Месечни архиви: March 2016

The Hypnotic Clamor of Morocco

Moroccan musicians, 1959
Dust-to-Digital/Library of CongressMoroccan musicians, 1959

In 1931, a twenty-one-year-old American composer in Paris named Paul Bowles visited Morocco at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein. His travel companion was his composition teacher, Aaron Copland. They rented a home in Tangier, where Bowles, a composer of svelte, jazzy music in the Poulenc mould, wrote one of his first scores, an impressionistic piano piece called “Tamamar,” after a village in the Atlas mountains. Copland was unsettled by the clamor of drums during wedding season, and thought Tangier a “madhouse,” but Bowles was enraptured. He collected 78s of local music, just as he had collected old blues recordings back home, and sent copies to Béla Bartók. “When I first heard Arabic music on records,” he recalled later, “I determined to go and live where I could be surrounded by sounds like those, because there seemed to be very little else one could ask for in life.”

By the time Bowles finally moved to Tangier, with his wife, the writer Jane Bowles, in 1947, he had refashioned himself as a novelist, and was busy writing The Sheltering Sky, the tale of American expatriates in Morocco that remains his best-known work. Yet it was in large part the music of Morocco that led him to make his life there. A decade later, on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles travelled throughout Morocco, recording traditional music of a startling variety—Berber, Arabic, Andalusian, and Jewish—for the Library of Congress. For years known mostly to specialists, the recordings from that remarkable project have now been re-edited and re-released in a meticulously prepared box set by Dust to Digital, Music of Morocco.

Morocco was rich in hypnotic sounds, and in his novels Bowles described them with a composer’s precision. In Let It Come Down (1952), he recreated a scene he had witnessed at a concert in Chefchaouen, where a man went into a trance, slashing his arms with a long knife and covering himself in blood, as he danced in “perfect rhythm with the increasing hysteria of the drums and the low cracked voice of the flute.” John Stenham, the hero of The Spider’s House (1955), imagines that he can find his way blindfolded through the old city of Fez merely by listening to the sounds of footsteps and water:

taut, metallic reverberations…shuddered between the walls like musical pistol shots. There were places where his footfalls were almost silent, places where the sound was strong, single, and compact, died straightaway, or where, as he advanced along the deserted galleries, each succeeding step produced a sound of an imperceptibly higher pitch, so that his passage was like a finely graded ascending scale, until all at once a jutting wall or a sudden tunnel dispersed the pattern and began another section in the long nocturne which in turn would disclose its own design.

As Bowles saw it, Morocco’s sounds were forms of experience that had yet to be contaminated by Western influence. In his 1981 preface to The Spider’s House, Bowles explained that he had naively “imagined that after Independence the old manner of life would be resumed and the country would return to being more or less what it had been before the French presence.” To his horror, the Moroccan government embarked on modernization “with even greater speed” than the French. The Music of Morocco, a double LP featuring twenty-two selections of his recordings, was his attempt to preserve Morocco’s heritage before its inevitable dissolution: “a fight against time and the deculturizing activities of political enthusiasts,” as he wrote in his grant proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation.

To listen to Music of Morocco is to experience the shock of the old: a ritualistic art that casts a spell through repeated, cyclical patterns, rather than the harmonic development typical of Western music. The first track—a Berber dance piece known as an ahmeilou, performed by Maallem Ahmed and his ensemble—immediately throws the listener into a world where music is supremely social. Five of the thirteen men are playing small drums that sound somewhat dry because they were heated before the performance; the other men are clapping. The tempo gradually quickens, the polyrhythms assuming an insistent force as some of the men cry with pleasure. Music of Morocco features a range of singing styles—ululation, ecstatic wailing, drone-like riffs, even a kind of Arabic sprechstimme—as well as an array of indigenous instruments, including the gnbri, an Arabic lute; the kamenja, a violin played in the manner of a viola da gamba; and the rhaita, a reed whose sonorous, almost chewy tonality is somewhere between an oboe and a bagpipe. But the foundation of the music here is percussion. It can be a highly intricate affair, performed by virtuosic drummers, but it can also be as homespun as a brass tea tray being struck by two teaspoons.

In “Hadouk Khail,” a stunning example of the haouziya genre, we hear a group of singers—three women and one man—for nearly thirteen minutes, often in call and response, accompanied by the drone of two kamenjas and a variety of small percussion instruments. The singers repeat their lamentation—the haouziya was famous for expressing despair—but because no drum is struck twice in succession, the performance has an entrancing stop-start quality, a feeling of eternal return, until the final moments, when the drumming accelerates and the singers cry in unison. Bowles wrote in his field notes that “ecstatic expressions” appeared on “the faces of those singing and playing it,” adding that “the performers seemed finally able to reach some unnamable state which the music strives to induce in the group-psyche of those performing it.”

When the Library of Congress released Bowles’s recordings in 1972, only a few hundred copies were printed. One of its early admirers was an aspiring young ethnomusicologist, Philip D. Schuyler, who struck up a friendship with Bowles in Tangier. When Bowles was contacted in the mid-1990s by Bill Nowlin, a co-founder of Rounder Records, about reissuing Music of Morocco, he encouraged Nowlin to talk to Schuyler. As Schuyler immersed himself in the sixty hours of recordings, he decided that Bowles had chosen the best-recorded examples from the sessions, but that in his effort to be encyclopedic he had made misleading cuts, prising excerpts he fancied from longer performances. Schuyler proposed to restore those pieces to their original form, and to include eight additional tracks, roughly doubling the length of the album. In June 1999, he flew to Tangier with a mock-up of the re-release and played his cassettes for Bowles. “He was very frail and nearly blind,” Schuyler told me, but “he was gracious to the end.” A few weeks later he faxed his approval. Bowles died in November of that year, at eighty-eight.

It took another seventeen years for Schuyler to complete the project. As Schuyler told me: “I was having trouble satisfying all the people I thought should be given a fair hearing in the notes—Bowles and the Bowlesians, my colleagues in academia, and Moroccan musicians.” It was worth the wait. Music of Morocco includes not only four hours of arresting music, but a revelatory 120-page booklet, which features a preface by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth and Schuyler’s erudite overview. Each of the thirty tracks is annotated by three “streams” of text—Bowles’s original liner notes; additional writings by Bowles about his trip; and Schuyler’s commentaries. Throughout the booklet, Schuyler provides a tactful, often witty corrective to Bowles’s assumptions about “primitive” music (a word he used as a term of praise), and to Bowles’s own account of how he made his recordings. Yet Schuyler also defends Bowles against those who have dismissed him as a condescending expatriate, or Orientalist parasite.

Bowles set off on his first recording expedition in mid-July 1959 in a Volkswagen Beetle that belonged to a Canadian expatriate friend, Christopher Wanklyn. He was forty-eight years old, and was making his living as a travel writer, having recently published The Spider’s House, which turned out to be his last novel set in Morocco. His two companions were Wanklyn and a Moroccan assistant, Mohamed Larbi Djilali. Over the next five months, they took four separate trips—covering a distance Bowles estimated at 25,000 miles—returning to Tangier for a few days after each journey so that Bowles could check in on his wife, who was ill. Bowles recorded 250 pieces of music, in twenty-two separate locations, with an unwieldy twenty-eight-pound Ampex 601 tape recorder. “He did it as a marathon,” Schuyler told me. “Bowles like to project this lackadaisical manner but he really worked hard, and he had to have this finished by December 31, under the terms of his grant.”

Paul Bowles's VW bug stopped along a mountain road in Morocco, 1959
Dust-to-Digital/Library of CongressPaul Bowles’s Volkswagen Beetle, stopped along a mountain road in Morocco, 1959

The logistical difficulties were not small. He spoke French and passable Arabic but no other indigenous languages. Bowles often had to transport musicians to towns along the main road where there was electricity—in one case to a military base. He arrived in the town of Aït Ourir, east of Marrakech, with thirty-two loaves of sugar—one for each of the musicians, an arrangement he had made with the caïd, the local notable who organized the recording—only to discover that a dozen musicians had been added to the ensemble. (The caïd solved the problem by taking all the sugar for himself and dividing it later.) While traveling through the Anti-Atlas mountains, Bowles and his companions were caught in a sandstorm that disabled their car for several days. Then there was the journey through the Rif mountains, along the eastern border with Algeria, where nationalist rebels were fighting the French army. Bowles wrote in his diary: “I don’t relish being ambushed by dissident troops in the Rif or along the Algerian frontier.”

Bowles, however, did not lack for courage—or ruthlessness. “A certain amount of music I hope to be able to get by installing myself in strategic spots and capturing it without the knowledge of the people making it,” he wrote in his Rockefeller proposal. In fact, as Schuyler notes, “his attempts to record by stealth usually ended in apparent technical disaster.” He was forced, instead, to organize recording sessions as any producer would. But to do so he needed the cooperation of the Moroccan authorities, who were not keen on his project. For one thing, he was not well liked in Morocco, particularly among its elites, who accused him of casting an unflattering light on their country. He was rumored to have been stingy, an exploiter of vulnerable Moroccans, and, worst of all, a practitioner of “moral turpitude,” an allusion to Bowles’s well-known liaisons with young Moroccan men.

But it was Bowles’s passion for traditional music, more than his disregard for traditional sexual mores, that raised the suspicions of Moroccan authorities. In a 1993 documentary, he remembered being told by one official, “If you record music in that village, it’s going to sound like savages.” In post-independence Morocco, traditional music was a somewhat embarrassing reminder of a disdained rural past. Much of the music Bowles proposed to record, moreover, was by Berbers, not Arabs. Their culture was later promoted by the government (and tourism industry) as part of Morocco’s heritage, but at the time Morocco was intent on brandishing its Arab credentials, and expressions of Berber identity were frowned on. (In the middle of his third expedition, Bowles received a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, followed by a warning from the Ministry of the Interior, that he ought to desist with his recordings immediately. He ignored both.)

Bowles believed that the Berbers in the High Atlas Mountains represented the “true spirit of North Africa,” and devoted the first LP, “The Highlands,” to their music. That urban Moroccans found Berber drumming to be a bore was an indication to him that they had lost touch with their roots. Instead they had succumbed to “the influent strain”—music influenced by Arab (especially Egyptian) styles that that he considered “schizophrenic music, an ethnical monstrosity.” Yet Bowles himself did not hesitate to introduce his own aesthetic preferences as a producer. The supposedly pure music we hear in Music of Morocco was reshaped—contaminated, as Bowles might have said—at the recording sessions, sometimes in ways that would have lasting effects in Moroccan music.

One of Bowles’s dreams, for example, had been to make a solo recording of the qsbah, a reed flute. Unfortunately, the qsbah was traditionally accompanied by singing and the bendir, a frame drum whose fuzzy overtones obscured the flute’s delicate sound. When Boujemaa Ben Mimoun, a renowned qsbah player in the foothills of the Rif, refused on principle to record solo, Bowles pressured the caïd: “The American government wished it,” he said. Boujemaa relented. Bowles recorded him performing two versions of the same piece, but omitted the one with the bendir, “an instrument I can do without.” In a travel essay, Bowles imagined a “lone camel driver” listening to the qsbah beside a fire, in a “landscape of immensity and desolation.” But to achieve that illusion, Bowles had to record Boujemma in a noisy little town, surrounded by a crew, local officials, and crowds who gathered to watch. Schuyler writes: “Bowles had recorded the music the way he wanted it to sound, conjuring an image of a place that didn’t quite exist.” (Schuyler hoped to include the bendir version but found the recording “as unlistenable as Bowles thought it was.”)

Bowles made a similar—and even more fateful—request of the singer Si Mohammed Bel Hassan Soudani, a master of the gnbri, an ancient African lute. Soudani, a member of the Gnawa, a spiritual group who trace their origins to sub-Saharan Africa, attached a small vibrator called a soursal to the neck of his gnbri. A small and flexible tin with perforated sides, the soursal creates a buzzing sound when the strings of the gnbri are plucked. That “sizzle” is a reminder of the Gnawa’s West African ancestry, and makes the gnbri “a ritual instrument,” Schuyler says. Bowles, however, disliked the “loud rattle” of the soursal, for much the same reason that he disliked the bendir, and asked him to remove it. They recorded two versions of the same song, a work of stark and expressive lyricism; once again Bowles retained only the “purified” one. The soursal version, which Schuyler has restored, is nearly twice as long, more explicitly African, and riveting, almost orchestral, in its tintinnabulation. It is also the trace of a tradition that Bowles helped bury.

Paul Bowles on the roof of the Palais Jamai in Fes, Morocco, 1947
Dust-to-Digital/Library of CongressPaul Bowles on the roof of the Palais Jamai in Fes, Morocco, 1947

According to Schuyler, gnibri performers have increasingly removed the soursal, in order to appeal to Western listeners. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Bowles was simply tampering with Moroccan music, or that his manipulations resulted in inferior, or “diluted,” forms of expression. As Schuyler argues, Bowles was often right “from a purely auditory standpoint.” It is true that he disregarded the musical roots he praised if they clashed with the sound he wanted; yet, precisely because of this, he helped to open new routes for Moroccan musicians. Bowles ended up taking part in the history of Moroccan music, and not merely chronicling it. Music of Morocco is not so much an archive as the document of an artist’s encounter with foreign traditions.

Sometimes that encounter would test Bowles’s own aesthetic assumptions. In Meknes, for example, he found “a gold mine”: a spellbinding secular Sephardic song, performed by a group of men led by a twenty-year-old hazan, or cantor. The men sing in Hebrew, but the haunting melody is a Muslim malhun, an Andalusian poem. Isaac Ouanounou, the hazan, explained to Bowles that Morocco’s Jews took their music “a little bit from everywhere” because they lacked their own melodic repertoire. There is nothing “pure” about this hybrid of Hebrew poetry and malhun, yet Bowles could not fail to recognize its beauty.

For all his talk about a “fight against time” to document traditions at risk of disappearance, Bowles was at heart an aesthete, not a preservationist. His commitment to the beauty of what he was recording was genuine, even if his understanding of Highland “authenticity” was something of a colonial fantasy. Morocco was for Bowles an old-new world that he experienced as a kind of salvation, at once cultural and erotic. Sometimes the sounds he encountered transported him back to the Harlem clubs he frequented in the 1920s and 1930s: “the Moroccan’s idea of what makes good dance music is the same as our idea of what makes good jazz, and they use the same word to describe it: skhoun (Hot).” And on Music of Morocco he presented a world of sound as evocative and intransigent as Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, which enthralled Bob Dylan with its vision of an “old, weird America.”

Notable for its expressive diversity, Bowles’s Moroccan anthology placed unmistakable emphasis on what he called the “deceptive repetition” of ritual music, the infectious, mesmerizing groove that later enchanted such musicians as Ornette Coleman, who collaborated with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. It was “befuddlement music,” “music that makes you play games inside your head”—especially if you listened to it while smoking kif. Bowles, who smoked kif every day, was hypnotized by it.

Interestingly, Bowles’s own music was all but unscathed by his encounter with Moroccan music: “the musics are far too different—there’s no possible way of combining them,” he insisted. Musical pilgrims to Morocco, such as Coleman, the trumpeter Don Cherry, and the Kronos Quartet, would show otherwise. The glory of such cross-pollination would receive a related demonstration from the composer Steve Reich, who drew on another, equally hypnotic tradition of non-Western percussion after reading A.M. Jones’s two-volume Studies in African Music, published in 1959—the same year Bowles embarked on his field recordings. Yet Bowles’s repudiation of métissage was less an aesthetic stance than a typically possessive expression of respect for Morocco’s traditions, which he took himself to be shielding from the cruel forces of change.

As Bowles knew, there was no way of preventing Morocco’s modernization; he could hear it everyday on the increasingly noisy streets of Tangier. The encroachments of the machine civilization he loathed can be heard, to richly poetic effect, in the last track of the new Music of Morocco. A recording of the early morning call to prayer in Tangier, it is one of the few performances Bowles managed to capture by stealth. Ten years after Bowles’s death, Schuyler added this piece of musique concrète to Music of Morocco as an homage, a “distillation of his aesthetic.” “El Fjer (Tangier)” is the one piece for which he did not secure Bowles’s approval. It lasts only a minute and thirty-seven seconds, but it describes as well as any the world that Bowles made his own. A rooster crows, someone turns on the engine of a car, then drives away. The muezzin is faint yet indomitable, an integral instrument in the symphony of daily life. From the first second to the last, we hear the chirping of crickets, like a gentle, hypnotic blanket of rhythm.


A new edition of Music of Morocco, edited and annotated by Philip D. Schuyler, will released April 1 by Dust to Digital.

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‘China’s Worst Policy Mistake’?

Zhang Xiaogang: Family No. 2, 1993; from the book Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, by Jonathan Fineberg and Gary G. Xu, published last year by Phaidon
Zhang Xiaogang/Pace BeijingZhang Xiaogang: Family No. 2, 1993; from the book Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, by Jonathan Fineberg and Gary G. Xu, published last year by Phaidon

Perhaps no government policy anywhere in the world affected more people in a more intimate and brutal way than China’s one-child policy. In the West, there’s a tendency to approve of it as a necessary if overzealous effort to curb China’s population growth and overcome poverty. In fact, it was unnecessary and has led to a rapid aging of China’s population that may undermine the country’s economic prospects. The scholar Wang Feng has declared the one-child policy to be China’s worst policy mistake, worse even than the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward (which led to the worst famine in world history). The one-child policy broke up families and destroyed lives on an epic scale—and although it officially ended last fall, it continues to ripple through the lives of Chinese and the 120,000 Chinese babies who were adopted in America and other Western countries.

It has often been said, in China and abroad, that those adopted babies, mostly girls, were unwanted in a male chauvinist society and abandoned by their parents. Many of those children, some of them now young adults, should know that it’s far more complicated than that. They are the products not of unloving parents, not so much of a misogynist tradition, but of a government policy that sundered families.

If you’re a (precocious) Chinese-born twelve-year-old girl reading this essay in your adoptive American home, then you just might be the girl whose birth name was Shengshi, Victory, whose story is told in China’s Hidden Children, by Kay Ann Johnson of Hampshire College. Victory’s story lays bare how the one-child policy actually unfolded and how so many adopted children were not “abandoned” in any normal sense of the word.

