Месечни архиви: March 2017

Liberating China’s Past: An Interview with Ke Yunlu


Ke Yunlu, 1987

With the closing of this month’s National People’s Congress, China’s political season is upon us. It will culminate in the autumn with Xi Jinping’s almost certain reappointment to another five-year term. With Xi rapidly becoming the most important Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, I began thinking about some of his formative years, especially the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 when he grew up, the 1980s when he served in a rural county at the beginning of the reform era, and the 1990s, when he was an official during an explosion of religiosity known as “Qigong Fever.”

This, in turn, got me thinking about Ke Yunlu. The pen name of Bao Guolu, Ke Yunlu was one of the most popular authors in China in the 1980s and 1990s. Though none of his books have been translated, he is well known in China for his politically prescient novels, including one that is widely seen as having predicted Xi’s rise, and others that sympathetically described Qigong, a kind of meditation and physical practice that Ke and others believe can cure illnesses or even result in supernatural powers.

Ke has also done extensive historical research on the Cultural Revolution, writing a series of non-fiction books in which he has highlighted sensitive topics. One is that—contrary to the Party line—abuses were committed by a wide swath of the population and not just a small clique that grabbed power and committed crimes in the Party’s name.

Born in 1946, Ke grew up in Beijing and attended the prestigious 101 Middle School, where he came into contact with the offspring of China’s ruling elite—some of whom run China today. During the Cultural Revolution he was one of tens of millions of young city people whom Mao sent to remote parts of the country to labor before being allowed to return to Beijing in the late 1970s. These experiences made him a sharp critic of the Mao period, and also gave him a mystic belief that China’s traumas can only be resolved through spiritualism.

Ke currently lives in Beijing’s western suburbs with his wife, Luo Xueke. Since the crackdown on the Qigong movement in 1999, many of his most popular books have been banned and he has lived as a recluse, communicating with the outside world only sporadically through his blog, and refusing all interviews. For over a year, however, I conducted a formal interview with him by email, which Ke consented to have published.


Ian Johnson: Tell us about your first big success, the 1984 novel New Star (Xin Xing). You portrayed a well-connected young official, Li Xiangnan, who volunteers to take a hardship post to push through reforms despite opposition. What was your goal in that book?

Ke Yunlu: This was the end of the Cultural Revolution and people were thirsting for change. New Star is meant be a picture of society in the 1980s. Regarding the main characters in the novel, I made Li Xiangnan the son of a [Party] cadre because there were people like Li Xiangnan who were keen on reform, including those who held high posts. Most were the children of high-ranking officials. I came into contact with people like Li Xiangnan.

Many people speculate about the inspiration for Li Xiangnan. I have heard two theories. One is that Li is mainly based on Weng Yongxi [a brilliant young agricultural reformer in the early reform who ran into political trouble when he took a rural posting]. Another is that the character is a composite, based on Weng, Li Yuan [a top general and son of the former Communist Party leader Liu Shaoqi, who was killed by Mao], and China’s current leader Xi Jinping. The parallels to Xi’s life are actually quite striking because he worked in a rural county, and faced opposition. Can you tell us more about this character?

In terms of who Li Xiangnan was based on, there have been many explanations that have circulated, including those you mention. New Star and the rest of the trilogy are novels. Even though they originated in life, they are not the equivalent of real life.

Also, to take the entire origin and development process of creating a novel, and to directly disclose it, is not a smart way of doing things. I would rather let readers decipher it. If you definitely want to say something, you can say that I paid attention to the young politicians of Li Xiangnan’s generation, and knew them well, and in fact knew them much better than many people.

What can we learn about the current leadership from the New Star trilogy?

As I said previously, I knew people like Li Xiangnan. If they headed an administration, there would be some special characteristics, such as:

  1. They are comparatively strong. They dare to act.
  2. They have a consciousness of reform. In some areas they are not sticklers for the legacy of their predecessors.
  3. They have a strong consciousness of national revival.
  4. They have ample political experience.
  5. They are idealists as well as pragmatists, but everything depends on feasibility.

In the next phase of your life, you were intensely involved in the Qigong revival [a popular religious movement in the 1980s and 1990s characterized by meditation and light exercises meant to unlock “qi,” or the energy force within our bodies]. You published novels, such as The Grand Qigong Masters (Qigong Dashi), which was estimated to have sold 700,000 copies. You also published a series of non-fiction works arguing that Qigong could lead to extraordinary powers. What led you to that?

I believed that China’s “Qigong Fever” was set off by the craving for the liberation of the mind in the post-Cultural Revolution era. At the end of the 1990s, Qigong Fever was restricted and suppressed by the mainstream ideology. Those books of mine were also criticized. Personally, I was also to some degree marginalized.

Do you feel that this permanently affected you? Or were you able to recover from it?

The criticism and suppression of Qigong definitely had a lasting effect on me. To speak frankly, it’s been rather large. That series of books was later banned, and could not be reprinted.

The decision to ban them happened in 1999. Why do you think they were banned?

There are multiple reasons. The short answer is that today’s society is not ready to tolerate and digest such ideas. This task will be left for later generations.

The Grand Qigong Masters and Deciphering the Mysterious Appearance of People (Renlei Shenmi Xianxiang Poyi) were very important works for me. I have paid a huge price. But I do not regret having written them. They are also my glory. I trust that posterity can understand and even value the effort I put into this subject.

Looking back at the Qigong Fever of the 1980s and 1990s, was it in part a form of psychological release after the Cultural Revolution?

The Cultural Revolution was an extremely autocratic period in Chinese history. Its biggest contribution to Chinese history was its failure. The successes [concerning China’s economic growth and stability] in the post-Cultural Revolution era are due to the country rebounding from its negative repercussions. This is true for economics, the liberation of thought, China’s cultural revival, fewer limits on personal liberty, and fewer limits on religion. We can see much of this reflected in Qigong Fever.

Qigong Fever helped to compensate for the monoculture found in the Cultural Revolution. But because Qigong Fever exceeded what was allowed by mainstream ideology, it was restricted and suppressed.

Then you turned to the Cultural Revolution itself, with books like The Land of Hibiscus (Furongguo), Annals of the Black Mountain Fortress (Heishanbao Gangjian), Barbarism (Mengmei), Sacrifice (Xisheng), and What Did You Do That Summer? (Neige Xiatian, Ni Ganle Shenme?), as well your analysis of the period, Ten Years of Extremism (Jiduan Shinian). These books describe how ordinary people tried to navigate these historical events and also how they try to remember or deal with these traumas. What drew you to this topic?

This was a period I lived through so to me it is essential to understand it, but also for our nation. The two million characters in these six works expressed my critique and recollections of this period of Chinese history. One could say I have written more about the Cultural Revolution than anyone else. I am very happy that I wrote these works while I was still energetic. More people in China should write about this period of history, and more people should research it. But as time has elapsed, this period of history has gradually been forgotten. This is a national tragedy.

Your own books on this topic are very hard to find. Ten Years of Extremism—your account of the origins, causes, and effects of the Cultural Revolution—could only be published in Hong Kong, and the other novels were not widely discussed in the media.

Over the years of publishing many books, the most tortuous were the books about the Cultural Revolution. If you include Qigong, the most important of my works are banned or not publicized. This is a lonely feeling.

Is the silence about the Cultural Revolution a self-imposed amnesia, or mainly the result of government policy?

I believe it is mainly the effect of the dominant ideology [i.e. the government]. Publishing these kinds of books is difficult. They have to go through several layers of censorship. And if they are published, they will not be publicized. And adaptations for film or television will be even more limited. Several directors expressed interest in my works on the Cultural Revolution, but have never been allowed to pursue it.

But there is also the issue of forgetting. My novel What Did You Do That Summer? describes how a group of youth in the Cultural Revolution first persecute and then stone a teacher to death. In the years that follow, those involved carefully evade facing their mistakes. By accident or design, they rewrite and falsify history.

Should more people apologize for or reflect on what happened?

In accounting for one’s mistakes in the Cultural Revolution, apologizing is better than not apologizing, and reflecting is better than not reflecting. As for whether the apology is adequate, or the reflection is deep enough, that’s another matter, but we should treat well those who have apologized and reflected.

More important is liberation from the dominant ideology. The Cultural Revolution shouldn’t be a forbidden territory. The authorities should allow academic circles and thinkers circles to begin deep research into the Cultural Revolution, and speak without inhibitions.


This interview, part of Ian Johnson’s continuing NYR Daily series “Talking About China,” was supported by a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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Mixed-Up Kids

Paul Auster
Paul Auster; drawing by Pancho

Recent history has done a nice job of preparing readers for a novel about alternative realities. There were signs as early as November 2015, when a Caltech cosmologist discovered evidence of a parallel universe impinging on our own, that we had passed into a paranormal realm—that, while we were amusing ourselves in the dining car, an impish railway signal operator had pulled a switch and the locomotive had veered off the straight track, diverging into increasingly fantastical territories. Subtler, more benign indications included the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, the unprecedented reversal of stratospheric wind patterns, and hundreds of sightings of menacing clowns luring children into the woods. But the election as president of a menacing clown, abetted by white supremacists and Russian espionage, confirmed that we had entered a reality that has already outpaced the most brazen conceits of speculative fiction—a reality of rather slipshod design, the kind of world you might expect to have been thought up by a teenager with only the most sophomoric understanding of dramatic irony, the perils of cliché, and the importance of narrative plausibility.

None of the four braided alternative realities in Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is nearly as hamfisted as our own. If anything the novel is distinguished by the surprisingly muted exploitation of its high-concept premise. An unprepared reader may not even grasp the nature of the premise for at least the first fifty pages, which unfold like a traditional bildungsroman, tracing the ancestry, birth, and early childhood of the principal character, Archibald Ferguson, born on March 3, 1947, at Beth Israel, a second-generation American Jew whose father and uncles run a furniture and appliance store called 3 Brothers Home World. All but the most attentive readers—those who might notice, in the third chapter, that Montclair, New Jersey, has mysteriously morphed into Millburn, New Jersey, that the father’s blue DeSoto has become a bottle-green Plymouth, or that Aunt Mildred suddenly lives in Chicago instead of Berkeley—may not get the picture for another dozen pages or more.

Eventually, however, it becomes clear that Ferguson is not one boy but four, each living in a slightly different reality. In his various incarnations Ferguson’s character is remarkably consistent. He is devoted to his mother, dreams of becoming a writer, is a fine baseball player, reveres women (and also, in one of the plots, men), and has irreproachable, if fairly conventional, taste in literature and film. But the circumstances in which he finds himself vary—slightly. Unlike most novelists who experiment with the premise of parallel universes (recent examples would include Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us), Ferguson’s lives do not fork at a decisive moment. They diverge gradually, four stalks sprouting from a common bulb.

Auster loyalists will be unsurprised to discover that the closest thing to a formative disjunctive event in the lives of Archie Ferguson involves his relationship to his father, Stanley. The formative disjunctive event in Auster’s own life was the early, unexpected death of Samuel Auster, which not only became the subject of his first book, The Invention of Solitude, but is refracted to varying degrees through his fifteen novels and four works of memoir.

In 4 3 2 1 the filial relationship is tied to the fate of 3 Brothers Home World. In the first narrative, which reads in this aspect like a wish-fulfillment scenario, one of Stanley’s brothers burglarizes the furniture store, sending the family on a trajectory of financial struggle that nevertheless binds them closer together. In the second, the store burns down; with the insurance money, Stanley opens a tennis center, a time-consuming enterprise that widens a gulf between father and son. The third Stanley Ferguson dies in the fire, and the fourth buys out his deadbeat brothers, leading the business to thrive and the family to disintegrate.

Later Archie quits baseball because of a freak injury, or a friend’s death; he falls in love with Amy Schneiderman, who is either a family friend, his cousin, or his stepsister; he attends Columbia, or Princeton, or skips college altogether and moves to Paris; he finds a father figure in a professor, or a stepfather; he becomes a film critic and memoirist, a journalist and translator, or a novelist; he dies in a freak accident, or he lives. But because the divergences between the narratives do not alter Ferguson’s essential character, and at times even lack basic plot significance (unless you’re from Essex County, it makes no difference whether the Fergusons live in West Orange or South Orange), they often seem beside the point. They are also difficult to track, for the alternating structure means that roughly a hundred pages pass between the cessation of one thread and its resumption. The only sane response—the only possible response—is to submit to the torrent of narrative and not bother trying to recall whether one happens to be situated in the reality in which Amy Schneiderman attends the University of Wisconsin or the one in which she’s at Brandeis.

Submission is also the only sensible response to 4 3 2 1’s prose, which departs from that of Auster’s previous books. Auster has never been a showy stylist, favoring flat, declarative sentences that belie the eeriness of his storytelling. The spellbinding quality of his writing derives from the unusual mixture of narrative influences from which he draws—American hardboiled fiction, French existentialism, and what for better or worse is known as magical realism, combined with a vulnerable confessional immediacy. But in 4 3 2 1 he has taken up a new, expansive style, dominated by paragraph-length sentences that crash over the reader like waves, dousing us continually with new information, the sentences expanding to summarize an event instead of pausing to inhabit it, often extending into the future or the past. This approach favors breadth over depth, as in this sentence, to take an example at random from the novel, about Rose Ferguson’s photography business:

The fortunes of Roseland Photo were also sinking, not as quickly as those of Stanley’s TV & Radio, perhaps, but Ferguson’s mother knew the days of studio photography were nearly done, and for some time she had been reducing the number of hours she kept the studio open, from five ten-hour days in 1953 to five eight-hour days in 1956 to four eight-hour days in 1959 to four six-hour days in 1961 to three six-hour days in 1962 to three four-hour days in 1963, devoting more and more of her energies to photo work for Imhoff at the Montclair Times, where she had been put on salary as the paper’s chief photographer, but then her book of Garden State notables was published in February 1965…

We have not yet reached the midpoint of the sentence.

