A foreign experience

Red Sorghum is a rather long novel, at 359 pages.  Most of it is taken up with scenes of violence, much of the violence being rendered in graphic detail.  Reading it was not easy for me.  Yet, I found that the rewards far outweighed the difficulties.

Published in 1986, this is a multi-generational family chronicle that takes place in China, from the 1920’s to the 1970’s.  Much of the bloodshed arises from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), during which the Japanese invaded China and perpertrated many atrocities.  Between 10 and 25 million Chinese civilians perished in this war.  As if that were not enough, violent confrontations also occur, in this novel, between rival Chinese groups.

But now to get to the side of the book that just didn’t let me give up on it.  To start, there is how the storytelling flows back and forth, non-chronologically.  A character might come to an unfortunate end, … but can happily come to life again later in the narrative, when we are at an earlier point in time.  In a way, memory triumphs over mortality.

Then there is the “inside” view of the Chinese mentality that we get from a Chinese novelist, writing about his own country.  The view there of an individual life (based on their huge population) seems rather different from the Western outlook:

The old man with the dark face and white beard shouted, “What are you crying for? This was a great victory! There are four hundred million of us Chinese. If we take on the Japs, one on one, how do you think their little country will fare? If one hundred million of us fought them to the death, they’d be wiped out, but there’d still be three hundred million of us. That makes us the victors, doesn’t it? Commander Yu , this was a crushing victory!”

“Old uncle, you’re just saying that to make me feel good.”

“No, Commander Yu, it really was a great victory. Give the order; tell us what to do. China may have nothing else, but it’s got plenty of people.”

Also … I had certainly heard of foot-binding before.  Even after reading this book, it still seems barbaric to me.  But now, like the books’s narrator, perhaps I have a slightly more nuanced view.  These women do have a special quality to their walk …

A yard in length, the cloth bindings were wound around all but the big toes until the bones cracked and the toes turned under. The pain was excruciating. My mother also had bound feet, and just seeing them saddened me so much that I felt compelled to shout: ‘Down with feudalism! Long live liberated feet!’ The results of Grandma’s suffering were two three-inch golden lotuses, and by the age of sixteen she had grown into a well-developed beauty. When she walked, swinging her arms freely, her body swayed like a willow in the wind.  [1]

And then (though not specific to the Chinese) there are the dogs!  There is a section many pages long, in which the behavior of a pack of dogs is chronicled in detail.  (Indeed, one of the book’s five parts is called “Dog Ways”.)  I will admit that what the dogs are actually engaged in is rather horrible.  (Think of the dead on a battlefield, and you will probably get the idea.)  But the writing is totally absorbing.  One feels (with due respect to the author) that an actual canine is narrating this section!  You may get a small idea from this excerpt:

One of the battles [for domination of the pack] occurred when a dog in Green’s brigade, an impudent male with thick lips, bulging eyes, and a coat of bluish fur, took liberties with a pretty spotted-faced female who was one of Red’s favourites. Infuriated, Red charged the motley male and knocked him into the river. After climbing out and shaking the water off his fur, Thick Lips launched into an angry tirade, which earned him the jeers of the other dogs.

Green barked loudly at Red to defend the honour of his brigade, but Red ignored him and knocked the motley cur back into the river. As he swam back to shore, his nostrils skimming the surface, he looked like a huge river rat. The spotted-faced female stood beside Red, wagging her tail.

Green barked contemptuously at Red, who returned the insult.

One must surely mention the sorghum, which one sees in the book’s title … and just about everywhere in the novel.

Mo Yan himself admits that he has been greatly influenced by William Faulkner.  Just as Faulkner has his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, so Mo Yan has his (semi-fictional) Northeast Gaomi Township.  The main activity there is growing sorghum, a grain used for food, and also to make “sorghum wine” — so called in the novel, but actually a distilled spirit called “baijiu”.


Making this “wine” is the occupation engaged in by the central family in the book.  But beyond that, sorghum is the central “leitmotif” of the novel.  It is constantly mentioned in all kinds of metaphorical constructions, … but somehow instead of being annoying, this reader (at least) felt it as a strong unifiying element that helps us gain distance from narrative that can be hard to assimilate, because it is so painful.  At the end of the book, we gain some understanding as to why the red sorghum was so much on the narrator’s mind:

The sorghum that looked like a sea of blood, whose praises I have sung over and over, has been drowned in a raging flood of revolution and no longer exists, replaced by short-stalked, thick-stemmed, broad-leafed plants covered by a white powder and topped by beards as long as dogs’ tails. High yield, with a bitter, astringent taste, it is the source of rampant constipation. With the exception of cadres above the rank of branch secretary, all the villagers’ faces are the colour of rusty iron.

