Tigerpapers

Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

New Fiction: Beethoven and the Beggar

A handsome couple strolled arm in arm down Central Park West. The man, tall and athletic with a thick, well-brushed mane, wore a black, fur-trimmed cloak over an Armani smoking jacket. The lady, slim but curvy with lustrous blonde hair done in a complicated braid, wore white mink over a low-cut black Prada gown. Though bedecked in high-heels, the lady adeptly kept up their brisk pace past tourists, joggers, baby-strapped mothers, and other assorted humanity either living in or making their pilgrimage to the world capital of wealth and culture. Curious eavesdroppers would have been able to hear snippets of the couple’s conversation as they passed.

Did you see who Angelica left with last night?

You mean the French gentleman? What’s his background?

Apparently his family owns the Laurent-Perrier champagne house. Why else would she look at him? By the way, what’s on the playbill tonight?

Let’s see, there’s Handel, Ravel, Mussorgsky, and of course Beethoven.

Is that the best Alan could come up with? Which Beethoven are they doing?

The Fifth.

How uninspired! We can’t be staying for the entire show, surely? I’d like to change before Camilla’s soirée. Oh look, is that Dmitri and Sveva over there?

They continued across the piazza, stepping past a beggar at the base of the steps before going up and into the packed lobby of the Lincoln Center.

The beggar’s name was Daryl Jack.

Continue reading the story at The Wrath-Bearing Tree

What I Read in 2018: 118 Books

This is the fifth edition of my end-of-the-year book list, and the upward trend continues unabated with this year just barely beating last year’s record 115 books. As usual, this counts both traditional paper books and audio books. A handful of unfinished books I have marked with an asterisk. Although I read very little for almost the first two months of the year, I made up the pace with a very productive summer in which I also did a lot of writing. While I greatly enjoyed the vast majority of this year’s list, I underlined ten or so of my favorite and most memorable books of the year. After some reflection, I will give the top honors to Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s epic novel of the Battle of Stalingrad and its aftermath. 

I continued to try to read more books by women (28) after realizing a few years ago that I was falling embarrassingly short on that front. I continued with my interest in books by African and African-American authors (16) for the third year in a row. This year I read a much greater quantity of short stories than usual in preparation for my attendance at the International Conference on the Short Story in June. I’ve included the collections here, but omitted mention of most of the individual stories.

Paper or E-Books (80):

The Longest Night by Andria Williams

The Shawl and Other Stories by Cynthia Ozick

Selected Stories by Cynthia Ozick

Quarrel and Quandary by Cynthia Ozick

Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty

Achieving our Country by Richard Rorty

Rorty and His Critics by Robert Brandom (editor)

Here’s a podcast in which I discuss Rorty.

The Only Story by Julian Barnes

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Barn Burning by William Faulkner

Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami

Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Drown by Junot Diaz

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Amok and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig

Collected Stories by Stefan Zweig

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

Beward of Pity by Stefan Zweig

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

Shooting Stars by Stefan Zweig

The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

Memoirs of Antisemite by Gregory von Rezzori

Snows of Yesteryear by Gregory von Rezzori

The Antichrist by Joseph Roth

Leviathan by Joseph Roth

I wrote an essay about the above Austrian authors here.

Good Soldier Sveyk by Jaroslav Hasek

My Life at the Limit by Reinhold Messner

Here’s my essay comparing Messner with Nietzsche’s Overman.

Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold

Training for the New Alpinism by Steve House

Beyond the Mountain by Steve House

Solo Faces by James Salter 

Snow Blind by Nolan Peterson

Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

The Inheritors by William Golding

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

Lord of Delusion by Garry Craig Powell

The Joke by Milan Kundera

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black by Nadine Gordimer

July’s People by Nadine Gordimer

Rock Spring by Richard Ford

Gods and Soldiers by Rob Spillman (editor)

Reptile House by Robin McLean

Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

Outline by Rachel Cusk

Transit by Rachel Cusk

Kudos by Rachel Cusk

A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk

Aftermath by Rachel Cusk

The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk

A Week in the Airport by Alain de Botton

Spoils by Brian van Reet

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

The Russian Revolution* by Leon Trotsky

A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

I awarded this author my 2018 Alternate Nobel Prize.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson

Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Selected Stories by John Cheever

Koba the Dread by Martin Amis

I reviewed a book about Stalin in another essay before I had read this one.

