Bring Out Your Lanterns

Dig us up from this grave, Father
And wipe the dirt from our eyes
You who are so old, so ancient, so cold
Yet, you still retain life, like an eternal relic
Bring us to the clearing and remind us of the song.

Bring out your lanterns and pick up your spades
Call out to your neighbors, your lovers, your slaves
We must not remain forgotten and alone,
Lost in the shadows of time
Retrieve us from these dusty, dark rooms
Where cruelty and oppression mark up our skin.

Under a father’s harsh judgment you cast our souls adrift
You who once fed us and clothed us, then betrayed us to the night
Have you forgotten what it was like to be so young?
So vulnerable, so uncertain, and full of pain?
Have you, Pilate-like, washed our blood from your hands,
Thus cleansing yourself and unburdening your conscience?

Bring out your lanterns and pick up your spades
Call out to your neighbors, your lovers, your slaves
March yourselves to the square and shout out
Show your fury at the god’s indifference
Plunge your daggers into their sacred hearts
And wash your souls in the sacred blood.

Bring out your lanterns and pick up your spades
Call out to your neighbors, your lovers, your slaves
Dig us up from the earth and carry our bodies
Through the streets.

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Close Encounters of the Literary Kind, Part XII: Karl Ove Knausgaard

When I went to hear Karl Ove Knausgaard speak in Cambridge a few weeks ago I hadn’t read anything he wrote; not one word. If memory serves, this was the first time I had gone to hear a writer in person cold. I didn’t know what to expect. Of course, I knew all the hype surrounding him, all of the awards and accolades he had received for his writing, but the reputation of his work wasn’t something that jumped out at me, and I’ve become almost hyper-conservative when it comes to reading authors for the first time. Nevertheless, when the opportunity to see him in person, and in conversation with critic James Wood of the New Yorker, I couldn’t pass up the experience. Moreover, I wanted to see what the hype was all about.

The line to get into the First Parish Church wrapped around the block long before the doors were due to open, and consisted of all kinds of people. There were older, more professorial looking men and women (at one point I think Sven Birkerts walked past me on the street to get in line), as well as a multitude of young men and women. What I didn’t see were many people of color. There were a few, but the people waiting to get into the event were mostly white. This made me wonder about Knausgaard’s appeal to readers of color. At first glance a Norwegian might not have much to offer people of color, but the overwhelming popularity of his writing would seem to contradict this assumption. Nevertheless, the audience was mostly white.

After a short reading from Autumn, Knausgaard was paired with New Yorker critic extraordinaire James Wood for a conversation, followed by questions from the audience. It was a thrill to see these two literary heavy weights discuss the importance of literature, making several detours toward the writing process itself. Knausgaard is almost tragically hip. His longish hair and beard make him look more like an aging musician than a writer. He spoke in halting English, and in a low voice, as if he was unsure of his right to be asked these questions.

The book Knausgaard read from was the first in a quartet named after the seasons. The first book, Autumn, also the book he came to promote, begins with a letter he wrote to his unborn daughter. When I got home I started reading and finished it the next day. It’s hard to characterize Knausgaard’s writing. He defies categorization on many levels. Like his series of biographical novels, “My Struggle,” Autumn is a blend of fact, fiction, observations, and philosophy. The writing is quite beautiful. Knausgaard can take the most mundane thing, like a can of peas, or lice, and explore the implications of that thing on our lives in enlightening fashion. Autumn is in many aspects a series of observations on domesticity. What begins with a desire to show his unborn daughter the world becomes something Voltaire or Rousseau would write. Each observation is short, yet rich in detail and suggestion. In a chapter entitled “Rubber Boots,” Knausgaard discourses on the properties, physical and metaphorical, of the boot. In a lesser writer’s hands this would be mundane at best and painfully boring at worst. Yet, Knausgaard sees a world beyond the one that we all see. This is why he lives up in every way to the hype of his reputation. Autumn is a magnificent tome and should be required reading by anyone who wishes to write, professionally or otherwise. When Winter is published in January 2018, I know I will be in line to purchase my copy at my local independent. These hymns to domesticity demonstrate exactly why literature still matters in a frenzied world so dominated by social media and the pithy nature of the Tweet that has come to represent contemporary thought process.

