Tag Archives: Spring 2019

Lessons from a Dark Time

Adam Hochschild
University of California Press ($27.95)

by M. Lock Swingen

With the skillset of a resourceful journalist, the far-ranging scope of a historian, and the passionate fervor of an activist, bestselling author Adam Hochschild shares the stories of gutsy and bold individuals from across the world who have taken a stand against authoritative governments, spoken out against social injustices and inequalities, and dared to demand change. In Lessons From a Dark Time, Hochschild collects and updates over two dozen essays and pieces of reporting from his long career; the subjects of the articles range from a Congolese center for rape victims, a Finnish prison, a California gun show, a stroll through a construction site with an ecologically pioneering architect in India, a visit to the snowy ruins of a gulag camp in the frozen tundra of the Soviet Arctic, and a day on the campaign trail with Nelson Mandela.

Additionally, Hochschild examines the writers he loves and how they informed his own work, from Mark Twain to Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, and John McPhee. Oedipus-like, Hochschild seems to struggle with the triumphs and shortcomings of his own literary elders and masters. Working more as a historian than a journalist in these essays, Hochschild examines the personal lives of his forebears and judges whether they are unforgivably tainted with the evils of history. If our elders do not live up to the ever-changing standards of our own time, must we commit patricide in the name of the present-day greater good? It is an anxiety that seems to haunt Hochschild’s investigations into his own literary heritage.

In his essay on Joseph Conrad, for example, Hochschild investigates the biographical fingerprints smudged on the pages of Heart of Darkness, that infamous novel depicting colonial rule in the Congo in the nineteenth-century and the phantasmagoria of an entire economy founded on the whip, the gun, and forced labor. “No doubt Conrad drew part of Kurtz from deep within himself; that is what gives the reader a tinge of uneasy empathy with Kurtz’s boundless ambition and his vision of himself as the apostle of ‘the cause of progress’ among awestruck savages,” writes Hochschild. “But Conrad clearly also took aspects of Kurtz from various men whom he encountered or heard about in the Congo.” The essay ends with a troubling tug-of-war between virtue and malevolence as Hochschild tallies Conrad’s own conflicting impulses. Damningly, as Hochschild notes, Conrad was a conservative in politics: He loathed labor unions and had no use for the socialist idealism in which many of his more intellectually inclined friends had great faith. And yet at the same time Conrad proved to be one of the very few writers of his era that managed to depict the horrific underbelly of the colonial project. Whether you agree or not, Hochschild ultimately finds Conrad redeemable in his essay.

Archeologically-minded, Hochschild demonstrates an instinct to burrow to the origins of things, such as the genesis of the modern surveillance state in the United States. Indeed, Hochschild dedicates an entire section of his collection to this single pursuit. In “The Father of American Surveillance,” for example, Hochschild traces the life and career of Ralph H. Van Deman, a United States Army officer, who found himself immersed in the Philippine-American War at the turn of the twentieth century. Now largely forgotten, the conflict in the Philippines was a counter-insurgency war, and for that type of combat the military did not need cannons or fortresses but intelligence information. Hochschild explains how the military placed Van Deman in charge of what was then called the “Bureau of Insurgent Records,” a post that would transform Van Deman into the founding father of American surveillance. Hochschild goes on to write that Van Deman’s “assiduous spying in war and peace would span half a century and three continents and presage a vengeful nastiness eerily familiar to us today: racial stereotyping, the smearing of political enemies with fact-free rumor, and charges that those who opposed U.S. government policy were unpatriotic or treasonous.” Another more personal essay about government surveillance documents Hochschild’s look into the revelation that the CIA in the 1960s and early ’70s had been secretly controlling supposedly independent organizations like the National Student Association, and offers a warning on what can happen when a country loses control of its intelligence services.

Hochschild also traces the origins of modern-day political activism, which brings him to the historical figure of William Wilberforce, an eloquent, widely respected leader of the British abolitionist movement during the 1780s. In “Sunday School History,” Hochschild examines how “the early British abolitionists invented virtually every organizing tool I had seen used in the movements against segregation, the Vietnam War, and apartheid: the political poster, a campaign logo, the consumer boycott, the very idea of an organization headquartered in a national capital with branches around the country.” Although Hochschild praises the men and women who spearheaded the consumer boycott of slave-cultivated West Indian sugar, he is swift to scrutinize the personal character of Wilberforce, who Hochschild deems to be too idealized in popular literature and film. Writing about the historical inaccuracies and embellishment of the 2006 British-American biographical film Amazing Grace, for example, Hochschild argues that the film misleadingly portrays Wilberforce as a modern liberal. “In yet another misleading episode,” Hochschild complains, “Wilberforce, talking to his future wife, appreciatively mentions the sugar boycott and the way she is taking part in it. In real life, however, deeply uneasy with any uncontrolled expression of popular will, he opposed the boycott. He also believed women should obey their husbands and should have nothing to do with politics or the movement.” As with the investigations of his literary forebears, Hochschild seems unwilling to let stand any patina of myth, legend, or hagiography surround a historical figure.

The author seems at his best when he is walking shoulder-to-shoulder with living, breathing people as he tries to understand what motivates them, what makes them demand the change that they do, what lies at their heart’s core. In his essay “The Brick Master,” for example, Hochschild profiles the eccentric British architect Laurie Baker, who spent most of his career in India and made his reputation by shirking the Indian desire to imitate Western standards of architecture and building material. Relaying a quip of Baker’s from a lively conversation between the two, Hochschild writes that “the trouble with Indian policy-makers is that ‘they haven’t the faith in their own materials’ . . . Everyone who can afford it wants to use only concrete, steel, and glass.” For Baker, the hierarchy of building materials is reversed:

He is profoundly hostile, for example, to glass and steel: Making each requires large amounts of fossil fuel, and in Kerala [where Baker lives] the steel has to come from other parts of India. He also hates plaster, which he regards as a costly prestige item that does nothing except cover up a handsome wall of bricks made from local clay.
Bricks he loves. Standard red bricks do require energy to make, but in the brick-maker’s kilns of south India, he points out, much of the fuel would not be used for much else: brush, tree branches, and scraps of palm wood too small for lumber.

