal habits and consumption often occurs through guilt or blame—captured by the question “What can I do about climate change?”—and it doesn’t take much time to realize that this approach is not sustainable. By relying on guilt—and in some ways relief or a feeling of righteousness—for acts like recycling, composting, and buying more efficient vehicles, products, and sustainable food, we are allowing climate change and the lack of governmental and corporate response to fracture our societies largely along class lines. Folks with tighter budgets may not have the time or space to compost, and they may be required to have a car for their job. They may be forced to live far away from centers of opportunity and since, generally speaking, the most efficient car at any moment is brand new, those without the financial ability to purchase them will always be seen as less green, enemies of the environment. It doesn’t take very long to realize that the problem goes much deeper than purchasing more efficient, sustainable items, and this is the gist of what Parr means when she argues “Green growth will never become inclusive.” It’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to consume more efficiently, but rather that buying a different brand of breakfast cereal isn’t going to keep the sea from erasing Mumbai, Hong Kong, Miami, or New York City.
Parr’s criticism of government emerges from an almost anarchist undercurrent that runs through her work. Anti-big government, anti-establishment, pro community-level governance, sometimes it’s hard to tell if Parr is a far left idealist or an anti-government libertarian of the right.
However, despite the ideological confusion, there are a number of ways in which Parr’s work brings unique and worthwhile ideas to the table, particularly in her discussion of broadening what we think of as the environment and what is affected by environmental and climatic change.
Parr expands the idea of “environment” (or perhaps just uses a more literal meaning of the word) to refer to a variety of different areas including urban centers, areas of temporary, substandard housing in Nairobi, and the immediate surroundings of both humans and nonhumans. She also expands the idea of climate change to what has taken place in conflict zones, particularly in the Middle East, calling this destruction a sort of “urban clearcutting.”
As Naomi Klein has shown in This Changes Everything and Parr argues in her work, any real response to climate requires a fundamental rethinking of human society. Taking up again the example of the car, it’s clear that what allows substantial reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide they release—as well as the deleterious effects of mining for parts that go into making elements for hybrid and electric vehicles, the earthquakes and other effects caused by fracking, the contaminants added to soil and water by paint, plastics, and the scores of chemicals that are involved in assembling the car and then shipping it to the consumer before the odometer even registers one mile—is not an individual attempt to minimize driving, but a reorganization of life, work, and community where driving is no longer necessary to the same extent. And, if we approach that world, one that is more community focused, our lives no longer driven by capitalism, maybe, just maybe it will be a better place to live than where we are now.
However, it’s difficult to predict the future. Parr turns to urban gardens in Detroit, Venezuela, and Nairobi to point at possibilities for the way forward, but these examples are piecemeal and vague, and largely ignore specifics of geography and culture. Similarly, the perpetual fly in the ointment amid This Changes Everything’s success is the charge that Klein’s predictions are unclear at best and utopian at worst. Leading climate change journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, whose 2005 multi-part series in the New Yorker transformed our understanding of the threat of global warming, accused Klein’s This Changes Everything of being a fable and “cheerfully fuzzy.”
Perhaps what both of these books show, however, is the incredible difficulty of discussing climate change as a singular entity. Marxist political theorist Frederic Jameson’s famous line, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,” is often referenced in climate journalism, but perhaps a more fitting version for these books would be that in response to climate change, it is easier to imagine the world ending than it is to imagine it thriving. And yet, it seems important that people keep trying, even if the endeavor is full of pitfalls.
One doesn’t need to look further than the front cover of Birth of a New Earth to realize that Parr hasn’t escaped some of these pitfalls. The cover photograph is of a child on a swingset submerged in a few feet of water. The child is standing on the swing’s seat, holding onto the support chains, and the photo is taken from behind, with the child and the viewer looking out towards an endless expanse of water. Parr makes this connection between climate change and children clear in the work’s final pages. She writes that if humans have not done everything they can to fight back against militarism, corporations, and authoritarian government to enact real change: “We lose the right to breathe fresh air, quench our thirst with clean water, and even to look our children in the eyes and state with absolute conviction that we have done everything in our power to leave behind us a world they and other generations will find worth living in.”
I can’t say whether the image was chosen by Parr or, more likely, an editor or publisher later in the production process. However, I can say that the image resonates with a problem I felt throughout Parr’s book—and to a lesser extent, Klein’s—a certain couching of climate change in the future tense. A what will happen instead of a what is happening. This focus on the future, a future which, no matter how close, can always be abstracted and distanced, made hypothetical, is reinforced by the photograph on the cover. Climate change, it implies, will take away our future, our children’s future, and our children’s children’s future. But lost in this argument is the fact that it’s already changed our lives today.
This Changes Everything and Birth of a New Earth are both manifestos on moving forward in the age of climate change. But in trying to predict the future, they open themselves up to failure and invite criticism, and through trying to discuss climate change broadly, they are set up to fail. Perhaps the next big breakthrough in the discussion of climate change should be to do away with the word “future,” as well as “climate change,” a term which tries to encompass forces and objects that are so vast and ever-shifting it is always destined to fail.
It’s time to accept that the old rules don’t apply: any book written today is a book of climate change.
Robert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.
When I was a twenty-one-year-old college student and had zero sense of self-preservation, I rode alone on the train in Russia several times between Petrozavodsk and St. Petersburg—unaccompanied, on an overnight train, sleeping in a bunk car with strangers. I was also very chatty because I was trying to learn Russian. Talking up Russians who wanted to sleep seemed like a way to endear myself to my bunkmates and perfect my language at the same time.
At first, it was hard to start conversations. Finally, at one point, one drunk Russian man was lamenting my lack of useful knowledge—I didn’t know card games or anything about professional swimmers. “What do you study?” he asked me.
When I mentioned that I knew Pasternak’s poetry, his face lit up. “Your schools aren’t complete shit after all!” he said joyously, as though his faith in American education had just been fully restored.
Suddenly we had something to talk about. Poetry. Russians know their writers. That lesson stayed with me. From then on, I advanced conversationally on my bunk-mates by mentioning Pushkin, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva. If they didn’t care for poetry, I could switch to the novelists. The tactic rarely failed.
When I received Time of Gratitude to review, I was expecting to discover a new Russian poet. That is, a poet who fit in well with the other Russian poets I knew. A poet “like” Pasternak, or “like” Blok, even if it was in some intangible abstract way that we like to describe one poet as being like another. I had expectations about what a Russian poet would sound like, given my experience of the modernist Russian canon.
But Time of Gratitude is unexpected, in many ways. Its very first lines, which are an opening to an essay that pays tribute to Boris Pasternak, read:
I am writing of a Poet who possessed an Apollonian beauty at the age of seventy and of an ecstatic twenty-two-year-old…myself—‘and I cannot draw a line between us’: not between myself now and myself then, nor between them both and the divinity of the Poet whom the young man adored.
These lines took me by surprise—Aygi can’t, he says, “draw a line” between himself and Boris Pasternak, and, in truth, his poetry itself doesn’t sound “Pasternakian.” If I started conversations on the train by bringing up the work of Gennady Aygi, I am not sure how far I would have gotten.
In fact, I wouldn’t have gotten far at all: Aygi’s assertion of his place alongside Pasternak would likely have been contested, and perhaps even seen as subversive. Aygi is not easily granted a spot in the canon of Russian poetry, for a number of reasons.
While he has many admirers, among them the poet Alex Cigale, and his long-time friend and translator Peter France, and while many scholars of Russian literature have encountered his work, he is often described as “avant-garde” and as being outside of the Russian lyrical tradition, with very little apparent influence from Russian masters. Such detectable influence from the writers that Russians think of as “theirs” is important.
It is possible that Aygi’s Chuvash background and its influence on his work might have something to do with his outsider status as well. A rural region almost 500 miles east of Moscow, Chuvashia has its own Turkic language and rural culture. Aygi’s work is marked by rural images, values, and a spirituality rooted in nature. In his poetry, this background melds with European modernism in unexpected ways: Time of Gratitude also comments on Kafka, Nietschze, and Kierkegaard.
On top of all this, Aygi was writing in a singularly oppressive historical moment. In my search for interviews and information about Aygi, I found critics that see his work as genius, those that see his work as spiritual, and those that see him as “not Russian,” almost a fraudulent presence amongst Russian poets. The tributes in Time of Gratitude ended up striking me as Aygi’s own commentary on participating in multiple worlds—erasing the lines between Chuvash and Russian, between languages, between philosophies of writing—or re-framing those relationships to create a new sense of unity within himself and his own experience. Such moves are always threatening to someone, and it seems that Aygi has his detractors.
In his introduction to Time of Gratitude, translator Peter France claims that Aygi, who died in 2006, clearly did not suffer from Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” but was instead “a poet of gratitude, gratitude for the human and natural world, gratitude for the artistic creations of others.” “Gratitude” might be another way of describing “influence” for Aygi, but it struck me as a lovelier description because it encompasses the many ways that Aygi felt literary influence as both personal and communal, not simply a matter of poetics. One of Aygi’s most touching memories in Time of Gratitude is a conversation with Pasternak when Aygi was going over a draft of one of the older poet’s novels:
At our second meeting he asked me a question with some embarrassment, slowly and hesitatingly: “Tell me…you are a man…of the people…forgive me for talking like this!…Tell me, does my novel seem to you not to be ours?”
I was staggered—it was as if all the depth of the suffering of my incredible interlocutor was revealed to me. “Boris Leonidovich, what are you saying! It’s ours, it’s ours absolutely!” in the ardour of my reply I was almost choking. Pasternak threw his arms around me.
This conversation underscores Pasternak’s perspective on art, which seems to have been Pasternak’s primary influence on the young Aygi. He describes Pasternak as an artist who saw each human being as “a complete world” in themselves; this dignifying of the individual endowed them with what Aygi calls the “Pasternakian Freedom,” an individual spiritual significance which both dignified the individual’s voice and connected all people into a shared humanity. This perspective seems to have both validated Aygi’s unique voice as a Chuvash-Russian poet and connected Aygi to what was ours—a literary tradition of “the people,” one that values connectedness to the extant literary tradition but also cherished individual voice: “I simply abandoned myself to the power of his Freedom—this mattered more than ‘literary problems,’” writes Aygi. “And this Freedom discovered for itself where he could spread himself in the expanse of its flight and its magnificence.” Such recollections are important to what Aygi refers to as his “spiritual orientation,” by which he seems to mean both his spiritual beliefs and the “spiritual orientation” of much of his poetry. Peter France touches on this spiritual affinity between Pasternak and Aygi in the obituary he wrote in The Guardian: “like Pasternak’s, his poetry was a poetry of light, seeking to assert the values of human community and oneness with the rest of creation.”
It does not seem odd to me that “community” and “oneness” would have begun with an appreciation for the individual, particularly an individual who crossed ethnic and linguistic categories as Aygi did. Born in 1934 in Chuvashia, Aygi moved to Moscow in his early twenties to pursue his education. His first poems were written in his native Chuvash, earning him disapproval from the Russian community. Pasternak encouraged him to switch to Russian, assuring him that “only writing in Russian will allow you to articulate fully everything that is happening within you, in the way of an emerging poetry, as we talk.” The choice to switch seems to have been a difficult question of identity for Aygi, both because claiming a place amongst Russian poets was to claim a “greatness” and literary influence that would quickly be resented, and because it may be seen as rejection of his Chuvash heritage.
