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.


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.



Filed under Books, Commentary

A brief life, perpetual despair

In Letters to a Young Novelist, his smart little book on the craft of writing, Mario Vargas Llosa describes A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti as a brilliant example of the Chinese box, a narrative technique using shifts in space, time and reality to create stories within stories.

“From a technical point of view,” says Vargas Llosa, “this magnificent novel, one of the subtlest and most artful ever written in Spanish, revolves entirely around the artifice of the Chinese box, which Onetti manipulates masterfully to create a world of delicate superimposed and intersecting planes, in which the boundary between fiction and reality (between life and dreams or desires) is dissolved.”

High praise from such a well-versed master of narrative form (who used the same technique to create his own delightful intersections in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter).

Published in 1950 after seven years of labor, Onetti’s breakthrough masterpiece is a dark, complex and compelling urban novel that takes place in Buenos Aires, Montevideo and the fictional town of Santa María. The middle-aged central narrator, Juan María Brausen, is facing the triple psychological shock of his wife’s breast cancer, their failing marriage and the loss of his job at an advertising agency. But that is only the surface reality.

4368456Alone in his apartment while his wife recovers in hospital, Brausen eavesdrops through his bedroom wall on the woman next door, a prostitute named La Queca. Becoming obsessed with what he hears and imagines, he invents a false identity as the thuggish pimp Juan María Arce in order to enter La Queca’s life. It’s never made clear if this action by Brausen as Arce is real or imagined, but it most certainly seems real.

Here he is, sneaking into her apartment one night:

“La Queca’s apartment door was open, the key ring was hanging in the lock, the light from the hallway streamed in and died against the legs of an armchair and the design of a small carpet. I didn’t know what I was doing until it was done.”

Brausen may not know what he’s doing, but Onetti certainly does. He achieves the creepy voyeuristic reality of Brausen’s action by amassing physical detail: “the bathroom door was open and the greenish color of tiles gleamed smooth and liquid”…“there was a crumpled girdle on the floor between the balcony door and the table”…“the big bed, same as mine, placed like an extension of the bed in which Gertrudis [his wife] was sleeping, seemed prepared for night.”

Onetti ups the tension of this watershed moment and further enhances the new reality (and elaborates the novel’s theme) by precisely documenting Brausen’s sensations as he advances into the room: “I began to move across the waxed floor, without noise or anxiety, feeling contact with a small happiness at each slow step. I was calm and excited each time my foot touched the floor, believing that I was moving into a brief life in which there was not enough time to become involved, to repent, or to age.”

Meanwhile, in need of money, Brausen is also developing a screenplay, and as its plot takes form, he enters the mind of his principal character, Díaz Grey, a doctor in Santa María who, enamored of a deceitful married woman named Elena Sala, enables her morphine addiction.

In her critical essay “A Mirror Game: Diffraction of Identity in La vida breve,” Linda S. Maier notes that Onetti’s novel mimics Borges’ description of life as “an eternal and confused tragicomedy in which the roles and masks change, but not the actors.” Indeed, as Brausen explains to Gertrudis, who struggles to comprehend the state of their marriage and her husband’s growing physical and psychological distance: “It’s something else, it’s that people believe they’re condemned to a single life until death. And they are only condemned to a soul, to a manner of being. One can live many times, many more or less long lives.”

As Brausen is beginning to recognize, he may be able to live other, invented lives, but his despairing soul  is “condemned” to remain the same, and in Onetti’s world there is no comedy to relieve this soul’s tragic trajectory.

In the second part of the book, Brausen the narrator gradually disappears as his alter-egos assume a greater and greater presence in a plot that thickens with lies, murder and suicide; the mirror of invention reflects back a nightmare of psychic oblivion. By the last chapter it is Díaz Grey who is narrating the story.