Baker has not turned his back on the modern world, however, as Hochschild makes clear later in the essay. The homes and offices that Baker has built have running water, electricity, telephone lines, and sometimes even garages. And yet in Baker’s embrace and love of brick, mud, and bamboo, in his insight that letting hot air escape is wiser and even more beautiful than air conditioning, Baker has accomplished what desperately few people in the global South have managed to do: He has been selective and economical about what he has appropriated from the West.

Like George Orwell, another literary forefather written about in Lessons From a Dark Time, Hochschild does not shy away from making bold political interjections in his narratives and storytelling. Sometimes, it is as if the narratives and storytelling are mere scaffolding for these brief sunbursts of polemic: “After spending much of my life writing either about forms of tyranny that we’ve seen vanish, like apartheid in South Africa or communism in the Soviet Union, or that belonged to earlier centuries, like colonialism or slavery, it is a shock to feel the ruthless mood of such times suddenly no longer so far away.” Indeed, everywhere in the pages of Lessons From a Dark Time there are premonitions and warnings about the current political unrest of our own time. For the reader of this collection, there is no guessing whether she should read the content and subjects of these essays as an allegory for the current political landscape and its dark discontents.

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Islamophobia, Race,
and Global Politics

Nazia Kazi
Rowman & Littlefield ($32)

by Spencer Dew

The central focus of Nazia Kazi’s new book is white supremacy and the state-sanctioned violence that both emerges from and supports it. She opens with the murder of Philando Castile, and, explaining how her rage over such slaughter fueled her writing, begins to unravel the links between white supremacy and the “more than a million Iraqis dead at the hands of US-imposed violence, just as it was white supremacy that allowed Mexican Americans to be lynched in the American Southwest for such ‘crimes’ as speaking Spanish.” Islamophobia—the name itself a misnomer, as, in Steven Salaita’s words, it “doesn’t actually arise from the subject but squarely implicates the purveyor”—is examined here as one manifestation of America’s white supremacist power structure. Close reading of anti-Muslim racism allows Kazi to “better understand American race politics at large.”

Not surprisingly, Kazi’s desire to understand such race politics is rooted in a desire to respond to them, to change them. Kazi is committed to a stance of “principled antiracism,” to “seeking to abolish the very roots of imperialism and racism.” As she says in her final line, citing an anti-racist and anti-capitalist Martin Luther King Jr. in his call for America to “be born again,” “America cannot be reborn if we keep the faintest skeleton of white supremacy intact.”

Her analysis of Islamophobia is in service of that aim. Kazi details the placations and distractions that seek to integrate the right sort of Muslim, or to celebrate American Muslim fidelity to imperialism through military intervention and capitalism. “The goal of principled antiracism,” she writes, “is never to incorporate ‘minorities’ into an existing power structure. Asking to be integrated into the top of a racial hierarchy doesn’t dismantle the racial hierarchy”; rather, it allows for those persons thus integrated (and their allies) to “be satisfied when arms dealers like Lockheed Martin set up Friday prayer spaces for their employees rather than thinking about the troubling role of the arms industry in the American economy.” Again and again, Kazi cautions about the ways that integration serves as placation. “If we’re not careful,” she writes—in reference to Muslims in the military but equally applicable to immigrants, transgendered citizens, blacks, women, homosexuals, Sikhs, or indigenous peoples—“US empire will have us celebrating the inclusion of all races, gender identities, and religions in its sinister project of global power.”

Kazi’s examinations of “Islamophilia,” of how “the ‘good Muslim’ trope . . . leaves intact the very foundation of anti-Muslim sentiment” is useful, and her analysis of “terrorism” as a racist dog-whistle is a concise and accessible articulation of a reality many who think about Islam and Muslims in America know all too well. Kazi notes the invisibility, in public discourse, of white supremacist terrorism, regardless of how frequent such acts might be, and leaves readers to ponder the dubious nature of how U.S. military violence against civilians for a political end is always categorized, in official and popular discourse, as something other than “terrorism.”

But Kazi is at her most tonic when she indicts the moderate and left-leaning sentiment, so popular these days, that sees in the Trump administration “something un-American,” in the sense of “an interruption in the steady march of progress with regard to immigrants, black people, the queer community, and religious minorities.” Kazi insists that Trump’s election, rather “was the culmination of America. It was the perfect, most logical next step for anyone who’s been paying close attention to American politics.” As part of this argument, and as a way of shaking her readers awake from the stupor of self-satisfaction and the easy Manicheism of anti-Trumpism, Kazi devotes a great deal of attention to the wall between the U.S. and Mexico, both the imagined wall invoked in Trump’s explicitly racist rhetoric and the very real wall that already exists at the border. As Kazi writes,

It was under President Bill Clinton that construction of the physical barrier began. In 2006, Hillary Clinton, as a senator, voted in support of the Secure Fence Act. Where were the liberal protest signs reading ‘Walls Must Fall’ when these initial steps toward securing the border were taken? Why did it take a politician boldly campaigning on the explicit promise to build a wall to generate such widespread opposition?

It is passages like this that make Kazi’s book necessary reading for any American invested in real transformation of this country. “If we don’t recognize the continuities, the overlaps, and the similarities between the Trump administration and what came before,” she writes, “we risk keeping intact the very conditions that gave rise to it in the first place. If we topple the white nationalists’ racist ‘megaphone’ only to restore the older dog whistle, we haven’t actually toppled anything. We’ve just restored to racism the camouflage that allowed it to blare its message all along.”

