Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Narrative Ramblings—Philip Roth, Lisa Halliday, and the Invention of Identity

Philip Roth was, I believe, the greatest living American writer of my lifetime. (“Was” because he is no longer living, but I do not believe anyone will take his place in the years I have left to read.). For me, Roth was great because of the corpus of his career—his sustained exploration of American identities and the myriad ways in which he reinvented himself as a writer—as well as extraordinary power of particular books. (In a career that long and varied some are naturally better than others—though all are good.) I read all his books, from Goodbye Columbus to Nemesis, as they came out.  By 1985, Roth had published 10 books, most notably the infamous (and hilarious) Portnoy’s Complaint and a trilogy of books narrated by the character Nathan Zuckerman, who bore certain resemblances to Roth himself. In 1986, The Counterlife appeared--also narrated by Nathan Zuckerman but categorically different from anything had Roth had published before.

The early novels appeared in many ways to be autobiographical. A good number were set in New Jersey, where Roth and his brother grew up, and revolved around a lower middle-class Jewish family with two sons. However, Roth--in many ways and on many occasions--denied that they were autobiographical. Based surely on his life experiences, they were nevertheless novels. His characters, that is, were his creations--not records of real people. Nevertheless, the notion of autobiography vs fiction is complicated in many of Roth's novels because the analogues seem so obvious.  Roth tackled this question in The Counterlife, first published in 1986. In this novel, Roth makes a huge turn: it is the beginning of a set of novels that self-consciously play with questions of identity and fiction, self and narrative.

The Counterlife is primarily about three characters: Nathan Zuckerman, his brother Henry, and his lover/wife Maria. In various parts of the novel, the characters re-enact parts of the plot, with each re-telling leading to a different set of circumstances and a different story. For example, in the beginning of the novel, Nathan tells the story of his brother Henry who had a heart condition. The medicine he was prescribed left him impotent, and because he was engaged in a passionate affair, he decided on risky surgery that, though potentially dangerous, might cure the condition and let him abandon the medicine. The surgery, however, is not a success, and Henry dies. In the next section of the novel, Henry has survived the surgery but has abandoned his family to emigrate to Israel. The story eventually shifts to Nathan who is in love with a woman, Maria, who lives in an apartment above his own apartment.  Now it is Nathan who has the heart condition and is rendered impotent. The novel continues to fluctuate the strands of the plot, placing these three characters in multiple relations to themselves and to one another.

This kind of post-modern meta-fictional stuff is more familiar to us now than it was 30 years ago, and it may be difficult for a new reader to understand just how groundbreaking this novel was (and is). But the power of The Counterlife lies not in its postmodern play, but in the way the meta-fictional structure of the narrative(s) become the ground on which Roth can animate his understanding of the complex relations among experience, identity, the self, narrative and fiction.

At the end of The Counterlife, Maria decides to "leave the book": "No, I won't do it. I will not be locked into your head in this way. I will not participate in this primitive drama, not even for the sake of your fiction." Nathan replies that "All I can tell you with certainty is that I, for one, have no self, and that I am unwilling or unable to perpetuate upon myself the joke of a self. .. . . What I have instead is a variety of impersonations that I can do, and not only of myself--a troupe of players that I have internalized, a permanent company of actors that I can call upon when a self is required, an ever-evolving stock of pieces and parts that form my repertoire. . . . I am a theater and not more than a theater."

If the above paragraph strikes you as needlessly abstract and tiresomely postmodern, I want to emphasize that the passages I have quoted come at the end of a novel in which these ideas have been instantiated in ways that both dizzying and dazzling. The emotional subtleties and ambiguities, the tragic and comic dimensions of life--these the substance of the book. Roth was, within the next several years, to write a trilogy of books narrated by Nathan Zuckerman in which they (meaning both Roth and Zuckerman) put narrative truth to these notions. These three books, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, are all complex attempts by Roth, through Zuckerman, to imagine himself into a completely different person. They are self-consciously narrative recreations of the "biography" of someone completely different from the narrator Zuckerman, and his creator Roth. You do not need to have read The Counterlife to understand these books or to appreciate their achievement. But in The Counterlife, you can see how Roth made the remarkable turn that opened up the major middle part of his career.

I decided to re-read The Counterlife after Roth's death, and in the middle of my reading I found a lengthy (and glowing) NYRB review of a new novel, Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, a book that has an avowed connection to Philip Roth. It is also a book about the attempt to imagine yourself into someone else's life.

Published this year, Asymmetry is the break-out bestselling first novel  by Lisa Halliday.  One, but definitely not the main, reason for its acclaim is that it alludes to an acknowledged relationship between Halliday and Roth, which occurred about 20 years ago when she was an assistant editor and he was a world famous novelist.  (Halliday and Roth remained friends in the subsequent 20 years.)   Asymmetry is divided into three sections.  The first section, set about the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is the (surprisingly charming) story of a young woman named Alice who is an assistant editor and who has a relationship with a world famous novelist named Ezra Blazer.  The second section, set around 2008,  is the first-person account of a young American-Iraqi man named Amar Ala Jafari  who spends about eight hours being  interrogated in immigration security at Heathrow between flights from Los Angeles to Istanbul then Iraq.  The third section, a kind of coda, is the transcript of a radio show (called Dessert Island Discs) popular on BBC4 in the UK recorded in 2011 in which Blazer is interviewed.  