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen

A Place on Earth* by Wendell Berry

Stay Illusion! by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster

The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

The Bell* by Iris Murdoch

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

A Dance to Music of Time: Volume One by Anthony Powell

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Kintu* by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Audio Books (38):

A History of The Thirty Years’ War by Friedrich Schiller

The History of England from the Accession of James II by Thomas Macaulay

The History of England: Volumes 1-6 by David Hume

Elective Affinities* by Johann Wolfgang Goethe

Lost Illusions* by Honore de Balzac

Hunger by Knut Hamsen

Selected Stories by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Childhood by Leo Tolstoy

Boyhood by Leo Tolstoy

Youth by Leo Tolstoy

Father Sergius by Leo Tolstoy

Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy

The Warden* by Anthony Trollope

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad

The Gentleman from San Francisco and other Stories by Ivan Bunin

A Hero of our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

The Steppe by Anton Chekhov

The Duel by Anton Chekhov

An Anonymous Story by Anton Chekhov

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley

Winds of Doctrine by George Santayana

Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling

Mabinogion by Unknown

Lusiads* by Unknown

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray

The Conjure Woman and Other Stories by Charles Chesnutt

The House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chesnutt

The Colonel’s Dream by Charles Chesnutt

The Wife of his Youth and Other Stories by Charles Chesnutt

The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt

Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington

Great WWI-era Austrian Writers: Musil, Zweig, Roth

During this ongoing centenary of the First World War, I became more interested in the details of the Italian front in that war, a campaign not generally well-known to Anglophones like me. It did not take me long to realize that I was also quite ignorant, historically speaking, of their opponent—the Austrian-Hungarian empire. A friend recommended Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities as a very philosophical novel that I would appreciate. From there I discovered Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March and other novels, and Stefan Zweig’s varied fiction and his memoir, The World of Yesterday.

All three writers, Musil (1880-1942), Zweig (1881-1942), and Roth (1894-1939), share many similarities. The first thing is that they were all exact contemporaries. They were all born and came of age at the height of fin de siècle Viennese culture. They were all outsiders in that society to some extent. Zweig and Roth were both secular Jews, and Musil’s wife was Jewish. All three had books burned, and were ultimately destroyed themselves by the Nazis. Like almost everyone, they were affected by the First World War, and dedicated most of their authorial attention to describing Austrian society before and after the war. All three were preoccupied by suicide, a prevelant theme in Viennese culture then. They were dedicated to literature and the arts, and despite different styles, I believe them to be among the greatest writers of the first half of the century in any language.

When I realized that Musil’s magnum opus The Man Without Qualities was over 1000 pages, I decided to approach him via a more accessible route. His early novel The Confusions of Young Törless is also critically acclaimed, and I immediately understood why. Published in 1906, Törless is a Bildungsroman about young boys in an all-male military boarding school, mirroring Musil’s own early experience. It is both disturbing and fascinating how Musil probes the psychology and motivations of the three main characters in forming a sort of triumvirate of power over the other boys in the class. This early novel also vaguely foreshadows the latent cruelty and bigotry combined with Germanic militarism that would devolve into the future Nazi state.

The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) was Musil’s ongoing project from the early 1920s until his death in 1942. It is very openly a “novel of ideas,” somewhere between The Brothers Karamozov and The Magic Mountain. It is easily one of the greatest works of high Modernist fiction, somewhere between Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time. Though unfinished, its three volumes run to over 1700 pages in some editions, and around 1100 for the English translation. The unusual title refers to the protagonist Ulrich, a young mathematician who is searching for something like a meaning and morality to combat his seeming indifference to life and his place in bourgeois society. There are several other unforgettable main characters: especially Diotima, a cultural muse for Viennese society who held philosophical salons, and her would-be lover Arnheim, a wealthy Prussian businessman who also writes popular books of essays and rivals Ulrich’s intelligence. A character named Moosbrugger, a hulking laborer who murders a prostitute, provides an ongoing digression and topic of moral and legal interest for Ulrich. 

As Musil had already demonstrated in an earlier volume of tales called Five Women, he had a particular talent for creating rich and interesting female characters, especially compared to other male writers from his time. In addition to Diotima, there is Clarisse, a more intellectual Holly Golightly-type, Bonadea, Ulrich’s bored housewife lover, and Agathe, his mysterious sister that appears only in the last part of the novel.

It seems like Musil’s ambition and his intellect were almost too much to be contained in this single sweeping novel. As a novelist, he seems too big for his time. The Man Without Qualities, written in the 1930s during the slow buildup to a bigger war, is set in the period just before the First World War. The main plot deals with the so-called Parallel Campaign, a military-like campaign to plan and execute a national celebration for the 70th year (!) of Emperor Franz Joseph’s reign which would occur in 1918 (the reader knows this never occurred, as he died in the middle of the war). There were never any specific proposals drawn up, but it was to be a earth-shaking event of cultural and political importance that would remind the world of the centrality of the Austrian nation. It would also, by definition, compete against and surpass the simultaneous Prussian celebration of Kaiser Wilhelm’s 30th year of rule. Ulrich was named as the secretary to the Parallel Campaign’s director, and all the meetings were held in Diotima’s salon. The fact that this event was founded in such a cultural and philosophical milieu is at odds with the real history of the upcoming war that Musil, and the reader, are all too aware of. The best way to describe The Man Without Qualities would be combining a satire of Austrian pre-war society with lyrical philosophical musings.

