Friday, February 28, 2014

Alice Herz-Sommer, 1903-2014




Amid the general misery on offer from the headlines these days is this bright spark of hope, in an obituary, of all places. But it chronicles the life of an extraordinary woman of such wisdom and courage that it's by far the most heartening thing I've read all week. 

Alice Herz-Sommer has just died at age 110. She had a life of glory and tragedy. As a girl growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in Prague, she met Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka (Mr. K. was "slightly strange," she said). She was a dedicated lifelong pianist of great ability, and it was her devotion to Chopin that, as the obituary says, literally kept her alive. She and her husband and son were interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Her husband was sent on to Dachau, where he died, but Alice and her son survived because one of the German officers at the camp, who admired her playing, placed them under his protection. After the war, she returned to Prague, but the anti-Semitic atmosphere was so dense (after the war!) that she moved away, and finally settled in London.

We should take her words to heart. “I am by nature an optimist,” she said. “But I am pessimistic about future generations’ willingness to remember and care about what happened to the Jews of Europe.” She was right to be pessimistic, alas. But for this moment, let's celebrate her extraordinary life. With some Chopin, perhaps? 



Thursday, February 27, 2014

Peter De Vries




I see that today is the 104th anniversary of the birth of the Dutch genius from Michigan, Peter De Vries, one of my favorite novelists. (I was going to say "one of my favorite comic novelists," but that's parsing it too fine; comic novels are my favorite novels.) 

Kingsley Amis said De Vries was "the funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic." But who reads him now? Jeffrey Frank, in a 2004 essay in The New Yorker, put it well when he observed "Few writers have understood literary comedy as well as De Vries, and few comic novelists have had his grasp of tragedy. The determination and artistry with which he approached these subjects made him hard to categorize, which may be why, little more than a decade after his death [in 1993], he is pretty much forgotten."

Fortunately, his books are coming back into print, thanks to the University of Chicago Press, which has republished some of them, notably The Blood of the Lamb. This is, quite simply, a masterpiece, a harrowing chronicle of the illness and death of a little girl against a backdrop of Beckettian hilarity-in-despair. It's a very fine work, indeed, and all the more haunting because it's closely based on De Vries's own experience with his daughter Emily. As Jeffrey Frank says, few novelists have such an equal grasp of comedy and tragedy; the blending of the two in this book is seamless. Indeed, I don't know another like it, unless one thinks of the Russians, or Flann O'Brien....

I also loved Reuben, Reuben, the tragicomic tale of a Dylan Thomas-like drunken Celtic bard at large in De Vries's home turf of suburban Connecticut (made into a pretty good film with Tom Conti); Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, a satire of the "revolutions" of the 1960s; The Tunnel of Love, a pure, delightful farce. Come to think of it, I'd enjoy rereading pretty much any of his novels, if I could. My local library has a couple, unchecked-out for ages. 

Reader: Read him. If you can get hold of him, that is.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Kitchen Transfigurations



Sorry, fans, no post today. Or a very short one. Busy all day with house renovations, carrying garbage, cleaning floors, vacuuming, etc. New kitchen counters, you see, with comings and goings of strong, silent plumbers and kitchen-counter guys. Efforts to restrain aging dog from sinking fangs into ankles of strangers. End result magnificent, a gleaming kitchen to rival any in Martha Stewart's world. Well, not quite. But a good meal was had by both at the end. And a toast or two to positive transformations, in the kitchen and out. Over and out.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

We Turks of Ireland



As the putative descendant of Celts, I was interested and mildly distressed to learn from Stephen Oppenheimer in Prospect magazine that, more than likely, those of us whose ancestors came from Ireland have no connection at all to the Celtic cultures of Central Europe but are actually Anatolian, i.e., Turkish, in origin, via the Mediterranean littoral and the Basque Country. And it's the fault of that Greek bloke Herodotus, who off-handedly said the race he called "Keltoi" came from the Danube regions, whereas what he meant to say was the Pyrenees, placing us squarely in the Basque Country. What silly old Herodotus did with his Danube comment was reinforce the idea that the Halstatt and La Tène cultures of central Europe, with their elaborate metalwork and swirling, typically Celtic shapes, were the proto-Celts of Ireland, Scotland, etc. Not so, apparently; that art was just the fashion of the times everywhere. So forget the old notion of the Celtic "rump" pushed outward by Roman expansion; our lot got started in Turkey much earlier, says Oppenheimer.

