Sunday, July 27, 2014

Terrorist, by John Updike



If the manuscript for this novel had been submitted anonymously or pseudonymously, it would have perished quietly in the Hamish Hamilton slush-pile. I've read and admired other Updike fiction. For heaven's sake, the man won Pulitzer prizes for two of the Rabbit novels. Terrorist was his last novel, published in 2006, when he was 74. His editor did him a disservice by publishing this book. I think a tactful agreement over cocktails to put this manuscript to rest would have been the best move all round.

Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy lives with his mother, an Irish-American artist, in New Prospect New Jersey, his Egyptian father having bailed out not long after the baby's birth. Ahmad is 18, a high school senior, and a devout student of the Holy Q'uran, as taught by his somewhat oleaginous Yemeni teacher, Shaikh Rashid.

Ahmad is a compelling character, but in the end, one that just doesn't work. He speaks very stiffly and formally, as if English were not his native tongue. He is unwilling to kill insects that cross his path, yet he agrees to martyr himself in a plot that will kill untold numbers of bystanders. He is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, yet he behaves like an automaton where his religion is concerned.18 year-olds can of course be a bundle of inner conflicts, but Updike's Ahmad is fundamentally inconsistent.

The young man's guidance counselor is Jack Levy, a rumpled, dispirited, faithless and middle-aged Jew. Elizabeth is his middle-aged, obese wife, a faithless Lutheran. These people seem to illustrate, at least in Ahmad's mind, what is wrong with America. Well, some of what's wrong with it. There are, of course, millions of other illustrative infidels.

I know it's a small world, and coincidences abound, but according to Mr. Updike, there are about two degrees of separation from Ahmad, if that. Mr. Levy feels compelled to visit Ahmad's home, simply because he feels the boy is not going to achieve his full potential by learning to drive a truck, which his imam has encouraged in favour of a godless university track. (Can you see where that's heading?) I, personally, have never heard of a guidance counselor who makes house calls, but Levy goes one step further and embarks upon an affair with Ahmad's mother.  Even though he doesn't really think much of her paintings.

Meanwhile, his cuckolded, overweight wife, Elizabeth, talks on the phone with her sister. Hermione is the adoring, almost worshipful assistant to the newly appointed Director of Homeland Security. Frumpy and middle-aged, she is nonetheless a stolid trooper, a female Bill Gannon to the Director's Sgt. Joe Friday.

This allusion to Dragnet is not incidental. Did Updike always write such absurdly stilted dialogue? Hermione's weak-kneed adoration of her superior is laughable:  Neither "his powerful, rueful masseters" nor his "thoroughly masculine but beautifully formed brunette brows" does a thing for this middle-aged, frumpy reader, except make me rue the day I read them.
He turns in his black suit from the radiant window looking over the Ellipse and the Mall, trampled meadows where those sheep the citizenry graze in their jogging suits and polychrome shorts and running shoes configured like space ships in 'thirties comic books. "I'm wondering," he confides to Hermione, "if we should put the Mid-Atlantic region back on the orange level of alert." 
"Sir, begging your pardon," she says, "but I talk with my sister in New Jersey, and I'm not sure the people know what to do different as the levels go up."
The Secretary chews this over a moment, with his powerful, rueful masseters, then asserts, "No, but the authorities do. They up their own levels; they have a whole menu of emergency measures in front of them." Yet even as he utters this reassurance he feels irritation -- she can tell by the way his fine eyes narrow under their thoroughly masculine but beautifully formed brunette brows...
"If this thing in New Jersey blows up, there'll be no sitting on fat-cat boards for me. No speaker's fees. No million-dollar advance on my memoirs." It was the sort of confession a man should make only to his wife.
Hermione is shocked. He has come closer to her but has fallen in her estimation. She tells him a shade tartly, trying to recall this beautiful, selfless public servant to himself, "Mr. Secretary, no man can serve two masters. Mammon is one; it would be presumptuous for me to name the other."
I appreciate what Updike was aiming for. We all want to get inside the heads of those who commit suicidal mass murder in the name of their religion. Unfortunately, his effort turned mostly into a farce. Like Hermione, though, it feels presumptuous of me to judge someone of John Updike's calibre. Could I write a better novel? Quite probably not.  And so, although I do feel that this book was an overall failure, I must give credit where it's due. There are passages that have the classic Updike panache.  This one, describing the changes that the post-9/11 security upgrades imposed, and how those changes affected people of different social strata, is nothing short of brilliant.
To the well-paid professionals who travelled the airways and frequented the newly fortified government buildings, it appears that a dusky underclass has been given tyrannical power. Comfortable lives that even a decade ago moved fluidly through circuits of privilege and assumed access now encounter sticking-points at what seem every step, while maddeningly deliberate guards ponder driver's licenses and boarding passes. Where once a confident manner, a correct suit and tie, and a business card measuring two by three and a half inches had opened doors, the switch is no longer tripped, the door remains closed. How can the fluid, hydraulically responsive workings of capitalism, let alone the commerce of intellectual exchange and the social life of extended families, function through such obdurate thicknesses of precaution? The enemy has achieved his goal: business and recreation in the West are gummed up, exorbitantly so.
I bought a hard-cover copy of Terrorist at a book sale in Kuala Lumpur in 2010 or so. It sat on the shelf in my un-air-conditioned office, and because I'd not yet read it, I packed and shipped it to Phnom Penh when I moved in March 2014. I inadvertently killed my Kindle by rolling over on it while I slept, and until I could replace it, I was limited to reading print. Mind you, I adore print books. I have borderline pornographic fantasies about libraries filled with them.

