Posts Tagged ‘germany’

Oxford, in the rain:

The next day the weather broke. Early in the morning, before the first rays of light had touched the towers and pinnacles of the city, the rain began to fall from a leaden sky. When Nigel woke from a disturbed sleep the streets were already soaking, the elaborate and inefficient drainage systems of Gothic, Mock-Gothic, Palladian and Venetian architecture were already emitting accumulated jets of water on unwary passers-by: From Carfax the gutters streamed down the gentle slope of the High, past the ‘Mitre’, past Great St Mary’s, past the Queen’s, and so down to where the tower of Magdalen stood in solitary austerity above the traffic which ran towards Headington or Iffley or Cowley. Outside St John’s, the trees began to creak and whisper, and the drops rattled with dull monotony from their branches, while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Taylorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose. The cinereous sky echoed the grey of innumerable walls; water ran in streams down the ivy which more or less shields Keble from offensive comment; paused and momentarily glistened on the wrought-iron gates of Trinity; gathered in innumerable runnels and rivulets among the cobbles which surround the Radcliffe Camera, standing like a mustard-pot among various other cruets. The eloquent décor of Oxford is bright sunlight or moonlight; rain makes of it a prison city, profoundly depressing.

And our featured professor of literature, Gervase Fen:

He travelled first-class because he had always wanted to be able to do so, but at the moment even this gave him little pleasure. Occasional pangs of conscience afflicted him over this display of comparative affluence; he had, however, succeeded in giving it some moral justification by means of a shaky economic argument, produced extempore for the benefit of one who had unwisely reproached him for his snobbishness. ‘My dear fellow,’ Gervase Fen had replied, ‘the railway company has certain constant running costs; if those of us who can afford it didn’t travel first, all the third-class fares would have to go up, to the benefit of nobody. Alter your economic system first,’ he had added magnificently to the unfortunate, ‘and then the problem will not arise.’ Later he referred this argument in some triumph to the Professor of Economics, where it was met to his chagrin with dubious stammerings.

Sometimes I think there’s something seriously wrong with me. I’ve been hitting the high culture a little hard lately – looking back, I haven’t read anything that could be considered an easy, relaxing read since October – so I went into the bookstore looking for something “different” (as I framed it to myself), and I came out with Dostoevsky and Kit Marlowe. I tried again a few weeks later, and I bought yet another Kundera novel and one of Joseph Campbell’s books on myth. I’ve also been feeling really tense lately, and I wonder if I even know how to relax any more. Fortunately, I approach the kobo differently. When I browse the website, I actively seek the less snobbish material that I can’t get reconciled to in printed form. Though really, I’m not sure if a book that uses such words as constatation and aposiopesis can really be considered easy, relaxing, or low-culture. I was sent to the dictionary at least five times, not generally a sign of low-stress reading.

Gervase Fen is a literature professor at Oxford, and uses his free time to solve crimes. He loves a good murder. Even though the narrator assures us he’s done this before, I think this is his first appearance in print. He’s delightfully eccentric, alternately exuberant and depressed, as the case progresses. Solving mysteries makes him happy, but the ethical dilemmas prompted by the solution trouble him. Is it right to assist in the conviction, imprisonment, and probable execution of a murderer who has killed someone that no one misses, and in fact most of the victim’s acquaintance rejoice in her demise? Especially when the murderer is an artist who could make a wartime world more beautiful? It’s a tricky puzzle. As much as I value human life and try to consider all lives equal, the damage that surrounds certain individuals makes me think that they and the world would both be happier if they were put out of the way. I’m not planning to murder anyone, I’m just saying that not all deaths are tragic.

The straight man from whose perspective we see the plot unfurl, Fen’s Dr Watson, is Nigel Blake, a former student who now works as a journalist. He quotes a lot, nearly as much as Fen himself, though in truth everyone does in this book. There is a veritable shit-ton of allusion, most of which I didn’t recognize and don’t feel bad about. I mean, how many people are reading Charles Churchill these days? Nigel’s quotations are more recognizable, usually from Shakespeare. The title itself is from King Lear, where he quotes the gilded fly as a symbol of lechery, when he’s praising venery for the illegitimate son who cares for him, as opposed to the honestly-got daughters who throw him out of his own home. One of the characters owns a ring with a gilded fly, a reproduction of an Egyptian artifact, and it’s found shoved onto the finger of a corpse. Hooray for literary theatre puns.

Along with the literature professor who solves crime, there’s a police detective who analyzes literature in his free time. Fen and Sir Richard disagree with each other’s conclusions, but the detective doesn’t play a large role. The Inspector, the more significant police presence, is an old man who is generally appalled and offended by the lax sexual mores of 1940. He spends his time being slowly authoritative and magnificently dense.

And then there are the victims and suspects, a group of theatre people and their hangers-on. The victim, Yseut Haskell, is a total bitch to everyone. She used to be sleeping with the playwright, but he’s moved on to the leading lady and the supporting actress hasn’t got over him. Oxford’s organist is hung up on Yseut, but she ignores him; the prop girl is hung up on the organist, and he ignores her in turn. There are other friends and relations, like the owner of the gun and the half-sister and the stage manager, and there’s more sex going on, but all of it offstage because we are writing in 1943 and things aren’t that lax.

This novel is written and set during World War II, yet the war doesn’t seem to invade Oxford. They have their blackout curtains, of course, and the war had a strong impact on theatre-going (which explains why a famous playwright and talented actors are leaving the West End to put on a show with a repertory company in Oxford), but most people keep doing what they had been doing, studying and teaching and performing, regardless of the Nazi Menace. I suppose if you’re not a soldier, wars don’t hold the attention very long. And since they don’t last forever, the activities that are not directly affected are in some ways more important. Of course, those activities could be ended by a war, but they’re not always. Art flourishes, even in unlikely places. And so does love.

So Nigel turned his attention back to what was left of Yseut. It was curious, he thought, how completely death had drained her of personality. And yet not curious: for her personality had centred entirely on her sex, and now that life was gone, that too had vanished, leaving her a neuter, an uninteresting construction of clay, suddenly pathetic. She had been an attractive girl. But that ‘had been’ was not a conventional gesture to the fact of death. It was an honest admission that without life the most beautiful body is an object of no interest. We are not bodies, thought Nigel, we are lives. And oddly, there came to him at that moment a new and firm conviction of the nature of love.

Yes, this contradicts Poe’s assertion that there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died, but Crispin’s idea is better, healthier. In a book where sexuality runs rampant, he turns away from necrophilia and makes sure sex is only expressed in healthy, heterosexual ways. Nowadays, when we read that two young men didn’t hear the gunshot because they were listening to German opera and tone poems at high volume, we think that it’s to cover the sounds of gay sex, but they had all the windows and doors open, so less lover-like and more aggressively pretentious. Even in 1943 I imagine that Wagner and Strauss (Richard, not Johann) had a limited appeal. When I was in graduate school I tried listening to them for a class and my newborn son screamed and screamed. He was happy with Donizetti, but could not handle the Germans. But really, who doesn’t like Donizetti? They put some in a Bruce Willis film, and that scene is even more widely remembered and loved than the ending, which is a little anticlimactic. Granted, there’s a crazy electronic cadenza, but it’s still Donizetti.

Life matters. We are who we are because we are alive, and when we die this physical shell, this earthly husk, will become a thing of no worth, something we burn or bury, which is what we do to trash. A body with no breath, a human with no life, is not a thing of great value. Its only use is as evidence – we must find out who or what deprived us of this life. And that’s the conclusion we must eventually come to: Even Yseut Haskell’s life matters and contributes to humanity. Robbing the world of a life is a serious crime, one that people in my home country are only too happy to commit. Our murder rates are rising dramatically, which suggests that people in the United States do not value human life. There are too many bombs, too many shootings, and too much of it is based on identities. People get killed for being black, for being Muslim, for being gay, I mean this guy from Baltimore just ran up to New York because he wanted to kill a black person. Why do you think they’re insisting so much that their lives matter? Because white people think it’s okay to kill them. Yes, all lives do matter, but the majority of American culture does not question the value of white lives. Straight white male Christian lives, to be specific. I was in the mall yesterday, and there were several small-time entrepreneurs setting up booths and tables to sell things, and I heard one of the sellers demean both Jews and Blacks in the space of about twenty minutes. I suppose this is a good community for that, since there aren’t many non-white, non-Christians around, but what a horrible way to see the world. Life is precious, both your individual life and everyone else’s.

