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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.”

How does Politics affect Writing, and Vice Versa?

I recently attended the 15th International Conference on the Short Story in Lisbon, where I met many interesting writers, read from my own work, and participated in a panel that discussed the question in the title. I would like to thank my fellow panelists, all wonderful people and writers: Garry Craig Powell, Sandra Jensen, Rebekah Clarkson, and Robin McLean. In this essay I will expand on some thoughts from before and during the discussion.

What is considered ‘political’ in fiction writing, and how far can the definition be stretched? Is it merely engagé works dealing with topics war, oppression, instability, or injustice? Or is it also anything regarding social identity and issues like race, gender, and economic class? Likewise, creating feelings of empathy is often cited as one of the greatest roles or benefits of reading fiction: is this itself a political end, for example is belief that empathy is good or that there is such a thing as shared humanity a political belief? What about writers and readers who appear to fall short of that ideal? Is it true that reading, especially of the “great books”, is educative and character- and society-improving? I always wonder about Stalin, for example-a voracious reader of literature and history, and a loving family man to boot, who was still one of modern history’s biggest monsters.

Is there a duty (or responsibility) of writers (and all artists) to take a stand against injustice or make political statements in their work? If so, does this risk the work becoming too didactic or heavy-handed, possibly subtracting from its aesthetic appeal? If not, does the writer risk accusations of withdrawal, ignorance, or cowardice, especially if they should somehow ‘know better’ based on their time and place (something akin to a writer’s version of the ‘Good German’)? 

Is a writer’s attempt to avoid anything remotely related to politics itself a privilege?

Or, in times of political danger or instability (which is really all the time), is there value in creating fiction that allows the writer and her readers an escape from this reality, however brief or superficial? Is all fiction therefore escapist in some sense, or is that modifier appropriate only to popular “genre” fiction?

Regarding so-called “genre” fiction, is it possible to read mystery, romance, thriller, or fantasy novels as apolitical? It is possible, but it would be missing the point that the stories that a writer chooses to tell or not to tell is itself a political expression. For example, the paradigmatic version of the romance is often an affirmation of the status quo, and thus on the side of the patriarchy or other oppressors.

Is it fair to say that the “best” works of fiction combine a sense of personal, individual, or particular aesthetic quality with something “bigger” than the particular story-a sense of collective, universal human solidarity, or a longing for justice, for example?

How important is the author’s identity itself in how she is read? And how important is the reader’s identity in how she interprets a work? How does this dynamic change in the case of pseudonymous or unknown writers? For example, the Torah is considered an archetypal text of patriarchy, but Harold Bloom reimagined it in The Book of J as a highly subversive and satirical work of a female courtesan in the Solomonic court.

Accordingly, how does the reader’s knowledge of (or assumptions about) a writer’s identity and biography either facilitate or preempt charges of cultural appropriation? Is such a charge only accessible to various minorities, or only against, for example, the typical Western (especially Anglo-American) white male who has long dominated our politics and cultural output? If there is some truth to this, how careful does a white male need to be when making characters and plots? Are there stories, characters, and words that can be used by one writer to great power, but used by a different writer to great insensitivity?

I have myself never been to Southeast Asia, and am ignorant of much of the literature and culture of that part of the world. As it stands, I would never even attempt to write characters or plots that involve, say, Vietnam, without the relevant knowledge and experience; to do so would be doomed to failure and rightly prompt accusations of cultural appropriation. There are many white male American writers who have written about Vietnam very powerfully and convincingly, however; veterans Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) and Robert Olen Butler (A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain), for example, or David Joiner (Lotusland), an American who lived in Vietnam for years. Even such examples must be compared with someone like Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer), a Vietnamese-American writer who is obviously even more well-placed to write about his own country than the knowledgeable outsiders listed above. I think that charges of cultural appropriation can fairly easily be avoided by a sensitive writer carefully choosing only things that she can write about from experience or extensive knowledge.

