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Friday
Mar242017

Downfall

Happy families, begins a famous Russian novel, are all alike in their felicity; unhappy families, however, are all unhappy in their own way. The sad nonsense of such a generalization notwithstanding, one notices a grain of truth: we are fascinated by what is not right probably because most of the world is more or less right, and good and evil prove to be no exceptions. Throughout man's history what has been deemed good has simultaneously been deemed boring – much sadder nonsense than Tolstoy's gimmicky opening – because it is always difficult to live among people who are your superiors in piety, righteousness, or goodness. No one, you will hear ironically, wants to marry a saint. For that reason as well as from our inherent attraction to people and ideas which seem to offer us radical change, freedom, and a break from the commonness of the everyday, we tend to trust rebels, firebrands, and revolutionaries. True enough, they are often exciting and charming demagogues who will lie without compunction until they gain what they want. Yet what is remarkable about evil and the despots who espouse it is their uniformity. They all want absolute trust, absolute power, absolute obedience, absolute credit, and no responsibility; they all want to exploit others to fulfil the dreams they are too weak to realize themselves; they all want others to die so that they can live on in glory. Whenever one order is not obeyed, they claim they have been betrayed from the very beginning, that everyone has failed them, that they alone were able to accomplish the goals that took the lives of millions, that they alone deserve their honor and power. Such rantings may incur the label of asylum chants, but it is always too easy to impute evil to insanity (a favorite tactic of modern jurisprudence). Real reptilian evil is cold, calculating, and inexorably vengeful, quite the opposite of the madman who will often inflict his punishment on random people without cause or concern. And if you have always pictured the main character of this fine film as a lunatic, you may soon change your mind.

We begin with the real Traudl Junge, née Humps, shortly before her death a decade and a half ago, and we can say without fear of perjury that she does not rank among the earth's brightest mammals. Her tediously hackneyed comments might trick an ingenuous listener into thinking that she is both contrite and profound, but these are words that should never be used in conjunction with Traudl Junge. Junge belongs to that group of people who are easily impressed with the world (and, consequently, with the faces whose fame wreathes every newsstand) because they have nothing to contribute to it. So after we hear the real Junge, we meet her fictional understudy (Alexandra Maria Lara) trudging through the woods behind German soldiers in 1942 Munich. She is one of five young women who have volunteered to serve as the secretary to the Reich's chancellor (Bruno Ganz, in a role that guarantees his immortality), and you can see this obsession on their soft white faces as they lean over in unison to peer into his office. This is a matter of being a superstar, not a mass murderer the likes of which history has rarely seen. Ganz, like the historical figure he plays, is not a tall man, stooping, grizzled, his left hand fluttering behind him like wounded, dying game. He interviews the secretaries and picks Humps because she is from Munich and also probably because she is not too hard on the eyes. Despite her miserable failure in her first dictation she is awarded the job, yet another example of the typical impulsive and non-competitive methods of a totalitarian regime – which is where we realize this regime has much in common with a spoiled child who requires that his petty demands be met immediately. And at the peak of National Socialism's dominion another young person has been converted into a willing accomplice, if a rather clueless one. 

This brief introduction takes no more than ten minutes of a film that approaches one hundred and fifty. The rest will bring us to Berlin at the end of April 1945, starting from April 20, the leader's fifty-sixth birthday. The war has long since become an exercise in futility, the German population has been massacred, and even the mastermind behind the chaos wallows in self-doubt and, to a lesser degree, self-pity. Our film will cover his last ten days, from a celebration of his birth that involves no celebrating to his marriage that lasts barely a day, to his death by his own wicked hand. In a way, this is a biography of all he has wrought, from the destruction of his forces to his own, because all he left us with was destruction. He will walk, hunched over in imminent defeat, among his child soldiers and praise them for having greater fortitude than his generals; he will claim that the German people should be exterminated because this was their choice and they failed in their endeavor; he will scream at anyone who dares disobey the mildest of his whims, although he apparently has no idea about the debilitation of the German forces and their looming surrender. What you will never hear, however, is any self-rebuke. Not a word, not a phrase, not the hint of regret. When he confesses to an officer that he and his longtime companion Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) will be committing suicide, his main preoccupation is preventing the Russians from "displaying his body in a museum" like a stuffed beast plucked from the wilderness. That he is ignorant or blind or stupid about Germany's actual military might during his last inglorious days makes for an easy conclusion that he is mad. But he is not mad; not in the least. He is still the child that wants his will imposed above all else. When he orders the court martial and execution of his brother-in-law Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann) and Braun pleads for the life of her sister's husband, he bristles at any resistance "to his will." His "will" – the same "will" in this film – suffices as an explanation because and only because he is their Leader. A fact that Braun accepts as she has accepted so much the last fifteen years without "actually knowing anything about him."

And it is here that all his propaganda, every last sentence dripping with hatred, intolerance, and misanthropy on the behalf of the Germanic peoples, is revealed to be nothing more than a prism for his own shortcomings and neuroses. He is not embodying the resentment of Versailles for the Germans; a whole nation is embodying his own resentment towards his own failures. A whole nation must fight his battles for him because he is a coward, a bully and, ultimately, a wretched excuse for a human being. He screams in histrionic tones about destiny, loyalty, and courage, but what of these noble characteristics has he ever shown Germany? In his "political testament" (which he dictates to Junge, who floats in and out of the film as scared and stupid as she was at the beginning) he announces that he has committed more than thirty years to the good of the German people, the same people he claims deserve their doom. Now it is true that he volunteered as a foreigner to fight in their ranks. But he fought for a sense of belonging, and out of despair, loneliness, and desire to join a violent cause to express his violent intentions. Germany and their allies served his purposes as much he served theirs. That equilibrium would soon be shattered by his insufferable arrogance and loathing of everyone and everything, and his debt to humanity may be greater than that of any other human being. This makes him a monster; but not in any way a madman.

On that point about human beings. Much positive and negative criticism of Downfall has focused on the humanization of the dictator who permanently ruined Germany's reputation (importantly, this was the first time in German cinema that he was featured as a protagonist), but such commentary misses the mark. The film's aim is not to humanize at all – their dictator was a human being, of course, albeit as close to devilry as man can come – but to depict events and interpretations of events without one key character missing, the centripetal force of the maelstrom that engulfed the center of European culture and ingenuity and turned it into one of history's most hideous regimes (making the title also an allusion to this famous work). Ganz's mannerisms and ticks are breathtakingly polished, and his voice has been said to be a near-perfect mimic of the original. When Braun gazes at a picture of him on a table, we have to blink a few times before deciding whether or not it is Ganz, since his performance in conviction and fluidity easily surpasses all other portrayals of the dictator ever made. Why Downfall is so perfect in its tones and colors is because it could be the template for the twilight of any despotic regime, any governance by force and hatred which attempted to take full control and no responsibility for an endless thirst for power, wealth, and honor. It is always the people's fault for voting for a megalomaniac, never the megalomaniac's fault for devising a plan to take over the world; it is always those who empower, often in very dire circumstances, rather than the empowered, who are to blame. And so why does he end up, as Braun laments, talking about nothing more than "dogs and vegetarian food"? Because one represents his distance from men and the other his distance from conventional habits and mores; one supposes that his vegetarianism also has to do with his love for animals and contempt for men. Yet both are individual urges that guide him, habits that interest no one else and which, in truth, have nothing to do with human interaction. That is why there might be nothing more evil than an abominably spoiled child who thinks he can do anything with impunity. And those initially deprived of such privileges often spend the rest of their lives trying to catch up.