Objectively speaking, it has been said that Crispin’s murders are too convoluted, that no one would ever actually kill people in these manners. They’re too unrealistic. Yes, that’s very likely so, and I suppose it’s bothersome if you read mystery novels because you want to figure it out before it’s revealed, but I don’t. I read these stories because I think detectives are interesting people. Intelligent, brave, and eccentric – who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? Crispin’s mysteries, though, are probably best enjoyed by people who enjoy literary quotations and expanding their vocabularies. Like me.

This group of stories was written by Lawrence in his twenties, leading up to Sons and Lovers and World War I. I’m reading the Oxford World’s Classics edition, ed. Antony Atkins, and there is a choice I would not have made. Atkins orders the stories chronologically, from the earliest known draft, instead of in the sequence Lawrence chose. DHL was an obsessive reviser, so it seems plain to me that the arrangement of the stories would have been agonized over as much as any of his other changes, particularly since Atkins’s notes highlight the frequent revisions and the specific changes Lawrence made each time. I’m not saying that studying them chronologically has no value, merely that I think there is more value in reading an author’s work in the manner in which he published it.

“The Prussian Officer” is the last story to be written, but Lawrence puts it first and uses its name in the title, so I guess he considered it either the best or most important. Publishing in 1914, at the beginning of a war, I can see the expedience of that choice. TPO is the gay story of the bunch, but it’s written at a time when there was no cultural vocabulary for that, so it’s painful. The Captain is infatuated with the soldier who acts as his servant, but he can neither express nor accept his own desire, so it comes out in dangerous ways. Instead of kissing him, he kicks him. The only way his cultural background will allow him to touch this younger man is violently, so he does. This kid gets really hurt. The servant is straight, though, so he doesn’t kiss back – he kills him. With his bare hands. As with most of the stories, it’s really sad and completely preventable.

“The Thorn in the Flesh” is the second story, and second-to-last written. It’s also about a German soldier who accidentally hurts an officer and gets in trouble for it. I think that, as he traveled about and saw more of the world, Lawrence became less tolerant of authority, particularly in the military context. Atkins includes in an appendix an earlier version of this one called “Vin Ordinaire,” and it helped me understand the story and its revision better. In describing the accident, the earlier version is much clearer – I couldn’t visualize what was happening in the later version. The earlier story seems to come from the soldier’s point of view, and everything revolves around him. He runs off to his girlfriend’s house, and even the sex is centered on him. There’s a line about how Emilie is only half satisfied, but Lawrence sort of drops her. The later version, the one he published in the book, is much more centered on her. The accident is vague because she probably only had a vague sense of the details. Her consciousness is moved to the forefront, and it highlights her virginity and her pride in her virginity, then her changing outlook after she loses that virginity. And, in the later version, she spends the night with him instead of with the governess, so she gets complete satisfaction. The early version is a lot like the other early stories, but the later one seems to have challenged him more. I envision Emilie knocking on the door of his brain, demanding a better ending and more attention, until he finally rewrote the thing.

Most of the stories in the book rely on his own early experience, like Sons and Lovers. As you would expect, they’re about the everyday lives of coalminers in the Midlands. My favorite of the volume was “Daughters of the Vicar,” about two girls raised in isolated snobbery in a little mining village. The story is about their marriages – the first marries this curate with Short-Man Syndrome, which means that he is keenly aware of his physical inferiority and overcompensates with intellectual prowess and the power to force other people to do what he wants. The older girl is drawn to his power, and as such is a little afraid of him and not much attracted to him. The younger sister is in love with one of the miners, a curiously self-conscious young man who did a stint in the navy to get out of town but came back from homesickness. For me, their love affair is one of the most intense parts of the book, so it’s no surprise that Lawrence put it third after the German soldier stories.

At last she wanted to see him. She looked up. His eyes were strange and glowing, with a tiny black pupil. Strange, they were, and powerful over her. And his mouth came to hers, and slowly her eyelids closed, as his mouth sought hers closer and closer, and took possession of her.

They were silent for a long time, too much mixed up with passion and grief and death to do anything but hold each other in pain and kiss with long, burning kisses wherein fear was transfused into desire. At last she disengaged herself. He felt as if his heart were hurt, but glad, and he scarcely dared look at her.

The ones in the middle are a little forgettable. No doubt true to the life, but not every aspect of life is interesting, you know?

The final story in Lawrence’s arrangement is the one most frequently anthologized, “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” A miner’s wife gets angry at her husband for staying out late, then she finds out that he died in a cave-in and she and his mother prepare the body for burial. There are two topics that interest me here, and in the less memorable stories. (1) The sharp visual contrasts in miner’s lives. They work underground all day, so their skin is as pale as anything. But, despite their bright whiteness, they get covered in coal dust, so when they come home they’re nearly black. They move back and forth between black and white, and while they’re black they communicate that darkness to the rest of the world. Darkness defines the miners’ professional lives, and it stains the rest of their existences too. Washing is one of the most important activities of the evening, because that is the transition between workplace filth and domestic cleanliness. This casting of white as normal and black as deviant probably affects Lawrence’s ethnocentrism, evident throughout his career. (2) The unknowableness of other people. The mining stories are full of this sense of isolation and social ignorance. We can never completely know what is happening in another person’s mind, so even if we spend years sleeping in the same bed we can never fully know another human being. This knowledge frequently comes too late, after the characters have to suffer for their presumption. This theme is stressed in the version of “Chrysanthemums” Lawrence chose for publication, but Atkins includes an earlier version of the ending which focuses instead on the consequences of poverty. As Elizabeth is preparing her husband for his grave, instead of thinking of how little she really knows him, she thinks about how working long hours in a dangerous job for little pay has affected him over the years.

Let Education teach us to amuse ourselves, necessity will train us to work. Once out of the pit, there was nothing to interest this man. He sought the public-house where, by paying the price of his own integrity, he found amusement, destroying the clamours for activity, because he knew not what form the activities might take. The miner turned miscreant to himself, easing the ache of dissatisfaction by destroying the part of him which ached. Little by little the recreant maimed and destroyed himself.

It was this recreant his wife had hated so bitterly, had fought against so strenuously. She had strove, all the years of his falling off, had strove with all her force to save the man she had known new-bucklered with beauty and strength. In a wild and bloody passion she fought the recreant. Now this lay killed, the clean young knight was brought home to her. Elizabeth bowed her head upon the body and wept.

If you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, poverty focuses our attention at the bottom, with keeping ourselves fed, sheltered, and sexually satisfied. Safety is a higher level of concern that, at home, the miners can achieve, but not at work. As such, women are in some ways better off than men, but in most ways not. The difficulty of being a miner’s wife is one of the primary themes of the collection. After safety, people need love and belonging, and most of Lawrence’s characters can achieve that, though Elizabeth is in some doubt. Esteem is more difficult to accomplish – no student of gender interactions will be surprised at how little respect husbands and wives can show each other. [Notice, I said can; it’s not inevitable. The old saying goes, Familiarity breeds contempt, and spouses generally become quite familiar with each other over time. Maybe clinging to unknowableness is Lawrence’s way of establishing more mutual respect.] And finally, few of Lawrence’s characters meet their full potential – self-actualization – because of their economic and social limitations.

Atkins’s edition also includes “With the Guns,” which was considered uncollected until the sixties. It’s a nonfiction piece about Lawrence’s observations of European soldiers before WWI got started, and it seems to give a key to his writing choices. This scene involves the shots fired by modern artillery:

I watched, but I could not see where they had gone, nor what had been aimed at. Evidently they were directed against an enemy a mile and a half away, men unseen by any of the soldiers at the guns. Whether the shot they fired hit or missed, killed or did not touch, I and the gun-party did not know. Only the officer was shouting the range again, the guns were again starting back, we were again staring over the face of the green and dappled, inscrutable country into which the missiles sped unseen.

What work was there to do? – only mechanically to adjust the guns and fire the shot. What was there to feel? – only the unnatural suspense and suppression of serving a machine which, for aught we knew, was killing our fellow-men, whilst we stood there, blind, without knowledge or participation, subordinate to the cold machine. This was the glamour and the glory of the war: blue sky overhead and living green country all around, but we, amid it all, a part in some iron insensate will, our flesh and blood, our soul and intelligence shed away, and all that remained of us a cold, metallic adherence to an iron machine. There was neither ferocity nor joy nor exultation nor exhilaration nor even quick fear, only a mechanical, expressionless movement.