Cynthia Ozick, an American writer most famous for The Shawl, has been primarily a writer of the Holocaust and its aftermath. She appears to refute Theodor Adorno’s famous (and probably misunderstood) quote that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In Quarrel and Quandary, there are several essays that deal directly with the issue of politics and fiction. In fact, just quoting some of her lines would be much more effective than anything I could come up with. For example:

George Orwell, in “Why I Write,” asserts that “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” There are times when one is tempted to agree with him… Yet inserting politics into literature has, as we have seen, led to the extremist (or absurdist) notion that Jane Austen, for instance, is tainted with colonialism and slave-holding because Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park owns plantations in eighteenth-century Antigua.

As would be supposed, she holds that not only do politics and writing mix, but it is necessary that they do so. All of the writers I heard from at the conference would readily agree. Despite this, the apolitical writer is not a mere straw man. At one point she also mentions a speech E.M. Forster gave in 1941 arguing for “Art for Art’s Sake”, even at a time when evil was spreading across the continent. Here is the crux of Ozick’s essay:

Art may well be the most worthy of all human enterprises; that is why it needs to be defended; and in crisis, in a barbarous time, even the artists must be visible among the defending spear-carriers. Art at its crux—certainly the “Antigone”!—doesn’t fastidiously separate itself from the human roil; neither should artists. I like to imagine a conversation between Forster and Isaac Babel—let us say in 1939, the year Babel was arrested and tortured, or early in 1940, when he was sentenced to death at a mock trial. History isn’t only what we inherit, safe and sound and after the fact; it is also what we are ourselves obliged to endure…

There are those—human beings both like and unlike ourselves—who relish evil joy, and pursue it, and make it their cause; who despise compromise, reason, negotiation; who, in Forster’s words, do evil that evil may come—and then the possibility of aesthetic order fails to answer. It stands only as a beautiful thought, and it is not sufficient to have beautiful thoughts while the barbarians rage on. The best ideal then becomes the worst ideal, and the worst ideal, however comely, is that there are no barbarians; or that the barbarians will be so impressed by your beautiful thoughts that they too will begin thinking beautiful thoughts; or that in actuality the barbarians are no different from you and me, with our beautiful thoughts; and that therefore loyalty belongs to the barbarians’ cause as much as it belongs to our own…

The responsibility of intellectuals includes also the recognition that we cannot live above or apart from our own time and what it imposes on us; that willy-nilly we breathe inside the cage of our generation, and must perform within it. Thinkers—whether they count as public intellectuals or the more reticent and less visible sort—are obliged above all to make distinctions, particularly in an age of mindlessly spreading moral equivalence.

She mentions how Forster ends his speech with Shelley’s well-known quote that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, and notes the irony that Forster took this as a dictum from Mt. Olympus even while Panzers were running roughshod over Europe and the camps were already operating. I like the quote myself, but I would certainly not interpret it to mean that poets (or all writers) should withdraw from the world in the hope that the aesthetic beauty of their work alone is enough to improve the world. Ozick’s comments above demonstrate why that will never be realistic.

Richard Rorty in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity rejected the possibility that there was a single “aim of the writer” or “nature of literature”. He compared writers who pursued private, aesthetic perfection, like Proust and Nabokov, with those seeking human liberty, like Dickens and Orwell. He says “There is no point in trying to grade these different pursuits on a single scale by setting up factitious kinds called “literature” or “art” or “writing”; nor is there any point in trying to synthesize them.” In response to this, I have heard it said that even aesthetic pleasure is political. If this is true than all the admirers of Lolita will surely perceive the political foundation underlying that aesthetically pleasing novel, even if not overtly present in the plot.

J.M. Coetzee is a white South African who was opposed to the Apartheid regime, but chose to avoid overt politics or write about it obliquely, almost in the form of Platonic ideas. Here is his quote explaining his method:

In times of intense ideological pressure like the present when the space in which the novel and history normally coexist like two cows on the same pasture, each minding its own business, is squeezed to almost nothing, the novel, it seems to me, has only two options: supplementarity or rivalry.

On the other hand, Nadine Gordimer, another white South African writer and life-long opponent of Apartheid, chose to deal head-on with political issues, or to supplement history, in her works. They both won the Nobel Prize, and both showed how writing about politics can still be done in many and various ways, including supplementing it, à la Gordimer, or rivaling it, à la Coetzee.

