Monday, November 30, 2020

Why thoughtful conservatives should read Krugman

As a college student many years ago I worked as a proofreader for the National Bureau of Economic Research. One of the papers we proofed argued that, contrary to news stories, there was no shortage of engineers in the U.S. The author had done extensive research into engineer salaries by specialty over time and found they either lagged or matched the rate of inflation.

As every student of economics knows, when there is a shortage of a commodity the price rises. Because engineer wages had not risen over time, the paper's author concluded there was no shortage of engineers. Then he went to a party and talked about his research and conclusions with an engineer—the first engineer with whom he'd actually discussed his work.

He learned that engineering wages did not follow the rule of supply and demand because engineers—at the time at least—were seldom able to change jobs. A company could not obtain engineering help by offering higher wages and engineers were paid well enough and they may have been non-compete agreements, which meant wages were stable. And there was a shortage of engineers in the U.S.

Short, incisive, thought-provoking

I was reminded of this ancient experience in reading Paul Krugman's Arguing With Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future. The book is a collection of Krugman's New York Times newspaper columns and blog posts arranged by category (Social Security, Obamacare, economic bubbles, austerity, the Euro, and more), each introduced by a brief essay. The columns are short, incisive, and thought-provoking.

Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on international trade, began writing for the Times in 2000, and he published an earlier collection of columns in 2003, The Great Unraveling. He is unashamedly liberal; indeed published The Conscience of a Liberal in 2007. On the evidence of this book, he would have known to talk to an engineer before propounding his argument.

Because Krugman is a thoughtful liberal, conservatives should read his book so they can understand what one thoughtful liberal is saying. He says, for example, "Decades of conservative marketing have convinced Americans that government programs always create bloated bureaucracies, while the private sector is always lean and efficient. But when it comes to retirement security, the opposite is true. More than 99 percent of Social Security's revenues to go toward benefits, and less than 1 percent for overhead."

Why not better government programs

If we can develop an efficient, inexpensive government retirement program, why can't we also develop an efficient, inexpensive health care system? Or public higher education system? Or early childhood development system? 

Rather than create and improve programs that would help make American great(er), right-wingers believe it is better to, as Grover Norquist famously said, "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Rather than argue the benefits and drawbacks—i.e., use real information—right-wingers tend to call names: "It's socialism."

And so, Krugman writes, under Trump, "we now basically have an Environmental Protection Agency run on behalf of polluters, and Interior Department run by people who want to loot federal land, an Education Department run by the for-profit schools industry, and so on."

I thought the book was fascinating because Krugman not only outlines an economic or social or political issue but clearly and concisely explains why certain ideas are zombies that will not die. Ideas like Social Security is going to run out of money . . . the deficit will cause hyperinflation . . . austerity will lead to prosperity . . . tax cuts will spur economic growth  . . . climate change is beyond human control . . . crypto currency is the future of money. (Okay, maybe this last one hasn't been around long enough to be a zombie, but just wait.)

Reportedly the Scottish writer, essayist, and historian Thomas Carlyle identified economics as "the dismal science" because at the time it appeared that population growth would inevitably outpace food production. That hasn't happened. It may not happen. But whether it does or not, Arguing with Zombies is a useful and interesting guide to why.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The City & The City: An Appreciation

I suppose this could be taken as a symptom of family dynamics—my family's dynamics. Midway through China Miéville's novel The City & The City I raved about this terrific book to my daughter. 

She told me she'd read it. She'd read it and loved it ten years ago when it first appeared. She'd read it, loved it, and clearly recalled recommending it to me ten years ago. 

I have no recollection of our conversation. I managed to be entirely oblivious to the book and the author, a well-known and prolific British fantasy (?), science fiction (?) writer, for ten years. Meanwhile. The Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Times, and Publishers Weekly named The City & The City a Best Novel of the Year. It won the World Fantasy Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Hugo Award for best novel.  

What took me so long to catch up? My only excuse is that the world is full of terrific books and you never know where or when you'll find one. And, again, this is one.

I came to The City & The City via a four-part BBC mini series of the same name. It's a police procedural in which a young woman's body is discovered dumped in a trash heap and Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad is on the case. But we're in Beszel, a city that looks like a decaying Eastern European city. We learn almost immediately the woman is American and was actually killed in Ul Qoma, another country. And now things become interesting.

