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The Touchy Irving Howe

13 Jan

Last night, I was trying to find a comment I had remembered Irving Howe making about Hannah Arendt, and I found myself holed up, late into the night, with a volume of his criticism. I run into these sorts of detours a lot. I set out for a destination, and before you know it, it’s 2 am, and I’m miles away from where I need to be.

I’ve read Howe’s criticism many times before, but I never noticed just how touchy he is about what he perceives to be the haughtiness of authors and critics. Howe is sensitive, perhaps too sensitive, to the power dynamics of fiction and criticism: how writers look down on the people they’re writing about or the readers they’re writing for, how they create scenes and settings in which the sole object is to put on display the superior sensibility that conjured them.

The first time I noticed this tendency in Howe was in his essay on George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle, which he reviewed in Commentary in 1971:

A phalanx of crucial topics, a tone of high-church gravity, a light sprinkle of multilingual erudition, a genteel stab at prophecy—it’s easy to imagine the strong impression Mr. George Steiner’s lectures must have made when first delivered for the T.S. Eliot Memorial Foundation at the University of Kent. And now, when we read his first sentence announcing that his book is written “in memoration” of T.S. Eliot, we are prepared for some decidedly high-class prose.

High-class prose. Well, I thought to myself, it’s Steiner, who is a terrible snob, often embarrassingly so. Even when he’s talking about fucking, Steiner can’t help sounding pretentious (“The mathematics of sex stop somewhere in the region of soixante-neuf; there are no transcendental series.”)

But then, as Howe goes on, the resentment gets hotter. He circles back to that tittering audience at Kent, those eminent and English souls, sylvan and stupid (“smiles of appreciative concord flit through the auditorium”). He can’t shake that image of the well-heeled Steiner: “Not for a moment does this cause him to strain his syntax, lose his cool, or breathe an ill-mannered rasp.” At times, he gets ugly: “His style, in all its mincing equanimity.” That word: mincing.

I moved onto Howe’s essay on Lukács and Solzhenitsyn, which appeared in Dissent in 1971. Howe wrote a manifestly sympathetic introduction to Lukács’s The Historical Novel back in 1963. Howe clearly respected Lukács then. And even in this later essay, even with his criticism of Lukács’s political compromises and apologias for Stalinism, he still respects Lukács.

But the respect and the criticism are eclipsed by something else. A simmering contempt for Lukács’s “silken” captivity that reaches a boil in Howe’s conclusion. There Howe dwells on what seems like an over-reading (or at least an undefended reading) of Lukács’s use of the word “plebeian.” Lukács’s Stalinism, Howe suggests, is a function of his snobbery; his real sin is a condescension that cannot be contained.

But Lukács, like Steiner, is a mandarin, I thought, so perhaps Howe’s temperature is understandably raised.

Then I got to Howe’s epic broadside against Philip Roth (upon which Roth took some fun revenge in The Ghost Writer The Anatomy Lesson.) Roth was/is no mandarin, but he gets under Howe’s skin. So much so that we find Howe, midway through the essay, speaking like an outraged attorney on behalf of his clients, the aggrieved middle classes of Roth’s early fiction. “Even a philistine character has certain rights,” Howe thunders. Accusing the author of “not behaving with good faith toward the objects of his assault,” Howe defends the Patimkins against Neil Klugman, Mrs. Portnoy against Alex, the Jews against Philip Roth.

What one senses nevertheless in the stories of Goodbye, Columbus is an enormous thrust of personal and ideological assertiveness. In the clash which, like Jacob with his angel, the writer must undertake with the world around him—and, unlike Jacob, must learn when and how to lose—there can be little doubt that Roth will steadily pin his opponent to the ground.

For good or bad, both in the stories that succeed and those that fail, Goodbye, Columbus rests in the grip of an imperious will prepared to wrench, twist, and claw at its materials in order to leave upon them the scar of its presence—as if the work of fiction were a package that needed constantly to be stamped with a signature of self.