More than just being itself, the red sorghum is symbolic of the glorious past.

Along with Faulkner, Mo Yan also claims Gabriel García Márquez as an influence; and indeed, Red Sorghum has been cited as an example of “magic realism”.  Events that in ordinary life would be unbearably painful are transmuted into richer, more complex things.  Example:  near the end of the book, a female character, evidently near death, appears to have gone berserk, mouthing abuse and cursing the family around her.  But it turns out that an evil spirit has taken possession of her body.  Finally, a Taoist has to be summoned from the village to exorcise the demon!

Red Sorghum was originally written in Chinese.  I read the able translation by Howard Goldblatt.  I don’t normally read translated books (having the purist position that it’s “like taking a shower with a raincoat on”), [2] but an experience like this shows me how much I might, generally, be missing …

Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.  At the end of his Nobel lecture, he tells a story that I’d like to repeat here.  It has nothing to do with Red Sorghum!  I just like the story a lot:

Bear with me, please, for one last story, one my grandfather told me many years ago: A group of eight out-of-town bricklayers took refuge from a storm in a rundown temple. Thunder rumbled outside, sending fireballs their way. They even heard what sounded like dragon shrieks. The men were terrified, their faces ashen. “Among the eight of us,” one of them said, “is someone who must have offended the heavens with a terrible deed. The guilty person ought to volunteer to step outside to accept his punishment and spare the innocent from suffering.” Naturally, there were no volunteers. So one of the others came up with a proposal: “Since no one is willing to go outside, let’s all fling our straw hats toward the door. Whoever’s hat flies out through the temple door is the guilty party, and we’ll ask him to go out and accept his punishment.” So they flung their hats toward the door. Seven hats were blown back inside; one went out the door. They pressured the eighth man to go out and accept his punishment, and when he balked, they picked him up and flung him out the door. I’ll bet you all know how the story ends: They had no sooner flung him out the door than the temple collapsed around them.

NOTES

[1] Though foot binding was banned in 1912 by the new Republic of China government, the practice continued in some rural areas till about mid-century.

[2] “Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.”  Though of course I am not talking about poetry here, this aphorism came to mind.  I encountered it in the 2016 movie Paterson.  I feel like it has been around longer, but cannot find an earlier source.

 

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Victorian Secret

 

Wilkie Collins - The Woman in White

Well OK, not really a secret.  I just don’t like to read about books before reading them, due to my morbid fear of “spoilers”.  And Wilkie Collins has never been on my go-to list of Victorian novelists.  I might not have gotten to him at all, were it not for a scrawled note in the little notebook I always carry, to firm up my leaky memory.  I don’t remember who or what supplied me with this lead, but as the saying goes, I will forever be grateful.

As for what led me to this particular book of his:  I knew that The Woman in White and The Moonstone were his best-known novels.  And since (all things being equal) I like to read an author’s works in chronological order, I chose the earlier TWIW (1860).

Wilkie Collins

After I had been reading TWIW for a time, I made the note

poster child of STICK W THE BK

In other words, I experienced that wonderful (well, to me) feeling of having input persistence, patience, and observation without much immediate reward … only to have that reward finally come, and in spades.

What put me off initially?  One thing was that very early on, we meet Professor Pesca, a good friend of the protagonist Walter Hartright.  Pesca, from Italy, is shown as an excessively enthusiastic fellow who excessively bubbles over, cheerfully mangling the English language as he goes along.  He recalls some of Walter Scott’s “sidekick” characters (probably speaking in some deep Scottish dialect) who are evidently inserted into the narrative to add “color” and “humor”.  As you may have surmised, I tend not to be too fond of these fellows.  (Though I am really a Scott partisan; see my review of Rob Roy.)  Anyway, as it turns out, I had to eventually revise my appraisal of Pesca … which is, I hope, enough said to tantalize but not to give anything away.

