E.L. Doctorow’s Death Happens.

NYT obit.

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I’ve had very little experience in my life. In fact, I try to avoid experience if I can. Most experience is bad… A writer’s life is so hazardous that anything he does is bad for him. Anything that happens to him is bad: failure’s bad, success is bad; impoverishment is bad, money is very, very bad. Nothing good can happen.

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For the White Noise fans among us, this comment brings to mind Murray Jay Siskind:

I’m here to avoid situations. Cities are full of situations, sexually cunning people. There are parts of my body I no longer encourage women to handle freely. I was in a situation with a woman in Detroit. She needed my semen in a divorce suit.

Great writing.

Today, Donald Trump became the second major Republican candidate to announce for president in two days,” writes [Democratic National Committee] press secretary Holly Shulman. “He adds some much-needed seriousness that has previously been lacking from the GOP field, and we look forward to hearing more about his ideas for the nation.”

Because it’s often best to play it straight.

For Saul Bellow’s Centenary.

Why is he this country’s greatest mid-twentieth century fiction writer? (Don DeLillo, a great admirer of Bellow’s, is the late twentieth/early twenty-first century great American writer.)

UD has already tried to answer this question here, and here.

On this occasion, let’s try again.

His prose is beautiful and exciting. It is actually exciting to read him, although in the novel I’m going to look at here, Herzog (1964), virtually nothing happens. A gun is carried but not shot. An “old pistol, the barrel nickel-plated,” it probably wouldn’t go off even if you tried to shoot someone with it. People have sex on bathroom floors, but this was a long time ago, and very little is said about it. A man seems to be having a nervous breakdown in the wake of his wife’s infidelity and desertion, but he never breaks down. He wanders around New York and Chicago, and then retreats to his country house.

Basically if the novel has a plot it’s about his gassing on and on about his personal life and American cultural life and then realizing that maybe he’d better shut up.

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This man, Moses Herzog, is an attractive, well-heeled, well-educated, modern American, forty-seven years old. The novel will give us just a small slice of his life – a few weeks during which he tries hard to recover from the humiliation of his wife (she’s his second wife; he threw over his first for the second) having dumped him for his ex-best friend. She’s got Herzog’s kid now – they’ve got his kid – and they’ve managed to clean him out financially.

Herzog sums up his situation: “I am a mess.”

Because Herzog is an intellectual, the author of excellent articles on currents in Western civilization, much of the novel is an amusing and provocative take on the great gulf between being able to think at a high level about life and actually being able to conduct one. One of Herzog’s friends says to him: “Somewhere in every intellectual is a dumb prick. You guys can’t answer your own questions…”

Herzog himself, here and there throughout the book, puts it more grandly.

I fail to understand! thought Herzog… I fail to… but this is the difficulty with people who spend their lives in humane studies and therefore imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended. Of course he really knew better – understood that human beings would not live so as to be understood by the Herzogs. Why should they?

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Believing that reason can make steady progress from disorder to harmony and that the conquest of chaos need not be begun anew every day. How I wish it! How I wish it were so ! How Moses prayed for this!

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Not that long disease, my life, but that long convalescence, my life. The liberal-bourgeois revision, the illusion of improvement, the poison of hope.

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But I, a learned specialist in intellectual history, handicapped by emotional confusion…

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[He was a man who] had strong impulses, even faith, but lacked clear ideas.

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Notice in the second example that we shift from first-person narration (How I wish it!) to third (How Moses prayed for this!). Like James Joyce’s Ulysses, from which Bellow learned much about writing, Herzog will shift constantly between a deeply intimate personal voice and a somehow larger, more neutral, third person perspective… Yet the reader feels that both voices belong to Moses Herzog, as if their split mirrors his split consciousness: the vain, wounded, confused, enraged, almost infantile immediacy of Herzog, and the higher level consciousness within him which tries (failingly) to maintain some intellectual dignity and clarity (those clear ideas) amid the ruin he’s made of his life.