But this is what a book looks like after four (4!) years in the tropics with no climate control.


I have a new Kindle Paperwhite now. I may be disappointed in some of the books I'll read on it in the years to come, but at least they'll be crisp black on pristine white.  


Sunday, July 6, 2014

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

King Cophetua and the
Beggar Maid,
Edwin Burne-Jones (1884)


Maurice Bendrix, Greene's protagonist (and, I suspect, his alter-ego) says this book not a love story, but a story about hatred. Bendrix himself is far from loveable. He fell for Sarah, the wife of Henry, his ostensible friend, but she has abruptly ended their affair, leaving him even more bitter. In his angry, dark voice, though, Bendrix narrates what proves to be a complex and profound love story.

None of the loves in this novel is easy -- each is fraught in its own way. Henry and Sarah have a platonic marriage. Bendrix' friendship with Henry is often astonishing in its depth; his passion for Sarah is peppered with mistrust. He learns that Sarah has in fact left him for someone else. The private investigator he hires, Parkis, (who also falls for Sarah in his own humble way) uncovers that Sarah is now trying to find her way in a turbulent relationship with God.

The novel is set in war-time London, and the darkness, punctuated by bomb blasts and murky with fog, is the ideal backdrop -- so little is clear, so much is intense. Bendrix recalls the first time he met Sarah; he had grudgingly accepted an invitation to a party at Henry's house. His cold, anti-social manner failed to put her off. This was perhaps the first time it's failed him; she saw beyond it.
For one thing, she was beautiful, and beautiful women, especially if they are intelligent also, stir some deep feeling of inferiority in me. I don't know whether psychologists have yet named the Cophetua complex, but I have always found it hard to feel sexual desire without some sense of superiority, mental or physical. All I noticed about her that first time was her beauty and her happiness and her way of touching people with her hands, as though she loved them. I can only recall one thing she said to me, apart from that statement with which she began - 'You do seem to dislike a lot of people.'
Greene devises his interior settings as brilliantly as the drear outside. Rooms can tell us so much about the people who live in them, revealing the best and the worst of character traits.
... when I met Henry it was on Sarah's territory, her haphazard living-room where nothing matched, nothing was period or planned, where everything seemed to belong to that very week because nothing was ever allowed to remain as a token of past taste or past sentiment. Everything was used there; just as in Henry's study I now felt that very little had ever been used. I doubted whether the set of Gibbon had once been opened, and the set of Scott was only there because it had - probably - belonged to his father, like the bronze copy of the Discus Thrower. And yet he was happier in his unused room simply because it was his: his possession. I thought with bitterness and envy: if one possesses a thing securely, one need never use it.
I highlighted the following paragraph not because it was central to the story but because it speaks so aptly about the creative process. Call it a muse, call it a miracle -- flashes of insight just seem to materialise from nothing. Provided, of course, that you sit down at that desk on a regular basis.
So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one's days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from the air: the situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.
I once read that the opposite of love is not hatred but fear. Greene seems to concur, at least on the point that love and hate can be dangerously similar in appearance.
Hatred seems to operate the same glands as love: it even produces the same actions. If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we have been able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?
In one of his Easter season sermons, my pastor considered Peter's three denials. This story has always made me miserably uncomfortable. Peter proclaimed to love Jesus and presumably meant it with all his heart, but when pressed, courage failed him. Judas also betrayed Christ -- whether for jealousy, as Greene says, or for silver, who's to say? The difference between them, though, is what they did in their shame:  Judas hung himself. Peter asked forgiveness, and he received it, and that seems to be an essential component of courage and love. Although Bendrix seems unlikely to hang himself in either despair or regret, he doesn't seem open to the idea of mercy -- either earthly or divine.

