Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Richard North & Joe Allard (eds.) "Beowulf & Other Stories": Book Review.

I learned Old English from a professor who revised what was then the standard literary history for Anglo-Saxon. Although I enjoyed the subject, I had a heavy course load in grad school and so little time to progress further with OE. Now, with North & Allard's considerably livelier survey, I can catch up on current attitudes towards our linguistic forebears. The editors and their co- contributors remind us that it's ironic how "relevance" can be used to neglect OE, when movies and sagas, old and new, Tolkien and CGI, enchant us with truly intriguing tales taken from the earliest wellsprings that flowed into our own torrents of English.

These essays, in a lively if rather surprisingly firm way-- the editors castigate straight off as "stupid" those who'd deny OE its place in the curriculum!-- aims to demystify the world we have lost. The book manages to be chatty (see the preface!) without condescending. It tries to convince you of the merit of what has scared away many previous generations of students forced to slog through, as Woody Allen warned, Beowulf. With wit, insight, and patience, this may be the first intelligent treatment aimed at the serious, but non-linguistically trained, newcomer, whether in a course where Beowulf's assigned or not! It's accessible for anyone wishing to discover the word-hoard of wealth glittering in Old English-- and some Old Icelandic -- literature. You also find out about what was spoken and written during the even less often visited transitional period between 1066 and 1200 or so.

For all English-speakers, the multicultural and polyglot world of the Anglo-Saxons (with Richard North's coverage of Old Icelandic/Norse; later there's Anglo-Norman also) returns as exciting, bawdy, reverent, and unpredictable as any other era. Once the orthography's overcome, and a few grammatical quirks and genuine or deceiving cognates get tracked, the language proves less than daunting. Especially when, as here, translations are paralleled with the original texts and commentaries.

No prior knowledge of Old English is needed; Peter S. Baker's introduction covers the basics well. Jennifer Neville's section deals wittily with the double-entendre riddles that may make people blush a millennium later. She also treats the more sober Elegies. Viking contact as filtered through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gains attention. (Although I would have included the handsomely illustrated translation of Anne Savage in the works cited.) The biblical tales and adventures retold under the Benedictine Reform gain notice. The Dream of the Rood and the Ruthwell Cross earn illustration verbally and visually in fine photographs. Clive Tolley's comparisons of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" to OE literature should make this entry a must-read for many explorers of Middle-Earth.

Other scholars delve into Beowulf, other heroic verses, violence in Viking culture, Viking beliefs, Icelandic sagas, OE poetry and prose, Alcuin & Offa, Caedmon, the degree to which the corpus turned Christian or remained pagan, and the fusion of Anglo-Saxon with other literatures and languages after the Conquest. When only 30,000 lines of OE poetry survive, the extant texts may not be numerous, but they therefore can be approached by newcomers and understood within a comparatively compact amount of material. This intimacy likewise gives this volume a friendly, encouraging tone. Sexual trafficking, elephants, the band Travis, and GameBoy all get their nod, as the scope of the academics ranges widely and boldly, fitting this subject's own depth and breadth across surprising and topical textual terrains.

More information at Pearson: Table of Contents (Posted to Amazon US 12/18/08.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Hugo Hamilton's "Disguise": Book Review.

How we shape our identity, and how we inherit our instability, marked Hamilton's fiction long before his memoir of growing up under an Irish-speaking father and a German refugee mother in 1960s Dublin, "The Speckled People," introduced him to many readers. I've admired each of his books; many today may not know much about his first three novels, all about Germany. (I reviewed this trio along with his stories in "Dublin Where the Palm Trees Grow" on Amazon.)

"Disguise" continues the searches of earlier families where after the war someone seeks his parent or her child. A son learns how his mother accompanied a Nazi officer who may have fired "The Last Shot"; another German mother faces Stasi-era duplicity in her quest to reunite through "The Love Test"; an Irishman delves into the GDR upbringing of his hosts before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in that "Surrogate City."

These novels all satisfy; "Disguise" enriches Hamilton's treatment here subtly, and elegantly. I'd estimate, having read his previous eight books, that he's aiming here for targets closer to the haunted legacies of countrymen John Banville or Sebastian Barry. There's a control of phrase and pacing here that recalls also European models. "Every now and again, an apple falls to the ground with a bony kind of thud, such as the sound of a hoof on the earth. The discovery of gravity each time." (47) Or, as uncertainty advances: "His entire existence was in Mara's hands, in her imagination, in what she agreed to believe and what she would dismiss. She held him like a porcelain figure, at her mercy, waiting to be dropped to the floor in tiny pieces." (148) Hamilton selects his words patiently, mulling over simple phrases. His own tri-lingual upbringing (English, Irish, and German) may account for his style, which attains a filtered quality distinguishing it from his contemporaries.

He takes on the fringes of a topic that's often overwhelmed the talents of imaginative as well as historical talents: the Holocaust. Hamilton, typically, engages the difficult question asked by Gregor Liedmann (note symbolic echoes), with grace and poise. Was Gregor a Jewish orphan who replaced Marie Liedmann's boy, who died in a bombing near the end of the war? She refuses to admit this to herself or her husband, after he returns from Soviet imprisonment.

The plot alternates between Gregor's 2008 day picking apples (with his estranged wife, Mara, their son, Daniel, and some old hippie friends) and Gregor's exploration of his roots while growing up in the GDR. An omniscient narrator does not admit much more that we need to know, but a reader may be assured that the information given beyond the indirect first-person perspectives of Marie, Mara, or Gregor must be compared with crucial expository details given in the first chapter that are beyond Marie's immediate knowledge, if I am correct. Hamilton's skilled in producing a novel that scans very quickly, yet flows vividly, mixing poetry with philosophy.

Sentences, too many to cite (I jotted down eighteen representative references easily), reveal Hamilton's in top form. There's nuance and power evoked by wartime havoc and lasting grief. The tragedy that cloaks Germany burdens all. Gregor comes of age as if, in Mara's mind, he's unable to foster a talent for love. Mara learns from Marie a conflicting narrative that claims her son's always been such. Mara too enters an uncertain realm where the loyalty to present-day family contends against unsubstantial, unsubstantiated claims to the contrary, that tug him back to a vague allegiance. Early in her relationship with Gregor, she resolves: "Together they would work and travel and reinvent the void he had come from. They would reimagine his true origins like a lost part of music that had been burned in a fire." (66)

The tension of Gregor's reinvention stretches until the final chapter. I'm withholding plot points so as not to spoil your experience. Not a thriller, but as emotionally cathartic for more honesty and less melodrama in confronting the legacy of modern German loss, rage, and shame, Hamilton integrates his study, his family's own past, and his authorial observations into a thought-provoking analysis of survivor's guilt. As in his début novel, "Surrogate City," Berlin now celebrates enduring rather than dreams of greatness. Today, Hamilton finds comfort in a humane response, as in apple orchards, to earlier slaughter as faced by the elder Liedmann, Emil, in WWI, when the cows grazed among the dead in other fields nearby. Skillfully, as with armed Emil facing a battalion of enemy (Russian?) women, or when in a few phrases the whole absurdity of GDR behind the Wall sums itself up by a schoolboy's innocent questions, Hamilton's able to compress much into little space.

One small admission: Daniel, his partner Juli, as well as Mara's sometime lover and Gregor's old friend Martin, needed filling out. Their friends on the apple-gathering day also flit about like extras in a film, when perhaps Hamilton's application of the telling detail for each of them might have fixed their roles better for our appreciation. The Irish sojourn, again, as with the dentist Mr Eckstein, could have been deepened or eliminated; as it is there's either not enough substance or too much digression. John Joe could have been a contender for a truly memorable figure, but he, too, lingers in the supporting cast. Gregor wanders about a lot, but you fail to feel his desires on the road when doing so compared with Mara or Marie's own struggles.

Hamilton in his memoirs and fiction has roamed around Germany, Ireland, and Europe. He addresses cultural encounters within larger problems but strives, at his best here, to keep contact with immediate, recognizable people. He does not let ideas take over his major characters. This is a intelligent consideration of how we can all be warped by dreaming rather than loving, by yearning instead of accepting. Perhaps, as Mara wonders, to cope with our turmoil we all need a disguise, an invented identity?

(Posted to Amazon in US & Britain 12/24/08.)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

An sé ag sneachta anois?

Tá sé ag sneachta áiteannaí go leor anois. Chuala mé go bhfuil stoirmeachaí bhaísti ann ar fud ar tíre. Ar ndóigh, níl sneachta anseo ina gCathair na hÁingeal.

Ach, tá snas an bán air ar barr na mullachaí in aice leis mo bhaile. Tá an geimhreadh géarr sa mhullach orainn i gCalifoirnea. Feicfidh tú an buaic cnoic Naomh Antain ó mhullach go lár líonta leis sneachta.

Mar sin féin, tá sé cúig sin is fiche mile i bhfad uaim. D'fhás mé níos cóngarach dó. Bhí maith liom a feiceáil suas air os cionn na crannain líomóid nuair go raibh óg. Is cuimhne liom a fáil sioc ar na fuinneog.

Tá mé i gcónaí i ngar ar lár inniu fós. Ní fhaigheann mé sioc ar chor ar bith. Ní fhacas riamh go fóill aimsir sheaca ag imeall an ionad seo.

