Book Review: The Third Son, by Julie Wu

Julie Wu’s The Third Son is economically written, powerful, and unsentimental. The latter virtue keeps it well clear of the saccharine exoticism that taints many depictions of Asia, particularly of Asian family life. The protagonist, Saburo (a Japanese name often given to third sons), is low in his family’s hierarchy and is treated appallingly by his parents and oldest brother.

The story includes a superlative panorama of Taiwanese history of the mid-twentieth-century and would make an excellent college-course reading-list adoption for this reason; yet only its first part is set in Taiwan, for Saburo makes his bid to escape his dim prospects via higher education in America. The novel’s subject thus changes from Taiwan to the Taiwanese diaspora.

The Third Son is therefore a freedom story, and America is depicted as the promised land of Saburo’s salvation; yet America too is shown warts and all, its promise offering Saburo only a toehold, which he must struggle to maintain and improve. There is little sense in this book of a culture clash between the old world and the new. A fine rebuke to coercive tradition is indeed delivered by an American, as in: “‘Filial piety,’ I [Saburo] said. ‘You Americans obviously don’t know anything about it.’ ‘We do,’ he said, “and we reject it.’” [p. 184] However, the urge to escape to the US is implanted by a cousin back on Taiwan, who calls America “‘a country founded on principles, on personal freedom’” [p. 24] and who later advises Saburo, “‘You have only one life. Fight for it.’” [p. 79] Both Taiwan and America exhibit similar patterns of corruption and institutional hindrance, which Saburo must overcome. (An America that brings out the best in people by constantly challenging them is a strange sort of paradise.) It is in America, however, that Saburo is (nearly) free from the wanton meanness of his kindred, and it is on that freedom that he pins his hopes.

The Third Son is fast-moving and compelling. The reader will not be able to put it down.

Book Review: The Man with the Golden Touch, by Mór Jókai

In Mór Jókai’s The Man with the Golden Touch, the protagonist, Mihály Timár, builds his fortune from an ill-gotten capital. He does not connive for it, but it falls into his hands unearned, and he spends most of the book in a cloud of self-reproach, unable to enjoy the happiness that properly belongs to others. Even when he resettles the fortune upon its rightful possessors, he claims no absolution, knowing that it was never his to bestow.

“Self-reproach” is an apt term, as is the idea of claiming “absolution” for oneself, for Timár is compelled, by the falsehood upon which his estate rests, to internalize morality. The inapplicability of external moral authority, at least to him, is the main theme of this book: The Man with the Golden Touch imagines a world without external moral authority, in other words, a world without religion.

Such a world presents challenges. It may seem at first glance to lack justice. Indeed, Timár’s basic uneasiness stems from his own flaunting of it. As he muses, “‘Whatever evil I do, good comes of it, and the greatest folly I commit turns to wisdom; when will this end?’” (p. 272 of 2001 Corvina edition) In despair, Timár gives up prayer. “Through this dreadful night he dared not pray; he would not speak with God. ‘Do not Thou look where I go.’ From this birthday on he gave up prayer. He defied fate.” (p. 261)

However, in his despair Timár forgets that it is precisely in supposed injustice that God abides. His lament (again) that “the greatest folly I commit turns to wisdom” amounts to a restatement of “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.” (1 Corinthians 1:27) In fact, The Man with the Golden Touch is the story of how Timár (and the reader) learns this lesson afresh. Its disparagement of religion, in its narrow, doctrinal sense, leaves God’s grace reigning supreme.

Accordingly, the book is brimming with godly though unchurchly sentiments. “They had no church holidays and did not count Sundays,” reads one. “Their saints’ days were those on which God gave them some special joy.” (p. 264) Another exposition occurs in the form of a dialogue, with a straw-man priest:

‘The man is your daughter’s husband?’

‘Yes.’

‘Who married them?’

‘He who married Adam and Eve – God.’

‘That was when there were no priests nor altars. But now things are not managed so easily….And so you have allowed your daughter to live in sin?’

‘What is sin?’

‘Sin? Sin is that which earns the contempt of all respectable people.’

‘I am quite unaffected by such empty considerations….My God requires no sacrifice of song and bell, only a devout heart. I do my penance, not by telling my beads but by working.’ (pp. 336-338)

The dominion of God without institutional religion suggests a paradise or Eden, making The Man with the Golden Touch into a story of paradise regained. Timár must strive through doubt and despair to reach the place from which all men and women are said to have been expelled. His sense of unworthiness stands him in good stead, as confidence in his own merit would doom him. Jókai even includes among his characters a sort of antichrist, who threatens to sabotage Timár’s endeavor.

