Democracy and Frogs

June 29, 2019

In my day job, I’ve recently had the pleasure of doing layout on a new translation of an ancient Greek mock-epic poem, “The Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice,” a spoof of heroic war sagas. The new translation by A. E. Stallings, with drawings by Grant Silverstein and an introduction by “A. Nony Mouse,” is due out later this year from Paul Dry Books. The text and illustrations are both gruesome and hilarious.

To summarize the poem’s narrative: After committing a selfish and deadly error, the Frog King concocts lies to evade responsibility, and as part of his cover-up he leads his subjects into a war on false pretenses. Things go badly for the amphibians, and the entire race will be wiped out—until the gods intervene to stave off genocide.

Could there be parallels to the current day?

After pondering this matter, I’ve decided conditions are very different in our democratic era. Because we no longer believe the gods will intervene.

Delicate Sensationalism

January 14, 2012

Cover of BLACK DOGSIn my disorganized reading of found books—volumes that turn up in the house with no invitation on my part, usually left behind by my wife, daughter, or a friend—the most recent was Black Dogs, a 1992 short novel by Ian McEwan, a writer I admire but can imbibe only in small doses. As is typical of McEwan, the story is unconventional, a bit weird, unpredictable. It’s a good read. Yet it indulges in a technique that my purist side deplores.

When pop novelists use bodice-ripping and gruesome slayings to spice up a plot, serious critics can dismiss the effort as mere sensationalism. But what happens when a top-notch literary writer employs similar elements, in a much more skillful way, and presumably to a higher purpose?

In Black DogsSPOILER ALERT, if anyone who hasn’t read this 20-year-old novel still plans to—the narrator, Jeremy, is writing a memoir about his in-laws, June and Bernard. The two have long been estranged, in part because of a transforming experience in 1946, on their honeymoon, when June encountered two large dogs in the French countryside. The animals provoked a revelation about good and evil that propelled her into decades of spiritual exploration, at odds with Bernard’s involvement in politics. Tantalizingly, throughout the novel, the author merely alludes to the key event. The explanation arrives in the last chapter with a vivid description of June’s being cornered on a lonely mountain path by feral dogs “of an unnatural size,” as big as donkeys:

she saw them as a juddering accumulation of disjointed details: the alien black gums, slack black lips rimmed by salt, a thread of saliva breaking, the fissures on a tongue that ran to smoothness along its curling edge, a yellow-red eye and eyeball muck spiking the fur, open sores on a foreleg, and, trapped in the V of an open mouth, deep in the hinge of the jaw, a little foam, to which her gaze kept returning. The dogs had brought with them their own cloud of flies. Some of them now defected to her.

The beasts slink forward to attack; June fights them off with rocks, a penknife, a rucksack and a distracting sausage.

But that’s not the real climax.

Later, in the inn where the newlyweds are staying, the proprietress and the mayor explain the dogs’ origin. During the war, the canines were brought to the region by the Nazi Gestapo to terrify the populace, which had supported the Resistance. Left behind when the Germans fled, the dogs have been living off the sheep.

Against the wishes of Mme. Auriac, the innkeeper, the mayor then proceeds with the story of a young woman, Danielle Bertrand, who had moved to the village during the war. She turned up at this very inn one day bleeding and gibbering, with her clothes torn.

Mme. Auriac said quickly, ‘She had been raped by the Gestapo. Excuse me, madame,’ and she placed her hand on June’s.

‘That was what we all thought,” the Maire said.

Mme. Auriac raised her voice. ‘And that was correct.’

‘It’s not what we discovered later. Pierre and Henri Sauvy—’


‘They saw it happen. Excuse me, madame’—to June—‘but they tied Danielle Bertrand over a chair.’

Mme. Auriac slapped the table hard. ‘Hector, I’m saying this to you now. I will not have this story told here.’

But Hector addressed himself to Bernard. ‘It wasn’t the Gestapo who raped her. They used—’

Mme. Auriac was on her feet. ‘You will leave my table now, and never eat or drink here again!’

Hector hesitated, then he shrugged, and he was halfway out of his chair when June asked, ‘They used what? What are you talking about, monsieur?’

The Maire, who had been so anxious to deliver his story, dithered over this direct question. ‘It’s necessary to understand, madame.… The Sauvy brothers saw this with their own eyes, through the window … and we heard later that this also used to happen at the interrogation centers in Lyon and Paris. The truth is, an animal can be trained—’

At last Mme. Auriac exploded.

