Monday, August 25, 2014

The Adventures of Fitzroy MacLean

I remember visiting a hand-grenade factory; and a hospital where a man was having his leg cut off by a German-Jewish doctor; and a printing press where nothing in particular was happening. I have a vivid recollection of making several speeches in Serbo-Croat, one from a balcony...Finally I have hazy memories of the dance at a village called Blato which rounded off our day's entertainment and which was dramatically interrupted by the explosion of a small red Italian hand-grenade which became detached from one of the girls' belts as she whirled round the barn in which it was being held.”

Rumored to be the original inspiration for playboy spy James Bond, Fitzroy Maclean, in eight very active years from 1937-1945, is transferred to Britain's foreign office in Moscow, masters the Russian language, becomes the first (non-Russian) European to visit various villages and towns in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kirghizia, among others (all the while being trailed by the Secret Police), witnesses the infamous purge trials of 1938, enlists in the armed forces following the outbreak of World War II, is elected to Parliament, helps lead sabotage missions behind enemy lines in North Africa, kidnaps an Iranian general sympathetic to Hitler, is parachuted into Yugoslavia to help Tito and the Partisans in their guerilla war against the Nazis, fraternizes with Winston Churchill, and following Nazi defeat in Belgrade, helps smooth the transition of government to avoid a civil war between communists and royalists, all the while, maintaining a committed work ethic, a keen purpose and most importantly, a sense of humor. In fact, the most significant difference between James Bond and Fitzroy MacLean is that the former is a fictional character and the latter a real man who somehow survived this incredible string of adventures.

MacLean compiled his experiences into a big book Eastern Approaches, organizing it into three parts: “Golden Road” about his diplomatic life in Moscow and clever sidestepping ventures into former Silk Route kingdoms; “Orient Sand” regarding his experiences as a saboteur in North Africa; and “Balkan War” detailing his experience with the guerillas. The entire book is a wonderful read, in particular the first two parts. The Balkan years have moments of extreme vividness, but they go a little long and are a bit much on logistical information that might not interest the casual reader (as opposed to the history buff).

MacLean launches right into his story-- there is no mention of childhood, university days, or any pertinent autobiographical information. It is very present-tense storytelling, concerned with whatever obstacles MacLean must overcome, whether they be eluding authorities on the road to the fabled ancient city of Bokhara or securing a safe supply drop zone for partisan guerillas. Through it all, he is detailed in his descriptions, anecdotal in his storytelling, and ribald in describing his more acute setbacks, as when he is briefly waylaid in Biisk, a small town in Central Asia: “Biisk did no credit to anyone. The dozen stone-built houses were without exception of pre-revolutionary construction and the wooden houses with their eaves carved in the old Siberian style were unbelievably dilapidated. The row of shops in the high street were a disgrace even by Soviet standards and the unpaved streets a sea of mud. What I saw of the population looked depressed, which indeed they had every right to be.” And then, in what seems could be another lifetime but is only a few years later, retreating with his Allied desert patrol unit after an unsuccessful sneak attack against Italian supply lines in Benghazi, an air raid of Italian fighter planes nearly obliterates their convoy: “Another truck full of explosives went up, taking with it all my personal kit. That was another two trucks gone. My equipment was now reduced to an automatic pistol, a prismatic compass and one plated teaspoon. From now onwards I should be traveling light.” Arguably such a quip would not be out of place in a cinematic 007 Act II setback.

The adventurer, Fitzroy MacLean

MacLean's firsthand experience in a paranoiac Soviet Russia and the camraderie of guerilla life in Yugoslavia are invaluable historical accounts. Obviously a winning personality (and a bit of a natural linguist, conversant in English, French, Italian, Russian, Serb-Croat and basic German) he gets on well with the hundreds of invididuals passing through his journeys-- not just Churchill and Tito, or his comrades in the Bosnian wilderness, but even the Secret Police members doing their best to follow him. His curiosity pushes him to plunge deeper into Russia's frontiers and his enthusiasm for these experiences make for enjoyable, if not enviable reading. He could easily have sat out the war with the Foreign Office, but runs for a political seat (as it was this clause only that enabled him to resign from the Foreign Office) and enlists in the army. Competent, creative, and intelligent, he rises quickly through the ranks and is trusted with very difficult missions. His bravery in North Africa is astonishing. The story of crossing the desert and sneaking into one of the largest enemy-occupied cities in North Africa so as to install time bombs on large Axis cargo ships is the stuff of pulp fiction (and the mission turns into a complete disaster, but with a twist, that is some of the best narrative in a very good story).


Eastern Approaches was originally published in 1949, following the onset of the Cold War. Though MacLean reluctantly involved himself in politics (his entry into Parliament, and later the difficult task of managing compromise between leaders of oppositional ideaologies), what he had witnessed in the Soviet Union convinced him that capitalist democracy is much preferable to communism and its totalitarian excesses (which would prove to be a conundrum for MacLean later in Yugoslavia, supporting Partisans at the expense of Royalists and their King. But it was the communists truly committed to fighting fascism and to betray them after defeating a common foe was nearly as disagreeable as communism itself). The show trials in 1938 were particularly disturbing. Stalin purged his leadership in Moscow including Bukharin, a former confidant of Lenin and legend in the Russian Revolution, and Yagoda who had been People's commisssar for Internal Affairs. Tried in a kangaroo court with no hope of acquittal, it was difficult for a foreigner like MacLean to understand why a nation would sacrifice those responsible for running it. Left to conjecture, he writes:

The trial would serve, too, as a reminder of the dangers besetting both the Soviet State and the individual citizen. It would help to keep up the nervous tension which, extending to every walk of life, had become one off the chief instruments of Soviet internal policy. By making people suspicous of one another, by teaching them to see spies and traitors everywhere, it would increase 'vigilance,' render even more improbably the germination of subversive ideas... Much, too, would be explained that had hitherto been obscure. Shortages, famines had been due, not to the shortcomings of the Soviet system, but to deliberate wrecking.”

