Category Archives: Commentary

Austen, Balzac and the “dismal science”

I’m about halfway through a light summer read—French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which so far has been thoroughly accessible and engaging.

18736925Piketty’s surprise bestseller, which in 577 heavily footnoted pages analyzes centuries of data, is an important new assessment of economic growth, capital formation, wealth and income distribution. As you might expect from the title’s nod to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the book has been praised by liberals and attacked by conservatives, although it seems to me those who have nitpicked Piketty’s data are overlooking the forest for the trees.

As Piketty says numerous times in the book, even if you disagree with the exact percentages, the trends are difficult to refute. Over time, the distribution of wealth has followed a U-shaped curve. From the start of the Industrial Revolution to the eve of World War 1, wealth and income inequality remained at consistently high levels. Then, between 1913 and 1970, due to the century’s political, social and economic cataclysms, both values declined to their lowest levels. But since 1980 they have risen again, according to Piketty to levels approaching those at the end of the 19th century. Whether inequality is good, bad or inconsequential remains to be seen, but I suspect Piketty will spend the second half of the book arguing that it’s bad.

My appreciation of Piketty’s presentation has been enhanced by his use of literature to supplement his research, in particular Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park and Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot. There’s something reassuring about an economist who finds anecdotal evidence for his thesis in the humanities.

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

The point Piketty makes is that Austen and Balzac demonstrated an acute awareness of money—especially the amounts of wealth and income needed to be a person of means—that readers of the time would not fail to understand implicitly.

“In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, money was everywhere,” Piketty writes, “not only as an abstract force but above all as a palpable, concrete magnitude. Writers frequently described the income and wealth of their characters in francs or pounds, not to overwhelm us with numbers but because these quantities established a character’s social status in the mind of the reader. Everyone knew what standard of living these numbers represented.”

Austen’s protagonists, for instance, fully understood the levels of wealth and kinds of income, whether from rents or investments (certainly not from labor among the upper class), their suitors possessed. Piketty asserts that modern-day writers, after a century of inflation and the consequential loss of our monetary bearings, cannot assume their readers share the same understanding of money. (I remember worrying about this when writing Under a False Flag; the 1972 dollar amounts of CIA covert actions in Chile seemed so paltry, I was afraid they would look ludicrous to the reader.)

Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Piketty continues: “One could easily multiply examples by drawing on American, German and Italian novels, as well as the literature of all the other countries that experienced this long period of monetary stability. Until World War I, money had meaning, and novelists did not fail to exploit it, explore it, and turn it into a literary subject.”

Money does sometimes play an important role in modern novels, but in a way that probably strengthens Piketty’s argument. Think The Great Gatsby, where Gatsby’s wealth must be shown through the commodities consumed—shirts and cars and house size. And in more contemporary novels, money is often imbued with nebulous, shifting, post-modern meaning. Think JR by William Gaddis or Money by Martin Amis. Money becomes a concept, an illusion, that has little to do with defining social status and everything to do with gaming the system or the reader.

Piketty is not arguing for a return to the gold standard; he is simply making the point, in preparation for other more important points to come, that economic growth before World War 1 was slower, inflation was virtually non-existent, and investment income (the return on capital) grew faster than income from labor, thus enabling wealth and income inequality to remain high. It’s a situation he fears we are returning to, as most economic forecasts for developed nations indicate a slowdown in growth to rates approximating those of earlier centuries.

It’s complicated stuff, and there’s much more to it than I have touched on here. Piketty does a fine job explaining his thesis, building a persuasive argument in clear, logical steps, but perhaps what we need is a new Austen or Balzac to show us what this rise in wealth and income inequality really means to society. Or is one already out there? If you think so, please let me know. Meanwhile, I may go back to the originals with newfound appreciation.

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Two years a slave

Tomorrow marks the start of my third year blogging. I use the term “slave” somewhat facetiously and certainly not in the word’s abhorrent primary meaning. But the second definition—working without remuneration—isn’t too far off, and a third meaning is even more accurate: being in thrall to something, an addict or devotee. For blogging is a beguiling habit. You put a thought, an image, or a question out there and wait. The reaction can be immediate or slow in coming, what you expected or a complete surprise. And yet, how addictive the process becomes—I blog, therefore I am.