Roth acknowledged to the publisher of Asymmetry that Blazer is a version of him and further acknowledged that for the most part Halliday "got him right."  Halliday makes the parallels between Blazer and Roth so obvious, partly she says, to put the whole "anxiety of influence" thing right up front.  How could she be a writer, Alice asks herself: "hadn't he already said everything she wanted to say?"  But also the avowed connections between Blazer and Roth (similar families, yearly Nobel disappointment) point to just the  kind of ambiguous relations between life and art that were the substance of The Counterlife and that continued to be Roth's concern.  Alice wonders what kind of writer she can be:  "For her part, Alice was starting to consider really rather seriously whether a former choir girl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of be a Muslim man."  The answer appears to be yes, because that is what we get in the second section.

This section, written as first-person account, takes us into the mind of the young Ala Amar Jafari who is being interrogated at Heathrow.  Jafari has both American and Iraqui citizenship.  (He was born over US airspace when his parents immigrated to the U.S.)  Stopped in passport control in London, Jafari must prove his identity--and thus prove that he will not be a danger to the UK during the 36 hours he hoped to spend  with an old friend, before boarding his next flight.  The section is interspersed with tedious interview and Jafari's memories of his life up to this point, particularly the complexities of tangled loyalties to Iraqi and American heritages.

In the last section, Blazer is interviewed for a radio show which asks guests to select which CDs they would take to a desert island.  In the process of the interview, Blazer sheds some, perhaps ambiguous, light on the relation between the first two parts of the novel. Speaking of the current (i.e., up to 2011)  political madness, Blazer muses about the responsibility of the novelist during moments of political "madness:"  "And we wonder: How did this happen? What was I doing when this was in the works?  Anyway, what good will it do, the willful and belated broadening of my imagination?  A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel  about this, in its way  About the extent to which we're able to penetrate the looking glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.  It's a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do its author, but in fact is a kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her presence, her privilege, her naiveté." (That the "young friend's" name  is Alice is not fortuitous.)

Earlier, reading a draft of Ezra's work in progress, Alice  had asked "Who's speaking? Who's telling the story?"  Blazer answers, "What do you mean, the narrator's telling the story.  Finish it first, then we can talk about point of view."  But Alice's question is crucial, because  whoever "tells the story" is an important part of who makes the story.  And in this book, the question of the narrator (and his oft-but-not-always companion, the author) is crucial.  Particularly in Asymmetry--as it was in The Counterlife.

Narratologically speaking, this book is a labyrinth.  The first section is a third-person  narrator but focalized through Alice (that is from Alice's perspective).  The second section is first-person narrator, as is the third.  As Blazer reveals, Alice is the purported (or implied) author of the first two sections, but not the third.  But the first person Blazer in the third section is similar but not identical to the third-person Blazer in the first section (different family details).  Halliday is the implied (and flesh and blood) author of the book Asymmetry (including all  three sections) but she is not the narrator. Whew!  More  postmodern play or a complex rendering of the complicated relation between fiction and art? And behind that, an even more important question: to  what extent can a writer penetrate the looking glass and imagine a life, indeed, a consciousness, that goes some ways to reduce the blind spots in her own?

In his American trilogy, Roth attempted to do this three times.  In the last, The Human Stain, for example, he imagines  an academic (a classics professor) who is Black, but passes as a Jew because he wants to "be his own man" and not be defined by his ethnicity. In Asymmetry, Halliday imagines  a Muslim man.  None of this is autobiography; rather it comes (in some inexplicable ways) out of the experiences and imagination of the author.  In the first section of Asymmetry Alice finds a note Blazer wrote quoting Stephen Crane:  "an artist is nothing but a powerful  memory that can move itself at will  through certain experiences sideways."  The same passage reappears in the second section when Jafari is thinking of his brother.  The asymmetrical relations in Halliday's book are myriad: gender, geography, age, ethnicity and on and on.  Also asymmetrical is the dialectical flux between real-life and fiction, experience and imagination.  


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Yes 70 is a Number, But It's not Just Any Old Number

Yesterday was my birthday
I hung one more year on the line.

Why are those Big 0 birthdays so hard--turning 30, 40, 50 (ah they seem so easy now), 60, and even 70?

I didn't think it would be that hard to actually turn 70.  After all, I had been practicing it for months.  I thought of myself (and sometimes even represented myself) as 70 for several months before it became real.  Nonetheless, it was in many ways a tough realization.  I actually am 70 years old.

For a start, being seventy, I feel I can hardly still claim to be" middle-aged."  But I don't have a good substitute.  I am not going to refer to myself as "old,"or "elderly" or even (that jaunty term), a "senior."