Though the proprietress goes on to accuse the mayor and his cronies of spreading vicious rumors, the lurid secret is out. The tale is told ever so delicately, with many hesitations by the characters themselves, the culminating words never actually spoken … but it’s sensational nonetheless, and in this moment the titular black dogs acquire their full load of symbolism for June and for the reader.

And at this point in the book, a dozen pages from the end, I was annoyed at McEwan.

Not that I mind hearing about monstrous things in fiction. But there’s a tawdriness in this teasing and titillating of the reader to build toward a revelation of appalling sexual torture. It doesn’t matter how fine the prose—which indeed is brilliant—and it doesn’t matter whether rape by trained dogs was in fact a Nazi method. Nor does the symbolic intention justify this device. The author is playing with the reader’s ability (and willingness) to be shocked, and in my snooty opinion that’s a low-class trick unworthy of the best fiction.

All right, I admit it: in literary terms, I’m a prig.

Now I’ll move on to the next found book, which an unidentified person just slipped through our mail slot: the peculiarly appropriate Dogs for Dummies—a donation inspired, no doubt, by our new terrorist puppy.

Historical Delvings

November 7, 2011

Adam and EveWhen I was an English major, way back before Garrison Keillor started making fun of our tribe, historical fiction was considered minor-league, pop-culture fare, beneath the notice of highbrows in my high-class department. It was OK for Homer, Crane and Tolstoy to set tales in the past—those Great Writers were already in the canon—but in Vietnam-era USA it was incumbent on serious artists to confront the muck and mire of the present day.

Having long left academia behind, I don’t know exactly when that view began to change, but it must now be as archaic as Papa Hemingway’s bullfighters. Doctorow, Eco, Mantel and many others have impressed the critics with fiction set far back from the present time, and today’s readers, whatever their literary pretensions, seem more fascinated with Anne Boleyn’s head than with any contemporary character’s heart.

Cultural anthropologists may want to speculate about why so much modern fiction has taken flight from the modern. Or maybe it’s obvious.

Personally I enjoy good historical novels and always have, even when under the thrall of my snooty English department. Recently I’ve read a couple of fine ones: The Confession of Jack Straw by Simone Zelitch (Black Heron Press, 1991) and The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead by Paul Elwork (Putnam, 2011; an expanded version of The Tea House, published by Casperian Books in 2007).

Zelitch recreates the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when tens of thousands of English folk marched on London to protest an onerous tax (a flat tax—Republicans take note!), a low cap on wages, and other legal shenanigans by which the rich exploited the poor. Professing loyalty to fourteen-year-old King Richard II, the rebels wanted to rid the country of his handlers and advisers, whom they took to be corrupt usurpers of power. Chants of the now-famous rhyme,

When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Who was then the Gentleman?

fostered an idealistic hope that class distinctions might be ameliorated—kind of like our yearning that Wall Street float back down toward Main Street, someday, somehow.

The rebels managed to dispatch several of the supposed usurpers, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, and they torched John of Gaunt’s great Savoy Palace; yet they were eventually betrayed by the teenage king himself. Peasant leaders John Ball, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler were all apparently killed or executed. Straw, the most mythical of the three, was said to have left a “confession,” reproduced in the chronicles of Thomas Walsingham; this dubious document may have been wholly invented—for, as we know all too well, it’s the victors who write the history books.

Zelitch imagines for us the true, undistorted confession of Jack Straw, as dictated to his captors. Her Jack is a conflicted and dynamic figure, compelled to betray either his mentor, the half-crazed preacher John Ball, or his own crippled sister, who needs him back home. Poetic and earnest, full of folk tales and country ale, Jack is a sensuous man who drinks in both the beauty and the stench of his surroundings:

The sun rose to our backs, and we reached Maidstone by late morning. The whole town filled the square to greet us. We had to stop if only to push through the hundred who bore baskets and banners. Two women bore a proud new standard, Adam delving, Eve with spindle. Kate Tyler stood among them, some ways off, and she swung a basket full to overflowing, warm with bread and sour with cheese. Her hair was twisted back, and her face was round and white like a moon or a cheese. (p. 174)

We had to climb many a steep mount of cobbles. Townsmen call them hills. Some streamed stink like waterfalls down clefts you call a gutter. Those guts of rain and dung would overcome the deepest gutter. At odd banks of these hell-rivers the merchants hawked their pies or caps or buckles. (p. 201)

The style—lyrical, evocative, but set in those short chunky sentences like the solid clop of a peasant’s boots—gives the story its unique earthy flavor. This is a strong novel and an impressive feat of recreating the past.

