2011/12/21

Chase Whiteside: Has the Occupy Movement Passed?

Chase Whiteside: Has the Occupy Movement Passed?

Another terrific video by Chase Whiteside. We haven't seen anything like this in the US for some 40 years, when the antiwar and civil rights mobilizations joined forces. And simultaneously, other mass movements are rolling forward even in China and Russia (and Spain and Greece and Portugal ..., not to mention everything that's happening in North Africa and Western Asia).
Chase Whiteside: Has the Occupy Movement Passed?



2011/12/05

How to change the world

How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and MarxismHow to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism by Eric J. Hobsbawm

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Marx is back. Even finance capitalists like George Soros are re-reading him with attention, and — more tentatively, after the terrible experience of Stalinism — leftists are rediscovering him. Hobsbawm notes two main reasons: 1st, the collapse of the Soviet Union "liberated Marx from public identification with Leninism in theory and with Leninist regimes in practice," and 2d, "the globalised capitalist world that emerged in the 1990s was in crucial ways uncannily like the world anticipated by Marx in the Communist Manifesto." Hobsbawm himself has been liberated from identification with Leninist regimes (though long active in the British Communist Party, he became increasing critical of Soviet practices beginning in the 1960s).

In this collection of essays, one written as long ago as 1957 and others published here for the first time, he stresses the "enormous force" of Marx's thought "as an economic thinker, as a historical thinker and analyst, and as the recognised founding father (with Durkheim and Max Weber) of modern thinking about society." But he also points out that Marx never completed his magnum opus, Capital — volumes 2 and 3 were put together by Engels from Marx's notes after Marx's death in 1883 — and left many important issues unresolved. No theory of literature or other arts, though he and Engels were obviously interested and commented on these in their correspondence. Engels' anthropological theorizing, based mainly on the flawed research of Lewis Morgan, doesn't hold up today, though we can still learn something from the questions Engels posed if not his answers.

But the lack most seriously felt by later Marxists has been a theory of politics, despite what Hobsbawm calls (correctly, I think) many "brilliant" political insights in Marx's journalistic writings, especially "The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon" and the pieces gathered by Engels under the title "Civil War in France". How exactly were revolutionaries supposed to make the revolution? And how would the new socialist or communist society be organized? Marx and Engels chose not to say. Lenin, a great pragmatist more than a theoretician, made up theoretical positions on the fly as he tried to solve one problem after another. But according to Hobsbawm it was Antonio Gramsci who "pioneered a Marxist theory of politics." Gramsci was not only the founder of the Italian Communist Party but also a rare intellectual who knew both the rural (Sardinia) and urban industrial (Turin) proletariat. Hobsbawm's two essays on Gramsci will not only remind you of his brilliance and originality, they will no doubt make you want to reread the Prison Notebooks.

Now as then (in the 1880s or 1930s or 1960s) if we are looking for answers for our current economic crisis, we're going to have to make them up ourselves — but Marx and Engels, Gramsci and others can help us formulate the questions we should be asking. And this book by Hobsbawm should help us understand those thinkers.



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2011/12/04

The longest dynasty

Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman EmpireOsman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire by Caroline Finkel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Covers the entire Ottoman dynasty from the original Osman (14th century) to the last sultan (exiled in 1922). Focus is narrowly on the reigns of all of them, some brilliant (Mehmet the Conqueror, Suleyman the Magnificent), others bumbling and at least one of them mad. Probably because a full accounting of all the intrigues involving the sultans requires so much space, Finkel offers only scant contextual information, for example on how the society and the many cultures gathered into the Ottoman empire were evolving (Anatolian Muslims, Balkan Christians and Muslims, Greek and Armenian Christians, Kurdish Muslims, Arabs and others in Syria, Egypt, etc.). This makes the book dense with data that seem disconnected and hard to follow — for example we read that a certain Sheikislam (highest religious authority) or upstart Janissary officer conspired in a certain way, but what drove that action and what did it mean to others (besides the sultan) in that time? Reading it straight through is probably not the best approach; it will be an invaluable reference source for anyone investigating particular aspects or episodes in this very long history.



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2011/11/22

Honoring the Enemy, A Lesson From Gallipoli

Thanks to our friend César Chelala for this article from his series International Perspectives with Dr. Cesar Chelala in Epoch Times.

Honoring the Enemy, A Lesson From Gallipoli | Viewpoints | Opinion | Epoch Times

As César points out, there are many lessons from Gallipoli, for all the countries involved. Also several films and books, memorials and cemeteries, and political careers destroyed or enhanced. This history, and the magnanimous gesture recounted by César Chelala, go far to explain the reverence for Mustafa Kemal in modern Turkey.

Our anonymous friends at Wikipedia offer a detailed and thoroughly researched article which lists films, books, etc. Gallipoli Campaign

Map is if from the Gallipoli Guide — Anzac Day for New Zealanders, which offers a virtual tour of the peninsula.

2011/11/21

Why the 1% Love "Anarchist Violence"

A good friend just sent me this article by Steve Weissman, which roused memories and emotions or not-so-long-ago.

Why the 1% Love "Anarchist Violence"

Astute analysis. It makes me think back on my own experience, which was different because my theater of operations then was the Chicago area.

There our movement started out on the campuses — I had founded an SDS chapter at Northwestern by bringing together three or four separate single-issue clubs already recognized —but reached out to link to community groups, especially (in Evanston IL and Chicago) black, mostly church-based organizations. They got us to contribute to demanding better housing and better schools by sit-ins, marches and heavy leafletting, and we helped them make their constituents more aware and more angry about the toll theirs sons were paying in the US's futile and odious Indochina war. Such days. We, or some of us, also made contact with young labor activists. These were workers and mostly union members from those other ethnic communities — Polish, Italian, Ukrainian, Czech, even some Irish — some of whom were discovering Marxism-Leninism through the small, short-lived W.E.B. DuBois Club, where I came into contact with them.

It was during the Democratic Party Convention of 1968 that for the first time in the most dramatic ways we did face the issue of provocateur violence. And especially the absurd plots that the police attributed to the Chicago Seven and the even more absurd (and much funnier) fantasies that the Yippies invented in reply.

We continued to draw on students from many Chicago-area campuses, but the twin issues of racial and ethnic discrimination and the Vietnam war brought us together with young labor activists and then, increasingly, other non-student youth from the several ethnic communities (Appalachian whites in the "Young Patriots", Puerto Ricans in the "Young Lords", Mexicans in a couple of separate "Raza" groups) systematically and intelligently politicized by the Black Panthers, under the very capable leadership of Fred Hampton.

