Monday, April 26, 2021

Can a good translator be a bad writer?

A few days ago, I asked a private Facebook literary translation group whether it is possible to be a good translator and a poor writer. How do translations fail (other than misunderstanding the original language)?

My post provoked a couple dozen comments, many of which agreed with Daleth who said, "No. A translator IS a writer. A translator who is a bad writer is also, by definition, a bad translator. Just because you can accurately convey the meaning of a text, that doesn't mean you're a good translator." Rachel said, "If I say (as I do) that a good translator has to be a good writer, I mean that they have to be good at putting words together in their own language."
Kevan expanded on that: "A bad writer cannot be a good translator. They may be able to fully understand the source text and produce a faithful translation, but will that final product be good writing unto itself? No. There are numerous, sometimes countless, ways to render a thought into a language, and the talent and skill of the translator in writing his/her mother tongue will guide those choices. A talented translator will give us natural, elegant prose worthy of being called literature. A poor writer who translates will give us clunky, inelegant, tone-deaf prose, that while grammatical and conveying the meaning of the source text, will be unpleasant to read."
Silvia wrote: "You have to be a good writer, otherwise it is a literal translation that fails to capture cultural elements and metaphorical meanings."
My own suspicion is that the ability to translate is one skill and the ability to write clear, fluent English is another. Some of those who commented define "good translator" as someone who writes clear (appropriate? accurate) English. But I think that begs the question. Certainly the opposite is true: Someone can be a fine writer in English and be a terrible translator.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

What is going on in "The Factory"?

The factory in Hiroko Oyamada's novel The Factory is immense. It has apartment complexes and housing that looks “like a real suburban development full of tidy two-story homes,” supermarkets, a bowling alley, karaoke, a fishing center, hotel, “more restaurants than you can count” not including employee cafeterias, a post office, bank, travel agency, a couple of book stores, an optometrist, a barber, an electronics store, a gas station, a museum (with works by factory artists and employees, but still worth a look), its own bus and taxi companies. 

The factory is much bigger than the average town. It has its own mountains, forests, and river. It has its own Shinto shrine and priest. “All we’re missing now,” says the employee who is acting as a guide for a new employee, “is a graveyard. I guess we don’t have a temple, either.”

For all this we never learn what the factory manufactures, what it produces.

The book follows three employees. Yoshiko Ushiyama, after going through five jobs in four years, is hired by the factory and feels fortunate to be taken on as a part-timer. In college, she focused on the Japanese language and how people communicate, particularly the use of language in print media. She’s hired by the Print Services department as part of the Staff Support team. Her job is to shred documents. That’s it. Shred bins full of documents three or four days a week

Yoshio Furufue, a graduate research assistant in bryology, the study of mosses and liverworts, is hired to determine how to grow moss on the factory’s roofs. “We have a few different organizations taking care of our trees, flowers, roads, and streetlights,” says the PR guy explaining the job. “Green-roofing has been a real blind spot, thought, and that’s why HQ finally decided to step in and deal with it on their own.”

The third employee, a former systems engineer for a small company, is hired as a proof reader. Packets arrived daily and “our job was to take whatever we found in the packet—documents of various types and formats—and proof them. In some files, there were additional materials, like manuscripts or newspaper articles. If that was the case, we were supposed to check the document against them for accuracy.”

Aside from evoking the mind-numbing routine of these jobs—although Furufue lives in factory housing, studies the local mosses, and determines they will not grow on the factory’s roofs—Oyamada captures the office bureaucracy, the plant tour, the after-hours drinking, a hunt for the Forest Pantser—a middle-aged man “who ran around the forest trying to pull the pants of men and women of all ages.”

And the story begins to slide from the realistic—or recognizable, if exaggerated—world into something stranger. Grayback Coypu, a rodent, “similar to the spiny rat”; Washer Lizards, “the order of scaly reptiles”; and Factory Slags, “a member of the order Pelecaniformes, related to the cormorant” begin to appear. Mutations provoked by the factory? And what does the factory do to the humans who work within it?

Hiroko Oyamada, who was born in Hiroshima in 1983, based the novel on her experiences working as a temp for an automaker’s subsidiary. The Factory won the Shincho Prize for New Writers, and The Hole, her next novel, won the Akutagawa Prize. 

David Boyd’s translation from the original Japanese is clear and fluent. The publisher or book designer did the book no favors by limiting the number of paragraphs. Because Amazon Japan does not have a “Look Inside the Book” feature, I cannot tell if this is how the original appears. In the New Directions edition, paragraphs go on for pages, one quote following another like a line of ants. It saves space, and it may have been an art director’s idea to have the reader drag herself through the story the way the characters have to drag themselves through their days at work, but it make hard reading.

Nevertheless, for anyone interested in contemporary Japanese literature, it’s worth the effort.


