Four Years and Twenty-Three Days Ago

Four years and twenty-three days ago I made an extremely common mistake: I agreed to a friend’s request. He recommended that a couple we both knew, two of his friends and I visit a picturesque, elaborate, and once widely-celebrated establishment known for its hookah and cocktails. He and I went together while the three would attempt to come later. The weather was wintery, and cold and rainy. In effect we went during the sliver of offseason afforded by nature but, in any event, the place had already begun its descent to shabbiness and demolition.

The business was on the third floor. We walked up a groaning stair case. The grass needed cutting. The roof was a patchwork dating back to the 60s. The surface had been mauled by salt’s erosion. The businesses had two large doors, but the wood paneling was either peeling away or a patchwork of stain from ersatz replacements.

I agreed to this because my friend was an agreeable alcoholic. “I do not have a problem, I have a preoccupying hobby.” One day he drank a bottle of champagne, what was left of a bottle of red wine and started on a glass flask of Jack Daniels—while eating his way through gingersnaps and cheddar cheese. This began at eleven in the morning. At eight he fell asleep. At ten he woke up around the time we were heading out, and he followed. He drank three Old Fashioneds, four plain shots of bourbon, skipped dinner, and puked the next day until five. At five thirty he resumed his normal course. He admitted, “In the long run, gets rather unhealthy.”

He was agreeable in all ways but one. He smoked, which is no vice, but when he smoked he would put out his butts and place them in his pockets. We could smell him long before we could see him and while tobacco leaves may have an enticing aroma, there was nothing enticing about the lingering smell of burnt filter.

On entering we made the acquaintance of the proprietor, or some agent thereof, who was ugly, lazy and, really, quite accommodating. He monitored and curated a collection of faded couches, fraying armchairs, and coffee tables with new, plastic tops. In the corner was a shabby bar where the threadbare carpets had entirely given way. Bemusingly, not to be confused with amusingly, the lighting in each area is either too dim or too bright. The bar’s was too bright.

Since we did not see the others, we headed for the bar. The bartender was a small, middle aged man, smartly dressed, with an exceptionally lively, intelligent face – and a perceptible air of sadness. He was, like the rest of us, alone but also, I must say, deeply and truly lonely. My friend ordered a half dozen martinis to be prepared not sequentially but simultaneously—six shining glasses in a bright row, down which he would work, all the while talking at a rapid pace.

As he waited and drank the sun sank until it smiled crookedly like a fingernail. The declining light softened the sharp contrast of the establishment’s lighting and for the first time I was able to make a full inspection of the other patrons. There were a few Iranian businessmen, a few Pakistanis and a group of schoolteachers whose loud, crying laughter echoed horrifyingly among the quiet leather. Taken collectively I can say several things. First, at no time did any of the groups acquaint each other with another. Second, no social interaction proceeded beyond polite nods. Third, we made no indication except with the barest of turns that we noticed the passing of each other.

When I turned my attention back to the steadily thinning stems I noticed a new presence in our company. She immediately engaged me in her own conversation. Why she did this I cannot say for certain, but I believe that people perceive my mind as at rest. My face, which enjoys a default position studiously devoid of emotion, may imply that I am an endless supply of life without stress and obstacles, that I dream up what I want to do. Then I do what I dream or sometimes I do not but it is all baloo in the end. For this reason they tell me about themselves even though it is a fact that I do not know how to react to stories. My face brings characters and events to me and as long as I maintain my ability to look and listen people seek me out.

In literature and movies, sexual revelation is a matter of tact and occasion. Whether or not such candor is appreciated depends on the revealer’s attitude more than, even, the listener’s. But tact, mercifully, usually forbids us to tell other what one feels or, especially, Feels. Today I am never quite certain why memoirists are so eager to tell us what they do in bed. Unless the autobiographer has a case to be argued, I suspect that future readers will skip those sexual details that our writers have so generously shared with us in order to get to the gossip and the jokes. For this reason I am, these years later, equally mystified about her.

I have no recollection of all what was said, though much of involved hiking with her college roommates, but I remember her concluding with a small grin that “Come is a horrible word to apply to something ecstatic.”