"Given the distribution of Celtic languages in southwest Europe, it is most likely that they were spread by a wave of agriculturalists who dispersed 7,000 years ago from Anatolia, traveling along the north coast of the Mediterranean to Italy, France, Spain and then up the Atlantic coast to the British Isles. There is a dated archaeological trail for this. My genetic analysis shows exact counterparts for this trail both in the male Y chromosome and the maternally transmitted mitochondrial DNA right up to Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and the English south coast.
"Further evidence for the Mediterranean origins of Celtic invaders is preserved in medieval Gaelic literature. According to the orthodox academic view of 'iron-age Celtic invasions' from central Europe, Celtic cultural history should start in the British Isles no earlier than 300 BC. Yet Irish legend tells us that all six of the cycles of invasion came from the Mediterranean via Spain, during the late Neolithic to bronze age, and were completed 3,700 years ago."
That's OK, then. I'm happy with Mediterranean origins. I always wanted to be Italian. But Anatolian as well, eh? Well, I was quite the young Turk in my day....

Monday, February 24, 2014

Dreams of Kievan Rus



Last Wednesday I went to bed convinced war was coming in Ukraine, and not just because of the bloodshed on the Maidan in Kiev. The last headline I'd read before toddling off to the land of Nod said that Western Ukraine had declared independence. I imagined a clash between Poland and the EU and Russia through the heartland of Ukraine: tanks, planes, and all, a kind of two-way Operation Barbarossa. Well, thank God it turned out to be a rumor, although apparently government institutions in Lviv, cultural capital of the West, had indeed separated themselves administratively from the central government in Kiev. But that was before Yanukovych headed for the hills, or the Black Sea, or wherever he is. Now that he's gone there's more unanimity among the regions, and a bit more cohesion between the West and the center, but that still leaves the East, overwhelmingly Russian in language, as this map shows, and pro-Russian (although not necessarily pro-Putin) in sympathies. But those sympathies have been fluid for centuries. Kiev is, after all, the mother of Russian cities, as the capital of Kievan Rus, where Orthodox Christianity was adopted by Vladimir the Great, prince of Kiev, in around A.D. 1000. There have always been and will always be strong ties between Ukraine, especially the Eastern part, and Russia, which were one country under the Tsars, who called Ukraine "Little Russia," and the Soviets, who did their best to make Ukrainians detest Moscow by oppressing them under decades of famine and tyranny. But the ties persist. Indeed, the Crimea, now officially Ukrainian, is still the home of the Russian Navy. If the Russians wanted to make a move, they wouldn't have to go very far.

Mr. Putin is cannier than that, however. Whatever happens, he'll be the skeleton at the feast in Kiev. It's too early for Ukrainians to sleep easy. But one way or another, the people will prevail; and that alone is huge progress for an ancient dictatorship. As W. B. Yeats said, "The history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields, but in what the people say to each other on fair days and high days, and in how they farm and quarrel, and go on pilgrimage.” This nation lives again.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Bit of Remembering


