Monday, April 30, 2007


This is a nice video-mix of Gustav Klimt's paintings. Don't know whose music is it, but it is nice...

A trailer of "Klimt" directed by Raoul Ruiz with John Malkovich in the titularl role. It premiered at some European film festival last year but I think it didn't get good reviews. Another video with nice music here.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Black Book

What a crass, vulgar, perverse and offensive film it is! Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director behind such lurid camp classics like Basic Instinct and Showgirls, returns to his home country after a long time but keeps his sensibilities intact, even when the subject is as serious as the second world war and persecution of Jews. I guess, one could have praised the irreverence that he shows here as something refreshing, had there been any evidence of seriousness of intent, but without that it is just crass and in bad-taste, and I mean bad bad-taste.

The story is about how a Jewish girl named Rachel (played with some really uncommon energy and gusto by someone called Clarice van Houten) survives the Nazi occupation by joining the resistance and spying against the Nazis. The title in the beginning claims that it is based on "real events" but the treatment makes it look like some third-grade pulp fiction, what with one jaw-droppingly weird sequence after another. In one Rachel mistakes the gun of the Nazi she has been sleeping with (a "good" and "sensitive" Nazi) with his erection. In another she dyes her pubic hair blonde, of course shown in close-up! There are many other scenes which are so ridiculous and so crass that they are neither funny nor erotic. To give the film some semblance of moral complexity the good Nazi mentioned above is counterbalanced by vile and scheming resistance fighters. Everybody is shit, you see! That's the profound moral lesson of the film. But yes overall it is very efficiently made. If you can leave your scruples at home, you might even be entertained. Otherwise irredeemably worthless in my opinion. Strictly for connoisseurs of bad-taste. jim hoberman seems to like it a little. other reviews here.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


I have been watching the ten hour documentary Shoah directed by Claude Lanzmann for the last few days. I did complete it today and now I feel like hallucinating. It is a unique documentary in the sense that it doesn't have any real historical footage, no background music, seemingly straightforward editing and camera work. Actually it first gives the impression of being "unprofessional" and simplistic but over time it builds up its effects, mainly through the power of repetition of images. Most of the documentary is filled with first person testimonies of survivors, bystanders, perpetrators and historians (actually there is only one historian or expert on the subject interviewed -- Raul Hilberg, author of the three volume history of Holocaust The Destruction of European Jews.) All of these interviews are intercut with scenes of death camps as they exist today. Camera probing the surfaces to find some evidence, almost staring into a silence, a nothingness. There are shots of bleak, ghostly, desolate and ugly landscapes of polish hinterlands, the site of such enormous suffering not long ago. And yes, there are unending and endlessly repeating shots of trains standing or trundling on the railway tracks. It is like some vile, horrifying music which you want to get away from but can't because it has found a place in the subconscious. And all this time the camera always looking for something but finding only silence and absence.

Lanzmann reportedly shot more than a hundred hours of footage over a decade but actually he uses only a handful of testimonies. They are all amazing interviews, whether it is of the survivors or the perpetrators, some of whom he films secretly. A railroad manager claims he never knew what the trains were for, for which he devised timetables. Another says he didn't know the conditions of life in the Warsaw ghetto where he was one of the deputy managers. Lanzmann patiently asks questions and listens and then again prods and asks counter questions.

I found the polish sequences of the documentary most interesting. Lanzmann is obviously hostile to the polish population who did nothing or at least didn't do enough to save the jews. He interviews many polish gentile witnesses some of whom are now living in the homes previously owned by the Jews. He doesn't always gets the "right" answer though--answers which would implicate the Polish population in a more straightforward manner. Though I have not read much about this but I gather that the subject of the Polish-Jewish relations is an extremely controversial one. How anti-semitic the Polish society was? How responsible the Poles were for what happened? This film doesn't answer these questions even though Lanzmann selects some stupid looking peasants and tries hard to make a case against Poland. An old woman for example says, she is now better off than she was then. "Because the Jews are gone, or because of socialism?" asks Lanzmann. No, because before the war she picked potatoes and now she sells eggs! Another one says that it would be nicer had they gone to Israel on their own. Yet another narrates the story of the crucifixion and blood libel that he claims he heard from a rabbi. There is an old train driver who drove thousands of victims to their death. It was terrible, he says, hearing the cries of children in the compartments in the back but he "got used to it" and then there are always the Germans. In the end Lanzmann withholds his judgment about the Poles. The train driver in the end comes across as a more sympathetic figure (comparatively) than the Nazi railway manager who merely gave orders and approved the plans sitting at his office desk.

Lanzmann sef-consciously eschews asking the big questions -- the whys? and what does it mean? In this he follows what Raul Hilberg says in his interview:

"In all my work I have never begun by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I would come up with small answers; and I have preferred to address these things which are minutiae or details in order that I might then be able to put together in a gestalt a picture which, if not an explanation, is at least a description,a more full description, of what transpired."

The focus for the entire film is to recreate the experience, not by artificially recreating the life in the camps or using footage, but through the memory of those who personally underwent the experience. I could understand the motivation of this approach but I still find it troubling. The big questions are also important, we have to ask and find answers to those questions, just that we need to resist the easy consolations of explanations. Shoah is not easy to watch, it demands a lot of time, patience and effort but it is a landmark and important work and deserves all of it. Here's a short write-up with some stills and a trailer of the film here.

Friday, April 27, 2007


Some time back I came across a discussion on Aishwarya's blog about feminism and literature. Can't find the post now but I remember she was replying to some meme about nice things that feminist movement had done to her life and she mentioned as one of the points that it had made possible for women to write about their experiences, find their true voices and become writers. I commented saying that women writers, specially those who are self-consciously feminist, somehow don't interest me much because they are always so obsessed with gender. It is as if feminism has increased the role that gender plays in their consciousness or formation of self-identity whereas it should have been actually the opposite -- the complete banishment of gender from self-identity. I did mention that i have not read enough women writers and I am not even familiar with all strains of feminist movement (which is actually quite complex) but my reaction was based merely on my total disinterest in the subject of gender.

