Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 15, 2015

Behind every great fortune there is a crime

Filed under: capitalist pig,crime,literature,Russia — louisproyect @ 10:37 pm

The title of this article stems from Honoré de Balzac’s “Père Goriot”. Often seen erroneously (including by me) as the novel’s epigraph, it is actually words spoken by a scheming, malevolent character named Vautrin: “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been discovered, because it was properly executed.”

Whatever the exact words, the Balzacian worldview came to mind after reading the NY Times series of articles on the filthy rich and mostly criminal owners of the city’s most expensive condos. They sank in further after watching an episode on “Sixty Minutes” about HSBC, a Swiss bank that facilitated tax evasion and worse.

I suppose that I should have long been inured to the criminality of the super-rich but for some reason I always stop dead in my tracks when I encounter it anew on such a grand scale. I end up feeling like Joe Buck, the Texas hustler who has come to NY to make it as a professional gigolo in “Midnight Cowboy”, standing over a man sprawled out unconscious on the sidewalk as people pass him by with barely a glance. Unlike the rest of humanity, Buck tells himself that something is wrong.

Karl Marx was a big fan of Balzac and even intended to write a study of “The Human Comedy”, a massive collection of novels, short stories and articles about the greed, corruption and power of the bourgeoisie but hardly a paean to the common man. Keep in mind that Balzac was a royalist and hardly a purveyor of “socialist realism”. Engels, another fan of Balzac, told London radical Margaret Harkness in 1888 that his politics were less important than his ability to tell the truth about bourgeois society:

The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art. The realism I allude to may crop out even in spite of the author’s opinions. Let me refer to an example. Balzac, whom I consider a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas passés, présents et a venir [past, present and future], in “La Comédie humaine” gives us a most wonderfully realistic history of French ‘Society’, especially of le monde parisien [the Parisian social world], describing, chronicle-fashion, almost year by year from 1816 to 1848 the progressive inroads of the rising bourgeoisie upon the society of nobles, that reconstituted itself after 1815 and that set up again, as far as it could, the standard of la viellie politesse française [French refinement]. He describes how the last remnants of this, to him, model society gradually succumbed before the intrusion of the vulgar monied upstart, or were corrupted by him; how the grand dame whose conjugal infidelities were but a mode of asserting herself in perfect accordance with the way she had been disposed of in marriage, gave way to the bourgeoisie, who horned her husband for cash or cashmere; and around this central picture he groups a complete history of French Society from which, even in economic details (for instance the rearrangement of real and personal property after the Revolution) I have learned more than from all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period together.

Monied upstarts pretty much describes the billionaires who bought Manhattan apartments through shell corporations that concealed their identities. The article that introduces the series describes the affinity between NY’s one percent and the human detritus that is artificially inflating an already out-of-reach real estate market:

The high-end real estate market has become less and less transparent — and more alluring for those abroad with assets they wish to keep anonymous — even as the United States pushes other nations to help stanch the flow of American money leaving the country to avoid taxes. Yet for all the concerns of law enforcement officials that shell companies can hide illicit gains, regulatory efforts to require more openness from these companies have failed.

“We like the money,” said Raymond Baker, the president of Global Financial Integrity, a Washington nonprofit that tracks the illicit flow of money. “It’s that simple. We like the money that comes into our accounts, and we are not nearly as judgmental about it as we should be.”

In some ways, officials are clamoring for the foreign wealthy. In New York, tax breaks for condominium developments benefit owners looking for a second, or third, residence in one of Manhattan’s premier buildings. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on his weekly radio program in 2013, shortly before leaving office: “If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend.”

In fact the invasion of oligarchs and crooks has been the opposite of a godsend. These condominiums enjoy tax breaks originally intended to stimulate the construction of middle-class housing but real estate developers obviously find it more profitable to build high-rises like the Time-Warner Center that is profiled in the articles. Built shortly after September 11, 2001, the ultra-luxury building was advertised as a fortress for the super-rich that had more to fear from the workers and peasants they were screwing than Islamic radicals.

 

Here is an idea of the kind of scum that inhabits the Time-Warner Center:

Units 72B and 51E are owned by the Amantea Corporation, which The Times traced to a mining magnate named Anil Agarwal. His company was fined for polluting a major river near a copper mine in Zambia, which sickened nearby residents. And judicial committees in his native India determined that his company had violated the land rights of an indigenous tribe near a proposed mine.

Perhaps the most eye-opening example of how larceny and power politics commingle is found in part five in the series titled “At the Time Warner Center, an Enclave of Powerful Russians”. If you, like me, place little credence in the notion of the Kremlin and its retinue of connected oligarchs as some kind of anti-imperialist vanguard, this profile of Andrey Vavilov is a must read.

Vavilov was Boris Yeltsin’s deputy finance minister and like many of his top officials cultivated ties with American inside-the-beltway policy wonks and power brokers at places like the Brookings Institution. Vavilov was one of the key architects who advised Yeltsin on turning state-owned industry, particularly in the energy sphere, into get-rich-quick bonanzas for the managers benefiting from privatization including himself. Cashing in on a sale of a oil company being sold back to the state under Putin to the tune of $600 million, he was not put off by the price tag of $37.5 million for an 8,275 square foot penthouse in the Time Warner Center. In addition to this penthouse, Vavilov owns an Airbus jet, apartments in Monaco and Beverly Hills, and recently purchased two diamonds for his wife (55 and 59.5 carats) worth a cool $60 million.

He is also a visiting professor of economics at Penn State, where he must be educating a new generation of economists on how to game the system for Wall Street hedge funds and the like.

Like many on Wall Street, Vavilov has managed to avoid a prison cell despite the serious allegations made against him over the years, including the mishandling of nearly a quarter-billion dollars in proceeds from the sale of MIG’s to India. Just around the time the law was breathing down his neck in 2007, he was elected senator to the Russian parliament, which gave him immunity. The case was dropped a year later because the statue of limitations had expired.

Most interestingly, despite Vavilov’s close association to Yeltsin and Putin’s reputation for cleaning up Yeltsin’s privatization mess, he managed to endear himself to the fearless anti-imperialist leader:

Despite Mr. Vavilov’s close association with the Yeltsin administration, much of his wealth was acquired later, as Mr. Putin’s government was consolidating the nation’s oil industry in one state-affiliated super company, Rosneft.

In 2000, Mr. Vavilov had acquired a small oil company, Severnaya Neft, or Northern Oil, for $25 million. When Rosneft purchased Severnaya Neft in 2003 for $600 million, the deal was widely criticized as having been larded with kickbacks for Kremlin insiders.

In a now-legendary confrontation at the Kremlin, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, chairman of the oil giant Yukos, challenged Mr. Putin about the purchase. Many people believed that it was Mr. Putin’s anger over the very public encounter that sparked his campaign against Mr. Khodorkovsky, who would be stripped of his company, prosecuted and imprisoned.

For most of the left, particularly those people who remain impressed by NYU professor emeritus Stephen F. Cohen who has the same relationship to Putin that Anna Louise Strong had to Mao Zedong, there’s very little understanding of how Putin continues Yeltsin’s policies rather than breaks with them. In fact, there is an analogy with how Cohen’s wife’s vanity publication, ie. The Nation Magazine, fails to appreciate how much Obama is a continuation of George W. Bush.

For the best analysis of the Yeltsin-Putin continuity, I recommend a Tony Wood review of three recent books on Putin that is unfortunately behind a paywall (contact me if you’d like a copy) but this is the takeaway:

New Year’s Eve 1999 – when Yeltsin appeared on Russian TV screens to announce his resignation as president in favour of Putin – is often taken to mark a major turning point, from the ‘fevered 1990s’ to the stability of the ‘Zero Years’, as the 2000s are known, the moment when Yeltsin’s erratic improvisation gave way to the cold calculation personified in Putin. Economically, the prolonged post-Soviet collapse was followed by recovery after the 1998 ruble crash and then an oil-fuelled boom, while in the media a boisterous incoherent pluralism was replaced by deadening consensus. But there were deeper continuities in the system both men commanded.