That quaint Swiss house, shown behind me in 2009 shortly before its demolition, was my home for fifteen years and remains a beacon in my misty land of memories. Like Rebecca, last night I dreamed I went to Manderley—only instead of Manderley it was 42, Chemin Bonvent (Goodwind Lane) in the suburbs of Geneva. But, unlike Rebecca, my house-dreams are banal affairs, usually just replays of reality. Nothing much happens, except an upsurge of obscure longing, or the gentle nibbling of imminent failure. As in life, Mum’s small car, no Bentley but a French Renault or Simca (successor to the Ford Squire of yore) sits in the graveled drive; perhaps I’m washing it, as I often did. The wooden garage doors, slumping then on their rusted hinges, slump at a slightly steeper angle. A Siamese cat frolics about, or lies dozing in the sun: the dream-descendant of Pete Toy, best cat a boy ever had. God bless his little cat-soul; I hope he dozes happily yet, in feline paradise. The house itself, as in life, is half-hidden behind its tumbledown fence and fruit trees and willows and silver birches (on whose branches one winter a family of great horned owls, driven down from the mountains by the cold, came to perch, and perch again in my dreams), with a glimpse over the treetops and neighboring farmhouse roof of the Jura mountains, in France. I loved those mountains. In winter they were thickly snow-covered and loomed forbiddingly above the rooftops, as majestic as the Urals or Caucasus. In spring the snow slowly receded to the peaks, and the mountains seemed to shrink slightly as the warmer weather exposed their purple slopes threaded with veins of limestone and streams of snowmelt and carpeted here and there with forests in which our owl visitors, as well as deer and foxes and wild boar—and, it was said, wolves—made their home.

     Yes, it’s all there; no elaboration, nothing extraneous, except the longing. In those dreams I stare across an unbridgeable abyss of nostalgia. The existence of that farmhouse next door is a clue that our neighborhood had recently been rural and had only just, since the war, started to acquire the character of a suburb of smallish middle-class houses, grandly called villas in French. They all looked alike, but were lived in by a varied population typical of Geneva. One nearby villa, on a section of the street frequently blocked off by police cars, housed the Israeli consulate; another was inhabited by a gloomy Swedish family whose gloomier son, many years later, committed suicide by jumping off the top of the tallest building in Stockholm; another, two doors down, was the residence of the secretive ham-radio operator I mentioned in a previous post, on whose roof an immense antenna lapped up the radio waves emanating from Moscow and East Berlin and Red China. (Dad always saw the hand of the KGB at work, ceaselessly spinning the dials. The man disappeared; Dad was probably right.) In the farmhouse itself lived a farmer. One day I watched him skin a rabbit. The rabbit was alive at the beginning of the process and dead at the end and must, I thought, have suffered unimaginable agonies. It was the first time I realized how the infinite cruelty of humans can be either casual, as with the farmer, who only wanted the ingredients of a good stew, or deliberate, as with the Gestapo, who only wanted to rid Germany of Jews. And I realized, too, that cruelty is the worst thing in the world. [From Run Like Blazes]

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A View From an RV; and What a View!

I'm bone-weary today. I followed my 2-mile morning constitutional with a drive to Austin and a prolonged traipse with my wife around the annual Austin RV Show. We're not exactly in the market, but there's something appealing about a small studio apartment on wheels that you can drive away whenever the fancy takes you. 



More on that later. Meanwhile, in deference to my bone-weariness, today I'm merely posting an excerpt from my current work-in-occasional-progress, What a View! Enjoy!

