Friday, September 30, 2005


Stern redux

In the Village Voice, Ed Park reviews the recent crop of Richard Stern reissues, nailing both the author's criminally low profile and delectable prose:
Richard Stern is known for not being better known. A native New Yorker (born 1928) and for many years a University of Chicago professor, an intimate of Bellow and Roth, Stern has written unclassifiable novels marked by nimble wit, immense intelligence, and (to cop a Stern title) depths of feeling. Almonds to Zhoof, his massive new story collection, approaches maximum density: A page in the novella "Veni, Vidi...Wendt" was so rich with pleasures that this reader felt like tearing it out and eating it.
Bon appetit!


Nobel buzz, The Pipa Report

In anticipation of next week's Nobel Prize announcement, we have this piece by Nina Larson (via Literary Saloon) about the leading contenders. The usual suspects are duly trotted out: Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Amos Oz, Tomas Transtroemer, Milan Kundera. (I've also heard that the Syrian poet Adonis is a possibility.) But according to Eva Bonnier, who runs Sweden's Bonnier publishing house, the judges may steer clear of a poet or novelist this time around: "The Academy has spoken of wanting to broaden the prize, which could open the door for instance for literary journalists like Polish Ryszard Kapuscinski." I'll drink to that. Kapuscinski is a formidable and inventive writer, with at least two permanent books (The Emperor and Shah of Shahs) under his belt. But he still seems like a long shot to me. So does Orhan Pamuk, rumored to have made the short list for the first time. At age 53, he's viewed as a relative youngster, who will have to wait his turn.

Another contender, at least during the past few years, has been Ismail Kadare. Which brings me to a bizarre footnote. Last weekend I was reviewing Kadare's latest novel, The Successor, which is based on a historical event: the death of Albanian politician Mehmet Shehu in 1981. Shehu, who had been groomed as the heir to Enver Hoxha, was found in his bedroom with a bullet in his skull. The official verdict was suicide. Many, however, suspected a state-sanctioned hit. As I prepared my review, I wondered whether Hoxha himself ever committed to one version or another. Lo and behold, the jolly dictator wrote a political memoir, The Titoites, the complete text of which happens to be available online. Not surprisingly, he opts for the suicide scenario. He also makes clear his disdain for Shehu (who he branded as a spy), sprinkling his account with sardonic quotation marks:
The "bold" Mehmet Shehu thought all night about how to escape from the tight spot, worked out and applied a plan of his own. Apparently, he judged matters in this way: "I am as good as dead, the best thing is to save what I can," and he decided to act like his friend Nako Spiru, to kill himself, thinking the Party would bury this "statesman," this "legendary leader," this "partisan and fighter in Spain" with honours, would not sully his reputation but would say that "the gun went off accidentally" (as he suggested in the letter which he left), and thus, at least, he would not lose his past and his family would not suffer.
What happened in Shehu's bedroom is still a matter of conjecture. Hoxha, who applied his jackboot to Albania's collective neck for nearly four decades, doesn't strike me as a reliable witness. But what also caught my eye was this sentence: "Mehmet Shehu arranged the engagement of his son to the daughter of a family in the circle of which there were 6 or 7 fugitive war criminals, including the notorious agent of the CIA Arshi Pipa." Arshi Pipa! The anonymous translator of Kadare's Chronicle in Stone, and later a participant in the Pipi-Kaka Quarrel! Small world indeed. (As far as I can determine by poking around the Internet, he wasn't a CIA agent.)

Thursday, September 29, 2005


Whitman, Aldo Buzzi, used and abused

For the last few days I've been working at the New York Public Library, the big branch on Fifth Avenue with the tired-looking lions out front. Mostly I sit in the Rose Reading Room--accessed via the appropriately spiffy Bill Blass Public Catalog Room--and peck away at the laptop. Yesterday, though, I stopped at the exhibition area on the first floor, where there's a tremendous (if physically tiny) show on Walt Whitman. Amazing stuff, including letters, manuscripts, emended copies of Leaves of Grass--which the poet compulsively revised and expanded for the rest of his life--and even a lock of his hair. (Pale gray, if you're curious: clearly Walt wasn't messing around with the Grecian Forumula.) I was moved more than I expected to be. There's a scribbly revision of "Starting From Paumanok," at the beginning of Leaves. There's a manuscript page from Whitman's essay on Emerson, which rang my bell in a big way. Now I can't recall whether it was from "Emerson's Books (The Shadows of Them)," in which Whitman expresses some powerful doubts about his fussbudget master:
For a philosopher, Emerson possesses a singularly dandified theory of manners. He seems to have no notion at all that manners are simply the signs by which the chemist or metallurgist knows his metals. To the profound scientist, all metals are profound, as they really are. The little one, like the conventional world, will make much of gold and silver only.
Zing! Anyway, the show is wonderful, well worth a visit. The lights are kept dim, presumably to avoid bleaching the 150-year-old paper, but you feel as if you've been transported back to a pre-Edison era: very appealing.

A couple of weeks ago, I translated a short piece by the excellent Aldo Buzzi. I've admired his work for nearly a decade, ever since I first read Journey to the Land of the Flies and other Travels in 1996. (You can read my brief Salon review here.) That collection, with its feverish, funny excursion through the literary world of 19th-century Russia, is still my favorite--by a hair. But everything Buzzi writes is touched with the same wit and sensuous delight: he's that rare thing, an Epicurean with a sense of humor. His most recent volume, The Perfect Egg and Other Secrets, is yet another delicious specimen of his art.

But let me return for a moment to that translation. It's short piece, from a collection called La lattuga di Boston (Boston Lettuce), about Key West, old age, and mortality. Relatively straightforward. Yet even a text this small, this simple, has enough potential pitfalls to make the translator tear his or her hair out. Let's take a single paragraph in Italian:
In certi momenti della mattina il sole brilla nel modo piu magico. E se, contemporaneamente, il vento si abbassa fino a lasciar alitare solo un quasi impercettible zefiro che fa vibrare le cime delle palme, allor qui, a Key West, in fondo alla Florida, si ha il clima del paradiso terrestre.
After a good deal of fiddling, I came up with this:
At certain moments during the morning, the sun shines in the most magical way. And if, at the same time, the wind drops until it sends forth only a mild zephyr, almost imperceptible, which causes the tops of the palms to tremble, then here, in Key West, at the bottom of Florida, one encounters the climate of an earthly paradise.
The first sentence is easy. The second one forces you to slalom around the clauses, trying to hit each one at the right angle. Should I go with the cognate for vibrare--ie, "vibrate" instead of "tremble"? You could argue that "one encounters" is too fancy a substitute for ha. And what about paradiso terrestre? Perhaps it should be capitalized as "Earthly Paradise," although that would give the phrase a stuffy, exalted sound that Buzzi avoids. And so on and so forth. It's enough to make a grown man cry. And at this point, I should salute the superb translator of Buzzi's earlier books: Ann Goldstein. Three cheers!