Ní fhaca mé na sléibhte Naomh Gabriel uaidh seo go dtí siúd. Tá an maoileann idir anseo agus ansiud. Coiscaíonn sé lánléargas.

Tá mé ábalta breith orm an radharc seo anois agus ansin. Tiomainím go bPomona ag dul ag teaghmhálacaí obair faoi thrí gach blian. Mar sin, oscailódh amharc mór orm uair in aghaidh na bliana. Níl gheofar úlloird go leor ina dhaidh sin féin ar chor ar bith anois.

Is it snowing now?

It's snowing many places now. I heard that there were rainstorms all around the nation. Of course, there's no snow here in the City of the Angels.

But, there's a polish of white on top of the ridges near my house. It's the short winter on summits for us in California. You'll see on the top of Mount San Antonio from the height to the depth filled with snow.

All the same, that's twenty-five miles away from me. I was raised very near it. It pleased me to see it there above the lemon trees when I was young. I remember seeing frost on the windows.

I'm living near the city-center now. I have not found any frost at all. I have never seen before frosty weather in this place.

I cannot see the San Gabriel Mountains over there. There's a knoll between here and beyond. It blocks a full sight.

I'm still able to catch this view now and then. I drive to Pomona to go to work meetings three times each year. Therefore, the grand vista may open-- at a yearly interval-- to me. Yet, one will not find at all now any more orchards.

Tá lipéad againn! We have this label! Íomhá/Image: Sunny Heights citrus, 1940s

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dublin's Irish Pub: an Israeli Chain!

Searching images for yesterday's entry in the admittedly limited keyword combinations of imagery for the woeful likes of "Irish Hebrew" or "Gaeilge Israel," this came up. It deserved its own post. I cannot copy snapshots of the Hebrew menu under the faux-traditional Irish pub sign outside the door, but I assure you it's a rare meeting of Gaelic grub (no ham except in godless Rehovot) and Israel's national script. It also nicely contradicts a couple of stereotypes. Here, the happy hour has a two-for-one incentive; the generous pour's on the Jewish side of the ledger. I wonder how far you'd have to crawl to find this pub largess in many Hibernian watering holes, no matter where else long established or newly franchised?

Here's a review posted by Josh (NYC2TLV) at Virtual Tourist which reveals better than I can at my diasporic distance the culture clash, globalization, and one's demand for reward within a stiff drink no matter where you dustily trudge. Not for nothing, I might add, it's behind McDonalds to boot.

Nightlife Spot: Dublin: Irish Pub

Dublin is a growing chain of Irish pubs in Israel. They have two other locations in Rehovot and Herzliya but I found that this location is the biggest and has the best layout out of any of them. The best time to go is during happy hour as they have a limited time offer of buy one drink and receive your second for free. Generally, the Israeli people are not big drinkers so this was always a win situation for the pub.

The[y] offer a wide variety of both alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks, specializing in their wide variety of beers on tap and in bottles. Food is also available and it should be noted that the food is not kosher, but no pig products are used at this location (unlike the Rehovot pub which serves dishes that contain ham). They are very fond of foreignors [sic] in this pub and the staff speaks excellent English. During the early hours, traditional Irish music is played but toward the busy evening hours the lights are dimmed and the music becomes more rock and roll.

Theme: Eating and Drinking
Dress Code: Pants are a requirement.
Phone: +972-2-622-3612
Address: 4 Shamai Street, Jerusalem, ISRAEL
Directions: Right off the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian mall. Behind the entrance to McDonald's.

Photo: Dublin Irish Pub sign, Jerusalem.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Contrasting Hebrew & Gaelic Revivals.

In Lazarus Tongues in Israel & Ireland," the language columnist "Philologos" shares the insights of U. of Delaware grad student Kevin Barry who compares the Gaelic Revival, or its lack, with the success of the Hebrew triumph for Israel. Philologos, writing in the Dec. 19th 2008 issue of The Forward, our national Jewish weekly paper, naturally controls the court for Hebrew, but Barry helps assist with his Irish expertise. Barry's arguments may not widen the comparative presentation as much as I'd crave, but it's useful to have these sensible discussions condensed for a popular (by my standards) audience.

Many observers of Ireland's language death and resuscitation-- at least in passing-- have wondered: why not only Hebrew, but even Scandinavian languages, or Czech, or Hungarian: how did these recover in the 19c Europe when German, for instance on the Continent, appeared so dominant in terms of empire and education, jurisdiction and imposition? Why didn't the Irish rebel by reverting to their own native tongue, to reject English in the same patriotic manner as many in Mitteleuropa? For that matter, why did Welsh thrive in this same period, and why's it still much healthier today, despite a much longer lag in state-sponsored support, vs. the Republic's eighty-odd years in institutionalizing its promotion in schools, signage, and the civil service?

P.S. I left this comment on-line at The Forward:
Thanks for an informative column, as usual. One factor that Barry probably stressed in his original paper: the negative mindset associated with the pre-independence British-imposed school punishment that punished the Irish-speaking children with wearing a "tally stick" that'd be passed on to the next child caught talking in Irish (a similar "Welsh not" was the norm in Wales at this time). Such methods inculcated further the notion in parents and their offspring that Irish needed to be eliminated so that English, and progress, could advance. It's also noteworthy that mid-19c, it was estimated only about fifty people could write in Irish; contrast this with the rich oral-- and recorded-- traditions of Hebrew.

Photo: I looked mighty long for an Irish-language t-shirt of the Red Sox, "Stocaí Deargaí," and here 'tis. You can buy it and hundreds more Sox gear at Yawkey Way Store outside Fenway Park. A student of mine was a Boston fan and he directed me thus. The Hebrew version accompanies it.

Sorry to Niall who worships the Lakers, but I admit my loyalty tilts to the Celtics ever since I was a kid. The collapse of the Celtics yesterday in the final minutes, 13-2 outscored, that enabled the Lakers to win by eleven discouraged me, but as we were able to watch some of the opening game when lunching at Harris Ranch (I had veggie soup at that meat emporium, but I like the fruit crate art framed there), I could see how the Lakers had the energy, the determination, and that home court advantage.

Niall and I agree, however, that the Red Sox can remain a second choice after the Dodgers. As tomorrow's entry documents, matching Irish with Hebrew in any image hunt produces a paucity of useful illustrations.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Shona Nollaig Daoibh i 2008!

Tá mé leis mo theaglach ag dul ar gcathair Naomh Prónsias inniu agus ina dhiadh sin in aice leis ar bhaile An Croise Naofa ar feadh an seachtaine chugainn. Mar sin, níl uair agam a scríobh go leor anois. Mar sin féin, inseoidh mé agaibh faoi ár thuras go luath, nuair fillfidh mé ar ais mo bhaile. Beidh mé foclóir agam aríst!

Merry Christmas to All of You!

I'm with my family going to the city of San Francisco today and afterwards near to the town of Santa Cruz next week. Therefore, I do not have time to write much now. However, I will tell you all about our journey soon, when I return to my home. I will have my dictionary again.

Griangraf/Photo: Gary McMurray/ Gearóid Mac Muireadhaigh.Sraid Loch Garman, Baile átha Cliath/ Wexford St, Dublin.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ronan Bennett's "Zugzwang": Book Review.

This title's a chess term for when a player must move, but wherever the next piece shifts, the position's for the worse. An appropriate metaphor for 1914 St. Petersburg, where the Okhrana, the Tsarist thugs, battle with Bolsheviks in the streets, behind bars, and within the ranks of a corrupted police force. As a Belfast native who spent two years at Long Kesh for charges related to terrorism for his youthful participation in demonstrations, the author works best here in the realms of brutality vs. humanity under pressure-- as with "The Catastrophist" and "Havoc, in Its Third Year" (both reviewed by me on Amazon US where this review today was posted). With a Ph.D in history, Bennett also integrates vivid descriptions of places under turmoil-- the North of Ireland in "The Second Prison," Latin America in "Overthrown by Strangers," post-colonial Congo and mid-17c England in his later two novels-- with fragile protagonists who find themselves trapped by circumstance, fate, and bureaucracy.

Beginning promisingly, with a faint tone of snobbery and distance by the narrator, a psychoanalyst, Dr. Otto Spethmann, the story opens with a comparison. The city juxtaposes squalor with elegance; violence pulses beneath order.
"Just as a superficial glance at a chessboard on which a game is in progress will reveal little of the fierce struggle implicit in the arrangement of the pieces, so the tourist delighting in the treasures of the Hermitage, the glories of the Summer Gardens or the exotic wares on display at the Gostinny Dvor will likely be oblivious to the vicious currents coursing through the very streets he meanders in such innocent admiration. Of the eleven players who took part in the great tournament of 1914, only Rozental came fully to understand that cruelty and violent death were not just part of St. Petersburg in the way they are routinely in any great capital but were the very essence of a city stalked by revolution." (6-7)

A dramatic set-up, one that traps Spethmann in the machinations of spies, a lover, and his daughter's own predicament. However, as the novel's told in the first person, key scenes cannot therefore heighten the suspense as much as is needed for the plot to captivate. It's akin to watching yet another installment of a superhero movie; you know Batman will not die no matter how harsh his situation.