Social reform has been a goal of certain types of literature (and art) at least since the 19th century. Dickens comes to mind as one example among many. It has always been hard to pinpoint concrete effects literature may have had on politics, beyond vaguely influencing readers to feel empathy for people unlike them. One notable exception is the much-anthologized short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story tells of a woman oppressed and driven mad by her doctor husband’s “rest cure”, a real-life treatment popularized by a doctor named Weir Mitchell. After the story was published, Mitchell read it and actually retracted this psychologically destructive treatment method. Other real-world political effects came from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the muck-rakers, including Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, to name two more examples.

Could Kafka be considered a political writer? Is there a spectrum of how political aa writer is, or how political certain literary themes are? For example, alienation and outsiderness play a big part in Kafka’s work, but is this because of his identity as a hated minority living among another group of oppressed minorities, or because he held views against the imperial and royal Hapsburg authorities? On the other hand, is there anything political that could be found in Borges’ stories? He seems to stick rigorously to theme of intellectual escapism in the form of his unique literary metaphysics. What about Chekhov, whose incredibly deft, character-driven portraits seem, on the surface, to be apolitical? Or Zweig, who tried to be apolitical in all his fiction even while he was working to build a more cultured and cosmopolitan Europe in real-life (and who killed himself in Nazi-induced despair in 1942)? The answer is that, obviously, all these writers were/are very political.

And all art, including fiction, is political. That holds true even if the author herself denies it or tries to avoid it. We have been told to never trust the writer but to trust the work; this seems a bit of academic sophistry, but in the case of a politics-denying writer we may do well to keep it in mind. The fact is that art production can only happen when the artist is free. Freedom of speech is central to the artist just as it is for the survival of a free society. There is no escape from politics for a writer or for anybody. We are all bound to the systems of power and human behavior that surround us. To not see or to deny this only reveals one’s privilege.

My own biographical information, if relevant: I was an officer in the US Army for over four years and spent two years in Afghanistan. This has obviously had a big effect on my character and political development, but in the 10 years since I have been out of the army, I have mostly had no desire to write or create fiction dealing with military themes. The exception so far is my story in The Road Ahead, a 2017 anthology featuring writers who are all veterans of the American wars. My other stories and the novel I’m working on were not apparently motivated by any explicit political stance and are more like historical fiction. After this panel, however, I have realized that I was rather naive and that all of my fiction and ideas are very clearly based on political realities.

Recently, like many Americans, I feel that the gravity of the political situation demands of all of us to do more. I know other American writers who have told me that they are not able to work lately because of the weight of the 24/7 news cycle. I know others who are trying to produce art or poetry specifically engaging political issues (like gun violence, for example). As a white male from the global hegemonic power, who has participated personally, if incidentally, in the ongoing state-sponsored violence, do I now have a duty to anyone other than myself, to fight for justice or against oppression? Would it be considered insensitive or even unethical of me to write only for myself? There are probably no absolute answers to any of these questions, but most of their utility comes from their very formulation and expression. In the end, there is probably no absolute duty of a writer to bring politics into their works, but it will still always be a good idea, and probably the best thing we can do.

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

John Berger, Max Sebald, Teju Cole: International Men of Culture

I think it was Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese author and filmmaker, who talked of the writer being the voice of the voiceless. That is still true in all societies. Art should ignite our dreams for a more human world.   –Teju Cole

In a previous essay on the Dictator Novel, I touched on the question of whether we can concurrently have good art and good politics. It remains an open, almost rhetorical, question. The most reasonable response is that we will rarely have anything approaching good politics, but we hope (or take for granted) that we will always have the ability to create and appreciate good art, because of or in spite of an apocalyptic or at least uncertain future [note: I use the terms politicsart, and artist in the broadest possible terms]. An even more relevant question might be how much the artist treats with politics (or, to put it more bluntly, to what extent politics intrudes on art). Some think that the ideal artist should rise above petty, or quotidian, political concerns; others would claim that all art is grounded in some kind of political milieu, whether overt or not. As much as I would like to believe in the possibility of a creative genius who follows her muse isolated from the messy world around her, it is simply not realistic. Paraphrasing Aristotle, there is nothing in human life that is outside of, or untouched by, politics, and that goes for artists and writers as much as farmers, laborers, managers, and secretaries. Even Shakespeare, the ideal artist and writer, was limited by the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, and produced many propagandistic “history” plays to placate them. John Berger, in his book The Success and Failure of Picasso, states that the Cubists (1907-1914) were the last group of revolutionary artists who could at the same time be optimistic and almost wholly unconcerned with politics. Since World War One, no artist has been able to divorce herself, intentionally or not, from the real-world. Utopia is dead. For the foreseeable future, we are all grounded on the earth, condemned to be free, struggling in our various ways to survive, and, if we are able, to create and consume art. Therefore, for me, the important question in examining art is not whether or not it is political, but how politics influences artists and is manifested in their art.