Xu Guangwen and his wife, Jiang Lifeng, were villagers who had a son in 1994. The one-child policy—introduced by the central government of China in 1980—is something of a misnomer, because in some circumstances a second or even third child is permitted: if Xu and Jiang had had a daughter first, they might have been given permission after several years to bear another child. But because they had a son first, that was it. Still, both wanted another child, and Jiang in particular wanted a daughter. So they began to plot.

All fertile married women in their region were obliged to pee into a cup for a pregnancy test every three months; a positive result could lead to a mandatory abortion. Any couple that somehow evaded the controls risked a fine, the demolition of the family home, and forced sterilization. Yet when Jiang became pregnant in 2003, she and her husband decided to keep the baby, hoping for a girl. Jiang secretly carried a friend’s fresh urine to the pregnancy tests and used it to achieve a negative result, and in the final months of the pregnancy she hid in her mother’s house and delivered there. Jiang and Xu named their baby Victory because she had arrived against all odds. They decided that if questioned by the authorities, they would claim that they had found Victory outside and taken her in because no one else would.

Unfortunately, a new official had been dispatched to this township to oversee a crackdown on family planning. Officials now had their salaries docked if there were babies born without permission in their localities, and the village leader had lost half his salary for that reason. The local official in charge of family planning promised a $380 reward, presented anonymously, to anyone who informed on an unauthorized baby. Someone reported on Victory, and seven men showed up one day, approaching the home from all directions to prevent escape. They grabbed nine-month-old Victory as she slept and left in a van for the family planning office.

Xu and Jiang spent eight hours crying and pleading with the family planning officials. They confessed that Victory was their biological child and offered anything to keep her. Xu promised to pay the highest possible fine for an unauthorized birth. The officials brushed him off, so he said he would borrow and pay double that. The officials still refused. They said that Victory had to be taken to an orphanage, and they forced Xu to sign documents saying that he had found the baby in the fields—but there was still hope that they could adopt Victory the next day from the orphanage.

Jiang and Xu stayed up all night and were at the orphanage when it opened the next morning, explaining that the child brought in overnight was theirs and that they wanted to formally adopt her. The orphanage wouldn’t let them inside. Jiang and Xu begged but never even got to see Victory. They sent other relatives to try to adopt the child, but they too were rejected. It may be that the orphanage preferred to send Victory abroad because foreigners paid more for an adoption and often showered the orphanage with gifts to show their thanks.

“For many months, Jiang was barely able to eat or speak and cried day and night,” Johnson writes.

Her family feared for her health and sanity. At night she would dream that her child was back with her, that her life was happy and normal; then she would wake with a gasp, realizing that the reality was a nightmare. It took Jiang almost three years to “calm her heart” and go on. She had a wonderful son and a husband and needed to find life again.

In the end the orphanage held Victory for more than a year as the adoption paperwork was processed. One can only imagine how traumatizing this was for the child, yanked from her loving parents and housed on a cot in an institution. Finally, the orphanage gave Victory to a childless American middle-class couple. Victory presumably has been raised in the US with love and in financial comfort, enjoying a better education and more opportunities than if she had remained in China. But she was still stolen: I hope she doesn’t think, as some adopted Chinese children do, that she was “abandoned” by misogynist parents who discarded her because she was a girl.

Each of the books under review offers a searing, important, and eminently readable exploration of China’s one-child policy, with Mei Fong’s One Child the more comprehensive and Kay Ann Johnson’s China’s Hidden Children more focused on adoptions. The one-child policy, unlike many Chinese missteps, was not a product of Chairman Mao’s zeal or ideology; in fact, China was extricating itself from Maoism when it adopted the one-child policy.

Mao had earlier made the opposite error, doubting any need for family planning. When Ma Yinchu, the American-educated president of Peking University, suggested in the 1950s that China should try to curb runaway population growth, Mao fired him. But as Fong, a former reporter in China for The Wall Street Journal, writes, by the early 1970s China had adopted a highly successful voluntary family planning program called “Later, Longer, Fewer.” Its slogan was “One child isn’t too few, two are just fine, three are too many.” And within about a decade it managed without coercion to reduce the average number of births per woman from six to three, a remarkable achievement. It’s rarely acknowledged that the biggest drop in Chinese fertility came not from the one-child policy, but earlier during this voluntary birth control campaign. If it had continued, China’s birth rates would have continued to drop, as they have for the rest of the region (Malaysia today averages just under two births per woman; Bangladesh averages 2.2).

China’s leaders wanted sharper cuts. There were internal conferences in which some demographers and economists warned against cutting back too abruptly, with one expert named Liang Zhongtang arguing that it would amount to a “terrible tragedy.” That was not what the leadership wanted to hear, and for the Politburo members it was an easy step from central planning of the economy to central planning of family size. On September 25, 1980, China’s Communist Party issued an open letter to Party members asking them to limit themselves to one child. That was the first announcement of a policy that quickly grew to encompass compulsory sterilization and forced abortion, and sometimes the kidnapping and sale of children who were unauthorized. Fong writes that it was “the world’s most radical social experiment, which endured for thirty-five years and continues to shape how one in six people in this world are born, live, and die.”

Deng Xiaoping had just taken the helm of China in 1978, opening the country to the West, and there was then in the West considerable sympathy for Chinese efforts to modernize and curb population growth. It was widely recognized that China had a major population problem. By the Deng era, the West had been shaken by Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb (1968), and liberals and conservatives alike were agreed on the need for global population control efforts. This was an era when Republicans strongly backed funding for birth control at home and abroad, and when the Republican vice-president, George H.W. Bush, was nicknamed “Rubbers” for his advocacy of family planning.

So there were wise nods when China adopted the one-child policy, even if reports of abuses emerged very quickly. Michael Weisskopf of The Washington Post should have won a Pulitzer Prize for his devastating accounts in the early 1980s of how brutally the policy was carried out. A Stanford Ph.D. student, Steve Mosher, also tried to warn of the brutality of the policy; apparently in deference to China, Stanford expelled Mosher, accusing him of misconduct (whatever misconduct there may have been, it paled beside what Mosher was trying to stop).

In retrospect, Western sympathizers were right about the need to curb population growth in China—and blind to the brutality of China’s policy. Partly that’s because China covered up the abuses and pretended that the policy was essentially voluntary, backed by fines but not by force. As China and its enthusiasts presented it, the policy was like a Western tax meant to create incentives for some behaviors and disincentives for others. This deception was possible because the worst abuses unfolded in the countryside, and intellectuals in the cities with whom Westerners mixed had less inclination to violate the policy and were less likely to be dragged off if they did.

In fact, urban Chinese elites also often approved of the one-child policy. Opinion polls in China are always suspect, but one found that a majority of Chinese bought the government propaganda and backed the one-child policy. Human rights campaigners called for free speech, but family planning was seldom a major concern for them. An exception was Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who was himself from a village and was outraged by the horrors inflicted on rural people around him. He writes in his recent memoir about how he represented clients such as a fifty-nine-year-old man who was kidnapped by family planning officials searching for the man’s daughter, whom they wanted to sterilize against her will. The officials grilled the man about where his daughter could be found, and when he said he didn’t know they clubbed him unconscious and finally dumped his bloody body near a bridge.1

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his daughter, Xi Mingze, in Fuzhou, Fujian province, when she was a child
Xinhua/eyevine/ReduxChinese President Xi Jinping and his daughter, Xi Mingze, in Fuzhou, Fujian province, when she was a child

I lived in China in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the Beijing bureau chief for The New York Times and was initially ambivalent about the one-child policy: yes, it was harsh, but it was also reducing population growth and raising living standards. Then I began coming across abuses that were simply unconscionable, such as the assault on Li Qiuliang, a twenty-three-year-old woman in Hunan province. At the end of 1992, family planning officials showed up at her home when she was seven months pregnant and frail. Li had permission for her pregnancy and had done nothing wrong. But officials had birth slots for 1992 that would go unused, and they feared that they might have excess births in 1993. Since they would be punished with salary cuts or demotions if births exceeded the quota in 1993, they formed an “early birth shock brigade” to round up very pregnant women and induce the births before the new year.

“My daughter-in-law’s health isn’t good, and she may not be able to get pregnant again,” Li Qiuliang’s mother-in-law pleaded. “Let her have one baby, someone to look after her and my son when they grow old. It doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or a girl. After it’s born, she’ll go get sterilized.” The officials paid no attention. They took Li to a clinic and ordered a doctor to induce labor. The doctor protested that Li was too weak, but the officials ordered him to proceed. Li hemorrhaged, fell unconscious, and almost died; her life was saved in a hospital, but she was left crippled. The baby died after nine hours.2

China has claimed that the one-child policy averted 400 million births over thirty-five years, but that’s a vast exaggeration; demographers estimate that the real total was half that, maybe less. And while there were economic benefits, they were modest. Fong quotes an economist as estimating that the one-child policy contributed about one tenth of one percentage point annually to China’s economic growth; the reality is more complicated. When fertility is cut, there is a significant but temporary demographic dividend to economic growth; with fewer children, a larger share of the population is working. But when the population bulge moves into retirement, as is beginning to happen in China, there is an equivalent economic cost. As China’s population ages, the labor force is beginning to contract and will continue to do so indefinitely. By 2050, a quarter of China’s population is expected to be over sixty-five, and by 2100 it may have shrunk by hundreds of millions, possibly by half. All that dampens economic performance.

The impact of the one-child policy was compounded because of the traditional preference for a son. When my wife and I had our eldest child while we lived in Beijing, Chinese friends would sometimes first ask us the sex; only after hearing that it was a boy would they congratulate us. Eldest daughters sometimes used to be named Laidi or Yindi, meaning “bring a younger brother.” So when families were allowed just one child, they didn’t want to use up that quota on a daughter.

Once ultrasound was widely available in the early 1990s it became routine to bribe the ultrasound operator to learn the sex of the fetus and then, if the fetus was female, to get an abortion. A Chinese colleague and his wife obtained permission to have a baby and were thrilled when she became pregnant, but soon after they explained that she had decided to get an abortion after all; it was obvious that they had discovered through ultrasound that she was carrying a girl, and they wanted to try for a boy instead. Less than a year later, she became pregnant again and bore a son.

The upshot was that China’s sex ratio at birth began to skew wildly, so that 118 boys were born for every hundred girls. The result is that millions of young men have become guang gun, bare branches, biological dead ends. They will never be able to marry, and it’s not clear what a society will be like with that many surplus males. A dozen years ago, two scholars, Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer, wrote a provocative book, Bare Branches, about the security implications of the male surplus in China, India, and other parts of Asia. They note that disproportionately male societies are often authoritarian and violent, and that governments may try to accommodate the surplus through militaristic actions. Some people think that China’s increasingly assertive nationalism over disputed islands is already, in part, a reflection of all those restless Y chromosomes.

The surplus of men has in some ways empowered Chinese women (an echo of the fact that in American history the first state to give women the vote was overwhelmingly male Wyoming, as a lure to attract more). Daughters often used to play second fiddle to their brothers, but as a result of the one-child policy girls have no brothers and parents are completely invested in their education and success. The shortage of women also gives them an advantage in traditional marital negotiations. A Chinese man on the marriage market is expected to have a home and sometimes pay a bride price, or caili, of thousands of dollars to his fiancée or her family. China has thus seen the emergence of runaway brides who accept a hefty caili and then disappear.

There are also creepier market responses to the shortage of brides: life-size, anatomically correct female dummies, selling for $5,000 and up. “If China is running out of women, why not make fake women?” Fong explains. She interviews a manufacturer who experimented with skin substitutes (silicone and rubber), hair (synthetic and human), and breast size (C to EE). “They really are designed to take the place of real women,” says Vincent He, the factory owner, and he’s proud of their durability. “The nipples—they are very tough,” says He, tugging at one to demonstrate to Fong. “Normal ones could never withstand such treatment.”

In October 2015, China officially ended its one-child policy and announced that it will allow two children per couple. It’s not clear how this policy will be implemented, or whether this will mark the end of forced sterilizations and abortions. It may be more correct to think of it as a relaxation of a coercive policy rather than as its true demise. But it’s also true that expectations have changed over the last few decades and that many Chinese families today, especially urban ones, are content with just one or two children, even if they do not end up with a son. One survey found that of Chinese families who today have one child, 60 percent say the reasons have nothing to do with the one-child policy. The cost of educating a child is often the foremost obstacle.

Internationally, the most visible legacy of the one-child policy is the large number of Chinese-born children who have been adopted in the West. Johnson notes that China has a long tradition of informal adoption, and that more babies have been adopted domestically than internationally. But China cracked down on domestic adoptions precisely because they were being used to evade the one-child policy, as parents parked an eldest daughter with a relative while they tried again for a son. (Another evasion took advantage of the fact that a couple couldn’t be penalized for two children if they were twins: one baby would be hidden and then when a second arrived a year or so later, they would be reported together as twins.)

Johnson tells of a woman, Gao Wanru, who already had a son when she became pregnant again. Her family pressed her to get an abortion, because an unauthorized birth would lead her husband to be fired from his job as well as to a large fine and her forced sterilization. But Gao wanted another child, preferably a daughter, and eventually gave birth in secret to a daughter in her mother’s house. There was no way to keep the child and her husband’s job, so her family left the child at the doorstep of a distant relative whom they believed wanted a daughter, and then set off firecrackers so that the relative would open the door and find the baby.

At first everything went well: the relative kept the girl and raised her, and no one seemed to know her parentage. But when the girl was four, the family planning authorities got wind of her existence. They wanted the child removed from their area, so that she wouldn’t count as a local over-quota child. The adoptive mother confronted Gao, asking if she was the mother and would take the child back. Gao demurred, and the adoptive family paid a steep fine to the family planning authorities to keep the girl; Gao and her husband secretly sent money through a third party to the relative to defray the cost. Then when Gao’s husband was dying of cancer, the adoptive mother took the girl to see him in the hospital: the adoptive parents had figured out that he was the biological father and thought he should see his daughter before he died. Years later when the girl married, the adoptive parents invited Gao to the wedding: from the back, she watched her daughter wed.

It is often said that girls are unloved in China, abandoned for cultural reasons, and that this is why they have been forced to find refuge in the United States. There is obviously something to the idea that China has been a patriarchal society, but I think it’s too glib to suggest simply that these girls were abandoned by callous parents.

One of the stories that moved me in Johnson’s book is her account of a middle-aged couple, Li Rong and Wang Aiying, who had recently lost their only son, a fifteen-year-old, in a drowning accident. They were shattered. Then Li was walking by the garbage dump one evening when he heard the faint cry of a baby. Investigating, he found a newborn girl, barely alive and apparently left to die. Li scooped the baby up and ran home with her, fearing she would die in his arms, and then he and his wife warmed her up and fed her with powdered milk. They took turns staying awake around the clock for days to keep her alive. Li and Wang used all their savings to pay medical bills, and to try to cajole the authorities to give her an urban registration, a hukou necessary for attending school. Officials resisted giving the hukou, angering Li, who noted that he and his wife had saved the authorities the cost of raising the child. “Perhaps the government would have preferred she had died in the garbage dump,” he said.

Finally, Li and Wang obtained the documents, and the girl grew up and prepared for college exams. The parents sold their home and moved to a smaller one to finance their daughter’s studies at a four-year university. The girl is very close to them, and she worries that her parents are sacrificing too much for her education. Li and Wang have never told her that she is adopted, for fear that this news could damage her self-esteem. With few resources but abundant love, Li and Wang built an adoptive family whose strength would be hard to surpass in much richer families and countries.

Yet too often the authorities interfered with this nurturing instinct. Indeed, while it was never government policy, in some extreme cases in Hunan and Guizhou provinces the family planning authorities simply seized children born in violation of the one-child policy and sold them to orphanages. Some of these children ended up in American homes, according to China’s Caixin magazine.

One American adoptive father told Fong, as the family was hanging Christmas decorations, “I couldn’t help looking at my daughter and thinking, ‘If she hadn’t been adopted, she might be making those decorations in the factory, not hanging them.’” Fair enough. But these adopted children needn’t grow up thinking that they were cast off by parents who didn’t want them.

However well-intended it may have been, the one-child policy arose from a totalitarian approach to governing and violated the most fundamental of human rights—and it was also unnecessary, for the previous voluntary policy had already slashed fertility rates. Johnson offers this epitaph for the policy:

One can only hope that after more than thirty years, with a national total fertility rate well below replacement level in the last two censuses, the policy that has marked this era and scarred so many children and punished so many parents might finally come to an end, taking its place in the proverbial trash bin of history alongside other practices that, in retrospect, we can see as the atrocities that they always were.

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Jordan: How Close to Danger?

Jordanian soldiers attend the funeral of Jordanian Captain Rashed Zyoud, who was killed during a raid in Irbid conducted by the Jordanian security forces on Islamic State militants, Zarqa, Jordan, March 2, 2016
Muhammad Hamed/ReutersJordanian soldiers at the funeral of Captain Rashed Zyoud, Zarqa, Jordan, March 2, 2016; Zyoud was killed during a raid by Jordanian security forces on an ISIS terror cell

Poor Jordan. A small, economically precarious country, it shares a two-hundred-mile border with Syria. Yet unlike Syria’s other neighbors, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon, it rarely gets any attention in the international press. Indeed, while the world focuses on the European Union’s controversial deal with Turkey—in which Ankara has agreed to limit the number of asylum-seekers hoping to reach Greece’s shores in exchange for a lavish foreign aid package from Europe—hardly anything has been said about this crucial American ally on Syria’s southern border. But as I observed on a recent visit, Jordan is struggling to cope with vast numbers of refugees and an alarming rise in extremism. We ignore it at our peril.