Not that skill's absent. Bennett works well with the one erotic scene he includes; he combines tact with detail deftly. Thoughts on how compassion for the poor and a desire to overthrow the system corrode as idealism meets realpolitik certainly continue a fictional and fact-based theme Bennett knows intimately. I liked the chess game that's illustrated as the novel progresses; otherwise, contrary to one's expectation, there's far less overlap between the chess and the rest of the story elements than the title might lead you to suppose.

The novel wraps itself up eloquently.
"What do you do if you are born into misery and deprivation? How do you look at your firstborn and not curse yourself for having brought flesh of your flesh into this place? And for those of us not born as they are, who do not know the fields of weeping, is the question any less urgent?" (269)

And, it's prescient, not only for the Soviet revolution three years later. "Rage and numbers will force the issue." Bennett's consideration of how forces of law and order rot returns to his fourth novel. No crackdown can stop the "settling of accounts." The tsar and his ministers "could tighten the chains," by persecuting and jailing. "Or they could loosen the chains," but mollification will ease no anger. "They were in zugzwang. When things reach this pitch we are all in zugzwang. Past wrongs will never be forgiven. Rage and numbers will tell."

The plight of Polish Jews, as Spethmann in his assimilated position as well as his headlong flight from his upended security comes to recall with discomfort, runs through the plot as a hushed leitmotif that might have benefitted more from prominence. The contrasts between the high life Spethmann and his circle of secularized Jewish professionals aspire to and the ghettos from which their fathers sprung remains a promising subject, but Bennett's protagonist gets so enmeshed in Tsarist-Bolshevik double-crossing, complete with guns and fists and chases, that the reader may tire of the staged action scenes. The writer means to explore a worthy clash between those who've made it and those out to get them.

On the other hand, these dueling characters get heaped up by the finale into so many coincidental collisions that this defies even the conventions of the genre. It's like an arthouse film turned megaplex thriller. So, the literary expression of this contest between coercion and revolution, repression and rebellion blurs into too many frenetic exchanges. There's not enough depth in many key characters to care enough for them. This gap between the ideas that support the Reds and their Jewish sympathizers or collaborators and the sordid realities of betrayal, bloodshed, and bluster widens, even as the characters get overwhelmed by the plot points. That being said, the hasty conclusion does hint to me of a possible sequel, which may allow some of the faults of this ambitious, if overly rushed, novel to smooth themselves out.

(P.S. Michael Johnson among other Amazon reviewers observed that there are incorrect chess moves noted. I was relieved if irritated to find this corroboration, as I kept going over the notation frustrating myself and blaming my own rudimentary knowledge for the blunders as diagrammed. This discrepancy's a minor but embarrassing flaw that should be pointed out before better chess players open these pages and follow the moves.)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Oliver Davies + Fiona Bowie's: "Celtic Christian Spirituality": Book Review.

Separating fact from fable when it comes to the Celtic Church's independence or submission to Catholicism has long been a British fascination. Welsh, English and Scots reformers popularized their revisions as reversions to earlier, supposedly autonomous, manifestations of an insular church that did not bow the knee to Rome. Davies & Bowie seek to correct antiquarian, New Age, or theological exaggerations which also have followed suit. They show in their introduction how the Celtic spiritual teachings differed-- and where they matched dominant Catholicism. They carefully, if briefly, remind readers too of the historical and social difficulties in defining a distinct Celtic identity. This concept "based on a mythologized reading of the past" would not have been understood by the ancients, although as the editors also note, "it has its own exigencies, and should not be dismissed too lightly" for those who chose this interpretation in centuries nearer our own. (4)

They also, as this combines medieval prose and poetry with contemporary verse, illustrate how poets express the physicality, nature-based connections, imaginative creativity, communal roots, and Trinitarian fluidity of Celtic-centered qualities that many Christians, or perhaps post-Christians, now seek to renew and revive. Many of the medieval entries can be found, in expanded form, in Davies' 1999 "Celtic Spirituality" anthology published in 1999 by Paulist Press. These two collections by Davies may be confused (not to mention a 1996 compendium from medieval Welsh). The difference lies in the 1995 edition's subtitle of "modern sources"-- adding oral traditions gathered in from Scots Gaelic as "Carmina Gadelica" by Alexander Carmichael and from Irish as "Religious Songs of Connacht" by Douglas Hyde. Then, contemporary poetry from Celtic writers this past century brings the collection closer to the present.

It's an accessible anthology addressed more than the Paulist Press successor to the common reader, and I recommend it as an entry point. Bibliographies and sources used are both helpful, and I particularly value the translations of Welsh-language poet Euros Bowen.

His "Changing Government" stands out. "The government of the skies/ we have sent to hell,/ and so the throne of the sun is empty,/ there is a death mask on its face/ in a museum." (184) The whole poem's worthy of transcription. He ends "Tap Root": "There is no resurrection where there is no earth." (187) You might expect to have found instead the better-known vicar R.S. Thomas, but Davies & Bowen wisely try to welcome writers less-anthologized, and as deserving of attention.

As Irish-language representative (in translation), Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's certainly expected, and her feminism's necessary. As Davies & Bowie in their introduction caution, the tendency by moderns to amplify the matriarchal Celtic presence does clash with the patriarchal norm practiced even by the Celts, one that deepened under the penitential and apocalyptic emphases instituted by the Church that harbor less appeal for seekers from our own time. Today's poets do tend to favor the feminine and the natural, regardless of the author's male or female identification. Medieval entries, by contrast, feature the need for renunciation, repentance, and asceticism.

Speaking of nature, Seán Ó Riordáin might have been entered as a second Gaelic counterpart to Bowen, equally meriting exposure. His existential attitude might, however, unsettle many. Mary O'Malley or Caitlín Maude may also be sought out by readers looking into spirituality expressed by Irish poets. A mismatch between the flesh and the spirit, and a longing to reconnect what's been sundered, enters many inclusions. Brendan Kennelly's "Sculpted from Darkness" watches worshippers returning from midnight Mass over a bridge; "House" considers the fragile body and the aging dwelling elegantly juxtaposed.

Ruth Bidwell observes in "Standing Stone" a Welsh parallel to Kennelly's mass-goers: "A mindless ritual is not empty. When the dark mind fails, faith lives in the supplication of hands, on prayer-wheel, rosary, stone." (198) For another rural poet, the simple lines of Anjela Duval translated from Breton recall a 20c Emily Dickinson, if she'd had four years of grade school and worked her life alone on a remote farm. In their diction, capitalization, and imagery, there are eloquent comparisons to the Belle of Amherst. In a poem that could stand alongside R.S. Thomas', Duval laments "The Song of the Foreigner," one that ravishes the trees, despoils the land, and erases the language. It ends:
"And soon...if we don't pay attention/ On the great organ/ Of their dark and sad forests/ --Fertilised with the ashes of our trees--/ The Atlantic Wind/ Will play while singing/ ...The Requiem of our Country." (228)

(Posted 12-22-08 to Amazon US.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Welsh Rugby, Papal Death, Coca-Cola Douches.

Now, that's a great trifecta of search terms. BMJ reports on the first two paired; the third-place finisher, to your probable surprise, stands on its own two legs, so to speak. Among other current BMJ tidbits: headbanging rockers can suffer repetitive head-and-neck injuries, Oliver Twist's diet would have proven impractical to keep even workhouse inmates employed, and sugar doesn't make kids hyper. As for the supposedly spermicidal powers of shake-and-spray cola application, watch out for that bottle cap in the dark. "Contraception doesn't go better with Coca-Cola."

Should the Pope be worried that Wales won the rugby Grand Slam this year?

"Research paper: Rugby (the religion of Wales) and its influence on the Catholic Church: should Pope Benedict XVI be worried?"

Doctors in the Christmas issue published on bmj.com today are urging the Vatican's medical team to keep a special watch over the Pope this Christmas, after their research investigating the link between papal deaths and Welsh rugby performance suggests that he has about a 45% chance of dying by the end of 2008.

Dr Gareth Payne and his team from Cardiff found no evidence to support the urban legend that "every time Wales win the rugby Grand Slam, a Pope dies," but they did find limited data linking Welsh rugby performance and papal deaths. Worryingly for Pope Benedict XVI, Wales won the Grand Slam in 2008.

The researchers charted all northern hemisphere rugby championships since 1883, but discarded the years 1885, 1888-9, 1897-8 and 1972 because not all the scheduled matches were played. For the purposes of their research, a Grand Slam was defined as one nation beating all other competing teams.

Since 1883, eight Pontiffs have died, five in Grand Slam years - three deaths happened when Wales completed the sweep, and two others occurred when Wales won the tournament but not the Grand Slam.

Interestingly, say the authors, although the deaths did not always coincide with a Welsh Grand Slam win, they did correspond with a victory of a predominantly Protestant nation (England, Scotland or Wales), rather than a Roman Catholic nation (France, Ireland, or Italy).

The authors comment that the link between Popes and Grand Slams "is nothing more than an urban myth ... This comes as something of a relief as we are at a loss to see how the events could be linked, especially given the continuing rapprochement between Catholic and Protestant churches."

However, given that the research suggests a link between the success of the Welsh rugby union team and papal deaths, the authors believe that the Vatican medical staff "can't fully relax until the new year arrives."

