Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On Bittersweet Place

For most of the twentieth century, the historical novel—defined simply by Sir Walter Scott’s subtitle of his first novel in thee genre he made famous, Waverley, as ‘’tis sixty years hence,”—was severely unfashionable. A prestige novel was either a subversive formal experiment like Ulysses—admittedly a novel of the near past, but not a historical novel—or, more frequently, a meticulously wrought novella told from a limited third-arson point-of-view and deliberately excluding contextual arenas such as history Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk being a sterling example. Historical novels (such as Hervey Allen's Anthony Adverse) were left for purely popular readership, and garnered sale,s but were not con sired art. By the end of the twentieth century, matters had reversed course entirely, and historical fiction came back with a vengeance, both from the left (postcolonial fiction, feminist fiction, what Linda Hutcheon termed “historiographic metafiction,”) and from more or less the mainstream (Cold Mountain, Possession, Mason & Dixon) that, though without the rewriting history-from-below agenda of the earlier categories, were using the new permissibility of history in fiction to unsettle established truths.
   Just as the modernist exclusion of history contributed to the later stages of modernism being arid and deracinated, so did the postmodern inclusion of history lead to a reductivism, as if history was just a miraculous substrate that could automatically give meaning to a story and make it resonant. Magical realism, with its frequent use of history as a base on with to ground experience and mystery, was an offender in this regard; and, notably, the generation of Latin American novelists the replaced the Boom writers—not all of whom wrote magical realism, but most of whom wrote historical novels—pursued the historical novel as well, but did so in a fashion at once more matter-of-fact and more intimate: as seen in works such as Leonardo Padura's The Man Who Loved Dogs, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Tyrant Memory, and Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas.
        A similar development is occurring in US fiction, but from a very different direction. I have previously mentioned Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life and Karolyn Miller’s Under The Red Ribbon as examples of historical fiction by American women writers that is interested in historical settings but do not draw upon history for a source of meaning in itself. Another novel—the best written, in a literary sense of the three--is Ronna Wineberg's On Bittersweet Place. This is s a story of Jewish immigration to the US in the 1920’s from Eastern Europe, but without any of the shtick and stereotypes usually associated with the subject, and also shorn of excessive generalizations about what ‘Europe,” America,” or even “modernity” were at the time. I have a personal stake in this, as my own paternal grandparents made a similar migration from similar circumstances at a similar time, and what little of their experience I was able to talk about with them was very much reflected in the tone and mentality, if not the specific events of Wineberg’s novel.
     Bittersweet Place is not a metaphor, but a real street in Chicago,  “one long block and narrow like a snake, a street that went nowhere,” and this novel works out of this real datum and develops metaphorical implications out of it that are earned and probative—one thinks of Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabiaas another recent book that does this vis a vis its title and a real place. The idea of the bittersweet can, in the wrong hand, become a smarmy, fifty-fifty compromise between positive and negative, but WIneberg does not strive for emotional balance but for a sense of how the heroine does not let her negative experiences erase her positive ones, how she manages, in her emotional accounting, to keep them on separate ledgers. The writing, --austere, elegant, not without a subtext of pain and anger—strengths this by not becoming too emotional even as it touches highly charged ad personal subjects.
   The felicitously named Lena Czernitski is our protagonist and narrator. She is a girl in her early teens whose family has fled Russia after the war (the point is made—pertinently to current circumstances--that the family was fleeing both the new Bolshevik state and the Ukrainian nationalist forces associated with Symon Petliura) and moved to Chicago. Early on in the novel, two traumatic events occur, which I think I can relate without spoiling the entire book, so central are they to the book’s narrative premises. Lena’s uncle, Maurice Roberts (née Moshe Rubolsky, a sour ne’er-do-well who nonetheless is accepted as a member of the extended family, is urged by his sister to be a mensch. This is not remotely in his area of competence, though, and indeed Maurice shows himself to be quite the obverse when he brutally sexually assaults her in a fashion which shocks the reader and makes the entire book more dire and urgent in tone than it otherwise would have been. What is most horrific about Maurice’s violation of Lena is his justification for it. He tells her, “Our people needs secrets to live.” In other words, he is saying that, to survive in a world dominated by hostile Gentiles, Jews need secrets even of their own repugnant making; that in the wake of a religion which clearly does not compel Maurice either theologically or ethically, some other, substitute or ersatz secret, must be concocted, even at the cost of his niece’s integrity and innocence; or that a downtrodden group deprived by his place in the social hierarchy from secrets—elite identities, outsider-excluding institutions like, at the time, the Ivy League colleges—of their own, most forge them by hurting and traumatizing their kin. Maurice s justification is at once so preposterous and so in-character for a particular kind of warped subaltern figure that it puts On Bittersweet Place into a very different moral cockpit than if he had merely offered on justification at all.
