Giving Up On Hemingway

OK, I give up. “Screw it,” as I’ve been yelled at for saying. Life is too short. 2000 books, that’s what I think I have left to read in my life. One a week; ambitious for sure but I’m trying. It’s why I rarely do book reviews when asked, wasting one of my precious weeks to wade through garbage. Sure, I do get surprised sometimes – “Pacific Viking” comes to mind – the exception that proves the rule. If I were paid for it, I’d do it. But I’m not. 

Nor am I paid to read Hemingway, instead manipulated by name recognition. Group-think does not only occur on social media; echo chambers as self-licking ice cream cones until everything is viscous and sticky. It also occurs in “art” – remember the story of the banana duck taped to a wall that sold for $120,000; the joyous prank of a mean-spirited ‘artist’ in his final mockery of his own trade; proving that art is less about “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and more “art as a positional good”. Positional good being the idea in economics that something has value only in relation to is possession by others; others who others have said are genius. Isn’t the Nobel committee the end all, judges of what is good and true – and beautiful? Lets forget they once gave the Nobel Prize in Peace to Arafat, the world’s greatest terrorist. And the Nobel Prize in Literature once to Bob Dylan, a musician whose little limericks absent the catchy tunes are basically drivel. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in literature. He must be good!!!

I have recently tried to read “To Have and Have Not” – my fault, I know. I keep picking up Hemingway, long after I knew that his writing is grating. I have no idea what this ‘novel’ is about, beyond its crass dialogue, insulting language, and lack whatsoever of any descriptions which would make it beautiful or meaningful. Pointedly, for this novel – like all his others – I can’t find a way to care about the characters; there is virtually no beauty to be found; the plots are humdrum; and his style is grating. What could go wrong?

So there you have it, a final judgement upon Hemingway. But who cares, right? He is a novelist upon the lips of everybody who think that saying something insightful about him ushers them into a special club of those who “get it”, somehow giving them the keys to the kingdom. And me, just a washed up novelist who nobody has heard of; a traveler of the lost places who thinks for himself and stands alone. What could be more insulting than that?

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I am not a normal travel blogger; not a travel blogger at all really. I frequent the lost places, and sometimes I write about them. It is an uncommon world we live in, that is what the great lockdown has reminded me. Layers upon layers upon layers of life, sadness and frustration and meaning; energy and purpose and misfortune. Each of us striving for what we believe, to make our mark in a world that is crowded and mean.

This weekend, respecting the distances less imposed and more desired in my own focus on staying healthy – no need to tempt the devil if unnecessary I say – I eschewed the madding crowd. Up, high and far afield.

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Ancient bridge upon the Silk Road

Hi up in the south Caucasus on that ancient path from the east through Persia and the ‘Stans and down into the Ararat valley to traverse the Byzantine empire (Turkey before the Ottomans) to Constantinople, there is a cool old inn. Caravanserai, they called them. ‘Caravan’ the Persian word for, well caravan – and ‘serai’ the Persian world for palace.

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The side-rooms were used for animals; the trough in the center for water I think.

I took some time sitting in the damp interior of this stone building, imagining the distant past when it rang with the choruses of travelers. Perhaps a few stalls outside selling bread or wine or cheese; vegetables from the fields above irrigated by the runoff from yet another hard cold snowy winter; a priest in the little church calling people unto himself to take the sacraments, thankful of another hard leg in the journey made safely. Maybe they were forced to wait for a short time, the road having turned perilous, the soldiers from the king on the way to escort the travelers into Dvin. Maybe the armies of the king were hunting the brigands, “Stay in the safety of the caravenserai” they might have said, “we will catch the thieves shortly.” One can see how this might have been the case, even now the lands are wild and empty and full of crevices and gorges, caves and meadows where the hearty might thrive. There was certainly a makeshift bar, perhaps inside at the far end where the mumbles of the journeymen could be heard late into the night. What is the news from Constantinople? They say the emperor is ill? What do you hear from Persepolis? Are rumblings of war well-founded?

