Thursday, July 5, 2018

Almost in time for the 4th: George Washington, Spy

George Washington's Secret Spy War: The Making of America's First Spymaster 
by John A. Nagy
 New York: St. Martin's Press, 2016

Review By Walt Giersbach

George Washington is many things as an iconic leader in the formation of our country, but rarely is he remembered as our first spy extraordinaire and most imaginative of tacticians.  “George Washington’s Secret Spy War” increased my education in our country’s Revolutionary history soon after I met Ida Nagy, a neighbor and member of an editorial team on which I serve.  She and I both share an interest in history, and she gifted me this copy of her late husband’s book.

Ida told me her husband John spent 20 years of research and nine months writing the book.  It was somewhat intimidating to note a 13-page index, a 10-page bibliography, and a 61-page section of notes.  This is a book that’s both an educational experience and an authoritative reference,  Tragically, Nagy died the day that his manuscript was delivered to his publisher, St. Martin’s Press. 

I was surprised to learn that our founding father had been a major tactician when the British were fighting against the French and Indians in 1753 near what is now Pittsburgh.  As a 22-year-old adjutant, he was able to use an innate ability to organize intelligence to learn what the enemy was doing.  And he was successful in battle again and again.

Washington made his first trek into the Northern District in1753 as a major in the Virginia militia.  He knew this area from his earlier work as a surveyor.  The area west of the Allegany Ridge was disputed, as the French had “invaded” the Ohio Country and were building forts there. Successive forays into the area in the following years brought Washington the tactical intelligence he needed and to cement relations with Indians.  

George Washington’s Secret Spy War: The Making of America's First Spymaster” is not only a masterful work of research, but a detailed tactical story on the creation of our nation.

The publisher calls the author John A. Nagy “the nation’s leading expert on the subject, discovering hundreds of spies who went behind enemy lines to gather intelligence during the American Revolution, many of whom are completely unknown to most historians.”

Nagy, who passed away in 2016, was a Scholar-in-Residence at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Penn, and a consultant on espionage to The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington and the William L. Clement Library.  He was also the program director for the American Revolution Round Table of Philadelphia.  He received a Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies fellowship to study Thomas Jefferson and cryptology.

Yes, the Colonials paid their spies.  In one example. the rebels were chased out of New York in 1776.  Washington moved his small army from Trenton across the Delaware River to the safety of Pennsylvania.  Then, Washington intercepted a letter written in invisible ink indicating that Gen. Howe intended to take Philadelphia.  (Curiously, Washington’s inquiring mind had earlier read a 1763 encyclopedia entry on invisible ink.  Perhaps as a result of this information, Washington wrote Col. Cadwalader of the Pennsylvania militia authorizing him to hire and pay spies.)  On Dec. 14, 1776, Cadwalader sent someone to Mount Holly, N.J., who discovered the Hessian mercenaries had five brass field pieces.

Washington pulled his boats to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, foiling a British crossing.  He knew the British would cross as soon as the river had frozen, and so devised a plan to cross back over the Delaware in three places the night of Dec. 25. 

Cadwalader got his men across, but without artillery he had to abandon the attack.  Washington crossed and headed south  to Trenton,  Then he split his army, with Gen. John Sullivan’s division attacking Trenton from the north and Gen. Greene going inland to attack from the northern high ground.  Three Hessian regiments quickly formed to a drumbeat as the force led by Washington attacked.  The gamble worked, giving him in one hour a crucial victory and strategic advantage.  Nine hundred Hessians and their arms were captured.

The book continues with an emphasis on how both sides used spies.  Throughout, Nagy’s entries are footnoted, making for a thorough and academic work, but one that is often intimidating in its detail and lack of storytelling.

Not “But for the Grace of God,” But Because of It: In the Shadow of the White Pagoda

In the Shadow of the White Pagoda. By Clara J. Hausske.
 Published by Caves Books, Ltd., Taipei, Taiwan, 1989. 

Review by Walt Giersbach

Historical memoirs are fraught with problems as reminiscences dim or are subjected to revisionism.  More problematic is that the farther back in time the commentator goes, the more the facts are distorted by the writer’s interpretation.  Because Clara Hausske recalled and kept notes on her work in China almost a century ago, the reader of In the Shadow of the White Pagoda is struck with unvarnished truth about the shattering poverty, malnutrition, sickness, chaos of war and banditry taking place far from the cities.  Yes, the writing is often simplistic and reportorial, but reading Hausske’s description of the challenges she and her husband faced in China in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s is as clear as looking at an unedited film.  There is a level of authenticity as she describes a life that’s hard to imagine — except that other parts of the world are undergoing these same difficulties and opportunities.

The Hausskes went to China sponsored by what is now United Board for World Ministries.  Their religious denomination was Congregational, now the United Church of Christ.  Their mission was located literally in the shadow of the pagoda where 20 years earlier Boxer rebels massacred Christians.  

Albert Hausske left the U.S., with his wife Clara and two toddler children, in 1920 to administer the accounting for a hospital in Taiku, Shansi Province.  This mission was two days’ inland from Tientsin by boat, railway and rickshaw.  The book, extremely well edited by her son, Albert Carol Hausske, was published in 1989 from Clara’s notes, photos and letters.

This was the back country that appeared on no one’s tour guide.  The Hausskes were missionaries not to convert some indifferent Buddhists, but to cure those on the verge of death, feed those protein-starved people who saw meat in their diet only on holidays, who were illiterate to the point of having to unlearn “folk wisdom” and embrace proven scientific diet, and to care for people so desperate they abandoned their children to the school as the only hope their progeny would live.  In that, the Hausskes were lucky also to have served with  Dr. Wiloughby Hemingway, uncle of author Ernest Hemingway, who had arrived there in 1903.