No doubt MacLean did not want the same institutions installed in Yugoslavia, where he risked his life to liberate the Slavs from the Nazis. We say that hindsight is 20/20 and it is quite true. At the time of WWII, when history was unfolding, a soldier was only trying to stay alive long enough to win victory. Yugoslavia would eventually go communist under Tito, but the Marshall would break from Stalin and the Soviets and pursue an independent non-aligned form of communism much more open than Stalin's satellites in Eastern Europe. MacLean pretty much understood this from the get-go, but following orders, successfully organized the Partisans with supplies and air support, and operated as a liason between them and Allied command. This entailed going back and forth from the forested hillsides of Bosnia, hungry, wet, desolate, to lavish State dinners in Italy, and MacLean, an epicurian with endurance to spare enjoyed the best of both worlds. They say in sports it's not a matter of winning or losing but how you play the game. The same is not exactly true in war-- losing could mean the punishment of death or a very miserable existence, but how you fight is particularly important. We should never romanticize war, but MacLean does make the most of his numerous situations and while the following passage describing gurerrila life in the Serbian countryside does not glamorize war, it is plain from MacLean's recollections that the daily grind, while alternately terrifying and exhausting, was occasionally idyllic, or at the very least, interspersed with beautiful moments:

I recall, too, without being able to place them in the general plan of or journey, numerous isolated scenes and incidents which have somehow stuck in my memory; cold clear water spurting from a pump on the hillside under the trees in a village where we stopped in the blazing heat of midday, one working the pump while the others put their heads under it; a vast meal of milk and scrambled eggs eaten ravenously by the open window of a low, cool, upper room overlooking a valley; sleeping on the grass in an orchard by a little stream and waking suddenly in the dark to find Sergeant Duncan's hand on my shoulder; 'They're moving off, sir; they say the Germans are coming;' and then shouts of 'Pokret!' 'Get going!' and confusion and plunging horses and 'What's happened to the wireless set?'; long dismal tramps in pitch darkness through pouring rain; discussion whether to push on or to stop in a village with a population reputed to be pro-German or riddled with typhus; knocking and being told that one of the family has just died of typhus; hoping this is bluff and sleeping there all the same, all crowded into one room; waking next morning to find the rain stopped and the house, where we had arrived in the middle of the night, surrounded by orchards laded with ripe plums; arriving in a village to find a wedding in progress and being swept, before we know where we are, into a kolo, twisting and whirling in the sunshine on the green with the village maidens; lying at night out in the our sleeping bags and listening to the wireless; the BBC, the 9 o'clock news, Tomny Handley.”

It is our good fortune MacLean survived so that his recollections are now part of the collected narrative of those years. Such memories resurrect the past vividly, reminding us history is not just made up of nation states, war victories, or ideaologies, but of individuals from different tribes breaking bread together and a dance with the local maiden under the moonlight, a most ephemeral moment, might linger in your soul forever and ever.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Coin Locker Life

“The whole city stinks of age and stagnation and boredom, and it makes Sachiko as sick as it does me; but she goes on listening to the same old songs, trying to keep from dying of boredom, while I'd rather puke it all out, puke up a great cloud of boredom and let it rain all over Tokyo, rain till your lungs rot in your chest, till the streets crack and wash away and rivers of puke run between the buildings...”

The aforementioned "puke" features prominently in the novel, Coin Locker Babies, as does rotting fruit, raw flesh, spilling cum, soaked urine, human sweat, sour breath, cigarette smoke, exposed brain matter, and stale garbage, among other sensational olfactory transgressions. Part and parcel of a book's theme, I suppose, when it pertains to true human horror, in this case, the abandonment of a newborn baby in a coin locker. That a toddler should be left to perish and rot anonymously in a coin locker is an action so grotesquely hideous, our natural instinct is to look away, feeling an admixture of disgust, pity, and rage. But as an idea for a story, it intimates an intriguing premise and Ryu Murakami's weird-ass pseudo-sci-fi novel is almost great. Certainly there are superb moments, a wild imagination, and occasionally vivid sentences, but after getting revved up and going, the story gets distracted by its subplots and later languishes in some end-of-the-world apocalyptic ludicrousness.

An opening sentence often sets a story's tone, no less true here, and one of the wickedest in contemporary literature: “The woman pushed on the baby's stomach and sucked its penis into her mouth; it was thinner than the American menthols she smoked and a bit slimy, like raw fish.” The baby is Kiku, abandoned in a coin locker in Yokohama in July, discovered when the summer heat causes him to scream for his life. Found and placed in an orphanage, he naturally befriends Hashi, a fellow coin locker baby. But beyond the inevitable trauma of having survived something extraordinary and spending formative years raised by Catholic nuns, they have unique personalities. Kiku is shy, athletic, tough, and spiteful at the world. Hashi, on the other hand, is social but physically awkward, artistically inclined, especially adept at music and singing. Inevitably  such tragically terrible beginnings in the world would inform both their lifelong outlooks.

They are adopted by a childless couple to live in a remote island near Kyushu. Wandering the island, they find an abandoned coal mine town and a rebel drifter on a motorcycle named Gazelle, who puts a word in Kiku's head, “DATURA,” that would help him “off the whole world” including the mother who left him in a coin locker. The boys struggle in school, receive psychological testing to normalize them, and while they are teenagers, Hashi leaves the island for Tokyo to find his mother.

Written in 1980, Murakami's Tokyo is a strange, urban nightmare with its own no-go neighborhood, a Fukushimaesque city ward called Toxitown that's been contaminated and where only outcasts and outlaws, prostitutes and the mentally insane now roam (abandoned by former residents like the coal mining town of the boys' childhood, as well as the boys themselves). A high-perimeter fence with armed guards surround the community, which occupies a terrific piece of real estate in Shinjuku in “the shadow of the thirteen towers.” This is where Hashi ends up, and later, Kiku when he goes to find him.

Already a strange novel, Tokyo is where the circumstances become intensely surreal for the boys. More country bumpkin that Hashi, Kiku somehow gets involved with a supermodel named Anemone who shares his nihilistic visions, and Hashi, pimping his dolled-up body to rich, gay men, falls under the spell of D, a megaproducer in pop music, who transforms Hashi into a superstar, utilizing for marketing purposes Hashi's provenance as a coin locker baby. This leads to an incredible mid-book climax too good to spoil by mentioning, though it is worth saying that, unfortunately, Murakami never recovers the story's earlier momentum (though the ending does deliver a Hollywood-style nightmare finish).