What words did Knausgaard and I exchange? Well, we didn’t talk literature. Instead we touched on our mutual admiration for the music groups Lambchop and the War on Drugs. Knausgaard is a cool dude in the true sense of the word. He’s uniquely and, I believe, sincerely, unaware of the impact he’s had on contemporary world literature over the past few years. In fact, he looked slightly embarrassed by all of the well wishers and fans lined up to greet him and get their books signed. He was patient and gracious with his time. But then, the event was sold out, and a lot of books were being sold.

Soft-Drinks

My paternal grandparents lived on the second floor of an apartment building that could be considered Binghamton’s version of a tenement; I do not mean this pejoratively, as the building served as the home for many members of my grandfather’s family, beginning with his own father who came from Avellino, Italy. It was always familiar and a place of childhood joy for me. My grandfather was born in the building and he himself never lived anywhere else until he was well into old age and moved with my grandmother to the “country.” I can still recall the steepness of the stairs leading to the second floor porch in the front of the building, as if in climbing those stairs we were ascending to our ancestors. My grandparents had nine children, so the apartment, which contained four bedrooms and one bathroom, wasn’t nearly enough space to give one a sense of privacy, but I always remember the place as quite large and roomy.

I recall many parties and family gatherings at the apartment, most of which seemed to have been joyous, if chaotic occasions. I loved being part of a very large family, even if I couldn’t fully understand the family dynamics at the time. Some of my earliest memories revolve around soda, or “soft-drinks,” as my family called them. My brother and I drank soda, but mostly with meals. Going to my grandparents meant that we could drink a soda brand called Eagle’s Beverages, produced by the Binghamton Bottling Company. The soda, or soft-drink, would come in tall, clear bottles with the label stenciled in white on the glass. These bottles always seemed to be in abundance, especially on Sundays when most of the family would stop by and the apartment would be sweltering in the summer heat.

The kitchen was in the back of the apartment, and its back door opened onto a porch, with a set of stairs leading up to the third floor and another down to the ground floor. I remember the back porch as being a long and narrow passage, and dark, even in summer, but with light enough from the window or opening in the wall (here memory fails me) to see onto the backyards of the neighbors. The back porch always seemed to be the place where the Eagle’s soda bottles were stored. The bottles came in a large wooden crate, and there were always several flavors: cola, ginger ale, cream soda, root beer, orange, and lemon-lime, among others. My mouth salivates at the memory of the soft-drinks, even as I write this. I remember wanting to taste them all, but my parents would only let us choose one flavor. If I remember correctly, the ginger ale was my favorite.

My own children do not drink soda, because they say it “bubbles their tongues,” not liking the way the carbonation feels in their mouths. I am mostly happy that they don’t, but a part of me thinks that they are missing out on one of life’s greatest inventions. Now that I am an adult I rarely drink soda, opting for “harder” drinks or water. Still, I often find myself thinking about Eagle’s, especially when I’m eating pasta or pizza, and those thoughts have a powerful nostalgic hold on me. In my memories the soft-drink bottles are still standing at attention in those wooden crates, with dividers for each bottle; there is always a bit of sun shining down, reflecting off the bottles that were such a meaningful, but at the time neglected, part of my life.

What I wouldn’t give to have just another taste.

The Bibliophile’s Dilemma

Bibliophile: (noun) A person who collects or has a great love of books

For several years now I’ve purchased more books that I can afford or store. Much more traumatic is the fact that I buy more books that I will ever be able to read in one lifetime, which is ironic, since reading allows the reader to live many lives over the course of one lifetime. Bibliophilia is the sickness that comes with the obsessive need to be surrounded by books. This, as all bibliophiles will inform you, is much different from hoarding. Books lend a certain prestige to the collector whereas hoarding is the inability to part with anything. For the serious bibliophile there is no situation too outlandish to stop one from obtaining a certain book. I, myself, have occasionally stooped to larceny to liberate a particular volume from a particular place.

Perhaps my “lowest” moment came a few years ago when a colleague in my department passed away. He was an English professor for over thirty years and had never married. I managed to find my way into his apartment to see what I could take out, all under the guise that I was willing to help unload a townhouse full of books. This was not entirely untrue, but to be honest, I was more interested in having the opportunity, the first crack if you will, at his collection. I spent the next hour or so combing over books that proved to be so specific that I left feeling more than a little disappointed since most of the books focused on the Catholic religion. However, I did manage to find one or two worthy books to liberate. Before I finished up I was searching the bookshelves in his bedroom, the last room I had left to search. Bending over at an odd angle, I lost my balance and fell onto his mattress, the mattress he had died in just a few days before. Thankfully the bed had been stripped of its sheets, but the feeling has attached to itself to me like a stain.