Paul Elwork’s book is also well done, but in his case the historical setting—a country estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia in the 1920s—seems more a convenience than a structural necessity. His principal characters are a twin brother and sister, Emily and Michael, thirteen years old, who pretend they can communicate with spirits. Discovering that she can make an eerie cracking noise with her foot, Emily uses this technique to spook Michael, who at once sees the potential for duping adults in the community. Their con game of “spirit rapping” is loosely based on the real-life saga of the Fox sisters of New York state, who helped spark the spiritualist movement in the mid-1800s. Elwork shifts the story forward to the post–World War I era, when so many have perished in the war and the flu epidemic that the survivors make easy marks for a spiritualist who professes to connect with the dear departed.

Though the details from the 1920s feel authentic, the main interest here is the spiritualism itself—its motivation, its psychological effects, its sometimes tragic consequences. Elwork draws a nice contrast between Emily, who remains dubious about the play-acting, and the cynical Michael, who takes up with a professional con man. Both of these kids seem remarkably adult but believable. And if the harrowing outcome is plotted a bit awkwardly, the tale is a compelling one, drawing out buried family secrets and guilts, recollections and imaginings about the dead, plus a long-suppressed romance. The novel ends by taking advantage of its time frame to skip ahead to 1939, when the world is entering another murderous conflagration. Emily, now a semi-recluse who has studied Dr. Freud in college, reflects on “old things” and on what she has learned or failed to learn. There’s a sense that some passions, dreams, mysteries, misunderstandings—the components of our Freudian underground—are best left unexplored. About her mother’s erstwhile romance, Emily remarks that “as the years went by, I acquired the habit of not asking, and found myself not wanting an answer, despite my occasional curiosity.”

Fondness for a Show

November 27, 2010

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

A press of work in the day job has kept me from this blog awhile. Looking back, I see that my last post was a frivolous one on November 11, Veterans née Armistice Day. In my own defense I can point out that I’m frequently unaware of the date and even the day of the week. On holidays I look around and wonder why the office is empty. My cell phone, which displays date and time, tells me as I begin writing that it’s 11/27 and 12:06, and only by close attention to the punctuation marks can I figure out which is which.

Thus a much-too-late note for Armistice Day, or perhaps an early post for Chanukah-Christmas. (Thanksgiving gets ignored, I’m afraid. Football and food induce sleep, not bloggery.)

In earlier posts I’ve mentioned the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, who, though personally safe from the Holocaust, killed himself in despair in 1942, soon after finishing his memoir The World of Yesterday. Below is an excerpt from his chapter about the onset of World War I, the war to end wars that brought us the Veterans Day that we now use to remember many subsequent wars. What’s striking is the innocent belief that things were going to be all right, even after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand that sparked the conflagration.

The coffins of the murdered royalty were quietly taken to Artstetten and interred there. Vienna, whose perpetual fondness for a show was thus deprived of a great opportunity, had already begun to forget the tragic occurrence. … In less than a week, however, attacks suddenly began to appear in the newspapers, and their constantly mounting crescendo was regulated too consistently for them to have been entirely accidental. The Serbian government was accused of collusion in the assassination, and there were veiled hints that Austria would not permit the murder of its supposedly beloved heir-apparent to go unavenged. One could not escape the impression that some sort of action was being prepared in the newspapers, but no one thought of war. Neither banks nor business houses nor private persons changed their plans. Why should we be concerned with these constant skirmishes with Serbia which, as all knew, arose out of some commercial treaties concerned with the export of Hungarian pigs? My bags were packed so that I could go to [poet Emile] Verhaeren in Belgium, my work was in full swing, what did the dead Archduke in his catafalque have to do with my life? The summer was beautiful as never before and promised to become even more beautiful—and we all looked out upon the world without a care. I can recall that on my last day in Baden I was walking through the vineyards with a friend, when an old wine-grower said to us: “We haven’t had such a summer for a long time. If it stays this way, we’ll get better grapes than ever. Folks will remember this summer!”

He did not know, the old man in his blue cooper’s smock, how gruesomely true a word he had spoken.