The novel itself is modernist in the sense that it is ironically self-aware and metafictional. It has chapter titles like Chapter One: “From which, remarkably enough, nothing develops.” While the strength of the characters and the ideas are enough to propel the narrative for quite a while, it is true that the main plot increasingly feels bogged down by inertia as the pages multiply. At the same time, this fact itself, even considering that the book remained unfinished at Musil’s death, feels almost intended. One gets the sense that this novel contains Musil’s expression of despair over the First World War and all that was lost as well as a sense of the coming disaster of the next war. It feels as if this novel is Musil’s alternate reality for an Austria and Europe that never fell into destructive war, while also satirizing the petty faults of the society that vanished in that war to be replaced by greater crimes and less humanity.

The last part of the novel is also the most inchoate and dreamlike, wherein Ulrich rediscovers his alienated younger sister in their family house away from Vienna. The pair regress into some sort of fantasy world while most of the plot and the world around them seems to gradually disappear. Even with its faults and difficulties, The Man Without Qualities is and will remain a book for serious readers and thinkers for all time.

Joseph Roth’s masterpiece is the 1932 novel Radetsky March, which follows the gradual decline of the Austrian Empire from 1859 until World War One. If Musil’s work is comparable to modernist writers like Proust, Roth’s novel is nothing less than a shorter and more ironic version of War and Peace. It follows three generations of the von Trotta family from the disastrous Battle of Solferino, which forced Austria to give up much of its Italian territory, to the middle of the Great War. It follows various characters, from servants to the Emperor himself, who is depicted with an empty brain and a constantly dripping nose. At the aforementioned battle, the founder of the von Trotta “dynasty” was a Slovenian lieutenant who stepped in front of an Italian bullet destined to kill the the young Franz Joseph. He survived and was ennobled by the grateful emperor, who thereafter followed his savior’s career closely. The event became enshrined in legend and magnified in children’s schoolbooks, so that the elder von Trotta became the famous “Hero of Solferino.” This hero was so uncomfortable that he prohibited his own son from entering the military, and eventually called upon the Emperor himself to denounce the embellished version of the event.

The Battle of Solferino, though little known today, was one of the biggest and most important battles in Europe in the century between Napoleon and WWI. It was the last battle in history where the armies were all under the command of their respective monarchs (Napoleon III, Vittorio Emmanuele II, and Franz Joseph). It was so bloody that it led directly to the founding of the Red Cross and the establishment of the Geneva Conventions for armed conflicts. It was a disaster for Austria, which was forced to give up its richest Italian province, Lombardy. It was the first big loss for Austria in a series of setbacks that continued unabated until the Empire was disbanded following WWI, just after the end of Franz Joseph’s 66-year reign. The symbolism of starting the novel with the Battle of Solferino is thus appropriate foreshadowing of the bigger tragedies to come, written as it was a over a decade after WWI of hardship and poverty for the new rump state of Austria. 

The opening lines of the novel set a powerful and elegiac tone for the lost past and lost future of Austria and Europe, as seen from the early thirties: 

“BACK THEN, BEFORE the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passersby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.”

Roth wrote a sequel to Radetsky March called The Emperor’s Tomb in 1938, the year before his death. It is curiously different in tone and style from the earlier novel; the high realism and irony is replaced with a more comical cynicism and looser narrative structure. It follows a character from another branch of the von Trotta family, and a Polish character related to a wealthy count in the earlier novel; otherwise there is no internal reference or connection between the two novels. The Emperor’s Tomb is set in Vienna after the end of the war, where inflation, depression, and growing extremism now reign in place of the defunct emperor.

Roth’s first novel was 1924’s Hotel Savoy, set in the real and still existing namesake hotel in Łódź, Poland. The hotel serves as a way point and meeting place for soldiers making their way home from the eastern front after the war, along with a variety of other richly drawn character types. It is an almost journalistic account of the broken dreams but still abundant hope people had after the recent war. Here is a taste of the type of muscular melancholic prose Roth employs in this early novel: 

“Things were going badly with these people. They prepared their own destiny and yet believed that it came from God. They were prisoners of tradition, their hearts hung by a thousand threads and the threads were spun by their own hands. Along all the ways of their lives stood the thou shalt not of their god, their police, their kings, their position. In this direction they could go no further, and in that place they could stay no longer. And so, after a couple of decades during which they had struggled, made mistakes and not known which way to turn, they died in their beds and bequeathed their wretchedness to their descendants.”