Clara offers a positive, forbearing look at daily life with all the quotidian duties, communication obstacles (the Hausskes learned to speak Chinese), and hardship of moving from house to house under trying circumstances.  It is also an insider’s look at life as the Communists approached Nanjing in 1927, themselves emigrating to Korea as refugees, their return when Chiang Kai-shek recaptured Nanjing, and fears as the Japanese took over city after city in the years leading up to 1941.  That declaration of war forced the Hausske family back to the States (there had been occasional furloughs home since 1920) until they could return in the 1950s. 

She writes, “In 1940, only seven foreign missionaries supervised the care of about fourteen hundred inpatients, ten thousand outpatients, three hundred and fifteen boarding students in the schools, thirty student nurses, several Chinese doctors, and innumerable people in the countryside.”  Her commentary on this is enlightening: “Their lives were simple but very rich.  They were fortunate that there was always plenty of work to keep them in good spirits.  And it was also as well that they could adjust themselves to difficulties when it was necessary to do so.”  Was this a rosy-eyed view?  More likely it was the interpretation of a spiritually rich person who had seen much progress.

Surprisingly, Clara displays a total lack of irony or disbelief in her descriptions of children being carried to the hospital on a relative’s back, or a tearful father giving his child to the orphanage so the boy might live.

If there is one lapse for this reader, it is that Clara did not apply more subjective reporting and personal response to the political changes raging around them.  Their work was threatened, as were the lives of the local population.  The relief work was halted only when the Japanese sent them out of the country and when the Communists refused to let them resume their mission. 

Today, there often is a knee-jerk reaction to missionaries, seeing them as evangelicals out to corrupt the purity of native populations.  Witness what missionaries did to Native Americans and Hawaiians in the name of “civilization.”  Clara makes almost no reference to religious teaching in her memoir; there is, however, continual detail of the Chinese lives they saved, the children and adults they taught to read and write, and the Western lessons in diet, nutrition and childcare they taught to extend and enrich their lives.

The book provides another interesting insight into the independence of this woman.  Clara was often alone when Albert was traveling to other missions.  She regularly traveled by herself or with her children.  She was emancipated years before women gained the respect they deserved.  In many ways, Clara mirrors the life of my grandmother traveling the U.S. on the Chautauqua lecture circuit during the same period.  Yes, there were women who became empowered in that period.

I need to disclose that Albert and Clara Hausske were friends of my father, Walter C. Giersbach when he was president of Pacific University, and of my mother.  I remember their son, Trevor Hausske who edited his mother’s book, graduating Pacific in the mid 1940s when I was six years old..  And the Hausskes were generous in their gifts of Chinese art to my parents, including their sale of two antique Chinese chests that are still with my family.

Awhile back, I was inventorying the antiques my parents collected and decided to unravel the  mystery of who the Hausskes were, these shadowy people from my childhood.  Out of the that detective work came the discovery of In the Shadow of the White Pagoda, now available only through used booksellers. 


Sunday, June 3, 2018

Juan José Saer: Part 2: The Clouds

Juan José Saer. The Clouds, translated by Hilary Vaughn Dobel. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2016.

Literary works in translation
Saer is fortunate in his two recent translators, Dobel for the present novel and Kantor for The One Before. The two works are very different. The One Before, a collection of short works ranging in length from a few paragraphs to novella, is experimental in that each story explores memory and how to represent it in words, leading up to the final piece in the collection, which is a "narrative . . . structured simply by juxtaposing memories" (51) (see the previous blog post for a fuller review of The One Before). The Clouds has a more straightforward narrative. But, as in the former work, Saer's language is rich with evocative descriptions. It is hard to imagine either of these works as translations--their translators make such full use of the literary power of the English language. The works are both intensely introspective, with, for the most part, one narrative voice and very little dialogue. I haven't read Saer in his original Spanish, but I imagine they are incomparable works of art. Saer, it seems to me, is all about words--none of which are wasted or misplaced. If something is lost from the original to the translation of either The Clouds or The One Before, it is not something that I can perceive as missing. Many thanks to Dobel and Kantor for their gift in bringing Saer to English language readers.

And now, on to The Clouds.

The Clouds was originally published in Spanish in 1996. The One Before was published in 1976. My knowledge of Saer and his writing is limited, as of now, to these two works, so I can only contemplate the significance of the placement of these two works within Saer's body of works -- why the more experimental work appeared two decades before this more straightforward narrative. In the prologue, we find familiar references to memory and  the minute description of the many movements and decisions that go into the carrying out of each action. Be that as it may, if you are not ready to dive into The One Before, you may find The Clouds a more inviting instruction to his writing, but no less rewarding than The One Before. The Clouds begins with a prologue. Pichón is living as an expatriot in Paris. He has recently returned from a visit to his native city in Argentina, bringing back with him "a handful of good memories" and the promise from his friend, Tomatis (one of Saer's recurring characters), to visit him in Paris. Tomatis finally comes to visit and he brings with him a "floppy disk in a medium-sized, self-sticking bubble envelope . . . further sealed up with clear adhesive tape as a precautionary measure" (5). Tomatis received this envelop from a shared, although tangential acquaintance, Soldi. In the packet is a letter from Soldi describing the contents of the envelope. Soldi had found the document in an archive. He thinks that it is a true account, but Tomatis believes it to be a fiction. They are both interested in Pichón's view on the matter. Pichón prepares a bowl of cherries to eat while he reads through the document. He sits down, loads the diskette into his computer, and opens the document. "He begins to read the text marching down the screen, and though he lifts the cherries to his mouth, one by one, without looking, the taste, at once sweet and tart, conjures vivid little red globes in his mind as if the flavor and feeling they're about to produce on his tongue make a detour through his eyes, or through memory, before arriving in his brain" (8). Pichón's thoughts stray from the text on the screen to the thought of cherries, the end and return of summer, and the cherries of future seasons. This sensation by sensation account of each experience and each passing impression he receives from the experience is reminiscent of his One Before writing.

