Month: January 2017

Review: Fates and Furies (2015) by Lauren Groff

fatesDespite the considerable critical praise, I approached Lauren Groff’s third novel with some trepidation. I felt exhausted from the outset by the prospects of another study on the vicissitudes of upper middle class Manhattanite matrimony. I was mistaken. Rather than wallowing in the banal realism that would characterize a lesser work of fiction (characters moving from optimism to set-backs, parenthood to infidelity and divorce, somber old age), Fates and Furies is a far darker narrative, made especially ominous by parenthetical voices that interrupt the narrative in spasms to offer brusque commentary, shed light on interior motives, and cast fortunes for our two protagonists, Lancelot (“Lotto”) and Mathilde Satterwhite.

These cold interpolations belong to the ancient narrators invoked in the novel’s title: the Moirai (Fates) and the Erinyes (Furies). They recite chilly morals: “Grief is for the strong, who use it as fuel for burning.” They are callous, as when reflecting on fireworks at a Fourth of July party: “Doomed people celebrate peace with sky bombs.” Their omnipotence means that nothing is off limits to the reader, in one instance extending even into the mind of a cat. Most brilliant is a scene in which Lotto, Mathilde, and a chorus of family and friends sing carols round a Christmas tree, catching the attention through their window of a passerby from the street, who will hold onto the image for the rest of his life: “All those years, the singers in the soft light in the basement apartment crystallized in his mind, became the very idea of what happiness should look like.”

The novel is read as two books. Fates tells the story of the husband Lotto, his childhood, teen years, and his married life with Mathilde. Furies resets the plot and reexamines many of the same events from Mathilde’s perspective, while also filling in the gaps of her own childhood. Lotto is an innocent narcissist, self-defeatist but favored by the Fates and everyone who meets him. In her own narrative, Mathilde, whose life was shaped by a fatal event in early childhood, unsheathes the fury at her core and shocks the reader.

For all of its stylistic tricks, Fates and Furies never feels gimmicky. The prose is florid but not self-indulgent.The abundant references to canonical Western literature are employed meaningfully and not as pretentious accouterments. The writing does not strain for eloquence or profound ontological insight. They come naturally. While the novel is grounded in traditions dating back to antiquity, it still manages to say something new and revelatory about the meaning of human existence. In so doing, Groff performs two subversive feats. First, the narrative challenges the primacy of free will in the Judeo-Christian worldview. Agency is axiomatic in modern thinking, but the Ancient Greek cosmology was ordered by a strong theological determinism—after all, even the gods of Olympus could not unspool the weaving of the Fates. Second, Mathilde is emblematic of what might be considered a new trend in fiction: the literature of female rage. Elena and Lila, heroines of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, belong to this same class. In these worlds (almost always acutely domestic), women suffer many indignities and are rarely recognized for their abilities, but their yielding exteriors mask an almost animalistic will to survive. Self-immolation is not in the cards. Mathilde would sooner poison Monsieur Bovary or push Karenin in front of the train.

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(Review) How to Survive a Plague (2012), Dir. David France

 

howtosurviveaplagueIn November 2016, Knopf published David France’s How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. While I certainly intend to read the book, my nightstand is currently overflowing with volumes. In the meantime, I opted to watch France’s documentary by the same title, which preceded the book by four years and inspired its publication.

The documentary covers the period from 1987-1995. As we progress in time, a counter records the number of worldwide AIDS-related deaths from year to year:

1987: 500,000
1988: 800,000
1989: 1.2 million
1990: 1.7 million
1991: 2.4 million
1992: 3.3 million
1993: 4.7 million
1994: 6.2 million
1995: 8.2 million

It was, as Larry Kramer shouts out during an argument with fellow activists, a modern plague. AIDS remains the most deadly pandemic since the 1918 outbreak of the H1N1 “Spanish” flu, which killed up to 5 percent of the world’s population.

How to Survive a Plague tells the story of the trials and triumphs of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). In 1987, NYC Mayor Ed Koch decried the group’s “fascist” tactics (e.g., sit-ins, blocking traffic, barricading themselves at government agencies). By 1989, the group’s disruptive methods had yielded institutional recognition, given a speaking position at the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco, and subsequently allowed to sit on NIH research committees.

The film, which is composed primarily of archival VCR footage with no voice-overs and only occasional contemporary interviews, immerses the viewer in the events on screen. We feel the same outrage as activists when in 1989 the Catholic Church takes a doctrinaire position against the use of condoms. We feel the same sense of hopelessness when the two most common drugs for treating AIDS are proved ineffectual in 1993. A prescription for one of the bunk drugs, AZT* (a highly toxic medication that had been abandoned as a cancer treatment due to high fatality rates), had cost as much as $10,000 per year—the most expensive drug in history. Burroughs Wellcome, the manufacturer of AZT, was pulling in profits of $230 million in the late 80s.

