Месечни архиви: май 2018

Where Lost Bodies Roam

In April 1962, Samuel Beckett sent a clipping from the French press to his lover Barbara Bray: a report of the arrest in Paris of a member of the Organisation armée secrète. The OAS was a far-right terror gang whose members were drawn largely from within the French military. It had carried out bombings, assassinations, and bank robberies with the aim of overthrowing the government of Charles de Gaulle and stopping the concession of independence to Algeria. Among its targets had been Beckett’s publisher and friend Jérôme Lindon, whose apartment and office were both bombed by the OAS.

Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

The press clipping detailed the capture of an army lieutenant who would be charged with leading an OAS attack on an arms depot outside Paris and a raid on a bank in the city. His name was Lieutenant Daniel Godot. Sending it to Bray was a typical expression of Beckett’s black humor. But it also serves as a reminder that his work is not an exhalation of timeless existential despair. It is, as Emilie Morin’s groundbreaking study, Beckett’s Political Imagination, shows, enmeshed in contemporary politics.

That such a reminder should be necessary is one of the more remarkable facts of twentieth-century cultural history. Beckett, after all, risked his life to work for the French Resistance, even though he was a citizen of a neutral country, Ireland. The astonishing works with which he revolutionized both the theater and the novel—Waiting for Godot and the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—were written immediately after World War II and the Holocaust. Vladimir’s question in Godot, “Where are all these corpses from?,” and its answer, “A charnel-house! A charnel-house!,” hang over much of his writing. Torture, enslavement, hunger, displacement, incarceration, and subjection to arbitrary power are the common fates of Beckett’s characters.

Yet there is a long tradition of seeing him as not merely apolitical but antipolitical. In his introduction to The Complete Short Prose, for example, the brilliant Beckett scholar Stan Gontarski writes:

The focus of injustice in Beckett is almost never local, civil, or social, but cosmic, the injustice of having been born.

Deirdre Bair, in her pioneering 1978 biography of Beckett, called him “consistent in his apolitical behavior,” claimed that politics was “anathema” to him, and described him as having “walked away from any conversation that veered into politics.” For the English left-wing playwrights of the 1960s, he was a disengaged pessimist with nothing to contribute to political discourse except a disempowering despair. In France, Maurice Blanchot’s early advocacy of Beckett as (in Morin’s summary) the creator of “a narrative voice divorced from recognizable political and historical parameters” established an enduring template. Another of his great advocates, Theodor Adorno, happily conceded that “it would be…ridiculous to have him testify as a key political witness.”

On a superficial level Morin, in her richly illuminating study, shows more comprehensively than anyone else has the plain untruth of the notion of a Beckett who walked away from any political conversation. He was an avid reader of left-of-center newspapers: Combat and Franc-Tireur in the 1940s, L’Humanité and Le Monde thereafter, Libération in the 1980s. While he was described in The Observer in 1969 as a man who had only ever signed one petition—against the poor regulation of French slaughterhouses—he actually signed dozens, from support for the Scottsboro boys (black teenagers falsely accused of raping white women in Alabama) in 1931, when he was twenty-five, all the way to a denunciation of the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, the year of his death. Although the only political party to which he donated directly was the African National Congress—he adamantly refused to allow his work to be performed before segregated audiences in South Africa—he endorsed a public appeal to vote for the Socialist Party in the 1986 French parliamentary elections and ensured that his Polish royalties were distributed through the trade union Solidarity to the families of imprisoned dissidents. He dedicated his late play Catastrophe to Václav Havel, who was then in prison in Czechoslovakia, and he donated valuable manuscripts to Amnesty International and Oxfam.

Beckett was always politically aware. In Dublin in the 1930s, he associated (in spite of his impeccably Protestant and Unionist family background) with the members of the small leftist fringe of Irish republicanism—Charlie Gilmore, Peadar O’Donnell, and Ernie O’Malley. One of the more startling revelations from the splendid Cambridge edition of Beckett’s letters was his deeply serious attempt to move to Moscow in 1936 to study cinematography with Sergei Eisenstein. He did succeed in traveling to Hitler’s Germany, where he lived between September 1936 and April 1937, and his up-close study of Nazi propaganda is a strong influence on his later work. And of course, he chose to return from the safety of Dublin to Nazi-occupied Paris, where he became an important member of the underground cell Gloria SMH. In 1977 Richard Stern asked Beckett whether he had ever been political. The reply—“No, but I joined the Resistance”—is one of his typical self-canceling sentences, in which the second part utterly negates the first.

Beyond these biographical facts, though, Morin demonstrates how Beckett’s writing was engaged from early on with questions of colonialism, power, and race. She pays particularly acute attention to his work in translating the French texts for Nancy Cunard’s landmark 1934 anthology Negro, which brought together writings from Africa, Europe, and America to create the sense of a global anti-imperialist and antiracist current connecting French and British colonies to the Négritude movement in Paris and the Harlem Renaissance in New York. Beckett, in his contemporary letters, tended to be defensive and disparaging about this work, suggesting that he was a mere jobbing hack, glad to receive “a few quid anyhow” from Cunard. But Morin shows conclusively that he was in fact deeply engaged with it, even intervening to emphasize in his translations political points that are more obscure in the original texts. At the very least, the work gave Beckett a crash course in the languages of racial oppression and resistance. It is notable that the only poem of his to have a dedication in the text is “From the Only Poet to a Shining Whore. For Henry Crowder to Sing.” Crowder, a jazz musician and Cunard’s lover, was African-American.

Indeed, Morin’s superbly researched book is so convincing in its meticulous recreation of Beckett’s political worlds that it raises an entirely new question: Why, given all of this immersion in oppression, propaganda, totalitarianism, colonialism, and racism, is Beckett’s artistic work not more explicitly engaged? Why does someone who knew so much and cared so deeply about history and politics create a body of work in which they are approached so obliquely? There are some obvious answers—one biographical, the other aesthetic—but they are not entirely adequate.

The biographical one is that Beckett was always a displaced person. He was a Protestant in a self-consciously and at times aggressively Catholic Irish state. Subsequently he was an alien in France. He is so strongly associated with Paris that it is hard to remember that he always held and renewed what he called his “green Eire passport,” and joined the other migrants and strangers in the lines at immigration services to renew his residency permits. As a mature writer, Beckett never lived in the country of his citizenship and was never a citizen of the country he lived in. He did not feel entitled to criticize the governments of either Ireland or France directly. He also knew—especially during the fraught years of the Algerian war when the French government was cracking down on dissent—that he could be deported at any time.

The aesthetic reason is that Beckett was no good at writing history plays or political satires and had no interest in realistic fiction. He did try: there are intriguing vestiges of an abandoned satirical history of Ireland called Trueborn Jackeen, and he attempted, while in Nazi Germany, a historical drama about Samuel Johnson. But he had grown up as a writer directly in the shadow of his friend and idol James Joyce, who had done pretty much everything that could be done with the novel of social and psychological omniscience. To escape Joyce’s magisterial grandeur, Beckett had to find his own voice in ignorance and inadequacy—qualities that do not lend themselves to political and historical statement.

These are good reasons but they are not sufficient. Beckett could, after all, have taken French citizenship: as a decorated war hero (awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française) he would hardly have been refused. And writers of far lesser talent managed well enough to carry on in the existing forms of drama and fiction after Joyce. To really understand the relationship between Beckett’s politics and his work we have to return precisely to the notion that Adorno described as “nonsensical” and “ridiculous”: the idea of Beckett as witness. But we have to return to it in a very particular way, for Beckett is above all witness to what he is not: not a Jew, not tortured, not deported to a concentration camp. His work is ultimately defined by the things that nearly happened to him but did not. He escaped the worst but never got over it. Vladimir’s questions—“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now?”—haunted Beckett himself.

To say that Beckett was not Jewish may be merely to state the obvious, but this was not in fact obvious at all. In 1937 W.B. Yeats wrote to his friend and muse Dorothy Wellesley a letter that was pointedly not included in their later published correspondence. He told her of a libel trial about to open in Dublin, in which his friend Oliver St John Gogarty was being sued by Harry Sinclair, whose recently deceased brother William was married to Beckett’s aunt Cissie. Gogarty was a virulent anti-Semite (a fact that has significant bearing on Joyce’s Ulysses, where he appears as Buck Mulligan). The Sinclairs were Jewish. In his fictionalized memoir, As I Was Going Down Sackville Street, Gogarty applied to the Sinclair brothers—whom he called, rather obscurely, “twin grandchildren of the ancient Chicken Butcher” without naming them—the full range of anti-Semitic slurs, beginning with usury and rising to pedophilia. Harry Sinclair sued, and Beckett agreed to give evidence, crucial in a libel trial, that he recognized the Sinclairs from Gogarty’s disguised references. Yeats wrote to Wellesley of Gogarty that

In his book he has called a certain man a “chicken butcher,” meaning that he makes love to the immature. The informant, the man who swears that he recognised the victim[,] is a “racketeer” of a Dublin poet or imatative [sic] poet of the new school. He hates us all…. He & the “Chicken Butcher” are Jews.

This identification of the young Beckett as a Jew and a “racketeer” who “hates us all” had consequences. Yeats had considerable influence with the only newspaper that printed Beckett’s work, The Irish Times. It pulled Beckett’s review of Yeats’s Oxford Book of Modern Verse. It published instead a piece by Yeats’s close ally the poet F.R. Higgins, in which, without being named, Beckett was associated with another typical anti-Semitic slur, that of rootless cosmopolitanism—“our literary birds of passage—the cosmopolitans—of no racial abode, of no background.” Higgins also echoed Yeats’s description of Beckett as a racketeer, complaining of the “insecure slickness, so negative and, [sic] unmanly…promoted by those cultural racketeers.” Added to the trauma of the libel trial, in which he was labeled by Gogarty’s barrister a “bawd and blasphemer from Paris,” these attacks convinced Beckett that he had no future in Ireland. He was not a Jew but he was Jew-ish, close not only to the Jewish circles around Joyce, to the Sinclairs, and to the Dublin Jewish intellectual Con Leventhal, but to the intolerable condition of lacking a “racial abode.”

Just as Beckett came close to being Jewish, he also came close to the concentration camps. When the Gloria SMH cell was betrayed to the Nazis in August 1942, he and his partner, Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, escaped only because they were able to flee before the Gestapo came for them. Twelve members of Gloria SMH were shot, and a further ninety were deported to Ravensbrück, Mauthausen, or Buchenwald, often after torture in France. One of them, Beckett’s close friend Alfred Péron, with whom he played tennis and worked on translating his novel Murphy into French, survived Mauthausen only to die of exhaustion and malnutrition on his way back to France from the camp.

These near misses placed Beckett in a strange position—he was too close to the horrors not to write about them but too distant to write of them with personal authority. He had survived to tell a tale, but it could not be the tale of a survivor. The great achievement of Morin’s book is to plunge Beckett’s works back into the immediate literary setting in which they appeared, which was Lindon’s list at Éditions de Minuit. A large part of Lindon’s mission was to document atrocity, to make available accounts of the Vichy regime, the Nazi occupation, the deportations, and the camps, and later of the use of torture by the French in Algeria. During the latter conflict, between 1958 and 1962, nine books published by Éditions de Minuit were seized by the French authorities, who were determined to suppress the truths they were telling. It was Beckett who lent Lindon the money to keep the imprint going in the face of this onslaught. Lindon, moreover, explicitly linked his partnership with Beckett to his work in documenting atrocities:

I am Samuel Beckett’s publisher: to have this chance and this honour is to benefit from an extraordinary freedom in a free country, and the least that can be done is to defend the conditions of this freedom when they are under threat.

Beckett’s work thus appears as part of a larger exercise of witness. Yet what, after all, had he witnessed? Nothing that greatly mattered when placed beside, for example, the experiences of one of his closest friends in postwar Paris, the painter Avigdor Arikha, whose first drawings were of beatings, corpses, and gravediggers’ tools in the Jewish ghetto and labor camp Mogilev-Podolsk. Famously, in his dialogues with Georges Duthuit, published in 1949, Beckett spoke of the need for a new kind of art characterized by

the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.

We might, however, reformulate this with regard to the question of witness. Beckett was not a Jew. He had merely had a tiny taste of the poison of anti-Semitism. Beckett had not directly experienced torture at the hands of the Gestapo or deportation to a concentration camp. He had merely experienced these things indirectly, through the fates of his friends and through basic human compassion. He was left therefore with a paradox: the need to express what he had not experienced, to be a witness to what he had not seen. His art would come from having no power to witness, no desire to witness, no authority as a witness—together with the absolute obligation to witness.

Estate of Avigdor Arikha‘Samuel Beckett, les lunettes sur le front,’ 1967; drawing by Avigdor Arikha

If the literature of witness is driven by the need to say what has been seen, Beckett’s ethical response to his particular dilemma is (to adapt one of his late titles) to ill say what he has ill seen. He cannot write about anything—he told Duthuit that he was “no longer capable of writing about.” He must provide instead a photographic negative in which everything is reversed. Where testimony recreates what happened, Beckett can instead only try to create in words some correlative to the thing itself, the stripping away of humanity, the utter powerlessness, the confusion, the oblivion, the arbitrariness, the almost complete loss of the known world.

To the basic demands of documentation—who? what? where?—Beckett provides only the unnameable person, the unknown purpose, the landscape of nowhere. Witness is autobiographical, but for his characters the biographical journey from birth to death cannot function: “Birth,” as A Piece of Monologue has it, “was the death of him.” He cannot even offer the consolation that at least what has happened is being properly remembered because he has no authority to remember. When Vladimir tries to recall even the beginning of the evening, Estragon interjects: “I’m not a historian.” In the face of the urgent need to recollect the dead and how they died, Beckett writes, in the immediate postwar story “The Expelled”:

Memories are killing. So you must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little. That is to say, you must think of them for a while, a good while, every day several times a day, until they sink forever in the mud. That’s an order.

Literature gives shape to experience, but Beckett understands that, seen from the abyss, there is no shape to history. The powers that be are feral, their authority terrifying in its arbitrariness. In Godot, there is a nameless, unseen “they” who might be policemen or militia or vigilantes on the lookout for vagrants exactly like Estragon and Vladimir. Between the two acts of the play, in that blank dramatic space whose very emptiness resonates with Beckett’s aesthetic, Estragon has been attacked by a gang of ten men and Vladimir’s questioning of him takes us into the psychology of those who are subject to arbitrary power, their desperate hope that there is some formula of behavior that will deflect its cruel caprice:

Estragon: I wasn’t doing anything.