One either succumbs to this type of prose or doesn’t, just as some people are susceptible to hypnosis while others, confronted with a dangling amulet, simply laugh. 4 3 2 1 is a novel you can lose yourself in. It does not make heavy demands, except perhaps on your time, though a sympathetic reader will glide through it. Auster is a conscientious host, never penalizing his reader for losing track of references or minor details, careful to avoid disorientation as he moves between narratives. The transitions are especially artful, creating the illusion that the narrative is ever advancing forward in time, even when four consecutive chapters all but repeat the same time frame in different realities. It is easy, reading 4 3 2 1, to lose track of time.

This, in fact, is the point. The passage of time is one of the novel’s central subjects, reflected not only in the sweeping sentences but in a mania for cataloging markers of time and place. Auster pays scrupulous attention to historical events, marking the milestones in newsreel prose, but he rarely dwells on them:

On March seventh, two hundred Alabama state troopers attacked 525 civil rights demonstrators in Selma as they were preparing to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge…. The next morning, US Marines landed in Vietnam…. President Johnson federalized the state National Guard….

An exception is the sit-ins on the campus of Columbia University, led by the Students for a Democratic Society, of which Amy is a member (in two of the narratives). Ferguson the journalist covers the event for the Columbia Spectator, though he is agnostic about the politics. “He mostly stood behind the group and believed in its cause,” writes Auster, “but a noble cause demanded noble behavior from its advocates.” He disapproves of name-calling. Amy breaks up with him, in one of the narratives, because he does not commit himself to the movement.

Ferguson does commit himself to literature and film and art. We know this because Auster presents us with scrupulous lists of the books Ferguson reads, the movies he watches, the museums he visits, even a five-paragraph roll call of the authors appearing on the syllabi of his freshman courses at Columbia. Dostoevsky, Thoreau, Heinrich von Kleist, and John Cage help to develop Ferguson’s conception of the world and are granted short appreciations; when he defends Kleist’s prose style, in conversation with a literary mentor, he appears to be defending Auster’s own style in 4 3 2 1. “He tells and tells but doesn’t show much,” says Ferguson of Kleist, “which everyone says is the wrong way to go about it, but I like the way his stories charge forward. It’s all very intricate, but at the same time it feels as if you’re reading a fairy tale.”

But most of the proper names scroll down the page like closing credits, only occasionally accompanied by a jot of weightless praise. Carole Lombard’s films are “splendid comedies,” Isaac Babel is “Ferguson’s number one short-story writer in the world,” and he calls James Baldwin “the best American writer,” a surprising opinion for a person of his political disengagement, and undermined by the fact that Baldwin, no sooner mentioned, vanishes from the narrative. The ideas of the dozens, if not hundreds, of other writers and filmmakers and artists mentioned are not explored or tested, so one can only guess at the reason for their inclusion. It would seem that the torrent is the point, the unrestrained deluge of trivia that echoes the deluge of the prose style and, above all, the deluge of storytelling. The approach is nothing like Baldwin or Babel, and it is the opposite of Cage; it is more like Scheherazade.


Tabitha SorenMinor League baseball players in a championship game, 2014; photograph by Tabitha Soren from her book Fantasy Life: Baseball and the American Dream, to be published by Aperture in April

In its sheer expansiveness 4 3 2 1, which is more than twice the length of any book that Auster has published, is unlike anything he has written. Yet it is also commodious enough to encompass everything else he has written. Several times Auster writes playfully of the book of life (“Ferguson sometimes wondered if he hadn’t pulled a fast one on the author of The Book of Terrestrial Life”) and 4 3 2 1 is close to a Book of Auster, studded with allusions to previous novels. Besides the father-and-son relationships, there are various other familiar Austerities: the infatuations with New York City, Parisian culture, and old films; the stories within stories; the search for patterns in chaos; the recurring image of a disoriented man locked in a dark chamber; the bifurcation (or in this case tetrafurcation) of the self, often expressed through alter egos, many of whom share the lineaments of Auster’s biography.

Previous Auster-like avatars Daniel Quinn (New York Trilogy), Peter Aaron (Leviathan), David Zimmer (The Book of Illusions), Jim Freeman (Invisible), and Adam Walker (Invisible) make cameo appearances in 4 3 2 1 as Columbia classmates of Archie Ferguson, along with Zimmer’s friend Marco Fogg (Moon Palace), all of them “beginning writers who seemed to have the stuff to go on and become real poets and novelists one day.” Ferguson translates the same French poets that Auster has translated, visits landmarks prominent in previous novels (the Moon Palace Chinese restaurant, the West End bar), and writes a book, The Scarlet Notebook, that resembles Auster’s story collection The Red Notebook. With The Scarlet Notebook, Ferguson hopes to write

a book about a book, a book that one could read and also write in, a book that one could enter as if it were a three-dimensional physical space, a book that was the world and yet of the mind, a conundrum, a fraught landscape filled with beauties and dangers, and little by little a story would begin to develop inside it that would thrust the fictitious author, F., into a confrontation with the darkest elements of himself. A dream book.

This is a good description of most of Auster’s books.

4 3 2 1 is not nearly the most self-referential of Auster’s novels; Travels in the Scriptorium (2006), a locked-room mystery in which the room is Auster’s own mind, is almost entirely populated by characters from earlier novels, a claustrophobic exercise in performance art. But 4 3 2 1 is broad enough to allow him to discuss the principles of his own writing, and to defend them. Auster has been disserved throughout his career by comparisons to contemporaries like Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee, and Don DeLillo, writers to whom he bears only a superficial resemblance. Closer analogues are Haruki Murakami and Stephen King, novelists who share his interest in genre conventions and their subversion, metafictional loopiness, doppelgangers and evil twins, and the construction of dramatic tension through the extreme juxtaposition of the banal with the deranged.

In one of the early chapters of 4 3 2 1, a six-year-old Ferguson falls from an oak tree in his backyard and breaks his leg. The event stirs within him an ontological crisis. He acknowledges that it was stupid to have tried to climb onto a branch he couldn’t quite reach, but he points out that he had been led to that fateful decision by a series of random events out of his control. Had any of them occurred in a slightly different manner, his leg wouldn’t be in a cast. “Such an interesting thought,” it strikes Ferguson, “to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same.” Soon after Ferguson considers this idea, which is not only the premise of 4 3 2 1 but the basis of many of Auster’s novels, he begins for the first time to write.

A different Ferguson, the budding novelist, explores the same idea in a short story called “Right, Left, or Straight Ahead?” A character named Lazlo Flute, on a walk through the country, comes to an intersection. In three successive chapters he takes a different path. After a couple of misadventures, Flute concludes that “he should spend more time with other people and stop taking so many solitary walks.” His problems don’t arise from choosing one path or another but come from within.

Elsewhere Ferguson expresses his ambition to write fiction that combines “the strange with the familiar,” that “would make room not only for the visible world of sentient beings and inanimate things but also for the vast and mysterious unseen forces that were hidden within the seen.” 4 3 2 1 is best when Auster does just that—when the ground beneath the reader’s feet is spongy, unstable. The novel sputters when it lingers over what Ferguson calls the “things you already knew,” a category that includes not only the milestone historical events but the familiar coming-of-age plots and the reassuring opinions about politics and art—the screenings of Fellini and Godard at the Thalia, the “visits to the Met, the Frick, the Museum of Modern Art…”

But in the novel’s final chapters, as the plots spin out of orbit, the odd occurrences multiply and the ground shifts again. The reader suspects that the stories of all four Fergusons cannot simply meander on in perpetuity, and they don’t. Auster at last gives up his game, though the revelation of his metafictional gimmick is not especially shocking; by this point the reader has had nearly nine hundred pages to prepare. In the end Auster reaches the same conclusion as Lazlo Flute: “One road,” he writes, “was no better or worse than any other road.” But he adds a crucial elaboration:

The torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, traveling toward an altogether different place.

This explains the rationale behind 4 3 2 1’s conceit, but it might just as easily apply to Auster’s entire body of work. He began his career by wondering what might have happened had his relationship with his father been different; what other roads might a stronger paternal bond have set him on? He has since imagined other paths for himself—as a private detective, a fireman turned amateur gambler, a St. Louis orphan born in 1915, a mongrel dog with a human consciousness, and various New York writers much like him, who are visited by mysterious strangers.

If every person, like Ferguson, has “several selves inside him, even many selves, a strong self and a weak self, a thoughtful self and an impulsive self, a generous self and a selfish self,” then self-knowledge lies in the promiscuous inhabitation of multiple identities. Among these many paths for the self are those not taken—“the shadow people” that we imagine we could be, if only we had a little more courage, or strength, or wisdom. “The world as it was,” as Auster puts it, “could never be more than a fraction of the world, for the real also consisted of what could have happened but didn’t.” Whether one finds his fiction exhilarating or maddening depends on whether one accepts this mystical view of human experience. Reality, to Auster, is itself an interlocking chain of alternative realities.

Auster’s approach stands in opposition to the conventions of most serious contemporary fiction, which attempts to plunge deeper and deeper into the soul of a character, revealing the contradictions, usually irresolvable, that lie within. Auster instead travels outside of his characters, into parallel universes populated by shadow people and doppelgangers who, by choice or chance, find themselves thrust into worlds that “could have happened but didn’t.” One might not want to visit those worlds, might consider them a frivolous distraction, but for willing travelers there is no more congenial guide to this marshy terrain. Though 4 3 2 1 is not the most successful example of Auster’s project—it is too heavily weighted with the familiar, too stingy with the strange—it offers the clearest explication of his sensibility. Alternative realities have their uses, and for more than escapist fantasy. It takes a strong imagination to see the world as it isn’t. It takes an even stronger imagination to see the world as it is.

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The Expendable Translator


Studio PericoliTullio Pericoli: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1980

Is a translator effectively the co-author of a text and if so should he or she be paid a royalty as authors are?

After presenting a book of mine, or rather, its German translation, in Berlin, I found myself in a bar discussing this question with two experienced translators, Ulrike Becker and Ruth Keen. Rather than the nature of a translator’s co-authorship itself, our discussion was kicked off by the fact that very few translators actually receive major benefits from royalties—even in Germany, where publishers are obliged to grant them. Over a long career, Ruth just once received a handsome €10,000-plus when a book about Napoleon’s march on Moscow unexpectedly took off. Ulrike once received a couple of thousand when a literary novel made it onto the bestseller list. Otherwise, it’s peanuts.

Why is this?

As in most countries, German literary translators are paid for their work on the basis of its length; something that, in this case, is calculated at a rate of around $20-25 a page. Not a lot. In the US or England, far fewer literary works are translated and rates vary a great deal. But if a royalty is granted at all (and I for one was never given a royalty in the US), the initial payment based on length is usually considered an advance against it. Hence, if a translator has been paid, say, $8,000 for a book and granted a royalty of 1 percent on a cover price of $20, the book would need to sell 40,000 copies before the royalty brought in any additional money. And 40,000 copies is an unusually big sale.

However, as Ruth explains to me, German law has been generous to translators and a recent court ruling ordered that the initial payment must not be offset against royalties. What the ruling didn’t do, however, was prevent the publishers from establishing a threshold below which royalties would not be paid, usually set at 5,000 or 8,000 copies, while the royalty will be as low as 0.8 percent, or even 0.6 percent. Since in Germany few books sell more than 5,000 copies, the result is that few translators see any money from these arrangements.

All the same, the occasional jackpot is surely better than none at all. So you would think. Ulrike tells me the story of Karin Krieger, who became a translator’s hero when, in 1999, she took the publisher Piper to court over a royalty question. Krieger had translated three novels by the Italian writer Alessandro Baricco. When these began to sell well she tried to get the publishers to honor a rather vague contractual clause granting her “a fair share of the profits” (royalties were not mandatory at that time). The publisher responded, unexpectedly and quite unusually, by having the books retranslated by another translator with a contract more favorable to the publisher.

After five years’ litigation, Krieger eventually won her case and the money she was owed, but the sequence of events suggests the essential difference between translators and authors: Piper could never have tried to deprive Baricco of his royalties, since without him there would have been no books and no sales. He was not replaceable. But however fine Krieger’s translations, the publisher felt that the same commercial result could be achieved with another translator. It’s not that translation work is ever easy; on the contrary. Simply that it rarely requires a unique talent. Krieger wasn’t essential. She could be replaced.

At this point it’s worth remembering why royalties were introduced in the first place. Before the eighteenth century writers would sell a work to a printer for a lump sum and the printer would make little or much depending on how many copies they managed to sell. Writers, seeing printers grow rich (or some printers), wanted a share of the wealth they felt that they more than anyone else had created; hence in the early eighteenth century the first move, in Britain, to concede that writers owned what later came to be called “intellectual property”—their writing—and hence had a right to a percentage of the income for every copy sold.

It could be argued that while this was “fair” as an arrangement between printers and authors, it hardly meant that a writer’s income would reflect the quality of their writing and the work put into it—would, that is, be fair in some absolute sense. Today a blockbuster that sells globally—Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer—will make its author many millions, while a fine work of poetry might bring in just a few hundred dollars. If anything, one could say that royalties were an invitation to writers to aim their work at the largest possible audience able to afford a mass-market paperback.

