Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

When so many authors reference a work when completing their own, it is necessary to go to the source. Baldwin’s important work was first published in 1962, right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. It must have been enormously affective to those trying to articulate their dispossession at that time. But so many authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jesmyn Ward, and Teju Cole to name a few I have read lately, specifically talk about how Baldwin influenced them and point out how little has changed in the fifty-some odd years since he wrote that short letter to his nephew and discussed his own experience in America.

But something has changed. We hear him now, through these later authors. They keep pointing to Baldwin, and now we can hear what he was saying:
"The treatment accorded the Negro during the Second World War marks, for me, a turning point in the Negro’s relation to America. To put it briefly, and somewhat too simply, a certain hope died, a certain respect for white America faded. One began to pity them, or to hate them…"
Was Baldwin the first to say in language clear and unmistakable that “the man”—the white man—was the oppressor? “In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited buy this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand.” Why does this sound true and reasoned now when it must have sounded and felt shocking when he wrote it? Same words. Can it be that we have learned something about the nature of oppression after all? That women’s rights, gay rights, transgender rights have finally taught us what oppression and discrimination is? Why has it taken so long for us to see what we have done to the American Negro? Is it because that oppression was economically advantageous or because we simply did not care?

Well, we care now. And it is clear that this will be sorted out, easy or hard, but it will be sorted out.
"Imagine yourself being told to ‘wait.’ And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the twentieth century. The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless."
The Chinese have a phrase “speaking bitterness.” This is what Baldwin does in this book. He tries to soften the blow: “This seems an extremely harsh way of stating the case…” and not all white people are the same (“I have many white friends”). “In the eeriest way possible, I suddenly had a glimpse of what white people must go through at a dinner table when they are trying to prove that Negroes are not subhuman.” This empathy, this ambiguity of feeling, this ability to see himself is what makes Baldwin so compelling.
"White Americans have contented themselves with gestures that are now described as ‘tokenism.’ For hard example, white Americans congratulate themselves on the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in the schools; they suppose, in spite of the mountain of evidence that has since accumulated to the contrary, that this is proof of a change of heart—or, as they like to say, progress…Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons, to be wooed by the descendants of the former masters. Had it been a matter of love or justice, the 1954 decision would surely have occurred sooner; were it not for the realities of power in this difficult era, it might very well not have occurred yet…In any event, the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems. These have to be dealt with…in political terms."
Yes. But it will also take a change of heart. Which comes first, we cannot know. At the end of this slim book Baldwin writes of spiritual resilience, despite his telling us he is not a religious man. It sounded like something I’d heard from Thich Nhat Hanh just the other day (Kristin Tippett’s On Being radio podcast). Baldwin tells us
"—this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are…It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and clarity not to teach your children to hate. The Negro boys and girls who are facing mobs today come out of a long line of improbable aristocrats—the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced."
That is what I believe. Witness the generosity and genuine goodness of the churchgoers after the Charleston shooting, and just the everyday survival of blacks after centuries of oppression and aggression in this country. Thich Nhat Hanh says something similar:
"You cannot grow lotus flowers on marble. You have to grow them on the mud. Without mud, you cannot have a lotus flower. Without suffering, you have no ways in order to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. That's why my definition of the kingdom of God is not a place where suffering is not, where there is no suffering…I could not like to go to a place where there is no suffering. I could not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering because, in such a place, they have no way to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. And the kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding and compassion, and, therefore, suffering should exist."
Earlier, in the letter to his nephew, Baldwin talks about the realities behind the words acceptance and integration:
"There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. You must accept them and accept them with love…And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it…It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity."
Baldwin speaks to what is happening now on the streets of America:
"The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it…the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose. You do not need ten such men—one will do…as long as we in the West place on color the value that we do, we make it impossible for the great unwashed to consolidate themselves according to any other principle…If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relative conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare…If we do not now dare everything..."
...it will be fire this time.

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Known and Strange Things: Essays by Teju Cole

This book of essays by Teju Cole aren’t always essays: they might be scraps of thought, well-digested and to an immediate point. They are fiercely intelligent, opinionated, meaningful in a way that allow us to get to the heart of how another thinks. And does he think! Let’s be frank: many of us don’t do enough thinking, and Cole shows us the way it can be done in a way that educates, informs, and excites us.