Friday, April 23, 2021

There's more disfunction than love on South Green Road


Janice Spector’s debut novel, 2207 South Green Road, is an account of the lives of an extended Jewish family in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. It’s set in the early 1960s; a time marker is two characters going to a first-run showing of “El Cid” with Charlton Heston, which was released in 1961.

We meet the family patriarch Morris Katofsky; his hypochondriac wife Becky; his daughter Esther; Esther’s pharmacist husband Harold; Esther and Howard’s overweight and lonely ten-year-old daughter Edna; Morris’s brother Abe (who has a gambling addiction); Morris’s two goyim employees in his floor-scraping business Willie and George (while the family is barely religious, many have strong feelings about non-Jews; a point the author underlines); Becky’s younger sisters Ceal and Libby; Ceal’s husband Al; Libby’s husband Joe; Becky’s successfully brothers Arthur and Izzie; Arthur’s wife Millie; Izzie’s wife Ethel; Lurlene, Morris and Becky’s black cleaning lady(?), housekeeper(?); and Ida.

Ida is interesting. Ceal and Al have a brain-damaged child Rosalie. When Ceal realized she needed help to care for Rosalie, she decided she needed a full-time resident aide. The agency sent “a slight, bespectacled Negro girl, holding all her belongings in a large brown paper bag.” The agency says Ida is 18; Ceal thinks she is no more than13, but welcomes her anyway. Indeed, Ceal and Al unofficially adopt her as a member of the family.

According to the author’s website, Spector “received her first awards for story and playwriting in the sixth grade in University Heights, Ohio. She attended college in Brooklyn, New York, and began her career at The New York Times, where she worked on the foreign and metro news desks. After relocating to Northern Virginia, she focused on political and media consulting. Her last employment was as a speech writer for a U.S. Congressional Committee. Most recently, she was a member of the National Finance Committee for Biden for President.”

While the novel is filled with incident—and stuffed with characters—there is not a lot of drama. The family celebrates Morris’s 63rd birthday. Abe, who owns a candy store, has to borrow $1,000. Becky, with the connivance of a malleable Dr. Gold, becomes addicted to pain killers. Edna is put in the hospital to have her tonsils and adenoids taken out. Becky disappears for a while, frightening the family. Abe disappears, sending Morris to Florida to retrieve him. Becky begins to haunt Emergency Rooms in regional hospitals in her search for drugs. Harold, Esther, and Edna go on a vacation trip to Washington, D.C.

Howard is not a very sympathetic character. When Edna accidentally puts her hand through the storm door glass badly slashing her wrist and arm, Harold “refused to come even when they hollered that Edna was hurt. After all, he reasoned, it’s not like there isn’t anyone to take her to the hospital. He was entitled to his relaxation and it was Saturday night. Bonanza was on TV—he wasn’t going to miss that.” 

Although 2207 South Green Road is subtitled “a novel of love and dysfunction,” the incidents of disfunction tend to swamp the examples of love. For example, when the family would go to White Castle, Joe ordered a cheeseburger with grilled onions, ketchup bread-and-butter pickles, French fries, and birch beer. “After all the orders had been placed, Joe’s wife Libby would inform the server, ‘We need to make a change. My husband will have a plain hamburger. Nothing on it. No fries. No birch beer. He can have water.’” Perhaps it was her way of showing love.

In any case, 2207 South Green Road is an interesting evocation of one family’s life.

Interestingly, 2207 South Green Road is an actual address in the Cleveland suburb. You can look it up on Google Maps, which I did, and here it is. 



Thursday, April 22, 2021

Intriguing meditations on translation, writing, and literature

The little art Kate Briggs writes about is translation. She attributes the description to Helen Lowe-Porter, the first translator of Hermann Mann’s Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain. Briggs’s book is an extraordinarily rich series of meditations—I hesitate to call them essays, some are no more than a sentence—on writing, literature, translation.

Briggs herself is a translator and, based on the evidence within This Little Art, was simultaneously translating Ronald Barthes’s The Preparation of the Novel as she wrote the book. Because I’ve never read Barthes, Briggs’s writing about him and her engagement with his lecture notes has piqued my interest; I now have two books of his waiting on my to-read shelf.

Until I began doing it I never gave translation much thought. With my interest in things Japanese, I was aware I could not have read Kawabata, Mishima, or Tanizaki without their translators. I heard the rumor that Kawabata would not have won the Nobel Prize in 1968 (the first Japanese to do so) had the judges not been able to read his works in translation. But what is there to say about it this little art? One so little that publishers occasionally leave the translator’s name off a book’s cover.

As it turns out there’s lots to say. And Briggs says a lot to say and says it well: “When I teach translation (I am a translator and a writer and a tutor), I am often surprised by how often students are surprised to discover that translating involves writing, that its most vital prerequisite is an interest in writing, for the reason that written translations have to be written.”