In this essay, I will examine the works of three writers and artists, John Berger, Max Sebald, and Teju Cole, who all share a “family resemblance”. All three are sophisticated, polyglot, cosmopolitan writers who combine wide-ranging erudition and serious-minded aesthetics with a profound sense of humanity and social justice. All three are cross-genre writers, combining fiction, essay, criticism, and memoir; all three employ embedded photographs or drawings to support their prose. They all thoroughly investigate the arts in their stories and essays: Berger focusing especially on painting and drawing, Sebald on architecture, and Cole on photography. They are all self-imposed exiles from their homeland who use their own cross-cultural experience to reflect on the lives and sufferings of others. Politics, on the other hand, is treated differently by the three: Berger was a highly engaged marxist whose politics were central to most of what he wrote; Sebald’s work always deal obliquely or subtly with politics; Cole lies in between these two extremes. All three benefit from being able to live and work where they want, in free societies where politics does not interfere with art; nevertheless, all three extend their perspective beyond artistic solipsism well into the the political project of global justice for all.

John Berger

John Berger died in January 2017 at the age of 90. Originally from London, he had lived in a tiny village in the French Alps for over 50 years and was a highly prolific author of 10 novels, several plays and screenplays, and roughly 50 collections of essays and art criticism. He won both literary and public renown in 1972 when his novel, G, won the Booker Prize, and his popular TV miniseries, “Ways of Seeing”, was broadcast on BBC. Berger donated half of the Booker Prize money to the Black Panther party as a token of support and a way of calling out the racist and exploitative legacy of the Booker foundation, whose fortune was built in the Caribbean slave-working sugar trade. Here is a key paragraph from Berger’s essay explaining his rationale:

Before the slave trade began, before the European de-humanised himself, before he clenched himself on his own violence, there must have been a moment when black and white approached each other with the amazement of potential equals. The moment passed. And henceforth the world was divided between potential slaves and potential slavemasters. And the European carried this mentality back into his own society. It became part of his way of seeing everything. The novelist is concerned with the interaction between individual and historical destiny. The historical destiny of our time is becoming clear. The oppressed are breaking through the wall of silence which was built into their minds by their oppressors. And in their struggle against exploitation and neo-colonialism — but only through and by virtue of this common struggle — it is possible for the descendants of the slave and the slavemaster to approach each other again with the amazed hope of potential equals.

G is a picaresque novel based around a Casanova-like protagonist in pre-World War One Italy. The most memorable sections for me are about the first flight over the Alps, and the dark atmosphere in Trieste before the war. With the rest of the Booker Prize money, Berger spent years researching and writing A Seventh Man, a photography-based book about the struggles of migrant workers around Europe. One of his later novels, To the Wedding, is one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve read (comparable with other stories of the death of one’s child such as Cry, the Beloved CountryBeloved, and The Child in Time). This beautifully written novel recounts the journey of an estranged husband and wife traveling across Italy to the wedding of their dying daughter.

John Berger, 1926-2017

As good as his novels are, Berger’s essays and criticism are probably his most important and lasting legacy. I have only begun to delve into these, but I have greatly appreciated and enjoyed everything so far. I have already mentioned The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965), which discussed a watershed moment in art history with such depth and persuasion that I was forced to reconsider everything I thought I knew about art (which admittedly was not much in the first place). He summarizes, towards the end:

I have tried to show you, on the evidence of paintings from 1900 to 1952, how Picasso’s imagination and intuitions have always presented him with an alternative to modern Europe: the alternative of a simpler, more primitive way of life. The Cubist period from 1907 to 1914 was the great exception to this. Then, the influence of friends and of other artists led him to believe for a short while in the opposite alternative: that of a more complex, more highly organized, more productive way of life. Except for this Cubist period, his genius has always owed allegiance to the comparatively primitive. It is this allegiance which underlay his self-identification with outcasts in the so-called Blue and Pink periods. It is this which inspired the rage of the Demoiselles d’Avignon. It is this which explains the fancy-dress and magic with which he protected himself after the First World War. It is this which was the secret of the physical intensity of his work in the thirties and early forties when he was painting autobiographically. It is this which is now the excuse for the sentimental pantheism of most of his original paintings (original as opposed to his variations on the themes of other artists) since 1944.

In his Selected Essays (2001) there are many fascinating theories and narratives weaving his erudition and knowledge of every artist in the Western canon with his political activism. As a vegan and animal rights activist myself, I was particularly interested in his “Why Look at Animals?”, which discusses in surprising detail the long and evolving relationship between humans and animals, to the mutual detriment of both. His 2011 book Bento’s Sketchbook uses the story of Spinoza’s lost sketchbook for Berger to demonstrate many of his own sketches and the story behind them. In one episode, Berger tells of how he was kicked out of a museum by an overly zealous private security guard while sketching Antonello da Messina’s “Crucifixion”, because he was not allowed to leave his backpack on the floor.

What is especially striking about Berger’s fiction and non-fiction is the proliferation of incredibly beautiful and powerfully true lines of prose that complement the larger story he is telling. Here, for example, from Bento’s Sketchbook:

The human capacity for cruelty is limitless. Maybe capacity is not the right word, for it suggests an active energy, and, in this case, such energy is not limitless. Human indifference to cruelty is limitless. So also are the struggles against such indifference. All tyrannies involve institutionalised cruelties. To compare one tyranny with another in this respect is pointless, because, after a certain point, all pains are incomparable. Tyrannies are not only cruel in themselves, they also exemplify cruelty and thus encourage a capacity for it, and an indifference in the face of it, amongst the tyrannised.

And another:

To protest is to refuse being reduced to a zero and to an enforced silence. Therefore, at the very moment a protest is made, if it is made, there is a small victory. The moment, although passing like every moment, acquires a certain indelibility. It passes, yet it has been printed out. A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present. The problem is how to live time and again with the adjective inconsequential.

Here, from G, at a moment when the protagonist witnesses some of the widespread labor riots in the pre-WWI, pre-Soviet years:

Every ruling minority needs to numb and, if possible, to kill the time-sense of those whom it exploits by proposing a continuous present. This is the authoritarian secret of all methods of imprisonment. The barricades break that present.

Here, from To the Wedding, at the exact moment after the daughter, Ninon, learns that she has AIDS:

All I had to offer, old as the world, God-given, balm for pain, honey for taste-buds, promise for always, silken welcomes, oh to welcome, to welcome, knees turned on their sides, toes extended—all I had has been taken.

And later, after the wedding:

The wedding guests are becoming a single animal who has fed well. A strange creature to find in a widow’s orchard, a creature half mythical, like a satyr with thirty heads or more. Probably as old as man’s discovery of fire, this creature never lives more than a day or two and is only reborn when there’s something more to celebrate. Which is why feasts are rare. For those who become the creature, it’s important to find a name to which it answers whilst alive, for only then can they recall, in their memory afterwards, how, for a while, they lost themselves in its happiness.

Max Sebald

W.G. “Max” Sebald died in 2001 at the age of 57 after having had a heart attack while driving near his home in Norfolk, England. He was from a small Bavarian village near the Swiss border, and lived in England as a professor of literature for most of his adult life. Though he began writing late, publishing only four books in the last ten years before his premature death, his works won him many admirers in the literary world and it is certain that his fame and recognition would have grown. What we are left with, those four novels and a collection of essays, is a unique, powerful, and extraordinarily thoughtful body of multi-genre work. His novels are classified thus only for marketing reasons–they are all similarly constructed pseudo-memoirs of a character, seemingly exactly like Sebald, wandering around Europe and recollecting, often at second or third hand, the stories of places and people he encounters. They all deal indirectly with the paradoxical European legacy of Humanism and inhumanity, in which scientific and cultural development sits alongside constant imperialist war and exploitation. He focuses especially on World War Two and the Holocaust, treating this history in comparably non-traditional ways as, for example, recent Nobel laureates Patrick Modiano and Svetlana Alexievich (in 2001, the Nobel Committee chair said that Sebald, along with Derrida, were two recently deceased authors who were under consideration for the prize).