On paper, the size of the Syrian influx should have turned Jordan into a basket case. The Hashemite Kingdom has a per capita GDP of just over $5,000, and its official youth unemployment rate is around 30 percent. Though it is about half the size of Oklahoma, it has received perhaps three quarters of a million refugees since the war began—there are some 630,000 registered with the UN, but many more according to the authorities—meaning that Syrians now constitute about a tenth of Jordan’s population of 6.4 million. This is on top of a very large wave of Iraqis who came during the Iraq War a decade ago. How to feed this many, and provide them with potable water? How to school them, and how to employ them, especially when Jordanians themselves have trouble finding work?

And yet the kingdom has weathered the refugee crisis surprisingly well. Installing myself on the visitors’ sofa at a research institute in Amman last month, I was served tea by a middle-aged man whose unobtrusive demeanor led me to not take much notice of him. Soon the director swept in, and we found ourselves immersed in an animated discussion about Jordan and the stresses it faces. “Well, look at the man who just served you tea,” the director said. “He is a Syrian refugee. He is very polite, hard-working, and cheap. Not only does he prepare tea and coffee, he also fixes anything that is broken around the office, with skill and without complaining. I can’t get anyone else to do that, and all the Syrian refugees are like this!”

For one thing, most of the Syrians appear to be taking jobs not from Jordanians, many of whom often shun lowly pursuits such as handymen, door guards, cleaners, janitors, and messengers, but from the country’s many Egyptian workers. While this is hard on the latter, whose families back home are dependent on the remittances, the advantage to Jordan of having Syrians employed in these occupations is that the money stays in the country. Moreover, in the past year, an apparent reduction in fighting in the south of Syria (certainly compared to the areas in the north bordering Turkey) and stricter Jordanian border controls have meant that the overall refugee population has mostly held steady.

At the same time, Jordan has also been able to take advantage of uncertain, if almost certainly inflated, estimates of its refugee population to persuade foreign donors to be more generous in their support: the authorities, drawing on a recently concluded census, claim they are now hosting 1.3 million Syrians, or about twice as many as the official UN count (though the Jordanian number, as they readily admit, includes pre-2011 arrivals).  But these numbers also tell another story: while there clearly is real sympathy for the refugees’ plight, the failure of diplomacy to end the war in Syria, now entering its sixth year, is an escalating concern in this small state whose “native” Transjordanian population feels itself increasingly marginalized numerically, even as it hangs on to the levers of state and bureaucracy.

Still more worrisome to many Jordanian officials is the domestic extremism the Syrian war has been feeding. Jordan is the third-largest contributor of fighters to ISIS after Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic State appears to be gaining in popularity, its violent strain of Salafism starting to invade Jordan’s tribal culture. In the past year alone, a Jordanian army captain from a prominent family defected to ISIS, while the sons of two parliamentarians died after joining extremist groups in Syria. All three of these recruits were Transjordanians.

One place to appraise the situation is Zarqa, a large industrial city north of Amman that produced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the infamous leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and founder of the group that later became ISIS. (Keep in mind that Zarqawi himself was a member of a leading Transjordanian tribe, even if he was also an urban street tough.) According to Amer Sabaileh, a young Jordanian researcher who was born and raised in the same neighborhood as Zarqawi, in many respects things have gotten worse there, despite government attempts to prevent youth from joining jihadist groups. Over sixty percent of the population is under thirty, while the official youth unemployment rate (ages fifteen to twenty-four) stood at 28.8 percent in 2015.

The only thing that appears to have dented ISIS’s appeal among Jordan’s youth is the murder-by-immolation of the downed Jordanian pilot in early 2015—a shocking act of brutality that momentarily unified the kingdom in revulsion against the group. Yet the recent Jordanian recruits suggest that the jihadist networks are continuing to reach into Jordanian society; and if the Jordanian security forces are vulnerable to penetration, one of the most reliable anchors of the country’s stability will be threatened.

Meanwhile, the government has made such little effort to tackle radicalization–it continues to place much stock in the “Amman Message,” a twelve-year-old speech by King Abdullah stressing Islam’s core values of compassion and tolerance–that the subject has become a source of derision among many Jordanians. The state curriculum itself is deeply problematic; its divisive handling of such sensitive issues as Israel/Palestine and its restrictive interpretation of Islam were described to me as “time bombs” by one close observer. It is currently being revised, but few seem to expect dramatic change, in part because no one can control what teachers say in the classroom. If those teachers take their cue from the clerics, there is little hope: instructed to preach against extremism, the latter mouth the words but convey the opposite, at times openly defying the authorities.

Syrian refugee students in a UNICEF school at the Al Zaatari refugee camp, near Jordan's border with Syria, March 11, 2015
Muhammad Hamed/ReutersSyrian refugees in a UNICEF school at the al-Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, March 11, 2015

This should come as no surprise, as the state seems to do as much to promote religion as it does to counter its extreme forms. For example, the government expends similar amounts on religious affairs and on education (roughly $1 billion per year on each), and the number of religious establishments (mosques and Koran memorization centers) now exceeds the number of nominally secular educational institutions. The new prevalence of religion in daily life is pushing art and culture into a corner, critics contend: no more funding for cinemas or poetry clubs, and fewer libraries. Religious revivalism need not lead to radicalization, but combined with other influences—perceived social injustices, reduced economic prospects, a growing disconnect between leaders and their subjects—it can contribute to that result.

The government is promoting what it refers to as moderate Islam, but what it really is doing is rooting a decidedly religious identity in a country that previously had none (though many Muslims, of course, were devout in their personal lives). Clerics in government-approved mosques are government-appointed, but there is a lot that goes on below the radar. Even if they are forbidden from giving overt support to what is considered terrorism (such as the hotel bombings in Amman in 2005), they are quite free in what they can say: some offer supportive words for Jordanians fighting in Iraq or Syria.

One thing Jordanian clerics cannot criticize—along with their own king—are Jordan’s powerful Gulf allies; public criticism is forbidden under Jordan’s anti-terror legislation and infractions by journalists and commentators trigger lawsuits brought by Jordanians allegedly paid by the aggrieved states. But many Jordanians are fed up with what they regard as the Gulf states’ arrogance, profligacy, and corruption, and I discovered that the most popular topic of conversation in Amman this February was not the Syrian refugees but the anticipated collapse, possibly imminent, of the Saudi monarchy. (Haven’t you heard?) The tenor of the discourse suggests that few Jordanians would shed a tear if such a doomsday outcome were to come to pass.

The Saudi Kingdom has gone through considerable upheaval since King Salman came to the throne in early 2015, but the prospect of the House of Saud’s fall is not something Jordanian elites should cherish. The havoc it would create in Jordan and the region would be enormous. If the flood of Syrian refugees is causing serious duress, the true threat to Jordan’s stability emanates from a Middle East that is coming increasingly unscrewed. Many Jordanians work in the Gulf, sending their earnings home, but business is facing difficult times. The decline in the price of oil, and therefore of fuel products, has helped Jordan’s energy needs (it relies on imports), but prices of almost all other commodities are rising. Apart from Western aid and Saudi subsidies, which are in question, Jordan’s only significant source of foreign-exchange earnings is tourism. But as one aid official ruefully noted, political “tourism” to the Za’atari refugee camp on the Syrian border (in the form of official delegations) is exceeding pleasure tourism to Aqaba and the other usual destinations these days. Moreover, foreign investors have increasingly been reluctant to invest in Jordan, doubting the future of its economy in a turbulent neighborhood.

Jordanian officials themselves have begun to worry about the political effects of a large Syrian population that seems unlikely to return home anytime soon. Jordan, unlike Syria and Lebanon, granted citizenship to Palestinian refugees during an earlier era, but it has kept them largely out of senior positions in state institutions, especially the army and security services, ever since. As for their Iraqi and Syrian successors, obtaining Jordanian residency, let alone a Jordanian passport, is not even a realistic prospect.

Instead, in referring to the refugees, government officials have started to speak darkly of the Syrian “component” (mukawwan), a label amplified by the media that alludes to developments in post-Saddam Iraq, where the distribution of power among ethnic and confessional communities—termed “components” or “constituent parts”—came to be understood as a (nefarious) political plan for partition. If Jordan begins to turn into a country of individual components with unequal rights, now including another mass of seemingly permanent refugees, rather than a population organized under a single identity, it could threaten national stability. It is just a little ironic that, in a region with a deep historic grievance about how Western powers manipulated post-Ottoman boundaries to create the modern Arab states to serve their own interests, the thing Arab elites seem to fear most is the breakdown of that very order.

Government officials suggest that they are watching developments in the region with concern, but can do very little to get ahead of them; they increasingly seem to be lacking a unifying vision for the country. King Abdullah has been adept at soliciting foreign aid but he seems to have few other plans for Jordan’s development and his popularity appears to be more by default: given the state of the neighborhood, people fear worse, even if they complain of a rising cost of living, restrictions on freedoms, and visible corruption.

Meanwhile the current Jordanian business model—playing up Jordan’s reputation for stability while asking for foreign assistance to keep threats to it at bay—is coming under stress. For now, the refugees are a useful fundraising tool, as the king discovered at the recent donors’ conference in London.  On March 27, the World Bank announced it was offering an unusual, interest-free $100 million loan to Jordan to provide job opportunities to refugees. And Jordan has little to fear about donor states imposing new requirements on the country to receive aid, since the kingdom has already fulfilled the West’s principal demands: an unwavering commitment to its peace treaty with Israel, a steady counter-terrorism partnership (led by a security apparatus seen as exceptionally professional and efficient), and enduring stability in a region that is anything but.

But it is impossible to predict what turn the Syrian war will take next: Will peace efforts falter and fighting escalate once more, sending a fresh swell of refugees washing across the border? Will a resurgent Syrian regime seek to exact revenge on Jordan for its help—much of it directed undercover by the CIA and Saudi Arabia—of the rebels in the south? Will ISIS forces be driven from their strongholds and look for a safe haven in refugee camps in Jordan and towns such as Zarqa, where discontent is rife? Or will some Jordanians’ predictions—or wishful thinking—come true and Saudi Arabia implode from its own internal contradictions and foreign misadventures, setting off a dramatic domino effect from which Jordan almost certainly would not remain immune? Indeed, a Western aid administrator wondered openly, could Jordan be next?

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Can He Be Stopped?

Donald and Melania Trump with reporters in the spin room after the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, December 2015
Tomas Muscionico/Contact Press ImagesDonald and Melania Trump with reporters in the spin room after the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, December 2015

It appears to be happening. Donald John Trump is almost surely going to be the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. The man lives, according to the Daily News,1 in a three-story Louis XIV–style penthouse apartment at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street—as well as Palm Beach’s Mar-a-Lago, a sixty-room retreat in Westchester County, John Kluge’s bulging old estate in Virginia wine country, an afterthought-ish six-bedroom house in Beverly Hills, and nearly forty more Manhattan apartments that are available for his personal use. He is winning the nomination on the strength of the unshakable bond he has built with the white Republicans who consider themselves to be the most dispossessed of Americans.

It’s very clear by now that almost nothing can sunder this union. On March 3, Mitt Romney stepped forward to give a speech lambasting Trump. The 2016 front-runner, said the 2012 nominee, is “a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” Aha, said members of the famous Republican establishment: maybe finally this will lay him low. Five days later, a poll found that the attack helped Trump—31 percent of registered GOP voters were more likely to support him in light of Romney’s speech, and just 20 percent were less likely.2

Rather more disturbing, one result of the violence that broke out on March 11 at a scheduled Trump rally on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, where protesters and Trump supporters hurled epithets at one another and some fistfights took place, was that that violence also helped Trump. The candidate has spent weeks heaping verbal abuse on hecklers, walking his admirers right up to the edge of physical confrontation. On the very day that the Chicago fiasco unfolded, Trump was at a press conference in Palm Beach answering questions about violence at his rallies. Referring apparently to an earlier episode in North Carolina, where one of his white supporters sucker-punched a black protester, he said, “I thought it was very, very appropriate. [The protester] was swinging. He was hitting people. And the audience hit back. And that’s what we need a little bit more of.”

A videotape of that event had emerged, and needless to say, Trump was lying. The black protester was walking up a flight of stairs inside a sports arena with his arms at his side when seventy-eight-year-old John Franklin McGraw yelled “Hey!,” got the young man to look his way, and hit him in the face.

Monmouth University, which was conducting a poll of Republicans in Florida at the time, added a question to the survey: “As you may know, Donald Trump cancelled a rally in Chicago Friday night where protesters and his supporters got into confrontations. Does what happened there and Trump’s response to it make you more likely or less likely to support Trump, or does it have no impact on your vote for the Republican nomination?” Sixty-six percent said it would not affect their vote, but 22 percent said it made them more likely to back Trump, and only 11 percent said less likely.3

Each new outrage only confirms to his supporters that Trump is gleefully defying the establishment, and they love him for it. He lies daily, even hourly, and with complete impunity. He first vowed that he would look into paying the sucker-puncher’s legal costs; then a few days later denied he ever said that, even though it was there on video tape for all to hear. The Trump movement clearly has some elements of the fascistic, at least in affect and tone. He evidently does not call for a one-party dictatorship; but he has been willing to approve of force against the opposition; and he has expressed “belligerent nationalism, racism, and militarism,” as one basic definition has it.

Likewise, the kind of ardor he brings out in people is alarming. After Chicago, some Trump supporters took to Twitter to announce that they would be raising a private security force to “protect” Trump from the alleged hordes of violent protesters. The ugliness is undeniable and unprecedented. And yet Trump is seemingly unstoppable.

On March 15, the Trump campaign kept barreling forward, as he won states that he was half-expected to lose—Missouri, North Carolina—and destroyed Marco Rubio in Florida, chasing him from the race. He lost in Ohio, to John Kasich, but Kasich is the sitting governor of that state, with an approval rating above 60 percent. He might prove able to compete against Trump in some other states, mostly in the Ohio region; but he might also prove to be no more than a favorite-son candidate capable of winning his own state. Besides, Kasich’s continued presence in the race, alongside that of Ted Cruz, means that the GOP primary will remain a three-way contest, quite possibly through June, which in turn means that Trump can win important winner-take-all primaries with 34 percent of the vote and not the harder-to-attain, and more legitimizing, 51 percent.

As for whether he can win a majority of delegates, the picture was still unclear after the March 15 voting. Harry Enten of the website FiveThirtyEight, which specializes in crunching political numbers, estimated on March 16 that Trump would fall just short of the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.4 Enten noted that Trump had won 47 percent of the delegates allocated up to that point but would need to win 54 percent in the remaining contests to attain the magic number.

Trump of course knew this and, that same morning on CNN, delivered what may be his most chilling observation yet, a title for which the competition is stiff indeed, but consider:

I think we’ll win before getting to the convention, but I can tell you, if we didn’t and if we’re twenty votes short or if we’re a hundred short and we’re at 1,100 and somebody else is at five hundred or four hundred, because we’re way ahead of everybody, I don’t think you can say that we don’t get it automatically. I think it would be—I think you’d have riots…. If you disenfranchise those people and you say, well I’m sorry but you’re a hundred votes short, even though the next one is five hundred votes short, I think you would have problems like you’ve never seen before. I think bad things would happen, I really do. I believe that.

He added that he “wouldn’t lead it,” but of course he just had.

There is a rule in journalism that we should avoid comparisons with Hitler, and it’s a useful rule in general. But at the same time we should be alert to the history that is unfolding before our eyes. Without likening Trump personally to the Austrian corporal, let us at least not ignore certain similarities in their ascents to power. Writing about Hitler’s assumption of the chancellorship, Oswald Spengler observed: “That was no victory, for there were no opponents.”5 Something similar may be said today of two entities, the Republican Party and the media, especially television.

As long ago as last November, I was hearing from conservative sources that the big Republican money people were drawing up plans to mount an extensive campaign of attack ads against Trump designed to finish him off before Iowa. I was told that a few such meetings or conference calls took place. But nothing ever came of them. The different players had different ambitions, supported different candidates, or couldn’t agree on the best lines of attack.

The Republican Party itself, and chairman Reince Priebus, have been mostly feckless. The man who is on the cusp of winning their nomination has the open support of white supremacists. He has retweeted neo-Nazis. He hedged on distancing himself from the Ku Klux Klan. He has proven himself to be beneath the office in nearly every way imaginable. And yet leading Republicans hardly acknowledge these matters. The racial politics Trump has brought to the surface is something the party is particularly incapable of dealing with, since they all must know deep down that he is only doing openly what they have done more subtly for decades.

Trump’s primary opponents have in fairness used much tougher rhetoric against him. But they also did him a tremendous favor by staying in the race as long as they all did, splitting the anti-Trump vote. There was likely nothing to be done about this—each opponent, obviously, thought or thinks that his anti-Trump case is the strongest, and of course each wants to be president. That said, it must be understood that these men—Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, and Jeb Bush—all made a choice. They knew very well that by continuing to compete long after it was clear that the party should rally around one figure and hope for the best, they were clearing Trump’s path to the nomination.

Finally, the media. All of us who appear with regularity on any of the cable news channels have become familiar with the same phenomenon. If you’re scheduled to do a segment at a certain time and date, and it becomes apparent once you get to the studio that Trump might be speaking at any moment, you know there’s a very strong chance your segment won’t happen. The channel will cut away to Trump.

On primary nights, this is even more pronounced. On March 8, when Trump won in Michigan and Mississippi and Bernie Sanders scored his upset in Michigan, all three cable networks carried Trump’s full forty-five-minute, rambling monologue (such election-night speeches usually run around fifteen minutes). They skipped over Hillary Clinton’s and John Kasich’s speeches, although MSNBC broadcast Clinton’s speech in its entirety—but only on tape delay, after Trump was finished.6

In mid-March, mediaQuant, a firm that tracks media coverage of candidates and assigns a dollar value to that coverage based on advertising rates, compared how much each candidate had spent on “paid” media (television ads) and how much each candidate had been given in “free” media (news coverage). Bush, for example, had spent $82 million on paid media and received $214 million in free media. For Rubio, those respective numbers were $55 million and $204 million. For Cruz, $22 million and $313 million. For Sanders, $28 million and $321 million. For Clinton, $28 million and $746 million (in her case, much of that free media was negative, relating to the State Department e-mails).