The work in this volume are nonfiction pieces published in a wide variety of outlets and that he chose from an eight-year period of travel and almost constant writing. The emphasis in these pieces, he tells us in the Preface, is on “epiphany.” We can enjoy kernels of ideas that may have had a long gestation, but have finally burst onto the scene with a few sentences but little heavy-handedness or any of the weight of “pronouncements.” This reads like a bared heart in the midst of negotiating life, as James Baldwin says in The Fire Next Time, “as nobly as possible, for the sake of those coming after us.”

Cole references Baldwin in all these pieces in his unapologetic gaze, but he does so explicitly in several pieces, notably “Black Body” in which he tells of visiting the small town in Switzerland, Leukerbad (or Lo├Ęche-les-Bains), where Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain found its final form. Cole expands on his time in Switzerland in “Far Away From Here,” which might be my favorite of these essays. Cole tells how he was given six months to live and write in Zurich and though he did precious little writing, he was totally absorbed every day, gazing at the landscape, walking the mountains, photographing the crags, trails, and lakes, thinking, unfettered. This is someone who carries all he needs in his head, and I loved that freedom as much as he.

But how can I choose a favorite from among these pieces when each spoke of ways to approach a subject with which we have struggled—or haven’t yet…About race and class: “how little sense of shame [Americans] seemed to have,” he writes, looking at America from his upbringing in Lagos. Cole echoes Baldwin again in “Bad Laws” about Israel and its laws concerning the rights of Palestinians:
”The reality is that, as a Palestinian Arab, in order to defend yourself against the persecution you face, not only do you have to be an expert in Israeli law, you also have to be a Jewish Israeli and have the force of the Israeli state as your guarantor…Israel uses an extremely complex legal and bureaucratic apparatus to dispossess Palestinians of their land, hoping perhaps to forestall accusations of a brutal land grab.”
Earlier Baldwin reminded us that “…few liberals have any notion of how long, how costly, and how heartbreaking a task it is to gather the evidence that one can carry into court [to prove malfeasance, official or not], or how long such court battles take.” Americans looking at Israel and Palestine should be able to discern some outline of our own justifications and methods, and vice versa.

Photography is one of Cole’s special interests and he is eloquent in Section Two "Seeing Things" in discussing what makes great photography as opposed to the “dispiriting stream of empty images [that the] Russians call poshlost: fake emotion, unearned nostalgia.” And then he discusses “Death in the Browser Tab,” wherein he tells us what he sees and what he knows after retracing the steps caught by the phone footage recording Walter Scott being shot in the back by eight bullets from a .45-caliber Glock 21.

Politics is what humans do, though “the sheer quantity of impacted bullshit in politics” is clearly not something Cole relishes. In "The Reprint" Cole admits he did not vote until sixteen years after he was eligible, and when he did vote finally, for Obama, “like a mutation that happens quietly on a genetic level and later completely alters the body’s function, I could feel my relationship to other Americans changing. I had a sense—dubious to me for so long, and therefore avoided—of common cause.” He notes that Obama was “not an angry black man, the son of slaves” but a biracial outsider who invisibly worked his way to the center of the political establishment piggybacking the experience of American blacks by hiding in plain sight. The night Obama won, Cole was in Harlem.
“There was as exuberant and unscripted an outpouring of joy as I ever expect to see anywhere… Black presidents are no novelty for to me. About half my life, the half I lived in Nigeria, had been spent under their rule, and, in my mind, the color of the president was neither here nor there. But this is America. Race mattered.”
Cole will speak out in "A Reader's War" against Obama’s “clandestine brand of justice” and his “ominous, discomfiting, illegal, and immoral use of weaponized drones against defenseless strangers…done for our sakes.” He admits that Obama believes he is trying “to keep us safe,” and writes “I am not naive…and I know our enemies are not all imaginary…I am grateful to those whose bravery keeps us safe.” It is one of the most difficult questions about political and military power that we face today and Cole wrestles the issue heroically. Not any of us have yet answered this question well, and until we do, the disconnect between justice and drone strikes will continue to plague us. We have unleashed a terrible swift sword on far away lands while we continue to suffer the brutality of a thousand cuts from our own citizens. Cosmic justice?

When Cole talks about literature I experience a frisson. There is nothing quite like someone very clever and well-spoken addressing something about which one cares deeply. His insights add to my pleasure, and detract nothing. His description of the poetry of Derek Walcott remind me of the first time I encountered Walcott’s work: “This is poetry with a painterly hand, stroke by patient stroke.” I have forever thought of Walcott in this way, in color and in motion: turquoise and pale yellow, cool beige and hibiscus pink, the palest gray and an ethereal green I am not sure is water, air, or sea grass. The ocean creates tides through his work, and it seems so fresh.

