Has anyone misplaced a renaissance? Say, a Germanic one, about two centuries old?
We all might have, according to cultural historian Peter Watson's thick new book The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century. It's a big thesis, but the evidence is surprisingly strong. A summary on the book's back cover states the case:
From the end of the Baroque era and the death of Bach to the rise of Hitler in 1933, Germany was transformed from a poor relation among Western nations into a dominant intellectual and cultural force -- more creative and influential than France, Britain, Italy, Holland, and the United States. In the early decades of the twentieth century, German artists, writers, scholars, philosophers, scientists, and engineers were leading their freshly unified country to new and unimagined heights. By 1933, Germans had won more Nobel Prizes than any other nationals, and more than the British and Americans combined. Yet this remarkable genius was cut down in its prime by Adolf Hitler and his disastrous Third Reich—a brutal legacy that has overshadowed the nation's achievements ever since.
(All writers have to break through barriers, but few have to face the kind that Claudia Moscovici struggled with to produce her first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, which Ken Kalfus calls "a taut political thriller, a meditation on totalitarianism, an expose of the Ceausescu regime, and a moving fictionalized memoir of one family's quest for freedom". Even in the changed atmosphere of today's Eastern Europe, publishers like Curtea Veche struggle with repression of various kinds (note: this page is in Romanian, but Google auto-translate works pretty well). I asked Claudia to share with Litkicks readers her story -- how she managed to become a writer, why she wrote this book, and what she thinks literature means to Romania. Here's her story. -- Levi)
My first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, took me about ten years to write. It took me so long partly because I wrote this book while also teaching literature and philosophy, writing scholarly books and raising a family. It took me a long time to write it also because I had to do a lot of historical research for it. When one works for so long on one book, the interrelated questions of motivation and intended audience become all the more relevant. As I was writing Velvet Totalitarianism, I asked myself often: why write historical fiction about the Cold War, an era which is now relegated mostly to history books? Why is the history of Romanian communism so important to me and whom do I hope to touch in writing fiction about it? An anecdote brought these questions into sharper focus.
Screw stuff white people like. This is stuff I like:
1. With Amazon Crossing, the well-funded online bookstore is taking an active role in publishing international authors across boundaries. Good move, Amazon. Speaking of international authors, a fifth Words Without Borders anthology, Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, is coming out. Way to be productive, WWB!
2. Something else we like: Ghostbusters invade the main branch of the New York Public Library to protest library budget cuts. What's really interesting about this latest effort by Improv Everywhere is that the apparently desperate New York Public Library actually allowed it to take place (though they don't seem to have warned the people in the library). Nice! We've gone way beyond "ssssssh!" by now.
1, A font face captures Franz Kafka's handwriting, which turns out be rather pretty in a Kafkaesque sort of way.
2. Tablet Magazine interviews eternal Fug Tuli Kupferberg and points us to his excellent YouTube Channel. I love the audience participation in this little-known literary facts video, in which Tuli reveals that T. S. Eliot was Jewish, that Walt Whitman was heterosexual, that Homer's Iliad was actually written by a guy named Iliad, and that when Dylan Thomas drank himself to death his drink of choice was strawberry milkshakes. All true.
1. I'm not sure I'm feeling the new Rick Moody "Twitter novel" that has begun appearing on Electric Literature and will continue for two more days. Some Contemporary Characters is a noble experiment by a good writer, but after the first day it feels more like a proof of concept than an integrated work. The tweets are written in a rarefied, elegant tone, as when the characters are bowling: "An ungodly strike, an indisputable strike, one pin teetering at the rightmost margin like chastity itself toppling with a dramatic sigh". Okay, but do people really talk like that on Twitter? Maybe Moody is focusing on the artistic potential of the 140-character sentence, but that's only half of what this work needs to do. It must also feel natural on Twitter, must reflect its setting in terms of identity and plot as well as character-count. This novel still feels like a text placed on Twitter rather than born there.
Why not write a Twitter novel as a variation on the epistolary or diary-form novel? We should believe that we are reading one person's actual tweets, and should feel engaged in piecing a mysterious story together from the available evidence. This could really work, and I was hoping to see that kind of realism here. Carolyn Kellogg doesn't seem convinced by Moody's new work either. Well, it's worth sticking with; there's still time for it to turn into something.