That made me wonder whether it is possible be a good translator and a poor writer? How do translations fail (other than misunderstanding the original)? My questions provoked a lively discussion among a private translators group on Facebook (and I will post about it). But what does a translator do these days in contrast, apparently, to the time when the goal was replace every word in the original language (then usually Greek or Latin) with an equivalent English word. 

(Do that and you get something like: “The friends him they abandon, the father not approve the his decision, only the mother him is close” from “Gli amici lo abbandonano, il padre non approva la sua decisione, solo la madre gli è vicina.”)

Briggs quotes Douglas Robinson: “Translators are never, and should never be forced to be (or to think of themselves as), neutral, impersonal transferring devices. Translators’ personal experiences—emotions, motivations, attitudes, associations—are not only allowable in the formation of a working [translation], they are indispensable.”

She says that the translator knows that the work “she is translating is not hers: she knows that it didn’t originate with her; it not something that she has already written or said.” Indeed, she may believe she’s not capable of writing something like the original, “and perhaps this is part of its appeal.”

Barthes cites Julio Cortázar, who translated Defoe into Spanish, as writing, “I would advise a young writer who is having difficulty writing—if it’s friendly to offer advice—that he should stop writing for himself for a while and do translation; that he should translate good literature and one day he will discover that he is writing with an ease he didn’t have before.”

This Little Art is not light reading (or not for me). It raises all kinds of interesting questions. What do you do if you are translating from the German (or whatever) and a character speaks briefly in French (or whatever)? Leave the French and trust your English-speaking readers will get the gist? Translate it into English and tag it “she said in French”? 

(To indicate characters were speaking Japanese in one of my novels, I italicized that dialogue rather than tag it. I’m not sure that works either.)

What do you do if you’re translating Barthes (or whoever) into English and he himself translates into French Japanese haiku that have already been translated into English—and he does not cite a source? Briggs managed to identify the source and then struggled to identify the poems Barthes translated. She then apparently went back to the English. Forget the original Japanese.

But while This Little Art may not be light reading, it is certainly worth reading if you have any interest in translation, writing, or literature. Indeed it’s worth reading more than once.  And although it does not have an index or a bibliography, it does have extensive notes with enough citations to keep a diligent student occupied for a good long while.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Go for the great virtues, not the little ones

One of my social media acquaintances noted recently that he was rereading Natalia Ginzburg's slim essay collection The Little Virtues. He reads it once a year, and has done so for twenty years. Wow. I almost never reread something. With an endorsement like that, I thought I ought to look into it.

I've known the Italian author "Natalia Ginzburg" for years, but The Little Virtues is her first work I've read. Her work explored family relationships, politics during and after the Fascist years and World War II, and philosophy. She wrote novels, short stories and essays, for which she received the Strega Prize and Bagutta Prize. An activist, for a time in the 1930s she belonged to the Italian Communist Party. In 1983 she was elected to Parliament from Rome as an Independent. Born in Palermo, Sicily in 1916, Ginzburg spent most of her youth in Turin with her family, as her father in 1919 took a position with the University of Turin. Her father, Giuseppe Levi, a renowned Italian histologist, was born into a Jewish Italian family, and her mother, Lidia Tanzi, was Catholic. Her parents were secular and raised Natalia, her sister Paola (who would marry Adriano Olivetti) and her three brothers as atheists. Their home was a center of cultural life, as her parents invited intellectuals, activists and industrialists. At age 17 in 1933, Ginzburg published her first story, "I bambini," in the magazine Solaria.

In 1938, she married Leone Ginzburg, and they had three children together, Carlo, Andrea, and Alessandra. Their son Carlo Ginzburg became a historian. Although Natalia Ginzburg was able to live relatively free of harassment during World War II, her husband Leone was sent into internal exile because of his anti-Fascist activities, assigned from 1941–1943 to a village in Abruzzo. She and their children lived most of the time with him. Opponents of the Fascist regime, she and her husband secretly went to Rome and edited an anti-Fascist newspaper, until Leone Ginzburg was arrested. He died in 1944 after suffering severe torture, including crucifixion, in jail. In 1950, Ginzburg married again, to Gabriele Baldini, a scholar of English literature. They lived in Rome. He died in 1969; she died in 1991. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

The Little Virtues was published in 1985 and the eleven essays, fluently translated by Dick Davis, were published in newspapers and magazines between 1944 and 1962. They range from a memoir of the time in Abruzzo to comparing and contrasting herself with her husband ("He always feels hot. I always feel cold . . . He speaks several languages well. I do not speak any well . . . ") to a critique of England and English life ("English shop assistants are the stupidest shop assistants in the world . . . The restaurants are either too crowded or too empty. And they are either stiff and priggish or squalid . . . ") She wrote that last in 1960; England's restaurants have changed.

