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Archive for the tag “RIchard Rorty”

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.

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Trump, Too, Had a Mother: On the Limits of Empathy

I, like a majority of Americans, am deeply disturbed by every aspect of the ongoing catastrophe that is the “Trump Presidency”. I am strongly opposed to everything Trump and the Republican Party stand for politically, but the most important issues we are now facing go beyond mere politics and policy. The issues that must be resolved one way or the other are no less than the biggest questions of philosophy come to life: What is truth? What is the good life? What does it mean to be good? What kind of society is best for humans? How should we act towards our fellow humans?

There is a deep political divide in America, the deepest since the Civil War, between factions called “conservatives” and “liberals”. Each has a set of policy positions that are now diametrically opposed, and which are all very important to the lives of real people. The biggest of these issues include foreign relations, immigration, tax policy, government regulations, environmental protections, educational funding, and very personal choices surrounding drugs, sexual orientation, and abortion. The problem we are facing does not revolve around any of these issues or the rival party platforms as a whole. The problem is that each faction views the other as a mortal enemy to be defeated rather than fellow citizens and humans to debate and ultimately compromise with. I do not like moral equivalence, so it needs to be said that while both parties contributed to this sad state of affairs, it is the Republican Party, a totally corrupt cesspool of hatred, bigotry, and spite, which bears most of the blame. This has not (yet) led to much actual violence, but a tragic, violent conflict to decide who holds power is becoming more and more plausible. Trump resembles a dictator in his authoritarian methods (as I have written extensively), and it is obvious at first glance that his preferred system of government would be a hereditary absolute monarchy (the type of government that the first Americans were fleeing and which the Founders sought to prevent). Ultimately, Trump is too inept and ineffective for anything like this to actually occur under his watch, but what he has done is made America a crueler place for a majority of its citizens.

While I have long been interested in history (past politics) and politics (present history), I have recently been converted to a more biological and scientific world view thanks to E.O. Wilson (whose books I reviewed here). Wilson convincingly explains the paradoxical dichotomy of human evolution that led to our survival and success. The two rival instincts at work were tribalism and altruism. The first is the older, more primitive instinct that is present in all primates. The second is a later and rarer development that arose only in Homo sapiens and explains how our species came to dominate the planet while every other is either on our menu or on the way to extinction (except the ants). Because of this deeply embedded tribalistic instinct, most humans in most communities are and have always been inherently conservative. This is a conservatism based on fear of outsiders and fear of change. Much less frequently have visionary leaders and relatively progressive communities been able to appeal to our less engrained but just as emotional altruistic instinct. While fear is the dominant conservative emotion, empathy is the dominant progressive one. Fear leads to cruelty, while empathy leads to kindness. Two opposing human behaviors that lead to two different views of human society.

Political theorist Judith Shklar defined liberals as “people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do.” Richard Rorty seconded this remark, adding humiliation as a subset of cruelty. Indeed, cruelty and humiliation are gratuitous acts of violence towards other humans, or even to other living beings (animals are always forgotten in the litanies of human violence). Those who engage in such behavior make it hard for other humans to sympathize with them, but it is still important to try.

Sympathy is sharing feelings with someone. Empathy is feeling as another person. Both are important steps towards building better communities and healthier lives. I am the first to admit that it is hard to even imagine finding empathy for someone like Trump, a cruel narcissist and sociopath. A man who does not even care about his own children except insofar as they reflect well on his own image (or, with the daughters, in an almost unspeakably disturbing sexual banter). Yet, as a writer, a philosopher, and a self-improvement-seeking human, I can attempt to feel empathy for Donald Trump. Yes, he, too, had a mother. He even had a father (albeit one who was just as cruel and bigoted as his son became). 

If I can feel empathy for Trump, if I can imagine the environment he grew up in, the regressive ideology he imbibed his whole life, the feelings of inadequacy he felt towards his father, and the possible love he may have felt for his mother, I can help understand people better in general, and thus help to make the world a slightly better place. I will not personally change any of Trump’s cruel and bigoted pathologies, and as an individual citizen I will not make much of a difference on my own. What I can do is to seek understanding, even and especially in the most unlikely and difficult to comprehend places, like Trump’s heart (which must be like the Grinch’s–two sizes too small). If I can get somewhat of a grasp on that, it will be all the easier to extend understanding to people who are similar to Trump in their behavior (boorish, aggressive, or violent) or ideology (racist, sexist, or fascist). I am aware that those types of people do not often display their own empathy unless it is someone who is already very close to them. But the whole point of this exercise is that my behavior will be different from theirs, and based on Peter Singer’s idea of expanding the circle of altruism. This should be a peaceful protest, or mindful resistance, and, to my mind, a better strategy than stooping to the level of vulgar insult and ad hominem attacks. I will certainly continue to oppose everything Trump stands for and do my part to fight for his imminent downfall, but that does not mean that I will dehumanize him. He is, if anything, very human. All too human, as Nietzsche might say.