Ryu (the superior) Murakami

Nevertheless, this is a unique work of fiction. Unlike most Japanese novelists (and a much more famous Murakami), Ryu Murakami is an exciting social critic. Japan, a mannered civilization known for many sacred cows, is skewered relentlessly in Coin Locker Babies; the music business, reality TV, the vapidity of authorities, social hypocrisies, and the “normal” people from whose custom the Underworld depends. And Murakami, at least via his protagonists, does not advocate some patsy tonic to redeem social ills, nor a revolution, but something more destructive, something punk, as when Kiku witnesses in Hashi's star makeover a new cage, gilded bars, but a locker all the same:

“The locker was bigger, maybe; the new one had a pool and gardens, with a band, people wandering abut half-naked...but it was still a huge coin locker, and no matter how many layers of camouflage you had to dig through if you felt like digging, in the end you still ran up against a wall...There's only one solution, one way out, and that's to smash everything around you to smithereens, to start over from the beginning, lay everything to waste.”

Perhaps total annihilation of everyone is a bit extreme and not extraordinarily sympathetic to most readers. Murakami came of age in the 1960s, a generation known for wanting to smash old orders and start afresh. His characters' solution, that of wiping out the human race with a US army chemical agent (DATURA) takes a potentially subversive novel and turns it into a horror show. Arguably it's a forgivable misstep, since the novel has enough going for it to be a good read. But it could have been so much more. Had Murakami kept his narrative grounded in reality the society he savages would have been understood in a more believable context that makes his characters' lives more tragically poignant. Instead of something that devolves into entertaining pulp fiction escapism, he might have written a novel for all time.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Enigmatic Patient

“...he began to scratch her through the sari, then pulled it aside and scratched her skin-- as Hana now received this tender art, his nails against the million cells of her skin, in his tent, in 1945, where their continents met in a hill town.”

Perhaps due to prejudices from a half-remembered movie watched almost seventeen years ago, I was a bit tentative beginning Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, slightly worried that melodrama and preciousness might make for an unsatisfying reading experience. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find Ondaatje's prose alternately simple and complex, his multiple storytelling point-of-views Faulkneresque, and the uncovering of the novel's central mystery, that of the missing identity of the “English” patient, worthwhile. It is a WWII novel in that the story is set in Italy in the summer of 1945 at the tail end of the conflict, but it is more of a character study, in which four uniquely different persons are marooned in a villa in the countryside, survivors of a devastating manmade catastrophe, not quite ready to return to the real world and its frivilous matters when so much death and tragedy has been absorbed.

A temporary makeshift hospital, the Villa San Girolamo is a former monastary laden with mines and the refuse of a brutal campaign: “It is still terrible out there. Dead cattle. Horses shot dead, half eaten. People hanging upside down from bridges. The last vices of war.” All of the patients and staff have relocated from the villa to safer grounds, save a Canadian nurse named Hana and her charge, a burn victim who survived a plane crash in North Africa, was rescued by bedouins, and who everyone believes is English, due, I suppose, his elegant speech and extravagant politeness. A family friend of Hana's, Caravaggio, an Allies spy in war and thief in peacetime, moves in, and later, a Sikh, Kip, a brilliant young sapper who, slowly, deliberately, defuses the many explosives on the villa's grounds. Alone on beautiful ruined grounds while Europe has finally stopped disintegrating, they comprise something of a post-apocalyptic family with separate responsibilities. Hana nurses and gardens, Kip scours for mines, and Caravaggio pilfers goodies like record players and vintage bottles.

Meanwhile, the English Patient, under increasingly larger doses of morphine opens up about his past-- he is something of a polymath and an explorer, mapping Egypt's Great Western Desert and spending weeks at a time searching for a lost oasis, Zerzura. A rugged indvidualist, at least, until he fell in love with another man's wife, Katherine. It was one of those passionate affairs that burn up and flame out, but only circumstantially, for the explorer was clearly smitten: “He feels everything is missing from his body, feels he contains smoke. All that is alive is the knowledge of future desire and want.” Needless to say, the affair never really fades and is the harbinger of much heartbreak including the terrible plane accident.

World War II Sikh Sappers

There is backstory to the other characters, prewar history as well as martial sacrifices-- Caravaggio's slippery espionage behind enemy lines; Kip advancing with the vanguard in the invasion of Naples, setting up makeshift bridges for armies to cross and sleeping under saints' statues in bombed-out churches; and Hana's abortion of a soldier's baby and her stoic nursing of hundreds of wounded (she has a beautiful tirade against the warmongering elite: “Every damn general should have had my job. It should have been a prerequisite for any river crossing. Who the hell were we to be given this responsibility, expected to be as wise as old priests...? I could never believe in all those services they gave for the dead. Their vulgar rhetoric. How dare they! How dare they talk like that about a human being dying.” And in the present tense of villa life there is Caravaggio's avuncular teasing of Hana; Hana's and Kip's playful, innocent courtship; a few drunken nights of revelry, with a record player and found bottles of booze.

A Bedouin of the Desert

However, the crux of the story's drama lies on the mystery of the English Patient's real identity. It is nearly always sensible to be wary of stories where the title character is bedridden. But the explorer whom the English Patient once was, is an incredible figure (literally-- so couragous, intelligent, and resourceful he is nearly beyond credibility), and Ondaatje draws out the unveling of his past in sparse, beautiful sentenes, remembered (perhaps dubiously) by a voice under the influence of morphine. The imagery is poetic, the observations acutely romantic, as when he describes walking into the desert questing for a mythical oasis: “It was as if he had walked under the millimeter of haze just above the inked fibers of a map, that pure zone between land and chart between distances and legend between nature and storyteller...The place they had chosen to come to, to be their best selves, to be unconscious of ancestry.” All the man has now is his past-- in his condition there is no future or even present. He says, recalling his fumbling of love, “I had reached that stage in life where I identified with cynical villains in books.” But this is a novel in the romantic tradition and thus certain expectations must be met. Sometimes, then, the villain learns the hard way what it is to be a hero.  

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Barbarian Inside

“What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.”

“When some men suffer unjustly, it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it.”

During a tumultuous period in the history of apartheid, the government in Pretoria, morally isolated by the international community, committed some of the worst excesses of violence against the native tribes whom it had subjugated and humiliated for more than two centuries. In the midst of this bloodletting, J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians was published in 1980. The novel clearly indicts the apartheid government for crimes against humanity, though Coetzee was clever enough to set his story in the horse-and-wagon days in a frontier, far away, long ago. Also, intelligently, Pretoria, South Africa, even the Magistrate of this frontier town are never outright named, so that the injustice it dramatizes could be anywhere in the world. Technology might evolve, but Man's abominations only change form or flags or color.

