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Posts from the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Pigeons on the Grass, Alas

Eighty million Germans had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s nature. These lies changed from year to year, and they frequently contradicted each other; moreover, they were not necessarily the same for the various branches of the Party hierarchy or the people at large. But the practice of self-deception had become so widespread—almost a moral prerequisite for survival—that even now, eighteen years after the collapse of the Nazi regime, when most of the specific content of its lies has been forgotten, it is sometimes difficult not to believe that mendacity has become an integral part of the German national character.” Hanna Arendt, “Eichmann in Jerusalem, The New Yorker, Feb. 16, 1963.

That was Hanna Arendt, the great political philosopher, as she observed the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the Nazi organizers of the Holocaust, play out in Israel in 1963. She came to think that the “self-deception, lies, and stupidity” of the German population had played an important role in the ability of the Nazi party to dominate that nation for more than a decade and lead it into a war that caused tens of millions of deaths.

A dozen years earlier, the German writer Wolfgang Koeppen was also thinking about his fellow Germans as he began writing a triptych of novels that would also explore the mindset of the nation during this same period. Pigeons on the Grass, just translated by Michael Hofmann (New Directions, 2020) but originally published in Germany in 1951, is the first of the trio. In this wonderful, often antic but deadly serious novel, we follow the actions of approximately two dozen characters through a single day in post-war Berlin. The Germans, along with a handful of their American “conquerors” who now occupy the city, shop, have coffee, run errands, pawn their valuables, and generally go about their daily lives. Everything is leading up to one main evening event: a lecture by an important American visiting poet, Edwin.

Because Koeppen offers the reader omniscient admittance to the private thinking of every character, it becomes apparent that every one of them manages to misunderstand what others are saying. The number of reasons for this varies — sometimes it can be differences of class, nationality (the Germans and Americans always misconstrue each others intentions), gender, or generation. Sometimes it’s simply stubbornness. But Koeppen seems to be telling us that we don’t actually listen to the other person very well.

Characters also misapprehend who others actually are. Phillip, a German poet, is mistaken for Edwin’s private secretary, and then his best friend, simply because they are seen in the hallway together. Richard Kirsch, the well-to-do American soldier who calls on his German relatives, is sent packing because he arrived on foot and not in a car and thus it was perceived that “he belonged to the low-caste people, and needed to be treated as such.”

Perhaps most telling example is the way in which the enthusiastic young American airman Richard Kirsch completely misreads his own father, who had served in the German military but who emigrated to America as Hitler rose to power and ultimately opened up a gun store in Ohio. Richard assumes that the gun store is a signal that there has been no break in his father’s militarism. But, in truth, his father had become a pacifist and had decided not to go to war on behalf of Hitler’s Germany because he felt “that all force was repugnant and that any conflicts were better served by talk, negotiation, and reconciliation than by gunpowder.” So why did he open a gun store in the U.S.A.? When America joined the war with Germany, his faith in his new country was so shaken that “he was left wondering about the honesty of those old American ideals.” But his father never told this to Richard and Richard had never asked and so he is in the dark about his father’s changing beliefs.

Racism is one of several minor themes that Koeppen takes up in Pigeons, which depicts the bigotry that two Black American soldiers have to contend with in Berlin. One of the characters has a German girlfriend who is desperately seeking an abortion, convinced that she cannot bear to have a Black child. And a night at a bar nearly turns deadly for the other Black soldier, when a crowd angrily assumes that it must have been he who attacked a German and stole his money.

The culmination of the day is the lecture by the poet Edwin, sponsored by America Haus, an event that turns comic, then deadly. The rather pompous theme he plans to bring to his listeners in Berlin is “immortality, the imperishableness of the spirit, the deathless soul of the West.” Edwin is partly a fraud, just seeking to “cash in on his late fame.” He shows up at the lecture hall with stage fright.

He wanted to begin with Greek and Latin antiquity, he wanted to bring in Christianity, the connection between the Biblical tradition and the Classics, he wanted to speak about the Renaissance and offer judicious praise and blame to the Rationalism of the French eighteenth century, but unfortunately, instead of words, only sounds had reached his listener’s ears, a gurgling and crackling and hissing as of some fairground entertainment. Edwin, at the lectern, did not immediately realize that the public address system in the auditorium was malfunctioning.