There are other aspects of TWIW that would perhaps also fall into the “old fashioned” category, and that put me off for a while.  There is a melodramatic cast to things, characters being either very good or … very much the other way.  The surroundings for a given scene are set up so as to enhance the story; for example, you can imagine what kind of events might transpire given this scene:

It is a still, sultry, moonless night. The stars are dull and few. The trees that shut out the view on all sides look dimly black and solid in the distance, like a great wall of rock. I hear the croaking of frogs, faint and far off, and the echoes of the great clock hum in the airless calm long after the strokes have ceased. I wonder how Blackwater Park will look in the daytime? I don’t altogether like it by night.

Now for the good news.  Or, as I noted succinctly at the time,

SPIN STRAW INTO GOLD

What was this gold I was now finding?  Firstly, a very unusual story.  TWIW is a murder mystery that’s … well, not quite a murder mystery.  (I don’t mean to confuse, just to tantalize without giving away the store.)  The freshness one feels reading this, might connect to Collins being a pioneer.  TWIW is regarded as one of the very first mystery (or detective) novels.  By anyone. (Note the “novel” qualification; Edgar Allan Poe had already penned “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, but that was a short story.)  On top of that, TWIW is known as the first “sensation novel”.  I hadn’t been aware of this category, but it seems that sensation novels were big in Great Britain in the 1860’s and 1870’s.  Like everything, there is a Wikipedia article for this subject, and you could pursue it there, but I will just mention the keywords Secret, Crime, Romance, Melodrama, Gothic.  (But unlike gothic fiction, the story of the “sensation novel” is given more realism by being placed in a true-to-modern-life setting.)

So, TWIW is an early example of both the Mystery novel, and the Sensation novel.  And it is regarded as one of the best in each category.  It is noteworthy that pioneering works in a given genre can quite often emerge later as one of the greatest in their genre.  (Doesn’t this seem to fly in the face of common sense notions of things originating “rough”, and subsequently improving?)  The example that comes to my mind first is Don Quixote, one of the earliest novels, but also one that has been considered the greatest novel ever. [See, for example, the Guardian list, which incidentally places TWIW as #23.]

To come back now, to my own personal reactions to TWIW.  Two things stand out positively.  Firstly, Collins’ ingenious method of narration.  The story is initially related by Walter Hartright.  But when it becomes more appropriate for someone else — who was an eye-witness to the subsequent events — to tell the story, then that person becomes the narrator.  I was initially disappointed to see this, since I like to “bond” with a central character, so might be sorry to see him walk off stage; but Collins’ narration plan ends up working beautifully.  Not only does it give a great sense of verisimilitude, but it creates variety in a long novel that else might turn wearying.

Secondly, Collins writes with great skill.  Reading his prose can be a pleasure in its own right.   I should perhaps have noted several examples, but just recorded one, which seems very deft in its arrangement of words:

I am to ask a personal favour, for the first time in my life, and to ask it of the man of all others to whom I least desire to owe a serious obligation of any kind.

So … if you are ever hankering for a novel that’s “modern” in the sense of being a mystery story, but also one of the best products of another age, I hope you will give The Woman in White a try.  It is not a short read, but if you are at all like me, you will soon be expertly swept along by many successive voices, taking turns in relating a devilishly clever plot.

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The map IS the territory

 

Road map of Rhode Island

This past August, I was driving up, with my spouse, to Block Island for an extended weekend.  One has to take a ferry; one of the boat terminals is at Point Judith, R.I.  As usual, we were relying on our car’s GPS navigation system.  But luckily, I remembered to also bring that old standby, our road atlas.  Even though the GPS basically got us there fine (you’ll see later why I say “basically”), the Connecticut and Rhode Island maps in the atlas supplied all the “context”.  As we proceeded, I could see on the map what we were passing, arousing either memories of the old, or curiosity about the new.

To perform the rather egotistical act of quoting myself:  “A navigation system gets you where you want to go.  But it doesn’t tell you where you are.”

Recently, in the book world, I ran across a parallel to this.  I retrieved from my shelf a volume I had dipped into, maybe back in the 1980’s when it came out:

James D. McCawley - The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters

Written by a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, the Eater’s Guide is a tutorial on the subset of the written Chinese language one has to know, in order to read the menu in a Chinese restaurant.  (It is common knowledge that the English part of a Chinese menu typically does not present the full range of culinary offerings.)

