Monday, January 27, 2020

Raymond Fleischmann: "What We Write About When We Write About the Past"

Recently on Crime Reads, novelist Raymond Fleischmann wrote a compelling editorial called "What We Write About When We Write About the Past". Fleischmann has one novel on shelves, so I (almost) identify with him on that point. He also thinks about our relationship with past generations a lot, which I have done in great detail on this blog - and again.

Fleischmann's main insight, that historical figures are shockingly similar to modern people, is something I've thought and read about. Whether it's the gritty journalism of Erik Larson's Dead Wake discussing young adult Lusitania passengers like Preston Prichard, or historical fiction with a basis in old newspaper articles like J.R. Moehringer's Sutton, the trend has gone from presenting "overly stodgy, prim, and restrained" characters, as Fleishmann puts it, to presenting people who actually lived.

My favourite line from Fleischmann's article is his accidental thesis statement in the middle:
Certain customs and social conventions change, certainly, but make no mistake: People are people, and they always have been. Seventy years ago, your grandparents told dirty jokes. They did the same stupid stuff that young people do today. They used curse words, many of which are the same curse words we use now. They felt self-conscious. They were aware of their flaws. They fought with their spouses, and they drank too much sometimes and made fools of themselves. There’s a picture that occasionally makes the rounds on the Internet of a Victorian couple trying not to laugh while getting their picture taken, and I absolutely love this picture. I like it not just because it’s cute, but because it reminds us that the people who lived many decades ago weren’t so different from us in a great many ways. [emphasis added]
People have always been people. Whenever I write fiction set in any past time period, I remind myself of that.

In Defence of Coinage

Absolutely nothing about the ongoing Brexit issue has been non-controversial. That apparently includes a commemorative 50p coin bearing the phrase "Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations". That message demonstrates the UK's desire to be an active participant in global affairs following Brexit. It is also warm and fuzzy.

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials series, apparently takes issue with the lack of an Oxford comma after the word "prosperity".

"The 'Brexit 50p coin' is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people"... "the lack of a comma after 'prosperity' is killing me."

The Oxford comma is, of course, completely optional. The sentence fragment (the phrase does not contain a predicate, which is apparently of no concern to Pullman) is grammatically correct with or without the Oxford comma. The general rule I use is to either include, or omit, the Oxford comma based on the clarity of the sentence. I like the sentence's flow without the Oxford comma.

Is the lack of an Oxford comma offensive, should the sentence be defended as it stands,* or is this entire story further proof that late January is not traditionally a busy time for newspapers?

*This asterisk comes directly after an Oxford comma.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

January's Book: Primeval and Other Times

Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk
(1992/1996/2000/2010* - 248 pp.)

Primeval and Other Times takes the reader to a land that simultaneously doesn't exist and really, really exists. Through the creation of a fictional isolated rural Polish village called Primeval,** Olga Tokarczuk invents realistic, lifelike families who endure the presence of a mysterious fertility goddess, World War I, a forcefield that appears to lock certain people inside the village, mythical hauntings, World War II, a dice game that reveals the nature of God, the Cold War, and modernity. It is never clear which of those is the worst.

Isolation comes through from the book's opening pages. Primeval and Other Times starts with a blow-by-blow description of the boundaries, the landforms, the settlements and then the people of Primeval, (9) which replaces the customary map at the beginning of a fantasy novel. Isolation remains a central theme, such as when Ruta shows Izydor the border of Primeval that he is completely unable to cross. Unlike other characters, Izydor never leaves Primeval, eventually moving into an old folks' home far before he is actually old.

At various points, the characters seem barely aware World War II is occurring around them, such as when Ruta attempts to cross Wola Road, the boundary between the German and Soviet occupation zones. Gangrapes by both sides ensue, (133) creating a morbid analogy to Poland's political situation at the time.^ One of the book's philosophical proclamations that fit seamlessly into the rest of the writing shows the dark comfort the characters can take in their largely isolated existence: "And he who has seen the world's borders will suffer the imprisonment most painfully of all." (220)

Within Primeval, the reader gets to know successive generations of some of the local families on an intimate level. When the story starts in the summer of 1914, a young Michał is called to war for the Tsar. (Evidently, Primeval was within the Russian partition.) In succeeding chapters ("Times"), Michał and his wife Genowefa^^ raise their children, become grandparents, die, and then those children grow old, become grandparents, and die as well. People build houses, start businesses, farm, and then, fittingly, fail to build a tomb. During the Cold War, some characters move away from Primeval, most notably Ruta (to Brazil) and Adelka (to various places). By the end of the book, the reader knows the people who stay in or near Primeval so well it is actually the younger characters who are unrecognizable. While Adelka wears a camel hair coat and high heels made in Italy, both unfathomable objects within Primeval, the village of Primeval stays locked into a pre-World War I past. It is the past the reader recognizes, though, whether it is Cornspike at a bar or it is Eli gathering buckets of water for Genowefa in the book's first few chapters.

