Friday, October 23, 2009


(a ghost of these words appears in the 25 October 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Section)

The Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is hardly a household name in the United States. A few of his paintings, drawings and etchings are scattered in major museums in the country but to see his work in its fullness one has to have gone to Venice, Wurzburg, Germany and Madrid to view the magnificent ceiling paintings and frescos crowded with either religious or classical figures captured with a dazzling sense of color that easily rival Michelangelo in their grandeur and complexity. His name became an adjective for a fabric shade of pink. He is included in all the standard histories of art and his name is always linked to Veronese and others in that cast of prolific painters who can easily be confused by a visitor to Venice. Possibly, this necessary introductory paragraph runs the risk of providing an excuse for both skipping what is to follow and the book that occasioned the review. However, to miss rushing out to get the latest book by Roberto Calasso would be a terrible intellectual disaster and it is the next best thing to actually going to Europe to see Tiepolo’s work for yourself.

Calasso is the most interesting, demanding, inquisitively intoxicating critic writing anywhere in the world today. This claim is based upon his books, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, The Ruins of Kasch, Ka, The Forty-Nine Steps, Literature and the Gods , K and his newest one devoted to describing the life and work of a painter who seems so obscure as to be invisible even though his work has been seen by millions. The word critic does little justice to a writer like Calasso whose every sentence is rooted in a profound understanding and discerning appreciation of all the major literatures of the world both ancient and modern and these sentences always entice their readers to more thought, more reading, to reflection, to wonder.

Early on he tosses down the gauntlet, the intellectual dare, “Tiepolo: the last breath of happiness in Europe. And like all true happiness, it was full of dark sides destined not to fade away, but to get the upper hand.” Remembering Tiepolo’s dates (1696-1770) and what comes after which is really the time we still live in, “Painting steadily became a monologizing activity, a calm delirium that started and stopped every day, with the hours of daylight behind the windows of a studio. Artists remained brimming with moods, whims, caprices, and idiosyncrasies. And in the end even they risked disappearing.”

Providing a complete survey of Tiepolo’s work from the prolific beginnings in Venice and then his productive travels across Europe, Calasso is not for a moment deterred by the fact that there is not a single bit of self commentary and never resorting to any sort of crude historic guess work he is elegant in his generalizing and astonishing in the particularities as when commenting upon a painting depicting Antony and Cleopatra at the moment when she is about to dissolve her priceless earring in a glass of vinegar, “Anthony represents the power that invades the world but he does not possess the two pearls. Only one of which is sufficient to vanquish him. What happens to the other? It was sawn in two--- and the two halves were attached to the ears of the statue of Venus in the Pantheon. There is decidedly something paltry about that Western Power, obliged to adorn one of its goddesses with two half pearls that the Oriental queen was prepared to swallow in a sip of vinegar.”

Aptly and beautifully illustrated it should be mentioned, Calasso centers his book about an attempt at explicating--- though never committing the vulgar sin of doing a definitive version--- of the Caprricci and the Scherzi, two series of etchings packed with a cast of mysterious characters, who much like a company of a great Hollywood studio in the old days: magicians, Magi and other visitors from the East, beautiful young men and women, and a plethora of other creatures in particular snakes and owls who will and have appeared in many disparate roles in the great paintings that enclose this mysterious center of mystifying events, which have defied understanding until this moment. Calasso’s explication with the constant crossing and re-crossing of these characters and creatures is written in a style that evokes the reading of a deeply compelling novel and that skill can be seen in his teasing out of the proliferation of snakes in the etchings and their constant re-appearance in the paintings. Of course he starts from the Garden of Eden on to the magical transformation of a staff into a snake during the Egyptian captivity, the plague of snakes in the desert and then, “Moses’s gesture when he brandished a bronze serpent and told the murmuring Jews to look at it, was a gesture that marked the discovery that evil can be cured by its image… It was the discovery of the image, of its healing power. It is one of the supreme Jewish paradoxes that this discovery was made by he who would be remembered and celebrated as the enemy of images…”

However, Calasso pushes his insight into an intriguing engaging way into Tiepolo’s work, “Salvation through looking which the Fathers of the Church would ignore because the only thing that truly concerned them about the story of the brazen serpent was the prefiguration of the Cross was recognized by a painter before any theologian… hence the serpents: horror, fascination perhaps even revelation.. A tangle that no one can loosen unless he joins those Orientals, youths and Satyresses under a dazzling noonday sun as in the desert (in the Capricci and Scherzi).”