The Panthers made a display of self-defense, but that was mostly a pose; the real violence always came from the police. They assassinated Fred in his bed shortly before Christmas 1969, but he had established a strong enough base that the movement survived and gathered new support — since the murder had been so blatant. (For much more on this, including video clips of Hampton showing why he was such an effective leader and thus such a threat to the likes of Atty. Gen. John Mitchell, FBI chief Herbert Hoover and Nixon, see this 2009 broadcast The Assassination of Fred Hampton on Democracy Now.) The day Fred's lieutenant Bobby Rush sought and received refuge in the church of Jesse Jackson, icon of ML King's non-violent movement, marked a major breakthrough for all of us, a joining of hands of dissheveled young radicals and well-groomed, church-attending family folk who just weren''t going to take it any more.

In sum, what I've taken from all those experiences is that nonviolence must be the preferred strategy — as it was for Fred Hampton — but not an unwavering principle. Not when, as Hampton put it, the enemy doesn't even know what "peace" means, when like the US's Cointelpro then or Bashar al-Assad's tanks and planes today they threaten to wipe out your whole community. But that is not (yet) the nature of conflict in Oakland. As long as possible, nonviolence has to be the preferred strategy because it is the most effective, because the victory sought is not a shift of rulers over the same system but a social transformation, making the blind defense of privilege impossible. But you knew that already.

2011/11/20

Red dervish

  
I could not resist buying this miniature by Özcan Özcan last Tuesday in Sultanahmet, İstanbul. 
The Ottoman script forming the dervish's skirt and tunic says "Ya hazreti Mevlana" — "Oh! Most holy Master" (i.e., the Mevlana Rumi). 

I suspect he has been watching the news of all the street demonstrations, from Tahrir Square to Homs and Madrid and Oakland and Wall Street. Its enough to keep you spinning, Oh! Enlightened Ones.

Or maybe he just been reading Rumi's Divani Shamsi Tabrizi. That too is well worth a whirl.

This Is What Revolution Looks Like | Common Dreams

Perfectly said, by Chris Hedges:

This Is What Revolution Looks Like | Common Dreams

When I described myself as a "red dervish" a little while back, this is what I meant: red (as in revolutionary), and like a Sufi dervish personally drawing strength from my vision, the vision of our latent collective power — that of all humanity — to conquer the evil within and among us and release our more powerful impulses of love and solidarity. A Sufi would call that evil "Sheitan," a more modern name is "capitalism."  Or as the great Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet (himself something of a red dervish) put it, to live "like a forest in solidarity, / this is our yearning."
Yaşamak bir ağaç gibi tek ve hür
ve bir orman gibi kardeşçine,
                                bu hasret bizim. 
Davet (Invitation); for the complete translation, see this Wiki version.


Whirling to freedom

The Forty Rules of LoveThe Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


The encounter and transforming love between Rumi and the wandering dervish Shams i-Tabriz in the 1240s is background, context and explanation of the transformation in 2008 and 2009 of Ella Rubinstein, Jewish American housewife in Northampton MA, through contact with their story. Shams turns the respected and sedate scholar Rumi into a poet and co-founder (along with Shams) of the whirling dervishes; their story turns Ella from a self-repressed, resigned wife in a loveless marriage into a free and adventurous woman. Alternating chapters are told from the points of view of Ella or Shams and the many people who come in contact directly with him in Konya, Damascus or Tabriz. His stern but gentle manner and his preachings of love arouse strong reactions, ranging from murderous hostility on the part of Islamic zealots to almost total identification by Rumi, from respect and devotion by outcastes whom he has consoled and aided to the one kind of love he cannot allow himself, the passionate, carnal kind. Which may be what you thought this book was going to be about, but no, Shams' 40 Rules of Love are Sufi rules, of accepting one's fate but aiding and preventing harm to others and trusting in God's overall just design of all things. The book is a welcome introduction to this moment in Sufism and the origins of the Mahlevi whirling dervishes ("Mahlev" or master was what Rumi was called), and the twin stories — of the 13th and of the 21st centuries — come to a satisfying conclusion.

However, Shafak's narrative structure and voice here are so limited that one longs for a little break now and then. Each chapter tells us the thoughts and observations of just one character at a time, often telling us things that they would be unlikely to say even to themselves, and everybody sounds alike, whether a drunk or a prostitute or enlightened one in Konya in 1246 or Ella Rubinstein in 2008. The drunk tells us he is drunk but he doesn't sound drunk, the angry zealot tells us he is an angry zealot but doesn't sound very excited about it, and so on. “"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Shams kept saying.” (p. 268) He sounds just like Ella. These limitations are quite unlike Elif Shafak's approach in her earlier novel, The Bastard of Istanbul (see my review), where there are different voices and narrative points of view, including a genie and an Internet forum. But "40 Rules" comes to a good, perfectly Sufi ending, which goes far to compensate for other weaknesses, and in the course of reading it we learn much about why Sufism is so appealing to so many.


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2011/11/15

Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? - NYTimes.com

Or, as Isaac Bashevis Singer used to like to say, we have to believe in free will; we don't have any choice.

Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? - NYTimes.com

I find Eddy Nahmias' argument persuasive: "free will" does not depend on a "soul" or any other kind of self outside the brain, and is not incompatible with recognizing that all previous events are involved in shaping new ones (determinism). And like any good philosophical argument, his opens up new questions. One that interests me especially is how unconscious racism can influence conscious actions. And that suggests the further question, how to curb such tendencies, that is, how can our conscious decisions change our unconscious or pre-conscious predispositions? Can we train ourselves to respond "instinctively" in new ways?

Yes, of course we can, and we have all done it at some time — whether learning a new language, giving up (or taking up) smoking, setting ourselves a new exercise routine, or changing driving habits, etc. The fact that we can and do make such changes demonstrates (or at least implies) that our free will can change our "determined" decisions, that is, set new preconscious tendencies. New neuroscience investigations should help us understand how we do this and to do it better.

2011/11/14

How we remember

This experiment confirms what we already suspected: regarding the "ghost story", memory adjusts the past to fit what we think should have happened; regarding the sunken ships, memory also hooks past events to other already imagined or known events, which will be different for each person who is remembering.

How Psychology Solved The Mystery Of A Lost Shipwreck : NPR

2011/11/12

Coming together in İstanbul

Istanbullians Istanbullians

by Buket Uzuner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This short (125 pages) graphic novel (adapted and translated into English from Uzuner's Turkish-language novel İstanbullular) illustrates contemporary Istanbul and its mingling of extremely diverse people. An attractive 40-something genetics professor and diplomat's daughter is returning with trepidation to her home city after years of working abroad, when she is trapped in Atatürk Airport in an emergency blackout along with İstanbullular (Istanbullian) of all backgrounds, including her Kurdish artist lover, a Turkish Greek professor, various Armenians, a Jew, a weary bathroom attendant, a wealthy entrepreneur, at least one fierce Turk and anti-Kurd nationalist, a headscarf-bearing young Muslim woman, a gay bartender, etc. Though their stories are never fully resolved, we know that this crisis will have changed all their lives in some way. Buket Uzuner is author of several other novels, of which this is the first graphic one. Illustrations of social types and places by Ayşe Nur Atsoy are realistic and vivid. The book is a charming and informative introduction to the complexity of this enormous (nearly 14 million population) city and tempts this reader to seek other works by Buket Uzuner.