Illustration: No, I couldn't find one to match all three terms either. But, a great image from Paine Proffitt's paintings! "All Welsh Rugby Players Go To Heaven, 2005 - "This was the first time I used a dreamlike, surreal, narrative approach, inspired by Chagall" - PP." See #2, inspired by a medieval triptych, too. Visit: BBC: Rugby in the Frame

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"An Ghaoth i nGort na hEornan": Léirmheasín Scannáin.

Chríochnaigh mé maidín seo an scannán le Ken Loach "An Ghaoth i nGort na hEornan". Léigh mé ar an Vicipéid as Gaeilge faoi an peictíur ina dhiaidh sin. Ar mhaith leat sé? Bhuel, b'fhéidir má bheifí mhaith leis an stair sóisialaí sheanchas-Éireann.

Is teideal é de amhráin cáiliúl go raibh caintha gur briseadh ar na hÉireannaigh Aontuithe sa bhlian 1798 agus ina dhiadh dó. Ar ndóigh, bhí cuid díobh fós ná raibh claoidhte agus thug an míshástacht a bhí ar na daoine misneach doíbh chun éirghe amach aríst," déir Míchaél Ó Siochfhrada ina leabhar aigesan féin faoi stair na hËireann. Foghlaimím eolas agus frasaí as cóip dháteanghach shean-théacsleabhair agam.

Bhí sa bhlian 1920 ann. Osclaíonn na scéal ina faoin tuithe ina gContae Chorcaí. Níor fhreagair Mícheál eile, Ó Súilleabháin, as Béarla nuair ag teacht Dúbhchrónaigh ag bagairt fear ina dhaidh ag iománaíocht. De réir Sasanaigh go bhfuil cluiche go raibh 'tionál neamhdhleathach' ann. D'inis Mícheál ainm agamsa féin as Gaeilge amháin. Fuair Mícheál bás de ghoin nuair a buaíle le dhá saighdiúir ann ar an feirm.

Is Damien Ó Donnabháin doctúir og é. Ach, ní tosóidh go Londain a obair ina ospideal. Chonaic sé an dúnmharú Mhíceáil agus agairt dhíoghaltais eile ar siubhal. Chuaigh Damien ag dul sna hÓglaigh na hÉireann ansin.

Lheann sé an troid dúr. Thit Damien i ngrá leis Sinéad. Is deirfiúr Mhícheál na marbh í. Ceanglaíonn mna na Cumann na mBan. Foghlaimeiodh tú faoi Dáil Éireann, na Cóirteannaí Poblachtach, Rialtas Dúthchais, an Fógruigheadh, an Connrádh, agus, go críochnúil, an Cogadh Cathardha ann.

Throid Damien ar aghaidh Tadhgín. Is deartháir é Dhamien. Bhí Tadhgín ag dulta Arm an tSaorstáit. Is cuimhne liom é na scannán eile le Loach "Tír agus Saoirse" faoi cogadh cathardha eile níos deanaí ina Spáinn.

Is cosuil scannán le stair fíonaíolach na hÉireann é. Tosaíonn an Fhianníocht anallód leis brúidiúlacht. Críochnaíonn scéal níos deireanach leis fuildhoirteadh níos mo.

"The Wind that Shakes the Barley:" A little film review.

I finished this morning the film by Ken Loach, "The Wind that Shakes the Barley." I read in the Irish-language Wikipedia about the picture afterwards. Would you like it? Well, perhaps if somebody would be pleased with socialist, narrative Irish history.

The title's from a famous song that was sung after the crushing of the United Irishmen in the year 1798 and its aftermath. Of course, "there was a share who still weren't cowed and discontent was brought to those who rose up again," according to Mícheál Ó Siochfhrada in his own book about the history of Ireland. I learned information and phrases from my bilingual copy of this old textbook.

It's in the year 1920 then. The story opens in the countryside of County Cork. Another Mícheál, Ó Súilleabháin, does not answer in English when the Black-and-Tans are coming threatening men after hurling. According to the English the game was an "unlawful assembly" there. Mícheál tells his name himself in Irish only. Mícheál finds death from wounds when he is beaten by two soldiers there on the farm.

Damien O'Donovan is a young doctor. But, he will not start to London to work in a hospital. He saw the murder of Mícheál and other uncivil acts of disgrace. Damien went going into the "Irish Republican Army" then.

He followed a hard struggle. Damien fell in love with Sinéad. She's the sister of dead Mícheál. Women join the "Cumann na mBan [Women's Association]." You will learn about the Irish Assembly, the Republican Courts, Home Rule, the Truce, the Treaty, and, at last, the Civil War there.

Damien fought against Teddy. He's Damien's brother. Teddy went into the Army of the Free State. It reminds me of another film by Loach, "Land & Freedom," about another civil war later in Spain.

The film's like the fratricidal history of Ireland. The ancient Fenian tales started with brutality. This newer story ends more recently with more bloodshed.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Muzsikás' "The Bartók Album:" Music Review.

This appears to be the most recent CD from the leading Táncház ("dance house") musical ensemble, who kickstarted the Hungarian revival of folk music in later decades-- much as Bartók pioneered it earlier last century. Excellent liner notes by the group narrate the classical musician's determination to expose middle classes in Europe to folk traditions that the urban audiences had forgotten even existed. Like Zoltán Kodály within Hungary at the same time, Bartók went into the field, with primitive recording equipment, to capture what enchanted him. This disc recreates what he found: snippets of found sound, variations on the original themes that Bartók would have heard as played by Muzsikás and friends, and their elaborations that as dances and violin duos would have inspired Bartók's own Romanian- and Hungarian-based classical works.

The marvelous singer Márta Sebestyén can capture the ranges of many female vocalists from a variety of regional styles. Her voice, although I prefer it on the band's own records when it's smoother, here tends towards a harsher, more staccato, rougher texture. She's reproducing the delivery of the rawer ethnic heritages. The band's often playing one or two instrumentalists rather than as a full line-up on many tracks; they are often accompanied by featured Romanian violinist Alexander Balanescu. The addition of the cimbalom and percussion from Gypsy or Rom influences colors some songs, as typical of many Hungarian albums.

For me, track 15 (see Amazon for the Magyar-English renderings of these titles) stands out. It's sweet, to the point of heartbreaking. Following this, tracks 16-19 show how Bartók may have found source material that led to his Violin Duo #44. The classical versions that the composer produced, by the way, as played on tour in recent years by Muzsikás with the Tákacs Quartet are not included on this CD. This would certainly be welcome, however, for a follow-up from a band that's been has not been heard from with "old-new" material in the West this past decade.

It's the simpler, more plangent, and rather primitive vibrancy within much of the contents here that endures. As the band concludes its note, they share their countryman's fascination with their land's musical legacy: rather than a musicologist's dissection, their tribute album returns to the same sources that refreshed the composer. They wonder: "what is it in folk music, that attracted Bartók like a magnet? It is a question that applies equally to ourselves."

(Posted yesterday to Amazon US.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Denis Winter's "Death's Men": Book Review

This military historian presents a topical, chronological (in the sense that it follows the soldier's experience as he enlists, trains, and fights as part of the "Great War"), and comprehensive depiction of the infantryman's constant struggle to keep alive and alert under the stress of trench warfare, shelling, lice, rations, sentry, disease, and death that could come-- as a sniper's or mortar's target-- without warning. As you find out, if you hear the bullet, passing at twice the speed of sound, you are safe, at least for that instant. But, another one always waited.

The strain of battered nerves on sleep-deprived, poorly-fed, lonely, cold, and mud-encrusted men under weeks of attack without rest in some cases, permeates this grim but not wholly forlorn account. Published in 1978, Winter extracts the telling entry from dozens of published and unpublished memoirs. He emphasizes: "Studied from the bottom and looking upwards, the Great War becomes less useful to staff college students and more meaningful to the layman-- and to old soldiers of any war." (16) Rather than battles, the foggy terror and chaotic results of war as seen from the men who fought on the ground appear more unstructured, haphazard, and emotional. "What the scholar sees today as a single event, the participant was aware of only as a rapid succession of brilliant cameos, suffused with tension and fear." (170) Out of this "common memory" as recorded by veterans, in diaries, letters and books, Winter recreates the common man's endurance, or capitulation.

His style carries his narrative sharply along, fitting the subject. Speaking of marching: "The worries, anxieties and traumas of the individual, beaded on the rosary of memory, were lost in the mass. They were not lost for the future; just overlain by tendrils from men totally responsive towards each other." (76) Telling the various sounds made by rifles, we find the "most dangerous was the brief roar of a near miss. It was just like a violin string breaking, followed by the report of the rifle firing it, like a popping champagne cork." (109) Or, compare this utterly British sentence that sums up the end of an era: "The Earl of Faversham's deerhound was a well-known sight on the salient, urinating on table tops and following his master to the isolated grave on the Somme where he still lies today." (156)

Chapters take you through the call-up for "Kitchener" recruits, the training of "Other Ranks," how soldiers had to adopt to the Army; officer training; shipment to France; trench life, weaponry used there, and the strain; rest and home leave; battle and its aftermath; attitudes towards the Germans and to the war itself; and what happened after the war. The mass of information can overwhelm you, and this may be an advantage for those wishing to immerse themselves as if in the trenches, but others may prefer to take chapters in smaller sections, given their intensity of topic and treatment. There are no cross-references, nearly no endnotes, and surnames follow each other as if imitating how soldiers speak of each other by surname. The works are all listed at the end, but specific pages or citations are not documented. While this makes the book more readable, historians or scholars may demand more. Still, as a general reader with only cursory knowledge of the events, I was able to follow the gist easily. Winter cares about the men and their memories, and this empathy energizes his telling of their tales.