Roth cranked out many short novels very quickly in order to make a living during his unhappy years of exile and alcoholism. None of these reach the greatness of Radetsky March, but the best of them is, I think, Job. It is a sort of morality tale of the Galician Shtetl Jewish community that Roth grew up, in which a desperately poor family reclaims a lost son in America. He deals with his Jewish roots in other books such as Leviathan, The Silent Prophet, and The Wandering Jews. The Antichrist is a sort of novelistic cri de coeur against the wave of violence and anti-Semitism in his native land, where his books went up in flames. He drank himself to death in Paris the year after the Anschluss, and a few months before the beginning of the new war he had long seen coming.

Stefan Zweig was a prolific writer and cultural figure in the three decades leading up to his death in 1942. His books were popular and best-selling throughout the 1920s and early 30s not only in the German world, but in Europe and the Americas. He grew up in a wealthy, non-religious Jewish family in Vienna. He wanted to be a writer since childhood, and published continuously in a variety of genres from age 19 to his death at 60. His fiction mostly consists of short stories and novellas, and only two full-length novels (one of which, The Post-Office Girl, was unfinished and published posthumously). He also wrote popular biographical and historical works, many of which celebrate his literary idols and influences, such as Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Rolland, Verlaine, and Nietzsche. Others include figures such as Marie Antoinette, Mary Stuart, Erasmus, and Magellan. He also wrote a few plays, plenty of journalistic articles, and a well-known autobiography, The World of Yesterday.

Zweig was a good friend and admirer of Freud, and that influence shows up constantly in his work. His fiction, but also his biography, is very focused on the psychological motivations of the characters. In a great number of his stories and novellas, the main events turn upon the obsessive and sometimes destructive personal and sexual relationships between characters. This was something not commonly found in literature of the time; Zweig, like Musil, was thus on the cutting edge of psychological writing of the 20th century. His works are the most accessible and entertaining of the three writers I have discussed. His style was fast-paced and full of surprise developments. His novel Beward of Pity, for example, is a real page-turner. Most of Zweig’s work is so short because his editing style was to cut as much as possible until only what he considered essential to moving the story forward remained (something that could have served Musil well). In addition, his stories are particularly rich in complicated frame narratives in the form of second-hand narrators, discovered letters, etc., which is an old literary technique that is difficult to pull off convincingly and often outgrows its welcome; nevertheless, Zweig somehow seems to enrich his fiction each time he uses this technique.

One of Zweig’s best stories, in my opinion, is “Mendel the Bibliophile”. It tells of an old Jewish book merchant who sits in the same cafe all day everyday and has a flawless encyclopedic memory of every page of every edition of every book, or at least every book that has moved through Vienna or Central Europe. He is taken away to a concentration camp when WWI starts, and when he returns years later, everything is changed and hostile. It is a rich and sad tale that, like much of Zweig’s work, is evocative of the rich cultural and intellectual life of pre-war Vienna, and laments the destruction of that world by the war. The title and theme of the book also prefigure later stories by Jorge Luis Borges, who had no doubt read Zweig (who was one of the main delegates at the 1936 PEN conference in Borges’ home of Buenos Aires).

Another of my favorites is the 1941 novella Chess Story, the last fictional work Zweig finished and published before his death. It tells of two incredible and highly unconventional chess masters who meet on a transatlantic ocean liner en route to South America. It is revealed that one of the men was imprisoned and psychologically tortured by the Nazi regime, but was eventually able to steal a small book from a guard’s coat that turned out to be a chess manual. Like most of Zweig’s work, it is insightful and sensitive to the vicissitudes of human suffering and success. In his novel Beware of Pity, the narrator says something which I think applies to the author himself:

“Once you have gained some understanding of human nature, further understanding of it seems to grow mysteriously, and when you are able to feel genuine sympathy for a single form of earthly suffering, the magic of that lesson enables you to understand all others, however strange and apparently absurd they may be.”

Zweig is well-known also for his memoirs The World of Yesterday. The writer, typically focused on minor transformative episodes in his character’s lives rather than big political issues, revealed the depth of pain he felt by the senseless violence of the First World War which shattered the Viennese culture he knew and loved as well as his vision of a unified, cosmopolitan, peaceful pan-European culture. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about pre- and post-war Austrian society, but it is also one of the most distinctive memoirs I have read in general. After he sent it to his publisher, Stefan Zweig and his wife killed themselves in their new home in Brazil, in despair of the seemingly unstoppable Nazi advance and what it would bring.