The private detective manages to pilfer Sarah's diary, and he presents it to Bendrix, who is stunned to realise that Sarah is fighting her own battle with what it means to give and receive love, both earthly and divine.
All today Maurice has been sweet to me. He tells me often that he has never loved another woman so much. He thinks that by saying it often, he will make me believe it. But I believe it simply because I love him in exactly the same way. If I stopped loving him, I would cease to believe in his love. If I loved God, then I would believe in His love for me. It's not enough to need it We have to love first, and I don't know how. But I need it, how I need it.
Bendrix also discovers that Sarah has been consulting a 'rationalist' -- an atheist who delivers impassioned monologues in the park about the fallacy of religious belief. She wants him to convince her that she is deluded. She records in her diary that his certainty has the opposite effect upon her. I think Richard Dawkins has a similar effect on many people -- his vitriolic atheism is no more reasonable than fundamentalist religious views. Rigid, narrow views tend to be fragile and unbalanced.  I admire the fact that Sarah is wrestling with her beliefs and faith throughout the book; Greene never allows her staunch confidence.
I had gone to him to rid me of a superstition, but every time I went his fanaticism fixed the superstition deeper.
After Sarah's death, Henry wants to cremate his late wife's remains, but a priest turns up and asks him to reconsider and to give her instead a proper Catholic burial. Bendrix now seethes with anger at his rival, refusing to admit that He has won.
"Oh no, Henry. She didn't believe in anything, any more than you or me." I wanted her burnt up, I wanted to be able to say, Resurrect that body if you can. My jealousy had not finished, like Henry's, with her death. It was as if she were alive still, in the company of a lover she had preferred to me. How I wished I could send Parkis after her to interrupt their eternity.
Bendrix returns to the tangled braid of love, hate and fear. Sarah had made a leap of faith, of love. The apostle Peter had failed his beloved teacher miserably, but then he did the same. And Maurice Bendrix?
What I chiefly felt was less hate than fear. For if this God exists, I thought, and if even you [Sarah] - with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell - can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all: if you are a saint, it's not so difficult to be a saint. It's something He can demand of any of us, leap. But I won't leap.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Mew.

There comes a point in one's life when one realises that big dreams, glowing aspirations and hard work will only go so far. For me, reading Zadie Smith's review of J. G. Ballard's Crash in this morning's Guardian was just the latest reminder that I am never going to be a literary lion.

This review is the sort of thing I have in mind when I sit down to write every entry, but my posts end up on the kittenish end of the spectrum.   

It opens with Ms. Smith's account of her disastrous meeting with Mr. Ballard aboard a boat full of inebriated English writers, many of whom were pitching plastic chairs into the Thames. My only connection to fine literature is that my late veterinarian-father used to treat Allan Ginsberg's farm animals. 

Smith takes a broad overview of all Ballard's fiction, noting that his gift is to reveal the monstrous in the quotidian: "And Ballard was in the business of taking what seems 'natural' – what seems normal, familiar and rational – and revealing its psychopathology." In the case of Crash, it's our love of cars that becomes pornographic. She goes on to pull in other futuristic and dystopian fiction, noting that Ballard's novel is more subtle, dispassionately crafted with his "medic's eye".  She observes the novel's fine details, but she also places it in the larger universe.

I'll read this review several more times.  If I stare at the lion long enough, carefully enough, maybe -- just maybe -- I can pick up pick up some hints on how she roars.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Reasons She Goes to the Woods, by Deborah Kay Davies

What are little girls made of? 
Sugar and spice 
And everything nice, 
That's what little girls are made of. 

Deborah Kay Davies would like to debunk that little bit of doggerel, thank you very much. Little girls, like little boys, are often horrible creatures, and we forget that and idealise them at our peril.

Pearl is not rotten through and through, of course -- that would also be too simplistic. She refers to her newly-arrived baby brother as 'The Blob', but she later protects him from their mother, who is certifiably mad. Pearl turns to her father, who doesn't cope effectively with either his wife's mental illness or his daughter's obvious Electra complex. When she's out in the woods or the hedgerow with her little friends, Pearl thinks and does things that adults don't want to attribute to nice little beings of sugar and spice.

