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What I’ve Been Reading and Watching During my Last Month

I haven’t had the stamina to write full reviews of what I’ve been reading and watching before my physician-assisted suicide, following the fatilure of ever-harsher chemotherapy regimens for large B-cell lymohomal Some notes about them I’ve e-jotted.

I’ve been watching (in horror) “When They See Us.” The first episode of police bullying is really hard to watch. The second one showing the prosecutor and jury ignoring many reasonable doubts in the conflicting coerced confessions and the total lack of physical evidence is somewhat easier to watch, since I have seen many miscarriages of justice on tv. The third episode is confusing, because I don’t know when it takes place. One to go. I’ve already watched Oprah interview the actors and the Exonerated Five (formerly “The Central Park Rapists” whom Donald Trump advocated executing)

I enjoyed Scorsese’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” (he had nothing to do with the shooting in 1975-76), partly because Dylan actually tried to answer questions, and because “Hurricane” Eliot, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky (I’d never heard Orlovsky before) are brought back to life, but for the songs Dylan performs (including much of “A Hard Rain’s A’gonna Fall,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” and “Hurricane”). As for his Nobel Prize ceremony, Patti Smith leads off. It never occurred to me that Dylan has blue eyes (“Hard Rain” is addressed to a “blue-eyed son,” but… Sharon Stone is a surprise addition (she joined the tour, as did Joni Mitchell; I think Joan Baez dropped out), as is Ronee Blakeley (who was a backup singer). Electronic violinist Scarlet Rivera is prominent onstage and has a quirky interview segment. Dylan frequently drove the tour bus and painted his face white. They went to the prison where “Hurricane” was being held, and to the Tuscarora reservation.

I also enjoyed the Netflix reboot of “Tales of the City,” bringing back Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis. I don’t like the out-of-the-past blackmail (the whole 9th episode is a flashback to 1966, culminating in the Compton Café riot) of Anna, but she dies with dignity, surrounded by love, buoyed up by mass support in the last episode, shortly after her 90th birthday (Dukakis is 88 btw). I was underwhelmed by Ellen Page’s Shawna, annoyed by the twins, slow to warm to Murray Bartlett’s Michael (formerly “Mouse”), though I liked his young boyfriend Ben (as embodied by Charlie Bennett), García’s FTM Jake Rodriquez, and Paul Gross’s Brian Hawkins (one of my favorite characters going back to the first book). I failed to recognize a number of locations, though Coit Tower remained visible from 18 Barbary Lane. Episode 9 is the highest rated one on IMDB! Some of it was filmed in Yonkers and some in NYC.

And I enjoyed Sue Roe’s The Private Life of the Impressionists. Though charting the frequently changing residences (in Paris and in villages around it), the major liaisons, and the struggle to eke out survival with the aid of gifts and purchases by Gustave Caillebotte, Édouard Manet, and Paul Durand-Ruel, there is quite a bit of macro-history (the Prussian War, the Commune, and various stock market crashes). Roe pays considerable attention to Cezanne, Degas, Manet, Monet, and Pissaro, but also to Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot — who posed at length for Manet, as well as exhibiting paintings with the “lunatics” labeled “impressionists,” a term of abuse in 1874, a favored sales device now. The plates include two pictures (one by Manet, the other a photograph) of Morisot, but none of her paintings (there is one that I don’t particularly like by Cassatt, and some of the greatest hits/scandals of Manet et al., nothing by Frédéric Bazille, who was a casualty of the Prussian war).

I have yet to try to write about My Father, Renoir, which I thought had too many digressions about minor characters, but which increased my regard for Renoir as dedicated to art (only some of which I like).

My favorite impressionist, Alfred Sisley, is a shadowy figure in Roe, once affluent, later struggling to feed his family. She increased my regard for Caillebotte, Degas, Manet, and Pissaro (as people; much of the art of Degas and Pissaro leaves me lukewarm), presents Monet as a cadging cad. I also learned that Gustave Courbet was sentenced to be executed for his part in the Commune, though he slipped away to Switzerland. I didn’t realize his life overlapped that of the early impressionist (après la letter) painters He died in exile on the last day of 1877, having been born in 1819. He was painted in 1865-55 by Monet and painted Baudelaire in 1848.

I didn’t know that Pissaro sponsored/mentored Gauguin as well as Cezanne and was open to the influence of Seraut and Signac. (Or that Courbet was considered by some as the grandfather of cubism, as Pissaro was regarded as the father of impressionism.)

I am astonished that Degas was criticized for not being able to draw. I don’t like Berthe Morisot’s brushstrokes, at least in her pictures of people (she did few landscapes that I mostly like).

We’re also watching the first season of “The Good Fight” and the third of “Rita.” Both have strong women in the central roles.


I watched the hast episode of “When They See Us.” The first half (plus) is harrowing, though I know it does not show anything close to the full horror, only beatings, not rape. The end is triumphant, though people say that the exoneration and settlement could not restore the lost years and never-ending wrong of what police and prosecutors (shown unrepentant and holding to blaming the exonerated five despite the DNA evidence and fit of the confession with the crime scene) did to boys from apparently loving homes. The original attack is upsetting, all the more so knowing that the perpetrator was going to rape and murder after the boys were framed.

“The Pleasure of Love in Iran” is a six-minute out-take from Agnès Varda’s 1977 “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (L’une chante l’autre pas). It mostly shows tiles and architectural detail from Isfahan, Iran. Native-to-Isfahan Darius (Ali Raffie, himself an Isfahan native) is showing his visiting French girlfriend, “Apple” (the one who sings, played by Valérie Mairesse) around. She sees the cupolas as being breast-like and the minarets phallic, he translates some poetry for her, and she writes one (on toilet paper). Only the title and a glimpse of “Pleasure” made it into “One Sings,” which clocks in at just over two hours without it. Darius is a character, the major male character I’d say, in “One Sings.”

Varda supplied voiceover narration and also wrote the lyrics for the songs “Apple” and company perform. Also, her own daughter, Rosalia Varga-Demy, plays Maria, Suzanne’s daughter (and Varda’s then four-year-old son Matthieu also had a role as Zorro).

I’m not quite convinced that such very different women would be friends for life, but Suzanne quietly goes about getting from being a 22-year-old helpless mother of two forced to return to something akin to slave labor on her parents’ farm into a professional working in a family planning clinic (where Apple comes to have her second child, the one she is going to keep, having let Darious take their son back to Iran, where he was conceived but not born). Apple is more impulsive and rebellious and something of an artist (songwriter), one with more success that Jérôme, the photographer-father of Suzanne’s two children and of the one she has aborted with funds scammed from her own parents by Pauline (before she becomes “Pomme”). Varda said she was thinking of Modigliani’s common-law wife desperately trying to subsist and to support an artist with few to no sales. Jérôme, not a womanizer like Modigliani, had a wife. The viewer does not know if he had had children with her, too.


The Criterion edition also includes the more in-your-face 1975 “Réponse de femmes” with more full-frontal female nudity, and a superb documentary, “Women Are Naturally Creative,” about Varda the film-maker (and mother) made by Katja Raganelli. It includes shooting of the last scene of “One Sings” and interviews in her home office and kitchen, plus a dinner in which she finally talks about the independence from each other in the film-making by her husband Jaques Démy and herself. Though she had the same short-in-back hair with bangs in front, and comes across as genial, she came across as less pixieish than in her late documentaries. I thought she looked more Greek, too.


I enjoyed Varda’s 1967 documentary about looking up a Greek uncle (actually a first-cousin once-removed) on his houseboat in Sausalito, “Uncle Yanco.” The next year, she shot “Free Huey demonstrations and some interviews of black Oaklanders. Both have interest as time capsules. There is no real analysis of the Panther program. Huey sort of stammers, but does not have the high-pitched voice others have derided. There is also a speech by Stokley Carmichael, an interview with Eldridge Cleaver, and a scene of Kathleen Cleaver working those in a queue, explainging what the Panthers were about


The restoration of all these films was backed by Martin Scorsese. There’s another California Varda (on eclipse), “Lions Love (…and Lies” I have yet to see.