McCawley begins by explaining that most Chinese characters are not pictorial, but rather composed of two parts: the RADICAL which shows the general area of the character’s meaning, and the PHONETIC which rhymes with the word the character represents.  Much of the book is composed of a glossary, which ingeniously does not rely on scholarly knowledge, but is usable by the beginner.  The pages below, for example, show some of the phonetic half-characters that could go with the four-stroke radical meaning “tree”:

Eater's Guide glossary - sample page

In the last several weeks, I’ve been studying this book rather seriously (finding it a good companion to subway trips).  I have been diligent about doing McCawley’s exercises, which ensure that one has not just an abstract notion, but actual skill in tracking down words in his glossary:

Eater's Guide - some exercises

This was indeed work, but it brought the reward not just of useful ability, but also of  general learning.  Plus some delightful discoveries.  In finding the character that means “home”, I was suddenly presented with the Chinese name of one of my favorite dishes (though at least in my Queens, NYC neighborhood it appears in a vegetarian incarnation):

Eater's Guide - Home Style Bean Curd

And, I thought it was fun to discover that “chop suey” originates in a Chinese character that means “miscellaneous”:

Eater's Guide - chop suey ("odds and ends")

OK … the scene shifts to a subway trip when I was NOT perusing McCawley’s book, but talking to a friend about it.  Not greatly to my surprise, she noted that “there is an app for that”.  I’m not sure if this is the one she meant, but here is one called Waygo:

WAYGO app - point phone at Chinese text to translate

This seems to me, to be the GPS of the Chinese-menu world.  To be fair, I have not tried Waygo yet.  If it turns out that it does not just give facile translations, but delves into the linguistic intricacies that are so interesting to me, I will eat my words (so to speak) and update this blog entry accordingly.  But my strong suspicion is that you will get a result that is quick — and (darn it!) probably very practical — but one without any of the alluring context and background.

Now, I’d like to extend this discussion into a much broader arena.  I’m linking below to a recent article in the New York Review of Books.  It’s a review of a 2017 book called Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy.

Born to Be Free _ by BM Friedman

The authors (Philippe van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght) advocate a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans.  (Note that this is not a “minimum wage”, but income that you would get whether you held a job or not.)  Why?  Because the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics will dictate that many workers will need only minimal skills to do their jobs.  (An example already widely current: since taxi drivers use — here we are again — GPS, they don’t need to know anything about a city’s geography.)  All these now-unskilled workers will not be able to command a liveable income from their job alone.  As Benjamin M. Friedman puts it in his review:

Only convinced futurists envision FedEx and UPS vans racing around the nation’s cities anytime soon with no human inside. But in the future, what will the human on board be doing? Most likely, not driving the van but running packages up to people’s doorsteps and then pushing a picture icon on a touch screen to confirm that deliveries have been completed — not so different from what the cashier at a McDonald’s now does. For just this reason, the wages those no-longer-drivers receive also won’t be much different from McDonald’s wages.

If I may come full circle here, and return to my trip to Block Island …

Detailed map: Point Judith, Rhode Island

We had to get to Point Judith.  We were coming up on Route 1, and our GPS, as I recall,  left us in some doubt as to where to turn off toward the coast.  With my map in hand, it was easy to see that we should not head towards Jerusalem (necessitating a swim across the inlet), but rather go a bit “too far” and double back, on Route 108, towards Galilee.  (We are  very Biblical here, no?)  The map freed us from  our GPS blinders, and gave us (literally) that “extra dimension”.  We got to our Block Island ferry in time!

 

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What should I read next?

I have long been interested in giving variety to my reading choices, so over the years I have accumulated a repertoire of tools that would give me new ideas for books to delve into.  In no special order,