In my essay Why Black Literature Matters, I quoted an Egyptian writer commenting on the use of empathy in Dostoyevsky’s fiction. The key example was a single sentence, describing an otherwise unsympathetic character: “He, too, had a mother.” It is the job of a writer to imagine and enter the mind of any possible character, good or bad. Many people have also held that it is a role (or the role) of literature to build empathy in readers. This is a laudable objective, but I remain skeptical. After all, Hitler and Stalin were not altogether uneducated or uncultured, and the latter was astonishingly well-read. Reading is not a panacea, and it will not improve the world on its own. We take into what we read what we already believe or feel. In some cases literature does change us, but probably just as often it has no moral effect whatsoever. What most certainly has a real impact, however, are real-life interactions with other human beings. Despite the apparent rise of cruelty, humiliation, and tribalism in the USA, the best way to fight back is to do it with understanding, empathy, and kindness. But reading more couldn’t hurt either.

What I Read in 2014

Despite those metaphysicians who hold that time is circular, the end of the year and the forward march of time is an opportune time for stepping outside of time, so to speak, and looking backward and forward in time to assess one’s life, what one has done well in the past, and what can be improved or attempted in the future. Like every other year, 2014 was a big year for me personally for various reasons. In this post, I will limit my discussion to books I have read, recapitulating and epitomizing each one, throwing in some digressions for good measure. The list is what it is–part of the past now, and part of my personal history and development. This year’s total of 30 or so books is not the most I have ever read in one year–I read over 40 solid books during my second deployment to Afghanistan which was 15 months, and I surely read much more during my Master’s study–but I don’t remember an overall assemblage of tomes from which I took so much enjoyment of reading itself, and not from research or other worldly duties and responsibilities. The books on this list were uniquely received and understood by me in a way that will be different for every other potential reader, owing to our mutual uniqueness of character and experience. If the list leads you to find a single good book you may not have otherwise read, I will consider myself happy (happier, rather, since my reading of these books was the original instantiation of my happiness). Unless otherwise stated, the list only includes books that I finished and not ones that I abandoned due to sudden change  of interest (Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, for example), dislike (one of the books of George Saunders, for example), or other various stories and volumes that I randomly perused or forgot I even started.

Postwar by Tony Judt

This was the only work of history I read this year, unusually for me, and was the longest of the year as well (835 pages). It covers the entirety of European history from the last years of World War Two until 2005. Considered the very best broad survey of this segment of world history. I learned many things about the nooks and crannies of Europe of which I know next to nothing (Romania and Yugoslavia, for example) and much more about the places where I supposedly know something (Italy and America, for example). The book also links together the pieces of the puzzle, including economy, culture, American foreign policy, and many other things, that led directly to the state of Europe as it currently stands.

Zorba the Greek and parts of Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis

I had seen the film twice and started the book a few years ago, but I finally got around to reading the whole tale of Alexis Zorba. As is obligatory to say in such contexts, it is better than the film. Kazantzakis’ epic sequel of Odysseus’ wanderings would have ranked as the longest book of the year, but I did not finish it, and do not plan to in any hurry. It is one to be savored intermittently and at a leisurely pace. If you want to find out more about this author, I have already written a longer article called Nikos Kazantzakis the Greek. He is truly one of the great writers of the 20th century.

