Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain

Cities of the Plain (The Border Trilogy, #3)Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cities of the Plain began life as a screenplay, and it shows. For most of its length, it is bare description and dialogue. While its scene-setting is often concisely vivid and its cowboy conversations laconically witty, it lacks either the lived-in quality of a successful realistic novel or sufficient stylization to justify such mimesis’s absence.

This third volume of the Border Trilogy is the opposite in every way (except for its epilogue) of the second volume. We could even understand them as McCarthy’s divergent responses to having had such a popular and critical success with the Border Trilogy’s first volume, All the Pretty Horses—a masterful novel that, unlike McCarthy’s more difficult prior books, persuasively combines mass appeal with literary seriousness. The 1992 Western gives us a hero’s journey and a tragic romance, complete with passionate love scenes and brutal combat sequences, while also probing the boundary between nature and culture and the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

If All the Pretty Horses is less despairing than its 1985 predecessor, the notoriously ultraviolent Blood Meridian, it nevertheless earns its sincere praise of heroism by confronting its hero with truly hopeless odds in an indifferent universe. (And I read Blood Meridian itself as a humanist and perhaps even Christian novel, dissenting from those critics who see its gnostic, war-worshipping villain, Judge Holden, as the author’s mouthpiece. Even if the world as McCarthy portrays it is evil, his novels still suggest that humans have a capacity, neglected as it is, to be good.)

But The Crossing, the 1994 sequel to All the Pretty Horses, reads almost like McCarthy’s apology for having written a popular novel. It is long, plotless, dense, and full of visionary if nihilistic disquisitions, a Western hallucination equal parts Beckett and Dostoevsky. It returns to the mode of Blood Meridian, but lacks even that novel’s liveliness of nihilation. The cinematic Cities of the Plain, on the other hand, is an apology for the apology: a briskly-written pop Western that rewrites All the Pretty Horses‘s tragic love story and gruesome knife fight sans any complicating thematic and ideological gestures.

The plot is as simple as it gets. It is 1952, and John Grady Cole (from All the Pretty Horses) and Billy Parham (from The Crossing) are working together on a ranch near the border run by a kindly man named Mac whose beloved wife has just died. The young John Grady’s preternatural horsemanship continues to marvel all who know him (he tells a colleague, “A good horse has justice in his heart”), and, despite Mac’s grief, the lives of these vaqueros seem idyllic, all the more because of their bittersweet awareness that their territory will soon be requisitioned by the state and that the cowboy way will soon vanish forever.

The novel’s own particular catastrophe, standing in for the closure of the West at large, comes when John Grady Cole falls in love with a teenaged prostitute (or, really, captive) in a Juarez brothel over the border. Her name is Magdalena (get it?), and she has epilepsy, which makes her even more vulnerable to the attentions of the pimp Eduardo (we are briefly told of her horrifying background, which begins when she “had been sold at the age of thirteen to settle a gambling debt”). A blind pianist informs Cole that Magdalena is too good for this world—

My belief is that she is at best a visitor. At best. She does not belong here. Among us.

Yessir. I know she dont belong here.

No, said the blind man. I do not mean in this house. I mean here. Among us.

—but the boy hero, ever Quixotic, is undeterred and sets out to rescue her from the cruel Eduardo. It is possible to be too cynical about the adolescent male rescue fantasy at work here, especially when combined with the title’s Biblical judgment against corrupt carnality; but McCarthy’s critique of sex trafficking and his commendation of attentive love over transactional lust seem like worthy enough moral priorities for a novel, if not totally uncontestable. And the naïveté of John Grady’s plan is defeated most brutally by McCarthy’s tragic narrative design.

The problem, however, is that the characters are almost completely emblematic, to the point of stereotype. They might as well have labels as names—Kindly Old Rancher, Cruel Mexican Pimp—and Magdalena’s name is a label. I am not even sure this is good screenwriting, let alone good fiction writing, though perhaps actors would flesh out the thin characterization in performance.

This actor-enhancement is arguably what happens in McCarthy’s 2013 film (with director Ridley Scott), The Counselor, which I find a more satisfying narrative than Cities of the Plain. Penélope Cruz adds to a Magdalena-type abused innocent a winning charm, and Cameron Diaz’s blonde beast of a villain is far more interesting than the campy, oleaginous Eduardo—not least because McCarthy is, in The Counsellor, at least reversing a stereotype rather than upholding one when he shows the white norteamericana to be the predator battening on a good Latina. With presumably anti-racist intent, McCarthy here flips the old, bad tradition in the Anglo-American novel of contrasting a good woman who is fair and blonde with a bad woman who has dark hair, eyes, and even skin.

In my review of All the Pretty Horses, I criticized the critics who found its depiction of Mexico simplistic and dualistic, but Mexico really does appear in Cities of the Plain as a hell-heaven of endemic violence coupled with inexplicable goodness. Billy Parham recalls the hospitality he’d found in the country on his titular crossing:

You could see that the revolution hadnt done them no good. […] They didnt have no reason to be hospitable to anybody. Least of all a gringo kid. That plateful of beans they set in front of you was hard come by. But I was never turned away. Not a time.

But it is not only the brothel where Magdalena is imprisoned but also the Revolution itself that testifies to the land’s senseless brutality, as Mr. Johnson, Mac’s father-in-law, recalls:

There were thousands who went to war in the only suits they owned. Suits in which they’d been married and in which they would be buried. Standing on the streets in their coats and ties and hats behind the upturned carts and bales and firing their rifles like irate accountants. And the small artillery pieces on wheels that scooted backwards in the street at every round and had to be retrieved and the endless riding of horses to their deaths bearing flags or banners or the tentlike tapestries painted with portraits of the Virgin carried on poles into battle as if the mother of God herself were authoress of all that calamity and mayhem and madness.

McCarthy, a believer in incorrigible nature and individual (not collective) goodness, can be expected to distrust revolution on classically conservative Burkean grounds, but All the Pretty Horses showed a greater political acuity than the above. As for Eduardo, who claims to speak for Mexico as against the overweening north, the less said about his sleek and oily head and his silk shirt, the better. On the other hand, it is undeniably fascinating to read a trio of U.S. novels that represents the Mexican Revolution—a blank for most Americans—as the germinal event of the 20th century.

There are moments throughout Cities of the Plain that recall its predecessors’ glories, not least when it comes to McCarthy’s reverence for the dramatic landscape with its

pictographs upon the rimland boulders that bore images of  hunter and shaman and meetingfires and desert sheep all picked into the rock a thousand years and more.

And there are affecting grace notes throughout, especially at the novel’s tragic conclusion. When Billy finds John Grady dead, we read a plangent, simple line worthy of Tolstoy:

The boy lay with his face turned away from the light. His eyes were open. Billy called to him. As if he could not have gone far.

I mentioned that Cities of the Plain does not resemble The Crossing until its epilogue. There, McCarthy recapitulates the narrative mode of the earlier novel. The novel jumps into the future: it is 2002 and Billy Parham, now 78, is drifting in and out of homelessness, when he meets another drifter who tells him an obscure story about a dream he had about a traveler’s dream. The drifter’s complex narration inspires Billy to protest, in a line that reflects the screenplay-mode of the rest of the book:

I think you got a habit of makin things a bit more complicated than what they need to be. Why not just tell the story?

But this narrator has philosophical ambitions. The point of his recursive tale seems to be twofold. First, the world is a fated and fatalistic place, and we cannot escape our destiny (the implication is that John Grady was always already fated to die for his idealism):

Each act in this world from which there can be no turning back has before it another, and it another yet. In a vast and endless net.

Second, the stories we tell about the world are also part of the world and help to weave the fabric of its fate. We are punished for our idealism, but it is also our strength, our glory, our justification:

These dreams reveal the world also, he said. We wake remembering the events of which they are composed while often the narrative is fugitive and difficult to recall. Yet it is the narrative that is the life of the dream while the events themselves are often interchangeable. The events of the waking world on the other hand are forced upon us and the narrative is the unguessed axis along which they must be strung. It falls to us to weigh and sort and order these events. It is we who assemble them into the story which is us. Each man is the bard of his own existence. This is how he is joined to the world. For escaping from the world’s dream of him this is at once his penalty and his reward.

This fatal metaphysic of narrative, which explains McCarthy’s suspicion of such modern writers as James and Proust, takes us back before the novel to the aesthetics of Greek tragedy. Yet there is a danger in treating the complexities of modern fiction as merely disposable in a climate where oversimplification is the hallmark of stultifying popular entertainment: you may strip away Jamesian or Proustian obliquity and find that you have created not a Sophoclean tragedy but a schlocky B-movie. For this dubious achievement, success is at once McCarthy’s penalty and his reward.


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José Revueltas, The Hole

The HoleThe Hole by José Revueltas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Hole was written in Mexico City’s Lecumberri Penitentiary in 1969 and published the same year; a classic of Latin American literature, one that Valeria Luiselli claims on the back cover has informed the works of Bolaño and Aira, the novella appears for the first time in English in this 2018 translation by Amanda Hopkinson and Sophie Hughes.

Revueltas’s short novel is not only remarkable for its prison provenance. It is also an experimental formal contrivance—a solid block of prose from end to end with no breaks. Revueltas narrates his characters’ experience in real time, a viscous flow of consciousness that mimics the hallucinatory desperation of its criminal anti-heroes in the depths of the prison.

Our main characters are Albino and Polonio; they have convinced their cell-mate, a pathetic, disheveled man they call The Prick, to have his mother smuggle drugs into the prison  by carrying them in her vagina. She is accompanied by their young girlfriends, La Chata and Mecha, who themselves fall prey to the violations of the female guards who search them on their way into the prison. The smuggling plan goes as well as you’d expect, and the novella climaxes in an orgiastic and defeated rebellion.

Revueltas was in the prison, but not the titular hole; he was not a common criminal but a political prisoner, a lifelong Communist on trial for inciting the student rebellion in 1968. Accordingly, his novella makes a number of philosophical points in the course of its brief nightmare narrative.

First is that society at large is a prison. The novella opens with our anti-heroes watching their watchers, observing the guards, whom they think of as apes:

They were captive. […] They were born to keep watch and they knew as much, to spy, to constantly look around, making sure no one escaped their clutches in that city with its iron grid of streets, barred corridors, corners multiplying on all sides…

The prison is the city is the world, and the guards are as imprisoned as those they keep. In his comprehensive introduction to The Hole, novelist Álvaro Enrigue points out that Lecumberri Penitentiary was an exemplary modern institution, a model of “‘progressive’ rationalism” founded in 1900 on principles derived from Bentham’s panopticon.

Modernity, rationalism, progress: everybody watching everybody else along the sightlines formed by an authoritarian grid laid over us all by the powers that be. Revueltas makes the point even more explicit at his novel’s climax when the anti-heroes are defeated by guards who pin them in their cage by barring the space with metal rods:

…all in a diabolical mutilation of the space, triangles, trapezoids, parallels, oblique or perpendicular divisions, lines and more lines, bars and more bars, until every possible move those gladiators could make was blocked and they were left crucified on the monstrous blueprint of this gargantuan defeat of liberty, all the fault of geometry.

If “geometry” is at fault, if reality’s propensity to be rationalized defeated even the endless love of history’s most famous crucified convict, then resistance is whatever exceeds the rational. This is a filthy, nihilistic book, but it offers glimpses of redemption. Consider Albino’s tattoo, which drives observers to erotic frenzy:

Lower down his stomach was a tattoo of a Hindu figure—etched in the brothel of some Hindustani port, or so his story went, by the in-house eunuch, a member of an unpronounceable esoteric sect, while Albino dreamed a deep and almost lethal opium sleep beyond all possible recollection—the tattoo depicted an amusing couple, a young man and a woman in the throes of passion, their bodies entwined, enlaced in an incredible foliage of thighs, arms, legs, breasts, and marvelous organs—the Brahmanic tree of Good and Evil—positioned in such a way and with such kinetic wisdom that Albino only had to set it in motion with the right contractions and muscle spasms, its rhythmic oscillations rising at intervals on the surface of his skin, and a subtle, in apprehensible rocking of the hips, for those flailing and capricious-looking body parts—torso and armpits, feet and pubis and hands and wings and stomachs and hair—to assume a mystical unity in which the miracle of the Creation was repeated and human copulation was portrayed in all its magnificent and marvelous splendor.