Lawrence’s love for nature seems to have been awakened by watching the Bavarian artillery. There was a time when war meant pitting men against men, where the stronger or more determined man won. World War I seems to be the beginning of drone strikes, where an obedient soldier manipulates fire on an impersonal target he is given, like the faceless NPCs of shooter games. Modern warfare denies our common humanity; it transforms living beings into cogs of a machine, a machine designed to bring death to whatever comes within its sights. In contrast, there is the beauty of sky and vegetation, life all around the machinery of death. The thing that really twists my perception here is that death is an inherently natural process that has been hijacked by technology – war denaturizes death. There is no inevitability, no sense of continuity, no circle of life. One moment someone is there, breathing and digesting and loving and sweating and alive, and the next moment he is gone, arbitrarily, purposelessly.

Maybe if we loved nature more, we would have found a different kind of warfare. Instead of increasing tools and separating the combatants, we could have reclaimed a style of war that more closely mimics nature, one that celebrates the physical reality of two men’s bodies coming together, struggling for dominance, where the strongest will to live wins. More primitive, no doubt, but where honor, strength, and determination really matter, where there is more to defending family and resources than what you see in a video game. I’m not suggesting that there is a good type of warfare; I’m just saying that our current method of managing conflict to maintain peace is ineffective, in part because it removes the human element from both sides.

War is awful. Killing another person is (and should be) a traumatic experience. Making it easier to kill others, both logistically and psychologically, which is the aim of military technology, is not a worthwhile endeavor. Some things are supposed to hurt, so that we learn not to do them.

I feel sort of bad, like I should apologize to the author, but I really feel like when he says

Self-conscious and didactic, it was not a successful work.

he’s talking about his own novel. I mean, a few of the critics call it a thriller, but it doesn’t have anything scary in it. There are a few moments of mild excitement, but not even cheap thrills. It is very learned, with an advanced vocabulary and heavy with allusion, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good read.

How many times have we done the fallen priest novel? I wasn’t that fond of Graham Greene’s, but I haven’t found one better. As is often the case, the priest, who is a Father Whatawaste, falls in love and has sex. The physical contact drives him into questioning everything he’s ever believed, because if you can have sex without being dragged to hell immediately, then obviously God doesn’t exist.

Within he wonders what he has wondered for much of his life but has rarely allowed conscious space to: is there a being, transcendent or immanent – either will do – that one might call God (or Dio, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Bog, if it comes to that) and if there is such a being, does he (He?) care one jot or tittle for the spiritual or physical life of this speck of dust crammed into tourist class on an Alitalia flight to London, Heathrow? He reads his breviary, possibly for the very last time. His question remains unanswered, but his body (embarrassingly: he has to shift in his seat to make things comfortable again) answers all to readily to the persistent vision of Madeleine, which exists in a separate but simultaneous part of his mind and has by now opened its legs.

Leo Newman’s conundrum is complicated by the fact that he’s a researcher; once he and his girl (diplomat’s wife) start doing it, he gets tapped to translate a newly discovered scroll. It’s authenticated to earlier than any preexisting gospel narrative, and claims to be Judas Iscariot’s account of the life of Jesus. So, he didn’t kill himself after the crucifixion. Worse, he says that he, Nicodemus, and Saul of Tarsus stole the body and hid it where no one could find it, but that he, Judas, has seen the decomposing body of Jesus, so the resurrection is a fraud. First the scandal about him and Madeleine hits the papers, and then there’s the to-do about the Judas scroll. Everyone sees him as a betrayer, as worse than Judas himself. And they do have a point; betrayal is sort of this guy’s stock-in-trade.

There’s something oddly Victorian about the whole thing; a priest who has Jewish blood and Jesuit training unravels Christianity, and yet the attempt is made to present him sympathetically? Who wrote this novel, Thackeray? I mean, the author seems to struggle between a conscious acceptance of the inevitability of sexual desire and a prurient rejection of its expression. I don’t think of sex as failure or disease; I rather believe it’s a success.

And that was the moment when something turned inside him, something visceral, like the first symptoms of a disease. That was what made it all the more disturbing, that it seemed so profoundly organic. The cerebral he could deal with. The cerebral he could battle against, had long ago learned to battle against. Mental images were things he could chase from his mind like Christ chasing the money-changers from the Temple (an incident that is generally accepted by the most skeptical of New Testament scholars as genuine, indeed pivotal). But when it was the temple of the body that was under assault, the dismissal was not so easy. No easier to dismiss a cancer. And her glance at him as they sat at the long dining table beneath the benevolent eye of Jack and the agonized eye of Saint Clare Contemplating the Eucharist, School of Guido Reni, seemed to plant the first seeds of some disease in his body.

Twined around this story, we flash forward and backward, into his past and his present. The story of his present, living with an artist named Magda, is sort of dull, even when compared to the uninteresting main story. It provides some foreshadowing, and I believe Leo is eventually sort of happy. In my opinion, the interesting part of the book is the story out of the past.

Leo’s parents were German Nazis stationed in Italy during World War II. His mother has an affair with an Italian Jew, gets angry, and turns him in. I mean, it may not be the most original story in the world, but it was a lot more interesting and affecting than the story of their son’s life of betrayal. I suppose there’s an element of “the sins of the fathers being visited on the heads of the sons,” and parts of the story of Frau Huber and Checco parallel nicely with Leo and Madeleine.

“You are a Jew. What can you know of God?”

“I thought we invented him.”

She chooses her words deliberately, as one chooses a weapon that will do the most damage: “You may have invented God,” she says, “but you also murdered him.”

How can this poor kid help betraying everyone and everything around him? His father was a Christ-killer, and his mother was a Holocaust-denying Jew-killer.

“Tell me what it is like . . .” he asks as they contemplate a Venus standing in the long grass. The Venus gestures with half an arm, like an amputee. Her face, part ravaged by time, still contains within its worn features a strange modesty. Her thighs enclose her glabrous pudendum tightly, so that men may look but not see.

“What what is like?”

“To be a woman.”

She laughs. “How can a woman explain that to a man?”

“Tell me how it feels when you make love.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Or when you have a baby.”

“Painful. You’re being idiotic.”

“I want to understand you.”

“Men cannot understand women.”

“Italian men can. Maybe not German men, but Italian men can.”

“German men are no different from Italian men.”

“They are very different. German men murder children.”

“They do not!” Her voice has risen now. The ghostly, mangled Venus has ceased to matter. She is suddenly angry, her face flushed, her nose, that not-quite-classical nose, sharp and white with a kind of tension. “That is a disgusting thing to say!”

He is grinning at her reaction. “Oh, but they do. Jewish children.”

“Lies! I will not have you saying that kind of thing!” Momentarily, guiltily, she thinks of her husband.

I’d like to say that there’s some interesting stuff about gender, but this is the only passage that moves in that direction. And there are a couple of references to homosexuality, but all of them as something to be avoided in a priest. Back when I was a Mormon, preaching in Brazil, one of my friends said, “If you don’t look once, you’re not a man; if you look twice, you’re not a missionary.” Newman’s fellow priests have the same attitude: it takes a celibate heterosexual man to do God’s work. Anything else is the devil’s work. Mawer recognizes that lifelong celibacy is fucked up, but he represents sex as an inevitable evil, proof of betrayal. Judas and Jezebel, cut from the same cloth, dyed with the same blood. Blood soaks through every symbol and allusion in the book, odd since there’s so little physical violence.

It’s an unfortunate book. I’m sure there are some who like it, and it’s self-consciously literary enough that at one time I may have pretended to, but I’m certainly not one of them.

Steppenwolf has been very important to me. It has been very important to lots of people, but I don’t like to think about that. I tend to feel towards it like it is St Matthew’s pearl of great price, that I go to great lengths to obtain and keep secret. Or maybe it’s a little more like Gollum, stroking my paperback in secret, muttering over My Precious. I take an unjust comfort in the thought that very few people understand it like I do. I try not to be a snob, but when it comes to things that touch me deeply, I get overprotective.

Hesse’s comments in the foreword strengthen this impression. He talks about the many men who identify with the protagonist, but who miss the point. The first hundred pages or so are kind of slow, and describe Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf of the title. But the rest of the book, longer than that beginning, is about how he grows and changes, becoming more complete, though the novel ends with the proof that he’s not finished yet.

Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and a crisis – but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.

Harry begins the novel unhappy and begins a journey to heal himself and find some happiness in his life. If you’re one of these forty-ish-year-old Germans who live lives of Thoreau’s quiet desperation, you’ll identify with Haller at the beginning, when we’re spending a lot of time analyzing him, but you have to be willing to change, you have to believe that you can change, in order to see it as Hesse does, to get the benefit he seems to have intended from the book.

Unfortunately, Hesse’s greatest lyricism is in the passages about the quiet desperation.

He who has known the other days, the angry ones of gout attacks, or those with that wicked headache rooted behind the eyeballs that casts a spell on every nerve of eye and ear with a fiendish delight in torture, or soul-destroying, evil days of inward vacancy and despair, when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with the lying, vulgar, brazen glamor of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of an emetic, and when all is concentrated and focused to the last pitch of the intolerable upon your own sick self – he who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today. Thankfully you sit by the warm stove, thankfully you assure yourself as you read your morning paper that another day has come and no war broken out, no new dictatorship has been set up, no particularly disgusting scandal been unveiled in the worlds of politics or finance. Thankfully you tune the strings of your moldering lyre to a moderated, to a passably joyful, nay, to an even delighted psalm of thanksgiving and with it bore your quiet, flabby and slightly stupefied half-and-half god of contentment; and in the thick warm air of a contented boredom and very welcome painlessness the nodding mandarin of a half-and-half god and the nodding middle-aged gentleman who sings his muffled psalm look as like each other as two peas.

I find myself stuck in this half-and-half life right now. In this desert, the best thing on offer seems to be not-depressed, so that’s all I’m shooting for when I’m here. I know it’s dangerous to postpone the search for happiness, but I don’t seem able to find much here. The communal culture is not well-suited to my temperament, but living in one means that the solitary joys are few. The locals deal with it by focusing on their religion. The name Islam means submission, so that’s what they do. They resign themselves to life as it is and discourage any attempts to change anything. I have never been good at submission. I can fake it for short periods, but it’s not natural or comfortable to me. This is not to say that I think I’m better than others, or that I’m too much in love with myself. In many ways I am (and have been) like Haller at the beginning:

It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

Or, as when Hesse describes the suicide as a personality type:

What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk, as though he stood with the slightest foothold on the peak of a crag whence a slight push from without or an instant’s weakness from within suffices to precipitate him into the void. The line of fate in the case of these men is marked by the belief they have that suicide is their most probable manner of death. It might be presumed that such temperaments, which usually manifest themselves in early youth and persist through life, show a singular defect of vital force. On the contrary, among the “suicides” are to be found unusually tenacious and eager and also hardy natures. But just as there are those who at the least indisposition develop a fever, so do those whom we call suicides, and who are always very emotional and sensitive, develop at the least shock the notion of suicide.

These days we talk about clinical depression and prescribe medicine, but Hesse cuts to the heart of the matter. I feel this whenever I walk across a bridge or stand on a cliff; I’m not afraid I’ll fall, I’m afraid I’ll jump.

Those of us who feel this self-discontent, which becomes displaced as discontent with the entire world, usually want to be different. We know that life would be better if we changed – we don’t need the great Zachary Glass to tell us that. However, that knowledge is only the first step. It’s like when I came out of the closet and got divorced. Lots of people were telling me that I should go hook up with some random guys to ‘explore my sexuality’ or ‘figure out what I want’ or even ‘you can’t masturbate forever.’ I had accepted that this kind of experience would have some benefit for me, but that doesn’t mean I was ready to do it. It took me a couple of years before I was. When the time was right, I did it and derived what advantages one can. I think that a lot of us make this mistake: we think that when we know we ought to do something (or want to do it), that’s all the preparation we need. Recognizing a need is not the same thing as being ready for its fulfillment.

In analyzing the Steppenwolf, it’s useful to talk about Freud for a minute (not that Hesse does, though he discusses the same concepts). Harry Haller sees himself as a two-part being, a man and a wolf. The two sides of himself are constantly at war with each other, each struggling to dominate. The part he calls the wolf matches with Freud’s idea of the id, the part of the subconscious where all our desires originate from instinctual drives. The id wants to avoid pain, so at first Freud called it the pleasure principle. Hesse points out that a lot of what Haller calls the wolf is actually what makes him a human man. As time went on, Freud started treating soldiers who were trying to recover from World War I, and he realized that he couldn’t explain their traumatic dreams with the pleasure principle. He recognized survivors’ guilt, and theorized that the subconscious has another part – a legislative body where we store our internalized social conventions, which attacks us in the form of guilt and the compulsion to repeat traumatic events in our imagination. Haller thinks that the man part of himself is this superego, even though it’s more often trying to kill him, or at least punish him for the desires that come from his id/wolf. Hesse identifies the bourgeois as those who can comfortably strike a middle path between desire and law, who live the sort of half-and-half contented life mentioned above.

Haller finds comfort in aesthetics. This is the only place where he can reconcile his need to satisfy himself with his need to satisfy everyone else. His ideals are Goethe and Mozart, and judges every other cultural production by its ability to approximate one of these two monoliths. Buxtehude and Haydn are okay, even Schubert, but not Beethoven. Jazz is right out.

You are right, Steppenwolf, right a thousand times over, and yet you must go to the wall. You are much too exacting and hungry for this simple, easygoing and easily contented world of today. You have a dimension too many. Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours –

His aesthetic sense can help him find peace in mundane things, like a neighbor’s potted plants, but his snobbery keeps him away from a lot of life. He feels isolated, and comforts himself by saying that it’s because the rest of the world is not up to his standards, but he doesn’t recognize the arbitrary nature of those standards. I feel isolated a lot of the time, but I no longer see that as a sign of my self-worth. I don’t want to define myself by the things I refuse to enjoy. I used to reject country music out of hand, but I want to get over that. Yes, I can enjoy a glass or two of wine with my salmon and lentils at an expensive Parisian restaurant, but if I’m at a pig-picking in eastern North Carolina and someone hands me a Mason jar of homebrewed corn whiskey, I’ll enjoy that too. I’m done with being proud of loneliness. After all, don’t wolves travel in packs?

That larger second part of the book is about Haller getting out of this miserable, snobbish, suicidal life. He meets a girl who forces him to learn the fox trot and to listen to recorded music. He realizes that he’s having fun. In order to be a complete person, he has to learn to embrace everything that the world has to offer, even if it’s not the highest art. [I think that’s why I started a blog about books with World War Z – to remind the readers of my former blog that my thought-life isn’t all Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf.] He has to find the value of the ephemeral. This is personified in the vaguely Hispanic saxophone player, who leads him into the allegorical magic gallery.

You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture gallery but your own soul. All I can give you is the opportunity, the impulse, the key. I can help you to make your own world visible. That is all.

And what he finds there is all the selves he has been. Society has agreed that it’s a terrible crime to reduce a person to one body part, like her genitals; it’s equally awful to reduce a person to a single personality trait, but we do that anyway. It’s easier to hate someone when you only see one quality in them. Haller has reduced himself to two, his anxiety to be respectable and his desire to rebel. But we are all more complex than that. There is no simple duality at the heart of man (good/evil, flesh/spirit, God/Satan, angel/djinn, whatever). We are more than we give ourselves credit for.

In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.

Every possibility is in every person. Given the proper training and stimulus, any person is capable of any action. This is one of the reasons it so ill becomes us to judge others; in dwelling on another’s guilt, we deflect our attention from our complicity in his crime, our jealousy that he did it and not I. At the same time, we also measure ourselves against other people’s successes, but without recognizing that we ourselves are capable of the same degree of success. There is value in every person, in every kind of life. For my entire adult life, I’ve been living the adventure of traveling around and meeting new people in new places. I’d like to try the adventure of living in a town for years, growing into a house that becomes the shell of my life, seeing a single group of people grow and change, feeling how I change in response to them. There are all sorts of adventures, if you choose to see them as such.

Haller reflects on his life at the end of the book:

My life had become weariness. It had wandered in a maze of unhappiness that led to renunciation and nothingness; it was bitter with the salt of all human things; yet it had laid up riches, riches to be proud of. It had been for all its wretchedness a princely life. Let the little way to death be as it might, the kernel of this life of mine was noble. It had purpose and character and turned not on trifles, but on the stars.

As does mine. As does yours.