All three of these writers were, as I have said, hugely important writers in Austrian culture, but were also enemies of the culture and society that developed between the two wars. In addition to the millions slaughtered in vain in that infinite human folly known as World War One, these three writers were among the tens of millions who were gradually broken by the suffering brought about due to the first war and leading up to the next war. Although Austrians, and, from the Allied perspective, on the “enemy” side, these three writers, like all artists, transcended their national birthright by means of the universal and timeless art they produced. I have profited and enjoying reading all of them much more than any mere history of the wars they abhorred.

Extra author postscript: Gregor von Rezzori, born in 1914 and therefore of a different generation entirely, wrote some books which provide an fascinating commentary on and supplement to the works I have mentioned above. His provocatively titled Memoirs of an Anti-Semite is not actually his memoirs but a novel, even if closely based on the circumstances of the author’s life. It recounts various minor episodes showing the paradoxes and inconsistencies within the antisemitic family and society the main character was raised in. His actual memoirs, The Snows of Yesteryear, is reminiscent in tone and title to Zweig’s memoirs. He tells of his life growing up in an old Austrian noble family that found itself outcast and culturally stateless in the eastern mountains of a newly independent Romania. The prose is rich and evocative of the same lost world recounted by Zweig, but it also reminds me of the Central European milieu Patrick Fermor encountered and described in A Time of Gifts. Rezzori spent the entirety of World War Two living as a civilian in Germany; though he was a military-aged male, his Romanian citizenship prevented him from being sent to the front, luckily for him and for us. He is well-worth reading for those looking for more writers from the extinct land of the Habsburg emperors, like Musil, Roth, and Zweig.

My 2018 Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Every year around this time the Nobel Prizes are awarded, but as my readers are no doubt aware the 2018 Literature award was cancelled due to a nasty scandal within the Swedish Academy. That opened the doors for a makeshift “New Academy” to award their own alternative literature prize for 2018: a writer named Maryse Conde from the French Caribbean territory of Guadalupe. I have never heard of her but I’m sure she is more than deserving of the unofficial honor. However, given the conspicuous absence of the world’s oldest and most important literary prize this year, no one is stopping me from naming the official  “Tigerpapers Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature” for 2018: the multifaceted Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

It is no secret that while the Nobel Committee often seeks out writers who are less than well-known in popular western culture, it is still a heavily European prize. There have been eight winners from host nation Sweden, and a combined four from sparsely populated Norway and Iceland. Compare that to a total of four from the entire continent of Africa in the 117-year history of the prize. Two of those Africans are actually white South Africans who would readily admit to being European culturally, linguistically, and ethnically: Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. I love both those writers and have written an extensive essay on Coetzee’s career. Another winner was the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, whom I have yet to read personally, but who is certainly a deserving representative of Arabic letters and culture. There remains only one actual winner to represent all of sub-Saharan Africa: the Nigerian Wole Soyinka. His countryman Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013, was another of the Academy’s many incredible omissions. It is time to recognize another giant of post-colonial African letters: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Admittedly, Ngũgĩ has been cited as one of the “favorites” to win since at least 2010, but this doesn’t mean much except that there are many readers and critics around the world who also feel him to merit the award. For me personally, it is a choice that reflects my growing awareness of and enthusiasm for African literature in general over the last few years. I started to reflect on this in my 2015 essay Why Black Literature Matters. As I write this I am listening to Bob Dylan, whose unlikely but somehow satisfying award I wrote about in my 2016 essay The Apotheosis of Bob Dylan. As an avid reader I have always had interest in the Nobel Prize in general as a flawed but valuable source of information on what counts as canonical or worthy literature. In my very first post on this blog in 2011, I mentioned and genially mocked the bestowal of that year’s award on the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, who I’m sure must be a great poet (Teju Cole, for example, is a big fan) but yet another example of the Academy’s European and Scandinavian leanings. As a rapidly growing and vibrant region, sub-Saharan Africa deserves to have more seats at the table of what has been until now a European-American monopoly on who and what counts as culturally important. As one of the most important living standard-bearers of the African fight for post-colonial cultural and linguistic independence, and a powerful writer of diverse genres, it is time to give Ngũgĩ his due, and to perhaps give a “Nobel bump” to interested western readers.

Ngũgĩ’s most recent novel is 2004’s Wizard of the Crow, a lengthy tour de force satire on a corrupt dictatorship that I mentioned in my essay The Dictator Novel in the Age of Trump. He is probably most famous for his first three novels, a trilogy that is required reading in Kenyan schools and western post-colonial departments: Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), and A Grain of Wheat (1967). These novels provide a portrait of the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule, and are comparable to Achebe’s African trilogy written a half decade earlier. In fact, Achebe was an early editor and instrumental to getting Ngũgĩ’s first novel published. All three novels portray the violence and burgeoning local political movements in 1950s and 60s Kenya.

