Monday, February 1, 2016

"Damit war dieses Gesprach zu Ende*" The thoughts of the working man, by Max Frisch

"Ich bin Techniker und gewohnt, die Dinge zu sehen, wie sie sind. Ich sehe den Mond uber der Wuste von Tamaulipas--klarer als je, mag sein, aber eine erreichbare Masse, die um unseren Planeten kreist, eine Sache der Gravitation, interessant, aber wieso ein Erlebnis?"

"I am a technician and I live to see things as they are. I see the moon over the desert of Tamaulipas--clearer than anywhere else, maybe, but a thing we can reach, that circles around our planet, a source of gravitation, is interesting, but how is it an experience?"
And so Herr Faber, the narrator of Max Frisch's novel Homo faber, describes himself. Faber is an engineer working for UNESCO, employed on projects that improve the lives of citizens in undeveloped nations. Faber could care less about the citizens; he's only interested in the projects, the technology. Faber doesn't like people, and despite his own highly-strung nature he has no patience for nor understanding of the emotions of others.

The novel opens in 1957 with Faber boarding a jumbo jet bound from New York to Mexico City. The plane is delayed for hours on the tarmac by a snow storm. Faber, a Swiss, is forced to listen to his chatty German seatmate, a young man whose name Faber didn't quite catch and isn't interested in hearing repeated. The German likes to think of himself as a world traveler, disparaging everyone he's met, particularly the Russians. "I've been to the Caucasus," he says. "I know Ivan, I can tell you. The only thing Ivan understands is a weapon. Oh, I know Ivan, all right." It's a long flight and Faber spends most of it sleeping, pretending to sleep, hiding in the toilet, wondering if he can switch to a new seat, and otherwise behaving as a classic comic misanthrope. When the plane lands in Houston for a brief layover, Faber hides in the men's room of the airport bar rather than having a drink with his German seatmate. In the men's room, Faber has a panic attack, passing out in front of the sink. He's discovered by the cleaning woman while the final boarding call for his flight is being given. Faber decides not to get on his plane; as the loudspeaker calls his name over and over, Faber hides himself in a closet until he hears the noise of a jumbo jet's engines. He is not sure why he's hiding. Faber, the engineer, the technician, has no curiosity about the workings of his own psyche. He's as unreal to himself as everyone else is. Of course he is discovered and escorted to the plane, still waiting on the tarmac. The plane lifts off, and several hours later one of the four engines dies. The passengers, all but Faber, are quite concerned. Faber knows that the plane can operate with only three engines, but even so he has another panic attack and launches into a monologue about the Mexican city of Tampico, where the pilot intends to make an emergency landing.
Ich kannte Tampico von fruher, von einer Fischvergiftung, die ich nicht vergessen werde bis ans Ende meiner Tag.

"Tampico," sagte ich, "das ist die dreckigste Stadt der Welt. Olhafen, Sie werden sehen, entweder stinkt's nach Ol oder nach Fisch--"

Er fingerte an seiner Schwimmweste.

"Ich rate Ihnen wirklich," sagte ich, "essen Sie keinen Fisch, mein Herr, unter keinen Umstanden--"

Er versuchte zu lacheln.

"Die Einheimischen sind naturlich immun," sagte ich, "aber unsereiner--"

Er nickte, ohne zu horen. Ich hielt ganze Vortrage, scheint es, uber Amoeben, beziehungsweise uber Hotels in Tampico. Sobald ich merkte, dass er gar nicht zuhorte, mein Dusseldorfer, griff ich ihn am Armel, was sonst nicht meine Art ist, im Gegenteil, ich hasse diese Manie, einander am Armel zu greifen. Aber anders horte er einfach nicht zu. Ich erzahlte ihm die ganze Geschichte meiner langweiligen Fischvergiftung in Tampico, 1951, also vor sechs Jahren--


I knew Tampico from earlier, from a fish-related food poisoning, that I will not forget until the end of my days.

"Tampico," I said, "is the filthiest city on earth. Oil ports, you'll see, stink like either oil or fish--"

He fingered his life jacket.

"I advise you sincerely," I said, "to eat no fish, sir, under any circumstances--"

He tried to smile.

