Thursday, April 21, 2011

"The Troubled Man" by Henning Mankell

It seems the spy business hasn't closed down with the end of the Cold War.  In Mankell's final Wallander novel, the aging detective solves his last case before  sliding into early-onset dementia.  The plot moves along at a lively pace and involves Wallander's daughter Linda, also a police officer.  Actually, it is her partner's parents who are the nexus of the plot, which involves spy networks dating back decades.  But interesting as the action of the novel is, it is Wallander's own state of being that most concerns this reader.  Kurt is an old 60, who fears the approach of old age and death.  He is not reconciled with any of the important people in his life, except for his daughter, and their relationship remains prickly.  If there is anything heroic about him, it is his persistence.  Even when he feels unwell and is supposedly on vacation, he travels wherever the case leads him and follows it to its bloody conclusion. 

We like our heroes to be human in this day and age.  The braggadocio of an Achilles or a Hector, when seen in a contemporary light, is more often taken as a sign of mental disorder.  Kurt Wallander is, as we say, married to his job, but he lacks confidence and always wonders if he's missing something.  He has few friends, drinks too much, lives in an isolated farmhouse, and is closest to his dog Jussi.  I picture his world in shades of grey, with a cold rain on a bad day.  The melancholy atmosphere suits the story and the people in it, yet it is not oppressive.  Perhaps it's knowing that the world I live in is more brightly colored than Kurt's that allows me to contemplate his bleak canvas with equanimity.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

It May Not Be the Way You Think It Was

Yesterday I read an essay by Nicholson Baker (in Harper's) wherein he explains why he is a pacifist.  His argument is not one I had heard before.  He talks about the "good war" that obviously has to be fought and points to World War II as America's default good war.  We HAD to fight Hitler, didn't we?  Neville Chamberlain was wrong, wasn't he?  Civilization itself was at stake.  Or maybe not.

In an argument that is carefully constructed and amply supported by data, Baker blames the wholesale massacre of European Jews at least partly on America's war policy.  Hitler virtually held the Jewish population hostage in order to keep America out of the war.  Once we entered the field of battle, he immediately ordered mass extermination.  The Jews no longer had any value.  This may sound far-fetched, but Baker's argument makes sense.  The most important thing, he says, is the preservation of life.  Nothing else compares to that.  The desire for revenge, while understandable, leads only to more death.  Rather than bombing Dresden, America and the Jews would have been better served by getting as many Jews out of Germany as possible, but as we all remember, Jews weren't always welcome, even in the United States, and boatloads of Jews were turned away from our ports.  Could we have "bought" the Jews through trade agreements or at least have shepherded them to safety by stalling for time?  Hitler had Parkinson's disease.  Might we simply have waited for him to die, maneuvering furiously behind the scenes to support the resistance?  As we have seen time and again, when the leader of a cult dies, the cult dissolves. 

In recent days I have also read about Russians who still consider Stalin one of the four greatest Soviet heroes and Chinese who believe Americans have never heard of Marx, and I wonder if in this information age we inhabit we aren't ironically as misinformed and misguided as those hapless Russians.  We congratulate ourselves on our free press, our open access to information, our ability to speak truth to power, yet everywhere I look I see evidence of misdirection and obfuscation.  More than ever, I appreciate Pope's observation that "a little learning is a dangerous thing."  We are so awash in "news" that headlines substitute for history.  The demands of contemporary life eliminate time for serious reflection, and our educational system is obsessed with teaching skills and measuring outcomes.  Our children are too often as busy as we are, as distracted by entertaining glitter, as likely to avoid boredom by the easiest means.  It is a facile and perhaps gratuitous comparison, but like the Japanese we are hit by a tsunami--a tsunami of work, consumption, and an unconsidered race for material success. 