Finally Calasso takes leave of his readers while describing one of Tiepolo’s last paintings, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, “Mary, Joseph, the child and the donkey can barely be seen in a corner. They are anonymous extras, absorbed in the landscape. The vision is still to come. There is an intact stasis—and the wonderful silence of the world.” Where the attentive reader has always been remembering Calasso’s quoting the great French reactionary Joseph De Maistre, “I have read millions of witticisms about the ignorance of the ancients who saw spirits everywhere: it seems to me that we who see them nowhere are much more foolish.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009


---To write of Harold Brodkey is to speak of the dead and I fear of the really dead in the sense that he is now a forgotten writer... and so quickly he is gone into both the real and the metaphorical earth.

---I was thinking this as I was reading James Wood on the collected so-called stories of Lydia Davis. I can't be bothered to even describe his writing or Davis. It is all a question of sheer human perversity: how can this very good translator be wasting her time writing so-called stories that will not survive a moment beyond her death when she could have been finishing her translations of Michel Leiris, for instance?

---But I have before me a photo-copy of the five tabloid pages that James Wood devoted to a review and interview with Harold Brodkey in The Guardian (London, July 20-21, 1991.

---I must assume anyone reading this blog knows the work of Brodkey and keeps in a treasured place at least two of his books: STORIES IN AN ALMOST CLASSICAL MODE and THE RUNAWAY SOUL. Right there near THE DEAD OF THE HOUSE BY Hannah Green and PARADISO by Jose Lezama Lima

---The interview and then the review is startling because the name of Brodkey never passes through Wood's typewriter since he moved to the US and began his slog through the pages of The New Republic, The New Yorker and into the damp boring rooms of Harvard. To have an enthusiasim for a writer like Brodkey would be the kiss of the death as it seems the consensus is sadly that we (they) were all mistaken abouthim and his writing; it is just a bad memory and a man like Wood can make no mistakes, not one. He well knows that if there is that one mistake as happened to Denis Donoghue when he panned rightly the dread Frank McCourt's first novel for the New York Times, he will not be asked back to write for whichever organ he is caressing at the moment.

---In the course of the Guardian article: "I had managed to get hold of the typescript of The Runaway Soul, had read its 1,300 pages and was over-whelmed with it.... unlike anything in contemporary fiction. It is nakedly original."


"Brodkey's prose is unlike any other writer's in the English language. It is intensely personal(most of his writing is about his childhood) and shockingly obsessive. Its originality, which is oppressive in its density..."

"a man whose writing is courageous and original and possibly great...

"Brodkey's novel certainly has the reek of glory. But greatness is like the Seraph. How can we know it? How can we know yet if Brodkey's novel is great? It has the ambition of greatness, the daring. But its oddity and its singularity bewilder the reader. It needs the sifting of posterity...

---Well, I guess Wood has done that.

---Have you noticed that when a writer gets to a certain place, in particular into the places such as where Wood has taken up residence something is always lost and that something is evident in James Wood on Lydia Davis in The New Yorker. Only John Updike ever escaped this well-lit prison and then only rarely as for instance when he would take up the books of Robert Pinget.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Nobel Prize season and again we have been spared the sad spectacle of a Joyce Carol Oates or a Philip Roth or a Don DeLillo getting the Nobel Prize. Of course some have argued that they should have given a second Nobel Prize to Toni Morrison for after all wouldn't it be just since they were not able to give a second Nobel to that other great American laureate Pearl Buck.