As the novel opens, I wondered if it was going to be a tribute to a pastoral idyll. This passage alone is more than enough reason to go to the woods!
The weeping willow Pearl is riding dips its neck into a clear, brown stream. Sssshhhh, she whispers, as she pats the bucking trunk and grips with her thighs. Above her, the willow tosses its shaggy arms. Slim, fish-shaped leaves fall past Pearl and plop into the stream. She dangles over to watch and inhales as the slivers of green swim away; the stream's breath smells of bright weeds, frogspawn, lichened pebbles. The water is a dazzling drink. Circular, swirling eyes come and go on its surface. Underneath, worm-thin plants all reach forwards, like hair in the wind. Pearl would love to be a stickleback, or a newt, and have the stream as her home. She climbs out of the tree and joins the tall fern-crowds running down to see the water. As she slips through they slap her with gentle, lemony hands, streaking her with juice. Pearl's shorts and pink sun-top all feel so stupid. She wades into the water, her sandals growing heavy, and waits for the stream to settle. Insects are ticking in the undergrowth. Kingcups glow amongst the fleshy plants along the water's margin. Pearl lies down in a smooth, shallow pool. Her hair entwines with the waving plants, her skin turns to liquid, her open eyes are just-born jewels. She can feel her brown limbs dissolving. Sunlight falls in bars and spots through the trees. As the lovely water laps her ears and throat, moves inside her shorts, slips across her fragile ribs, Pearl grins, thinking she hears laughter, and raises her arms to the just-glimpsed sky. These are some of the reasons she comes to the woods.
Pearl befriends Fee when the feckless little girl agrees to eat Pearl's offering of a mud-pie stuffed with dead insects. Her friendship with the not-so-sweet Honey also involves a lot of mud and mischief, not all of which is harmless fun.
Honey tells Pearl about the baby she used to take out. I love babies, she says, making a thumb-sized mud child and giving it to Pearl. You can do stuff with them, and they can't tell anyone. Pearl crushes the friable brown baby between her palms. Apart from with The Blob, she hadn't thought of that before. Honey puts lumps of mud on each of Pearl's toes, then flattens them out to cover her nails. Pearl shapes a huge, hanging mud nose and fits it on Honey. They stare at each other in the hedge gloom. Honey's wide smile looks odd curving out behind her rough, earth nose. We have a baby in our street, Pearl says, so they clean up and knock on the baby's door. The baby's mother is a friend of Pearl's family. Keep to the paths, she says, tucking a blanket in. We promise, they say. Inside the buggy the pink baby is propped up on a frilly pillow. Pearl and Honey take turns to push. Soon they come to a stile in the hedge. I know, says Pearl, we could easily get this thing over. They manage to lift the buggy up to the top bar of the stile. I'm puffed, Honey says, and sits down. Pearl thinks she can do it alone, but suddenly everything upends. The baby flies out and lands in some nettles like a knot of washing. The trees lean in and a bird trills while they stand, transfixed. Then Pearl vaults the stile, pulls the baby up by her talcy shawls and plonks her back in the righted pushchair. The baby is quivering; about to yell, covered in scarlet nettle stings and dead leaves. Its soiled bonnet is askew. Pearl and Honey hold hands; worst of all, there is a greeny-grey lump growing above the baby's right eye.
The novel follows Pearl from her early childhood through her adolescent and teen years, when her mother's mental health becomes ever more precarious. Like many children who live with a deranged family member, Pearl's intuition grows very sharp. It seems the house itself gives her signals as to what waits within.
Pearl only has to look at her front door to know how it will be inside. The oval window above the letterbox changes colour. Like an eye that's sometimes vacant, sometimes terrified, sometimes blind with rage, the bluey-green glass subtly alters. It's a language Pearl can understand. Once or twice even the brass door handle has told her things.
At once whimsical and deeply disturbing, gorgeously written and provocative, Reasons She Goes to the Woods reminds us of the wonders and the pain of childhood, giving us a new recipe for what little girls are made of.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Who are you? What defines your identity? What does your identity mean to you, or to those who suppose they know you?

I don't normally gravitate toward novels in which characters, either by identity theft or some other form of legerdemain, simply become someone else on page 157.  I also have limited tolerance for unreliable narrators who reveal halfway through the novel that I shouldn't believe some or all of what they're telling me.

On that basis, I should have loathed Await Your Reply. With three story lines slowly converging, inherently untrustworthy characters (fraudulent, schizophrenic, stoned, Russian or overly gullible), this novel had all the ingredients for a jumbled mess. Dan Chaon, though, strikes me as a deft puppeteer who manages to keep the strings untangled and to move his characters through the story well enough to keep the reader engaged and not hopelessly confused.