Politically, the ‘managed democracy’ of the 2000s was not a perversion of Yeltsinism but its maturation. Faced with a fractious legislature – the Congress of People’s Deputies elected in 1990 – Yeltsin bombed it into submission in October 1993 and then rewrote the constitution along hyper-presidential lines, getting it approved by a rigged referendum that December. Even before that, he had sidestepped democratic accountability by implementing much of the key legislation that shaped the post-Soviet economy through a series of decrees – some of them, notably on privatisation, drafted by Western advisers. Thanks to the notorious ‘loans for shares’ deals of 1995-96, a handful of oligarchs obtained vast holdings in oil and metals companies in exchange for flooding the media outlets they owned with anti-Communist propaganda – a vital contribution to prolonging Yeltsin’s grip on power, though generous financial assistance from the West and electoral violations also played their part. In Chechnya, Yeltsin moved to crush local aspirations to sovereignty, unleashing total war against the civilian population in 1994, though the Russian army had been fought to a standstill by 1996.

On each of these fronts, Putin continued what Yeltsin began, starting in the North Caucasus in September 1999, when he launched a vicious counterinsurgency – officially labelled an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ – to destroy any idea of Chechen independence, eventually imposing a tyrant of his own choosing. Once installed as president, he made use of the autocratic set-up he inherited to reassert central authority, reining in regional elites by appointing plenipotentiaries to head seven new federal superdistricts, okruga; five of the first levy were former military men, underlining their disciplinary function (his first envoy to the Southern Federal District, Viktor Kazantsev, had commanded Russian forces in the North Caucasus). Fiscal reforms increased the federal centre’s tax take at the expense of the regions, with Moscow’s share rising from 50 per cent in 2001 to 70 per cent in 2008. In 2004 Putin further restricted their autonomy, abolishing elections for governors and mayors (though these were partially reintroduced in 2012). The national legislature had been put in its place by Yeltsin, though it showed signs of rebellion in 1998, in the wake of the ruble crisis; Putin brought it firmly to heel, streamlining the party system so that by 2007 there were only four to manage, two of them, United Russia and A Just Russia, the Kremlin’s own creations, while the Communist Party and LDPR (the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) hardly constituted an opposition. In December 2003, Boris Gryzlov, the Duma chairman, summed up its negligible role by declaring that ‘parliament is no place for political battles.’

I suppose there is very little expectation that Swiss Banks are up to anything except abetting criminals but the segment on Sixty Minutes last Sunday about HSBC was enough to bring out the Joe Buck in me. You can watch the entire thing here.

Bill Whitaker interviews attorney Jack Blum, who was graduating the year I entered Bard College. Blum is a capable investigator whose best-known efforts on behalf of the public interest was an aide to John Kerry in his investigation of the Nicaraguan contra-cocaine connection back in 1986 when he still had a shred of integrity. I never had any contact with Blum but he was a fairly typical young Democrat type of student who at least had the good sense to stay clear of electoral politics.

Jack Blum

Here’s the beginning of the transcript from the “Sixty Minutes” piece:

HIGHLIGHT: The largest and most damaging Swiss bank heist in history doesn`t involve stolen money but stolen computer files with more than one hundred thousand names tied to Swiss bank accounts at HSBC, the second largest commercial bank in the world. A thirty-seven-year-old computer security specialist named Herve Falciani stole the huge cache of data in 2007 and gave it to the French government.

BILL WHITAKER: The largest and most damaging Swiss bank heist in history doesn`t involve stolen money but stolen computer files with more than one hundred thousand names tied to Swiss bank accounts at HSBC, the second largest commercial bank in the world. A thirty-seven-year-old computer security specialist named Herve Falciani stole the huge cache of data in 2007 and gave it to the French government. It`s now being used to go after tax cheats all over the world. 60 MINUTES, working with a group called the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, obtained the leaked files. They show the bank did business with a collection of international outlaws: Tax dodgers, arms dealers and drug smugglers–offering a rare glimpse into the highly secretive world of Swiss banking.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): This is the stolen data that`s shaking the Swiss banking world to its core. It contains names, nationalities, account information, deposit amounts–but most remarkable are these detailed notes revealing the private dealings between HSBC and its clients.

JACK BLUM: Well, the amount of information here that has come public is extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): Few people know more about money laundering and tax evasion by banks than Jack Blum.

JACK BLUM: You have a very serious problem.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): He`s a former U.S. Senate staff investigator. We asked him to analyze the files for us.

JACK BLUM: If you read these notes, what you understand is the bank is trying to accommodate the secrecy needs of the client. And that`s the first concern.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): Take the case of British citizen Emmanuel Shallop. He was convicted for selling blood diamonds, those illegal gems used to finance conflicts in Africa. The documents show in 2005 HSBC knew Shallop was under investigation, yet helped hide his assets. “We have opened a company account for him based in Dubai…” one entry read, “The client is very cautious currently, because he is under pressure from Belgian tax authorities, who are investigating his activities in the area of diamond tax fraud.”

JACK BLUM: You get into the notes and you find that they offer various products: shell corporations, trusts, various ways of concealing the ownership of the account. They offer products that they`re going to give to the customer that will help with a concealment.

BILL WHITAKER (voiceover): Concealment is what Irish businessman John Cashell got from HSBC. His file contained these notes by a bank employee: Cashell`s “…pre-occupation is with the risk of disclosure to the Irish authorities.” The employee went on, “…I endeavored to reassure him that there is no risk of that happening.” Cashell was later convicted of tax evasion.

The bank files we examined contained more than four thousand names of people with connections to the U.S., holding more than thirteen billion in HSBC accounts. One was a New Jersey realtor. The notes in her file reveal that she and her family wanted assurance that her assets would be well hidden from U.S. tax collectors.

JACK BLUM: And she expresses concerns to the bank, which in turn reassure her that they will find ways to keep her name out of the sights of IRS.

BILL WHITAKER: There seems to be evidence of the bank actively helping clients evade, if not cheat.

JACK BLUM: Of course.

It has been at least 35 years since I read “Père Goriot”. I barely have time nowadays to read the political stuff that is my daily bread but I would like to find the time to read it again before I die since it was a book that gave me deep pleasure. Balzac was a master of rendering character, particularly in the depths of their depravity. His introduction to the novel’s main character will give you an idea of the moral rot that underpins bourgeois society. From the sound of this, Père Goriot would have found the road to riches in Yeltsin and Putin’s Russia or a job with HSBC:

In the days before the Revolution, Jean-Joachim Goriot was simply a workman in the employ of a vermicelli maker. He was a skilful, thrifty workman, sufficiently enterprising to buy his master’s business when the latter fell a chance victim to the disturbances of 1789. Goriot established himself in the Rue de la Jussienne, close to the Corn Exchange. His plain good sense led him to accept the position of President of the Section, so as to secure for his business the protection of those in power at that dangerous epoch. This prudent step had led to success; the foundations of his fortune were laid in the time of the Scarcity (real or artificial), when the price of grain of all kinds rose enormously in Paris. People used to fight for bread at the bakers’ doors; while other persons went to the grocers’ shops and bought Italian paste foods without brawling over it. It was during this year that Goriot made the money, which, at a later time, was to give him all the advantage of the great capitalist over the small buyer; he had, moreover, the usual luck of average ability; his mediocrity was the salvation of him. He excited no one’s envy, it was not even suspected that he was rich till the peril of being rich was over, and all his intelligence was concentrated, not on political, but on commercial speculations. Goriot was an authority second to none on all questions relating to corn, flour, and “middlings”; and the production, storage, and quality of grain. He could estimate the yield of the harvest, and foresee market prices; he bought his cereals in Sicily, and imported Russian wheat. Any one who had heard him hold forth on the regulations that control the importation and exportation of grain, who had seen his grasp of the subject, his clear insight into the principles involved, his appreciation of weak points in the way that the system worked, would have thought that here was the stuff of which a minister is made. Patient, active, and persevering, energetic and prompt in action, he surveyed his business horizon with an eagle eye. Nothing there took him by surprise; he foresaw all things, knew all that was happening, and kept his own counsel; he was a diplomatist in his quick comprehension of a situation; and in the routine of business he was as patient and plodding as a soldier on the march. But beyond this business horizon he could not see. He used to spend his hours of leisure on the threshold of his shop, leaning against the framework of the door. Take him from his dark little counting-house, and he became once more the rough, slow-witted workman, a man who cannot understand a piece of reasoning, who is indifferent to all intellectual pleasures, and falls asleep at the play, a Parisian Dolibom in short, against whose stupidity other minds are powerless.