What makes The Little Virtues worth reading once a year are Ginzburg's essays on her vocation, on human relationships, and on the little virtues. Her vocation, of course, is to write. "When I sit down to write I feel extraordinarily at ease, and I move in an element which, it seems to me,  I know extraordinarily well; I use tools that are familiar to me and they fit snugly in my hands." That, it seems to me, is a good way to tell if what you do is your vocation (I call it my calling) or just a job. It works whether you are a carpenter, plumber, welder, baker, programmer, or poet.

And while it is tempting to quote much more, I will quote only the first paragraph of her title essay:

"As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one's neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know."

I wish I'd read this when my children were young.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Three narrators, three stories, one city.

Rupert Thomson’s latest fiction arrived on my desk with high praise from Colm Tóbín, Philip Pullman, and Andrea Wulf. The publisher bills Barcelona Dreaming as a novel, but it is three long stories with several linked characters. Significant characters in one story are minor or peripheral in another.

Barcelona Dreaming is Thomson’s thirteenth work of fiction (he’s also written a well-received memoir, This Party’s Got to Stop). He was born in Eastbourne in 1955, took the Cambridge entrance examination at 16, and studied medieval history and political thought. After college he taught English in Athens, wrote advertising copy in London, and has lived and worked in the U.S., Italy, Japan, Australia, and Spain. His first book, Dreams of Leaving, earned Thomson positive reviews, the sale of film rights, and $50,000 to write a screenplay. “And by the time that money ran out,” he said in an interview, “I had published a second novel and so from very early on I could be a full-time writer.”

I have no idea how long Thomson lived in Barcelona, but Barcelona Dreaming gives the impression that, as Philip Pullman says, Thomson “knows every corner of it and every kind of human being who might live there.” The stories are narrated, in turn, by an English woman who runs a gift shop, an alcohol-dependent jazz pianist, and a translator tormented by unrequited love. 

The English woman, Amy, has lived in Barcelona for twenty years or more is in her late 40s, is long-divorced, has a daughter attending university in England and a settled life until she finds a troubled young Moroccan man sobbing in her building’s parking garage in the middle of the night. She takes him to her apartment, gives him tea and him cab fare home. He returns a few days later with all the fixings to make her a Moroccan dinner to thank her. They become friends. Then lovers. It ends better than I expected as the story was winding up.

The 64-year-old pianist, Nacho, connects with and becomes a friend of Barcelona soccer star Rinaldinho, as much as one can be a friend of someone who is half your age, who is an international celebrity, is awash in admirers and hangers-on, and who earns more in a month than you will in a lifetime. Nacho is divorced, has a long-time live-in girlfriend, and the woman he once loved and performed with has died. This is a marvelous meditation on aging, on missed opportunities and bad decisions, and the corrosive effect of celebrity. By the end of the story one has a feeling that Rinaldinho has passed his athletic peak and has no idea what happened.

Let me quote the first paragraph of the third story to give you a sense of Thomson’s style and command of detail: “The first time I saw Vic Drago, he was on his own. I was waiting at the bus stop outside my building when the glass front door swung open and a stocky man with thinning black hair emerged. He was wearing a maroon jacket, a black shirt, and black trousers with sharp creases. A gold chain bracelet glinted on his left wrist. He stopped to light a cigarette, then strode off along the street, smoke flowing over his shoulder as he exhaled.” 

The translator is working on a French novella; he outlines its story and one of the many pleasures of Barcelona Dreaming is the way Thomson is able to have themes and incidents resonate off one another. Another pleasure is seeing a character in one story appear in another. And third is Thomson’s use of language and his perceptions. Here, taken almost at random, is the jazz pianist describing times with the woman he loved:

“There were moments during live performances—in Paris or Cologne or Amsterdam—when I would chance on harmonic progressions or melodic lines that rode along with her voice, and her eyes would meet mine across the sparkly half-darkness up onstage, amusement on her face, and a gentle pity, and even, sometimes, a glimmer of mockery or malice, at the thought that I might have the nerve to follow her, because she knew she could sing herself right out of where she stood, she could leave me for dust if she wanted to.”

In a March 2013 interview in The Guardian newspaper, Thomson is quoted as saying, “Fiction essentially teaches you to understand and empathize with other people. That's important. I think fiction is related to ethics in that you step out of your skin and become someone else for the period you are reading the book. And it is a short step to extrapolate from that to the teaching of compassion. As Amos Oz said, 'the person who imagines the other is better than the person who does not imagine the other'. For me, that is exactly the strength and raison d'etre of fiction. Film doesn't, and art doesn't, and music doesn't do it in the same way.”

Barcelona Dreaming takes a reader willing to go with it out of her skin and become someone else. 


Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Enough to make me an LRB subscriber

Hilary Mantel has been reviewing books for and writing essays for the London Review of Books since, I believe, 1987. Her recently-published collection, Mantel Pieces, is subtitled, “Royal Bodies and Other Writings from the London Review of Books.” So in one sense what you’re reading here is pretty thin stuff: a review of a collection of reviews. Worse, Mantel is a better writer than this ink stained-wretch.

Mantel is the author of the Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both Man Booker Prize-winners, and The Mirror & the Light—The Wolf Hall Trilogy, which The New York Times claimed “is probably the greatest historical fiction accomplishment of the past decade.” They are the story of Thomas Cromwell, who born to a working-class family becomes the right-hand man of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1527 and manages to retain Henry VIII’s favor after Wolsey is executed. He assists in the king’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn and break from Rome and establishment of the Church of England. 

Even people who don’t like historical fiction (we exist) or who don’t like long books or who don’t like long books of historical fiction respond to the trilogy. Mantel Pieces suggests why. She’s a terrific writer, a thorough researcher, and a clear thinker. (Her ability to think clearly may explain why she’s such a clear writer.)

The reviews extend from a 1988 review of Shere Hite’s third book on the sex lives of American women to a 2017 review of a biography of Margaret Pole, who was beheaded in 1541. Review subjects include John Osborne, Madonna, Christopher Marlow, Jane Boleyn (Anne’s sister-in-law), Eunice Williams (a Massachusetts settler taken by Mohawk Indians in 1704), Marie-Antoinette, Robespierre, Danton, and Théroigne de Méricourt (“a woman washed up on the [French] revolution’s inhospitable shore”).

These are not quick summaries that conclude with a couple of judgmental sentences. Mantel brings in research from other books, other reading. She does not give a book a one to five-star rating and move on, but puts it into a context and provides enough information for the reader to draw her own conclusion. For example:

“Susan Higginbotham’s carefully written book [Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower] comes with a misleading cover puff: ‘At last, a biography of one of the most fascinating women of the Tudor period’, who has ‘too long been overlooked’. But Margaret Pole, one of the great magnates of Tudor England, is not overlooked. In The King’s Curse (2014) she was ground up by the great fictionalizing machine that is Philippa Gregory, and in 2003 she was the subject of a major biography by Hazel Pierce: Margaret Pole: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership. Pierce’s book is thorough and scholarly, and her work is acknowledged in Higginbotham’s biography which is less detailed, but serious and judicious. Based in North Carolina, Higginbotham is a lawyer by background and has written several novels, spanning different eras . . . .”

In addition to the reviews, Mantel Pieces includes three interesting essays, an account of first meeting her stepfather as a six-year-old written in the voice of a six-year-old (and worth therefore studying as a piece of writing; it was almost enough to send me to my computer); an account of a medical procedure that sounds as if went wrong and almost killed her; and the piece that apparently provoked a tempest in England, “Royal Bodies: From Anne Boleyn to Kate Middleton” (2013).

Mantel says in her introduction that ten days after the piece appeared in the LRB, reporters were scouring her village looking for comment. Her husband told her “the prime minister and the leader of the opposition were denouncing me. Neither, I believe, had read my lecture. Very few people had read it, but I was still Monster of the Month.”

She reports attending an event at which the Prince of Wales handed out a  literary award. She had never seen him before, “and at once I thought: what a beautiful suit! What sublime tailoring!” A little later she went to a book trade event at Buckingham Palace. As the queen passed, “I stared at her. I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner.” 

Her reaction, says Mantel, was not toward a person but to the monarchy, “a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at.” That began to change in 1980 “with the discovery that Diana, the future Princess of Wales, had legs.” Diana, she says, was more royal than the royal family. “Her funeral was a pagan outpouring, a lawless fiesta of grief” but in the end England did not change.

She writes about Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII’s need for an heir. She reports on a paper that speculates that the king had Kells positive blood. “When a woman who is Kells negative conceives by a man who is Kells positive, she will, if the foetus itself is Kells positive, become sensitized; her immune system will try to reject the foetus.” If so, it makes the history of Henry’s reign a biological rather than a moral tragedy. 

She concludes by asking whether monarchy is a suitable institution for a grown-up nation? She writes that the English are happy “to allow monarchy to be an entertainment, in the same way that we license strip joints and lap-dancing clubs.” No wonder she became Monster of the Month.

The reviews and essays are separated by letters to and from Mantel and her editor at the LRB; these talk about the work at hand and works in progress. In November 2005, Mantel wrote about Thomas Cromwell, “Oh, the joy of having a main character who’s not neurotic! I wish I’d thought of it before.” Mantel Pieces is enough to make me a LBR subscriber. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Almost too clever by half, but fun

Anthony Horowitz, in addition to writing The Word Is Murder, is the author of more than two dozen books for children, as well as a prolific screenwriter and the author of multiple crime novels, including two Sherlock Holmes novels authorized by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate, plus two James Bond novels authorized by the Ian Fleming estate. 