Onetti-682x1024Born in Montevideo, Onetti was one of the Generation of ’45, a group of writers known for its nihilism that emerged in Uruguay and Argentina during the politically tumultuous 1930s-40s. All of Onetti’s novels contain a bleak existentialism, but the technically complex narrative and noir atmosphere of A Brief Life create a kind of morphine-dream confusion, a disorientation that becomes frightening as Brausen slides into his other lives.

Because of its despairing darkness, it took me six months to finish A Brief Life. Brausen’s world (or is it Onetti’s?) is a loveless, hopeless, violent, sadomasochistic, and misogynistic prison without reprieve. As a reader, I could only live in it briefly. But the book’s brilliant structure and narrative drive, Onetti’s technical mastery and nuanced commentary on the mirrorlike relationship between art and reality, between the artist and his creation, compelled me to stay with it to its troubling end.


Filed under Books, Excerpts, Reviews

The other Mexico

Letizia of reading interrupted led me to The Book of Lamentations (Oficio de tinieblas) by Rosario Castellanos. Last year, when I noted that Elena Poniatowska had won the Cervantes Prize, Letizia asked if I knew of any other modern Mexican women writers. I needed to ask some of my better-read friends, and the writer most often mentioned was Castellanos.


Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974)

A native of Chiapas, the southern state best known today for the 1994 Zapatista uprising led by Subcomandante Marcos, Rosario Castellanos was a poet, novelist and journalist who came to prominence during the Latin American Boom. Perhaps because so many writers of that generation achieved worldwide recognition—García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carpentier, Cortázar, Borges, Fuentes and Asturias—Castellanos, one of the few women writers of the generation, was somewhat overshadowed.

Perhaps, too, her style conflicted with the magical realism they espoused. For Castellanos was a realist, a feminist, and a champion of indigenous cultures that remained largely voiceless in the worlds of politics and literature.

536848The Book of Lamentations, her last novel, was published in 1962. It is a work of her maturity, solidifying and extending themes she explored in her early stories, novels, and poetry.

Using a third-person omniscient voice more reminiscent of the great 19th Century novels of Tolstoy and Balzac than the narrative experiments of the Boom, Castellanos creates a sweeping epic about the age-old conflict between the Ladinos (descendants of Spanish blood) and the Maya, specifically the Tzotzil-speaking people of Chiapas.

Borrowing a grisly incident from an uprising in 1869, Castellanos places her story in the era of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), whose ambition was to fulfill the promise of the Revolution by distributing land to the poor and indigenous peoples of Mexico.

The Ladinos, however, still owned the land, maintained power through corrupt local magistrates, and stubbornly resisted any change. As portrayed by Castellanos, their ingrained racism and blindness to the plight of the indigenous poor is reminiscent of attitudes in the Deep South before integration.

By modernizing the incidents leading up to the rebellion and its dramatic outcomes, including a gruesome crucifixion, Castellanos depicts a recurring story of domination and submission that began with the Conquest and foreshadowed the political agenda of the still unresolved Zapatista rebellion.

A one-time member of the provincial land-owning class, Castellanos moved to Mexico City as a young girl. She wrote poetry from an early age and after studying at the national university worked for the National Indigenous Institute. From this remove, she preserved a compassion for the victims of her story, Ladino and indigenous alike. Power, blindness, and cruelty are not endemic to one side alone.

The 18th Century church of San Juan Chamula is the site of a critical scene in Castellanos’ novel.

While other Boom writers explored the metaphorical uses of magical realism, Castellanos kept to the constraints of realism to tap the truly magical perspective of the Maya. In the Mayan world, sacred stones can talk and a wooden cross—that strangely syncretic symbol—may suggest cultural redemption through violence. The power of myth, as told in the classic Mayan book of creation, the Popol Vuh, lives on in oral tradition. Time is circular, and death leads to life and death again. As a poet thinking in metaphor, Castellanos understands these beliefs, but as a novelist she remains an outsider looking in.