Vladimir: Then why did they beat you?

Estragon: I don’t know.

Vladimir: Ah no, Gogo, the truth is there are things escape you that don’t escape me….

Estragon: I tell you I wasn’t doing anything.

Vladimir: Perhaps you weren’t. But it’s the way of doing it that counts, the way of doing it, if you want to go on living.

The landscape through which Molloy moves is haunted by nameless manhunters, tracking down those “worthy of extermination.” Molloy matter-of-factly advises us:

Morning is the time to hide. They wake up, hale and hearty, their tongues hanging out for order, beauty and justice, baying for their due. Yes, from eight or nine till noon is the dangerous time. But towards noon things quiet down, the most implacable are sated, they go home, it might have been better but they’ve done a good job, there have been a few survivors but they’ll give no more trouble, each man counts his rats. It may begin again in the early afternoon, after the banquet, the celebrations, the congratulations, the orations, but it’s nothing compared to the morning, mere fun…. Day is the time for lynching, for sleep is sacred, and especially in the morning, between breakfast and lunch.

The use of “lynching” here reminds us of Beckett’s immersion in the realities of racial oppression in the US going back to the early 1930s. It also points to the potency of his negative method of bearing witness. Molloy is not being beaten or tortured or murdered. He is hiding, evading—and the passage is all the more terrible for that. It evokes everything by describing almost nothing.

The general imperative of the immediate post-Holocaust years was factual precision about what took place, and Beckett can be seen in this light as culpably evasive. But precisely because it relates to nowhere in particular, this passage can relate to anywhere, to pogroms and lynchings, to Babi Yar or Rwanda or Bosnia or Alabama, or Rakhine State, to Jews or Tutsi or Muslims or Rohingyas. Equally, the strange architecture of confinement in an apparently obscure work like The Lost Ones (“One body per square metre…or two hundred bodies in all round numbers…. The gloom and press make recognition difficult”) may recall the literature of the concentration camps, but it could be any gulag or slave ship. And the torture chamber in the late play What Where, with its repeated injunction “Give him the works,” may be inspired by the French in Algeria, but it exists all over the world.

This is the most political thing about Beckett: because there is no fixed time or space, there are no comforting boundaries, no historical moments into which we can pack away all the trouble and then move on. The entirely understandable impulse after great horror is to think that at least it is over. It can be documented because it is finished. The literature of witness is an attempt to fix the immediate past, but in Beckett the horror is not past. In Beckett there is only one tense, the present. There is only the voice speaking endlessly in the darkness, speaking to us now. The dead cannot be remembered because they are not even dead. They exist, as the opening line of The Lost Ones has it, in an “abode where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one.” Much as we like to think otherwise, politics is always such an abode.

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Before the Revolution

Forever Young

In 2012, as he ascended to the top of the Chinese Communist Party and its government, Xi Jinping began giving speeches about a “Chinese Dream”: China was to become wealthy, powerful, beautiful, and unified. Of these four goals, wealth and power were especially important because, in an official narrative that had been repeated for decades in schools and the media, China for too long had been bullied by Western powers.

Ailing Zhang (Eileen Chang) Papers, USC LibrariesEileen Chang, Hong Kong, circa 1954

The sense of national humiliation that has seeped into popular consciousness in China has, for many, led to a deep ambivalence toward the West: Chinese admire its wealth, modernity, and freedoms, yet we are rivals, not friends. China’s great modern writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) several times observed that his fellow Chinese look either up at the West or down on it—never straight across. The usual results are caricatures that further impede the possibility of getting a clear look.

In the last ten years, there have been signs in China that a growing number of people want to move beyond the look-up-or-look-down trap, and the popularity of Eileen Chang’s novel Little Reunions is one of them. Finished in 1976 but not published until 2009, fourteen years after her death, the book sold 700,000 copies in China in its first six months of publication. It is Chang’s most autobiographical work, so some of its allure has been as a trove of clues to the author’s life. More than that, though, the novel recalls a vanished China of the 1930s and 1940s that was both rooted in Chinese culture and open to the West; its scenes offer an antidote to the mood of indignant rivalry and, at least in the imagination, an alternative to the Xi Jinping version of what it means to be a modern Chinese. In Chang’s assured cosmopolitanism, Westerners are neither models nor victimizers but three-dimensional human beings who go through pains and triumphs just as Chinese people do. Writing in California during years when her home country was writhing in torrid “class struggle,” Chang depicts everyday human experience in prose that is elegant, erudite, and trenchant.

Born in 1920 into an elite but declining family of scholar-officials, Chang grew up with only intermittent parenting by a mother who was often traveling abroad and an aloof father who spent considerable time with opium and courtesans. Following her Western-style schooling in wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong, she began publishing brilliant short novels—Love in a Fallen City and The Golden Cangue, among others—that are reminiscent of Austen in their preoccupation with romantic and family relationships portrayed against a backdrop of upper-class dysfunction in a semicolonial world. Chang quickly found a large following. She remained in China for three years after the Communist victory in 1949, and in The Rice-Sprout Song and Naked Earth produced two of the most penetrating accounts of those years. Her works were banned in China until the 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, as readers thirsted for an alternative to the mediocre entertainment fiction of the post-Tiananmen era on the one hand and the jaw-breaking modernism of the avant-garde on the other, an “Eileen Chang fever” took hold.

Little Reunions follows Julie Sheng—the fictionalized Eileen Chang—through a thick web of relationships in war-torn upper-class China and eventually into a passionate romance and doomed marriage with a Japanese collaborator who is distracted by his several other sexual liaisons. The English translation appends a “Character List” of 124 entries, and it is needed. Julie’s integrity and moral insight give the novel some unity, but it is a kaleidoscope.

Chang approaches her characters, whether Western or Chinese, ready to empathize. Colonists have their problems, too. By showing their vexations (without condoning their faults) Chang asserts a moral power that rejects victimhood. She seems aware that scolding the conqueror is only another way of acknowledging his privileged position. Her empathy serves to vindicate the nation and culture from which she has emerged.

For example, Chudi (Judy), who is Julie’s surrogate mother, has a secret affair in wartime Shanghai with a Nazi school principal, Herr Schütte. He pays for her braces, a marvel of Western technology that improves Judy’s looks more than anyone thought possible. In return, after Germany loses the war, Judy helps Schütte to buy his fare home by selling his greatcoat. Such barter between lovers trumps—at least temporarily—the caste system within which they live. Part of Herr Schütte wishes to be free from that system, but entrenched racism warps his world in ways that are too fundamental for him to notice. When his German wife gives birth to a son in Shanghai, the couple nickname the boy “the Chinaman.” For Chang, the detail of the nickname is a tool for showing the tensions that exist in his mind: a mocking parental love, racial exultation, and creeping cheater’s guilt, among others. She shows Herr Schütte’s human yearnings and their perversions just as she does for her Chinese characters.

Chang’s equitable worldview, made possible by her bicultural background, does much to explain why Little Reunions sold so well when it appeared in 2009. Many middle-class Chinese readers, wealthier and better-informed than their predecessors but feeling morally adrift, hoped for a vision of enlightened forgiveness and dignified equality with the West. Such a prospect was a bracing alternative to the draining tantrums about national humiliation and payback that suffused the Internet and continued to appear in state-approved books like Unhappy China, another best seller in 2009.

The 2009 “fever” over Little Reunions was part of a longer-term trend that has been called “Republican fever”—“Republican” refers to the years 1912–1949, when the Kuomintang (KMT) ruled most of China, and sometimes refers also to Taiwan and Hong Kong after 1949. Before Little Reunions, there had been fevers over the classic stories of Eileen Chang; over Qiong Yao, a Taiwanese writer of romances; Jin Yong, the master of historical martial-arts fiction from Hong Kong; and Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese crooner of love songs. For young people, these artists seemed to be lifting a curtain on another way to be Chinese; for older people, they recalled a bygone time whose cultural resources, after the Maoist blight, might once again prove useful.

An important issue in the fascination with the Republican era has been questions about what really happened among the Nationalists, the Communists, and the Japanese during the War of Resistance (1937–1945) and the ensuing Civil War (1945–1949). Was it true, as the Communists claimed in their textbooks and novels, that their guerrilla fighters expelled the Japanese? Or as historians and journalists were now discovering, did Nationalist troops do most of the fighting?

In 1984 the government built a museum in Nanjing to commemorate the horrific 1937–1938 “Nanjing massacre” in which Japanese troops slaughtered as many as 300,000 noncombatant Chinese. Now, though, writers were comparing that massacre with the Communists’ 1948 siege, during the Civil War, of the northeastern city of Changchun, where a similar number of innocents died, in this case of starvation. On the Changchun disaster, Communist textbooks note only that “Changchun was liberated without a shot.” In a 2007 essay Liu Xiaobo, China’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died in prison last year, argued that the Communist government’s lies about the war made Japanese lies about the war more plausible.*

Chinese readers’ sense that they had been lied to about the war fueled a desire to reexamine the Republican years more broadly. Were they really as bad as official textbooks claimed? After 1949 Mao had started violent political campaigns, a famine that killed thirty million or more people, and a devastating Cultural Revolution. Was “liberation” really better than what had gone before?

The urban young not only began to imitate Republican-era fashion—such things as qipao gowns, high-heeled shoes, and wire-rimmed glasses with round lenses—but sometimes chose to write Chinese in traditional characters rather than the simplified characters that the Communists had introduced in 1955. Shopkeepers took to using traditional characters on their signs until the government banned the practice in 2015. Intellectuals looked to the Republican era for possible remedies for contemporary moral bankruptcy and cultural malaise. Some sought out Republican-era textbooks to give their children for extracurricular reading.

New editions of the works of intellectual luminaries from the Republican period—including Liang Qichao (1873–1929), the polymath humanist-reformer; Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940), the president of Peking University and famous champion of academic freedom; and Chen Yinke (1890–1969), the preeminent China historian of his time—appeared sporadically through the 1980s and 1990s. The trend accelerated between 1999 and 2013 and eventually included dozens of distinguished writers. In 2011 a three-volume work by Yue Nan called Crossing to the South and Returning to the North compared the fates of Republican-era intellectuals who went to Taiwan or abroad in 1949 with those who stayed behind, and between 2013 and 2016, four volumes by Tian Xiaoqing called Currents in Republican Thought appeared.

These publications made political comments in two ways: first, they spotlighted Republican-era liberal thinkers who had envisioned a different route for China. Reexamining their works in the present raised the question What if…? Second, and more subtly, Republican liberals were useful for those who wished to comment on the present. A writer in the Xi Jinping era might be barred from calling explicitly for certain intellectual freedoms but could show how far liberals in the Republican era were able to go. He or she might know full well that the freedoms back then existed mostly in spite of the government, not because of it, but the goal was to make a point about today.

Collected works of scholars were attractive only to the very well educated, but Republican fever spread beyond the elite, to popular books and articles and middlebrow television shows. In 2015 a three-volume work called The Deeply Historic Republican Era by Jiang Cheng claimed on its front cover to be “recommended by one million readers on the Web.” Yuan Tengfei, a high school history teacher in Beijing, used the Internet to charm people with his sharp insights, delivered with sprightly sarcasm, into every decade of twentieth-century Chinese history. In one of his barbs, he juxtaposes Chiang Kai-shek’s “white terror” of 1927, in which several hundred Communists were massacred, with Mao’s slaughter of 710,000 counterrevolutionaries in 1950, then poses the question, “How many do you have to kill in order to attain the level of Great Leader?” Before his social media accounts were shut down in September 2017, Yuan had 16 million online fans.

On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, the philosopher and diplomat Hu Shih (1891–1962) loomed as the image of the flawless scholar-official, unswerving in his defense of tolerance and academic freedom in the face of political interference. People noted that Chiang Ching-kuo (1910–1988), the son of Chiang Kai-shek, helped bring democracy to Taiwan in the late 1980s—the very era when mainland politics were moving in the other direction, culminating in a massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4, 1989. The Republican comparison fed a growing public perception that the Nationalists were not, after all, as bad as the Communists, who seemed to stop at nothing to maintain their grip on power.

But comparisons to the Republican past could also go too far. A contrast with the ills of the Communist era could lead to nostalgia for only its better side. Thus Mao’s extreme violence could make Chiang Kai-shek’s seem less notable; the obscene wealth of the Communist elite today could adumbrate the severe social inequality of the Republican era. Disillusionment following the discovery of Communist lies could lead pro-democracy intellectuals to lurch uncritically in the opposite direction. Because Mao’s spectacular human rights abuses were perpetrated in the name of economic justice, for example, some were led to dismiss concerns over economic inequality as resurgent Marxist baloney in disguise.

Magnum PhotosStreet view from inside an antique dealer’s shop, Beijing, 1965; photograph by Marc Riboud

Most Chinese fans of Republican nostalgia, though—notably including Eileen Chang fans—have better-grounded views. They can see the difference between Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo and are admirers of Taiwanese democracy. The author of Little Reunions does not tell her readers what to think, but a left-leaning sympathy with the underclass can be inferred from her art. Masters and servants in her pages live in everyday proximity, and exploitative relationships, although not labeled as such, are obvious. Maids are taken as concubines. Nannies substitute as parents. Septuagenarian servants, having outlived their utility, are abandoned to the destitute countryside from which they originally were drawn. The servant-to-serf continuum shows no real difference from life in Cao Xueqin’s great novel Dream of the Red Chamber, of two hundred years earlier. No careful reader of Little Reunions in 2009 could have used it to look back on Republican life as idyllic or to see the class issue as a mere Marxist obsession.

What Little Reunions does do, along with similar works in the Republican fever, is to invite a counterfactual question: Could China have taken a different path in the twentieth century? What if Japan had not invaded and the Republican effort at modernization had not been aborted? How wealthy and strong might the country have become, how happy its citizens, how attractive its soft power? Beneath these questions about modernization has lurked another about China’s cultural identity: How much Chineseness was lost when the Republic collapsed on the mainland? In the 1950s Mao began to model China after the Soviet Union. Later he split with the Soviets, but the country has suffered cultural confusion and moral malaise ever since. The Republican era, whatever its flaws, seemed the last in which an authentic China could be found.