Finally: in the Washington Post (and elsewhere), Hillel Italie reports on the booming trade in used books. The impetus for his piece is the release on Wednesday of a white paper by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), attesting to the rapid growth of the secondhand sector. According to the report, "used book sales topped $2.2 billion in 2004, an 11 percent increase over 2003. Much of that growth can be credited to the Internet. While used sales at traditional stores rose a modest 4.6 percent, they jumped 33 percent online, to just over $600 million." None of this is a big surprise. For publishers and authors, it's not a good development--although you can always argue that consumers, having obtained one book by a talented author on the cheap, may be willing to buy the next one at retail. I myself am typically ambivalent. As an author, I hate to see the brisk (well, semi-brisk) traffic in used copies of Amazonia. Still, a used sale is better than no sale at all. At least it's exposing another reader to the book. On the bright side, I haven't yet come across any personally inscribed copies--but apparently the King County Library System has decided to thin out its supply. Sigh.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Moravia, Milosz, and their demons

Last night I found myself reading a book I had forgotten I even owned: Life of Moravia. This valedictory series of interviews with Alberto Moravia was conducted by Alain Elkann in late 1989 and early 1990. The translator, William Weaver, alludes in his introduction to some friction with the original publisher--most likely FSG, who had published Moravia for decades in this country--and ultimately it was Steerforth who brought out the book in 2000. Anyway, Moravia is a strange case. For two or three decades after the war, he was probably the most visible Italian novelist outside his own country. Two of his books were made into classic movies: Bertolucci's The Conformist and Godard's Contempt. Yet he fell into relative obscurity during the last twenty years, elbowed out of the way by such international favorites as Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. Until recently, most of his stuff was out in print in the United States. But now The New York Review and Steerforth have undertaken ambitious reissue programs, so perhaps his star will rise again. Meanwhile, here's what the insanely rational Moravia told his interlocutor about the artistic process:
It doesn't proceed via the head; it occurs through successive illuminations. The artist is always assisted by a demon, and it is this demon that illuminates him... What is illumination? I'll come to a perhaps more interesting point, which is entirely mine, because no one else would say it. Illumination is this: a rational operation of dizzying speed. If you have a fan at home, and you turn it on, at a certain point you won't see the blades anymore, you'll see something like a blur. Now, illumination in reality is a fantastic acceleration of rationality.
Fascinating. Milosz, too, chalked up his inspiration to a daimonion. When I interviewed him in 2000, we had the following exchange. Note the goofy literalism of my final question: the poet must have thought I was ten years old.
Marcus: Let me dwell on this notion of the demon, for whom the author is essentially an instrument. Did writing poetry always strike you as this sort of a process?
Milosz: I use the word daimonion, which means "little demon," not to exaggerate the status of that personality. Yet I cannot imagine writing poetry without the first impulse coming from him--and then, after the first line of a poem is given, my hard work starts. Basically, what is received from a daimonion is incantation, a certain rhythm.
Marcus: Does the same thing apply to prose?
Milosz: Prose has its own rhythm and is probably dictated by a different kind of daimonion.
Marcus: Do you think of the "little demon" as a literal being, or as a metaphor for the creative impulse?
Milosz: No, I do not imagine that the daimonion is a little man or manlike creature. Maybe there are forces flying through the air and inspiring us, but they have no definite material shape.
(P.S. The complete text of the interview will appear in Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, edited by Cynthia L. Haven, to be published by the University Press of Mississippi in Spring 2006.)

Friday, September 23, 2005


Ohio impromptu, overheard, more Milosz

In the August issue of Harper's, Mark Crispin Miller weighs in on the 2004 electoral shenanigans in Ohio. His piece is essentially a report on a report--that is, Representative John Conyers's "Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio," released on January 5 of this year and greeted with a skeptical yawn by the media. Even most Democrats, reluctant to be branded sore losers, kept their mouths shut. Yet the investigation, which "reviewed thousands of complaints of fraud, malfeasance, or incompetence surrounding the election in Ohio, and further thousands of complaints that poured in by phone and email as word of the inquiry spread," raised some serious doubts about the legitimacy of the Ohio results. Is democracy really and truly on the march? You decide:
Ohio, like the nation, was the site of numerous statistical anomalies--so many that the number is itself statistically anomalous, since every single one of them took votes from Kerry. In Butler County the Democratic candidate for State Supreme Court took in 5,347 more votes than Kerry did. In Cuyahoga County ten Cleveland precincts "reported an incredibly high number of votes for third party candidates who have historically received only a handful of votes from these urban areas"--mystery votes that would mostly otherwise have gone to Kerry. In Franklin County, Bush received nearly 4,000 extra votes from one computer, and, in Miami County, just over 13,000 votes appeared in Bush’s column after all precincts had reported. In Perry County the number of Bush votes somehow exceeded the number of registered voters, leading to voter turnout rates as high as 124 percent.
Miller does not assert that Kerry would have won a clean election in Ohio. Neither did Conyers--in fact, he more or less had to make that stipulation in order to get his report issued. Still, the dirty tricks on display are tawdry and systematic enough to make LBJ, no mean stuffer of ballot boxes, look like an amateur.

At a book party I attended last night, the author gracefully thanked his wife, editor, agent, mother, best friend, and (this being New York) his shrink, all of them in attendance. As the applause died down, I heard the following exchange directly behind me, which could have come straight out of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life: "So you're his psychiatrist!" "So you're his mother!"

