Friday, August 21, 2009

BRECHT AT NIGHT:How Estonia takes up residence in the mind

Translated from the Estonian
By Eric Dickens
Dalket Archive: 208pp., $13.95

In 1940, Helsinki received an unexpected visitor: Bertold Brecht. Eventually to be known as the most famous German playwright after Goethe, author of The Three Penny Opera, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and numerous other plays, a vast array of poetry, Brecht was also a committed Communist who was on the run from Nazi Germany, believing Hitler personally wanted him dead. The scene is almost comical: he arrived with his wife, his mistress, his children and twenty-six bags of luggage.

Just another traveler, you understand, appreciative when someone speaks good German but convinced he or she might be a Nazi agent. His protector was the very wealthy Estonian playwright then living in Finland, Hella Wuolijoki, with whom he will collaborate on a number of plays and will eventually plagiarize from but who more importantly has a direct link to Stalin and his secret police. (Brecht, if you aren’t familiar with him was an ardent defender of Stalin and all his murderous acts, glibly arguing that Finland should have given into Stalin, “whereby the Finnish workers and peasants must exchange their national freedom for social freedom (inside the Soviet system).”

But why Helsinki? Why go there in the midst of the aftermath of The Winter War? It is a way station on Brecht’s journey to of all places: Hollywood which he intends to get to by way of Moscow and Siberia!

In “Brecht at Night,” his fourth novel to be translated into English, Estonian author and innovative stage director, Mati Unt makes Brecht a curiously compelling contradictory character and very appealing as a reflection of the alienating reality of his plays which highlighting their artificiality allows the reader the necessary distance to think and with the information, with the feelings provide by what he or she might witness, to act…

All this might seem tedious in the extreme but Unt is simply too good of a writer to allow that to happen. The connection between an epitome of irony, Hella Wuolijoki, this wealthy patron, committed communist and the owner of a vast estate provides Unt with the jump cut to that place where she comes from: two hours today by high speed ferry, across the Baltic Sea. If I give you one country (Latvia) that borders on it I am sure you can name the other country that borders on Estonia and of course you remember that in August 1939 you again remember that Hitler and Stalin agreed to the occupation of Estonia by the Red Army…

It is in this lurch that Unt’s novel becomes both a witty portrait of Brecht and is a model of how to understand the devastating effects of Stalinism. Unt well knows, as did Brecht, if you focus too much on details of human awfulness it becomes debilitating but if you find a way…

Unt particularizes the murders, by way of quotation from now available documents and through imagination of how the Communist takeover of Estonia was implemented allowing the euphonious M Unt (no relation) who was the communist appointed Minister of the Interior to say, “With good luck, you have the choice between life and death, and it is not sure which is better.” Or, “Then I had to dismiss all the elders of the various Estonian provinces. There were no doubt decent people among them, but in times like the present you can’t pay too much attention to individuals.”

History records that M. Unt was shot in his turn but no date was recorded.

(A version of this appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Monday, August 10, 2009



A celebration of REALMS OF MEMORY and RETHINKING FRANCE or LES LEIUX DE MEMOIRE but not forgetting A.J. Liebling

Terrible things are always being said about the French and France but like Auberon Waugh who was once saying--- and I agree with him--- the real problem with the French is that they really do some things so extraordinarily well. Waugh was referring to the French education system and food. I would add literature, the trains, the preservation of the countryside and when it comes to writing modern history the vast project under the direction of Philip Nora knows no parallel in the United States…