In 2013 China’s authorities began pushing back against Republican fever. A set of instructions called “Document No. 9” was circulated internally to officials around the country. It warned against “constitutional democracy,” “civil society,” “press freedom,” “historical nihilism,” and other maladies that had been seeping into China. The phrase “historical nihilism,” which seemed puzzling at first, was political code for denying the glorious record of the Chinese Communist Party. Censors set to work enforcing Document No. 9, and two years later Republican fever began to recede.

This year, though, the release of an unusual movie has begun to revive it. One of China’s leading universities, Tsinghua, marked its hundredth anniversary in 2011, and it commissioned a fiction film, directed by Li Fangfang, to celebrate its history. Called in English Forever Young, it is technically awkward, even amateurish, but it tells the important story of how war and revolution ravaged Tsinghua’s humanistic beginnings, and it pleads for the restoration of those values today. Completed in 2012, the film was blocked by censors until January 2018, but when it was released it quickly became a box-office hit.

Tsinghua was founded in Beijing as a preparatory school for Chinese students who were headed for the United States on the Boxer Indemnity Scholarships that were established with funds that China’s last dynasty, the Qing, was obliged to pay to the US as reparations for American losses in the Boxer uprising of 1899–1901. In 1924, the year before Tsinghua instituted its four-year college curriculum, the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore visited the campus, where, according to Forever Young, he left students with deep impressions of humanistic values. “Do not forget your vocation,” he urges in the film, and avoid “the lure of profit.”

After the Japanese invasion of northern China in 1937, Tsinghua merged with Peking University and Nankai University in Tianjin; the schools transferred their students and teachers to the southwestern city of Kunming to form Southwestern Associated National University, where, in the film, asceticism, patriotism, honesty, and intellectual integrity are paramount. The environment is rustic and simple. Nationalist soldiers are preparing to fight the Japanese, and the US military is helping to train them. The Americans are appropriately gruff, but for a PRC film to show either them or Nationalist soldiers as good guys is a first for PRC cinema.

After the war, back in Beijing and under heavy Soviet influence in the 1950s, Tsinghua’s purpose became the training of engineers, and it did this until 1966, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution shut China’s universities down. Tsinghua reopened in 1978, after which the humanities made a modest comeback. But science and technology have still predominated.

The apparent mission of Forever Young is to revive Tsinghua’s humanist roots. The film opens with scenes of modern furniture and equipment inside clean modern buildings inhabited by people who do not trust one another. Is the baby formula fake? Why did a pork shop where I’d been a loyal customer for four years trick me into buying fatty pork? Look at our “great masters” of Chinese culture today: they are semiliterate soothsayers who, in picking names for infants, recommend words that connote “fiend” or “femme fatale.” Where are the real cultural masters we once had?

Moving back in time, the film invites the question of what caused the ethical and intellectual wasteland we see today. Was it imperialism and war? Did we have no room for anything but patriotism? Through several episodes the film shows that there need be no conflict between humanism and patriotism. Shen Guangyao, a Tsinghua graduate who has enlisted in China’s air force and whose plane is fatally hit in a dogfight, chooses to crash into a Japanese ship rather than bail out with his parachute. He does this of his own volition and in spite of his training by an American military officer that a pilot’s life is always more precious than an airplane. The contrast to the fate of Japanese kamikaze pilots is plain—but so, for Chinese viewers, is the contrast to the endlessly repeated Communist stories about martyrs who forfeit their lives for the party.

Another episode follows a young woman whose small mistakes lead to political charges that result in her social ostracism, torture, and, eventually, suicide. Is this a reference to the Cultural Revolution? Of course. But that cannot be made explicit in the film; it would be “historical nihilism.” Rather these scenes are moved up about five years, to 1962. One can only imagine the negotiations between the filmmakers and the censors on this point.

And on many other points as well. The humanist values that the film shows to be deep in Tsinghua’s origins are in part Christian. The university’s president from 1931 to 1948, Mei Yiqi, was a Boxer Indemnity scholar in 1909 who studied electrical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and became a Christian in 1912. In the film we see the unassuming and kind Mei at Southwest Associated University, where we also meet an American missionary who is close to the local Chinese Christians and sings “Amazing Grace” with them. For the film, the lyrics are changed to remove any specifically Christian connotations. The new words in the opening lines are:

Amazing grace flows into my heart
As heaven and earth look on
That grace unfolds for all to see
From here to the edges of dawn

Stripped of hope and tested by fire
My faith still leads me on
Through exhaustion, over dangers
Until every cloud is gone

It cannot have been easy to get the censors to accept the song, whatever the words. Most remarkable, moreover, is that its melody is played, without words, in the background of scenes in the two later historical settings of the film—the Mao era and contemporary times. The tune seems to be saying: “the Tsinghua spirit endures.”

Christianity is only one component in that spirit, though; its general message of truth, justice, and civility is secular and broad. In fact it comes close to what Document No. 9 denounces as “universal values.” The film’s name in Chinese is highly significant: wuwen xidong, which literally means “not asking if it’s West or East,” echoes an idea that has been at the heart of human rights advocacy in China ever since the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi declared, in the late 1980s, in an allusion to the universality of human rights, that “I don’t do Eastern physics or Western physics; I do physics.”

The filmmakers had cover for their provocative title because the phrase wuwen xidong appears in the third stanza of Tsinghua’s school anthem, composed in 1923. But that cover itself was ambiguous: Did it not also suggest that universal values were in the Tsinghua spirit right from the beginning? That question is potentially embarrassing to Chinese leaders like Xi Jinping or Hu Jintao, the president before him, because both are Tsinghua graduates. Which is wrong, they might have to ask themselves—their school spirit or Document No. 9?

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Foujita: Imperial Japan Meets Bohemian Paris

Fondation Foujita/Adagp, Paris/Archives artistiquesLéonard Tsuguharu Foujita: Autoportrait au chat, 1927

When the painter Tsuguharu Foujita departed from Paris in 1931, he left a farewell letter for his friend the surrealist poet Robert Desnos. Foujita wrote about his third wife, Youki, whose legal name was Lucie Badoud. She also happened to be Desnos’s lover. Foujita, who was bound for Rio de Janeiro with the dancer Madeleine Lequeux, asked his friend to care for Youki and bequeathed to her all of his paintings, those of the era featured in “Foujita: Painting in the Roaring Twenties” at the Musée Maillol. At that time, Foujita was a highly successful painter associated with the bohemian circle of Montparnasse, later called “The School of Paris.” Throughout the 1920s in Paris, Foujita cut an arresting figure: a Japanese modernist as willing to trade on his own foreignness as he was to blend into his Parisian surroundings. “There are not a lot of artists,” author of the 1925 monograph on Foujita Michel-G. Vaucaire wrote, “who have reached a remarkable situation: of passing for a French painter in the eyes of the Japanese and for a Japanese in those of Westerners.”

Born in 1886 into an aristocratic military family in Tokyo, Foujita moved to Paris in 1913. At the Louvre, he copied old masterworks, particularly gold-leafed Madonnas. He became close friends with the painters Chaïm Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani. Foujita’s second wife, the artist Fernande Barrey, was one of Modigliani’s models. Among Foujita’s early works, from 1913–1924, are haunting and somber cityscapes of Paris—for example, L’entrée de la cour de l’atelier, 5 rue Delambre (1921). Unlike those of the Nabis or the Fauves, his paintings were drained of color, almost like photographic prints; he attempted neither abstraction nor cubism. It’s one of this exhibition’s fascinating surprises, noted in Anne le Diberder’s catalog essay, that from 1914 onward, Foujita knew the photography of Eugène Atget; by 1920, he possessed copies of both Paysages et documents and La Topographie du vieux Paris.

By the late 1910s, Foujita’s aesthetic had taken one of its many turns. He made a series of ink drawings and watercolors on paper, mostly of women. These borrowed from Japanese composition, with figures that resembled those of Modigliani—perhaps at times too much, such as in La Dégustation (1917), in which two entwined figures share a small carafe and cup. This mixture of European models and Japanese sensibilities is his most consistent stylistic quality in an otherwise varied oeuvre.

Fondation Foujita/Adagp, Paris/Archives ArtistiquesLéonard Tsuguharu Foujita: Portrait de Kikou Yamata, 1926; click to enlarge

In the 1920s, he found his greatest success with oil paintings and ink and pencil drawings of women, particularly portraits of Youki. While he was celebrated for these works, in retrospect his self-portraiture from that decade is even more captivating. At the Musée Maillol, those vibrant self-portraits, sometimes including cats, are displayed across from photographs of Foujita taken by his friend André Kertész, showing the artist on the telephone, reading, drinking from oversized jugs, or being playful. In photography and self-portraiture, Foujita fashions himself as a character. Perhaps that is why his work still feels alluring and contemporary, although it is sometimes uneven in quality: despite the inconsistent stylistic transformations Foujita himself is constantly present.

At the height of his popularity, in 1928–1929, Foujita received two commissions in Paris. Grande Composition (1928) is his large-scale, four-panel masterpiece, featuring an arrestingly bizarre menagerie of humans and animals. Its approach merged Michelangelo’s attention to human musculature with lions and tigers in cages, as well as free-roaming dogs and cats, that are reminiscent of classical Chinese and Japanese painting. A year later, the other commission, Décor du Cerle de l’Union interalliée, was a stark contrast to Grande Composition; the exquisite Décor was, instead, a traditional Japanese landscape painting with animals, in a manner that could have come from centuries earlier. While the difference between the two speaks to Foujita’s versatility, it also leaves an impression that he was willing to take on any commission, and execute it in any style.

After leaving France in 1931 and spending years travelling in the Americas, he returned to Japan where he sided with the Empire during its fascist period. In 1950, Foujita emigrated to France because his imperial sympathies made it difficult for him to remain in his homeland after its defeat. Five years later, he was naturalized as a French citizen, converted to Catholicism, and even took the Western name Léonard. It’s ironic that, during that decade, the Fourth and then the Fifth Republics of France were ferreting out their own fascist collaborators (from the wartime period of the Vichy government), and yet welcomed their Japanese prodigal son. He took up residence in Villiers-le-Bâcle, a town southwest of Paris, and focused on religious paintings, particularly the murals of a chapel in Reims, completed in 1966 two years before his death.

One painting included in the exhibition from his wartime years in Japan is particularly poignant. Removed from the modernism of his Montparnasse days, Foujita, sept ans is a realistic self-portrait based on a childhood photograph, a somber-looking image in the sepia-tone colors he applied in his work of the 1910s. It’s hard not to see the painting as rueful, imbued with a longing for the past, although it’s unsure which or what kind of past.

Fondation Foujita/ADAGP 2018/Archives ArtistiquesLéonard Tsuguharu Foujita: La Vierge et trois dames, 1917

“Foujita: Painting in the Roaring Twenties” is at the Musée Maillol through July 15.

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A Mythic, Cool America

Estate of Charles SheelerCharles Sheeler: Bucks County Barn, 1940

Instantly recognizable images dominate “America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper,” the surprisingly arresting new show at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford: Charles Demuth’s magnetic I Saw the Figure Five in Gold (1928), inspired by his friend William Carlos Williams’s poem The Great Figure, in which a fire truck speeds through the streets of New York one rainy night; Georgia O’Keeffe’s breathtakingly chilly East River from the Shelton Hotel (1928), the cool, icy blue of the water slicing through the middle of the canvas, separating the snow-topped roofs in the foreground from the smoke-clouded factory chimneys in the distance; three large Edward Hopper oils, From Williamsburg Bridge (1928), Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928), and Dawn in Pennsylvania (1942), not his most famous work, but nevertheless immediately identifiable.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkCharles Demuth: I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928; click to enlarge

But there’s also a familiarity to the lesser-known works adorning the walls. Not because British audiences have seen them before; they haven’t—nearly half of the eighty-odd paintings, photographs, and prints in this relatively small, three-room show have never previously been exhibited in the UK, and the yawning gap between the John Singer Sargents and the Jackson Pollocks in the Tate’s collections has left us sorely deprived. All the same, we know exactly what we’re looking at: representations of the mythologies of an “America” that has long inhabited the popular global imagination, from the towering structures of the archetypal modern metropolis to the rustic barns, uniform fields of corn, and white picket fences of prairie farmland.

The first room is an eclectic mix of experiments in style and medium. A couple of unexpected gems stand out—two paintings by artists not known as painters at all: the poet E.E. Cummings’s Sound (1919), a riotous study in oils of brightly colored geometric shapes, in which a curve suggests the elegant line of a guitar; and the photographer Edward Steichen’s Le Tournesol (The Sunflower) (circa 1920), which I initially mistook for a gramophone.

The second room is the beating heart—or, in this case, the mechanized pump—of the exhibition, where industrialization in all shapes and forms takes center stage. The futuristic-looking distribution plant in Charles Sheeler’s Water (1945) is an Art Deco-industrialist structure of shining sheet metal and gleaming milled stone. Meanwhile, the warm, welcoming orange and umber tones of the brickwork in Niles Spencer’s angular, back-to-basics Erie Underpass (1949) are juxtaposed with pitch-black shadows. The synthetic, blue-toned light from the illuminated upper windows of George Ault’s striking Hoboken Factory (1932) mimics the natural tone of vestigial twilight in the smoke-stained sky at the top of the canvas. Samuel Margolies’s vertiginous etching of Manhattan, Man’s Canyon (1936), evokes claustrophobic terror in a Randian cityscape.

Estate of the artistSamuel Margolies: Man’s Canyon, 1936

This emphasis on the machine-age modern continues into the final room with the bright colors and smooth lines of Ralston Crawford’s Smith Silo, Exton (1936–1937) and Buffalo Grain Elevators (1937), redolent of a paint-by-numbers exercise for a program of rural modernization. Even the stalks of corn in Grant Wood’s Fertility (1939) or the rolling fields in July Fifteenth (1938) give off the air of unbroken mass production. The exhibition then draws to a close with the series of Hoppers, leaving an impression of romanticized, cinematic urban solitude.