As events proceed, a regrettably common story line for minority civil rights organizations begins to take shape: buckling under mounting frustrations over set-backs and failures, the group’s anger turns inward. In the case of ACT UP, some members felt that the group’s Treatment and Data Committee (D&T) had become too cozy with the FDA, NIH, and pharmaceutical manufacturers. They called for a six month moratorium on meetings with drug companies, which, to the members of D&T, was tantamount to quickening death. Inevitably, the group split, with the D&T becoming TAG (Treatment Action Group).

The film tells a complicated story about how best to bring about change in the face of overwhelming structural opposition. While the civil disobedience that marked the early years of ACT UP brought widespread public recognition to the plight of AIDS victims, it was when the group traded in their characteristic black t-shirts and vests for suits and parleys with those in power that demands were translated into action. ACT UP’s activism brought about accelerated FDA approval of new medications, and by giving those infected with the virus a voice in clinical trials and research committees, researchers were able to produce drugs that would halt the replication of HIV by 1996. In so doing, HIV became a chronic condition akin diabetes, one that could not be cured but effectively managed. That such a treatment could be developed in the span of 15 years stands as one of the major victories of modern medical science.

And yet, one can only wonder how many lives might have been saved had organizations like ACT UP not had to force the U.S. government to take action in the first place. Given that Ronald Reagan continues to be lionized with increasing fervor by conservatives with each passing election cycle, it seems unlikely that widespread pubic opinion will ever pass judgment on the inhumanity he showed to AIDS victims. In the minds of many among the “Moral Majority,” all the right people were dying.

*To read the shameful history of AZT, I recommend Celia Farber’s 1989 exposé for SPIN Magazine.

Review: Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015) by Timothy Snyder

blackearthTimothy Snyder’s history of the Holocaust is situated within the framework of his academic speciality: (post)modern Eastern Europe. Snyder’s previous work of popular history, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2013), focused on the hellish reality of Eastern European countries caught between two mass murdering empires in WWII. Black Earth can be read as an extension of that project, only from the perspective of the 5.5 million Jews murdered by Germany in the stateless zones of Eastern Europe. Perhaps unavoidably when one considers the tangled history of the states in question, the reader risks getting lost in the minutia of rival political parties, internal schisms, disputed borders, and ancient ethnic prejudices. Yet despite the expository density, the central tenets of the book are repeated frequently and clearly enough to be condensed easily.

The overwhelming majority of Jews who perished in the Holocaust were murdered in Eastern Europe. Black Earth is a retelling and interpretation of those events, seeking to answer why and how the “heartland of world Jewry” became the staging ground for its extermination. While typical historical analysis has attributed this phenomenon to the fanatical anti-Semitism of Eastern Europeans, Snyder argues that prejudice alone cannot account for why so many people began murdering their neighbors in 1941. Rather, he argues, the true culprit walked away from the war largely unscathed in public opinion and conventional historical narratives: the Soviet Union.

Building his thesis, Snyder first draws a distinction between states that experienced consecutive vs. double occupation. Poland, for example, was subjected to consecutive occupation: invaded by Germany and the USSR from both directions in 1939, and subsequently split between the two aggressors. By contrast, Baltic and Eastern European countries experienced double occupation: first occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, and then by Germany after Hitler betrayed Stalin and initiated Operation Barbarossa in 1941.

By the time the Germans began their occupation of Eastern Europe, the region had already been devastated by a Soviet campaign of annihilation that included mass murders by the NKVD and large-scale deportations to gulag camps. Indeed, the Soviet atrocities of WWII are much more difficult to fathom or scrutinize, given the capricious nature by which the state murdered and imprisoned millions of civilians. When the Germans arrived and repelled the Red Army, they could convincingly present themselves as liberators. The governments of these ravaged states having already been toppled by the Soviets, the conditions were ideal for Hitler to enact his Final Solution. It was only in such an expansive stateless zone that the Nazis could translate ideology (the Judeo-Bolshevik Myth) into politicized action (the extermination of all Jews—men, women, and children).

Eastern Europeans, anxious for a scapegoat that would obscure their own complicity in the Soviet horrors, gladly bought into the Nazi credo: all Jews are communists and all communists are Jews. This created an arena for performative Nazism, with Eastern Europeans murdering Jews in order to prove themselves to the new regime. Imprisoned Soviet collaborators were told that they could buy their freedom and redeem themselves by killing a single Jew. Greed was another common motivation, as many of the murderers were able to plunder Jewish capital already confiscated by the Soviets. Somewhat less convincingly, Snyder promotes a psychoanalytic interpretation, suggesting that many Eastern Europeans participated in the mass killing of Jews so as to absolve their own conscience of the sins of Soviet collaboration.

