On Counterpoint in the Classroom

It often happens that I ask students to work together in pairs or small groups for a few minutes during class. We usually do “think-pair-share”: students write on a prompt for a few minutes, they debrief with a partner, and then, once the class as a whole has reconvened, they share what they learned from talking with their partner. I have the pairs work together for two or three minutes, sometimes five, depending on how engaged they seem.

Sometimes I prepare a series of more involved questions about the day’s text, divide the class into five or six groups, and assign each of them a question, telling them that they will share their response with the group as a whole. In this case they spend longer together, at least five minutes, maybe ten.

This time, when the students are busily working together, is what I want to talk about today.

I find such moments equally satisfying and unsettling. They have a particular texture that, I suspect, is very different for me than for the students. What is happening at such moments? When they are bent over their writing or chatting with a classmate, what am I doing? Am I teaching?

I remember once walking down the hallway of one of the busiest buildings on campus. It was the middle of a class period, and as I passed six or seven classrooms I heard over and over the voices of professors. Some of these classes were lectures, some were discussions, some, no doubt, a hybrid. But regardless of type I didn’t hear a lot of students talking. I’m always conscious that I too am the person who talks the most in my classes. There are good reasons for this (I know more than my students do about most of the things I teach). I’d say I talk more now than I did when I started, for reasons that are both good (I’m more confident; I’ve perfected a spiel that works) and bad (I’ve gotten lazier; it’s easier to talk than to engage in other ways). But my ideal is still a class in which students talk at least as much and preferably more than I do. (I still remember a session on Virginia Woolf many years ago when I only spoke a single sentence for the first hour of class. It was amazing.)

Small-group work has many benefits. It allows people who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class to contribute to class conversation. It helps the ones who need a little time to formulate an answer and who otherwise might be drowned out by students who find it easy to give immediate answers to my questions. And it integrates writing with talking—important because for most people writing is the best way to improve thinking.

When students talk with each other, they wake up, they feed off the changed atmosphere, they gulp down the oxygen that comes into the room. At least, they do when things are going well. Like most teachers, I’ll use impromptu small group work if the atmosphere is particularly leaden (if it’s a particularly rainy or gloomy day I’ll usually come prepared with a small group exercise). Sometimes it doesn’t shake things up. Who knows why. Could be the time of the semester, the day of the week, the weather outside and inside, the intransigence or shyness or fearfulness of a particular group dynamic.

But mostly it works. Things always start quietly; students are shy about breaking the silence. They begin by murmuring, but as they warm to the task they get louder. Soon there is a pleasant hubbub, almost a roar. That’s what I love best. I can feel the class loosening up. There’s more laughter, a kind of ease comes into the room.

I’m not an idiot: I know students aren’t always talking about the thing I asked them to talk about. (Though knowing I might ask them to summarize the conversation usually keeps them honest.) That’s not even the worst thing in the world. If I hear a few groups talking about their weekends or a chemistry exam they just took then I know—though the presence of longer pauses has usually already clued me in—that it’s time to bring them back together as a class. If one group finishes their task too quickly, I’ll go over and check in, ask someone to tell me what they’ve been talking about, prod them to think further, maybe give them another question to think about.

But mostly I stay out of their conversations. Instead I walk, and I listen. Unless I’m teaching a seminar where we can all fit around a table, I always move around the room a lot. Partly because I am nervous and fidgety, but also because I think it keeps them engaged, a little off-balance, in a good way. When I’m asking questions and expanding on their responses—in other words, when I’ve conducting the discussions that make up 90% of my class time—I want to be close to the students: looking in their faces to see what’s happening (are they getting what I’m saying, do they seem confused or bored?) and bringing my presence to different parts of the room. But when they’re doing group work I want to be out of their way. So I’ll wander the perimeter of the room, maybe looking at what’s hanging on the walls (maps of foreign countries, posters listing tutoring times, cheap reproductions of art works hung by God knows who God knows when) or, better still, out the window, if I can. I’ll cast myself outside the space of the classroom, watching the trees rustle in the wind or people hurrying or sauntering along the campus’s walkways or the groundskeepers with their inevitable leaf-blowers. Part of me will be out there, in that space where I don’t have to perform, where no one needs to have something to say about the day’s text. But part of me will be inside the room, roaming.

But this walking is much less important than listening. I’ve always liked to eavesdrop—as a kid I rode the bus a lot, especially when I got to be a teenager, since I took the city bus to school and to work; that’s where I honed my skills of listening in on people’s lives—and these small group sessions are a chance for me to get a (more or less unfiltered) sense of what students are thinking. As I’m wandering the room I’m getting bits and pieces of conversations; I’ll listen for ideas that are repeated from group to group, or for passages that particular groups seize upon. When I can I’ll reference these ideas in our discussions, whether overtly (“I noticed many of you were drawn to the scene at the swimming pool”) or covertly, as a way to structure the rest of the day’s conversation. Eavesdropping is a good way for me to get a handle on misconceptions or just generally take the temperature of the class’s familiarity with the day’s text (if people haven’t read it the small group conversation will be halting; it’s always a tell when students are desperately scanning the pages in the hopes of figuring out what the hell the thing’s about).

As the voices of the students rise and fall, as I make my way around the room, casting an eye outside it and an ear within it, I’ll find myself feeling calmer, even soothed. I’m getting a little break: for a few minutes I don’t have to be the one doing the heavy lifting of making something (a meaningful conversation) out of a room-full of people with their books. I don’t have to worry about time. (When class is going well, time flies by; when it’s not, it’s an enemy, a leaden lump I am forced to try to mould.) And I’m always heartened by the surge of the students’ voices: it makes me feel that something is being achieved in this room—paradoxically, it’s when the class splits up that I am mostly likely to feel the group working together—to feel that it is, in fact, a group, rather than a bunch of individuals who happen to occupy the same space at the same time.

At such times I often recall a scene from the Canadian director François Girard’s film 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993). Canadians of a certain disposition and generation probably know it, but I’m not sure it ever got much traction anywhere else. The film mixes documentary footage and interviews with people who knew Gould and adds re-enactments of important moments in his life. In these, Colm Feore plays Gould, presenting him as gentle and sweet and wise but also strange and demanding and prey to various compulsions, panics, and paranoias. (Much, it seems, like the real Gould.) It’s a good film, and worth your time, regardless of how much you know or care about Gould.

One of the vignettes is called Truck Stop:

As he waits for his eggs and orange juice, Gould, in sun glasses, black beret and wool overcoat, dials into the various conversations around him: a man tells a story about picking up a hitchhiker, a story that seems as though it will be salacious and dispiriting but swerves into a different register altogether; a waitress breaks off her affair with a regular, a long-distance trucker; two men talk sports (the woefulness of the Leafs a topic of almost perennial relevance). We see Gould marking time on his fingers, as if the conversations were a composition by Bach. Girard overlays the different conversations–we’re hearing all the stories at once–but, because he brings up first one and then another, we concentrate on different bits of the general hubbub at different times. This diner fugue is book-ended by Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which plays on the radio both in Gould’s car and in the restaurant: a more simple musical form, but no less appealing, and important, for that.

Wandering my classroom, I fancy myself as Gould, dialing into first this snippet and then that, but weaving them together into a pedagogical counterpoint that offers an image of what I hope the class a whole will be: a set of independent voices that are nonetheless harmonically interdependent. (Am I understanding “counterpoint” correctly? Help me, musical people.)

At the best of these moments, I feel more than satisfied. I feel exultant. But I’m also uncertain, beset by questions. What exactly am I doing just now? Am I teaching or have I abdicated my responsibilities? Shouldn’t I be taking control and running the show? Similarly, I wonder about Gould’s relationship to the diner’s patrons. He’s with the people but he’d not of them. We get a sense of that distance when the waitress, excitedly, a little flushed, asks “Mr. Gould” if he wants his usual. Is Gould slumming? What is his role here, anyway? Is he composer? Performer? Conductor? Maker of found art? Is he responding to what he finds? Or is he, out of his genius, making something out of nothing, music out of noise? Do the conversations mean anything without his assessing ear?

I’m always worried I’ll let the group exercise go on too long. My worry is in part pedagogical: I don’t want the energy to peter out; I don’t want students to lose focus. But in part it’s more obscure, more personal: am I doing my job if I’m not taking a more active role? Of course, I set the task, I arranged the groups, I’m keeping an ear out for who is staying on task, and I’m the one who will turn this moment into what with luck will be a productive conversation about the text. So I’m doing a lot. Am I being an artist of sorts—is that the best way to describe a good teacher? Or am I imposing order and structure and form on something that might, admittedly, be more chaotic but maybe more valuable, more organic without me? Worse, am I using these exercises as a kind of distraction, whether for myself or for the students or for us all? After all, Clark’s “Downtown,” which is just as important to Girard’s scene as the inaudible Bach that underlies it, is a song about distraction, presented not only as a way to help us get outside ourselves but also, more troublingly, as a way to let us hide from ourselves. “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” sings Clark on the tinny radio. Is that a good thing or not?

