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.

13 April 2017

40 Rooms

I've just read this lovely novel and remember the review by Alexandra Fuller that says it all. So, rather than attempt to restate, I'll reprint her February 2016 New York Times review here. Let me say only that while the subject matter has been done many times - women allowing life to get in their way or to take them down a different path - the unique structure of this novel, the poetry, the captivating characterization, make this worth the read. I also recommend her earlier novel, The Dream Life of Sukanhov. A writer to watch. Enjoy.

Olga Grushin
The structure of Olga Grushin’s original new novel, “Forty Rooms,” is ingeniously simple. Over several decades, we follow the Russian-born narrator ­— an aspiring poet turned American housewife — into the 40 rooms that represent the topography of a privileged, middle-class woman’s life. We are taken from the “stuffy and bright” Moscow apartment bathroom — the first place to “emerge from the haze of nonbeing” when the protagonist is not yet 5 — to the suburban America entrance hall from which she will finally depart. And along the way, we come of age with the person whom we know, tellingly, only as Mrs. Caldwell. Or perhaps I should say, we come of ages with Mrs. Caldwell, because as any woman in her fifth decade or beyond can attest, most of us come of age in many stages: as daughter, as wife, as mother, as . . . you get the idea. It is a mark of the author’s skill that, while sweeping us along in Mrs. Caldwell’s particular narrative, Grushin indirectly challenges the reader to reflect on her own history; to come up with the labels that contribute to her own identity — writer, sister, for example — and to name the rooms in which she has come to her own realizations.
But, as we learn toward the end of the book, the number 40 has other significances too. It is not just the number of rooms in the life of a more or less contemporary, bourgeois woman; it is also a canonically significant number. “It’s always 40,” the ghost of Mrs. Caldwell’s dead mother tells her now late-middle-aged daughter. “Forty is God’s number for testing the human spirit. It’s the limit of man’s endurance, beyond which you are supposed to learn something true. Oh, you know what I mean — Noah’s 40 days and nights of rain, Moses’ 40 days in the desert, Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and temptation. Forty of anything is long enough to be a trial, but it’s man-size, too. In the Bible, 40 years make a span of one generation. Forty weeks make a baby.”
In this passage — as in countless others throughout the novel — there is enough material to warrant hours of contemplation. Starting with the fact that all of the biblical examples given to Mrs. Caldwell by her mother’s ghost are men. And what’s with “the limit of man’s endurance”? What about the limit of woman’s endurance, especially given this is a novel about a woman? And is the mostly submissive — if emotionally and physically challenging — act of gestating a baby truly a test of a woman’s endurance and spirit? Is that the beginning and end of the measure of her fortitude? And even as these knotty questions arise, others bubble to the surface. What about non-Christian women? What about lesbians? What about women of color? What about non-mothers? What about contemporary young women who will be dealing not only with changing gender norms, but also a changed climate? And what about women without rooms — the poor, refugees, prisoners and the homeless — for whom knowing 40 rooms in a single lifetime is an unthinkable luxury?
The reader’s impulse to grapple with the text, to wrestle it down and to raise objections or to attempt to identify her own place in the context of the story, is a sign not of weakness, but of Grushin’s genius. This is a text that rewards rereading and demands engagement. There is no redemption story to relax into here, and no easy answers. But even as there is much to question, and much with which to argue, there is also plenty of opportunity for empathy, and that is no mean achievement. Grushin isn’t dealing with a supposedly grand life; she is dealing with the mostly unspoken, sometimes desperate, bickering minutiae of a fairly ordinary life. Perhaps we are not supposed to admire Mrs. Caldwell as much as to identify with her, to see the ambitious young woman inside the thickening flesh of the middle-aged, middle-class matron, and to recognize the compromises and broken dreams therein.
Ultimately, it is the heartbreak at the sometimes barely glimpsed edges of these compromises and broken dreams that provides the novel’s dramatic tension. “Now, as always, you have a choice,” a supernatural godlike figure tells the young woman who is yet to become Mrs. Caldwell, near the novel’s beginning. (The fantastical are frequent visitors in this book, lending it a sort of chilly Eastern bloc magic realism.) “You can spend your days baking cookies for your offspring, or — as ever through the ages — you can become a madwoman, a nomad, a warrior, a saint. But if you do decide to follow the way of the few, you must remember this: Whenever you come to a fork in the road, always choose the harder path, otherwise the path of least resistance will be chosen for you.”
The unspoken suggestion here is that to break the bounds of middle-class expectation will be the harder path, but can we blame each other and ourselves for not choosing to be Mary Wollstonecraft, Gertrude Bell, Joan of Arc or Mother Teresa? When we tell our daughters they can be anything, are we really instructing them to take the harder path? This novel reminds us that to pursue her dreams, a woman is working against the establishment, not with it. To the young women into whose hands I will most certainly be putting Grushin’s novel, I would say this: You can’t do it all, but together we can create a world in which we might be able to do more. Because if we don’t keep working for greater gender equality, it’s not in the best interests of the current power brokers to stop us from continuing to spend more than a fair share of our lives ­elbow-deep in soapsuds whether we choose to or not.
“An average woman — or at least an average married woman with children, which, for all she knew, no longer signified an average woman; to rephrase, then, a woman average for most of human history — almost certainly devoted more of her time to the pursuit of laundering than to the pursuit of love; yet for all the thousands and thousands of poems written about love, only a handful had ever been written about laundry.” So muses Mrs. Caldwell some years after her marriage has turned, if not loveless, at least dreary, and she has long given up the nearly mad fantasy of taking off to Paris with a lover or becoming a published poet.
And yet, by the novel’s conclusion, Mrs. Caldwell has come to peace with the ­pieces of her life — or has she? Or maybe there is no lasting peace, just moments of acceptance. “I used to wonder,” she says. “Does it happen to others as well — do their lives change bit by bit, a new table here, a new baby there, until one day they wake up and look around and recognize nothing of their past in their present? But I grew into it. Learned to count my blessings. Learned to appreciate the small things. In fact, the older I get, the more I suspect that what we mistake for small things are really the things that matter.” I don’t think this is Grushin’s final answer, I think it is one of her sly challenges. Is it the small things? Or is this what a woman is forced to believe in order to stave off the madness of realizing the possibilities of which she has been robbed?