This is a book to read, to study, to share, and to take to heart in our current moment and the months to come—months sure to be dominated by a flurry of placating and distracting rhetoric, from all points of the political spectrum, promising to topple certain megaphones and change certain tones of public discourse. Kazi reminds us to think historically, situating the current moment within a deeper trajectory and always keeping in mind how today’s taken for granted categories and inequalities came to be produced. She also urges us to “ask the most ‘impractical’ of questions” regarding the society we want to create and in which we want to live:

What if prisons and policing weren’t solutions to the things we call ‘crime’? What would the world look like if the US military budget didn’t tower over those of the several largest world militaries combined? What are ways to prevent terrorism that don’t involve surveillance, racial profiling, detention, or torture? What if wealth weren’t concentrated in increasingly fewer hands? What if debt weren’t part of the American way of life?

Questions like these, Kazi suggests, can help us shape a society built on “principled antiracism” and extending that principle of equality to its logical—and just—conclusions.

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The Alley of Fireflies
and Other Stories

Raymond Roussel
translated by Mark Ford
The Song Cave ($17.95)

by W. C. Bamberger

Translator Mark Ford’s introduction to The Alley of Fireflies once again sets out for readers what is known about the mechanisms Raymond Roussel used to create his writings. Roussel (born 1877, died by suicide in 1933) was a proponent of the idea that restrictions, rules, and strict forms were devices that facilitated creativity. Ford has been over some of this ground before: he is the author of a biography, Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (Cornell University Press, 2000), and has translated Roussel’s astonishing New Impressions of Africa (Princeton University Press, 2012).

In the introduction, Ford describes how the “application of problem-solving logic to the deliriously illogical narrative obligations generated” by procedures based on puns, homonyms, or on the substitutions of one of two letters in single word produce Roussel’s unique tone and fascinating mechanical contrivances—railway tracks made from the lungs of calves, for example—and chemical fantasies such as “resurrectine,” a liquid that reanimates the dead. But for all the originality of Roussel’s techniques, his works are peopled with the stock characters and interest in fairy tales found in much of the literature of the late 1800s, and play out in scenes among the most familiar to his time. There is a play within a tale that features enchanted cloth, sword play, a fairy godmother with a magic mirror, a potion and more. Gatherings at rich men’s homes feature in several works.

Adventures upon being shipwrecked also figure in several of Roussel’s works, including one story included here, “Among the Blacks” (this was previously translated, by poet Ron Padgett, in 1988; the others texts included here appear in English for the first time). This story is something of a plagiarism-by-anticipation (a term originated by the French writing group the Oulipo; a number of its members, including the late Harry Mathews, were Roussel enthusiasts) of the approach and tone we now think of as Borgesian. Here the narrator reads a new epistolary work by a friend, titled Among the Blacks. The book is a tale of shipwreck and imprisonment by an African tribe told in the form of letters carried by birds the prisoner manages to trap. A parlor game the narrator attends at the author’s home leads to the narrator assembling letter strings such as “LEEBCLASIPA” on the cushions of a pool table, a letter puzzle which, when solved, refers back to the title novel—a word game within the larger word game of the story, which shares a title with a larger work contained only within the story. These are the kinds of structures Roussel offers his readers.

Also included here are two episodes from an earlier, longer draft of Roussel’s most famous novel, Locus Solus. One is a hybrid mad scientist and fairytale story of a child who is a hybrid of man and flower. The other tells of the discovery of a previously unknown draft work by Shakespeare as well as one of his rib bones, and the magical effects this rib might be coaxed into producing.

The writing of The Alley of Fireflies, a planned novel, was interrupted by Roussel’s service during World War I. He tucked the fragmentary manuscript inside a copy of the newspaper La Liberté from May 1914 and did not take it up again after the war. What survives fills fifty of the one hundred pages of this book. Again the title of the novel fragment is also the title of book within the tale, a volume which took its name from an avenue on the grounds of the estate of Fredrick the Great where fireflies gathered. We read about a bored Voltaire, about his plan to add a chapter to Candide which concerned a vulgar poem about Joan of Arc, a poem plagiarized from an earlier play. . . . At this point readers find themselves down several mirroring levels, within a number of sets of (invisible) parentheses like the actual ones Roussel so vigorously and whimsically employed in New Impressions of Africa. Engagement by digression is a technique Roussel very much favored.

Within this tale, a level or two in, there is yet another framing device for fantastical presentations, one that is itself an idea-generator: a rich man sets up a competition, a sort of idea-factory competition that seems almost gladiatorial, to be conducted after his death:

The various prescriptions and prohibitions contained in the will eliminated all thoughts of gain, and there remained as incentive only the prospect of the great intellectual pleasures, the power of feeding the mind, inherent in possession of the matchless library of the château, which—just as the park contained few rare species or varieties—had otherwise little to offer.

Roussel’s works are filled with just these kinds of inescapable delights. Where some of the events he relates—shipwrecks, death by poisoned word, and more—would be tragic in the hands of other, more emotionally-manipulative writers, in Roussel’s stricture-directed hands they create intellectual delight and endless wonder. No matter how strict his generating techniques, no matter how Rube Goldberg his inventions, we always read them with pleasure (even a scene of someone engaging in philosophical thought at the bottom of a nearly-filled outhouse pit). For modern readers this is reinforced by the late 19th and early 20th century elements and tone and settings: they have, for us, an antique patina that his first readers—and very few they were—would not have felt, and this adds to their fantastical-yet-homey tone. As short and in places fragmented as this book is, it is a very worthy addition to Roussel’s shelf of works.

