Monday, September 30, 2013

The Art of Avoiding Calamities

The Sound of the Mountain

Last March, an archaeological survey in Japan turned up a 16-inch unexploded artillery shell near a bullet train track in north Tokyo. The trains were stopped in early June so the Japanese army could dispose of it. Such incidents are normal in post-war Japan; tons of unexploded ordnance are discovered and removed every year there and it’s estimated that thousands more tons remain buried in the ground, like bad memories that may be suppressed, but don’t go away. The problem seems emblematic of Japan’s struggle to digest painful history—not only the recent calamity of World War II, but centuries of earthquakes, tsunamis, and apocalyptic civil wars.

The consciousness of calamity has informed Japanese art since ancient times. Columbia University Press’s Sources of Japanese Tradition, edited by Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, tells us of the ancient state records called the Nihongi or Chronicles of Japan: “Over and over in the Chronicles of Japan we find such entries as the following (for A.D. 599): ‘There was an earthquake which destroyed all the houses. So orders were given to sacrifice to the God of Earthquakes.’ ” (Tsunoda p. 267) Buddhism and Chinese philosophy came to Japan around the same time as the earthquake mentioned above, and both found favor in the island nation, perhaps because they squared so well with the old Shinto fear of nature. Buddhism expresses a deep sense of the changeability and impermanence of the natural world and a determination to reach some inner, mental accord with it (Tsunoda, p. 96). The Chinese school of yin-yang provided to Japan the art of “avoiding calamities” by divination. (Tsunoda, pp. 58-59)

An acute sense of perishability and calamity remains in the Japanese art of modern times—having been reinforced no doubt by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the torrent of conventional ordnance that the U.S. air force rained on Japan during World War II. (Some Japanese referred to the bloody sea and air assault on Okinawa as the “Typhoon of Steel.”) Japanese disaster films like Godzilla and the Japanese-influenced Pacific Rim of last summer bespeak the preoccupation with calamity, as does Japanese contemporary high literature. Yasunari Kawabata, who in 1968 became the first of two Japanese Nobel laureates in literature, worked directly in the calamity tradition. Much as W.G. Sebald did in Germany, Kawabata wrote characters whose inner lives were contaminated with the unexploded ordnance of the past.

Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain was first published in 1954, and while his characters for the most part avoid talking about the war, the scars and holes that war left in Japanese families play a dominant role in their lives. It’s a story of veterans, widows, and orphans, of a Japan where “[a] great many children were left behind by men who died in the war, and a great many mothers were left to suffer” (The Sound of the Mountain, p. 233)—a story where, as war veteran Shuichi says, “[the war] is still haunting people like me. Still somewhere inside us.” (p. 266) Encyclopedia Brittanica says of Kawabata, who was born in 1899, “he was orphaned early and lost all near relatives while still in his youth” and from the outset of the novel we gather that if life is short and fragile, calamity’s influence on the human mind is long and enduring. Here is the protagonist Shingo arguing with his wife Yasuko about their troubled granddaughter Satoko (if you think those names are confusing to a Western ear, the family also includes a Fusako, a Kuniko, and a Kikuko—thank God for Shuichi):
“She was born after things started going bad with her father,” said Shingo. “It all happened after Satoko was born, and it had an effect on her.” “Would a four-year-old child understand?” “She would indeed. And it would influence her.” “I think she was born the way she is.” The Sound of the Mountain p. 23
The dark weather of past times perhaps does something to corrupt the mind so that it makes its own storms, as Shingo observes later:
“Even when natural weather is good, human weather is bad,” he muttered to himself, somewhat inanely. The Sound of the Mountain p. 185
The “somewhat inanely” tacked onto the thought is a case-in-point. Shingo’s mind distorts its picture of itself and makes bad weather out of good, for the statement is not inane. It’s profound. The calamities of war and lost love have corrupted his thinking:
Women had left his life during the war, and had been absent since. He was not very old, but that was how it was with him. What had been killed by the war had not come to life again. It seemed too that his way of thinking was as the war had left it, pushed into a narrow kind of common sense. The Sound of the Mountain p. 210
The “narrow kind of common sense” seems to be an “art of avoiding calamities” that extinguishes desire and the will to live by too many “pious thoughts about the dead” (p. 219). People in this novel, as in real life, find ways to imagine that they’re responsible for the calamities that befall others. Just as ancient Japanese authorities concocted a magical art of avoiding calamities by making sacrifices, the characters in The Sound of the Mountain seem to sacrifice themselves on the magical altar of abortion and suicide, as if that would undo the calamities that have befallen others. So Kikuko does not put up a fight when her husband Shuichi has an affair with a war widow and impregnates her. Instead she aborts her own pregnancy: the art of avoiding calamity gone all awry.