Imagine a city like Berlin before the wall came down. East Berlin is poor, grubby, and decrepit—that's Beszel. West Berlin prosperous, thriving, all stainless steel and glass—that's Ul Qoma. Now imagine the residents speak two different languages (think Jerusalem), have entirely different histories, economies, customs, and do not like or trust the other. Finally, imagine the residents are taught from birth not to see the other country; the residents of Beszel literally cannot see the citizens or the buildings of Ul Qoma across the street.

The BBC The City & The City series is so well done and the setup so interesting, I bought a copy of the book. It's better. Had I read the book first, then seen the series, I'd have been disappointed by the changes the writers and producers had to make to convert the Beszel and Ul Qoma story into something that could be shown in four hours. The novel is richer, more complex, and ultimately more satisfying than the TV show.

It's more satisfying because Miéville is able to do things on the page that are difficult or impossible to do visually. Borlú is, in some ways, a stock police detective who has seen too much, is an honorable man in a corrupt world whether in Beszel or Ul Qoma (as a young officer he spent enough time in the country to have learned some of the language and the customs). He's dealing with (among others) nationalists who want to destroy the other city and unificationists who want to make the two cities one.

An important institution in the novel and the TV show is Breach, an all-seeing (think high-def video cameras with facial recognition software), all-powerful super secret police force that maintains the peaceful separation between the two cities. Violate Breach and you can disappear. Breach gives the story a dark and threatening ground because a citizen in either city can breach the separation between the two inadvertently.

So what starts as a relatively straightforward murder mystery opens up into a meditation on what we know, what we can know, how to pass from one reality to another, and how to make sense of it all. And with all this, Miéville never loses control of the language or the story. If you've managed to miss The City & The City for the last ten years, look up the BBC series, then read the book. Trust me—and my daughter—on this one. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

An abused wife tries to escape her brutal spouse

Rebecca Quinn, with a black eye and a battered body, awakens in an unfamiliar room. She is in the Salt River Inn, owned and run by Gaby, her aunt's former college roommate. We learn that Becca has escaped from her abusive husband back in New Jersey. Thus begins Wild Horses on the Salt by Anne Montgomery.

Montgomery's earlier novels are The Scent of Rain and A Light in the Desert. As a freelance or staff reporter on six publications she's written features, movie reviews, archeological pieces, and about sports. She taught communications and journalism in a Phoenix high school for 20 years. 

The Salt River Inn on—what else?—the Salt River is surrounded by the Tonto National Forest, east of Phoenix. It's the fifth largest national forest in the United States offering mountains, the Sonoran Desert, and to the north the Mogollon Rim. A wild and stunning land. The Salt River, because it is relatively close to Phoenix, is a popular rafting and boating river; the four dams on the river have formed lakes that are also popular for boating and fishing.

Among the Forest's wildlife—desert raccoons, black bears, coyotes, Arizona skunks, bobcats, white-tailed deer, desert mule deer, ring-tailed cats, pronghorns, javelinas, roadrunners, prairie falcons, bald eagles, long-eared owls, Western red-tailed hawks, great blue herons, North American cougars, barn owls, and kestrels (birdwatching plays a part in the novel)—wild horses are both an attraction and a nuisance. They get on the road, they get into farmers' fields; they are targets for gun-happy delinquents. 

Early in the novel, a careless driver hits a wild stallion who is injured. The "Salt River Wild Horse Volunteers" capture the stallion, have a vet treat him, and bring him to Noah's ranch to recover. The stallion escapes from Noah's corral and as thread through the book follows the stallion's adventures as he seeks to rejoin his band of mares. 

(By the way, it's possible to volunteer for the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group which raises money, monitors horses on the river, fixes fences to keep horses off the roads, and more. Just one of the elements that roots Montgomery's novel in a real place.)

Becca, suffering from post-traumatic syndrome, meets the rest of the novel's cast: Noah, a youngish, single, beekeeper/rancher/hydrologist (a big deal in arid Arizona) . . . Walt, a middle-aged blacksmith-sculptor/cook/handyman and Gaby's significant other . . . and Oscar, a retired psychiatrist and avid birdwatcher.

Back in New Jersey, Becca had grown up in a home filled with abuse as her father knocked her mother around, frightening young Becca. When Becca's lawyer husband begins abusing her, she takes it as almost expected. She lies to friends and excuses her husband. Although she found art the most rewarding subject in college, she submitted to her parents' wishes and is herself a lawyer working in her father's firm

Surrounded by desert and mountains, protected by Gaby and Walt, and rediscovering her love of—and talent for—painting and watercolor, Becca's physical bruises heal. The psychic bruises are taking longer however and when, as the reader has to suspect from page 2, her estranged, psychotic husband shows up at the Inn Becca has to make some serious choices.