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The Annotated Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard ($25)

by Ryder W. Miller

In his Forward to The Annotated Big Sleep, a hefty tome that contains almost equal amounts of commentary as story text, Jonathan Lethem writes, “The replacement of our intuitions of these things with firm knowledge creates a breathtaking effect.” Indeed, this classic book, as annotators and editors Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto demonstrate, did not come out of thin air. As Lethem says, “these notes entrench the novel in an intricate social and urban-developmental history of Los Angeles that hides from us, increasingly, in time’s back pages.”

Page by page, the editors (a crime novelist, a scholar, and a poet) help the reader understand and contextualize Raymond Chandler’s 1939 noir classic. Chandler was born in Chicago, lived and studied in England, and moved back to the U.S. to wind up in a seamy Los Angeles. Sacked from his job as an oil company executive, he turned to writing, and The Big Sleep was his first novel. Its star—detective Philip Marlowe, a modern knight errant of sorts—has become a crime fiction icon. Chandler was not a detective himself like Dashiell Hammett from up north, but he elevated the genre for those who appreciated his stylistic and literary accomplishments. Two movies have been made of The Big Sleep, and most of the books featuring the hardboiled Marlowe have also made it to the big screen.

From The Annotated Big Sleep one gets a profound sense of where Marlowe’s adventures took place and the meaning of the language that is used; a great deal of crime world and police detective slang is defined here. There is also a lot of information about the locale Chandler wrote about and lived in during the last chapters of his life. One might prefer to enjoy the novel without the commentary, of course, but for those who want to “read” the book in the academic sense, these annotations make it easy. With eighty years having passed, much has changed, including the language, the scenery, and the moral landscape.

In short, this is a great book for those who want to study the text. There is much here that will fascinate those who are interested in the author and the genre, with asides about many things, including Chandler’s influences (and influence), literary self-cannibalism, publishing landscape, and perspective. It’s fascinating noir fun for those who want to explore the field, which some will now find much less baffling because of the efforts here.

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The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland

Nicolai Houm
translated by Anna Paterson
Tin House Books ($15.95)

by Rick Henry

There are no spoiler alerts needed here: The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland opens with the title character, a writer and teacher at the University of Wisconsin, alone and slowly freezing to death in the northern wilderness of Norway. ”Now, while she is still conscious, she must lock her fingers in a dramatic pose. “Oh my God, it looks as if she tried to grab at something at the moment of death!” she imagines the responders saying when they’ve found her. Her final thought offers two questions inextricably linked: “What should she reach for, how should she make it look?” For us, there is a third: Who is Jane Ashland? What has disappeared is her very self, a loss so profound that there is literally nothing for her to hold onto.

Norwegian novelist Nicolai Houm posits Jane’s loss as the inevitable result of two traumatic events. The first, the ”what should she reach for,” is the death of her husband and her daughter in a car accident. The second, the “how should she make it look,” might best be given over to her own words: “when you begin to think that your writing is no more than a construction you use to say something about another lot of constructions, and that, meanwhile, the most profound truths of the human condition are forever beyond your reach—then you stop writing.”

Jane spends much of the novel trying to recover her courtship and marriage, the birth of her daughter, and the inevitable phases of their mother/daughter relationship. Her initial attempt to cope with these losses is to insert herself into another family. She finds distant relatives in Norway; on the plane ride there, she encounters a forty-something zoologist who invites her to accompany him into the wild. He has spent the previous two years studying the herding behaviors of musk oxen, and by the novel’s end, these behaviors become something of a metaphor for Jane’s situation—perhaps, even, a metaphor for the most profound truths of the human condition.

Her attraction to her Norwegian relatives is, in part, the fact that their family unit of father/mother/daughter reprises her own. She inserts herself into this family’s dynamic, stepping in to “rescue” this daughter from the pressures of playing sports, but her attempt is doomed to failure—Jane’s construction of her previous life does not match her current situation, and moreover, the “mother” slot in this family is already taken. She is left with the stranger, and a kind of courtship that doesn’t (and can’t) match the courtship story she’s framed for her husband. Her rejection of the zoologist is hardly a rejection—she no longer has the energy or interest in engaging the “real” world, even as it has its way with her. And so we are left with her contemplating the world of appearances.

However much Houm exploits Jane’s inability to maintain contact with both the real world and the world of appearances, the novel shouldn’t be read as an exercise in deconstruction; the author’s major success is in the dramatic presentation of a character struggling for her own existence. The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is the first of Houm’s novels to be translated into English. Based on its strengths, one expects the hasty translation and release of his two previous works.

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The Milk Bowl of Feathers:
Essential Surrealist Writings

Edited by Mary Ann Caws
New Directions ($13.95)
by John Bradley

Surrealism: “the domain of thought and experience beyond the daily and the convergence of dream and reality—inside and out, day and night, as with a swinging door,” writes Mary Ann Caws, a well-known Surrealism scholar, particularly of French Surrealism. In Surrealism “Everything is new, and happens, over and over, always for the first time,” she continues, quoting the French poet André Breton, who issued his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924.

That New Directions has published an anthology of Surrealist writing now indeed shows how much everything happens over and over. Caws draws largely on the New Directions in Prose & Poetry 1940 anthology, which contained “A Surrealist Anthology.” She does much more, though, than merely reissue previously published writings, which were all by men. Instead, Caws adds many Surrealist female writers, including Leonora Carrington, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Mina Loy, Dora Maar, Joyce Mansour, Meret Oppenheim, and Kay Sage. Without even mentioning in her introduction the explosion of the myth that Surrealism was largely male, Caws quietly enlarges the scope of this historic movement. Her slim anthology (only ninety pages), gives the reader thirty-two writers, and forty-four works (both poetry and prose), translated by a wide variety of writers: Paul Auster, Kay Boyle, Rikki Ducornet, James Laughlin, and many others, including Caws herself.

