It is said that there are two basic plots: a person goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. This is a man, or rather two men, on a journey through the cold in starving St. Petersburg during the siege of that city by the Germans in 1941, when slabs of human flesh were available in the market, after all the rats were gone. Given the desperate situations encountered in the book, the premise is whimsical: the Russian general’s comely daughter is going to be married the following week, and the general wants a wedding cake, but there are no eggs. Two men, the author’s grandfather and another man named Kolya, take on the assignment of finding two dozen eggs in exchange for their lives after they commit minor crimes. The charm of the book lies in the voice of the narrator. The author has taken his grandfather’s story as told to him, and turned it into a story. The depravity and suffering he encounters, and the air and snow so cold that toes and lives can be easily lost, could be considered fantastical nightmares not bearing close examination, but given the matter-of-fact, teenage mind telling the story, they all fall into place. I found myself thinking yes, this could have happened. If anything, Grandpa may have avoided telling of even worse deprivations and cruelty. City of Thieves resembles two other books I have recently read: Suite Française, which tells the story of the panicky exodus from Paris when the Germans threaten the city, after which the French realize it had not been necessary to leave after all; and Matterhorn, the story of a group of god-forsaken American Marines in Vietnam who take a hill only to leave it to the enemy after it is captured. The two boy-men in City of Thieves go through similar hell to capture two dozen eggs. It is, you see, the oh-so-familiar plaint about the exploitation of the helpless, of the lengths to which human beings will go in order to survive, and the surprisingly optimistic revelation that a person can remain almost dead for a very long time. It makes my worries about a mole I hadn’t noticed before or a missed meal seem self-indulgent. The cover blurb, written by Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, is “The perfect novel.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a well written story with engaging characters, a well drawn historical setting, and little superfluous flimflam. In these days of impending Armageddon, it is worthy of contemplation to wonder if I could be as resourceful and brave as the Russians in this book. Have I become so spoiled by warmth (and air conditioning) and ease that I would soon be dead under such circumstances? How many risks would I be willing to take to find an egg for my family? How could I weather the grief? But seriously, it’s a good read.
A friend gave me the book Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler (Vintage Books, 2016) to read. She hated it, despite its multiple rave reviews, and wanted to know if I hated it too. She works around restaurants, so perhaps the descriptions of self-destructive, back-biting chaos struck an unwelcome chord in her. In some ways, I disliked the book as much as she did, and in other ways I will disappoint her by saying that it is original, well written, and noteworthy. The summation of the book’s message is near the end, when the protagonist says “Eventually nothing would be important and I would throw it all away.” The book is a landmark of a nihilistic, hedonistic, negative age. It might be a woman’s version of the Beatniks or Andy Warhol. I would like it if a woman’s work defined an age, but I’m not enamored of, or even connected to, the age presented. It is written as a memoir, advertised as a novel, so I suppose it is not Danler’s personal story, though it is written with the intimacy of personal experience. I appreciate the high degree of difficulty such a voice represents. Danler has a flair for description. “He worked the floor in a pink tie, weaving around like cursive.” “We went outside. The air tasted of steel knives and filtered water.” “A dagger of morning prowled outside the open windows.” She misses the mark on a couple of metaphors, such as “Her bra was neon yellow like a sign saying Proceed with Caution.” When a reader is enjoying the deft descriptions, a clunker like this stands out. This protagonist Tess, through whose eyes we see this world, had a rough childhood, which has afflicted her with a victim’s sense of entitlement. She pictures herself in an Edward Hopper painting and enjoys Emily Dickinson poems, hinting at an advanced education, nevertheless she arrives ignorant beyond measure in New York. She lucks into a job in a very fancy restaurant, and begins to learn the basics about wine, food presentation, oysters, and whatnot. Why would a restaurant probably nursing a star or two want to hire a person who knew nothing about food, wine, or restaurants? Her prior experience was in a burger joint. The book suggests that beneath Tess’s studiously ignorant persona the person who hired her saw a little something that, compared to the other applicants, set her apart. This rude ignoramus has disdain for almost everybody. Her roommate is a “moron,” the people in her neighborhood are “dead-eyed slouchers.” She considers herself superior to the restaurant guests who absorb her most rancid derision. “They were the hungry sort of guests who had spotted me from across the room and were beckoning me with their anxiety. … I have your fucking food, you’re not going to fucking starve to death, it is a restaurant for fuck’s sake.” When she spills butter in a guest’s lap and the guest wails, Tess blames the guest -- “Who wears silk while they eat?” I was around a lot of hippies when I was a young woman, and identified with them on many things – their music, their sexual freedom, their fierce demand for equality of all persons, their appreciation of the Beatles’ daring and Pete Seeger’s determination. Sexual license is a theme. When my Greenwich Village roommate in 1963 had sex with her boyfriend in front of me, I protested, and she said, “I don’t see what you are so upset about. Adele and I did this all the time.” But I had, and have, a rule that you can’t fuck in front of me without my permission. After Tess’s noisy, aggressive orgasms in the back of a taxi, which are so disruptive that the driver closes the window between them, she gives, “There