      "It's open mike night at this place they have here, downtown, called Tarzan's," said Grozny Shrub, with no further preamble. "After I do the gig here I'm going down there and pitch the work in progress. How about joining me?"
            "I don't know. Maybe. I've got to talk to my mom."
            "Your mom? Aren't you like old enough to...?"
            "Of course. But I'm staying with her, so it's a matter of courtesy."
            And of course she was married, too, and quite happily; but a combination of hipness and self-consciousness prevented either of them from alluding to that fact.
            Feeling guilty, as soon as she got to Tarzan's she called Joel on their landline, but he was out, or away from the phone ("Hi! It's half of us!"). She could have tried his mobile, but it wasn't that urgent, and there were always the lingering misinterpretations, odd cadences, unexplained background noise....
            For instance, if she called him now, the background noise at Tarzan's, whether explained or not, would be Grozny's whining voice reading from his new novel, the Dustbin Prize nominee Old Janitors Never Fade Away, They Just Die.
            "My dad was a janitor," said Grozny. "So I know what I'm talking about, because I like have janiting in the blood. Dad was born in Semipalatinsk, in Russian Kazakhstan, back in oh God like the nineteen-thirties, during the Stalin purges. So he's an old janitor. 'I am the oldest fucking janitor in the world,' he likes to say. Why is he a janitor? Hey, it's just what happened to him. It's not like he wanted to be a janitor all his life. He studied physics at Chelyabinsk Technical School. He was a research physicist by training, but the authorities got him blacklisted because a junior KGB official spotted him reading A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich on the Metro, so he was thrown out of the physics institute and forced to work as a janitor in the Ochenbolshoi Hotel in Moscow. My mother took in cleaning and sent out cooking, and vice versa. We applied about six hundred times for an exit visa to Israel on the grounds that we were Jewish, which I guess we were, sort of, but it was no big deal, but anyway my father finally got the visa and got us all out to Israel. He was hoping to get a job doing physics research, but when he arrived all the positions were filled, or reserved for English or Hebrew speakers, and his English was like really bad and he couldn't take Hebrew seriously, so he got a job as a janitor at Tel Aviv Russian School until we moved over here, where he really had high hopes because one of the physics professors at Bettelheim College in Oakland was a relative of my mom's on her mom's side, but best he could do was get Dad a job sweeping up and taking care of the boilers in the physics department. 'Funny life,' he likes to say, 'if I stay in Russia, I work as a janitor. If I emigrate to Israel, I work as janitor. In America, I work as a janitor. Looks like God decided I should be a fucking janitor!'"
            The slight, uncertain ripple of mirth that went through the nine-person audience, sitting in the area set side for "open mike" events, was instantly drowned out by a powerful baritone emanating from the bar area and sounding extremely, even absurdly, Irish.
            "By feck, Oy'll kill him, so Oy will, the feckin bastard, just tell me where he's gone and by Chroyst Oy'll kill him, so Oy will. Oy can't feckin' believe it. The bastard."
            Maeve instantly recognized the velveteen tones of her dear old da. Strident, authoritative female tones alternating contrapuntally with her father's bellowing implied the presence of her mother, which was a surprise, as Maeve had the impression the gulf in communication between her parents was vast and unbridgeable.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Don't Publish And Be Damned

Time for some world-class whining. With a rational basis.

Life for middle-class, mid-list authors, even those with a couple of traditionally published books under their belts, is getting worse. From fellow blogger SheWrites.com, because I couldn't put it better myself (this is a couple of years old, but more timely than ever):


Essentially, what’s happened is this: publishers find themselves in increasing financial peril; they need to make money, so they try to make safe bets.

The result for readers is a "narrowing of the breadth and depth and diversity of our culture: the quieting of all but the blandest voices, the elimination of all but the safest choices." The result for writers is that every year it gets harder to publish. Bestsellers reign supreme, and mid-list (or mid-career) authors have been shunted down the pecking order, taking the place that beginning writers used to occupy. As small presses (the home of many first-time authors) die in huge numbers, first-time authors may find themselves out in the cold.

It’s a kind of death of the middle class, but within the microcosm of our industry.

There are many reasons for the crunch: the publishing industry’s antiquated returns systems, the growth of the big-box store and mega-distributor, the rise of e-books and internet retailers, and the influence of ever-larger publishing giants.

A writer calling herself Jane Austen Doe described the crunch for Salon.com in 2004. Things have only changed for the worse in the succeeding decade:

Since I signed my first book contract, the publishing industry has changed in ways that are devastating — emotionally, financially, professionally, spiritually, and creatively — to midlist authors like me. You’ve read about it in your morning paper: Once-genteel “houses” gobbled up by slavering conglomerates; independent bookstores cannibalized by chain and online retailers; book sales sinking as the number of TV channels soars. What once was about literature is now about return on investment. What once was hand-sold one by one by well-read, book-loving booksellers now moves by the pallet-load at Wal-Mart and Borders — or doesn’t move at all.

