Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Frenchmen and Indians


Le Tellier's The Anomaly, winner of the Goncourt prize depicts the poor decision of an American president as being responsible for the destruction of all mankind.  I was disappointed in the novel, but others, perhaps sharing that French prejudice, loved it.

I turned next to the novel that won the Pulitzer prize for 2021, The Night Watchman.  I am only 20% through it, but the characters I've encountered thus far are mostly dirt-poor American Indians from North Dakota.  Thus, this too, if it continues on in the same vein, has a political element.  Liberal democracies intend that everyone is entitled to accomplish and earn however much he is capable of accomplishing and earning.  It made no initial provision for helping those who for whatever reason weren't as capable of competing in this sort of environment. 

As we all know, elements of Socialism have been incorporated into all Liberal Democracies over time.  Whereas in the past, in the West, the Christian church took care of the poor.  Marx proposed to do it better, and Liberal Democracies have followed his lead to varying degrees of success. 

I'll pause here to say that I don't know anything about the state of American Indians in North Dakota, but I have had considerable experience with Indians in the Marine Corps.  Also, according to my mother, my siblings and I are 1/8 or 1/16 Indian.  That belief turned out not to be correct as I found out when I had my DNA checked by a few years ago.  There are no Indians in our ancestry, but when I got to the Marine Corps base in Korea, I was approached by a large Indian from Oklahoma who "could tell" I was part Indian and inasmuch as he was full-blooded, he was chief Indian at the base, and I must follow his orders which were to show up at the slop-chute every evening I wasn't on duty and drink beer with all the other Indians.  My best friend during that period was Bill Salois who was 1/4 Blackfoot.  Bill wanted me to join him in Montana after our enlistments were up so that we could build up our own cattle ranch.  When I pointed out that neither of us had enough money for that, he told me not to worry.  We could earn money in rodeos.  I objected that I had never competed in a rodeo.  He told me not to worry.  It was easy. 

In addition to that "Indian" experience, I retired a short distance from the Soboba Indian reservation.   The Soboba Casino has become a great success, and every member of the Soboba tribe now receives a cut; so presumably no Soboba Indian is dirt poor at present. 

Thus, my own personal experiences haven't exposed me to any Indians that are as poor as Louise Erdrich portrays in her novel.  Erdrich is part Indian, about as much as I thought I was, and her grandfather or great grandfather fought against Custer and was later punished for it.  But those who are full-blooded and not a member of a tribe that has a casino, may well be as dirt poor as the North Dakota tribe Erdrich writes about.  I'll take her word for it.  We here in the United States are not so thoroughly socialistic that we raise the standard of living for every poor person to the extent we would agree he is no longer "poor," but we're working on it.

In the meantime, this non-poor, non-Indian who was educated in the ways of literature is leaning toward finding fault with organizations who award prizes based on their political prejudices rather than novels that comprise the best literature.

But, apologies to Louise Erdrich if I later discover that she has created a work of great literature.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Le Tellier's The Anomaly


I didn't like The Anomaly as well as the reviewers I read afterwards and none of them addressed the implications I saw, but perhaps I'm wrong.

When an Air France flight encounters a "storm of the century" storm, the Boeing 787 survives and the pilot asks for landing instructions.  The people on the ground are amazed in that this very flight arrived 106 days previously.  The U.S. government assembles all the experts who interview the duplicate 240 or so passengers and crew.  Much of the novel then deals with a few key characters, the ones who landed in March.  The duplicates land 106 days later in June.   The characters are somewhat interesting and were they developed further they would have been more-so, but that would have detracted from the plot.

One of the key theories about what is going on (provided by American scientists and mathematicians) is that a superior intelligence is testing various scenarios on a number of different worlds.  Thus, if this theory is correct, then the earth is being tested when the Boeing 787 from a duplicate world is allowed to leak into our world and land with a duplicate set of human beings. 

However, the American experts do surprisingly well sorting things out, getting the duplicates to meet their counterparts -- mildly heart-warming except for the hitman from the June landing who murders his March counterpart.

The novel is funny in a lot of places, but much as, perhaps, Dr. Strangelove was funny.  The American President, obviouslyTrump (Le Tellier apparently thought he would win the last election) is too stupid to understand any more than the rudiments of what is going on.  Thus, at the end of the novel when a third Air France duplicate breaks through a storm and asks for landing instructions, Trump has it shot down. 

And the last page is filled with gibberish which I take to mean our world is breaking apart.  We have failed the test. 

Earlier we learn that the Chinese have also received a duplicate set of passengers and crew from a flight landing there, but they merely kept it secret.   The U.S., where the public has a right to know, didn't have the option of keeping anything secret; so as the president says something like, "we can't keep having these duplicate airplanes landing on our air fields." 