At its best, Surrealism’s odd juxtapositions can spark excitement and surprise in the reader, as this excerpt from “White Gloves,” a prose poem by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, demonstrates:

Famous men lose their lives in the carelessness of those beautiful houses that make the heart flutter. How small they seem, these rescued tides! Earthly happiness runs in floods. Each object is Paradise. A great bronze boulevard is the shortest road. Magical squares do not make good stopping places, [sic] Walk slowly and carefully; after a few hours you can see the pretty nose-bleed bush. The panorama of consumptives lights up. You can hear every footfall of the underground travelers.

This excerpt not only demonstrates the “convergence of dream and reality,” but exposes why short Surrealist poems and prose pieces work best. The associative leaps require an intense focus, as can be seen here.

While Surrealist writings cannot be pinned down to any one topic, one subject constantly arises—love. Two writers handle this subject with particular grace: Joyce Mansour and Robert Desnos. Mansour combines surprise and sensuality, which can be seen in these opening lines from her poem “I Want to Sleep with You”:

I want to sleep with you side by side
Our hair intertwined
Our sexes joined
With your mouth for a pillow
I want to sleep with you back to back
With no breath to part us

Robert Desnos’ love poems, while written in prose, contain a delicate lyricism. Here is the closing to his “I Have Dreamed of You So Much” in Paul Auster’s musical translation, which brings out the obsessiveness of Desnos’s love:

I have dreamed of you so much, have walked so much, talked so much, slept so much with your phantom, that perhaps the only thing left for me is to become a phantom among phantoms, a shadow a hundred times more shadow than the shadow that moves and goes on moving, brightly, over the sundial of your life.

Both Mansour and Desnos are essential to any collection of Surrealist writing, however that term “essential” in Caws’ subtitle invites controversy. Many readers will start naming works that are missing. Surely André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto is essential, as well as his poem “Free Union.” Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem “Zone” is also key; after all, Apollinaire invented the term “surrealism.” And where are Hans Arp, Antonin Artaud, Max Ernst, Max Jacob, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo? It would be helpful to have dates of publication for the texts, too. Thankfully, there are short biographies for the writers who are included. The one for Léona Delacourt reads like a prose poem itself, although a tragic one:

Léona Delacourt (Nadja) (1902-1940) was born near Lille, met André Breton in 1926, and is the dedicatee of his novel Nadja of 1928. Naming herself Nadja (“the beginning of the Russian word for hope and only the beginning”), she wrote and drew in many illustrated letters to Breton, her sometime lover. She was arrested in 1927, was institutionalized in the Vaucluse and then in northern France, and was never released.

This short biography will send curious readers to Breton’s Nadja, as it should.

While The Milk Bowl of Feathers gives us only a glimpse of the international movement that revolutionized nearly every art form, and is limited to a small sampling of poetry and prose (and mainly French texts at that), this is a welcome volume. Caws deserves praise for including Surrealist women writers who have been ignored by too many for too long. Here’s hoping this collection will lead to anthologies that include more Eastern European poets, as well as Spanish and Japanese surrealists. To paraphrase Man Ray, the Surrealist painter and photographer, “Is Surrealismdead? Is Surrealismalive? Surrealism is. Surrealism.”

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Mort Cinder

Héctor Germán Oesterheld
and Alberto Breccia

translated by Erica Mena
Fantagraphics ($29.99)
by John Pistelli

Mort Cinder is the first volume in The Alberto Breccia Library, a projected series that will present the legendary Argentine comics artist’s work to English-speaking audiences. The back cover of the book advertises Breccia as a forerunner of American creators celebrated for their dark and expressionistic styles: “Before Mike Mignola . . . Before Frank Miller . . . There was Breccia.” Originally serialized between 1962 and 1964 in the Argentine magazine Misterix, Mort Cinder combines horror, adventure, science fiction, and history to offer the perfect showcase for Breccia’s visual versatility.

The imposing title character, whose name evokes mortality and destruction, is paradoxically an immortal: he has died and returned again and again through history. The serial begins when this mysterious revenant teams up with English antiquarian Ezra Winston to evade Professor Angus, an evil genius who surgically turns ordinary people into “leaden-eyed men” that carry out his will.

This theme of thralldom carries over into the main action of the book. After they defeat Angus, Winston employs Cinder to help him catalogue antiquities, since the immortal has conveniently experienced all of history firsthand. Over eight episodes, Cinder recounts to Winston the hard times he’s spent on earth: He has been enslaved, imprisoned, or otherwise exploited by everyone from the king who tried to build the Tower of Babel to the twentieth-century American penal system. The serial’s diverse settings—the graveyard where the leaden-eyed men hunt Cinder, the trenches of the Great War, an Atlantic slave-ship, the battle of Thermopylae, and more—display the panoply of drawing styles Breccia commands.

Breccia’s multi-media black-and-white illustrations more than justify their preservation in a quality edition like this one, as opposed to the cheap newsprint on which they first appeared. On a single page, he can go from meticulously rendering Ezra Winston’s artifact-crammed room to violently slashing abstract bursts of light and fear.

In an afterword to this edition, Janis Breckenridge commends Breccia’s use of chiaroscuro to emphasize the story’s oneiric atmosphere and stark morality. She also discloses his inventive procedures—he employed “unorthodox tools (razor blades, toothbrushes, and more), materials (mixing ink with glues and solvents)”—before relaying his daughter’s testimony that the artist “would sometimes draw in a completely dark studio space lit only by candles in order the realistically capture the intense play of light and shadows.”

Despite this volume’s emphasis on Breccia’s Gothic artwork, the writer of Mort Cinder should not go unrecognized. The series was scripted by Héctor Germán Oesterheld, better known for his science-fiction masterpiece The Eternaut, which was published in English by Fantagraphics in 2015. Oesterheld was a life-long man of the political left who was “disappeared” by Argentina’s military dictatorship in 1977.