"The inhabitants are naturally immune," I said, "but one of us--"

He nodded, without hearing. I kept up my lecture, it appears, about amoeba, or rather about the hotels in Tampico. As soon as I noticed that he wasn't listening at all, my Dusseldorfer, I grabbed him by the arm, which is not at all my way, on the contrary, I hate those fellows who take each other by the arm. But otherwise he wouldn't have listened at all. I explained to him the entire story of my boring fish-related food poisoning in Tampico, 1951, which was six years ago--
* "And with that, the conversation came to an end." All translations from the German here are mine.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"There are lots of cats in Paris and in France and they can do what they like"

I was very pleased one day when the wife of the local doctor, he and she are fond of digging a bit and here when you dig a bit, beside making things grow, there is Roman, and Gallo-Roman, and even earlier things to be found. Well one day we were out in the car and she said one day when the work men were first cutting this road through there on that ledge were the ancestors, lots of their bones. It is always there life and death death and life and the earth and it is never anything to be remembered or even talked about, and that is the reason the French do not make much lyrical poetry. They do not get away from the earth enough to look at it, they paint it, but they do not poetise it.
Stein, in her short book Paris France says very little about Paris, and speaks mostly of France in terms of difference, how the French are unlike anyone else, or--more accurately--seemed to be like or unlike Gertrude Stein. Sometimes Stein talks about how much the French are like everyone else, though.
It could be a puzzle why the intellectuals in every country are always wanting a form of government which would inevitably treat them badly, purge them so to speak before anybody else is purged. It has always happened from the French revolution to to-day. It would be a puzzle this if it were not that it is true that the world is round and that space is illimitable unlimited. I suppose it is that that makes the intellectual so anxious for a regimenting government which they could so ill endure.
Stein is writing during WW II, which she and her companion Alice spent in the French countryside, away from Paris. Paris France is mostly a book about rural France during the early years of WW II.
Helen and her dog William were out every day and almost every evening and they always saw some one. They knew a boy named Emil who was a big boy with very large eyes and a dog named Ellen. Ellen the dog had been born in the country against which they were fighting. Emil looked at his dog and wondered if he could love him. The dog loved Emil but could Emil love him.

As Helen and her dog William came along Emil's dog Ellen was sniffing along the side of the road in the sand and finally went sniffing up the bank. Helen's dog William went sniffing too. Perhaps there was game there, very likely because in war time men did not go shooting nobody hunted any thing only dogs and cats hunted in war-time, Emil the boy with large eyes sighed about this. He said dogs hunt in war-time but they do not get much, anybody could see two or three dogs going together to hunt and waiting to see if anybody saw them because in peace-time of course they could not go hunting. Then Emil said but cats in peace-time or in war-time, they sit and watch and prey. It was getting darker and beginning to rain and Helen went one way and Emil went another way and each one of their dogs went with the one who owned him.
Paris France is not much like Hemingway's A Movable Feast. Stein's France is not a movable feast, it is an art exhibit with a distracted but chatty curator. It is not filling, but it does make one hungry.


A French cat, outside Giverny, September 2015. Photo: Mighty Reader

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"You are too bitter to your countrywoman"

I've been reading Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," a play with which I was unfamiliar, because it's not one that gets performed much or, I think, read widely (that is to say, assigned as reading from EngLit profs). I have no idea why this is not one of Shakespeare's best known or most performed works. It's a masterpiece, a thing of genius, one of the best plays I've ever read.

I was vaguely aware of the existence of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde but I assumed it was a medieval story put into new clothes by Chaucer; I had no idea it was an addition to Homer's Iliad. Which means that I had no idea Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" was a sharp parody of Homer, a criticism of stereotypical ideas about ancient Greece, an indictment of heroism worthy of Euripides. Great stuff, I am telling you.

