Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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/

March 17, 2014

Thoughts on a Counterpunch article paying tribute to Cormac McCarthy

Filed under: indigenous,literature — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

Cormac McCarthy

In today’s Counterpunch—my favorite online and print publication—there’s a tribute to Cormac McCarthy, my least favorite novelist, by a Texas attorney named Carl E. Kandutsch who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University. Often set in Texas and the old west, McCarthy’s novels leave me with the impression that they are a mosh-up of overwrought Faulknerian or Melvillian prose and the Warner brother’s Roadrunner cartoons.

I first became—how should I put it?—obsessed with McCarthy after seeing “No Country for Old Men” in 2007. When the most likable character, a blue-collar worker who has absconded with the drug money found at the site of a shootout that left the dealers killed, is killed off himself long before the end of the flick only to leave a sheriff played by Tommie Lee Jones to blather on about the state of the world, I turned to my wife and said, “What the hell? Is this the way this stupid movie ends?”

That led me to an examination of the Cormac McCarthy fan’s website (http://www.cormacmccarthy.com/), where I saw his 1985 “Blood Meridian” described as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”

Since I guess I am one of those people who subscribes to the “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization”, I had problems with McCarthy’s novel even before I read it.

Kandutsch’s tribute references “Blood Meridian”, a novel most pro-McCarthy critics regard as his finest and liken to “Moby Dick”. With respect to the “politically correct” question, Kandutsch states:

There are no “noble savages” in these novels, and the Indians described in Blood Meridian are every bit as brutal, rapacious and blood-thirsty as the lawless gang of gringos who patrol the border badlands destroying villages in search of Indian scalps to sell for bounties offered by the Texas and Mexican governments.

Before I turn to the Comanche “noble savage” topic, I want to say something about McCarthy’s style. In the interests of transparency, I have to admit that I can’t stand overwriting so that probably disqualifies me as an objective critic of McCarthy to begin with. The late Nora Ephron, a wise and witty critic of male foibles and a pellucid prose stylist, had these words on McCarthy in the New Yorker magazine as related in a bedtime chat she was having with an unidentified man:

She opened the book and started reading from the end.

He does this weird thing with contractions, she said. He uses apostrophes for words like that’s and it’s but he doesnt use them for dont and wasnt and wont. He doesnt use quotation marks, either.

Who?

Cormac McCarthy.

As the best example of what I find troubling about both McCarthy’s writing and his politics, there’s no better example than this passage from “Blood Meridian” that describes a Comanche band returning from a raid on a Texas village as if it was a Walpurgisnacht procession:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Wow, that’s all one sentence! Back in 1977 when I was working for Salomon Brothers, the programmers took a workshop on writing memos that was better than any writer’s workshop class I ever took at Bard or NYU. We learned to avoid the passive voice, number one (you’ll rarely see them in my articles.) The next thing was to understand the Gunning Fog Index that rated prose on the basis of readability, including the average number of words in a sentence, etc. Running the passage above against a Gunning Fog Index calculator (http://gunning-fog-index.com/fog.cgi) returned a rather feverish reading of 102.2. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunning_fog_index) states that texts for a wide audience generally need a fog index less than 12 and those for universal audience require an index of less than 8.

Turning to the substance of the passage, a careful reader with a tolerance for high Gunning Factor Indices might wonder what Comanche Indians were doing wearing stovepipe hats, an umbrella, white stockings, a bloodstained wedding veil, etc. As McCarthy was reported to have read extensively on the historical background of the Comanche Indian wars celebrated in films like “The Searchers”, you would have to believe that he was not making this up. In fact there was such a procession of weirdly dressed Indians with a telltale sign of a recent massacre of whites (bloodstained wedding veil) in Texas history.

This was a reference to the August 6, 1840 Linville Raid when 600 Comanche killed and kidnapped many settlers, including Daniel Boone’s granddaughter. What struck McCarthy’s literary fancy was the raiding party’s looting of the town’s general store, resulting in the aforementioned sinister costume party.

However, what McCarthy leaves out is the incident that led to the raid. While McCarthy’s account of the raid is accurate if overwrought stylistically, it leaves out an important element. This was not an unprovoked attack but vengeance for the killing of 12 of the top Comanche leaders at a peace negotiations meeting in the San Antonio Council House on March 19th of that year. The Indians sought agreement on the boundaries of their territory—the Comancheria—and the Texans the return of some captives. When the Texans learned that only one captive was being returned at the meeting, they told the chiefs that they would be held hostage until the rest were returned. A pitched battle ensued leaving all the chiefs dead as well as a number of warriors, three of their wives, and two children.