If this were not so, why then did so many of our brightest young minds choose Wall Street and wealth rather than service to the public good?  Education is supposed to raise all boats, but this lie is borne out every time the gap between the very rich and the struggling majority widens.  Difference of opinion presents itself as self-righteousness, and changing one's mind in response to circumstances or new information is seen as lack of character.  Of course, changing one's words to fit the moment is just as often a cynical ploy to be on the popular side du jour.  Reasoned argument, reliance on evidence, the ability to be skeptical about even one's own cherished beliefs are so far removed from our public discourse as to be practically invisible.  I may be my own best example.  I have never questioned the necessity of our entrance into World War II.  I honor those who sacrificed and endured and were brave.  But yesterday I questioned for the first time the interpretation of the war that I have been taught since the cradle.  I was reminded that the most important thing is life itself and that our ways of protecting it too often fall short.  I was reminded that an open mind is essential to mental freedom.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Loveliness of a Spring Evening

I wish I could capture in words the evanescent beauty of this spring evening.  The air is refreshed by a light rain, the light is muted, and the white wisteria and dogwood glow in the muted air.  Everything is saturated with green, and the wisteria's scent hovers above the uncut grass.   A mourning dove coos somewhere in the distance, reminding me of my grandmother's house, where as a child I listened to the doves' mournful cries and felt drawn to distant, unknown destinations.  Is it time or distance I wish to step into?  The most beautiful things are those glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, gone before grasped, lost but remembered.  Is this what age brings in its wake: the perception of all those transcendent moments that could not be held, could not endure?  Is there an aged memory that gathers up the white petals that have fallen like a benediction?  The light fades, the white blooms retreat into dark shadows, where they wait for eternity.

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Headlong" a novel by Michael Frayn

If the narrator of Michael Frayn's "Headlong" has a name, I can't remember it, so I'll just call him Michael.  Poor Michael can't catch a break, but despite his machinations and rationalizations he's nevertheless a sympathetic character who is no more venal that most of us and probably better in some ways.  Michael is a man of impulse.  Usually his instincts are spot on, but when he spies what he believes to be a lost Bruegel at a neighbor's house, his desire for the painting overwhelms his scruples, his common sense, and even his love for his wife and child.

Kate, Michael's wife and mother of baby Tilda, is an iconographer who is writing the standard reference work on comparative Christian iconography.  Michael, a philosopher, is supposed to be working on his book on nominalism, but his interest in art history shoves everything else off the stage once he spots that Breugel.  Tony Churt, a shambolic aristocrat with no money, lives in his great house with wife Laura and a pack of dogs that disrupt nearly everything.  He wants to sell some of his paintings off the books in order to hold onto his house and estate; Michael wants to buy the Breugel without letting Tony know just how much it's worth.  Complications ensue.

I didn't know much about Breugel beyond some vague images in my head and the wonderful poem by Auden.  Like Icarus, Michael falls headlong into near-disaster but manages to avoid Icarus' watery fate.  As a former academic, I know I should relish research, but the truth is I don't much enjoy doing it.  I do appreciate it when someone else takes the trouble however, and this novel is full of accounts of Breugel's life.  In fact, it takes the reader through the stages of Michael's search for information on Bruegel and his work, making it seem like a detective's quest for the truth.  As Michael digs deeper and deeper in one library after another, we share his mounting excitement with each new discovery.  As the pieces of the puzzle emerge, we too are convinced that Michael's find is worth millions.  Of course, this painting is a fantasy, but the historical account of Breugel and the terrible conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants in the Netherlands in the 16th c. is real enough and stands in marked contrast to the comic tone of Michael's bumbling efforts to deceive his neighbor, elicit the help of both his wife and Tony's, and beat out another art historian who is also on the chase. 