2. It's been established that James Joyce inadvertently invented the word 'blog', and now it seems that Vladimir Nabokov quasi-invented the smiley. Very cool.
3. Ed Champion reviews the new film version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I detest McCarthy's books and would probably steer clear of this pity party even if Ed liked it, but it's a notable fact that Ed didn't.
4. Stephen Sondheim is writing a memoir.
5. I recently suggested that New York Times Book Review chief and conservative critic Sam Tanenhaus ought to review Sarah Palin's Going Rogue. Indeed he has done so, though for the New Yorker instead of his own publication. It's a good piece. In other NYTBR-related news, the film based on critic Walter Kirn's Up In The Air is getting excellent reviews. I plan to see it soon and will surely tell you what I think.
6. More film news: Schiller: Rebel of Arcadia is a new film biography of classic German Romantic author Friedrich von Schiller. The Last Station features Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy, and a movie based on Chekhov's Ward Six has debuted in Russia.
7. Brian May of Queen has written a book, A Village Lost and Found, about antique stereoscopic photographs.
8. P. G. Wodehouse channels Franz Kafka, according to this observer (via Books Inq).
"... it always pops up, the same question, cleverly calculated from my date of birth, about Communism, whether I remember the food lines, the vinegar on store shelves, the fall of the Wall and all the other bloodcurdling stuff they didn’t have over on its other side. Of course I do, I say with a mix of triumph and pain, as if I were just then supposed to pull up my sleeve to reveal something like scars from the kiddie internment camp or the marks from when the police beat me during an interrogation and wave them before the eyes of my interlocutor like a wad of photos from some exotic trip. Yes, my dears, I was there, back when you had no idea about anything: while you were scarfing down those dainties in little tissue-paper cups, I was fighting on the front lines of childhood! Here are my scars from drinking vinegar straight from the shelf! Say what you want, you may have every other kind of scar there is, but you don’t have these."
So says Dorota Maslowska in Faraway, So Ugly, a piece included in the new Words Without Borders anthology The Wall In My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall famously fell twenty years ago, but this is really too simple a symbol to stand for the vast adjustments that took place all over Eastern Europe as the great dream/nightmare of Soviet Communism disappeared. For greater understanding -- what did these critical days feel like? and what did the Plastic People of the Universe really have to do with it? -- we need the power of fiction and poetry and art. I haven't seen the final version of this book yet (full disclosure: I am a proud member of the Words Without Borders team) but I know I won't be disappointed.
I recently glanced at a new translation of Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum, a classic novel I'd never read, with little intention to put my other reading aside and dive in. The opening scene of a peasant hiding a fugitive under her skirts in a potato field near Danzig drew me in, and then her grandson got a tin drum on his third birthday and before I knew it I'd blasted through the whole amazing novel. I now have a new favorite writer on my long list. What a talent! Grass's taste for sensitive and affectionate perversion amidst the trappings of human frailty reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving, and I now realize the extent to which both of these writers must have been inspired by this book. The new edition also contains some extra material about how Breon Mitchell's new translation expands upon the classic Ralph Manheim version. I can't speak to the differences, but the new translation sure does deliver the goods.
I've also been reading Ralph Manheim's translation of Jakov Lind's Landscape in Concrete, though Lind's shrill dark comedy and heavy Kafkaesque attitude make this a tougher read than Grass's graceful Tin Drum. Joshua Cohen's introduction explains the surprising life story of this Jewish/Austrian writer who assumed an Aryan identity and hid inside Nazi Germany through the course of World War II working for another "Nazi" who, in a twist that reminds me of Ian McEwan's The Innocent, turned out to be a different kind of double agent. Despite the author's beguiling back story, I had trouble digging into this novel (politically-tinged surrealism is often a painful grind, which may be one reason Kafka's best pieces are so short). Still, this novel stands as another piece in Central Europe's historic puzzle.
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's Memories of the Future is a tougher call for me. Liesl Schillinger invokes Gogol and Kafka (three separate times) in her account of this long-dead early Soviet-era modernist's career collection, but I find myself reading between the lines to detect a strong note of weariness in this putatively positive review. Krzizhanovsky clearly likes to explore the fictional boundaries between surreal dreaminess and reality, and personally I know I can live without a lot of fiction that covers this territory. I always like Liesl Schillinger's sympathetic reviewing style, but at times I wonder: is she capable of actually panning a book she doesn't like? That's not to say that she doesn't like this one as much as she claims to, but after finishing her review I know that I never ever want to read this book.
