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Foxy Metaphors: Isaiah Berlin’s Playful Binaries

Foxy Metaphors: Isaiah Berlin’s Playful Binaries

Isaiah Berlin’s classic study of Tolstoy, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953), is too short and just right at the same time. The title and premise are taken from a line by the Greek poet Archilochus, which reads (at least in one translation), “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” From that line, Berlin plays with dichotomies and various binaries, without taking himself too seriously. He puts writers and thinkers in two camps, and throws us some curve-balls along the way. The biggest, perhaps, is the idea that a person can be a fox, in “reality,” but desires the focus and mission of a hedgehog.

This is how Berlin sees Tolstoy, and he shows us why. It helps his case that the prose is crisp, precise, and accessible, and free of jargon and scholar-to-scholar formalism. In the Princeton edition (2013), there is some scholar-to-scholar talk in the added appendices, but these maintain the accessible nature of Berlin’s essay, and extend and amplify its points in interesting ways**.

The two camps, of course, are not set in stone, and no one has both feet planted in either, at least not permanently. It’s more a matter of degree, time, and place. Does a writer or thinker see the world primarily through one, big, defining idea, or through a myriad of lenses, experiences, and points of view? Berlin, as a suggested starting point, places Dante, Pascal, Plato, Nietzsche and Proust in the hedgehog camp, and Shakespeare, Goethe, Aristotle and James Joyce among the foxes. As far as Russian literature goes, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are at odds, but Berlin sees inner conflicts wracking the spirits of both men. Blending, fraying, evolution, internal arguments and so on.

In short, it’s (delightfully) complicated.

** In those appendices, a certain John Bowle is given voice. I had never heard of him before. But his prose style is remarkable. Beautifully contrapuntal, and fully aware of the ways word-sounds best fit together, like a painter who knows her colors inside and out. Berlin also gets his chance to respond to responses, and these make this short work even better. The appendices also reminded me of Nabokov’s (mock) commentary in his Pale Fire. That novel needs a reread too.

Anna North’s Outlawed

Anna North’s Outlawed

Cinematic. I saw what she saw. I smelled, tasted, touched, heard what she wrote. And even though it’s a kind of alternative history, or a parallel universe, or just good old-fashioned re-imagining worlds, the story is quite plausible, with few exceptions.

Anna North’s Outlawed. 2021

Anna North’s fine new novel, Outlawed, her debut, tells the story of Ada, a young refugee from a town with a witch problem. As in, it believes in witches, which, at the moment, doesn’t sound all that unfamiliar. Her town also has a kind of Handmaid’s Tale problem, which may, in this other-world, stretch far and wide in the America of the 1890s, at least in the parts that had previously suffered through the Flu. So, yeah, there’s been a devastating pandemic that screwed things up and made all too many people go half-crazy, and, yes, this was written (apparently) before Covid hit. She came up with the story before our world was sent into a kind of moral, ethical and logistical abyss, but her novel has the added power of making us rethink the present too.

(Like all good literature . . . )

Ada, the narrator, is the daughter of a midwife, and midwives are crucial in that time and place, though they’re also subject to deadly retribution, especially if a baby dies, and then the witch factor sets in. Ada is also newly married, can’t seem to give birth, which is perhaps their essential “duty” in that world. Complications arise and she’s forced to flee. Convents and places out of our Western Mythology soon kick in, like Hole in the Wall, and a person named “The Kid.” It would ruin the story to go into much more detail about that, but, suffice it to say, North plays with gender and sexuality, turns Old Western tropes upside down and sideways, and the result is compelling.

I wanted more. 

I’m also thinking this would make a great movie or extended series, perhaps as a part of an anthology. I’d likely start with C Pam Zhang’s  How Much of These Hills is Gold, which also deals with Old West tropes and does marvelously original things to them.

This isn’t your grandfather’s West, or John Wayne’s. But it’s a big world. Lotsa room for the new and the old.

