21 October 2017

Of Switzerland and Sebald

My friend, who lived in Switzerland for a year when she was a girl, says everything about the country is neutral. She meant that in the most positive way. She has a point. To my mind, not neutral like a boring beige wall, more like a pearly white semi-gloss that sets off other colors to their best, in this case reflecting the bright palette of green hills and blue skies, overflowing window boxes and the reflection of tall leafy trees in sparkling-clean rivers and lakes. A tranquil backdrop that helps keep chaos at bay.
             
I recently returned from a holiday in Switzerland, so I took with me a novel I have been meaning to read forever, which takes place mostly in the region – Austria, Germany and Switzerland. However, this is not a novel of neutrality. Rather fiction evoking the extremes of displacement – the distance from homeland and family and from one’s own identity that so many people of western Europe experienced during WWII.  
           
 THE EMIGRANTS, by W. G. Sebald, published in 1992, is considered a modern classic, and now I know why. Four long narratives, as if intersecting memoirs, reveal the lives of four Germans in exile – a painter, a doctor, a teacher, and one eccentric uncle. The narrator follows their paths to migration and exile from mainland Europe to England, Greece, Israel and New York City. These are the lost souls post-Holocaust, whose lives were forever altered and who, as emigrants, never quite settle comfortably. A little like Dickens’ Marley doomed to eternity in chains. Through their stories, we encounter a whole host of other characters who either facilitate their displacement or serve as an anchor to help them feel more secure, although they never are.

            
A lesson on the permanent state of transition experienced by immigrants of all types, both emotional and physical, the emotional-psychological being the more devastating. 
            
The novel is not as somber as it seems, although certainly a melancholy river runs like those emanating from the Alps down hillsides to the many charming cities of Switzerland.  Wherever I was, snow covered mountains were present, in the distance, looming over the encroaching colors of autumn. This country is truly postcard perfect, but, as Sebald reminds us, not for those who have been forced to leave their homes and their people.
            
I gradually understood that, beyond a certain point, pain blots out the one thing that is essential to its being experienced – consciousness – and so perhaps extinguishes itself; we know very little about this. What is certain, though, is that mental suffering is effectively without end.”
           
The neutrality I found most conspicuous in Switzerland was the equanimity. In restaurants, people converse as quietly and amiably as if extras in a film. On trains or riverside benches, people read [real books] or gaze out at the endless views. One young man looked up at me with a smile as I passed, as if he’d just read an especially pleasing passage. Trams and trains and buses are clean and run on time – right on time - when the minute hand hits the mark on the clock, off they go! Because bikes and mass transit are preferred forms of transport, and most of the Allstadts, the old cities, have been pedestrianized, I never once heard a car honk. Not in ten days of travel. Even on highways, traffic seems to move. 
            
The general tranquility reminded me of Laos, a very quiet country, although Switzerland never felt repressed, rather regulated. It’s all about expectations here. In Laos, or Japan, for example, a crime against another person is a crime against society, thus a source of shame. Here, people are simply expected to behave. It’s not a matter of state, rather a matter of decency. In return, and in return for high taxes and a high cost of living, [this is the most expensive country in Europe] people earn a decent wage, their health care is high quality and reasonably priced, and everything, I mean everything, works as it is supposed to work. The Swiss reputation for precision is well deserved.
            
Sunday is a quiet day. Most shops and restaurants, and many museums, are closed; only the most important tourist sights are open. Families go to church in the morning and in the afternoon they stroll. Late in the day, cafes and bars re-open for afternoon tea or evening beer. I visited good friends who live in a charming old-world city near the Austrian border, who tell me they were advised that Saturday would be the day to shake out carpets, as if the aggressive motion, and the dust motes, might disturb a Sunday.
            
I also noticed that doors are rarely open, never beckoning, as if whatever is within is meant to be discovered. Only the offen [open] sign invites entry. As in other European countries, metal blinds are mounted to the exterior of windows, sensible and attractive, and when closed keep out the cold, the heat of the sun or the light, and, on the interior, provide an unobstructed view. And everywhere, the marker of modernity: construction trucks and workers rebuild roads, restore old buildings or build new. The contrast between old and new architecture is a feast for the eye, if you enjoy that contrast, as I do. 
            