The Man with the Golden Touch must count first and foremost as a spiritual allegory, yet it is a thoroughly engaging one. Its Hungarian setting and cast – the Danube and the representatives of all classes who live near it – is as intriguing as always, though never overdone or clichéd. In sum, this is a book to be cherished, providing both meaning and pleasure.   

Book Review: Peony in Love, by Lisa See

It is odd to encounter pride in subservience, but it should not be surprising. In China, the standard was set centuries ago by a woman named Ban Zhao, who argued that women were too important not to be taught to serve their men. The forcefulness of her advocacy for female education has led some modern scholars to call her a feminist, but the object of her advocacy – the inculcation of complaisance – has led the rest of us to balk at the term. There are few things more mind-blowingly paradoxical than the pride Ban Zhao took in the woman’s role as upholder.

Lisa See’s Peony in Love showcases this sort of pride in a seventeenth-century elite family. In the words of its protagonist (named Peony), “As women, we have to think about how to make our husbands happy by being good wives, bearing sons, running our households well, and being pretty so they don’t become distracted from their daily activities or loiter with concubines. We are not born with these abilities. They must be instilled in us by other women. Through lessons, aphorisms, and acquired skills we are molded…” (p. 73)

Chief among the instillers is Peony’s mother, whose molding of little girls starts with their feet. Footbinding, that most grotesque symbol of subjugation, is exactly what elicits the most pride from Peony’s mom:

‘More girls are having their feet bound than ever before in the history of our country,’ Mama explained. ‘The Manchu barbarians believe our women’s practice to be backward…but the Manchus can’t see us in our women’s chambers. We wrap our daughter’s feet as an act of rebellion against those foreigners….We have our women’s ways. This is what makes us valuable. It’s what makes us marriageable. And they cannot make us stop….They cannot compete with us or stop us from cherishing our culture. More importantly, our bound feet continue to be an enticement to our husbands.’ (p. 46)

So sayeth the mother, but does the daughter (Peony) take such pride in her condition? Indeed, her enthusiasm for the life that is planned for her is shaken by the opera The Peony Pavilion, which introduces the disruptive force of love. It is love that suggests to Peony a chance at a kind of escape:

I wanted to bury myself in thoughts of love. I had no way to get out of my [arranged] marriage, but maybe I could escape from it in the same way I had here in my natal home, by reading, writing, and imagining….I did have a certain kind of knowledge…and I would use it to save myself. I wouldn’t write poetry about butterflies and flowers. I had to find something that would not only be meaningful to me but would sustain me for the rest of my life.

A thousand years ago, the poet Han Yun wrote, ‘All things not at peace will cry out.’ He compared the human need to express feelings in writing to the natural force that impelled plants to rustle in the wind or metal to ring when struck. With that I realized what I would do….I would find all those places in The Peony Pavilion that illustrated [my thoughts about the Seven Emotions]. I would look inside myself and write not what the critics had observed or what my aunts discussed about these emotions but how I felt them myself. I would finish my project in time for my marriage….My project would be my salvation in the coming dark years. I might be locked up in my husband’s home, but my mind would travel… (p. 76-77)

The rest of this review is a spoiler.

Peony, therefore, pins her wishes on an inward escape; she has no hope of launching any kind of rebellion. Readers holding out for the latter will be disappointed, especially since Peony will, following the examples of Ban Zhao and of her own mother, reconcile herself to, and even express pride in, female subservience. Encountering a young woman whose feet she had helped to bind, Peony feels “a momentary flash of pride that her bound feet had turned out so well.” (p. 202) She resolves to bind another girl’s feet in order to give her a chance at an upward marriage. (pp. 223-224) She counsels yet another woman, “Your husband is Heaven. How could you not serve him?” (p. 173) It is very hard for the modern reader, myself included, to avoid feeling revolted at Peony’s failure to grow out of – nay, her success at growing into – this most ironic form of chauvinism.

However, in exact proportion as I sympathize with Peony in Love’s frustrated readers, I am compelled to respect its accomplished writer. Lisa See has done what I could not: She has created a convincing protagonist at peace with a world we could never accept. While writing Southern Rain, I found it impossible to imagine a female lead who was well-adjusted to repression. There was no way I could write sympathetically about a footbound heroine contentedly serving a pre-selected husband. Such a woman could only be a victim, in my view. So I dodged the challenge by making my heroine a social outsider, educated by nuns and with unbound feet. Lisa See, in rising to the challenge, has given us perhaps more insight into seventeenth-century China by taking us inside the mind of someone who is more fully representative of it: a teenage girl with absolutely no control over her life, warped in body, limited in mobility, fixed in destiny, and constrained in every conceivable way. What could Peony do besides make the best of her situation – even to the point of being proud of it, which most women apparently were – as well as read, write, and dream?