Tuesday
Mar212017

Akhmatova, "Как люблю, как любила глядеть я" 

A work ("How I so love and loved to look") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

How I so love and loved to look           
Upon the chiseled twilit shores,                               
The balconies that time adores,                  
Those centuries they would not brook.     

My capital, my city, You,                        
Our haven true, we bright and mad;         
Above the Neva, blue and sad,                 
That dusky hour, so special, pure,    

Brings gusts of May that will careen  
Off columns by the watery lea; 
Then, sinner heaven-bound, You'll see,    
Before Your death the sweetest dream.

Thursday
Mar162017

Phoenix

This film will be always be known for its final scene, one of the most magnificent in late memory. But it is all that comes before it – the simple chamber drama of diffidence and greed, the apocalypse that nearly ended all chambers, all dramas, all greeds – that seems underwhelming until the viewer apprehends the coda. Indeed, he hears the coda before it is actually played, much as one might anticipate the final movement in a symphony because all prior movements must disembogue into a solitary note.

We begin with a most unusual scene: a female driver navigates a recently – from all indications, very recently – demilitarized zone. Now all is quiet and bright, like the future of this once-great country, but the scars remain. Scars in the literal sense when a sort of mummy appears in the passenger seat. The car is halted by a brash English-speaking soldier, whom the driver insists has not stumbled upon “Eva Braun,” which settles our time and place. The soldier nevertheless demands a closer inspection and, in short order, solemnly withdraws and apologizes. The women proceed – a reference to one of history’s most notorious concubines was not necessary to establish the figure’s gender – and arrive at a clinic for most desperate clients. There the surgeon identifies Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) as a member of a massacred minority, and yet the camera lingers on the woman still cloaked in plaster. Some options are confronted (“One cannot look exactly the way one was before”), and some decisions made. While overnighting in the hospital, our mummy wanders into the hallway only to spot a parallel shape and ambition a few doors down. They both end up in a room neither should have entered, a cabinet of memories, and who we think is our invisible woman cradles a photograph pinned to the wall. The picture may or may not contain her former self, but it is certainly outshined by the loutish smile of Johnny Lenz (Ronald Zehrfeld).

The lady who slowly unravels herself – literally and figuratively – is Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss). Nelly has just survived an unspeakable evil, one so incredible and all-encompassing that its mere endurance is considered a death of sorts; in fact, Nelly is presumed dead by her loutish husband and everyone else. Black-eyed and dented, she is driven by Lene to a pile of ghastly rubble only to be informed that what remains of her home is roughly akin to what remains of her immediate family, prompting Lene to propose a special ascent. Yet Nelly hesitates, and she hesitates because of a certain loutish smile. Nelly will seek out Johnny, because she believes only Johnny will be able to look past the internal and external wounds that have reduced her into a shadow, a grey pile of ash just like her namesake. She will find him as she left him, in a bar also named after a mythical bird, a bar once filled with the stiff, merciless soldiers who sought the annihilation of a people and a continent, now a venue of the vulgar filled with serviceman who obliterated those annihilators. But somehow he does not recognize her. She only resembles his wife, who cannot be anything except dead – and here I will permit myself an aside. We should not find it absurd that a woman could wish to remain in a country that tried to destroy her, especially if that country echoes with her language and her entire history. We should likewise eschew the temptation to judge survivors who simply wish the past to vanish during the day and resign themselves to hellish reminders each night. But what we can and should find absurd is that a woman like Nelly Lenz, once a well-known cabaret singer, could overlook a loutish smile and barrel of a gut, the only two features the viewer will ever remember about Johnny Lenz, once her accompanying pianist.  So when Johnny is arrested one terrible October afternoon when the war has already assumed its final turn, it will only take two days for his wife to be detained as well.  The trouble with this whole story, according to Lene, is that the accompanying pianist does not accompany his wife on what will likely be her final march, having been released the very same day of her arrest – and we should stop our revelations right there.

Some implausibilities surface in Phoenix that will distract the inexperienced viewer, until we realize that we are not being asked to measure plausibility. Instead, our task involves the will to live on the part of someone who has been subjected to atrocities no human should imagine much less sustain. Is the desire to regain what has been lost in whatever form possible, even if that form possesses but a loutish smile and a claim on an inheritance? Or is it the desire to recreate what once was yet in a different form, much like the holy land that Lene assures Nelly will provide them both with peace of body and soul? The question is never quite answered, because this is a Petzold production, and because Nelly has already ingested far too many questions. What she really wants is to become again the cabaret singer who, by dint of stealth, her husband's ingenuity, and a handful of friends, remained untainted by the evil around her for the vast majority of these wicked years. So when Lene shows her a picture of former acquaintances, she safely presumes that the crosses above their heads indicate their current non-existence on earth. "And what about the ones with circled heads?" she asks innocently, and is informed that those were the very opposite of innocent. Those familiar with German cinema and literature will detect a cynicism and slenderness of character development much more typical of their Gallic counterparts, which is unsurprising given the original story. They will also detect echoes of a French tale about a drowned woman in the Seine and a deranged surgeon, and yet another French tale that in time became one of the greatest of all cinematic accomplishments.  Unlike those two unusual productions, Petzold's work relies on its actors, especially on Hoss's superhuman talents, to render a very simple tale with steadily rising power. The film, grey and unsubstantial at its onset, resolves itself into concrete and glorious hues. And, as a certain cabaret singer might whisper, my ashes like the Phoenix may bring forth a bird that will revenge it on you all.

Sunday
Mar122017

Montaigne, "Du parler prompt ou tardif"

An essay ("On speaking promptly or tardily") by this French man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Never yet have all the graces been given to a single soul. 

Thus we see with regard to the gift of eloquence that some possess facility and promptitude and such, as they say, ease of expression, that they are ready at every instance. Those more tardy never say anything that is not elaborate and premeditated. Similar to how we provide ladies with rules for them to take part in games and physical exercise, in other words, those things in which they most excel, so then if I had to advise this same bunch in these two diverse advantages of eloquence – of which, at least in our century, it seems that preachers and lawyers make the most use professionally – the tardy would be better off as a preacher, it seems to me; the other skill is better for a lawyer. For the former gives the preacher as much leisure as he would like in order to prepare himself; what is more, his career passes uninterruptedly in one thread and towards one consequence. On the other hand, the commodities of a lawyer force him at all times to be in court. And the responses refuted by his opponents simply jostle him and oblige him to take up a new argument.       

