Friday, February 7, 2020

Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich

This oral history covers the periods 1991-2001 and 2002-2012 in Russia and former Soviet republics. Alexievich’s technique is to sit with people, to interview them as they remember the changes since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it’s appalling how many miss Stalin. The sovoks would gladly trade the new cutthroat capitalism that favors the unscrupulous (while everyone with honest jobs struggles and starves) for the iron fist of Stalin. Some ascribe this perversity to Russian sentimentality, simple-minded and simple-hearted; others miss the feeling of being part of something grand – a movement for The People, not for oneself. In the name of The People they worked hard, went to prison, endured torture, starved – and believed. The new system rewards the selfish, its purpose and future meaningless.

She speaks with a man who tortured prisoners under Stalin’s regime, who did that as a job, thoroughly but without joy or vengeance. He remarked that if a true sadist worked among them, they would get rid of him. And what of the woman denounced by a neighbor who lusted after her? She went to the gulag for years, eventually her husband was arrested too. And yet, they remained true believers – Lenin and Stalin were great men, the ideals were worth everything. The feeling of everyone working for the common good was overwhelming – they miss that; it has left a vacuum in their hearts. “With an Iron Fist, we will chase Humanity into Happiness!” Their most precious possessions were their Party cards.

For decades, the death machine worked nonstop… Its logic was brilliant: The victims are accused of being executioners and then, in the end, the executioners themselves become the victims. As though it wasn’t just people running it… Things are only that perfect in nature. The flywheel turns, but there’s no one to blame. No one! Everyone wants to be pitied. Everyone is a victim.

We see the sweep of tribalism: Russia for Russians. Tajiks in Moscow live in basement warrens, robbed and abused, doing work no Russian will touch, and thrown out on a whim, documents confiscated, attacked on the streets by skinheads… Sound familiar? The new economy has enriched gangsters, oligarchs, young people swept up in materialism. During Soviet times, books were precious, often samizdat (published and distributed hand to hand illegally) – but after the Soviet Union fell, no one cared. No Pasternak, no Akhmatova; no Sakharov, no Solzhenitsyn, only money, Italian bathroom fixtures, salami… and vodka. A drunkard nation.

Alexievich interviews mothers whose children were confiscated and raised in mass orphanages, and children who grew up without a mother’s love but with the Party to look up to. And, the bright thread through all the gloom: love. A mother who will do anything for her child. And a woman considered insane by her friends and family for pursuing a man she’d never met, based on a dream she had as a teenager – she knew she was in this life to love him. After two husbands and three children, she found him – a prisoner who had murdered a man. And her love, the Dostoyevskian saintliness of it, broke down every barrier. She made him her life.

Russia is an outsized example of humanity’s potential and pitfalls – in these stories we read extremes of what happens everywhere, because humans are pretty much the same everywhere, only more so in Russia through its unique combination of vast inhospitable lands, simple beauty, and the yearning of the spirit toward something greater than this miserable existence. Hope and love seem more precious and fleeting in the face of starvation, brutality, and repression. These folk and their dreams have been brought to life by the great Russian writers: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn – and now Alexievich.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Kill My Mother, Cousin Joseph, and The Ghost Script, by Jules Feiffer

We are fortunate indeed that Jules Feiffer, now in his late 80s, has turned his hand to noir. His take isn’t cops-and-robbers, it’s Reds and corporate goons, in the entertainment industry in New York and Hollywood. His loose but evocative drawing style makes each character instantly recognizable, as their family ties and associations create fault lines they must cross, with violent results.

These graphic novels are adult matter – not just sex, the original “adult theme,” but politics, calculated violence, difficult choices, art, and the struggle to get by. Kill My Mother focuses on certain women: strong, gender-bending, resourceful. Along with them, we meet the rest of our cast, who will develop through the series, through the decades.

Cousin Joseph is a hit-man with many shady associations. He seems untouchable, knows everyone and what they’re doing and to whom they owe fealty and favors. He’s a tough guy’s tough guy, remorseless and relentless. The fact that he’s “cousin” Joseph suggests the depth of his hold on those he manipulates – he calls in favors you would only do for kin.

The Ghost Script is about blacklisted writers and performers. The writers make the point that Hollywood does buy their work, but at a steep discount because they’re “forbidden.” Some have the cynical strength to laugh at their situation, while anger and despair consume them.

The through-lines of revenge, disguise, and struggle are developed, and yes, converge at the finale for a noir-worthy ending. Feiffer paints them in many shades of reds – one character is a Trotskyite, deeply offended to be called a Communist because she hates them. Likewise, the socialists resist the Communist label, and trade-unionists, accused of being Commies, battle the corruption at the top in their organizations. Their sworn enemies are corporate big-wigs who hire goons – not just strike-breakers but thugs who track them in their daily lives, beating them up often and without mercy. These are not happy stories.

As he writes in his Acknowledgements at the end of The Ghost Script, Feiffer says: “But more than all the others, I owe this book to Kazan and Odets [two who testified before HUAC and named every name they could think of], who caused in me an undiluted rage, new to me in the 1950s, and almost as vivid today for the life-souring lessons they taught me about America, and political and personal betrayal.”