For more on and by this author, see her website Buket Uzuner.



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2011/11/08

Edirne 2 : the red dervish smiles

Eski Cami interior
Today as our bare feet padded on the thick carpet of Edirne's Old Mosque — the Eski Cami — and we looked up at its wide dome and laterally to the passionate calligraphy calling out from the walls,  I thought again of the verses of the only Sufi dervish I know well, Yunus Emre. Which surely were not the verses being sung by the earnest young imam squatting before a flock of veiled, attentive young women.
Eski Cami, Edirne

The Eski Cami was completed in 1414, probably a century after the time of Yunus, but when Ottoman Islam was still young and its architecture exuberant in intent but simple in engineering. Yunus spent little or no time in mosques and regarded ritual with benevolent amusement as a distraction from faith. But I think even he would not have felt uncomfortable in this quiet place with its dome beckoning like a gate to heaven.


http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4e/Edirne_7333_Nevit.JPG
Selimiye Camii, Edirne (WikiCommons)

Only a few hundred meters away stands the Selimiye Mosque, completed in 1575 and designed by Sultan Suleyman I's master architect, Koca Mimar ("Architect") Sinan, who was then 80 years old. He had designed many mosques including Istanbul's famous Süleymaniye, completed in 1558, as well as other large, graceful buildings. But Edirne is considered (and was so considered by the mimar himself) to be his finest and most perfected work. It is an engineering marvel, with an immense dome with a diameter of 31.30 meters whose center rises 43.28 meters above the floor. That enormous structure is supported by an ingenious system distributing the weight to its eight external pillars, with no pillars interrupting is prayer space 1,629 square meters. The booklet from the tourism offices further tells us that "the entire mosque covers an area of 2,475 m2, the largest in architectural history." The proportions are beautiful and its generous space inspires awe.

But if I were to spend a longer time in Edirne, it would be to the Eski Cami that I would come, perhaps to stand, perhaps to kneel, to meditate on our world and my joyous place in it. Yunus Emre said that of course we must believe in God because otherwise He would not exist — or, as I interpret him, God is our creation and must be respected and preserved as such. As a god-fearing atheist, I feel akin to that smiling, gentle poet. And in the Eski Cami of Edirne, I feel myself a kızıl dervişi—a red dervish.

2011/11/07

Edirne : music therapy

It has been cloudy and chilly in this dusty city where Turkey's Thracian province reaches out to touch Bulgaria and Greece, a quiet day, the second day of the Kurban Bayramı or "Festival of the Sacrifice," and many businesses are closed.

Merely by looking at a map, even without any historical reading on the area, you will see why Edirne, the Turkish name for Emperor Hadrian's Adrianopolis, has been the site of so many battles and sieges. “Military historian John Keegan identifies it as 'the most contested spot on the globe' and attributes this to its geographical location,” says the Wikipedia article.

But there were also long periods of peace after Murad I conquered it from the Bulgarians (1365) to make it the Ottoman capital until his great-great grandson Mehmet II (the Conqueror) moved the capital to newly-conquered Constantinople in 1453. Edirne continued to be a major concern of the sultans, as a military and administrative district for their European territory and a pleasant retreat from the more hectic life of Constantinople/Konstantiye/Istanbul. They built magnificent mosques here, including one considered to be among the finest of Suleyman the Magnicent's favored mimar (architect) Sinan, the Selimye (1575) — and which we plan to see tomorrow. 

Today we visited an earlier mosque-complex ("küliye"), built in 1682 under the auspices of Sultan Bayezid II, a 30-minute walk from the center to the outskirts of town. This II. Bayezid Külliyesi is famous for its hospital and medical school, which served patients free of charge from its founding until 1916. (The text on the linked page is all in Turkish, but its the best site I've found for photos.)  It is now a health museum, with displays of of medical instruments and mannequins representing medical procedures illustrated in the textbooks of the 17th-18th centuries, some of them pretty scary. One orthopedic procedure involved strapping the patient to a kind of rack to manipulate his vertebra back into place — he didn't seem to be enjoying it. And then there was all that cauterizing.

But best of all, and most pleasant to contemplate, was the music therapy, part of an ancient Turkish tradition from well before they reached Anatolia from the Asian steppes. By Bayezid II's time it had developed from shaman's drumming and humming to a professionalized and elaborate practice, with trained musicians on a variety of instruments performing the specific musical modes prescribed by the physician. There were particular modes for particular illnesses, their effects enhanced by the sound of water — in the kulliye produced by a fountain in the center of the domed inpatient pavilion.

At the moment, in our hotel, we are listening to a collection of İsfahan Makami ("makam" is a musical mode) that might have been prescribed to sharpen "intelligence and clearness of mind" (as well as to cure illnesses accompanied by fever) and is said to be especially effective on Mondays. A group called Tümata has recovered this musical therapy music and performs it on instruments like those used in Bayezid's time. It seems to be working. After all, it is Monday.

2011/11/06

In İstanbul: a 5-star jail and other wonders

We love this city, and since we had already seen the top 3-day tourist attractions on previous visits (Hagia Sophia, Topkapı, etc.) and since we're spending more than a week here (of the 3 we're devoting to exploring Turkey) we feel free to stroll around, take the feribot up the Halıç (the "Golden Horn") and take in some  of the museum exhibitions aimed mainly at a Turkish public.

Thursday evening was my talk about my book A Gift for the Sultan before a gathering sponsored jointly by the Harvard and MIT alumni organizations where, fortunately, everybody could understand my English —though I started out with a couple of sentences that I had prepared in Türkçe. My accent is probably all wrong, but they were tolerant. Thanks to Şeyma Yavuz (president of the Harvard Club of Turkey) for organizing it and to all those who came out on this rather inconvenient evening, as it was close to the eve of the Kurban Bayramı (Eid al-Adha in Arabic countries) or festival of the sacrifice which is the beginning of a week-long holiday.

The event was held in the Blue Room of the Sultanahmet Four Seasons Hotel, which is the former Sultanahmet Jail, which from 1919 to 1969  "served mostly as a prison reserved for writers, journalists, artists as intellectual dissidents sentenced," according to Wikipedia. After years of abandonment (the prisoners had been transferred to another jail),  it was converted into this luxury hotel that opened in 1996. What was then the exercise courtyard is now an open-air restaurant, and unless you knew this history you would never guess that the penthouse rooms at each of the four corners had been the guard towers. It was the best jail I had ever visited, and I've visited several, a couple of times (in a Venezuela mix-up and in Chicago after a civil rights sit-in) as an unwilling guest. None of the others offered such a splendid array of olives and cheeses along with the wine. One thing did continue from the old days: the people gathered around me on Thursday were indeed writers and intellectuals, and posed very interesting questions and new thoughts regarding my book and other things. I hope and plan to see them all again on future visits.