But surely anyone who reads is aware that at this moment in the United States there is not a great writer living in our midst.

Now I know it is possible and maybe even likely that there is one because I remember Richard M. Elman once saying back in 1971, that there is no such thing as an unknown great writer in the United States... for a moment he was filled up with a typical New York arrogance but...

Still as far as I can tell and I would hopeam wrong.. there is not a great writer living in the United States.

The why is beyond me.

The fact is there and we don't have to argue really about what makes up that word great.

In spite of critical and popular disinterest I have been aware within my lifetime of living in a country where a few great writers lived: Faulkner, Hemingway, William Bronk, Edward Dahlberg, Julian Green (though he lived in France he always said he was American born not made), Glenway Wescott, Hannah Green, Lorine Niedecker, Ronald Johnson, maybe George Garrett...

I can make myself clearer if I mentioned that if I think of Spain: Julian Rios, if I think of Hungary : Peter Nadas, Peter Esterhazy, Imre Kertesz, if I think of Estonia: Tonu Onnepalu, if I think of Romania: Herta Muller, if I think of Serbia" Milorad Pavic, if I think of the Irish language: Nuala NiDhomhnaill, if I think of China: Ha Jian, Italy: Roberto Calasso...

But in the United States only William T. Vollmann and Madison Smartt Bell come to mind as possible candidates... and I hope to live long enough to see them come into... which might seem strange given their vast accomplishments. However, Bell clouded, at least for me, his purpose with more than a thousand pages devoted to Toussant L'Ouverture and Haiti flying in the face of the definitive imaginative THE KINGDOM OF THIS WORLD by Alejo Carpentier which in 100 pages...

And as to Vollmann, there is a soft core of sentimental leftism that sometimes enervates his thinking but it is kept in check by his senses that transcribe a constant refutation of that delusional germ

Again, the Unites States does not have a great writer living within its borders though every week another is announced or better promoted... I cant bring myself to type the current names...


I wanted to include Cormac McCarthy because of Suttree and Blood Meridian but until there is a third book to equal them... I hold back... The Road is memorable as the language would have it and one will have to forget the movie that is coming soon or has left already though it is a finger exercise

I wanted to include James McCourt but his possible great trilogy begun in Now Voyagers: The Night Sea Journey seems to have been de-railed in favor of a popular book about the New York Irish... but his Time Remaining makes me reconsider.. but no,...

Thursday, October 8, 2009


I published the following review of THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS in The Washington Times on November 17, 1996. It was one of very few reviews that book received. It was not quoted on the paperback version. When I called The Washington Times today (October 8, 2009) they can not access it as back issued are not available. One of course feels compassion for Herta Muller for by winning the Nobel Prize...

Of course, in the United States what passes for a novel has sunk even lower...

Finally, a book that describes in precisely hewn detail what it was like to live in Romania under communism. By paying careful attention to the slightest nuances of life in Romania the book also gives an accurate description of what it was like to be alive anywhere in Eastern Europe during the years of communism.

Author Herta Muller was born in 1953 into the large German-speaking minority in Romania, and like the narrator of her new novel, she was driven to leave Romania in 1987. In 1989, her short episodic novel The Passport" was published here in translation. But it only hints at the startling originality of "The Land of the Green Plums," which is seamlessly translated by poet Michael Hofmann. It faithfully follows the original German edition in terms of typography and spacing, which emphasize the poetic nature of the text and make it easier to follow the subtle shifts of mood and voice.

By tracing out the varied fates of five young persons who meet at a provincial college--- Lola, Edgar, Kurt, Georg and the narrator--- Miss Muller has constructed a devastating portrait of how ordinary lives were twisted and devoured by the fear that was purposefully created by the rulers of Eastern Europe, in this case, Nicolae Ceausescu.