Wild Horses on the Salt paints a picture of the land, the flora and the fauna attractive enough that it sent me to look up the Tonto National Forest and the Salt River. The Salt River Inn may not exist in Arizona (there is one in Missouri), but my search found a number of appealing places to stay along the river. Perhaps when Covid-19 has passed into history . . . . Meanwhile, we have the novel.

Friday, October 30, 2020

And what's been tossed up on the beach lately?

Here's how good Dianne Eberett Beeaff can be:

The narrator is a young woman who's been sleeping around as a way to protect herself from commitment and potential pain. She's agreed to go out with a man who is both right for and interested in her:

"As a rule, I avoid Seaport Village. Too much unmanageable romance. Too many overstimulating sea breezes, babbling brooks, and so forth. Tonight, a riot of last summer flowers and mellowed lamplight suffuse the place with a fairy-tale expectancy, and calf-eyed couples drift down the cobblestoned walkways, meandering past balloon stalls and soda fountains, carousels and book niches. All of this threatens my objectivity."

In one paragraph we learn a great deal about the character and her feelings, the place and the time (late summer, evening), and the author's done it without breaking a sweat.

The author's book is On Tràigh Lar Beach, a collection of stories. You can visit Tràigh (pronounced "try") Lar beach on the west coast of Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Beeaff writes that flotsam is carried on the Gulf Stream from the New World and dots the sand.

She says, "I have written professionally for many years beginning in the area of magazine journalism. I self-published two books: the memoir A Grand Madness, Ten Years on the Road with U2 and Homecoming. More recently, I had two other books traditionally published: Power's Garden and Spirit Stones. I was always inspired by some personal experience that lead me to explore a specific area, era, subject or personality."

She says that years ago she visited the Outer Hebrides. "We stayed just down the road from Tràigh Lar Beach, in the hamlet of Rodel. Walking on beach one afternoon, I noticed several items tangled in the seaweed and jotted them down in my journal. Years passed and, as I finished up the sequel to my memoir [A Grand Madness, U2 Twenty Years After], I began working on these stories."

It's an interesting book, unusually well-designed and attractive. It consists of 14 short stories—some very short—and a novella. As a framing device, an unnamed narrator is vacationing in the Outer Hebrides with her husband. She has just won a prize for her novella and had "a two-book contract flung across my shoulders like a length of chain mail." Casting about for a subject she visits the beach and inspiration is waiting in the sand.

Each story involves a different object, character, and (mostly) place. The objects include an empty ketchup holder, a packet of arthritis pills, the handle of a child's bucket, a disposable syringe, a wine bottle cork, a plastic laundry basket. (It struck me that this could make a writing class assignment: Write about a jar of pickled onions . . . a camera lens cap . . . an artificial lotus blossom.)

These stories are mostly short, six or eight printed pages, and they are as different from one another in form and voice as the objects that inspired them, and while I responded more positively to some than others they are all well-written. For example: 

"Adelaide, Eden's mid-forties owner, usually buzzed around the room in a short-skirted power suit at least one size too small, her long rust-colored hair free as flames. She radiated a sensuality as juice and seductive as her neon-red lip gloss, and when the mail-dominated dive club was in session, she struck me as honey to a swarm of bees."

At times, however, her ability to create metaphor can get away from her. "He had a face like polished driftwood." That's fine, but half a page on the same character's eyes "gleamed like buffed sandalwood," which is a bit much. Still, many of us wish we could do as well.

The second half of the book is novella, Fan Girls. An unnamed narrator introduces the reader to four young woman at a rock concert. Annie, Emily, Dana, and Chelsea are all Datha fans, one of whom is dangerously fanatic. Their individual stories are all very different but all linked to the band and their music in some way. Given Beeaff's experiences as a twenty-year U2 fan, which must have exposed her to other fans, their stories and obsessions, I have a sense she's writing from the inside and the reader benefits from it.

On Tràigh Lar Beach is an engaging collection by a writer who's been around the block more than once and seems to have recorded the most intriguing people and sights along the way.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

What does it mean that money is an allegory?

