Posts by Edward Champion

Edward Champion is the Managing Editor of Reluctant Habits.
davidcarr

RIP David Carr

It is sad and apt that David Carr, arguably the snappiest turtle inside the New York Times newsroom, died on the job at the age of 58. Only hours before, he’d been moderating a panel with Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald. He had ascended to the nation’s foremost newspaper after a rocky battle with crack cocaine and alcohol that he chronicled in his journalistic memoir, The Night of the Gun.

Perhaps it was this personal odyssey, revealing the way that Carr weaved empathy and accuracy into a bright and highly readable bow, that helped mint David Carr as the journalist you could trust. He was a vivacious reporter who could be counted on to follow through with an opinion and cross-examine it, whether it meant contacting Jayson Blair to remark upon Mike Daisey’s theatrical deceit or gently implicating Julian Assange’s dramatists long after the Wikileaks founder had become a punchline.

Carr never had to exaggerate or embellish a detail, whether it was about himself or a subject. He was committed to finding the idiosyncratic absurdities in the real world and he had the stamina and the fortitude to hunt his stories down honestly, no matter how long it took. Where other critics opted for the nuclear takedown or the overly fawning profile, Carr carried out his columns with a fine finesse that rarely tilted to either extreme. He had a nail-hard knack for pounding rivets into people he liked and advocated, such as in this 1999 assessment of Washington Post writer Henry Allen:

Florid? His ledes have more bouquets than a Mafia don’s funeral. Overwritten? Twelve monkeys couldn’t kick up this much racket. But it’s astonishing stuff, the kind of writing that makes you leave the morning coffee untouched. Allen’s probably not going to get a Pulitzer, but he deserves some kind of goddamn medal for arguing all of those wacked-out tales past his editors.

And he turned this highly scrutinizing eye to himself in his remarkable book, The Night of the Gun, posting documents and video interviews on a website to hold himself accountable.

Carr’s sudden and surprising death not only serves as a vital reminder for journalists to do their best work today, but reveals how much the Times relied on Carr’s maverick energy. What other rocket can travel so fluidly between the Times‘s dowdy atmosphere and the crackling human universe? What reporter can possibly replace him?

The answer, of course, is nobody.

XXX WTW_BRIANWILLIAMSRAPS_050214.JPG A ENT

The Case for Releasing Brian Williams Into the Wild

When a public figure goes well out of his way to tell a dubious sounding Horatio Alger story in interview after interview, especially one that is permanently soaked in a saccharine bath of American idealism, it is natural to be skeptical. It is also quite healthy to take authority figures to task for their flubs and gaffes, especially when we entrust them to tell us the truth.

I have spent the better part of a day sifting through profiles and speeches and documents, speaking with very helpful and overworked people at fire departments and restaurants, entering into email volleys with university registrars, and chatting with Catholics. I am forced to conclude that NBC News anchor Brian Williams is probably not a liar.

After corroborating the details of Williams’s life story with numerous sources, I have discovered that Williams’s mind has been mostly precise when recalling the details. The one notable exception — and this has caused justifiable controversy — is Williams’s claim that he was on board a helicopter during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was recently called into question by three Army officers courtesy of the reporters at Stars and Stripes. But another officer — Rich Krell — has presented a third alternative that lies somewhere between Williams’s story and the other officers, turning the tale into a veritable Rashomon for media junkies.

Aside from stretching his short stint as a volunteer firefighter out to “several years” and fluctuating his upbringing between “grindingly middle class,” “solidly middle class,” and “classic middle class,” I have discovered nothing that would lead me to impugn Williams.

“My break came when Betty Endicott, news director at WTTG in Washington, called me into an office and asked me to close the door one day. She said, uh, ‘They told me you used to do this. You did on camera. You did small market television in news.’ And I said, I said, ‘Yeah, I did. Briefly. It was an experiment. A failed experiment.’ She said, ‘Do you have any tapes?’ And I said, ‘Well, they’ve long since been burned and taken to a licensed landfill facility outside of town.'” — “Brian Williams: My First Big Break,” February 2, 2012

Somewhere beneath the relentless layers of pancake makeup, an anchorman projected onto ten million television sets is as human as the rest of us. While we are privately jostled by our friends for missing a few key details in a juicy anecdote, Williams must tell the same stories over and over: building upon his narrative, embellishing it, and risking more if he slips up once. And because his highly scrutinized vocation is committed to a rigid objectivity, he’s never allowed to gush over a subjective experience like the rest of us. This accounts for why Williams repeats phrases like “licensed landfill facility” when he discusses how he buried his early resume reel as a struggling young man. The specificity sounds suspicious. It’s preposterous enough that someone would go all the way to a refuse site to dispose of an incinerated 3/4″ videotape, but why should it be called a facility? And why qualify it with the “licensed” modifier? Why not just say that you eviscerated the damn tape in grandiose despair? Well, how many of us have to willfully repeat the same stories hundreds of times with a camera watching over us?

popejp2Public figures — especially ones committed to mainstream journalism — don’t have the luxury of expressing passion and exuberance so freely. So when Williams talks of “meeting” Pope John Paul II “by positioning himself at the top of the stairs of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception” in October 1979 at Catholic University (the registrar confirmed with me that Williams was a student in the School of Arts and Sciences at the time), and an article with an accompanying photo reveals that the Pope was actually speaking on the steps (see right), should Williams be called a liar? Or can we let him off the hook by remembering a younger time when we “met” someone we admired simply by standing in close proximity?

The most significant inconsistency I found was in Williams’s flight from George Washington University to Pittsburg, Kansas, where Williams began his first (and unsuccessful) anchoring job at KOAM TV, working for $168 each week. In a 2013 interview with Alec Baldwin, Williams claimed that he packed up his belongings in the backseat of his Dodge Dart, along with his dog Charlie. But in a May 3, 2005 Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, Williams noted that he had bought a Ford Escort at Coffeyhouse Motors and claimed, “I rented a truck and I threw my trusty cocker spaniel in the front seat and I pointed my truck west from Washington and I moved to Kansas to start a new life and a new career.” Howard Kurtz’s The Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War reports yet another version:

The unpaid bills and college debt piled up as Williams labored for meager wages, and when his Dodge Dart died one day in a cornfield, Bengston helped arranged a loan for a Ford Escort. But not even a new set of wheels could get Williams to a bigger market….Clearly, he had failed. Williams packed his dog, Charlie, into a Ryder truck, drove to Washington, moved into a basement, and took a courier’s job at the National Association of Broadcasters, delivering documents in a red station wagon. It was a huge comedown.

It’s worth pointing out that all of this occurred thirty-five years ago, a year before Williams got his big break at WTTG with news director Betty Endicott. Williams had landed a job as a chyron operator. Endicott learned that he had once been a reporter and promoted him on the spot. Willilams was covering the Pentagon not long later and on his way to an illustrious career. There is, of course, no way to confirm the conversation that transpired. Endicott is dead. The talk was behind closed doors. We have only Williams’s word for it. But it’s these details that are clear, not the struggle that led up to it. And why not? A successful person defines himself by the first moment of success, not necessarily by the incremental “fail better” moments that came before.

Which brings us back to Williams’s snafu with the helicopter. His memory, which is riddled with inconsistencies, is pitted against the memories of the Army officers. But Williams’s statements over the course of twelve years get opened up to public scrutiny. This isn’t the case for the officers. While it is undeniably interesting to see how Williams’s story changed, it also gives Williams an unfair disadvantage.

If CNN reported how I remembered an episode on December 31, 2000, it would probably read as follows:

January 1, 2001: In a largely illegible journal entry, Champion tries to recall what happened the night before in a drunken haze. “Clothes discovered on floor the next morning. Who is this woman lying next to me?” He doesn’t say that he made it with the woman in question, much less her name, only that he learned about her the next morning.