In the stories he tells to Winston, Cinder weaves his perennial experience of oppression into a global history seen from the viewpoint of the oppressed—a subtext that intimates Oesterheld’s hard-headed but humanistic and universalist political commitments. Oesterheld also bedecks his imaginative narrative with vivid, moving descriptions, well-captured in Erica Mena’s translation, that stress the pathos of humanity’s suffering. Here, for instance, Cinder narrates to Winston his poignant journey to a ruined African village with Wango, whom he helped escape from slavery:

Three days later, we went into the jungle. A jungle full of immense trees, a cathedral. We saw gorillas and made use of the path forged by a herd of elephants. We followed a great river. Days and days on the savannah until we finally arrived. The kraal razed by slave traders and vultures. The hunched sobbing of Wango.

Then Winston takes over the narration for a bittersweet, ironic conclusion to the story of “The Slave Ship”:

Mort fell silent, his gaze lost in another time, another place. From outside, on the street, came voices talking about soccer.

Mort Cinder is, among other things, a tale about how artifacts—the products of human ingenuity and labor—embody the individual and collective human experience we abstract as “history.” Our works testify to the future that we were here, that we suffered, and that we managed to create useful and beautiful things in spite of it all. This sturdy, well-made edition of a comic half a century old by creators who died decades ago takes its place among the enigmatic and enchanting antiquities that have the power to bring the past into the present and make it live again.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

A Declaration of the Rights
of Human Beings

Raoul Vaneigem
Translated by Liz Heron
PM Press ($20)

by George Longenecker

In this second edition of A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings, Raoul Vaneigem expands upon the first edition published seventeen years ago. Best known for his 1967 work The Revolution of Everyday Life, the Belgian author was a member of the Situationist International, and decried what he called passive nihilism, “a world rife with the most atrocious acts of cruelty committed on the greatest range of grounds—religious, ideological, legal, illegal, individual, collective.” His slogans were painted on walls in Paris during the 1968 uprisings.

Not an easy read, Vaneigem’s declaration—which has been updated to include virtual exploitation and the misuse of technology, among other things—is divided into 58 articles, each detailing an essential human right. With essential freedoms under threat in so many parts of the world, this book provides guidance and a framework for basic protections.

Vaneigem contends that free market freedoms usually negate human freedoms, and that “There Are No Rights Already Won, Only Rights Yet to Be Won.” While some might say that constitutional rights already exist in some nations, the author would take it much further; he posits that basic necessities should be produced using renewable, non-polluting resources, and should be free. Until such a system becomes feasible, he believes everyone should be given a “living allowance.”

“All human beings have the right to knowledge,” states Article 4. Of all his premises, this is perhaps the most attainable in the United States and Europe, where public schools (and, in some nations, universities) are free. This was not a given prior to the 20th century, and is not a reality in many nations. Vaneigem believes that no form of education should require any payment.

Few would argue with the author that “All human beings have the right to life.”
However, Vaneigem dodges potential problems when he discusses “the control and regulation of human and animal births.” He imagines a global project which would make the need for such controls obsolete, but fails to propose a specific solution to population growth or to recognize the need for reproductive freedoms. Nonetheless, the basic principal is sound and integral to any social contract.

Article 5 states that “All human beings have the right to happiness.” The U.S. Declaration of Independence suggests the same thing, but the problem is legislating happiness. Still, by enshrining human happiness as a principal and guaranteeing human needs and liberties, governments could go a long way towards eliminating misery.

Vaneigem’s declaration is lengthy, spiritual in places, and some might say impractical—though the same was said of works by Locke, Rousseau, and Marx. At a time when economic disparity is widening, when xenophobia, nationalism, and intolerance are growing worldwide, we need idealists. A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings provides the inspiration for human freedoms that should and can be part of every nation’s constitution and of international law.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Collected Intros and Outros

Michael Chabon
Harper Perennial ($16.99)

by Erin Lewenauer

On the heels of his 2018 book Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, Pulitzer-prize winning author Michael Chabon follows his non-fiction writing trail with Bookends, a series of brief essays, introductions, afterwords, and liner notes about things he holds dear. The core of Chabon’s heart has always revolved around the concept of fandom, and here he honors everything that concept carries with it: its importance, its inherent nostalgia, its death grip.

Fandom, of course, is nurtured in the soil of childhood. Revisiting his own childhood with a fine-toothed comb, Chabon writes,

An entire world of superheroic adventure could be dreamed up by a couple of boys from Columbia, or Cleveland. And the self you knew you contained, the story you knew you had inside you, might find its way like an emblem onto the spot right over your heart. All we needed to do was accept the standing invitation that superhero comics extended to us by means of a towel. It was an invitation to enter into the world of story, to join in the ongoing business of comic books, and, with the knotting of a magical beach towel, to begin to wear what we knew to be hidden inside us.

The author also examines his attraction to D’Aulaire’s Norse Myths (“Loki was the god of the sloppily colored lineaments of my own childish mind, with its competing impulses of vandalism and vision”) and the films of Wes Anderson, which he finds “like the boxes of Cornell, or the novels of Nabokov, understand and demonstrate that the magic of art, which renders beauty out of brokenness, disappointment, failure, decay, even ugliness and violence—is authentic only to the degree that it attempts to conceal neither the bleak facts nor the tricks employed in pulling off the presto chango.” And he analyzes the process behind the writing of his acclaimed second novel (though first to be published), The Mysteries of Pittsburgh:

The truth was that I had come to a rough patch in my understanding of what I wanted my writing to be. I was in a state of confusion. Over the past four years I had been struggling to find a way to accommodate my taste for the fiction I had been reading with the greatest pleasure for the better part of my life—fantasy, horror, crime, and science fiction—to the way that I had come to feel about the English language, which was that it and I seemed to have something going.