This is an interesting time to read about money. It occurred to me as I began Frederick Kaufman's The Money Plot: A History of Currency's Power to Enchant, Control, and Manipulate that I have not used actual money—coins and bills—since early March. I've bought stuff—groceries, gas, books, shoes—but paid with a credit card or the click of a mouse. What happened to the money? Where's the money?

Kaufman is a New York-based writer, editor, and educator. He teaches at the City University of New York and its Graduate School of Journalism, where he serves as a professor of English. He is a contributing editor to Harper's magazine, and frequently writes about food and food culture. Earlier books include A Short History of the American Stomach (2008) and Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food (2012).

He acknowledges that the book's origin came out of a pitch meeting to his agent. Money is not a natural subject for an English professor with a background in food culture, and I had a sense at times that Kaufman was straining to make his research connect intelligibly with his thesis.

Worse, it was not clear to me what exactly the money plot is, which, I admit, may well be a reflection of my own ignorance. He does try to explain: "The symbols engraved upon the dollar [bill] . . . are allegorical. For not only is allegory germane to the earliest forms of money, but to the nature of modern finance. And the same can be said for its plot." An allegory's plot does not drive the story to a solution; in an allegory there is no goal, no solution. "The stubborn lack of resolution to the plot has defined the challenge posed by modern money."

What is money? It's whatever we agree it is. If we don't agree that shells, beads, Redbacks (Republic of Texas dollars), cigarettes (prison currency), and more and more and more have a value that can be exchanged for groceries, gas, books, shoes, it's not money. Money is an illusion, a metaphor.

When I was stationed in Korea and Japan after the war, the US troops were paid in script. Paper nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars, dollars, etc. Good at the PX, good at the barber, good at the company club. Twice during my three years overseas, we were confined to quarters and had one day to exchange all our script for a new version. Yesterday's currency was so much colored paper.

Why does money, any money, exist? Well, for one thing, it makes it easier to translate something abstract like a service or labor into something tangible like food, beer, and shoes. It is also a way to insure the future and control reality. Money may not buy happiness, but without it, it's difficult to be happy, no matter what Porgy says in the song.

The Money Plot is filled with interesting factoids: The first "coins" were shaped ostrich shell . . . the copper in a hundred per-1982 pennies is worth around $2.20 (pennies were debased with zinc in 1982) . . . in 1982 Ronald Reagan signed a law removing interest-rate caps at savings banks and more than 1,500 savings and loan institutions failed in the next ten years. Thales, the Greek philosopher, invented options—a way to risk a small sum to obtain a large one—in 585 BC. 

Kaufman embeds the factoids in stories about money: The kula rings of Melanesian outriggers. The buying and selling of women. The origin of Bitcoins. The role of gold. Richard Nixon, John Connally and the decision to abandon the gold standard. 

In 1971 we had roughly $10 billion worth of gold in Fort Knox. Foreign banks held roughly $30 billion gold-backed dollars. The Bank of England asked for $3 billion of its dollars to be converted into gold. If other central banks followed, the US would not only be out of gold, we would be in default and no one knew the effects of that—except that it would be terrible. So we said we're not going to back dollars with gold any more—and the effects were not terrible. Today the dollar "floats."

"By describing the illusion of money the light of primitive belief, classical mythology, Christian ethos, and political propaganda," Kaufman concludes, "my hope is that going forward we might no longer be locked into believing cant of financiers, the deceit of free and competitive markets as the essence of economic life. Instead, we might begin to understand that those who control money are less scientist than shaman, seer, storyteller, and soothsayer—those who spun ancient tales about sticks and stones, convincing others of their fiction."

It may not answer the question I asked above—Where's the money?—but The Money Plot tells a fascinating story nevertheless.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Here's what you'll find if you take the Ueno Park exit

The book begins, "I used to think life was like a book: you turn the first page, and there's the next, and as you go on turning page after page, eventually you reach the last one. But life is nothing like a story in a book. There may be words, and the pages may be numbered [?], but there is no plot. There may be an ending, but there is no end."

So what then is Yu Miri's book Tokyo Ueno Station? It's glimpses of the life of a laborer, Kazu Mori, born in 1933, the same year as the Emperor. The book includes history—the firebombing of Tokyo, Saigo Takemori's role in the Meiji Restoration . . . Japanese funeral rituals—the death of the narrator's 21-year-old son . . . a picture of contemporary Japan most tourists don't see—the lives of the homeless . . . and an unusual narrator—"Things like [hydrangeas in bloom] always made me feel lonely when I was alive." 

