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.

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

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.”

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

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.

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

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.

“[T]he president’s efforts to govern domestically have been stymied in the legislature by an extremist rump faction of the main opposition party.”

America’s broken government, rendered brilliantly by Joshua Keating.

Seamus Heaney has died.

Colm Tóibín remembers him.

UD writes about one of his poems here.

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

Heaney’s charming translation of a ninth century Irish poem reminds UD of Auden’s translation of the poem, set to music by Samuel Barber.

As DSK goes on trial for pimping…

… pages from his American imprisonment diary.

Le scoop on le pimping. Note the video of a protest at Cambridge University over his having been invited to speak there.

“… Jane would be soon married to Mr. Bingley. — It was an animating subject, and Mrs. Bennet seemed incapable of fatigue while enumerating the advantages of the match. His being such a charming young man, and so rich, and living but three miles from them, were the first points of self-gratulation; and then it was such a comfort to think how fond the two sisters were of Jane, and to be certain that they must desire the connection as much as she could do. It was, moreover, such a promising thing for her younger daughters, as Jane’s marrying so greatly must throw them in the way of other rich men…”

Jane Austen will be on the £10 note.

Bette and I staggered down Georgia Avenue in her 1998 Volvo…

… on our way to Rock Creek Cemetery and Gore Vidal’s grave. Georgia is all stop and go traffic and saggy storefronts, a sad landscape in no way helped by the humid morning overcast. Google gives the wrong entrance to the place, so we asked a woman working in her garden how to get in. “Down that alley,” she said, pointing, “and turn left.” Bumpity bumpity down the alley and there it was, the church at the entrance (I sang in its choir one Sunday – a paid gig.).

We saw a big stone with McGOVERN on it and looked more closely. No first name, but next to it was Eleanor’s, and next to hers, Terry McGovern’s. Bette and I both remembered Terry McGovern’s cold drunk death.

We knew Vidal’s grave was near the famous Saint-Gaudens Adams Memorial (watch this with the sound turned down), so we first sat for awhile in front of that. Bette took this picture.

gaudensrockcreek3

Then began the difficult search for Gore. Section D, steps from the Saint-Gaudens – we knew this much. Also an unusual combination of a long slab and an upright gravestone. We munched the taffy we’d picked up at the cemetery offices, where a nice woman told us Vidal wasn’t in their system yet. I thought of the strange state he was in almost exactly a year after his death – a kind of predigitalized bardo – and how he’d maybe find that amusing. Anyway, I knew if the woman gave us Howard Auster’s location, that would also be Vidal’s. D 48, she said, and she circled the location.

The 48 was no help – Rock Creek Cemetery is not user friendly – but we tromped on, munching, peering, following this lane and that among the boxwood and statuary. Traffic from North Capitol Street streamed by. We were the only visitors, far as we could tell, in the whole place. Just us and two guys digging a fresh grave.

We circled and circled Section D but kept coming up empty; and I said to Bette: “Let’s go. It’s the thought that counts.” And as the Volvo crept away from the D Section I saw it, just curbside, and twenty steps straight downhill from the Saint-Gaudens: An upright stone and a large slab. “Hold on. Stop.”

vidalgrave

So I would be able to salute him after all; which I did. I saluted him and I said I know you said love is not your bag, but I love you.

He wrote this, at the end of his memoir:

I’ve… been reading through this memoir, adding, subtracting, writing over half-erased texts, ‘palimpsesting’ – all the while looking for clues not so much to me, the subject, if indeed I am the subject, as to what [my] first thirty-nine years were all about… [on] the small planet that each of us so briefly visits… Finally, I seem to have written, for the first and last time, not the ghost story that I feared, but a love story, as circular in shape as desire (and its pursuit), ending with us whole at last in the shade of a copper beech.

So after all he wrote a love story, the story of his imperishable love for Jimmie Trimble, who was killed in the war and is buried near Vidal, both of them in the shade of a copper beech. Strange to think that his entire life after one passionate encounter with Trimble felt to Vidal partial, unfulfilled in any important way, and that his memoir anticipates the final lying-in that would bring him back to completion.

UD now stood under the beech thinking of all of this, of the way she read Vidal for clues not so much to me, the subject, if indeed I am the subject

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