Also, being 70 is a milestone.  I know it's an artificial milestone; on June 15, 2018 I was only one day older than I was on June 14, 2018, when I was still in my "sixties."  I have read Stephen Jay Gould on the arbitariness of dates and calendars.  (He was writing about Y2K and millenial thinking).  Closer to narratolgical home, I believe Frank Kermode when he says that the clock I hear as "tick, tock," is really just going "tick," "tick," "tick," etc.  (Until. of course  the battery wears out.)  So it is more than "just a number" (as one of my doctors tries to assure me).  

There is really nothing to say about turning 70 except that it happened.  And I won't have to worry about that particular angst again (until and if I turn 80).  

So I had the best day I could.  Luckily (in so many ways) I had Tony.

Oh,and though my birthday occured on a wet and chilly day, I did go in swimming  the day before.  First time this summer, and it was cold, but I did it!


Sunday, June 3, 2018

Michigan: Where the Air is Pure, The Trees are the Right Height, and the Floors are Buckled

Just about two weeks ago, about one week before we were set to leave for the lake, the nice man who opens our cottage for us each spring called Tony to tell him "it was the damndest thing."  All our hardwood floor boards had buckled.  Some---like above--were "tented,"  other were "only cupped."  But the whole floor was ruined.

This was not something we had expected.

And no one is quite sure why, as there is no sign of water damage:  the crawl space is dried, the boards are not stained and what we can see under the boards seems dry.

Here is our surprise:

Since then, someone has come in and loosened and removed some boards so we can walk without having to climb over the floor.  We have also become quite knowledgeable about flooring---especially in small homes that are left unheated in very cold climates.  Like ours.

I would feel somewhat better about this if we could identify the source of the problem.  But hey, that's the breaks I guess. 

In the meantime, we are going to install something called "luxury vinyl planks" that look (sort of) like wood.  Cheaper, water resistant, comes with a  warranty etc.  But it has really re-shaped our summer.  (Not just an unexpected expense but also not really feeling settled in.)  We are about to sign a contract and are hoping July we will be back to some version of normal.  (Just not with our beautiful maple floor). 

So I will put this one down to the vagaries of owning a summer  property for  anyone who might be contemplating a northern lakeside cottage!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Philip Roth (1933-2018)

Philip Roth died today.  It is incredibly sad to think  I will never read another of his books.  Philip Roth was the novelist of my lifetime.  I read everything he wrote, as it came out--from Goodbye Columbus to Nemesis.  I was glad to have read then all, but of course I had favorites:  Portnoy's Complaint, The Ghost Writer, The  Counterlife, Deception, Operation  Shylock, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Dying Animal, The Plot Against America--acually I loved each of  his books in a different way.

Philip Roth wrote books that were based in  his  life, but they were not autobiographies.  This is something I think  a lot of his readers misssed.  He was able to create characters and inhabit them.  The most beautiful example of this is the trilogy, American Pastoral, I Married a Ghost, and The Human Stain.  In each one he imagined himself into a completely different American identity: three ways of being an American in the twentieth century.

One of Roth's late novels borrows Yeats's phrase the "dying animal."  Like Yeats, Roth continued to both write and grow as a writer throughout his life.  There is early Roth, middle Roth, and late Roth (as is true for Yeats--or even Shakespeare).  They are connected but different, and  it was exciting to follow him as he found new ways to make a novel. 

Roth was, to my mind, the greatest living  American writer.  I don't know who I will take his place.


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Not Much Happening Here

May is a "between" month.  The beginning is Louisville  and the end is the Lake.   

I feel kind of in limbo, and am hoping that the lake will fix it.  Most of my Louisville friends are elsewhere.  Graduation is over and my last doctoral student was beautifully hooded.  Medical six-monthly appointments are almost done.  Waiting for spring.  ETC.

I have finally gotten back to work on  my book.  The picture above is the little nook I set up in the kitchen because my hamstring is still keeping me from sitting for long periods.  I have finally (FINALLY) almost finished the chapter on Art Nouveau.  I'm not really happy with it because it feels more like a "list" of various architects and their work,   than a coherent discussion.  But I decided to plow through and  get it done, so I can put it away and move forward.  The next chapter should be much easier to write.  It's the pivotal chapter on Odon Lechner, who is the reason I got interested in all this in the first place. 

But a week today we leave for Lake Medora, and time becomes organized in much more meaningful ways.  The ice is off the lake and the trees are starting  to get green.  Another spring to look  forward to. 

Monday, April 23, 2018

Did Magda Szabo Visit Katalin Street? A Fortepan Essay

Vizivarosi Budapest, 1953/  Photo Credit:  Fortepan:Poto:Nagy Gyula.  

Fortepan is an online archive of Hungarian pictures taken by amateurs in the twentieth century.  All phographs are licensed by a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0 License.  The archive houses an extraordinary collection of pictures of ordinary life in Hungary and is searchable in many ways.  The picture above, for example, taken from Pest, is of Vizivaros (Water Town), which is the area below the Castle on the Danube in Buda.  It is also the general area in which Katalin Street is located.

