Primo Levi, “If Not Now, When?” (1982) (translated from the Italian by William Weaver) – Primo Levi came out of the twentieth century looking pretty good, not an easy feat. He survived the Holocaust and became one of the leading Italian writers of his time. His writing reaches that rare sweet spot of being perfectly clear while never being simplistic or facile. Similarly, his legacy is accessible to anyone who wants to understand the twentieth century or life more generally, while belonging to no one except himself.
Levi’s best known works are memoirs, essays, and short stories, most of them autobiographical, detailing his time in Auschwitz, his career as a chemist, etc. Towards the end of his life he tried his hand at novels and this is one of the results. “If Not Now, When?” is the story of a group of Jewish partisans on the Eastern Front of WWII. Levi himself was briefly a partisan in Italy before getting arrested and sent to the camps. Mendel, a watchmaker by trade and straggler from the Red Army, acts as our main viewpoint character. He wanders along the front, gets kicked out of a Russian partisan band that doesn’t want Jews, and winds up in the Jewish band of the charismatic Gedaleh. After some indecisive and costly engagements alongside the Red Army, Gedaleh and crew decide to start walking west, killing Nazis, liberating prisoners, and trying to reach Italy and from there, Palestine.
Levi’s feel for reality doesn’t abandon him as he takes up the experience of fictional others. The life of a partisan is hard, and in certain respects the Germans are the least of the dangers- hunger, cold, and demoralization are constant threats. Levi conveys the vast, old, bloodied land-sea of Eastern/Central Europe, blasted by war, inhabited by shell-shocked survivors, as real of a post-apocalyptic landscape as anyone has ever seen. The Gedalists believe in a new world, somewhere between Communism and Zionism, but in some respects they have no choice but to believe, given how thoroughly destroyed the old world is. As the book goes on, they come to see their very survival and coherence as a band as the seed of a new world.
I enjoyed the immersion into that world that Levi provides. Partisan and resistance stories always played well for me, and this one has good verisimilitude and the right balance of survival, fighting, and character stuff. It’s interesting to see Levi move out of his main milieu of autobiography, and it comes at at least a minor cost. This book lacks some of the firmness of the others of his I’ve read, verging towards sentimentalism in places. There’s a reason this work was seized upon by the likes of Saul Bellow and Irving Howe, the latter of whom provided an introduction to my copy, the blurb of which makes much of greatest-generation-Jews-fighting-back etc., not the sort of thing Levi really went in for. Still, a fine novel in a worthy genre. ****’
Bill Buford, “Among the Thugs” (1991) – New Yorker writer Bill Buford followed British football hooligans around for a number of years in the eighties, and wrote this book about it. You can call Buford a belles lettres writer, if you’re so inclined- a smart amateur, basically, taking his writing chops and sensibility to the subjects he chooses rather than any particular expertise. He had virtually no experience with soccer before following the hooligans around, or much with violence. He acquired both. Despite his informants, mostly fans of Manchester United, early on insisting they were simple supporters, Buford witnessed them engage in serious mob violence and got them to open up about it, at least a little.
They talk a lot, the hooligans, but don’t really have a ton to say. For them, it seems, the speech act is a lot like their fighting, destruction, and drinking- more of a way of yawping “I AM” at the world than anything else. Buford is not a sociologist and does not pretend to really delve into what makes the hooligans, but he has some interesting stuff to say on the literature on crowds versus the experience of being in one. From Burke to Le Bon to Freud, critics — mostly conservative in one sense or another — have always made crowds into the quintessential “other,” something lesser people get sucked into and devolve with. Buford doesn’t deny the powerful force of crowd feeling but argues that it affects everyone, answering to a primal need… I do idly wonder if Buford threw anything through windows or hit anyone when he was in the midst of hooligan riots… just to fit in, of course…
Either way, like I said, he’s no sociologist and that’s mostly a good thing for readability purposes but sometimes we wind up with underexplored questions. Class in Britain is a tricky thing. Buford points out that many of the hooligans he spends time with aren’t poor. Many of them are successful small businessmen or work in big companies with good prospects (some are also successful professional criminals, it seems, especially the leaders of “firms,” hooligan gangs). But according to British understandings of class, they’re definitionally “working class,” I guess because they didn’t go to Oxbridge and don’t raise their pinky when they drink tea or something? I guess Americans can’t really talk about social class confusion. There’s much to be said for the clarity of Marxist distinctions in these matters. There’s a chapter on the British neo-nazi group National Front, which recruited heavily from football hooligans, and a lot of their supporters (though not their leadership) did seem to come from actually poor and working class white English people.