Our narrator, the Magistrate, does not rule nor think like a despot, but trusts in the Law, even when he doesn't agree with it (as he explains to a young deserter he is sentencing, “All we can do is to uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade.”). His days progress uneventfully with dull bureaucratic work, he hunts (but sometimes lacks the nerve to kill his prey), reads the classics, visits the outpost's demimonde once a week, and collects artifacts of the desert from past civilizations. He has “not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times.”

This tranquility is disturbed by a Colonel Joll, a man who hides his eyes behind dark glasses and is investigating a “disturbance” caused by some barbarians. There are two prisoners, a boy and his grandfather, hardly “terrorist” types, but without due process and under the duress of torture (in which the old man dies) the boy, traumatized and scarred, concedes a barbarian plot in the works. The Magistrate, who loathes the Colonel's methods, nevertheless rubber-stamps a reconnaissance expedition into the countryside. A week later, prisoners are sent back, aboriginal fisherfolk, arrested for simply existing. After Joll returns to the capital the Magistrate has the prisoners released to return to their land.

But one young woman doesn't leave. Her father had been killed in Joll's interrogations and she has had her ankles broken and her corneas burned so that she can only see penumbra forms. She is begging for food, and the Magistrate taking pity on her, invites her to work in the kitchen, and she becomes something of a concubine. But he doesn't sleep with her-- he washes and dresses her wounds and caresses her body, but doesn't go any further. The actions of the Magistrate seem to embody liberal guilt: the white man feels bad about the unfairness of the power structure, but as he yet benefits from such relationships, hesitates to go any further than cosmetic aid. Eventually, accompanied by a guide and two soldiers, the Magistrate undertakes a harrowing journey to return the woman (she, too, never named) to her people.

When he returns, he finds a charged atmosphere in his sleepy outpost. The Magistrate-- accused of conspiring with the enemy regarding the government's intended campaign-- is stripped of authority and imprisoned, while Joll assumes despotic rule. In the process of losing everything: his authority, his reputation, his comfortable life, the Magistrate moves beyond pity and compassion into outrage and rather than apologize he determines to protest and provoke the Colonel, until he is then stripped of his last vestige, his dignity, when severely tortured: “They were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself.”

The Magistrate is so humiliated authorities don't even bother locking him up anymore. He is allowed to roam the yard like an animal, begging for scraps, his self-respect annihilated. For all his concepts of social justice, he is no revolutionary; he merely wants to survive, even “to be fat again.” The crisis for the Magistrate comes when he cannot offer a credible alternative between Joll's fascist maneuvers and the only truly righteous scenario: “Justice: once that word is uttered, where will it all end? Easier to shout No! Easier to be beaten and made a martyr. Easier to lay my head on a block than to defend the cause of justice for the barbarians: for where can that argument lead but to laying down our arms and opening the gates of the town to the people whose land we have raped?”

Through it all, the Colonel doubles down on the settlers' worst fears regarding their “enemy.” He is invisible, just outside the walls, lurking: “There is no woman living along the frontier who has not dreamed of a dark barbarian hand coming from under the bed to grip her ankle, no man who has not frightened himself with visions of the barbarians carousing in his home, breaking the plates, setting fire to the curtains, raping his daughters.” The soldiers, drunken, carousing parasites on the town, are thus bandied as the last defense against the much ballyhooed “barbarians.” Never mind that many of the settlers have never encountered or been directly threatened by this invoked Boogeyman. Their emotions are merely fomented by the most obvious physical differences in “us-and-them” adversarial relations. And it can be hopeless talking them out of their fears and prejudices: “How do you eradicate contempt, especially when the contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid?” Of course, it doesn't take much effort to realize that the titular barbarians we await are not necessarily the "other," but a kind of monster within, surfacing when we give in to our prejudices, self-interest, and fear of the unknown. 

The writer, J. M. Coetzee

Before his fall from power, the Magistrate is queried by a military officer as to the intentions of the barbarians. The answer is simple, but actualization seemingly impossible. “They want an end to the spread of settlements across their land. They want their land back, finally. They want to be free to move about with their flocks from pasture to pasture as they used to.” We could be talking Tibetans, Palestinians, and the Aboriginals, to name but a few indigenous peoples whose lives were uprooted, reconstituted in poverty and neglect, and sentenced to live a second-class existence. That is the most poignant reaction to Coetzee's novel-- that he has dramatized the violence of power structures, to guide our outrage and compassion, reminding us of the complex bravery choosing to stand for social justice, all the while being faithful to universal truths in beautiful, clear prose. It is not every day that a reader discovers an overlooked masterpiece.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Renaissance Man, Narcissist, Psychopath: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

“Though I know the angry words that passed between them I shall not report them, as I am not meant to be writing history. I shall concern myself only with my own affairs.”
--Benvenuto Cellini

“He's the greatest man his profession has ever known.”
Pope Clement VII on Cellini (allegedly)

One of the great godfathers of the memoir genre is arguably Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine polymath of the High Renaissance, who penned his life story over five years between 1558 and 1563 when the sculptor was in his early sixties. No doubt one of the inspirations for the autobiography was to present his side of the story, a defense of lifestyle anticipating whatever disagreeable remembrances his many enemies (legion in numbers) might put down in writing. Though Cellini does his very best to portray himself as, at best, a respected genius, and at worst, a wronged innocent, he does admit to various offenses, most especially cold-blooded murder and hot-blooded sodomy. He is alternately lucid, pious, vain, psychotic, pretentious, delusional, and self-pitying. Somehow he is consistently charming despite being a prodigious name-dropper, an untiring braggart, and a master of invective and disrespect. But mostly his story regards the life of the artist and how, just as in the present day, it was incredibly difficult to be fairly compensated for commissioned work, even when your patrons were popes, kings, and dukes.