And implied by all of this is that the autocratic Chinese are managing the situation better than the democratic U.S.  Also implied is that the U.S. ought not to allow someone like Trump to become president and have the power to respond stupidly to a superior species. 

And so, if my interpretation is correct, and it probably isn't since none of the reviews I read agree with it, this is a well-written novel with a weak plot handled inadequately.  Had I read this in the Marine Corps when several of us were reading collections of SF short stories, I would have had a great laugh over it, but I wouldn't have thought it any better than many of the other stories I read. 

I recall one short story where a genius inventor who did his best work while drunk woke up one morning to discover that he'd created a robot, but he couldn't recall why, and this robot defied him and wouldn't do anything he said.  Finally at the end of the story, the inventor finally figures it out.  "Robot," he orders. "Bring me a beer!"  "Yes sir," the robot replies and scurries off to get him one.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Dante's Purgatorio, Harrison's reviews


In the December 16, 2021 issue of The New York Review of Books is a review entitled "Labors of Love" by Robert Pogue Harrison.  He reviews two new translations of Dante's Purgatorio, the first by Mary Jo Bang and the second by D. M. Black.  He also makes note of Nick Havely's After Dante: Poets in Purgatory, Translations by Contemporary Poets, but he concentrates mostly upon the translations of Bang and Black.  The last volume discussed is Illustrations for Dante's Inferno by Rachel Owen.

Owen, who wrote her PhD theses on "Illuminated Manuscripts of Dante's Commedia (1330-1490) has produced several photographic prints on the first six books of Dante's Inferno.   I can't from Harrison's description grasp the nature of these prints.  By coincidence I have been involved in some discussions on a photographic forum in regard to whether certain exceptional photographic images can be considered art and whether the photographers who strive for such accomplishments can be considered artists.  Harrison is very much taken with Owen's efforts and is reminded of Salvador Dali's one hundred water colors of The Divine Comedy (1941-1960).

Harrison tells us, "Owen's volume contains thirty-four illustrations of Inferno and six of Purgatorio, along with essays by her friend and fellow artist Fiona Winehouse and the Dante Scholars David Bowe and Peter Hainsworth as well as translations of two cantos of Inferno by Jamie McKendrick and Bernard O'Donoghue. . . She planned to illustrate the entire Divine Comedy . . . [but] did not begin the project until 2012, four years before her untimely death from cancer at age forty-eight."

Harrison alludes to personal matters that may have impacted Owen, but he isn't explicit: "No one reading the essays in the edition would know that Owen was the longtime partner of Thom Yorke, the singer and bandleader of Radiohead and father of her two children, yet I believe their relationship has some pertinence.   Yorke and Owen met at the University of Exeter as undergraduates in the early 1990s and separated in 2015, a year before Owen died. . . one wonders to what extent Yorke may hover like a mostly invisible ghost over the personal testament that informs the collection as a whole."

Good grief!  I'm inclined to be dismissive, but my curiosity is piqued: Illustrations for Dante's Inferno by Rachel Owen, published by Oxford: Bodleian Library, 135 pp., $40.00.

I appreciated Harrison's earlier comments on the Purgatorio.  His friend W. S. Merwin translated the Purgatorio and Harrison encouraged him to translate the Paradiso.  Merwin struggled with the idea but decided against it.  He told Harrison "I just don't love it enough."   I recall thinking similar thoughts about Milton's Paradise Regained.  We humans are accustomed to matters pertaining to Hell and Purgatory but we fall short when it comes to heaven -- though Harrison tells us that Dante's Paradiso "contains some of the most sublime poetry of the Western canon." Alas, I probably first read Dante, in translation, from a volume at the base library at 29 Palms.  Harrison tells us that if a reader has managed to get out of Hell he will find it a relief to enter Purgatory.  "One reason poets tend to cherish Purgatorio is because in it Dante meets a host of fellow poets and reflects on the wonders of literary history."

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Mann's Reflections of a Non-Political Man


Starting with the book review at  The occasion of this book review is the republication (this year) of Mann's Reflections of a Non-Political Man.  It has two additional essays by Mann and an introduction by Mark Lilla: Amazon has it at  

I received the book review on-line from TLS.  It was written by Michael Lipkin and entitled "A Non-Political Mann?" in which Mann is first castigated for being an active supporter of Germany in WWI.  I've been reading Margaret Macmillan's War: How Conflict Shaped Us.  Also, inasmuch as we, many of us, can't understand the forces that took the world into that war very clearly, I doubt I'd have a problem with Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, in which he asserts "Germany's rights to defend itself against the aggression of English and French 'civilization.'"

The review goes on to describe Mann as reestablishing himself as a "defender of the fledgling democracy" with his On the German Republic, followed by The Magic Mountain which won him the Nobel prize in 1929.  "Mann was abroad on the lecture circuit when Hitler rose to power in 1933.  "He wisely elected to stay there. . ." 

