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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.

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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.”

What I Read in 2017: 115 Books

This is the fourth edition in what has now become my annual tradition of recording and reflecting on my yearly reading list. I have increased my reading output each year since I started this project, and this year’s 115 titles surpasses even 2016’s (approximately) 100 titles in quantity and possibly in quality as well. I should also mention that this year’s list also comes from only 10 months of reading, as I hardly opened a book for the last two months of the year (firstly because of final prepartions for the Cambridge Delta Exam, secondly to give my overheated brain a break and to do more rock climbing). Over the last four years I have read over 300 books total, including a whole lifetime’s worth of great literature. I’m happy with this, even if I found this article about a woman who read over 500 novels in one year! My future goals are for expanding more into unfamiliar literary territories, rereading more (which I have rarely done until now), and writing more. Without further ado, here’s the conspectus (unfinished marked with *):

Books (76):

The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

In the Heart of the Country by J.M. Coetzee

Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee

Youth by J.M. Coetzee

Summertime by J.M. Coetzee

The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee

Here and Now by J.M. Coetzee

Three Stories by J.M. Coetzee

My essay on Coetzee’s works here.

G by John Berger

To the Wedding by John Berger

Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger

The Success and Failure of Picasso by John Berger

Selected Essays by John Berger

Austerlitz by Max Sebald

Vertigo by Max Sebald

The Emigrants by Max Sebald

The Rings of Saturn by Max Sebald

Everyday if for the Thief by Teju Cole

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

My essay on Berger, Sebald, and Cole here.

Jazz by Toni Morrison

A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe

Anthills of the Savanna* by Chinua Achebe

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

My essay on dictator novels here.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

On Writing by Stephen King

England England by Julian Barnes

The Porcupine by Julian Barnes

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Working on completing all his works.

Solar by Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

I’ve now read everything by this author.

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Discontent and Its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid

My essay on Hamid, Ackerman, and refugee novels here.

A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

I finished reading everything by Ishiguro a few months before the Nobel was announced.

Radetsky March by Joseph Roth

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth

Job by Joseph Roth

The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil

Five Women by Robert Musil

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (1130 pages!)

Two great Austrian writers I will say more about later.

Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte

Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis

His version of the Iliad. My essay on Kazantzikis here.

Under the Volcano* by Malcolm Lowry

The Power and the Glory* by Graham Greene

These two well-regarded novels of drunkards in Mexico just didn’t hold my interest; I’ll come back to them (maybe)

Zone by Mathias Enard

Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard

Excellent French author.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

I finished her dytopian trilogy this year. Never has Atwood been more relevant.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Ethics in the Real World by Peter Singer

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

My essay on Stalin here.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

A Palace in the Old Village by Ben Tahar Jelloun

The Marquise of O and Other Stories by Heinrich von Kleist

Complete Stories and Parables by Franz Kafka

Deliver Us* by Luigi Meneghello

The author writes about growing up during the war in Malo, a small town where I live now. Too boring for me to finish, alas.

Audio books (39):

My goal was to start with as many Greek/Roman works as possible to reread or fill in some gaps (Cicero, for example, whom I’d never studied). All of the free audiobooks at Librivox are by definition older works out of copyright.

The Iliad by Homer

The Odyssey by Homer

The Aeneid by Virgil

The Oresteia by Aeschylus

The Works of Aeschylus

History of the Peloponesian War by Thucydides

The History of Rome from the Founding of the City by Livy

Agricola by Tacitus

Germania by Tacitus

On Duties by Cicero

Moralia by Cicero

On the Laws by Cicero

Tusculan Disputations by Cicero

Philippics by Cicero

The Life of Cicero by Anthony Trollope

Parallel Lives by Plutarch

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

The Works of Hesiod

Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto

Garibaldi and the Making of Italy by George Trevelyan

The Bhagavad Gita by Unknown Author(s)

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey

Under the Shadow of Etna by Giovanni Verga

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Phaedra by Jean Racine

The Bourguoisie Gentleman by Moliere

The Imaginary Invalid by Moliere

The Miser by Moliere

The Misanthrope by Moliere

The Autobiography of Goethe* by Goethe

Unfortunately, much more boring than I’d hoped.