January 17, 2015

The motorcycle looks somewhat dated but is indisputably an angel

Filed under: literature,motorcycles — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm

(From the latest London Review of Books)

Claudio Castiglione and Massimo Tamburini

by Frederick Seidel

The motorcycle looks somewhat dated but is indisputably an angel.
Like an electric chair before the current goes on.
Like an electric chair before the switch is thrown.
You’ve eaten your last meal, the priest has left the room.
The motorcycle between your legs is an angel
Revving its desmodromic basso profondo into a scream.
It’s Massimo Tamburini’s great 1994 Ducati 916 design, the Nine Sixteen!
Massimo’s soul in metal, slender as a child,
Glory whose maybe slightly dated beauty sings eternal.
Claudio Castiglione, who owned Cagiva, which owned Ducati, was the Medici
Who underwrote the considerable development cost of this piece of sculpture.
Time, space,
Neither life nor death is the answer.
And of man seeking good,
Doing evil,
Here was an exception.

Speed is the demon. Speed is not!
Speed is the big white breast
That arouses Italian men enough to get them finally to leave the nest –
Finally! – though they still love mommy’s breast the best.
Up the autostrada we sped,
Claudio behind the wheel,
Chatting when Claudio wasn’t taking and making many Massimo calls
On the car’s speaker phone – a toy at the time only James Bond had.
On our way to his house on the Italian Riviera,
In a dove-gray, conservative businessman’s
Stealth four-door Alfa Romeo sedan
(Claudio also owned a Ferrari P-2),
I glanced over at the speedometer but didn’t want to stare,
And saw we were casually going 240 kilometers an hour,
And wide-eyed,
Felt a swoon of pride.

Italy is despicable and ridiculous
And bad and sad
And full of as many flavors of cancer as Leopardi said.
It once was great.
It has cancer of the state.
Is there anything one can accomplish before it is too late?
At Rodrigo in Bologna one can eat bottarga.
One can take a taxi out to the Ducati factory in Borgo Panigale
And say hello to Paolo Ciabatti.
One can reread Montale and remember Aldo Moro.
The tentacles of the octopus ripple like boiling ribbons of pasta
And the suckers attach to buildings and the buildings goose-step
Underwater up and down the Arno.
The semi-tropical trees on Bellosguardo recite their satanic vows.
The cities are for sale.
Men, seeking good, doing evil, buy them.

Audi, part of the Volkswagen Group,
Through its Italian subsidiary Lamborghini
Has bought tiny, mighty Ducati!
The CEO of Ducati is Claudio Domenicali, brains and huge ears,
Who ran Ducati Corse (the racing department) during the fecund years.
Volkswagen’s Chairman, the engineer and business magnate Ferdinand Piëch,
The grandson of Ferdinand Porsche,
Has always been a vehement Viennese Ducati enthusiast,
Though these days Ducati Corse keeps losing in MotoGP,
The summit of motorcycle racing and publicity, motorcycling’s Formula 1.
Domenicali has to fix that or that will be that.
It costs almost as much as the war in Iraq
For a factory team to compete. And then, on top of that, to lose!
Circuit after circuit falls to the Sunni extremists, Honda and Yamaha,
As they rave their way south toward Baghdad,
Beheading Shia for the sheer bliss of it.

Castiglione and Tamburini have died,
And without them Italy is stupid –
First one and then the other,
Both of course of cancer.
It appears Europe will fail,
The euro and immigration.
Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel,
Is the only man among them.
Nothing is more beautiful than her political will,
But stupidity and cupidity will probably prevail.
Cancer, cancer, everywhere,
And cocaine sunshine in the Botticelli air.
The exotic Ducati Superleggera crackles
As it warms up to commit parricide.
The power of the new machine
Will devour the 916.

Dante and his friend and mentor Guido Cavalcanti
Are taking the museum tour at the Ducati factory.
Here they can see everything that is beautiful.
The motorcycles are displayed along the walls.
The motorcycles are as beautiful as Merkel’s political will.
The visitors are contemplating the spirit of Love.
They might as well be gazing up at night at the stars.
So many motorcycles will lead to great poetry surely.
Guido is instructing Dante in the use of the spoken Tuscan language
And the guidance the love of women gives,
When they are joined by Fellini and behind him Puccini
And behind Puccini Guido’s father, Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti.
The motorcycles around them look like birdsong sounds in spring
And everything speaks Italian like a river flows.
There is no sign of any fascists
And we believe in God, even if we are atheists.

September 19, 2014

How Stieg Larsson Exposed the Swedish Far Right

Filed under: Fascism,journalism,literature,popular culture,Sweden — louisproyect @ 1:04 pm
Kicking the Hornets’ Nest

How Stieg Larsson Exposed the Swedish Far Right

by LOUIS PROYECT

For the average person the early death of Stieg Larsson must have come as a disappointment since that meant that the fourth Dragon Tattoo novel would remain uncompleted, the last in a series that were perfect reading on the bus or subway going to work. I understood how they might feel since I once missed my stop while reading the account of the petite but potent Lisbeth Salander beating up a 300-pound biker and stealing his Harley-Davidson.

But after reading Jan-Erik Pettersson’s “Stieg Larsson: the real story of the man who played with fire”, I felt a keener loss, that of a man who I never met but now miss as a comrade in the fight against a decaying capitalist system. I was always aware that Karl Stig-Erland “Stieg” Larsson, who died at the age of 50 from a heart attack on November 9, 2005, was a member of the Trotskyist movement–as was I–but never knew much about what he did in between the time he left the movement and began writing the novels that made him famous. I was under the impression that he made his living as a journalist but that would be like saying that John Reed did so as well. Like so many journalists with integrity over the last 100 years, Stieg Larsson aimed his words like a Molotov cocktail at the forces of capitalist reaction. If anything, the exploits of Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist hero of his novels, pale in comparison to the life that the author led.

I picked up Pettersson’s book (used copies sell for a penny on Amazon.com!) primarily to get a handle on how Sweden moved away from the welfare state in the 80s and 90s and on how those changes impacted the Marxist detective novel writers I wrote about inCounterPunch recently. While the book provided valuable information that allowed me to put someone like Henning Mankell, the creator of the Wallender novels, into context, the story of Stieg Larsson began to captivate me, so much so that I decided to write this article as a way of paying homage to this extraordinary human being. The facts about Larsson’s life that follow come from Pettersson’s book; the analysis you can blame on me as always.

read full article

September 10, 2014

The Marxist roots of Swedish detective novels

Filed under: literature,popular culture,Sweden — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

From “Stieg Larsson: the Real Story of the Man Who Played With Fire” by Jan-Erik Petterson:

ABOUT A WEEK AFTER THE FIRST Swedish anti-Vietnam War demonstration and the same year the Swedish police were nationalized, the detective story Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo was published. This was the book which was to introduce the revolution in Swedish detective fiction and without which Jan Guillou’s Hamilton books, Henning Mankell’s Wallander series and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy could probably never have been written.

Sjowall and Wahloo threw out the old props of the ingenious sleuth assembling the suspects in the manor house library and instead placed the real, unromantic, crime-solving police centre stage.

Roseanna was just the start of a carefully devised plan. The man-and-wife team had decided they would produce exactly ten novels over ten years, published under the collective rubric of The Story of a Crime. The books would use the detective story format to reflect and analyse contemporary Sweden. More than that: they would, in Per Wahloo’s words, ‘rip open the belly of an ideologically impoverished society’.