W.G. “Max” Sebald, 1944-2001

Sebald’s first novel, Vertigo (1990), combines a travel narrative across northern Italy with short vignettes from the lives of Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka. As the title suggests, one of the main running themes between the four separate narratives is a lingering, unplaceable feeling of dizziness or anxiety; the reasons for these feelings remain unsaid, but it is possible to surmise, especially with the hindsight of Sebald’s later work, that the weight of European history surrounding each of the characters was enough to produce a certain existential dread. To paraphrase Adorno, it is impossible to see the full beauty of a continent and culture that ultimately produced the Holocaust. Venice is a city with such a rich literary history that it is hard to say anything new, but here is how Sebald manages to work in a subtle shade of foreboding:

As you enter into the heart of that city, you cannot tell what you will see next or indeed who will see you the very next moment. Scarcely has someone made an appearance than he has quit the stage again by another exit. These brief exhibitions are of an almost theatrical obscenity and at the same time have an air of conspiracy about them, into which one is drawn against one’s will. If you walk behind someone in a deserted alleyway, you have only to quicken your step slightly to instill a little fear into the person you are following. And equally, you can feel like a quarry yourself. Confusion and ice-cold terror alternate. It was with a certain feeling of liberation, therefore, that I came upon the Grand Canal once again.

While the main character takes a long rest at a resort on Lake Garda en route to his tiny Bavarian village he hadn’t visited in decades, he encounters some of his compatriots, leading to a sentiment I, as an American based in Italy for the last decade, can sympathize with:

I heard Swabians, Franconians and Bavarians saying the most unsavoury things, and, if I found their broad, uninhibited dialects repellent, it was a veritable torment to have to listen to the loud-mouthed opinions and witticisms of a group of young men who clearly came from my home town. How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or, better still, to none at all.

Sebald’s second novel, The Emigrants (1992), more explicitly takes up the theme of exile from one’s country. In four parts, it tells of four characters, all related to the narrator in some personal way, who were all emigrants from the greater German Reich before or during the Second World War. In all of these seemingly true biographies, the narrator only gradually begins to understand the deep secrets and traumas buried in these characters’ past lives, hidden under a veneer of seeming polite normality. In three of the four cases, the characters commit suicide. In the last story, the most powerful in my opinion, the narrator recounts his long friendship with a Mancunian artist and his late realization that he had never asked the necessary question of how the artist had come to live in England without his parents. The artist, based on Frank Auerbach, later showed the narrator a letter written by his mother while she and his father awaited transport to Auschwitz. The very slow and indirect unfolding in which Sebald deals with such a monumental tragedy as the Holocaust is sublimely cathartic.

His third novel, considered the last of the trilogy, is The Rings of Saturn (1995), which is ostensibly a walking tour across Suffolk with long discourses on various historical personages that are somehow connected to the places he visits. In one long section he gives an account of the life of Joseph Conrad, and how much he was affected by the brutal exploitation he witnessed in the Belgian Congo. As is typical in Sebald’s work, there is always as much lurking under the surface of the explicitly stated. In this case, though I don’t recall any mention of the Holocaust by name (though he markedly uses its original meaning of a burnt sacrifice), there seems to be a subtle ongoing dialogue about human capacity for cruelty, even in scientific experimentation. In one example, he says, almost as an unimportant aside to the main story:

Again, the inspector of the Rouen fish market, a certain Noel de Marinière, one day saw to his astonishment that a pair of herring that had already been out of the water between two and three hours were still moving, a circumstance that prompted him to investigate more closely the fishes’ capacity to survive, which he did by cutting off their fins and mutilating them in other ways. This process, inspired by our thirst for knowledge, might be described as the most extreme of the sufferings undergone by a species always threatened by disaster.

