Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nazi Literature In the Americas by Roberto Bolaño

This novel? short story collection? pastiche? served as my introduction to the work of Bolaño, the Chilean novelist who died in 2003. Taking the form of a series of what pass as encyclopedia entries, Bolaño documents the lives and works of various fictional writers who found their voices in the service of fascism. One review referred to these made-up lives as a "parade of monsters," but more accurately "Nazi Literature in the Americas" comes off as a parade of cranks.

Grouped by family, associations, or by subject matter, these stories document not only the lives but the works of poetry and prose these Nazi sympathizers put forth in Bolaño's imaginary world. In Bolaño's vision some of these lives extend into the future, where their deaths are documented. Indeed, all of these figures meet death, some in spectacularly grisly fashion, silencing their literature forever. Yet Bolaño's authorial voice documents how their words survive, however long, in obscure journals, zines, and scholarly studies.

The stories of this book never deviate from their sort of Wikipedia style, sometimes tantalizing us with just enough information about some controversial work in the author's oeuvre, but never actually letting us read the words for ourselves. Buried in the material of their lives are various hints of obsession and style, often as hilarious as they are laconic. For example, the career of Argentino "Fatso" Schiaffino, 1956-2015, includes the information that during the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Schiaffino "expressed a wish to meet with the British hooligans" he had earlier encountered "for a reconciliation ceremony consisting of a mass for the casualties of the Falklands War, followed by a barbecue." Later, the anonymous narrator remarks of one of his books that it "left all but a few readers wondering why he had written and, having written, published it."

And what is the sum of these stories? Our writers achieve various levels of mediocrity instead of acclaim, and while they encounter actual flesh and blood writers they either rebuff them or are unimpressed by them. Nothing touches the perceived brilliance of their personal dreams. The passion of their love affairs and the quality of their works do not seem to say as much to the narrator, at least, as the simple facts of their lives. As noted with one subject, he "practiced the art of the novel, which stubbornly declined to yield its secrets to him." In the end, "his manuscripts were probably thrown out with the trash or burned by the orderlies."

The stories are followed by a list of "secondary characters" from the stories, their birth and death dates dutifully noted along with facts such as "a pathetic loser, in the opinion of his family," or "for more than twenty years he fooled his colleagues into believing that he could speak Russian." Following that is a list of Bolaño's fictional magazines and publishing houses, among them "Iron Heart," a "Chilean Nazi magazine which survived for a number of years not in an Antarctic submarine base, as its ardent instigators would have preferred, but in Punta Arenas."

Bolaño's work often deals with forgotten or obscure works of literature, and the politics of the writer are not so much ideological as how much the writer is willing to risk for the ideas he so fiercely clings to. In interviews, Bolaño said he was mainly holding up a mirror image of leftist writers in creating the lives and works of these fictional double images. Instead, he creates a vast world of forgotten literature and the forgotten lives that produce it for its own consumption and understanding. Acceptance is a human longing, and the heart curdles at the lack of it, or curdles when the wrong kind is given. As Bolaño remarks of one of his creations, "real life can sometimes bear an unsettling resemblance to nightmares."

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fasting by Scot McKnight

An entry in Thomas Nelson's series "The Ancient Practices," this book examines one of the least spoken about practices in Christianity - the denial of food for spiritual growth. "Fasting" is an effective short primer on the subject, which not only gives the Biblical background and its theological underpinning but the practical side of this discipline.

One might be tempted to ask - as I did, picking up this book - what the advantages are to be gained by fasting. McKnight makes a simple, elegant and eloquent case that fasting not only works as a way to focus the mind and body on spiritual matters but also functions as an act of faith itself - relying on God for spiritual sustenance. He also states what fasting is not - a magic formula for getting God's attention when seeking the answers to prayers. McKnight also understandably covers the medical drawbacks to fasting.

To make his case, McKnight puts forward a definition for fasting - "Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life." By doing so, he immediately demonstrates not only that fasting is not some aberration left over from some dark, shared human past, but a normal biological response, and even a wholesome one. He did this to also repeat how fasting can be misused or substituted for the act which is paramount - understanding and responding to God's leadership and Lordship.