I post this because it resonates. Writing is my profession, and it would be nice to have hopes of making  decent living from doing something one does professionally. I have one of the best agents in the industry, based in New York, with connections galore, and with two unpublished novels of mine on hand he's performing the labor of Sisyphus to just get a look in at traditional publishers. 

What my blogging colleague says above is true: The extinction of the publishing mid-list parallels that of the middle class. Both are being crushed between extremes. My hope is abroad. There are still traditional gatekeepers in Germany and Italy. But what happens here tends to soon happen there.... 

I've always fancied driving a bus.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Darwin vs. the Dinos

Charles Darwin just turned 205. Has there ever been a more influential person? I know disgracefully little about science, but I have a Victorian respect for it; and I can just about follow explanations of the theory of evolution. It makes sense. We begin, we struggle, we adapt (or die): It's natural logic. 

For the layman the whole show is a continuous dazzling display of wonders. Look at neutrinos and Higgs's boson. Consider the praying mantis. What price the sloth? The world in all its guises enhances rather than disproves natural selection. You're spot-on, Charles. 

No problem for the Catholic Church, which teaches that there's no conflict between faith and the scientific evidence for evolution, as long as humans take pride of place as special creations. Fair enough; seems reasonable. 

But on the fundamentalist Protestant side, especially in the dull Bible Belt stretches of this country, Darwin is a dirty word, and evolution is denied. A Creation Museum has opened in Kentucky. Its exhibits apparently posit among other things the absurd theory that dinosaurs co-existed with early man and frolicked through the Garden of Eden nibbling ferns, because T-Rex and co. were herbivores. What a lot of baloney. It looks like fun for the kids, anyway.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Fantastic Ms. Fox


Nothing like discovering an interesting new writer--"new" to me, but hardly to herself, since Paula Fox, the writer in question, is 81. I read the first volume of her memoirs, Borrowed Finery, after coming across an interview with her in which she displayed a hilarious sense of humor mixed with solid common sense, a combination that whetted my appetite. 

The lady has had a strange, sometimes harrowing, life. Unwanted as a child, and placed in a foundling home by her Cuban mother, she was raised at first by her Cuban grandmother, then by a Congregationalist minister in upstate New York who was, happily (and unexpectedly, in this kind of biography), a good man who taught her a great deal and read her the classics; indeed, he was something of a godsend to the unhappy little girl. The moral dichotomy between him and Paula's birth mother was vividly illustrated when she visited her mother at age five. In Borrowed Finery, a haunting memoir written with lucid calm, she says, "I sensed that if she could have hidden the act, she would have killed me." Her mother, she says, "was an element of nature--bad nature."

Other people's lives, eh? God Almighty.

She married at 17 and soon divorced, divorced again in her 30s, married again, and this time stayed married (to the poet and critic Martin Greenberg). These upheavals and distractions, and the need to make a living, impeded her literary evolution, and she only published her first novel, Poor George, in 1967, when she was 44. It, and the subsequent Desperate Characters (1970), were greeted as masterpieces by such critics as Alfred Kazin, Bernard Bergonzi, and Lionel Trilling, but the adult books didn't sell. Her numerous children's books did a little better, but were never top sellers, despite the Newbery, National Book Award, and Deutsche Jugendliteraturpreis, all of which she won. 

This takes the concept of critical success equating commercial failure to a whole new level. Incredibly, by 1992 all six of her adult novels were out of print, and we wouldn't know of her at all today had it not been for Jonathan Franzen, who came upon Desperate Characters by chance and set to work championing her cause. Eventually, with the assistance of an editor at W. W. Norton, Franzen got Fox's books reissued. He deserves a hearty round of applause for restoring a fine writer's reputation and for doing what eminent authors should do more often. Good on ya, Jonathan.