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty

These are two accessible works (that is to say, not technical or jargony) of philosophy by the American pragmatist and political activist. They are quite engaging, though I have not actually made up my mind yet which parts of his thinking I disagree with. In the first book, there is a very interesting discussion and comparison between Orwell and Nabokov, not just as writers but as philosophical thinkers. Recommended for these final two chapters alone. The second book is basically Rorty explaining his same ideas in different ways, which is not necessarily a bad thing. As the most important American philosopher since Dewey, he deserves a longer explanation which I cannot give at this time. Here is one interesting quote from the latter book: “So, for pragmatists there is no sharp break between natural science and social science, nor between social science and politics, nor between politics, philosophy and literature. All areas of culture are parts of the same endeavor to make life better. There is no deep split between theory and practice, because on a pragmatist view all so-called ‘theory’ which is not wordplay is always already practice.” It is worth mentioning that these books are partly responsible for my decision (unconscious at first but very clear now) to change my reading habits largely back to fiction after a long time of focusing about exclusively on non-fiction (history, philosophy, and other theoretical pursuits).

Hadji Murad; assorted short stories by Lev Tolstoy

Tolstoy is in the literary pantheon, so it is never difficult to read or reread anything by the Count. Hadji Murad was his last completed novel (technically a novella), and was the inspiration for a short story of mine that is to be published in an anthology of veteran authors next year. One of only two pieces that I reread this year was the short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, which uses its 10 pages to their maximum story-telling potential. James Joyce considered it the best short story ever written (which obviously means the best that Joyce himself had ever read).

Anxiety of Influence and The Book of J by Harold Bloom

Bloom is the foremost American literary critic, and in the first work he describes how all literature is written with an “anxiety of influence” about drawing inspiration from and trying to surpass one’s literary forebears. Most of the book focuses on English poetry, but the ideas he puts forth are relevant to any field of study. The second book is more accessible but also more speculative. Bloom posits that the Hebrew Torah was originally the work of a single creative mind during the Enlightenment period of King Solomon, and further that this author was a woman. In his introduction to another book, The Western Canon, Bloom takes this idea a step further and claims the author was none other than Bathsheba. It is very well thought out and sound hypothesis, to the point that he includes the entire original version of the story of Yahweh supposedly created by Bathsheba in a long poem imagined by David Rosenberg. According to Bloom, Joseph would have been the heroic literary counterpart to the historical King David, whose reign would have been witnessed by the author and seen as a golden age compared to that of his incompetent grandson Rehoboam.

Very Little, Almost Nothing by Simon Critchley

The only real technical philosophy I read this year discusses the problematic idea of nihilism and how it can be overcome. A difficult read, punctuated by many interesting and inspiring quotes. One of the things that moved me was Critchley discussing the quote by Adorno about Auschwitz: “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” Critchley then notes, “After Auschwitz, the Kantian epistemological question ‘How is metaphysics possible?’ yields to a historical question ‘Is it still possible to have a metaphysical experience?’ For Adorno, this is because actual events–the Holocaust–have shattered the basis upon which metaphysical speculation might be reconciled with experience.” It has quite a bit of value from the point of view of contemporary metaphysics and for those interested in existentialism.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson; Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris

These are two of a series of short and lively biographies for a popular audience called “Eminent Lives,” each of which I read in a couple sittings. Though I already knew quite a bit about the world’s greatest playwright and composer, respectively, the authors have a flair for story-telling, and I now have more perspective about the world these two literary and musical luminaries moved in. About Shakespeare, it was just as interesting to learn about the historical reception and scholarship of the Bard as about the few real facts that exist on the man. About Ludwig van, Morris probably captures the man, if not the music, in this quote: “His talent amazed me. However, unfortunately, he is an utterly untamed personality, not at all wrong if he finds the world detestable, but he thereby does not make it more enjoyable either for himself or others.”

Afghan Post by Adrian Bonenberger; Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War by Various Authors

The first book is a war memoirs about the author’s time before, during, and after entering the Army and spending two years in Afghanistan. It is written in epistolary form and delves into a series of interesting dialogues, of which we only read one side but can infer the rest (or imagine our own responses), with old friends and relatives as his life changes dramatically through his experiences in war. I happen to be friends with the author since we served together in the same battalion for one year in Afghanistan. This shared experience allowed me to relive and rethink some of my own ideas about the war from a different perspective, now several years removed from action, and in the end I found my own personal catharsis.

The second is a collection of short stories by veteran authors written about the war experience in Iraq or Afghanistan, or as a military person in general upon returning home. Coming from many different backgrounds and experiences, the authors obviously use a variety of styles, and the stories are a mixed bag. These two books are the only contemporary war literature I have read since finishing my own time in the army, though I have been learning about some other intriguing and well-received books on that theme, and have already mentioned an upcoming collection vaguely inspired by Fire and Forget that will consist of 20 veteran authors’ stories set in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Assorted Russian Short Stories

I find the Russians to be a great inspiration not only for writing but for living life with a wider understanding of the world and the people who populate it. I have already mentioned Tolstoy as the greatest of them. This year I read Gogol (The Inspector-General, The Overcoat, The Nose–which is second of two pieces this year that I reread), Pushkin (The Queen of Spades), Chekhov (many stories from a seemingly limitless short story writer), and Babel (The History of My Dovecote), and a few others I am forgetting.

