Fatelessness tells the story of 15-year-old Georg Koves, a highly assimilated Hungarian Jew, who one day finds himself on a train to Auschwitz. He is...moreFatelessness tells the story of 15-year-old Georg Koves, a highly assimilated Hungarian Jew, who one day finds himself on a train to Auschwitz. He is only in Auschwitz for three days before being transferred to Buchenwald, and finally to a labor camp in Zeitz. The novel narrates his experiences in all three places. While he may have been whisked off to Auschwitz, as the book jacket puts it, “without any special malice,” he encounters plenty of cruelty along the way. But what’s weird and striking about the novel is the dispassionate, almost clinical way he narrates events, and the lack of malice he seems to hold for the individuals most directly responsible for his ill-treatment (at least while he’s under confinement).
This sentence from Kertez's Nobel Prize acceptance speech is probably the master key to the novel: “I understood that hope is an instrument of evil, and the Kantian categorical imperative—ethics in general—is but the pliable handmaiden of self-preservation.”
Hope as an instrument of evil. What does Kertesz mean by this? Possibly the way the sequencing of events in time makes Auschwitz possible, makes it possible for people living through unspeakable horrors to bear them. One thing to keep in mind is that people who are living through such events are not living them in their totality. They are living them piecemeal. This is especially true of the experience of concentration camp victims. Some, it’s true, experience the totality of the horror, have “the entire knowledge crash in upon” them “at one fell swoop.” But those are the ones who are herded into the gas chambers, so for them it’s too late. Others, like Koves, ultimately come to “understand everything,” but “while one is coming to understand everything, a person does not remain idle: he is already attending to his new business living, acting, moving, carrying out each new demand at each new stage. Were it not for that sequencing in time, and were the entire knowledge to crash in upon a person on the spot, at one fell swoop, it might be that neither one’s brain or one’s heart would cope with it…” Instead, one’s desire to stay alive, combined with the orderliness and regimentation of camp life, creates and sustains the hope that one will stay alive, and the routine, the assignment of tasks, the parceling out of chores, of business to attend to (show up for roll call, go to work, line up for supper, barter for food) makes it possible to psychologically bear something that should by all rights be unbearable.
Appallingly, the social conventions that operate in normal civil society keep operating even in the concentration camp. One hesitates to imagine the worst, even though the evidence is all around you. Citizens' tendency to defer to authority figures leads to little objection in being drafted for labor service (as happens to Koves’ father), or even kidnapped, which is essentially what happens to Koves. Then there is the orderliness, the lack of real protest, as new arrivals at Auschwitz proceed through the screening process, some to be converted into prisoners, others to be converted into corpses. Georg strives to be a model prisoner, to follow the rules of the camp, and he feels conflicted when he breaks them. The more religious Jews in the camps believe that their lot is to suffer. But, more to the point, is the subtle and nuanced way Kertesz describes the means by which these things are internalized, and the way they are exploited in order to carry out the larger plan—depopulate Europe of Jews and other undesirables by either working them to death or exterminating them outright.
One certainly gets a vivid sense, in Kertesz, of people swept along by larger forces, of the way people’s very selves are shaped by the histories they are thrown into. Everyone in the novel is a cog in a machine, to some degree, but if everyone is simply playing out his or her socially/historically assigned role, how does one apportion guilt for one of the greatest crimes of the century?(less)
The characters in Liquidation all suffer from a form of spiritual dislocation resulting from the demise of communism in Eastern Europe. All of them we...moreThe characters in Liquidation all suffer from a form of spiritual dislocation resulting from the demise of communism in Eastern Europe. All of them were dissidents of a sort under communism, and their identities were necessarily shaped by their opposition to the old regime, however subtle that resistance might have been—often little more than spiritual and cultural. The demise of communism means the demise of their reason for being alive, and Liquidation is an attempt to dramatize this existential predicament.