Per Wahloo had already had some novels published, mostly political thrillers, but Maj Sjowall, who worked for the weekly press, was new to fiction. Both were politically committed and way to the left of the ruling Social Democrats.

Their views were not entirely surprising, even though several years ahead of their time. But the literary venture was a bold one. Crime fiction was middle class. In the circles they moved in they certainly got no brownie points for writing in that medium. Even from a commercial perspective, thrillers were no guarantee of success. The publishing director at Norstedts, Lasse Bergstrom, wrote in his memoirs, Bokmarken (Bookmarks), that he was rather disappointed when Wahloo, whom he already knew well, came to the office with Maj Sjowall to propose their project.

`But my disappointment was in total ignorance of what was to come,’ was his later terse comment on his reaction at the time.

Sjowall and Wahloo wanted to try something new, something daring and unexpected. To hell with traditions, even those of the Labour movement. They would write for a broad public and make it so easy and exciting that the bitter pill of the authors’ social critique would slide down without meeting any resistance.

And weren’t class divisions in society a crime in themselves, anyway? And shouldn’t they be depicted as such?

From Sjowall—Wahloo onwards, the Swedish crime novel — oddly enough given its context — has been a genre with a strong tendency to the Left.

Fortunately for the authors, it was as if the era itself was crying out for a fresh sort of literature. The expansive, realistic, elaborate epic felt played out. What was needed now was something more in keeping with the pulse of the new decade — edgy, nerve-tingling, straight to the point.

At that period, the documentary form predominated in all the arts. Truth carried more weight than fiction. Within the space of a few years the book market was flooded with current affairs and reportage. Sjowall—Wahloo, despite opting for the novel, were in perfect accord with the trend. Their blow-by-blow accounts of meetings in police headquarters, interrogations of witnesses and suspects, post-mortem reports and so forth convinced the reader that these procedures were completely true to life.

Such devices would go on to become the staple for all Swedish crime writers.

Sjowall and Wahloo were aware too of crime fiction traditions other than the Swedish, just as Stieg Larsson was thirty years on. In the USA Dashiell Hammett had introduced the hard-boiled school of crime fiction with his novels about the private detective Sam Spade. Hammett was an anti-fascist and member of the American Communist Party, and wrote about a society that seldom showed any mercy to anyone born on the wrong side of the tracks. And in France Georges Simenon had created his Chief Superintendent Jules Maigret, who not only solved crimes but also sought to analyse their cause and was able to feel sympathy for the perpetrators.

Sjowall and Wahloo had found a useful model in the American crime writer Ed McBain and his novels about the 87th Police Precinct in the fictional town of Isola. McBain depicts the cops Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling and their laborious daily grind confronting a criminality of steadily increasing ruthlessness. These books were fine examples of the police procedural, detective stories where the efforts of the team are much more important than an individual detective hero’s flashes of insight. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo decided to learn from McBain and even translated some of his books into Swedish.

Roseanna introduces a Swedish police team at the Homicide Bureau in Stockholm. They are Detective Inspector Martin Beck (later superinten-dent and head of the National Homicide Bureau of the Central Bureau of Investigation) and his assistants Lennart Kollberg and Fredrik Melander. The cast is gradually augmented: Gunvald Larsson, Einar Minn, Ake Stenstrom (who is murdered in the fourth book and succeeded by Benny Skacke), and also Stenstrom’s former girlfriend Asa Torell.

This is the team that battles to solve various crimes and more often than not succeeds. Yet in the final analysis they always lose. In contrast to the crime stories of the 1950s, no equilibrium is restored in the police procedurals of the 1960s and 1970s. Society itself is constantly producing new and more serious, more audacious and better-organized types of crime. The Sjowall—Wahloo books are not reading matter for the optimistic.

These novels are about the triumphs and impotence of the collec-tive. Young individualists and careerists who are too self-important are bullied and cut down to size, not least by Lennart Kollberg. But the biggest difference of all in comparison with earlier crime novels lies in something more elusive: in the language, the style, the atmosphere:

The little black car hurtled forward through the darkness precisely and implacably, as if it were a weightless craft in space.

The buildings tightened along the road and the city rose up beneath its dome of light, huge and cold and desolate, stripped of everything but hard naked surfaces of metal, glass and concrete.

Not even in the city centre was there any street life at this hour of the night. With the exception of an occasional taxi, two ambulances and a squad car, everything was dead. The police car was black with white fenders and rushed quickly past on its own bawling carpet of sound.

The traffic lights changed from red to yellow to green to yellow to red with a meaningless mechanical monotony.

Here, at the beginning of The Abominable Man, the authors manage to get everything into one short sequence — the forward movement, the suspense of the thriller, the doom-laden feeling of imminent calamity, together with an evocation of the new Swedish capitalist society as they see it — cold, desolate, inhuman.

Something really had happened to Swedish crime fiction.

THE SJOWALL-WAHLOO BOOKS were written from the outset in a restrained objective style, but by degrees the text became more inter-spersed with ironical and critical comments on everything from beer prices and fashions to government foreign policy and the incompetence of the police force and its top management.

What the authors diagnosed in the mid-1960s was a welfare state degenerating, no longer class-equalizing but class-dividing, where people were oppressed by assembly lines and rationalizations, where original residential town centres were being demolished and the urban populace pushed out to so-called dormitory towns.

And the social drama was escalating as the volumes were being written. Vietnam demonstrations were attracting thousands of participants, police and demonstrators clashed, a tennis tournament in Bastad between Sweden and Rhodesia was disrupted by riots, a students’ union building in Stockholm was occupied, a wave of wildcat strikes hit the whole country, the Establishment was rocked by the IB Affair of secret service malpractice, and a hostage drama on Norrmalmstorg and a terrorist attack on the West German embassy brought Stockholm to the attention of the world.

Politics had moved out on to the streets. Violence was making itself felt.

The authorial voice became more explicit as The Story of a Crime progressed. At the very end of the last volume, as some of the main characters are sitting playing party games, it becomes over-explicit:

They all turned their papers over and drew more squares. When Kollberg was ready, he looked at Martin Beck and said, ‘The trouble with you, Martin, is just that you’re in the wrong job. At the wrong time. In the wrong part of the world. In the wrong system.’

‘Is that all?’

‘More or less,’ said Kollberg. ‘My turn to start? Then I say X. X as in Marx.’

This final scene in The Terrorists is dated 10 January 1975. Four months later NLF troops marched into Saigon and the USA left Vietnam. The war that had brought the youth of the West to their feet was over. In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge took power and ushered in a period of unimaginable terror.

The Left to which Sjowall and Wahloo felt they belonged was about to experience disillusionment and factionalism. Nothing was straightforward any more. The unique combination of anger and hope that had swept the emotions along during the dramatic years when The Story of a Crime was being written was gone, never to return.

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahltio had wanted to write for the people and not for the Swedish Academy or the broadsheet newspaper critics. As a result they became the critics’ favourites, which was to have a decisive impact on the Swedish crime novel. Because it was this interplay of effective popular storytelling, widespread media attention and positive reactions on the arts pages that brought the Swedish crime fiction vogue into being and allowed it to flourish.

With the praise came honours and prizes. In 1968 the authors received the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the highest accolade for a crime novel, for The Laughing Policeman. Now even the most dismissive of readers could bury themselves in a Martin Beck police thriller with a clear conscience.

It was not long before the Sjowall—Wahloo police team progressed into the film world. Martin Beck has been played by such stars as Keve Hjelm, Gosta Ekman, Carl Gustaf Lindstedt and Peter Haber. A German version of The Man Who Went up in Smoke featured Derek Jacobi in the role of Beck. Walter Matthau was given the part in the Hollywood version of The Laughing Policeman and Jan Decleir in a Dutch film of The Locked Room.

Ironically, it has only been in later years, with the industrial production of Martin Beck films on standardized thriller lines (twenty-six so far) that the protagonist has become well known to a really wide audience. Yet the Martin Beck and Gunvald Larsson we meet there have almost nothing in common with the classic detective story characters that Sjowall and Wahloo created.