An education in the work produced by the precisionist artists of the 1920s through the 1940s, the “cool” of the exhibition’s title is a reference to both form and content. The images use sharp, well-defined lines and striking applications of pigment (whether as bold blocks of color or in arresting monochrome). They speak to a desire for a sanitized version of reality that tries to master the anxieties and ambivalences associated with modern life, a need more keenly felt in America, a country then synonymous with certain signifiers of modernity—industrial and technological development on an epic new scale in the form of dams, bridges, factories and skyscrapers—to a degree still alien to her European cousins.

Strange then, or perhaps fitting, that human figures are so often absent in these scenes. They present a remarkably consistent vision of a country eerily devoid of its inhabitants: factories, mills, and water plants without workers, apartment blocks without tenants, cityscapes minus the bustling populace, farms without farmers. Endless images of man-made edifices reduced to hollow testaments to human endeavor and hard labor. It’s the realization of the American Dream without the mess and confusion of actual human life.

Even the exceptions in the show are so partial that they prove the rule. Indistinct figures teem, ant-like, along the sidewalks in Man’s Canyon. A ghost-like shape, more grayed-out absence than a definitive presence, dwarfed by a vast lattice of multicolored cogs and levers in Paul Kelpe’s Machinery (Abstract #2) (1933–1934). We see only the blacked-out silhouette of the car’s driver and passenger in Martin Lewis’s Which Way? (1932), the vehicle’s headlights illuminating a telegraph pole and a bank of snow beneath in an otherwise dark, deserted road—the flawlessness of the scene so suggestive of a photograph that the painting stopped me in my tracks. On the same wall, the figures in Hopper’s four noir-inspiring etchings—Night in the Park (1921), Night Shadows (1921), The Railroad (1922), and The Cat Boat (1922)—not to mention the solitary characters in two of his nearby oil paintings—the man all but hidden in shadow in Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928), and the lone inhabitant sat at one of the windows in the red-brick apartment building in From Williamsburg Bridge (1928)—remain similarly hard to make out and isolated in their anonymity.

After such barrenness, the footage of hundreds of city workers streaming off the Staten Island ferry in Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s documentary Manhatta (1921), often regarded as the first American avant-garde film, which screens on repeat in the second room, seems like a scene from another world. Watching this meditation on the mechanization of urban space and life, those famous lines from T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land sprang to mind:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

“America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper” is at the Ashmolean Museum through July 22.

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How Best to Read Auto-Fiction

Archiv Gerstenberg/ullstein bild via Getty ImagesLev Tolstoy with his wife, Sophia (Sonya), in the garden at Yasnaya Polyana, circa 1890

I am accused of auto-fiction. A British reviewer feels my recent novel In Extremis is too obviously about my life for him to assess it as a novel. That is, if I am going to focus on my own life in a book—and it’s interesting the reviewer feels he can be sure about the facts of my life—I should, like Karl Ove Knausgård, openly declare that this is autobiography, or at least, that it should be thought about in relation to my life, and stop pretending it is fiction.

This debate is as old as the hills: there are critics who feel it’s good for the novelist to focus on his own experience, and then there are those who feel that the core of a novel must be invented. Just as there are writers who claim their work is never autobiographical, even when it seems it must be, and writers who claim their work is always autobiographical, even when it seems it can’t be. Champions of truth and authenticity; worshipers of the artist’s untrammeled imagination.

Can we say anything new about this? Anything deeper than a difference in literary taste?

Philip Roth, who died this week at the age of eighty-five, always defended himself vigorously against frequent accusations of “auto-fiction.” Evidently, the criticism troubled him. In a series of essays and interviews republished in Why Write?, Roth insists that while his novels draw on his background and experience, they are sovereign artifacts, quite distinct from biography. “Readers may have trouble disentangling my life from Zuckerman’s,” he says of the character who appears in so many of his novels and is commonly thought of as his fictional alter ego. All the same, these novels are “the result of a writing process a long way from the methods, let alone the purposes, of autobiography.”

So the hero is not the writer. Fair enough. But the question is more complex than that, and in a later interview, Roth defended The Counterlife, which offers various, conflicting versions of the life of novelist Nathan Zuckerman and his brother Henry, in these terms: “People constantly change their story… we are writing fictitious versions of our lives all the time, contradictory but mutually entangling stories that, however subtly or grossly falsified, constitute our hold on reality and are the closest thing we have to truth.”

Actually, most people don’t write fictitious versions of their lives at any time, though they may invent such versions in conversation or reflection. Roth seems to be conflating, or confusing, the novelist’s activity with the individual’s construction of a personal history. This would appear to be in line with the conclusion of The Counterlife, in which Nathan explains to his wife, Maria, who is objecting to the way she has been presented in a novel of his, that there is “no you” and “no me.” People are simply the sum of their performances.

So, behind the debate about whether this or that character in a novel is identical to the writer—auto-fiction—lies the perplexing question of selfhood, of what it means to be someone and to have an identity at all. Rather than a stable state, Roth suggests, selfhood is a perpetual performance, a character in a book being only one representation, one possible manifestation, of that performance. It cannot be identical with the author himself, since his extra-literary performance of selfhood is involved in constructing the other, fictional self. Hence “even in a fiction that may have decidedly autobiographical roots, one is always at a distance from one’s sources anyway, and that distance is always in flux.”

Roth’s arguments are hardly consistent when we look at them closely. By talking about “fictitious versions” of our lives, he implies that there is a true version. By talking about “the closest thing we have to truth,” he suggests that this true version remains disappointingly unavailable. But if a version is unavailable, in what way can it be said to exist at all? By going on to contrast the “subtly falsified” version and the “grossly falsified” version, he nonetheless assumes that we know how to get closer to the truth if we want to. But might not that be an illusion?

In more defensive interviews, Roth simply insists on a manifest gulf between himself and his supposed alter egos. The author Philip Roth, he says, has lived most of his life alone in the country, writing novels, something that gives him “an enormous sense of personal freedom,” of being out of the fray, while his characters for the most part get on with their much busier, sometimes scandalous, lives. What links the two, author and character—beyond the obvious Newark Jewish backgrounds—is the common concern with freedom. Roth’s heroes invariably seek to overcome fear as they kick against the curbs of social convention, particularly in the sphere of relationships and sex. Out in the country, mainly alone, Roth feels free from social pressure, free to write about characters with backgrounds similar to his own struggling to be free. If character is not stable, the performance nevertheless follows recognizable patterns.

Let’s offer this formulation: a certain kind of writer, for whom the day-to-day performance of self—the interaction of personality with the world—is complex and conflicted, invents multiple fictional selves who deal with the same predicament in different ways. Rather than establishing any ultimate truth about identity, such a writer explores possibilities that might be dangerous or incompatible in real life. In short, the writing becomes an extension of the living. “Making fake biography… out of the actual drama of my life,” Roth acknowledges, “is my life.” According to this scheme, the novelist’s creativity lies in the richness of variation with which the same underlying conflict is reconstituted in every new story.

Let’s try out this formulation on one of the greatest exponents of auto-fiction, Lev Tolstoy. Almost every character, every scene, every conversation, claims the critic and biographer Angus Wilson, every object even, in Tolstoy’s novels, can be traced back to something in his life. He is the most biographical of authors. The fictional reconstructions of events close to those in his own experience, Wilson goes on, frequently present an alter ego behaving as Tolstoy would like to have behaved, but didn’t, in similar circumstances. Behaving better, that is, more nobly and honestly. Thus Konstantin Lëvin, in Anna Karenina, is in all kinds of ways similar to Lev his author, except that he is nicer. Lëvin has a sick and wastrel brother, exactly like Tolstoy’s brother Dimitry, but behaves patiently and kindly at his deathbed, which Lev did not, leaving Dimitry to die in the country because there were parties he didn’t want to miss in St. Petersburg. Lëvin proposes to his Kitty in exactly the way Tolstoy proposed to his wife, Sophia (or Sonya, as she was usually called), just that the saintly Lëvin does not have sex with any number of peasant girls while agonizing over that proposal, as the profligate Lev did. Throughout his life, Tolstoy experienced, and indeed spoke openly about, a fierce conflict between an insatiable sexual appetite and a deep yearning for sanctity. Again and again, this conflict is played out in his fiction.

After Anna Karenina (1877), Tolstoy largely gave up fiction writing, which he had begun to see as itself a form of self-indulgence, in order to “be good”—or “play at being good,” as Sonya would disparagingly put it. The two quarreled constantly and constantly produced children (thirteen in all). She kept him anchored, Tolstoy worried, to the world of the flesh and the world of material belongings. To achieve sainthood, it wasn’t enough to stop writing novels and to stop having peasant girls; he would also have to stop having sex altogether, renounce his wealth, leave his wife and family, live like a hermit, or at least like a monk. But he couldn’t. Instead, in 1887, he went back to fiction and wrote The Kreutzer Sonata. In that novella, a man who holds exactly Tolstoy’s extreme views on sex (that it is utterly disgusting), and whose courtship and marriage in every way described corresponds to the author’s own biography, kills his wife in a fit of jealousy when he assumes (probably wrongly) that she is betraying him with her handsome violin teacher.

Was this wishful thinking on Tolstoy’s part? Was it a warning to himself of what he might be capable of? Was it an exploration of the relation of his extreme views to real behavior? Whatever the case, Lev allowed Sonya to read the book aloud to his family. Did they find it too obviously about the author’s life, about their own lives, to be enjoyed as a novel? Not at all. Despite the glaring and unflattering parallels, Sonya loved the book and, concerned as always about the family’s finances, immediately set about promoting it. Shocked when Moscow gossips began to take it as a straight account of their marital crisis, she insisted on letting everyone know that, after twenty-five years of marriage, the two still enjoyed sex; in fact, a last child had been born while the book was being written. But of course, this was exactly the problem as described in the story; an inability to stop having sex.

Six years after the novel’s publication, still determined to leave Sonya, Tolstoy became furiously jealous when she fell in love with her much younger piano teacher. But he did not kill her.

One can enjoy The Kreutzer Sonata without knowing anything about Tolstoy’s private life, as one can enjoy Portnoy’s Complaint and Zuckerman Unbound without knowing anything about Roth. And one can enjoy them in a different way knowing what there is to be known about the life behind the work, or rather, the life performing itself through the work. Certainly, to read a number of Tolstoy’s novels, or Roth’s, is to be aware of a mapping, if not of some fixed point from which they are all projected, at least of a precise area of disturbance that throws up seemingly endless variations on the underlying theme. Roth’s writing about characters with similar backgrounds struggling to be free would seem to be part of his own struggle. Tolstoy’s writing about characters eager to be pure seems very likely to have been part of his own eagerness for purity.

Roth’s struggle ended in 2012 when he put down his pen and settled for the safe, elderly man’s freedom of not having to engage with the world any more. Tolstoy made his bid for absolute purity when, in 1910, at dead of night, aged eighty-two, he slipped out on his sleeping wife with thoughts of seclusion and monasteries. Two weeks later, he was dead from pneumonia.

In the case of my novel In Extremis, many events do follow more or less the events surrounding my mother’s death. Many do not. Some conversations seem to me to correspond, at points, to what was actually said. Most do not. To an extent, I share the narrator’s view of events. To an extent, I don’t. What is clear is that at the time of those events, nobody could have imagined the book that is In Extremis; no filming of the events would have produced, or even hinted at, the story that is In Extremis. A majority of the people who come to the book knowing nothing of my life will simply enjoy it, or not, as a novel.

Those who disparage authors for practicing auto-fiction tend to believe character is a steady state that can be adequately represented on the page and thus see the autobiographical as an easy option, a copout. What they want instead is a determined effort of the unbridled imagination representing many different characters, all stable and well-defined, interacting with one another. Both the stability and the creativity are reassuring, even when the drama may be tragic. Those who recognize the problem of being anyone at all, the difficulty of keeping the performance on the road from one moment to the next, will have priorities of a different kind.

Perhaps the first group should avoid reading author biographies, or too many novels by the same person, since the more you read of any author, the more the same patterns will emerge, making an awareness of the biographical element inescapable. The second will be happy settling down with the complete works of Tolstoy and Roth, Joyce and Dickens, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, of George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Faulkner and Hemingway Proust and Beckett, Bernhard and Coetzee, and even Dante and Boccaccio… auto-fiction has a long pedigree.

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In Their Own Worlds

Outliers and American Vanguard Art

an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., January 28–May 13, 2018; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, June 24–September 30, 2018; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 18, 2018–March 18, 2019

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.William H. Johnson: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 28 5/8 x 26 1/2 inches, circa 1944

In recent decades, a tale unfolding within the larger story of contemporary art has been our gradually learning more about, and our trying to place, outsider artists. Problems begin at once, with the label. It is a description that many remain ambivalent about, and often believe should be put in quotation marks, to indicate its tentativeness. The situation somewhat echoes the moment, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, when folk art was first being taken out of attics and looked at anew, and commentators were not sure whether that term—or the labels “self-taught,” “naive,” or “primitive,” among others—was the appropriate one or would merely suffice. “Self-taught,” though imprecise in its way—it has been said, for example, that most of the significant painters of the nineteenth century were essentially self-trained—has remained interchangeable with “folk art” for many commentators. It is sometimes used interchangeably with “outsider,” too. It strikes far less the note of a judgment from above.

Yet “outsider” catches better the quality often evident in the work of such creators of being a surprising, or possibly strange, one-of-a-kind accomplishment. Put roughly, an outsider artist is a figure who makes a body of work while operating in relative isolation, unaware of, or indifferent to, developments in the work of professional artists—though this isn’t always the case and it doesn’t mean that such a person is unaware of being an artist. Nor should it suggest that an outsider artist is a sporadic creator. Many are mightily prolific.

An outsider artist might be someone who resolutely, and perhaps eccentrically, wants to live and work only on her or his terms. An outsider artist might be someone who has been institutionalized, or who suffers some physical impairment, which keeps the person at a remove from others. But an outsider artist, as the term has evolved, might as easily be someone whose daily experience—as, say, a black person in the South—has kept that person from having any real contact with the larger culture beyond his or her immediate community.