And Trump? He’d spent not more than $10 million on paid media and received $1.9 billion in free media. That’s nearly triple the other three major Republican candidates combined.7

CBS head Les Moonves, who joined what was once called the Tiffany Network as head of the entertainment division in the 1980s and who lately has been pulling down around $60 million a year in compensation, let the cat out of the bag when he spoke in late February at something called the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference in San Francisco. This is not a meeting dedicated to a discussion of news gathering as a public trust. Rather, it is a convocation at which Morgan Stanley analysts discuss how, “from virtual and augmented reality to 5G and autonomous cars, the pulse of digital experience is speeding up” (so says the conference website). And it was here that Moonves said that the Trump phenomenon “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” adding:

Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?… The money’s rolling in and this is fun…. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going. Donald’s place in this election is a good thing.8

Eleven days later, a CBS reporter got caught in the middle of the mayhem at the Trump Chicago event and was thrown to the ground and arrested.

Hillary Clinton with supporters at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona, March 2016
Mario Anzuoni/ReutersHillary Clinton with supporters at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona, March 2016

On the Democratic side, the Ides of March took most but not quite all of the drama out of the proceedings. Bernie Sanders’s win the week before in Michigan was, arguably, the biggest upset in the history of modern presidential primaries.9 That Sanders could win in a large, diverse, and clearly important state appeared to have the potential to reshape the race radically. Sanders attacked Clinton effectively on the ill effects on employment of trade deals, which she had supported throughout her career until her recent turnabout on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She had no answer. Clinton had also been hurt in Michigan by the fact that her lead seemed so insurmountable—twenty-plus points—that many of her voters either stayed home or decided to vote Republican to block Trump (it was an open primary).

So Democrats were braced for a March 15 result that kept the waters muddy, but instead, they cleared up. Clinton won all five contests. The biggest surprise came in Ohio, which she had led narrowly but ended up winning by a startling 57 to 43 percent. Sanders was supposed to have strength in the state’s whiter, more rural areas—oddly enough, exactly the areas where she had throttled Barack Obama eight years ago. But he carried only thirteen of Ohio’s eighty-eight counties. And among nonwhite voters, Clinton continues to benefit from the higher incomes blacks and other minorities achieved under Bill Clinton’s administration.

People puzzled over how Ohio could have been so different from Michigan. One explanation may be that Ohioans simply don’t feel as gutted by deindustrialization as Michiganders do. But I think that Joshua Holland, studying the exit polls and writing in The Nation, put his finger on something that may have been a bigger factor. The Chicago riot happened between Michigan and Ohio. It seems possible that what Democrats saw on their television screens scared them into rethinking their suppositions about the campaign and caused them to lean more in the direction of choosing the candidate they considered better able to beat Trump10:

Exit polls show that on March 15, Clinton’s argument won the day with primary voters. Across all five states, two-thirds of them said that Clinton was the better bet to defeat Donald Trump, and Clinton won the support of 80 percent of those who said that electability and experience were the most important attribute in a candidate.

The Sanders people would argue with that—and did, vigorously, but apparently not persuasively. He will continue to win contests. In particular, he’ll sweep the caucuses in the red states, because the only Democrats left in places like Utah and Idaho—where Sanders thumped Clinton on March 22, as she easily carried the more important Arizona—are trial lawyers, college professors, teachers, and hipsters who’ve managed to carve out their little slice of bohemia even in Salt Lake City and Boise. He will have the money to make heavy advertising buys, and he will continue to draw large crowds, and he may yet win a surprising state or two or even three. But the argument he was making before March 15—that in fact he had demonstrated more national appeal than Clinton had—was rendered moot.

Most of all, the delegate numbers are such that, observers agree, he cannot catch up. The magic number on the Democratic side is 2,383. The Democrats also have “superdelegates,” which the Republicans do not—roughly seven hundred elected officials and Democratic National Committee members who each get a delegate vote. Superdelegates exist on the Democratic side because, after the party radically democratized its nomination process in the 1970s, some began to fret that the party had introduced a little too much democracy and decided to create a mechanism whereby the party elders still had some say in the nomination.

Many of these grandees have already endorsed Clinton, and few have backed Sanders. But what the superdelegates really do in the end is validate the voters’ selection. They have little choice. Can you imagine the controversy that would explode if Candidate A had amassed 2,100 delegates and Candidate B 1,800, but the party panjandrums collectively threw the nomination to Candidate B? This validation of a leader worked to Clinton’s detriment in 2008, when Barack Obama led her narrowly among amassed delegates, and there was no chance the superdelegates were going to take the nomination out of the hands of the party’s first African-American nominee.

This year, it will work to her advantage. Before March 15, Sanders said repeatedly that superdelegates must honor the decisions of the voters. Online petitions were launched to that effect that immediately drew tens of thousands of signatures. At that point Sanders was anticipating the prospect of winning more states but was still facing the opposition of the party elites. But after the March 15 results, Sanders’s argument works in favor of Clinton.11

The question during the spring and summer will be the extent to which Sanders decides to cooperate with the party of which he’s never been a member in confirming the choice of a candidate whose views on some of the issues he cares most about are anathema to him. My mind races back to 1992 and the curiously similar situation involving the current front-runner’s husband and Jerry Brown. The California governor is now a (somewhat) mellowed septuagenarian. But Brown in 1992 had fashioned himself the left-leaning insurgent candidate. Then as now, a Clinton got the better of the insurgent, more or less locking things up by mid-March. Brown did not go away gently. He refused to endorse Bill Clinton during the primaries. His speaking spot at the convention was hotly debated, but he was given one, and even then he refused to endorse Clinton; he didn’t even mention his name. What will Bernie do? So far, most of his criticisms of Clinton have been on policy from the left. If he starts attacking her integrity, say—that is, foreshadowing attacks the Republicans will make this fall—he will have crossed an unfortunate line.

Clinton has made some formally friendly statements about Sanders. She will need his ungrudging approbation. Among younger voters, Sanders has beaten her by about four to one. These voters have no living memory of her tenure as First Lady, of the right-wing witch hunt against her, or of the ways in which she was a mold-breaking first spouse. They have no wish to recognize why the 1994 crime bill, vilified in our times by the Black Lives Matter movement as racist, might have seemed a necessary and acceptable compromise then.12 She has shown, shall we say, a limited capacity to communicate these matters to younger voters. She will require his help to get a healthy turnout among them.

It is conceivable—not more than that—that Trump can be stopped. He would need to end the primary season short of the support of a majority of delegates—which means, probably, that Kasich must beat him in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Indiana, and even California, an unlikely outcome. At the convention pledged delegates are released after the first ballot. If he does not win on that ballot and public opinion polls at that time are showing that Kasich would be a stronger candidate against Clinton than Trump would—as they surely will—then one can imagine panicked Republicans risking the wrath of Trump and his angry army by changing their votes and turning against him. But it seems a long shot. He will be so far ahead. The rules are the rules. But if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that Trump can change the rules.

Some Republicans and conservative activists are also trying to hatch an independent conservative candidacy. There are many obstacles to such a scheme, starting with how many state ballots such a candidate could qualify for, and ending with the question of whether such a person wouldn’t simply ensure a Clinton victory by splitting the center-right vote.

It would seem that Clinton should be able to beat Trump. In recent polls matching the two of them against each other, she leads him consistently—nationally by eight or nine points, and in crucial states by fairly comfortable margins, like eight in Florida and five or six in Ohio.13 A number of Republicans would declare for her—including remaining moderates, and foreign policy neoconservatives, who fear Trump’s wanton tendencies and hope against hope that Clinton is an ally (about this they are wrong), or will, in sponsoring more assertive policies abroad, at least be more palatable from their perspective than Obama (about this they are alas right). Latino turnout against Trump should set records.

But it’s quite early for all such speculations. The more immediate concern is how much more deeply Trump can distort the political process. That process certainly wasn’t anything to brag about pre-Trump, and as frightening as he is, he has made a few observations that are true and reasonable, notably that the political system has been utterly incapable of doing anything for at least the last fifteen years to help most of the people who have flocked to him.

Clinton should be mindful of these spare legitimate strands of Trumpismus, strands that Sanders in his very different way has sought to identify and appeal to, and think of ways to reach the millions of people who live in shelled-out communities and have made no economic progress. Many, probably most of them, are motivated more by hate and fear, and they’ll stick with Trump. But it would still be an error to write them off. That will only push them en bloc into the demagogue’s embrace. He shouldn’t be allowed to win any more victories for lack of opponents.

  1. 1

    See Katherine Clarke, “Take a Peek Inside Donald Trump’s Vast Portfolio of Private Homes,” New York Daily News, July 27, 2015.  

  2. 2

    See Donovan Slack, “Poll: Romney Helps More Than Hurts Trump with Republicans,” USA Today, March 8, 2016.  

  3. 3

    See Philip Bump, “Surprise! Voters Don’t Seem to Hold Violence at Trump Rallies Against Him,” The Washington Post, March 14, 2016.  

  4. 4

    See Harry Enten, “It’s Still Not Clear That Donald Trump Will Get a Majority of Delegates,” FiveThirtyEight, March 16, 2016.  

  5. 5

    Quoted in Joachim C. Fest, Hitler (Harcourt Brace, 1974), p. 387.  

  6. 6

    See Hadas Gold, “Trump Infomercial Captivates Networks,” Politico, March 9, 2016.  

  7. 7

    See, for example, Nicholas Confessore and Karen Yourish, “Measuring Donald Trump’s Mammoth Advantage in Free Media,” The New York Times, March 15, 2016.  

  8. 8

    See Paul Bond, “Leslie Moonves on Donald Trump: ‘It May Not Be Good for America, But It’s Damn Good for CBS,’” The Hollywood Reporter, February 29, 2016.  

  9. 9

    So suggested FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, who tweeted the night of March 8 that the Sanders win was on track to be an even bigger upset than Gary Hart’s 1984 victory in New Hampshire over Walter Mondale, which Silver said had held the record for being at greatest variance with the pre-balloting polls.  

  10. 10

    See Joshua Holland, “Did the Chaos and Violence at Trump’s Rallies Push Clinton Over the Top on Tuesday?” The Nation, March 16, 2016.  

  11. 11

    There is a further irony here in the fact that Tad Devine, Sanders’s top strategist, participated in devising the superdelegate scheme after the 1980 election.  

  12. 12

    The crime bill passed in 1994, when crime rates were much higher than today. In the House of Representatives, for example, about three quarters of all Democrats (188–64) and two thirds of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus (23–11) voted for the bill. Bernie Sanders voted for it as well.  

  13. 13

    270towin.com allows the visitor to focus on possible head-to-head matchups, and my national numbers come from that site. RealClearPolitics posts all the latest polls; my Florida and Ohio numbers are from there. 

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The Minefield of Primo Levi: An Exchange

Primo Levi at home in Turin, Italy, 1985
Rene Burri/Magnum PhotosPrimo Levi at home in Turin, Italy, 1985

To the Editors:

As one of the ten translators involved in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, I appreciate the attention that Tim Parks has now dedicated to the issue of translation in his NYR Daily posts, after sidestepping it in his original review (“The Mystery of Primo Levi,” November 5, 2015). While I realize how daunting it must have been to read and comment on a three-volume work, I was still surprised by this initial omission. There were very strong reasons for publishing the complete works, and in new translations, which Robert Weil lays out in his essay, “Primo Levi in America” at the end of Volume III. Levi had been published in English in piecemeal fashion, and in translations of varying quality that have long been deemed inadequate by reviewers and scholars. In the case of If This Is a Man, moreover, Levi had revised the work from one edition to the next, and the translation had to be adjusted accordingly. Not to mention the fact (which Parks does not, in fact, mention) that the original translator of the work, Stuart Woolf, had never sent in his corrected proofs to his American publisher due to a contract dispute.

In the three-part series that Parks has just completed for The New York Review’s online magazine, he tries to compensate for this failure by walking the reader through a translator’s thinking process. And while I share many of the concerns he expresses—such as his distaste for “translationese” and exotic renderings of everyday language—his observations are undermined by odd notions about American readers and mean-spirited attacks on editor/translator Ann Goldstein.

Parks starts with a good description of Levi’s style: “Often a direct, speaking voice shifts between the colloquial and the literary, the ironically highfalutin and the grittily scientific…the relationship into which he draws us, is a complex and highly mobile animal.” What is missing here, however, is any sense of just how fastidious a writer Levi was, and how dense the intertextual universe he created. This becomes immediately apparent in the first example Parks cites, from If This Is a Man, which Stuart Woolf renders as:

And it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone. You are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, the only way out is through the Chimney. (What does that mean? We’ll soon learn very well what it means.)

Parks focuses his analysis on the second half of the passage (starting with “the only way out”), but it is in the first half that we see a key motif in Levi’s writing. Levi seized on the figure of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner as the embodiment of his own compulsion to tell his story, over and over again, in different forms and genres throughout his life. The alliterative and redundant “refrain/repeated” (ritornello/ripetere in Italian) captures that obsessive rhythm in a way that Parks’s more matter-of-fact “Everybody keeps repeating the same thing” does not.

Another example is cherry-picked from Ann Goldstein’s translation of The Truce, supposedly to illustrate her misunderstanding of what Parks calls “ordinary practice in Italian”:

It seemed that the weariness and the illness, like fierce, vile beasts, had been lying in wait for the moment when I was stripped of every defense to assault me from behind.

Parks criticizes Goldstein for using the passive “I was stripped” where the Italian was the active (and reflexive) mi spogliavo, but the virtue of her choice—by contrast to Parks’s “I let my defenses drop”—is the way it resonates with the larger narrative of the concentration camp universe, and the humiliating public nakedness to which the prisoners were subjected. Parks continuously overstates the plainness of Levi’s prose, and whenever he tries to poke holes in Goldstein’s translation, he offers infelicities of his own: “moved out” rather than the technically (and literally) more accurate “evacuated”; “amorous couplings shook the roof” (ouch!) rather than “love meetings like hurricanes.”

I can sympathize with Parks’s difficulties. My own practice as a translator hews closer to his, but as I worked my way into The Drowned and the Saved, I found that prose which had at first appeared straightforward was in fact a minefield, and that my usual preference for a vigorous approach would not be true to Levi’s more guarded voice. I kept stumbling upon single words (such as allegrezza) and entire passages that, in the guise of plain standard Italian, quietly evoked the great Italian poets of the past. To this I would add that nothing is harder to translate than concision, and Levi is a very economical writer. Take this single sentence from “The Gray Zone”: “Regardless of the pity and indignation [the survivor’s memories] arouse, they should be read with a critical eye.”

I was very fortunate to have had Ann Goldstein as my editor. For a translator it is very easy to become so focused on one word that you lose sight of the larger picture, and she constantly drew my attention back to the cadences of Levi’s sentences, and to the way he built his way up to powerful, authoritative statements through his deliberate though never strident syntax. I have no doubt but that she lent the same “rigorous degree of accuracy” to the other texts in this monumental undertaking. Contrary to Parks’s claims that If This Is a Man received only light edits, for example, I count almost twenty changes per page when I compare the old version to the new one.

As for Goldstein’s work as a translator, for Parks to dismiss it as “ankylosed prose”—a phrase unfortunately making the rounds of social media—is a vicious misrepresentation. Parks dedicates six paragraphs to his analysis of the word “ankylosed”: so much for his claim that he has no space to address translation issues in a review! But I suppose Goldstein is not in bad company: for good measure Parks decides to throw a jab at the late William Weaver (“Umberto Eco was better translated by Geoffrey Brock and Richard Dixon than by William Weaver”), in a gratuitous statement that is unsupported and untrue.

I am sure other Americans are as amused as I am by Parks’s assertions about our habits, such as, “a certain credit or self-esteem now attaches itself to reading translations,” and, even more improbably, “the American reader of translated novels is predisposed to read a rather different, non-standard English.” I would very much enjoy it if he could rewrite his observations about the American publishing industry—including a chorus representing the “translators’ lobby”—in the form of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

Michael F. Moore
Michael F. Moore is a translator at the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations.

 

Tim Parks replies:

Many thanks to Michael F. Moore for this letter. By all means let there be debate. There has been far too little in the past.

But first a premise. My pieces for the NYR Daily are all meticulously edited, often going back and forth a half-dozen times and with much discussion before publication. Quite simply, the editors would not allow me to engage in “mean-spirited attacks,” even should I wish to (a parenthetical “ouch” would not make the cut, I fear). In any event, Moore can rest assured that there is nothing personal in my criticisms, which all arise from a careful reading of the texts. If anything, there was, as I prepared these pieces, a growing wonderment that so much of Levi’s two major memoirs, If This Is A Man and The Truce, should be so poorly translated, even after the huge effort of putting together the Complete Works. Other books in the collection, as I said, including Moore’s rendering of The Drowned and the Saved, are admirably done.

Moore is still surprised, after all I have said in these three articles, that I did not mention the translations in my original New York Review essay. I am surprised at his surprise. Let me spell it out: when a translator who has written widely about translation and spent upwards of twenty years teaching translation, and who as a reviewer of translated books rarely fails to mention the translation, does not in one very prominent case mention the translation, it is very likely because he wishes that on this occasion the cup might pass from him. He feels that if he is to say how bad some of this translation is he will have to back up his claims with many examples. He feels the amount of effort required will entirely hijack his review of Levi (in whom he is more interested than the translations). Only when repeatedly criticized for this omission, does he finally and with some reluctance set out to say what he thinks, knowing as he does so that letters crying scandal will ensue.

Now to Moore’s specific criticisms. Addressing passages translated by Ann Goldstein (and Woolf) I remarked that it would be “unfair to criticize others without offering up something of one’s one to be shot down.” Moore has accepted the challenge and, again, I welcome that. I won’t weary readers going through every point he makes. Those interested can easily search for my discussion of each passage, compare it with Moore’s and draw their own conclusions. Two points, however, do seem to demand comment, in that they suggest, in defense of the published translation, a more sophisticated and literary approach.