September 2001: Champion self-publishes a chapbook, Tortured Youth, that details the New Year’s Eve incident. The account is vague. A friend, who generously hands over the three dollars for this undercooked offering of autobiographical nonsense, credits “one of the Goth girls I see hanging at Elbo Room” for spotting Champion during that celebratory evening. The reader is told “We entered the apartment,” but the passage doesn’t state who made the first move, or Champion’s exact location. Whose apartment was it?

March 2004: During a secretly recorded chat, Champion speaks of that day in 2000 to an acquaintance who insists on documenting every moment for posterity. “I think I made the first move, but I can’t be sure. I was trying to put one foot in front of the other. Some stranger may have thrown a bottle at us.” This description suggests that Champion was under attack.

March 2006: Champion refers to the bottle attack, but cannot remember the woman’s name. Someone suggests that what happened on New Year’s Eve five years ago was probably nothing, but Champion recreates his artful leap from the exploding bottle on the ground, which he seems to recall more vividly than the woman.

February 2015: Champion tries to remember how he remembered that New Year’s Eve evening while writing about Brian Williams, realizing that if he had to deal with such insufferable media scrutiny on a regular basis, he’d be called a goddam liar for the rest of his natural life.

The above silliness is inconsequential to me. But if I were in any truly influential position, I am certain that it would be used against me.

Do news people have the right to tell their own stories even as they maintain objective stances on stories that they merely report on? Given the Choppergate ballyhoo, probably not. Or perhaps it’s just Williams who isn’t allowed to. He has made appearances on The Daily Show to demonstrate that he has a sense of humor, even as his nightly appearances on NBC suggest that he is something of a stiff. Television does not allow Williams to merge the two identities. Williams must carry on with these roles, adhering to the mandate embossed into the desk by top brass. Television news would be far more honest if Williams were to appear one night with a chainsaw, destroying his desk with a savage violence while reciting the news in a calm and objective voice. But if we can’t have that, maybe we should cut the guy some slack.

[2/6/15 UPDATE: Think Progress‘s Jessica Goldstein consulted several noted psychologists about the science of memory and how it applies to Williams. From Professor William Hirst: “You build your memories as you go along. We consolidate memories. There’s also evidence that, every time we retrieve a memory, it makes it vulnerable to reconsolidation. So if we retrieve something and tell that story at a dinner party, and slightly exaggerate your role, it reconsolidate to incorporate that exaggeration. And the next time you’re telling it, you’re building on that. You can see how the story can grow. And the stories we end up telling reflect the social framework in which we live.”]

harper lee

The Harper Lee Question

On February 3, 2015, a bold wave of joy and jubilation jolted the dry fields of the publishing industry. Harper Lee had written a second novel, Go Set a Watchman. It was set to be published in July. It was a 304-page sequel to her celebrated masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, and was set twenty years later, following Scout’s further adventures as she revisits her principled father, Atticus Finch, in the 1950s.

It didn’t take long for the skeptics to pop out of the funhouse. One cri de coeur came from Jezebel‘s Madeleine Davies, who cited Lee’s problematic relationship with her attorney Tonja Carter and pointed to how Alice Lee claimed that her sister did not always understand the contracts she signed (a charge that can equally apply to many writers, who traditionally aren’t in the habit of minding the store). There was also Lee’s copyright lawsuit against her agent Samuel Pinkus, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Pinkus had transferred the Mockingbird copyright to his company Veritas Media Inc. as Lee’s health declined. It was a classic case of a venal opportunist exploiting an undisputedly brilliant artist and moving in for the kill. With the settlement terms behind closed doors, we still don’t know how much of the copyright or the Mockingbird commissions Lee has actually received. (Lee and Pinkus’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment from Business Insider‘s Erin Fuchs.)

So there are underlying concerns about Go Set a Watchman. Was the publication of this second novel motivated by financial need? Had Lee been pressured to dust off a manuscript that had been sitting around for decades? Why did Lee’s attorney, who discovered the manuscript, push to have Watchman published? This was, after all, the manuscript that Lee had set aside before writing Mockingbird. It may be an embryo rather than a bouncing baby.

Watchman will undoubtedly be of great interest to the waning population that still reads. But doesn’t an author have the right to keep her early manuscripts unpublished? Lee obviously made the choice, but if she was squeezed into this last hurrah, there’s something unsavory about an author so beloved and renowned, one who has steadfastly avoided publicity, being coerced into showing off her apprentice work, especially if this manuscript has not been significantly edited or revised in the years since.

Indeed, when a genius’s undercooked work gets published, it can often backfire. In 2012, David Foster Wallace’s remaining nonfiction scraps were published as Both Flesh and Not and the mixed results, accompanied by a condescending list of vocabulary words used by Wallace, diminished his clear talent. And because of efforts like this (and the rushed D.T. Max biography), a DFW backlash developed.

It’s possible that Watchman will be a great book. As someone who was deeply moved by Mockingbird the three times I read it, I certainly hope it will be. Of course, one should certainly not venture an opinion about it until reading the damn thing in full. But if Watchman is a dog and there are any honest literary critics left in this gutless age of “No haters!” and trigger warnings, then Lee will be alive to witness the excoriations. The public may likewise measure Watchman by Mockingbird‘s yardstick.

Harper Lee is a national treasure. Given Mockingbird‘s great reach into the American cultural landscape, she has more than earned her right to be heralded, celebrated, and otherwise declared the bee’s knees. But Watchman is not Lee’s most recent work. To Kill a Mockingbird is. Watchman is a historical document, a book that should be published after Lee’s death when people are in a better position to judge her totality. It is a crassly commercial decision, not a scholarly one, that motivates this publication.

boilerroom

Loud Men Talking at a Starbucks Boiler Room Table

On the morning of February 3, 2015, ten aspiring entrepreneurs, all men, ranging in age from their mid-thirties to their mid-fifties (“I’ve been in this business for forty years. There is nothing you can say that will hurt me,” said the oldest man), gathered at a Brooklyn Starbucks to discuss their great plans. They took up the entirety of a long table constructed of affordable wood and talked extremely loud.

The men confused this common space for a boiler room. They seized one stool, a precious seat in a crowded place, because some arcane section in the business plan required that one of their sparsely packed backpacks could not rest on the floor. After all, these men were not riff raff. They were meant to be tycoons.

These men believed themselves to be paragons of originality, altogether different from other captains of industry. Yet not a single man at the table sported a suit, much less a tie or a shirt selected with an iota of care. Indeed, the men had not bothered to dress well at all. They regularly looked down at their laptops and often made references to “being on the same page.” They swapped such invaluable tips on how to send an Excel document to other colleagues by email and the best way to swallow a cough drop.

They were the team. They meant business, even though it often took ten minutes to set up a five minute meeting. They were going to kill.

What follows is an actual transcript of their conversation. It is presented here as a litmus test, a way to determine whether the men who are talking loudly in your Starbucks are, indeed, on the same page:

“Let me do my damn job!”

“I want you to do your damn job.”

“I have to do my damn job!”

“Relax. I want you to do your damn job. We’ll get you cold-calling tomorrow. Now about this guy…”

“Yeah.”

“He’s a good guy. But he’s very predictable.”

“Not like us.”

“No. But if he talks about salmon, you talk about salmon. If he talks about brisket, you talk about brisket.”

“Right.”

“And you’ll be able to do your damn job. Because you’re an original.”

“Alright, so let’s say Friday. We’re going to say 8:30. Now what time is the meeting?”

“Let’s be realistic. He’s on a train. You’re on a train. Let’s say it’s a 4:00 drop dead time on Friday.”

“Well, I should think we should have the meeting a little bit earlier.”

“We had a 4:30 cutoff on Friday. Realistically…”

“Listen. 2:00.”

“I don’t care. I’ll come home at 7.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“We’re getting snowed in.”

“Let’s say we do a 4:30. We can concentrate on the meeting.”

“Is that okay with everybody?”

“Okay. 8:30 we meet, 4:30 we eat.”

“Nice rhyme.”

“Thanks.”