Sometimes in these moments that now don’t seem quite as peaceful, these moments when I’m watching and listening and the students are working, I’ll fixate on the close-up of Gould’s fingers and I’ll feel my own twitching. What are those fingers doing? What kinds of cares are they forgetting?

Advertisements

On the Opening Scene of Birth (2004)

Before we see anything, we hear a man’s voice: “Okay, let me say this.” He sighs, then repeats himself. It turns out he is answering a question at a talk he has been giving. We don’t hear the question, but it must have been about reincarnation. He thinks about what would happen if his wife died—though he doesn’t say this, what he actually says is more revealing: he imagines having “lost” her: this movie will ask whether anything or anyone can ever be lost. The man imagines an outlandish scenario in which a bird comes to tell him, “’Sean, it’s me Anna, I’m back.’” In that case, what could he say? He’d believe the bird, or he’d want to. He’d be stuck with the bird, he adds, a little superciliously. (He’s cocky, this guy.) A ripple of laughter alerts us to the presence of the audience. But other than that, other than this extraordinary or preposterous imaginary situation, no, he’s a man of science, he doesn’t believe that mumbo jumbo. That will have to be the last question, he adds. He has to go for a run before he heads home.

It’s hard to imagine anyone ending a lecture this way, but we need the information because the screen, which has been blank, offering only the name of the production company, cuts to the film’s first image, a long shot of a figure, dressed in black and shown from behind, running through a snowy landscape. We put the image together with what we just heard: the runner must be the man we heard speaking. We might have figured that out anyway, but it doesn’t matter if the transition is abrupt, even clunky. This film is about how hard it to make a transition. It’s about implausibilities, too. What happens, it asks, when we take implausible scenarios seriously?

The opening speech is connected to the image of the running man in another way, too. As soon as the man mentions Anna, music rises softly in the background. Flutes, delicate, repetitive, are soon joined by strings and some kind of bell. (I’m reminded of Mahler’s 4th.) After that opening bit of dialogue, the only sound in this opening scene is this music, which swells and fades and swells again, mesmerizing us. (It’s a shame I can’t talk intelligently about music; it’s so important to this film.)

The man is running along a snow-covered road or path, with trees and fields lined with rickety fences put up to stop the drifts. Eventually we see some other people and a road with cars, but only in the background. The man is alone in this magical winter space, which might be a function of the time of day or perhaps more likely a symptom of the privilege enjoyed by the film’s main characters. Anyone who has been there will know: this is Central Park.

It can’t be too cold; the snow on the path is pretty slushy. It’s covered in footprints, though interestingly the man doesn’t seem to leave any. The temperature is probably just a few degrees below zero. Perfect for running, especially if you’re dressed for it, which the man is, though come to think of it his outfit is a bit weird. Who dresses all in back to go for a run? Is he a thief? There’s something ominous about him, an impression furthered by our inability to see his face.

This beautiful, almost stately tracking shot has so far been a single long take. The film critic André Bazin said that long takes give us the sense that we are seeing the world entire, complete, as it is. Whatever is outside the frame exists in continuity with whatever is inside it. All of a sudden we get a demonstration of this principle. In what might be my favourite moment in a film I love to pieces, four dogs run into the image and cross the path ahead of the runner before disappearing offscreen as quickly as they appeared. The runner doesn’t slow down, the dogs don’t return. They aren’t accompanied by anyone. Where do they come from, these dogs? Where are they going? I love this moment because it is an intrusion that doesn’t intrude. It has nothing to do with the story we are about to watch other than that it is a bit of magic, a spell to use a word one of the film’s characters will later use. The dogs are living out a different story than the one we are pursuing, maybe a happier one, since their effortless, satisfying lope contrasts with the more effortful—I was going to say “dogged”—exertions of the man.

He’s running fast, though, making good time through the snow. We can’t catch up with him and as he begins to run down a gentle slope the strings become more prominent in the soundtrack, taking up a waltz tune that will reappear throughout the film. The music is elegant, sophisticated, swoony—but accompanied by enough ominous themes to keep us wondering just how to understand what we are seeing, especially when the brass instruments introduce the sort of hunting themes you’d hear in Brahms or Mahler just as the man runs into the darkness of an underpass.

We almost lost sight of him but then he reappears on the other side and at that moment we have our first cut, to another shot of the park, but somewhere other than the path we’ve been following. The man isn’t in the frame, but we have something else to look at: a word, written in curlicued, somehow old-fashioned script, is superimposed over an image of snowy trees. Finally we learn the title of the film, Birth. (The direction is by Jonathan Glazer, the music by Alexandre Desplat, the cinematography by Harris Savides.) Then, a surprise: the music that has been so important to our sense of the film abruptly stops—well, almost anyway. A triangle keeps the time and, as the title fades, the music rises again. Just then we see the man entering the screen, still running. He disappears behind a rise and the camera tracks backwards slowly, moving us, as we can tell from the curve of an archway that fills the top part of the frame, into another underpass. As we move into that darkness—once we’ve seen the film we might think of it as a kind of womb, or maybe as the passageway from which Orpheus loses Euridice—the score becomes more urgent and unsettling, dominated by loud kettledrums. The man, running if possible even faster, comes back into the frame and runs towards us into the darkness.

And now something terrible happens. The man slows, lurches, leans forward with his hands braced on his knees. And then he keels over, first on all fours and then on his side. Another edit, this time a dissolve to a close-up of the man. We see his face for the first time, but the darkness and his hoodie shroud his features. The man does not move. The music stops. Another cut. Now we are on the other side of the underpass, looking at the silent landscape of the park. There’s still no one around, no one to help the man, only us to witness his fall, though even that opportunity or obligation has been taken from us. It is snowing lightly, wet snow, fall or springtime snow. The camera tracks slowly away from the underpass with its body. The soundtrack, as if out of respect, is silent. Then, quietly, quietly, the music starts up again. We cut to something that is hard to make out. The image is quivering, almost out of focus. But soon we recognize it as a newborn baby, a water birth, being lifted out of the water in someone’s arms. The screen is filled with the baby’s mouth, gaping in what is presumably a howl, and its chest, bursting with a first breath.

This is the Prologue to Birth. Before long we will be asked to wonder whether the baby we have just seen is the reincarnation of the man who died in the park. The film is about magical thinking, and surely one of the reasons I love it so much is that I am so susceptible—or receptive, depending on your inclination—to magical thinking. To this day, I think about this movie every morning on my run, convinced, as I am, that one day, perhaps today, I will similarly collapse.

On Roger Lewinter’s An Approach

5oogO6WmH9mTX58X5LuAjs1JabcC7yGLDi7gDguv2NrnaBsPpcXN3l2Td0utPStLrGg3DncAkhuonMzZxYMBog0FsOyqmA=s750

The original project was to write a story in a single sentence without a period. The first draft was completed in ten days in 1989, but finding this first version “too simplistic, discursive, linear,” Lewinter sought to break out of what he saw as the constraining matrices of language in order “to have access to a state situated in another space-time, where everything can appear simultaneously.” Formally, this entailed a “disarticulation” of the sentence by means of interpolated clauses set off with dashes. … Lewinter’s functional innovation—the asymmetrically spaced dash—“allows the horizontal prose ‘sentence’ to be excavated vertically,” and ultimately diagonally, restoring to language its “other dimensions: even the space of the word.”

Last year I wrote a review essay of two works by the French writer Roger Lewinter. Not long ago, the translator of these books, Rachel Careau, told me about a new translation that had just been published at BOMB Magazine.

As much as I liked The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude—and I liked them a lot—I like this new piece even more. An Approach consists of four iterations, numbered one through four, of a single sentence—if it even is a sentence: there is no full stop—that readers must decide how to read. (We can follow the same number all the way through, or jump between them.) As in the works published last year, An Approach references literary translation (Lewinter has made his living as a translator from German to French), filial devotion, an encounter with a difficult lover, and the banalities of life in a city like Geneva, where Lewinter has long lived. But the text isn’t about those things: rather, it’s about nearly encountering them, brushing past them. For me, Lewinter’s texts are literary cruisings.

Careau offers an even better explanation of what ’s Lewinter is after in his literary experiments in her short introduction, which I have excerpted above.

You can read An Approach here.

English language readers should be grateful to Careau for her beautiful translations of these enigmatic and fascinating works. I gather more Lewinter might be forthcoming in English translation. I very much hope so.

A Note on David Downing’s Spy Novels

David Downing writes pretty good historical spy thrillers. The Dark Clouds Shining concludes the Jack McColl series, set at the edges of WWI and in its aftermath, particularly Russia in the years after the Revolution. Downing takes readers to some unusual places—the Western Front is barely mentioned. Instead, his hero McColl finds himself in the Kiautschou Bay concession (home of the Tsingtao brewery), the Dublin of the Easter Uprising, the border between Finland and Russia, and Tashkent and Samrkand in the early 1920s, where Soviet and Uzbeki cultures abut uneasily. Downing is great at subordinating his historical material to his story. We learn a lot, and quite effortlessly, too.