  • Friends.  Of course.  But I always wish I had more people in my life who share my reading patterns.  In our Internet age, Facebook has helped.  (Strangely enough, I have not had much luck, in recent years, with online literary discussion groups.)
  • Publications I read.  The New York Review of Books has been fruitful.  The New York Times, not so much.  (I have never had any great love for their Sunday Book Review section … though admittedly, I have not checked it out in quite a while.)
  • Public libraries.  Especially the “new books”, “classics”, and “mystery” sections.  Often these days, I will just note down a book of interest, and download it to my e-reader later, from another source.
  • Bookstores.  They can also of course supply information — though some new-book vendors can succumb to the faddish in their stock.  I used to haunt used-book shops.  I still remember that fateful moment when a sales person at New Haven’s Paperback Trader made me aware of Ed McBain and his police procedurals …
  • Thrift shops.  This also is past rather than present.  But I am nostalgic for these funky storefronts that almost always had a couple of racks of books somewhere in the back …
  • “Greatest” lists.  “Best novels of the twentieth century”, “Greatest police procedural writers”, etc.  Easy to Google these, in various flavors.
  • Wikipedia articles, e.g. “Mystery fiction”, “Victorian literature”, etc, etc.
  • References to other writers, in novels I am currently reading.  I think that often this is a way of paying homage.  I believe I found Lindsey Davis’ series of ancient-Rome mysteries in this fashion.
  • Literary calendars.  At least in printed form, this is a beast that unfortunately seems to have gone extinct some years ago.  Perhaps this is related to the rise of the Internet, … but online versions have been hard to come by.  (SUGGESTIONS WELCOME.)

One such defunct printed calendar was “On Writers and Writing”.  An instance from a year long gone still survives on Amazon:

Every week, you could turn the page to read about a different author.  To my liking, it emphasized “literary” writers, delving back into former decades and centuries.  I might be reminded about a writer I had once enjoyed … or perhaps told of one who was unfamiliar to me.

My current choice for literary calendar is Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac”.  Though I don’t consider myself as a bona-fide writer, this doesn’t deter me from my visits.  🙂   There is a new “page” to read every day.  (Or, as you can see, to listen to instead if you wish.)  Things always start with a poem:

Following this, there are a number of descriptive entries, tailored to the current date, e.g.

Unfortunately for my purposes, not all the entries are about writers, … though many of them are.  If I see a name that intrigues me, I may follow up by reading the Wikipedia article on the given person.  There is also the (happily online) Columbia Encyclopedia, with a succinct (and usually spoiler-free) account of the writer in question.  Usually these sources are a help to me in deciding which of this author’s books I should start with.  (Sometimes it will be the most celebrated one.  But often I will choose the work written the earliest … especially if it is part of a series.)

Can anyone suggest other places to get reading ideas?  For instance, are there any websites (or apps) that, if you input your reading tastes (Authors A, B, C), will suggest that you should try Author D?

 

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A Maximum Minimalist

My usual reading tends to concentrate in two areas: the classics, and detective novels. Since both these genres go back many decades (not to say centuries), a corollary of this is that I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction. There are exceptions, however. The New York Review of Books is my favorite journal; as such, I give special attention to writers, and books, that are discussed there. Recently in that publication, Joyce Carol Oates wrote an article about works by the American writer Mary Miller (born 1977). [1] Two of these books are short-story collections. The third is The Last Days of California (2014). So far, it is Miller’s only novel. Oates’ review of this novel was not totally glowing, but there was something about this book — perhaps the quotations from it? — that caught my eye.

The story takes place over only four days. It’s about a family on a road trip from their home in Montgomery, Alabama to California. The father believes the end of the world is coming soon, and is trying to “save” as many people as he can, buttonholing strangers and passing out leaflets along the way. His reasons for going to California are not too clear, but he seems to be on some kind of pilgrimage. Jess, the narrator, is 15 years old. Her mother, and 17-year old sister Elise, are also on the trip with her.

The Oates review attaches the label of “minimalism” to the book. Even though I like the writings of at least one “minimalist” — Raymond Carver [2] — there is something barren-sounding about that designation. I’m glad it did not put me off from reading this novel, which certainly came across as very rich to me.

True to its “minimalist” badge, there are many seemingly unimportant events described in the book (as you can imagine from the time span of only a few days). (Even these events strangely held my interest, however.) But as well, both Jess and Elise undergo some quite momentous experiences. (Being averse to spoilers myself, I will refrain from elaboration on this.)

It seems paradoxical, but even though I have very little idea of what a teenage girl’s inner life is like, Jess comes across as completely genuine. Perhaps a considerable part of this lies in the contradictions exhibited in her behavior, feelings, and beliefs. (Being a teenager, poised between youth and adulthood.) One could start with her obsession with her (alleged) excess poundage, while blithely munching on junk food! For a couple of further examples, let me turn to some passages from the novel.

The first selection shows how perverse Jess can be, engaging in behavior which she knows very well will result in bad things:

My favorite [Stephen King book] was Duma Key. I also liked It and The Tommyknockers. The books frightened me but it didn’t make me not want to read them. This seemed to imply something defective in my character. It was like the other things I did to make my life harder—eating too much when I knew I’d get a stomachache, drinking water when I had to pee and there was nowhere to use the bathroom.

