Heretic/Hanging (Books Acquired, Sometime Last Week)

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I was out of town when these showed up last week.

First, Susan Ronald’s Heretic Queen: Publisher St. Martin’s Griffin’s blurb:

Acclaimed biographer Susan Ronald delivers a stunning account of Elizabeth I that focuses on her role in the Wars on Religion—the battle between Protestantism and Catholicisim that tore apart Europe in the 16th Century

Elizabeth’s 1558 coronation procession was met with an extravagant outpouring of love. Only twenty-five years old, the young queen saw herself as their Protestant savior, aiming to provide the nation with new hope, prosperity, and independence from the foreign influence that had plagued her sister Mary’s reign. Given the scars of the Reformation, Elizabeth would need all of the powers of diplomacy and tact she could summon.

Extravagant, witty, and hot-tempered, Elizabeth was the ultimate tyrant. Yet at the outset, in religious matters, she was unfathomably tolerant for her day. “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith,” Elizabeth once proclaimed. “All else is a dispute over trifles.” Heretic Queen is the highly personal, untold story of how Queen Elizabeth I secured the future of England as a world power. Susan Ronald paints the queen as a complex character whose apparent indecision was really a political tool that she wielded with great aplomb.

And: The Hanging of Samuel Ash by Sheldon Russell, from Minotaur. Publishers Weekly blurb:

A compelling lead compensates only in part for the relatively weak plot of Russell’s fourth mystery featuring one-armed Santa Fe railroad bull Hook Runyon (after 2012’s Dead Man’s Tunnel), set during WWII against a backdrop of labor unrest. When Runyon checks out a nonworking signal on a remote stretch of track, he discovers a man’s corpse hanging from the signal’s cantilever. The only clue to the dead man’s identity is a Bronze Star inscribed with the name Samuel Ash. Not wanting the war hero to be buried in a pauper’s grave, Runyon takes custody of the body and embarks on a quest to find Ash’s relatives and the truth about his death. A dose of humor lightens the gloom—pickpockets steal Runyon’s wallet and badge while he’s hunting pickpockets—but the mystery itself never picks up much steam. Fans will hope for a return to form next time.

 

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Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (Book Acquired, 6.14.2013)

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Big thanks to Mr. BLCKDGRD for sending me this copy of Vasily Grossman’s enormous novel Life and Fate. Over the past few years I’ve come to admire and trust BLCKDGRD’s taste, and I generally love these types of novels, so I’m looking forward to getting into this later in the year.

Here’s publisher NYRB’s blurb:

A book judged so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only the manuscript but the ribbons on which it had been typed were confiscated by the state, Life and Fate is an epic tale of World War II and a profound reckoning with the dark forces that dominated the twentieth century. Interweaving a transfixing account of the battle of Stalingrad with the story of a single middle-class family, the Shaposhnikovs, scattered by fortune from Germany to Siberia, Vasily Grossman fashions an immense, intricately detailed tapestry depicting a time of almost unimaginable horror and even stranger hope. Life and Fate juxtaposes bedrooms and snipers’ nests, scientific laboratories and the Gulag, taking us deep into the hearts and minds of characters ranging from a boy on his way to the gas chambers to Hitler and Stalin themselves. This novel of unsparing realism and visionary moral intensity is one of the supreme achievements of modern Russian literature.

Read our review of Grossman’s novel The Road.

 

“Decoration Day” — Sarah Orne Jewett

“Decoration Day” by Sarah Orne Jewett

I.

A week before the thirtieth of May, three friends—John Stover and Henry Merrill and Asa Brown—happened to meet on Saturday evening at Barton’s store at the Plains. They were ready to enjoy this idle hour after a busy week. After long easterly rains, the sun had at last come out bright and clear, and all the Barlow farmers had been planting. There was even a good deal of ploughing left to be done, the season was so backward.

The three middle-aged men were old friends. They had been school-fellows, and when they were hardly out of their boyhood the war came on, and they enlisted in the same company, on the same day, and happened to march away elbow to elbow. Then came the great experience of a great war, and the years that followed their return from the South had come to each almost alike. These men might have been members of the same rustic household, they knew each other’s history so well.