515MDNi7PVL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Unlike a lot of books set during WWI, especially those involving Britain, the emphasis here isn’t on the betrayal of innocent lives by those who want to cling to power, but rather the new ways of life that arise from the war: a world that begins to imagine decolonization, gender equality, and the liberation and equality promised by socialism and communism. Of course the books also emphasize the failures of these promises, in part by the excesses of the liberatory movements themselves and in part by reactionary forces in the not-quite-former Great Powers.

McColl finds himself working for a country and, especially, an ideology he no longer believes in; his on-again off-again girlfriend, an Irish American journalist—finds herself caught up in the exhilaration of the Russian revolution and then quickly in the disappointing, even murderous reality of what the revolution quickly becomes.

Unable to resolve its socio-political conundrums, The Dark Clouds Shining saves its tidying-up for the relationship between the two leads: a satisfying but also much less ambitious ending. But then again I’m not sure thrillers are ever able to tackle the big questions they circle around, constrained as they are to emphasize individual character rather than societal, structural, or communal concerns.

German_Concession,_Tientsin

If you haven’t read Downing before, I recommend starting with his six-book John Russell series, set before, during, and after WWII and named after the train stations of Berlin (and Prague). Downing feels more in command of that material than he does in the new series, and Russell is more fully realized than McColl (although there’s not really that much to choose between them: they are good guys who sometimes have to make hard decisions and who treat women well—a fact the novels are a little too self-satisfied about). One of the best parts of the earlier series is that Russell’s one-time girlfriend and eventual wife, Effie, grows from a bit part to a central character. In the McColl series, Caitlin is even more important—the last few books are split equally between her and Jack, and she is at the center of their most interesting scenes.

Recently I wrote about two masters of the spy genre. Downing isn’t at their level. But he’s pretty good: absolutely reliable light reading, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

Through the Looking-Glass: Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry

Asymmetry is Lisa Halliday’s debut novel and she is clearly a writer to watch.

The novel begins with a meet cute. Alice is a recent college graduate who works in publishing in New York. She is reading in the park when a man, much older, sits down beside her with an ice cream cone from the Mister Softee truck. Alice knows immediately who he is: Ezra Blazer, Pulitzer-but-not-yet-Nobel-prize winning writer of a series of famous and influential books. (Blazer is clearly modeled on Philip Roth, with whom Halliday was at one time apparently involved. The most preposterous thing in the book is that people whose lives his books have changed keep recognizing him; surely that doesn’t happen even to Roth.)

DP102500

Blazer tells her a middlingly funny joke and invites her over. In no time at all they are having just-a-little-bit-disappointing sex (gingerly because of his back), and watching baseball (it is 2004 and Alice is a Red Sox fan, much to Ezra’s disgust). Alice is something between personal assistant and girlfriend, running by Zabar’s to get Ezra’s favourite brand of preserves. He gives her things, some little (a sheet of stamps with the portraits of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters he introduces her to, various CDs, a wallet), some not (he pays off her student loans). He invents a persona for her (complete with fake business cards), passing her off as Samantha Bargeman, his research assistant, so that she can join him at his summer place. He gives her books to read.

It’s a May-December romance. Well, not really. She is part caretaker, part lover. He is on the verge of failing health, all colonoscopies and forgetfulness. It’s a bit tender and a bit not. It’s a Pygmalion story. Alice is lucky. Alice is put upon. Alice is being used. Alice is some kind of man’s fantasy:

Sweetheart,” he said. “I can’t wear a condom. Nobody can.”

“Okay.”

“So what are we going to do about diseases?”

“Well, I trust you, if you—“

“You shouldn’t trust anyone. What if you become pregnant?”

“Oh don’t worry about that. I’d have an abortion.”

Before too long, in other words, readers are likely to feel disquieted, indignant, uncomfortable, or worse about the relationship. Ezra is kind of funny and kind of wise but he’s also kind of insufferable. In the hospital after being beset by chest pains, Ezra watches spellbound as a couple across the cubicle lay hands on each other and pray to Jesus: “he could never get enough of humanity, so long as it slept in another room.”

This tart observation is Alice’s—the first third of the book is focalized through her. Clearly, Alice isn’t just a push-over. In fact, the book is more complicated and stranger than I’ve made it out to be. Take the opening. I said Alice was sitting on a park bench, reading. Here’s how it actually begins:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks.

That opening clause carries the suggestion that Alice is restless, ready for something to happen. Is she waiting for someone like Ezra? Has she conjured him? The preciousness of Alice’s impatience with literary pretension sounds like something from a beloved, twee, almost certainly English children’s book. If Alice’s name weren’t clue enough, the epigraph to the first section—revealingly entitled “Folly—is from Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice. (Her last name is Dodge, too, pretty close to Dodgson.) From the beginning, Halliday is taking us down a rabbit hole. But it takes a long time to figure out just how intricate are its twists.

I can’t talk about the book anymore without revealing some secrets. They aren’t crime-fiction-whodunit secrets, but they explain what makes the book unusual and interesting. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

When Ezra plumps down beside her, she is wondering—“somewhat foolishly, for she was not very good at finishing things”—“whether one day she might even write a book herself.” And Alice does.

But we don’t know that until the end of the book, in a short section that is a transcript of Blazer’s appearance on the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs. Asked whether he has ever suffered from depression, Blazer starts riffing on how nations and economies can suffer depression, finding his way into a screed about the complacency of American power. Then he says:

A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass [WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT ALICE?] and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is as kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.

This information is slipped into a section that serves to amplify whatever reservations we have may had about Ezra. With increasing desperation and lack of self-consciousness he attempts to seduce the radio host, and his chutzpah sheds itself of the last vestiges of any charm. But readers of the book—as opposed to listeners to the program—will seize on the information, because it explains the second part of the book, titled “Madness”, which seems to have nothing to do with what’s come before and what comes after. “Madness” tells the story of Amar Jafaari, an Iraqi American, an economist, who is held by immigration officials at Heathrow on his way to visit his brother, a doctor, in Kurdistan. Amar reflects on his childhood visits to family in Iraq, in the schism in the family caused by his brother’s decision to return to Iraq, and his despairing feelings, shared by everyone in his extended family, of how much worse and less safe American intervention has made life. Halliday works brilliantly on our latent prejudices. The authorities refuse to allow Amar to enter the UK, and we keep wondering, despite all the evidence to the contrary, whether they know something we don’t. Could this intelligent, polite, and thoughtful young man be a threat? Is he part of some kind of terror plot?

kurdistan_iraq_EL

The answer is no (though that doesn’t stop British officials have detaining him in airport immigration limbo until he can get on a flight to Turkey), but the point is that we’ve wondered. The epistemological uncertainty of this moment is encapsulated in a bizarre scene in which Amar is forced to undergo a medical examination even though there is nothing wrong with him. Everything in the immigration scenes feels threatening, deadening boredom adding to rising indignation. Even more amazing than these scenes in the airport are those set in Iraq and Kurdistan, in which Halliday shows the increasing despair of Iraqis, the way they begin to take precautions like never taking the same route home or to work; to this she adds the surreal parallel life of foreign reporters and NGO officials, where drunken pool parties manifest the heartbreak and cynicism that comes from reporting on others’ suffering.

Amar’s section—which resonates with Alice’s in all kinds of small ways: remember that exchange between Ezra and Alice about what would happen if she got pregnant? Well, Amar remembers accompanying a college friend to get an abortion—feels vivid, relevant, and plain old interesting. I feel like I know Ezra’s history (he explains it to the BBC radio host). And I feel like I know Alice’s world, and can imagine it intersecting with Ezra’s. But I don’t know much of anything about Amar’s (though I understand, in a much milder, safer, and more privileged way, Amar’s frightening and frustrating experiences with immigration officials).

Because Ezra and Alice’s worlds were familiar to me, I was able to note something a little destabilizing in Halliday’s portrayals of them—the way we were meant to see how Alice wasn’t only undermined or oppressed by Ezra, for example. But I don’t have a comparable seismograph for reading Amar’s story. Which is part of the point. My readiness to find Amar’s story not exotic—Halliday is too sophisticated for that—but fascinating because foreign is built into the novel. Maybe I find Amar’s story so fascinating and plausible because it fits with little snippets of things I’ve heard on NPR or read in the New York Times. Maybe I’m just congratulating myself on encountering foreignness, on expanding my readerly horizons.

Literature is good at introducing us to foreign worlds. But I think what Halliday is doing here is asking us to think about what we mean when we say that. In that sense, her book can be taken as an intelligent contribution to the anxious debate about cultural appropriation: as Ezra puts it, it suggests we can “penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.” (The specific looking-glass here is the one-way mirror Amar knows is there in the immigration holding area but which he cannot see.) Ezra goes on to add that this portrait of the other, no matter how convincing and flattering to our liberal sensibilities, is really a disguised portrait of the self, such that any encounter with otherness might be deemed impossible.

That’s a compelling reading, but Ezra is shown to be such a fraud, or at least, such a pain in the ass, that I don’t think we should take it at face value. I think Halliday believes we can learn something from the stories of others as long as we don’t start congratulating ourselves for it, as long as we don’t forget that what we are seeing as the other might just be a version of what we’ve been told to see (which isn’t quite the same as seeing only ourselves).