Before long, most of the audience is soundly asleep. Edwin ends his lecture with a reference to Gertrude Stein, who he thinks of as a “second-rate” writer. “Like pigeons on the grass,” he said, “every pigeon knew its roost, and every bird was in God’s hand.”

Edwin had spoken his last word. The speakers crackled and squawked. They went on crackling and squawkling after Edwin had finished, and the wordless crackling and squawking in their toothless mouths tore the listeners from their sleep, their dreams, and their private thoughts.

The pigeons reference comes from the libretto that Stein wrote for Virgil Thomson’s opera (for an all-Black cast) Four Saints in Three Acts, that had its premiere in 1934.

Pigeons on the grass alas.
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons
large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the
grass.
If they were not pigeons what were they.
If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what were they. He had
heard of a third and he asked about if it was a magpie in the sky.
If a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the
grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the
magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the
grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas.
They might be very well they might be very well very well they might
be.

Edwin escapes America Haus into the Berlin night, flush with enthusiasm, only to become a victim of the final misapprehension of the day. A gang of youths mistake him for “an old perv, a well-heeled old queen,” someone they knew from experience would be “quite profitable,” and they proceed to beat him up with their “big, cruel fists.”

So, what exactly is Koeppen trying to tell us when he shows us time and again that no character in his novel can overcome their initial misunderstanding or misapprehension to even inquire what the other person really thinks or to wonder if their perspective of another person is accurate? That each character lives and stays in a bubble? It seems like he is after something deeper than that. I think there is a clue a little earlier in the book at the point when a group of “schoolmistresses from Massachusetts,” led by a Miss Wescott, cross a great square “designed by Hitler to be the memorial grove of National Socialism.” They are en route to attend Edwin’s lecture. As they come across a bunch of birds sitting on the grass (pigeons, presumably, but the know-it-all Miss Wescott declares them to be sparrows), Miss Wescott ponders a bit of wishful, home-spun philosophy.

The birds are here by chance, we are here by chance, and maybe the Nazis were here by chance, Hitler was a chance, his politics were dreadful and a stupid chance, maybe the world is a dreadful and stupid chance of God’s, no one knows why we are here, the birds will fly off and we will walk on.

None of this, she suggests, is the result of human action. We are not responsible. The Germans were not responsible. The Nazis were not responsible. No one is responsible.

“Remember what it was like to be me”: Esther Kinsky’s “Grove”

When a scene has little or no apparent structure, we are likely to be confused and frustrated: the eye will roam fruitlessly seeking interest and points of connection, from one fixation to the next, without much success.” Simon Bell. Landscape: Pattern, Perception and Process.

The sublime prose of Esther Kinsky’s 2017 novel River has made it one of my favorite books of this still young century. The writing in River transformed ordinary moments—walking in a London park, taking instant photographs with a Polaroid-like camera, rummaging at a flea market—glimmer with the magic and potency of a Vermeer painting, suggesting that an introspective, watchful life could lead to small, miraculous epiphanies on a daily basis.

The events in her new novel Grove (Transit Books, 2020) take place in the first year or so after the death of “M.,” the partner or spouse of the German narrator, who has temporarily moved to rural Italy to try to reset her life. “Each morning I awoke in an alien place. . . Each morning it was as if I had to learn everything anew. . . Dressing. Washing. Applying bandages. The imposition of my hands.” It’s hard not to see Grove as an autobiographical novel, since Kinsky’s husband, the literary translator Martin Chalmers, died in 2014.

Read more

Encountering John Keene

To speak of culture is to foreshadow a battle.”

John Keene’s first two books of fiction take completely different paths toward the same goal: making sure that the Black experience is no longer buried in white shadows. Annotations (New Directions, 1995) is a brief autobiographical novel that can feel like a prose poem at times.  Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015) is a series of lush, thematically-related stories that span several centuries, with each story written in a style appropriate to the time period. Counternarratives is a punch straight to the gut of the traditional narration of history, reinserting black perspectives, voices, and lives that have been so consistently missing from white history and white literature.