In its realistic delineation of its heroine’s limited options, Peony in Love must count as a great success. It is historically well-grounded and finely researched, right down to conceptions of the afterlife. The jury may still be out on the question of realism versus reader satisfaction, but See’s realistic book, like Peony’s life, is probably as satisfying as could be expected. 

Book Review: Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, by Ronald J. Pestritto

In this book, Woodrow Wilson emerges as a relentless disparager of constitutional governance and an advocate for the modern administrative state. Viewing the Constitution through the prism of German historicism, Wilson asserted that it was merely a product of its time: The supposedly axiomatic conception of human nature that informed the founders’ drafting of it had become obsolete. Specifically, Wilson argued that the danger of faction, which the founders had taken to be ever-present and never-ending, had in fact passed and could no longer justify the checking and balancing of the state’s power. It was appropriate, therefore, for constitutional government to be superseded and replaced by an administrative apparatus capable of carrying out the people’s will more efficiently.

Wilson’s belief in the unified public will is evident in his understanding of the Civil War, which, to him, had “disclosed the real foundations of the Union; had shown them to be laid, not in the Constitution, its mere formal structure, but upon deep beds of conviction and sentiment.” (p. 103) However, he also noted that “there has been from the first a steady and unmistakable growth of nationality of sentiment” (p. 117), suggesting a development that antedated the Civil War.

Of course, Wilson’s vison of American history was shaped by wishful thinking. When he wrote that “The nation [after the Civil War] could not return to the thoughts or to the life that had gone before [it]….The motives of politics, the whole theory of political action, the character of the government, the sentiment of duty, the very ethics of private conduct were altered[,]” he was saying more about his own hopes than he was about the results of the Civil War. We will leave aside the fact that President Lincoln was a scrupulous constitutionalist who had urged a return to the “transhistorical” principles of the founding (p. 109), and we will also refrain from discussion of how the idea that the world was turned upside down by Union victory in 1865 is a reactionary as well as a progressive starting point. The issue here is that Wilson’s interpretation of American history was heavily colored by German historicism, according to which, “history brings about a unity or objectivity of will, and that it is this implicit will that must govern the direction of society.” (p. 71) Since the popular will had been unified, Wilson reasoned, there was no longer any risk that a majority would seize the government and oppress a minority; hence, the limitation of government power had become unnecessary. (p. 127) Indeed, the doctrine of the separation of powers was injurious, in his appraisal, because it prevented government from carrying out the national will effectively. (pp. 123-124)

The argument that “limiting the power of a democratic government can only have undemocratic results,” is not unappealing. Your humble reviewer often indulged in it as a lad and used it to launch such epic oratory as “Why should one branch of the government, elected by the people, act as a check upon another branch of the government, also elected by the people?” Maturity and topical reading, however, have shown me that the argument is both weak and dangerous. Its faulty basis is the notion of the unified popular will so celebrated by Wilson. While government of the people, by the people, and for the people is indeed a sacred thing, in comparison to governments of, by, and for various elites, it is nonetheless unwise to exalt the people in the abstract or to ascribe to them any supernatural capacity for unanimity or communal thinking. It was John Stuart Mill who took direct aim at this idea of popular absolutism, in the first pages of his essay On Liberty. After laying out the argument rhetorically – “The nation [does] not need to be protected against its own will. There [is] no fear of its tyrannizing over itself” – Mill proceeded to take it apart:

Such phrases as ‘self-government’ and ‘the power of the people over themselves,’ do not express the true state of the case. The ‘people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the ‘self-government’ spoken of is not the government of each by himself but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those that succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority: the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein. (The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill, eds. Schneewind and Miller, 2002, pp. 5-6)

Mill’s words are quoted here at length because they seem to have anticipated Wilson with remarkable prescience. No doubt, Wilson was keenly aware of the similar admonitions of the founders, especially James Madison in his Federalist No. 10, where he argued “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” (The Federalist Papers, ed. Rossiter, 1961, p. 79) In fact, it was just this claim to timeless truth on the part of the founders that roused Wilson to palpable irritation and sarcasm. “This democracy – this modern democracy,” Wilson insisted, “is not the rule of the many but the rule of the whole….Childish fears [to the contrary] have been outgrown.” (p. 69) As he further protested, “The makers of our Federal Constitution read Montesquieu with true scientific enthusiasm. They were scientists in their way – the best way of their age – those fathers of the nation. Jefferson wrote of ‘the laws of Nature’ – and then by way of afterthought – ‘and of Nature’s God.’ And they constructed a government as they would have constructed an orrery.” Alas, the founders’ science was static and Newtonian, but the age now belonged to Darwin and to evolution. (p. 119) Wilson looked forward to the day when the blueprint of the founders’ orrery, the Constitution, would be cast aside. (pp. 75, 122)