Entwined foliage rather than straight lines, mystical unity rather than bars of division, miracles rather than reasons: if these can be found even in the eponymous hole, then perhaps geometry need not win the war, though it wins the battle Revueltas stages in the novella.

Geometry does tend to win out in Álvaro Enrigue’s long introduction, though, which frames the text for the Anglophone reader. While Revueltas was, as I said, a Communist, “all the fault of geometry” is not a Marxist position. Marxism does not perceive a fault in the structure of the universe as the source of social problems, but rather contingent and therefore alterable historical conditions. According to Enrigue, this tendency toward ontological pessimism rather than historical optimism caused Revueltas’s comrades to react with suspicion:

When Revueltas published his first novel, Walls of Water, Pablo Neruda denounced it for its pessimism: such existentialist themes were disrespectful of Stalinist orthodoxy. Neruda failed to understand the literary potential of young José Revueltas, who in turn held the Chilean poet—the loftiest of all lofty Communists—in such high esteem that he took Walls of Water off the market. Nevertheless, Neruda was correct in pointing out the link between Revueltas and post-war French literature. His tragic characters belong to the race of Albert Camus’s existential heroes: “indifferent to the future.”

Revueltas’s self-criticism anticipates the auto-#cancellation of authors scorned by social media activists today, and should tell us all we need to know about the Stalinist sources of the ideology taking root in American cultural institutions. Unfortunately, it takes further root at the end of Enrigue’s introduction, when he insists that this quasi-pornographic and wholly oneiric novella is “a timely fable about our complicity—all writers and readers—in the triumph of mass incarceration as the only solution to problems that could be resolved in more rational ways.”

But The Hole identifies rationalism itself as the enemy and names no solution whatever to the problems it describes, as it portrays prisoner and guard as alike caught in the cage of the universe and refuses to moralize over its anti-heroes’s murderous viciousness and visionary appetites. “Fable” is the last word I would use for this violent spasm of language.

I might have preferred a more emotionally complete fiction than The Hole myself, and I too hope our society can move on from mass incarceration; but the need to find in imaginative literature a timely and rational political fable is another “gargantuan defeat of liberty.”


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Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This 1979 classic novel of time travel and slavery could not be published today.

Imagine it, imagine Octavia Butler temporally jumped to the present and trying to put out Kindred in the current media climate. Assume, because it’s so good, that the novel even finds an agent and a publisher. Then a science fiction press, banking on an excited reception for this relevant, suspenseful, original, and provocative narrative, releases advanced copies to online reviewers. Perhaps the publisher advertises the novel’s plot teasingly, but a bit vaguely: “A modern African-American woman involuntarily travels back in time to the early 19th century, where she has to live among her enslaved ancestors.”

But the advanced readers begin to leak the novel’s true premise on Goodreads and Twitter. Kindred is really about a modern African-American woman forced to travel back in time to save the life of the white man who enslaved her ancestors. What’s more, she also has to ensure that he rapes one of those ancestors over and over again, because if she doesn’t, she herself will not in the course of time be born from the lineage founded by that assault.

The heroine, furthermore, is married in the narrative present to a white man, and is clearly and avowedly motivated by an obscure attraction, at once maternal and sororal, to the white rapist and slave-owner who will become her distant grandfather. Their fatal dance is the novel’s emotional core, even as the other black characters, all enslaved on the man’s plantation, accuse her of collaboration with white power, an accusation she often finds difficult to deny.

The reaction would be swift and shocking. Before anyone but a handful of self-appointed guardians of literary safety had even read the manuscript, Butler would find herself accused of promoting “tropes”—the acquiescent slave, the violated woman who secretly desires her abuse, etc.—whose mere presence in a work, no matter how ironized or contextualized or ramified, have the power to “harm” the audience through some unspecified mechanism formerly known only to fundamentalist preachers in the Satanic-Panic 1980s.

To attempt to defend Butler would necessarily be to perpetuate this tropological harm. To attempt to remind her attackers that their attitude toward the arts is not socially just, as it descends directly from the ideologies legitimating Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, to say nothing of Winthrop’s Boston; to attempt to inform them that their censorious quest is also not resistant to white-male authority (as they will claim it is) since its premises come more or less straight from several grand old men of the European canon, such as Plato, Rousseau, Hegel, and Tolstoy—all of this would take too long for Twitter.

Considering these obstacles, most influential writers and critics would only privately express their discontent as they do nothing to defend their beleaguered colleague in public, while a few bestselling authors and celebrities will even opportunistically amplify the inevitable hashtag campaign: #kancelkindred.

A cringing, scraping, self-humiliating apology, a promise to “listen better” and “do better,” would be demanded of the author. Her publisher, convinced that 20 self-selected tribunes of the oppressed on social media represent some massive groundswell or any genuine constituency at all, would indeed and inevitably #cancel publication of this great novel. Its author, now construed as a sad victim of internalized racism and sexism and certainly not a responsible purveyor of true and positive representations to the polis, would be sent back to clerical work or manual labor.

And the world of literature would be the poorer, because Kindred is as superb as it is disturbing. Butler’s science-fictional rewriting of the classic slave narrative from the viewpoint of a contemporary black woman allows her to question every bit of received wisdom we have on the topics of progress and modernity, of race, gender, and class.

The plot, alluded to above, is as follows. A California writer named Dana has just moved to a new house with her husband Kevin, a white man who is also a writer, albeit older and more established. One day, Dana finds herself mysteriously transported back to the early 19th century to save a drowning white boy, Rufus Weylin. Over the course of about a month in the summer of 1976, Dana—sometimes accompanied by Kevin—is summoned back five times to save Rufus’s life. While with each trip she is only gone from the present for seconds, minutes, or hours, she spends months at a time over a two-decade period in the early 19th century.

Gradually, she grows accustomed to the life-rhythms of the Weylin plantation and begins to grapple with the quotidian ethical complexities of slavery, its way of corrupting everyone it touches, from Rufus Weylin himself, a white man of some moral promise who debases himself as a rapist and human trafficker because his society enables him to do so, to the more privileged among the enslaved, who themselves uphold the system, often by harshly ruling over those lower than themselves in the hierarchy.

Butler deglamorizes the past, giving us not a splendid plantation, not moonlight and magnolias, but a squalid semi-mansion run by whites who are themselves barely literate. As we might expect of a writer devoted to science fiction, she emphasizes the past’s material and technological deprivation, its bodily reek and lethally primitive medicine.

Critics who read the time-travel trope through Toni Morrison’s Gothic lens of slavery haunting the present (as in Beloved) might think Kindred argues that life has changed little between the antebellum period and now. And the novel does make such thematic gestures, most notably through its frequent doublings of Dana’s present-day white husband, Kevin, with the slaveholding white male characters in the past setting, as if to suggest that certain psychosexual patterns of attraction and repulsion between white men and black women were perennial and inevitable:

I scrambled away, kicking [the slave patroller], clawing the hands that reached out for me, trying to bite, lunging up toward his eyes. I could do it now. I could do anything.


I froze. My name? No patroller would know that.

“Dana, look at me for Godsake!”

Kevin! It was Kevin’s voice! I stared upward, managed to focus on him clearly at last. I was at home. I was lying on my own bed, bloody and dirty, but safe. Safe!

Kevin lay half on top of me, holding me, smearing himself with my blood and his own. I could see where I had scratched his face—so near the eye.

“Kevin, I’m sorry!”

“Are you all right now?”

“Yes. I thought. . . I thought you were the patroller.” (Butler’s ellipses)

Butler’s numerology also references the Faulknerian theme of the past’s not being past. Dana’s penultimate trip to the 1800s, which she thinks will be her last, ends on June 18—on the eve, that is, of Juneteenth. But this emancipation proves to be short-lived when she is called back a final time on July 4, 1976, not only Independence Day, but the U.S. Bicentennial. These dates emphasize the fragility, impermanence, and incompleteness of African-American freedom when considered in the light of slavery’s legacy.

But Butler’s focus is psychosexual more than it is political. It is about the dynamics of libidinal push and pull that ensue with the proximity of free white men and enslaved black women. (Black men and white women play little role in the novel: the former suffer nobly on the sidelines of the action, while the latter are portrayed as one-dimensionally, if bathetically, villainous.) Kindred hints that only partnership and collaboration between black women and white men can save the nation, despite the many pitfalls of their relation:

“But stay close to me. You got here because you were holding me. I’m afraid that may be the only way you can get home.”

Butler deals little with the economics of enslavement, and is if anything anxious to emphasize the distance between contemporary capitalist arrangements and slavery, a message I assume she derives from Douglass and Jacobs’s 19th-century narratives, both of which argue for the moral and practical superiority of wage labor:

I was working out of a casual labor agency—we regulars called it a slave market. Actually, it was just the opposite of slavery. The people who ran it couldn’t have cared less whether or not you showed up to do the work they offered. They always had more job hunters than jobs anyway.

If Dana’s and Kevin’s recourse to low-level, low-wage labor to support their writing careers is sometimes enervating, it is at least a choice they make, a practice of freedom that may be circumscribed by economic necessity but is at least not forced upon them as chattel. Both the white man and the black woman are subjected to it equally, even if Butler hints at prevailing racial and sexual inequalities in Kevin’s greater success as a writer.

Butler’s interest is less in freedom, in triumphant individualism, than in survival. Among the classic science-fiction texts she revises is Robert A. Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—,'” a time-travel paradox tale whose protagonist is his own father and mother. While Heinlein suggests the loneliness and solipsism of such white self-making, Butler adds the moral twist that a black person descended from the enslaved who wished to be the true author of her own life would have to ratify what was done to her ancestors.

Butler was famously inspired to write the book upon hearing a black student say that he would have violently rebelled had he been enslaved. In Butler’s view, this is misguided, not only because—as The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go also insist—the vast majority of people are not heroic revolutionaries, but also because the mere act of survival under any system of oppression is morally compromising. Dana’s reflection on Sarah, an enslaved who has carved out a space of freedom and authority on Weylin’s plantation and who finds many abolitionist ideas incomprehensible, makes this point:

She had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. She was the kind of woman who might have been called “mammy” in some other household. She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. […] I looked down on her myself for a while. Moral superiority. Here was someone even less courageous than I was. That comforted me somehow.

Dana can hardly afford moral superiority, however. As she understands early in the novel, Rufus is her distant ancestor, and her mission is not only to save his life, but to ensure that he sexually coerces Alice, an enslaved woman with whom he is obsessed. If he does not do so, then, in a time-travel paradox, Dana will not have been born and will thus cease to exist.

We can detect Butler’s overall philosophy in the fact that Dana never seriously considers sacrificing her own existence so as not to participate in such a moral atrocity. Apparently, we are all driven by a ruthless will to persist, at anyone’s expense. Dana’s awareness of this potential within herself makes her, as well as her husband, “kindred” to the men who survived on the stolen labor of her ancestors—she, no less than whites, is heir to the crime.

The novel bleakly intimates that we all exist, insofar as we do exist, by consuming the lives of other people. Kindred, then, can be added to my little canon of tragic-nihilistic American novels that find in the brutal inequalities of race, gender, class, and sexuality not occasions for moral regeneration à la Harriet Beecher Stowe or James Baldwin or the Twitterati, but rather evidence of evil’s omnipresence and redemption’s absence: Quicksand, Nightwood, Sula, Corregidora.