With essentially no modern distractions, the people of Primeval experience their inner worlds in extreme vividness. When Squire Popielski starts aging, he has a hungover epiphany that anyone, in any country, in any time period, could have. This epiphany simultaneously foreshadows the coming deaths of so many of the book's characters and possesses a Thomas Cole Voyage of Life-style romanticism:
The turning point occurs at about forty. Youth in its intensity, in its full force, tires itself out. One night or one morning a man a crosses a boundary, reaches his peak and takes his first step downwards, towards death. Then the question arises: should he descend proudly with his face turned toward the darkness, or should he turn around towards what it was, keep up an appearance and pretend it isn't darkness, but just that the light in the room has been extinguished? (38)
Popielski's subsequent immersion in The Game, a mysterious dice game that opens his mind to eight worlds created by God, is so all-encompassing he barely feels the need to answer questions asked by occupying troops during World War II. "The Time of the Game" is always presented in italics, is rarely longer than a page, and draws the reader out of the characters' more mundane experiences into the magic that surrounds them.

Characters love and lust just as vividly. Genowefa says to Eli during World War I, "I fell in love with you instantly. As soon as I saw you. Love that never ends." (52) Eli brushes off her statement, but the reader notices that Izydor, Genowefa's son, looks more like Eli than like Michał. Their daughter Misia, who the reader is convinced is Michał's, marries Paweł Boski, a young neighbour with aspirations to become a doctor but who spends most of his adult life as an inspector for the communist government. His resentment is palpable. His sister Stasia is not much happier, but she finds refuge in converting her cottage into a convenience store selling vodka and chocolates to the locals. As the people of Primeval are frequently either drinking vodka or having sex, lacking in other entertainment, Stasia finds especial joy in having sex with one of her customers: "The forester violently forced his way into her, and those were the finest moments of Stasia's life." (198) Even that encounter is presented as though it could have been part of either war.

Cornspike, the fertility goddess, is the only major character the reader is in any way convinced is supernatural. After her pregnancy, to an unknown human father, fails, conceiving with nature appears to be her only way of giving birth to a healthy child, such as her daughter Ruta. She also heals many of the people of Primeval from a potential epidemic, but even this is unsatisfying: "Everyone who was cured was killed during the war. That is how God manifests himself." (111) Every other major character is powerless, which is likely one of the major causes of Primeval's temporal stagnation.

The reader can zip through Primeval and Other Times despite its heavy subject matter due to Tokarczuk's light style and quick pacing. The stark presentation of all of life's events results in short, tight sentences without much embellishment. The presence of dozens of "Times", each approximately 1-4 pages, means that the reader can digest a discrete bit of information in under a minute before advancing to the next one. Each "time" is named after its protagonist, such as "The Time of Misia", "The Time of Cornspike" or "The Time of Squire Popielski's Grandchildren", alerting the reader as to what to expect in that chapter. In this way, Primeval and Other Times is formatted like an 18th-century English novel, in which an abundance of short and ham-fistedly named chapters guide the reader along. At 248 pages, and covering the years from 1914 until sometime in the 1980s, Primeval and Other Times spends a mean of 3.5 pages per year, albeit never that mechanically. Primeval and Other Times reads as quickly as an airport book without ever feeling like fluff.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3

*The original stories were published in Polish in 1992, 1996 and 2000. This English-language translation and compilation of the stories was published in 2010. Twisted Spoon Press, based in Prague, specializes in English-language translations of Central European books.

**The name "Primeval" itself makes the village seem like it belongs in some mythical, forgotten past compared to the other municipalities. Of all the municipalities in Poland referenced in the book, only Primeval has a Latin name; the rest are in Polish.

^The book presents this, and similarly tragic, events so starkly and with such emotional detachment it jars the reader. This, in turn, makes the war all the realer. For a similarly detached look at World War II, especially the Holocaust, see my entry on Time's Arrow by Martin Amis. I discuss Poland during World War II in more detail in my entry on The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski, which is a critical academic treatment of the uncovered Polish archives with the author's family interviews interspersed.

^^I had never heard this name before reading this book. I suspected it was the Polish equivalent of Genevieve, and I was right. Similarly, the character Adelka is the Polish equivalent of Adela.