Wilson mocked the “blind worship” of America’s founding documents (p. 122), using similar language as some people do today, when they chide advocates of limited government for treating the Constitution as a “sacred document.” Perhaps the reader is familiar with this tactic. It amounts to caricature – I don’t know anybody who crosses himself whenever mentioning the Constitution – and should be counted as a rhetorical covering attack. Anyone who criticizes others for “blind worship” of the Constitution is betraying his own conviction that it is a mere scrap of paper – “mere formal structure,” as Wilson called it above.

At any rate, here once again is Wilson’s argument: that the unification of the national will has made limited, constitutional government outmoded. Now it is time to subject his argument to the test of evidence: Has faction disappeared? Have Americans forgotten their differences and come to sit together at the national table? Do divergent economic interests no longer exist? Are Americans agreed on religious, social, or other public issues? Do the two main political parties regularly coalesce in national unity governments? Are elections contested with respect and good faith, and are their results greeted with universal satisfaction?

Is the president of the United States, as Wilson claimed, “at once the choice of the party and the nation”…“the only party nominee for whom the whole nation votes”…“the spokesman for the real sentiment and purpose of the country”? (p. 168)

As Alexander Hamilton would have said, such assertions, and their author, were “far gone in Utopian speculations.” (p. 127) As one of our millennials would say: “WTF!” Wilson spent most of his career arguing against the founders and their prudent attitude concerning man’s immutable nature, and now all that needs to be done is to decide if the founders were right or if Wilson was right.

The reader having, I trust, pronounced the correct verdict upon Wilson’s utopian speculation, it still behooves us to delve beneath its surface. Wilson’s assertion of a unified national polity did in fact contain one caveat. He did mention one minority class by name, according to Pestritto, and that minority class was the wealthy. (pp. 118-119) Since the wealthy form a minority that garners no sympathy from anyone, it makes sense that Wilson could get away with advocating the removal of constitutional limits on powers that could be used against it. The wisdom of mulcting the wealthy will not be debated here; but it is interesting to consider that whenever a utopian dreams of a unified people, he usually disqualifies the wealthy from peoplehood. Today’s world contains a few people’s republics, or dictatorships of the proletariat, and they all claim to have put the people in charge, with the understanding that the “national bourgeoisie” are not included among them. Apparently, Wilson’s people’s republic conforms to this rule.

Other qualities of Wilson’s utopianism that warrant deeper probing is its Continental provenance and the classist prejudice associated with it. German historicism is described in this book as “idealistic” and “romantic” in that it imagined that history was leading humanity toward a perfect end-state (which ironically would be marked by reason and objectivity rather than by idealism and romance). Significantly, this historical evolution needed to be orchestrated by “world-historical individuals,” men with vision and understanding, presumably the historicist philosophers and academics themselves. (pp. 8, 15-16, 37) To reprise and continue Pestritto’s elucidation:

Wilson adopted an important theme of German idealism – that history brings about a unity or objectivity of will, and it is this implicit will that must govern the direction of society. The implicit will of a modern society is not equivalent to majority opinion, which exists merely at a surface level and is often beset by contending passions. A true, modern democracy is governed not necessarily by popular majority but by a leadership that can best discern the implicit, historically conditioned will that lies beneath ordinary political competition….Wilson’s model of political leadership requires, above all, that the leader hold visionary qualities that enable him to read the historical spirit and discern what the true, objective will of the people really is. Wilson’s essay ‘Democracy’ explicates the distinction between rule by majority opinion and rule by the implicit, objective will of society. Wilson called it merely an ‘assumption, still more curious when subjected to analysis.’ that the will of majorities – or rather, the concurrence of a majority in a vote – is the same as the general will. He further explained that ‘the will of majorities is not the same as the general will: that a nation is an organic thing, and that its will dwells with those who do the practical thinking and organize the best concert of action: those who hit upon opinions fit to be made prevalent, and have the capacity to make them so.’

Wilson conceded that his conception of modern democracy – where leaders must discern the implicit will of society – did not comport with the traditional understanding of democratic government. (pp. 71-72, shameless emphases in the original)

A truer concession was never made. The reader will note that Wilson’s low opinion of constitutional protections for minorities did not, evidently, indicate a preference for majority rule but was designed instead to facilitate the rule of the visionary few. The ideological unanimity of today’s intelligentsia is easy to understand too, because it indicates only an agreement that the intelligentsia should be in charge.