From the prologue, the narrative moves right to the document and never returns to Pichón. There are small interruptions as Soldi's notes appear in the otherwise uninterrupted narrative.

The document then, which is the novel, is narrated by a young man who left his native Argentina to study with a Dr. Weis, who has developed a humane treatment for the mentally ill. They return to Argentina together to build a psychiatric hospital to be run on Dr. Weis's humane principles. The hospital is known as the Casa de Salud. The narrator, Dr. Real, student and aid to Dr. Weiss, describes the establishment and demise of the Casa de Salud, and their eventual forceful deportation from Argentina to Liverpool. Dr. Real then moves on to what, he writes, is what he is most interested in sharing, the trip that was "a unique experience" for him, and "the most singular adventure of" his life (40).

In 1804, Dr. Real was sent by Dr. Weiss to accompany a handful of patients from Santa Fe to Las Tres Acacias, the location of their new mental hospital. He would, in effect, create a mobile hospital, to escort his patients through a "relative 'desert.'" The path through this desert consisted of isolated outposts with rough accomodations. Dr. Real's patients included two brothers, one who said nothing but "morning, noon, and night," changing tone and emphasis to suit the requirements of the conversation, and the other who imitated all the sounds that he heard around him; a young sex obsessed nun, a young catatonic man, and delusional man, who viewed himself as a kind of Napolean. Dr. Real's mobile hospital is accompanied by nurses, soldiers, attendants, a traveling grocerty cart, and a fearsome guide.

The group is delayed and often in danger. They survive a kind of prairie fire that they wait out standing up to their necks in a broad lake. Throughout their tine on the prairie their guide has all of his senses attuned to any sign of the fearsome Chief Josesito and his murderous rebels. The great danger of the journey, however, is the extreme and changing climate and the intense isolation of the desert. In fact the narrative is more about the unsettled land that this small company passes through than any of the events and challenges of the journey. The land has not yet been altered or bent to the will of the colonizing forces of government and commerce. The company travels in five horse-drawn wagons drawn. The construction of the wagons and the terrain  together mean, and we are often reminded, that the travel is excruciatingly slow giving Dr. Real much time to observe. He watches objects appear and change in appearance and disappear as they become closer. He watches the sky, the clouds, the path of the sun. He has distinct and intimate experiences of the change of temperature, the heat of the sun, the dryness of the air or intense rainfall. The travelers faced intense cold, intense heat, flooding, and fire. 

Dr. Real keeps himself company with a volume of Virgil's Bucolics. In particular, he favors the 4th Bucolic. "Every challenge on our road is tied to a verse of Virgil," he writes, "and to this very day the harsh sensation of travel and the subtle music of the verses bleed together in my memory, in a unique mingling that is mine alone, which will vanish from the world when I do" (87). Dr. Real is aware of the oddness of the group's presence on this unpeopled, unaltered plain. Of the desert, Dr. Real writes,
For leagues and leagues, in every one of its parts, the desert remains identical. Only the light changes: The sun recurs, rising in the east, climbs slow and regular to its zenith and then, with the same ritual precision with which it has reached the apex of the sky, descends to the west and, finally, having grown enormous and red, gradually fading and cooling, flaring with a brightness perhaps familiar in infinite space but foreign here below, then sinks to the horizon and disappears, covering everything with night's viscous blackness until, a few hours later, it reappears in the east. Were it not for the changing light and color of that perpetual turning, a rider crossing the plain would think himself to be always riding in the same point in space, in futile, slightly oneiric sham of motion. ...The rhythmic sounds of displacement--in cart, in carriage, on postal coach or horse, repeating and identical for long stretches, despite the regularity, if not the absence of the terrain's features--seem also to infinitely repeat the same moment, as if time's colorless ribbon, stuck in the groove of the wheel (or the who-knows-what that displaces it) shimmers motionless in place, suspended and unable to rest because of its essence of pure change. Such monotony numbs.  (117-118).

In another passage, Dr. Real decribes coming upon a body of water, that unlike the plains they have been passing through is a riot of vegetation and animal life. Here too, though, he feels out of place, an alien, excluded. His horse has knowledge of this world that he has no connection to.
I peered intently at [my horse's] profile, and, as if warned, it did not turn its head toward me once, with such apparent stubbornness that it seemed to purposely treat me with indifference. For a second, I had the unmistakable impression that it was putting on, and then, almost immediately, the total conviction that it knew more of the universe than I did, and therefore understood better than I the reason for the water, for the gray grasses, for the circular horizon and the flaming sun that glistened on its sweaty hide. With that conviction, I found myself all at once in a different world, stranger than the ordinary one, in which the outer world was unfamiliar to me, and so was I to myself. Everything had changed in a flash, and my horse, with its impenetrable calm, had wrested me from the center of the world and expelled me, without violence, to its edge. The world and I were separated and, for me, would never be quite the same again from that day forth. (123).
The fates decree that the company should arrive at their destination, in the "bright, rain-washed breeze" they encounter their familiar and peopled town, "dirty and blackened by sun and by fire, smoke, and ash, dead-tired and wretched . . . neither bitter nor resigned" (160).

I hope this review gives you at least a taste for the exquisite and compelling writing. The reader, along with Dr. Real, is forced to think of the world differently, as a powerful entity, intricate, vast, and varied, colonized, altered and controlled, but perhaps patiently waiting the departure of its invaders.