Community Bookstore Live

Community Bookstore Live

I bumped into this today, thanks to the Paris Review’s “Staff Picks.” A series of video chat sessions with some truly excellent writers, perfect for pandemic times. Well worth a look:

Community Bookstore Live videos

Life is swirling too intensely at the moment, throwing me around the house, making me bounce from ceiling to floor to wall and back again, like a bad Disney dream.

No friend of mine, Writer’s Block. No boon companion. But he’s here, there, and everywhere on the page. The blank page. White, laughing and cruel pages, so far this month. I can only hope 2021 will end up being a productive and significantly more enjoyable year, when all is said and done. Time to put 2020 into the ground forever and ever!


Send work, oh ye artists, scribes and flaneurs!

The Discomfort of Reading

The Discomfort of Reading

The Discomfort of Evening, by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, 2018. (Translated by Michele Hutchison, 2020.)

It’s a big deal to win The International Booker Prize. It’s a much bigger deal, it seems to me, to do so before you’re 30. Still bigger when the book itself defies convention, adds another step on the ladder of literature, makes us think differently about farms, families, children and their inner worlds, abuse, and the ways we try to cope with this.

They poeticize. They poeticize grief and internalize/externalize it through metaphor. But those metaphors touch everything around them, so the grief never really leaves. They aren’t bridges to unrelated abstractions, existing in some Platonic World of Forms. They aren’t bridges of escape. They — the poetry, the metaphors — circle around them like the wind across the farm, carrying with it the smells they love and hate and accept as their only world, good, bad, indifferent. They don’t hide it or spray it all with perfume. They don’t commodify it through platitudes. It’s real, and it’s not. It’s fiction, and it’s not.

Growing up absurd. Growing up, ten, eleven, twelve . . .

The risk for the reader, with a book this linguistically wondrous, is to fall so entirely under the spell of the language, its melancholy beauty, its preternatural wisdom, even its humor, that we forget what the author is trying to say, that what has happened on this farm, in the Netherlands, to a family, to children, can not be obliterated. Because literature doesn’t do that. It can’t really make something not be what it is, and it’s not there to give us comfort, necessarily.

Literature (mostly) says this about its characters: I was here, in this life. This is what happened to me. This is part of who I am and why.

They poeticize, and this is a gift to readers, though not everyone deserves this gift. To be harsh, not everyone does. Ironically, the avoidance of being harsh is one of the underlying rationales for certain kinds of poetry, at least subconsciously, because if a person like the author, who may or may not have experienced what happened in the story, in this fictional world, at least not exactly as portrayed . . . if that person removed the lyricism, the humor, the metaphors, and just told us straight up, “This is what happened to me!” we might not listen, we might just turn away, appalled. We might just insult them, or mock them, or cast doubt on that experience — thus adding more layers to the pain-clothes they already wear. This coat of pain. Or pain-coats they imagine their characters must wear.

For humans capable of true feeling, of true empathy, of walking step by step with others, this is nearly the same thing. For those rare Olympians of the Heart, it is.




Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part II

Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part II

Oedipus at Colonus, by Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust. 1788.

July 2, 2020

This brings us to Aristotle’s Poetics, which Critchley gives an even closer reading than he gave to The Republic. And why not? It’s shorter, more succinct and more germane. He begins by unpacking that troublesome concept, “catharsis.” Is it life-changing or purgative or disruptive or like menstruation? Many philosophers claim Aristotle uses it to argue directly with Plato about the value of tragic poetry. Critchley thinks it’s just a description of what people feel when they watch a tragedy, then return home and go on with their lives unchanged. (Much the way people now read murder mysteries.) Which actually is a response to Plato. Tragedy is not disruptive and dangerous, but speaks to normal parts of human nature. Aristotle is an observant naturalist, unlike moralistic Plato.

Critchley works his way through the famous concepts: hamartia, unity, dramatic action, fear and pity, the value of poetry over history (history is “a bloody archive of particulars” that can be used for tragedy). Euripides is Critchley’s favorite but dismissed by Aristotle as “the most tragic”—not actual praise. (Aristophanes in The Frogs left Euripides in Hades because he had made tragedy “democratic.” He saved Aeschylus instead. Aristotle disliked democracy almost as much as Plato did.)