This outsider’s perspective also empowers her sharp criticism of the Ladinos she knew so well—the hypocrisy, ignorance and contempt that prevailed in the provincial world she left behind.

Castellanos described herself as natively shy and emotionally distant; she perceived herself as an outsider who found escape in writing. This helps explain her taste for narrative omniscience and her pessimism that there would ever be a bridge between the two cultures she wrote about. Her fine novel in the end is a tragedy, as the epigraph she chose, a quote from the Popol Vuh, foretells:

Whereas your glory is no longer great;
Whereas your might exists no more
—and though without much right to veneration—
your blood will still prevail a while…
All the children of dawn, the dawn’s offspring,
will not belong to your people;
Only the chatterboxes will yield themselves to you.
People of Harm, of War, of Misery,
you who did the wrong,
weep for it.


Filed under Books, Reviews

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.


Filed under Commentary, Reviews

The enigma of T.E. Lawrence

After watching David Lean’s 1962 Oscar-winning movie, Lawrence of Arabia, I became fascinated by T.E. Lawrence. As a high-school kid I slogged through Lawrence’s expansive and detailed memoir of the Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and followed up with some of his other writings, even his translation of the Odyssey.

T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabi...

T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia) led the Arab revolt forces in the Battle of Aqaba. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

American journalist Lowell Thomas, whose camera crew captured some of Lawrence’s exploits during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, was largely responsible for the creation of the Lawrence of Arabia legend. In sold-out post-war lectures, Thomas depicted Lawrence—in his flowing Bedouin robes—as a dashing figure, a chivalric knight waging a guerrilla war for Arab freedom against the Ottoman Turks.

The romantic legend appealed to a war-weary Britain. Lawrence’s own popular account, Revolt in the Desert, only fed the fever and became a bestseller. But the psychological price of his war exploits and celebrity soon caught up with him.

Lawrence became shy of publicity and sought escape in an ascetic’s life. He changed his name to John Hume Ross and entered the Royal Air Corps as a private, only to be publicly exposed. Forced to change his name again, he enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps as T.E. Shaw. He recounted this post-war military experience in his memoir, The Mint. When he died in 1935, aged 46, after crashing his motorcycle to avert two boys on bicycle, the Lawrence of Arabia legend became secure. “I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time,” Winston Churchill said. “We shall never see his like again. His name will live in history.”

Sooner or later someone is bound to challenge such hyperbole; in Lawrence’s case it took about thirty more years. In 1969, The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia by Phillip Knightly and Colin Simpson attempted to pry beneath the legend. Based on classified documents released by Britain’s Public Records Office in 1968 and on interviews with people who played roles in critical episodes of Lawrence’s life, the book proffered more questions than answers. As its sensational jacket copy states: “Archaeologist, author, savant, soldier, intimate of poets and kings, an intellectual who was also a man of action…or pathological liar, homosexual, Irish nobody, traitor, a Foreign Office lackey in fancy dress?” More documents, including many of Lawrence’s wartime dispatches, have since been declassified, and more research done on the war in Arabia and the disastrous 1919 peace conference in Paris that determined the region’s fate. Their addition has enabled journalist Scott Anderson to provide a balanced reassessment of Lawrence’s influence and accomplishments in his new book, Lawrence in Arabia: Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Lawrence in Arabia

As the subtitle promises, the book’s scope is broader than a biography of the man. The Lawrence of Arabia legend (as if an Englishman, despite the robes, could ever be of Arabia) is recast in the context of the ambivalent role Lawrence played in what was essentially an imperial gambit. Anderson weaves the story of Lawrence and the Arab Revolt with those of an international cast of characters representing the many factions wrestling for a piece of this oil-rich land. Primary focus is on the rivalry of the European powers and the Zionist movement that mostly sprang from Europe and targeted a homeland in Palestine. Front and center are the political machinations of the British and French, in the guise of diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, whose secret agreement would seal the fates of Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran—assuming the Triple Entente won the war and wrested these territories from the decaying Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally.

