Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Plague, by Albert Camus

 Fittingly for this moment, Camus takes us on the journey of a walled city – a place of mediocrity and ugliness – from the first signs of plague to the rejoicing at its waning. Through the eyes of a kind and dedicated doctor, he shows us the suffering of victims, the anger and arrogance that give way to indifference and defeat. The Church has no adequate answer, neither do the doctors. “Thus, too, [the townspeople] came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose. Even the past, of which they thought incessantly, had a savor only of regret.”

As the city is closed off from the world in an effort of containment, its residents find themselves prisoners. “No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the cross-currents of revolt and fear set up by these.”

In a nod to our current climate, he observes, “Thus, while plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and… exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts.” We see people with money holding extravagant parties, out of reach of those who can no longer afford even bread.

A visiting journalist, trapped by the lockdown, spends months arranging an escape so he can unite with the woman he loves. He pulls strings, he invokes important people, he bribes sentries, all to no avail – he is as trapped as any nobody. Somewhat later, with his sense of injustice prickling him, he discovers that the doctor, with whom he works, put his own wife on a train to a sanitarium just before the plague struck. He not only cannot see her, he’s not even sure whether she is recovering from her malady, or if her doctors are “sparing” him the truth. The journalist, suddenly aware he is not the only person suffering, is shamed, and begins contributing to the plague-fighting effort.

Early in the epidemic, the priest invokes suffering as God’s plan:  ”From the dawn of recorded history the scourge of God has humbled the proud of heart and laid low those who hardened themselves against Him. Ponder this well, my friends, and fall on your knees.”
But after months of ministering to the sick and dying, he is shaken by witnessing the horrific death of a child ravaged by the disease. Suddenly, this agony no longer seems the will of God, so his tune changes: “Who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering?... My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all. We must believe everything or deny everything. And who among you, I ask, would dare to deny everything?” Thus the priest clings to a lesser version of the faith he lives for, unable to cast it away but stricken from finding any glory in it.

And Camus leaves us with a challenge – does enduring the plague change us? Are we learning anything? He points out, through his narrator the doctor, that the nature of the illness continues to evolve – first, it is a bubonic attack; later, it infects the lungs. The serums and vaccines are occasionally effective, but near the end, as though the plague has exhausted itself, suddenly treatments that failed are now saving lives. It is a warning against thinking we know more than we do, and that the virus must follow a logical course. No, it doesn’t. And he assures us it can always come back. The best we can do is protect each other.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel, Bel Canto, fictionalizes the hostage lockdown of Peru’s Japanese Embassy in 1996. Distinguished guests there to celebrate Emperor Hirohito’s birthday were held at gunpoint by the Tupac Amaru terrorist organization. After an early release of women and children, the rest were held for over four months.

In Patchett’s version, the locale is the Vice Presidential residence of an unnamed South American country, and the gathering is in honor of the birthday of a Japanese industrialist the country hopes to woo into opening a factory there. The attraction that brings him is the performance by a renowned opera soprano. The terrorists storm the palatial home, but thwarted by the absence of the President whom they had hoped to capture, must rethink their strategy. After the women and children, except the opera singer, are released, the remaining forty hostages and their nineteen captors – three commanders and a group of battle-trained but unworldly teenagers – settle in.

The commanders make demands the government rejects, presenting demands of their own, and the stalemate stretches on. And as this caesura of time imposes itself on hostages and terrorists alike, the individuals begin to reveal uncelebrated aspects of themselves. Art rises to the fore: the soprano performs, and people never stirred by music take refuge in her singing. The translator who accompanies the industrialist turns out to be the most valuable hostage, able to communicate between the generals and the Red Cross official who visits daily, between hostages from different countries, and while effacing himself, becomes a messenger of hope, love, and the portals of culture.

Patchett makes some fine observations: “The hostages had begun to believe they would not be killed. If what a person wants is his life, he tends to be quiet about wanting anything else. Once the life begins to seem secure, one feels the freedom to complain.”

When a hostage suddenly sits at the piano and plays magnificently, the group is again transformed. “Every note was distinct. It was the measurement of the time which had gotten away from them. It was the interpretation of their lives in the very moment they were being lived.”