It's more fun when a critic just goes apeshit on a respectable book he doesn't like, as Tom Shone does with Jan Kjaerstad's The Discoverer:
Reviewing books doesn't often feel like real work -- not the kind of work that makes you break a sweat or join a union. So when an editor from the New York Times calls you up and asks if you want to review a new novel from Norway, and the nmovel turns out to be not only over 400 pages long and largely set in a fjord, but also Part 3 of a trilogy, Parts 1 and 2 of which ran to over 1,000 pages, with multiple narrators and a nonlinear time scheme -- yeesss -- then you jump at the chance to take your place as a worker among workers.
This is only one of several funny sequences in which Shone demolishes this book. I know little about Kjaerstad and have no idea whether this assault is deserved or not. But I did have fun reading it.
Further brainy material in this Book Review includes Josh Emmons on The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, which apparently is constructed mainly from questions, David Hajdu on Robert Crumb's illustrated Genesis and Gaiutra Bahadur on Amit Chaudhuri's The Immortals, which seems to have something to do with the Bengali raga scene. Less brainy material includes Mary Duenwald on Juliet, Naked, the latest Nick Hornsby book I won't be reading.
Speaking of books I won't be reading, Gregory Cowles is very kind to Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City in a lush cover piece. I've expressed my lack of affection for Lethem's fiction enough elsewhere, so I'll just keep quiet about this one. Whatever you like, Book Review.
I respect book reviewer and Internet-culture critic John Freeman, author of The Tyranny of Email -- in fact, I've exchanged emails with Mr. Freeman (true to his dislike of the form, his email style is very brief). I would be excited to read nearly any book by John Freeman, so I'm disappointed to find he's got nothing better to do than join Lee Siegel and Andrew Keen on the bash-the-Internet bandwagon. These kinds of books feel simplistic and obvious to me, and future generations are sure to laugh at them all. At least Ben Yagoda seems to get it, and takes Freeman's book convincingly to task for assuming that technological innovation can only have a destructive, never a constructive, effect on human creativity.
Herta who? The news from Stockholm left, as usual, a lot of people scratching their heads. Who is Herta Müller and why haven’t we heard more about her? As someone who has spent almost a decade working to bring the best new international literary work to America, I felt a particular frustration at those first reports: once again, Nobel coverage seemed to be descending into churlishness rather than an eagerness to share important international voices. Not that one can count on the Nobel Prize in Literature Committee to be anything but unpredictable in their choices, but still, wasn’t this the year that one of the well-loved waiters-in-the-wings -- Amos Oz, Ismail Kadare, or, yes, even, Philip Roth -- might be rewarded? Couldn’t this year, at last, yield a global literary love fest? And, of perhaps even greatest frustration for an international literary activist, how had yet another great writer passed America by without leaving a deeper footprint at an earlier stage of their writing career, particularly a writer who clearly isn’t all that obscure?
This week it was reported that in 1950, author Milan Kundera allegedly informed on Miroslav Dvoracek, and as a result, Dvoracek ended up serving 14 years in communist prison camps. (Story here.) In many ways, the news is reminiscent of the story of German author Gunter Grass and his admission that he served in the Nazi Waffen SS as a young man.
So what we know is that there are documents in the Czech Republic's Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes that name Kundera as an informant, and Kundera has spoken out to say that this event never took place. Either way, the reclusive 79-year-old author is the source of a literary uproar of sorts -- did he, nearly 60 years ago, inform on someone, or is this all, as he claims, a lie?
When I first read about this on Monday, I immediately thought of Kundera's novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I haven't read it for years, as it's nowhere close to being my favorite one of his works, so it's not exactly fresh in my mind. But I remembered that it had much to do with the Communist regime in the Czech Republic, and this morning I pulled it off my shelf and began to skim its pages. In light of the recent Kundera news, this passage from the fifth section of the novel jumped out at me. It's long; bear with me:
Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.
Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You're the ones responsible for our country's misfortunes (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hands of the Russians), for its judicial murders!
And the accused responded: We didn't know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!
In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe?
Tomas followed the dispute closely (as did his ten million fellow Czechs) and was of the opinion that while there had definitely been Communists who were not completely unaware of the atrocities (they could not have been ignorant of the horrors that had been perpetrated and were still being perpetrated in postrevolutionary Russia), it was probable that the majority of the Communists had not in fact known of them.