Which brings me back to Sebald who writes of the infrastructure of the mind in constant need of repair. All four stories depend on an understanding of the atrocities of the past, but without description. Absolutely nothing heavy handed, and in that subtlety a more powerful expression of the horror of the European mid-century. No feigned solutions or explanations, no platitudes. 
            
Near the end of the novel, the narrator visits a cemetery, each gravestone a story. Who will remember those displaced, he seems to ask. Over time, who will have known them or known the profound experience of exile?
            
One of the characters copied out passages from writers of the period who suffered deep depression. “Paul copied out hundreds of pages, mostly in Gabelsberg shorthand because otherwise he would not have been able to write fast enough, and time and again, one comes across stories of suicide. It seemed to me, said Mme. Landau, handing me the black oilcloth books, as if Paul had been gathering evidence, the mounting weight of which, as his investigations proceeded, finally convinced him that he belonged to the exiles…”
           
If you enjoy a civilized society set in the most magical and pristine environs, and of course, fine art, lovely shops, good beer and wine, cheese and chocolate, Switzerland is a great place to visit. And, if you enjoy a stunningly simple piece of fiction that reminds you how tethered we are to one another, if only we show each other compassion, read Sebald. 


13 September 2017

Falling Leaves = Fab Fiction

Some of the best contemporary writers are publishing this fall. Here's the first crop.

Celeste Ng, celebrated for her terrific first novel, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, returns with another insightful story about family relationships and cultural conflicts: LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. A sensitive work of fiction with Ng's now signature simplicity of language and subtle evocation of emotional turmoil.

Alice McDermott, one of my all-time favorites and a master of nuance, revisits the Irish immigrant experience, in Brooklyn, in THE NINTH HOUR, which stars a young girl destined to become a nun, by obligation rather than intention.

Pulitzer-prize winner Jennifer Egan publishes her first historical novel, in which a young woman becomes a diver at the Brooklyn shipyards during WWII as she struggles to resolve the mystery of her father's disappearance. Egan is a master of detail, you'll feel like you're right back in that time and place.

The great Claire Messud has penned a lovely coming-of-age fiction entitled BURNING GIRL, which is, frankly, not as profound as her previous works but she is a superlative writer. I highly recommend THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS and THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN first.

After nine years, Salmon Rushdie has published THE GOLDEN HOUSE to mixed reviews. I often find him hard to read, although always a fascination, and this novel is said to be more grounded in realism. However, a major story line has to do with a comic book character who runs for President. What you might call not-so-magical realism. For Rushdie fans, maybe a winner.

Nicole Krauss, the author of the award-winning and remarkable HISTORY OF LOVE, releases FOREST DARK, which is already garnering glowing reviews, including a recommendation by the one and only Philip Roth! The story of the virtual collision between a struggling not-so-young writer and an enigmatic older lawyer takes place in part in the Israeli desert.

Nathan Englender, an especially phenomenal short-story writer, publishes a political thriller that also takes place, largely, in Israel. I've just begun reading and already entranced with the writing. And, despite the subject matter, the novel is splattered with middle Eastern humor as well as typical volatility.

One of my favorites this season is Danzy Senna's new novel, NEW PEOPLE, also with a chuckle inserted between the lines of self-satisfaction characteristic of the new generation of browns, also in Brooklyn, battling a legacy of black and white. Senna, writes mostly about the bi-racial challenge, but this novel takes her writing, and her insights, to new levels.

A few good mysteries to add to your pile. John LeCarre returns after 25 years with LEGACY OF SPIES, a prequel to the beloved George Smiley, hero of the revered TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY collection. He never fails to please.

Former Washington DC policy maker and Laguna Beach Mayor, Paul Freeman, releases STOP, GO, MURDER, the first of a trilogy featuring a laid back, GO-playing detective tracking a maze of suspects from CA to DC to FLA. GO is the world's oldest board game and relies on strategy to surround and conquer an opponent, which is what most of these opportunistic characters have in mind. But who committed murder?

And, Laguna's Kaira Rouda, prolific writer and yes, wife of congressional candidate Harley Rouda, has released her first domestic thriller, BEST DAY EVER, a page-turner that will have you wondering what could possibly come next between this husband and wife.

Kaira Rouda will appear at Laguna Beach Books September 17 and Paul Freeman October 8.