We’ve finally arrived at the administrative state, which is justified by Wilson’s contention that “governance by educated experts is democratic in a much higher sense.” (p. 72, ironic emphasis mine) Wilson’s belief that individual bureaucrats would be above politics (p. 72 again) echoed his belief in the unity of national opinion. (The two assumptions are equally naïve. On p. 240, Pestritto cites another scholar, Charles Kesler, who reminds us that the administrative class itself forms a political interest.) In fact, Wilson argued for a separation of politics and administration (p. 232, amid copious discussion by Pestritto) that would supposedly make the latter more embodying of the “objective” national will. The “State,” in the view of the “French and German professors” whom Wilson followed in place of the founders, organically possessed a fourth power, administration, anterior to the Constitution and independent of it. (pp. 231, 234-235) “Administration…” Wilson said, “serves the State, not the lawmaking body in the State, and possesses a life not resident in the statues.” (p. 241, verb tense altered)

It’s interesting to consider that in imposing such a foreign and glibly unconstitutional doctrine upon American life, Wilson was engaged in a game of wordplay that continues to this day. The distinction he sought to draw between politics – or government – and administration in his own time has echoes in our current hairsplitting concerning laws and rules. What does administration mean if not government, and what is a rule but a law? Is it reassuring to be subject to an unconstitutional government, provided we call it administration? Should we feel better being bound by laws enacted from outside the legislature, provided we call them rules? Of course, the answer to both questions is no; but Wilson was one of the first to employ this sort of doublespeak in order to dull our senses and make us accept the unacceptable.

The worst part of Wilson’s administrative scheme is its monarchial manifestation, the “modern president” who sat, and yet sits, at its apex. Wilson described him in terms that were more antique than modern:

Once and again one of those great influences which we call a cause arises in the midst of a nation. Men of strenuous minds and high ideals come forward, with a sort of gentle majesty, as champions of a political or moral principle. (p. 213)

And:

The leader of men must have such sympathetic and penetrative insight as shall enable him to discern quite unerringly the motives which move other men in the mass….Men are as clay in the hands of the consummate leader[!] (p. 208, italics in the original, exclamation mine)

Switching from flowery to guilty language, Wilson defended his proposed administrative apparatus as follows:

If I see a murderous fellow sharpening a knife cleverly, I can borrow his way of sharpening the knife without borrowing his probable intention to commit murder with it; and so, if I see a monarchist dyed in the wool managing a public bureau well, I can learn his business methods without changing one of my republican spots. (p. 232)

Furthermore:

The purpose of [administration] has been the execution of the will of a tyrant, again the execution of the will of the governed. But the organization for the one purpose may, if effective, serve – at least as a model – for the other. (p. 233)

Alexander Hamilton had expressly denied that any administrative system would be acceptable as long as it was effective and had, rather, insisted upon a constitutional grounding of it. (p. 237) But what did Wilson care about Hamilton? Wilson’s hero, according to Pestritto, was

Frederick the Great of Prussia, who understood the monarchy as the embodiment of the unified public will. Monarchy thus understood serves as the starting point for the ideal executive leader, to which Wilson added the mechanism of election by the people. Wilson’s vision of the reformed presidency is grounded in a democratized monarch, whose indivisible will is ideal for representing the unified will of the people. (p. 215)

The crowning irony, as we know only too well, is that Wilson’s “democratized monarch,” so far from representing any “unified will of the people,” has fractured it appallingly. When Wilson “enthroned public opinion” (p. 231), he set the stage for today’s constant struggle, by the opinionated public, for control of the throne, a perpetual civil war punctuated every four years by vicious battles, waged among friends and within families, truly a tragedy of brother against brother. “There’s too much at stake,” we tell ourselves as we charge into the fray, and indeed we are right. The modern president of the United States, refashioned by Wilson into an elected king and in command of a Prussian bureaucracy, wields way too much power. With so much power up for grabs every four years, we the people have become obsessed and desperate. Everything is politicized. We howl with delight when our king is elected, and we howl with despair when the other party’s king wins. It is a mockery of self-rule.

If there is one man who can be blamed for the wretched state to which we have sunk, it is Woodrow Wilson.

Pestritto’s book is essential reading, along with James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution and Philip Hamburger’s Is Administrative Law Unlawful? for anyone wishing to understand contemporary politics.

