Monday, February 24, 2014

Stopping by Schneedreck on a Sunny Afternoon

As a recent article about skiing and climate change attests, poets have always been fascinated by snow. Eskimos, it is often said, have many words for the stuff. But what would the poets call the thick, hard substance spackling the cobblestones of Brooklyn’s Old Fulton Street last weekend? Maybe the Eskimo would look and say, “Pukak!” If so, would they be right? The mysterious Old Fulton gunk was contiguous in places with patches of identifiable snow and ice—but overall it was black, and also impervious to light and warmth. Saturday was the first warm day in many brutal weeks of winter, but the substance wasn’t even wet and if anything was growing. In color and luster, it bore some resemblance to beef tongue. On closer inspection, however, it was more like a terrine of dirt, salt, snow, and refuse.

166 years ago, Walt Whitman wrote for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in a building right there on Old Fulton, but poems like “To a Locomotive in Winter,” don’t mention the snow-filth of February. Perhaps it was unknown to Whitman and his time, but I doubt it. Maybe it's unknown to scientists, however, this unmeltable garbage-ice that fears no salt or sun. It certainly isn’t the first February in which I’ve encountered it. I remember it well from my snowy growing-up in Cleveland. (Offended Clevelanders: please address all letters of complaint to Anne Trubek, c/o the Cleveland Plain Dealer.)

In any case, the words “snow-filth,” “garbage-ice,” or “snow-grime” would not do justice to the frozen black head-cheese on Old Fulton Street, because the hyphen divides that which has in fact fused and metamorphosed into something wholly new, something unlike snow, filth, ice, garbage, or grime. The word for it therefore ought to be strange—a foreign import. Since German often fuses root words to make new meanings, I put “snow” and “grime” into my Talking Translator and out came Schnee and Schmutz. But only a long blast of nitrous oxide at the dentist’s office can prepare somebody to pronounce Schneeschmutz. The good news is that Dreck means much the same thing as Schmutz. In addition, Dreck carries with it a note of invective (at least in the idiom of Americanized Yiddish). Thus I discovered the word Schneedreck—which was almost like discovering what exactly Schneedreck is, but not quite. A cursory internet search on Schneedreck turns up over 2 million hits, but an image search on the word only yields a lot of pictures of robots and artificial knees. Who can fathom this Schneedreck?

I believe Schneedreck to be a near relative of the Oobleck that fell on the Kingdom of Didd in The-Year-the-King-Got-Angry-with-the-Sky. That happens in one of Dr. Suess’s few prose works, a fine story called Bartholomew and the Oobleck, first introduced to me by my Uncle Zack.

Whatever Schneedreck is, it looks like I feel. It’s been a long winter, one that saw polar winds loosed on the Northern Hemisphere by melting Arctic sea ice, and that filled my chest and nose with Oobleck for seven straight weeks, attaining a peak rate of two tissue-boxes a day. As Wallace Stevens wrote in his lovely winter poem “The Snowman”:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind….

To have a “mind of winter”—what does it mean? I have not so much a mind as a maxillary sinus of it. Who can prepare one’s mind, or sinuses, for so much winter?

It’s one of those weird authorial coincidences that the master bard of winter should be named Robert Frost. Snow probably falls more heavily in the poems of Frost than in those of any other writer. Some beautiful ones are “Stars,” “Storm Fear,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “A Patch of Old Snow” (his only Schneedreck poem, so far as I know), “Birches,” “The Wood-Pile,” “Dust of Snow”—and then there is “Snow.” It’s one of his dialogue poems, a little play like “The Death of the Hired Man.” In it Meserve, the storm-warrior, pays a visit to Mr. and Mrs. Coles before going back out in the snowstorm. He tells them:

“You make a little foursquare block of air,
Quiet and light and warm, in spite of all
The illimitable dark and cold and storm,
And by so doing, give these three, lamp, dog,
And book-leaf, that keep near you, their repose;
Though for all anyone can tell, repose
May be the thing you haven’t, yet you give it.
So false it is that what we haven’t we can’t give….”
ll. 141-149
And then:

“Our snowstorms as a rule
Aren’t looked on as man-killers, and although
I’d rather be the beast that sleeps the sleep
Under it all, his door sealed up and lost,
Than the man fighting it to keep above it,
Yet think of the small birds at roost and not
In nests. Shall I be counted less than they are?”
ll. 222-227