Now Aishwarya sends me a link to this blogpost which has a wonderful (and hilarious) summary of How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ:

Pollution of Agency.
Okay, she wrote it, but she totally shouldn't have! A woman doesn't know enough about life to write about it well, unless she's a slut. She doesn't know enough about life, so she writes about irrelevant things like menstruation or rape or childbirth--"confessional" stories. Sure she wrote it, but she's such a bitch/so pretty you can't take her work seriously. Only abnormal women write books; look at how many of them commit suicide/go mad/can't find a husband.

The Double Standard of Content.
This is when certain topics are considered more important than others, based on an idea of how "universal" they are, and therefore art about them is innately more valuable. But this idea of the universal is skewed to what is part of the "public" or "male" sphere of experience. For instance, sport is more important than buying clothes [unless it's high fashion, perhaps]; business is more important than housework; war is more important than bedroom politics; male suffering is more important than female suffering. The double standard also means that books can be misread due to assumptions about the author, so for instance, before Wuthering Heights was known to be written by a woman, it was considered by critics to be about the nature of evil, and afterwards, it was considered a romance.

Hmmm. Now I know I was doing exactly these two things in my comments, though in a less extreme and less funny manner.

It is not difficult to understand, and it is indeed quite justified, why gender figures so prominently in the consciousness of women writers. It is a part of their experience, they face discrimination just because they are of a particular gender. Even if they believe in some gender-free ideal they can't outgrow it when they are actually fighting the discrimination. It is same as the case with someone who suddenly become conscious of his national or religious identity when he finds himself in an alien culture which discriminates against him or even doesn't welcome him. Just like it is happening in most western societies. All the talk of universal brotherhood and secularism notwithstanding.

Keeping this in mind I do feel good about more women writing about their experiences and thoughts even when everything is ultimately filtered through the prism of gender. Just that at a personal level this kind of writing doesn't interest me all that much. It is not just in reading, but in real life too macho men and feminine women, both bore me to tears. (I am with Proust, I like "masculine virtues" in women and "feminine charm" in men :) (from the Proust Questionnaire)). Now I am sure there are many women writers who are inclined towards this androgyny and gender-neutral approach too. I plan to look for and read more of their writings. (I did read a novel by Jeanette Winterson which didn't excite me much.)

I should also mention the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann who I read recently and who I found very interesting. In fact when I started Malina I groaned at the initial chapter. Though it is written in a very unusual style, I thought, no, not another woman writing about her boyfriend troubles! But then soon I was totally taken aback by the extremity of her depiction of violence and depths of extreme despair. Her voice is unmistakably that of a woman (in fact that's one of the central subjects of her novels) but she really takes it to extremes, where other writers don't generally go. Elfriede Jelinek, her fellow Austrian, shares her temperament too if not her artistry. Again she didn't interest me much. I also haven't read much of Virginia Woolf. I plan to read more of her writings soon too.

Talking about gender also reminds me why many mainstream American writers like Philip Roth, Updike, Mailer, Bellow or Amis (he is British but anyway) leave me cold, what with their rampant (and shallow) heterosexuality and their misogynist, macho characters. I understand that it is a part of their point, that it is supposed to be a critique of masculinity but be that as it may, I am not interested. (I have actually read very little of these writers. I know, there is more to them than this specially Bellow I think but may be when I get more time. They are very low on my list right now.)

My current favourite The Man Without Qualities (I am still reading it, three months after I started it) has what I think is truly progressive ideas about Gender and Sexuality. It is a little too complex for my small brain but it is brilliant. I just wish there were few more Musils out there, little less ambitious and complex and easier to read. Alas! I don't think anybody is there. I am still trying to understand it, will write about it sometime later.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Two Bleak Poems

Two morbid and bleak poems by Austrian poet Georg Trakl. These are two of his last poems that he wrote while stationed at a town called "Grodek" in Galicia (currently in Ukraine) during the first world war. Not long after he committed suicide. First of both translations are taken from this PDF book which contains his poems and a brief introduction. The second ones are from an introductory book I am reading. (The online dictionary says "Klage" means "complaint", I don't know why it is translated as "mourning.")

There is also this comment in the book that I found interesting:

"In Anglo-american poetry, as opposed to German, the issue is no longer the sublime style versus the anti-sublime; the reign of the sublime, which has never had the hold on English that it has on German, was effectively destroyed through the efforts of Eliot and Pound early in this century. For poets such as Bly, Wright, Creely, and James Dickey, the central issue is directness of vision as opposed to discursive reasoning in poetry; and in his critical pronouncements Bly has constantly invoked Trakl has the great modern visionary poet."


The dark eagles, sleep and death,
Rustle all night around my head:
The golden statue of man
Is swallowed by the icy comber
Of eternity. On the frightening reef
The purple remains go to pieces,
And the dark voice mourns
Over the sea.
Sister in my wild despair
Look, a precarious skiff is sinking
Under the stars,
The face of night whose voice is fading.


Sleep and death, the somber eagles
Resound all night around this head:
The icy waves of eternity
Would swallow
Man's golden image. The purple body
Is dashed to pieces on horrible reefs
And the dark voice laments
Over the sea.
Sister of stormy melancholy
See, a fearful boat is sinking
Under stars,
Under the silent face of the night.