In The Truce, Goldstein translates mi spogliavo di ogni difesa—literally “I undressed myself of every defense”—with “I was stripped of every defense,” making Levi the victim of an aggressive action rather than the agent of his own undoing. Moore defends this with an appeal to the attention Levi repeatedly draws to the humiliation of being stripped naked in the camps. I agree that it would be good to keep the image of undressing if possible, but Levi is not in the camps at this point; he is safe, and, ironically, it is precisely because he is safe that he relaxes, and precisely when he relaxes and lets his defenses drop—when he is the one who removes his clothes, if you like—that “tiredness and illness attack from behind like wild beasts.” Goldstein’s version loses the psychology and irony of this: Levi is stripped by someone, we don’t know whom, then the beasts attack. This is simply a mistake, a muddying of metaphor.

The other question is the supposed intertextual reference to “The Ancient Mariner.” Levi has just arrived at Auschwitz where he and his companions are constantly being told by other inmates that they are “not at home now,” in the sense that they can’t expect to be comfortable in any way. Levi writes, using a typical Italian structure and syntax: Ed è questo il ritornello che da tutti ci sentiamo ripetere—literally, “And it is this trite phrase/refrain that we hear everyone repeating.” Here, because of the word ritornello (refrain) and its alliteration, at a distance, with ripetere (repeat), Moore invites us to imagine that we have an allusion to “The Ancient Mariner” (a poem without refrains). It is true Levi often likened his own compulsion to tell about the camps to the Mariner’s compulsion to tell his story, but to defend Stuart Woolf’s clunky translation, typically following the Italian structure—“And it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone”— with the notion that he is remaining faithful to some intertextual game that Levi is playing is to be guilty of what the translation theorists call “over-interpretation.” Loyalty to a colleague is admirable, but perhaps not always conducive to clear thinking.

Moore appreciated Goldstein’s work as an editor and doubts there are many errors in the works of other translators. Mentecatto, “madman,” translated as “beggar” (in Italian mendicante), and si lascia trascinare, “he gets carried away,” translated as “he drones on,” are two that come to mind from the many I underlined. Here, for example, is an issue in Moore’s translation, indicating, as he points out, just how tricky, even with his plain style, Levi could be. Discussing the way people distort the story of their past complicity with the Holocaust, Levi questions whether their psychology can be reduced to a straightforward question of good and bad faith. Moore writes:

Anyone with sufficient experience of human affairs knows that the distinction … between good and bad faith is optimistic and enlightened

“Optimistic and enlightened” sounds entirely positive, suggesting that the distinction in question would not be something one would want to argue with. Suspecting a problem, I turned to the Italian:

Ora, chiunque abbia sufficiente esperienza delle cose umane sa che la distinzione … buona fede / mala fede è ottimistica ed illuministica

Illuministico does not mean “enlightened”—that would be illuminato—but rather “pertaining to the Enlighten­ment,” a specific reference to the intellectual movement. Levi is telling us that only someone fed on optimistic, Enlightenment ideas could believe in a sharp distinction between good and bad faith. Since English does not have an equivalent of illuministico, some expansion is required here. It is the kind of problem translators hope their editors will pick up. In passing, I wonder how wise it was to ask one of the ten translators of the Complete Works to be its overall editor. From a methodological point of view it would surely have made more sense to have someone from outside editing all the translators in the same way. After all, who edited Goldstein?

And so to William Weaver. My third article was about translators and their reputations. I pointed out that a translator can acquire a certain celebrity when a book he or she translates has a huge success; while an equally good or indeed more accomplished translation of a less successful book will not bring its translator the same attention. This situation can skew the way translation assignments are made. Already well-established, Weaver achieved a certain celebrity after Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983). This reached the point that, as Carol Janeway, editor at Knopf, complained to me in the early 1990s, Italian authors would demand that English language publishers commission Weaver to translate their works, imagining this was the way to success. However, Janeway, herself a fine translator, had stopped using Weaver because she believed his translations poor and she had personally spent an awful lot of time rewriting them—Elsa Morante’s History, in particular. Michael F. Moore is right that it would have been wise of me to support my comment. Perhaps when I find time and energy I will put together an article on Weaver’s work and reputation. It is long overdue.

Finally, ankylosed. What can I do but remind Moore that it was Goldstein, not I, who brought this obscure, cumbersome, and for many readers incomprehensible word into the mix, to render, let’s remember, the entirely commonplace Italian word, anchilosato (“stiff” or “withered”)? I felt this kind of dictionary work, the frequent reliance on cognates —“quintals,” “desquamation”—regardless of differences in tone and register, was emblematic of aspects of her translation, suggesting an unawareness of Italian usage. Moore says he shares my concern for “exotic renderings of everyday language.” It’s hard to understand why he’s not with me on this.

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The Minefield of Primo Levi: An Exchange

Primo Levi at home in Turin, Italy, 1985
Rene Burri/Magnum PhotosPrimo Levi at home in Turin, Italy, 1985

To the Editors:

As one of the ten translators involved in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, I appreciate the attention that Tim Parks has now dedicated to the issue of translation in his blog posts, after sidestepping it in his original review (“The Mystery of Primo Levi,” November 5, 2015). While I realize how daunting it must have been to read and comment on a three-volume work, I was still surprised by this initial omission. There were very strong reasons for publishing the complete works, and in new translations, which Robert Weil lays out in his essay, “Primo Levi in America” at the end of Volume III. Levi had been published in English in piecemeal fashion, and in translations of varying quality that have long been deemed inadequate by reviewers and scholars. In the case of If This Is a Man, moreover, Levi had revised the work from one edition to the next, and the translation had to be adjusted accordingly. Not to mention the fact (which Parks does not, in fact, mention) that the original translator of the work, Stuart Woolf, had never sent in his corrected proofs to his American publisher due to a contract dispute.

In the three-part series that Parks has just completed for The New York Review’s online magazine, he tries to compensate for this failure by walking the reader through a translator’s thinking process. And while I share many of the concerns he expresses—such as his distaste for “translationese” and exotic renderings of everyday language—his observations are undermined by odd notions about American readers and mean-spirited attacks on editor/translator Ann Goldstein.

Parks starts with a good description of Levi’s style: “Often a direct, speaking voice shifts between the colloquial and the literary, the ironically highfalutin and the grittily scientific…the relationship into which he draws us, is a complex and highly mobile animal.” What is missing here, however, is any sense of just how fastidious a writer Levi was, and how dense the intertextual universe he created. This becomes immediately apparent in the first example Parks cites, from If This Is a Man, which Stuart Woolf renders as:

And it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone. You are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, the only way out is through the Chimney. (What does that mean? We’ll soon learn very well what it means.)

Parks focuses his analysis on the second half of the passage (starting with “the only way out”), but it is in the first half that we see a key motif in Levi’s writing. Levi seized on the figure of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner as the embodiment of his own compulsion to tell his story, over and over again, in different forms and genres throughout his life. The alliterative and redundant “refrain/repeated” (ritornello/ripetere in Italian) captures that obsessive rhythm in a way that Parks’s more matter-of-fact “Everybody keeps repeating the same thing” does not.

Another example is cherry-picked from Ann Goldstein’s translation of The Truce, supposedly to illustrate her misunderstanding of what Parks calls “ordinary practice in Italian”:

It seemed that the weariness and the illness, like fierce, vile beasts, had been lying in wait for the moment when I was stripped of every defense to assault me from behind.

Parks criticizes Goldstein for using the passive “I was stripped” where the Italian was the active (and reflexive) mi spogliavo, but the virtue of her choice—by contrast to Parks’s “I let my defenses drop”—is the way it resonates with the larger narrative of the concentration camp universe, and the humiliating public nakedness to which the prisoners were subjected. Parks continuously overstates the plainness of Levi’s prose, and whenever he tries to poke holes in Goldstein’s translation, he offers infelicities of his own: “moved out” rather than the technically (and literally) more accurate “evacuated”; “amorous couplings shook the roof” (ouch!) rather than “love meetings like hurricanes.”

I can sympathize with Parks’s difficulties. My own practice as a translator hews closer to his, but as I worked my way into The Drowned and the Saved, I found that prose which had at first appeared straightforward was in fact a minefield, and that my usual preference for a vigorous approach would not be true to Levi’s more guarded voice. I kept stumbling upon single words (such as allegrezza) and entire passages that, in the guise of plain standard Italian, quietly evoked the great Italian poets of the past. To this I would add that nothing is harder to translate than concision, and Levi is a very economical writer. Take this single sentence from “The Gray Zone”: “Regardless of the pity and indignation [the survivor’s memories] arouse, they should be read with a critical eye.”

I was very fortunate to have had Ann Goldstein as my editor. For a translator it is very easy to become so focused on one word that you lose sight of the larger picture, and she constantly drew my attention back to the cadences of Levi’s sentences, and to the way he built his way up to powerful, authoritative statements through his deliberate though never strident syntax. I have no doubt but that she lent the same “rigorous degree of accuracy” to the other texts in this monumental undertaking. Contrary to Parks’s claims that If This Is a Man received only light edits, for example, I count almost twenty changes per page when I compare the old version to the new one.

As for Goldstein’s work as a translator, for Parks to dismiss it as “ankylosed prose”—a phrase unfortunately making the rounds of social media—is a vicious misrepresentation. Parks dedicates six paragraphs to his analysis of the word “ankylosed”: so much for his claim that he has no space to address translation issues in a review! But I suppose Goldstein is not in bad company: for good measure Parks decides to throw a jab at the late William Weaver (“Umberto Eco was better translated by Geoffrey Brock and Richard Dixon than by William Weaver”), in a gratuitous statement that is unsupported and untrue.

I am sure other Americans are as amused as I am by Parks’s assertions about our habits, such as, “a certain credit or self-esteem now attaches itself to reading translations,” and, even more improbably, “the American reader of translated novels is predisposed to read a rather different, non-standard English.” I would very much enjoy it if he could rewrite his observations about the American publishing industry—including a chorus representing the “translators’ lobby”—in the form of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

Michael F. Moore
Michael F. Moore is a translator at the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations.

 

Tim Parks replies:

Many thanks to Michael F. Moore for this letter. By all means let there be debate. There has been far too little in the past.

But first a premise. My pieces for The New York Review Daily are all meticulously edited, often going back and forth a half-dozen times and with much discussion before publication. Quite simply, the editors would not allow me to engage in “mean-spirited attacks,” even should I wish to (a parenthetical “ouch” would not make the cut, I fear). In any event, Moore can rest assured that there is nothing personal in my criticisms, which all arise from a careful reading of the texts. If anything, there was, as I prepared these pieces, a growing wonderment that so much of Levi’s two major memoirs, If This Is A Man and The Truce, should be so poorly translated, even after the huge effort of putting together the Complete Works. Other books in the collection, as I said, including Moore’s rendering of The Drowned and the Saved, are admirably done.

Moore is still surprised, after all I have said in these three articles, that I did not mention the translations in my original New York Review essay. I am surprised at his surprise. Let me spell it out: when a translator who has written widely about translation and spent upwards of twenty years teaching translation, and who as a reviewer of translated books rarely fails to mention the translation, does not in one very prominent case mention the translation, it is very likely because he wishes that on this occasion the cup might pass from him. He feels that if he is to say how bad some of this translation is he will have to back up his claims with many examples. He feels the amount of effort required will entirely hijack his review of Levi (in whom he is more interested than the translations). Only when repeatedly criticized for this omission, does he finally and with some reluctance set out to say what he thinks, knowing as he does so that letters crying scandal will ensue.

Now to Moore’s specific criticisms. Addressing passages translated by Ann Goldstein (and Woolf) I remarked that it would be “unfair to criticize others without offering up something of one’s one to be shot down.” Moore has accepted the challenge and, again, I welcome that. I won’t weary readers going through every point he makes. Those interested can easily search for my discussion of each passage, compare it with Moore’s and draw their own conclusions. Two points, however, do seem to demand comment, in that they suggest, in defense of the published translation, a more sophisticated and literary approach.

In The Truce, Goldstein translates mi spogliavo di ogni difesa—literally “I undressed myself of every defense”—with “I was stripped of every defense,” making Levi the victim of an aggressive action rather than the agent of his own undoing. Moore defends this with an appeal to the attention Levi repeatedly draws to the humiliation of being stripped naked in the camps. I agree that it would be good to keep the image of undressing if possible, but Levi is not in the camps at this point; he is safe, and, ironically, it is precisely because he is safe that he relaxes, and precisely when he relaxes and lets his defenses drop—when he is the one who removes his clothes, if you like—that “tiredness and illness attack from behind like wild beasts.” Goldstein’s version loses the psychology and irony of this: Levi is stripped by someone, we don’t know whom, then the beasts attack. This is simply a mistake, a muddying of metaphor.

The other question is the supposed intertextual reference to “The Ancient Mariner.” Levi has just arrived at Auschwitz where he and his companions are constantly being told by other inmates that they are “not at home now,” in the sense that they can’t expect to be comfortable in any way. Levi writes, using a typical Italian structure and syntax: Ed è questo il ritornello che da tutti ci sentiamo ripetere—literally, “And it is this trite phrase/refrain that we hear everyone repeating.” Here, because of the word ritornello (refrain) and its alliteration, at a distance, with ripetere (repeat), Moore invites us to imagine that we have an allusion to “The Ancient Mariner” (a poem without refrains). It is true Levi often likened his own compulsion to tell about the camps to the Mariner’s compulsion to tell his story, but to defend Stuart Woolf’s clunky translation, typically following the Italian structure—“And it is this refrain that we hear repeated by everyone”— with the notion that he is remaining faithful to some intertextual game that Levi is playing is to be guilty of what the translation theorists call “over-interpretation.” Loyalty to a colleague is admirable, but perhaps not always conducive to clear thinking.

Moore appreciated Goldstein’s work as an editor and doubts there are many errors in the works of other translators. Mentecatto, “madman,” translated as “beggar” (in Italian mendicante), and si lascia trascinare, “he gets carried away,” translated as “he drones on,” are two that come to mind from the many I underlined. Here, for example, is an issue in Moore’s translation, indicating, as he points out, just how tricky, even with his plain style, Levi could be. Discussing the way people distort the story of their past complicity with the Holocaust, Levi questions whether their psychology can be reduced to a straightforward question of good and bad faith. Moore writes:

Anyone with sufficient experience of human affairs knows that the distinction … between good and bad faith is optimistic and enlightened

“Optimistic and enlightened” sounds entirely positive, suggesting that the distinction in question would not be something one would want to argue with. Suspecting a problem, I turned to the Italian:

Ora, chiunque abbia sufficiente esperienza delle cose umane sa che la distinzione … buona fede / mala fede è ottimistica ed illuministica

Illuministico does not mean “enlightened”—that would be illuminato—but rather “pertaining to the Enlighten­ment,” a specific reference to the intellectual movement. Levi is telling us that only someone fed on optimistic, Enlightenment ideas could believe in a sharp distinction between good and bad faith. Since English does not have an equivalent of illuministico, some expansion is required here. It is the kind of problem translators hope their editors will pick up. In passing, I wonder how wise it was to ask one of the ten translators of the Complete Works to be its overall editor. From a methodological point of view it would surely have made more sense to have someone from outside editing all the translators in the same way. After all, who edited Goldstein?

And so to William Weaver. My third article was about translators and their reputations. I pointed out that a translator can acquire a certain celebrity when a book he or she translates has a huge success; while an equally good or indeed more accomplished translation of a less successful book will not bring its translator the same attention. This situation can skew the way translation assignments are made. Already well-established, Weaver achieved a certain celebrity after Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983). This reached the point that, as Carol Janeway, editor at Knopf, complained to me in the early 1990s, Italian authors would demand that English language publishers commission Weaver to translate their works, imagining this was the way to success. However, Janeway, herself a fine translator, had stopped using Weaver because she believed his translations poor and she had personally spent an awful lot of time rewriting them—Elsa Morante’s History, in particular. Michael F. Moore is right that it would have been wise of me to support my comment. Perhaps when I find time and energy I will put together an article on Weaver’s work and reputation. It is long overdue.

Finally, ankylosed. What can I do but remind Moore that it was Goldstein, not I, who brought this obscure, cumbersome, and for many readers incomprehensible word into the mix, to render, let’s remember, the entirely commonplace Italian word, anchilosato (“stiff” or “withered”)? I felt this kind of dictionary work, the frequent reliance on cognates —“quintals,” “desquamation”—regardless of differences in tone and register, was emblematic of aspects of her translation, suggesting an unawareness of Italian usage. Moore says he shares my concern for “exotic renderings of everyday language.” It’s hard to understand why he’s not with me on this.

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Ireland: ‘A Terrible Beauty Is Born’

Students being drilled at St. Enda’s, the school founded by Patrick Pearse, Dublin, circa 1910. The teacher leading them is probably Con Colbert, who was later executed for his part in the Easter Rising.
Pearse Museum, DublinStudents being drilled at St. Enda’s, the school founded by Patrick Pearse, Dublin, circa 1910. The teacher leading them is probably Con Colbert, who was later executed for his part in the Easter Rising.

R.F. Foster’s Vivid Faces is a study of the “backgrounds and mentalities of those who made the revolution” in Ireland in 1916. On the morning of Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, members of the Irish Volunteers, a nationalist military organization, and the Citizen Army, a group of trade union volunteers, numbering in all about four hundred, marched into Sackville Street—now O’Connell Street—in Dublin and seized the most notable public building, the General Post Office. Uncertain in number, they were certain in aim: to declare a sovereign Irish republic that was independent of Great Britain. In another part of the city, then allies Éamon de Valera, Éamonn Ceannt, the Countess Markievicz, and other nationalist leaders assembled their troops close to various buildings, such as Boland’s Mills, and took possession of them.

Shortly after noon, Patrick Pearse, in effect the leader of the insurgents, came out of the General Post Office and read a one-page statement, headed (in Irish) “Poblacht na hÉireann,” followed by “The Provisional Government of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland.” The statement, addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen,” began:

In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

Five brief paragraphs followed. The first called upon the support of Ireland’s “exiled children in America” and “gallant allies in Europe,” these last unnamed but evidently referring to the German government, which was expected in feeble theory to invade Ireland with troops, artillery, and ammunition on behalf of the new Irish government. The second paragraph maintained that “six times during the past three hundred years” the Irish people had asserted, in arms, their right “to national freedom and sovereignty.” Standing on that right, “and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world,” the Provisional Government proclaimed “the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State.”