Finally, I was thumbing through Czeslaw Milosz's Legends of Modernity, a new collection of essays and letters he wrote during the wartime occupation of Poland. This was relatively early in Milosz's career, and although he had already produced some tremendous poetry, I wondered if his prose might still be wet behind the ears. Uh, no. Here's a bit from a letter he wrote to Jerzy Andrzejewski:
In the course of this third year of war I have often thought of writing a new "confessions of a child of the age," such as Musset wrote over a century ago--a confession that would exceed, in its violence and scream of pain, that Romantic era's settling of accounts of the conscience. I assume that I would not lack for reasons to complain and hurl curses against the world. This is what I would like my future reader to see and comprehend: my first memories of childhood, those long rows of refugees' wagons on the crowded roads, the bellowing of cattle being prodded along, the red glow of the fires of 1914, revolutionary October in Russia and again the year 1920 on the battlefields, and then growing up in the blind, unconscious lucidum intervallum between the wars, the university in which blind, unconscious people lectured about some by-products of knowledge acquired in the junkyard of the nineteenth century.
Whew! And that's only the first three sentences. Not sure whether Milosz ever followed through on this specific proposal--but he covered it all, and then some, over the next five decades.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


Trio fascination

The Paul Motian/Bill Frisell/Joe Lovano trio just finished its annual residency at the Village Vanguard, and I caught one of the shows last week: a treat. The place was packed, so my companion (okay, fine, it was Kerry Fried) and I were directed to one of those tiny tables back near the bar. Not ideal from an acoustic point of view, plus we had to peer over a sea of heads--including the deeply Britannic profile of the actor James Cromwell, seated a row or two in front of us--but once the music began, these distractions faded away. The set opened with a sly version of Monk's "Crepuscule with Nellie." Lovano and Frisell (playing his powder-blue Telecaster) shared the theme, then traded long, leisurely statements. I had wondered whether the trio would tilt toward its contemplative mode, given the gentle simmer of their recent CD, I Have the Room Above Her. But Lovano--steely and Rollins-like when he bullets through the lower register, and gauzier up above--pushed hard, even on a ballad like "Our Love Is Here to Stay." Motian, whose singsong compositions dominated much of the evening (did I hear "Mumbo Jumbo," from the Sound of Love disc?), danced aggressively around the beat. And Frisell--well, he did what he always does, tinkering with his tone and attack, mixing clean, single-note runs with sorties into the harmonic hinterlands. For me, his playing is one of the supreme pleasures of contemporary music. Eager, perhaps, to protect his trade secrets, he kept darting behind a structural column to the right of the stage. Yet the shining, eccentric phrases never faltered for a second: our vision might have been obstructed, but his certainly was not.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Elizabeth Hardwick on NYC

From "Mrs. Wharton in New York," reprinted in Sight-Readings: American Fictions:
New York, with its statistical sensationalism, is a shallow vessel for memory since it lives in a continuous present, making it difficult to recall the shape of the loss deplored, whether it be the gray tin of the newsstand or the narrow closet for the neighborhood's dry cleaning, there and gone over a vacation. As for people, the rapid obsolescence of deities makes its point each season; or, if surviving the gleeful erasure of fame, the penalties pursuing society's accomodation can be severe, or so it is often asserted by the fatigued famous.

Monday, September 19, 2005


Primo Levi's afterlife

[Note: The following piece was commissioned by The Atlantic Monthly in 2001, but never ran. I came across it recently, thought it still held up pretty well, and decided to post it. Two additional biographies have been published since then--Ian Thomson's Primo Levi: A Life and Carole Angier's The Double Bond--and their dual portrait of Levi's final, fraught decade certainly makes me feel like I was on the right track.]

Every book, as the saying goes, has its own fate. But so too does every author, particularly in the wake of his or her death, when heavy hitters and small fry alike are consigned to a kind of cultural afterlife. This is partly a measure of literary accomplishment, of course. But personality also plays a major role, which is why a figure like Bruce Chatwin seems to tower eccentrically over his actual output, while posterity has rendered the self-effacing Bernard Malamud nearly invisible--the Mensch in the Iron Mask. Nor would this calculus be complete without factoring in fashions, fads, dumb luck, and a generous dose of mythology. We have to look at the whole package to understand precisely how a vanished writer's words are (in Auden's phrase) modified in the guts of the living.

Primo Levi's afterlife began prematurely, and with heartbreaking abruptness, on April 11, 1987, when he plunged down the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin. Yet the myths about this Holocaust survivor, chemist, and indispensable author had begun to propagate long before. And by simplifying him--by turning him into a sunny and scientific plaster saint--they end up diminishing both Levi and his creations.

To be sure, some of these red herrings were put into play by Levi himself. For example, there was the idea that his books--especially the quietly devastating pages of Survival in Auschwitz--were dispassionate works, in which human agonies were coolly assessed like so many specimens in a petri dish. Hadn't Levi himself asked us, in the ninth chapter of that very book, to consider Auschwitz as "pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment"? He even went on to define the lab conditions: "Thousands of individuals, differing in age, condition, origin, language, culture, and customs are enclosed within barbed wire: there they live a regular, controlled life which is identical for all and inadequate for all needs, and which is much more rigorous than any experimenter could have set up to establish what is essential and what is adventitious to the conduct of the human animal in the struggle for life."

This was the sort of thing that prompted a celebrated spitball from Fernanda Eberstadt in the October 1985 issue of Commentary. The very notion of a twentysomething novelist taking Levi to task for his clinical tone, not to mention his "fastidious and uncertain" imagination, would be almost comical--a satirical leaf from our contemporary Dunciad--if Levi hadn't been so wounded by it. But the point is that even in his imperishable account of the Lager, he was hardly immune to rage and despair. Nor did this mild-mannered scientist hesitate to pass judgement, and not only on his captors.

There is, for instance, the casual yet crushing verdict delivered when a Kapo presses Levi into use as a human handkerchief: "Without hatred and without sneering, Alex wipes his hand on my shoulder, both the palm and the back of his hand, to clean it; he would be amazed, the poor brute Alex, if someone told him that today, on that basis of this action, I judge him...and the innumerable others like him, big and small, in Auschwitz and everywhere." But oddly enough, one of the author's supreme expressions of disgust is directed at a fellow prisoner, who has been spared during the selekcja--the Germans' annual harrowing of this particular hell. As Kuhn thanks God for saving him, however temporarily, from the crematorium, Levi listens in horrified disbelief.

"Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination," he asks, "which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?" Then comes the most damning sentence of all: "If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer."

So much for the lofty clinician at work. But as it turns out, even Levi's translator, the estimable Stuart Woolf, seems to have climbed onto the bandwagon here, opting for a kinder, gentler imprecation. The line in Italian reads: "Se io fossi Dio, sputerei a terra la preghiera di Kuhn." A more accurate rendering would be: "If I were God, I would spit out Kuhn’s prayer on the ground." A minor difference, perhaps. But what Levi actually wrote--an image of divine revulsion on par with God’s threat, in Revelation 3:16, to "vomit thee from my mouth"--is more of a shocker. And it certainly contradicts Levi's image as a neutral party.

For this insight regarding Woolf's error, and for great many others, we can thank a pair of recent books. Memory and Mastery, a collection of essays, is something of a mixed bag, mingling sound assessments of Levi’s legacy with a few squishy specimens of what we can only call New Age Holocaust Criticism. (The prime offender would be Yaffa Eliach’s riff on "the universal-humanistic time element," whatever that means.) Still, Lawrence Langer's superb "Legacy in Gray," which addresses Levi's transformation into a plucky symbol of post-Lager uplift, is alone worth the price of admission, as are the contributions by Risa Sodi and Franca Molino Signorini.