Book Review: Hard Times, by Vasily Sleptsov

The novel is set in the aftermath of serf emancipation in Russia, which, apparently, merely transformed the serfs into peons, because they had to pay onerous redemption levies and received very little of the best land to which they had once belonged. Worse, paternalism remained alive and well, as many of the newly emancipated peasants languished in some kind of dependent relationship with their erstwhile masters. Early in the book (pp. 36-39), when the ex-serfs of the “liberal” Shchetinin perform shoddy construction work for him, he thinks only of “punishing” rather than firing them. When a peasant woman complains of being beaten by her husband, Shchetinin can only recommend “take her away from him.” (p. 47) Peasants must doff their caps whenever their betters pass by; if they fail to do so, they are locked up in the barn to be taught a lesson. (pp. 117, 128-129)

The radical in the story, Riazanov, somewhat understandably, sees through the façade of paternalism to a society in constant conflict. He considers it “war” when peasants steal wood or even if they indulge in drink. (pp. 104-105) When a “mediator” of gentry-peasant relations criticizes the landlords, Riazanov, to prove his unsentimental point, applies the criticism to the peasants, too:

“What haven’t they done to those unfortunate peasants? You can’t imagine what sort of people they are. Where they can possibly squeeze the peasants, they do so, never missing a chance.”

“Well, and do the peasants miss any chances?”

“Of course, to tell the truth, the peasants stand up for themselves: one way or another, they wear down the landowner.”

“In other words, it’s mutual exhaustion.” (p. 131)

Riazanov is really echoing the zero-sum economics of Marxism, upon which he expands in due time:

“If only one portion of bread is issued to two people, and of these two, one is stronger than the other, then from the point of view of the stronger, the most natural outcome would be to take the bread away from the weaker person….

“I see a diligent peasant; I see that he digs the earth and earns his bread by the sweat of his brow; then I observe that at a certain distance from him stand some people I’ve recently met and they’re patiently waiting while the diligent landowner enjoys the work and produces a yield; then they’ll approach this peasant and, in the most polite manner, take from him all that they can according to the rules for the good of enlightenment, and they’ll leave him with only as much as he needs for his own use to maintain ‘the form of a slave’ and not perish from starvation.” (pp. 173-174)

By the end of the novel, Riazanov is motivated to shed his nihilism and apply himself to the task of “organizing the artels,” referring to peasant and worker cooperatives (p. 178), thus coming full circle to embrace a new, revolutionary form of paternalism: Since the days of lord and serf are ended, he will become cadre to the proletariat.

A note about the style: Much of the novel consists of dialogue, and almost all of the dialogue is choppy and excruciating to read. This defect may be the fault of the translator, the writer, the language, or the alcohol consumed by the characters.

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

I’ve theorized that Japanese literature seems to be the best adjusted to modern life. A singular lack of angst distinguishes novels such as Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, in which I take vicarious delight as its protagonists go about their lives at such places as diners, noodle shops, convenience stores, bus stations, bookstores, museums, and other mundane oases. Of course, Murakami’s characters aren’t simply going about their lives but are engaged in quests that are of great consequence to themselves if not to the universe as a whole. Isn’t that what we’re all doing: adventuring through the turnpike rest areas and shopping malls, like Don Quixote without the satire, discovering meaning wherever it is to be found?

Japanese fiction doesn’t abstract itself from the humdrum environment that produces it. Rather than to imagine more exciting times and places via historical fiction, say, Japanese writers make do with where and when they are. Or as Mr. Hoshino says in this book:

“We’re all pretty much empty, don’t you think? You eat, take a dump, do your crummy job for your lousy pay, and get laid occasionally, if you’re lucky. What else is there? Still, you know, interesting things do happen in life – like with us now.” (p. 306)

As a matter of fact, Mr. Hoshino is addressing his remarks to a man with the ability to talk to cats and to make it rain leeches.

But this book, like all of Murakami’s books, isn’t really about the paranormal. It’s about those not supernatural but nonetheless magical things that give our modern lives meaning: music and books and libraries.

A deserted library in the morning – there’s something about it that really gets to me. All possible worlds and ideas are there, resting quietly. (p. 313)

A library, even in the middle of a boring place like Takamatsu or Tacoma (or Taipei, as in the photograph), gives us all the magic we need. The same could be said of this dream of a book.

 

Book Review: Companion in Exile, by Ferenc Molnar

This book is a tribute to the author’s secretary, Wanda Bartha, who died (according to the Internet, by suicide) on August 27 or 28, 1947. At times, it resembles a séance for her.

Many passages highlight Ms. Bartha’s angelic qualities, of which the following stands out:

She would not intervene in arguments about subjects on which she was well-informed even when half-educated windbags were completely distorting simple facts. She could have straightened it out with a word. But what she had was far from the thing cocktail-party psychoanalysts call an inferiority complex. It was more a proud and defiant realization of the hopeless futility of trying to make good in a few minutes’ idle conversation what universities had failed to do in years. This is something I had never before observed before except in tired old men.