The next passage — with its jolting turnabout in the middle — seems to encapsulate the wide emotional swings that an adolescent could have. Note that at both ends of this spectrum, no communication with the parents will result!

I picked up my milkshake and turned to the window. At some point, my feelings for my parents had changed. I mostly felt nothing and couldn’t think of anything to say to them, but it [sic] was periodically broken by a brief, crushing feeling, a love so intense that there was nothing to do but reject it altogether.

Next, Jess relates an encounter with a boy at one of the motels where the family stopped. Another jolt for me, as the passage goes from an alleged world-weariness, to the pure desire expressed in the last sentence:

“Hey, girl,” Gabe said, “you want another?”

“Keep ’em coming,” I said, though my beer was still half-full. I liked how he called me girl, as if there were too many girls to remember, as if the names of girls would take up too much space in his head. If he liked me, maybe I could become pretty girl or even my girl. But for this to happen, we’d have to fast-forward past all of this getting-to-know-you business. We’d have to pretend we already knew each other. People were so similar once you got to know them.

I watched him out of the corner of my eye, his body in constant motion, an ankle bouncing on a knee, his hand lifting a can to his mouth. I wanted to feel his body move over mine.

Jess feels she is in the shade of her older sister Elise, who is slender and turns heads wherever she goes. But I defy you to read Jess’ unsparing revelations, and not root for this ugly duckling who is perhaps not so ugly after all.

In sum: My encounter with this achingly beautiful novel has encouraged me to delve more into contemporary literature!


[1] Joyce Carol Oates, “Postcards from the Edge”, New York Review of Books, April 20, 2017.  You can read it here:  NYRB review

[2]  See my review:  The Short Story … featuring Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

 

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Did it have to end with tragedy?

It was a book I had always wanted to read. I just didn’t know that it existed.

A few weeks ago, I happened to be playing violin in a reading of Felix Mendelssohn’s C-minor Piano Trio.

After the playing, a discussion arose about the well-known renunciation of Judiasm, and the adoption of Christianity by Mendelssohn’s family (initiated by Felix’s father Abraham).

I ventured that the Mendelssohn family converted, as simply a means of social advancement. The cellist, knowledgeable on this subject, told us that the situation was really more complicated. For instance, many German Jews came to regard the traditional form of their religion as old-fashioned. The great “takeaway” I got from our discussion, was the cellist’s recommendation of the 2003 book by the Israeli writer Amos Elon:  The Pity of It All:  A Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933.

Although I had never heard of this book, I have a very personal connection with its subject. My parents, both Jewish, were in Germany during the 1920’s and early 1930’s. They managed to emigrate to Switzerland (and some years later, to New York) to escape the Nazis. My father’s relatives in Poland, however, did not fare as well; many of them were lost in the Holocaust.

The Pity of It All starts arrestingly:

IN the fall of 1743, a fourteen-year-old boy entered Berlin at the Rosenthaler Tor, the only gate in the city wall through which Jews (and cattle) were allowed to pass.

This Jewish boy was Moses Mendelssohn (grandfather of Felix Mendelssohn).

Moses Mendelssohn, a philosopher, became celebrated as the “German Socrates”. Though remaining a Jew, he advocated a form of Judaism which he felt was in harmony with the ideas of the Enlightenment circulating at that time. German should be the secular language of Jews, not Yiddish. “One could be both a practicing Jew and an enlightened German.” Through his good friend Lessing — the famous writer and philosopher — Moses Mendelssohn became known to the public. German Jews took the first steps toward becoming integrated into German society.

From this book of many characters and events, I can only give a few highlights. Let’s now turn to Heinrich Heine (1797-1856).

Heine converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in 1825, characteristically taking “Christian” as his new first name. His radical political views were not appreciated by the German authoritiies, and he spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris. He is today best known for his early lyric poetry, set to music by Schubert and Schumann. From what I saw of his ironic voice in The Pity of It All, I am now curious to read some of his writing.