Here is another evocative passage during a recurring discourse on Thomas Browne:

The almost universal practice of cremation in pre-Christian times should not lead one to conclude, as is often done, that the heathen were ignorant of life beyond death, to show which Browne observes that the funeral pyres were built of sweet fuel, cypress, fir, yew, and other trees perpetually verdant as silent expressions of their surviving hopes. Browne also remarks that, contrary to general belief, it is not difficult to burn a human body: a piece of an old boat burnt Pompey, and the King of Castile burnt large numbers of Saracens with next to no fuel, the fire being visible far and wide. Indeed, he adds, if the burthen of Isaac were sufficient for an holocaust, a man may carry his own pyre.

Near the end, Sebald concludes the last of many references to the history of the silk worm across Europe with this strangely disturbing passage which is as close to a literary climax as Sebald ever gets:

After all, the Professor added, quite apart from their indubitable utility value, silkworms afforded an almost ideal object lesson for the classroom. Any number could be had for virtually nothing, they were perfectly docile and needed neither cages nor compounds, and they were suitable for a variety of experiments (weighing, measuring and so forth) at every stage in their evolution. They could be used to illustrate the structure and distinctive features of insect anatomy, insect domestication, retrogressive mutations, and the essential measures which are taken by breeders to monitor productivity and selection, including extermination to preempt racial degeneration. —In the film, we see a silk-worker receiving eggs despatched by the Central Reich Institute of Sericulture in Celle, and depositing them in sterile trays. We see the hatching, the feeding of the ravenous caterpillars, the cleaning out of the frames, the spinning of the silken thread, and finally the killing, accomplished in this case not by putting the cocoons out in the sun or in a hot oven, as was often the practice in the past, but by suspending them over a boiling cauldron. The cocoons, spread out on shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is completed.

His last book, Austerlitz (2001), seems like a full-length version of one of the biographies from The Emigrants. The narrator tells of his many conversations with the main character, Jacques Austerlitz, over the course of three or more decades in which they randomly meet each other in stations and libraries across Europe. Austerlitz is an architectural historian, and the narrator always recounts his own version of the many precise details about the various buildings and cityscapes they encounter in their mutual peregrinations. The narrative is presented in an even more oblique and unreliable way than Sebald normally uses. For example, a typical line from the narrator could be something like, “Years later, I remembered what Austerlitz told me his landlady had remembered what his mother had told her the night before leaving.” Austerlitz, like the narrator and then the reader, gradually learns of and then reveals the details of his background. He was raised in Wales by a pastor and his wife under the name Dafydd Elias. When his parents died he was told by the headmaster that his real name was Jacques Austerlitz. When he asked what that name signified, he was merely told, “I think you will find that it is the name of a famous battle.” That battle, as well as the Paris station named after it, play a role in the narrative. It is also notable how similar the name Austerlitz is to Auschwitz. The story comes round eventually to the fact that Austerlitz was sent on one of the last refugee boats to England as an infant, and later travels to Prague to discover more about his parents. This haunting novel is a significant work, probably Sebald’s best. Like all his novels, the narrative is supplemented by found photographs that add to or silently comment on the text. One of these is a close-up of Wittgenstein; most often they are anonymous pictures of architecture, signage, or family gatherings. In his introduction to the novel, James Wood writes: “As Roland Barthes rightly says in his book Camera Lucida, a book with which Austerlitz is in deep dialogue, photographs shock us because they so finally represent what has been. We look at most old photographs and we think: “that person is going to die, and is in fact now dead.” Barthes calls photographers “agents of death,” because they freeze the subject and the moment into finitude.” Sebald’s novels as a whole tend to do something similar: to freeze the disturbing history of modern Europe both in order to preserve it, and to help block its return.

Teju Cole

Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American, was born in 1975, making him conspicuous in my comparison as the youngest of the three authors, as well as the one who was most influenced by both of the previous writers. He openly and enthusiastically speaks of Berger’s influence in many public dialogues, including a valedictory celebration of that writer’s life after his recent death. He has dedicated at least two essays to Sebald, including one story of how Cole visited his grave near Norwich, England. Cole’s first novel, Open City, was widely praised and widely noted for following a Sebaldian construct–a narrator, apparently similar to the author, wandering and meditating on modern cityscapes and the history they conceal, and engaging in intellectual but emotionally fraught conversations with friends and strangers along the way. As with most of Sebald’s works, we gradually learn of secret crimes and forgotten traumas that are not-so-neatly hidden away in the subconscious. It is a powerful and important debut novel.