“Alright. So the next thing that we got throw at us. The Brooklyn Initiative. The theme is pretty much handling the scheduling on that, which is fine by me. Now here’s the thing with that. What day is it? February 3rd? What day do we got?”

“Not March.”

“We sat down with them and put together a strategy.”

“The Brooklyn Initiative.”

“Yes. These guys are conversating. The way I see it, they get compensated.”

“They get compensated?”

“In forty or so accounts.”

“We have the list.”

“The problem is that the person in charge of this Initiative wants more, which is pretty much impossible from a logistics standpoint. It’s going to be intricate changes. Impossible. So I’m going to make the Wednesday meeting with one of you guys.”

“Here’s the deal, guys. These guys are seasonal businessmen. I mean, it’s criminal. With that said, there’s not a lot of business out there. But those guys have about a twenty to twenty-two week season. So here’s the deal. Their owners start coming back in March. Whatever it is. By April, they’re back. These guys want to start. These guys gotta start putting their deals together.”

“Swinging.”

“Right. Swinging. But the moral to the story is — well, this is…”

“That puts it through to the end of April.”

“Right.”

“They’re going to start fluffing their pillows at the end of March.”

“I think we have four to five weeks with them tops.”

“Here’s more on that note. Thank you for opening that door for me. Because I’m going to walk through it. I need to make out the items that we’re going to sell.”

“We got beat up on Friday for saying that. I’ve seen the invoices.”

“So take ‘em. This is all I suggest to you. Because the veterans of this table know about planning. No plan has failed.”

“An extra pair of eyes never hurts.”

againstpizza

Among the Distasteful: A Jeremiad Against Pizza

Amid the bacchanal of culinary dilettantes, let us pause to honor and pontificate upon the Seamless junkies, the strapless smartphone whores of Babylon, and the editors who will never edit my prolix copy. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of pizzerias and Italian restaurants, which have been invaded by the greatest, biggest, plus-sized, vilest, ugliest, most malicious, thorniest, and savviest of hooligans in the history of the food industry. There are baleful brutes who stab at their slices with forks and knives, and these include a Gotham City Mayor elected by delusional liberals who now complain of turned backs from those stalwart officers in blue rightly wishing to uphold the old Paul Anka white bread standards in the name of American justice and the occasionally playful choke hold or wrestling move gone wrong. Eaters, when they are not hanging from a trapeze, hover between a decent share of a pie and an indecent bite cadged off some smelly bum; they are expected to open a plastic wrapper containing a mass-produced square of spiral noodles produced in some exotic export processing zone when they are not eating a gluten-free meal at gunpoint, and all the miracles of electronic pizza dissemination somehow do not suffice for the experience of a home-cooked meal cooked and curated by a bromidic homemaker who no longer exists in our world of career equilibrium and gender parity. There is not a stove in the New York City area that is turned on, unless it compensates for a tetchy radiator in the blistering cold. Everybody — and by “everybody” I mean the three magazine articles I read in a drunken, self-loathing haze over the holidays — talks frantically about pizza, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as if the prospect of tomato sauce vanishing into a bed of “cheese” is a cataclysmic event rivaling the First Battle of Ypres. “Cheese” must be contained in quotes, for it is very much a part of the crisis; its ineluctably paralytic hold was once embraced in rap by a hip young man named Marshall Mathers, from whom I quote: “Here I go again hammerin stammerin grammerin and eat it like cheese, pass me the crackers please / I’ve got a craving.” But what does this understanding of “cheese” contribute to to the understanding of life? Pizzerias and restaurants have slowly transformed themselves into hammerin stammerin grammerin venues in which customers willfully fill their stomachs with subpar Mozzarella and pepperoni from questionable meat vendors, without regard for last century’s pizza standards, the greatest pizza generation, or the way pizza used to be, and the gurgling of bellies bellows above all stabs at grace and thrusts at aesthetic consideration. As the frequency of hammerin stammerin grammerin expression grows, the force, nay the power, of proper pizza consumption diminishes: Pie expectations of plentiful toppings and extra crispness confer the highest prestige upon the masticating cacophony of stertorous belches and promotional coupons promising a two-for-one special during the next vulgar visit. It was always the case that all pizza eaters, especially those too indolent to saunter down to the local establishment and pick up the pies in person, must pass gas, but this is ridiculous.

Meanwhile the discussion of higher dinners is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of “bidness” – a shorthand slang term I first heard from this Mathers fellow and that a young African-American friend (I assure you that, as a cultural expert, some of my best friends are black, although only one returned my call for this essay) recently educated me on. Apparently, today’s youth is now pronouncing “business” this way. Are they ashamed of sibilant consonants? I haven’t a clue, but I’m not at The New Republic anymore and unpacking these seminal and intricate issues is a more complicated and arcane professional task in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. For example, it was my “bidness” to write this paragraph with my trousers tousled around my ankles, gaping at my study window to ensure that nobody was looking. Scummy little pizza! Kill the bastard! Am I straying from my point? Perhaps. But I was guaranteed a 3,000 word count. I am scared.

Anyway, “bidness.” There are no known “metrics” between the relationship between “cheese” and “bidness.” Numerical values are assigned to orders that ping from the deepest recesses of the electronic vortex, as a voracious digital consumer logs onto Seamless and contributes to the “cheese” industrial complex. Economic concepts grow into great kaiju destroying our proudest metropolises: There is, in fact, an economist standing next to me right now! He does not answer to the name of Krugman but he is growing big bigger BIGGER! Oh shit! There goes my 19th century bronze chandelier! To paraphrase Yoda (and I’m not sure this benign, large-eared, fictitious creature actually said this; I have not actually seen these movies), where ceiling once was, bitter tears will now be. Ergo, pizza is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. This draconian hold is enabled by the video game characters Mario and Luigi, two Italian stereotypes from Nintendo who should rightfully be employed as co-owners of a pizzeria (this was, after all, Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s source of inspiration), but who were ignobly cast as jocular plumbers, thus subverting the consumer’s expectations and therefore the pizza scholar’s. Yet in a Pavlovian salivation tactic worthy of America’s most craven marketers, one looks at Mario’s red and Luigi’s green and sees tomato sauce and bell peppers. Beyond their predatory and symbiotic relationship with pizza, all distastefully clandestine, Mario and Luigi penetrate even deeper levels of identity and experience, to cognition and consciousness. Such transformations embolden certain high culinary priests in the church of nostalgia to espouse the doctrine of “transmarioism” and to suggest, without any recollection of the bankruptcy of Atari or the guy who created the Pong game, that our pizza-eating acumen will carry us magnificently beyond our affinity for Mario and “allow us to, like, chill out with an old GameCube if you can bring the weed, bro…Smoke a few bowls and there will be no distinction, post-Luigi’s Mansion, between human and Mario.” (The author of that frivolous nonsense, a random email that someone forwarded to me to help me pad out this piece, is a twenty-five-year-old pizza delivery man known among his peers as something of a beer pong champion. One sees how transmarioism and the great pizza lie feeds on itself.)

And even as pizzaism, which is not the same as pizza and not the same as “cheese” and not the same as any other sinister neologism I may coin, asserts itself over more and more police precincts that subjugate human life the thrill of a warm fascist bath, so too does hamburgerism, which is not the same as hamburgers and not the same as hot dogs and not the same as pizza and not the same as pizzaism and if you send $9.99 to my home address I will provide you with a flowchart on all the terms I am establishing in this highly intellectual essay (not even my editor could figure it out!). I am Leon Wiesltier, which is not the same as Leon Wieseltierism and not the same as Wiener Schnitzel and not the same as the emotionally cleansing experience I have when spilling my guts out to my therapist, which may very well be better for me than accepting these assignments. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of pizza must be explained in terms of the material dimensions…OH WHO THE FUCK AM I KIDDING? I AM A 62 YEAR OLD MAN AND I HAVE NEVER EATEN A SLICE OF PIZZA! THERE! I SAID IT, GODDAMMIT! PIZZA, I JUST DON’T GET YOU AND NEVER WILL! DAMN YOU KIDS AND YOUR FUN AND YOUR SUPER MARIO AND YOUR CHEESE AND YOUR HAMMMERIN STAMMERIN GRAMMERIN!