Like Nobel laureate Soyinka, who was imprisoned and exiled by Nigeria’s military regime, Ngũgĩ was exiled by the Kenyan dictator-president Daniel Arap Moi for 22 years. After his first three novels, all written in English, he has published everything in his native tongue of Kikuyu and been a proponent of celebrating local African languages and culture over the universalizing of English and French. He has written much about his theory of language and identity, especially in the 1986 essay collection Decolonising the Mind. He has written at least four memoirs, of which I’ve read part of one so far: 2012’s In the House of the Interpreter. He has also written plays, short stories, and children’s books. I have yet to read all of his work (so little time, so many books), but in the meantime I am certain that he is a worthy recipient of the first and only “Tigerpapers Alternative Nobel.”

No, Nazis were Not Leftists: Or, How to Debunk Right-Wing Propaganda

It is generally considered good practice not to “feed the trolls”— that is, not to engage in commentary with strangers on the internet who thrive on aggressive verbal hate and cruelty. But when the president himself is little more than a troll and the entire right-wing media apparatus increasingly relies on weaponized trolling (as well as the overwhelming spread of misinformation) as a primary means of producing propaganda, it becomes necessary to occasionally step up and defend ideas and history from the perversion of alternate realities. 

That brings us to the inspiration for this piece: a recent article in the right-wing website The Federalist titled “Read a Pile of Top Nazis Talking about How they Love Leftist Marxism” by Paul Jossey. The subtitle is “From the moment they enter the political fray, young right-wingers are told, ‘You own the Nazis.’ Much of the historical record says exactly the opposite.” The article begins with this in-your-face provocation: “The Nazis were leftists.” I hope that most of our readers will instantly recognize the absurdity of the article from those few lines, but it warrants examining in closer detail to understand exactly what the author is trying to do and why.

First of all, what is The Federalist? It is clearly a right-wing website whose main driving force is to oppose gay marriage and whose main contributors are connected to those ubiquitous right-wing plutocrats, The Koch Brothers. The website itself strangely provides no information or mission statement in the form of an “About” page, but they do use this uncredited line as a footer: “Be lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray,” a quote that apparently comes from a 1918 speech by Calvin Coolidge, of all people. The Nazi article in question is categorized as “History,” and the author’s past publications all seem to be revolve around fake free speech grievances. 

The introduction concludes by stating “But evidence Adolf Hitler’s gang were men of the left, while debatable, is compelling.” It is interesting to note that the author does not go so far as to apologize directly for the Nazis, or to explain why they “weren’t really so bad.” Let’s stop for a moment and at least recognize and praise this author for not supporting or praising the Nazis. The fact that this has to be emphasized says something revealing about the toxic state of political discourse in this country.

Everything else the author does in his article, however, is part of a cynical ploy to rewrite history by cherry-picking isolated facts and fitting them into a false context. The author claims that his thesis, that the Nazis were actually Leftists, is debatable, but compelling. It is actually neither. No actual historian or political scientist maintains has gone on the record to claim that Nazis were Leftists. Accordingly, there is no citation given of any such person in the article because they don’t exist. This means that the author’s thesis is not actually debatable. It is settled history. I am not personally an academic specialist in the Nazi party, but I am an amateur historian with two history degrees who has read and thought much about World War Two over the course of my life. A very quick bit of research has led me to conclude with a high degree of certainty that there is basically universal consensus by scholars that the Nazis occupied territory on the far-right of the political spectrum. The few skeptics to the “far-right-wing Nazi consensus” seem to place more emphasis on the sui generis nature of the Nazi political beast by charaterizing it as neither right nor left, but a unique populist syncretic movement. Even such a rare opinion does not go so far as to characterize the Nazis as unequivocal members of “the Left”. That is because it is by definition an absurd and offensive statement. That is like saying that Nazis were secretly communists because of a short-lived and cynical peace treaty with Josef Stalin (Actually, the author does make that ridiculous point in the article). There is no new history to be written on the main, big picture history of World War Two and the Nazi party. There is no hitherto secret knowledge or conspiracy that the author has just revealed despite decades of settled history determining what everyone knew at the time and until now: the Nazis were a far-right party—as far right as a party could conceivably be on the political spectrum. Everything else in the article is merely lies and propaganda (which are usually the same thing) to further his own right-wing views.