I smile when I think of my original intention—a selfish one, really—for this blog: to create a place where readers of my fiction might learn more about the author. The inverse has happened. I receive much more from the blogosphere than I give back. Humor, sincerity, passion, diversity, friendship—they’re all here. So, while I do get to record my thoughts about books and other things that preoccupy me in this little space on the worldwide web, the generosity, kindness and creativity returned are far more extraordinary.

What I’m trying to say is, thank you to all who have read, liked, followed or commented here. But even more, thank you to all who write, paint, photograph, draw, translate, transcribe or whatever other creative thing you do on your blog that has kept me a slave to your art for the last two years. Please keep it coming!

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In praise of paperbacks

Remember when people, especially publishers, worried that the advent of the e-book would bring about the demise of the printed book? Only a few years later, that worry seems rather silly. As sales statistics bear out, both formats will co-exist for a long time to come.

Who can argue with the convenience of e-books, especially when traveling or wanting something instantly? But I also love the sensory appeal of printed books—their look, touch and smell; the way they beg to be opened and the way you can leaf through them randomly or with intent. And, although the dictionary and search functions of e-books are fantastic, entering marginalia in one is hardly as easy or as enjoyable as in a physical book (provided you have something to write with).

And yet, people still seem determined to kill off the paperback. I don’t understand it. If anything, despite recent sales figures to the contrary, I would predict the death of the hardcover book. At least for general fiction and non-fiction.

Once upon a time, you bought a hardcover book if you couldn’t wait to read it, or if you planned to keep it for years to come in your private library (you know, that stately room in your familial manor that reflected your education, social status and cultural devotion, now dubbed the media room), or if you were a librarian dealing with the wear and tear from multiple borrowers.

Recently, I read about a new library in Texas that contains no books at all. In effect, it is a computer hotspot with online access to e-books and e-zines. Give our digital age a few more years, and I suspect that will be the norm rather than the exception. The great democratic notion of public libraries full of books will become as quaint as public polling stations full of voting booths.

The demise of book-filled libraries may be the kiss of death for hardcover books, as well.

As if they sense it, publishers in these micro-margin, cost-cutting times have taken action. Hardcover books have risen in price and deteriorated in quality. These days, their spines often crack or tear, their cardboard covers warp and their pages feel like they are made of Kleenex and recycled soda bottles. Increasingly, the disadvantages of hardcover books—their size, heft and expense—outweigh their merits (especially if a book is only read once, as most are).

Meanwhile, paperbacks, especially trade paperbacks, have gotten better. Perhaps because they are traditionally the re-issue of hardcover editions, paperbacks tend to have more design harmony. More thought seems to go into branding the author and the imprint.

dettaglio_226

A fine Europa Editions reprint

My current favorite American paperback publishers are Europa Editions and New York Review Books.

In the case of Europa, their sturdy covers come with gatefolds front and back, more like European books than the dime-store paperbacks of old. Their cover designs are simple, and the interior layout is refined: the off-white paper is a heavy uncoated stock, and the typefaces are well chosen for legibility, with large fonts and generous leading.

NYRB are winners for their understated design, modern color palettes, quality paper and sturdy construction (not to mention their interesting author lineup). You can always tell when you have an NYRB or Europa Editions book in hand. They are a pleasure to hold and to read, and they will last a lifetime of multiple readings.

NYRB's distinctive design.

NYRB’s distinctive design.

With the emerging trend to publish the e-book version simultaneously, that publishers still issue a hardcover edition first, before the paperback, seems backward, a throwback to ye olde days. Publishers wonder why fewer books are bought each year, and they grumble about the terrible cost (not to mention waste) of remainders. But if they offered a high-quality paperback first edition instead (and saved the hardcover for the reprinting of time-tested literature), I believe they would have a winning formula. More often than not, my first choice would still be a physical book over an e-book, provided I didn’t have to wait months for its release and it was offered at a reasonable price. I bet plenty of other readers would choose it, too.