I'm impressed with what I've read. She looks life in the eye and dares it to outdo her own imagination. I look forward to reading all her novels, and will post further opinions. (Oh, another bizarre fact about Paula Fox? She's Courtney Love's grandmother. Ya can't make it up.) 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Avanti Joyce

"Killoyle . . . is an exhilarating, passionate, biting novel that parodies the great writers and has a laugh in every footnote." Or so says the excellent Renzo Crivelli in last Sunday's Il Sole 24 Ore, one of Italy's biggest-circulation papers. His review is titled, approximately, "Drunkards à la Joyce," yet another reference in the Italian press to the bibulousness of my characters and, more importantly (to me) to the great J.J. The Italian papers have been very kind to my little farce, especially in comparing it over and over again to the work of the magus (who, after all, got started in Italy). 

The veteran journalist Laura Lilli, in La Repubblica, the nation's biggest daily, evokes the "road of Joyce" that I and my work are apparently traveling on, and says "Boylan works marvels." 

Teresa D'Aniello, in SoloLibri, an online book review, calls  K. a "brilliant and entertaining novel," but mentions Thomas Pynchon rather than Joyce, whose name resurfaces in Giordano Tedoldi's piece in Libero, in which he finds similarities between Milo and Murphy of Killoyle City and the Dubliners of ... well, Dubliners

Am I boasting? After the book's been out in English for 15 years? Hardly. I'm just very pleased--I'd like to say, laughing all the way to the bank, but I've been at this game long enough to know that you don't sell many books if you're compared to James Joyce, however great the honor to your art. And it is a great honor, and that's what really matters in the end, and beyond. 

Mille grazie, tutti





Monday, February 17, 2014

Ghosts of the GDR


After returning from one of her periodic forays back in the early ‘80s into the German Democratic Republic—a.k.a. East Germany—at the wheel of her Volvo 343, my mother mystified me at first by complaining about the number of warthogs she had encountered on the roads of the workers’ paradise. They traveled in convoys and were all over the place, moving at high speed. It was quite an image, until she added that they were much faster than the Trabants. At the mention of the GDR’s iconic crapmobile, it dawned on me that she was referring not to wild African piggies but to East Germany’s other automotive icon, the Wartburg, named after the ancient castle that dominates the town of Eisenach (birthplace of J. S. Bach). Mum frequently mangled foreign words, especially German ones.  

Also, the Wartburgs were less famous than the Trabis, but they were much better cars all around, coveted by the citizens of the little dictatorship, and some of them even had sporting ambitions. Alas, they were still East German, made by and for committees, and, like their pocket homeland, were doomed after ’89.

But they had quite a heritage. The first Wartburg vehicle was made in 1898, when most of what became East Germany was still known as Prussia: the Wartburgwagen, with a two-cylinder, 765-cc engine and a top speed of 25 mph. The name was soon dropped but re-appeared in the early 1930s on a BMW, of all things, then disappeared until the Eisenach automobile factory was in the hands of the Communists, post-1949. Like its West German counterpart the DKW (proto-Audi), the Wartburg had a three-cylinder, two-stroke 962-cc engine that went PUTT-putt-putt-putt and managed a heady 52 to 57 horsepower, depending on the efficiency of the carburetor. (Their two-stroke engines, like the kind you find in your chainsaw, relied on a special mixture of oil and gasoline.)  A rounded, homely model, the 311, put East Germany, or at least the better-heeled segments of it, on wheels in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s; it made its way West, even into West Germany, where I first saw them and conjectured that unrepentant Communists and other fellow-travelers must be the owners. I mean, why would you drive a Wartburg if you had BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and VWs as alternatives?