32 monochrome photos suffer from their printing in a mass-market paperback, but their captions show Winter's scrutiny continues when he analyzes imagery visually as well as verbally from his sources. A horrific one of a shell victim informs us that British "photo archives were carefully vetted so that very few pictures of dead Englishmen remain." Another shows how among the dead, crosses on top of their corpses with identity discs ready, the stretcher-bearer also lies among those he tried to rescue. 60% of a unit might suffer casualties in one battle; half of these were "walking wounded." Doctors operated only with morphine, bandages, and knives.If no pills, nurses injected a placebo of sterile water into raving, ravaged patients. "Probably the luckiest men were the prisoners," a third caption laconically observes.

I found the chapter on "Rest" less informative than I would have wished. "Home Leave" also appears nearly a blur, if understandably given the informants' own experience, or lack of much leave for many. Perhaps this comparative reticence when it comes to billets, ladies, and boozing behind the lines can be blamed on the lack of titillating or in-depth coverage in the primary sources relied upon by Winter. Women's roles, again reflecting the male-dominated context of every source, gain less attention than they might in a more recent social history of the period. After all, this is about the "soldiers" rather than nurses or prostitutes or auxiliaries.

One forgets that these millions of soldiers often led circumscribed lives for years; despite useless drill and aimless marching about when in boot camp, they might go months before seeing an enemy soldier, dug into their holes as they were on both sides. When death came, it was not usually under direct confrontation as it had been in earlier combats. Winter takes us in along toy-like men waiting to charge in haunting fashion. You feel their shock as they're pulled into a panoramic nightmare.

"This appalling noise seemed to come anonymously, for the enemy was hardly to be seen. Attacking 10,000 Germans, a soldier might perhaps see ten. Shells represented the enemy by proxy, bursting with a vast upward rush of black smoke, lit from underneath by a red flame. As treble to the bass of the shells were the machine-guns, engines letting off steam, and sniper-fire sounding like twigs crackling underfoot." (178-9)
Rarely did they flinch, or desert, or malinger. Mass pressure to conform and support their fellow troops appeared their motivation, discipline that overcame fright. After so long ducking, standing men felt naked, exposed as if plunging into a cold bath as they hunkered down under a barrage. Many at first might feel abstracted; still intact they might savor the thrill of assault. This joy jolted men; five minutes of battle seemed to exhaust men as if they had labored for a day straight. Their faces showed the strain and the shock afterwards.

More often than the dreaded "going over the top" to attack, the end to their tour of duty fell invisibly, if among great tumult. Confusion certainly becomes a motif here, in fatigue as well as battle. Few knew the reasons why they bivouacked where the campaign placed them. Patriotism loomed. Many enlisted men, Winter estimates, back then conformed readily, schooled by poverty or a static upbringing to passively serve their "betters." Traditionally, they obeyed, kept up routines, and waited for the order to fix bayonets. This probably led up to a rare encounter with their intimate enemy. Winter quotes "the greatest cartoonist of the war, Raemakers." A German cradles a dying British soldier, who looks up and asks him: "Is it you, Mother?" (206) Many memoirists verify this last scene witnessed as they comforted their mortally wounded mates, although the enemy seemed less likely to offer solace.

Even the mythologized Christmas truce still did not allow men to let their guard down long, out of fear or revenge. Soon, we read of Germans killed on their knees as they held up pictures of their wives or children; danger appears, Winter explains, to lessen hatred in battle, but once men are out of immediate peril, their reaction of bloodlust often continues. Still, a twisted humanity remains; a soldier recalls praying for his targets as he mowed each German down. Attacking as if dreaming-- alternating with vivid vignettes of slaughtered individuals emerging from the mist or reverie, whether comrades or foes-- appears to punctuate veterans' scattered, inchoate recollections of the dreaded yet hypnotizing zero hour of engagement.

The bulk of the work, naturally, lodges less in combat face-to-face than hunkered down in the trenches alongside the men. Among the rats, vermin, corpses, and stench, men burrowed in and hoped to live. Their stories enliven these pages as their conversations, in passing as if overheard by Winter, occasionally float behind the words he studies. These veterans find that battle leaves them indelibly altered; they long to speak of war whenever they meet another soldier, no matter his side. This collection as it sifts their tales depicts tedium as well as terror, holed up within strange fortifications in this war of attrition on bodies and minds, fought by fragile men from upended castles, implanted solidly into the dirt.

Certainly any of us finishing these sad pages, now that nearly all the veterans of the war to end all wars have died, find our problems reduced by comparison. I was amazed at how those men not inclined to serve, once recruited or conscripted with primitive equipment, impractical training, and brutal regimens, survived the worst. Many, of course, did not. This contrast, between those relating their memories and those about whom they wrote, often left behind in the mud or obliterated beneath it, leave a poignancy and a dignity for the "preciousness of life" difficult to conjure up at a remove. Nine percent of British men under forty-five died in the war, yet their losses were dwarfed by civilians and soldiers in France and Germany. Winter brings us as close as most of us will ever want to approach the consciousness of tattered, anxious, and exhausted men, who found the stubbornly remembered range of cruelty and decency over four years at their extremity.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Patrick French's "The World Is What It Is": Book Review.

This authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul has provoked controversy for its prickly subject, who read the entire manuscript and altered nothing; it's also garnered praise for its author, who drew on the entire archive of what he notes may be the last major writer who's left an entirely paper trail, instead of disc drives. I've only read a bit of Naipaul: "Among the Believers" about his travels in the non-Arab Islamic realm, and "The Return of Eva Perón," essays on Michael X, Perón's Argentina, and Conrad. After finishing French's bold, compassionate, and fair-minded study of this formidable master of masks, I will seek out more. That's a recommendation for both the irascible author and his patient chronicler. This is not a flawless analysis, therefore not five-stars, but French's careful discussion often approaches perfection. I admired (and reviewed) French's "Tibet, Tibet," a brave book that took on an iconic figure and asked similarly tough questions honestly.

Often, reviews have commented on VSN's fearsome reputation more than French's nuanced interpretation. What's needed now: a flavor of French's prose. I will excerpt how he filters VSN. French introduces his aims as a biographer: "not to sit in judgement, but to expose the subject with ruthless clarity to the calm eye of the reader." (xv) The myth, as VSN himself mentions, rests in those who follow; the writer keeps only the control over his books.

His tiny birthplace, forty miles by forty, occupies an uneasy place for self- promoting, self- entitled VSN. Self- described as "a Trinidadian of Hindu descent," he's a British subject unable to find a homeland. Marginalized, he returns to the center of the disbanded empire to seek his rightful place. The colonial society that raised him, divided by castes and religions, ethnicities and politics, could not sustain his energy. To escape, he had to assume the master's mask. Yet, Oxford "was a traditional, English, clubbable, unreal way for a young man from the Caribbean to be living, and it left him feeling lonely and unfulfilled." (91-92)

French evokes well the snobbery of the Isis student magazine for which VSN worked; the insularity of the university clashed with his hopes of a literary career that he desperately pursued while nearly starving in post- WWII, discriminatory, and hardbitten society in London. He and his student- teacher wife, virgins when they met, lived on very little. They moved from friend to flat and back. They were not suited for each other, totally, but at his young age, VSN stayed with the first shy woman who befriended him. He told her, at their age of twenty, how he resisted reforming, rebelling, or resisting. Instead, he insisted to her on being accepted.

He enters Britain at its capital core, pioneering the post- colonial counter- diasporic critique. "Legally prevented" after graduation "from migrating inside the new Commonwealth," VSN in the early 1950s sought a career in a nation with few East or West Indians. This "double exile" as "a deracinated colonial" as the Empire contracted left VSN anxious, yet determined not to retreat. With little steady work, landlords hostile at best to his presence, and widespread prejudice, he complained to his wife, Pat: "That is what the whole policy of the Free World amounts to. Naipaul, poor wog, literally starving, and very cold." (135, 137) The self- pity mingles with a level- headed appraisal of the situation for this internal exile.

"I am the spectator, the flaneur par excellence. I am free of the emancipatory fire." (qtd. 101) French deftly measures Trinidad's racial divide between Indians and blacks, He traces how Eric Williams rose to unsettling populist power there. Later, West Indian intellectual C.L.R. James early on challenged VSN for exposing the depredations of their Caribbean homelands without relativism, without the imperial context of the white man's impact. VSN rebelled against any "betraying his essence" by averting one's eye.

VSN refused to back down; as one character puts it: "Hate oppression; fear the oppressor." The emancipated dark subaltern, VSN warned (in my phrase), could be as dangerous as the retreating British sergeant. He later mused how totalitarianism often disguised itself under an "illusion of serving virtue"; writers seeking truth cannot collude with this pretended core of virtue. (qtd. 469) This confident stance did not endear him to his Black Power peers, nor did it assuage the troubled consciences of many American, European, or Indian liberals.