Peter France records in Aygi’s obituary from The Guardian that it was at this time, when deciding to write poetry in Russian, that Aygi changed his name: his original surname was Lisin, a Russified name, and Aygi was properly Chuvashian, meaning “that one.” It seems like a calculated choice, but it did not protect Aygi from being shut out of both Russian and literary circles for most of his life. In the same essay on Pasternak, Aygi notes that the writer Hikmet warned him, “There is no question you must go over to Russian, it will correspond to what you have in you. But remember: They will never forgive you for this move,—that you, the son of a small nation, will exist within a great literature.”
While Aygi does not clarify an exact “they” that Hikmet is referencing, such lack of forgiveness seems evident in the larger critical community. Since perestroika such silencing is probably not malicious; rather, it is the unfortunate historical aftermath of a political environment that sought to silence difference. It is startling to realize how limited our knowledge of Russian writers of the twentieth century might really be, given the extent of Soviet censorship, and it humbles the notion of a “canon” that is easily recognizable to American students and Russian traingoers alike, to think of what might have been missed. Aygi was still alive and living in Moscow when I was there, but no Russian literature instructor ever pointed me to him. Nor would they have known to do so.
Time of Gratitude is an unusual text: the collected pieces are both prose and poetry, some of them written for events and some written as personal reflection. Translator Peter France has organized the book into two sections. The first one is devoted to Russian and Chuvash writers and artists, including Boris Pasternak, Kazimir Malevich, Varlam Shalamov, and Chuvash poet Mikhail Sespel. The second section includes pieces in honor of non-Russian writers and artists, and includes Kafka, Baudelaire, Max Jacob, and the Swedish writer Tomas Tranströmer. The title, “Time of Gratitude,” was borrowed from a cycle of poems that Aygi wrote in 1976-7, marking a time of grieving over the politically inspired murder of his friend Konstantin Bogatyrev. In publishing this new collection of Aygi’s works that pay tribute and gratitude to other friends, France concluded that the same title was still appropriate.
In a sense, this collection is a complement to the earlier collection of poems, as expressions of thanks to writers who helped to sustain Aygi through the “difficult times,” which Aygi describes as beginning in 1958 “like a single immense dark avalanche.” While he is not always specific about the precise nature of the difficult times in Time of Gratitude, the reader understands why France says that Aygi “wrote from a deep awareness of the losses and destructions of the 20th century.” In Time of Gratitude, Aygi touches on the imprisonment of Chuvash poets, the death of friends, the censorship of his own work and the censorship and death of Pasternak.
In an interview published in New Directions’ 2007 edition of Aygi’s poetry, Field-Russia (also translated by Peter France), Aygi describes how he understands “literary influence,” and his comments shed light on the structure of the pieces selected for Time of Gratitude. Aygi claims that his “literary education” can be traced to “something different,” which he describes as “addressing the writers themselves rather than their ideas, whether literary or otherwise.” During dark periods of his life, he insists that his mind would turn to the ideas of certain writers, and he would write to them as people with whom he was having an existential debate, rather than write as if he were trying to build images in accordance with the structure of their work. Because of this relationship with writers as partners in conversation rather than as masters to be imitated, “the continuingly influential and genuinely living images of certain teachers constituted for me their ‘legacy,’ their life-long support, and the strength of this kind of ‘contact’ was more powerful than any literary considerations.”
This existential “dialogue through poetry” is present in his poems in Time of Gratitude, such as “For a Conversation About K.” Dedicated to Olga Mashkova, “K.” refers to Kafka:
earth is just a thought—freely visiting:
sometimes known to me in a thought that is Prague:
and then I see a grave in the city—
it is like a grief-thought:
earth—of suffering!…his—as of that thought which is now so constant!…
I shall say of that grave “a dream”:
and—as even wounds do not make us believe it is real—
he seems dreamed in another sleep:
as if unending:
Of all the poems in Time of Gratitude, this one struck me as most “like” Aygi’s work in other published volumes. Sleep is a theme in many of his works, and the ethereal sense of questioning reality seems to be a consistent quality of his writing, even in his prose in Time of Gratitude. While the poem is thematically “Kafkaesque” in that it deals with the nature of reality and the mystery of suffering, it also flouts expectations of “Russian” poetry with its use of free verse and its chant-like syntactical structure. Several critics have described his work as “shamanistic,” an adjective that recalls his rural background and emphasizes his avant-garde characteristics.
It was not uncommon for Soviet writers to be unpublished at home and have their works published—sometimes without them even knowing—in the West. With perestroika, Aygi developed a broad European audience, and his work has slowly become better known to American readers. Peter France points out in an interview in Beloit Poetry Journal that while Aygi is considered a “modern classic” to a few, he is still fairly unknown, despite being a pioneer of free verse in Russia and bringing recognition to Chuvashian writers. Time of Gratitude is one attempt to gather and publish more of Aygi’s work; France hopes that at some point Aygi’s extensive collection of letters to people all over the world will be gathered together and published.
I did find Time of Gratitude to be a personal and intimate way to enter the world of Aygi’s poetry for the first time. Since I began with Aygi by reading his memories of those who had been “fathers” and mentors to him, I felt invited to encounter the poet as a person first, aside from the poems, and thereafter it was difficult to separate the poet from the poems. France has commented that, as Aygi’s friend, he often experienced the same difficulty. Given Aygi’s approach to other writers though, as “genuinely living images” that sustained him in ways poems by themselves never could, it seems fitting that Aygi might be introduced to a wider American public this way.
Ryan Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University, and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.
For Mireille Gansel, the work of translation is an all-consuming task. Before embarking on a project, Gansel first immerses herself in the world of the poet she is translating. She studies the historical context of their writing as well as the personal context. Wherever possible, she engages with their physical environment: she visits their home, observes their writing space. And, ideally, she listens to the poet read their work aloud. Attempting to translate a single German word, “sensible,” in a poem by Reiner Kunze, Gansel travels from West to East Germany to “[listen] to the poet read, alert to his intonations and facial expressions. In the tiny blue kitchen, I was conscious of his precarious everyday life.” She imagines the letters from friends in exile that he’ll never receive, and the mingling of his two languages, a German abstracted by Nazism and a Czech repressed by war, both of which survive in the poetry of his contemporaries, in songs from his childhood. Here, in this intersection of past and present, Gansel finds the word for “sensible”: fragile.
In her book-length essay, Translation as Transhumance, Gansel describes employing this practice of immersion for her translations of Bertolt Brecht, Peter Huchel, Xuan Dieu, and, most famously, the complete works of Nelly Sachs and her correspondence with Paul Celan. Gansel divides the book into short chapters, poetic meditations on a particular place or poet, which document her travels and her revelations about translation: Translation is the “essence of hospitality.” It is “a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge.” It can be understood “both as risk-taking and as continual re-examination,” the translator’s work fluid, changing as word-meanings morph through time, and even as the translator herself changes. Gansel inserts original German and Vietnamese poetry throughout and explains how she comes to each translation, what each taught her, in a word-level analysis that will speak to any student of translation or of poetry.
The book’s title, which is the same in both English and French, refers to a shepherd’s job: “transhumance” is the long, slow movement of flocks across plains and valleys as they search for greener land by way of ancient routes. It is “the slow and patient crossing of countries, all borders eradicated.” At a time in which words are losing their meanings and border walls are once again growing tall, Gansel illustrates for her reader the difficult work of border crossing.
After working on her German translations, Gansel travels to Vietnam, where she lives for several years, learning Vietnamese in order to translate an anthology of poetry to protest threats of American intervention. To fully understand the music of the language, she learns to play the monochord, which she calls the soul of Vietnamese poetry, and to understand the poetry of a dying mountain people, she spends time in their raised bamboo houses, sharing their rice. She learns to consider, alongside a word’s literal translation, “the implicit allusions of an entire social imaginary.” She gives, as an example, the word duyen, which literally means “attachment,” but could be translated as “love sworn for eternity,” “bond of the soul,” “nuptials,” or “fate,” and references a wildly popular eighteenth-century epic. The one word cannot be translated as just one word.
Back in Europe, translating Nelly Sachs, because Gansel can’t speak to her, she travels to Stockholm and pours through the German-language Bible that Sachs was reading as she wrote, trying to understand the ancient Hebrew rhythm that Sachs absorbed and infused into her poetry. She decides that “from now on translation would mean taking syntactical and semantic risks” and begins employing extended compounds like “the ones standing-with-you-in-the-light!” Over the course of the book, she arrives at one lesson after another, in one country after the next.
Of course, this type of total immersion isn’t available to most working translators. Translations as Transhumance is certainly less a how-to than a memoir that lets the reader in on Gansel’s process. For her, that immersion becomes necessary because of the particular contexts of her work: in each case, Gansel grapples with the colonization of language. For example, in translating Vietnamese poetry into French, the language of the country’s colonizer, she must be careful to avoid “the French tradition of translation that favored an exotic approach,” which, as her translation partner put it, “arouses simply a sense of foreignness, without being able to communicate the emotions.” Similarly, in translating Brecht, she is acutely aware of German as the language of oppression, and she attempts to capture the playwright’s reappropriation of a Nazified German in his work. Languages, she finds, exist both within and outside of their colonization. In addition to being the language of the oppressors, for people like Gansel’s elderly relatives, German is the language of family. Their German is accented with the languages of neighboring countries, “punctuated by exiles and passed down through generations… This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language.”
Often, Gansel refers back to this idea, what she refers to as the interior or soul language, which exists without a home, a sort of mystical truth-meaning that must be captured by the translator in mere words: “translation came to mean learning to listen to the silences between lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.” As her mentor in Vietnam, Nguyen Khac Vien, writes, “Staying faithful means first and foremost seeking to recreate the work’s humanity, its universality,” and liberating language from exoticism and appropriation. This is a poetic and engaging directive, if nebulous. It gestures towards the poet’s work of infusing small words with great and inexpressible Truth, as they exist both in and beyond their context.
But more concretely, in pursuing this goal Gansel aligns herself with a particular strand of translation theory. On one end of the spectrum is a practice that prizes word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase translation and even grammatical fidelity. Meanwhile, those on the other end of the spectrum focus on the meaning of the original text, accounting for the cultures of the two languages and valuing a translation that has the same effect on a reader as the original. Gansel falls definitively on the latter end of the spectrum, claiming in another essay: “There are fidelities that are worse than betrayals.” Instead, she mines culture in order to communicate a poet’s larger ideas and references, risking “going beyond the literal meanings of the words, in order to access their deeper meanings.” When Gansel speaks of a language of the soul, what she really means is: Put the dictionary aside, for a moment. Immerse yourself in the world of the poet, and their words will unfurl to their full size and meaning. Language is limiting, so let us engage it with all the tools at our disposal. With thoroughness, with humanity, with love, communication is possible.
One cannot read these meditations without remembering that Translation as Transhumance is itself a work in translation. For this reason, I wished more than once for a translator’s note. What is translator Ros Schwartz’s theory of translation? Did Schwartz visit Gansel’s desk? Did Gansel read portions of the book aloud to her, press her tongue to her teeth and bring the words to life? Gansel includes poems in German and Vietnamese, as previously mentioned, which we see translated into English. If we are to read pages about translating a single word, we must know if the English version comes from the French translation Gansel made, or from the original, or through an intermediary. Schwartz is a prolific and award-winning translator of French into English who has written and spoken widely. I would have relished a few words from her on this meta-project.
The success of Translation as Transhumance lies, finally, in the quality of this translated prose. Because we can’t actually read the final products of Gansel’s work, we depend on her descriptions of success, which tend to result in a lesson for the translator. By using a lyric voice that leads the reader from memory to theory and back again, our author (mostly) avoids moralizing and instead illuminates a fascinating and earnest process. In the final pages, Gansel comes to one more realization:
[A]s I sat at the ancient table beneath the blackened beams, it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other.