Faust by Goethe

The Volsungasaga by Unknown Author(s)

The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson

Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist

The Tale of Genji (abridged) by Lady Murasaki Shikabu

Felix Holt: The Radical by George Eliot

Romola by George Eliot

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Exit West and Dark at the Crossing: Two Novels of Syrian Refugees

It has been a long six and a half years since the Arab Spring, the popular movement of early 2011 that toppled dictators and challenged regimes across the Middle East. While Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt have since then followed different political paths trending either upwards, flat, or downwards respectively, Syria has virtually fallen off a cliff. Over six years of constant war between four major belligerents have left the country with perhaps half a million dead and at least two thirds of its people displaced. The formation of Daesh created a new terroristic boogey-man for Westerners that somehow distracted from the consistently cruel inhumanity of the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, the worst refugee crisis since World War II continues unabated. The neighbors of Syria–Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq–have taken in most of the refugees. The paltry number of victims that have made it into Europe or North America has prompted a xenophobic and Islamophobic backlash resulting in a resurgence of far-right parties. In such a world of hard-heartedness, it is often art that helps us rise above the quotidian news mill and find shelter in stories of compassion, love, and our shared humanity. Two new novels by two very different authors have attempted to tell the stories about Syria and its refugees that we need to hear: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, and Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman.

Exit West, shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, is the fourth novel of Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid. It tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, focusing on how their relationship begins in an unnamed city (presumably Aleppo) before and during a civil war. The first third of the novel follows a straight-forward narrative arc of the main characters’ increasing desperation in the face of the violence surrounding them. Nadia, independent and rebellious by nature, agrees to leave her flat and move in with Saeed after his mother is killed in her driveway by a stray bullet. Hamid describes the life-altering horror of trying to survive in an urban warzone: “One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.”

As the fighting escalates, there are rumors of doors around the city that transport you to other places, the kind of desperate superstition that takes hold when true hope for a reprieve is nearly lost. Eventually, Saeed and Nadia decide to pay an agent to lead them to one of these doors; they give him their money and don’t hear back from him for weeks, the victims of con artist. Until he does actually call back and lead them to an bombed out dental clinic with a pitch-black opening where the supply closet should be. They both walk through this portal and find themselves on a beach in Mykonos, Greece. The reader also suddenly finds herself in a new type of book that is no longer realistic narrative but Borgesian speculative fiction. It reminds me of last year’s Booker Prize winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty (my review here), in which straight-forward story of slave plantation brutality opened up to a literal Underground Railroad in which the characters ride from state to state.

The novel changes focus from survival in a war zone to survival as a refugee in a foreign land. After a bit of bartering and wandering between the numerous refugee camps on the Greek island, the pair are helped by a local to another escape door, this one landing them in London. They find themselves in an abandoned but curiously well-appointed condiminium with plenty of food and soft towels. Hamid does not ignore details like the pleasure of a long, hot shower after weeks of living in a dusty tent. Soon, numerous other refugees from all over the third world start filling the house. It turns out that the system of transport portals is not limited to Syria and Europe. Hamid writes: “That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move, much of the global south headed to the global north, but also southerners moving to other southern places and northeners moving to other northern places.”

As you would expect, the locals do not like the presence of millions of new residents inhabiting their cities, and a violent nativist movement begins to isolate and attack them relentlessly. Unexpectedly, an eventual accord is reached and people begin to live in relative peace and start a new socialistic society. During their final move to the Bay Area in California, the same pattern repeats. Hamid makes an allusion to the historic promise to freed slaves in America in this passage: “In exchange for their labor in clearing terrain and building infrastructure and assembling dwellings from prefabricated blocks, migrants were promised forty meters and a pipe: a home on forty square meters of land and a connection to all the utilities of modernity.”