But, he said to himself, whether they knew or didn't know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn't know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool?
Let us concede that a Czech public prosecutor in the early fifties who called for the death of an innocent man was deceived by the Russian secret police and the government of his own country. But now that we all know the accusations to have been absurd and the executed to have been innocent, how can that selfsame public prosecutor defend his purity of heart by beating himself on the chest and proclaiming, My conscience is clear! I didn't know! I was a believer! Isn't his "I didn't know! I was a believer!" at the very root of his irreparable guilt?
It was in this connection that Tomas recalled the tale of Oedipus: Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realized what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by "not knowing," he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.
When Tomas heard Communists shouting in defense of their inner purity, he said to himself, As a result of your "not knowing," this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you've done? How is it you aren't horrified? Have you no eyes to see? If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes!
Before I go much further, I want to make a point. I don't really believe in analyzing authors based on their writing. I like to have faith in the fact that writers are creative and capable of making things up in an effective way, and therefore if I'm reading a work of fiction I don't sift through it thinking that it's all veiled autobiography. A writer named Milan Kundera often appears in Kundera's work, but does that actually mean that the writer named Milan Kundera in his novels thinks exactly the same way as the writer named Milan Kundera who's doing the writing? (Was that too meta?) To put it another way, a little more than a year and a half ago, I wrote about an excerpt from Kundera's The Curtain here on LitKicks. Kundera wrote, "Every novelist, starting with his own work, should eliminate whatever is secondary, lay out for himself and for everyone else the ethic of the essential." Certainly this is in the context of secondary material: letters, journals, e-mails, notes, etc., and means that the work is the work and the other assorted ephemera shouldn't carry the same weight. And yet does this not also apply to the writer's life itself? Is it not still possible to appreciate the work of people who may have been jerks? What's more important, the art or the artist?
And yet I quoted that passage from the book and I will admit that I thought about it a lot. It is a fact that Kundera was once a member of the Communist party, a very committed member, who eventually was kicked out after becoming disillusioned. Viewed that way, the above-quoted passage is undoubtedly interesting. Is he accusing himself along with the others? Is it impossible for us to know?
Either way, it's clear that the passage is written by someone who knows what he writes, knows it from his experience on both sides. What do we do with his writing now that he's accused of having been an informant more than half a century ago? Does it color his work in interesting shades of speculation? For me as a reader, that's really what's at stake in all of this, because I don't know Kundera personally and never will. Do we want to look at this news as the skeleton in Milan Kundera's closet that wrote all his books?
Milan Kundera's novels are punctuated by philosophical asides, and whether you agree with him or think he's full of crap (or fall somewhere in between), he provides plenty of fodder for keeping the hamsters running on the wheels in your brain. Like his other books, his novel Immortality contains several digressions. Or at first they seem like digressions, but in the end, they serve the whole in a maddeningly perfect way. As we in the United States are now in the thick of election season, busily being bombarded by message after message, I thought it was fitting to pull out one of Kundera's digressions, about reality, ideology and image.
Imagology! Who first thought up this remarkable neologism? Paul or I? It doesn't matter. What matters is that this word finally lets us put under one roof something that goes by so many names: advertising agencies; political campaign managers; designers who devise the shape of everything from cars to gym equipment; fashion stylists; barbers; show-business stars dictating the norms of physical beauty that all branches of imagology obey.
We know that image is important, so much so that Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is thought of as that sexy librarian type moreso than as a viable politician. And now that Fox News is busy creating an unnecessary fracas over an unretouched Newsweek cover featuring the governor, it's clear that at least in Palin's case, physical beauty trumps all. And seriously, does Fox News not realize how rude it's being to Palin with the faux hysterics over the fact that -- gasp! -- she looks human and not airbrushed? Isn't this akin to saying "WE CAN'T LET THE WORLD KNOW HOW UGLY SHE REALLY IS! NOOOO!!!!" (though I'd argue that she looks pretty great). Idiots.
Let's move on.