      Equally devastating if less immediately traumatic is the death of Lena’s young cousin, Leah Grace, Lena at first sees Leah as the golden child, the one who will be fully American, with an American-sounding name. Leah will be, someone, unlike Lena, ‘cleansed of the old.” But Leah dies as a young child, and it is left to Lena to be the golden one, the cleansed one, or as much of that as she can conjure. This is the opposite issue than if, say, her mother had died, and Lena had to be the leader of the family; she has to instead assume the burden of being the future, being the hope, and while this may seem to open opportunities it is also an additional burden for her to bear on top of those she already has. The death of Leah makes the novel multi-dimensional and bring up an unconventional situation—of a child being affected by the death of a younger relative into becoming a different person—rarely seen in fiction.  Leah’s death is an additional spur; along with the desire to do “penance for Maurice's poor judgment,” that propels her inexorably if remorsefully forward.  Yet there are countervailing forces in the novel as well: Lena’s boyfriend, Max, is from a more cultivated German-Jewish background and their young love is poignantly and affectinglly portrayed with just enough realism to make the prose tingle.  Lena, despite the traumas she has experienced, remains a romantic, and her desire for a “grand love” that would erase ‘awful memory” has something in it of her elder fictional contemporary, Jay Gatsby, and his “romantic readiness.”
      Lena’s family and Max’s family are different, though in that Max's father has what the Czernitskis see as intellectual pretensions. that, as Lena’s father puts it, “we don to belong with them: and that they are not “unsere leite”. Lena pushes back that she happens “to like books” and picture an abstract world of beauty and light. Here we have the conflict between immigrant practicality and American dreaming; but also a highly intra-American conflict between says, pragmatism and transcendentalism.
    One of the most fascinating aspect of On Bittersweet Place is how quickly the Czernitski family and their relatives become Americanized: how they not only take American names but assume American identities. While reading On Bittersweet Place I realized that I had erred in seeing the problems of my paternal grandparents as Jewish problems, European problems, immigrant problems, when in fact, like the family portrayed here, they had speedily assimilated into American life and adopted its character and mannerisms. If America for these people was the goldene medina, the golden country (this made me think of Jennifer Gilmore’s  Golden Country, set in similar circumstances even if at a different emotional pitch) an elasticity which is both a tribute to the resilience of these brave people and the relative pluralism and applicability of American society at the time, even if that pluralism (a word itself coined by an American Jew, Horace Kallen of the New School) was not only limited but, precisely because of this applicability, a bit bland, thin, and superficial. These new Americans, and thoroughly Americans, were yet, though, still outsiders: their problems were American problems compounded by a sense of not totally being in the society’s core group even as, to simplify, they already felt the society’s core feelings, or as much of its core feelings as a polyglot and heterogeneous society such as the US can even have. The problems of Lena and Max, Maurice and William, made me see that I could learn about my paternal grandparents by reading books like Invisible Man, written by an African American, or America Is In The Heart, written by a Filipino-American, as much as books like The Rise of David Levinsky, written obviously by a Jew; that this dual, tantalizing sense of assimilation and alienation that Wineberg’s characters feel was the key to their experience: this is the “narrow bridge” Lena’s father describes the world as being. These people have access to the future, but only along certain limited vectors; and this enabling-disabling paradox frames the course of their lives.
         Ronna Wineberg’s vision is, indeed, pleasingly paradoxical: it does not bind the reader to one way of reasoning, An important touchstone for this is when Lena’s father, trying to improve his English, reads negative review of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: “To me, Theodore Dreiser’s books have no beauty. They are always badly written.” Lena’s father recognizes that this does not mean Dreiser is not worth learning about, that it’s “important to learn about books, even ones you will never read.” This wisdom-reminiscent of a more liberal and inclusive version of E. D.  Hirsch’s 'cultural literacy’, is indicative of how On Bittersweet Place does not insist on its own lyrical, austere intimate approach to history as normative, even as we see in its pages how advantageous, as least at our current moment, this mode might be.