Cellini was born in Florence in 1500. Establishing his reputation early on as a talented goldsmith, he had ambitions for Rome, but a scandal involving the murder of an adversary expedited his departure from his native city. Cellini came of age when the Medicis of Florence were the most powerful family in Italy, and one of their own was Pope Clement VII. He gushed over Cellini's work and trusted him with his jewels and the defense of Rome when Spanish Imperialists sacked the city in 1527. Cellini turned out to be a talented soldier, as he has us believe he single-handedly saved the city from greater ruin by killing both The Duke of Bourbon and the Prince of Orange with his sharpshooting. Later, under a new papal chief, Pope Paul III, he would be imprisoned, but manage to escape in spectacular fashion. Leaving Rome persona non grata, his talents would flourish in the court of Fontainebleu under the patronage of King Francis I. His self-destructive tendencies never waning, Cellini was eventually chased out of Paris in a cloud of intrigue. Returning home, he worked for Cosimo I de Medici, the Duke of Florence, where he thrived and struggled, and less than a decade after completing his autobiography, died of pleurisy at the age of 71.

Cosimo de Medici, autocrat, Cellini's great patron in Florence in his later years

Cellini's prose style is jocular and conversational, almost as if he had dictated his life story to a scribe while busy designing the duke's profile on a silver coin. Of course, this being an autobiography, Cellini freely edits the story due the priorities of self-aggrandizement. Despite this, the narrative flows rather well, though unpleasant episodes are left out (most conspicuously absent were his imprisonments in his fifties for assault and sodomy). But Cellini is selling us an archetype of an artist (that when circumstances necessitate, makes both love and war), who doesn't trifle with (in his estimation) trivial details: “There was a suitable opportunity for me to speak of my daughter here, and I did so in order not to distract from other, more important matters. I shall say nothing more of her till the proper time.” In the instance when Cellini's parents die of the plague he doesn't remark or mourn their passing. Nevertheless, he waxes poetically on the mutual admiration he and his contemporary Michelangelo share, indulges us in his experiments in black magic with a necromancer, and describes in detail both times he was poisoned by his adversaries. And then there is his time in prison, where like so many before and after him, he finds salvation in God, and discovers in himself a halo of beatification: “From the time I had my vision till now, a light-- a brilliant splendor-- has rested above my head, and has been clearly seen by those very few men I have wanted to show it to.” And from finding and loving God, he then makes his famous prison break, the narrative never missing a beat.

What makes Cellini's prose such a delightful read are his prejudices, his asides, his brusqueness. He is a first-rate raconteur in the Italian tradition. Cellini on his courtship of a lady: “We had a very agreeable talk together, and it wasn't about things you can buy in a shop.” Cellini stereotyping: “I left Naples at night, with the money on my person, in case I fell victim to the usual Neapolitan custom and was attacked and murdered.” Cellini hot-tempered: “I was advised to seek redress by legal means, though my immediate impulse was to cut his arm off.” Cellini quoting the King of France: “I am certain that such beautiful work was never known to the ancients: I well remember having seen all the best works done by the finest craftsmen of all Italy, but I never saw any that moved me more than this.” Cellini traveling in the countryside: “It was an enjoyable journey, save for an incident near La Palice, when a band of robbers, the Adventurers, tried to murder us. But we fought them off boldly, and pushed on to Paris. We arrived there safely, singing and laughing all the way and not meeting the slightest accident.” Cellini describing a ploy of his French enemies: “They planned to have their revenge on me and they consulted a Norman lawyer, who advised them that she should say I had used her in the Italian fashion, that is to say, unnaturally, like a sodomite.” And Cellini insulting a rival artist and his rendition of a model of Hercules: “ can't be sure whether his face is that of a man or a cross between a lion and an ox; that it's not looking the right way; and that it's badly joined to the neck, so clumsily and unskillfully that nothing worse has ever been seen; and that his ugly shoulders are like the two pommels of an ass's pack-saddle; that his breasts and the rest of his muscles aren't based on a man's but are copied from a great sack full of melons...”

One of Cellini's great works, Perseus holding the head of Medusa

Taking offense at another sculptor's grandstanding, Cellini quipped, “Outstanding artists act as such, and brilliant men who create good and beautiful works of art are shown in a much better light when others praise them than when they praise themselves so confidently.” Very agreeable but a bit rich, of course, when the speaker seems to embellish his received accolades. But this is Cellini's story and so we should take him at his word because to repudiate the lavish praise is to doubt all the strange and horrible misadventures too. In the end, he is clearly a narcissistic psychopath, but a charming one, and so with the blood spilled long since washed away, we mostly forgive him. While mostly overlooked as one of the great Renaissance sculptors, Cellini's autobiography, almost five centuries later, remains a literary classic. No doubt his ghost, whether it be in heaven, hell, or lurking somewhere in the halls of Florence's splendid palace museums, is not displeased with this good turn in posterity.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Plague on All the Houses

“The truth must be told: the plague had taken away from all of them the power of love or even of friendship, for love demands some future, and for us there was only the here and now.”

The philosopher prince and enfant terrible, Albert Camus, did not much like the Algerian city of Oran, which is now and forever associated with his most famous novel, The Plague, a story part parable, part metaphor about the catastrophe of pestilence. One can read into its subtext the trials of the French Resistance, from which its ideas and arguments were drawn and of which Camus was a reluctant hero, though he would later disavow all accolades. Rather, he identified with his altar ego from the novel, Dr. Rieux, a physician making the rounds of the city's sick, risking infection on 20-hour shifts day in day out for months, never knowing when the plague might end, and worst of all, completely unable to heal the dying, stuck with the unenviable task of validating death sentences and arranging victims' families to be quarantined. That Dr. Rieux fulfills his role with good temper, in Camus' view, does not make him a hero, but a man.

The book begins when all the city's rats wander into the living rooms to die. Shortly thereafter the first men and women begin to convulse violently with high fever, swollen lymphs, and coughing blood, the Bubonic Plague redux. When the number of deaths begin to escalate no one wants to mention the unmentionable due the inevitable economic and social disruption: “Dr. Rieux was unprepared, as were the rest of the townspeople, and this is how one should understand his reluctance to believe. One should also understand that he was divided between anxiety and confidence. When war breaks out people say: 'It won't last, it's too stupid.' And war is certainly too stupid but that doesn't prevent it from lasting.” But the epidemic does not just last but thrives and Oran has to shut its gates to prevent the spread of contamination, isolating the city from the rest of the world. “Thus the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow-citizens was exile... we accepted our status as prisoners; we were reduced to our past alone and even if a few people were tempted to live in the future, they quickly gave up.”

