Heavy Efforts

Primo Levy referred to Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada, as “The greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis.”  Published in 1947, it is a grim carnival of fools with a black comedic sensibility. Fallada (real name Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) died a few weeks before publication, at age 53.

The scene: wartime Berlin. Detective Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo is charged with finding the source of a series of anti-Hitler postcards being dropped around town by persons unknown. He’s not a particularly fervent Nazi; he just wants to maintain law and order. But his superiors are bullies and they put constant pressure on him to resolve the case immediately.

Back at Prinz Albrecht Strasse, he had himself announced immediately to his direct supervisor, SS Obergruppenführer Prall. He had to wait almost an hour; not that Herr Prall was very busy, or rather, because he was particularly busy in a particular way. Escherich heard the tinkle of glasses, and the popping of corks, he heard laughter and shouting: one of the regular meetings of the higher echelons, then. Conviviality, booze, cheerful relaxation after the heavy effort of torturing and putting to death their fellow men.

From Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada (originally published 1947; English translation by Geoff Wilkes published 2009).

Published in: on November 7, 2014 at 11:23 am  Leave a Comment  
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On Whaling and Dogme 95

Herman Melville, like many writers before and since, was somewhat bonkers. In setting the scene for his description of Melville’s maladies, Dr. John Ross describes the world of nineteenth-century Yankee whaling, including life on the whaling ships.

Desertion rates in whaleships were high. Whaling consisted of long periods of tedium, punctuated by bouts of terror, rather like firefighting or watching the films of Lars von Trier.

From Sharespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, by John Ross, M.D. (published 2012)

Published in: on November 3, 2014 at 10:39 am  Leave a Comment  
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The First Great Winnowing

Madeleine McCarthy is now in her early thirties. She’s a comedian and actress, and passes her days and nights amid a coterie of showy show business folks. One night at an after-show party she starts to see things differently.

Early thirty-something existential moment of truth, when you first realize that not everyone you worked with in your twenties is a genius, that some people are “wild and crazy” and others simply have a substance problem, that the alluring sexy-sad people are just depressive, that depression is rage slowed down, that mania is grief speeded up. That first great winnowing.

From The Way the Crow Flies, by Ann-Marie MacDonald (published 2003).

Published in: on February 1, 2014 at 11:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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Imaginary Crippled Mother

One of the joys of The Way the Crow Flies is the way the author, Ann-Marie MacDonald, totally nails the voice and the stream-of-conciousness thoughts of a nine-year old girl in 1962. Madeleine McCarthy is a half-Acadian tomboy living with her family on an Air Force base in Ontario.

“Nancy Drew and the Case of the Mysterious Wheelchair.” Maybe they have a crippled mother. Imagine if your mother were crippled. “Come here dear, so I can dress you.” You would always have to obey her and answer nicely because how cruel to talk back to a crippled mother or to run away out of her reach. Imagine her making your sandwiches with her weak hands, wheeling over to the fridge for the mayonnaise. It makes Madeleine appreciate her own mother. It’s good to appreciate your mother. She imagines her mother dead in order to appreciate her better: imagine if it were just me and Mike and Dad. Eating fried chicken every night and going to air shows. I’d wear Mike’s hand-me-downs and people would think I was a boy. She reminds herself that the prerequisite for this all-boy Shangri-La is the death of her mother, and cuts the fantasy short. It’s just not worth it if your mother has to die.

From The Way the Crow Flies, by Ann-Marie MacDonald (published 2003)

Published in: on November 27, 2013 at 9:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Dangerous Beauty

Gwethalyn Graham, writing in Earth and High Heaven, on the charms of small-town Ontario in the 1940s:

Manchester itself is a tribute to the Canadian talent for choosing a remarkably fine natural setting for a town, and then proceeding to ruin it as far as possible. There is an interminably long, straight main street running parallel with the shore, flanked by the inevitable collection of two- and three-storey office buildings, shops, gas stations, beauty parlors, Chinese laundries, pool rooms, soda fountains, cheap restaurants, movie houses, and the usual Protestant and Catholic churches, apparently dedicated, like most of the buildings in English Canada, to the Puritan proposition that even in architecture, beauty is unnecessary and possibly even dangerous. 

From Earth and High Heaven, by Gwethalyn Graham (Published 1944).

Published in: on October 11, 2013 at 2:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Charm

Saskatchewan, 1938. Maurice is a young man from the city, in Ontario, who makes occasional trips to the dustbowl farmland of Saskatchewan to study the weather. His urban charm easily captivates the rural farm-folk, especially the women.

To see someone questioned by Maurice was to watch a window as the curtains opened. He made people more interesting than they were. They rose to meet the interest he had in them, and that was the point, inspired by the quality of his attention.

But when he saw Mrs. Haaring again (it was the following November on his last visit), he didn’t remember her. She mentioned the long, talkative house party at the Hardys. Of course, he said, you taught me that old sea shanty. No, she said gently, that was Miriam Wolfe. He bore his mistake gracefully, without embarrassment or apology. Of course, he said. And she realized how much more he had penetrated her mind than she had penetrated his, which was natural enough, she said to herself, his charm wasn’t his fault. Still, that long night had awakened in her an affection and an interest, and now a disappointment of equal proportion. Apparently he paid less attention than he appeared to, or his attention was no less intense than it appeared to be, but it was short-lived, or his interests were too varied, or his character was not of the same consistency as his manner. In any case, he trailed disappointment behind him and was unaware of it. She was only a vague face in his mind, a farmwife from Belgium, or was it Holland?

From A Student of Weather, by Elizabeth Hay (published 2000).

Published in: on September 9, 2013 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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