This excerpt perhaps best explains Gansel’s obsessive commitment to research and immersion. She is trying to decenter herself. The language of another’s soul is accessible once hubris gives way to empathy. And so, with slow and patient work, the borders can be crossed.
Rachel R. Taube is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UNC Wilmington. She has been an Electric Literature-Catapult Scholarship recipient and a Tent Creative Writing Fellow, and she holds a masters in Creative Writing and Gender Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. You can find her fiction in Storychord and Apiary Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @racheltaube.
COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN
by Luke Harding Vintage Books, 354 pages
reviewed by Susan Sheu
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence. — from an unclassified report by the CIA, FBI, and NSA, January 2017, in Collusion by Luke Harding
To live in the current political environment and try to make sense of it—and to have hope for a democratic future—requires stamina, a focused mind, and a stomach for weeding through fake news and whataboutism to settle on the most pertinent, verifiable facts. This is complicated by the fact that the journalists we rely on are both reporting news and defending themselves online against rhetorical and sometimes physical threats from Donald Trump and his supporters, some who are real people and some who are bots and trolls deployed from other countries.
Following the news has come to feel like the classic sci-fi book Ender’s Game, where players in warlike videogame discover they are actually soldiers fighting a real war, remotely. Both Rachel Maddow, Rhodes Scholar and now MSNBC network commentator, and veteran progressive writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, use the phrase “build a wall chart” to describe the complex web of Russian post-Soviet spies, oligarchs, criminals, and the network of shell corporations and money that link them to key American business people and, now that Trump is president, government workers.
If these two keen political observers need a wall chart to keep the players straight, the rest of us need a wall chart, an appendix, and a Virgil-like guide to remind us who’s who and redirect us when our attention flags or our minds get lost in the alphabet soup of intelligence agencies, banks, corporations, and the jumble of Russian and former Eastern bloc names. Fortunately, Luke Harding, a British journalist, has written an expertly researched book to lead us through the labyrinth.
Reading Harding’s new book Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, published in mid-November by Vintage Books, gives the sense that we are living in a John Le Carre novel where we are not certain that the West won the Cold War or that the Cold War ever ended. Collusion is a deep dive into the coverage of the administration and the crisscrossing lines of Russian money and influence. Harding is an award-winning journalist who lived in Russia from 2007 to 2011 as The Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief, until the Kremlin ordered him to leave the country, the first such expulsion of a Western journalist since the Cold War. His recent articles in The Guardian are largely responsible for the average political news junkie’s knowledge about Trump campaign and administration ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin. His meetings with Christopher Steele, the British former spy, Russia expert, and now freelance intelligence agent who wrote the Steele Dossier, also inform the narrative. Steele, Harding tells us, believes the dossier he researched and wrote from 2014 to 2016 on Trump’s Russian ties is “70 to 90 percent accurate.”
If these two keen political observers need a wall chart to keep the players straight, the rest of us need a wall chart, an appendix, and a Virgil-like guide to remind us who’s who and redirect us when our attention flags or our minds get lost in the alphabet soup of intelligence agencies, banks, corporations, and the jumble of Russian and former Eastern bloc names.
Using Steele’s work and his own investigation, Harding is tackling a subject that is at least one order of magnitude more complex than the Watergate corruption scandal in Richard Nixon’s campaign and administration. His subject and style recall Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s All the President’s Men, or the 1976 film adaptation, which was seminal to a generation’s understanding the depth of lies, corruption, resentment, and revenge, that were ultimately responsible for Nixon’s rise to the presidency, as well as the leaks and law enforcement that led to Nixon’s fall. Harding seems to have a similar goal in Collusion. While our media era seems to be dominated by hot takes, shallow analysis, opinions, and trolling, Harding’s work is thorough, engaging, and one would hope a benchmark for a higher standard for journalism than what Americans consumed in the election cycle of 2015 and 2016.
In October, just before Harding’s book went to press, the FBI indicted Paul Manafort, formerly Trump campaign manager, and his business partner Rick Gates. They are now awaiting trial under house arrest. Earlier this summer FBI arrested former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos, who is now cooperating with the investigation.
I have updated this essay every day for the last two weeks, trying to stay ahead of the quicksand of breaking news about Russia’s ties to Donald Trump and the Republican Party, and I am pretty certain that it will be out of date by the time you read it. In the time since I’ve finished reading Harding’s book and begun writing this essay, Michael Flynn, who served for three weeks as Trump’s National Security Advisor, has pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI and has agreed to cooperate with its investigation. Most intelligence and legal experts believe the light charge against Flynn is evidence of Mueller’s strategy to get him to cooperate in the case against other Trump administration officials, including Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, Jr. Writing in the Atlantic in mid-November, Julia Ioffe revealed a leaked email correspondence in 2016 between Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Donald Trump, Jr., discussing the possibility of collaborating to share espionage for political favors. Robert Mueller, who leads the special investigation, has subpoenaed Donald Trump and Kushner’s financial transactions with Deutsche Bank.
The Frankfurt-based financial institution has been implicated since the 2008 financial crisis in international money laundering, including for the Russian government and its oligarchs. News broke a couple of days ago that K.T. MacFarland, Flynn’s former Deputy National Security Advisor, now says she has no recollection of her boss’s contacts with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, despite having sent emails arranging the two men’s correspondence. Paul Manafort violated the terms of his bail by ghostwriting an op-ed with a member of Russian intelligence, in an attempt to influence public opinion about his political work on behalf of Russia in Ukraine. Manafort’s previous agreement with the FBI is now void. A Republican Party delegate from Texas confirmed that Trump’s only contribution to the GOP Convention platform in 2016 was to demand that the United States scale back its assistance to Ukraine against Russian military aggression and political interference. In what seems almost like an aside, in the last couple of days there have been news reports of a conservative operative reaching out to Trump campaign member Rick Dearborn and now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to arrange back-channel meetings between Trump’s and Putin’s advisors at the National Rifle Association’s meeting in 2016. And this morning, as I write this draft, news is breaking that Flynn was texting on Trump’s inauguration day in January 2017 to broker deals to “rip up” American sanctions against Russia and to build Russian-backed nuclear plants in the Middle East. On many days, the “drip drip drip” that political watchers write to describe the ubiquity of leaks that expose the corruption in the Trump administration seems more like a broken water main.
The phrase other than “drip drip drip” and “build a wall chart” that writers tend to use when writing about the Trump-Russia ties as well as the hidden power structure of all politics is “follow the money,” borrowed from Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation into Nixon’s Watergate crisis. Following the trail of money to Trump, his family, and his associates, according to Harding and other journalists such as David Fahenthold at the Washington Post and many others, leads us to troubling conclusions. How he has used the office of the presidency to enrich himself by promoting his golf courses, chain of Trump hotels, including lucrative new Trump and Kushner family deals in China, and his private club in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, journalists and legal experts argue, almost certainly violates the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution. While Trump might have lied during the campaign about being a billionaire, perhaps after his bankruptcies and uneven record in business being only a multimillionaire, the presidency has given Trump new business opportunities and the promise of greater future wealth.
Others who are opposed to the administration and suspicious of the election take other routes to question its legitimacy. Legal experts opine on whether Trump or his associates might also be guilty of the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized citizens from negotiating with a foreign country over a dispute with the United States, which seems to have occurred during the election and prior to the transfer of power at the Trump’s inauguration. Impeachment seems unlikely as long as Republicans control the U.S. Congress. Political analysts question whether members of the Trump administration are guilty of violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits all but the highest members of the executive branch from engaging in some forms of political activity and advocacy, as Kellyanne Conway and Nikki Haley appear to have done recently by supporting conservative candidates through tweets and press statements. Pundits and political observers have watched Trump’s erratic, reactive Twitter feed and press appearances and discussed the likelihood of his cabinet members invoking the 25th Amendment, which designates the procedure for replacing a president in the event of death, resignation, resignation, or removal, presumably due to incompetence or other reasons.
But Harding and others investigating Trump’s long history of Russia clients and associates are following a different but related trail. As Harding points out, the three-decade-long kompromat file on Trump that likely exists in a KGB vault in Moscow, the long trail of suspicious and illogical real estate transactions between Russian tycoons and the Trump Organization, the vast Deutsche Bank loans to Trump in 2008, and the undisclosed financial dealings that Trump’s missing tax returns are hiding, all point to a file cabinet of potential blackmail material on Trump:
Together, these factors appeared to place Trump under some sort of obligation. One possible manifestation of this was the president’s courting of Putin in Hamburg. Another was the composition of his campaign team and government, especially in its first iteration. Wherever you looked there was a Russian trace. Trump’s pick for secretary of state? Rex Tillerson, a figure known and trusted in Moscow, and recipient of the Order of Friendship. National security adviser? Michael Flynn, Putin’s dinner companion and a beneficiary of undeclared Russian fees. Campaign manager? Paul Manafort, longtime confidant to ex-Soviet oligarchs. Foreign policy adviser? Carter Page, an alleged Moscow asset who gave documents to Putin’s spies. Commerce secretary? Wilbur Ross, an entrepreneur with Russia-connected investments. Personal lawyer? Michael Cohen, who sent emails to Putin’s press secretary. Business partner? Felix Sater, son of a Russian American mafia boss. And other personalities too. It was almost as if Putin had played a role in naming Trump’s cabinet.
Who Trump is financially beholden to abroad, whether in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, or Russia, matters because it affects the security and sovereignty of the United States. As detailed in early November leaks of international financial documents, called “the Paradise Papers,” the links connecting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s family to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other members of Trump’s team may explain some of the Mafioso-style opacity and quid pro quo demands between the United States and Russia.
Following the international money highlights several facts. First, while it is widely understood that among all of the Russian oligarchs, the most powerful and likely the richest is Putin, who was a KGB Lieutenant Colonel and FSB chief prior to becoming the Russian president and prime minister. Like Trump, who runs some of his business holdings through his children and son-in-law Jared Kushner, it appears that Putin’s wealth may hide behind his son-in-law, who controls Sibur, a Russian gas and petrochemical company. Sibur is a client of Navigator Holdings, a shipping company partly owned by Wilbur Ross. Both are part of the network of real and shell corporations that run through the Bank of Cyprus, which also has deep connections to Wilbur Ross and Deutsche Bank, and is known by intelligence and law enforcement agencies as an effective money laundering institution for Russian billionaires and others with shared financial interests.
The class and money structure Putin has put in place since assuming the presidency in 2000 recollects the court of Louis XIV of France, where concentric circles of wealthy and powerful nobility live in varying degrees of opulence around one man who is the strongest and richest of them all. As with Louis XIV’s famous dictum, “l’etat, c’est moi,” Putin is the law. The oligarchs and the upper classes are content provided their wealth remains intact. But Russia’s finances are insecure, perhaps because mafia-like corruption and opaque accounting is the ubiquitous dark matter of their economy. If the economy falters, Harding argues, the wealthy will become disloyal. Their abandonment could lead to a popular uprising that would threaten Putin’s power. As Harding writes:
What terrified Russian leadership was that a depressed economy could lead to hunger and discontent. This might spread among Putin’s conservative base and spark into something bigger and less containable. The specter was mass revolt.