Occasionally Fortepan publishes a photo-essay on a particular topic.  Last year, they published a beautiful piece on Magda Szabo entitled Járt-e Szabó Magda a Katalin utcában?  (Roughly, "Did Magda Szabo Go to Katalin Street?)  The piece was edited by Kiss Eszter and Barakony Szabolcs (Images) and was based on research by Buda Atilla

I put the page through Google Translate.  Google Translate is a wonderful tool, especially for people who  don't read Hungarian.  But of course, it has limitations.  I tried  to smooth out some of the places where it garbled, mainly by putting various words and combinations of words through Gooogle Translate again to get a different  context.  What follows is my loose translation, using  Google.  Sometimes, the meaning was clear.  Sometimes it could be relatively easily recovered.  And sometimes, I had to give up and cut.  My thanks to  the authors of this beautiful photo-essay.  My apologies for any mistakes my clumsy mechanics made.  And of course, all errors and typos are my own.

Note:  the passage from Katalin Street quoted at the end comes from the Len Rix translation.

Did Magda Szabo Visit Katalin Street?

One hundred years ago, on October 5, 1917, Magda Szabó was born [in Debrecan Hungary]. In the Fortepan archive we looked for pictures of the life of the author and the characters she created.  We have paired personal recollections, leaflets and novels with real and fictive sites. We looked at what the city was like when Magda Szabó was a child; how Budapest recovered from the blood and ruins [of World War II}; where she found a home, work and love; and how Budapest appeared in her writings. Some pictures were easy to identify, despite the changes in the name of the writer: others evoke the mood of the times.  Twelve images in the footsteps of reality and the creation of the writer.  


Magda Szabó first visited Budapest  in 1933 [with fellow students from Debrecan].  "When I left the train with the girls, I thought I was choking. I was overwhelmed by the traffic” she later said.  “I really discovered the city as a college student. . . .  I was traveling with a map, a guidebook, as if I were abroad. . . .  I went down the Flórián square under the rocks to see the Roman bath. I went through the museums. I searched for golden oaks on Margit Island and I sat down to write poems. [...] I once brought flowers to Petőfi Sándor street, put them under the memorial plaque and ran away. . . .   The poet Kosztolányi was  dying. . .I sat in the unfamiliar city in the garden of an unknown hospital on a bench, trying to make up my mind to go inside. . . .   I wanted to be there near the poet, at least once.”

Fotó: Fortepan / FORTEPAN

Szabo’s arrival in Budapest re-appears in many of her works.  In the book Katalin Street, the six-year-old Henriette Held moves with her parents to the never-before-seen capital, and the bridges and the unknown noises cause her anxiety, just as they did for Szabo.  The novel’s description of Katalin Street recalls the area around Vízivárosi [the area in Buda below the Castle walls]—Fo utca, Corvin and Szena ter, although it adds fictional details to the original. There was a church on the street, a sculpture in front of it, an old Turkish hollow near it, and . . .  the river flowed behind the bank of the Danube. The facade of the rusty, quaint houses looked out into the street, and the gardens full of flowers and wildlife faced in the direction of the Castle. Here lived side by side the Helds, the Elekes and the Biro family.


Magda Szabó moved from Debrecen to Budapest in the spring of 1945 after the Second World War, that "she might be really a writer now." "For us. . .  liberation was the most wonderful experience. I once wrote that the sun never burned like then, and the blue color was never so blue in the sky and the river never ran so fast. It was indescribable. . . .  In my bag were bread and bacon, poems and faded plays. . .. .  They disappeared at the railway station.’’  ‘Young Lady Cromwell’  [Puritan Debrecan was known as Protestant Rome] lived in my personality—strict, humorless (because she could not forget her dead) and was determined to do so.”  

(Fotó: Fortepan / FORTEPAN)

The new life began on the ruins, and it was an exciting and strange time for Katalin Csandy, the protagonist of Danaida. The school girl’s memories of the countryside collide with the post-war reality around the Nyugati [Western] Railway Station while she looks for a new home in Podmaniczky Street. "Katalin did not know Budapest well enough. . .  and although she did not have to leave the station, she was still frightened. The little she saw of the ill-lit city did not resemble the place she remembered: her school had once brought up students fot an excursion, and they all had fallen silent at the lights when they came to the student hostel.  Her abandoned birthplace was more solid and it was clear in post-War Pest that the damage done at home could not be compared with what Pest had suffered. In the middle of the street next to the railway station a kilometer long, multi-meter high pile of debris had been dumped, with a red train on its side, in which the ruin and scraps were frozen in the evening [...] This image remained in the post-siege of Budapest forever: people standing on top of a pile, with heavy radiation over them, and scraping debris around the clock in a crude little red-and-white fitting day and night. "


