Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Aharon Appelfeld, The Story of a Life

I just read Aahron Appelfeld's biographical book The Story of a Life, published in Hebrew in 1999. It's an interesting book, in some ways a very moving book - but it's not, in any obvious way, the story of a life. Or at least, not in the way a historian such as myself would recognize it.

For me, the story of a ilfe starts with dates (birth, for example), place, key events in a chronological order, and some biographical principle of organization. I once read a biography of Sigmund Freud, and the biographer had two or three pages about events when Sigi was 3 years old hand had problems with wetting his pants. Most biographers wouldn't include that sort of data, but you can see what organizing principle had that biographer include that data in that particular biography. (Or not. It actually added nothing to the story, But it could have, I suppose).

I digress.

Appelfeld has a different organizing principle than you'd normally expect in a biography. The central event of his story is the Shoah, which began for him when he was seven years old and ended six years later. He was a child throughout, and a pretty young one when it began. He didn't have biographical concepts as it was happening: he didn't know dates, he probably had only a childish concept of time, and no intellectual tools whatsoever to make sense of the events. (Adults don't have the intellectual tool to make sense of the Shoah, either, not even today, if they're honest with themselves). His mother was murdered at the beginning of the war, in an event he didn't see but did hear. He was with his father for a while (we aren't told how long the while was, and at the time he must not have known it himself) then he was alone. He was in forests and villages, but there's no reason to believe he could have named them at the time - or later. After the war he made it to Italy and from there to Israel, but having a clear conceptual or historical grasp of the events he was living through may not have been the most urgent need even then.

What he did have were memories which settled in his very bones. At one point a Ukrainian peasant woman started beating him and he needed to escape: the memory of this, he tells us, has remained in his ankles till this very day, more than 50 years later. Other physical sensations cause other memories to rise. Sometimes it's not even physical sensations, it's social ones, such as the dread before the Six Days War in 1967 calling forth physical dread from 25 years earlier.

So it's not a chronological story, it's the piecing together of many sensations and snippets of memory which are attached to them, eventually giving us what he promised in the title: the story of a life. But the story of a life felt, more than of a life remembered. Or perhaps, the story remembered through the sensations of feeling it.

An unusual book, but compelling. Different, perhaps, but in its way, very convincingly true.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Robert Caro on Lyndon B Johnson

I recently summed up my reading over the past few months, and signed off by mentioning I'd write separately about Robert Caro's magnificent biography of LBJ. So here we go.

A publishing-world fellow once told me there are two kinds of biographies. There's the kind where the author spends a decade immersing himself (or herself) in the life of their subject, reading everything they can find, listening to every recording and so on, and then tries to tell the full story of a life. The other way to write a biography is to single out an interesting aspect and write a short book focusing on that.

Robert Caro has taken a third track. He has dedicated a lifetime to telling about a life.

His first volume of what he then intended to be a 3-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson,   The Path to Power, was first published in 1981. I assume Caro had already been working on it at the very least five or six years, so he was no more than 40 when he started. 34 years later, approaching 80, he is still working on the fifth and final volume; so far, he's been publishing a volume each decade: Means of Ascent in 1990, Master Of The Senate in 2002, and The Passage of Power in 2012. (He wrote an earlier biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which I'm told is excellent, but I haven't yet read).

I fervently wish Caro many years of fine health and additional creativity, and I admit I admit I hope he's got a plan for the plausible case that as he enters his 9th decade his output slows down, but no matter what happens next, he has already spent about 40 years learning and telling about Johnson - which is about the time-span between Johnson's early adulthood and the end of his presidency. In other words, Caro is spending almost as many years on Johnson's life, as Johnson spent living it. To the best of my knowledge, this is unprecedented.

Fortunately, the result is well worth the effort.

Those of us who remember as children or teenagers how utterly reviled Lydon Bains Johnson was, may have had a sneaking suspicion over the years that President Johnson was actually a more important, and more positive president than our early memories indicate. Kennedy was Camelot and all that, and his sudden death was a trauma we can personally remember as an emotional peak of our childhood, but seen from the growing distance, the drab successor who derailed America into Vietnam may have been considerably more important. While Caro has not yet published the volume on the presidency, it's clear from the story so far that Johnson was not only more important than Kennedy, he has one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century.