Open Letter Press from the University of Rochester, has published five of Saer's works in translation. Besides the two I have reviewed in this blog, Open Letter also has, La Grande (2014), Scar (2011), and The Sixty-five Years of Washington (2010)

Find all of these at your favorite library or bookstore. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Juan José Saer: Part 1: The One Before

Juan José Saer, 1937-2005. Part 1: The One Before. Translated by Roanne L. Kantor. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2015. Originally published in Spanish in 1976.

I have been wanting to write about Juan José Saer since first reading The One Before,  a collection of stories and two novellas. Now that I've read the the collection three times, I'm still not sure that I can put into words the beauty and complexity of his writing. Having just finished reading The Clouds, I am overwhelmed with Saer's writing, and so I will at least attempt to convey something about these two works.

The writings in the collection, The One Before, are loosely connected. There is some overlap with characters here and there -- as there is throughout Saer's oeuvre. In this collection, though, Saer is experimenting with the recreation of memory and and the expression of time. His experimentation grows in intensity throughout the collection and culminates in the final two novellas. The final work, from which the collection takes it title, becomes almost unreadable, as each action immediately becomes something remembered. It begins,
 Earlier, others could. They would wet, slowly, in the kitchen, in the afternoon, in the winter, the cookie, soaking it, and raise, afterward, their hands, in a single movement, to their mouths, they would bite it and leave, for a moment, the sugared dough on the tip of their tongues, so that from it, from its dissolution, like dew, memory would rise, they would chew it slowly, and now suddenly they would be outside themselves, in another place, clinging to, for as long as there remained, in the first place, the tongue, the cookie, the steaming tea, the years: the would wet, in the kitchen, in the winter, the cookie in the cup of tea, and they knew, immediately, when they tasted it, that they were full, inside of something and carrying, inside, something, that they had, in other years, because there were years, abandoned, outside, in the world, something that could be, in one way or another, so to speak, recovered, and that there was, therefore, somewhere, what they called or what they believed ought to be--isn't it?--a world. And now, I bring to my mouth, for the second time, the cookie soaked in tea and from it I take, tasting it, nothing, what is called nothing. I soak the cookie in the cup of tea, in the kitchen, in the winter, and raise my hand, quickly, to my mouth, I leave the sugared dough, warm, on the tip of my tongue, for a moment, and I being to chew, slowly, and now that I am swallowing, now that there is not even a trace of flavor, I know, definitely, that I take nothing, absolutely nothing, what is called nothing. Now there is nothing, not even a trace, not even a memory of flavor: nothing. (119-120)
And it goes from there, movement by movement, sensation, thought, each noted and taken in, recorded, and reviewed.  Are memories tangible, what do we hold in our minds, what of the moments that have past are retained or lost? How is one retained in memory the memory of another? And is that memory actually of one person or could it be mistakenly the memory of another? The whole collection builds to this final exploration and it is almost unreadable in its repetition of the minute detail of each action, thought, and observation. I think it is best read out loud. If you are a lover of the language and the written word you will be motivated by the beauty and thought provoking nature of the stories that lead up to "The One Before."

"Half-Erased" is the penultimate work. The narrative is set in Argentina at the time of a great flood. The military is setting off explosions to alleviate the build-up of water and, as a result a bridge is closed and there is limited movement out of the city except, in some cases, by boat. The main character, who is also the narrator, is preparing to leave the country. The story begins as the narrator wakes up. He observes the light in the room, the arrangement of furniture, the empty bed of his brother Cat, who is his identical twin. The narrator's friend Héctor has called to ask if he has heard the explosions. The narrator tells Héctor exactly where he was, what he was doing, and the nature of the light at the time he heard the explosions. Héctor suggests that the two of them should go to the bridge to see the breaches the military has created through the explosions. The reader is given the details of their travel to the bridge by car in minute detail: what they see, what they hear, the opening and closing of doors, the position of  their car, which is left in the middle of the road as they lean over the bridge to see the rising, rushing water, the actions of the authorities who stop them in their car and ask for identification, and, finally, their reversal and return to the city. This detailed scene returns throughout the story, as it has been captured on film from an aerial camera and then broadcast repeatedly on television. The narrator sees it at the bar and again at his home. Everywhere the narrator goes during the day, the explosions are the topic of conversation. Either the narrator or Héctor repeats the story of his memories of  first hearing the explosion. These intimate events in the life of the narrator become part of a collective memory of the flood and the explosions.

In these last few days of the narrator's time in his home town with his friends and family, it seems as though he is absorbing every sight, sound, color, shape, light, heat, cold, dust mote, taste, texture, and word. As in "The One Before," the narrator, takes in each action and sensation, in a way so as to collect it and give it consideration. Certain actions bring out his memories from more distant points of time, others prove his memories or those of others to be wrong. But, unlike in "The One Before," in "Half-Erased," the thread of the story progresses to a conclusion. The narrator leaves his home for the bus, abruptly separates from his mother, made multiple failed efforts to connect with his twin brother, and ultimately departs earlier than planned so as to avoid extended farewells.