Annotations opens with a grainy family snapshot of a seated young Black boy that might be Keene. He is holding his hands slightly apart in worried care, while something tall and slender—a toy rocket, perhaps—stands delicately poised between his open palms as if his own future lies in the balance. Then the book begins with the narrator’s birth: “It was a summer of Malcolms and Seans, as Blacks were transforming the small nation of Watts into a graveyard of smoldering metal. A crueler darkening, as against the assured arrival of dusk. Selma-to-Montgomery. Old folks liked to say he favored the uncle who died young, an artist. In that way, a sense of tradition was upheld, one’s place in the reference-chain secured.” In other words, it’s 1965, the year Keene was born. Read more

Three Rings

A stranger arrives in an unknown city after a long voyage. He has been separated from his family for some time; somewhere there is a wife, perhaps a child. The journey has been a troubled one, and the stranger is tired. . . He moves with difficulty, his shoulders hunched by the weight of the bags he is carrying. Their contents are everything he owns, now. He has had to pack quickly. What do they contain? Why has he come?

So begins Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (University of Virginia Press, 2020). Mendelsohn, a classics scholar and humanities professor, is a natural story-teller and he has managed to turn a multi-century saga of literary criticism and history into an immensely entertaining, readable, and short(!) book. Three Rings originated as the Page-Barbour Lectures, which Mendelsohn delivered at the University of Virginia in 2019, and if only more literary criticism (and scholarship, in general) were delivered this way, it would have a much greater audience and impact.

There are actually three “strangers” or “rings” in Mendelsohn’s book, as we shall see, but his story begins with Odysseus. Read more

This Tilting World

Fellous tilting

In a recent post I wrote about a novel set in the mid-1950s Tunisia, just as the country was gaining independence from France. The Scorpion was written by the Tunisian-French writer Albert Memmi and was first published in France in 1969. Tunisia had gained independence from France in 1956 but promptly became one of the most corrupt and repressive “democracies” on the planet. That lasted until 2011, when a street vendor immolated himself at a protest and the President ultimately fled the country after 23 years in power, launching the Arab Spring. Tunisia subsequently became a more normal democracy but in 2015 the country was hit by several horrendous terrorist attacks that killed scores of foreign tourists. It continues to be a democracy today but is currently struggling with incidents where religion and free speech intersect.

In response to my post of The Scorpion, a Vertigo reader suggested in a comment that I should read This Tilting World, a novel by the Tunisian-French writer Colette Fellous. This Tilting World, first published in France in 2017, takes place just after those terrorist attacks of 2015. The narrator, who is probably a fictionalized version of the author, has just learned that a very close friend has collapsed and died of a heart attack while sailing in the Mediterranean. On the previous day, thirty-eight people, mostly tourists, were murdered by terrorists while on the beach of the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba. The narrator is in a friend’s villa, writing the novel that we are reading, wondering what to do, what is her relationship to Tunisia now? She looks back briefly over parent’s lives and her own childhood in Tunisia and then at her more complex relationship to the country of her youth.

This tilting world, how can we talk about it, make sense of it? Only by naming the appalling blow these deaths have dealt each one of us, the deep wound they have gouged that can never be healed, the birth of a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even within our own bodies.

Although her family had been in Tunisia for generations, they were of European descent, and as she ruminates on her past, she begins to realize that there were really two Tunisias—an Arab Tunisia and a Tunisia for those of French and European descent. “We did not live so happily together,” she now sees, “we lived side by side, we tolerated each other, but only up to a point, up to a point and no further.” When her father finally decided to move the family to France sometime after Tunisian independence, he gave his tractor repair store to his Tunisian employees and walked away. Now, decades later, with terrorists trying to scare tourists out of Tunisia, the narrator realizes that once again “there was no longer a place here for the ‘foreigners’ we had become since choosing France.”

The brilliance of Fellous’s book lies in the vivid imagery and the intimacy of her self-examination. For example, take this admission:

And then there was the city. The battered sidewalks, the window bars on dilapidated buildings that were never repaired, the whitewash that peeled off in great flakes during the winter, the doors swollen with moisture, the strange skin diseases we saw on passers-by, leprosy, smallpox, bonnets worn to cover lice infestations, the torn dress of the enormous beggar women on the synagogue steps, surrounded by her great baskets and her dazzlingly white dog for which she knitted multicolored coats; that’s all she did: he was well dressed while she was in rags. All of this was strange and did not match up with my schoolbooks in which the poems and great texts bestrode the centuries, marked and measured them: each era had its own language and each of them was stunning, astonishing, the paper smelled so good, I wanted to sink into them, I wanted to be of books, and far from what I saw all around me. . .