The second financial and legal fact is the Magnitsky Act, passed in a bipartisan effort by the United States Congress in 2012. By design, it harms Russia’s economy and angers Putin because it imposes sanctions in retaliation for the imprisonment and death of a Russian accountant. Here is where it becomes obvious that we need a wall chart, or at least a very clear head. It is easy to lose the thread of why the death of a tax accountant in Russian should matter to a farmer in Iowa or a student in California. Sergei Magnitsky died in 2009 under suspicious circumstances, likely torture and lack of medical care, after he was imprisoned for investigating Russian officials for tax fraud. Under President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the United States sought to enforce norms of democracy on a country that wasn’t acting as though it wanted to be recognized as such. The law and its extension in 2016 is designed to penalize global human rights abuses by denying 18 of the wealthiest Russian oligarchs access to the American banking system. Following the sanctions, Putin banned Americans from adopting Russian children, which has provided the Trump’s administration with code words to discuss “Russian adoptions” as a convenient cover to America turning a blind eye to human rights violations and financial malfeasance.
The third financial event to consider is that President Trump was forced to renew Russian sanctions in 2017 after a nearly unanimous Congressional vote cut off Russian access to the lucrative American credit market. However, despite the Congressional vote in August, as of October the Trump administration is delaying enforcing the sanctions, trying to render them moot despite bipartisan pressure from Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin. As of last month, the United States owed China $1.2 trillion, or 30 percent of the debt the United States owed to foreign countries. Provided the Russian sanctions remain in place, America will be borrowing more from China rather than Russia. If we believe that Russians helped engineer Trump’s success in the Republican primary and then manipulated social media to suppress votes, leaked Democratic emails including Hillary Clinton’s, and possibly tampered with votes, all in order to secure an ideal Manchurian Candidate to enrich Russia while also enriching himself in the model of a tin pot dictator, then we would conclude that Putin is not getting a good return on his investment:
For Vladimir Putin, this was a profound setback. The Kremlin’s campaign to help Trump win the White House had a primary goal. That was to bring about an end to America’s economic embargo. (The secondary aim was to shove a finger in the United States’ preexisting social and ideological wounds. This had succeeded well enough.)
Observing who will benefit from these unlikely alliances and following the money is key to understanding why so many conservative American tribalists like Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and Devin Nunes of California and Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin are choosing party over country and joining forces with a Russian-backed president and advisors. While extremist social and religious conservatives like Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Roy Moore have stated their admiration for Vladimir Putin because of his repression of homosexuality and gay marriage in Russia, for many Republican politicians it comes down to how they supplement their civil servant salaries. Money from their donors, familiar conservative American kingmakers such as the Koch Brothers and Robert and Rebekah Mercer, will cease to flow into the Republican lawmakers reelection funds if the American judiciary is not packed with conservative Constitutional originalist judges, if taxes are not slashed and the size of government isn’t reduced to almost nothing, if spending on education, health care, and public services isn’t dwarfed, and legal protections for minorities eliminated. Money, and the power it confers, have put us into this situation.
While Putin and other powerful Russians are motivated by money, the sense from Harding’s book is that they are also motivated by cultural pride. Harding notes that, all of the Russian strongmen who have ruled since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, regardless of their stated politics, have revered Russian culture perhaps above ideology. Christopher Steele, one of the first Westerners to visit formerly forbidden sites after the fall of communism, found in Stalin’s secret bunker not homages to Lenin or Marx but instead an imperial portrait of Peter the Great. According to a Guardian interview in 2014 with a hacker from the secretive Russian mercenary group Shaltai-Boltai (also known as Humpty Dumpty), “Putin is a genuine patriot who believed that his rule was in Russia’s best interests” and “really is like a tsar.” As a KGB spy under Communism who served in East Germany, Putin viewed the dissolution of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century.” It makes sense, then, that in Putin’s incursions into Ukraine as well as Georgia and his actions to weaken NATO, the European Union, and the United States, he seeks to rebuild a Russian empire.
While Putin and other powerful Russians are motivated by money, the sense from Harding’s book is that they are also motivated by cultural pride. Harding notes that, all of the Russian strongmen who have ruled since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, regardless of their stated politics, have revered Russian culture perhaps above ideology.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not only threatened his country’s position and stability, but also humiliated Putin by pointing out that Russia is an autocracy where the rule of law means little. It makes sense then that the damage Putin would seek to inflict would not be limited to money but also to expose the underlying hypocrisy of an imperfect but stable Western democracy trying to impose its value system on an ancient culture. Russians influencing the election through social media demonstrated that their strategists knew us better than we knew ourselves. Harding writes that borderless hackers like Wikileaks and Shaltai-Boltai, were like “privateers” in a “cyber world [that] looked like the high seas of long ago,” selling their services to the highest bidder while proclaiming their “authenticity” and commitment higher principles of transparency. The US joint intelligence agencies’ report on January 6, 2017, note that Wikileaks moved its hosting to Moscow in September 2016 and “suggests that Wikileaks had become, in effect, a subbranch of Russian intelligence and its in-house publishing wing” for disseminating hacked data.
That Russian strategists pushing “crooked Hillary” memes and messages on Facebook and Twitter in states like Wisconsin and Michigan could influence voters showed that they had a deep understanding of the resentments that divide urban from rural and educated from less educated voters. General Mike Hayden, a former CIA and NSA director, says the Russians used “weaponized data” and “shoved it into U.S. space.” The military targets our loyalties and our sentiments, making the attacks more insidious. Russian troll farms pumped out nonstop tweets and posts and created Facebook groups that purported to be Black Lives Matter groups, or anti-Black Lives Matter groups, or Muslim activist groups, or nativist Texans who wanted Muslims out. It was as though the antagonists knew exactly what recipe was needed to recreate a divisive, Tower of Babel environment that would confuse low-information voters and inhibit any rational thought or discourse.
This recipe to deepen existing social divides seemed to be a natural extension of the outrage pedaled by rightwing strategists, beginning with Nixon’s “dirty trickster” Roger Stone and Fox News founder Roger Ailes. The propaganda packaged by Fox News and its descendants as journalism—such as Breitbart, InfoWars, and Project Veritas not only draws viewers with free time and a penchant for resentment and conspiracy theories—but also increasingly serves as a rightwing Greek chorus of outrage and a source of policy ideas. Now that Trump is president, Fox and Breitbart’s chief Steve Bannon are increasingly playing the role of official state media. Stone still works as a lobbyist and general force of chaos in Washington. He and his longtime lobbyist partner Paul Manafort came up with the hardball negative presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
After Washington, D.C., Manafort took his talents to the former Soviet Union. Beginning in the 1990s, Manafort worked for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch whose mafia ties prohibit him from obtaining an American visa. Deripaska supported Ukrainian candidate and former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, who won the presidency in 2010 after a humiliating defeat and attempt to steal the election in 2004. Manafort’s job was to rehabilitate Yanukovych’s image among Ukrainians and encourage their trust, ending in a victory. Upon winning, Yanukovych promptly began to reverse fledgling democratic gains, crushing the press, courts, parliament, and other institutions under his thuggish control. He and his family quickly amassed a fortune from Russian loans. He began persecuting the more urbane and educated Ukrainians, and jailed his more progressive female political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Working to polish Yanukovych’s image and manage his campaign in Ukraine earned Manafort $12.7 million, recorded in mafia-like secret ledgers and discovered in August 2016. Yanukovych was deposed in 2014 and fled Ukraine, stealing vast sums of money. The social uprising that helped to depose Yanukovych was followed by Russian military incursions. Manafort appears to have taken his payment and moved his operations back to the United States, where he soon would serve a similar candidate’s campaign. Like the campaign in Ukraine and his previous American work, he would seek to sow division and confusion among rival cultural factions as a political strategy and hope for the same victory.
The news and political landscape changes so rapidly and the ground underneath us seems to shift with every news alert about the latest unhinged presidential tweet threatening the press or North Korea or judicial decision to overrule a ban or uphold an executive order. News about Russia and Robert Mueller’s investigation into Donald Trump’s financial is shuffled in with reports of ICE raiding Latino neighborhoods, New York Times profiles of ordinary white supremacists, protests about Confederate statues, the dismantling of the State Department and national parks, sexual predators in politics and media, threats to remove legal protections for LGBTQ people, the disastrous attacks on American healthcare and system of taxation, it is hard to see what if any connection exists between all of these reports of destruction. Our attention spans are worn thin by our social media feeds, the breaking news alerts on our phones, and the shock and awe pace of this administration’s attempt to overturn any remains of Enlightenment liberalism and the Obama legacy.
It is hard not to contemplate the array of news about Russia, the long, secretive relationships Trump, Rex Tillerson, Wilbur Ross, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and even the ridiculous Cater Page have enjoyed with Putin and major Russian oligarchs and government officials, and wonder why these men as well as many elected leaders of the American conservative party would be in such thralldom to a foreign country that many Westerners including our allies in Europe view as a hostile dictatorship, that was long our arch-enemy. In the last two years, it was also hard to watch despairing and anxious members of American society, the much written-about “white working class” as well as those who might identify as working class but are in fact earning high median incomes, choose a furious, flashy millionaire as their spokesman. Now that we are on the brink of passing a ruinous Republican tax bill that will only benefit the richest members of society and penalize everyone else, it is hard to watch the unraveling of election-year populism into a permanent redistribution of money to the oligarchs—not just the American oligarchs but also the Russian oligarchs and those whose nationality defines them less than their investment portfolios and their preferred vacation spots. It is as though we were watching the last chapter of George Orwell’s 1946 classic novel Animal Farm unfold, when Napoleon and the other pigs joined with the animals’ former enemies, the human farmers, and complimented one another on how well they starved their citizens to enrich themselves:
“If you have your lower animals to contend with,” [Mr. Pilkington] said, ‘we have our lower classes!” This bon mot set the table in a roar; and Mr. Pilkington once again congratulated the pigs on the low rations, the long working hours, and the general absence of pampering which he had observed on Animal Farm.
It is easy to see why Trump admires leaders such as Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines. One of these strongmen is the kind of leader that the United States could end up with next time, if we are not willing to heal our democracy at a root level—a much smarter Trump with greater self-control, with the same dictator’s primal instinct to suppress all opposition, consolidate all wealth and power, and guard his rule until he passes leadership on to a chosen successor or family member.
It is hard not to contemplate the array of news about Russia, the long, secretive relationships Trump, Rex Tillerson, Wilbur Ross, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and even the ridiculous Cater Page have enjoyed with Putin and major Russian oligarchs and government officials, and wonder why these men as well as many elected leaders of the American conservative party would be in such thralldom to a foreign country that many Westerners including our allies in Europe view as a hostile dictatorship, that was long our arch-enemy.
In describing the web of money, corporations, and millionaires and billionaires, Harding writes that beginning in the 1980s with Trump Tower’s popularity among wealthy Russian immigrants, including criminals, the Trump Organization has effectively served as a means of Russian money laundering for the last four decades. So, the overall question of the American election of 2016—examining the ties between Russian and American billionaires and millionaires including Trump and many of his associates—requires us to ask: is this just a case of many mutual common interests coinciding, or part of a more nefarious scheme using both money and cultural pride to undermine America’s closely held myth of an egalitarian democracy and realign world power? Is this Putin taking advantage of Trump’s ignorance, amorality, and lack of national and personal allegiance beyond family to plunder American money, ego, and reputation to settle a score? Or is this the convergence of two authoritarian, nationalistic gangsters’ interests, to enrich themselves and their closest loyalists at the expense of everyone else?
Keep following the money, Harding strongly advises.
Susan Sheu lives in Los Angeles and received the 2017 Bennington Prize in Nonfiction for her memoir-in-progress, The Rag and Bone Man.