Saer does not simply employing a stream of consciousness approach. His narrator deliberately considers each sensation and action and his presence or absence (or potential absence) from the moments and sensations of his day. His contemplation of his every action and those of the people he is with and observes are seen in parallel with the repeated recording of his trip to the bridge with Héctor. The narrator imagines his impending departure as a disappearing, a disappearance that is complicated by the remaining presence of his identical brother, who will remain.
No one who doesn't know us well, who isn't habituated to our most intimate particularities, and sometimes even under those conditions, is able to tell us apart, Cat and I, and even we ourselves look at photographs in our desk drawers and doubt the mirror in which we contemplate ourselves reciprocally, identical . . . It's as if I were the inverse of Cat. And he will stay: he will keep waking up every morning beside the river, in the house in El Rincón, will pass through the bars of the city getting drunk until morning, and he will pass through the door of the games room at the Progress Club with Tomatis, he will look at the white municipal building sitting at his desk, not reading or writing anything, and then will go out onto the street ... greeting on the corner of San Martín and Mendoza, someone who has wished him a good afternoon thinking he is me ... (89).
There are 28 short stories, some of which are only a few paragraphs long, in this collection, plus the two longer works. I'll mention just a couple of the stories. With the story, "The Traveler," Saer explores time, memory, perspective, and disappearance. An English commercial traveler has been sent to find "the salting room."  The traveler's horse has become injured, and so he is walking across a plain or prairie. The prairie has no points of reference. It is only an endless expanse of tall straw. The traveler cannot refer to the position of the sun by day or to the stars by night. For the five days he has been lost on the prairie, it has been raining. He has little sense of time because he has broken his watch.
He stopped and gazed toward the horizon   el pajonal    he didn't know the straw was called that     it extended all the way to the uniform horizon    monotonously (55) (the spaces are in the original text.)
He realizes that he is walking in circles as he returns after two days of walking to a small clearing where he the bits of his smashed watch are scattered about and where he can see the remains of a small fire he has made in hopes of alerting someone to his whereabouts. "...there were little clearings between the tufts of grass    a man could like down there and disappear   one had to be there to know such clearings existed"(56).

The  grasses close up behind him as he walks through, leaving no trail. As he looks around, "[h]e can't detect the smallest difference" (56). As he disappears into the sameness of the prairie, the traveler remembers his home in London. He remembers it as a scene of differentiation--there is a cacophony of sound, colors, individuals with unique and startling detail. There is a marketplace, with brightly colored and richly scented vegetables, fish, and meat, there is movement, and there is music. He himself is a unique individual with a mission to get to the "salting house." He has been "chosen"; he has a destiny. He is "Jeremy Blackwood redheaded and well bred with the reasoning and the memory of his station    to defeat   the temptation of the identical of the immobile" (58). Just as the narrator of "Half-Erased," imagines himself disappearing from the scenes of his city and perhaps the memories of his friends, Jeremy Blackwood, as he wanders in a circle in space with no detail to guide him, is slowly erased, and is disappearing without a "trace" (59).

In "Memoria," Saer considers memory directly. "Here you have me practically losing my voice and full of memories. They must be governed by some law, that is certain. But to discover that law it is necessary to empty oneself of them, to turn oneself inside-out like a glove" (51). He describes the types of memories: generalized, immediate, intermittent, distant, and memories of memories. He imagines writing a narrative of memories,
A narrative could be structured simply by juxtaposing memories. It would just need a reader without illusions. A reader who, having read so many realist narratives that tell a story from beginning to end as if their authors possessed the laws of memory and of existence, aspired to something a bit more real. This new narrative, based purely on a foundation of memories, would have no beginning or end. It would be more of a circular narrative . . . (51). 
If you want to immerse your self in beautiful writing, every page deserving of having is corner turned down so that you can be sure to revisit it and re-experience it,  you will want to spend time with Saer's books.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Ostend: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth

Volker Weidermann. Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway. New York: Pantheon Books, 2014 (original), 2016 (translation).

Weidermann's literary elegy begins at Ostend in Belegium in 1936. The celebrated writer Stefan Zweig is in Ostend with a growing circle of friends, all of whom are in exile from Germany or Austria as Zweig is himself. They are writers, journalists, communists, actresses, who are in exile because they are Jewish and/or because they have dared to challenge the Nazi party in power. For the most part, there is no home for those in this circle of intellectuals. When the summer is over, they must disperse as they are able. The circle included Jewish novelist, playwright, and editor,  Hermann Kesten, Czech-Austrian Communist journalist, Egon Erwin Kisch, Communist organizer, Willi Muenzenberg, German novelist, Irmgard Keun, German expressionist playwright, Ernst Toller, the young and prolific German writer, Klaus Mann,  German actress in exile and wife to Toller, Christiane Grauthoff, Zweig's young lover and secretary, Lotte Altmann, and Joseph Roth.

Weidermann's book focuses on the personal and literary friendship of Zweig and Roth as well as this time during the early years of Hitler's power and the advent of statelessness for many people. Roth was a generation younger than Zweig. As Weidermann describes it, Roth looked to Zweig for inspiration and support and literary model to aspire to.  Zweig admired Roth's novels even before meeting him. Both were inspirational to the other. As they became friends they also advised and edited each other's works. At the time of the Nazi ascendancy, Zweig was at the peak of his career with an international reputation, that supported him even after he could no longer be published in Germany. Roth had also had significant successes but without the financial security enjoyed by Zweig. Roth looked to Zweig for moral and financial support, and literary guidance and inspiration. Zweig sought to reverse Roth's dissipated habits and alcoholism.

They both came to Ostend in Belgium for the summer of 1936. Zweig was looking for an uncomplicated summer of writing, and he begged Roth to join him. Eventually they were united and Weidermann expands on their symbiotic relationship as writers and their more fraught relationship with Zweig as mentor and patron to the precariously situated Roth.

Weidermann provides insight into this group of intellectuals. He portrays their outlook on life as ranging from that of hopeful and dedicated resistance to dark despair. Specifically, Zweig is described as comfortable in himself, looking for the best in everyone, smoothing feelings as he looks for freedom and hopes for peace. Roth, as one who internalized his hate, physically ailing and in the late stages of alcoholism, and, always in contrast to Zweig, with a chaotic and careless approach to life.

