Review: The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien…there are wolves among the lambs.

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On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.
Epigraph to The Little Red Chairs

 

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien came out in March of 2016, her 23rd book of fiction. Late to pick it up, I finished it only this weekend, January 28, 2017. While I was reading it, the United States put a ban on refugees entering the country. I wish those who had signed the papers ordering the ban had read O’Brien’s work beforehand. The unforgettable stories of refugees–which make up a very small part of the novel–put a face and a family and a humanity on these very people trying to escape the most unimaginable horrors. And the horrors themselves become real on the page.

However, I am sure that those in power have little time or inclination for reading.

In the 1990s my extended family–a few of my sisters, my mother, my auntie–as well as a good number of friends had begun watching a BBC series called Ballykissangel. (Run on various Public Television stations.) It was really no more than an Irish soap opera in a little town in the southeast of Ireland, yet the characters were memorable and well-drawn, their village ways often intruded on by the outside world and their own insular in-fighting propeled the story.

It was this show that I was reminded of at the beginning of The Little Red Chairs:  A lovely, charming Irish village with likeable characters visited by a elegant and charismatic stranger from the outside. But in this case, the stranger is the incarnation of evil.

One night, the simple village of Cloonoila in the west of Ireland is visited by a strange man. Dressed in a long black coat and with a flowing white beard, he stops at the local pub to inquire about finding lodgings. The barman who is idle, as it is early yet for the normal crowd, chats the stranger up and finds him “an out and out gentleman.” What surprises him, however, is his business card: Dr. Vladimir Dragan, Healer and Sex Therapist.

As soon as the visitor leaves, the pub fills with a crowd asking for information about the strange and elegant visitor, and it is a crowd out of central casting: the policeman, the ex-schoolteacher, the widow, the town punk, etc. You can imagine how the fact that he advertised himself as a “sex therapist” sets this town atwitter.

But nevertheless, they are enchanted by this wonder that has stumbled into their lives.

And the doctor is truly magnetic. Everyone, particular the women, is soon charmed and fascinated by him. He wins over the local priest and his landlady, sets up shop in an out-of-business dress shop, and offers the town his services. His first customer is a relatively liberal nun, Sister Bonaventure, who has come for a “medicinal massage.” (She is too embarassed to tell her fellow sisters how electrically alive she felt afterwards.)

His most important patient, however, is Fidelma, a 40-something women, married to a much older man, who longs for a child having miscarried twice, but sees that her chances are dwindling. The two become lovers, and soon Fidelma finds herself pregnant.

But before she can tell him, however, he is discovered, arrested and brought to an international tribune in the Hague. The stranger is the notorious war criminal known as the Beast of Bosnia. (O’Brien’s fictional Vladimir Dragan is largely based on Radovan Karadzic, the Butcher of Bosnia, and the retelling of his atrocities are a stark reminder of the bestial, sadistic violence that humans can visit on one another.)

Immediately after his arrest, Fidelma is assaulted and left for dead by three of his compatriots. When she is found, after she has recovered, she is discarded by her husband and shunned by her town. And she understandably falls apart, not so much from love lost, but because she has been touched by such unimaginable evil.

The second half of the novel follows a lost and disgraced Fidelma in London.  She walks among the refugees, the homeless, the downtrodden. She hears their stories, but she cannot share her own. She has not been brutalized like they; she has slept with the devil. And she cannot feel clean.

Until she faces her tormentor.

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Edna O’Brien at the Irish Book Awards

Edna O’Brien has been writing for more than fifty years and has garnered most of the awards that a writer can hope for. From her first novel The Country Girl to this last she has written mesmerizing tales that look at modern life cleanly and honestly–with it all its indelicacies and horrors on full display.

On my shelf, I noticed that I have five titles by O’Brien, ranging through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. I have not read much of her in the last two decades, but I have read her a lot. It is rare for a writer to hit his/her peak at the latter end of one’s career, but this is what O’Brien has done. I can honestly say that The Little Red Chairs is a masterpiece: blending Irish charm with human depravities, human grotesqueness with the capacity for great love, the private stage and the public arena.

The Little Red Chairs is an important book, a wonderful book, a highly readable book.

 

Please Note: I decided on this book after reading the Christmas NYTimes Book Review where it interviewed various writers, artists, thinkers etc. on what books they had read in 2016. The writer Maxine Hong Kingston was one of several who had read this book. However, she noted that she had to skip over the torture parts. There are two of them, and they are difficult, but are probably not the worse you have read or seen.

The world’s “black dog”

Silk Screen illustration 2016 by jpbohannon.

