WANTED: Brilliant, cantankerous literary curmudgeon who is not afraid to tell us what he/she really thinks about a book

Harold Bloom - The Paris Review
Harold Bloom

I began reading a new novel recently.  I had high expectations.  The book had been long-listed for a prestigious prize and all of the leading publications – The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Kirkus Reviews, etc., etc. – were unanimous in their praise.  So I settled in for what I anticipated would be an enjoyable reading experience.

Less than three pages in, I closed the book, in awe at the author’s ability to alienate me so quickly and completely.

I won’t name the title or the author – it would not be fair as I have not read the whole book.  In its entirety, it may have worth, may contain beautiful prose or offer some message.  But I’ll never know because in those first few pages the author used such a pretentious, distracting, off-putting stylistic contrivance that he prevented me from seeing any promise of meaning or beauty.

This was not an isolated experience for me.  All too often in the last few years, I’ve been excited by enthusiastic reviews of a new book by reputable sources, only to be unpleasantly surprised, disappointed, and asking myself – what am I missing?  I’ve learned not to put my money up so eagerly for a book – to download a sample first or wait for availability at the local public library.

Different readers have different tastes and preferences, and respond (or don’t) to a book in individual ways – I get that.  It is part of the mystery and allure of literature.  I have tried to analyze and deconstruct books that I think are masterpieces, but I am never able to adequately parse out the strands of magic that create a transcendence like John Williams’ Stoner or W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants.  I may not understand the how or why of it, but I recognize the magic when I am transported by it.

You make an acquaintance with a book as you do with a person. After ten or fifteen pages, you know with whom you have to deal. (Shimon Peres)

When most of the professional critics are shouting out praise for a work that seems to me to be, well, less than fully deserving of it, I wonder what is going on. Could it be that in our brave new digital interconnectedness, where we can shout to the world what we think about anything (just like I’m doing here), and can know what everyone thinks about anything, that we are drowning in such a river of mediocrity that when we happen upon something (like a new novel) that is simply less bad than rest of the sludge  – we are ecstatic?

I have a fond memory of Harold Bloom speaking his mind about the first Harry Potter book.  He answered the question:  can 35 million book buyers be wrong? with an unequivocal  “Yes, they have been, and will continue to be so for as long as they persevere with Potter . . . Why read it?  Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better.  Why read if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?”

Those are pretty good signposts for navigating the murk, Professor.  I have a few of my own that I’ve collected.  If you have just read a favorable book review that induces an urge to buy the book now – STOP and reread the review.  If you see anything resembling the following plaudits (taken from actual reviews), proceed at your own risk:

“stylistically daring”
“builds its own style and language one broken line at a time”
“the whole is greater than its parts”
“many structural and technical virtues”
And my personal favorite:
“judicious and absorbing, if not fully convincing”

You have to be careful when you thrash the natives

SiegeOfKrishnapurJ. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, winner of the 1973 Mann Booker Prize, is a historical novel, satirical, witty, tragic and often brutal.  It is a fictional re-telling of the siege of the British colonial garrison (The Residency) in the city of Lucknow, India, during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.  The book is based on the letters, diaries and eye-witness accounts of British civilians and soldiers crowded into the Residency, trapped, cut off from all relief, and fending off repeated Sepoy attacks for months.

While the novel is, above all, a condemnation of British rule of India, the story is told entirely from the British colonialists’ perspective, mainly because, as Pankaj Mishra suggests in his superb introduction, Farrell’s decision not to include fully developed Indian characters reflected his own experience in India:

The diaries he kept during his research trip to India in 1971 reveal that he was bewildered, even ‘defeated,’ by the strangeness of the people and the landscape. Rather than invent some implausible Indian characters, Farrell confined himself to describing the insular British and their claim to rule justly a country they, like Farrell, didn’t, or couldn’t, much understand.