Hold utca 16 was Magda Szabo's first home in Budapest where she lived with two girls in a co-lease. She enjoyed the freedom. "No one here told  me when I could use the  bathroom, and I could buy books from my own job." But for a long time the city remained alien to her: "I lived in a barren, unheated apartment, I was in a ruinous building, the world was unknown and brittle. [...] But, of course, youth always triumphs on the ruins, spiritually, and in deed."   She lived here until 1948 and then moved to the flat of the elegant, educated and one-time womanizer Tibor Szobotka. Magda Szabó was not too communicative.  "It was so secret that my co-owner and partner,Gizike, did not know, until the driver arrived . . . and said  'Miss Szabo is asking for two suitcases and saying that she probably will not sleep at home because she married this morning.' Eyewitnesses said the response was enormous. [...] Do not say that I do not have the feeling that my privacy is really privacy."

Fotó: Fortepan / Budapest Főváros Levéltára. Levéltári jelzet: HU_BFL_XV_19_c_11 / FORTEPAN

An espresso café near Hold utca was Szabó and Szobotka's favorite venue, "big fish were painted on its walls, in a sea-green with green lighting; we named the place the Fish." The café was later a wedding hall and the square was called Ságvári Chapel (today the square of the Vértanúk). Although the Protestant Cromwell girl from Debrecan felt she was on dangerous ground, she was always there at the appointed time. She was scared and angry, as the room of the "the blond, blue-eyed, young Basti type”  was full of lovers and he forgot his writing.  He had asked for her hand saying "Do not be afraid. . . .  You do not tolerate a rival, no memory, no shadow, no dream, no reparation instead of losing anyone, or continuing. You're a pretty demanding girl, but you get it. You are neither reparation nor continuation, you are life.” 


The mysterious wedding took  place on On June 5, 1948.  Magda Szabó's witness was László Bóka, Szobotká's Devecseri Gábor. Gizike knew nothing, but Ágnes received a detailed account. The day started as usual  "I came into the office at eight, I went home at eleven o'clock, I came back and worked at twelve. Then the Boss came out and told us to go to the Yugoslavian reception. My colleagues did not even look at me.  The dress was special:  Agnes, it was wonderful !!!!  Dark blue balloon cloth, white hat, skirt almost to the ankle, full-bodied, curly, huge white blouse, red nylon bag, red sandals, high red antelope gloves. "


The couple lived for 12 years in  Szobotka's apartment—a difficult time.  It was only because of accuracy and a system that Szobotka’s lovers avoided each other in the   stairwell of the flat in the square of Veszprém. After the request, only Magda was left. "That's when we lunch at Gundel that day," she said, "not to deny it now. The women have disappeared, the past has come to an end, everything that has ever been, vanished, destroyed, I am the only one.  But then I will be hurting us both, every minute.  I listened and listened, to   myself (my genes), the Puritan Szobotka, the wail of my own, and I was tempted to lie in a bed where half Budapest was a guest, but I knew this sentence was a test now: now it measures me to blame my own law for the sake of our love and now we measure how much I like it. 'Pay the check,' I said. - Let's go home.' At Attila utca, where we lived later for twelve years, I went to the bathroom to undress. I found a blue robe, his belt, I pulled it up, and the whirlwind that caught him did not look like any of the memories of my life. Perhaps I felt something like that when I was born out of my mother's body when I started to live."


After receiving the Baumgarten Prize, which was revoked a few hours later, and after being kicking out of the ministry in 1950 and the district school in Szinyei Merse Street, Szabo faced the problems of the Rakosi era.  Daily, she taught the children of Jews who  had been deported or relocated.  Home visits became social work. Sometimes she did not find anybody except the housekeeper at home and told her that "the little boy who had woken up at night  had slipped down the staircase calling, Aunt Magdi, tell Aunt Magdi.’ Or in another house, a child said 'you can’t let her in, because she still has a client, they have not done yet.'". 


Kerulet [city sectiton] VI. after Kerulet VIII, the new school, and the neighborhood proved to be a great thing. "My youth novels, as I have been teaching for a long time at the Horváth Mihály Square, and I have been walking around the square for so many years and in almost every house, almost always quoting the eighth district [but] without any stories related to my pupils themselves.”  She taught at school in 1956 and thereafter. "Our school was close to the Kilian barracks, many of our children lived in the area, the school was getting mined, our students died, and the disadvantaged parents just left home," she said later in an nterview. After  the appearance of [her first novel] Fresco in 1958, the air cooled at the school and colleagues were afraid they would be written about. The children did not welcome Aunt Magda's writerly ambitions. "When  Fresco appeared, I was known as a Teacher Szobotka in the School, but the parents soon realized  who I was and sent me copies of Fresco to sign.  I did not really want this book for eleven-twelve-year-old girls, so everytime I gave back a signed book, I added ‘kids, do not read it.’  I had a pupil, a good, smart little boy, Erika Bazsó, who was blood-red, dancing around in anger, and crying, 'Is not  aunt Magda ashamed of writing a book that her own class can not read?'  I was the head of the classrom, I laughed at myself, there was some justice in what the kid said.  Of course, this is not the only reason I started work elsewhere.  It was also because of Móra Kiadó and Éva Janikovszky who wanted me to write about what I see in my civil work.”