His life is a convalescence because he’s always busy recovering from his last disastrous spell of belief in progress, reason, and self-improvement. Cruelty, chaos, hopelessness, bewilderment – these he must accept as seemingly permanent aspects of human existence, despite his ever-recurrent desire to

live in an inspired condition, to know truth, to be free, to love another, to consummate existence, to abide with death in clarity of consciousness – without which, racing and conniving to evade death, the spirit holds its breath and hopes to be immortal because it does not live …

No contest there – anyone would wish to stop both deluding and paralyzing herself in the face of her fear of non-existence; anyone would wish, on the contrary, to live a free, lucid, and passionate life. The reality of all lives, however, is a falling short of these excellent desires, a coming to know the fragility of inspired states, as well as the evasiveness of truth (Philip Roth notes that Herzog is “overpoweringly drawn to bullies and bosses, to theatrical know-it-alls, lured by their seeming certainty and by the raw authority of their unambiguity…”). It is coming to know one’s particular mind-forg’d manacles, the fragility of love, and the power of death as it “Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.”

Herzog thus muses on “the monstrousness of life, the wicked dream it was.” He’s quite angry about this, this business of existence being recalcitrant to his desires, and it makes him violent. The intensity of this reactive emotion in turn distresses him. “He was shivering with the extreme violence of thought and feeling.”

The particular content of this violence involves his wife and her lover.

He had a right to kill them. They would even know why they were dying; no explanation necessary. … In spirit she was his murderess, and therefore he was turned loose, could shoot or choke without remorse. He felt in his arms and in his fingers, and to the core of his heart, the sweet exertion of strangling – horrible and sweet, an orgastic rapture of inflicting death. He was sweating violently, his shirt wet and cold under his arms. Into his mouth came a taste of copper, a metabolic poison, a flat but deadly flavor.

Herzog is in fact full of men feeling and then acting violently because of their similar (though much more inchoate) existential frustrations. Herzog, made incendiary by the recognition that as he is a murderer, so is his wife a murderess, recovers the gun from a drawer in which his father used to keep it — his father, who, in a moment of rage against his son, came close to using it on Herzog. The same friend who tells Herzog what a dumb prick he is gets so enraged by his own life-frustrations that he routinely shatters glasses in his kitchen and then “[weeps] with anger. And also at himself, that he should have such emotions.”

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And here we enter Adam Phillips territory. Phillips, a British psychoanalyst, presented a series of lectures not long ago on the BCC. He titled them On Being Too Much for Ourselves, and the focus was precisely this condition of emotional excess and the sometimes violent excess – excess of repression, let’s say – that our recognition of and horror at that excess can catalyze.

We are too much for ourselves – in our hungers and our desires, in our griefs and our commitments, in our loves and our hates – because we are unable to include so much of what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves. The whole idea of ourselves as excessive exposes how determined we are to have the wrong picture of what we are like, of how fanatically ignorant we are about ourselves.

Herzog is a magnificent novel in part because it makes a hell of an effort to include everything in the picture one human being has of himself. (Much like its inspiration, Ulysses.) The effort is necessarily a failure; but when we read Herzog what we experience is the heady “excess” that is art itself. It’s a commonplace since Aristotle that aesthetic experience is in fact one of the primary ways (along with religious experience) we “work off,” if you like, our emotional excess. It’s okay to weep cathartically at Lear; everyone else is doing it, and after all it’s not happening to us, it’s not real. Yet the emotions it evokes are entirely real. And it’s okay that we don’t fashion “clear ideas” out of witnessing Lear, a work of art somehow at once about thought and feeling, and very satisfyingly so; and yet we can’t – aren’t supposed to – pin words to the experience. To read the gorgeous word-torrent that is Herzog is to be able to give in to “violent” aesthetic ecstasy even as we empathize with “violent” (excessive) suffering.

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Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo share an interest in the fate of these hard realities in the modern and then postmodern world. Bellow’s post-war narrator is haunted not only by the Holocaust, but by the weird rapidity with which that world of pain transformed, in America, into a world of affluent well-being (well-being; not profound-desire-satisfaction):

[The dead in the gas chambers] flow out in smoke from the extermination chimneys, and leave you in the clear light of historical success of the West.