Farrell’s story of the siege is sometimes comic, sometimes heartbreaking, often both.  In spite of their suffering, the British insisted on maintaining their social rituals and class demarcations to the point of absurdity.  In the end, Victorian manners and morality broke down in the face of starvation, the murderous heat, monsoon rains, plagues of insects, the outbreak of cholera, and the bloody Sepoy attacks.

Siege of Lucknow1
Ruins of the Lucknow Residency

I could not help admiring their courage, at the same time wondering at their lack of understanding or feeling for the people they ruled.  At one point in the book, before the Sepoy rebellion, young infantry ensign Harry Dunstaple explains to George Fleury, a young traveler just arrived from England, about the character of the natives, particularly the rich ones: “their sons were brought up in an effeminate, luxurious manner. Their health was ruined by eating sickly sweetmeats and indulging in other weakening behaviour. . . You have to be careful thrashing a Hindu, George, because they have very weak chests and you can kill them.”

Indeed, James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, uncomfortably insightful for his time and reflecting on his own dubious actions in the service of Empire, wrote in his diary of the hundreds of native servants that waited upon him in his mansion in Calcutta:

One moves among them with perfect indifference, treating them not as dogs, because in that case one would whistle to them and pat them, but as machines with which one can have no communion or sympathy.  When the passions of fear and hatred are grafted on this indifference, the result is frightful; an absolute callousness as to the sufferings of the objects of those passions.

A frightful result.  The Siege of Krishnapur tells its fateful tale all too well right to the final, gripping scenes of the desperate last stand of the besieged.  I put the book down in wonder at Farrell’s creation, such a story of human grandeur and human folly ringing true on every page. Will we ever learn, will we ever change.

A curious coincidence – after reading The Siege of Krishnapur I came across a recent Washington Post editorial that reviewed and rebutted an article titled “The Case for Colonialism,” written by a political scientist at Portland State University and published in an academic journal.  “The Case for Colonialism” suggested that Western colonialism was not necessarily harmful to the people of colonized countries, but was “both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate” in many countries.  Apparently there was quite a backlash to the article, including “credible threats of violence” to the journal editor.   The article was removed from the journal’s website.  Perhaps I have my answer.



I try to give a book at least 50 pages before I cut my literary losses and discard it, but with Philip Roth’s Indignation, I slogged on to the predictable end.  And now I am prolonging my irritation by trying to articulate why I disliked this book so much.  Why?  Because the author is Philip Roth and this book was my introduction to his body of work.  Perhaps my expectations were too high.  Perhaps my tolerance for the ridiculous is too low (showering semen?).  Perhaps I chose the wrong Roth novel.


The story is told from the first-person perspective of Marcus Messmer, the only son of a Jewish butcher.  In the first part of the book, the portrayal of the loving relationship between Marcus and his father, and Marcus’ memories of his years working beside his father in the butcher shop are vivid and moving.  Marcus is a good son and a gifted scholar, but as he becomes more independent, his father develops irrational fears about Marcus’ future and tensions between his parents escalate.  To distance himself from his family, Marcus transfers from his local college in Newark, New Jersey to conservative Winesburg College in Ohio.

It is the 2nd year of the Korean War and American casualties are high.  The Korean War was the first time that conscription could be deferred for a college student.  “To qualify as an officer and to enter the army as a second lieutenant for a two-year stint in the Transportation Corps after graduation, a student had to take no fewer than four semesters of ROTC.”  Marcus signs up.  Further, every Winesburg student is required to attend chapel “between the hours of eleven and noon on Wednesdays, 40 times before he or she graduated” – Christian sermons, Christian hymns and prayer, held in a Methodist church, no exceptions.  Marcus attends chapel.  One night, studying in the library, he sees beautiful, blond-haired Olivia and falls instantly in lust.

So far so good.

Then, four pages past my 50-page test, out of nowhere, in the middle of an interminable, tiresomely detailed account of an improbable first-date act of fellatio, Roth throws out the following:

“And even dead, as I am and have been for I don’t know how long . . .”