Their [Roth’s characters] vulgarity is put on blazing display…the ridicule to which she is subjected…immobilizing the Patimkins…straight-arming all the other characters…

Roth feels obliged to drop a heavy thumb on the scales by making his suburbanites so benighted, indeed, so merely stupid, that the story [“Eli the Fanatic”] finally comes apart.

There usually follows in such first-person narratives a spilling-out of the narrator which it becomes hard to suppose is not also the spilling out of the author. Such literary narcissism is especially notable among satirists, with whom it frequently takes the form of self-exemptive attacks on the shamefulness of humanity. In some of Mary McCarthy’s novels, for example, all the characters are shown as deceitful and venomous, all but a heroine pure in heart and close to the heart of the author.

You might say it’s a point in Howe’s favor—his almost intuitive grasp of the will to power of a writer, his willingness to stand up to the bully on behalf of the little guy—except that it recurs with such frequency that you begin to wonder whether the judgment is required more by the critic than his text. To turn Howe on and against himself, it’s as if he feels slighted by the writers he’s writing about, as if he needs to wrestle them into some properly belittled proportion.

You come away from Howe depressed. Not with enlightenment but with the sense that the world is ugly and small, that nothing can escape the irrepressible struggle for dominance, not even the words on a page.

In a throwaway line about Roth, Howe gives some sense that he knows this:

His great need is for a stance of superiority, the pleasure, as Madison Avenue says, of always being “on top of it.” (Perhaps he should have been a literary critic.)

It’s a moment of acute self-understanding. Yet it’s marred by one thing: the realization that Howe never took pleasure even in this, his momentary triumph over the object of his critique, even when that object was himself.

“True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since.”

14 Dec

The Wall Street Journal reports on an Israeli novel about the liquidation of a Palestinian village during the Nakba, which was published 65 years ago and has been translated into English for the first time. My friends Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole had a major hand in commissioning and editing the translation.

In 1949, the publication of a short novel “Khirbet Khizeh,” about the forceful evacuation of a Palestinian village by Israeli soldiers, created a stir in the newly established state of Israel. Now, 65 years later, the controversial Hebrew classic by S. Yizhar is taking on a new life in English.

On Tuesday, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a new edition of the book’s first English translation, by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck. Commissioned several years ago by a small Jerusalem-based nonprofit press, Ibis Editions, the translation gained a wider audience with a U.K. edition from Granta in 2011. Now, FSG hopes the book catches on in the U.S.

The story follows an Israeli soldier in the war of 1948, whose company has been ordered to remove the Palestinian villagers from the fictional town of Khirbet Khizeh. Dense and lyrical, with long passages on the beauty of the landscape, the book describes the soldiers’ systematic rounding up of villagers—mostly women, children, and the very old. Recounted years later by a narrator with an uneasy conscience, it begins, “True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since.”

The novella has a history of controversy in Israel. Published just months after the country’s founding, and in the wake of World War II, the book struck a chord, particularly with its descriptions of soldiers forcing villagers into exile. “Khirbet Khizeh” became a best-seller in Israel and, during the late 1970s, debate flared over whether a television adaptation should be broadcast.

“It’s one of the great short novels in modern Hebrew literature. And everyone thinks it’s wonderful as a piece of writing. But it’s deeply disturbing,” said the co-translator Mr. de Lange, a professor emeritus of Hebrew and Jewish studies at Cambridge University. “The Israelis are portrayed really like Nazis.”

Peter Cole and his wife, Adina Hoffman, who co-edited the Ibis English translation,

had been looking since the late ’90s for a translator for “Khirbet Khizeh.” “Several translators over the years wanted to try their hand at it. We always told them to do a page,” Mr. Cole wrote in an email from Jerusalem. “But nothing came remotely close to satisfying us.”