The shadow of the Holocaust also hangs over the characters, and in fact the meaning of the experience of Auschwitz is one of the central preoccupations of the novel. The title, Liquidation, has multiple meanings: The liquidation of Jews at Auschwitz; the liquidation of the publishing company the main character, Kingbitter, works for in post-communist Hungary; the liquidation of communism in Eastern Europe; Sarah’s liquidation (burning) of B.’s novel, Kingbitter’s quest for which is the central force driving the “action” of the novel. The book begins with Kingbitter, reading a play by his deceased friend B., a writer and Auschwitz survivor, that narrates events that have occurred after his suicide, events he could not possibly have witnessed. Liquidation is an experimental novel that deliberately confuses the issue of where the “reality” of the story lies. Also, there’s a theme of peoples lives as stories, stories that they tell themselves and stories that are spun by larger historical forces, and that are told through them.
One train of thought the novel sets in motion is the question of what it means to be a dissident. I suppose one can argue that, in one sense, it was easy to be a dissident in communist Eastern Europe, as it is in, say, Iran today. Of course it was hard in the sense that the penalties for thought-crime could be severe--duh, the sense that matters most--but it was easy in the sense that the thoughts you had to think to cross the line into thought crime were not particularly radical, at least from the point of view of western liberal democrats. AND, in an environment that punishes thought crime, especially in so crude and obvious a manner, just thinking heretical thoughts qualifies you for a dissident status of a sort. In a place like communist Eastern Europe, or contemporary Iran, it was/is possible to be a dissident intellectual in a way that it is difficult to do in the liberal democratic West, since you can be punished simply for thinking the wrong thoughts—and I mean really punished, not just not asked to be on Nightline. It’s enough to think and write and publish them to be considered a political dissident.
In the liberal democratic West, on the other hand, and especially in the US, the right to free speech and the right to dissent is such a fundamental part of the national self-image that it’s possible to say and publish just about anything without much in the way of consequences (although this needs to be qualified somewhat post-9/11). Also, the commodification and co-optation of the idea of rebellion is so far advanced that even genuinely subversive notions simply dissolve into the official marketplace of ideas, or get converted into some kind of marketing effort. There’s so much pseudo-rebellion around that it’s hard to know real dissent when you see it.
One thing people in the US have a hard time imagining, I guess, is what it’s like to have your world turned upside down the way it was in Eastern Europe in the late 80’s or in Iraq since 2003 (Katrina nudged some of us closer to this). Sure 9/11 was a shock to the system, but it’s nothing like the kind of complete psychological and spiritual overhaul that Eastern Europe went through, and that Iraq is going through now.
The shift in worldview resulting from the demise of communism is illustrated by passages that frame the novel. At the beginning and the end we find Kingbitter standing at his window observing an encampment of homeless people. He speculates at the end of the novel about what this says about his changed relation to politics in post-communist Hungary, and consequently his changed spiritual/existential state. Under communism he used to see them as evidence of the corruption and failure of the governing regime, and as a problem that demanded amelioration. Now he’s, on the one hand, more detached. He aestheticizes them. Sees them as part of an ongoing human comedy. And also has the sneaking suspicion that, if circumstances were to alter slightly, he could find himself out there with them...(less)
In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth lovingly re-creates the lost world of the Jewish community of mid-century Newark, the world of his own boyhoo...moreIn The Plot Against America, Philip Roth lovingly re-creates the lost world of the Jewish community of mid-century Newark, the world of his own boyhood. Then he takes the main characters, modeled on himself, his friends and his family, and tortures them by forcing them to live through state-sponsored Nazism in America.
Roth imagines an America in which Charles Lindberg defeats FDR in1940 by pledging to keep the US out of WWII, then immediately signs non-aggression pacts with both Germany and Japan, and presides over a climate of creeping authoritarianism and anti-Semitism in the US. The story is told through the eyes of a seven year-old boy—Philip Roth--part of a lower-middle class Jewish family in Newark. The Roths are strivers living in a tightly knit community of other lower-middle-class Jews. The novel illustrates the destructive effects of the climate of fear unleashed by Lindbergh’s election by showing what happens to this particular family and the community of which they are an integral part.