At evening the woods of autumn are full of the sound
Of the weapons of death, golden fields
And blue lakes, over which the darkening sun
Rolls down; night gathers in
Dying recruits, the animal cries
Of their burst mouths.
Yet a red cloud, in which a furious god,
The spilled blood itself, has its home, silently
Gathers, a moonlike coolness in the willow bottoms;
All the roads spread out into the black mold.
Under the gold branches of the night and stars
The sister’s shadow falters through the diminishing
To greet the ghosts of the heroes, bleeding heads;
And from the reeds the sound of the dark flutes of
autumn rises.
O prouder grief! you bronze altars,
The hot flame of the spirit is fed today by a more
monstrous pain,
The unborn grandchildren.


In the evening the autumnal woods resound
With deadly arms, the golden plains
And blue lakes, over which the sun
Darkly revolves; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lamenting
Of their broken mouths.
Yet quietly in the low pasture they gather
Red clouds, in which the wrathful God lives,
The spilt blood, moonlike coolness;
All streets run into black decay.
Under golden branches of night and stars
The sister's shadow hovers through the silent grove
To greet the spirits of the heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly in the reeds the dark flutes of autumn resound.
Oh prouder mourning! You brazen altars,
Today the hot flame of the spirit is fed by an immense pain,
The unborn grandchildren.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sarah Bernhardt

New York Review of Books has an scholarly article (just count the number of books referenced for the essay) on french actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Among her many fans was Marcel Proust who based the character of Berma in his novel on her. There is a maddening analysis on the art of acting (and theatre) in the second volume.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Fassbinder Essay and Cannes Line-up

Fassbinder is on the cover of the latest Times Literary Supplement. Inside there is an essay on his literary writings.

Link via Greencine which also has the lineup for the coming Cannes film festival here. Quite a few familiar names there, including the latest by the director of The Return which I mentioned a couple of posts back and also Bela Tarr's new film, The Man from London.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


One of the most striking parts of The Man Without Qualities is its extended attack on scientific rationality and the enlightenment tradition. I am personally quite hostile to anti-science writings but in this case it is such an extremely subtle and thorough analysis that I couldn't help but nod my head in ascendance. Here is just one passage from many such examples from the book:

"The scientific mind sees kindness only as a special form of egotism; brings emotions into line with glandular secretions; notes that eight or nine tenths of a human being consists of water; explains our celebrated moral freedom as an automatic mental by-product of free trade; reduces beauty to good digestion and the proper distribution of fatty tissue; graphs the annual statistical curves of births and suicides to show that our most intimate personal decisions are programmed behavior; sees a connection between ecstasy and mental disease; equates the anus and the mouth as the rectal and the oral openings at either end of the same tube—such ideas, which expose the trick, as it were, behind the magic of human illusions, can always count on a kind of prejudice in their favor as being impeccably scientific."

Musil is is of course far from being a traditionalist or a proponent of religion but he rightly sees an allurement of the abdication of personal responsibility inherent in the scientific worldview. Being a human being is such an awful burden, and scientific reductionism offers one chance of ridding oneself of the same. Scientific reductionism and its capacity of dehumanisation of human beings is one of the main themes of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck too. The doctor character in a way is one of the forefathers of the Nazi "doctors" and "scientists" who thought they were helping the cause of science oblivious of any moral concerns which they thought were anyway too vague to be bothered with within the realm of science. The evolutionary theory tries to ground morality in the structure of brain (game theory, evolution of co-operation etc) but still the foundations are too shaky to be of much use. Despite the efforts of all these scientists, the explanation of the existence of values in the world of facts still remains highly difficult and even intractable.

Thinking about these things also reminded me of an essay I read some time back by the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma, collected in his book Bharat aur Europe: Pratishruti ke Kshetra (India and Europe: Areas of "Mutual Hearings" (Echoes?)). This particular essay was delivered as a lecture in one of the German universities (I think Heidelberg). In it he compares European and Indian culture and criticises the rationalist tradition of the former which he says licenses human being's egotism and breeds isolation while at the same time Indian culture stresses on wholeness with its integration of "atman" and "brahman" (self and the immanent consciousness). He also tries to find a logical link between the horrors of the twentieth century Europe and the enlightenment tradition it espoused for a couple of centuries. I am of course grossly simplifying his arguments but I think he is not alone in thinking on these lines. Many scholars and philosophers have argued similarly, that holocaust or the communist gulags were rationalist projects. In many ways Musil is also arguing the same thing. That's where most of the prophetic power of the book comes from too. (He wrote most of it in the twenties before the Nazis came to power.)

I personally never agreed with this thesis. Science can explain behavior but that doesn't mean the behaviour is justified. To do this would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy -- what is need not mean that it should be. And this is where I found Musil's analysis so enlightening. He says that there are no alternatives to scientific worldview but at the same time we also have to resist all the temptation and consolation that this worldview offers to us. We will have to find a shared space for authentic connection with other human beings and also struggle to find a set of values to live by, within this framework of scientific worldview. Now whether will we ever be able to this or not, that is the difficult question!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Return - Trailer

I found this trailer of the Russian film The Return which came a few years ago. It is a stunningly beautiful and a haunting film, and one of the strangest I have ever seen. It is almost two years since I saw it and I still remember the experience.

It is a brilliant (and a very sympathetic) analysis of masculinity and fatherhood and the way it connects these to religion and politics (very indirectly) reminds one of the great Russian novels of nineteenth century, specially by Dostoevsky and Turgenev which explored similar themes. This is of course what I thought of it, the film itself resists easy summaries. you have to watch and think about it yourself. Another scene, the credit sequence, here.

Susan Sontag on Simone Weil

An old essay by Susan Sontag on Simone Weil. She points out how writers interested in extremes of art and thought continue to fascinate us in our contemporary culture. Something I can attest to personally as well. (Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt are two writers I have pushed up on my reading list in line with the project of acquainting myself with more women writers and thinkers. I am already slightly familiar with Arendt, but I found her ideas and style a bit too dense and reader-unfriendly the last time I picked up The Origins of Totalitarianism. I think I will pick up the Eichmann book this time.) Anyway here is the essay:

"The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois; they are writers who are repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force—not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardor, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity. The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self—these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live. It is mostly a matter of tone: it is hardly possible to give credence to ideas uttered in the impersonal tones of sanity. There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering—rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer's words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.