In one of the story lines, Miles has been searching for years for his brilliant and schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, who has been teasing him with letters and emails that fuel a continual goose-chase across North America. When Miles arrives in a remote corner of Canada's northwest territories, he collides with Lydia, who is also trying to track Hayden down (although she knows him by a different name) -- Lydia's sister ran off with him years before, and no one has heard from her since.  As the two seekers sit in a bar, Lydia asks the question that's perhaps most central to the whole novel.
"But who just abandons their family in that way? What kind of person decides that they can throw everything away and -- reinvent themselves. As if you could just discard the parts of your life that you didn't want anymore. Sometimes I think, well, that's where we are now, as a society. That's just what people have become, these days. We don't value connection."
Ryan left college -- from which he was about to flunk out, anyway -- to meet his uncle, Jay, for the first time. Jay had just revealed a family secret:  He is Ryan's biological father. Ryan joins his new-found parent in the business of on-line identity fraud.  As he is travelling about the country and shifting money between misappropriated accounts, Ryan learns that the police have ruled his disappearance from the college a suicide, based upon someone thinking they saw him jumping into a frozen lake on campus. So, while taking steps to establish various aliases as part of their scam, Ryan tries to come to grips with the fact that his own identity has been declared dead, and not by his choice.
Sometimes Ryan imagined that he saw people from his past. Ever since his death, this had become a regular occurrence, these minor hallucinations, tricks of perception.
In the third story line, 17 year-old Lucy takes off from her mid-western home-town with school teacher George Orson, a charismatic, Ivy-league educated, Maserati-driving man who claims to find the teen-aged girl irresistably 'sui generis'.  Their relationship is odd -- while George Orson is clearly deceiving Lucy about his own background, he appears to genuinely care for her, and he treats her solicitously; Lucy seems alternately ordinary, savvy, gullible, and worldly. The two of them land in a house in Nebraska which George claims to have been his childhood home. They will stay there only a short while, he says, while he gets his "investments" in order before they move on to a stylish life in Europe. Italy, maybe. Their time in Nebraska, however, draws on longer than Lucy had expected, and George seems increasingly nervous. Finally, he announces that they will need to assume new identities and will be flying to Côte d'Ivoire so he can tie up a few loose ends of whatever dodgy business he's in.  As Lucy chafes uncomfortably in her new identity as the daughter of  "David Fremden", she begins to grasp that very little about her companion is as he'd claimed. She doesn't enjoy that sort of fluidity; he revels in it.
"That isn't really the house that you grew up in, is it?" she said, and her voice felt pressed flat as well. "The Lighthouse. All of the stuff you told me. That painting. That wasn't your grandmother."
"Hmm," he said, and he lifted his fingers from her thigh to gesture vaguely, an apologetic fluttering movement. "This is complicated," he said ruefully. "It always comes to this," he said. "Everyone gets so hung up on what's real and not real."
"Yeah," Lucy said. "People are funny that way."
 But George Orson only shook his head, as if she didn't get it. "This may sound unbelievable to you," he said, "but the truth is, a part of me truly did grow up there. There isn't just one version of the past, you know. Maybe that seems crazy, but eventually, after we've done this for a while, I think you'll see. We can be anybody we want. Do you realize that? And that's all it comes down to," he said. "I loved being George Orson. I put a lot of thought and energy into it, and it wasn't fake. I wasn't trying to fool you. I did it because I liked it. Because it made me happy."
In an almost believable display of earnest affection, George/David confesses his love for Lucy.
"And," he said, "I met you. I met you, and we fell in love, didn't we? Don't you understand, honey? You're the only person in the world I've ever been able to talk to. You're the only person in the world who loves me." 
Of course one wonders (and we can only assume that Lucy is doing likewise), with whom did she fall in love? With whom has she been talking?
And now she thought it again as she sat in her seat next to David Fremden on the airplane and tried to compose her thoughts. She missed George Orson. She would never talk to him again.
Lucy recalls a moment in George Orson's classroom in which he might have revealed something of himself in the guise of a logic lesson -- and her response to it.
'I never tell the truth', he told the class, was a version of the famous Epimenides paradox, and then he explained what a paradox was, and Lucy had written it down, thinking that it might be on a test, possibly she could get extra credit.
As she sits in a cafe in Côte d'Ivoire, however, her stylish new clothes and hairstyle chosen to match her latest assumed identity, Lucy considers that she may or may not stay with her former high school teacher and simultaneously realises that her own identity has become more mutable.
Perhaps he imagined she would remain the same person on the inside, no matter what name or persona she adopted. But that wasn't true, she thought. More and more, she was aware that Lucy Lattimore had left the earth. Already there was hardly anything left of her -- a few scraps of documents, birth certificate and social security card in her mother's drawer back in the old house, her high school transcript resident on some outdated computer, the memories of her sister, Patricia, the vague recollections of her classmates and teachers, already fading. The truth was, she had killed herself months ago. Now she was next to nothing: a nameless physical form that could be exchanged and exchanged and exchanged until nothing remained but molecules.
The three story lines converge completely only in the final chapter, which brings the book to a satisfying close, but the questions about identity -- our own, others' -- continue to linger and disturb. Really, who are you?  

Monday, June 9, 2014

In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen

Not long after Peter Mathiessen's death on 5 April of this year, I heard a re-broadcast of a radio interview
with him.  He spoke of his early experimentation with LSD, which led him to realise that it was not going to deliver any long-term enlightenment. He gave up psychodelics for Zen Buddhism and began a lifelong practice of meditation. During that interview, he made a passing mention of  In Paradise, his novel about a meditation and prayer retreat at Auschwitz in the mid-1990s. (Mathiessen had in fact attended three Zen retreats there.) He died three days before the novel's official publication.

After labouring through the Mr. Watson trilogy, which I felt was about two books longer than was really necessary, I had some qualms about picking up this novel, but they were misguided. Mathiessen did not grow successively more prolix with each of his books; In Paradise is as lean and spare as its author, yet far from insubstantial.