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Tenth of December

TenthDecember_interesting-angle.jpgYou could almost hear the turbines revving at Random House earlier this year as the publishing behemoth kicked off its marketing campaign for the release of George Saunders’ newest story collection, Tenth of December. Clearly, the commercial juggernaut determined to make Mr. Saunders a household name.

“George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” Imagine having to live up to that embarrassingly presumptuous headline. But that was what a New York Times Magazine profile, timed with the book’s release and surely pitched by a Random House press agent, declared.

George Saunders

George Saunders (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George Saunders is probably accustomed to such pressure; he has lived with the “genius” tag since 2006, when he received a MacArthur Foundation grant. And quite possibly he knew his book was pretty good. After all, it’s not every day the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, and Zadie Smith blurb pithy praise for a book…or is it?

The good news is that, despite his publisher’s heavy-handed campaign to tell us that Important Literature had arrived, the book is good. Okay, maybe not the best book I read this year, but darned good.

As with most collections, some of the stories were better than others. The good ones stood out as kind-hearted, sharp and funny portals into contemporary life. Saunders is best at capturing the inane self-absorption of teenagers, as he does in “Victory Lap” and the eponymous story, “Tenth of December.” He’s also good with the anxious/frustrated sadness that verges on desperation/despair of parents dealing with the complexities of modern/futuristic families, as he does in “Home” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries.”

The latter, with its weird sci-fi bent and generous humor, is perhaps the best story in the bunch. Saunders explores, without pretension but with heart, the big questions of moral philosophy–our freedom to screw up, our right to die, the meaning of individuality, the meaning of community. His alternate realities, as in “Al Roosten,” and near futures, as in “Escape from Spiderhead,” are all too close to you-know-what.

As a stylist Saunders is a minimalist striving to capture the abbreviated vernacular of our modern American consciousness. Here he is in “Victory Lap” projecting the thoughts of a teenage girl who was nearly kidnapped:

For months afterward she had nightmares in which Kyle brought the rock down. She was on the deck trying to scream his name but nothing was coming out. Down came the rock. Then the guy had no head. The blow just literally dissolved his head. Then his body tumped over and Kyle turned to her with this heartbroken look of, My life is over. I killed a guy.

Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up and brush the shards off its pads but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head. Or you’re driving and there’s this old guy on crutches, and you go, to Mr. Feder, your Driver’s Ed teacher, Should I swerve? And he’s like, Uh, probably. But then you hear the big clunk and Feder makes a negative mark in his book.

At times I would have liked to see him extend his vocal range; his characters/narrators tend to think in a similar fragmentary syntax, and for me they started to blend together. Their individuality seemed overpowered by Saunders’ own quirky voice. But that’s a small quibble.

Truthfully, I would have enjoyed Tenth of December much more if the publisher and its collaborators hadn’t tried so hard to tell me how great it was going to be. My gripe is not with George Saunders, who is a clever and polished satirist, but with his handlers, uh, I mean, publisher.

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With a bang, a whimper, or medium-rare with ketchup?

Cover of "On the Beach"

(MGM, 1959)

I first read On the Beach, Nevil Shute’s end-of-the-world novel, as a freshman in high school. I’d already seen the movie, starring Gregory Peck as the U.S. submarine captain and Ava Gardner as the woman who falls in love with him, so the book seemed, well, anticlimactic. By 1968, after the Cuban missile crisis and years of air-raid drills, the possibility of nuclear annihilation was part of our psyche. You just lived with it.

Shute, a successful aeronautical engineer and prolific writer who emigrated from England to Australia after serving in the Royal Navy during World War II, published On the Beach in 1957. It was not the first but was certainly the most popular work of fiction to warn of nuclear holocaust. Other novels and films quickly followed. From A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and Fail-Safe (1962) to Dr. Strangelove (1964), artists used speculative drama and satire to address a fear that was all too real.