What revolted the mature Goethe in the young Kleist, who submitted his work to the elder statesman of German letters "on the knees of his heart"—the morbid, the hysterical, the sense of the unhealthy, the enormous indulgence in suffering out of which Kliest's plays and tales were mined—is just what we value today. Today Kleist gives pleasure, Goethe is to some a duty. In the same way, such writers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet—and Simone Weil—have their authority with us because of their air of unhealthiness. Their unhealthiness is their soundness, and is what carries conviction.

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Georg Büchner: Woyzeck

Like his short narrative Lenz, Georg Buchner's celebrated play Woyzeck was based on real events. In this case he was inspired by his critical reading of discussions and debates in medical journals (he was a student of medicine) regarding the case of a man named J. C. Woyzeck who had murdered a woman, a middle aged widow, with whom he had been living, in a fit of jealousy. He had a history of suffering from paranoia and experienced hallucinations. Despite all evidences of insanity and all the scholarly and legal objections, he was found legally responsible for the crime and was executed. This case interested Buchner as he was already interested in mental illness and had explored the same quite brilliantly in Lenz.

Lenz was a just a description of a few days in the life of the titular character and exploration of his mental states during that time. Woyzeck also covers similar territory but it goes a little beyond in that it tries to find reasons and explanations of its character's insanity. Buchner obviously shows enormous sympathy and understanding for his protagonist and tries to locate the sources of Woyzeck's mental illness in the socio-political environment in which he lived. It is in fact considered one of the first examples of "a working class tragedy" and is specially admired (though not limited to) by critics inclined towards Marxism. (Brecht and Georg Lukacs admired it very much and so did Antonin Artaud.) It also shows Buchner's antipathy towards "romantic" art-forms of his time which tended to glorify some ideal of beauty, something he explicitly discusses in Lenz too, and instead focusses on the seemingly ugly and seedy sides of contemporary life and society.

When we meet Woyzeck he is already hearing voices and exclaiming about the threat from freemasons or some such thing, showing that he is already in a advanced state of paranoia. In the next couple of scenes we meet the sadistic captain and doctor who are using him respectively as a servant and a guinea-pig. He is desperately poor and he has accepted these jobs in the hope of earning some money. The two, the captain and the doctor, are also the representatives of the power structures of the society -- the military and the scientific intelligentsia. The captain pontificates about the importance of a moral life and philosophical ideas about freedom and eternity and dismisses Woyzeck for living a life of an animal. He also reprimands Woyzeck for having a child out of wedlock. (He can't marry because he is poor according to some law.) Again showing how utterly irrelevant all the talk of bourgeois moral philosophy is, for someone like Woyzeck, with his proletarian background and his desperate existence. The doctor similarly is using him as an guinea pig for his pseudo-scientific experiments about human physiology. He has kept him on a diet of peas and nothing else and taking his pulse and analysing his urine and again spouting philosophical and scientific nonsense. The whole sequence brilliantly underscores the dehumanising effect of scientific rationality, specially when it is used as an ideology and an instrument of power to oppress rather than to enlighten.

His relationship with his wife is the only remaining source of stability in his life but when even this is exposed as a deceit owing to a fling she has with a drum-major, he is driven to take the final murderous decision after he hears voices urging him to kill his wife. There is a brilliant scene in a cafe where he confronts the drum-major and gets insulted and humiliated in return showing again how even personal and sexual relationships revolve around power. Woyzeck, the powerless, is left with no choice in the end.

Woyzeck was incomplete when Buchner died (at an absurd age of 23.) The manuscript was so fragmented that it was considered unpublishable. Only many decades after his death it was included in the complete edition of his works and it wasn't staged until in the 1920s. Scholars still debate about the missing scenes and dialogues and the order in which scenes appear. The ending is also a matter of speculation. In the standard edition, Woyzeck stabs his wife, goes back to the cafe where people question him about the blood after which he goes back to the scene of the crime and gets back the knife and throws it in the pond. That's where the manuscript ends. Scholars have tried to append more scenes based on his notes about a possible postmortem in which the same doctor again spouts his scientific mumbo-jumbo. Woyzeck either drowns in the pond when he tries to retrieve the knife in order to throw it even farther or else is captured, tried and executed, mirroring the real-life events on which it is apparently based.

Woyzeck is also considered a forerunner of modernism in drama. It doesn't follow the Aristotelian unity and structure of drama. The time lines of the scenes are not really linear and sequences are chronologically vague, the dialogues are unrealistic and are meant to show inner mental states of characters rather than any apparent communication between them. In this sense it is also an early example of literary expressionism. In its portrait of power and how it misuses science and rationality for its own ideological ends, it is also utterly prophetic and modern. He could foresee how science could be appropriated by fascist structures for its own goals, something which eventually came to pass only in the next century. In short it is a fantastic work, a brilliant classic.

There have been many adaptations of the play too including a famous opera by Allan Berg which is called Wozzeck (even the right title of the play was identified as late as the 1920s, after the opera was composed). Werner Herzog's film adaptation is absolutely brilliant too with a stirring performance by Klaus Kinski as Woyzeck. He was born to play this role. I will recommend it without any hesitation or qualification. I had earlier linked to an essay by George Steiner in the TLS. Previous post on Lenz here.

Further MwQ Enthusiasms

Nice surprise to see a column about The Man Without Qualities in a mainstream newspaper.