On Friday, we spent almost all of the day at two exhibitions at the İstanbul Modern art museum. One was the biennial featuring works inspired by the Cuban-American artist Félix González Torres (check out the links for more detail). González-Torres' own works were not presented but were described and alluded to, for art from many countries aimed at making us painfully aware of violence and censorship. Many women are included amont the artists, but the other big show in the main building was exclusively of women with explicitly feminist themes. A good way to celebrate a Muslim holiday, it seemed to us. The pieces by Turkish women were especially interesting to us. One by Asıl Sungu is a pair of videos, featuring her first with her father and then with her mother, asking opinions on what to wear — pretty funny, the differences between the way her father and her mother wanted her to look: he, favoring a more professional, businesslike style that might be more protective of her, and she (the mother) urging a sort of little-girl costume. But on the whole the works that impressed us most were the old ones: Tina Modotti's marvelous photographs in Mexico, and Martha Rossler's more satiric portraits combining scenes of the Vietnam war (occurring at the time of these works) with consumer paradise images from the US.

Well, that was exhausting. Hours on our feet at two big exhibitions requiring a lot of attention. So next day, yesterday, we took the feribot up the Halıç to Bilgi Üniversitesi, near Sülüce on the far shore of the Halıç. The ferry is large, with two interior decks and and an upper exposed deck, a coffee and snacks stand, comfortable seats, and the fare is the same as for other public transportation, a mere 2 TL (less than 1 euro). Susana was interested in Bilgi for its setting and its architecture, and also for an exhibition on LeCorbusier. It has a good, kind of funky (colorful and intentionally inelegant) restaurant, Otto Santral. And from there we took a taxi to the huge Eyüp mosque complex. "Eyüp" is the Turkish version of "Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, the companion and standard bearer of the Prophet Muhammad",who is said to be buried there. (Wikipedia). From there, we took the teleferik up to the Pierre Loti Cafe, where the French novelist is said to have hung out. Great views, good Turkish coffee. I bought a couple of Loti's boks there. I'll let you know more after I read them. He was a very curious character, whose Turkish experience I hadn't known much about. I'd only read his Pecheur d'Islande, about a very different part of the world, when I was in high school.

Now we're off to Edirne. Talk to you again soon.

2011/11/01

Among the Turkish Kurds

We are in Sultanahmet in İstanbul now, at 6:30 pm Salı (Tuesday) and the muezzin is calling out from the Blue and other mosques. Despite this medieval throwback (amplified by 21st century loudspeaker technology), this is one of the most sophisticated, diverse and populated (nearly 14 million people) cities in the world. We landed here yesterday after a 6-day tour of a very different Turkey, as sharp a contrast as one can imagine to İstanbul: southeastern Anatolia, the provinces of Şanlıurfa and Diyarbakır. Kurd country, with pockets of Arab-speakers, mostly poor and rural, but changing rapidly — too rapidly for many nomadic herders and pastoralists to comprehend. The famous old city of Diyarbakır, military stronghold and site of repeated mass violence from the 13th century BC to the massacres of 1925, has burst out from its ancient walls as the swelling population spreads out to the west, and new construction is everywhere, in some places knocking down millenial neighborhoods.
Diyarbakır grew from 30,000 in the 1930s to 65,000 by 1956, to 140,000 by 1970, to 400,000 by 1990, and eventually swelled to about 1.5 million by 1997. Today the intricate warren of alleyways and old-fashioned tenement blocks that makes up the old city within and around the walls contrasts dramatically with the sprawling suburbs of modern apartment blocks and cheaply-built gecekondu* slums to the west. (Wikipedia
*Turkish for "built overnight".
The children now have opportunities that their parents had never imagined — not all of them healthful. The rapid changes here, as they always do, create such disparities in knowledge and wealth that corruption and crime grow along with everything else. Much of the change is spurred by the huge GAP, Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi or "Southeastern Anatolia Project", a huge scheme centered on the building of the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates. Jobs, construction, hydroelectric power and irrigation are among the more positive effects, flooding of ancient sites and rapid influx of population are among the more problematic ones. Places that had water for millenia suddenly went dry as rivers were diverted, other places went under water. The flooded sites are lost forever, but gradually water is coming back, through pipes, to villages that had lost it. Rapid development is always an uneven and unsettling process.

The GAP is not the only thing changing peoples lives. The kids are all (or mostly) in school now, all  learning to speak proper Turkish regardless of what they speak at home. Although it cannot be used as a medium of instruction, as far as we could tell there are no restrictions on using Kurdish outside of government-sponsored institutions. There are now newspapers and radio stations in Kurdish (for a while they were outlawed), and Kurdish is what most people (except those Arabs) speak most of the time, but at least in the bigger towns everyone understands Turkish.

And the Kurds we spoke with consider themselves "Turks", not as an ethnic label but in its relatively new — invented at the time of the founding of the Republic in 1923 — sense of "citizen of Turkey". But clearly our limited experience in the area leaves out a whole lot of the story of tensions between Kurdish-speaking and Turkish-speaking Turks, which a glance at Hürriyet Daily News will show you are still high. Those tensions, and ethnic conflicts generally in what is now Turkey, are not ancient or inherent, but were energetically fostered by foreign powers aiming to split and seize parts of the old Ottoman empire, beginning in the 18th century. But that's a subject for another, longer essay, which will in part be a reflection on Caroline Finkel's massive Osman's Dream, which I just finished reading.

Zeus and friends atop Mt. Nemrut (Virtourist)
We covered some 1,400 kilometers, from Şanlıurfa to Mardin and Diyarbakır, with our very patient and punctual driver Mehmet Tanık. Our starting and end point was the very poor village of Yuvacalı, where Alison Tanık has organized the whole extended family around these tours. We saw some amazing ancient sites, from Göbekli Tepe (thought to be the most ancient temple anywhere) to the relatively recent — a mere 2,000 years old or so, from the time of Julius Caesar — statues atop Mount Nemrut, still more recent (13th-16th century AD) Seljuk and Ottoman structures, and all that 20th and 21st century building and Lake Ataturk.  I'll tell you more about our adventures in future posts. Meanwhile, if you are interested in doing something like this, check out Nomad Tours Turkey.

2011/10/21

Türkiye'ye gidiyoruz

"We're heading for Turkey," is what that says.

We leave from Madrid on Tuesday, first for a week in the towns and villages of the Kurdish region in southeastern Anatolia (Şanlıurfa, Diyarbakır, Nemrut, Yuvacali), some of the time staying in villagers' homes. I probably won't be able to post anything on the Internet from there (this is really rural territory), but I'll let you know about our adventures when I can.