 

Three years ago, when I faced the fact that I didn’t believe in the church I had been attending my entire life, my friendly acupuncturist recommended this book to me. He had read it when he was younger, and it really helped him begin fashioning his own belief system. I read it then and really liked it, but as I was reading it these last few days, I realized that its time has passed for me. It’s a good book for beginning, but feels less relevant when you’re in the middle of the struggle.

It’s also kind of elitist. Sinclair starts the novel as a kid in school. He meets Max Demian and they talk about the biblical story of Cain’s mark. Demian sees it as some sort of retcon by the uninitiated: they saw something about Cain that was unsocial and extraordinary, so they invented the myth about killing Abel to explain it. The two friends spend the rest of the novel either being alone or hanging out with an intellectual ‘elite,’ until they go off to fight in World War I. There in the last few pages, Sinclair finally begins to see the beauty and dignity of ordinary men and ordinary lives.

Having read several of his books, I firmly believe that Hermann Hesse was a closeted homosexual. Possibly not closeted to close friends, but in terms of his public. This book leans pretty strongly in that direction. It seems obvious to me that Sinclair is in love with Demian but can’t admit it to himself. He feels a magnetic attraction that he can’t explain. He only infatuates himself with women who are completely unattainable and noticeably masculine. The big love of his young life is Demian’s mother, a more mature version of Demian himself, only with a gendered body that Sinclair will admit to being attracted to. When the book ends, Sinclair is in a war hospital seeing a vision of Demian kissing him. This vision seems to settle in his mind what relation he will have to Demian in future, using him as a sort of intellectual muse.

Part of the difficulty Sinclair has is one that I’m faced with too. He doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.

There was only one thing I could not do: wrest the dark secret goal from myself and keep it before me as others did who knew exactly what they wanted to be – professors, lawyers, doctors, artists, however long this would take them and whatever difficulties and advantages this decision would bear in its wake. This I could not do. Perhaps I would become something similar, but how was I to know? Perhaps I would have to continue my search for years on end and would not become anything, and would not reach a goal. Perhaps I would reach this goal but it would turn out to be an evil, dangerous, horrible one?

I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?

I still don’t know what I really want to do, professionally speaking. It doesn’t seem like an important question. What’s important to me is in my personal life – what sort of relationship I’ll have with my children, where I’m going to find the right somebody to love, what I will eventually discover myself to believe in. As long as my job gives me enough money to feed my kids and pay my bills, and gives me enough free time to work through the rest of it, I don’t care too much about what that job is going to be. I never felt a strong vocation to teaching; I majored in English and wanted to become a professor because that seemed the best way to prolong the academic life I was enjoying so much. But as I contemplate that now, I don’t think it’s the right thing for me. And I don’t know where that leaves me.

As one can expect from Hesse, this novel is about a spiritual journey. Of course, it starts by rejecting the conservative Christianity of the time.

But I have to tell you something: this is one of the very places that reveals the poverty of this religion most distinctly. The point is that this God of both Old and New Testaments is certainly an extraordinary figure but not what he purports to represent. He is all that is good, noble, fatherly, beautiful, elevated, sentimental – true! But the world consists of something else besides. And what is left over is ascribed to the devil, this entire slice of the world, this entire half is suppressed and hushed up. In exactly the same way they praise God as the father of all life but simply refuse to say a word about our sexual life on which it’s all based, describing it whenever possible as sinful, the work of the devil. I have no objection to worshiping this God Jehovah, far from it. But I mean we ought to consider everything sacred, the entire world, not merely this artificially separated half! Thus alongside the divine service we should also have a service for the devil. I feel that would be right. Otherwise you must create for yourself a God that contains the devil too and in front of which you needn’t close your eyes when the most natural things in the world take place.

I think that Demian is right here, but only partially. Yes, the common Christian conception of God ignores a significant portion of our lives, and demonizes the very drives that lead to the fulfillment of one of God’s first commandments, to be fruitful and multiply. Yes, either everything is sacred or nothing is. But I don’t see that these ideas mean that we need to continue to accept the traditional binary thinking. Instead of seeing God and the devil as dualistic opposing forces, look at nature, both human and otherwise. Every species ensures its own survival. Once that’s accomplished, they live in peace with each other. There’s a time and a place for destruction, just as there is for creation. It all exists in cycles. The divisions between good and evil desires are sometimes in place to ensure the survival of our species, but sometimes they’re fairly arbitrary. Instead of setting up a shrine to the devil (Aldous Huxley showed a worship service to the devil in Ape and Essence – not as fun or constructive as it sounds), I think it’s more worthwhile to revise our understanding of God, or at least of the conventional morality ascribed to him.

Conventional morality kind of sucks. It seems based on the idea that self-denial is intrinsically good. Of course some of it is, but there must be a reason we deny ourselves things, and that reason must be a good one. It’s easy to deny yourself things when you hate yourself. I spent a long time doing just that. Sometimes I still do. Denying myself luxuries so that I can more adequately support my children seems like a good idea, but denying myself basic necessities because I’m angry at the world and my place in it is a bad one. I don’t think that fear of hell is a good reason to do anything, either. Not only is it fairly ineffective, it transforms you into someone who lives in constant fear, and I think that fear is bad. I have a lot of experience with it, I’m comfortable with the fear I find in myself, but I try not to let it govern my quotidian experience of life on earth. The emphasis on fear and unnecessary self-denial turns a lot of people away from faith-based belief systems.

I like listening to music, but only the kind you play, completely unreserved music, the kind that makes you feel that a man is shaking heaven and hell. I believe I love that kind of music because it is amoral. Everything else is so moral that I’m looking for something that isn’t. Morality has always seemed to me insufferable. I can’t express it very well.

Sinclair doesn’t quite have the words for it, but Pistorius, the drunk church organist who teaches him for a time, puts it better.

I don’t mean that you should simply do everything that pops into your head. No. But you shouldn’t harm and drive away those ideas that make good sense by exorcising them or moralizing about them. Instead of crucifying yourself or someone else you can drink wine from a chalice and contemplate the mystery of the sacrifice. Even without such procedures you can treat your drives and so-called temptations with respect and love. Then they will reveal their meaning – and they all do have meaning. If you happen to think of something truly mad or sinful again, if you want to kill someone or want to commit some enormity, Sinclair, think at that moment that it is Abraxas fantasizing within you! The person whom you would like to do away with is of course never Mr X but merely a disguise. If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.

I’ve mentioned this concept a few times lately, with Gibran and Casariegos, but I think it’s important, and must be something I need to hear a lot these days. The key to happiness, holiness, whatever you like, you could even call it the Meaning of Life, is to accept everything about myself. Not do everything that occurs to me, but to accept whatever need my urges and ideas express. I also think it’s important to recognize that when something irritates me in someone else, it’s because that same thing is in me. Which means it’s a tendency that I need to accept instead of hating it. I think that hatred in general is a bad thing.

Throughout the book, Sinclair has a series of teachers, and at the very end (last page) he seems to have internalized the most important of them. These past few days I’ve been feeling the lack of a teacher. My beliefs are all tangled and confused and I’d like some help getting through this next clarifying stage of things, but I don’t know if there are any that I’d accept. Among the people around me now, the only spiritual teachers would lead me toward Islam, and I know that I don’t want to go there. I have a hard time with the idea of a silent God, one who spoke last to Muhammad and has expected all the rest of us to listen to that conversation fifteen hundred years ago. I’d rather not believe in God at all than believe He’s that indifferent to me. And this is part of my problem: I can easily say what I don’t believe, but it’s incredibly difficult to find a positive belief statement that I can agree with unreservedly.

When Demian first came out, it seemed to capture the attitude of an entire generation of young Germans who came of age during World War I. It was like the twentieth century’s Sorrows of Young Werther. I can see how it can provide a lot of hope to people who feel like they’re somehow different than the people around them, but can’t pinpoint in what way. I think that feeling is fairly common to adolescents. It starts us on a journey, but it doesn’t reach the end. I don’t feel like I’ve even hit the middle; on the last page, I still feel as if Sinclair is just beginning. I suppose in some ways that’s appropriate. I feel like life is a series of beginnings with no ends, like nothing is ever really finished or done. It’ll all keep circling back, in Nietzsche’s eternal return.

 

When reading the works of Milan Kundera, it helps to have some knowledge of, or at least interest in, three subjects: philosophy, European history and politics, and sex.

