Saturday, July 16, 2016

Barney Greengrass

Norman Manea (b. 1936)
From Becoming Americans: Immigrants Tell Their Stories from Jamestown to Today

Barney Greengrass, Upper West Side, Manhattan, c. 2005–2009. Uncredited photograph via Tumblr.
A few years back, the novelist Philip Roth told a Vanity Fair reporter an anecdote he has often related to underscore his concern that the audience for serious literature was dwindling to the point where it might soon become a cult:
I have a Romanian friend named Norman Manea, who’s a writer, and Norman has been a friend of mine since he left Ceauşescu’s Romania. He lived there through the worst of the dictatorship, and they harassed him at every turn, and he couldn’t get published.

So he went to see a friend who was an elderly writer he respected, and he began to complain about the fact that he had no readers. And his friend said to him, “How many readers does a writer need? Four. That’s all you need is four readers. You, unfortunately, have two!”
For nearly three decades, Manea (who turns eighty on Tuesday, July 19) has lived in the United States. Since his arrival, he has published numerous books and essays, including his acclaimed 2003 memoir, The Hooligan’s Return. Yet—while he certainly now has an audience larger than two—he is still unknown to most American readers, even though he has received accolades from an astonishing range of writers and critics and has won dozens of international awards—and is often considered a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize.

In March 1997, on the ninth anniversary of his arrival in this country, Manea strolled through his neighborhood on his way to Barney Greengrass, a century-old deli on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The opening selection of The Hooligan’s Return recalls this outing and then presents a short account of the assassination in Chicago of a fellow Romanian writer—a still-unsolved crime that led to Menea temporarily receiving FBI protection.

Additional information about Manea is included in the headnote that precedes the story, which has been reprinted in the LOA collection Becoming Americans: Immigrants Tell Their Stories from Jamestown to Today (edited by Ilan Stavans).

Notes: On page 640, Manea quotes a line from the first stanza of “Report from Paradise,” by Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924–1998).

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The bright spring light, like an emanation from Paradise, streams through the large picture window wide as the room itself. . . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, July 8, 2016

Sisters and Science Fiction

Karl Kroeber (1926–2009)
From Ursula K. Le Guin: The Complete Orsinia

“Mariner 10 Approaching Mercury,” by American artist Chesley Bonestell (1888–1986), for the cover of the October 1976 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (Click on the image to see the full cover.) The issue included Ursula K. Le Guin’s twelfth-century Orsinian tale, “The Barrow.”
Many—perhaps most—readers have long associated Ursula K. Le Guin with the genres of speculative fiction. As a result, in the 1970s, when she began publishing various fictional excursions in an imaginary East European country, fans and critics assumed that the new stories were “Le Guin's attempt to extend the range of her talents beyond the boundaries of fantasy and science fiction.” But, notes James W. Bittner, “If anything, the opposite is the case.”

In fact, many of Le Guin’s earliest works were set in Europe from the twelfth century through the twentieth. In an introduction written for the first volume of the Library of America edition of her fiction, Le Guin writes, “Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. At last it occurred to me that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.”

Thus was born the country of Orsinia. Her first published poem (1959) was “Folk Song from the Montayna Province.” Her first published short story, “An die Musik,” also set in Orsinia, appeared in the Western Humanities Review in 1961. But a decade earlier, in 1951, while in Paris with her brother Karl Kroeber, she had begun writing A Descendance, a novel set in Orsinia. She sent it to Alfred Knopf, who somewhat reluctantly but (in Le Guin’s reckoning) wisely rejected “the crazy damn thing.” After the story collection Orsinian Tales (a finalist for the National Book Award) appeared in 1976, Le Guin finished a second Orsinian novel on which she been working intermittently since 1952, and it was published at last as Malafrena.