Part of the problem was the novella’s challenging prose. “Yizhar is a high stylist, whose Hebrew runs the gamut from soldiers’ slang to biblically inflected description,” Mr. Cole explained. In addition to conveying a sensibility that ranges from highly refined to slangy, as well as lines rich with literary allusion, aspiring translators faced the job of preserving the slightly antiquated 1940s-era language.

Eventually, the couple reached out to Mr. de Lange, who worked with his former student, Mr. Dweck, now an assistant professor at Princeton University, to complete the translation. “Nothing has happened in the some sixty-five years since its publication that is not somehow accounted for or foreseen in the book,” Mr. Cole wrote.

Unless I can twist Adina’s and Peter’s arm to myself a free copy from them, I’m definitely buying this.

Alfred Kazin on The New Republic in 1989: Parvenu Smugness, Post-Liberal Bitterness, and Town Gossips

7 Dec

Writing in The New Republic in November 1989, on the occasion of the magazine’s 75th anniversary, the literary critic Alfred Kazin, who had served as the magazine’s literary editor for a time, had this to say:

What I read in the front of the book is informative, saucy, in tone terribly sure of itself. It gives me no general enlightenment on the moral and intellectual critic underlying the crisis of the week, above all no inspiration. There is no discernible social ideal behind all the clever counter-punching. Washington is more beautiful and imposing than it has ever been, is a wonderful town to look at—if you overlook Anacostia and Shaw. It always looks like Sunday; it can be a relief after openly decadent, bleeding New York. But like all company towns, it is parochial, and TNR reflects that, is too much occupied by and with town gossips. Except for government scientists, no real ideas ever start here. The many clever people in and out of government are not “intellectuals” in the old sense—thinkers with a sense of prophecy—but “experts,” no-nonsense minds that can chill me. When I read in TNR that homeless people are invariably mental cases in need of treatment, I realize that economic frustration and hopelessness, the real bottom line, are to some privileged folks never a condition but, as Gertrude Himmelfarb put in the title of her book on poverty, “an idea.”

I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond post-leftist crowing—beyond a certain parvenu smugness, an excessive familiarity with the inside track and the inside dope, and, above all, beyond that devouring interest in other journalists that confines so many commentaries out of Washington to triviality. I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond the bristling, snappy, reactive common sense of the disenchanted liberal. There are worlds within worlds, even in Washington, that are apparent more to writers—confined wherever they may be—than to the wearily clever, easily exasperated, heirs and guardians of the liberal democracy that is the one tradition we seem to have left.

This is the magazine of ideas whose death we are now meant to be mourning.

As he was writing this, Kazin had this to say in his private journals:

Peretz’s leadership has been too strident, too irritated with the “Marxist” and “Woodstock” elements among the young whom he is aware of as a Harvard teacher in his spare jours. All the earmarks of the parvenu…the post-liberal bitterness.

Why I’m always on the internet…

30 Sep

My friend Peter von Ziegesar, who wrote a very affecting memoir about his brother that you should buy and read (I did!), speaks to PEN America:

I don’t think that the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion. I think that he or she has moved their place of discourse to another location. Typically in the past the public intellectual, on the model of Susan Sontag, for example, or Norman Mailer, or Gore Vidal, lived in New York and published in esoteric journals, such as The New York Review of Books, or The Nation, and occasionally appeared on the Tonight Show. A friend of mine, Corey Robin, a professor at Brooklyn College who has written several books and fits the role of public intellectual perfectly, in my opinion, told me recently that he originally moved to New York City hoping to discover just such a vibrant pool of committed intellectuals to join and was disappointed when he couldn’t find it. It wasn’t until he started blogging and created his own website that he found that group of individuals he’d been looking for—on the Internet.
It’s true. Thank you, readers and writers on the internet!



Operation Firm Cliff

31 Jul

Peter Cole, “On the Slaughter“:

On the night of July 7, the gates opened, even as they were being closed, when the Israel Defense Forces launched what it calls for export Operation Protective Edge. (A more literal translation of the operation’s catchy Hebrew name would be Firm Cliff—with “cliff,” according to the Hebrew equivalent of the OED, evoking in its primary definition the high place in the wilderness off of which a scapegoat is cast each year on the Day of Atonement. Words, as we know, have powers often lost on those who speak them.)