Is it true the pestilence has returned?

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Some things never change, that is the lesson for our pandemic. We who thought we were above the ancient tribulations of the world have now been reminded of their prescience during our own times of pandemic. Cowering in our homes afraid of the mailman when we had considered ourselves the masters of the universe. That while technology might change, people do not, we have the same motivations and fears and respond to the same stimuli as the ancient travelers who walked down that road and over that bridge, through the spring valley which then too glimmered with yellow-flowers. That there is something, the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen, which was also seen by the travelers of old; that though they might not have known they were witnessing one of nature’s great wonders, they too marveled in its beauty, sitting for a season to eat a piece of bread or take a squirt of wine from their pouches before marching on in the affairs of men unsung perhaps – but to them…? the most important things in the world.  Image may contain: sky, grass, cloud, outdoor and nature

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98.6 – A Novel by Leon Surmelian

It’s odd to review a novel about tuberculosis while on lockdown cowering from a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands in a matter of weeks. That statement is even strange to write. Had I read this novel only three months ago, written as it was in the 1950s during the apogee of America’s tuberculosis panic, it would have seemed to me a well-written footnote, a book-marker in time for when diseases ravaged out of control and men were forced to think about unseen pathogens in daily interactions like eating out or going to the supermarket.

This novel aged better than I would have expected, I say in bitterness.

98.6 is a novel about a young man (Daniel) who is diagnosed with tuberculosis – the white plague – back before the days when there was a vaccine and a more effective cure. The book is about the days of the infamous tuberculosis sanatoriums, when the disease infected more than 1,000,000 Americans and killed 60,000 a year. It is about Daniel’s fight with the disease, the terrible conditions at public “sans” taking “the cure” juxtaposed against the almost resort-like quality of the private institutions. Inequality, for tuberculosis did not discriminate. About the ghastly operations, the frustration, the fear – but it is not a gruesome novel. And it is about Daniel’s epiphany when he finds at last meaning in the disease and a newfound strength. The penultimate chapter is a glorious exploration of this meaning, found through faith.

Now to Leon Surmelian. I picked up 98.6 after finishing “I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen” – Surmelian’s masterpiece about refuge. Surmelian was a refugee. Born in Trezibond, that glorious greater Armenian city sitting upon the Black Sea, Surmelian was forced to flee the genocide when the Young Turks laid waste to the city following the retreat of the forces of Imperial Russia protecting their Armenian allies, the armies of the Tzar disintegrating as the Bolshevik Revolution burned, leaving the Armenians of Trezibond to their fate. 50,000 were drowned. To America, Surmelian finally fled – to join the ranks of the unknown Armenian novelists who instead of winning Nobel Prizes or living in Malibu opulence instead are unsung, except by the connoisseur who seeks out good literature with meaning beyond the garbage allowed through by the gatekeepers (then and now). Can you believe I had to write “98.6” into Goodreads? Can you believe I’m its first reviewer on Amazon – this novel which can fill the imagination and broaden the mind?

The irony is not lost on me that Surmelian, a refugee from eastern Armenia wrote about his pandemic from the glorious sunshine of California. For I am waiting out my pandemic nestled in the snowy Caucasus of Armenia; her mountains and her alpine meadows, her monasteries and her ancient fortresses. Yerevan, a city of books and flowers – Paris without the nonsense. I think, had Surmelian lived in 2020 – along with his contemporaries, both in Soviet Armenia and in freedom in the west – people would be talking forever about the “Armenian boom” in literature and its genius cluster. Who knows, maybe they still will.

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In Days of Pest – A Poem

‘Putrid vapors’ did the plague they bring?
Miasma fetid, stench that brings the blight?
Or was it God who cursed and brought the thing?
That robs us of our loves in dead of night.