Wait – What? Marcus is dead?

Roth continues with:

“Even now (if ‘now’ can be said to mean anything any longer), beyond corporeal existence, alive as I am here (if ‘here’ or ‘I’ means anything) as memory alone (if ‘memory,’strictly speaking, is the all-embracing medium of which I am being sustained as ‘myself’) I continue to puzzle over Olivia’s actions.  Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime’s minutiae?”

And it went on for three more pages, mucking over the minutiae of his memory being alive while he is dead in every other way.  But by now, I no longer cared about Marcus, anyone else in this story, or the story itself.  Roth had derailed me completely.

I plowed on, but my irritation only grew.  Other than the narrator Marcus, the characters in Indignation were flat.  All we knew about Olivia was that she was from a good family, seemed intelligent, and was the campus’ indiscriminate dispenser of blow-jobs (remember, the book is set in the early 1950’s).  There were scars on her wrists from an attempted suicide, hints of an estranged relationship with her father, but little else.  I would like to have known more about Olivia.

None of the characters really talked to each other – for the most part, their conversations were contrived declamations.  In a scene that takes place in the Dean’s office, where Marcus grows combative and indignant at the Dean’s intrusive questions, Roth has Marcus recite verbatim sections of Bertrand Russell’s famous essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.”  Please.  An allusion would have sufficed, although again, I thought the entire scene was not plausible for the time, the place, the two characters, and their circumstances.  Marcus tells us early on that “he wanted to do everything right” – keep his head down, continue to earn straight A’s, avoid the draft as long he could, and “prove to his father that he had made the right decision to move to Winesburg.”  Indignation would have been a dangerous self-indulgence.  And so it proved to be.

I know Roth is widely admired. There are passages in Indignation that evidence his ability.  But those passages are not nearly enough to save this novel from its absurdity. Too often, I found myself rolling my eyes and throwing the book down.  It did not move me or connect with me in any way.  It did not seem real, and by real I mean plausible.  I just did not believe this book.

Luckily, it was a library loan.

Notes on a Biography

After a downsizing/move that consumed the better part of a year, I am still unpacking books and papers.  I came across my 2016 hand-written reading journal and found notes on a biography that I read last summer.  I recall being so moved by it that when I finished it, I left the book out where I would see it each day – I missed that person I had met, grew fond of, then lost.

George Mackay Brown1

Sunday, July 17, 2016: Began reading George Mackay Brown, The Life by Maggie Fergusson and Brown’s novel, Beside the Ocean of Time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016: Finished Beside the Ocean of Time – lovely, find out more about GMB home [Orkney Islands}

George Mackay Bown-stromnessOrkney Islands

”He passed everything through the eye of the needle of Orkney” (Seamus Heaney)




Saturday, July 23, 2016: Continuing to read George Mackay Brown The Life – a strange consolation, why is he such a compelling figure to me?

“When a friend once confided in George her belief in reincarnation, he was quick to respond that he hoped it would prove unfounded.  There had been enough pain in his present life for him ‘not to be an Oliver Twist and ask for more’. . . He was drifting through what felt like a ‘desert of time,’ dragging out a semi-invalid existence in which the weeks seemed to fold greyly into one another with little achieved, and less to hope for. . . Wasted years, ‘years that the locusts ate’. [tuberculosis/treatment in 1940’s, prejudice][Chap.5]

[alcoholism] “Those first glasses were, he wrote ‘a revelation; they flushed my veins with happiness; they washed away all cares and shyness and worries. I remember thinking to myself, “If I could have two pints of beer every afternoon, life would be a great happiness.’  It was not long before two pints ceased to satisfy.” [Pg.89]

Sunday, July 24, 2016: continuing to read GMB The Life

“He learned to become disciplined in his response to depression. He began to believe that not only was it temporary, but it was in some sense illusory – it was no more a part of his life than the shadow on a tree is part of the living organic tree itself.” (Pg. 81)

Monday, July 25, 2016: continued reading GMB bio.  It is a companionship.