It is not hard to imagine why one wouldn’t want to share ideological real estate with the Nazis, and once again I do in fact applaud the author for not wanting to admit such. The fact remains though, that they were a hyper-right-wing party, and he is an ideologue in the far-right-wing American conservative movement. That is why he attempts to portray the Nazis as a Leftist party—to make himself and his likeminded peers feel better about themselves while simultaneously making the other guys look bad. He might as well just wave his arms and shout at the top of his lungs “I’m not a Nazi! You’re the Nazi!” This playground tactic is actually a well-known and useful tool of propaganda called “transference” or “projection.” It is one of the many techniques of propaganda I mentioned in my article of the same name (The Techniques of Propaganda). The current president famously does it nearly everytime he speaks, most famously in a debate with Hillary Clinton when he screamed “No Puppet! No Puppet! You’re the puppet!” The fact that he is, in fact, a puppet is secondary to the strategy of constantly maintaining a consistently aggressive and mendacious stance towards political foes in an attempt to smear them with your own crimes and faults. This is also a type of “whataboutism” which has long been used by Trump’s mentor, Putin. It’s like saying “Yeah, the Nazis were bad, but what about Stalin and Mao?! (or Native American genocide or slavery?!)” It shouldn’t be too hard to understand that such statements are intentionally intellectually dishonest distractions from the point, but the fact remains that for a lot of people, especially ones primed to follow right-wing talking points and emotionally based arguments, such propaganda is often quite effective.

The second paragraph of the article continues by citing the infamous right-wing polemicist and fake historian Dinesh D’Souza as one of the sources of recent alternative histories. The author then claims that “the vitriol and lack of candor [such “alternative histories] produces from supposedly fact-driven academics and media is disturbing, if unsurprising. They stifle dissent on touchy subjects to maintain their narrative and enforce cultural hegemony.” Lots of big words and academic-sounding language here, all in an effort to say “why do experts call us out when we make shit up?” D’Souza is a convicted felon, provocateur, and far-right hack who is popular with theocratic crowds for writing a ton of “history” books that completely make shit up and basically blame “liberals” for everything from slavery to 9/11. The fact that D’Souza is the only person cited in the article regarding such “alternative histories” is telling. He even appears to have written a trashy “history” book in 2017 called The Big Lie claiming contrary to all evidence that Hitler and his coterie were “secret leftists,” a dog-eared copy of which is no doubt on the author’s shelf. For real historians, fact-checking D’Souza is like playing Super Mario Brothers with the cheat codes on, and luckily for us there is a tireless history professor named Kevin Kruse who has taken up this challenge.

The author continues by saying that “alternative views of the Third Reich exist and were written by the finest minds of their time,” and claims that such opinions “perhaps carry more weight because they are unburdened by the aftermath of the uniquely heinous Nazi crimes.” Once again, props to the author for having the courage to admit that Nazi crimes were heinous, something becoming more difficult by the day for many of his fellow travelers. Even the president, famously even-minded and hesitant to draw hasty conclusions, wouldn’t want to go so far because there were probably many “good people” on the Nazi side. Anyway, the only “finest mind” that the author cites in the entire article is a certain Austrian economist, F.A. Hayek. Hayek does have the benefit of having actually rejected and fled the Nazi regime in real-time, which not every German-speaking intellectual could claim (looking at you, Martin Heidegger). He was also a life-long friend of liberal philosopher Karl Popper despite their many political differences, which reflects well on Hayek in my book (Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies was written in 1944, the same year as Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was published. Here is my article on Popper explaining why I find him more convincing than Hayek). He has also been basically the main, and the only, inspiration for that always dubious and now-extinct animal known as the “reasonable, principled right-wing intellectual.” 

If we are to be generous and fair to Hayek, we must admit that he was apparently a relatively honorable person with some nuanced and well-considered positions on politics and economics. For the purposes of right-wing politicians, it has long been enough to cite him as the simplified intellectual basis for their dogma that free markets must always be unfettered and wealth must never be distributed by the government (by which they mean of course that it should never be distributed downwards; they have always been happy to distribute it upwards). This was the dogma of the Thatcher-Reagan axis, but it could have just as easily been Ayn Rand rather than Hayek providing the “philosophy.” In any case, the author here has used a few throwaway, out-of-context phrases from early Hayek to make his entire case that the Nazis were leftists. In addition, Hayek loved dictators and somehow made the case that authoritarianism (which he supported!) was different than totalitarianism (which he was against). He personally supported and sometimes collaborated and befriended right-wing dictators and war criminals like Pinochet (he claimed that Allende was totalitarian!) and Salazar (maybe let’s reconsider that thing I said about his being “honorable”). So that is a summary of the most intellectually important right-wing thinker of the century.