I’M THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY by Andrea Jarrell She Writes Press, 153 pages
reviewed by Helen Armstrong
Do you catch yourself peering into other people’s windows at night? Perhaps you were driving by in the dark and wanted to catch a glimpse of how other people live. Do they sit down to eat together? What are they watching on the TV? The drive-by look is a quick wondering that’s satiated by seeing that they, too, are watching the football game, which you’re going home to watch. You must be normal, because they’re normal, because you don’t know about their dysfunctions.
Reading Andrea Jarrell’s memoir felt like I was squatting in the bushes outside of her house, fingers perched on the windowsill, watching and listening as her life unfolded, taking comfort in her family’s dysfunctions which mirrored my own in asymmetric ways. Being from a dysfunctional family myself, I take some sick comfort from seeing crying children in grocery stores, their mothers looking like they’ve reached their wits’ end. I thrive on overhearing family fights in restaurants, because for so long, it was my family who were making heads turn. Once, at a rest stop in Delaware, my younger brother pelted my mother and I with chicken nuggets from the booth across the aisle while my father yelled at him, and ultimately, dragged him from the McDonald’s. I suspect most of our families are dysfunctional, and it’s the job of our adult selves to use all of that dysfunctional material we’re sitting on to become something good. That, or we allow the cycle to repeat. But how does one heal from childhood? How does one become better than our parents? These are central questions in Andrea Jarrell’s haunting memoir I’m the One Who Got Away.
In 2012, The New York Times published an essay, “A Measure of Desire,” by Jarrell in the newspaper’s Modern Love column. Unflinchingly honest, Jarrell stripped off her clothes and stood, naked, before the jury. The essay begins, “We moved from Los Angeles to Maine with four years of sobriety under our belts, a 2-year-old daughter and another baby on the way.” Here she captivated readers with her strong, simple language. “By Christmas,” she says, “we placed single candles in each window instead of stringing colored lights the way we would have back in L.A., and I gave birth in an ice storm.”
The essay dives into both her sex life and her relationship with her husband. She describes jealousy, looking at women in town and choosing “replacement” wives, women she feels would be better for her husband than her. “In my new L. L. Bean sweaters and loafers, I began to feel around in the darkness of our relationship, wondering if my husband was still there, wondering what kind of job I would get if he left me and knowing that if he did, I would end up living with my mother.” After jealousy comes Jarrell’s decision to reclaim her own desire and to see herself as worthy of her husband. This essay would become one of the final chapters in the book.
Several chapters, in fact, were published prior to being bound together into a memoir. Cleaver Magazine published the third chapter, “Miracle Mile,” in 2013. A sweltering look at summer in Los Angeles and the relationship between mother and daughter, at the heart of the piece lies a shocking moment that Jarrell and her mother witness. A woman on the street is being taunted by young boys, and she chooses to lift her skirt at them. The moment shocks both Jarrell and her mother: “I saw what [the boy] saw—the woman’s dark pubic hair beneath her lifted skirt—a grownup eyeful he had not bargained on,” she writes. Other chapters were previously published as well, in publications including Full Grown People, Memoir Journal, and Motherwell Magazine. Jarrell wrote an essay for Cleaver about the process of turning short fiction into a memoir: “Becoming an Outlaw, Or: How My Short Fiction Became a Memoir.” She explains that she didn’t start out writing memoir, but instead, writing short stories, freezing moments of her life and fictionalizing them.
Inspired by Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, a nonfiction collection of stories, she began to write “lyrical essay[s] crafted entirely from life.” Once she began to collect and string these stories together as memoir, she started to ask her mother questions. After one of them, her mother replied, “This book is about your life—right?” Jarrell writes, “By then, I knew that my parents’ story might be an embedded folktale within mine, but not my memoir’s dramatic trigger.”
I’m the One That Got Away begins with a haunting story of one of Jarrell’s neighbors, Susannah, a single mother, who is killed by a man she’s been seeing. The murder hits close to home for Jarrell, and she realizes that she’s been peering through Susannah’s window herself, horrified by the similarities, wishing for a better life for her neighbor than her mother was granted. Susannah’s story ends with death, and from here, Jarrell allows readers to pivot—now it’s her window we peer through, watching her story unfold slowly. She tells us the story of her parents, and we see echoes of Susannah in Jarrell’s mother.
Jarrell’s parents met when her mother was sixteen, and her father Nick was twenty. She traded in her college scholarships for an engagement ring. She would have become a photojournalist or graphic designer, but instead married the Southern charmer at age seventeen. Nick had dreams of being a movie star, and moved her from her small town in Colorado to Texas, where they were engulfed by a group of family and friends of his. She had left all of her ties in Colorado. He then got a job selling advertising for the Las Vegas Sun, so they moved again.
A charming alcoholic prone to rage, Nick slept with a gun under his pillow. In Las Vegas he began to rub elbows with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, and Lindsay Crosby. This is where the story turns familiar—it smacks of Harvey Weinstein, of Bill Cosby, of Casey Affleck. The men who run our entertainment industry while committing horrendous acts of sexual harassment and assault, and all of their friends who look the other way. Perhaps one of the most chilling aspects of the book is its timeliness. As women swarm the Internet and bravely write that they, too, have experienced sexual harassment and assault, we’ve begun to catch a glimpse of just how massive this problem is. Like an iceberg we weren’t able to see until it’s scraped the hull of our ship, we now have a sense of the magnitude of it—but can we ever heal?
Reading Jarrell’s story may make readers think of their own experiences with abuse, or even sexual harassment. It reminded me of the time a boy felt my boobs in front of my boyfriend, and my boyfriend did nothing. Or being forced to console him when he felt he was being a bad boyfriend, instead of agreeing that it was wrong to tell me he was going to fuck his neighbor while I was away on vacation. These experiences are reflected back at us by all of the people sharing their own stories similar to, and worse than, our own.
Jarrell writes about Nick’s twenty-second birthday. Several friends come to Vegas from Texas to celebrate, and the whole night, Nick keeps a close watch on his wife. When a friend holds out a chair for her, he’s there in an instant, telling the other man smoothly, “Thanks so much for keeping an eye out for her.” The situation escalates from there, with Nick trying to get the friend to agree that his wife is attractive, and the friend agreeing, only to have it nearly come to blows. The scene embarrassed his wife in front of everyone and ensured that none of his friends would speak to or show her kindness for the rest of the night.
She covered her black eyes with makeup, got a job at a casino, and made a life for herself alongside Nick. It was only once she became pregnant that she began to formulate a plan to leave him, to protect both herself and her baby.
She escaped, and this is the beginning of Andrea’s story. In vignettes, she tells us of her and her mother’s trips across Europe, of her childhood in Los Angeles, of Nick’s return into their lives, of her own loves, failures, and successes. She talks about her marriage, too. “[My husband] would not love me unconditionally—and he didn’t expect me to love him that way either,” she writes. “We would need to try, day by day, to be people worthy of each other’s love.” Here Jarrell pivots from her younger self who begins the book, shocked by the death of a neighbor that mirrors so well the path of her own mother’s life but with a gunshot ending, to the more confident Jarrell that narrates the end. When she writes about finally reclaiming her desire, she says, “It was where we skated on a frozen lake without falling through and dove into its liquid depths when the leafy summer arrived. I know it was there that I finally realized my husband, my babies, and those dormer windows were truly mine.” The book is a purge, a healing process, Jarrell’s own #metoo.
The scenes hang before you, just out of reach, because you are always aware that this is not your story. You’re peering through the window. When you put the book down, the lights are turned off in the house, and you can see your own reflection in the window. You see, perhaps, your own Nick, or memories of him. But this time, you do it with Jarrell and her mother by your side. You remember that you aren’t alone, that women all around you have felt this particularly bitter sting. You think of Susannah, of Jarrell, of her mother. You think of the women of Hollywood who are silent no longer. You go on, because they did.
Helen Armstrong is a senior at Arcadia University. She currently serves as editor-in-chief of the online lifestyle magazine, Loco Mag. She loves to travel and enjoys writing fiction and poetry, mostly about sexuality and feminism. Her work appears in Catfish Creek and Quiddity. Follow her on twitter @helenkarmstrong.
Like Cats and Dogs, the Intimate Other AFTERGLOW by Eileen Myles Grove Press, 224 pages
THE STRANGERS AMONG US by Caroline Picard Astrophil Press, 84 pages
reviewed by Jordan A. Rothacker
Dog people and cat people often like to stake their identities on the idea that they are starkly different from one another, but are they really so different? Regardless of species, a pet’s companion is a certain type of person who probably prefers their dog or cat to other people. In two recent books, by Eileen Myles and Caroline Picard, a dog person and a cat person, respectively, confess the closeness they feel to their pets while also marveling at the strangeness of intimacy with another kind of being. Reading both of these books together becomes a chance to deeply explore the intimate otherness of animal companionship. They live amongst us, but are they with us?
Myles has become a bit of a public figure recently with appearances in the Amazon original program, Transparent, a show that also features their (Myles’ preferred pronoun) poetry. With this new book, Afterglow (Grove/Atlantic, 2017), Myles is as provocative as ever. The subtitle of Afterglow is “a dog memoir” and in it Myles focuses on Rosie, a pit bull who was Myles’ closest companion from 1990 to 2006. The twenty chapters feature the poetic prose we’ve come to expect from Myles’ narrative work but they have a wide range: a mysterious letter from Rosie’s lawyer; a lecture on the etymology of the name Aphrodite; the script of a puppet talk show where Rosie is interviewed; scenes of Myles’ family in Ireland; and even a chapter of direct address from Rosie herself. Images are interspersed to punctuate the prose and add another element to the kaleidoscope of Afterglow. It is a book playfully conscious of being a book and joyfully weaves the reader into its fabric.
For Myles, Rosie is the ultimate other. Frequently they use the word “dog” in place of the word “god,” and Myles explains this in the third chapter, “My Dog/My God.” In the last year of Rosie’s life she started having mysterious fits that led to uncontrolled urination. “One evening I was feeling a little extra naked after describing the ritual of mopping her piss and I thought that’s it. She’s god. And I felt so calm. I’ve found god now. My God—My Dog,” Myles writes. Later in this chapter they explain, “In fact I’m writing this book to keep talking to her.” And Myles does talk to her and even for her and through her, wrestling with where the individual identity of Rosie exists separate from Myles’ own. At the end of a chapter, “Goodnight Sweet Queen,” in which Myles catalogs all of Rosie’s belongings left after Rosie is put down, Myles writes directly to Rosie, “I suppose I could’ve imagined you loved me then but I only knew you loved me because I saw you in my way and I was listening. And you simply were. I loved you for that. For being who else was in my life no matter what.” Rosie is the ultimate other and she is also just other.
Eileen Myles wanted a dog as a child but was denied by her parents (other than one night with a puppy which was returned the next day after whining all night). Struggling with identity as a child, between a male and female sibling, Myles describes the situation and where a dog would fit: “this inbetweenness, this aloneness, hear it now, is holy. I begged my parents for an animal to be an army with me.” God, place-holder, comrade-at-arms, even reincarnation of they’re father, Myles admits, “all of Rosie was a meeting place.”
“The writer spends her life reducing her own existence to that of a ghost,” Rosie tells Eileen in a late chapter called, “A Dog’s Journey,” told solely from the point of view of Rosie seven years after her death. Afterglow is a dog memoir, and it is a dog’s memoir, and yet it is all Myles taking responsibility for the otherness of Rosie.