Thursday, July 26, 2016, continuing GMB the Life:  The Children’s Encyclopedia was to Robert Rendall [GMB friend]  “his vade-mecum, leading him into fields of study that he would pursue with passion over the years”. . . From Rendall and Ernest Marwick, GMB received encouragement and “courteous, meticulous critism”.

Sunday, July 31, 2016:  GMB:

“Over the years I have developed a settled routine, and any alteration upsets me in a hundred subtle ways.”

“George was certain now that he would never have either a wife or children of his own, and this, he confessed to [friend] Willa Muir, was a relief to him: ‘the thought of such responsibilities really would drive me round the bend’. He felt his days flying ‘swifter than a weaver’s shuttle’. All he wanted was to be left alone with his books and pens and paper.”

“He felt himself growing in determination and patience as he confronted difficulties, and developing a will as hard as granite as he outfaced them.  He was confident, and would remain so until the end of his life, that Magnus contained some of the best prose he had ever written.”

And it sometimes happens that the stone breaks into flower in your hand. (GMB)

August 1, 2016: finished GMB the Life. He died on Friday, April 12, 1996, age 74.

“Just before he lost consciousness – before, in the language of the sagas, he passed ‘out of the story’ – George had spoken his last words to the doctor and nurses attending to him. Lying back against his pillows, he said: ‘I see hundreds and hundreds of ships sailing out of the harbour.’  On his headstone were engraved his words:

Carve the runes
Then be content with silence

Notes/impressions: admiration, inspiration, affection, grief

Why Don’t We Learn From History?

“History is economics in action.”  Karl Marx

Requiem for The American Deam

Recently, I stumbled upon a fascinating documentary: “Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky and the Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power” (available on Netflix and Amazon streaming video). The film is a series of interviews of Chomsky conducted over four years and released in 2015.  Chomsky’s focus in the film is economic inequality and its corrosive effects on society and democracy.

The interviews are structured around 10 economic and political principles associated with the concentration of wealth and power.  I am aware that Chomsky is widely considered a radical leftist by some, but I do believe he is right about the necessity and role of activism, especially now.  In Requiem, Chomsky articulates his views on the concentration of wealth and power in a manner that is coherent and accessible to the economics-challenged like myself.

He begins with Principle No. 1: Reduce Democracy. He discusses James Madison’s views and efforts in framing the Constitution.  Madison was a true believer in democracy, but he also worried about “an excess of democracy.” He felt that our system should be designed so that power resides in the hands of the wealthy, because they “are the more responsible set of men.”

In the constitutional debates of 1787, Madison stated that “The major concern of the society has to be to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”  In other words, if everybody has an equal vote, the majority of the poor will naturally come together to take away the property of the rich minority.  This concern, says Chomsky, goes all the way back to Aristotle, who believed democracy to be the superior system of government, but who pointed out the same “flaw” as Madison, that on an equal footing, the poor majority would seek to take away the wealth of the rich minority.  But Madison and Aristotle had opposite solutions: Aristotle proposed trying to reduce inequality; Madison proposed reducing democracy.  In the end, the founding fathers placed the most power in the hands of the Senate – which was not an elected body in those times.  Senators were selected from the wealthy by state legislatures.

From that beginning, Chomsky walks us through U.S. history, the cycles of progress and regression, and the constant tension between the Aristotlean and Madisonian tendencies.  It is fascinating stuff.  At one point while watching the film, I was struck by Chomsky’s comment that we should not be at all surprised by the current political and economic landscape.  That comment reminded me of the observations of two historians, B.H. Liddell Hart and Will Durant.

Liddell Hart was primarily a military historian, but in his book Why Don’t We Learn From History?, he contemplates broader themes as well as “the familiar string of political confidence tricks, repeated all down the ages – yet they rarely fail to take in a fresh generation.”

