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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.    

Saturday
Feb042017

La Môme (La Vie en Rose)

For a number of reasons the English-speaking world has been unable to rid itself of what it has been in love with since the beginning of the nineteenth century: a French goddess, fair and free. It has ruminated in drunken bewilderment on this obsession, and has gone so far as to take lovers from all ends of the earth, the more exotic the better; it has whiled away the hours in disavowal of France's strengths, its virtues, its breath, its scent; but it has returned to it again and again as the one woman it cannot deny. France has much of what we have come to admire about Northern Europe – science, philosophy, aestheticism, a precise sense of justice, and a taste for danger tempered with a greater taste for truth. If Germany is indeed the epicenter of all modern thought and disciplines, France is a muse lingering astride the battlements, a waifish reminder of a life less structured or, I should say, less ordinarily structured. It is still remarkable that France, awash in hedonism, art, and beauty, is still a Catholic country that has no qualms about praising something greater that it cannot understand. The average Frenchman may no longer be a churchgoer, but a sense of order – greater order – allows him to live his life with the knowledge that it is not all in vain (Russians adhere to a similar philosophy, which would explain the long and fertile relationship that intellectuals from those countries have enjoyed). Perhaps a better description of the feeling one gets patrolling the streets of Paris or Lyon or Marseilles is one of cultural gentility, of a confidence wrought through centuries of apprenticeship and mastery, a knowledge of the world based on principles, beliefs, and institutions. And for all of France's history and achievement, this feeling is refreshing. It is refreshing because our world today is still being assaulted by nihilists in the guise of cultural theoreticians who wish to posit relativism, contradiction, taboo, and irony as the lonely breakwaters in an ocean of nothingness and insignificance. Yet if these same theoretical men were to descend the ghat to the water they hope will flood everything civilized, proper, and beatific, they will espy in this blueness only their own loathsome specters. France, a resting place of many of these dullards, will always be the beacon of culture amidst the pagan hordes. And the songs it will sing in joyous abandon may very well resemble the soundtrack to this recent film.    

The story of Édith Piaf, née Gassion (Marion Cotillard) has the familiar ring of tragedy. Born in an immigrant-laden district of Paris to parents with Italian and Algerian blood, Gassion struggled repeatedly against hunger, destitution, and lack of respect – the plague of the poor – only to struggle later in life with alcoholism, drug abuse, embezzlement, and exhaustion – the plague of the wealthy. Along the way she would meet the usual passel of pimps, criminals, prostitutes, and other underworld surlies; some of her most tender moments are shared with a woman of ill repute named Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner) in the brothel run by her grandmother, a very convenient place for her father to abandon her. Once he finally returns and takes her away kicking and screaming (how a child can emerge with a semblance of security from such a setup is beyond conventional mores to guess) the waif Gassion (la môme of the original French title) has been sufficiently exposed to violence, cruelty, and lives without the possibility of change and improvement to know that she may not have much time on this earth and she'd best make good use of it. 

As such, and at the behest of her father, a professional contortionist, Gassion begins to sing. She drifts away from family (her mother, whose alcoholism would be passed on to her daughter, makes a brief and jarring appearance) and into circles of people who care about her even less but are enamored with her potential. In time and for stage purposes, she is dubbed "Piaf," "sparrow" in the local argot and representative of her diminutive size and powerful voice. There is the usual assortment of backstabbings, blowups, organized criminals, and one passionate affair with the polar opposite of Piaf – a famous boxer who was world champion until he lost to this American prizefighter and subject of another well-known film. The last years slip by in a wicked haze of ill-advised cocktails, iller health, and failed concerts, none of which did much to diminish her fame in the eyes of the general public – the sign of a true icon. When Piaf cannot perform, there are always her records, passed around like some inexorable drug, and the masses stay satisfied. When she dies and is denied Catholic rites for, among other things, having an affair with a married man, thousands gather at this famous cemetery to hum her songs until their notes turn to tears.