Then we fly from Şanlıurfa to İstanbul, in time for the presentation of the Turkish-language version of my novel A Gift for the Sultan by its publisher, Nokta Kitap, at the big Tüyap International Book Fair in İstanbul in November. In connection with this publication, I've been invited to speak to the Harvard Alumni Association (Harvard Mezunlar Derneği) and, a few days later, students of Koç Üniversitesi.

You think maybe I'm a little excited? So excited I've begun learning Turkish. Fortunately, the Harvard alumni and the Koç students will be able to understand me in English, because I'm not yet ready to deliver a lecture in the language.

These are busy times of big changes in Turkey, and now of renewed troubles in some of the Kurdish areas, so I should have a lot to tell you after this trip.

Meanwhile, my thanks to Amy Miles for her work in helping us self-published authors get a little more exposure. Here's the interview she has just posted on her blog:

Self Published Authors: Author Interview: Geoffrey Fox

My case is a bit peculiar. A Gift for the Sultan is self-published in its original, English-language version, but is about to published by a major trade publisher in a Turkish-language version, in Istanbul. The translation has been completed, and the book should be coming out in just a couple of weeks. I'll be letting everybody know when that happens.

Signing ebooks

I mentioned here a while back that I now could sign your copy of my ebook on Kindle, thanks to a clever app developed by Evan Jacobs. He has now added other possibilities: I can give you a personal dedication of your e-copy of the novel on any device (not just Kindle) you use. Here's what he says:
== Kindlegraphs are now available on all Kindle apps ==
Your most requested feature was "Support for other reading devices and platforms". There are Kindle apps for every major platform (e.g. Windows PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Phone 7) and now your readers will be able to view their Kindlegraphs directly inside these apps. A reader who doesn't have a Kindle device can simply enter a regular email address during the Kindlegraph request process. When her Kindlegraph request is fulfilled, the reader will receive an email with links to download her Kindlegraph (in both PDF and AZW formats). If she has a Kindle app installed and she clicks the AZW link, her Kindlegraph will open inside her Kindle app.

== Readers can send comments to authors when requesting a Kindlegraph ==
This was the second most requested feature and it allows your readers to provide context about themselves so that you can better personalize their Kindlegraphs.
So if you have a copy of A Gift for the Sultan on your iPad or whatever, I'll be happy to scribble my signature and a personal note. I'll also be glad to see any comments you send along.

2011/10/15

Speaking in tongues

Here is a fascinating discussion for somebody like me who is an avid language-learner:
Pimsleur review by experienced language learner | Fluent in 3 months

Irish polyglot Benny Lewis is even more devoted to learning new tongues than I. And that's saying something. Check out his 8-language pitch for his learning guide.

Currently I'm learning Turkish. I've been invited to give a talk next month to students at Koç Üniversitesi in Istanbul about A Gift for the Sultan, which will by then be published in Turkish, and I want to be able at least to converse a little in that language while we're there. I've been using (mostly) Rosetta Stone, which is marvelous for my way of learning: simultaneously aural and written, but intuitive, no rules spelled out. I cheat, and look in books when intuition fails. Each of us has his/her own learning techniques, but for me it's been working. After reading Benny Lewis's review and listening to the Pimsleur sales pitch (it's online), I'm sticking with Rosetta.

2011/10/14

Keeping Spain "different"

The Disinherited: The Exiles Who Created Spanish CultureThe Disinherited: The Exiles Who Created Spanish Culture by Henry Kamen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Since the Catholic Monarchs' conquest of Granada and their expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Spanish rulers have sought to unify their country by driving out dissidents and deviants, thus guaranteeing and protecting the country's backwardness. Kamen tells the stories of many of the most interesting and attractive thinkers, artists, scientists and other innovators forced into exile, whether by the Inquisition or later burst of intolerance, though he has chosen not to say much about those who most strongly identified with the losing side in the 1936-39 civil war, and almost nothing about the huge numbers driven to leave Spain by poverty and the hopes of a better life in the Americas or elsewhere in Europe; this is a deliberate choice, on the grounds that "political émigrés and economic migration" have both been "well-studied" and thus not in need of further discusion.

"Spain is the only European country to have attempted to consolidate itself over the centuries not through offering shelter but through a policy of exclusion," he states in the preface (p. x). At first glance that may seem to be an exaggeration — France was extremely cruel to its Huguenots, several European countries drove out their Jews even long before the Third Reich's campaign to exterminate them, Protestants were forced to flee from Catholic lands and Catholics from Protestant during the 100 Years War. But Kamen is right that no other country so consistently, and over such a long period, succeeded in excluding so many and so many different types of misfits (religious, intellectual political, etc.).

This book is a collection of vignettes and anecdotes to illustrate the argument, rather than a systematic analysis of a Spanish "policy of exclusion." If the author had attempted that, he would quickly have to admit that there was no single "policy" through the centuries, and in most periods no policy at all — the intellectuals he writes about were in many cases voluntary émigrés or expatriates who left because Spanish backwardness (in education, infrastructure and institutions) did not give them space or support to develop their talents. The great virtuoso violinist Pablo Sarasate, for example, repeatedly returned to perform in Spain but was always disappointed because there was no adequate orchestra to accompany him or knowledgeable audience to receive him.

But beyond the sometimes fascinating stories of individuals, the book does illustrate the force of Spain's resistance to change, and thus incidentally gives us more context to understand the ferocity of reaction against the unprecedented modernizing efforts of the Second Republic, which was finally suppressed by insurgent generals, the continent's most reactionary Catholic church, and their allies. Toward the end of the nearly 40-year dictatorship of Franco, Minister of Tourism Manuel Fraga tried to attract tourists with the slogan "Spain is different." And it was, because under Franco it was western Europe's only theme park of mediaval superstitions, primitive technology, and lock-step discipline. Spain has changed, enormously, since the death of Franco, forced to change by its internal contradictions and some very capable and audacious political leaders, and by the changing world. But the forces of repression, the insistence on only one correct dogma, remain strong and are re-emerging in this current economic crisis. If, as seems likely, the conservatives win in November, they have already promised that one of their first victims will be the objectivity and variety of Spain's international-award-winning news reporting on public television and radio. So the struggle continues.



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2011/10/13

How Israel was created, and what to do now

Recommended: The Real Story of How Israel Was Created by Alison Weir

It's important to understand this history, so obscured by political rhetoric and mythmakers. But, however flawed the creation, the state exists and is home to nearly 8 million people, of whom nearly 6 million (according to the Israeli census) are "Jewish" — by religion? by tradition? by ancestry? By any or all these criteria, apparently (which inflates the numbers). The occupied Palestinian territories have about 3.5 million people, including Muslims, Christians and atheists, not counting the many Jews (by any of the usual criteria) who have settled there illegally.

To my mind, the only acceptable way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to dissolve the partition, that is, re-unite it all as a single state, with the same guaranteed rights for everybody regardless of family mythology, competitive tales of suffering, or whatever religion people profess or abjure. In other words, make it a normal modern state. Jews have as much right to live there as anybody, and no more right than anybody. It would cease to be a "Jewish" state and be simply a state with (probably for a long time) a "Jewish" majority. Until such a solution, the situation there will remain unstable and a continuing provocation to regional violence because the present condition is simply unacceptable to the non-Jews.