"I first read this novel several years ago, and have reread it, but recently I realized how much in its story continues to have meaning today. (If I were to attempt to date its modern and American sequel, I would use the year 2000 instead of 1913. The predictions, of course, were that the year 2000 would be momentous because it was the "millennium" year. It turns out, however, that it was the year before the storm of September 11, which has changed everything here and abroad.) We have no such novel or other literary work today that illuminates our time on such a scale, and I see little evidence of any author with the ambition and talent to do so. As with contemporary poetry, the novel has become primarily a vehicle for entertainment and escape, and when our current literary authors do approach politics they use a sledgehammer instead of art."

I don't think one needs to imagine an American sequel of the novel. This novel itself explains way more about our contemporary condition, both on the political and the personal level, than any other contemporary work of literature (that I know of). After listening to characters like Paul Arnheim, Diotima or General Stumm holding forth on all sorts of life-problems and their bombastic solutions, one can't help but laugh when one comes across similar abuse and murder of language and ideas in newspaper columns about "war on terror" or about ways to bring democracy and "western values" to the unfortunate masses of the world. Or even the darker side of the growing popularity of relgious and fascist ideologies in different corners of the world. It is all there in the book. In fact in one of the plot revelations towards the end of part one, it is revealed that Arnheim, the presiding philosopher-guru of "the parallel campaign", is not really interested in things like spirit, soul, freedom etc which he talks about so eloquently, but rather the financial control of Oil Fields in the Galicia region of Austria-Hungary! Again something which has a kind of parallel with the current day American politics.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Primo Levi Discussion

Last week The New York Public Library had organized a program to commemorate the 20th death anniversary of Primo Levi. The audio of the entire event is available here. Ruth Franklin, Joan Acocella, Adam Kirsch, all three wonderful reviewers and essayists, among others, discuss his life, work and legacy. I have only read his Survival in Auschwitz (elsewhere known as "If This is a Man"). This talk has now inspired me to look out for his other works. The program is quite long, almost two hours, but it is quite good, specially towards the end. Adam Kirsch makes some interesting comments in the conversation. He says that his works represent "a negation of the negation." He also mentions that Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain was one of his favourite books and that he identified himself with the figure of Settembrini in the struggle of the ideas of western civilisation that Mann portrayed in the book. The Slate also has a review of his story collection which has just come out in English.

T.S. Eliot on Novel and Readers

from his introduction to Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (something applicable to a lot of contemporary writing of our time too):

"[But] I do mean that most contemporary novels are not really "written." They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give."

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Tale of Two Sisters

Someone has put the entire film on youtube. This is the first clip, rest all are on the sidebar on the right. It is one of my favourite horror films. A must-see!

And I love this poster too.

NYT Book Review

This week's book review has lots of interesting articles. There is a review of The Savage Detectives by James Wood, latest novel by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano to be translated into English, plus new books by Elfriede Jelinek (reviewer doesn't like it) and Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfied. There are also other books from foreign languages which I haven't heard of.

The Savage Detectives has got lots of good review coverage in the last month. See these long essays in The New Yorker and Bookforum for example. I have read his short novel By Night in Chile (a short post here) and look forward to reading his other books.

Friday, April 13, 2007

On Ingeborg Bachmann

I found Ingeborg Bachmann's novel Malina extremely baffling and difficult when I read it a couple of months back. It does have the regular stuff of novels like plot or characters but is written in such an unconventional and mishmash of different styles and voices that it is very difficult to make out the real intent of the writing. The fact that the language is deliberately "un-literary" doesn't make things any easier. I say deliberately because it is not that she is not capable of writing the kind of prose reviewers like to call "beautiful", "vivid" or "lyrical", in fact there is a section in Malina where she tells a fairy tale whose style can well be described by any of these adjectives. Rather, it becomes clear after a while that she is deliberately trying to get away from the language of a conventional novel, get away as far as possible, even if it means loss of coherence and unity that one reasonably expects.

Towards the end of her career she was working on an ambitious cycle of novels which she called Todesarten ("Ways of Dying"). Malina was the only book in the cycle she could complete and publish before her mysterious death in a fire accident. (There is an eerie scene in Malina where the lead female character imagines dying in a very similar fire accident.) The Book of Franza and Requiem of Fanny Goldmann both around hundred pages long are two novellas which were published based on her incomplete drafts and manuscripts. Reading them it doesn't feel incomplete, though one may not know what she might have changed or added in the final draft of the books.

The basic plot in both these novellas follow the same arc as in Malina (all very bleak stuff) -- the lead female character goes through extreme despair because of how she is treated by men around her, then suffers a slow and painful mental collapse and then eventual death (or disappearance, extinction, or an irreversible retreat into silence, they all mean the same thing). (In Malina she disappears into a crack in the wall). One problem in reading these books is that many details are left out and are found in her other stories. Same characters appear and reappear in her other books and in different contexts. The introduction and review essays make these things clear and fill up most of the details but still the idea is to be familiar with her entire oeuvre, then only one can make sense of her work in a really meaningful way.

Like in Malina the Nazi past of Austria looms large in the background in these books too. It is not really that Franza identifies her suffering with those of the Nazi's victims, though she does that too, but rather she feels, at the subconscious level, her personal trauma as just one extension of the historical trauma of the place she comes from i.e Austria. In addition The Book of Franza has a few things to say about colonialism and racism too. In the long third section of the book Franza and her brother go on a tour to Egypt where Franza after some traumatic events hallucinates about "the whites" and their oppression of the natives in the past too. I might be making too much out of this section but it fits with her idea of showing the continuity of fascism in history, a continuity in time and place, both at the personal and the historical level.

Requiem for Fanny Goldmann, the other story in the collection, doesn't succeed as well as The Book of Franza. It is even more fragmentary and it doesn't have the emotional force and the relentlessness of despair of Franza. Still it remains remarkable. I will end with these two paragraphs from the end of the story:

"The open lies which each person surrounds himself with, as well as the open admissions, these also make it all the harder for others to see things as separate and clear. Barely holding these lives together and allowing them to operate in darkness, essentially allowing only the final act to be played out in public under the lights, the force that directs these lives is something other, something in no way noble, but rather unseen, lying within humankind itself and its damnation.