They were sitting on a low wooden bench at the left of the store door as you went in. People were coming and going on their Saturday night errands,—the post-office was in Barton’s store,—but the friends talked on eagerly, without being interrupted, except by an occasional nod of recognition. They appeared to take no notice at all of the neighbors whom they saw oftenest. It was a most beautiful evening; the two great elms were almost half in leaf over the blacksmith’s shop which stood across the wide road. Farther along were two small old-fashioned houses and the old white church, with its pretty belfry of four arched sides and a tiny dome at the top. The large cockerel on the vane was pointing a little south of west, and there was still light enough to make it shine bravely against the deep blue eastern sky. On the western side of the road, near the store, were the parsonage and the storekeeper’s modern house, which had a French roof and some attempt at decoration, which the long-established Barlow people called gingerbread-work, and regarded with mingled pride and disdain. These buildings made the tiny village called Barlow Plains. They stood in the middle of a long narrow strip of level ground. They were islanded by green fields and pastures. There were hills beyond; the mountains themselves seemed very near. Scattered about on the hill slopes were farmhouses, which stood so far apart, with their clusters of out-buildings, that each looked lonely, and the pine woods above seemed to besiege them all. It was lighter on the uplands than it was in the valley, where the three men sat on their bench, with their backs to the store and the western sky.

“Well, here we be ‘most into June, an’ I ‘ain’t got a bush-bean above ground,” lamented Henry Merrill.

“Your land’s always late, ain’t it? But you always catch up with the rest on us,” Asa Brown consoled him. “I’ve often observed that your land, though early planted, was late to sprout. I view it there’s a good week’s difference betwixt me an’ Stover an’ your folks, but come first o’ July we all even up.”

“‘Tis just so,” said John Stover, taking his pipe out of his mouth, as if he had a good deal more to say, and then replacing it, as if he had changed his mind.

“Made it extry hard having that long wet spell. Can’t none on us take no day off this season,” said Asa Brown; but nobody thought it worth his while to respond to such evident truth.

“Next Saturday’ll be the thirtieth o’ May—that’s Decoration Day, ain’t it?—come round again. Lord! how the years slip by after you git to be forty-five an’ along there!” said Asa again. “I s’pose some o’ our folks’ll go over to Alton to see the procession, same’s usual. I’ve got to git one o’ them small flags to stick on our Joel’s grave, an’ Mis’ Dexter always counts on havin’ some for Harrison’s lot. I calculate to get ‘em somehow. I must make time to ride over, but I don’t know where the time’s comin’ from out o’ next week. I wish the women folks would tend to them things. There’s the spot where Eb Munson an’ John Tighe lays in the poor-farm lot, an’ I did mean certain to buy flags for ‘em last year an’ year before, but I went an’ forgot it. I’d like to have folks that rode by notice ‘em for once, if they was town paupers. Eb Munson was as darin’ a man as ever stepped out to tuck o’ drum.” Read More

Eleven Authors Who Were Also Veterans of War

Eleven Authors Who Were Also Veterans of War

1. Stendahl (Napoleonic Wars)

2. Ambrose Bierce (Union Army, American Civil War)

3. Erich Maria Remarque (German Army, WWI)

4. George Orwell (Republican Army, Spanish Civil War)

5. Kurt Vonnegut (U.S. Army, WWII)

6. Joseph Heller (U.S. Air Force, WWII)

7. Eveyln Waugh (British Royal Marines, WWII)

8. Norman Mailer (U.S Army, WWII)

9. Gore Vidal (U.S. Army, WWII)

10. Tim O’Brien (U.S. Army, Vietnam War)

11. Anthony Swofford (U.S. Marine Corps, Persian Gulf War)

 

RIP Roy Bates, Prince of Sealand

RIP Paddy Roy Bates, Prince Roy of the Principality of Sealand, who died this week at 91.

From Sealand’s official website:

Sealand was founded as a sovereign Principality in 1967 in international waters, six miles off the eastern shores of Britain. The history of Sealand is a story of a struggle for liberty. Sealand was founded on the principle that any group of people dissatisfied with the oppressive laws and restrictions of existing nation states may declare independence in any place not claimed to be under the jurisdiction of another sovereign entity. The location chosen was Roughs Tower, an island fortress created in World War II by Britain and subsequently abandoned to the jurisdiction of the High Seas.

The independence of Sealand was upheld in a 1968 British court decision where the judge held that Roughs Tower stood in international waters and did not fall under the legal jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. This gave birth to Sealand’s national motto of E Mare Libertas, or “From the Sea, Freedom”.