That said, whatever is in that paperback really is the author’s creation. He or she will have had to sit down and write a substantial piece of work, not knowing how it will come out, not knowing for sure whether a publisher will buy it or whether, having bought it, they will be able to sell it. In short, the author has to fill an empty space, to create something where there was nothing. The translator, on the other hand, is in most cases commissioned to do a job. It could be the blockbuster, it could be the poetry. Sentence by sentence, the work is already there. However difficult it may be bringing it into another language, translators do not have to start from scratch, and they rarely have much choice, at least at the beginning of their careers, as to what kind of work they are translating. Certainly, in my own experience, nothing could be more different than settling down to a day’s writing as opposed to a day’s translating.

Two ideas drive the now decades-old campaign to extend royalty payments to translators. The first is practical: since publishers have tended to resist paying rates that would constitute a decent income for translators, one that corresponds to the professional skill and long hours involved, introducing a royalty clause into the contract ensures that at least in cases where a translated book makes serious money the translator will get some share of it. The second is conceptual: every translation is different, every translation requires a degree of creativity, hence the translation is “intellectual property” and as such should be considered authorship and receive the same treatment authors receive.

The problem with the first of these ideas is that, in so far as a translator’s income is royalty-based, it will depend entirely on how publishers distribute the translations they commission. If, for example, we imagine two German translators with the same qualities and one is commissioned to translate Fifty Shades Part V and the other a book of short stories by a first-time New Zealand writer, one will make a fortune and the other very likely a pittance. Of course, the same is true, as we said, for the authors. If both receive 10 percent per copy, E.L. James will grow fabulously rich and the New Zealand short-story writer, however brilliant, would be well advised not to leave his regular job. Yet royalties are not a divisive issue among writers for the simple reason that whatever one thinks of the qualities of a work like Fifty Shades, no one disputes that E.L. James was the person who had the idea for the book and took the risk of writing it. It is her work, it reflects her mind. Let her have her 10 percent.

The same is not true for the translator, for whom translating Fifty Shades with a royalty is simply a huge windfall for a task that may even be easier than translating far less remunerative books. What’s more, one can safely disclaim all responsibility for the embarrassing content! At this point the institution of royalties threatens to divide translators. An Italian translator told me how all Dan Brown’s translators had been brought together in Europe to receive the novel Inferno and be briefed on various translation issues. The French translator was in an excellent mood since France, like Germany, now compels publishers to grant royalties. Others were bound to reflect that they would be receiving only a few thousand dollars for the whole six hundred pages, no matter how well their translation of the book sold.

The second, conceptual argument is more interesting, but no less problematic. That translation requires creativity is indisputable. As a translator myself, I have no desire to undermine the dignity of the craft. But is this creativity of a kind that constitutes “authorship”? Here are four versions of the opening lines of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground:

I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though.

—Constance Garnett, 1918

 

I am a sick man…. I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver. But I don’t understand the least thing about my illness, and I don’t know for certain what part of me is affected. I am not having any treatment for it, and never have had, although I have a great respect for medicine and for doctors. I am besides extremely superstitious, if only in having such respect for medicine. (I am well educated enough not to be superstitious, but superstitious I am.) No, I refuse treatment out of spite. That is something you will probably not understand. Well, I understand it.

—Jessie Coulson, 1972

 

I am a sick man…I’m a spiteful man. I’m an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver. But I cannot make head or tail of my illness and I’m not absolutely certain which part of me is sick. I’m not receiving any treatment, nor have I ever done, although I do respect medicine and doctors. Besides, I’m still extremely superstitious, if only in that I respect medicine. (I’m sufficiently well educated not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, it’s out of spite that I don’t want to be cured. You’ll probably not see fit to understand this. But I do understand it.

—Jane Kentish, 1991

 

I am a sick man…I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts. However, I don’t know a fig about my sickness, and am not sure what it is that hurts me. I am not being treated and never have been, though I respect medicine and doctors. What’s more, I am also superstitious in the extreme; well, at least enough to respect medicine. (I’m sufficiently educated not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, sir, I refuse to be treated out of wickedness. Now, you will certainly not be so good as to understand this. Well, sir, but I understand it.

—Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky 1993 

 

One can make all kinds of distinctions between these translations. “Spiteful,” “angry,” and “wicked,” in the opening line, suggest three rather different qualities; which is right, or at least closer to the original? Why do three of the translations cite this same quality—“spite,” “wickedness”—later as the reason why the narrator has not sought a treatment for his illness, while one, the translation that uses “anger,” does not? We can only assume that the original uses the same word twice but one translator has chosen not to respect that repetition. Two of the translations have a generic “know nothing at all” or “the least thing” about the narrator’s illness, while one has “cannot make head or tail,” introducing an image that risks getting confused with the anatomy, while the most recent translation oddly gives the most old-fashioned idiom, “don’t know a fig.”

Where two translations have a “Besides,” and one a “What’s more,” the other has nothing. One translation introduces a “sir”—“No, sir,” “Well, sir”—while the others do not; is it possible that all the other three translators would eliminate this “sir” if it were there? And why do two translators offer interesting nuances in this sentence: “you’ll probably not see fit to understand this,” “you will certainly not be so good as to understand this,” as if understanding were a matter of disposition rather than intellect, while the other two just give “you probably will not understand”?

There is simply no end to drawing fine distinctions between translations, discussing them in relation to the original and the cultural setting of the language of arrival, or their own internal consistency. Yet, all four of these translations are recognizably the same text. And Dostoevsky’s main stylistic strategies emerge powerfully in all of them, above all the narrator’s pleasure in parading his own perversity, his habit of qualifying everything he says in unexpected ways, of undermining received ideas (is it really superstitious to respect doctors?), of engaging, challenging and mocking the reader, and so on. Indeed, the more translations we have, the more we appreciate how overwhelmingly the text depends on Dostoevsky’s unique authorship. Does it make sense, then, to talk of the translator’s “co-authorship”? Why does translation have to be likened to something it is not? One might argue, of course, that Dostoevsky being long dead and his work out of copyright, the publishers could afford to pay a royalty since they are not paying one to the author. But that is a practical rather than a conceptual issue. Four translations of almost any text, ancient or contemporary, would yield the same results.

Some days after our meeting in Berlin, Ruth Keen emailed me the results of a questionnaire on earnings conducted by the German Translators Union. Five hundred ninety-eight people had responded and there were plenty of intriguing statistics: that almost 60 percent of books translated had come from English, for example; that though around 80 percent of translators were women, men tended to earn about $1.10 more per page; that work considered difficult was paid only marginally more per page than work considered easy (this despite the fact that the extra time taken over a difficult text might amount to a multiple of two or three, or even ten). But most of all, having presented a battery of statistics on royalties, the report lamented that low sales and high thresholds before royalties kicked in meant that it was extremely unusual for translators to benefit from them.

Where do these reflections leave us when it comes to pay and recognition for the wonderful work translators do? My own feeling is that the problem is less difficult than everyone pretends; that it surely would not be impossible to bring together editor, translator, and, say, an expert in translation from this or that language to establish how demanding a text is, how much time will be involved in translating it, and what would be a reasonable payment for doing so. Perhaps it is time for translators and translators’ associations to focus on putting such arrangements in place, without getting bogged down in the vexed question of authorship and royalties.

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Trump in the Middle East: The New Brutality


Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty ImagesThe rubble of a home destroyed by reported coalition air strikes in al-Jadida, Mosul, Iraq, March 24, 2017

In the opening months of the Donald Trump administration, there has been little sign of a coherent foreign policy taking shape. What is happening, however, is a dramatic militarization of US policy in the Middle East—one that is occurring largely without the consultation of American allies, and with hardly any public scrutiny. In the case of the war in Yemen and the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, these developments could have extraordinary consequences for US security and even the stability of the Middle East itself.

The disastrous January raid on an al-Qaeda target in central Yemen, just days after Trump took office, resulting in the death of a Navy SEAL and two dozen civilians, has been widely discussed. But since then, US actions have, if anything, escalated. In early March, US aircraft and drones carried out over thirty strikes against Islamic militants across central Yemen, almost equaling the total number of air strikes that were carried out in the whole of 2016. Many civilians were also killed. In Iraq and Syria, meanwhile, there have been numerous reports of civilian casualties in US bombing raids. On Friday, it was reported that as many as two hundred civilians were killed in US airstrikes in Mosul.

Meanwhile, four hundred US troops are on their way to Syria to set up an artillery base for the retaking of the ISIS capital Raqqa; another one thousand troops may soon be sent to Kuwait to act as a reserve force. More troops will soon go to Iraq in addition to the five thousand already there. And the Pentagon has demanded more troops for Afghanistan in addition to the 8,400 already there.

The most startling example may be occurring in Yemen, where the US is intervening with almost no public discussion, debate in Congress, or even—as Western diplomats told me—coordination with NATO allies. The violent civil war in Yemen between the government and Houthi rebels who are Shia Muslims is now a regional conflict involving Iran on the side of the Houthis and the Arab Gulf states backing the government. Yemen is facing the “largest humanitarian crisis” in the world, with two thirds of its eighteen million people in need of aid, according to Stephen O’Brien, a senior UN official. 

But the new US military deployments are taking place without any sign of US diplomatic initiatives or discussion of the future of peace talks in conflict zones, or a more rounded strategy and narrative to woo Muslims hearts and minds in order to defeat the Islamic State. The only discussion appears to revolve around how to escalate military action—something that is deeply disheartening to allies around the world. 

On March 26, The Washington Post reported that the Defense Department is asking the White House to remove restrictions on providing military aid to Gulf allies who are fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Already, unspecified US Special Operations Forces (SOF) are operating not only in Yemen, but also in dozens of other countries in Africa and Central Asia. 

The most disturbing discussion to date revolves around the US military being allowed to create free-fire zones in which US forces could target and bomb potential enemies without regard to civilian casualties or damage to economic infrastructure—a stark repudiation of counter-terrorism rules set down by the Obama and Bush administrations. The New York Times has reported that three provinces in Yemen have been declared ”an area of active hostilities”—in other words a free-fire zone—and that parts of Somalia will soon be added the list. Western diplomats in Brussels say areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban are strongest may also be added. Such a policy, encouraging indiscriminate strikes, will undoubtedly produce thousands more Muslim radicals, undermine humanitarian relief and destroy hopes of economic reconstruction.

Instead of pursuing a comprehensive approach that involves diplomacy, economic aid, conflict resolution and alliance building, Trump has reverted to a dangerous dependence on the military while undermining all other US state institutions that deal with the wider world. Apart from bombing, what exactly is the Trump strategy for Yemen? Does the administration support continuing UN efforts to mediate between the Yemeni government and the Houthis? Now that the Defense Department wants to remove the arms embargo in Yemen, what will that mean for the conflict itself? What diplomacy does the administration plan for dealing with the escalating regional rivalry? And who, in fact, is in charge of Yemen policy at the State Department or the National Security Council? None of these questions are being answered or even addressed. 

Yet Yemen is still a minor issue compared to what the US plans next in Syria. Here too civilians are dying from US air strikes—thirty-three civilians were killed on March 22, when US led coalition bombers hit a school.) Will Trump support the Russian-dominated, UN-led peace process in Geneva? Is the US interested in forming a stronger Arab-Western alliance against the Islamic State, while also trying to broker a political solution? Is the US prepared to let President Bashar al-Assad stay in place? Who will pay for the flood of refugees still coming out of Syria or its future reconstruction? None of these questions appear even to be being asked by the White House.

Clear answers become even more unlikely when the Trump administration is considering a possible one third cut in the $50 billion budget of the State Department and the Agency for International Development in order to fund a $54 billion increase in the Defense budget. Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management Budget said on March 4 that the cuts would see “fairly dramatic reductions in foreign aid.” There has been widespread opposition from Congress, aid groups, and the media to these proposals. 

Such cuts would undermine the State Department’s ability to launch diplomatic initiatives or even influence future US foreign policy. The firing of many regional and country experts would create a vacuum at the State Department and only lead to greater disdain abroad for US diplomacy. The US will increasingly be unable to persuade autocratic governments to respect human rights, press freedoms, and civil society. Much of USAID’s funding goes to supporting civil society and non-governmental organizations abroad for which Trump has shown no interest; and budget cuts could have a severe effect on these activities.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has barely made a dent in Washington and has failed to staff his department, leaving hundreds of ambassador slots vacant, has been silent on major foreign policy issues, avoided meeting visiting dignitaries, and isolated the media. There are serious questions about what part, if any, the State Department will have in the Trump administration’s foreign policy. 

Trump’s growing dependence on a military strategy around the world will reduce US influence with its allies and all major powers. It also makes it less likely that they will join what Trump hopes will be a crusade against the Islamic State. Autocrats around the world will follow the American example and be encouraged to abandon diplomacy and politics and use force to get their way. We will be left with a US that is set on inflaming conflicts rather than ending them, a US that abandons any sense of global responsibility and pays no regard to international agreements. A new global era has begun in which American allies can no longer rely on American leadership. It may be the most dangerous period we have seen in our lifetimes. 

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Trump in the Middle East: The New Brutality


Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty ImagesThe rubble of a home destroyed by reported coalition air strikes in al-Jadida, Mosul, Iraq, March 24, 2017

In the opening months of the Donald Trump administration, there has been little sign of a coherent foreign policy taking shape. What is happening, however, is a dramatic militarization of US policy in the Middle East—one that is occurring largely without the consultation of American allies, and with hardly any public scrutiny. In the case of the war in Yemen and the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, these developments could have extraordinary consequences for US security and even the stability of the Middle East itself.