Plot is a kind of speculative historical fiction, but it faces some of the same problems that bedevil traditional historical fiction: how to accurately and convincingly recount the historical context without turning the novel into a research dump, and without completely breaking the narrative spell. Roth is only partially successful at this. The novel is beset with jarring juxtapositions of narrative tone, as he stops the action to set up the context, and then plunges the reader back into the narrative proper, and the rapidly unraveling world of the Roths.
Roth faces the added challenge of convincingly narrating historical events that did not occur, and making them flow seamlessly out of those that did. In this he’s much more successful. He wants to show the reader that, though fascism did not take root here, it might well have. History is only inevitable in retrospect. It’s almost always, to some degree, radically contingent while it’s happening. Unless you believe that all events are preordained, either by a higher power or by some kind of inexorable structural logic, then you have to hold open the possibility that even though things without question turned out the way they did, they might well have turned out differently. In the end, Roth returns the nation to its actual historical path, and the fascist interlude that he narrates is but a temporary swerve, but he does succeed in convincing the reader—at least this reader—that the history of the US at mid-century might well have taken a darker turn. Consider the following: -At the time the US had its own officially sanctioned system of apartheid. Blacks in the south were denied the right to vote and were forced to use a separate but decidedly unequal set of public services. Their second-class status was codified into law. In 1940, Americans already lived in a country where an officially sanctioned racism buttressed a social system in which a despised minority was denied equal access to employment, education, public services, and political influence. -Anti-Semitism was hardly unknown in 1940’s America—whether in the genteel version espoused by the WASP establishment or the cruder versions adhered to further down the social scale. America in 1940 was a country in which many if not most Americans at least entertained the idea that some social groups were either naturally inferior to white/Christian Americans or were superior in a potentially diabolical way, and were at least passively supportive of a political system that limited their political and civil rights. And these attitudes and forms of discrimination applied, to a lesser degree to be sure, but nevertheless, to Jews as well as blacks. -In the novel, Lindberg defeats Roosevelt by espousing a very simple message: I will keep the US out of war. There was plenty of isolationist sentiment in the US after World War One. Americans may or may not have been appalled by Hitler’s persecution of the Jews of Europe, or worried by Germany’s aggressive military expansionism, but it took Pearl Harbor to convince Americans to enter the war--an attack by Japan, not Germany. Had Japan not attacked the US, the country could have tolerated a lot more systematic murder of European Jewry before intervening. Also, remember that it wasn’t until after the war that the defining fact of Word War II, in the popular imagination at any rate, became the systematic campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
Perhaps the best one can say is that necessary but not sufficient conditions were in place for a fascist swerve. Also, I suspect that in showing us how fascism might have come to America, Roth is also showing why it didn’t.
One of the things I most enjoyed about the book was that, ultimately, the reader never knows just how real the plot against America actually was. In the end, the book dissolves into rival, tabloid-style conspiracy theories. And because the narrative voice is that of a 70 year-old man remembering events that took place when he was 8 or 9, and because the question of just what motivated Lindbergh is never answered in the “reality” of the novel, and because the things that the narrator can reveal are constrained by what he perceived then and knows to be true now, no definitive version of events can be rendered. If Roth had chosen to adopt the voice of the truly omniscient narrator he’d be able to penetrate the consciousness and observe the most intimate and secret thoughts and actions of other characters—everyone from Philip Roth to Charles Lindberg to Adolph Hitler--and to render some kind of definitive version of events—at least within the universe of the novel. Plot feels more plausible than most historical novels precisely because it never renders a definitive version of events. It dramatizes how little, ultimately, we understand the historical forces that shape our reality.