The Voice of Memory, meanwhile, brings together 36 interviews that Levi granted between 1961 and 1987. The editor, Marco Belpoliti, makes the ambitious argument that Levi considered "his role as a talker and witness a third profession, to set alongside his official and recognized careers as chemist and as writer." This may be stretching it. I doubt that Levi viewed the Q-and-A as a bonafide branch of literature, let alone a full-fledged vocation--remember, we’re talking about the man who left his phone off the hook throughout his American tour in 1985, simply to avoid being peppered with questions on a regular basis. Yet The Voice of Memory does present us with a fascinating and formidable conversationalist. Whether Levi is obliging a local interviewer or squaring off with such world-class contemporaries as Philip Roth or Germaine Greer, he answers in lucid, cant-resistant paragraphs. A Piedmontese to his fingertips, he steers clear of confessional gush. But this is undoubtedly a more informal, unvarnished portrait of the artist, with occasional glimpses of those private demons that Levi so rigorously excluded from his writing.

Taken together, these books bring to the table a considerable freight of critical acumen and biographical fact. It's no wonder, then, that they manage to demolish still other cherished myths about Levi and his creations. Two examples should suffice. First: more than a half-century after its initial appearance, Survival in Auschwitz continues to be characterized in some quarters as no more (and no less) than an act of witness: a vital historical document, that is, but not a work of art. This may be less common in the United States than in Italy, where Levi was pigeonholed for decades as a Holocaust survivor who happened to write, rather than the other way around. But in a recent interview, so astute an observer as Cynthia Ozick classified the book as "testimony"--excusing it, ironically, from the distrust she feels for most works of Holocaust literature--which suggests that the perception is still alive and kicking.

Again, it was Levi himself who got the ball rolling. On more than one occasion he described how his first book grew out of a compulsive need to unburden himself after his return from the Lager. "The things I had seen and suffered were burning inside of me,” he recounts in The Periodic Table. "...It seemed to me that I would be purified if I told [my] story, and I felt like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who waylays on the street the wedding guests going to the feast, inflicting on them the story of his misfortune."

There’s no reason to doubt this scenario. Indeed, Myriam Anissimov’s 1998 biography, Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist, paints a vivid picture of her subject's compositional labors, which took place at home, at the lab, and even on streetcars. Still, compulsion is hardly the enemy of art. Nor, under the right circumstances, is speed, as any reader of a quick-and-dirty masterpiece like The Charterhouse of Parma can confirm. As Levi spatchcocked together the episodes of Survival in Auschwitz, he was blessed or cursed by a classical education, and by an astonishing set of narrative instincts. The result was a work of literary art--meticulous enough to satisfy a historian, and agile enough in its language to violate Adorno’s famous ban on poetry after Auschwitz.

Risa Sodi’s piece in Memory and Mastery, "The Rhetoric of the Univers Concentrationnaire," makes an eloquent case for Levi's artistry. She praises the distinctive music of his prose--the way in which German or Polish or Yiddish phrases keep ambushing the author’s lean and logical Italian--along with his manipulation of verb tenses and allusive debt to Dante and the Bible. These are not the techniques of a tale-spinning naif. But if anyone still imagines that Levi simply blurted the whole thing out, let's turn to his interview with Germaine Greer in The Voice of Memory, where he pleads guilty to a little myth-mongering of his own.

"It's forty years since I wrote it," he says. "And in those forty years I've constructed a sort of legend around that book, that I wrote it without a plan, that I wrote it on impulse, that I wrote it without reflecting at all. The other people I've talked to about it have accepted the legend. In fact, writing is never spontaneous. Now that I think about it, I can see that this book is full of literature, literature absorbed through the skin, even while I was rejecting it." He may be discussing literary artifice as though it were a skin rash--something that will require an ointment later on--but he's certainly not denying the contagion.

Even Levi's hard-earned reputation as a creature of reason is thrown into a new light by some of the material in The Voice of Memory. He never, to be sure, insisted that sweet-tempered positivism could untangle all of history's uglier knots. Yet even the pandemic madness of Nazi Germany struck him as a cautionary tale about what could happen in the very absence of reason: Hitler's brand of anti-Semitism, as he told an interviewer in 1961, represented "an irrational impulse, intimately biological in its make-up, even when dressed up in low-grade Romantic philosophy." And more than a decade later, discussing the publication of The Periodic Table, he dug in his deeply rational heels once again. "We cannot take a holiday from reason," he assured two journalists from La Stampa, who took this admonishment seriously enough to make it the title of their article.

But by 1983, when Levi participated in an oral-history project in Turin, his faith in reason had undergone some serious erosion. The previous few years had given him ample cause for disillusionment, as Israel dirtied its hands in Lebanon and nitwit revisionists like Robert Faurisson attempted to sweep the Holocaust under the rug. Still, it's very strange to find this sane and sensible empiricist blaming the great historical catastrophe of his century not on human folly, not on territorial ambition, not on our eminently corruptible hearts and minds, but on a theological fall guy: the devil.

"I have come to the stage of believing in the heroic version of history, in which an evil, potent, charismatic man, the incarnation of the devil that Hitler was, drags behind him an entire people like a flock," he confesses. "What other explanation is there? To see the encounters between Hitler and the public on the newsreels is terrifying. It is like a flash of lightning, a giving and receiving."

If Levi came to accept such fulminations as fact--to consider the triumph of Nazism as a kind of black magic--then clearly nothing could be done to prevent its return. How can this have struck a man who had crossed the Brenner Pass four decades earlier in a cattle car, and witnessed the industrialized carnage of the camps at first hand? Meanwhile, Levi had other, more private reasons to despair. By the mid-1980s he no longer remembered the past with his customary clarity--a terrible affliction for a writer who often functioned as a recording angel--and worried that he had nothing left to say.

There was also the matter of his mother’s health, which had begun to fail around 1975. If we're to believe an anecdote in Anissimov’s biography, Ester Luzzati was some kind of Jewish Mom: when her son, presumed dead, appeared on her doorstep one October afternoon in 1945, her first response to his miraculous resurrection was, "It's cold, put a sweater on." (Levi refused.) In any case, the presence of his increasingly senile, nonagenarian mother came to dominate Levi's life, tethering him to his apartment around the clock. He wasn't, of course, the type to vent his familial frustrations in public. Still, we may be able to catch an echo of his desperation in "Agave," a poem he produced in September 1983, which concludes:
I've waited many years to send up
My towering desperate flower,
Ugly, wooden, stiff, but stretching toward the sky.
It's our way of shouting:
I'll die tomorrow. Now do you understand?
Exactly who's dying, and whose understanding is being solicited, is hard to pin down. But the poet surely knew that his eponymous subject was not only a spiny-edged plant but Pentheus's mother, who tore her son limb from limb in the Bacchae--even as Levi himself was being less melodramatically rent by guilt, anger, love, and filial duty. Nor, it seems, did he have the thick-skinned man's capacity to detach himself. "Everyone's anguish," as he wrote in an earlier poem, "is our own."