Aristotle’s rules about characters, especially women and slaves, set him at odds with Euripides. But Euripides is even stranger than I knew. The endings of his Orestes and Helen sound as bloody as Jacobean tragedies—with the weird plot twist in both that the real Helen wasn’t taken to Troy, but only a simulacrum of her. Critchley claims Euripides uses deus ex machina as a deliberate mockery of the concept of neat, clean endings admired by Aristotle and practiced by Sophocles. He gives many examples of Euripides parodying Aeschylus and Greek myths with bits of realism and put-down lines. He enjoyed screwing around with the genre.

But he wasn’t alone in his extremism. Elektra by Sophocles stars the biggest screamer in Greek tragedy, even louder than Cassandra. Perhaps Aeschylus and Sophocles both wrote wild, mixed genre plays that are now lost? Aristotle next weighs tragedy against epic and decides tragedy is better, chiefly because it’s more concentrated.

Aristotle is more generous to poetry than Plato was, but Critchley complicates this fact by arguing that he could be generous since philosopy had won. His calm, reasonable descriptions can be smug and condescending, Critchley claims. Well, maybe. But Poetics is never outright wrong or crazy the way Republic can be. And Aristotle’s inclusion of facts and examples is useful to the modern reader, even when he avoids examples that are exceptions to his rules. We may disagree with Aristotle’s answers, but he asks good questions.

July 3, 2020

Critchley moves on to a discussion of the missing second book of Poetics, which is about comedy. Ecco made this text the MacGuffin of his Name of the Rose, but it turns out the book isn’t entirely missing. A Byzantine manuscript, Tractatus Coislineanus, summarizes the missing book. A scholar has recreated it and Critchley finds the recreation convincing, although his summary doesn’t sound very interesting. Nevertheless, Critchley uses it to return to catharsis, arguing for a more moderate, less radical effect on the audience in the eyes of Aristotle, mildly homeopathic, like piling on blankets to cure a fever. Critchley prefers the confusion and disruption produced by Euripides, which he explores with a discussion of The Frogs. Aeschylus is chosen over Euripides in a contest for who should be brought back from Hades to save Athens from itself. Aristophanes finds Euripides too realistic, too “democratic.” Critchley speaks of Cloud Cuckooland in The Birds and the role of Aristophanes in The Symposium (he falls asleep during Socrates’ big speech about the similarities of tragedy and comedy).

Critchley closes with a reading of Oedipus, not a close reading, but a lyric reading that draws in the ideas he discussed earlier. There are interesting observations—acting and being acted upon meld against the background of ideology; the role of grief and funerals in political movements—but it’s surprisingly dry, almost glib, compared to what preceded it. Critchley clearly saw this, because he now gives the real ending. He once interviewed Isabelle Huppert at BAM after a production called Phaedra(s). He talked around the ideas at work in Euripides, Racine and others. She was polite and intelligent, but then she impatiently said, “What theater is about is aliveness, a certain experience of aliveness. That’s all that matters. The rest is just ideas. Good ideas, maybe. But just ideas.” This, with a few words from Anne Carson about tragedy as a furnace glimpsed in the dark, gives him the ending he needs, where great theater leaves us seemingly blinded but able to see further than before.

Here’s a timeline I drew up to help me remember where I am in these pages. (Placing famous works in time somehow makes them more real to me.)

480 BC Salamis

472 BC The Persians by Aeschylus

432 BC Declaration of Peloponnesian War

429 BC Oedipus the King by Sophocles

415 BC The Trojan Women by Euripides

413 BC Athenian defeat at Syracuse

405 BC The Frogs by Aristophanes

404 BC Athens defeated in second war

399 BC Trial and death of Socrates

380 BC The Republic

336 BC Alexander comes to the throne

335 BC The Poetics

323 BC Death of Alexander

Dates before Christ run backwards, so I often feel disoriented. But it’s startling to see that the golden age of Greece lasted 150 years, which seems both too short and too long. Then I remember that the most vital time of American history also ran 150 years, from 1800 to 1950. Maybe we are as doomed as Athens.

Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part I

Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part I

School of Athens
School of Athens, by Raphael. 1509-1511

June 29, 2020

Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us by Simon Critchley. A lean, concentrated, engaging, exasperating look at Greek tragedy and “tragedy’s philosophy.” It is so lean that it feels like a fatter, more conventional book that’s been cooked down into a series of zen koans. I can read only so much at a time, usually in the morning, before it turns opaque and incomprehensible. But in this age of plague, a tyrant and the failure of democracy, a visit to ancient Athens feels right.

Here are a few of the ideas from the book:

Tragedy was performed not for individuals but for the city, a civic event more akin to a trial than to private reverie or religious ritual. Aristotle left this side out of his Poetics.

Gorgias the sophist wrote: “Tragedy . . . creates a deception in which the deceiver is more honest than the non-deceiver, and the deceived is wiser than the non-deceived.” Which is similar to Picasso’s “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”

Critchley draws heavily on Hegel’s argument that tragedy is about the conflict between two rights, best illustrated by Antigone. (I first encountered this in Tragedy and Philosophy by Walter Kaufmann, a book Critchley never mentions but affects my reading here.) He sets his progressives—Hegel, Marx—against his regressives—Nietzsche, Heidigger—but his strongest words come from Bernard Williams who said in Shame and Necessity that our current ethical condition is not so different from that of the Greeks. We all suffer from moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity. Critchley argues that it’s wrong to see the Greeks as too other, too exotic.

The hero in Greek tragedy is not a solution to the problem: he is the problem. A regular refrain in the plays is “What am I to do? How are we to choose?” The plays are about the disruption of meaning. Justice is conflict. Tragedy is a dialectical mode of experience. Meaning isn’t unified but polytheistic, like Greek religion.

Some of the plays I knowThe Orestia, Oedipus, Philoctetes, The Trojan Women—others I don’t—Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens. I wish he said more about the plays themselves. They are stepping stones through this existential thicket. Critchley makes much of the fact these are war plays, written at a time of war, and that they weren’t timeless but of “the tragic moment.” A xenophobic, sexist society watched plays that featured foreigners and women.

Demokratia is related to theatrokratia, “a theater state” like Geertz’s Bali. I don’t understand what this means yet but I am intrigued. This book, like Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt and Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro, is fueled by the triumph of Trump and the failure of democracy.

June 30, 2020

Critchley points out that although we have the complete texts of 31 plays, philosophers only talk about two, Oedipus and Antigone. I’d add the Orestia, but the point is taken. A sharp criticism of the concept of moral psychology—that ethics is part of human psychology—leads to the idea that tragedy disrupts such a connection. But a discussion of Schelling on Spinoza and Kant takes these ideas into the weeds where I couldn’t follow. When Critchley says, “We should get back to theater,” I was overjoyed—but he gives few specifics.

The section on sophistry and Gorgias takes me to more solid ground. In the great contest between tragedy and philosophy, Critchley adds a third force, the sophists. Plato dismissed them as wordplaying relativists, but Critchley takes them more seriously. They were not simply fancy talkers in it for the money, but serious thinkers arriving at different truths. Critchley compares them to Beckett; I was reminded of comic novelists like Sterne and Gogol. Their most effective thinker, Gorgias, survives as the subject of Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, in a few fragments, and in commentary by Sextus Empiricus. His most famous pieces are a defense of Helen and a look at non-being. His clever arguments take us closer to the law courts of Athens, but there’s forensic style in Plato, too, despite his claim he is more interested in truth than cleverness.