Unless the bibliophile is wealthy, he or she must be careful with buying books, as the habit works like a drug on the psyche of the afflicted. Every year I spend thousands of dollars on books, and every April when my taxes come due I wince at the thought of how much I spent during the previous year. My wife, bless her, has never really given me any grief when it comes to buying books, but she has drawn the line whenever I attempt to spend more than a few hundred dollars on a single volume. And who can blame her? I have at the moment at least four different versions of War and Peace, Madame Bovary, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Don Quixote, to name a few. Each time a new translation is published I rush out to purchase that translation. I have at least twelve translations of Dante’s Inferno alone! If I read a hardcover book that I really like I find that I must buy the paperback so that I can have a “reader’s copy,” which means one I can write in. I also try to buy paperback copies of all my first editions, so as to keep the integrity of the spines of the books in place.

Whenever I come across a certain book or author that I do not have I go to great lengths to obtain the desired item. In order to finance my book buying I have had to take on extra work and often teach over the summer to subsidize my habit. Moreover, when, in the midst of my research on this or that academic subject, and I come across the reference from a book I think I should read, I buy the book instead of checking it out from my home institution’s library. This, as one might imagine, is costly and, one might say, crazy. 2017-06-22 19.59.44

As understanding as my wife is with the amount of money I spend on books, she is less understanding because of the space the books take up in our home. In fact, we are now at the point where we either have to look for a new house or I have to stop buying books. I lack the moral courage to stop buying books, so that will never happen. Therefore, moving seems to be our only option. However, as anyone who has even a modest home library knows, moving books is perhaps the hardest part about moving. First, there is the psychological damage that occurs to the bibliophile when he or she packs away a library. Second, there is the weight of the books in countless boxes waiting to be moved. Space is a terrible enemy in the bibliophile’s life. There is never enough space and one finds oneself placing books in almost every conceivable location in one’s home. Digitizing one’s library in not an option for the bibliophile, for books are not like one’s musical or video library. Digitizing one’s library is the same as getting rid of one’s books altogether. No self-respecting bibliophile has a digital library that takes the place of the physical one.

Of course, enemy number one in the bibliophile’s life is time. There will never be enough time to read all of the books one has purchased in one’s lifetime. And yet, we continue to buy books despite, or perhaps in spite of, this knowledge.

The Fox was Ever the Hunter: A Review

Herta Müller. The Fox was Ever the Hunter. Philip Boehm, tr. New York: Metropolitan Books. 2016. 237 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8050-9302-5.

Occasionally, some of the reviews I’ve written get lost in the ether. I either forget that I’ve written them or they are not published on account of timeliness. There is also the possibility that I was just not happy with the writing. In any case, I frequently come upon files where I discover a review that slipped through the cracks. This is one of those reviews. I can’t recall why I didn’t publish this particular review, but if the writing is not up to snuff it is due to the reviewer’s negligence rather than the author of the reviewed book.

Herta Müller’s latest novel to be published in English, The Fox was Ever the Hunter, is actually an older novel that was first published in Germany in 1992. Like many of her Nobel Prize winning colleagues, her back catalogue is slowly making its way into English, and that is good for those wishing to experience this particular writer’s powerful prose. Like most of her novels, The Fox was Ever the Hunter takes place in Romania during the last months of Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime. The novel revolves around four characters, Adina, Clara, Paul, and Pavel. One of the four is working for the secret police and spying on the rest of the group.

The Fox was Ever the Hunter is a novel that plunges its reader into the dark labyrinth of paranoia and danger. There are no fairy tales when living under an oppressive regime, only nightmares. Yet, the scenes depicting the slow, systematic mutilation of Adina’s fox rug toward the end of the novel suggest that the specter of a fairy tale, however dark, looms over the narrative. It’s as if the characters are living in a world that has forgotten its roots in folklore and myth, and as a result, the citizens who inhabit the world of the novel find themselves trapped in an atmosphere of delusion. There is no security here, only the possibility of betrayal.