In our current situation of COVID-induced isolation, this is a story of how people cope with the suspension of their daily lives, and what resources they find within themselves and among each other, that make the time not only bearable, but an oasis. Now is the perfect time to read Bel Canto.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I read The Brothers Karamzov when I was eighteen or nineteen, and struck deeply by Dostoyevsky’s passion and honesty, read all of his books, and even studied the Russian language to better understand him. Lots of water has flowed by since then. I just re-read it, and as happens when a book made a strong impression at an impressionable age, revisiting it has provided perspective.

The Karamazov men stand in for the Russian man in his various aspects. First we have Fyodor, the father: a buffoon, for many years a sponger, who in his latter age came into money (from his deceased wives) and became quite a grasping investor. He is a nasty old man, contemptuous and bitter, who fully intends to spend every ruble before he dies, leaving nothing to his sons. And in the course of the story, he is murdered.

His eldest son, Dmitri, “Mitya,” is a former army officer: strong, proud, honorable, but with no ability to earn or hang onto money. Indeed, money is a chief cause of his torments; as soon as he has some, any, he is spending it freely, and then it’s gone and he is cadging from friends or haranguing his tight-fisted father who feels he has given him already whatever his inheritance came to, and has closed his wallet. Dmitri’s mother died when he was very young, and the boy was raised by the couple who serve Fyodor’s household – his parent could not be bothered with him. The murder of Fyodor is, for many compelling reasons, attributed to Dmitri.

Fyodor remarried, and his second wife bore him two sons. The elder of these is Ivan. An intellectual, he has spent time in the city (Fyodor lives, and raised his family, in a small town, Skotoprigonevsk (“Cattle-roundup-ville”)). Ivan espouses the notion, developed in Crime and Punishment more than a decade earlier, that for the intelligent man everything is permitted. His actions will not be crimes because he is inherently above judgment, because a world abandoned by God requires humans to save it. And yet, Ivan is portrayed not as arrogant so much as misguided.

Fyodor’s youngest legitimate son is Alexei, “Alyosha,” a monk in thrall to an ancient elder at the monastery near town. Alyosha is youthful, saintly, and full of love, patient and truthful. He acts as a go-between among his warring family and the women with whom their lives are entangled. Indeed, almost everyone who interacts with him finds in him a reliable sounding-board, honest and non-judgmental, filled with love and humility. The esteem in which everyone holds him tells us how rare and precious such honesty and integrity are, and how important it is to strive toward it.

Then, we have the bastard son of the village half-wit Stinking Lizaveta: Smerdyakov, who because his mother was unable to care for him, has grown up nurtured by Fyodor Pavlovich’s servants, Grigory and Marfa (who raised Dmitri). He learns to cook and becomes indispensable to Fyodor Pavlovich’s household, though Karamazov never acknowledges paternity – his encounter with Stinking Lizaveta occurred while he and several friends were carousing, drunk, and came across her. They goaded one another, and though no one remembers or will admit, it was likely Fyodor Pavlovich who actually raped her.

Here we have the Russian man in his entirety: greedy and grasping, but also strong, with a sense of honor and fairness, but also a weakness for good times, drink, parties – who will freely spend all he has to provide them. But he is also intellectual, a student of political movements, injustice, and affirmation of better conditions for peasants. And he is religious, deeply so, because life would be hopeless otherwise. He is also ingratiating, spiteful, and a sneak. All these traits, noble and base, form Dostoyevsky’s view of Russian Man.

Then there are Russian women. The woman who sparks the conflict between Fyodor and Dmitri is Agrafena Alexandrovna, “Grushenka,” an earthy passionate young woman attracted to Fyodor for his money and Dmitri for his ardor. She is also spiteful and catty. The woman to whom Dmitri was betrothed, and whom Ivan loves, is Katerina Ivanovna, “Katya,” a woman of European refinements and elegant beauty whose noble spirit compels her to extend a friendly hand to Grushenka. But Grushenka spurns her, filling Katya with rage.

We also have Madame Khokhlakov, who imagines herself a great beauty despite being past her prime. She is friends with Katya, and they gossip about Grushenka, whose attractiveness to men makes them jealous. Madame Khokhlakov’s fourteen-year-old daughter Liza loves Alyosha with a mania that makes her damage herself. At first crippled, she recovers somewhat but lives in a state of anxiety that threatens her health. The women in this novel don’t come off well – hysterical, weak, inconstant, catty, scheming, and jealous. And yet, they too are thoroughly Russian, jeopardizing their own interests out of love or devotion.