So how does sophistry connect to tragedy? The reversals of Euripides in Trojan Women and elsewhere drew on the reversals of Gorgias and others, where the losers are presented as winners, etc. Wordplay and persuasion are tried in Philoctetes, but only Herakles, the deus ex machina, can change the archer’s mind. However, at the end of Trojan Women, Helen defends herself against a death sentence with a lawyerly speech denying her responsibility for the war. Hecuba answers the speech point by point, but Helen still wins.

July 1, 2020

We see the sophists from Plato’s point of view in his dialogues, including Phaedrus and Gorgias. The first is about love and rhetoric, defining the love of philosophy. Critchley calls it a success, although his description suggests the odds are stacked—but they are always stacked in Plato’s dialogues. Gorgias promises to be an argument with the chief sophist, but Gorgias himself barely appears. The antagonist is Callicles, a cynic who speaks an entirely different language. Socrates is a total pain here, talking chiefly to himself and finally admitting he will win in the afterlife. (Philosophy is better than sophistry only in the eyes of the gods: it is “divine” while sophistry is merely human.)

Now we enter The Republic, where Plato launches his full-scale attack against tragedy. It appears to be set in 410 BCE and was written in 380 BCE. (Socrates was put to death in 399 BCE—one of the few dates from the ancient world that I can remember.)

Critchley’s account is clear and readable, constructed around Socrates’ attack on Homer and the tragic poets, first in Book 3, where his emphasis is on education, then in Book 10 where he returns to the subject as a kind of epilogue. Ironies abound. This is a criticism of drama that takes the form of drama itself. Tales of bad behavior by gods need to be deleted as “untrue,” yet truth here means whatever is useful in this ideal city state. “Being dead is not such a terrible thing” is a useful truth for future warriors. Mimesis, the imitation of reality, is bad because it introduces distracting superficiality as well as the irrational. Lamentation makes for exciting tragedies but is bad in real life. Emotional excess must be regulated.

Along the way Socrates deals with the four possible forms of government: timocracy (honor), oligarchy (money), democracy, and tyranny. Democracy looks appealing but is dangerous because it can lead to tyranny. He addresses “the good” in Book VI, which is where we get the parable of the cave, that favorite image of Gallatin students. But the dialogue builds to the exclusion of the tragic poets. One cant help suspecting this is as much about turf war between the philosophers and poets as it is about truth.

Socrates hates tragedy because it gives pleasure. Tragedy is bad because it turns men into women, making them suffer emotionally and cry. Emotions that should be repressed are released, which corrodes democracy and enables the rise of tyrants. (But we’ve seen here that coldness leads to the rise of men like Trump and Bolsonaro.) Comedy is bad, too, because jokes that should be told in private are now made public. After expelling the poets, Socrates closes with his own weird, longwinded fairy tale about Er, a man who returns from the afterlife with a detailed account of what happens to good people and bad people after they die.

Critchley doesn’t defend any of this—how could he?—or claim that it’s ironic, but leaves it as a mysterious puzzle. Indicating he was utterly serious, Plato expanded his view of the afterlife twenty years later with another dialogue, Timaeus.

— Christopher Bram.


Copyright© 2020, by Chistopher Bram. All Rights Reserved.

C Pam Zhang’s mesmerizing How Much of These Hills is Gold

C Pam Zhang’s mesmerizing How Much of These Hills is Gold

How Much of These Hills is Gold, by C Pam Zhang. 2020. Riverhead Books.

The American West of our imaginations, back in the day. Back in the days of cowboys and gold rushes, San Fran brothels and deadly coal mines, horse thieves and mountain men. The American West of our rather limited imaginations, if we grew up with a certain kind of preset range of ideas, photos, movies, stories and dreams in our heads; which, of course, to one degree or another, means pretty much all of us.

But it’s different if. Way different if, we’re of that tribe that ended up dominating all the other tribes, and all too often take it for granted that our stories, movies, ideas and dreams should be the focus, the main narrative, the supposedly real history of our West. Subconsciously, overtly, aggressively, or just kinda sorta cuz it’s supposedly the Way Things Are.