In this way we come to see the justness of Halliday’s title. She isn’t just referencing the odd, unbalanced, only tangentially connected structure of her narrative. Asymmetry inheres not just in art but also in life. The relationship between the west and the rest, and between those who have and those who don’t is anything but balanced. The connection between art and life arises, for this novel, in the idea of storytelling. Whose story gets to be told? Whose stories are finished and whose are left hanging?

9781501166761_custom-0de1113e01dcf036ee285262e983e116feb82574-s400-c85

The other asymmetrical relationship important to the book is the one between men and women. If anything is clear in this slippery book it is its indictment of white male privilege. Ezra isn’t as charming as thinks: his avuncularity is a mask for a pretty ruthless narcissism that requires that he fascinate women all out of proportion to the quality of his character. Halliday deftly makes us turn against Ezra.

But even as I admired her skill here—she never casts aspersions on his work, for example; too many people are doing that these days with Roth—I was troubled by her example of insufferable male privilege. Ezra doesn’t just happen to be Jewish; his Jewishness is at times part of what the book finds irritating about him. It’s true that a disproportionate number of the most prominent abusers who have come to light in the past year or so are Jewish. And in my opinion Jewish men need to have a reckoning about their masculinity and how it’s tied to some dangerous ideas about authority. But I don’t think this book is enabling that conversation. I don’t think it’s interesting enough about Jewishness, except to tie it in a careless way to Ezra’s (and by extension, through his friends and acquaintances and the cultural institutions they are shown to have built, to his generation’s) carelessness and entitlement.

That aspect of the novel disturbed me. But I liked how it kept evading my grasp. When we say a book is slippery we often mean it is confusing or that it is cutely self-referential. But this slipperiness is as thorough going as it is thought provoking. I’ll read her next book with interest.

 

My Life in Books

Hope Coulter, my colleague in the English Department at Hendrix and Director of the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation Programs in Language in Literature, invited me to give a talk in a new series of lunchtime conversations called My Life in Books. Here’s an only slighted revised version of what I presented today. People seemed to like the talk; we had a good discussion afterward. I wrote this pretty quickly, as you’ll be able to tell; it’s a little rough. I’d to revise it further, and I welcome your suggestions.

Somewhere in my house I have a thin little book I’ve carried around with me for many years. I don’t remember when I got this book, probably I was around 8 or 9. The name of this book is The Smartest Bear in the World and His Brother Oliver. It’s by Alice Bach, who it turns out—I only learned this yesterday, never having been in the slightest curious about the author before—has had a long and distinguished career as a feminist biblical scholar, in addition to having written twenty children’s books.

91h+ahS15EL

Of those many books, this one dates from 1975 and my copy—which I wanted to bring today but could not find despite having ransacked the house—included wonderful, shaggy illustrations by Steven Kellogg.

The gist is this: Ronald is very smart bear. He has a set of encyclopedias that he is reading from A-Z because he wants to learn everything. But he has a problem: it’s fall, winter is coming, it will soon be time for bears to hibernate and his family just wants him to eat all the time. Ronald isn’t that interested in eating—it’s fine, but it keeps him from reading. He’s not like his brother Oliver—Oliver loves eating. (There are these wonderful pictures of the bears tucking into giant stacks of pancakes smothered in syrup.)

It’s hard to learn everything when you have to sleep for almost half the year. So Ronald makes a plan. This year he will only pretend to go to sleep with his family. Once the others fall asleep he will stay up all winter, and have many glorious months of uninterrupted reading time. He imagines he’ll be reading about zebras when his family wakes up in the spring.

You can probably see where things are heading. Ronald’s plan is foiled—he can’t help himself; he’s a bear, after all—and when the rest of his family tuck themselves under heaping piles of down-filled comforters he gets sleepy too. But everything turns out fine—he learns that he doesn’t have to do everything at once, that the encyclopedia will be waiting for him come spring, and that his brother Oliver—his sticky, always-eating-young-chef-in-the-making brother Oliver, who is so much more like a normal bear than Ronald—isn’t so bad.

In other words: moderation in all things and tolerance for people who are different from us, even people who don’t like to read.

To which I say: what a terrible message!

By no means is this the greatest kids book ever written, nor was it the book I loved most as a child. But I did read it over and over again, stopping occasionally as I did so to glance up at my own set of encyclopedias, mostly unread. And it has stayed with me as an adult, maybe because I’ve refused to take its lesson.

To this day there is a part of me—a not insignificant part of me—that believes I could read the encyclopedia from front to back. And believes, even more grandiosely, that I could read everything. Even that I should read everything.

You can guess how well that’s going.

Maybe for some people reading is a pastime. They like it, they don’t like it, whatever: it might be important to them but it causes them no anxiety or neuroses at all. This is hard for me to get my head around. I don’t mean to say that I find no pleasure in reading; I find a lot. But I also find a burden, an endless task connected to some totally unhelpful ideas of mastery. At its best the idea that you’ll read everything is motivated by insatiable curiosity. At its worst, though, it’s motivated by narcissism and egomania. No hibernation for me!

*

When I first heard the title Professor Coulter gave to this series—My Life in Books—I immediately thought: but that’s redundant! My life, books, these are the same thing—totally synonymous. I can’t imagine my life without books.

But of course it’s important that life and books aren’t quite the same. It’s impossible for me to imagine being able to live life—and to make sense of life—without books, but the point is that books have to be different from life. We need fake things to understand real things. (Even non-fiction is “fake” in this sense—not that it tells lies but that it represents—every book has to frame the truth it tells, and that framing is the distance between art and life.)

But I don’t just experience the book-life distinction as a theoretical matter. For me it’s also psychological, even embodied. As a pretty highly introverted person—a person for whom being around others takes more energy than it gives (it is not an easy thing for such a person to be a college professor, by the way)—I need time away from the world. I need to fill up my emotional tank, which runs dry pretty quickly.

So in addition to being objects to conquer, books have always served a second important function in my life: they’re a way to hide from the world. “Leave me alone, I’m reading,” as the title of book critic Maureen Corrigan’s memoir has it. Often, when I am having, or even on the brink of having, a difficult or intense conversation with someone, I can feel myself needing a book. If one is nearby I’ll pick it up, hold it, steal a few glances at it. We sometimes speak of books as demanding—“Ulysses is a demanding book”—but even the most demanding book has never demanded anything of me the way other people do.

Reflecting on these roles books have played in my life—as a way to define myself, as a challenge to set myself, as a tool to help me manage a world that often seems so clamorous—I wonder if I’m able to have a healthy, neutral, or, best of all, purely joyful, relationship to books. Is my relationship to books—one of the two most important relationships in my life—a good one? Is it good for me?

I think being a professional reader—and someone who teaches others to read—is both a wonderful and a terrible choice for me to have made. (If it’s even a choice: fate might be a better word.)

As I sit with this ambivalence, I’m led to think again about The Smartest Bear in the World and his Brother Oliver. Maybe its lesson isn’t so bad after all. Ronald learns that his passion doesn’t need to be his neurosis. I’m working on that too, but maybe my lesson is actually different from Ronald’s. My lesson might be about hungering for books—about needing (and wanting) to devour them. And about accepting that need. My lesson might be that I am just as much Oliver as I am Ronald. Maybe part of me is a gourmand of books not just the professor of books. I’m working, not on being the smartest bear in the world—that sounds pretty terrible, actually—but on learning to eat, and then sleep. I’m learning to hibernate.

Two Superior Spy Thrillers

Does anyone remember the movie Crank from 2006? Jason Stratham plays a hit man injected with a poison that will kill him if his heart rate drops. What follows is 90 minutes of preposterous enjoyment, and a master class in narrative efficiency. There is no goal; there is only go. The movie barely has a beginning, and who knows what the end is (it’s telling that I can’t remember, because even more than most narratives this ending must undo all that’s come before). Instead it’s all middle, just one set piece after another of ingenious contrivances designed to keep the character’s—and the viewer’s—heart pounding.

I thought of Crank when reading Lionel Davidson’s terrific thriller Kolymsky Heights (1994). Davidson’s novel is more sophisticated, but like the now mostly forgotten movie it reducing narrative to its essentials. What’s really amazing is that Kolymsky does so over almost 500 pages, not a single one of which is wasted. The book gets its hooks into you from the beginning and doesn’t let go. That’s true even when it does something unorthodox, like taking until page 60 to introduce us to the hero.

And what an interesting hero he is. Jean-Baptiste Porteur is known as Johnny Porter. He is a Gitskan Indian from the Skeena River area of Northern British Columbia. (How timely and exciting to have an Indigenous protagonist., one whose indigeneity is central to his success—and not because he’s “in tune with the land” or some such nonsense but because he can speak so many languages.) Porter is a linguistic genius, having as a child already mastered several Native languages from the region, including Tsimshean, “a language so unique that linguists had been unable to relate it to any other on earth.” Later he is sent to a mission school (the horrors of which are glossed over—I’d like to think a book written today wouldn’t do so), where he learns English and French. Porter begins studying at two prestigious Canadian universities—studies interrupted by a sojourn in Russia—before completing his degree and winning a Rhodes scholarship.