In such a climate only those with something, or more importantly, someone to love for, were not overwhelmed by the collective despair: “The egotism of love protected them in the midst of the general distress and, if they did think about the plague, it was always and only to the extent that it risked making their separation eternal.” The visiting journalist, Rambert, exemplifies this condition of exile, scheming to escape but prevented from doing so for many months. When he finally has an opportunity to leave he instead chooses to stay and continue his work on the health teams. Why do so when he has no vested interest in the city of Oran and he can be reunited with his sweetheart? Because even if he were to succeed and achieve this vision of happiness, it would be a “happiness in solitude,” understanding that this was a crisis and that he had chosen to flee rather than aid his fellow men. Even though his friends, Dr. Rieux and Tarrou, encourage him to escape, he knows he wouldn't be able to live with himself had he abandoned the city in its time of desperate need.

The Plague is about how men and women respond to crises when their lives and livelihoods are threatened. And while some men will exploit a calamity for their own gain (such as the criminal Cottard profiteering off the black market) Camus, via Dr. Rieux, takes the optimistic view that most men are good, not because they have religious or spiritual motivations but on behalf of utterly humanistic impulses. Tarrou, a drifter who organizes health teams to combat the epidemic, asks Dr. Rieux, “Can one be a saint without God: that is the only concrete question that I know today.” In fact, the religious authorities are a complete failure in the face of the plague, the city's spiritual leader, Father Paneloux, even condoning the suffering and deaths of children as a test of the believers' faith, describing the choice as a zero-sum game: one either loves and accepts God (the horrors being part of his Plan) or one denies his existence. Delivered in such all-or-nothing stakes, the realists dealing with the plague firsthand mostly ignore this ridiculous proposition.

The Rebel

As Camus' narrator says, “The trouble is, there is nothing less spectacular than a pestilence and, if only because they last so long, great misfortunes are monotonous.” At times, so is the novel, especially such a conceptual one with philosophical points supplementing nearly every development. And though the circumstances of such a disease can be tedious-- time literally standing still for one to survive or perish in the epidemic's steady method of attrition-- the conclusions Camus reaches are instructive and for the most part true. We are each independent persons with unique and special pursuits and most of the time, hopefully for all of our lives, this is fine and good. But there comes a moment for some of us when such living is no longer morally tenable and hard choices need to be made. Importantly, doing the right thing does not necessarily promise heroism, but does guarantee membership in the human race.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Earth is Watching

Shibuya, Tokyo June 25th, 5am

Four years ago on a humid early summer morning I woke up about 4am and checked the World Cup scores, reading that Japan had defeated Denmark to advance to the next round. I got on my bicycle and rode down to Shibuya to explore the reaction. You would have thought by the celebration that they'd won the World Cup itself, or that a cure for cancer had been discovered, or that everyone had discovered true love finally and were dancing in the street. But it was a mere soccer victory against an average opponent in the first round. And yet it was absolute bedlam.

Absolutely, I understand that being proud of your country is important, but nevertheless I've always found it extraordinarily silly to associate your country's greatness via a group of overpaid athletes outperforming another country's group of overpaid athletes. I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, which was a very good decade to be a sports fan, the Lakers, Dodgers, and Raiders taking home multiple championships. Los Angeles even held the Olympics in 1984. But these victories did not make me proud of my hometown so much. However glorious the Lakers dynasty was it did nothing for the city's congestion, crime, drug abuse, unequal housing, spiraling education costs, discrimination, police brutality, civic corruption or anything else that makes a city safe, livable, and respectable.

The World Cup, like the Olympics, channels its citizens' nationalism into something less dangerous than militant activism. Nevertheless, the competition reduces our emotions to "us" vs. "them," victory at any cost so that in our zeal to win we often fail to appreciate the athletic finesse of the the oppositional team. And Japan defeating Denmark has nothing to do with Japan being better than Denmark. It's a game, nothing more, and no one else involved cares.

It can be fun subsuming your individuality within a larger group, at least for 90 minutes. So long as you remember that the World Cup is fun but that we're all in it together, humanity on earth, and that many of us are famished, without electricity, and hundreds of millions of us are under duress from the dramatic consequences of global warming. Collaborating on these crises successfully would be the greater miracle than your favorite underdog winning it all on the soccer green.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Teenage Suicide Was Never So Beautiful

“They had killed themselves over our dying forests, over manatees maimed by propellers as they surfaced to drink from garden hoses; they had killed themselves at the sight of of used tires stacked higher than pyramids; they had killed themselves over the failure to find a love none of us ever could be. In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.”

In Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, the reader knows how the story ends not just from the first page, but from the tell-all nature of the novel's title itself. Five teenage sisters, the Lisbon daughters, Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia, successfully kill themselves, the youngest, Cecilia, inaugurating this disastrous turn of events when she leaps out of her bedroom window during a rare open-house soiree, impaling herself on an iron fence post. Within a year the others would follow en-masse, devastating a suburban community near Detroit, Michigan. Their accursed fate is meticulously analyzed by an anonymous narrator looking back nostalgically and with bittersweetness (cleverly utilizing the collective “we” rather than the singular “I” pronoun, so that the deaths of the Lisbon girls is meant to affect us all.)

What matters to us not so much is that the girls committed suicide, but why? The Virgin Suicides is set in the early 1970s, a notable moment in American history because it was then that American political and economic hegemony had begun to wane (the recession and energy crisis caused by the oil shock, the costs and shame of the Vietnam War, Watergate, urban decay, etcetera). As our anonymous narrator explains,Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls. Our parents thought it had to do with our godlessness, or the loosening of morals regarding sex we hadn't even had.” The Detroit area and its automative industry had already begun its precipitous decline into what has become its symbolic cautionary status as a failed metropolis. The little things, unfinished or handled incompetently, added up to a state of attrition: “It had to do with the way the mail wasn't delivered on time, and how potholes never got fixed, or the thievery at City Hall, or the race riots...” The suicide of the Lisbon daughters then is how a small community explains its own decline in parable form. Their deaths can clearly demarcate the way it was to the way it is, one side of time's spectrum, beautiful, sunny, optimistic, the present one of deteriorating opportunity and declining faith in future returns.

