Monday, September 27, 2010

We can figure this out

Damn, he thinks, what a firetrap this place is. They must have paid somebody off for sure to let this club open at all, a flight of narrow iron stairs below street level with a crowded restaurant above. He's sitting in a corridor offstage, leaning his back against a stack of wooden crates full of empty, sour-smelling bottles of beer, waiting to go on, trying to keep his feet and his guitar case out of the way of the waitresses who have to step past him on their way back and forth from the kitchen. He's keeping half an eye on the emergency exit at the end of the hall, wondering if he could make it out in time if a pot on the stove suddenly went up in flames. The floor, which isn't level to begin with, is covered in some kind of sticky black rubberized mat, specked with cigarette ash and smears of food and beer and ripped to shreds in a couple of places, so the waitresses have to step carefully to avoid tripping as they pass by heaving trays. He comforts himself with the thought that if he got to his feet quickly at least he'd have one good shot at the door before the panicked crowd tried to rush through to safety.

The act he opened for is back for the last night of a three-night stand. He knows them by now, a little; they gave him a nice shout-out when he finished his set, an obligatory courtesy for musicians to be sure but appreciated all the same, better than he deserved, really, but what the heck. They're a real band, with tour support from an actual label and reviews in the Village Voice, not just some guy with a few songs and a crap guitar with pickups. They have cassettes laid out on the table by the door, they've been driving up and down the east coast for two months in a van parked around the corner. Right now they've paused for a minute, they're adjusting mics and retuning while the leader banters with the crowd a bit to gain time. He'll go back on later, to give them a break, then he'll hang around and just listen for a while, maybe make it home by one. They'll slide him a beer or two on the house at the bar, and if the guy who owns the club is in a good mood he'll slip him a couple of bills on the way out, a little grocery money for the week ahead, better than nothing.

One of the waitresses comes by and gives him a quick smile as he catches her eye. She's pretty -- he thinks she must be a student, about his age, maybe a year or two less -- short dark hair, dark eyes, she's got a trace of an accent, maybe, like she's from Eastern Europe but maybe not, he hasn't really heard her say that much but she seems friendly enough. She's been working there for a few weeks; he heard them call her name once -- Laura or Lori or maybe it was Lauren, he's not sure. He wonders if she's got a boyfriend, and decides she probably does. He thinks maybe he ought to hang around a bit later and start a conversation, nothing to lose, right?, but on the other hand lurking around a club in the small hours when nobody gives a damn that you're there can get old pretty fast and a good night's sleep would do him good, though it'll be lucky if he can fall asleep at all with the sound of the band still ringing in his brain.

They're starting up now, the music reverberating through the concrete wall between him and the stage. What they're doing is so simple, why can't I do it?, he wonders. It's just one guitar lick, repeated hypnotically for a few bars, then the singer jumps in with some lyrics that are rudimentary but at the same time dead-on perfect. A verse or two, no solos, no real chorus even, just a one-line refrain, then it circles back to the same lick, the percussion pounds and the singer chants

We can figure this out
We can figure this out

but he can't figure it out, no matter how he tries. It isn't craft, exactly, though clearly these guys are pros; he doesn't know where it comes from. You either have it or you don't and he knows he doesn't, won't ever have it, not that he doesn't maybe have something of his own, some little fleck of a gift maybe, but still, not this, this he doesn't have and he never will. He'll have to find something else -- but he has no idea what that something else will be or how to find it. Anyhow he's definitely not going to find it tonight. The band on the other side of the wall is playing a song in the real world, but somehow where he is, just a few feet away, is someplace else entirely, though he's not sure exactly where it is or even if it's a real place at all.

The song throbs to a close. The dark-eyed girl steps in from the crowd. She stands in the opening for a minute and looks back inside, wiping the sweat off her hands on her apron, peering through the cigarette haze and the dust and the glare of the spotlights. Bottles are clinking around the tables but everyone's set for the moment, nobody tries to catch her eye, they're clapping and laughing and talking loudly as the guitarist and the bass player fuss with the tuning yet again. A couple more songs and he'll unpack his own instrument and step outside, away from the noise, to tune it up the best he can. As he's thinking to himself that probably nobody will notice in any case even if he's not in tune he notices that the girl is standing next to him, and when he looks up she smiles and leans down in her white blouse and asks him if he wants a beer and he says sure, that'd be great, thanks.