Outsider art is largely a phenomenon of the last century (as the richest examples of folk art date to the first half of the nineteenth century), and at this point there are numbers of such creators whose accomplishments we look at with love and admiration. Simply to give a sense of the range of such figures I would mention Bill Traylor, who was born a slave and was discovered in 1939 working out of a booth on a street in Montgomery, Alabama. His gift was for finding the most precise and elegant way to place his silhouette-flat human and animal figures on otherwise empty pages. Twisting, running, growling, and gesticulating, his characters, although not part of some larger atmosphere, seem nevertheless to conjure a vast rural universe. The Czech Miroslav Tichý, on the other hand, who made some of his cameras out of wood, tape, and cardboard, gave photography, in shots made mostly in the 1960s and 1970s of the women of his town—going swimming, waiting for a bus, walking away—a new dimension. He showed how offhand and blurry a photograph can be and still be evocative.

In images that, like Tichý’s, present a largely gray-colored world, James Castle, who lived with his family in rural Idaho (and died in 1977), and made his pictures using primarily soot and saliva, fashioned interior and exterior scenes that could be lessons in the balancing of tones and shapes. In his boxy little pictures and his (even better) flat sculptures of shirts, fashioned out of string and random paper boards, the whole world seems as if made over in some raw, scratchy, yet softly modulated way. And the Mexican-American Martín Ramírez, all of whose work was done in California mental institutions in the last thirty years of his life (he died in 1963 at sixty-eight), gives us images that, composed of black parallel lines set against subtly sandy backgrounds, suggest an epical flow of mountains, tunnels, windows, and trains. We see forces forever opening out and closing in.

Studies of the art of the mentally ill date from the 1920s, but the term “outsider art,” which broadened the topic to include work by people immersed solely in their own worlds, arrived in 1972 with the publication of the English writer Roger Cardinal’s study Outsider Art. Since then, and especially in the last two decades, an ever-rising number of museum exhibitions and academic studies have added to our awareness of the terrain. There are commercial galleries and collectors concerned exclusively with outsider art, and, more significantly, we continue to encounter for the first time work by persons who seem to fit the label. Within the last year alone there were exhibitions in New York of the pictures of Eugen Gabritschevsky, a Russian biologist who suffered a severe breakdown in the late 1920s and proceeded to produce a large body of beautiful fantastical drawings in a psychiatric hospital, and Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934), a Nobel Prize–winning Spanish neuroanatomist whose drawings of slices of the brain, seen with a microscope, form images, at once abstract and naturalistic, not quite like anything most of us have seen before.

By a good coincidence, two exhibitions running at the same time make clear that the appreciation and understanding of outsiderdom remain fluid and exploratory. At the National Gallery of Art, “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” gives us not only a new label—“outliers” instead of “outsiders”—but, more ambitiously, and with a certain confusion, a look at how trained, and progressive, artists have responded to outsider art. At the American Folk Art Museum, the exhibition “Vestiges and Verse: Notes from the Newfangled Epic” takes up the subject of outsider artists who were either writers of a sort as well as visual artists or who conceived their pictures as illustrations to ongoing stories.

The National Gallery’s show is the brainchild of Lynne Cooke, who tells us that she became involved with the subject after seeing a Ramírez retrospective in 2007 and a Castle exhibition two years later. She believes in the importance of figures who make art that might challenge, or simply go off in its own direction from, the ongoing current of professional or mainstream art. But she wants to recast how we see these challenging figures. In effect, she wants to modernize them. She wants us to think of them less as aberrant persons.

Cooke believes, too, that there is a particularly American character to the story of untrained artists and their interaction with professional, vanguard artists. She says that while self-taught artists in Europe or Latin America are often figures who have been institutionalized, and whose art stems from their illnesses (she does not mention any names), in the United States such artists generally “appear, against the odds, from ranks disadvantaged by class, race, ethnicity, and gender.” Pursuing the thought that European and American responses have been different, Cooke notes that “naive expression” has not had much of a part in “modernist European histories”—whereas work by self-taught artists has been welcomed by avant-garde artists in the States and often used in their own efforts. She has in mind, to take one instance, the way Elie Nadelman’s delicately rounded and colored wood sculptures of figures in society (one is in the show) appear beholden to folk-art wood toys and whirligigs.

It is Cooke who has renamed outsider artists “outliers.” It is an astute choice and one that may stick. Where “outsider” has a them-versus-us quality and can suggest two separate realms of creativity, “outlier” seems to convey that no matter what their training or lack of it, people who make art are all involved in the same endeavor. Besides, the word “outlier” is, Cooke writes, “unmistakably of our era; it situates this project in the present.” It bestows an unexpected hipness on these figures. An outlier, she says a bit romantically, is “a mobile individual who has gained recognition by means at variance with expected channels and protocols.” What her words mean, it would seem, is less that outliers are pirates on the high seas than artists who are aware of their creativity and desirous of having it known. They are not oblivious to the world.

Cooke’s distinctions are fresh and worth mulling over. But her exhibition, which ranges in time from two (lovely) pictures by folk painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to artworks of the present—and jumps from work by outliers to works by modern and progressive artists who are presumably thinking about outliers—is slippery, diffuse, and not always convincing. Even if you are an insider you may often not be sure of the ground you stand on.

It is vaguely peculiar, for instance, that one of the early rooms of the show gives us primarily pictures by folk or untrained artists that either were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s and early 1940s or are of a piece with those works. The point is presumably to indicate how welcoming the professional American art world was in an earlier era to nonestablished figures. Some of the paintings in this section, notably by Horace Pippin and Joseph Pickett, are remarkable, and Edward Hicks’s 1848 picture of James Cornell’s farm is a masterpiece. Grand in size and quirky in its empty-in-the-center composition, the canvas is one of a small handful of works that imaginatively rethink the subject of farms and farming, which was at the core of American life before the Civil War.

But many of the pictures, whether by French or American artists, and showing, respectively, public urban life or southern rural life, have little more going for them than their naiveté. Looking at them, one wonders why livelier examples by American self-taught artists were not chosen. I am thinking of the speedily drawn and brilliantly colored views of Thomas Chambers, say, or, from later in the nineteenth century, the unnervingly finicky realist pictures of home life by Edwin Romanzo Elmer, whose turf was Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley.

There are, though, winning works on hand as one continues through the exhibition. It is a treat to come upon a unit of sculptures by the stone carver William Edmondson, whose angels, horses, and other figures, dating from the 1930s and 1940s, are at once extremely chubby and tensely at the ready. The little-known painter William H. Johnson, a trained artist who took on a primitive style emphasizing his African-American heritage, makes a terrific impression with his Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (circa 1944), in which the descending chorus of angels are like schoolgirls of the era, each in ankle socks and Mary Janes.

But as we check off the works by Ramírez, or Castle, or the professional Chicago-based painters who were looking at the art of outsiders, or the religious carvings and assemblages of Elijah Pierce or Howard Finster, or the quilts made by, among others, quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, or the works by contemporary vanguard artists using fabrics in their wall hangings, or the drawings of Bill Traylor, or photographs of outdoor environmental settings put together with leftover objects, or the assemblages, which might be by pros or by outliers and bespeak religious or political concerns—and so on—the flavor and distinctiveness of the different artists get lost. We can only wonder, moreover, why this vanguard artist, but not that one, was chosen.

The arbitrariness felt in the exhibition’s inclusions is perhaps most striking in the presence of pictures by Marsden Hartley, Cindy Sherman, and Jacob Lawrence. They are the most widely known artists in the show, and a beguiling work of Lawrence’s of children making chalk drawings on the street appears on the jacket of the exhibition’s catalog and its poster. But why exactly are these artists here? Are they vanguardists who absorbed the lessons of outliers? If that is the point it is not very clear, at least in the work of Sherman and Lawrence. Certainly, the three artists can’t themselves be outliers. They were all paid significant attention in their different eras from almost the moment they stepped forth.

Hartley’s very presence makes one question Cooke’s belief that it was American, and rarely European, artists who looked at and were nurtured by self-taught artists. Surely American and European artists were on the same track in this regard. When, in 1913, Hartley was visiting Gabriele Münter and Kandinsky in southern Germany, he was influenced by their own interest in and versions of Bavarian folk art. And in his later years, as he continued to be drawn to the compressed, flattened space and the seemingly simplified, or primitive, appearance of artworks outside the realm of traditional museum cultures, Hartley was little different from Gauguin or Picasso, Beckmann or Derain, Dubuffet or Léger. When Léger came to the States in the early 1930s, he announced that the most profound impression any American painting made on him was an Edward Hicks Peaceable Kingdom.

American Folk Art Museum, New York/Estate of Martín RamírezMartín Ramírez: Untitled (Train), 22 1/2 × 47 inches, circa 1953

And when, at the show, one stands before Hartley’s The Great Good Man (1942), one of his portraits of Abraham Lincoln, the whole business of how we label and categorize artists flies out the window. Hartley’s figurative paintings, done in his last years, are hit or miss (he was primarily a landscapist). But in this picture, based on a photograph of the president from around 1862 (and one of the treasures of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts), he created from his feeling for the man a towering and slightly forbidding image. It makes you see why John Nicolay and John Hay, the president’s young secretaries, thinking of their boss at times as an omnipotent ruler, called him “the Tycoon.”

Cooke’s fundamental point seems to be, as she says in her catalog, that we now have, with mainstream professional artists and the self-taught, a “level playing field.” One can have mixed feelings about how she has realized the idea in her show, but her thesis is one we are coming to agree with. It can seem like a secondary matter at this point that Martín Ramírez, say, was a damaged person. When we look at his images of the barren, echoing hills and ravines of California and the American Southwest, it is not hard to wonder, instead, how they stand alongside works by artists who were not outliers. Georgia O’Keeffe put her stamp on the same landscape, and I may not be alone in thinking that Ramírez’s pictures are the more uncanny, affecting, and modern.

Yet there is a hitch in the thought that trained and self-taught creators ought now to be seen together. Some of the most psychologically engaging, and revisitable, works in the National Gallery’s show, whether by Traylor, Castle, or Ramírez—or by Henry Darger (1892–1973), whose emotionally berserk and strikingly designed and colored scenes present brigades of little girls, often with penises, luxuriating in gardens or being attacked by marauders—are works on paper, and such pieces are generally not seen for long, open-ended periods in museums. They are too subject to fading.

The issue, or problem, grows when one adds to the above-mentioned figures other self-taught artists of the same caliber who, although not American and not in the National Gallery’s show, also make mostly works on paper. They would include Eugen Gabritschevsky, Susan Te Kahurangi King (who is in her sixties and from New Zealand), Adolf Wölfli (who was Swiss and spent much of his life in a psychiatric clinic), and a number of others. Why so many major outlier artists work largely with paper, pencils, and pens of differing sorts is no doubt due to the straitened life circumstances some of them have faced. Using paper of any kind was the best or only option, and far more than painting in oils or carving in wood or stone, making a drawing has an immediacy. Though Henry Darger’s watercolors, it is true, called for a process of tracing and sometimes photo-enlarging, his system would have taken far longer if he had painted his complicated scenes in oil. Working on paper as he did, he, like these other artists, could see the story in his head made visible with some speed.

Given the fragility of paper, a considerable aspect of what outliers do may always have about it, at least on the walls of museums, something removed, even private. To go to the American Folk Art Museum’s “Vestiges and Verse” exhibition (or to visit it in its informative catalog), where most of the works are on paper, is to land in a realm of very private, even delusional voices. This is the kind of show that Lynne Cooke’s efforts are meant to supersede. One wonders if, apart from Darger, who is in “Vestiges,” Cooke would see the artists in Valérie Rousseau’s exhibition as being outliers. They seem more mired than “mobile.”

The Folk Art Museum’s show is loosely about the fact that many of these persons have presented their experiences as stories or running accounts of one sort or another. In a ledger from a hospital, for example, James Edward Deeds Jr., an inmate, would for a time make a portrait drawing of some known or imagined person on one page and on the next a little scene or an animal that might relate to that person. Other pieces give us charts of numbers, or of invented creatures, or of systems that might pertain to language. Much of the material is baffling on the face of it; but many of the pieces make us linger because they have been drawn in pristine and exacting ways, or have come alive from endless little alterations.

The pages from the diary of Carlo Keshishian, who is English and in his thirties, are particularly riveting. He writes out his thoughts in letters so small and tightly placed together that from any distance all we see is a near-airless mass of tiny black lines, which seems to undulate as we look at it. The drawings of Susan Te Kahurangi King, which have only begun to be seen in New York, are forceful. She often uses cartoon characters in her scenes, but her disorienting pictures have less to do with popular culture than with choreographing awkward, even impossible relations between bodies, which fly into and out of each other, or seemingly pull themselves inside out. However her efforts are labeled, one wants to see more of them.

Cartoons and comic strips—or a sense of these forms—underlie, finally, the work of the most impressive figures in the exhibition, Darger and Adolf Wölfli. For viewers concerned with outsider art they are among the territory’s old masters. Both have been the subjects of books and have been seen, like Martín Ramírez, who is their equal, in defining and revelatory retrospectives over the last fifteen years at the Folk Art Museum. This doesn’t mean that Wölfli, who died in 1930 at sixty-six, is exactly an embraceable figure. There is a degree of flowing inventiveness and industry in his pictures, which can resemble fantasy versions of carpets, game boards, or aerial views of places, suggesting that the man was on a different wavelength from the rest of us.

With a seeming effortlessness, Wölfli makes organic wholes out of combinations of abstract shapes, geometric patterns, large curving forms, words, musical notations, and bits of the Swiss alpine world he grew up in. Threading his way through these mazes is a kind of comic-strip MC: the artist’s bald, eye-mask-wearing, charming yet insidious alter ego.

Taking in a Wölfli, a viewer feels that only a bit of it can be absorbed at once, and this happens, too, when we stand before one of Darger’s panoramic scenes. Whether he is showing warfare—with troops attacking, explosions on the horizon, and little girls being abducted and strangled—or the artist’s mood is less riled and his sexually ambiguous girl heroines, who are often unclothed, are enjoying a little downtime, Darger’s graphic inventiveness is overwhelming. The life of his work derives from the discrepancy between, on one hand, the repetitiveness and strangeness of his stories and, on the other, the verve and elasticity with which he laid out his cartoon domain.

Wölfli and Darger are very different creators, but both worked with scroll-shaped formats. Darger did so regularly, with his horizontal spreads frequently eight feet wide. Wölfli used the shape merely often, and he could make his similarly long, narrow pictures go vertically or horizontally. This is how Ramírez, who also made long, narrow pictures at times, did it, too. The point may be a small one. Yet few other twentieth-century artists, whether professional or self-taught, employed this format with the same power and consistency.