From when it came, so sudden and so pure;
Invisible a force we thought we’d won;
So confident in world we were, so sure;
Those sanguine days of fearlessness are done.

We rush through markets, seizing what we need;
Surrounded, distanced by our dreaded peers;
Humanity we’d hoped a friend indeed;
Now silent shade companioned by our fears;

At home, inert observe one ticker rise;
Displays made wide and thin in days of means;
Beside the other watch our world capsize;
Panic thinking only of our leans.

What to do, against this new old foe?
Who interrupts our fete ungraciously;
To fill our moneyed misery with woe;
And spreads around the world so spaciously.

There is no recourse, lest you do believe;
That something else could save you from your fate;
No actor waiting for you to relieve;
No way to find reprieve in this dread wait.

Discriminate it cares not rich nor poor;
‘Tis this evokes gentility to shy;
Disease that ushers them to open door;
That they could too be ill and mightly die;

There must be means to live, their must be ways;
Yes modern world should moneyed to protect;
And keep us from travails of olden days;
Indignity should status not deflect?

And why oh why should we the mighty fall?
To sorrow now in days when we were great?
Does not our nation’s pow’r protect us all?
Is not disease for countries second rate?

Or was it fake, a lie, ephemeral?
How else explain can we so dread collapse?
An epic pantomime, banal;
And who are we to blame now for this lapse?

The answer, there are none ‘xept ourselves;
We, the bold begetters of our place;
Forgetting lessons stacked upon bookshelves;
Believed we were invulnerable to disgrace.

Nothing so befuddles man as this;
The questions, fears and hopes in days of pest;
Impervious to the world in angry bliss;
Mortality become had we to best.

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A Fight That Unites Us

It is amusing, and sad somehow to watch the continued desperate efforts of some to regain the hard-fought and rapidly-abandoned days of American Marxism through angry Twitter videos and fiery Facebook speeches repeating their tired (and now ignored) call to revolution. “We have won the ideological battle,” they declare, knowing full well that is a lie. The whiplash must be tremendous indeed for them, suddenly irrelevant those who thought that they were on the cusp of something grand – epic redistributionary projects and the advance of a Marxism cultural and vicious upon the disgruntled jealousy riding the foam of our tremendous wave of prosperity, seizing energy from the silent submerged swell of wealth to call for its seizure. It seems like eons ago when in fact it was only a short time that America’s political debate had been appropriated through laziness and envy to that ancient call for legal theft as is the project of the socialists.

But those days are done; a suicide we will not engage in, since the fight of this generation will not be against the virus of bad ideas, as we had thought. Our battle, sudden and unexpected, is against a different foe altogether – and thankfully one that unites us all in a common struggle, a common foe and an oh-so-human panic as comes from a disease that might strike all alike; the true purveyor of equality, equality found in infirmity. Yup, American Marxism is dead – it was killed by a little virus and the epic, single-minded fight of a great nation seeking to return to the place where it was only a few short weeks ago and which these days does not seem so bad, does it? Walks beside beautiful parks maintained for the pleasure of the free and their movement. Bars serving micro-brewed beer to the ever-discriminating. Cheap travel to see the sights of the Louvre or the Hermitage, elbowing through the insect-clicking of cameras of those who traveled in herds (but not anymore!) Night-clubs where those who wished could dance far into the night and beaches for where to gather to gaze at the spectacle of youth on parade and the generous gifts of God or nature to the few. 

Were we really just a month ago debating how many genders there are? Replacing bathroom signs in Target Stores now shuttered and policed by beetle-men masked and with batons, in front of which lines now extend for a carton of milk or an odd roll of toilet paper? Were we really debating the ancient origins of oppression in order to single out a sorry few for vindictive retaliation in a final revenge on their success? It seems foolishness now, does it not, the rantings of the economically illiterate comfortable lying fetid and hazardous upon so great a bounty as our free-market system had given us.