While we experience Weidermann's narrative as a story from a distant and irreclaimable past, Weidermann provides enough detail for us to understand the sense yearning these individuals had for for a reversal of their present political reality and the terrible uncertainty that accompanied their understanding of the reality. He quotes from a speech given by Ernst Toller at the International Association of Writers for the Defense of Culture, "We take part in political life today, but we believe it is not the least significant aspect of our battle to free future mankind from the wretched competition of interests that goes by name of 'politics' today. We know the limits of what we can achieve. We are plowmen, and we don't know if we will be reapers. But we've learned that 'fate' is an excuse. We make fate! We want to be true, we want to be courageous, and we want to be human" (87). Certainly it was their humanity that Hitler and his Nazi power sought to deny.

The news coming from home was intolerable. They learn of Stefan Lux's suicide at the General Assembly of the League of Nations to protest the "world's inaction vis-à-vis the crimes being committed in Germany" (95). Weidermann writes that there was "brief horror," "distaste for such fanaticism, some shoulder shrugging, and then things went on" (95-96). They hear that Etkar André, who was arrested after the Reichstag fire (as was Egon Kisch), has been charged with high treason and attempted murder. Despite international attention to the case, which is they believe to be  fabricated, André is found guilty and condemned to death. Weidermann writes, that, "It is in moments like these that the émigrés are fully aware of their powerlessness and the all-powerfulness of their enemies . . . . They have all read Etkar André's final words to the court" (97). Weidermann quotes André's response: "Your honor is not my honor, for we are divided by our worldviews, divided by class, divided by an abyss. If you are going to make the impossible possible here and send an innocent man to the block, then I am ready to walk that hard road. I want no mercy! I have lived as a fighter, and I will die as a fighter, and my last words will be: 'Long live Communism!" (97).

Despair predominates within the circle as the summer draws to an end, and it is evident that there are "no real signs that the Fascist domination in Europe is approaching its end. At least not this year, and for many people no longer within the time frame they will live to see" (128).

 The translator's subtitle of this book "the Summer Before the Dark," is inaccurate in that, in 1936, with the Nazi Party solidly in power, Mussolini established in Italy, and the Spanish Civil War erupting,  the darkness was well established. Weidermann's original German subtitle is translated literally as "1936, Summer of Friendship" -- less eye catching perhaps than Janeway's choice, but certainly more accurate to the content and in some ways more poignant in that it is the last summer that this particular group would spend time together. It is the friendship of Zweig and Roth as well as this close network of exiled writers and intellectuals that tells the story of a certain segment of German and Austrian society who were thrown out of their natural orbit, and only a few of whom survived to see Hitler's defeat.

This is a cameo of a book, which highlights a time and a history that we should not be forget. Weidermann brings our attention to this group of writers who resisted through action and word until they no longer had the strength to continue.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Thank you to Walter Giersbach for sharing this review with me! You can also find it on Goodreads.

Take This Writer Very Seriously

It’s presumptuous to think my review of “Since We Fell” will add anything to Mr. Lehane’s stature.  But I’m compelled to say that the first two-thirds of the novel gave me insights into agoraphobia, acute anxiety and fear of the world around us.  I could say, “Yes, I know what your character feels because I’ve been there,” and isn’t that why writers write?  To communicate as well as entertain.

It doesn’t help that our current times add to everyone’s dis-ease and anxiety.  I come by my neuroses (not yet debilitating like Lehane’s chief character, Rachel) with valid credentials: Recognition of my mortality at age 77 and grief over losing a wife of 46 years.  This story delves deeply into character that seems very familiar.

Writers of crime fiction often aspire to be taken seriously.  Chandler felt this.  Philip Dick wanted to be taken “seriously.”  I believe Lehane now can legitimately join the ranks of major authors interpreting our trying times.  Not the crimes, but just the difficulties of coping with one day after another and fear that the wolf is overtaking you.

Take this passage as Brian’s partner Caleb says, “When we were young, at a crucial time in the development of our selves, Brian and I were great friends.  Now he’s where he is and I’m where I am…and I’m not sure who we are anymore.  When you spend so much time in the skins of others that you don’t recognize the smell of your own anymore, maybe the only allegiance you owe is to the people who remembered you before the makeup and the stagecraft took over.”

Then — surprise! — the last third of “Since We Fell” races ahead with “reveals” that Rachel was not irrational in suspecting her husband of lying and infidelity.  There’s a magnificent $75 million scam taking place under her nose.  People die violently.  Rachel and her husband are on the run as the very bad guys close in.

This is also an urban-centric novel.  Many of Lehane’s novels center on the Boston area.  He’s a Boston boy the way Raymond Chandler was a Californian, Faulkner a Mississippian.  I feel a kindred spirit for Boston because of that year I lived in Cambridge.  Boston is, like New York and a few other cities, a personality in its own right.  Robert S. Parker knew that when his heir apparent Ace Atkins set Lullaby in that city and included a street map in the frontispiece.

This is the 10th Dennis Lehane novel I’ve read and it’s by far the best of the best.

posted to Goodreads 6/30/17

Thank you Walter! I have some catching up to do!

The Violins of Saint-Jacques

Patrick Leigh Fermor. The Violins of Saint-Jacques. Introducton by James Campbell. NY: New York Review of Books.

This novella can be read in one relaxed reading-filled day, but it is packed with good solid words, both English and French. Fermor uses at least a handful of words that I haven't come across before, such as "orgulous" and "unarmigerous." Each sentence is made up of wonderful consonants, hard and soft, that find their way into the small vacant spaces in one's brain. I wanted to write down and record every sentence as I was reading. Here is an example -- you should read it out loud to get a feel for these words.