I found Darius attractive with long hair, Marie’s boyfriend Théodore even more attractive, with longer hair. There is full-frontal female nudity, but no sex scenes. The scenes of Darius and Apple in bed are shot very discreetly with the sheets up nearly to their chins.




From the Devil’s Dictionary: “history, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”


Roy Morris Jr.s biography of Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company is very good on his Civil War experiences, and opts for the interpretation that Bierce killed himself in the Grand Canyon. I find it difficult to believe that an old man could get anywhere there that no one has gotten to in the last century. If he killed himself, I’d guess it was in Chihuahua mountains.


Morris provided a comparison with Hemingway that seems apt to me:

For both men, the fear of cowardice seems to have been rooted in a less-than-satisfying relationship with their fathers, men who rightly or wrongly were perceived by their sons as being weak and cowardly. Hemingway’s father is ruthlessly depicted in his son’s fiction as a wife-dominated ditherer; Bierce’s father, to the extent that he is depicted at all, is usually seen as a distant authoritarian whose more forceful wife seems to have had the upper hand in their relationship. Not incidentally, both Hemingway and Bierce detested their mothers and the homophobic tone (explicit in Hemingway, less obvious in Bierce) may perhaps be traced to a lingering fear of female—that is, maternal—domination. 204-05



I think that Morris’s Gertrude Stein Has Arrived lifted all the good lines from Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography, which, for some reason, I am reading (she’s already being fêted in America). She must have had some charm/charisma in person, but I tire of her frequent proclamation of being a genius, the only literary one of the century, in the company of Picasso and Einstein. Morris also tells the stories better without Stein’s doubling back for repetitions (little is developed, either in anecdotes or in support of bald assertions about French and American essences).


10 July 2019


I finished Everybody’s Autobiography, though only after being bored by the selected poetry of Jaques Éluard—which I first heard quoted in “Alphaville.” A more passing mention in “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” finally prompted me to get the book from the library. I liked the narration (read by Delphine Syrig) in Varda’s “Documenteur” (1981) more. It has full-frontal male as well as full-frontal female nudity, two unrevealing sex scenes, and charming performances by her son, the then nine-year-old Mathieu Demy and Sabine Mamou (the editor of Mur Murs) as his single mother, gleaning furniture for their LA (Venice?) apartment. There are more murals, the focus of Varda’s documentary “Mur, Murs” from the year before. 105 minutes is an awkward length. It could have been longer or shorter,


Everybody’s Autobiography definitely would have been better shorter, with fewer repetitions, a fact-checker, and while fantasizing, why not tighter organization removing the cycling back to repeat what she had already written? It’s not gibberish, though many of the assertions are very dubious, and the generalizations based on very, very little.


She was high on Francis Picabia at the time and averse to the poetry Picasso wrote. She was enthusiastic about flying, driving, and everywhere in the US she went, especially Chicago and Texas. Alice B. Toklas seemed to enjoy the return to northern California more than Stein, whose “There’s no there there” has no connection to things having changed (mostly, 13th Avenue in Oakland had the same houses, though the one she lived in had been demolished).


She claimed that “the spoken language is no longer interesting, and so gradually the written language says something and says something differently than the spoken language” (13; her choice of verb interests me—isn’t “say” about spoken language?)


“Any life you look at seems unhappy but any life lived is fairly cheerful” (104)


“Their [French people’s] lives are their own it is not a secret but one does not tell it” (106—she never used semicolons and stinted on commas)


“Modigliani combines Italian art with Negro art and both these arts are admired by every one” (323, so why did he nearly starve; and it was African art that intrigued and influenced him, at least his sculptures)




Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, published in Arabic in 2013, translated by Jonathan Wright and published in English in 2018, is, I guess “fantasy fiction,” verging on science fiction, as was Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The original Dr. Frankenstein was a scientist filled with hubris. Hadi, the maker of the creature in Baghdad with warring Sunni and Shi’ite militias and the American garrison in the Green Zone, is not trying to bring his amalgam of body parts to life, or to study what makes “life,” but only to assemble a corpse that can be buried.


The hideous-looking creature shows no signs of life to Hadi, but rises while the junk-dealer is sleeping , leaves, and starts killing people. He does not slay just anyone who comes along, rather this amalgamated body seeks revenge on those who killed the parts that have been sewed together to make his body. The soul of the new creature was a hotel guard, Hasib Mohamned Jaafar, who was blown up by a suicide bomber. The explosion results in scattered body parts that Hamid gathered and assembled into a corpse. Hasib’s soul needed a body to inhabit and moved into the one Hamid has put together.


For me, a major problem with the novel is that, the creature, variously called Whatitsname and Daniel does not have a particular personality and seems far too articulate to be Hasib Mohamned Jaafar. I am (perhaps oddly) more willing to suspend disbelief about reanimating a corpse. The reaction of the neighbors (terror) and the authority (determination to capture and eliminate a serial killer whose motivation none of them images) and even of the old Assyrian Syric Christian widow Elishiva who has prayed (to St. George as well as to God) for the return of her son Daniel, who went off to the Iraq-Iran war of the early 1980s imaging that he has returned, not least in that Whatitsname dons clothese that once belonged to Daniel and of the journalists who see a juicy, terrifying story to draw readers, are readily understandable.


Though there is very little character development, Saadawi sketches a number of character in post-Saddam post formal US occupation Baghdad, and shows the devolution of Iraq caused by greed and ambition as well as by sectarian (Sunni/Shia) fanaticism. The US forces are as sinister and to be avoided if possible as is the new Iraq government with many old (formerly Baathis) functionaries, most prominently within the book, Brigadier Majid, head of the Tracking and Pursuit Department (within the Secret Police). Hamid, Faraj, Abu Anmar et al. are trying to make a living amidst the decaying buildings of Bataween, a neighborhood which was Jewish or had a substantial Jewish population in earlier times (i.e., before Israel existed and ethnic cleansing swept majority Muslim countries).


Composed of diverse body parts, the amalgam that is killing those responsible for the killings that provided his body parts (new ones are needed as the old parts fall off when vengeance has ended the lives of those immediately responsible for their death and dismemberment) is an Iraqi rather than the member of a tribe or a religious community.


As his murders cause him the need for replacement body parts, there is no end in sight for his reign of terror, and he realizes that he has body parts from killers as well as from victims. Dwight Garner applied the concept “mission creep” to this, though I think Whatitsname continues to do the same thing: kill killers. Even within that vocation, it puzzles me that he does not go after those who send out suicide bombers and/or concocted the rationales for the violence. No clerics, no Americans, are killed in Whatitsname’s reign of terror that no one else understand is a program of administering lethal justice. Like Shelly’s menacing and hideous-to-look-at creature, Whatitsname feels misunderstood. His attempt to explain himself (on tape for a magazine editor who often seems to be the protagonist of the book (though Mahmoud al-Sawi is one of the least interesting of the novel’s characters), but what he said was sensationally garbled to maintain the reading public’s fear and loathing of an inexplicable serial killer…


The concept is interesting, and Saadwi juggles various plots with some skill (it is good that the book begins with a character list, since many names sound like other ones). As I’ve said, there is no character development (particularly in the case of Mahmoud al-Sawi, who seems unfazed by what he encounters of official terrorizing or from receiving the self-explanation of Whatitsname). There is a lot of violence, though other than narrating the results of explosions, the violence is not graphic. (That is the vengeance killings are not recorded in detail.) The book is not going to make anyone want to visit Baghdad. Most of the characters want to get out and away from it.


The novel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the first Iraqi one to do so, and was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. In an interview connected to the latter, Saadawi, who was born in 1973, listed his influences other than Arab traditions as Borges, Calvino, and Kundera, plus Jules Verne and H.G. Welles).