And, perhaps, also one of the worst. The glory of Caro's biography is that he convincingly tells the story of one of America's greatest and most deeply flawed leaders; that he brings to life a giant of a man who combined unusual size ( almost 6ft 4), unusual intelligence, unusual cunning, unusual callousness, unusual political brutality, and a very unusual ability to wield the power of government for the benefit of society's downtrodden and weak. Ah, and corruption, cheating, cussedness, meanness, dishonesty and greatness of spirit. Those too.

Caro does all this with a style of writing which is breathtaking. There are sections of the books which are gripping page-turners of the highest order. The 100-pages or so in which he describes the machinations by which Johnson stole his election to the Senate in 1948 are easily as good as any legal yarn I've ever read. The description of LBJ taking control of the government in the hours and days after the assassination of JFK, even as the entire world was engrossed in the pageantry of the mourning and funeral, is riveting.

The title of the full biography is "The Years of Lyndon Johnson", and Caro often spends big chunks of his books to tell tangential stories. The first volume has a potted history of Texas, but a poignant detailed story of the Hill Country, the area which lured Johnson's forbears and then trapped them in back-breaking poverty. It also has a long and loving chapter about Sam Rayburn, the Texan who enabled Johnson's rise more than any other. The section about Johnson's earliest years in Washington, as the secretary of newly-elected Congressman Richard Kleberg, offer an understanding of the mechanics of the capitol which is both fascinating, essential to a political biography, and starts a strand of the tale which then explodes into view with the story of how in January 1964 LBJ knew how to pass legislation from the White House as none of his predecessors ever had.

There's an almost hagiographic chapter about Coke Stevenson, the governor of Texas who won the election to the Senate in 1948 which Johnson then stole; Caro contrasts the white knight from the past, with the dark political operator who portends the future in ways far greater than either of the two men personally. Senator Richard Russel of Georgia gets a biographical section of his own. There's a long section with a history of the Senate which needs to be mandatory reading for anyone who wishes to understand American politics. Actually, the entire third volume, the Master of the Senate, needs to be mandatory reading.

All of it leads to the cliff-hanging tension of the fourth volume. Johnson's weaknesses block him from doing his best to become president, and as Kennedy's vice president he slips ever deeper into irrelevance; in November 1963 the uglier aspects of his public life are combining to burst into public view in a manner which will certainly destroy him politically forever. Then, with a single fatal gunshot, his decades of preparations enable him to forge the presidency in the shape of his greatness with seven short weeks.

Read it. It may be the best political biography you'll read.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Recent readings of various value

Last April I told here about the effort I was making to re-learn to read books. I have been more successful than I feared, and less successful than I'd hoped - sort of like most things in life.

Here and in the the posts below are comments about the books I've read since then. Feel free to tell me about important books I"m missing!

The single most important and rewarding read of the year has been... the Bible. Last year I completed one complete 7.5-year round of Daf Yomi, and decided to dedicate the daily time slot to other traditional Jewish stuff. I read Menachem Elon's magisterial "Jewish Law" and reviewed it here, Then I read volumes 1,2 & 3 of Rav Benny Lau's "Sages" series (here's the 1st volume in English). Lau writes a light and entertaining introduction to the men (and rare women) who created the Talmud. I don't know how the English translations are; the Hebrew original is informative but not deeply scholarly. Elon and Lau, to mention the two scholars cited in this paragraph, are not similar. Elon is a serious slow read, but richly rewarding. Lau is a quick read, full of interesting anecdotes and sketches of the sages, but not deep.

Having spent time reading "about", I turned back to reading an original source - and nothing is more original than the Bible. So far I've read Judges, the 1st Book of Samuel, and the first quarter of the 2nd Book of Samuel. I'm using the Daat Mikra interpretation, which is a combination of modern and also a compendium of the main traditional interpretations. I aim to do a chapter each day - sometime this works, sometimes it's too much - which means a quick read of the entire chapter, then a careful, sentence by sentence, study of the text.

I've read this part of the Bible repeatedly in the past, but this is the first time since high school where I've studied it, and the first time ever that I've done so on my own volition, simply to learn. It is, how to put this, as rewarding as can be. The Hebrew is so packed and powerful; so many everyday word combinations turn out to be Biblical; there is so much in there. Fortunately there are lots of books left (30  of them), so I'll be busy at this great task for a while, I hope.