Still, the 311’s successor, the 353, racked up respectable sales figures in the West. In the UK it was known as the Knight, and became a quite common sight, especially on the streets of working-class towns in the North and Scotland. It caught on in France and Switzerland, too, at least in limited numbers. One of our neighbors in Geneva ditched his Ford Cortina and bought a sparkling new cream-colored Knight; this would have been in the late '60s or early '70s. “You see?” said my father, triumphantly. “Didn’t I say he was an East German spy?” And indeed I always thought Dad’s Cold-Warrior hypothesis regarding this neighbor was feasible. Geneva, after all, teemed with louche characters from everywhere (and no doubt still does). And this man lived alone in a small house with shutters usually closed and a towering ham-radio mast on the roof, and he kept odd hours, often wee ones: the PUTT-putt-putt of his Wartburg at 1 a.m down our otherwise silent suburban street was a giveaway to his comings and goings to the insomniac I then was. Too, we lived near the airport, and on certain nights the drone of a small plane taking off about an hour after the Wartburg had putt-putted past led me, rendered sleepless by the fanciful imaginings of childhood, to muse about secret encounters in safe houses; top-secret U.N. materiel spirited away behind the Iron Curtain; spy swaps on the airport tarmac; messages in cigarette packs in the telephone booth at Checkpoint Charlie …. Then one day he was gone, and so was the Wartburg, along with the ham-radio mast. He was replaced by a respectable Swiss family with a Peugeot. My father and I lost interest entirely.

The final Wartburg, the 1.3, had the same boxy body style as the old Knight, but featured a fine 64-hp VW Golf engine under the hood. It was well-built, thoroughly revamped by West German engineers, and reliable: in short, a pretty good car. It should have found its saviors earlier, however. The year was 1988 and history was on the march; a year later the Wall came down and East Germany, warthogs and all, was one with Nineveh and Tyre.



Sunday, February 16, 2014

In Texas Ist Das Leben Schön

I had the usual preconceptions about Texas when I moved here nearly 21 years ago: ranches, oil, Stetson hats, longhorn-adorned Cadillacs, vulgarity, barbecue, etc. I never expected the Hill Country, which resembles Provence minus the ancient churches and olive groves (although olives are now being planted there, and the churches are aging nicely). Nor did I know how German parts of it are, or used to be. The entire Hill Country region was settled in the 1840s by German emigrants, some, as elsewhere in America, fleeing religious persecution back home (notably the Mennonites); others came in search of an easy fortune, only to find that there was no such thing. One of the latter was Prince Carl von Solms-Braunfels from Braunfels in Hesse, an aristocratic adventurer dedicated to the establishment of a New Germany within the Republic of Texas, who set sail with a few dozen families for that dreamed-of Heavenly Reich on Earth. Prince Carl didn't stay long. Once he got a taste of the Texas summer, 100-deg. heat and the landscape alive with rattlesnakes and scorpions with a few floods thrown in (the Hill Country being the most flood-prone part of the U.S.), he remembered urgent business back in Old Braunfels and hastened home as fast as one could in those days ("I'll be back!"), leaving his charges to administer the newly founded town of New Braunfels on the limpid Comal and Guadalupe rivers. They did quite well, all in all, spreading out across the Hill Country and founding other settlements: Fredericksburg, Boerne, Bergen, Comfort.... They also managed the major feat of signing a lasting treaty with the Comanche, not easy folks to get along with at the best of times. 