Picard’s The Strangers Among Us (Astrophil Press, 2017) is a slimmer book, more of a long essay. She provides a very different contemplative approach that turns out to be a perfect pairing with Myles’ visceral language. Her cat/human relationship helps us understand Myles’ dog/human relationship and vice versa. Picard is a visual artist, curator, writer, and co-director of non-profit publishing house and art producer, The Green Lantern Press. In The Strangers Among Us Picard contemplates her cat, Little Grey, who at the point of writing, Picard had been cohabitating with for nine years. Little Grey likes to stare at Picard while knocking over glasses of water before scampering away. Is this humor, intentional rebellion, or a random action with no meaning? To answer this, the author begins by looking at Leopold Bloom’s first chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses where Bloom converses with his cat. He ponders how the cat sees him and “conceives the faintest glimmer of himself in her eyes and, not surprisingly, the result is unnerving.”
Picard then connects this with Jacque Derrida’s work, The Animal That Therefore I Am, and how “naked” Derrida feels when seen by his cat. This seems to be the same nakedness that Myles feels when she describes her ritual of cleaning up Rosie’s urine. In engaging an other as extreme as being from another species but as intimate as a house pet can be, we experience a depth of nakedness in that reflexive interaction. Derrida also asks, “cannot this cat also be, deep within her eyes, my primary mirror?”
The eyes of this other for Derrida, this “bottomless gaze” as he calls it, offers to his sight “the abysmal limit of the human.” However for Picard this realization and connection has benefits towards greater intimacy. She tells us, “By admitting one cat, we feel a greater throng of others. We must acknowledge the strange porous bounds of out own selves.”
Picard skews to the academic while Myles to the emotional, but both are philosophical. They investigate how we live our lives with an animal in our space, participating in communication and communion. Both love their respective pet and both devote much of their inquiry to how much that love is reciprocated. For all of their differences—style, species, method of inquiry—they both come down to the same observation that could be simply conveyed as: this is kind of weird, right? It is that mystery of the intimate other that electrically charges both books. For a non-animal person the mystery of this mystery might make for a fascinating read into a world and set of relations that is totally alien. For an animal person, be it cat or be it dog (and I guess we could open the distinction up to other more exotic species), Afterglow and The Strangers Among Us give words for the something we have all felt nuzzling against us.
Jordan A. Rothacker is a poet, essayist, and novelist who lives in Athens, GA where he received an MA in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature. His books are The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015), And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds, 2016), and the meta-text My Shadow Book by Maawaam (Spaceboy Books, 2017).
THE COLLECTED ESSAYS OF ELIZABETH HARDWICK by Elizabeth Hardwick edited by Darryl Pinckney New York Review Books, 640 Pages
reviewed by Robert Sorrell
Reviewing Elizabeth Hardwick’s new collection of essays is a task to strike fear into the heart of even the most headstrong literary critic. Biographer of Melville, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, and noted sharp tongue, Elizabeth Hardwick cast a long shadow in the literary world of the twentieth century. Darryl Pinckney introduces Hardwick in this volume as a New York intellectual firebrand, an avant-garde thinker with an acerbic writing style, and a cutting, devastatingly smart critic who employed a withering gaze.
Would-be reviewers, if not scared off by Hardwick’s biography, will encounter an essay in the book’s first hundred pages, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” which is destined to have some effect on their confidence. If reading that piece is not sufficient, the reviewer will then bump into a piece on a Hemingway biography that begins, “Carlos Baker’s biography of Ernest Hemingway is bad news.” To be blunt, Hardwick, a writer of fiction herself in addition to criticism and biography, does not go easy on writers.
The task of reviewing her new collection, once sufficiently convinced of my own opinions, is still not an easy one. The collection covers fifty years of writing, from 1953 to 2003, and while its only real foray into a topic other than literature is a group of essays on key moments in the Civil Rights movement and the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, Hardwick still manages to touch on a great many subjects. Boston, Henry James, the state of New York and Washington, DC in the 1960s, overlooked novelists, overrated novelists, and many other novelists in-between.
The collection begins with Hardwick’s writings from the 1950s, essays that feel so old-fashioned it’s hard to believe they’re less than a century old. Wordy, overly complex, and a bit pretentious (frequent use of the “royal we”), Hardwick’s prose style in these pieces combines with rather stuffy, traditional content to create something nearly Victorian. In an early piece on the letters of Sherwood Anderson, Edna Millay, and Hart Crane, she writes:
Many people believe letters the most personal and revealing form of communication. In them we expect to find the charmer at his nap, slumped, open-mouthed, profoundly himself without thought for appearances. Yet, this is not quite true. Letters are above all useful as a means of expressing the ideal self; and no other method of communication is quite so good for this purpose.
Hardwick’s writing in these first pages, though at times dry, shows a wily intellect and a certain creativity in word choice and sentence form that will blossom in later decades. As I read on, I found it difficult to put down a book that, in its earlier pages, I had had trouble forcing myself to pick up.
One of the bizarre pleasures of reading this collection of essays is the sheer sense of time it evokes. Tracking Hardwick’s content, and voice, through the second half of the twentieth century is an oddly satisfying task. To read her early essays on Boston or George Eliot, and later arrive at her essays on Joan Didion and Truman Capote that take on the lucid style and deadpan endings favored in our era of journalism and criticism (the last line of her essay on Didion: “She is saying that Bellevue Avenue in Newport is not what the west was won for.” Even a preposition at the end of the sentence!), is breathtaking. It is like watching history on fast-forward. And while this is a slippery term, Hardwick is an illuminative, at times perhaps great, writer. What do I mean by this? Simply that each essay brings a new epiphany, a new moment of strangeness. Mayor Daley’s institution of a police state during the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention is “a mode always available to the mood of tyranny.” On New York she writes, “Making a living is nothing; the great difficulty is making a point.” The crowd at a rock concert becomes a “huge clot of dazed swayings, fatuous smilings, empty nightmares.” And her writing champions a slow approach. Certain sentences and paragraphs merit re-reading and can stand up to prolonged inspection. The essay on Didion opens:
Joan Didion’s novels are a carefully designed frieze of the fracture and splinter in her characters’ comprehension of the world. To design a structure for the fadings and erasures of experience is an aesthetic challenge she tries to meet in a striking manner: the placement of sentences on the page, abrupt closures rather like hanging up the phone without notice, and an ear for rhythms and tags of current speech that is altogether remarkable.
While her writing may not always be the pinnacle of clear, straight-forward prose, it is something to behold in itself, especially as, in the later essays some of the anachronisms (using “he” when talking abstractly about a person, eschewing more “feminine” writers, etc.) disappear and her tone becomes more immediate. It is also delightful to see her sharp wit poke through the calm facade of an essay, which happens when she describes the disconnect between protesters and those in power during the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968. “There is a pathos and humor in all this, like a dinosaur choking on bubble gum. A fearful gap, not only in generations, but in common sense, in ordinary understanding of the world about us, has opened up. And how can we face this, except with dread?”
As you read through the decades, Hardwick also seems to become a more humanistic writer, and, if not a more optimistic one, than at least a more nuanced one. There are fewer screeds along the lines of “The Decline of Book Reviewing” and more pieces that investigate and try to capture something unique in a writer or a cultural moment. Simply put, as she continued writing, it seemed as if Hardwick became less interested in seeming smart and more interested in writing thoughtful, emotionally intelligent pieces that smart people might like to read. Part of this change seems to coincide with an increased sensitivity to specificity. Her interest shifts from “Art” to the people who make it, the cities where they live, the people who read it. These pieces are not theses but thoughtful asides and anecdotes, musings from the mind of a deeply intelligent and thoughtful writer.
Even in her later pieces, though, Hardwick is a fairly traditional critic. It’s hard to believe that Hardwick was writing about Ernest Hemingway, Bartleby the Scrivener, and William Faulkner in the same city at the same time as Susan Sontag was writing about the phenomenon of camp, contemporary art, and the French New Wave. The trend continues into the latter years of the century. One of Hardwick’s essays from 1999 on the landscapes of fiction starts with Wuthering Heights then moves on to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens, dips its toe into the twentieth century with The Great Gatsby, mentions, in one sentence, the 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, and then settles back into Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser. Hardwick is not a critic who is overly interested in the new, and in some ways that makes her a strange character, perhaps closer to an academic.
Critics as, however you slice it, arbiters of taste, occupy a complicated space in the artistic world of today. In a vision of the arts as more inclusive, as well as more expansive, it’s unclear what role critics will play in this future. And yet, out of this chimera—half novelist, half journalist, feeding off the scraps of “high art”—occasionally comes something beautiful and insightful, something that is worthwhile not because it is necessarily “correct” about a work, but because it reminds us how vital art can be to people. Hardwick was dedicated to this idea, and her life’s work was proving that writing about art could be, in itself, a kind of art. In “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” she notes, “Book reviewing is a form of writing.” And in that simple sentence there is a manifesto.
Hardwick was a unique critic and writer because she treated the task of reviewing a book, or writing about themes in literature or culture, as an undertaking worthy of her full attention. Perhaps the best proof of this attitude is her language. Hardwick brings a linguistic verve and creativity to her essays rarely seen in non-fiction writing. Words are created, or used in ways that bend their meaning (the concert crowd, for example, as “a huge clot of dazed swayings”), and in the great American tradition, her highfalutin prose is occasionally peppered with a dash of slang or casual usage (The word “gossipy” and the phrase “vicious, villainous, vituperative,” both appear in the first sentence of an essay on Truman Capote). She was, as Darryl Pinckney mentions in the introduction, “what used to be called a writer’s writer,” but not because she was exclusionary. She simply cared more than most people about the power of language, and she wasn’t about to apologize for that.
Robert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.
THE MADELEINE PROJECT by Clara Beaudoux translated by Alison Anderson New Vessel Press, 285 pages
reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
In 2013, a young journalist named Clara Beaudoux moves into a Paris apartment. The previous tenant, a woman named Madeleine, lived there for 20 years before passing away in her nineties. Strangely, Madeleine’s things have not been removed from the cellar. “All I had to do was open a door, the door to my cellar, for the adventure to begin,” writes Beaudoux.
At first, the nature of Beaudoux’s adventure is journalistic and intellectual: curious about who Madeleine is and why she has left a room full of old memorabilia, Beaudoux decides to go through Madeleine’s items on Twitter—as she opens each box, she tweets its contents. Dishes, jewelry, old mattresses, mysterious little gadgets that have been tucked away in envelopes for decades emerge in tweeted photos, with 140 character captions:
“I could see right away that Madeleine seemed to be well organized. She kept back issues of Historia.” (2 Nov. 2015)
“I think Madeleine must have inherited her parents’ things too, like these coal coupons.” (2 Nov. 2015)
“There are vast quantities of photographs in these suitcases, I’m a bit overwhelmed, is this Madeleine?” (3 Nov. 2015)
“A little announcement, with black edges. I’d seen his name the day before on a business card in this suitcase.” (6 Nov. 2015)
But this journey quickly becomes something else. Madeleine has left behind history that few of us bother to keep, either because we are too foolish to understand the significance of the historical events marking our lives, or because we fail to create meaningful, tangible records in these days of Twitter and email, or perhaps because we would rather let go of painful images, painful words or traumatic histories. Somehow none of these usual reasons inhibited Madeleine, as Beaudoux discovers: Madeleine has left behind suitcases of postcards, pressed flowers, photos, her family records dating back generations, and letters from loved ones lost in World War II.
For Beaudoux, a Paris-based journalist for the France Info news network —and for lucky readers—the weighty reality of the gift that Madeleine has left us is overwhelming.