Okay…calm down, Leon. Let’s get it together. We can get to the end.

A complacent eater is an eater who has not picked at his pizza closely. But never mind the pizza. Our solemn responsibility is to stop writing dull and incoherent essays that fail to inspire anyone and that say absolutely nothing at all.

nypdmyrtle

The Cop Shootings Were Awful, But This Doesn’t Let the NYPD Off the Hook

Two cops were gunned down near Myrtle and Tompkins Avenue on Saturday afternoon. It happened near my old neighborhood. There was a palpable panic that hit the latte drinkers like an epidemic, as if one shooting had the power to halt the eastward wave of gentrification. The more troubling question, of course, beyond the immediate concern for the victims’s families, was whether this incident would serve as a smoking gun for an altogether different war against peaceful activists, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and any person standing in the NYPD’s way.

Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the gunman who killed Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, was neither a protester nor a political agitator, unless one counts Instagram photos as a manifesto. He was a mentally disturbed man, admitting to an unspecified illness in court, and he shot his ex-girlfriend on Saturday, only to continue his spree at Bed-Stuy. Thus, Brinsley’s “motive,” which has been widely associated with Eric Garner, could just as easily have been hearing one too many treacly Christmas carols at the supermarket.

In all the finger wagging and op-ed quarterbacking, there has been little ink devoted to how a man like Brinsley obtained his silver pistol. Much like Elliot Rodger back in May, Brinsley was eager to communicate his plan (“I’m Putting Wings On Pigs Today”), motivated by hate, and carried out his violent rampage on people who were doing nothing: in this case, two cops who were merely eating their lunch. Whether Brinsley felt oppressed in an altogether different way, and didn’t feel he could express himself through peaceful means, is a matter that will likely have to be settled when further evidence pours in. But in light of 2014’s repugnant buffet of brutal violence, sexual assault allegations, #gamergate and other misogynist outings, and relentless racism, one must legitimately ask why it all seems to be spilling out now.

The loss of two cops deserves our sorrow and our respect. This was a violent and ineffable act, and the NYPD certainly deserves to mourn these losses.

Yet this incident must not be used by the NYPD to elude culpability for the murders of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley, who were both killed while unarmed and who both did not need to die. The NYPD must not stifle the necessary protests that will help bring about reform, much less any investigation into deeply inhumane and flagrantly over-the-top practices. The NYPD can complain about “NYPD KKK” epithets in chalk until it is as blue in the face as it is in uniform, but is not the written word better than the loaded gun? Surely, the NYPD must understand that there is a lot of rage over Garner, Gurley, and Michael Brown. The protests have attracted tens of thousands of people and, despite one questionable incident involving a bag of hammers, these efforts have been relatively peaceful.

Moreover, the NYPD is contributing to divisiveness. There were the I CAN BREATHE shirts brought by a Colorado man on Friday night, actively mocking Eric Garner’s dying words and heating up tensions with protesters on the other side. Then there was the NYPD’s astonishing disrespect for Mayor de Blasio on Saturday night, in which cops turned their backs when the Mayor entered a presser with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton at Woodhull Hospital.

The NYPD has been accustomed to getting what it wants and, as 1,000 more cops will be hired next year, there is little doubt that its militarized presence will escalate. And maybe that’s the problem with America right now. If everyone insists on being greedy and eating what little they have left of the pie, how will we learn to get through hard times?

knight

Saying Goodbye to the Knight

We underestimate our connections to neighborhoods: the friendly faces that we flutter our hands to, the casual conversations that shake our souls with an unanticipated import, the nodes and locational lodestones we come to know as intimately as our friends and lovers. But when we are plucked from these felicitous and regular rhythms because of an eviction or a job loss (or in my case, a colossal act of errant idiocy), it can be as unsettling as a divorce or as earth-shattering as an air strike. But one is forced to accept the hard reality: Your neighborhood is no longer yours.

I came to know the knight when I first moved to Brooklyn eight years ago. I was living alone in a railroad apartment in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, barely slapping enough freelance checks together to make rent. A group of friends and I initiated a weekly writing club at a now somewhat notable cafe on Fulton Avenue. I would take the subway shuttle up from the Prospect Park station and, on the walk to the cafe, I would witness the shining knight standing proudly on the concrete, standing watch over the thumping Motown music drifting upward from a somewhat concealed basement. There was something homespun and authentic about this tidy arrangement, which was more ample once you stepped through the sanctum. It was a spirit not unlike Brazenhead Books, the great secret bookstore on the Upper East Side now threatened with extinction. It would take me a few years to actually walk down the steep steps and talk to the friendly dreadlocked man spinning vinyl and always having a hell of a mellow good time. He was a man doing his best to keep some part of Biggie’s old stomping grounds alive, even though the neighborhood was changing. I had no idea that I’d be living only a few blocks from the knight years later.

Now an affinity for a lost neighborhood should never be confused with nostalgia, and one should take great care to uproot any instinct to cling to the past. I suppose this is why I have been making a farewell tour of where I once lived. I’ve made most of my rounds, but there was one place missing. And it sneaked up on me on Thanksgiving, as I was walking to the subway from a not very notable place. The knight was outside, standing guard for the important values and defying the ineluctable tide of gentrification that was coming. The tunes were grooving. And even though it was very cold, the old school feel warmed me to the core.

I walked down the steps. Nobody was there except the practically ageless proprietor. His hands were gently pulling the next record from its sleeve. I had something to say.

“Hello! I’m not living in this neighborhood anymore, but I just wanted to thank you for being here. I’ve always said that, as long as you’re around, this neighborhood will be okay, that the shit coming at us from the west will be held off a bit. Please hold out here as long as you can. Please keep the knight on the sidewalk.”

There was a pause. The proprietor was surprised by all this.

“And thank you for being open on Thanksgiving!”

“Thank you. That’s…that’s the best thing you could have said to me. Peace.”

I said my goodbye. And he warned me about the sharp steps.

We underestimate our connections to neighborhoods. And that’s why it’s important to tell the people gluing a hood together that what they’re doing is essential. If you see something, say something.

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An Apology

“The modern loss of respect, or rather the conviction that respect is due only where we admire or esteem, constitutes a clear symptom of the increasing depersonalization of public and social life.” – Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

First off, I’m sorry that this extremely necessary post was a long time in coming.

On the evening of September 25, 2014, I tweeted a number of inappropriate and over-the-line tweets to the novelist Porochista Khakpour, who I had been sparring with all day. I had been heavily drinking, but this does not excuse my behavior. In reviewing what I tweeted after the fact, I don’t even recognize the man who was tweeting that night. I am utterly appalled by my actions.

Thus, I offer my most heartfelt and earnest apologies to Porochista Khakpour. I am legitimately contrite, very aware of my wrongdoing, and have spent many hours rethinking what respect really means and what my relationship with words is.

I am not yet prepared to write about the more severe events that occurred the next morning (and after), but I was forced to remove myself from the Internet for a very long time. When I returned, I had no idea that so much ink and vitriol had been spread about me on social media. I have not read all the articles, but I have been apprised of their defamatory and outright inaccurate contents by other parties. Nevertheless, I earned the backlash. The punishment wasn’t just confined to the responses. There was the brutal and heartbreaking end of an eight and a half year relationship, excommunication from a sizable part of the literary community, and a sudden derelict status that I am now trying to claw my way out of. Despite all this, I have remained positive and have learned much that I hope to impart at length someday. And I will still be writing.

I would also like to thank one person.