As I mentioned yesterday, my wife, dog and I spent the day in New Braunfels, strolling about and enjoying the pre-spring spring weather. It's a pleasant, busy town, and one you can still actually stroll about without being run over; and the Landa Park, where the Comal rises, is one of the shadiest and greenest parks in these parts, and a haven in the summer months. Apart from the central square and a few old stone buildings, and the name of the local rag (Herald-Zeitung), there's not much German left, except for the kitschy fachtwerk-and-fraktur subculture that reaches its apex every October with the local version of Oktoberfest, called Wurstfest ("the best of the Wurst"). But the old culture has left its benevolent traces all over the Hill Country through some outstanding schools and local music societies that are harmonious echoes of the original Musikvereinen dating back to the 1840s. Wherever Germans settled, it was said, they wasted no time in building a church, a school, and a music hall before anything else. Top priority for the less temperate was a bierstube as well, and there was one such in New Braunfels when I first went there, an old building with mullioned windows and sagging beams. It's gone now, replaced by other, blander bars. But Naegelin's, the oldest bakery in Texas, still exists, and has since 1868, ancient history around here. It's the only place outside Germany I've ever had really good lebkuchen

It helps, when I wax nostalgic for other climes, to recall the steadfastness and courage of those old German settlers, and to admire what they left behind.    

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Das Schöne Leben

Short post today. Took a much-needed break from the computer and spent the day with wife and dog in the German metropolis of the Texas Hill Country, New Braunfels, under glorious blue skies and temps of 80+ deg. F., light southerly breezes. This is when life in Texas is good. And, by the way, the motto of the charming town of New Braunfels is: "In New Braunfels Ist Das Leben Schön." More from deep in the German heart of Texas 
tomorrow. Und jetzt, zum Bett.

Friday, February 14, 2014

To Serve Them All My Cliches

Three cheers for YouTube, thanks to which I've been able to unearth many of my favorite old British TV series and watch them for nothing. Most recently, I came across one of the best, To Serve Them All My Days, based on the novel by the now-forgotten R. F. Delderfield, a bestseller in his heyday, a kind of poor man's J. B. Priestley (himself now remembered for little more than The Good Companions, if that).

The story line is simple: In 1918 a young Welshman, recently invalided home from the trenches, applies for a job as a teacher at a snooty public school. Against all expectations except the audience's, he stays on, rises through the ranks, wins over the old codgers, and converts his Welsh socialism into benevolent pedagogy. He even manages to have an active sex life, albeit interrupted by the odd two-hankie tragedy. It's entirely satisfying to watch or to read, with surprises restricted to the strictly conventional sort. Delderfield, in his day an enormously popular novelist, summed up his mission by saying, "I set out to tell a straightforward story of a group of undistinguished British people—the only kind of people I really know." (One of the "write what you know" school.) No James Joyce he; no, he was a yeoman of literature, the author of a couple of dozen novels and several plays and histories. I should be half so prolific and capable.

I last saw the TV series when it was first shown over here, in 1981, eons ago now, in the misty past of my New York bachelor days. It stands up well, and indeed could be used in a creative-writing course as a lesson in plot development, characterization, and atmosphere. Having taught creative writing for the good folks at Western Connecticut State University for many years now, I've come to the conclusion that a good TV miniseries, or judicious excerpts therefrom, can be useful in the instruction of the basic narrative elements, the rest--style, syntax, the actual composition of a literate sentence--being the hard part.

Even the best of these series are full of cliches and stereotypes, but I turn that to our advantage by telling my students to embrace cliches, which sometimes can be helpful in pinpointing the essence of a character, or a period. In any case, what seems like a stereotype to me may be entirely foreign to my students. In To Serve Them All My Days, all the main characters are period types to a certain extent: the shell-shocked, passionate-Socialist Welsh miner's son; the languid, cynical, chain-smoking house philosopher; the bumbling but lovable clergyman-headmaster...and yet they're all entirely believable, and would have been familiar figures to the ordinary Briton of the 1920s. Better yet, they're memorable, because they fit perfectly in their roles and in the story as a whole. Consider Dickens: Most of his characters were based on stereotypes of the age that he knew his readers would recognize instantly. It was a kind of shorthand that enabled him to cut to the chase, to use a contemporary cliche....

Anyway, I've also learned through teaching that the cliches of my generation are frequently unknown to my students, who therefore greet them as fresh and exciting. And when they do, at least the subjects and verbs usually agree.
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