Recently he adapted his mystery novel Magpie Murders for a TV miniseries. He was the creator and writer of the Foyle’s War mysteries and has written a number of the Misomer Murder scripts. He is an exceptionally productive and creative writer.

The narrator of The Word Is Murder is named Anthony Horowitz who is a London-based mystery writer, creator and writer of a TV series called Foyle’s War, and whose last book was The House of Silk, a Sherlock Holmes novel. The narrator shares a number of other attributes with the author: they are both happily married; they both have a literary agent named Hilda Starke; they both have their books published by HarperCollins in the U.S.  In other words, Horowitz would like readers to think that the story he tells is not fiction but something else. A memoir or true crime story perhaps.

The first chapter reads like the beginning of a conventional mystery. A wealthy woman of a certain age (although apparently healthy) visits a London funeral home in the morning to arrange for her funeral. Nothing particularly mysterious about that; it can be a prudent preparation. But that afternoon she’s murdered. Which, following her morning’s visit, is unusual.

In chapter two, the narrator who I will call Anthony is contacted by a consulting detective named Daniel Hawthorne. Anthony had met Hawthorne a year earlier when the detective helped with the technical details of a TV crime drama Anthony had written. Hawthorne wants Anthony to write a book about him, which I would not be surprised has happened to Horowitz the author more than once. 

The deal is this: Anthony will tag along with Hawthorne as he works to solve the murder of the woman who had made arrangements for her own funeral the morning of her death. The Met has no clue and called Hawthorne in as a consultant. They will split the profits fifty-fifty. 

It sounds like writing true crime and Anthony turn him down. He explains to Hawthorne he’d rather write fiction: “I’m in control of my stories. I like to know what I’m writing about. Creating the crimes and the clues and all the rest of it is half the fun. If I were to follow you around, just writing down what you said, what would that make me? I’m sorry, I’m not interested.”

Still . . . he can see an opening chapter in that woman’s visit to the funeral home and her murder. And after a woman fan asks Anthony why he’s not interested in writing about the real world he decides to team up with Hawthorne.

He writes a first chapter, the one that actually begins The Word Is Murder. Hawthorne rips it apart, starting with the first sentence:

“Just after eleven o’clock on a bright spring morning, the sort of day when the sunshine is almost white and promises a warmth that it doesn’t quite deliver, Diana Cowper crossed the Fulham Road and went into a funeral parlour.” 

Hawthorne’s investigation has established that she didn’t cross the Fulham Road. The bus she must have taken (she’s caught on CCTV) stops on the same side of the street as the undertaker. “So what would you want me to write?” Anthony asks, not unreasonable. Hawthorne has already scribbled something:

“At exactly seventeen minutes past eleven, Diana Jane Cowper exited from the number 14 bus at the Old Church Street (HJ) stop and retraced her steps twenty-five metres along the pavement. She then entered Cornwallis and Sons funeral parlour.”

Anthony says it reads like a police report. “At least it’s accurate.,” says Hawthorne.

It seems to me that Horowitz is doing a number of things in The Word Is Murder. He is playing with reader expectations. What’s real? London is real. (I’ve been there). HarperCollins is real. (They published a couple of my books.) I will accept that Hilda Starke, named in the Acknowledgments is real. (Or did until I Google searched her name and found this in The Los Angeles Review of Books: “I looked up his literary agent and am sad to report that it is not the delightfully no-nonsense Hilda Starke, who steals every scene in which she appears.”)

He is critiquing the mystery genre while simultaneously writing a mystery in the genre. Diana Cowper’s murder is followed on the day of her self-plotted funeral by the exceptionally brutal murder of her son, a movie actor on the brink of stardom. I suspect that one of the differences between writing a murder mystery and researching and writing true crime is that in fiction all the parts have to fit together. There cannot be an effect without a cause. The moment a reader says “That could never happen” within the context of the story, you’ve lost her. So Hawthorne displays remarkable powers of observation and ratiocination but he cannot read minds or time travel.

True crime is often messy, illogical, incomplete. We want the world to make sense, a sense that feels consistent dependable. True crime is filled with ambiguity, accident, coincident, and loose ends. Who wants to read a book in which you don’t know the villain’s punishment—or reward for that matter?

Finally, Horowitz has written a wonderful book about the writing life. I may not believe that there is a London consulting detective named David Hawthorne (I don’t), but I believe absolutely that everything Horowitz writes about being a writer, from Anthony’s meeting with Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg to the discussions of what to call the book. (Hawthorne Investigates loses to The Word Is Murder.)