By the time we get to DeLillo’s White Noise (1984), “the Holocaust” is not merely an abstraction; it’s an entertainment. Professor Jack Gladney gathers up his students from their frisbee game on the campus green and has them watch grainy black and white images of the Nuremberg rallies for a few minutes, after which they return to their game. While Herzog agonizingly tries to square the nightmare past with the well-lit present, in DeLillo’s world, no one’s even trying.

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Let me end this long post with a close reading of a paragraph from the novel that epitomizes what I’m trying to get at. Its manifest content is suffering, and we are comprehending and taking seriously that suffering as we read. But the main thing we’re experiencing – because of the lushness, the wildness, the discipline (the excess under technical constraint), of the brilliant prose – is delight. And this delight is a kind of modest transcendence of the problem of excess about which Phillips writes.

In the mild end of the afternoon, later, at the waterside in Woods Hole, waiting for the ferry, he looked through the green darkness at the net of bright reflections on the bottom. He loved to think about the power of the sun, about light, about the ocean. The purity of the air moved him. There was no stain in the water, where schools of minnows swam. Herzog sighed and said to himself, “Praise God — praise God.” His breathing had become freer. His heart was greatly stirred by the open horizon; the deep colors; the faint iodine pungency of the Atlantic rising from weeds and mollusks; the white, fine, heavy sand; but principally by the green transparency as he looked down to the stony bottom webbed with golden lines. Never still. If his soul could cast a reflection so brilliant, and so intensely sweet, he might beg God to make such use of him. But that would be too simple. But that would be too childish. The actual sphere is not clear like this, but turbulent, angry. A vast human action is going on. Death watches. So if you have some happiness, conceal it. And when your heart is full, keep your mouth shut also.

Keep your mouth shut also. Here are the last lines of Herzog:

At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.

We know that the universe is violence – the stars, the galaxies… Moses Herzog spends a lot of time in the novel gazing at the night sky and thinking about this – the cosmic turbulence beyond our human turbulence. What I’ve just cited is in fact a scene of self-comforting, of Herzog gazing entranced at tranquil depth — not up at the vast fires above, but down at sweet clear water. His first sentence has a long lulling prayer-like feel, mirroring the calm gentle rapt condition of the main character at this moment. It has many clauses and its words are soft, with gentle letters/sounds in them (W, S, M). They are simple words. Many are monosyllabic. We have left Herzog’s theoretical disquisitions behind and settled into a dreamlike calm similar to Peter Walsh’s as he sits on a park bench in Mrs Dalloway. Note that when he wakes up from his nap on the bench, Walsh thinks “Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regent’s Park, was enough.” Enough! Not some too muchness we have to account for, assimilate into our picture of ourselves, fail to assimilate in its too-muchness, be horrified by that failure, and so forth. No, the outcome of these meditative states seems precisely a new reconciliation to the limitations of existence, a calming down of what Herzog describes in this way:

Eager impulses, love, intensity, passionate dizziness that make a man sick. How long can I stand such inner beating? The front wall of this body will go down. My whole life beating against its boundaries, and the force of balked longings coming back as stinging poison. Evil, evil, evil…! Excited, characteristic, ecstatic love turning to evil.

Here, on the other hand, there’s brightness, purity, light, no stain – here is what Herzog, in his persistent innocence (the American trait that so infuriates his European father), seeks and finds oceanside. Nothing is “balked” – one’s vision is clear through to the bottom. Sweetness, pungency, transparency, a golden quality.

“Never still.” Of course this is the never stillness of earthly nature, whose constant movement has nothing in common with our agonized impulses; and our reminder of this, this world of motion without self-consciousness and misery and longings, is consoling, comforting. Slipping into a kind of spiritual surrender, Herzog goes so far as to entertain the idea of being called by God to enter into nature, to become pure soul. But no – his place is in the “actual sphere” of humanity, with all its vileness. With his own vileness. He’ll stay in the battle of life, being careful to conceal from malignant humanity what happiness he might have been able to rescue from this theater of war.

The remedy for bad poetry is good limericks.