It's sobering to find, well into his success, that VSN labored nearly destitute. He travelled to India, Africa, Trinidad, Europe frequently, but often relied on expense accounts, wealthier friends, or an absent friend of a friend's flat for accommodation. This led, however, to estrangement sexually and psychologically from loyal but bewildered Pat as his fame spread. The self- pity that he expressed to Pat early on deepened. Depression drove him to prostitutes. Shame grew; so did his capacity to transcribe follies of his fellows. He cultivated his imperious aura.

All along, as to his one-time protegee Paul Theroux, VSN rehearsed a familiar refrain. "Think of it like this: imagine the despair to which the barefoot colonial is reduced when, wanting to write, and reading the pattern books of Tolstoy, Balzac et al, he looks at his own world and discovers that it almost doesn't exist." (qtd. 269) True, but as French delicately counters, this "shrewd piece of self- presentation" repackages scholarship winning, Oxford- educated, critically lauded VSN as irredeemably "unprecedented, underprivileged, alienated." His pride and his determination segregated him from his Third World brethren, whether writers or workers. This pride kept VSN a difficult person to please despite plaudits brought by his fiction and commissions enabling his TV, radio, and print journalism.

"Ambitious, protean, made of smart material, deracinated by the accelerated politics of the end of empire, Vidia made a conscious choice to refashion himself." (209)
India attracted him; the West Indies perplexed him. Out of this inability to fit in, overqualified and often overwhelmed by his intelligence and his Oxford education, where he lamented the absence of aristocrats vs. the state- scholarship students like himself and Pat, VSN's drive to succeed at the master's game made him a frank, yet brusque, critic of nearly everyone around him, no matter where he found himself writing, probing, and goading. This quality, as French tells us right away, comes from a Trinidadian "picong" attitude: "where the boundary between good and bad taste is deliberately blurred, and the listener sent reeling." (xi) Many fell for Sir Vidua's conversational bait over six decades. "As an accidental, occidental Indian from 'the most amusing island that ever dotted a sea,' Vidia felt included and excluded," and not only in India. (223)

He did his own including and excluding. "Vidia had a view of the world that he would do anything to maintain, just as he would sacrifice anything or anybody that stood in the way of his central purpose, to be 'the writer.'" (359) French judges that VSN could not countenance Pat as his equal. She, congenitally doomed it seems to play the "great man's wife," was cast aside by VSN as he pursued, on and off interspersed with Pat for many years, the Anglo-Argentinian Margaret Gooding. One of VSN's friends reported that his apparently captivating mistress appeared to have but fifty words in her spoken vocabulary; she does not come across, at least in English, as striking anyone of French's informants as scintillating or smart.

Documenting Naipaul's infidelity and his power over wife and lover, French through extraordinary tact paraphrases VSN's correspondence with both women. Reviewers have been aroused by the hints that French only alludes to (Margaret's literal "phallic worship" seems about it, that and his physical brutality towards her as emotionally against Pat) of sexually charged tension exploited by VSN. He's a ladies' man, despite his boorishness.

Pat reverenced her husband. I found his biographer's considerable discretion equally intriguing. As with the intelligent, isolated Pat's lonely diary and notes to her husband, these indirectly phrased letters to Margaret (who left her husband and her three children behind to be the on- off trophy VSN paraded globally) support VSN's own egotism. He moved between the two paramours; other times he lived alone. As he reduces it, he ruined Pat: "I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable." (qtd. 313)

His income under a new publisher (and endless lectures, conference invitations, and commissions for articles?) increased sevenfold after "A Bend in the River." By the '80s, he represented the frustrations of "corrected leftists," those who turned to VSN to argue why the Third World remained mired in post- colonial corruption. His judgments in "Among the Believers" appear prescient after 9/11, but when they appeared, he was derided as an Orientalist or apologist. Derek Wolcott, Edward Said, and activists who opposed his disillusion found themselves his targets. They fought back. VSN accepted Hanif Kureishi; he did not support Rushdie against the fatwa, "an extreme form of literary criticism." (qtd. 434) The title of this biography comes from the first sentence of "Bend." "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." (qtd. 386) VSN determined to be "the" writer of the harsh, globalizing, mediated, diasporic decade.

By the end of it, he earned a knighthood. He took the tube to the ceremony. VSN did not mellow, but he did express an admiration of what modernity allowed people such as himself: the pursuit of happiness that traditional mores and creeds did not allow many adherents. His own pursuits, typically, dominated his mature years. Pat died of cancer; French describes movingly their final weeks together. The day after her cremation, Nadira (a younger Pakistani Muslim journalist he had met while working on "Beyond Belief," a sequel to his earlier visits among the non-Arab Islamic world) moved in to VSN's house. Margaret learned of her ex-lover's marriage, two months later, in the newspaper; Pat had found out about-- in similarly roundabout fashion-- her husband's dalliances with prostitutes decades earlier only in a 1994 interview with The New Yorker.

After Pat's death, VSN found few with whom to mourn, perhaps understandably. His lifelong expectation of fealty, his shunning of friends, and his use or abuse of human sources may have helped him with his considerable gifts of extracting the essentials for his own journalism and travel narratives, but they did not win him many confidantes. French enlivens the discussion near the end, with a deeper look into how VSN composed his second Indian study, "A Million Mutinies," and a later Caribbean collection, "A Way of the World." These begin to prove why VSN attained his renown for careful explication; apparently he could usually put down verbatim, without notes on the scene, what he had heard each day from his discussions and observations.

A minor shortcoming of an otherwise impressive account: French tends to skimp on delving into the works themselves, especially earlier ones. He often cites critical blurbs, and summarizes a book's contents, but he tends to quote sparingly. This does quicken the pace. However, if lacking knowledge of the novels and essays first- hand, a reader may wonder why there's briefer coverage of most primary texts. On the other hand, this is not a "critical biography," so this emphasis, given French's need to interpret massive amounts of material (he acknowledges half a million words from interviews transcribed), may be understandable.

French concludes with VSN's marriage to Nadira. He bows out gracefully with a final word, "Enough." But then, typically, he adds his last footnote: "For the moment." It's perhaps a telling sign that French adapts, often, a detachment towards Pat, Margaret, and VSN that reflects his subject's own distance from the contradictions his selfishness creates. This may heighten the verisimilitude for some readers; it may irritate others. So persists his admirable, if also unsettling, diligence in an engrossing perspective on a life that surprised me in its awkwardness, secrecy, bluster, and, despite or because of it all, a wry-- if ultimately too bitter-- honesty. The cover photo by "jumped-up" (VSN's put-down) Lord Snowden shows a playful figure, pulling himself up by the untied shoelace. His shoe, for this frugal man, reveals on its sole a worn-away hole.

(Posted yesterday to Amazon US. Cross-posted as a long review to my other blog, "Not the L.A. Times Book Review.")

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mo chuimhne thaobh bóthair.

Tháinig sé seo ar ais chun mo chuimhne ar an maidín seo. Ní cuimhín liom a áit go direach. Meabhraim go raibh sé ina Ungáir. Bheadh sé sin cúig bliana ó shín ar feadh an samraidh 2003.

Thaistail mé leis dream acadúileachtái léann Éireannach. Chuaigh mé leis mo theaglach fós. D'imigh muid a thabhairt ar an mbus. Stad muid ar an ósta cois bóthair.

Shúil gach duine amach. Tháinig muid isteach an ósta. Bhí dith leosan féin a ithe agus ól ann. Ach níor ithe nó níor ól mé. Bhí láthair ar trasna go folamh uaidh ann. Chuaigh mé thar bóthar.

Bhí suíomh fághta ansiud. B'fhéidir go raibh ósta eile roimh an titim bhaile Bheirlin. Thógadh ionad beag ansin. Ar raibh síopa ann? Níor thuig mé ar an mbord scríbhinnaí an Ungáiris sceaneamh ag lobadh taobh amuigh de ann.

Bhí thuigimse dubh ná riabhach é. Ní raibh comhartha ag timpeall. Thosaím aghaidh a thabhairt tríu foirgnimh in aice leis an sruthan ina choincréit. D'éirigh siad go raibh cosuil sean-títhe stóir ag meirgeann.

Fhill mé ar an mbus aríst. Bhí iontach liom faoi an radharc bánaithe. Ceapaim inniu faoi amharc fásúil i gceantar feidheartha sin na h-Ungáir. Níl fhíos agam cén fáth.

My Roadside Memory.

This came back to my memory this morning. There's no recall for me of the place exactly. I remember that it was in Hungary. That would be five years ago during the summer of 2003.

I travelled with a group of Irish Studies academics. I went with my family too. We went off for a ride in a bus. We stopped at an inn by the edge of the road.

Every person walked out. They all came into the inn. There was a need for all of them to eat or to drink. But I did not eat or drink. There was an empty site across from there. I went to cross the road.

It was an abandoned place over there. Perhaps it was another inn before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Someone had built a small place there. Had it been a shop there? I could not understand the knifed Hungarian inscriptions [i.e., graffiti] carved on the rotting tables outside of there.

It was a dark mystery to me. No sign was around there. I started towards three buildings near a stream in concrete. They rose up resembling old warehouses rusting.

I returned to the bus again. I wondered about the desolate scene. I think today about the deserted view in that bare district of Hungary. I don't know the reason why.