When one of the Orsinian tales (“Brothers and Sisters”) was included in a special double issue of The Little Magazine in the spring of 1976, Kroeber, a literary scholar, was invited to contribute an introduction, which has been reprinted in the LOA edition and is presented here as our Story of the Week selection. Kroeber, who died in 2009 at the age of eighty-two, taught at Columbia University for nearly four decades, during which he published a dozen books on such varied topics as English Romantic poetry and American Indian literature (not to mention his 1988 monograph Romantic Fantasy and Science Fiction). His wide-ranging interests are very much on display in the piece he wrote to accompany his sister’s story. “He was very interested in soaking up as much as he could about new ways of thinking, new kinds of things to think about,” his colleague Jenny Davidson told the Columbia Spectator. “He wanted to know what people in their teens or twenties or thirties were reading and finding exciting, and then he would go and read those things.”

One of Le Guin’s Orsinian tales will appear as a Story of the Week selection later this summer.

Notes: Birdboot is a character in Tom Stoppard’s satirical play The Real Inspector Hound, a theater critic who becomes enmeshed in the play he is supposed to be reviewing. Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in his book On Learning to Read and in subsequent books and interviews, disparaged the popular Dick-and-Jane stories for young readers and argued that traditional fairy tales, with their dark motifs and subjects, were better for developing both reading skills and emotional growth. Zembla is a fictional northern European country in Nabokov’s Pale Fire; Graustark, an eastern European country in several novels by George Barr McCutcheon. The Woodlanders (1887) is a novel by Thomas Hardy set in a small English village. The end of Kroeber’s essay quotes lines from Marianne Moore’s 1921 poem “Poetry.”

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce Kroeber’s essay, in its entirety, below.
You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.


When the editors of The Little Magazine asked me for a fraternal comment on “Brothers and Sisters” they couldn’t understand how far beyond mere sibling rivalry they were pressing me to go. Since my father was a distinguished scientist, my first years in academia were dominated by a question to which the answer was, “Yes, he is my father.” Scarcely had he died than my mother became famous as an author, and I found myself saying, “Yes, she is my mother.” About the time mother turned from public acclaim to a new and exciting marriage, my sister won the National Book Award, and I found a third variant for my identifying phrase. I’m convinced that should my sister disappear (squashed by a malfunctioning UFO?) one of my children would instantly win a Nobel Prize, or kidnap F. Lee Bailey. My remarks, therefore, must be taken as those of a familial Birdboot.

I remark first that my sister’s writing has convinced me that (as I had long suspected) literary biography is useless for understanding literature. Boswell on Johnson and Bell on Woolf are delightful, but not helpful. I believe I know where both the general conceptions and many of the details in “Brothers and Sisters” originate. Every story of my sister’s is full of references to things and events and relationships I recognize. But to know these sources is to know nothing of significance about the stories as stories. Bad stories often are raw biography. Literary art consists in transforming one kind of reality, that of physical experience, into another kind of reality, that of literary experience. Imagining, the process of transforming, is illuminated dimly, if at all, only by the magic of criticism. Writers are often complex people and fascinating subjects for psychological analysis, but a writer is a person to whom writing happens. As Winnie the Pooh put it, “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

Jacket for Malafrena (Berkeley, 1979),
Le Guin’s novel set in the fictional
eastern European country of Orsinia
Especially disadvantageous for biographers are people like my sister who never become writers but who always are writers. I can’t remember a time when my sister wasn’t writing. I doubt that she can. For such a person writing is a mode of being, like talking for most of us, and making melodies for Mozart. Interestingly, not all the best writers are born writers—Shakespeare may not have been: he seems to have begun lazily and quit early, though commendably active in his middle years. But for those who lisp in numbers, the lisp is the significant biographical fact pointing to the mysterious truth that writers in writing about nothing but their own experience produce works not much illuminated by their experience. Writing is like alchemy—only the process of transmutation matters.