. . . I chose pleasure, I chose love. Sensations, stories, shades of meaning. Now I think I got it all wrong. I should have been harder, sharper, more violent. I should have fought some other way.

This Tilting World reads like a memoir written in a moment of turbulence. Time is disjointed and memories of her deceased friend and her childhood keep intruding. The French title, Pièces détachées, or “loose pieces,” is probably a better description of the book. Either way, it has a sense of immediacy that I found very appealing.

There are a dozen photographs in the book, both in color and black-and-white. Most of the photographs suggest the personal attraction that Tunisia has to her—a sunset, a beach, flowers, a harbor, etc. There’s also one romantic film still of James Mason and Ava Gardner embracing on a beach (from Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, 1951) that is meant to recall the era when cities like Tunis once had a hundred movie theaters. Fellous, it should be noted, is an exhibiting photographer and so the photographs in the book are very well done. The book closes on a self-reflexive image.

Fellous Tilting 1

Colette Fellous. This Tilting World. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2019. Translated from the 2017 French original by Sophie Lewis.

Telephone

Everett Telephone

In Percival Everett’s latest novel Telephone (Graywolf, 2020), our narrator, Zach Wells, is a professor of geology and paleobiology. He knows a lot about fossils and caves, “especially the bones of creatures left a long, long time ago,” but he admits he’s not very engaged with the present moment. He tends to gravitate toward grand philosophical pronouncements, but usually fails to consider the little moral issues that pop up every day. He has basically lived his life safely and without much passion or introspection and now he’s depressed and has even had the occasional thought of suicide.

So what if I was not happy? My happiness was overrated. My daughter was happy. My wife was unworried. But I moved through my life with caution, and caution in love is the most fatal to true happiness.

He’s also African American, although completely apolitical. During a campus protest over the police shooting of a Black teenager, several Black students come to his office. “We were wondering if you would join us, talk to us at a meeting tonight.”

“Who is ‘us’?” Zach asks. He explains that he’s never felt discriminated against at this university and he won’t join their protest. “I just crawl into caves and find fossils and then identify them. I am a scientist. I should probably be more political in my thinking and dealings with the school. But I’m not.”

Then Zach and his wife learn that their daughter has a rare and incurable genetic defect that will kill her within a few years and will slowly take away her speech and motor skills in the meantime. This also threatens their marriage and Zach begins to spend long periods sitting in his office or at a campus bar. He becomes lost in a despair that leads him down to “a dark place, a place that I secretly began to recognize as a safe harbor.” And that safe harbor is actually the guilt in knowing that death is coming for his daughter, not for him. “Guilt,” he admits, “is a terrible thing.”

But it’s something trivial that finally drives Zach out of his funk and into action. He buys a jacket on eBay and when it arrives there is a note inside, written in Spanish, that reads “Help me.” Curious, he buys a shirt from the same seller and inside is another note. “Please Help to Us.” He buys another shirt. “Help us. They will not let us go.” The packages all originate from a small town in New Mexico and Zach begins to imagine that somewhere in the desert there are women being held in captivity, repairing used clothing to be sold on eBay. Perhaps these are some of the woman that are missing from Ciudad Júarez, Mexico. He decides that he must investigate. If he can’t save his daughter from her imminent death, perhaps he can help these women.

I knew absolutely nothing, but the notes were real, felt heavy in my hand, meaningful. This feeling, of course, fed my need to know something, anything at all, all the business with my child being nothing but questions. The nagging inquiry at the end of this red herring of a rainbow, though undeniably just another distraction, was epistemological. When intellectuals get scared, they run to fundamental philosophical problems: What is goodness What is beauty? What is it to know a thing? About knowing, I was not so much interested in whether I could know some thing but in what kind of thing I could know. I knew my cryptic notes were real, but I could not know what they meant, or whether they meant.

