Sadly, the news cycle has been laden with reports and opinings chronicling the nightmarish Bedlamite regime that darkens the skies over the American Empire. Needless to point out, much of this is arguably bad news for most of the world. Thus I have set for myself the task of finding items that (to paraphrase the late lamented Leonard Cohen) offer to let the light in…
1. The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada* in “A president who rarely reads has launched a book club for all of America” elucidates his claim, “Donald Trump is making America read again”:
“…Trump’s connection with voters is forged not through literature but on Twitter—that’s the window into his thinking—so it’s intriguing that people are using books to grasp, interpret or game out the Trump phenomenon. During the campaign, rural white voters emerged as a publishing and journalistic obsession. Beyond Hillbilly Elegy, works such as Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land grappled with the history and attitudes of the white American underclass, while Carol Anderson’s White Rage argued that every era of black progress produced a backlash from entrenched white interests. All became bestsellers during Trump’s ascent.
"Now with the Trump administration underway, Orwell’s 1984 is but one of several dystopian classics to regain currency. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, the tale of a bumbling, repressive and democratically elected American fascist, has reached Amazon’s top 20. Same for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, helped by the forthcoming Hulu adaptation of the book. Orwell’s Animal Farm is a Washington Post bestseller.”
2. Many book publishers are pieces of larger corporate pies, so the traditional expectation that as such publishers are interested in forwarding the cause of literature is now conjoined to the goal of pleasing shareholders. Thus in recent years a number of book imprints have blossomed with a—how shall I put it—more pure approach to publishing. Brooklyn-based Archipelago Books (along with Open Letter and Deep Vellum) specializes in fiction in translation. Jill Schoolman founded and oversees Archipelago, and here’s an illuminating conversation with her**:
"KA: Can we go back to something you said earlier, about why publishers don’t want to publish translated books?
"JS: I think it’s mainly fear and feeling disconnected from the writing itself. Editors may not speak other languages. They can’t read a work from another language in its entirety. Yes, it is possible to ask for a reader’s report from a translator or a professor, but then an editor is removed from direct contact with the text. She or he is responding to another person’s instincts and sensibilities. There is also the issue of translation costs, which many editors are reluctant to invest in, let alone the added royalties for the translator. Of course, those same editors don’t blink when they offer large advances for an English-language work, which in many cases becomes more costly than the combined acquisition and translation advances for an inspired novel from another part of the world.
"There’s more interest in translation today, and these fears I’m talking about are less prevalent than they used to be. It seems that in the last eight to ten years, people are hungrier to read writing from around the world, and might even feel a bit nervous not to know what is being published and talked about in other countries. Our president-elect, living in his own imaginary world and doing what he can to drag the country into it, is a circus barker for xenophobia. It is palpable that more and more people are alarmed and feel how utterly necessary it is to listen to voices from other cultures, voices of sanity who perhaps have been through similar moments in history. It is dangerous to shut ourselves off, not only from the realities of today around the globe, but also from the imaginations of others, from the experiences of others, from the wisdom and cries of others."
3. And speaking of literature in translation, there is a good chance that Mexican novelist Carmen Boullosa may become a familiar name on book pages as Deep Vellum is publishing a number of her novels in English. Here’s a recent conversation with her:***
“Today, seventeen novels later—and many books of poetry, plays, short stories, and nonfiction—Carmen Boullosa has become such a different, and differently formidable, writer that the translation and publication of her first work of prose fiction feels almost like opening a time capsule. Before is painfully revelatory in its intimacy and naïveté, while more recent works—like Texas: The Great Theft—are like archival symphonies, orchestrated choruses of real and imagined voices. And yet Antes is where she had to begin, the place where one of our greatest novelists became, first, a novelist.
"Guernica: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the poetry scene in the 1970s in Mexico City.
"Boullosa: It was wonderful, because the city itself felt different. We always met at the same places, by the university, the Café de las Américas, in the midtown between downtown and the university… and the bookstores that were fantastic, where all my friends stole books. But not me, I never stole a book. It was wonderful, because we poets were there, like a plague. We felt the city was ours. We read all the same books. I remember following Juan Rulfo in the bookstore to see what books he touched and browsed and his expression, and so I went after the book he had just touched, and I read it in the bookstore, following [all these writers’] steps. We knew where to find Octavio Paz. The city was the natural stage for the poets. I remember going to the lectures of important poets, and writers, Cortázar, Borges, it was something so wonderful.… And you looked out at the same faces in the audience, we were all using the same huaraches from Oaxaca. We all had the long hair; we all were the same—in a way, very different, but also the same, post-hippies. It was very peculiar.