August 20, 2014

Is a Donetsk People’s Republic leader a Posadista?

Filed under: literature,Russia — louisproyect @ 4:00 pm

Fyodor D. Berezin

NY Times, August 20 2014
Plenty of Room at the Top of Ukraine’s Fading Rebellion
By ANDREW E. KRAMER

DONETSK, Ukraine — To outward appearances, Fyodor D. Berezin is the picture of a senior military commander. He wears camouflage, has bodyguards and confidently gives orders as the newly named deputy defense minister of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic. Yet, just four months ago he was an obscure author of 18 science fiction novels, one play and a dozen or so short stories.

In an interview, Mr. Berezin said he was as surprised as anybody by his rapid promotion through the rebel ranks. “Reality became scarier than science fiction,” he said in an interview over iced tea at the Havana Banana bar, a favorite rebel haunt. “I live in my books now. I fell right into the middle of my books.”

Mr. Berezin now serves under a little-known fellow Ukrainian, Mr. Kononov, who uses the nickname “the czar” in his duties as defense minister. Before the war, Mr. Berezin, 54, supplemented book proceeds with a day job as a purchasing official for a university, buying janitorial supplies. In the 1980s, he served in the Soviet Army with a rank of captain.

His eyes light up when talk turns to war, though not the kind raging on the outskirts of this besieged city, but rather battles fought in outer space between the Brashis and the Ararbacs, two civilizations on the planet Gaeia and in parallel dimensions from one of his novels.

Mr. Berezin met Mr. Strelkov last spring, and by Mr. Berezin’s account, the two got on well because of common literary interests, as Mr. Strelkov, too, is a science fiction fan. Mr. Strelkov had read one of Mr. Berezin’s books, “Parallel Cataclysm,” about a parallel dimension where the Soviet Union rules Earth and a red flag flies over the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Mr. Berezin said.

In the novel, a United States aircraft carrier group is sunk in the Pacific Ocean by a mysterious wing of fighter jets, later revealed to bear the red star of the Soviet forces from the parallel dimension, crossing over into our world to turn back the tide of American hegemony.

The author is soft-spoken, with a delicate turn of phrase, and a passion for writing that he came to late in life, after working odd jobs and raising a family. With dismay and self-deprecation unusual for a military man, he recounted his difficulties coping with his new command. When attention is diverted by one crisis, he said, another problem pops up, and people die, because this is a real war. “I am in charge of life and death decisions,” he said.

Asked about his plans for defending the city, Mr. Berezin was a little vague, saying the Ukrainian Army would bog down in urban combat. And he described an “international brigade of the future,” modeled on the legions of volunteers who flocked to Spain in 1936, rallying to the cause. For now, though, most volunteers are Russian, he said. “We really, really need help,” he said.

Still, he described the conflict here in sweeping, millennial terms, even as the territory under his command has shriveled to the city limits of his hometown.

“We are at the geopolitical pinpoint of the world,” he said. “The vectors converge here. Like an hourglass, the sides bend in here in Donetsk, and the sand passes and we are at this historical point. Depending on how the sand scatters, history will change one way or another.”

He also recounted inexplicable luck on the separatist side. One rebel, he said, miraculously killed five Ukrainians with the five bullets in a pistol magazine. Another time, a rocket-propelled grenade sailed right into the open window of an attack helicopter, “defying all the rules of probability.”

“I want the war to end, and I want to write about it all,” he said. “It’s an amazing fable. Every day, enough happens for a novel. I cannot talk about it all now, but when the war is over, I will write about it.”

full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/20/world/europe/plenty-of-room-at-the-top-of-ukraines-fading-rebellion.html

August 17, 2014

Jack and the Timestalk

Filed under: humor,Jeffrey Marlin,literature — louisproyect @ 6:34 pm

Jack and the Timestalk

(This is the second in a series of guest posts from Jeffrey Marlin whose e-books, including this one are available from Amazon.com. )

This challenging version of Jack and the Beanstalk takes a critical look at finance capitalism, imperial politics, state religion, sadism as statecraft, the nature of time, and related lesser themes. Like all timeless stories, it has its beginnings in common human flaws. Chapter One plunges us directly into the vortex when Jack’s desperately poor, deeply traumatized household finds itself laid lower still by another disabling shock.

Jack found Mother digging Father’s grave.

She worked at the end of a vegetable garden that yielded no better than ragweed and clover. Her skeletal frame was as spare as the spade that was blunted by use and of meager assistance. The strings of her hair fluttered stiff in the atmosphere, every one stubborn and strange to its sisters.

“I saw Father die,” Jack informed her politely.

She turned at the sound but displayed no excitement. Her small emerald eyes were decidedly dry as her love for her husband, once slight, had expired. What troubled her now was the difficult duty that loomed on the edge of a ruined horizon.

She wiped at her brow with a sleeve gone to tatters.

“Child, have you witnessed him brained by Matilda?”

“I slept in rickety lap of the hayloft, distaining my chores at the side of the highway.”

He should have been roaming the much traveled thoroughfares searching for soot-covered fragments of anthracite fallen like pebbles from coal-traders’ wagons. He knew he’d no business refreshing himself in the cool of the tumbledown barn in the morning.

“And then?” she persisted, a note of severity clearly intended but widely eluding her.

“Pa wandered in with his milk pail a’ clanging. He settled his stool by the unwilling animal. Touching his hand to her ulcerate udder incited a sudden, unfeigned indignation. She groaned her annoyance and eyed him maliciously. Father assaulted the desiccate organ. The twitch of a tendon and swishing of tail posted eloquent notice to ‘Tilda’s intention. He tilted his brow in the lethal direction. Her hoof found a wing and his braincase exploded, unleashing the sound of the late summer thunder. And rather than linger to rescue survivors, I fled in the sweat of my fear and my triumph.”

“I casted all blame on the cow,” mused his mother. “But she was his instrument, utterly innocent.”

Jack was relieved by so mild a reply, for while hiding all day in a ditch in a cornfield he’d feared an inquisitive light in her eye and a volley of questions requiring answers: Did you not warn the old man of his peril? Or stop for an instant to mend up the fracture?Or cry for a parent to join you in mourning?

He’d also considered the life soon to follow. The issue outstanding was whether his mother would man the tradition her husband invented, the sting of the wand in reply to transgressions defined to encompass the measliest error.

The day of her watching from doorways was over.

She must do the wickedest business herself or submit to the rule of maternal emotions – foregoing the branch and accepting the worst of Jack’s endlessly impish, nay roguish, behavior.

The boy had no means of predicting her thinking. So, watching her wrestling spadesful of garden, he tested her gumption and probed her position by pressing the following order of inquiry: “May we not slaughter Matilda for eating?”

“She carries no fat or respectable sinew.”

“What of the marrow alive in her femurs with plenty of oil for the frying of supper? Boil up her hide for a snack in the winter – when edible weeds become scarcer and tougher!”

Mother sighed deeply and Jack knew the reason. They needed the pennies Matilda might bring them. Father stole bravely but had not the gift for it; often was caught and then savagely punished, accounting for tendencies vented on family.

Absent the fruits of his nominal larcenies, what would they live on and how to procure it?

Better to barter what piffle they could for an ill-tempered creature a decade past milking. (Though hitched to a plow she might grudgingly pull it.) The beast wasn’t even a little beloved – except by the master whose skull she’d dismantled. He’d he kept her around as a breathing reminder of better days gone and a hopeful tomorrow.

Jack let the subject of butchery fizzle.

Mother ground acorns and served them with sparrow.

Then, before sleeping, she tested her conscience confronting her stark, unavoidable choices. Not overly backboned she’d come to admire her husband’s commitment to corporal discipline. Nevertheless she collapsed into weeping as Jack cried to Heaven protesting his whippings.

Now she was caught by the fork of dilemma. Surrender her duty or pick up the willow? She stiffened her spine in the midst of her sorrow.