20 August 2017

2 BY 1: Fictions by Mary Gordon

I should say five fictions, because THE LIAR’S WIFE, published in 2014, is a collection of four novellas, and THERE YOUR HEART LIES, a novel, and together are latest of the sophisticated writings of Mary Gordon. She’s been at it since 1978 with a stunning debut novel entitled FINAL PAYMENTS and since then has devoted her sharp observations to the nature of human nature. One theme prevails: the defining influence of the people and places that form our personal narratives.

In THE LIAR’S WIFE, Gordon presents four scenarios of people in transition. An elderly woman confronted after many years with her errant first husband. An émigré of World War I held hostage to her crippled brother and misguided memories of her mentor, Simone Weil. A young man chosen to introduce Thomas Mann at a school lecture only to discover late in life he was chosen not for his talent but because he represented the underclass. And, the idealistic broken-hearted novice art historian discovering herself in, yes, Italy. In all, Gordon beautifully captures all that ails us, and heals us, and the space between.

“Where had they learned it, all of them, this way of talking, this exaggeration, this leaping from branch to branch like frantic monkeys, not knowing if any branch would hold or, if it broke, what the damage might be?”

Novellas are the bridge between short stories and the long form. Rumor has it, the novella was Henry James’ favorite form, although he recognized their limitations. They are as character-driven as a shorter story, and usually constrained to time and place, but allow the writer the richness of descriptive prose and literary technique that makes reading a novel such a pleasure. For the reader, it's an especially fine form if you would rather not commit to reading a longer book, and, in this case, the pleasure of four fully evolved stories to fulfill the fiction imperative.

I must share with you the words of Thomas Mann, which Gordon weaves so well into the spirit of the novella, and which resonate today. “For the position of the spirit has changed upon the Earth in a peculiar way. Civilization is in retreat. A period of lawlessness and anarchy reigns over the outward life of the people. Yes, we know once more what is good and what is evil. Evil has been revealed to us in such crassness and meanness that our eyes have been opened to the dignity and the simple beauty of the good.”

Gordon also often folds into her fiction the blending of religion and destiny, and has written extensively on Catholicism. She is both critic and adherent. In THERE THE HEART LIES, she weaves the history of the church’s role in the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent hold of fascism. The protagonist, a schoolgirl when the novel opens and alternately a 92 year-old tending to her ethereal granddaughter, was one of the “Lincoln Brigade” – Americans who fought for freedom in Spain in the 1930s. The novel starts a bit slow, and in familiar territory, with young Marion resisting her fervently religious family, and follows her through remarkable travels and the revelation of a period in which she too, like her brother before her, is tortured by the very people she expects to show loving kindness. In the process, her granddaughter, a girl whose primary goal in life is to make things prettier, learns something of the harsher realities of her family history.

“What is it about Amelia that makes Marian believe she can only be understood indirectly, using phrases that start with “like or “as”? Similes. Similitudes. The direct view is not the true one, only a series of connections to other things helps her to understand her granddaughter better, she likes to think, than anyone else. This understanding, she believes, must be the truest form of love.”


I am second to none in my admiration for Gordon [my favorites are LOVE OF MY YOUTH and SPENDING] but I confess she once too often got a bit pedantic in the novel, and peppered the history with one too many clichés of Spanish culture. Nonetheless, the novel is a good read and contains the lovely language and sharp commentary on humanity that makes Gordon so good. The novellas even better. 

19 June 2017

EXIT WEST

Mohsin Hamid
I'm a little late on this one. The buzz began the moment the novel was published and for good reason. Mohsin Hamid is an international best-selling author of immense talent and I am a huge fan of his THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST. He has a way of talking about middle eastern culture with the ease of familiarity, but also in a way that evokes the most intense and revealing elements of lifestyle and tradition.

In EXIT WEST, Hamid sustains that intensity and the narrative prose is elegant. This novel is not high plot, don't expect that sort of page turner, and little mystery; rather the journey of two refugees, among many others, who find their way through metaphorical doorways from place to place and struggle to struggle, holding on to each other for dear life.

The sense of desperation is palpable although never deliberate. We feel what they feel, the mark of a skilled writer. And to feel the desperation of the millions of refugees and displaced persons in other parts of the globe is essential to maintain a connection to the harsh reality of the modern world. What happens to other human beings reflects on us all, and that perhaps is the primary message in the novel.