Besides publishing his letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (Dear Sammy, 1977), their protégé, Samuel M. Steward (1909-93) also portrayed their relationship somewhat peripherally in Parisian Life (1984), which is primarily a fictional version of another of their protégés British painter Sir Francis Rose, and centrally in two mysteries in which the pair together figure out murders. I read the second one, The Caravaggio Smile (1989),set in Paris, first, then read the first one, with the Steinian but not altogether accurate title Murder Is Murder Is Murder (1985), set in their summer house at Biligin in Ain province.

Having just read Stein’s exceedingly narcissistic Everybody’s Autobiography, I can say that Steward’s novel, set around the time she was writing that book (1938; the book was published the year before) fits almost perfectly with what Stein wrote about her life at the time. The one exception is that she only played the white keys on the piano, and Steward inexplicable has her only playing the black keys.

He portrays the dogs (the large poodle Basket and the chihuaha Pepe), the daily routine, and some elaborate breakfasts Toklas prepared for Stein and, in the middle of the book, Steward’s character whom he named Johnny Actaeon McAndrews, aided the investigation, which included splitting up the businesses in the village of Belly to inquire about what their neighbor Grand Paul bought the morning that he disappeared. “Jump-Up” Johnny does less leg work for the amateur sleuths than in Shawl, but beds a hunky policeman in both. In Murder, he also beds the couple’s Chinese houseboy, but none of the local peasants.

The deaf-mute Petit Paul, who is larger than his father, very muscular, and often semi-nude working in the Stein-Toklas under Alice’s directions attracts Johnny, but he knows better than to try to seduce him. A drunken Petit Paul was raped by their despised neighbor Debat, which enraged Grand Paul.

Alice spotted Grand Paul approaching Debat at the end of a field bordering a woods. Knowing that Gertrude would enjoy watching a confrontation, Alice puts down her telescope and calls Gertrude to come with her binoculars. By the time the partially deaf, large and sluggish older woman lumbers down to join Alice, only Debat is visible, however, so Alice is the only one who saw Grand Paul


After waiting two days for Grand Paul to return, the women go to the local police and suggest there has been a murder. Johnny, Gertrued and Pepe find the bag with most of Grand Paul’s purchases. They infer that he ate the bread and butter he bought and put some other things into his pockets rather than his bag.


The police arrest Debat, but are about to release him when the women return the next April and solve the case, not only determining who committed the crime of murder but who instigated it.


Some mystery mavens have found the whodunit predictable. My view is that the book is not a whodunit. As in Simenon’s Maigret novels, the whydunit is more important than the whodunit. Both are subordinate to invoking what life was like in the Toklas household. In both mysteries, Toklas is the prime mover of detection and the dominant force in the relationship (whatever their roles in sex may have been). There’s even a comic touch of S&M.




Going the other way, I liked Agnès Varda’s 1980 “Mur Murs.” After a project on police brutality fell through, she started filming murals in Venice and continued as far as East LA, sometimes with the painters, sometimes with the models, at least once with both. I was disappointed that there was graffiti on many of the murals even back then, astounded by the Culver City DMV’s murals, and interested in the many murals, however varying the artistic talent involved. The documentary looks forward to “Faces Places” in putting images on buildings, but Varda does not appear on camera in it.


In contrast, I found her 1969 “Lions Love (&…Lies” horrendously boring. Though Warhol “superstar” Viva and the creators of “Hair” James Rado and Gerome Ragni are naked quite a bit, there is no full-frontal nudity, in contrast to many other Varda films. There is a long, boring scene of Viva naked lying on an air mattress in the pool with both of them in the water touching her or her air mattress. The use of tv coverage of RFK’s assassination and funeral seems obscene to me, though far more interesting than anything the three or visiting (clothed) filmmaker Shirley Clark. The most interesting scene not second-hand tv footage is a brief one in which Clark says she is not an actress and Varda briefly takes her place. The movie ends with Viva saying how tired she is of having to improvise lines, be naked, or speak to the camera. The camera stays on her wordless face in closeup another two minutes. Come to think of it, this is better than the opening sequence of a play on stage with talentless actors in Old West garb. I’m not sure Viva could act (I had not seen any other movie with her, though I think I saw her being interviewed by Dick Cavett back in the day), but I’m pretty sure she could have done better than the stage actors in “The Beard” did. Even her entrance to that theater with the two beaux was better than what was going on onstage.


There are also badly shot meetings of suits discussing final cut authority, but without a female director onscreen. (Clarke’s agent takes the meetings.)




Though generally very predictable, the Asian-American (Chinese-Korean) rom-com “Always Be My Maybe, co-written coproduced, and costarring Randall Park with stand-up comedian cowriter Ali Wong looks good, moves along, and has a surprise extended appearance by Keanu Reeves as an arrogant movie star. I also liked Michell Buteau as Wong’s assistant and James Saito as Park’s father.


I didn’t like the second half of Paul Eluard’s Selected Works any more than I liked the first. It seems that the anti-Nazi poems only began after they had been driven out. One 1944 couplet not set as verse spoke to one of my interests, though:

“not to punish the guilty, they maltreated prostitutes. They even went so far as to shave their heads.”

Prostitutes and mistresses rather than officials…




The title of Nigerian-born Chiwetel Ejiofo’s directorial debut “The Boy who Harnessed the Wind” is a plot spoiler. The famine in a Chichewa village in Malawi looks plenty dire and the fields entirely parched before the windmill connected to a pump (drawing from a well, which seems pretty finite a supplier to me) goes up. It is very jerry-built with parts of the boy’s father’s bicycle, something the father was very reluctant to sacrifice to his son’s book-learning (plus savvy). Ejiofo’s has great dignity, Maxwell Simba as the son (William Kamikwamba) great yeanring along with respect, persistence, and the mechanical and intellectual wherewithal to save his family and village with technology he read about in the school’s small library.


Tony again recalled that my mother cooked a beef roast and served sugar plum ice cream for dessert when he stayed over a Friday night when we were in 7th grade, then went to piano lessons with a Mrs. Walter Enger (not the teacher/coach who lived half a block away earlier) at 12th and Galbreath. And Terry remembers my sister’s excitement of searching for a head that was severed by a car rear-ending a truck out in the countryside. I don’t recall that, only the dyeing the peas crying jag one time when Mike Markman stayed for dinner.


Albanian Kosovo-born (1990) Pajtím Statovsi’s second novel, Crossing, lacks the humor and magical realism of My Cat Yugoslavia. I disliked both the endings, i.e., the endings to two narrative streams in the book). Even less a “gay novel,” though “queer” in multiple senses. The narrator is from Kosovo rather than Albania, living in Vienna, Sarajevo, Rome, NYC, and Helsinki. (The book was written in Finnish.)




The first half of Jean Giono’s 1941 Melville bears some connection to Melville. The visitation of the Irish Adeline is Giono’s to a self less sensitive than Melville’s.

Ivo Andric(h)’s constantly spiraling back to repeat itself Omer Pasha Latas annoyed me. Thee are characterizations of Ottoman official (marshal, born Austrian, empowered to crush Bosnian rebellions) and painter with no plot. NYRB edition nowhere reveals when it was written or first published (posthumously).

Alfonso Bioy Casares’s (1972) Asleep in the Sun also seems to spiral often, though there is more humor than in the other two NYRB classics. I didn’t realize that psychotherapy was so big in Argentina. I guess I purchased some BC stuff for MSU in the Borges collection.

Richard Thorpe’s “Malaya” (1949) doesn’t really spiral, though Valentina Cortea’s torch singer (Blue Moon) seems to. Remarkably, the two leading men (James Stewart and Spencer Tracy) both are killed, though the rubber gets out to American hands, and the Japanese lead (Maui-born, Chinese-ancestry Richard Loo) also is shot. Back in the US, John Hodiak and Lionel Barrymore continue to operate. Sydney Greenstreet manages to survive in Malaya, Gilbert Roland doesn’t. Atmospheric B&W cinematography by 13-time Oscar nominee George J. Folsey.