Winston Churchill called his bouts with depression “having the black dog on his back.” This was not original  with him, but was a common saying, referring more often to moodiness than depression. One historian likened it to the phrase “getting up on the wrong side of the bed.” But nevertheless, the phrase has been attributed to Churchill and ever since been associated with depression.

God knows, the world that Churchill saw certainly could buckle the strongest man’s knees.

And so it seems to be these past few months, as well. From Paris to Brussles to Orlando to Dallas to Nice  to Turkey to everyday traffic-stops, there has just been an onslaught of horrific and discouraging news. President Obama, in his speech after the Dallas shootings, said that “this is not who we are.”

But I wonder. Not we as Americans specifically–although I do wonder about that–but we as a species.

Sure, I know the heartwarming and hopeful stories as well: from high-school kids doing serious global service to individual neighbors coming together to help another in worse shape than they, from those who put their lives on the line to those who fight against power when it seems determined to crush the weak. I know people whose every thought seems to be how to better the lives of the sick and  dispossessed, the impoverished and the abused.

And yet these past few months have been relentless.

Last week, I read two novels by Dag Solstad, Shyness and Dignity and Professor Andersen’s Night. Both deal with teachers–Norwegian literature teachers–at the end of their careers. They both (a high-school teacher and university teacher respectively) question the value of the literature they profess. (Both are teaching Ibsen.)  The struggle to make students realize the value of literature has been ongoing throughout their career–that is always the natural give and take between student and teacher, although both feel it increasingly worse– but now they feel that that value is questioned by society itself. From evolving technologies–and  the distractions they provide–to current pedagogical trends and goals that emphasize success in a future career, they feel out of place, like dinosaurs, supporting a cause that is no longer relevant in the ultra-modern world.

And it is easy to believe that.

As hundreds are gunned down, blown-up, crushed, drowned, stripped of their homes, it is hard to rationalize the need to read a 150 year old Norse play, or a 450 year British play , or a 2500 year old Greek. Novels, poetry, drama, short fiction…it all feels so powerless against men with efficient guns and deficient ideas.

And yet, never before has it been so important.

Study after study has linked reading literature with an increase in the development of EMPATHY. Even the youngest teenager, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, understands on the simplest of levels, the importance of “walking in another man’s shoes.” Reading has always been a way of experiencing different lives, different cultures, different ideas.  And this is what it needs to continue to do. It is our insularity, our tribalism, our fear of (and intolerance to) the “other” that is that root of much of the world’s pain and horror.

I KNOW that art, music, literature, theater, dance are more than just “nice things” for entitled leisure. They are essential to us as a species.

I KNOW these things to be true. But these days I do not FEEL it.

But I must continue doing what I do, nevertheless: read and write.

However, as I read this, the “black dog” is wagging its tail frantically and banging up against the door.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway as a young man.   illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Hemingway as a young man.
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

The most gaping hole in my formal education is a lack of courses in American Literature. In undergraduate and graduate school combined, I had taken only one course in American lit. My understanding is mostly self-directed–and often spurred on by the requirements of teaching American Lit survey courses for many years. Certainly, I know the school classics: The Great Gatsby, Huck Finn, The Scarlet Letter, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sound and the Fury.

And as a reader, I have discovered on my own Vonnegut and Pynchon, Heller and Elison, Mailer, Roth and Updike. And from my friends I have learned to love DeLillo, Wallace, and Johnson.  But I know there are gaps.

I took a tour, a few weeks back of Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West. I respect and admire Hemingway’s short stories–and often teach them in writing classes for their craft–and have fond memories of reading The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast,  but I never read much else. Anyway, the tour guide told us that it was here in the Key West house that Hemingway wrote a large portion of his work, in particularly A Farewell to Arms, which he stated is considered Hemingway’s greatest work. (Remember, he is a tour-guide, not a literary critic.)

And so I decided to give it a try. And to be truthful, in the beginning, it was slogging read at times.

First Edition of A Farewell to Arms

First Edition of A Farewell to Arms

In brief, the novel is the semi-autobiographical story of an American ambulance driver, Frederic Henry, working for the Italian army during World War I, who is wounded, falls in love with his nurse, impregnates her and sneaks across the border with her into neutral Switzerland. There are pieces that are perfect Hemingway: the army’s long retreat, the Swiss countryside in winter, the view from a hotel room. These passages are clear and distinct and one can almost imagine Hemingway speaking them himself.

What one cannot imagine is anyone speaking the dialogue that Hemingway has given his characters to speak. The dialogue among the soldiers is stilted–but I thought perhaps that was intentional as the narrator is an American and the conversation is between him and his Italian comrades. But the conversation between the lovers–between Frederick and Catherine–is downright embarrassing.