The official name of the Nazis was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. They didn’t like to be called Nazis. If you look carefully, you will even find the word “Socialist” (not to mention “Workers”) in the name of party. This must mean they were Socialist, and, tout court, Leftist. Case closed. I guess all this actually proves is that political parties choose names that do not always signify their actual ideology. This is more common outside of America, with the Polish Law and Justice party, the Brazilian Social Liberal Party, the French Socialist party, and the Australian Liberal party coming immediately to mind (not to mention the Russian United Russia party). The author goes on to give example after cherry-picked example of actual Nazis making quotes that make them appear friendly to what we think of as Socialism, or of denigrating the “western capitalists” of the time. He says, for example, “Hayek describes Nazism as a ‘genuine socialist movement’ and thus left-wing by modern American standards.” That’s a pretty big red herring, oversimplification, and non sequitur all in one short phrase (three techniques of propaganda! Go read my previous essay and learn them all by name). He goes on to say, “British elites regarded Nazism as a virulent capitalist reaction against enlightened socialism–a view that persists today.” Yeah, it persists because it’s the historical truth. By the way, that’s actually being far too gentle with Nazism—calling it a “virulent capitalist reaction” is probably the most unsuperlative thing you could truthfully say about it—and “British elites” (many of whom actually supported Hitler up to and, in some cases, during the war).

As the article continues, the author gives some ad hoc definitions of “right” and “left”, and their sloppiness illuminates the ways he probably thinks his is a logically sound argument. He says the “right” consists of “free-market capitalists, who think the individual is the primary political unit, believes in property rights, and are generally distrustful of government by unaccountable agencies and government solutions to social problems. They view family and civil institutions, such as church, as needed checks on state power.” He says the “left” consists of people who “distrust the excesses and inequality capitalism produces. They give primacy to group rights and identity. They believe factors like race, ethnicity, and sex compose the primary political unit. They don’t believe in strong property rights…They believe the free market has failed to solve issues like campaign finance, income inequality, minimum wage, access to health care, and righting past injustices. These people talk about ‘democracy’—the method of collective decisions.” He then claims that these definitions prove somehow that the Nazis were Leftists.

The only thing he didn’t say about the “left” is that they have a penchant for human sacrifice and cannibalism. If you think there is something just a bit made up, just a bit Fox-Newsy about his definitions, you are not wrong. Obviously it is not easy to portray all the nuance of the variagated “right-left” political spectrum with such facile definitions, especially considering the disconnect between economic and cultural perspectives. There is a convincing case to be made that from the “right” perspective, everything that they think is wrong with the world is de facto part of the “left.” If you define everything not you as bad, and everything bad as “left,” Nazis will by necessity become leftists. Much of today’s “right” also thinks of the “left” exclusively in terms of identity, as opposed to other political ideology. Thus, anything in history that used identity in bad, or deviant ways was therefore part of a leftist plot or conspiracy. It would be easier to list the key words and ideas generally associated with each camp. In political science, it is generally accepted that the “left” tends to emphasize ideas like freedom (!), equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform, and internationalism, while the “right” tends to emphasize ideas like authority (!), hierarchy, order, duty, tradition, reaction, and nationalism. Any disputes here? I didn’t think so.

You might have noticed those key words of freedom, and authority. Despite the American right-wing appropriation of the word, they misunderstand and detest real freedom and always tend towards authority over liberty. Usually what they mean when they talk about freedom is that they support the freedom to think and act just like they do, which is obviously no kind of freedom at all. The centrality of sexual and religious politics in American right-wing ideology is enough to illustrate their primacy of authority over freedom. Some theorists maintain that there is a natural authoritarianism and oppression of the lower orders in conservatism in general; Corey Robin in The Reactionary Mind says that “Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom.” Authority is the main hallmark of not only authoritarian (obviously) and totalitarian systems, but also conservatism writ large. Jeffrey Herf in his book Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich, argues that the Nazis mixed enthusiam for technology with a total rejection of Enlightenment values as a radical alternative to liberal and socialist visions of modernity. Umberto Eco’s tour de force essay “Ur-Fascism” gives 14 characteristics of Wittgensteinian “family resemblance” that can be found in all forms of fascism. Nowhere in this exhaustive list can you find anything remotely “leftist.” Basically, the Nazi regime was reptilian, terroristic, totalitarian, and extremely right-wing.

For those who shout “What about Stalin?!”, the answer is that the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin, was also a right-wing terroristic totalitarian regime, despite the supposed “leftism” of Communist ideology that could be traced back to said Enlightenment values. The Soviet Union was never really Communist in anything but name, but from the beginning governed as just another kleptocratic oligarachy much more authoritarian than any Tsar ever dreamed of. Vladimir Nabokov, in his memoirs, calls the Bolsheviks (who assassinated his father, by the way) “fascists.” So the answer is that the Nazis weren’t “leftist,” but that the Soviet Union was actually “rightist.” You might ask if I’m being serious here or just engaging in my own propagandistic sophistry, a la the author of that hideous article. Reader, do you own research and make up your own mind. Don’t believe anything you read on the internet. Especially on websites like The Federalist. Read history.

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