I don’t know why Anita Brookner pressed Simeon’s Chez Krull/ Krull’s House (1939) on Julian Barnes as Simenon’s best. It seems one of the becalmed books set around WWII I hsve been reading (this one not freshly translated and prepublished by NRYB. It has the same circulating rather than progressing movement. The reader eventually learns who strangles the pale, naked, violated girl fished out of the canal at the start, and why the foreigners (Krulls) continue to appear different to their hostile (Catholic) neighbors in a canalfront town near the Belgian border on the eve on Nazi invasion (not that the Krulls or Nazis or have any “politics” (like those tacitly colluding the Trump and his white suprematicst supporters).

There is a more assimilated German-born family, the Schoofs, who seem present more for contrast with the Krulls than to advance any plot. The Schoofs speak Dutch at home and are not really German. (The supposed Krull money has made it only as far from Germany as Belgium.) Cousin Hans ‘blatantly and deliberately offends against the first law of the immigrant: do not draw attention to yourself. And by drawing attention to himself, Hans Krull also draws attention to those ‘impure’ relatives of his who live beside the canal where the town runs out. Simenon lays out with ruthless exactitude the way selfish, conscience-free greed exploits modest, hospitable decency” (Barnes).


(3 years and 85 pounds ago)

I’ve enjoyed reading Wu Ming-Yi’s (2011) The Man with Compound Eyes. (blurbed by the late Ursula K. Le Guin).It encompasses a thoroughly imagined Taiwanese aboriginal culture (on an island east of Taiwan called Wayo Wayo) interethnic relations, the Pacific garbage vortex, earthquakes (““An earthquake does not have to kill you to induce mortal terror; it is enough that it can take away something dear to you”) and a tsunami, some romances, and the turn of Roald Amundsen against seal pup bludgeoning in Canada. (Not the 1928 “Red Tent” disappearance searching for Umberto Nobile and the crew of the Italia of more common record.) I’m also reading Henry Green’s Nothing, which also has a prominent cat character. Yi (born in Taoyuan in 1971) is among other things, an expert on the butterflies of Taiwan, though moths figure more prominently in the novel (his fourth, but the first to be translated into English; his sixth, the 2015 The Stolen Bicycle has now also been; there is a 2019 collection of stories and lyrical nature writing borrowing Mary Austin’s title, The Land of Little Rain).


“Only human beings can, through writing experience something separately together” (281), though I don’t understand or accept that “memory and imagination have to be archived separately.” (Does Wu believe this? I believe that he thinks loneliness is what produces culture and the willingness to relate stories to strangers [64])


“The islanders did not have writing, nor did they think that the world had to be remembered in written form” (36—how could they?)


If I were going to live longer, I’d read more of Wu and László Krasznahorkai’s (1954-) Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, just offered me by Vine (but it’s very long! And it’s the fourth part of a tetraology.)




It took us two nights to get through “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Neither the film nor the music are as good as “Once Upon a Time in the West.” There are lots of closeups, but few as super-tight as those in “West.” Plusa lot of sadism—more, I think than in “Once Upon a Time in the West.”


I think Eli Wallach is very funny, though also very sadistic. The Union captain is the talkiest role. Wallach has a lot more lines (has or improvised a lot more).


I don’t much like Morricone’s main theme for the movie. I barren Spanish desert standing in for northern New Mexico have their stark beauty.


And it is way too long, with some protracted scenes, not least the bridge battles. The DVD version is 14-16 minutes longer than the theatrical release (and still has a separate deleted scenes, including more torture of Turco). I can understand why Charles Champlin suggested the alternative title, “The Bad, The Dull, and the Interminable.” (The original tite was “Two Magnificent Tramps.” Van Cleef has less screen time than Eastwood and Wallach, who are a team in scamming bounties for Wallach before pursuing the loot in opposition to each other and to Van Cleef.)




I don’t know whether I’d read Pushkins The Captain’s Daughter before (definitely had seen GBU!). It has a romance, a villain (Shvabrin), and a lot of plot drawn from P’s research on the Pugachev peasant/Cossack rebellion against Catherine the Great. If it is a parody of Sir Walter Scott, I have read too little Scott for it to connect. A parody of the memoirs of a romantic young officer (Grinyov), I can see.


And Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, which is mostly tedious. I’m not even sure what “Style: all that is not technique” (35) means. The interdiction of psychology, “all that only discovers what it can explain” and the rejection of acting are more comprehensible to me.

IRead a book about some characters my own age, Henry Green’s novel Nothing (talk about spiraling!).

I’m not sure what to make of Ulrich Plenzdorf’s The New Sorrows of Young W. or Iván Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse. Too little W, too little Attila in the Pushkin Press novellas, a typical smothering German mother.

Kate Mayfield’s The Undertaker’s Daughter turns increasingly dark, but is very funny and touching as she discovers her father Frank’s flaws, her older sister Evelyn’s narcissim, and their Kentucky hometown’s many pathologies.

I feel that via Isherwood memoirs (and Prater Violet) I was already a member to the Salka and Berthold Viertel circle (admiring many of those whom those they admired). They managed to come out alive from Nazi Europe, a very major accomplishment. Garbo urged Salka to write her memoir The Kindness of Strangers.

Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein (more narcissism, less humor than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas). I also read the rural Stein/Toklas mystery, Murder Is Murder Is Murder (a misleading title btw). It is a whydunit, like many Simenon Maigrets and rather politicaly incorrect by current standards. Stewar’s Toklas was an entertaining, if somewhat timid, character.

Edwin Barnhart’s great Great Courses series, Ancient Civiliiztions of North America, has taught me a lot that will soon be expunged when I’m cremated.


©2019, Stephen O. Murray



Sharon Stone in a spaghetti western with Russell Crowe, Leonardo di Caprio, and Gene Hackman

Rating: 3.6/5]

Pros: cast, look

Cons: other than having Sharon Stone in a Clint Eastwood role, pretty conventional

I knew that the 1956 paint-by-numbers western starring Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood (one of their several pairings) “Burning Hills” derived from one of the many formulaic western novels by Louis L’Amour. It has a formulaic romance, one interesting character (the “halfbreed” tracker played by Eduard Franz) and a twist of using a Comache raiding party. Skip Homeier played the ruthless robber baron/formulaic villain.

I knew that “The Quick and the Dead” (1995) was directed by Sam Raimi (after “The Evil Dead,” before Spiderman I,II, and III) and starred Sharon Stone, but didn’t notice the name Louis L’Amour in the credits.

The title is the sorting in the Final Judgement, and the town into which The Lady (Stone as the Woman with No Name) rides to participate in a gunfighting elimination match is named Redemption, run by a smiling ruthless gunfighter named John Herod (played with relish by Gene Hackman). It only gradually becomes apparent what The Lady seeks to redeem. (It involves Gary Sinise.)

A young (pre-Titanic, post Gilbert Grape) Leonardo diCaprio struts about and insists on registering for the contest, to the dismay of his father (Hackman). Cort, a very fast-drawing former part of Herod’s outlaw enterprises, played by Russell Crowe, has renounced violence and taken up preaching. Herod is determined to smash Cort’s commitment to nonviolence.



There’s not really a romance between The Lady and Cort (in contrast, she wakes up very hungover with The Kid), but they become allies of sorts against Herod.

There are a series of shoot-outs, well filmed by cinematographer Dante Spinotti (who worked with Crowe filming “LA Confidential” and “The Insider” as well as “Heat” and “Wonder Boys”).

Nothing profound, nothing unusual other than having a female gunslinger protagonist and a powerhouse cast (including John Ford repertory member Woody Strode as a coffin maker; Strode also appeared in “Once Upon a Time in the West” which Q&D sometimes seems to be parodying with trademark Sergio Leone closeups of eyes), but I found it entertaining. Hackman, who is probably a nice guy, was so good at playing these nasty roles and I also miss Pat Hingle, who played the saloonkeeper and mc of the duels.