NSN3

Nevil Shute
(www.nevilshute.org)

In Shute’s version of the end, the Northern Hemisphere has destroyed itself after “the Irresponsibles”—small nations with a handful of nuclear bombs—draw the nuclear superpowers into a third world war. Now the winds are gradually carrying cobalt radiation to the south, and the main characters, who live in Melbourne, Australia, face imminent death.

The way Shute’s characters behave as they wait for the end seemed improbable to my freshman mind. Sure, some overindulge with alcohol, but most either live in a state of conscious denial, pretending the end isn’t coming in order to preserve life’s routines, or they fearlessly attempt what they had only dreamed of doing before.

“If what they say is right, we’re none of us going to have time to do all that we planned to do,” says the plucky heroine to another woman. “But we can keep on doing it as long as we can.”

For the six months remaining to them, people go about their jobs, plant gardens for the following year, and take courses to improve their career prospects. When the end does come, most retire to their beds and swallow a little white pill dispensed by a well-prepared government.

Compare that scenario with Cormac McCarthy’s savage end in The Road (2006). There, an unexplained event has launched the planet into nuclear winter. The few survivors must grub for food and defend themselves from robbers and cannibals even as they escape the encroaching cold, gradually sicken from radiation poisoning and die.

When mankind’s end comes, I suspect McCarthy’s is the more likely scenario. Nevertheless, Shute, despite serving in both world wars, maintained a great faith in ordinary human decency, even in situations of extreme stress. In A Town Like Alice, his characters survive a torturous wartime captivity in Malaya by protecting and caring for one another. In Pastoral, his RAF pilots and WAAFs put their duties and comrades before their personal lives. In Shute’s world, decency is the outer projection of human dignity, and kindness is at the core of his own brand of existentialism.

I had dismissed On the Beach as a time capsule that lost its vigor with the end of the Cold War. Yet, when I reread it recently, I came away with a new appreciation. How might the world end? I asked myself. There seem more ways now than ever. How would people behave? More to the point, how would I behave if I knew I had only six months to live?… And then it struck me—the book has a metaphorical significance I’d overlooked as a high-school freshman. For who isn’t facing the end?

“On the beach,” it turns out, is not only an allusion to T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” but Royal Navy slang for retirement from the service. This year I have the good fortune to turn sixty. Like other baby-boomers I am heading (slowly, I hope) toward my own time on the beach. I’ve seen friends before me deal with this eventuality in different ways. Some have remained in denial (60 is the new 40!). Others have made breathless lists of places to go and things to do (seize the day!). A few have already confronted the approaching drift of death.

Hmm, now where have I seen such behaviors described before?

The big question lying within Shute’s book remains as pertinent as ever. When our time comes, as it must, will we face our demise with the bravery, civility and consideration that his characters do? I hope so; it sure beats cannibals.

The-Road

Outtake from “The Road” (Sony Pictures, 2009)

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The coup in Chile, 40 years on

chile
A dozen years ago, after 9/11, W.H. Auden’s haunting poem “September 1, 1939” circulated widely on the Internet. The poem, which described the “neutral air” of New York as war broke out in Europe, seemed to capture the uneasy sentiments of many Americans as they struggled to comprehend the evil done in 2001:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

September 11 also marks the fortieth anniversary of the coup that toppled Chile’s democratically elected Marxist President, Salvador Allende. Auden’s poem rings with irony regarding that tragic event as well:

But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

But who were the perpetrators of evil in 1973? Certainly General Pinochet and his cronies. But what about the American government under the leadership of Richard M. Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger? What about the American public who remained silent as if in its own “euphoric dream”?