And because the narrator is dead, it raises questions about an afterlife I'll touch on in a moment.

Yu Miri's background

Miri was born to Korean parents in Yokohama in1968. The Encyclopedia Britannica says, "Her father was a compulsive gambler who physically abused his wife and children; her mother was a bar hostess who frequently took the teenaged Yū along to parties, where Yū was occasionally molested. One of Yū’s sisters became an actress in pornographic films. Yū became so confused about languages—when to use Japanese or Korean—that she developed a stutter. Her parents separated when she was 5 years old; she repeatedly tried to commit suicide as a teenager and was eventually expelled from high school."

Nevertheless, she's been celebrated as a playwright and novelist, winning the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her novel Kazoku shinema (Family Cinema) in 1997. She's received threats from Japanese right-wingers who see her as defaming the country and being an ethnic Korean and non-citizen does not help. Gold Rush, a violent story of children in a dysfunctional family, was her first novel to be translated into English.

Kazu Mori tells his story, much of it in dialect in the original, making Morgan Giles's smooth translation even more impressive. Kazu left his wife and children in Fukushima to find work in Tokyo building structures for the 1964 Olympics. Because there was still no work in the northeast even during the boom years, he stayed in Tokyo, returning home long enough to sire a son and a daughter. Eventually he moves back. His son dies. His daughter marries and moves away. His wife dies. His granddaughter moves in with him to care for him. However he thinks, "She shouldn't be tied down here with her granddad,' and slips away to live as a homeless person in Tokyo's Ueno Park.

Much of the novel's action takes place in Ueno, which has the zoo and a number of museums. It is a favorite spot to picnic during cherry blossom viewing. The cops clear the park of the cardboard and vinyl tarp shelters when the royal family has an official occasion to visit. At the end of the book Kazu dies, which is hardly a spoiler because he's told us on page 33 he's dead.

Tokyo Ueno Station is short; you can read it in a single sitting. It's an interesting presentation of what I'm willing to believe is a possible—representative? emblematic?—Japanese life. As such it does not have a conventional plot. But the claim of a dead narrator made me consider.

Questions about an afterlife

Kazu talks as if he were alive and recalling events from his life. But at one point he notices a bird, "and I wondered if perhaps the bird was Koichi," his dead son. Certainly a thorough-going Buddhist could well his son has been reincarnated as a bird. But, if so, why hasn't the narrator been reincarnated? (Okay, maybe he's in the bardo if you want to bring in an idea that does not exist in the book.)

But there's more. The family are Pure Land (Jōdo) Buddhists, and the book emphasizes they are not Shingon, Tendai, or Sōtō Buddhists. In this teaching, "if one repeated the name of Amida Buddha, countless other Buddhas would surround you and bring you happiness. These would be the dead, who had returned to the Pure Land, and who would now protect us." But there is no indication Kazu has returned to the Pure Land and he does not protect anyone. 

So what is being dead like? Like being being alive but without a body? Like being reincarnated as a bird or some other creature? Or like going to the Pure Land which is "inhabited by many gods, men, flowers, fruits, and adorned with wish-granting trees where rare birds come to rest"? 

I am, I know, asking far too much of Tokyo Ueno Station. None of these questions reduce the power of the book. Giles is currently translating another Yu Mori novel, The End of August, "an experimental, semi-autobiographical epic spanning Korea and Japan over several decades and generation." I look forward to reading it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Thanks to the OED you can look it up

What is arguably "the greatest enterprise of its kind in the history of scholarship'? Establishing the periodic table of the elements? Deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs via the Rosetta stone? The proof of Fermat's Last Theorem?

Those are all big deals, but I would argue—I'm a word person—that the creation and continuing growth of The Oxford English Dictionary (herein after, the OED) is a much bigger deal.

The OED is after all an effort to identify, define, and illustrate every single word in the English language from the earliest Anglo-Saxon with its borrowings from Celtic, Welsh, Cornish, Scots Gaelic, and Irish, through the incorporation of Latin in the 400-year Roman occupation, with Norse arriving from Scandinavia, and Norman French after 1066, up to and including words invented and borrowed yesterday.

The first edition of the OEC published in 1928 contained 414,825 words,1,827,306 illustrative quotations, and 15,490 pages of singe-spaced printed text. Although the original scholars thought it might take seven, maybe ten years to create, it took 67 years.