I have not detailed many of the film's twists and turns because they are all predictable yet, to the best of our knowledge, quite accurate. Given filmmakers' tendencies to romanticize and re-imagine their subjects' existence, one shudders to think of the misery and suffering that Piaf actually endured in her brief years, addled as she was by both fame and the contents of its barroom. That said, the real reason to see the film, apart from the music that may or may not have been part of your youth (it was certainly part of mine), is Cotillard. Thanks to skill, a constellation of genetic similarities, and clever cinematography, she transforms her very pretty self into the miniature cannonball that was Piaf with nary a seam or thread showing. The performance is extraordinary and utterly unexpected by us ignorant cinéastes who had only seen her work in some rather mediocre French films – the less said about them the better – and this adaptation of a book about southern France, its vineyards, and what can happen to people who actually take time to smell the roses. That's why "life through rose-colored glasses" (the English title and trademark song by Piaf) had as little to do with Piaf's life as the sentimental sweetness of her tunes has to do with many facets of our modern existence. But for a while, and perhaps longer, we can be convinced otherwise. There's nothing inherently wrong with that.

Tuesday
Jan312017

Akhmatova, "Ведь где-то есть простая жизнь и свет"

A work ("A simple world and life do wait") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

A simple world and life do wait,  
Transparent, warm and joy-filled land ...              
The evening cloaks the soft debate        
Of fences, neighbors, girlish fate,                        
As gentle bees their hum expand.               

So hard and solemn are our days,         
The bitter moments worshipped rites;    
When suddenly a reckless gale            
Rips through our words before their flight – 

Yet never do we dream of more       
Than plush cement of woe and fame,
The bluest ice, wide river shores,    
The dark and sunless gardens torn,
The Muse's voice, though faint, untamed. 

Saturday
Jan282017

Prefaces to The Flowers of Evil

Four introductions to this magnificent collection of poems. You can read the original here

I. PREFACE

France is passing through a phase of vulgarity. Paris, center and appeal of universal stupidity. In spite of Molière and Béranger, we would never have believed France to be marching on the path of progress. Questions of art, terra incognita. Great men are fools.

My book could have done some good; I’m not grieved by this possibility. It could have been harmful; this does not fill me with joy.

The aim of poetry. This book was not made for my wives, my daughters, or my sisters.

All the crimes I have recounted have been imputed to me. The base entertainment of hate and contempt. The elegiacs are blackguards. And the word became flesh. For the poet is of no faction. Otherwise, he would be a simple mortal.

The Devil. Original sin. Good man. You may be the Tyrant’s favorite if you so wish. It is more difficult to love God than to believe in Him; on the other hand, it is more difficult for people of this century to believe in the Devil than to love him. Everyone makes use of him and no one thinks him real. The sublime subtlety of that Devil.

A soul of my choosing. The decor. Hence novelty. An epigraph. Barbey D’Aurevilly. The Renaissance. Gérard de Nerval. We are all hanged or hangable.

I had incorporated some garbage to please the journalists. They turned out to be a bunch of ingrates.

 

II. PREFACE TO THE FLOWERS

It is not for my wives, my daughters, or my sisters that this book was written; nor for the wives, daughters, or sisters of my neighbor. I will leave this analysis to those who mistake good actions for beautiful language.

I know well that the lover fascinated by a rich, beautiful style exposes his body to the hate of the masses. But no human respect, no false prudishness, no coalition, no universal suffrage will restrain me from speaking the incomparable dialect of this century, nor from confounding ink with virtue.

Since time immemorial the best poets have shared the most flowered spaces of the poetic realm. To me it seemed pleasing, and more agreeable than difficult, to extract the beauty of Evil. This book, fundamentally useless and absolutely innocent, was made with no other goal than to provide me with some light entertainment and indulge my taste for obstacles.