(Bison Books edition, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964)

What would Zweig make of today’s maneuvering in the Mideast and the Korean peninsula? Perhaps even more to the point, would he see in our “perpetual fondness for a show” a way of deluding ourselves about the future?

Of Zweig and Patience

October 18, 2010


Stefan Zweig (standing) with his brother Alfred


A year or two ago my wife and I discovered Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), an Austrian writer whose memoir The World of Yesterday paints a lively picture of Europe before, during, and after World War I. Zweig knew every poet, novelist, dramatist, and artist on the scene; a devoted pan-Europeanist, he translated dozens of his friends’ works and wrote biographies of cultural figures ranging from Erasmus to Nietzsche to Balzac. In 1942, shortly after he finished the memoir, in exile in Brazil and despairing as Europe dove deep into another round of self-butchery, he and his wife took their own lives.

In the memoir’s last chapters, he speaks of the disbelief and agony that he and others like him experienced as they witnessed Hitler’s rise. On a Sunday morning he hears the radio news of the declaration of war, “a message which meant death for thousands of those who had silently listened to it, sorrow and unhappiness, desperation and threat for every one of us.”

After reading the memoir, we were moved enough to explore his other work. Despite his vast output of nonfiction and drama, Zweig found time for a number of novels, stories, and novellas—intense psychological works that examine the characters’ thoughts and emotions in exquisite, sometimes excruciating, detail. His writing is marvelous, his characters strange enough to feel very contemporary. And yet I have the typical problem of our A.D.D. age: attention span.

Look at the following passage from The Post-Office Girl (trans. Joel Rotenberg, New York Review Books, 2008). The title character, Christine, a penurious young woman from a small town, has been invited by a rich aunt to visit a magnificent resort in the Alps. When her aunt tells her to “freshen up” before lunch, Christine is amazed, bewildered, awed, and humbled by the luxurious hotel room she is given. We join the action, if it can be called that, about halfway through a two-page paragraph:

Discovery upon discovery: the washbasin, white and shiny as a seashell with nickel-plated fixtures, the armchairs, soft and deep and so enveloping that it takes an effort to get up again, the polished hardwood of the furniture, harmonizing with the spring-green wallpaper, and here on the table to welcome her a vibrant variegated carnation in a long-stem vase, like a colorful salute from a crystal trumpet. How unbelievably, wonderfully grand! She has a heady feeling as she imagines having all this to look at and to use, imagines making it her own for a day, eight days, fourteen days, and with timid infatuation she sidles up to the unfamiliar things, curiously tries out each feature one after another, absorbed in these delights, until suddenly she rears back as though she’s stepped on a snake, almost losing her footing. For unthinkingly she’s opened the massive armoire against the wall—and what she sees through the partly open inner door, in an unexpected full-length mirror, is a life-sized image like a red-tongued jack-in-the-box, and (she gives a start) it’s her, horribly real, the only thing out of place in this entire elegantly coordinated room. The abrupt sight of the bulky, garish yellow travel coat, the straw hat bent out of shape above the stricken face, is like a blow, and she feels her knees sag. “Interloper, begone! Don’t pollute this place. Go back where you belong,” the mirror seems to bark. Really, she thinks in consternation, how can I have the nerve to stay in a room like this, in this world! What an embarrassment for my aunt! I shouldn’t wear anything fancy, she said! As though I could do anything else! No, I’m not going down, I’d rather stay here. I’d rather go back. Bur how can I hide, how can I disappear quickly before anyone sees me and takes offense? She’s backed as far as possible away from the mirror, onto the balcony. She stares down, her hand on the railing. One heave and it would be over.

This scene goes on for another long paragraph in which Christine frets over what to wear, worries what the maid will think, and finally “scurries down the stairs with downcast eyes.”

I admire this writing tremendously—“timid infatuation,” a carnation like a trumpet’s salute—but at some point in the piling of detail upon detail, I become impatient. “I get the point!” my inner voice yells at the author; “let’s move on, OK?”

Then I remember what Stanley Fish once said to a seminar of undergraduates. The more the culture emphasized reading fast, he declared, the slower he read. He engaged us in examining Milton line by line, word by word, almost syllable by syllable.

I try to keep that perspective in mind. No, I lecture myself, don’t read Stefan Zweig while you’re simultaneously watching baseball, checking e-mail, and snacking on the delicious nut-cranberry mix from Trader Joe’s. Both hands on the book, please. Both eyes on the text. Slowly, patiently. Writers as good as Zweig deserve this much from us, and more.