Kawabata himself committed suicide in 1972, but he had written against suicide: “However alienated one may be from the world, suicide is not a form of enlightenment.” It appears Kawabata fought with demons, as his characters do in The Sound of the Mountain. And before he lost one of those battles, he won a great many of them, and his weapon in the fight was his art, a beautifully modern update to the ancient calamity art of Japan.

The Sound of the Mountain combines realistic dialogue and depth psychology with aware, a trope associated with The Tale of Genji, which some consider the world’s first novel; it was written around 1010 C.E. by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Sources of Japanese Tradition explains aware like this: “It bespoke the sensitive poet’s awareness of a sight or sound, of its beauty and its perishability.” (Tsunoda, p. 176) It converts melancholy to joy by seeing the beauty in a transient moment or by beautifying it in poetic language, but also perhaps by penetrating beyond despair to a possibility of joy that may be latent in the transient scene.

The eponymous “sound of the mountain” turns out to be the remembered sound of an avalanche in Shingo’s childhood. Kawabata arrests the frantic movement of an avalanche with his beautiful and meaningful aware, an image of an avalanche that is still and calm and subject to contemplation as in a Japanese painting.

At one point Shingo recalls a real painting by Watanabe Kazan with the legend “A stubborn crow in the dawn: the rains of June.” Shingo remembers the crow “high in a naked tree, bearing up under strong wind and rain … awaiting the dawn.” (p. 209)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

I Would Prefer Not To

Bartleby the Scrivener

As a writer, I know this: Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby the Scrivener is either the most depressing thing ever written or the most inspiring. Though Melville was only 34 when he published it and lived on for 38 more years, it reads like his suicide note. On the other hand, the love that’s now lavished upon Melville vindicates him against the very despair he articulates in Bartleby’s pages.

Melville’s life history attests that he composed Bartleby at an inflection point in his career, when his work had turned more ambitious and had been rewarded with diminished sales. In 1851, Melville had published his sixth and most ambitious novel to date, Moby-Dick, and it sold badly. Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco: “During Melville’s lifetime, Moby-Dick never came close to selling out its first edition of 3,000 copies, and when, in December 1853, the unsold copies burned up in a fire in the publisher’s warehouse, few noticed and fewer cared.” (Delbanco, pp. 6-7) Melville reacted with bitterness, which he expressed in his next novel Pierre:

Who shall tell all the thoughts and feelings of Pierre in that desolate and shivering room, when at last the idea obtruded, that the wiser and the profounder he should grow, the more and the more he lessened the chances for bread; that could he now hurl his deep book out of the window, and fall to on some shallow nothing of a novel, composable in a month at the longest, then could he reasonably hope for both appreciation and cash. But the devouring profundities, now opened up in him, consume all his vigor; would he, he could not now be entertainingly and profitably shallow in some pellucid and merry romance. Quoted at

Compared to the meager arts coverage in today’s dying, philistine newspapers, of course, the critical response to Moby-Dick doesn’t look so bad. ( has culled a bunch of reviews from Melville’s day.) The critics cavil obnoxiously and find Melville incomprehensible, but not infrequently they also hail his genius. Nonetheless, Melville was seriously discouraged. He withdrew from public life and from writing prose fiction, choosing instead a long downward slope of decades spent “clinging like a weary but tenacious barnacle to the N.Y. Custom House,” as a contemporary put it. (Delbanco, p. 291)

Melville published Bartleby in 1853, two years after Moby-Dick, at the beginning of this period of withdrawal. According to John Clendenning, Bartleby and other Melville stories like Benito Cereno suffered a fate similar to that of Moby-Dick:

The novel, either ignored or misunderstood by critics and readers, damaged Melville’s reputation as a writer…. The public was ready to accept unusual and exciting adventures [of the sort Melville had written before Moby-Dick], but they did not want ironic, frightening exposures of the terrible double meanings in life…. [T]he haunting and disturbing question of the meaning of life that hovered over the stories also displeased the public. (retrieved April 29, 2013)

Bartleby depicts a withdrawal from life that parallels Melville’s own. As a scrivener, or copyist, in the days before typewriters and photocopiers, Bartleby seems like an inevitable symbol for the writer in general. His marked isolation (described as “his hermitage” within the Wall Street office and at other times as “his dead-wall revery”) resembles the solitary condition of the fiction writer, perhaps more than that of an actual copyist. Like a serious fiction writer, Bartleby makes a quixotic refusal to provide a marketable service to the world, and he does so literally, not figuratively: when his boss asks him to do something, he replies, “I would prefer not to,” a refrain that is repeated in various forms close to 40 times by my count, and which evolves iteration by iteration from comedy to tragedy. Ultimately, Bartleby refuses not only to work but to eat, and he dies in prison like an unmedicated schizophrenic. The lovely and harrowing final passage reveals that Bartleby once worked in a dead letter office. “Dead letters!” Melville writes. “Does it not sound like dead men? … On errands of life, these letters speed to death.” It seems impossible that Melville did not draw a parallel between a dead letter—a letter meant for someone that never finds its intended recipient—and Moby-Dick, which sailed forth but was refused popular harbor. One thinks of Kilgore Trout in Slaughterhouse Five describing his obscure writing career as years of making love to an open window.