So how will the impasse between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis be broken? Not if it is left to those two parties, already locked in self-nourishing cycles of hate and fear. If a solution is not imposed by pressure from other states (extremely unlikely, given current US politics and the uselessness of Tony Blair), it must come from a wider change of the global context. The most important change will be if the peoples of Egypt and other Muslim-majority countries can achieve and consolidate their own democracies and themselves become normal modern states, with rights for all creeds. Such a revolution would immediately deflate Jewish Israeli paranoid chauvinism and leave people like Netanyahu and Lieberman without a constituency to play to. It would also force serious realignment and rethinking of Hamas and the PLO, and the Arabs and Jews of Israel-Palestine would again be able to talk to each and work things out, as they were beginning to do back in the early 1990s, before Rabin was assassinated (1995).

So, for the sake of Israelis, Palestinians and all the rest of us, we are obliged to do whatever we can to encourage democratization of Arab and other Muslim countries.

2011/10/07

Why Criticism Matters - Essay by Elif Batuman - NYTimes.com

This was fun to read. I admit I have scant knowledge of literary theory, though I have read some Jameson, and the reference here gives us much to think about regarding Proust and other French novels (our sometime collaborator Dirk will no doubt be interested), and the "negative criticism" of "neuro novels" is devastatingly amusing. What I found most stimulating of my own creative impulses (which could no doubt be alternatively explained in the language of neuro novels) was her interpretation of Freud's interpretation of dreams, as applied to fiction.

Why Criticism Matters - Essay by Elif Batuman - NYTimes.com

Yes, I suppose that criticism does matter, though not so much as the creation of the dreams.

2011/10/05

Engels' Marxism

A discussion in LinkedIn, about whether or not it is ethical for the editor of a work to publish a review posing as an independent critic— is deceit ever ethical? —, reminded me of Engels' many reviews and promotional copy for works that he himself had worked out with Marx, including his enthusiastic blurb for a book that he had written entirely but that he published under Marx's name. 

Now was that deceitful? Well, yes, in the same way any promotional copy is. Or just a clever move to attract attention to ideas that he and Marx shared? Marx didn't mind for his own sake — the ideas expressed were his and Engels' — but was probably a little saddened that his brilliant friend would be so self-effacing as to disguise his authorship. And Engels was not really trying to fool people about his involvement in the theory of dialectical materialism, which was already notorious.

Their collaboration was closer and more complex than I had imagined. I just discovered this quite fascinating discussion. It shows where Engels took the lead, and where he followed or merely elaborated, and is a persuasive refutation of arguments that Engels had misunderstood or oversimplified Marx. Both the strengths and errors of their analysis have to be attributed to both of them.

Engels' Marxism

By the way, yes, of course it is unethical for an editor to pose as an independent reviewer, and also unnecessary: one can still say nice things about a book as an editor. Another note: I'm still looking for that pamphlet or book I mentioned above. But actually Engels was involved in almost all Marx's works, in some cases the primary author, from the Communist Manifesto on.

The anonymous dual portrait above is from this archive.

2011/10/03

Choosing what to read

Dirk van Nouhuys' essay on the novels that have stayed with him (this blog, 2011.9.28) has got me thinking about how I choose fiction to read. Dirk has no patience for those lists of the 100 or 1,000 or however many books "you must read before you die"(try Googling "books"+"before you die" for examples), as though there could be one list for everybody (and as though there were only that many possibilities). I too think such lists are silly, but since I know I'm never going to read more than a tiny sample of all that's worth reading, I need some way to guide my choices.

So, how do I choose? For starters, I always try to read the selections of my local reading club in Carboneras, which are usually good and always promote lively discussions (all in Spanish, which I review on my Spanish-language blog Lecturas y lectores). Beyond that I have two major criteria:
  • The book promises to tell me something I really want to know, for example about a culture or a time or a place or a psychological experience, and/or 
  • I expect to learn something I can use about the craft of writing. 
I'm most interested in books that do both. Thus, so far I've been less engaged by Cormac McCarthy (fascinating craftsman, but I don't much care for or need to hear his strange view of the world) than by, for example, Mario Vargas Llosa (another amazing prose crafter, but one who engages social issues that I do care about).

But even limiting my reading to books that do one or the other of those things, my actual reading is still largely a matter of chance: what I happen to have heard about and what I can get easily.

I'm not going to try to create a list like Dirk's, but if anyone is curious about the books I have found important enough to read and comment on, you're invited to take a look at my "Little Library of the Lair" Fiction Readings or, if you read Spanish, the different collection in my Pequeña biblioteca comentada.

On another note, I'm glad to see that some of my earliest work is still being cited by scholars. A recent example is this MA thesis by Javier Fernández (University of Georgia, 2004), which makes good use of parts of my 1979 book Working-Class Émigrés from Cuba (Palo Alto: R&E Research Publications, 1979; published version of my 1975 PhD dissertation), which must have been in his university library — it's pretty hard to get these days, but a recent query made me aware that it has also been a resource to other younger scholars working on issues including migration, Latinos, the Cuban revolution or racial and gender conflicts. (For more about this work, see my entry in Academia.edu, Working-Class Émigrés from Cuba.)

2011/09/29

Half-crazy in Cairo

Being Abbas El Abd (Modern Arabic Literature)Being Abbas El Abd by Ahmed Alaidy




In a Cairo circa 2003, inhabited entirely by 20-somethings, the narrator — who may or may not be named Abdullah — gets into terrible jams and awkward situations thanks to a slovenly roommate named Abbas el Abd, who is either a demonic trickster or a psychotic projection of the narrator himself. Who knows? He certainly doesn't. But in his confusions and anger you get a taste of the consumer anxieties, frustrations — sexual and also of national pride — and daily humiliations by those in authority that were a large part of what the masses in Tahrir Square in January of this year (2011) were protesting against, especially the younger ones, and that is a good reason to read this short, chaotic novel. Here's a sample of some of the daily frustrations that might drive a young Cairene nuts:
Abbas says the utilities shaft of the apartment block is the only place where a man can read the papers in the morning when his wife grudgingly shuts up so as to able to listen to the neighbors quarreling. Episode 7009 of the sitcom "Life," starring my neighbor and his esteemed wife.

Click. The Nine O'Clock News. A quick shot: in the market place in Jerusalem an Israeli conscript kicks an old woman in the stomach, and Jaffa oranges fall from her hands and are squashed beneath the huge boots.
Translator Humphrey Davies has done a complex, acrobatic job rendering Alaidy's mix of classical and colloquial Arabic and newly-minted expressions grabbed from English (al-boyyi frind, for example). His note at the end of the book is well worth reading to put this little book in context.