While there are many moments that glitter with Chabon’s enveloping, beloved fairy dust, Bookends at times feels like a diluted version of what he says more imaginatively in his fiction. Still, while other artists influence and surround Chabon’s writing—as do his family, his pets, his location, and his upbringing—his own, of-the-moment voice, thankfully, always makes itself heard from above.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Everyone Is Guilty:
An Interview with Rick Harsch

Interviewed by Anne Kniggendorf

Although known as a master of Midwestern noir, Rick Harsch is adamant that his most recent publication is not a crime novel. The author of the acclaimed “Driftless Trilogy,” he recently released his ninth book, Voices After Evelyn (Maintenance Ends Press, $19.95)

The story is firmly planted in the aftermath of a kidnapping in La Crosse, Wisconsin—real-life teenager Evelyn Hartley disappeared on October 24, 1953. Hartley was babysitting when someone broke in through a basement window. Harsch imagines the girl “unversed in panic simulating a scream no louder than the radio” after hearing “a foot slide across the basement’s floor . . . her uncivilized grasp of danger distorted by a cultivated belief that fails to destroy the hope riveting her to her chair as the wolf charges up the stairs in its death rush.”

Harsch taps into that community’s collective feelings and mostly unspoken thoughts about the crime, which is assumed to have been a murder. In his telling, one classmate, Adele, appears to split in two, going by the name Stella for most of that year even as she dives deep into a relationship with Bobby, a man more than fifteen years her senior. As an adult, Adele gains local notoriety for imprisoning a man in her basement. Speaking by phone from his home in Izola, Slovenia, Harsch says these poignant plot-points are unintentional, making the ones that were all the more electric and thought-provoking.

Anne Kniggendorf: What would you say your new book is about?

Rick Harsch: It’s about what people really lived like in the United States in a small river city in the 1950s. And to some degree, about the rippling effect of a generational type of crime, the type of crime that makes people stop and take a look at how things have changed in their town.

AK: What do you mean by “a generational type of crime”?

RH: The kind of shocking crime that happens rarely. But it’s not a true crime novel in the sense that most people who want to read a true crime novel hope it will be. It’s not about solving the crime, it’s about the ways that people react to the crime and the thematic importance of the crime—when the town realizes that they can no longer save their babysitters from their wolves.

AK: I heard that you’re categorizing this book as an oral history. Who did you talk to? How do you think of it as an oral history?

RH: I don’t think of it as an oral history—I think of it as a novel. It’s a novel presented as an oral history, but the voices are all mine. However, I talked to a lot of people—I did a lot of research, and got a lot of stories from people who grew up there. If you look at every single event in the book, from minor things in a coffee shop to major things like the wife who sleeps with whoever shows up first, about half of them are probably literally true. From what I know, all of the bars actually existed. The train station bar, called The Spot, that would deliver the drinks on a toy train? That existed. The Coo Coo Club existed, and it had the air vent in the floor to blow ladies’ dresses up and had the dildo in the bathroom to humiliate women who grabbed it. That’s all true.

AK: Why did you have to tell this story?

RH: The first novel that I published was the fourth one I’ve written. I was really happy because the third one I’d written, which still hasn’t been published, had been finished and came out just how I wanted it, but I was still at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and I had all this time left. So I came up to La Crosse and talked to a friend of mine, a guy I used to drive a taxi with, and he was telling me a bunch of typical taxi stories, and in a couple of months I wrote The Driftless Zone. The stories were just overwhelming, and all these stories were piling up and were all connected. But more specifically, the father of a friend of mine was alive during that time, and we talked about how he went a couple of times on searches for clothing or body parts or whatever—he was a really whacky old guy about the age of [the character] Bobby. So he turned into a character and that’s what did it more than anything. The background, or the environment, was built through all these stories.

AK: So the book was more character-driven than driven by the plot point of the murder?

RH: Yeah, but the murder comes with . . . It’s all like a bad joke. My favorite is the “My car is okay” business. That really happened. I knew a guy, and he’s in there, Gerard—he’s maybe ten years older than me—and he remembered with great pride being taken with his entire family to a gas station, and he said he never forgot how proud he was that they got his sticker. Their car was “okay”—they had nothing to do with the crime, and a gas station attendant proved it. I have no idea what that has to do with character . . . It may be the whole reason why Bobby worked at a gas station, I can’t say for sure. You’ve got to think about what would you do if you were working at a gas station, and they told you, “Check the trunks for blood and any other evidence, and if it’s okay, put this sticker on there.” How would you have felt at the age of 17 or 25, you know?

AK: I don’t know. That’s a weird thing.

RH: I would have been drunk with power. There was that, and then the decision to give every single adolescent of university age male a lie detector test. They really did hire a crazy outside investigator and didn’t fire him until he’d already done a horrible job. There’s a nonfiction book about the case with even more stuff I didn’t know, but a really good book remains to be written.

AK: I can’t help but ask about the structure of the book and your decision to include a chorus. What made you decide that the chorus was necessary?

RH: I think that’s a gut thing—instinct, intestinal. There are so many things that radiate from that crime, and a lot of strange things involved. For one, for a town its size, La Crosse produced two great film directors: Nicholas Ray and Joseph Losey. So there’s one thing, the cinematic connection. Then there’s Ed Gein. You know Ed Gein?

AK: No, I don’t.

RH: Oh, okay. Well, he’s the guy who Psycho was based on; he was Norman Bates. He was from La Crosse, but he lived in Plainfield, Wisconsin when he was caught. I don’t know how many people he killed, but he dug up bodies, and he had a mother issue. He would actually wear his mother’s hair and a dress and dance in the moonlight. Know your mass murderers! Ed Gein was probably one of the first nationally known killers. He used to live in La Crosse and when he was caught, two detectives from the Hartley case were sent to Plainfield to interview him. They were back the same day, so whatever clues they had, they were able to eliminate him immediately. There are still some people in La Crosse who believe that it was him.