At the meeting between Pope Clement and King François in Marseille quite the opposite appeared to happen.  Mr. Poyet, a man of great reputation whose entire life had been nourished on the bail-dock, had been tasked with addressing the Pope. Having a mature and experienced touch, Poyet, it is truly claimed, arrived from Paris with the very speech ready made with which he was to address His Holiness. The very day it was to be pronounced, the Pope, fearing that Poyet could say something that might offend the emissaries of the other Princes who would be present, sent a proposal to the King which seemed to be the most correct at that time and place, but, as luck would have it, very different from that which Mr. Poyet had been working on.  The result was that his argument proved to be useless and he had to come up with another very promptly. As Poyet did not feel capable of doing so, the Cardinal of Bellay was obliged to assume the task. 

The part of the lawyer is more difficult than that of the preacher. Nevertheless, we find a greater number of passable lawyers than of passable preachers, at least in France.

It seems that it is more natural or right for the mind to engage in prompt and sudden operation and more natural or right for judgment to undertake slow and well-considered acts. With someone who remains silent because he does not have the luxury of preparing himself and someone else for whom this luxury would not allow him to improve his words, there persists the same degree of estrangement. One often hears of Cassius Severus, who always spoke best when he never reflected at all upon the subject matter. Such skill he owed less to diligence than to luck. Yet it served him well when his words happened to meet with disagreement because his adversaries did not dare nettle him for fear of redoubling his eloquence. Through my own experience I recognize that condition in nature which cannot sustain vehement and laborious premeditation: if it doesn't proceed happily and freely, it doesn't proceed at all. Of certain works we say that they reek of oil and lamp owing to a certain asperity or roughness which the labor roundly imprints upon them. But apart from this, the concern about doing well – and the struggle of that soul too bound to and too stretched by its enterprise – shall break and impede itself like water, which, owing to its being pressed by violence and abundance could not exit from an open bottleneck.

Within that condition of nature of which I speak there is, at the same time, also that sentiment which should not be agitated by strong passions, like Cassius's anger (because this movement would be too harsh); it asks not to be shaken but to be sought after; it asks to be heated and roused by strange, in-the-moment and fortuitous occasions. If it ventures out by itself, it will do nothing more than drag its heels and languish; agitation is its life and its grace.   

I do not consistently adhere to my self-possession and disposition; here chance has right of way – the moment, the company, the very timbre of my voice – it affects my mind much more. And I find myself testing and using chance. 

In this way spoken words are worth more than their written counterparts, provided they may be chosen without cost or price.

It also occurs to me that I do not find myself where I look for myself: I find myself more often by chance encounter than by the inquisition of my judgment. And in so writing I will have launched some subtlety of thought and I understand full well, as dull as it may seem to another, so sharp may it appear to me. Let us leave behind all these honesties.  These will be pronounced by each of us according to his ability. I have lost my ability so utterly that I do not know what I wanted to say and a stranger often discovers the truth before I do. If I were to erase all that happened to me, I would remove the sheen and ore from everything. Chance encounter sooner or later will give me a day more apparent than noontime; and will surprise me with my hesitation.  

Onc ne furent à tous toutes graces données.
Wednesday
Mar082017

The Captive Mind

In the West man subconsciously regards society as unrelated to him. Society indicates the limits he must not exceed; in exchange for this he receives a guarantee that no one will meddle excessively in his affairs ... In the East there is no boundary between man and society. His games, and whether he loses or wins, is a public matter. He is never alone. If he loses it is not because of indifference on the part of his environment, but because his environment keeps him under such minute scrutiny.

                                                                                                              Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind

This famous book is an intellectual's view on Communism, or Marxism-Leninism, or Stalinism, or whatever it happened to be called at the time, movements that do not, by definition, allow for intellectuals to exist. To put it another way, intellectuals only gain such a title by being allowed to deviate intelligently from what we may call bourgeois values. Since Marxism-Leninism is also in opposition to bourgeois values (at least in theory) an alliance seems to take natural shape, and yet the seventy-odd years of Soviet dictatorship featured some of the most anti-intellectual regimes known to man. How this occurred sheds some light on the nature of power, as well as on the persons who spoke in shades of red but behaved like any other robber baron at any other time in history. 

Composed by Miłosz in the middle of life, at age forty-two, The Captive Mind was revised when the poet was already sixty-nine. In twenty-seven years of removing masks and exposing lies one by one, Miłosz saw nothing to indicate that Russians (who should really be called Soviets, but he insists on making the matter national rather than doctrinal) had changed their baleful ways. That he repeatedly denigrates Russia as "a backward nation" shows his nasty biases that betray his argument. In what was 1917 Russia backward? In industry? Is this the measure of a country's development in the eyes of an intellectual? Miłosz makes one mistake: he cannot decide whether he is a poet or an economist. To be certain, poets do not normally make good economists; and I have never heard of an economist becoming a good poet. In terms of art Russia was far from backward: he rightly praises its drama as the very best and occasionally has laudatory words for writers like Blok. But on the whole Russia to him is a primitive wasteland, whereas Poland and Lithuania are somehow among the most advanced countries in the world (the Baltic states "stood on a definitely higher level of civilization than other Soviet citizens"). But these are all cavils. We will forgive him his chauvinism because we cannot begrudge him his anger. And twenty-eight years after the Berlin Wall's last ballyhooed sighting and thirteen years after his own death, Miłosz's remarkable work possesses almost unrivaled relevance.

He begins with an examination of what it is like to be a socialist writer, a fate which in 1953 was no more pleasant than that of the Soviet-endorsed slag now polluting dark, unvisited corners of university libraries worldwide. His survey is initially framed around an obscure novel by this well-known Polish author, and throughout The Captive Mind the non-Polish reader will feel somewhat alien to the discussion. This is both a good and bad thing. The bad element is rather obvious, and becomes more evident in the four middle chapters. Named after the first four Greek letters, they comprise a roman à clef to four other well-known Polish writers of varying stature. I should say, there is no roman to speak of, only, we are told, facts. And the facts are not complimentary. Take his opening description of this writer, to whom he refers as Beta:

When I met Beta in 1942, he was twenty years old. He was a lively boy with black, intelligent eyes. The palms of his hands perspired, and there was that exaggerated shyness in his behavior that usually bespeaks immense ambition. Behind his words one felt a mixture of arrogance and humility. In conversation he seemed inwardly convinced of his own superiority; he attacked ferociously yet retreated immediately, bashfully hiding his claws. His ripostes were full of pent-up irony. Probably, though, these characteristics were most pronounced when he spoke with me or with other writers older than he was. As a beginning poet, he felt he owed them a certain respect, but actually he believed they were none too deserving of it. He knew better; in him lay the promise of a truly great writer.