In The End of Faith, Harris does what any number of enlightenment rationalists before him have done: attempt to undermine the authority of religion by...moreIn The End of Faith, Harris does what any number of enlightenment rationalists before him have done: attempt to undermine the authority of religion by showing how scientific rationality discredits the notion of a supernatural being. Harris seizes on the inherent contradictions that arise when a document composed of ancient texts and shaped by historical, political and institutional forces is said to be the inerrant word of a transcendent being. A number of lines of attack open up as a result: -God is kind of a jerk, at least in the Old Testament. He is capricious, cruel, vindictive, even murderous. Where does a God like this get any kind of moral authority and who would want to worship him anyway? -Believers claim the bible to be the word of God, and hence a form of absolute truth, yet almost all are incredibly selective about what they choose to emphasize. The bible is an extremely contradictory book open to multiple interpretations, and in almost any situation the things determining the emphasis are historical and cultural, rather than textual. So believers are, on the one hand, claiming supernatural authority for their moral and ethical principles, when in fact what they are really doing is using the bible to rationalize and justify beliefs that they hold for other reasons. The bible is so ambiguous and self contradictory that it can’t be said to serve as a reliable guide to how to live, because justification can be found in it for almost any course of action one might want to take. A literal reading of the bible is impossible, because such a reading would be completely incoherent. Surely an infallible being could have done a better job of telling us his intentions. -The various explanations of human existence in the bible are plainly contradicted by modern science. So it’s clear that the bible, in and of itself, is little more than a historical curiosity. The only reason it bulks so large in contemporary life and contemporary debate is because of the institutions that have grown up around it, and the political and cultural utility of reference to it.
Maybe it’s the ex-history grad student in me, but I do think there’s something problematic about the kind of critique waged by Harris/Dawkins/Hitchens et al. As Terry Eagleton argued in The London Review of Books, they make no attempt to uncover and examine “the structure of feeling” of religious belief. An historian writing a history of a church or denomination or community in which religion played a large part would have to write a thick description of the way in which religious belief functions in the community of believers etc. The same thing would apply if he were writing a biography of an historical figure. He’d certainly need to stand outside that figure or community, and could not take every (or any) religion-inspired claim or belief at face value. But he would have to describe, neutrally and empathetically, the functional role religion played in a given society or community, or the psychological role it played in the lives of believers.
Now I’m not against New Atheist polemics. I found Harris’ book quite cathartic, and heard myself saying “Right On!” far more than “now hold on…” but I couldn’t shake the nagging suspicion that there was something wrong with his approach. Despite all the historical references in the book it seemed far too driven by current social and political anxieties to stand as a fair account of religion (as if such a vast subject could be dispensed with in 300 pages anyway).
But of course the book is not a work of history, it’s a polemic, an attempt to refute a specific opinion or doctrine. Being a polemic, it’s not bound by the rules and norms of academic historical inquiry. And in fact, Harris’ goal is not to reconstruct the past, but to convince readers that religious belief and religious faith should not be living options for people in the twenty-first century. The ahistorical quality of his argument is almost necessary, given his aim. In fact his presentist, ahistorical approach to religion is probably closer to how people actually live religious faith (or aspire to live it) than the textual, historical approach of biblical scholars. Most believers don’t approach the bible the way scholars do. They see it as a living thing, a guide to how to live in the here and now.
Most believers don’t believe every word in the bible. Most use it selectively, emphasizing passages that coincide with the more modern moral outlook that they’ve acquired through socialization (of which the historical/cultural weight of Christianity or Islam or whatever is a part). And for the vast majority of believers in the liberal democratic West, I’m guessing, religious faith poses not the slightest obstacle to life in the modern world. Most are functional secularists. Harris doesn’t ignore this fact—he seizes on it and gives it a darker emphasis. Moderate religiosity, he argues, is dangerous because it aids and abets the more fundamentalist and radical tendencies in the world today. And this is especially dangerous given the rise of right-wing fundamentalist Christianity in the US, and radical Islam in the Muslim world. If it were just a question of religious moderates living with (or ignoring) certain fundamental contradictions, there would be no cause for alarm. The problem, according to Harris, is that religious moderates aid and abet religious extremists by insulating them from criticism. They enforce the idea that it’s impolite to question the fundamental assumptions behind religious faith. They help keep these issues out of public discourse. And this might not be such a big deal if fundamentalists in the US respected the separation of church and state, or if Islamic radicals in the Muslim world weren’t so busy blowing up their perceived opponents. But when conservative Christians in the US threaten the teaching of evolution in the schools, and when Islamic radicalism threatens the political stability of the middle east (as does, I should add, the US response to Islamic radicalism), and the physical existence of people everywhere, this becomes cause for alarm.