When Cole writes of his visit to V.S. Naipaul in “Natives on the Boat," we sense how Cole’s initial reserve is eventually won over by Naipaul’s deeply curious and wide-ranging questions. In the very next essay, “Housing Mr. Biswas,” Cole writes an ecstatic celebration of Naipaul’s accomplishment in creating the “smart and funny, but also often petulant, mean, and unsympathetic” Mr. Biswas in Trinidad,
“an important island in the Caribbean but not a particularly influential one on the world stage…the times and places—the farms, the roads, the villages, the thrumming energy of the city, the mornings, afternoon, dusks, and nights—are described with profound and vigilant affection…it brings to startling fruition in twentieth century Trinidad the promise of the nineteenth century European novel.”
He’s right of course. Naipaul is a beloved writer of a type of novel no longer written, and perhaps now not often read.

Reading all these essays in one big gulp was a lot to digest so I am going to recommend a slower savoring. This is a book one must own and keep handy for those small moments when one wants a short, sharp shock of something wonderful. By all means read it all at once so you know where to go back to when you can dig up copies of some of the photos he talks about or want to recall how Cole manages in so few words to convey so much meaning. His is a voice thoughtful in expressing what he sees and yet so vulnerable and human I want to say—read this—this man is what’s been missing from your lives.


These collected essays will be published August 9, 2016. I read the e-galley provided to me by Netgalley and Random House. I note that some of the essays about art or photography that were initially published in newspapers sometimes were accompanied by examples of the work he discusses. In a perfect world, these would be included in the final book, but truthfully, his writing is clear and compelling enough to not make that nicety strictly necessary. Apologies to the publisher for quoting from a galley: my excuse is that the work is previously published and therefore no surprise.


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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward

In the Introduction to this collection of essays by an impressive roster of writers known for thoughtful and articulate discussion of their experience with race in America, Jesmyn Ward explains that she wanted something more than newspaper accounts or editorials when faced with the events of the past eighteen months in the USA. Her own book on the death of five young men of her acquaintance in her own short life, Men We Reaped, meant that hearing of and seeing via public media further deaths of black men by white men was traumatic enough to want to gather friends, neighbors, and most of all, those she admires for their clarity of voice, to ask “How do we deal with this?” “How do we think about this?” “How can we stop this?”

This collection references James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time which is a work that addresses the future in a letter to Baldwin’s nephew, and the past and present in an essay about religion. Ward mentions that she intended to gather the commissioned essays in three parts - Past, Present, and Future—but found that most of the essays dealt with the past because the past explains the present and impacts the future. Unless the past is acknowledged and consciously dealt with in the present, the future will always be a question mark. The essays gave Ward hope because words matter. Words help us to cope. I agree with her.

The names of the writers in this collection you will recognize, and if you don’t at first, you will in the future. One name I’d never seen before wrote my favorite essay in the collection, called “Black and Blue.” Garnett Cadogan quotes Fats Waller at the start
"My skin is only my skin.
What did I do, to be so black and blue?"
Cadogan relates his experience as a Jamaican man in the United States—how he had to learn how to dress (cop-proof and IV league), how to speak, how not to run, or make sudden movements, or wait on the streets for friends…you get the picture. His personality and behaviors had to be twisted to fit the circumstances. In a sense, this happens to all of us, wherever we move, if we want to fit in, but not like that. Not like that. And he said something I’d never heard before when considering a black man’s experience:
"I always felt safer being stopped in front of white witnesses than black witnesses."
Apparently the cops have greater regard for the concern and entreaties of white witnesses than they do for black witnesses. I recall the old chant "White Silence is Violence." Cadogan also said that “my woman friends are those who best understand my plight,” due to the fact that women are often targeted on the street by men simply because of their sex. And he said that having to be hyperaware of one’s environment before speaking, moving, acting is what children do when they are learning, returning adult males (and females) to childhood status, even in cities where they live. My brain fizzes.

Claudia Rankine, poet and author of Citizen, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 2015, has an essay which begins
"A friend recently told me that when she gave birth to her son, before naming him, before even nursing him, her first thought was, I have to get him out of this country."
I totally see where that friend of Rankine’s is coming from, and have had that same thought while reading Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside. Black men in the United States do not have enough of a childhood and they can grow, if they live long enough, gnarly and twisted by society’s expectations. This can’t be right. I’d get my son out also.