        On Bittersweet Place is an exemplary novel in itself, but also a lesson in how twenty-first century fiction can use both the thematic scope of postmodernism and the asceticism of mainstream modernism to tread its own path, even if, in this case, the path is a bittersweet one.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Irving Malin 1934 to 2014

Irving Malin has died at 80. He was an emeritus professor of literature at CUNY specializing in Jewish American literature and later on in postmodern lit. He was a surrogate father to me in many ways. Without him my POWELL book would never have been published, and possibly my entire book writing career would not have happened. He began to fade by the time THEORY was published but helped me particularly  the queer chapter, which indicates how curious and forward looking he was. He was America's finest literary friend

He was a champion of writers ranging from Joyce Carol Oates to James Purdy, from Jennifer Vanderbes to Douglas Glover, Millicent Dillon to David Foster Wallace, A G Mojtabai to Peter Carey, George Garrett to Grorge Minot. He commanded the literary world from his second floor bedroom in Forest Hills. 

He is survived by his loving and talented wife Ruth who selflessly took care of him for the four years of his illness and shared fifty years of intellectual  and literary companionship with him. 

He rejoiced in the emrgence of critical minds of the next generation like Brian McHale, Steven G Kellman, and Brooke Horvath. 
His loss is a seismic one to all 

Here is the obit in the TIMES. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Karolyn Miller's Under The Red Ribbon

    I have been highly preoccupied writing a big book about Australia, editing another book about teaching Australian and New Zealand literature, teaching a new set of classes, and traveling to Italy, Serbia, and Bosnia to give lectures, but I wanted to mention a book which came to me utterly fortuitously and which has really caught my imagination—Karolyn Miller’s Under The Red Ribbon. This is a book whose action starts in the Midwest in the 1920s and ends in New York in the 1940s.  The major themes in American society in this era particularly urbanization and the slow rise in women’s empowerment, are there and, surprisingly and fascinatingly, so is a concerted attention to Native American rights and the mistreatment of American indigenous people by white-run schools and institutions. (Not so far from Australia and the ‘Stolen Generations’ after all). The book, though, centers on people and relationships. Much like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light You Cannot See, which rescues itself from potential sentimentality by short, staccato, lyric chapters, Miller's use of subjective point-of-view means not only is the reader kept emotionally involved with action and character development as they happen, but that we are kept guessing, cannot presume the identity of just what we are reading about. But Miller is not hemmed in by formalist susurrations; the book is bouncy and vibrant, not preoccupied with questions of form and voice but using these modalities to transmit to the reader its own affective coin.
   The book starts off with Lucille Kramer’s graduation from high school, where two events that will dominate the novel’s arc occur: she has a romantic outing with a classmate Nick Martin Jr., that goes disastrously awry and she discovers that her recently deceased mother had a secret life and that the terms of her family situation are utterly different from what she has resumed. Lucille is an exceptional sensitive young woman who is nonetheless portrayed realistically and who makes mistakes sin judgment at times The point-of-view characters--Lucille, Nick, Lucile’s father Bill, Lucille’s father’s ‘best friend’ (and there are a couple for reasons that phrase is in inverted commas) Dan, Charlie, the young man Lucille meets when she goes to teach at a school for Native Americans and who she eventually marries, and Nick’s father Nick Sr., relate the doing so a far larger swath of characters, from the father’s next two wives—the very differently tempered Madeleine and Rose—to the Indian students Lucille teaches,  the sadistic Dickensian headmistress of the Indian school where she does this, the people in the Midwestern town where she grows up—redolent of the works of Hamlin Garland, William Maxwell, and Spoon River Anthology. The novel has an epic feel while retaining an intimate tone. The joy of reading it is infectious, the pace gripping and sustained. What I especially like is that characters are not prejudged and relationships are reevaluated, so that who Nick, Madeleine, and Bill, among others are changes as we, the readers, reassess them even as Lucille—the book’s major character—does so within the novel’s frame.
       This book reminds me of a couple of other recent novels—Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life and Ronna Wineberg’s On Bittersweet Place—in being a historical novel of American life in past generations, but not simply retreating into a pseudo-authentic Jazz Age or Victorian milieu—in all these books, the characters are lively and contemporary, people who happen to live in the past rather than people othered, eroticized, by their historical articulation. With this courageous decision not to fetishize the past comes the danger of anachronism, and my one cavil at Miller’s book is that anachronism is not entirely avoided. It is not so much the presence elf issues of sexuality, gender and race in the book--these issues were there in American society then if it has taken recent cultural studies scholarship to demonstrate this. Indeed, par tot the virtue of miller's book is to show us that these issues are not new to us. No, the anachronism lies in some of the literary references, Yes, Rilke’s poetry was available in the 1920s, but I cannot see two American Midwestern teenagers reading it: more likely T. S. Eliot, or Robert Frost (mentioned in the book), even more likely Sara Teasdale or Amy Lowell. Rilke’s poetry is important to he author both in her own aesthetic response to experience and in understanding the throes of modernity and imperiled innocence into which the characters are thrown, so with a bit of license she has a 1920s Midwest high schooler quote him. I just don’t buy it, but I see why the author does it. 