Throughout the novel there are short episodes of unrelated and often unnamed characters in the same alternate universe, following the tone of the main narrative by telling stories of how other humans are dealing with the radical change of free movement. In one, a Japanese man ominously follows a pair a young Filipinas in a dark alley; in another an elderly Dutch man meets a Brazilian artist and moves to Rio; in yet another an elderly English lady who has never left her mansion watches as society changes around her while she stays in place. As Hamid writes: “We are all migrants through time.”

In Exit West Hamid has created a convincing and uplifting portrait of what the world could become if humans evolve ever so slightly out of their instinctive tribalism. The author is in fact an avowed optimist with an interesting biography, which he discusses in his collection of personal and political essays called Discontent and Its Civilizations. The titles of some of these essays include “When Updike Saved Me from Morrison (and Myself)”, “Get Fit with Haruki Murakami”, “Nationalism Should Retire at Sixty-Five”, and “Why Drones Don’t Help”. The relatively sanguine attitude he conveys in this quote, for example the picture he presents of modern Pakistan, is indeed a refreshing view in an increasingly unoptimistic world: “But if globalization is capable of holding out any fundamental promise to us, any temptation to go along with its havoc, then surely that promise ought to be this: we will be more free to invent ourselves. In that country, this city, in Lahore, in New York, in London, that factory, this office, in those clothes, that occupation, in wherever it is we long for, we will be liberated to be what we choose to be.” He is also the author of a gripping, enigmatic novella called The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which I highly recommend and which can be read in a few hours (and has even been made into a film that I have not yet seen).

Elliot Ackerman’s second novel, Dark at the Crossing, is shortlisted for the National Book Award. It is the story of Haris Abadi, an Iraqi former interpreter who wants to cross the Turkish border to fight in Syria. Haris gained American citizenship in return for services rendered from years of loyally working with Special Forces in Iraq (a plausible but unlikely occurrence in real-life). He was able to bring his sister along to his new life in Michigan, but he loses a sense of purpose for his own life after she gets engaged and he does not have to support her studies anymore. He travels to south-eastern Turkey to fight for a cause in Syria. It turns out that neither he nor the readers ever get a strong sense of what exactly that cause is. A large part of the narrative involves waiting in Turkey trying to cross the border, and flashbacks to his time working with SF.

The only American character (other than the naturalized protagonist) was one of the SF team members named Jim, who seemed to be a stand-in for the muscle-bound, arrogant, secretly sensitive, not-as-smart-as-he-thinks American soldier trope. This is similar to Ackerman’s previous novel, Green on Blue, in which a mysterious CIA operator known as Mr. Jack is the only American among a cast of Afghans. In flashback scenes, we see Jim involve himself again and again in Haris the interpreter’s life, including drunk midnight confessionals in his tent. Jim obviously meets an untimely death, and the guilt Haris harbors is part of the reason for his quest.

During the long period of waiting to cross the border, Haris is taken in by a Syrian refugee couple, Amir and Daphne. Educated and sophisticated, they were among the first revolutionary protesters before the civil war started. Now their lives and relationship is stuck in place as Amir wants to move West and start a new life, but Daphne cannot abandon the dead daughter she thinks is still alive in their old village. As Haris becomes entwined with these two and other seedier characters, an opening is found to enter Syria, and their journey together continues inexorably, bewitchingly towards its destined climax.

Ackerman was a Marine Corps officer for eight years, serving multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. His first novel, Green on Blue (review in The Wrath-Bearing Tree here), was a remarkable tale of an Afghan boy’s gradual rise through the ranks of militancy in War on Terror-era Waziristan. In fact, it was riveting reading for me because it is set exactly in the Afghan province of Paktika in which I also spent two years deployed to Forward Operating Bases, specifically around Bermel, Shkin, Gomal, and Orgun. Ackerman has also published a short story in the veteran’s anthology The Road Ahead (to which I am also a contributor), and now lives in Turkey.

One of the greatest benefits of literature is that it can build empathy for people whose lives you could not previously imagine (a theme I discussed in my essay Why Black Literature Matters). I have visited the western part of Turkey, but never the eastern borders of Syria and Iraq, nor have I personally met any Syrians or Iraqis. The only Syrian characters I have previously encountered in my reading are the types of conniving, cultured, expatriot merchants that occasionally dot the pages of a Conrad, Durrell, Naipaul, or Greene. With their characters and their stories that let the reader experience the lives of others, Hamid and Ackerman, like all great authors, show how ultimately we all share the same hopes and fears, and that our humanity defines us more than our nationality.