I’ve read this novel before, focusing on plot and character and letting the philosophy wash through me. But having read Sartre recently, I understood the philosophy better, so I paid more attention to it. The title and first two chapters introduce some of the important concepts. Kundera begins with Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return: existence happens in cycles, patterns of behaviour that are repeated within a person’s lifetime, throughout cultures, and on the global scale as well. Many books read this way, including the Old Testament (referenced quite a few times in the text). If this moment is bound to happen again and again, it is infinitely important that we make the right choices because we, and everyone else, are bound to repeat this choice over and over. This sounds like an easier-to-swallow version of Sartre’s idea that what choices we make define humanity. The responsibility for our choices and the awareness that they affect everything in time and space feels like a weight, and this heaviness is roughly equivalent to Sartre’s meaning of the word anguish. On the other hand, the Germans have an old saying, einmal ist keinmal, or, once is never. If something only happens once, it may as well have never happened at all. Kundera seems to champion the belief that life is a series of discrete moments with little connection to each other. Without these causal connections, there is no grand responsibility for the world, no weight. There is an incredible lightness, in which nothing we do matters because we are powerless to affect anything. Hence the unbearable lightness of the title.

Personally, I think lightness and weight are two extremes, and the truth is a blend of the two. There are certain clear causal links between my behaviour and the events in my life. However, I am not responsible for the choices of other people. Kundera only presents the two possibilities, that either events return and we always choose the same thing or events never return and every decision is irrevocable. I think that similar choices recur in our lives, so that we do have the opportunity to change our minds, to choose to be something other than we have always been. We are constantly recreating our identities, and if we want to be different, we can act differently and choose something new. I think this is what Sabina is getting at with her fixation with betrayal of betrayals; choosing something new that contradicts her choices in the past, she has a compulsion to do and be differently than she has done and been. She keeps in the middle between lightness and weight, and you notice she’s the only main character to live through the book.

As with philosophy, Czech history is not my forte. It’d be interesting to read this book in close juxtaposition with Milosz’s The Captive Mind and other books about the spread of communism in Eastern Europe in the late twentieth century. Nearly all of my knowledge of European history comes through its literature, and, as with most novels, you don’t have to understand it all in order to follow the story, so again as with philosophy, I let the history wash through me and piece together a more complete understanding with time.

The aspect of the political situation that I identify with most strongly is the fear of observation. I’ve always been a little paranoid about being watched and judged, and living in a country with strict anti-terrorism legislation doesn’t help. I don’t want to overthrow any specific government; I think the whole idea of government is flawed, but it sure beats having to walk around with a gun all the time. I do object to being asked which books and films I bring into a country, though. Stories are very important to me, and I get heartily offended at the implication that some are unwelcome in an entire country.

In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library, and above all, the novels. She had read any number of them, from Fielding to Thomas Mann. They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

(Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy’s cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.)

Yes, all of this, yes. This was me as a kid, but I recognized the old-fashionedness of it because I read old-fashioned books. I went all out for it, with huge mutton chop sideburns and pocket watches and bowties and stuff. I don’t mind feeling a little anachronistic at times. The first time my ex saw me naked she said I looked like a Victorian gentleman.

Persons who are uncomfortable with sex should never read Kundera. Sex is very important to him, so he puts lots of it in his novels. Sometimes it’s very graphic, like the clockwork orgy scene in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I welcome it, but I don’t discuss Kundera with my mother. I may not have a ton of sexual experience, but I do have a vivid imagination and a tendency to think about it a lot. I analyze my experiences and fantasies to understand myself, and what things I’d like to try in the future. Kundera discusses the vision of Paradise in terms of unattainable ideals, but two of his characters have an experience that approximates mine. They laugh and suddenly the joke turns into sex.

What could have excited them so? A moment before, the hat on her head had seemed nothing but a joke. Was excitement really a mere step away from laughter?

Yes. My vision of Paradise is the memory of my favourite sexual experience. My laughter is often misunderstood because I don’t laugh at things that are humourous. At funny movies, I remain silent because I’m afraid of missing something. I laugh when I am delighted with the world, or a certain person in it. When I feel a rush of love for someone, I laugh because I’m so happy. Sometimes that makes it seem like I’m laughing at their problems or distress, as at funerals, but that’s really not it at all. So one night I was so happy leading into sex that I started laughing for no apparent reason, and the ex started laughing too, then suddenly we were fucking hard and fast, and when it was over we burst out laughing again. My vision of perfection is this combination of love and joy, where the partner is a source of intense physical and emotional delight, perhaps not constantly, but regularly. Lately I’ve been meeting guys who seem really great and delightful, but once they take their pants off they become violent. I’d prefer to sleep with someone who’s not going to call me a bitch, slap me around, or choke me. That doesn’t seem like an unrealistic goal, but it is proving harder than it looks.

As I move through the world gaining experience, I realize more and more just how separate love and sex really are. Our culture tells us that they’re the same thing, or that one is a sign of the other, and we even refer to sex as making love. It’s all a big lie. I prefer to use the phrase ‘making love’ in the sense that Jane Austen uses it, when two people talk to each other with the purpose of inspiring or encouraging positive feelings between them. Love can be accompanied by physical actions, but we hardly have sex with everyone we love. With nearly all the people I love, I would feel extremely uncomfortable with the implication that they desired a sexual relationship with me. I try to love all the people I come into contact with, so there’s usually at least some involved when I have sex, but I can’t say that I’d want any of my partners back again. I wish them well in future romantic endeavours, so long as they don’t involve me. Love is a patterned emotional response, but sex is a behaviour. It’s great when the two come together, but they don’t always. Intellectually, I can understand the behaviour patterns of the characters in the novel, but I don’t envy Tomas his promiscuity. When two people commit to sexual fidelity, I think they should honour that commitment. I see marriage as a promise of faithfulness; if you’re going to live with one partner while following several others, I say don’t get married. His affairs upset me almost as much as they do his wife.

One of the differences between characters is how they define themselves. What makes me different from other people? How do I know that I am uniquely myself? Tereza has a real problem with her body; she sees the physical bodies of all people as being roughly equivalent, so she only feels herself when clothed. Her self is her soul, that difficult-to-define entity. Her unique combination of intellectual and emotional patterns, I guess you could say. But those are so tied into the body, electrical impulses moving through biological matter, that I don’t see the distinction. Soul and body are so much a part of each other that I can’t imagine a realistic post-death life where they are separate.

For Tomas, on the other hand, a woman’s individuality is made clear in her sexual behaviours. When he meets a woman, he wonders,

How would she behave while undressing? What would she say when he made love to her? How would her sighs sound? How would her face distort at the moment of orgasm?

Even when I meet someone I’d like to sleep with, I don’t spend time on these questions. My concerns are a little different. Is he interested in me? Is he still going to be nice to me after I drop my pants? Is he going to kick me out immediately afterward? Would he be good with my kids? If we’re watching a video on the couch, would he rather put his arm around my shoulders or have mine around his? Will he let me kiss him in public? What would he look like in a kilt? It may seem as though I’m making moral judgments against Tomas, but I don’t feel that I am. According to the culture I was raised in, Tomas’s questions are much more masculine, and since I’m a man, I feel I ought to be somewhat more like him. But then I remind myself that I’d rather be me, and that I’m okay as I am.

Kundera defines kitsch several different ways in this novel. Art is inseparable from the discussion, but it encompasses the body, politics, and philosophy as well. Kitsch is an aesthetic mode that denies the existence of the unpleasant. The first unpleasant thing is shit. We do distance ourselves from our own feces, and consider it an oddity if someone makes a habit of looking at it. But what is shit? Indigestible material we’ve consumed, mixed with waste from the body. Our cells are constantly replicating because they are also constantly dying and being expelled from the body: our shit is composed of the influences on our body that we can’t use any more. It seems like a healthy thing to me to examine what emotional or intellectual influences we’re holding onto and to release those that no longer serve our growth. What happens if we don’t release that shit? Blockages, cancer, regurgitating the same old shit again and again. Kitsch enables the eternal return of unchanging ideologies. Another unpleasant thing kitsch denies is death. We’re all going to die; that’s the only real end to any of our stories; it’s my evidence that nature always overpowers humanity eventually. Much of twentieth century art consciously distances itself from kitsch by embracing shit, death, and ugliness, which is why you rarely see it outside of specialist galleries.