The London Review of Books publishes, in its June 4 issue, a rivulet of consciousness by the poet Craig Raine. “Gatwick” expresses the thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season (speaking of which, read this if you want a good poem about being a dried up old guy), and readers are not only grossed out by this dirty old man poem, but they rightly note that in any case it’s a very bad poem. (Nothing wrong with its subject matter, by the way. Great prose as well as poetry has been written about being horny.)

The poet’s passport control agent at the airport tells him she studied his poetry. He writes:

We are close. We are both grinning.
We have come
together by a miracle.
Two sinners simultaneously sinning.
In passport control. No shame.

Miracle? Sinning? Where in this grubby meandering poem is there anything to justify language like that? Nor does it come across as ironic, as it might in, say, T.S. Eliot. It’s just there, lazily wanting to lift the meaning of the encounter, and of the poem, to someplace higher than the merely horny.

Rather than just complain about the LRB printing this poem, one reader wrote a limerick about it.

There once was a poet who went
To very great lengths to invent
An excuse for his boner
Which shamed its poor owner
And turned his shorts into a tent.

Now that’s great poetry.

Scathing Online Schoolmarm Says:

If you want to read an example of a really good essay, go here, to Jay Michaelson’s piece on the ongoing death of Israeli democracy. Let me tell you why it’s a terrific essay.

First of all, it’s very short, but within that concision Michaelson brilliantly, elegantly, and with dramatic – even poetic – flair, conveys his argument. An essay is “a short piece of writing on a particular subject,” says the first dictionary definition I get when I Google “meaning of the word ‘essay.'” The best essayists know how to pack their meaning into very few words, and this brevity often packs quite a punch… It is, if you like, a punch – a quick feint to the brain which suddenly distracts the mind from its customary thoughts and makes it pay attention. Think Joan Didion – that weird evocative minimalism which somehow by picking out only a few powerful words (and these are often repeated words) hooks onto you and holds you.

Second, Michaelson’s tone is neutral, controlled, calm, observant… And at the same time it manages to convey intense underlying emotions. Didion’s great at this too: On the surface, in her essays about her husband and her daughter, for instance, she’s so much about dry perceptive intellect directed to the world, careful precise language brought to the description of her experience, that you only gradually realize the almost unbearable melancholy that she’s really feeling, the bafflement and despair that’s in fact motivating the writing as a way of understanding and assimilating the tragic nature of life.

Third, Michaelson gives his essay a narrative frame. The obnoxious Hasid on Michaelson’s flight from Israel begins and ends the essay, giving the author’s abstractions about “a minority group … that pays those who are destroying it” (he has in mind Israeli and American Jewish subsidies of the most reactionary sects within the faith) a grounding in the immediacy of the real world… Or perhaps SOS should say a floating in the immediacy of the in-flight world, where women are angered by the Hasid’s refusal to sit next to them, and where women and men are made anxious by the man’s bizarre rule-flouting behavior throughout the flight.

Finally, Michaelson’s not got much space so he’s not going to fart around. He’s not going to mince words. He’s going to tell you – calmly, precisely – what’s in the mind of the Hasid, what has been put in the Hasid’s mind by the education that the larger Jewish community continues to subsidize.

Most likely, he has learned in religious schools – paid for mainly by government largesse, thanks to “faith-based initiatives” and the erosion of the garden wall between church and state – that goyim have no souls, or are like animals, or worse… . Taught that the customs of the goyim – that includes non-Orthodox Jews, of course – are filthy, stupid and nonbinding, Haredim are unruly passengers on airplanes. “Fasten seatbelts?” – goyishe toireh. “Don’t gather in the aisles?” – narishkeit.

But no – he can’t really know exactly what the Hasid is thinking.

Really, I have no idea what the Hasid is thinking, what the flight attendants are thinking or what my fellow passengers are thinking.

I can report only what I am thinking. And that is that this moment of obstinacy and disrespect is one that we Jews have created. Our cousins in Israel have given the Haredim everything they’ve asked for in exchange for their political support – just watch as the new government undoes all the progress of the previous one – at tremendous cost to society as a whole. And our institutions here in America continue to dole out benefits to fundamentalists opposed to the very institutions that are feeding them.