All the essays were ravishing and brought me something important, like Wendy Walters’ description of the slave graves discovered under a street intersection in Portsmouth, NH. My excitement quickened to see an essay by Mitchell S. Jackson, whose first novel The Residue Years was a finalist for the Hemingway/PEN Award, the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Duncan First Novel Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. In his essay called “Composite Pops”, Jackson talks about male role models in a way that recalled to me Iceberg Slim. Slim was a con-man, a pimp, and a miscreant, but he had self-confidence, the push to succeed, wisdom, and love and he spread all of these around generously. I can think of a far worse father figure than he.

You will recognize the names Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate, Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer winner in Journalism, Edwidge Danticat, Haitian novelist and MacArthur Fellow, all of whom have essays in this collection. But there will be names new to you in this remarkable collection which will open worlds you have not yet dreamed of. Once again we recognize that the work and thoughts—the words—of Jesmyn Ward bring us along, sometimes kicking and screaming in horror, to a new place of understanding. Many thanks.

Thanks to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster/Scribner for a chance to read the advance galley of this title which is due in bookstores August 2, 2016. Order it early and often.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

Fellowes is a unique talent able to actually inhabit a world long past. Perhaps the motivations and language of people are not much changed from one or two hundred years ago, but habits have certainly changed. Fellowes navigates that earlier world of societal mores and constraints so beautifully, I would have loved to see him in action then.

In his new serialized novel called Belgravia, the illegitimate son of an unmarried daughter is arranged to grow up under the tutelage of a pastor. The boy grows up clever, handsome, and with all the right attitudes, having expected no advantages. When it is discovered he is not illegitimate after all, but is related to a wealthy and illustrious London family, everyone wants to align their futures with his.

The Duchess of Richmond holds a ball in Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo to which Anne Trenchard, her husband James, and her daughter Sophia are invited. The Trenchards are of the merchant class, suppliers of Wellington’s army, so it is Sophia who has secured the invitation through the attentions of The Duchess’s nephew, Viscount Bellasis. Sophia had caught his eye, secretly wed him, and conceived a child.
description
--from "Duchess of Richmond's Ball" Wiki, Henry O'Neil (1868) Before Waterloo

I can say little more about the convoluted storyline without compromising readers’ surprise, so will just say that Fellowes is particularly good in this novel with the thoughts of the two grandmothers to the ill-begotten boy, once thought a bastard. Anne Trenchard is beautifully drawn as a woman interested little in the trappings of society but caught in its web nonetheless. The other grandmother, Lady Caroline Brockenhurst, is delightfully acerbic and yet entirely sympathetic to readers, having lost her only heir right at his moment of greatest promise. She faces the unhappy prospect of leaving her title and wealth to an undeserving nephew whom she disdains.

I listened to this book on audio and was thrilled with the narration by Juliet Stevenson, who gave each character their own particular accents. Fellowes and Stevenson both managed to give the servants in the households their due, and as usual with Fellowes’ oeuvre, there was an authentic richness to their experiences, motivations, and manner of speaking.

The aspect of this novel that gave it some cache was the serial manner in which it was delivered to readers. Once a week subscribers found an episode added to their inbox. It was good that Fellowes tried this manner of publishing again, but I found it frustrating that I could not hear the story in one go or over several consecutive days. After all, habits have developed so that we now enjoy a TV series in a glut of binge-watching. However, I was thrilled to find a new section loaded onto my device each week, and listened to it eagerly when it arrived.

Fellowes used his own delivery vehicle for this book, offering readers a Belgravia app which included many extras, like maps (with links to photos) which show the properties developed in the early 1800s by Master Builder Thomas Cubitt with the help of James Trenchard, as well as closeups of the paintings that inspired Fellowes. A link to a short explanatory youTube video shows the grand central green marble staircase which features in The Brockenhurst House in Belgravia Square. The app allows readers to read or listen by episode. I found it worked well for me on an iPad and it can be enjoyed more than once if one is so inclined.

There is no one quite like Fellowes at work today, and his ability to read and write characters is unique. His novels tend toward gorgeous confections where outcomes seem destined to give the good and the evil their cosmic due. Since this is often not the way things work out in the real world, we can look forward to a fairytale outcome. There is a place for novels that involve us but do not agonize us. I look forward to whatever he wants to dish out.

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The Shaking Reeds by John Pedersen

This terrific mystery feels positively handcrafted and reminds me of my favorite music. Since childhood when different folks ask me what kind of music I like my answer has always been the same: “homemade.” That means anything not overly processed that can be listened to up close and personal and bears some relationship to its sources and its roots.