Bartleby the Scrivener is a suicide note that nobody cared to read, and yet its despair completely misjudges the eventual reception of Moby-Dick. Andrew Delbanco writes of the happy ending that Melville didn’t live to see:

Moby-Dick was not a book for a particular moment. It is a book for the ages…. And so Melville emerged in the twentieth century as the American Dostoevsky—a writer who, with terrible clairvoyance, had been waiting for the world to catch up with him. Ever since, he has routed his rivals in the competition for readers. Delbanco, Melville: His World and Work, p. 12

It ought to be inspiring, anyway. Melville did persevere against the neglect he encountered—because Moby-Dick eventually found an audience, but also because he did continue to write. He answered the perceived neglect of Moby-Dick initially with more novels, with satire, with Bartleby the Scrivener, then with poetry, and at some point with Billy Budd, a posthumously published story that is one of his most revered.

Ultimately, every writer must do what Melville did. He must say what he has to say regardless of what readers and critics say or don’t say back. He must do it even if they shower him with ignorant praise. He cannot shut up. He prefers not to.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Up Close in the New York Times


For a recent New York Times profile of Austin Ratner, follow this link.

Author's Notebook: The Whole Megillah


The blog tour for my new novel In the Land of the Living, continues with an author interview at The Whole Megillah:

BK: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you go from med school to the Iowa Workshop? AR: This question always makes me think of Gonzo in The Muppet Movie. He tells Kermit and Fozzie he’s going to Bombay, India to become a movie star. They tell him:you don’t go to Bombay, India to become a movie star, you go to Hollywood, where we’re going. Gonzo says, sure, if you want to do it the easy way. I always wanted to be a writer, but I did not take a direct path. There are worse paths, though, than the one that leads through a medical career. Somerset Maugham said that medical school was the ideal preparation for any fiction writer.

To read the rest, follow this link.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tragedy Plus Comedy in a Hurry


The blog tour for my new novel In the Land of the Living, continues at Tablet Magazine's Jewcy blog:

The old saw that “comedy is tragedy plus time” has been attributed to everyone from Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce, Carol Burnett, and Woody Allen. That’s according to the Internet, a.k.a. bullshit at the speed of light. But whoever authored the line was working from a different formula than the Jewish one I grew up with. Eric Jarosinski’s funny Twitter feed @NeinQuarterly says, “Tragedy + time – comedy = German comedy.” In the Jewish formula, I think, there isn’t enough time between tragedies for ‘tragedy plus time’ to apply.

To read the rest, follow this link.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

In the Land of the Living: On a Wonderful Day Like Today


I will be blogging this week about my new novel In the Land of the Living, just released by Little Brown. Here is an excerpt of the third blog, an annotated playlist of songs and music alluded to and quoted from in my book. The blog appeared on David Gutowski's music blog, Largehearted Boy:

In the Land of the Living is about losing a parent before you're six years old—in other words, before you can remember it, but not before you can feel it. Maybe because music expresses passionate feelings even without any words attached, it plays a central role in the emotional lives of the characters. This novel is the closest I could come to writing a song. I wrote it instead of tattooing tears on my face. All of the following songs are directly referred to and / or quoted from in the novel:

To read the rest, follow this link.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Novels of Early Childhood


I will be blogging this week about my new novel In the Land of the Living, just released by Little Brown. Here is an excerpt of the second blog, which appears on the website of the Jewish Book Council:

Some academics have observed that young Jewish writers do not mine their personal lives for material in the same way that Jewish writers did a generation ago. In my own case, this is and isn't true. My first novel, The Jump Artist, was based on someone else’s life and took place in lands and days disparate from my own. My second novel, In the Land of the Living, draws on my own personal experiences and on events in the history of my own family. It’s first and foremost about loss at a tender age, and finding your way out from under the pall of grief, back to the land of the living, and to all that makes life worth living. (Why am I not on Oprah’s book list?)....

To read the rest, follow this link.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

In the Land of the Living


I will be blogging this week about my new novel In the Land of the Living, just released by Little Brown. Here is an excerpt of the first blog, which appears on the website of the Jewish Book Council:

Remember Mandy Patinkin’s character Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride? When Montoya was a child, the story goes, the six-fingered man killed his father. He also slashed Montoya’s face, leaving him with scars on both cheeks. Montoya spends the rest of his life training to exact vengeance on his father’s killer. He practices not only his swordsmanship but just what he’ll say when he finally finds and confronts the six-fingered man: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

The main character in my second novel In the Land of the Living is a boy like that, a boy with a dead father, a boy bent on recompense and committed to its pursuit for as long as it takes. His problem is that there is no six-fingered man to kill....