So into that historical (imaginary) space and time comes this amazing new voice — and, folks, her voice is pure magic — and she sings both her own song, from her own (21st century) life experience, and songs we haven’t heard before that must have been audible back then, from “XX42” to “XX67,” as the author puts it, if one had the ears for those songs, if one opened themselves up to others outside their own set.

C Pam Zhang tells the story of another kind of cowboy, or cowgirl, focusing primarily on Chinese-American siblings Lucy and Sam, orphaned (perhaps) at age 12 and 11, on their own in a beautiful, miserable, dangerous, wondrous unnamed territory. The author never names it, exactly, other than when the scene shifts to San Francisco and the shores of the Pacific, but it’s likely set in the new state of California, for the most part. Lucy and Sam’s Ma came from a land across the ocean, also unnamed, but likely China. Ironically, their Ba was born in the American West, too, but no one seems to believe him, such were those preset ideas back then and now.

In interviews, Ms. Zhang has mentioned John Steinbeck and Laura Ingalls Wilder as influences, and you can hear some of that in her prose. But she makes it all her own, sprinkling in bits of Chinese, varying the rhythms, the pacing, the length of the sentences, and shifts yet again when she gives Ba his own monologue, which made me think of another Wilder: Thornton.
Our Town, back from the dead, as if Emily and the Stage Manager merged and became a Chinese American gold prospector, telling his “Lucy Girl” his own story, his whys and wherefores, his regrets.

Upon first reading, I’m inclined to call this a “classic,” a book that belongs in the American Canon, already. And I’m guessing a reread will confirm that. Someone also needs to make this into a film, or a limited “peak TV” series. But that might force the filmmaker to leave out the best part: Zhang’s beautiful, original, magical narrative voice.


How to Form a “We”

How to Form a “We”

The Buddha in the Attic
The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka. 2011

In Julie Otsuka’s beautiful novel, The Buddha in the Attic, the narrator is a crowd, an us, a swarm of voices we want to listen to, because it’s truly an Everyone, and the voice is a poem. She speaks for them, as them, as a people, and as individual women who once shared a voyage from Japan to America as mail-order brides soon after WWI. There are shocks and surprises, radical disappointments and disillusionment along the way, but Otsuka’s incantatory prose moves us and moves the book swiftly forward, even though we want to dwell with this new “we” longer. Much longer.

And it’s a story that hasn’t been told before, especially in this way. How many school books teach the travails of Japanese immigrants, outside a mention of their internment during WWII? How often is it mentioned in our national narratives that the Japanese also worked the fields, labored against the odds and racism to make their way in America?

In the novel the women have been tricked from Day One, of course, which adds another dimension to these struggles. The pictures they were sent of their husbands to be were twenty years old, and most lied about their circumstances, which were often dire. The great escape they thought they had made turns out to have been another kind of trap. But as bad as things were to begin with, they still built lives, had children, and the “we” grew. Otsuka takes as into the days of the Internment and comes back out on the other side, but with a new “we,” a new poem of the crowd.

Without judgment, without an obviously stated moral, Julie Otsuka has crafted a finely wrought novel of subtle provocation and food for deep thought. It’s the kind of book that almost cries out to be reread, often, to find new shapes, new meaning, new collectives in the crowd.

Wallace Stevens and the Mandolins of Spring

Wallace Stevens and the Mandolins of Spring

Rod Stewart’s Mandolin Wind


So, I’m up in the mountains again, and I’m reading Wallace Stevens — reading about him, reading his poems. I take music with me, listen to it before and after the readings. It’s very windy on the top of the mountain. Actually, the winds are ferocious at times. Merciless. And because I heard the Rod Stewart song in the car before I went to my place, my perfect spot, near the beautiful jagged rocks and the vulnerable pine trees, I hear the mandolin notes in that wind. They’re everywhere, including on the page. I see them dance around on the white pages of the biography and the collected poems, along with the wind that won’t let those pages be . . . still.