Porter is back in Canada pursuing legal claims against the Canadian government when he is approached by an Englishman named Lazenby, who has received a coded message from a research station in Siberia that no one in the West knows the purpose of. Lazenby, who is the character we follow for the first 60 pages, reaches out to a former student now working for British secret services and the CIA; agents from these institutions are the ones who tap Porter as the only person able to get into Siberia, penetrate the defenses of the research station, and return. Lazenby flies to Northern British Columbia, makes his case to Porter, and exits the novel. Porter, phlegmatic, bemused, and interested despite himself, meets with the CIA and takes the case.

What follows is a gloriously ingenious journey via Japan and a Korean ship through the Northwest Passage into the heart of Siberia. Porter disguises himself as a member of the Chukchee people (he speaks the language, as well as related ones such as Evenk), going by the name of Kolya Khodyan. He gets a job at a transport company in the Green Cape along the Kolyma River (where earlier in the century many of the Gulags had been located) and patiently waits for his chance to sneak into the top-secret research facility. (This involves befriending the local Medical Officer, with whom he enters a relationship much more touching, plausible, and non-exploitative than the ones you usually find in spy novels.) The best parts of the novel detail the winter transportation routes across Siberia, mostly along frozen rivers in jeep-like vehicles called bobiks. (Kolymsky Heights has good maps and if you’re anything like me you will refer to them over and over.)

Golden Kupol

I pretty much loved everything about Kolymsky Heights. Particularly intriguing is the absence of any references that would allow us to date the events. The events of 1991 are never mentioned, though I suppose they are indirectly alluded to in the increasing national/ethnic self-consciousness of the indigenous peoples of the north (though this is always accompanied by contempt/casual racism by whites, a fact Porter uses to his benefit, in that people are always underestimating him because they think he is “just” a Chukchee or an Evenk). I take the book to be set around the time of its writing, that is, in an interim period in which the Cold War is taken by many to be over but Russia remains an enemy, though of what kind it isn’t quite clear.

That uncertainty might explain why the mystery at the ostensible heart of the book—what is the going on at that underground research station?—isn’t the usual Cold War fare. The Russians don’t have a terrible new weapon that threatens humanity, for example. This mystery is much more intellectual, even ontological, concerning what it means to be a human being. (A question which, frankly, was answered in a more profound manner in the labour camps strewn across the whole area in which this book is set and which were just being closed at the time of its publication.) All mysteries have an easier time building up suspense than resolving it, and if there is any weakness to this novel it’s with the scenario Porter uncovers at the research station. I had a hard time really caring about the Big Reveal. But I cared a lot about how Porter was going to break into that place and then get out again. Porter’s escape through the blizzards of the Siberian winter is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever read.

A vivid evocation of a particular time and place is one of the things that links Kolymsky Heights to a thriller I read a few weeks later: Joseph Hone’s The Private Sector (1971). But that’s about the only thing these books have in common. If Kolymsky Heights reminded me of Crank, The Private Sector is, oh, I don’t know, Antonioni maybe. The Private Sector is not particularly suspenseful (though the last thirty pages or so really pick up the pace; it turns out this is the first in a four-book series and you can tell Hone is playing the long game). Nor is its presentation of events always clear. Hone is fond of shifts in perspective and time that are at times so oblique that I had read a few pages before I noticed what had happened. And the story itself is much more complicated than in Kolymsky Heights. In Davidson’s book, we know what the hero is trying to do; the suspense lies in seeing whether he will be able to, and how, exactly he will accomplish it. In Hone’s, not even the protagonist (no heroes here) is sure what he’s meant to do. This is the world of triple agents and double crossings familiar to me from the little amount of John le Carré I’ve read.

But whereas most spy fiction takes the transience of its characters for granted—having nothing to say about it beyond fetishizing the freedom of its invariably male protagonists from the clutter of bourgeois life—Hone makes this situation into an existential dilemma for his characters, all of whom have hybrid identities that complicate their work for British intelligence. Marlow, the central figure, is born in Ireland but grows up in England. He meets Henry Edwards—who first recruits him into intelligence work and whom he is now, many years later, assigned to track down—at a private school in post-Suez Cairo, where both are teachers. Edwards has grown up in Egypt, as has Bridget, the woman whom by the time of the narrative present he has become involved with and who happens to be Marlow’s ex-wife. It’s all very complicated and it doesn’t make it easier that all the male characters have first-name surnames. (Their control back in London is named Williams.)

What Kolymsky Heights does for the cold, The Private Sector does for heat and humidity in pre-air conditioning Cairo. Hone vividly describes how the heat sends everyone underground, holing up by day and timidly venturing forth at night. I was reminded of Olivia Manning’s descriptions of Egypt in the first volume of the Levant Trilogy, which I read a few years back and unaccountably didn’t finish. (If you haven’t read The Balkan Trilogy yet, stop reading this post and do so immediately. These two books are fantastic, but they’re no Balkan Trilogy.)

Egypt+Cairo+La+Place+Tahrir

All of which is to say that Nassar’s Egypt in May 1967, rushing into a war with Israel that, in Hone’s telling at least, it has no real interest in, is more than just an exotic locale. It is home to most of the characters even though almost none of them think of it that way. They think of themselves as from England, a place most of them have spent very little time in. Though less overtly uninterested in the locals than many novels set in expatriate or colonial/Pieds-Noir communities—an Egyptian colonel, in particular, is an important and appealing character—The Private Sector is still almost entirely about Westerners. That’s certainly a limitation, but I found its depiction of colonials living on in the wake of decolonization fascinating.

Here, for example, is Marlow describing Henry Edwards’s particular tribe, those Englishmen who had grown up in Egypt, would never be Egyptian, yet are highly attuned to it:

[T]hey were natural seismographs alive to its [Cairo’s] smallest tremors. They had not always been happy there; so much the more were they bound to it: they had lived a real life in the city, had given nothing false to it, in every minute passed there. Their dreams of elsewhere, of rain, of ploughed fields, sloes in the hedgerow or London Transport, were as unreal as mine would have been for sun and coral, and clear blue water. The known years spent in a landscape never tie us to it, the marked calendar from which we can stand back and reflect or think of change; we are bound to a place by the unconscious minutes and seconds lost there, which is not measurable time or experience, and from which there is no release.

You can see what I mean when I say Hone isn’t exactly easy going. His narrator is always stepping back from the action to offer these sorts of reflections. With its sophisticated syntax and complex ideas, this passage is typical. Our dreams, Hone suggests, are always of elsewhere. For him dreams are conscious things, meditations that fill our days even as we ignore our surroundings. But it turns out we’re not really ignoring them. We might think we know where we’re from—after all, we do live “real” lives, we do give ourselves over to the place where we live, it’s not that we are living in bad faith all the time—but we’re tied to the place of our history by something deeper than what we can know. We can’t even measure these experiences, but nor can we get rid of them. Most of time, this passage tells us, we live in clichés (sloes in the hedgerow or coral in a clear sea) when what really matters is happening to us unannounced.

I don’t cite this passage in order to say that Hone transcends the thriller genre, because I don’t think genres need to be transcended. They exert a hold on us for a reason. (If we’re going to wish them away we should do so in the spirit of true freedom and gleeful destruction, as Tom does, rather than as a covert way to uphold literary fiction as the standard for all writing.) Better to say that Hone’s book is both a very good spy story—though for pure excitement it’s got nothing on Davidson’s—and a thoughtful meditation on belonging. Although Marlow is thinking in this passage about belonging to nations or cities—about England and Egypt, London and Cairo—in the end the book pursues the idea most intensely in terms of the intelligence community. What allegiances do we owe to institutions that pursue their work by breaking allegiances—that is, by spying? Given its—to me, completely unexpected—ending, it’s clear Hone will have more to say about this question in the rest of the series.

*

Maybe the best thing about these wonderful books is the serendipitous way I came across them. I found Kolymsky Heights the old-fashioned way: browsing in a good bookstore, in this case Bridge Street Books in Washington, D.C. I’d never heard of Davidson, but I knew I was on to a good thing when, a day or two later, I had the good fortune to finally meet face to face with Eric Passaglia at an evening with several bloggers and book lovers organized by the inimitable Frances. (Eric has no blog, sadly, but you should follow him on Twitter.) Eric sang Davidson’s in a way that made me wonder yet again how it was I had never run across him before. The book Eric had with him that night was by Joseph Hone (I can’t remember if it was The Private Sector or one of the later ones) and he described him so appealingly that I tracked the book down at the library as soon as I returned home. Serendipity, then, and the reassurance that comes from a trusted source’s recommendation (which is what independent bookstores at their best can do): that’s how I came across these two books. I’m here to pass on the love. If you have even the least interest in spy thrillers, you should read Davidson and Hone without delay.

Emergency Thinking: Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami

Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone is a sober and moving account of what happened in the Tõhuku region of the northeastern part of Honshu during the tsunami of 2011.