Griangraf/ Photo: Níl íomhá de agamsa féin. Mar sin féin: tá sé céann le David Vigh anseo, ag imeall na stáisiún traenach. I don't have an image myself. All the same: here's one by David Vigh, around a train station. "Stáisiún Foirgneamh Fághtha/ Abandoned Station Building, Zalakomár, Hungary/Ungáir.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sam Johnson & Hester Thrale.

I've always liked Dr. J. I walked from Ebury Street near Sloane Square and Pimlico over to his marvelously restored house in the City, in a warren where Carlyle got lost looking for it pre-tourist signage, the last time I was in London, around my birthday on a sweltering summer (for there, meaning humid) afternoon. The London Transport had called a strike. Yet, this put me into a peripetatic frame of mind and gait taking me back to Johnson's own municipal scale, although my step probably exceeded his poor, gaitered, bulldog lurch.

The rather edgy lady who served as the caretaker told me that her parents back around 1912 or some distant year had begun the refurbishing. Stocked with period furniture, I recall the "harmless drudge's" study, with its tiny writing desk and stiff-backed chair. That, reams of paper, inkwell, and quill, were all a scholar needed back then. Besides one of history's most amazing intellects, seasoned with abundant wit and matchless insights, whether expressed in a dictionary, biography, table-talk, or in the journalism that, Adam Gopnik reminds us in his "Man of Fetters" book review in the December 8, 2008, New Yorker, after much struggle in a big city with a new medium, secured his fame.

John Wain's biography, which I recall with pleasure after reading it for pleasure amidst the rigors of my first year in grad school, tells any one much; Gopnik mentions two new biographies, a daunting task for anybody following Boswell. However, as with many of Gopnik's reviews, he tends to barely glance at the work purportedly under evaluation, and turns to the man himself. And, in this case, his woman, Mrs Hester Thrale. As the title of his article suggests, and Steadman's rather hard-to-decipher sketch repeats, the "fetters" refer to a couple of suggestions-- hidden in the French suited more to the erotic and secretive-- of a masoschistic relationship Johnson enjoyed, and later lamented, with the lady who kept much company with him, along with his diligent, if pesty, Scots amanuensis.

Relating the facts, Gopnik's alert to relevance.
"He had the misfortune to have arrived in London in a time not unlike this one, with the old-media dispensation in crisis and the new media barely paying. The practice of aristocratic patronage, in which big shots paid to be flattered by their favorite writers, was ebbing, and the new, middle-class arrangement, where plays and novels could command real money from publishers, was not yet in place. The only way to make a living was to publish, for starvation wages, in the few magazines that had come into existence."
I posted yesterday on Chuck Klosterman's dismay at the new media's imposition of a seemingly relentless demand of immediacy that stokes our present frenzy to keep up, with a mass of information that rarely distills wisdom. James Gleick's optimism at Google's Book Search, contrarily, may be seen as a counterpart to Johnson's Dictionary, which Gopnik interprets as a way to assure middle-class, up-and-coming readers that the language could be grasped, and data could be tamed for another public eager for references, facts, and au courant respect from their presumed social betters.

Gopnik continues, parenthetically:
(The new order had also produced a permanently bitter and underemployed class of writers, who had meant to be Popes but were left to be merely beggars in the square outside, and they made their living working for penny-a-line pamphlets and cheap gossip tabloids, creating a constant mouse scream of malice that runs in counterpoint to Johnson’s grave sonorities.)
This reminds me of my own position, underemployed among many with Ph.D's who cannot even find reliable work equivalent to mine. Untenured, freeway flyers, doomed to teach remedial or frosh comp endlessly, perhaps we too form a class of testy and touchy overeducated (if one can indeed be such) intellectuals, the lost generation born too late for the postwar booms that filled cow colleges with profs and co-eds. Reading Bernard Malamud's "A New Life," set in his Cascadia (read Oregon) State before I wandered one frigid night among its own farms and dorms, I thought about how many of my contemporaries would never scoff at what, to that NYC transplant, seemed a death sentence of a third-tier position in that English department. There are far lower tiers in today's plethora of campuses.

Johnson escaped his sentence not by sentiousness but diligence. He rose, with the Dictionary and his criticism, to the heights of London literary society he deserved. "The Great Cham" held forth more often in drawing rooms than taverns, at last. Into the higher, more suburban, less urban, more urbane circles he rose; in 1765 he met Hester, wife of a wealthy scion of a brewer family. Anchor Ale, Gopnik assures, still thrives, but perhaps not on import shelves here? A triangle formed, but not one that seemed to involve the pushy, arrogant, annoying husband!

Boswell often forced his way into the Thrale household. Mrs. Thrale very nicely said that he had a “gold ticket” to the table, and for almost twenty years she, Boswell, and Johnson worked out the geometry of a complicated triangle of shared passions and resentments: the younger woman and the younger man each establishing a special intimacy with the older man; the older man half in love with the woman while remaining on respectful terms with her husband; the younger man jealous of the woman’s hold on his mentor while still recognizing that he alone could play the role of the son that the older man had never had. There’s a wonderful passage in the “Life” when, as Boswell records, he and Hester looked at each other after some Johnsonian moment, recognizing that, as she whispered to him, “There are many who admire and respect Mr. Johnson; but you and I LOVE him.” The stress is, in every sense, in the original.

After dealing with the S&M supposedly beneath the Frenchified allusions in those couple of places in their correspondence, Gopnik goes on, for me, to more lasting impacts.
No critic has ever been wiser about the limits of criticism, and about how few rules can ever be made for writing; Johnson is the model of a reactive critic, seeing when a piece of writing was made, and how it works, then and now. His premise was always that something that had long pleased readers must have pleased them for a reason; sometimes it was because of a quality or a problem in their time that had made the work seem briefly pleasing, sometimes it was because of some permanent quality of imagination or truth. The critic’s job was to distinguish between what belonged to the history of taste and what belonged to the canon of art, and to try to explain what made the permanently pleasing permanently please. For Johnson’s great question is not how to write, or what to write, but why write. His criticism provides a simple answer: to help us enjoy life more, or endure it better.

One reason we still may read Johnson circa 1760 on Shakespeare long after Bradley or Dover Wilson, despite I'd second their value: Johnson touches our humanity. He takes the side not of the don, but the perhaps perplexed or hesitant reader who comes to a text as he did. Not as the Oxford scholar -- for he soon dropped out of what was then certainly the haven of the wealthy, if predictably second-rate, gentleman on the make or baronet on the take-- but as the eager if diffident newcomer who wanted to enter the pages that, in the eighteenth century, beckoned to a self-improving class also seeking not edification alone, but entertainment. Thus the rise of the novel; "Rasselas" may hearken more to "Utopia" than "Pamela," but at least it's brief!

Johnson has no illusions about criticism’s ability to fix or cure. Critics are to writers not as doctors are to patients but as bearded ladies are to trapeze artists—- another, sadder act in the same big show. “Every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the work of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic,” he wrote. His low opinion of the professional critic gave him a high opinion of the amateur reader. He voices our doubts more than he does his period’s platitudes, and tells the truth about tedious texts: nobody ever wanted “Paradise Lost” to be longer than it is; metaphysical poetry is fascinating but exhausting to read; Shakespeare’s puns can be tiresome and his clowns unfunny.

Klosterman, despairing as a recently arrived professional critic from our version of the Midlands, in the suitably-titled "Esquire" (as with "GQ," hints echo of what the Tatler or Spectator once held sway over in an earlier smart set), might take comfort from Johnson, as understood by Gopnik. We who labor as amateurs for unpaid Amazon ratings, blog comments, or our sheer passion to learn and share what we know, may also find in this poorly-renumerated new medium of the Net, our own small justification. You and I participate in this same big Net show, its small parade of endless one-acts, stunts, and poses.

I often voice my doubts; I may point out the tedious; I prefer to set aside a work unreviewed rather than savage it. I lack Johnson's depth or Gopnik's privilege. Still, I know how difficult the act of creating music, words, or energy can be for the well-intentioned independent scholar, laboring adjunct teacher who writes on the side, or the hordes of hopeful spare-time chroniclers of our own restless and philistine age. (I hold less compassion for the tenured, the pundits, or the favored.) As with all times and all cities, we think our times the worst, our classrooms the nadir, our politicians the pits. But, reading Johnson, we're reminded of the need to acclaim excellence, warn against fulsome acclaim of the mediocre, and to seek the higher craft in whatever shrieks and whirls around us in this flurry of texts and sounds and images.

(Ralph Steadman, who else, illustrated Gopnik's piece.)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Literacy, Pavement, Meth Labs, Stasis.

Blogging about what we found on-line gets a lot of starchier media types twitchy. Lee Siegel published a screed-- in book form-- earlier this year excoriating (one of my favorite verbs) we Netizens for daring to discuss what we read, gasp, on the Web. He saw this as a kind of circle jerk, I suppose. I see it as literacy. Our marketplace of ideas meets Bacon's idols of the agora, perhaps? The fact that Siegel'd been outed as pseudonymously praising his own on-line contributions, and that this rage inspired his rant between cloth on pulp, gained the gleeful finger-pointing of reviewers less than awed by his shock, shock, at the messages of this medium.