A friend once asked me what lessons I learned from researching Under a False Flag, my novel about American complicity in the Chilean coup. Although I am leery of historical “lessons,” I came up with four:

  1. If your elected leader lacks a moral compass, what can you expect but a rudderless foreign policy? Be careful whom you vote for, and remain vigilant and vocal.
  2. Fear begets deception and deception begets cruelty. During the Cold War, we feared the spread of Communism and frequently used subterfuge to counter it. But the outcome of our clandestine wars was often the opposite of what we hoped to achieve. How can a democracy win a war for freedom if it backs repressive regimes that are contrary to democratic principles and solely bent on self-preservation? Look at the brutal outcomes of our covert actions in Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Chile. Has the War on Terror replaced the Cold War to the same end?
  3. A plurality is not a mandate. Despite the constitutionality of Allende’s election, he did not have a mandate to convert Chile into a Marxist state. His presumption of a mandate led to political stalemate and obstruction. Chile became a dysfunctional state.
  4. Factionalism can destroy democracy, and extremism kills compassion and encourages cruelty. This happened in Chile with its extremes of wealth and poverty, and with the stubborn entrenchment of the political right and left. The middle class was neither large enough nor strong enough to neutralize the polarized segments of the electorate.

Of course, proponents of realpolitik might argue that America’s clandestine intervention saved Chile from a bloody civil war with many more deaths than the 3,000-plus who “disappeared” during Pinochet’s seventeen-year dictatorship. Or they might point to Cuba and argue that Chile would have gone the same way—becoming a nation stymied by economic embargo, languishing in poverty, and lacking basic freedoms.

As I wrote Under a False Flag the philosopher Richard Rorty’s extraordinary book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity weighed on my mind. Rorty defines a “liberal ironist” as one who believes that “cruelty is the worst thing we can do” and who hopes, while recognizing the contingency of such hope, that “suffering will be diminished, that humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease.”

For the liberal ironist, Rorty says, the question “Is it right to deliver n innocents over to be tortured to save the lives of m X n other innocents?” is as hopeless and unanswerable as the question “Why not be cruel?”

At first I questioned that statement, but now I accept it. Entirely. No human being can rationalize the murder of 3,000 other human beings (or even one) for the sake of some other number. Not Pinochet, not the CIA, not the jihadists of 9/11. That may sound hopelessly idealistic but, as Auden says,

All I have is a voice,
To unfold the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

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In “Stoner,” John Williams defies modern conventions to create a modern masterpiece

“Show, don’t tell,” say the pundits from creative writing workshops, conferences, how-to guides and “expert” magazine articles. Start with the inciting incident, they advise. Keep your plot moving. Add backstory only when and if it’s needed. Use simple sentences. Avoid adverbs.

You can find a dozen more examples of the conventional wisdom at any blog about writing. While such “tips” are worthy of consideration, the problem for this reader is that they often reduce the art of fiction to clichéd technique—as if the style of writing should come from a rulebook rather than from the story itself. Regrettably, the overuse of such well-intended advice makes much of modern literary fiction so similar, and so forgettable.

StonerAlthough he taught creative writing at the University of Denver for thirty years, John Williams ignores all of that good advice in his novel Stoner, published in 1965. Instead, he tells an honest story in a straightforward, old-fashioned way. This quiet, thoughtful and beautiful novel about the life of an English professor at a Midwestern university during the first half of the 20th Century (imagine pitching that plotline in today’s publishing world) harkens to another era. Stoner is reminiscent of the understated, character-focused novels of two other Midwesterners, Willa Cather and William Maxwell. And its form comes from a long literary tradition.

Stoner is a bildungsroman. Told with the authority of third-person omniscience (another rarity today), it is the story of a young man of humble origins who arrives at the university to study agronomy only to discover a passion for literature and the life of a scholar. We learn the bald facts of his life in the first few sentences:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, at the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.

But, as Williams soon makes clear, these facts are the mere shell for the real story:

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses….Stoner’s  colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak rarely of him now; to the older ones, his name  is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

Inciting incident be damned, Williams is interested in why this ostensibly unremarkable man’s life story is worth telling. The next 278 pages convey the complex and sobering story of Stoner’s life: collegial friendships, financial hardships, mistakes in love and marriage, failures at work, his daughter’s estrangement, infidelity and fidelity, battles won and mostly lost, the reflections of age and the approach of death. It is a hard, sometimes painful story with moments of clarity and frustration. At times foolish, often stubborn, but always honest, Stoner defies expectations. The book’s sadness is palpable. Stoner’s only solace, as he must rediscover several times in his life, is his passion for scholarship—the pure calm source of his dignity.