The disastrous January raid on an al-Qaeda target in central Yemen, just days after Trump took office, resulting in the death of a Navy SEAL and two dozen civilians, has been widely discussed. But since then, US actions have, if anything, escalated. In early March, US aircraft and drones carried out over thirty strikes against Islamic militants across central Yemen, almost equaling the total number of air strikes that were carried out in the whole of 2016. Many civilians were also killed. In Iraq and Syria, meanwhile, there have been numerous reports of civilian casualties in US bombing raids. On Friday, it was reported that as many as two hundred civilians were killed in US airstrikes in Mosul.

Meanwhile, four hundred US troops are on their way to Syria to set up an artillery base for the retaking of the ISIS capital Raqqa; another one thousand troops may soon be sent to Kuwait to act as a reserve force. More troops will soon go to Iraq in addition to the five thousand already there. And the Pentagon has demanded more troops for Afghanistan in addition to the 8,400 already there.

The most startling example may be occurring in Yemen, where the US is intervening with almost no public discussion, debate in Congress, or even—as Western diplomats told me—coordination with NATO allies. The violent civil war in Yemen between the government and Houthi rebels who are Shia Muslims is now a regional conflict involving Iran on the side of the Houthis and the Arab Gulf states backing the government. Yemen is facing the “largest humanitarian crisis” in the world, with two thirds of its eighteen million people in need of aid, according to Stephen O’Brien, a senior UN official. 

But the new US military deployments are taking place without any sign of US diplomatic initiatives or discussion of the future of peace talks in conflict zones, or a more rounded strategy and narrative to woo Muslims hearts and minds in order to defeat the Islamic State. The only discussion appears to revolve around how to escalate military action—something that is deeply disheartening to allies around the world. 

On March 26, The Washington Post reported that the Defense Department is asking the White House to remove restrictions on providing military aid to Gulf allies who are fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Already, unspecified US Special Operations Forces (SOF) are operating not only in Yemen, but also in dozens of other countries in Africa and Central Asia. 

The most disturbing discussion to date revolves around the US military being allowed to create free-fire zones in which US forces could target and bomb potential enemies without regard to civilian casualties or damage to economic infrastructure—a stark repudiation of counter-terrorism rules set down by the Obama and Bush administrations. The New York Times has reported that three provinces in Yemen have been declared ”an area of active hostilities”—in other words a free-fire zone—and that parts of Somalia will soon be added the list. Western diplomats in Brussels say areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban are strongest may also be added. Such a policy, encouraging indiscriminate strikes, will undoubtedly produce thousands more Muslim radicals, undermine humanitarian relief and destroy hopes of economic reconstruction.

Instead of pursuing a comprehensive approach that involves diplomacy, economic aid, conflict resolution and alliance building, Trump has reverted to a dangerous dependence on the military while undermining all other US state institutions that deal with the wider world. Apart from bombing, what exactly is the Trump strategy for Yemen? Does the administration support continuing UN efforts to mediate between the Yemeni government and the Houthis? Now that the Defense Department wants to remove the arms embargo in Yemen, what will that mean for the conflict itself? What diplomacy does the administration plan for dealing with the escalating regional rivalry? And who, in fact, is in charge of Yemen policy at the State Department or the National Security Council? None of these questions are being answered or even addressed. 

Yet Yemen is still a minor issue compared to what the US plans next in Syria. Here too civilians are dying from US air strikes—thirty-three civilians were killed on March 22, when US led coalition bombers hit a school.) Will Trump support the Russian-dominated, UN-led peace process in Geneva? Is the US interested in forming a stronger Arab-Western alliance against the Islamic State, while also trying to broker a political solution? Is the US prepared to let President Bashar al-Assad stay in place? Who will pay for the flood of refugees still coming out of Syria or its future reconstruction? None of these questions appear even to be being asked by the White House.

Clear answers become even more unlikely when the Trump administration is considering a possible one third cut in the $50 billion budget of the State Department and the Agency for International Development in order to fund a $54 billion increase in the Defense budget. Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management Budget said on March 4 that the cuts would see “fairly dramatic reductions in foreign aid.” There has been widespread opposition from Congress, aid groups, and the media to these proposals. 

Such cuts would undermine the State Department’s ability to launch diplomatic initiatives or even influence future US foreign policy. The firing of many regional and country experts would create a vacuum at the State Department and only lead to greater disdain abroad for US diplomacy. The US will increasingly be unable to persuade autocratic governments to respect human rights, press freedoms, and civil society. Much of USAID’s funding goes to supporting civil society and non-governmental organizations abroad for which Trump has shown no interest; and budget cuts could have a severe effect on these activities.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has barely made a dent in Washington and has failed to staff his department, leaving hundreds of ambassador slots vacant, has been silent on major foreign policy issues, avoided meeting visiting dignitaries, and isolated the media. There are serious questions about what part, if any, the State Department will have in the Trump administration’s foreign policy. 

Trump’s growing dependence on a military strategy around the world will reduce US influence with its allies and all major powers. It also makes it less likely that they will join what Trump hopes will be a crusade against the Islamic State. Autocrats around the world will follow the American example and be encouraged to abandon diplomacy and politics and use force to get their way. We will be left with a US that is set on inflaming conflicts rather than ending them, a US that abandons any sense of global responsibility and pays no regard to international agreements. A new global era has begun in which American allies can no longer rely on American leadership. It may be the most dangerous period we have seen in our lifetimes. 

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Robert B. Silvers (1929–2017)

“Where do things stand? Have we closed?” Days before his death, on March 20, Robert B. Silvers was doing what he had been doing every day for the past fifty-four years: thinking about, fretting over, and laboring on The New York Review of Books. On his sickbed, galley proofs were fanned out across the coverlet, photographs spilled from manila folders (“I do think it’s important to get the reporters’ raised hands inside the frame”), and a large, black, multiline telephone lay humming and blinking beneath his right hand. Even as his illness began to sap the legendary energy that had propelled him, well into his ninth decade, through fifteen-hour workdays and a social calendar that his young assistants would have found daunting, Bob would lift the receiver when the office called and declaim his favorite greeting: “Hello, hello, hello!


Annie SchlechterRobert B. Silvers in his office at The New York Review of Books, July 2012; photograph by Annie Schlechter

The enthusiasm, bonhomie, and openness to possibility in that triple salutation were characteristic of Bob and defined his approach to editing “the paper.” Despite his immense erudition and considerable worldliness, he was never jaded; he was avid to be stimulated and educated by his writers (who would have argued that he already knew everything), and his mission, as he saw it, was to provide them with whatever resources they needed, editorial or material—from plane tickets to Saigon to boxed DVD sets of Friday Night Lights—to produce the work that, as he liked to say in the handwritten notes and rapid-fire e-mails that started to accumulate as a deadline neared, he was “very eager to see.” Eager: the adjectives that recur in an interview he gave in 2012, as the Review neared its fiftieth anniversary, belong to the vocabulary of the born enthusiast. “I admire great writers, people with marvelous and beautiful minds, and always hope they will do something special and revealing.”

If they did, it was largely because of the qualities of mind that Bob brought to his editing, the liveliness and inexhaustible curiosity tempered by a vigorously authentic taste that was unswayed by fashion and grounded in intellectual and ethical rigor. These traits, not coincidentally, were shared by his longtime companion, Grace, Countess of Dudley, who died on December 29, two days before Bob’s eighty-seventh birthday. That his death should have followed hers so swiftly comes as little surprise to those who knew the couple; nor can there be any doubt that Bob would have wanted a tribute to him to include a mention of the woman he considered the Review’s muse, at once its ideal reader—intelligent, open-minded, alert to beauty, and skeptical of phony authority, whether in politics or art—and his inspiration in life and work for over forty years.

As for the Review, it will of course go on, as he knew it would. “I can think of several people who would be marvelous editors,” Bob told his interviewer. “I think they would put out a terrific paper, but it would be different.” That’s where things stand; the long first chapter is closed. Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.

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A Marvelous Moment for French Writers and Artists


Kunsthalle HamburgÉdouard Manet: Nana, 1877

You see her from a distance, at the end of a long enfilade of rooms. As you approach, you notice that she is already turned toward you. She is in her fortified underwear: a light blue bodice, white slip, light blue stockings; in her raised right hand, a powder puff like a vast carnation. To the left, over a chair, is the blue dress she will soon put on. To the right, though you might not at first observe him, is an impatient, mustachioed figure in evening dress, his top hat still—or already—on his head. But once again, you are aware that she has eyes only for you.

She is Manet’s Nana, in the Hamburg Kunsthalle, benefiting from a recent rehang that makes her even more of a cynosure. Nana is the courtesan protagonist of Zola’s 1880 novel of the same name, and you might reasonably assume that Manet’s painting is, apart from anything else, one of the great book illustrations. But it is more interesting than this. Nana first appeared as a minor character in Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877). Manet spotted her there, and painted his portrait of her. When Zola saw it, he realized that, yes indeed, she was worth a novel in her own right. So, far from Manet illustrating Zola, what actually happened was that Zola was illustrating Manet.

The close friendship, interaction, and parallelism between writers and artists in nineteenth-century France are the subject of Anka Muhlstein’s The Pen and the Brush. Balzac put more painters into his novels than he did writers, constantly name-checking artists and using them as visual shorthand (old men looked like Rembrandts, innocent girls like Raphaels). Zola, as a young novelist, lived much more among painters than writers, and told Degas that when he needed to describe laundresses he had simply copied from the artist’s pictures. Victor Hugo was a fine Gothicky-Romantic artist in his own right, and an innovative one too, mixing onto his palette everything from coffee grounds, blackberry juice, and caramelized onion to spit and soot, not to mention what his biographer Graham Robb tactfully terms “even less respectable materials.”

Flaubert’s favorite living painter (also that of Huysmans’s Des Esseintes) was Gustave Moreau, and his Salammbô is like a massive, bejeweled, wall-threatening Salon exhibit—this being both the novel’s strength and its weakness. Baudelaire, Zola, Goncourt, Maupassant, and Huysmans were excellent art critics (Monet thought Huysmans the best of all). The subject is enormous, and might threaten to go off in every direction. What about photography? And book illustration? And sculpture? What about poets and pictures, both real and imaginary? Anka Muhlstein wisely limits herself to prose writers, and to five who speak to her most clearly: Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and—a slight chronological cheat—Proust. The result is a personal, compact, intense book that provokes both much warm nodding and occasional friendly disagreement.

Of all the arts, writers most envy music, for being both abstract and immediate, and also in no need of translation. But painting might come a close second, for the way that the expression and the means of expression are coterminous—whereas novelists are stuck with the one-damn-thing-after-another need for word and sentence and paragraph and background and psychological buildup in order to heftily construct that climactic scene. On the other hand, it is much easier for writers (and composers, for that matter) to work in subtle, or not-so-subtle, homages to other art forms than it is for painters. Thus Zola gives a friendly nod to Manet in his novel Thérèse Raquin, where a murdered girl in the morgue is described as resembling a “languishing courtesan” offering up her breasts to us, while the black line around her neck (evidence of strangulation) recalls the black ribbon around the neck of Olympia; just to confirm the homage, Zola also includes that rather sinister black cat from the painting.

Zola’s public support for Manet and the Impressionists was loud and vigorous, and came at just the right time. (Sometimes there seems to be a logical assembly of rallying forces, at others it is a matter of fortune. When Tom Stoppard spoke at Kenneth Tynan’s funeral, he addressed the critic’s children on behalf of his own generation of playwrights: “Your father,” he told them, “was part of the luck we had.”) Manet certainly expressed his—equally public—gratitude to Zola, painting a celebrated portrait of the novelist at his desk: pinned on the wall behind is a print of Olympia, and clearly visible on the desk is Zola’s pamphlet in praise of the painter. Zola was a forceful, detailed, and brightly colored critic, though he didn’t exactly deal in the quiet hint; art was there to describe and to change society—both his and its functions were combative. If the aesthetic argument shaded into the political, so much the better.

And Zola could be just as keen on having things both ways as his opponents were. In 1869, when Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian was about to be translated into mass-media form as a lithograph, the authorities banned it. The reasons were clear: the event was a key moment of geopolitical humiliation for Napoleon III’s regime, in which France had abandoned its Mexican puppet to his fate. Zola, in an unsigned article in La Tribune, piously claimed (as had Manet) that the picture was totally nonpolitical, with the subject treated “from a purely artistic point of view.” When this didn’t work, four days later he was pointing out the opposite: the “cruel irony” of Manet’s picture, which could be read as “France shooting Maximilian” (see illustration on page 26).

So there was allusion, name-checking, and boosterism, either discreetly worked into fiction or overtly shouted from newspapers. Balzac’s treatment of painters, as Muhlstein points out, is much more admiring than his treatment of his fellow writers. Whereas Daniel d’Arthez, the most significant writer he invented, is “a cold, gray, virtuous character…all his painters are jolly, attractive, unpredictable, and often practical jokers.” This hardly applies, however, to the Balzacian painter who made the most impact on real-life artists: Frenhofer, the protagonist of “The Unknown Masterpiece.”