Lipkin goes on to write, "He famously spent his last active years in California, of all places, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a suspected Communist."

I take the "of all places" to be referring to HUAC's presence.  Many European intellectuals leaned toward Communism after the war in order to emphasize their distance from fascism.  That was understandable in Europe -- not so much in the U.S.  HUAC didn't appreciate that in an American citizen; which Mann had become.  Also, Lipkin's reference to Mann's ". . . last active years in California" seems doubtful.  After experiencing HUAC and the frenetic anti-communism of the time, he let himself be hounded off to Switzerland in 1952 where a Jeffrey Meyers article describes him as being active: "In his last peaceful and greatly honored years, Mann published The Black Swan (1953) and Confessions of Felix Krull (1954). In addition to Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stefan George, James Joyce, Robert Musil, Hermann Hesse, Erich Remarque, Ignazio Silone, Irwin Shaw, Jorge Luis Borges, Georges Simenon, Graham Greene, and Elias Canetti also lived and died there."  Mann died in Zurich in 1955.

The Jeffrey Meyers article can be seen here:;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0051.419;g=mqrg;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1

Where among other things we learn "Mann, a great movie fan and friend of Charlie Chaplin, preferred the glamour of Hollywood to the dry academic life in Princeton. Most of the German exiles had settled in southern California and gathered in the stimulating salon of Greta Garbo’s screenwriter, Salka Viertel. Mann was then reunited with many old friends: the writers Franz Werfel, Bruno Frank, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Mann’s old political adversary Bertolt Brecht, as well as the film director William Dieterle and, for musical help with Doctor Faustus, Bruno Walter, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schönberg. Mann, who didn’t feel entirely at ease in an English-speaking ambience, remained cocooned in the German colony. (It’s a pity that he never knew the most cultured and intellectual young Austrian directors, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann.) Mann did not become close to any American writers but had some contact with three English émigrés: W. H. Auden and through him Christopher Isherwood (both were homosexual and spoke German) and Aldous Huxley. Mann praised Huxley’s novels and essays but roundly condemned the influential but pernicious drug-induced mysticism of The Doors of Perception (1954)."

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Falls: as fate or free will


I've been reading John le Carre's novel Silverview, published posthumously this year.  I paused 55% through it a few moments ago to read the Wikipedia article about him.  Quite an opinionated fellow, John.  And the writer of the Wikipedia article may have learned about most of these opinions from his novels.  I've gotten a considerable number of them from Silverview.  Be leaving them aside, I've long had the opinion that those of us who don't acquire any of the popular diseases, find ourselves older than we thought we would ever be and have trouble managing getting about.  I, for example, with the collusion of my dogs managed to fling myself from the stairs and have subsequently been attempting, without perfect success, to learn to walk in a new way.  John le Carre seems to have been of my ilk but probably landed on some other part of his body.

Wikipedia tells us "Le Carre died at Royal Cornwall Hospital, Truro, on 12 December 2020, aged 89.  An inquest completed in June 2021 concluded that le Carre died after sustaining a fall at his home."  I could have warned him that when you fall in your old age, try not to fall do it on your head.  I did, as I was committed to hitting the tile at the foot of my stairs with some part of my body, briefly consider my old gymnastic days when I could do a front roll.  In fact I was rather proud of myself, jogging with my dogs back in Garden Grove when I was in my sixties, tripping over a raised part in the sidewalk and instinctively doing a front roll.  I thought, lying there with the dog leashes still in my hand, that I had probably broken something, but was happily surprised upon standing up to learn that I had not.  But twenty years later while I was committed to a tile floor and thinking about a front roll, I chickened out and sacrificed my knee instead of a shoulder, back and if I didn't do it right, my head.  Le Carre probably wasn't a gymnast in his youth and may have simply sprawled from wherever he fell, which is what old people, without proper training, seem to inclined to do. 

You don't think of someone dying from a fall needing an inquest, but le Carre probably had quite a bit of money so the authorities wanted to make sure that the fall was entirely of John's own volition.  In my case there was a benefit from my fall.  In the past Susan would occasionally suggest that my assumption that I would outlive her might not end up being true. I didn't go to doctors or have thoroughgoing tests so I might have some rare disease and die from that.  After my fall, the doctors did run me through thoroughgoing tests and found that I didn't have any thing wrong with me other than the broken knee; so it was good that I no longer had to rely solely upon my optimism. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Passing Places

    She was happily
    Speaking to someone
    She’d just met
    And surprised I was
    There beside her.
    She went on speaking

    To the person ahead
    As I watched
    Her dark hair
    Shining that
    Moment with
    All her life.
    My mind wouldn’t
    Work. I couldn’t
    Speak.  Not looking
    Back, she found
    My hand as
    She moved on.