were people who did whatever the fuck they wanted and their city was terrifying, barbaric, and breathless,” as a reason for her behavior. Having lived and worked in New York City for thirty of my seventy-five years, I have been impressed by the patience, tolerance, good humor, and work ethic of the place, given the stresses from overcrowding and hyper-competition that we all faced every day. The people of Houston are patting themselves on the back for helping each other in the face of a hurricane, but New Yorkers helped each other plenty during 9-11 and Hurricane Sandy. People everywhere appear "terrifying, barbaric, and breathless" to me sometimes, not only in New York. But Tess is special. It’s gotta be ten times as threatening just for her. Tess belongs to the “whatever” generation, which holds little in common with hippies, though their habits are somewhat similar. Tess and her friends snort and smoke and drink whatever is put in front of them until they are smashed, pie-eyed, under the table, on the floor, in the hospital. It’s just what people do. They escape into the filthy bathroom to share lines of cocaine and follow it up with alcohol, Zanax, Aderol or whatever it’s called….whatever. Tess’s crew don’t take care of themselves, but they haul themselves to the restaurant every day to do their job, driven by the rants of the chef and the snarky cruelty of their superiors on the floor. Their superiors enjoy the bodies of the underlings at will. This is just the way it is. This is sort of like what the hippies did, but we thrived on hope, while these folks thrive on despair. Tess, who has to sell her car for $675 to pay all her overdue parking tickets, who is drunk and high every night, who does not know an oyster from a clam, who is devoid of any interests outside the restaurant, who wants someone else to “confirm that I was alive,” who “somehow” pulls the 1995 vintage instead of the 2002 and blames it on everyone else, who gets annoyed when the chef and her manager slip into French, who lies down and rolls over in New York saying, “It is ludicrous for anyone to live here and I can never leave,” – this young lady is put out that she is not instantly promoted over the other shlubs who do the same work she is doing. She presents herself as constantly under attack. Sitting on the river at sunrise, she notices the rats, not the sunrise. I can’t give a demerit to the book because its philosophy is not mine, but can object to the arc of the book. Its purpose seems to be the ultimate praise of a rube who comes to the big city and makes good – an essentially hopeful message. This bear, though, has to go over too many mountains before it comes to the final one. The reader is awash in pessimism until the very, very end, which made hard reading for me. Way too far into the book, she starts showing some grit. She stands up to people, objects to her boyfriend’s duplicity by almost killing herself with drugs, seduces the manager of the restaurant as part of her demand to be promoted, talks back, learns the wines, develops her palate, and in the happy ending, is rewarded by the woman who has deceived her most deeply. Oh boy! Ain’t life grand! What we have here is a failure to communicate. I, the happy, hopeful, hippy cannot connect to this disjointed, disaffected, nihilist. Her goals trickle only so faintly outside of herself. Ms. Danler didn’t grow up in the 1960s, as I did. Lacking such intrusions as the draft, she finds no reason to even consider politics or the society as a whole. Her music is heavy, punk, metal. She has no grounds to expect the house with the picket fence, or a healthy family life. Given no future, she fucks what comes along, smokes what is around, stays up all night, manages her health with uppers and downers, nearly kills herself, and considers it good, or should we say, adequate. Stephanie Danler may have hit upon the perfect parable for modern times. I don’t blame young people for being bitter today, beginning with their college loans, which are mentioned in the book. When I went to college there was no such thing. There was no global warming, no cynical Iraq war, no dunce in the White House. (I thought some of them were dunces at the time, but Trump takes the cake.) I hope that Danler will write another book. Maybe her next one will have some hope. I personally find it impossible, to live without hope.
I just put down Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison’s 1978 novel/poem, and am still tingling from it. It reminded me of A Hundred Years of Solitude, another magical book in which its protagonist goes on a journey for reasons that hang in the air. Surely, the only books this one should be compared with are on a par with Garcia-Márquez’s, and Morrison’s own, Beloved. Since I’m writing at this tiny pinpoint of history in which the United States Justice Department has decided to spend a couple of million dollars investigating discrimination against white people, I would like to suggest that this book, and a couple of others, including another book I just read, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, be required reading for all parties, including the judge, when those discrimination-against-white-people cases come to court. This book has been reviewed by everybody under the sun, and I won’t add much of my own, except to say that having read it, I feel part of a congregation. Morrison has brought me and her every reader into her intimate company. It’s a wild ride, where the plot doesn’t only have twists and turns, but side trips, ups and downs, and backtracking, yet Morrison keeps the reader on board, clinging by her fingernails. Finishing it feels like an accomplishment, though not an onerous one. On a technical scale, she’s aced everything: the characters are clear, the language is vivid and evocative, the plot is intricate and solidly connected, and requires little suspension of disbelief, though there is magic.The characters have a touch of unreality about them, they are archetypes, but not of any primordial figure that appears in our dreams. We have never known characters who are quite like them, yet they stand there fully human. The story is a little bit like a dream or a nightmare, but it has blood . I’m inspired by her genius. I hope maybe a tiny spark of what’s in her work might show up in mine – maybe in a place where I didn’t even realize I was depositing it.