Finally, Kindred may subtract the putative glamor of the past, but its very filth and danger become a perverse attraction, as Dana reflects:

I felt as though I were losing my place here in my own time. Rufus’s time was a sharper, stronger reality. The work was harder, the smells and tastes were stronger, the danger was greater, the pain was worse . . . Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch. (Butler’s ellipses)

If inequality persists it in the present, it often does so impersonally, through the practices of institutions for which no one person can be held responsible. In the antebellum south, on the other hand, the forces that victimize Dana require her to rise to their occasion and even provide a physical target for her wrath or revenge. Such a nostalgia for a past that was more brutal but more alive is, I believe, the hidden motivation for the troubling phenomenon of the hate-crime hoax, lately in the news: like Dana, the hoaxers may wish that the real hate to which they feel themselves subject could be a nameable actor in their own lives rather than an effect of abstract social and political arrangements.

I began this review with an imagined illegitimate complaint about Kindred: that its ruthlessness and amorality of vision would render it unfit for the politically-conscious reader. I want to end with a legitimate criticism of the novel I’ve encountered. I have known some readers, usually academics, who picked up Kindred because they heard it discussed in the context of literary science fiction or great novels about slavery; and they put it down disappointed not by its themes but by its style. They thought Butler would be a writer like Ursula K. Le Guin or Toni Morrison, but she has nothing akin to their dense literariness, their investment in style and psyche. She wrote books for mass-market genre publication; in consequence, her prose is expertly engineered for clarity and suspense, while her characters exist to carry out the plot rather than being case studies in modernist depth psychology.

While I disagree with the poptimist argument that literary fiction’s stylization is just a pretentious status signifier—for reasons best explained by the Victor Shklovsky passage quoted in my review of Milkman—I will nevertheless defend Butler’s superficial simplicity of composition. By carefully rendering language transparent rather than opaque, she compels our attention to the novel’s animating dilemma. As in Dostoevsky or, closer to home, Philip K. Dick, the novel becomes an experiment in philosophy rather than an art object.

Admittedly, as a partisan of literary fiction, I would have preferred fewer conversations about the whys and wherefores of time travel; it’s not as if the Samsas dwell at any length on the pragmatics of Gregor’s metamorphosis. But when popular fiction is written with the emotional intensity and theoretical verve of Butler’s—and she is certainly better than Dick, in my view—it is as valid a way to write a novel as is Morrison’s or Le Guin’s comparative aestheticism.

In sum, all you should #cancel are your immediate plans to read anything but this most viscerally dispiriting and intelligently alarming of novels.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Jason Lutes, Berlin

BerlinBerlin by Jason Lutes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For readers and writers of contemporary fiction, history can play the role that myth once did. Just as Sophocles’s audience relished the dramatic irony created by their foreknowledge of Oedipus’s fate, we can read about the everyday lives of Berliners in the Weimar Republic with poignant dread over what we—but not they—know to be their grim destiny. And like the theatergoers of antiquity, we gather around the more-than-twice-told tales less to be merely entertained than to reaffirm our communal convictions, pledge again our piety to our gods. Or else why tell the familiar tale yet again?

So it is with Jason Lutes’s titanic graphic novel Berlin, over 20 years in the making, a book about the private lives of Berliners, some fictional and some historical, in the last days of Weimar. Again we watch a republic with an independent civil society collapse into warring factions of extremists, the worst of whom will seize the state and take total command of the citizens; again we see pluralism in all its manifestations—artistic, religious, and sexual—fall before the fists and guns of absolutism. The Jews and the queers are persecuted all over again, and again the liberal intellectual, with the exquisite pangs of his involuted conscience, is helpless to arrest the destruction of liberalism.

The particulars of Lutes’s story are perhaps less important than these archetypes that it mobilizes, but in any case Berlin charts four years in the lives of middle-aged journalist Kurt Severing and a young aspiring artist named Marthe Müller. While the two are lovers off and on, we follow their separate paths through the collapsing city. Kurt is a mostly unaffiliated leftist and pacifist skeptical about communist sectarianism and violence and hopeful that words can change the world:

I imagine the daily output of the entire newspaper district. It makes me think of drowning, but I want to be able to see it another way. Instead: human history as a great river, finding its course along the lowest points in the landscape, and each page as a stone. Tossed in without purpose, just to see the splash, thousands of them might raise the water level until it escapes the confines of the riverbed. The water spreads out, the force of the river diminishes; before long, a marsh. But if each stone is placed carefully and with purpose, perhaps something can be built. Not to dam the current, but to divert its course. Berlin was built on a marsh. I hope it will add up to more than a pile of stones.

The travails of his journalistic colleagues index the decline of civil freedom in Germany; he himself increasingly withdraws from reality, since the time for words has come and gone and the political situation will be decided by force alone. What roll does a pacifist writer have to play in such a scenario?

Marthe meanwhile enters and then leaves art school and has an intermittent affair not only with Kurt but with her queer colleague Anne. Anna introduces her to Berlin’s famous sexual demimonde, as made famous by Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, and through her eyes we behold the fascist crackdown on the Weimar Republic’s notable sexual libertarianism.

Meanwhile, we are treated to debates about the artistic avant-gardes of the period, from Expressionism to New Objectivity, even as the narrative overall, and the precise drawings through which we receive it, sides with Marthe’s preference for realism over conceptualism and observation over theory. (I tend to think that behind this motif we can perceive the longstanding feud between comics creators and the art world, between the penurious devotees of painstaking panel-craft and the Lichensteins of the world who would appropriate their work for the museum walls and in the process reap all the spiritual and tangible rewards of the vaunted “artist.”)

Subplots abound: Lutes claims influence not only from the expected Döblin and Isherwood, but also from Wim Wender’s choral film, Wings of Desire, which flits in and out of the inner lives of Berliners with empathetic abandon as it discloses the sorrows and glories of the city after its postwar division. Berlin shows us a well-to-do Jewish family divided between the understandably conservative impulses of the father and equally understandable rebelliousness of the son; and it shows us a poor family divided by ideology, as mother and father, brother and sister, square off against one another as Nazis and communists. A band of touring African-American musicians adds the jazz to this Jazz-Age tale, though we might wonder whether their status as comic relief and their slightly unrealistic heist capers don’t reinforce a stereotype rather than adding depth.

In any case, Wim Wenders had his magical-realist angels overseeing the city and his Homeric bard wandering the Potsdamer Platz, while Lutes’s book, eschewing magic, is labelled “HISTORY” on the back cover.

Lutes has also cited Tintin creator Hergé as an influence: unsurprisingly, then, he communicates his complex narrative in a shadow-modified clear-line drawing style, even a cursory glance at which suggests precision and neatness, order and refinement. His storytelling is also clean, with panels in irregular but immediately legible grids and an alternation between establishing shots of Berlin sites and closer portrayals of his characters’ dramas. There are no explosive or delirious layouts or disorienting compositions—they would be too reminiscent of superhero or manga sensationalism, too little to the purpose of convincingly capturing history.

berlinLutes at his most daring fades out his images as his viewpoint character dies, or truncates the image as another viewpoint character is suddenly killed; he also has a tendency to resort to Hitchcockian angles in moments of crisis. There are a handful of other fascinating visual conceits, but they aren’t followed up or deployed consistently. (My favorite occurs when Lutes replaces the typewriter-clacking sound effect with words themselves, hovering in typeface over a street whose residents are mostly writers.) Otherwise, Berlin has a deliberately meticulous and minimalist style that does not call attention to itself at the expense of the subject matter.

And with that observation, we come to a possible problem: such an abandonment of style is very un-Weimar. I was startled (not in a good way) when Lutes recreates some images by George Grosz; it reminded me that there are no images so arresting in Lutes’s own style. Never mind Grosz: where is Wenders’s visual lyricism or Döblin’s spates and torrents of vernacular language? Where is the passion of the Expressionist and proto-graphic-novelist Frans Masereel, alluded to early in Berlin and then never revisited?

Lutes is closer to Isherwood’s “I am a camera” style, but then the Tintin-esque cartoonishness of his character-drawing is not exactly documentary either. There is a mismatch here between style and substance, between form and content, and it makes me question the critical claims that Berlin is “a watershed achievement” (to quote the back cover blurb).

This misfit of art and idea afflicts the story as well. Just as Lutes’s drawing style can’t accommodate Weimar’s modernist extremes, his narrative can’t make up its mind about political extremism. Communism is depicted with a mix of wariness and patronizing fondness, and while Levering’s anguished liberalism is challenged, it is still the dominant note of the novel. I am hardly saying that Lutes should embrace communism—I grant his ideological premise of a lament over extremism as such, even if it portrays the far right as much worse than the far left. But like his protagonist, Lutes never commits even to this and seems to have it both ways, giving us communists as heroes and villains, cynical manipulators and admirable freedom fighters, in different moments of the narrative, which creates a sense of authorial aloofness, even condescension.

The sexual politics of Berlin are much the same. Marthe at first embraces and then rejects queerness, and it is hard to know whether or not we should assent to her abandonment of her queer lover, Anna. By the way, Anna herself is portrayed earlier in the novel as a butch lesbian and later as a transgender man; like Alison Bechdel’s remark that had she grown up 30 years later she might have understood herself as trans rather than gay, this suggests our own cultural shift in sexual thinking from the late 20th to the early 21st centuries. And I wonder if that is not a more interesting story to tell, one with less ready answers, than yet another liberal iteration of World War II mythology. Lutes for his part might well want to tell it; he states in a recent interview:

When you’re somebody who writes, or in the case of comics, writes and draws, the experiences of people, if I just wrote about my own experience it would just be another straight white guy’s experience and that, frankly, is the last thing I want to read anymore. I’m much more interested in the experiences of people other than my kind of person. […] But I’m not going to just write stories from my perspective because that’s a boring perspective.

This is supposed to be a broad-minded, enlightened attitude coming from a straight white man. But it is not. It’s the attitude of an aesthetic and intellectual tourist, enervated by postmodern living and in quest of other people’s greater presumed vitality. It is a hardly updated ideology of the noble savage, and there’s nothing persuasive or admirable about it.

Above all, though, Lutes’s attitude is a flawed one not from an ethical or political perspective but from an aesthetic one. There is no short cut to telling an interesting story. Queer artists, female artists, artists of color do not simply tell interesting stories by virtue of their identity, and it’s an insult to the great storytellers among them to suggest that they do. People who tell interesting stories, whatever their identities, do so because they are masters of their craft and because they are impassioned—not bored—artists.

You’re not boring because you’re straight, white, and male; you’re boring because you’re boring. And your book is often boring because you apply a staid style to subject matter that you presume is inherently interesting without always remembering to prove or earn its interest on the page.

So I find myself again in the uncomfortable position of dissenting from the press’s and academia’s consensus about what constitutes great comics. I see in Berlin—aside from its undeniable craft, polish, and good intentions—the creeping middlebrowization of an art form that gave us, for the better part of a century, and often on the same page, only garbage and grace.


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Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories

The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to BerlinThe Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Berlin Stories collects Christopher Isherwood’s two novels of the 1930s set in Weimar Germany, The Last of Mr. Norris (1935), published in England under the superior title Mr. Norris Changes Trains, and the better-known Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which introduced Sally Bowles and made Weimar’s cabaret scene a pop culture paragon after being adapted for stage and screen.

Isherwood was a relatively young writer—in his late 20s—when he was having and first writing up his experiences as Berlin visitor (or sex tourist, more of which below), so The Last of Mr. Norris is a slight, callow performance.

The novel is the first-person reminiscence of William Bradshaw, a visiting English writer who is only a barely-fictionalized version of Isherwood—William and Bradshaw were the writer’s middle names. But Bradshaw is not the novels’ focus: rather, the narrative dramatizes Bradshaw’s encounters with the eponymous Englishman Arthur Norris, a middle-aged habitué of the demimonde, who introduces Isherwood and us to Weimar Berlin’s panorama of prostitution, paraphilia, and radical politics.