Thirty years later, the same kind of dull reactionary rage displayed by the hooligans Buford gets to know has spilled its banks and become one of the fundamental forces in British and world politics. As Buford puts it, the hooligans liked a short list of things — the queen, lager, whatever team they supported, and themselves (Buford also includes the Catholic Church on the list- was this an oversight? These people routinely chant “fuck the pope” at no provocation. Did he mean the Anglican Church?) — and the list of things they hated spanned the rest of the known universe. While Buford and the hooligans manage enough mutual amiability to travel with each other, the author isn’t shy about calling his subjects “little shits,” and that’s about right- loutish, dull philistines, dedicated to destroying what’s not them. Presumably, in the days of the British empire, men like these were exported to the colonies, to wreak violence and destruction there. That’s generally not an option anymore, so they have to violence for a soccer team. Pretty pathetic! But I guess the joke is on the rest of us, because we have to live with these people and the violent ignorance they promulgate and which increasingly shapes the society in which we all have to live. ****
Mikhail Lermontov, “A Hero of Our Time” (1840) (translated from the Russian by Paul Foote) – I was supposed to read this book during my first semester of college! I skimmed it at best- I wasn’t a very disciplined reader at the time, even though this is a slim volume. I guess my old history professor had in mind teaching us something about Russian romanticism and imperialism in the Caucasus. Maybe something about framing devices in literature, too. The book is about an officer named Pechorin- first, another officer relates hearing stories about him, then the officer finds and transcribes Pechorin’s diary after the subject dies.
Pechorin is a Byronic hero (Byron and other British romantics like Walter Scott are referred to throughout the text), a man apart from society, cynical about its pretenses but passionate about his feelings, enamored of big landscapes and death, both of which the Caucasus provides in plenty. He is depicted as being irresistible to the ladies but caring only intermittently about one, who “got away.” Banished from St. Petersburg for scandal(s?), he stirs up trouble amongst the provincial/vacationing society in the Caucasus as well. He seduces a princess (as a lark- he’s basically indifferent towards her), angers fellow officers, fights a duel. The story is basically told backwards, we find out about his last exploit — kidnapping a (local, tribal, this time) princess and marrying her before she gets revenge-killed and he flees for Persia, where he dies — first.
One element of interest here is the self-awareness and even irony of romanticism here. Pechorin knows he’s posturing, based in part off of models like Byron, and so do many of his interlocutors — the officer reading the diary, Pechorin’s second in his duel — but he plays it entirely straight anyway. It seems pretty early in the historical game for Lermontov to be making such a point about romanticism, but I guess Byron had already been dead for a while. It probably helps explain why this work is enduringly popular in literary circles. Lermontov basically lived a Pechorin-type life, dying in a duel (one key difference between him and the character, I guess) at age 26. Even people who can see through some of romanticism’s premises can be sucked in by it, I guess. ****
Andy Weir, “The Martian” (2011) – A scientist friend of mine described this novel as “engineering fan fiction” and I think he’s more-or-less right. In fact, “The Martian” started life on software engineer Andy Weir’s blog, where he parlayed a lifelong fascination with space travel and interest in the hardware involved into the story of astronaut Mark Watney, accidentally left for dead on Mars and forced to survive on his own. People liked it enough that he turned into a 99-cent-a-download Amazon read, which got picked up by a publisher, becoming a bestseller and a movie with Matt Damon. It’s a nice story.
Most of the story is told through Watney’s log. It’s a series of ups and downs, engineering feats and then failures that need new feats to compensate, etc. A botanist along with being an engineer (astronauts typically have multiple specialties), Watney figures out how to make soil and grow potatoes, only to lose much of it due to explosive decompression in his habitat. He picks up a previous Mars probe and uses that to communicate with NASA but then accidentally shorts it out, etc. In the end, he needs to trek across thousands of hard Mars miles to rendezvous with an escape vehicle and meet up with his old crewmates. The rhythm of challenges met and renewed keeps up pretty well throughout the book.