My Dirty Little Secret: I Ride the Rails to Read

14 Jun

Like most academics, I read articles and books. Unlike most academics (maybe, I don’t really know), reading has become harder and harder for me. Not simply because of the distractions that come with department politics, administrative duties (come July 1, I’m chair of my department), advising grad students, and teaching. I wish it were as noble as that. No, the reason I find it so difficult to read these days, now years, is the internet.

Which is why I was so relieved to read this wonderful post by Tim Parks about how difficult it is now to read.

Every reader will have his or her own sense of how reading conditions have changed, but here is my own experience. Arriving in the small village of Quinzano, just outside Verona, Italy, thirty-three years ago, aged twenty-six, leaving friends and family behind in the UK, unpublished and unemployed, always anxious to know how the next London publisher would respond to the work I was writing, I was constantly eager for news of one kind or another. International phone-calls were prohibitively expensive. There was no fax, only snail mail, as we called it then. Each morning the postino would, or might, drop something into the mailbox at the end of the garden. I listened for the sound of his scooter coming up the hairpins from the village. Sometimes when the box was empty I would hope I’d heard wrong, and that it hadn’t been the postino’s scooter, and go out and check again an hour later, just in case. And then again. For an hour or so I would find it hard to concentrate or work well. You are obsessed, I would tell myself, heading off to check the empty mailbox for a fourth time.

Imagine a mind like this exposed to the seductions of email and messaging and Skype and news websites constantly updating on the very instrument you use for work. In the past, having satisfied myself that the postman really had come and gone, the day then presented itself as an undisturbed ocean of potential—for writing (by hand), reading (on paper), and, to pay the bills, translating (on a manual typewriter). It was even possible in those days to see reading as a resource to fill time that hung heavy when rain or asphyxiating heat forced one to stay indoors.

Now, on the contrary, every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for.

I, too, remember when reading was an effortless way to pass the time. And what my work routine looked like as a result. Writing in the morning, reading in the afternoon, writing in the evening. Reading was easy. It required less concentration and stamina, so I did it during the lazy hours after lunch. My most alert times—just after my morning coffee and during my insomniac hours—were reserved for writing.

Nowadays, it’s the reverse. Writing absorbs me, so I do it in the afternoons, maybe the evenings. But reading, as Parks writes, has to be planned for. I have to wrest my reading time from the come-hither arms of the internet, so I do it in the morning.

Here’s how I do it. After I drop off my daughter at school or summer camp, I jump on the subway. I ride the rails for three to four hours. Maybe the F train: out to Coney Island, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Forest Hills, and then back. Or if I’m pressed for time, just the Q train: again out to Coney, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Astoria, and back. Or if I’m in the mood for a change, the B or the D trains: they ultimately take me to the Bronx and back.

I take nothing with me but my book and a pen. I take notes on the front and back pages of the book. If I run out of pages, I carry a little notebook with me. I never get off the train (except, occasionally, to meet my wife for lunch in Manhattan.) I have an ancient phone, so there’s no internet or desire to text, and I’m mostly underground, so there are no phone calls.

When I get back, I sometimes post about my little rides and what I’m reading on Facebook: Schumpeter in Queens, The Theory of Moral Sentiments in the Bronx, Hayek in Brooklyn. The more incongruous, the better, though sometimes I find some funny or interesting parallels between what I’m reading and where I’m riding and what I’m seeing.

But the joking on Facebook covers up my dirty little secret: I ride the rails to read because if I’m at home, and not writing, I’m on the internet. “It is not simply that one is interrupted,” as Park writes; “it is that one is actually inclined to interruption.”