“The Quick and the Dead” cost 35 million dollars and only drew eighteen and a half million dollars at the box office… which may be why I was unfamiliar with the movie. (Sony was unfamiliar with and dubious about both Russell Crowe and Leonardo diCaprio: in effect Stone cast them).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray



Tenuous positions of Jews in the Ukraine before WWI and in Paris before Nazi occupation: The Dogs and the Wolves


Pros: atmosphere, plot, Ada

Cons: Ben’s character is underdeveloped

I know that Les Chiens et les loups (The Dogs and the Wolves: in that it is difficult to distinguish dogs from wolves in fading light, this is a French metaphor for dusk) was published in the spring of 1940, before Paris fell to the Nazis (and its author, Irène Némirovsky (1903-42) fled south, as represented in the two parts of  Suite Française that were found by her elder daughter (Denise), published in French in 2004 and in English in 2006. In 30-some languages, by 2008 it had sold more than two and a half million copies, and the interest has led to publication of another novel left in manuscript, Chaleur du sang (Fire in the Blood) and to publication in translation of her novels written in French, including The Dogs and the Wolves. (Némirovsky wrote a lot between fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 and being killed in Auschwitz by the Nazis in 1942.)

Whereas Fire in the Blood is about French peasants and seemingly written for a French audience that did not want to read about the troubles of Jews, most of the characters in The Dogs and the Wolves (I’d only sort one of the main characters, Ben, into the “wolf” category, though Harry’s uncles, the aged financiers, also fit it) are Jews, first in a city in the Ukraine (imagined smaller than Kiev, where the author was born), then in Paris (having relocated before World War I and the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution and protracted Civil War in the Ukraine—earlier than Némirovsky had).


There are a number of jumps of two years within the novel, but its starting point is unclear — some time early in the 20th century in an unspecified city on a river (presumably the Dnieper) in the Ukraine in which the Jews were literally stratified (the elevation of their houses correlating with their poverty/wealth):

“The Jews who lived in the lower town [along the riverfront] were religious and fanatically attached to their customs; the Jews in the wealthy areas were strict observers of tradition. To the poor Jews, their religion was so completely engrained in them that it would have been just as impossible to extricate themselves from it as to live without their beating hearts. To the rich Jews, loyalty to the rites of their forefathers seemed in good taste, dignified, morally honourable, as much as — perhaps more than — true belief. Between these two classes, each observant in their own fashion, the lower middle class lived in yet another way. They called upon God to bless their business dealing, heal a relative, a spouse, a child, then forgot about Him straight away, or if they did think about Him, it was with a mixture of superstitious fear and contained resentment: God never fully granted anything that was asked oh Him.”

The novel’s protagonist, Ada, is from that intermediate stratum. Her mother is dead, and her father (who is named Israel Sinner) takes in his widowed sister-in-law Raissa and her two children, Lilla and Ben. Ada and Ben are very close, not least when they flee a pogrom to the gates of the mansion of a cousin, also named Sinner, whose delicate only child, Harry, fascinates Ada. Especially since Ben is in love with Ada, he despises Harry…

And will continue to do so in Paris. Aunt Raissa convinced Israel to send her and the children there to be polished (educated, not so much). After the Revolution cuts off remittances from Israel (who disappears in the conflagration), Ada works for Aunt Raissa as a seamstress, and paints when she can. It takes years for Harry to notice two of her paintings of home and to fulfill her longstanding desire to be with him. Harry has married a blonde Gentile and has a son, but is never comfortable except with Ada.

Ben has been intriguing with Harry’s uncles and has to flee again before a scandal breaks. Alas, when Ada’s residence permit is revoked, she moves East instead of to South America, though before the dismembering of Poland, the Fall of France, Nazi Occupation, and French authorities’ proactive rounding up of foreign Jews (and, later, also French Jews), this was not as obvious as it is to readers now. The final optimism of the new mother is necessarily more tragic to readers of the English translation in the third millennium (C.E.) than to whatever readers of the first French edition there were in early 1940.

Though the novel is a trifle schematic, and my allegiance to incest taboos is stronger than seems operative for French (at least in books and movies), I think the book is a compelling tale of two strata of Jews in the Ukraine and in Paris. lts existence certainly belies the charge some made when only Suite Française was available in English that Némirovsky avoided writing about Jews.

There is not a harpie mother as in some other Némirovsky work, though the aunt partakes of some of the duplicity Némirovsky abhorred in her mother. As in Fire in the Blood, the female characters are well developed. The male ones seem more types than rounded characters to me and I especially wish Ben (who disappears from the narrative for quite a considerable space/time) were more fully developed. Still, Némirovsky was a very skilled and insightful writer, and in The Dogs and the Wolves, I have found a book for Women’s History Month that I can recomend as a good read, not just a historical phenomenon of fiction written in the past by a woman writer.

©2015 Stephen O. Murray



An early and Murky Simenon Novel favorted by Brits

I don’t know why Anita Brookner pressed Simeon’s Chez Krull/ Krull’s House (1939) on Julian Barnes. It seems one of the becalmed books set around WWII I hsve been reading (this one not freshly translated and prepublished by NRYB. It has the same circulating rather than progressing movement. The reader eventually learns who strangles the pale, naked, violated girl fished out of the canal at the start, and why the foreigners (Krulls) continue to appear different to their hostile (Catholic) neighbors in a canalfront town near the Belgian border on the eve on Nazi invasion (not that the Krulls or Nazis or have any “politics” (like those tacitly colluding the Trump and his white suprematicst supporters).


There is a more assimilated German-born family, the Schoofs, who seem present more for contrast with the Krulls than to advance any plot. The Schoofs speak Dutch at home and are not really German. (The supposed Krull money has made it only as far from Germany as Belgium.) Cousin Hans ‘blatantly and deliberately offends against the first law of the immigrant: do not draw attention to yourself. And by drawing attention to himself, Hans Krull also draws attention to those ‘impure’ relatives of his who live beside the canal where the town runs out. Simenon lays out with ruthless exactitude the way selfish, conscience-free greed exploits modest, hospitable decency” (Barnes).


Not one of my favorite Simenon romans durs, but I’m not British, and ethnic chauvinism is definitely again all too topical.

©2019, Stephen O. Murray







Uwe Timm’s reflections on his older brother who was in the SS

The 2005 German best-seller Am Beispiels meines Bruders, available in English In My Brother’s Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS by novelist Uwe Timm (Midsummer Night, The Invention of Curried Sausage) is not a memoir of his brother, Karl Heinz. Uwe was only two years old in 1942 when his brother volunteered for the SS Totenkopf (Death’s Heads) Division, and three when Karl Heinz was fatally wounded on the eastern front, in what is now the Ukraine. Or, more exactly, Uwe’s only memory of Karl Heinz (hiding in a closet, his blond hair visible over the top) is related on the very first page. The book is not really a memoir of those who remembered more of Karl Heinz either, though the lives and characters of their parents are discussed in some detail in the book. It only after they (and an alder sister) were dead that Uwe set out to try to understand something of the older brother who had passed into family legend as the model “good boy” six decades earlier—though he was very rarely talked about.


Uwe refers to himself as an “afterthought, born in 1940, sixteen years after Karl Heinz, and growing up in the postwar prosperity of West Germany. Karl Heinz was the father’s boy (the father was a Luftwaffe officer, whose wartime activities interest Uwe less than those of Karl Heinz), Uwe a “mama’s boy,” “spoiled” as a 1943 letter from father to favorite son recorded.