Marrakech 186To be sure, there are still some who see the collective effort of a world at war with an invisible foe and salivate hungrily at the though of putting that oppressive might at the service each of their fringe agendas. The “Green New Deal” people dreaming in technicolor of sending the goon-squad out to confine the entire world to their houses to starve at the service of a cleaner view of a mountain (as we have now) or in defense of a butterfly flitting innocently in a national park. Sure, we all love the view, and we cherish the butterfly, but really…?? The clarity of their demands are now being lived, and a world weary of home is now ready to say confidently “Surely there must be a better way!!!” I for one welcome thinking that through.

No, what the great pandemic has given us is a reminder of what we had, before a little bug took it away. The well-being of even the poor in a world that was rapidly becoming more and more livable; the runoff from so great a prosperity as we have known going to feed diminutive agendas and mini-motivations (both good and bad) and giving us a planet that has been more colorful than ever before. Plays and theater and ballet; movies and documentaries and sit-comes; food so varied, Thai and Cambodian and Peruvian all at the fingertips of people complaining around each mouthful of their bitter inequality and their desire as well to possess a castle as they whip out the unfathomable computational power of the most-Lilliputian of computers to use 4G to compare their net worth with those of the Pitts or the Hanks.

It is good, I suppose, and right. Great wars must have success (or failure) accrued to all society. They involve all of us – the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II – they bring us together in a common struggle and the common cause of victory, making our decisions existential and highlighting the all-to-real results of failure. This fight is one that unites us, and that must be the silver lining.

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“Lord of the Rings” #LOTR

“Lord of the Rings”, or #LOTR as it has been dubbed following the filming of two series by Peter Jackson, one quite good and then the Hobbit three-part series virtually unwatchable – garbage in technicolor. He forgot, in that filming that the greatness of the Hobbits was to be found in feats of epic goodness, not martial strength, and had Bilbo sword-in-hand fighting the Wargs. J.R.R. Tolkien is still turning and turning and turning again.

#LOTR, of “Big Bang Theory” fame, is not – as Hollywood’s illiterate would have us believe – an extended version of Dungeons and Dragons, a refuge for “Nerds” who cannot “get laid” (if you will pardon my crude vernacular). As in with all things, ‘pop culture’ that cannot fathom right and wrong, truth or goodness and therefore must pervert it and warp it to their misunderstanding has also sought to take #LOTR and give it to the ‘losers’ of the world.

Thank God the ‘losers’ do tend to strike back, having more staying power than the the denizens living under that storied hill outside of Los Angeles who gave us the likes of “Dude, Where’s My Car” and “The Hangover”. Thank God for J.R.R. Tolkien.

I recently completed #LOTR with my little boy, seven years old. Stretching him, to be sure, for the vocabulary that Tolkien brings to bear is prodigious indeed. But that is good for my son. And better for him yet, is the need to wrestle with right and wrong, giving him a sense of good and evil and the epic fight to do what is right in a society that tends to sell facile answers in response to life’s intractable questions. Why would Frodo choose to go on, to the bitter end, without even a mouthful of “lembas” with which to begin the journey home? Who cares what happened to the world, if he were to die in the process of saving it? Why not try and put the ring to the service of Boromir of Gondor – after all power is amoral, is it not? Nothing is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – perhaps Sauron was being misjudged after all or perhaps the perfect beautiful dictatorship of Galadriel, an ice queen beautiful and terrible as the night – might be better than the bumbling Gandalf always concerned with ideas of restraint and propriety.

And the story itself? It was not, as Peter Jackson probably thinks, a cool mid-century tale of knights and trolls and ogres. Tolkien pulled his story from seeds buried deep – since the belly of time – the ancient ring brought to us by Norse legend, the figure of Gandalf a wizard from the misty days of the North-Atlantic when somebody sat on a rock and penned the saga of Grendel (which, also, Hollywood ruined). It is deeply religious, though Tolkien himself denied it – a eucatastrophe where victory is seized at the eleventh hour from the jaws of a more-powerful defeat by a cast of characters which are not deeply flawed but deeply weak.