In a sense this mystery is an invitation to a mystery: how some people manage to live by their wits and their art, whether it be music, carpentry, motorbikes, surfing, or any other of a million special fascinations.

John Pedersen is a fiddler, banjo player, and owner of Amazing Grace Music store in San Anselmo, CA where he and his wife do stringed instrument repairs, among other things. I knew John in high school and by some miracle of internet he reconnected long enough to send me this marvelous mystery that brings us deep into the Irish music and vintage motorcycle scene in and around San Francisco.

Soren Rauhe plays accordion nearly every night amongst friends in the pick-up Irish music spots around San Francisco. By day he is a wave-watcher and motorcycle mechanic, restoring vintage mounts for connoisseurs and enthusiasts in the region. The rich variety of Rauhe’s interests and talents extend to being a chump for a white-skinned, blue-eyed, red-haired beauty of his childhood acquaintance who manages always to find more prosperous benefactors than himself or his best buddy, the carpenter and guitarist Sean, who is likewise smitten. The tension in the triangle offers depth of background to a foreground of recent hook-ups.

When Soren clumsily spills coffee on a woman in his local breakfast bar, that unexpected encounter becomes the entree to an accordion mystery that reaches back to San Francisco’s great earthquake in 1906.

Everything about this San Francisco mystery felt authentic, right down to the Russian rocket scientist handcrafting replacement parts for 70-year-old motorbikes, and the care the restorers take in handling the motors. The bump and scrape of setting up in houses or bars for a night of music sounded right also, as did the habitual morning scramble to gaze over rooftops to catch a glimpse of breakers on the beach.

The central mystery of the accordion and the factory in which it was fashioned was as deeply fascinating to a nonspecialist as it would be to one who repairs instruments every day. I especially love the way Soren’s expectations of the people he initially met on the phone were confounded in person: an Asian man Soren pictured as a thin intellectual with bow-tie and eyeglasses was a brawny hulk of a man and the blue-eyed Nordic type he imagined from the factory was in fact short, thin, dark, and the meanest crook.

We also get a glimpse of the path to a man’s heart in that the woman who eventually captured Soren was capable in her own right and not given to unnecessary drama, was an inventive and enthusiastic lover, and able to put together a homemade meal without undue fuss. I can verify that this is the perfect recipe for an attractive male companion as well.

Perhaps best of all, this mystery gives us a glimpse into the unimaginable mysteries of city life, of how our tangential lives glimpse and bounce off one another, unaware of the richness of the experiences going on all around us.

Because good novels are difficult to write well, especially for a full-time musician, we can’t expect that Pedersen will be able to pull off the writing schedule of a-mystery-a-year that professional crime writers do. He does have an earlier novel, featuring a bluegrass fiddler and a mystery violin, called Scroll and Curl. But I sincerely hope that one of his future novels include surfing experiences which are also part of his world. Ever since reading Finnegan’s two-part New Yorker article in the 90s about surfing, I am a complete surf-potato if such a thing exists. I adore reading about it, watching it, marveling over it. Don Winslow, another California writer, has a Boone Daniels mystery series devoted to surf buddies. Hope springs eternal, as does music, surf, and mystery.

I.Loved.This.Book.

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Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Complete Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M.A. Orthofer

Orthofer lives in New York currently and was founder in 1999 of the complete review, a website dedicated to reviews of recent literature from around the world. In 2002 Orthofer included a blog, The Literary Saloon, which carries news from interviews, reviews, and notes on awards, publication, items of interest from around the internet. Orthofer has been updating it nearly every day.

The reach of Orthofer’s interests is nothing short of astounding. In this compendium of contemporary world literature he tries to include short mention of the work of leading litterateurs around the world and includes dates of publication and translation when a work is mentioned. This is an indispensable guide for those interested in world literature for it introduces readers to new authors and commonalities among authors either in genre or style that allow us to find what suits our own voracious reading habits.

This work can be read for itself, but it is more likely to be used as a reference text for readers interested in contemporary world literature. It can be downloaded as an ebook or referenced from the hardcopy. Continents are broken into constituent parts and each countries’ authors are mentioned with reference to their major works. While I have always thought myself interested in “world literature,” the range of this work makes me realize how parochial my reading has been, mostly limited to the overseas imaginings of writers of English. I note a recent entry in The Literary Saloon claims there has been a huge outpouring of translations of contemporary Arabic literature, a trend surely long awaited.