OK, so that's the top of the list.

Then there are books I ran past and will merely mention here. Greame Simson's The Rosie Project: A Novel was a very enjoyable quick read, which gives what seemed to me a convincing look into the mind a highly functioning man with Aspergers.

Gary Shteyngart''s Little Failure: A Memoir came highly recommended, perhaps too highly recommended, as my expectations were accordingly high. Shteyngart tells the story of how his Russian Jewish parents and he moved from Leningrad to New York in the 1970s, and the twisted path he then followed before becoming a successful New York author. Interesting, but a bit too harsh on his parents for my taste, and the self censure became a bit tedious after a while. Which proves, I suppose, that I wouldn't fit comfortably into New York literary intellectual circles. (I never read a full Phillip Roth book, either, nor even Saul Bellow. We all have our defects).

Daniel Gordis' Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul is interesting, but not, I suspect, really directed at someone like myself who grew up as an Israeli teenager convinced of Begin's infallibility, then a young adult gearing up to vote against him. But if you were further from the man than that, and you're interested in a readable biography of one of Israel's more important leaders, this one may well work for you.

I read Haim Be'er's newest novel, Their New Dreams (I read it in Hebrew and can't tell about the quality of the translation), which I liked. Be'er, now in his early 70s, tells the story of an Israeli man in his early 70s who is trying to write his first novel. Be'er himself has written 6 or 7 or 8 of them so that part isn't autobiographical; on the other hand, some of the mechanics of inventing a story and writing a novel may well be.

Then there are the books I reviewed in separate posts, below:

Kate Atkinson in Life After Life: A Novel and Jenny Erpeneck in The End of Days both wrote the same story from very different perspectives, and ended up with two various different books: see my review here.

Thomas Carlyle wrote one book twice, and the result is the astonishing The French Revolution: A History which I reviewed here.

And finally, I read all four volumes of Robert Caro's simply magnificent biography of Lyndon Johnson, which I will review when I find the time. Don't wait for me to do so, however, by any means: go and read them! Now! Robert A. Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power; Means of Ascent; Master of the Senate; The Passage of Power

Thomas Carlyle on the French Revolution

In 1834, 39-year-old Thomas Carlyle sat down to write the history of the French Revolution. Eventually he had a a single full copy of the entire book, which he lent to his friend John Stewart Mill for comments. Someone in Mill's household, apparently an uneducated boor, mistook the manuscript for trash and put the whole thing into an oven, where it gave off a few minutes of heat. At which point Carlyle re-wrote the entire book. It has been in print ever since: Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History

I admit I've never read a book anything like this one. More's the pity.

The language is, well, different. It's English, it's early 19th century, and English is a rapidly transforming language (remember the word "gay"?). I haven't read much early-19th century English, but I have read enough to think that Carlyle's language was his own even at the time. There are almost 800 pages in the edition I read, and I easily needed the first 100 if not more to figure out what he was doing and how: slow reading, since there were so many words I'd either never seen before or had never seen them in the way he was using.

Once I'd figured it out, however, and began to get the hang of his vocabulary, I began to figure out his unique method. Basically, he tells the story in present tense, and changes the perspective whenever the whim takes him. At one moment it's the perspective of a young Parisian woman who is about to be lynched by a mob. Or it can be the perspective of a hapless prime minister trying to balance the French budget before the revolution. The pensive populace of Paris in the tense few days before the storming of the Bastille. The Royal soldier waiting in vain for the enormous yellow Royal carriage trying to escape revolutionary Paris to loyalist Metz. No historian today would dare do anything remotely like this - but once you've got the hand of it, it's very compelling. The figures leap to life!