Some have told me that poetry can do wrong; this does not fill me with joy. Others  good souls all of them  that it may do good; and I’m not grieved by this possibility. The fear of some and the hope of others surprised me in equal measure, and did nothing but prove yet again that this century has unlearned the classical concepts of literature.

Despite the assistance provided by some celebrated oafs to man’s innate predilection for humbug, I would never have thought it possible that our country could march on the path of progress with such speed. This world of ours has acquired a thick film of vulgarity that imbues a spiritual man with all the violence of passion. But happy are the shells which the poison has not and cannot enter.

Initially I had the intention of answering several critics and explaining at the same time some very simple questions totally obscured by modernity’s glare. What is poetry? What is its aim? What is the distinction between the Beautiful and the Good? What could be the Beautiful in Evil? I could have averred that rhythm and rhyme fulfill man’s immortal need for monotony, symmetry, and surprise. I could have spoken at length on the adaptation of style to the subject, of the vanity and danger of inspiration, and so forth and so on. But I suffered from the imprudence of reading this morning several papers. Suddenly an indolence not unlike the weight of twenty atmospheres came over me, and my actions ceased in the face of the horrific inutility of explaining anything to anyone. Those who knew me were able to guess why. And for those who cannot or do not want to understand, any explanations would accumulate in vain into a heap of misconceptions.

III.

How can an artist, through a sustained series of efforts, attain originality commensurate with his talent?

How can poetry become music through prosody whose roots dig farther into the human soul than any classical theory might claim?

How does French poetry possess a little–known and mysterious system of prosody like that of Latin or English?

Why are all poets ignorant of how words rightly incorporate rhyme unable to express any ideas?

How is it that poetry (in this way akin to music and mathematics) can imitate a horizontal line, a straight line ascending, or a descending straight line? How can it rise in steep path to the sky without shortness of breath, or fall perpendicularly towards hell with the velocity of all gravity? How can it follow a spiral, trace a parabola, or the zigzag of superimposed angles?

How does poetry relate to the art of painting, of cooking, of cosmetics by expressing every sensation of sweetness or bitterness, of beatitude or horror by the coupling of a certain noun with a certain adjective, analogue, or opposite?

How is it that every man, reliant on my principles and availing himself of the knowledge which I plan to teach him in twenty lessons, can compose a tragedy no more lustily booed than any other or structure a poem of sufficient length to be as dull and tedious as all other epic poems?

Quite a task, rising up against all this divine insensitivity! More so owing to the fact that I, despite numerous laudable attempts, could not resist the desire to please my contemporaries, as shown in various places highlighted like rouge, certain base flatteries addressed to her, Democracy, and even some other twaddle excusing the despondency of my subject matter. But my dearest gentlemen of the press were ungrateful of such caresses, and I omitted in this new edition the traces of this ingratitude as much as could be possible.

To verify once more the excellence of my method, I have suggested devoting myself in the future to a celebration of the joys of the dedication and intoxication of military glory, even if they are not known to me.

Notes on my plagiary: Thomas Gray; Edgar Allan Poe (2 passages); Longfellow (2 passages); Statius; Virgil (the whole part of Andromache); Aeschylus; Victor Hugo.

IV. PROJECT ON A PREFACE FOR THE FLOWERS OF EVIL
(perhaps to be incorporated with previous notes)

If there is some glory in not being understood or in being understood just a little, I can say unboastfully that with this slender tome I have obtained and deserved such fame in one fell swoop. Offered numerous times to a series of publishers, all of whom shoved it away in horror; harassed and mutilated, in 1857, following a rather bizarre misunderstanding, slowly rejuvenated, sharpened, and strengthened in the course of many years of silence; having disappeared yet again owing to my insouciance, this discordant product of the Muse of the last days, revived again by a few new violent strokes, dares today to confront the sun a third time with its inanity.