So little for biography, now less for genre, because my sister is not a “science fiction writer.” She is an imaginative author whose early work has followed the pattern of “science fiction,” the best (perhaps the only) mode open to an honest fantast unperturbed by the whims of the New York Literary Establishment. “Fantasy” derives from the Greek for “boaster,” it in turn deriving from a verb “to make visible.” Forms such as science fiction are a natural outlet for the “ostentatious,” that is, impudent, risk-taking writer. Critics, of course, prefer safe experimentalists. But the critical establishment’s power needn’t be overrated, since it is primarily negative. Occasionally it supports talent, seldom if ever does it permanently prevent a genuine artist from succeeding. When I saw the first advertisement for my sister’s work in the New York Review, I predicted a review of her by my colleague Michael Wood within a year. I underestimated Michael’s sensitivity to popular trends by four months.

The national popularity of science fiction, vampire stories, Gothic romances, and the like is impressive. If Bruno Bettelheim is right, this phenomenon might be called THE REVENGE OF DICK AND JANE. It is at least appropriate that a culture which has exorcized from children’s reading all that is genuinely fearful and romantic should be blessed by the high art and moral profundity of The Exorcist. Surely Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are is charming. “Bluebeard” is distinctly not charming, a sign that Grimm’s monsters are real. So real that thousands of psychiatrists every year make thousands of dollars fighting them. Bettelheim’s suggestion that our culture impoverishes children’s fantasy life deserves practical recognition. His claim that fairy stories enable children to confront, rather than to escape from or be defeated by, fundamental human predicaments—loneliness, jealousy, death—is attractive to anyone who believes that, on a higher level and in a more complex fashion, fine literature is analogously didactic. By imaginatively living through the course of a novel or play one learns useful truths of human existence. The bizarre, absurd, and surreal elements so prevalent in our “serious” fiction too often are but cheap disguises for imaginative poverty of writer and reader. The popularity in our novels of the monologue form seems likewise symptomatic of an enfeeblement of fictionalizing energy, which does not recount but transmutes so that a strong reader (as Bloom would call her) may enjoy re-transforming.

Cover of the first paperback edition
of Orsinian Tales (Bantam, 1977)
To me, science fiction is best when it exuberantly pretends freakishness to work back toward the essential nature of fiction. One of my sister’s early novels treated a planet where “winter” lasted many years. She has never lived in an extremely cold climate, and anyone who has might notice her unfamiliarity with the details of existence dominated by the sub-zero. Yet her descriptions are fictionally effective, for fiction only seems to remind us of actual existence. It invents possibilities of experience which, if we give ourselves to them, that is, respond imaginatively to them, enable us to return to actuality as more competent human (e.g., moral) organisms. So I would urge the fifteen graduate students who doubtless are busy writing dissertations on Le Guin not to seek in Bulgaria for the setting of “Brothers and Sisters.” The curious growthless plain of limestone quarries is not East of the Sun and West of the Moon, just a little south of Zembla and north of Graustark.

Similar coordinates are needed to locate the following description.

They went noiselessly over mats of starry moss, rustled through interspersed tracts of leaves, skirted trunks with spreading roots whose mossed rinds made them like hands wearing green gloves; elbowed old elms and ashes with great forks, in which stood pools of water that overflowed on rainy days and ran down their stems in green cascades. On older trees still than these huge lobes of fungi grew like lungs. Here, as everywhere, the Unfulfilled Intention, which makes life what it is, was as obvious as it could be among the depraved crowds of a city slum. The leaf was deformed, the curve was crippled, the taper was interrupted; the lichen ate the vigor of the stalk, and the ivy slowly strangled to death the promising sapling.

A pilgrim looking for this landscape in southern England is farther off the track than an enthusiast finding prototypes for Theodore Sturgeon. The Woodlanders wouldn’t be worth reading if it only reported what a dope with a camera could photograph. “Brothers and Sisters” isn’t, I think, essentially different from Le Guinian star treks, though its superficial “realism” may indicate my sister’s growing confidence that her readers can be trusted to use their imaginations, to appreciate that fictional reality is fantasy.