Where this series differs from most noir is that Feiffer tracks all the ugliness back to political roots. Unlike the fiction we enjoy on film, of Everyman characters who take a step off the straight-and-narrow only to find themselves swept into a maelstrom of increasingly ugly crimes and nasty customers, these stories, while fictionalized, are true about the America we’d rather not see. Where our film noir protagonists blunder into a house of horrors, Feiffer’s were targeted, forced there, and escape only in death.

If your interest in noir goes beyond entertainment, these books will open your eyes, and disturb you.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Lord Byron's Novel - The Evening Land - by John Crowley

John Crowley continues to amaze with the breadth of his creativity. His 2005 book, Lord Byron’s Novel, explores the life of that notorious poet and his near-unknown daughter Ada, later Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who, mentored by Charles Babbage, foresaw the capabilities of computers, even in the 1850s. The vehicle is a single page of a destroyed manuscript which refers to a full-length novel penned by Byron, burned at her mother’s request by Ada. But this single page contains a cipher – a number series which when decoded, applies to columns of numbers written on a stack of pages in Ada’s papers.

The researchers, in 2002, suspect that Ada burned the manuscript out of deference to her mother, but not before rendering it in a code only broken by their diligence. Crowley’s novel is the result, with footnotes by Ada commenting about the likely personages and encounters her father’s novel refers to. Meanwhile, a thread of communications between researchers introduces another story. In effect, this novel is three: Lord Byron’s itself, The Evening Land, is everything one might hope for from a poet, adventurer, ne’er-do-well, a rebel dubbed “Satan” by his detractors. Ada’s chapter-by-chapter observations offer a counterpoint to his words. The communications of his 21st century discoverers open yet another view onto a man who lived fully and died young.

What is it about Crowley? What muse has come to dwell with him, giving unique insight to his subjects, which themselves range from the fairy tale Little, Big; to his novel Four Freedoms, about Americans who during WWII moved from the margins to center stage while the young white male (dominant) group was overseas at war: women, racial minorities, cripples – their efforts were needed to supply military materiel, so they were allowed economic power and privilege previously closed to them. Crowley explores the mystic undercurrents of modern life in his Ægypt trilogy. Then, his novel The Translator is patterned on the life of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, expatriate due to official persecution. In this deceptively short work, we see the poet, teaching a seminar at an American university, cultivate an undergrad woman – not a Russian speaker/reader – to translate his poetry into English. Their simpatico relationship enables her to express his words, not literally but from the heart, in another language.

And here we have him reaching into the past, resurrecting a poet of faltering reputation, along with his daughter never given due recognition. Crowley seems engaged in a sort of literary healing, in which his clear insights rescue people from the niches into which society has confined them, setting them on a path of honor and respect. If curiosity drives what you read, Crowley should be on your list, on your bookshelf, and his voice in your mind.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

 This timely novel is a must-read, especially for those who love trees. Through characters of varying ages and dispositions, we learn about trees as members of larger organisms – an aspen grove, for example, is a single “tree” with multiple sprouts – the ways they communicate, share defenses against insects, fire, and other risks, and how vastly we have underestimated their capacities. Our studies of sentience have all been focused on behaviors and characteristics that mirror ways humans behave and comprehend. But trees are a whole different world.

In this novel we meet an anomalous chestnut – after American chestnuts by the millions were killed off by an imported fungus – and through a family’s obsessive photographing of the tree over many decades, a flip-book is created that compresses time, showing the growth and glory of this single specimen. Then we meet two-thousand-year-old redwoods near the northern California coast, through the eyes of the few humans who see their value beyond board-feet of lumber – one couple live on a platform 200 feet up one giant for over a year while the company that has purchased the lumber rights to its grove try various tactics to get them down. The treetops are an ecosystem apart – the tree-sitters find salamanders living in a pool well above their platform, and flying squirrels visit nightly, and other species sprout from this benevolent matriarch of a tree.

Though I have not done extensive research myself, what I have read corroborates what Powers writes, including an “eco-terrorist” group that torched ski area buildings, nonviolent actions in which peaceful protestors suffered what amount to torture techniques at the hands of the authorities: pepper spray applied by Q-tips to their pried-open eyes, tearing off the pants of a man who climbs a tree, then repeatedly spraying his genitals with Mace – and so on. How dire a threat are these protestors, that makes treatment of them so out of proportion to their acts?

This book teaches us enough about the symbiosis between plants and humans to make us tremble for the future we are creating, focused so narrowly on human needs and desires that we fail to sustain the ecosystems without which our very survival becomes questionable. As one of the tree-sitters says to another: “We don’t make reality. We just evade it. So far. By looting natural capital and hiding the costs. But the bill is coming, and we won’t be able to pay.” A biologist whose research into tree communication had her laughed out of academia, who continues on her own because she feels she must, is called as expert witness in the challenge of permits to log old-growth forest. She reflects, “These slow deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the microclimate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature.”

The author, through a character, observes: “To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs… No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees – trees are invisible.”

It’s time to start seeing trees, acknowledging their primacy as our partners in survival. They are the carbon sink we need right now. Instead of cutting them down in ever larger swathes, we need to nurture what remains, especially the ancients that harbor the greatest diversity, and we need to plant more, not for monocropping tree farms but for our future. READ THIS BOOK! Then go plant some trees, and start noticing how much your own blind consumption of wood derivatives feeds the cycle of destruction. Be a better resident of this planet, before it’s too late.