Stalin’s Biography: For Serious Readers Only

Diving into an 850-page biography of one of the most monstrous and powerful men who ever lived is not something one does lightly. So it was with some hesitation that I opened the pages of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s acclaimed Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003).

Montefiore begins the biography on a night in November 1932 in which Stalin and all the leading Bolsheviks and their wives were having an intimate holiday party. Up to this point, despite the mass carnage they had wreaked on Russia and the peasant class, the political elite lived a charmed life together, a so-called “golden age”, strolling around the Kremlin relaxedly with their kids, and taking vacations to the same Black Sea resorts. All of this would come to an end on this particular night in which Stalin’s beloved second wife, Nadya, returned home alone after a public row and killed herself. Thirty-one years old to Stalin’s fifty-three and mother to Vasily and Svetlana, she had been his secretary since before the Revolution and, like many of the Bolshevik women, a historically important character in her own right. In a gripping novelistic account, Montefiore shows how this most mysterious and tragic event of Stalin’s personal life began the downward spiral towards the Great Terror of the Thirties.

As a student of history, political philosophy, and literature, I have long been interested in the phenomenon of the dictator–the set of conditions that facilitates his rise to power, the ways he remakes a government and state in his image, and the ways he is portrayed and resisted by writers and artists (the topic of my essay The Dictator Novel in the Age of Trump). Stalin, more than any merely regional potentate like Rafael Trujillo or Mobutu Sese Seko, was basically the Dictator to whom all dictators bow down in (dis)respect; the cannibalistic Cronos who ate all his own children; the monster who out-monstered even Hitler. The fact that Hitler is (rightfully) our universal archetype of monstrously inhuman dictator rather than Stalin is mostly because of the not insignificant detail that we were allied with the latter in the world’s biggest war. Regarding Hitler, the title of world’s worst human and author of the most heinous genocide has not stopped him from still being read and worshipped by neo-Nazis in America in 2017 (including the current American president). Regarding Stalin, even his image as an ambiguous but not-all-bad tyrant is being rehabilitated by the current Russian government. Vladimir Putin, himself an illiberal second-rate dictator and master of false equivalence, has stated that “there is no difference between Stalin and Oliver Cromwell”. Whatever that means. Someone named Marx once said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Stalin and Hitler formed a secret alliance that led to WWII; Putin and Trump are now allies. Draw your own conclusions.

The importance of reading true history and biography is that it allows us to work out complex series of causes and effects, and to make sense our own world and how it got to be this way. But also because that old cliche about history repeating itself really is true in a certain fundamental way–this is because the ways in which humans wield political power is fairly limited and predictable, and also because most ideologies human have created share many commonalities. If we want to examine 20th century authoritarian ideologies, for example, we can quite easily find a set of overlapping traits between Fascism, Nazism, Falangism, Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism. They all believed that the ends justify the means, that individual lives are meaningless, that violence is necessary or even good, and that the Leader is indistinguishable from the State. Resistance to existing dictatorships requires no knowledge of the leader’s biography; resistance to future potential dictatorships, on the other hand, does. While I have no interest at all in reading about Hitler (Don Delillo’s White Noise was enough), reading Stalin’s biography has been slightly disturbing but also very insightful.