The third paragraph guaranteed “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens,” notwithstanding “the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.” The British government, that is, which had divided Protestants in the north from Catholics throughout the island. Paragraph four: until a permanent national government is established, we “the Provisional Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.” Finally the peroration: the Irish nation must “prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.” The date, Easter 1916, was carefully chosen, and not only for its Christian emblems. Those who chose it were counting on several facts: the Great War was nineteen months old, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity,” and the United States was still in theory neutral.

The proclamation was signed, “on behalf of the Provisional Government,” by Thomas J. Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada, P.H. Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh, Éamonn Ceannt, and Joseph Plunkett. The passersby to whom Pearse read the proclamation showed no interest in it and were evidently hostile when they heard what it was about.

So the Easter Rising began. The officers of the Crown were taken aback, though the atmosphere in Dublin Castle, the headquarters of the ruling British government, was thick with hints and guesses. The authorities needed a day or two to gather their soldiers and bring a gunboat up the Liffey River, but when the army was directed into the city and started shelling the buildings held by the rebels, the defeat of Pearse and his troops was inevitable. He surrendered, unconditionally, after five days, on Saturday, April 29. According to Foster, during the Rising 450 people, soldiers and civilians, were killed, “2,614 wounded, 9 missing; of those, 116 soldiers had been killed, 368 wounded and 9 missing, along with 16 policemen dead and 29 wounded. Out of 1,558 combatant insurgents, 64 rebels had died.”

Between May 3 and 12, fifteen of the leaders were arrested, court-martialed for high treason, and executed. De Valera was not executed; having been born in America, he was a special case. Sir Roger Casement, who had been knighted for his reports on human rights abuses in Peru and had also investigated conditions in the Congo, was arrested in County Kerry on his return from an abortive mission to gain German support for the insurgents, was brought to England, and hanged in Pentonville Gaol on August 3. Hundreds of men and about seventy-seven women were arrested. Most of the women were released early in May; a few were interned. Constance Markievicz was tried by court-martial and sentenced to death, but her sentence was commuted. The men who were not executed were gradually released over the next year.

As a military exercise, the Rising was a botch. Professor Eoin MacNeill was chief of staff of the Volunteers, but Pearse and Mac Diarmada kept him uninformed of their plans. MacNeill was not opposed, in principle, to a rising, but he insisted that the conditions in favor of such an action were not present in Ireland in April 1916. Pearse’s Rising was supposed to begin on Easter Sunday, but MacNeill, hearing rumor of it, countermanded the decision, and put a notice to that effect in the Sunday Independent. Pearse and his friends decided to ignore him and to call out their troops on Monday morning. They had a fair-sized army at their disposal in Dublin, and some troops in Cork, but in rural Ireland there was chaos.

My uncle, Séamus Ó Neill, had been since boyhood a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in 1858 to work for an independent Irish republic. In April 1916 he was living at home in Clonmel, County Tipperary, and was second-in-command to Sean Treacy in that county. They were ready to rise, and to attack local police stations or military barracks as instructed. But between Pearse’s yes and MacNeill’s no, they were bewildered. Not knowing what to do, they did nothing. Within a few weeks after the Rising in Dublin, my uncle was arrested, consigned to various jails in Ireland, England, and Wales, went on hunger strike in (I think) Frongoch, and was released in the spring of 1917.

His insurgent days were over. He taught at Rockwell College, devoted himself to his first love, the Irish language, and spent a lot of time in Ring, the Irish college in County Waterford, where he met and married the poet Una ni Cuidithe. He took no part in the War of Independence, between 1919 and 1921, or in the Civil War of 1922 and 1923. When the Irish Free State was established in 1922, he joined the police force, the Garda Síochána, was quickly promoted, and enjoyed a long career as Inspector of the Garda in Galway, the district that included the Irish-speaking Aran Islands where the local court conducted its business in Irish.

My uncle is not mentioned in Foster’s book, nor should he be; he was a minor figure. But there must be larger figures of his type, men and women of “the revolutionary generation,” as Foster calls it, who survived but whose insurgency was thwarted, displaced, or turned aside to serve another cause.

Botched as the Rising was, it had a dramatic effect on the attitudes of the ordinary people of Ireland—or the executions had. Something like Pearse’s vision came about: the sacrifice of the holy few transformed the lazy many. Within a short time, even those who were indifferent or hostile to the Rising in April gave their sympathy to the insurgent party Sinn Fein (Ourselves) and turned against the constitutionalists, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which advocated that Ireland continue as part of Great Britain, represented in the British Parliament with the aim of being granted Home Rule by the British government. The British threat to impose military conscription on Ireland in early 1918 also did much to turn Irish people against the Empire. In the election of 1918 the IPP was virtually wiped out. Sinn Fein won 73 of the 105 seats. A mystique began to suffuse the memory of the executed leaders of 1916, especially Pearse, which has not disappeared. Yeats wrote in “Sixteen Dead Men”:

You say that we should still the land
Till Germany’s overcome;
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?

In poems and prose, Pearse, several years before 1916, invoked Christ’s blood sacrifice, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. He was not ashamed to associate those supernal images with his own love of Ireland and the Irish language, along with Ireland’s dead heroes, especially Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone. In “The Coming Revolution” he wrote: “We may make mistakes in the beginning, and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing.” Yeats, who knew him well enough, thought him half-crazed, “flirting with the gallows-tree,” but he had a different attitude, too, at least sometimes. The mystique to which I have referred still surrounds Pearse, Connolly, Mac Diarmada, and the other martyrs, despite many efforts by revisionist historians—the School of Irony, as I think of them—to dispel it.

Irish rebels during the Easter Rising, 1916
Mondadori Portfolio/Getty ImagesIrish rebels during the Easter Rising, 1916

Foster is one of the most persuasive of those historians. Like his mentor, the late F.S.L. Lyons, he evidently thinks that, given a little more time, the IPP would have delivered Home Rule and that it would have been worth waiting for, if only as a step toward eventual sovereignty. But the IPP, with its aim of Home Rule, had already waited a long time. Prime Minister William Gladstone first introduced a Home Rule bill for Ireland in 1886: it was defeated, and defeated again in 1893 by the House of Lords. A third attempt, on January 30, 1913, was defeated by the House of Lords. In 1914 a Home Rule bill was passed, but its application was suspended until the end of the Great War. The Government of Ireland Act, passed on December 23, 1920, excluded six counties of the north—Derry, Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone, and Fermanagh—four of which had secure Unionist majorities. The Northern Unionists, who were allied with the British, at first wanted all nine counties of ancient Ulster, until it was pointed out that in three counties—Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan—a Unionist majority could not be relied on forever. So the leaders of the Northern Unionists, Edward Carson and later James Craig, settled for six. Partition, as we call it, was enforced. This is where Foster’s reading of a poem by Yeats comes in.

He takes the title of his book from Yeats’s “Easter 1916,” which begins:

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.

Yeats goes on to meditate on the transformation of these ordinary men and one distinguished woman, each of them “changed in his turn,/Transformed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.” I read “A terrible beauty” as Yeats’s phrase for the sublime, that experience of astonishment, terror, dread, and ultimate pleasure that Edmund Burke described in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757): “Whatever is qualified to cause terror is a foundation capable of the sublime.” Many of the ordinary people of Ireland, I judge, felt a sense of the sublime, even if they never heard of the word, when they thought of the “sixteen dead men,” to refer to another of Yeats’s poems of 1916.

Near the end of “Easter 1916,” Yeats has these lines:

Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.

This is often taken to mean: “The Rebels should have been patient, should have given the IPP a bit more time.” But the only faith that England kept—most clearly from February 6, 1912, when Lloyd George and Winston Churchill proposed, in cabinet, to exclude the north from any Home Rule bill, leaving it ultimately under British control—was the inviolable character of Protestant Unionism. That could not be touched. Dublin would have to put up with it. And so it has put up with it from that day until now. The Good Friday Agreement, signed on April 10, 1998, repeated the guarantee in favor of the north, “unless”…but the unless is a fraud since the agreement held that the north would remain separate. It is a fraud unless and until a majority in the north is in favor of joining the south. But such a majority could not happen from here to eternity.

Foster’s aim in Vivid Faces, as I interpret it, is to remove the halo of the sublime from the martyred Pearse and his friends, and to present “the revolutionary generation” as a generation like any other: just like the American, the French, the Russian, Paris in 1968, Berkeley, any rising you care to name. He recognizes that a sense of the sublime is not subject to criticism: there is no point in assuring a victim or an adept of the sublime that he has nothing to fear; he has plenty to fear, to begin with, and he must tense his nerves and feel satisfaction in doing so.

Foster wants to restore the martyrs to the ordinariness from which they came, those men and women with small jobs or minor professions in Dublin; he must undo Yeats’s poem, delete the terrible beauty. That will not be easy, because empirical considerations are likely to be ineffective in such a case. It will not make any difference to John MacBride’s martyrdom if you keep saying that he was a drunk and that he abused Maud Gonne’s daughter Iseult. Yeats knew this, and it made no difference; that is what his poem is about.

Foster is likely to meet a similar difficulty when he says, as he keeps saying in this book, that the Rising was a function of its generation, the youngsters fighting their parents. He first proposed this theme, “the clash of generations,” in his Modern Ireland, 1600–1972 (1988). It is true that John Redmond and the IPP seemed to have been over there in Westminster forever, but Sinn Fein ousted them not because they were old but because they did not do what Charles Stewart Parnell, the head of the IPP, left undone when he died in 1891.

Here I should declare an interest. I have always thought of myself as a nationalist and hoped against hope for a United Ireland in my lifetime. The fact that I lived in a police barracks in Northern Ireland, where my father, a Catholic, was the local police sergeant in a largely Protestant force, probably had something to do with that sentiment. But I now think that partition was inevitable and that it could not now, or in any foreseeable future, be undone. I say this in view of several facts. For example, there was Edward Carson’s speech to fifty thousand Unionists at Craigavon on September 23, 1911, calling on them, in the event of Home Rule passing, to take up the government of the Protestant Province of Ulster.

Then between September 19 and 28, 1912, 237,368 men and 234,046 women signed the Ulster Covenant pledging to use “all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.” King George V opened the Parliament of Northern Ireland (six counties) on June 22, 1921. There was no rational hope of a thirty-two-county republic. I would not protest if Professor Foster were to say “Friend, I told you so.”

On the first page of Vivid Faces he quotes in part, not for the first time in his books, F.S.L. Lyons’s saying of Irish diversity, in his Culture and Anarchy in Ireland, 1890–1939 (1979), that it was “a diversity of ways of life which are deeply embedded in the past and of which the much-advertised political differences are but the outward and visible sign”:

This was the true anarchy that beset the country [in the early twentieth century]. During the period from the fall of Parnell to the death of Yeats [1890–1939], it was not primarily an anarchy of violence in the streets, of contempt for law and order such as to make the island, or any part of it, permanently ungovernable. It was rather an anarchy in the mind and in the heart, an anarchy which forbade not just unity of territories, but also “unity of being,” an anarchy that sprang from the collision within a small and intimate island of seemingly irreconcilable cultures, unable to live together or to live apart, caught inextricably in the web of their tragic history.

Clearly this referred, in 1979, to the violence then raging in the north, the war between Unionist and Nationalist or—there is no merit in avoiding the synonyms—between Protestant and Catholic. But the Easter Rising was a war of the Irish Volunteers and a Citizen Army against the British government. Pearse’s enemy was not Carson or the Unionist north: he had no objection to their arming themselves. The quotation from Lyons, in Vivid Faces, is beside the point. Nor does it make much difference to talk of rival cultures instead of rival ideologies: cultures, too, take to gun and bomb.

Foster’s book is divided into nine chapters, each after the first one called by a verbal noun: Fathers and Children, Learning, Playing, Loving, Writing, Arming, Fighting, Reckoning, and Remembering. The book amounts to a social history, a group portrait, based on the standard records and on materials that have recently been made available in the Bureau of Military History; it is based, too, on a large number of letters, diaries, comings-and-goings.

Multitudes are mentioned, and every individual is pinned down by definitive adjectives, mostly reductive. To name only a few, Daniel Corkery is “a devout cultural nationalist,” Bulmer Hobson “a fervent nationalist and Irish-Irelander,” Pearse “a histrionic and charismatic personality,” Edward Martyn a “Wagnerite and lover of boy choirs.” Also “the tireless Seán MacDermott,” “their ineffective dilettante father Count Plunkett,” “the irrepressible McCartan,” “that seasoned armchair revolutionary Liam de Róiste,” “the inevitable Daniel Corkery,” “the ubiquitous Seán T. O’Kelly,” “the brisk young Ulster extremist Pat McCartan.” The intent of these adjectives is to say: “these men were only ordinary people, not heroes.” A “histrionic and charismatic personality” is just a show-off; charisma is cheap. Foster brings the same verve to his use of the adjective “secular”: it is always a term of praise. He is immensely gifted in making normative usage seem self-evident.

Foster has made good use of amateur witnesses, as I may call them, not warriors but presences. Cesca Trench, Rosamond Jacob, and Máire Comerford have valuable things to report. The most telling portrait is of Alice Milligan:

Pioneer journalist and dramatic impresario, suffered through her Northern connections in the War of Independence; she and her brother (an alcoholic ex-British Army officer) were driven out of their Dublin flat under threats from the IRA in 1921, and she lived out the rest of her long life unhappily in Northern Ireland, caring for relatives, and always in need of money. During the revolutionary period she continued to write poems, in a florid Victorian mode which looked increasingly archaic; publication proved more and more difficult, and she took refuge in various forms of psychic activity, convinced that her gift for divination would help Ireland to evade Partition.

The main difference Foster’s book makes is that, like Senia Paseta’s Before the Revolution: Nationalism, Social Change and Ireland’s Catholic Elite, 1879–1922 (Cork University Press, 1999) and Irish Nationalist Women, 1900–1918 (Cambridge University Press, 2013), it brings women into the group portrait. It is no longer possible to think of the Easter Rising as a revolution of men only, or that the women’s groups called Inghinidhe na hÉireann and Cumann na mBan merely washed the dishes. Some of the women have long been well known—Agnes O’Farrelly, Kathleen Lynn, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Helena Molony; and some few have been more than names, as we “murmur name upon name”—the Countess, Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory, Iseult. I infer that Foster still thinks that the IPP should have been given more time, even though the version of Home Rule on offer would not have satisfied Pearse and his colleagues. In an endnote, Foster describes it:

The bicameral Irish parliament was not to have power over matters affecting the crown, peace and war, the army and navy, etc., though they would control the police after six years, and could also claim control over matters such as old-age pensions and insurance. There would still be a Lord-Lieutenant, with veto powers, and the imperial parliament retained amendment powers. Revenue, apart from the Post Office, was to be initially managed through the imperial Exchequer.

In 1914 many Irish people would have thanked the British government for that heap of concessions, but not so many after Easter Monday, 1916.

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Rome: Behind the Ruins

Francis Towne: Inside the Colosseum, 1780
Trustees of the British MuseumFrancis Towne: Inside the Colosseum, 1780

You can feel the heat in the pale blue sky, a burning day in high summer. The year is 1781, and Francis Towne is painting in the shade, looking across a swathe of burnt grass to the church of Santa Maria Nova. The church rubs shoulders with the ruined, foliage-covered arch of a Roman temple and the conjunctions of curve and square, classical and Renaissance, are almost diagrammatic—indeed for the glaring white walls of the church, Towne has simply left a square of white paper. Triangles of shadow emphasize the contrasts, softened by clumpy trees, with the central pointing finger of the campanile cut between the picture’s planes, a trick Towne often used. So elegant is the pale geometry of this watercolor, that it reminds one of—or anticipates—the modernist painters of the 1930s. This is a man both in, and out of, his time.

Towne (1739-1816), who spent most of his career in Exeter, with visits to his native London, has always been one of my favorite eighteenth-century watercolorists, for his flowing outlines and luminous skies. I particularly love his paintings of the English Lake District, which I know well: while other artists drew unrecognizable crinkly crags and fussy foliage, Towne caught the curve of the fells and the gleam of the water in a way that set him apart. For years he was ignored, but although critics and art-historians now recognize his talent, many people still don’t know his name. So it’s exciting to see viewers bowled over by the current exhibition of his paintings from Rome, selected from the amazing archive of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of his death, and curated by Richard Stephens (who has just compiled a catalogue raisonné of Towne’s work, to be published online this spring by the Paul Mellon Centre).

Francis Towne: S Maria Nuova, with the temple of the Sun and Moon, 1781
Trustees of the British MuseumFrancis Towne: S Maria Nuova, with the temple of the Sun and Moon, 1781

It’s a fascinating show, not only because we can see Towne’s skill, and his oblique, personal vision of the Eternal City, but also because it illustrates the long tradition of British artists working in Rome, faithfully following set conventions, almost plonking down their easels in the marks left by the artists before them. Towne does this too, but he also finds hidden lanes and byways, and in the process also finds a new style—a landmark in the history of watercolors.

Towne was forty-one, no stripling, when he arrived in Italy in October 1780. Born a Londoner, he had begun his career as a coach-painter, moving in his twenties to Exeter. There, he became a respected drawing master and painter of West Country landscapes, of scenes of the lakes and of North Wales. His work was admired, yet the London art establishment dismissed him as a provincial drawing teacher—while he, on the other hand, was equally disdainful in return, adopting the habit of his Exeter patrons of praising rural retirement and virtue in contrast to the vanities of city life, and defending British liberties against an oppressive, self-interested Westminster rule. A serious, thoughtful man, he carried this thinking to Italy—Rome, so vivid in its ruins, was a lesson, he felt, for the corrupt contemporary world, its message linked to the call to protect traditional British liberties and freedoms from an over-powerful Westminster government.