She vowed that tomorrow would pay for today and let Jack once abandon the courteous pathway and vex her again with impertinent questions, she’d stand to her task with a gritty persistence, as Father would do, although anguish engorge her.

A shiver of unexpressed anger tormented her; forced her to think how the man had abandoned her. Longed she to rise from the grave of her bed and make straight for that bovadine venue of slaughter.

She yearned to bestraddle the stool of Matilda expanding her nostrils to smell her own dying. She’d rise from this prison of bone and resentment and bend an ephemeral head looking downward to glimpse all her misery cracked like an eggshell.

Then search out her husband now blistered in Hell and in penitent dread of her vengeful arrival.

But here was the turbulent boy to look after; a millstone to drag through her burdensome labors. So flowed the gist of abrasive reflections which bled into dreams as her husband pursued her with fiery torch never giving her respite before she awoke to the pain of the morning.

She gathered up weeds from the cornfields adjacent.

These had been theirs until stolen at auction – required by law for repayment of losses. She mashed the leaves thoroughly, seasoned them sparingly, summoned her son from his desolate bed to imbibe her instructions along with his breakfast:

“All hope for tomorrow resides in your person.

“Now lead old Matilda to sale at the market.

“Insist on the price nor surrender a penny as long as the bubbling sulfur keeps rising. Relent as it slowly subsides to the West and its sinister shadow grows longer and darker.

“Accept what you must should she garner no offers as farmers pass by and no bidders step forward and all appear lost and the moon mock our losses come end of the reddening day.”

“Mother, I beg thee let’s slaughter the monster, a mooing accomplice to murderous suicide, presently toasting her skull and her femurs and rendering each for the sumptuous marrow.”

“Wherefore the coal or the requisite firewood? How shall we gather up fuel for the roasting?”

“Give me the morning to steal what I’m able.

“Otherwise break up the barn and we’ll burn it.

“Relinquish my father’s delusional thinking that we will be farmers and prosper tomorrow. No longer a jade to his merciless ways and his many abusive, disquieting habits, abandon the ghost of that shit-bestained man and his vilely degenerate use of the willow.”

Try as she might she could hardly deny that he’d tested her well past the point of postponement. Hand over heart, with a groan in her throat, she directed the impudent boy to bend over.

 

August 7, 2014

The Three Wicked Pigs

Filed under: humor,Jeffrey Marlin,literature — louisproyect @ 3:23 pm

Jeffrey Marlin, a friend for the past 53 years, has produced a number of fiction titles now available as Amazon e-books. I’ve mentioned them here in the past. By way of introduction I should add that Jeffrey has the added distinction of weaning me off Goldwater conservatism in 1961 when I was a callow 16-year-old freshman at Bard College and moving toward the Camus-style existential liberalism that was prevalent on the campus. You might say that if not for his intervention, I never would have become a Marxist later on. In effect, my liberalism became a gateway to Marxism, just as marijuana leads to heroin. So that’s that.

Starting today, Jeffrey will serve as a guest blogger, offering extended excerpts from these books once a week over the next few months. He’ll start with his Tales of the Great Moral Symmetry series, verse novels that take popular fables in very unexpected directions. The new feature kicks off with Chapter One of THE THREE WICKED PIGS, wherein the widely despised villain of this venerated piece is revealed to have problems of his own.

The Three Wicked Pigs

The Wolf walked alone, for no clan could abide him.

His four-footed kind looked askance at his habits. They loathed his perversely irregular posture, refusal to share, and insistence on clothing. They winced at his claims of superior breeding, his hissing contempt for the rest of his species.

What stood him apart from the run of his breed was a tragically fractured historical narrative; earliest circumstance stained and bespattered by grief unconducive to healthy development. Family slain by the highest-born ogres who hunted for pelts of the lupine persuasion, The Wolf was made captive by Royal marauders who flaunted the skins of his kin on their shoulders.

Confused by the likeness of mother and father, mistook his abductors for substitute parents and gave them his love in exchange for acceptance.

He sat at their fire imbibing their thinking; comported himself as a source of amusement, a mascot imbued by a knack for hilarity.

Mimicked their method of two-legged walking and put on their raggedy, cast-away garments. He grappled their language and preoccupation with spirits of darkness that seek to control us. He joined in discussions of civilized living – to which they aspired, but lacked the essentials. He pondered the number of forks on the table, the delicate question of beating inferiors. What were the ways of the uppermost nations?

How ought the ogres devise emulation?

He came to delight in their wide speculations on races of mortals in faraway places. He ventured his thinking per mythical beings.

A pet of the court of the King of the Ogres, his head in their laps ever eager for stroking, he loved to roll over and beg for a scratching. And romp at their sides when the ogres went hunting. And so he was loved by the young and the aged with whom he comingled as daily companion.

Conformed to a diet of meat from the table he grew to the size of a lupine colossus. And this saved his life when his luck ran against him. A famine descended in wake of the locusts which plague every seventh and twelfth generation. The Ogerine Kingdom grew grievously famished as crops turned to dust and the herbivores vanished.

The King of the Ogres suggested the populace gulp their emotions and sauté their parakeets; ordered his subjects make fritters of monkeys and published an edict per ferrets and puppies. The Wolf, for the heft of his flesh and his femurs, stood first among those to be sent to the cleaver.

The King spoke his heart to that innocent creature: “The Wolf, we are grieved that the reign of starvation requires your imminent decapitation, reluctant de-pelting, and deft preparation. But this is the dictate of civilization. Famine enjoins us to slaughter familiars; in order of march go the pets before children. So it must be among better-bred nations, to which we aspire as best we are able.

“And now that we’ve nourished you up to a giant, the harvest is come and we ask your compliance that we may distribute your tissues among us. Your tonnage of protein and rivers of marrow will keep us alive for a better tomorrow. We wish that the ending were very much different, but bid you submit to this difficult finish aware that our love is in no sense diminished.”

The Wolf could not hide his intense disappointment. “But am I not one of the family party? Erect as an ogre and clad in your garments? Have we not spoken at length by the fire? Compacted our minds in dissecting the universe? Am I no more than a gibbering primate? A cat on a leash? An uncircumcised parrot? What of the lives I have saved on the hunt and the hundreds of times you have tickled my tummy?”

The creature’s complaint bore the truth of an arrow. It lodged in the bosom of each within hearing. The eyes of the wives and the children grew teary. Blessing the beast who was soon to be dinner, the King of the ogres, though hollowed by hunger, yet showed his respect by delaying the process to offer this tenderly felt explanation:

“’Tis true, you’ve lived gently amidst and among us whilst sharing our thoughts and the wealth of our table. How often we’ve lauded your bipedal posture and habit of sporting our gloves and our stockings. Nor any deny that you’ve mastered our speech more completely than many a natural ogre.”

Touched to the bone by so humid a tribute, The Wolf cried aloud in his honest confusion: “Then how am I fit for inglorious stewing?”

“For lack of a soul which partakes of the vices and widely notorious virtues of ogres observed in the high-born, especially Royals, less evident surely in petty nobility, dormant recessive in ogerine peasants and largely extinct in our soldiers and simpletons. Here I am speaking of lust, sloth, and vanity, bubbling avarice, blubberous gluttony, pride and corruption, abiding brutality.

“Much as you’ve dabbled in low metaphysics and cheered our debauches with bloodthirsty giggles, and woven our spells in the voice of the cello (a gift of our Maker’s unstinted benevolence) yet notwithstanding the ogerine soul is the ogre’s alone and foreclosed to the Wolven. For this is the line we have drawn by tradition; on one side our own, on the other perdition. And so, with regret, other options prohibitive, gamely relinquish your hopes and ambitions.”

Far worse than the fact of his death in the offing, The Wolf was undone by his dread of rejection – the product, we’ve seen, of a much-perturbed infancy. Thus he was gripped by primordial terror. It darkened his blood and obstructed his vision, unhinging his mind and his prim inhibitions. It severed his heretofore supine affections releasing the instincts imbedded by nature.