But for all the darkness and symbolism, this is not a depressing novel, but one that gets it so right in capturing adolescence in its absolute innocence, imagination, awkwardness, and butterflies in the stomach teenage boldness. Eugenides has a gift for nailing the small details, adding them up, and composing a scene so evocative and true he nearly universalizes the coming-of-age experience. And it is because his narrator and team of obsessive Lisbonphiles are such average, yet sympathetic boys that we, the readers, understand implicitly own own clumsiness and that while it might have felt unbearable at the time, there is indeed something romantic in growing up in America, or at least this feels true in the novel's resonance. One of the best examples is when our narrators describe the school heartthrob, Trip, and his courtship of the sultriest of the sisters, Lux Lisbon:

     “Trip had never even had to dial a girl's phone number. It was all new to him: the memorization of        strategic speeches, the trial runs of possible conversations, the yogic deep breathing, all leading up to      the blind, headlong dive into the staticky sea of telephone lines. He hadn't suffered the eternity of the      ring about to be picked up, didn't know the heart rush of hearing that incomparable voice suddenly        linked with his own, the sense it gave of being too close to even see her, of being actually inside her      ear.”

Whether describing the watershed moments in a teenager's life, like the Homecoming dance or a first kiss or the more prosaic but nevertheless dramatic and agonizing business of calling a girl you love but who doesn't love you back, the novel reads like a prose poem, so delicate and pure its writing, but never precious, sentimental, or cloying.

Sofia Coppola did a terrific adaptation, 
really nailing the spirit of the book, especially this scene

While the The Virgin Suicides implies small-scale tragedies might have large-scale implications, this is a very intimate story about a family's failure to adjust with loss. Following the shock of Cecilia's suicide, the Lisbons never quite recover, especially the parents, who not only enact a draconian set of rules on the daughters' behavior (isolating them from the world and teenage protocols), but lose altogether their zest for living so that perhaps, as negative examples, the Lisbon girls saw no reason they should not join their sister. Small tasks, like cooking meals, washing dishes, and dusting tabletops fall by the wayside. A retainer left by a boy in the Lisbons' bathroom is tossed into the toilet whereas a quick phone call would have returned the mouthpiece to its owner. “Acts like these-- simple, humane, conscientious, forgiving-- held life together.” But even Mr. Lisbon fails in his failure to fulfill his responsibility: “The retainer, jostled in the surge, disappeared down the porcelain throat, and when waters abated, floated triumphantly, mockingly, out.” It is the small details, that signify not only winning or losing, but the beauty of a good story well told.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Smells Like Human Spirit

“Or why should earth, landscape, air-- each filled at every step and every breath with with yet another odor and thus animated with another identity-- still be designated by just those three coarse words?”

Ask almost anyone which of their five senses are expendable and they would almost to a man say, with little deliberation, they would forego their sense of smell. An underused sensory perception, the word “smell” generally has a negative connotation-- if we say something “smells” it is not a generous observation, but one that implies rottenness, decay, or corporeal fumes. But to even describe a disagreeable smell exposes the paucity of our language to describe that odor precisely. In any case, modern life has managed to suppress the stench of living with good sewage treatment, sanitization, hot water showers, and a multiplicity of helpful, pleasant scents (although new unpleasant chemical-based ones have evolved with our technology as well). Few things in this world seduce our noses with their divine essence, and even when they do, not many of us have the time to stop and (ahem) “smell the roses.” 

The German writer Patrick Suskind's Perfume, is one of the only novels I know of that concerns our underutilized nasal appendages. The novel, set in pre-revolutionary 18th century France, concerns a certain Jean-Baptise Grenouille, “one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.” He is born in Paris in a wretched fishmongers' marketplace, abandoned by a useless mother, unwanted and unloved in various homes, becoming a child laborer in a tannery. All the while he is aware of the potency of his nose to pinpoint various odors good and bad and these only had any meaning to him: “It was as if he were an autodidact possessed of a huge vocabulary of odors that enabled him to form at will great numbers of smelled sentences.”

The child gets his big break when he gets a job apprenticing for a déclassé perfumer named Baldini. Once inside a laboratory, with access to all these marvelous ingredients, Jean-Baptise turns out to be a born alchemist in the realms of essences and revives Baldini's business fortunes. But (once more, ahem) the sweet smell of success doesn't mean anything for Jean-Baptise. Now a slight ogre of a man, he recognizes the limits of Baldini's laboratory, wanting to master the arts of distilling purer essences. Moreover, he is exasperated and haunted by the olfactory ravages of Paris, “a mixture of human and animal smells, of water and stone and ashes and leather, of soap and fresh-baked bread and eggs boiled in vinegar, of noodles and smoothly polished brass, of sage and ale and tears, of grease and soggy straw and dry straw.” He packs a few edible items and a letter of introduction and leaves Paris for the countryside.

On the way he discovers the righteousness of what a later Frenchman would say, “Hell is other people” and winds up a hermit in a mountaintop cave. Jean-Baptise's story might have ended there but always there was the problem of his belonging to humanity, for for all his olfactory superpowers, the little man himself has no physical smell whatsoever. The novel posits that body odor, for lack of a more precise choice of words, constitutes our human aura (or literally, an essence). Whether we fall in love, trust a stranger, avoid a creep, and other automatic instinctual reactions might have something to do with the other person's smell, even if we are unconscious of it. Jean-Baptise then feels compelled to find another laboratory where he can experiment with different additives to give himself a smell and thus admission to the human race, to have presence among other men: “There was a basic perfumatory theme to the odor of humanity, a rather simple one, incidentally: a sweaty-oily, sour-cheesy, quite richly repulsive basic theme that clung to all humans equally and above which each individual's aura hovered only as a small cloud of more refined particularity.”

18th century stinky metropolis

However, Jean-Baptise is interested in composing a more elusive, ethereal scent that is (unfortunately) derived from human specimens. This is where a good novel becomes great, at the expense of empathy for our hero. Nevertheless, Suskind pulls off a remarkable, if not hysterical climax that, for a novel championing the nose, is as visually surreal as anything I've ever read. No one reading Perfume can ever forget the book's final pages and the strange twisted fate of Jean-Baptise Grenouille. I loved the novel so much that when I finished reading it I opened the book and plunged my face into its pages, inhaling deeply. I wish I could tell describe articulately what they smelled like, for in my own inadequate grasp of nasal intelligence, the pages just smelled like paper to me. That's all I got, that and my own idiosyncratic human sour-sweet smell.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Vincent & His Penpal Theo

“I need not overhurry myself, there is no good in that-- but I must work on in full calmness and  serenity, as regularly and concentratedly as possible, as concisely and economically as possible. The world only concerns me in so far as I feel a certain debt and duty towards it because I have walked that earth for thirty years, and, out of gratitude, want to leave some souvenir in the shape of drawings or pictures-- not made to please a certain cult in art, but to express a sincere human feeling.”