  At the corner of Tavasmezo and Koszoru, there is an overturn in the Danaida novel, though Magda Szabó changed the streets of the area in the novel.  The already mentioned Katalin Csándy moves from Podmaniczy Street to Józsefváros. "She always liked Mak Street [...]. In this part [of the city] it was still clear that the capital was formed by the mingling of separate small spaces [and] that this district was a miniature country town sometime and then part of a giant body. She liked the old mill in Mák Street, which had recently made into baths, but she felt as if ghosts had rented the machines and were still grinding every night, as in a fairy-tale.  She also like Kozorut Kozt, where Gypsies lived.  At the corner of Pest Street and Kozorut, there was a figure of Christ, which in 1953, no one had reguilded or repainted:  he was the same as himself, but still was honored by a few flowers or candles, sometimes with a single little wreath. Here, the sweeper was worked in vain, it was always drenched, noise, bustle, and even smokers in the garden in summer, forgotten old plots with lots of flowers; he took the fresh bunches of flowers to sell to at the trolley stop of the great street in the formerly independent city."


Although Magda Szabó "has learned to live in a world capital," she has remained a country girl, a fan of the Hajdúság, Csongrád and Békés regions. She was always relieved to go to the countryside: Pest lacked the Debrecen dust under her teeth, the whirling whirlwind around the Great Church. When they left Tibor’s apartment, they chose one on Júlia Street because it reminded them of Debrecen—especially the statue of Csokonai.  Szabo said that when she had to describe the skies in her books, she imagined the heaven above the small streets of Hódmezővásárhely, or what she had seen from their home in Füvészkert street in Debrecen. At the same time, her youth novels, such as Danaida are said to be located in [Budapest] Józsefváros--the Horváth Mihály Square area. And how important was that after all?  Szabo wrote in Katalin Street, that time “so firmly rounded off and parceled up in youth” becomes “ripped apart” by “advancing age. . . . For the inhabitants of Katlin Street, “Time had shrunk to specific moments, important events to single episodes, familiar places to the mere backdrop of individual scenes, so that, in the end, they understood that of everything that had made up their lives thus far only one or two places, and a handful of moments, really mattered,  Everything else was just so much wadding around their fragile existences, wood shavings stuffed into a  trunk to protect the contents on the long  journey to come."


Monday, March 26, 2018

Adventures in Reading! A Reading in Retirement Blogpost

This blog post chronicles my reading from the time I left for Budapest til today. It illustrates how different reading in retirement is for me.  I do a lot more meandering and read a wider variety of books.  Part of this is because I was travelling for a little over half the time.  But more about this later.

When I go to Budapest I read from my Kindle rather than take books with me.  But I always bring a book to read on the plane and to leave at Apartment Andrei.  This year it was Nicole Krauss's Great House, a book I had heard a lot about but never read.  It is very, very good--complex and enjoyable.  But it isn't, to my mind, great.  (Tony tells me that my most common response to a book is "good but not great."  Oh well.)  I think my unwillingness  to see it as "great" is partly because I had heard such amazing things about it.  So maybe I was just expecting too much.  But it punches a lot of my buttons:  back and  forth in history; finding stories about the past, in this case built around the object--a desk that has passed through many generations.

After I finished Krauss I was down to my Kindle. My Kindle has a LOT of books on it, more  than  I will ever read.  Mostly this is because I subscribe to a daily email from Amazon called Kindle Daily Deals, which has 5 or 6 books on sale that day for usually about $1.99.  I don't buy anything  unless it sounds like something I might actually read, but I am willing to take more chances when it's just $1.99.  I do put the books in categories--Fiction, Nonfiction, Mystery.  But as new books  arrive,  old books sink further down and I forget why I was  interested in them in the first place.  Thus I have a tendency to read from the top, which is what I did in Budapest.

I started with a novel by Igor Stryker called The Judgment  of Richard Richter.  Here is the blurb from Amazon (I've already forgotten what it was about): "In this gripping, war-torn epic novel, author Igor Stiks. . . tells the story of a celebrated writer who travels to Sarajevo to unearth devastating family secretes and the lies that have defined his life."  Well you can  see why I was drawn.  It was unmemorable, though it's kind of coming back to me a as I write this.

Deciding I needed to start down a new path, I next read Mark Mazower's What You Did Not Tell.  I was really surprised that this one came up on Kindle Daily Deal, as it is quite new and by a very distinguished historian.  In fact, I had been talking  about this very book with D. a  good friend who is an intellectual historian just a couple  of weeks before I left for Hungary.  Mazower, who is a historian of 20th century Europe, here tries to find out the history of his family, starting with his grandfather who was famously silent about himself and his past.  All  Mazower knows when he begins is that his grandfather was a member of the Bundt (a Yiddish socialist society) at the turn of the nineteenth century in Russia and Poland before he moved to London.  I am not going to summarize what he found.  All  I will say that it is amazing what a trained historian who has access to Russian archives can find  out.  No big family secrets: but a lot of detail about people Mazower never knew existed and Mazower's gift at evoking narrative desire.