This twenty-page text sets the fictitious Frenhofer (elderly, so inevitably like “a Rembrandt”) against the established, middle-aged Pourbus—court painter to Henri IV—and the aspiring young Poussin. Frenhofer, sole pupil of Mabuse, is the driven genius with impossibly high standards to whom the others defer; for ten years he has been secretly working on a portrait that expresses all he has learned about art. Poussin gulls him into showing it, whereupon the supposed masterpiece is revealed—at least to Poussin’s and Pourbus’s eyes—as “haphazardly accumulated colors contained by a multitude of peculiar lines, creating a wall of paint.” Either Frenhofer’s conception of art is so lofty that it is untranslatable into pigment; or, perhaps, what he has produced is so far ahead of its time that it can be appreciated only centuries later. In a rage (with himself, or the others?), he destroys all his paintings, and dies that night.

As a short story, it is somehow both rickety and overdense; as a narrative about the nature of art, it has a grasping intensity, which gave it the longest afterlife of any art fiction of the century. In his translation Anthony Rudolf enumerates the recognition from, and even influence over, Cézanne, Picasso, Giacometti, and de Kooning. (The story was also a great favorite of Karl Marx.) Picasso illustrated a livre d’artiste with choices that suggest, according to Rudolf, that he might not have read the text very carefully.

The link between writers and artists in nineteenth-century France was strong and largely cordial. But some writers went further—or imagined, or claimed, they did. Balzac described himself as “a literary painter.” Muhlstein calls Zola a “writer-painter.” Maupassant hymns the superiority of painting over fiction (though he was mainly talking about color). Proust is in Muhlstein’s eyes occasionally a kind of Cubist. Muhlstein charts the sudden irruption of the visual arts into the lives of nonelite Parisians: first, by the opening of the Louvre as a Central Museum of Arts in 1793; later, by the arrival of vast booty from Napoleon’s conquests (and the tenacious holding on to it after the empire fell). It was not just the thrilling, democratic availability of great art that excited writers; it was also that painters were “making it new” as much, if not more so, than writers. So writers now looked at how painters looked. Though Muhlstein’s claim that “the visual novel dates from this period” suggests too much. When was the novel—and before it, poetry—not “visual”?

You could say, perhaps, that writers look, whereas painters see. Muhlstein tells of Proust telling of Ruskin telling of Turner: how the English painter once did a drawing of some ships silhouetted against a bright sky and showed it to a naval officer. The sailor indignantly pointed out that the ships’ portholes were missing; the painter demonstrated that, given the light, they were in fact invisible; the officer replied that this might very well be the case, but he knew that the portholes were there. Writers look as hard as they can, but they may well falsely remember a porthole that is missing from the reality in front of them. Whereas painters have it both ways: they might Turnerishly omit the portholes, or choose to put them in, because they can also see what the rest of us can’t.

Perhaps the social closeness of French writers to painters in the nineteenth century made some of them think of themselves more self-consciously as writer-painters. Some of Muhlstein’s examples are very striking. So, Zola, in Une page d’amour (1877), gives five different descriptions of the same view of Paris, varying by time of day and season: the link to Monet’s (future) sequence-painting seems inescapable. (And he uses the same ploy in L’Oeuvre.) Then there is his picturish fascination with mirrors; and the way he justifies architectural anachronism in a Parisian cityscape because he needs the as-yet-unbuilt Opéra and the as-yet-unbuilt church of Saint-Augustin to give visual structure to his description.

But when, for instance, Muhlstein notes parallels in Zola between the representation of landscape and a character’s state of mind, this is not something new to literature: this is the Wordsworthian “egotistical sublime”—or, to take a more local example, the pantheistic trance of Emma Bovary after she has been seduced by Rodolphe in the forest. Contact with painters doubtless suggested new angles of looking and tweaks of lighting. But the book’s subtitle—“How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels”—is overreaching. The fact remains that we don’t read Maupassant for the colors, or Zola for the lighting. We read Zola for the psychological truth, the social observation, and the tragic working-out of determinism. Further, the world of Zola—that “Homer of the sewers,” as the duchess so jauntily puts it in À la Recherche—is essentially one of darkness; the world of Impressionism essentially one of light.

While many of France’s nineteenth-century painters, from Delacroix to Monet to Cézanne, were very well read, and some of them drew inspiration from literature, not many of them—with the exception of Odilon Redon (“Writing is the greatest art”)—directly envied the form. As for what they made of their literary friends’ and supporters’ work, there is often more nuance and less full-heartedness in their response than you might expect. Indeed, some, like Van Gogh, writing in 1883, were very unnuanced: “Zola has this in common with Balzac, that he knows little about painting…. Balzac’s painters are enormously tedious, very boring.” Balzac and Delacroix, who met around 1829–1830, initially had much admiration for each another; Balzac dedicated La Fille aux yeux d’or to the painter, and over the years Delacroix copied into his journal twenty pages’ worth of quotes from Balzac, from thirteen different novels.

But a cooling-off happened around 1842, and thereafter Delacroix’s opinion of the novelist became harsher. By 1854, four years after Balzac’s death, the painter was fulminating into his journal against the panegyrical preface to Le Provincial à Paris, which boasted of Balzac’s “colossal reputation” and compared him to Molière. (Delacroix seems not to have known that “The Editor” was almost certainly Balzac himself.) And the next day, the painter went into detail: works like Eugénie Grandet hadn’t stood the test of time, he wrote, because of the “incurable imperfection” of Balzac’s talent. “No sense of balance, of structure, of proportion.”

You sense that Balzac was usually the wooer, Delacroix the wooed. Also that Balzac perhaps imagined Delacroix to be an artist other than he was. (When a flatterer congratulated him on being “the Victor Hugo of painting,” Delacroix chilled him with the response, “You are mistaken, Monsieur, I am a purely classical artist.”) It was Balzac, rather than the supposedly Romantic Delacroix, who was the more constant dreamer. He imagined giving his lover Mme Hańska Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Alger—if only he could have afforded it. One of his saddest dreams took place in 1838 when, already on the run from creditors, he decided to build a country house called Les Jardies with a view over the woods of Versailles. His colossal initial plans were quickly scaled back to a “skinny three-storey chalet,” but within it, Balzac carried on dreaming, with everything from electric bells to a fireplace of Carrara marble. And the decor? That too Balzac had planned. As Robb explains in his richly observed biography:

The walls were bare except for Balzac’s charcoal graffiti, which became a permanent feature: “Here an Aubusson tapestry.” “Here some doors in the Trianon style.” “Here a ceiling painted by Eugène Delacroix.” “Here a mosaic parquet made of all the rare woods from the Islands.” There was also a charcoal Raphaël facing a charcoal Titian and a charcoal Rembrandt, none of which ever turned into the real thing: all signifiers and no signifieds.

Whether Delacroix knew he was down to do a ceiling for the novelist is doubtful.


Kunsthalle MannheimÉdouard Manet: The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, 1868–1869

As for Zola, his support for Manet and the Impressionists was much more public, and more publicity-conscious, and the painters were properly grateful. But their response to his L’Oeuvre (1885), the century’s most famous novel about art, was complicated. Its protagonist, Claude Lantier—the brother of Nana—has a succès de scandale at the Salon des Refusés, and founds a plein-air school, but ends up sacrificing fortune, wife, and child for his art. It was loosely assumed for some time that Lantier was based on Cézanne (though Lantier, like Zola, is a “naturalist”); further, that the book’s publication had caused a breach between the two old friends. This theory was based on the last-known letter from Cézanne to Zola, which reads in full:

Mon cher Émile, I’ve just received L’Oeuvre, which you were kind enough to send me. I thank the author of the Rougon-Macquart for this kind token of remembrance, and ask him to allow me to wish him well, thinking of years gone by. Ever yours, with the feeling of time passing, Paul Cezanne

As Alex Danchev wisely comments in his 2013 edition of the letters:

Cézanne’s words have been combed for any hint of telltale emotion—offence, anger, antagonism, rancour, shock, sorrow, bitterness, or merely coolness—as if the letter might contain the key to the rift. This exercise in runecraft has yielded remarkably little, except for wildly varying assessments of these few lines, and a tendency to read back into them the knowledge of what came later.

Indeed, it’s not even clear from the letter whether Cézanne had even started reading the novel when he acknowledged its arrival, let alone taken any offense. And as it turned out, this wasn’t the painter’s last letter to the writer: Muhlstein points out that a later one has very recently turned up. Even so, it wouldn’t be fanciful to scent some ambiguity or polite withholding in Cézanne’s words: the more so because such ambiguity was perfectly expressed by Monet, in his letter to Zola. Here is a fuller version than the one Muhlstein gives:

How kind of you to send me L’Oeuvre. Thank you very much. I always find it a great pleasure to read your books and this interested me all the more since it raises questions to do with art for which we have struggled for so many years. I have just finished reading it and I have to confess that it left me perplexed and somewhat anxious.

You took great care to avoid any resemblance between us and your characters; all the same I am very much afraid that our enemies in the Press and among the general public will bandy about the name of Manet, or at least our names, and equate them with failure, which I’m sure was not your intention. Forgive me for mentioning it. I don’t intend it as a criticism; I read L’Oeuvre with a great deal of pleasure, and every page recalled some fond memory. You must know, moreover, what a fan I am of yours and how much I admire you. My battle has been a long one, and my worry is that, just as we reach our goal, this book will be used by our enemies to deal us a final blow. Forgive me for rambling on, remember me to Madame Zola and thank you again.

This is fascinating, for many reasons: the gentleness of the reproach; the similar mention of the “fond memory” evoked by the book, rather than praise for its representation of art and artists; the assumption that the public will identify Lantier with Manet (rather than Cézanne); and perhaps, above all, the sense of vulnerability bordering on paranoia about the damage the novel might do to the cause of Impressionism, which had already been going strong for fifteen years. The fear that a “final blow” might be dealt to the movement—and worse, by a friend and ally, rather than a traditional enemy—is revelatory.

When Monet writes of “failure” being associated with the names of the Impressionists, he is also using it in a narrower sense. Lantier exemplifies what Muhlstein calls a “destructive perfectionism”—not unlike Balzac’s Frenhofer (though Zola furiously denied any Balzacian influence). Zola’s friend Paul Alexis, in advance of the writing of L’Oeuvre, noted that the novelist was “planning to explore the appalling psychology of artistic impotence.” Zola himself, writing about the “hysteria” of modern life, noted:

Artists are no longer big, powerful men, sane of mind and strong of limb, like the Veroneses and the Titians. The cerebral machine has gone off the rails. Nerves have gained the upper hand, and weak, wearied hands now try to create only the mind’s hallucinations.

Lantier, always a slasher of his own canvasses (like Manet, like Cézanne), is a creator with too much ambition, one who, as Zola put it, “fails to deliver his own genius,” and as a result goes mad and kills himself; not a single picture of his survives.

Pissarro didn’t think Zola’s book would do much harm to the Impressionists, even if it was “just not a great novel, that’s all”; but you can understand Monet’s “anxiety.” If this was how their great advocate presented his idea of the modern painter—as crazy, destructive, and self-destructive—what might Joseph Publique think? The truth was that most of the Impressionists worked hard and constantly, destroying only what they considered unworthy, and were far from crazy (the malleable myth of Van Gogh had yet to be constructed). The further truth remained that in describing artistic pathology, Zola’s actual model was neither Manet nor Cézanne, but himself. As he put it in his preparatory notes for the novel, “In a word, I will describe my own private experience of creativity, the constant agonizing labor pains; but I will expand the subject with tragedy.”

And then—jamais deux sans trois—along came Maupassant to compound the fiction writers’ well-intentioned sinning. Maupassant was also an excellent art critic, sympathetic to and appreciated by the Impressionists. In 1889, three years after L’Oeuvre, he published Fort comme la mort, his most underappreciated novel. Its central figure, Olivier Bertin, is a modern, fashionable society portraitist—a “conservative Impressionist” in Muhlstein’s words—who sounds more than a little like Jacques-Émile Blanche avant la lettre. He is taken into the household of the Comte de Guilleroy; he paints the comtesse’s portrait and, perhaps inevitably—this being a French novel—becomes her lover; the affair lasts ten years, and his portrait of her has pride of place in the house. What could be more suave, more fashionable, more Parisian? Except that the comtesse has a daughter, who grows up to resemble her mother (and therefore the portrait), and as the mother (unlike her portrait) ages, the painter finds himself becoming obsessed by the daughter.

Muhlstein mentions a recent theory that Maupassant’s source was a literary one: the rumor that Turgenev, for a long time in a contented ménage à trois with Pauline Viardot and her husband, had fallen disastrously in love with Mme Viardot’s daughter. Certainly, the novel had a literary consequence of some magnitude: Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915). Looking back some years later, Ford wrote that “I had in those days an ambition that was to do for the English novel what in Fort comme la Mort Maupassant had done for the French.” He took from Maupassant the idea of violently transgressive passion; also the flaying difference between the easy love of youth and the desperate love of age. As Bertin puts it, trying to understand if not lessen his pain, “It’s the fault of our hearts for not growing old.” Faced with an impossible emotional—and social—dilemma, the painter throws himself beneath the wheels of a bus. And so another sympathetic novelist’s painter dies in torment: you might expect the Impressionists to get up a petition against such repeated libels.

Frenhofer, Lantier, Bertin… At least Proust’s Elstir doesn’t go mad and kill himself. Proust’s (and Swann’s) way of looking at pictures avoided addressing the work head-on, instead preferring to comment on which painted characters reminded them of which real people they knew in society. Indirection is all. There is a change of gear in this final section of Muhlstein’s book. Proust himself was more interested in classical than contemporary painting (though he approved of some Impressionists). Elstir—who is first introduced as a young prankster, then vanishes from the narrative for six hundred pages, emerging later as a “major artist”—is barely seen at work. Also, he is confected from many painters, and thus, as Muhlstein says, represents “the artist” rather than “an artist”—though he has many sly groundings in reality. Mme de Guermantes—while at the same time making a sign to the servants to give Marcel some more mousseline sauce for his asparagus—remembers that “Wait now, I do believe that Zola has actually written an essay on Elstir.” (And the asparagus is another hint: Elstir, just like Manet, painted a bunch of them.)