--Vincent Van Gogh

Self portrait with bandaged ear

No one did the starving artist bit more famously than Vincent Van Gogh. After various career stints in a picture gallery and bookshop, later as a schoolteacher and a lay preacher, failing or being forced out of every position he ever endeavored, the troubled Dutchman becomes a full time painter around the age of 27. This same time he becomes completely dependent on his younger brother, Theo, for all his living expenses. Never marrying and alienating nearly everyone whom he comes into contact with, Van Gogh lives a destitute, itinerant existence, unable to settle anywhere very long. He is nearly always malnourished, often lonely, and occasionally suffers debilitating spells of depression that late in life take the form of nervous breakdowns (as in the infamous offering of his ear to a prostitute). The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (edited by Mark Roskill) is a curated epistolary collection of his miseries, epiphanies, and banalities, alternately dull and inspiring, an invaluable record of perhaps the most famous painter of all time, who penniless and institutionalized at the age of 37, commits suicide with a gunshot wound to the chest.

Vincent's correspondence reflects his concerns, worries, and interests, which evolved with his art and descent into madness. Early on, in his preacher days, he examines theological ideas piecemeal until later disillusionment turns him into a full-blown apostate (“I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life-- the power to create.”). In his late twenties, early thirties, he struggles in dead-end relationships, falling for women who either fail to return his affections (his cousin Kee Vos) or women of ill repute from the demimonde (the prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik), confessing his amorous confusion to Theo with, “What a mystery life is, and love is a mystery within a mystery.” He adores certain writers, particularly Charles Dickens, with whom he shares his concerns for social justice. (“But one must learn to read, exactly as one must learn to see, and learn to live.”) And later in life, aware of a movement called Impressionism, he ruminates on what painting means in terms of art, truth, beauty: “Tell him that my great longing is to learn to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodellings, changes of reality, so that they become, yes, untruth if you like-- but more truth than the literal truth.”

For someone better known for his pictures than his prose Van Gogh's writing is very articulate, often extremely precise in its descriptions. That might have been due to his bibliophilia (not just Dickens, but most of the great writers of the 19th century were favorites, especially Balzac, Zola, and George Eliot) but also to his visual background and sensitive nature. In his correspondence it is all peaks and troughs, but his aesthetic appreciation for beauty is vivid and inevitably colorful: “Spring is tender, green young corn and pink apple blossoms. Autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones. Winter is the snow with black silhouettes.” There is a focus to the letters and comparatively little banter. The most banal matters are often due to money. Theo's welfare checks are never enough, as Vincent spends the largess on models, paints, and canvases. Literally, he subsists on stale bread rolls and warm milk (which no doubt had an effect on his physical and mental deterioration, though how much we have no way of really knowing).

An artist of mercurial temperament, nothing quite stays with Van Gogh. He burns bridges with friends and family (his tempestuous relationship with his preacher father is often lamented and Paul Gaughin's famous stay with Van Gogh in Arles had been a disaster). A normal life is impossible due to conflicts of personal views with his various employers (he almost definitely had authority issues) and his ceding of financial independence to his brother (in the arrangement Theo acquired ownership of Vincent's work so that it was more of a payment for services rendered than a support check, though Vincent is always asking for more, swearing on “activity,” insisting that he is not “lazy” or “plodding”). Initially euphoric in new locations, discovering places and subjects to paint, he always becomes disillusioned eventually, save Arles, where its bright, beautiful sunshine inspires him to his most prolific work, though his eccentricities alienates the townfolk and they petition for his removal. The only constant in his life in fact is painting. It is the one thing in life that gives him any joy or confidence, the only way to transcend his miseries, so that Vincent becomes single-mindedly determined “to sacrifice all personal desires, to realize great things, to obtain nobleness of mind, to surpass the vulgarity in which the existence of nearly all individuals is spent.”

The road for Van Gogh was long and treacherous, filled with self-doubt (for no one would buy his paintings) and extreme poverty. But it was worth it because he understood it intrinsically as his life's calling ("Blessed is the man who has found his work."), grasping also that all great loves entail some kind of pain: “By painting, one becomes a painter. If one wants to become a painter, if one delights in it, if one feels what you feel, one can do it, but it is accompanied by trouble, care, disappointment, periods of melancholy, of helplessness...” His letters are often punctuated with dreams of an arts community, a utopian vision of cooperation, collaboration, and collectiveness. It's tempting to wonder how Van Gogh would have handled his passions and pain in contemporary life. Would he have felt less alone had he an online community, a way to share his work? Or would he despair at the humbling stats of his Tumblr account, at the inattention due him, at the sheer, voluminous ubiquity of artists and art? Van Gogh is by no means the only unacknowledged genius-- hundreds of others have toiled in anonymity, most of whom only to be utterly forsaken. At least his brother had been one of the most respected art dealers on the Continent (nevertheless, tragically, Theo would die just months after Vincent).

Reading these letters, which is akin to reading the diary of somebody's innermost thoughts, I couldn't help remembering my own capricious fortunes in my twenties while I learned to be a writer, struggling with confidence and money, sacrificing a normal life, a good career, stable income, watching friends from university establish real careers in their fields while I pattered along with the vain hope of expressing--as Van Gogh described it, “a sincere human feeling.” Every artist's journey is a different in the details but the arcs are generally the same-- some make it, some don't, and then there are the exceptions like Van Gogh (or more recently Henry Darger and the photographer Vivian Maier) who become spectacularly beloved after death. On my worst days I've been paralyzed by my own self-doubts, though I've been luckier than Van Gogh in life, having found a way to live and even thrive. Some artists, particularly the more sincere ones, don't do their trade for the money or even recognition, but for love. Maybe you're born, maybe you're made, but however you get there beauty makes you feel all is right with the universe and this helps smooth the kinks of living on the edge, at least for a brief, blissful moment. And it is not extraordinary to be moved by life; in fact, it is something you might know just by looking. As Van Gogh said looking up at the night sky over the Rhone, hungry yet spiritually sated: “And all the same to feel the stars and the infinite high and clear above you. Then life is after all almost enchanted.”