English: Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916. Reproduce...

Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916. Reproduced from with permission.

Where did Lawrence stand on this land grab? At first he and the Cairo-based intelligence unit he worked for advocated a policy of Arab liberation under British tutelage. They wanted to nullify French claims on Syria (modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel) by keeping the French out of the Arabian campaign. To this end, Lawrence’s superiors encouraged Emir Hussein of the Hashemite clan to revolt with the promise of an independent Arab nation that included Syria and the Arabian Peninsula. Lawrence was sent to join the Arab guerrillas to ensure that British interests prevailed. But, according to Anderson, Lawrence’s growing wariness of the political machinations taking place in London and Paris to undermine their promise to the Arabs led him to secretly reveal to Emir Hussein’s son, Prince Faisal, the nature of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Was this treason or a shrewd manipulation to spur the Arab prince to press his campaign toward the capture of Damascus?

As Anderson makes clear, Britain was not the only nation, and Lawrence hardly the only emissary, in the region conniving for position. From Jerusalem, the German spymaster Curt Prüffer instigated Islamic jihad in British-ruled Egypt. Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn ran a spy network in Turkish-controlled Palestine to aid the British, whom he believed the best guarantors of a Jewish homeland, while his colleague and sometime adversary, Chiam Weizmann worked the corridors of power in London. Even the Standard Oil Company, through its representative William Yale, was negotiating oil rights with the Turks while providing oil to both sides of the conflict. Later, after America entered the war, Yale would keep the U.S. State Department abreast of British and French military and political maneuvers.

Anderson succeeds in showing how the duplicitous and cavalier decisions of crumbling empires at war brought about the muddle of the modern Middle East. Lawrence, who understood the religious and tribal complexities of the region, failed to win his case for an independent Arabia including Syria. After the capture of Damascus, which effectvely ended the Arabian campaign, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement became public, Lawrence left the Middle East, never to return. Suffering from what Anderson describes as post-traumatic stress disorder, this brilliant, arrogant and ascetic warrior-scholar believed he had betrayed the Arabs he had fought beside. “Blast the Lawrence side of things,” Lawrence wrote in a letter using the alias T.E. Shaw. “He was a cad I’ve killed.” Anderson tells a compelling story that brings greater political and psychological insight to the Lawrence legend, but the enigma of the man endures.


Filed under Reviews

Poniatowska wins Cervantes Prize

Earlier this year I wrote about Elena Poniatowska’s masterful study of the 1968 massacre of students at Tlatelolco in Mexico City. Today the jury for the Premio Cervantes, the most renowned literary prize in the Spanish-speaking world, awarded this year’s prize to Poniatowska. She is the first Mexican woman and only the fourth woman ever to win the prestigious award.

Spanish Minister of Education and Culture José Ignacio Wert cited Poniatowska’s “brilliant career in various literary genres,” above all the work she did as a young journalist concerned about human rights, the defense of freedom and the fight against corruption.

“Her work stands out for its strong commitment to contemporary history. Author of emblematic works that describe the twentieth century from an international and inclusive perspective, Poniatowska is one of the most powerful voices in contemporary Spanish literature,” said Wert.


Filed under Announcements

A pot of tea and Malcolm Lowry

In Seattle the leaves are turning. The big-leaf maples blaze in fiery tones and the alders, parched from a long dry summer, blanch from the cooler nights. In the Cascades the huckleberries rage crimson and the larches glow golden. Leaves litter the trails and swish underfoot.


First edition, 1961.

This time of year I like to brew up a strong pot of tea and turn to one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Lowry. Specifically, to one of his finest works, the novella The Forest Path to the Spring. Published in the posthumous story collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Lowry’s pastoral is full of lyrical language, classical allusions and keen observations on nature and self.