Truth is a spiral staircase. What looks true on one level may not be true on the next higher level. A complete vision must extend vertically as well as horizontally – not only seeing the parts in relation to one another but embracing the different planes.

History provides that complete vision.

Durant is more specific. He devotes an entire chapter to Economics and History in his 1968 book The Lessons of History and shows us how concentration of wealth is a recurring and natural cycle.

“Since practical ability differs from person to person, the majority of such abilities, in nearly all societies, is gathered in a minority of men.  The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability.”  The freedoms of democracy accelerate the rate of concentration.  In 1968, Durant wrote “the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is now greater than at any time since Imperial plutocratic Rome.”  I wonder what he would say today.

According to Durant, when the disparity widens to a point of critical instability, pressure is relieved in one of two ways: by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.  He provides historical examples: Solon’s redistribution of wealth in 597 B.C. Athens (one of Solon’s methods was establishing an income tax whereby the rich paid taxes twelve times that of the poor),  Rome’s hundred years of class and civil war, the Reformation, the French Revolution, and Durant’s final example (which Chomsky also discusses in “Requiem”):

“The government of the United States, in 1933-52 and 1960-65, followed Solon’s peaceful methods, and accomplished a moderate and pacifying redistribution. Perhaps someone had studied history. The upper classes in America cursed, complied, and resumed the concentration of wealth.”

Gods and Monsters: Reading for an Election Year

The SpeechwriterIn 2007, Barton Swaim joined the staff of Mark Sanford, the Governor of South Carolina, as a speechwriter and communications officer. Yes – the same governor whose six-day disappearance in June of 2009 inspired the delightful addition of “hiking the Appalachian Trail” to the lexicon of sexual scandals of our elected officials.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  In 2007, Barton Swaim had a PhD in English, a wife and two children, and a strong desire to quit his minimum-wage day job and begin earning a living by writing.  Governor Sanford was a rising star in the Republican party, gaining the attention of influential commentators and talked about as a potential presidential candidate.   The Speechwriter, A Brief Education in Politics is Swaim’s memoir of the three years and ten months he spent “working for the governor of a southern state.”

Before he took the job, Swaim thought that the Governor was “everything a politician should be – a politician in the best sense of the word, if it has a best sense.  He did what he said he was going to do, he took his duties seriously, he behaved himself in public with charm and decorum, he did not fear criticism, and he had realistic views of what government could accomplish.”  But within a few weeks, the Governor revealed a very different persona.  With his staff, the Governor was a mercurial, tyrannical, and abusive master.  Striving to please, Swaim studied samples of the Governor’s lackluster writing, trying to find a “voice” that he could build upon.  As I read Swaim’s account of his frustration in trying to understand why the Governor was never satisfied with his work, and was unable (or unwilling) to articulate why, I was reminded of Dogberry, Shakespeare’s tiresome constable of stupefying rhetoric in Much Ado About Nothing:

Marry, sir, they have committed false report;
moreover, they have spoken untruths;
secondarily, they are slanderers;
sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady;
thirdly, they have verified unjust things;
and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.

Swaim’s wife advised him to start writing badly – “badly, like him [the Governor], with clumsy, meandering sentences and openings that seemed calculated to make you stop reading.” A senior staffer also advised Swain to do just that. He explained that Swaim’s job was “not to please the Governor with superior work, because that would never happen. The goal was to take away any reason he might have to bitch at you.”

It was then too that Nat explained that my job wasn’t to write well; it was to write like the Governor. I wasn’t hired to come up up with brilliant phrases, I was hired to write what the Governor would have written if he had had the time. ‘Um, yeah,’ Nat said. ‘Welcome to hell.’