Norris, with his badly-attached wig and his constant debt, comes off at first as a bathetic but compelling figure, a sad sadomasochist and well-intentioned naïf in the paranoid underworld of interwar communism, an aging dandy who possesses the glamor of a faded starlet.

As the novel progresses, though, we see that his campy tremulousness conceals a ruthless will to survive even at the price of selling out his ostensible friends; as he is manipulated by the various forces conspiring to control Germany, from the police to the Communist Party, he in turn manipulates everyone that comes to hand. Bradshaw looks into Norris’s eyes toward the end of the novel to detect if he is telling the truth and sees the man for who he is:

As a final test, I tried to look Arthur in the eyes. But no, this time-honoured process didn’t work. Here were no windows to the soul. They were merely part of his face, light-blue jellies, like naked shell-fish in the crevices of a rock. There was nothmg to hold the attention; no sparkle, no inward gleam. Try as I would, my glance wandered away to more interesting features; the soft, snout-like nose, the concertina chin. After three or four attempts, I gave it up. It was no good.

Norris is at first amusing, and then he is chilling, and Isherwood manages this slow transformation ably; but as the lead of a novel, he is too lightweight, just a grotesque, and I found Mr. Norris overly long. Better than its portrayal of the title character is its glimpses of Berlin as the political situation comes apart, given in Isherwood’s style of documentary fiction:

Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines.

The narrator, though, has very little character of his own, just a style of ironic and detached observation that eventually seems as frigid as Norris’s amorality. Over and over again, he tells us that he smiled at some vivid eccentricity of Norris’s, a gesture that casts a pall of frivolity over the whole novel.

In Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books, the critic John Carey speculates that Isherwood, understandably concealing his homosexuality and his real reason for his Berlin sojourn from the 1930s Anglo-American reader, in fact identified more with Norris than with the narrator:

But it seems that Isherwood also constructed Mr Norris out of parts of himself. He went to Berlin at a stage in his life when he was contemptuously dismissive of conventional morality, and cynical about political causes (‘All politicians are equally nasty’). In both respects, he resembled Mr Norris. Further, what attracted him to the city, as he frankly admitted, were the boy-bars where hungry youngsters would sell themselves to foreign homosexuals for the price of a meal. However much he might suppress it, it can hardly have escaped someone of Isherwood’s intelligence and upbringing that this was blatantly exploitative (and would have been equally so, of course, had the prostitutes been girls, not boys). He was using the misfortunes of the stricken city as an opportunity for his own hedonism, just like Mr Norris.

This speculation raises a question that might occur to contemporary readers, especially given Armistead Maupin’s preface to the 2008 New Directions edition of The Berlin Stories, which introduces these novels in the context of Isherwood’s own status as 20th-century gay icon: is Mr. Norris a gay or queer novel?

Hard to say: it takes place at a very different moment in “the history of sexuality” than our own. Its narrator, standing in for the gay author, represents himself as a rather hard-boiled, Hemingwayesque, masculinist 1930s narrator, and emphasizes several times that he resists the sexual come-on of the aristocratic pederast Kuno, and that he is, as ever, amused by Kuno’s boy-crazy ways.

Norris, on the other hand, is a heterosexual, a devoted sadomasochist, yet is he who speaks in the languid, campy tones of Wilde. His landlady reports to the narrator, “‘He’s so particular, Herr Bradshaw. More like a lady than a gentleman,'” and his beauty routine queers him in Bradshaw’s sardonic eyes:

Seated before the dressing-table in a delicate mauve wrap, Arthur would impart to me the various secrets of his toilet. He was astonishingly fastidious. It was a revelation to me to discover, after all this time, the complex preparations which led up to his every appearance in public. I hadn’t dreamed, for example, that he spent ten minutes three times a week in thinning his eyebrows with a pair of pincers. ( “Thinning, William; not plucking. That’s a piece of effeminacy which I abhor.” ) A massage-roller occupied another fifteen minutes daily of his valuable time; and then there was a thorough manipulation of his cheeks with face cream ( seven or eight minutes) and a little judicious powdering (three or four). Pedicure, of course, was an extra; but Arthur usually spent a few moments rubbing ointment on his toes to avert blisters and corns. Nor did he ever neglect a gargle and mouth-wash. (“Coming into daily contact, as I do, with members of the proletariat, I have to defend myself against positive onslaughts of microbes.”) All this is not to mention the days on which he actually made up his face. (“I felt I needed a dash of colour this morning; the weather’s so depressing.” ) Or the great fortnightly ablution of his hands and wrists with depilatory lotion. (“I prefer not to be reminded of our kinship with the larger apes.”)

Clearly, certain archetypes or stereotypes of gender and sexuality had not yet hardened by the time of this novel’s composition. Mr. Norris perhaps works better, then, as evidence for a cultural history of changing sexual ideas, than it does as a novel with its own artistic integrity.

Goodbye to Berlin, an acknowledged 20th-century masterpiece, is much better. Here the narrator is named Isherwood without pretense, and if he doesn’t tell us about his personal life it is because he famously theorizes a new form of documentary fiction inspired by the objectivity of film and journalism rather than by the stream-of-consciousness subjectivity that marked the prior generation’s high modernist novels:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

Divided into five freestanding sections, Goodbye to Berlin may be read as another instance, like Winesburg, Ohio, or Dubliners or Cane or Go Down, Moses, of the modernist story cycle or novel-in-stories. (On this note, it’s worth remembering that Isherwood famously championed this literary mode’s most notable use in science fiction, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.)

The first and last divisions are called “A Berlin Diary”—diaries being another documentary form—and they chronicle Berlin’s deteriorating political situation from 1930 to 1933, from the casual anti-Semitism of even otherwise sympathetic characters to open Nazi street violence. Isherwood’s quiet theme here, as he observes and reports, is the missed connection between public and private life (ironically exhibited by his own sexual diffidence, however understandable) that allows totalitarianism to thrive:

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about “Der Führer” to the porter s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.

But the novel is better known for its second section, “Sally Bowles,” than for these weighty political reflections. Sally is a 19-year-old English cabaret singer who escaped to Berlin from her stultifying rich family (her father is a mill owner and her mother an heiress of a landed lineage); Isherwood is charmed by her sexual frankness and artistic flightiness. The climax of “Sally Bowles” is a bittersweet description of her abortion, though we see her again in the novel a final time, when she seals a sense of her corruption with a vile anti-Semitic remark. Isherwood, camera though he affects to be, is plainly taken with Sally’s air of prematurely degraded eroticism, which he captures, in keeping with his documentary realism, by several times showing us her hands:

As she dialled the number, I noticed that her finger-nails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. […] Sally lit another cigarette: she smoked the whole time. I noticed how old her hands looked in the lamplight. They were nervous, veined and very thin — the hands of a middle-aged woman. The green finger-nails seemed not to belong to them at all; to have settled on them by chance—like hard, bright, ugly little beetles.

The grotesquery in these passages, the imagery of dirt and insects, the confusion of age from “little girl” to “middle-aged woman” reminiscent of Isherwood’s treatment of the puerile but decaying Mr. Norris from the earlier novel, all suggest authorial disquiet over sexual disinhibition, not celebration of Weimar freedom.

But pop culture seems not to have noticed Isherwood’s ambivalence, and Sally Bowles, while she has ancestors in prior demimondaine fiction (George du Maurier’s Trilby comes to mind), helped to create a new archetype or sexual role model: the Bohemian girl. (My own swooning adolescent encounter with a much-desexualized version of the type occurred when I made the fictional acquaintance of Neil Gaiman’s cheery, black-clad Death from the Sandman comics.) Like Arthur Norris, though, Sally Bowles is too insubstantial to carry a novel, and I was more impressed by the sections that follow.

Both “On Ruegen Island” and “The Nowaks” dramatize Isherwood’s relation to the Nowak family. He meets their youngest son on a holiday on Ruegen Island, where the 16-year-old working-class boy falls into a flirtation or affair with an older Englishman, Peter Wilkinson. Isherwood here introduces a dreamy eroticism into his docu-style:

It is Peter’s will against Otto’s body. Otto is his whole body; Peter is only his head. Otto moves fluidly, effortlessly; his gestures have the savage, unconscious grace of a cruel, elegant animal. Peter drives himself about, lashing his stiff, ungraceful body with the whip of his merciless will.

The dream hardens to nightmare—a comic nightmare in the Dostoevskean style—when Isherwood goes to live with the Nowaks in their impoverished flat, where almost everyone sleeps in one room, and where Isherwood must dodge the flailing conflict of the drunken father, the tubercular mother, the Nazi older son, the puerile little sister, and the histrionic Otto. The whole section culminates in Isherwood’s avowedly nightmarish accompaniment of Otto to visit Frau Nowak in a tuberculosis sanitarium for women that strikes the narrator as a frightening epiphany of female sexuality:

Women being shut up together in this room had bred an atmosphere which was faintly nauseating, like soiled linen locked in a cupboard without air. They were playful with each other and shrill, like overgrown schoolgirls. […] They all thronged round us for a moment in the little circle of light from the panting bus, their lit faces ghastly like ghosts against the black stems of the pines. This was the climax of my dream: the instant of nightmare in which it would end. I had an absurd pang of fear that they were going to attack us—a gang of terrifyingly soft muffled shapes—clawing us from our seats, dragging us hungrily down, in dead silence.

If this unmistakable note of authorial misogyny disturbs or displeases, though, it is dispelled in “The Landauers,” wherein Isherwood befriends the wealthy, cultivated department-store owning Landauer family.

He visits the Landauers, to whom he has a letter of introduction, because they are Jews, increasingly threatened by the rise of the Nazis. He is especially enchanted with Natalia, the family’s daughter, a literate, witty, free-spirited 18-year-old anti-type to Sally Bowles, whom she despises. Isherwood also details his complex, perhaps homoerotic relation to Herr Landauer’s nephew and business partner, Bernhard, a reserved man tortured by his divided identity (he is Prussian, English, and Jewish) and by his complicity in crass commerce. When he upbraids the pseudo-objective narrator for his clear cultural biases, we might nod in agreement:

“You are a little shocked. One does not speak of such things, you think. It disgusts your  English public-school training, a little—this Jewish emotionalism. You like to flatter yourself that you are a man of the world and that no form of weakness disgusts you, but your training is too strong for you. People ought not to talk to each other like this, you feel. It is not good form.”

In the Landauers, we see an enlightened and brilliant world, however troubled, which the Nazi brutality incubated in the hothouse poverty of the Nowaks’ flat will pitilessly exterminate.

Isherwood’s insight, against the previous generation of British writers, that political and psychological insight could come from dispassionate reportage, an objective rather than subjective style, is borne out in the amplitude of Goodbye to Berlin‘s 200 tersely-narrated pages of description and dialogue. If Sally Bowles is overrated as a character—how many readers remember her anti-Semitic crudity, however unintentional, to Natalia Landauer?—the novel as a whole is perhaps under-studied for its artful montage arrangement, for its quiet play with time (events in its five sections are concurrent with one another), and above all for the way it only half-conceals behind the camera its author’s palpable passion.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

Berlin AlexanderplatzBerlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let’s get the literary-historical info and honorifics out of the way first: Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the monuments of the modernist novel, often compared to Joyce’s Ulysses (“quite wrongly and needlessly,” says the present translator, about which more later) for its linguistic and cultural variety show meant to present the modern city in toto. In this case, that city is Weimar Berlin on the eve of destruction, which lends the novel, laden as it already is with a sense of fatedness and doom borrowed from the Bible and Greek myth and medieval lore, a special poignance, as of a photo over which you sigh, “This is the last picture we have of him before the accident.”

Its author, Alfred Döblin, was a middle-aged writer, a psychiatrist by training, Jewish by heritage, a mover in artistically and politically radical circles. These facts inform the novel: its clinical or case-history approach to its protagonist, the street-level slang of its narrative voice, its delirious news-of-the-day, lives-of-the-city montages, and its overall mood—seedy, seen-it-all cynicism masking the earnest wish for a better world.