That this passage is almost boilerplate for any Romantic poet who subscribes to the aesthetic tendencies of Milton's most nefarious creation would be damning enough; what makes it more interesting is that Borowski is the only writer of the four consistently read in survey classes outside of Poland. Andrzejewski (Alpha) is best known for the novel on which this film was based (one of my father's favorites as a college student); the works of Putrament (Gamma) and Gałczyński (Delta) are really only discussed by professional Slavists. Although hailed first and foremost as a poet, Miłosz's malicious and thinly-veiled satire of his compatriots is a joy to read in the same way that any great characterizations in any great novel seem glowingly real. Half-Russian and quick to denounce his friends to save his own skin, Putrament is the easiest target and gets by far the roughest treatment ("Tall, slightly stooped, he had the long, ruddy face of a man who has spent much time with guns and dogs"). 

The benefit of the book's Polishness can be found in the plethora of insider details: Borowski's unnecessary boastings about his ingenious behavior while in a concentration camp; Putrament's inability to describe Miłosz's hometown in anything but the most banal of colors, his subsequent career as a diplomat "for Red Poland," and his odd second wife ("a Polish soldier-wife ... wearing heavy Russian boots"); the poet Gałczyński's drunken demands to be paid up front for any work, almost as if he were running a print-on-demand service; and the ironic stabs at the haughty Andrzejewski's moralizing and distance from his peers. The depictions of these four Poles, two of whom would die rather young, that form in the reader's mind are as striking and focused as their socialist messages are vague and contrived. Upon revising his work almost thirty years later, Miłosz saw little need to apologize for the venom that oozes out of most of his pages. After all, socialism or whatever it happened to be called at the time (never trust a movement that cannot decide on its own name) was ostensibly still going strong. There was still a need to smash the plastic matryoshka into smithereens and expose its hollowness; there was still a need to inform the West and the (albeit dwindling) number of Communist sympathizers that what they heard and saw was absolute poppycock. 

Yet whether they were true socialists or not might have to do with another phenomenon, which Miłosz calls Ketman. Miłosz takes the word from a work by this French writer whose legacy is mired in controversy (in a fantastic bit of understatement, Miłosz terms him "dangerous"), and the word is the same as the Arabic kamin, which means "secret" or "hidden." Generally it implied a method in Islamic thought whereby a dissenter could hide his spots, and Miłosz has no qualms about appropriating it for his context. Dissent did not need to be, however, the main impetus behind such chicanery:

The people of the Moslem East believe that 'He who is in possession of truth must not expose his person, his relatives or his reputation to the blindness, the folly, the perversity of those whom it has pleased God to place and maintain in error.' One must, therefore, keep silent about one's true convictions if possible.

There were also practical consequences for such modesties, but these, I assume, require no explanation. It is to Miłosz's credit that he attempts, if halfheartedly at times, to assign a form of Ketman to each of the four Polish writers he exposes in the following chapters. He assumes that they since there is something or a lot of the artist in them, they cannot possibly accede to the nonsense that the Soviet state wants Polish literature to become. They have the concerns of family, ostracizing, and, of course, finances to take into consideration.  But in the end they do not decide to emigrate or break openly with the party (Andrzejewski would be an exception later in life).  They are all prisoners, often well-fed and well-groomed ones, but prisoners nonetheless. Ketman also has far-reaching ramifications for the path of the human soul:

To say something is white when one thinks it is black, to smile inwardly when one is outwardly solemn, to hate when one manifests love, to know when one pretends not to know, and thus to play one's adversary for a fool (even as he is playing you for one) these actions lead one to prize one's own cunning above all else.

Communism in its European variant is over now, but it once was considered the greatest revolution in modern history. Strange that, when you consider how individual we have all become and how much we shun the collective good in favor of our own selfish needs. We may believe the aphorism that no one can imprison our minds, and that might be true with one qualification. The only imprisonment of our minds occurs when we choose to accept a truth imposed upon us from without, a truth we know to be as fabricated as the cheap clothing we are allowed to buy. It is much easier than waking up every morning and trying to escape.

Saturday
Mar042017

Die Panne

The unacted crimes on our conscience might not be subject to prosecution or trial, but we cannot so quickly dismiss them (and they never quit the territory of our nightmares). At many junctures of our life we will face a moral question that may be interpreted as envy but is better understood as learned ambition. We see what others have – a home, a career, wealth, a spouse, children, fame – and we wish the same for ourselves. The worst among us simultaneously desire their own gain and concomitant loss for the envied, and it should not surprise us that these are the sort of people whose unacted villainy often devolves into the stuff of police blotters and true crime bestsellers. Yet there is a third category of observer, he whose crimes are far more attenuated and remote. He did not pull the trigger as much as find the coin that slipped under the floor mat of a car at a toll that drove to a house where a bullet was found on a carpet next to a body whose fist was still clutching a list of names of people working at the toll. If this sounds a bit like a famous nursery rhyme, we should consider all the unacted deeds that nursery rhymes tend to enumerate. We should also consider this well-known tale.

The hero, so to speak, is a certain Alfredo Traps, a traveling textile salesman and a well-off citizen of notoriously well-off Switzerland, his choice of travel in his landlocked native land being a fancy car, more specifically a red Studebaker. My profound ignorance of cars, Studebakers and all others, prevents me from offering an opinion of any value on the object in question; but Traps will later confirm that its acquisition, a year ago now, fulfilled a long-time dream (Traps is the type of person who does not have cheap long-time dreams, unless you count his floozier extramarital episodes). As sole account manager of the Hephaestus plastic product, he assures us as all well-trained salesmen must that it is the "king of plastics, untearable, transparent ... as good for industrial use as for fashion, for war and for peace." From this diatribe we get the feeling that Traps is not only talking about Hephaestus – but anyway. Traps is somewhere on the way back from his habitual "four-hundred-kilometer" business day when his beloved Studebaker endures a breakdown, our story's ostensible namesake, and the towing authorities inform him that repairs will keep the car garaged overnight. As he contemplates the nearest village, we get a brief but telling glimpse into our traveler:

There was also a little factory nearby and numerous bars and inns which Traps had heard much about, but the rooms were full, a meeting of small livestock breeders having claimed all the beds, and the textile salesman was directed to a villa where people were sometimes put up for the night. Traps hesitated. It was still possible for him to head home by train, but he was tempted by the hope of having a little fun, as there were often girls in these villages as there had been in Großbiestringen recently who appreciated textile salesmen.

There remains little doubt as to the mores of our Traps, whom relativists would immediately exonerate for being a child of Catholic oppressiveness that does not allow for divorce – but relativists can go relativize elsewhere. No, we are dealing with someone of loose virtues who remains on constant vigil for advantage, be that advantage material or maidenly, a trait swiftly detected by the four grizzled widowers at that famous villa.