Montefiore is quick to dispel the common myth, first propagated by Trotsky, that Stalin was a “colorless bureaucratic mediocrity” but was in fact “exceptional in every way”. Early on, he gives a powerful summary of Stalin’s character:

“The man inside was a super-intelligent and gifted politician for whom his own historic role was paramount, a nervy intellectual who manically read history and literature, and a fidgety hypochondriac suffering from chronic tonsillitis, psoriasis, rheumatic aches from his deformed arm and the iciness of his Siberian exile. Garrulous, sociable and a fine singer, this lonely and unhappy man ruined every love relationship and friendship in his life by sacrificing happiness to political necessity and cannibalistic paranoia. Damaged by his childhood and abnormally cold in temperament, he tried to be a loving father and husband yet poisoned every emotional well, this nostalgic lover of roses and mimosas who believed the solution to every human problem was death, and who was obsessed with executions. This atheist owed everything to priests and saw the world in terms of sin and repentance, yet he was a “convinced Marxist fanatic from his youth.” His fanaticism was “semi-Islamic,” his Messianic egotism boundless. He assumed the imperial mission of the Russians yet remained very much a Georgian, bringing the vendettas of his forefathers northwards to Muscovy.”

Montefiore avoids the familiar territory of the Russian Revolution and Soviet foreign policy in order to focus almost exclusively on how Stalin interacted with the small inner circle of Bolshevik leaders to wield power and dominate the Soviet Union from Lenin’s death in 1924 until his own in 1953. Using previously unreleased archival documents and correspondence, Montefiore paints a vivid picture of this unique group of revolutionaries who remained a close-knit family for the first decade and a half after the Revolution: “They were surrounded by the other Bolshevik magnates, all hardened by years in the underground, blood-spattered by their exploits in the Civil War, and now exultant if battered by the industrial triumphs and rural struggles of the Stalin Revolution. Some, like Stalin, were in their fifties. But most were strapping, energetic fanatics in their late thirties, some of the most dynamic administrators the world has ever seen, capable of building towns and factories against all odds, but also of slaughtering their enemies and waging war on their own peasants.”

Despite my having no credentials in psychiatry, it did not take me long to recognize Stalin as a clinical psychopath, rather than the madman he is often dismissed as. Montefiore writes: “He was emotionally stunted and lacked empathy yet his antennae were supersensitive.” He was also an extremely charming and even lovable person to everyone around him, and this was his best tool of manipulation. “The foundation of Stalin’s power in the Party was not fear: it was charm. Stalin possessed the dominant will among his magnates, but they also found his policies generally congenial… While incapable of true empathy on the one hand, he was a master of friendships on the other. He constantly lost his temper, but when he set his mind to charming a man, he was irresistible.”

I usually skip past the first pages of a book which contain laudatory blurbs from journals and reviews, but in this case I found myself reading with great interest the several dozens of such examples. The cognitive dissonance between how an excellent book about a horrible person was expressed, and the contradictory language used for such a delicate purpose led to typically awkward phrases like this: “A wonderful, well-written, extensively researched portrait of a terrifying, inhuman madman.” Some of the reviews seemed to blur the lines to a slightly disturbing extent between the superlative skill of the biographer and the superlative monstrosity of the protagonist. Some examples of this include the words “hero”, “humanizing effect”, and “black humor”; one even spoke of how Labour and Tory ministers should read it for tips on “how to become an efficient fighting machine”, whatever that means (presumably start murdering your enemies and allies alike on industrial scale). One brief review by notable war criminal Henry Kissinger jumped out due to the sheer arrogance of this would-be universal expert: “I did not think I could learn anything new about Stalin but I was wrong. A stunning performance.”

It’s not always easy to continue reading such a book, heavy with chapter after chapter of paranoia, manipulation, and the vicious blood baths inflicted by Stalin and all his equally monstrous lieutenants. It is only Montefiore’s telling of this important story that really draws in the reader and makes it impossible to quit. Neither the man nor the ideology find any semblance of redemption here, but it does help to account for the lengths to which humans can go (or the depths to which they will sink) in furtherance to their ideology. Bolshevism, as much a religion as a political system, maintained that a classless utopia was possible if only the old capitalist corruption were destroyed. One of the most useful facts we can understand by reading history is that there is no utopia that will ever be free of human corruption, and that power should never be concentrated into individual hands. Montefiore comments that: “It is hard to find a better synthesis between a man and a movement than the ideal marriage between Stalin and Bolshevism: he was a mirror of its virtues and faults.” Now we must continue to be on guard against the next would-be dictators of our own age, the type of charming psychopath who values power over others as the ultimate goal and would subsume entire continents to achieve it.

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