I can recount the plot—I’ll do it shortly—but perhaps more important than the plot, because more mysterious, is the narrator or narrative mode. Each chapter begins with a little summary (“You will see the man turn to drink and lose himself”), as does the novel as a whole, and the chapters’ subdivisions have headings that seem to mock the goings-on (“Lina takes it to the queers,” “The duel begins! It continues rainy,” “Battle is joined. We ride into hell with a great fanfare”).

We have a narrator who does seem to be distinct personality, one who moralizes over the action, who grows didactic, who often explains the novel’s point to us with a Dickensian fervor; yet this narrator also speaks in the argot of its protagonist and his class and context, Berlin’s criminal element and lumpenproletariat. If Joyce is somewhat misleadingly known as the stream-of-consciousness man, narrating from within the welter of his characters’ consciousnesses, then Döblin is certainly very different: he addresses his hero in the second person (“You swore, Franz Biberkopf, that you would keep to the straight and narrow”) rather than burying himself behind his eyes or “I,” and he splices into his narrative the news of the day, medical information, recountings of myth, popular songs, political speeches—all the news that’s fit to print, and some that isn’t.

While these techniques are not actually un-Joycean—Joyce did more than stream-of-consciousness, and Ulysses has some Döblinesque passages: in “Aeolus,” “Wandering Rocks,” the end of “Oxen of the Sun,” “Eumaeus”—I found Berlin Alexanderplatz reminiscent of certain later rather than contemporaneous novels: Naked Lunch, Gravity’s Rainbow, even Neuromancer and Trainspotting. It made me wonder how far the 1931 translation by friend-of-Joyce Eugene Jolas had traveled into the Anglosphere. This anticipatory quality must be what the present translator, Michael Hofmann, has in mind when he writes in his afterword that, “The literary name and fame of the city of Berlin, if not the idea of modern city literature altogether, are founded on the novel in your hands.”

Naïvely, I thought “modern city literature” was founded by Dickens, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Joyce, and Woolf. But what if the consciousness streaming in Döblin’s novel is that of the city itself rather than any one character, a sentient urban aggregate or an articulate and self-conscious street argot rather than any individual flâneur? In that case, Döblin inaugurates the great 20th-century dismissal of Romantic and realist aesthetics, with their doting regard for the sole self and psyche, in favor of a literature that explicates or enshrines systems and discourses.

But we do have a main character, a hero, and even a somewhat traditional hero’s journey: from innocence to experience: “So this was the end of Franz Biberkopf, which I wanted to describe from the moment he left Tegel prison to his end in the mental asylum Buch in the winter of 1928-9,” we read at the conclusion; the novel’s proem or “argument” proposes at the beginning:

The terrible thing that was his life acquires a purpose. A radical cure has been performed on Franz Biberkopf. […] To see and hear this will be worthwhile for many readers who, like Biberkopf, fill out a human skin, but, again, like Franz Biberkopf, happen to want more from life than a crust of bread. (Döblin’s italics)

Note the absurdist comedy even in this moralizing passage, with its implication that some readers do not “fill out a human skin.” Even so, Döblin has a message to the world about the necessity of wanting “more from life” than to subsist and consume.

Franz Biberkopf, who had fought in the Great War, did four years in Tegel prison because he murdered Ida, his girlfriend (and employee: Franz is a pimp), in a fit of jealous rage. When he gets out of jail in the novel’s opening chapter, he is so disoriented and overwhelmed by the frenzy and chaos of the modern city that he collapses and has to be restored to his senses by a pair of solicitous storytelling Jews who are the moral compass of the novel’s first quarter. This opening episode, a kind of prose-poem about urban shock and the kindness of eccentric outsiders, might almost stand on its own as modernist milestone.

Following his release, Franz vows to go straight, but he slowly gets entangled in dangerous complications. First, politics: though Franz himself is fairly apolitical, he becomes a seller for a far-right paper and falls into confrontation with the leftists who frequent the bars and target him for his fascist armband. Then he falls in with Reinhold, with “his long, bony, yellowish face”: “He felt powerfully drawn to him. […] Franz couldn’t take his eyes off him.” The strangely frightening and brutal Reinhold is the novel’s villain; while Franz isn’t a good man, Reinhold is a worse. This is a staple of crime fiction, sanitized for kiddies in the Batman/Joker pas de deux: the hero may be unsound or a reprobate, but the villain’s a psychopath. For all that, though, Franz and Reinhold are magnetized to each other.

Reinhold draws Franz back into a life of crime, first to “a booming trade in girls,” after Franz keeps taking in Reinhold’s cast-off girlfriends, and then to robbery with the Pums gang. First Franz loses his arm to Reinhold’s perfidy, and then he takes up with his old friends from his pre-prison days and goes back to pimping. But when he meets the innocent Mitzi and gets her involved with Reinhold, all manner of murder and madness ensue until the novel’s conclusion, in which a delirious Franz meets Death in the insane asylum and is reformed at last, not in the sense that he becomes a productive member of society—though he does—but because he stops living his life as if unconscious, unalive to the roiling human chaos all around him that Dr. Döblin has for 400 pages been at such pains to anatomize. Sounding like a Berlin tough, sounding significantly like the very voice of the novel, Death tells him:

‘You lost the war, sunshine. It’s all up with you. You can pack up. Put yourself in mothballs. I’ve had it with you. You can squawk and wail all you want. What a wretch. Got given a standard-issue heart and head and eyes and ears, and thinks it’s enough if he’s decent, or what he calls decent, and sees nothing and hears nothing and lives in the day and doesn’t notice a thing, try as I may. […] You weren’t born, man. You were never alive. You’re an abortion with delusions. […] The world needs different people than you, more alert, less impudent, capable of understanding how things work, not pure sugar, but sugar and shit mixed together.’

Insofar as death is exhorting us as well as Franz, what should we have been noticing over the course of the novel about “how things work”?

Berlin Alexanderplatz is morally but not politically didactic. At a political meeting, Franz even berates a representative of the official left. If Lukács in the 1920s hailed “the viewpoint of the proletariat,” Döblin gives magnificently cynical voice to “the viewpoint of the lumpenproletariat” (scorned as such by his leftist interlocutor: “He’s no comrade, and he’s no colleague neither. Because he doesn’t work. Doesn’t seem like he goes on the dole either”):

‘And I shit on your moaning and your strikes and your little people who are supposed to be organized. Self-reliance. I see to what I need. I’m self-sufficient. Amen.’


And Franz laughs and laughs. No higher being will come to our rescue, no god or emperor, no tribune to relieve us of our misery, we can only do it ourselves.

Yet this is a novel beloved by Brecht and Benjamin. It is a novel wherein a minor character laments, “It’s because we were betrayed, Franz, in 1918 and 1919, by the politicians, they killed Rosa and they killed Karl. We shoulda stuck together and made common cause.” And it is a novel wherein Franz’s faith in self-reliance is also subjected to Death’s “radical cure”:

Much misfortune comes of walking alone. If there are several of you, that is already better. You have to get used to listening to other people, because what others say concerns me. Then I see who I am and what I can take on. […] What is destiny? One thing is stronger than me. If there are two of us, it’s difficult to be stronger than me. If we are ten, still harder. And if we are a thousand and a million, then it’s very difficult.

Solidarity’s rebuke to destiny explains Döblin’s evocation of myth throughout the novel. If the Anglophone “mythic method” (as theorized by Eliot if not exactly as practiced by Joyce) contrasted archaic repletion with modern degradation, Döblin’s Berlin version works in reverse: modernity gives an advantage to Franz that Job and Orestes lacked. Humanity’s struggle with death is a historical constant, but Franz, offered (literal) asylum by his psychiatrist author, comes alive out of his danse macabre, allowed as it is to play out in inner space, despite the several murders already committed for lack of enlightenment.

Sexual science, that hallmark of Weimar modernism, may also aid beleaguered humanity. Within the first chapter we hear of “Drs. Magnus Hirschfeld and Bernhard Schapiro of the Institute for Sexual Science, Berlin.” What is this novel’s “booming trade in women,” and also its brutality toward them, all about? Anticipating later sexual science, Döblin suggests it’s about men using women to mediate their relations to other men, whom they actually desire. When an old man “urges [Franz] to get into sexual enlightenment” early in the novel (“That’s a booming industry right now”), Franz is thrown into a “great confusion,” “free to think about queers”—a motif most delicately picked up by his later fatal attraction to Reinhold. The novel does not flinch before sexual violence, and while it dubiously seems to expect us to see Franz’s abuse as hapless and Reinhold’s as heinous, Franz is not let off the hook either: “Mitzi has been murdered, no one lifted a finger for her, that’s what’s happened here.”

Not to say that the novel’s feminism is as foundational as its socialism. Döblin’s mythic personae include the Whore of Babylon, pictured as Death’s enemy. Death may redeem by reminding us to live better, but the Whore of Babylon is death-in-life, sin and sickness, and this in a novel where all the trouble is caused not by whores but by their vicious, violent masters. Why not, then, the Pimp of Babylon?

Even without that bit of masculine confusion, though, it is hard to imagine this novel being acceptable today, when the left-liberal literati has adopted the attitude toward art and society once exhibited by Satanic-panic-era suburban school-board members. Döblin gives us a mass of often disturbing material, and while he moralizes over some of it, he leaves us to make up our mind about the rest, an artistic practice now considered dangerously misleading, even, as we now say, “harmful”: the reader might get the wrong idea or be seduced by the allure of depicted anti-social behavior. Irony? Not to be risked: what if the children don’t get the joke? As Hofmann, also the translator of right-wing modernist poet Gottfried Benn, has commented:

Americans are apt to think of books as potential contaminants anyway. “My God, I’m not reading a Fascist here, am I?” A little bit the same with Pound, who was much worse [than Benn]. Of course you have it with all of the modernists: Eliot, Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Joyce. But you have to read them. You have to read worse people than that. You have to read Céline. Worse people than that—I can’t think who at the moment. You can’t be bien-pensant and care about literature.

But Döblin’s own fate under fascism is worth considering here: driven into exile, his works proscribed as degenerate art. Even a novel like this, one that aims so plainly at its hero’s regeneration and our own.

About the translation: Berlin Alexanderplatz is said to be untranslatable, due to the localism of its style. How to render Berlin’s underclass sociolect into an English we can read? Hofmann largely opts for its London counterpart (yer man Franz snogs a load of bints, innit?) and does it persuasively to my Yank ear; but Hofmann is a more controversial translator-critic than that one choice would suggest. He has asserted that the translator is a writer, a literary consciousness, a poetic chooser of words, a maker, rather than a transparent medium:

I want a translation to provide an experience, and I want, as a translator, to make a difference. I concede that both aims may be felt to be somewhat unusual, even inadmissible. I can see that the idea of  me as writer leans into, or even blurs, the idea of me as translator (after all, I don’t need someone else’s book to break my silence: I am, if   you like, a ventriloquist’s ventriloquist). Translating a book is for me an alternative to or an extension (a multiplier!) of writing an essay or poem.

Like a lot of ideas that strike one as dangerous, it’s only dangerous as generally applied. You certainly wouldn’t want just anyone to think like this. And as a reader of Hofmann’s essays but not of the German language, I can say that Döblin indeed sounds like Hofmann. Luckily enough for all three of us, Hofmann’s contagious style of paradoxically jaded exuberance, its love of lexical ingenuity and its abruptness of syntax, sounds like just the thing to convey the noise, as well as the signal, of urban modernism.

The back cover of the NYRB Classics edition calls Berlin Alexanderplatz “one of the great books of the twentieth century.” I’m not sure I would have come to that judgment on my own, and maybe one does have to read it in German (though you don’t have to read The Magic Mountain in German to know it’s great). Franz is too much the everyman, the empty vessel to be filled with meaning, to carry a truly great novel, and his co-stars, even Reinhold, likewise lack the substance that a Mann (or Joyce) would confer. Such might be the price of writing a novel affirming solidarity over individuality, stressing systems over psyches.