One must almost lose the mind of winter in order to feel the mandolin notes in that way, as a call to spring, to the past, to memories of that past. Melancholy as a natural force that won’t let us dwell in the present just yet. Or, as a force that won’t let us do anything else but dwell. Warm days, with that kind of wind, up in the mountains, away from the white noises of cities, suburbia, the semi-rural. Up above all of that, the wind rules, it holds sway and creates sway. It takes center stage, but breaks the center and casts it in all directions at once. No one owns the wind. No one owns the mandolin notes once they escape into the wind.

Not Stewart. Not Stevens. Not me.

In my view, Stevens is the greatest American poet of the 20th Century, and no one could jazz nature like he could. No one could spring word-traps on us like he could, in such eloquent, elegant ways, with a vocabulary that seems to come from an Oxford don in the midst of a surrealist bash, loving the sound and sense of the strangest words and the way they pull disparate things together. The imagination’s deepest sounds, its grammar set loose on holiday.

If he could be faulted for anything, it’s possibly his seeming lack of the topical. Of the immediately current. Of the politically relevant. But we have myriad artists who deal with that, so I never saw this as a true fault in his work. We go to other artists for that. We go to Stevens for the Sublime, the sharply whimsical, the beautifully arranged aesthetic of a mage in love with language itself, and what language tells us about the world as idea, as soul, as sound.



Alice Kaplan: Looking for the Stranger

Alice Kaplan: Looking for the Stranger

Looking for The Stranger, by Alice Kaplan. 2016
Looking for The Stranger, by Alice Kaplan. 2016.

Biographies of writers, artists, musicians and the like fill our libraries to the brim. But in recent years, a new kind of bio has emerged: the “life” of a particular work of art. One very fine example of this sub-genre is Alice Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger.
The book gives us a brief (but continuous) bio of Camus, his birth and early years in Algeria, providing the North African as well as Parisian contexts for his literary output before, during and after WWII. She takes us through the process of his writing, beginning with several early missteps and rejections along the way, and then follows him almost chapter by chapter through the completion of his short but seminal novel of the Absurd. Along the way, we’re introduced to key people in the life of the novel, its gestation and the road to its publication in 1942. Perhaps the most important of these are Jean Grenier, Pascal Pia and André Malraux.
In an epilogue she all but solves a minor mystery from The Stranger, via legwork likely provoked by a more recent novel, The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. Daoud’s novel tells the story from a radically different angle and voice: Harun, the brother of Meursault’s victim. In The Stranger, an unnamed Arab is killed by the anti-hero Meursault, and Camus had based parts of this fictional encounter on real-life events. Friends of Camus, Edgar and Raoul Bensoussan, unwittingly provided perhaps the central image for the novel with their knife fight on a beach in Oran. But neither Camus nor his earlier biographers tell us the name of the Arab, fictional or otherwise. In real life, two Arab men had engaged with the Bensoussans on that “European’s only” Algerian beach. Alice Kaplan reveals the human being behind the novel’s cipher.

The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. 2014
The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. 2014

The epilogue points to deeper ironies and tragedies as well. Most readers likely associate “the stranger” with Meursault, though extending this beyond his orbit isn’t difficult, given the story and Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd. And then there’s the fact of French domination and control of Algeria prior to its independence (1962), the horrors of occupation and civil wars, and the absurdity of the Arab majority’s domination by a colonial power. A minority estranged from the motherland; a majority estranged from self-determination; languages and cultures segregated and estranged from one another and their respective histories. Camus, who bravely championed human rights and non-violent emancipation for the vast majority of his life, had perhaps one fatal (though incredibly ambivalent and complex) blind spot: French rule in Algeria. Did he silence another stranger by leaving the Arab without a name, and why? Was this an indirect comment on the massive injustice of colonialism? Or an unconscious signifier of that injustice? This mystery awaits further investigations.

Kaplan, with her short book, and brief epilogue, trips dozens of wires for readers who care deeply about literature, Camus in particular, and the human condition. Highly readable, accessible and concise, this bio aids in our understanding of one of the most important writers in the Republic of Letters, his world and ours.

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