The official language of Sealand is English and the Sealand Dollar has a fixed exchange rate of one U.S. dollar. Passports and stamps have been in circulation since 1969 and the latter decade of the 20th century saw an impressive expansion in its activity both socially and industrially as it began to develop a growing economic base which underscored its long-standing membership of the international community of States.

Some video history:

More, via Bates’s son:

Turing’s Cathedral — George Dyson Explores the Origins of the Digital Universe (Book Acquired, 2.17.2012)

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George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral looks pretty cool. Here’s some copy from publisher Pantheon:

“It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence,” twenty-four-year-old Alan Turing announced in 1936. In Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson focuses on a small group of men and women, led by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who built one of the first computers to realize Alan Turing’s vision of a Universal Machine. Their work would break the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things—and our universe would never be the same.

Using five kilobytes of memory (the amount allocated to displaying the cursor on a computer desktop of today), they achieved unprecedented success in both weather prediction and nuclear weapons design, while tackling, in their spare time, problems ranging from the evolution of viruses to the evolution of stars.

Dyson’s account, both historic and prophetic, sheds important new light on how the digital universe exploded in the aftermath of World War II. The proliferation of both codes and machines was paralleled by two historic developments: the decoding of self-replicating sequences in biology and the invention of the hydrogen bomb. It’s no coincidence that the most destructive and the most constructive of human inventions appeared at exactly the same time.

How did code take over the world? In retracing how Alan Turing’s one-dimensional model became John von Neumann’s two-dimensional implementation, Turing’s Cathedral offers a series of provocative suggestions as to where the digital universe, now fully three-dimensional, may be heading next.

I spent an hour with the book this morning and found it engrossing. (It was also a reminder that I don’t read enough nonfiction).

Regular readers will know I despise dust jackets—I’d rather see publisher’s put their efforts into handsome but simple hardback covers. Three out of the last four hardbacks to come in have done so, including Turing’s Cathedral:

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Still, the design concept for these books (Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and Thomas Mallon’s Watergate are the other two) still involve an integration with the dust jacket. I’d like to see the dust jacket dusted, done away with, expired.

Some cool pics from the Dyson:

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Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues (Book Acquired, 2.10.2012)

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I try to spend 10 or 20 minutes with every book that comes in to Biblioklept World Headquarters—assessing plot and prose, trying to get a sense of the potential audience for each volume, etc. Sometimes this task is difficult, and especially difficult when I find myself with too much to read, yet intrigued by the book at hand.

This is a lot of hemming and hawing leading up to: I very much enjoyed the first fifty or so pages of Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues. Here’s a plot description from the Man Booker Prize website:

‘Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you…’ The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero’s bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there’s more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero’s fate was settled. In Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don’t tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong…

Edugyan writes in an energetic colloquial syntax, one that matches–and embodies—the spirit of the jazz musicians at the forefront of her narrative.  So far, great stuff.

Picador has picked up the book and given it a wider distribution in the US. Check it out.

Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford — Leslie Brody

Irrepressible, Leslie Brody’s new biography of Jessica Mitford, is a fascinating study in divergent attitudes about class, politics, and what it might mean to dissent from one’s own family. Jessica Mitford — “Decca” to her friends — was born into English aristocracy, which she promptly tried to escape. Brody offers a succinct outline in the opening pages (“Little D.” is young Decca, of course)—

What was Little D. running away from? The usual: parental rules and regulations, hothouse sibling rivalries, boredom; the more arcane: country estates, nannies, governesses, secret cupboards, and secret languages: conservatism and elitism in her relations; and fascism, in the body politic. Where was she running to? At first, she longed to go to school and, later, to the East End of London to live in a bedsit and be a Communist. To readers of the British press, the Mitfords were the subject of gossip and scrutiny for the fashions they wore and the odd things they did. Anyone not related to her seemed infinitely more fascinating to Decca.

For Decca, experiences with “Anyone not related to her” became her form of school, which her mother forbade her to attend (although, to be fair, brother Tom did hip her to a crash course of Western canonical lit). As the passage above suggests, the trajectory of Decca’s life would be defined and drawn against the conservative values of her family. In an especially instructive scene near the end of her teen years, Decca and her sister “Unity etched symbols of their political affiliations into the window of the room they shared at the top of the house—Unity drew a swastika; Decca a hammer and sickle.” What did these kids use to draw their sigils? A diamond ring.