Perhaps, it is dated. But I do not believe so. The dialogue in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby published four years earlier in 1925 is not as silly or inane. This can’t be how people talked 75 years ago. Perhaps, Hemingway is trying to capture the coded, playful language that lovers often engage in privately. Well if so, it should have remained private. While Catherine Barkley is a strong woman–a British nurse working in the Italian theater of war–when she speaks she sounds infantile and ditzy, hardly the type that Henry would fall for.

But then, perhaps, it is just me, the reader, far past the ages of the protagonists, a little bit wiser (one hopes) and a little bit more jaded.

And yet, having said all that, the slogging read and the cloying dialogue are more than made up for in the last chapter. It is here that Hemingway elevates the novel to something different, something larger. It succeeds not merely because of the drama–which in lesser hands would have become melodrama–but because of  the craft. The language is pared down–like Joyce had taught him–and there is simply life, death, man and woman. It doesn’t get more basic than that. In the end we admire Frederic Henry more than before–I found him hard to like or take seriously throughout much of the book– and we admire Hemingway too. We admire what he is doing and we understand how this novel placed Hemingway in the pantheon of American authors.

Hemingway famously once claimed that he rewrote that last chapter 39 times. Well, then it is a good advertisement for revision, for it is so superior to everything else.

The novel was an instant–and huge–success.  Within a year of its publication a dramatization was staged and in 1932 Hollywood released a major film of the novel, featuring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes.  In 1957, a second film was made, this time starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones.

I have seen neither, and I won’t search for them. It is Hemingway’s language and style that is the star of A Farewell to Arms, not the story.  And much of that would be lost in film.

Movie Poster for 1932 film

Movie Poster for 1932 film

Movie Poster for 1957 film

Movie Poster for 1957 film

Movie Review: Hannah Arendt dir. by Margarethe von Trotta

illustration 2013 jpbohannon

illustration 2013 jpbohannon

The philosopher, political theorist and writer, Hannah Arendt has received a thoughtful and deserving biopic from director Margarethe von Trotta, in her eponymous film, Hannah Arendt. The film’s intelligence reflects the life of the mind that Arendt lived–and an honest and hard intelligence at that.  Concentrating on the period when Arendt covered the Adolph Eichmann trials for New Yorker magazine–and the fury that it unleashed– it shows Arendt resolute in her thinking, uncolored by prejudice or sympathies.

Her coverage of the Eichmann trial ended with these words, this pronouncement:

Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

♦       ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

Arendt’s biography is well know.  Born into a secular Jewish family, she studied under Martin Heidegger with whom she reportedly had a long affair.  Her dissertation was on Love and Saint Augustine, but after its completion she was forbidden to teach in German universities because of being Jewish. She left Germany for France, but while there she was sent to the Grus detention camp, from which she escaped after only a few weeks. In 1941, Arendt, her husband Heinrich Blücher, and her mother escaped to the United States.

From there she embarked on an academic career that saw her teaching at many of the U.S.’s most prestigious universities (she was the first female lecturer at Princeton University) and publishing some of the most influential works on political theory of the time.

♦       ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

Hannah-ArendtBut the film, concerns a small time period in her life–but one for which many people still hold a grudge.  The film begins darkly with the Mosada snatching Eichmann off a dark road in Argentina. Back in New York City, Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) and the American novelist, Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) are sipping wine and gossipping about the infidelities of McCarthy’s suitors.  Even genius can be mundane–perhaps a subtle reference to Arendt’s conclusions from the trial.  When news of Eichmann’s arrest–and trial in Israel–is announced, Arendt writes to William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) at the New Yorker, asking if she might cover the trial for the magazine. Shawn is excited; his assistant, Francis Wells (Megan Gay,) less so.

Of course, the trial–and Arendt’s commission to follow it–is fascinating and controversial and we listen in on Arendt and her husband and their circle of friends as they debate and argue and opine. Aside from Mary McCarthy and the head of the German department at the New School where Arendt is teaching, the guests at Arendt’s apartment are all friends from Europe, German-Jews who have escaped the Shoah/Holocaust. Listening to their different conversations is fascinating and electrifying.  This is a movie about “thinking.”

Conversing in Arendt's apartment.

Conversing in Arendt’s apartment.

In Israel, Arendt meets with old friends, friends who remember her argumentative spirit, and stays with the Zionist, Kurt Blumenfeld. From the outset, one sees that Arendt is not thinking along the same lines as the masses following the trial.

“Under conditions of tyranny it is much easier to act than to think.”

Hannah Arendt

At the trial, there is a telling moment, when Arendt watches Eichmann in his glass cage sniffling, rubbing his nose and dealing with a cold. It is then, a least in the film, that she comes to understand that this monster is not a MONSTER. She sees him as simply a mediocre human being who did not think. It is from here that she coins the idea of the “banality of evil.”