‘Why didn’t you say something,’ I asked her once, ‘when those ladies rattled off one idiocy after another about Valasquez and Goya? You know the paintings in the Prado better than those bridge-playing dames know the insides of their own handbags.’

She answered me, wide-eyed with wonder, ‘What for?’ (p. 35)

Molnar frequently cites Ms. Bartha’s notebook as a way to refocus attention upon himself or perhaps upon the time they spent together. Here is a charming example of the kind of vignette contained therein, describing how Molnar received the French Legion of Honor:

[Manager Firmin] Gémier’s secretary asked [Molnar] to come over to the Odéon Theater because a ‘present’ for him had come from the French Foreign Office, and Gémier wanted to present it solemnly in person. M[onsieur, i.e. Molnar] went over, but just outside the stage door he discovered he had not shaved. He knew the French custom required any presentation of the Legion of Honor to be accompanied with the so-called accolade, which consists in the kissing of the recipient on both cheeks by the man who is making the presentation. So M. hurried into the barbershop under the arcade of the ancient theater, to get a shave and thus to present a smooth face to the official kiss of the French Republic through the lips of M. Gémier. The barber sat him down in front of a mirror and soaped his face. Then M. saw in the mirror that M. Gémier was sitting in another chair with his back to him, with his face soaped, being hastily shaved by another barber. Gémier too wanted a smooth face when he delivered the two official kisses of the republic. Each pretended not to see the other. They only met upstairs on the stage where the solemn ceremony took place. Neither of them ever said a word about the barbershop. (p. 129)

Sometimes too Molnar pronounces poignantly on human nature, without apparent reference to Ms. Bartha, as in this defense of the supposed vice of self-pity:

So far I have failed to find an acceptable explanation of the disdain and ridicule poured upon this natural emotion. I can only suppose that some hidden and powerful financial, political, or military interest requires this usually so kind-hearted people [i.e. Americans] to force itself into such an attitude. Having been born in central Europe, brought up in the nineteenth century, having tried to improve my mind with French and Russian literature as well as that of my native country, and living as I now do among a nation [again, America] frankly addicted to pity and human sympathy, even sentimentality – with all this, even if I should live to be a hundred, I should still never have any use for this by no means American, and certainly not Continental, but decidedly British attitude toward human suffering and its manifestations.

Self-pity!

When Jesus on the cross ‘cried with a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani’…What was it, what was it, if not the most moving and imperishable example of self-pity in all history? (p. 277)

Of course, Molnar’s remarks are neither gratuitous nor unrelated to Ms. Bartha, as is made tearfully obvious on the next page:

‘I’m not ashamed of myself, dear,’ I told her behind my closed lips and clenched teeth as I stood there on the corner of 42nd Street [after her death]. ‘I’m not even ashamed in this supercilious society for pitying myself so unspeakably, because you left me alone in my old age, in this cold, dark, upset world, which is quite without hope for me. I had only one tiny guiding light, one prop, one friend, one adviser, one helper, and you were it.’

I stood there for a long time in my dark glasses on the noisy corner, saying nothing.

‘You’re crying again,’ she said. ‘That’s awful. Hold it back.’

‘I can’t. I’m simply incapable of it….And anyway what difference will it make to my condition or the condition of the world if I use strength of mind or drugs to keep a few drops of warm salt water forcibly in my system instead of letting them flow out?’ (p. 278)

The reader must keep this deeply bereaved context in mind during Molnar’s prolonged digressions into theatrical name-dropping, set in one Bohemian café after another, all as the world burns in the 1930s and 40s. The reader should also forgive Molnar – well into his sixties at the time – for not “doing anything” about Nazism besides fleeing from it into memories of happier times. He and Ms. Bartha have lost everything: Their family and friends have been murdered, their homes looted and destroyed, their entire world gone.

Even after hearing from the generals [who could not help her locate her late brother], she had rehearsed Charlie McCarthy faces in front of the mirror to cheer me up. The whole scene as we stood together, making faces before my mirror (“two broken human beings” as she put it), these two distorted and wretchedly grinning faces, this half-crazed pantomime duet, very nearly drove me into a faint. But I kept on anyway so that she should think she had succeeded in cheering me up. I did it in a mood verging on melancholia in the medical sense, in my sixty-eighth year, around me a world in dissolution, vying with Wanda to see who could make the most preposterous Charlie McCarthy face in the mirror. (p. 327)

The recounting of literary acquaintances, the remembrances of long-gone hotels and restaurants, the reconstructions of torn-up drafts of long-flopped plays, and a final tableau of a ventriloquist dummy are all that they – now he – have left.