Pursued by these furies--and by the pain of his own memories, which his books had never succeeded in truly anaesthetizing--it's no wonder that Levi spent the final years of his life in a steep cycle of depression. Yet the news of his (apparent) suicide was too difficult a pill for many of his admirers to swallow. Some felt betrayed, as though Levi had written not books but checks and then ultimately failed to honor them. In a widely quoted piece in The New Yorker, for example, Elizabeth Macklin suggested that "the efficacy of all his words had somehow been cancelled by his death--that his hope, or faith, was no longer usable by the rest of us." Others avoided the question of self-annihilation altogether, sometimes by fairly Jesuitical means. Not long after Levi’s death, Raymond Rosenthal (who translated The Periodic Table into English and practically arm-wrestled Schocken into publishing it in 1984) told me that the verdict of suicide was incorrect. What had killed the author, he insisted, was a raptus. But this lethal bit of Latin turns out to denote a mental seizure, a psychotic impulse, which would rule out premeditation but not, alas, the act itself.

Whether Primo Levi died by his own hand is a question that will probably never yield a definitive answer. Anissimov's biography chalks up his death to suicide, while Diego Gambetta, who has marshaled the evidence quite impressively in a recent Boston Review article, seems to be taking an agnostic position. The jury is, as they say, out. In the meantime we're obliged to accept a certain ambiguity, a quality that Levi approved of, although he preferred to think of it in molecular terms: "A good book," he told an interviewer, "is necessarily, I won't say ambiguous, but at least polyvalent." Without a doubt the description applies to his own creations, compounded as they are of matter and spirit, science and artifice, suffering and spontaneous delight. Such recombinant richness should guarantee Levi a more complicated afterlife, and a more triumphant one, than any we could have expected--and that, for a writer at least, is what survival is all about.

Friday, September 16, 2005


Something I didn't know

From the Oxford New Dictionary of Eponyms. Be sure to read through to the end--it just gets better and better.
BLURB: Belinda Blurb was a fictional character who appeared on the dust jacket of a book written by Gelett Burgess (1866-1951) titled Are You a Bromide? Her name has been immortalized by its acceptance into the English language and by an entry in recent English dictionaries.

The publisher of the book, B.W. Huebish, in the summer 1937 issue of the publication Colophon, to report the history of the word blurb, wrote: "It is the custom of publishers to present copies of a conspicuous current book to booksellers attending the annual dinner of their trade association, and as this little book was in its heyday when the meeting took place I gave it to 500 guests. These copies were differentiated from the regular edition by the addition of a comic bookplate drawn by the author and by a special jacket which he devised. It was the common practice to print the picture of a damsel--languishing, heroic, or coquettish--on the jacket of every novel, so Burgess lifted from a Lydia Pinkham or tooth-powder advertisement the portrait of a sickly sweet young woman, painted in some gleaming teeth, and otherwise enhanced her pulchritude, and placed her in the center of the jacket. His accompanying text was some nonsense about 'Miss Belinda Blurb,' and thus the term supplied a real need and became a fixture in our language."

Burgess was born in Boston, attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in the late 1800s moved to San Francisco. After a stint of teaching at Berkeley, he became an associate editor of The Wave, a society paper. He was a prolific writer, known for a briskly satirical style, as exemplified by the titles of some of his books. Aside from Are You a Bromide? (1906) he wrote Why Men Hate Women (1927) and Look Eleven Years Younger (1937), and several other books in the same vein.

Burgess, in 1895, wrote a four-liner that plagued him all the rest of his life. His whimsical quatrain--"I never saw a Purple Cow, / I never hope to see one; / But I can tell you anyhow, / I'd rather see than be one"--was gleefully shouted at him wherever he went. In retaliation, in 1914, Burgess wrote this rebuttal--"Ah, yes I wrote the Purple Cow, / I'm sorry now, I wrote it! / But I can tell you anyhow / I'll kill you if you quote it!"

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Anderson in N.O., Szymborska plus Milosz

Last night I was reading Jon Lee Anderson's vivid, depressing coverage of the disaster in New Orleans, fully the equal of his superb dispatches from Baghdad. For some reason I was struck by his comments about the dogs: "We passed groups of dogs that had been left behind; some stood on the roofs of submerged, smashed houses, others were stranded on flotsam; they looked emaciated and listless, as if ready for death. The dogs were not being shot, Alladio said: 'If Americans saw National Guardsmen on television shooting dogs they'd raise a huge fuss.' Around the corner from Tyrone Williams's house, a pit bull, a Rottweiler, and a tiny Pekinese looked attentively at us as we passed by." There are, obviously, practical reasons that make it difficult to rescue and shelter tens of thousands of dogs. Yet the picture is sad and surreal: the ranks of abandoned animals, starving, still attentive, waiting for the old life to reassert itself.

What it put me in mind of, too, was a tremendous poem by Wislawa Szymborska from View with a Grain of Sand. "Cat in an Empty Apartment" is very plain, very direct. I suppose you can find a death-of-God metaphor in there if you're so inclined, but feline grief is ultimately more than sufficient for the poet's purposes:
Die--you can't do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here,
but nothing is the same.
Nothing has been moved,
but there's more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit.

Footsteps on the staircase,
but they're new ones.
The hand that puts fish on the saucer
has changed, too.

Something doesn't start
at its usual time.
Something doesn't happen
as it should.
Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared.

Every closet has been examined.
Every shelf has been explored.
Excavations under the carpet turned up nothing.
A commandment was even broken,
papers scattered everywhere.
What remains to be done.
Just sleep and wait.