Simon Winchester's popular history The Meaning of Everything is The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. It was published in 2003, but it remains as lively and fresh as the day it rolled off the Oxford University Press's press.

Winchester, a British writer, journalist and broadcaster, was born in north London in 1944. His website says that though not Catholic he was educated first at a boarding convent in Bridport, Dorset and later at Hardye’s School, Dorchester, Dorset. He went up to Oxford in 1963, to read geology at St. Catherine’s College. There he became involved in the University Exploration Club, and was the member of a six-man sledding expedition onto an uncharted section of the East Greenland ice-cap in 1965. He worked as field geologist in Uganda, on an offshore oil rig in the North Sea, and switched to journalism in 1967 where he stayed.

He became a foreign correspondent of the Guardian and the Sunday Times and was based in Belfast, New Delhi, New York, London, and Hong Kong. In 1998  he published The Professor and the Madman, a book about the editor of the OED and a forgotten American player. "Although his publishers had little initial hope for the book – ordering an initial very modest print run of some 10,000 copies – it happened . . . to sell millions of copies, and remains in print today . . . . " He went on to write more than 30 books.

The Meaning of Everything is just what the subtitle says it is, the story of the OED, how it came about, the main characters involved in its creation (only the "main" figures because hundreds of people from around the world contributed illustrative quotations), and the challenges involved—financial, scholarly, logistical, political. No one at the beginning had any idea of what the project would entail or its ultimate cost. If they had, they would have smothered the OED in its cradle. By the time it became clear that the editors were creating an immense edifice, the OED had become a subject of national pride, a symbol of Victorian England's mastery of the world.

Along the way, Winchester gives a brief history of English and of dictionary-making (America's Webster was a competitor). He sketches the personalities of key figures. Frederick Furnivall "was sufficiently dedicated to the sport [of sculling], and with his inherited fortune insulating him from the need to pay too much attention to legal work, that he took time to design a special outrigger for his boat, to form sculling clubs, to inveigh against clubs that forbade working men from taking part, and, most vocally of all, to protest against the then general ban on allowing women on the water." 

The book includes contemporary photographs, an index, and the footnotes are worth the price of admission: "Murray [the OED's editor] very nearly included by mistake the noun alliterates, which a reader came across in an essay by the American poet James Lowell. Lowell wrote in answer to a puzzled Murray—who could find no other citation—saying it was clearly a misprint for illiterates. The verb alliterate—meaning to constitute alliteration—does of course exist." As I said, this is a book for word people.

The second edition of the OED was published in 1989, a year after the first electronic version became available in 1988. The online version has been available since 2000, and as of April 2014 was receiving over two million visits per month. Wikipedia says the third edition—necessary because the language continues to adopt and invent new words—will most likely appear only in electronic form; the Chief Executive of Oxford University Press has stated that it is unlikely it will ever be printed.

None of this diminishes Winchester's delightful book. It's a portmanteau of words—look it up. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

What are the uncertainties in Proust's masterwork?

Okay, I admit it. I never finished all seven books of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. I read the first two because a graduate writing program required me to do so mand sometime after graduation I read "In a Budding Grove" a second time to build up momentum to continue on to Book 3, "The Guermantes Way." Sadly, I ran out of momentum by page 105. I know because that's where my bookmark remains.

In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past) (or A la recherche du temps perdu) is one of those literary peaks like Joyce's Ulysses, Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji, and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow that anyone with literary pretensions ought to have climbed. I claim literary pretensions, but I'm afraid I've read only one of the six.

Because Proust has been waiting patiently on my bookshelf since the early 1980s, and because I believe it would be nice to have read his masterwork, I requested a review copy of Proustian Uncertanties: On Reading and Rereading In Search of Lost Time by Saul Friedländer.

Friedländer is an award-winning Israeli-American historian and currently a professor of history (emeritus) at UCLA. He was born in Prague to a family of German-speaking Jews, grew up in France, and lived in hiding during the German occupation of 1940–1944. He won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945

He has truly and thoroughly read and reread In Search and recently "I noticed aspects that I had failed to see before, and as I soon realized after some inquiry, seemed to have generally escaped attention." It is these aspects to which he directs our attention in this short essay—156 pages.