But I couldn’t bring myself to try it.  I don’t claim that my writing was brilliant, but the objections he raised were mystifying to me and sometimes totally unreasonable.  He would quibble with a harmless phrase and, instead of saying simply that he didn’t like it and having me change it or changing it himself, he would fulminate about it and rewrite the entire piece in a fit of irritation.  It was almost as if he was afraid that if somebody started writing precisely what he wanted, he’d have no control over what was written.  Expressing constant dissatisfaction was perhaps his way of maintaining control.  Once, he stormed into the press office, paper in hand, incensed that I had written the words “towns of Lee County.”  He thought it should have been “towns in Lee County.”  He walked around to various offices – legislative, policy, law – asking staffers if they though it sounded right to say “towns of” or “towns in” Lee County.

Swaim finally got it. The Governor wanted verbiage, a lot of it, but without too much meaning or content.  If you say something meaningless often enough in different ways, it begins to take on a kind of axiomatic weight.  In the process of trying to make peace with his writer’s soul, Swaim puts up a reasonable defense for the political speak (BS) that drives us all crazy:

It’s impossible to attain much success in politics if you’re the sort of person who can’t abide disingenuousness.  This isn’t to say politics is full of lies and liars; it has no more liars that other fields do.  Actually one hears very few proper lies in politics.  Using vague, slippery, or just meaningless language is not the same as lying; it’s not intended to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just to sound like you’re saying something instead of nothing.

You find yourself thinking, OK, maybe he has a point, as you read and laugh out loud at real life situations in the press room trenches that border on the Kafkaesque.  The Speechwriter is an entertaining look at politics from the inside, funny as hell, a wicked farce – until you remind yourself that it is reality and it’s no laughing matter.

But what is to be done?  We can’t have a democracy without politics and politicians.  And as Adlai Stevenson observed, if one does what he must do to win election, then he is not fit to hold the office.  Swaim gives us not an answer, but a caution: we must never trust our politicians, any of them.  Is he simply disillusioned by his “brief education in politics”?  Perhaps, but Swaim’s final chapter, Chapter 14: A Larger Notion, is a thought-provoking, poignant reflection on modern politics and our strange impulse to hand over our collective future to celebrities and demagogues.

Hadn’t I noticed that politicians are prone to vanity, and that vanity frequently unmakes them?  Yes, I had noticed.  But I had thought of it mainly as a joke.  Now I realized it wasn’t a joke.  It was the most important thing.  Self-regard isn’t a foible to which some politicians are vulnerable.  It is the peculiar and deadly flaw of modern democratic politics. . . When we revere a politician and give him our vote, we do so because we believe his most fervent desire is to contribute to the nation’s well-being or to make the right decisions with public money. That may be a desire, but it is not what drives him.  What drives him is the thirst for glory;  the public good, as he understands it, is a means to that end.  So when a great statesman accomplishes a laudable goal by sagacity and bravery, we’re right to give him the praise he craves.  But when we’re surprised and disgusted because the man we lauded has humiliated himself and disgraced his office, we haven’t just misjudged a man – we’ve misjudged the nature of modern politics.

There is no Why


I have been watching Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust epic Shoah over the last few days. This film has been on my “to watch” list for many years, but I had never set aside the time – I knew it would be lengthy and I knew it would be grim viewing.

“Why?” one might ask. Why on earth subject myself to 9 1/2 hours of a documentary film about such an awful event – we’ve all seen countless movies, documentaries, photos, read novels and histories about it. We know it happened (well, those of us who value documented history and truth do). Why revisit something so depressing, especially now, when we are reeling from horrific and frightening events of the last few weeks?

It was precisely that – our new reality.  Paris, San Bernardino, a modern exodus (and its xenophobic backlash) of people fleeing from a barbarism that defies belief. I hear the empty political rhetoric, see the disturbing images flashed endlessly by the media, and ask myself why and how can these things be happening in the 21st Century – is there some flaw in human evolution? Have we forgotten so soon how this kind of thing can end?

Even if only for a glimmer of understanding of troubled times, I always turn to history, to the words, memories, and deeds of those who lived it. So I began watching Shoah, an account of a turning point in history – a new abyss of savagery into which men can be led by an ideology of hate and exclusion.