Contrary to SS regulations, Karl Heinz kept a diary. (One of the reasons this was forbidden was so that no one securing it could follow the corps movements, which is one use to which Uwe put the document decades later.) Surprisingly, the forbidden document was returned to the family with other personal effects after Karl Heinz died, a few weeks after having had both of his legs amputated. The diary entries were laconic, rushed, sometimes obviously written while bouncing along on military transport.

Karl Heinz was outraged to learn of the bombing of civilians in his birthplace, Hamburg (from which Uwe, his sister, and his mother had been evacuated earlier): “It’s not war, it’s the murder of women and children—it’s inhumane.” This from a member of the SS (a combat unit rather than concentration camp administrators, but still the SS). Karl Heinz did not draw any parallel to the wholesale slaughter of civilians on the Eastern Front (or the London bombings by his father’s branch of the military). This is an analogy not lost on Uwe, who quotes an October 1941 order issued by Field Marshal von Reichenau: “The soldier in the east is not just fighting by the rules of war, he also represents implacable national determination, he is avenging the bestialities inflicted on the German people…”

Uwe notes that “the diary says nothing about prisoners. Nowhere does he write about taking prisoners” and is haunted by the casual mention “75 m away Ivan smoking cigarettes, fodder for my MG.” Even more so, Uwe is haunted by the 6 August 1943 entry (before Karl Heinz’s fatal injury), “I close my diary here, because I don’t see any point in recording the cruel things that sometimes happen,” Uwe believes that Karl Heinz was involved in atrocities that Karl Heinz knew were wrong. Uwe sought the war logbook of the Death’s Head Division for 1943 from official archives. The contents of the file for that month were missing.


From later in his childhood Uwe recalls men of his father’s generation getting together to discuss how the war might have been won (but for Hitler’s bad decisions, etc.), which sickened Uwe.

My parents’ set phrase for what had happened to them was ‘a blow dealt by fate,’ a fate beyond the reach of personal influence. ‘Our boy and our home both lost’: it was the kind of remark that saved you having to think about the reasons. You [They] felt that with that suffering you had done your but for the general atonement. Everything was ‘dreadful’ for the very reason that you had been a ‘victim’ yourself, the victim of a collective and inexplicable fate—

not acquiescence and more with the crimes against humanity of the German Reich. And “my father hated American music, movies, jazz, Americanism. Our fathers had lost the power of command in public life” without taking any responsibility for their part in Nazi imperialism and genocide.

Standing up to tyranny, Timm writes, is

not the kind of courage expected in Germany, where courages always had to be shown in a group, with others, and its prerequisite was obedience. Obedience was among those Prussian virtues that included the courage to inflict violence, violence against others and against yourself… the courage to kill and be killed. But the courage to say no did not count, the courage to oppose, to refuse.


Timm acknowledges not knowing if he would have had the kind of courage he admires if he had reached military service age before the “thousand-year reich” ended, twelve years after Hitler became chancellor. And he is not certain that Karl Heinz did more than shoot lounging Soviet troops. The book is, thus, inconclusive, crucial data on what Karl Heinz and his battalion did and thought unavailable.


Living in a country eager to give up freedom for the chimera of “security,” to label dissent from the purported wisdom of its leaders as “unpatriotic,” administering concentration camps, and dehumanizing an “other,” I am interested in how Germans handled guilt for what they engaged in or acquiesced in. Unsatisfied as Uwe Timm and others are with German acknowledgment of German crimes against humanity, it seems to me that there has been more acknowledgment and attempt to atone from Germans than from the Japanese (whose invasions and atrocities were numerous, though not including attempted genocide or fire-bombing civilian populations) or the Russians (former Soviets, whose invasions and atrocities were also numerous, and whose concentration camp death toll is higher than Hitler’s), or the Chinese communists (still ruled by the authoritarian party put in place by Mao Zedong, responsible for more deaths than any individual in human history. And whatever justification there might have been for Hiroshima, there was none for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagaski, whatever the justification there might have been for fire-bombing of cities in Japan and Germany, there is none for the final massive sorties squeezed in before the surrender documents could be signed… More than half a century ago, David Reisman wrote about Americans being increasingly “other-directed” in contrast to the “inner-directed” character structure that rejected authority (or at least did not worship power). Like Uwe Timm, I sympathize with those deployed for actions based on big lies (in the Goebbels sense, like the imminent danger Saddam Hussein posed to the streets of America or that udocumented aliens are killers and rpaists) and behaving humanely in occupied lands. I have also been reading and watching movies about Nazi-occupied Europe and the resistances that the occupiers labeled and treated as “terrorism” but which was celebrated in Hollywood movies and in streams of self-congratulatory postwar books. The victors write the histories, and I am thankful that the Japanese and Nazi empires crumbled, even as, like Uwe Timm, I try to understand what it was like to be on the wrong side.


©2005, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

Two middling short Dürrenmatt novels

I have a 1985 British paperback titled The Novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt, though in German he published another in 1985 (The Execution of Justice) and one more in 1986 (The Assignment). I had already read the later ones and four of the five in what was briefly a complete collection of his novels.


Dürrenmatt was fascinated by detective stories, though he called one he wrote “anti-detective stories.” The whydunit, The Execution of Justice, particularly flouts conventions that are somewhat observed in The Judge and the Hangman (his first novel) and The Pledge (his fifth).


In A Dangerous Game (Die Panne, 1956, first issued in the US as Traps), the car (a red Studebaker) of traveling salelsman named Traps breaks down. There is no room in the local inn, and he is taken in by an old man, whom he and the reader soon learn is a retired judge. He, a retired prosecutor, a retired defense attorney, and a retired executioner (from some unspecified country other than Switzerland, which had banned capital punishment) gather for dinners and play a game of resuming their former professional roles—over haute cuisine and a lot of good vintage wine.


Raps maintains that he is innocent, never having committed any crime. Over the course of the repast, however, the prosecutor convinces Traps that he murdered the man who had held the position he now holds. The man had a weak heart, and Traps made sure that he would find out that his wife had been making time with his subordinate.

Not that he died on learning of his wife and subordinate’s liaison, or that Traps could have been convicted of murder in any conventional trial. He is flattered by the prosecutor laying out “the perfect murder” and is swallowed up in the role the prosecutor crafts.


Uniquely in Dürrenmatt’s novels, the previous one, Griece sucht Griechin (which means “A Greek for a Greek,” the title of a couples ad; the 1955 novel was, however, rendered in English as Once a Greek…) contains no murder, though there is a planned assassination of the president of a country a lot like Switzerland.

The novel struck me as a sort of inverted Kafka plot, (and/or foreshadowing Jerzy Kosińsk’s Being There) in which instead of existential guilt, a man is bombarded with good fortune—after Chloe, a woman of Greek ancestry, responds to the “Greek for Greek” ad and agrees to marry the poor assistant-assistant bookkeepr of a huge conglomerate company that manufactures forceps as well as machine guns an atomic cannons (whatever they might be!). Eventually, Archilochos discovers why he is suddenly in good facor and showered with good things. Of course, he freaks out (which leads to agreeing to assassinate the president, who turns out to be quite charming), and very un-Dürrenmattish, there is a happy ending.

I think that the fairy tale is overly long (though running slightly less than a hundred pages). Both these middle-1950s novels are very contrived. In a New York Times review  of Once a Greek, Kurt Vonnegut likened the novel to a carefully and smoothly entineered Swiss clock: “There are no mechanical mysteries or flaws. The intricately twinkling, twitching works can be admired through cases of glass, and they make little dolls act out jerky little scenes of human love and greed and stupidity and murder and politics and hope. The dolls are frankly dolls, doing what the machinery says they must. There is one human soul at which to marvel—the soul of the inventor.”

After labeling the jokes “Jungian” (why, I don’t understand),Vonnegut railed at the idea that a Studebaker could be chic, though red Studebakers feature in both Once a Greek and A Dangerous Game (though admittedly, the one in the latter book breaks down, a prelude to the dangerous game its owner gladly joins. (That things are going to get out of hand is certain: otherwise what would the book be?) I am less interested in the existential guilt of Traps than in his engulfment in the role the prosecutor concocts. And neither seems as good to me as The Pledge, which followed them.