Just wait till he turns up,
just let him show his face.
Will he ever get a lesson
on what not to do to a cat.
Sidle toward him
as if unwilling
and ever so slow
on visibly offended paws,
and no leaps or squeals at least to start.
Some may find a trace of B.-Kliban-style cuteness here. Not me. What's heartbreaking about the poem is, in fact, the cat's circumscribed consciousness, which Szymborska honors. It can't possibly understand the source of its grief, and does what we more sophisticated bipeds tend to do: it sticks to routine. Simple and powerful. Czeslaw Milosz pulls off a similar trick in "Throughout Our Lands," with less irony than you might think:
If I had to tell what the world is for me
I would take a hamster or a hedgehog or a mole
and place him in a theater seat one evening
and, bringing my ear close to his humid snout,
would listen to what he says about the spotlights,
sounds of the music, and movements of the dance.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Les is more

The eternally feisty Les Paul turned 90 on June 9 of this year, which hasn't slowed him a whit. He records, keeps up his weekly gig at Manhattan's Iridium--although advancing arthritis is rumored to have simplified his style--and can still turn on a conversational dime. You want evidence? Here's a bit from a recent interview in Stereophile, where he discusses his invention of the iconic Gibson Les Paul guitar. Actually, he's talking about the Gibson's predecessor, a Frankenstein of an instrument he assembled out of old Epiphone parts nailed to a 4X4. He played this monstrosity, dubbed "The Log," on a number of late-1940s recordings for Capitol, before applying the lessons he'd learned to a prototype for Gibson in 1952:
Guitarists thought of it as an ironing board with a couple of pickups. It didn't ring right with a lot of players, especially those who wanted to play jazz and blues. But [my design] took an apologetic instrument and turned it into a vicious instrument. It can be a bartender, a mistress, and a psychologist. No one's gonna beat ya. You can just turn up the volume and blow anyone away.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Trump card

When it comes to building tall, vulgar residential towers with pink marble lobbies and gold-plated spigots in the powder room, Mark Singer is an abject failure. When it comes to writing, he's damn good. How delicious, then, to see Donald Trump patronizing him in the Letters page of The New York Times Book Review, simply because he had the nerve to write a quasi-snarky profile of the billionaire developer back in 1997. Jeff MacGregor, who had reviewed a collection of Singer's profiles in a previous issue, actually took him to task for blasting away at a clay pigeon like the Donald:
The only instance in which Singer throws and lands a sucker punch is in a 1997 profile of the pre-"Apprentice" Donald Trump, in which his tone becomes a little arch. That Trump is already a caricature of a caricature makes him too easy a target, with neither the foot speed nor the wit to defend himself. A harder thing to do, perhaps impossible, would have been to find the one lonely component of Trump's character that wasn't manufactured as a brand strategy. It is a small quibble, certainly, as most New Yorkers, including me, would readily climb the arch in Washington Square to drop a flowerpot filled with nasturtiums on Trump's astonishing head if given half a chance to do so.
That Trump would relish neither the original profile nor MacGregor's review is understandable. That he would respond by declaring himself a better writer than either is what lifts this spat into the empyrean of amusement. If you put on your Trumpian spectacles, you can certainly follow his argument. Hasn't he published volume after volume of bestselling rubbish, all of them cobbled together by ghostwriters? And doesn't writing, like building those residential towers or managing a bankrupt casino empire, derive from "a simple thing called talent"? No doubt. Yet the Donald wants to cite some outside evidence, a third-party observer, so he turns to a recent essay about ghostwriting by Joe Queenan. Here's what Trump says:
I've been a best-selling author for close to 20 years. Whether you like it or not, facts are facts. The highly respected Joe Queenan mentioned in his article "Ghosts in the Machine" (March 20) that I had produced "a steady stream of classics" with "stylistic seamlessness" and that the "voice" of my books remained noticeably constant to the point of being an "astonishing achievement." This was high praise coming from an accomplished writer.
As Doctor Evil likes to say, right. A glance at Queenan's article shows the author, himself a top-drawer dispenser of snark, in a quietly antic mode:
One of the few "authors" who have succeeded in avoiding the pitfalls that increasingly ensnare ghostwritees is Donald Trump. In the past 18 years, Trump has put his name on a steady stream of classics, while using various collaborators. Yet throughout this long literary interlude he has managed to maintain tight quality control. For example, in the seminal Trump: The Art of the Deal, which appeared in 1987, the ghostwriter Tony Schwartz delivered the Trumpian goods in a clipped, staccato, tough-guy style, opening the book with the words:

"I don't do it for the money. I've got enough, much more than I'll ever need. I do it to do it."

Seventeen years later, Trump's new book, Trump: Think Like a Billionaire, written with Meredith McIver, kicks off:

"In a world of more than six billion people, there are only 587 billionaires. It's an exclusive club. Would you like to join us?"

It has been said that Thomas Mann began writing The Confessions of Felix Krull as a young man, put it aside for decades, then picked up the narrative exactly where he left off. Similar stylistic seamlessness typifies Trump's work. The intermediaries may come and go, but the Donaldian voice never wavers. This is a truly astonishing achievement.
I assume that Trump is the only person on earth not to realize that Queenan is yanking his chain. But's let do a hypothetical. You, the reader, are also confused about Queenan's tone, with its artful deployment of all seven kinds of ambiguity. Fine. Let me point you toward two clues. First, his description of Trump: The Art of the Deal as "seminal"--an adjective whose patent absurdity goes off like a signal flair. Next, a quick jab to the kidney that even the Donald should have noted: his characterization as an "author," complete with pretension-bursting quotation marks. The guy is clueless. His letter was certainly ghostwritten. I almost feel sorry for him at this juncture. But not so much that I'd refrain from dropping that pot of nasturtiums on his head. Is that mean of me? Facts, I'm afraid, are facts.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


No Laughing Matter, Great Scott redux

I've been saddled with jury duty the past few days, hence the radio silence here at HOM. But my brief mention of Flann O'Brien in the previous post sent me back to one of my favorite literary biographies, Anthony Cronin's No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O'Brien. The author, a Dublin poet and prose writer, has an insider's take on his supremely Irish subject: as a young man, he formed part of a worshipful coterie, who relished both the modernist tomfoolery of At Swim-Two-Birds and the sardonic broadsides that O'Brien delivered (as Myles na gCopaleen) twice a week in the Irish Times. O'Brien was, and remains, something of a cipher. All writers have their moments of dwindling confidence. But after the commercial flop of At Swim-Two-Birds--in the first seven months after publication it sold 244 copies, and when the Germans bombed Longman's London warehouse in 1940, most of the inventory was destroyed--O'Brien had difficulty finding a publisher for his next novel, The Third Policeman. At that point he essentially threw in the towel. The latter work, another comic masterpiece, lay in a drawer until after his death. And his remaining books were slender, specialized productions, aimed at an Irish (and Gaelic-speaking) audience. Still, he was a genius, not the least at promoting his own stuff. When An Béal Bocht came out in 1941, Myles na gCopaleen gave it a hyperbolic push in his December 12 column:
I am rather pleased with the reception given to my book, An Béal Bocht. It is gratifying to know that an important work of literature receives in this country the recognition that is its due. Scholars, students, men-about-town, clerics, TDs, ladies of fashion and even the better class corner boys vied with one another in grabbing the copies as they poured from the giant presses. How long will the strictly limited edition of 50,000 copies last? A week? A month? Who can tell? Suffice it to say that you cannot order your copy too soon. Paper difficulties make it doubtful whether another edition of 50,000 will be possible in our generation at any rate.