Saed for his part wished he could do something for Nadia, could protect her from what would come, even if he understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.

Despite their profound connection, these lovers are disparate personalities. Their love affair defies the culture and, had they not chosen to run away together when their city is decimated by war, they might never have lasted long. He prays, she does not. He longs for family, she detaches. He holds to tradition, she seeks modernity. Together, however, they are one unit, and, just as Colson Whitehead created a railroad journey for slaves seeking freedom, Hamid has created a series of doors - one never knows what might be on the other side, what new danger or deprivation might exist - but the primal urge to keep moving, to seek a better life, is preeminent, and drives these characters toward their future.

To flee forever is beyond the capacity of most: at some point even a hunted animal will stop, exhausted, and await its fate, if only for a while. 

This is a short, propulsive read, and important for those who wish to think and feel beyond their comfort zone. Sit back and immerse yourself in the lovely language even as your heart aches for the too many who have few comforts, if any at all, and for all those for whom there is no exit to the west.

28 May 2017

Two Masters: Whitehead & Saunders

Two novels, two distinctly different writers, and two very different subjects, yet both get to the most profound human truths and both tell fantastically imaginative tales. Good bookends for philosophical readers and book groups who enjoy a challenge.

If you haven’t read this multiple award winning novel, read THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead. You’ve all heard of it I’m sure, compliments of Oprah, and stellar reviews, and you likely know that Whitehead transforms the allegorical railroad into a real railway line that transports slaves to freedom. Each stop along the way presents new challenges and sub-cultures and the ever-present question of who can you trust? A remarkable leap the reader accepts because Whitehead makes it work. 

I went back to his first novel, THE INTUITIONIST, equally inventive, about elevator repair mechanics who intuit danger, and like the latest, is built around a black female protagonist facing both discrimination and distrust.

Cora faces the horrors of enslavement from childhood to jaded adult. Once she decides to seek freedom, and is caught up in a killing in the process, she is pursued throughout the book by a most evil slave-hunter, determined to maintain his reputation and bring Cora and friends back to face punishment. The narrative tension is intense from start to finish as we take this heroine’s journey with her, with increasingly greater terrors and uncertainty at every turn. A page-turner and another brilliant, disturbing evocation of America’s history of racism. The novel will dovetail nicely with George Saunders, because the time period is roughly the same, and both underscore historical turmoil, although the two novels could not be more different in style.

George Saunders has proven again and again to be a creative and masterful short story writer. With his first novel, LINCOLN AT THE BARDO, he proves himself to be a master of the long form as well. Meet President Lincoln, mourning the death of his young son, Willie, who himself is in a transitional state, encountering eclectic ephemeral lives moving through the spiritual transition known in Buddhism as the Bardo. These spirits serve in effect as a chorus, reflecting past, present and future, as they come and go. Some are hilarious, others macabre, some beyond understanding. 

The Tibetans suggest several Bardos, physical or meditative. Lincoln himself goes through a series of transitions in life and presidency, mirroring the movement of his son and fellow spirits. They all reflect the devastation of a civil war that weighs heavily on this president. I warn you, do not read this novel when tired, as the myriad of voices will be impossible to follow, and I also promise that if you hang in through the early series of reflections that don’t seem to make sense, suddenly they will, and the novel takes off. 

Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times called Bardo a “weird folk art diorama of a cemetery come to life.” I think of it as a cross between the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Thoreau. This novel will win, and deserve, many awards, and while it takes time and concentration to wade through, can be compared to reading Dostoyevsky or studying a painting by Picasso: perspectives vary, they contradict and enhance, and force the reader into existential questioning that is the essence of the philosophical. Truly, nothing like this has been written before or is likely to be written again. 

Both in hardcover or e-reader, and the Saunders audio edition features many actors, worth a listen. 


29 April 2017

Where are you Philip Roth? We need you.