(I’ve also written about Dürrenmatt’s novel The Quarry in addition to the three novels mentioned (with links) in the second paragraph above and his play Romulus the Great.)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

A whydunit from Freidrich Dürrenmatt

I have no doubt that Frierdrich Dürrenmatt (1921-90) is the greatest Swiss writer in German ever (and the greatest Swiss writer in any language since Rousseau). Alas, The Execution of Justice (begun in 1957, when it is set, first published in German in Zurich, where it is set, in 1985 as Justiz) is not a great book—or even a good book. Fans of mystery novels (which Dürrenmatt was not*) will quickly abandon it, and most other readers will find it padded with place descriptions and backstories of minor (and not very interesting) characters. Sentences go on and on** and paragraphs run for pages without a break (I think that the longest is 19 pages).


The book is an account of an attorney, Spat, who believes in justice, but takes on a job against his principles to concoct an alternative to the straightforward murder conviction of Isaak Kohler, a business magnate who went into a crowded restaurant and shot a professor who dined at the same table every night. Two things were missing in the original case: a motive and the murder weapon. Kohler was unperturbed through the trial and seems quite content in prison, making baskets, learning Esperanto and about beekeeping.

Spat employs the lawyer who has few clients, telling him that he is not “supposed to investigate reality . . . but rather one of the possibilities behind the reality.” Spat eventually (and wrongly) concludes that Kphler’s “motive was too abstract for our system of justice,” though a desire to play God (which he correctly imputes) is not all that abstract. Spat is determined to execute justice, though he becomes aware that “executing justice is something different from having to live in the expectation of executing it.”

More or less everything is revealed in an epilogue to “Spat’s manuscript,” for anyone still interested. The author who has long had but not read the manuscript, judges that “the [dilettante] author, a lawyer, was no match for his material.” Along the way are many digs at Swiss society/character. And what the sociologist (Knulpe) Kohler also retained to study the consequences of a murder concluded is not revealed (which may disturb only other sociologists, with so much else to disturb readers, not least a statement by someone who has been there that “a person was only truly free when being raped.”

*An unbylined afterword reports that “Dürrenmatt thought detective novels should reflect the absurdity of real life rather than proceeding like mathematical equations with a definite solution. Of the traditional crime writers, he once said, “You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: all the detective needs to know is [sic.] the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy” and is not one he embraced, even if film producers insisted on a neat conclusion for The Pledge. Contrary to the back cover blurb, Execution of Justice is not as terse as a Maigret mystery. Simenon’s Maigret novels surely embody what Dürrenmatt disliked in the genre with which he toyed (generally to more interesting results than here).

** An example from a page selected at random (184): “I sensed that night as I became aware of what could have become of me, of a possibility beyond my grasp, which lay within me but which I had not actualized [yuck!] and because I was happy then, for one whole night long, I was convinced that I would become what I did not become.” And on the same page: “I did not tell her that her father had been forced to murder (even if that infernal dwarf may have wanted it), that he was simply taking pleasure in playing God on this wretched planet of ours, and that I had sold myself twice over, once to him and once to a star lawyer who took his pleasure in letting the game of justice be played out, like a master who magnanimously takes over in a chess game that a novice has begun.”

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Some other reviews of better Dürenmatt works:

Romulus, the Great

The Pledge

The Judge and the Hangman

The Quarry


The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout

The Last Summer of Reason by Algerian writer Tahar Djaout is the Muslim 1984/Brave New World dystopian novel—and, alas, a chronicle of a murder foretold: the author’s own by the Armed Islamic Group (al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha) in Algiers in 1993. The manuscript of the novel told by Boualem Yekker is a bookseller in a society in which Islamists are extending banishment of any literature other than the Qu’ran, was found after Djaout’s murder. It includes memories of when Boualem had a family and women were not forced to cover everything except their eyes by wearing burquas, and people (like Djaout) were not being murdered for insufficient Islamist zeal and outright denunciation of the spreading intolerance. He dwells on the past because the future has been annulled. Nothing other than the Last Judgment is licit to speak about (even dreams are illicit, though not yet monitored by the thought-police).

One might think the ban on spare tires (as interfering with God’s will about whether a car should continue onward) is a satire, though within a few years the Taliban in Pakistan banned razorblades and transistor radios. The rationale for Djaout’s own murder was justified because he “wielded a fearsome pen” against enforcement of Islamists’ understanding of God’s word.

the last summer of reason.jpg

Because he lacks the talent to write books and lacks any glamour, Boualem hopes that he will be left alone, though when some children throw stones at him, he realizes this is wishful thinking. This is followed by the “Prepare to die” phone calls. Books had been his refuge, but, now, owning any other than the Qu’ran is evidence of lacking faith that it contains all the licit knowledge in the world.

Boualem induces three rules for “approved knowledge”:

  • Science has the right to pay attention only to those questions not settled in The Book.
  • Any scientific result and any scientific discovery must be challenged by The Sacred Text in order to find justification for them there (or be rejected).
  • Our religion is the source of all knowledge Any scientific or moral law, any legislation decreed in the time preceding this religion, when humanity was steppe din darkness, lies, and barbarism is null and void.

Enjoyment of anything other than murdering the insufficiently righteous and martyrdom are suspect. The beaches are deserted, because swimming is not recommended in the Qu’ran. Television broadcasts only sermons and pseudo-documentaries dismissing any claims to knowledge other than from the Qu’ran. Weather forecasts are presumptuous and impious and long gone.

Boualem is appalled that “God should have to put up with such despicable representatives” as the Vigilant Brothers (the AIG in power). But “most devastating was the paralyzing cowardice that had taken hold of everyone, he himself being no exception” (unlike Djaout, though I’m sure he faulted himself for not doing more than what got him killed).


The penultimate sentence of the manuscript (though only a draft, it seems complete, if less polished than it might have been had Djaout lived to edit it)—“The course of time has gone crazy, and who dares swear to the appearance of the following day?” — was demonstrated by Djaout’s murder.

The book is not just a warning to non-fanatic Muslims, but to those in any society in which religious fanatics seek to impose conformity to their rigorist readings of whatever Sacred Text they are brandishing on others (including Mein Kampf and Mao’s Little Red Book) in the guise of “social cleansing.” In his foreword to the translation from French by Marjoljin de Jager, Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian (Christian Yoruba in origin) writer Wole Soyinka draws attention to Christianist fanatics, in particular those murdering doctors who perform abortion. Djaout bore “witness from within his own society, from within his own milieu, and in defense of his assailed humanity, but let no one be tempted to narrow the bane of bigotry and intolerance to just one milieu from which this powerful testimony has emerged…. It is only be recognizing that the individuality that we are enabled to recollect, and respond to the face of other individuals, to the fate of hundreds like Djaout, and the fate of hundreds of thousands on behalf of whom that voice has been raised, against whom the hand of atavism is also constantly raised, aiming ever more boldly for a body count that will pave the way of killers to a paradise of their imagining. The most ambitious enemies are the absolutist interpreters of the Divine Will, be they Sikh, Hindus, Jew, Christians, Muslims, born-again of every religious calling.”


Djaout himself, shortly before his murder wrote: “It is useless to repress fundamentalism if the Algerian school continues to prepare for us new packs of fundamentalists who, in their turn, will take up arms in ten or fifteen years.” The Christianist assault on science and history curricula in the US is analogous, even with the faith-based policies of the Bush junta not occupying the executive branch of the US government. Our own Vigilant Brethren have not been as successful as the Taliban, but there is a strong stream of intolerance for difference and tolerance for slander in American history, especially from Donald (Don the Con) Drumpf.


(The manuscript was more finished than either Carson McCullers’s memoir fragment, Illuminations and Night Glare or the manuscript which Ralph Ellison had been unable to finish in decades. The Last Summer of Reason is a manuscript that had to be published in protest against his silencing.)