Here's an attempt sketch a less condescending model of the psychology of religious moderation: a) The idea of God is the idea that there are forces beyond the self that rule and determine human existence. While these forces may, in principle, be knowable, for most human beings alive on the planet at any given moment they are effectively inscrutable. We can never know the truth of our existence in any ultimate or absolute sense. Nor, for that matter, do the truths of science offer us much insight into how we should treat our fellow human beings. b) Church and religion is a place where the ethical implications of this insight are worked through, codified, and put into practice—it’s where we learn how to act toward our fellow man c) The Bible is obviously an historical text, written and assembled by fallible human beings but it is useful for the following pragmatic reasons 1) the weight of tradition behind it gives it an authority that other, more straightforward, contemporary, intellectually rigorous and logically consistent books don’t possess—its useful in building and sustaining a community of the faithful, which is crucial to establishing a church and practicing a religion 2) It’s distance from the contemporary world is one of it’s virtues—its anachronistic nature means that its inherently critical of contemporary norms and values (often in reactionary ways) 3) While the book is riddled with incredible claims about the world, anachronistic values, and injunctions to outright despicable behavior, there are plenty of worthwhile passages in it as well. d) Church is also a place where the mysteries of human existence, and human subjectivity are explored, through prayer, meditation and other forms of spiritual discipline. These are techniques for cultivating inwardness and building a soul. e) Religion also offers solace from the harsher aspects of human existence—the anxiety and insecurity we experience while alive, and the finality of death. f) Finally, it is possible to belong to a church, practice a religion, be a “believer”, and still live in the modern world. This may involve living with a number of logical contradictions, but people do that all the time.
So the upshot, I guess, is that New Atheist polemics like Harris' are good as far as they go, but they only go so far. They help you understand certain things about religious belief—mainly the logical and moral problems that arise when one tries to take an ancient text that’s origins are largely political and historical and treat it as a source of transcendent and inerrant wisdom. But they don't provide a fair description of contemporary religious belief, or provide an adequate description of how contemporary believers, especially religious moderates, live their faith.(less)
This is a long and difficult but thoroughly absorbing novel about a group of literary insurgents in Mexico City in the 1970’s—the visceral realists—an...moreThis is a long and difficult but thoroughly absorbing novel about a group of literary insurgents in Mexico City in the 1970’s—the visceral realists—and what becomes of its two guiding spirits—Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima--over the next 20 years. The first and final sections of the book are narrated by young poet Juan Garcia Madero. Madero accompanies Lima and Belano on a journey through Mexico City’s many undergrounds: literary, criminal, and otherwise. The visceral realists are young and full of energy and ambition. There’s plenty of sex and drugs and parties and purges and petty crime, late night conversations about art and literature and nocturnal ramblings around a very cosmopolitan Mexico City. And there’s plenty of action too. At the end of the first section Garcia Madero finds himself speeding into the Sonora Desert in a white Impala with Lima and Belano and a prostitute named Lupe, pursued by Lupe’s pimp Alberto.
The third and final section of the book tells the story of what happens to the four fugitives as they travel deep into the desert, fleeing Alberto and in search of an obscure Mexican poet whom Belano and Lima have claimed as a literary ancestor.
The intervening 400 pages are composed of first-person interviews with dozens of characters in an attempt to piece together what happened to Belano and Lima after their flight from Mexico City. The interviews cover a period of about 20 years, and this section opens the novel to a wide range of voices from across Latin America, the United States and Europe. Bolano and Lima always remain just out of focus, but as the narrators try to remember what happened to the two poets, they describe what happened to themselves. The overall effect is to paint a portrait of the spiritual/existential journey of a certain fraction of a generation.