Watney himself is something of a cipher, a regular-guy ubermensch as understood by a male Gen X STEM guy. He makes a lot of wisecracks, few of them particularly funny. His isn’t unpleasant company to keep for a few hundred pages but it’s not really the point. The NASA people who make up most of the rest of the viewpoint characters are basically interchangeable less one defining trait apiece- the Hard Charger, the Cautious One, the Woman Concerned About the Press. But I guess that’s not the point, either. Maybe it’s just having read some pretty shitty examples of novels of interiority — Sheila Heti and Mike Ma — lately, but I couldn’t fault Weir for having more interest in the stars, or, anyway, the mechanics of Mars rovers and the like, than in his navel or the navels of fictional people. I’m not exactly a gearhead but I can appreciate other people’s enthusiasms. This is a basically enjoyable light read. ***’
Larry McMurtry, “Lonesome Dove” (1985) – I remember when I was a little kid driving back and forth on errands with my parents that there was a lot more graffiti on the granite rocks along the highways than there seems to be now. Maybe penalties got stiffer or the culture as a whole just moved on from that particular form of self-expression, who knows? I do remember very clearly the words “LONESOME DOVE” being written out in big capital letters on one rock. Presumably, the graffitist was moved by this book, or possibly the tv miniseries adapted from it.
This is probably the most enjoyable book I’ve read all year. I took my time with it- it weighs in at a little over 850 pages. It never felt long, though. McMurtry manages this epic story and numerous characters on their various arcs deftly and with a light touch. Notionally, the point of the story is going from point A to point B- a group of cowboys taking a herd from south Texas to Montana. Of course, it’s about various other things- love, death, growing old. McMurtry was around fifty when he was writing this.
At the center of the story are two retired Texas Rangers, Call and Gus. Call is all duty, a commander of men; Gus is a talker, philosophizer, lover of whiskey and women. They run a podunk livery stable in the titular town of Lonesome Dove, Texas, until their old ranging partner Jake shows up out of the blue and convinces Call to set up the first cattle ranch in Montana. Call, feeling his age and looking for a new challenge, decides to do it, and rounds up a crew and some horses and cattle and starts the big trek north. Gus goes with him in part to see a former lover in Nebraska but also out of curiosity and loyalty to Call. Jake doesn’t even really want to go- he’s a feckless gambler and womanizer, he takes up with Lonesome Dove’s sole sex worker Lorena, convinces her to follow the cowboys for a while, then dumps her to an awful fate and sets out on a bad path.
It’d take a long time to run down all of the major happenings in this long book. There’s confrontations with old foes of Call and Gus’s, most notably Comanche renegade Blue Duck. There’s a lot about dealing with the elements, with everything from unbridged rivers to snakes and bears and storms threatening the men. Some Arkansas lawmen are after Jake for a crime he committed there, and they have their own set of misadventures and tragedies.
In the end, everyone wants something they can’t have. It drove them all out west to begin with, but relocation only multiplied their problems. For many of them, a better life is potentially in their grasp, but personal damage keeps them from grasping it. This is especially true of Call, the stoical man of duty, unable to reckon with his few moments of humanity and with it his relationship to his unacknowledged son. Gus can’t stay with any loving relationship because he’s compelled to seek novelty and adventure. Other characters either have similar damage or are led around by those who do. Women in McMurtry’s world are sometimes a little more sensible than the men, but even they throw themselves after people who don’t love them and pursue dreams they can’t reach.
Race in “Lonesome Dove” is an interesting question for more than the usual questions of representation. The Texas Rangers were a force openly dedicated to waging race war when Call and Gus were in it. McMurtry doesn’t make a big thing of that, but one of the reasons they leave Texas is that by the 1870s, they had succeeded too well- things are too settled, they want to go somewhere wild again. They don’t hate Native Americans and Mexicans- as Call would no doubt put it, they were “just doing a job.” Gus openly philosophizes about how things were better off in Texas when the Comanche were around to keep people on their toes. Call’s too stoical to openly agree but his actions, leading the men away from Texas, speak for themselves. The remaining Native Americans are sometimes dangerous, but mostly out of hunger and desperation. The really vicious one, Blue Duck, is notable at least in part because he runs with a mixed crew of Native and white renegades- the “pure” Native Americans aren’t like him, the implication being. A few black and Latino people are part of the crew and McMurtry depicts them as resourceful and respected, if anything a little bit on the “magical negro/Mexican” side of things – richly-depicted inner lives mostly belong to white people in this book. “Richly-depicted” also reliably means “miserable,” so maybe the PoC of the book missed a bullet- that time, at least.