09 April 2017

PostScript re: TIES

Blogspot is behaving badly. For those of you who were unable to read the emailed post on TIES by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, please go directly to randykraftwriter.blogspot.com and read on site. I apologize on behalf of Google, aka Alphabet, and will work with Blogger to avoid future error. Or, skip the blog and go directly to the book. Cheers.

08 April 2017

The TIES that bind

Oh the exquisite variations of great fiction. I recently reviewed Paul Auster’s “4321” a sweeping 865 page saga of four parallel lives. Today, I recommend, the slight 150-page novel by the renowned Italian writer, Domenico Starnone, rumored to be the husband of the enigmatic writer Elena Ferrante, believed to be the journalist and translator, Anita Raja. As if to prove the point, this novel takes off from an earlier work by Ferrante, “Days of Abandonment.” A good place to start if you’ve not read. 
Domenico Starnone

But first, an added incentive to read “Ties.” The novel has been translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, Pulitzer Prize winning-writer of the story collection, “Interpreter of Maladies” and the novel “The Namesake,” among others. Lahiri, who has multiple advanced degrees and an unquenchable curiosity, in other words, intimidatingly brilliant, decided a few years ago she wanted to learn Italian. Not for a casual tourist conversation, rather to read and write and study the great Italian writers and thinkers. She even moved her family to Italy to do it right. Lahiri, whose mother’s native language was Bengali, a language she never heard growing up in America, has a special relationship with language. 

In an interview in The New Yorker, she said, "In graduate school, I decided to write my doctoral thesis on how Italian architecture influenced English playwrights of the seventeenth century. I wonder why certain playwrights decided to set their tragedies, written in English, in Italian palaces. The thesis will discuss another schism between language and environment. The subject gives me a second reason to study Italian." 

By the time she had conquered the language, she had also written a memoir of that experience entitled, "In Other Words," which is as much about the meaning of language as one's personal quest to speak in another tongue. The final achievement: she translated "Ties" for Europa Editions, which also publishes Elena Ferrante. Symmetry. One might say, the ties that bind. 

In "Ties," what might be called a tour de force, Starnone takes the voice of the husband who abandoned his wife and children in Ferrante's earlier novel. He begins at the beginning, reflecting on the husband's choices, the wife's despair, and hysteria, and the family debacle that ensues, and continues throughout their long lives. 

This novel centers around a break-in at the apartment where the now elderly couple resides after all these years and all their angst. Their children are grown and still largely estranged from their father, and everything in the apartment has been turned upside down, much like their lives long ago. Only one item of significance, to him, appears to be stolen, and the cat is missing; thus, a small mystery takes over the larger mystery of what keeps people together. At least, these, Napolitano people.

Starnone has crafted a deceptively simple novel about the fragile ties between loved ones, and lovers, and what it takes to repair the damage we do over time. Or not. I will not give anything away, but the ending is simply spectacular. Bravo to Starnone, and to Ferrante, for these characters, and to Lahiri who made it possible to share their secrets.