However, it is not one of Elstir’s pictures that everyone thinks of in connection with À la Recherche, but rather Vermeer’s View of Delft, “the most beautiful painting in the world,” according to Proust, with its famous little section of “yellow wall.” I confess that the first time I saw this painting I thought it not even the best Vermeer in the show, and then failed for a while to guess which bit of wall I was meant to be looking at. The most likely patch of pigment turned out to be a roof; but confusingly, although the roof was yellow, the thin sliver of actual vertical wall beneath it was more of an orange color (which all somehow confirmed what I had already suspected, that I shall never make a paid-up Proustian).

The dying writer, faced with the picture, comments, “This was how I should have written…. My last books are too spare, I should have applied several layers of color, made my sentences precious in themselves, like this little section of wall.” Would this have been a good idea? That question (since the writer is fictional) remains unanswerable. But Bergotte’s words act as a gentle underlining of what Muhlstein’s book often implies: that writers, of all artists, are the most anxious, and the most envious, about other forms of art.

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Remembering Bob Silvers


Dominique Nabokov Robert Silvers in his office, New York City, early 1980s; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

Following are reminiscences of Robert B. Silvers by some of the Review’s writers; more will be added in the coming days.


Bob’s trust in his writers was absolute. I once expressed doubt that an obscure subject (Sherwood Anderson’s love life, maybe, or was it Japanese tea?) would interest readers. “Well,” Bob countered, “does it interest you?” That, he made clear, was the standard, the only standard.

—Christopher Benfey

 

The blue office cardigan. The bespoke suit with its marvelous silk lining. The word “marvelous,” on the top of an A galley—and then the B. His gleeful, conspiratorial laugh. (The time he sent me to England to consort with the world’s top spies.) The way, when he called, he’d always say, “Oh,” before my name, as if it had just that second occurred to him to pick up the phone. I will miss that voice and that laugh. I will miss—of course—his passionate mind, his nimble pen. Yet the words that came immediately to mind yesterday when I learned of Bob’s passing were these from Wordsworth: “The best portion of a good man’s life, his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” These I will not miss, for they were given in perpetuity.

—Sue Halpern

 

How Bob found me in a small village outside Verona in the mid-1990s I have no idea. An airmail envelope arrived with the postman. I was asked to review a work of criticism on Joyce, Svevo, and Saba. And I reviewed it, receiving in return, always by post, a carefully handwritten edit which amounted to a lesson in how to be critical while nevertheless showing an author the proper respect.

From that point on, for twenty-two years, books would arrive, perhaps once every three months, by courier, never announced beforehand (in which case you might have said you were too busy), with a friendly and peremptory note, always indicating how many words were required, how many dollars would be paid. First by post, then fax (at any time of the day or night), then email, the edits would arrive. Lesson after lesson in succinctness, in dispatch, in an awareness of the reader’s presumed range of reference. And always respectful, always suggesting rather than asserting. Always enviably cheerful. Phone calls late in the evening to check a fact or discuss a change in punctuation before the paper went to press. Then brief notes of thanks. Handwritten thanks. Bob was always thankful, genuinely thankful, I felt, that the work had been done. It was important that his words came by hand. Jotted on the side of a fax, or a PDF. However heavy the edit, he always communicated encouragement. A strange mixture of assertiveness and generosity allowed you to find your own position, without simply being pushed somewhere. You never felt he wished he had chosen someone else for the job.

Last night, collapsed on the sofa, I was astonished to realize what a large space this man had come to occupy in my life, how lucky I had been to receive those notes of thanks and hear those gusts of laughter on the phone. We shall not see his like again.

—Tim Parks

 

I was always embarrassed to call the office with corrections and additions to a story. There were so many of them, and they seemed like such trivial reasons to waste a great man’s time. I’d plead with his assistants to take the correction down themselves—it’s only a word change!—and not bother Bob with it, but they must have been under strict instructions to pass writers’ calls directly to him. “Hello!” he would boom into the phone, pleased as a Labrador puppy with a twig, and I could hear him leaping around the suggested word, snuffling and worrying it, nudging and patting, until he was satisfied that it fit. To his endlessly open mind, nothing was as satisfying as a word or a punctuation mark that made a meaning more clear, or a midnight discussion, hours before press time, about the central idea of a paragraph—particularly when the author prevailed and he felt as though some new thought had been born. He was not a squeezy-huggy man, he rarely expressed affection, but always, always, in his dealings with his beloved life-partner, Grace Dudley, his writers, their manuscripts, what impelled him was an almost superhuman capacity for devotion.

—Alma Guillermoprieto

 

When Bob wanted an article, he really wanted it, and was determined to get it. I observed that often, but the best remembered time was his reaction to Barack Obama’s March 29, 2008 speech at the National Constitution Center, in which the then-candidate was extricating himself from the sticky Jeremiah Wright situation. Bob admired the way Obama used the immediate problem to open up the whole subject of race relations in America, in a realistic but eirenic way. And, as usual, he was impressed by the writing skills (he had already told me that if Obama won he would be the first real writer in the presidency since Lincoln). I was in Siena, but he called to ask me if I had seen Obama deliver his speech on TV. I said no. He had what he thought a good idea (it was): Would I do a piece comparing this speech with Lincoln’s Cooper Union address? I said I was in Italy, and I would need the text of them both. He said he would handle that. They arrived post haste. I wrote the piece (edited with him by phone). Then he thought of publishing a booklet containing my piece and both the speeches, but the Obama campaign refused to grant the rights to his speech. I assumed at the time that the campaign feared its candidate would be called arrogant for cooperating with any comparison to Lincoln.  The one time I met Obama afterward, I asked him if that was the reason for denying the rights. He could not remember involvement in what his campaign was doing to protect him.  I was complimented by a number of people for thinking of the comparison, but I had to admit the whole concept was Bob’s, and he had blown away the obstacles that stood in its path. No one else would or could have done that. He wanted it into existence.

—Garry Wills

 

About twenty years ago, stuck in a taxi on Fifth Avenue, I saw Bob round the corner on 58th Street, dash past the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel, squeeze through the stopped traffic in even greater hurry, and sprint uptown with his jacket open and his tie flying over shoulder. Next time I talked to him, I asked him about it, since I never saw anyone run so fast in Manhattan, except some young fellow who had snatched a purse and was fleeing from the cops, and he laughed and told me that he was late for an appointment with Grace.

—Charles Simic


James Ferguson

The New York Review under Bob was a journal not only of opinion but also of values. Bob made no bones about where the Review stood on the biggest human rights issues of the day, perhaps because he understood that literary excellence required basic freedoms. The Review was a voice for dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, a window to prisoners locked up for their beliefs, and a sentinel against the counterterrorism excesses in Washington. There was always room for a letter of protest, a snapshot from a country under siege. Its name suggested a literary journal, but there was no more thoughtful forum for addressing the most pressing threats to liberty and democracy.

Bob was the most meticulous editor I ever encountered, though the experience could be sobering. He was the only editor I knew for whom the editing process could require more thought and effort than the drafting of the original article. My greatest sense of accomplishment as a writer was when I realized that my submissions had graduated from the ranks of the presumptive rewrite to those of the mere edit.

He always spoke about what “we” might do with an article. He had deep respect for the line between editor and writer—and once I had gained his confidence he would defer to me if we disagreed—but the care he put into editing was as if his name were on the byline as well.

—Kenneth Roth

 

I think of our rip-roaring lunches, stories and laughter—gossip and politics and books—effervescence! incandescence!—such a fine time! Bob, in one of his excellent suits, would invariably end up with food on his chin or on the suit or both. Sometimes I would pick off a particularly flagrant bit and he would be unfazed, amused, delighted even—and back upstairs to work he would go.

—Frederick Seidel

 

Our twenty years of fruitful friendship were based on deep respect and restraint. We only met once. We communicated by emails with few words. I treasure a couple of messages from ten years ago, in which Bob broke his silence and revealed some personal feeling. The first message enclosed a letter from a reader, correcting a mistake in a review that I had written. Bob wrote: “Unless this is false, it seemed worth doing. Do you see some objection and would you want to reply if not?” I sent him a reply. The following day I received this unique and unexpected response from Bob: “Thanks for your excellent reply. You’re the only one of our contributors who deals gracefully with such letters.”

—Freeman Dyson

 

Near the end of 1988, Bob was visiting Beijing and wanted to meet Fang Lizhi, the brilliant astrophysicist who had suddenly and courageously begun to speak out for human rights and democracy in China. Orville Schell told Bob that I knew Fang and could be a conduit. And so it happened, one frigid evening, that I met Bob for the first time and led him, together with his companion Grace, the Countess of Dudley, to the eighth floor of the drab rectangular apartment building where Fang and his wife, Peking University physics professor Li Shuxian, were living. Only one of two elevators in the building was ever working. This was to save electricity, but it meant, on that night, that Bob, Grace and I had to walk about fifty yards along an unlit exterior walkway, eight stories above the ground, in order to reach the Fangs. Bob and Grace were inexperienced at this walk, so I worried. I shouldn’t have.

Inside the apartment, Bob and Fang bonded immediately. An hour later, Bob asked, “Will you write something for us?” Fang said yes. Bob turned to me: “Will you translate it?” I said yes. The result was “China’s Despair and China’s Hope,” published in the February 2, 1989 issue of the Review. As simply as that, a lifetime tie between Fang and Bob, and between me and Bob, began. It is one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me.

—Perry Link

 


Dominique Nabokov Francine du Plessix Gray and Robert Silvers, New York City, 1991; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

What strikes me most about Bob’s genius as an editor was his capacity to see the larger dimensions of a subject and his ability to enlarge the vision of a reviewer. Not that he imposed a viewpoint, but rather he suggested aspects of a subject that you, the reviewer, had not considered. We had many long phone conversations, especially in the days before email, when he recommended supplementary reading. On the following day, I would receive a FedEx full of photocopies and clippings from sources I had never heard of. Although he said he wanted to make the Review‘s articles shorter, mine often grew longer, thanks to his suggestions about something additional that was worth taking into account. In my experience, he did not interfere much with actual phrasing; and on the rare occasions when he made changes, he always sought my agreement and brought me around after more long phone calls. Bob kept a mental list of what he called “non-words”—that is, expressions so over-used that they had lost all their force. In one of my first articles, back in 1973, I used the phrase “in terms of.” He insisted on deleting it, because, he explained, writers used it as filler when they thought there was some relation between A and B but did not know what the relation was. Never again did I use “in terms of,” and I have blue-penciled it whenever I’ve found it in the papers of my students. Bob left a mark on writing and reading that will last for generations.

—Robert Darnton

 

What I’ve been thinking most about is the utterly unique way in which his eyes would twinkle when something pleased or delighted him, when I’d written something that he thought might incite some controversy: a disturbance in the culture. Like so many others who have worked with Bob, I’m not the same writer I was before: more precise, less inclined to digress or to use two adjectives when one would suffice. I’ve long since internalized his editorial guidance. But beyond that, I will never forget Bob’s sparkle of mischievous amusement. It was, and will remain, among the most inspiring and meaningful rewards I can imagine.

—Francine Prose

 

At a Park Avenue dinner party given by the collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund not long after I began writing for The Review in 1985, it emerged in general dinner table conversation that the guests included several other contributors to the paper, among them the great Ronald Dworkin, who was particularly close to Bob. At one point, Betsy Dworkin posed this question to the group: “What power does Bob Silvers hold over our husbands that he can call at all hours on a weekend, rouse them out of bed, and get them to run to his office as if they were firemen?” There was laughter at what seemed like comic exaggeration, but in those pre-Internet days I more than once had that same experience of being urgently summoned by Bob late on a Saturday night, racing in a cab down a nearly deserted Park Avenue, past his and Grace’s apartment at 62nd Street, and then west on 57th Street to the seedy and freezing Fisk Building, where he would be huddled in an overcoat and muffler puzzling over my B galleys amid towering stacks of books. The sense of immediacy and high excitement that Bob brought to the inherently solitary task of writing was just part of his magic, but it gave you an exhilarating sense that what one thought and expressed mattered tremendously if it mattered so much to him, enough to get you to midtown after midnight with your pajamas still under your pants.

—Martin Filler

 

As a doctor working (mainly) in war zones, I found that The New York Review was about the only thing I would make time to read, years before I ever thought of writing for it. Until I began writing about Syria’s assault on doctors and the polio outbreak there during the civil war. Now I’d rather be published in the Review than in any prestigious peer-reviewed academic journal—Bob’s review (and that of his colleagues) was far more rigorous, and the end result far more satisfying. Bob’s loyalty to writers was not only a marker of his integrity, but had real effects. The Review stood behind me despite the World Health Organization’s attempts to undermine me. When my story was challenged by WHO in a letter addressed to “Ms Sparrow,” I was reluctant to respond. Bob persuaded me. That was my first experience of the extent of his editorial skill—changes in words I had previously thought picky, and his singular act of adding all my international medical degrees and accreditations after my name resulted in annihilating WHO’s response, and led to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding the cross-border Syrian polio campaign to the tune of several million dollars.

The last time I saw him, on November 6, he made me laugh—on an otherwise unbearable evening. He was a man worth writing for, worth grieving for, and will be much missed.