This is not any fault of mine. The person to blame is the publisher insisting that he thought himself strong enough to brave the public’s distaste. “This book will remain forever like a blemish on your life,” one of my friends, an important poet, said to me from the very beginning. As it were, all my misadventures up to that point had affirmed the correctness of his observation. But I possess one of those happy personalities which derive a certain pleasure from hate, and which are glorified in their contempt. My taste so wickedly bent towards stupidity coerced me into finding particular pleasure in the travesties of calumny. As chaste as a sheet of white paper, as sober as water, as devoted to devotion as a communicant, as inoffensive as a victim, I do not mind passing for a debauched drunk, an impious lout, or an assassin.

My publisher continues to pretend that I, like he, would gain some benefit from explaining why and how I created this book, what my means and ends were, and from detailing my design and method. A critical work in that vein would surely amuse those minds enamored with profound rhetoric. For those dear souls I will write something later, perhaps, and have it printed in about ten copies. But, upon further scrutiny, doesn’t this all seem superfluous and wasteful since some will know or guess its essence and others will never understand it? I am too afraid of ridicule to insufflate to the masses the intelligence of a work of art. And I fear that I too greatly accommodated those Utopians who want by some immediate and magical decree to render all Frenchmen rich and virtuous.

And then, my most important reason, that most important reason of all: such acts bore and displease me. Should one then lead the rabble into the dresser’s and decorator’s studio, or the actor’s box? Should one reveal the tricks and levers of our gadgetry to the crowd so impassioned today and so indifferent tomorrow? Should one explain to them the edits and daubs and the variants improvised at rehearsals, or to what extent sincerity and instinct combine under the banner of indispensable charlatanism? Should they know of all the wrecks, makeup, pulleys, chains, regrets, and smears  in short, all the horrors that compose the sanctuary of art?

Besides, I’m not in the mood for all this today. I have no desire to demonstrate, surprise, amuse, or persuade. I have my nerves and my erratic whims. My goal is absolute rest and endless night. Bard of the mad pleasures of wine and opium, I thirst for nothing but a liqueur unknown on earth which even the celestial pharmacy could not provide me. A liqueur containing neither vitality, nor death, nor excitation, nor nothingness. To know nothing, to teach nothing, to want nothing, to sense nothing, to sleep, and then sleep more, this is today my one and only pledge. An infamous and disgusting pledge, but a sincere one.

Nevertheless, as superior taste instructs us not to be afraid of contradicting ourselves a bit, I have gathered at the end of this abominable book testimonies of sympathy on the part of certain men whom I value most. In this way, the impartial reader may see that I am not absolutely deserving of excommunication and that, having learned to make myself loved by some, my heart, although I no longer know on what printed cloth, does not perhaps have the “horrific ugliness of my face.”

Finally, by unmatched generosity, whereby my dear critics ...

As ignorance, more and more so ...

I myself denounce all imitations ...

Saturday
Jan212017

Beneficence

I only know how to sculpt and how to love. This was not enough for you.

It is exceedingly rare that I will recommend a literary work as wholeheartedly as this one, which, while a survey of fifty years of genius and subject to many rewrites, is staggering in its precision and scope. There is simply no world like Nabokov’s. No prose writer of the twentieth century is so succulently correct about nostalgia, about love, about memory. And his images are repeated and enhanced over time: a violet bulb expands into a lilac curtain; the distant flutter of a cramoisy wing becomes the softest hair on the softest of cheeks. His familiarity with all levels and outlines of nature’s greatness makes his emotional insights far more rewarding than the sloppy generalizations of existentialists who, crippled by their ignorance of the natural world, can only describe their solipsistic (or perhaps "slop-sistic") feelings. So when Nabokov turns his attention to a single person and that person’s private tragedies, we sense a cosmic importance, as in this magnificent story.