Brody (thankfully) doesn’t dwell on the psychological motivations that might have led Decca to a life and ideology so dramatically diametrically opposed to her aristocratic, fascist-leaning family, perhaps in part because Decca’s progressive convictions seem, in retrospect, so clearly to have come down on the “right side of history.” As Brody’s biography reveals, however, Decca was not simply some rich kid slumming for a few years; indeed, we find in Jessica Mitford a soul clearly committed to the ideals of equality and democracy throughout her entire life.

And what a strange, wonderful, and often tragic life it was. In a sharp, reportorial style (one that frequently employs primary sources), Brody relates Decca’s tumultuous life, beginning with her early, scandalous marriage with a cousin, Esmond Romilly, their involvement in the Spanish Civil War, and his death in WWII. Soon after Esmond’s death, Decca married Bob Treuhaft, an American civil rights lawyer. The pair moved to Oakland and had children, although Decca doesn’t seem to have been much of a mother (her heavy drinking might have gotten in the way when political obligations like testifying before HUAC didn’t). The bulk of Brody’s narrative covers Decca’s intense involvement in the Civil Rights movement, from its earliest inception right through the Vietnam era and beyond. Decca wrote articles, facilitated meetings, and generally served as a nexus point for creative and political energies devoted to free, progressive thought. Decca went on to author books investigating the funeral home practices, the Vietnam War draft, and the American prison system, but it is likely that her memoirs will be of the greatest interest to readers today.

Brody’s biography seems more relevant than ever as the Occupy movement (particularly in Decca’s adopted Oakland) sheds greater light on the disparity between the rich and poor in America and calls into question the very ground that pioneers like Jessica Mitford fought for. At the same time, Brody’s book is never didactic, nor is it overtly and unnecessarily juicy (which surely must have been a great temptation, considering that Decca’s entire life was something of a scandal). Instead, Brody offers us a tightly drawn, well-researched portrait that is sure to fascinate.

Irrepressible is available in hardback from Counterpoint Press.

Three (Somewhat Literary) Lists for 11 | 11 | 11

Eleven Authors Who Were Also Veterans of War

1. Stendahl (Napoleonic Wars)

2. Ambrose Bierce (Union Army, American Civil War)

3. Erich Maria Remarque (German Army, WWI)

4. George Orwell (Republican Army, Spanish Civil War)

5. Kurt Vonnegut (U.S. Army, WWII)

6. Joseph Heller (U.S. Air Force, WWII)

7. Eveyln Waugh (British Royal Marines, WWII)

8. Norman Mailer (U.S Army, WWII)

9. Gore Vidal (U.S. Army, WWII)

10. Tim O’Brien (U.S. Army, Vietnam War)

11. Anthony Swofford (U.S. Marine Corps, Persian Gulf War)

*          *          *

Eleven Encyclopedic Books, Overstuffed with References, That Compel Compulsive Reading

1. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

2. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce

3. Expelled from Eden, A WilliamVollmann Reader

4. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, Georges Perec

5. Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson

6. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien

7. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco

8. The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

9. The Recognitions, William Gaddis

10. Between Parentheses, Roberto Bolaño

11.  The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, Donald Harrington

*          *          *

Eleven Excellent Films About Films and Film-making 

1. Hearts of Darkness, Eleanor Coppola, et al

2. Lost in La Mancha, Keith Fulton et al

3. Burden of Dreams, Les Blank

4. Adaptation, Spike Jonze

5. Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry

6. The Player, Robert Altman

7. Ed Wood, Tim Burton

8. Stardust Memories, Woody Allen

9. Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges

10. American Movie, Chris Smith

11. Barton Fink, Coen Brothers

Eleven Authors Who Were Also Veterans of War

Eleven Authors Who Were Also Veterans of War

1. Stendahl (Napoleonic Wars)

2. Ambrose Bierce (Union Army, American Civil War)

3. Erich Maria Remarque (German Army, WWI)

4. George Orwell (Republican Army, Spanish Civil War)

5. Kurt Vonnegut (U.S. Army, WWII)

6. Joseph Heller (U.S. Air Force, WWII)

7. Eveyln Waugh (British Royal Marines, WWII)

8. Norman Mailer (U.S Army, WWII)

9. Gore Vidal (U.S. Army, WWII)

10. Tim O’Brien (U.S. Army, Vietnam War)

11. Anthony Swofford (U.S. Marine Corps, Persian Gulf War)

Books Acquired, 9.10.11

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Two books in the mail today from Counterpoint Press, an expanding indie press with a broad but sharp catalog (including Soft Skull Press). The first is Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford, a biography of the progressive upstart. From the press release—