The Words by Jean Paul Sartre

This is Sartre’s literary autobiography and one of his last works, I believe. It was somewhat interesting at the beginning while he leisurely lays out his family history and early years, but I struggled through most of it. It turns out that when I looked into it a bit later that Sartre was apparently attempting to disavow his literary career with this memoirs, and to discredit the act of writing itself, as opposed to direct action in the world. Whatever. Probably my least favorite book of the year.

Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

These are considered the two best books from the South African Nobel laureate. I found them both to be quite excellent, with a very understated and seemingly simple story-telling style that nevertheless is totally compelling from start to finish. Both take place is generic nations (or empires) run by generic functionaries and military men (though I couldn’t help but imagine both the setting as apartheid-era South Africa). Both works have a deep moral force that keeps them afloat and invite the reader to think for himself.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

The author was a psychoanalyst who spent years in Nazi concentration camp, survived, and wrote this amazing book and many others. He founded his own school of existentialist psychoanalysis, called logotherapy, which states that finding meaning in one’s own life is the primary driving force in humans. The story he tells of his experience is probably the most intense story of human understanding that a person can ever tell, and I would recommend everyone to read it. Frankl was already a practicing psychiatrist and psychotherapist when he was taken to the concentration camps, and through a super-human act of human will, he was able not only to survive but to treat and inspire his fellow prisoners, and to keep keen observations of the extremes of human behavior he was witnessing everyday in order to write about it later. If Frankl could find meaning in life while in Auschwitz, how can we complain about our lesser quotidian cares and worries? Here is one representative quote: “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnesus by Patrick Leigh Fermor

These are the first among several literary travel books I read within a few months of each other and that all date from between the two world wars. The first two books are parts one and two of a trilogy, though the third installment was published unfinished in 2013 after the author’s death. They recount a walk across Europe, leaving England and debarking in the Netherlands with Istanbul as the final destination, by way of the Rhine, the Danube, and several other meanderings and tangents. This trip began in 1933 when the author was 19, and finished a couple years later. The background of the tale is itself quite significant–here was a young and idealistic Englishman (half-Irish, actually) embarking on a walking tour through old Europe–cosmopolitan, feudal, aristocratic, ethnically mixed up–before its last remains were blown away by the Second World War. His long first section walking across southern Germany took place just after the Nazis had come to power. Though he does not mention the political situation much, it is always present between the lines. This is because Fermor masterfully combines a sense of his youthful attitude with commentary from his much older authorial self–the book was written over 40 years after the trip, when Fermor was in his 60s and already long established as a war hero (he led the British-Greek resistance on Crete and abducted a German general and took him to Egypt) and travel writer (he had already published six full-length travel books, including Mani). The first book finishes with Fermor standing on a bridge on the border of Hungary and the second continues to the trip through Hungary and Romania to the border with Serbia at the so-called Iron Gates. The third presumably takes us across the last bit of the Balkans to Constantinople and thence to Greece, where Fermor would make his home later (here is a great article in The New Republic on the background behind  Fermor’s last unfinished installment). Along the way, we come to learn of the incredible amount of hospitality he received during the long sojourn, often and increasingly from old feudal lords and aristocrats of Germany and the Habsburg Empire. He sometimes stayed for weeks at a time in various castles of these learned and idle counts and barons. While the story itself stands on its own, what makes this a classic, and has led to Fermor being repeatedly named as the best English language travel writer, is his use of language. It is masterful and inimitable, and paints a wonderful picture in the reader’s mind.

The third book I read by Fermor this year was written after WWII and recounts in great detail a walking trip by the author and some friends through single long peninsula of the Peloponnesus called Mani. Fermor, who lived in Greece for decades and knew every part of Greece and its inhabitants, uses this singularly isolated and independent strip of land to describe the customs, culture, and history of its people and how they compare to other Greeks.