(Apologies to the Vulgar Boatmen.)

Monday, September 20, 2010


Her father was an immigrant from Austria and never shook his accent, though he would never speak or read German again from the day he set foot in Iowa. Her mother's people had been in the country longer, moving further west every other generation or so, until finally they crossed the Mississippi and stayed put. There wasn't much to the town except farms, but her father was no tiller of the soil. He opens a general store, starts a newspaper (which fails after a year), then a car dealership (which thrives), but he dies at forty and the depression wipes almost all of it away.

When she is twenty, in a moment of weakness, she allows a man in his thirties to love her. By the time her son is born he has gone elsewhere, never to return; as the years go by she decides that his departure, in sparing her the prospect of marrying him, is the best thing that ever happened to her. After two long years of cold stares from neighbors and uneasy silences from her family she packs a suitcase, bundles up the boy, and buys a train ticket to New York City, because she's always liked the pictures of the skyscrapers in the magazines and because it's the farthest place she can think of. Factories are hiring women and she finds a job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard within a week, soldering wires into radios and switches, and putting the boy into day care nearby. Some of her co-workers are the first black people she has ever spoken to, though she never comes to know them socially.

When the war ends and many of the women leave the factory she moves instead into a secretarial position. She's good at her job and is well-liked; her boss is meticulous and hard-driving but respects her conscientiousness and intelligence. On the job she becomes friendly with one of the foreman, an electrical engineer demobbed from the Navy, a wiry, quick-witted man of thirty-five whose wild years are behind him. When he learns she has a child he at first assumes that she's a war widow. She explains the truth but he doesn't mind; he says that everyone is allowed to make one really bad mistake in their lives and that he's made at least that many. After they marry he adopts the boy and two years later they have another son. She stops working for good and they move into a row-house on the edge of the city. It has a little yard in the back and it suits them until the boys start needing more room to roam. They take a drive into the suburbs -- he can afford it now -- but in the middle of the ride she starts to cry, she can't explain it but somehow she feels intimidated, exposed. Instead they find a more comfortable house closer to home.

He works for twenty years and then retires. The Yard is shutting down soon but it's his health, and a two-pack a day nicotine habit, that have let him down. After two heart attacks he never really gets his strength back and a third one, a year later, kills him. Her older son, who is now in the Navy himself, comes back from California and stays a week. The younger boy finishes high school, tries a year at City College, then joins his brother on the West Coast. Both will settle there permanently.

She takes a part-time job as a secretary again -- not because she needs to, just to have something to do -- but her heart isn't in it and she quits after a few months. Not long afterward she puts the house on the market and when it sells moves her things back to Iowa, deciding that the one thing she has missed during all the happy years in the city was the silence. She takes one ride through her old town -- she recognizes some of the names on the mailboxes, but mostly not -- and then rents a small house a safe hour's drive away. In a town where the definition of a stranger is someone who doesn't go to the same church as yourself she remains, to the end, steadfastly unaffiliated. Her one regret is that she knows she won't be buried next to her husband, but she decides he would understand.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


At first sight these selections from the Aventura series ("the Vintage Library of Contemporary World Literature") may just seem like particularly nice examples of 1980s paperback cover designs. They certainly were that -- the designer was Keith Sheridan, with various artists supplying the artwork -- but there's a bit more than that going on here.

These books were published during the waning years of the Cold War, when much of Europe and Latin America languished under one variety or another of tyranny, and six of the seven writers represented here are from countries in which it would have been risky or impossible to write and publish freely at the time they were written. (Timothy Mo, born in British-ruled Hong Kong, is the exception.) These images are not a completely representative sampling -- the Aventura list also included authors from Italy, France, Japan, and elsewhere -- nor were all of the books political in nature, but on the whole the titles reflect the values of the Western intelligentsia at a time when its political position was defined largely in opposition to Communism on the one hand and right-wing military dictatorships on the other. (Another notable example, from a few years earlier, was Mark Strand and Charles Simic's anthology Another Republic: Seventeen European and Latin American Writers.