—Annie Sparrow

 


Annie SchlechterRobert Silvers and Eve Bowen in his office, New York City, 2013

Bob had a wonderful gift for gently steering writers onto new terrain. Once he asked me to review The Rake’s Progress and I begged off, citing my near total inexperience of opera in performance. He said, more or less, “Just go see some operas.” A few years later when Jenufa came up I felt a little more ready, and with Bob’s incomparable encouragement set to. A good many operas followed, for me a life-enhancing experience, and much of the joy of it was the continuing and evolving conversation with Bob on a subject so dear to him. Writing for him always extended beyond the immediate occasion. I had the impression that he always had The Review’s whole archive in mind all the time, with each piece another element in that larger structure.

—Geoffrey O’Brien

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The CEO Who Went Too Far


Drew Angerer/Getty ImagesAndrew Puzder, Donald Trump’s original choice for labor secretary, leaving a meeting with President-Elect Trump at Trump International Golf Club, Bedminster Township, New Jersey, November 2016

On February 16, President Donald Trump defended his troubled administration, then all of twenty-seven days old, in a news conference. “I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos,” Trump said. “Chaos! Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”

In truth, the Trump administration in its infancy is creating enough blunders, scandals, and controversies to strain the resources even of large news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post. The disruptions come on with the suddenness of a summer cloudburst. Even as reporters rush to cover one storm, five others materialize. It isn’t easy to keep up.

The purpose of Trump’s press conference was to distract attention from the withdrawal the day before, on the eve of his confirmation hearing, of his nominee for labor secretary, Andy Puzder, by nominating in great haste a substitute, R. Alexander Acosta, the dean of Florida International University law school and a former member of the National Labor Relations Board. Puzder’s was the first Trump Cabinet nomination to fail, and Trump is not one to dwell on (or even acknowledge) setbacks. By design or happy accident (with Trump it’s often hard to tell) Acosta was a much more confirmable choice—a conservative like Puzder, but far less doctrinaire and personally abrasive. He also would be, if confirmed, the first Latino member of Trump’s cabinet.

Defeat or withdrawal of one or two nominees isn’t unusual at the start of any administration, but Puzder’s withdrawal was striking when you remembered that Trump enjoyed three enormous advantages: a Republican majority in the Senate, with fifty-two votes; a Senate rule, passed when Democrats controlled the chamber, disallowing filibusters against all nominees except those for the Supreme Court; and very rigorous party discipline among Senate Republicans. Despite these, Trump lacked a majority to confirm Puzder. It was the new president’s first legislative defeat, and likely will be his only defeat in assembling his Cabinet.

The people Trump invites into high levels of government fall into two categories: provocateurs and establishmentarians. White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller are provocateurs. Because many of these provocateurs have ties to the nativist and white-nationalist “alt right,” Trump has tended to place them in White House jobs that don’t require Senate confirmation. The establishmentarians are Trump recruits judged respectable by the Republican establishment (and usually chosen for that reason). In the White House, Vice President Mike Pence and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus are establishmentarians, but most of them have positions in Trump’s Cabinet.

These establishmentarians either have experience in government or a history of generous financial contributions to the Republican Party. Before his nomination, Puzder gave about $300,000 during the 2016 cycle to the Republican National Committee, the Republican Party of California, where he lived until last year, and the Republican senatorial and congressional committees. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly surprised his colleagues by describing Puzder as better prepared than any nominee for labor secretary in history—even though Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife, had held the job previously. (Chao is now Trump’s secretary of transportation.) McConnell prized Puzder’s experience as CEO of CKE Restaurants, which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s burger chains, because Puzder had been subject to Labor Department regulations that McConnell and Puzder both found meddlesome.

Puzder was an establishmentarian in good standing. But he was also, temperamentally, a bit of a provocateur. “In fast food, you sort of compete for the best of the worst,” Puzder said in a speech in 2011—not the kindest way to describe your workforce. At CKE, Puzder approved raunchy TV ads in which women in tiny bikinis approached slow-motion sexual climax as they sank their teeth into Carl’s Jr. burgers. When women’s groups complained, CKE answered, in a press release, “We believe in putting hot models in our commercials, because ugly ones don’t sell burgers.”

If put to a vote today in Congress, the principal law that the Labor Department exists to enforce—the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which created a minimum wage and the forty-hour workweek—would never overcome Republican opposition. (Even some congressional Democrats might vote against it.) But the FLSA’s governing principle that a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay continues to have support among the broader public. The Republicans’ strategy has therefore been not to attack the FLSA directly, but rather to enforce it lightly and work quietly to make it less burdensome to businesses. (That will likely be Acosta’s approach. While serving with the National Labor Relations Board, Acosta often, though not always, sided with employers such as Walmart in cases involving labor grievances.)

Puzder’s opposition to FLSA regulations wasn’t quiet. “If government could transform unskilled entry-level positions into middle-income jobs,” he wrote about the minimum wage in 2014, “the Soviet Union would be today’s dominant world economy.” Puzder opposed a hike in the hourly minimum even to $10.10, up from the current $7.25; most Democrats support an increase to $12 or $15.1

McConnell thought Puzder’s experience running a fast-food company was an asset, but to many others it looked like a significant liability. Under President Obama, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division targeted restaurants as one of fifteen “low wage, high violation” industries rife with “wage theft”—that is, failure to pay minimum wage or overtime. Even among these fifteen rogue industries, restaurants—mainly fast-food restaurants—were one of the worst, with nearly $40 million in back wages recovered in 2016.

Among twenty fast-food companies that Bloomberg BNA surveyed in September, CKE Restaurants had comparatively few FLSA violations. But “few” meant that 60 percent of Labor Department investigations of restaurants owned directly by CKE or by franchisees ended with citations. A separate calculation by two researchers at the Century Foundation similarly found that since Puzder became CEO in 2000, over half of the inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of CKE-owned or -franchised restaurants found they had health and safety violations.

Then there was Puzder’s housekeeper problem. On February 6, Ryan Grim reported in The Huffington Post that Puzder had, about five years earlier, discovered that a cleaning woman he and his wife had employed for several years was an undocumented immigrant. He’d fired her and offered to help her get legal status (she declined), but he didn’t get around to paying state and federal employment taxes for her until after his nomination.

Similar problems concerning domestic help previously derailed the nominations of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood for attorney general during the Clinton administration and the nomination of Linda Chavez for labor secretary during the administration of George W. Bush. But “the view in the transition,” an unidentified Trump official assured The Huffington Post’s Grim, was that disqualifying a candidate based on the household help was very much “the old model.” The new model was to sigh regretfully and confirm. Wilbur Ross’s firing of an undocumented housekeeper after he was nominated to lead Trump’s Commerce Department did not impede his Senate confirmation, and the Senate confirmed White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney after he admitted to not paying $15,000 in employment taxes on a nanny.

Yet on February 15, when Puzder abruptly lost a crucial half-dozen Republican votes, the decisive cause, we were asked to believe, was Puzder’s cleaning lady. The Washington Post explained, “It was Puzder’s hiring of an undocumented worker for domestic work—as well as his support for more liberalized immigration policies—that pushed several Senate Republicans away.” Puzder, as chairman of a corporation heavily dependent on low-wage immigrant labor, did support a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, as Trump does not. But if that were the problem, why would Trump nominate, the very next day, a substitute whose views on immigration were even more liberal? And why would Puzder’s housekeeper problem suddenly loom so large when Ross’s and Mulvaney’s—and Puzder’s, just one day earlier—had not?

The actual cause for Puzder’s loss of support was a matter few felt like discussing: allegations made three decades ago by his first wife, Lisa Fierstein—and subsequently retracted—that Puzder had assaulted her physically in their home in Clayton, Missouri, an affluent St. Louis suburb. Fierstein has maintained since 1990 that those abuse allegations in the 1980s were lies that she was persuaded to tell by an unscrupulous divorce attorney in order to get a better divorce settlement.

But a July 1989 story in The Riverfront Times, a weekly newspaper in St. Louis, told a different story.2 Citing documents filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court in 1986, The Riverfront Times said Fierstein alleged that Puzder

attacked me, choked me, threw me to the floor, hit me in the head pushed his knee into my chest twisted my arm and dragged me on the floor, threw me against a wall, tried to stop my call to 911 and kicked me in the back.

Puzder’s version, the paper said, was that he had merely “grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her back” to keep her from hurting herself: “I don’t know if her foot caught or what happened, but she went down on her back and stayed down on the ground.” Puzder told The Riverfront Times that “there was no physical abuse at any point in time.” Both Puzder and Fierstein acknowledged that police were called to the house.

The documents cited in the Riverfront Times article were sealed the day after Puzder’s nomination. But Marianne LeVine, a reporter at Politico, retrieved from the St. Louis County court some documents from a separate filing in 1988 that Puzder appeared to have overlooked. (The couple divorced in 1987.) These included a petition in which Fierstein alleged that in the 1986 episode Puzder “assaulted and battered” her, leaving her with “two ruptured discs and two bulging discs.”

All of the muscles, bones, ligaments and soft tissue of the face, chest, back, shoulders, and neck were violently wrenched, strained, swollen, contused and otherwise injured.

Puzder again denied assaulting Fierstein. The court denied her request for $350,000 in damages on the grounds that the divorce agreement signed the year before had settled all her previous claims against Puzder.

Fierstein’s first retraction of the assault claims, LeVine discovered, turned out to be a condition of a 1990 child-custody agreement with Puzder. Fierstein’s subsequent insistence that her abuse claims against him had been a mere ruse to leverage a better divorce settlement wasn’t easy to square with the fact that she had first filed them before the couple even separated. Nor was it a good fit with LeVine’s discovery that, eight months before the child-custody agreement, Fierstein repeated her accusations disguised in sunglasses and a wig and using the pseudonym “Ann” on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. If Fierstein didn’t identify herself on Oprah, how could her accusations possibly affect any legal proceeding? (I should here disclose that I was LeVine’s editor on these stories, and once or twice shared a byline with her.)

After LeVine reported the fact of Fierstein’s Oprah appearance, Fierstein explained in a letter to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, then considering Puzder’s nomination, that she’d been invited onto Oprah’s program after the Riverfront Times story appeared. “I was hesitant but encouraged by friends and became caught up in the notion of a free trip to Chicago and being a champion of women and women’s issues,” she wrote. “I regret my decision to appear on that show. I never told Andy about it.”

The obvious next step, for both the HELP Committee and the press, was to locate the 1990 Oprah episode and find out what she’d said. This proved surprisingly difficult. The Oprah Winfrey Network, which controlled the video library, put off all press inquiries. (Two intimates of Winfrey’s later explained to me that angry cattlemen had filed an $11 million libel suit against her in 1996 over something she’d said on her show about hamburgers. She’d won this screwball lawsuit, but resolved never again to make available any past episode deemed even remotely controversial.)

Winfrey was more responsive to the HELP Committee, agreeing quietly to its request that she turn over all episodes on domestic violence that she’d aired between 1985 and 1990. (There turned out to be twenty.) The committee was able to identify Fierstein because only one episode featured a woman named “Ann” in wig and sunglasses. But Winfrey made it a condition of providing the tapes that only senators—not even committee staffers—could review the episode.

Word got out only three days before Puzder’s hearing was to take place that HELP Committee senators were reviewing the video. The March 1990 date of the episode (“High Class Battered Women”) quickly leaked, and LeVine learned that another guest on the show was Charlotte Fedders, a well-known victim of domestic violence whose husband, John, had abruptly lost his job as enforcement chief in President Ronald Reagan’s Securities and Exchange Commission after The Wall Street Journal reported he was a wife-beater.3 Charlotte Fedders had kept a VHS tape of the episode and quickly agreed to share it. On the program, Fierstein said that when she went public with her charges of abuse Puzder said to her, “I will see you in the gutter. This will never be over. You will pay for this.” It was, of course, impossible to know whether Fierstein was lying. But she did not seem, on the tape, to be obviously mendacious or unhinged.

Politico posted its story, with video snippets and a transcript of Fierstein’s comments, at 1:00 AM on February 15.4 By lunchtime CNN was reporting that there were four to twelve firm Republican “no” votes (the day before there had been only Republican undecideds) and that Senate GOP leaders were advising the White House to pull the nomination. Within a couple of hours, Puzder withdrew.

Twelve days later, the conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt invited Puzder on his show to commiserate about his defeat. Puzder said he was the victim of a “fake news tsunami.” He didn’t say what that news was, and Hewitt was too much of a gentleman to ask.

Since Puzder withdrew, some liberal Washington policymakers and journalists have expressed regret that he was brought down by allegations aired in a messy divorce rather than by his views about American workers. The implication is that plausible past allegations of domestic violence don’t warrant serious consideration in assessing a man’s fitness for public office. It perhaps is not coincidental that none of those who have voiced this complaint was a woman.

—March 9, 2017

  1. 1

    Candidate Trump initially opposed any increase, prompting organized labor and others to dispute his economic populism. Eventually Trump settled on $10, though he seems in no rush to introduce legislation on the matter. 

  2. 2

    Gianna Jacobson and J.A. Lobbia, “Puzder v. Puzder,” The Riverfront Times, July 26, 1989. 

  3. 3

    Brooks Jackson, “Storm Center: John Fedders of SEC Is Pummeled by Legal and Personal Problems,” The Wall Street Journal, February 25, 1985. The article caused a sensation, prompting Charlotte Fedders to publish a 1987 memoir about the experience titled Shattered Dreams. A TV adaptation aired on CBS in May 1990. The theme of all three was that domestic abuse was not confined to lower-income families—there were rich men who beat their wives too, and they were much better able to keep it from being discovered.  