Claude Lanzmann a French Jewish filmmaker and journalist, conceived of the Shoah project in 1973 (“shoah” is the Hebrew word for catastrophe or destruction, and is the term used by Jews since the early 1940’s for the destruction of the European Jews). In his autobiography Lanzmann writes, “There is no film about the Shoah, no film that takes in what happened in all its magnitude, no film that shows it from our point of view . . . What was most important was what was missing – death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report.” He completed the film in 1985 and it was shown to the world.

Shoah2Shoah is a monumental work of oral history. Lanzmann determined from the beginning to use no archival films or photos, no views or summaries of experts (with one exception, which was masterful). The only people on camera, other than Lanzmann himself and a translator, would be surviving victims, perpetrators, and bystander witnesses. The film is visually compelling and haunting. The images we see are views and landscapes filmed by Lanzmann, quiet rural places, green fields, snow falling in beautiful forests, sleepy towns and train stations. As we watch, we hear the voices of the speakers narrating what had happened in these places, with the camera slowly moving back and forth from the placid scenes to the faces of the narrators. The effect is powerful, stunning in an inexplicable way – because of all that we do not see.

The survivors interviewed by Lanzmann are unforgettable – Abraham Bomba, a barber in Israel at the time Lanzmann was filming, who describes cutting the hair of women before they entered the gas chamber, Filip Muller, a Czech Jew forced to aid in the disposal of victims of the gas chambers, Rudolf Vrba, who tried unsuccessfully to organize an uprising in Auschwitz. It was very difficult for me at first to reconcile the calm and stoic manner of these survivors with the unbelievable events they were describing. They seemed almost emotionless as they began their stories – Vrba in particular would at times briefly reveal a sardonic sense of humor. But as Lanzmann kept returning to them throughout the hours of the film, I began to understand.

For me, the most memorable on-camera contributor was Lanzman’s one exception – his interview with Raul Hilberg, historian and author of The Destruction of the European Jews (brief clip). In one segment of the interviews, Hilberg, whose work focused on the bureaucratic details and the implementation of the “Final Solution,” (how obscene, those two bland words) held an original document in his hands, a one-page railway schedule, filled with normal railway terms, dates, times, routings and re-routings of trains for what might be the transport of goods, livestock, special trains for group vacationers, excursions, seasonal laborers, ordinary, commonplace, part of the country’s public and commercial rail system. As Hilberg methodically decodes the schedule, you understand – the “special” trains were the death trains, loading up at some village, unloading at a death camp, being re-routed to another town, loading up again, over and over. It was chilling.

“To be human,” wrote Irving Howe, “meant to be unequipped to grapple with the Holocaust.” And therein lies the difficulty and the danger.

I finished the film. But it is not finished with me. My question “why” is unanswered, will always be unanswered – we are unequipped. In Primo Levi’s memoir of Auschwitz, he remembers how, suffering from thirst, he grabbed an icicle through the window of his cell. An SS guard knocked it out of his hand. “Why?” Levi asked. The guard responded, “Hier ist kein warum.”

Here there is no why.


The Man in the Mirror

michel-de-montaigne1It is said that every person who reads Montaigne looks into a mirror and sees himself.  “Every man has within him the entire human condition,” he said.  One 16th century admirer said that anyone reading Montaigne’s Essays might feel as if he himself had written it.  Over two centuries later Emerson would say that it seemed to him that he himself had written the book in some former life.  Stefan Zweig, World War II exile: “Here is a ‘you’ in which my ‘I’ is reflected; here is where all distance is abolished.  Four hundred years disappear like smoke.”  Of Montaigne’s timeless appeal, William Hazlitt says in his preface to The Complete Essays of Montaigne, “this is true fame.  A man of genius belongs to no period and no country.  He speaks the language of nature, which is always everywhere the same.”