Therein lies the heart of this story, and what I hope my little boy will take with him as he engages with life and reads and rereads #LOTR, as I hope he will. Why did Frodo succeed? He was not stronger, nor was he craftier, nor was he more disciplined. Nor even did he have a great confidence, the character is wracked with doubt and despair through every page of the epic. How did Sauron allow him to infiltrate to the very dark heart of his kingdom without even a glance? It is because Sauron could not conceive of such self-sacrifice. Surely the ring, if obtained, would be used against him. Is that not the way of the world? How can such power be eschewed when needed — do we not even have a glimpse of this in Boromir? But even if not used, surely it would be safeguarded, for who knows the future? A talisman to be bartered with in exchange for boats to follow the elves into the west, when Gondor at last fell? Yes, hedging… that is always the better part of valor. But to send two diminutive characters into the heart of darkness on a fools errand from which there would be no return? An act of suicide, self-immolation? This is not something that fit in Sauron’s imagination.

I have always been bothered a little bit by the end of #LOTR, which echoes just a little bit the end of The Hobbit but oh-so-much-worse. The ruin of the shire. We who fight the darkness like to think that the places we fight for remain pristine and unchanged, as they are in our own imaginations, while we battle the Smaugs and Saurons of our own. That when it is done, like Lawrence of Arabia we return to the hills and dales of our youth and find the milkmen and the postmen and the Blockbuster Video store exactly where we left them. But the epic in this world knows no boundaries and evil is the ultimate ‘globalized’ force flowing back and forth over borders which we are unable to close to the madness. When Frodo returns, to find his shire having been occupied by a weakened Saruman, it is said this is a reflection upon Tolkien’s own return from World War I to have found the rapid industrialization required to win that war having laid waste to the green areas of his youth. World War I was a great, world-altering conflict. The end of the Age of Lords, nobility and the great houses we watch in Downton Abbey and smile at their stuffy conservatism. Brought down by the factories which raged across England, and which Tolkien knew were both a cause-and-result of the epic battle against evil.

There is so much to learn from The Hobbit, #LOTR and I am so grateful to J.R.R. Tolkien for having given the world this saga, to teach our little boys generation after generation of those things that need not change, must not change in a world that has no time for that which is old and good and true.

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We Too, Like You, Were People…

Yerevan in the summer is like a ‘poor man’s Paris’, or maybe Paris in the 50s, after the war had ravaged the economy and the country was recovering from German occupation but there was renewed hope and the nostalgia of memories involving Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound and Pablo Picasso. A city of writers. For Yerevan, the war was more recent – ending only in 1991, and it was not a war as Paris saw the war. Jackboots on the pavement, looting of the Louvre. It was a war of the spirit and of the mind. GPU peering through holes in hotel walls; listening to phone calls; spiriting away dissidents to the cold soulless expanses of Siberia. The Gulag. But Yerevan is an old city, and absorbs the shocks of the next in an endless line of assaults with a degree of resignation and a joie de vivre product of the understanding that Yerevan is the eternal capital of every Armenian and must always remain so. Cafes and green spaces under the imposing supervision of the National Opera Building. Painters square where the amateurs – better than most artists anywhere hawk their wares.