        Under The Red Ribbon is an absorbing book of secrets, growth, and forgiveness. What is remarkable is that, even though it is basically a self published book, to my mind it is as good as any American novel I have read this year—and, even though I have been reading mostly Australian fiction, I have in the course of teaching read ten or so American novels of the past year, including highly laurelled ones.  (I see the same phenomenon with art galleries, where exhibitions by community groups such as the West Side Arts Coalition are as good as shows in elite prestigious Chelsea galleries). That Miller’s book is up there with the heavyweights began the question of why some books are published by big imprints and on t others and whether print-on-demand technology has the potential to be genuinely, radically equalizing, in giving us a full gamut of books to read and not just what the gatekeepers at Knopf and FSG approve…

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Elodie Lauten 1950-2014

Here are some scattered impressions of mine on someone I deeply respected and admired. 

A European life led in America. An experimental  electronic composer who loves baroque and whose work’s finest singers otherwise sing Handel and Purcell. An East Village radical who is classicist in her music's feeling and deeply polite and mannered in the conduct of daily life.

Someone who could look at the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, a gay, Jewish Bohemian of the Left and see not just the humanity but the classicism in it, Someone who could see Ginsberg’s late work, often unheralded and unappreciated, as exemplary in depicting a daily life, a humble life despite his fame, that was in fierce touch with the spiritual, that affirmed the transcendent in every waking hour.

Given that she was avant-garde, she was traditional and classicist, but she had to be avant-garde first and continue to maintain that allegiance to the avant-garde, If she had just said, I am traditional now, I am classicist now, after being avant-garde it would have been something different. Even if the sound was melodic and lyrical, the route she took to it was rigorous and mathematical. And as Willa Cather famously said "The end is nothing, the road is all"...

She had the devotion of friends, neighbors, and performers who all invested their time and energy for one performance of one work, Waking In New York, on Sunday, June 1. She almost died three months before it, recovered to start putting it together then back in the hospital with a terminal diagnosis, gave orders that no one in the evidence was to know, so their response to the work would be pure. And it was. Many  in the audience, other than her friends, did not know  Elodie as a composer, in some cases did not even know Ginsberg as the writer of the poems. They responded to the affirmation of where they were, the mention of the post office where everybody squabbles and Christine’s Polish restaurant and the local churches and sounds and street life, knowing that for a brief time it had been rendered transcendent.....

Yet happily Elodie even in her last days was aware of the performance of the opera, of its great success, and of how so many people had combined their talents to make it happen. 

The opera was called "Waking in New York" band this could mean both, waking up, seeing the day and a wake as in after a funeral. Ginsberg woke in both senses. Now Elodie has as well.  Her opera made me think, why did Ginsberg live in the East Village. When he wrote Howl, the neighborhood, not even named that yet, would have bee an unexciting place, full of Ukrainian and German immigrants, more like the Greenpoint of twenty years ago than the West Village with its cafe culture and tradtion of great bohemian poets. Like Elodie, Ginsberg moved here in a sense as he did not want to be famous, even as their art produced work which on its own terms called for recognition and honor.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Literal and Allegorical in the Bible

It is interesting that 'true believers' tend to read Genesis literally---thinking the events there were historical, as seen by me recently in the Creation Museum in Kentucky--whereas 'skeptics' tend to read it metaphorically, especially the first eleven chapters, saying this is mythical language uS ed to described cosmic primeval processes. Whereas with the Song of Songs it is reversed, 'true believers' say it can't just be about sex, it must be allegorical, whereas 'skeptics' say, it is totally about sex, no allegorical interpretation needed. It is so clearly a matter of ideological convenience, showing that the literal and allegorical are just arbitrary rhetorical labels; or, conversely, it shows that a truly inclusive approach to the Bible needs BOTH the literal and allegorical.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