Where to start? How about with the basis of the war, a woman named Helen? Shakespeare's Helen is not the most beautiful woman in Greece, or in Troy, and nobody, neither Trojan nor (with the exception of Menelaus) Greek, actually considers her worth fighting over. Here is Diomedes, a Greek general, to Paris, who stole Helen:
She's bitter to her country: hear me, Paris:
For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight,
A Trojan hath been slain: since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Trojans suffer'd death.
High praise indeed, eh? Paris' response is that the Greeks only talk that way about Helen because they are attempting to be wily: wanting the Trojans to think Helen worthless and give her up. But in an earlier scene, Priam and some of his sons do seriously discuss giving Helen back. Hector, Priam's eldest son (and Paris' big brother), says:
Let Helen go:
Since the first sword was drawn about this question,
Every tithe soul, 'mongst many thousand dismes,
Hath been as dear as Helen; I mean, of ours:
If we have lost so many tenths of ours,
To guard a thing not ours nor worth to us,
Had it our name, the value of one ten,
What merit's in that reason which denies
The yielding of her up?
Nobody but Paris and Menelaus values the woman, yet on the war goes, because it's an affair of honor. Neither side will yield because questions of machismo, and nothing more, are at stake. The Trojans and the Greeks are alike in that they are petty and prideful; they are alike in that they treat women as tokens to be passed from man to man; they are alike in that they will only go to war when battle will increase their personal esteem. There is no statecraft going on, but plenty of politicking. Honor is nonexistent; pride is what matters, pride and the esteem of others. Ulysses goads Achilles into action by having everyone important ignore him. Ulysses goads Ajax into fighting Hector by implying that Achilles might be a better warrior, though of course Ulysses would never think such a thing; it's those other Greeks who say that. Ajax is a dummy, a big stupid brute, but at heart so are the rest of the heroes in this story. They all just want to kill people and be admired for it. The following exchange between Aeneas and Diomedes, enemies come together under a flag of truce for a moment, should demonstrate the sort of guys-will-be-guys, look-how-cool-I-am mindset of the mighty warriors:
AENEAS:
Health to you, valiant sir,
During all question of the gentle truce;
But when I meet you arm'd, as black defiance
As heart can think or courage execute.

DIOMEDES:
The one and other Diomed embraces.
Our bloods are now in calm; and, so long, health!
But when contention and occasion meet,
By Jove, I'll play the hunter for thy life
With all my force, pursuit and policy.

AENEAS:
And thou shalt hunt a lion, that will fly
With his face backward. In humane gentleness,
Welcome to Troy! now, by Anchises' life,
Welcome, indeed! By Venus' hand I swear,
No man alive can love in such a sort
The thing he means to kill more excellently.

DIOMEDES:
We sympathize: Jove, let AEneas live,
If to my sword his fate be not the glory,
A thousand complete courses of the sun!
But, in mine emulous honour, let him die,
With every joint a wound, and that to-morrow!

AENEAS:
We know each other well.

DIOMEDES:
We do; and long to know each other worse.

PARIS:
This is the most despiteful gentle greeting,
The noblest hateful love, that e'er I heard of.
Paris gets the punch line at the end. The joke is even bigger than this exchange: Paris never leaves Troy to fight; he spends most of his time in Helen's bed. Everyone comments on it constantly, nobody is at all surprised, even when Helen turns out to be a shallow little strumpet, nothing so like the goddess we might expect. I am delighted that "Troilus and Cressida" turns out to be so very very good. I should not be surprised; it's a later play, written in 1603 or so, after "Hamlet." I think the plays from this period are Shakespeare's best, or at least I think that he was doing his best large-scale thinking during the early 17th century. Or I mean something along those lines.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"Ich weiß schon selber, was ich tu"