Throughout Telephone, Everett remains scrupulously non-judgemental about Zach. He doesn’t guide the reader toward any opinion of Zach. Zach might be worried about the “profound and yawning dullness” of his life, he doesn’t have many moralizing afterthoughts or pangs of guilt when he rebuffs the Black protesters or abandons his family in order to spend weeks searching the desert. The result is that the burden of worrying seems to shift to the reader. I found myself puzzling over these things. Why won’t Zach feel more sympathetic to the Black protesters? Why doesn’t he tell his wife why he’s going to New Mexico? What if his daughter dies while he is away scouting the desert for slave laborers? Zach may think he is the kind of narrator who confesses all to his reader, but a crucial part of him remains a mystery even to himself.

In the end, Zach leaves his wife and daughter behind to go out on his Quixotic search. But he has dedicated himself and his cause to his daughter. “I tried to tell my daughter, while she could understand, that women are hunted in this world.” He thinks of Ciudad Júarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, where hundreds of women have been “pursued, raped, imprisoned, tortured, and killed” over some twenty years or so.

The numbers were so very large, obscene, fescennine. Olga Perez. Hundreds of women have no name. Edith Longoria. Hundreds of women have no face. Guadalupe de la Rosa. Names. Name. Maria Najera. It was so uncomplicated, safe, simple to talk about numbers in El Paso, a world away. Nobody misses five hundred people. Nobody misses one hundred people. In Juárez, it was one. One daughter. One friend. One face. One name. Somebody misses one person.

This is what Everett does so well. He takes a simple scenario and turns it into a story that suddenly quivers with moral ramifications, forcing the reader to become uncomfortable enough to start asking deep questions. And there aren’t any easy answers.

If you need any further proof, it turns out that Percival Everett had one last trick up his sleeve. He wrote three completely different versions of Telephone, each with a different ending and each book has been published with a slightly different cover. There’s a recently recorded conversation with Everett over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Take a listen.

Seeing the Body: Poems by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Griffiths body

I’d come into the room & try to write
a different ending on those anonymous walls.
There was less time all the time
until time changed. You know what I mean.

In the poem “Belief,” from her new book Seeing the Body (W.W. Norton), Rachel Eliza Griffiths recounts the frustration of trying to write while waiting in the hospital during the time that her mother was dying.

I tried to read & write. Over & over, I
arranged plain little soaps, toothbrush, & comb.

. . . But before I accepted her
dying, which would be true
five months later, I kept trying to write
my mother a strong beginning.

Seeing the Body is a deeply personal book that was born out of the passing of her mother, the grief that followed, and the eventual return to a new normal. “Seeing” is often the operative word in this book.

Two years later in Brooklyn I am getting my eyes
checked. I have good eyes today. But there were
whole years I couldn’t see. . .                                                                               

                                                             from “Name”

But the real challenge for Griffiths comes with fulfilling her responsibility as a writer. At first, there are only “cobwebs of words” as the poet struggles to get past the reality of her mother’s passing. Words may be gossamer thin but in Griffith’s book they have the power to grieve, to love, to hurl anger, to forgive, to build worlds.

I want my web to hold. I want to repair
what I have made. I was not given the golden hive.
In me seethes the silk of invisible worlds.    

         from “Arch of Hysteria, or, The Spider-Mother Becomes a Woman”

Throughout the book, Griffiths talks of having her mother’s presence still with her (“even now she is still making me”). She misses her mother’s cooking. She thinks about family. She thinks about other artists who inspire her, like Louise Bourgeois and Langston Hughes. She writes a poem to Leonard Cohen (“Where are the miracles now, Leonard?”). She seethes as yet another black man (Mike Brown) is killed by the police in America. And then she herself becomes ill.

. . . There I prayed. I hummed.
alone, half-bald. Being born alone again.

I could not trust such sentences of faith or fiction. Instead, I read
menus, trues crimes, prescriptions. Transcribed
simple miracles for my anxiety.

I could not taste life or honey.

But I could bleed.                                                                                                   

                                                               from “Signs”

But for me, the true core of this book comes when Griffiths knows there are times when she can not be silent. When she must speak for more than just herself. Seeing the Body reverberates with moments of outrage. The most powerful example is the poem “My Rapes.”

I promised my mother I would never speak a word
about my rapes. I would never tell the world.
about my power until she was dead. Her eyes sealed &
having a choice now to listen to me or be a ghost
when I am saying the difficult thing
& lived it. . .

“My Rapes” is “a terrible poem for us,”

we outlaw women who have taken off the silence
of our muzzles & armed our small bones with stars,
we who leap from the attics we are burning down.