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2011/09/28

The Tower Journal: Turkish poetry and a story by D. van Nouhuys

The Tower Journal : This online literary journal has two items of interest to this blog:
  • The Light Room, a story by our friend Dirk van Nouhuys, and  
  • TURKISH POETRY: POETRY FOR THE WORLD, poet Koray Feyiz interviews poet Veyel Çolak. 

I confess that the only Turkish poet I was at all familiar with was Nâzım Hikmet, whose "Dâvet" ("Invitation") I've been trying to memorize. If I progress sufficiently in my effort to learn Turkish, I'll try some of the others mentioned by Çolak, including him. 
 
The Tower Journal

Unforgettables: D. van Nouhuys' 36 novels

Writer, translator and occasional contributor to this blog Dirk van Nouhuys here offers us a provocative way to think of what novels make a difference. His list of unforgettable works won't be just like yours, and isn't exactly like mine (though he and I agree that Fielding's hilarious and ever surprising Tom Jones is one that keeps us laughing and thinking), but it may give you another way of thinking of your own favorites.

(I've appended some of my questions to Dirk at the end, and maybe you will have more. Maybe we can keep this discussion going for a bit.)
***



Thirty-six novels I often think of

From time to time lists circulate of the 100 best novels, or the thousand novels you must read before you die or the like. A while ago there was a list allegedly from The Guardian of the 100 best novels that was extraordinarily misconceived.  It included stuff by Aykroyd, very British but not that good, and included not only “The Works of Shakespeare” as a novel, but also "Hamlet” separately as a novel. I thought to myself: I can do better than that, but I didn’t see much point. Instead I decided to make a list of novels I often think of. I tried to use the criterion that I think of them at least once a month. I excluded novels by personal friends and also those I first read within the last five years. These aren’t all great novels; indeed some are no better than pretty good. Some of them are included for quirky personal reasons that I understand; some are included for reasons no doubt quirky and personal that I don’t understand.

I stretch the definition a bit. I include a couple of works in verse, but, hey, there have always been novels in verse and still are. I include a couple that might be counted as novellas. I include pairs that were published as two books each that I consider to be essentially one book each.

Where the title is in French I read it in that language at least initially; all other non-English books I read in translation.

Someone to whom I mentioned I was assembling this list asked me to annotate it, so I’ve done so briefly, also personally and quirkily. Questions are welcome.

What are we to think of the statistic that 40% of these books were published in the 65 years between 1839 & 1904?
 ---

Gilgamesh - Anon.  c. 800 BC
Unlike the Odyssey, where Odysseus’ character is fixed, this is a bildungsroman. The first hero of literature learns the meaning of friendship, that Eros is a civilizing force, the poignancy of death, accepts his mortality, and become a better king.

The Odyssey - “Homer” c. 800 BC
My father read it to me as a child, and I read it to my children. It shaped my idea of what it is to be a person.

The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu 11th century AD
Embodies the role of time in human affairs in a way comparable in my reading only to Proust. I find the first sentence of the fifth volume the most moving in literature (but it will mean little to you unless you have read up to it, so there’s no use cheating).

Tom Jones - Henry Fielding 1749.
Perfect plotting, perfect characterization of a kind, lots of yucks. The comments of the author provide a basic course in creative writing, and much else besides.

Les Liaisons dangereuses - Choderlos de Laclos 1782
An artillery officer who wrote nothing else of note wrote this book to propagandize his theory that women should be allowed education. One of the cornerstones of the history of the novel. An epistolary novel, which gives De Laclos a wonderful chance to exercise a variety of styles and voices. A story of erotic vengeance. Full of provocative moral and gender relation questions.

Another novel, La Princesse de Clèves, by Madame de La Fayette, almost makes it on to this list on it’s own, but more because it is, so-to-say, the good twin of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, being the story of two extraordinarily high-minded lovers in a similar situation. It’s not widely known in English, but in France it is an icon. President Sarkozy’s recent scorn of putting questions about this novel in civil service exams provoked demonstrations and public readings (see article in The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/mar/31/princess-cleves-sarkozy-lafayette).

La Toison d'or - Théophile Gautier 1839
An idle rich Parisian youth wonders what to do with himself, decides he will fall in love, then wonders what sort of woman to fall in love with, and decides to love a Fleming. He goes to Bruges where he has an affair with a naïve lace maker partly because she resembles a Madonna in a painting. He brings her back to Paris and their future is not clear. I read this when I was about 14 and, oddly, for a significant period in my early life it strongly colored what I imaged romance should be.

The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas, père 1844
My father read this to me and I read it to my children. It's a potboiler really, but it sticks in my mind.

The Scarlet letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne 1850
It’s the images that stick, the letter, Pearl in the forest, Dimmesdale atop the town scaffold.

Moby Dick - Herman Melville 1851
It's the language, which gives Melville mastery over the world in a way few writers demonstrate. And, because the world is varied, it is the rich variety of language and style. The closest thing to Shakespeare in a novel. Is there an alternate universe in which Strabuck succeeds in persuading Ahab of his folly and they return rich with oil to Nantucket, where Ahab settles down with his wife and children and Starbuck opens a coffee shop?

Benito Cereno - Herman Melville 1855
This is more like Greek tragedy than any other work in prose I know

War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy 1864
Whitney says, reading War and Peace is like visiting old fiends.

L'Éducation sentimentale - Gustave Flaubert 1869
I read this only after I was married and settled down, and realized it is the book I should have read instead of La Toison d'or.

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy 1873-77
A few years ago I attended a talk by Wendy Lesser (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendy_Lesser) about re-reading novels. She said that when she re-read Anna Karenina, she found herself feeling that Karenin was right. I was utterly appalled.

À Rebours -J K Huysmans 1884
This contrarian novel teaches me to keep my nose out of books[GF1] .

The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas hardy 1886
My favorite novel. Not the greatest, but the one that speaks, or spoke to me most. The template of a novel I should be working on instead of fussing with this list .

Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy 1895
In the beginning Jude, a farm kid with ambitions to education, is disconcerted to find that learning Latin is not merely learning a substitution code, one word for another, but involves a whole different way of thinking.  His recognition appeals to me because of some obscure misunderstanding I had about the world. The novel also contains the scene in fiction that is most horrifying to me[GF2] .

The Lady With the Dog - Anton Chekhov 1899
The spectacle of 2 lives wasted, also the background of a good short story I wrote.

The Ambassadors - Henry James 1903
"If he is to bask in the Jamesian tickle, nothing will restrain him and no other author will to any such extent afford him equal gratification." - Ezra Pound

The Golden Bowl - Henry James 1904
Tickled again.

The Dead - James Joyce 1914
The warmth of family, the snow of death, the quiet desperation of the protagonist's final reflections.

Victory - Joseph Conrad 1915
I read this novel when I was a freshperson in college. It taught me that a story, or a sentence in context, could mean more than was on the surface, and made me want to do for others what it had done for me.