McMurtry says he set out to disenchant the West, and feels he failed- especially the popularity of the miniseries (even inspiring highway graffiti artists all the way in Massachusetts!) conspired against him in this. However miserable you can make the West seem in a novel, it’s hard for the beautiful natural vistas and sense of adventure not to come across in a visual medium. I loved the book but can say that McMurtry succeeded as far as I was concerned- I very much appreciated my civilized comforts, warm bed, and lack of snakes when I was reading “Lonesome Dove.” More than that, it successfully evokes the ways in which dreams deceive- when you get to the end of them, you find that you only had you wanted fleetingly, along the way, and are left hauling the corpse of your best friend across three thousand miles of wilderness. That’s just an example, like. All in all, a great book and highly recommended to anyone who likes a long, toothsome genre read. *****
Chinua Achebe, “No Longer At Ease” (1960) – I read “Things Fall Apart” something like ten years ago now. Maybe I was just too young and callow for it, but it didn’t feel like that much of a revelation to me- I already knew Africans had complex feelings and thoughts. “No Longer At Ease” is a sequel, following descendants of the Igbo wrestling champion who served as main character in “Things Fall Apart.” The main character in this one, Obi, is sent to England by the village of Umuofia specifically to gain an education, get a good job, and advance the interests of his village in the big city, Lagos. Obi’s grandfather Okwonko struggled against the British in the first book; Obi works with them in this one, though in the framework of gradual decolonization.
How much theorizing has been done about these gradual, mostly peaceful decolonization processes, through which most African countries gained their independence? The more violent struggles get more press, naturally, and I know Fanon basically dismissed the independence of those countries that gained their notional freedom peacefully, insisting they were in neocolonial relationships (not that Kenya or other countries that fought escaped them), but how much more has been said about them?
Like a lot of commenters on the Nigerian scene, Achebe, an Igbo himself, depicts his people as strivers, and Obi strives with the best of them, working hard to meet the approval of both British modernizers and the traditional power structures from his village. Of course, it’s not enough. Maybe if Fanon were there, he could tell Obi to garrotte his patronizing English boss in the educational bureaucracy at which he lands a post-graduation job, Mr. Green, and thereby regain his agency and self-respect and become the new, free, decolonized subject… but Fanon is nowhere to be found. Instead, young Obi falls between the two stools he’s expected to seat. Both modern (he needs a car and a houseboy to keep up appearances) and traditional (less successful people from his village with their hands out) tax his limited financial resources. He can’t marry the girl he loves because she belongs to an out caste. He resists the structure that bridges the traditional and the modern — good old fashioned bribery and influence-peddling — until he can’t anymore, and then they make an example out of him.
This is a short book and Achebe is a masterful prose stylist so it all moves right along. Worse times for the Igbo were coming- Igbo leaders would try to secede from the raw deal they were getting in Nigeria, leading to a grueling civil war that only ended with the Igbo being starved into submission, with British help, naturally. My understanding is that’s what sent Achebe into a long exile. I’ll have to look into his latter books. ****
Mike Ma, “Harassment Architecture” (2019) – It had been a while since I had a look at any far-right literary productions, so I downloaded this self-published novel (of sorts) that’s been making the rounds. I can’t really say it’s the “hot new thing” among the nazi set, however, for a few reasons. The first is out of the author’s or anyone’s control- the unmerciful pace of events. Back in 2019 or maybe late 2018 when Ma first opened Word Trump-fatigue was cool with younger extremely online reactionaries, “traditionalist” nihilism was in- accelerationism, abandonment of society and efforts to “red pill” others, blah blah. But in 2020 Trump is the door through which reactionaries can walk into their violence fantasies, as embodied in the person of Kyle Rittenhouse, a chubby-cheeked little Trump partisan and cop-lover who probably thinks Julius Evola is a brand of olive oil. He’s done a lot more than the Boogaloo Boys, the right-wing nihilists of the type to maybe read Mike Ma, who must feel a certain impotence and shame that this little dork gets all the acclaim while they stand around in their Hawaiian shirts, scared to do anything.