There are still many places where writers are censored or persecuted for their work or their opinions, but the end of the Cold War has shifted the terrain and on the whole appears to have pushed literature to the sidelines. The day when writers could seem emblematic figures in a global struggle for democracy appears to be over, at least for now. How many times in the last decade has the New York Times Book Review -- or for that matter the New York Review of Books or the Nation -- reviewed a novel by a current political exile?

Most of the Aventura titles were reprints of books that had been published earlier in hardcover. One Day of Life, an exception, was a paperback original. Some of my copies have French flaps and others don't; I suspect this feature was abandoned to cut costs. The Aventura imprint seems to have been allowed to lapse at some point in the '80s. Here's the most complete list of titles I've been able to find:

Vassily Aksyonov, The Island of Crimea
Manlio Argueta, One Day of Life
Thomas Bernhard, Correction
Julio Cortázar, We Love Glenda So Much and A Change of Light
Maria Dermoût, The Ten Thousand Things
José Donoso, A House in the Country
Ariel Dorfman, Widows
Fumiko Enchi, Masks
Shusaku Endo, The Samurai
Jiří Gruša, The Questionnaire
Jamaica Kincaid, At the Bottom of the River
Tadeusz Konwicki, A Minor Apocalypse
Camara Laye, The Guardian of the Word
Earl Lovelace, The Wine of Astonshment
Timothy Mo, Sour Sweet
Elsa Morante, History: A Novel
Goffredo Parise, Solitudes
Manuel Puig, Blood of Requited Love
Darcy Ribeiro, Maíra
Samana Rushdie, Shame
Wole Soyinka, Aké: The Years of Childhood
Michel Tournier, The Four Wise Men

I read and enjoyed five of the books pictured, though the only one I've ever returned to is the Cortázar. I bogged down halfway through Widows (the briefest of the bunch) and I'm not sure I ever really started A Minor Apocalypse.

Update: here are two more cover scans:

Thursday, September 09, 2010

"Manuscripts don't burn"

In 1562 Diego de Landa, a Franciscan monk resident in the Yucatán, gathered together all the Maya codices and images he could locate and burned them, ceremoniously, in a vast auto da fé. According to his own report the act caused the Maya "much affliction," as well it might, since Landa's bonfire betokened not only the irreversible loss of manuscripts whose cultural and historical importance was -- literally -- inestimable but the death knell of a good part of the culture itself.

Landa, a man of considerable determination and formidable intellectual resources, largely achieved his objective. The number of surviving pre-Columbian Maya manuscripts can now be counted on one hand, and whatever was consumed in the fire -- history, religion, folly, or knowledge as it may have been -- is now irretrievably lost. (In a bizarre irony, Landa's own careful notes on the Maya glyphs, rediscovered centuries later, would assist modern scholars in deciphering the Maya writing system.)

Today the burning of books is under discussion once again, but with a difference. The proponent in this case is a small man, not ordinarily worthy of notice, a cartoonish publicity-hound, though he is, sadly, no more than an extreme exemplar of currents of intolerance, ignorance, and anger that swirl around us.

If the Rev. Terry Jones decides in the end to stay his hand, as reports now say he will, then no doubt someone else, eventually, will step into the breach. There is no longer a line today that someone isn't crazy enough to cross, and there's no act so petty and absurd that it can't be captured and instantly disseminated around the world, with consequences that are all too predictable.

"Manuscripts don't burn," Mikhail Bulgakov famously wrote. His statement, baffling on its face, only made sense because the documents he was referring to were stored inside his head, the better to evade the prying eyes of Soviet authorities. The fact is, though, that Korans don't burn. There must be hundreds of millions of paper copies in existence, but in any case the book -- like any number of other human artifacts -- is now virtually infinite, since it can be accessed essentially anywhere, instantly, online. That's why the proposed burning, as even Jones must have known, would have been utterly pointless. You can't kill a book, not any longer. The act would have been strictly symbolic, a deliberate provocation, an affront meant as an opening salvo in a war that would never end or achieve a purpose. But we ourselves, sadly, don't share the immortality of our ideas; in fact in the replication of our unique identities we haven't managed even the revolution of Gutenberg, let alone that of the World Wide Web. Like manuscripts we are irreplaceable, vulnerable to fire, to sanctimonious parsons, and to fools.