The books of Czeslaw Milosz, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam have prepared us for the the awfulness of that life, which distorted every aspect of the human personality. If I were to tell you of being arrested in Bulgaria in 1967 for writing on a table-cloth, "No communists. No capitalists. Only free people. All you need is love." you might think I was putting you on. (I am not) Similarly, one's first reaction is disbelief when Miss Muller describes what happens after Lola, a fellow student and friend of the narrator, hangs herself.

"Five girls stood by the entrance-way of the dormitory. Inside the glass display case was Lola's picture, the same as the one in her Party book. Under the picture was a piece of paper. Somoeone read out loud: This student has committed suicide. We abhor her crime and we despise her for it. She has brought disgrace upon the whole country... At four o'Clock in the afternoon, in the great hall, two days after she hanged herself, Lola was expelled from the party and exmatriculated from the university. Hundreds of people were there. Someone stood at the lectern and said, She deceived us all, she doesn't deserve to be a student in our country or a member of out party. Everybody applauded."

The horror is in the pronouns: us, we, our.

Miss Muller has construced a novel that violates every rule of what was expected of a novelist in communist Romania. It also might be said that the book goes against neary every expectation of what passes for a novel today in America. It eschews plot. What is happening line by line, page by page, outweighs any interest in what is going to happen next. We live within the head and central nervous system of the narrator. But it is not a claustrophobic place to be: The voice is alive to the world, defiantly alive in a determination to fail in the construction of positive, uplifting characters.

Miss Muller relies upon the sensibility and intelligence of her readers to understand that they are being asked to enter into the consciousness of the narrator, who makes her way through a life that offers nothing but suicide, exile and betrayal. Her narrator also undersands that, having survived that world and made it to Germany, one still has been irrevocably mutilated in spirit by this world where, "you could feel the dictator and his guards hovering over all the secret escape plans, you could feel them lurking and doling out fear."

The title of the book says much, but it needs a little explanation: "Plumsucker was a term of abuse. Upstarts, opportunists, sycophants and people who stepped over the dead bodies without remorse were caled that. The dictator was called a plumsucker, too."

In a country run by such people, it got you labeled as a dangerous dissident if you were even mildly lacking in enthusiasim for the communist future and wished to maintain some sense of ordinary decency and privacy. Once singled out, the characters in the novel can never escape the attentions of the police and their accomplices.

Miss Muller ranges across the whole of Romanian society, from the peasants ground down by hunger and casual brutalization to the industrial workers who work in dnagerous factories making useless articles no one wants. Her depiction of the degraded workewrs in a slaughterhouse is unequaled anywhere in the literature from Eastern Europe. The men drink the blood of the slaughtered animals and trade stolen raw animal parts for casual and violently demeaning sex while thinking they are getting back at the regime by so doing.

"The men staggered and yelled at one another before snashing each other over the head with empty bottles. They bled. If a tooth fell to the ground, they would laugh as if someone had lost a button. Someone would bend over, pick up the tooth and toss it into his glass. Because it brought good luck, the tooth was pased from glass to glass. Everyone wanted it"

The narrator, like the other voices she allows to enter her mind, learns that you cant trust anyone, whch is probably the most awful result of communism.

She becoems friends with Tereza whose father is a well-connected sculptor. When the narrator is finally living in Germany, Tereza comes to visit, but she comes as an agent of the police, to spy, since one of the narrator's friends has either jumped or been pushed from a window to his death. Tereza is meant to be sympathetic: She has cancer, no luck in love, and yet she betrays the narrator, who alone has been nice to her.

And of the man who has driven two of the narrator's friends to suicide and another into a miserable exile, representing thousands, probably, the author laments that there has been no retribution, no closure, no justice.

This is the horrifying and unblinking truth of this novel and why it has to live on. Miss Muller has triumphed in her honesty, and "The Land of the Green Plums" is her testimony.

PS: and to date, all those communists and fellow travelers for the most part got away with it and in many cases turned themselves into the so-called mafia--- but that is another tale waiting to be told as the former communists and their fellow travelers go about convincing the world that they are the only people who really suffered under the communism