Williams’ prose is confident and precise. He doesn’t hesitate to use an adverb if it adds value, as in this description of a deer in the woods: “The doe’s delicate face tilted, as if regarding them with polite inquiry; then, unhurriedly, it turned and walked away from them, lifting its feet daintily out of the snow and placing them precisely, with a tiny sound of crunching.” Eliminate the adverbs and that crisp image goes soft.

And here he is confidently telling—as he frequently does instead of showing—Stoner’s state of mind after a crucial defeat: “He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow. Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I love books that go deep into character, ones that explore the inner workings of the mind and heart as much as the overt actions that result. The complex reality of humanity is as much about what isn’t acted upon or said as what is. That’s why I love authors like Hawthorne, Tolstoy, Conrad and Hesse, who delve into the thought processes, the buried emotions and dark unspoken fears of their characters. I haven’t read John Williams’ other novels—the National Book Award-winning Augustus or Butcher’s Crossing—but based on the extraordinary quality of Stoner, I certainly will.

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The disinterred

The past has a way of haunting us. We think we have moved on, but events from long ago keep echoing in our consciousness. Isn’t that what William Faulkner so eloquently showed us?

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the coup in Chile, and because I spent so much time researching the events of that fateful year for my novel, I keep observing significant dates.

Forty years ago on March 4, general elections, which the conservatives hoped would reverse the course of the country’s move toward Marxism, re-energized Salvador Allende’s agenda even though the economy was in a shambles. On June 29th, it will be forty years since the Tancazo, the failed putsch that signaled what was to come, with far greater violence, on September 11, 1973.

The past refuses to die, and even the dead are not exempt. Last year, after disinterring the remains of Salvador Allende, the Chilean court officially put to rest the rumor that he was murdered. Forensic analysis proved once and for all that he died from a self-inflicted gunshot while resisting the attack on the presidential palace led by his own generals. The junta claimed all along it was a suicide. Even if it was, does that fact wash the hands of the men who stormed the palace?

Español: Salvador Allende y Pablo Neruda.

Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And now they have disinterred the body of Pablo Neruda, the poet and Communist Party senator who nearly won the nomination of the Popular Unity coalition instead of Salvador Allende. The scientists hope to dispel similar claims that the junta had him murdered with a lethal injection while he lay in the hospital receiving treatment for cancer.

Photo credit: El Pais

At Neruda’s grave on Isla Negra. (Photo credit: El Pais)

I suspect these tests will come to naught. And then perhaps Chileans will be able to bury these rumors from their disturbing past once and for all, and the dead may rest in peace again, even if the past refuses to.

In closing, a fragment from “The Disinterred” by Pablo Neruda, translated by Donald D. Walsh (Residence on Earth, New Directions Publishing, 1972):

When the earth full of wet eyelids 
becomes ashes and harsh sifted air,
and the dry farms and the waters,
the wells, the metals,
at last give forth their worn-out dead,
I want an ear, an eye,
a heart wounded and tumbling,
the hollow of a dagger sunk some time ago
in a body some time ago exterminated and alone,
I want some hands, a science of fingernails,
a mouth of fright and poppies dying,
I want to see rise from the useless dust
a raucous tree of shaken veins,
I want from the bitterest earth,
among brimstone and turquoise and red waves
and whirlwinds of silent coal,
I want to see a flesh waken its bones
howling flames,
and a special smell run in search of something,
and a sight blinded by the earth
run after two dark eyes,
and an ear, suddenly, like a furious oyster,
rabid, boundless,
rise toward the thunder,
and a pure touch, lost among salts
come out suddenly, touching chests and lilies.
 

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Is historical fiction intrinsically cheap?

Henry James wrote in a letter to Sarah Orne Jewett, “the ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness…” (I am indebted to Samir Chopra’s excellent blog for this thought-provoking quote.) A modern writer, James continues, can include historical details but cannot invent or represent “the old consciousness, the soul, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent.” Jewett wanted to write about the New England Puritans, but to James’ point, how could she without being one?