Parry is a British journalist who has long been based in Japan. He’s written at least one other book, a true crime story that’s meant to be very good. Here he expertly contextualizes his material for non-Japanese readers while keeping his telling economical in his telling.

japan-tsunami

At the center of the book is an investigation of what happened at Okawa Elementary School, where a failure to follow evacuation protocols led to the deaths of 74 children and 10 teachers.

Parry details what went wrong at the school and turns a pitiless eye on the generally fairly ineffectual attempts of the surviving school officials to deny their responsibility. But he is most interested in the psychological costs of the disaster, and he is most interesting when he refuses to consider any aspect of the event as redemptive.

As he puts it in one of the book’s most memorable passages:

It is true that people can be “brought together” by catastrophe, and it is human to look to this as a consolation. But the balance of disaster is never positive. New human bonds were made after the tsunami, old ones became stronger; there were countless remarkable displays of selflessness and self-sacrifice. These we remember and celebrate. We turn away from what is also commonplace: the destruction of friendship and trust; neighbors at odds; the enmity of friends and relatives. A tsunami does to human connectedness the same thing that it does to roads, bridges, and homes. And in Okawa, and everywhere in the tsunami zone, people fell to quarrelling and reproaches, and felt the bitterness of injustice and envy, and fell out of love.

Parry is never ghoulish about the societal and interpersonal destruction levied by the disaster. If anything, he is rather matter of fact. But he makes us feel the loss strongly—think about his double use of “falling” in that last sentence. Parry returns to a handful of individuals and families, people he met and got to know in his repeated trips to the region. So when he describes the breakdown of love and trust between and even within individuals we don’t just have to take him at his word; instead we see it happening.

I was first drawn to the book by an engaging review in the TLS. The article made much of the material that gives the book its title, namely, the extraordinary phenomenon of people who, in the weeks and months after the event, felt themselves to be possessed by the ghosts of people who had died, spirits not yet at rest. In Japanese culture, Parry explains, “when people die violently or prematurely, in anger or anguish, they are at risk of becoming gaki, ‘hungry ghosts’, who wander between worlds, propagating curses and mischief.” Parry meets a Buddhist priest named Reverend Kaneda, who lives in a town thirty miles inland, near the tsunami zone but far enough away from it to have been spared. People began to come to Kaneda, reporting to him, in some mixture of embarrassment or horror, things they could not remember doing: shouting and snarling at loved ones, even telling them they must die. They described seeing bedraggled, mud-soaked, flickering people that others could not see. Kaneda prays with them, talks with them, engages with the people or personalities possessing them as a therapist might. He reasons and urges and cajoles and soothes: the ghosts, mollified, disappear.

It’s compelling stuff. But it only takes up the last part of the book. What Parry is more interested in, I think, and what really stuck with me, is the way disasters can be prepared for. When those preparations are good and when people follow the routines that have been prescribed for them, outcomes are, if not good, then at least less bad. Many schools were in the tsunami zone. Only at Okawa did so many children die.

In this regard, Parry’s book reminded me of a strange but fascinating and, to my mind, underappreciated book I read several years ago. Elaine Scarry’s Thinking in an Emergency argues that thinking and habit can go together, indeed, that the best way to prepare for an emergency is to think beforehand so that when disaster strikes habit can take its course, the way those who know CPR are drilled extensively so that they are able to react without thinking and without hesitation in the moment of crisis.

Parry reveals that in Tõhuku, and at Okawa in particular, these protocols—of which there are many in Japan: earthquakes and tsunamis are regular occurrences and the Japanese have thought deeply about the best way to respond to them—were ignored. In the terrible twenty or thirty minutes between the alerts and the arrival of the tsunami, the teachers at the school, for whatever reason, didn’t follow the plan. Even when some of the children asked why they weren’t moving to higher ground—we know this because a few bolted up the hillside behind the school and managed to escape the wave—they went instead the other direction, towards the onrushing wave.

The failure to observe protocol, to follow the procedures everyone had practiced so many times before is by no means unique to Japan. (On the contrary, as I’ve said, the country is admirable in disaster readiness—it is one of the societies, as Scarry notes in her book, which inspired her idea that we need to practice our responses to emergencies so that when they strike habit takes over.) But Parry considers a particularly Japanese aspect to the story: the reluctance of those in authority to admit to the mistakes they made, which led some of the parents of the victims to take those officials to court, a highly unusual move in a country where the good faith of governments and local authorities is rarely challenged.

9780374710934_FC

Parry never comes out and says so, but there must be some sort of connection between the parents’ refusal of the historical Japanese effacement of the individual in the face of the collective (don’t rock the boat, don’t challenge the authorities) and the more dramatic effacement of their very personalities experienced by the survivors possessed by ghosts. In both cases, violent, angry, we might say unseemly emotions are expressed, though of course with the difference that whereas at least in Parry’s telling the parents suing the school district are heroes for breaking a cultural code of silence, the possessed come to Reverend Kaneda because they long to be released from the violent spirits inhabiting them. In the first case, the idea is to be liberated from effacement; in the second effacement is a burden to be undone at any cost.

The idea of effacement carries over into Parry’s style. There is something pleasingly old-fashioned about his way of telling. Although he begins the book by describing how, far away in Tokyo, he experienced the earthquake that led to the tsunami as a minor irritation, and although he is often present in the story, returning to Tõhuku again and again in the years that follow the disaster, getting to know the people who feature in his narrative quite well, he doesn’t make a big deal of himself. I can imagine a lot of other writers making a lot more of their own response to the events.

The book itself is similarly modest. Although it suggests some serious and thought-provoking questions—what does it means for a society to respond to disaster? What is the relation between psychological and physical damages—Ghosts of the Tsunami resists making grand claims, and in fact ends rather abruptly after the section on Kaneda. In keeping with his rejection of an uplifting narrative, Parry, in telling Kaneda’s story, emphasizes not the man’s accomplishments but rather the toll the work took on him—he eventually had to give it up after it brought him to the verge of a breakdown.

Given Parry’s refusal of redemption, it feels wrong to call the book a triumph. But it’s certainly good at what it does. Parry writes carefully, precisely, and very movingly. In so doing, he indirectly attains larger, more general or theoretical significance. By focusing on a small piece of an almost unimaginable event, Parry allows us to think about disaster and trauma more generally. Grief, Parry writes, “doesn’t resolve anything, any more than a blow to the head or a devastating illness.” To say that Parry’s book doesn’t come to specific resolutions is to say nothing less than that it does justice to its subject.

 

 

 

“A Whole World Drowned in Fat”: Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris

A long time ago now, fifteen years anyway, I went through a bit of a Zola phase. I remember reading Nana and L’assomoir and my favourite, Au Bonheur des Dames. (Although my very favourite Zola is Thérèse Raquin, which isn’t part of the big Rougnon-Macquart cycle, and as dark as anything written by Simenon or Jim Thomson.) I’ve always wanted to return to Zola, and in the meantime a number of his books have found their way to my shelves. So when my friend Keith (a specialist in modern French art and culture) and I started talking about reading something together, Zola seemed a natural fit. We settled on The Belly of Paris (1873) the third in the cycle, which I read in a recent (2007) and, it seems to me, admirable translation by Brian Nelson.

If you haven’t already done so, you should read Keith’s post. Not only is it excellent, but it also offers a concise summary of the novel’s plot, freeing me to be more impressionistic in my comments.

Like most readers of this novel, I was most taken by its extraordinary descriptions. In fact, this tendency seemed even more excessive than in the other, later works I’d read. Tom wrote a few years ago that Belly is really just an excuse for extended descriptions, and that seems exactly right. The plot isn’t up to much; it’s not suspenseful; there’s a good joke at the end, admittedly, but there’s not much reason to read the book just for what happens.

It’s when nothing is happening, and the narrator is simply describing stuff, food mostly, or things that could become food, the whole Leviathan that makes up the food market of Les Halles, that the novel dazzles.

Andreas_Gursky-04 .jpg

Here, for example, a character dozes at his poultry and game stall:

Above his head, fat geese were hanging from spiked bars, the hooks sunk into bleeding wounds in their long, stiff necks, while their huge bellies, reddish beneath a fine down, ballooned out obscenely between their linen-white tails and wings. Also hanging from the bar were grey rabbits, their legs parted as though in readiness for some gigantic leap, their ears flying flat, with a tuft of white tail, and their heads, with sharp teeth and dim eyes, grinning with the grin of death. On the counter plucked chickens displayed their fleshy breasts, stretched taut on the spit; pigeons, packed tightly together on wicker trays, seemed to have the soft skin of newborn babies; ducks, with rougher skin, splayed out their webbed feet; and three magnificent turkeys, shadowed with blue like a clean-shaven face, their throats sewn up, slept on their backs in the broad black fans of their tails. On plates close by were giblets, livers, gizzards, necks, feet, and wings; while in an oval dish was a skinned and cleaned-out rabbit, its four legs wide apart, its head bespattered with blood and its belly slit to reveal its kidneys; a trickle of blood, running down to its tail, had fallen drop by drop, staining the white dish. Marjolin [the man at the stall] had not even bothered to wipe the carving board, next to which the rabbit’s paws were still lying. His eyes were half closed, and he was surrounded, on the three shelves at the back of the stall, by further piles of dead birds, birds in paper wrappers like bouquets, such a regular pattern of folded legs and rounded breasts that they confused the eye. Amid all this food, with his large frame, his cheeks and hands and powerful neck seemed as soft as the flesh of the turkeys and as plump as the breasts of the geese.