In a more direct and culpable sense we can’t really call “Harassment Architecture” new or interesting because it reads like nothing so much as certain portions of the edgy internet circa 2002. The racism is less coy here than it usually was back then, and some of the references are different, but otherwise, it’s all the same shit. The philosophical maunderings of a callow young man, characterized in this instance by cheap paradoxes. He’s insincere, but aware of his own insincerity and that abates things somehow. He knows he’s been sheltered, but rages against the conformity and security of mainstream society. There’s a lot of flights of violent fantasy- probably more here as a percentage of the text than was usual back in the old days, but it’s still the same shit. These, along with delighting in bigotry and slurs, are meant to show you that the man narrating is above your liberal pieties, a real badass, though even at this late date Ma indulges in the early oughts edgelord’s game of “do I reallllly mean it or am I just edgy??” They can never commit, even to their own inability to commit. At the core, you see the same dumb paradox born of insecurity: the world is shit, and I’m going to endlessly bitch and moan about it, but I’m still the big winner in all of the conventional senses- Ma goes out of his way to remind you of how much money he has, how many women want him, how much he can lift (pictures of the author show a rather pencil-necked little dipshit, but whatever).
All of which is to say, Ma and the online boys I knew in my long ago youth are/were ripping off the same people- chiefly Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. Two gay men, for whatever that’s worth. I always preferred Palahniuk out of the two — at least he came up with some entertaining high concept book ideas, more than can be said for Ellis — but with both of them you get the same tired Gen-X wrangle with irony and sincerity. I haven’t kept close track of where Palahniuk has gone with it, but can’t help but notice Ellis has basically gone the way of many edgelords of his generation- finger-wagging the younger generations about safe spaces and trigger warnings, blah blah. In any event, it’s a thin, dry vein for my entire life’s worth of supposedly innovative literary writers to have worked, and no amount of violent posturing from Mike Ma makes him any different from the stupid boys who were doing the same thing he was doing twenty years ago.
At bottom, all of these right-wing edgelords — Ellis, Ma, the ones I knew in the oughts — are prissy little bitches, too, for all their machismo and violence fantasizing. They all want a manager to complain to. Patrick Bateman wants his comped bellinis sent back and/or a God to take away his (completely contrived) pain, Ma whines about how New York smells and how he doesn’t get to live amongst “marble columns” and “great warriors.” I remember a boy who lived to make Jew jokes and show off early-oughts shock sites who was genuinely scandalized by public breast-feeding. They are not getting the consumer experience they were promised from life and raising hell on the yelp reviews. In this, only their self-consciousness separates them from the gormless suburban Kyles and Karens that make up the mainstream right, and mostly just serves to make them less sufferable.
Ma likes to fantasize about the 1990s as the last good time. Nothing really original there, either, the edgelords I knew twenty years ago idolized the eighties and seventies and sometimes even the early nineties too. Moreover, fascists always pine for a time that didn’t exist, and in typical navel-gazing, zero commitment style, Ma admits that his ideal nineties didn’t either, even as he insists people need to die because he didn’t get to experience it. His “traditionalism” is a matter of pining for some mix of the nineties and the ersatz classicism of boys raised with “Assassin’s Creed” and other video game versions of the distant past. I bring it up, out of all the unoriginal elements in this book, because I think it illustrates part of the reason we don’t get good reactionary literary writers anymore. There used to be a lot of them, but it seems the last one, Naipaul, died without an inheritor.
Ma’s pining for the nineties, and his “traditionalism” and that of his peers more generally, are the tell. The entire right, no matter how “intellectual” or “edgy,” certainly in America and possibly world-wide, has been sucked into the cheap nostalgic sentimentality that the likes of Reagan learned to weaponize for electoral purposes. You need some distance from what’s sold to the rubes to do literature, and no matter how hard they struggle to be different, the contemporary far right can no more pull it off than the most abject red state Fox News casualty. “Harassment Architecture” is supposed to be the ne plus ultra of contemporary far-right nihilism and this little shit is getting all weepy and nostalgic for nineties bike rides (never mind the nineties were an era of “stranger danger,” getting things right isn’t his strong suit). Nope, the right and toxic nostalgic sentimentality is stuck together, and good reactionary literature is just one of the many casualties of their union. ‘