HHhHLaurent Binet, the French author of HHhH, apparently agrees. Winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, HHhH is a gripping, self-conscious historical novel about the daring attempt by the Czechoslovakian Resistance to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand man and mastermind of the Final Solution, in Prague in 1942. Through a careful orchestration of the story’s  facts, presented with the ironies that only a historical perspective can provide, he avoids the “old consciousness” entirely, except in supposition, and yet he creates a suspenseful and nuanced tale.

I was drawn to Binet’s book not only by its subject but also by his treatment of the “historic” problem. For, although I enjoy the history in historical fiction, I share James’ concern: the fictional aspect, meaning the experiential truth of it, is usually disappointing. The lack of the “old consciousness” was the problem I had with The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, as I struggled to articulate here, and it is frequently the problem I have with books about Elizabethans or Victorians written by modern authors: they fail to capture the consciousness of the time, making the story and, consequentially, the history false.

Laurent Binet (Photo credit: Booktrust.org.uk)

Laurent Binet (Photo credit: Booktrust.org.uk)

Binet gets the problem. Born in 1972, he knows he would be faking any dialogue between Heydrich and Himmler or between the two brave resistance fighters who parachuted into Czechoslovakia to kill Heydrich. So, to get around the “consciousness” problem, he inserts himself as a first-person narrator into the novel, critiquing his own story-telling and advising the reader not to believe what he wrote: it is made up and a disservice to the important truth of the real story. This metafictional device is clever and coy at the same time, and toward the climax of the novel it delays without adding value, becoming somewhat annoying. Yet it highlights the dilemma fiction writers face with any historical drama; it also adds another, more postmodern dimension to the story (as John Fowles’ techniques did in The French Lieutenant’s Woman).

Binet forces the reader to ask not only how much of what he writes is true, but how much of the past is truly capturable. Is all history fiction? Is all fiction false? What is the point of history if our imagination and empathy are not involved? And what better way to tap our imagination and empathy than with fiction? Binet doesn’t really resolve James’ issue, but he does a fine job raising these ancillary questions.

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The blank spaces on the map

Historical map of the world by Ortelius, 1570 A.D. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Historical map of the world by Ortelius, 1570 A.D. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WordPress is great at providing statistics. I can see how many visitors I’ve had today, last week, on any previous month, or even for all time. What I love most, though, is the world map, with its spectrum of color. Like some hungry Napoleon, I survey my geographic reach: 124 countries to date. Countries with the most viewers show up deep red; those with the next largest contingents appear bright orange, and those with only one or two viewers are pale peach. Places with none show up white.

On one hand, I marvel that some curious soul in Bhutan or Ethiopia or New Caledonia has bothered to glance at my blog. On the other, the map provides a telling glimpse of holes in the blogosphere.

Language, of course, is a key driver. If you don’t speak English, you aren’t going to read a blog in English. That a blog like mine is read in places where English is not the spoken language is a testament to the emergence of English as a lingua franca. (Or is it a sign of American imperialism and the globalization of culture?) Either way, I prefer to imagine that the person viewing my blog in Cambodia or Paraguay is a non-native speaker working to improve her English, like the school girls I once met in Vietnam who were so eager to trade email addresses, rather than some American expatriate or tourist killing time at an internet cafe.

Wealth is another obvious driver. If you live below the poverty level, you aren’t likely to surf the web whether you speak English or not. When I look at the blank spaces on my map—much of sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti and Honduras in the Western Hemisphere, and many of the “stans” (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan) in Central Asia—language could be an inhibitor, but I suspect poverty is the real barrier.

The most glaring holes in my map occur where language, poverty and authoritarianism converge to create eerie Bermuda Triangles of whiteness. I’m referring to those countries where my blog clearly can’t be read: China, Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. At one point, I thought Myanmar and Syria belonged to this sad club of censorship, but then, to my astonishment, hints of color appeared there. Just one or two visitors from each, but that’s a beginning. I can only hope the door to those last four holdouts will someday open as well. Of course, by expressing myself freely here I have dimmed my chances; it’s just this kind of criticism that these paternalistic societies fear most and aim to prevent.

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