Villa or not, an evening with four old widowers certainly does not sound like what Traps had in mind. Yet his destiny has already been chosen when the condition of a free room for the night entails keeping four old men company for dinner. Traps being, despite a later claim, unalterably bourgeois as well as someone of "adequate manners," accepts the offer and sits down to a decadent meal the likes of which he has never had. His commensals are: Pilet, the sommelier and manager; his nameless moustached host who occupies, in apparent creeping senility, a footstool; Kummer, a red-faced salami of a man in a rocking chair; and the monocled Zorn, a "long and haggard" fellow with a hooked nose and unmatched socks whose "vest is incorrectly buttoned." German speakers will know that Kummer means "worry" or "concern" and Zorn "wrath," which will make sense given their former professions. And our aged quartet are also all members of the Schlaraffia, an organization I think I will leave to the curious to investigate through the intergalactic weapon known as Google; suffice it to say that "the land of milk and honey" can be translated into German as Schlaraffenland (we add that pilet is French for a pintail, a duck with a knife-like appendage). What were these former professions? The salami was once a defense attorney, the monocled icicle a prosecutor, and the budding dementia case – a very long time ago, it seems – a judge. Pilet was involved in the field of law enforcement, but his exact role is discussed towards the middle of our tale and does not need to be mentioned here. That said, careful artists pay close attention to the exact center of their works (Dürrenmatt is generally a careful artist), and at the center of Die Panne we find the following:

'Bad luck, I'm afraid, Mr. Prosecutor,' yelled Traps boisterously, 'terribly bad luck.  Gygax died of a heart attack, and it wasn't even his first. Years ago he had been victim to one, and was told that he would have to be careful. He tried to keep up the appearance of a healthy man, but every time he got anxious or worked up, one feared a relapse. I know this for a fact.'

'Ah, and from whom, then, do you know it?'

'From his wife, Mr. Prosecutor.'

'From his wife?'

'Be careful, for Heaven's sake,' whispered the defense attorney.

Who is Gygax? Traps's former boss. When did Gygax die? Oh, about a year ago. And why is Gygax's sad lot a subject of discussion? Because Gygax's timely decease allowed Traps to take his job, which he celebrated with the purchase of a certain red Studebaker, a car he needed since his last car suffered a breakdown also about a year ago, and we have said more than enough. 

Die Panne has been hailed as one of the finest German-language prose works of the twentieth century, and its accolades are not unmerited. Had it been originally composed for the screen, we could imagine another fate for Mr. Traps (oddly, the book, play, and film all feature somewhat different dénouements), one that bespoke his remorse in all its devastating hues. But Traps has been living in that oblivion unique to the bourgeois everyday: a land of milk and honey and Studebakers. The other oddity about the book must be its introduction, a regrettably topical rant about how almost every tale has already been told (providing the novella's subtitle, "A still-possible story"), considering that a mock trial is one of fiction's oldest conceits and the backhanded modesty of exhausted storytelling even older. Still, we read on with more than amusement and enthusiasm: we actually begin to wonder about Traps, about what he may or may not have done, about why he is so willing to go along with such geriatric nostalgia and throw himself headlong into the theatrical aspect of this extraordinary 'dinner theater.' One also gets the distinct impression that a little slap-and-tickle with the local barmaid would never have been as fulfilling.         

Tuesday
Feb282017

Vallejo, "Unidad"

A poem ("Unity") by this Peruvian man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Tonight my clock can only gasp,
And near my darkened temple flee; 
The pistol's apple spins in clasp,
Below the trigger, bullet-free.

The moon is still and white with tears,
An aiming eye ... and so I dread
A Mystery great incused on fears,
An ovoid bullet in bright red.

Ah, hand that limits, hand of threat
Behind each door  ah, hand that breathes
In every clock, give way and let!

Above your frame's grey spider parts
Another Hand, of light made, wields
A bullet shaped like a blue heart.

Sunday
Feb262017

Yella

We begin this film observing a young woman, neither very attractive nor unworthy of a devoted rake's attention, escaping from an invisible predator. Invisible, because although someone will soon emerge as a long-time tormentor, the pace the woman keeps and the franticness of her stride bespeak a far greater nemesis, perhaps that of time or its knight-errant, conscience. She is not clearly innocent or clearly guilty as far as our eyes can see. But we soon learn that our eyes are substantially limited in what they are allowed to perceive.

Our location is this German town and the woman is a sensitive and somewhat troubled thirtysomething by the name of Yella Fichte (Nina Hoss). Yella is pretty in the way that many German women are pretty: that is, her tough character is imprinted squarely upon her delicate features, a pattern that no amount of makeup or clothing could ever alter. She is not so much a tomboy as a woman who cannot afford to be too feminine in a harsh and unforgiving man's world. One such fellow is her ex-husband Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann), who just so happens to be tailing Yella in his Range Rover and begging for another chance on a relationship that Yella seems to regret with every ounce of her being. "You got a job," says Ben in an oddly high-pitched voice, "I can tell by the way you walk you have a really good job." Ben will often display how very well he knows his wife; yet we never get the impression of happier days past for the childless couple. Rather, Ben, unlike many men of his generation, appears once upon a time to have demonstrated decent earning potential. And in a small former East German town such lottery tickets are scarce. Our heroine breaks the news of her Hannover job to her bald, strapping father, an obvious widower, and we understand that she has been chosen by fate to smash the cycle of lucklessness and mediocrity and emigrate from Wittenberge to a more prosperous pocket of humanity. After a laconic breakfast during which Yella stares at her morose father with the glee of someone who enjoys being missed, she finds that instead of her taxi, an officious Ben has shown up to take her to the train station. 

Ben's agenda, of course, does not involve the station. Instead, Yella is subjected to a "sentimental tour" with a failed man's last business plan desperate even to the untrained ear, as well as a brown envelope stuffed with figures and calculations of a revival – numbers that Yella, an accountant by trade and demeanor, refuses to examine. What could she possibly learn now about this man whom she quite clearly abhors? What does it say about her that, once upon a time, she chose to marry him? Without the slightest verbal expression all these emotions race across her face, just as Ben loses his temper with the ease of those accustomed to violence, and just before the Range Rover swerves off a bridge and into the Elbe river – and here our film assumes a curious tenor. Yella awakes on what appears to be the other shore. Ben moves first then collapses near her. When she gets to her feet she finds, quite miraculously, that her bags have been washed ashore as well. When she arrives at the station she finds, quite miraculously, that her train has not left – even though it appears almost entirely empty. And after a quiet if nervous trip, she awakes again, this time in what must be assumed to be Hannover. It is, however, a Hannover that few will recognize, yet that is of no interest to our protagonist or any other person in her world. So many times in Yella we see one, almost trivial scene that we don't understand then later see a very similar scene and understand them both as significant, which is the sign of impeccable storytelling. A deposit on her hotel appears unpayable until she remembers the wad of cash her father silently pressed into her hand; her chance encounter with a creepy, venal man called Philipp (Devid Striesow) leads her into a business world of chicanery and double-dealings not unlike what probably bankrupted Ben; and Ben's implication of Yella's "pretty legs" having helped her secure the Hannover job are echoed by both Philipp's impression of her future employer, Dr. Schmidt-Ott, and the slimy doctor's own actions. Most of all, her notions of what belongs on this earth and what might pertain to another realm become decidedly fuzzy. Take, for example, her long stare at a kimonoed housewife and her child bidding farewell to a million-dollar husband on the driveway of their million-dollar home. This moment's inclusion early on in Yella's journey may simply manifest her wishes for a new life, but later developments suggest something far more sinister.  