Walking along the sun-drenched streets under the canopy of leafy trees beside vendors selling corn on the cob and flowers I found a used book-tent where I stopped. Among the piles of dusty tomes in Armenian and Russian, down the narrow aisles piled high and listing dangerously toward the center there are treasures to be found, unknown to the world beyond the iron curtain and still as of yet undiscovered in a country that has opened herself up at last. Moscow Progress Publishers; Foreign Language Press; Raduga Press – book-houses run during the Soviet time in their frenetic efforts to make the case that their system was better, before it all fell away. IMG_0359

I learned of Antonina Mahari in that indirect act of discovery which is always so rewarding; we all love the story of hidden treasures and the quest to find them after so long a time hidden away. Moving aside the piles, blowing away the dust I discovered an English language book titled “The Warmest Country”, a compendium of short stories and essays by famous Armenian writers – anchored by an essay from Gurgen Mahari narrating the glory days of Armenia’s modern literary genesis. In the 1920s, just as the Bolsheviks had overthrown the Tzar and then the Mensheviks and put an end to the Transcaucasian Republic, a group of young Armenian writers – most of them survivors of the genocide (escapees from Van, for example) began to write. They were communist sympathizers, if not party members, in that utopian way that affects the young and the artistic. Yegishe Charents; Gevorg Emin; Aksel Bakunts; Paruyr Sevak; Kamari Nonoyan – Gurgen Mahari. They would meet at Aipetrat Publish House, a soviet publisher in Yerevan of which they were all members; they would drink at the Intourst Hotel (now the Grand Hotel), and would then cross to the Moscow Theater to watch the newest propaganda films from Moscow. It was a literary flowering – but behind an iron curtain and in a language so incomprehensible as to make the naissance of modern Armenian literature invisible.

And, alas, communism suffers no success. And its totality doesn’t account for talent, not even national treasures allowed any latitude for the joy they bring to the world, for it is not about joy or beauty (or poverty or even ‘justice’ as the modern commies declare so loudly). Control, that is what communism wants – orders received and obeyed by men thick and stupid and violent. Yegishe Charents was disappeared in the night, and his grave remains to this day unknown and unmarked. Aksel Bakunts was executed – only in his 30s.

Gurgen Mahari was sent to Siberia for 17 years. There, the great writer became a pig farmer; and there he met the love of his life. Antonina Mahari was a Lithuanian dissident and student activist who spent a year and a half imprisoned by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of Vilnius; then came the Bolsheviks. Antonina assumed, as a Nazi political prisoner, she was to be set free. However it was not too be, the Bolsheviks held her as well for another year and a half: torture and humiliation and privation and murder. Then she, too was sent to Siberia.

“My Odyssey” is Antonina Mahari’s story. A story none of you probably have ever heard of; but a story so compelling with such humanity, a tribute to courage and resilience and love in the face of extraordinary adversity. It is a journal of sorts, an autobiography for sure. It is a profound love story, of a young Lithuanian girl caught by the brutality and violence of revolution but in that tragedy discovering an undying love for a frail Armenian poet who also became a victim of the madness. And how she saved his life; not once or twice but every day. The joy of release from Siberia after Stalin finally died, the tragedy of losing their small child upon return to Yerevan. The fear that the KGB would find the manuscript which she smuggled to and fro from Lithuania (a manuscript we at last have which has become “My Odyssey”). The book is laced with bitterness, how could it not be? She pulls no punches as she describes the Bolshevik system of mind control, brutality and torture and its victims she was forced to bury in the frozen tundra of Siberia. The final death of Gurgen, after the final controversy arising from having published “Burning Orchards”, an extraordinary book about the genocide which was not well received.

Antonina Mahari died in Yerevan in 2018, a full 49 years after her great love. She had never remarried, living in a little apartment in downtown Yerevan one room of which she had converted to a museum to Gurgen Mahari. His manuscripts, his fountain pens, his wooden suitcase which he hauled hundreds of miles up and down the length of frozen Siberia. She was desperately poor, unable even to sell any of the works of Mahari in a country that also was poor. She lived on a $50 pension and another $10 from the Armenian Writer’s Union. On cold nights she would sleep in her neighbor’s house, unable to afford the heating of her own.

Nestled into the book are the real titles to this tremendous work of life: “Always to remain a human being…”, “We too, like you, were people…” or perhaps “To remain a human everywhere and under every circumstance…”

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