Francis Towne: A Gallery of the Colosseum, 1780
The Trustees of the British MuseumFrancis Towne: A Gallery of the Colosseum, 1780

Towne’s paintings suggest a wariness about approaching the great city. He began with views from without, pacing the countryside that his hero Claude Lorrain had known: the bare wastes of the Campagna; country walks by the river near the Ponte Molle, on the road from the north; deep lanes overshadowed by trees with a glimpse of the Villa Borghese, almost like a Devon mansion, on a nearby hill. Towne preferred the back of things, the uncommon view, high walls, old Roman gates, suggesting a life beyond. He ignored modern Rome; he gives no hint of grand Papal processions, of high-life, of the color and glamor that wowed the young men on their Grand Tours.

He did, of course, paint the great ruins, walking through the bustling streets from the artists quarter near the Piazza di Spagna, across the city to the Forum and the Colosseum, working there side by side with his friend John “Warwick” Smith. His paintings mixed topographical accuracy—long curves of arches and sharp lines of formal columns—with a lyrical, romantic disarray. Nature, it seems, can invade and outlast human grandeur. Tangled creepers hang through the broken vaults of the Colosseum, olive trees and cypresses rise from the dusky shadows of the Baths of Caracalla. The effect is monumental yet subtle, showing Towne studying the effects of light at different times, working fast, in the open, making shadows and shafts of light part of his vision.

In these crumbling spaces few figures appear. When they do, they seem disproportionately small, dwarfed by their surroundings. And they are not grand folk but peasants, herding cattle, or riding by on a mule. By the mighty, golden columns of a temple, an old horse taken out of its shafts waits patiently in the shade.

Francis Towne, Temple of Saturn, 1780-1781
Trustees of the British MuseumFrancis Towne: Temple of Saturn, 1780-1781

Towne dutifully followed the artists’ itinerary defined by the landscape painter Richard Wilson in the 1750s. This took him outside Rome, to Tivoli, with its ravines and waterfalls and grottoes, a place hallowed by the atmospheric paintings of Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. He went inland to the Alban Hills, painting the views from Frascati over ripples of blue hills, sketching Lake Nemi in its crater, with the line of the sea in the distance cutting his page in half. Yet although these were familiar subjects, everywhere Towne went he produced unusual, sideways versions of set views. When he visited the Welsh artist Thomas Jones in Naples, he turned his back on the accepted glories and sought out the back ways: in one view down a narrow lane, squeezed between tower and trees, the grand Bay of Naples is reduced to a shimmer, gleaming in the background.

As he worked, Towne grew more independent, more adventurous. He abandoned his small sheets for larger ones, using a new, thickly woven Italian paper that made it easier to apply his color washes, and produced more glowing effects. Sometimes he extended the scene by adding separate sheets at the side, or below. He still sketched in pencil in the conventional manner, “penning-out”—tracing the outline in pen—back at his lodgings. But he began to abandon this too, sometimes omitting pen altogether, sometimes scratching it out afterward, seeking freedom, adopting new ways.  

Francis Towne: The Baths of Caracalla, 1781
Trustees of the British MuseumFrancis Towne: The Baths of Caracalla, 1781

Toward the end of his stay, Towne produced spare, almost emblematic masterpieces, paintings of ruins and buildings that seem to float in the light. Back in England he sold copies to his West Country patrons, and he revised the originals often over the years, adjusting to changing tastes as the years rolled on into the age of Thomas Girtin and J. M. W. Turner,  adding new layers of color  and extra features like trees or foreground foliage, and setting them on stiff mounts with fresh inscriptions. He knew that his work in Rome was important: on his death he left fifty-four watercolors from his Italian stay to the British Museum. But by then he seemed an odd, idiosyncratic artist from an earlier age, and his portfolio lingered unopened until a pioneering study by Paul Oppé in the early twentieth century roused attention again.

Now Towne’s haunting paintings are back in the light, beautifully displayed—they may appear a mere sideshow in comparison to the blockbuster exhibitions of great names, but they offer a luminous vision of a civilization lost in time, a tribute to the genius of a quiet man.


“Light, time, legacy: Francis Towne’s watercolors of Rome” is on view at the British Museum through August 14.

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Versatile, Fearless Charles Rosen at the Piano

Charles Rosen: The Complete Columbia and Epic Album Collection

Charles Rosen, New York City, 1991
Dominique NabokovCharles Rosen, New York City, 1991

Record companies are rarely confused with charitable organizations. How then to explain the recent release in a boxed set of twenty-one CDs corresponding to the twenty-one LPs that the pianist and writer Charles Rosen recorded for the Columbia and Epic labels between 1959 and 1972 (around eighteen and a half hours of music), at a price unthinkable even a decade ago? Tokyo-based Sony—now the keeper of grand old labels that include former behemoths CBS and RCA—has released this collection from an artist whose sales at the time of his death in 2012 were modest at best.

What changed? Transitions from one technology to another are inevitably laced with ironies, and the shift in musical circles from analog to digital is no exception. Sales of classical music recordings surged for a decade with the introduction of commercial CDs in 1982 (first irony); CD sales have declined steadily for at least fifteen years as more and more recordings moved to digital formats. The very technology that produced the surge eventually laid waste to it (second irony). Whether you subscribe to the notion that interest in Beethoven and other famous composers has also waned depends on where you sit and whether you have a stake in the answer.

To put the matter bluntly, declining CD sales have forced struggling labels to invent new strategies for moving inventory. The new calculus looks like this: the purchase rate of a boxed set of Rosen’s recordings by those who admire his considerable achievements will approach 100 percent. CDs today cost pennies to manufacture; stiff paper packaging is cheap. If single CDs no longer sell, then even modest sales of boxed sets no longer encumbered by plastic jewel cases (or, in many cases, royalties) are winners.

Berlin-based Deutsche Grammophon (since 1999 a subsidiary of Universal Music Group) lays claim to launching the boxed set craze in 1995. However, those sets were largely based on repertoire: Bach cantatas, Beethoven quartets, Mahler symphonies. In 1999, when a major American label (RCA) released a ninety-four-CD box of Arthur Rubinstein’s recordings, it demanded $1,300 and got few takers.

Sony learned its lesson. Acquiescing to the shift in interest from repertoire to performers and the downward pressure on prices, the super-label embarked on an orgy of inexpensive performer-based boxed sets. In 2012 it repackaged Rubinstein’s ninety-four CDs into 142 (paralleling their original LP albums) for 30 percent of the 1999 price. Between 2012 and 2014 Sony released boxes averaging two dozen CDs each from pianists William Kapell, Leon Fleischer, Gary Graffman, Van Cliburn, and Murray Perahia, as well as the Rosen set. The Perahia box took the discount prize: sixty-seven CDs plus five DVDs for under $150—just over $2 a disk.

Sony shows no signs of slowing down. In 2015 it released the Russian pianist Sviatislav Richter’s complete American recordings (CBS and RCA formerly fought bitterly over the rights). Sony’s most enduringly recyclable CBS packages are those for the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who gets released in successively larger boxes, the most recent consisting of eighty-one discs for $169 (even these apparently do not yet exhaust what lies in the vault).

The Europeans had little choice but to join in: in 2013 a fifty-CD set from Decca of Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (one disc for each year of his association with the label), in 2015 a twenty-five-CD collection of Itzhak Perlman, and others. With a single track on iTunes going for an average of $.99, a $2.50 disc with ten tracks you can copy as many times as you wish sounds mighty attractive. In a final irony, as new recordings are increasingly downloaded from online sites, this very deluge signals the end of the CD era.

The question of consequence that these economically driven boxes raises is obvious enough: Does an industrial-strength serving of recordings change our view of an artist’s achievements or historical significance? In almost all cases that answer would be: only around the margins. For example, Perahia’s first fifty-two CDs contain a steady diet of music from Mozart to Brahms, with an occasional side dish of Bartók. On the fifty-third CD he discovered the keyboard music of Bach, with which he has been much involved ever since. Rubinstein aficionados may discover hidden gems in the mammoth Sony set but our general view of his pianism remains largely unaltered.

Charles Rosen provides a singular exception. To understand why this is so requires comparison to the three most important American-born pianists of his generation—Byron Janis, Leon Fleisher, and Gary Graffman—all born a year after Rosen. Two attended elite conservatories (Janis at Juilliard, Graffman at Curtis), while Fleisher came from San Francisco to study with Artur Schnabel and his pupil Maria Curcio—the two most in-demand, most modern teachers in New York City. Two entered (and won) major piano competitions (Graffman the Leventritt in 1949, Fleisher the Queen Elisabeth in 1952).

All three followed the route that offered the best shot at celebrity: playing late Romantic piano concertos, especially those of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. All three suffered physical ailments (arthritis for Janis, focal dystonia for Fleisher and Grafmann) that forced them to cut back prematurely or even withdraw from live performance. All three published anecdotally driven autobiographies (Graffman in 1982, Janis and Fleisher in 2010).

Rosen took the road less traveled. After five years in Juilliard’s Pre-College Division he left at age eleven to study with Moriz Rosenthal, a pupil of Liszt. He never enrolled at a music institution again. He never entered a major competition. He was uninterested in late Romantic concertos. A lifetime of playing never led to physical impairments. His book Piano Notes (2002) remained conspicuously silent about his own career. A mind of insatiable curiosity produced one of the greatest writers about music from any era. No surprise that his pianism was both misunderstood and undervalued.

Now that he is gone we realize that with all the justified admiration flowing in his direction, Rosen turns out to have been a poor (and uninterested) self-promoter. Though he described himself as a pianist for whom writing was an occasional hobby, where is the official website carefully cultivated to shape our views? (Go to danielbarenboim.com or itzhakperlman.com or jeremydenk.com and you will find professional websites that also sell their CDs.) Where are the YouTube videos or live-performance DVDs for sale? (Surf YouTube and you will come upon more than three dozen videos of Alfred Brendel. You will even discover more than a dozen by the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, who was born in 1903, a full generation before Rosen.)

For someone with his long life in Manhattan and travel to almost every corner of the globe, the documentation of Rosen’s career is dishearteningly sparse. Not a single video of a concert or studio performance survives (we must content ourselves with the brief examples from Bach and Handel in a 1997 BBC documentary of Bach’s life). In addition to a sprinkling of audio recordings on YouTube there are a trio of WNCN audio interviews from the 1980s (where Rosen deftly sidesteps his host’s fawning style to praise pianists from Walter Gieseking to Arrau to Brendel) and a quartet of dreamlike clips somewhere between Ionesco and Visconti in which he gives an interview in Italian, comments wittily at a symposium in French, delivers as a very alert mind in a dying body the inaugural lecture on music in twenty-first-century society at the CUNY Graduate Center, and—in the most bizarre exchange of all—interacts briefly with a youthful audio editor at an Emory University recording session for the Brahms Handel Variations.*

As she announces they are finished, Rosen segues with a childlike innocence into glissandi (difficult, continuous sweeps across the white keys carried out with the fingertips of each hand) from the Carl Tausig arrangement of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Man lebt nur einmal (You Only Live Once). His last recorded words as he limps offstage are: “You know, I have a special trick for that…” The voice trails away—we will never know the trick.

Rosen’s life straddled cultural developments decades apart. The boy who grew up idolizing Josef Hofmann’s annual recitals at Carnegie Hall (a few recordings of which survive; they sound different if you imagine a young Rosen on the edge of his seat) lived into the era when the piano recital had become an endangered species. The youngster who grew up to the warm crackle of 78 rpm records lived into the cool, disembodied sounds of the digital world. The prodigy (which he was in spite of public protestations) who at age eleven crossed paths with the septuagenarian Rosenthal lived into the era when you could pull up almost instantly on YouTube a hundred different recordings of the same Chopin nocturne.

Rosen negotiated some of these gulfs by remaining steadfastly (some might say eccentrically) in the past. The yellow legal pads on which he famously drafted The Classical Style are the same format as the single page he fidgets with throughout his ninety-minute 2012 CUNY presentation. It also worked the other way around: rather than gear up for international competitions he instead earned a Ph.D. in French literature at Princeton, where he practiced the Debussy Études in his dorm lobby.

Critical opinions about Rosen the pianist were from the beginning at odds. Of his 1953 Town Hall recital, the respected composer/critic Virgil Thomson heard “a musical mind of great strength…. Everywhere the tone was beautiful, the rhythm powerful, the singing line plangent and commanding…. He will be the pianist of all our dreams. His gift and mastery are that good.” Of an earlier recital an unnamed critic for The New York Times opined:

The total impression Mr. Rosen left was that his talents, both as a musician and as a technician, are not yet very well integrated. The playing from selection to selection was uneven. Often in the same composition there were some parts that were lovely and some that just seemed to be deftly fingered.

This disagreement seems to have followed Rosen throughout his career.

For this reason alone the reissue of the Columbia/Odyssey recordings assumes far greater significance than if he were a pianist about whom there is consensus. It is virtually impossible today to lay your hands on most of the half-dozen recordings Rosen made before 1959 for small labels long since gone. Most of those he made between 1977 and 1997 are out of print. The Sony set bears solitary witness to Rosen in his prime.

One indisputable fact emerges immediately: Charles Rosen was among the most versatile and fearless pianists of the twentieth century. (His successor in that role is Gilbert Kalish, another New York City born-and-bred pianist eight years Rosen’s junior.) It is not simply the repertoire that sets him apart but the specific programs that Rosen convinced Columbia to record. He championed precisely the works feared most by pianists.

In January 1959 the thirty-one-year-old Rosen stepped for the first time into CBS’s legendary 30th Street Studio (a converted church), auspiciously to record Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (1908), viewed even among pianists as nearly unplayable. Ravel had openly intended to surpass the then title-holder for the world’s most impossible piano piece, Mily Balakirev’s Islamey (1869, revised in 1902). Gaspard had been recorded only twice: on Columbia 78s by Walter Gieseking in 1937 and on 33s in 1952 on the West Coast Capitol label by the twenty-eight-year-old, Los Angeles–based Leonard Pennario.

If Rosen knew either recording, his reading shows no signs that he did. In place of Gieseking’s characteristic wash of sound, Rosen’s lines emerge in Lisztian sharp relief. Pennario hears Gaspard as pretty and treats the daunting passages gingerly; Rosen embraces the ghoulish sentiments of Aloysius Bertrand’s poetry and throws off the glittery opening right-hand notes of Ondine (the first movement) and the blisteringly fast repeated notes in Scarbo (the third and final movement) with an ease that allows both the seductiveness and the fright of Gaspard to shine through.

Of his live performances of French music John Gruen in the New York Herald Tribune wrote: “In Debussy [Mr. Rosen] produce[s] a veritable spectrum of sound that vibrates and burgeons with incredible beauty…. When Mr. Rosen plays French music, he is unquestionably a master.” All the more unfortunate, then, that for his first seven albums he was treated to the Columbia “house sound”—close miking with almost no reverb. That sound, through no fault of Rosen’s, is often thin and pinched—inexcusable in a room with hundred-foot ceilings.

For albums eight through ten (from the end of 1963 through 1965), though, the recording was supervised by the legendary Fred Plaut—credited with engineering virtually every major orchestral, Broadway musical, and jazz recording (not to mention hundreds of artist photos) in the heyday of the label. These Rosen–Plaut pairings—one of Liszt and Bartók, followed by two late Beethoven sonatas, and a third appropriately titled Virtuoso!—rank among the finest piano recordings of the twentieth century.

Charles Rosen
Charles Rosen; drawing by David Levine

The Liszt/Bartók album opens with a hair-raising account of Liszt’s most (in)famous operatic paraphrase: the Grande Fantasie on themes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. None of Rosen’s contemporaries recorded it. Liszt limited himself to three dramatic moments: the Commendatore’s foreboding judgment music, with which the opera opens and ends, and, from the third scene of Act I, the flagrantly erotic love duet between the Don and the peasant girl Zerlina and the Don’s “Champagne aria.” Although Liszt offers a nod in the final bars to the Don’s fate, it is the Don’s brashness and libido to which he pays tribute.

In a 1980 radio interview Rosen remarks tellingly that “Liszt is the first composer who thought about music as pure sound…very modern.” Rosen’s performance captures and connects all three sections in Liszt’s piece. Unlike listening to today’s self-indulgent high-speed races, you find yourself both appropriately frightened and singing along with Rosen; the murderous accuracy of his passagework makes it sound faster than the damper-pedal smears now fashionable.

One of only two works that Rosen recorded twice for Columbia was Beethoven’s monumental Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 106 (known universally as the “Hammerklavier”)—a work fastidiously avoided by many pianists. Though he later claimed to change his mind—especially slowing the tempos of the first and last movements—the earlier (1964) reading counts as perhaps the most committed and penetrating of the numerous recordings made since Artur Schnabel proved in 1935 that he could not handle Op. 106.

It is not just that Rosen does justice to Beethoven’s impossibly fast metronome markings but that he captures the elemental energy implied by them. We plummet down twisting mountain roads minus guardrails yet never lose control. This makes the few places where Rosen lingers jaw-dropping. His marathon slow movement evokes a deep spirituality without ever sliding into sentimentality.

Rosen’s structural sense is everywhere evident though nowhere more so than in the unyielding fugal finale. He accomplishes this with a greatly heightened dynamic palette—especially at the barely audible end—that never allows interest to flag. He embraces the granitic, even ugly contrapuntal passages, which renders the serene presentation of the intermediate chorale all the more affecting.

Yet it is worth purchasing the entire Columbia set just for the final album in the Plaut tryptich. In Virtuoso! (unlikely to be his title) Rosen showcases all that he picked up from Rosenthal—himself a dazzling arranger. Curiously, the appeal of this album lies not in the pyrotechnics but in its irresistible charm. Rosen alludes directly to this in his understated note:

Today, the style of the great pianists of the first quarter of this century and the air of casual elegance cannot be recaptured…. Their technical mastery may still be found, but their ease of manner and their sense of high style have been lost forever: they played like gentlemen.

Indeed. His rendition of the Rachmaninoff arrangement of Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid captures as memorably the celebrated Wiener Takt—in which the second beat comes slightly early and the third beat slightly late—as any recording of Johann Strauss Jr. with the late conductor Willi Boskovsky, the twentieth century’s keeper of his flame.