Of course, imagologues existed long before they created the powerful institutions we know today. Even Hitler had his personal imagologue, who used to stand in front of him and patiently demonstrate the gestures to be made during speeches to fascinate the crowds. But if that imagologue, in an interview with the press, had amused the Germans by describing Hitler as incapable of moving his hands, he would not have survived his indiscretion by more than a few hours. Nowadays, however, the imagologue not only does not try to hide his activity, but often even speaks for his politician clients, explains to the public what he taught them to do or not to do, how he told them to behave, what formula they are likely to use, and what tie they are likely to wear. We needn't be surprised by this self-confidence: in the last few decades, imagology has gained a historic victory over ideology.
This novel was published in 1990, and here in 2008, this seems just as true. We live in an age of stylists and pundits and spokespeople. Celebrities who gleefully admit their Botox addictions. We've listened to talk about Hillary Clinton's pantsuits and heard arguments about Barack Obama not wearing a flag pin on his lapel. Is wearing a flag pin really that important? Does it adequately express the innermost workings of Obama's mind and character? Of course not, but he wears one now. It looks like it means something. I guess.
All ideologies have been defeated: in the end their dogmas were unmasked as illusions and people stopped taking them seriously. For example, communists used to believe that in the course of capitalist development the proletariat would gradually grow poorer and poorer, but when it finally became clear that all over Europe workers were driving to work in their own cars, they felt like shouting that reality was deceiving them. Reality was stronger than ideology. And it is in this sense that imagology surpassed it: imagology is stronger than reality, which has anyway ceased to be what it was for my grandmother, who lived in a Moravian village and still knew everything through her own experience: how bread is baked, how a house is built, how a pig is slaughtered and the meat smoked, what quilts are made of, what the priest and the schoolteacher think about the world; she met the whole village every day and knew how many murders were committed in the country over the last ten years; she had, so to speak, personal control over reality, and nobody could fool her by maintaining that Moravian agriculture was thriving when people at home had nothing to eat. My Paris neighbor spends his time in an office, where he sits for eight hours facing an office colleague, then he sits in his car and drives home, turns on the TV, and when the announcer informs him that in the latest public opinion poll the majority of Frenchmen voted their country the safest in Europe (I recently read such a report), he is overjoyed and opens a bottle of champagne without ever learning that three thefts and two murders were committed on his street that very day.
I tend to flip-flop on whether or not I agree with this point Kundera makes. On one hand, yes, it makes sense, yet on the other hand, there's plenty of dogma out there to go around and while it is as hollow now as it ever was, people still seem to be clinging to it. In some cases this clinging is born of devotion and in others it's grandstanding for audiences, but for some, many even, the dogma (be it religious or political or other) still has the power to attract.
Public opinion polls are the critical instrument of imagology's power, because they enable imagology to live in absolute harmony with the people. The imagologue bombards people with questions: how is the French economy prospering? is there racism in France? is racism good or bad? who is the greatest writer of all time? is Hungary in Europe or Polynesia? which world politician is the sexiest? And since for contemporary man reality is a continent visited less and less often and, besides, justifiably disliked, the findings of polls have become the truth. Public opinion polls are a parliament in permanent session, whose function is to create truth, the most democratic truth that has ever existed. Because it will never be at variance with the parliament of truth, the power of imagologues will always live in truth, and although I know that everything human is mortal, I cannot imagine anything that could break this power.
This bit about public opinion polls is especially timely, considering the fact that in the final run-up to the election, more and more of these so-called undecided voters (who are these people, exactly? I don't know any of them) will be polled this way and that way to see what they're thinking, to try to decipher in whose direction these votes will break. People are broken down into stereotypes so they can be spoken of in neat soundbites. We have Hockey Mom and Soccer Mom and Joe Six-Pack (which I'm assuming is not a comment on his killer abs) and we're white collar and blue collar and down-home folks and coastal elitists and blah blah blabbity blah and the news is so full of talk about what this group believes and what that group believes that we don't even really need to talk to each other anymore, eh?
I want to add to this comparison of ideology and imagology: ideology was like a set of enormous wheels at the back of the stage, turning and setting in motion wars, revolutions, reforms. The wheels of imagology turn without having any effect upon history. Ideologies fought with one another, and each of them was capable of filling a whole epoch with its thinking. Imagology organizes peaceful alternation of its systems in lively seasonal rhythms. In Paul's words: ideology belonged to history, while the reign of imagology begins where history ends.
Kundera goes on but I'm going to leave it here because I think it's an interesting point that bears discussion: if this were true, wouldn't we have world peace by now?