Admirers and detractors use the same words to describe Jessica Mitford: subversive, mischief-maker, muckraker. J.K. Rowling calls Mitford her “most influential writer.” Those who knew her best simply called her “Decca.” Born into one of Britain’s most famous aristocratic families, Mitford eloped with Winston Churchill’s nephew to America as a teenager in 1939. A no-holds barred civil rights activist, outspoken communist, and feared journalist, Mitford rose to one of the New Deal’s most notorious bureaucrats. For her the personal was political. She coined the term “frenemies,”  and as a member of the American Communist Party, she made several, though not among the Cold War witch hunters. When she left the Communist Party in 1958 after fifteen years, she promised to be subversive whenever the opportunity arose. True to her word, late in life she hit her stride as a writer, publishing nine books before her death in 1996. With unrestricted access to the Mitford Family archives, Leslie Brody presents a moving, impeccably researched biography of one of the most influential women of the 20th century.

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Heidegger’s Glasses is a novel by Thaisa Frank that seems promising. Description—

Magical and surreal, Heidegger’s Glasses offers a completely original vantage point on the Holocaust.  The story opens during the end of World War II in a failing Germany coming apart at the seams. The Third Reich’s strong reliance on the occult and the leading officials’ obsession with the astral plane has led to the formation of a secret Compound of Scribes–multilingual translators that have been spared from deportation to answer returned letters written to the dead in the concentration camps. Ellie Schacten, the mysterious heroine of the novel, supervises the Scribes, yet secretly uses the compound to hide a steadily growing number of refugees. When a letter arrives, written by eminent German philosopher Martin Heidegger to his friend and optometrist––a man who is now lost in the dying thralls of Auschwitz––a series of events unfold that turn the Reich’s attention to the compound and threaten Ellie’s operation and the lives of the Scribes.

Based on the real Third Reich procedure, Operation Mail, which forced concentration camp prisoners to send letters to loved ones extolling conditions in the camps, Heidegger’s Glasses explores a dark, absurd world in which fear and death are a constant companion, and yet, Frank’s characters show how that when stripped of their freedom and virtually all material possessions, the human spirit perseveres and thrives.

New in the Stack: Heinrich Böll, Vaclav & Lena, E.M. Forster, and Bob Mould

The stack overfloweth with new books—here are some of the more interesting ones:

Melville House continues reissuing Heinrich Böll’s books with the short novel The Train Was on Time (with a killer afterward by William Vollmann) and Irish Journal, an account of Böll’s travels in Ireland in the early 1950s. Compact, tense, and immediate, The Train Was on Time relates the journey of a young German infantryman traveling on a troop train to the Eastern Front. He realizes that the war is already lost, and that his trip is essentially the first step in a death sentence. Irish Journal is hardly so severe, yet it still bears the scars of WWII trauma. Like all the titles in The Essential Heinrich Böll, these books feature beautiful, elegant design.

Haley Tanner’s début novel Vaclav & Lena (new in hardback from The Dial Press) seems to pull off the tough act of balancing quirky romance and genuine depth. Tanner tells the tale of two Russian emigrés  who meet as kids in Brighton Beach. Verbose Vaclav dreams of becoming a magician; shy Lena soon becomes his assistant, finding comfort in his warm family—and his idealistic, romantic imagination. In a glowing review at The New York Times, Susannah Meadows writes—

Whimsical love stories are tough to pull off. But as in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, vibrant characters, believable romance and dark undertones make for a moving tale. The book’s contrast between childhood fantasy and the grim world outside tamps down the cutesiness. It helps that Ms. Tanner is such a strong storyteller, and her distinctive voice — winsome without being dopey — engulfs you immediately.