He also connects the reader to the rich history of fasting within the church, and its antecedents in Judaism. In today's world, full of distraction and competition for every moment of consciousness, when consumer society is geared toward satisfying not just hunger but cravings, nothing focuses quite like the denial of food. In the absence, the believer replaces prayer needs, items of spiritual turmoil and thanksgiving, trusting that what is needed will be provided.

For my own part, the book persuaded me enough to try it for myself. Going without one meal - just one - was enough to convince me that the subject bears further study and practice, which is probably all one could ask of this brief and ultimately very satisfying book.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

I've been a fan of Michael Chabon's since his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," and subsequent novels such as "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" and "Gentlemen of the Road." He's been very busy of late, producing two novels, a collection of essays entitled "Maps and Legends," and this latest work, a hybrid of memoir and essay and meditation on the creative processes in fiction and families.

"Manhood for Amateurs" sheds plenty of light on Chabon's biography, much as "Maps and Legends" did. "Manhood" is a sort of cousin of the earlier work, covering topics such as Chabon's first marriage, his early childhood, his maturation as a writer, and his fascination with science fiction and fantasy, comic books, baseball, etc. with each genre and sub-genre listed dutifully. It also covers his marriage to Ayelet Waldman and their lives with their children. Chabon marches through the passage of time, the expectations of fathers and mothers, and the nature of the universe with the same gentle humor and wonder that he marshals in his fiction.

I should say I did not want to read this book at first. I'm noticing too many of the novelists I follow suddenly giving me books about their lives and observations in place of the fictions I crave from them. Whether it be creative nonfiction or memoir or essay or whatever, I find myself losing patience when someone I admire thinks I'd rather read their all-too-predictable thoughts on the 2008 election or depression or, you name it. I realize this is part of the writer's mystique... after all, it's all about you, even if it isn't. But Chabon manages to make this journey pleasurable because of his beautiful prose and the gentle wisdom in his observations. Yes, he does talk about the election, but you're willing to forgive it because he doesn't dwell there for too long or indulge in the expected.

One piece in particular bears scrutiny here: "Xmas," a piece toward the end about Chabon's childhood as a Jew in the land of Christmas, and his reaction then and now to the Christ story. Chabon rails against the denatured Christmas as a holiday shorn of its inspiration, the birth of Jesus. Make no mistake, Chabon spends just as much time making clear he is no fan of what he refers to as religious fundamentalism. He is dubious, it seems, of religion in any stripe, and describes himself as agnostic but mildly observant. But he does find himself remembering the words of Luke's gospel, quoted in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," by Linus, and being inspired:

"I still know that chapter and verse of the Gospel of Luke by heart, and no amount of subsequent disillusionment with the behavior of self-described Christians, or with the ongoing commercialization that in 1965 had already broken Charlie Brown's heart, has robbed the central miracle of Christmas of its power to move me the way any truly great story can."

Chabon, though he considers the story of Jesus to be basically "a lie," says that it offers us a way to see the Truth. He's not far from the Kingdom of God, here, and actually sounds a lot like C.S. Lewis, if you ignore the pop culture references and occasional profanity. And he's able to summon up a great deal of wonder that I'm not sure Christians are able to tap into while they flit from store to store, trying to find the perfect gift for their imperfect budget.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose

I might never have bought this book except for a tiny item on the New York Times web site - a link to about 12 seconds of video on You Tube - the only known existing moving picture images of Anne Frank. There, in just an instant, is the young girl looking down from a window on a newly married couple. I sent a link to a few people, and the ones I heard back from responded with gratitude. It was like hearing from an distant old friend, or discovering a memento of a departed family member.

Unlike others, I did not come to Anne Frank as a child. It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I read "The Diary of a Young Girl." I had just finished Philip Roth's "The Ghost Writer," about which a major plot point revolves around the life of Anne Frank. I approached it with a bit of trepidation - thinking it was probably one of those books that gets assigned to schoolchildren for being easy to read, and from which a close reading leaves one underwhelmed. I was probably 10 pages in before I realized what an idiot I was to be so skeptical.