©2010, Stephen O. Murray

Season of Migration to the North

The back cover of Tayeb Salih.’s novel Season of Migration to the North, first translated into English in 1969 (having been published in Arabic three years earlier) has an assertion from Edward Said that it is “among the six finest novels to be written in modern Arabic literature.” This made me want to know what he thought were the other five. The history of the novel in Arabic is short and dominated by Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.


In 2001 the Arab Literary Academy in Damascus was less equivocal than Said in judging it “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” I am dubious about the accolade from Said, and even more that this book by Tayeb Salih (1929-2009) is the best, though the Arab novelists other than Mafouz whom I read write in French (Abdellah Taïa, Tahar Ben Jelloun) or English (Laila Lalami), and Mohammed Choukri’s For Bread Alone is generally classified as “autobiography.”

Though it has some lyrical passages (and some that strike me as ‘florid’), there is much in the very disjointed short book that seems to me unbelievable. The jagged fragmentariness may be anti-narrative “modernism” rather than incompetence, though I suspect the latter.

The book opens well, with the return from postgraduate studies in England (of English poetry) by the narrator to his natal village on the Upper Nile in downstream from Khartoum.

The never-named narrator’s grandfather is among the most respected village elders, a spry octogenarian. During the narrator’s seven-year absence, a man not native to the village has bought land, married a beautiful local woman with whom he has produced two sons. Mustafa Sa’eed has aided villagers in co-operating to end dependence on provisioning by riverboats. He refuses office, but is relied upon for advice in improving the lot of the village. (It may be a backwater, but socioeconmic change has been occurring in what is not “timeless” rural life.)

The narrator is very curious about this man who in some ways has taken on the role of rural-urban liaison that should have been his by virtue of his elite/foreign education. Slowly, the narrator learns that Mustafa Sa’eed was a wunderkind, the first student from the Sudan to become a success in the colonial metropole. Along with publishing a number of books on economics, Mustafa Sa’eed was both figuratively and quite literally a “lady-killer.” English women in extravagant numbers swooned and were ravaged by him. The body count — and I mean corpses, not conquests — seems ludicrously high to me.

Many committed suicide after being “corrupted” by the Sudanese Superfly, and he eventually killed a woman who repeatedly rejected him (double penetration: phallus and knife). No one else in the village knows of the triumphs, crimes, and prison term of Mustafa Sa’eed in England.

About midway through the short (169-page) novel, Mustafa Sa’eed disappears in a sudden flood. The narrator suspects that this was suicide, I suspect that he went off to start yet another life.

Mustafa Sa’eed had gotten his affairs in order and left a sealed letter for the narrator with the key to a room in his house that somehow was built without anyone else having seen the room or its contents (in a village house???). The letter also asks that the narrator look out for his two sons. His widow, Hosna, is in her husband’s judgment quite competent to make economic decisions.

Ah! but regardless of her competencies and wishes not to be remarried, a lecherous old man is forced upon her. The narrator’s best friend reminds him ” how life is run here: Women belong to men, and a man’s a man even if he’s decrepit.” The narrator coulda/shoulda married her (he only has one wife), but leaves for Khartoum. Hosna does what she said she would do, and there is a second knifing in bed, this time without other penetration.

The narrator returns and goes into Mustafa’s room, where he finds more about Mustafa’s life in England, but nothing about Mustafa’s life (and marriage) in the Sudanese village.

IMO, the novel is padded with lists and with documents from Mustafa’s English period of corrupting and being corrupted (in a rather Victorian and very sex-negative mindset) with too many too large lacunae (the narrator’s romantic/domestic life in both countries, for instance).

What happens and what it is supposed to mean are both confusing (and I don’t blame myself). Salih himself wrote some other novellas, married (and stayed married to) a Scottish woman, worked for the BBC and UNESCO, and did not return to live in the Sudan (in which civil wars and genocide have been raging most of the time since 1955, the year before independence from England, though there was a hiatus from 1962 to 1973, the time during which Salih wrote the book). I don’t know enough about him to hazard a guess about whether Mustafa’s lethal conquests are fantasy or exaggeration of experiences of African students in the era leading up to decolonization (followed by betrayals as shown in the novels of Ghanian/Igbo writer Chinua Achebe; Man of the People, his fourth, also first published in 1966, and the first of Achebe’s with a first-person narrator, though his previous ones had conflicted characters in colonial and postcolonial situations)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray


Great Sopranos I Have Heard

I don’t know why there isn’t an opera about Maria Calllas. (There is a pretty great movie with Fanny Ardant playing her in her last years in a film directed by Franco Zeffereli, who directed her onstage.). Her weight loss to look better and thereby injuring her voice is tragic. Her fixation on Onassis is tragic. I subscribe to the rap that her voice became shrill early on, but that she was a great actress. (She can be seen in the title role of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s sriking “Medea,” a non-singing role).

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I’m too young to have heard her live, but have heard some other divas who protected their voice, including Joan Sutherland, Margaret Price, and Christine Brewer.


Sutherland was aptly called “La Stupenda.” She had a stupendous voice. Producing beautiful sound seemed enough for her, but she did do some acting, too.

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(getting CDs signed, 2010)

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I like big, beautiful sound, as produced by the more than ample Jessye Norman and by Christine Brewer (both American-born, in 1945 and 1955, respectively), both of whom I had the luck to hear multiple times (including Brewer’s “Alceste” in Santa Fe). Brewer was a student of the great Wagner soprano Brigit Nillson, whom I never got to hear live, alas.

I’ll always remember the great Catalan soprano Monserrat Caballeé enthroned in Rossisinig’s Semiramade in a gown that continued at least a yard below her feet and looked in proportion (not the one pictured below).  Caballé is a legendary for her girth as for the beauty of her voice, a voice that she carefully preserved for decades.

Margaret Price also produced a lot of beautiful sound. I’ll always remember her saying that Mozart felt good in her throat. I heard each of these three sing Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” some of the most ravishing vocal writing ever done.


I heard a pretty sensational version of one of Dame Joan’s signature roles by Olga Borodina, whom I thought of as a Verdi soprano, not a bel canto one (she more recently did QEI here in “Roberto Devereux,” an opera without any inspiration in my view).


The very pure-voiced Dawn Upshaw (1960-) is best known for her best-selling rendition of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, but has done a wide range of contemporary parts and earlier French one. I have not heard Jessica Rivera often enough (though I had an extended conversation with her at a reception after the première of John Adams’s “Flowering Tree.”)

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I think that I heard Leontyne Price sing in the park. I’d have put her no my list, except that I just listened to a live performance of Trovatore with Franco Corelli in which she sounds shrill to me. Her case is under advisement.

Though I approve of her taking on new music, I am not a fan of Renée Fleming. I only heard Elizabeth Soderstrom well after her peak, but admire her. I did not hear Mirella Freni , Lucia Popp, or Renata Tebaldi live, though am pretty sure from recordings that they were among the great ones.  . Kiri Te Kawane, good, but not great. Scotto, I’m not sure about, though she was a great recorded Mme. Butterfly and the Youtube video of the last scene of “Suor Angelica” is very impressive. “Bubbles”(Beverly Sills) was before my time, though I enjoyed her hosting Met telecasts after she topped singing.

I was impressed by Patrice Racette in Paul Moravec’s “The Letter” at Sanda fe. She definitely could act, as well as sing. I’d like to hear her non-operatic  “Diva on Detour.”Longer ago at Santa Fe, I heard Alessandra Marc sing a beauiful Ariadne, but I’ve been told that she quickly ruined her voice.

[The only great tenor I’ve heard live is Placido Domingo, though John Aler is a contender; the only bass Samuel Ramey, though Eric Owens and Simon Estes are contenders.]

©2019, Stephen O. Murray [photos I’m not in are from WIkipedia]