Molnar does not rage at the dying of the light, nor does he go gentle into that good night. Instead he spins together every thin wisp of immortality that he can grasp. He remembers, and he cries.

Companion in Exile is a manual on losing, a primer of aging, and a guide to dying. We will all need it sooner or later.

Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

This book is a story of paradise lost and regained. Janie grows up with a mixed set of playmates, innocent of the awareness of race, including her own. At the first sign of sexual consciousness, Janie is banished by her grandmother into the “protection” of an arranged marriage akin to slavery. This first husband intends to employ her like a donkey before the plow; Janie soon escapes into a second marriage, to a man whose prejudice against women – “Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows,” he says (p. 71) – makes her a mere fixture in his store. Then, she tries her luck with a third man and is finally treated as an equal.

Along the way, Janie experiences, and Hurston delineates, a series of razor-sharp truths, such as:

She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market-place to sell. Been set for still-bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine. (p. 90)

On the subject of God, or at least gods:

All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood. (p. 145)

And whether or not God is love, Hurston includes a few specimens of the latter – “She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love.” (p. 89) and “Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love” (p. 128) – that put me in mind of the love on display in Magda Szabó’s The Door, which I recently reviewed.

Hurston’s likening of the freedom or slavery of life to a “horizon” (p. 89) is resonating.

My favorite spoken line is “Dis town is full uh trouble and compellment.” (p. 172)

My favorite name is Stew Beef.

“Say, whut y’all doin’ in heah?”

“Eatin’,” Stew Beef told him. “Dey got beef stew, so you know Ah’d be heah.” (p. 149)

Book Review: The Professor, by Charlotte Brontë

The masterful style of The Professor is reason enough to read it. Where it excels is in its unsentimental and unsparing treatment of human nature. Here is a withering description of students:

Most of them could lie with audacity when it appeared advantageous to do so. All understood the art of speaking fair when a point was to be gained and could with consummate skill and at a moment’s notice turn the cold shoulder the instant civility ceased to be profitable….Close friendships were forbidden by the rules of the school, and no one girl seemed to cultivate more regard for another than was just necessary to secure a companion when solitude would have been irksome. (p. 127)

And here is a blistering description of students or perhaps children in general:

Frances toiled for and with her pupils like a drudge, but it was long ere her conscientious exertions were rewarded by anything like docility on their part, because they saw that they had power over her, inasmuch as by resisting her painful attempts to convince, persuade, control – by forcing her to the employment of coercive measures – they could inflict upon her exquisite suffering. Human beings – human children especially – seldom deny themselves the pleasure of exercising a power which they are conscious of possessing, even though that power consist only in a capacity to make others wretched; a pupil whose sensations are duller than those of his instructor, while his nerves are tougher and his bodily strength perhaps greater, has an immense advantage over that instructor, and he will generally use it relentlessly, because the very young, very healthy, very thoughtless, know neither how to sympathize nor how to spare. (p. 160)

Maybe you should avoid The Professor if you’re a professor. On the one hand, it will serve as a prime example of excellent writing, one that you will want to impress upon your students; but on the other hand, it warns you that they will throw it back in your face.

The only other thing that occurs to me is that the prevailing rottenness conspires to paint the hero and heroine in an impossibly conscientious light. How can there be only two (or at most three or four) good people in the world?

 

Book Review: The Shakespeare Requirement, by Julie Schumacher

Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement is a spot-on spoof of academia and its many indignities and absurdities. I most enjoyed Schumacher’s passing but poignant satire of the gratuitous, labor-multiplying technology that has come to dominate professors’ lives. At Payne University, where the book is set, one vexation of this sort is the finicky P-Cal scheduling system, which never seems to work for the protagonist, Jason Fitger, who is chair of the English Department. At one point, when Fitger is trying to track down his nemesis, Econ chair Roland Gladwell, the latter’s secretary, rather than simply telling Fitger where Gladwell is, refers him to P-Cal. As is usually the case, Fitger’s only recourse is sarcasm:

“Here we are…two human beings, inches apart, and yet what you’re telling me is that I need to go back downstairs to my own office, to my computer – except that I don’t have a working computer – and spend thirty minutes searching for a website that will allow me to send a message that you could simply write down with a pencil on a piece of paper, right there on your desk. Do you find that strange?” (p. 64)

Of course, it’s not strange, or rather, it’s not unusual, and our only recourse, like Fitger’s, is sarcasm, or satire, of which this book is a fine primer.