But political movements rely on kitsch, perhaps not bad art itself, but the idea of it. We ignore the unpleasant realities of an ideology in order to convince people to join us; as such, there’s a kitsch for every ideology. Kundera calls liberalism’s kitsch The Grand March – a protest march with fists punching the air, slogans chanted in unison; all that’s missing are the uniforms and the goose-step. Those of us who find a comfortable home for our identities in the humanities can get easily sucked into it, and lose sight of the conformity we are demanding. Everyone should compost for their container gardens and recycle their identically low-BHA plastic bottles. Good ideas, of course, but people can be just as judgmental and controlling about liberal politics as they can be about conservative politics. Eventually Kundera calls kitsch the opposite of individuality. What makes us unique? Our shit, our death. Our faults and failures. What we discard. Perhaps what makes me me is which shit I am willing to forgive myself for.

A quick word on plot structure: This is not a linear story. Each part focuses on a specific person. Part I is for Tomas and is about the lightness and weight above. Part II is for Tereza, and covers approximately the same period of time as the first, but seeing the same events from her perspective instead of his. Tereza focuses on questions of soul and body. Part III is for Sabina and Franz and all their miscommunications. The exact timing re Tomas and Tereza wasn’t clear to me. During or after. Part IV we’re back with Tereza, mostly after Part II, and Part V is Tomas during the same time again. Part VI is Sabina and Franz, now separated, after Part III and at least partially during the time of Parts IV and V. Part VII is back to Tomas and Tereza but focuses on their dog, before the end of Part VI. So, don’t get upset when people die; you’ll probably hear more of them later anyway. If it seems hard to follow, take breaks between sections. We hear stories from people in real life this way, but not all at once. We constantly revise our understanding of people, sometimes based on things they do now, sometimes on things they did in the distant past. If something doesn’t make sense, it probably will after we have better information. Treat it with the patience that you do reality and it’s not too hard to follow.

There are established forms and methods for discussing The Holocaust. Imre Kertész ignores them and writes about what I must believe are his own experiences as a teenager in a concentration camp. For example, here’s the closing bit:

But one shouldn’t exaggerate, as this is precisely the crux of it: I am here, and I am well aware that I shall accept any rationale as the price for being able to live. Yes, as I looked around this placid, twilit square, this street, weather-beaten yet full of a thousand promises, I was already feeling a growing and accumulating readiness to continue my uncontinuable life. […] there is nothing impossible that we do not live through naturally, and keeping a watch on me on my journey, like some inescapable trap, I already know there will be happiness. For even there, next to the chimneys, in the intervals between the torments, there was something that resembled happiness. Everyone asks only about the hardships and the “atrocities,” whereas for me perhaps it is that experience which will remain the most memorable. Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that, the happiness of the concentration camps.

And this is precisely what he does. Instead of writing about people dying, he writes about people living. This is a novel about how to survive disasters, not how to be delivered from them or how to be ground into the dust by them.

Only in Zeitz did I come to realize that even captivity has its mundane round; indeed, true captivity is actually nothing but a gray mundane round.

In this sense, most of us do live in captivity, and I drew some parallels to the difficult experience of living on an expatriate compound. We aren’t being starved or forced to work beyond our strength, obviously, nor are we beaten or shot at, (to limit myself to what we read in the book) but the monotony, the emotional starvation, and the uncaringness of the supervisors I can readily identify with. I also quickly sink into this listless mental paralysis that I think deserves a stronger name than boredom. At one point, he imagines hell as a place where it is impossible to get bored – this is his defense mechanism; his strategy for survival is to dissociate the mind from the suffering. Indeed, the mind sometimes severs itself from reality altogether, floating in a near-senseless limbo state. And this is why I watch too much television.

So it makes sense to me that when the camps are liberated, it takes a while for him to care. In the films, there are always American soldiers rushing in and carrying children or the wounded out of the camps immediately, as if they were shepherds returning lost lambs to the fold. Not so here. He’s in a camp hospital, and he hears some noise during the day, and then notices that his dinner is late. Some people get on an intercom and announce freedom in many languages, but . . .

However hard I listened, though, all I heard of from him, as from everyone before, was about freedom, but not a single word about or in reference to the missing soup. I was absolutely delighted, quite naturally, about our being free, but I couldn’t help it if, from another angle, I fell to thinking that yesterday, for instance, such a thing could never have happened. The April evening outside was already dark, and Pyetchka too had arrived back, flushed, excited, talking thirteen to the dozen, when the Lagerältester finally came on again over the loudspeaker. This time he appealed to the former members of the Kartoffelschäler-Kommando, requesting them to resume their old duties in the kitchens, and all other inmates of the camp to stay awake, until the middle of the night if need be, because they were going to start cooking a strong goulash soup, and it was only at this point that I slumped back on my pillow in relief, only then that something loosened up inside me, and only then did I myself also think – probably for the first time in all seriousness – of freedom.

Freedom is an important concept for me as an American; we’re taught to think of it as the most important thing ever, the concept that defines our nation. Yet, when I think of our behavior over the last fifteen years, or if I’m being perfectly honest, the last seventy, I wonder. Given the constraints of economics, education, and other factors, how free is the average American? Is this a Land of Opportunity? We clutch the word freedom in our mouths while giving away the genuine article with both hands.

When discussing concentration camps, it is only acceptable to discuss Jews. Even Bent, a gay romance set in a concentration camp, is about Jews. [How on earth did I think this would be a good movie for me to watch? Where is the possibility of a happy ending in that?] I would like very much to see a timeline for the camps—which types of inmates were brought in at which times, when all the pink triangles were dead, that sort of thing—because it always seems to me that the Jews were latecomers. That’s why they get rescued at the ends of their books/films. Protagonist-with-the-forgettable-name gets sent off in the middle of 1944, and while I don’t mean to diminish his experience, why don’t people talk about the ones who were taken earlier? The camps were efficient and heartless because the guards had been trained to be before the Jews in the films showed up. They cut their baby teeth on the political dissidents and homosexuals, so I imagine the experience of being in a camp in 1940 would have been very different.

The Jews in Holocaust films also tend to be all the same. They aren’t very orthodox, religious pragmatism/assimilation appealing to American audiences as it does, but they’re all keenly aware of their racial identity and derive a large part of their sense of who they are from their Jewishness. Not so, with our protagonist. Yes, he wears the yellow star at home and the yellow triangle in the camp, but his national identity as a Hungarian is much more important to him than his Jewishness. Before he goes to the camp, he has this conversation with a girl:

Then again, I had also read a book, a sort of novel, not long ago. A beggar and a prince who, leaving that one difference aside, conspicuously resembled each other both facially and physically, to the point they could not be told apart, exchanged fates with each other out of sheer curiosity, until in the end the beggar turned into a real prince while the prince became a real beggar. I asked the girl to try and imagine the same thing about herself. It was not very likely, or course, but then all kinds of things are possible, after all. What could have happened to her, let’s say in very early infancy, when a person is not yet able to speak or remember, it didn’t matter how, but suppose she had somehow been swapped or got mixed up with a child from another family whose documents were in perfect order from a racial point of view. In this hypothetical case it would now be the other girl who would perceive the difference and of course wear the yellow star, whereas she, in view of what she knew, would see herself – as of course would others – as being exactly like other people, and she would neither think about nor recognize any difference. As far as I could tell, that had quite an impact on her. At first she merely fell silent, then very slowly, but with a softness I felt as almost palpable, her lips parted as if she were wishing to say something. That was not what happened, however, but something else, much odder: she burst into tears.

I think this is true of socially constructed identities in general. Yes, racial characteristics are genetic; yes, sexual preference is marked by observable physiological responses; but this is only a scientific basis for society to categorize us. The physical fact of race and gender are not as important as the identity society builds for us around them. You’re Jewish? You must be clever, greedy, and argumentative. You’re gay? You must like dance music, shopping for clothes, and adopting the gestures and speech patterns of sassy African-American women. All of these are arbitrary social constructions. But when we adopt a social construction as an identity, it can be hard to have that pulled away from us.

Like de-emphasizing nationality. The Germans took Jews from several different countries, told them that Jewishness was their most important identity, and put them all in camps together. But they don’t all speak Yiddish, and when left to themselves, they tend to reassert the primacy of their national identities. For Protagonist, this is generally a difficult process because there are so few Hungarians, he doesn’t speak Yiddish, and he doesn’t identify strongly with other Jews.