One of the few people to rise above the toxic sludge of conjecture and innuendo was New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul. I’ve criticized Paul a number of times, but I respect the fact that Paul, who worked under the Sam Tanenhaus era and was undoubtedly familiar with the office shorthand, took the time out to debunk one of the promulgated stories. She didn’t have to do this. I doubt the Review‘s credibility would have been especially damaged by the rumor. But in an age where collecting unconfirmed gossip now constitutes “journalism,” I appreciate Paul’s commitment to professionalism over pitchforks. It’s an invaluable reminder for a writer with a loud voice that there’s another way to do things.

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Merritt Tierce (The Bat Segundo Show #551)

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Merritt Tierce is most recently the author of Love Me Back, a lively and fierce debut novel about a young single mother who works as a waitress and disguises her pain and humiliation behind a smile. Love Me Back was published by Doubleday.

This book is one of those rare works of art possessed with the boldness and the decency to tell the complicated truth about how women are doomed to second-class treatment in our precarious economy. It is a welcome and candid corrective to such loathsome television shows as 2 Broke Girls that prefer to prop up a sexist fantasy and outright myths rather than contend with blue-collar life. The distinction between Love Me Back‘s art and 2 Broke Girls‘s awfulness worked our production team up so much that this episode’s introduction contains a strong critique of 2 Broke Girls‘s sexist treatment of its characters and how it has influenced the perception of waitresses in American culture.

Our conversation with Ms. Tierce begins at the 4:57 mark. In our conversation with Ms. Tierce, there is also a remarkable gaffe, indeed one of the most notable flubs in our program’s long history, that involves a mangled pronoun. Apparently, Our Correspondent was so won over by Tierce’s narrative that he made the mistake of believing that the character Danny said something worse than he did in the text.

Author: Merritt Tierce

Subjects Discussed: The American novel and people who work in restaurants, James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, Mimi Pond’s Over Easy, working in a high-end steakhouse, how restaurants distort the physical form, cutting, self-harm, comparing the early version of “Suck It” to the book’s version, keeping text the same over a seven year period, the first full story that Tierce ever wrote, knowing that Love Me Back was a book, Alexander Maksik’s input into Love Me Back, approaching a book without knowing it was a novel or a short story collections, the commercial stigma against short story collections, interstitial pieces linking the stories, creating sentences that are more final than final, stripping italics and punctuation from the original stories, the fictionalized essay Tierce wrote for Pank, style and plummeting attention spans in the digital age, circumstances in which we see punctuation marks in life, why Tierce can’t add anything artificial to her writing, the sense of time related to life waiting tables, Tierce being accused of “petty rebellion” by a professor, women being defined exclusively in roles of pain, Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” women as second-class beings, the difficulty of writing happiness, what happens when you read too much Thomas Hardy, Edward P. Jones, Marie’s small size and her epicene identity, the ostensible fluidity of gender, vulnerability, Victoria Patterson’s LARB essay on Love Me Back, the ineluctably damaging qualities of the male gaze, when rebellion and degradation align, personal responsibility in being exploited, Tierce sharing biographical details with Marie, Tierce’s short story “Solitaire,” “This is What an Abortion Looks Like,” imagination and personal experience, the conversational stigma about abortion as a very regular part in American life, Wendy Davis, Obvious Child, and acceptance of same-sex marriage vs. acceptance of abortion.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Before we get into what this novel has to say about class, about self-abuse, and about being a woman, I’d like to get into the American novel’s often neglected history about people who work in restaurants. I think of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and I figured you were familiar with that given the cognates in your name. And I also think about Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster. I think about Mimi Pond’s graphic novel, Over Easy, which is somewhere between a memoir and fiction. To what extent was your novel a response to this often neglected form of novel? And given that there are an estimated 2.4 million* waiters and waitresses in this country, why do you think that this very real life has been so underrepresented in literature?

Tierce: That’s a great question and I’m really impressed at that list that you just provided. Because a lot of people have asked me, “Why haven’t I read anything about restaurant life?” And I am familiar with Mildred Pierce only because of the HBO miniseries.

mildredpiercewaitressCorrespondent: Oh, the Todd Haynes.

Tierce: With Kate Winslet. And it’s fantastic.

Correspondent: And has a great dramatization of restaurant life as well.

Tierce: Yes! It does. And there’s some similar themes at work, I think, in Mildred Pierce and in my book. And I’m also glad to hear that number. 2.4 million. Because it seems like so many people have worked in restaurants or even in some other form of retail or customer service.

Correspondent: That’s just waiters and waitresses. I pulled that from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because I really wanted to know that number too.

Tierce: Okay. Cool. Yeah. It’s something that so many people are familiar with and I’m surprised there’s not more writing about it. But one of my theories is that it’s really hard work. And a lot of times it’s just a means to whatever real end you’re going for in your life. And I say “real” because I don’t want to diminish anyone’s work in restaurants. I worked in restaurants for fifteen years. And it was very much my real life.

Correspondent: When did you stop working at restaurants? I know that the New Stories from the South bio says that you were working in a high-end steakhouse at that time. And I was curious about when that tapered off.

Tierce: Yeah, I was. And it tapered off about two and a half years ago. So it’s fairly recent. I mean, it’s so recent that I still frequently wake up and have a moment where I’m grateful that I don’t have to go work in a restaurant tonight.

Correspondent: Wow. What kept you in that? And it seems to me there’s an almost addictive impulse to it that you tap into very well with this novel.

Tierce: I mean, I couldn’t make more money doing anything else. So there was that reality. And I have two kids. And I’ve had them since I was Marie’s age myself. So it was hard for me to simultaneously make a living and try to get advanced in any other arena of life. And I think that is why a lot of artists especially keep working in restaurants. Because you have some flexibility and you have a steady cash income usually, which is enough to keep you going. But then you do get caught in it. And it’s hard to get out. And that goes back to what I think about why it’s not written about. It’s because when you do break out of it, it’s such a relief. You don’t want to think about it one more second of your life. Especially not to write.

Correspondent: Well, I think what it is — and I had a stint working in restaurants a long time ago — but it’s this kind of illusion that you’re free. Because I can always drop the job if I get a gig. And then you get caught up in a similar cycle that has no job security whatsoever. And I guess there’s so much shame attached that we don’t want to analyze it — whether it be in literature or even in life or even in regular conversation.

Tierce: Right. Yeah. You know, that’s an unfortunate reality of life — in particular, in America. The service industry is so condescended to and looked down on. You know, it’s not thought of as worthwhile work.

Correspondent: Or if it is, it’s some kind of vibrant, effervescent comedy or something.

Tierce: Right.

Correspondent: As opposed to the realities, the darkness. The physicality, which you get into very well in this book. Well, we don’t actually learn Marie’s name until a few chapters in. And this seems to reflect this regrettable cultural tendency in which customers, even the most progressive-minded ones, will often go into a restaurant and not even remember the name or not even see anything of the waiter or the waitress other than a physical blur And that opening section where it’s just this extraordinary sense of physical seizure is astonishing. But throughout the book, there’s a lot of physicality. And we become very aware of the physical presence of the waitstaff in this book through much of the sexualized scenes and so forth. I think also however of Tayna’s thumb resembling soggy bread. You have the “warm buttery smell” of Carl’s neck. These characters all seem to physically blend into the restaurants. And not even the seemingly protective plush leather of the check presenter is safe. There’s that credit card scene, where it actually gets lodged into the restaurant. And I’m wondering. What is it about the physical allure or the pull of a restaurant? I mean, this seems to me just as much of a part of it in both your novel and in life. It’s almost this vortex to a certain degree. And I’m wondering how you arrived at that or if you arrived at that or what physicality really means when both waitress and customer go to a restaurant.

Tierce: Right. Well, it is such a basic act. Eating and bringing someone food. And it is the most basic maintenance of the physical. So there’s that kind of level to it. But as a writer, I’m most interested in the sensual. Whatever details there are to be observed in a situation, the sensate ones are the most important to me. And a restaurant is, I think, a more fertile territory for that than a lot of settings because of the food and the smells and the sounds and the people and the touching, the everything of it.