Now, this might not be an appetizing passage (not like the one with the fruit stand Keith quotes in his post) but it’s pretty amazing. There’s just so much muchness here, especially the brute facticity/physicality of the animals’ bodies. Although I introduced the quote by referring to a character’s action (that is, his sleeping), most of the passage has nothing to do with human qualities. Marjolin’s half-consciousness here moves him closer to the inanimacy of the corpses that engulf him. Indeed, the final sentence compares him to those foodstuffs (his body as soft as the flesh of the turkeys, as plump as the breasts of the geese), just as the descriptions of the slaughtered animals reference human physiognomy (the pigeons that have the “soft skin of newborn babies” or the turkeys that are “blue like a clean-shaven face”). The boundary between the human and the non-human—those that eat and those that are eaten—is blurred.
But the main point of the passage isn’t to proffer that equivocation. Instead, it’s to gape at the commodities on display. (And display, even more than their being for sale, is what matters.) The “regular pattern” of the bodies is so dazzling that it “confuses the eye.” You’re supposed to look at the overwhelming displays of Les Halles, but the more you look, the more confused you get. I find these scenes hard to envision, and also hard to read. The sentences cascade onward, clause after clause, adjective after adjective. I’m tempted to compare these passages to an aria in an opera: a place to pause, to revel in beauty, to ignore the on-rushing, self-consuming demands of plot, except that arias are more legible than Zolan description.

I can’t resist quoting one more moment of description. This time of a person, though here too food is omnipresent. Florent, who passes for the novel’s protagonist, is looking at his sister-in-law, Lisa, the proprietor of a charcuterie. What begins ordinarily enough disintegrates into a confused, phantasmagoric, even repellent vision:

She looked beautifully fresh that afternoon. The whiteness of all the dishes heightened the whiteness of her apron and sleeves, and set off her plump neck and rosy cheeks, which had the same soft tones as the hams and the same transparent pallor as the fats. As Florent continued to gaze at her he began to feel intimidated, disturbed by the dignity of her carriage; and instead of openly looking at her he glanced furtively in the mirrors around the shop which reflected her from the back, the front, and the side; and the mirror on the ceiling reflected the top of her head, with its tightly drawn bun and the little bands over her temples. The shop seemed to fill with a crowd of Lisas, showing off their broad shoulders, powerful arms, and large breasts so smooth and passionless that they aroused no greater desire than the sight of a belly would. At last Florent’s gaze came to rest on a particularly pleasing side view of Lisa which appeared in a mirror between two sides of pork. All down the marble of the walls, and all down the mirrors, sides of pork and strips of larding at hung from hooks; and Lisa, with her thick neck, rounded hips, and swelling bosom, looked like the queen of all this dangling fat and meat.

The passage is about objectification, but it’s not sexual, unless meat turns you on. (That explains what could otherwise be puzzling—the narrator’s claim that bellies aren’t enticing.) The detail that most gets me here, though, more than the vision of Lisa as Queen of the Fats, more than the disorienting crowd of Lisas, their reflections composed of so many chopped-up body parts, is the passing reference to a mirror on the ceiling. On the ceiling! That place must be creepy as hell to shop in!

689ff3024483795e06721f07544c7175--indoor-vacations

Zola is famously a naturalist and naturalism famously says that insides (people’s character, desires, psychology, etc) are determined by outsides (environment, surroundings, genes/heredity, etc). So the places people inhabit, the trades they practice, the atmosphere they breathe are the engines of meaning. This tactility has practical consequences. From reading Belly you can learn a lot about how to make sausages and the like—this novel exemplifies that pleasure of realist fiction that Philip Roth talked about wanting to bring into those scenes of the glove factory in American Pastoral.

Zola even solves the “info dump” problem by transferring the tendency on to his characters, as in a scene in which Marjolin, the young man last seen sleeping in his stall, sublimates his sexual attraction to Lisa, Queen of the Fats, by “rapidly explaining the business of slaughtering,” forcing her “to feel the feathers lying in heaps on the blocks” (adding the exact price the highest quality feathers receive after being sorted and weighed), urging her “to sink her arms into the big baskets of down,” and making her stoop over “the drain which carries everything away” (there’s so much blood cleaners have to come every two hours to scrub the place down). “There was no end to the information he gave,” the narrator deadpans. Indeed. It’s a neat trick, to legitimate your own obsession by giving it to another: a meta-info-dump. It’s as though Zola is taking the narrate/describe distinction and reversing it. Here narration is the digression from description rather than the other way round.

And yet description is certainly doing something in the novel. It is there both for its own sake—to be admired, reveled in, exclaimed at (the aria idea again)—and to make a point. Reading the novel I wasn’t really sure what the point was, couldn’t figure out how to put it in words, anyway. Then I read Keith’s observation about how little eating there is in the book. No feasts, that’s for sure. The pleasures of bourgeois life—if they are pleasures: mostly Zola presents them as seductions that are ultimately gross, in both the historical and current sense: they are coarse, and fat, and yucky; has any novel ever had so much grease in it?—are connected to plenitude, no question, but having so much to eat so ready to hand doesn’t seem to make anyone happy, the way even the simplest meals can in Dickens, say.

Food in this novel is primarily for smelling and, especially, for seeing, but only secondarily for eating. Which leads Keith to argue, brilliantly, that the book uses food as a cover for its real interest in order. The petit bourgeois denizens of Les Halles value order above all (above liberty, equality, and fraternity, that’s for sure; there’s little in the way of social justice in the novel). And Zola is skeptical of this ordering mania, finding it conservative, even deadening, though he also has no time for what passes in the novel for political radicals. Florent’s arrest in the protests against Louis-Napoleon in 1851—the act that leads him to be imprisoned in a penal colony from which he returns, more than half dead, on the novel’s first page—comes about from bad luck and mistaken identity instead of anything he does (the police find him covered in the blood of a woman who was shot next to him and mistake this happenstance as evidence of murderous violence). And the would-be radicals Florent spends his evenings with are so hapless (the ones who aren’t on the take, that is) they make the anarchists of Conrad’s The Secret Agent look organized.

gursky-99cent

So where are the novels sympathies? Only in description, I would argue. But description is a kind of ordering. At least, I think it is. Maybe when it becomes the main event it starts to become disorderly? It certainly disorders plot.

Perhaps an answer can be found in the character of Madame François, the only wholeheartedly sympathetic person in the book, in fact the only person with a heart. (In the book’s fantastic opening pages—a hypnotic description of the convoys of wagons, laden with produce, that slide silently, through the night towards the markets in Paris—Madame François rescues the starving Florent, who has passed out on his way back to the capital; yet even her affection is brusque: she throws him on her cart with the vegetables.) Three quarters of the way through the book, Florent and his artist friend, Claude Lantier, apparently modeled on Zola’s boyhood friend Cézanne, join the old lady for the day at her farm near Nanterre.

Together the men help Madame François with the manuring, Lantier reflecting with satisfaction that “vegetable peelings, the mud of Les Halles, the refuse that had fallen from that giant table” would nourish new vegetables “Paris,” he reflects, “made everything rot and returned everything to the earth, which never wearied of repairing the ravages of death.”

Florent is more pessimistic: “Les Halles now seemed to him like a he ossuary, a place of death, littered with the remains of things that had once been alive, a charnel house reeking with foul smells and putrefaction.”

The idyll at Madame François’s offers the most conventionally uplifting and neat description. Her garden offers “a pleasant atmosphere of drowsiness and fertility,” in which lettuces, onions, leeks, and celery are planted in rows “like little regiments of solders on parade” and “not a single weed could be seen.” Here is food as it should be, Florent concludes: instead of being bruised by the jolting of the carts that take them to market, the cabbages “shine with well-being,” the carrots look “bright and cheerful,” and the lettuces “lounge[ ] with an air of carefree indolence.”

Can this scene of obedient plenitude offer a key to understanding both what the book values about its society and about the kind of literature that should depict that society? For the order of this scene feels so different from the order of the descriptions of Les Halles (think of the game arrayed in Marjolin’s stall, for example). Does this moment of modest delight that the book seems so in sympathy with offer a vision of the world the novel can get behind? Could it be an allegory for the “new form of art” Lantier knows is on its way but that, to his great frustration, he feels he cannot describe? Can the right kind of description be the basis of an organic criticism? Can it organize without ordering?

But if this the world of Madame François’s farm is a vision of a better world, how come this moment is so brief, and how come its descriptions, charming as they are, have none of the force of the extended set pieces set in that ossuary of Les Halles? The lounging lettuces are lovely; the manuring feels healthy. But those carcasses (and the stinking cheeses, oozing fruits, and gleaming fish I could have cited but didn’t), well, they dominate the book.