Teju Cole, b. 1975

Cole’s second novel, Every Day is for the Thief, does not appear to be a novel at all except that it is labeled as such. It tells of the narrator’s visit to Lagos after over a decade’s absence. It is partly a travelogue, partly a story of the corruption that has so pervaded Nigerian society as to pervert even human relationships.

Cole is a notable photographer and critic, as well as a popular Twitter writer until finally closing his account. Many of his essays appear in his recent collection Known and Strange Things (2016). This book is divided into three parts on writing, photography, and travel. The whole reveals an almost impossibly thoughtful, erudite, and wide-ranging mind. Every essay is littered with references to poetry, art, history, as well as popular culture. One fantastic review of A House for Mr Biswas is preceded by an essay telling of how Cole came to be invited to a dinner with “Vidia” Naipaul. After the dinner Cole and Naipaul flip through a Mark Twain first edition and laugh together at his witticisms. Naipaul is taken aback when Cole beats him to the punch in comparing them to La Rochefoucauld. Despite this, Cole is unsparing in his appraisal of the Nobel laureate’s personal faults. The essays in the photography section are so well-done as to have captured my interest even though I know nothing of that craft. It has prompted me research many of the named photographs and artists and begin taking more note of photography in general.

I think the best piece in the collection is the strange, short, stream of consciousness essay called “Unnamed Lake”. It was supposedly written in one sleepless night as Cole’s mind wandered variously between the Tasmanian tiger, Derrida, Furtwängler’s version of the Ninth, concentration camps, the Biafran War, and the atomic bomb. The book’s final section on travel is more explicitly autobiographical, personal, and political than Cole’s usual work. In one piece he reflects on a six-month paid residence in Switzerland, in which he walks in James Baldwin’s shoes. He writes of the troubling disconnect between Obama’s rhetoric and his escalated drone killings. He writes of Joseph Kony and the white savior complex. He writes of a trip to the Mexican border and a Berlin-style piece of the wall he brought back. He rewrote the first lines of famous novels as if they were all part of a drone assassination report. Everything he writes makes you think, often long after you’ve finished reading; like the best essays, everything in this collection not only warrants a rereading, but it is essential to do so, which is the greatest praise I can give to a writer.

Conclusion

So where does this leave us in regards to my original question of the relationship between art and politics? I do not have a final answer, and do not think there exists a final answer. Rather, every work by every artist is part of an ongoing dialogue between every other work of that artist, as well as his interlocutors, and the world around her, both past, present, and future. An artist can make politics her raison d’être, like John Berger, or deal with it occasionally or obliquely, per Sebald and Cole. All three artists have benefitted from their personal freedom to create, living and working as they did in countries of the post-war western democracies. I would not say that any of them engage with politics in their art as a result of personal traumas or limitations, but rather due to their sense of humanity and the cold injustice of history. If any of them had been born a few decades earlier, or possibly later, or in another country, they could have possibly been killed or imprisoned for their art. Insofar as all three writers understand this, I would guess that they understand freedom more globally than just their personal ability to create art.

As Geoff Dyer writes in his introduction to Berger’s Selected Essays: “The ‘invasion of literature by politics’ may have been inevitable but Orwell was somewhat grudging about having to forgo the single-minded literary devotion of Henry James in favour of the manifold obligations of pamphleteering (though his distinction as a writer depends precisely on this abandonment). For Berger, there was no tension or regret on this score. Responding to his critics in a letter to the New Statesman (4 April 1953) he insisted that ‘far from my dragging politics into art, art has dragged me into politics’.” What is necessary to the artist, beyond mere survival, is the freedom to produce art. This underlines the fact that whether or not “art” is political, its existence is always predicated on a set of political circumstances that are either more or less “free”, and thus more or less open to art. This counts whether or not the artist subjectively considers politics as something that happens around us without our control, or something we choose to value or fight for. No matter what politics she claims, defending this freedom should therefore be the central preoccupation of the artist.

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