A Recommendation

I was hanging out with the wrong people. The bad people. An unusual crowd. A maddening friend. So went the parade of horribles as I nodded uncomfortably in my pew. Asleep? Such is life in the court.

I work for the ‘juvenile’ division of a public defender office, I work mainly for kids and those considered ‘adults’ in relation to the heinousness of their crime. On one occasion I was asked, by a client who is going to be incarcerated for a violation of parole, if I had any recommendations. A curious if pleasant question. He wanted to make something out of his time. He wanted to take steps toward self-improvement. He wanted a book to read.

Some decide that their incarceration will be the start for going to the gym, or finally kicking caffeine. Others have promised to watch less television, or have fiendishly reasoned that self-improvement relies on watching more television: they still don’t know what happened at the Red Wedding or who Walter White is, and this is making connecting with their fellow human beings difficult.

But what if you’re interested in connecting with your fellow human beings in a way that doesn’t require access to premium cable? At the time there was anything to say. What could I say? I could recommend some books, but uselessly. I can never forget when Starbuck tells Ahab that the hunt for Moby-Dick is against God’s purposes, and Ahab looks at him blankly. Just who is Melville’s God, or the God of those who came after him? Who is Ahab’s God? Like Prometheus, in ancient and in Romantic literature–or Gore Vidal against the New York Times–Ahab opposes himself to the sky god, even if you want to call that God Yahweh or Jehovah. He does not expect to win but he fights anyhow, perhaps like Milton’s Satan merely for the excitement of courage in the face of defeat.

I can never forget the client’s face for the same reason. He is fighting a battle he will not win and so what could I say? And yet saying nothing seemed a crime. Seems a crime. Is a crime. If not against him then against a far-off world where people know what to say.

Fortunately Penguin Books aims to help thousands of the soon-to-be-incarcerated (who else reads?) by engineering a fantastical little effort. For 80 pence, or about a 1.30 dollars, readers can purchase a lovely (“slender”) black book by Penguin. They take a bite from multiple pies—Roman history, poetry, essays from Montesquieu, a few shorts from Chekhov, a novella from Dostoevsky. No context, of course. Just snippets and little tidbits for men and women that are endlessly trying to improve themselves.

Like most marketing these days what is being sold is not product, but an image of you. For some the image is being sold as an ancillary to the product. But only some. I make no judgment, dear reader, only commentary. Note well: there is no pattern to the selection. A quote is plucked out, perhaps perfect for the creation of a Buzzfeed list, and potential customers are seduced with a future image of themselves navigating a literary iPod of little black books. Russians fill the gaps between Romans. Sappho makes an appearance. Nietzsche pops up, but since he—like myself—was never pithy he comes in an edited book of aphorisms.

What is a book without context? Not much, I am afraid, which is why recommendations are so crucial. It is why I failed. How can I capture in a few words, even a thousand, a whole book—a whole novel? There is a short story in here, I am sure, of a man who tries to recommend a book but ends up recommending it so well, so on point, that he ends up writing the book himself.

If I could have that moment back I would recommend the short stories of Anton Chekhov. There are few things about his writing that are not loved. According to a study published in October, 2013 in the journal Science, reading literary fiction — including the works of Anton Chekhov — increases scores on tests of empathy and emotional intelligence. Who wouldn’t want to be more empathetic in 2015? Much better than kicking a nascent addiction to Keurig cups.

I wonder what I should have told him about Chekhov. About Penguin Books. So it goes, in Vonnegut’s laconic phrase, and so I will tell you. Before embarking on a self-help tour of late-Czarist Russia, dear reader, be advised that Chekhov doesn’t provide easy answers to becoming a kinder, more caring person. There’s no five-step solution, no short prayer that will increase your fortunes and lay waste to the fields of your enemies. Instead he brings us into a world where bad things often happen, especially to good people. That is why he can be so difficult. He does not afford many happy endings, or endings of any sort. Yet I firmly believe that if you read his short stories, maybe even twice, then you will become a better human being than when you first went in. Here is one short story that you may like.

Chekhov will always represent the impressionistic pole of the short story, and the novel for that matter. For better or worse is it impossible to escape his shadow. He is simply a door we must pass through, having exhausted all infamy, gratefully.