Any pianist in the 1960s who tackled Bach did so under the long shadow of Glenn Gould—especially Gould’s landmark 1955 recording of the “Goldberg Variations.” Gould took an esoteric work recorded by a few harpsichordists (including Wanda Landowska and Ralph Kirkpatrick) and turned it overnight into a pianistic best seller. Listeners were electrified by Gould’s intensity and the almost machine-like way in which he could reel off running passagework.

Rosen could easily have done the same (both recorded at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio). But he was doubtless aware of Gould’s shortcomings: the omission of all sixty-four repeats that distorted the work’s scale and denied essential opportunities for embellishment, the percussive tone and delivery that robbed the piano of nuances, and the extreme tempos that shifted attention from the work to the performer.

Rosen’s singular “Goldbergs”—an instant cult classic upon its release in 1967 and one of his few recordings to stay continuously in print—inhabit a world less sensuous than that of either Murray Perahia or András Schiff (both of whom tackled this monument more than two decades later). Yet no reading before or since combines an uncanny spirituality with such a heightened sense of architecture. One utterly forgets the performer and hears only Bach.

The same spirit inhabits Bach’s The Art of the Fugue (several of its fourteen fugues required that Rosen overdub himself) and the great six-voiced Ricercar from Bach’s A Musical Offering that in 1999 Rosen called provocatively “the most significant piano work of the millennium.” (It was composed in 1747 for the king of Prussia, who owned more than a dozen early Silbermann fortepianos.) Collectively these three disks rank high among landmark Bach recordings.

In his mid-twenties Rosen became the first to record all twelve Debussy Études, which Virgil Thomson declared to be “the definitive recording of these works for many years to come.” Playing them again in his Columbia series (calling them “one of the monuments of our century”), Rosen replaced the veiled, heavily pedaled sonorities of Gieseking (who recorded the Études in his old age, the year after Rosen) with a clarity and transparency that have influenced two subsequent generations of pianists.

None of Rosen’s contemporaries can claim to have been asked specifically by three (then) living composers of the stature of Igor Stravinsky, Elliott Carter, and Pierre Boulez to record their works. At the time Rosen made these albums, few pianists gave a thought to tackling their steep learning curves. He brings the same commitment and musicality that he does to Haydn (just as undiscovered), Beethoven, and Liszt. Rosen’s abiding belief in Carter’s greatness led many to give this music a second hearing.

The mix of Columbia (the parent label) and Epic (founded in 1953 as both a boutique and sometimes budget arm) albums was recorded under the tape-editing system adopted by virtually all labels in the post–World War II era. Recording sessions were spread out over several days, often including a pickup session weeks or even months later. The high modernist quest for mistake-free perfection meant that aggressive edits down to a single note were routine.

The result for many artists was a cautious dullness. Yet most of the time Rosen maintains an air of spontaneity linked to a remarkable musicianship. On a Phi Beta Kappa tour he characteristically showed up without having prepared a lecture. About fifteen minutes before the start Rosen announced he would talk about late Beethoven quartets. Without recourse to a single score he delivered a spellbinding address that involved going repeatedly to the piano and playing (often while standing) sizable chunks from these elusive works without missing a beat.

Rosen provided his own program notes for most of the LPs—something no other pianist of his caliber was capable of doing at his level. In a radio interview he embellishes his own mythology by relating that he began to do so only upon seeing the treacly prose of James Huneker in the notes for Rosen’s 1960 Chopin album. It makes a good story, though the reality is that Rosen had written notes previously. We are much the better off for it. His album manner is at once intimate yet informative, chatty yet probing. (Inexplicably, the Bach disks include no notes; it is inconceivable that Rosen provided nothing for these groundbreaking releases.)

Just as liberal selections of the more than eighty essays he contributed to these pages have been reprinted in book form (in, for example, Critical Entertainments, 2000), it is a shame that Sony did not take the opportunity to reprint Rosen’s notes in readable form. The “original album” format touted by both Sony and its European counterparts is a euphemism for their cheapest possible reproduction. If you wish to read the notes you have two choices: a very powerful magnifying glass or scanning them and blowing them up on your computer.

A few albums expose Rosen’s vulnerabilities. Schubert’s late A-Major Sonata would benefit from more variety of color and sharper characterizations. Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major (one of the few warhorses that Rosen recorded) cries out for even more unhinged bravura—a surrender of control that he seems unwilling to make. Yet scarcely a single one of the 269 tracks lacks an “aha!” moment.

It seems fitting that Rosen’s thirteen-year Columbia series concluded with albums of music by Boulez and Anton Webern—two pillars of the twentieth-century avant-garde. In the mid-1950s a fanatically devoted group of young musicians had rallied around conductor Robert Craft to record Webern’s complete works. These premiere recordings made up for in enthusiasm and commitment what they lacked in finesse and, occasionally, comprehension.

The Rosen album (in which he was joined by soprano Heather Harper, violinist Isaac Stern, and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky) demonstrated for the first time on recordings just what a major figure Webern was. In twenty songs totaling barely twenty-seven minutes Rosen shows himself to be a world-class collaborator, sensitive but prepared to go for the jugular. The disk concludes with the Variations for Piano, Op. 27 (Webern’s six-minute magnum opus for piano). Its faintly audible ppp conclusion evaporates along with Rosen’s only relationship to an established label. CBS then turned its attentions to younger artists like Murray Perahia and André Watts, who played music that the dwindling audience for classical recordings still bought. RCA longed for another Van Cliburn. Rosen never spoke publicly about the end of his remarkably productive and historic run.

There remains the haunting question of how and why Rosen lost his performing edge over the last two decades of an illustrious career. A painful (though partial) bootleg on YouTube of a 2010 Chopin recital in Irvine, California, includes a rushed, dynamically flat performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1—a far cry from the nuanced, silvery recording made for Columbia a half-century earlier. Rosen deserves to be remembered for that—and for the totality of an extraordinary legacy. We shall neither see nor hear the likes of him again soon.

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Why Belgium?

Following the November 2015 attacks in Paris, the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Molenbeek Saint Jean was heavily policed, Brussels, Belgium, November 16, 2015
John Vink/Magnum ImagesPolice in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels following the attacks in Paris, November 16, 2015

The devastating suicide bombings in Brussels on Tuesday morning have raised new questions about jihadist networks based in Belgium, which were also believed to be behind the attacks in Paris in November. The attacks at the main Belgian airport and in the Brussels subway came just a few days after Salah Abdeslam, the prime suspect in the earlier Paris attacks, was arrested in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels; and Belgian authorities have suggested that there may be other connections to the Paris attacks as well.

Why has Belgium become such a focus of European jihad? And why has it been so difficult for Belgian authorities to contain the problem? Joost Hiltermann spoke to Didier Leroy, a leading terrorism researcher at the Royal Military Academy of Belgium and an adjunct at the Free University of Brussels.

—The Editors


Joost Hiltermann: What do this week’s attacks reveal about the aims of ISIS in Europe?

Didier Leroy: The Brussels attacks have been, without much surprise, claimed and celebrated by ISIS supporters. Ideologically, the symbolic dimension of the targets—the Brussels international airport, less than 5 kilometers away from NATO headquarters, and the Maelbeek subway station, near the main institutions of the European Union—reflects ISIS’s dual view of the world: the struggle of a Muslim oppressed world against a Western oppressing world. At the level of the modus operandi, we find several common features shared by the French and Belgian commandos: relatively small cells of determined individuals hitting as many “soft” (civilian) targets as possible.

In Brussels we now see military back on the streets as we did in November, which raises the question, how are the resources that are available being used?

The strategy as a whole has a preventive and a repressive side. The focus right now is on what we are witnessing in everyday life, what we can directly see, which is the reactive aspect. Deploying the army in the streets of the capital is a way to deter potential threats, and reassure the population. Technically, the army is deployed in fixed stations to guard a key monument, building, or populated area—La Grande Place for example—which frees up the police to be more mobile and to be doing more police work, like identity checks and investigative tasks. A soldier could not search someone’s house with a warrant for example.

How is it that a guy like Salah Abdeslam, a leading figure in the Paris attacks, could live undetected in the Belgian capital for months? How is it that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged Paris ringleader, could move back and forth between Belgium and Syria undetected?  

Firstly, we are talking about Belgian citizens hiding in familiar areas in Belgian territory. They relied on certain networks of loyalties, sometimes through family connections. Several of them also had fake IDs and used these for money transfers, apartment rentals, etc. They further avoided using cell phones, which allowed them to remain under the radar for some time. As soon as the investigation forced them out of one of their hideouts, they started making mistakes and were detected. This being said, another aspect is the lack of (mostly human) resources. The Belgian intelligence services are doing their best to monitor roughly one thousand “potentially dangerous” individuals. You cannot follow all of them 24/7, it’s technically not feasible.

Much has been made of the fact that Belgium has a higher number of jihadists relative to its population than any other European country.

According to recent statements by Interior Minister Jan Jambon, the number of Belgian “foreign fighters” reached around 470 individuals as of January 2016. Flanders and Brussels would each account for roughly 45 percent of the departures, the rest coming from the southern region of Wallonia. (This tends to invalidate the assumption that social-economic grievances and poverty may be driving radicalization, since the economy in the north of the country is significantly stronger.) Among these 470 individuals who have attempted to go to Syria, roughly 60 didn’t manage to reach Syrian territory in the first place; some 80 have presumably been killed; and about 190 are still believed to be operating in Syria or Iraq. And some 130 of them have gone and have now returned to Belgium.

And most of these recruits have joined ISIS? Are they still going?

Approximately 70 percent of those whose affiliation could be established with a reasonable degree of certainty has been fighting under the ISIS banner. Overall, the monthly average of departures seems to have gradually dropped from its peak of some fifteen per month (in 2012-2013) to an average of five per month during the year 2015.

In view of this week’s attacks, are the 130 jihadists who have returned to Belgium increasingly viewed as a threat? Are they ticking time bombs?

No one can answer this question with specific data. It’s not measurable. We know that about a third of those who have returned have been arrested and jailed. I’m inclined to say that most of the remaining individuals don’t pose a threat. The problem is, even if most of them pose no threat at all and only regret this dark episode of their life, a small minority could still cause a lot of damage as we witnessed on March 22. So we must remain vigilant, in spite of the difficulty of trying to monitor all these people. Having at one’s disposal an Excel spreadsheet with roughly one thousand names is one thing, but the next one is to know how to manage this database.

What do we know about the thousand people on the watch list?

Apart from the 470 known foreign fighters, there are individuals in various stages of radicalization: some of them have shown obvious symptoms of being radicalized, some have only expressed a wish to go to Syria or Iraq. Among those who have left Belgian territory, some are only assumed to be fighting for IS, Jabhat al-Nusra or other Jihadi groups. Others are known to have reached Syria or Iraq for that specific purpose. Also, some others have left Syria or Iraq but have not been identified as back in Belgium yet.

We cannot say that Belgian jihadists fit a general profile. There are men and women, individuals and groups (sometimes couples or whole families), older and very young people. Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s younger brother Younes was thirteen when he went to Syria—and I think was then considered the youngest case in 2013. That being said, the age range of foreign fighters from Belgium is typically twenty to twenty-four. The education level is often below that of the average population. Foreign fighters with college degrees exist, but they constitute a small minority, as far as Belgium is concerned. Most were known to police and intelligence before their departure. Belgians with Moroccan family background are significantly overrepresented on the list (more than 80 percent), while converts to Islam would represent less than 10 percent. 

Belgian jihadists, including Younes Abaaoud, Syria, 2015
Pieter Van Ostaeyen Belgian jihadists, including Younes Abaaoud, Syria, 2015

Both Abdeslam and Abaaoud were of Belgian-Moroccan background. Why are second and third generation Moroccan immigrants in Belgium so vulnerable to radicalization?

Integration has worked very well in the vast majority of cases, but a number of individuals among the younger generation are clearly facing an identity crisis. Though born in Belgium, they feel discriminated against because of their Arabic family names, North-African looks, or Islamic religious beliefs. But when they go to Morocco to visit relatives there, most probably do not feel Moroccan either, because they are not perceived as such for a number of reasons. This dilemma probably explains, at least partially, a need to belong to something else beyond family, community, or society—something bigger, with better opportunities or promises for the future. This is where the “re-Islamicization” process can come in. While these youth have usually been Islamicized through family education and in official mosques, some of them can be “born again” via the Internet, in improvised da‘wa (proselytism) circles, or in jail. Internal rifts can then appear at the core of certain families where the older generations practicing the traditional “Maleki” Sunni rite (typical of the Maghreb region) are confronted by a growing “Hanbali” influence–in particular the Wahhabi tradition from the Gulf region, known for its puritanical, or Salafi, approach to Islam–promoted by the younger generation. The Salafi brand has visibly gained some momentum in certain neighborhoods of predominantly Moroccan districts like Molenbeek: you can notice it by the type of veil worn by some women, the type of untrimmed beard without moustache preferred by men, and so on.

Belgium has one of the largest Moroccan minorities in Europe, as many as 500,000 of its 11.2 million people. A lot of these families originally came as workers in the Sixties and Seventies, right?

Yes, we celebrated fifty years of Moroccan immigration last year. So that’s where a major part of the stream comes from. I think the one element that has affected the Moroccan community is that they suffered from the economic circumstances, notably with the oil crisis in the early 1970s, which is something that the Italians or Spaniards from Belgium didn’t really suffer from because they were here earlier so they already had their business going on, or they had already started to ascend in the social scale. So fewer opportunities, more ghettoization in a certain way.

This doesn’t seem to be happening as much to other Muslim communities in Belgium. What about the Turkish minority, which also counts several hundred thousand people?

There’s a clear difference between the Moroccan and Turkish communities. We have very few if any Turks on the list of at-risk individuals. So it’s not about Islam, because the Turks are Sunni Muslims also. And I don’t remember my colleagues at the federal police mentioning one Turkish name. In Schaerbeek, for example, the population is half Moroccan, half Turkish, and it’s very clear: you have no momentum in the Turkish population to join IS. And this is probably associated with a certain type of identity construction in the Turkish community. They tend to be specifically attached to their language, more than anything else, which limits the exposure to Wahhabi proselytism. I think that money from Gulf countries has done a lot of damage in Moroccan mosques in Belgium on that level. Some mosques have been more and more under the sway of Saudi imams or of Moroccan-Belgian citizens who have been trained in and funded by Saudi Arabia and who are spreading Wahhabi doctrine. Most Turkish mosques, to my knowledge, are financed and managed by the Diyanet institution, largely associated with the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. And then, there is also the secularist heritage of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of course, which probably still plays a part at some level too.

Apart from religious infrastructure, are there other issues that seem to be making the people on the watch list more susceptible to recruitment?  

I believe that an under-analyzed element in the radicalization process is the psychological one. Many, many people can feel anger when a Western superpower is bombing a developing country, or be curious about jihadi-Salafi propaganda, or feel injustice based on social and economic discrimination. But why do all these potential motivators affect individuals in such different ways? Why is it that some will keep on struggling to deal with these issues in their personal development, while others throw their whole lives away and pick up arms? Because these influences mobilize their emotions differently, I think. The emotional architecture of an individual is often shaped in the early years of childhood and has to do with the quality of the parental relationship. It affects the way he or she will be sensitive to other influences. It’s worth pointing out that more and more terrorist attacks have involved siblings in recent years: the Tsarnaev brothers from the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Kouachi brothers from the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, and now the Abdeslam brothers from the Paris attacks and the el-Bakraoui brothers from the Brussels attacks.

Although it is extremely difficult to investigate this aspect of things, I am convinced that we might gain much understanding about the motivations of terrorist acts by examining the family situation, whether or not there is a history of family tension or violence, of the attackers in question. I am not talking exclusively about physical violence from the fathers, as this leaves visible scars and is often easily identified. It’s the invisible scars, perhaps induced by moral and verbal violence from the mothers, that might shed some new light on certain kinds of extremist behavior.

It does seem that a single explanation for why so many Europeans—and so many Belgians in particular—have gone to fight in Syria has eluded us.

In general I would say that you have as many reasons to go to fight in Syria as you have individuals. The most recent research on political violence, to my knowledge, has identified four main influences that seem to be present most of the time in the case of true hardcore extremists: (1) ideology, (2) socialization, (3) grievances, and (4) rational choice. But so many factors have to be taken into account to understand the trajectory. I mean, in some cases you have people who are very into eschatological literature and who are really drawn to this end-time utopia that ISIS presents them. Some other guys are just low-level criminals looking for something to make out of their life and don’t even present any sign of radicalization, they just kind of “recycle” their violence for a Cause with a capital “C.” They first become violent and then all of a sudden it’s for ISIS.

So the link to the ISIS’s Caliphate project may actually be fairly loose for some of these radicalized youth in Belgium?

Historically there are almost no links between Belgium and Syria or Iraq. I am still rather skeptical about the depth of structural connections between these young jihadi candidates and ISIS, which is a Middle Eastern phenomenon in the first place (and the so-called Caliphate has regional priorities before global ones). I see ISIS as a “heterarchical” organization, characterized by an undisputed leader—the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim—but also by a shared decisional process. The ISIS central command in Rakka could be regarded as a vertical entity, which becomes more “horizontal” when it reaches the external layer of foreign recruits. There certainly is a central, top-down policy calling on fighters to hit enemies of the “Islamic State project” wherever possible, but the when, the how, etcetera, are left to the initiative of individuals or small groups—it’s up to them to decide the best way to proceed. Most of these recruits obviously know their countries of origin well, have grown up with the Internet and the images of 9/11 in their minds, and are determined to “do better” than old-fashioned al-Qaeda. 

Testosterone also has a significant influence here, given the average age of Belgian jihadists. If you remove the beards, the Korans, and the black flags from most ISIS propaganda videos, you are left with something that resembles certain US hip hop videos! Big cars, guns everywhere, gang members posing together. In our globalized world, the violence of ISIS is not that remote from Hollywood movies like Mad Max or Japanese mangas like Hokuto No Ken. ISIS is trying to evoke the Islamic Middle Ages, but the Toyota vehicles and the Nike sneakers tell us something else.

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