"The only one who had ironed shirts, who used the shirts ironed, was Roberto Bolaño. Because he lived with his mother, and his mother ironed his shirts. None of us lived with our mothers. Well, I didn’t have a mother."
4. Amongst the din raised by the infoshitstream there have been three commentators—Charles Pierce, Keith Olbermann and Gail Collins—whose mordant analysis, for a moment, allows us to gaze at the wretchedness of the current state-of-affairs. Occasionally I have encountered a dissection of news about the presidency that is not a regurgitation of the media sounding board. Now I am not an admirer of Sydney Blumenthal, previously a Bill “Big Dog” Clinton lickspittle, who participated in a campaign to trash Monica Lewinsky (you remember her). But that doesn’t mean he is not an astute observer of US politics. He wrote a lengthy piece in the London Review of Books which bears quoting at length:
“A week after the inauguration, Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Origins of Totalitarianism were number one and number 36 respectively on the US Amazon bestseller list, but the true-life Donald J. Trump story has more to do with what Scott Fitzgerald called ‘foul dust’ than with ideas or ideology. Reckoning with Trump means descending into the place that made him. What he represents, above all, is the triumph of an underworld of predators, hustlers, mobsters, clubhouse politicians and tabloid sleaze that festered in a corner of New York City, a vindication of his mentor, the Mafia lawyer Roy Cohn, a figure unknown to the vast majority of enthusiasts who jammed Trump’s rallies and hailed him as the authentic voice of the people.
"The notion of a Trump literature begins, appropriately, with an imaginary novel, 1999: Casinos of the Third Reich. Over several months in late 1989 and early 1990, [Kurt] Andersen kept referring to the non-existent Casinos of the Third Reich and its implausible protagonist, Donald Trump, whose narcissistic exhibitionism offered a never-ending source of unintentional self-satire…
"The member of the Trump family who most resembles Michael Corleone is Ivanka. Her father’s favourite, the ambitious and fashionable Manhattanite presents herself as an advocate of childcare and climate change policies, selling herself as the one hope for decency among the Trumps. While merchandising her dresses, shoes and jewellery she has achieved a degree of social acceptance in the city. She represents Donald’s last chance at respectability, but her precarious image depends finally on repudiation of the father she worships. ‘That’s my family – that’s not me.’
"Roger Stone, a longtime Cohn protégé who began his political career as a dirty trickster and ‘ratfucker’ for Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972, explained the relationship. ‘First of all,’ he told an interviewer, ‘Roy would literally call up and dictate pieces for Page Six [of the New York Post] because Rupert [Murdoch] was a client and because Roy always had good material. So Roy understood the tabloids. Donald, I think, learned the tabloid media, and the media cycle, from Roy.’ Cohn was the sorcerer and Trump the apprentice…”
5. I scrutinized two books (of the plenitude reaching my front porch) in particular this week:
Stephen Kinzer’s The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. I met Kinzer when he was covering Central America in the mid ’80s. He has gone on to work in Germany and the Eastern Mediterranean and has opened a number of useful books (Blood Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War). In his new opus, he argues that the American Exceptionalism double standard originated with the Spanish American Cuban Filipino War and that the so-called isolationist/internationalist dichotomy in foreign affairs was first exhibited here and has carried over to the present. Jackson Lears (How the US Began Its Empire)***** writes in the NYRB:
“What has emerged from Trump’s rants is a self-contradictory vision of a Fortress America with tightly controlled borders that invites foreign conflict by maintaining a provocative, overextended presence abroad. This is hardly a recipe for international stability. What might have been an overdue debate on the limits of interventionist overreach has not materialized, while Trump has been dismissed as a dangerous isolationist. A debate on American intervention is as necessary as ever.”
The murder of Emmett Till is one of the better known instances of racist violence and a reminder that black lives not mattering has a long ugly history in this country. Now comes recently published The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson which makes clear why this horrible crime merits retelling, especially with the its revelation that Carolyn Bryant, the white woman in whose name Till was killed, had recanted her accusation. The book’s publisher reports:
“In 1955, white men in the Mississippi Delta lynched a fourteen-year-old from Chicago named Emmett Till. His murder was part of a wave of white terrorism in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared public school segregation unconstitutional.
"The national coalition organized to protest the Till lynching became the foundation of the modern civil rights movement. Only weeks later, Rosa Parks thought about young Emmett as she refused to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Five years later, the Emmett Till generation, forever marked by the vicious killing of a boy their own age, launched sit-in campaigns that turned the struggle into a mass movement. 'I can hear the blood of Emmett Till as it calls from the ground,' shouted a black preacher in Albany, Georgia.”
A documentary film, Timeline: The Murder of Emmett Till is available at PBS’s The American Experience.