In Search reads like a memoir, but the Narrator is not Proust, so Friedländer asks, "How does the Narrator define himself? We know, for example, that the author did not hide his homosexuality, but the Narrator did. Why the difference? We know that the Narrator tried to marginalize his part-Jewish background. Does it reflect the author's position [Proust's mother was Jewish so according to Jewish law, Proust was Jewish], and how does the Narrator handle what he tries but does not manage to dismiss?"

Although the Narrator "recaptures the intense relation between mother and child," Proust never gives his parents names nor does he describe them. Proust had a brother; the Narrator has no siblings. Proust was half Jewish; the Narrator and his parents appear to be pious Catholics. Moreover, "the Narrator's attitude towards Jews is contradictory throughout the Search."

Proust was 25 when the Dreyfus Affair began to make the news, 35 when Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army. The Affair exposed a deep vein of anti-semitism in French society. The Narrator, like Proust, was pro-Dreyfus but apparently not because of Dreyfus's Jewishness, but "because of the injustice done to the officer, because of his suffering" on Devil's Island.

Proust's position toward homosexuality was clear in his life: "He told quite a few people about his unrequited and tragic love for Alfred Agostinelli" who died in a plane crash. The Narrator, however, has a rant against the homosexuality of Baron Charlus. Why? "Proust may have surmised that an openly homosexual novel," says Friedländer, "without any disclaimer, would have repelled many readers. Is that the answer? I do not know." Another Proustian uncertainty. 

Finally, Friedländer's asks if there is a comprehensive moral accounting in the novel. He writes, "there is no love in the Search without betrayal and jealousy; there is no friendship that lasts over time, no loyalty except that imposed by social imperatives. But isn't that mostly the case within any society? It wouldn't be worth dwelling on if the novel didn't insist on a somewhat unusual category of betrayals: that of parents by their children and particularly of doting fathers by their daughters. . . ."

For anyone who has wondered what the damned thing is about or whether to try it once again with an informed and insightful guide, Proustian Uncertainties is a good place to start.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

A unique and powerful memoir

Childhood is a foreign country in which we've all lived but few of us can evoke the landscape and the events we lived through the way Jennifer Croft does in Homesick.

Homesick is an exquisite little book, filled with color photographs, mostly snapshots, that Croft and her mother have taken over the years. A headnote at the book's beginning quotes Henri Cartier-Bresson: "We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again." 

Which, when I think about it—an attempt to retain things continually vanishing—is what a memoir does.

Homesick is identified as "a memoir," but is written in the third person about Amy and her younger sister Zoe. The (unnumbered) first chapter is headed: "Their mom gets them ready for all the possible disasters that might ever occur." 

The text begins: "So she reads aloud the headlines from the Tulsa World at breakfast while Amy and Zoe eat their Cheerios. The girls stay quiet while their mother talks, but they don't really listen. All they know is that there is always a disaster happening somewhere."

I picked up the book because Croft won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Olga Tokarczuk's Flights and the little bit the flap copy told me about Croft I found fascinating. 

She grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she entered the University of Tulsa at age 15. After completing her BA at the University of Tulsa in 2001, she learned Polish at the University of Iowa, where she did her MFA in literary translation. She lived in Poland for two years on a Fulbright scholarship. She said in an interview, "Polish has always been more of an academic and professional connection for me, but I try to go back to Kraków or Warsaw at least once a year to maintain that connection." She learned Spanish in Buenos Aires. She also translates from Ukrainian, which, on the basis of Homesick, she learned from a tutor who homeschooled Croft and her sister (i.e., Amy and Zoe) in Tulsa.

I assume that Homesick, although told in the third person from Amy's point of view, is a memoir. As far as I can tell, the events occurred in Jennifer's life: Amy, like Jennifer, entered UofT at age 15; Amy, like Jennifer, won "the world's largest translation prize in London" on June 1, 2018. Which makes me believe that Jennifer as a child also went to Camp Waluhili (a real camp for Camp Fire Girls), that her sister did have a brain tumor, and that Jennifer flirted with alcohol dependency once she could drink.

Another notable factoid: Homesick's flap copy says that it was originally written in Spanish, putting the story at one more remove from Croft, who, somewhere, says she translated it herself.

All the above, of course, says very little about the book, which in short chapters—some only a paragraph or so—evokes the sisters' childhood in Oklahoma; their Russian tutor with whom both girls fall in love and who, inexplicably, kills himself (although, at some level, suicide is always inexplicable); Zoe's brain tumor from which she never recovers entirely; their mother's fear of disaster; Amy's love of language and much more.