There is a profound sense of unease and bewilderment that pervades the novel, almost as if the narrator had trouble making up her mind on which story to tell us. This can be a bit disconcerting for readers not used to Müller’s style and subject matter. However, this narrative technique perfectly mirrors the atmosphere of the narrative. Like the characters inhabiting the novel, the reader feels he or she is missing something, that perhaps the whole story is not being told. This can be frustrating at first, but the reader will find a sense of gratification if he or she sticks it out to the end. Müller’s plot is not the most important aspect of the novel. As with most of her novels, plot gives way to the importance of the reader’s experience as one wanders around in its labyrinthine pages.

Most of us have never had to live under an oppressive political regime. The Fox was Ever the Hunter is a perfect introduction to what this nation might have been like during the Cold War. Moreover, now that the United States has entered into the truly bizarre land of Trump, The Fox was Ever the Hunter becomes that much more poignant. Philip Boehm’s translation of Müller’s prose is seamless and poetic, bridging a gap that could have easily caused problems for English speaking readers. Thankfully, Boehm’s translation provides us with a faithful echo of one the most striking voices writing today.

As A Man Grows Older

“He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent.”

Philip Roth, The Humbling

 

There comes a time in every man’s life when he realizes that he is no longer attractive to women. When this realization arrives, it is not with heartbreak or a debilitating bout of depression, instead it settles on him like a heavy coat. In fact, once you settle into middle age you can no longer stand up as straight as you once could. Friends see you shuffling down the sidewalk, shoulders a bit hunched, your neck drawn in, and looking very much like you are carrying the weight of the world on your back. The honest reality is that once a man reaches a certain age, he does carry more weight that he once did.

We hear a great deal about aging and women, and if we are honest, society likes to condemn nothing as strongly as an aging woman. Yet, this does not mean that we should not be unsympathetic to the male as he grows older. The bit where we collectively agree that men age much more gracefully than women, especially when our hair begins to grey, is really nonsense. Aging hurts. It’s a tragic blow to the ego as well as the body. Aging is one of the only things we have absolutely no control over. We all age; we are all heading toward death. That’s a fact; even someone as cool as Carey Grant was forced to wear those ridiculously thick glasses when he was older. What growing older does is reduce us, shrink us, in every conceivable way.

The unkindest cut may be that as we age we become increasingly irrelevant. Our contemporary society no longer views its elders in the same light as it once did. But then, did it ever? Shakespeare knew of this irrelevancy and wrote honestly on the topic. One need only read the first act of King Lear. I’ve been thinking a lot about Lear lately and about his increasing irrelevancy in old age. The play could be a moral tale for how we treat our own elderly in this country. That is, ship them off to homes and out of the way. The elderly have become our shame, a constant reminder of what awaits us all. Therefore, we move them to the background, yet cry over them once they’re dead. But perhaps it’s really our own mortality we are crying over.

Perhaps it’s part of the process of going through middle age, but lately I’ve felt like I’ve been bouncing through time, not like a yo-yo, but more like a pinball bouncing from episode to episode that once occurred in my life. My grip on time keeps slipping backwards and forwards and sideways, not letting up or giving me time to adjust. A childhood memory comes back and totally resituates itself where I am in my head. A song will begin to play somewhere and I am caught in the middle of a memory, increasingly detached from the here and now. I’m beginning to discover that the aging process also constitutes this discontinuity of time. We spend much time bouncing from memory to memory, from place to place, sometimes simultaneously bumping up against the sharp objects of our past, resulting in cuts and scrapes that others tell us is “just life.” Other times we become lost in the mists of the past, nostalgic or bitter for what once was.

“Just life.” What does that phrase really mean when one has crossed the threshold into middle age? John Lennon wrote that, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” As I grow older this statement is not as optimistic as it once was. I have now outlived Lennon by eight years, and I still feel that I will never catch up to his state of wisdom. In fact, I’m still waiting for that moment when I will feel “grown up.” Now that I have children, I know that I’m grown up, which usually translates as having responsibilities, but often I feel as if my life has yet to begin. Perhaps this is a good thing.

I’m sitting alone at a table in an outdoor café in Milan. The weather is warm and the tables are all taken. It’s evening and the sun is starting to set. Nearly everyone seems to be younger than me. In Milan, especially in the evening, people come out to the cafes and the bars to drink and to eat what amounts to discounted appetizers, thus, the crowded tables. There are a number of pretty women surrounding me. They are all caught up in conversations and I might as well be a ghost. But I like it like this. I like people watching over a drink in a foreign city. However, as more women come and go I think: “If I had only come here twenty years ago.” Of course, twenty years ago it might never had occurred to me to stop at this particular café, and I almost certainly would not have known what to say in order to initiate a conversation, but still… Now, with the weight of middle age firmly planted on my shoulders I have a kind of resolve, a peace with the way things are. As Roth writes above, growing old is a humbling experience. But it can also be the greatest gift life has to offer. Nothing can compare with the experience of living for decades.