On a less amusing note, Scott McClellan continues to perfect his role as the administration's Artful Dodger. Well, not too artful. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he's clearly been primed to deflect all non-supine questions from the press with the Blame Game strategy. Hence the robotic Q-and-A below, from a White House briefing on Wednesday. Funny and not funny, if you know what I mean:
Q: Scott, does the President retain confidence in his FEMA Director and Secretary of Homeland Security?

Mr. McClellan: And again, David, see, this is where some people want to look at the blame game issue, and finger-point. We're focused on solving problems, and we're doing everything we can--

Q: What about the question?

Mr. McClellan: We're doing everything we can in support--

Q: We know all that.

Mr. McClellan: --of the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA.

Q: Does he retain complete confidence--

Mr. McClellan: We're going to continue. We appreciate the great effort that all of those at FEMA, including the head of FEMA, are doing to help the people in the region. And I'm just not going to engage in the blame game or finger-pointing that you're trying to get me to engage.

Q: Okay, but that's not at all what I was asking.

Mr. McClellan: Sure it is. It's exactly what you're trying to play.

Q: You have your same point you want to make about the blame game, which you've said enough now. I'm asking you a direct question, which you're dodging.

Mr. McClellan: No--

Q: Does the President retain complete confidence in his Director of FEMA and Secretary of Homeland Security, yes or no?

Mr. McClellan: I just answered the question.

Q: Is the answer "yes" on both?

Mr. McClellan: And what you're doing is trying to engage in a game of finger-pointing.

Q: There's a lot of criticism. I'm just wondering if he still has confidence.

Mr. McClellan: --and blame-gaming. What we're trying to do is solve problems, David. And that's where we're going to keep our focus.

Q: So you're not--you won't answer that question directly?

Mr. McClellan: I did. I just did.

Q: No, you didn't. Yes or no? Does he have complete confidence or doesn't he?

Mr. McClellan: No, if you want to continue to engage in finger-pointing and blame-gaming, that's fine--

Q: Scott, that's ridiculous. I'm not engaging in any of that.

Mr. McClellan: It's not ridiculous.

Q: Don't try to accuse me of that. I'm asking you a direct question and you should answer it. Does he retain complete confidence in his FEMA Director and Secretary of Homeland Security, yes or no?

Mr. McClellan: Like I said--that's exactly what you're engaging in.

Q: I'm not engaging in anything. I'm asking you a question about what the President's views are--

Mr. McClellan: Absolutely--absolutely--

Q: --under pretty substantial criticism of members of his administration. Okay? And you know that, and everybody watching knows that, as well.

Mr. McClellan: No, everybody watching this knows, David, that you're trying to engage in a blame game.

Q: I'm trying to engage?

Mr. McClellan: Yes.

Q: I am trying to engage?

Mr. McClellan: That's correct.
It goes on a bit longer, but I suddenly got so disheartened typing the whole thing in that I had to stop. To his credit, McClellan hasn't yet said, I know you are but what am I? Maybe he's saving that for a special occasion: let's say, the once-and-final demise of the estate tax. (Breaking news: Bush just fired Brownie, which probably explains why McClellan wouldn't touch that subject with a ten-foot pole. Meanwhile, Time casts a cold eye on the former FEMA chief's resume, which turns out to have been as thoroughly padded as Ricardo Montalban's chest in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.)

Monday, September 05, 2005


Yardley on Roth, one from Kunitz

I just read (via Beatrice) Jonathan Yardley's piece on the new LOA editions of Philip Roth, in which the critic emphatically declines to put out the welcome mat for Letting Go, When She Was Good, Our Gang, and The Breast. Indeed, it was the initial appearance of the latter two books that first turned Yardley against Roth: "I began to sense that so much of his work is drawn from a deep well of self-absorption and indifference to the world beyond." I haven't looked at the offending items in nearly twenty years, and can't go to bat for them. It's possible they've aged as badly as Yardley claims. (Like me, he still admires Goodbye, Columbus.) But another comment, later in the piece, did make me pause. As he feeds Letting Go into the shredder, Yardley notes: "The novel is endless--some 660 pages in this edition--and, apart from the intelligence of Roth's mind and the vigor of his prose, without redeeming quality." Gee, I thought, aren't intelligence and vigorous prose redeeming qualities in and of themselves? They may not be sufficient to salvage a mess like Letting Go--that would certainly be Yardley's argument--but sometimes they're all we've got. Sometimes I'll even settle for one out of two.

Anyway, my main point isn't to wrassle with Yardley. What his piece did make me ponder was how many works of art I love in spite of their glaring flaws. Perfection is a rare, possibly chimerical thing. Almost every novel or movie or piece of music that really matters to me has something wrong with it. (Randall Jarrell's famous definition: a novel is "sixty thousand words of discursive prose with something wrong with it.") Sometimes I take a perverse pleasure in how bad a wonderful work of art can be, how ingeniously a great artist tiptoes around his weaknesses: it's like an Old Master who just can't paint hands, and so invariably has his subjects clasp them behind their backs. Of the novels I've read recently, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead may come the closest to perfection: such control, such consistency! But in my heart of hearts, I prefer a gleeful shambles like Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, a comic supernova whose energies are just barely held together by string and Scotch tape. Or Cynthia Ozick's Heir to the Glimmering World--not a perfect novel by any means, but one suffused with such radiant intelligence that I gladly forgive its narrative flaws.

Last night I was trawling through Stanley Kunitz's Passing Through. There are many beautiful, imperfect pieces in there: "Quinnapoxet," "The Snakes of September," "Lamplighter: 1914," "Touch Me," and the overwhelming "Wellfleet Whale." But something like "Robin Redbreast" is, I suppose, perfect enough:
It was the dingiest bird
you ever saw, all the color
washed from him, as if
he had been standing in the rain,
friendless and stiff and cold,
since Eden went wrong.
In the house marked For Sale,
where nobody made a sound,
in the room where I lived
with an empty page, I had heard
the squawking of jays
under the wild persimmons
tormenting him.
So I scooped him up
after they knocked him down,
in league with that ounce of heart
pounding in my palm,
that dumb beak gaping.
Poor thing! Poor foolish life!
without sense enough to stop
running in desperate circles,
needing my lucky help
to toss him back into his element.
But when I held him high,
fear clutched my hand,
for through the hole in his head,
cut whistle-clean...
through the old dried wound
between his eyes
where the hunter's brand
had tunneled out his wits...
I caught the cold flash of the blue
unappeasable sky.