That day I learned that the discomfiture, the skin-crawling awkwardness which at times took hold between us was already familiar to me from back home, as if there had been something not quite right about me, as if I did not quite measure up to the proper ideal, in short as if I were somehow Jewish – a rather odd feeling to have after all, I reckoned, in the midst of Jews, in a concentration camp.

He’s a Jew among Jews, cast out of the outcasts for not being Jewish enough. At some point in our lives, we all struggle with the conflict between socially constructed roles and our personal identities. I don’t know if this is still the case, but when I was growing up African-American boys were discouraged from getting too interested in their education because that was characteristic of whites. There was a certain style of dress that was accepted for them – I’ve seen the prices, those clothes are just as expensive as the ones popular for white kids, so this isn’t an economic issue. But collectively, our society has decided how black people (gay people, women, people with disabilities, fat people, etc) should dress, act, and speak, and woe be unto the teenager who tries to be free from that.

But I’m ignoring the happiness of the concentration camps! Protagonist arrives at the hospital and talks with the doctors, who are also prisoners, but of ten or twelve years. They ask him what he did to wind up in Buchenwald, and he describes getting taken, and they’re shocked that it was done without his parents being consulted.

In the end, I found that people on all sides were looking at me, heads shaking, and with a most singular emotion on their faces, which was a little embarrassing because, as best I could tell, they were feeling sorry for me. I felt a strong urge to tell them there was no need for that after all, at least not right at that moment, but I ended up saying nothing, something held me back, somehow I couldn’t find it in my heart to do so, because I noticed that the emotion gratified them, gave them some sort of pleasure, the way I saw it. Indeed – and I could have been mistaken of course, though I don’t think so – but later on (for there were one or two other occasions on which I was similarly questioned and interrogated) I gained the impression that they expressly sought out, almost hunted for, an opportunity, a means or pretext for this emotion for some reason, out of some need, as a testimony to something as it were, to their method of dealing with things perhaps, or possibly, who knows, to their still being capable of it at all; and in that form it was somehow pleasing, for me at least.

They need to be able to pity someone. They can bolster their happiness by looking at the suffering of others. No matter how bad things are, at least I wasn’t in a concentration camp at age sixteen. They can look back on their own happier youths and contemplate the present with more strength. Things might be awful now, but they could be worse, and there are always the memories of better times to relive. There’s also music, as in this scene from shortly after intake:

That day I also saw the women too for the first time. A group of men congregating and excitedly swarming around by the barbed-wire fence pointed them out: there they were, true enough, though I found it hard to pick them out in the distance, on the far side of the clayey field that stretched before us – and, above all, to recognize them as being women. They scared me a little, and I noticed that after the initial delight, the excitement at the discovery, the people around me here all fell very quiet. Just one observation, which rang hollow and a little tremulously, reached my ear from nearby: “They’re bald.” In the big hush, I too picked out for the first time, carried by the occasional wafts of a light summer-evening breeze, thinly, squeakily, and barely audibly, but beyond any doubt, the soothing, joyous sound of music, which, combined as it was with the sight, somehow hugely astonished everyone, myself included.

Yes, bald women in concentration camps can still sing. For some, I imagine it’s a necessity. Protagonist goes on about stubbornness, but having read the literature of the civil rights movement, I’d be more likely to classify it as resistance. With all of the Germans’ attempts to dehumanize the prisoners (like removing their names – I really shouldn’t continue doing that here: Protagonist’s name is György Köves), they are determined to remain themselves, to hold onto their sense of personal identity, whether that involves religion, nationality, or just a good voice. In the men’s camp, there’s some singing too, but the resistance seems to come more and more from passivity. Indeed, that’s what impresses me the most about Protagonist and the people he lives among: their passive acquiescence to circumstances. I suppose it’s not that different from Americans today, but . . . the herding, the starving, the beatings. I’d like to think that we wouldn’t put up with it, though I have no way of knowing.

Every so often, though, the stubbornness reveals itself in action. In this scene, a few prisoners are being executed for having escaped and been recaptured.

The customary punishment squad assembled, then, after a further wait, the representatives of the military authorities made their appearance, after which everything went ahead in due form, if I may put it that way – fortunately, up front near the washroom, far from where we were, not that I watched anyway. My attention was drawn rather to my left, from where all at once came a sound, a muttering, some sort of song. In the row I saw a slightly tremulous head on a scraggy, forward-stretched neck – little more, in fact, than a nose and a huge, moist eye that, right at that moment, was somehow swimming in a crazy light: the rabbi. Soon I also picked out his words, particularly after others in the row had slowly taken them up from him – all the Finns, for instance, but many others as well. Indeed, though I don’t know what the mechanism was, it somehow passed across to nearby groups, the other blocks, spreading and gaining ground as it were, because there too I observed a growing number of lips in motion and shoulders, necks, and heads cautiously, almost imperceptibly, yet distinctly rocking back and forth. Meanwhile, the muttering was just about audible here, in the center of the row, with a continual “Yitgaddal ve-yitkaddash” being sounded over and over again, like some murmur issuing from the ground below, and even I knew that this was the so-called “Kaddish,” the Jews’ prayer of mourning for the dead. It is quite possible that this too was sheer stubbornness, the final, sole, and perhaps, I could not help realizing, in some ways slightly forced, I might almost say prescribed and in a certain sense fixed, so to say imposed, and, at the same time, useless mode of stubbornness (for it altered nothing up at the front: apart from the last few twitches of the hanged men, nothing moved, nothing wavered at these words); yet all the same, I could not help somehow understanding the emotion in which the rabbi’s expression seemed almost to dissolve, and even his nostrils quivered so strangely. As if it was only now that the long-awaited moment were here, that moment of victory whose coming he had spoken, I recollected, back at the brickyard. Indeed, for the very first time, I too was now seized, I don’t know why, by a certain sense of loss, even a touch of envy; for the first time, I now somewhat regretted that I was unable to pray, if only a few sentences, in the language of the Jews.

In the films, every prisoner suffers alone, or with one close friend. We do not see the communal experiences like this. We don’t think about the power that we give to a group identity when we place all the people who share it in one place. Hitler was the first person in modern times to gather the scattered Jews, and while this was contrary to his intent, the act of gathering them gives them power. It is one thing to pray alone when your heart is troubled; it’s a bit like dancing by yourself in your room. It is entirely different to either pray or dance with a huge crowd of people who are doing the same thing in unison. Your individual identity fades in importance and you merge with the crowd, experiencing all of their individual joys or sorrows with your own. We transcend ourselves and merge with the collective consciousness. There is a joy, a catharsis in this act of voluntary surrender, even when praying for the dead in a Nazi death camp. By gathering the Jews, Hitler united them in a way they had not dreamed possible for thousands of years.

I’m sorry if it offends you that joy can be found in Buchenwald. I’m sorry if you’re bothered by my facility for finding the good in bad situations. But I believe that the capacity for joy is an essential quality to living, and this is a book about survival, not death. Protagonist might not understand a soft bed or kind treatment after being in a concentration camp for a year, but he still enjoys them. He still notices when a man’s face is handsome. In fact, he notices the attractiveness of good health more when he’s surrounded by starving prisoners.

In the final chapter, Protagonist argues with someone about the role of fate. He sees fate as being the exact opposite of freedom. Having been liberated from a concentration camp, he doesn’t feel the need to say that there was an omnipotent impersonal force that made this tragedy happen; he knows that it came about because of the decisions, actions, and apathy of millions of people. I don’t think he blames the people, but he doesn’t agree that the Holocaust was inevitable. So, ultimately, the title of the book is synonymous with Freedom. Freedom is also another way of understanding the stubbornness and nonviolent resistance of the prisoners. If they can’t be free from their situation, they can find ways they are free to make their own choices and act for themselves. Or at the very least to think for themselves. This is a novel that resists the urge to Americanize the Holocaust, to make the prisoners like ourselves, to make our nation the liberating hero, but if freedom defines the United States, then this is a book about the concept that gives us an identity. Freedom, its consequences, and (to use the popular phrase) its price.

America doesn’t have the monopoly on freedom. I think the search for it is a human trait, the exercise of it a basic right. And sometimes, we need a book like this to remind us how important it is, what opportunities we have to pursue it, and how easy it is to hand our freedom to an authority figure. It’s important to cling tightly to our freedoms; it’s even more important to respect the freedom of others. I would like to live in a world with neither prisoners nor guards (one compels the existence of the other), where we can be truly free and in peace.