Montaigne sought answers to the same questions that we all ask.  They were not so different in the sixteenth century – what to make of our experiences, how to endure grief and misfortune, whether it’s more enjoyable to have sex standing up or lying down (he preferred the latter), how to reassure a friend who thinks a witch has cast a spell on him (how many of us have tried to help a friend through that!), and what was going through his cat’s mind when he played with her.

Montaigne was intensely curious about human nature.  He believed that a man’s life is not the sum of his deeds, but of his thoughts.  He questioned and wondered ceaselessly about what people thought, how they felt, and why they did what they did.  And because he himself was the specimen closest to hand, he focused the microscope on himself, a subject on which, as he put it, he was “the most learned man alive.”  He deconstructed his mind, his feelings, his experiences in the most minute and astonishingly frank detail and delivered every bit of it to us in his Essays.

In his thirties, Montaigne became obsessed with death.  He lost his father in 1568.  The following year, his 27-year old brother Arnaud was struck in the head by a ball while playing jeu de paume,(an early version of tennis) and died a few hours later.   Montaigne’s first child died at the age of two months – he would bear the deaths of five of his six children.  The most painful loss of Montaigne’s life was the death of his closest friend, Etienne de La Boetie, at the age of 32.

With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes, how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat.   At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects.  At the stumbling of a horse, the fall of a tile, the slightest pin prick, let us promptly chew on this:  Well what if it were death itself?

By his forties and fifties, however, Montaigne’s essays reveal a more sanguine state of mind.   Montaigne himself had come very close to death in a riding accident.  Carefully recorded by Montaigne, based on what he remembered and the observations of those around him at the time, it may be the most famous near-death experience in literature.  As recounted in Sarah Bakewell’s lively biography of Montaigne, “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (a title which Montaigne would surely have approved), he remembered clearly what he felt when he regained consciousness.  His servants were carrying him back toward his chateau, his wife struggling over the rough ground to get to them.  His vision was blurry, but he could see that his clothes were bloody from the clots of blood he had vomited.  Inwardly, he felt very calm and langorous, vaguely aware of his body, but as though from a distance.

It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.  It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.

He felt no pain.  He was aware of but unconcerned by the efforts and anxiety of those around him.  As his servants settled him into bed, he recalled “ ‘I felt infinite sweetness in this repose, for I had been villainously yanked about by those poor fellows, who had taken the pains to carry me in their arms over a long and very bad road.’  He refused all medicines, sure that he was destined just to slip away.  It was going to be a ‘very happy death.’”  Later, however, when he had recovered, the servants and family members who had been present during and after the accident told a completely different story.  Witnesses said that he had “thrashed about, ripping at his doublet with his nails, as if to rid himself of a weight.  ‘My stomach was oppressed with the clotted blood; my hands flew to it of their own accord, as they often do where we itch, against the intention of our will.’  It looked as if he were trying to rip his own body apart, or perhaps to pull it away from him so his spirit could depart.”

Meticulously recreating his sensations, in dying, he now realized, you do not encounter death at all, for you are gone before it gets there.  You die in the same way that you fall asleep: by drifting away.  If other people try to pull you back, you hear their voices on ‘the edges of the soul.’  Your existence is attached by a thread; it rests only on the tip of your lips, as he put it. Dying is not an action that can be prepared for.   It is an aimless reverie.”   From then on, Montaigne refused to worry about death.   “In one of his last added notes, he wrote that death is only a few bad moments at the end of life, and not worth wasting any anxiety over.

It is impossible to read Montaigne’s account of his brush with death and not feel consoled.  It is equally impossible to read his essais and not be entertained and warmed by his friendly understanding, or, as journalist Bernard Levin said “not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity, ‘How did he know all that about me?'”   Hazlitt captured this reader experience perfectly:  “Montaigne took the world into his confidence on all subjects.  Few men have left so much of their life behind them in their writing.”

“Cut these words,” Emerson said, “and they would bleed.”