The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance, published by Picador in 2010, was written by a world famous ceramicist, Edmund de Waal, the latter-day scion of an influential and fabulously wealthy Jewish family, the Ephrussis. De Waal’s ancestors fled Poland for Odessa, where they became the pre-eminent purveyors of Ukrainian wheat, fled Odessa for Paris, fled Paris for Vienna, and fled Vienna for England, where de Waal now lives. They ran across history to escape waves of anti-Semitism. The nooks and crannies of the family’s residences, the city streets and country paths where their houses stood, the books they read, the clothes they wore, the people they knew, are one delight of reading the book. It is a unique kind of literature, written by a first-time author who is an artist to his fingertips but has probably never taken a writing course. The unifying focus of the book is a collection of netsuke. Little by little, we learn that these are tiny sculptures created by Japanese artisans and collected during the japonisme craze in Paris toward the end of the 19th century, partway through this history of the Ephrussi family. The vitrine which holds these adorable, exquisite chatskis somehow survives the anti-Semitism of Dreyfus-era Paris, Hitler-era Vienna, wars, rivalries, failures, poverty, unimaginable wealth, and many poor decisions, ending up in the apartment of de Waal’s uncle, who has spent his adult life in Japan – where the netsuke came from in the first place. The meaning of this precious vitrine full of tiny objects is different to the Japanese and to Uncle Ignace. I have read about Parisian anti-semitism in history books and in French class – I know well enough the J’accuse controversy sparked by Emile Zola, but I have never lived vicariously as a Jew in Paris at that time. The Ephrussis live in the Jewish quarters of various cities, but conscientiously assimilate, leaving behind many vestiges of their Jewish heritage, though they marry Jews from assimilated families like theirs. They become well connected and wealthy in Paris, but it all disappears in a moment, ditto Vienna. De Waal presents his family as watching it all in disbelief. Suddenly they are not invited. Suddenly they are threatened in the newspaper, all for being Jewish – surely this could not be happening here. You know about kristallnacht and Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, but have you ever felt, as if it were in your own living room, the suddenness, the turning inside out of everything overnight, the loss of all you had, the being trapped with no escape? De Waal never blames anyone – it is too cataclysmic a loss to figure out exactly who is at fault, or even to count up all that is lost. As a reader, the story and the way it is conveyed struck deep, especially in this time of Trump, when we say day after day, “Surely this isn’t happening” or “He can’t do that.” Yes, Hitler could, and yes, the French courts could, and yes, the Cossacks could arrive in your town, set it on fire, and kill everyone. It is possible for the agile and wealthy to escape, but today one looks around and says, “to where?” De Waal assumes his readers will know what a netsuke is, and the meaning of “flaneurial,” or “incunabula.” He compliments the reader by assuming that the reader’s sophistication is as many-layered as his own; for example, when he says that a 19th century relative is called “le Polonais, the Pole, the waltzing boy,” he references Chopin, the Polish composer of waltzes (among other things), but the well-informed reader will have to make that connection. He throws in dozens of other linguistic and historical words and people; Nobelstock, and do you know who Pieter de Hooch is? I am speaking only for myself, but just reading the book was exhilarating because I was brought into the company of an author who assumed I have the same encyclopedic knowledge as he does. The words and referents are not showy, they are precise to the story being told. The book is a triumph of imagination. De Waal studies family archives and photographs, and travels to the very homes his family lived in, besides becoming exhaustively familiar with the history of those places so he can place his family within them. The photographs help us to re-imagine his family, too. The fact that his family consorted with Proust, the Rothschilds, Emperor Franz Josef and many other luminaries lifts his story into the realm of myth, but really, it could be anyone’s family, moving from here to there to escape failure, disappointment, and problems with the government or law, or to embrace the wonders of their age – a house in the country, or a vitrine or bibelots from Japan. In the hall of my own apartment hangs a silk embroidery bought in 1910 when my great-grandparents traveled to China via the Siberian railroad. It wouldn’t need to be anything so wonderful; it could be a baby’s spoon or a favorite chair. We could all weave a textured tale like de Waal’s about our families, but I doubt that I could make mine quite so exquisite.