Nevertheless, for all the cleverness and inside winks, the members of the mystery reading group to which I belong and I almost unanimously enjoyed the book. Horowitz has created an interesting character in Hawthorne and has a three-book contract to fulfill. The second in the series The Sentence Is Death was published in May 2020, and the third, A Line to Kill is due out in the fall of 2021.

Friday, March 5, 2021

How Nebraska became a Republican stronghold

Like many East Coast liberals, I find it hard to understand why Midwesterners—particularly rural Midwesterners—continue to accept the former President's lies, resent and resist any government intrusion in their lives (while accepting farm subsidies), and hate government-mandated health care. Ross Benes has written an outstanding book, Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold, to help me understand. 

Benes has written for many media outlets including The American Prospect, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, The Nation, New York, Rolling Stone, Slate, Vice, and The Wall Street Journal. He’s the author of Sex Weird-o-Pedia and The Sex Effect, which was described as “Freakonomics without pants.” He’s a lively writer, a diligent researcher, and is not afraid to include himself in the story when it helps the reader understand how he’s come to believe what he believes.

He spent his first 19 years in Brainard (pop. 420), a village in eastern Nebraska, and attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, which is about 40 miles to the southwest. He had a brief stint in Detroit, moved to New York City where he worked for Esquire magazine. He has stayed in New York, and his book traces how his political views “evolved as I’ve shifted from being a right-wing small-town Nebraskan to a card-carrying member of the East Coast ‘fake news’ media.” The book is about “the dissonance of moving from one of the most rural and conservative regions of America to one of its most liberal and urban centers as the two grow further apart at a critical moment in our country’s history.”

Abortion is evil

Start with abortion. “In Brainard,” says Benes, “we will support anything Republicans do as long as Republicans say that abortion is evil.” The right to life trumps all other issues: income inequality, basic health care, environmental degradation, immigration, and more. What’s more, the issue is non-negotiable. If you believe that a woman’s egg becomes a human being the moment a male sperm enters it the subject is closed and any talk of a woman’s right to control her body, or back-street abortions, or human misery is irrelevant. 

So in Nebraska, Republicans support life while Democrats are baby killers. “Across Nebraska, billboards featuring Jesus and babies decorate cornfields that grow so tall that you can’t see past the country road intersection.” Nebraska school children look for ideas for pro-life poster they draw for school or their Catholic church. “They probably won’t realize that they’re advertising someone else’s politics. When you’re isolated in a depopulated area that consists almost entirely of people who look like you and share your beliefs, you don’t really question these things,” which is a theme that runs through the entire book. 

As a result, state and local Nebraska political candidates must avoid any discussion of abortion, any hint that a woman has the right to decide whether to carry a fetus to term or not. As one state senator told Benes, “If you’re talking about abortion, you’re losing.” And be careful about the way you talk about immigration while you’re at it.

Immigrants go away 

Nebraska actually has a record of accepting record number of refugees. Nevertheless, Benes writes that “city councils push ordinances aimed at making life unlivable for illegals despite their economic dependence on migrant labor. State legislators try to take away government funds for immigrants’ prenatal care even though these lawmakers ostensibly oppose abortion.” 

Growing up in Brainard, Benes says he drank the Kool-Aid (invented in Nebraska): he wanted fewer illegal immigrants in the country; he wanted them deported; he wanted stricter border patrol. “Our safety depended on it. We law-abiding citizens didn’t deserve to be exposed to those who don’t respect the law.” With immigration, however, there may be room for negotiation.

He interviewed the mayor of Schuyler, a town that changed considerably when Cargill expended its beef plant and used migrant laborers to fill low-paying jobs, jobs Cornhuskers did not want to take at the wages offered. “Now Schuyler has the demographics benefitting an international municipality.” Immigrant businesses like The African Store, Chichihualo Supermarket, Novedades La Sorpresa clothing store, and Paleteria Oasis ice-cream stand help keep the town alive. “I’ve been to a lot of withering towns in Nebraska that would kill to have as many operating businesses as Schuyler has.” 

Of course, there have been growing pains. A local man Benes talks with is unhappy that the golf club is the only place in town these days that serves a decent meal. While “an international ag corporation decided to expand its beef operations, now there is nowhere in town to regularly get a good steak because of it.” Blame the immigrants.

Then there’s health care. When you are used to “doing whatever you damn-well please on your own property, forcing people to participate in a massive health-care marketplace feels restrictive of personal liberty.” People in Brainard generally embrace principles like personal responsibility, fiscal restraint, limited government, respect for authority, and individual liberty. 

