What I Read in March

April 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque. Translated from the German by A. W. Wheen. A Fawcett mass-market paperback that I purchased for a history class in the summer before eleventh grade, my copy holds an authentic aged-newsprint smell. All Quiet is, I think, the first and only war novel I have ever read (as in actually depicting the brutalities of war, not set during a war), and I wonder where its distinction lies, other than the fact that Remarque was himself wounded in combat during World War I and is writing as a journalist as much as a storyteller.

The hero, Paul Bäumer, is a twenty-year-old soldier who has signed up for the German army with the rest of his classmates. From the beginning, Paul’s tone is one of cautious optimism, his happiness measured in material things like cigarette rations and who will get his dying comrade’s boots.

Morale quickly sinks as mortar shells fly, and those same classmates are killed off, one by one; more pertinently, we hear next to nothing about the progress of the war, the Kaiser, the Archduke, or any kind of missive to provide a reason why the young men are there. The novel loses awareness of its periphery; with no way to keep track of what is success, all sense of reason is lost.

Paul’s youth evaporates. His mother, back home, is dying. In a prescient acknowledgment of what would now be called PTSD, the trauma of combat follows Paul home on leave; he is “startled a couple of times in the street by the screaming of tramcars,” which sound like exploding shells. In the second half of the book, Paul’s weary voice turns philosophical:

We count the weeks no more. It was winter when I came up, and when the shells exploded the frozen clods of earth were just as dangerous as the fragments. Now the trees are green again. Our life alternates between billets and the front. We have almost grown accustomed to it; war is the cause of death like cancer and tuberculosis, like influenza and dysentery. The deaths are merely more frequent, more varied are terrible.

Our thoughts are clay, they are moulded with the changes of the days;–when we are resting they are good; under fire, they are dead. Fields of craters within and without.

From a historical standpoint, it is fair to ask what All Quiet tells us about war that The Red Badge of Courage and Catch-22 do not. The answer may be how close it lies, without flinching, to a seat of decay inside one human.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, Susan Sontag. The second volume of Sontag’s journals, covering her thirties and most of her forties, begins with the year she published her groundbreaking essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’” There are still a lot of lists (books read, movies seen or to be seen) and seeds planted for novel ideas that never sprouted, but we also get a lot of sketching-out of the thoughts that went into the books she published during this period: the essay collections Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980) and the novels The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967).

We also hear more confession about relationships—particularly her affairs with Jasper Johns, Harriet Sohmers, María Irene Fornés, and particularly the duchess Carlotta del Pezzo. These sections hardly read as the kind of experimental draft prose you expect to find in a private journal. She analyzes her relationships as she would an admired work of art, seeking meaning out of the sublime with the artist (herself) elevated as the moral center. From February 10, 1970:

The meaning of Carlotta’s “collapse” this past week: You see, I would if I could, but I can’t. For the behavior to be effective (i.e., self-exonerating) the collapse must be “total,” which excludes even the slightest gesture of consolation or reassurance to me. For it she could make such a gesture, that would mean she was capable of concern for me (of feeling a sense of responsibility) and therefore that the collapse was not total, and if not total then demands could conceivably be made on her, etc. (That, not sadism—conscious or unconscious—explains why she couldn’t give the smallest reassurance those last days.)

What I have to get over: the idea that the value of love rises as the self dwindles. What Carlotta doesn’t want—should anyone want it?—is that I’m prepared to give up (disvalue) everything for her. What she was attracted to in me was that I was a person with interests, success, strength.

A bad lesson I learned from Irene, who did want me to give up everything for her, and did measure my love by the amount I was willing to give up.

Sontag also travelled a lot ,so there are numerous datelined entries giving impressions of such places as Tangier, Paris, and Prague, along with many of the notes that went into her Vietnam essay “Trip to Hanoi” (found in Styles of Radical Will), and “Project From a Trip to China,” the first story in her collection I, Etcetera.

Who Can Make It, Mike Young. One of the first chapbooks released by Big Lucks Books, Who Can Make It includes Young’s crowdpoem “Aliens We All Know and Love.” Young invited visitors to add in their own text to the poem, Mad Lib-style, and he chose his favorite submission for each line. I don’t recognize any of the lines as mine, nor does H., who also submitted, but we’re thanked in the acknowledgements, and anyway, the poem is electric and the ending is nails:

I love telling you we should move to North Dakota

even though we never will. Televised rain


getting away with it, the animals still recovering

from bad press. I love how at a movie,


just before the credits,

you try to guess the song.

Meditations From a Movable Chair, Andre Dubus. Finishing up my journey through Dubus that I started in February. The essays in this volume take up many of the same themes as Dubus’s fiction: manhood and its beguiling limitations, religion, guilt, anger and forgiveness and the search for purity of the soul. The author, who died in 1999, experienced no shortage of the kind of real-life tragedy that puts to test one’s faith, including the rape of his sister, the aftermath of which is detailed in the first essay here, and another attack on his oldest daughter (not mentioned here but included in his son Andre Dubus III’s 2011 memoir, Townie). In 1986, while stopping to help a motorist in a disabled vehicle on Interstate 93 in Massachusetts, the elder Dubus was struck by a Honda Prelude and lost the use of his legs.

As the title implies, many of these essays radiate from that incident, which gives the impression that life as an immobile person has turned Dubus into someone more observant, reflective, and patient, but also reduced in the eyes of those among whom he had been an imposing presence. He vacillates between humility (as when he writes of needing to be carried by loved ones up a steep hill to a field) and righteousness (as when he shared the angry letter he wrote to Amtrak after being unable to use the train’s facilities). Through it all, Dubus seems to yearn for a reassured tranquility that he isn’t sure he deserves.

The Isle of Youth, Laura van den Berg. In a bit of missed opportunity, I heard van den Berg read along with three other writers in Northampton last fall, but didn’t meet her or buy her book; then, a few months later, I got it for Christmas.

There are seven long stories here, with settings ranging from Florida to Antarctica, and they all feature female narrators clinging to a distorted sense of their undertakings and operating with an inability to weigh the gravity of situations. In “Opa-Locka,” two sisters try to run a private detective business with licenses acquired from an online course. (One sister did the coursework for both of them.) Slights, held-over grudges, and personal histories (a forgotten husband, a vanished grifter father) get in the way of the task at hand, blinding the characters from the understanding that they are out of their element.

A running theme is performance, both from the point of view of the performer seeking to please and the rapt audience member looking to be taken somewhere. The narrator of “The Greatest Escape” works as the teenage assistant to her mother, a struggling illusionist with demons; in “Acrobat,” a woman is so enchanted with street performers in Paris that she ignores her husband when he announces he is leaving her. Another theme is disappearance: particularly by men—fathers, husbands—and the itch of their anticipated resurfacing. Van den Berg’s characters struggle to adjust their expectations–of others and themselves–in light of unreliable environments and bent realities:

I decided to order a big meal. I decided to eat until I felt like bursting. I started by asking for my own bottle of wine. As I sipped my first glass of wine, I felt something in the room change, like all the electrical currents had been moving in one direction and then suddenly started going in another. Or, as my husband would say, the “emotional weather” was different. He was always accusing my emotional weather of changing without warning. The forecast had predicted clear skies and then, out of nowhere, here came the rain clouds. Time after time, I tried to explain that I didn’t have much control over my emotional weather, and viewed the local weatherman with newfound empathy whenever I saw him on the evening news. I stared at my hands as I thought of these things. These moments that pass for a life.


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