The plot is minimal, arising from Lowry’s life as a squatter in a shack on the Burrard Inlet, in Dollarton, near Vancouver, British Columbia. Lowry and his wife spent fourteen years there while he wrote his masterpiece, Under the Volcano. For Lowry, Dollarton represented paradise on earth, a place of bliss and creativity. His love for it shines throughout this quiet, mature work.

If Under the Volcano is Lowry’s Inferno, The Forest Path to the Spring is his Paradiso. In fact, Lowry envisioned a series of six or seven novels titled The Voyage that Never Ends, and planned to use The Forest Path to the Spring as its coda. Except for this little gem and Under the Volcano, the grand opus remained a pile of rough drafts and loose notes at the time of his death in 1957.

Lowry describes a collection of Manx, Norwegian and Danish fisherman, Scottish boat builders and other odd fellows who lived independent and very private lives in their squatters’ shacks, yet who formed a close-knit community that shared its bounty and discreetly watched out for one another. Each day the novella’s first-person narrator goes to a spring in the woods for water. In Lowry’s hands, the walk and the spring become metaphorical; the novella is about overcoming fear, resisting the intrusion of the past, and tuning out the noise of civilization to achieve happiness.

Here is Lowry’s lovely opening:

At dusk, every evening, I used to go through the forest to the spring for water.

The way that led to the spring from our cabin was a path wandering along the bank of the inlet through snowberry and thimbleberry and shallon bushes, with the sea below you on the right, and the shingled roofs of the houses, all built down on the beach beneath the little crescent of the bay.

Far aloft gently swayed the mastheads of the trees: pines, maples, cedars, hemlocks, alders. Much of this was second growth but some of the pines were gigantic. The forest had been logged from time to time, though the slash the loggers left behind was soon obliterated by the young birch and vines growing up quickly.

Beyond, going toward the spring through the trees, range beyond celestial range, crowded the mountains, snow-peaked for most of the year. At dusk they were violet, and frequently they looked on fire, the white fire of the mist. Sometimes in the early mornings this mist looked like a huge family wash, the property of Titans, hanging out to dry between the folds of their lower hills. At other times all was chaos, and Valkyries of storm-drift drove across them out of the ever reclouding heavens.

Often all you could see in the whole world of the dawn was a huge sun with two pines silhouetted in it, like a great blaze behind a Gothic cathedral. And at night the same pines would write a Chinese poem on the moon. Wolves howled from the mountains. On the path to the spring the mountains appeared and disappeared through the trees.

He continues to layer image upon poetic image, with metaphors changing shape and meaning like the mist in the mountains.

Malcolm Lowry, bottle of gin and a book in hand, in front of his shack at Dollarton.

A happy Malcolm Lowry, bottle of gin and book in hand, in front of his shack at Dollarton.

More often than not, Lowry’s febrile imagination and unquenchable alcoholism fed a delirious paranoia and self-destructive tendencies, which he captured brilliantly in Under the Volcano. In that novel, as in this novella, Dollarton represented a safe harbor, an idyllic place that could not possibly survive except in dream or memory. The squatters’ eviction in 1954 to make way for a suburban park became for Lowry an eviction from Eden, and an obsession. Though eviction had always been a theme, his writing now took on a more strident ecological protest, unusual in its day, as civilization encroached upon his piece of wilderness. From the moment of his eviction to his premature death at the age of 47 in Ripe, England, he never felt at home again.

The Forest Path to the Spring is Lowry’s testament of longing for a place and a peace of mind that he lost. It is beautiful in its affirmations. It should have a greater stature in the English-language canon than it does, and it should be read by more people than it is. Ideally, in autumn, with a fresh pot of tea.


Filed under Excerpts, Reviews

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.


Nevil Shute

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.


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


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The coup in Chile, 40 years on

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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How empires begin and end

It has always puzzled me how a small, technologically advantaged force can dominate vast multitudes in far reaches of the planet. It’s the story of empire: The Romans extending their rule across Europe and the Mediterranean. Cortés and a few hundred Spaniards conquering the powerful and warlike Aztecs, who had created an empire of their own. And more recently, the British building an empire on which the sun never set, its crown jewel being India.