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

This is another travel book that tells of the author’s trip from Venice through Palestine and Syria to Persia and Afghanistan in 1933. His purpose was ostensibly to study the origins of Islamic art and architecture, and he spends a lot of time describing the mosques and other buildings he encounters. It is also exceedingly well-written, and contains countless little short comical theatrical set pieces of dialogue that show Byron’s strong personality, sense of humor, and gifts as a writer. After finishing the trip he spent three years crafting this work, which has been called his masterpiece, and then he died on board a British vessel sunk by German torpedo whilst on his way to work for British intelligence in Egypt (and possibly Greece, as the name Byron would still carry weight there).

Abroad: British Literary Travel Writing beween the Wars by Paul Fussell

Fussell here attempts to make travel writing into a more reputable and rigorous topic of study in literary and historical circles with this book, and if he did not succeed, it is through no fault of his but of his academic colleagues. The book generally describes how the British (and, to a lesser degree, American) travel writing boom came about directly as a result of World War One–both life in the cold, muddy trenches for soldiers and scarcity and belt-tightening at home led the society in search of warmer places. Those who could not travel were still highly ready to read almost any type of travel book that did not involve England. Each chapter is on a different writer (Greene, Lawrence, Waugh, Douglass, Durrell, Auden and Isherwood, with especial praise for Byron) or aspect of the new travel industry (the British invention of the passport, for example). It was very educational for me to learn about another side of a period of history and literature I thought I had a decent grasp on, but to see with a completely new perspective.

The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller

The American expat Miller forces his way into the travel writing craze against his will. This book is on the author’s 1938 trip from Paris, where he had made his home, to Greece, where he had never been. He came on the suggestion of Lawrence Durrell, who had made his new home in Corfu and maintained decades of correspondence with Miller. Miller makes a big show about his lack of classical or formal education in regards to ancient Greece, but it becomes clear throughout the book that he know a thing or two about life. It is written in his typical (and influential) colloquial and fearless style. There are long passages of internal monologue that are both poetic and inspired. Miller held this to be his best book, and many critics agree. One person said that Miller had raised solipsism to an art form. The colossus of the title is a certain prominent man of letters and outsized personality named Katsimbalis. In fact, the main character is Miller himself, and his enthusiastic reawakening to some type of life spirit in Greece (one critic said that Miller, in this book, had raised solipsism into an art form). While visiting Crete, Miller was greeted and looked after by someone named Tsoutsou whom Miller describes as being the biggest literary figure of Crete and a man who spoke 10 languages and knew everybody. I cannot find any other references to this theory, but I found myself imagining this as a fictionalized version of Kazantzakis. Another interesting fact is that Ghika, the famous Greek artist, was a member of the circle of friends of Katsimbalis that Miller frequented. Ghika illustrated Kazantzakis’ Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and his house on the isle of Hydra was also where Patrick Fermor wrote Mani. The Colossus of Maroussi, on the other hand, was written in America after Miller had to unwillingly return there to escape World War Two, and his panegyric on all things Greek is openly stated to also represent his distaste for all things American. It is a must-read for anyone who loves Greece, traveling, or great writing.

Justine and Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell

Justine is the first of a larger four-part work called The Alexandria Quartet. Each of the four books is written from a different character’s point of view, and the first three take place simultaneously while the last one is set six years later. Justine is a lushly stylistic novel whose every sentence is a work of literary art. The entire quartet was a bit long for me to finish this year but I will gradually finish it over time, as I am prone to bounce between many different books at the same time, sometimes putting one down for several years before finishing it. The variety is what is important for me, and the same book reread years later would be received differently–the words were the same but I had changed. I think my short digression here does something to represent the spirit of Durrell’s masterpiece. Alas, Durrell’s setting of the cosmopolitan, cultured, and romantic Alexandria which lasted for 23 centuries is now long gone, as this article in Foreign Policy magazine shows. The second book I read by him was his fictionalized travel story of his year spent in Corfu in 1938. I have visited that largest of the Ionian islands as well, and this book did more than make me want to return as soon as possible. It was rich and interesting and entertaining.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

This is the first book I read by Graves outside of the two Claudius books I had enjoyed several years back (after randomly finding the first one in a French hostel before starting the Camino de Santiago and finishing it within a few days). Goodbye to All That is a fictionalized (funny how many books of supposed non-fiction qualify for that adjective–that’s why it’s called literature and not documentary) memoirs of the author’s early life through trench life in World War One and his traumatic break with England and move to Majorca. It can be classified as another post-war travel book as I described earlier. I have written a much longer review of this book on my other blog in a post called Goodbye to Christmas Truces.