Our narrator, a sculptor in Berlin, has spent the whole night without the woman he loves. She has betrayed him with another body, but it seems as if she has been betraying him all along. With his only weapons, “shards of plaster of Paris” and “congealed plasticine,” he tries to combine her swathed image with the unique blue of Berlin’s evening skies (which I, too, once worshiped) and create a refuge from the loneliness of this world. He fails, and awakes the next morning, nervously giggly, filthy, forlorn. He thinks, as all artists do every day, of redemption:

My love for you was the throbbing, welling warmth of tears. That is exactly how I imagined paradise: silence and tears, and the warm silk of your knees. This you could not comprehend.

They are to meet by the symbol of Berlin itself, the same monument that would split the city in halves for forty-four bitter years. The crowd does not share his happiness or anticipation. So many bureaucrats speed on by, all masked by “weary, predatory faces,” all with the same “turbid nausea” in their eyes. But he is free. He can create and shape the world as he sees fit. By a guardhouse window he finds a stand with postcards, maps, photos for hasty tourists. Before all this, on a stool that is too tall for her, sits “a brown little old woman, short-legged, plump, with a round speckled face.” She is waiting just like he is waiting. Except that she is waiting for the whole world and he for only one person, which might mean that she is actually the lonelier, the more desperate of the two.

They wait in tandem; an hour passes. A procession of slow and dulled people, many people, attracted like wild animals to the gaudy colors, approaches the stand but cannot bring themselves to buy. The autumn weather becomes more typically Berliner, spouting and pushing its puny citizens about like the insects we mock and swat with few scruples. Of what did this old woman dream? Of a “rich foreigner … who would buy all her wares, and overpay, and order more, many more picture postcards and guidebooks of all kinds.” This is, we understand, her paradise, relief from subsistence, from the miserable task of depending on the megrims of uncaring strangers. A soldier finally does approach, but the old woman is already in the midst of satisfying her need for happiness in a cup of coffee with milk which she drinks “with such utter, profound, concentrated relish” that our narrator stops thinking about his love. He thinks instead about how much he wants that soldier to buy everything he can from that old woman, how only in that exchange of favors can the most basic necessities of life be procured. And then he thinks:

Here I became aware of the world’s tenderness, the profound beneficence of all that surrounded me, the blissful bond between me and all of creation, and I realized that the joy I had sought in you was not only secreted within you, but breathed around me everywhere, in the speeding street sounds, in the hem of a comically lifted skirt, in the metallic yet tender drone of the wind, in the autumn clouds bloated with rain. I realized that the world does not represent a struggle at all, or a predaceous sequence of chance events, but shimmering bliss, beneficent trepidation, a gift bestowed upon us and unappreciated.

It is here that another couple arrives to the newsstand that reminds our narrator not a little bit of himself and his faithless siren. He smiles upon his gift and does something we could not possibly expect, but which is the most laudable of human actions. And the most laudable of human actions is our gift, especially when its ambit includes us as well.

Monday
Jan162017

The Coup

We Africans like de Gaulle.  He reminds us of the giraffe, of the gods that no longer visit us.

                                                                                                                    Félix Ellelloû

 

Many splendid books have come from the pen of this American writer (who died eight years ago this month), none finer than this monograph on the fictional African kingdom of Kush. The Kush of Félix Ellelloû, our cultured and self-serving narrator, is certainly fictional, although Kush has a real history in the Upper Nile region, a fact which most readers forty years ago would not have bothered to verify (perhaps no better are the readers of today, who would limit their curiosity to the trappings of a single intergalactic search engine). And Ellelloû, “short, prim, and black … produced, in 1933, of the rape of Salu woman by a Nubian raider,” has an almost mystical sense of his value to us and the annals of great men and their evil deeds. His tale is well-known to students of literature: that of the talented, educated, artistic, and yes, at times, brilliant mind who just so happens to have his all his iron fingers in the political cake. Philosopher-kings are what we used to call these individuals (we moved on at some point to the hilariously oxymoronic “enlightened despots”). But by now we have witnessed and shuddered at the fall of so many first-rate minds to the rosy couplets of their own Machiavellian romanticism that we yearn for the simple man whom money and power could never change; indeed, one wonders whether a truly first-rate mind would bother with such stupidities. Then we remember endless legends of great men and women wanting more and, in their avarice, losing their souls. But let us return to our half-Nubian, half-Salu.