Republicans are great marketers

Benes writes that the Republican Party “has done an incredible marketing job convincing people in rural areas that it values these ideal and that it’s the only party doing so.” You don’t want the government sticking its nose into your business until there’s a tornado, a flood, or a pandemic—and for many people not even then. Benes has suffered a number of medical calamities, and the benefits he received from Obamacare “made me reconsider other ways the government helped my life.”

So what’s the answer? There is no one answer. Because a single party controls the system, many actions that would make the state less hidebound are impossible: end gerrymandering, reform campaign finance laws, open primaries, ranked voting, improve secondary and higher education. 

At the same time, Benes believes change is possible. With the right messaging, he says, “there’s an opportunity for Democrats to win some rural voters with health care.” And rather attack the immigrants, “redirect their ire at the corporations who, through consolidation and union busting, drove wages down so far that the only people who will take their jobs any more are the people they recruit from other countries eager for a new life.”

Rural Rebellion is an insightful and useful book. Benes is a splendid writer who has added prodigious research to his personal experiences to help readers understand how Nebraska (and by extension other red states) became a Republican stronghold.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

A book to read, reread, and read once again

John Keats, born and raised in London, died almost exactly 200 years ago on February 23, 1821; he was twenty-five years old and tuberculosis killed him. He was the son of a London stable-keeper, left school at fifteen to train as an apothecary, and earned his license at age twenty-one. This allowed him to work as a pharmacist, physician, and surgeon, all of which he gave up to write some of the most celebrated poetry in the English language.

Anahid Nersessian was born and raised in New York City. She attended Yale University as an undergraduate and got her Ph.D in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago. After spending three years at Columbia University, she moved to Los Angeles, where she currently teaches in the English Department at UCLA on the unceded territory of the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples. She has published widely in scholarly journals as well as in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Public Books. She also founded and co-edits the Thinking Literature series at the University of Chicago Press. She is the author of The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment, and Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse.

She warns readers in the first sentence of Keats’s Odes that “If you’ve never read anything on Keats’s odes before, this book should not be your first stop. It is a collection of essays based on intimate, often idiosyncratic responses to the poems. In fact it is probably better to call them meditations instead of essays.”

I had never read anything on Keats’s odes before, so rather than begin with Nersessian’s thin, exquisite offering, I read Aileen Ward’s John Keats: The Making of the Poet, a sturdy biography that Nersessian calls her favorite. But while a biography can give you facts—Keats was short; his father died when he was eight; his mother remarried almost immediately then disappeared; he couldn’t read Greek; he was in love with a girl named Fanny Brawne; he died in Rome—it cannot explain the origin of or justify the power of the poetry. He astonished his friends with one of his first poems, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, with lines like:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken; 

Roughly speaking, says Nersessian, odes are “meant to celebrate something or someone, but because they are written from a place of emotional excess or ferment it’s easy for them to tip over into more private preoccupations.” In 1819, Keats wrote six poems that came to be known as the Great Odes: Ode to a Nightingale; Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Indolence, Ode on Melancholy, Ode to Psyche, and To Autumn.Because I came to Keats’s odes as a poetry lover but having never read them, I cannot, and will not comment on the quality, insights, or depth of Nersessian’s meditations. Rather I tried to hang on as she takes the reader on a personal and scholarly journey through the poems. In addition to the meditations on the poems, her book includes a useful introduction to Keats and his poetry, a useful bibliography at the end of each meditation, an index, and more. 

Which means that readers have not only Nersessian’s exceptionally interesting insights into the odes and personal experiences associated with them, they also have lists of related material (and why it relates to the poems) everything from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Helen Vendler’s The Odes of John Keats, to Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

In an interview about the book, Nersessian says that “One of the most impressive things about Keats is that his poetry got so good so fast. He started writing when he was about nineteen, and a lot of his early stuff is pretty terrible. When he died six years later, he had written not one, not two, but a solid handful of the most famous poems in the English language, with lines—'A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ or ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that millions of people have heard somewhere even if they’ve never read them. The explanation, besides raw talent, is that he worked extremely hard at being a poet. As if he knew his days were limited, he wrote all the time, from short little songs to four-thousand-line epics, and he was always upping the ante, trying to make each poem better than the last one and being careful never to repeat himself or fall into old habits. Of course, if he had lived longer, his poetry could have gotten really bad again. Maybe he only had ten or so great poems in him—which is a lot more than most people.”

Keats’s Odes goes a long way to explain why the six are called the Great Odes and why they are still worth reading and discussing. And even if you have never read the Ode on Indolence or the Ode to Psyche, you will be rewarded by Nersessian’s considered thoughts about them. (I.e., Indolence “is a caricature of detachment, a super-satirical striptease. It tries—not very hard—to contemplate the curious in-between of desire and skepticism, a somewhat disreputable zone that will be more familiar to some of us than others.”) 

A book to keep, to think about, to reread, to use as a guide to an even deeper appreciation of the poems, and to read once again.