Warning: This is not a book review. Not anything new, that is. I am writing about Philip Roth because I miss him.
Philip Roth

I've been reading Philip's fiction for something like thirty years. A couple of years ago he announced his retirement, and this, after publishing small works of fiction almost annually the last decade. Like going cold turkey for an addict. Perhaps he had published too many in his later years, hit and miss, seemed to me. Every other one worthy of my affection, the others not. Sort of like that great desert you've had at a cafe some time ago and when you go back, it's just not the same. Many things are not the same on the second round. Then again, might be just perfect the next time, as Roth has been. Even when I don't like the subject matter or character, or tire of his obsession with aging men who do not age gracefully, I love his words. His sentences. His pacing. And I'm still rather angry he has yet to win the Nobel, which he deserves, and which, by virtue of his disappearance, might prove permanently elusive.

I met him, sort of, a few years ago, at an upper westside restaurant in Manhattan, one of those charmingly narrow, dimly lit Italian bistros where Chianti is abundant. I was with two girlfriends, seated at the far back facing the front, when I saw him enter. I knew him immediately. Tall and narrow and otherwise easily missed until you see his penetrating eyes and still-handsome sculptured face. He walked toward me and for a moment, our eyes met and I imagine he saw the recognition in mine. I suspect he wanted me to acknowledge him, despite his reclusive reputation. He paused a moment, then turned and hung his trench coat on a coat rack in the corner and took his seat at a table along the side wall, facing out. One of my friends asked me who he was and when I told her, she said, "The way you looked at him, you would have thought he was Paul McCartney!" Well, in a writer's world, he is. On the way out, I passed his table, where he was, I kid you not, like out of a press release, reading the New Yorker, with a carafe of red wine and a half-eaten dish of what seemed veal, predictably carnivorous, and he looked up at me with a guileless expression on his face, as if to suggest that if I sat down with him I might have been welcome. Of course I did not, and I still wish I had.

It was not the first time I almost met him. I was fortunate to be invited to the National Book Awards Foundation dinner some years back the night Philip received the lifetime achievement award. His speech was riveting and inspiring and he looked especially distinguished in a tuxedo. My friend and I were among the first to leave, and I found myself waiting for our car steps away from Philip, and again, he looked at me, again with no smile, albeit warmly, and again, I did not seize the moment to speak to him because I do not gush, even over a favorite writer. What would I say? Your dark spirit moves me? Your stories make me laugh and cry and think about everything a little differently? School girl stuff. #missedopportunities

Roth surfaced briefly in emails to the New Yorker in January in response to a resurgence of interest in his prescient novel, The Plot Against America, in which a celebrity fascist [Lindburgh] ends up President. He said, "It isn't Trump as a character, a human type - the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist - that outstrips the imagination, it is Trump as President of the United States."

Oh yeah.

I came across another blog-homage to Philip posted in 2015 on the Library of America site by essayist and historian Amitiva Kumar, in which he focuses on Roth's fictional uncertainties, which must, of course, reflect his own, and make him all the more endearing. He said, "I like Roth for his monumental dumbness. His lack of understanding of the mystery that is his life - this also explains why he sometimes seems to be writing the same book again and again - is interesting because it is paired with a particularly male, even arrogant, set of certainties. The struggle for understanding is examined with great frankness."

I couldn't agree more, nor could I argue better, why Philip has been essential reading for so long, and continues to be in these painfully uncertain times filled with self-important people with misguided certainties. Another reason why I miss his voice. Come back to us, Philip. We need you.

If you haven't read Philip Roth, or even if you have, I highly recommend the trilogy that begins with American Pastoral [and make sure to skip the film, terrible translation] and/or The Plot Against America. Just no one like him.

20 April 2017

History Repeats

Seems the tribal nature of humanity repeats. Over and over again.
Exclusions. Persecutions. America First.
We've seen it all before, we've suffered for it. On and on. We don't seem to learn, we forget, we repeat the sins of our past.
So, as always, we turn to literature to remind us. To educate and touch our hearts. Too many genocides in our history. We must not forget. We must do better. And to do better, the best we can do, besides consider our connection to humanity one day at a time, is to read the best of us on what ails us. Begin with Philip Roth, he is the best of the best, but these five are an impressive list.
I've read all but the latest of these: David Grossman. A great writer. I look forward to adding this to the canon.
Consider these novels of anti-semitism [which translate to anti-everything] compliments of Signature.
http://www.signature-reads.com/2017/04/5-novels-illuminate-problems-dangers-anti-semitism/?cdi=4810F1AF19CA0897E0534FD66B0A39D1&ref=PRH24BB520913