Correspondent: Do you feel that much of the sex in this book — where did this come from? Did this come out of an investigation of the restaurant as physical consumptive space? Not just from experience. I mean, it just seems to become more of this great pull on all the characters. Not just Marie. Although in Marie’s case, it becomes just utterly painful to read and to see what she’s going through. Was sense of space one of the ways that you were able to triangulate her pain and the way that she dealt with it in her life as she get dragged further into this trajectory?

Tierce: Well, I wish I was smart enough to have been that deliberate about it.

Correspondent: Well, instinctively, how did it come?

Tierce: Yeah. Instinctively, it just was an element of restaurant culture that I do know from experience to be ubiquitous and to be just a part of the after hours life of a restaurant and the people who work there. I honestly don’t have a great answer for why that is or what the connection is. But I think it has partly to do with just appetites, with trying to satisfy other people’s appetites and putting yourself completely at the service of other people and then needing to get that back in some way. To convince yourself that you still exist by satisfying some of your own appetites after it’s over.

Correspondent: Being in service to other appetites creates a voracity of your own that is impossible to appease.

Tierce: Right. Exactly.

Correspondent: There are a few moments throughout Love Me Back where Marie subjects herself to self-harm, to cutting. The fondue skewer while her daughter is watching The Cosby Show. Cutting is typically associated with high school girls — at least, that’s how we look at it in society. But as we come to know more of Marie’s backstory in the short and long alternating chapters, we become very aware that Marie’s life has been thrown into this degrading trajectory because, well, she’s been thrown into the wilderness without a handbook. And I think you get at very well how, when we abandon kids or teenagers and throw them into the world, there are these lingering things. I mean, Marie has to learn much of this at the behest of men. And I’m wondering. Do restaurants contribute in any way to being in denial about throwing our kids into really terrible lives like this? And can fiction provide an adequate response to getting people to understand these gruesome but important truths?

Tierce: Maybe. I hope so. I don’t know. I don’t want my daughter to work in a restaurant anytime soon.

Correspondent: Did she ever actually say, when you were working at a restaurant, that she wanted to work in a restaurant just like Marie at all? Just out of curiosity.

Tierce: Yeah. Both my kids have said that when they were little. And it made my heart sink. But at the same time, I have to say that working in restaurants has given me some values and basic skills in life that I need and really treasure. And I wouldn’t give them back for anything.

Correspondent: Such as what exactly?

Tierce: Such as being aware of other people. I mean, when you’re forced to put other people’s needs and desires ahead of your own, no matter how you feel about them, it’s hard to kick that habit. And I’m not saying it makes you an altruistic person. I’m just saying that even on a physical level, when you’re walking down the street you have a different way of moving. You’re not oblivious to people. Because of working in restaurants. And you learn to, as Marie says, anticipate and to consolidate. And those are useful skills for life. And you learn to work really hard. And that alone is useful, I think. And now I’ve forgotten what your question was.

Correspondent: Well, we had a magical massive question of mine.

Tierce: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m implying magic when it was probably just prolixness on my part. But essentially I was asking, “What is it about restaurants that could cause our kids to be subjected into this vortex?” We were talking about the notion of basically throwing our kids into situations that they’re ill-prepared for. And restaurants almost pick them up where colleges or institutions or libraries or other things, which could in fact help them and prepare them more adequately. I mean, it’s almost like having soldiers go into war to a certain degree.

Tierce: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. It’s sort of inevitable, especially now. It seems harder and harder for young people to get meaningful work, to get any job at all. And people will always need to eat. So restaurant work will always be available. And if that’s the only place you can launch yourself from, that’s, I think, our fault for not making more meaningful work more available and not making college, for example, more affordable. And I say that as someone who’s still paying down student loans myself and has basically no money saved for college for any of the three children who live in my house. And I value education more than almost anything. But there are some real factors at work as to whether or not any given person can get a higher education.

Correspondent: How does writing help you to come to grips with these particular realities that, I think, all of us face to a certain degree?

Tierce: Well, writing helps me come to grips with all of reality. Just because I don’t really know what I think or how I’ve gotten to what I think until I start writing about it, which I’m borrowing straight from Flannery O’Connor. I think that’s something that she said, but it makes so much sense to me. That’s just how my mind works. I reveal myself to myself through writing.

(Loops for this program provided by nosleeves, ShortBusMusic, kingADZ12, danke, doudei, 40A, leoSMG, ebaby8119, and gutmo.)

The Bat Segundo Show #551: Merritt Tierce (Download MP3)

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* — Please note that, on air, our correspondent stated that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 2.5 million waiters and waitresses in America. The correct number is 2.4 million and the excerpt text has been corrected to reflect the correct number, which is also stated correctly in this episode’s introduction.

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The Cultural Redemption of Stefan Zweig: Anthea Bell and George Prochnik (The Bat Segundo Show #550)

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This special two hour episode of The Bat Segundo Show details the life and work of Stefan Zweig and may quite possibly the most epic consideration of Zweig ever committed to radio. Zweig is an author I became obsessed with this year not long after a large box showed up at my doorstep containing many Zweig volumes because of an offhand comment I made to a savvy individual while sitting on my stoop. (Let this be a modest parable in publicity and obsession.) This radio program, which became far more ambitious than I intended, is the result of many weeks of reading and serves as a comprehensive overview for Zweig neophytes and experts alike. Zweig is a greatly underestimated writer, despite the fact that he was popular in Austria until the Nazis decimated the nation and even after many literary people have labored very hard to ensure that his work is properly remembered. Zweig’s books can be obtained through NYRB Classics and Pushkin Press.

If you’re new to Zweig, a good place to start is Chess Story. It is a thin and extremely compelling volume and a very good Zweig introduction that will have you wanting to read all the other ones. (Thousands of pages were read for these two interviews.) For adventurous readers, Pushkin Press’s excellent “orange volume” — The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig — is highly recommended. My thanks to NYRB Classics for igniting a Zweig obsession I never thought I would catch and to Pushkin Press for helping me get in touch with Anthea Bell, one of the best translators working today. (She’s also translated W.G. Sebald and Freud, among many others.)

Anthea Bell is Stefan Zweig’s most renowned translator. Our conversation with Bell begins at the 2:23 mark.

George Prochnik is the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, which is available through Other Press. It serves as an invaluable companion book for Zweig enthusiasts. Our conversation with Prochnik begins at the 26:26 mark.