Two pretty women standing beside me are asking if I’m leaving, thus knock me out of a reverie. I hadn’t noticed that my drink was empty and the bill had been paid. Two coins and a slip of white paper are resting on a black plastic rectangle. I can only smile and say, “Of course, the table is yours.”

“The table is yours.” It’s a powerful metaphor for not being in the game anymore. What we hold onto, however, is a sense of pride for having survived our youth, to have reached the one more corner before it all dissipates into nothingness.

 

The Roots of Hometowns

When I was a child there was a tree that grew just outside my front door on a thin strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road. Each year the roots of the tree would disturb the sidewalk a little more, pushing up through the concrete. The result was a small mound in the sidewalk that my brother and I used as a ramp from which to launch ourselves into the air on our bikes, racing down the rest of the street in a carefree abandon that only the young enjoy. In fall leaves would collect on the sidewalk, and the ones over the bump looked as if it was covering a small body, like that of a child, hiding from friends. In the winter I can remember cursing the bump because my shovel always became caught in the crumbling sidewalk, stopping me in my stride and hurry to finish the chore so that I could then move on to activities that were more fun. During the spring and summer, once the snow had melted, the bump always seemed to have grown, slight, but not imperceptive. As an adult I might never have noticed, but as a child I still carried within me the wonder of a changing world.

I’ve always considered the roots of that tree coming up through the sidewalk a metaphor for my life in my hometown. I’ve always thought it the most unfortunate of accidents that I was born and grew up in the place where I did. There is not much to say about its good characteristics, and even less to say about its future. The roots coming up through the sidewalk, or so I’ve always thought, constituted an undeniable need for me to break away from my hometown, not only to leave it behind, but to forget it completely, to erase it from my consciousness. That old adage that one should never forget where one came from, is, in many respects, a pathetic attempt to stay attuned to a nostalgia that can only be dangerous and upsetting for those wishing to make something of their lives. Of course, not all hometowns are as dreadful as mine. Still, those traditions and the hold they have over us can sabotage our innate desire to wander, to err into life, which is something we should always strive for. Roots, for better or worse, and in this case I am arguing for worse, keep us moored to our pasts, unable to move forward.

I’ve just returned from a trip to my hometown, and that old tree is no longer there, but was replaced years ago by a new tree when the street was redone. I looked closely and discovered that the roots of this new tree, now more than twenty years old, is also breaking up through the concrete. The metaphor still lives and nature, our essential human nature, which is to wander, remains stubbornly alive. Not all of us make it out of our hometowns alive, and if I’m being honest, there are those who choose to stay. For me, the earliest impulse, one might say, the evolutionary impulse, was to get as far away as possible from the territory of my childhood and young adult life. I finally left for good when I was 36 years old. I never thought I would escape, and I nearly perished there. 36 years is a long time to live in one place, and far too long for someone to remain in one’s hometown.

Perhaps it is a mistake to think of our hometowns as geographically specific places only. I can honestly say that I grew up and came of age in the wonderful library that was downtown, a Carnegie library that was sadly closed years ago for a new, modern (boring, lacking in any imaginative sense of place) building. That wonderful old library remains vacant to this day, slowly decaying and becoming increasingly irrelevant and forgotten. That library has become a metaphor for my hometown, a forgotten backwater on the banks of the Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers. Of course, there is also the university, the only shining star in an otherwise dark sky, but I’ve never felt nostalgia for my alma mater, only a deep-seated sadness that I didn’t go elsewhere.

If we allow ourselves to think of trees as a metaphor for what ties us to the past, to our essence, then there are all sorts of trees in our lives. What is far beneath the surface may be too painful to explore, or too much work to dig up, but dig them up and plant them elsewhere we should. The image of the roots of that tree outside my childhood home, those roots that refused to be contained, domesticated by the nostalgic impulse, hold for me a secret to my essence that I have yet to discover. I know the answer, to wander, but I have yet to stumble upon the question. Perhaps someday I’ll find it, out there in the distance.