Francine Prose's book examines the phenomenon of the diary through Anne Frank's life, how the book came to be, and what has come since. Among the book's highlights is how much time Prose spends recounting how the book was "crafted" - for example, I had no idea that Anne began revising her diary in the Secret Annex (the space she and her family shared for two years during World War II) nor that the publication of the diary set off interesting stories of obsession among those who had helped it to success. Prose touches on some of this in her own response to the book:

"I understood, as I could not have as a child, how much art is required to give the impression of artlessness, how much control is necessary in order to seem natural, how almost nothing is more difficult for a writer than to find a narrative voice as fresh and unaffected as Anne Frank's. I appreciated, as I did not when I was a girl, her technical proficiency, the novelistic qualities of her diary, her ability to turn living people into characters, her observational powers, her eye for detail, her ear for dialogue and monologue, and the sense of pacing that guides her as she intersperses sections of reflection with dramatized scenes."

And to think, she did all this without knowing how her story would end. And it is the story's end, off stage but ever present, which gives every page of the diary its power. Prose asks the question that others have - would we care about the diary if Anne had survived the Holocaust? And how, exactly, does the story end? Does it end with Anne's affirmation that "people are basically good at heart?" Or does it end with her in the camp, weak and emaciated, the part we never see in the diary but are aware of? Does one ending cancel out the other? Do we cheapen the diary's power when we wish for some kind of happy ending for this little girl, something that affirms the human spirit, when we all know she died as a victim of a movement that dubbed itself "a triumph of the will?"

We are drawn to Anne because she is a child - not innocent at all to what happens, for she makes her neat marks in the book at night as she hears the bombers overhead. What is essential within a child is within the pages - the part of ourselves that we want preserved against the part we wish to destroy, and which wishes to destroy us. The nature of time makes the essential nature of any moment disappear, so that we never again see it as it is, but only how it appears reflected through another now. The original moment itself is irrecoverable, just as the next one is, and the next one. Prose's book reminds us of this, and by examining the diary and the life it came from, she reminds us that Anne's words will forever mean things to us that she never could have guessed at, as it touches generations she never lived to see.

Perhaps eternity is the indestructible moment, in all its power, never growing dim, never growing weary, never growing old.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Humbling by Philip Roth

Not too long ago, I was in a bookstore speaking to the owner about Philip Roth. "Do you ever finish one and start another one and feel as though you're reading the same book?" he asked. This is the 15th Roth novel I've read, and "The Humbling" feels indeed like familiar territory, though perhaps not for the same reason my friend spoke of.

Simon Axler is a well-known actor in his sixties who suddenly experiences stage fright and retires from performance. From the moment he leaves his familiar life, he struggles toward understanding who he really is. Suicide begins to appeal to him. He finds himself in a recovery program:

"Everybody else would be sitting there gloomily silent, inwardly intense and rehearsing to themselves - in the lexicon of pop psychology or gutter obscenity or Christian suffering or paranoid pathology - the ancient themes of dramatic literature: incest, betrayal, injustice, vengeance, jealousy, rivalry, desire, loss, dishonor, and grief."

In the process, Axler has an unlikely reunion with Pegeen, a young woman whom he has known for all of her life, since she is the daughter of a couple he has known since before she was born. Pegeen has been living as a lesbian, but she forms an attachment with Axler and begins transforming herself into a compliant, feminine companion for him. But there is something artificial about Pegeen, just as there has been something artificial about Axler before he lost the ability to be someone else on stage.

Reading Roth one gets a sense of secrets revealed, writ large, magnified to a staggering power, so that the characters stagger under the weight of them. Like many of Roth's later protagonists, Axler is dealing with the effects of age, or "the panic that comes with age." While Axler feels something with Pegeen that he hopes is genuine, he also suspects it too is an act. He is struggling against time, and against reality, as we all do. This makes him a paler cousin of Nathan Zuckerman, without the writer's prolific and poetic disgust.

As with his last book, Roth sets all these meditations down in a spare prose, barely sketching in some details and letting his characters flail about against themselves against tragedies that are foreordained as much as Oedipus'. Toward the novel's end, Axler is attached to Pegeen and goes wherever she takes him, which inevitably leads to his "humbling." What makes this novel unsettling - and somewhat unsatisfying - is the ending that is telegraphed from the beginning, which doesn't seem to affirm anything other than the luckless and loveless nature of Axler's life, and one assumes, life itself. "The failures were his, as was the bewildering biography on which he was impaled." So in the end, one senses that the despair Axler feels is really Roth's, and that Roth says it should be our own.