Ulysses  - James Joyce 1918-20
I have read it several times including once in a semester class devoted to it and once in the 24 hours of its own time. You do something like that and it’s hard to get out of your head.

The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann 1924
Another book that taught me about things meaning more than they say. Also the sexiest heroine for me in literature. Also the terrible waste of war.

À la recherche du temps perdu - Marcel Proust 1913-1927
The thread spun by the Fates is not a monofilament but made of many fibers twisted together on the spindle of Clotho and the wheel of Lachesis. Only Atropos, with her shears, is binary. Proust discerns the fibers in our thin but multiplex life as no other author does. He makes real the complexity of living in time. It was only on the 4th reading that I really understood why Swann married Odette. He also writes sentences that thrill me to my heels.

As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner 1930
Written before existentialism was widely known, this is an existentialist novel par excellence. Addie Burden allots to each of her children their own kind of being, and they live it out. With 15 narrators, it is an exercise in voices to rival Les Liaisons dangereuses. It is also the funniest book on this list except for Tom Jones.

The Sound and the Fury/ Absalom, Absalom! - William Faulkner 1929-36
Faulkner often writes with combined dread and admiration about stubborn people. The stubbornness of Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying drives the identity of her children; the stubbornness of her husband drives the plot. The Sound and the Fury & Absalom, Absalom! are about the heroic and self-destructive grand gestures of the living ghosts of the old south. We are all stubborn; it makes us who we are and keeps us from, from…from what? from something or other. The prose thrills me.

The Man Without Qualities - Robert Musil 1930-1942
When he began this novel, Musil, an engineer, calculated carefully, based mostly on the life span of his parents and grandparents, how many years he had to live. Unfortunately he died about 10 years earlier than planned. As a result, towards the end of the book it meanders into a copious estuary of printed partial versions, printed versions recalled, long clear alternative passage, short ambiguous alternative passages, sketchy notes, etc. Personally I think he had raised plot issues he could never have resolved, but that doesn’t matter because as a writer the multiplicity of shadowy outcomes is satisfactory in fact enriching.

Si j'étais vous - Henry Green 1947
This novel has problems. It’s burdened with Catholic mumbo jumbo by its convert author. The descriptions and characterization have a creaky 19th century quality. Nevertheless it addresses what it might mean to become someone else more seriously than anything I know.

The Unnamable - Samuel Beckett 1953
The phenomenological effort of identifying these novels in my mind is not easy. I'd been working on this list, more off than on, for months before I realized The Unnamable belonged here. Like The Scarlet Letter it is the image I remember, of the protagonist, reduced to a torso in an urn outside a bar talking to bystanders (or perhaps not that). But it is also the prose, shorn, like the protagonist, of all excess. My wife suggested it was one of the novels on this list preoccupied with identity, perhaps, oddly, most like The Odyssey, with its final words: "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on,"

An Imaginary Life - David Malouf 1978
Exiled in a grungy peasant village on the Black Sea, Ovid, the worldly Roman author of the immensely influential poem, The Metamorphosis, finally learns from a feral child what change means.

Soul Mountain - Gao Xingjian 1986
Who is I? Is he I? Who else is I? Who is she? Is she one or several? What does the answer to that question mean to what I is? This fascinating tale of someone researching folk culture in China dissolves identity as cubism dissolves perspective. Utterly intriguing.

The Rings of Saturn - W. G. Sebald 1999
The most often read and praised of Seybold’s novels is Austerlitz. I love it, but think more often of this one, freed from plot compared to Austerlitz. The plot is that a guy walks around East Anglia and thinks about history. I hike though history with him at a walking pace, learning what it means at every step. The book it most resembles in my mind is another I think of often, indeed keep on my desk, which is not a novel: The Essays of Montaigne. A mind scanning the world, past and present together, and in doing so making it more precious.

Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper - Harriet Scott Chessman 2001
In it’s way this is like The Dead, a story of what mortality means in the context of family, exquisitely drawn with a bright eye and a knowing hand. Maybe I also like it because it lets me re-visit from another perspective the Paris of The Ambassadors, and visit there with another American family.

Double Vision/Border Crossing - Pat Barker 2003
A character haunts these two books. He haunts the lives of the other characters menacing, demanding love, and raising painful questions about what it means to be a member of society. He haunts me, as do the more or less inadequate responses of the other characters to him. Barker is the author of several haunting characters, Billy Pryor in Regeneration Trilogy, for example.

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro 2005
In a way this is an identity novel like Si j'étais vous, Soul Mountain, and The Odyssey. The question is what it means to be human. What haunts me is the heroine's perspective: cool, engaged, hopeless and optimistic. It is reconciliation, like Gilgamesh.

The Kreutzer Sonata - Margriet De Moor 2005
Beethoven wrote a sonata for Violin and piano and dedicated it to a violinist named Kreutzer. Beethoven was a quarrelsome fellow and soon fell out with Kreutzer so the dedicatee never played it. Tolstoy wrote a story in which, Ancient-Mariner-like[GF3] , a man in a train demands that his fellow passenger listen to his story of killing his wife because of his suspicion she had taken as a lover her music teacher, with whom she played Beethoven’s sonata. The married Czech composer Leos Janacek had a period of extraordinary creative flowering in his later years contemporaneous with his (probably unconsummated) affair with a young woman married to another man, which includes a string quarter he titled “The Kreutzer Sonata.” In De Moors’ novel the point-of-view character meets on a plane a blind critic who, Ancient-Mariner-like, forces him to listen to the story of his marriage with and suspicions of a woman who is in a string quartet that plays the Janacek composition. None of which fully explains the impression this book made on me. For one thing, I have always been interested in reading and writing about musicians.


There are some novels I used to think of this often that have fallen away.  La condition humaine by André Malraux for example. I thought about it often for decades, then re-read it a few years ago, still liked it, but that was enough. For decades the novel I thought of most often was Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme, but it faded for no clear reason. Likewise A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. I note with interest however, that one of my very favorite movies, one I think of often, Claude Sautet's film Un Coeur en Hiver, I discovered only recently to be based loosely on A Hero of Our Time.

I wonder what will stay hanging around my mind this way. I'm sure I will still think of Soul Mountain as long as I think about novels; Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper and Never Let Me Go may fall away. But I never would have thought La Chartreuse de Parm would have fallen away.

I note that though I am an American, no one would mistake me for anything else, only six of these novels are American, eight if you count Henry James, and only one of those written in my life time, and that one set in 19th century Paris.  Since childhood I have been uncomfortable with America, and perhaps this represents an interest I have in establishing a broader base for myself than merely America, or perhaps just an effort to escape it.

Try this exercise. You’ll learn something.


 [GF1]Can you explain this remark?

 [GF2]Surprising comment. But then I barely remember the book, which I found tedious but not horrifying.

 [GF3]What was the Tolstoy story? Same title? Part of a collection?