The last two sentences of Michaelson’s essay wonderfully meld the particular, the immediate narrative of the obnoxious Hasid, with the general:

An obstreperous man on an airplane is not so bad; after a few hours, we made it to JFK, safe and sound. Reversing course on Jewish fundamentalism will be a lot harder.

Günter Grass …

… has died.

UD recalls studying The Tin Drum at Northwestern, with a visiting professor of German lit whose name she has forgotten. She thought then and thinks now it’s a spectacular novel.

***************

He kept secrets.

The playwright Rolf Hochhuth said it was “disgusting” to recall that Mr. Grass had denounced President Ronald Reagan and Chancellor Helmut Kohl for their 1985 visit to a cemetery in Bitburg where Waffen-SS soldiers were buried, while hiding the fact that he had been in the SS himself.

‘Paolo Bricco of the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore said it was this distrust in the state that made Italy vulnerable. “We need the state… so that, in this increasingly disjointed and feverish Italy, the Hobbesian prophecy of homo homini lupus, `man is a wolf to his fellow man`, does not come true.”‘

Italian angst after the shooting in one of its courtrooms puts UD in mind of one of her favorite Gore Vidal paragraphs:

Since the Second World War, Italy has managed, with characteristic artistry, to create a society that combines a number of the least appealing aspects of socialism with practically all the vices of capitalism. This was not the work of a day. A wide range of political parties has contributed to the invention of modern Italy, a state whose vast metastasizing bureaucracy is the last living legacy anywhere on earth of the house of Bourbon (Spanish branch). In fact, the allegedly defunct Kingdom of the Two Sicilies has now so entirely engulfed the rest of the peninsula that the separation between Italian state and Italian people is nearly perfect.

The writer writes.

Writes, like Oliver Sacks, his life, his dying, his death.

In a passage from his book about music and the brain, Sacks notes that he woke one morning with Mahler in his mind. He didn’t know it was Mahler.

I found something deeply disturbing and unpleasant about the music, and longed for it to stop. I had a shower, a cup of coffee, went for a walk, shook my head, played a mazurka on the piano – to no avail. The hateful hallucinatory music continued unabated. Finally I called a friend… and said that I was hearing songs that I could not stop, songs that seemed to me full of melancholy and a sort of horror. The worst thing, I added, was that the songs were in German, a language I did not know. [He] asked me to sing or hum some of the songs…

“Your mind is playing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder,” he said, “his songs of mourning for the death of children.” I was amazed by this, for I rather dislike Mahler’s music and would normally find it quite difficult to remember in detail, let alone sing, any of his Kindertotenlieder. But here my dreaming mind, with infallible precision [the day before, Sacks had finished a stint on the children’s unit of a hospital], had come up with an appropriate symbol of the previous day’s events.

Leonard Bernstein calls Mahler’s Ninth “a sonic presentation of death itself. . . which paradoxically reanimates us every time we hear it.” No doubt some of the writing Sacks will now produce will have this quality.

Sacks has always been very good on the dreaming mind, which may be all the mind that we have, really… Joyce and Nabokov and Mahler voice this mind… to the extent that they can…

Tadeusz Konwicki, 1926-2015.


I am an individual who is not understood by his fellow men on the Tiber, the Seine, or the Hudson. They may understand faithfully translated major or minor sentences of mine, they may grasp the meaning of a metaphor, flickering moods, but they will not be able to empathize with my fate, or embrace the meaninglessness in my meaning, which will seem to them unrealistic, alien, lacking motivation, and thus completely incomprehensible. They do not understand me because I am a Pole, because I belong to a community spread out along the Vistula River, or rather to a community swarming around a great European river. But the fate of that pack of intelligent beings roaming nomadically beside a wild river, though falling under the biological laws and norms of earth, is a tangled fate, a complicated fate, a fate which causes degeneration, like every misfortune, every calamity. For that reason my daily life, my usual waking thoughts, my despair at night, the chemistry of my brain, and the physical structure of my soul are beyond the understanding of a member of a close-knit, stable, sleepy society suffering from sluggish digestion… [Such a person] finds me guilty of being incomprehensible and I feel ashamed. I explain myself, I beg forgiveness, until the moment finally comes when my patience is exhausted and I say You should thank God that you don’t understand me, and pray every day that you won’t understand me for as long as possible…

NYT obit.