Though he expounds his philosophy and assesses popular avenues of thought, Dostoyevsky was a better creator than to set up a batch of archetypes to battle out their problems. Among the secondary characters is Elder Zosima, an ancient at the monastery, truly saintly, wise, with the foresight that deep understanding enables. It is Zosima who tells Alyosha he cannot remain at the monastery – there is much he must do in the world – effectively, carrying his saintliness into a society badly in need. Rustics in the Russian Orthodox Church hold that a saint’s corpse should be pleasing to smell, the purity of his life translating to a sweet and pure death. But when Zosima dies, his corpse immediately emits an awful stink. Alyosha, firmly convinced of the elder’s holiness, spurns the superstition, noting with distress how the majority subscribe to it. The monastery, firmly under Zosima’s guidance during his life, quickly splits into factions. Alyosha’s course is clear – he must through acts of loving kindness convince his fellows of the presence of God in their lives.

Leaving the monastery where Elder Zosima is lying in state, Alyosha finds himself out in the night. “Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly… Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth… The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.
            He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages… It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone, and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang again in his soul… He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of ecstasy.”

And yet, when the sick child of a poor family dies, his little corpse is sweet as flowers. Is he more saintly than Zosima? Alyosha seems to give it no thought, but his feelings for the dead boy are profoundly loving – the last word in the book is Alyosha’s address to the boy’s classmates, who often tormented him, about how good deeds in childhood resonate and may guide their lives through temptation and bad decisions.

In the midst of dire matters, we get Dostoyevsky’s human insights: the police come to the inn where Grushenka and Dmitri celebrated all night, and arrest him. Because he has blood on his clothes, they order him to strip, to hold them as evidence: “And meanwhile may I also trouble you to take off your socks?”…
Mitya… having sat down on the bed, began taking his socks off. He felt unbearably awkward: everyone else was dressed, and he was undressed, and – strangely – undressed, he himself seemed to feel guilty before them … But to take his socks off was even painful for him: they were not very clean, nor were his underclothes, and now everyone could see it. And above all he did not like his own feet: all his life for some reason he had found both his big toes ugly, especially the right one with its crude, flat toenail, somehow curved under, and now they would all see it.

This is the kind of detail I found riveting in my youth, and still it startles and thrills me – amid the dramatic troubles of this man, we are given a glimpse into his deepest feelings about himself. Without intending, nor even conscious of doing so, his tormentors have humiliated him profoundly. And isn’t this what we all experience? At the mercy of a cruel situation, what hurts us most is some inner wound, unknown to all but ourselves.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Can You Ever Forgive Me? - a film by Marielle Heller

Tired of gauzy New York stories about the rich and famous? Here’s one as real as the dead flies on our protagonist’s pillow. Based on the memoir of the same name, this film explores the second life a once-bestselling biographer invents so she can pay the bills. Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is a solitary woman with scathing wit and outdated interests. She’s fired from her rat-race job, her agent (Jane Curtin) cold-shoulders her, she’s behind on her rent, the vet won’t even look at her sick cat till she pays at least half of what she already owes. She’s hit the end of the line.

In a bar she meets Jack Hock (Richard Grant), a gay Englishman with a similarly jaundiced outlook, and they become guarded friends. Doing research for a biography, in the NY Public Library stacks she discovers two letters by the author tucked inside a book. She sells them to a bookstore – the owner, Anna (Dolly Wells), tells her they would be worth more if they weren’t so bland. A light glimmers on. Lee has a typewriter that matches the font of a letter by Noel Coward. Retyping his missive and adding a witty postscript, she peddles the embellished version for hundreds of dollars, and she’s in business.

Without giving away the show, I’ll tell you that this movie, for all its sardonic laughs, casts a glare on the lives of people whose successes are behind them, while bills and expectations pile up relentlessly. It’s easy to sympathize with a character who, in the grand scheme of things, does something pretty harmless to sustain herself in the face of diminished opportunities. It's also a story about people who find refuge in solitude.

Heller, and scriptwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, have crafted a tale Dorothy Parker, one of the writers whose letters Israel forged, would appreciate. This film makes keen observations about the shallowing of our culture – not only Jack, an Englishman, never heard of Parker, but the young printer who provides Israel a batch of Parker stationery hasn’t either. The forger can hide in plain sight. And we get a look at the subculture of memorabilia peddlers, some more scrupulous than others. Israel’s crime is small-scale compared to theirs – at least her role was creative.

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.