The Savage Detectives is Bolano’s most ardent paen to the generation of Latin Americans who came of age in the era of Allende and the Sandinistas, and experienced the implosion of revolutionary optimism that followed the Pinochet coup and the defeat of the Sandinistas at the ballot box. It’s also the story of a generation struggling to get out from under the shadow of the literary lions of the period. Visceral Realism is modeled on a similar movement founded by Bolano, infrarealismo. Bolano and his cohorts terrorized the literary establishment, crashing readings, heckling writers they disliked, and declaiming their own poems. One of Bolano’s goals as a writer is to construct a Latin American literary alternative to Magic Realism, the style of writing most associated with the region since the 60’s. Bolano’s novels, while not untouched by surrealism, are mercifully free of flying grandmothers and aphrodisiac moles.
I suppose you could call this an “experimental” novel, but I’m not sure what that means anymore, since tricksy postmodern anti-narrative strategies have been so thoroughly digested by contemporary culture--from best selling novels like Cloud Atlas to TV shows like Lost to practically every video game on the market--that it seems almost pointless to call attention to them anymore. This is not a novel for people who believe that modern fiction took a wrong turn at James Joyce and has been on a highway to hell ever since, with Pynchon, Delillo and David Foster Wallace key signposts along the way. It seems beyond argument that there are any number of ways to structure a novel, and that the traditional strategies of realistic fiction, while perfectly good and admirable, are completely optional. If you are looking for a page-turner, look elsewhere. One wag on Amazon described the book as “so slow, the longer you read it the younger you get.” That’s unfair. This book makes you work, but rewards the effort.(less)
Revolutionary Road is a masterpiece of a genre that’s largely considered played out—the novel of suburban malaise. It’s a social novel about The Way W...moreRevolutionary Road is a masterpiece of a genre that’s largely considered played out—the novel of suburban malaise. It’s a social novel about The Way We Live Now, only in this case Now is over 40 years ago and Yates’ take on the plight of the poor souls marooned in corporate/suburban America has long since been digested and superseded. It still persists to some degree—in films like American Beauty, novels such as Tom Perotta’s Little Children, and the brilliant TV show Weeds. But, American Beauty aside, contemporary takes on suburbia tend to be much less tragic and portentous.
Frank and April Wheeler, Yates 20-30-something protagonists are, in their own misguided way, dissidents struggling against certain stereotypically oppressive aspects of American life in the 50’s: conformity; the tedium and banality of life in the suburbs and the mid-century corporate workplace (they live in Connecticut, Frank works in New York); in April’s case, against a life of homemaking and childrearing. The problem is they don’t seem to have very good intellectual resources for waging the struggle. The practical, material resources are probably there—they are well educated (at least Frank is), intelligent, they make a good impression, while not rich they are far from destitute. But they are hampered by all kinds of romantic illusions, illusions that keep them from coming up with a plausible escape plan, or making the most of the hand they are dealt. They are tormented by the idea that they are not living up to their best selves (and this is true) but they have utterly self-deluding notions about what their best selves are or how to bring them into being. They are so afraid of being corrupted by their environment that they hold themselves aloof from the life around them. Their aversion is largely aesthetic, but the pop psychological and sociological theories they use to explain to themselves why they are alienated are inadequate to the task. They want to lead lives of significance, but the best they can do is to concoct a vague and implausible scheme of moving to France, where the plan is for April to work as a secretary while Frank sits around the apartment trying to figure out what to do with himself. I mean, if they want to do something worthwhile with their lives, Frank could become a teacher, or, at the other end of the scale, go to work for the kind of high-powered advertising firm portrayed in Mad Men (he graduated Columbia and has a way with words). April could have, at the very least, volunteered to work at the NAACP.
Yates is an extremely accomplished prose stylist. He’s a master of the vivid, transparent prose style that is the gold standard for writers of realistic fiction. He nails the details of life among the white middle class in the mid-to-late 50’s, while at the same time painting it as a more complicated and conflicted time than popular stereotypes would have you believe. He has an extraordinary ability to make you feel like you are deep inside the consciousness of his characters while at the same time watching them from a great distance. And the central dilemma his characters face—how to live a worthwhile life in a world that often conspires against it—is not one that will go out of fashion any time soon.