Which of these six Hundred individuals in plain white cravat, that have come up to regenerate France, might one guess would become their king? For a king or leader they, as all bodies of men, must have: be their work what it may be, there is one man who, by character, faculty, position, is fittest of all to do it; that man, as future not yet elected king, walks there among the rest. He with the thick black locks, will it be? with the hure, as he himself calls it, or black boar's head, fit it be shaken as a senatorial portent? Through whose shaggy beetle-brows, and rough-hewn, seamed, carbuncled face, there look natural ugliness, small-pox, incontinence, bankruptcy - and burning fire of genious, like comet-fire glaring fuliginous through murkier confusions? It is Gabriel Honore Riquetti de Mirabeau, the world-compeller; man-ruling deputy of Aix! According to the Baroness de Stael, he steps proudly along,though looked at askance here; and shakes his black chevelure, of lion's-mane, as if prophetic of great deeds. (p.116)

I admit I referred often to Google to figure out who various actors were: writing 30 years after the events, Carlyle assumed his readers would recognize folks I had never heard of 150 years later. The challenge of the language and vocabulary, the slippery perspective which is never announced, merely is, and the wealth of information made this book a striking read. Compelling, memorable - wonderful. Immortal, too, at least as of 180 years later.

And so here, O Reader, has come the time for us to part. Toilsome was our journeying together, not without offense; but it is done. To me thou wert as a beloved shade, the disembodied or not yet embodied spirit of a Brother. To thee I was but as a voice. Yet was our relation a kind of sacred thing, doubt not that! For whatsoever once sacred things become hollow jargon, yet while the Voice of Man speaks with Man, hast thou not there the living fountain out of which all sacredness sprang, and will yet spring? man, by nature of him, is definable as "an incarnated word". Ill stands it with me if I have spoken falsely: thine also it was to hear truly. farewell. (p.775).

Living again and again: Kate Atkinson and Jenny Erpenbeck

Imagine a novel about a woman who is reborn each time she dies, until eventually she manages to live a long and "correct" life. That's the premise of two recent novels, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life: A Novel, and Jenny Erpenbeck The End of Days. (I read Erpenbeck in it's original German, but Amazon tells me it's available also in English).

Atkinson's is the more famous and popular of the two. It tells the story of Ursula, born in 1910 to a comfortable upper middle class English family, who dies at birth, is straightaway reborn, and keeps at it for decades. The first few times are accidents which are then corrected next time round; along the way there's a growing awareness. Among the mishaps which are corrected in repeat versions of her life are various accidents, a couple of rapes, a couple of badly mismatched marriages - one of which can't be terminated until her daughter dies in Berlin in 1945 thus freeing her to start again - and as time goes on, eventually also the lives of others. There are parts of the story which are constant in all versions, and characters with immutable traits which overcome all repeat versions of Ursula's life, while others change from version to version.

The heart of the book, and by far its most powerful section, deals with the London Blitz, which she sometimes survives and other times doesn't; there's one dramatic night which she lives through (or not) again and again, from three or four different vantage points.

Imperceptibly there's the encroaching understanding of how to operate her unique ability, to keep at it until the story is lined up "correctly"; at the very end we understand that perhaps she's not even the only character in the story who knows about her ability and appreciates it.

I expect this is a book one might wish to read a second time, to pick apart the strands of the story and see its twists and turns.

Erpenbeck's book is by far the deeper of the two. It tells the story of an unnamed woman born in a Polish shtetl before World War One, who eventually lives to be 90 in post-unification Germany. Each section of the book tells the story of her family up to or a bit beyond her death; the next section then assumes she didn't die and tells the story of how things worked out in that case. She dies as an infant, or doesn't, in Poland. As a teenager, or not, in Vienna. As a German communist in Moscow, or not, under Stalin. As a famous poet, or not, in East Germany. As an old woman, in unified Germany.

We meet 7 generations of her family, from her great-grandparents, orthodox Jews in the shtetl, to the rumour of her grandchildren, German teenagers ignorant of any family history in the present, There's a motif of a set of volumes of German poetry which bump into the story throughout the generations; but the thing is that we're the only ones who know it. The profound irony of the book is the inability of the family to maintain its memory. Those contemporary German teenagers don't have the foggiest notion of their Jewish forbears; the woman herself never knows significant parts of her own story. At one point, the only way to transmit a very important piece of identity is by having her die so her son can bump into it; when she doesn't, he doesn't, and so it is lost.

It's an elegiac book, and it stays with you, even as it shows how the history doesn't stay in the family.

I have no reason to think Atkinson and Erpenbeck knew of each other as they wrote to so very different novels based on the same impossible premise.