Just as I was finishing What You Did Not Tell, this book popped up on Kindle Daily Deals:  Forgotten Fatherland:  The True Story of Nietzsche's Sister and Her Lost Aryan Colony by Ben Mcintire.  I am not entirely sure why I thought this was the book I really wanted to read, except that it was quirky.  The gist of it is that Mcintire learns that Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth, and her husband founded an Aryan colony in Paraguay and decides he wants to see what is left.  The book is in three intermingled parts:  Mcintire's complicated journey into Paraguay to try to find any survivors or families of the original colony, a brief resume of Nietzsche's life and thought, and the story of Elisabeth's taking over of her brother's archives after his death and making him into a Nazi philosopher.  (For which Hitler himself paid her visits and compliments.)  It was short and well written enough to be able to say at the end, "Well I didn't know that happened."

Okay a quick glide into a Gone-Girl-wannabe on Kindle for the plane ride home and then back to real reading.  Once in Louisville, I had actual books to deal with again.  On  the top of the pile was a book my friend D.had liked and had loaned me:  Exact Thinking  in Demented Times:  The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science by Karl Sigmund.  This was a difficult book to read.  Not emotionally difficult or badly written difficult.  Difficult because it is about a difficult and intellectually complex subject.  It is written around the people who  formed the Vienna Circle, some of whom I had heard of, most of  whom I had not.  These people dealt with very abstract topics, particularly the relation between logic and science. The book chronicles the quest for and eventual turning away from  logical positivism.  I probably understood one tenth of it, but I was compelled to read it because Sigmund actually makes you want to know what happened next.

After that I really needed a novel.  My friend S. and  I have lunch together regularly and talk about a book we have both agreed to read.  The book that came next was The Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel by Milorad Pavic. It's a fictional collection of three dictionaries (or fragments of dictionaries) that purportedly are three accounts of an episode in which the Khazars (a real though not much known about tribe) decided whether to become Christian, Muslim, or Jewish.  Each "dictionary" is assembled by a scholar of the same religion.  It's a blend of real people  and events and something like fantasy or magical realism.  Of course, like everything, it would probably be better if you could identify the real people or events and had some sense of what was at stake, either at the time or when the novel was first written (1984 in Serbian).  Yes, it was a novel.  But alas, it pretty much lacked a narrative.

At the same time I was reading a book on my Kindle (as I always do at night after Tony goes to sleep) ,this  time The  Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl:  How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis by Arthur Allen.  Weigl was the scientist who first identified and manufactured vaccine for typhus.  The other scientist was Ludwig Fleck (who is also known as a philosopher  of science, and who was a kind of predecessor to Thomas Kuhn,)  Typhus was one of the main causes of death during World War II and was associated with Jews who (because they lived in the unsanitary conditions in which typhus flourished and thus suffered disproportionately) were seen as "carriers."  The person who could best manufacture the vaccine was Fleck, who--unfortunately for the Nazis--was Jewish.  He was too valuable to kill, so they moved his laboratory into Auschwitz.  The lab flourished and the workers were safe, but the vaccine was painstakingly slow to produce.  By various means and with the unacknowledged connivance oh his Nazi superior, Fleck was able to feed the SS fake vaccine and smuggle  the potent vaccine to people  in the camps.  This was actually quite an interesting book and definitely had some narrative drive.

Nevertheless, it was with a sense of relief that I dove into the next book on my list, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, which is a novel  for sure.  Lots of plot(s), interesting characters, stylistically smooth.  Ah fiction!  And so I am, at least temporarily, turning away from reading adventures and back  to reading pleasures.  Novels galore!

Now a quick swerve back to Reading in Retirement.  I am much freer with what I read now than  when I worked.  Partly, of course, it's because of time.  But also I used to read novels for pleasure and research for work.  Part of research was the work I produced myself, for example rhetorical analyses of works by scientists, in my case mainly biologists who worked in some part of evolutionary theory.  So I needed to read the scientists' texts (primary research), other biological texts around the issue at hand, rhetorical theory to scaffold my analysis, etc.  I also read for teaching--again research and theory.  Sometimes I taught a literature course and  I would read novels.  But reading a novel in order to teach it is quite different from reading it for itself alone.

Having no need  to read research and theory in  my areas and having no compulsion to read it anymore, I have put that entirely aside.  But I still need not only novels (first, best love) but also other kinds of texts.  If I could stay in  Louisville for an extended period of time,  I would audit a class.  That would give my reading structure and focus.  Lacking that,  I tend to wander.  But wandering is also fun and leads to surprising discoveries.  The Bundt.  The origin of the Nile.  Bog people.  Jedwabne Poland.  These are some of the surprising byways my reading has taken me on.