Meserve then walks back out into the storm at night, against the pleading of Mrs. Coles. Meserve’s a sort of king who’s angry at the sky, who offers himself and us repose by saying what we feel. Mrs. Coles doesn’t understand his war. Having learned he made it home to his wife and child a few hours later, enduring the snow like a rugged piece of beeftongue Schneedreck, she’s mightily irritated. “What did he come in for?” she cries scornfully. “Thought he’d just call to tell us it was snowing.” She abuses him as though he were an actual poet.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Art of Avoiding Calamities

The Sound of the Mountain

Last March, an archaeological survey in Japan turned up a 16-inch unexploded artillery shell near a bullet train track in north Tokyo. The trains were stopped in early June so the Japanese army could dispose of it. Such incidents are normal in post-war Japan; tons of unexploded ordnance are discovered and removed every year there and it’s estimated that thousands more tons remain buried in the ground, like bad memories that may be suppressed, but don’t go away. The problem seems emblematic of Japan’s struggle to digest painful history—not only the recent calamity of World War II, but centuries of earthquakes, tsunamis, and apocalyptic civil wars.

The consciousness of calamity has informed Japanese art since ancient times. Columbia University Press’s Sources of Japanese Tradition, edited by Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, tells us of the ancient state records called the Nihongi or Chronicles of Japan: “Over and over in the Chronicles of Japan we find such entries as the following (for A.D. 599): ‘There was an earthquake which destroyed all the houses. So orders were given to sacrifice to the God of Earthquakes.’ ” (Tsunoda p. 267) Buddhism and Chinese philosophy came to Japan around the same time as the earthquake mentioned above, and both found favor in the island nation, perhaps because they squared so well with the old Shinto fear of nature. Buddhism expresses a deep sense of the changeability and impermanence of the natural world and a determination to reach some inner, mental accord with it (Tsunoda, p. 96). The Chinese school of yin-yang provided to Japan the art of “avoiding calamities” by divination. (Tsunoda, pp. 58-59)

An acute sense of perishability and calamity remains in the Japanese art of modern times—having been reinforced no doubt by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the torrent of conventional ordnance that the U.S. air force rained on Japan during World War II. (Some Japanese referred to the bloody sea and air assault on Okinawa as the “Typhoon of Steel.”) Japanese disaster films like Godzilla and the Japanese-influenced Pacific Rim of last summer bespeak the preoccupation with calamity, as does Japanese contemporary high literature. Yasunari Kawabata, who in 1968 became the first of two Japanese Nobel laureates in literature, worked directly in the calamity tradition. Much as W.G. Sebald did in Germany, Kawabata wrote characters whose inner lives were contaminated with the unexploded ordnance of the past.

Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain was first published in 1954, and while his characters for the most part avoid talking about the war, the scars and holes that war left in Japanese families play a dominant role in their lives. It’s a story of veterans, widows, and orphans, of a Japan where “[a] great many children were left behind by men who died in the war, and a great many mothers were left to suffer” (The Sound of the Mountain, p. 233)—a story where, as war veteran Shuichi says, “[the war] is still haunting people like me. Still somewhere inside us.” (p. 266) Encyclopedia Brittanica says of Kawabata, who was born in 1899, “he was orphaned early and lost all near relatives while still in his youth” and from the outset of the novel we gather that if life is short and fragile, calamity’s influence on the human mind is long and enduring. Here is the protagonist Shingo arguing with his wife Yasuko about their troubled granddaughter Satoko (if you think those names are confusing to a Western ear, the family also includes a Fusako, a Kuniko, and a Kikuko—thank God for Shuichi):
“She was born after things started going bad with her father,” said Shingo. “It all happened after Satoko was born, and it had an effect on her.” “Would a four-year-old child understand?” “She would indeed. And it would influence her.” “I think she was born the way she is.” The Sound of the Mountain p. 23
The dark weather of past times perhaps does something to corrupt the mind so that it makes its own storms, as Shingo observes later:
“Even when natural weather is good, human weather is bad,” he muttered to himself, somewhat inanely. The Sound of the Mountain p. 185
The “somewhat inanely” tacked onto the thought is a case-in-point. Shingo’s mind distorts its picture of itself and makes bad weather out of good, for the statement is not inane. It’s profound. The calamities of war and lost love have corrupted his thinking:
Women had left his life during the war, and had been absent since. He was not very old, but that was how it was with him. What had been killed by the war had not come to life again. It seemed too that his way of thinking was as the war had left it, pushed into a narrow kind of common sense. The Sound of the Mountain p. 210
The “narrow kind of common sense” seems to be an “art of avoiding calamities” that extinguishes desire and the will to live by too many “pious thoughts about the dead” (p. 219). People in this novel, as in real life, find ways to imagine that they’re responsible for the calamities that befall others. Just as ancient Japanese authorities concocted a magical art of avoiding calamities by making sacrifices, the characters in The Sound of the Mountain seem to sacrifice themselves on the magical altar of abortion and suicide, as if that would undo the calamities that have befallen others. So Kikuko does not put up a fight when her husband Shuichi has an affair with a war widow and impregnates her. Instead she aborts her own pregnancy: the art of avoiding calamity gone all awry.