Guests: Anthea Bell and George Prochnik

Subjects Discussed: The friendship of James Joyce and Stefan Zweig, exiles and “languages above other languages,” Zweig’s obsession with cutting large chunks of text from his work, how complicated narrative structures and smooth language make translation tricky, preventing Zweig burnout, not knowing how much Zweig cut from The Post-Office Girl, how translators sometimes get their hands on a more expansive manuscript, why Bell didn’t translate The Post-Office Girl, coordinating translation of Zweig’s work with other translators, the mythical transatlantic English divide, why readers are suspicious of Zweig because of the popularity during his time, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Michael Hoffman’s preposterous LRB Zweig essay, Hoffman’s charge that Zweig is “the Pepsi of Austrian writing,” why people are eccentrically hostile towards writers who get through to people, eliding sentences and passages from the original manuscript, balancing the spirit of the work and the letter while translating, the tragic ending of Beware of Pity, the novella buried in Beware of Pity (aka Impatience of the Heart), similarities between “The Governess” and The World of Yesterday, the condescending attitude towards Malaysians in “Amok,” how to contend with discomfiting colonial language as a translator, Joseph Conrad, the double standard contained within Confusion, G.K. Chesterton, anti-Semitism in English writing during the time, why Bell doesn’t translate serious poetry, translating a Zweig play for Jewish Book Week performed by Henry Goodman, Zweig’s politics, silent humanism as a response to fascism, W.H. Auden and the Spanish Civil War, the salubrious qualities of delusion, the considerable observations about class trappings in The Post-Office Girl, Hitler turning Vienesse cultural centers into Nazi base camp operations, Nazi resentment, the invasion of privacy as depicted in The Post-Office Girl, Zweig’s prescience on the pervasive way in which people are observed, Heinrich Mann’s notion of “the vanquished being the first to know what history has in store,” Zweig’s ideas of luxurious torture, feeling smothered by bourgeois comforts, Zweig’s views on comic books, the arts as a vehicle for freedom, Zweig’s time in Berlin, the benefits of hanging out with monomaniacs, having Theodor Herzl as an editor, relying on Herzl’s approval, Zweig’s struggles with his Jewish identity, Zweig being mocked by Karl Kraus, Kraus’s anti-Semitism, Zweig’s relentless travel, Zionist discussion between Zweig and Martin Buber, Herzl’s funeral, community bound by death, suicide as a motif in Zweig’s fiction, the “happy corpse” notion and Vienesse spectacle, Zweig’s reclusiveness in New York, Zweig being besieged by European refugees after his escape from the Nazis, Zweig’s problems in Petropolis, letters and loneliness, helping people, guilt accompanied by taking on too much responsibility, Beware of Pity as a way for Zweig to bifurcate his emotions, the politics of Beware of Pity, Zweig demanding to know where Walt Whitman’s grave is the minute he hits New York, how Zweig saw Whitman as the connecting threat to America, ineluctable Freudian themes disseminated among Austrian notables, the influence of Emerson on Nietzsche, when the Nazis burned Zweig’s library, Zweig’s gloomy acceptance and his capitulation to anti-culture developments, Berthold Viertel’s observations of Zweig’s manic collecting, Zweig’s invasive remarks at a press conference concerning the Nazis, Zweig’s aspirations to be a “moral authority,” Hannah Arendt’s brutal review of The World of Yesterday, Jules Romain’s valedictory lecture on Zweig’s 60th birthday, Zweig’s moral dilemma of not being able to validate the destruction of life in any form during World War II, the beginnings of Vienesse anti-Semitism, why Vienesse intellectuals underestimated anti-Semitism, Arthur Schnitzler, perverse Vienesse humor, the Dreyfus affair, Englebert Dollfuss’s blunder with the progressives and Austria’s alliance with fascists in the early 1930s, right-wing nationalism, the end of Austrian radicalism after the socialists have fled, Prochnik’s family history in Austria, Zweig and Turkey, the McNally Jackson Zweig panel, Andre Aciman’s dissing of the “Eros Matutinus” section of The World of Yesterday, why even the staunchest Zweig lovers find some work of Zweig’s to dog on, when people read the wrong “first Zweig book,” Zweig’s astonishing polished prolificity, being ranked with major literary figures through the odd metric of what the Nazis decide to burn, appealing to the twee crowd and the reading audience courting despair, Zweig’s suicide, the haunting photo of Stefan and Lotte Zweig after their double suicide, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, why Lotte Zweig wasn’t just a factotum, attempts to undermine Lotte’s legacy, the Stefan Zweig Collection in SUNY-Freedonia, Duck Soup, Zweig’s biography of Balzac, and unpacking the final moments of the Zweigs.

EXCERPTS FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Both James Joyce and Stefan Zweig were exiles when they met in Zurich. And they got along so well that Joyce lent him his only copy of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. And Joyce famously said to Zweig, “I would like a language above other languages. A language serving them all. I can’t express myself completely in English without making myself part of a certain tradition.” And I’m wondering. Since you’ve spent a lot of time looking at Zweig’s language, do you think Zweig suffered from the same problem? That as different as Joyce and Zweig were, they were both confronted in their own ways by belonging to a kind of tradition that language enslaved them to some degree.

Bell: Yes, I think you’re right there. And Zweig was himself earlier in his life, he did quite a lot of translation. And he recommended it as a way for a writer to get better acquainted with his own language, which I find very interesting.

Correspondent: What is it about his language? I mean, I’ve read your translations. I’ve read the translations of various others, such as Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt, Joel Rotenberg, and all that. And yet the romantic feel and the class and the despair of Zweig’s stories still manages to come out in much the same way. What is it about Zweig’s German that creates these parallels? And what do you do to find your own spin as a translator?

Bell: He was very, very scrupulous about his use of language. And as you probably know, he cut a great deal from everything he ever wrote. And that is one reason, I’m sure, why he wrote so many novellas. And some of them could easily developed into full-length novels and probably would have done in the hands of many another writer. But he cut and cut and cut, except with Beware of Pity. But he cut so many of the others. He didn’t let them out of his hands. And so he would just cut everything he could and still get what he was saying across. He didn’t want to say too much. And that is, I think, what gives to the irony in his fiction and makes it so compelling.

Correspondent: That’s interesting. I mean, I’m wondering first and foremost how you came to Zweig and what the first story that you translated of his was. It seems to me that you developed a great intimacy with his life and that’s part and parcel with accurately conveying his stories in English.

Bell: Well, the first one that Pushkin Press asked me to translate was the one that is called Confusion in English.

Correspondent: Oh yes.

Bell: The German means Confusion of Feelings, but it’s just Confusion in English. And after that, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman.

Correspondent: Yes.

Bell: Which I think is a remarkable piece of female impersonation.

Correspondent: I think it’s a masterpiece, that story.

Bell: He’s very good at getting inside women.

Correspondent: How did you first discover him? And what compelled you to carry on translating him?

Bell: Well, I had read him earlier, in the past. But it was when I got to translate him, you get a completely — well, not a completely different angle, but a much deeper view of a writer when you begin to translate him. There’s an American scholar who I’ve got on my bookshelf — I’m just getting up to look at the title of it. Anyway, he writes that the translation is a particularly intensive form of looting. And I think he’s quite right there. And you do. You get to know something far better as you translate it. Now when I had read, I don’t know how Zweig strikes you reading it, but he looks as if he would be easy to translate. Because it all flows along very lucidly. But he’s difficult as a matter of fact. More difficult than you might think.

Correspondent: What steps do you take to break down his stories? I mean, very often, you see these intriguing narrative structures that begin his stories. I think of, of course, Beware of Pity. I think of Letter from an Unknown Woman. I think of Twenty-Four Hours as well. This notion that you have some person talking about something else, who then talks about something else, who then goes into the past and then possibly creates a letter or sits in a room discussing a story. This is an extraordinarily tricky thing that Zweig does. And I’m wondering. What does this mean for you as a translator from a language standpoint? You mentioned earlier that Zweig took great care with his German. What care do you have to take on top of that to ensure that this meticulous narrative grabs the reader in the same way that it does in the German?

Bell: Well, a translator is always trying to get inside the head of an author. And, of course, it’s very helpful if your author is alive and you can ask him questions. But if your author is dead, well. His favorite adjective, whenever I come across it, is dumpf. And that means dark or the sound. But usually he uses it to mean somber in some ways. Either literally or metaphorically. And whenever I get to that adjective, I think, oh, come on, Stefan! Which sort of dumpf have we got this time? There are layers in that writing. And by always cutting, I feel he was smoothing things together, if you see what I mean.

Correspondent: So you’re saying there’s almost this false cognate situation when you translate Zweig.

Bell: Yes. Yes. He’s a very, very interesting writer to translate. And obviously I enjoy translation. But obviously also it’s when translating somebody who I feel is writing well.

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zweiglotteCorrespondent: Let’s go ahead and start with his very unusual political relationship. He was acutely aware of class trappings. We see this in The Post-Office Girl. But he seemeed to believe that the high culture or the good life could in fact be used to combat forces as nefarious as National Socialism. As you point out, he believed this as late as 1935 and this led him to be mocked later by Hannah Arendt in her brutal review of The World of Yesterday. You point to Zweig’s alliance with Richard Strauss, which backs up this tendency. And certainly much of this grew out of Zweig’s involvement with the Vienesse Secessionists. But how do you feel this approach developed over time? How did exile contribute to this undoing? Was this kind of political incoherence part of it?