New in trade paperback from PicadorA Great Unrecorded HistoryWendy Moffat’s biography of E.M. Forster, examines the life of the great British writer through the lens of his homosexuality. Forster published five classic novels between 1905 and 1924, and even though he wrote biographies and essays until his death in 1970, he never released another novel in his lifetime. Maurice was published in 1971. The novel, which Forster composed over decades, relates a homosexual love affair; Forster was determined that, contrary to convention, the love story should not be a tragedy and should indeed have a happy ending. Part of Moffat’s project seems to be to make a case for Forster as a progenitor of queer writing. From her prologue—

Though he burned great bonfires of ephemera, Morgan [Forster's middle name] carefully preserved the record of his gay life. Thousands of unpublished pages of letters, diaries, essays, and photographs tell the story of the life he hid from public view. Some of the pages are scattered in archives. Some have been coaxed out into the world from remarkable hiding places — a vast oak cupboard in a London sitting room, a shoebox humbly nestled among mouse turds in a New England barn. Many of Morgan’s surviving friends have told their stories for the first time. Only in 2008 were the final entries in his private diary, restricted from view since his death, opened to readers. All his long life Morgan lived in a world imprisoned by prejudice against homosexuals. He was sixteen when Oscar Wilde was sent to prison, and he died the year after the Stonewall riots.

Almost a century ago, Forster dedicated Maurice to “a happier year.” Perhaps that time is now.

Bob Mould began playing his strange brand of frenzied, fuzzy punk rock in Hüsker Dü less than a decade after Forster’s death, and while it would be ridiculous to suggest that his life as a gay man (and teen) was easy, his new autobiography See a Little Light reveals that it is possible to work through pain, confusion, and negative public attitudes to a positive place. Mould’s homosexuality was an open secret, but he still felt protective of his personal life. However, a 1994 Spin magazine article by Dennis Cooper (yes, that Dennis Cooper) outed Mould. I’ll let him tell this part of the story—

For years I had lived in a fearful yet protective state. My parents were in a small town where people didn’t accept or understand homosexuality. I didn’t want to cause any undue stress in their lives by coming out. I remembered what happened to my high school acquaintance who ended up slaughtered in the woods. My coming out might create a hardship on my brother’s kids too—Syracuse, New York, where he now lived, was not a progressive bastion.

I had looped all the different possible fallouts and fears in my mind, a big one being that for fifteen years I had gender-neutralized my work so that it would be all-inclusive; as a result, my music was highly personal, and yet it affected a lot of people, whether they were gay or straight. But my fear was that 90 percent of my audience would have the meaning of my songs ripped out from underneath them. A song that straight people related to, now they find out it’s about two guys? The flip side, or what I now know to be the upside, was that I had a large audience who might not have known about my homosexuality, were very attached to the work, and could now see that love and loss and hope are universal emotions that can’t be owned, controlled, or denied by law or religion.

See a Little Light is not just a document of Mould’s struggles with homosexual identity, but that element is obviously indivisible from the rest of his life, which he writes about in deeply personal detail (with the aid of Michael Azerrad, who documented Hüsker Dü in a chapter of his book Our Band Could Be Your Life). There’s also plenty here on the Minneapolis-St. Paul scene, the early post-hardcore indie scene, analyses of Hüsker Dü songs, a history of Mould’s second band Sugar, thoughts on guitars, and touring, touring, touring. I’m hardly an unbiased reader here—Hüsker Dü and Sugar songs soundtracked a hefty chunk of my teen years and early twenties—but See a Little Light offers an emotional depth and level of insight absent from most musical biographies. See a Little Light is new in hardback from Little, Brown.

Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones Is Lurid Abject Art

Yesterday, I finished listening to the unabridged audiobook version of Jonathan Littell’s 900+ page novel The Kindly Ones, the plot of which is too long and complex and detailed (and frankly, often boring) to unpack here. To make a very long story short (after which I’ll talk about the book’s scandalous and (deservedly) tawdry reputation), Maximilien Aue is an SS officer of mixed Franco-Germanic parentage, who, amazingly, seems to be present at an unlikely number of key events during WWII. These events include time at the eastern front, orchestrating mass killings in Ukraine and holing up during the battle of Stalingrad, where he gets shot through the head yet miraculously survives. After this, Aue convalesces in Berlin, and later visits his mother and stepfather in Antibes. He soon takes up the project of improving conditions for concentration camp prisoners, visiting camps like Auschwitz, all the while meeting and working with Nazi bigwigs like Albert Speer, Adolf Eichmann, and Heinrich Himmler. After an intense illness (the book is full of illness–more on that in a moment), Aue seeks his twin sister (uh, yeah, more on her shortly) at her husband’s house in Pomerania, where, finding her absent, he indulges in a psychotic wine-fueled masturbation binge (yes, more presently). The end of the novel ups the psycho-ante, detailing the last days of the Third Reich in Berlin, a period Littell depicts as dripping in decadent nastiness. Aue survives via murder murder murder.