"The orgulous record of their gestures - the carnage they had wrought among the Caribs and the English, their Christian virtues, the multitude of their progeny, their valour in attack and their impavid patience in adversity, the suavity of their manners, the splendour of their munificence and their pious ends - was incised with a swirling seventeenth-century duplication of long S's and a cumulative nexus of dog-Latin superlatives that hissed from the shattered slabs like a basketful of snakes" (p. 20). (so many v's!)

Fermor, is a travel writer, and he does excel at description. In this novella, the narrator is a traveler who has landed on a small Greek Island after traveling in the Caribbean. The novella opens with a brief history and description of the island, Saint-Jacques, located on the "sixty-first meridian," a "few leauges windward from the channel that flows between Guadeloupe and Dominica and well to the south-east of Marie Galante, where it hung like a bead...." It's disappearance from the maps is "no mystery," but the reader doesn't learn of its fate until near the end of the novella.

The narrator tells its story as he hears it from an aging artist who, in the 1890s made her way from France to St. Jacques to serve as a governess to distant relatives. The story is one of opulence, class and racial division, colonial privilege and eccentricity -- as though the inhabitants of St. Jacques were rare species that had evolved in isolation from others of their kind. What seemed distasteful  to me in the everyday practices of St. Jacques is related by the narrator without flinching or signs of distaste. Fermor published the novel in the 50s, so I don't know whether this acceptance of privilege and racial division is truly unremarkable to the author, or if the tone of the novel is ironic. I think it could interpreted that way.

The main event of the story told within the story of the novella is a Shrove Tuesday ball hosted by the Serindans, the great family of the island. Fermor minutely describes the Serindans' preparations, the food, the costumes and elegant dress, the activity of the family and the guests, and the heightened emotions of the day.

To learn about the fate of St. Jacques and its inhabitants, you'll need to read this novella for yourself. Set aside a little time and take it in all at once if possible -- or several bus rides if an empty day doesn't present itself to you. It is truly enjoyable to take in Fermor's writing and the story's climax is a surprise.

Put your feet up and slip off to an imaginary island and settle into a few beautiful hours of reading.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Speaking with the Spirits --Rochester Knockings by Hubert Haddad

Hubert Haddad. Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters. Translated from the French by Jennifer Grotz. Rochester: Open Letter Books, 2015. Published in France as Théorie de la villain petite fille by Zulma.

With Rochester Knockings, Haddad gives us an interesting look at the United States of the second half of the 19th Century. Haddad imagines the story of the historical Fox sisters, Leah, Kate, and Maggie, who through their communications with the spirits of the dead ignite the cross-continental Spiritualist movement. Haddad paints a United States still, as he describes it, under the influence of Puritanism, with a population naive enough and traumatized by the frequent death of children, spouses, and the great losses suffered in the Civil War to sustain a movement ascribed to by ardent believers and determined charlatans alike.

In Rochester Knockings, two young sisters have just moved with their parents to a small town, Hydesville, in New York State. The youngest, Kate, has recently witnessed the death of her much beloved younger brother. Sister Margaret is old enough to feel the loss of dear friends in the move to a new town. Both sisters are lonely; not yet accepted into the social circles of the community’s school and church. Kate dreams of her brother and feels a child’s responsibility for her brother’s death. She is a sleepwalker and seems especially in tune to her natural surroundings and alert to every noise within the house. Both sisters think of the house as a kind of living entity that will accept its occupants or not as it comes to know them. Left alone one night while her sister and parents attend to the birth of a calf, Kate hears strange knockings. When Margaret returns, Kate has her listen for the knocks and over time, both sisters make their mother aware of the strange occurrences. Soon the whole town knows about the knockings at the Hydesville house. The church’s strict pastor, lost within his own guilt at the loss of a young wife, excommunicates the family, who are then in jeopardy from the mob-like reaction of the townspeople. The girls are whisked off to safety with an older sister, Leah, in Rochester. Leah has plans for her sisters’ penchant for communicating with the afterlife. She drives them into a life of public demonstrations and seances. Leah shares in the role of medium to the spirit-world herself. Haddad’s Kate is the true medium of the three sisters. The two older sisters become adept at creating the proper atmosphere and simulating their conversations with the dead. Kate lives in a foggy world with no barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead. Both Kate and Margaret are exhausted by Leah’s ambitions and only Leah, through marriages and prudent management of her (and the younger sisters') earnings, sustains her spiritualist activities and comfortable lifestyle.

Celebrities are dependent on the waxing and waning whims of the public, and as the competition grows from imitators eager to cash in on the spiritualist opportunities, the girls’ hold on their public fades. As wooers and supporters die or drift in different directions, Kate and Margaret are left alone and die in poverty. This novel is as much about the rise and fall of the Fox sisters as it is about an American population of immigrants and religious zealots eager and ready to believe not only the sisters who might or might not have been sincere in their exhibitions, but the many fakes who follow in their footsteps.

The narrative has a wandering style, characters appear, disappear, and reappear later only to disappear again. The sisters' stories follow sometimes separate, sometimes intertwining threads. I sometimes wondered if the translator got a bit lost in the translations —some of the sentences seemed unnecessarily long and convoluted, and the style a bit inelegant in places.

A word about Open Letter Books. This is the nonprofit imprint from the University of Rochester, with the mission of publishing English translations of exemplary literature from throughout the world. Look to Open Letter’s publications to discover writers new to the English speaking reading population.  We should hope that Open Letter will thrive. Their beautifully produced books each celebrate the collaboration between writers and readers, the work of the writer to provide creative insight into the human experience and the work of the reader to absorb, understand, and make the writer’s expression meaningful. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Man Who Loved Birds and his Dog

The Man Who Loved Birds by Fenton Johnson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.

