Saturday, May 18, 2019

Babushka's Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin's Wartime Camps is an eloquent travel memoir that also manages to do the heavy lifting required by great historical writing. Though German-born and typically Ireland-based, author Marcel Krueger is currently carrying out the duties of writer-in-residence in Olsztyn, Poland. You can follow his blog in German and in English.

Published by I.B. Tauris in 2018, Babushka's Journey is a welcome addition to the better known histories of trauma of the twentieth century, filling a niche that most World War II and Gulag narratives barely mention: the fate of East Prussian women during the final days of the war.

Krueger beautifully narrates both the story of his grandmother Cilly and her rural childhood that was interrupted when the Soviet army advanced into the region in January 1945 as well as of his own present-day attempt to trace her journey east, through Poland and on to Yekaterinburg, where she worked in various POW labor camps in the region until October 1949.

He brings fresh insight into what it meant to be a German POW in Stalin's Soviet Union by not only conducting archival research and interviewing primary sources but also through recreating the diet that his grandmother would have eaten in the camps and the physiological toll such a diet will take on the human body. He captures both the bleak winter of 1945 and the stifling summer heat of Eastern Europe during his own travels.

Babushka's Journey raises the standard of historical research and how that research can serve as the basis to a compelling and memorable narrative.


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Thursday, May 16, 2019

In Memory of Little Beasts

I'm devastated, and I've been bawling my eyes out for days now. I went to bed Friday evening sure that my little family was safe and well, only to lose my little boy in the night. He wasn't ill. Despite being deaf, he was probably the fittest cat I've ever known. But he died early Saturday morning, just weeks shy from his eighth birthday/anniversary, and now my home is filled with tears where a little white deaf cat once lived.

I'm angry that the remaining four to eight years I fully expected to have with him were taken from me. I'm angry that he died in distress with no warning. And that I was unable to do anything to help. I loved him with all my heart, and yet I still know I didn't deserve the love he offered me.

Rest in peace, my fearless Stupid Baby. I'll never forget you.

Bosko P. Carmichael, June 29, 2011 - May 11, 2019

Bosko's Tumblr can be found at https://iambosko.tumblr.com/, if you want to see almost eight years of cat photos.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Lifeless Lou Reed

Anthony DeCurtis' Lou Reed: A Life is perhaps the worst nonfiction rock-and-roll book I've read, and I've read Marianne Faithfull's (though much more likely, David Dalton's) Faithfull: An Autobiography. Despite being a longtime reader and subscriber in high school and college, I've never really been much of a fan of the Rolling Stone school of rock journalism. Lou Reed disappoints in all the familiar ways.

Instead of ever getting close enough or real enough with its subject, DeCurtis frustratingly sticks to Lou Reed the image. So much of the writing deals only with the image that the person, the artist, comes across as one dimensional, lifeless, and not very interesting at all. Not so much “a life,” as the subtitle boasts, after all.

One chapter on childhood, which is never a good sign, that is little more than listing the schools he attended and the friends he spent time with. Another chapter on college. Then the predictable and boring organization of one chapter per album, per project. And in these chapters, so much of the writing concerns the laziest deployment of hermeneutics and the least interesting literature reviews, in which he cites other (mostly Rolling Stone) critics.

One would imagine that someone with a PhD in literature could do more than conflate every reference to a father in Reed’s lyrics to Reed’s specific father as if Reed would or could ever simply transcribe his family history in order to make an album. After making such uncritical claims, DeCurtis then goes on to assert that “Reed’s poetic license” affords him the ability to use and define words as he sees fit. This weird, naive back and forth when it comes to interpreting song lyrics drove me fucking crazy, particularly since so little of it offered any real insight into Reed's actual writing process.

Another of DeCurtis' hermeneutic hangups is his spending so much space on surface analysis of album covers. None of this ever gets at anything behind the surly attitude and ambivalent image of  Lou Reed.

And these criticisms aren't even about the book's greatest flaw, which is the chapter titled "This Gender Business"—the most transphobic, and by extension, homophobic and transmisogynistic writing in what purports to be serious journalism by a serious press I've ever read. I get that language and acceptance of transgenderism has dramatically changed since the 1970s, and that the horrible quotes from the press (including Rolling Stone, of course) might be necessary in order to properly contextualize Reed and Rachel's relationship, but DeCurtis was still referring to that relationship as “the sexual underworld” in 2017. (He refers to Reed's subsequent relationship with a cisgender woman as a “new heteronormative love.") Interviewing others (Erin Clermont, who comes across as a total cunt, for example) to speculate about the details of Reed and Rachel's sex life is tacky at best. Though I suspect that I'll be pissed off about this book for years to come, I haven't yet mentioned its most damning failing: Rachel is referred to as a "transsexual [sic] male [sic]." It seems that the publisher Little Brown does not employ editors or basic fact checkers even though several were specifically named in the Acknowledgments. For fuck's sake!

The best biographies get close to the people they're about, so much so that you can begin to see the world through their eyes. This book never goes beyond how the image of Lou Reed appeared to the writer himself. Fans of Lou Reed the person: don't waste your time. It reads as if written by a narc.