In the NY Times Review of Books, Donna Rifkind writes that the novel is "so suffused with qualms about its legitimacy that it stifles its own anguish" and complains that the narrator's unresolved bafflement will frustrate readers. My response to that? Rubbish! Who expects Peter Mathiessen to write a novel about a mixed-faith gathering at Auschwitz in a tidy, plastic James Patterson package?  I don't think for a minute that Matthiessen had qualms about the novel's legitimacy, nor do I feel that the book stifled anything at all:  like any skilled meditator, Mathiessen watched what arose at the retreat, observed the jumble of emotions, noted them, and let them pass. He neither stifled nor amplified them. Yes, reading this novel is discomfiting. As it should be.

Clements Olin is a Polish-American academician come for the retreat although he has not registered as a participant. He has come, he says, to do research. A couple of teen-agers in Oswiecim find him waiting for transportation and graciously offer to show him their town and then drive him out to his destination. Although their warmth, good cheer and hospitality touch him, Olin cannot stop himself when he realises they are oblivious to the dark history of the place. He knows he's being rude and abusive, but their ignorance is more than he can bear.
Leaning forward to be heard over the auto's clatter, he asks Mirek and Wanda if they knew that prewar Oswiecim had been a mostly Jewish community renowned for its hospitality: its name, he has read, may derive from a Yiddish word meaning 'guests.' ...
After Oswiecim's Jews were transported to the Cracow ghetto, their houses were occupied by Christians, that snoop's forebears doubtless among them. And the girl's family, too, perhaps, in their old "Yittish" house. Were you young people never told, he says, that after the war, when those few returning refugees made their way back home to Poland to reclaim their lives, they were reviled and driven off and sometimes bludgeoned and occasionally, when too persistent, killed? "Nearly two thousand Jews were murdered in this country after the war," he says. "Didn't you know that?"
"Murtered?" They have stopped their fooling. They look shocked -- less by the statistic, he suspects, than by their passenger's intensity. "No, sir! Sorry! We were never learned such things!" ...
In a voice gone hoarse, the passenger inquires, "How do you feel? Being here, I mean? How does it feel to come to such a place? In your own country?" The young Poles exchange looks of alarm. Why would their guest ask them such a thing so many years after those shrouded times that even the old people claim they can scarcely remember? He presses them. Hadn't they noticed that old railway embedded in the road? Surely they knew that before those first transports of Jews arrived from western Europe, thousands of Polish prisoners had already been exterminated in this place -- your own damned people, boys and girls, he wants to yell, right here behind these walls! Wake up! When they answer at last, they speak in whispers. They say, It was too long ago. They say, We cannot even imagine it. They say, We don't know how to think about something so incredible -- not, he notes, "so terrible" but "so incredible," so far beyond belief, as if no sane intelligence could comprehend, far less accept, that such enormous horror could take place in this quiet neighborhood of the girl's hometown. She is sniffling.
The teen-aged Poles unceremoniously drop Olin at the gates and speed away, leaving him to walk into the camp and meet the retreat leader, Ben Lama, and the very mixed group assembled there. Why are they there? That's not easily answered.
Auschwitz I, with its upstairs museum, is all most visitors, descending for a quick half day from their round-trip charter bus from Cracow, might feel inclined to see; he imagines them reeling back aboard, undone by so much evidence of huge cold crimes. But Ben Lama's would-be witness bearers are no tourists, and neither are they Holocaust voyeurs come to indulge a morbid curiosity; most seem to be here on painful missions incompletely understood, by themselves perhaps least of all.
I've never visited Auschwitz. I live in southeast Asia, however, and I've visited the memorial sites dedicated to the slaughter of millions of Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge years. Like nearly every other visitor to these sites, I've spent a few hours there and come away feeling horrified. An alternative, Mathiessen suggests, is to stay longer, to "sit with it".
One shocked woman has collapsed and must be helped back to her room, but she soon sends word that she intends to see this through: she will not retreat to Cracow and fly home. "That's the choice," Ben Lama comments publicly at the noon meal. "We pass through quickly, sickened and depressed, or we stay for days and sit with it in meditation; we immerse ourselves and are transformed."
Some of the retreatants are German Christians; others are Israeli Jews. Unsurprisingly, hostilities between them flare quickly. Someone suggests that many "ordinary Germans" participated in the persecutions under duress. Assessing guilt is a tricky business, unless the accused revels in his deeds.
Like perpetrators of atrocities worldwide, Rudolf Hoess would lay all blame on his superiors, describing himself as "a normal person overcome by a ruthless concept of obedience." This appraisal of his own character seems almost rational when compared to the vainglory of Adolf Eichmann, for whom the knowledge that he helped consign five million Jewish human beings to their deaths was a source of "extraordinary satisfaction."
"I shall leap into my grave laughing," Eichmann said. ...
Then again, the 'normal person overcome by the ruthless concept of obedience' doesn't appear to have suffered many misgivings.
"My family, to be sure, were well-provided for here in Auschwitz," Hoess would write. "Every wish expressed by my wife or children was granted them. The children could live a free and untrammeled life. My wife's garden was a paradise of flowers." The Hoesses and their four offspring, waited on by emaciated slaves, inhabited a brute heaven of gourmet delicacies, silks, furs, jewelry, and assorted loot stripped from doomed prisoners. His wife would sigh, "I want to live here till I die..."
Professor Clements Olin is a scholar, an historian. He's not a particularly spiritual man, nor is he especially receptive to supernatural phenomena. He is not, however, immune to the power of the concentration camp's history on his subconscious mind. Whether he wants to admit it or not, he seems drawn to certain spots on the Auschwitz grounds, and he grows increasingly aware that he is searching for something.
During meditation, breathing mindfully moment after moment, his awareness opens and dissolves into snow light. But out of nowhere, just as he had feared, the platform's emptiness is filled by a multitude of faceless shapes milling close around him. He feels the vibration of their footfalls.
One night after dinner, there is music, and most of the retreatants join in a spontaneous, inexplicable, almost delirious dance. Those who participated in it describe it as a sublime, transcendent experience; those who sat and observed are appalled at its inappropriateness. Olin marvels at the sense of unity, as if the dance had been a testament to the resilience of joy, and then he remarks on its transience.
... the tension dispelled by the Dancing has been seeping back. In this toxic atmosphere, good intentions are eroding like the noses of stone gargoyles on cathedral peaks.
During the course of the retreat, Olin grows close to a young, novice nun who defiantly speaks up to apologise for the complicity of the Catholic Church. His feelings for Sister Catherine are confused, veering between admiration and attraction; her own feelings for the Church aren't much clearer. She is adamant that her vocation is solid -- she is destined to serve the Lord -- but her insistence that women should be ordained as priests has already earned her a probationary status. The priest sent to oversee her at the retreat is not unsympathetic, but he too is confined by "a ruthless concept of obedience", albeit to a different authority than Rudolph Hoess.
Catherine is over-educated for a novice, he tells Olin, and a little willful -- a bit deficient in Christian humility, some would say. And when she discovers that advocacy of women's ordination may be reclassified as delicta graviora, 'a grave sin against the Church,' in the same category as the rape of children ...
"My God," says Olin. "That's grotesque! Insane!"
"Yes, it is," says the priest. "The Vatican has gone insane."
Olin does leave the retreat a transformed man, probably much more so than he would have predicted, and he is far from understanding the nature and implications of the changes. And I can say the same for myself as this book's reader. I set it down with a certain sense of bafflement, to use Donna Rifkind's word, and I'm at peace with that. I'm willing to sit with it and see where it goes.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cakes and Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham

The Barmaid,
oil on canvas by Alan Lowndes
In a 1958 radio interview, Maugham considered all the novels he wrote and concluded that Cakes and Ale, published in 1930, was his favourite. I've read only three of his 29 novels, but so far, I also like this one best.

In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton wields her status-conscious, censorious characters as weapons -- they destroy those they deem their moral inferiors. In Cakes and Ale, Maugham uses drollery, and it's the self-satisfied snobs who turn up on the receiving end of it.

William Ashenden is the narrator, and as the book opens he recounts the day in his youth when he met novelist Edward Driffield and his wife Rosie pedalling their bicycles through Blackstable, Kent. Driffield teaches the boy to ride his own bicycle and invites him to join them on outings, a proposition which appals Ashenden's uncle, who is also the church pastor.

William asks his uncle and aunt if they've read any of Mr. Driffield's fiction; they certainly have not. Why would anyone write about the often unpleasant realities of life? Fiction should be uplifting! The young man mentions the often grim realism of England's most beloved novelist.
"I suppose it's a matter of taste," said my aunt. "I always found Dickens very coarse. I don't want to read about people who drop their aitches."
William later asks the household maid, Mary-Ann, why his uncle forbade him to spend time with the couple. Mary-Ann has no compunction about dishing the dirt, and she tells him that Rosie Driffield (née Gann) had been a childhood friend but grew into a dissolute young woman, working in a pub and having an affair with a flamboyant married man in the town. I love the adolescent William's reaction to this salacious tale -- fascination turning to disbelief -- but his initial admiration of Rosie is undimmed; it will stick with him, it turns out, throughout his life, her many critics be damned. In the meantime, though, the thought of "old people" (over 30) having such feelings strikes him as implausible.
I was shocked and thrilled by what Mary-Ann told me, but I had difficulty in believing it. I had read too many novels and had learnt too much at school not to know a good deal about love, but I thought it was a matter that only concerned young people. I could not conceive that a man with a beard, who had sons as old as I, could have any feelings of that sort. I thought when you married all that was finished. That people over thirty should be in love seemed to me rather disgusting.
Fast forward to William's own mid-life.  He is unmarried, a writer. A fellow author, Alroy Kear, approaches William and announces that the late Edward Driffield's widowed second wife, Amy, has commissioned him to write a biography, and Alroy wonders if William could reveal his history with the novelist over the years. For the rest of the book , Maugham switches between the present, where William contends with Alroy's and Amy's desire to sanitise Driffield's life, and years past, during which William's relationships with both Edward and Rosie Driffield deepened.