Translation allows her to connect to the world. “Each time a Russian word meets an English word it generates a spark,” she writes. “And translation offers Amy a new kind of math, an alternative to the math of sacrifice that has ruled her life on her own until today. She can’t cancel out another person’s suffering or death with hers. What she can do is connect.”

And think about language. She told Words Without Borders, "On a basic linguistic level, Spanish is closer to English than Polish is, which makes the challenge of translation different, but not easier. For grammatical and lexical reasons, it’s obvious to me as I translate a Polish sentence that the whole must be broken down and rebuilt from scratch—but sometimes a sentence in Spanish that seemingly invites a closer parallel in English in fact requires a full dismantling, as well, and often apparent cognates do denote or at least connote something slightly other than what they might first suggest." Words to live by.

Check out this remarkable memoir by an extraordinary woman and writer.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Flights takes readers through space and time

Olga Tokarczuk's novel Flights won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018, the world's largest award for translation, which is what caused me to pick it up. It was translated Jennifer Croft, about whom I will be writing in another review. For now, I'm going to stick to Flights and its author.

Tokarcuzk is a Polish writer, activist, and public intellectual who has been described in Poland as one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful authors of her generation. Flights won the Nike Award, Poland's top literary prize, in 2008. In 2019, she was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. She trained as a psychologist at the University of Warsaw and has published a collection of poems, several novels, as well as other books with shorter prose works.  

According to my source—Wikipedia—Tokarcuzk is a leftist, a vegetarian, an atheist, and a feminist. She has been criticized by some groups in Poland as unpatriotic, anti-Christian, and a promoter of eco-terrorism. She has denied the allegations, and has described herself as a "true patriot." She said that groups criticizing her are xenophobic and damage Poland's international reputation.

In a New Yorker article ("Past Master: An experimental novelist and the battle for Poland's national narrative"), Ruth Franklin writes,  Tokarczuk's role, "as she sees it, is to force her readers to examine aspects of history – their own or their nation's – that they would rather avoid. She has become, she says, a 'psychotherapist of the past.'" Which brings us to Flights.

The 403 pages have no chapter breaks. Rather, subheads break up the text and change the subject: "Here I am," "The world in your head," "Your head in the world," "Syndrome," "Cabinet of curiosities," "Seeing is knowing," "Seven years of trips," "Guidance from Cioran". . . . 

The text after each subhead may be as short as a paragraph or a story several pages long. It may be written in first or third person. It may be a present-day observation in the present tense or an historical fiction written in the past tense. Or it may be genuine history; did Chopin's sister smuggled his heart back to Poland? It may be set in France or Poland or Germany or the Netherlands or Russia or Italy or on an island off the Croatian coast. It may be set in an airport. She has several meditations on and writes about incidents in airports. 

The text may be autobiographical: "I was as waitress, a maid in an upscale hotel, and a nanny. I sold books. I sold tickets. I was employed in a small theater for one season to work in wardrobe, making it through that long winter ensconced backstage amidst heavy costumes, satin capes, and wigs. Once I'd finished my studies, I worked as a teacher, as a rehab counselor, and—most recently—in a library. Whenever I managed to save any money, I would be on my way again."

The text may be creative non-fiction: The first thing that caught my eye upon arriving in the Eternal City was the beautiful black salesmen of handbags and wallets. I bought a little red coin purse, because my last one had been stolen in Stockholm. The second thing was the stalls laden with postcards—as a matter of fact, you could leave it at that, spending the rest of your time in the shade on the banks of the Tiber, perhaps having a glass of wine later on in one of the expensive little cafes."

The text may be fiction: "She's been packing for days. Her things lie in piles on the rug in their room. To get to the bed she steps between them, wading in among the stacks of shirts and underwear and balled-up socks, trousers folded neatly along the crease, and a couple of books for the road, the novels everyone's been talking about that she has not had time to read." (This story with its bland beginning is almost worth the price of the book. Fortunately, so are several others.)

One might read Flights as collection of stories only loosely connected to one another with themes that range—as I read them—from the unknowability of another person to the persistence of memory to the impact (in the sense of crash) of technology on human life.

The thread that ties all this diversity together of course is the author. Flights is Tokarczuk's cabinet of curiosities, stories, incidents, anecdotes she's collected in her travels and has put on display.  We readers are fortunate she has done so.