To read the rest, follow this link.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Russian Winters

Snowdrops: A NovelSnowdrops: A Novel by A.D. Miller

A.D. Miller's Snowdrops is a novel about Moscow, today's Moscow, the one where somebody pays off gangsters to throw sulfuric acid in the eyes of the director of the Bolshoi. But in Snowdrops systemic graft has so compromised the criminal justice system that it barely appears at all in the midst of the anarchy. In this beautifully written English novel, which was a Booker prize finalist, every person and every institution made of people is corrupt. Anarchy permeates all just like the cold of a Moscow winter. And it's a novel that's as implacably real and engulfing to the senses as a long, freezing Muscovite winter.

Surely Russia has not always been so corrupt, but it probably has always been so cold and so vast. In this sense Miller, who is also a journalist, writes in a timeless and literary way. He shares in the secret wisdom of the novelists, playwrights, and poets who have been Russia's biographers, a wisdom born of intimacy with the mighty indifference of nature, history, and humanity itself to the designs of the human individual. No wonder atheism is one of Russia's major exports.

Says the character Ananyev in Chekhov's story "Lights":
And concentrating the whole world in myself in this way, I thought no more of cabs, of the town, and of Kisotchka, and abandoned myself to the sensation I was so fond of: that is, the sensation of fearful isolation when you feel that in the whole universe, dark and formless, you alone exist. It is a proud, demoniac sensation, only possible to Russians whose thoughts and sensations are as large, boundless, and gloomy as their plains, their forests, and their snow.

A.D. Miller writes about expatriates, yes, in addition to Russian natives, but his narrative is in so many ways pure Russian. Were he to set foot in A.D. Miller's Moscow, Chekhov would know where he was immediately: lost. Lost as you can only be in Russia.

View all my reviews

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Tree Hugging

The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of NatureThe Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature by Jonathan Rosen

Rabbinic tales about the famously wise King Solomon tell of his special ability to talk to animals and to apprehend the subtleties of nature. As such, the Solomon legends hold particular interest for Jonathan Rosen, who himself writes of birds and nature--and of those who write about birds and nature--with a rather Solomonic subtlety.

"Darwin did more than anyone since the serpent in Genesis to disturb the feeling that we were safe in a world of sacred guarantees," Rosen writes (p. 176). But Rosen is less interested in Darwin's ramifications for theology and more interested in how naturalists and poets after Darwin have rediscovered a kind of spirituality, if not religion, in nature itself. He reports on a shift of weltanschauung that Thoreau biographer Robert Richardson called "the shift from the old religion of God to the new religion of nature." (p. 247) The Big Bang inspires a certain religiosity, for example, that Rosen articulates perfectly: "With science like that, who needs mysticism?" (p. 173) According to Rosen, Emily Dickinson's poem that begins "A Bird came down the Walk" belongs to this shift too: "birdsong has taken the place of church music in this poem." (p. 193)

For American poets, who are naturalists maybe by way of America's wide open spaces, birds seem to play a special role as emissaries of the mystic majesty of nature. They sing a harmonic line throughout the poems of Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, and Stevens and Rosen is a consummate analyst of such birdsong. Their power of flight and song, and their gratuitous beauty of coloration, must partly explain their fascination for poets. But in an urban environment, Rosen suggests, the birds are also the last representatives of the wild. (They are at least the loveliest if not the last--with all due respect to rats and roaches.) They're "the only animals that make house calls." (p. 193)

The dark side of the new post-pagan, post-Christian nature religion is that it can still partake of the ascetic fervor of religions of old. Henry David Thoreau is a good example. Rosen writes that "Thoreau attempted to marry nature the way nuns marry God." (p. 149) One could even say that the passion for virgin forest is sometimes a plea for literal virginity itself. "I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree," Joyce Kilmer wrote just before volunteering himself as cannon fodder in the first World War. "Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree," the poem concludes. Maybe so. But that sapling poem has outlived a good number of forests.

The neglect of nature is unaesthetic, uncultured, and unfeeling to the living things that share our home planet, whether man, mouse, or mycorrhiza. But an excess of chastity about the human footprint in nature is, as Rosen rightly argues, a form of martyring despair and a flight from love.

Rosen states succinctly: "The great question facing us today is, Can we be both [environmentalist and humanist]?" (p. 248) "Extremism--of religion or materialism--of pure environmentalism or pure urbanism--is not the way." (p. 251)