In time, as outsider, or outlier, artists become more fully recognized and known, we might lose our sense that they are, so to speak, a breed apart. Yet there may always be something distinctive and unusual about the feeling for long and narrow shapes as used by Darger, Wölfli, and Ramírez. The scroll form is one we associate with Asian art. In Western art it can suggest passivity, the exotic, the unfamiliar, or even just traveling. It can connote scenes and stories that go on and on and don’t come to a point. Whatever the form meant to these three artists, they probed its possibilities, and in so doing they widened the scope of twentieth-century art.

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My Boot Camp in Corrective Democracy

PJ Crook/ Private Collection/Bridgeman ImagesPJ Crook: Tuesday, 2002

The beautiful queen gazed implacably at the man who stood before her, who had confronted her with a truth he hoped would make her squirm. “Knowledge is power,” he said, with a cocky smile. Calmly, the queen turned toward the guards ranked around them. “Seize him,” she said. “Cut his throat.” As the guards rushed to obey, a knife already at the upstart’s neck, she called out, “Stop. Oh, wait,” then laughed lightly, “I’ve changed my mind. Let him go.” As the guards withdrew, she approached her flinching challenger and said with chilling certainty: “Power is power.”

Stopping this video, I turned to the eighteen undergraduate journalism students at The New School in New York who sat with me around a square of melamine tables. It was the first two minutes of the first class I’d ever taught: “Facts/Alternative Facts: Media in America from Tocqueville to Trump.” For the rest of the semester, as we tackled works by Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill, George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, Joe McGinniss and Michael Wolff, we would discuss palace intrigue at the White House, attacks on the press, and international warfare—albeit of the cyber variety, not the kind with swords and dragons. I had hoped Game of Thrones would make a congenial entry point to our subject for millennials who did not necessarily have a deep grounding in the history of the twentieth-century—much less the nineteenth-century (de Tocqueville’s age) or eighteenth, the era of our nation’s founding—but who understood the drama of archetypal battles.

“What do we have in America that they don’t have in Westeros, that could make Lord Baelish’s words true, and wipe the smile off Cersei’s face?” I asked. They looked at me, mute and expectant (it was the first day, after all), so I gave them the answer. “We have newspapers,” I said. “We have journalists, who can publish the truth without fear of having their heads cut off. But before we can publish the truth, we have to define it, and we have to defend it.”

Pulling from my knapsack some relics of my decades as a journalist —“source,” we call it—massive review books, densely annotated; old fact-checking galleys, underlined in red; reporter’s notebooks and tapes; and dog-eared copies of texts I hold sacred, from Democritus to Sir Francis Bacon, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Friedrich Nietzsche. “These are our tools,” I told them. “This is how we prove what we believe to be true; by keeping concrete records of our knowledge.” Then, dividing the students into five teams, I gave each team a page from Nietzsche’s short essay on the wriggliness of words, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” and had them shrink their page down to 140 characters. In fifteen minutes, the students read out their condensed versions (in sequence), and laughed aloud, exulting in their ability to pare away the ornate language to reveal the gist. I called this exercise “Tweeting Nietzsche.” It would be our touchstone throughout the term, a reminder that to speak of facts is to speak of language—Nietzsche’s “mobile army of metaphor, metonym, and anthropomorphism”—and that journalists who intend to write factually in today’s hostile climate for news media must learn how to deploy that mobile army effectively. I wish I’d had a trumpet to sound the charge.

Before I became a full-time writer, my day job was defending the integrity of facts. For fourteen years, I was a fact-checker at The New Yorker magazine. Because I spoke French and—not well, but well enough—German, Russian, and Italian, I ended up with what you might call the “Hannah Arendt beat.” When the magazine published an article connected to totalitarianism, the Holocaust, World War II, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the collapse of the Soviet Union, chances were I checked it—phoning the men and women who figured in the stories and re-interviewing them to clear up possible errors; reading mountains of documents, old and new; going to the library to get books; hunting for discrepancies. Google did not exist when I started fact-checking, thirty years ago, in June 1988. Checkers relied on paper sources, audiotapes, videos, and live interviews, in person or on the phone.

And that is why, on January 22, 2017, two days into Donald Trump’s presidency, when I heard Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, coin the phrase “alternative facts” on Meet the Press to justify White House lies about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd, every cell in my body shrilled. It was as if a siren had gone off. Facts have been actual, not notional, for around five hundred years: the word “fact” as a statement or piece of information that can be proved or disproved entered the Oxford English Dictionary in the late sixteenth century, after Bacon (not Lord Baelish) had declared that knowledge itself was power—ipsa scientia potestas est. Watching Chuck Todd’s jaw drop as Conway denied the very existence of facts, I thought back to a piece by Timothy Ryback I’d checked for The New Yorker in 1992. Titled “Report from Dachau,” it told the story of a German man, Nikolaus Lehner, who’d been a prisoner at the Dachau concentration camp in the Nazi era, and had chosen to stay in the town of Dachau after the camp was liberated in April 1945.  

When you’re a fact-checker, you’re supposed to read each article thoroughly before you call its subjects, to be sure you’ve absorbed the story’s arc—and identified its potential factual booby-traps—before you dig in. (The longtime head of The New Yorker’s checking department, Peter Canby, came in to give my students a factual master class.) But time was short, and the article was long, so I called Lehner before reading the piece in galleys, talking it through with him, point by point, almost by rote, until, thirty-nine pages in, as the narrative looped back to Lehner’s past, I began to cry, mid-sentence. I discovered that the man to whom I’d been speaking for two hours was not the person I thought he was; not a German at all, but a Romanian Jew.

He’d been rounded up in Budapest, Hungary, in December 1944, and put in a cattle car of prisoners headed for Dachau. Minutes before the train arrived, a young German officer came up to him, confided that a non-Jewish prisoner had just died, and instructed him to take the dead man’s name. That name was “Nikolaus Lehner.” When the guards called, “Jews step out!” the prisoner kept still, at the young officer’s insistence. From that moment, he assumed a “new existence,” and he kept that new name. He stayed in Dachau after the war, he told Ryback, because he hoped to build “an understanding between peoples.” For a decade, he had been embroiled in a struggle (the main subject of the article) to create a Haus der Begegnung in Dachau, a “house of encounter,” where young people with no memory of the atrocities of the past could “commemorate and learn.”   

A classroom, it seemed to me, was a readymade “house of encounter.” Could I create a class that would teach the next generation of journalists how to confront history and “alternative facts” head-on? Hearing Conway pronounce that Orwellian phrase, I thought of Hitler’s and Stalin’s abuses of fact and reason, and of the murder of human beings that historically attends the murder of truth. When, the next month, Trump called the media the “Enemy of the American People,” echoing Stalin’s vrag naroda (“enemy of the people,” a term dating back to the tyrannical Roman emperor Nero), I proposed my course to The New School. I called it a boot camp in corrective democracy.

I taught “Facts/Alternative Facts” last fall, I taught it this spring, I’m teaching it next fall, and I’ll teach it as long as students keep enrolling. I update the curriculum weekly, weaving in the latest news, so that the students can see the line that connects the past to today. It can sometimes be challenging for them to face the uncertainties of the present. During a heated discussion after the Parkland school shooting about the conspiracy theories that erupt whenever anyone challenges Second Amendment rights, one student blurted out, “I hate politics! It’s so depressing!” I paused our debate, and we all took a breath.

“Politics is people,” I told her. “Politics is the story of citizens, and how they get along with each other over time. It’s not fixed; it changes. Good cycles follow bad ones, and vice-versa; and journalists can bring on good cycles with their reporting.” To cheer her further, I asked the class to name positive changes the press had helped bring about. “Women getting the vote?” said one. “The Civil Rights Act?” said another. “Impeaching Nixon?” suggested another. Nixon resigned, actually, but yes, under the threat of likely impeachment. (Two weeks later, we would watch Robert Redford’s documentary All the President’s Men Revisited, which lately feels like a prequel.) “Gay marriage?” said another. “You see,” I responded, “Politics is a game people play to test their power. As journalists, you can help make the game fairer.” The demoralized student took heart. Her midterm paper was one of the best in class: she compared the Trump White House to the reality TV series Survivor, effectively and with humor.

Early on, I ask the students to share their first political memories, to remind them of their own part in this civic endeavor. One student this term recalled being hoisted up to sit on a tank in a military parade in his native country when he was three; another, last term, spoke of the time her immigrant mother cried when her relatives weren’t permitted to come to America; yet another remembered voting in a kindergarten election for George W. Bush, not John Kerry, for president in 2004, because all the other kids did, only to discover upon returning home that his parents and all their friends were Kerry supporters. That was when he understood, he said, that politics is “tribal.”

My first political memory, I tell them, was when I was six, watching the Watergate hearings on TV with my parents. Nixon might be “impeached,” the anchor said. Having just read Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, I thought Nixon would be shut up in a giant peach pit like James, alongside monstrous insects. The next year, when Nixon resigned, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the journalists who had rooted out the truths behind Nixon’s smokescreen of lies—his “mobile army of metaphors”—became my heroes. It was because of them that I believed that journalism was a noble profession, and because of them that I believed, and still believe, that knowledge is power, when it is defended with the armament of fact. It is up to those who make it their job to protect the record of truth to show others who declare that might is right, and power is power, that history will prove them wrong.

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O’Neill’s Dark Energy at BAM

Richard TermineMatthew Beard as Edmund Tyrone, Jeremy Irons as James Tyrone, Rory Keenan as Jamie Tyrone, and Lesley Manville as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2018

For the first stretch of the opening-night performance of Richard Eyre’s Bristol Old Vic production of Long Day’s Journey into Night at BAM, I had the uneasy sense that things might have been jumpstarted at too rapid a clip. The impression may have owed something to the annoying habit indulged by some theatergoers of applauding celebrity actors (in this case, Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville) when they make their first entrance, even if it means drowning out the opening line of a most delicately calibrated play. Irons retrieved matters by quickly repeating the line, but there did seem something a little wrong-footed in the way the dialogue between the two raced along from then on, not allowing for even a hint of apparent domestic calm before things started spinning out of control.

There is, after all, only one moment of rest in the play: before anything has happened. The initial moment—when James Tyrone (Irons), using all his actorly charm to compliment his wife Mary (Manville) on what “a fine armful” she has become while she was away, can still believe, or pretend to believe, that things are back to normal, and that Mary has been cured of her drug habit at the sanatorium she has just returned from—is so brief as barely to register. The façade will begin promptly to erode—nothing is brought to our attention except as it falls apart—and when their sons Jamie (Rory Keenan) and Edmund (Matthew Beard) come into the room they will join the process by which every form of reassurance will be chipped away by evasion or contradiction or direct attack. Here at BAM, that process kicked off at a headlong pitch that at first felt uneasily rushed.

Ultimately, as the wider arc of Lesley Manville’s performance became apparent, the unease made sense. The rattled breathlessness of her delivery, as if half a second’s interruption would bring everything crashing down, established the state of things in the Tyrone household with no delay: the masks are already off. Manville’s Mary is not merely distracted but positively a junkie with screaming nerves, turning her head from side to side almost spasmodically, not knowing what to say or do from one second to the next, her words tearing along like a runaway train. Her speediness pulls the rest of them along, struggling to keep pace with her and revealing at once that none of them is in control.

Richard TermineLesley Manville as Mary in Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2018

Even more than usual, in this production Mary is the center around which the rest move in denial, sometimes pausing to confront her in brief outbursts of anger or pleading, or turning away as if in the hope she might disappear. The extent to which these three men live in fear of her is manifest in the cowering dread with which, in the last act, they listen to her footsteps pacing in the upstairs bedroom. Mary inherits the ultimate curse of solitude—she is the only one ever alone on stage, and even speaks a few lines of soliloquy—and Manville comes into her own triumphantly in the final two acts, as Mary becomes the creator of her own theater of memory, a play within a play for which she becomes all the characters and is the only audience. In the heart of solitary delusion, she becomes the being she truly is, the being that flakes off into fragments in her dealings with others.

Tempo is crucial since O’Neill is so essentially a musical writer. Robert Falls, who directed a bracing production of The Iceman Cometh at BAM three years ago, has remarked of him: “He’s writing a score.” If Iceman is an orchestral work for some twenty voices, rising often into busy ensemble passages, Long Day’s Journey into Night is his supreme chamber piece. The four chief instruments—James Tyrone and Mary and Jamie and Edmund—are sharply differentiated whether sparring in duets or quartets or launching into extended solos. (The fifth voice, that of their maid Cathleen, played by Jessica Regan, is injected into the middle of the play as a brief tonal respite, comic and oblivious, to break up an otherwise inexorably gathering heaviness.)

To think of these characters as instruments rather than agents goes to the heart of the play. For all the reiterated talk of “willpower”—specifically with regard to Mary’s morphine addiction, yet pointing also to the mens’ habitual drunkenness, Tyrone’s obsessive parsimony, Jamie’s self-lacerating pessimism—everything shows them deprived of any real liberty, even enough liberty to keep from saying the same things uselessly, again and again, in conversations that connect only fitfully before subsiding into postures of resentment and hopelessness. The family dysfunction of which Long Day’s Journey is the classic portrait is embodied in a music of violent stasis, in which forces of attraction and repulsion toggle perpetually back and forth. However isolated each voice, the echoes of the others are always hanging in the air around it, all of them inextricably tied together no matter how stubbornly they tug to pull free.

In Eyre’s production, the protagonists circle continually around one another, occasionally lurching into violent contact, sometimes attempting affectionate overtures that are quickly curtailed. Early on, there is a good deal of energetically overlapping dialogue, and it is only gradually that each of the actors emerges fully. Irons is a lean Tyrone tightly wound within himself, with only a hint of the grandiloquence of the theatrical idol. (Irons certainly brings a persuasive note to his portrayal of a popular star who has reached the stage of burnt-out reflectiveness.) Even his flare-ups of patriarchal wrath when egged on by Jamie or Edmund are half-hearted, scenes, one senses, that have been played many times too often. If Mary is a force of chaos set loose in the household, the senior Tyrone is the principle of order reduced to a melancholy but formally correct stance.