‘He wrote that being the right age in the ’60s provided the sense that one was witnessing a hinge moment in history, and it fueled a self-importance. “In our time,” he wrote, “we were clamorous and vain. I speak not only for myself here, but for all those with whom I shared the era and what I think of as its attitudes. We wanted it all; sometimes we confused self-destructiveness with virtue and talent, obliteration with ecstasy, heedlessness with courage.” He added: “We wanted to die well every single day, to be a cool guy and good-looking corpse. How absurd, because nothing is free, and we had to learn that at last.”’

Robert Stone’s sobered-up appraisal of his ‘sixties youth appears in a New York Times appreciation – Stone has died, age 77 – of his terrific novels and short stories. His story “Helping,” which UD teaches whenever she teaches The Short Story, is a hilarious toxic gem, told from the point of view of a cosmically, confusedly embittered Vietnam vet. It’s not really Elliot’s war experience that’s “undermining” him (both the main character and his wife use this word to describe their general condition); life itself, that sickening mystery, is eroding his capacity to survive. His wife channels her fundamental misery, her disgust with the awfulness of human beings and human fate, into social work (they’re both social workers), but if you push her she’ll “[shudder] with loathing” for some of her clients:

“You can’t imagine! The woman munching Twinkies. The kid smelling of shit. They’re high morning noon and night… The Vopotik child will die, I think… Of course, sometimes you wonder whether it makes any difference. That’s the big question, isn’t it… You wonder. Ought they to live at all? To continue the cycle?”

Elliot, a mean drunk, viciously calls her “the friend of the unfortunate… the Christian Queen of Calvary.”

Art and alcohol, with their shared promise of desubliminated emotion and clarified perception, constantly attract and then repel this spiritually congested, bitterly disillusioned man, and Stone has the short story writer’s gift of condensing this attraction/repulsion business into sharp small moments:

Elliot’s cubicle in the social-services department was windowless and lined with bookshelves. When he found himself unable to concentrate on the magazine and without any heart for his paperwork, he ran his eye over the row of books beside his chair. There were volumes by Heinrich Muller and Carlos Castaneda, Jones’s life of Freud, and The Golden Bough. The books aroused a revulsion in Elliot. Their present uselessness repelled him…. There seemed to be nothing but whirl inside him… He could not control the headlong promiscuity of his thoughts.

Later, driving home:

When the engine turned over, Jussi Bjorling’s recording of the Handel Largo filled the car interior. He snapped it off at once…

After he goes to a bar and gets drunk (he’s had his alcoholism under control for awhile, but now that’s gone), he drives home and sits parked there for awhile.

For five minutes or so, Elliot sat in his car in the barn with the engine running and his Handel tape on full volume. He had driven over from East Ilford in a baroque ecstasy, swinging and swaying and singing along.

That mania quickly crashes into rageful despair, which again he understands in terms of art:

As he drank, a fragment from old Music’s translation of Medea came into his mind. “Old friend, I have to weep. The gods and I went mad together and made things as they are.”

Back in the house, the phone rings. One of his wife’s clients, a violent and disturbed man, calls to threaten the couple, and Elliot, drunk beyond caring, tells the guy to come on over. “You know where we live… Come on over… Bring your fat wife and your beat-up kid. Don’t be embarrassed if your head’s a little small.” He puts the phone down and happily grabs one of his guns and tells his wife: “Most of the time… I’m helpless in the face of human misery. Tonight I’m ready to reach out.”

Getting drunk was an insurrection, a revolution – a bad one. There would be outsize bogus emotions. There would be petty moral blackmail and cheap remorse.