First published in France in 2016 and now available in English translated by Alison Anderson, The Madeleine Project is a compilation of Beaudoux’s tweets, complete with her growing sense of discovery and familiarity with Madeleine. Born in 1915, Madeleine watched World War II claim relatives and friends, and then spent her entire working life as a teacher in an elementary school. She never married and did not have children; instead, Beaudoux relies on the recollections of a godson and neighbors, along with the photos and letters from the cellar, to partially piece together Madeleine’s story. This is a book that makes connections: between generations, between hand written letters from decades ago and the digital age genre of the tweet, between an era that feels lost to us and our daily reality, between our view of history as impersonal, and our sense of each individual’s history, between the notion of history as scholarly and Twitter as mundane, between the graphic novel and the biography.
“We should always study history in this way: it should always be incarnated. After all, insignificant people too have made History, not just the great men that history books talk about,” writes Beaudoux. The project of recovering Madeleine’s story raises questions about our contemporary disconnection from history: our world is indelibly marked by the historical events of Madeleine’s youth, but it is difficult to feel the import of that history personally. To experience Madeleine’s letters is to be reminded (or perhaps to be taught) that each life is shaped by the history of its moment, and that our own historical circumstances are shaping our choices, our words, and our relationships, just as Madeleine’s shaped hers. And, of course, it reminds us of the shared nature of history-making: Madeleine’s story quickly becomes Beaudoux’s story.
The surprise connections between two women living almost 100 years apart is one of the poignant and tender parts of The Madeleine Project. “What did ‘happy’ mean for a young woman of 25 in 1940?” wonders Beaudoux, herself not much older than Madeleine would have been when writing letters to family while Europe was at war. Beaudoux often records her questions and thoughts in ways that emphasize the bonds between strangers, and our need to emphasize communal affection in times of distress. “I no longer look at the old ladies in the neighborhood the same,” observes Beaudoux. When the November 2015 Paris attacks interrupt Beaudoux’s life, she recalls a line from one of Madeleine’s war-time letters: “It’s such a comfort to love each other so well, dear boy, especially now.” Madeleine “was referring to the Second World War, and that’s what I felt in 2015,” records Beaudoux. This widening of our perception to include connection with those around us—especially those who may be different from us—may be the greatest gift that The Madeleine Project gives us, and it is ironic that it comes through Twitter, a medium that often seems to reinforce differences.
The Madeleine Project is the first half of Beaudoux’s cellar investigations and interviews. This partial view might be frustrating for a reader who is invested in Beaudoux’s personal journey or the emerging facticity of Madeleine’s life. There is little of Madeleine’s own language available through Beaudoux’s tweets: the reader has to rely on Beaudoux’s 140 character description of a letter’s contents. At times I wanted answers to specific questions about Madeleine (or her stuff—what was that strange object in the picture on page 18, anyway?) and the end of the Project came far too soon, to me. In many respects, looking for a person who has passed away is bound to end with some disappointment and sense of futility, like Patrick Modiano looking for another Parisian of that era, Dora Bruder. As a reader, I felt as if an interesting conversation had been cut short. But that is because this is not a fiction story, where all the questions are resolved at the end—The Madeleine Project is about a real woman who is gone, and a real woman who is still living her own story and searching for information about Madeleine. Answers are not forthcoming for all of our questions about her. If I feel distress at not being able to ask Madeleine questions and understand her better, Beaudoux seems to feel that she is mourning a lost friend: “And I put it all back as it was, as carefully as I can. As if you might come back to get everything.”
Fortunately for us, Beaudoux has not stopped searching for Madeleine. She has continued to tweet (in French, @clarabdx) about her project, and hopefully those further adventures will soon arrive in translation, as well.
Ryan Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University, and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.
ROMEO AND JULIET IN PALESTINE: TEACHING UNDER OCCUPATION by Tom Sperlinger Zero Books, 144 pages
reviewed by Beth Johnston
Trust the Brits to find the humor in anything. Tom Sperlinger’s Romeo and Juliet in Palestine, a brief memoir of a semester the author spent as a visiting professor of English literature at Al Quds University in Abu Dis in the West Bank, deploys wry wit to combat the absurdities of living and teaching in a place of controlled chaos. Take this retelling of an exchange between Sperlinger and a security guard at an Israeli checkpoint:
“Are you Jewish?” “My father’s Jewish.” “And your mother?” . . . “She’s Christian,” I replied. “Where is she from?” “Belfast.” “Why did your father marry her?”
I didn’t think this was a question I could answer.
At Al Quds University, Sperlinger’s students remain dubious about the benefits of the courses he offers; they want to learn the English language, but feel profoundly disconnected from English literature. On one of his first days at the office, Sperlinger encounters a student who actually likes studying English literature, but doesn’t like the department. “If you were head of the department, what would you change about it?” he asked her. Maybe she would provide valuable insight.
She thought for a second, and then spoke in a deep, even tone. “I would close it,” she said.
This general sense that students and others he encountered in Palestine didn’t know what to make of Sperlinger and his point of view pervades the memoir. When Sperlinger gives a talk at Al Quds, the professor who introduces him, who is not a literary scholar, notes, “I am sure this will be a very interesting talk. I don’t know anything about George Eliot, but I do know she was a Zionist.”
Sperlinger’s keen feel for the absurd provides much-needed relief in an often grim story. If, like me, you don’t know much about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, this memoir will open your eyes to Palestinians’ perspectives on the conflict. Sperlinger, whose grandparents fled Vienna in 1938 to escape the Holocaust, is quietly appalled by what his people on the West Bank endure. As he sees it, “Palestinian lives are disrupted in endless small ways, day to day.” His students face drawn-out commutes to the University (thanks to checkpoints) and constant interruptions of their studies from strikes, protests, and faculty pay freezes. Because various legal regimes maintain jurisdiction over different parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank, some students are effectively divided from family, friends, and even lovers. And because of a strange technicality in how Israel accredits Palestinian universities, Al-Quds degrees are worthless in Jerusalem. Still, there are much bigger disruptions. In one assignment, Sperlinger asks his students to retell a family story or folk tale and analyze it using the literary techniques the class has been studying. The resulting narratives are chilling for the reader: a grandfather publicly executed for possession of a gun, a seven-year-old killed for throwing rocks, a father used by soldiers as a human shield. When, at one point, a student asks Sperlinger if he’d like to see a picture of her brother and he agrees, she shows him a wanted poster.
Despite the challenges they face—indeed, Sperlinger suggests at points, because of them—the students offer fascinating insights about the texts they read in class. Part of this is surely as a result of Sperlinger’s sensitive and talented teaching. In a conversation about how Shakespeare adapted the Petrarchan sonnet for an English audience, Sperlinger makes the lesson concrete, telling the students, “I want you to imagine that I am a musician. . . . I’m visiting from England, and I have brought this new kind of song with me, which everyone in England is playing. You’re a group of musicians too. But you haven’t heard of this song, and when I play it, you want to start making your own version in Arabic. How would the song change?” He allows his students great freedom of thought, telling them that “they should not take for granted that [Shakespeare’s] works were great or special. Their job, as readers, was to discover whether he seemed like a great writer to them.” And yet the students don’t always (or perhaps even often) do the reading. Sperlinger responds by giving them an excerpt from Malcolm X’s autobiography, where the Civil Rights leader famously explains how reading opened the world for him; then he distributes a French novelist’s “Readers Bill of Rights” and asks the students what they would add or subtract. At times, understandably, he grows frustrated with the students and wonders whether he should be stricter; just at that point, one of his best students explains, “I’ve been at the university for five years. I’ve never been asked to do this before—to come and have opinions, to do the reading only if I want to. . . . It’s just a big change.”
While anecdotes like this one are rich in meaning, the book is sometimes frustrating to the reader. Sperlinger has unusual pacing; sometimes he stretches stories out over a dozen pages, doling out a little bit of information at a time, digressing to another topic, and then spiraling back to something he let drop. This can create a productive sense of foreshadowing. For instance, in the powerful first chapter that gives the book its name, Sperlinger intercuts shreds of ominous violence with his students’ responses to Shakespeare’s tale of two warring houses, to profound effect. Other times, a story simply gets abandoned; the reader waits in vain for a payoff down the line.
More fundamentally, Sperlinger doesn’t have much material to work with; a single semester is not a lot of time to fully understand his students or his environs. Still, Sperlinger wisely refrains from spinning his tale out for longer than it warrants. At 144 pages, this novella-length memoir flies by. And just as Sperlinger arouses his students’ curiosity about literature, he whets ours for a greater understanding of a people whose oppression is too often overlooked or misunderstood. More, Sperlinger made me want to read or reread not just Shakespeare but Edward Said, Malcolm X, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper¸” Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” Irish and Palestinian poets, Israeli playwrights—and, indeed, whatever Sperlinger writes next.
Beth Johnston trained as a lawyer before earning an MFA from Bennington College. She has written about books and law for The New Republic, Legal Times, and other publications. She lives in Washington, DC, where she teaches writing at George Washington University.
FAMILY LEXICON by Natalia Ginzburg translated by Jenny McPhee New York Review Books, 224 Pages
reviewed by Robert Sorrell
Right before falling asleep, my father becomes totally incoherent. If you speak to him, he will respond with words, they just won’t make any sense. Neither will he have any memory of your conversation. (He passed this trait on to me; often to my detriment, I employ it regularly.) Once, when my dad had floated off into this near-unconscious state, he started talking about the Secret Service. From that point on, to spout these nocturnal babblings has become known in my family as “Secret Servicing.”
Families, social groups, and even workplaces often have phrases and words just like these. “Inside jokes” is a common term for some of them, but not all fall neatly into this category. For many of these words and phrases, a new definition or usage, with nuance beyond the punchline, has been created for a small group of people. This idea is the cornerstone of Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon.
Now in a new translation by Jenny McPhee (and with a new English title), Family Lexicon is Natalia Ginzburg’s Strega Prize winning memoir/novel of life in Italy before, during, and after World War II, Lessico famigliare, first published in 1963. Ginzburg is known mainly in this country for being a “writer’s writer,” a phrase which is often used to compensate for an author’s lack of fame. But in Ginzburg’s case, perhaps there’s a bit more to it; her essays are often assigned on writing workshop syllabi alongside favorites like Joan Didion, James Baldwin, and George Orwell. A quick Internet search for “Natalia Ginzburg” and “syllabus” turns up countless options. In fact, it was in a creative writing class where I was first introduced to her work, the devastatingly simple essay “He and I.”
The essay begins, “He always feels hot. I always feel cold. In the summer when it really is hot he does nothing but complain about how hot he feels. He is irritated if he sees me put a jumper on in the evening. He speaks several languages well; I do not speak any well.” Ginzburg continues this way for a few paragraphs. Yet somehow out of these clichés and simple sentences, Ginzburg draws a complicated portrait of a relationship. As in Family Lexicon, the way Ginzburg is treated by men is disturbing. And in her exacting narration, it’s never clear whether if the relationship produces much love.
But as simple as much of Ginzburg’s prose may be, she has a great ability to slip in poetic sentences or paragraphs that cut straight to the emotions of a piece. She writes later, in Dick Davis’ English translation of “He and I,” of her first meetings with her husband (“he”), the intellectual Gabriele Baldini:
If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale, two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street.