It is to be expected, I suppose, that some critics have considered Yella an anti-capitalism parable; others, with no greater originality, have smugly pointed out Wittenberge's easternness and Hannover's unbroken alliance with the West. While there is some truth to these interpretations, they are hopelessly inferior to what we may term a grim character study. Why grim? Interestingly enough, the more we see of Yella, who evinces at times a doe-like quality, the less we like her. She is hard and cruel to the series of tribunals (in the form of Philipp's business partners) who, wishing to judge and dismiss her as a woman and possibly as an East German, are invariably humiliated by her methods. Once she consents to Philipp's skulduggery, she fails a test of confidence, which could spell death among thieves with an honor code. And while we do feel sorry for her when Ben reappears, more than once, to convey his understanding that the couple should reunite immediately, we also begin to suspect something deeper at work here. When Philipp informs our heroine that "a large garage, a green jaguar, kids, and a house in the suburbs" could never interest him ("What interests you, then?" asks Yella.  "Precisely not that," is the magnificent response), one has the feeling he is speaking for both of them. In fact, Philipp is quickly surpassed by his protégée in ruthlessness, as evidenced by the film's closing scenes. There is also the much belabored matter of the flashbacks Yella endures; water in particular seems to behave unusually in her presence, and in the distance she occasionally hears the caws of raptorial birds. So you may wonder why Yella never quite manages to change out of that lovely red blouse. You may also ask yourself why her last name is Fichte.

Wednesday
Feb222017

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Without some mild prompting, horror fans may not be able to confirm that there exist two types of scare tales: those about the unfamiliar awash in the shadows and tricks of the light, and those about very familiar things that turn out to be not what they seem. For whatever reason, I have on numerous occasions toyed with scenarios from the latter grouping and they have invariably resulted in dissatisfaction. Why is our first type so superior? Perhaps because in our second, there is no suspense, no chance for understanding when something you have always treated as safe is transformed into a parlous and despicable trap (zombies, those beloved catch-all cannibals, come to mind). And while many a work has been constructed on the premise that someone – a family member, a co-worker, a respected citizen – is not what he or she appears to be, a pervasive obliviousness is the only plausible explanation; otherwise, we would simply have random whims and haphazard betrayal. It is this first premise that both makes this work so outstanding and reduces numerous whodunits to a pure guessing game. And yet there is also another genre that borrows liberally from both these types, a perfect example of which careens through the pages of this short novel.

Our eponymous character is a young man in Rhode Island; the time is that brief, sweet lull between the twentieth century's two European cataclysms. The young man has been diagnosed by alienists and other nostrum-peddlers as mentally ill, but the cause of his malady is never ascertained by modern science (and since we are reading this author, we know it never will be). No, our man is ill all right, but his is the illness of having crossed boundaries of human experiences that should remain just that, boundaries. Boundaries, as it were, to gaze upon from a comfortable distance and then be forever shown the backs of us. Young Ward's life was changed in dramatic fashion by uncovering a hitherto unknown ancestor with the ominous name of Curwen, a corruption of the Latin word for this bird. Joseph Curwen, as his forebear was called, seemed to have lived a very long and ignominious life in the region, and was somehow implicated in the witch trials that devoured Puritan England over two centuries before. And yet, chroniclers maintain that Curwen didn't age, or at least, not enough ("this strange, pallid man, hardly middle-aged in aspect yet certainly not less than a full century old"). Stranger still is this greedy and reclusive hermit's Georgian habitat, from where the wickedest midnight sounds and smells are said to emerge. This attracts the attention of local law enforcement, who choose to do nothing that could repercuss in their disfavor. Instead, one dark night they assemble an extrajudicial band and invade the premises. What they find is never made explicit, but we gather they may have been better off not interfering in such machinations:   

It was just before dawn that a single haggard messenger with wild eyes and a hideous unknown odor about his clothing appeared and told the detachment to disperse quietly to their homes and never think or speak of the night's doings or of him who had been Joseph Curwen. Something about the bearing of the messenger carried a conviction which his mere words could never have conveyed; for though he was a seaman well known to many of them, there was something obscurely lost or gained in his soul which set him evermore apart.

Curwen may well represent Poe's ancestry to Lovecraft since the latter considered the author of The Raven to be the greatest of all literary influences on his artistic development, but Poe's worlds are small and self-destructive. They collapse upon themselves like tombs or old, creaking houses, with a character or two invariably trapped within. Lovecraft's work is, however, about the abyss, the immensity of horror that is only intensified by our basal apprehensions about hell or nothingness or an oblivion that will consume us over the course of millions of years. How much better then to leave undescribed what these soldiers saw that fateful night in what they had expected would be a warlock's cave, a night during which Joseph Curwen – ageless, baleful, deal-hungry Joseph Curwen – was at last destroyed.

This terrible event, of course, does nothing to dissuade young Ward, who is under the care of a certain Dr. Willett. Willett, true to his oaths, likes facts and treatments. He is averse to the spiritual in the same way that one can be allergic to something as fundamental as milk. Even when Ward betakes himself for three years to Europe to visit notorious black magic practitioners, Willett implies that Ward could be actively mimicking his ancestor's activities and language in his correspondence out of some kind of obsessive fascination. There is, of course, another explanation, and one that has to do with the menacing portrait of Joseph Curwen uncovered at the house that Ward will soon inhabit. Giving away too much of Ward's psychic shift would be unfair to the tale's future readers, but we can mention Willett's venture to the house that Curwen built:    

It is hard to explain just how a single sight of a tangible object with measurable dimensions could so shake and change a man; and we may only say that there is about certain outlines and entities a power of symbolism and suggestion which acts frightfully on a sensitive thinker's perspective and whispers terrible hints of obscure cosmic relationships and unnamable realities behind the protective illusions of common vision.