Snyder should consider releasing the concluding chapter of Black Earth as a long-form essay. It is in these final pages that he issues the warning of his subtitle, parsing out similarities between our own time and the late 1930s. The modern Right has been radicalized, deriving from its anti-government extremism an erroneous belief that freedom comes from the dismantling of state authority. By way of example, Snyder cites the American invasion and toppling of a sovereign government in Iraq—a march of folly marketed as a campaign to bring freedom to the Iraqi people, but in actuality unleashing total chaos and laying the foundation for the rise of Islamic fascism. Across the ideological spectrum, the Left has been caught in a rising tide of anarchism, exemplified by the various “Occupy” movements. Both factions now crave the destruction of order. As Snyder eloquently observes: “A common ideological reflex has been postmodernity: a preference for the small over the large, the fragment over the structure, the glimpse over the view, the feeling over the fact.” Snyder writes most ominously about climate change, ecological disasters, and imminent conflicts over land and food. However, in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, his warnings about Vladimir Putin’s ongoing assaults on the postwar order (then isolated to Western Europe and Crimea) feel the most immediately dire. We are undoubtedly entering a new cycle of extremism and global unrest, with challenges that in many ways exceed those of the interwar period. It remains to be seen whether or not we have learned the lessons of history.

Review: Alexis (1929) by Marguerite Yourcenar (Tr. Walter Kaiser)

alexisSuffering turns us into egotists, for it absorbs us completely: it is later, in the form of memory, that it teaches us compassion.

Alexis, or the Treatise of Vain Struggle, published in 1929, was Marguerite Yourcenar’s first novel. The book was not published in English translation until 1984, well after the success of Memoirs of Hadrian. It seems safe to assume this work is now largely forgotten, with copies being produced by FSG on demand (the last page indicates that my copy was printed on 29 November 2016—the date I ordered it).

In more accurate terms, the book is an epistolary novella, taking the form of an extended letter written by the title character to his estranged wife, Monique. The letter is a confession in which Alexis recounts his lifelong struggle to accept his homosexuality. The internal world that Alexis describes is one of fundamental binary oppositions (instinct vs intellect, pleasure vs. suffering, body vs. soul), making the novel an optimal text for structuralist analysis.

One fundamental question that preoccupies Alexis continues to fuel most modern debates on homosexuality: are his urges the result of nature or “external influences”? In support of the latter, he notes an unhealthy attachment to his mother and sisters in adolescence, which led to a “veneration” of women that made it impossible to love them. These conditions, he writes, certainly influenced his temptations, “yet I see clearly that one should always go back to much more intimate explanations, much more obscure ones, which we understand imperfectly because they are hidden within us.” Thus Alexis interprets his instincts as conditioned behavior, compounded by subconscious forces. In her 1963 preface, Yourcenar writes that she no longer remembers whether or not she subscribed to Alexis’s environmental view of homosexuality at the time of writing, but that she has since rejected any interpretation that situates sexual orientation within the “psychological methodology of our age.”

Any reader shocked that a book of such forthright (albeit abstract) inquiry into the nature of same-sex attraction could be published in 1929 should recall that André Gide published the last of his Corydon dialogues in 1920 (the subtitle of Alexis alludes to an earlier lyrical work of Gide, La tentative amoureuse, ou le traité du vain désirThe Attempt at Love, or the Treatise of Vain Desire). By the interwar period, homosexuality was a topic of open conversation and debate, and Yourcenar was writing in the freest atmosphere for exploring such questions since the capitulation of the Greco-Roman world to monotheism. Yourcenar writes that not only was the subject “in the air at the moment,” but that it was also in the “fabric of a life”—that is, her own life. Here one draws a comparison with the British historical novelist Mary Renault. Not only did both women feel the allure of antiquity, but each shared her life with a female partner, and each wrote a modernist novel (in Renault’s case, The Charioteer) exploring homosexuality through the eyes of a male subject.

Yourcenar herself described the prose of Alexis as “decanted language.” This austere delivery, which so perfectly channeled the voice of a fading Emperor Hadrian, feels slightly overdone in the case of Alexis. That said, the asceticism of the novel is in keeping with the essence of Yourcenar’s oeuvre: a world of melancholy stoicism in which characters express themselves not through dialog, but intense introspection. With subsequent readings, this characteristic formality does not impede emotional response, but rather enhances it. We find in Yourcenar’s philosophic prose reverence for the durability of corporeal man in the face of spiritual despair. Alexis, for his part, embraces the lessons of suffering, and praises his body, “which cured me from having a soul.”