Along with being one of Germany’s great writers, Heine evidently had the gift of prophesy. Here, from 1834 — long before Germany’s unification — is his eerily accurate prediction about the twentieth century:

A drama will be enacted in Germany compared to which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll. Christianity restrained the martial ardor of the Germans for a time but it did not destroy it; once the restraining talisman is shattered, savagery will rise again,… the mad fury of the berserk, of which Nordic poets sing and speak. … The old stony gods will rise from the rubble and rub the thousand-year-old dust from their eyes. Thor with the giant hammer will come forth and smash the gothic domes.

The German thunder … rolls slowly at first but it will come. And when you hear it roar, as it has never roared before in the history of the world, know that the German thunder has reached its target.

The progress toward Jewish assimilation into German society (with many Jews converting to Christianity) was thrown awry by World War I (1914-18). Even before this war, “real power in Germany was centered not in the Reichstag but in the occult triangle of monarch, army, and bureaucracy”, rendering true democracy impossible. But with Germany’s losing the war, things degenerated. In a terrible irony, Jews — some of whom were the most fervent patriots — became scapegoats for the war loss.

Between the world wars, the sun did come out for a few years with the Weimar Republic (1919-33). My father (Stefan Frenkel) was a violin soloist in Germany during this period. He was friends with Kurt Weill, of Threepenny Opera fame. He played the German premiere of Weill’s Violin Concerto, and performed many other contemporary works as well. Berlin at this time was arguably the cultural capital of the world. Jews seemed to be more a part of German life than ever before. But things were on shaky ground.

[After World War I,] Ludendorff, Hindenburg, and other high-ranking officers wished above all to save the army. At their urging, the republican government accepted the terms of a humiliating armistice. The republicans should have compelled the generals to assume responsibility for this step; instead, they readily took it upon themselves — with disastrous political consequences later on.

There was a fateful loophole in the Weimar constitution, allowing for the possibility of rule by decree. (Hitler was able to take advantage of this when he came to power.)

Other factors contributed to a “perfect storm” in Germany, that led to the Weimar Republic’s collapse. There was hyperinflation.

The worldwide Depression of the 1930’s led to mass unemployment. The harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles called for huge reparation payments. Germany felt totally humiliated by the peace terms.

But. Even though conditions were so dire in the Germany of the early 1930’s, was it historically inevitable that Hitler should gain power? The Pity of It All argues that the Nazi takeover was not a foregone conclusion:

Alongside the Germany of anti-Semitism there was a Germany of enlightened liberalism, humane concern, civilized rule of law, good government, social security, and thriving social democracy. Even Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 was not the result of electoral success (the Nazis’ share of the vote had seriously declined in the fall of 1932). Rather, Hitler’s triumph was the product of backstage machinations by conservative politicians and industrialists who overcame the hesitations of a senile president by convincing him (and themselves) that they were “hiring” Hitler to restore order and curb the trade unions. Installing Hitler as chancellor was not the only alternative at the time.

Instead of Hitler, what else might have happened?

Given the ineptitude and mediocrity of the Social Democratic leaders, the most obvious alternative to Hitler might have been a military regime, such as existed in several other European countries at that time. A military regime would certainly have been dictatorial, and it might have led to a war with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and perhaps France. But, as Henry Ashby Turner suggests, there would have been no Holocaust.

If one takes Elon’s view, one could argue that if there had been one or two strong personalities opposing the naming of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933, the history of Jews in Germany — and elsewhere in Europe — might have turned out completely differently. Perhaps the millions who were murdered in the Holocaust would have remained alive.

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Murderous travel

This June, my spouse and I will be taking a trip to Norway.  Being of the reading sort, I was looking for books to harmonize with the forthcoming expedition.

Travel guides often have listings of well-known authors, artists, composers, etc, associated with the given region.  In Rick Steves Scandinavia, I came across a mention of the contemporary (and popular) Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø (whom I had never heard of).  As a novelist, Nesbø is best known for his “Harry Hole” crime series.  (But also he belongs to a rock band, and is a former economist and reporter!)  I am an avid reader of detective novels; and being in addition a methodical reader, I settled on the first book in the Harry Hole series, called The Bat (1997).  It is set in Australia (not Norway, but … well, nothing is perfect).  Harry — the Norwegian detective — tells people his last name should be pronounced “Hoo-Leh”, but people still persist in calling him “Harry Holy”.