Saturday, September 03, 2005


It takes a Potemkin Village

The political firestorm ignited in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is something I'm leaving to more capable bloggers--for the most part. But sometimes it's hard to restrain myself. On Daily Kos, I just came across a link to this statement by Senator Mary Landrieu. Yesterday afternoon I saw her being heckled on CNN by Anderson Cooper, who seems a little too exhilarated by his new role as Tribune of the People, and she basically declined to flinch as he accused of her of being one more conniving politician. You want conniving? According to Landrieu, the president's advance team staged a fake repair effort at a breached New Orleans levee, then allowed the equipment to be carted off as soon as W moved on:
But perhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee. Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment. The good and decent people of southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast--black and white, rich and poor, young and old--deserve far better from their national government.
Now, all politicians, Republican and Democrat, thrive on theater. Photo ops are a non-partisan addiction. Still, the dopey and offensive level of fakery on display here reminded me of something. Wait, I know: a bit I read not long ago in Joan Didion's Political Fictions, about a promotional film made by George H.W. Bush back in 1986, when he was still vice-president. Touring Israel and Jordan, he was determined to demonstrate that he was (in the words of press secretary Marlon Fitzwater) "familiar with the issues." To that end, the film crew and advance team did everything they could to juice up the footage:
Members of the advance team had requested, for example, that the Jordanian army marching band change its uniforms from white to red. They had requested that the Jordanians, who did not have enough equipment to transport Bush's traveling press corps, borrow the necessary helicopters to do so from the Israeli air force. In an effort to assure the color of live military action as a backdrop for the vice president, they had asked the Jordanians to stage maneuvers at a sensitive location overlooking the Golan Heights. They had asked the Jordanians to raise, over the Jordanian base there, the American flag. They had asked that Bush be photographed studying, through binoculars, "enemy territory," a shot ultimately vetoed by the State Department, since the "enemy territory" at hand was Israel. They had also asked, possibly the most arresting detail, that, at every stop on the itinerary, camels be present.
Like father, like son.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Domino update, that address again

In an earlier post, I noted that Fats Domino had gone missing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A piece of good news: the 77-year-old singer and pianist was rescued via helicopter earlier this evening, and appears to be in reasonable shape. Meanwhile, the great Allen Toussaint is still unaccounted for, although Fox News speculates that he may be among the throng that took shelter in the Super Dome.

I mentioned the McCormick Tribune Foundation Hurricane Katrina Relief Campaign in an earlier post, but wanted to reiterate: the foundation is matching every dollar with fifty cents and bearing all administrative costs itself. If you want to make a donation, this is an excellent place to start.


His eye is on the sparrow

As New Orleans undergoes a level of catastrophe straight out of the Old Testament, it's nice to know that the president is viewing the wreckage from the window of his plane. According to this AP dispatch by Jennifer Loven, Bush had the pilot of Air Force One take the aircraft down to 2,500 feet as it passed over the stricken city en route from Crawford to Washington. He then "surveyed the damage from a couch near the left front of the plane." Given W's typically tardy response to the flood--he sounded almost narcotized in his address today, perking up only when he got to mention faith-based relief efforts--it's surprising that his handlers let the press dwell on this presidential flyover. It sounds a little detached, doesn't it?


Yagoda on the freelance life, Nerve, Fats Domino, hurricane relief

Due to my absence last week, I only just came across Ben Yagoda's excellent piece in Slate about the perils (many) and pleasures (rapidly diminishing) of the freelance life. I wish I could say he was exaggerating, but believe me, he isn't--and Yagoda is a successful journalist, not some embittered Rupert Pupkin figure skulking in his mother's basement. He's also wondering whether he's just too old for another decade on the freelance hamster wheel:
Perhaps this is just the Lion King factor--the circle of life. Freelancing, with all its scrambling and uncertainty, is like rock climbing or white-water kayaking: one of those things that comes fairly easily in your 20s and 30s but requires some mulling over as you enter your 50s.

But I'm convinced that the nature of the game has changed as well. For one thing, the economics of the freelance life seem worse than ever. And they were never good. Just take a look at George Gissing's 1891 novel, New Grub Street, about London hacks barely breaking even. In the cosmos of skilled tradespeople, freelance journalists have always been bottom-dwellers. Plumbers don't do kill fees. Screenwriters have negotiated an ironbound fee schedule: currently, a minimum of $53,256 (I said minimum) for two drafts of an original script, plus $17,474 more for a rewrite and $8,742 for a "polish." But for magazine hacks, an unlimited number of rewrites and polishes have always been gratis.
All of this brought to mind one of my more amusing freelance experiences. About five years ago, I wrote a short piece for Nerve, my one and only excursion into erotica. I had kicked around several ideas with the editor, all of them fairly tame. What I finally wrote about was my occasional habit, when reading children's books to my toddler son for the hundredth time, of concocting erotic daydreams about the second-tier female characters--say, the nanny in Kay Thompson's Eloise. (Not that she's really my type.) After I sent in the piece, there was a long silence. And it turned out that some of the staffers at Nerve--those bold argonauts of human sexuality--had been rattled by my Walter-Mitty-like fantasia. Whips and chains were fine, intercourse with a goat or the Green Bay Packers was fine, but daydreaming with a child on your knee was verboten.

After a heated editorial meeting (I imagined everybody in leather), the piece ran. There was no jammed switchboard, no torrent of reader complaints. I got my check in the mail. And when I deposited it in my bank account, it bounced. Possibly I had held onto it for too long, since it showed up just as I was moving from Seattle back to New York. But the real moral of the story is that I can't seem to throw the check away: like a classically masochistic freelancer, I've left it on the shelf near my desk, a silent reproof. But for what? Pushing the erotic envelope? Failing to dun the magazine for the money they owed me? Or for the original sin of dodging a nine-to-five job?

On a more serious note: Fats Domino is missing. The creator of "Blueberry Hill," "Ain't That A Shame," and numerous other specimens of drawling New Orleans R&B, Domino owns a house in the city's low-lying Ninth Ward, and may have perished when the area flooded. I truly hope he survived, along with his wife and daughter. The scope of the disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf States is beyond reckoning. If you're looking for a way to donate, try the McCormick Tribune Foundation Hurricane Katrina Relief Campaign, which is matching every dollar with fifty cents and bearing all administrative costs itself. (Thanks to About Last Night for pointing me towards this site, and for their superb coverage of the unfolding catastrophe.)

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