For some weeks now I've been slowly reading Lena: unser Dorf in der Krieg by Kaethe Recheis. I am still a fairly slow reader of German-language texts, but I persevere. Lena is an award-winning novel of World War II from the perspective of a young girl named Lena, in rural Austria. Her little village is in the middle of farm country, Linz being the closest real city nearby. The book opens with the Anschluss, Hitler's invitation for Austria to join the Reich. There was a vote, in case you were unaware, Austria being allowed to choose if they would remain independent or if they'd "rejoin" their German homeland. I don't understand the politics of the day, and 10 year-old Lena doesn't either, so all I know is that some Austrians were pro-Nazi and pro-Anschluss, and others were not, and in Lena's village emotions ran high before the election. Emotions ran even higher after the vote: Hitler sent squads of Nazis into Austria to manage the election:
"Er kränkt sich so sehr", erklärte uns Tante Steffi. "Nicht einmal das Kreuz haben sie ihn selbst hinzeichnen lassen. Die Hand haben sie ihm dabei geführt. Und so was nennt sich eine Wahl!" Ihre Stimme wurde dabei immer lauter, immer zorniger. "Draußen auf der Straße sind die SA-Leute gestanden, und drin im Gemeindeamt war es nicht besser. Alle Nazis aus dem Dorf waren da und haben zugeschaut, was wir wählen. "Das müsst ihr euch ankreuzen", hat der Perwanger gesagt und auf den großen Kreis gezeigt. "Ich weiß schon selber, was ich tu", hat der Großvater geantwortet. Und dann hat er die zwei Kreise lange angeschaut, und der Perwanger hat um seine 100 % Ja-Stimmen zu zittern angefangen. Da hat er die Hand vom Großvater genommen und ein Kreuz auf das Ja gemacht und gesagt, alten Leuten, die schlechte Augen hätten, müsse man helfen. Und dabei weiß jeder im Dorf, dass der Großvater keine Brille braucht!" "Reg dich nicht auf, Steffi", sagte der Großvater. "Sind doch alles Lumpen! Ich geh' jetzt in den Garten." "Es war keine freie Wahl!" sagte meine Mutter. Mein Vater sagte gar nichts.
Which is to say, the Nazi election marshalls "helped" everyone to vote in favor of the Anschluss. No ballots were cast privately. There was a 100% "yes" vote in the election. Red and black flags festooned the town the next day, hurrah for democracy!

As you can imagine, things get progressively worse as the years go by. Young men are conscripted into the Wehrmacht and there begins a series of empty-casket funerals in the local church as reports begin to come in from the various fronts. The Jews, the mentally ill, the gypsies, and the vagrants are rounded up by SS squads, and taken to a "hospital" where they soon die of sudden mysterious illnesses. A pillar of smoke rises above the "hospital." "They are burning the mentally ill," young Lena thinks. The village is rife with informants, and citizens who voice anti-Nazi views are snatched up by the SS and sent to Vienna or Dachau. Recheis is a wise author, interrupting all of this paranoia and terror with comic episodes and nature writing, which she does well, and there is also the continuous maturing of Lena over the years to take focus away from the horror of the Nazi rule now and then. But with maturity comes a greater realization of consequences. In one of the most moving parts of the novel, Lena has visited a neighbor, Rosa, an invalid teen girl who has been a Nazi supporter from the start of the novel. Lena becomes angry at Rosa and blurts out that it would be a terrible thing if Hitler were to win the war and eliminate freedom from the entire world. "Where did you hear this?" Rosa demands. "The chaplain said so," Lena answers, and immediately regrets having said anything. Soon after this conversation, the chaplain is arrested by the SS and taken away to Vienna. Lena is certain that her "betrayal" of the chaplain has led to his arrest, and she is torn apart by her guilt. After getting out of school (in Linz) the next day, Lena walks to a high bridge over the Danube, where she stands between carved figures of the Nibelungen and looks down at the waters rushing past. There is a lot of traffic on the bridge but nobody notices the remorseful young girl considering suicide. It's a great scene, Lena deliberately building emotional distance from herself as she tries to will her body off the bridge. Perhaps life in a repressive state is like that.

This novel, I suppose it's a young-adult novel as we say these days, has won all sorts of awards in the German-speaking world. I'm surprised it hasn't been translated into English.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Look up here, I’m in heaven

When I bought my first electric guitar in 1983 or '84, I learned to play from two songbooks I'd picked up at a Peaches: The Clash's Greatest Hits and David Bowie's Low. My first band played a rollicking punked-up version of "Be My Wife" from Low. A drummer we were auditioning turned his nose up at it. "That's not Bowie," he sniffed. No, it wasn't.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"he had not been in love with her three days earlier, when he had been hiding in the great mahogany wardrobe" in Stendahl's The Red and the Black

I've had a couple of Stendahl novels on my shelves for almost a decade, and I've been putting them off because I had an impression of Stendahl as being rather heavy going, quite serious sort of grumbling literature. Oh, I knew I'd read him one day, but it was pretty easy to push that day back and back into the dim future. This weekend, however, that day finally came, and I took down a copy of The Red and the Black, instantly discovering that I'd been wrong about poor Mr S all these years. Rather than being a ponderous sort of psychological study, The Red and the Black is a fairly light satirical social novel in the vein of Voltaire's Candide. Who knew?