However, “Holy” he turns out not to be.  Well, maybe except for his deductive powers …

We get glimpses into the rather dark and cheerless workings of Hole’s mind.  Here, he tries to explain himself to a lady friend:

“You’re a tiny bit damaged every time you unravel another murder case.  Unfortunately, as a rule there are more human wrecks and sadder stories, and fewer ingenious motives, than you would imagine from reading Agatha Christie.  At first I saw myself as a kind of knight dispensing justice, but at times I feel more like a refuse collector.  Murderers are generally pitiful sorts, and it’s seldom difficult to point to at least ten good reasons why they turned out as they did.  So, usually, what you feel most is frustration.  Frustration that they can’t be happy destroying their own lives instead of dragging others down with them.”

Is this gloominess peculiar to Harry, or illustrative of something general in the Norwegian mentality?  Not possible for me to determine, at this point.  Hopefully our trip — unusually for us, a group tour, complete with Norway specialist — will shed some light on this.

One advantage to starting a book series from the beginning (as I did) is that one often gets a “back story” on the recurring character(s).  In this case, one finds out, among other things, that Harry had a serious drinking problem in his past.  Again, can one legitimately extrapolate from this, to an alcohol issue in Norway, as a whole?  (I believe that Norway’s high taxes on alcoholic beverages are an attempt to control excessive consumption.)

One of the Australian characters asks Harry to talk about his home country.  Here is his response — predictable, to me, in some ways, and surprising in others:

Harry talked.  About fjords, mountains and people living between the two.  About unions, suppression, Ibsen, Nansen and Grieg.  And about the country to the north that saw itself as enterprising and forward-looking, but seemed more like a banana republic.  Which had forests and harbors when the Dutch and English needed timber, which had waterfalls when electricity was invented and which, best of all, discovered oil outside its front door.

“We’ve never made Volvo cars or Tuborg beer,” Harry said. “We’ve just exported our nature and avoided thinking.1  We’re a nation with golden hair up our arses,” Harry said, not even trying to select an appropriate English idiom.

The last part of Harry’s response to his Australian acquaintance is more personal:

Then he told him about Åndalsnes, a tiny settlement up in Romsdalen Valley, surrounded by high mountains which were so beautiful that his mother had always said that that was where God had started when He was creating the world, and that He had spent so long on Romsdalen that the rest of the world had to be done posthaste to be finished by Sunday.

Upon doing a bit of geographical research, I found (to my pleasure) that Åndalsnes is a real place.  In fact, Jo Nesbø has his roots near there; he was born in the nearby coastal city of Molde.  I am seriously considering (subject to my wife’s approval!) shaping our travel itinerary to include this part of the country.  The combination of visual delights and literary resonances is hard to resist …

Harry concludes with these recollections:

[He talked about] fishing with his father on the fjord early in the morning, in July, and lying on the shore and smelling the sea—while the gulls screamed and the mountains stood like silent, immovable guards around their little kingdom. “My father’s from Lesjaskog, a little settlement further up the valley, and he and my mother met at a village dance in Åndalsnes.  They always talked about moving back to Romsdalen when they retired.”

It’s hard not to wonder if some of the above reminiscences are not only Harry’s, but Jo Nesbø’s as well …

In addition to the Scandinavian aspects (the murder victim is a — blonde of course — Norwegian woman, another character is Swedish), the Australian scene is rendered in plausible and satisfying detail … complete with fully drawn Aboriginal characters (and their ancient legends).  One of the Aborignals in the book has some thought-provoking remarks about racial prejudice:

“It’s not what you say,” Toowoomba said [to Harry]. “It’s what you unconsciously expect of me.  You imagine you’ve said something wrong, and it doesn’t occur to you that I’m intelligent enough to take into account that you’re a foreigner.  I don’t suppose you would be personally offended if Japanese tourists in Norway didn’t know everything about your country?  Such as your king being called Harald.” Toowoomba winked. “It’s not just you, Harry.  Even white Australians are hysterically cautious about saying something wrong.  That’s what’s so paradoxical.  First of all, they take our people’s pride, and when it’s gone they’re scared to death of treading on it.”

In my fiction reading, I normally shun translations.  Yet this book — ably translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett– has helped convert me from such linguistic purism.  Even without the “excuse” of the Norway trip, I would have put The Bat well up there, on my list of favorite detective novels.
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1 The Norwegian people were not always as passive as Harry would have it. Norway’s “1 percent” was in charge of things untill about 1935. At that time, the Labor party — aided by militancy among workers and farmers — created a society that provided for the economic good of all. For more information on this, see here .

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