The fact that, until the end, Fanny could not say to Goldmann what she wanted from him, just as she couldn't say to Marek what she expected of him, or that Goldmann could no longer call Fanny whenever he needed her, or that it too so long for Marek to shake her off, all of this is such a long and dark and untellable story (untellable as all stories are). Meanwhile, one can only hold onto what is tangible and look at one's fingers, try to look into someone's eyes, and write down the sentences that are spoken, so that something is said by which one can begin to glimpse what really happened."

Measuring the World Review

In The Nation Mark Anderson reviews Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World which has recently been translated into English. (I haven't read it yet, but it is on my reading list.)

Reviewers in Germany and in the United States have welcomed Kehlmann's comic novel as a departure from the lugubrious German bestsellers of the recent past--books like Jörg Friedrich's description of the horrific destruction of German cities during the air war (recently published by Columbia University Press under the title The Fire) or Günter Grass's novel Crabwalk, about German civilians killed by a Russian torpedo. It is true that Kehlmann belongs to a different generation and is not bound by the same sense of taboo and guilt that has haunted Germans born near the end of World War II. Moreover, his partial Jewish heritage--his father was imprisoned in a work camp, and numerous relatives were deported and killed--further complicates the matter of his "Germanness" without providing an alternative identity.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

New Books on the Reading Pile

I got a few books about Wittgenstein from the library yesterday. I wanted to get his biography by Ray Monk but it looked a little hefty and unmanageable to me. So I decided to pick up a routledge introduction to his philosophy instead and another book called Wittgenstein's Poker which seems to have lots of details about him and Karl Popper, another Austrian philosopher. I picked up Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus too, just to see what is in there.

I wanted to read about his life too. For the little I have read about him he seems to be a very interesting personality and a very nice person too. I don't think many people outside the academy really understand his philosophy (even the basic ideas) but surprisingly he came out at number three in a popular poll of greatest philosophers of all time conducted by BBC a couple of years ago. Here's the complete list. (I would have voted for him just for his attractive face. Along with Samuel Beckett his face is one of the most haunting and haunted faces ever. Two of my favourites ever, even though their works are beyond my reach.) There's also this BBC radio show worth listening to, though I think the anchor himself threw his hands up when his guests started getting deeper into Wittgenstein's philosophy.

Monday, April 09, 2007


The New Yorker has an amusing write-up about a recent documentary Into Great Silence about the lives of Carthusian monks in their monastery :

It can be hard to find a quiet spot to think in this town, and movie theatres generally don’t top the list. Lately, however, Film Forum has emerged as an oasis of silence, owing to the runaway success of a nearly three-hour documentary, by the German filmmaker Philip Gröning, about Carthusian monks, titled “Into Great Silence.”
I wanted to see it this weekend but couldn't go. I was reading some gloomy books (in silence, sort of). Interesting that the more I read, the more pessimistic I become about language, specially in the way we use it in our everyday life, how easy it is to manipulate and invent lies and how hollow all these fancy words and expressions are. Occasional vows of silence will do a lot of good to many of us. Ah, how paradoxical, I am writing all this in a blog!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Essays on Ingeborg Bachmann

I have copied a few long essays about Ingeborg Bachmann on the blog.

First published in The New Republic is a review of The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann and the other published in the Harper's Magazine is a review of Malina among other things. Both of these are not really reviews, rather they discuss her work in general terms. The second one also has lots of interesting things to say about Bachmann's feminism.

Also two essays from New York Review of Books here and here.

The American edition of Malina also has an excellent afterword by Mark Anderson which I suggest should be read before starting the novel, even though the novel itself has some "thriller" elements and the essay reveals the thriller-esque ending.

I have been reading The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann and though it is of course fantastic, I get this feeling that one needs a very wide set of literary and cultural references to really make sense of the her work in any meaningful way or even to understand what really is going on in the books. These essays may serve as good introductions to her work in that sense.

Note: All the copyrights belong to the original publications of course and no permission was taken to reproduce it here. Not entirely legal I know, but I hope the honest intentions should take care of it.

Friday, April 06, 2007


Daisies is a 1966 experimental Czech film directed by Vera Chytilova. The DVD cover loudly says that it is a "madcap feminist farce" which doesn't really describe what this film is about. There is no story, there are no characters and everything is as non-naturalistic as perhaps the technology of that time could have allowed it to be. There are collages, inserts from documentary films, shifting back and forth into colour and black and white, scenes shot with colour filters and the actors, who remain mostly anonymous, mouthing their dialogues, all non-sequiturs, like robots.

It is of course very baffling but after a while it becomes clear that the director Vera Chytilova is making a statement against conventional cinema. She clearly finds the conventional cinematic mode of representation of reality, creation and sustenance of an illusion and spectator's identification with the story or characters as something conservative in itself. She is mocking at the conventions not through the content but rather through the form itself.

This is a nice film and I liked it quite a bit but at the end there was a feeling that as if it was not enough. That an opportunity was lost to say something more meaningful and complex. All this formal innovation and nose thumbing at the convention are fine and good, but the film really doesn't have any original ideas of its own. Even when it does say something, mostly mocking the way relationships between men and women in the society as they exist or how women should behave etc., it is not really anything complex. It is as if all of director's energies went into inventing those new imageries and in the end she really didn't have much to say or offer of her own. I wanted to see something like the political and philosophical references and grandstanding that one finds in Godard for example or even some hidden, intuitive unity which is there in David Lynch's films, just to name perhaps two of the most popular non-narrative filmmakers. Basically I was looking for some intellectual meat inside all those formal gimmickries which could have made it even more interesting.