I cannot get too worried about jeremiads that we're headed towards Idiocracy. Or else I have been teaching too long away from UCLA. I forget what traditional academia's supposedly safeguarding when my classmates with tenure harp about parenthetically/slashed gendered Deleuzian queering. James Gleick in the Nov. 30, 2008, New York Times Book Review sensibly divided the worlds in which many of us oldsters still roam, bifurcated between a screen and a shelf in "How to Publish Without Perishing." Ostensibly about Google's wonderful Book Search Archive settlement that will stimulate the backlists now terminated by many publishers, and I hope will lead to colleges off the elite track (e.g., my employer) hooking into databases accessible by all, Gleick also distinguishes the types of reading--and information gathering & wisdom accumulation-- we're doing. I hope we don't forget how to thresh nuggets from dross. That's what I keep trying to get across to my students, gaming and programming majors who will control this future much more radically than any po-mo theorist.

About the Google settlement, Gleick anticipates a future in which access will return. As somebody often immersed in arcana, needing interlibrary loans to ferret out nuggets, lacking a university library worthy of the name from which I can gain on-line privileges to electronic archives such as Project MUSE, J-STOR, or the MLA, I welcome this innovation. Gleick reminds us that the bottom-line publishing mentality, like the for-profit nature of the institution where I teach, discourages long-term investments. This impatience, he hopes, may be replaced by a legacy truly democratic. In the spirit of the robber barons who founded public libraries, I muse too about the corporate sponsorship that may lead, ironically yet perhaps idealistically, to the promotion of information literacy-- and our humane, if computer assisted, ability to separate lasting knowledge from mere petabytes of data.

Gleick remains upbeat. Libraries will endure, and literacy will flourish. I do fear, however, that without physical access, mediation may be more easily used to thwart entry for those who don't want to pay to play. Yet, we all manage to navigate libraries and expect that our taxes or tuition will fund the purchase of books and media. Still, at the welcome risk of fetishizing, there's something about a volume.
It is significant that one says book lover and music lover and art lover but not record lover or CD lover or, conversely, text lover.

There’s reading and then there’s reading. There is the gleaning or browsing or cherry-picking of information, and then there is the deep immersion in constructed textual worlds: novels and biographies and the various forms of narrative nonfiction — genres that could not be born until someone invented the codex, the book as we know it, pages inscribed on both sides and bound together. These are the books that possess one and the books one wants to possess.

The overload, on the other hand, can lead to breakdown. Chuck Klosterman's a writer I envy; he gets to ponder pop culture for a living, although the strain may be wearing him down. Waiting for my haircut and trying to ignore the histrionic Mexican crooners on both giant speakers and big screen T.V. this morning, my own retreat into the life of the mind was a shallow diversion. Three magazines sprawled before me: "Out," "Cosmopolitan en espanol," and "Esquire." Easy choice. My heterosexually wired if feministically suspect "male gaze" pausing at pin-up Sonia Shaji, I dutifully soldiered on to the text proper.

I found Klosterman's last column in this September 2008 issue: "The Great American Stasis." As Sarah Hepola's sympathetic "Diagnosing Chuck Klosterman" Sept. 24, 2008, Salon interview I found when searching for this "Esquire" piece informed me, Fargo's native son's been busy; he produced three columns for ESPN, Spin, and Esquire monthly for two years. Two memoirs in six years, two collections of essays, a new novel "Downtown Owl," and lots of journalism. Coming out of Akron in 2001 with "Fargo Rock City," he wowed those beyond the heartland for his tale of coming of age while blasting metal, in its hair and heavy styles, in one of the most remote flyover states, pre-Net, pre-grunge, pre-practically faux-vintage t-shirts. He's praised and reviled, looks exactly like the black-framed, retro-nerd hipster as the standard non-conformist conformist record geek you know he is-- and whom he delights in because he's also excoriating his own demographic, that'd flaunt annoyingly the t-shirt illustrated above.

From Germany, he reflects on how tedious watching baseball seems. Americans get lectured on our fast-paced relentlessness, but he counters: "What I see is a relatively static society that consciously confuses itself through media and interprets that confusion as progress. I did not authentically believe this was true for most of my life, but I do now. We have mediated our culture into concrete."

Weary of the political debates, he learns from abroad how little gets reported there, and learns not to be so obsessed by it, as he gets only fragments of the presidential campaign filtered between MLB and the junk that passes for news.
Everyone agrees that most of the information we receive is manufactured filler, not some latent subterfuge that is being used to "oppress us" (or whatever). Everyone I've ever met seems completely aware that the mass media is a) too large, b) mostly bad, and c) getting worse. But the moment they redirect their intellectual gaze back to the rest of society, they forget that this is what they believe.

You know, I've been writing this column every month for something like five years, and I feel as if the vast majority of these columns have either vaguely or directly dealt with the meaning of mediated culture, usually concluding that whatever topic I was writing about was both troubling and compelling. I underestimated both of those qualities. The mass media is the single most detrimental entity within the United States right now, and it's having the exact opposite effect of its theoretically intended one--it's making people less informed and less complete. It is much more harmful than I originally perceived. But it's also more interesting than I initially realized, because the people who are most acutely aware of this problem are the same people making the problem worse. Bloggers blog about how blogging ruins their lives. Newspapers deliver insignificant reports on the declining significance of newspapers. Entourage is a commentary on shallow celebrity-driven entertainment such as Entourage. A writer named Nicholas Carr [**] wrote a long essay in The Atlantic Monthly about how the Internet is making it difficult for people to concentrate on long essays, which was subsequently published on the Internet. I'm writing a column in a magazine that could essentially be read as an essay against magazines, and I don't think anyone will find that strange.

Klosterman concludes with the morose, humbled air of one whose début fiction's compared by Hepola to "Winesburg, Ohio" meets "Last Picture Show." Not for nothing does he long to be Jeff Tweedy, from Belleville, Illinois, another Midwesterner who turned from the easy pop path into his own darker detours. Chuck does not want to be AC/DC, Angus Young pounding the same riff for thirty years to adoring fans. (I see their "Black Ice" is very high on the charts; they are second to the Beatles in total album sales. I have nothing to add to this statement that astonished me in the NYT the other day.) Chuck plays the final number on his tour; a dream gig many of us yearn for.

He will keep on nagging, typing away for other publications. Yet, Klosterman wonders why so few of us get ticked off by this static pattern we find ourselves in. Why do, come to think of it myself, so many folks my age (I heard this from a pro musician at Thanksgiving dinner) rush out for their copy of "Black Ice" rather than the latest from Black Kids/Keys/Rebel Motorcycle Club/Dice? As I saw-- but did not click open-- a discussion thread on Amazon yesterday titled: "Does music suck, or am I just getting old?" I bought fewer CDs than ever this past year. Blame my budget, but also my tastes. My last visit to Ameoba Records: nine months ago. I bought at most three CDs last summer, on-line. Blame me for music sales' decline. Or what's sold.

I delight in deleting from my iPod as much as I upload, and what I have comes skews the past's playlists rather than the now sound. Winnowing the best from my backlist pleases me more than accumulation of third-generation retreads of early-70s craft. Now, much of what I hear about, if rarely hear, sounds recycled. There's one recent CD that manages this retrofitting smoothly, but even it, I admit, hearkens back to, say, a more pastoral phase that'd fit into 1972 or so on the Sain Welsh-language label. It's on my wishlist at Amazon, an obscure and so far too pricy import "Cheer Gone" from the bittersweet tenor of Welsh folk-psych wanderer (ex-Gorky's Zygotic Mynci) Euros Childs. Regressing from teenaged experimental lysergia the past fifteen years into a haunted rural balladry, he's long remained one of my favorite singers.

Yesterday's inclusions on that wishlist: three reissues with bonus tracks-- "Brighten the Corners: the Nicene Creedence" edition from Pavement; upcoming first-time-on-CD Volcano Suns. Their two earliest LPs. The kind of vinyl Klosterman and I probably share; mid-80s college indie rock that blended harmonic heartland with post-punk-pop distortion. It, too, sounds as dated as 1972's freak folk. Not that I do not cherish it, but what replaces it for me today? Nothing really so far.

Do we all circle back to our formative years with what we dig up in our dotage for entertainment? Or, perhaps an indication of the end of inspiration for what followed the post-punk disruption? "The Bright Orange Years" & "All-Night Lotus Party." And that's it. As ironic hipsters Pavement warned us fifteen years ago, two records earlier than "BTC," as they sniped at glam-grunge, goodbye to the rock n'roll era.

Here's Klosterman, to wrap it up in a less than shiny package for these somber holidays.
Yet as I sit here, across the Atlantic Ocean, browsing random online reactions to fake news I have not seen (nor need to see), I find myself growing more and more depressed about all the things I used to love. It's not difficult to be the cop in the car watching the meth lab, but you will drive yourself sad. You'll find yourself thinking, Maybe the lab will blow up. Maybe the lab will blow up. Maybe the lab will blow up. But it doesn't blow up. It just sits there, falling apart and declining in value, while the people sitting inside lose their teeth and get crazy high.

(Back to me for a word in edgewise. **Yes, I cited Carr myself last summer here. Not much to add to Klosterman's summary of it.)

Photo: DespairWear: Demotivational Corporate products sardonically if perhaps profitably peddled for misfits like you and me. Who comprise yet one more demographic. None of us escape.