Upon returning home–with files and files of the trial’s transcripts–her article for the New Yorker is slow in coming. Her husband has a stroke, and the enormity of what she has to say needs to be perfect.

When it is finally published, the angry reaction is more than great. The critic Irving Howe called it a “civil war” among New York intellectuals. (Just last week, the word “shitstorm” was added to the German dictionary, the Duden, partly due to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s use of the word to describe the public outcry she faced over the Eurozone’s finacial crisis. It is an apt term for what occurred upon publication of Arendt’s coverage.)

It is this extraordinary anger towards Arendt–and her staunch defense–that makes up the final moments of the film. In the closing moments, Arendt speaks to a packed auditorium of students (and a few administrators). She has just been asked to resign, which she refuses to do.  These are her closing words:

“This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.”

This is, more than anything else, a film about thinking.

♦       ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦      ♦

The extraordinary anger shown in the film is still felt by many today and, in fact, seems to have colored some of the reviews that I have read and heard. Some of these reviewers seem to be reviewing the life and work of Arendt and not the film of Margarethe von Trotta, for von Trotta’s film is a unique, masterpiece. It is more than a biography of a controversial thinker…it is a portrait of thought itself.  Arendt attempts to define “evil”–certainly an apt exercise at the time. She defines it–to her friends, to her classes, to her colleagues, and to herself–and finds that it is not “radical” as she once had posited. It is merely ordinary.  Goodness, she sees, is what has grandeur.

The film, Hannah Arendt, is well worth seeking out. It is thoughtful, provoking, controversial, and, at times, even funny.  You can’t ask for much more for the price of a movie ticket.  As always, here’s a trailer:

A good story … and a story of goodness

Adams Daramy

Adams Daramy
photo © 2013 Malvern Preparatory School

Last summer, an African student at my school asked me to help him with his college application essay.  I was surprised–I had never taught him, had never actually met him before, although I knew who he was.  He was very polite, wide-smiling, and serious about his studies.  When I read his essay, I knew why.

Adams Daramy was born in Sierra Leone during the height of its civil war, the brutal Blood Diamond wars.  By the age of six, he had witnessed mutilation and rape, had seen dead bodies in the street and children trained to kill, and had eluded mass killings and general thuggery. He had seen vultures pick at not-yet-dead bodies and had barely escaped being forced himself into the military.  He told me of the favorite intimidation tactic of the rebels–chopping the limbs off civilians–and how once he was forced to stand in one of two lines and how his line was spared, but the other were not.  And all this by the time he was six years old.

His mother, wisely, got him out of there.

Because of the wars, Sierre Leone had no infrastructure to process Adams’ coming to the United States, so Adams had to live for a year in the Ivory Coast.  He worked that year as a tailor’s apprentice, sending money back to his mother and learning still yet another language–the French spoken in the Ivory Coast. In his college essay, he described how wonderful it was having a morning coffee at a shop down the street before he went off to work.  He was now seven, the age when most of the children we know are taking their first steps off to school.

And yet, in his essay, he did not dwell entirely on the bad. He recalled how kite flying was a favorite activity in the coastal town of Abidjan and because of his tailoring skills, how he was able to make some wonderful and beautiful kites.  He was proud of them and smiled brightly when telling me. But mostly, he wrote about his mother. He wrote about her love, her sacrifices and her courage.

This was all in 2001.

Fast forward now to 2013.  Adams had made it to the United States and lived with an uncle who had also escaped the horror that was Sierre Leone.  He enrolled in a good prep school where he succeeded in academics, athletics, activities and service. For his senior year, his classmates elected him president of the Student Council.  And all this success–the academic challenges, the championships on the track and field,  the rewarding service, the broadening activities and the solidarity with his classmates–all this came about while he was working long hours as an aide in a retirement home, sending the money home to the mother he had not seen in 12 years.

Yesterday, Adams Daramy graduated from high-school.  For the past three months, his classmates have been working very hard fund-raising and pestering a sometimes intractable bureaucracy to enable Adams’ mother to travel to the United States and be present at her son’s graduation.  On June 3, his mother was denied a visa.  The offices of Representative Pat Meehan worked overtime to see if they could have that decision changed, though they offered little hope. On June 4, the decision was reversed and she could come. Now, intricate travel plans had to be quickly expedited.

At midnight, ten hours before Adams Daramy would graduate from a prestigious American prep school, he embraced his mother, Grace Sankoh.

It was the first time in twelve years he had seen the woman he had written about so lovingly in his college application essay.

As with all graduations, there were speeches and homilies, awards and recognitions yesterday.  But nothing spoke so loudly about goodness and hope and friendship and love than the reunion of Adams Daramy and his mother.