Some nice write-ups on the film, more detailed and enthusiastic, here and here.
Lots of information about the director here and here.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Shop on Main Street

The 1965 Czechoslovakian film The Shop on the Main Street (according to the current Geography it is a Slovakian film) fits in the template of the other Czech films of its time very well, sometimes also known as the films of the Czech New Wave. Though in a sense it is technically less adventurous than other films like Loves of a Blonde, Closely Watched Trains or The Firemen's Ball (all three I love very much btw), it still fits in together with these with its tone and narrative themes. The characteristic bleak humour is there and so is the absurd antithesis of a heroic character at the center of the story. (Works of Czech literature like Kafka's novels or Good Soldier Svejk fit this template too.)

The subject is quite familiar -- the fate of jews during the second world war -- and has been tackled many times before. This film is a little different though because here the main focus is on neither the victim nor the oppressor but rather the bystander and the collaborator. People who just stood by or even helped the fascists in their own small, but not insignificant, ways without realizing the serious implications of their small acts or even their inaction. The subject of civilian collaboration is a highly controversial topic, at least in Germany. How far were the ordinary Germans responsible for Holocaust? There are all kinds of historical arguments, some like in the book Hitler's Willing Executioners claim that it was the "eliminationist anti-semitism" of German population which led to holocaust and that Hitler was just following his people's will, still on the extreme left, historians lay the blame squarely on the socio-economic circumstances in Germany following the first world war. There are various schools of opinion in between the two extremes too.

From this background, The Shop on Main Street creates a very revealing portrait of one such collaborator. Of course it doesn't say that everybody was like him and it was applicable everywhere but in this character the film lays bare all the moral weakness and failings, minor though they seem at first, that eventually allowed the crime to be committed, if not by actively participating in it. Tono Brtko, the antihero, is a local carpenter in a small Slovak town. He is mercilessly nagged by his wife at home who demands that he ask his fascist brother-in-law, the local fascist commander, for a job. Soon he lands up being an "Aryan controller" of a shop being run by an old Jewish woman Mrs. Lautmann. The problem is there is nothing to be run in the shop! She is herself living on the charity of the local Jewish community. On top of that, the old woman is senile, hard of hearing and doesn't even understand that a war is going on or that jews are being persecuted, harassed and deported. The two characters create some wonderful comic moments together and soon develop a sort of understanding and affection for each other. But soon the Germans demand all the jews to be deported to "labour camps" and Tono finds himself torn between the contradictory feelings of trying to save the old woman on the one hand and his own skin and life on the other. The last half hour of the film in which Tono struggles with his conflicting emotions is absolutely brilliant. I won't reveal the ending but it is devastating.

This film somehow reminded me of Schindler's List and with which it does compare very favourably (not counting the technical craft that went into making Schindler's List). Unlike Spielberg the director Jan Kadar isn't interested in turning the story into a redemptive fable or in proving the existence of "goodness" or in fact in proving anything at all. In many ways Tono Brtko is a far more realistic and complex character than Schindler (even though the later was a historical character) and he is also the anti-thesis of Schindler in many ways. There are no redemptive epiphanic moments here with the soaring orchestra score in the background, no scenes of painful spiritual transformation and there are no cathartic speech-makings. In the end what comes out is the generosity and ruthlessness with which the human character and its failings are analysed and dissected. And that's what makes it so powerful and affecting. Of course the two lead actors are extra-ordinarily good. Absolutely Flawless and Brilliant. This is one of the few times Oscars got it absolutely right (it won the best foreign film award for 1965).

This is an essay by the director on the criterion site. Of course, highly recommended.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Screening

For adventurous movie-lovers: MOMA is screening the fifteen hour German TV film Berlin Alexanderplatz directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder next week. Details here. There are four screenings on separate days, each around four hours long. So if you can find eight hours from your schedule on the next weekends (Saturday and Sunday, April 14-15) be there.

For lazy but still adventurous movie-lover, the criterion collection will eventually bring it out on DVD but it will probably be only next year. That's what the wikipedia entry says. Also this note in village voice.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Djuna Barnes's Nightwood is a book I keep coming across at various places but have never picked up. This week's Guardian review has a brief appreciation by Jeanette Winterson:

Certain texts work in homeopathic dilutions; that is, nano-amounts effect significant change over long periods of time. Djuna Barnes's Nightwood is not much more than a couple of hundred pages long, and more people have heard about it than have read it. Reading it is mainly the preserve of academics and students. Others have a vague sense that it is a modernist text, that TS Eliot adored it, that Dylan Thomas called it "one of the three major prose works by a woman" (accept the compliment to Barnes, ignore the insult directed elsewhere), that the work is an important milestone on any map of gay literature - even though, like all the best books, its power makes a nonsense of any categorisation, especially of gender or sexuality.
I have put it on my next to-read list now. Will fit in with my "more women-writers reading program" too. And I have got Ingeborg Bachmann's The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldman too. Will try to get into it over the weekend.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Still Alive by Ruth Kluger

One major problem with Holocaust literature, or at least with the readers of holocaust literature, is the tendency to reach to conclusions before thinking through what it all means. It doesn't matter whether the conclusions are life-negating or life-affirming, it is the same thing. One wants to summarise the whole thing in some abstraction, like, say, human life has no meaning, or the ideas like the existence of a benevolent, all-powerful God or the idea of the historical progress are preposterous, even insulting and morally reprehensible. There are readers who find life-affirming lessons about how love or "human spirit" always triumphs in the end or how human beings are essentially good, just make them read a few poems and make them listen to a piece by Beethoven and then they will recover their conscience (as shown in the recent award winning film The Lives of Others). It is not that any of these conclusions are not valid or empirically wrong, but rather the whole process reveals this deep-rooted desire to externalise the horror and distance oneself from it. It is as if it were some horror film! One of the main running themes of Ruth Kluger's Holocaust memoir is I think about this. She deeply detests all short-cuts -- sentimentality, emotionalism, cliches, easy comparisons or analogies -- anything which "impedes the critical faculty," as she puts it. That's what sets this book apart from conventional memoirs or works of documentary history. It is a work of literature, and a very serious, provocative and powerful one at that.