Ginzburg is often lauded for her prose’s “artlessness,” a trait which makes her ever more fashionable in creative writing circles given the current fetishization of “spare” writing, prose without an extra comma, or god forbid, an adverb. It is true that Ginzburg’s prose is, for the most part, quite spare, and in her nonfiction it is remarkable how little she shares about herself. She serves, most often, as narrator, not protagonist, of her essays. Her own personal thoughts, actions, or words don’t intrude on the narrative of Family Lexicon until around page 120, and she only uses one sentence to tell readers of her courtship and marriage to Leone Ginzburg. And yet, despite this extreme simplicity and her almost monotone narration, as in “He and I,” every now and then she slips in moments of reflection. This is particularly true of her writing on the war. World War II remains in the shadows for most of the work but in moments it appears, as in this paragraph right above a conversation between Natalia and her brother about whether they feel more or less rich now that they are married. She writes:
For years now, Turin was full of German Jews who’d fled Germany. Some of them were even assistants in my father’s laboratory. They were people without a country. Maybe, soon, we too would be without a country, forced to move from one country to another, from one police station to the next, without work or roots or family or homes.
Ginzburg intersperses little paragraphs and sentences like this throughout the book, and they are in part what allow her to do so much with so little. She doesn’t reflect much, but when she does, she makes sure it counts.
In Family Lexicon, Ginzburg also proves to have been a keen observer from a young age. The work (which has alternately been called a memoir, a novel, and an autobiographical novel but, for all intents and purposes is “true”) covers around thirty years of Ginzburg’s life, from her childhood in Turin in the 1920s and 30s, through her first marriage to anti-fascist Leone Ginzburg, through Italy’s reconstruction and reorganization after the end of World War II. Along the way, the story of the Levis (Natalia’s parent’s name and hers until her first marriage) and their wide circle of acquaintances and friends is narrated chronologically, with the “family sayings” acting almost as mantras throughout the work.
These sayings are part of what must’ve made Family Lexicon a particularly difficult book to translate, and are certainly part of what makes it an odd book to read in translation. Many of the sayings consist of puns, plays on the way a word is spelled or sounds (the Levis say “lend gear” for “lend an ear”), and silly or nonsense words. In Jenny McPhee’s translation a choice selection of these come across as “nitwittery,” “dribble drabble,” and “doodledums” (as well as the word “taradiddling” which to many readers, myself included, may seem to be a made up, but is not). Many come out of the mouth of Ginsburg’s father, Giuseppe Levi, a man who looms large in Family Lexicon and contributes more than his fair share to the long list of family words and phrases, one of his personal favorites being “Jackass!”
Giuseppe is a bit of a tyrant, a contrarian with the loud mouth and strong hand to ensure that he is heard over all others. He is constantly criticizing his children and his wife, Natalia’s mother, Lidia. He is also resistant to almost any idea had by someone else. After one of his sons Alberto becomes a doctor and Lidia says she should visit his office for some ailment, Giuseppe says things like, “Do you think that klutz Alberto knows anything? … I’ll give you a pill!” Late in the book he is asked to hold a political rally since he is running for office. He was told he only had to lead one rally and could say whatever he liked. A prominent biologist, he decides to spend the entire speech talking about science. The crowd is totally bewildered until at one point, Ginzburg reveals, he “happened to mention Mussolini and the fact that he usually referred to him as the ‘Jackass from Predappio.’ The audience erupted into resounding applause and my father looked around him, now stupefied himself.”
An equally idiosyncratic moment occurs during an air raid, when Lidia begs Giuseppe to come down to the cellar. “‘Nitwitteries,’” he replies, “‘If the building collapses, the cellar will certainly collapse too! The cellar is hardly safe! This is an utter nitwittery!’”
This moment is an accurate portrayal of their relationship, which is both combative and oddly loving. The book’s great mystery, as discussed in Peg Boyer’s afterword in this edition, is how Giuseppe becomes in many ways the story’s hero. Toward the book’s end, his sheer exuberance and energy overcome his despotic tendencies, making his outbursts oddly endearing. Yet while Giuseppe is an intoxicating character, I think Boyer and others don’t give credit to Lidia and the other members of the Levi family who are occasionally pushed off the page by Giuseppe’s loud voice or strong arm. They are, nonetheless, what gives the story its texture and its unexpected insights. Giuseppe is a cartoon; Lidia is a person. Lidia is also the source of much of the text’s joy. While Giuseppe is busy giving his opinions (usually negative) on anything he sees, Lidia sings made-up songs like the family favorite, “I am Don Carlos Tadrid, and I’m a student in Madrid!” And left untouched in the Giuseppe-friendly afterword is the strange fact that a prominent anti-fascist led his family in such a (there’s no other word for it) fascist way.
In McPhee’s translation, Giuseppe’s rantings, Lidia’s songs and jokes, and the rest of the Levi family’s sayings are vivid and entertaining. The characters leap off the page in 3-D, making the experience of reading Family Lexicon far more enjoyable than what one might expect of a memoir about the life of a family of Italian Jews under fascism and German occupation. This new edition also comes with extensive notes, which anyone without an encyclopedic knowledge of Italian political and cultural figures of the time will find very useful. It is also useful in explaining some of the more uncomfortable word choices, particularly the word “negro.” Giuseppe throws this word constantly at his children at his wife, at strangers, and its use is frankly alarming in the work. (Past translations have taken steps to avoid this particular word, rephrasing it as “yahoos”–Woolf’s 1997 translation entitled The Things We Used to Say–or using the Italian “negrigura”–D.M. Low’s 1967 translation, Family Sayings–in Italics.) McPhee explains her choice in the endnotes, noting that while “negro” and “negrigura” were commonly used in the Judeo-Italian Venetian dialect Ginzburg’s father absorbed as a child, and that according to the director of the Venice Center for International Jewish Studies, Shaul Bassi, the words “never had overtly racial content,” Ginzburg “was very aware of the words’ racial significance,” and McPhee didn’t want to lose any of this potential meaning. McPhee took a similar approach with the title. Originally titled Lessico famigliare, the work has previously been translated as Family Sayings or The Things We Used to Say. McPhee’s title, Family Lexicon, has a certain technicality to it, but it also manages to capture the simplicity of the original while squeezing a bit more meaning into those two words.
This characteristic gives the text a somewhat academic feel in its approach to language and its extensive notation, but the tone and character of McPhee’s prose is airy and crystal clear, just like Ginzburg’s, or at least, just like translations of Ginzburg’s work I’ve read by other translators. And this is good because Family Lexicon is a deeply funny, charming, and human work. There is hardship, plenty of it—Natalia’s first husband, Leone Ginzburg is tortured to death by Nazis towards the end of World War II—but at its core Family Lexicon is written with the kind of humor and deep humanity that could only be mustered about such topics by someone who’d actually lived through them.
Early in Family Lexicon Ginzburg writes, “If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognize each other. Those phrases are our Latin, the dictionary of our past.” Family Lexicon brings the reader inside the family, teaching us this personal Latin. What Ginzburg achieves in the work is not necessarily a triumph of pathos or empathy, or even one of intellect. She simply allows us to feel that we are part of an experience. She welcomes us into her family, through language. And yet, at the same moment, this closeness is mitigated by the fact that we are reading in English. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply enjoyed McPhee’s new translation. But maybe one day I’ll learn Italian, so that maybe I too can speak out and be recognized as part of the family.
Robert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.
HOW WE SPEAK TO ONE ANOTHER: AN ESSAY DAILY READER edited by Ander Monson & Craig Reinbold Coffee House Press, 309 pages
reviewed by David Grandouiller
The oldest post on the Essay Daily blog is from Monday, January 18th, 2010, by Ander Monson, who taught at the University of Arizona and teaches there now. It’s a list of essays included in the Indiana Review 31.2:
Claire Dunnington, “Green Eggs and Therapy”
Joan Cusack Handler, “Beanstalk”
Jen Percy, “The Usual Spots”
Tom Fleischmann, “On Alticorns”
The next day—Tuesday—there are six posts, all by Monson, and some of them are lists. One of them is titled, “A word about the space,” which he defines as “a collaborative space to talk about some of the better (by which I mean more interesting) essays to appear in the literary journals that publish the majority of what we like to refer to as creative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction.”
“If you’d like to talk,” writes Monson, “about an issue, a journal, or an essay (or a trend in essaying) that you’re hot and bothered by, this would be a good space for that.” Essay Daily’s first anthology, How We Speak to One Another, is proof, seven years later, that plenty of essayists are hot and bothered and willing to talk about it. The names that appear in this collection are a testament to how successful Monson’s project has been: Robin Hemley and John D’Agata, Phillip Lopate and Brian Doyle and Rigoberto González, among many other notables.
How We Speak to One Another, which came out this month, is a book of essays on essays, on the Essay—that sprawling mountain of a form, reaching its roots into every fallow field. The reader sinks in to find Ander Monson digging his way: “I’d thought of my own essaying as mine work, a kind of solo exploration down here in the dark. But then one time I was chipping at a hunk of rock, watching my tool spark, and suddenly it broke through a wall and ran into another tunnel.” The tunnel is John D’Agata’s. This kind of encounter, told in one of Monson’s quirky conceits, is representative of the rest of the anthology. These essays are excavations in what the Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton called (in his last address, just two hours before his death) the “interdependence of all living [and dying] beings.”
These essays offer conversation that skips the bullshit. “What ails you?” Asks Julie Lauterbach-Colby, author of In the Same Bite: Essays on Food and Death (Lulu.com, 2011). “How do you suffer in this life? If you are able to get to the heart of the matter, will you know why you are in pain?” When Emily Deprang talks back to silky-tongued Joan Didion (“Oh Joan”), she gives readers permission to question their idols: “Didion wrote that barricades are never personal, but as middle-class white women, it’s more accurate to say few barricades’ successes or failures touch us personally.” And speaking of back-talking, here’s what the twenty-seven-year-old Lucas Mann has to say to Phillip Lopate (who also appears in the collection): “I think we secretly love an essayist who writes young.”
Even simply from an organizational standpoint, the collection is remarkably well-curated as a conversation. González, who writes, “When they visited the after, they did so as strangers to the streets they no longer recognized and to the people who no longer remember them,” follows Fleischmann, who writes, “We have not yet let the past we didn’t have go.” Pairings (or groupings) like this one occur in the collection repeatedly as the essays, and essayists, speak to one another.
For example, D’Agata is (once again) teaching his critics how to read his work. Using Ansel Adams as allegory, he quotes: “‘Photography is really perception…As with all art, the objective of photography is not the duplication of visual reality, but an investigation of the outer world and its influence on the inner world….All my photographs are photographs of myself’.” What Columbia University’s Meehan Crist writes in the following page, even though she’s talking about Oliver Sacks, reads like a translation of D’Agata’s Adams: “He has still seen what he has seen…Rules are only useful if everyone is playing the same game.”
As the conversation here is both broad and deep, there’s something for everyone: muscle cars and fencing, science-fiction and sex and sighing, some prose and some poetry and some playwrighting and some graphic narrative about feeling young and insufficient, about feeling old and insufficient, and of course there are lists upon lists. But maybe that’s missing the point, because what this collection says is that all of it belongs to everyone: “A thing never happens once. A thing happens all the time, is still happening right this instant—to us or to other people,” writes the medical essayist Katherine Standefer. The more of others’ stories I know, the more I begin to realize that all reality coalesces.
This collection confirms what Ander Monson suggests in the introduction: each essay is one in a network of intersecting tunnels, forming a landscape of ideas and experiences about what it means to be human. These essays offer, in the words of novelist V.V. Ganeshananthan, “the sensation of reading about myself.”
David Grandouiller is an undergraduate student at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio, where he majors in English and minors in Creative Writing, among other things. He’s really excited about community in the arts and the incarnate power of words. He likes his eggs over easy and his pizza cold, and he doesn’t dress up if he can help it. His work appears or is forthcoming in Dark Matter Journal, Duende Literary Journal, First Class Literary Magazine, and The Cedarville Review.