On Taking The Lord's Name In Vain

With respect to the last comment, a true story (not a joke). A Rabbi I knew (I actually knew the synagogue's secretary) served a prominent New York synagogue. He had just built and designed a country house in Connecticut, totally made to order on his specification--his dream house he had bought with all the savings from his years of serving the synagogue. He  was preparing to cook a big Thanksgiving dinner in his house, with a specially bought turkey, his wife's wonderful stuffing, and all the works. Suddenly, Thanksgiving morning, the secretary calls. The President of the Synagogue, who had raised money and guided the congregation for years, had suddenly and unexpectedly died. Under Jewish burial customs, the burial had to be that day. The Rabbi would have to come all the way down from Connecticut to perform the service

The Rabbi's response, in loud tones of despair: "Jee-sus CHRIST!" 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Romanticism Sessions at MLA

There will be FOUR fantastic panels sponsored or co-sponsored by the Division on the English Romantic Period at the upcoming MLA:  MARK YOUR CALENDARS and support romanticism!
As some of you may know, the MLA, in a burst of consolidating energy (as they saw it), floated the idea of "absorbing" our division either into an 18th C. or 19th C. division: which proposal we (the Divisional Committee) roundly resisted, apparently successfully thus far.  But it's all the more important for us to demonstrate what we needs must feel: the ongoing vitality, unpredictability, and generativity of "romanticism" in all its modalities: your colleagues hope to see you at the panels (esp the ones scheduled at awkward times, e.g. the first day of the convention) and also at the Cash Bar co-hosted with the Victorian Division: to "Nature"! "Life"! "Now"! "Meta-physics"! "Romanticism"!  

all best,
Maureen McLane
NYU, Chair of the MLA Division on the English Romantic Period

Thursday, 9 January12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Chicago D, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on the English Romantic Period
Presiding: Marjorie Levinson, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor
1. "'Now with Treble Soft,'" Jonathan Culler, Cornell Univ.
2. "What's in a Name? Romanticism and Terror," David E. Simpson, Univ. of California, Davis
3. "Taunting with Gavroche: Activist Deployments of Poetry," Lyn Hejinian, Univ. of California, Berkeley
"In this session, we offer and invite discussion of that temporality – the present --which cannot be spoken, only enacted, and we consider “enactment” from the perspectives of politics and poetic form"
348. Nature: Meta-physics
Friday, 10 January3:30–4:45 p.m., Chicago C, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on the English Romantic Period
Presiding: Miranda Jane Burgess, Univ. of British Columbia
1. "String Theory and Sideways Growth: The Ecology of Romantic Poetics," Sean Dempsey, Univ. of Arkansas, Fayetteville
2. "Miss Bates and the Nomadic Space of Emma," Yoon-Sun Lee, Wellesley Coll.
3. "Keats and the Country Green," Jonathan D. Mulrooney, Coll. of the Holy Cross

470. Nature

Saturday, 11 January8:30–9:45 a.m., Belmont, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on the English Romantic Period
Presiding: Miranda Jane Burgess, Univ. of British Columbia
1. "Now No More," Jacques Khalip, Brown Univ.
2. "Romantic Posthumanism: The Horror of Interspecies Community in Romantic England," Ted Geier, Univ. of California, Davis
3. "Goya's Scarcity," David L. Clark, McMaster Univ.

SPECIAL SESSION with the Late-18th C Division:

235. Life: Before and after 1800

Friday, 10 January10:15–11:30 a.m., Addison, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on Late-Eighteenth-Century English Literature and the Division on the English Romantic Period
Presiding: Kevis Goodman, Univ. of California, Berkeley
Speakers: Amanda Jo Goldstein, Cornell Univ.; Heather Keenleyside, Univ. of Chicago; Catherine Packham, Univ. of Sussex; Andrew Piper, McGill Univ.
Session Description:
“Until the end of the eighteenth century . . . life does not exist: only living beings.” Our two divisions will revisit Foucault's still influential, periodizing thesis to question its validity in the light of recent work in the field and to think about what we do and do not share.