Rory Keenan’s Jamie has the right mix of wiseguy humor and bitter contempt, and in his final drunk tirade manages to strip away any trace of empathetic feeling; while Matthew Beard, as Edmund, more than holds his own in a part that can sometimes seem the play’s weakest link. As a stand-in for O’Neill, the consumptive Edmund hovers on the periphery, more observer than participant. The others figure as what they irrevocably are, but he is not yet realized, and thus not altogether doomed. As Beard plays him, Edmund is very much the writer in embryo, restlessly roving around the room, never without the safety valve of a book in hand. In his cups, he turns his speeches into literary sketches. The monologue about his transcendent experience at sea of seeing “the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand” can seem endless and mawkish, but here it plays as an ambitious young poet self-consciously trying out his powers of invention, showing off for his father, half-exhilarated and half-depressed at the results.

Narrative is of little account in Long Day’s Journey; the tale is almost blurted out in order to get at what matters. This is, after all, as close as O’Neill could have gotten to putting his early life on stage. The painful secrets revealed are his own. It is not a play about family, but family fully realized as a play. The underlying rhythm is of a ritual whose phases are preordained, a ritual of progressive and exhausting exposure. What has been set in motion must continue long past the point of any reasonable hope—in fact, to a point of bone-weariness—and yet the production radiates an energy close to ecstasy: a sorrow not enervating but vital. It is a work that mercilessly tests each actor’s ability to inhabit roles that are not characters but beings, summoned by an authorial process that can only be conceived as an occult attempt to restore speech to the dead.

Richard TermineBeard as Edmund and Irons as James in Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2018

The sense of exhaustion is accentuated by those diabolical patterns of repetition that were O’Neill’s fundamental device. For some readers and playgoers, his repetitions are a flaw and a mark of stylized implausibility, sometimes eliciting nervous laughter. Stylized they may be—his theatrical mode is always expressionist at its core—yet they mark the seam where his sense of music and his sense of brute reality are joined. To diagram any of his plays by the frequency and arrangement of its repetitions, of words and behavior and the recurrence of memories, would be to define its essential shape. The bits and clumps of language his people grab at—“snoring” and “fog” and “quack” and “summer cold” and “willpower” and “morbid” and “cheap hotels” and “it’s a good man’s failing”—are turned around, tossed back and forth, questioned, and seized on as a last resort. If the Tyrones scarcely pause to search for a word, it is because they are condemned to repeat what they have said a thousand times before. In between the repeated words are the repeated sounds: the foghorn, Mary’s pacing footsteps, the comforting gurgle of whiskey poured into a glass.

Rob Howell’s set design gives us a sense of skewed perspective. The left side of the stage is dominated by an impressive ceiling-high bookcase with the matched sets of classics of which O’Neill writes in a stage direction: “The astonishing thing about these sets is that all the volumes have the look of having been read and reread.” The foreground has the minimal elements of a 1912 interior, some chairs, a couch, and the table where the booze is poured: this tentative space is where the family makes its gestures toward being a family. But the room’s timelessly abstract wall slants inward, its angle suggesting an arctic bareness in the house’s inner reaches, the jail-like abstraction of what, for Mary, can never be a home. As the characters back toward its various exits and passageways, each can duck toward some offstage escape hatch, whether the upstairs bedroom where Mary takes her morphine or the tavern where the men take their comfort. The world outside the room is invisible, and the lighting translates the foggy overcast weather into a darkness that sets in long before night falls.

That the prominence of the bookcase is not a casual touch comes to the fore in the last act, with its long passages of poetic declamation. The Tyrones are a literary family not by comfortable habit but for dear life. The autodidact James Tyrone has saved himself by literature, with dreams of becoming a great Shakespearean actor, and at the same time has betrayed literature by succumbing to the easy money of a popular melodramatic success. His life has been a matter of reciting words written by others; the alcoholic Jamie has the talent and the talk of a writer, but is incapable of being one; and Edmund, book in hand, has not yet become the writer he needs to be to avoid self-destruction. His only redemption will be the very play we have been watching, the play he has in extremis been able to write.

When Tyrone and Edmund confront each other in the last act, their weapons are Shakespeare on the one hand and Dowson and Baudelaire on the other. (The present production underscores this battle by expanding the passage from The Tempest recited by Tyrone, and Irons uses this to display at once the sincerity of Tyrone’s craft—his recitation is not a matter of bombastic bluff—and the impairment of his ability to summon up the lines.) Jamie’s belated drunken return is punctuated by recitations of Rossetti and Swinburne, a reminder that Edmund will never be entirely free of his brother’s influence. And as Mary, now terminally lost in memory, makes her final entrance, Jamie is given the play’s bitterest and most surefire laugh line—“The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!”—as if to certify that it has all been a play, but one from which the characters are unable to exit.

Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through May 27.

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Roth in the Review

Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty ImagesPhilip Roth at Yaddo artist’s retreat, New York, 1968

A life in literary criticism: how Review writers read and responded to the novels of Philip Roth (1933–2018).

LeRoi Jones, “Channel X,” July 9, 1964

One of the gaudiest aspects of the American Establishment, as nation, social order, philosophy, etc., and all the possible variations of its strongest moral and social emanations, its emotional core, is its need to abstract human beings. It is a process that leads to dropping bombs.

Mr. Roth, you are no brighter than the rest of America, slicker perhaps. »

Alfred Kazin, “Up Against the Wall, Mama!”, February 27, 1969

Roth is pitiless in reducing Jewish history to the Jewish voice. “Why do you suffer so much?” the Italian “assistant” jeeringly challenges the Jewish grocer in Bernard Malamud’s novel. To which the answer of course comes (with many an amen! from Jesus, Marx, Freud, and others too numerous to mention)—“I suffer for you!” “Why do I suffer so much?” Alex Portnoy has to ask himself in Newark, Rome, Jerusalem (Alex is lonely even in the most crowded bed). His answer, his only answer, the final answer, what an answer, is that to which many a misanthropic son of the covenant is now reduced in this mixed blessing of a country—“My mother! My… Jewish mother!”

This is still funny? In Portnoy’s Complaint it is extremely funny, and the reason that Roth makes it funny is that he believes this, he believes nothing else. »

Murray Kempton, “Nixon Wins!”, January 27, 1972

That Mr. Roth failed should finally interest us less than why he chose to run. But then he is particularly interesting as a novelist just because his good fairy kept his bad fairy from inflicting upon him one of those guardian angels who protect the writer from unseemly adventures and therefore from redeeming risks. Roth has continually striven, from love or hate or a bit of both, to explain America to himself; and that is why he has so steadily managed to give us work that, if it cannot always be judged as satisfactory, has been unexpected and, what is more to the point, exhilarating. »

Frederick C. Crews, “Uplift,” November 16, 1972

What makes an image telling, Roth accurately observed in his interview about The Breast, is not how much meaning we can associate to it, but the freedom it gives the writer to explore his obsessions. But has he explored his obsessions in this book, or simply referred to them obliquely before importing a deus ex machina to whisk them away? In a sense The Breast is a more discouraging work than the straightforwardly vicious Our Gang. Aspiring to make a noble moral statement, Roth quarantines his best insights into the way people are imprisoned by their impulses. What would Alex Portnoy have had to say about that»

William H. Gass, “The Sporting News,” May 31, 1973*

So The Great American Novel is not about popcorn, peanuts, and crackerjack, or how it feels to sit your ass sore in the hot stands, but how the play is broadcast and reported, how it is radioed, and therefore it is about what gives the game the little substance it has: its rituals, its hymns, chants, litanies, the endless columns of its figures, like army ants, the total quality of its coverage, the breathless, joky, alliterating headlines which announce the doings of its mythologized creatures—those denizens of the diamond—everything, then, that goes into its recreation in the language of America: a manly, righteous, patriotic, and heroic tongue. »

Michael Wood, “Hooked,” Jun 13, 1974

My Life as a Man is a novel about not being able to write any other novel than the one you turn out to have written. The house of fiction becomes a house of mirrors, and this, presumably, is Roth’s problem as much as Tarnopol’s, since he did write thisnovel, and not another one. Fair enough: the problem is the theme, the novel enacts the problem. But then such arguments tend to fence with one’s doubts rather than make one entirely happy with the book. There remains a certain triviality there, a sense of the trap too eagerly embraced; an occasional sense of insufficient irony. »

Al Alvarez, “Working in the Dark,” April 11, 1985

What excites Roth’s verbal life—and provokes his readers—is, he seems to suggest, the opportunity fiction provides to be everything he himself is not: raging, whining, destructive, permanently inflamed, unstoppable. Irony, detachment, and wisdom are given unfailingly to other people. Even Diana, Zuckerman’s punchy twenty-year-old mistress who will try anything for a dare, sounds sane and bored and grown-up when Zuckerman is in the grip of his obsession. The truly convincing yet outlandish caricature in Roth’s repertoire is of himself. »

Gabrielle Annan, “Theme and Variations,” May 31, 1990

Roth is an aggressive writer. More aggressive than the Dadaists, or Henry Miller, or the Angry Young Men in Britain in the Fifties, or the Beat generation: he goes for the audience in the spirit of Peter Handke, who called one of his plays Offending the Audience. Roth challenges the reader to walk out, then woos him back again with cleverness and charm, and even an occasional touch of cuteness. Still, Maria walks out, and so does the mistress in Deception»

Harold Bloom, “Operation Roth,” April 22, 1993

At sixty, and with twenty books published, Roth in Operation Shylock confirms the gifts of comic invention and moral intelligence that he has brought to American prose fiction since 1959. A superb prose stylist, particularly skilled in dialogue, he now has developed the ability to absorb recalcitrant public materials into what earlier seemed personal obsessions. And though his context tends to remain stubbornly Jewish, he has developed fresh ways of opening out universal perspectives from Jewish dilemmas, whether they are American, Israeli, or European. The “Philip Roth” of Operation Shylock is very Jewish, and yet his misadventures could be those of any fictional character who has to battle for his identity against an impostor who has usurped it. That wrestling match, to win back one’s own name, is a marvelous metaphor for Roth’s struggle as a novelist, particularly in his later books, Zuckerman Bound, The Counterlife, and the quasi-tetralogy culminating in Operation Shylock, which form a coherent succession of works difficult to match in recent American writing. »

Frank Kermode, “Howl,” November 16, 1995

Checking through the old Roth paperbacks, one notices how many of them make the same bid for attention: “His most erotic novel since Portnoy’s Complaint,” or “his best since Portnoy’s Complaint,” or “his best and most erotic since Portnoy’s Complaint.” These claims are understandable, as is the assumption that Roth is likely to be at his best when most “erotic,” but that word is not really adequate to the occasion. There’s no shortage of erotic fiction; what distinguishes Roth’s is its outrageousness. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to be “erotically” shocking, considerable feats of imagination are required to produce a charge of outrage adequate to his purposes. It is therefore not easy to understand why people complain and say things like “this time he’s gone over the top” by being too outrageous about women, the Japanese, the British, his friends and acquaintances, and so forth. For if nobody feels outraged the whole strategy has failed. »

Elizabeth Hardwick, “Paradise Lost,” June 12, 1997

The talent of Philip Roth floats freely in this rampaging novel with a plot thick as starlings winging to a tree and then flying off again. It is meant perhaps as a sort of restitution offered in payment of the claim that if the author has not betrayed the Jews he has too often found them to be whacking clowns, or whacking-off clowns. He bleeds like the old progenitor he has named in the title. Since he is, as a contemporary writer, always quick to insert the latest item of the news into his running comments, perhaps we can imagine him as poor Richard Jewell, falsely accused in the bombing in Atlanta because, in police language, he fit the profile; and then at last found to be just himself, a nice fellow good to his mother.

And yet, and yet, the impostor, the devil’s advocate for the Diaspora has, with dazzling invention, composed not an ode for the hardy settlers of Israel, but an ode to the wandering Jew as a beggar and prince in Western culture, speaking and writing in all its languages. »

Robert Stone, “Waiting for Lefty,” November 5, 1998

Who would have thought, forty years ago, it would be Philip Roth, the gentrified bohemian, who would bring remembered lilacs out of that dead land for us, mixing memory and desire? But the fact is that, besides doing all the other marvelous things he does, Roth has managed to turn his bleak part of Jersey and its people into a kind of Jewish Yoknapatawpha County, a singularly vital microcosm with which to address the twists and turns of the American narrative. In his most recent work, he has turned his aging New Jerseyites into some of the most memorable characters in contemporary fiction. »

David Lodge, “Sick with Desire,” July 5, 2001

One might indeed have been forgiven for thinking that Sabbath’s Theater(1995) was the final explosive discharge of the author’s imaginative obsessions, sex and death—specifically, the affirmation of sexual experiment and transgression as an existential defiance of death, all the more authentic for being ultimately doomed to failure. Micky Sabbath, who boasts of having fitted in the rest of his life around fucking while most men do the reverse, was a kind of demonic Portnoy—amoral, shameless, and gross in his polymorphously perverse appetites, inconsolable at the death of the one woman who was capable of satisfying them, and startlingly explicit in chronicling them. Even Martin Amis admitted to being shocked. Surely, one thought, Roth could go no further. Surely this was the apocalyptic, pyrotechnic finale of his career, after which anything else could only be an anticlimax.