Kawabata himself committed suicide in 1972, but he had written against suicide: “However alienated one may be from the world, suicide is not a form of enlightenment.” It appears Kawabata fought with demons, as his characters do in The Sound of the Mountain. And before he lost one of those battles, he won a great many of them, and his weapon in the fight was his art, a beautifully modern update to the ancient calamity art of Japan.

The Sound of the Mountain combines realistic dialogue and depth psychology with aware, a trope associated with The Tale of Genji, which some consider the world’s first novel; it was written around 1010 C.E. by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Sources of Japanese Tradition explains aware like this: “It bespoke the sensitive poet’s awareness of a sight or sound, of its beauty and its perishability.” (Tsunoda, p. 176) It converts melancholy to joy by seeing the beauty in a transient moment or by beautifying it in poetic language, but also perhaps by penetrating beyond despair to a possibility of joy that may be latent in the transient scene.

The eponymous “sound of the mountain” turns out to be the remembered sound of an avalanche in Shingo’s childhood. Kawabata arrests the frantic movement of an avalanche with his beautiful and meaningful aware, an image of an avalanche that is still and calm and subject to contemplation as in a Japanese painting.

At one point Shingo recalls a real painting by Watanabe Kazan with the legend “A stubborn crow in the dawn: the rains of June.” Shingo remembers the crow “high in a naked tree, bearing up under strong wind and rain … awaiting the dawn.” (p. 209)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

I Would Prefer Not To

Bartleby the Scrivener

As a writer, I know this: Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby the Scrivener is either the most depressing thing ever written or the most inspiring. Though Melville was only 34 when he published it and lived on for 38 more years, it reads like his suicide note. On the other hand, the love that’s now lavished upon Melville vindicates him against the very despair he articulates in Bartleby’s pages.

Melville’s life history attests that he composed Bartleby at an inflection point in his career, when his work had turned more ambitious and had been rewarded with diminished sales. In 1851, Melville had published his sixth and most ambitious novel to date, Moby-Dick, and it sold badly. Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco: “During Melville’s lifetime, Moby-Dick never came close to selling out its first edition of 3,000 copies, and when, in December 1853, the unsold copies burned up in a fire in the publisher’s warehouse, few noticed and fewer cared.” (Delbanco, pp. 6-7) Melville reacted with bitterness, which he expressed in his next novel Pierre:

Who shall tell all the thoughts and feelings of Pierre in that desolate and shivering room, when at last the idea obtruded, that the wiser and the profounder he should grow, the more and the more he lessened the chances for bread; that could he now hurl his deep book out of the window, and fall to on some shallow nothing of a novel, composable in a month at the longest, then could he reasonably hope for both appreciation and cash. But the devouring profundities, now opened up in him, consume all his vigor; would he, he could not now be entertainingly and profitably shallow in some pellucid and merry romance. Quoted at

Compared to the meager arts coverage in today’s dying, philistine newspapers, of course, the critical response to Moby-Dick doesn’t look so bad. ( has culled a bunch of reviews from Melville’s day.) The critics cavil obnoxiously and find Melville incomprehensible, but not infrequently they also hail his genius. Nonetheless, Melville was seriously discouraged. He withdrew from public life and from writing prose fiction, choosing instead a long downward slope of decades spent “clinging like a weary but tenacious barnacle to the N.Y. Custom House,” as a contemporary put it. (Delbanco, p. 291)

Melville published Bartleby in 1853, two years after Moby-Dick, at the beginning of this period of withdrawal. According to John Clendenning, Bartleby and other Melville stories like Benito Cereno suffered a fate similar to that of Moby-Dick:

The novel, either ignored or misunderstood by critics and readers, damaged Melville’s reputation as a writer…. The public was ready to accept unusual and exciting adventures [of the sort Melville had written before Moby-Dick], but they did not want ironic, frightening exposures of the terrible double meanings in life…. [T]he haunting and disturbing question of the meaning of life that hovered over the stories also displeased the public. (retrieved April 29, 2013)