McCarthy is not interested in this part of the story since it would interfere with the Hobbesian vision of his novel. Without mentioning the philosopher who is always pitted against the “novel savage” vision of Rousseau, Kandutsch seems to get that it is his philosophy that guides McCarthy’s narrative: “Others have attacked his allegedly reactionary moral and political stance, based on little more than his commitment to pessimism and his evident distaste for modern urban life.” Yup.

In “Blood Meridian”, the most repugnant character among a host of vile bodies is “The Judge”, the leader of a band of bounty hunters trading Comanche scalps for dollars who is based on the historical figure John Joel Glanton. The Judge muses:

These things are known to all the world. The world is construed out of blood and nothing else but blood. Death is the condition of existence and life is but an emanation thereof. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood. Before man was, war waited for him. The idea that man can be understood is an illusion.

Now McCarthy is a pretty smart guy even if he cant write worth a lick (that’s a McCarthy parody italicized there.) This notion of perpetual bloodlust is one I am very familiar with after having seen numerous accounts debunking the “noble savage” myth from one sociobiologist or another over the years, starting with Jared Diamond. McCarthy seems to be aware of their legacy from the appearance of the epigraph to “Blood Meridian”:

“Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.”

The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982

You see, war must be in our genes based on the evidence of scalping 300,000 years ago.

It turns out that the primary resource for “Blood Meridian” was T. R. Fehrenbach’s “Comanches: the Destruction of a People”. Fehrenbach, who is considered the dean of Texas history writing, died on December 1, 2013. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study was likely the inspiration for the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War”. These words must have resonated deeply with McCarthy who was determined to prove that there was no “noble savage” even if it was necessary leave out those aspects of Texas history that undermined his fictionalized sociobiology.

February 28, 2014

The Obedient Assassin

Filed under: Counterpunch,literature,Stalinism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:45 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition Feb 28-Mar 02, 2014

John Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”

Killing Trotsky

by LOUIS PROYECT

Although the movement he created is on its last legs, Leon Trotsky is still a compelling figure for the artist based on the evidence of three novels focused on his sojourn in Coyoacan that have appeared in the last several years.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” came out in 2009. Like the 2002 film “Frida” (screenplay by CounterPunch regular Clancy Sigal), Kingsolver put Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo into the foreground. For her the two characters enabled her “to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle”, as she states on her website. The World Socialist Website frowned on the novel’s treatment of Trotsky and its deficiencies in the dialectical materialism department, which I suppose is reason enough to recommend it.

That very same year Leonardo Padura, a Cuban, wrote “The Man who Loved Dogs”, a nearly 600-page novel about Trotsky now available in English translation. Naturally the N.Y. Times reviewer, a Mexican novelist named Álvaro Enrique, saw it as a parable on Cuban society with the artist in mortal danger of being killed by a state inspired by the Moscow Trials: “Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.” One must conclude that Enrique does not consider reporters to be writers since a hundred have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

I imagine that I will get around to reading Kingsolver and Padura at some point, but I had a keener interest in what John P. Davidson had to say about Trotsky in the brand new “The Obedient Assassin”, a novel that turns Ramon Mercader—Trotsky’s killer—into the major character.

I was surprised if not shocked to discover that this was the same John P. Davidson who had written a supremely witty and thoughtful account about going to butler’s school in the January 2014 Harper’s titled You Rang?, where he writes:

For some time, becoming a servant had been one of those idle dropout fantasies I entertained, along with becoming a shepherd or joining a monastery. Now, having sold my house and spent ten years and a great deal of money writing a novel that my agent hadn’t been able to sell, I had a somewhat more urgent interest in the six-figure jobs the Starkey Institute dangles before prospective students.

Assuming that the unsellable novel is “The Obedient Assassin”, we can only thank our lucky stars that he was a washout as a butler and that his agent finally hit pay dirt. As someone who has been a professional journalist for thirty-five years for reputable outlets like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Davidson brings to the table an ability to write briskly and without a single superfluous word. Nor will you find the trendiness favored by MFA graduates. Sometimes it is easy to forget that some of the greatest novels were written by men and women who started out as journalists, first and foremost among them Ernest Hemingway.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/28/killing-trotsky/

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