The World as I Found It by Bruce Duffy

This is more than a fictionalized version of history–it is a pure novel that happens to follow the real lives of eminent philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and, to a lesser extent, G.E. Moore. As a novel, it is wonderful and beautifully written. Since I happen to know quite a bit about these men and their work, I was not disappointed in any regard and found the book totally compelling. The author gave a lecture in 1991–three years after the book’s publication–in which he explains his rationale for changing and inventing facts about real people for the sake of a novel: “Was it moral, what I did? Was it moral of Max Brod not to burn Kafka’s manuscripts and papers as Kafka had instructed? I can’t really answer this question except to say there are different forms of homage. As I saw it thirty years after his death, Wittgenstein was nobody’s moral property. Like a man buried at sea , he was rightfully consigned to history.” And again here Duffy says: “In Shakespeare’s time to write plays about Julius Caesar or Prince Hamlet was not a bothersome thing, but today it is, I’m afraid. In an era of experts and unprecedented specialization–in a time when I should say we cripple ourselves by ceding far too much to the wisdom of experts–a book like mine is bothersome, for some to the point of being disorienting. For all our self-conscious poses, for all our irony and formal sophistication , not to mention our exposure to the strategies of modernism and postmodernism, many of us still like our categories straight. We are greatly bothered by confusions of fact and fiction. We are bothered by a novel that, say, in its prologue adopts the seemingly trustworthy voice of a biography only to monkey with the facts: This is unsportsmanlike, like impersonating a rightful officer of the law. Be more radical and experimental! says one camp. Be more conventional! says the other. When they rap my knuckles, critics seem to hold out these two shining alternatives, often seemingly at the same time. But again, their advice enshrines what too many naively expect nowadays. Straight categories. Fiction as some literary substitute for the old Classic Comics. Above all, the epic, churn-em-out complacency of that form I almost uniformly detest: ‘historical fiction.’ These by now are old tactics that do not trouble anyone.” In other words, long live the novel (and do not worry if its characters are real people–Shakespeare and Tolstoy didn’t). Whether you are interested in the lives of its characters or not, I can recommend this as an excellent and well-written novel that stands on its own merits.

The Collected Poems by Constantine P. Cavafy

This is the only work of poetry I read this year, which is something I would obviously like to rectify in future years. Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived and wrote about his home city of Alexandria, Egypt. He was a major inspiration for Durrell’s quartet above, and his poem “The City” was especially relevant to the latter work. His poems are a combination of historical, philosophical, and aesthetic, and are thus quite accessible and intriguing even for a poetry laggard like me. One of his poems, “The God Forsakes Antony”, was the inspiration for the Leonard Cohen song “Alexandra Leaving.” Another random (or not) connection is that Cohen also has a house on the island of Hydra and was heavily influenced by Henry Miller. Overall, Cavafy’s poems are evocative and inspirational for me, especially because I share a love of classical history and Mediterranean settings.

Runaway by Alice Munro

This collection of short stories is considered one of the best by the recent Nobel laureate. Most of her stories take place in rural Canada, where she is from. They are heavily focused on female characters and delve deep into their psyche and motivations. Munro has been called a modern, or a Canadian, Chekhov. I think this is great praise for her, and I see the resemblance but do not feel she is quite on the level of the Russian master of the short story. Time will tell, though. She does share with Chekhov a disregard for traditional plot devices and more focus on psychological aspects of the characters, especially involving sudden realizations that changes the characters’ lives in some way. Most of these stories have a deep underlying sense of humanity, and pathos. I was most moved by one called “Silence” (and not only because it contained the first cultural reference I have ever seen to ancient Greek romances by Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus). This is the most contemporary of the books I read this year, and the only one by a woman. It has helped me continue to try and expand my boundaries as a reader and explore new writers and different styles.

According to Borges, “reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.” Just as Borges considered himself, first and foremost, a professional reader rather than writer, I also hope to improve my reading skills and knowledge of the world each year. At a certain point, the issue becomes time and how to choose and prioritize what to read out of the infinite options–how to satisfy what Nabokov called the “Orphic thirst” of reading and rereading. I already have a long list of books to read next year and in coming years and which will lead to even more books that I have not even heard of yet. I hope to do better next year.

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