The story ends with Elliot encountering his tall blond handsome professor neighbor (married to a tall blond beautiful woman, with two beautiful brilliant blond children – Elliot and his wife have so far been unable to have children) in the snowy woods around his house. Elliot’s envy of this pleasant enlightened compassionate man is homicidally total, and both men realize (Elliot is still holding his gun) they’re in a very dicey situation.

But the moment passes, and Elliot trudges on, sunk in the lower depths…

Sherwin Nuland…

… who wrote How We Die, has died. The book is full of great prose passages, including this one at the beginning, which recounts his comic/horrific initiation into doctoring:

I had just begun my third year of medical school, and it was my unsettling lot to encounter death and my very first patient at the same hour.

Only in his twenties, he was “eager to the point of zealousness” for patient contact, and when the busy intern on duty asked Nuland “to do the admission workup on this new coronary that’s just going into 507,” he was thrilled.

After a small heart attack, the patient – a hard-charging construction executive in his fifties who loved “smoking, red meat, and great slabs of bacon [and] butter” – seemed to have stabilized.

McCarty greeted me with a thin, forced smile, but he couldn’t have found my presence reassuring. I have often wondered over the years what must have gone through the mind of that high-pressure boss of large, tough men when he saw my boyish (I was then twenty-two) face and heard me say that I had come to take his history and examine him. Whatever it was, he didn’t get much chance to mull it over. As I sat down at his bedside he suddenly threw his head back and bellowed out a wordless roar that seemed to rise up out of his throat from somewhere deep within his stricken heart. He hit his balled fists with startling force up against the front of his chest in a single synchronous thump, just as his face and neck, in the flash of an instant, turned swollen and purple. His eyes seemed to have pushed themselves forward in one bulging thrust, as though they were trying to leap out of his head. He took one immensely long, gurgling breath, and died.

Yes, this is conventional straightforward first-person past-tense narration. No emotional fireworks. But precisely because of the fireworks he’s describing, because of the astounding sudden break in the fabric of life he’s about to witness, the correct prose medium is indeed cool. The dry, wry, after-the-fact feel of the piece (the best line in the paragraph is Whatever it was, he didn’t get much chance to mull it over.), combined with unsparing clinical detail in his description (synchronous is good) gives us all at once the complex scenic elements we want: James McCarty’s instantaneous unfathomable transformation from a man to a bellowing dying beast; the rarin’ to go young doctor’s almost farcical, equally instantaneous, plunge into futility; the seasoned, self-amused, self-pitying narrator. The narrator who exhibits the peculiar brief sharp empathic curiosity about other human beings (what must have gone through the mind) doctors must so often feel…

“Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?”

Profound, hilarious, beautiful writing about being a geezer with a lot of dead cheerleaders.

Roger Angell’s writing jibed, somehow, with something I wrote in my journal yesterday:

I thought suddenly – on my way just now from my office to the Foggy Bottom metro – of my mother, about whom – despite my deep love for her – I don’t very often think. Given the drama of my father’s death [suicide], I think a good deal more about him. But okay, I think of Mitz, and… it’s kind of a blank. What is Mitz? My sweet sweet mother to whom I owe it all, really – all my happiness. Because she loved me so much. But the thought I had – the only thought I had – recalling her, was “Now that I’ve got a bit of age on me it’s absolutely obviously true that I’m totally unlike her.”

It is the duty of the dead, writes Saul Bellow somewhere, to be forgotten. (In Herzog, he writes, “To him, perpetual thought of death was a sin. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.”) I don’t like the end of that just-dead interim, when they’re still alive because we’re mourning them so intensely — when that’s over, their duty to be forgotten comes into play, and they fulfill that duty.

Amazingly, I’m still in the David-interim almost three years later. A measure of his immense influence. Just the other day for some reason I produced a small squeak of compassion at the thought of him, rather than the routine angry bark … He must finally be moving out of the interim…

Doris Lessing…

… has died.

UD‘s 2007 interview about her can be found here.