On the other hand, maybe my idea of greatness is too bourgeois. Maybe it’s a good thing to read books that challenge and abrade, whose aesthetics and morals aren’t my own. Maybe we should consider that we have the sugar and the shit all out of proportion.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus

Doctor FaustusDoctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Far out to sea the water’s as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass; but it’s very deep, deeper than any anchor can reach. Many church steeples would have to be piled up one above the other to reach from the bottom of the sea to the surface. Right down there live the sea people.
—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid” (trans. R. P. Keigwin)

I begin by apologizing for my insufficiencies as a critic of Doctor Faustus: it suits a novel whose narrator endlessly apologizes to the reader for his own insufficiencies. He cites his ponderous bourgeois humanism that makes him unfit to compose a compelling narrative and his difficulty in writing at all about so personal a subject as the life and death of his best friend while his country—Nazi Germany in the last years of World War II—collapses around him.

My inadequacies in this case are much less dramatic: this 1947 classic is a novel about music and about German culture, and I lack expertise, or even at times basic knowledge, about both subjects. Luckily, Doctor Faustus is also about the necessity and impossibility of modern art, about modern art’s tortured relationship to ethics, politics, and metaphysics—and I have thought a great deal about these subjects, even if not as they pertain to the particular situation of the German composer of art music in the modernist period. What follows can’t claim to be a unified essay, only a few speculative ventures occasioned by this essayistic and discursive novel of ideas.

First, some preliminary information about the novel. Its plot, what there is of it, is shortly summarized: Mann casts the novel as a biography of the great composer Adrian Leverkühn, who lived from 1885 to 1940, written by his best friend since childhood, a humanist and teacher named Serenus Zeitblom. As mentioned, Zeitblom writes the manuscript during Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, and he consequently invites us to find in his story of a German culture hero the seeds of German culture’s catastrophic destiny.

What is Leverkühn’s story? Most problematically for a novelist, an artist’s life is not often outwardly exciting and doesn’t lend itself to a page-turner; artists make art, often sedentarily and in seclusion. Leverkühn is no different: the story of the novel is the story of his intellectual development, as he grows from a late-19th-century rural boyhood in the almost medieval town of Kaisersaschern to a youthful theology student to an avant-garde composer in adulthood in the 1920s, before his madness and premature death, presumably caused by syphilis.

The several outward crises of Leverkühn’s life are erotic, and are to a striking degree surmised rather than being verified by Zeitblom (for all of Nabokov’s hatred for what he took to be Mann’s lumbering Dostoevskean overinvestment in ideological fiction, Doctor Faustus is a novel of almost Nabokovian trickiness, about which more later). As a young man, Leverkühn deliberately contracts syphilis by coupling with a prostitute named Esmerelda; later, he becomes involved in a love quadrangle with a male violinist who is his friend and presumably lover and with two women in their social circle, an entanglement that ends, in a passage of shocking melodrama for this slowest of novels, in a public murder on a streetcar.

But Leverkühn’s real life is in his art, in his artistic progress toward a method that can lead music out of its 19th-century dead-end of Romantic subjectivity without merely jeering at that emotivism through the cynical device of parody. He achieves this paradoxical emancipation from freedom by inventing a severe formal procedure (the real-life 12-tone method of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg) that allows subjective expression precisely by placing it within an objective formal grid. He and Zeitblom argue about whether or not such a method can really be described as emancipating, and they do so in resonantly political terms:

“Freedom always has a propensity for dialectical reversal. It very quickly recognizes itself in restraint, finds fulfillment in subordinating itself to law, rule, coercion, system—finds fulflliment in them, but that does not mean it ceases to be freedom.”

“In your opinion, that is,” I said with a laugh. “As far as it can see! But in reality that is no longer freedom at all, no more than a dictatorship born of revolution is still freedom.”

“Are you so sure of that?” he asked.

To devise this most modern of systems, though, Leverkühn must traffic with the premodern and the inhuman. Hence his origins in the medieval town of Kaisersaschern and his theological studies, with their focus on the omnipresence of Satanic evil. And hence his self-infliction of syphilis, that progressive illness that ascends to the brain and which was once indissolubly linked to the artistic and philosophical avant-garde.

In fact, Mann, who received a teenaged Susan Sontag in his California exile, seemed almost unable to write without deploying illness as metaphor, a metaphor above all for artists’ necessarily Nietzschean dalliance with the Dionysian forces of nature’s primordial flux if their Apollonian images are to be sufficiently vital to command and console an audience. Doctor Faustus does for syphilis what Death in Venice does for cholera and what The Magic Mountain does for TB. (By the way, the limitations of this metaphor can be shown by recent scholarship’s recision of some high-profile syphilis diagnoses: for instance and to the best of my knowledge, neither Nietzsche nor Wilde are currently thought to have had the sexually-transmitted disease, as they once were.)

At the center of the novel, Zeitblom places Leverkühn’s secret manuscript, a record of his supposed conversation with the devil, who appears variously as a pimp, a music critic, and one of Leverkühn’s former professors, who had argued, in the manner of Goethe’s Faust, that good is produced out of evil. The devil contracts with Leverkühn to produce a type of music that will overcome the Hegelian end of art, but in the midst of their conversation, he in his marvelously punning and almost Joycean discourse (here I can only praise the resourceful translation of John E. Woods) likens the flagellum of the syphilis bacterium to medieval flagellants:

The proper planets met together in the house of the Scorpion, just as Master Dürer drew it for his medicinal broadsheet, and there arrived in German lands the small delicate folk, living corkscrews, our dear guests from the Indies, the flagellants—you prick up your ears, do you not? As if I spoke of the vagabonding guild of penitents, scourging their backs for their own and all mankind’s sins. But I mean the flagellates, the imperceptible, which have flails, like our pale Venus—the spirochaeta pallida, that is the true sort. But right you are, it sounds so snugly like the high Middle Age and its flagellum haereticorum fascinariorum.

In other words, everything outside the control of reason, from premodern religion to incurable illness, is at one and conduces to art. Modernism, as Guy Davenport used to emphasize, was revival of the archaic, a valorization of whatever was trampled by the self-congratulatory progress of bourgeois western European modernity, whether it take the form of Europe’s own past cultures—pre-Christian paganism, medieval Christianity, folklore—or the cultures of Africa or Asia or, more simply, the biological substrate of consciousness that modernity presumes to shackle within the bounds of reason and moderation. The devil defines hell as nothing other than extremism, the extremism to which both modern art and politics were driven in the early 20th century:

Its essence, or if you will will, its point is that it allows its denizens only the choice between extreme cold and extreme fire that could bring granite to melt—between those two conditions they flee yowling to and fro, for within each the other ever appears a heavenly balm, but is at once, and in the most hellish sense of the word, unbearable. The extremes of it must please you.

Politically, this poses a problem, the name of which for Mann is “Germany.” Because Germany’s longstanding resistance to what Zeitblom identifies as humanism, associated variously and sometimes contradictorily with the Catholic Church, the French Revolution, Enlightenment philosophy, and neoclassical aesthetics, arguably incubated the ultramodern archaism, the techno-irrationalism—in sum, the modernism—of the Nazis.

This theme comes out in the novel’s overtly political passages, as when Zeitblom begins frequenting a salon where the assembled intellectuals of the 1920s express the coming anti-humanism. The most political of them advocates “a post- and counterrevolutionary conservatism, an assault on bourgeois liberal values from the other side, not from before, but from after,” showing that fascism/modernism is not really conservatism, is in a sense beyond those French categories of left and right, is a heedless leap into the future-past outside of reason and progress where the feeling subject is reborn in a surrender to the cold and chthonic forces of the universe.

As for sexuality, the novel’s plot, if we can call it that, narrates the break-up of the bourgeois home and the nuclear family, themselves inventions of modern western reason. Mann gathers adultery, prostitution, and queerness under the sign of syphilis to produce a sexuality counter to the bourgeois standard of domesticity. As opposed to Zeitblom’s settled family life, Leverkühn and everyone in his circle come to a bad end through sex, and it is no coincidence that Leverkühn makes his pact with the devil over the body of a syphilitic sex worker, joining the “brothel-hood,” if you will (and perhaps you won’t), of modernist masculinity, like the Joyce of “Circe” and the Picasso of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

At the novel’s conclusion, the final sign of Leverkühn’s damnation comes with the death of his little nephew, Nepomuk (nicknamed “Echo”), from cerebral meningitis, the effects of which are likened to possession. Modernism be damned, Mann (or Zeitblom) slathers on the 19th-century treacle to convince us of the little boy’s angelic loveliness and to make us mourn his death, symbolically brought on by his proximity to his evil uncle. Leverkühn had invited a disease of the brain into his own life without understanding that its like would blast the innocent, in a grim echo indeed. Echo is portrayed with such schmaltz that even Little Eva from Uncle Tom’s Cabin would blush, and not only from the feverish effects of her own highly symbolical wasting disease. Just so we don’t miss the point, we are informed several times that Echo is half Swiss: Switzerland, that country of multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic, and republican Enlightenment, as against Germany’s tragic and endemic irrationalism.

So it appears that Doctor Faustus is, for all its dense and riddling disquisitions on modernism and music, a story with a very clear moral: Mann comes out for humanism, reason, moderation, and against modernism’s Faustian ambition and romance with the inhuman. On the other hand, who wants to read a tract? And does the novel not frequently raise the possibility of parody, to say nothing of irony? There is that Nabokovian trickiness I mentioned at the outset. Could so staid a narrator as Zeitblom, who is always telling us just how staid he is, just how “eerie” and “uncanny” he finds the story he is telling us, be unreliable? Yes: simply because he is always telling us we can trust him, we should suspect him.

Doctor Faustus is a novel narratively in the mode of Melville’s Moby-Dick, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby: all of these books feature narrators of self-proclaimed humanism and enlightenment who tell us about the grand catastrophes of other, very different men, “ungodly god-like men,” to borrow from Melville. Yet each of these books, Doctor Faustus no less than the others, carefully shows us the secret yearning, even the erotic longing, of its stolid narrator to be more like its tragic anti-hero.

The Catholic Zeitblom, for one thing, is not without his own fascist tendencies. Despite unctuously proclaiming his philo-Semitism in the opening pages, he caricatures and even at times maligns the novel’s Jewish characters (one of whom is the aforementioned advocate for “counterrevolutionary conservatism”). Likewise he defends monarchical absolutism in an otherwise inexplicable scene wherein he speaks in favor of “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria, another obsessed aesthete.

But more importantly than these political slips, at the end of the book, Zeitblom quietly discloses the dark secret of his own text, the very novel we’re reading, which we had taken for a meandering and even slightly dull biography. He is ostensibly describing the structure of Leverkühn’s final composition, The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus:

This gigantic lamento…is, properly speaking, undynamic, lacking development and without drama, in much the same way as when a stone is cast into water the concentric circles that spread farther and farther, one around the other, are without drama and always the same. A single immense variation on lamentation…it expands in rings, each inexorably drawing the others after it: movements, grand variations, which correspond to textual units or chapters in the book and yet in and of themselves are are once again nothing but sequences of variations. (my ellipses)

But isn’t this a perfect description of Doctor Faustus? Is it not a novel with no plot, no narrative, no drama, no progress, just incident after incident, each of which, no matter how minor, contains in miniature the themes of the whole? Even when Zeitblom gives us a passage of seeming comic digression (Sterne, by the way, is one of Leverkühn’s favorite writers), he plays variations on the Faust theme. He describes the denizens of the boarding house where Leverkühn stays in Italy and is careful to tell us that of the two brothers who live there, one is an Enlightened rationalist and the other an unreasonable reactionary. Similarly, the novel’s erotic subplots, particularly those stories of the “fallen” sisters Inez and Clarissa Rodde, allegorize the tragic conflict between bourgeois moderation and Faustian extremity.