North American literature is not included in this work because the author is pointing to the need for American readers to vary their diet and expand their horizons:
”Because American authors provide an enormous amount and variety of work, American readers are arguably spoiled for choice even without resorting to fiction from abroad…In almost every other country, foreign literature occupies a central and prominent position, but in the United States it seems to sit far more precariously on the fringes…foreign literature can offer entirely new dimension and perspectives…great literature knows no borders.

When I founded the Complete Review (complete-review.com) in 1999, one of my goals to to take advantage of the Internet’s tremendous reach and connectivity…Ironically, though, one of the shortcomings of this and most other Internet resources is its tremendous scope…[This book] provides an entry point and more general overview various nations’ literatures, as well as a foundation to help readers navigate what is available on the Internet.”
—from the Introduction
Orthofer has attempted something most of us might consider impossible, and he has done a convincing job of it. If it lacks anything, it is up to us to help straighten it out. I highly recommend everyone have a look at this book to see what you are missing. If it seems overwhelming, I sympathize. Imagine how Orthofer felt when he began.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Villa Triste by Patrick Modiano

Modiano has a melancholic bent whose sentences vibrate (“like a spider’s web”) with a kind of menace. We are never really sure who deserves the most scrutiny amongst his characters, but everyone in this novel seems to be hiding some dark past or grim present. Even the dog, a Great Dane, was “congenitally afflicted with sadness and the ennui of life.” In Modiano's lavish description of the locale, a fashionable small French resort across a lake from Switzerland, even the trees are a mystery:
"The vegetation here is thoroughly mixed, it’s hard to tell if you’re in the Alps, on the shores of the Mediterranean, or somewhere in the tropics. Umbrella pines. Mimosas. Fir trees. Palms. If you take the boulevard up the hillside, you discover the panorama: the entire lake, the Aravis mountains, and across the water, the elusive country known as Switzerland."
Why “elusive”? We never learn why. “I didn’t yet know that Switzerland doesn’t exist.” Perhaps it is the notion of safety that doesn’t exist. A nineteen-year-old is not expected to know that, not then, not now. Modiano liberally salts his work with phrases that fill us with an unnameable dread. Count Victor is no more Count than you or I, but somehow we’d rather believe that than whatever it is he is running from. He is the son of Russian Jews, and the Second World War is over at least fifteen years. He is wealthy beyond imagining, but he has fear: he’s “scared to death” he tells us early on as he recounts the time he met Yvonne and Meinthe.
”When I think of her today, that’s the image that comes back to me most often. Her smile and her red hair. The black-and-white dog beside her. The beige Dodge. And Menthe, barely visible behind the windshield. And the switched-on headlights. And the rays of the sun.”
Modiano writes like a painter paints. He weaves sound and scent along with color and emotion, light and dark.
”We returned through a part of the garden I wasn’t familiar with. The gravel paths were rectilinear, the lawns symmetrical and laid out in picturesque English style. Around each of them were flamboyant beds of begonias or geraniums. And here as well, there was the soft, reassuring whisper of the sprinklers. I thought about the Tuileries of my childhood. Meinthe proposed that we have a drink…
In the end, the three of them, The Count, Yvonne, and Meinthe make quite a hit in that town at that time. Photographs show them glamorous and solemn, walking arm-in-arm beside the dog, Meinthe taking up the rear. Meinthe and Yvonne win the coveted Houligant Cup for that year and are sought-after companions for their edgy stylishness. Gradually Menthe and Yvonne share pieces of their shadowy background with Victor, and the glamour, he realizes, is all rhinestones and rust.
“The rooms in 'palaces' fool you at first, but pretty soon their dreary walls and furniture begin to exude the same sadness as the accommodations in shady hotels. Insipid luxury; sickly sweet smell in the corridors, which I can’t identify but must be the very odor of anxiety, of instability, of exile, of phoniness.”
When “France suddenly seemed to [Victor] too narrow a territory,” he proposed they ditch the local act and take to the road, somewhere where they could show their true capabilities…America.

Later, when it is all over, we think that perhaps Victor’s fear is his youth, his aloneness, his uncertainty. He grew up that summer by the lake, and saw most of what there was to see. Later, when he ambles under the arcades on the Rue de Castiglione reading a newspaper, his education comes full circle, and the mystery begins again.

Promotional copy for Villa Triste, due out today in a new translation by John Cullen and published by Other Press, calls it Modiano’s most accessible novel. It may well be, but all Modiano’s great themes are present. This fine translation does justice to the underlying greatness of the work. A fine piece of literature that can keep you mulling events over in your head for a long time to come.



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