The last novel I read also involved art.  If you read my previous blog, you know what a sad tale it tells.  Frayn's novel is a complete turnaround, more reminiscent of "Lucky Jim" than "La Boheme."  In a word, it is delightful.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"What I Loved" a novel by Siri Hustvedt

I love novels about the New York City art scene.  I lived in New York in the late 'sixties with my then-husband, who was an artist hoping to find a gallery to show his work and to become the next young painter for the critics to watch.  That it didn't work out that way is no surprise; there were reputedly 40,000 artists living in New York at the time, all hoping for that big break that would launch them into the big time--a retrospective at the Whitney, say.

It was a turbulent time, as anyone who was sentient in those days can well remember.  The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy sent shock waves that threatened to ignite the city.  The Democratic National Convention in Chicago galvanized the nation.  Abstract Expressionism duked it out with Pop Art and Minimalism, and Mark Rothko committed suicide.  I was just out of college in the mid-west and felt I had somehow stumbled into the nexus of history.  There was conflict in the air--the Viet Nam war raged, and the Civil Rights Movement moved the nation in a new direction--but there was optimism too.  In New York anything could happen.  I was certain that living anywhere else would be unbearably dull.

Long story short: I discovered the venality of the art world, the trading of sex for a good review in Art Forum, the sycophants who circled the celebrities like pilot fish around a shark, the incredible snobbery.  For almost two years I lived on my nerves in a state of jacked up energy; it was like taking a roller-coaster ride every time I walked out my door.  It was in New York that I first began to have migraines.  So when I read a novel set in the New York art world, I feel as if, in a sense, I am going not home but to the scene where I spent the most surreal years of my life.  I am fascinated by it and very grateful to have left it far behind.

Siri Hustvedt, who is married to the novelist Paul Auster, has done her research, that's for sure.  Her depiction of the New York art scene in the mid-seventies rings true, from loft-living in SoHo to the gallery scene, to artists' quest for the New, and the sometimes outrageous behavior, including drug use,  that was part of that world.  The main characters are two couples, who are close friends, and their two sons, who are the same age: Matthew and Mark.  Bill, an artist, is Mark's father, who is quickly in a second marriage, giving Mark a step-mother with an important role.  The narrator, Leo, teaches art history at Columbia and is Matthew's father.  Both wives write books.  These parallel families, who live in the same building and take family vacations together, are embedded in each others' lives, and each has a story worth telling.  But the two characters who are the real engine of the plot are the two boys.  One dies in an accident when he is eleven; the other is a sociopath.

With just this to go on, you can tell this is a novel with a plot.  Aristotle said Action is Character, and that is certainly true here.  Matt dies, then Bill dies suddenly some years later, leaving Leo and Violet, Bill's widow, to come to terms with these violent disruptions in their lives.  Leo's wife Erica leaves him to teach at Berkeley, where she mourns alone.  The cast of main characters thus narrows down to three: Leo, Violet, and Mark.  It is at this point that things turn very dark indeed. 

I love a novel with Plot, and "What I Loved" supplies that in plenty.  The second half of the book intensifies as Mark's behavior spins out of control.  He is a classic case.  Even in high school, he is good-looking, smart, and utterly charming.  His sincerity is so profound that his apologies and excuses are always accepted.  He always gets the benefit of the doubt and a second chance, even as he abuses the trust of the people who love him most.  He starts a fire on the roof, or did he?  He says he was trying to stop some other boys from burning some cardboard.  Matthew loses his beloved Swiss knife, and Mark, searching high and low for it, expresses his sympathy as though the loss were his own.  The truth about the missing knife emerges later. 

Art and mental illness are two foci of Hustvedt's novel, and her descriptions of both are detailed and informed.  I can't think of another book that so effectively shows the sociopathic personality.  Mark's lack of empathy is chilling; he in fact ruins the lives of everyone else in the book.  Not even love is enough to stop the damage.  In some ways this novel is a painful read.  Matthew's death and its aftermath will break your heart.  When Leo loses his sight at the end, you wonder what else could possibly go wrong.  There is no happy ending, but out of the wreckage comes endurance.  That itself is no small victory; nothing else is possible.