I’m not sure why it’s reading that requires these Odysseus-like acts of self-denial (sometimes I also use the Freedom program to read), while writing does not. I suspect it has something to do with what Parks says: “The mind, or at least my mind, is overwhelmingly inclined toward communication or, if that is too grand a word, to the back and forth of contact with others.” When I write, I feel like I’m in communication with others: not only my imagined readers, but also my imagined interlocutors—the people I’m arguing with, the theorists I’m arguing about, that professor in grad school whose comments still spark my imagination. It’s nothing as grand as what Machiavelli described in his letter to Vettori:

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

But it’s definitely company.

Reading feels much more solitary. It can be boring and passive, and when it’s not, when I find something interesting that excites me, I want to share it with everyone. If I’m reading at home, I rush to the computer, and post about it on Facebook or here on my blog. And then I don’t get off. For hours. When I’m on the train, there’s nothing to do, but note it on the back page, and stay on. For hours.

Has There Ever Been a Better Patron of the Arts Than the CIA?

27 Apr

Countering Thomas Piketty’s critique of inherited wealth, Tyler Cowen suggests that such dynastic accumulations of private wealth may be a precondition of great art:

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.

Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.

But the Belle Époque (and its predecessor) has got nothing on the CIA.

 The Central Intelligence Agency on Friday, April 11th posted to its public website nearly 100 declassified documents that detail the CIA’s role in publishing the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago after the book had been banned in the Soviet Union.  The 1958 publication of Boris Pasternak’s iconic novel in Russian gave people within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the opportunity to read the book for the first time.

The declassified memos, letters, and cables reveal the rationale behind the Zhivago project and the intricacies of the effort to get the book into the hands of those living behind the Iron Curtain.

In a memo dated April 24, 1958 a senior CIA officer wrote: “We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country [and] in his own language for his people to read.”

After working secretly to publish the Russian-language edition in the Netherlands, the CIA moved quickly to ensure that copies of Doctor Zhivago were available for distribution to Soviet visitors at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.  By the end of the Fair, 355 copies of Doctor Zhivago had been surreptitiously handed out, and eventually thousands more were distributed throughout the Communist bloc.

As it happened, Pasternak went on to win the 1958 Nobel Prize for literature, the popularity of his novel  skyrocketed, and the plight of the great Russian author in the Soviet Union received global media attention.

Subsequently, the CIA funded the publication of a miniature, lightweight paperback edition of Doctor Zhivago that could be easily mailed or concealed in a jacket pocket.  Distribution of the miniature version began in April 1959.

These declassified documents about Doctor Zhivago are just the latest in a long line of revelations about how central the CIA was to the cultural and aesthetic life of the twentieth century. Was there a better patron of abstract expressionism—of Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning, at least on the global scale—than the CIA? And while the Saunders thesis of the cultural Cold War (the thesis long predates her, of course, but she helped popularize it after the Cold War) has its problems and its critics, the CIA did fund literary magazines like Encounter, even Partisan Review when it seemed like it was going to go belly up, international tours of symphony orchestras and jazz ensembles, and art exhibits around the world.

And while we’re on the topic of government patronage of the arts, let’s not forget the Bolsheviks, who managed, before the full onset of Stalinism and Socialist Realism, to fund, support, and inspire some pretty damn good avant-garde art. (And some not so good art: Ever since I learned that Ayn Rand developed some of her most enduring aesthetic tastes by attending, with the help of cheap tickets funded by the Bolsheviks, weekly performances of cheesy operettas at the Mikhailovsky state-run theater, I’ve held Lenin responsible for The Fountainhead.)

My most prized print is the poster of a 1971 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of “Russian Art of the Revolution.” It features El Lissitzky’s Sportsmen, which he did in 1923. (I managed to salvage it from the garbage after the office of a former colleague was cleaned out.) While eclipsed by the later exhibit at the Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Museum show was the first of its kind, I believe, in the States. In any event, it gives a good sense of what Soviet support for the arts achieved.

Russian Art of the Revolution

Cowen’s argument has a long history, but it’s not clear to me why he believes it’s dispositive. When it comes to funding for the arts, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.


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