How wrong we were. »

J.M. Coetzee, “What Philip Knew,” November 18, 2004

Just how imaginary, however, is the world recorded in Roth’s book? A Lindbergh presidency may be imaginary, but the anti-Semitism of the real Lindbergh was not. And Lindbergh was not alone. He gave voice to a native anti-Semitism with a long prehistory in Catholic and Protestant Christianity, fostered in numbers of European immigrant communities, and drawing strength from the anti-black bigotry with which it was, by the irrational logic of racism, entwined (of all the “historic undesirables” in America, says Roth, the blacks and the Jews could not be more unalike). A volatile and fickle voting public captivated by surface rather than substance—Tocqueville foresaw the danger long ago—might in 1940 as easily have gone for the aviator hero with the simple message as for the incumbent with the proven record. In this sense, the fantasy of a Lindbergh presidency is only a concretization, a realization for poetic ends, of a certain potential in American political life. »

Daniel Mendelsohn, “The Way Out,” June 8, 2006

And indeed, just as his allegedly ordinary hero can’t help being a vividly Rothian type, it’s hard not to see, creeping into Roth’s annihilating pessimism here, an irrepressible sentimentality. What, after all, does it mean to commune with the bones of one’s parents in a cemetery—a communication that involves not only the hero talking to them, but them talking back—if not that we like to believe in transcendence, believe that there is, in fact, something more to our experience than just the concrete, just the bones, just the bits of earth? If the scene is moving, I suspect it’s because of the nakedness with which it exposes a regressive fantasy that seems to belong to the author as much as to his main character: once again, Roth reserves his best writing and profoundest emotion for the character’s relationship with his parents. This reversion to the emotional comforts of childhood seems to me to be connected to the deep nostalgia that characterizes this latest period of Roth’s writing (it’s at the core of The Plot Against America, too); it also seems to be something that Roth himself is aware of, and which, in a moment that is moving in ways he might not have intended, his everyman articulates. “But how much time could a man spend remembering the best of boyhood?” he muses during a sentimental trip to the New Jersey shore town he visited as a boy. It’s a question some readers may be tempted to ask, too. »

Charles Simic, “The Nicest Boy in the World,” October 9, 2008

His powerful new novel, Indignation, seethes with outrage. It begins with a conflict between a father and son in a setting and circumstances long familiar from his other novels going back to Portnoy’s Complaint, but then turns into something unexpected: a deft, gripping, and deeply moving narrative about the short life of a decent, hardworking, and obedient boy who pays with his life for a brief episode of disobedience that leaves him unprotected and alone to face forces beyond his control in a world in which old men play with the lives of the young as if they were toy soldiers. Roth’s novels abound in comic moments, and so does Indignation. His compassion for his characters doesn’t prevent him from noting their foolishness. »

Elaine Blair, “Axler’s Theater,” December 3, 2009

Among all the twinned characters in Roth’s body of work there is no starker contrast than that between Axler and Roth’s other would-be suicide (and performer), Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath’s Theater (1995). Sabbath’s life too has turned to shit, but his howl of grief is driven—for hundreds of pages—by a great vital force that seems inextinguishable. With The Humbling, the scope of the novel has shrunk to accommodate a subject who is stunned nearly silent by his loss. Axler is an ordinary man and cannot turn his own grief into scathing and hilarious soliloquy, and therefore into art. And the art that Axler knows so well offers no consolation. »

*Philip Roth, “Roth’s Novel,” July 19, 1973

In response to:

The Sporting News from the May 31, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

Please advise Professor Gass that I am too old to be grown up.

Philip Roth
New York City


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Escape From the Nazis: Anna Seghers’s Suspenseful Classic

The British MuseumDistant view with a mossy branch and a winding road, by Hercules Segers, 1610–1638

My first encounter with Anna Seghers’s novel Das siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross) was brief and painful. At some point in the mid-1990s—I must have been in tenth or eleventh grade—our German teacher announced that in the months to come we would be reading excerpts from an antiwar novel written in the days of the Third Reich. The announcement was greeted by the students with incredulity and protest. What? Such a big fat book! On top of that, the antiquated language and a plot that refused to get under way, quite aside from the fact that no one could keep track of all the characters.

I have a vague recollection that the story began with a description of the Rhine landscape I found hard to follow, and that the main character was constantly on the run. There was a feeling of general relief among the students when we were finally able to put the book aside. In all honesty and to my shame, I should add that I don’t have a single pleasant memory of any of the other books I read in school, from Goethe’s Faust to Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum to Paul Auster’s Moon Palace.

For almost a quarter of a century, that was my only acquaintance with Anna Seghers—until I recently looked up something in an entirely different context and got snagged on a still from a movie. It showed Spencer Tracy in a Hollywood film called The Seventh Cross. I was amazed: that unreadable old tome had been made into a movie! And with a star actor? My curiosity aroused, I read The Seventh Cross for a second time, and I devoured it in two days. After that, I understood why it was an international bestseller.

It had been a hit almost immediately after it was published in 1942—simultaneously in German by a publisher in exile in Mexico and in an English translation in the United States. Within six months, it had sold 421,000 copies in the US. To date, it has been translated into more than thirty languages. Then, in 1944, the Austria-born director Fred Zinnemann, who would make the western classic High Noon a few years later, filmed The Seventh Cross for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Besides Tracy, the cast included Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, and Helene Weigel (in her only film role during her American exile).

After the war, the novel was published to acclaim in Seghers’s native Germany. In 1947, in Darmstadt, Seghers was awarded the most important prize for German-language literature, the Georg Büchner Prize. The same year, she returned to Germany, moved to West Berlin, and joined the Communist party, the newly formed SED, in the zone occupied by the Soviets. She later moved to East Berlin and remained a citizen of the GDR until her death in 1983. In 1961, when Seghers, who had by then become the president of the Writers’ League of the GDR, did not condemn the building of the Berlin Wall, Günter Grass wrote her a letter appealing to her conscience, emphasizing the extraordinary position she held for him as well as his colleagues in the Federal Republic (West Germany): “It was you who taught my generation and anyone who had an ear to listen after that not-to-be-forgotten war to distinguish right from wrong. Your book, The Seventh Cross shaped me; it sharpened my vision, and allowed me to recognize the Globkes and Schröders under any guise, whether they’re called humanists, Christians, or activists.”

Later, after the Willy Brandt era, when West Germans had reconciled themselves to the existence of the GDR, The Seventh Cross assumed the position in the West that it had long held in the East: it became a book assigned in the schools. Indeed, the novel was rediscovered by the members of the ’68 generation who were protesting their parents’ deep silence about the Third Reich. And the novel continues to be listed in school curricula. It seems to have accomplished the leap into the twenty-first century.


Anna Seghers was born Netty Reiling, in Mainz in 1900, the only child of an upper-class Jewish family. Her father was a dealer in art and antiquities. Seghers always felt close ties to her native city. Decades later, at the age of seventy-five, she wrote in a telegram to the citizens of Mainz, “In the city where I spent my childhood, I received what Goethe called the original impression a person absorbs of a part of reality, whether it is a river, a forest, the stars, or the people.”

Archive, Aufbau Verlag, BerlinAnna Seghers, Paris, circa 1940

She published her first story in 1924, using the pen name Seghers. She married Laszlo Radvanyi, and the couple had two children, Peter (Pierre) and Ruth. Radvanyi was a Marxist, and Seghers herself became increasingly involved in the German Communist Party (KPD); around the same time, on playwright and novelist Hans Henny Jahnn’s recommendation, she was awarded the prestigious Kleist Prize for literature. A promising future seemed to lie ahead.

Then, in 1933, as in a stage drama, came the moment of peripeteia, a sudden, total reversal. In the year Hitler came to power Seghers, doubly endangered as both a Jew and a Communist, fled with her family to Switzerland. It was the beginning of a long odyssey. She lived in Paris—separated from her husband, who had been interned in a French concentration camp—until France was occupied by the Nazis in 1940. Alone with their two children, she managed first to organize his release and then orchestrate the family’s escape by ship via New York to Mexico City, where she would stay until 1947.

It was in Mexico that she learned of her mother’s fate: murdered in 1942 in the Lublin concentration camp in Poland. The message from the Jewish congregation of Mainz was matter-of-fact: “Mrs. Hedwig Reiling arrived in Piaski near Lublin in the month of March, 1942, and died there.”

Between May of 1938 and late in the summer of 1939, with world war imminent and in precarious circumstances, Anna Seghers wrote “a little novel,” as she called it at first, or as an early working title reads, the “7 Crosses Novel.”

According to her telling, there were originally just four copies of the manuscript, all of which she mailed off in hopes of being published. The first copy was destroyed during an air raid; a friend lost another while fleeing the Nazis; the third fell into the hands of the Gestapo; only the fourth copy, addressed to her German publisher in the United States, arrived at its destination. However, she herself hadn’t kept a copy of her manuscript because the danger of its being found in her apartment by a police raid—a constant fear of hers, even in neutral Mexico—was too great.

The Boston publishing house Little, Brown accepted the novel for publication, but at first, Seghers, at that time the sole support of her family, saw no money from it. The modest author’s advance was withheld in order to pay for the translation. In 1942, the publisher F.C. Weiskopf, by then a friend, wrote her a letter with the happy news that her novel had been selected by the Book of the Month Club: “Be glad, my people, Manna has rained down from heaven.” But it wasn’t until the following year that Seghers started receiving a monthly royalty payment of $500. The breakthrough came with the Hollywood filming. Seghers was paid the fabulous sum of $75,000 in four installments, the last in 1946. This, at least, brought to an end the time of financial distress.


The Seventh Cross is an example of something rare in the literature of the German language: a brilliantly written novel that keeps alive one of the most important chapters of German history—though I can still see why as a student I thought the book was old-fashioned. The grammar is complex, the language at times curious, its female characters oddly passive. So what gives The Seventh Cross its literary quality?

First, something quite simple: Anna Seghers, it turns out, was a veritable master of suspense. It’s obvious why Hollywood grabbed this book—not just for the popular prison-escape motif that makes for breathtaking action, but also because of the cliffhanging delays in the narrative sequence. The central plot, Heisler’s escape, is not told straight through; instead, it is constantly interrupted by jumps in the story to one of the more than thirty other characters in the novel. As for Heisler, he is what used to be called “a real man.” Rough and inscrutable, even ruthless, he is a man who left his wife and baby for another woman; even amid terror and horror, he is a womanizer who is even allowed, at the end, a flirtation with a waitress.

Aufbau Verlag, Berlin, 1995A panel from the graphic version of The Seventh Cross, illustrated by William Sharp, 1942; click to enlarge

The book also takes a filmic approach to form. The transition from the last sentence of the prologue, “Where might he be by now?,” to the beginning of the first chapter and the description of Franz and his cheerful bicycle ride suggests a classic cross-fade. At the same time, The Seventh Cross is characterized throughout by very strong visual symbolism—as we see in the use of Christian iconography, beginning with the cross in the title. The motif of the seven crosses is not Seghers’s invention, but rather a particularly perfidious punishment that was actually meted out in 1936 at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp after an escape (fatally unsuccessful), an incident the author had no doubt heard of. Other Christian references include the allusion to the dragon slayer in the main character’s first name; the first night of his flight spent in the Mainz Cathedral; and, not least, the number seven, which turns up not only in the cross of the title, but also in the basic seven-chapter structure of the novel, covering a week, from Monday to Sunday. So, in a certain way, it is also a creation story, at the end of which, although not everything turns out all right, a few things do somehow work out, at least for the protagonist George Heisler.

Such Christian images catch the eye, though their use in the novel is largely unrelated to their original significance. The Mainz Cathedral may have been constructed from the “inexhaustible strength of the people,” but it is depicted, alongside descriptions of the “almost excessively proud” bishops and kings, as a “refuge in which one can freeze to death.” The seventh cross remains empty; George Heisler is no messiah, but rather an ordinary human being with all his weaknesses who won’t let himself be consoled with some abstract future; he is about the here and now. He intends to go to Spain to fight against the fascists.

In contrast to the writing of her advocate Hans Henny Jahnn or of Thomas Mann, Seghers’s sentences are artfully simple. Everything serves to create clarity, and describe action, such as Belloni’s flight across the rooftops. The vivid descriptions of nature lead me to surmise that the young Netty Reiling intentionally chose the name of an artist as her pen name—that of the Dutch painter Hercules Segers (1590–1638), who was known above all for his realistic landscapes and who, to some degree, influenced Rembrandt. Moreover, Seghers’s 1924 doctoral dissertation was titled “Jude und Judentum im Werke Rembrandts” (“The Jew and Jewishness in the Work of Rembrandt”). There, too, she was interested in the depiction of unadulterated reality, for, after all, it was the unassimilated Eastern Jews in all their poverty who served as Rembrandt’s models rather than members of the “brilliant Sephardic congregation,” the official Jewish community. Rembrandt was much more concerned with “rendering real Jewish individuals from his knowledge of their essential nature and their appearance.”

Similarly, Seghers worked “from reality,” and with an effect that was admired by her colleagues. But how was it possible for her, living in exile, to present such an intense and accurate picture of contemporary Germany? For one thing, there was the previously mentioned “original impression,” that Seghers absorbed in her childhood of the landscape in the environs of Mainz. For another, she did careful, thorough research. Seghers spoke with fellow refugees and read the voluminous KPD-inspired Braunbuch über Reichstagsbrand und Hitlerterror (Brown Book About the Reichstag Fire and the Hitler Terror) and a report by the Munich Communist Party delegate Hans Beimler dealing with his imprisonment in the Dachau concentration camp, from which he escaped to fight, like George Heisler, in the Spanish Civil War, in which he was killed in 1936.

But another ingredient is added to this feast of detailed description and the everyday ordinary, culminating in the character of Ernst the shepherd who stands on his hill literally above everything. It is something that points to a metaphysical (not to be confused with religious) dimension behind the novel’s tangibly concrete aspect. It is the voice of the omniscient narrator. It is the invisible and omnipresent intellect hovering over and around the characters and seeing to it that what happens does not remain futile and meaningless, even at moments of the greatest brutality. The voice knows about the “eiserner Bestand,” the “emergency reserves” that people find within themselves, or as it says in the remarkable concluding statement of the nameless collective voice: “We all felt how profoundly and how terribly outside forces can reach into a human being, to his innermost self. But we also sensed that in that innermost core there was something that was unassailable and inviolable.”

It may be that, in the aftermath of 1945, when the totality of the horrors of National Socialist rule became known, horrors that no doubt exceeded even Anna Seghers’s powers of imagination at the time, such a passage sounds almost too benign. Yet it is precisely these authorial passages that touched me most deeply on rereading the book. Today, the gruesome acts of the camp commandant would be presented more graphically; the details of Heisler’s flirtation at the end would probably be stretched out; above all, though, a modern author would strike an ironic note, perhaps a cynical one, since now after two world wars we know what a hopeless case our species is. But considering that Anna Seghers, in a moment of extreme existential danger, created, in spite of it all, this literary credo to humanism, this beacon that inspires us, in an ambiguous, crepuscular world full of inhuman barbarity, with the courage never to give up, to retain our humanity no matter what the cost—for that we should and must be grateful.

Adapted from the afterword to Anna Seghers’s The Seventh Cross, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo, which is published by New York Review Books.

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