All of which is to say that neither author (Mann) nor narrator (Zeitblom) can condemn the tragic hero Leverkühn, since both have introduced his totalizing Satanic-fascist musical innovations into the art of the novel. And that is why this is a modernist novel, despite its superficial appearance of belated 19th-century realism. Leverkühn had with his final composition wanted to “revoke” the monument of Romanticism and progressivism, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, converting its heroic joy into tragic sorrow. Mann similarly revokes the progressive temporality of Goethe, the organicism that allows the endless striving of Faust or of the bildungsroman, this to achieve the archaic revival in the modern novel of tragedy, with its union of irreconcilables—individual will, communal need, universal fate—in a grand calamity that makes a lamenting concord of discord. On the other hand, it takes a clear-headed, rational, i.e., humanistic, reading of the novel to discover these paradoxes; in that sense, it promotes anti-fascist habits of mind to grasp its potentially fascist form.

This novel dramatizes, among other conflicts, religion vs. magic. Religion deals in dualism: body against soul, good against evil. Magic, by contrast, posits the union of opposites, as does art.

Bourgeois humanism is for its curriculum parasitic upon nature and art—those demonic forces it tries to subdue. For this reason, Mann is not only indicting Zeitblom for hypocrisy and complicity, which would put this novel in the realm of rational polemics, but also indicting humanity’s inherent inner conflict, our competing desires for mutually exclusive forms of the good, the true, and the beautiful, which is what makes this novel a tragedy. Didn’t Mann in The Magic Mountain refer to the human being as the “lord of counterpositions”? We don’t want Hitler, and we can’t live by bourgeois reason alone. Start with that concession of confusion and contradiction, as Mann so delicately does beneath the overt argument of his superficially ideological novel, and maybe we will get somewhere.

But I don’t want to end with yet another self-flagellation of the modern artist, as if we were the only people who ought to have guilty consciences in this guilty world. For Mann insists that science is as culpable as the artistic and philosophical avant-garde in fascist irrationalism. A very minor character in the novel is Dr. Unruhe,

a philosophical paleozoologist, whose writings linked in a most ingenious fashion the study of fossils and geological strata with a vindication and scientific confirmation of materials found in ancient sagas, so that by his theory—a sublimated Darwinism, if you will—all things that an advance humanity had long since ceased to believe became true and real again.

This fusion of archaic lore with modern science is a motif of the novel. The devil compares the syphilis bacterium to Andersen’s Faustian little mermaid, for instance; like the sexually-contracted spirochete winding its way from phallus to cerebellum, she (for love) ascends from water to earth to air. Leverkühn, who late in the novel tries to drown himself and early in the novel watches his father’s scientific experiments with liquids, has a fantasy, on the cusp of his greatest artistic achievements, in which he explores the black depths of the ocean and there encounters

the mad grotesqueries, organic nature’s secret faces: predatory mouths, shameless teeth, telescopic eyes; paper nautiluses, hatchetfishes with goggles aimed upward, heteropods, and sea butterflies up to six feet long. Even things that drift passively in the current, tentacled monsters of slime… (my ellipses)

These watery passages are to my mind the most prophetic in the novel. Such tentacular and oceanic metaphors, such fears of a fascist science and of the primordial slime it discloses, seem pressing in a way that avant-garde art no longer does.

If we ourselves are (and we very may well be) on the brink of a post-bourgeois, post-humanist millennium, piloted by hypercapitalist city-states overseen by gene-editors and artificial intelligence, then the most significant writer of the 20th century will prove not to have been the humanist modernist Mann but—as Alan Moore suggests in his recent and startlingly not-un-Doctor-Faustus-like graphic novel Providence—the gothic materialist H. P. Lovecraft. But Mann is a writer of sufficiently diabolical foresight to have incorporated that unsettling possibility into this most eerie and uncanny of great novels.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

But was I wrong, in “In Praise of Semicolons,” to be so severe in my judgment of Kurt Vonnegut, to castigate him for infantilism? I decided to find out by reading what is regarded as the author’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s sixth novel, and includes characters from many of its precursors and successors. Part of the charm of his books, I imagine, is that each feels like an episode in an ongoing conversation with the author; with each visit, readers receive an update on this fascinating man’s struggle with his preoccupations and obsessions. And what I like best in Slaughterhouse-Five, what still seems original half a century later, and what moreover still seems useful and usable, is Vonnegut’s mix of two modes considered wildly incongruous: memoir and fantasy.

He begins with a chapter about his writing of the novel, the qualms and researches involved in converting into fiction his most notable wartime experience: the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. (The novel takes its title from the slaughterhouse in Dresden where Vonnegut was held prisoner.) Will he glamorize war, as an old army buddy’s wife worries?

“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”

He promises that he will do no such thing: that he will write an anti-war book, that he will represent himself and his fellow soldiers as “babies.” Hence the novel’s subtitle, The Children’s Crusade, and hence Vonnegut’s emphasis that he made the novel’s outline on the back of a roll of wallpaper with his daughter’s crayons.

But Slaughterhouse-Five is a semi-satirical fable, not a realistic autobiographical war novel in the manner of All Quiet on the Western Front or A Farewell to Arms. Its main plot concerns an American everyman named Billy Pilgrim, who is “unstuck in time”: as he slips between all the moments of his life, we are treated, non-sequentially and in brief bursts of narrative, not only to his youthful experience as a prisoner of the Germans, during which time he survived the firebombing, but also to his middle age as a rich optometrist living an American life of “quiet desperation” and to his time as an exhibition in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore.

The Tralfamadorians’s perception of time helps to explain the novel’s structure. For them, time is not a linear flow but an object in space. They liken the past to the part of the landscape you can see behind you and the future to the objects ahead of you. Their fiction, then, reads to Billy like Slaughterhouse-Five reads to us:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out-in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of-symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation, a scene, We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

This idea of all space and time compressed into one art object is a modernist ambition, from Pound’s Chinese ideogram to Benjamin’s dialectical image. And as Pound’s and Benjamin’s desire to fuse word and picture suggests, the ideal format for such a perception of spacetime is less prose than comics: each page of a comic represents a time-sequence as a spatial array of images. Perhaps the best artistic treatment of spacetime, then, is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, which I have to imagine took some leads from this novel.

Seemingly aware of this temporal theory’s need for pictures, Vonnegut includes a few cartoons throughout Slaughterhouse-Five; I very much could have done without them, particularly the climactic middle-schoolesque drawing of the banal serenity prayer hanging between a pair of crudely-rendered breasts. But the novel’s simple telegraphic style itself moves away from narration, from literacy, and toward the juxtaposition of images. It is a graphic novel avant la lettre.

But if the novel’s form sides with the Tralfamadorean desire for fiction with “no moral,” how does that square with Vonnegut’s avowed intention in the first chapter to produce anti-war fiction? The best answer is “uneasily.”

Without a plot, exactly, Slaughterhouse-Five is structured by its verbal refrains and motifs, from the depiction of “blue and ivory” feet to signify death to the repetition of a dying colonel’s poignant declaration, “If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!” The most insistent of these motifs is “So it goes,” the phrase with which the Tralfamadoreans greet news of a death; the novel’s narrator repeats it any time he has to tell that anyone has died. If death is unimportant because a person’s life persists elsewhere in the solid structure of time, then what does it matter if anyone is killed in a war?

Opposed to the Tralfamadorean quietism and aestheticism (their recommendation is to “spend eternity looking at pleasant moments” rather than dwelling on such unpleasantries as war) is a countervailing anger in the novel at all forms of cruelty and injustice. This anger animates Vonnegut’s satirical portrait of upper-class Americans’ empty, privileged, self-satisfied lives, and his frequent mockery in particular of the political right.

Billy reads a novel by the (invented) science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout which traces injustice to an ethical flaw in the Biblical narrative of Christ’s life. Because the story tells us that humanity erred in “lynching” a man who was really the son of God, it allows us to go on thinking that there are people, not sons of God, whom we may legitimately lynch. The story should be revised so that the Christ-figure really is powerless, as Trout imagines an alien’s new gospel revealing:

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had.

Trout’s alien is anti-Tralfamadorean; those amoralists don’t care at all about Jesus:

On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind, he says, is Charles Darwin—who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements.

I’m not sure that is a fair summary of what Darwin taught, and I’m also not sure we should judge scientific theories by moral criteria; nevertheless, Vonnegut several times inveighs against a cruel social Darwinism that upholds the brutal calculus of those who make war, those who regard human lives as expendable in the name of profit or power. This theme comes out especially when Billy encounters the wealthy Air Force historian Rumfoord in a hospital:

The staff thought Rumfoord was a hateful old man, conceited and cruel. He often said to them, in one way or another, that people who were weak deserved to die. Whereas the staff, of course, was devoted to the idea that weak people should be helped as much as possible, that nobody should die.

The moral of the novel is clear enough, then, but the form of the novel works directly against it. This is not only because the kaleidoscopic narrative structure endorses the fatalism of Tralfamadore, but also because Vonnegut won’t, and perhaps can’t, create characters of sufficient depth to validate his crypto-Christian humanism, his sense that we are each inherently worthwhile and irreplaceable and so ought not to be oppressed or slaughtered:

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.

Because humanity is no more than a pawn of inhuman forces, the old way of writing novels, rich in character, is out of date. In a mental hospital, Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim turn to science fiction to help them “re-invent themselves and their universe,” a task at which older fiction can’t assist them:

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Even leaving aside the problem of how to “re-invent” self and universe in a deterministic cosmos, though, Vonnegut’s taste for cartoons over characters contradicts his humanism even more directly than does his novel’s fatalistic structure. As James Baldwin wrote of Harriet Beecher Stowe, as Franz Kafka wrote of Charles Dickens, sentimentality is often an overcompensation for cruelty. Consider two of this novel’s characters. The first is a mean and pitiful soldier whose stupidity leads to Billy’s capture by the Germans:

Roland Weary was only eighteen, was at the end of an unhappy childhood spent
mostly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had been unpopular in Pittsburgh. He had been unpopular because he was stupid and fat and mean, and smelled like bacon no matter how much he washed.

The second is the woman Billy will marry:

His fiancee was out there now, sitting on the visitor’s chair. Her name was Valencia Merble. Valencia was the daughter of the owner of the Ilium School of Optometry. She was rich. She was as big as a house because she couldn’t stop eating. She was eating now. She was eating a Three Musketeers Candy Bar. She was wearing trifocal lenses in harlequin frames, and the frames were trimmed with rhinestones.

Their grotesquery, their selfishness and foolishness, is never mitigated or explained. They are never given any deeper background than this: they are simply detestable, and Valencia’s death in particular is played for laughs.

Stowe and Dickens at least would have imagined them as fantastic, visionary gargoyles even if they would not have depended their characters with pathos, as, say, Chekhov or George Eliot might have done. But Vonnegut seems incapable of even the highest level of caricature: the likes of Uriah Heep or Miss Havisham are as beyond him as are three-dimensional characters in this novel that claims to represent the fourth dimension. We are left with cruel cartoons against cruelty, fat Americans who stand in for American greed and meanness, and Vonnegut performs the artistic equivalent of firebombing them.

So for all this novel’s originality of design and thought-provoking fabulism, I conclude where I began with Vonnegut: his artistic simplicity is not an indirect route to depth but rather over-simplification. As for Slaughterhouse-Five‘s quarrel with itself over fatalism and humanism, amoral vs. anti-war fiction, I see a lazy indulgence of confusion passed off as complexity. I will keep faith with Dostoevsky and semicolons.