William doesn't seem to begrudge Alroy this commission; he has no plan to write a biography of Driffield. In fact, he delivers a deliciously back-handed compliment of Kear's prolixity, noting that speech just rolls effortless out of the man's mouth in a veritable flood of clichés, doubtless familiar to all audiences. His speech is so colloquial, in fact, that people say he sounds not a bit like an author.
The Americans, who are the most efficient people on the earth, have carried this device to such a height of perfection and have invented so wide a range of pithy and hackneyed phrases that they can carry on an amusing and animated conversation without giving a moment's reflection to what they are saying and so leave their minds free to consider the more important matters of big business and fornication.
Unfortunately for his widow and biographer, Edward Driffield's life (and certainly his first marriage) don't lend themselves to bowdlerisation. Maybe not even worthwhile to try, William suggests.
"Don't you think it would be more interesting if you went the whole hog and drew him warts and all?"
"Oh, I couldn't. Amy Driffield would never speak to me again. She only asked me to do the life because she felt she could trust my discretion. I must behave like a gentleman."
"It's very hard to be a gentleman and a writer."
"I don't see why. And besides, you know what the critics are. If you tell the truth they only say you're cynical and it does an author no good to get a reputation for cynicism. Of course I don't deny that if I were thoroughly unscrupulous I could make a sensation. It would be rather amusing to show the man with his passion for beauty and his careless treatment of his obligations, his fine style and his personal hatred for soap and water, his idealism and his tippling in disreputable pubs; but honestly, would it pay? They'd only say I was imitating Lytton Strachey...  You know, however gross a subject is you can soften its unpleasantness if you treat it with dignity. But I can do nothing unless I am in complete possession of the facts.
"Obviously you can't cook them unless you have them."
Of all the characters in the book, Maugham really outdoes himself with Mr. Barton Trafford, the Victorian precursor to the modern literary agent. Although she oozes gentility, her opinion and patronage can either launch a writer's career or end it. When a poet's second book of verse fails to meet the promise of his first, this fine lady realises that she may have misjudged.
Mrs. Barton Trafford at this juncture was perfect. She did not repine. No harsh word escaped her lips. She might have been excused if she had felt a certain bitterness because this man for whom she had done so much had let her down. She remained tender, gentle, and sympathetic. She was the woman who understood. She dropped him, but not like a hot brick, or a hot potato. She dropped him with infinite gentleness, as softly as the tear that she doubtless shed when she made up her mind to do something so repugnant to her nature; she dropped him with so much tact, with such sensibility, that Jasper Gibbons perhaps hardly knew he was dropped. But there was no doubt about it...

She would say nothing against him, indeed she would not discuss him at all, and when mention was made of him she merely smiled, a little sadly, and sighed. But her smile was the coup de grâce, and her sigh buried him deep.
Mrs. Barton Trafford heartily endorses Edward Driffield's novels, as does William, who gives an interestingly synaesthetic review of his favourite.
The Cup of Life, though certainly not the most celebrated of his books, nor the most popular, is to my mind the most interesting. It has a cold ruthlessness that in all the sentimentality of English fiction strikes an original note. It is refreshing and astringent. It tastes of tart apples. It sets your teeth on edge, but it has a subtle, bitter-sweet savour that is very agreeable to the palate.
Mrs. Barton Trafford marginalises Rosie as she promotes Driffield's fiction; in her view, Rosie, like most authors' wives, offers nothing but distraction from her husband's precious work. Years later, Driffield's second wife, Amy, wants to expunge Rosie entirely from the biography.
"From what I hear she was absolutely promiscuous."
"You don't understand," I said. "She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love."
"Do you call that love?"
"Well, then, the act of love. She was naturally affectionate. When she liked anyone it was quite natural for her to go to bed with him. She never thought twice about it. It was not vice; it wasn't lasciviousness; it was her nature. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume. It was a pleasure to her and she liked to give pleasure to others. It had no effect on her character; she remained sincere, unspoiled, and artless."
Mrs. Driffield looked as though she had taken a dose of castor oil and had just been trying to get the taste of it out of her mouth by sucking a lemon.
William recalls Rosie, whom he's not seen for years, immediately remembering her smile, with its "childlike and mischievous sweetness". (I lost count, but Maugham must have used that same phrase to describe Rosie's smile at least a half dozen times, and he is too meticulous with his words for it to have been an oversight.) I suppose Maugham grew genuinely fond of Rosie and all her unpretentious ways; he doesn't allow the Mrs. Barton Traffords and the Amys of the world to ruin her. He uses his own literary gift to reveal their hypocrisy, leaving them hoist with their own petards, as it were. Revenge, with a childlike and mischievous sweetness.