In the poem, Griffiths writes not only from her own past (“when I tried to tell my mother about the rapes she asked me / what in the world had I been wearing & where had I gone”), but about the students who have come to her with poems about their experiences, the “typed-up evidence” and “the formatted corpse of a memory that won’t lie still.” It’s not so much a poem about rape as it is about the endless pressures to deny rape, to call rape by a lesser name, or, worst of all, to blame the victims. It’s a poem everyone should read.

Griffiths is also a terrific photographer and she includes a section of intriguing self-portraits in the book in a section called “daughter: lyric: landscape.” She writes: “I am looking at a woman whose spirit is both emaciated and exhilarated in the face of monumental loss.” Self-portraiture is a form of automatic self-distancing, a mirroring of the self. But here, by using the word “daughter,” Griffiths implies that she is also looking at herself through her mother’s eyes. She accomplishes the eerie act of displacement by momentarily trading places with the dead in order to look back at her living self.

Griffiths Double Portrait

Seeing the Body is a book that is tender and fearless and timely. Highly recommended.

. . . When some fucked injustice
smiled & shot into the crowd & said
Y’all need to go back from where you came from.
Well, we stayed and lived.                                                                         

                                                             from “Paradise”

Watch Rachel Eliza Griffiths read several poems from this book on YouTube, courtesy of Poets House.

The Scorpion

Memmi Scorpion

I was midway through Albert Memmi’s novel The Scorpion; or The Imaginary Confession (NY: Grossman, 1971) when I saw in the New York Times that the Tunisian-French writer had died. I first became intrigued with The Scorpion when I saw that it included seven photographs. As far as I am aware, this made it one of the first European novels to have photographs as an integral part of the text after a gap of almost twenty-five years, since André Breton’s Nadja came out in 1945. I wonder what prompted Memmi to take the then radical idea of including images in his novel? He even went so far as to propose that the different “voices” in his book be printed in different colors, but the publisher refused, saying the cost would be prohibitive. Instead, the publisher used different typefaces within the book. In his Washington Post obituary of Memmi, Matt Schudel correctly pointed out that “Memmi’s technique in The Scorpion pointed towards the fiction of W.G. Sebald and later writers by incorporating commentary, invented memoirs and diaries,” not to mention images.

The narrator of The Scorpion (which was translated from the 1969 French original by Eleanor Levieux), is Marcel, who is a Tunisian ophthalmologist. His brother Imilio has disappeared and he is trying to intuit his brother’s state of mind by investigating a drawer full of texts and images that Imilio, a writer, has left behind. The plotless novel is essentially a set of philosophical arguments about life, loyalty, and colonialism. (Tunisia was just gaining independence from France as the events in the novel take place). As Marcel reads Imilio’s stories and bits of memoir, he can’t help but argue with his brother, both factually and philosophically. And as the novel progresses, the ideas of two other men are also introduced: an Uncle Makhlouf and a certain J.H. (for Jeune Homme or young man), a former student of Imilio’s. J.H. is a young idealist, unwilling to compromise. Imilio’s accounts of his weekly meetings with J.H. show that their conversations had been growing more argumentative with each session as the two men hardened into opposing positions. One day, Imilio learns that J.H. has committed suicide and Marcel can’t help but wonder if this is this the cause of his brother’s disappearance. The title of the book is a reference to the popular notion that a scorpion, when cornered, will sting itself.

At times, The Scorpion can feel like a relic of the Existentialist period, when men argued about big ideas, women were relegated to minor roles, and one could still believe in absolutes. Just before the J. H. kills himself, he declares “Either literature is an exploration of limits or it is no more important than the art of arranging flowers.” As Isaac Yetiv has suggested in an article, J.H. might remind the reader of an impatient, radical version of the young Marcel himself. But these kinds of absolutist positions no longer sit well with Marcel, who has become increasingly disillusioned as he ages. As an ophthalmologist, Marcel is acutely aware of the limits of human perception and, therefore, he’s convinced we’ll never fully understand our own existential circumstances.

Now, how much of [the spectrum] do we manage to take in? Hardly anything—between four thousand and seven thousand angstrom units. Ah, our perception of the world is terribly limited! . . . In all events, a mystery of some sort envelops us, no doubt about it, even if that’s a word I don’t like to use. Let’s say I hesitate between two ways of putting it: “I don’t know, but I know there’s an explanation,” and “There’s an explanation, but we’ll never know what it is.”