What would be the most earth-shattering vision one could imagine? Many works have tapped into the personal, that which is unknowable except to the visionary himself, as in this incredible masterpiece, but this is not the picture painted here. What our doctor sees is objectively horrendous, not simply a byproduct of an active imagination and a few too many late night readings; in fact, Willett absconds from the house with the firm conviction that he may never sleep well again.   

What remains valuable in reading something like Charles Dexter Ward (not that there is much like it) is the holistic notion of terror that can grip any mind, non-believing or staunchly devout, broad enough to allow its horizon to expand to the width of our ignorance. Any stab at that ignorance, any advance in the ways of realm and reason, must be attributed to otherworldly sources, even if this has evolved in contemporary literature into a variant of deus ex machina, an extraterrestrial. Lovecraft enjoyed the world in its crevices and secrets and did not care much for justifying his nightmares; he dreamt up savage lands and weird chants and thought little of their implications. In this way his art is the finest of its kind: visions without egoism, fears without psychobabble, evil without redemption. His worlds cannot be captioned as the neuroses of a single, fretful mind, and not only because they draw upon centuries of lore. His truth is a hellish abyss, and one of luxurious malevolence where things that seem foul are undoubtedly foul, fouler than one could have ever feared. Too bad no one told young Ward.       

Friday
Feb172017

Lance

Deep in the human mind, the concept of dying is synonymous with that of leaving the earth. To escape its gravity means to transcend the grave, and a man upon finding himself on another planet has really no way of proving to himself that he is not dead that the naive old myth has not come true.

What is science fiction? I have no ready caption for the allegedly imaginative, no-holds-barred nonsense that so rarely broaches the literary (this film, based on a vastly inferior book, is a rare example, although it is more about spirituality) because science fiction, much as science, likes to wallow in its vague fame. It may as a genre constantly reinvent itself, yet its reinventions leave its forebears unworshipped and unappreciated but let us be fair. If science, which has produced so many wonders and made our lives substantially easier and healthier, still knows a fraction of a drachma of a billionth of anything at all about our universe, a literary movement that glorifies the progression of human knowledge cannot aspire to anything greater. Expecting more out of intergalactic internecine is a waste of hope. What we can say without fear of perjury is that a consistent swath of human readers (to distinguish them from the beasts and blobs that haunt those silvery fables) loves deceiving itself with the lure of science fiction, a regrettable phase through which some of us as children pass quickly and unscathed. They think that the reinventions of the wheel of time are profound in their look at human motives, when there is more profundity in one tractate by Duns Scotus than in a fictional universe of a thousand splendid, or not-so-splendid suns. Which brings us to this unusual tale.

The hero of our story, not immediately revealed, is a certain Emery Lancelot Boke, a latter-day knight in a new kind of armor. His mission we are never informed whether this was a lifelong dream or an unsimple twist of fate is to visit another planet and report to Earth on his findings. We learn all of this a few pages into our story because we are initially warned how little this whole business really matters, at least to our omniscient narrator:

Finally, I utterly spurn and reject so-called science fiction. I have looked into it, and found it as boring as the mystery-story magazines the same sort of dismally pedestrian writing with oodles of dialogue and loads of commutational humor. The clichés are, of course, disguised; essentially, they are the same throughout all cheap reading matter, whether it spans the universe or the living room. They are like those 'assorted' cookies that differ from one another only in shape and shade, whereby their shrewd makers ensnare the salivating consumer in a mad Pavlovian world where, at no extra cost, variations in simple visual values influence and gradually replace flavor, which thus goes the way of talent and truth. So the good guy grins, and the villain sneers, and a noble heart sports a slangy speech. Star tsars, directors of Galactic Unions, are practically replicas of those peppy, red-haired executives in earthy earth jobs, that illustrate with their little crinkles the human interest stories of the well-thumbed slicks in beauty parlors. Invaders  of  Denebola  and  Spica, Virgo's  finest, bear names beginning with Mac; cold scientists are usually found under Steins; some of them share with the supergalactic gals such abstract labels as Biola or Vala. Inhabitants of foreign planets, 'intelligent' beings, humanoid or of various mythic makes, have one remarkable trait in common: their intimate structure is never depicted. In a supreme concession to biped propriety, not only do centaurs wear loincloths; they wear them about their forelegs.

Our narrator may be more or less omniscient, but he is not God; he is not even a deity among men, as far as we can determine. No, he is the ancestor of Mr. Boke, who has long since enjoyed the simplicity of the name Lance to the complications of the Round Table's namesake. What can an ancestor tell us about a descendant? The same quantity, one supposes, predicted daily by science fiction pundits and science reality adherents about what will, may, should, and must occur in a world they have misperceived since the beginning of time. Yes, that's right, they haven't gotten it; the only major change in the last few decades is technology's tailwind, which has man reaching for stars that may not quite be what his manmade telescope tells him they are.

Lance officially a mononym free of extraneous names has bidden his parents farewell, and "the hope of seeing him again in life is about equal to the hope of seeing him in eternity." Someone might whisper to these parents, good folk, that what he is undertaking will make him an immortal part of immortal science, but they do not listen, wisely. Despite our endless evolution, they are firmly of the species that cannot forsake their young, that must know until the end of their (very mortal) days what has become of their beloved son. 

There is such an intolerable silence in Lance's room, with its battered books, and the spotty white shelves, and the old shoes, and the relatively new tennis racquet in its preposterously secure press, and a penny on the closet floor and all this begins to undergo a prismatic dissolution, but then you tighten the screw and everything is again in focus. And presently the Bokes return to their balcony. Has he reached his goal and if so, does he see us?

The interplanetary sighting we may take as figurative, or we may ignore as the dregs of panic, but neither agenda need be endorsed at this time. Surely his parents wish for a safe ascent and, of course, descent, even if they must imagine both on the basis of their earthly experience, which means they can hardly imagine it at all. "Will the mind of the explorer survive the shock?" says our narrator, who does not hasten to reveal the knowledge he may possess. Then there is the narrator's own ascent, of sorts:

When I was a boy of seven or eight, I used to dream a vaguely recurrent dream set in a certain environment, which I have never been able to recognize and identify in any rational manner, though I have seen many strange lands ... The nuisance of that dream was that for some reason I could not walk around the view to meet it on equal terms. There lurked in the mist a mass of something – mineral matter or the like – oppressively and quite meaninglessly shaped, and, in the course of my dream, I kept filling some kind of receptacle (translated as 'pail')  with  smaller  shapes  (translated  as 'pebbles'), and my nose was bleeding but I was too impatient and excited to do anything about it. And every time I had that dream, suddenly somebody would start screaming behind me, and I awoke screaming too, thus prolonging the initial anonymous shriek, with its initial note of rising exultation, but with no meaning attached to it any more – if there had been a meaning.