A South Asian doctor moves into a small rural town--her office a former gas station; a priest, former draft dodger, now full of doubts lives in a fading monestary; a communal minded veteran, with plenty of love to share, makes a moderate living off of his marijuana farming; an ambitious, take-no- prisoners county attorney seeks his white whale; a vindictive policeman takes out his disappointment in life by beating his wife and son, his boy loves and seeks out stories, his wife, the boy's mother, loves and tries to protect her son, J.C., the dog roams the countryside freely along with his beloved master. 

The spiritual nature of this novel is clear from the title of its Part One,"The Earthly Paradise." Its opening epigraph a quote from Luke, "this scripture must be fulfilled in me: And he was counted among the lawless." The epigraph that opens Part Two is from the Bhagavand Gita, "Men will seek beauty, whether in life or in death." The novel revolves around Johnny Faye, the veteran turned marijuana farmer. He is a gentle man with a charismatic warmth that draws people to not only trust him but to love him. The vulnerable Dr. Chatterjee, a refugee of sorts, self-exiled in this isolated town unused to foreigners, first meets Johnny Faye as a patient. Later, she encounters him in a statue garden where she regularly goes for peace and solitude. He arrives just as she becomes aware of a pit of snakes just below where her feet are dangling. He, St. Francis like, "took his walking stick and thurst it gently into the coiling mass. 'Greetings, brother snakes. . . ."

Although the St. Francis allusion seems powerful (and his dog's name, J.C. certainly invokes Christian sensibilities), Johnson, describes Faye's snake entwined walking stick as a caduceus, throwing the illusion much further back into spiritual and literary history. Flavian, the troubled priest, meets Johnny Faye during his first foray into a bar--a den of inquity. It is here that Flavian finds himself amidst a pit of metaphorical snakes. Faye protects Flavian from the snakes .He guides Flavian through a game of pool, while, from Flavian's perpsective, he remains a disembodied voice and a faceless body. Faye's caduceus, this time, is not a snake entwined walking stick, but a pool cue. Both Flavian and Dr. Chaterjee are seduced by Johnny Faye's gentle spirit and connection with nature; his ability to provide both physical and spiritual healing. Faye also has a bit of Robin Hood in him, literally stealing from the rich and anonymously delivering up what he has stolen to the poor.

All of this calm and beauty is at odds with the county attorney's war on drugs, his greedy ambition, and his willingness to rely on violence, police bruality, and vigilante justice. Economic disparity is also evident in this small town. The small farmers are no longer able to make a living legitimately and so have formed a marijuana growing cooperative, led by Johnny Faye. Economic downturn threatens the traditional ways of the Abbey, Flavian's home. Soon, the abbey's last vestige of self-sufficiency and connection with nature, their heard of cattle, will be sold off and butchered. The county attorney seeks, in his own way, to seduce, through money, promises, and threats. His aim is to destroy Johnny Faye and he easily persuades Officer Smith to help him. While the contrast of Johnny Faye's personally created microcosm of love and gentleness contrasts starkly with the great evils of the world, the plot progresses with both subtlety and sensitivity. The catharses are present but private. 

Johnson's plot whirls around the yearnings and doubts of both Brother Flavian and Dr. Chatterjee. They are connected through their mutual love for Johnny Faye.  They are also connected by their inability to protect the vulnerable. Dr. Chatterjee has saved the life of Officer Smith's son who he has beaten to the brink of death. Mrs. Smith brings her son to Dr. Chatterjee's office while Brother Flavian is visiting.  It quickly becomes clear to both Chatterjee and Flavian , that Smith's son has not tumbled into an accident but has been repeatedly abused. It is unclear how to protect the boy in this small town where action on their part could put both mother and son in danger and cost Dr. Chatterjee her job.

All of the characters make their choices for better and mostly worse. As Dr. Chatterjee makes her most significant choice, she is reminded by Flavian, that,  "this is America. You have choices," although her choice is coerced by threats. Still, she has reason to believe, that compromised as it her choice was, "She had chosen well." Hope survives despair.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Darryl Pinckney's Black Deutschland

Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Jed is black and gay and a disappointment to his achievement oriented parents. Their disappointment is either the cause of or the consequence of Jed’s ongoing struggle with addiction. A lover of words and books, Jed follows in the footsteps of Isherwood and Auden to seek a home, both literary and spiritual, in West Berlin. West Berlin is also home to his cousin Cello, an accomplished pianist, neurotic and unstable, and married into a wealthy German family. Jed receives temporary shelter with a reluctant Cello and her family as he works with the media hungry and controversial architect Rosen-Montag. Jed’s story moves backwards and forwards as Pinckney takes the reader back and forth between Jed’s history and his present. Jed’s aspirations in Berlin include liberating himself from his addictions, finding romance, and establishing himself as a writer, all of which he accomplishes to some degree. His books are his one constant as he moves back and forth across the Atlantic, in and out of Cello’s house, unexpectedly finds love and as unexpectedly loses it, and finds himself in and out of work. Jed’s differences with his Chicago family keep him from finding a home with them, but he never realizes the safe harbor, the embracing sense of belonging, he had hoped to find in Berlin. Jed never fully shakes the weight of his American past and eventually tires from his efforts to do so.  Pinckney vividly describes the Soviet-era West Berlin with its expatriates, remaining threads to its Nazi past, dark welcoming bars, and its dangerous criminal culture. The city’s cold winters and sombre tones reflect and reinforce Jed’s mindset and diminishing sense of self worth. Black Deutschland is ultimately a tragic novel. For Jed, the novel ends where it began. There is no homecoming in sight for him, no return to family, no private life of warm and accepting embraces.  For better or worse, he remains an American abroad in a dark and cheerless post-wall Berlin.