Instead of assuming the prayerful position inviting the axe and its lethal sequellum, he leapt at the throat of the King of the Ogres dividing the heart from the shoulder and belly, nor pausing to rest but devoured the servants, the wives standing by and a dozen of children. Refreshed and renewed by the influx of protein, yet stung to the core of his put-upon psyche, The Wolf made his way through the phalanx of officers charging en masse to the scene of the slaughter.

Attracted too late by the angst of the babies they covered their eyes in their grief as they passed him. And so he departed the tumbledown castle of misaligned boulders and happenstance brickwork (the off-putting look which the ogres preferred for their humblest hovels and highest-born dwellings.)

Pursued by his fears of a warm retribution he traveled by night and by evening and morning. Nor stopped all that month for so long as an hour as time may be judged in the depths of a forest. For hot on his heels came conflicted emotions more aimed at his heart than the arrows of ogres. He carried a rage burning angry as fire, as heavy as stone and unyielding as iron. Imprisoned by anguish engulfing his psyche, he found no relief in the pleasure of killing. It lasted an instant before it was spoiled by the onset of sorrow and gush of self-pity.

He found in his travels no home with his kindred, whose views he disparaged as crude and simplistic. He stole from the clotheslines whatever might fit him and sought in the sinews of cattle and rabbits and gophers and mole-rats comprising his diet, the taste of the souls of his late beloved ogres.

But never again did he savor the Heaven that dwelt in the delicate flesh of the Royals.

He sniffed as he covered inordinate distances, always alert for the warm reminiscence of jealousy, vanity, avarice, gluttony, pride, and the hint of abiding brutality. Such was the life of the fugitive hunter whose hunger was more for redemption than sustenance. Thusly he wandered the islands and continents searching in vain for an end to his suffering.

Living his life through consumption of others, The Wolf was consumed by a cratering lovelessness.

Go to Jeffrey’s author page at Amazon.com to order this and other titles.

June 27, 2014

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh behind the curve

Filed under: anti-Communism,literature — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

Said Sayrafiezadeh, right, on his wedding day in 2005 along with his father, Mahmoud (Karen Mainenti, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The latest issue of Book Forum has a section titled “War All the Time” that has reviews of books about war as well as essays by various people, including Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, the 46 year old Iranian-American who enjoyed 5 minutes of fame in 2009 as the author of “When Skateboards Will be Free”, a Trotskyist red diaper baby memoir that got rave reviews in the NY Times and Washington Post. My reaction was less enthusiastic:

The best thing that can be said about this memoir is that it is well written. Clearly, the author knows how to sustain a reader’s interest even if his story either stretches reality or in some cases breaks with it entirely. One doubts that this rather modest work of literature would have commanded the attention of the two most important papers in the United States if it had been about an unhappy childhood spent with Seventh Day Adventist or vegetarian parents imposing their beliefs on the author. There is something about the excesses of Marxist revolutionaries that gets the blood of a New York Times book review editor flowing.

He seems to be in a sophomore slump since his latest book “Brief Encounters with the Enemy”, a collection of stories that according to Amazon.com “chronicles modern, nameless cities crumbling in the shadows of war”, is ranked only 227,506 on Amazon.com, hardly enough to support the consumerist lifestyle the aging author enjoys or—more accurately—aspires to enjoy. In my review of “When Skateboards Will be Free”, I could not help but notice that his appetites were more that of the vulgarian than the artiste. From a 2009 interview in New York Magazine:

Q: So what do you say now when people start ranting about capitalism’s dying days?

A: People have been fucking saying that my whole life. I like my life, and I don’t really want to change. I don’t need society to be dismantled. I don’t want to feel guilty about the things I have. I have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV. I fucking love that thing, man.

My review looked askance at his claim that the SWP refused to take action against a babysitter member of the sect who molested him at his mother’s apartment in Brooklyn. The incidents would have occurred 40 years or so ago when the party was still relatively normal. But even if they did, I wonder why Sayrafiezadeh never bothered to report them to the police. Supposedly his mother protected the molester because she was anxious not to challenge the party leadership that wanted to protect him but what was Sayrafiezadeh’s excuse? Catholics have no trouble naming names, why doesn’t he? Is it possible that this incident was fictionalized to make the SWP look even worse than it was? We’ll never know, I guess.

“When Skateboards Will be Free” came out in early 2009. Since he probably began writing the book in 2007, or even earlier, there was no reason for him to acknowledge that a financial crisis would rob millions of Americans not only the opportunity to have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV but also a roof over their head.  Talk about being behind the curve.

Like an East German running across the demolished Berlin wall to buy bananas and porn, he assumed that American capitalism would go onward and upward forever. His memoir draws a contrast between his own desires to live a normal consumerist existence and his ridiculous parents’ utopian dreams about socialist revolution. His father, who surely risked his life arguing for socialism in the Islamic Republic, comes off particularly bad–ordering the wrong wine at a restaurant.

Maybe hoping to mine a few shekels from the anti-Communist industry,  Sayrafiezadeh’s article titled “Blood on the Tracts” returns once again to the sad, self-deluding world of his sectarian parents. Our writer begins:

THE BOOKS THAT LINED THE SHELVES in my mother’s home, and that, when I was growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ’80s, helped to shape my worldview, were almost entirely about war and written almost entirely by communists. There were Marx and Engels, of course, and Trotsky (not Stalin), but there were also quite a few other authors, hovering on the margins of the canon, such as Farrell Dobbs and George Breitman, less talented and lesser known, who would have been read, and published, by the truly initiated, namely members of the Socialist Workers Party.

What “war” could he possibly be writing about, unless he is referring to the class war in which case every single Marxist work would qualify? In terms of Dobbs and Breitman, the “less talented and lesser known”, this put down would have hardly mattered to them since their goal was to influence history rather than be interviewed in New York Magazine, the venue for articles on the very best chocolate and bargain rentals in the Hamptons.

He continues:

And because my mother was herself an avid reader, a former student of English literature who as a young woman had once dreamed of becoming a novelist—before being thwarted by a failed marriage, three children, and clinical depression—there could be found, occasionally, an anomaly wedged in between these other books. Steinbeck’s The Red Pony comes to mind. How it made its way onto our bookshelf, and, more to the point, how it remained, I have no idea. If there were other examples, and I’m sure there must have been, I cannot now specifically recall them. The reading of fiction, discouraged by the Socialist Workers Party, as most pursuits of pleasure were discouraged, was something that my mother undertook with considerable guilt and shame.

What an absurd statement. The reading of fiction was not “discouraged”. Nobody cared particularly what you did in your free time. I read everything by Charles Bukowski I could get my hands on. Most people did not read fiction for the same reason ordinary Americans do not read it. It is a dying art. People watch television or go to the movies. Who can blame them? I have 3 or 4 novels sitting on my bookshelves that I plan to read in the next year or so, mainly because they deal with political issues of some importance to me—like Jonathan Lethem’s novel about a Communist family. But I get more “pleasure” out of reading history or political analysis. If people were still writing like Steinbeck, I’d probably read that.

In terms of “most pursuits of pleasure” being discouraged, what an asinine remark. In the 1970s, SWP members went out to dinner, drank wine, fucked, played basketball or went to the beach just like other normal people did. The only difference between us and the rest of society is that we had less time to do such things because we were always at meetings.