Bartleby depicts a withdrawal from life that parallels Melville’s own. As a scrivener, or copyist, in the days before typewriters and photocopiers, Bartleby seems like an inevitable symbol for the writer in general. His marked isolation (described as “his hermitage” within the Wall Street office and at other times as “his dead-wall revery”) resembles the solitary condition of the fiction writer, perhaps more than that of an actual copyist. Like a serious fiction writer, Bartleby makes a quixotic refusal to provide a marketable service to the world, and he does so literally, not figuratively: when his boss asks him to do something, he replies, “I would prefer not to,” a refrain that is repeated in various forms close to 40 times by my count, and which evolves iteration by iteration from comedy to tragedy. Ultimately, Bartleby refuses not only to work but to eat, and he dies in prison like an unmedicated schizophrenic. The lovely and harrowing final passage reveals that Bartleby once worked in a dead letter office. “Dead letters!” Melville writes. “Does it not sound like dead men? … On errands of life, these letters speed to death.” It seems impossible that Melville did not draw a parallel between a dead letter—a letter meant for someone that never finds its intended recipient—and Moby-Dick, which sailed forth but was refused popular harbor. One thinks of Kilgore Trout in Slaughterhouse Five describing his obscure writing career as years of making love to an open window.

Bartleby the Scrivener is a suicide note that nobody cared to read, and yet its despair completely misjudges the eventual reception of Moby-Dick. Andrew Delbanco writes of the happy ending that Melville didn’t live to see:

Moby-Dick was not a book for a particular moment. It is a book for the ages…. And so Melville emerged in the twentieth century as the American Dostoevsky—a writer who, with terrible clairvoyance, had been waiting for the world to catch up with him. Ever since, he has routed his rivals in the competition for readers. Delbanco, Melville: His World and Work, p. 12

It ought to be inspiring, anyway. Melville did persevere against the neglect he encountered—because Moby-Dick eventually found an audience, but also because he did continue to write. He answered the perceived neglect of Moby-Dick initially with more novels, with satire, with Bartleby the Scrivener, then with poetry, and at some point with Billy Budd, a posthumously published story that is one of his most revered.

Ultimately, every writer must do what Melville did. He must say what he has to say regardless of what readers and critics say or don’t say back. He must do it even if they shower him with ignorant praise. He cannot shut up. He prefers not to.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Up Close in the New York Times


For a recent New York Times profile of Austin Ratner, follow this link.

Author's Notebook: The Whole Megillah


The blog tour for my new novel In the Land of the Living, continues with an author interview at The Whole Megillah:

BK: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you go from med school to the Iowa Workshop? AR: This question always makes me think of Gonzo in The Muppet Movie. He tells Kermit and Fozzie he’s going to Bombay, India to become a movie star. They tell him:you don’t go to Bombay, India to become a movie star, you go to Hollywood, where we’re going. Gonzo says, sure, if you want to do it the easy way. I always wanted to be a writer, but I did not take a direct path. There are worse paths, though, than the one that leads through a medical career. Somerset Maugham said that medical school was the ideal preparation for any fiction writer.

To read the rest, follow this link.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tragedy Plus Comedy in a Hurry


The blog tour for my new novel In the Land of the Living, continues at Tablet Magazine's Jewcy blog:

The old saw that “comedy is tragedy plus time” has been attributed to everyone from Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce, Carol Burnett, and Woody Allen. That’s according to the Internet, a.k.a. bullshit at the speed of light. But whoever authored the line was working from a different formula than the Jewish one I grew up with. Eric Jarosinski’s funny Twitter feed @NeinQuarterly says, “Tragedy + time – comedy = German comedy.” In the Jewish formula, I think, there isn’t enough time between tragedies for ‘tragedy plus time’ to apply.

To read the rest, follow this link.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

In the Land of the Living: On a Wonderful Day Like Today


I will be blogging this week about my new novel In the Land of the Living, just released by Little Brown. Here is an excerpt of the third blog, an annotated playlist of songs and music alluded to and quoted from in my book. The blog appeared on David Gutowski's music blog, Largehearted Boy:

In the Land of the Living is about losing a parent before you're six years old—in other words, before you can remember it, but not before you can feel it. Maybe because music expresses passionate feelings even without any words attached, it plays a central role in the emotional lives of the characters. This novel is the closest I could come to writing a song. I wrote it instead of tattooing tears on my face. All of the following songs are directly referred to and / or quoted from in the novel:

To read the rest, follow this link.