  4. 4

    Marianne LeVine and Timothy Noah, “Puzder’s Ex-Wife Told Oprah He Threatened ‘You Will Pay for This,’” Politico, February 15, 2017. 

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A Burning Collection


Rob StothardTeju Cole on the outskirts of Ramallah during the Palestine Festival of Literature, June 2014

Teju Cole is a kind of realm. He has written three books—two exceptional novels and the volume of essays to be considered here—as well as many uncollected essays, interviews, newspaper columns, and a vast online oeuvre made up of skeins of tweets on fixed themes, faits divers, e-mail arguments, captioned Instagrams, mixed media exercises, and rants. At the moment he is credited with more than 13,000 tweets, 263,000 Twitter followers, 1,035 photos, and around 22,000 fans who officially like his Facebook page. Even in a time when many writers are enlarging their literary footprints by means of the Internet, he is a prodigy.

There is a strong interconnectedness between the different parts of his work. Cole’s personal story, sometimes given straight, sometimes fictionalized, pervades. The bicultural Teju Cole was born in the US in 1975, raised in Nigeria until his seventeenth year, brought back to America where he first studied art and attended medical school, and then went abroad to study African art history; he later studied Northern Renaissance art at Columbia. His initial novels brought him a storm of prizes and attention. He is currently a writer in residence at Bard College and the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine and is himself an exhibiting photographer. Cole has said in an interview that the essays on photography in this collection, which also collects many of his writings on literature, travel, politics, and art, are the most important of his writings.

Cole is very conscious of the difference between what one might think of as books aimed at a presumed posterity and his online works, aimed at a real-time and frequently interactive fandom. He discusses this subject in a conversation with the novelist Aleksandar Hemon in the first group of essays in Known and Strange Things. “For sure,” he says,

some of the smartest and most interesting literary minds of our generation and the generations to come will work in areas that are not “books” as we currently think of them…. But I think some of these people will also write books.

Cole’s essays are brilliantly written—sharp, intelligent—and yield a pleasurable sweetness. His prose, in its variations, is impeccably where he wants it to be. His erudition is put to work humbly. But in encountering these essays, perhaps the most important quality to grasp is Cole’s deep sense of the seriousness of life, which is sustained in different registers throughout. Rotating through his compositions, and sometimes shouldering aside their announced subjects, is an array of thematic problems routinely confounding to the educated secular leftcentric urban readerships of today. Here are two examples among the many that Cole discusses. One: In a world that is post-credal, post-religion, and post-socialism, in what should humanism be grounded? Two: When liberal empires engage in overseas criminality, what are the responsibilities of that empire’s domestic beneficiaries—the lucky, the talented, the wealthy?

1.

The Literary Sublime

“The balance favors epiphany.”
—Teju Cole

From “A Conversation with Aleksandar Hemon”:

AH: Where do you stand in relation to transcendence? Do you pursue it? Must we pursue it?

TC: As for faith: I don’t believe in the Christian god, or the Muslim one, or the Jewish one. I’m sentimentally attached to some of the Yoruba and Greek gods…though I don’t ask them for favors.

What do I believe in? Imagination, gardens, science, poetry, love, and a variety of nonviolent consolations. I suspect that in aggregate all this isn’t enough, but it’s where I am for now.

The pieces in Section I, “Reading Things,” introduce a selection of the works of some of the creators of Cole’s personal literary sublime. He says, of André Aciman’s discriminations among the varieties of lavender, found in his book of essays, Alibis, something that might apply equally to his own work: “The pleasure of reading him resides in the pleasure of his company.” He praises Aciman’s thoroughness, calling Alibis “an extended aria on the sense of smell.” In Ivan Vladislavić’s novel Double Negative, Cole finds an artist who successfully brings the detail of photographic high art to life in his narrative.

Cole gets to the heart of Derek Walcott’s poetry: “Epiphany became Walcott’s favorite mode, his instinct, even as he struggled to satisfy each poem’s competing demands of originality and necessity.” He reveres the art of W.G. Sebald, and not only the novelistic works. He provides a concentrated encomium for Sebald’s lesser-known excursions into poetry. In an emotional, but not maudlin, essay he describes a visit to Sebald’s grave. His attentions to poetry here conclude with an acute, tender, and comradely tribute to the somber Tomas Tranströmer: “In a Tranströmer poem, you inhabit space differently; a body becomes a thing, a mind floats, things have lives, and even non-things, even concepts, are alive.”

The essay “Black Body” is a tour de force, an appreciation of James Baldwin in his prophetic modes, which touches on what Cole calls Baldwin’s “question of filiation,” that is, his conflicted relationship to classic works from the canon of the oppressing culture. Cole wrestles with his own variant of this perennial trouble. On the subject of difficult-to-mix feelings, Cole is clear-sighted. He meets with V.S. Naipaul:

This benevolent rheumy-eyed old soul: so fond of the word “nigger,” so aggressive in his lack of sympathy toward Africa, so brutal in his treatment of women. He knew nothing about that. He knew only that he needed…help walking across the grand marble-floored foyer toward the private elevator.

The tale of this encounter coexists with another essay wholeheartedly endorsing Naipaul’s great A House for Mr. Biswas as a lasting work of “imaginative sympathy.”

For their artfulness, intelligence, and candor, Cole’s essays on writing all have something fresh. The next-to-the-last piece in the “Reading Things” section is a compressed presentation (in the spirit, as Cole acknowledges, of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas) of the bromides and clichés that corrupt literary and political discourse and block the powers of written art. For example: “SCANDAL. If governmental, express suprise that people are surprised. If sexual, declare it a distraction, but seek out the details.”

The group of essays called “Seeing Things” pursues instances of sublime experience apart from literature. The first of them, “Unnamed Lake,” is a composite creation—part personal essay; part reflection on twentieth-century history; part criticism about music and philosophy—examining the repressed horror that floats over a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Cole is listening to a recording of a particularly brilliant realization of the work in 1942 by Wilhelm Furtwängler:

The adagio is clear and tender, played slower than usual…. No one who heard it could have failed to be moved to human kindness. Could they? (In addition to Hitler, both Himmler and Goebbels are in the audience.)…

The previous week, on March 17, a Nazi camp had begun operation in Belzec, southeastern Poland.

After this comes a miscellany of appreciations of the Kenyan sculptor Wangechi Mutu, the filmmaker Michael Haneke for his film Amour, a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of Julius Caesar by a black cast, the music of the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. Cole has his eye on instances of art whose power to move may not have been appreciated. He writes about a picture of a young woman in a freedom march by Roy DeCarava,

one of the most intriguing and poetic of American photographers. The power of this picture is in the loveliness of its dark areas. His work was, in fact, an exploration of just how much could be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph.

The essays on photography do triple duty. Overall, they argue for elevating photography to a level equal to that of the other graphic and plastic arts. They give prominence to master photographers such as DeCarava. And they refine the measures used to make discriminations regarding quality among specimens of photographic art. Cole is convincing here, but certain parts of the discussion—discriminations of “opacity” in DeCarava’s work, for example—struck me as rather more metaphysical than is usual for him. A much fuller complement of representative plates would have been helpful; the works of Zanele Muholi, Thomas Demand, Sergei Ilnitsky, Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keita, and Glenna Gordon will have a different luster when they are encountered in future.

2.

“Being There”: Travel, and Then Politics

Robert Owen, the great patriarch of socialism, was asked what we would do once Utopia was established. His reply was: “We shall travel.” For Cole, travel itself can yield a kind of second-order sublime. Strictly concerning the anatomy of travel, Cole has much to say:

When you do visit Zürich or Cape Town or Bangkok, they are very much alike: the amusement parks have striking similarities, the cafés all play the same Brazilian music, the malls are interchangeable, kids on the school buses resemble one another, and the interiors of middle-class homes conform to the same parameters.

This doesn’t mean the world is uninteresting. It only means that the world is more uniform than most photo essays acknowledge…. I like Italo Calvino’s idea of “continuous cities,” as described in the novel Invisible Cities. He suggests that there is actually just one big, continuous city that does not begin or end: “Only the name of the airport changes.” What is then interesting is to find, in that continuity, the less obvious differences of texture: the signs, the markings, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape.


Teju Cole/Steven Kasher GalleryTeju Cole: Zürich, 2014; from Blind Spot, a collection of Cole’s photographs and texts, to be published by Random House in June, with a foreword by Siri Hustvedt. It will be on view in the exhibition ‘Teju Cole: Blind Spot and Black Paper,’ at the Steven Kasher Gallery, New York City, June 15–August 11, 2017.

So travel requires discipline and self-awareness and an awareness of travel’s limitations, like Heimweh and Fernweh. Heimweh is the German word for homesickness. It can of course strike at any time and screw up an experience. “Fernweh is a longing to be away from home, a desire to be in faraway places. Fernweh is similar to wanderlust but, like heimweh, has a sickish, melancholy tinge.” It too can strike at any time. To illustrate Fernweh, he quotes Elizabeth Bishop:

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?


What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?

Something deeper than travel connects these essays in the third section of Cole’s book, called “Being There.” If it’s fair to see Cole as engaged in a complicated process of assembling his own brand of aesthetic humanism (for want of a better term), then his small histories can be perceived as testing events for his evolving ethos.

Take “A Reader’s War,” which is an essay sandwiched between pieces about travel but is not about travel as such. It is one of two essays built around Cole’s consideration of Barack Obama. Here’s the thought sequence in “A Reader’s War.” One:

“Thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires…civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables.” This defense, made by Mario Vargas Llosa when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature…, could have come from any other writer. It is, in fact,…a cliché. But clichés, so the cliché goes, originate in truth. Vargas Llosa reiterated the point: “Without fictions, we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion.”

Two:

There was a feeling during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency that his gracelessness as well as his appetite for war were linked to his impatience with complexity…. His successor couldn’t have been more different. Barack Obama is an elegant and literate man with a cosmopolitan sense of the world. He is widely read in philosophy, literature, and history…and he has shown time and again a surprising interest in contemporary fiction…. It thrilled me, when he was elected, to think of the president’s nightstand looking rather similar to mine…. We had, once again, a reader in chief.

Three:

The United States is now at war in all but name in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. In pursuit of Al Qaeda, their allies, and a number of barely related militias, the president and his national security team now make extraordinarily frequent use of assassinations…. The White House, CIA, and the Joint Special Operations Command have so far killed large numbers of people…. The precise number is unknown, but estimates range from several hundred to over three thousand…. Many of the dead are women and children. Among the men, it is impossible to say how many are terrorists, how many are militants, and how many are simply, to use the administration’s obscene designation, “young men of military age.” …There is also the testimony of the survivors of drone attacks: heartbreaking stories of mistaken identity…. The plain fact is that our leaders have been killing at will.

How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy?

Four:

I know language is unreliable…but the law seems to be getting us nowhere. And so I take helpless refuge in literature again, rewriting the opening lines of seven well-known books:

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.

Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather. A bomb whistled in. Blood on the walls. Fire from heaven.

I am an invisible man. My name is unknown. My loves are a mystery. But an unmanned aerial vehicle…has come for me from an unknown location.

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His torso was found, not his head.

Mother died today. The program saves American lives.

Understandably, this conceit of Teju Cole’s has become famous.

Cole is an accomplished observer of himself as a political animal. Independent Nigeria has gravely disappointed him. His travel writing about the land he grew up in combines travelogue, accounts of homecoming, and disgust at the present state of Nigerian public life. (He is at work on a nonfiction study of modern Nigeria.) Cole’s third world may be beautiful in places, but it is sad. Interestingly, what hope exists seems to arise primarily from unpredictable incarnations of the art impulse—a privately funded jazz school in Nigeria; a Nigerian woman, solitary and out of place, carrying a copy of a novel by Michael Ondaatje under her arm.

Finally, and not to be missed, there is “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” a revised version of a 2012 essay in which Cole reflects on the furious and now notorious polemic he delivered in a string of tweets earlier that year (setting off much comment across the media):

1. From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.

2. The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

3. The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.

4. This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.

5. The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

6. Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.

7. I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.

The occasion for Cole’s polemic was the documentary Kony 2012, a video that he felt neglected the contributions of the white West to the creation of the conditions enabling the appearance of the macabre Lord’s Resistance Army. (Concerning Cole’s first and sixth points, it should be noted that Nicholas Kristof was an early critic of the war in Iraq, and that in 2002 Jeffrey Sachs cautioned against “pursuing war [in Iraq] where diplomatic means…might suffice.”) I read the manifesto as a kind of berserk attempt by Cole to get at the Gordian knot of his feelings about Western altruism and Western death and destruction. His readers may, I think, find the same knot, somewhere. This bracing provocation is now permanently part of the discourse on Western development and charitable aid. Elsewhere, Cole is at work on other current social causes—pardon for Snowden, reform of the immigration process, the still-missing Chibok girls.

Known and Strange Things ends with Cole’s account, in a coda essay, of a frightening visit to his doctor in response to a totally unexpected attack of papillophlebitis, also referred to as “big blind spot syndrome.” It is an idiopathic disease that comes and goes and that brings episodes of partial blindness. His vision is clear at present. My own deep hope is that this does not happen again. I am sentimental about Teju Cole and think of him as an emissary for our best selves. He is sampling himself for our benefit, hoping for enlightenment, and seeking to provide pleasure to us through his art. May his realm expand.

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