The majority of the seven photographs in the book seem to do little more than illustrate, albeit somewhat indirectly, specific passages in the book, although one photograph seems to suggest the reader’s experience with Memmi’s book.

Memmi 1

We explored the labyrinth of rooms, nooks, stairways, and garrets constantly without ever exhausting its resources.

The events in The Scorpion take place around 1956, at the moment when Tunisia was separating from France. From the beginning, Marcel senses the oppressiveness of the native government that is about to take over from the French and that will eventually become one of the most corrupt regimes in the area. It wasn’t until in 2011 and the protests that began the Arab Spring, that this regime in Tunisia was finally brought down.

Albert Memmi seemed to have been the quintessential outsider. He was born in 1920 in Tunisia of Jewish and Arab heritage, but emigrated to France after Tunisia’s independence. “I am Tunisian, but Jewish, which means that I am politically and socially an outcast … I am a Jew who has broken with the Jewish religion and the ghetto, is ignorant of Jewish culture … a Jew in an antisemitic universe, an African in a world dominated by Europe.”

Recently Read: Writing Slantwise

Tell all the truth but tell it slant
Emily Dickinson

Two terrific books that I recently read both approached their subjects slantwise, or indirectly. They did so in ways that strengthened their messages and kept this reader more engaged. The two books are Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life by Brigitte Benkemoun (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2020) and Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020) by Francesca Wade.

Finding Dora Maar

Finding Dora Maar (which was translated from the French by Jody Gladding) has a remarkable backstory. Benkemoun set out to find a replacement vintage Hermes address book for her husband after he lost his. She bought one on eBay for seventy euros and when it arrived she found that it still had a twenty-page index of telephone numbers from a previous owner tucked inside one of its pockets. Flipping through the pages, she immediately recognized that some of the names were famous, names like Jean Cocteau, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Balthus, and Brassaï. In fact, the address book was full of the names, addresses and phone numbers for key figures in the Parisian art and literary world of the 1920s and 1930s! So whose vintage address book had she just purchased? With a bit of reverse engineering, Benkemoun finally figured out that it belonged to Dora Maar (1907-1997), a painter and photographer. But perhaps more famously, Maar was the lover of Pablo Picasso from the late 1930s through about 1943 and the subject of scores of his paintings and prints

Tete de Femme No 3, 1939


Pablo Picasso, Tete de Femme (Dora Maar), 1939, etching
Musee Picasso, Paris

In Finding Dora Maar, Benkemoun writes short chapters for about thirty-six of the entries from Maar’s telephone directory. Most of these cover the high-profile artists and writers that Maar knew, but others deal with some of the more day-to-day people from her life, such as the architect who helped restore one of her houses, a friend who was a civil servant and police officer, a graphologist (Maar believed in handwriting analysis as a way to explore psychology), a doctor, and a manicurist. For each entry, Benkemoun describes how she identified the person (Maar sometimes had indecipherable handwriting and was prone to misspelling names) and what their relationship was to Maar. Maar was tough on friendships. She was suspicious of everyone’s intentions (she thought they were after her valuable collection of paintings by Picasso) and, as she aged, she became increasingly difficult to deal with. By the end of the book, we learn that few of the people in her address book were still on friendly terms with Maar.

By mimicking the format of an address book, Benkemoun ignores chronology and approaches biography from a friendship by friendship basis. In the end, I felt like a had a much better sense of Dora Maar than if I had read a traditional biography of her. Sure, I missed out on a lot of facts, but I felt like I was given the heart and soul of Maar in this slantwise approach to her life. My only regret about the book was that it has no reproductions of the address book itself, aside from the glimpse shown on the front cover.