This blog post has turned out to be a kind of Big Summer Book Rerport--though it's not summer, and because I am retired I can read this way any time if I want to!    



Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Home: A Narrative of Retirement Blog Post

We got home two weeks ago today.  Being at home in retirement presents very different challenges than travelling in retirement.  I will return to this statement  later in the post.

Two weeks ago we flew back from Budapest.  We were--wait for it--exhausted.  We had to get up early, make two connections (in Munich and Washington).  Everything went fine til we got to Washington and had to wait about five hours for a late connection to Louisville.  For me, flying west is always harder than flying east.  Going east, you can arrive in the afternoon, take a nap, have dinner, stay up til a reasonable  time and reset your body schedule.  Flying west, it is daytime all along and when you finally get home you crash into bed and get uup way too early.  And alongside jet lag comes the whole kit and kaboodle involved in returning home.

My retirement year is divided into three parts.  One part is travel.  Last year it was Budapest and Spain; this year Budapest and we hope the Baltic states.  Travel is exhilirating, if exhausting, and there's not much question of how  to spend your days.  You're travelling!  The second  part is the lake.  No problems there either.  The days have a rhythm:  walk with Cindy and the dogs, swim once it gets warm enough, work on my book, read, spend  time with friends, etc.  But Louisville is still a problem.  I just don't know how to shape my days here.  I do walk  and spend  time  (coffee, lunch ) with friends (but not regularly).  I do read and I WILL resume work on my book.  But my life feels kind of shapeless.  For example, here are my first two weeks in Louisville.

Susan and I went for a "looking for signs of spring" nature  walk in Bernheim Forest, a beautiful arboretum outside Louisville.  We have had a fairly cold  March, so there were precious few harbingers of spring.  Some interesting items, like a tree fungus, water drops on a spider web, and some geese.

Still it was a lot of fun to go out with Susan on a nature walk.  

Tony and  I saw two movies, neither of which we liked.   The Shape of Water.  Yes, we hated  it.  Pretentious, slow, basically boring.  (We are obviously in the minority here, as it won  the Oscar for best picture.)  Then yesterday Red Sparrow, which we  knew wouldn't be good (reviews stank) but it was filmed entirely in Budapaest, so we thought it would be fun to see the city on the screen.  Looking out for places we recognized was the best (actually only good) part of the movie.  This is how stupid.  English speaking actors spoke English with Russian accents even when  speaking with each other (presumably in Russian).  Logically, they should have spoken Russian with subtitles or spoken regular English.  It made no sense (as did the plot as well).  Also the whole movie was shot in Budapest, even the parts that were meant to be in Russia.  So if you have ever been to Budapest and visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Hero Square (a very recognizable site) you will know  this is not the theater (it's not even a theater) for the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.  Similarly, if you have ever been inside the Budapest Opera House you will know you are not in Russia.

Okay, moving along.  Other notable highlights. 

We bought a new mattress.  

We finished watching A French Village, the 7 season French TV series about a fictional village in Vichy France between 1940 and 1945 (with glimpses into the further future).  By the way, this is a great series: morally complex in so many ways and utterly compelling.  

I reconnected via email with my college roommate with whom  I had lost touch many years ago.  Writing and back and forth to her has been one of the real pleasures of returning home.  

I read the last chapter of my last graduate student's dissertation and will in May hood my last doctoral student.  This is especialy bittersweet.  

The above paragraphs offer a list of things  I am doing. (And it doesn't even  include the vast amounts of time I spend reading magazines and  watching MSNBC)  But that list doesn't really cohere into  a  story--a narrative. In truth, I  still  haven't figured out how to be retired in Louisville.  That's not to say that  I don't like living in Louisville.  I enjoy our condo, the movies, going out to eat, seeing more of Susan and other friends.  But I don't wake up each day with any real sense of what I want to get done.  Louisville is still the filler between travelling and the lake.  

The picture at the top of this post is from my window right after we got home.  The park is very bare.  But here is the picture  from oday.

The trees are starting to bud.  Spring is on its way.  We're having Passover with Doug and  Susan.   Next month Tony's sister Mags and her husband Ken are coming to Louisville.  Flowers will be blooming.  And we're only about two and a half months from leaving for Michigan!


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What Do You Do When It's Cold and Snowy Outside? Go Have Lunch at Menza!

Menza is a great restaurant in Franz Liszt ter right off Andrassy.  (It's the bottom floor of an Emil Vidor building.)  Menza means "canteen" in Russian and was the name of places workers ate under Communism.  The restaurant is decorated in 1970-ish colors and decor, but its food is very much of the here and now.  

Here we are on our almost last day in  Budapest.  It's really cold and snowing.  What do we do?  We go out to lunch!

 Here we eat delicious duck tortellini  in truffle sauce.

We drink a nice bottle of Hungarian white wine.

And we once again bravely tackle the fried "cottage cheese" doughnuts with sour cream and blueberry marmelade.  

Flying home tomorrow.