Prochnik: I think it’s wonderful what you’re asking and it wraps together a number of different characteristics of him. Intrinsic psychological characteristics and also acquired traits, as it were. I mean, Zweig says explicitly in his memoir when he describes the option that he had at the start of the war to have refused service in a bold gesture. He said, “I don’t mind saying right out that there’s nothing heroic about me and I will evade, wherever possible.” So on the one hand, he had already also made the decision that, somehow or another, he was not going to end up on the battlefield. But he knew that the grand refusal was also beyond him. So part of Zweig’s difficulties, particularly over time when the Nazis, when the ascendency of Hitler and of all of the values for which he was associated became intractable and unavoidable problems. Zweig had already adopted his stance, which was not a stance, however, of pure cowardice. He had a very developed conviction that served his interests and also, I think, spoke to a real belief of his. That it was impossible ultimately to obtain a just, more tolerant world through violence. In other words, even if you were faced with a horrific form of government, a set of ideological beliefs, what he always tried to do was to garner support for his pacifist, humanist positions through positive achievements. He felt that whether through cultural acts of creativity, whether through the arts, or whether through forms of education that were explicitly devoted to promoting tolerance. That by trying to call on people’s better instincts, you ultimately got further than through nefarious denunciation. The reality is that at the very start of the Second World War, in 1939, at least when England declared war on Germany, there was a brief period when he wavered on this and said, “I don’t understand how any young Jew of age can at this point in time not enlist.” And I think at that point Zweig himself would have enlisted to fight. He grasped that Hitler was another problem, another order of destructive intent. But one of the aspects of Zweig’s stories that I find inexhaustibly interesting is the way that he tried to apply lessons of history unsuccessfully. It was not that he was denying history, but what he learned, for example, from the First World War is what madness war is.

Correspondent: We’re talking generally. Not his autobiography. Just his life philosophy.

Prochnik: Exactly. As his evolving life philosophy. He had learned very well the utter ruin to which civilization could tumble as a consequence, even if you had a relatively just aim of setting out with a gun to impose that. And that just didn’t necessarily serve him well in all instances. I mean, W.H. Auden, the poet who Zweig came to know in the summer of 1941 in New York, ran into at least a similar problem. There’s a line from Orwell. This is grossly paraphrasing, but he always knew to be where the trigger wasn’t being pulled. Something like this. That because Auden, who had initially been so supportive of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, had then gone to Spain and seen the humiliation of the Clarets and the destruction of the churches, he was then very resistant to taking up a strong outspoken stance against Hitler at the start of the Second World War, for which Klaus Mann and others really took him to task.

Correspondent: I think what fascinates me about this is this cognizance of what war can do, especially the Jewish identity. It’s there in “The Miracles of Life,” this amazing novella that he writes when he’s only 22, I believe, in 1903. And if he cannot remember the lessons that his apparent subconscious set down in fiction thirty years later, I mean, what accounts for this almost Wodehousian type of obliviousness to war, to anti-Semitism, to being uprooted, to being exiled?

Prochnik: I don’t think he was at all oblivious. And there’s evidence of that in his letters, in particular. But here and there, as well as in the memoir, I think that one of the most important passages in the opening section of that work is something that’s so brief that it’s easy to overlook. It’s where he goes on about “the world of yesterday” and the security in particular and the ways in which everyone in Vienna got along. They only chafed mildly against each other. In this fashion, he was attacked for what seemed a willful gilding, of nostalgiacizing, of an ideal tolerant Vienna that never existed. But in reality, there’s this moment where he says, “This was a delusion, but, if so, how much more of a noble and more fruitful delusion it was.”

Correspondent: It was also his delusion to keep.

Prochnik: It was his decision. Not only delusion, but his decision to keep it.

Correspondent: He was cognizantly myopic.

Prochnik: Well, whether myopic or…I think of it more in terms of his idealization. He talks about the need, particularly in his very interesting biography of Erasmus, for world leaders who hold onto these utopian visions of humanity’s possibilities, even if those must always remain to an extent a myth. Because he says, “If we don’t essentially have overreachers in imagination, we’re never going to get anywhere.” So he uses that term, the delusions of the world of his father, in a very pointed way as a fruitful, fertile delusion. That it leads at least, he says, relative to the slogans being bandied about, when he’s writing this in 1941. So that idea is really interesting about Zweig not as someone who didn’t see, but as someone who saw and saw such ugliness and such abomination unfolding around him. That it seemed ultimately to have more, it humanity was ever going to dig itself out of that ditch, that perhaps it was necessary to paint these pictures of what the world of yesterday had been in such glorious language and scenes, some of which are semi-fabricated. That after the blaze had begun to die down of the conflict, there would be sign posts. Something for humanity to look at as a way of trying to reconstruct a more humane society, a future.

Correspondent: This was his idea of idealism, basically.

Prochnik: I think so. It could actually perform a real world work. And that for me is the critical distinction in terms thinking about what Zweig did or didn’t do. And this comes into your original question. I don’t want to live it without touching on Zweig’s real philosophy of silence, which was a belief that, if someone was screaming horrible forms of abuse at you, that you never really defeated them by trying to scream louder. That in fact it was by adopting a stance of dignity and of disproving by embodying a different set of values to that. The only way to oppose it. And this was something that got him into such difficulties, with the Nazis in particular. Hitler fetishized the notion of hardness. And hardness comes up again and again, literally as a term with different sorts of German words in Mein Kampf, but again and again throughout the rhetoric of Goebbels and Göring and all the main ideologues. Rosenberg. They use this term of hardness to define essentially the ethical worth of the human being. And so Zweig, I’m certain, saw that you can’t oppose hardness with hardness. He felt you oppose hardness with softness, with pliancy, with receptivity, with a set of values that are much more associated stereotypically with feminine values, but with an idea that you came at that obliquely and proved yourself able to essentially to be metamorphic in your character, as opposed to absolutely rigid. It’s an idea with a certain Jewish resonance also. In Jewish thought and history.

vienna1914Correspondent: Sure. But I would argue, especially with a novel like The Post-Office Girl, we see the rigidity reinforced by this woman who goes to a luxurious hotel, is confused with upper-class, who then has to deal with the fact that she can’t pass that way, and is then forced back into this terrible existence where she has to work in this post office. And, oddly enough, the last half of that book sort of becomes, especially with that manifesto at the end — I don’t want to give it away — a very deliberate effort to contend with reality and becomes extraordinarily bleak, devastating, and heartbreaking. And it leads me to wonder how committed Zweig was to his delusion or whether he needed to have certain kind of historical modes or present times with which to oscillate between the delusion that he deliberately courted and the realism he seemed to be aware of with that manifesto at the end of The Post-Office Girl.

Prochnik: That’s interesting. And I like very much how you’re approaching what that book is. I think the remarkable thing about what he achieves in that book is, without saying in so many words that this is what’s happening, he’s giving one of the best explanations we have for how people in Germany and Austria might have adopted these fanatical positions. You pointed to that scene early on, the definitive moment in that book, of setting events in motion for the girl herself at least, when she has a taste of the high life. A taste of how good life can be for those who have money. Really simple. There was such intense interwar poverty in Austria. And people don’t look at that enough. And, in fact, as I’m sure you know, it’s one thing that Zweig was accused of neglecting. But we see how her mean circumstances from this provincial place…

Correspondent: And not even her fault. Because her family actually got a bad rap and she fell into this rote impoverished kind of existence.

Prochnik: Not her fault at all. Then she gets just a hint by visiting this aunt in a glamorous hotel of how wonderful life can be. And then she’s flung back through a series of unfortunate events into the mire of her previous existence. And that gnawing sense of exclusion is something that I think is critical for understanding what the Nazis fed on.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, mmilka, boysurgeon, and 40a. The track “Tom’s Lullaby (with Les Gacuhers Orchestra)” provided through Free Music Archive.)

The Bat Segundo Show #550: The Cultural Redemption of Stefan Zweig (Download MP3)

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