The Coup does not boast nor need a discernible plot. It is the memoirs of a great man, now no longer great (usually the only time such individuals can stop to reflect). One might ask whether a reader might expect a violent overthrow of a government in these pages, and the response would simply redirect the reader to the word "memoirs." The only people who write about coups are victims or failed rebels; the results of successful coups are included in the newly amended constitution. Our man in Kush has plans and musings, which usually biomagnify as he meanders the large halls of his few superiors. In addition to the school-mandated French and Arabic and a smattering of other languages for cosmopolitan effect, Ellelloû is distinguished by his mastery of English, acquired stateside at, in no small irony for the era, a certain McCarthy College “deep in the reign of Dwight Eisenhower.” He is at his ministerial best when left to consider in smiling disdain the details of simpler existences. He walks outside and beholds “the clay of the square … accepting yet another day’s merciless brilliance”; the sand around him and one of his mistresses “was strange, black and white like salt and pepper, and at moments seemed an immense print of page too tiny to read”; and a Kush drugstore becomes:

Like a witch’s hut of murky oddments hurled to infinity by omnipresent mirrors, even mirrors overhead, circular suspended convex mirrors which foreshortened into dwarves the slack-faced toubab sons and daughters as they shuffled along these artificially cooled aisles like drugged worshipers selecting a pious trinket or potion from the garish variety of aids to self-worship.

He is a proud Muslim and husband to four wives. He has served in the army and attained the rank of Colonel, a title which seems to merge into his surname. He cavorts with an array of operatives, agents, visitors, and government officials with the hackneyed sarcasm of the majority of raconteurs forced to chat with lesser lights and surprised when, on occasion, one of these dim bulbs actually says something worth remembering. He thinks constantly and aloud about God and hopes the favor is returned. By his own humble estimation, he has much in common with his Creator:

What can be purer than non-existence? What more soothing and scourging? Allah’s option is to exist or not; mine, to worship or not. No fervor overtops that which arises from contact with the Absolute, though the contact be all one way. The wall of pale-blue tiles echoed the repose and equilibrium within me, a silence never heard in the lands of doubt and mockery.

An option is one way of looking at it. And these lands of doubt and mockery? We only hear about them when Ellelloû needs a strawman for his Marxist rhetoric, which is scattershot and insincere, and somehow not in conflict with his faith.

For all his faults, Ellelloû (likely patterned after this leader, Updike's exact coeval on a six-month delay) has more than glorious talent wasted on totalitarian aims. He can also triage any group of frauds, con artists, and aspiring thinkers into the necessary pigeonholes. One such figure is his professor at the Government department of McCarthy College, Frederic Craven:

In that sinister way of American intellectual men, he had grown handsomer with age, his boyishly gaunt figure filling out without ceasing to be essentially youthful; kept tendony by tennis and tan by sailing through September on the cerulean, polluted surface of Lake Timmebago, he had created in time a kind of vertical harem of undergraduate mistresses, whom graduation disposed of without his even having to provide a dismissive dowry.

Small, prim, dark Ellelloû finds his counterpart across the seas, a man whose teaching load includes “U.S. vs. USSR: Two Wayward Children of the Enlightenment,” a man who insists on addressing Ellelloû as “Hakim Félix” as if he were a Russian boyar. Why then are we not surprised that it is Ellelloû, not his instructor, who seems to be the congenial man of letters we trust with our imaginations? “I hope,” says the young African, “you will forward my parting regards to Mrs. Craven,” to which Updike rejoins one of the finest lines in English literature. There is also the matter of that titular putsch. But I think you know how that will end.