Kluger was seven years old in 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria. Most of her early childhood memories are of the progressively increasing discrimination she and her family had to face in the viciously anti-semitic Vienna. Not that she understood what was really happening. One time when the school principal came to teach the kids in her class the Hitler salute which the Jewish children were not allowed to do, this is what she says:

The class dutifully imitated him, while we five or six Jewish kids got to sit in the back. Because the principal was friendly and the teacher visibly embarrassed, I was unsure at first—such is the touching optimism of the young— whether our special status was a privilege or an insult.
Soon after her father, who was a practicing gynaecologist, was arrested by the Nazis on some charges. On returning he fled to Italy and then to France, never to be heard of again. He was believed to have died in the concentration camp, only later did Kluger and her mother came to know that he was instead shot somewhere in the Baltics. Her elder step-brother, who was Czech and who she was very devoted to, met a similar same fate. In 1942 she and her mother were deported to Theresienstadt—-neither a work camp nor a concentration camp, she explains, but a prison ghetto, "the stable that supplied the slaughterhouse." She describes her daily life in the camp in matter-of-fact style interspersed with musings about how she feels about that time from the perspective of her later life.

Two years later they were moved to the Auschwitz-Birkenau which was a real extermination camp with gas chambers and chimneys. After witnessing the horror there her mother suggested that they should commit suicide by running into the electrified fence. She refused without understanding why and her mother accepted it "nonchalantly" as if it was just another proposal in day-to-day life. Then came the selection for life and death. Women between the ages of fifteen and forty-five were chosen for slave labour in a different camp. She had to fudge her age by three years in order to escape the gas chambers. She was initially reluctant and rejected at the first roll call but then after her mother's persistence and the benevolence of a female SS clerk she managed to escape from Auschwitz.

The rest of the memoir is about her life in a slave labour camp in Silesia (in Poland) where soon the Russians arrived and they had to flee again. After the war they spent some time in Germany and then immigrated to US where after lots of initial struggle she pursued a career in studying and teaching literature and retired as a professor of German studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

There are lots of events that she writes about which I haven't mentioned in my summary. Almost everywhere her descriptions are padded with her acerbic and sharp comments from the present perspective. The tone throughout is very aggressive. In fact she writes about how she was reprimanded many times because of her "manners" and herself says that she is very hard to satisfy. She has problems with both left and right, both zionists and anti-zionists. One of the consistent theme of the book is her questioning of these categories and labels again things which shortcut the critical thinking process.

I think there are three main threads in her narrative which stand out however. The first is the holocaust and its legacy. She is bitterly critical of the museum culture which has grown up around the camps. She also deeply resents all easy comparisons and analogies, naive and sentimental symbolisms. She also writes about her relationship with Germany and how the present day Germans are coming to terms with their past. She generally writes approvingly about it with occasional misgivings. She herself was a visiting professor at the University of Gottingen. There is no doubt about Vienna though -- she still hates it. She says it is still highly anti-semitic and deeply fascistic. The second thread and perhaps the most alarming and differentiating feature of the book is how she talks about her mother. She is full of bitterness, anger and rage towards her mother and her feelings are well-reciprocated too (or at least that's what she says)! In fact she mentions in the afterword that the reason why this English edition was written after more than a decade of the publishing of the original German book was that her mother was furious when she read, from a copy someone sent to her from Europe, what her daughter had written about her in the book. After a lot of mutual recrimination she promised her mother that she won't allow any translation to appear in English so nobody around her will know what she had written about her. The rewritten (not translated) version appeared one year after her mother died at the age of 97 in 2000. The book is dedicated to her.

The third important theme of the book is her feminism. She is very conscious and alert about the discrimination she continued to feel even in the so-called free world and not surprisingly she sees this as an extension of the same fascism that she experienced in the camps. At one place she says:
While Germans had to revise their judgment of Jews, however reluctantly and sporadically, they didn't even try to revise their Nazi-bred contempt for women.
Her tone is also remarkably aggressive and straight-forward when she talks about these things. I was reminded of other Austrian women writers like Ingeborg Bachmann and Elfriede Jelinek who have a similar confrontational and strident style and who also see women's oppression as fascism continued via other means. It was in this regard that I found this review in the new york times strange. It is somewhat negative, which can only be explained if the reviewer had some personal grudge with Kluger (Which wouldn't be surprising, she is not of the pleasing type). The reviewer says:
Yet interspersed throughout are strange, sometimes incoherent remarks on feminism. For example, Kluger's bizarre defense of the female guards at Christianstadt on feminist grounds -- she says that ''Nazi evil was male, not female'' and that ''the SS was strictly a men's club'' -- is a wild distortion. This reflexive, outdated feminism, which regards anything male as suspect and all women, even Nazi women, as essentially powerless sisters, seriously mars the book and threatens to undermine its credibility.

I haven't read enough history or sociology but I think it is a well-established fact that all fascist systems have this cult of "masculinity" (so-called) and contempt for "femininity", which they see as a sign of degeneracy, in common. Nazism was no different. Also I don't know what this "outdated" and "reflexive" feminism is that she talks about.

Surprisingly I couldn't find much, reviews or otherwise, about the book on the Internet. This doesn't seem to be a very popular book which is a great shame. It is undeniably a major literary achievement and deserves much wider renown. Very highly recommended!


Just when I was thinking about hope and will to live in connection to the documentary Touching the Void (mentioned in the earlier post) I encountered this in Ruth Kluger's Holocaust memoir Still Alive. She is quoting the words of the Polish writer and fellow Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Borowski:

Do you really think that without the hope...that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyzes them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill. It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger in man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.