What, in other words, are the novel’s politics? Is Zola an heir to the Flaubert of Sentimental Education, valuing nothing but the excoriation of value? Is there anything here to hold on to? Nothing, it would seem, less slippery than the grease that drips over every surface, down to very nails, in the Quenus’s charcuterie, “a whole world,” Zola disgustingly and hypnotically renders it, “drowned in fat.”

 

 

“Political Fanatics Get Nothing to Eat”: Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris (Guest Post by Keith Bresnahan)

Keith Bresnahan is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences at OCAD University in Toronto, where he also directs the Graduate program in Contemporary Art, Design and New Media Art Histories. He is also an all-around good human being and a friend of mine from way back. At the end of last year, we talked about reading something together, with the idea of each writing about it for the blog. We settled on Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris, and I’m pleased to share Keith’s wonderful essay below. I’ll offer some thoughts of my own in a day or two.

Émile Zola, Belly of Paris [Le Ventre de Paris] (1873)

Translated by Mark Kurlansky (Modern Library, 2009)

the-fish-hall-at-the-central-market-victor-gabriel-gilbert

‘What bastards respectable people are!’

This seems like as good a place as any to start, at the very end of Zola’s book, with the painter Claude Lantier’s exasperated cri de coeur at the good health and happiness of the bourgeois denizens of the Parisian district of Les Halles —their round bellies, ample breasts, and well-fed smiles.

The novel tells the story of Florent Quenu, who has escaped to Paris after some seven years of wrongful imprisonment in French Guiana, for his presumed participation in street riots of 1851. When the book opens, we see him lying in the road, emaciated and exhausted, his body blocking the passage of a midnight train of farm-carts and wagons loaded with produce destined for the central market of Les Halles. Rescued by the widowed farmer Mme François (she throws him in back, on top of the vegetables, in the first of the novel’s equations of bodies with food), Florent makes his way into the city and into the lives of his half-brother Quenu and sister-in-law the ‘Beautiful Lisa’, who run a bustling charcuterie near Les Halles.

Embroiling himself both in neighborhood spats and a disastrous radical politics, by the novel’s end Florent has once more been arrested and deported back to Guiana in what is essentially a death sentence. The novel’s final scene, providing the context for Lantier’s declamation, shows us the morning after Florent’s deportation; it is late summer, and Les Halles is bustling with happy activity, a return to order after this temporary shake-up:

The day had risen like a white fountain from the depth of rue Rambuteau. The sun was spreading its rosy light above the rooftops, bright expanses washing the pavement even at this early hour. And Claude sensed a cheerful mood awakening in these vast echoing marketplaces filled with their piles of food. It was like the pleasure of recovered health, the brightening sound of people at last relieved of a heavy burden weighing on their stomachs… All around him he could see nothing but Fats, growing, bursting with health, saluting a new day of lovely digestion.

Les halles

The Belly of Paris is the third novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, and incidentally the third I’ve read (after La Bête humaine and Au bonheur des dames). It was my favorite to date, maybe the first in which the characters felt less like ciphers of some Second Empire social type, and more like people in whose lives I could immerse myself.

Its historical setting, like those of the other Rougon-Macquart novels, is the Second Empire (1852-70), as played out through the lives of a few generations of the Rougon-Macquart family (here, Lisa is née Macquart). The temporal distance between the novel’s setting in 1858 and Zola’s writing of it in 1872 feels significant; he’s writing from the other side of the Empire, which concluded with the abdication of Napoleon III during the Franco-Prussian war, but also of the 1871 Commune and its brutal repression by Versaillais forces. While these more recent historical events come after the events depicted in the novel, of course, I couldn’t help but see echoes of them here, in Florent’s fantasies of a people’s revolution and his deportation to a penal colony (in 1871, it was New Caledonia), and in smaller details peppered throughout the novel: cabbages piled like cannonballs, vegetables and market-carts forming ‘barricades,’ and so on.

The book is, of course, centered on food: its transport, display, production, and sale; the sights and smells and sounds of Paris’s central market; the overflowing displays of food in shop windows; and, somewhat hidden behind all this, hunger and privation. Zola always tells us whether a character is fat, or thin: Mme François’ donkey, Balthazar (shades of Bresson?) is ‘an overweight beast’, while Mme François herself has ‘thick arms’; Florent is thin, a beanpole (a fact that makes him immediately suspicious in the eyes of Lisa and others in the market). Lisa and Quenu’s charcuterie window, which displays “a world of good things, mouthwatering things, rich things,” is reflected in Quenu’s clean-shaven ‘pig-like’ face and Lisa’s ‘ample bosom’, her “wonderful freshness…her plump neck and rosy cheeks…echoing the pastel of the hams,” and when the childlike orphan Marjolin covets Lisa, he imagines himself taking her into his arms “as though plunging his hands into an olive barrel or a cask of dried apples.”

And then there are Zola’s lapidary descriptions of fish, meats, vegetables, fruits, and cheeses, which are one of the great pleasures of the novel: fins of skates, “cinnabar red striped with Florentine bronze, in the somber palette of toads and poisonous flowers,” salmon “gleaming like well-buffed silver…etched by a burin on a polished metal plate,” “shiny carp from the Rhine, all bronzed in beautiful rust-colored metallic, each scale like a piece of cloisonné enamel,” not to mention the Roquefort cheeses like aristocratic faces marred by disgraceful disease, or the frankly sensual description of La Sarriette’s fruit-stand, her wares and her person merging in a singular, heady sensuality:

The strawberries exhaled a scent of youth…while the baskets of grapes in weighty bunches, heavy with drunkenness, swooned over the edge of the trellis, their colors deepening in spots where they were touched by the sun’s voluptuous warmth. This was where La Sarriette lived, in an orchard of intoxicating perfumes. The less expensive fruits—cherries, plums, strawberries—were piled in a flat, paper-lined basket in front of her. They bruised one another, staining the stand with juice, a strong juice that vaporized in the heat. On those sweltering July afternoons her head would spin with the powerful, musky odor of the melons. Then, slightly inebriated and showing some more flesh under her shawl, barely ripe and still fresh from springtime, her lips pouted: many had the urge to plunder those lips.

If Zola’s novel provides an encomium to the visual and olfactory pleasures of food, the pure sensuality of ripe fruit or jewel-like fish, the book strangely has almost nothing to say about taste, or eating. I’ve tried, and failed, to remember a single extended description of taste in the whole of the book; we see people eating, but that’s all. A starving Florent muses that it had not occurred to Lantier “that all those beautiful objects were there for people to eat. He loved them for their colors.” It’s hard not to think of Zola himself. Or, indeed, of our own ‘foodie’ age, where Instagrammable plates and an obsession with artisanal production so often seems to displace the actual pleasures of eating.

In this sense, I think food is not so much the theme, but the alibi for Zola’s real interest in order (and its opposite): the characters mostly yearn for it, in the form of good profits, stable politics, marriages and family, while Zola seems to harbor a clear affection for disorder, in the overwhelming mountains of food in Les Halles, the noise of the fish auction, the innocent pleasures of the market-urchin Muche, who fills Lisa and Quenu’s daughter’s pockets with dirt and soaks himself in fountains, or the free sensuality of the orphaned lovers Marjolin and Cadine.

Zola doesn’t seem to side with Florent’s radicalism, exactly (his revolution remains a delusional adolescent fantasy) but he also turns a critical eye onto the bourgeois obsession with order and calm that manifests itself in the speech and behavior of the denizens of Les Halles. As Lisa puts it, ‘I support a government that’s good for business. If they commit acts of evil, I don’t want to know.’ When she goes to the prefecture of police to turn in her brother-in-law, she finds that half the neighborhood has beat her to the punch, assuaging whatever guilt she might have had. And when Marjolin attempts to rape Lisa, what might have been the basis for melodrama (she strikes him, causing him to hit his head on a stone table and reducing him to a permanent state of idiocy) is defused, all simply seems to be for the best: Marjolin has entirely forgotten what happened, and if anything is happier than before.

E-J_Dambourgez - Une_boutique_de_charcuterie (1873)

There’s a message here: the comfortable morality of the bourgeois shop-keepers, their support for whatever is ‘good for business’, is equated with the ready availability of food, which acts as a political soporific. And it’s seductive: in one of the novel’s best passages, when Florent accepts (at Lisa’s urging) a job as inspector of the fish market, he feels himself giving in not only to this single request, but to a great wave of contentment:

It was as though he were permeated by the smell of the kitchen, the nourishment of all the food that had been loaded into the air. He slid into the happy lethargy that is brought on by eating well and living in fat…He felt a tingling on his skin, the seduction of fat slowly invading his entire being, rendering him soft and easy like a contented shopkeeper. At this late hour of night, in this overheated room, all his bitterness and determination melted away… he found himself wishing for more, for an endless succession of such evenings, slowly fattening him.

It is above all Les Halles, that ‘gluttonous beast’, the beating heart of a Paris wallowing in fat, which props up a grotesque Empire by rendering all, like fat itself, soft and easy: “it was the belly of shopkeepers, the belly of ordinary people puffing themselves up, celebrating in the sunshine, declaring that everything was for the best, since passive people had never been so well fattened.” Those who are full, forget their complaints. And political fanatics, Lisa notes, get nothing to eat.