Published in a series of what will be seven vast books and that is only a third! of the original project published in French as Les Lieux de Memoire, which I am told to the French ear means more than what has been given as a title of the first three volumes published some years ago by Columbia University Press. It is is a magisterial overview of that thing called France and the French. The three volumes were focused on in Nora’s words: “ in accord with the specificity of memory: (REALMS OF MEMORY) is modeled on organizations found in nature: first its fractures, then its true and false continuities and finally its symbolic attachments.”
In the reality of the printed page volume one took up for instance, Right and Left, Catholics and Seculars, Gaullists and Communists, then the minority religions and lastly the question of time and space. The second volume took up The Traditions: The Land, The Cathedral, The Court, etc and went on to discuss individual writers, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Vidal de La Blache’s Georgraphy of France among others and then concluded with Singularities, LA Coupole, Street Names, The Tour de France, etc… The Third volume took up the Symbols: The Three Colors, Liberty, Equality and Fraternitie , then The Places: Lascaux, Rheims, Verdun etc, and then of course Identifications: from The Gallic Cock via Joan of Arc to Descartes and beyond…


But Columbia University Press got tired and four more volumes are now being published by the University of Chicago Press—the third is just out and a fourth is coming next year under the general title RETHINKING FRANCE… and these are to be focused on specific elements of national identity in their material dimensions. Volume One took up The State starting with a chapter, The State: The Tool of the Common Good and on through the formation of the idea of the state with essays on Charlemagne, The King… ending with an essay on the Memoirs of Men of State… The second volume is a book of place, ranging from North-South, France, the Coast, and the Sea, to The Forest , The Region, The Department, The Painter’s Landscaper and ending with A Frontier Memory: Alsace.. the perfect book to actually take when travelling in France when you want to go beyond the facts, just the facts: what -to–see-what- to-eat-where-to-sleep…
The current volume (out this summer) takes us into what many of us experience in France and which cannot be found elsewhere: The Café, The Village Church, Conversation, Gallantry, Notre Dame of Paris and Sacred Coeur of Montmartre…


(Now, I have done probably a bad job of it and I know I am spitting into the wind

---this is a good example of the normal self-pity that attaches itself to the bone of any sort of writing that I dare to take up within the terrible isolation that comes to the living curator of a few too many unpublished books---

but I wanted to just mention these books and this project and what a comfort it is to have such books on my shelf and I love the fragmented form of these books and while they are a product of that movement that killed narrative history and while I do know in a half assed sort of way the basic narrative of French history which you need to read in some fashion in these books but I guess now anyone can get that from Wikidepia…)


As we are entering a long and great depression under BO, no matter what the newspapers are saying ,it will be good to have such books on the shelf.. books of a demanding nature, filled with many stories, many things as is EMPIRE by William Vollmann which I wrote (again badly) about recently. None of these books --- throw in the ARCADE S PROJECT of Walter Benjamin---are meant to be read in a sitting or a hundred sittings((((also include THE COLLECTED WORKS of Paul Metcalf in 3 volumes))).. they do not grab you and refuse to let you go, as the blurbs would have it when a you are sentenced to read a so-called beach book by say Jonathan Franzen or James Patterson…

In the Essay on The Café the subtitles hold one: A Counteracademy, A Factory for Thought, An Intellectual Laboratory… try imagine that at Applebees America’s Neighborhood what not… or I do remember a professor explaining once upon a time why they did not once upon a time lecture on modern literature In French universities, that’s what is talked about in the cafes… why do we have to repeat it here…


Originally, I was supposed to do a Bastille Day post and mention the RETHINKING FRANCE along with the Library of America’s A. J. Liebling volumes devoted to eating or at least in part to eating in France… with the title Between Meals contained in the volume THE SWEET SCIENCE AND OTHER WRITINGS and in an earlier volume WORLD WAR II WRITINGS which contained The Road Back to Paris both of these books are old time celebrations of France, a France that no longer exists, of course, but which hint at what still send young people still to France as Liebling writes, “The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite…”

Of course once having been to France one never seriously read the food writing in the United States… you can dismiss me when I go down this path… and I would dismiss myself if I was reading this in the Gadsden Hotel in Douglas, Arizona, that tiny intimation of the promised paradise that can also be found in the Marine Motel in Ajo, Arizona… but Liebling creates in the reader a need to believe that time is not gone, time is not moving on… and of course it does not move… as long as the books remain to be read and re-read: the passage of time is defeated. Really?