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Riyoko Ikeda, Claudine

ClaudineClaudine by Riyoko Ikeda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 2018 English translation of Riyoko Ikeda’s 1978 shōjo manga about the brief life and tragic loves of the eponymous protagonist is being hailed, to quote Wikipedia, as “one of the earliest manga to feature a transgender protagonist.” While I’m sure this is literally true, it might be a bit misleading. The word “transgender,” while it was coined in 1965, was not to my knowledge in popular or common use in English at the time of the short graphic novel’s creation, and the then-more-common word “transsexual” is supplied in the book’s English-language dialogue (I am not aware of the nuances of corresponding Japanese terms). Further complicating matters, even “transsexual” is anachronistic for the book since Ikeda’s setting is early 20th-century France and her narrator a psychologist of the period: at this time, concepts like “inversion” might have been used by the sexual scientist to describe Claudine’s dilemma.

I emphasize all of this history at the outset because this slim, sturdy paperback edition of Claudine from Seven Seas Entertainment is a beautiful one, but it lacks much in the way of contextualization—contrast the informative introduction supplied by the translator to the recent translation of another shōjo masterpiece, The Heart of Thomas. Readers coming to Claudine for the first time and expecting a text in line with contemporary thinking on gender, a positive transgender representation, will certainly be disappointed. The book is too good, qua comics, though, to be simply hurled across the room in frustration.

claudine2This impassioned and operatic tragedy is structured by the three amorous involvements, and the three corresponding encounters with the psychologist narrator, of a young aristocratic woman named Claudine. Claudine begins at the age of eight to identify as a man, despite her mother’s objection and her society’s rejection. In adolescence, Claudine falls in love with the family’s hapless maid, Maura, a relationship doomed because of its cross-class as well as cross-gender nature. Later, Claudine becomes attached to the high- school librarian as well as to the librarian’s romantic vision of literature that is incarnated in this very book’s very emotional texture. Claudine’s final, fated love is for a dancer at university (a girl encountered twice earlier in the novel), and the severance of this relationship brings Claudine to a crisis. For despite Claudine’s insistence on an innate male identity, French society does not permit her to live as a man; consequently, her lovers tend to terminate their affairs by insisting that, to quote the librarian, “But, Claudine. You’re a girl…”

There is still more plot than I have recounted in this 100-page book, including the suggestion that Claudine has inherited “inversion” from the aristocratic family’s beloved patriarch. This hint that, like the psychologist’s concluding narration (“With her imperfect ‘body,’ Claudine nevertheless gave her everything and dared to love a woman”) and the book’s climax in self-slaughter, will not endear some contemporary readers to this supposedly pathbreaking but also sensationalistic and potentially exploitative story full of “queer tragedy” stereotypes.

On the other hand, Ikeda’s romantic narrative invites such sympathy, and her art style is moreover so beautiful—a dazzling performance full of architectural splendor and decorative verve: Ikeda stipples and she hatches; she puts patterns in the flowers and the cobbles and the sconces; flames and flora dance fatally across the pages—that Claudine has to be hailed as a fine graphic novel, a superb example of comics. It should be seen in its multiple historical contexts, and queried as to its ideological character, yes, but also appreciated as a work of art we are lucky to have in a quality translation and edition.


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William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses

Go Down, MosesGo Down, Moses by William Faulkner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Go Down, Moses (1942), though not always grouped with Faulkner’s indisputable masterpieces, is nevertheless one of his most significant and influential books.

On strictly formalist or literary-historical grounds, it is a beautiful example of the short story collection as novel, an idea that developed over the course of the 20th century until becoming a major fictional mode in its own right today, as explored by Ted Gioia in his essay on “The Rise of the Fragmented Novel.”

When Go Down, Moses was first published, its title was followed by “and Other Stories,” but Faulkner himself insisted that it should be regarded as a novel. Though it ranges among several plots and several characters and has no single protagonist or narrative, it does tell the story of the McCaslin-Beauchamp family and, through them, provides a miniature history of the American South from its settlement by whites to the eve of World War II. No doubt taking inspiration from James Joyce’s Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Jean Toomer’s Cane (all of which we know or suspect him to have read), Faulkner in this book pushes the modernist story cycle even closer to novelistic unity.

This novel is also a milestone in Faulkner’s literary project, often regarded by critics as marking the end of the great period that began in 1929 with The Sound and the Fury. Likewise, Go Down, Moses is also often cited as the culmination of Faulkner’s evolving political vision, even as his summa on the theme of race. Telling the tangled tale of the descendants, both white and black, of Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, a fierce patriarch who tried to found a white dynasty even as he committed rape and incest among the black women he enslaved, Go Down, Moses is nearly impossible to read without consulting a family tree (luckily the copy of the novel I bought in a used bookstore came with one, pictured below, probably given as a handout in a literature course).

The novel begins with a story called “Was” that reads almost like a regional-fiction tall-tale in the vein of Mark Twain, a slightly confusing but high-spirited story about bumbling twins and a runaway slave the horror and significance of which will not become apparent until much later in the book, when we learn that the story’s black and white characters are in fact related, despite the latter’s holding the former as property.

Faulkner then switches perspective to Lucas Beauchamp, a proud and independent black descendant of the McCaslin line, and his tragicomic pursuit of buried fortune on the family farm at the expense of his wife; this long story’s titular motif of “The Fire and the Hearth” can be read as Faulkner’s celebration of basic civilized decency, as opposed to greed. A mysterious story called “Pantaloon in Black” follows: it narrates the surreal descent into madness of a grieving young black man on the McCaslin farm, whose travails are then recapitulated with flippant cruelty by a sheriff’s deputy. In each of these tales, Faulkner indicts racist reductionism by, as Toni Morrison once remarked, “[taking] black people seriously.”

In the book’s longest chapter, the classic freestanding novella “The Bear,” a young Isaac McCaslin, the closest thing the novel has to a hero, pores over the family ledgers in the farm’s commissary assembling through his forebears’ often sparse notations the appalling family history (“His own daughter His own daughter. No No Not even him“). The ledgers form “that chronicle which was a whole land in miniature, which multiplied and compounded was the entire South,” an obvious symbol, as Malcolm Cowley long ago pointed out in his introduction to The Portable Faulkner, of the author’s own literary aspiration.

The white Isaac is so disgusted by his ancestor’s crimes that he relinquishes his inheritance, makes many attempts to pay his black relatives their share of the patrimony, and becomes a simple carpenter in conscious imitation of “the Nazarene.” In a long argument with his cousin and surrogate father, Cass, he theorizes that God’s design necessitated not only the founding of America but also its violent purgation in the Civil War to purify botched humanity through suffering. As opposed to the racist sheriff’s deputy of “Pantaloon in Black,” who frankly declares his belief that black people “aint human,” Isaac judges thusly: “They are better than we are. Stronger than we are.” He recognizes his place in a universal brotherhood irrespective of race, claiming kinship with “not only the whites but the black one too, who were as much a part of his ancestry as his white progenitors.” To a northern black man who marries his cousin, he pleads:

‘Dont you see?’ he cried. ‘Dont you see? This whole land, the whole South, is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse? Granted that my people brought the curse onto the land: maybe for that reason, their descendants alone can—not resist it, not combat it—maybe just endure and outlast it until the curse is lifted. Then your peoples’ turn will come because we have forfeited ours. But not now. Not yet. Dont you see?’

Note the “not now.” Isaac, like Faulkner, is not a programmatic liberal or leftist. The “not now” theme is echoed in the penultimate story, “Delta Autumn,” where an elderly Isaac is confronted with the failed interracial relationship of another white McCaslin scion and thinks, “Maybe in a thousand or two thousand years in America, he thought. But not now! Not now!

Faulkner, like Melville, is one of the only white American writers to have come out of the critique of the canon looking better than he looked before, because his attempt to undo racist ideology from the inside using experimental literary techniques was made legible by late-20th-century literary theories that went beyond New Critical hopes for textual and social wholeness. Yet Faulkner, also like Melville, had no political program. Isaac’s anguished guilt is preferable to the Confederate nostalgia that haunts other characters in this book, but it is an equivalently mythic attitude, and undeniably patronizing toward the objects of its charitable gaze. White people are enjoined to behave like Christ and black people patiently to “endure,” a solution inadequate to the complexities of the 20th century, even if its Christo-Gothic mythos of curses and atonements may secretly structure much official anti-racist discourse even in the present.

If neither Faulkner nor his hero provides a political answer to the problems they so astutely perceive, what recompense do they offer for the injuries of history? Besides the sentimental trope of the hearth, Go Down, Moses, its modernist stream-of-consciounsess infused with latter-day Romanticism, suggests two familiar salvations from organized social violence: nature and art. These are also violent, Faulkner suggests, but at least they are animated by values higher than greed for land or gold.

In “The Bear,” Isaac is initiated into manhood by going on an annual hunt. His mentor, another surrogate father figure, is the aptly named Sam Fathers, a man of mixed Chickasaw and black heritage, who baptizes Isaac in the blood of the hunt after the boy kills his first buck. The theme of the novella is their quest to bring down Old Ben, a quasi-legendary bear, with one paw wounded from a trap, who has so far evaded capture. Young Isaac attains almost preternatural hunting skill in his quest for the titular bear, but his desire to kill Old Ben should not be taken as an Ahab-like hostility toward or rage against nature; it is rather a kind of communion with the massive eternity, outside of human time and greed and generation, that nature is:

Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him.

But the “big woods” Old Ben used to roam have been sold off to a timber company by the end of “The Bear.” Walking in the forest, Isaac finds the company’s corner-markers, subjecting “dimensionless” nature to the same measurements that served avarice and cursed the south in his ancestors’ time; he judges the concrete beams “lifeless and shockingly alien in that place where dissolution itself was a seething turmoil of ejaculation tumescence conception and birth, and death did not even exist.” The theme of death’s not existing because nature is a roiling eternity ever in flux is picked up shortly after this passage, when Isaac mediates on the graves of his former friends of the hunt, and thinks of the hunt’s continuance even after death:

…he had not stopped, he had only paused, quitting the knoll which was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one: and Old Ben too, Old Ben too; they would give him back his paw even, certainly they would give him his paw back; then the long challenge and the long chase, no heart to be driven and outraged, no flesh to be mauled and bled—

Faulkner’s own famous literary style, a heedless onrush of indifferently punctuated and sometimes agrammatical rhetoric, its ornate and sometimes confusing diction (“myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part”) meant to defeat ordinary sense, its endless sentences (one in “The Bear” goes on for five pages) meant to triumph over time, here finds its justification: I am only, implies the author, imitating nature itself, which also runs on and contains everything. Nature and art are at one. They need to be because more and more of nature is being eaten up by the profit motive in the postbellum south, leaving art as the only repository of values that are everywhere being degraded by the curse laid on the south by the greed of its white inhabitants.

Faulkner’s art, in effect, takes the place of nature. Note the echo in the passage quoted above of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” whose panting lover, pictured on the titular art object, is ever approaching his beloved but never will reach her, just as the bear, suspended after death in Faulkner’s narrative, always runs and never is caught. In the “cold pastoral” of art, cold because art freezes time, nature and its passions are preserved. Cass quotes Keats’s “Ode” to Isaac, making the point nearly explicit:

‘All right,’ he said. ‘Listen,’ and read again, but only one stanza this time and closed the book and laid it on the table. ‘She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,’ McCaslin said: ‘Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.’

‘He’s talking about a girl,’ he said.

‘He had to talk about something,’ McCaslin said. Then he said, ‘He was talking about truth. Truth is one. It doesn’t change. It covers all things which touch the heart—honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love.’

That is how such a complex aesthetic artifact as this novel-in-stories allies itself to raw and wild nature: both sustain “all the things which touch the heart” in a world more often characterized by the heartlessness of civilized exploitation and oppression.

If I have enumerated the literary and political significance of Go Down, Moses above, this Keatsian humanism gives it its more basic emotional moment, and may explain more than anything the novel’s continuing influence. In just the last 12 months, I have read three contemporary American novels that almost overtly borrow from it: Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves. Any old novel with so diverse and distinguished a legacy as that demands to be read.


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