But that is not what Penguin is offering, even when it offers us a few Chekhov’s shorts. They are offering a fragment, a shadow of a shadow. Instead of Chekhov, and understanding him, they are offering the appearance of improvement. Improvement without purpose. Click the Penguin, select a random book and press purchase. “Where to start? In the end I just tipped them out and stuck out my hand at random.” Don’t think about it—buy it. Improve yourself. To what end? That is the question that is better left unanswered. That is the question that makes me think about my client.

The trouble with the presumption is not that it addresses trivial or unreal issues but that it provides self-defeating solutions. Arising out a legitimate need to sell itself to an increasingly ignorant public the idea is to, well, accept that the public isn’t going to read books. They are going to buy an article that is marketed as a sleek, little, black book. But such a solution is self-defeating. Without foundation these little black books are symbols crashing. If a book falls on deaf ears does it make a sound?

Those who believe in critical thought as an indispensable precondition of social or political progress might well renounce the very possibility of progress and side with the conservatives, who at least recognize intellectual deterioration when they see it and do not attempt to disguise it as liberation. But the conservative interpretation of the collapse of standards is much too simple.

There is no wrong crowd or maddening friend. There is no group of bad influences, mistook for good. The trouble is with him. No single book, or collection of books, is going to do him much good. We failed him a long time ago. It is too late to spin the dial and hope for the best. But I guess I will.

Lolita and Eichmann

Sometime in late 1960 or early 1961 Adolf Eichmann, jailed and awaiting trial in Jerusalem, was given by his guard a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s recently published Lolita, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “for relaxation.” After two days Eichmann returned it, indignant: “Quite an unwholesome book!” (Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch!)

Eichmann’s reaction is about what I imagined for him. But guessing the officer’s intentions is another matter. There is difficultly imagining anyone offering Lolita for “relaxation.” Eichmann was writing under observation and awaiting a trial that will consign him either to death or prolonged imprisonment—which fate spares him by felling him with a heart attack. If nothing else we can agree that Eichmann did not find many things relaxing. Regardless if he was a delusional madman or simply unthinking: few things are relaxing for someone at that moment writing his (soon to be posthumous) memoirs. Nabokov’s challenging book is not one of them. That much, dear reader, we can assume.

We might speculate other intentions on the part of Eichmann’s guard. Was it a sincere gift? Or was it something of an experiment? Nabokov has never faded from the popular consciousness, but Lolita was certainly closer national recognition in the ’60s. It is probable that the guard knew the book was for the thinking public and imagined that Eichmann constituted some distorted, cruel reimagining of that public (by National Socialism? Germany? Hitler? I leave the agent in that sentence up to you, dear reader).

I can’t help but wonder: might Eichmann’s guard have seen Lolita as a sort of litmus test for radical evil, and wanted to see whether the real-life villain reacted? Was it to see how the novel reacted to him? Imagine his devastation, or glee, if the man who organized transportation for countless innocents approved of Nabokov’s creation.

In a bit of awkward preening in Despair’s foreword, Nabokov recounts the circumstances attending to this first translation of the work. “I asked a rather grumpy Englishman,” says Nabokov, “whose services I obtained [End Page 313] through an agency in Berlin, to read the stuff; he found a few solecisms in the first chapter, but then refused to continue, saying he disapproved of the book; I suspect he wondered if it might not have been a true confession” (Despair, p. xi). Nabokov’s explanation appears to be the one which we will find in nearly all of his later works. If Eichmann approved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? That he disproved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? Too little?

It is possible to imagine that Eichmann’s reaction was intended to act as a mirror. What does the guard see when Humbert is reflected through and off the lens of evil. Did Eichmann see a fellow traveler in Humbert? An alien? What could we say if Eichmann, like so many of us, grasped the novel and refused to let go? I wonder if it would make any difference and whether it should.

This is all only speculation. In Arendt’s account, she congratulates Eichmann for his indignation and moves on to other matters. In any event, given Eichmann’s radical conventionality one could hardly imagine him liking—or even very well understanding—much of the book. As Eichmann himself avowed, during his adult life he had read only two books, one of them being Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. He preferred newspapers. I don’t know what that says about the New York Times.