What on earth or beyond has the narrator imagined for himself? One might do well to keep in mind that the dream recounted is a boy's dream, one easily engorged with impressions of the gigantic summer sky in its awful transparency. If we look closely we can even see the moon's gaunt silhouette hovering, suggesting a point of departure, a beginning to the endlessness that is our universe, and I think we should leave matters at that.  

Given Nabokov's demolition of the science fiction genre in Lance and other places, some reviewers have graciously refrained from belaboring the point about Lance's pointlessness and if that's not clear enough, there's little we can do for you. Other critics, however, have claimed that Nabokov, at several junctures amidst his works, employs standard science-fiction techniques such as "invisibility" and "telekinesis" (please repeat the end of the last sentence, after the dash). That the story is unique in Nabokov's oeuvre cannot be denied; that what it depicts has anything at all to do with science or the giddy blackness of the unknown may open another discussion altogether. What type of discussion? A hint is dropped, a single word to be more specific, that implies that what we are reading is what we want to imagine as "the pleasure of direct and divine knowledge," even if "the mere act of imagining the matter is fraught with hideous risks." What risks, you may ask? That all our dreams are not dreams but the future in reverse.  

Monday
Feb132017

Turgenev, "Дай мне руку, и пойдем мы в поле"

A work ("Your hand in mine, we walk the field") by this Russian man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Your hand in mine, we walk the field,
My thoughtful soul's one dearest friend.
Our life today bears our will's yield,
How shall we choose this life to spend?

Without this passion we will die.
In jest we mark the day and night,
And all we love, and every sigh
We shall forget till later light. 

So let this day pass unreturned
Near bright and weary life above,
As pagan crowds have slowly learned
Of life as childish peaceful love.

Above the brook clumped lightest steam
As dawn burned bright in solemn shell:
O how I would descend this beam
With you, just you, as once we fell. 

"But what, if not the past renewed?"
Comes your response to my soft heart.
Forget, I say, to grieve and brood,
Forget, forget, that we're apart.

Believe me now bereft of pride
That all my soul to you bursts forth
Sad is it how the lake's blue tide
Cannot forgive the wave's rogue course.

Behold the sky's most wondrous stain
Look forth, look back, look all around,
No tremble wastes away in vain
Give thanks that peace and love abound.

And I admit a presence pure
To which no worthy slave am I.
No shame, no fear, no prideful lure
No sadness coats my soul's last cry.

So let us walk in wordless ways,
Or if our words begin anew,
Or passions sound in wavelike maze
Or if we sleep in moonbeam hue.

Eternally they resonate,
These wondrous moments we embrace
This day, perhaps, may save our fate
And then our mysteries unlace.

Wednesday
Feb082017

A Painful Case

This writer has come to be known, among other titles, as an innovator of the difficult, of the abstruse, of the unnecessarily and overindulgently literary. A judgment that renders his early works even more shocking if one considers their bluntness. They are not, it should be said, simple works. "Simple" in literature should only apply to books for children and young adults, where certain conventions are followed, or to the etiolated parcels that litter every convenience store and airport, the formulaic kitsch of which some people cannot get enough (explaining this type's everlasting appeal). Dubliners is blunt in the manner that a strong cordial does not get away from you: you know what it will do, you feel at once empowered and weakened, and yet you cannot but have another sip because even the most jaded among us are always impressed with quality. Yet our subject James Duffy, for whom life has been constructed as a fortress, is not impressed with much at all.

A bachelor and "for many years cashier of a private bank," Duffy is a resident of the Irish capital's Chapelizod "because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern, and pretentious" (ironically perhaps, the protagonist of this very modern and very pretentious work hails from this same area). Duffy clearly does not desire much human kindness, milky or otherwise, and has shut himself up in a bourgeois bunker "as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen." A survey of his shelves does not dissuade us from the suspicion that James Duffy does not believe in anything finer or greater than himself, which some may call solipsism and others misanthropy. There is a reason why Duffy "had bought himself every article of furniture in the room," but it is not ours to discover. There is also a reason (perhaps the very same one) why "he allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his bank," and why the probability of such a crime dissipated. Maybe a snapshot of our man will yield more clarity:

Mr. Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder. A medieval doctor would have called him saturnine. His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets. On his long and rather large head grew dry black hair and a tawny moustache did not quite cover an unamiable mouth. His cheekbones also gave his face a harsh character; but there was no harshness in the eyes which, looking at the world from under their tawny brows, gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed. He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. He never gave alms to beggars and walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel.

To paraphrase this author, you cannot know how ugly or beautiful a face is until you try and draw it (I will say that I initially read "not quite unamiable mouth," a dull bromide). But we have already sketched Mr. Duffy, so how should we presume? From this passage and his subsequent acts, there remains no doubt as to his character. Self-serving, arrogant, vain, and asocial, he is well-read but far too enamored with his own literary knowledge, which for him means absorbing a lot of 'important' books so as to be able to present them to lesser minds in a discreetly condescending manner. A person far unkinder than I might even suggest that Mr. James Duffy could represent the typical talentless literary critic ("ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed" seems to lean in that direction), but there is no need for such contumely. Which is why his sudden romance with a married woman, a certain Emily Sinico, takes everyone, Mr. James Duffy included, rather violently by surprise.   

What befalls the lonely coparcenaries of this little fling, and how the story won its title, will be left to the curious reader. The last paragraph of A Painful Case has been much discussed among people who like to discuss such things, undoubtedly because it forfends any hope for humankind and its sentiments. Similarities to another, far greater tale with an equally ambiguous ending are unavoidable, but Chekhov's masterpiece at least envisions the couple acting in unison, as two halves of a whole that, per society's conventional mores, is not permitted to endure. For all the effortless beauty of the prose that cages the two lovebirds, Duffy's affair with Mrs. Sinico must be considered nothing if not implausible. That is, unless we truly subscribe to his interpretation of her as an empty vessel, a hollow orb polished by his palms:

Neither he nor she had had any adventure before and neither was conscious of any incongruity. Little by little he entangled his thoughts with hers. He lent her books, provided her with ideas, shared his intellectual life with her. She listened to all. Sometimes in return for his theories she gave out some fact of her own life.

Whether Mr. Duffy has indeed squeezed the universe into a ball, and whether that ball will be rolled toward some overwhelming question, will be discussed by those who deem the identification of literary allusions the mark of a cultured mind. For some reason Mr. Duffy strikes one as belonging to that group, even if the only group he could ever imagine joining is some cenacle in which he obtained a lifelong presidency. One also has the distinct impression that the currency that Mrs. Sinico utilizes, a plain fact from her plain existence ("Her husband's great-great-grandfather had come from Leghorn"; "Her husband was captain of a mercantile boat"; "They had one child," and so forth), is not much valued by the recipient, who has assumed the far more generous task of imbuing her with ideas from books – as if life outside of libraries were entirely notionless. Is it because he has seen the moment of his greatness flicker? Much more likely that Mr. Duffy could not distinguish a mermaid from the eternal foam.