In most cases the story of empire is one of the few taking advantage of internecine disputes among the many to seize control, of dividing and conquering. It was Rome’s way. It was Cortés’ way. And although I am not well read in Indian history, I suspect that’s what happened there as well–the British striking alliances with advantage-seeking rajahs and playing up religious and cultural differences. Certainly that’s how Kipling portrayed it in such works as Kim and The Man Who Would Be King.

Map of India under the British East India Comp...

Map of India under the British East India Company, 1857. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1857, British control of India nearly came to an abrupt end. That year, the Indian subcontinent erupted in violent reaction to the steady incursion of the British East India Company, an event known as the Indian Rebellion. What astounds me is that the British prevailed.

In The Siege of Krishnapur Anglo-Irish novelist J.G. Farrell attempts to reconstruct the stubborn self-righteousness and contempt that enabled the British to prevail in that perilous year. But Farrell also wonders if the germ of empire’s end wasn’t inherent in those same myopic attitudes.

Farrell, who died in a freak accident in 1979 (while fishing on Ireland’s west coast, a wave swept him into the sea; his body was not recovered for a month), is best known for his Empire trilogy. In each volume he considers a watershed in the British empire’s decline. Troubles deals with a hotel in Ireland after World War I, The Singapore Grip with life in that colony on the eve of World War II. The Siege of Krishnapur, however, is his Booker Prize-winning novel based on the historical siege of Lucknow in the north-central state of Uttar Pradesh.

256280Farrell of course has the benefit of hindsight, writing in 1974, decades after India’s independence. This distance allows him to portray the imperial mindset with comedic effect. He finds ironies in the historical context and satirizes the presumptions of the age. Wisely, he scrutinizes the character of the English, whom he knows, but does not attempt to fathom the motives of the Indian sepoys who besiege his fictional Krishnapur. Regrettably, this approach reduces the rebels to faceless hordes akin to those ant-like computer-generated armies in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Despite the Kiplingesque action/adventure story he is telling, Farrell revels in dialogue and interior monologue. The best bits are wicked: “The first thing one learns about India, Burlton, is not to listen to the damned nonsense the natives are always talking,” says one fatuous character before the siege begins.

Only the Collector, the stalwart epitome of British civility and reason who runs the residency for the Company in Krishnapur, a man for whom the technological and scientific advances featured at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 are sure signs of civilization, senses that trouble is stirring. He orders fortifications to be built which enable the small enclave of residents and soldiers to defend themselves when the attack comes.

The siege itself is central, and like the quarantine in Camus’ The Plague, provides an opportunity to observe desperate people at close quarters. The veneer of Victorian propriety soon gives way to survival. The Collector must constantly reassure himself that British rule stands for Progress; he and the Company are bringing Great Ideas to India. But as things grow dire, the busts of the European thinkers that decorate his study must be used as cannonballs against the attackers: “The most effective of all had been Shakespeare’s; it had scythed its way through a whole astonished platoon of sepoys advancing in a single file through the jungle.” Voltaire’s head jams the gun.

After months of siege and as preparations are made for the last stand, the bright red coats of the British army appear on the horizon, and the attackers flee. The Collector survives and years later, back home in London, comments to another survivor, “Culture is a sham…It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness.” Farrell’s own summation of the events of 1857 are expressed in the last glimpse of the Collector: “Perhaps, by the very end of his life in 1880, he had come to believe that a people, a nation, does not create itself according to its own best ideas, but is shaped by other forces, of which it has little knowledge.”

Farrell, like Joseph Conrad before him in “An Outpost of Progress,” Nostromo and Heart of Darkness, sees a black center in the Great Ideas that empire builders use to justify taking what they want from the rest of the world.

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