This is a very brief outline of a very long book, the kind of book that dares to be important, and Littell surely knows his history. In fact, the book is often incredibly dry, dusty even, constipated by historical facts that Aue and other characters frequently reveal in long, clunky passages of exposition. Indeed, one of the great weaknesses of The Kindly Ones is Littell’s tendency to use his characters as mouthpieces, little pawns who will discourse on politics or linguistics or music or whatever for a few pages. At the same time, it’s clear that Littell wants certain passages to bore the reader. A lengthy episode in the Ukraine concerns the fate of a group of Caucus mountain people of whom the SS wish to determine a “racial origin.” Littell presents the process of deciding whether or not these people should be exterminated or not in excruciatingly bureaucratic (bureaucratically excruciating?) detail. One of the novel’s core points is an observation of the Nazi Reich as a lurching machine, a sick machine whose various limbs were often at bureaucratic war with each other.

If The Kindly Ones is often dry, its wetness is all the more foul. This is a novel that might as well take place in the asshole, or at least the colon. Our hero (?!) Aue spends much of his time describing his alternate diarrhea and vomiting; indeed, emetic purging seems to be his only form of absolution from the constant sin he’s wallowing in. It’s as if the entire Nazi project—its racial purging, its mass murder, its bureaucratic domination, its lies that were obvious to any person with eyes—is a constant stream of shit and vomit that Aue is forced to (yet unable to) process. The Nazis worked to elevate their unnatural sins to a kind of weltanschauung, yet Aue is unable to reconcile this world view with the visceral reality of the organized mass murder he daily helps orchestrate. This hardly absolves him; indeed, Aue seems to engage in every perversion and sin imaginable as a means to release the metaphysical pressure valve that’s pushing down on him all the time.

And this is the core of The Kindly Ones, and certainly why the novel is so infamous. The Nazis were an abject regime, a force that sought to “cleanse” Europe and the world of a perceived filth, and set about doing so in the most paradoxical way imaginable—by engaging in genocide, the worst kind of moral filth. Littell’s novel explores the bureaucratic nature of these abject sins in detail, but Aue is the very (tortured) soul of abjection. He is a paradoxical figure, a “true” SS party member who nevertheless idealizes Greek culture—an ironic twist, given the book’s title, a not-so-subtle nod to Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Quick warning: spoilers ahead—although, given Littell’s potboileresque structure, you’d have to be a blind Oedipus to miss these twists.

Yes, young Max Aue is a thoroughly Greek figure. He’s a homosexual who longs to be a woman so he can feel the “pleasure” that only women can feel, yet he’s obsessively in love with his twin sister, whom he buggered regularly in their pre-teen days (and perhaps a few times afterwards). He fights Nazi bureaucracy to improve the living conditions of doomed concentration camp victims, yet he periodically murders the people around him, for no discernible reason. He delights in his own illnesses, his own filth and shit. He facilitates child murder. He fantasizes about coprophagiac feasts, sticks bottles up his ass while wet-daydreaming about Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, and pays starving boys a few marks for a dirty fuck. And, like Orestes, pursued by the Furies, he kills his mother and step-father. The novel’s greatest concession to Greekness is its reveling in horror, horror, horror.

The Kindly Ones is a bizarre book, one that asks its readers to sympathize with the lowest of low-lifes, and yet somehow nevertheless succeeds, at least in a marginal sense. Littell requires tremendous patience from his readers—and strong stomachs as well, perhaps. In short, I don’t know who The Kindly Ones is for. It’s a bit of a potboiler, yet hardly a genre novel, and certainly not the kind of thing most people would want to read on the beach. I’m not sure if most folks who read historical WWII fiction want theirs served up with so much psycho sickness. To call The Kindly Ones an oddity is an understatement. There are stunning (and I don’t use that word loosely here) passages in the book, moments of overwhelming psychosis, dream sequences that might match the verity of war, including its utter spiritual despair. There’s also a fine tawdriness to The Kindly Ones, an overwhelming sense of the lurid and grotesque, overcompensated, as I mentioned earlier, with the dry crust of historical detail. The result is messy and brutal and uneven, but nonetheless compelling, like a foul, open wound that attracts even as it repels.