Another part of the chorus, this is what this leads to, is that many, many people believe that they know where Evelyn is buried—at Losey Boulevard and Jackson, because it was under construction at the time. Or that Ed Gein did it. In the air in La Crosse there’s a chorus, there are all these beliefs about what happened. Then there’s the imagination, and I think it’s the second chorus that gets at this—envisioning Evelyn from the killer’s point of view, seeing her in the house and watching her. When something like that happens, it’s such a vivid event. A town where, as soon as this happened, people who couldn’t afford drapes put newspapers up. Nobody worried about their windows at the time, and then you have something like this, a very stark, simple visual crime—people imagine what happened. The combination of all these things made me put in a chorus.

AK: In a lot of places you have somebody saying that a disaster is either diverted or forestalled by hope, and so there’s this collective feeling—I don’t know if it’s disbelief, or ignorance, or wishful thinking, or what it is exactly, but what does that choral sense of hope say about this world you’ve created?

RH: I don’t see the hope.

AK: Oh, really?

RH: In my own feel for the book, the hope is in the transgressions of the characters, their freedom.

AK: That they’re continuing to live and do as they please, you mean?

RH: Not all of them, no. They’re going on with their lives, but it’s not as opposed to doing something about crime. It’s not set up that way. For instance, you have the relationship with Bobby and Stella, which is transgressive. There’s hope in that—hope in flaunting, so to speak, the rules, and behaving freely. That’s where I see hope. Also, I guess, in the manic joyful moments that people actually had in the ’50s. We probably have a similar notion of the ’50s—these very powerful images from one or two television shows, the Father Knows Best type of thing, that probably you’ve never seen. Neither have I. It’s the Eisenhower dull ’50s, just as the United States kind of collectively went to sleep and made money off the interest. It actually was a pretty vibrant time with also a great deal of social difficulty. There were still problems with the enormous number of people back from the war and trying to make lives for themselves. The ’50s were a complicated social decade, but you know, in any particular place that you’d go, you’d find people of lesser means having a hell of a time whenever possible, which may be just the way life is anyway.

AK: Part of the transgression business that you’ve mentioned . . . Is there guilt in that? Anybody could be guilty of killing Evelyn, right? And there’s so much guilt over the transgressions as well. Does it feel to you like everybody’s implicated?

RH: On one level, yes; what Steve says on page 70-71 (that “everybody is fucking guilty”) is more or less how I view it. What he’s talking about is how the people of note, the people of power, the people of hand-wringing, the people of conventional thought, don’t question what they’ve done, as we don’t question what we’ve done with civilization. I think what he says is “Why leave the forests if this is the best you can do,” you know, we can’t even protect our babysitters. And so, it’s a criticism of the entire civilizational structure. I’m always interested in how women read the book, because in my mind, it’s a nice stick in the patriarchal eye. But I don’t always get that response. For some—and it doesn’t seem to matter in terms of gender—Stella is the favorite character. In the end however, Stella fails; as a fifteen-year-old, she acts like a high school girl for a moment, gets caught up in the high school fight. Yet that’s the worst she does. Otherwise, she’s rather wise and strong. So is she guilty? She has her one-night stand, and she revels in it, and she has, to my mind, the sanest view of it. Maybe better not to tell Bobby, but Bobby would probably be okay with it anyway. What’s been hurt? Nothing, it’s been a great night. Does she want another night with Louis? Maybe in a couple years. She puts it all in perspective and sees nothing but the beauty in it.

AK: Why is the character Adele only referred to as “Stella” when she’s younger? I know Bobby nicknamed her that . . .

RH: That’s why.

AK: It seems so pointed, as if they’re two different characters. She’s so young . . .

RH: That’s inevitable. She really is two different characters, and mainly because of . . . This would be sort of a book secret, I guess, but to me, she’s the one who embodies the change wrought to the town. She’s the character who’s the most clearly affected by that time period.

AK: Adele is a pretty creepy woman—the business of keeping Larry in the basement. It looks like that has something to do with sort of retroactively taking control of what happened to Evelyn by locking the ghoul in the basement rather than allowing it access to the house like Evelyn’s killer.

RH: That’s nice; I never thought of that.

AK: I also wondered about Stella’s scream. She says she was able to suppress that scream only until Bobby was dead. There’s a lot about the scream in the text. Going back to the idea of generational crime, this seemed like a generational scream, and I wondered what your intention was with that.

RH: I think that’s the kind of thing you’re not supposed to ask writers.

AK: Oh, damn.

RH: To me, if the utter horror of the horrible is going to be expressed by anyone in that book, she seems like the most qualified.

AK: Is it generationally appropriate? Is that what you mean by her being the most qualified—her age and her gender and her proximity to everything?

RH: Yeah that, and that despite her age and her gender she’s the most free, her and Bobby also—they’re comrades in petty crime, but she’s precociously so. And we don’t know what Bobby was like. There’s a hint that he was in the war, but we don’t know what he was like when he was fifteen. But she’s ahead of the game, and she’s the most free, the most transgressive. What happens when the babysitter is taken is that they solve the crime or they don’t, but they never get to the underlying cause of it. That’ll never happen. It is a scream against life and civilization, and she’s got the most right to that.

AK: And by the underlying cause you mean the societal ill?

RH: Yeah, civilizational nonsense. Community makes a great deal of sense. It all makes sense. Two families get together because they can work a little less and earn a little more. That’s the start of it, and it ends up with what we’ve got. It’s horrific on every human level. There are those who, from early on, see or intuit that there’s just something wrong with these rules that we’re given, and violate them just by instinct— but with intellect. That’s why she has the conversations with her friends. That’s why she likes Evelyn, because Evelyn just happens to be someone who let her cheat. Of course, her friends are going to hate everybody on that economic divide. But she says, “Wait a minute, that’s unfair. She was nice; she let me cheat.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019