After some more what a bunch of hairshirt assholes from Sayrafiezadeh, he gets into the question of Commies and warfare:

The literature taught well to expect the unhappy sequence of a second Great Depression, followed by a third world war that will dwarf the wars that have preceded it, followed by, if we were truly unlucky, fascism, followed, finally, by the rising up of the working class. These horrors to come dovetailed nicely with what had already arrived, i.e., the various military engagements that the United States was involved in during the years of my childhood, including those in Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Grenada, and the long stalemate with the Soviet Union. It would be hard to disprove at least some of the dire predictions of those books when all around us it seemed we were heading in that direction. In the spirit of other, more playful literary genres, like satire or science fiction, the literature of our household was not only exaggerating but also reflecting something that was already very real. It was also reflecting the state of our own broken family, with missing father and unhappy mother. Therefore, it would have been hard for me as a child not to somehow unconsciously be rooting for the world to hurtle, with even greater speed, toward all-out war. The fiction, as nightmarish as it might have been, provided me with solace: If war was what we had to go through in order to finally achieve a splendid life, then the faster we could begin the better. So, for instance, when the United States invaded Grenada and overthrew the Socialist government, the sadness that my mother and I shared was tempered by the understanding that of course things would be playing out this way, since Marx taught well that capitalism can only do what is in its nature to do. The years of my childhood brought more of the same, which is to say, more war, economic crisis, but no workers’ revolt, and eventually my mother, exhausted and disillusioned, resigned from the Socialist Workers Party and purged our household of its communist literature. Our best-laid plans had not come close to being borne out. But it’s not so easy to abandon one’s fantasies, and even as the years passed, and my mother tried, and failed, to become a writer, and I engaged in some decidedly capitalist behavior, like owning my own home, we occasionally found ourselves, at the beginning of yet another war, entertaining thoughts that the gravediggers would soon arrive. Still, we dreamed.

When I read such mind-numbing stupidity, I can understand why Random House published “When Skateboards Will be Free” and torpedoed the comic book I did with Harvey Pekar. The Trotskyists were not obsessed with war. They were for peace, especially in places like Nicaragua, Grenada and Cuba where attempts to create an alternative to capitalism had to be nurtured not bombed into submission.

He states: “Therefore, it would have been hard for me as a child not to somehow unconsciously be rooting for the world to hurtle, with even greater speed, toward all-out war.” Yes, I am sure that this is true. Children have confused thoughts. When I was six years old, I used to fantasize about going into outer space in a huge rocket ship that could satisfy all my desires like in “The Forbidden Planet”. At least after I grew up a bit, I realized that childhood fantasies should be left in the past since they are obstacles to coming to terms with life’s challenges. For a shithead like Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, they obviously serve some pecuniary interest since there is a market for red-baiting crap and not memoirs that celebrate a life led as a radical—warts and all.

May 25, 2014

Fishing on the Pole Star

Filed under: animal rights,literature — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

My Facebook friends know that lately I have been posting poems on my timeline. It has been many decades, five at least, that I have read poems—let alone try to write one. After getting radicalized in 1967, my life took a rather prosaic turn.

Most of the poets I like to read are long dead, including Herman Melville who was damned fine even if he is best known for his prose. As might be expected, his poems share the subject matter of his best-known prose:

The Maldives Shark

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

Just by coincidence it seems, I got a copy of Paul Pines’s latest book of poems titled “Fishing on the Pole Star” that also has a great poem about sharks:

Screen shot 2014-05-25 at 4.08.58 PM

Like Herman Melville, Paul Pines was not a product of the Iowa Writers Workshop but a life of wanderlust including time spent as a deckhand on merchant ships. In the introduction to “Fishing on the Pole Star”, he explains the book’s origin:

As a boy in Brooklyn I fished for crappies in Prospect Park with my brother Claude, and later bottom-fished on party boats out of Sheepshead Bay and Boston Whalers on Long Island Sound. When I owned a bar and restaurant, several of my staff, including our chef, Nathan Metz, fished out of Montauk for blues and stripers which we brought back to feed our patrons. While living in Belize my buddy Ted Berlin, a peerless hand-line fisherman and free-diver, showed me how to scour coral heads for crab, lobster, conch and snapper. But nothing can convey the mystery and challenge of those weeks at sea tracking the great marlin south through the out-islands of the Bahamas—and to those who opened that world to me, starting with my father, I will be forever grateful.

I never did any salt-water fishing but growing up in upstate NY, there were many days spent fresh-water fishing including on the Neversink River, one of the state’s legendary trout streams a couple of miles from my home.

But the fondest memories were of fishing for pickerel, perch and crappies (we called them sunfish) in Silver Lake in Woodridge, my hometown. My father was about as distant from me as could be imagined. Since I was born in January 1945 when he was off fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he never bonded with me. I suppose even if he had been around, he still would have been a distant figure—that’s the way that Jewish men who lived through the Depression were so often. But when we were on the dock watching the red-and-white float bobbing on the surface, it was like a scene from The Andy Griffith Show, with me playing Opie.

Despite my overall prosaic mindset, there’s something that still touches my mystical inner eye when it comes to water. I don’t think I could ever live very far from the water. When I did so in Kansas City, I was miserable most of the time. Of course that was just as likely a function of belong to a cult that was forcing me to get an entry-level factory job at the age of 33.

When I croak, I will have my wife cremate me and dump the ashes into the Hudson River, for me an especially holy body of water—my Ganges in effect.

It is so easy to take water for granted. But did you ever stop to think about where it came from? When the planet earth was born, there was no water (and no god to create it either.) Although it is only a theory, there’s a good chance that it came from a water-laden comet or meteor crashing into our planet was responsible.

The other thing that intrigues me is our connection to the fish itself. While we are obviously far removed from them on the evolutionary ladder, they are our great-grandfathers and grandmothers. Despite our terror of the shark, they are in some ways our closest relatives since they are at the top of the aquatic food chain just as we are at the top of the entire food chain. Unlike us, the shark poses no danger to the survival of the planet, however. In a very real sense, the shark in “Jaws” was a lot less scary than BP or Exxon-Mobil.

I recommend the website of Thomas Peschak, a National Geographic photographer, conservationist, and author of “Sharks and People”.  Peschak has a few videos there, including one of the Manta Rays on a feeding frenzy in the Maldives, the same place that Melville’s poem was set in.

I have no idea how the world will end, whether with a bang or a whimper but I’d hold out hope that the sharks and other swimming creatures will survive our wickedness and give evolution a chance to start all over. Those beasts at least know how to participate in the great circle of being, unlike our own sharks on Wall Street who will certainly destroy us given the chance.

Paul’s very fine new book can be ordered from the publisher’s website. Not only are the words great, the accompanying seascape collages by Wayne Atherton are priceless. Paul dedicated the book to his late brother Claude who was a good friend of mine during the halcyon days before the Vietnam War. The book is a fitting tribute to Claude as well as a major contribution to the poetry canon by a true original. Waste no time. Buy the book and get spiritually elevated.

April 21, 2014

The return of Stefan Zweig

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Jewish question,literature,war — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Counterpunch April 21, 2014

Madness and War

The Return of Stefan Zweig

by LOUIS PROYECT

When a publicist from IFC invited me to a press screening of Patrice Leconte’s “A Promise” (the film opens Friday in NY), I could not resist. Leconte was one of my favorite directors and I considered his “Ridicule” a masterpiece. Since IFC described “A Promise” as a tale about a young man of humble origins taking up a clerical post in a German steel factory at the beginning of WWI, it sounded as if Leconte had returned to the concerns of “Ridicule”, a film that pitted a minor aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France against the snobbery and authoritarianism of Louis XIV’s court. It seemed all the more promising (no pun intended) given the screenplay’s origins as a Stefan Zweig novella titled “Journey into the Past”. I was aware that there was something of a Stefan Zweig revival afoot, reflected by Wes Anderson’s homage to him in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and new editions of his fiction and nonfiction work from both New York Review of Books and Pushkin Press, a boutique publisher specializing in fine literature.

This much I knew about Stefan Zweig. He was the quintessential fin de siècle author from the quintessential fin de siècle city—Vienna. He was a pacifist who opposed WWI and a Jew who fled Nazi Germany. He was also connected to a wide range of intellectuals and public figures, ranging from the Zionist Theodor Herzl to Richard Strauss, the German composer who had an ambivalent relationship to the Third Reich but who stood by Zweig when it came to including his librettist’s name in a programme. He was particularly close to Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler and Romain Rolland, three other key figures from fin de siècle Vienna. After relocating to Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide together. Like fellow Jew Walter Benjamin, he succumbed to despair.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/21/the-return-of-stefan-zweig/

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