By light satire, I of course mean stylistically, not necessarily thematically. The Red and the Black chides every social stratum of France to be found in 1830, Stendahl claiming that almost every living Frenchman (and Englishman, via an amusing chapter set in London) is a hypocrite. This hypocrisy has real results on real people's lives, but nobody is interested in becoming better and thus creating a better world. The protagonist of the novel, Julien Sorel, makes it a point to live hypocritically, and every so often when his situation changes, "he had to construct an entirely new character for himself." New because Julien attempts to act in ways that will materially benefit him, ways that run counter to his actual (quite low) opinions of the people who are his benefactors. Julien believes that if he is his true self he will be despised and therefore starve to death. The irony of this is that Julien's true self is pretty awful; he's not the sublime and proud work of art he imagines himself to be. He's a petty and prideful little man who just happens to be good looking and was taught Latin at an early age by a generous curate. Julien is certainly not Candide either, for all The Red and the Black's debt to Voltaire (and Voltaire is mentioned frequently in the novel). Candide was an innocent; Julien is naive (or provincial, as the author will tell you at some length), but he is by no means pure and good.
In the nineteenth century when an influential man of good family meets a man of spirit, in the ordinary course of events he either has him put to death, condemned to exile or imprisonment, or humiliates him in such a way that the fellow is foolish enough to die of grief. In this instance, by chance, the man of spirit is not the one to suffer.
Julien has been taken in by M. Renal, the mayor of a provincial town, as a teacher of Latin for his sons. Julien resents being treated as a servant (though he was regularly beaten by his father, who worked him at a saw mill, and so Julien's fortunes are markedly improved by this new position). He resents his social/economic place beneath the coarse and shallow M. Renal, and to revenge himself Julien seduces Madame Renal, the mayor's wife. The results are predictable and farcical, and Julien must eventually flee this employment. He is lucky to receive a scholarship to a seminary in the provincial capital. He immediately alienates his 200 fellow seminarians, and sees the whole project of organized religion as just another form of hypocrisy and self-serving greed. Being a self-serving greedy hypocrite, Julien works to be successful while despising everyone around him. At some point Julien is taken out of the seminary to work for the Marquis de la Mole in Paris. There, Julien is raised in station yet again, resents the world around him, and essentially the same series of events unfolds as happened in the Renal household. At least Julien learns to ride a horse in Paris.

I was just about to say that it's difficult to sustain satire for 500 pages, but what might be more accurate would be to say that I find it difficult as a reader to sustain interest in a 500-page satire. The novel is a bit of a picaresque in the way that Dickens' novels are picaresques: a character is followed as he interacts with a variety of other characters who represent the author's ideas of social classes or types. As such, the interest is primarily in the satire of the various social types, and the plot is repetitive. Julien finds a niche, fails to fit in, and must find another niche. And again. And again. Everyone he meets is corrupt in some way. This, I agree, follows the pattern of Candide, but Voltaire's novel was mercifully short. The Red and the Black is not short, and because it's built on a repetitive pattern, you can see the plot creaking along as it points you to actions you've long predicted. Some eye-rolling and sighing has been involved in the reading of this novel.
Why, my good sir, a novel is a mirror journeying down the high road. Sometimes it reflects to your view the azure blue of heaven, sometimes the mire in the puddles on the road below. And the man who carries the mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror reflects the mire, and you blame the mirror! Blame rather the high road on which the puddle lies, and still more the inspector of roads and highways who lets the water stand there and the puddle form.
That defense of the vulgar actions Stendahl's characters perform follows on the heels of the author's claim that his characters are "wholly drawn from imagination, and conceived as being well outside those social habits which will assure the nineteenth century so distinguished a place amongst all other centuries." Good one, Stendahl. This is a highly quotable novel, full of pithy paragraphs. It's not a great thing in toto, but it's pretty good and worth having read. It will probably be a few years before I take The Charterhouse of Parma down from the shelf, though.


Photo credit: Mighty Reader

Sunday, January 3, 2016