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From a Paris Review interview:

Oh, Germany last year, my God! That was the most disastrous trip. It was some academic institution in Germany. I said to them, “Look, I want to do what I always do. I’ll read the story and then I’ll take questions.” They said, the way academics always do, “Oh you can’t expect our students to ask questions.” I said, “Look, just let me handle this, because I know how.” Anyway, what happened was typical in Germany: We met at four o’clock in order to discuss the meeting that was going to take place at eight. They cannot stand any ambiguity or disorder — no, no! Can’t bear it. I said, “Look, just leave it.” The auditorium was very large and I read a story in English and it went down very well, perfectly okay. I said, “I will now take questions.” Then this bank of four bloody professors started to answer questions from the audience and debate among themselves, these immensely long academic questions of such tedium that finally the audience started to get up and drift out. A young man, a student sprawled on the gangway — as a professor finished something immensely long — called out, “BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH.” So with total lack of concern for the professors’ feelings I said, “Look, I will take questions in English from the audience.” So they all came back and sat down, and it went well . . . perfectly lively questions! The professors were absolutely furious. So that was Germany. Germany’s the worst, it really is; the end.

Poetry Makes Nothing Happen

[Perhaps] reading Kafka or Woolf or Naipaul does make you a better, more empathic person. (Though what about your hardline literary misanthropes, by the way — your Bernhards, your Houellebecqs, your Célines? Do we gain anything in moral aptitude by reading these dreadful old bastards, and, if we don’t, is doing so somehow less worthy of our time?) But even if it didn’t, even if reading made you a worse person … reading would be no less vital an activity. I don’t know whether all those boxes full of books have made me any kind of better person; I don’t know whether they’ve made me kinder and more perceptive, or whether they’ve made me more introspective and detached and self-absorbed. Most likely it’s some combination of all these characteristics, perhaps canceling each other out. But I do know that I wouldn’t want to be without those books or my having read them, and that their importance to me is mostly unrelated to any power they might have to make me a more considerate person.

UD said something similar, a few weeks back, to what Mark O’Connell says. (“Reading novels like Lolita and The Tropic of Cancer and The Elementary Particles will have God knows what impact on your personal morality and your engagement as a citizen. These are funny, nihilistic, cynical works, and I’d hate to have to be the one to determine their moral or character-building potential. As Georg Lukacs long ago pointed out about Kafka – and what serious education in the humanities is without Kafka? – great writers of our time have a tendency to maunder on inconclusively about the hopelessly alienated consciousness; or they sketch a world with very little collective action in it… Writers like Don DeLillo, America’s greatest living novelist, routinely get called bad citizens.”) O’Connell’s responding to the same thing UD was – yet another report or study proving scientifically that reading serious literature makes you a better person. There’s always another such study coming down the pike, and they’re all silly things, attracting yet sillier self-aggrandizing commentary from teachers and writers.

August Kleinzahler points out that “Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.” The same is true – maybe even truer – of serious non-poetic literature. Reading this sort of stuff is, as O’Connell writes, an intense and “vital” experience. Its language tends to excite us in rather obscure ways; its disclosure of usually hidden human depths may thrill us. Perhaps we want to say that great literature tends to reconcile us to the truths of our shared condition. But force feeding yourself George Eliot because you want to be a more empathetic person will only make you hate George Eliot.

Alice Munro…

… wins the literature Nobel.

“I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.”

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INTERVIEWER

Was the community you grew up in pleased about your career?

MUNRO

It was known there had been stories published here and there, but my writing wasn’t fancy. It didn’t go over well in my hometown. The sex, the bad language, the incomprehensibility . . . The local newspaper printed an editorial about me: A soured introspective view of life . . . And, A warped personality projected on . . . My dad was already dead when they did that. They wouldn’t do it while Dad was alive, because everyone really liked him. He was so liked and respected that everybody muted it a bit. But after he died, it was different.

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There are parts of a story where the story fails… The story fails but your faith in the importance of doing the story doesn’t fail. That it might is the danger. This may be the beast that’s lurking in the closet in old age—the loss of the feeling that things are worth doing… Of course it wouldn’t matter if you did give up writing. It’s not the giving up of the writing that I fear. It’s the giving up of this excitement or whatever it is that you feel that makes you write.

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