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You can read my Eulogy for Lou Reed here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Lucky's Speech

It was years—decades even—from the time I first read Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot before seeing a production of it. In that time, and really since the beginning, I was fascinated with Lucky's speech, which still seems to me to be the climax of Act One. If you remove all the repetition from the play, then all that remains would be Lucky's speech and Pozzo's downfall.

In every production I have seen, Lucky’s speech, which Beckett calls a tirade, comes across as just that. It’s a wordy outburst that unfortunately loses much of its connotative meaning when delivered onstage, no matter who the actor is. Seeing productions of Godot, then, will always disappoint when compared to reading the script.


Lost is much of the bodily humor (the double caca of “Acacacacademy,” scholarly citations by “Fartov and Belcher”) as well as the philosophical content, which includes allusions to Descartes’ res extensa, the defective Latin “Essy-in-Possy” misquoted from Kant (esse-in-posse, or existence as a possibility or having the potential to exist), and the direct reference to Bishop (and philosopher George) Berkeley.

Certain lines from the tirade (“… what is more much more grave that in the light of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman it appears what is more much more grave that in the light the light the light of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman …”) easily resonates with Pozzo’s gloomy lines at the end of his scene in Act Two: “They give birth [read: “labors”] astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” It is as if Lucky can either see the future or has the ability to correctly discern the present.

If I were to direct a production of Waiting for Godot, I think I would have Lucky speak more slowly. Other than the word "tirade," there is nothing in Beckett's stage directions that mandates how quickly the lines are delivered. And "tirade" can just as easily be much more methodical. Imagine if Lucky were presenting his findings at an academic conference. Or imagine Lucky as Hitler espousing not racist ideology but existential truths. What if Lucky were simply rallying all of humanity to his cause? How would that scene play differently? Would the speech's content finally be allowed to come through?

And spare me that bullshit "insight" that because it's "postmodern" it's not supposed to have any inherent meaning. That's fucking bullshit, and we all know it. If anything, theories of postmodernity show that the speech's meaning is located specifically within its dislocated meanings. The quaquaquaqua has meaning as both Heideggerian Als-Struktur and the quacking of a duck. What better way to honor Beckett and his "misnamed" Lucky, who, according to the play, is both capable of thinking even while remaining dumb?

Saturday, March 23, 2019

End of the Rainbow

"Between you and me is not only a rocket trajectory, but also a life."

When asked about my thoughts regarding Gravity's Rainbow, I responded that it easily has become one of my favorite books. Not my favorite, but certainly one of them. I mentioned that one of the things I liked most about the novel was that, like Moby-Dick, it created an entire universe, a world that could be recreated just from the science, technology, and mythology it contained. I liked how every detail, every character, every image responded to and activated that universe. Its rhizomic narrative structure is nearly perfect.

It's funny that Pynchon has been so little on my radar. I read The Crying of Lot 49 in graduate school, and I thought it was schlock lit. I had no interest in reading anything else by him.

Another aspect of Gravity's Rainbow that appealed to me was Pynchon's dialog with translation. There are a lot of languages used in the novel. And Pynchon does this interesting thing where he'll use a foreign word or phrase and then half-translate it a page or two later without ever calling attention to the fact that that's what he's doing. I say "half-translate" because his translation often employs an almost hyper-foreignized root that he leaves intact.

One example, when he directly cites Rilke: "These tall, these star-blotting Moslem angels ... O, wie spurlos zerträte ein Engel den Trostmarkt. . . ." And a paragraph and a half later: "coming to trample spoorless the white marketplace of his own exile. . . ." This was probably the first time I noticed what he was doing, and this example comes near the middle of the book. Spoorless jumps out because it's so weird. In German, it means trackless or without a trace. But Pynchon half-translates it as spoorless, which barely amounts to translation at all. This is not a common word in English. And the word is typically translated as completely in English translations of the Rilke. There are lots more examples.

Pynchon's manifesto of language can perhaps be summed up with this line: "Words are only an eye-twitch away from the things they stand for." Or perhaps more forcefully: "The knife cuts through the apple like a knife cutting an apple."

Pynchon's love affair with Rilke was beautiful and on display from early on. Rilke's name is mentioned seven times. The Duino Elegies, once. I would've liked to have translated The Duino Elegies to commemorate having finished Gravity's Rainbow. Or perhaps even Rilke's thematically related “How surely gravity’s law.” But because there are only so few hours in a day, I stuck with the shorter "Gravity." Here is Rilke's poem and my Pynchonian translation below.

Schwerkraft
by Rainer Maria Rilke


Mitte, wie du aus allen
dich ziehst, auch noch aus Fliegenden dich
wiedergewinnst, Mitte, du Stärkste.

Stehender: wie ein Trank den Durst
durchstürzt ihn die Schwerkraft.

Doch aus dem Schlafenden fällt,
wie aus lagernder Wolke,
reichlicher Regen der Schwere.

Gravity
by Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Frank Garrett

Middle, how from all of us
you pull yourself, even from those flying off you
regain yourself, middle, you most strong.

Standing: like a drink the thirst
plunges him down by gravity.

But from the sleeper falls,
As from a stored-up cloud,
a generous rain of what’s grave.

See also: Half a Rainbow