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Wade Haunting

Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars explores the lives of five very different women through the prism of London’s Mecklenburgh Square, where each of the woman lived for a spell sometime between 1916 and 1939. The five women are Hilda Doolittle (the poet and writer known as H.D.), Jane Harrison (a pioneer of classical and anthropological studies), Eileen Powell (groundbreaking medieval historian), Dorothy Sayers (mystery writer), and the writer Virginia Woolf. In the heart of Bloomsbury and near both the British Museum and the University of London (now University College London), Mecklenburgh Square was “a radical address” favored by artists, writers, and thinkers of all kinds between the two World Wars. By focusing on a single city square, Wade demonstrates how cities contribute to intellectual life through their ability to bring people and resources from diverse disciplines to nurture each other and create cross fertilization between disciplines. While the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge continued to discriminate against women, barriers came down much earlier in cities and in some of the universities in cities, like the University of London, which had been granting degrees to women since 1878. Oxford didn’t grant degrees to women until 1920, Cambridge not until 1948.

While each of Wade’s five biographies are much longer than Benkemoun’s and they are slightly more academic in tone, they nevertheless are written equally slantwise. Wade’s mini-biographies first focus on how the time that each woman spent in Mecklenburgh Square was “formative.” “They wanted to break boundaries and forge new narratives for women.” Wade summed up her book by saying that “the legacy of these women lives on . . . in future generation’s right to talk, walk, and write freely, to lead invigorating lives.”

John Hawkes Goes West

hawkes beetle

For his second novel, The Beetle Leg (New Directions, 1951), John Hawkes took the restless, chaotic energy from the war-torn Germany of The Cannibal and transferred it to the American West. In his early years, he seems to have needed a “lawless country” in order to let his novel run free from the constraints of “plot, character, setting, and theme,” which he once labelled as the “true enemies of the novel.” And The Beetle Leg surely demonstrates his early commitment to this premise. The novel has no plot, although there are several elements that give the frustrating appearance of plot points. There are a handful of characters—a Sheriff (of course), a Mandan Native American, a bad ass gang of motor cyclists called the Red Devils, and a few others—but none of them really have any defining characteristics.

But what The Beetle Leg does have in spades, however, is setting. In one sense, the Western landscape might be the central character in the book. A dam collapsed years ago,  killing a man and leaving him buried in a “sarcophagus of mud.” And it is the hill and the body that remains afterward around which most of the novel is built. “The mile long knoll of his grave mound was an incomplete mountain, a pile of new earth erupted between the bluffs, a patch, a lighter hue of brown, across the river road.”

There is no logic to anything that happens in The Beetle Leg. There are no consequences for any event or any decision. This is a universe made only for the tangled beauty of Hawkes’s prose.

They were waiting for him there. Each strap in place, not a buckle rattled. The Red Devils sat their machines quietly and their gloved hands waited over switches, ready to twist the handle grips for speed. They sat straight, tilted slightly forward, faces hidden by drawn goggles and fastened helmets, the front wheels in an even row all leaning to the left as tight polished boots raised, rested lightly on the starting pedals. The straight, grounded left legs were parallel in black flaring britches and from the several creatures sitting double, with arms locked patiently around wood hard belts, there was never a murmur. Not a foot slipped nor did the saddle springs creak. Between the empty corral and the woman’s kitchen the motorcycles filled the darkness, the first almost touching the logs and the last within arm’s length of the cardboard wall. The black, deep-grooved tires were clean and hard. It was as if they had made no flying circuits that evening nor left rubber burns and cuts in the sand where few humans gather, in the gullies of rattlesnakes or before the coils of braided whips. Their saddlebags were still unopened, they had not slept. They watched as hunters by a pond in the marsh from which a single old bird, flapping and beating across the flat water, is unable to rise. License plates had been stripped from the mudguards.

All the while the hill of mud is being monitored by a seismograph, which registers that it is slowly “pushing southward on a calendar of branding, brushfires and centuries to come, toward the gulf. . . . a beetle’s leg each several anniversaries.”

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For what it is worth, I’ve also just finished Hawke’s 1974 novel Death, Sleep & The Traveler. (Hawkes was obviously brilliant at book titles.) But Death, Sleep & The Traveler was a bit too Swinging Sixties for me. Playboys, cigars, lots of wine, and, um, schnaps? Allert, the Dutch narrator, his wife, and a psychiatrist have had a longstanding sexual triangle which has just broken up, so the husband takes an ocean cruise and becomes involved in another triangle with a sailor and a female passenger. “Allert’s theory is that the ordinary man becomes an artist only in sex. In which case pornography is the true field of the ordinary man’s imagination,” his wife proclaims.

Sigh.

hawkes death