I hope so, for such confidence would imply a reviving sense for the utility of literature. Here I can call on the testimony of a fellow immigrant to Brooklyn (unimaginative people come from Brooklyn):  “these things are important not because a/ high-sounding interpretation can be put on them but because they are/ useful.” Miss Moore, like Pooh, referred to poetry, but her words are equally applicable to the transformations of prose. As when, talking baseball, she said she was impressed at how the Dodgers’ catcher “could throw the ball all the way to second base with just one hand.”

In an unambiguous utopia, all novels would be written that way.

Originally published in The Little Magazine (Summer 1976). Reprinted in Ursula K. Le Guin: The Complete Orsinia (Library of America, 2016), pages 586–88. Copyright © 1976 by Karl Kroeber. Published by arrangement with Jean T. Kroeber. All rights reserved.

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Friday, July 1, 2016

The Declaration of Independence

Abigail Adams (1744–1818)
From Abigail Adams: Letters

Detail from “The manner in which the American colonies declared themselves independant of the king of England, throughout the different provinces, on July 4, 1776.” (Click on image to view entire illustration.) Hand colored print by William Hamilton (1751–1801); engraved by George Noble (fl. 1795–1806) for Edward Barnard’s New Complete & Authentic History of England, 1783. Courtesy of The Society of the Cincinnati.
On July 3, 1776, John Adams excitedly wrote to his wife, Abigail:
Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony “that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do.”

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.—I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
Adams’s prediction proved to be substantially correct—but, as we all know, he was wrong about the date. Although the colonies voted for independence (12–0, with New York abstaining) on July 2, the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4—and that is the date Americans celebrate each year.

Adams concluded his letter with an acknowledgment of the challenges ahead:
I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States.—Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means.
In response to John’s news, Abigail sent the two letters reprinted here as our Story of the Week selection. She shares his excitement for independence and conveys pride in his role, and her second letter includes an account of a public reading of the Declaration of Independence in Boston. Yet she expresses disappointment that the final printed version of the document omitted “some of the most Manly Sentiments” included in an earlier draft. She may well have been thinking, in part, of a deleted reference to the evils of the slave trade. John appears to have said nothing to Abigail about the draft’s authorship, and so she might also have inferred that he, rather than Thomas Jefferson, was its author.

As one would expect from correspondence between wife and husband, the letters include other news relating to family and community. Aside from the war, dominating their concerns is the small pox epidemic plaguing Boston and areas to the north (in “Canady,” or Canada), an outbreak that had infected about three thousand Continental Army soldiers; the second letter discusses the popular and moderately successful use of a “new method” of inoculation developed by London doctor Daniel Sutton, involving a small puncture to infect people with a milder form of the disease. On the war front, she mentions the sighting of a British fleet worrying the Boston harbor and the concern that the city was not yet properly prepared for its own defense. And she expresses anger about the “conspiricy [sic] at New York”: a private in General Washington’s guard confessed that he had been one of a number of Continental Army soldiers planning to defect to the British, fueling rumors that the plot had included the assassination of Washington himself.

Notes: The following references all appear on the last page. Colonel Thomas Crafts participated in the Boston Tea Party and commanded the artillery unit during the Revolutionary War in which Paul Revere served. James Bowdoin Sr. was a local political leader and later the second governor of Massachusetts (1785–87). Belcona is Abigail’s curious spelling for balcony; Gorge is King George III. The Borgias were a prominent Renaissance family known for using theft, bribery, and murder to gain political and ecclesiastical power. Catiline, a first-century B.C.E. Roman senator, was involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the Roman Republic.

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By yesterdays post I received two Letters dated 3 and 4 of July and tho your Letters never fail to give me pleasure, be the subject what it will, yet it was greatly heightned by the prospect of the future happiness and glory of our Country;  . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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